The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

An Italian Naturalist in England

Thank you for your guesses. “Aldrovandus” is indeed the first word of the sentence, “Gesner” is the last one. The whole sentence reads:

“Aldrovandus does not take things vp

pon trust alltogether so much as


Folger MS V.a.291, 18v, detail.
Image altered using Hierax.
Folger MS V.a.291, 18v
Image altered using Hierax. Click for original image.

This transcription was produced by the amazing “Folger Ward Team,” made up of Folger staff and other volunteers, who are transcribing the complete set of Ward’s diaries. Abbie Weinberg, who is part of the team, alerted me to this excerpt as she knows my long-term interest in “Aldrovandus” or Ulisse Aldrovandi. Ward’s words are exciting because they are a unique window into the reception of the continental naturalist by an English practitioner. But before getting to Ward’s comment, it is worth mentioning a few words about John Ward, the author of these words.

In another blog post, Abbie has written on Ward, his interests, and his difficult handwriting. Suffice it to say here that after studying at Oxford University, Christ Church College, Ward went on to be a doctor vicar at Stratford-upon Avon. From his student years to the end of his life, Ward recorded his thoughts and observations in 16 notebooks now at the Folger Library. His mention of Aldrovandi is in volume 8, which was dated to 1661-1662 by Robert Franck, one of the first authors to write about Ward’s diaries.1

By the early 1660s, Ward had left Oxford and moved to Stratford to take on his vicarage. During this period, though, he remained interested in botany and medicine, fields he had studied at Oxford, and he frequently traveled to London to visit botanists and other scientific practitioners. Considering the vicar’s scientific interests and the prominent place that Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) and Conrad Gesner (1515-1565) then held in the study of the natural world, it is not surprising to find mention of them in Ward’s notebooks.

Aldrovandi taught natural history at the University of Bologna, then one of the most famous universities in Europe.

Portrait of Aldrovandi in Ornithologiae hoc est De auibus historiae libri 12. … Bologna, Francesco de Franceschi, 1599.

Although he was well known for his teaching and through his wide net of correspondents, it is his collection of natural curiosities (or his ‘microcosm of the world’ as he described it) and his encyclopedia of natural history made up of 12 thick folio volumes heavily illustrated, which brought him lasting fame. His collection of curiosities remained a center of international tourist attraction in Bologna long after his death, while his encyclopedic volumes, the majority of which were published posthumously, remained works of reference through the early 1700s. These included volumes on birds, insects, sea creatures, quadrupeds, monsters, stones, and plants.2

Aldrovandi’s encyclopedic project was modeled on Conrad Gesner’s, a Swiss physician and a prolific writer, who only had the time to complete the volumes of his own earlier natural encyclopedia on quadrupeds and birds before falling victim to the plague.

Woodcut portrait of Conrad Gesner printed by Jean de Laon,

In many ways, Aldrovandi’s goal was to finish and surpass Gesner’s project. His manuscript notes and books are filled with references to the Swiss naturalist’s observations and many woodcuts in his volumes were copied from those in Gesner’s books.3

By the time Ward entered Oxford in 1646, Gesner’s work was known in the British Isles since at least the late 16th-century through copies of his books in private libraries4 and translations of some of his most popular titles. His picture books on birds, fish, and quadrupeds with little text written in multiple vernacular languages could be enjoyed by an international literary elite without deep knowledge of naturalists’ debates.

Image from one of Gesner’s picture books Icones animalium quadrupedum viviparorum et oviparorum, Zurich, Christoph Froschauer, 1560,

Two English authors also contributed to the dissemination of knowledge of Gesner through their own publications read by scientific practitioners and the broader public; Thomas Moffet and Edward Topsell both relied heavily on Gesner’s work in their respective books on insects, and on quadrupeds and reptiles.5

Aldrovandi was a lesser-known figure in the British Isles than Gesner in the early 1600s. First, the Bolognese’s encyclopedic volumes started being published only at the very end of the 16th century. Their price and their sheer number restricted their affordability to book owners of a certain means. Finally, these books, written in Latin, were never translated into English or any other vernacular language unlike Gesner’s. Within this context, references to Aldrovandi by English authors likely played a significant role in the dissemination of the naturalist’s work.

From a text search in the Early English Books Online database, Moffett appears to be the first British author to have mentioned the Bolognese naturalist’s work in his book. This is not surprising as the Bolognese was the first to write a full-length book on insects, which were also the subject of Moffett’s book. From then on, Aldrovandi’s name appears in an increasing number of works including books of secrets, and historical and religious texts.6 Such a range of books can be explained by Aldrovandi’s aim to cover all knowledge ever written on natural subjects, making his text of relevance to authors in various fields.

A search in the Bodleian’s library catalog indicates that at least some of Gesner’s books were at Oxford when Ward was a student.7 Remarkably, copies of the first volumes of Aldrovandi’s encyclopedia on birds and insects published between 1599 and 1602 appear to have been in the Christ Church College library shortly after their publication through the gift of an Oxford professor of theology, John Rainolds, who passed away in 1607.8 This, however, does not imply that Ward read either authors. As a matter of fact, the sentences written in his notebook before his remark on the two naturalists suggests that he did not.

Folger MS V.a.291, 18v
Image altered by Hierax. Click for original image.

The previous entry in Ward’s notebook reads:

“I have heard that Dr. prideaux once bought Books by the Bushel of / a Bookseller in Oxford, as many / hee was to haue as hee could pos / sibly lay on. I heard his name too: / Aldrovandus does not take things vp / pon trust alltogether so much as / Gesner:”

Ward could have ‘heard’ about Aldrovandi through many different channels and one of these could have been Mathias Prideaux. The latter had been a student at Oxford prior to Ward’s time and died from smallpox in 1646. In his posthumous book, An Easy and Compendious Introduction for Reading all Sorts of Histories published by his father, Prideaux mentioned Aldrovandi and Gesner.9 Prideaux’ large book acquisitions per Ward’s anecdote lead one to think that he might have owned copies of some of the naturalists’ books. Although it is impossible to confirm whether it is the reading of Prideaux’ book that prompted Ward to comment on Aldrovandi and Gesner, the connection between the three authors here is interesting.

Ward’s comment is also fascinating for its content: instead of referring to an observation made by Aldrovandi or Gesner, he comments on their diverging research method. Ward seems to think that the Bolognese naturalist was more inquisitive or that he did not take for granted observations made by others. As a matter of fact, both naturalists had similar working methods.

Although Aldrovandi performed a few dissections of birds, established a botanical garden in Bologna, and collected natural specimens in his studio, he also heavily relied on the knowledge of things collected by others. His “microcosm of the world” included more drawings copied from others’ images than from actual specimens. Likewise, his descriptions that accompanied the drawings were often based on the work of others, and usually drawn on either letters sent by his correspondents or books in his large library. Trust was, indeed, an important way for him to write on so many different topics.

Ward’s comment highlights the new significance of experiments as a scientific method advocated by Francis Bacon and supported by Ward’s former fellow students who would go on to found the Royal Society.  Ward makes Aldrovandi appear more modern than he really was. By the 1660s when this comment was written other authors were less generous: the Bolognese’s encyclopedia was very much referenced but the research method used by Aldrovandi was increasingly put into question by scientific practitioners.

Who knows what other references to Aldrovandi the Folger transcribers may find in the remaining volumes of Ward’s notebooks!

  1. Ward also wrote about Aldrovandi in volume 7 but this volume has not been transcribed yet due to its extremely fragile condition. Robert G. Franck, ” The John Ward Diaries: Mirror of Seventh Century Science and Medicine” in Journal of the History of Medicine & Allied Sciences, April 1974, Vol. 29 Issue 2, p.177. The Ward team will revisit the dating of all the volumes but from their transcription the dating of this volume is likely correct.
  2. The University of Bologna Library has digitized all the Aldrovandi volumes.
  3. Aldrovandi’s manuscripts are preserved in the University of Bologna library.
  4. Mary Stuart owned copies of some of Gesner’s books; see Nicole Labouff, “Embroidery and Information Management: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Harwick Reconsidered” in Huntington Library Quarterly, 81(3):315-358.
  5. Moffet’s book, which was first published in Latin appeared later in English appended to a second edition of Topsell’s titles.
  6. See, for example, Thomas Fuller’s Things New and Old or Edward Leigh’s A Treatise of Divinity.
  7. For example, the 1614 edition of Gesner’s Dictionarium medicum.
  8. Ornithologiae hoc est de auibus historiae and De animalibus insectis.
  9. See note on page 342.

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