Joannes Jonstonus. Historiae Naturalis de Quadrupetibus. Frankfurt: M. Merian, 1650.  Anthony R. Michaelis Collection, gift of J. Philip Gibbs, Jr. 






Joannes Jonstonus (1603-1675) was a Polish natural historian and physician, descended from Scottish nobility. Jonstonus was able to travel extensively throughout the Holy Roman Empire due to his privileged status as a private tutor and physician for a noble family. He wrote several books on natural studies and medicine, but he is best known for his four-volume Historia Animalium. The first volume, on fish and other aquatic animals, was published in 1649, followed by a volume on birds, a third on quadrupeds, and the fourth on insects and serpents. These books were predominantly a compilation of writings by earlier scholars, particularly Conrad Gesner and Ulysses Aldrovandi. Nevertheless, Jonstonus’s Historia was extremely popular and was republished and translated several times.

The volume shown in Darwin’s Ancestors is one edition of the book on quadrupeds. It contains eighty copperplate images produced by the prominent Frankfurt printmaking shop of Caspar and Matthew Merian, Jr. Jonstonus was innovative not in what he wrote, but in what he omitted from his text. Unlike earlier writers of natural history who included folklore and tales from ancient sources, Jonstonus adhered to a policy of reporting only empirical observations about each animal. Furthermore, he considered the animals of the New World to a greater extent than did many of his contemporaries. The images in his book demonstrate the developing practice of grouping together similar animals, as exemplified by the page of frog specimens. Jonstonus, like other early natural historians, sometimes had difficulty in determining which animals truly existed in exotic locales, and which were pure fantasy. This resulted in some illustrations and serious considerations of fictive animals, such as the page of monstrous creatures.  

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