Medieval monsters – their real world origins

A/N: It was originally part of my uni essay and my teacher graded it very favorably.


Certain types of [Medieval] monsters have their origins in real world syndromes and illnesses. The Medieval surgeons would have classified the children suffering from these conditions as “monstrous births” – believed to happen as a result of demonic mating or intercourse during menstruation.


For example, the original source for giants is most certainly gigantism, also called giantism and acromegalia – with results in people between 7 feet and 9 feet tall (from 2.13 to 2.74 m tall). The condition is caused by a tumor on the brain or by overproduction of growth hormone. The tallest person in recorded history was 2.74 m tall. Bone fragments have been found that would estimate the prehistoric giant’s height at 3.50 m. The earliest known giant – in the sense of a person suffering from gigantism – was Maximinus Thrax, an Emperor of Rome in the 2 century AD. His height was estimated at 2.59 m.


In the same vein, the source for the pygmy are real world dwarves, that is – people suffering from a condition called dwarfism. The condition is defined as a disorder that causes adult height less than 147 cm (4 feet 10 inches, to use the imperial system). It is caused most often by bone growth abnormalities or by growth hormone deficiency. The shortest known person is 54.6 cm (21.5 inches) tall. The earliest known dwarf lived in ancient Egypt, around 2500 years BC. William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda of Flanders, is believed to have been either 4 feet 2 inches or 5 feet tall (127 or 150 cm), depending on the measurement.


Hermaphrodites, although their Medieval image is certainly borrowed from the Ancient Greek mythology, also belong to this category, since syndromes called hermaphroditism and pseudohermaphroditism exist. Real world hermaphrodites are nowadays frequently referred to as “intersex”. The main feature of those are ambiguous genitalia.


Two-headed monsters or those with multiple organs or limbs are probably derived from Siamese (conjoined) twins. There are two pairs of such twins known to live in the Medieval period and a pair is depicted in Nuremberg Chronicle from 1493. Two-headed Siamese twins are known as polycephalic. Multi-limbed twins are known as ischiopagus. A version with a parasitic head attached to another head (usually lethal to both twins) might have been the base for Janus, the two-faced god of the Romans. The myth of two heads having distinct personalities is strongly based in truth – the polycephalic twins often have wildly differing preferences and tastes.


A similar phenomena is known to occur in animals, resulting in dogs, cats, lambs or pigs with more than one head. A two-headed dog was probably the origin of the Cerberus. Two-headed snakes or turtles are the most common and two heads of a polycephalic snake are known to sometimes attack each other – this is probably the source of the monster whose heads attack one another or are in open conflict.


Other additional (supernumerary) body parts can occur. Among them are an additional breast, nipple, finger/toe or limb. This can account for monsters with three nipples or three breasts or multiple limbs. Polydactyly (more than 5 digits) has sometimes been interpreted as a sign of Devil. Rumors have it that Queen Anne Boleyn had 6 digits on her hand. There exists also a condition called diphallia, resulting in an individual possessing two penises. However, contrary to the depictions of monsters, those suffering from it are usually sterile – that is, incapable of siring children.


Webbed fingers (syndactyly) can account for multiple human-fish monster combinations.


On the other hand, people suffering from oligodactyly – that is, having less digits than 5 – are probably the basis for three-fingered monsters. There is even a tribe in Zimbabwe, named Vadoma, with a high occurrence of the disorder, thus lending some credence to the “monster race” theory.


Hypertrophic or atrophic body parts can result from congenital disorders. Also, shelah-na-gig “immodest woman” figurines from Medieval Ireland could be related to women suffering from hypertrophy of the genitals.


Werewolves can be explained as based on people with excessive hairiness (caused by hirsutism in women or hipertrichosis in both sexes). The terminal, congenital version is even dubbed “the werewolf syndrome” due to thick dark hair covering a person’s entire body.


A related human-animal (more precisely, human-lion) combination could be related to a rare condition known informally as lionitis. It is caused by excessive calcium deposits in the skull and causes the human face to look like a lion’s muzzle. There are only a few cases known and most of these died in childhood. The monster based on the condition is called a wemic and, depending on the portrayal, it is either a man with a lion’s face or a variation on the centaur motif – that is, it has the upper body of a man and a lower body of a lion.


The sirens – of the fish-woman variety, not the bird-woman one – are probably based on a rare syndrome called sirenomelia, wherein an infant’s legs are fused together and resemble a fish’s tail. The condition is about as rare as Siamese twins are.


Cyclops are certainly related to a rare condition called cyclopia. However, it is not sure if stillborn infants with the disorder were the source of the monsters or if the disorder was named after the monster. The disorder is extremely rare (1 in 16,000 live births, 1 in 2,500 stillborn), thus the confusion.


There exists a condition called diprosopus, which is related to the same gene causing cyclopia, but being its opposite. The individual affected has multiple facial features (eyes, mouths, ears etc). Most infants are stillborn, although there are three cases of children who survived the birth with the condition. The syndrome is also known to occur in cats, which are known as ‘Janus cats’. The syndrome is probably the base for monsters with two mouths, three eyes etc.


Monsters with overly large heads are probably derived from children suffering from hydrocephalus. The condition was described in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome; first suggestions for treatment are dated around 1000 AD in Arabia.


On the other hand, monsters with small heads could be based on microcephaly. The condition impairs the brain growth (due to lack of space) and is often accompanied by mental retardation and/or inability to speak, with could explain monsters that do not speak.


Other monsters with deformed face and/or mouth are probably based on children suffering from cleft lip or cleft palate, also known as harelip. The condition is quite common (1 in 700 births) and was certainly known in the Middle Ages. Cleft lip or palate cause speech impediments, and sometimes also hearing impairments. There is an account of a 10th century Viking named Thorgils Skarthi (Thorgil the harelipped), the founder of Scarborough in England.


The Habsburg lip (scientific name mandibular prognathism) is a condition in which the lower jaws outgrows the upper, causing the extended chin. The common name comes from the fact that the condition was prevalent in the Habsburg dynasty, first seen in Maximillian I (15th century), but also observed in the Mazovian Piasts.


Monsters incapable of speaking might also be derived from infants suffering from cri du chat (cat’s cry) syndrome. The incidence is 1 in 50,000 live births and most children lose the characteristic cat-like cry by the age of 2. However, other disorders are frequently associated with it.


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One response to “Medieval monsters – their real world origins

  1. Brilchan

    A very interesting article ! I learned a lot from it thank you


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