Monsters of the Deep II

Fischbuch GESNER, C.1575

Fischbuch GESNER, C.1575

‌This page from Conrad Gesner'sFischbuch (Book of Fish) depicts various types of whale, which were believed to exist in the sixteenth century, when the book was written. The picture shows a picture of a 'burrowing whale' reputedly seen in 1537. The illustration is hand coloured.

The Book of Fish, which contains this page, is actually part of a much larger work, Gesner'sHistoriae Animalium (History of Animals). This work was originally written in Latin and Gesner planned to write six volumes all together; on mammals, reptiles and amphibians, on birds, on fish, on serpents (including dragons), and on insects respectively.

Only the first four volumes appeared in Gesner's lifetime, the fifth was published posthumously in 1587 and was based on Gesner's notes. The book used in this exhibition is part of an abridged German version, which was published in 1575, ten years after Gesner's death.

In many ways, the History of Animals was unique when it was published. It might seem hard to imagine now, but the student of zoology of the early sixteenth century did not have any contemporary scholarly works to rely on for his studies. Instead, he had to use texts by classical authors such as Aristotle (384-322 BC), Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), or Claudius Aelianus (170- 230 AD), which often did not distinguish between fact and fiction. Other zoological works available, written in the Middle Ages, were also directly based on these earlier texts. Thus, scholars in the sixteenth century based their studies on texts that were sometimes already 1,800 years old.

Gesner's reaction to reading the works of Claudius Aelianus was different: he decided to write a new book on animals, the History of Animals. Not only was that in itself a novel approach (though his contemporaries Guilleaume Rondelet and Pierre Belon worked on similar subjects) but it was also innovative in its use of illustration. Previously, science texts had been just that: written text. Gesner included information on the animal's name in many languages, a description of the animal and its habitat, its diseases, its habits and instincts, including its behaviour towards humans. He further talked about its usefulness to humans, and its use in food and medicine. Finally, he also included a section on the animal in religion, myth, art and folklore.

Most likely because of this thoroughness and, of course, the lavish illustrations, Gesner's History of Animals was received enthusiastically and remained the seminal work on zoology for the next two hundred years. Most of the illustrations are much more scientific and true to life than those shown in the exhibition; the latter are merely reproductions of earlier illustration on whales. Sometimes, Gesner's inclusive approach did mean that he included rather fantastical creatures because they were thought to exist in his time. In general, though, his work was very scientific.

All in all, Gesner published over seventy books and pamphlets on various subjects such as theology, pharmacology, philology and biology, but none as influential as his two major works. He is now often referred to as the 'Father of Zoology' and the 'Father of Bibliography', and in many ways this seems to be justified.


Topsell, E. 1967, Four-footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects, New York: Da Capo Press. Annette Zimmerman