Got the Cat, and Much Else Besides
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 131-135

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Book Review

Got the Cat, and Much Else Besides

Marjorie Swann. Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). Pp. viii + 280. $49.95 cloth.
Barbara M. Benedict. Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). Pp. x + 322. $45.00 cloth.

In 1697, Sir Robert Sibbald, whom Bishop Burnet called "the most learned antiquary in Scotland," donated his natural history collection to the University of Edinburgh. Sibbald had assisted in starting the Edinburgh botanical garden as [End Page 131] well as in founding the College of Physicians there, and in 1682 he had been appointed physician to Charles II. In conjunction with the gift, Sibbald prepared a catalogue of the collection which the University published under the title Auctarium Musaei Balfouriani, e Musaeo Sibbaldiano, sive enumeratio & descriptio rerum rariorum, tam naturalium quam artificialium; tam domesticarum quam exoticarum [etc.] (Wing S3722). Sibbald lived on until 1722 (he was 81 when he died), and in the following year his extensive collection of books and manuscripts was sold at auction, most of the material going to the Edinburgh Advocates' Library. Among the manuscripts was a volume of "Adversaria" which included a transcript of Drummond of Hawthornden's now well-known record of conversations with Ben Jonson. Although Sibbald's copy was once misjudged a deliberate forgery (by C.L. Stainer, in his 1925 book Jonson and Drummond, Their Conversations: A Few Remarks on an Eighteenth-Century Forgery), that accusation has been disproved. Sibbald also wrote an autobiography, the original manuscript of which (now lost) was once owned by James Boswell.

Marjorie Swann does not mention Sibbald in her book Curiosities and Texts, although to some extent he very much fits the mold of the collectors who figure in her study. Like the two John Tredescants, father and son, Sir Hans Sloane, Elias Ashmole, and others, Sibbald was of the "middling sort" (a favorite phrase of Swann's), and like them he built a collection of natural and man-made rarities (tam naturalium quam artificialium) which forms an important part of his legacy. Swann is at great pains to emphasize the inclination among collectors to use their collecting as a way of insuring a modicum of immortality, and the seventeenth-century literature on collecting—not to mention modern psychological theorizing on the subject—backs her up to some extent. Naudé himself, in the Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque (1627), counsels his addressee: "si vous ambitionnez de faire esclater vostre Nom par celuy de vostre Bibliotheque, [ . . . ] pour donner un lustre perdurable à vostre memoire [. . . ] pour viure & dominer dans le souuenir des hommes," then you must, he says, work hard to build a truly great library. Sibbald also fits Swann's view of the psychopathology of collecting because he did not marry and had no children. Swann takes the conventional view of the collection as a child surrogate to a new level when she proposes that Bacon's scientific theorizing is "potentially at least, rooted in sodomitical social relations" (68). The leap from natural history collecting to a metaphorical extension of the notion of collecting that includes research teams, geographical landmarks, and literary anthologies marks the developing central theme of this book, which is, in passing, focused mostly on the seventeenth century despite the longer span suggested by the subtitle.

Sir Robert Sibbald built a monument for himself with his natural history collection, but where his other collecting instincts found a focus—on books and manuscripts—he does not seem to have felt it necessary to act in a similar fashion. He let his books go under the hammer. It is notable—again despite her subtitle—that Swann does not deal much at all with the collecting of books and manuscripts. None of the main events associated with the building of private libraries in England in the early modern period is even mentioned: the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, or the introduction of the Dutch idea of book auctions to London...