Elizabethan pix & quotes: Gessner's Animalium

In Death by Disputation, Tom is in Cambridge doing intelligence work, guided by Francis Bacon through a daily exchange of letters. Bacon asks Tom to buy a few books for him while he’s there. Scholars and university booksellers sometimes imported books directly to the universities, so some of the more arcane works might never be available in London.

Orca. Vol III, pg. 748

I like my details to be real, so I went grazing around the internet, looking for a book that all three of us could enjoy (me, Francis, and Tom.) If it impressed Christopher Marlowe as well, so much the better. I found Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium (Histories of the Animals), published in Zurich in 1551–58 and 1587. It’s this new edition that Tom bought for Francis. Get ready, because you are in for a WHALE of a good time!

Renaissance zoology

The Wikipedia article about the book calls it “an inventory of renaissance zoology.” First, if I were ever to go back for another degree, that would totally be my major. Second, how wonderful is the modern world, in which there are articles about encyclopediae of renaissance zoology at our fingertips?

Further marvelosities: you can download the whole lovely 4-volume work in pdf format from Google Books. (I would never have finished my PhD if this stuff had been available in the 90s.) Volume I, live-bearing quadrupeds; Volume II, egg-laying quadrupeds (reptiles); Volume III, birds; and IV, fish and aquatics.

Actually, Bacon could easily have found these volumes in London. Gesner’s opus was hugely popular among those who could read Latin or just enjoy the fabulous illustrations. Edward Topsell translated and condensed it as a Historie of foure-footed beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607.) Bacon had more money in 1607, or at least better credit. He probably bought that too. Alas, his library was not preserved. You can look at the pictures from this one at the University of Houston’s Digital Library.

The renaissance is available to us as it has never been before. Thank you, Librarians of the World!

The text

I’m extracting pages and turning them into jpgs for display. This is what you call serious, hard-core screwing around. You wouldn’t know I had a draft3 revision waiting for me or a big landscaping project taking over my driveway. But wait til you see these pictures!

Here’s a look at the text. This is page 3 from volume II: egg-bearing quadrupeds, modernly known as reptiles. The sharp-eyed among you will notice that not only is the body of the work in Latin, but the prose is also liberally sprinkled with Greek and even Hebrew. Impenetrable to all but the likes of Francis Bacon! But who cares, when you’ve got a chameleon like this to admire?

Gesner’s Animalium, Lib. II, pg 3



Here’s page 3 from Librium II, the one about egg-laying quadrupeds. This lovely creature, I assume, is a chameleon.

There aren’t very many illustrations in this volume, actually. It’s mostly many long pages of dense text. But old Conrad was no fool. He starts with this beautifully rendered specimen and then jumps straight into fearsome and exotic crocodiles, saving the humble and familiar frog for last.













Close up of Gesner’s Animalium, Lib. II, pg. 3

Now for a closer look at the text. I admire the sheer scholarship of this kind of work! But neither Tom nor Christopher Marlowe could have read the Hebrew, and Tom would have been defeated by the Greek. I wonder if Bacon had an earlier version of this encyclopedia growing up at Gorhambury? His mother taught him and his brother Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. This would have been just thing to pique the interest of intellectual boys.

But now that I think of it, it’s kind of pleasing to know that most of my characters and I would approach this book on much the same level. I don’t read any Latin at all, but the whole encyclopedia is so heavily larded with other ancient languages, I’m not sure how much it would help. But even so, me and my old pal Billy Shakespeare can still goggle at the erudition and groove on the awesome illustrations.


Welcome to the zoo!

You’ll see a merman down there. Gesner included many mythical creatures, like the unicorn and the merfolks. He generally made an effort to distinguish fact from fantasy, but given his sources, it would be difficult to rule these commonly reported beings altogether.


Crocodile! Lib II, pg 10
Image from the frontispices of Gesner’s Animalium, Lib. III
This guy says, “What? I am smiling! This is how I smile.” lib I, p632.
What do you call an 8-legged sea creature who brings about the end of the world? An apocaloctopus. Lib. IV, p908
Merman. Gesner Animalium IV, pg 557
A twofer: Stork with serpent. Gesner animalium III, pg 251

Even imaginary people need something to read

Character worksheets usually have lists of features that supposedly add depth to the people who populate your works of fiction. Some include things like their favorite flavor of ice cream, which is not much help for historical fiction. And how is supposed to help you write their reaction to discovering a body on the library floor? Other worksheets ask for life extremes, like the greatest fear or happiest moment. I don’t rank the events of my life on a scale and couldn’t tell you what my happiest moment was. I’ve had many happy moments, lucky me, each happy in its own special way. I’m afraid of many things too, including driving in a hailstorm and spiders. What does that tell you about my investigative proclivities? (Nothing, is the correct answer.)

Most people will supply conventional fears like “speaking in public,” or big happy events like “the birth of my first child,” which I find completely unhelpful in character development.

I want to know how my characters live. Where do they work? What do they eat? What do they do in the evening? Where did they go to school and what sorts of students were they? What do they read? That tells me more about their everyday selves than the obvious, unrevealing questions in the worksheets. Besides, I’m nosy about these things.

All my characters are curious people with big dreams, even the bad guys, so they all read something.

The Elizabethans

From the English Broadside Ballad Archive at UCSB.

You’d think someone would have compiled a list of books read by Francis Bacon, but no one has. The
information is directly available, since his library was not preserved. It could have been — one of his lifelong friends was Thomas Bodleian, founder of the eponymous library at Oxford University — but it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Francis borrowed most of the books he read.

That said, he read a lot. Some of what he read has been deduced from what he wrote. He must have read most of the major works on natural philosophy and religion written during his lifetime. He also read Montaigne’s Essays and Machiavelli’s The Prince. He had a solid foundation in Roman literature and would certainly have read things like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Holinshed’s Chronicles, the source Shakespeare relied on for his history plays.

Thomas Clarady loved chivalric romances, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a boyhood taste that lived on well into adulthood. When his wits were exhausted from studying legal works, he would turn to old friends. He devoured Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and Orlando Furioso, once Sir John Harington translated it into English in 1591. He also had a good grounding in Latin literature, but liked Christopher Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s The Art of Love better than anything assigned to him in school.

Benjamin Whitt also liked the romances, but devoured broadsides and  pamphlets, the more outlandish, the better. These cheap publications were the popular literature of the day, strictly speaking beneath an educated man like men. Well, we all have our vices.

The example shown here is from the English Broadside Ballad Archive of the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

The Texans

buroker-the-emperors-edgePenelope ‘Penny’ Trigg, the protagonist of my Lost Hat, Texas, series, has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. She can’t afford art books, but her family gives them to her for Christmas and birthdays. One of her most treasured books is a collection of photographs by the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. For fun, Penny likes science fiction and fantasy. Being an independent artist-entrepreneur herself, she gravitates toward indie authors like Lindsay Buroker, Sean Platt, and Johnnie Truant.

Tyler Hawkins, Penny’s venture capitalist boyfriend, mainly reads technology and business journals. He’s not long on imagination. Every now and then, like on a long flight, he’ll read something like Barry Eisler’s international thrillers.

Otilia ‘Tillie’ Espinoza is a romantic through and through. She prefers contemporary romance, especially ones with plus-sized heroines. She loved Katie Graykowski’s Perfect Summer. She also reads all of Courtney Milan’s books. She wishes there were more sexy romances with Latina heroines. The hero can be whatever, as long as he’s gorgeous and kind to animals. Krystal Cameron likes snappy paranormal chick lit and zippy fashionista mysteries, like those by Diane Vallere. Sadly, these heroines tend to encourage Krystal’s less than orthodox decision-making strategies.


Now, doesn’t that tell you more than today’s flavor of ice cream?

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