Taxonomy & the Unicorn

Bartholin, Thomas (1660-1680); Bartholin, Caspar (1655-1738)

De unicornu observationes novae.

Amsterdam: apud JHenr. Wetstenium, 1678


Duodecimo: 13.5 x 8 cm. (16), 381, (15) p. Collation: *8 (1 is engraved t.p.), A-Q12, R6. With an added folding plate.


Bound in contemporary speckled calfskin, the boards ruled in blind, the spine tooled in gold (corners bumped, minor wear to extremities.) Illustrated with an engraved additional title by Romeyn de Hooghe, an engraved folding plate, and 20 full-page (and 3 smaller) engraved illustrations in the text. The text is in excellent condition; the impressions of the plates are clear and rich. With an engraved bookplate, "Comte Goblet d'Alviella." Very fine copy.

The important second edition of Bartholin's study of the unicorn, expanded and illustrated with fine engravings not present in the first edition. 

Thomas Bartholin, a Danish physician, anatomist, and naturalist, was a member of a distinguished family of physicians. Bartholin's father, Caspar was the first member of the family to study unicorns. When Caspar died, his brother-in-law, the great Danish naturalist, physician and historian Ole Worm carried on his research. Thomas Bartholin (who was Worm's nephew), in turn, built upon the work of both his father and Worm, publishing his "De Unicornu" in 1645. Thomas' son, Caspar the younger, edited and contributed to this second edition of his father's work.

Bartholin distinguished between the unicorn and narwhal, identifying them as the two distinct animals that produced the "horns" found in apothecary shops, the cabinets of collectors, princely collections, and churches.Bartholin analyzed specimens of the horns found in Europe, tested the curative properties of these horns and those of narwhals, and considered other one-horned animals, as varied as the rhinoceros, the rhinoceros beetle, and the hawk moth caterpillar. The illustrations include a Dutch woman, Margherita Maeners, with a long cutaneous horn, four views of a narwhal skull and tusk, the great gold horn of Gallehus (now lost) from the Kunstkammer of Christian V, horned snakes, the "basilisk", Dürer's rhino (with a separate image of a detached rhino horn), etc.

"In the early modern period, the unicorn was a creature whose existence was guaranteed just as firmly by the ancient authorities on the natural world as by Scripture and contemporary travel reports. Its presence in the natural order was not a matter of any doubt. The healing powers of its horn, which was especially effective against poisoning, was stressed even in the ancient sources. The prices people were prepared to pay for the miraculous horns in the 16th century were correspondingly high…

"Responsibility for demystifying the unicorn should be assigned above all to a dynasty of Scandinavian scholars, the Bartholin family in Copenhagen. Already in the 16th century, doctors in Italy had questioned the efficacy of the horn, but their debate in the universities had little effect. The unmasking of the horn was a northern European phenomenon and was closely linked to the advances achieved in the field of zoology and in pre-industrial whaling. At the end of the 16th century, William Baffin published the first description of a narwhal. Further public dissections of bowhead and sperm whales had followed. 

"When Caspar Bartholin, the father of Thomas Bartholin, for the first time systematically studied the unicorn horns in the cabinets of curiosities, cathedrals, and apothecary shops of Europe, he was forced to conclude that these were not the horns of an ungulate but he was not yet prepared to identify them as the tusks of the narwhal. In 1636 Ole Worm turned his attention to unicorns and completed what his brother-in-law had begun: from comparison with skeletons that Worm had acquired in Iceland, it was clear that the horns touted in Europe had always been the tusks of the polar marine mammal.

Thomas Bartholin, Worm's nephew, too, subsequently chose the unicorn as an object of study: did all unicorn artifacts circulating in Europe really come from Scandinavian narwhals? Could their tusks perhaps nonetheless have the powers to neutralize poison that medical science had attributed to them until now? And what about the horse-like unicorns that had been observed repeatedly since ancient times, especially in Asia and Africa?

"In his work 'Observationes novae de unicornu', published in 1645 and revised in 1678 by his son Caspar, Thomas surveyed the horns one more time and demonstrated, with reference Icelandic sources like the King's Mirror, that the ancient Icelanders, well aware of the true nature of the horn, had pursued a busy trade in the horns. And up-to-date travel accounts from Ethiopia could show, so Thomas believed, that the horse-like unicorns, too, had their counterpart in the natural world, even if they had no part in the horns themselves. 

"A series of experiments with horns demonstrated to Bartholin's satisfaction that their therapeutic role had been ascribed to them quite correctly; Thomas even thought he was able to halt a fever epidemic in Copenhagen with unicorn rubs.

"The curious synthesis presented by Thomas Bartholin, which aimed to do justice both to contemporary science and Iceland's economic interests, had great success in the following years. Above all in disputations held on the subject of the horns from 1660 onwards (and in various medical handbooks), the Danish anatomist's theories are encountered repeatedly. The Hamburg doctor Paul Sachse thought he could demonstrate, by a series of experiments in which he tested on dogs the interactions of a unicorn rub and strychnine, that unicorn must be a useful medical remedy against poison. Nonetheless, Bartholin's compromise would eventually fail. Medical scholars like Anton Deusing and Cornelis Stalpart van der Wiel, who undertook further investigations into the efficacy of the horn, were able to disprove Bartholin's results and the unicorn disappeared from the apothecaries of the early 18th century. And though the narwhal retained the name 'Unicornu groenlandicus', the taxonomists following Linnaeus in the mid-18th century struck off the unicorn from the system of species."(Bernd Rolling in "Zoology in Early Modern Culture", p. 172-3)

Krivatsy 822; Osler 1953; Welcome II, 107; Soultrait, 17th century, 19; Landwehr p.48; Shepard, Lore of the Unicorn: Folklore, Evidence and Reported Sightings, p.137