Reptiles in Early Modern Culture and Natural Philosophy
Related TopicsAnimal 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).
- de Léon Pinelo A (1943) In: Barrenechea RP (ed) El paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo: Comentario apologético, historia natural y peregrina de las Indias Occidentales, islas de Tierra Firme del Mar Occeano, 2 vols. Torres Aguirre, LimaGoogle Scholar
- Enenkel KAE, Smith PJ (eds) (2014) Zoology in early modern culture: intersections of science, theology, philology, and political and religious education. Brill, LeidenGoogle Scholar
- Findlen P (1996) Possessing nature: museums, collecting, and scientific culture in early modern Italy. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
- Findlen P (2002) Inventing nature: commerce, art, and science in the early modern cabinet of curiosities. In: Smith P, Findlen P (eds) Merchants and marvels. Routledge, New York, pp 297–323Google Scholar
- Gessner C (1551–87) Historia animalium, 5 vols. Christopher I Froschauer/Froschoviana officina, ZürichGoogle Scholar
- Grew N (1681) Musaeum Regalis Societatis. Or a catalogue & description of the natural and artificial rarities belonging to the Royal Society and preserved at Gresham Colledge. W. Rawlins, LondonGoogle Scholar
- Jardine N, Secord JA, Spary EC (eds) (1996) Cultures of natural history. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
- Lhuyd E (1699) Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia, sive lapidium aliorumque fossilium Britannicorum singulari figura insignium. Gleditsch and Weidmann, LondonGoogle Scholar
- Linnaeus C (1758–59) Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis, 10th edn, 2 vols. Laurentii Salvii, StockholmGoogle Scholar
- Milton J (1674) Paradise lost: a poem in twelve books. S. Simmons, LondonGoogle Scholar
- Perkins W (1590) A treatise tending unto a declaration whether a man be in the estate of damnation or in the estate of grace and if he be in the first, how he may in time come out of it: if in the second, how he maie discerne it, and persevere in the same to the end. R. Robinson for T. Gubbin and I. Porter, LondonGoogle Scholar
- Plot R (1677) The natural history of Oxfordshire, being an essay toward the natural history of England. Printed at the Theater, OxfordGoogle Scholar
- Redi F (1664) Osservazioni intorno alle vipere fatte da Francesco Redi gentiluomo Aretino, accademico della crusca. All’Insegna della Stella, FlorenceGoogle Scholar
- Redi F (1671) Esperienze intorno a diverse cose naturali, e particolarmente a quelle, che ci son portate dall’Indie fatte da Francesco Redi e scritte in una lettera al reverendiss. Padre Atanasio Chirche della Compagnia de Giesu. All’Insegna della Nave, FlorenceGoogle Scholar
- Shakespeare W (2005) In: Muir K (ed) Macbeth. Thomson Learning, LondonGoogle Scholar
- Topsell E (1608) The historie of serpents. Or, the second booke of living creatures wherein is contained their divine, naturall, and morall descriptions, with their lively figures, names, conditions, kindes and natures of all venemous beasts: with their severall poysons and antidotes; their deepe hatred to mankind, and the wonderfull worke of god in their creation, and destruction. William Jaggard, LondonGoogle Scholar
- Tralau J (2010) Om statens undergång, Kristus och krokodilens mage Thomas Hobbes Leviathan i ljuset av en reptilallegori. Sven teol kvartalskrift 86:29–40Google Scholar
- Watson G (1966) Theriac and Mithridatium: a study in therapeutics. Wellcome Historical Medical Library, LondonGoogle Scholar
- Weinreich SJ (2017) Reptiles, amphibians, herptiles, and other creeping things: variantions on a taxonomic theme. JHIBlog. https://jhiblog.org/2017/05/31/reptiles-amphibians-herptiles-and-other-creeping-things-variations-on-a-taxonomic-theme/. Accessed 18 Aug 2017