Browse Exhibits (5 total)

Inquirere: Early Natural History Books at the CRRS

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On display in this exhibit is a selection of printed books form the CRRS’s collection that relate to the development of early natural history. They have been chosen primarily for their age (they were printed between the years 1500 and 1675 CE), the quality of the images they contain, the importance of each author to natural historians of the time, and to demonstrate the community that arose around this field of study.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the study of the natural world became its own distinct field of inquiry separate from the studies of natural philosophy and medicine. While natural philosophy was concerned with how the world worked, and medicine with the curative properties of plants and animals, natural history was concerned with the identification and description of nature – for instance, is this plant poison ivy or not and how does one tell the difference. This field of study did not spring from curiosity alone; it began with an interest in classical authors such as Pliny, Dioscorides and Aristotle, and their observations of nature.

While access to classical philosophies and science was possible through manuscripts, the invention of the printing press greatly increased the amount of classical texts available to the literate community. However, the study of the natural world in the early part of the sixteenth century was concerned less with the direct observation of plants and animals than the accurate translation and transmission of classical texts. Slowly, the emphasis shifted away from what the classical authorities had to say about nature – their knowledge privileged the organisms living in the Mediterranean and their descriptions were not always accurate. Contemporary natural historians were beginning to find specimens that had no reference in any classical work.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, natural historians began to expand on what the classical authors had documented. This was not an easy shift, as there was no standard vocabulary of description. Two methods of resolving this descriptive problem of accuracy emerged: one relied on established travel routes by road and sea, the other on the power of the printing press to create multiple copies.

Description by consensus became the standard for natural historians. This meant not only consensus with classical authors, but also with their peers. Mail became very important as written descriptions were shared, and seeds and dried plants (and sometimes even the preserved remains of small animals such as insects) were exchanged to confirm that one description of an organism matched, generally, with what others had seen. This web of correspondence had several hubs in the form of professors and doctors that had earned the esteem of the natural historian community through their teachings or published work.  Natural historians such as Aldrovandi, Gessner and Mattioli became the authority on natural history, and were constantly sent samples from their colleagues in the hopes of earning their approval and inclusion in their next publication.

Natural historians relied on the consensus of their peers as well as the printed image as a means of creating accurate descriptions of organisms. Print, in the form of woodcuts, could create highly detailed images of plants and animals and, more importantly, in large enough numbers to be distributed to a large audience. From the end of the sixteenth century until the middle of the seventeenth, detailed images were highly prized by the natural historian community. Oddly, for a community of people concerned with accuracy, these images were not true to life. The images, while detailed, were designed to be generic; capturing the significant details of a specimen so that an observer could identify an organism in the wild, but not with enough detail to distinguish a specific specimen. Paradoxically, many of the printed encyclopedias, histories and herbals about the natural world would contain an assurance to the reader that the images had been drawn from life and that this was a sign of quality, even if the images were generalized. While the use of images would never be abandoned entirely for natural history texts, their use did fall out of favour in the eighteenth century – replaced by a formalized vocabulary of description.

By assembling these examples from sixteenth and seventeenth century natural historians such as Aldrovandi and Gessner, it is my hope to provide a window into the early formation of this field of study and offer a glimpse into the unique way these early natural historians saw their world.  

Undergraduate Corbet Assistant Rare Book Presentations


Every year the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies offers Assistantships to three undergraduate students with a demonstrated interest in early modern studies at the University of Toronto. In addition to working at the CRRS library, this opportunity allows undergraduate students to participate and engage with the scholarly community around the CRRS. One of the primary goals of this assistantship is to facilitate student and faculty interaction, and also to promote student exploration of our rare book collection.  

At the close of the academic year, each Corbet Assistant presents their research on an item from the Centre's rare book collection. This exhibit showcases the most recent (2014-2016) presentations and research by our Corbet Assistants.


The Corbet Assistantships are graciously funded by Stephanie Corbet whose generous and continual sponsorship has supported the work and research of these exceptional students.   


For more on the Corbet Undergraduate Research Assistantships please visit 



Plutarch [Greek: Πλούταρχος, Ploútarkhoswas] was born in Chaeronea, sometime in the fifth decade of the Common Era. He is most famously known for the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives or Plutarch's Lives. The work comprises of 23 pairs of one Roman and one Greek noteworthy figure as well as four unpaired ones. In 1559 Jacques Amyot translated Plutarch’s Lives into French  and twenty years later in 1579 Thomas North translated the work further from the French into English. The North translation supplemented Shakespeare’s plays Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Pericles.


In Parallel Lives, Plutarch reveals many clues about his own life by means of inserting himself in the biographies through opinions as well as his work Moralia. According to Robert Lamberton—Plutarch’s biographer—Plutarch defined himself primarily as a philosopher and teacher of philosophy. For more information on Plutarch one can consult Robert Lamberton’s 2001 publication of Plutarch’s biography Plutarch published by Yale University Press.


This exhibit contains the following works:

  • Homeri Vita (1537) published by Per Balthasarem Lasium [et] Thomam Platterum from Basileae [Basel, Switzerland] in Latin

  • Opuscoli Morali (1598) published by Appresso Fiorauante Prati, from Venice. Contributor: Marco Antonio Gandini in Italian

  • Les Oeuures Morales & Meslees (1575) translated by Jacques Amyot, published by Par Michel de Vascosan imprimeur du Roy, from Paris, in French.

  • Les Vies des Hommes Illustres Grecs et Romains (1619) translated by Jacques Amyot, Simon Goulart, and Cornelius Nepos. Published by Chez Claude Morel in Paris, in French.

  • Vite di Plutarco Cheroneo de gli huomini illustri greci et romani (1568) translated by Lodovico Domenichi, published by Appresso Gabriel Giolito de' Ferrari, in Vinegia (Venice), in Italian.


Editions of Erasmus's Adagia


This exhibit highlights a selection of the many editions of the Adagia (Adages) by Erasmus Desiderius that are housed in the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies' (CRRS) collection. Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam was a Dutch Humanist and an important figure both for the humanist Reniassance and for the Protestant and Counter-Catholic Reformation periods during the sixteenth century.

Erasmus’s Adagia (Adages) is a collection of 4151 Greek and Latin  proverbs, each accompanied by a commentary explaining its history and possible uses. It was a key text of the humanist era and is still valuable today for a diverse community of scholars. 

The editions selected for this exhibit are predominately in Latin, except for where Greek is required for particular proverbs. They range in publicaiton year from 1510 to 1591, and represent a wide variety of formats, each with their unique paratextual materials which offer us clues as to the book's intended audience. 

The Adages were well received. "In the early sixteenth century, when good Latin sytle had a social importance and could actually get you a job, the Adages becames a best-seller and received accolades from many readers" (Barker, ix).

Erasmus first published the text sometime in his early thirties in the form of a 152 page book called Adagirorum collectanea or Collection of Adages (see 1510b for CRRS's Strassburg edition). Other writings of Erasmus reveal that he had noticed a need for such a collection of proverbs much earlier, and had taken to compiling lists of proverbs into a notebook. In later editions Erasmus adds additional notes and citations, continually revising and updating his work. Newer editions came to fruition after he travelled to Italy, making a connection with the famous humanist printer, Aldus Manutius. Manutius was responsible for the newer edition called, Adagirorum chiliades (Thousands of Adages), first published in 1508 (See examples here of later editions printed by Paolo Manutius in 1578 and 1591). There continue to be many other editions printed of this text, which speak to its popularity. Some are condensed, others expanded with an astonishing mulitiplicity of paratexual materials. 

The richness of the CRRS's collection the Adages serve as a focal point for researchers at the University of Toronto and around the world. They offer a glimpse into an important historical epoch and continue to delight by giving readers in depth background to a host of proverbs, many of which are still commonly used today. 


Works Cited

Desiderius, Erasmus. The Adages of Erasmus. Edited by William Barker, University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Spiritus Vitalis: Melancholy and Humoural Science in the Early Modern Period

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On display in this exhibit is a selection of printed books from the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Centre’s rare book collection, related to melancholy and humoural science in the early modern period. They were published loosely over the course of a century considered the midpoint of the early modern period, from around 1530 at the earliest to 1670 at the latest. Together, the books were chosen to offer a broad overview of one of the most pressing social concerns in Europe during the time period – the notion of humoural balance, and in particular the concept of melancholy.

During the early modern period, the modern distinction between anatomy and physiology did not yet exist, and physicians were primarily concerned with analyzing the function of bodily parts and organs, as well as the study of elements, temperaments, humours, spirits and faculties. The theory of the four humours, a concept first envisaged in the Medieval period that aligned bodily fluids with corresponding temperaments or humour, was still widespread in the early modern period. The four temperaments and their related ‘fluids’ – sanguine (blood), choleric (yellow bile), phlegmatic (phlegm) and melancholic (black bile) – were thought to inform and provide the foundation for a person’s underlying character. Melancholy was believed the worst of all, leading persons predisposed to the state at risk of “suffering of the mind.”[1] Robert Bolton’s influential text, “Instructions for a Right Comforting Afflicted Consciences” characterized melancholy as the “horrible humour”, since excessive sorrow was thought to “[grate] most upon the vitall spirits; [dry] up soonest the freshest marrow in the bones; [and] most sensibly [suck] out the purest, and refinedst bloud in the heart.”[2]

A depiction of the four humours, (from top left to bottom right: phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholic and choleric).[3]

Although melancholy is occasionally correlated with the modern mental illness of depression, this conceptualization is simplistic at best, and does not reflect the early modern understanding of the term. The problem with correlating melancholy and depression stems from the attempt to anachronistically medicalize the state or condition in a way that sharply narrows its breadth and scope within early modern society, and attempts to impose modern thought upon the past. Such a static ‘diagnosis’ undercuts the interplay across the disciplines. Scholars across multiple disciplines (physicians, botanists, priests, dramatists) were often in conversation with one another through their publications, and it is this interplay the exhibit seeks to showcase. Fundamental questions broached by scholars in this period were outside of the realm of the clinical, for instance: was melancholy a religious ailment? Was it a medical imbalance? Who had the “right” or responsibility to diagnose and offer solutions?

While scholars have noted the sense of competition that informed discussions of melancholy, and the desire to map out the physiological state as a territory of their own, there has been less discussion of its existence as the foundation upon which a socially-levelling discourse was built. As medicine and physiology developed, discussions around the humours and melancholy did not abate but seemed to proliferate, re-emerging in satire and sermons. The argument occurring across disciplines about the responsibility for melancholy largely operated as a social leveler – a way for botanists, physicians, dramatists, and religious orators to address an “epidemic” at the same time and using a set of terminology that transcended any one discipline.[4] By crafting an overarching term for an abstract dilemma, ‘melancholy’ could become a scapegoat – a way to raise concerns about post-Reformation European culture without discussing them outright – but it could also become a powerful discourse of its own. This brings us to the development of this exhibit, since books as material culture were uniquely poised to facilitate such a discussion.

Overall, the notion of humoural theory-as-social leveler largely played itself out within the pages of books and the boundaries of print culture. The herbal, a particular volume of natural science publication, was a type of book through and across which this argument took place. For example, while in theory the book was a treatise on medicinal plants, it existed just as much as a guide for self-improvement for the common person. The structure of the book demonstrates this continual back-and-forth. Just as the images in the herbal were rarely scientifically accurate, botanists could be more moralistic than scientific in their descriptions of natural phenomena, shaping natural specimens as catalysts for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ human behaviour and character. The ultimate success of a herbal might not be its scholarly merit, but its popularity and underlying usefulness[5]  – the writer’s ability to create their own response to the fears gripping early modern society, and to offer his own solutions.

It is my hope that this exhibit captures the highly interdisciplinary nature of humoural science and melancholy, and that the books I have selected – across the disciplines of humour, medicine, natural science and religion – offer a lens into the incredible discussion of early modern temperament shaped within and across print culture.

[1] Andreas Schluter, "Humouring the Hero: The Uses of Melancholy among Military Nobles in Late Elizabethan England," Heldon. Heroes. Heros., special issue, no. 1 (2014): 26.

[2] Angus Gowland, "Consolations for Melancholy in Renaissance Humanism," Society and Politics 6, no. 1 (April 2012): 21. 

[3] The Four Humours, from “Quinta Essentia” by Leonhart Thurneisser zun Thurn (1531-95/96) published in Leipzig, 1574 (engraving) (b/w photo), German School, (sixteenth century) /Private Collection/Archives Charmet/The Bridgeman Art Library.

[4] Robert Burton qtd. in Gowland. Angus Gowland, "The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy," Past & Present, 191 (2006): 82.

[5] Michael C. Goates, "Influential herbal and botanical texts from the 16th through 18th centuries," Presentation at the A. Dean Larsen Book Collecting Conference, Provo, UT (March 2016).