Fortunio Liceti and His Big Book of Monsters

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Jordan Baker. Jordan concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World and blogs about history at eastindiabloggingco.com.

In early modern Europe, people believed in many things that modern readers would find fanciful. One of the most striking examples of this type of early modern thought is the study, and fascination with, monsters. From three-headed beasts to strange creatures of the deep, European audiences readily consumed tales of monstrosity. But what exactly were these monsters?

Occasionally creatures called monsters were exotic species or animals with imposing figures (like whales); sometimes monsters were simply creatures from myth, like satyres or centaurs. Usually, however, what early modern people deemed ‘monsters’ were simply animals or people who suffered from a genetic abnormality.

Seen throughout the Middle Ages, and even into the Renaissance, as acts of God, monsters and monstrous births fascinated early modern Europeans. While some earlier thinkers had attempted to pinpoint what caused the occurrence of monsters, in the seventeenth century at least one author sought an explanation that did not rely on ‘the glory of God.’

Fortunio Liceti and Monsters as Natural Phenomenon

Interest in monsters had been growing for centuries when one of the men most commonly associated with these texts, Fortunio Liceti, penned his seminal work on the topic. While Liceti does not seem to have studied monsters ‘in the field,’ so to speak, he was an avid collector of the illustrations and studies made by others. And though much of his work still included elements that we would consider fantastical, like a headless person with eyes in their shoulder blades, he made the first attempts to categorize monsters as something completely natural.

Illustrations from Liceti’s De monstrorum, sourced from https://publicdomainreview.org/
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‘Great fears of the Sicknesse here in the City’: Researching news in the 1665 plague during a pandemic

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Nikki Clarke. She is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Nikki’s research focuses on how people gathered and assessed news in seventeenth-century England. You can find her on Twitter at @nikkiclarke1.

Reliable information takes on even greater significance in a time of pandemic, when rumour and fake news can have a serious impact on the decisions that people make for their own safety and that of their community. I have spent most of the last year researching the news sources available during the plague of 1665, and how both the authorities and citizens gathered news and judged its accuracy.[1] I have issued myself strong warnings about avoiding anachronistic comparisons with the current pandemic but there are some issues that still have a resonance today.

Londoners dealing with the outbreak of the 1665 plague would have viewed their situation through different intellectual and theological lenses from the ones we use, but they would have been asking many of the same questions and tackling many of the same decisions.  How close is the plague to my street? Should I stay in the city or l should I leave? Are the restrictions on my daily life effective in tackling the disease, or are they a huge economic burden, or both?

John Dunstall, plague broadsheet (1666). Copyright, Museum of London, object 42.39/142.

The primary official sources for news on the plague were the Bills of Mortality.  It is probably anachronistic to describe their weekly publication as the seventeenth-century equivalent of the daily Number 10 briefing. Yet watching those briefings in the spring of 2020 did help me to understand the need of Essex vicar Ralph Josselin to note in his diary almost every weekly bill from May 1665 to December 1666.

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