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


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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.


Open-source unless cited individually.