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‘Prodigious Histories: Images of disasters in early modern wonder books’

Speaker: Jennifer Spinks (Melbourne)

25.06.2012, 6 pm to 8 pm

Darmstadt: Technische Universität, Robert Piloty-Gebäude, Hochschulstraße 10, Raum S2-02 C 205.

The ‘wonder book’ emerged as a distinct genre in the second half of the sixteenth century. These books presented extraordinary events intended to inspire fear, awe, and curiosity, and were essentially compendia of prodigious disasters and wonders: earthquakes, floods and plagues, meteorological signs, monstrous births, and other dramatic and diverting phenomena. Many of these books brought together events from antiquity and from the bible with scenes from the contemporary, sixteenth-centry world. They were written by humanists, physicians, and theologians, and drew upon shorter pamphlets and broadsheets that circulated widely in Reformation Europe. Protestant and Catholic authors including Pierre Boaistuau, Konrad Lycosthenes, Job Fincel, and François de Belleforest promoted debates on issues including the correct interpretation of God´s plans for the world, and the natural yet simultaneously supernatural meaning of wondrous and terrible signs. While wonder books were written and published in many parts of Europe, they most commonly appeared in German- and French-speaking lands, and were intimately connected to the upheavals of religious change and conflict sweeping those areas. Wonder books provide a picture of a world in which the number of disastrous and wondrous events was believed to be increasing, and the Last Days were at hand. 

These books were often richly illustrated with graphically vigorous scenes that are today little known. Many contained woodcut images created by anonymous artists who seem to have been closely guided by the books´authors to prepare scenes that accentuated the drama and horror of the natural world in disarray. This lecture will reflect upon the role of sixteenth-century visual print culture, and in particular book illustrations, in allowing representations and interpretations of specific disastrous events to be re-used and recycled, sometimes for different - and indeed polemical - purposes, and by different religious groups. It will also explore the intersection of wondrous signs and disastrous events, but could explicitly ported disasters, and were intimately connected to disasters both in conceptual terms and as part of the visual colture of the era.

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