Today, a zoology book. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
1607 was the year Shakespeare
finished Macbeth, Galileo showed that the
path of a projectile is parabolic, and a committee
of fifty-four translators was halfway through its
task of writing the King James Bible. The
alchemical convolutions of the old world were
giving way to new clarity and objectivity. 1607 was
also the year that a cleric named Edward Topsell
published a remarkable 1100-page treatise on
zoology. In it he shows us a world that had not
quite been overturned by the new scientific method.
Topsell's title begins: The HISTORY of
Four-footed Beasts and Serpents Describing at Large
Their True and Lively Figure, their Several names,
Conditions, Kinds, Virtues ..., and it keeps on
going. Here is all you'd ever dare to know about
any beast. The illustrations are marvelous, and
I'll let the text speak for itself.
Quoting a Roman authority, Topsell says that
"Dogs have reason, and use logik in their hunting." But
he's compelled to add that
"It is the nature of a Dog, when he maketh water, to hold up his leg ..."
We're told that apes are terrified of snails, and
horses love "musik." He says that elephants worship
the sun and the moon with their own rituals and
that "The blood of an elephant and the ashes of a Weasil, cure ... Leprosie."
He says that touching
an elephant's trunk cures headaches.
Hippopotamus is the Greek word for what
Topsell calls the "sea horse." He says it
"is a most ugly and filthy beast," but he lists it as a
kind of horse. His picture shows one eating a
"The ... procreation of mice is not only by copulation, but also nature worketh wonderfully in ingenduring them by earth."
That's the old idea
that life generates spontaneously in any kind of
filth. (Some people still thought that 150 years
ago.) He says a cat is "much delighted to play with her image in a glass."
Among his animals, you meet Gorgons, Sphinxes, and
Lamias. He pictures them as mixtures of real
animals with the stuff of myths. He's quite
unambiguous in telling us about the Winged Dragon
and the Unicorn. He faces doubters, saying,
"...lest it should seem incredible, as the foolish world is apt to believe no more than they see, I have [added] the testimonies of sundry learned men."
All around Edward Topsell, today's rules of
scientific evidence were taking shape. Topsell,
too, was concerned with validation. He says at the
outset, "I would not have the Reader ... imagine I have ... related all that is ever said of these Beasts, but only [what] is said by many."
basis he accepted that
"... the horn of the unicorn ... doth wonderfully help against poyson" -- simply
because several people had told him it did.
You and I want better assurance than that meager
consensus, but give Topsell his due. His monumental
work was actually an early glimmer of modern
science. For all its imperfection, it represents a
vast collection of would-be observational data, and
it even includes a rudimentary rule for sifting
truth from supposition.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Topsell, E., The History of Four-Footed Beasts and
Serpents and Insects. New York: Da Capo Press,
1967. (This is a facsimile of the original edition:
London: Printed by William Iaggard, 1607.)
Topsell, E., The Historie of Serpents or The
second Booke of Liuing Creatures: ... , New
York: Da Capo Press, 1973. (This is facsimile of
the original edition: London: Printed by William
It is worth noting that Topsell's first volume is a
reworking, expansion, and popularization of a late
16th-century bestiary written by Konrad Gesner,
Historiae Animalium Liber Primus. His second
volume is likewise derived from the work of Thomas
Moffett, Insectorum sive minimorum animalium
For an excellent display of Topsell's images see
this UH Special Collections page.
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, UH Special
Collections, for introducing me to a later
17th-century edition of the work: Topsell, E., The
history of four-footed beasts and serpents ... /
collected out of the writings of Conradus Gesner
and other authors. Whereunto is now added, The
theater of insects; or, lesser living creatures ...
by T. Muffet. London : Printed by E. Cotes, for G.
Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson, M DC LVIII.
This is a substantially reworked version of
The fabled Mantichora
A very real (if imaginative) bactrian camel
And a carnivorous hippopotamus
All images from HISTORY of
Four-footed Beasts Ö 1607
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.