Nature's Bible

Oct 10, 09:30 AM

My current research project is a book tentatively called “Nature’s Bible: Insects in European Art, Science, and Religion from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.” I’m working on it during my sabbatical in 2011-12, including a six-month residential fellowship at the Institut d’Études Avancées in Paris. What follows is the description I wrote for a grant proposal.

At first glance there is a puzzling imbalance between the title and subtitle of Jan Swammerdam’s book The Bible of Nature, or the History of Insects reduced to distinct classes (written in the 1670s but not published until 1737). This book project aims to resolve the puzzle: to show how the intense interest that early modern Europeans took in insects, from the late Renaissance to the Enlightenment, was not merely an episode in the prehistory of entomology but, in fact, drew together powerful currents in what we now think of as the distinct realms of science, art, and religion.

One of Swammerdam’s near contemporaries, the eighteenth-century German Protestant theologian Friedrich Christian Lesser, was also surprised by Swammerdam’s title, but the nature of his surprise reveals the gap between eighteenth-century perspectives and our own. In his Insect Theology, Lesser wrote that Swammerdam’s book should have had a more precise title: “For the Bible of Nature includes everything that has been observed about the visible world….the history of insects comprises only a chapter of the Bible of Nature.” Lesser’s objection was not that Swammerdam brought together religion and insects—Lesser’s own book, after all, was an Insect Theology, and he also wrote a Rock Theology and a Shellfish Theology. It was that Swammerdam overweeningly took the part for the whole.

But Swammerdam might have responded with the Plinian maxim with which Lesser opened his own book, “Maxima in minimis”: Nature reveals her powers nowhere more clearly than in the smallest creations. Other early moderns would agree: the self-taught court painter Joris Hoefnagel, who placed insects along with rational creatures under the element of fire; the Dutch statesman Constantijn Huygens, who inherited some of Hoefnagel’s works; the German painter Maria Sibylla Merian, who traveled with her daughters to Suriname in order to study tropical insects and their metamorphoses; the Italian anatomist Marcello Malpighi, whose treatise on the anatomy of the silkworm was written at the request of the Royal Society of London and published by its press in England. They are but a handful of the hundreds of early modern Europeans who observed insects, collected them, painted them, described them, exchanged them or their descriptions, and published works that blended the realms of art, science, and religion.

Nature’s Bible will address a broad chronological range: roughly two centuries, from the late sixteenth century through the middle of the eighteenth. It will be a cultural history that brings together the history of ideas, the history of science, art history, the history of collecting, and the history of religion, and I hope that scholars and readers in all those fields will read it with pleasure and profit. But it will not be sprawling or amorphous. The guiding thread of its narrative will be not only insects but the connections that bound together early modern students of insects. Beginning with sixteenth-century natural history and the revival of interest in the works of Albrecht Dürer, I will show how insects, knowledge about them, and the symbolic meanings elaborated from them circulated throughout early modern culture. Just as insects are an essential, if often invisible, part of the earth’s ecosystems, so too were they a central part of early modern cultural ecology.

By tracing the paths taken by the cultural circulation of insects, and the ways that knowledge was transformed as it circulated, I intend to show how the boundaries of early modern categories of thinking—art, science, religion—remained permeable even as they were being strengthened. Indeed, in the middle of the sixteenth century the terms “art,” “science,” and “religion” are in many ways anachronisms. By the middle of the eighteenth they were not; they had taken on many of their modern aspects. Yet even in the heyday of Enlightenment, the Dutch civil servant and amateur anatomist Pierre Lyonet could produce an annotated translation of Lesser’s Insect Theology, the annotations serving to correct the entomological errors that Lesser had made. August Johann Rösel could produce his Monthly Insect Entertainment, published in German and featuring detailed engravings of insects along with lengthy descriptions of their behavior, for an audience that included pastors and physicians, collectors and naturalists. Even as entomology was crystallizing into a distinct discipline—the word was coined in 1745—insects could cross cultural, social, and disciplinary boundaries.

Brian W. Ogilvie

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