by Abigail Weinberg
Figure 1. Van Langren, Arnold. “Delineatio omnium orarum totius Australis partis Americae.” 1596. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library. https://jcb.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/s/1833b0.
Christopher Columbus’s 1492 contact with the “New World” created an epistemological shock that forced Europeans to reorient themselves, both spatially and culturally, in relation to the newly acknowledged inhabitants of the Americas—especially in terms of who and what might count as human, animal, or something in between. My interest in the dissemination of knowledge about the New World in the years following Columbus’s voyage led me to study a 1596 map of Peru by the Dutch mapmaker Arnold Van Langren. By analyzing the image of a sloth that appears in the center of the map, I hope to illuminate the ways that Europeans in the early modern period used medieval notions of monstrosity to construct enduring mythologies about animality—and about that which Europeans deemed to be less-than-human or inherently un-human—in the Americas.
European mapmakers were unreliable constructors of visual reality, and the human and animal images they produced on ethnographic maps such as Van Langren’s were distorted both by the distance between the mapmakers and the explorers of the Americas whose travelogues informed their illustrations, and by the pre-existing notions of monstrosity and otherness that early modern European viewers harbored. The Sloth journal’s mission statement states that “sloths are often stereotyped as dull-witted, sluggish, and lazy,” and in this article, I trace the origin of that perception among European explorers. My article is the first to be published in Sloth that focuses on the complex historical meanings of the sloth itself; in doing so, I show not only how European explorers came to attribute racial and gendered meanings to the figure of the sloth, but also how these anthropomorphic portrayals worked in conjunction with dehumanizing depictions of Indigenous peoples to create an image of the New World as a place of disorder and contradictions which, following the colonialist line of thinking, it was incumbent on Europeans to mend.
Refracted Images, Refracted Meanings
Van Langren never traveled to the Americas and, as such, his images and maps cannot be taken as faithful representations. Rather, we need to consider his representations of the land and its inhabitants as what J.B. Harley (2002, 53) defines as “refracted images” divorced from reality. It is important to consider how these visual representations, in turn, “contribute to dialogue in a socially constructed world” by encouraging viewers to consider the inhabitants of the New World as monstrous races, somewhere on the spectrum between human and animal, rather than civilized peoples. It was common practice for early modern mapmakers to appropriate cartographic or ethnographic features from others’ maps, and even to copy others’ maps entirely. The printing press facilitated this copying, and the repetition of icons imbued them with authority and meaning, no matter how distant they were from the real-life objects they sought to represent. Each of the images on Van Langren’s map has its origin elsewhere. In this section, I trace the lineage of the map’s central image, the sloth, to show how its representations blur and distort, acquiring new meanings and problematizing human-animal boundaries in each iteration.
Centrally located in Van Langren’s map, immediately above the letters “ANA,” is a four-legged “beast” with a humanoid face. The Latin text that describes it reads: “Hanc bestiam, quae a quibusdam Haute, & a Tououpinambaultijs Brasiliae populo Hay vocatur, nemo ut scribunt, vel edentem vel bibentem nunquam vidit: hinc quidam opinantur cam neque cibum capere, neque potu ali, neque alio alimento, quam haustu aeris vivere.” This text roughly translates to: “This beast, which was called Haute by the Tupinambá people of Brazil, has never been seen eating or drinking: Because of this they believe them not to gather food, nor to nourish themselves through drink, nor from any other nourishment, but to live by a spilling of the air.” The description of a mythical New World beast that survives off the air dates back to the Spanish explorer and chronicler of the New World Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdes, most commonly known as Oviedo. Oviedo (Fernández 1851–1855, 413) wrote in his La historia general that “lo que supe comprehender de aqueste animal es que se debe mantener del ayre” (I understood that this animal sustains itself from the air). This myth, like many others about the New World, had precedent in medieval mythology. The trope of cannibals in Brazil, for example, was rooted in the medieval association between unusual diets and monstrosity; it was used to justify the conquest of the inhabitants of the Americas, as seemingly reliable accounts of ritual cannibalism morphed into outlandish depictions of Indigenous people roasting limbs on spits (Davies 2016, 78). Less abhorrent than cannibals, but equally wondrous, were beings who survived off of a diet of odors or air (Davies 2013, 50; Steel 2013, 261). The sloth’s diet is just one of several characteristics I will explore that link the animal to monstrosity.
Several explorers claimed to have seen and described the sloth after Oviedo, but they tended to characterize the animal in terms very similar to Oviedo’s own. The French monk André Thevet (1568, 81), who spent ten weeks exploring the French Antarctique region in Brazil, co-opted Oviedo’s language in his 1557 travelogue Les singularitez de la France antarctique, writing, per Thomas Hacket’s 1568 English translation, “this straunge beaste was neuer séene eating, for the wylde men of the coūtry haue watched hir to sée if she would féede, but all was in vayne, as they them selues haue shewed me…To these wonders I haue séene by experience certain Chameleons in Constantinople, that liued only with the ayre.” (He also referred to the creature as “Haute,” as it appears on Van Langren’s map.) Then, in 1578 Jean de Léry (1534–1613)—another French explorer whose work was so similar to Thevet’s that Thevet accused him of plagiarism (Moreira and Mendes 2016, 1801)—wrote in his French History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil the description which most closely resembles that on the map: “I have heard not only from the savages but also from the interpreters who had lived a long time in that country, that no man has ever seen this animal eat, either in the fields or in a house; so that some think that he lives on air” (Léry 1992, 85). Each description varies slightly, but each affirmation of the myth of an air-eating sloth lent it an aura of credibility, which was amplified when planted in the cartographic context of Van Langren’s map.
Although each of these explorers claimed to have seen the sloth for himself, the image in the center of the map, descended directly from these descriptions, bears little resemblance to a real-life sloth. Some of the depictions of the sloth that circulated as woodcuts were based off of drawings of taxidermied specimens shipped overseas, while others may have been drawn from description alone. European natural historian Carolus Clusius (1526–1609), for example, based his illustration (fig. 2) off of a dead specimen, which led him to depict the sloth standing up on four legs—an impossibility for the animal, which crawls down low to the earth because it cannot support its weight when on the ground (Moreira and Mendes 2016, 1804). Miguel de Asúa and Roger French (2005, 112) write in A New World of Animals: Early Modern Europeans on the Creatures of Iberian America that Clusius was unsure whether the embalmed specimen he studied was actually the creature Oviedo had described. Clusius argued that “if Oviedo’s description does not totally correspond to the picture, this could be due to the fact that embalmed animals sometimes become disfigured.” This literal disfiguration manifested in the reproduced images of a misshapen sloth, resulting in a broader distortion of European understanding of the animal’s anatomy. Even Thevet, who purportedly witnessed the sloth firsthand, likewise depicted the sloth supporting its own weight (fig. 3), reinforcing a European mythology of the animal divorced from its actual appearance. Thevet’s anthropomorphic illustration of the sloth with a human-like face was widely copied, and it is the one most similar to that in the center of Van Langren’s map. In this way, the creature we now recognize as the sloth entered the European consciousness in anatomically inaccurate form, with mystical behavioral characteristics, under the name “Haute.”
Figure 2: One of Clusius’s woodcuts (Moreira and Mendes 1805).
Figure 3. Thevet, André. “D’vne beste assez estrange, appelée Haut.” 1558. John Carter Brown Library.
The location of the sloth in the center of Van Langren’s map underscores its mythic significance. While Thevet and Léry described the sloth as living in Brazil, Van Langren placed it in the center of Peru, between the letters “PERUVI” and “ANA,” such that the viewer is forced to confront the animal when reading the name of the land depicted. In the same way that zoological studies depicting the sloth were “published following the form of medieval bestiaries,” (Moreira and Mendes 2016, 1799), this map follows the medieval tradition by placing the primary object of wonder or interest in the center—where mapmakers often place themselves, and where the medieval T-O world maps placed Jerusalem. Through this placement, Van Langren, as we shall see, emphasized the perceived human characteristics of the sloth while relegating the humans of the New World to the edges, the land of the Other.
Monstrosity and the Sloth
The sloth’s purported diet of air was one of several of its assigned characteristics that situated it between the boundaries of human and animal. Zeb Tortorici and Martha Few (2013, 6) write that “the Spanish were intent on transposing the ecology of Europe into the American sphere”; Europeans were intent on viewing the ecology of America in familiar, European terms. One familiar source of lore was the medieval language of monstrosity, a category encompassing creatures whose humanness was questioned, either because of physical deformities or strange habits. Monstrosity was broadly divided into two categories: monstrous births and monstrous peoples (Daston and Park 1998, 48). Medieval thinkers considered individual monsters to be those born of human parents within European society, while marvelous races were “monstrous” peoples who lived at the edges of the world (51) and were often associated with non-European physical characteristics. Although the separation between individual monsters and monstrous peoples began to blur in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (173), the tradition influenced the ways that European explorers described animals of the New World. Animals like the sloth were neither individual monsters nor monstrous races per se, but their distance from Europe automatically placed them in the realm of monsters, who commonly dwelled at the edges of medieval maps. Further, the language explorers used to describe their physical characteristics often mirrored that used to describe medieval monsters, which suggests that Europeans considered them to exist in a category separate from known European animals.
The very descriptions of New World animals in familiar terms often afforded them monstrous characteristics and, consequently, a perception of grotesque animality that informed European notions of people who lived in faraway lands. Both Oviedo and Thevet, for instance, described the sloth as a monstrous amalgamation of the body parts of other animals. Oviedo compared the sloth’s round face to that of a lechuça, or little owl, and its nose to that of a monico, or monkey. Thevet provided a more qualitative assessment of the animal’s appearance:
This beaste for to be short, is asmuch disformed as is possible, and almoste vncredible to those that haue not séene hir. They name hir Hau or Hauthy, of the greatnesse of a greate Munky of Afeca, hauing a great belly, and the head almost in proportion of a Childes head. She being takē, casteth out sighes lyke a Chyld féeling payne, hir skyn colored lyke ashes, and rough lyke a litle Beare, hauing on each paw three nayles or clawes, a foure fingers long, and made lyke the fyn of a Carpe, with the which she climeth on Trees, abyding there more than on the ground. (Thevet 1568, 80-81)
Although the beast comprises the parts of several natural animals—a monkey, a bear, a carp, a human child—the aggregate produces something “disformed”: a monster. Monstrous births often took on this composite form, which “recalled the iconography of pagan idols and, especially, of demons, which were frequently represented as hybrid figures, constructed of many different animal and human parts” (Daston and Park 1998, 182). Thevet elaborated on Oviedo’s comparison of the sloth to a monkey and specifically mentioned Africa, a continent in which Herodotus, Aristotle, and Pliny the Elder all located monstrous humans and animals (Van Duzer 2013, 396–397). The sloth’s monstrosity in this regard also functions as a measure of race in the Old World and the New. This association with monstrosity is compounded by the mention of a child’s head, a conflation of human and inhuman perhaps connoting bestiality, in the Aristotelian line of thinking which suggested that even a mother’s tainted thoughts during pregnancy could produce a monstrous child (Davies 2013, 57). Then, after referring to several mammals, Thevet made a startling mention of the “fyne of a Carpe.” In climbing a tree using a body part that resembles the fin of a sea creature, the sloth blatantly violates the natural order, bringing characteristics of a sea creature onto land. Thevet’s sloth aligns with Margrit Shildrick’s (2000, 304) description of the monstrous as “an instance of nature’s startling capacity to produce alien forms within”; it is a product of nature positioned somehow against nature’s accepted order, with both human and animal parts.
As noted in Sloth’s mission statement, even the sloth’s name is tied to the notion of sin, a category analogous to monstrosity in that it both results from and runs counter to God’s creation. In her essay, “Monstrosity and Race in the Late Middle Ages,” Debra Higgs Strickland explains the European conception of blackness as a sign of sin related to the cursed Ham from whom all black Africans were believed to have been descended (Strickland 2013 382). She writes that “the medieval monstrous races tradition provided a foundational forum for the expression of Christian fears and fantasies about cultural outsiders” (385). Oviedo drew on this foundation through his implicit connection between the sloth’s grotesque animal characteristics and blackness. To introduce the animal, he writes:
Perico–Ligero llaman en la Tierra–Firme á un animal el mas torpe que se puede ver en el mundo, é tan pesadíssimo y tan espaçioso en su movimiento, que para andar el espaçio que tomarán çinqüenta passos, ha menester un dia entero. Los primeros chripstianos que passaron á la Tierra–Firme, quando ganaron el Darien en la provinçia de Cueva, como vieron á este animal (acordándose que en Epaña suelen llamar al negro Johan Blanco, porque se entienda al revés), le pusieron el nombre muy apartado de s user, pues seyendo espaçiosíssimo, le llamaron ligero, y en la provinçia de Veneçuela le llaman la pereza. (Fernández 1851–1855, 412)
(Swift–Parakeet they call on the mainland the clumsiest animal in the world, and it is so slow and deliberate in its movement, that to walk the space which would take 50 steps, it needs an entire day. The first Christians that came to dry land, when they got to Darien in the province of Cueva, when they saw this animal (remembering that in Spain they tend to call the black man John White, because the opposite is understood), they gave it a name very far from its self, for being slow, they call it swift, and in the province of Venezuela they call it the lazy.)
By connecting the irony of the sloth’s name, meaning “swift,” with the Spanish joke of naming a black man White, Oviedo ties the animal conceptually to a race Europeans considered to be inferior because of its members’ differing physical characteristics—and whose lack of Christianity Europeans associated with sin. Oviedo later adds, “Ni he visto hasta agora animal tan feo ni que parezca ser tan inútil que aqueste” (I have never until now seen an animal so ugly, nor that appears to be as useless as this one) (414). This statement not only plays on a trope associated with blackness, but, along with the allusion to the Catholic sin of laziness, or sloth, speaks to the notion that an animal’s value is derived from being either edible or capable of work. In other words, it is the sloth’s “uselessness” that earns Oviedo’s contempt.
Encoding Gender Through Map Motifs
The sloth on Van Langren’s map not only inherited European notions of race and monstrosity; it was also descended from a tradition of portraying New World flora and fauna through heavily gendered tableaus. Several of the figures on Van Langren’s map—the sloth, the opossum, the floppy-eared dogs above it, and the Brazilian cannibals below—originated from sixteenth-century prints that encoded notions of gender, savagery, and animality by portraying America as a classically muscled nude woman surrounded by plants and animals native to the New World. These tableaus form a productive context from which to analyze the monstrosity of the sloth as it relates to gender.
Figure 4. Galle, Theodoor after Jan van der Straet, The Discovery of America, c. 1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/666288.
By depicting the land in gendered terms, scenes of feminized Americas blurred the boundaries between human and animal while conveying Europeans’ often conflicting conceptualizations of the New World. In “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery,” Louis Montrose (1991) describes one such scene from Theodoor Galle’s 1580 engraving of a nude woman representing America (fig. 4). In the engraving, the woman lying on a hammock greets Amerigo Vespucci, whose ships sail in the background. To the right, near the woman, are an armadillo and a spear. Behind her, men roast human limbs on a spit. Here, according to Montrose, female guile and deceit foreground masculine knowledge and power, and “the interplay between the foreground and background scenes…gives iconic form to the oscillation characterizing Europe’s ideological encounter with the New World: an oscillation between fascination and repulsion, likeness and strangeness, desires to destroy and to assimilate the Other; an oscillation between the confirmation and the subversion of familiar values, beliefs, and perceptual norms” (Montrose 1991, 5–6). The woman’s nudity is both desirable and morally repulsive, placing her in the realm of wild animals while connoting a “savage” humanness against which Europeans could contrast themselves. According to Susan Scott Parrish (1997, 482), “What was at issue, in this iconographically contested terrain, was the European habitability of the land. The related questions were: can America be made into a fruitful domicile, or will it spurn or devour the bodies of its colonizers or subject them to a strange metamorphosis?” The feminized America was ample, ripe for domestication, yet dangerous and frightening because it was unknown. The dubious nature of information about the New World allowed the oscillation between the opposing binaries highlighted by Montrose to flourish; conflicting representations of the New World as savage and as desirable existed because of the unknown and unknowable nature of the land. Yet this oscillation also reflects the land’s capacity to produce monstrosity, which, as Shildrick notes, often involves a hybrid of the self and the other, of horror and fascination (Shildrick 2000, 304), and, in our case, of human and animal.
The sloth embodies these opposing binaries in its numerous and often conflicting visual and textual representations. Clusius’s (fig. 2) illustrated sloth appears menacing, while Thevet’s (fig. 3) is smiling and friendly. The sloth also elicited disparate reactions among the various explorers who described it. While Oviedo, as we have seen, was repulsed by the animal, Thevet (1568, 81) seemed to delight in it, informing the reader of his description of the sloth that “by this ye may sée the wonderfull works of nature, how that she can make things strange, great, incomprehensible, and wonderfull to mans judgement.” The opposing possibilities embodied by the sloth—that it is both docile and monstrous, “wonderfull” and repulsive—mirror the binaries present in gendered depictions of the land.
The well-documented connection between femininity and monstrosity plays out within the figure of the sloth itself. Anxieties about female monstrosity were common among early modern Europeans; for example, they informed the myth of the Amazon warrior women, female warriors of the Amazon River basin whose existence Europeans explained through the ancient Greek myth of the “Amazons,” women who cut off their right breasts to hunt and kept only their female offspring (Montrose 1991, 26). Meanwhile, contemporary humanist Conrad Lycosthenes wrote that “menstruous women shall bring forth monsters,” suggesting horror at the aspects of female anatomy—particularly women’s natural biological and reproductive cycles—unknowable to men (Daston and Park 1998, 187). The range of related emotions explorers experienced in the face of monstrosity was amplified when they were forced to grapple with opposing associations of womanhood—as docile, conquerable, and knowable, or as foreign, strange, and frightening.
The sloth, for all its monstrous characteristics, possesses a uniquely feminine potential to be tamed. Thevet, for one, referred to the sloth using female pronouns, and explorers such as José de Anchieta (1534-1597) and Fernão Cardim (1548/1549 – 1625) said that its face resembled that of a woman (Moreira and Mendes 2016, 1803–1804). Though the sloth’s claws lend it a menacing air in Clusius’s drawing, the animal usually does not appear threatening, and it is regularly described as docile and tame. Montrose (1991), in his analysis of Galle’s engraving, ties the sloth to the symbolic “awakening” of the Americas upon Vespucci’s arrival, writing that “this theme is discreetly amplified by the presence of a sloth which regards the scene of awakening from its own shaded spot upon the tree behind America” (4). Even Oviedo, for all his disgust, portrayed the sloth as a tame beast he could take in his house. The sloth, then, may be taken to represent the vision of America as a desirable woman waiting to be conquered.
Yet the personification of the sloth as a woman came at the expense of the Indigenous inhabitants, who were in turn dehumanized. Thevet (1568, 81) wrote that “this beast is very louing to man, when she is tame, coueting to be always on his shoulders, as if hir nature were to remayne on high places, the which doings the wylde men of the countrey cannot abyde for that they are wicked, for this beast hath very sharpe clawes, and longer than the clawes of a Lyon, or any other beast that euer I saw.” Léry (1992, 85) clarified this point in his History of a voyage to the land of Brazil, writing, “his claws are so sharp that our Tupinamba, who are always naked, do not take much pleasure in playing with him.” Thevet invoked sympathy for the animal by citing the Indigenous inhabitants’ moral deformity in nudity (“for that they are wicked”) as their reason for not playing with it. Here the sloth, like the woman in Galle’s America, is both desirable and dangerous, inherently wild but with the potential for domestication—though not by the Indigenous inhabitants of the land.
Figure 5. Raleigh, Walter, Sir. “Animals of Guiana and hunters.” 1599. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.
The supremacy of wild animals over Indigenous peoples took symbolic form in Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1599 illustration of the Haute (fig. 5). Although it was produced after Van Langren’s map, it provides a striking visual representation of the relationship between the animals and the Indigenous peoples. The Haute stands in the center of the image in front of a tree containing two more sloths. To the right is an armadillo, and to the left is an opossum suckling two of her young. In the background, two Indigenous people shoot into the tree at the sloths, as in Thevet’s illustration, while another shoots at an opossum. Raleigh created an equivalency among the animals by placing them together in the foreground, similar to their centering in Van Langren’s map. Their relationship to humans is implicit both in the sloth’s anthropomorphic face and in the opossum’s suckling. Here, the Indigenous people’s aggression to these creatures appears as an unprovoked attack on creatures who are not poised to harm them. The symbolic elevation of the sloths suggests their perceived superiority over those who hunt them, especially given their functional “uselessness” described earlier. I suggest that the sloth, in the context of Van Langren’s map, possesses a sort of mythic monstrosity deserving of Europeans’ wonder, while the Indigenous peoples who populate the edges of the continent exist outside this paradigm, as symbols of a perceived savagery uncomplicated by wonder and desire.
Europeans’ perceptions of the sloth were directly descended from medieval notions of monstrosity, which flourished in the distant and unfamiliar land of the Americas. In the same way that Columbus, upon discovering manatees, mistook them for the sirens of myth, European explorers who encountered the sloth constructed for it a mythology based upon their existing notions of gender, race, and otherness. Confronted with animals they had never before seen, Europeans with a pre-Darwinian approach to natural history were forced to rely on existing tropes to make sense of New World flora and fauna. Even the sloth’s stance relies on this process; its upright posture, divorced from real sloths’ anatomical inability to support their own weight, is a projection of European expectations for how an animal should walk. In many ways, the mythology surrounding the sloth does more than attempt to represent it to a European audience; it also carries with it a subtle promise of conquest and domination.
The sloth asserts itself as the largest and most visible icon on Van Langren’s map, and can perhaps be taken, in all its contradictions, as a representation of America as a whole. It is depicted as both enticing and repulsive, alluring yet inferior. Its human qualities seem to lessen those of the “savage” Indigenous inhabitants surrounding it, while its animal qualities push it into the realm of the monstrous. It, like America, per the colonialist vision, requires European control in order to be tamed. In its docility, it appears ripe for conquest, but its sharp claws hint at a certain wildness which provokes terror.
Although modern perception of the sloth is now largely divorced from the connotations related to race and gender outlined in this paper, its construction as dim-witted and useless persists into the present day. To a sixteenth-century viewer, though, the Haute may very well have represented the “exotic” realm of the New World, where humans lived among animals, and animals lived off the air.
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