The First English Natural History - Includes Mythical Beasts & New World Species

ZOOLOGY. Topsell, Edward (1572-1625); Gesner (also Gessner), Conrad (1516-1565); Moffet, Thomas (1553-1604)

The history of four-footed beasts and serpents: describing at large their true and lively figure, their several names, conditions, kinds, virtues (both natural and medicinal) countries of their breed, their love and hatred to mankind, and the wonderful work of God in their creation, preservation, and destruction. Interwoven with curious variety of historical narrations out of Scriptures, fathers, philosophers, physicians, and poets: illustrated with divers hieroglyphicks and emblems, &c. both pleasant and profitable for students in all faculties and professions. Collected out of the writings of Conradus Gesner and other authors, by Edward Topsel. Whereunto is now added, The theater of insects; or, Lesser living creatures: as bees, flies, caterpillars, spiders, worms, &c. A most elaborate work: by T. Muffet, Dr. of Physick. The whole revised, corrected, and inlarged with the addition of two useful physical tables, by J.R. M.D

London: printed by E. Cotes, for G. Sawbridge at the Bible on Ludgate-hill, T. Williams at the Bible in Little-Britain, and T. Johnson, at the Key in Pauls Church-yard, 1658


Folio: 32.5 x 21 cm. [16], 818, [18], 889-1130, [6] p. Collation: A8, B-Z6, Aa-Zz6, Aaa-Zzz6, Aaaa4 (Aaaa2 signed Aaaa3); Ff-Zz6, Aaaaa-Cccc6, Dddd4. Lacking half-title.

SECOND EDITION of the first two parts. FIRST EDITION of the "Theatre of Insects".

Bound in contemporary, blind-ruled speckled calf, nicely rebacked, 19th c. black spine label, gilt. Endpapers renewed. A very good copy, light browning and foxing, minor spots or marginal tears. Profusely Illustrated with detailed woodcuts of animals.

Topsell's magnificent zoological encyclopedia, the first illustrated natural history in English devoted solely to animals. The first two parts are largely translations of books 1 and 5 of the "Historia animalium", a landmark in zoological literature, written by the great Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner, with additions by Topsell. The third part is the first English translation of Thomas Moffet's  "Insectorum theatrum". All three parts are magnificently illustrated with fine woodcuts (including "Dürer's" rhinoceros). The second (“serpents”) and third (“Insects”) parts have separate title pages.

Topsell's was the first illustrated English natural history of animals. The work upon which it was originally based, Conrad Gessner’s “Historia Animalium”, is a landmark in the study of the animal kingdom. Drawing on a wealth of authorities both ancient and modern and illustrating his works with highly detailed and –to the degree possible- accurate woodcuts of the animals that he described, Gessner set a new standard for zoological literature. His encyclopedia eclipsed all other attempts at a comprehensive work on the subject, displacing Aristotle’s own “Historia Animalium” and substituting for it a tour-de-force of Renaissance humanist science. 

In his adaptation, Topsell follows Gessner's organizational scheme. For each animal, he divides his discussion into eight categories: 1. The animal's name in several languages, 2. A physical description of the animal and its habitat, 3. Its bodily functions and the diseases that afflict it, 4. Habits and instincts, 5. The animal's utility to humans, 6. How it is used for food, 7. Its use in the preparation of medicines, 8. Its significance in religion, poetry, proverbs, place-names, etc.

New World animals described by Gessner and Topsell include the armadillo, sloth, beaver, bison, tamarin, and the Brazilian sagouin monkey. Monsters and mythological animals include the “Hydra” (with two claws, a curled serpent’s tail, and seven small mammalian heads), the “Lamia” (with a cat-like body and woman’s face and hair), the “Mantichora” (with lion’s body and mane, a man’s face and hair, and a grotesquely smiling mouth), the unicorn, and a 120-foot long sea serpent.

Topsell gives numerous examples of interactions that demonstrate affinities between humans and animals, such as tales about dogs fighting to the death to protect their masters, of elephants falling in love with women, of a dragon avenging the death of his human friend, etc. Topsell and Gessner are particularly fond of dogs; they dedicate 40 pages of text and illustrations to various breeds.

In addition to Topsell's "Beasts" and "Serpents", the 1658 combined edition is important for its inclusion of the first English translation of Thomas Moffet's "Theatre of Insects", a book with a complex history. When Conrad Gessner died in 1565 he left an unfinished book on entomology: this was eventually sold to his friend Thomas Penny, who had already done some work of his own on Gessner’s collection of insects. Penny also acquired the notes on insects made by Edward Wotton of Oxford, and made some progress in amalgamating the information before his death in 1589. The work was then rescued from Penny’s heir by his Cambridge friend Moffet, who added a number of descriptions and drawings from his own observations in England and on the Continent -including a number of “lesser living creatures”, spiders, crustacea, worms. Moffet prepared a manuscript and by 1590 was negotiating for publication in The Hague. That fell through, however, and he was unable to find a printer in England. After Moffet’s death his apothecary Darnell sold the manuscript to Sir Theodore Mayerne, who, after having found a printer only with great difficulty, eventually published it in 1634. It was translated into English and issued as part of Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents in 1658.

ESTC R6249; Wing G624