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Michael Jones

Ambroise Pare on Monsters and Marvels

The first thing that one may notice upon reading Ambroise Pare’s discourse on monsters

is that assumptions in medicine during his time were simply assumptions, and that attaining

medical knowledge did not require venturing beyond one’s intuition. But the things that are

‘known’ in modern medicine are simply the result of the long process of the acquisition of

knowledge; a process Ambroise Pare was himself involved in. If we can look at Ambroise Pare’s

work as an example of early medicine, it is clear that there is a different methodology. Pare tends

to describe the various naturally occurring anomalies that he encounters, and then theorizing

about the causes of them. But when one looks at the work in the context of being a necessary

precedent for modern medicine, this approach seems far more logical. When much is yet to be

explored in detail as was the case in Pare’s time, one of the biggest necessities is that

observational information be organized by categorization. Only after categorization has occurred

can specialization take place.

Ambroise Pare defines monsters as “things that appear outside the course of nature”

(page 3). That is, the monstrous things discussed in his book were not themselves existing

outside of the natural world, but simply did not comply with the “course” that nature usually

prescribed. The term “monstrous” in describing these phenomena may seem out of place for the

medical profession, but it is important to note that this was a time when abnormalities were

largely unstudied and not yet understood. It only seems natural that a society in such a condition

would refer to such anomalies in this way.

Pare proceeds to discuss the causes of these monsters. He believes that there are thirteen

principle causes, although he does not deny the existence of other explanations. First, monsters

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are attributed to the glory of God, then his wrath, too great a quantity of seed, too little a

quantity,, the imagination, narrowness of the womb, indecent posture of the mother during

pregnancy, blows to the womb, hereditary or accidental illnesses, corrupt seed, mixture of seed,

through the artifice of wicked spital beggars, and lastly, through demons (pages 3,4). All of these

causes are sufficiently broad in order to categorize the manifold cases that are presented in the

book.

Two conflicting themes that are clearly present in Pare’s discourse are that evil cannot

pass with impunity, and that in many cases human behavior has no agency in determining

whether or not these things appear. Pare seems to believe that God seeks to punish individuals

who have behaved badly by making them bring forth deformed or abnormal children. On another

note, Pare implies that these occurrences are sometimes beyond human volition. That is to say

that human deeds do not always factor into the causal discussion of the existence of such

fantastic creatures and events. Pare notes that God not only uses monsters to serve a punitive

function, but also creates them for the purpose of revealing his awesomeness. As with the comet

examples, he sometimes uses these monstrous events to show signs to men. The child who was

born with the body of some animal is sometimes attributed to the fact that the mother was

exposed to some visual representation or was imagining the creature during pregnancy.

Ambroise Pare’s discourse also reflects the closeness of the medical profession to God in

those times. Indeed to serve as a physician was believed to be to carry out the work of God. It is

not so surprising, then, that pare leaves some explanations of the origins of monsters to the

divine. This may not seem particularly “scientific” to the modern medical practitioner, but it is

important to note that at the time the discourse was written, such explanations in no way

breached the integrity of the science. Modern people tend to look at science and religion as

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antithetical, but this was not the case in Pare’s time. What is particularly revolutionary is that

Pare is seeking out explanations that in some ways go beyond (but are not in conflict with)

biblical explanations.

Pare also uses explanations that involve magic or demons. Such persons as were able to

use trickery to create illusions were also considered monstrous. Pare says that such persons have

been inhabited by demons that are able to cause miraculous phenomena. Again, the trend

continues that scientist at this stage was to identify and categorize the strange things that he

encountered. That is, detailed description was valued over detailed explanations. What was

important at this stage was introducing the anomalies to the medical profession—to get them “on

record”—for further study. After something is first known to exist, it can then be studied in

greater detail, and specialization can be achieved. Expertise is not attainable until the completion

of this step.

Pare concedes that these monsters are human progeny, not arising from some other

source. Even so, Pare does not seem willing to give monstrous persons equal status with the rest

of society. Indeed, he says that “it is not good that monsters should live among us.” Even those

persons who were feigning ‘monstrous’ conditions were themselves included among the

monstrous because of their knavery. Pare’s disdain for such trickery becomes very distinct when

he mentions these individuals.

It is important to note that Pare’s discourse cannot be looked at from the perspective of

hindsight because we a privileged with newer, more “correct” information than he was. Pare

likens the body to the universe for example. In fact, he says that the body is a microcosm of the

universe (pages 53, 54). In saying the body is a microcosm of the universe, Pare infuses his

argument with a commonly held belief of the time. Another example of this is that he classifies

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some creatures that we hold as commonplace as monstrous. It can be easy to forget the

tremendous difference in the worlds we live in compared to the world of Ambroise Pare. To

witness such creatures as the giraffe or the crocodile in those times were far more significant

because of the restricted access to visual representations of them. Yet another example of the

care we must give to perspective is the fact that Pare includes events in the heavens as

monstrous. Today such things as comets are not interpreted in the same way as they were in

Pare’s time. In some ways his account of these celestial happenings are fantastical. This may be

the result of information on such obscure events not being widely known or well documented up

to that particular point in history, so as to allow inaccurate information to be passed as truth.

Ambroise Pare in no way laid the foundation for modern abnormal medicine. Rather, his

work is important in that it serves to identify and categorize the various types of abnormalities

that occur naturally. This was a necessary part of the process that produced modern medicine.

Pare was not a pivotal actor in this process, but rather a representation of the type of thinker that

existed at this necessary stage in scientific development.