Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Carnival of Creatures: Conrad von Gesner

CONRAD VON GESNER was one of those curious souls who could have known everything about anything, in an age when such a possibility was unlikely.

Born in 1516, to a Swiss furrier, he did not have a promising start. His father died in the second Battle of Kappel in 1531, during the Swiss Catholic and Protestant wars, leaving his family with little by way of inheritance. However, young Gesner was blessed with good friends who saw his potential and paid for his education. It did not take long for him to justify their generosity.

By the age of 29 he compiled, in four volumes, his Bibliotheca universalis, a bibliographical compendium of all printed editions of the classics in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. It remains an invaluable resource for our knowledge of the early years of printing. His other contributions included a study of 130 languages, the Mithridates, numerous works in botany, mineralogy, lexicography and, true to the prudery of his Protestant upbringing, a censored edition of the notoriously bawdy poet Martial.

For his accomplishments in so many diverse fields Gesner earned the sobriquet, the “German Pliny”, after the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, who compiled the first reference book of the natural world. Pliny, who famously said: “There is no book so bad that some good cannot be got out of it”, was certainly a spiritual antecedent, for Gesner’s greatest achievement, and still his most famous book, remains his Historia animalium, a work of similar encyclopedic proportions.

He was the first since Aristotle to collect and classify all known vertebrate animals. Even today, to undertake such a task collectively would be daunting. This individual effort by Gesner would even dwarf, in its design, the later efforts of John Audubon, a man who would only encompass one part of the animal world. However, despite the size of the project, Gesner was not entirely on his own. His remarkable gift for friendship allowed him to correspond with many of the leading minds of his time. This network of learned men allowed Gesner to gather information and specimens from across the continent. Their generosity was not forgotten when it came time to publish, as every contributor was acknowledged for their role.

The work was divided into five parts. Each species was categorized alphabetically, an inefficient practice, although not unusual for the period, as proper scientific classification would not come into use for another two centuries. Many species were grouped together by no other criterion other than size, while the inclusion of mythical beasts such as mermaids, a unicorn, dragons and a host of other fabled creatures, has done much to discredit Gesner as a naturalist. However, he would point out that such things were expected by his audience and, though they were not proven at that point in time, they may yet be uncovered at some future date.

The descriptions of each animal were divided under eight heads: The name of the animal in all languages, both ancient and modern, its anatomy, habitat and geography, stages of development and procreation, diseases, habits and behaviors, medicinal use, general usefulness and its record in history and literature.

This last might seem strange for a work of zoology, but as the historian Anthony Grafton has put it, "scholarship and science were necessarily fused into a single pursuit not identified with any modern discipline". Gesner was fortunate to live in the age of the learned amateur, where the lack of specialization meant the bleeding over of one area of knowledge into another. The idea of the polymath created connections that may never have occurred to the lone specialist.

Despite its primitive methods, the writing was considered superb and was used as a reference for the next several decades. Its merits were recognized so early that popular abridgments began to appear shortly after its issue, appearing in so many editions that it is these abridgments we are most likely to encounter first in libraries.

The first volume appearing in Zurich in 1551, when its author was 35, concerned four-footed animals that gave birth to live young. The second volume, published in 1554, focused on egg layers, while the third part, from 1555, discussed birds. The fourth, released in 1556, concerned fish and other aquatic animals while a fifth book, about serpents, was published posthumously. Material for a sixth volume on insects had been gathered, but would only go to press more than two decades later through the efforts of an English admirer. Gesner's seeming command of the beasts of the land and the fowl of the air are reflected in the coat-of-arms granted to him by Emperor Ferdinand I. The image of an eagle with open wings, as standing lion, a snake and a dolphin evoked his dominion over the animal kingdom.

Just as important as the text were the lavish illustrations that informed the readers. Every animal represented filled at least an entire folio page and almost all illustrations were executed exclusively for this project. The artists most likely lived on Gesner's property for the duration of the work. We can imagine Gesner looking over the shoulders of his artisans and judging the quality of the woodblock engravings, many of the drawings for which he did himself. For their detail and execution, they are still justly admired as works of art.

Gesner produced so much material so quickly, that perhaps he felt a twinge of foreboding that his was not meant to be a long life. His health had never been the best and was perhaps only prolonged by the exercise from his numerous mountaineering expeditions. There, amid the grandeur and desolate beauty of his native Swiss Alps, he gloried in the wonders of the natural world and renewed his efforts to share his enthusiasm with others.

In 1564, Gesner's health at last began to deteriorate beyond repair. He was stricken with the plague, but recovered enough to see many old friends die of the illness the was rampant in Zurich. He heroically offered his services as a doctor to his fellow citizens. Knowing his time was short, Gesner no longer slept in his bed but rested for periods in a chair, keeping to his duties as teacher and physician. On 8 December 1565, he suffered a relapse of the disease and, five days later, he was dead.

English bibliographer, Thomas Frognall Dibdin, described the scene of Gesner's death: "When (says Niceron) he saw his end approaching, he desired to be carried into his book-boudoir, in order to breathe his last in that spot which had been the dearest to his heart!"

An end that only a scholar might envy. Gesner was 49.

Selected Bibliography

Bay, J. Christian. "Conrad Gesner the Father of Bibliography an Appreciation." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. Ed. Theodore W. Koch, James C.M. Hanson, and G.S. Aksal.
Vol. 10. 2. N.p.: n.p., 1916. 53-88.

Beza, Theodore. "Conrad Gesner." Contemporary Portraits of Reformers of Religion and Letters. Trans.
Charles Greig McCrie. London: Religious Tract Society, 1906. 134-37. Google Book Search. 19
June 2007. 4 Mar. 2008

"Conrad Gesner." The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art XXVIII.3 (Mar. 1853):
366-77. Rpt. in The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art. Google Book
Search. 4 Mar. 2008 .

Dibdin, T F. "Tenth Day." The Bibliographical Decameron; Or, Ten Days Pleasant Discourse upon.
London: Bulmer, 1817. 221-22. Google Book Search. 4 Mar. 2008 .

Duncan, P. Martin. "Heroes of Zoology." Heroes of Science. London: Society for Promoting Christian,
1882. 125-29. Google Book Search. 2 Nov. 2005. 4 Mar. 2008 .

Gribble, Francis Henry. "VIII." The Early Mountaineers. Unwin, 1899.
51-60. Google Book Search. 1 Mar. 2008

Macgillivray, W. "Zoologists of the Sixteenth Century." Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle.
Edinburgh: Oliver, 1834. 102-08. Google Book Search. 14 Sept. 2006. 4 Mar. 2008.

McLemee, Scott. "The Alchemist of Erudition." The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 2002). 4 Mar.

Smith, Charles Hamilton. "Memoir of Gesner." The Naturalist's Library. Ed. William Jardine. Vol. 20.
London: Bohn, 1866. 17-58. Google Book Search. 4 Mar. 2008 .

Published in August/September issue of
History Magazine.