This collection of weird and wonderful tales of monsters, mythical creatures and natural oddities is drawn from classical legends, Biblical tales and historical sources. The hugely popular Histoires Prodigieuses (1560) was first written in French by Pierre Boaistuau and translated into English by the sea captain, Edward Fenton. With its melodramatic stories and fantastical woodcuts, it titillates its readers with the promise of ‘terror and admiration’, but it also prompts religious outrage by discussing these ‘abhominations’ within a Christian framework.
Within this compilation, Boaistuau repeats the widespread anti-Semitic myth of how medieval Jews conspired with lepers to poison Christian wells, causing deathly plague across Europe. He claims the perpetrators poured ‘a confection of the blood of mans urine’ into ‘the fountaines and welles of Christians’ spreading ‘contagious diseases in all Europe’.
The fact that these lurid details appear amongst tales of seven-headed serpents and men with the heads of Asses highlights their mythical nature – they are based on exaggerated fear of the unknown, rather than first-hand knowledge. On his title page, Fenton admits that the idea of monstrosity comes from lack of understanding: things seem ‘monstrous in our eyes … because we are not privie to the reasons of them’.
Fear of Jews based on ignorance was particularly rife in Elizabethan England, since none could openly practise their faith after they were officially expelled in 1290.
The idea of prejudice perpetuated through ignorance is key to The Merchant of Venice. Shylock tells how the Christians demean him in animalistic terms, calling him ‘misbeliever, cut-throat dog’ (1.3.111). This makes it all the more moving when he gives his speech expressing their common humanity: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’ (3.1.64–67)