Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents Woodcuts

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Last Updated: 2021-03-04

Published in 1658, The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents depicts both real and fantastical creatures in detailed woodcuts. A wide swath of the animal kingdom is represented, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and marine life, as well as an array of mythical beasts. The digital collection contains 175 of these illustrations from the book.

Topsell’s mythical creatures are particularly interesting, such as the “Hydra,” with two claws, a curled serpent’s tail, and seven small mammalian heads; the “Lamia,” with a cat-like body, hooves on the hind feet, claws on the front, and a human woman’s face and hair; and the “Mantichora,” with a lion’s body and mane, a man’s face and head of hair, and a grotesquely smiling mouth.

Born in 1572, Edward Topsell attended Cambridge before becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. He published several books on religion and other matters during his lifetime. In 1607, he published his illustrated work Historie of Foure-footed Beastes, Describing the True and Lively Figure of Every Beast. This was followed by The Historie of Serpents; Or the Second Booke of Living Creature. The illustrations that Topsell used in his books came directly from earlier works by Swiss physician, naturalist, and author Konrad Gesner. Gesner’s four volumes of the comprehensive Historiae Animalium included both real and fantastical animals, and each entry described the animal from Greek, Roman, Arab, and medieval sources, adding contemporary observations. A detailed woodcut depicted each animal.

In 1658 -- some 20 years after his death -- his zoological books were reissued together as part of a three-volume work called The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (which also features The Theater of Insects by Thomas Moffet, not included in this digital collection).

The original materials are available in UH Libraries' Special Collections in The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents.

Edward Topsell Bibliography

Curious Woodcuts of Fanciful and Real Beasts; A Selection of 190 Sixteenth-Century Woodcuts from Gesner's and Topsell's Natural Histories [by] Konrad Gesner. New York: Dover Publications, [1971].

The Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to 1900. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1922. [Edward Topsell entry]

Gesner, Konrad. Beasts & animals in decorative woodcuts of the Renaissance. New York: Dover Publications, 1983.

Willy Ley. Introduction to The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects. New York: Da Capo Press, 1967.

Zeydel, Edwin H. Sebastian Brant. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967.

Other Sources

The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages

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