Saturday, December 5, 2009

Foure Footed Beastes

This illustration was made in 1230 AD. The tusked animals are elephants. The top panel shows soldiers riding an elephant into battle, while the bottom panel shows an ailing elephant being supported by the rest of its herd. It's obvious from the animals' fur, pig-like heads, and dog-like limbs that the artist has never seen a real elephant. The images are true to a verbal description of an elephant, as a large animal with tusks, large ears and a long trunk. But a lot has been lost, and gained, in the translation from words to image.

I find these sorts of images compelling, although it's difficult to explain exactly why this is so. On a basic level, these illustrations are funny because to modern eyes, they are so obviously wrong. More than words, an image seems to lay an authoritative claim to the truth, and when it is so transparently inaccurate, there's a cheap thrill in catching the artist out in the act of fabrication. There's also the charming naivete of this image, and the mental acrobatics of trying to put myself in the mind of someone in whose world the elephant is still a quasi-fictional beast.

In a similar vein is this image of a hyena, which appeared in Edward Topsell's book Foure Footed Beasts, in 1607. Below is a photograph of a real hyena for comparison.

The text below the illustration reads:

'This beast aboundeth near Caesarea (?) in quantity resembling a Fox, but in wit and disposition a Wolf; the fashion is, being gathered together, for one of them to go before the flock singing, or howling, and all the rest, answering him with correspondent tune: In hair, it resembleth a Fox...'

Below are depictions of a sloth (1573), and a crocodile (c. 1170), which is devouring a water serpent. As with the elephant illustrations, the crocodile's claws, long tail, and spiky backbone are all accurate features of the animal, but their translation from words into an image leaves a lot to be desired.

The crocodile image comes from a type of Medieval book known as a bestiary, which was essentially a compendium of animals. Each animal in a bestiary was the subject of a story, the purpose of which was to illustrate an aspect of Christianity. The story accompanying this image is that the water-serpent allowed itself to be eaten by the crocodile, but would then devour the crocodile's innards and escape. The crocodile symbolised Hell, while the hydra represented God.

The animals in bestiaries often speak, or perform miraculous acts. It's difficult to say whether the people reading these stories interpreted them as allegories or scientific fact, partly because the medieval mind had no concept of science as a way of thinking. Areas of knowledge that today would fall under the auspices of science were mixed up with religion and myth, with no distinctions made between these ways of explaining the world. Scientific knowledge has shaped the modern worldview to the extent that we take the scientific method for granted. So I suppose another part of the appeal of these images is the unsettling thrill of trying to imagine a world in which it wasn't yet possible to think in this way. I think the scientific method is a wonderful thing, but maybe part of me enjoys the iconoclasm of trying to recreate a Medieval concept of nature. There's something comforting about the thought that no one had to study for biology exams in the days before biology was invented.

The image below is a woodblock print of a rhinoceros, which was made by the artist Albrecht Durer in 1515. A chapter in Science, Medicine and History (ed. B.A. Underwood) charts the history of this image, which became the European world's defining image of a rhinoceros for the next 250 years.

Compared to a real rhinoceros, the print is strikingly accurate in some respects. But the plicae, or skin folds, of the real rhino have been depicted as elaborate plates that resemble Medieval armor, and the animal has a completely fanciful horn between its shoulder blades.

Durer never saw a rhinoceros. He made the print from descriptions of the animal and from a sketch made by another artist of an Indian rhino that was a gift to the Pope. It's believed that Durer may have heard about the two-horned species of African Rhino (pictured below), which had been described in classical texts. Even though the species he was drawing has only one horn, he may have tried to make his image more believable by adding a second horn, not on the nose as in the real-life African species, but on the animal's back.

Over the next few centuries, Durer's image became the defining image of the rhinoceros, and was reproduced and plagiarised, complete with its embellishments, in numerous scientific texts. Later images became even more fanciful, exaggerating the morphology of the armor plates and size of the second horn. The drawing below was claimed to show several newly discovered species of rhino, but the mark of Durer's image is obvious.

Durer's rhino and its fictitious dorsal horn even found it way into this early C17th coat of arms, of the Society of Apothecaries.

In the eighteenth century, a traveler to Africa quoted local (presumably European) hunters as saying they often saw three horned rhinos, with the third horn being positioned in the location of Durer's fictitious horn. Apparently, only male animals carried the third, dorsal horn. Continual reproductions had made Durer's image so persuasive that it had influenced people's observations of the real animal.

The saga of Durer's rhinoceros can be read as a cautionary tale about the hazards of observer bias, not to mention the pitfalls of plagiarism. The modern scientific method stipulates that results must be able to be replicated by another party. This means modern science largely avoids the problems of falsification and bias that seemed so rampant in the middle of the last millennium. But these images are a reminder of the enduring possibility of human fallibility, and of truth being in the eye of the beholder.

My favourite historical scientific image is this drawing, made by Nicolas Hartsoeker in 1694.

This is a human sperm cell, or spermatazoon. Spermatozoa were discovered by the Dutch microscopist Anton van Leeuwenhoek in 1677. At the time this drawing was made, one school of thought on the origins of human life held that an entire miniature person was carried in the head of the sperm. The only contribution of the mother was to nourish and protect the baby. This theory was known as 'spermism'. As you can see, this drawing shows a tiny person curled up inside the cell. Since male babies would, in turn, carry their own offspring in miniature, the generations of humanity could be imagined to be like a set of Babushka dolls, which had originally all been contained in the testicles of Adam. And since a whole person was contained inside the cell, some people concluded that sperm cells had souls. This idea was used to support the argument that masturbation was a sin.

I had trouble researching this image because many sources gave conflicting information. Some sources claim that Hartsoeker, and sometimes also van Leeuwenhoek, claimed to have actually seen the little person, or 'homunculus', sitting in the head of the sperm. According to other sources, no such claims were made. Although the artist had seen sperm cells under the microscope, and believed in spermism, he would not have been able to see through the cell membrane to determine whether the homunculus was present. It's possible that in creating the image, he was merely representing a concept, as opposed to drawing from life what he thought, with his biased vision, he was seeing.

Somehow, the second scenario is much less appealing than that of a seventeenth century scientist gazing through a lens and thinking he could make out a little person in his own sperm, in the same way that children think they can see a face in the moon. Perhaps the first scenario has gained traction because it has much more comic potential, and seems to fit better with our ideas about the ignorant dark ages of science. If this is the case, maybe our modern minds are not so far above biased interpretation as we like to believe.