Bartholin, 1678

Unicorns can only be captured by virgins. In this illustration of 1678, the unicorn seems to have captured the virgin. (Bartholin, 1678)

Dragons are not the only exotic creatures to have suffered prejudice and cruelty. Unicorns, for example, even though emblematic of virtue, have always been relentlessly poached for their ivory, which for centuries was believed to be an antidote to poisons and therefore indispensable to medieval and Renaissance politicians who were forever trying to kill one another.

Belief in the magical properties of such creatures, and indeed in the existence of the creatures themselves, was only slowly challenged. Among the first scholars to do so was Swiss physician, naturalist and bibliographer Konrad Gesner, who trusted to his own observations of nature and the observations of his network of correspondents rather than repeat uncritically the mix of fact and fantasy that characterised classical and medieval natural histories. This was a radical step since to doubt that the likes of Aristotle had seen a unicorn must have been akin to doubting David Attenborough has seen a gorilla.

Jonstonus, 1657

Jonstonus different types of unicorns. (Jonstonus,1657)

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