The best books to explain the history of monsters

Who am I?

Growing up, I rewatched Star Wars until I wore out my VHS tape. I read every Dragonlance novel. I played a bit of D&D. When I got to college, I finally was allowed work on things that interested me. I found Art History, dove into Medieval Studies, and, in grad school, got serious about monsters. Monster Studies didn’t exist, but books were out (especially by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen), and my advisor encouraged me to follow my passions. My 15-year-old self would be astonished to learn that I’d get to read monster books, study monster art, and watch monster movies as a job!


I wrote...

Book cover of The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous

What is my book about?

This landmark book helped establish Monster Studies, now taught in universities throughout the world, and the focus of a Center for Monster Studies at UC-Santa Cruz. This global volume collects chapters from experts on some of the many and varied histories of monsters and the monstrous. The first half of the book, “History of Monstrosity,” contains essays on monsters in individual cultures, contextualizing literary, artistic, religious, and folkloric accounts from ancient times to the present. The second half of the book, “Critical Approaches to Monstrosity,” features a series of thematic studies intended as tools for the reader to bring to any monstrous material from any cultural context. This volume was designed as the place for those interested in Monster Studies to begin.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Book of Marvels and Travels

Asa Simon Mittman Why did I love this book?

This is the most important book people have never heard of. It was immensely popular in the Middle Ages – 300 manuscripts survive in nine languages (Beowulf, another monster tale, survives in one copy). The probably-fictional “John Mandeville, knight, though I am not worthy” sets out from England in 1332, travels the known world on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and continues all the way to India. He encounters wondrous places, people, and beasts. The book is fundamentally flawed, with rampant racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, and on, but this is why it matters. Mandeville was Columbus’s reading on his voyage to “the Indies,” and encouraged him to see indigenous populations as monstrous. It is terrible, and terribly important. Bale’s excellent introduction and translation are the best of many versions.

By John Mandeville, Anthony Bale (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Book of Marvels and Travels as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Another island in the Great Ocean has many sinful and malevolent women, who have precious gems in their eyes.'

In his Book of Marvels and Travels, Sir John Mandeville describes a journey from Europe to Jerusalem and on into Asia, and the many wonderful and monstrous peoples and practices in the East. He tells us about the Sultan in Cairo, the Great Khan in China, and the mythical Christian prince Prester John. There are giants and pygmies, cannibals and Amazons, headless humans and people with a single foot so huge it can shield them from the sun . Forceful and…


Book cover of Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters

Asa Simon Mittman Why did I love this book?

This is a brilliant, wide-ranging, deeply-sourced study of the dynamics that underpinned and justified early modern colonization of the Americas. Mandeville’s Book of Marvels and Travels is the prehistory of the horrors of colonization; the sources at the heart of Davies’s study are colonization’s architecture: maps, book illustrations, freestanding prints, published texts, letters, journals, and on. With nuance and care, Davies rewrites the intellectual history of this period, confronting the dehumanizing, demonizing, monsterizing visual and textual rhetoric of colonial enterprises (which directly contributed to large-scale violence), but also looking carefully at nuances, differences, and shifts in this rhetoric over the course of the Renaissance.

By Surekha Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Giants, cannibals and other monsters were a regular feature of Renaissance illustrated maps, inhabiting the Americas alongside other indigenous peoples. In a new approach to views of distant peoples, Surekha Davies analyzes this archive alongside prints, costume books and geographical writing. Using sources from Iberia, France, the German lands, the Low Countries, Italy and England, Davies argues that mapmakers and viewers saw these maps as careful syntheses that enabled viewers to compare different peoples. In an age when scholars, missionaries, native peoples and colonial officials debated whether New World inhabitants could - or should - be converted or enslaved, maps…


Book cover of The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart

Asa Simon Mittman Why did I love this book?

I have used this book many times in courses on the history of monsters and on monster movies. Carrol is a philosopher, and the book is written with exacting clarity. It is primarily about the genre of horror, but as Carrol writes, “monsters are central to horror.” Therefore, the author sets out both to define the generally indefinable category of “monster” and to analyze how we respond to them when they appear in fictional narratives. If you’ve ever wondered why a werewolf is a monster but Chewbacca isn’t, this is the book to read!

By Noël Carroll,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Philosophy of Horror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Noel Carroll, film scholar and philosopher, offers the first serious look at the aesthetics of horror. In this book he discusses the nature and narrative structures of the genre, dealing with horror as a "transmedia" phenomenon. A fan and serious student of the horror genre, Carroll brings to bear his comprehensive knowledge of obscure and forgotten works, as well as of the horror masterpieces. Working from a philosophical perspective, he tries to account for how people can find pleasure in having their wits scared out of them. What, after all, are those "paradoxes of the heart" that make us want…


Book cover of Saracens, Demons & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art

Asa Simon Mittman Why did I love this book?

This one is the closest to my own areas of research. Strickland and I are both medieval art historians interested in how images not only reflect cultural ideas about othered peoples and the production of otherness, but also how images are central to the generation of these ideas. In this well-illustrated book, she examines a wide range of medieval Christian images that demonize groups—particularly Jews and Muslims, but really, all those who were not normative European Christians. I’ve returned to this book’s arguments many times over the years, and every time, I learn something anew.

By Debra Higgs Strickland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Saracens, Demons & Jews as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the crusades, Ethiopians, Jews, Muslims, and Mongols were branded enemies of the Christian majority. Illustrated with strikingly imaginative and still disturbing images, this book reveals the outrageously pejorative ways these rejected social groups were represented - often as monsters, demons, or freaks of nature. Such monstrous images of non-Christians were not rare displays but a routine aspect of medieval public and private life. These images, which reached a broad and socially varied audience across western Europe, appeared in virtually all artistic media, including illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, sculpture, metalwork, and tapestry.Debra Higgs Strickland introduces and decodes images of the…


Book cover of Orientalism

Asa Simon Mittman Why did I love this book?

Orientalism is often credited with inaugurating the field of Postcolonial Studies, though there were other foundational texts published around the same time, such as Partha Mitter’s 1977 Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art. In the half-century since Said published Orientalism, a whole school of thought has coalesced around its essential insights. Postcolonial Studies is, for me, an essential facet of Monsters Studies (which also relies heavily on concepts and approaches developed in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Critical Race Studies, and Posthumanism). While many critics have identified important flaws in Said’s book (most notably Homi K. Bhabha), I still find it bristling with important ideas about one of the central myths of the modern world—the pernicious and imagined dichotomy of East and West.

By Edward W. Said,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Orientalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The seminal work that has redefined our understanding of colonialism and empire, with a preface by the author

'Stimulating, elegant and pugnacious' Observer
'Magisterial' Terry Eagleton

In this highly-acclaimed work, Edward Said surveys the history and nature of Western attitudes towards the East, considering orientalism as a powerful European ideological creation - a way for writers, philosophers and colonial administrators to deal with the 'otherness' of eastern culture, customs and beliefs. He traces this view through the writings of Homer, Nerval and Flaubert, Disraeli and Kipling, whose imaginative depictions have greatly contributed to the West's romantic and exotic picture of…


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Book cover of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

Michael Ruse Author Of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

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