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Almut Höfert

Miracles, Marvels and Monsters in the Middle Ages

ISBN: 978-3-906817-06-4
DOI: 10.13098/infoclio.ch-lb-0002


Then as now, medieval wonders were highly entertaining. In addition, on closer inspection they open our eyes to various aspects of medieval History: wonder analyses are always also societal analyses. In a world that thought of itself as being created and led by God, ultimately all wonders were seen as divine works. At the same time a distinction was made between divine wonder working with a direct relation to human action and divine wonders affecting nature in a general manner. In total medieval wonders can be divided into two big main groups: Wonders performed by God either directly or after the intercession of saints were primarily considered to be miracles. The hundreds of thousands of miracles worked by saints transmitted to us changed during the course of the Middle Ages and always had a political function too, since they provided dynasties, bishops, monasteries and cities with religious legitimacy. Marvels, on the other hand, were wonders of nature, such as unusual and fabulous beings like dragons or wondrous people: Humans with dog heads, headless people with a face on their chest, hermaphrodites and others. These legendary people were identified as monsters in the Middle Ages. They lived far away in Africa and Asia. But a single miracle birth was also considered a monstrosity, “monstrating” God’s anger about human sins. During the 15th and 16th century interest in miracle births, on which early prints reported, increased rapidly. These monsters caused horror, amazement and fascination. Following the medieval debate scholars discussed which regularities of nature could be formulated based on these unusual occurrences. Eventually, in the 19th and 20th century, the criminal character appeared as monster and the monster became a popular protagonist in literature and film. The history of wonders and monsters is therefore in many cases entangled and shows respectively, which order a society formulated for itself.