Conrad Gesner – fantastic creatures and ancient books

Humans have been drawing what they see of the natural world for over 40,00 years. Initially capturing images on rocks and in caves, this evolved over many centuries into hand drawn depictions and written descriptions being recorded in manuscripts. The development of the printing press in the 15th century changed everything – it was the first time mass produced books, complete with images, could be disseminated to a far wider audience than ever before. This, alongside developments in shipbuilding which allowed further travels afar, generated enormous interest and a huge demand for knowledge about the natural world beyond people’s own geography.

This period heralded the time that the science of natural history emerged, when many naturalists tried to make sense of the world, studying, collecting and classifying species and publishing compendiums and encyclopedias. This was also still a time when people accepted myths, legends and monsters as reality, so it was not unusual to believe in both science and the existence of dragons and unicorns.

        

Many published naturalists at this time didn’t travel far. Instead they relied on (sometimes distorted) descriptions of animals that fellow travellers and explorers had seen in order to create an image. As a result, depictions of animals weren’t always entirely accurate, and mythical creatures such as satyrs, hydras and sea monsters were often to be found depicted in the pages between horses and geese. They couldn’t prove that the creatures described didn’t exist, and there was no David Attenborough on hand to tell anyone otherwise, so everything was included. For example, many sailors told of amazing sea creatures and mermaids on their journeys, but it must be remembered that fresh water wasn’t available and rum was the drink of choice onboard! They may well have just been exaggerations of quite normal, or now extinct, sea creatures. 

One of the earliest published naturalists was Conrad Gesner. A Swiss national who rarely travelled far and who died from the plague at the age of 49, he published widely on a number of subjects. His magnum opus however was the five volume Historia Animalium (1551-1558), comprising more than 4,500 pages of images and descriptions of all known creatures at that time. He combined information from his research of historic sources, such as the Old Testament, Aristotle and Pliny, as well as folklore and medieval bestiaries, with his own observations to create the first comprehensive description of the animal kingdom. Historia Animalium was also one of the first books to be illustrated with woodcuts drawn from personal observations by Gesner and descriptions from his colleagues. It was published in the two recognised scientific  languages of the day – Latin and Greek.

The book wasn’t without its controversy. Pope Paul IV added Historia Animalium to the Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books. Gesner was a Protestant and the Pope felt that his faith contaminated his observations and writings.

The legacy of Gesner and other naturalists of his time cannot be underestimated. They were the people who established the basis of the science of zoology, classification and taxonomy – the first to try to categorise like groups of species together. Their drawing style and technique still influence the way scientific illustration is presented today. And the volumes provide an important snapshot into society’s knowledge, and beliefs of that time, where mythology and science were beginning to disconnect. 

Morrab Library is fortunate to hold the first two of the five volumes of Historia Animalium in its collections. Our editions are dated 1617-1620, around 70 years after they were first published, and they are a very special treasure amongst our collections.

Lisa Di Tommaso, Librarian

 

“Bronte Territories” by Melissa Hardie – an Appreciation

In 2019, the Hypatia Trust’s Melissa Hardie launched her book – Bronte Territories: Cornwall and the Unexplored Maternal Legacy, 1760-1870. Melissa’s research reveals the often overlooked but important influence of the maternal family background on the Bronte sisters. The book delves deeply into the Cornish context and cultural understanding in which Maria (Carne) Bronte, her sister Elizabeth (Carne) Branwell and their family lived.
 
Morrab Library member and Trustee George Care has written a review of Melissa’s book, and it follows below. You will find copies of the volume to borrow or read here in the library.
 

Wandering down Chapel Street in Penzance, you cannot fail to recognise that you have entered that part of town where history feels close-by. The sea in the distance, the church and the chapel architecture is impressive, the Turk’s Head Tavern and the baroque wonder of the Egyptian House, the Portuguese consulate and almost opposite the house where George Eliot stayed waiting for calm weather for her voyage to the Scillies. Reading Melissa’s book is like taking a similar peregrination through lost corridors of time to recover a sense of the rich liveliness of Penwith’s past. Welcome to the psychogeography of Bronte’s Territories.

The Brontes are still much in the news. The Irish Times, just two weeks ago, were reporting on the O.U.P. computer analysis of Wuthering Heights apparently confirming it to be the work of Emily and not, as had been suggested, that of her brother Branwell. Iconoclasm may be in vogue. However, a square in Brussels – the city where two of the Bronte sisters studied French – is to be named in honour of the literary siblings. Other authors make claim to curious events in Shropshire in the early years of the 19th century drew the parents of genius together. It is to the intellectual and feminine furore of Penzance and its inspiring hinterland that Hardie’s work appropriately returns us.

In a key chapter on the literature and legend of Cornwall from 1760 much mention is made of the intriguing and taciturn figure of Joseph Carne, a geologist of great renown and an energetic banker. His personality was such that he combined a skill with numbers with a strong Methodist belief and mixed in a variety of literary circles. Nearby Falmouth was a key port for the Packet boats recorded in the poetry and memoirs of Byron and Southey. It too was the home of the Quaker family of Foxes who founded the Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1832. Carne was a friend and shared their Non-Conformist beliefs. Hardie shows how Carne encouraged his daughter in her geological studies and mentions the doctors, engineers, vicars and scientists whose cultural sources were enriched by contacts which included Bretons, Huguenots, Hessians as well as a significant Jewish community. She reminds us that in reading Davy, for example, we encounter not just a socially beneficent scientist, a traveller and a poet. This is the endowment the Branwell sisters took to Haworth.

It is interesting to consider that within this Cornish background at this period there were a number of competing beliefs and attitudes. There were the mythical beliefs fostered from folklore- piskies and stories in the expiring Cornish language. There was the old religion of Rome not far beneath the surface. Yet there were also new discoveries especially in medicine and geology that fostered a scientific empiricism. This can be seen in figures such as Davies Gilbert to whom this book gives due prominence- a polymath, mathematician, engineer and President of the Royal Society and a wonderful diarist to boot. William Temple much later stated, “The Church exists primarily for the sake of those who are still outside it. It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” It was the evangelical zeal of the Wesley brothers and their belief in education, temperance combined with stunningly beautiful hymns. It was also a challenge to superstition. It is often said it averted revolution which France and later Peterloo portended.

Melissa Hardie shows us the other supportive factors that came into this heady mixture and sustained the Branwells and flowered in the Bronte’s work. These are twofold; the societies and the family or kinship links. The Penzance Ladies Reading group who carefully studied together a stunning variety of literature from the classics of the Ancients to the contemporary travel writings. Not forgetting the subversive eloquence of Lord Byron, a gentleman with Cornish links through the Trevanions. The founding of libraries and collection of artefacts had practical even economic benefits. The Royal Cornwall Geological Society studies into metallic intrusions assisted the efficiency of mining. Local banks provided the capital for further developments in the industry as well as the magnificent Wesleyan Chapels that the Carnes, Branwells and Battens founded and fostered.

The author has researched both land and legacy extensively. Her approach is frequently imaginative and sometimes speculative. This is a strength because she is also at pains to inform the reader of the limitations of the evidence. Footnotes and suggested reading in themselves are useful but the illustrations are worthy of pondering- several works of art in themselves. They add significant detail. This patient work by Melissa supported by other members of the resplendent Hypatia Trust must be counted as filling a deep fissure, or as we might say in Cornwall, a zawn in Bronte Studies.

August 5, 2020.

Find more of George’s reviews at his website: https://penwithlit.com/ 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – a permanent gift to Morrab Library from Melissa Hardie and the Hypatia Trust.

LIBRARY CLOSED – TUESDAY 26th NOVEMBER

We’re sorry to say that due to the high winds, the Council has closed Morrab Gardens for the day, and therefore the library will need to close as well. We will be closed for all of today, Tuesday 26th November.

The forecast for tomorrow isn’t ideal either, but we will let you know as soon as we are able if we will re-open tomorrow morning.

We are very sorry for the inconvenience this causes you.

Best wishes,
The Library Team

Christmas Craft Fair – this Saturday 16th November

Don’t forget our Christmas Craft Fair will be held this Saturday from 10.30 am to 2.00 pm. We will be jam-packed with stalls showcasing a variety of beautiful crafts including ceramics, knits, cards, art, woodwork, books and more. Images from our Photo Archives will also be on sale. First prize in our raffle is a wonderful Christmas cake and we’ll have a Tombola too. And of course, our delicious refreshments will be available to enjoy. We really hope to see you there.

Growing Up in West Cornwall – the latest volume from the Penwith Local History Group

A new book from the Penwith Local History Group

The Penwith Local History Group (PLHG) has enjoyed a strong relationship with Morrab Library for many years. The group undertake important and fascinating research into West Cornwall and are based here at the library, meeting regularly and making us of our collections.

Their latest book, Growing up in West Cornwall, follows a long line of important and valuable works by the PLHG. This is their 11th title, the first being published in 1990. Previous volumes have covered topics as diverse as farming, Cornish women, and the Naploeonic era, as well as highlighting the treasures of Morrab Library’s collections.  A full list can be found on their website: http://www.penwithlocalhistorygroup.co.uk/publications/

All of the publications provide a detailed insight into their subject with evidence of extensive research, yet written in a thoroughly engaging style, making them accessible to a wide range of readers be it for academic use or just personal interest. 

Growing Up in West Cornwall is no exception. As it says on the tin, it brings to life the experience of childhood in West Cornwall, from as far back as the seventeenth century, taking us up to the 1960’s. There are numerous fascinating illustrations and photographs throughout, which are invaluable in helping to tell the variety of stories that emerge from the pages. It combines the use of archival records such as school logs and parish records, alongside personal recollections from the contributors and people they have interviewed. There are also very extensive subject, school and surname indexes at the end, a useful bibliography, and excellent footnotes and references throughout – essential for researchers.

Growing up in West Cornwall talks of all aspects of childhood, including of course schooldays and playtime, but also work, when many children were expected to take up labour at such young ages, working with the fisherman, in the fields and even with the undertakers!

All sorts of fascinating stories have emerged – we learn that in 1600, boys from the age of 7 had to practise their archery in the Zennor churchyard, and that all young men from the age of 16 were obliged to bear arms. We are told of library books needing to be burnt after an outbreak of deadly measles in St Erth in 1917. And the stories about the bad behaviour of the boys at the Recreation Ground after it opened in 1893 prove that some things never seem to change!

For Morrab Library, the group’s ability and avidity in using the library’s collections of books, archives, newspapers and photographs to bring the stories of the events and people of West Cornwall to life is so important to us. The PLHG contributors’ hard work and research skills ensure that our collections remain relevant and interesting to not only our members, but the wider community, creating an awareness of them and encouraging others to make use of them. The Library looks forward to continuing its work with the PLHG in the future. 

You can borrow a copy of Growing up in West Cornwall or purchase your own from the library’s front desk, at a cost of £10.

Lisa Di Tommaso, Librarian