online exhibition

rare book library



natural history

‘Natural History’ today refers to the study of all natural objects with a special emphasis on classification and taxonomy. It is in this sense that the works displayed here are works of natural history. However, it should be noted that ‘natural history’ had quite a different meaning in the early modern period. In the seventeenth century natural histories were vast collections of facts which, following the method of Francis Bacon, were to be used as the raw materials for producing true natural philosophical knowledge. In this Baconian sense, the compilation of natural histories is actually a part of the broader programme of natural philosophy. Thus Robert Boyle’s General History of the Air (on display in the section on air) is a natural history. It might therefore seem that this section, juxtaposed as it is with natural philosophy, is a little anachronistic. But it is hard to resist gathering together these beautiful books with their copious illustrations of insects etc., even if they would not have been so grouped by the early moderns. (See also the works by Willughby on display.)

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