Medical History and the ‘Monster’

Medical history so often includes intersections and byways that seem to take us into folklore, fiction, and the Gothic imagination itself.

While researching “monstrous” births from the early 1800s, I came across the following reprint of Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, Magazine of remarkable characters. The story tells of a child “covered with long hair” and “grovel[ing] upon the ground.” This young man is fastened to a post like a dog and is described as “wild and ferocious.” [i] In birth histories from the medieval period to Abrose Paré’s Monsters and Marvels (in the 16th century), you frequently see tales of “dog children” or frog children, goat children and the like. And yet, this later narrative has been embellished with tone and phrasing made famous by the Gothic narratives like Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otronto and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. The “gentleman” who reports the scene in Kirby’s insists that “he never say so wild and wretched a spot as the situation of the poor hut where [the dog boy] resides” and that “a most horrible mystery seems to hang over the whole.”[i] Just as in early Gothic fiction, the landscape becomes a repeated trope of wretched wildness, and the “mystery” has to do not only with the lad’s strange comportment, but with his paternity. Gothic literature loves an orphan… and though our young man has a mother, the boy, a “creature [with] very little human in his appearance” is essentially fatherless. [i] The mother herself, a laboring single woman, “refuses to give any account” of the father and insists that “no one has a right to question her.” [ii] And of course, the mystery and the focus is reserved for suspicious lineage, not for the inhumane treatment of the child.

Other narratives of children locked away or kept at home in potentially inhumane circumstances include one of a young girl suffering a type of palsy. This story also appears in Kirby’s, an 18th century compendium of sorts. In this story, the child is not chained and, in fact, he parents seem to take care of her, but her story is violent in the extreme. Her jaw had locked, and so she reportedly ate next to nothing for above ten years, though her parents would pry open the jaw with sticks now and then and force down liquid. The famished invalid spent her time creeping about by the wall of her parents’ home, not unlike the character of Yellow Wallpaper (yet another Gothic tale). Of most interest in this case, however, is the narrated description of the girl’s body. Given the circumstances, a strictly medical account out to show a body starving and dehydrated. But instead, “her cheeks [are] full, red, and blooming. […]she slept a great deal and soundly, perspired sometimes, and now and then emitted pretty large quantities of blood at her mouth.”[iii] The account dates from 1775, but recollects the notes of vampire commissioners during the scare of 1730s. Only decades earlier, Europe witnessed a vampire scare resulting in the appointment of vampire commissioners, autopsy inquests and the occasional mutilation of corpses. The position and condition of skeletons unearthed in Český Krumlov, near Prague, in 1732 suggest that vampire-killing rituals had been performed. Perhaps more interesting in terms of history/fiction cross-overs, is the description of the rosy-cheeked paralytic: “Her countenance is clear and pretty fresh; her features not disfigured nor sunk; […] and, to my astonishment, when I came to examine her body, for I expected to feel a skeleton, I found her breasts round and prominent, like those of a healthy young woman; her legs, arms, and thighs, not at all emaciated.”[iv] Such narratives reach back into history, but also forward, presaging the more lurid narratives of Polidori’s Vampyre or Bram Stoker’s Dracula: This description, which sexualized the paralytic invalid, also delivers a kind of threat. Rather than seeing the child as a victim, the writer suggests that she is other-worldly, even dangerous.

As the Age of Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century promoted scientific and philosophical progress. By the latter part of the century, the metaphysical and monstrous had been left behind in medical treatises— and by 1755, Gerhard van Swieten, personal physician of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, concluded his own investigation by saying that “vampires only appear were ignorance still reigns.” [v] Of course, as the popularly reprinted Kirby accounts demonstrate, it enjoyed renewed fervor in the popular press. Banishing the hunt for monsters did little to curb their appearance in print, and the line between fact and fiction continues to be blurry at best.

More of these interesting cross-overs may be found in my co-edited collection Unnatural Reproductions and Monstrosity, and some other brilliant sources on the early vampire stories may be found in Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death. And Just for fun, further documentation on Český Krumlov may be found in a fascinating documentary called The Vampire Princess, about links between the outbreak and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You can reach the full video here, or the Smithsonian Channel’s page.

[i] Kirby, R.S. Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, Magazine of remarkable characters, Vol 4. (London: 1820), 241-2.

[ii] Ibid., 242.

[iii] Ibid., 350

[iv] Ibid., 351

[v] Steindl, Klaus T., Andreas Sulzer, Smithsonian Networks (Firm), and Österreichischer Rundfunk. The Vampire Princess: . [Washington D.C.]: Smithsonian Networks, 2008.

14 Comments on "Medical History and the ‘Monster’"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Apr 1, 2013 at 7:26 pm |

    what this describes is one of the chinks in the armor of evolutionary theory
    when a mutant is born of any species, it is usually killed or dies
    evolutionary theory suggests
    that large numbers of mutant chimps were born, survived, mated & reproduced
    and became humans
    which suggests, wee are still a very long way from understanding the mystery of existence

    • another chink of evolutionary theory I learned of recently concerns mimicry in nature. I read about it in a book by P.D. Ouspensky. He asks how is it possible for mutations to create an insect that looks just like a leaf, or stick. They look exactly like them in every detail. Each detail would have to occur from a separate mutation, for how could one mutation create an exact replica. And how can separate mutations combine separately to create an exact replica. He describes it to be like finding a fully formed sword in a rock. Also, some of these mimicking bugs die and then look like a leaf drying up. That has no survival value. So why would that occur? Ouspensky has some interesting theories.

      • BuzzCoastin | Apr 2, 2013 at 1:34 am |

        more than a few conventional scientists have observed
        that Nature tends to behave like a thought
        even without Ouspensky
        just watching The Secret Life of Plants
        contemplating the incredible complexity of the human body
        is enough to inform a reflective mind

        • ironic you mention that. I just read the book version of The Secret Life of Plants. pretty amazing.

    • Calypso_1 | Apr 2, 2013 at 1:45 am |

      you have a very poor grasp of evolutionary theory if that’s what it suggests to you.

      • BuzzCoastin | Apr 2, 2013 at 1:47 am |

        maybe a poor grasp of the theory
        but not a bad enough grasp of reality
        to assume that that theory is a law of Nature

        • Calypso_1 | Apr 2, 2013 at 2:06 am |

          I could really bore you with mutation rate statistics for isocitrate dehydrogenases in RNA bacteriophages. There are quite a few natural laws used there.
          It’s molecules that ‘mutate’. Amino acids are substituted by well known forces that obey the laws of physics.
          Just because there are mechanisms that remain to be discovered in no way invalidates the reality of the processes as understood, nor does it detract from the mysteries to have viable, workable theories that, like all theories are subject to alteration as knowledge dictates.

          • BuzzCoastin | Apr 2, 2013 at 3:39 am |

            It was Al Einstein who noted that our science, “when compared to reality, is crude and childlike…”, evolution is no exception.

            I would, it seems,
            draw a finer line between evolutionary adaptation
            and mutation into distinctly different species & DNA
            the uncensored/unorthodox archeological record
            does not support “evolution” as we understand it right now
            Neanderthals weren’t Humans
            and lived 3000,000 years before Humans
            probably built most of the surviving megalithic monuments
            that doesn’t fit into the picture we have of evolution

          • Calypso_1 | Apr 2, 2013 at 10:56 am |

            yes but Al had a fine grasp of teh maths, unlike the generations hence that use his well constructed myth as Earth Science Avatar to fit whatever thought they desire into one of his many soundbites.
            The concepts behind speciation are way beyond random mutations and have progressed into symbiotic parasitism of microorganisms & intergenomic conflicts.
            It’s pretty amazing to see horizontal gene transfer in rapidly evolving bacteriophages that are symbiotic with bacteria that are symbiotic with hosts & cause drastic changes in their hosts behavior & phenotype expression.

            The problem is not the picture of evolution that we have.
            The problem is one that many persons have who have not come to accept that it takes a certain level of knowledge & specialized language to understand. That all information the public ‘thinks’ about is being filtered for consumption at much lower level. At that level the assertions & battles over dogma being led by various systems of ‘metaphysics’ are at best thought exercises at worst thought control.

            As I said I could bore you with the real work:
            Here’s a bite for you↓ It doesn’t translate well into consensus pop reality. Einstein, no doubt, would have found it childish, but I don’t know any kidiewinkies who play with

            probabilistic sequence distributions. Then again the Chinese will probably be teaching it to genetically enhanced primary schoolers within a few decades.

            Megaliths were built by telepathic Sasquatches.

          • how would you explain mimicry in nature? some of it, like the examples in my post below, seem too statistically improbable to occur through random mutations. and why would dead leaf mimicking bugs look like dried up leaves?

          • BuzzCoastin | Apr 2, 2013 at 6:58 pm |

            I take comfort in the fact that no theory concerning the workings of Nature lasts more than a few centuries before replaced by a new view through a glass darkly.

            It’s a mistake to think that the choice is between two theories, evolution & intelligent creation and it’s hubris to think we are even close to a real understanding of how things work.

            As Heraclitus once put it:
            “Let’s not make rash guesses our most lucid thoughts.”

          • Calypso_1 | Apr 2, 2013 at 7:39 pm |

            I’m not sure the degree of sarcasm v. your actual viewpoint. I am comfortable w/ either in any ratio. The view as expressed though is similar to my own. Once the glass darkly was a drop of oil & the naked eye. Now we control the very electrons to see the atoms that were once only dreamed of. Once we computed with fingers & marks in clay. Now we are manipulating quantum states, photonic-bandgaps & DNA.
            I would however say that I often contemplate the emergence of what is obviously intelligent design at many levels of existence. I see no need to have an a prior consciousness present for said design or the presence of consciousness in general for intelligence to exist. Though they share an aggregate set of properties there is no need to exchange one for the other.

            I agree in whole with you about humanities level of understanding. I do not even believe we are capable of understanding reality in its totality. Not in the form of being we call human. That does not exclude the fact that very real knowledge is discovered, will continue to be discovered & create for our species wonders of perceptions equal to that of our innate senses if only the individual chooses to avail themself of the knowledge schemas so often used against them for profit, command & control instead of enlightenment.

          • BuzzCoastin | Apr 3, 2013 at 2:32 am |

            funny references
            for the last few hours
            I’ve been reviewing & editing a scientific paper
            for a group of Chinese agronomists
            Molecular cloning and transcription analysis of the putative AGAMOUS homologous gene AcAG in onion (Allium cepa)
            I don’t wanna give away the ending
            One more interesting result obtained in the monocot subclade was the AcAG is clustered into Liliales family rather than clustered into Asparagales family. The result was not consistent to the anticipative result that AcAG should clustered into Liliaceae family, but it supported the new plant classification proposal that Allium was isolated from Liliaceae, and subsequent reclassification as an independent Alliaceae family belonging to Asparagales family some degree.

  2. Hey Brandy, great post! Thanks for the footnotes 🙂

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