AU Libraries acquires rare natural history volume

Published: August 08, 2022

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Auburn University Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and Archives has, with the support of donor funds, recently added to its collection of rare works in natural history: a 1658 edition of Edward Topsell and Conrad Gessner’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. This richly illustrated work represents the first scientific book in English solely dedicated to the fauna of the world. The bestiary describes both real and fantastic creatures, illustrated in detailed woodcuts. The 1658 edition also includes a first printing of The Theater of Insects by Thomas Moffet.

The book contains some of the earliest descriptions of the fauna of the Americas. New World animals described by Gessner and Topsell include the armadillo, sloth, beaver, bison, tamarin and the Brazilian sagouin monkey. As with most early scientific works on flora and fauna, some of the descriptions and images are charmingly inaccurate. Some of the more unusual ideas about familiar animals Topsell shares are that weasels mate by their ears and give birth through their mouths, that touching an elephant’s trunk will cure headaches, and that a cat is “much delighted to play with her image in a glass.” The work also contains illustrated entries on unicorns, manticores, giant sea serpents and satyrs.

“This is a wonderful and charming early example of both scientific communication and illustration, valuable to students of history, art, and sciences,” said Greg Schmidt, head of Special Collections and Archives at AU Libraries. “Auburn’s historic natural history book collections are among the best in the nation, and this rare Topsell work has long been an acquisition goal for the Special Collections.”

Schmidt welcomes the Auburn family to come and view the volume, saying “we are proud of our strength in natural history, and we look forward to exhibiting this volume alongside our other natural history works.”

Contact the Department of Special Collections and Archives at (334) 844-1732 or email to arrange access to any materials in the department.

Submitted by: Jayson Hill