Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds and the Politics of the Miniature
Eighteenth century natural history is inextricably linked to colonial expansion, which brought with it a swell of new species to be named, examined, and categorized — a “burgeoning proliferation of colonial natures.”1 As Mary Louise Pratt points out, the cosmopolitan, systematic arrangement of plants and animals led to “a new form of what one might call planetary consciousness among Europeans.” A consequence of this planetary consciousness, Pratt observes, was the way in which “the system of nature overwrote local and peasant ways of knowing within Europe just as it did indigenous ones abroad.”2 While natural history expanded outward to classify all life on the planet, Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds (Vol. I, 1797; Vol. II, 1804) aimed to conserve a complex collection of small, miniature details of regional knowledge. Instead of placing animals within a global, Linnaean system that pursued and applied the regularities of laws, Bewick employed and conserved a provincial folk taxonomy, which defined and categorized birds by their “ecological proclivity,” their interrelationships with other animal, human, and plant life.3 By narrating bird behavior and habits within a circumscribed space, Bewick’s British Birds additionally chronicles a “second nature” as the text records social customs and relations within Bewick’s native Northumberland.
KeywordsWater Bird Title Page Moral Economy Land Bird Folk Taxonomy
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- 16.Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000), 68.Google Scholar
- John Brewer and Stella Tillyard, “The Moral Vision of Thomas Bewick,” in The Transformation of Political Culture: England and Germany in the Late Eighteenth Century, ed. Eckhart Hellmuth (London: The German Historical Institute, 1990), 390.Google Scholar