Bureaucracy: The Elizabethan Zoo: a book of beasts both fabulous and authentic

Topsell, Edward, M S. C. Byrne, and Pliny. The Elizabethan Zoo: A Book of Beasts Both Fabulous and Authentic. London: F. Etchells & H. Macdonald, 1926. Print.


Comprising a zoological selection from Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-footed Beastes (1607) and The Historie of Serpents (1608), The Elizabethan Zoo was edited by twentieth-century historian and scholar of Tudor England, Muriel St. Clare Byrne. The book depicts zoological creatures, both real and mythical, ranging from Lions to Lamias. Combining natural history, folklore, and mythology, Byrne’s Zoo represents each creature with a reproduction of Topsell’s woodblock illustration hovering above a description transcribed verbatim from the original text. Fabulous creatures sit side-by-side with specimens from far-off locals relatively unknown in seventeenth-century England, provoking the modern reader to question the purpose of Byrne’s republication of this curious content. By reprinting Topsell’s catalogue in 1926, Byrne poses a question about twentieth-century systems of zoological classification: in the formation of modern disciplines, what is lost when we differentiate between the real and the mythical?

As Byrne indicates in her Introduction, Topsell’s books were compilations of zoological knowledge current in Renaissance England. They were, according to Topsell himself, serious reference books, meant to be consulted by “Divines and Students” and aimed at “Describing the true and lively figure of every Beast, with a discourse of their severall Names, Conditions, Kindes, Vertues (both natural and medicinall), Countries of their breed, their love and hate to Mankind, and the wonderful worke of God in their Creation, Preservation, and Destruction” (Topsell, t.p.). Topsell’s early seventeenth-century catalogue of beasts drew much of its material from Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (1551-1558), one of the most important zoological treatises of the late sixteenth century. Topsell also includes extensive lists of authorities consulted, bolstering the legitimacy of his bestiary. As was often the case with large scale reference books, however, The Historie represents only a portion of Topsell’s projected publications, stemming from the “failure of his patron to lend him the financial support which he was obviously soliciting” (Heltzel 199-200). Patronage was crucial to the economic system of publishing in seventeenth-century England; it advanced works of art and literature by financially and socially supporting artists (Griffin 16). Some if not most artists were unable to produce work if patrons did not support them, as was the case for Topsell. Whatever his ambitions for these natural histories, Topsell was limited by the systems of publishing current in Renaissance England.

Although The Elizabethan Zoo derives from Topsell’s works, Byrne’s process of editorial selection adds a layer of complexity. The information, illustrations, and language of the descriptions remain the same, but the purpose of the catalogue shifts across it various iterations. Gesner catalogued creatures from classical source and travel narratives, Topsell gathered information from and translated Gesner to comprise his own catalogue of creatures, and Byrne selectively compiles materials from works by Topsell and Holland. The Elizabethan Zoo is thus a recompilation of a seventeenth-century compilation that translates a sixteenth-century compilation. If implicitly, Byrne’s editorial work replicates the processes and procedures of Renaissance knowledge making.

In her Introduction, Byrne claims that Topsell’s descriptions and illustrations contain the “residuum of medieval credulity, anecdote and legendary lore” which will “delight the twentieth-century [reader] with their quaintness and comicality” (v). It is the disjunction between Renaissance natural history and modern zoology that makes The Elizabethan Zoo a spring of curiosity and wonder to the modern reader. The most alluring aspect of both Topsell’s and Gesner’s catalogues are their woodblock illustrations (Westhrop). In both Topsell’s original and Byrne’s re-collection, the Mantichora bears an ear-to-ear smile of human teeth, a bearded chin, and rugged body resembling a lion; and the Lamia’s scaled body reveals human breasts and seductive, feminine face. The descriptions heighten this fascination with mixture: the Mantichora has “face and eares like unto a mans, his eies gray, and collour red, his taile like the taile of a Scorpion of the earth, armed with a sting, casting forth sharp pointed quils” (76). The illustrations and text invite readers to imagine the result of merging human and animal in ways that violate modern classificatory paradigms.

The Elizabethan Zoo is a slimmed down Renaissance reference book remade for the amusement of modern audiences. The allure of the collection resides in its combination of fabulous and real, a distinction only available to modern readers whose worldview has been structured by the bureaucratic forms of twentieth-century science.

Find The Elizabethan Zoo: a book of beasts both fabulous and authentic in the UNT Libraries Catalog.