A 1600 Work I
1600 Work II
1600 Work III
Studying the Animals I
Bill Long 8/29/08
From Gesner's 16th/Topsell's 17th Century Work..
If you want to study animals today, you just go down to the library or bookstore and pick up a book, probably on a specific animal or group of animals. For example, when I didn't know the word guenon in a spelling bee, I decided to get a book on monkeys, both out of interest and as a sort of penance. After looking around for a while, I had to content myself with a book on primates. We know what to expect: pictures, Latin names, descriptions of the primate, environments where it flourishes, interesting facts about it, whether it is threatened, etc. We are so
clear this the way to study animals that we really can't imagine another way to do so.
The purpose of these five essays is to introduce us to the work, in English translation, that was the real fountainhead of modern zoology. Because, however, it was written more than 400 years ago, it not only provides descriptions of the animals but also fantastic stories about mythological beasts, Biblical information about animals and unlikely "truths" about animals familiar to us. If we are to understand the study of animals today, we ought also to sink ourselves into the way that scholars thought one should study and write about animals earlier in the Western tradition. For, when you think about it for just a minute or two, it isn't crystal clear that we had to develop the binomial nomenclature system, or that what you might call the "moral" or "emotional" lessons of animals should be left out of scientific treatments.
Turning to Conrad Gesner
As so often hapens, while studying something else I came across references to Conrad Gesner's massive (five volumes, four of which were published in his lifetime) work entitled Historiae Animalium (1551-87). I learned that he (1516-65) was a Swiss classicist and physician, who had, before embarking on his Animalium project already put together a massive Bibliotheca universalis, in which he listed every author of works in the three "biblical" languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew), something about the author and all of the works he wrote. This stunning act of scholarship, referred to by some as a 16th century "Google" effort, with interpretive comments in addition, served as the basis for his work on animals. The first volume of Animalium (1110 folio pages) appeared in 1551 and concerned quadrupeds; the second (137 folios) in 1554, also on quadrupeds; the third (779 folios) on birds in 1555; the fourth (1297 folios) on fish, clams, oysters, etc. and the fifth (170 folios) in 1587 (22 years after his death) on serpents. The work proved to be probably the most popular work on natural history published in the 16th century. Gesner wrote in Latin.
Two things made his work so signficant. First, though dependent to a certain degree on the medieval bestiary tradition, in which animals are presented as moral examples of certain traits urged on the reader, he was increasingly dependent on observation and close description. His major sources, in addition, were the classical authors on animals, beginning with Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, as well as contemporary scholars, with whom he kept up a wide correspondence. Second, he filled his volumes with sketches or wood-cuts of many of the animals. When portions of his massive effort came into English early in the 17th century, most of the sketches were preserved. In fact, all 175 are linked here for your viewing pleasure. These sketches ought to be studied closely, since they become the basis for more modern, pre-photographic depictions of the animals.
Topsell's Work in English
Gesner died far too early, at age 49, of the plague. The story is recorded that when he was about to die, he wanted not to do a cruise around the world (a very 20th century idea) but wanted to be put in his study where he could be surrounded by the books he studied and wrote. Indeed, he wrote more than 70 volumes in his brief lifetime, a sort of 16th century Jeremy Bentham. Only John Calvin and Martin Luther from that century perhaps wrote more words than he, and they both lived longer than he did.
So popular was Gesner's work that English clergyman Edward Topsell (1572-1625) decided to translate some of it in 1607 and 1608. This was the time when Shakespeare was writing his most moving tragedies; Francis Bacon was thinking through his thoughts that would soon become The Novum Organon, and many of the early Puritan divines were receiving their education. It was a time of immense intellectual and creative ambition in England, and Topsell's desire to put Gesner's work in English (a four-volume German edition had been done in the 1580s) reflected that ambition. The 1607 work was entitled The History of Four-footed Beasts and was a translation of Vols. 1 and 2 of Gesner's work. Though Gesner's first two volumes were work about 1250 folio pages, Tospell's was "only" about 750 pages. He abbreviated slightly, but the publisher (William Jaggard) just decided to put loads of stuff on each page.
Topsell's second volume dealt with The History of Serpents (1608). Even though Gesner's work on that (vol. 5) was published in 1587, Topsell drew both on Gesner and on another person, a certain Dr. Bonham, for the treatment of serpents. Topsell died in 1625, but a combined two-volume edition of these two works, as well as another work appeard in 1658. Entitled The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects (I bet you see where this is going...), the second volume of the 1658 work was devoted exclusively to translating (from the Latin) Theodore Moufet's (Moffet--1553-1604) work Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum. Thus, vol. 1 of the 1658 work consisted of Topsell's 1607 work on quadrupeds (which translated Gesner's first two volumes) as well as the 1608 work on serpents. Vol. 2 was a translation of Moffet's work on insects. Then, if this isn't confusing enough, a reprint of the 1658 work was published in 1967 in three volumes, where vol. 1 contains the discussion on quadrupeds, vol. 2 is about serpents and vol. 3 covers insects. Phew...
Looking at the Work
In order to get a flavor of Topsell's translation of this immense work, which appeared in Latin two centuries before Linnaeus gave us our current animal/plan classification system, I will devote one essay each to the following: Gesner's/Topsell's treament of a mythological beast--the Hydra; a "reported from a distance" beast--from South America; and two popular animals in the Western world--the baboon and the squirrel. This should give you a "flavor" of the work, which you probably won't rush out to buy, since I saw one advertised on the Net for $4,500.
Let's turn now to see how Topsell handles the story of the mythological beast slain by Hercules--the Hydra.