Ambroise Paré’s Medical ‘Monsters’

Ambroise Paré, Les œuures d’Ambroise Paré, conseiller, et premier chirurgien du roy (Paris: Gabriel Buon, 1579), pp. 939–40. Wellcome Images 

By Sarah Pipkin / 07.26.2017

In the collected works of Ambroise Paré (c. 1510–90), first published in French in 1575, a ‘Book of monsters and prodigies’ appears alongside other subjects including the setting of bones, the identification of parasites, and the treatment of wounds. Paré, one of the most important surgeons of the early modern period, evidently considered all these topics to be relevant to barber-surgeons. However his work is tarnished by a well-meaning medical tract that was reinvented into something horrifying.

‘Book of monsters and prodigies’ was not intended to be a grimoire. Instead the text was an attempt to categorise birth defects and congenital diseases. ‘Monsters’ were anything unusual or outside the norm, including infants born with a horn, conjoined twins, and individuals with calcified tumours. ‘Prodigies’ were more similar to our modern understanding of monsters. They included women giving birth to snakes or dogs.

Paré’s terminology reflects the attitudes of his contemporaries towards people with impairments and disabilities. However, Paré did not write these stories as entertainment. Instead he discussed the validity and possible causes of these cases. This was an attempt at scientific use of very unscientific terminology. Paré’s information could then be used by other surgeons to diagnose the infants of their patients.

Paré’s illustrations are not originals. He borrowed pictures and ideas from his contemporaries, among whom ‘monstrous’ births were a source of fascination. This was not considered plagiarism, but was a normal practice for the time. Yet although many of the images appear elsewhere, Paré’s anecdotes about treating children with congenital abnormalities distinguish his work as a different kind of text.

Left: detail from MS. 136 (Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses, 1559), fo. 68 verso. Wellcome Images. Right: detail from EPB/4820/D/1: Ambroise Paré, Les œuures d’Ambroise Paré, conseiller, et premier chirurgien du roy (Paris: Gabriel Buon, 1579), leaf KKK4 recto. Wellcome Images

‘Les œuvres’ caused uproar amongst Parisian physicians. They feared that by publishing in French, rather than the standard Latin, Paré’s book would be read by the general public. Untrained readers would then treat themselves instead of seeking the advice of a doctor. The physicians attempted to stop the publication of ‘Les œuvres’; however, the king of France supported Paré on the condition that he also published a Latin edition. Paré did not know Latin himself, so he commissioned a translation.

The Latin edition, published in 1582, included the same woodcuts as the French edition. In 1634, London apothecary Thomas Johnson translated the Latin edition into English and again reproduced the woodcuts. In this English edition, Paré’s ‘monsters’ became more prominent. They featured on the title-page alongside images relating to Paré’s other works. The prominence of the illustrations may well reflect the printer’s attempt to gain a larger audience for the translation, which was accessible to many in the English vernacular.

Title-page of EPB/4825/D: The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey (London: Th. Cotes and R. Young, 1634). Scene with ‘monsters’ at bottom right. Wellcome Images

Later in the 17th century, Johnson’s translation was partially responsible for Paré’s influence on a popular sex manual. In 1684, the first edition of ‘Aristotle’s Masterpiece’ was published. Despite its title, the book, discussed in a previous post and a recent article, was not written by Aristotle. Instead, it is the work of an anonymous writer who collected a number of pieces on sex and female anatomy and published them under Aristotle’s name. ‘Aristotle’s Masterpiece’ was advertised to women as a substitute for the expertise of physicians. If a woman learned about sex and her anatomy from the book, she could treat herself.

Additionally, the book featured images of ‘monstrous’ births. The frontispiece, a picture of children whose hairiness and black skin was caused by their mother’s imagination, strongly resembles the image in Johnson’s translation of Paré. It appears that Johnson was the source, rather than other books on ‘monsters’, due to the pictures having the same caption and similar plants in the background. Various editions of the ‘Masterpiece’ also copy the conjoined twins and other ‘monsters’ from Johnson.

Left: EPB/4825/D: The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey (London: Th. Cotes and R. Young, 1634), detail from p. 978. Wellcome Images L0085386. Right: frontispiece of EPB/Suppl./57036/A: Aristotle’s master-piece: or, The secrets of generation displayed in all the parts thereof (London: Printed, and are to be sold at the Hand and Scepter near Temple-bar, 1692).

Paré’s stories about ‘monsters’ were plagiarised as well. In some editions he was summarised, in others, perhaps in response to public interest, whole paragraphs from Johnson’s translation were copied. The images and stories derived from Paré were included in editions of ‘Aristotle’s Masterpiece’ published as late as 1900. The 1900 edition had an expanded and updated section on anatomy, but the material on ‘monsters’ was faithfully reproduced.

As Paré was reworked for different audiences, his proto-scientific aims were set aside for entertainment. The diseases that Paré carefully recorded and identified were reduced to just images and brief accounts of ‘monsters’. In his ‘Monsters and prodigies’ Paré preserved some of the humanity of the children who suffered from these very real diseases. However, by the time ‘Aristotle’s Masterpiece’ was published, all sympathy was stripped away. The work was no longer that of a surgeon attempting to diagnose illnesses that defied 16th-century ideas of normality. Instead the ‘Masterpiece’ was akin to a thriller to be surreptitiously read. It taught women to fear conjoined twins and children born with amelia. Paré inadvertently contributed to the ability of this later work to spur discrimination and anxiety regarding congenital differences.