Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

Living Edition
| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe

Reptiles in Early Modern Culture and Natural Philosophy

  • Spencer J. WeinreichEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_181-1

Related Topics

Animal biology Biology Natural philosophy Taxonomy Zoology 



Reptiles are those animals grouped by modern taxonomy within class Reptilia – crocodilians, lizards, snakes, turtles, tuataras, and amphisbaenians – together with the other animals, real and legendary – frogs, toads, salamanders, fish, dragons, and so on – with which they were grouped in the early modern imaginary.

The Natural History of Reptiles

The modern taxonomic category of “reptiles” (class Reptilia) did not exist in the early modern period: no clear line divided snakes, lizards, crocodilians, and turtles, on the one hand, and frogs, toads, salamanders, and caecilians on the other. “Reptile” meant “creeping thing,” which might include reptiles, amphibians, insects, cartilaginous fish, and fantastic beasts like dragons and basilisks (Weinreich 2017). In Carl Linnaeus’s Systema naturæ, all these creatures were gathered into class Amphibia (1758–59). Only in the nineteenth century did biology begin to divide reptiles and amphibians in the familiar manner.

Early modern knowledge of animals was colored by what has been called an “emblematic” view of nature, investing each creature with layers of cultural meaning, accreted from classical tradition, religious beliefs, folklore, scholarly investigation, and textual, visual, and musical depictions (Jardine et al. 1996; Harrison 1996). Thus, snakes were associated with cunning and deceit thanks to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden; Pliny taught that crocodiles had no tongues, Plutarch that they wept after killing their prey. The works of early zoologists like Conrad Gessner (1551–87) and Edward Topsell (1608) incorporated such lore, which was debated by scholars of all stripes. Theologians and naturalists alike argued over whether the biblical Leviathan was to be identified with the crocodile (Weinreich 2015), while poets and artists speculated about the serpent before the fall (Milton 1674). (The crocodile’s religious associations may have prompted Thomas Hobbes to name his landmark work Leviathan (Tralau 2010).)

Reptiles’ negative theological associations and perceived uncleanliness and dangerousness positioned them near the nadir of Creation (Fudge 2000): in one treatise, the English divine William Perkins expresses gratitude that God “hath made me after his owne image, hauing a reasonable soule, body, shape, where he might haue made me a Toad, a Serpent, a Swine, deformed, frantick” (1590: 138). This cosmological lowliness made reptiles natural foci for debates over spontaneous generation (as the most likely to be so created) and animal souls (as the least likely to possess them) (Enenkel and Smith 2014; Harrison 1993). Conversely, the historian Antonio de León Pinelo argued for the paradisiacal nature of the Americas by pointing to their multitude of snake species: Eden must have Serpents (de Léon Pinelo 1943; Scott 2010).

But early modern scholars did not uncritically swallow the reptilian cultural valences they compiled and augmented; these notions were subjected to considerable scrutiny, by traditional recourse to textual witnesses and by new techniques of experimentation. Britain’s Royal Society conducted extensive correspondence over whether salamanders could survive blazing fires (Popper 2016), while Athanasius Kircher and Francesco Redi performed experimental trials to test whether “snakestones” (stones supposedly found in the heads of certain snakes) could actually counteract toxins. These and other debates, notably over the source and effects of snake venom, helped to establish new canons of scientific authority, especially regarding the validity of experimentation and the proper language for communicating findings (Redi 1664, 1671; Baldwin 1995; Schickore 2010, 2017). Other reptiles, too, became experimental subjects, among them the turtles Redi decapitated to locate the “seat” of life and the lizards whose regenerating limbs intrigued Robert Boyle (Bertoloni Meli 2013). And scholars slowly cognized the existence of prehistoric reptiles (raising questions about the perfection of God’s creation). English chemist Robert Plot described a Megalosaurus femur in 1677 but decided it belonged to a biblical giant (1677); in 1699 his compatriot Edward Lhuyd postulated the existence of the sauropod “Rutellum implicatum,” the first scientific account of a dinosaur (1699).

Living and dead reptiles participated in the early modern craze for collection. Dried specimens, skeletons, and fossils adorned Wunderkammern (cabinets of curiosities) and museums – not necessarily divested of their mythic trappings: Nehemiah Grew’s catalogue of the Royal Society’s collections labeled a crocodile skeleton “a Crocodile or ye Leviathan” (1681: n.p.). Princely menageries, zoological gardens, and the collections of individuals and institutions brought ever larger populations into contact with reptiles, enhancing both scientific knowledge and the prestige of their owners. A roaring trade in specimens, prosaic and fabulous, genuine and manufactured, proliferated across Europe and beyond, in which scholars like the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1640) and the French physician Ambroise Paré were buyers, sellers, appraisers, and cataloguers in turn (Findlen 1996, 2002). The bodies of reptiles were ingredients in medicines, notably theriac (a supposed panacea compounded from viper venom) (Watson 1966), and in magic, as vividly depicted in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with its witches’ cauldron filled with “Fillet of a fenny snake,” “Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting/Lizard’s leg,” among other picturesque commodities (2005: IV.i.12, 16–17) (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

The Wunderkammer of Ferrante Imperato of Naples, from Imperato F (1599) Dell’historia naturale di Ferrante Imperato napolitano: Libri XXVIII; Nella quale ordinatamente si tratta della diversa condition di miniere, e pietre; Con alcune historie di piante, et animali; sin’hora non date in luce. Per Costantino Vitale, Naples. (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London)



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Justin E. H. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.HPSU. de Paris DiderotParisFrance