Conrad Gesner's Historiae animalium

Conrad Gesner [26 March 1516 – 
13 December 1565]

 Gesner was most noted in his day as a physician, botanist, and Classical linguist. Throughout his life he was interested in biology and collected specimens and descriptions of wildlife through travel and extensive correspondence with other scholars. His approach to research centered upon four tenets: observation, dissection, travel to distant lands, and accurate description. This emergent empirical approach was new to Renaissance scholars, who usually relied entirely upon Classical writers for their research.
His Historiae animalium (Zürich, 1551-1587; "Studies on Animals") is considered to be the first modern zoological work. Building a bridge between ancient, medieval, and modern science, he chronicles data from old sources, such as The Old Testament, Aristotle and medieval bestiaries, and adds his own observations, creating a new, comprehensive description of the Animal Kingdom. In what is the first attempt by anyone to describe many of the animals accurately, the book is illustrated with hand-colored woodcuts drawn from personal observations by Gesner and his colleagues.
Though Gesner sought to distinguish facts from myths, his encyclopedic work also includes mythical creatures and imaginary beasts, intermixed with the strange newly discovered animals of the East Indies, those of the far north and animals brought back from the New World. The work included extensive information on mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. It described in detail their daily habits and movements. It also included their uses in medicine and nutrition.
Historiae animalium showed the animals' places in history, literature and art as well. Sections of each chapter detailed the animal and its attributes. Gesner's work included facts in different languages such as the names of the animals. His information drew from folktales, myths, and legends. The colored woodcut illustrations were the first real attempts to represent animals in their natural environment. It is the first book with fossil illustrations.

The five volumes of the natural history consists of more than a whopping 4500 pages [He spends 125 pages on cows alone]. The first volume is an illustrated work on live-bearing four-footed animals [or mammals in today's parlance]. This old form of animal classification, by number of feet and method of birth, was borrowed from Aristotle, the Ancient Greek scientist and philosopher who was the first Western biologist.  Gesner studied and taught Aristotle's works extensively and used many of his descriptions and investigative techniques in Historiae animalium. Volume 2 is on egg-laying quadrupeds. Volume 3 is on birds. Volume 4 is on fish and aquatic animals. A fifth volume, on snakes and scorpions, was published in 1587, after Gesner’s death [from the plague, which was common in Europe during his time].
There was extreme religious tension at the time Historiae animalium came out. Under Pope Paul IV it was felt that the religious convictions of an author contaminated all his writings, so it was added to the Catholic Church's list of prohibited books.
It makes you wonder what motivated him. He indicates in the introduction to the first volume that as a physician, he feels that a deeper understanding of the Animal Kingdom will broaden our knowledge of medicine. As a religious man, he also feels that it will help his readers to understand the great plan of God, who he believes created the perfect universe and all of its creatures. Gesner was Protestant, and his faith in the perfection of God's plan for the natural world moved him to envision the Garden of Eden on the back of the first volume. 

This is a Camelopardal, a giraffe that's also part camel and part leopard. It was known in 16th-century Europe only from travelers' reports.

Gesner devotes an additional 100 pages to the dog, recognizing that their history is closely tied to that of humans. He writes extensively about the problem of rabies, and includes famous stories about the faithfulness of dogs to their masters.

Gesner does not question the existence of the unicorn, but admits that the image here is based upon literary depictions and not scientific observation.

Gesner credits elephants as being the most intelligent animal, and as having emotions the most like humans of any other creature. He comments that its ivory has been traded as a luxury item around the known world for centuries.

This illustration of an Indian rhinoceros was originally made by noted artist Albrecht Dürer.  Dürer himself had never seen a rhinoceros, but based his drawing on one made in Lisbon of a rhinoceros brought there from India in 1515.

The satyr was a creature from Greek mythology: a man with the legs and hindquarters of a goat. The "satyr" depicted here is a creature said to have been caught in the woods outside Salzburg; it reportedly died a few days after capture.

Gesner rejects the old notion that the chameleon lives on a diet of air alone. He quotes the personal observations of a friend who kept a chameleon in captivity and observed it eating insects with its long, sticky tongue.

Gesner accurately identifies Taprobana, now known as Sri Lanka, as a popular nesting ground for sea turtles.  He also comments on the tastiness of the sea turtle's meat, which has nearly driven it to extinction in the 20th century.

Because of its importance to humans, Gesner devotes over 100 pages to the chicken, more than any other bird. He spends a great deal of time to the care of chickens, including methods of increasing egg production.

Gesner was somewhat insecure about his illustration of the ostrich, but like a modern scientist he admits his doubts, "Some say that the bill should be broader … and that the feet should be cloven, as in calves … Let the eye-witness be the judge, for I have never seen this bird for myself."

Gesner is extremely skeptical of the existence of sea monsters, but he feels it necessary to mention them because he cannot absolutely refute earlier descriptions of them.

...but primarily, because people like to hear about sea monsters.

In Greek mythology, the hydra was a seven-headed monster slain by Hercules. Gesner considers it to be imaginary but includes it because of a recently published pamphlet about a seven-headed snake found in Turkey.

  1. Wikipedia page for Historiae Animalium
  2. Wikipedia page for Conrad Gesner
  3. National Institutes of Health Interactive Archive
  4. NIH Photo Gallery
  5. Complete English Text via University of Virginia Library

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