There’s many ways to look at monsters. A friend recently sent me an Atlas Obscura article “The Modern Lives of Medieval Monster Scholars” by Cara Giaimo. It seems that some professors of medieval studies have taken to monsters to help explain societal problems. The Middle Ages in the western world, of course, were the days before the Enlightenment began. Belief in monsters was nearly universal. Much of the world was unexplored and inaccessible. In those unknown places, there were monsters. The article goes on to explain that monsters thus provide a natural way to deal with uncomfortable issues such as racism and religious discrimination. Monsters are those who don’t look like we do, or behave (therefore believe) like we do. It’s okay to kill monsters.
This is a mentality that we see reemerging in the twenty-first century. Despite the fact that you can easily reach nearly any part of the globe and enroll in university classes to learn what other religions actually believe, instead we prefer to see others as monsters. People see monsters because they’re afraid. They’re afraid because they’re not educated. And the political system in which many of us live is designed to keep the average person down while the wealthy reap the benefits. It serves the interests of such an unbalanced society to send people on monster hunts. The enemy is anyone who is different—not the one who owns the company that owns the company that you work for. The owner’s just like you, only he has so much money he doesn’t know what to do with it.
I once asked one of my students why he was interested in a certain topic. His answer has stayed with me all this years: “who can say why they’re interested in anything?” While I was in seminary—before the days of the J. R. R. Tolkien movies—I was very interested in medieval studies. My thought process, however, goes back to origins. The origins of medieval thought were the Bible, the ideas of the Bible (for Christians) come from the New Testament. The New Testament comes from the Hebrew Bible. Where did the Hebrew Bible come from? And that journey led me back to monsters. Like my student, I can’t say why I’m interested. It may be that I’m afraid. And in such times as these fears seem to be entirely justified. In the eyes of some future, truly enlightened society, ours will be the New Middle Ages with all its monsters.
Scribbling. All it takes is a margin of an agenda paper or the back of an envelope. I don’t remember when I started doing it—I’ve been writing my own blend of fiction, facts, and philosophy since I was in elementary school—but I would find a relatively clean piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. I’ve carried a pen around with me for decades. Why? You never know when an idea might strike. There’s nothing like the discovery of a new idea. Lifelong learning is like that. So it was when I was reading Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events to my daughter that I learned about commonplace books. A commonplace book is a notebook where you jot all kinds of things down and you know where they are, unlike that piece of paper in my pocket that long ago started to rip apart at the folds, the ink becoming illegible as the paper grew softer and more pliable. A commonplace book seemed like a great idea.
This all came back to me when a friend send me a story on zibaldones. I’d never read the word before. A zibaldone, according to the story by Cara Giaimo on Atlas Obscura, is an Italian commonplace book. They used to be part of every thinking person’s accoutrements. A blank book where you could write down anything of importance. Giaimo suggests that the internet has taken the place of the zibaldone—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—we’re spoiled for choice where to put our thoughts. I still carry a commonplace book, however. Too many, in fact. Next to my writing chair rests a stack of notebooks. There’s one for each non-fiction book I’ve written, whether published or not. There are several filled with fiction. Some with poetry. My most recent zibaldones are Moleskines, which I purchased—as many as I could afford—when Borders sadly went out of business. Ideas. They just keep coming.
Some of my notebooks.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the zibaldone is that, if one survives, an historian gets a glimpse at what someone who was not famous saw. Observations about the world scribbled down. The most proficient of scribblers organized their commonplace books in advance. As for me, I still scribble things on scraps of paper. I carry a notebook and pen at all times, but sometimes an idea is so slippery I don’t have time to pull a formal zibaldone from my pocket. I tape scrapes of paper into my notebooks. Right next to new words I’ve learned. Somewhere among today’s scribbles you’ll find the word zibaldone along with the hope that some day some of this might be significant.
Atlas Obscura is one of those websites where you could spend all day and feel like you’ve just traveled the world. Featuring less know locations, and strange spots that you might like to visit, sometimes it also has stories about monsters. Well, at least one story about monsters. A friend of mine recently shared Cara Giaimo’s story about thirteen lesser-known monsters from history. While none of these are likely to keep you up at night, they do demonstrate the endless imagination people devote to the unknown. Monsters, like religion, defy easy categorization. Is something that’s “too big” or “too small” for its type a monster? Is it a monster if it is a mix of things that don’t normally come together? Or is it merely a matter of baleful intention? What doth a monster make?
Taking a page (almost literally) from John Ashton’s Curious Creatures in Zoology, the Atlas Obscura page runs down some monsters once believed to have existed. Some of them, despite our flattened world seen only through the eyes of rationality, were actually reported to have existed. The “monster” of Ravenna, for example, was apparently a sad case of a medieval/early modern birth defect that, in the popular imagination took on monstrosity. We now know that birth defects may contain throwbacks to earlier stages of evolution, or that genetic coding may contain mutations. None of this suggests any evil intention on the part of anybody. Accidents of nature may be the saddest kind of monster of all.
A surprising number of the monsters from Ashton’s sampler here are mixes between human and animal. Indeed, that mix is still a potent force, theologically. One of the loudest voices speaking out against evolution is the one that says people are “not animals.” Having grown up with that belief, it took a couple years of college to convince me that we fit into the greater biological scheme of things. We fear that which resembles us, but is not quite us. Perhaps part of the mystique is that we haven’t quite yet learned to be humane to one another. Being a monster may just have more to do with what one does with prejudices than it does with physical features of their bodies.