Teratology was not a field limited to the scholarly and wealthy elite. In fact, it reached a wide audience through “cheap print,” i.e., pamphlets and broadsides. In the 16th century, the Protestant reformers Luther and Melanchton substantially increased the presence of monsters in popular culture with the publication of a pamphlet depicting monstrous creatures as prophecies of the imminent ruin of the Roman Church. Monsters were also depicted in broadsides, which reached more readers than any other type of text. A crowd would gather around a broadside, displayed publicly and usually illustrated, as someone read it aloud. Thus, the broadside appealed to the illiterate as well as to the reading public through spoken word and image.

The same prodigies and monsters were depicted in both scholarly books and “cheap print”: they were a cultural phenomenon shared by heterogeneous populations. By the end of the 17th century, however, it was only in pamphlets and broadsides that monsters were still treated as frightening signs of God. Educated classes were beginning to despise this literature, viewing it as a sign of popular ignorance and superstition. Monsters, nonetheless, flourished in popular literature and freak shows up through the 19th century.

England’s wonder and admiration. Being a full and true relation of one Robert Cobbe, who had been posses’ d with an evil tongue for five and twenty years … London: Edward Midwinter, [ca. 1700?].

This item illustrates the genre of “monster broadsides.” The basic elements are all there: the provocative title; heterogeneous, schematic woodcuts; and a brief description of the circumstances. The majority of the sheet is dedicated to an interpretative section (here in prose but which could also be in verse), explaining the divine message that the appearance of the monster in question supposedly conveys.

The description of the monster was sprinkled with realism, including dates, times, and places where the events occurred. The presence of physicians examining the case was frequently mentioned to augment the appearance of veracity.

The author of this broadside was Edward Midwinter, a bookseller and printer in London who published ballads and chapbooks. His first known publication was a monster broadside entitled The Northampthonshire Wonder. This business does not seem, however, to have brought prosperity to Midwinter: he became bankrupt only a few years after having started his print shop.

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). The Diary of Samuel Pepys … Edited with additions by Henry B. Wheatley. London: G. Bell & sons, 1928-1935.

Samuel Pepys had amassed one of the largest collections of pamphlets and broadsides of the early modern period. His diary, an extremely valuable historical document, had many references to monstrous beings. In this particular instance, Pepys criticized the use of monsters for display and profit.

To the Nobility, gentry, and the curious for inspecting most extraordinary human beings, of the wild species born … [n.p., n.d.]

Since Antiquity, visually unusual beings had been exhibited in public spaces. Since the 16th century, street performances involving these beings were organized for the enjoyment of the public. They were the predecessors of the freak shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is an advertisement for an early freak show. Freak shows featuring a number of ‘monsters’ contributed to the success of travelling shows.

Verdadero retrato y relacion anatomica de las ninas unidas que nacieron en Barcelona
…Barcelona: [n.p.], 1779.

This late 18th century broadside reported the birth of female Siamese twins in Barcelona, Spain. Although by this time the usual interpretation of such a case as a sign of divine wrath had disappeared, such broadsides still followed the same textual structure as of the 16th and 17th centuries.

To increase the air of authenticity, the role of physicians was reinforced by having the close examination of the twins performed not at the parents’s home, but in a highly professional environment: the Royal College of Surgery of Barcelona.

A Full and interesting account of a curious production of nature, a hen with a human face, just brought to London. Particulars of its birth, method of feeding … a verbatim account taken from this week’s Lancet, with three engravings … London: Percival, [1830?].

The first three pages of this pamphlet were simply a reprint of an article published in 1829 in the Lancet, a medical journal founded and edited by Thomas Wakley, a radical politician and medical reformer. Several changes and additions, however, gave a sensational style to the pamphlet. For example, the date of the discovery of the monstrous hen was moved from 1815 to 1827, and a collection of other contemporary monsters was appended to the end of the pamphlet. Obviously, this new “cheap print” was intended to reach a broader audience than that of the Lancet.

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