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Conrad Gesner
Historia animalium libri I-IV. Cum iconibus. Lib. I. De quadrupedibus uiuiparis. Zurich: C. Froschauer, 1551. N*.1.19(A)


Image of a rabbit from Gesner's Historia animalium

The Historia animalium of the Zurich naturalist and doctor of medicine Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) was the mostly widely read of all Renaissance natural histories, covering all known animals, including mythical and imaginary beasts, and newly 'discovered' creatures from the far north, the New World, and the East Indies. The work was first published in four volumes in Zurich, 1551-1558. Vol. 1, illustrated here, covers live-bearing quadrupeds; vol. 2, egg-laying quadrupeds; vol. 3, birds; and vol. 4, aquatic animals. A fifth volume, on snakes and scorpions, appeared posthumously in 1587. Gesner's work was remarkable for including so many images of the animals discussed, and the woodcut illustrations (hand-coloured in the CUL copy) have been much admired for their naturalism and attractiveness. The work was extremely popular: a German abridgement by Gesner, Thierbuch, was published in Zurich in 1563, and the Church of England clergyman and author Edward Topsell translated and abridged Gesner for his Historie of foure-footed beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607).

This copy of the Historia animalium was given to the Library in 1574 by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, in a donation of 25 manuscripts and 75 printed books. Its shelfmark N*.1.19(A) indicates it belongs to the class of books A*-Qq*, known as the 'Stars', most of which were in the Library before 1715, when the library of John Moore (the Royal Library) was given to Cambridge University. Parker's donation was part of the programme initiated by Andrew Perne - Master of Peterhouse and a central figure in University life and administration during the period - to build up the Library following the losses and neglect suffered during and after the Reformation. A list of Parker's donated books is given in some later issues of his Catalogus cancellariorum of 1574, a brief account of the University which appeared as an appendix to Parker's more substantial work De antiquitate Britannicæ ecclesiæ, said to be the first book printed privately in England.

Image of a fox from Gesner's Historia 

animalium. Click for a full page image (232kb file)

Gesner's Bibliotheca universalis (1545), an immense biobibliographical catalogue of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew writers and books, and the first major bibliography, was also presented to the library by Parker; and indeed Gesner's vast knowledge of books is apparent throughout the Historia animalium, where the chapters on the various animals are crammed full of references to his sources (from classical authorities such as Aristotle and Pliny to Gesner's own contemporaries, such as Sebastian Münster, 1489-1552, whom Gesner cites for his knowledge of German and Russian foxes). He also derived information from the correspondence network he built up with other naturalists throughout Europe. Gesner includes in his work not only facts such as the names of the animals in different languages, their daily habits and movements, but also information drawn from folktales, myths, and legends. The final section of each chapter details the presence of the animal and its attibutes in language, literature, and art, and also draws on the popular sixteenth-century emblem book tradition.

Image of a unicorn from Gesner's Historia 

animalium. Click for a full page image (302kb file)

Parker's donation appears to have arrived at the University Library in stages. An entry in the University Registrary's Grace Book 'Delta' in 1574 records that Parker gave 20 manuscripts and 20 printed books. A later emendation increases the number from 20 to 25 for each, and notes a further 50 printed books - 25 commentaries on the Old and New Testaments respectively. A list of printed books was also made in Vol. 1 of the Polyglot Bible given by Parker (Antwerp: Christoph Plantin, 1572). The 20 items listed are the same 20 printed books first recorded in the Grace Book (a list of 20 manuscripts was also made at the beginning of one of the manuscript books given by Parker). In the later printed list of 1574 in the Catalogus cancellariorum, the books are given in a slightly different order, although the descriptions on the whole are the same in both.

The Library's copy of Gesner has '17' on the top of the foredge of the book, the number given in the printed list of Parker's donations. The number '11 on the bottom is that of the earlier hand-written lists in the Grace Book and Vol. 1 of the Polyglot Bible.

References and further reading:

  • Ashworth, William B. Ashworth, Jr. Emblematic natural history of the Renaissance. In N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, & E. C. Spary (Eds.), Cultures of natural history (pp. 17-37). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 382:1.b.95.17
  • Fischer, Hans. Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) as bibliographer and encyclopedist. The Library, 5th ser., XXI (1966): 269-281. B990.I.74
  • Gmelig-Nijboer, Caroline Aleid. Conrad Gesner's Historia animalium: an inventory of Renaissance zoology. Meppel: Krips Repro B.V., 1977.
  • Oates, J. C. T. The restoration of the Library in 1574. In Cambridge University Library: a history: from the beginnings to the Copyright Act of Queen Anne (pp. 89-118). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. 9851.c.277.26; B926.2
  • Topsell, Edward. The historie of four-footed beastes. London: William Jaggard, 1607. Available on Early English Books Online. Facsimile edition 9900.a.29

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