The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Collecting the world in seventeenth-century London

Guest post by Surekha Davies 

From at least the sixteenth century, overseas artifacts found their way into European princely and scholarly collections. There they were catalogued, analyzed, and displayed alongside natural and artificial curiosities from classical cameos to blowfish. I am currently at the Folger Shakespeare Library working on a new book project, Collecting Artifacts in the Age of Empire, and thinking through the ways in which collections and collecting practices shaped early modern European attempts to understand human variety around the world. In so doing, I hope to uncover how scholars amassed and analyzed information about the world’s peoples by studying, describing, and cataloguing objects from around the world. Early collections, or “cabinets of curiosities,” were part of the intellectual landscape in which ideas about the human and natural worlds were re-shaped between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

In the mid-seventeenth century, John Tradescant the Elder and his son John (the Younger), both naturalists, botanists, and travelers, assembled one of the earliest known English cabinets of curiosities. Tradescant the Younger published a catalog of the collection, of which the Folger holds a copy. By looking at the catalog’s structure and organizational scheme, we can get a sense of how he understood the world around him. The Trandescant collection would later be purchased by the antiquary Elias Ashmole, who later gave his collection to the University of Oxford, where it remains today as the kernel of the Ashmolean Museum.

Tradescant engravings
Left: John Tradescant the Elder. Right: John Tradescant the Younger. Portrait engravings by Wenceslaus Hollar

A key quality that made items cabinet-worthy was rarity. The title page of the Tradescant catalog announces that its subject, the Musaeum Tradescantianum, is a “collection of rarities.” In the preface, Tradescant the Younger recounts how two friends encouraged him to compile the catalog, “[t]hat the enumeration of the Rarities, (being more for variety than any one place known in Europe could afford) would be an honour to our Nation, and a benefit to such ingenious persons as would become further enquirers into the various modes of Natures admirable workes, and the curious Imitators thereof.1 Tradescant, then, envisioned the catalog and the collection as tools for investigating natural and human ingenuity by means of the comparative study of unusual inventions, be they wondrous plants and animals or costumes and mechanical devices.

title page
Musaeum Tradescantianum, title page

Tradescant divides the “materialls” of the collection into two sorts: the Naturall, comprising bird, animal, plant, mineral, and other natural specimens, and the Artificialls or human-made artifacts. He also appends to the volume a catalog to his garden. The “artificialls” are organized in ways that may appear strange to the twenty-first century viewer. Chapter VII, entitled “Mechanick artificiall Works in Carvings, Turnings, Sowings and Paintings,” gathers together objects that, to us, don’t seem to go together. “A beard [bird] sitting on a pearch naturall” appears alongside “Divers sorts of Ambers, with Flyes/Spiders naturall,” and “Divers sorts of Corall, one with mosse in it,” throwing into question the human/plant/animal boundary by juxtaposing a (presumably) stuffed bird with insects trapped in amber and other plant/animal substances. Artifacts from the Ottoman Empire, Amazonia, ancient Rome, China, and India appear alongside a landscape by the English painter Nathaniel Bacon.

beginning of Chapter VII
Musaeum Tradescantianum, p. 36

In today’s large, national museums, these types of things tend to be housed in different collections, or even in different museums devoted to “world cultures” (code for non-European cultures), the ancient world, and western paintings. By contrast, Tradescant’s catalog, combining objects from around the world made of similar materials, allowed readers—who might also have visited his collection—to compare how cultures around the world used the same natural substances.

The next few chapters—on “Variety of Rarities,” “Warlike Instruments,” “Garments, Vestures, Habits, Ornaments,” and “Utensils”—similarly bring together artifacts from places that were distant in space and distant in time. Tradescant’s “Rarities” range from musical instruments—such as an Indian “Timbrell” and a Spanish fiddle—to an Amazonian “bundle of tobacco,” to Chinese birds’ nests—purloined, perhaps, from a purveyor of dry goods for soup. These entries give us clues to the sorts of objects and substances entering Europe during the first age of globalization, which saw sustained cultural interactions and exchange across oceans. The Tradescants themselves collected plants, animals, and objects on their travels, and their collection can also tell us about what they thought would be worth bringing home with them.

start of Chapter VIII
Musaeum Tradescantianum, p. 42

Cabinet catalogs were not necessarily organized in the way in which the collections they document were physically laid out. Indeed, the written catalog was an opportunity to gather objects together in an alternative classification. The ways in which catalogs gathered items together would have invited readers to compare cultures. For example, in the “Utensils” chapter of Tradescant’s catalog, the “Visnago, a Spanish tooth-picker,” is followed by a “Turkish tooth-brush.”

list of "utensils"
Musaeum Tradescantianum, p. 53

While many object descriptions for Tradescant’s collections were generic—“Knives from Muscovy,” for example—and the objects to which they referred were somewhat fungible, a few entries refer to specific artifacts. The collection included, for example, “Powhatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke.”

description of Powhatan's cloak
Musaeum Tradescantianum, p. 47

Early modern cabinets of curiosities such as the Tradescant collection, which interleave relics from classical antiquity, contemporary European things, and overseas artifacts, offer a window into an era in which Europeans looked admiringly at the material culture of peoples around the world.

Surekha Davies is a cultural historian at Western Connecticut State University and a Folger Mellon Long-term Fellow for 2017-18. Her first book, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge University Press, 2016; paperback, 2017), was awarded the 2016 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history by the Journal of the History of Ideas, and the 2017 Roland H. Bainton Prize in History by the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference. Surekha’s research interests include early modern collecting and empire, monster theory, the sciences of exploration, and visual and material culture.

  1. Musaeum Tradescantianum, or, A collection of rarities: preserved at South-Lambeth neer London, sig. a.1.r. and facing page

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