Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Beastly Books: Ornithology and Zoology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Francis Willoughby (1635-1672)

Two of the most influential books in the world of British ornithology and zoology sit on the shelves of Worcester Cathedral Library.  The first, Ornithology, was written by Warwickshire naturalist Francis Willoughby, and published posthumously in 1676.  Willoughby was a studious young man, and developed an interest in the fields of mathematics and taxonomy, botany and natural history.  Although in poor health for most of his life, he travelled the Continent and collected many specimens for documentation and categorisation.

Ornithology was put together by the naturalist John Ray, Willoughby’s long-time friend and mentor.  The edition of 1676 contains some remarkable engravings of birds, from the commonplace to the exotic.  The images below depict firstly the golden eagle and sea eagle, and secondly the eagle owl, horned owl and little horned owl.

Thomas Pennant (1726-1798)

When he was twelve years old, Thomas Pennant (the son of a Flintshire landowner) was given a copy of Francis Willoughby’s Ornithology.  The book ignited a passion for natural history which would turn the young man into one of Britain’s leading zoologists of the eighteenth century.  Pennant pursued the subject with what he called ‘constitutional ardor’, travelling around Britain and the Continent collecting fossil specimens and observing wildlife.  He corresponded with a number of eminent figures in the field including the Cornish naturalist William Borlase and the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus.

Pennant is best known for British Zoology, the first volume of which was published in 1766.  The completed work comprised four volumes, which dealt with quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and fish.  Printed in a compact octavo form, the second and subsequent editions met with considerable success.  The Cathedral Library has the fourth edition from 1776.  This book typifies the Enlightenment enthusiasm for the ‘modern systems’ of categorisation and taxonomy.  Indeed, it is generally agreed that its importance lays in its organisation and synthesis rather than in its literary merit.  Each section begins with the etymology of the animal’s name.  This is followed by a general description of its character and physiology.  The example of the sheep can be seen below (I particularly like the appearance of the word ‘fleecy’ in the margin!).

Despite its arrangement, British Zoology is neither dry nor discouraging.  In the Preface, Pennant expressed his hope that the work would inspire ‘sedentary’ readers to leave the house and explore the wonders of nature.  To that end it contains entertaining stories about the eradication of wolves and bears from the British Isles, poems and fishermen’s incantations, and insights into the medicinal uses of the viper’s flesh and the electric ray.  The book also reveals a less than scientific standpoint on the moral worth of particular creatures.  For example, Pennant had a very low opinion of the pig, which reflected popular notions of the time.  He called it ‘useless and rapacious’, ‘stupid, inactive and drowsy’ with ‘sordid manners’ and a ‘more than common brutality’.  The reader is warned that the pig’s ‘intestines have a strong resemblance to those of the human species; a circumstance that should mortify our pride’.

Other descriptions are more familiar to us, however, such as that of the cat: ‘a useful, but deceitful domestic; active, neat, sedate, intent on its pray.  When pleased it purres and moves its tail: when angry spits, hisses, and strikes with its foot.  When walking it draws its claws: it drinks little: is fond of fish: it washes its face with its fore-foot’.


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