Edward Topsell’s History of Four-footed Beasts was first published in London in 1607, and re-printed in 1658. This is the publication which De Capo Press used for their 1967 edition; the main difference being that the work is now split into three separate volumes (the other two volumes concern reptiles and insects respectively.)
Topsell’s book is largely based on Gesner’s Historiae Animalium - a five volume work in Latin, published in Zurich in the 1550’s. Gesner’s History weighed in at a formidable 3500 pages. Topsell’s three volume set is around half as long, though there is rather a lot of reading in a single page of Topsell.
A great deal of Topsell's material is derived from classical sources such as Aristotle, Pliny and Virgil, as handed down via the medieval Latin bestiaries.
Topsell’s History comes at a transitional time. Intimations of what we would now consider ‘proper scientific method’ are clearly visible, yet Topsell is also anxious to defer to the authority represented by classical sources. The wrestling between these two concepts of knowledge is part of what makes Topsell's work so fascinating to me.
How could people believe this rubbish?
People nowadays seem to think that anyone with any common-sense, even in the 16th century, ought to have realised that Weasels don’t really give birth through their ears, that Lemmings don't graze in the clouds, and that Elephants don't become pregnant by chewing mandrake. People of Topsell’s period accepted these stories though, because they were circulated by the 'authorities' of the time. Today, I take modern physicists at their word, that time slows down near the speed of light, that my chair is basically empty space, and that there are probably various alternate dimensions floating around my room at the moment.
Get on with it!
What we’re really here for are the pictures! One day I might try to write something worthy about Topsell’s wondrous book, but for now just enjoy some of the magnificent illustrations.
I’ve divided the pictures up into three sections. I want to stress that these divisions are my own, and do not apear in the original. Topsell lists his animals alphabetically, and by sub-species, but makes no other generic distinctions. My divisions are also arbitrary and vague. A Tiger is clearly an exotic animal by the standards of 17th century England, and the Lamia clearly belongs in the ‘fantastical’ category, but what about something like the Su, a creature put together from sketchy reports coming from the New World?
Finally, these are only a few of the many illustrations in The History of Four-footed Beasts. I have chosen pictures which appeal to me for one reason or another, and have omitted many fine but otherwise
|unremarkable drawings (it might not surprise you to know that Topsell draws a very fine Cow, but how badly do you want to see it?) Having said that, I will probably add other images later, and if anyone has a request, feel free to email me.
All three sections are now active. I will be adding other Beasts later, and requests are welcome.