Special Collections recently acquired a copy of Edward Topsell’s (1572-1625?) Historie of Fovre-Footed Beastes (1607), which is bound together with Topsell’s companion work, The Historie of Serpents (1608). These were the first major books on animals printed in England in the vernacular. These books were primarily English translations of selected portions of Conrad Gesner’s (1516-1565) Historicae Animalium (1551-1587), a five-volume Latin encyclopedia of the animal kingdom, and one of the first modern zoological works. Topsell’s versions also reproduce the same woodcut illustrations that were presented in Gesner’s version. The woodcuts are particularly striking, and are among one of the highlights of these books.
The text is very extensive, and includes a great deal of information about the creatures surveyed, including details about their natural habitat, instincts, illnesses, relations with other animals and with humans, utility for use by humans, and their effects on human culture. The information is not always accurate (and sometimes it is downright preposterous, consisting of superstitions and folklore), but, while hardly great science by current standards, it provides a fascinating documentary portrait of what was known, assumed, and misunderstood about the animal kingdom.
In writing his zoology, Gesner (and Topsell) tried to draw some distinction between observed facts and myths, but, as happened in many Early Modern natural histories, not all of the creatures described actually exist. Alongside a vast selection of real animals (of primarily European, African, and Indian origin), one finds some very detailed biological descriptions of such remarkable animals as the unicorn, dragon, manticore, sea serpent, and hydra, to name just a few. Some of these monsters had been described in ancient and medieval sources; others came from contemporary accounts by people who claimed to have seen them. Together, this blend of the real and the imaginary provides a fascinating example of the state of zoology in seventeenth century England.
It’s also interesting to note that these books were printed by William Iaggard (1568-1623), who would later go on to print the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays (the 1623 “First Folio”).
This volume will feature prominently in the upcoming Special Collections exhibition, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.”