Monstrous Phantasies: Imagining the Fetus in Ambroise Paré’s “Of Monsters and Prodigies”
I have been discussing the paramaterial objects of the medieval and early modern mind as if they paradoxically took part in both the material nature of external objects and the immaterial abstraction of the soul. I will have more to say about the strange positioning and representation of those objects in later posts, but here I want to discuss a few specific peculiar examples from early modern natural philosophy and anatomy that exposes the force those objects supposedly possess. The examples I have chosen for today’s post mainly come from a chapter of Ambroise Paré’s “Of Monsters and Prodigies” devoted to “monsters which take their cause and shape by imagination” (Paré 978). In his examples in this section, Paré explores the relationship of the Phantasy to the womb and details several examples in which he thought external objects affect the development of the fetus in utero.
Paré warns of the dangers to the formation of a fetus within women who possess a powerful Phantasy, attributing some forms of physical deformity in children to the mother’s perception and/or imagination during conception. The first example, pulled from Heliodorus, is of Persina, “Queene of Aethiopia,” who, married to a fellow Ethiopian,
had a daughter of a white complexion, because in the embraces of her husband, by which she proved with childe, she earnestly fixed her eye and mind upon the picture of the faire Andromeda standing opposite to her. (978).
Paré explains Persina’s “daughter of white complexion” as a result of the mother’s “earnestly fix[ing] her eye and mind” upon a “picture of the faire Andromeda.” The image of Andromeda, while Persina is in the “embraces of her husband,” prints its influence upon the fetus formed in the womb.
Of special note, the woodcut accompanying this portion of Paré’s “Of Monsters” includes, not the white child born to Ethiopian royalty, but rather a black child. The error might simply result from copying a similar block from another text, but, in a book and chapter devoted to monstrous forms and deformities, its inclusion here casts the woodcut in a particularly racist light. It would seem that doing so associates skin-color with monstrosity. While one should not ignore the racist undertones of an account that seems to contrast the “fair Andromeda” to the “Aethiopian” parents or the misogyny which underlies the impulse to blame a child’s deformity upon the mother, one should also attend to the implications of such an account upon our understanding of popular representations of the Phantasy and its objects.
So what does this example mean for the representation of perception? Persina’s case implies that visual phenomena in conjunction with a strong Phantasy can alter the physical body. External objects or images, finding their way through the external senses, not only shape the mother’s Phantasy, but also, in a strong imagination, can shape the form of the unborn. As Paré explains earlier,
the force of the imagination… bee so powerfull in us…it may alter the body of them that imagine, [the ancients] soon persuaded themselves that the faculty which formeth the infant may be led and governed by the firme and strong cogitation of the Parents begetting them (often deluded by nocturnall and deceitfull apparitions) or by the mother conceiving them, and so that which is strongly conceived in the mind, imprints the force into the infant conceived in the wombe. (978).
While Paré displaces the ideas about these phenomena onto the “ancients,” he also reiterates their conception of the Phantasy’s relationship to the womb and to a developing fetus by providing multiple examples without ever questioning their reliability.
In Thomas Johnson’s translation at least, something strongly imagined can “imprint” its image onto the conceived “infant.” Just as the visible species was thought to “imprint” or “impress” itself on the crystalline humour, the species or phantasm in the Phantasy was thought to “imprint” itself on the form of the unborn. In Paré, looking at an image, even an artificial image, affects the material body in a corporeal way. The strong Phantasy, so taken by the image it receives, allows that image to penetrate and then permeate the body to such an extent that it alters the form of the developing fetus. In this instance, Paré focuses on the external form, but would also involve altering the humoral temperament involved, according to some sixteenth-century Galenists, in producing “blackness.” The image shapes not only Persina’s Phantasy, producing physical changes within her, but also shapes the external and internal form during conception.
Paré draws another example from “Damascene [who] reports that he saw a maide hairy like a Beare, which had that deformity by no other cause or occasion than that her mother earnestly beheld, in the very instant of receiving and conceiving the seed, the image of St. John covered with a camells skinne” (978). Probably born with what today’s science would diagnose as hypertrichosis, the child Damascene mentions grew into a hairy woman as depicted in the woodcut accompanying the text. Like the previous example, an image produces the deformity in a child through its power on an affective Phantasy. Whereas with in the previous example, Andromeda’s whiteness passes through the Phantasy and imprints upon the child, here, St. John the Baptist’s “camells skinne” coverings generates a hairy maid.
In both examples, an artificial image, mediated through a mother’s strong Phantasy, alters the body of the unborn, but, in order to bring the external form of the child into line with the perceived or imagined object, it must also alter the unseen aspects of the fetus. The artificial image, a painting or statue, is enough for the Phantasy to work from, but to produce its results, early modern natural philosophers could have explained how those external forms affect the inner body. While Paré does not go into such explanations, Galenic humoralism could be deployed to explain such miraculous internal effects that led to changes in external form.
While Paré registers some hesitation in this chapter, noting that he has “read” or “heard” such stories, he concludes by countering some who think the infant can only be affected early in pregnancy, recommending that pregnant women avoid such images until they are brought to term.
There are some who thinke the infant once formed in the wombe, which is done at the utmost within two & forty dayes after the conception, is in no danger of the mothers imagination, neither of the seed of the father which is cast into the womb; because when it hath got a perfect figure, it cannot be altered with any external form of things; which whether it be true, or no, is not here to be enquired of: truly I think it best to keep the woman, all the time she goeth with childe, from the sight of such shapes and figures. (979).
So, even if he appears to take a skeptical stance towards his sources earlier in the chapter, he continues to stress the importance of keeping pregnant women from such pictures and images.
In his essay, “The Force of the Imagination,” Michel de Montaigne also refers to similar examples even if he attributes them to different details, locales, and time periods.
Magitians are but ill respondents for me. So it is, that by experience wee see women to transferre divers markers of their fantasies, unto children they beare in their wombs: witnes she that brought forth a Blacke-a-more. There was also presented unto Charles king of Bohemia, an Emperour, a young girle, borne about Pisa, all shagd and hairy over and over, which her mother said, to have beene conceived so, by reason of an image of Saint John Baptist, that was so painted, and hung over her bed. That the like is in beasts, is witnessed by Jacobs sheepe, and also by partridges and hares, that grow white by the snow upon mountaines. (Montaigne 102).
While Montaigne goes on later to complicate the citing of examples in his essays, he contrasts these accounts with those of “magitians.” Whereas Paré called it an “imprint[ing],” Montaigne refers to the process as a “transferr[ing] of diverse markers” from the Phantasy to the fetus.
Paré, like Montaigne, also makes reference to Jacob’s sheep from Genesis 30 to provide scriptural proof of the imagination’s influence on the generation of animals. As Paré has it:
which thing many thinke to be confirmed by Moses, because he tells that Jacob encreased and bettered the part of the sheepe granted to him by Laban, his wives father, by putting roddes, having the barke in part pulled off, finely stroaked with white and greene, in the places where they used to drinke, especially at the time they engendered, that the representation apprehended in the conception, should be presently impressed in the young; for the force of imagination hath so much power over the infant, that it sets upon it the notes or characters of the thing conceived. (Paré 978).
While the reference provides some scriptural sanction of the ideas offered in each text, the passage also once again exposes the way in which the Phantasy challenged the distinction between human and non-human animals. As Jacob’s sheep grew to resemble the striped rods which he placed before them, the corporeal component of human Phantasy caused human fetuses to resemble perceived or imagined objects.
Additionally, the description “of monsters and prodigies” offered by Paré, Montaigne, and their classical sources blur the line between animal and human by combining the form of the human with the forms of animals. Throughout Paré’s book, for example, he provides descriptions and images of calf-men, dog-men, pig-men, goat-men, colts with a man’s face, and women who give birth to snakes or dogs. One wonders, with an explanatory system dependent upon reserving reason or an intellectual soul for non-human animals, where these “monsters” fall with respect to their rationality. While the cases in the chapter on deformities caused by the imagination or the chapter on deformities caused by too much or too little seed might imply that the prodigies described there were mostly human with aspects of another form, the images of human and non-human animal hybrids muddy the waters. It is never clear whether these hybrid creatures are supposedly limited to the imagination of non-human animals or if their minds extend beyond it.
Paré’s last example in this chapter of “Of Monsters and Prodigies” concerns “an infant with a face like a Frog,” turning from ancient testimony to testimony from the early sixteenth century:
Anno Dom. 1517. in the parish of Kings-wood, in the forrest Biera, in the way to Fontain-Bleau, there was a monster borne, with the face of a Frog, being seen by John Bellanger, Chirurgian to the Kings Engineers, before the Justices of the towne of Harmoy; principally John Bribon the Kings procurator in that place. The fathers name was Amadaeus the Little, his mothers, Magdalene Sarbucata, who troubled with a feaver, by a womans perswasion, held a quicke frogge in her hand untill it died, she came thus to bed with her husband and conceived; Bellanger, a man of an acute wit, thought this was the cause of the monstrous deformity of the childe.
This example differs from the previous examples in that the woman “held a quicke frogge in her hand until it died” rather than looking upon a picture, image, or object. While not discussed in the main body of the chapter’s text, it is still included within the chapter proper, but the separation might underscore its reliability as opposed to the stories of ancients. Paré is also in a position to provide more specificity and detail. With the sketchy details of the previous examples, Paré overloads this description with dates, locations, names, and relationships.
The explanation, given credibility through these details and through the diagnosis of a reliable physician, shows that the species and its influence was not solely limited to the visual. Here, touching the frog during the act of generation purportedly “imprints” its form upon the fetus in a similar fashion. As I have suggested elsewhere, because the discrete sense impressions and species were reassembled by the Phantasy, the mimetic object produced within the spirits of the brain retained all of their aspects. In this case, the touch itself produces tactile as well as a visible transformation in the fetus.
The resulting “infant with a face like a Frog” shows evidence of the transferability of properties and the fluidity among the impressions offered by the five external senses with respect to the species or phantasm. Perceiving and strongly conceiving of an object, because the phantasm retained information from all of the senses, could produce effects beyond the visual, the tactile, the auditory, the odor, and the gustatory discretely. Instead, the resulting infant, stamped with the form, looks like a frog even though the mother only touched a frog during conception.
The question remains how these “monsters” fit within a hierarchical system designed to maintain human superiority over non-human animals. While they become human-like or beast-like, it is never really addressed whether these “monsters” operate with a human animal’s capacity for reason or not. Despite the fact that I have not found an example describing the sensitive soul of such reported “monsters,” their hybrid natures call into question the rigid demarcation continually stressed between human and non-human animals.
Additionally, such examples link women more thoroughly to corporeality through the Phantasy’s power over the formation of children. While Paré acknowledges that a strong conceit in men as well as in women, his examples typically account for deformities and “monsters” through the woman’s Phantasy. By associating women with the Phantasy and its objects, such examples, by extension, associate women with animals whose internal life was dominated by the imagination rather than remaining under the strict control and guidance of human reason.
The explanation for such events was attributed to the special “sympathy” between the brain and the “matrix,” but the implication is that the materials of the brain, the species or phantasms they contained, retained some “tast of the matter” (more on this in a separate post) that when considered in an overactive imagination could alter matter itself within the womb. While others have discussed the gendered implications of such phenomena, especially Montaigne’s suggestion that the Phantasy could contribute to spontaneous sex changes, less emphasis has been placed on what those effects mean for the understanding of mental concepts and their relation to the external world. That the species of a particular entity could exert such an influence on the paramaterial spirits suggest that the contents of mind were more than merely and incorporeal mental phenomenon when charged with an overactive imagination. The same holds true for images purportedly found in the hearts of the particularly devout, where images were found in the heart of God, Christ, or the name of God. An image graven on the material surface of the heart could show that spiritual matters were so consistently on the mind that the spirits of the devout could physically manifest those images within the very matter of the heart.
The species and phantasms can also be transported to and have an influence on other parts of the body since they are “stamped” within the spirits and the Phantasy, and can dwell in the heart and “imprint” or “transferre diverse markers” upon a fetus within the womb. The potential of images within the brain to generate material effects on the body, underscore not only the fact that the mind and body were considered more interconnected, coextensive, and coexpressive, but also reveal that the products of the mind were granted a paramaterial force; their “forms” could influence and “shape” matter generated within the body. A species or phantasm in a powerful Phantasy could potentially inform and stamp its influence on the matter forming in the womb just as much as those species could be stamped within the matter of the brain.
Montaigne, Michel de. Essays: Volume One. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1942.
Paré, Ambroise. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey. London: Th[omas] Cotes and R[obert] Young, 1634.