In Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo (1802–1885) wrote, “the book will kill the edifice.” Spoken by Archdeacon Claude Frollo, this phrase signified the view that the Renaissance was “that setting sun we mistake for a dawn.” Understood as a revolution in tectonics away from the organic and toward the classical, the Renaissance had separated sculpture, painting, and architecture—carved and parceled them out from what was formerly a single edifice of Gothic construction. The mechanism? Printing. Whereas Gothic architecture had reflected and affirmed the entire intellectual investment of society, the various arts and sciences were now contained in books.
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.