reformations and malformations

The Mooncalf of Freiburg

The Mooncalf of Freiburg

‘Mooncalf’ is an old name for the malformed, abnormal offspring that livestock occasionally produce. Usually still-born or short-lived, mooncalves were thought to be a result of lunar influence and were sometimes considered to be magical creatures, or hybrids thereof.  Although the word is closely associated with cows, mooncalves from other animals are also recorded and it’s likely that the ‘calf’ element of this word comes from the Old Norse kálfi ‘swelling’, which is also the origin of the ‘calves’ of your leg.

One particular mooncalf, born in Freiburg, Germany, on December 8th 1522, became an unlikely pawn in an escalating war of propaganda between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church, and came to give new meaning to the word itself. According to contemporary accounts the skin of this misshapen calf formed a hood like a monk’s habit and this resemblance was quickly interpreted by each side as a sign of divine disapproval in the other. The Church were first to claim the mooncalf to their cause, claiming the abomination as a warning against the protestant apostasy, but the Lutheran reply was sharper and funnier.

“That God has put the clerical dress and the holy cowl on a calf is an undoubted and plain sign that the whole of monkery and nunnery is nothing else than a false, lying appearance and an outward pretence of a spiritual and godly life”

Reprinted seven times in 1523 alone Luther’s pamphlet was the convincing winner of this PR battle and is sometimes credited with the first occurrence of ‘mooncalf’ (mondkalb in German). Earlier records show the word in use in Germany and England well before, but Luther did change the nuance; a dry physiological term became something richer and darker, something suggesting ‘monster’. Before translations of Luther’s pamphlet reached England in 1579 this meaning was unrecorded but, perhaps because the English love a good insult, it found fertile ground and took root. Its adoption by one of England’s greatest insulters, William Shakespeare, in The Tempest, ensured its proliferation.

Colloquial use of the word has worn and softened it, in time it came to be applied to animals or people deemed merely odd in mind or body. Despite its monstrous origins I find a certain affectionate warmth in the term. Thought we may be burdened with an inherited, unthinking, aversion to abnormality ‘mooncalf’ doesn’t, to me, suggest fear or disgust. What was once horrific becomes just unusual. This word, which names a kind of mutation, has itself mutated, shaped by a man who was himself branded an aberration, who was certainly a misfit, feared for his deviation from the norm.

Since evolution depends on change through mutation the future must surely belong to the misfits. Blessed be the mooncalves, for they shall inherit the earth; or, as Jarvis Cocker sings in “Misshapes” Pulp’s anthem to awkwardness:

Brothers, sisters, can’t you see?
The future’s owned by you and me.
There won’t be fighting in the street.
They think they’ve got us beat but revenge is going to be so sweet.