Recently I spent some time working with a bestiary compiled in 1607 by Edward Topsell. The short version of its title is The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts, the the full title does an admirable job of summarizing the contents: The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes : Describing the true and lively figure of every beast, with a discourse of their severall names, conditions, kindes, vertues (both naturall and medicinall), countries of their breed, their love and hate to mankinde, and the wonderfull worke of God in their creation, preservation, and destruction : necessary for all divines and students, because the story of every beast is amplified with narrations out of scriptures, fathers, phylosophers, physitians, and poets : wherein are declared divers hyerogliphicks, emblems, epigrams, and other good histories, collected out of all the volumes of Conradus Gesner, and all other writers to this present day.
Edward Topsell was an English cleric who authored several books. Today he is best remembered for his zoological works. The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes was published in 1607, and he followed it up with The History of Serpents in 1608. In 1658 the two works were published as a single volume, The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents.
Topsell was an archival researcher. He didn’t venture out into the field and make first hand observations. Rather, he mined historic accounts for information and compiled the results. The list of authors consulted is several pages long. He relied heavily on Conrad Gessner’s, Historiae Animalium (1551-1558), but we also see Aristotle and Pliny among his sources. The result of all this research is a large collection of entries on a wide variety of animals. Each entry includes a description of the animal and its behavior, where in the world it can be found, and how it relates to man. Frequently these entries are accompanied by illustrations.
Many of the animals covered would have been well known to Europeans. In general, these entries contain reasonably accurate images and data. Some, such as that for the horse, are quite extensive, and indeed these sections about horses and other equines, hounds, and big game animals, such as various deer, are the reason this book is in the NSLM collection.
Occasionally his descriptions or the accompanying images seem a bit… off. For example the abilities attributed to the squirrel strike me as a tad inflated. He reports that the squirrel’s tail is used by the animal as a sunshade and umbrella, and that it also functions as a wing, noting the tremendous jumps it makes between trees without sinking, or from great height to the ground without injury. Ok, I can perhaps understand that, but then the entry goes on to say… “The admirable witte of this beast appeareth in her swimming or passing over the waters… to pass over a river, shee seeketh out some rinde or smal barke of a tree which she setteth upon the water, and then goeth into it, and holding uppe her taile like a saile, letteth the winde drive her to the other side…” (p. 658). I’m certainly no expert on squirrel behavior but this seems highly unlikely to me. And then there’s the accompanying illustration. This is the fiercest squirrel I’ve ever seen!
The hedgehog appears as expected in its portrait, however its fighting abilities are described in a surprisingly offensive light.
“The hedghog rowleth upon the serpent piercing his skin and flesh, (yea many times tearing the flesh from the bones) whereby he scapeth alive and killeth his adversary, carrying the flesh upon his speares, like an honorable banner won from his adversary in the field” (p. 279).
His description of the cat rings true. “Once cattes were all wilde but afterward they retyred to houses wherefore there are plenty of them in all countries… It is needelesse to spend any time about her loving nature to man, how she flattereth by rubbing her skinne against ones legges, how she whurleth with her voyce, having as many tunes as turnes, for she hath one voice to beg and to complain, another to testifie her delight & pleasure, another among hir own kind by flattring, by hissing, by puffing, by spitting, insomuch as some have thought that they have a peculiar intelligible language among themselves” (p. 105). However, Topsell also recounts the legends that cats steal ones breath at night, and that they are often the familiars of witches.
Nearly all of the entries include recipes utilizing parts of the animal to create cures for a wide variety of diseases. Everything from headaches and psoriasis, to epilepsy and the bloody flux might be vanquished.
For example the ass can help us with tooth trouble and baldness. “The poulder of an asses hoofe burned and beaten, laide in vineger and made in little bals, and one of them put into the mouth and there held, helpeth the loosnesse and paine in the teeth. There is a collection of certaine hard matter about an asses legges, called Lichen, which if it be burned and beaten and put into old oyle, will cause haires to grow out of baldnes, and it is of such force, that if is be applyed to a womans cheek, it will produce the same effect…”(p. 27).
In addition to real animals, Topsell includes a number of mythic animals and monsters. He tries to give us the same sort of information on these as he does for the other animals but largely ends up recounting physical descriptions, legends, and rumors about these beasts, their behavior, and methods of dispatching them.
Judging by the number of authors contributing to the unicorn entry, these magical equines were widespread at one time. One thing they all agree on is that the unicorn may be subdued by a virgin. Beyond that information differs. Their horns can be used in a wide variety of medicinal tonics, and if one is made into a cup, it can either detect, or neutralize poison depending on the account one believes.
The Mantichora is supposedly a variety of hyena. “This beast or rather monster (as Ctesias writeth) is bred among the Indians, having a treble row of teeth beneath and above, whose greatnesse, roughnesse, and feete are like a lyons, his face and eares like unto a mans, his eies gray and collour red, his taile like the taile of a scorpion of the earth, armed with a sting, casting forth sharp pointed quils, his voice like the voice of a small trumpet or pipe, being in course as swift as a hart; his wildnes such as can never be tamed, and his appetite is especially to the flesh of man” (p. 442).
“His body like the body of a lyon, being very apt both to leape and to run, so as no distance or space doth hinder him, and I take it to be the same beast which Auicen calleth Marion, and Maricomorion, with her taile she woundeth her hunters whether they come before her or behind her, and presently when the quils are cast forth, new ones grow up in their roome, wherewithal she overcommeth all the hunters: and although India be full of divers ravening beastes, yet none of them are stiled with the title of Andropophagi, that is to say, Men-eaters, except only this mantichora” (p. 442).
In the new world there resides a beast known as Su. “There is a region in the new-found world, called Gigantes, and the inhabitants thereof are called Pantagones; now because their country is cold, being far in the south, they cloath themselves with the skins of a beast called in theyr owne toong Su… The true image therof as it was taken by Theuetus, I have heere inserted, for it is of a very deformed shape, and monstrous presence, a great ravener and an untamable wilde beast” (p. 660).
“When the hunters that desire her skinne set upon her, she flyeth very swift, carrying her yong ones upon her back, and covering them with her broad taile: Now forsomuch as no dogge or man dareth to approach neere unto her, (because such is the wrath therof, that in the pursuit she killeth all that commeth neare hir:) the hunters digge severall pittes or great holes in the earth, which they cover with boughes sticks, and earth, so weakly that if the beast chance at any time to come upon it, she and her young ones fall down into the pit and are taken. This cruell, untamable, impatient, violent, ravening, and bloody beast, perceiving that her natural strength cannot deliver her from the wit and policy of men her hunters, (for being inclosed, shee can never get out againe), the hunters being at hande to watch her downfall, and worke her overthrow, first of all to save her young ones from taking & taming, she destroyeth them all with her owne teeth; for there was never any of them taken alive, and when she seeth the hunters come about her, she roareth, cryeth, howleth, brayeith, and uttereth such a fearfull noysome, and terrible clamor, that the men which watch to kill her, are not thereby a little amazed, but at last being animated, because there can be no resistance, they approch, and with their darts and spears wound her to death, and then take off her skin, and leave the carcasse in the earth. And this is all that I finde recorded of this most savage beast” (p. 660).
If you’d like to check out Topsell’s information on your favorite animal or to take a look at some of the other monster entries just contact me and let me know. I would be happy to get the book out of the rare book room for you.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail