By Jessica Thomas
Magic, medicine and monsters are terms that go almost seamlessly together when one mentions the medieval period. The association of medieval life with barbaric medical procedures, abominable creatures and their ‘magical’ connotations make these links at least somewhat logical. Indeed, investigation of primary sources does indicate that monsters were believed by medieval people to exist, and in many different forms. I will be looking specifically at monstrous births – the deformed offspring around which many rumours and attitudes circulated. I’m going to look at medieval monstrous births and the attitudes society had towards them by analysing contemporaneous meanings of ‘monstrous’, the potential causes of deformities, and then some specific examples from The Herbarium of Pseudo Apuleius – one of the only surviving Anglo Saxon medical texts which mentions ‘misshapen’ infants. It’s from this source and the body of evidence regarding childhood in the medieval period that we see deformed births were, more often than not the fault of the mother, sexual mishap, or demonic intervention, and thus were not the fault of the child in question. These unwitting monsters were not entirely cast out either, but rather, were cared for by their families, as we see in the cures that reference them.
The word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monstrum, meaning ‘omen’. It also takes its etymological roots from monēre to warn, indicating that there was a powerful element of threat and trepidation surrounding anything considered monstrous. In tales, texts, and images, monsters were powerful illustrations of the boundaries between morality and sinfulness, and used by Christians to emphasise the consequences of wickedness. Medieval religious illustrations tended to portray non-Christians to emphasise that ungodliness could produce physical signs of inner depravity. Thus, deviation from an ideal or established ‘norm’ became a sign of monstrosity.
In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder wrote in Book II of his Natural History about the monstrous beings in India and Ethiopia: men with dogs’ heads, people who needed neither food nor drink, and one-legged creatures with humanoid facial features, all of which can be seen clearly on early maps and especially the Hereford Mappae Mundi.
Pliny was not speaking from personal experience but he was echoing ancient writers who subscribed to the belief that distance produced difference, and that people far away from the civilised West would naturally be as deformed, backward, and inhospitable as the land in which they lived. It appears therefore, that ‘difference’ was a primary criteria on which monstrosity was based. This was not limited to geographical variation; witches, spirits, devils, were all separated from the ‘normal’ human being by virtue of their beliefs, actions, and appearance and as such were considered ‘monsters’.
The Herbarium of Pseudo Apuleius, a text compiled from a number of Greek texts from around the 4th century, which were subsequently translated into Latin, is a valuable source of knowledge about how illness and deformity were viewed in the medieval period. It is, as the name suggests, a compendium of herbal plants, and their habitats and healing properties. It provides information about deformed births and how to cure them, but what caused babies to be born with abnormal features in the first place?
To the medieval mind, a woman’s sinfulness and her coming into contact with ugly sights are two of the primary culprits said to cause ‘monsters’ or deformed births. Anglo-Saxon popular culture, fed by traditional stories and folk beliefs inherited from Celtic and Norse myths, led many to add curses, demons, and corrupt morals as other potential causes. However, the blame was laid primarily at the mother’s feet, as it was her womb in which the child had lay – where else could it have encountered the evil so visible on its body? Female sinfulness was a common theme in the medieval period, deriving strength from the Fall of mankind as a result of Eve’s submission to Satan’s temptations. Thus, a deformed baby was often a sign of a mother’s inherent sinfulness, or that she had performed an evil deed while pregnant. Having impure thoughts, or even looking at something ugly were also said to have detrimental effects on a foetus. This was why, in the later years, many upper class women were given beautiful pictures to gaze at in their birthing rooms, and walking in nature was emphasised; it was believed that the purity of one’s surroundings and thoughts would be echoed in the appearance of one’s offspring. Certain days of the week were also blamed for deformed births, meaning the manner and time of conception also had the potential to alter physical form. Gregory of Tours told the story of how St Martin cured a body severely deformed due to his being conceived on a Sunday, a day on which sex was forbidden. This particular instance laid the blame at the feet of both parents, but by and large it was the mother who was at fault for a monstrous birth.
Before mounting our anti-misogyny steeds and lighting our torches at this injustice, it’s important to point out that there were some instances in which a deformed birth was not the mother’s fault. These were cases when witches or demons might have cursed her and caused physical abnormalities in the child, or when damage had been done to the womb by external blows, and let us nor forget that correct coital procedures were an important factor. Albertus Magnus wrote in the 13th century a case of dwarfism in a young girl as failure of the paternal seed to fully penetrate the womb. Overall, then, deformities were seen as the product of evil either from the mother or malignant individual, incorrect sexual relations, or as punishment from God, generally as a result of sin. It was a symbol of corruption and an external illustration of one’s internal state, though for babies this was generally that of the mother, not the infant themselves.
So where do we see actual cases of deformed birth, and could they be cured? We see in our texts that there were ways women might try to prevent an abnormal birth. Metrical charms are common throughout Anglo Saxon healing texts, such as this one from Lacnunga, a late tenth, early eleventh century curative manuscript:
‘This is my remedy for hateful slow birth,
This is my remedy for heavy difficult birth.
This is my remedy for hateful imperfect birth’.
What this remedy suggests to us is that it was the woman’s job to ensure that her child was whole and wholesome in mind and body, and that the success of the birth was in her hands. No pressure. Should these preventative measures fail, there were still a number of potential cures. One of the most interesting is in the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius, a 4th century text later translated into Latin and Old English and used right up until the 12th century as a source for healers on the properties of plants. There is a cure for a child that was ‘born prematurely or misshapen’ which was to, ‘take the roots of the same plant, simmered down by two thirds and wash the child with it.’ Effectively, the claim was that deformities, and apparently the physical effects of premature birth, could be washed away.
Though there are numerous arguments that medieval families rid themselves of babies with birth defects, supposing them to be monsters and signs of God’s wrath or some other such curse, skeletal remains conclude that many children born with physical impairments survived into adulthood and thus received care from their families. That we have a number of cures for ‘misshapen’ children proves that parents did not merely expose these ‘monsters’ to the elements and leave them for dead, but instead made an effort to find solutions to their conditions. It appears that though cases of birth defects could not generally be cured, this did not doom the child ‘monster’ to death in every case, as one might suppose. Instead, because these children were the products of women, it was more often that the mother was blamed, not the child, for they were victims of their mother’s sinfulness, a witch’s curse, God’s wrath, or coital mishap.
So were these children monsters in the modern sense of the word? Perhaps, though the attitudes to them are surprising. For children born with deformities, though their appearance might be monstrous, they themselves were not always considered to be so. Deformed babies could not be ‘cured’ by being washed in special waters, but neither were they at fault, for they were the products of curses, divine wrath, or feminine sins.
 Gregory of Tours, De Virtutib us Sancti Martini, 2.24
 Fritz Hefti, Pediatric Orthopedics in Practice, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg
2007, p 747.
 Lacnunga, in Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing, Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000, p 237.
 Anne Arsdall, Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Routledge, 2010, p 199.
 Paul B. Newman, Growing Up in the Middle Ages, McFarland, 2007, p 37.
About the Author
Jessica is a Masters student at Auckland University, currently writing her thesis on healing in the Herbarium of Pseudo Apuleius. Her research focuses on human agency in healing, how sex was perceived and impacted healing practices, the relationship between humankind and nature, and the mindsets toward health and well-being that are revealed by Anglo-Saxon medical texts.