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Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses

Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses, extraictes de plusieurs fameux autheurs, Grecs & Latins, sacrez & prophanes : mises en nostre langue par P. Boaistuau, surnomé Launay, natif de Bretagne : avec les pourtraicts & figures, Paris: Chez Hierome de Marnef, & Guillaume Cavellat … , 1566.Baillieu library, Rare Books, The University of Melbourne.
Pierre Boaistuau’s seminal Histoires prodigieuses… first published in 1560, is a work devoted to compiling and chronicling various “wondrous” phenomena throughout history – supernatural events, omens, signs, and portents, and, in particular, cases of the monstrous and the grotesque.  This present edition is a later reprint of the work, published in Paris in 1566 by Hierome de Marnef and Guillaume Cavallat (Marnef et Cavallat).  Born in Nantes around 1520, writer, editor and translator Pierre Boaistuau (d. 1566) had a background in law, medicine and natural science and was steeped in the humanist ideals of the Renaissance era. He achieved significant literary success in his time, and apparently even presented Elizabeth I of England with a dedicated early edition of Histoires prodigieuses.  Amongst his other notable literary achievements was Les Histoires tragiques, a translation and adaptation of a number of novellas by Matteo Bandello, which is believed to have provided the blueprint for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.[1]Written in his native French, Histoires prodigieuses gathered together forty stories of wondrous or marvellous events – floods, monstrous births, comets, divine miracles – throughout history, paying particular attention to events that occurred in Boaistuau’s own time.  Significantly, seventeen of these stories concerned monsters and other grotesques.  Like many other such “wonder”[2] books produced during this era, Histoires prodigieuses is vividly illustrated with a number of woodcut images (this edition contains the same forty-nine woodcuts, by an unknown artist, found in the 1560 original).  These range from depictions of the kind of archetypal “monsters” (the hairy woman and black child pair,[3] various human/animal hybrids (pp. 100, 168), sea-creatures (pp. 57, 60, 147), a two-headed woman (pp. 17, 42)) found in many such works, to more contemporary and culturally specific examples of the monstrous and the grotesque.  One example of this latter category is the “Monster of Krakow,” (p. 19) a snout-nosed, webbed-footed figure, reportedly born in the 1540s and depicted, like many other demonic representations of the era (see also Boaistuau’s Satan, p. 1), with animal heads spouting from its joints. Boaistuau uses the figure of the “Monster of Krakow” to examine questions of demonic sexuality, specifically the question of whether human liaisons with demons could produce offspring.  As such, Boaistuau’s work is a classic example of the “teratology” genre, which involved the study, documentation, and classification of monsters.  Such works became increasingly popular throughout the sixteenth century, as the spread of printed materials dealing with monster lore (books, broadsides, pamphlets, even lyrical ballads) led to a surge of public interest in the subject.

Boaistuau’s work can be compared to other teratological books produced during this era, such as Conrad Lycosthenes’ Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (Chronicle of Prodigies and Portents) from 1557, Marcus Frytschius’ Catalogus prodigorum… (1563), and Ambroise Pare’s Des monstres et prodiges (1573). Like these works, Histoires prodigieuses reflected the pervading religious, scientific, and cultural responses to such phenomena, with Boaistuau concerned with the “moral and ethical” implications of these events.[4] In the preface, Boiastuau emphasises the supposed factual and scientific credentials of the work, maintaining that he had not included any fables in his work, only “data supported by the authority of famous writers.”[5] As such, Boaistuau suggests that his work, rather than functioning as simple “entertainment,” actually reflects fundamental scientific and religious truths.

Boaistuau’s work strongly reflects the sixteenth-century tendency to place such supernatural phenomena in a religious framework.  Boaistuau points out in his Preface that such “monsters, wonders and abhominations(sic)” reveal the “secret judgement and scourge of the ire of God, by the things they represent.”[6] Influenced by earlier, classical writers like Livy and Pliny, he suggests that such prodigies (portents, omens) should be seen not just as warnings of impending disaster, but as indicative of divine will and divine wrath.  According to Boaistuau, monstrous births were often the result of divine anger at the “offences” and “misdeeds” of a sinful populace.  He attributes monstrous children to women who “hurl themselves forward indifferently, like savage beasts that only follow their appetites”[7] and suggests that other such births are the result of sexual congress between humans and animals.  As Norman Robert Smith points out, such views were “very much in the mainstream of popular Renaissance thought.”[8]

Like other teratologists of the era, Boaistuau often relates such births to political and religious upheavals.  In one such example, he correlates the birth of a monstrous child, born with four arms and four legs, with the 1355 peace treaty between Venice and Genoa, which occurred the day the child was supposedly born.[9] It is undoubtedly significant that Boiastuau’s work appeared during the long period of religious crisis, uncertainty, and civil strife of the Reformation era.[10] In such times, monstrous portents and omens often served as apocalyptic warnings, suggestive of “the imminent end of the world.”[11] Ultimately, Boaistuau suggests that his work serves a moral, even redemptive, purpose – that, in exposing his readers to the many signs and warnings of God’s wrath, he forces them to examine their own sins and misdeeds.  The woodcut illustrations accompanying Boaistuau’s words even serve to reinforce such beliefs, acting as visual reminders of the consequences of sinful behaviour.

Histoires prodigieuses proved to be immediately popular, being reprinted in its original French between ten and twenty-two times,[12] and was translated into Spanish, German and Dutch.  An English translation (bearing the title Certaine Secrete Wonders of Nature and credited to Edward Fenton) also appeared, in 1569.  A further five volumes in the series were published throughout the latter half of the sixteenth century.[13] Its popularity reflects the sixteenth-century fascination with monster lore and wondrous events.  The strongly pictorial, visual nature of the work also helps to account for its immense popularity, giving the work an accessibility and popular reach it might not have otherwise possessed.  Ultimately, its success provides an insight into the cultural, religious, and scientific attitudes of its era, and highlights the way in which printing had, by this stage, transformed the teratology genre into true “popular” culture.

[1] Published in 1559. For more information on Les Histoires tragiques and its influence on Shakespeare see: Muchembled, 2003, pp. 120-21.

[2] See Jacobs, 2005, p. 133-67.

[3] This illustration appears in Boaistuau, 1566, f. 14 r. For more information on the hairy woman and the black child see Weisner-Hanks, 2009, pp. 135-38.

[4] Smith, 1978, p. 159.

[5] Wittkower, 1942, p. 187.

[6] Boaistuau, 1569, n.p., preface.

[7] Boaistuau, 1961, p. 23 quoted in Weisner-Hanks, 2009, p. 138.

[8] Smith, 1978, p. 269.

[9] A woodcut illustration of this child appears in Boaistuau, 1566, f. 144 v.

[10] Seen in this light, the book’s woodcut of Satan – depicted wearing a papal crown – is an undoubtedly provocative and contentious image, given the anti-papal climate of the times.

[11] Daston and Park, 1998, p. 183.

[12] These figures come from Smith, 1980, p. 53 and Wittkower, 1942, p. 186.

[13] These sequels would not, however, be written by Boaistuau, who died before the publication of the second volume, by Claude Tesserant, appeared in 1567.

Condition Details to follow.

Boaistuau, 1569

Boaistuau, Pierre.  Certaine secrete wonders of nature containing a descriptio[n] of sundry strange things, seming monstrous in our eyes and iudgement, bicause we are not priuie to the reasons of them. Gathered out of diuers learned authors as well Greeke as Latine, sacred as prophane. By E. Fenton. Seene and allowed according to the order appointed. Translated and edited by Edward Fenton.  Extra material by Edward Fenton. London : Henry Bynneman, 1569.  Early English Books Online.

Boaistuau, 1961

Boaistuau, Pierre, Histoires prodigieuses, Paris: Club Français du Livre, 1961.

Daston and Park, 1998

Daston, Lorraine, and Katherine Park.  Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750.  New York: Zone Books, 1998.

Jacobs, 2005

Jacobs, Fredrika H.  The Living Image in Renaissance Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Muchembled, 2003

Muchembled, Robert.  A History of the Devil: From the Middle Ages to the Present.  Translated by Jean Birrell.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.

Smith, 1978

Smith, Norman Robert.  “Loathly Births Off Nature: A Study of the Lore of the Portentous Monster in the Sixteenth Century”,  PhD, University of Illinois, 1978.

Smith, 1980

Smith, Norman Robert. “Portent Lore and Medieval Popular Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture XIV:1 (Summer 1980): 47-59.

Weisner-Hanks, 2009

Weisner-Hanks, Merry.  The Marvellous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Wilson, 1993

Wilson, Dudley.  Signs and Portents: Monstrous Births from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. London & New York: Routledge, 1993.

Wittkower, 1942

Wittkower, Rudolph.  “Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 5 (1942): 159-197.


Please see also this important new work on the Histoires prodigieuses:

Boaistuau, 2010

Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses (édition de 1561): Edition critique, introduction by Stephen Bamforth and annotated by Jean Céard, Geneva: Droz, 2010.


Michael Plater, University of Melbourne student enrolled in the subject Medieval Manuscripts and Early Print.

Edited by Tim Ould, research assistant on this project and PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Melbourne.

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