by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 111.
Today, a look at 17th-century zoology. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Galileo died, and Newton was
born, in the same year -- 1642. Our modern science
was just taking form in the middle 17th century.
But I have here a wonderful book on zoology,
written in 1658 by a cleric named Edward Topsell.
It shows us the world that the new scientific
method was overturning. The book's title begins,
The HISTORY of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents
Describing at Large Their True and Lively Figure,
their Several names, Conditions, Kinds, Virtues
and it goes on for several more lines.
In the book is all you'd ever dare to know about any
beast. The illustrations are priceless, and I'll let
the text speak for itself. Quoting a Roman authority,
he tells us that,
Dogs have reason, and use logik in their
But he's compelled to add that
It is the nature of a Dog, when he maketh water,
to hold up his leg ...
We're told that apes are terrified of
snails, and that horses love "musik." Of elephants he
At the sight of a beautiful woman they leave off
all rage and grow meek and gentle.
We also find that
The blood of an Elephant and the ashes of a
Weasil, cure ... Leprosie,
and that touching his trunk cures
Hippopotamos is the Greek word for what he calls
the sea horse. He says it "is a most ugly and
filthy beast," but he lists it as a kind of horse.
His illustration shows one eating a crocodile. He
The ... procreation of mice is not only by
copulation, but also nature worketh wonderfully in
ingenduring them by earth.
He's not kidding. He means mice are
spontaneously generated in dirt. We find that if a
cat licking you with her rough tongue draws blood,
the mixture of blood with her spittle will drive her
Among his animals you meet Gorgons, Sphinxes, and
Lamias. These seem to be mixtures of real animals
with the mythical beasts. But there's no such
ambiguity about the Winged Dragon or the Unicorn.
He faces up to the doubters, saying,
... lest it should seem incredible, as the
foolish world is apt to believe no more than they
see, I have [added] the testimonies of sundry
All around Edward Topsell, today's rules
for accepting scientific truth were taking shape.
Topsell, too, was concerned with validation. He says
at the outset,
I would not have the Reader ... imagine I have
... related all that is ever said of these Beasts,
but only [what] is said by many.
Under his rules, he accepted that
... the horn of the unicorn ... doth wonderfully
help against poyson,
because several people had told him it
did. The FDA would want more than consensus before it
approved that remedy, I'm afraid. But then, they've
never produced anything like this beautiful
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Topsell, E., The History of Four-Footed Beasts and
Serpents and Insects. New York: Da Capo Press,
1967. (This is a facsimile of the original 1607
For an excellent display of Topsell's images see
this UH Special Collections page.
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, UH Special
Collections, for introducing me to a later
17th-century edition of the work: Topsell, E.,
The history of four-footed beasts and serpents
... collected out of the writings of Conradus
Gesner and other authors. Whereunto is now added,
The theater of insects; or, lesser living
creatures ... by T. Muffet. London : Printed by
E. Cotes, for G. Sawbridge T. Williams and T.
Johnson, M DC LVIII. 
This episode has been substantially rewritten as
The fabled Mantichora
A very real (if imaginative) bactrian camel
And a carnivorous hippopotamus
All images from HISTORY of
Four-footed Beasts Ö 1607/1658, courtesy
of Special Collections, UH Library
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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