Historical essay
Fetal Remains, Knowledge, and the Making of Early Modern Monsters

Fetal Remains, Knowledge, and the Making of Early Modern Monsters

Jakob Burnham

In 1734, scholars at France’s Royal Academy of Medicine encountered something unique: a tiny, nearly perfect replica of a fetus “having more resemblance to a hideous monster than a human creature.”[1] The artifact, crafted by a bellfounder-turned-Jesuit in France’s South Asian colony of Pondichéry, depicted a “monstrous fetus” unlike any that the members of the Royal Academy had seen before. In an accompanying report, an anonymous author, also a member of the Jesuit order, claimed study of the replica would be “an infinite help to surgery.” The fetus’s numerous physical deformities presented an opportunity for medical research and study.[2] Though the author might have had an unconventional education—learning through practice and practical instruction rather than more formal education from traditional instruction at a university—he felt he was more than prepared to offer insights into the fetus. With the arrival of this “little monster,” this unnamed author saw an opportunity to gain recognition from the Royal Academy and show off his knowledge to earn a place in the globalizing French medical community. Ultimately, the anonymous author’s detailed articulation of the fetus’s many physical flaws produced a report that did not merely document the monstrous landscape of the deceased body but created it.

In the early modern period, monsters were everywhere. Cartographers sketched them on the edges of maps as both warnings and decoration.[3] People deemed “monstrous,” such as dwarves, were brought to European courts for lords and ladies to enjoy as spectacles and curiosities. Any number of people might find themselves the subject of such entertainment.[4] The Gonzales family, for example, found themselves thrust into the spotlight at multiple European royal courts. The family’s genetic hypertrichosis marked them as monsters of a different kind.[5] On the continent, so-called “monsters” were ubiquitous.

Painting of a woman with hypertrichosis.
A portrait of the (in)famous “hairy girl” Antoinette Gonzales, who traveled around the courts of Europe as a spectacle. (The Portrait of Antoinette Gonzales by Lavinia Fontana, 1585. Courtesy Wikimedia)

For the early moderns, anything that diverged from the norm could be monstrous. As European empires expanded, both in the New World and in the East Indies, new forms of monstrosity emerged.[6] When colonists and global travelers encountered the unexpected, they worked to make sense of it. In medical contexts, scholars commonly did so through physical examination and attendant speculation. Much to the anonymous French Jesuit’s dismay, he could not perform a full autopsy of the fetal body—something he hoped would “reveal the mechanisms nature used to make” this “dear fetus.”[7] Instead, he had to use what was available to him and drew upon the circumstances of conception and the visible physicality to create his monster.

According to the author, the origins of the fetus’s monstrosity lay in the “disruptions that Nature caused.”[8] As a product of the burgeoning Enlightenment and medical revolution of the eighteenth century, a so-called fetal monstrosity was no longer seen primarily as the physical manifestation of punishment from God. The author instead proposed circumstantial explanations for the fetus’s faults. Though he leveled no singular accusation, the author implied an almost domino effect of circumstances surrounding the conception to explain the origins of the fetus’s malformations. First, the author argued that the climate in this part of India was “very hot…and it rain[ed] very rarely” resulting in low-quality and nonnutritive food.[9] Inhabitants of the land were therefore “weak” and prone to “several unfortunate sicknesses, such as epilepsy, rickets, consumptions, ‘the doldrums,’ catalepsy, paralysis, and others.”[10] Indeed, the thirty-year-old mother of the “monstrous fetus” suffered from periodic epilepsy. Further, this affliction, unfortunately, had resulted in particularly violent circumstances of conception. During a severe epileptic attack, a man had entered the mother’s home and “abused her at the height of her illness.” resulting in a “costly” pregnancy.[11] After eight-and-a-half months, the pregnancy ended with a “very difficult” delivery of a still born girl.

Despite the violent and tragic circumstances of the fetus’s conception, the anonymous Jesuit author of the study did not seem to care much about what caused the fetus’s development abnormalities. Rather, his attention was fixed on the realities of the birth defects, offering vivid illustrations that exemplified the belief that physical difference was a marvel. The idea was widespread among early modern physicians. For the unnamed medical scholar in Pondichéry, a detailed description of the figure’s body and anatomical specifics indicated the marks of the monstrous.

They were marks that, according to the report’s anonymous author, could only be truly understood in the context of sufficient medical knowledge – and so, he showcased his: from a vignette about the skull’s malformation because of a “lack of brain, which is missing entirely” to the identification of the “most remarkable” sack of internal organs that had “rupture[d]” the child’s side from the right clavicle to the fifth true rib.[12] The thoroughness of the author’s description—ranging from the color of the liver to the characteristics of the external genitalia, with the attending measurements for reference—was designed to showcase the breadth of his expertise and knowledge of the matters of the body.

Painting of a cabinet displaying medical specimens.
Cabinets of Curiosities were common in the early modern period as locations to store objects that fell beyond the bounds of conventional definition. (Le Cabinet de Curiosités, Domenico Remps, 1690. Courtesy Wikimedia)

The anonymous Jesuit author used his knowledge to delineate the “natural” monstrosities from the man-made ones. The baby had been preserved in a specimen jar of sorts following its birth. To place the fetal remains on display–thereby continuing the long tradition of spectacle associated with the monstrous– the author produced his own deformations of the body. He was careful to point out which deformities resulted well after the delivery of the fetus. For example, the replica had bowed legs, the result not of a birth defect but rather from the fetus’s initial placement in a “too short vase.”[13]

Records from Pondichéry (and the rest of the early modern world) describe many fetal remains bearing some form of defect, but few earned the moniker of “monster.”[14] Only through the author’s careful attention to this fetus’s defects as “monstrous” does an understanding of the early modern conception develop. The author’s decision to send a full written report in addition to the replica of the artificial fetus back to the Royal Academy highlights the self-serving nature of his work. The goal of the report was not to identify why the fetus was stillborn, or malformed, but to throw his own skill as a physician and anatomist into sharp relief against the backdrop of the monstrous body. His efforts highlight that early modern monsters were not born, but made.


  1. Though the artifact itself has not survived to present day, the detailed description that accompanied the physical object has been preserved in Archives de la Société Royale de Médicine (henceforth, SRM)/Carton 182/Dossier 4, ff. 1-13, Anonyme, Mémoire Remarquable d’un enfant, d’une figure monstrueuse, né à Pondichéry dans les indes orientales à la côte de Coromandel dans l’empire du Mogol (1734).
  2. The use of anatomical replicas as medical tools and instruments of learning seriously emerged in the eighteenth century. Angélique du Coudray’s “The Machine” – a life-sized obstetrical mannequin used to teach birthing methods – gained particular renown as did those Clemente Susini’s colorful wax anatomical models in the later half of the eighteenth century.
  3. Surekha Davies’s Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters, Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories 24 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), is an exemplar in the historical “monster making” in the Renaissance.
  4. On the uses and abuses of “monsters” in early modern courts, see Touba Ghadessi, Portraits of Human Monsters in the Renaissance: Dwarves, Hirsutes, and Castrati as Idealized Anatomical Anomalies (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2018).
  5. For more on this family, see Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
  6. Londa Schiebinger, “Nature’s Unruly Body,” in Regimes of Description: In the Archive of the Eighteenth Century, ed. John B. Bender and Michael Marrinan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 27–28.
  7. SRM/182/4, ff.10.
  8. SRM/182/4, ff.10.
  9. SRM/182/4, ff. 3.
  10. SRM/182/4, ff. 3-4.
  11. SRM/182/4, ff. 4.
  12. SRM/182/4, ff. 9.
  13. SRM/182/4, ff.13.
  14. For example, some fetal remains found in 1734 were said to be “rotted” due to disease, likely venereal given the report’s citation of the mother as a woman of “mauvaise vie,” but these remains were never “monstrous.” France, Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, INDE, Série P, 024, ff. 241-242.

Featured image: Excerpt from Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) depicting supposed “monstrous births” as Omens. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Jakob Burnham is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. His dissertation, “Producing Pondichéry: Notaries, Social Lives, and Urban Development in French India, 1699-1757,” examines the history of French settlements on the Indian subcontinent. By analyzing the social practices of daily life in French India using archives in France, England, India, the US, and Réunion, he argues for the centrality of domestic economies to French colonization across the Indian Ocean. While Writer-in-residence, he will continue to explore how these same archives can uncover dynamic questions about the histories of race, gender, and medicine in the eighteenth-century Indian Ocean World.

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