Visual Epistemology and a Short History of the Monstrous Races

As nations brace to firm up their borders in 2017, a short history of people who inhabited the periphery reminds us of the role boundaries played in an earlier era of globalization. The early woodcuts that helped define this periphery offer a window into the history of knowledge about the Other and also tell us something about the early stages of visual epistemology.

Throughout antiquity and the middle ages, a lively band of monsters lived along the edge of the known world. While discrediting the humanity of certain specimens of mankind has a venerable tradition in the history of othering, at some point, the monstrous assumed human form. In the sixteenth century, temporary visas were issued to these monstrous races and they became human. We have something to learn from the scrutiny generated by this close-up view, a relativism almost forgotten in contemporary treatment of outsiders. The visualization of the Other helped to stabilize subjects for investigation and gave rise to new knowledge structures.

The idea of the Marvels of the East, the term by which monsters were collectively known, has been enshrined since antiquity. Among the marvelous races were blemmyes, or races of no-neck peoples with eyes and noses positioned in their chests; dog-headed races called cynocephali; and the upside-down, single-footed inhabitants of the Antipodes shown here, the sciapods. The sciapod’s home on the opposite side of the equator inspired artists to depict him as literally inverted; this reinforced the premise that peoples outside the civilized center inhabited a world turned upside down.

Sciapod_Mandeville Hupff Strasbourg crop Göttingen
Ethiopian Sciapod in European Dress. Source: Johannes Montevilla, Der wyt farende Ritter (Straßburg, 1501), with the kind permission of Göttingen State and University Library, 4 ITIN I, 2277 RARA, fol G 2r.

Because these marvels provided a useful and workable framework for the taxonomy of otherness, early Christian writers debated their existence and then moralized their nature. St. Augustine’s treatment of the marvelous races in The City of God firmly trounced questions about their actual existence by pointing out that aberrations of nature could also be found among the human races. Integrating the marvels into the family tree of Noah, the pedigree to which early modern Europeans linked their own ancestry, Augustine thus provided a human genealogy for the monsters. These monsters were then quickly incorporated into reports of embassies to convert far-flung populations; monstrous Others presented ready-made boogeymen awaiting the Gospel.

The monstrous races soon settled into comfortable real estate on the rim of the known world and could be spotted in medieval maps, bestiaries, and encyclopedias, in which they were catalogued and, in some respects, humanized. Here they appeared mostly naked but in recognizable forms, except with a few kinks, such as webbed feet or extra-large ears. For the most part, they were assigned to spots on the map to which most European readers had not traveled, such as India, Ethiopia, and Asia. As the monsters edged closer to Europe, attempts to familiarize them threatened the classical us–them paradigm. A fourteenth-century French moralization of Thomas of Cantimpré’s Liber de monstruosis homibus turned the blemmyes, once the mark of abject otherness, into greedy lawyers whose stomachs were padded by gouging clients.[1] Monsters were truly brought into the fold, however, when they started to dress like their readers: the travels of Sir John Mandeville, printed in Strasbourg circa 1500, shows a reclining sciapod wearing a Flemish costume, complete with a dagger and, perhaps more importantly, a purse.[2]

As Reformation and nationalistic thinking redrew the map of early modern peoples, the pendulum of tolerance made wide swings that still mark the traces of humankind’s thinking about otherness. The early modern visual tradition of marvels reminds us of people’s surprising capacity to selectively absorb the Other. But it can also remind us of the kind of work that printed illustrations did to shape these paradigms. I have argued elsewhere that the beginning of analytical thinking about human difference was constituted in the space of print, such as when the South German artist Hans Burgkmair made careful comparisons of African and Asian peoples and their customs in a 1508 woodcut frieze. Although his images were a far cry from “accurate,” Burgkmair pinpointed a modular visual format that enabled more systematic comparisons of non-European peoples than the travel literature that provided the raw data.[3] This modular format enjoyed a robust afterlife in costume books and map margins. Another important milestone in the structure of ethnographic analysis has been located by Han Vermeulen who finds its start in Russian sponsored fact-finding missions originating in eighteenth-century Göttingen—amateur efforts and questionnaires that ultimately suggested comparative models for considering human difference.[4] These structural epistemic gestures underlay the history of analytical thinking about otherness.

New fields of empirical investigation in the sixteenth century, such as cosmography and physiognomy, were increasingly constituted as visual fields as they were updated and published in vernaculars. These visualized and vernacular printings reworked many ancient genres into contemporary how-to manuals. Printed illustrations of amateur astronomy in cosmographies, as well as profiles and foreheads in physiognomies, aimed to endow vernacular man with a sharpened sense of visual acuity.[5] Sixteenth century printed illustration shows us the principles by which early modern data was collected and organized. As books’ themes were increasingly synopsized by images, that pictorial data encouraged users to experience the world visually. Considering the parameters of early modern illustration, both their conventional properties as well as their increased confidence that empirical experience could be reflected in images, can illuminate aspects of visual epistemology.

Stephanie Leitch is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History, Florida State University.


  1. Alfons Hilka, “Eine altfranzoesische moralisierende Bearbeitung des ‘Liber de monstruosis hominibus Orientis,’ aus Thomas von Cantimpré, ‘de Naturis rerum’ (Paris, BNF 15106),” Abhandlungen der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philologisch–historische Klasse, 1894, 15–16.
  2. John Mandeville, Johannes Monteuilla || Der Wytfarende Ritter ||, (Gedruckt vnd vollendt durch Mathis hüfuff/ Jn … || Straßburg … M.CCCCC. vnd ein iar.|| vff montag nach vnser lieben Frowen tag sye zů hymel fůre.||) (Straßburg: Hupfuff, Matthias, 1501) G II, r.
  3. Stephanie Leitch, Mapping Ethnography in Early Modern Germany: New Worlds in Print Culture (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  4. Han F. Vermeulen, Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
  5. Stephanie Leitch, “Visual Acuity and the Physiognomer’s Art of Observation,” Oxford Art Journal 38, no. 2 (2015): 187–206, doi:10.1093/oxartj/kcv010; and idem, Vernacular Viewing: the Art of Observation in the Early Modern Print (forthcoming).
Suggested citation: Stephanie Leitch, “Visual Epistemology and a Short History of the Monstrous Races,” History of Knowledge, June 3, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/06/03/visual-epistemology-and-a-short-history-of-the-monstrous-races/.