Monday, May 31, 2010

First post - The History of Four-Footed Beasts

Greetings friends and strangers.


This is the first post in a blog, RES OBSCURA, designed to serve as a record of the strange things I come across in the course of my research as a graduate student in early modern (sixteenth through eighteenth century) history. 

Early modern visual culture and natural history are special interests of mine, so with that I christen RES OBSCURA with some selections from Edward Topsell's learned, lavishly-illustrated and often unintentionally hilarious Historie of Fovre-Footed Beastes (London, 1607, 1658).



Although early modern contemporaries like Montaigne showed an evident fondness for cats, Topsell appears to have been wary of humanity's feline companions:
Above all the brain of a Cat is most venomous, for it being above measure dry, stoppeth the animal spirits, that they cannot passe into the ventricle, by reason whereof memory faileth, and the infected person falleth into a Phrenzie… To conclude this point, it appeareth that this is a dangerous beast, and that therefore as for necessity we are constraned to nourish them for the surpressing of small vermine: so with a wary and discreet eye we must avoid their harms (83).




Topsell also apparently had a bone to pick with small dogs:
These Dogs are little, pretty, proper and fine, and sought for to satisfie the delicatness of dainty dames and wanton women’s wils, instruments of folly for them to play and dally withal, to trifle away the treasure of time, to withdraw their mindes from more commendable exercises, and to content their corrupted concupiscence’s with vain disport (a silly shift to shun irksome idleness). 
Most of Topsell's animal entries have some basis in fact, but occasionally he let imagination (and the hearsay of sailors and travelers) get the better of him:






A greatly exaggerated boa constrictor.




And a rather unsettling 'Manticore.'

The University of Houston Library has kindly digitized the illustrations from this remarkable book and made them freely available online here. A reprint appears to be available on Amazon, Topsell's Histories of Beasts, and extracts from his work are also included in a book called Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts.

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