While monsters today tend to play a one-dimensional role in our culture (such as the fantastically spooky or as antagonists in works of fiction), they were ubiquitous and multifunctional in the Middle Ages. Instead of the bogeyman, Godzilla, and King Kong, there were alluring sirens, man-eating giants, and blemmyae, whose faces were on their torsos. “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders,” on view at the Morgan Museum & Library in New York through September 23, explores how monsters once played a larger role than today’s characters in bedtime stories and horror movies—they had an essential part in characterizing medieval social life, establishing hierarchies, and representing the idea of “otherness” between medieval Europeans and the people they encountered abroad.

Housed in the museum’s Morgan Stanley Gallery, the three-part exhibition, curated by Asa Simon Mittman and Sherry C. M. Lindquist, consists of an impressive collection of objects and illuminated manuscripts from the ninth through sixteenth centuries, along with touch-screen displays that allow viewers to interact virtually with select pieces. The exhibition includes the Morgan’s own collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in addition to loans from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The catalogue, at first glance, appears to be nothing more than a fairytale book—but, like the gallery itself, the publication entices readers with the stunning artwork featured inside of it and its careful analysis of the relationship between medieval societies and monsters.

The walls of the gallery room are quite bare, but the manuscripts enclosed in each glass case beckon visitors with their bold colors and radiant hues. In the first section, “Terrors,” manuscripts adorned with brave men fighting vicious creatures suggest that those who slayed the monsters were worthy of the authority and power they held. In the next section, “Aliens,” we find that the “monsters” here are actually caricatures of people from Asia and Africa, as well as of Jews and Muslims. The exhibition culminates in “Wonders,” which examines illustrations of the most bizarre beasts that left medieval viewers awestruck or even perplexed. All of these monsters and monstrosities reflect what medieval societies considered beautiful and wretched, divine and sinful, acceptable and utterly nefarious.

Ethiopia, from Marvels of the World, France, ca. 1460, The Morgan Library & Museum.

The monsters in “Terrors” acted as formidable enemies that were conquered by only the most capable of men (often saints, noblemen, and members of the clergy). Those who rid European society of these horrifying creatures (or were said to have done so) proved that they had earned the praise and power they enjoyed, affirming their authority, whether it be religious or secular. In this way, medieval monsters’ role in telling the tales of heroes cemented power dynamics, further convincing societies that their leaders were extraordinary if not divinely appointed. One potent piece from this section is St. Martha Taming the Tarasque. Filling less than a half page in the Book of Hours of Henry VIII  of France (ca. 1500), the illustration shows an unusual mammal-fish hybrid creature emerging from a cave with the legs of its latest victim dangling from its mouth. This beast, the Tarasque, was said to have been the offspring of the biblical Leviathan. As one chivalrous knight daggers the monster, Martha of Bethany subdues the beast with nothing more than holy water and a rope. This small, finely detailed image reasserts the superhuman power of saints, but also suggests that piety and calmness are virtues women should uphold even when faced with the most menacing of threats.

The “monsters” in “Aliens” were, for the most part, depictions of foreigners who were both threatening and intriguing because of their non-European physical traits and lifestyles. The illustration Ethiopia in the Livre des merveilles du monde (ca. 1460) depicts a scene in Ethiopia featuring hairy, half-naked men carrying clubs while basilisks shriek in the distance. In their depictions of Africans, as well as other ethnic groups, the manuscripts exaggerate the Ethiopians’ facial features to highlight the differences between them and Europeans. By coupling exotic foreigners with actual monsters, medieval Europeans often depicted strangers abroad as objects of fear and speculation. This practice also helped mark non-Christians as enemies, an idea that quickly developed alongside the expansion of Christendom.

In the Middle Ages, monsters were central figures in the European imagination who did more than frighten those who saw or heard of them.

“Wonders” features monsters that were created for more or less the same reason we have them today: entertainment. The Griffin and Boar miniature image from Worksop Bestiary (ca. 1185) captures this idea—here is a stunning, bright red griffin, part feline, part bird, with a boar clutched in its talons. Creatures like the griffin were works of pure imagination, the fantastical and inventive conceptions of medieval artists. Unicorns, mandrakes, and hydras, some of the other wonders, were the most aesthetically unusual and therefore the most thought-provoking beasts from the Middle Ages, inspiring those who saw them to consider their own vulnerabilities and relation to the world.

Today’s monsters are portrayed as rule-breakers who embody the traits society wishes to divorce from humanity—profound loathing and insatiable rage—for our entertainment, instruction, and catharsis. But in the Middle Ages, monsters were central figures in the European imagination who did more than frighten those who saw or heard of them. They came in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and this flexibility allowed their influence to be pervasive in every domain of life. Though small, the exhibition certainly accomplishes its goal of demonstrating how the anomalies we might now consider the products of wild imaginations actually encouraged social order in the Middle Ages.

St. Christopher Carries Christ Child, from Book of Hours, Bruges, Belgium, ca. 1520, The Morgan Library & Museum.