Marvels and wonders

Marvels and wonders. Early modern European writers used the terms maravilla or preguntarse to refer to a well-defined body of unusual phenomena that included things such as comets, volcanoes, conjoined twins, magnets, rains of stone, and petrifying springs. These phenomena, a grouping inherited from medieval sources, lay between the commonplace and the absolutely miraculous. Unlike commonplace objects, they were rare and often exotic, and some had remarkable properties, such as the attractive powers of the magnet or the ability of the unicorn horn to neutralize poison. Unlike miracles, they were understood to be the product of natural causes, although the nature of those causes and their precise combination was difficult to comprehend. What such phenomena had in common was their ability to produce wonder in their observers, a kind of amazement that shaded into pleasure or fear.

The years around 1500 saw an explosion of interest in wonders among people at every level of European society. This new fascination took various forms. Certain kinds of marvels—notably monstrous births, such as conjoined twins, and celestial apparitions, such as comets—were taken to be prodigies or omens that were intimations of divine displeasure at particular moral behaviors or political and religious positions. Viewed in this light, marvels became a salient feature of the confessional polemics unleashed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. At the same time, however, wonders could have strong positive associations, and the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw the appearance of a widespread appreciation of marvels as sources of pleasure and delight. While parasitic twins, armless calligraphers, and two-headed pigs displayed themselves, or were displayed, in taverns, fairs, and markets, as well in the courts of Europe, the wealthy and the learned surrounded themselves with natural wonders, such as the dried bodies of mermaids or birds of paradise, and marvels of human ingenuity, such as a cherrystone carved with hundreds of tiny faces. Although only princes could afford the most precious of wonders, such as jeweled automata or nautilus shells mounted in gold, some of the earliest and most enthusiastic collectors of natural wonders were apothecaries and medical men, who hoped to explore and exploit their healing powers.

In addition to being evocative and powerful objects, wonders were also good to think with, and they played an important role in the early modern project to produce a reformed science of nature. Sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century philosophers sought to offer new rational explanations for natural marvels, attributing these to, among other things, planetary influences, subtle vapors, and the power of the human imagination to shape the material world. Increasingly, however, it became clear that attempts of this sort were doomed to failure and that more dramatic reform was called for—reform in which wonders nonetheless had an important part to play. As the English philosopher Francis Bacon argued, marvelous phenomena served both a critical and a constructive role; defying existing explanatory categories, they underscored the total inadequacy of the old science, while they pointed toward something new. Buoyed by this vision, members of the newly founded scientific societies of the mid- to later seventeenth century, the French Royal Academy of Sciences and, especially, the Royal Society of London, collected observations of extraordinary phenomena, from two-headed calves to meteorite showers.

In the end, however, wonders gradually lost their aesthetic appeal and their intellectual cachet, at least in the minds of the cultivated. In part, this was because it proved impractical to construct a new science on the basis of the unique and the bizarre.
Philosophers found themselves increasingly attracted to a vision of the natural order as bound tightly to its divine creator and characterized by simplicity and economy, and by uniform and unbreakable natural laws; such a vision rendered extraordinary phenomena misleading or irrelevant. Finally, the learned and the powerful began to connect the fascination with wonders, which had gripped all levels of European society, with a range of undesirable cultural movements associated with the vulgar: political disorder, religious enthusiasm, and tasteless naïveté. Eighteenth-century politicians, divines, and philosophers rejected wonders as violations of the principles of order, regularity, and decorum that underpinned Enlightenment ideals.

Until recently, these enlightened values and the view of the natural order they reflected so permeated Western intellectual culture that well into the later twentieth century wonders were seen as peripheral—even opposed to—rational attempts to understand the natural order. The marvels that figured so prominently in early modern art and literature were tactfully ignored by historians or interpreted as "medieval" holdovers. In the last twenty-five years, however, scholars have begun to focus their attention on the wonders that so preoccupied the entire population of early modern Europe, revealing a complex and differentiated culture of the marvelous that reflected some of the deepest values of that world.