New U of T exhibit shows what classic tales of monsters can teach us today

A new exhibit at the University of Toronto explores why monster stories have been so popular through the ages

De Monstris, a new exhibit on monsters, is on at U of T until Dec. 21

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1977 edition). (Sue Goodspeed (CBC))

David Fernandez has spent the past five years learning about something that has a special connection with Halloween but isn't often the subject of serious inquiry these days: monsters and why they scare us.

The rare-book librarian at the University of Toronto's  Thomas Fisher book library has a new exhibit called De Monstris, which takes a detailed look at how modern concepts of monsters and monstrosities developed over the past 800 years.

David Fernandez, a rare-book librarian at the University of Toronto. (Sue Goodspeed (CBC))

"I think in a way we have trivialized them and they have lost some of the value of their history," Fernandez argues.

"Monsters evoke our most basic of emotions like fear, fascination or disgust."

One of Fernandez's favourite books is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which was first published 200 years ago. His exhibit features a rare 1831 edition, which contains the first illustrated version of the monster. He's depicted just after he's been brought to life, when the man who created him, Victor Frankenstein, flees the room in fear.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1831 edition). (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Fernandez thinks the story's message about pushing the limits of science still resonates with today's audiences.

"It is about the warnings of using technology without thinking of the ethics or limits of technology, and how they will and can affect humans and how we see the world."

He says throughout history, monsters were also used to shape how humans saw the world.

During the Protestant revolution, monsters were used as propaganda, with critics of the Catholic church depicting Rome as a type of monster, using the same kind of exaggerations we might find in today's political cartoons.

Monster of Rome from Image of the Papacy (1545). (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

The exhibit also features a section on so-called human monstrosities.

A collection of medical textbooks, some dating back to 16th Century, features disturbing anatomical illustrations of conjoined twins, or patients with birth defects or diseases.

"They're using the term 'monstrosity' to describe real people with conditions that we know now have actual names and in some cases, treatments."

Engravings from Monstrorum sexcentorum descriptio anatomica (1841). (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Fernandez says as he traced the origins of monsters over the centuries, he's found many that can be explained through misunderstandings or lack of scientific knowledge.

Many of the sea monsters first depicted on maps or early travel books may have been misunderstood sightings of sharks, seals or the Steller's sea cow, an extinct relative of manatees and dugongs.

He's found medieval descriptions of manticores, that describe the beasts as being real animals, with the body of a lion and a laugh like a human. He thinks the authors confused it for a hyena.

Manticore, from The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658). (Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

"It is interesting to find the stories that to us are so fantastical, but the more you read or learn about them you realize there's this level of truth in all of them."

De Monstris: An Exhibition of Monsters and the Wonder of Human Imagination is on at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library until Dec. 21.


Mike Wise

Host, CBC Toronto News at 11

Mike Wise is the anchor of CBC Toronto News at 11. Mike grew up in Brampton, but now calls North York home. He started at CBC when he was just 17 years old, as part of a high-school Co-Op placement. Mike is married and teaches journalism part-time at Humber College.


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