Inquirere: Early Natural History Books at the CRRS

On display in this exhibit is a selection of printed books from 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. 


Christopher Harry

Inquirere: Early Natural History Books at the CRRS