Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

The Pelican in Her Piety

July 24th, 2017

Just a few months after I began working at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, Dr. Elspeth Healey, one of our Special Collections librarians, showed me some materials she had pulled for a class on Renaissance printmaking. With my background in Medieval and Renaissance art history, I was excited to explore the materials she had selected. She drew my attention to a small image in Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium, a sixteenth-century natural history tome featuring various bird species. The somewhat bizarre and gruesome image in question shows a pelican pecking at its breast with visible blood spilling on a nest of baby birds – a startling depiction but one familiar to me from medieval bestiaries. The rather macabre bird depicted was none other than a vulning or heraldic pelican.

Image of a vulning pelican in Historia animalium, 1555

A vulning pelican in Historia animalium by Conrad Gessner, 1555.
Call Number: Ellis Aves G97. Click image to enlarge.

The term vulning comes from the Latin verb “vulno” which means “to wound.” When pelicans feed their young, the mother macerates fish in the large sack in her beak then feeds it to her babies by lowering her beak to her chest to transfer the regurgitated fish more easily. The observation of this feeding practice led to the mistaken descriptions of female pelicans pecking their breasts and spilling blood onto their babies to provide sustenance. The idea of a pelican wounding herself for the sake of her young gained a religious connotation and became a symbol for Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death and resurrection – a necessary sacrifice for the redemption of humanity according to the Christian tradition. Also described as a “pelican in her piety,” the vulning pelican became a popular symbol in medieval heraldry and was featured in bestiaries (books about a mixture of real and imaginary animals) because of this religious association.

The presence of the vulning pelican in bestiaries could explains how this popular piece of religious symbolism found its way into a scientific study from the sixteenth century. Bestiaries were collections of descriptions of both real and mythological beasts. These creatures were typically accompanied by some moral tale that was meant to be instructional for the reader. While bestiaries had been around for centuries, they gained a high level of popularity during the Middle Ages. These bestiaries were in some ways the forerunners to later scientific publications like Conrad Gessner’s book about the natural history of animals. It is not surprising that certain illustrations were carried over from the bestiaries into early scientific books during the transition from the Medieval to the Renaissance period.

However, the vulning pelican also appeared in emblem books, a type of book that originated in Italy in the mid-sixteenth century, rapidly became fashionable throughout Europe, and remained popular until the early eighteenth century. An emblem book consists of a series of pictures, each accompanied by a motto and an explanatory poem, which together present a concept, usually with a moral, about a theme, such as religion, politics, or love. The vulning pelican appears in emblem books with a religious theme. This continuing popularity via another source could also account for the vulning pelican imagery’s use in naturalist texts.

The appropriation of the vulning pelican from religious symbol to scientific illustration has helped preserve the history of this strange depiction. Considering the vulning pelican’s history as a symbol of the Christian resurrection, it is rather ironic to see how this depiction has experienced a resurrection of its own throughout the centuries.

Emily Beran
Public Services

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

February 11th, 2015

Tomorrow, February 12, marks Charles Darwin’s 206th birthday. To mark this anniversary, we’re sharing a letter that Darwin wrote to James E. Todd in April 1882. At the time, Todd was a professor of natural science at Tabor College, a Christian college in Tabor, Iowa, that operated from 1853 to 1927. He went on to teach geology at KU from 1907 until his death in 1922.

Image of the first page of a letter, Charles Darwin to James E. Todd, 1882

Image of the second and third pages of a letter, Charles Darwin to James E. Todd, 1882

Image of the fourth page of a letter, Charles Darwin to James E. Todd, 1882

Letter, Charles Darwin to James E. Todd, 1882.
Call Number: MS C78. Click images to enlarge.

An article about this letter in Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (Vol. 48, No. 3, December 1945) describes the circumstances in which it was written, although the author’s speculation that the document was “Darwin’s last letter” appears to be erroneous.

In April 1882, James E. Todd…published in the American Naturalist (volume 16, pages 281-287) a paper, “On the Flowers of Solanum Rostratum and Cassia Chamaecrista.” The paper soon came to the attention of Charles Darwin, then in his seventy-fourth year. Almost immediately Darwin wrote the letter to Professor Todd [shown here]…

The most extraordinary feature of the letter is its date, written nine days before Darwin’s death on April 19, 1882. Darwin had been in poor health for some time and beginning in December 1881 underwent a series of heart attacks. He rallied from these attacks and, as the letter indicates, by April was still mentally active and planning work for the future. Five days after writing the letter his final illness began…

Dr. Fritz Müller, referred to by Darwin in the letter [above], carried on an extensive correspondence with Darwin for many years, although the two naturalists never met (317).

Charles Darwin spent decades gathering evidence for evolution before publishing his groundbreaking book, On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, in 1859. As demonstrated by his letter to Professor Todd, he remained active in scientific research until the end of his life.

Want to learn more about Charles Darwin? Spencer Research Library holds copies of many of his published writings, including a first edition copy of On the Origin of Species. You can find these sources by searching the KU Libraries online catalog. Spencer’s collections also contain two additional letters from Darwin; transcriptions of both documents are available online (letter to Emma Gärtner and Charles Lyell). As always, however, anyone interested in seeing these materials in their original physical form are welcome to do so at Spencer!

Digital copies of many sources by and about Darwin are also available; see the Darwin Correspondence Project and Darwin Online.

A transcription of Darwin’s letter to Professor Todd, also from the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science article quoted above, follows.

April 10 1882.

Down,
Beckenham, Kent.
Railway Station
Orpington. S. E. R.

Dear Sir

I hope that you will excuse the liberty which as a stranger I take in begging a favor of you. I have read with unusual interest your very interesting paper in the American Naturalist on the structure of the flowers of Solanum rostratum, & I shd. [should] be grateful if you would send me some seed in a small box (telling me whether to plant in as annual, so that I may know when to sow the seeds), in order that I may have the pleasure of seeing the flowers & experimenting on them. But if you intend to experiment on them, of course you will not send me the seeds, as I shd. be very unwilling to interfere in any way with your work. I shd. also rather like to look at the flowers of Cassia chamaecrista.

Many years ago I tried some experiments in a remotely analogous case & this year am trying others. I described what I was doing to Dr. Fritz Müller (Blumenau, St. Catharina, Brazil) & he has told me that he believes that in certain plants producing 2 sets of anthers of a different colour, the bees collect the pollen from one of the sets alone. He wd. [would] therefore be much interested in your paper, if you have a spare copy that you could send him. I think, but my memory now often fails me, that he has published on the subject in Kosmos.

Hoping that you will excuse me, I remain, Dear Sir
Yours faithfully
Ch. Darwin

P. S. In my little book on the Fertilization of Orchids, you will find under Mormodes ignea, an account of a flower laterally asymmetrical, & what I think that I called right-handed or left-handed flowers.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services

Kangaroos on Machu Picchu?

August 29th, 2014

The late marsupialist John A.W. Kirsch was interviewed by a local (Peruvian) newspaper while on a collecting trip in South America back at the end of the 1960s. He described the kinds of animals he was looking for and was shocked to see the headline a few days later: KANGAROOS ON MACHU PICCHU.

While it’s true that the mammal group we call marsupials includes the kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, koalas, and bandicoots that are usually associated with Australia, and that the New World once did boast a rich and diverse marsupial fauna, most of the New World forms are now extinct and, sad to say, there are no kangaroos on Machu Picchu.

Image of an Opossum from Nieremberg's Historia naturae (1635).

Opossums (and yes, there are several pictured above): Juan Eusebio Nieremberg (1595-1658).  Historia naturae. Antverpiae: ex Officina Plantiniana Balthasaris Moreti, 1635. Call Number: Summerfield E1105. Click image to enlarge (and reveal the well-camouflaged opossum young.)

The marsupial heyday began to end circa three million years ago when a land bridge over the Isthmus of Panama provided for northern migration of animals including the ancestors of our familiar opossum, who dates back to around 35 million years ago and looks today pretty much the same as he did then. During the same period, some of the northern placental mammals migrated south over the same land-bridge. Thus, for example, it appears that the placental sabre-toothed tiger from the North began to compete with the marsupial sabre-toothed tiger and soon put him on the road to extinction. But the marsupials are survivors, nevertheless, and the American opossum, the only one of the family in North America, is just one of seventy some opossum species to survive; the ‘possum family is restricted to the New World, and except for Didelphis virginiana, whose range extends from southern Canada into Central America, the rest of the family is restricted to Central and South America.

Earlier travel accounts and herbals had described the plants and animals of the New World, but Juan Eusebio Nieremberg’s account was the first comprehensive natural history of the area, dealing primarily with Mexico and the West Indies. This illustration of the Virginia or American opossum is the earliest printed portrait of the earliest discovered (by Europeans, at least) marsupial anywhere.

Sally Haines
Rare Books Cataloger

Adapted from her Kenneth Spencer Research Library exhibit, The Haunted Forest: New World Plants & Animals (1992).

Crispy Critters

February 8th, 2013

Pliny the Elder, that most famous and trustworthy of the ancient Roman naturalists, was too curious about natural phenomena for his own good; as every school-child knows, he was asphyxiated by volcanic dust and gasses when he went to investigate the same eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in 79 A.D.

Aristotle and Pliny are the names that come to mind when we think of naturalists of the ancient world.  Aristotle was the originator of biological classification; in contrast to the Biblical groups of animals as “clean” or “unclean,” he established categories based primarily on anatomical and other observable characteristics. His was a coherent natural system. The Spencer Library has several editions of Aristotle’s Historia Animalium, the earliest printed in 1493.

The only surviving work of Pliny is the encylopedic Naturalis Historia, the earliest extant manuscript of which dates from the 10th century.** His work was a compilation of all the animals and plants that he knew of or had heard about, and contained little that was original. He was not yet a systematist and there was little order in his arrangement, but we have him to thank for the survival of some of the writings of others, and he is regarded as THE authority on natural history from the days of Imperial Rome through the Middle Ages.

Image of title page for Bücher und Schrifften von der Natur (1565)

Photograph of page 144 from Bücher und Schrifften von der Natur, featuring a section on crocodiles

Pliny, the Elder. Caji Plinii Secundi … Bücher und Schrifften von der Natur, Art und Eigenschafft der Creaturen oder Geschöpfe Gottes … [Naturalis historia. German.] Franckfurt am Mayn : Feyrabend und Hüter, 1565. Call Number: Summerfield E1059.  Click images to enlarge.

Beginning with the earliest printing of Pliny in 1469, there were at least 42 printings in numerous languages, including English, before 1536. The Kenneth Spencer Research Library houses 21 separate editions produced between 1476 and 1685. This German version contains books 7-10 and part of book 11. The translation was made by J. Heyden Eifflender von Dhaun and is illustrated with woodcuts by Jost Amman and Virgil Solis.

Sally Haines
Rare Books Cataloger
Adapted from her Spencer Research Library exhibit and catalog, Slithy Toves: Illustrated Classic Herpetological Books at the University of Kansas in Pictures and Conservations

**Author’s Note: This is the information we had at the time of publication of Slithy Toves in 2000; Mr. Roger Pearse has recently pointed out that in fact there do exist fragments of 5th century codices of Pliny.

Viper Militia

October 5th, 2012

In his book on the viper, Nouvelles experiences sur la vipere, Parisian apothecary Moyse (or Moïse) Charas takes to task Italian physician, naturalist, and poet Francesco Redi (1626-1697), for his scientific study of viper bites, the first such research ever. Charas was of the opinion (and not alone in it) that venom per se was harmless and that death was caused by poisonous spirits injected into the victim by the mind of an infuriated viper. Charas’s title-page shows two vipers entwined as in the caduceus, or staff of Mercury, one of the symbols of the medical profession. The Aesculapian staff, after the Greco-Roman God of medicine and healing, Aesculapius, is branched at the top with a single snake twined around it; it is the official insignia of the American Medical Association.

Image of Engraved title page from Moyse Charas' Nouvelles experiences sur la viperre (1669)

Charas, Moyse (1618-1698). Nouvelles experiences sur la vipere.
A Paris: chez l’auteur et Olivier de Varennes, 1669. Ellis Omnia B30.
Click image to enlarge.

Charas recommended viper as a staple of the diet and as a preventive and cure for a good many diseases. His 17th century compatriot and contemporary Pierre Pomet (1658-1699) recommended distilled salts of viper to prevent measles, smallpox, plague, and scurvy, and to cure gout, rheumatisum, and venereal disease. Viper heart was prescribed for mealcholia. In another book, Trakat über den Theriak, Charas extols theriac, an anti-leprosy medicine made from powdered snake and used since antiquity; in medieval Europe the powder was formed into tablets, stamped with a snake image, and used against the bubonic plague. But that ain’t nothin’; our American frontiersmen gladly bought greasy-kid-stuff from snake-oil salesmen who took their money and swore the oil would grow hair back on their heads and cure the goiter to boot.

On the added engraved title-page of the Spencer Library’s copy (pictured above) is the inscription of the book’s former owner, French pharmacist and botanist Jean Leon Soubeiran (1827-1892). Soubeiran was the author of books on materia medica from all the kingdoms of nature–plant, animal, and mineral–including one on the venom of poisonous snakes.

Sally Haines
Rare Books Cataloger
Adapted from her Spencer Research Library exhibit and catalog, Slithy Toves: Illustrated Classic Herpetological Books at the University of Kansas in Pictures and Conservations.