Once, while I was teaching at a summer program for gifted high school students, I was called with some other faculty members into the office of the director, a biology professor, to listen to a series of increasingly importunate messages from a local morning radio show. Someone had found a two-headed toad in his yard and the hosts wanted to interview a biologist about it. But since their approach was less Nature than Weekly World News (“C’mon, doc, this is weeeeird stuff! What’s next? Two-headed snakes? Two-headed turtles? Two-headed babies?”), the director declined to comment on a potential polycephalic apocalypse.
I was reminded of this incident while cataloging our copy of an incunable edition of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses printed in Bologna by Benedetto Faelli on August 1, 1500 (Goff A-938). On a blank leaf at the end of the volume are two handwritten notes in Latin, one dated November 13, 1513, and the other March 2, 1515, describing the appearance of a pair of conjoined twins in Rome and Geneva. The first note, in a very clear humanist hand, tells us that:
there was brought from Spain to Rome a twelve-year-old French boy bearing in his chest a monster in the form of a perfect little boy, headless but with very thin arms without hands, his head hidden within the boy’s chest and hanging down by a small neck from the chest of the same, with separate bodies, their bellies cleaving together but the feet scarcely touching the boy’s knees. And, strange to say, the boy eliminates together with the monster and urinates, and food provides each of them with nourishment. And if something touched the monster, the boy immediately felt it. (… puer natione Gallus annoru[m] xij Monstrum in pectore gerens ad forma[m] perfecti pueruli acephali brachijs tamen gracillimis sine manibus ostendentis caput suum intra pectus pueri condidisse et per paruum collum a pectore ip[s]ius dependere diuisis corporibus, ventribus inter se coherentibus genua pueri uix pedibus attingentis. Quodq[ue] mirum dictu est puer una cum monstro egerit, mingitq[ue], tamq[ue] cibo unius utriq[ue] alimenta prestentur. Et si quid monstrum tetigerit, puer statim sentit.)
The author insists that this is no popular tale (vulgaris fabula) but that many trustworthy men in Rome as well as France and Spain can attest to its veracity.
The second note, in a more crabbed script, supplies the “monster-bearing youth” (adolescens monstrifer) with a name, Jaquet Floquet, and seems to be the account of an eye-witness to his visit to Geneva. The author writes in the first person to confirm the preceding note’s description of the twins, with two corrections: “The monster actually issues from the [boy’s] stomach, not the chest; nor does [the monster] eliminate, lacking an anus, but nevertheless urinates and has a male member” (nam monstrum ex stomaco : non ex pectore exit : nec egerit deficiente ano : mingit t[ame]n : et membrum virile habet). Furthermore, the dependent twin now spends most of the time with its legs curled up and “many believe that the still-growing monster does not have its accustomed nourishment, and because of this perhaps portends a shorter life for the monster-bearing [youth]” (pleriq[ue] credunt : [qui]a monstrum adhuc crescens no[n] h[ab]eat solitum nutrime[n]tum : et ob hoc forte monstrifero breuiore[m] vita[m] portendit). Floquet himself is described as pale and gloomy but well-spoken and modest “and as far as I could judge he seems to be about 16 years old” (et quantum potui considerare circiter etatis anno[rum] xvj videtur).
The tone of these notes could not be further from that of those fervid voicemails … or that of the numerous sixteenth-century works in which monstrous human and animal births were interpreted as “prodigies … signs of human sin and the righteous wrath of God” (Daston and Park 175). A monster is a warning (monstrum < monitum), an etymological commonplace that goes all the way back to Augustine (De civitate Dei 21.8) and Isidore (Etymologiarum 11.3) and takes on new life in the literature of the Reformation. Not ten years after Jaquet Floquet was observed by our note-takers, Philipp Melanchthon and Martin Luther published their influential Deutung Papstesels zu Rom und Mönchkalbs zu Freiberg funden (Wittenberg: Johann Rhau-Grunenberg, 1523), a denunciation of the ills visited on the church by popes and monks, as symbolized by the deformities of a calf born with a cowled neck and a chimerical “Pope-ass.” In the subsequent monstrous visions of both Protestant and Catholic polemicists, “[p]rodigies were not only specific punishments for particular sins but they also announced greater punishments to come — war, famine, and perhaps even the end of the world. This proliferation of monsters presaged a dark future explained by God’s wrath at the increase of wickedness on earth” (Davidson 41). But even though our first note records the monster-bearing boy’s arrival in the first year of the pontificate of Leo X, it makes no allegorical connection between the two, while in the second note the monster’s behavior portends no more than perhaps the early death of his twin.
Many sixteenth-century monsters, in fact, were not perceived as omens but as sports of nature. Beginning in the late fourteenth century, physicians writing on embryology developed a body of literature that attributed monstrous births to “standard causal categories” such as “an excess or defect of matter (for example, giants, dwarfs, conjoined twins, people with missing or supernumerary limbs); those produced by the mother’s imagination (for example, hairy children); and those caused with the contributions of mother and father were almost evenly balanced (hermaphrodites and people of unstable sex)” (Daston and Park 192). Without a prodigious context (e.g. war, famine, pestilence, confessional division) to drive their interpretation, such persons might be regarded “as manifestations of the playfulness of nature or, at worst, the vagaries of chance” (ibid.). Records of their exhibition, like Floquet’s, often emphasized their anatomical and behavioral peculiarities as wonders in themselves, a “new spectacle of Nature,” as the sixteenth-century French surgeon Ambroise Paré put it (quoted in Bates 145). After death, monsters might be subject to autopsy — A.W. Bates notes that “[t]he principal application of the autopsy to monstrous births in Europe was in the investigation of double monsters, to help solve the problem of one-in-two” [i.e. whether a set of conjoined twins constituted one person or two, a question of both scientific and theological interest1] (155) — or preservation in cabinets of curiosities “as edifying and pleasurable spectacles” (Daston and Park 193).
The exposition of a monster — as prodigy or spectacle, whether dead or alive — was common and lucrative. “For the poor there was a strong financial incentive to exhibit monsters,” writes Bates, “so much so that the birth of a monster could be considered a blessing for the parents” (145). Though most monsters were promoted locally, a tour like Floquet’s offered the potential for larger audiences and greater returns, both in patronage and money. The Tenerife-born Petrus Gonsalvus, for example, was brought as a child to the court of Henry II of France where his hypertrichosis earned him an education and later a wife and a courtier’s position, first under Henry and later with Margaret of Parma (Daston and Park 194). Less exalted spectators might be charged to see the monster, like the mid-sixteenth-century nun from Modena whose father “paid a foreigner from Germany or France one bolognino for each of us in the nunnery” to view “an embalmed dead male baby in a box, who appeared to have two child’s faces, and for the rest a single body, very beautiful to see and of good complexion — a wonderful thing” (quoted in Daston and Park 149), or simply be moved to charity. Floquet is said in the first note to be “making a great profit” (magnum qu[a]estum facientem) in Rome and the second agrees that he traveled through various Italian cities to Geneva “for profit” (questus causa). The apothecary and diarist Luca Landucci of Florence appears to record another, equally remunerative appearance by Floquet in that city:
[On this day, the 20th of October 1513], a Spaniard came to Florence, who had with him a boy of about thirteen, a kind of monstrosity, whom he went round showing everywhere, gaining much money. He had another creature coming out of his body, who had his head inside the boy’s body, with his legs and his genitals and part of his body hanging outside. [The boy] grew together with his smaller brother and urinated with him, and he did not seem greatly bothered by him. (E a dì 20 d’ottobre 1513, venne in Firenze uno spagniuolo el quale aveva seco un garzonetto di circa 13 anni, el qual garzonetto era nato con questa voglia, o vogli dire mostro, el quale andava mostrando per la città e guadagnava molti danari; el quale gli usciva del corpo una altra creatura che aveva el capo in corpo suo e guori pendevano le ganbe colla natura sua e parte del corpo, el quale cresceva come el garzonetto, e orinava col detto mostro, e non dava molto affanno al garzone) (Landucci 343; trans. in Daston and Park 190)
Daston and Park caution that “[i]t is hard to determine from chroniclers’ and diarists’ fragmentary and often laconic references whether the people who viewed such monsters responded to them with pleasure or fright. The fact that Landucci, who underscored the prodigious nature of all the other monsters whose birth he registered, made no such reference to the boy displayed in Florence suggests that he considered this case different and less threatening than the rest” (190) — an attitude perhaps also reflected in these notes. They are followed by two other texts in the same or similar hands, the first a parallel transcription and edition of the Latin will of Sempronius Lucidanus2 with brief notes on a legal issue it raises, the second a transcription of two Latin verses associated with Olybius’s lamp, followed by the text of a letter purportedly written by the Italian humanist Francesco Maturanzio (d. 1518) to a friend regarding its discovery.3 Together they are a testament to the range of subjects which might pique the intellectual curiosity of an early sixteenth-century humanist.
Floquet’s ultimate fate is, as far as I have been able to determine, unrecorded, but perhaps now that his name and more of his itinerary have been established, further witnesses to his life will emerge. Ironically, he and his brother join figures such as Gonsalvus and, in the following century, conjoined twins Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo as known historical quantities, while his Genevan chronicler remains anonymous, having neglected to inscribe his own name in his book.
Thanks to Rachel Rio-Gray for her humanist Latin consultation.
1Bates notes that “the classical solution, derived from Aristotle, was that where there was one heart there was one child,” the heart being considered the seat of the soul (155). But in Guido de Monte Rocherii’s Manipulus Curatorum, an immensely popular handbook for parish priests from the mid-14th through the mid-16th centuries, the priest is advised to count heads (i.e. brains) in order to determine whether a set of conjoined twins requires one baptism or two (1.2.5). The liver, too, was considered a possible locus for the soul, so that the autopsy of a pair of conjoined twins born in Hispaniola in 1533 was careful to note that a groove separated this, their one shared organ, into two distinct lobes, justifying the conditional baptism received by the second twin (Bates 154-155).
2Cf. Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Firenze Ms. Palatino 270, contents recorded in I Codici Palatini della R. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, v. 1, fasc. 1 (Rome: Presso i Principali Librai, 1885), p. 457.
3Cf. Corpus Inscriptionarum Latinarum V, pt. I, p. 22*, no. 194*.
Bates, A. W. Emblematic Monsters: Unnatural Conceptions and Deformed Births in Early Modern Europe. New York: Rodopi, 2005.
Davidson, Arnold I. “The Horror of Monsters.” The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals and Machines. Ed. James Sheehan and Morton Sosna. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1991. 36-65.
Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.
Landucci, Luca. Diario fiorentino dal 1450 al 1516, continuato da un anonimo fino al 1542. Firenze: Sansoni, 1985.
Liz Broadwell has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania and catalogs rare books in the Special Collections Processing Center.