Review: On Monsters and Marvels - Ambroise Pare [Primary Source]

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I never thought I was much of a non-fiction person, but nowadays I love my own little library.

It really started when I finished university for good and I found that I was left with a bunch of course books that I couldn't bear to throw away. Some of them were pretty dry, but they were all fascinating and could pull me back into how interesting it was to learn about a whole myriad of different historical eras and topics. After uni I branched out further, nudging into whatever interested me, so nowadays I have a growing group of psychology, philosophy and weird science books joining the shelves. At the end of the day, you should never stop learning and they certainly look impressive all stacked together.

On Monsters and Marvels was a book that I picked up when writing my Master dissertation on how monsters were treated in Early Modern England and I needed access to decent primary sources. I still love it for its bright illustrations and quirky attempt to understand just what monsters really were.

The author, Ambrose Pare, was a contemporary at the time.

He was born about 1510 and his work is considered to be one of the most sustained attempts in the sixteenth century to ‘naturalize’ monsters. It was vitally important because it represents the transition that was happening in europe where monstrous births and other marvels were gradually moving into being regarded as a function of Nature rather than just God’s magical attempts to frighten a sinning public. Collecting together many many different examples of deformed births and ‘monsters’, Pare chronicles them and comments on them, categorising them into causes and anecdotes such as those caused by the female imagination during conception, ‘excess of seed’ and the like. Furthermore in this book it drifts into other examples of his works, such as descriptions of exotic animals (now recognisable as toucans, giraffes, manatees and elephants) and the elusive search for the unicorn.

What is truly interesting and charming to me is that the entire book is just swimming in woodcut illustrations of each monster, which is especially endearing with regards to the exotic animals, and morbidly fascinating when it examples the deformed births.
Pare, as a writer (especially an Early Modern writer) is incredibly approachable and easy to read, keeping a level headed, interested yet mostly neutral approach to his subject matter, and really allows you access into the early modern world view. The translator, Janis L Pallister, also does a fantastic job of bringing Pare’s text to a modern audience with his detailed and engaging introduction and his helpful notes throughout.


The book is quite small and the paperback, while it looks a little cheap, is flexible and nicely but together for slipping into your bag. The printing/page quality is crisp and clear too.
I recommend this for anyone interested in history, especially the history of science, medicine or the weird and wonderful. It’s certainly a favourite in my collection of history books.

If you want to, you can read a large chunk of it on Google books.

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