Of Monsters and Men

By Barnaby Cullen |


‘He also had no eyes… the mouth was nearly the same as that of a rabid dog, inside it had three black teeth, above a broad white finger bone, pointed like a sturgeon’s rostrum … which was horrible to behold.’


This rather gruesome quote is taken from the Erclerug der Preüssischen groessern landtaffel oder mappen (1595) (USTC 653308), written by Caspar Hennenberger (1529-1600), a German pastor, cartographer and historian.  He is best remembered today for creating in 1576 one of the earliest maps of the Duchy of Prussia, which today would encompass Kaliningrad Oblast, and parts of Lithuania and Poland.  His Erclerung functioned as a companion to his map, describing the featured places in alphabetical order, with accompanying histories.  It was one of the earliest works on Prussian history printed in the Duchy’s capital city of Königsberg, and consisted of over five hundred pages in folio format, adorned with some fifty illustrations.[1]   This is anything but ephemera, yet today only sixteen known copies remain, scattered in libraries across Central and Eastern Europe, including the National Library of Latvia, one of the partner libraries of Preserving the World’s Rarest Books.

Most of the illustrations in the Erclerung are of assorted princes associated with Prussia’s history, bedecked in lavish armour, bearing their crests on their shields, and flanked by classical columns.  However, juxtaposed against these exemplars of pedigree and martial prowess are depictions of some rather different individuals; a two-headed baby, a cyclopean man, someone with neither nose nor ears, among others. These so-called ‘monstrous births’ were not half-remembered phenomena from the distant past, but recent events.  All illustrated examples depict occurrences that occurred after 1570.  These are not the only curious incidents in the Erclerung: in 1558 the butchers of Konigsberg reportedly made a sausage so long it took forty-eight people to carry it.  However, Hennenberger evidently wished to emphasise these monstrous births, devoting lengthy descriptions to them, and no fewer than eight illustrations (the second most pictorially represented subject after princes).

Hbks/F 63 vd.
A woodcut from Hennenberger’s Erclerung, USTC 653308. Image courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothe, shelfmark: Hbks/F 63 vd.

These might seem curious inclusions in a work which proudly bore the Prussian crest, was printed in Prussia, and was dedicated its regent.  After all, such events were perceived as divine portents and reflected on the place and era in which they occurred.  Printed portrayals of deformed or monstrous humans had surged in popularity during the religious discord of the sixteenth-century, as they were used by both Protestant and Catholic polemicists to attack their opponents.  As a pastor, and having studied theology at the Albertina University in Königsberg, Hennenberger was naturally aware of the potential moral and spiritual implications of such events.  However, his purpose here was not polemical – he was writing the history of his own country after all – but didactic.

Hbks/F 63 vd.
A woodcut from Hennenberger’s Erclerung, USTC 653308. Image courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothe, shelfmark: Hbks/F 63 vd.

Frightened by such incidents and fearing that they denoted divine displeasure and coming judgement, Hennenberger sought to persuade readers to behave morally by shocking them with his detailed descriptions and illustrations.  When relating a case from 1570 in which an imprisoned woman gave birth to a child described as ‘halb Viehe halb Mensch’ (half cattle half man), Hennenberger urged readers to embrace the word of God and Protestantism, before His anger bloomed and He punished the world with fire.  Likewise, when describing a 1594 occurrence in which a child was born with no eyes or nose, merely a hole in its forehead, he noted ominously that the appearance of so many ‘monsters’ might herald great lamentations to come.  The work also opened with a dedication to George Frederick, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach and Regent of Prussia, in which Hennenberger reminded him of his godly duty to govern well, and protect peace and the common good.  Perhaps his fears of divine punishment in the face of immorality were compounded by the very need for a regent, as the Duke of Prussia, Albert Frederick, had suffered from mental illness since the 1570s, and was therefore unable to govern.  In any case, it is evident that the presence of various ‘monstrous births’ in Hennenberger’s Erclerung came from a place of care, not anger.

Hbks/F 63 vd.
A woodcut from Hennenberger’s Erclerung, USTC 653308. Image courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothe, shelfmark: Hbks/F 63 vd.

Hennenberger’s Erclerung is fascinating both as a work of history and of art, but it is the insight that it offers into Hennenberger’s mindset that is most engaging.  Hennenberger had spent forty-five years of his life in Prussia, had served the community as pastor in Mühlhausen and then of the hospital in Königsberg-Löbenicht, and was evidently deeply concerned for its people.  He was sixty-six at the time of its publication, and would die only five years later.  The Erclerung is thus far more than the mere work of history and geography that its title page purported to be.  It was also an impassioned plea for the ruler and people of Prussia to live moral lives, written by a man near nearing the end of his life and fearing for their salvation in the face of a possible apocalyptic future.  Perhaps it was best that he did not live to see the Thirty Years War.

Barnaby Cullen recently graduated from St Andrews with a first class degree in History, and will be returning to St Andrews in September in order to study an MLitt in Book History.  He has worked with the USTC on the Baltic and Scandinavian regions, having its summer programme in 2019.  His current interests revolve around the print culture in the geographically peripheral regions of Europe, and the relationship between print and the public sphere.

Further Reading:

Davies, Surekha, ‘The Unlucky, the Bad and the Ugly: Categories of Monstrosity from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment’, in Asa Simon Mittman and Peter Dendle (eds.), The Ashgate Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 49-75.

Lukoševičius, Viktoras, ‘Lithuania Minor and Prussia on the Old Maps (1525-1808)’, Geodesy and Cartography, Vol. 39 (1) (2013), pp. 23-39.

Spinks, Jennifer, ‘Monstrous Births and Counter-Reformation Visual Polemics: Johann Nas and the 1569 Ecclesia Militans’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Summer, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer 2009), pp. 335-363.

Spinks, Jennifer, Monstrous Births and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Abingdon, 2015).

[1] According to the USTC database, it is only preceded by an earlier 1684 work by Hennenberger, and two editions of an anonymous Chronica.  Kurtzer außzug der Preussischen chronicken von dem jar 1200 (1566, 1567) (USTC 622413, USTC 622414).  Both works have approximately 100 pages.

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Images available from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothe under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. Copyright of Bayerische Staatsbibliothe.