- Marvelous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in Post-Reformation England
The early modern English imagination teemed with monsters: specimens of grotesquerie characterized by the absence or excess of limbs, heads, bulging protuberances, and irrelevant skin. The fascination was not new or unique to England, but it assumed specific permutations when it came to the social, political, and religious conditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; on a parallel level, teratological fascination has also abounded among scholars in recent years, with the various approaches taken by Loraine Daston and Katharine Park, Kathryn Brammall, or Kate Chedgzoy contributing to a larger understanding of the implications and contexts that lay behind the preoccupations with extraordinary biology or misshapen humanity. With Marvelous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in Post-Reformation England, Julie Crawford adds another dimension to this scholarship, in a book that not only reveals the agenda behind monstrous obsessions, but examines with insight and skill the pamphlets and broadsheets that convey such an agenda in the first place.
Crawford's focus rests on the phenomenon of monstrous birth pamphlets, which proliferated between the 1560s and 1660s and were written by Protestant reformers who exploited the marvelous towards larger social ends. Constituting "a specific genre of popular texts, [and] one singularly concerned with reading and interpretation," the stories told of monsters who were themselves texts, "their bodies transparent to the crimes they punished," which in turn "render[ed] the private beliefs and behaviors of early modern men and women spectacularly legible" (3). Culturally as well as religiously significant, such pamphlets not only were [End Page 608] "polemically casuistical in their intentions," but so did they translate "the words and ideas of the Protestant religion . . . into visualized experience" (7). Specific to particular controversies — such as the vestarian debates, or issues of illegitimacy and marriage — tales of monstrous births "were framed to substantiate the truth of controversial claims and to tell stories that sought to find not just curious readers but educable ones" (11).
Crawford begins her study by examining the matter of what she calls "fashion monsters," or those beings such as the infamous monk calf utilized by Luther, whose bodies evoked, in their vestment-like flaps of skin, the garments of Romish prelates — thus attesting to the "trenchant early modern belief in the power of material objects, especially in their connection to 'divine potency'" (36). Puritan writers especially derided such monstrosities, which included the "ruffed child," a being whose epidemiological neckwear served as a condemnation to the "transnaturing power of clothing," particularly women's clothing (61).
On a broader level, the reproductive ability of women, Crawford writes, was particularly fraught when it came to the matter of their giving birth to monsters, and in fact "the state of the child's soul" — as well as its body — "hung in the balance between the mother's imagination and her spiritual righteousness" (20) — both of which carried a vast imprinting power. If the monster's body "was a demonstrable testament to error," or "sin condemned in the flesh" (20), then women's behavior and imagination were therefore essential, and the monstrous pamphlets' purpose essentially "disciplinary" (70, 76). Indeed, Crawford writes, "monsters illuminate some of the complex social issues around women's experiences of vagrancy and bastardy in early modern England" (77); the birth of monsters could therefore condemn wandering women, recusant women, sectarian women, sexually transgressive women, or women who gathered outside the purview of men — all of whom receive extensive treatment in subsequent chapters.
For Puritans, monsters could also represent a "disordered body politic" (102), or a two-faced (as opposed to two-headed) beast the dangers of equivocation; the phenomenon of the headless monster was especially prevalent, of course, in the regicidal aftermath of the Civil War, but women who disobeyed their husbands could also be punished by giving birth to children "without a head" — thus reinforcing the "visual similarity to the fate of traitors" (126), which women, who refused to conform to their husbands, in fact were. The mid-seventeenth-century emphasis on...