- Early Modern Zoology: The Construction of Animals in Science, Literature and the Visual Arts
Like other volumes of the Yearbook for Early Modern Studies (three were published in 2007 after a short hiatus), this one offers a fine international collection of essays on a topic of growing interest to Renaissance and early modern studies. In the past fifteen years, zoology has ceased to be the sole province of historians of science, and the increasing interdisciplinarity of animal studies is attested in the makeup of this edition. Of the nineteen contributors, eight are art historians and six literary scholars. The international flavor is also particularly appropriate to the subject matter, since zoological discourse itself has always crossed national boundaries. Although this is mostly an English-language edition, the contributors are drawn from across the Western world and a certain multilingual competence is presumed in the reader. Two of the essays are in German; one is in French.
Overall, the work both benefits from and is challenged by developments in early modern scholarship on animals. In their short introduction the editors are quick to distance the collection from the traditional history of ideas, with its teleological emphasis on development and progress. This is a battle that has already been won in cultural and literary studies, which have long recognized that animal discourse is not simply part of an increasingly understood natural world but rather, as Harriet Ritvo puts it, an "unacknowledged metonymy" for human concerns (The Animal Estate, 1990). But it is a battle that I suspect still needs to be fought in the history of ideas. Not only do the essays happily refuse to paint with the broad strokes of progress, they also avoid some of the pitfalls of older scholarship on animals which occasionally degenerated into lists of the appearance of a certain animal in various genres or the appearance of animals in the works of a single author. Instead these essays focus either on a specific work such as Franzius's Historia animalium sacra (Vibeke Roggen) or on a narrowly defined genre such as Northern European game pieces (Sarah Cohen). In each case the conclusions are highly specific to the work or genre in question. The result in this collection (as in others on the topic) is that the essays are incredibly diverse, and the editors are at some pains to create an appearance of unity. They achieve this unity in part by organizing the material but also by making sure that the collection represents a balanced approach to the animal kingdom itself, with an equal number of essays on "mammals," "birds," "fishes," "insects," and "lower organized animals." These categories, while not identical to those employed by the early moderns, do indicate the evenhandedness of the edition. In the end, however, the editors acknowledge that despite its length the collection can only offer "a glimpse of the intriguing variety of discourses on animals" and that it should serve mainly to "stimulate further research" (12).
A particular strength of the collection is its focus on the visual arts. One of the three sections is devoted to "zoological illustration," four essays from the rest of the [End Page 925] work depend almost entirely on visual material, and, of course, the majority of contributors are art historians. Their subject matter is represented not only in black-and-white figures set into the essays but also occasionally duplicated in a separate section of glossy color plates. These increase the visual appeal of the edition considerably. Many of the essays on the arts are directly concerned with the emerging question of scientific representation itself and in the relationship between text and image. Ultimately, as Rebecca Parker Brienen concludes, drawings represent "distinct visual responses to the challenge of naturalism in zoological representation" (312).
In a collection as varied as this one, readers are bound to be frustrated from time to time, although perhaps...