Monstrous Births: Artistically Understanding the Mystery of Birth

In early modern times, the female body scared the patriarchal society. While images of ideal children praised the nature of mothers-to-be, monstrous births betrayed concerns over their unpredictable bodies.

Sep 14, 2023By Alice Marinelli, PhD History of Art

monstrous births


Pregnancy and childbirth have been regarded as significant moments in women’s lives throughout history. Each of these biological events feels like a rite of passage, whereby physical, psychological, and social selves transform. Women, during these phases, are no longer who they were, and not yet who they will be, finding themselves at a threshold between previous ways of structuring their identity and new ways yet to come. Read on to find out more about a phenomenon known as the monstrous births.


What Are Monstrous Births?

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Illustration from De Formato Foetu Liber Singularis, 1626, via Historical Anatomies of the Web


These physical events, which situate women in a suspenseful in-between condition characterized by uncertainty and instability, were highly intriguing for early modern anatomists who were pioneering explorations of the human body through empirical approaches. And yet, the very mysteriousness and secrecy of the female body, which posed a threat to a patriarchal society in which men mastered the knowledge, at times caused physicians and society at large to turn to more questionable theories and beliefs, not solely to find an explanation to these ungraspable bodily phenomena, but also to keep women’s bodies and social roles under control.


According to one of these theories, the mother’s imagination was key in shaping the fetus during pregnancy. Far from being objectively and empirically studied, childbirth was strictly related to the way in which women’s social selves were redefined by the normal or abnormal outcomes of their pregnancies. While a healthy baby re-assimilated them into society as the pious enactors of a higher order of divine creation, a so-called monstrous birth configured them as disruptions to it.


The Anxieties of Epigenesis

william harvey exercitationes de generatione animalium
Exercitationes de generatione animalium by William Harvey, 1651, via Wellcome Collection, London


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William Harvey’s Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium represents the phenomenon of epigenesis through the figure of Jupiter who enthroned, opens a bisected egg that releases insects, reptiles, and mammals, including a child. Ex ovo omnia is inscribed on the phenomenal sphere, meaning everything from an egg. According to epigenesis, all organisms are not yet formed in the fertilized egg as mise-en-abymes of their future shape but rather arise as a consequence of profound changes during embryogenesis. As epigenesists maintained, human beings and animals are gradually produced from an undifferentiated mass through a series of stages during which new parts are added according to some laws. These laws, however, were unknown in the seventeenth century and based on theoretical grounds due to technological limitations, such as the lack of microscopes, that were able to demonstrate its unfolding.


Moreover, epigenesis implies the metaphysical necessity of some non-physical force capable of organizing different physical structures from basic matter and creating life from non-life. In essence, Harvey’s theory raised more questions than it answered. What are these laws that govern generation? How do they regulate the way an organism forms from undefined matter?  Ex ovo omnia, therefore, betrays the uncertainties that early moderns felt towards pregnancy and childbirth, during which that egg could potentially and mysteriously disclose any creature due to causes that exceed human understanding.  As the final act of creation revealed what the egg has produced, childbirth represented the momentous transition between an idea of what could potentially be disclosed and the finished product, which worked as a lens through which a woman was seen redefined.


The Ideal Child of the Ideal Mother

eucharius rösslin the birth of mankinde
The birth of mankind by Eucharius Rösslin, 1604, via Wellcome Collection, London


While images from midwifery manuals representing fully formed children about to be delivered convey the expectations of a woman to achieve the ideal state of motherhood, those depicting monstrous births denounce the anxieties provoked by the unpredictable events that the process of epigenesis and its mysterious generative forces could entail. Images of childbirth recount it as a phase characterized by both hopes and fears, paradoxically giving the mother both agency and powerlessness over her body. These representations reveal how in that significant rite of passage her psychological readiness to become a mother may be reinforced or challenged by her own imagination or the imagination of early modern society.


In 1513, Eucharius Rösslin published a book known as The Birth of Mankind, which contained a series of depictions of fetuses within their mothers’ wombs, stretching and bending in various positions at the moment preceding labor. Similar representations of fully-grown babies taking on the most curious of poses in preparation for birth would keep appearing in manuscripts on gynecology and midwifery until the late seventeenth century. These images, far from seeking anatomical accuracy, which would have entailed a static representation of a curled fetus, imagined the unseen child as living, playing, and moving in the visually inaccessible world of the womb.


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Birth Dish from the Workshop of Orazio Fontana, 16th century, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The imagined infants in these figures consistently appear as healthy and cherubic, revealing what early moderns imagined to be the perfect outcome of childbirth. This is confirmed by the fact that the same imagery was used to ornate birth trays traditionally offered to laboring women in early modern Italy as lucky charms. A plate from Orazio Fontana’s workshop illustrates the activities following a safe and healthy childbirth, while others often depicted cherubs. The similarity between the putti and the babies in these objects and midwives’ books is striking. Both can be said to portray the ideal fetus as an embodiment of health, playfulness, and angelic immortality.


These objects and their images were believed to even contribute to the very shaping of the child in the mother’s womb. When brought into the birthing chamber, they offered laboring women a visual system for thinking about the opaque, mysterious, and troubling interior of their bodies, to guide them in the moment of creation. By fascinating women and creating in them the socially-desired image of the perfect child, they encouraged mothers-to-be to conceive and bring that idea to life. They served, in other words, as deeply reassuring portrayals of what was expected from a laboring woman: a healthy, active, and well-grown baby through which mothers could literally shape their offspring, raising their chances of producing a well-formed son. This reveals the importance that early modern society attributed to the mother’s imagination.


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Birth Dish (Tondino), ca. 1530, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In his treatise on generation, Harvey states that the Female is a Stronger party in Generation, than the Male, noting that amongst Animals, some Females do procreate of themselves without a Male; … but the Male never begetteth anything without a Female. The role of the mother, however, was one charged with expectations and responsibilities, as in the eyes of contemporaries, it made her responsible for molding the infant physically, mentally, and spiritually. Erasmus stated that the quality of both mind and body is developed in the womb and that care for children, when they are still carried in the body, is the first part of their education. Therefore, Jacob Rueff reminded that women with a child should be of a merry heart, […] not wasted and pined with mourning and cares, in order to exhilarate and cheer up the infant.


In 1662, Nicholas Culpeper warned women that [their] child is nourished by [their] own blood, [their] blood is bread of [their] diet, rectified by [their] exercise, idleness, sleep or watching, and reminded them that nature sees and knows how they swerve from what is fitting. The fetus was believed to be nourished and shaped by the mother’s body and mind, and therefore, knowing how she was feeling and what she was visualizing, analogically provided knowledge of what she was about to create.


Monstrous Births of Immoral Mothers

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Drawing of the supposed cat born out of Agnes Bowker, 1568, via Bridgeman Images


As Harvey’s frontispiece suggests, anything could be expected to come out of the egg. By claiming that the embryo at the time of implantation is undifferentiated matter and that it progressively takes shape at different stages, epigenesis provided a plausible explanation for how maternal impressions shaped the child during pregnancy. While mothers, as discussed, could form a healthy child by acting as models of virtue and rectitude, they were also believed to cause the bodily degeneration of their offspring when diverging from social norms. If imagining the perfect child would guarantee an ideal process of creation, a disordered imagination made their bodies conduits by which bestial features could be transferred to the child, something that was recorded in numerous cases of so-called monstrous births.


When in 1569 midwife Margaret Roos assisted Agnes Bowker in her delivery, she admitted that she did feel a thing, when reaching into the mother’s womb, but whether that thing was a child she could not tell.  What Margaret Roos could not fully perceive in Agnes Bowker’s womb surprisingly turned out to be a cat. This troubling event attracted the attention of people, clergymen, and national authorities alike, all wondering what atrocities and evil might have caused this occurrence.


Agnes, however, was not envisioned as a victim, but as the potential culprit of such an abomination. She was brought to trial, and the court case resulted in a transcript sent to the Queen’s secretary and the Bishop of London for inspection, supplemented with a full-size representation of the creature which stressed its wicked appearance. Speculation over the alleged causes behind Agnes’s delivery ranged from visions of feline-shaped beasts, sexual misconduct, witchcraft, and to her choice to forsake God and give herself to the Devil.


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Winged Monster, 17th century, via Wellcome Collection, London


Other accounts of monstrous births were often even more imaginative and daunting, although still foregrounding scientific claims about the alleged events of children born with a wide range of shocking bodily conditions, including hybrid mixtures of human and animal limbs or heads. Winged, tailed, and scaly bodies were represented on prints that were widely circulated in early modern Europe to announce the wondrous birth and warn against the possible circumstances that led to its degeneration. Some, for instance, were included in Ulisse Aldovrandi’s Monstrum Historia (1642), a compendium of nature’s strange and rare phenomena allegedly seen by the author firsthand.


Despite Aldrovandi’s work being theoretically about personal experiences of natural phenomena, images such as the Winged Monster, a human body with an animal head and fish scales on a leg, reveal that the author, just as other early modern physicians, actually negotiated truth and fiction, banking on the unverifiability of certain accounts rather than dismissing them altogether. Far from offering undisputable medical explanations for verified and studied cases of bodily deviations from the norm, early modern medical writing on monstrous births betrayed the impossibility of understanding what actually happened within the womb during the formation of the fetus, conveying a deep concern with the uncertainty of pregnancy and childbirth caused by the invisibility of the female body.


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The monster of Ravenna, 1554, via Wellcome Collection, London


If some anatomists speculated that these monsters could be caused by an imbalance of humors, an excess or deficiency of seed, or by an indisposition of the uterus, at the same time the opacity of the womb caused many of them to turn towards non-medical notions for an explanation. When science could not provide definitive answers, beliefs interceded, and monstrous births became embodiments of the mother’s misconduct or the divine punishment for it.


Like most other writers on prodigies, Conrad Lycosthenes did not deny that sometimes monsters had natural causes, but he remarked that those causes were difficult to determine. We do not condemn natural explanations, he wrote, but we know that nature is God’s minister in matters both favorable and unfavorable and that through her agency he aids the pious and punishes the impious. Even when a natural explanation was plausible, he added that it was nonetheless impossible to deny that a monster is an imposing sign of divine wrath and malediction.


Even physicians resorted to explaining these occurrences by linking the mother’s sins that had prompted the divine warning to the monster’s own characteristics. The famous case of the Ravenna Monster, for instance, was interpreted by Johannes Multivallis as the punishment for specific sins.


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Monster of Cracow, c. 1547-52, Woodcut, via the British Museum, London


Known as the Monster of Cracow, another monstrous birth presented webbed feet and hands, a long nose and tail, and animal faces throughout his body, including the heads of a sheep and a wolf facing each other. This motif recalled a passage in the Gospel of Matthew (7:15-16) (NIV) that states: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. The eyes appearing on the flesh also refer to how the Devil was portrayed during this period, thus a link to sin and immorality was clearly intended. Similarly, the seven-headed child of yet another monstrous birth and his goat legs, would very likely have recalled for early modern viewers the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse.


The Perplexing Monstrous Births

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A fantastic monster: a cyclops with multiple heads and arms and the legs of a goat, 1655, via Wellcome Collection, London


The mysterious and uncontrollable development of the embryo and its possibility to turn into any creature fostered controversy, scientific curiosity, imagination, and anxieties. These perplexing and uncorroborated monstrous births thus betray a deep fascination and frustration with the lack of understanding of the female body, as well as an underlying social attempt to control how women ought to behave properly in society.  Monstrous births, indeed, were an amalgam of facts and fiction, displaying how early modern natural philosophy still relied on and negotiated previous systems of explanation, jostling to reveal the meaning of the unexplainable on one hand, and leveraging on belief or fears on the other, in order to preserve social roles and moral conduct.


By occupying an ambiguous status between natural phenomena and metaphorical beings, monsters also suspended their mothers between being those able to fulfill the creative powers granted to them by God, or as those guilty for their failure. Childbirth, thus, defined what a woman would become through what she would create. For both mother and child, this was a moment of becoming. And yet, as these birth images and monstrous births show, the liminality of this phase lay in its approaching a hoped, yet still unknown result, which gave the mother-to-be both agency and liability.


On one hand, she was seen as the creator, and as such her wishes and commands were obeyed for fear of the results of denying them. But on the other hand, the aura of protection to which the cherubic images on birth trays participated, derived from social anxieties about the threats posed by her body, which, as the above prints show, was also believed capable of generating monsters.

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By Alice MarinelliPhD History of ArtAlice completed a BA in History of Art and Humanistic Studies at John Cabot University as well as an MA and a PhD in History of Art at UCL, University College London. She loves art, photography, literature, and philosophy, and she is particularly passionate about the early modern visual culture and history of her hometown, Rome, where she currently teaches at Iowa State University, study-abroad program. Alice has also been working at Christie’s in London and as postgraduate teaching assistant at UCL.