Nature and Natural History

It is difficult nowadays to realise how much nature was part of Elizabethan everyday life, even that of London citizens:

In the towns of the early modern period animals were everywhere, and the efforts of municipal authorities to prevent the inhabitants from keeping pigs or milking their cows in the street proved largely ineffective. The London poulterers kept thousands of live birds in their cellars and attics, while one Jacobean starchmaker is known to have had two hundred pigs in his backyard.

Dwelling in such proximity to men, these animals were often thought of as individuals, particularly since, by modern standards, herds were usually small. Shepherds knew the faces of their sheep as well as those of their neighbours, and some farmers could trace stolen cattle by distinguishing their hoof prints.

It is well-known that the extent of the vocabulary on one subject reflects its importance in a given society, for example the Inuits and their hundred words to describe different types of snow.

A similarly striking example is found in the Boke of St Albans, about a list of nouns of multitudes of birds:

A sege of herons and of bitterns; a herd of swans, of cranes, and of curlews; a dopping of sheldrakes; a spring of teales; a covert of coot; a gaggle of geese; a padelynge of ducks; a bord or sute of mallards; a muster of peacocks; a nye of pheasants; a bevy of quails; a covey of partridges; a congregation of plovers; a flight of doves; a dule of turkies; a walk of snipe; a fall of woodcocks; a brood of hens; a building of rooks; a murmuration of starlings; an exaltation of larks; a flight of swallows; a host of sparrows; a watch of nightingale; and a charm of goldfinches.

Many of the species cited above are wildfowl and most were hunted for food at the time. These species could also have been game for the "flight at the brook", a special kind of falconry (see TERCEL), or for fowling, a less noble activity favoured by all. Treatises on falconry and hunting such as The Boke of St Albans which dates from 1486 and was partly based on the work of Gaston Phébus (1331-1391), Comte de Foix, Les Déduits de la Chasse. The Boke of St Albans, was to be reissued successively, once in 1596 under the title of The Boke of St. Albans; Hawking, hunting, fowling, and fishing, with the true measures of blowing... Whereunto is annexed, the manner and order in keeping of hawks... Now newly collected by W.G(ryndall) faulkener, London, 1596; it proved enduringly popular until the end of the seventeenth century.

These works were not the only sources of bird lore. From primitive times every community of human beings has had a more or less accurate knowledge of the animal life that surrounded it. As knowledge of the world grew wider, there would also grow up a floating tradition of animal lore, consisting partly of more or less vague legends of rare and strange fauna. When literature came into being much of this lore was recorded, but oral tradition will leave an indelible mark. The basis of many ideas in the old animal lore supplemented by mythological and astronomical fancies evolved from the ancient religions of Egypt and India, or of Northern Europe.

The diagram is taken and adapted from the book by Percy Ansell ROBIN . It illustrates the relation through the ages of the different beliefs attached to animal lore.

The information gathered by the Greek historian Herodotus came partly from the religious traditions of Ancient Egypt, partly from the floating tradition which was common to the peoples of Southwestern Asia.

Hardly any writers had first hand or extensive knowledge of their subject. The great exception was Aristotle, who wrote a number of treatises dealing in a systematic way with the animal world.

The Hebrew Bible contains many references to animals. It was translated into Greek for the benefit of Jews living in Alexandria. This Septuagint version brought it to the notice of outside readers. There are errors of translation as wrong Greek equivalents were given to animals unknown to the translators.

In Pliny's monumental work of thirty seven books, Natural History, the tenth book deals with flying creatures. But though he knew Aristotle's work, he had not the same scientific spirit, and he wrote as though his sources were equally trustworthy. All subsequent scholars until the sixteenth century consulted his encyclopædic work, and even in the seventeenth century Milton, in his Tractate of Education, gives Pliny as the pupil's textbook for natural history, although he also recommends the "helpful experiences of hunters, fowlers, fishermen".

From the second half of the second century A.D. some Christian preachers and writers employed an allegorical method in interpreting the Bible and supporting Church doctrine, and adapted the current legends about animals in order to draw instructive analogies with moral or religious ideas. The ensuing collection of about fifty Christian allegories mainly based on the animal kingdom, became known as The Physiologus - The Naturalist. The ideas of The Physiologus passed into the intellectual and popular traditions of all the Western World, appearing not only in literature, but also in medieval heraldry.

During the Early Middle Ages, certain encyclopædic writers, endeavouring to preserve the remnants of learning during the break up of the Roman Empire of the West, included many items of natural history, drawn mainly from Pliny and Ælian. These were, in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries respectively, Martanus Capella, Cassiodorus, and Isidore.

In the twelfth century an Englishman, Alexander Neckam, wrote a treatise De Naturis Rerum -The World of Nature. In the thirteenth century another Englishman, Bartholomew Glanvil - Bartholomæus Anglicus - wrote a similar, but more comprehensive, book, De Proprietatibus Rerum - On the Properties of Things. He quotes from Aristotle, who had been reintroduced into Western Europe through Latin translations of Arabic versions, from Pliny, the Physiologus, the Latin Fathers, Isidore, Arabian, and other writers. The work was first translated by Trevisa in 1397, and three abridged reprints of this appeared later, the last being known as Batman uppon Bartholomew (1582). SEAGER comments that:

There can be no doubt that Friar Bartholomew's book was the standard authority on natural history in Shakespeare's youth; indeed it was the only popular authority. [...] Shakespeare used probably the Berthelet edition, which, being older, would probably be cheaper in his days.

Apart from these literary traditions, there was another source of information in the reports of European travellers, such as Marco Polo and later Vasco de Gama or Columbus. Myth, such as the phoenix or the unicorn, gradually lost their hold upon popular belief when the direct observation and inquiry of worldwide travellers failed to substantiate them.

Modern zoology began in the sixteenth century as the result of this new spirit of exploration and direct observation. The Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516-65) is the perfect illustration of this new spirit. Peter BOWLER writes about him:

He has been once described as a one-man Royal Society, so extensive were his efforts to gather and disseminate information. Gesner ranged over the whole panorama of Renaissance learning. He was professor of Greek at Lausanne before being appointed town physician of Zurich. [...] Gesner was no armchair commentator on Nature; he was one of the first Europeans to indulge in mountain-climbing to enhance his appreciation of alpine beauty.


The indefatigable Conrad Gesner produced his Historia Animalium (1551-8) as an attempt to summarize the knowledge gained since classical times. His work was based on much first-hand experience, including his own observations and those reported by his many correspondents. But Gesner was a Renaissance scholar who studied Nature so that he could comment upon and extend the knowledge of the ancients. His work included detailed discussions of the names given to the various species, their use and significance for humankind, and an evaluation of previous commentaries upon them. The full title of Edward Topsell's 1608 translation of extracts from Gesner's work illustrates the flavour of the whole:

The Historie of Four-Footed beastes. Describing true and lively figures of every Beast, with a discourse of their severall Names, Conditions, Kindes, Vertues, (both naturall and medicinall), Counties of their breed, their love and hate for Mankinde, and the wonderfull worke of God in their creation, Preservation, and Destruction. Necessary for all Divines and Students because the Story of every Beaste is amplified with Narratives out of Scriptures, Fathers, Phylosophers, Physitians, and Poets; wherein are declared divers Hyeroglyphicks, Emblems, Epigrams, and other good Histories.

Poets are still ranked alongside with Physicians, though this was one of the most modern works on natural history and only available at the end of Shakespeare's career. The latest works on birds that could have been available to Shakespeare are Turner's Avium Praecipuarum, ... (1544), a treatise in Latin, and the studies of the Frenchman Pierre Belon. But he would have been unlikely to own either of them.

We have to wait for the English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) to have the first reliable work on birds in English: Willoughby's Ornithology (1678).