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  • Monstrous Births and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Germany
  • Michelle Smith
Spinks, Jennifer, Monstrous Births and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Religious Cultures in the Early Modern World, 5), London, Pickering and Chatto, 2009; hardback; pp. 224; 66 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. $US99.00, £60.00; ISBN 9781851966301.

Tales of monstrous births were well known across Europe in the late medieval and early modern period. They were used symbolically by authors in a variety of media to 'represent and debate issues of morality, religion and politics' (p. 3). Curiously, there were more printed references in Germany than anywhere else, which suggests something other than a passing interest. Jennifer Spinks examines a number of illustrated printed publications, such as broadsheets, pamphlets and books, which appeared in sixteenth-century Germany. Beginning with instances of monstrous births in the late fifteenth century, she maps the development of such material across the Reformation, finally ending her discussion in the late sixteenth century. Central to her argument are the religious conflicts of the Reformation and early Counter-Reformation, and the role the resultant polemical propaganda played in promoting a visual culture grounded in natural and unnatural occurrences. In a world shaken to the core by religious disorder, monstrous births and other such phenomena were used didactically and apocalyptically: they were understood as messages from a God who was unhappy with the moral state of that world.

Spinks begins by briefly outlining classical and early Christian ideas of monstrous births, before leading the reader to the sixteenth century where there is a 'rich array of visual and textual materials for understanding natural wonders and prodigies … [and which are] best encountered through illustrated print catalogues' (p. 8). This cultural history is laid out chronologically within a structure that analyses specific types of printed material – from crude woodcuts to sophisticated texts – together. The central focus is the positive and negative meanings which sixteenth-century people gave to monstrous births and how we, as modern historians, can access those meanings through a close analysis of this printed material. Spinks argues that her discussion 'places considerably more weight than any previous study on the positive interpretations given to monstrous births in the period immediately preceding the Reformation' (p. 10). Furthermore, she claims the evidence points to a marked increase in negative and apocalyptic interpretations which peaked mid-century. Different meanings were now being attached to monstrous [End Page 255] births in order to interpret emerging topics of concern.

Travel narratives brought tales of monstrous races home to local audiences prior to the sixteenth century. Chapter 1 briefly discusses such travel literature, the visual effect it had on audiences, and the mentalities that developed with regard to those living on the outer edges of the world. Medieval imagery saw the idea of monstrous races and monstrous births as one body, as exemplified in John Mandeville's Travels. However, by the sixteenth century, monstrous births came to be seen as unique and unrelated to those marginalized races. Spinks analyses what she calls the 'culture of prodigies' (p. 23) that emerged during the reign of Maximilian I, and how the emperor used wondrous signs and monstrous births for political ends. The remainder of the chapter examines Sebastian Brant's broadsheets that brought the representation of monstrous births to a wider audience through an appealing combination of words and images, and paved the way for the outpouring of works seen during the sixteenth century.

Chapter 2 places images of monstrous births firmly within the expanding visual culture of the early sixteenth century. Using the work of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Spinks outlines the varying methods and approaches used to construct images of monstrous births that resulted in more naturalistic dimensions to artists' illustrations.

Chapter 3 examines the images of the Monk Calf and the Papal Ass in the polemic pamphlets of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon where they used the images as allegories of the Catholic Church. As Spinks argues, monstrous bodies 'became texts to be read and argumentatively decoded using highly visual language' (p. 11).

Chapter 4 demonstrates that, by mid-century, there was an increase in the number of books that focused on...


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