The Multiplication of Monsters: From Gutenberg to QAnon

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The image was striking: a sexualized and grotesque fusion of donkey, woman, devil, and bird. The monster stood next to a river, with the flag of the pope on a castle in the background. It was a woodcut on the first page of a pamphlet, Explanation of Two Abominable Figures, printed in 1523 in Germany.

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Pope Ass, 1523. Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photograph: Herbert Boswank.

The pamphlet’s authors: no less than Protestant reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. Imbuing the revolting creature on the front page with meaning, Melanchthon presented the alleged discovery of the “Pope Ass” floating in the river of Tiber as proving the perverse monstrosity of the pope. The renowned theologian drew on a rumor that had emerged after a flood in Rome 27 years earlier, and he declared it an indisputable fact: “This abominable figure portrays and represents the entire essence of the pope’s realm so accurately that no human being could have possibly invented it.”

The pamphlet gained wide circulation before going through numerous reprints and translations. And while it may seem far-fetched, the veracity of the image and of Melanchthon’s interpretation were commonly accepted by readers and illiterate viewers. Even a Latin Treatise on Monsters, published 50 years later in France, took the reality of the monster for granted—with one reversal. According to its Catholic author, the hideous form signified not the pope but rather the twisted appearance of Luther’s heretical teachings.

Nowadays when we speak of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, we mostly refer to its more reputable side. And to be sure, the new technology did foster the exchange of scholarly ideas and the scientific revolution. But similar to the proliferation of rumors and falsehoods on social media platforms, the printing press also facilitated the circulation of rumors and fake news in sensationalist pamphlets and broadsides. Just like today, this misinformation was frequently taken to be true.

Gutenberg’s invention thereby enabled a multiplication of monsters. In addition to the broadcasting of the Pope Ass, there was also the monster of Ravenna: with a single horn, two bat-like wings, a hermaphroditic lower body, and an eagle-like claw. Equally popular was the Monk Calf, explained by Luther himself in the same pamphlet as Melanchthon’s take on the Pope Ass. This was a calf, supposedly born in Saxony, with skin malformations that made it look like a monk. And there were other monstrosities, pictured and interpreted in a surge of pamphlets and broadsides that, because of their newfound wide circulation, found wide belief.

The parallels to our present day are striking. While hardly anyone may believe in Monk Calves, close to 40 percent of Americans continue to believe in the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was somehow manipulated. And they do so even though all specific claims of extensive voter fraud have been disproven. In a similar vein, antivaccine narratives and conspiracy theories have gained considerable traction, leading their believers to wrongly see vaccines as dangerous or even as sinister, government-controlled implants.

In addition to taking note of the obvious similarities, we also need to ask: How is it possible that so many people lend credence to these rumors? And how can we counter falsehoods that seem immune to fact checking and rational refutation?

At least part of the answer lies with the fact that across different historical periods, the introduction of new technologies and of new and accessible media forms has increased and accelerated the circulation of rumors and disinformation. And their wide circulation and repetition engenders belief.

Case in point: the 1523 pamphlet about the Pope Ass arose from a self-amplifying feedback loop across various media. The rumor of the Roman monster first spread via hearsay and handwritten letters. Then its image moved, via an engraving and a woodcut, into the medium of print. The transition from one medium to another one increased the credibility of the story. In addition, it engendered more hearsay and further reprints and translations. Today, the rise and spread of Pizzagate, QAnon, and the Big Lie follow a similar pattern of “going viral.” The main difference is that our feedback loops are faster. And rumors now jump from hearsay, websites, and social media platforms to print, radio, TV—and back. At different historical moments, the circulation, transmission, and repetition of a story thus serve to increase its reach and acceptance, a process that is furthermore propelled by strong, negative affect, such as anger or outrage.

It is also clear that rumors are misleading. And they are frequently weaponized and turned into deliberate disinformation and propaganda. But viral rumors are almost never entirely false. Instead, they give voice to collective fears and desires by blending facts with fabrications and by speaking to real grievances—be that the corruption of the pope or rising social inequality.

Take QAnon, a strange hybrid of rumor, conspiracy theory, and cult. There is a complete lack of evidence for QAnon’s claims of a Democratic, deep-state cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles battling against a messiah figure named Donald Trump. But it is well documented that powerful groups—the Catholic Church, boarding schools, national athletic organizations—have allowed, and covered up, ongoing, systematic sexual abuse of minors by their own members and employees. Q’s false claims thus find a receptive audience because they resonate with real scandals and a deep distrust of our status quo.

Turning to a different example, we can also observe this mixing of real concerns with extreme fabrications in Paris in May 1750. There, a rumor led to violent riots and the killing of several police officers by an outraged mob. The dark story that was going around alleged that King Louis XV was suffering from leprosy and trying to cure himself by taking baths in the blood of children—a rumor of literal blood baths, with clear echoes of the antisemitic blood libel. The narrative was widely believed, however, because of something real. In the months before the riot, the police—combatting what they perceived as urban disorder—had been arbitrarily arresting or abducting vagrant or unaccompanied children off the streets of Paris.

Because rumors gain credence from a self-amplifying feedback loop, their circulation is rarely ended by rational refutations or fact checks. Instead, a rebuttal may even be counterproductive, as it inadvertently repeats and spreads the allegation that it disproves.

But history shows that rumors can be engaged, modified, and redirected through counternarratives: stories that gain wide circulation for themselves, and, thereby, eclipse disinformation.

One example for this dynamic can be found in the mid-19th century. In 1843, American Richard Hoe’s invention of the rotary printing press enabled an explosive growth of pamphlets and cheap newspapers with often questionable news. Just as in the early modern period of Gutenberg, newly emerging modes of circulation thus served a double function: they were an agent of enlightenment, and, simultaneously, a medium for the amplification of rumors and misinformation.

One text that theorized and deployed this double-edged power of circulation is Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto. The easily portable pamphlet was first published in 1848, five years after Hoe’s invention of the rotary printing press.

In addition to highlighting the revolutionary change brought about by industrialization and a capitalist world market, Marx and Engels focus on new media technologies such as “steam ships, railways, [and] electrical telegraphs.” They praise these “growing means of communication” as abolishing local and national boundaries and as fostering the rise of a “world literature.” The Communist Manifesto thereby suggests that the “infinitely facilitated communications” of technological modernity will inevitably lead to political progress. However, this optimistic stance ignores the wide range of possible outcomes, positive or negative, that marks the introduction of new media technologies.

Because rumors gain credence from a self-amplifying feedback loop, their circulation is rarely ended by rational refutations or fact checks.

Nonetheless, Marx and Engels also take note of the dark side of print media. Toward the end of the manifesto, they explicitly attack most of the allegedly socialist texts “circulat[ing]” in 1848 as belonging to “a domain of foul and unnerving literature.” This phrase could as well describe the monster pamphlets from Gutenberg’s era. But in the context of the 1840s, it serves as an apt description of political misinformation. In addition to a number of second-rate texts that offered a hollow version of socialism, there were also rumors and anxieties about the dangers of a communist takeover. Already the first sentence of the Manifesto responds to the circulation of these horror tales by famously pronouncing: “A specter is going around in Europe—the specter of communism.”

However, in order to “counter the fairy tales of the specter of communism” Marx and Engels do not merely rebut errors and false claims. Instead, the Manifesto tells its own rousing story. Its narrative presents the bourgeoisie class as a powerful antagonist who has created an unfettered world market. But the bourgeoisie’s unleashing of this monstrous force will inadvertently bring about the universal liberation from the “chains” of capitalist exploitation.

Today, the presumed inevitability of this outcome rightfully elicits skepticism. But what remains true is that purely rational rebuttals that repeat the false claims they seek to refute will not end the circulation of a rumor. The opening of the Manifesto, by contrast, draws on the circulation of these fairy tales as “proof” of the “fact” that “communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power.” Marx and Engels thereby harness and redirect the power of circulation to propel the dissemination of their own narrative.

Our current situation is shaped by different technologies. This means, instead of pamphlets, we need powerful counternarratives and countervideos that can offer hope and inspiration and that can thrive on social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, X, or Facebook. However, we can gain a crucial insight from the humble 23-page pamphlet published in 1848 in London: by widely disseminating an electrifying counternarrative, one can harness the power of circulation to supersede and eclipse the proliferation of disinformation. icon

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.

Featured Photograph: “Hoe’s Six Cylinder Printing Press” (rotary printing press) from History of the Processes of Manufacture and Uses of Printing, Gas-Light, Pottery, Glass and Iron (1864).

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