Of a Monstrous Child is an essay by Michel de Montaigne. He adopts an exploratory, innovative style; including personal anecdotes, experiences, thoughts, and musings. In the true spirit of the Renaissance, his arguments are supported with quotations from ancient Greek, Latin, and Italian texts.
Montaigne recounts a recent encounter of his; where he saw two men and a nurse exhibiting a child to make some money out of its “strangeness.” It was not uncommon at the time, to exhibit abnormal creatures in public. It is apparent to the modern reader that Montaigne is describing Siamese twins, exhibited for their “strangeness” in order to earn some money. He says that the child was fourteen months old and appeared to be like other children in all respects, except for the fact that he was conjoined with another child, both having a single head. One of his arms was broken. Montaigne describes, in great detail and with complete objectivity, the physical features of these Siamese/conjoined twins. He then digresses to make a political comment on the contemporary scenario in France, saying that this unusual child could be viewed as an allegorical representation, where the king is the single head; managing multiple and diverse affairs or tensions between Catholics and Protestants under him, represented by the two bodies. However, he quickly dismisses the comparison as a conjecture.
Montaigne describes another strange human; a shepherd that he saw at Medoc, who was about thirty-two years of age and had no genital parts, but three holes in their place from which he passed urine. Montaigne says that the man had a beard and liking for women. It is apparent that he is describing a biological anomaly.
Describing both these conventionally strange creatures, Montaigne makes a statement that what we call monstrous is not so. Among God’s creations, born from his all- encompassing wisdom, multiple and infinite forms are possible. It may be simply beyond our common comprehension to understand this, but there are many different forms that exist in relation to one another. He further adds that everything that proceeds from God’s wisdom is good, orderly, and common, but humans are unable to comprehend God’s design and arrangement.
He makes a distinction between nature and custom to say that these monstrous creatures are not creatures against nature, but only against custom, though we often confuse the two out of our habit. Montaigne reiterates that there is nothing in the world that is against nature. Humans need to understand that simply because what they see is strange or unusual, it doesn’t imply that it is unnatural.
While the child is understood in terms of excess (a single head, with two bodies), the shepherd is defined by a lack (of genital parts). Both are nonetheless considered monstrous, in conventional terms. Hidden under clothes, the shepherd’s “strangeness” is not visible as a spectacle, unlike the child’s that is evident. On the outside, the shepherd looks like a man (with a beard) but his desire for women (another mark of conventional virility or masculinity) is unseen by the naked eye.
As mentioned earlier, the cultural practice of exhibiting creatures like Siamese twins or other biological anomalies was popular in Europe during this time. They were exhibited as spectacles in fairs and public gatherings. Montaigne, on the other hand, refuses to see the people he mentions in this essay as biological anomalies. They are simply understood to be natural creatures. By describing the child in cold, objective terms, Montaigne limits other interpretations. He refuses interpretation altogether, treating strangeness as a biological fact. In the process, he recognizes the limits of human knowledge, as a skeptical philosopher. Montaigne refuses to accept these humans as unnatural. He views them from a religious perspective, as god’s creations. They may be different but they are as much a part of the divine as any other creature.
Further, Montaigne seems to be far ahead of his times, as he invites compassion for a person of indiscriminate gender. Montaigne, as a humanist and a Christian, defines these creatures as natural and equal to other creations of god. The “strangeness” of these creatures is nullified. Montaigne brings in the Christian perspective, giving them a dignity denied by general perception. The limits of human knowledge do not allow us to comprehend strangeness, and we tend to misunderstand the same.