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Hans Staden's Wunderkammer

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The Cabinet of Hans Staden

Early modern collections were built around wonder rather than discrete categories. A Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, invited imaginative play, encouraging viewers to consider the different relationships between diverse novel objects.

Hans Staden’s Warhaftige Historia (1557), or “True History,” can be read as a Wunderkammer of New World experience. This German-language narrative tells the story of Staden’s travels to Brazil and captivity by the Tupinambá, a cannibalistic indigenous tribe. The account’s rich variety of observations, descriptions, and anecdotes evoke four common types of objects found in 16th-century collections:

  • naturaliae—material of the natural world
  • scientificae—technical knowledge
  • exoticae—the exotic, ethnographic, and monstrous
  • mirabilia—wonders and miracles

The work also contains 56 woodcut illustrations based on Staden’s own rough sketches.

Like a physical collector, Staden is attentive to the ways that interpretation and context shape meaning—including that of his own identity. He positions himself as a skilled interpreter of global politics, adapting his persona to suit circumstance. At the same time, his encounters with the Tupinambá reveal his anxiety about the potential breakdown of human identity and bodily integrity within the violent, shifting, and increasingly global context of the New World.

-Madeline Zehnder


References

Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)," in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen; pp. 3-25. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Duffy, Eve M, and Alida C Metcalf. The Return of Hans Staden: a Go-between In the Atlantic World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. 

Forsyth, Donald W. "Three Cheers for Hans Staden: The Case for Brazilian Cannibalism." Ethnohistory 32.1 (1985): 17–36.

Kenny, Neil. "The metaphorical collecting of curiosities in early modern France and Germany," in Curiosity and Wonder From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. R.J.W. Evans and Alexander Marr, and Robert John Weston Evans; pp. 43-62. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. "British Cannibals": Contemplation of an Event in the Death and Resurrection of James Cook, Explorer." Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 630-654.

Spenlé, Virginie "'Savagery' and 'Civilization': Dutch Brazil in the Kunst- and Wunderkammer." Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 3.2 (July 2011): 1-10. 

Staden, Hans. Hans Staden's True History: an Account of Cannibal Captivity In Brazil. Edited and translated by Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Harbsmeier. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 

Tucker, Gene Rhea. "The Discovery of Germany in America: Hans Staden, Ulrich Schmidel, and the Construction of German Identity." Traversea 1 (2011): 26-45.

Voigt, Lisa, and Elio Brancaforte. "The Traveling Illustrations of Sixteenth-Century Travel Narratives." PMLA 129.3 (2014): 365-398.


Images

Open-source unless cited individually.