Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The “wonders,” in WONDERS AND THE ORDER OF NATURE, 1150-1750 denote the rare, the mysterious, and the real (or at least widely believed to be real) objects of nature which had fascinated members of the elite culture of Western Europe for six centuries. The category of wonders was never static. Magnets and African pygmies remained wonders throughout the period, but other objects ceased being wonders because they had became too common (ostrich eggs) or had been explained by science (comets). Some of the monstrous human races of Asia and Africa proved to be non-existent, and therefore ceased to be thought of as wonders. Other objects, like the louse, were added to the category of wonders when a new technology—the microscope—revealed the marvels that had previously been hidden from the human eye. Monstrous births, such as conjoined twins, once considered horrors, eventually were perceived as wonders in response to changing cultural circumstances. The objects of wonder were collected by princes and bishops alike and proudly exhibited to awe visitors. By the Age of the Enlightenment, however, wonders had become the concern of the vulgar rather than the cultural elite. Wonders are still part of Western culture, but now tabloid newspapers, not scientific journals, announce them.

In this well-documented and well-illustrated study, Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park make a major contribution to readers understanding of what has been a comparatively neglected aspect of European intellectual history. They demonstrate that what had long been viewed as a peripheral aspect of European thought was part of the mainstream of European intellectual history.