Prof. Carol Ann Johnston

Author: guerrers

Topsell’s “History of the Beasts”. A collective work seen from contemporary eyes

The Historie of foure footed beastes and The Historie of serpents were compiled by Edward Topsell in the 17th century in his effort to give the English language a treatise on animal biology (this kind of book is also known as a bestiary, and moreover Topsell’s work is more similar to renaissance bestiaries than to scientific works of the 17th century due to its inclussion of fantastic creatures and constant references to classic works) that dignified the vernacular language as no other had done before, according to Topsell himself; scientific works were, at that time, still published in Latin.

The readers of the book were probably university students, as indicated by the presence of marks in the margins with which one could more easily search for the desired information about each creature, natural remedy or reference in some classic author to these animals in his works. In addition to the fascinating content and Topsell’s ambition of wanting to translate four creature treatises into English (although he was prevented from doing so by his death), this book is known for its stunning illustrations, including a version of the rhinoceros that is very reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut engraving dating from 1515.

Nowadays we have a stricter understanding of scientific and academic works, in the sense that they are the result of a process that follows a method through experimentation, verification of theories by means of objectivity, and the possibility of repeating experiments given the circumstances described in the study’s presentation. This being so, Topsell’s work, seen through today’s eyes, does not fall within the same framework and comes as a great surprise to us because of the collective (and fantastic) nature of its creation. This was already explored, in part, when discussing Topsell’s expectation that his contemporary readers would help him continue to complete this ambitious endeavor in the English language. Helen Westhrop, Rare Books Library Assistant at University of Reading, talks about how Gesner’s original “work was made possible by the network of leading naturalists throughout Europe who sent him ideas, plants, gems and animals” (Featured Item). In other words, its origin was already a collaboration of voices.

However, when considering it a collective work, this also applies to another more important part of the book: the illustrations. The reality is that Topsell “borrowed heavily (and directly) from earlier treatises” (University Libraries). To further reinforce this point, Susan Isaac, Information Services Manager at the Royal College of Surgeons of England’s Library, reflects on the case of the rhinoceros. According to her, the illustrations chosen by Topsell, and specifically the one dedicated to the rhinoceros, were “an example of how [he] acknowledged his sources and reused material from them in his book” (The familiar and the fantastic). Isaac also makes it a point that Gesner –the main source of our 17th-century beast compiler– learned of the existence of a rhinoceros from the visit of a German contemporary to Lisbon, which at the same time was the one that inspired Albert Dürer to create his famous woodcut engraving of the exotic animal (it’s even known that it was called Ulysse!).

Albert Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros, 1515

Topsell’s Historie of foure footed beastes’ woodcut of a rhinoceros, 1607

As for the other illustrations in Topsell’s Historie of Beastes, it is believed that already Gesner’s work contained woodblocks from a certain Lucas Schan of Strasbourg, and not all of them belonged to him but mostly the ones referring to birds (S. Kusukawa). It is possible that Topsell collaborated with other artists for his compilation as well, but more accurate information wasn’t found.

The importance of these other illustrations lies in the fact that Topsell may have directly collaborated in their creation, influencing them with his moral and religious ideas. It should not be forgotten that this is a bestiary compiled in English for readers to contemplate the divine creation. For this reason, I am especially interested in Helen Westhrop’s ideas, who even talks about illustrations of animals in this book that resemble human qualities. “The lion has a human expression with a carefully dressed mane and demonstrates Topsell’s belief that his animals have human intrinsic worth and moral qualities as well as a hatred of mankind” (H. Westhrop). This is the kind of content that neither Gesner originally introduced in his work nor could be found in other bestiaries, since Topsell was a man of the church and imprinted this religious morality in all his work. It is, therefore, one more element that makes it a unique work, and thus a rare book.


Works consulted:

Isaac, S. (2018, March 16). The familiar and the fantastic: The Historie of Foure-Footed beastes by Edward Topsell, 1607. Royal College of Surgeons. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from

Kusukawa, S. (2010, July). The sources of Gessner’s pictures for the Historia animalium. Annals of Science. 67 (3): 303–328. Retrieved 12th May, 2023, from

University of Washington. University Libraries. “The Historie of Serpents.” Edward Topsell, 1608. Retrieved May 9th, 2023, from

Westhrop, H. (2007, March). Edward Topsell, The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658. Special Collections featured item for March 2006 by Helen Westhrop, Rare Books Library Assistant. University of Reading. Retrieved May 10th, 2023, from

Owner(s) and readership of Topsell’s “Historie of beastes”

This book, as previously established, does not seem like an edition belonging to those where “The historie of foure-footed beastes” and “The historie of serpents” were published jointly in 1658. In consulting archivist Malenda Triller, I learn that the most plausible way for two books published and printed a year apart to be included in the same codex is that a private individual had them bound into a single one. Reasons such as admiration for both works, the pragmatism of keeping two volumes in one place, faster consultation, or even the guarantee of equal preservation of the manuscripts might be considered, but the true motivations why this was done are unknown, as is the identity of the hypothetical individual who had Topsell’s two works bound together in the same volume. The inscription of a name –Jonathan Yates – and a date –1660– on the first page that we do preserve of the first book might be a piece of potential evidence that could give us more answers to the mistery of the individual who bound both books.

The mystery about the first owner who brought the two books together is not solved either by looking at information about the book’s most recent owner, before it came to the Dickinson College Special Collections Archive. And that is because, although the book arrived here as part of a donation from the Willoughby family, in which many other books from this former professor and scholar were offered to the college library for better preservation, after his passing, often, explained Malinda Triller, an ever-helpful librarian, donated books come with a record with information about their acquisition, their history, or some other piece of information such as the price for which they were purchased, but not in this case.

Going back to its origins and realizing that these are two books from different periods in the same volume, I pay even more attention to the front and back matters, which usually include information for the reader (dedications, epilogues, etc.). I do this in order to focus on learning more about the book, its afterlife and the way it was received. In other words, to better understand the book in its contemporaneity. For example, in the first “Epistle to the Learned Readers”, Topsell states that this book was conceived “to shew to euery plaine and honest man, the wonderfull workes of God in every beast in his vulgar toongue, and giue occasion to my louing friendes and Country-emn, to adde of themselues, or else to helpe mee with their owne obseruations vppon these stories”. Again, in “An Epilogue to the Readers”, I find that the author insists on asking its readers for their collaboration to continue expanding the book. He does it for a very important reason: the more collaboration in this work, the greater the glory for all English speakers, for never before has such an extensive work been written in vernacular English.

If you think my endeauors and the Printers costs necessarie and commendable, and if you would euer farther or second a good enterprize, I do require al men of conscience that shall euer hear, read, or see these Histories, or wish for the sight of the residue, to helpe vs with knowledge, and to certifie their particular experiences in any kinde, or any one of the liuing Beastes: and withall to consider how great a task we do vndertake, trauelling for the content and benefit of other men, and therefore how acceptable it would be vnto vs, and procure euerlasting memorie to themselues, to be helpers, incouragers, ayders, procurers, maintainers, and abettours, to such a labor and needefull endeuour, as was neuer before enterprized in England. (Y y y 2, The Historie of foure footed beastes).

In the front matter of the second book, however, Topsell writes about other issues regarding the reception of the first book. For example, two printing errors in the first book are amended and the translations of certain Latin verses that complicated comprehension are deleted.

Therefore, what we now know from the book is that its reading dignifies souls as would the contemplation of a divine work, and that Topsell had a clear intention to extend this text, to create an unprecedented scientific basis for zoology in the English language.

Despite the fact that it is not the 1658 edition and no other editions of this work are known to us, neither expanded nor revised, Topsell’s work has had an enduring life with much to be squeezed out.

For one, his project –even though he didn’t succeed in finishing it before his death– was crafted and first published (in 1607 and 1608) in the midst of important events for the scientific world, as John Lienhard points out in his brief description of these books. According to Lienhard, “his monumental work was actually an early glimmer of modern science” (Topsell’s Beasts), and therefore constitutes an exemplary work attempting to get closer to what we nowadays understand by “zoology”. The content of the book was, in its origins, according to the author, already relevant and dignifying to its reader not only because of the wealth of knowledge contributed by Conrad, but also because what Topsell proposes is a contemplation of the divine creation in a language that was no longer Latin.

The very dignifying content in this work, however, did not mature well over time. For instance, one does not believe nowadays the following description of the way in which mice procreate: “The generation or procreation of Myce, is not onely by copulation, but also nature worketh wonderfully in engendering them by earth and small showers” (The Historie of Foure Footed Beastes, Of Wilde Myce), or that “It is also very certaine that Mice which liue in a house, if they perceiue by the age of it, it be ready to fall downe or subiect to any other ruin, they foreknow it and depart out of it”, found in a passage subtitled “Presages and forknoledge of mice”, nor is it nowadays conceived a book of knowledge about animals to additionally include indications for natural remedies, medicines, spiritual or fantastic matters, such as long descriptions of the types of horns a unicorn may possess.

What makes it rare, not just because of its binding, but concerning its content, is precisely these out-of-date conceptions of nature, of authority, and moreover the evidence of a quest for objectivity, which is demonstrated by the extensive documentation used to talk about the creatures, in the midst of so much fantastic information about mythical creatures. Now considered obsolete, what brings us closer to this nearly 1000 page-long compilled volume of wisdom is the possibility offered by the work to immerse ourselves in the study of the natural world as it was understood in the seventeenth century, of reasoning, of the limits (or lack thereof) between truth and fiction, documentation and objectivity, of the weight of authors’ references versus what they themselves know or can attest to through their own experience (or, again, lack thereof).


Works consulted:

“Topsell’s Beasts” Engines of Our Ingenuity. Houston Public Media, 2000. John Lienhard, University of Houston. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from

Isaac, S. (2018, March 16). The familiar and the fantastic: The Historie of Foure-Footed beastes by Edward Topsell, 1607. Royal College of Surgeons. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from


«The Historie of foure footed beastes» and «The Historie of Serpents»: Books of living (and fantastic) creatures

The last time I worked with lists of words in alphabetical order from another period, I was studying Spanish monolingual dictionaries from the 18th century, and what I most enjoyed  from them at the time were the definitions of animals, as I found them amusing and they made me think about how different the notions of dictionary then and nowadays are. In the case of The Historie of foure footed beastes, what drew me to it was that it seemed  like an antiquity containing eye-catching illustrations; it reminded me of my earlier experience and motivated me to a closer study of the book, even though it doesn’t identify itself as a dictionary (the first English dictionary, by Robert Cawdrey, appearing in 1604, then followed by Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, in 1775). 

When reading this book, the overwhelming documentation used to write the descriptions of the creatures listed in it leaps out. The book refers to classic texts, provides an exhaustive list of authors and sources consulted, and gives an account of the names of the species discussed in different languages. It is a book that, for reasons that I later analyze in detail, seems to have been conceived for a didactic purpose. Holding it, having it in my hands, is not easy because of its large size (22 x 33 x 8 cm. / 9 x 13 x 3 inches, approximately) and its very poor state of preservation, which makes it a delicate object to handle and observe carefully but which also shows the great use that has been given to it. 

There is no information on the book’s covers nor its spine about the title. In this case, a Xerox of what is believed to be the title page  gives information about this book, although it may not be this edition. In the back of the print, presumably made by the archivist or owner of the book, Library of Congress is written down, specifying where this first page was xeroxed. That is to say, this book does not preserve its first title page, but furthermore it has in its place information from a book that does not match this one. The reason for this affirmation is that, in the copy, only includes the title of the first book of living creatures: The Historie of foure footed beastes (see Figure 1), first published in London, in 1607, but the book that is here being described includes a second part, published originally in 1608, entitled The Historie of Serpents. Or, The second Booke of living Creatures. What we know: both parts were written by Edward Topsell, and printed and edited by William Jaggard. But what is the title, then, of the copy kept in the Archive? One option is that this volume could have been one of the 1658 copies of History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, published more than thirty years after Topsell’s death, but that volume was printed by E. Cotes, for G. Sawbridge, not by Jaggard. This leads me to think that it is a previous copy of a volume including the two books, maybe as a selling technique conjured by the printer, previous to the actual 1658 copy that brought them together after the author’s death. Apparently, Topsell had planned to publish four parts of this history of living creatures, one on four-legged beasts, one on snakes, and later on, birds and fish. However, as G. Lewis would comment on the matter: «Signs of haste, and perhaps of boredom, are evident already in the book on serpents. Despite the fact that Topsell lived on for another twenty years, the intended volumes on birds and fishes never appeared» (Lewis). 


Figure 1

Edward Topsell was notably enough no zoologist, but a clergyman who borrowed and translated from Latin to English mainly Konrad Gesner’s well-known bestiary, Historia Animalium, in order to compose these works.The collaboration with Gesner would be proved by the fact that Gesner includes an Epistle “To the Reader” as part of the front matter of Topsell’s text, although it is still a matter to be explored in depth. 

The Historie of Foure Footed Beastes has a front matter consisting of the missing title page, a dedicatory letter to reverend Richard Neile, the letter from Gesner “To the Reader”, one from Topsell “To the learned Reader”, a catalogue included by Topsell with all the authors that had previously written about the beasts, a Latin catalogue of the same content, and an “English Table” with the names of every four-footed beast that he knew of (including, interestingly enough, unicorns, of whom he expressed his disbelief but nevertheless importance as a recurrent creature in other texts). The Historie of Serpents is separated from its first part of four-footed creatures by two blank sheets. Its front matter consists of a dedicatory letter addressed, once more, to reverend Richard Neile, a letter to the reader by Topsell, a “Table of the severall Serpents, as they are rehearsed and described in this Treatise following”, and the so called “Generall Treatise of Serpents”, followed by the text in itself (and its questionable –at least from today’s point of view– idea of serpents; one of them being bees included in the serpent category). In the back matter, there is an “Epilogus Gratulatorius” entirely written in Latin, where Ludovico Leonoro and Thomo Bonhamo are praised, followed by “A table of the names of al the Foure-footed-Serpents” and “A table of all the Latine names of Serpents without legges, as well corrupted as those in use”, meaning that he included the classical Latin terms along with those used in the Vulgar Latin language. 

E. Willoughby is the name that links this particular copy to the Archive, as it was donated to the library by the Willoughby family, in memoriam. This information can be found in the front paste-down endpaper which has a stamped card on it. (See Figure 2)

Figure 2

Inside the book, illustrations are of great importance (Figures 3, 4), as well as the ornaments at the beginning and at the end of some sections displaying floral and animal motifs (Figures 5, 6), all produced by wood engravings ––the artist of the woodblocks is unknown. In terms of the content of the pages, the book has larger margins on the outer side, and small font in the main text, although it is changeable depending on the section (e.g. “OF THE DOG” and “Of the the biting of a mad Dog”).

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 6

The display or layout of the page is diverse and the illustrations are framed within the text differently every time (Figures 7, 8).  

Figure 7

Figure 8

Noteworthy elements can be found reading a regular page from the main text of either book. Such elements are catchwords in the end of some initial and ending pages used to ensure that the manuscript would be assembled correctly (Figure 9); letters under the footline of some pages known as signatures and meant to serve as indicators of the correct order of sheets when the book is arranged (also see Figure 9); headers indicating different sections in every page; quotation marks placed at the outer margin of the page whenever long verbatim citations were included (Figure 10); the names of authors cited and other key words printed at the outer margins too (see also Figure 10), that served presumably as a guide to the reader, maybe another technique meant to facilitate quick referencing, to indicate at a glance where more specific information is located in the text, like the fact that the text is numbered every 10 lines in the center of the page. 

Figure 9

Figure 10

The entire book seems to have had a very useful life, with numerous stains, signs of aging and deterioration, as well as the negative effects of water stains and brittle, scuffed edges, cracked sides, holes and even ripped pages. (See the following figures 11, 12, 13):


The book binding is some sort of thinned leather folded around a piece of hard cardboard that was laced-in, and is separated from the rest of the codex but for one binding chord that kept it from falling apart completely. Most of the leather from the sides and spine is eroded, exposing the pieces on the inside of the binding, as is appreciated in the following images:

Figure 14

Figure 15

The pages are of a very thin, fragile paper, whose quality is questionable since it bleeds through and lets us see the text of the verso from the recto side. It also does not seem to have been taken care of even when it was printed, as I came upon a detail in which the paper has torn and no letters have been printed on that piece (Figure 16). 

Signs of use throughout the whole book include marginalia such as scribbled notes, drawn manicules that indicate relevant sections for the reader (Figure 17), underlined sections in pen ink, various “X” marking an important line, but also ink stains, pencil marks resulting from having pointed without intending to write anything or to point out a specific point, and clumsily written shapes in pencil that are constantly repeated on the last page of the book. These last ones remind us of a bored child or student repeating the same drawing over and over again in his book (Figure 18). 

Figure 16

Figure 17

Figure 18

On a final note, there are several inscriptions of a not very readable signature, two of them in the back free endpaper, written in colored ink, that could have been made by the same hand that drew the manicules and the underlined parts in ink in the book (Figure 19), and another two with same ink in the “Epilogus Gratolatorius” (Figure 20). A theory for their existence is that they were part of some kind of testing of the paper’s quality, a seemingly normal practice at the time, as in our time checking the ink of a pen making a doodle in the page would be. 

Figure 19

Figure 20

Works consulted and cited 

“Glossary of Manuscript Terms.” Folgerpedia,  

Greenfield, Jane. ABC OF BOOKBINDING: An Unique Glossary with over 700 Illustrations for Collectors & Librarians. Oak Knoll Press, 1998.  

Isaac, Susan. “The Familiar and the Fantastic: The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes by Edward Topsell, 1607.” Royal College of Surgeons, 16 Mar. 2018,  

Lewis, G. “Topsell, Edward (Bap. 1572, d. 1625), Church of England Clergyman and Author.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004,  

Mulley, Jessica. “Book Descriptions: Glossary of Terms.” BookAddiction, 23 Dec. 2022,  

Nicholson, James B. A Manual of the Art of Bookbinding Containing Full Instructions in the Different Branches of Forwarding, Gilding, and Finishing ; Also the Art of Marbling Book-Edges and Paper ; the Whole Designed for the Practical Workman, the Amateur and the Book-Collector. Henry Carey Baird, 1856.  

Poortenaar, Jan, et al. The Art of the Book and Its Illustration. Harrap, 1935.  

Wells, Stanley. “Jaggard, William (c. 1568–1623), Printer and Bookseller.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004,  

Willoughby, Edwin Elliott. A Printer of Shakespeare; the Books and Times of William Jaggard. Haskell House, 1970.  

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