Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658)

History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, by Edward Topsell; 1658; London.

Published in 1658, more than thirty years after his death, this book brings together Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts (1607) and The History of Serpents (1608). Totalling more than 1000 pages, this epic treatise on zoology explores ancient and fantastic legends about existing animals, as well as those at the more mythic end of the spectrum, including 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), and the “Mantichora” (with lion’s body and mane, a man’s face and hair, and a grotesquely smiling mouth). Topsell was not a naturalist himself (he in fact was a clergyman) and so relied heavily on the authority of others, in particular Konrad Gesner, the Swiss scholar who was also behind many of the brilliant illustrations which adorn the volume, and Thomas Moffett. On his utilising others for his work Topsell writes “I would not have the Reader,… imagine I have … related all that is ever said of these Beasts, but only so much as is said by many”. This approach leads him to repeat some wonderfully fantastic claims: elephants are said to worship the sun and the moon with their own rituals, apes are terrified of snails, and “…the horn of the unicorn … doth wonderfully help against poyson”. Although it is abound with such fanciful ideas, Topsell’s work, as John Lienhard explains “was actually an early glimmer of modern science. For all its imperfection, it represents a vast collection of would-be observational data, and it even includes a rudimentary rule for sifting truth from supposition.”

See also our post in the Images collection for a top pick of illustrations to be found in the book, digitised by the University of Houston