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All Creatures Great and Small: A Renaissance Treasure

In 1565 when Renaissance scholar Konrad Gesner died of the plague at the age of 49, he had published a huge body of work and established himself as the first modern bibliographer as well as the father of zoology. This Swiss physician and author has a place in the special collections at Thomas Jefferson University's Scott Library since it holds the first volume (1551) of his five-volume compendia on all the animals of the earth. Scouring texts by Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Roman and later European authorities, his citations marked the total extent of accumulated human knowledge on the animal (and later, plant) kingdom.

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Gesner’s History of Quadrupeds, Vol. 1 Rhinoceros (after Albrecht Durer, ca. 1502) Urus, showing the manner in which they were hunted to extinction in Eastern Europe Camel Unicorn

 

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Gulon (Wolverine?)

Gulon entry, English translation by Edward Topsell (1607) - "This beast was not known by the ancients, but hath bin since discovered in the Northern parts of the world. (Germany and the Netherlands)...When it hath found a dead carcass he eateth thereof so violently that his belly standeth out like a bell; then he seeketh for some narrow passage betwixt two trees, and there draweth through his body, by pressing whereof he driveth out the meat which he had eaten; and being so emptied returneth and devoureth as much as he did before."

Historically, Aristotle and other ancients had first written about the animal world and were followed by medieval authors who created bestiaries with Christian lessons embedded in each animal's behavior, but Gesner’s work culminated this heritage with many original reports from such locales as distant Moscow (urus, the extinct wild ox) and the Americas (the improbable armadillo).

Gesner, who was a brilliant linguist, had first published a “universal bibliography” listing all the authors (and their titles) who had written in Greek, Hebrew or Latin - from ancient texts to the most current publications. This work led to his honorific: Plinius germanicus, the German Pliny. He quit work on Book 20 of his bibliography to publish his Historie animalium, a zoological encyclopedia beginning with “live-bearing quadrupeds” or mammals (as coined in 1758 by the classifier Linnaeus). His plan, ambitious as ever, was to next move to the egg-layers, then aquatic beasts, the serpents, and, finally, plants.

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Cameleopard   

TJU Archives holds a first edition, a folio of titanic proportions over 1,100 pages and illustrated with numerous woodcuts. That same year, 1551, Gesner fell ill. Scholars suggest tuberculosis. This did not slow down his printing schedule but seemed to energized by the looming prospect of an early death. He started researching his book on plants before the animal subject was exhausted. The three animal volumes which followed were of a more discrete size, possibly due to poor sales because of the expense of the first big book. Dr. Gesner, as City Physician of Zurich, was also kept busy attending victims of the plague which visited Zurich annually from 1563-1565. A year before Konrad Gesner’s death the Holy Roman Emperor ennobled the famed doctor, who only briefly used the name Konrad von Gesner.

Gesner’s History of Quadrupeds was important to science and medicine because of its comprehensiveness and that it afforded a springboard for future comparative anatomy texts. Naturalists began considering shared characteristics and cladistic relationships among organisms. As a window into the “scientific” mind of a Renaissance thinker it is notable to see woodcuts of tigers and goats uncritically followed by images of unicorns and satyrs. Many dubious animals were found to be genuine - see the gulon entry (which seems to describe the wolverine) and the cameleopard, which we know as our giraffe.

 

 

 

 



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