- The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe
Touted as a "discipline of description," natural history, Brian Ogilvie tells us, "was invented in the Renaissance" (1). Though rooted in the traditions of classical antiquity and the later Middle Ages, what emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was something novel: a community of naturalists who created their own methods of studying, classifying, and representing the natural world. Ogilvie points to remarks made by Francis Bacon in the early years of the seventeenth century, when he discussed natural history as a discipline in its own right, and takes this as an indication that something profound had changed in the preceding century that followed the work of humanists like Giorgio Valla some hundred years earlier. After Bacon, however, natural history — with its growing emphasis on taxonomy and classification — bore little resemblance to the vibrant discipline that took shape under the direction of men like Conrad Gessner, Carolus Clusius, Ole Worm, and Leonhart Fuchs. It is this heyday of natural history that concerns Ogilvie, who limits his study to a period ranging between the rhetoric of medical humanists around 1490 and the rise of taxonomy around 1630. More specifically, he defines this era in relation to what he sees as "the central concern of Renaissance natural history": description, or, more specifically, "the science of describing" (6-7).
Ogilvie's study is important because it offers a plausible and convincing explanation for the rise of natural history as an individual and, in some ways, idiosyncratic discipline in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His focus on "the science of describing" provides a coherent thread that pulls us through four generations of scholars and naturalists, from the medical humanists and their critics around 1500 to the collectors and "systematizers" that emerged later (46). He argues that Renaissance natural history combined in various permutations the classical disciplines of medicine, natural philosophy, and agriculture, but the naturalists he describes self-consciously sought to elevate their own discipline into something more than a mere systemization of these ancient practices and ideas. In so doing, they created a community seemingly out of nowhere, borrowing traditions and pieces of knowledge from extant communities — physicians, apothecaries, and natural philosophers, but also herb-women, sailors, and other practitioners of "folkbiology" (219). Though the early humanist naturalists framed their work as a revival of ancient learning, Ogilvie ably demonstrates that what emerged in succeeding generations was something quite different.
The author clearly feels deeply for the subjects of his study, at times descending into an apologetic, even defensive tone when admitting that his naturalists pointedly excluded women and the less-educated from their burgeoning community. His study is admirably wide-ranging in its scope, encompassing everything [End Page 1279] from the specific ideas and techniques pioneered by these naturalists and the spaces in which they worked, to their varied relationships with their local contexts around Europe and with the wider republic of letters. It suffers from problems of organization, however, which may stem from its origins as a dissertation. Each of the four central chapters advances a different argument, and though these are interesting and well-researched, readers might become a little disoriented in the transitions between them. For example, chapter 2 examines the complex world inhabited by naturalists at the height of Ogilvie's periodization, roughly 1550-1610, but in chapter 3 we are thrown back to the late fifteenth century and the humanist critiques of classical and medieval natural histories, and it is only in chapter 4 that we are provided with a detailed examination of "the science of describing" that ostensibly forms the core of the book. This somewhat confusing strategy of organization, combined with numerous instances of repetition, tends to obscure the strength and vitality of Ogilvie's argument.
These difficulties aside, however, this study is an excellent resource for those interested in natural history before 1650, as well as for those interested in early modern science more generally. Ogilvie has provided us...