The Natural Sciences Before Linnaeus
The field of natural history began evolving into a formal scientific discipline beginning with Carl Linnaeus’ publication of Systema Naturae (10th edition) in 1758. This work signifies the start of modern systematics and organized life sciences. After 1840 the field of natural history became increasingly specialized into subdisciplines, one major subdiscipline being entomology. Before Linnaeus, natural histories were compilations of ancient descriptions of the natural world intertwined with a liberal dose of legend and allegory. These compilations were randomly or idiosyncratically organized and contained illustrations based on written descriptions rather than drawings from life. The results are often inaccurate and fantastical. Out of the bestiary genre, more scientific or observation-based compilations were published in the 15th and 16th centuries, but those still retained descriptions based on prior sources.
Friedrich Tippmann assembled a remarkable collection of early natural history sources, particularly those which lay the foundations for the study of entomology. The following are some highlights of pre-Linnean items found in the Friedrich F. Tippmann Collection, NCSU Libraries’ Special Collections.
Konrad von Megenberg, 1309-1374. Buch der Natur. [Entomologische Abschnitte] Augsburg: Anton Sorg, 1482.
Konrad von Megegenberg’s Buch der Natur was the first natural history in the German language. Written in 1350, Buch der Natur was first printed in moveable type in 1475. NCSU Libraries owns a fragment of the fourth printing of the work in 1482. The Tippmann collection owns a fragment of the text, which contains the section of Buch der Natur that describes insects and reptiles entitled, "Von den Würmen." The crude woodcut illustration portrays insects both real and fantastic.
Megenberg attended early education in Erfurt and went on to university in Paris where he studied philosophy and theology. After receiving his doctorate, he returned to Germany in 1337 to teach and assumed a position in the clergy. Megenberg was a prolific and eclectic writer, with over 20 major publications to his credit. Megenberg's text is a summation of the medieval theories of nature and science; it is mainly a reiteration of various classical sources translated into German rather than an original contribution to scientific knowledge, but it is the first of its kind of natural history in the vernacular.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1522-1605. De Animalibus Insectis Libri Septem cum Singulorum Iconibus ad Viuum Expressis. Bonon: apud Clementum Ferronium, 1638.
True to the Renaissance period into which he was born, Ulisse Aldrovandi pursued learning in many subjects --- mathematics, Latin, law, archaeology, and medicine --- until ultimately he focused on natural history. He took his medical degree in 1553 and assumed a professorship at the University of Bologna in order to finance his interests in natural history. His lectures were very popular and he was promoted to full professor in 1561. An enthusiastic naturalist, he traveled extensively on collecting ventures and assembled his own specimen collections and library. Aldrovandi also created the botanical gardens in Bologna, where he was the first curator. Aldrovandi played an important role in the history of natural sciences and is considered one of the fathers of modern zoology. He broadened the role of medicine at the university level by extending it to include the study of animals and minerals and plants per se instead of exclusively focusing on those flora of very narrow medicinal value. He advocated direct observation and study of the natural world and implemented this as a pedagogical tool. Aldrovandi had planned a 10 volume encyclopedic work on zoology. He was only able to publish four volumes during his lifetime, three volumes on birds and the fourth, De animalibus insectis, on insects.
Thomas Moffett, 1553-1604. Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum: Olim ab Edoardo Wottono, Conrado Gesnero, Thomaque Pennio Inchoatum; Tandem Tho. Movfeti Londinâtis Operâ Sumptibusq; Maximis Concinnatum, Auctum, Perfectum: et ad Vivum Expressis Iconibus Suprà Quingentis Illustratum. Londini: ex Officinâ typographicâ Thom. Cotes; Et venales extant apud Benjam. Allen, diverticulo, quod Anglicè dicitur Popes-head Alley, 1634.
Thomas Moffett studied medicine at Cambridge and Basel and received his medical degree in 1578. He returned to England to practice medicine, but traveled to the Continent frequently. During his travels in Italy and Spain in 1579, he studied the silkworm and became interested in entomology. Physician to the nobles in the court of Elizabeth I, he gave up that post to become a member of Parliament in 1597. He published many medical texts and one major work on natural history.
Published posthumously, the NCSU copy of Theatrum insectorum is a first edition. The work has a complex publishing history. It originally began as an unpublished manuscript of Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), upon whose death, it was sold to Moffet’s friend,Thomas Penny (d. 1589). Penny used Gesner’s work as well as Edward Wotton’s (1492-1555), and in addition, he added his own information and illustrations to the manuscript. When Penny died before the book was published, Moffett took over the publication and added his own entomological observations. When Moffett tried to publish the work, he couldn’t get an English printer interested in taking the financial risk of printing it and so it languished until after Moffett’s death when it was sold to Thomas Mayerne (1573-1655) who published it in 1634. It was shortly thereafter translated into English and issued as v. 3 of Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents in 1658. The illustrations throughout the text are woodcuts and include one elaborately engraved frontispiece.
Erasmus Francisci, 1627-1694. Erasmi Francisci Ost- und West-Indischer wie auch Sinesischer Lust- und Stats-garten mit Einem Vorgespräch von Mancherley Lustigen Discursen; in Drey Haupt-theile Unterschieden. … Nürnberg In verlegung J. A. Endters und Wolfgang dess jüngern sel. erben, 1668.
Erasmus Francisci was born in Lubeck, Germany in 1627. His mother's family came from a long line of jurists, and she named him for her father, the royal Danish councilor Erasmus Reutz. Born Erasmus von Finx, he changed his surname to reflect his father's first name, Francis, while at university. It was purely by accident that Francisci began his career as a writer. After he broke both legs in an unfortunate fall, he literally had to seek a sedentary professional position. He became a secretary in the Endter publishing house and later rose to the position of editor. At Endter, Francisci became one of the first German writers to become self sufficient through his writing and is considered to be among the most influential figures in the German Baroque period. Regarded as a polyhistor, Francisci was a prolific writer whose voracious curiosity led him to write on many topics including popular plays and novels, baroque love letters, travels, natural history, and church songs.
It was fashionable for the nobility of this period to have curiosity collections, collections of specimens, minerals, interesting bits of natural history, and books in a cabinet or room for display. These cabinets of wonder reflected a cultural fascination with the new and exotic and were also symbols of wealth and learning. Compilations of such interesting zoological, geological and botanical curiosities from around the world, some of the information accurate, some of it fabricated, were popular reading for the aristocratic classes. Ost- und west-indischer wie auch sinesischer lust- und stats-garten is Francisci's most beloved and ornate publication on exotic curiosities. Considered a literary celebrity, Francisci was the closest thing to a best selling author for this period. The NCSU copy of Ost- und west-indischer wie auch sinesischer lust- und stats-garten is a beautiful example 17th century decorative vellum binding, ornately blindstamped and outfitted with vellum clasps.
Joannes Jonstonus, 1603-1675. Theatrum Universale Omnium Animalium: Insectorum, Tabulis Viginti Octo ab Illo Celeberrimo Mathia Meriano, Aeri Incisis Ornatum ex Scriptoribus tam Antiquis, Quam Recentioribus … Heilbrunnensis: Franciscus Iosephus Eckebrecht, 1757 (Heilbrunnensis : Ioh. Adami Sigmundi).
First published in 1653, Jonston’s Theatrum insectorum is primarily a compilation of Konrad Gesner’s (1516-1565) and Ulisse Aldrovandi’s (1522-1605) natural histories. Although it is a reiteration of earlier works, Jonston’s text served to popularize natural history; his work was widely read and translated. Regard for Jonston continued after his death and is evidenced by the reissuing of Theatrum insectorum close to 100 years after its original publication date. Notable are the book’s illustrations, and, although copied from the aforementioned sources, they were engraved by master artist, Matthäus Merian, the leading illustrator of the 17th century.
Born in Poland, Jonston was of Scottish heritage and was raised in Prussia. He attended university in Scotland at St. Andrews before returning to Poland to become a private tutor. He went on to study medicine at Leiden and turned down a professorship, preferring instead to travel and pursue his own private interests. After extensive traveling, he returned to Lignitz in Silesia were he remained until his death in 1675.
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