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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.… Read the rest

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