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

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