Whitney Trettien – “Becoming Plant: Magnifying a Microhistory of Media Circuits in Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants (1682)”

Becoming Plant: Magnifying a Microhistory of Media Circuits

Whitney Trettien

draft version, July 1, 2011

          The fecundity of a scientific work stems from the fact that it does not impose the methodological or doctrinal choice toward which it tends. One has to look for the reasons behind this choice elsewhere than in the work itself.

-      Georges Canguilhem, “Cell Theory,” Knowledge of Life (p. 28)


For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

– John Milton, Areopagitica

[1] “So that a Plant is, as it were, an Animal in Quires; as an Animal is a Plant, or rather several Plants bound up into one Volume.”

This sentence comes from the dedicatory epistle to Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants, published by the Royal Society in 1682. With eighty-two detailed plates showing the magnified structures of leaves, seeds, stems and cross-sections of branches – much of it produced by looking through a microscope – Grew’s book collates over a decade’s worth of his research on the morphology, phytotomy and physiology of plants.

[2] Nehemiah Grew occupies an uneasy place in the history of science. On the one hand, historians have long acknowledged the significance of his Anatomy, a book which, in the words of Morton (1981), “put forward what was in effect the first comprehensive programme of botanical research” (194). On the other hand, Grew’s metaphors were too “strange” (Hall, 1962, 290), his terminology too “homely” (LeFanu, 1990, 20) for scientists of a later paradigm to use them. As Morton adds, for over a century after the book’s publication, “plant anatomy remained where they [Grew and his colleague Marcello Malpighi] left it; no one questioned their observations and no one added to them” (Morton, 1981, 179-180; see also Sachs, 1890, 225). Thus despite the excitement over its initial appearance within the Royal Society, his book languished in the pit of seventeenth-century proto-science, too Baconian in method to be counted among medieval herbals but not modern enough to have fully anticipated future discoveries in plant and cell biology.

[3] I do not attempt to resolve these tensions in Grew’s work. Rather, taking its cue from the microscopist himself, the present paper magnifies and dissects the series of analogies packed into the twenty-seven words quoted above: namely, that a plant is an animal, an animal a plant, and that both relate structurally to the book. I have chosen two plant-animal hybrids as my starting points: the vegetable lamb and the barnacle goose tree. Latent in Grew’s contention that “a Plant is, as it were, an Animal … as an Animal is a Plant,” these marvelous zoophytes originated in medieval travel books and bestiaries but persisted in various forms well into the seventeenth century, spurring on early experiments in comparative anatomy and embryology. Note that the choice of the vegetable lamb and the barnacle goose tree was somewhat arbitrary; I could have chosen the screaming mandrake, the arbor inversa or the sea sponge, since, like the preformed plant tucked inside a bean, the wondrous plant-animal atavisms folded into Grew’s analogy are (almost) limitless. However, unlike other examples, these vestigial epistemic structures provide ready evidence of how the third analogy in Grew’s triad – that a plant is an “Animal in Quires,” and an animal “several Plants bound up into one Volume” – evolved. Not only print culture (Eisenstein, 1979; Johns 1998) but the codex as a material object fomented early science by giving structure, both literally and figuratively, to the study of plants and animals during the seventeenth century. Thus from reading the divinity inscribed in zoophytic marvels to conceptualizing plant-animal bodies as quires and volumes, nature had become an actual book – a material artifact that unfolds like the two leaves of a plant, or binds together the organs of an animal body.

“So that a Plant is, as it were, an Animal in quires”

[4] men passen be a kyngdom þat men clepen Caldihe, þat is a full fair contre. And þere groweth a maner of fruyt as þough it weren Gowrdes, and whan þei ben rype men kutten him a to & men fynden withjnne a lytyll best in flesch, in bon & blode, as þough it were a lytill lomb withouten wolle. and men eten bothe the frut & the best, And þat is a gret merueylle. Of þat frute I haue eten all þough it were wonderfull but þat I knowe wel þat god is merueyllous in his werkes. (Hamelius, 1919, XXX, 175-6) [1]

This is the Borametz, also the Scythian Lamb or vegetable lamb of Tartary, as described in the book of John Mandeville. Tales of this marvelous plant-born animal circulated widely in late medieval and early modern Europe (e.g., Kircher, 1643, 639; Harsdörffer, 1653, 583; Parkinson, 1629, frontispiece; et al.), first as a kind of meat developed in a gourd, then as an animal fixed to the ground by a plant stem at its naval. In a later version of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the lamb was said to devour all the vegetation within range of its tether until, having stripped the earth around it bare, it starved.

[5] One of several medieval examples of zoophytes, the Borametz is neither wholly plant nor wholly animal. Its quadruped portion walks, eats and digests like a lamb – it even tastes like a lamb, according to some – at the same time the parent plant roots it quite literally to the earth. In a strange reversal of Aristotelian hierarchies, then, the higher sensitive soul of the animal, able to perceive and respond to stimuli with locomotion, depends vitally upon the soil-bound immobility characteristic of lesser plant life. Indeed, the lamb portion of this hybrid creature cannot survive the severing of its vegetable stem. Do these restrictions imposed by the plant demote the animal? Or does the lamb-fruit promote the plant to the status of a sentient creature? From both directions, this hybridic life-form exerts pressure on Aristotelian metaphysics, so much so that several seventeenth commentators refused to believe in it. “Untill either an autoptical experiment, or the observation of some, who are more curious of Truth, then exotique Rarities, shall remove those scruples which I have in me,” Walter Charleton (1652) writes, “concerning the fidelity of those large stories obtruded upon us by Travellers, of the … or Vegetable Lambe of Tartary … I shall beg leave to suspend my belief, that there are any such Heteroclites or midle Natures, half Vegetable, half sensible” (Charleton, 1652, 131-132).

[6] The reasoning of skeptics like Charleton – or believers like (perhaps) the compiler of John Mandeville’s book – offers a glimpse into the epistemic structures that shaped and reshaped beliefs about the natural world. For Charleton, writing in the middle of the seventeenth century, only an “autoptical experiment” can prove the existence of mixed creatures (although in a later text he suggests the Borametz may be an example of “Sensation without Sense,” or a kind of proto-sense, without commenting on the possibility of its existence; see Charleton, 1659, 123). Rather than demanding direct proof, Francis Bacon seeks alternative explanations, pointing out that the plant may only look like a lamb; “and as for the Grasse, it seemeth the Plant, hauing a great Stalke and Top, doth prey vpon the Grasse, a good way about, by drawing the Iuyce of the Earth from it” (Bacon, 1627, 155). Sir Thomas Browne echoes Bacon’s explanation in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenents and commonly presumed truths (1672), suggesting that myth may be “no more, then the shape of a Lamb in the flower or seed, upon the top of the stalk” (208) – a statement later refuted by Alexander Ross (Ross, 1652, 143). The dragonfruit bleeds, Ross writes; peaches have woolly skin, and the sensitive plant (mimosa pudica) responds to touch. Why, then, is the vegetable lamb an impossible creature?

[7] Thus in seventeenth-century discussions of the Boramets, both skeptic and believer treat its “marvelous” characteristics as a set of explainable phenomena, with the given explanations either confirming or denying its existence. In other words, for Charleton, Bacon, Browne and Ross, wonder initiates inquiry into the natural world not as always/already inscribed with divinity, but as a material reality comprised of objects able to be dissected, examined and compared. The Borametz’s curious hybridity also served as a tool for testing the boundaries of given Aristotelian categories – for, as the title to Browne’s book puts it, “enquir[ing] into very many received tenents and commonly presumed truths.” In this way, “strange facts” like the vegetable lamb were, as Daston and Park (1998) have argued, “Ur-facts, the prototypes of the very category of the factual,” helping to define “many (though not all) of the traits that have been the hallmarks of facticity ever since: the notorious stubbornness of facts, inert and even resistant to interpretation and theory; their angular, fragmentary quality; their affinity with concrete things, rather than with relationships” (236). Far from disappearing with the rise of experimental philosophy, the marvelous hybridity of the Borametz actually urged on the new methods by providing investigatory fodder.

[8] Before experimental philosophy began emphasizing the “objectness” of life – even (especially?) wondrous life – the marvel of the vegetable lamb was also laying the foundation for the kind of comparative anatomy that would, by 1682, allow Nehemiah Grew to describe a plant as “an Animal in Quires.” Here, Girolamo’s critique, from his De varietate rerum (1557), is illustrative. Describing the vegetable lamb as a fabula, a myth, Girolamo Cardano points out that “an animal that is endowed with blood has a heart; but the earth cannot support its beating and warmth” [animal quod sanguine praeditum est, cor habet: terra aute pulsationi & calori inepta est]; therefore, a plant could never support an organism with animal organs. Furthermore, “animals which are generated from semen need heat[;] … but earth and air are not able to be hot enough” to incubate embryos [animalia quae ex semine generantur, calido indigere ... at terra & aer non possunt esse adeo calida]. “For that reason,” he concludes, “isn’t it obvious why no plant has flesh?” [inde patet, cur nulla planta carnem habet?] (Cardano, 1557, 216). Although Julius Caesar Scaliger mocks Cardano’s reasoning (strictly speaking, his ignorance of animal reproduction misleads him), the hybrid nature of the vegetable lamb draws Cardano to a process of analogical reasoning by which he imagines the supposed functions of animal organs in relation to the morphology of a plant. Thus while the Borametz of medieval bestiaries synthesizes two species in one marvelous organism, Cardano, by severing the stem linking plant to animal, transforms wonder into an exercise in comparative anatomy. The Physiologus tradition has become the stuff of physiology.

[9] Although as early as ancient Greece philosophers were imagining plant anatomy in relation to animals – Aristotle, for instance, described a plant’s “heart” and “mouth” – Cardano’s incipient comparative anatomy would, by the seventeenth century, become the standard method of studying vegetable life. Indeed, experimentalists pursued these analogies with renewed vigor as new discoveries in animal anatomy fed back into microscopical observations of dissected plants. For instance, following William Harvey’s work on blood circulation, Martin Lister argued that the observable tubes in leaves operated like the veins and arteries found in mammals (see Roos, 2007, 80-81, 99) – a hypothesis debated by John Willis, who thought they were some form of nervous system (Webster, 1966, 18). Similarly, when explorers introduced the sensitive plant from the New World, amazed philosophers used animal functions to account for its response to touch. Thus in a paper read to the Royal Society in 1661, Timothy Clarke utilized contemporary theories of muscular contraction to provide a mechanistic account of the sensitive plant’s movement (Webster, 1966, 16). Henry Power even goes so far as to suggest that, because plants show a “continuall transpiration … like to that in animals,” they may also share certain forms of life with animals: “I can easily stretch my belief a little farther,” he writes in a letter to Thomas Browne, “and that is to conceive that all plants may not only have a transpiration of particles but a sensation also like animals” (Wilkin, 1835, 406).

[10] Far from some musty medievalism, then, the idea that a “Plant is, as it were, an Animal” was, by the time Grew was writing, the dominant method for understanding plant life (Delaporte, 1982). Grew himself expands on the metaphor, writing that

there are those things within a Plant, little less admirable, than within an Animal. That a Plant, as well as an Animal, is composed of several Organical Parts; some whereof may be called its Bowels. That every Plant hath Bowels of divers kinds, conteining divers kinds of Liquors. That even a Plant lives partly upon Aer; for the reception whereof, it hath those Parts which are answerable to Lungs. (Grew, 1982, “Epistle Dedicatory”)

Like many of his contemporaries cited above, Grew returns to this comparative method throughout his research, using the “divers material Agreements betwixt” plants and animals “not only to compare what is already known of both; but also, by what may be observed in the one, to suggest and facilitate the finding out of what may yet be unobserved in the other” (4). Of course, he warns, “if any one shall require the Similtude to hold in every Thing; he would not have a Plant to resemble, but to be, an Animal” (173) – an important distinction. In the Paracelsian thought of an earlier century, plant-animal resemblances revealed the signatura rerum written into nature, such that, for instance, the screaming mandrake’s man-shaped roots showed the zoophyte’s ability to cure barrenness in women (see, e.g., Findlen, 1990; Newman, 2007; della Porta, 1588). In other words, the humanness of the mandrake’s form and its apparent ability to feel human pain pointed to its sympathy with the human body. By contrast, Grew uses plant-animal analogies to bring the anatomy of each – especially their internal anatomies – into greater relief.

[11] Though not referring to Grew specifically, Wilson (1995) points to the kind of distinction Grew makes here as indicative of a broader epistemological shift among the early microscopists. “The microscope takes away the privilege of surface,” Wilson writes, since “what the object looks like on the outside is no guide to what it is in the sense of what it can do.” Thus, she concludes, “there is no resemblance” seen under a microscope: nature is not “a system of signs meant for us to read,” and “nature is not a book” (62-3). However, that nature no longer glows with divine illuminations does not indicate that it is no longer a book, only that it no longer takes the form of a handwritten manuscript. In fact, as shown above, nature was becoming more like a book, an artifact marked, in the early modern period, by a sameness of species across an entire print run of a title. Thus stretching from Grew’s analogy back to the Mandevillean description of the marvelous Borametz, one finds not a cultural rupture but a subtle shift in the ontology of objects – in the ways that immaterial relationships imbue and give shape to material things. For a late medieval writer, the Borametz confirms the marvelous divinity written into all Creation: “of þat frute I haue eten,” reads Mandeville’s Travels, “all þough it were wonderfull but þat I knowe wel þat god is merueyllous in his werkes of that fruit I have eaten.” Within this epistemology, the Book of Nature trope denotes an act, a devotional method by which one “reads” the handwriting of God mirrored in the marvel of the vegetable lamb (see Verner, 2005, 157; Johns, 1998, 47; Williams, 1996, 207; Findlen, 1994, 50-57). For Cardano, writing roughly two centuries later, wonder inspires him beyond devotion to interrogate the physical conditions of possibility for such a creature’s existence – to, as he writes, “handle the matter by nature” [rem tractare naturaliter]. For Grew, as for (to various extents) Bacon, Browne, Charleton and Ross, the marvelous hybridity of plant-animal analogies motivates the scientific method, and the Book of Nature becomes an actual codex giving structure, both figuratively and literally, to the natural world. From one kind of book to another, metaphors for the natural world shift around the axis of technological transitions, dragging structures of knowledge with them.

[12] In his dedicatory epistle of Book I, addressed to Bishop John Wilkins, Grew writes:


I Hope your pardon, if while you are holding That best of Books in one Hand, I here present some Pages of that of Nature into your other: Especially since Your Lordship knoweth very well, how excellent a Commentary This is on the Former; by which, in part, GOD reads the World his own Definition, and their Duty to him. (Grew, 1982)

Grew is intentionally ambiguous: does he refer to the metaphoric “Pages” of nature, or the actual pages of his own book, presumably being held by Wilkins while he reads these lines? As a compilation of all he has ever written on plants, Grew’s Anatomy is, in some sense, a literal book of nature: it translates the matter of plants (in both senses of that phrase) into descriptive text and precise visual representations, thereby materializing human knowledge of the vegetable world. The physical book participates in this reconstitution of nature’s matter, turning the fibers of the flax plant into paper, nut oils and lampblack into ink, animal bones into glue and animal skins into a cover. Indeed, this text analogizing animal organs to plant parts is, in its material form, a zoophytic assemblage of both.

[13] Yet, unlike in the medieval book of nature, Grew’s text does not simply mirror the divinity of plants but, importantly, offers an entirely new view into their inner life. Full-page plates show garden-variety stems dissected into dizzyingly complex cross-sections, then magnified as maps that unfold into monstrous landscapes. As Grew writes in his first dedicatory epistle to Charles II, “we are come ashore into a new World, … some will say, into another Utopia,” using a metaphor of exploration common in early texts on microscopy (see Wilson, 1995; Fournier, 1996); “yet not I,” Grew continues, “but Nature speaketh these things” (Grew, 1982, “Epistle Dedicatory”). Thus discovering this New World helps to print a new edition of the book of nature – one not of hieroglyphic scripts, metaphorically decoded by faithful observers, but of actual pages to be turned over by the scientist’s hand, unfolded like the leaves the of the plants described therein.

“as an Animal is a Plant, or rather several Plants bound up into one Volume”

[14] Cardano does not wholly discount the possible existence of an in-between creature. In fact, he speculates that “there might, perhaps, be a plant having sensation and also imperfect flesh, such as that of mollusks and fishes” (Cardano, 1557, 217) – an example which points to another marvelous plant-animal hybrid, the legendary barnacle goose tree.

Purported to be found growing along the ocean’s edge in Ireland and the Hebrides, the barnacle goose tree traces its roots to Topographia hiberniae, wherein Gerald of Wales describes birds that “appear as excrescences on fir-logs carried down upon the waters,”

hang[ing] by their beaks, like seaweeds attached to the timber. Being in the process of time well covered with feathers, they either fall into th water or take their flight in the free air, their nourishment and growth being supplied, while they are bred in this very unaccountable and curious manner, from the juices fo the wood in the sea-water. (Cambrensis, 1863, 36)

[15] Although Giraldus describes the barnacles as clinging to a piece of driftwood, other texts by Peter Damian, Thomas of Cantimpre and Gervase of Tilbury understand them as a kind of proto-beak that grasps the living tree’s bark as the goose develops. A later iteration explains the barnacles as a shellfish-like fruit that drops into the ocean, whence goslings hatch; while still others imagine the birds as spontaneously generating, worm-like, from sea-soaked timber.

[16] In all cases, the question remains: is it a plant or an animal? fish or fowl? If its birth from a barnacle classifies the goose as a shellfish, it is edible during Lent and on Fridays; and in fact, Giraldus reports certain bishops in Ireland eating the geese on fast days, “as not being flesh, because they are not born of flesh.” However, Giraldus cautions, “these men are curiously drawn into error”; for “if any one had eaten part of the thigh of our first parent, which was really flesh, although not born of flesh, I should think him not guiltless of having eaten flesh” (Cambrensis, 1863, 36). Moreover, nature provides mankind with the marvel of the barnacle goose precisely to inspire this kind of religious reflection – or, as Giraldus himself puts it, “for our instruction and in confirmation of the Faith.” By allowing the possibility of a tree-born goose, one confirms the reality of the virgin birth of Christ, or the making of Eve from Adam’s rib. Thus the presence of this medieval marvel always signifies a metaphysics beyond its own material instantiation, beyond the details of how a bird emerges from a barnacle, or a barnacle from a tree – beyond, even, the question of whether the goose exists or not. Although Giraldus assures his reader that he has “often seen [them] with my own eyes,” physical proof matters less than accepting the conditions of possibility for its existence, which are none other than those of the Christian cosmology.

[17] Mandeville’s Travels also mentions the barnacle goose tree. Immediately after his description of the vegetable lamb (quoted above), the narrator retorts:

natheles I tolde hem of als gret a merueyle to hem þat is a monges vs And þat was of the Bernakes. For I told hem þat in oure contree weren trees þat baren a fruyt þat becomen briddes fleeynge. And þo þat fellen in the water lyuen, And þei þat fallen on the erthe dyen anon; and þei ben right gode to mannes mete. (Hamelius, 1919, XXX, 176)

As Rosemary Tzanaki (2003) argues, this scene exemplifies the respect for otherness found throughout Mandeville’s Travels by showing that “the weird can equally well be found at home – the West has its own marvels just as the East does” (104). Yet the traveler’s boast also hints at the text’s broader mercantilist motives (see Verner, 2005, 136-141), a suggestion made more explicit in an illumination from the manuscript Livre des merveilles du monde est un ouvrage rédigé par Jean de Mandeville (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale Française 2810). In the image, two men in Islamic garb offer three Christians a gourd cracked open to reveal a lamb; in return, the three men give a tree branch bearing small bird. Thus while Giraldus treats the barnacle goose’s marvelous procreation as ipso facto evidence of Christianity – indeed, uses it to try to convert the “unhappy Jew” – here wonders exist as tangible goods within a patchwork of competing belief systems, opening up lines of communication and, more importantly, trade routes between them.

[18] While Mandeville’s stories continued to circulate widely in printed editions of the late fifteenth and sixteenth century, an explosion of early modern herbals (see Ogilvie, 2003) begin citing the barnacle goose tree as an example not of a marvel but an actual plant growing along the northern cliffs of Ireland and Scotland. For instance, John Gerard’s well-known 1597 Herball includes the barnacle goose tree among its many plants; however, Gerard seems uncertain how to categorize it, tacking it on as the last entry. He seems equally unsure how to depict it. All but sixteen of Gerard’s woodcuts come from Tabernaemontanus’s Eicones plantarum (1590) and hence share its method of depicting plants as living units in flower and freed from the environments in which they grow. The woodcut for the barnacle goose tree, though – original to Gerard’s book – shows a twisted trunk huddled at the edge of the sea, geese-topped waves stretching off into the background. Instead of leaves, the tree has only five disproportionate, tulip-shaped barnacles hatching birds. Bizarrely out of place beside the clean, leafy renderings of other plants, this woodcut has more in common with the depictions of the barnacle tree in, for instance, Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (1544) than with the visual style of contemporaneous herbals. Yet, taken as a whole, Gerard’s image situates the marvel, albeit crudely, within an environment that makes its knobby shape and unusual fruit seem biologically possible. The sea below excuses the presence of barnacles above; the hovering geese justify the wing peeking out of the shell. Thus if Giraldus reads God in the barnacle goose tree, and Mandeville’s Travels sees the tangible goods of trade, Gerard begins to imagine how matter, the stuff of nature, could physically bear this “marvelous” form of life.

[19] In fact, just as the vegetable lamb inspires Cardano to compare plant/animal anatomies, the barnacle goose tree spurs Gerard to perform an experiment:

I founde the trunke of an olde rotten tree, which (with some helpe that I procured by fishermens wiues that were there attending their husbandes returne from the sea) we drewe out of the water vpon dry lande: on this rotten tree I founde growing many thousandes of long crimson bladders, in shape like vnto puddings newly filled before they be sodden, which were verie cleere and shining, at the neather end whereof did grow a shelfish, fashioned somwhat like a small Muskle, but much whiter, resembling a shellfish that groweth vpon the rocks about Garnsey and Garsey, called a Lympit: many of these shells I brought with me to London, which after I had opened, I founde in them liuing things without forme or shape; in others which were neerer to come to ripenes, I found liuing things that were very naked, in shape like a Birde; in others, the Birds couered with soft downe, the shell halfe open, and the Birde readie to fall out, which no doubt were the foules called Barnakles. I dare not absolutely auouch euery circumstance of the first part of this Historie concerning the tree that beareth those buds aforesaide, but will leaue it to a further consideration: howbeit that which I have seene with mine eies, and handled with mind handes, I dare confidently auouch, and boldly put downe for veritie.  (Gerard, 1597, 1392)

In his detailed observations, analogical thinking and tentative conclusions, Gerard sounds very much like an experimental scientist of the seventeenth century – indeed, like Nehemiah Grew himself. Although he never speculates how a bird came to be in a barnacle, his curiosity drives him where Mandeville’s did not: beyond the surface of the full-grown plant to investigate the claims about the physical reality of a marvelous reproduction.

[20] Roughly a half-century later, the same curiosity would impel Nathaniel Highmore (1651) to investigate the growth of the fetus inside a chicken egg, diagramming its different stages beside a cross-section of a bean containing a tiny plantlet curled in on itself. Highmore was, of course, not the first embryologist to compare plant seeds to animal eggs. Aristotle himself described embryo formation in terms of plant growth, initiating a tradition of comparative analysis that, as in the study of plant physiology, would continue into the eighteenth century. Moreover, Malebranche’s “famous lines credited with having marked the birthplace of preformation” (Pinto-Correia, 1997, 19) begin with the more evident example of preformed tulips and trees before pointing out that “we can also think of animals in this way” (quoted on 19). In fact, although its significance has been underemphasized in histories of the field, the bean was second only to the chicken egg in providing seventeenth-century researchers – both preformationists and epigeneticists – with a readily observable example of “embryonic” growth. Marcello Malpighi and William Harvey, who worked alongside Highmore, both experiment with beans; Theodor Kerckring, turning an explicit analogy into a conceptual metaphor, calls a fetus he dissects a “black cherry” (Kerckring, 1672, 4021; see also Keller, 2000). Fascination with this barnacle-tree-like comparison continues into the modern period with curiosity-seeking headlines like “Bird Embryo In Apricot” (Mechanix Illustrated, Dec. 1939).

[21] It is impossible (and methodologically undesirable) to link causally Gerard’s curious investigation of a barnacle fruit to Highmore’s bean-egg diagrams (or, indeed, to the bird embryo found in an apricot). Yet each of these singular descriptions forms one star in what would, by the mid-seventeenth century, appear as a constellatory shift in the study of life’s conception, indeed in the study of life itself. No longer marked by metamorphic marvels but not yet wholly taxonomized, the natural world revealed itself to man through analogies. That is, a plant might no longer be thought capable of generating an animal, as the medieval barnacle goose was; but it could produce a better understanding of animal reproduction through experimentation and simple observation.

[22] Thus while Giraldus reads the virgin birth in the barnacle goose tree’s metamorphic reproduction, the seventeenth-century microscopist Jan Swammerdam chides Harvey for darkening his experiment on bees with the “clouds of imaginary metamorphosis,” then warns colleagues against blasphemously comparing metamorphic animal reproduction to Christ’s death and resurrection (quoted in Pinto-Correia, 1997, 25; see also Fournier, 1996, 69. However, Swammerdam – who guiltily abandoned experimental philosophy to devote himself to his religious – does not shy away from analogizing man’s development to that of an insect in a collection of his posthumously published writings aptly titled the Book of Nature (Pinto-Correia, 1997, 26). Importantly, these analogous relationships were not Paracelsian similitudes, by which physical resemblance exposes the current of sympathy running between two things, but structural frameworks mediating the physical instantiation of life as such. From the autocratic Christian telos governing Giraldus’s description of the barnacle goose to Grew’s plant-animal analogy, the immaterial networks linking together matter were hardening into a kind of gross comparative anatomy between objects.

[23] Once forms of life relate to each not through spirit but matter, other objects – non-living objects – may enter into the analogy, participating as equals in this “parliament of things” (see Latour, 1993, 142-4). As has been widely discussed, mechanistic philosophy spurred this transformation by refusing to blur the lines between art and nature, between automata like watches and living animals. Less remarked, though, is the influence of other ostensibly less machinic artifacts like the book. In the form of journals, letters, reference works, manuals, essays and systems, texts were immediately present objects populating the desks of the early experimentalists in the same way that, as Latour and Woolgar (1986) have shown, they do the laboratories of scientists today (47-9). As such, they provided a ready analogy for the ways in which form gives way to function; the ways that immaterial meaning courses through material things; the way pleats of matter can fold up into a tightly-bound organ, or unfold like the leaves of a plant (see, e.g., Deleuze, 1993, 31). Indeed, natural philosophers used books as an analogy for ideating the structure and emergence of life as much they used them as a media platform for disseminating their ideas.

[24] The metaphor of the book entered debates about reproduction with particular force through the image of the epitome or compendium. As an abstracted or compilatory abbreviation of a longer text, the compendium perfectly mediates the problematic difference between growth and development. For an abstract can (and presumably should) grow into a full-length volume; but in doing so, new examples, new ideas, new organs of thought develop. In other words, from compendium to volume, a text moves from both general to specialized knowledge and from smaller to bigger, encapsulating both preformed thought and a kind of epigenetic potentiality. Thus Pierre Gassendi describes the seed as an “epitome of the plants whole soul” [epitome Animae totalis], containing “the idea, so to speak, and impression of the other parts” [caeterarum partium veluti ideam, impressionemque contineat]; it “communicates” [communicanteis habeat] life to all other parts of the plant as it develops (Adelmann, 1966, 799-800). Andrianus Spigelius likewise writes that “the seed is a fetus, and a compendium, so to speak, of the entire plant” [semen vero est foetus, & quasi totius plantae compendium] (Adelmann, 1966, 902). Writing several decades after Spigelius, Malpighi also describes the seed as a fetus but applies the compendium metaphor to the bud (it is “a compendium of the not-yet-unfolded plantlet,” quoted Adelmann, 1966, 902), as does Grew (“the Growth of a Bud … carries along with it, some portion of every Part in the Trunk or Stalk; whereof it is a Compendium,” Grew, 1682, 57). Grew further describes the floret as “the Epitome of a Flower” (38).

[25] In fact, Malpighi – who studied the buds of over twenty different species, often in sections under a microscope (Morton, 1981, 182) – frequently turns to the image of a condensed text, using it to describe seeds, plantlets, pre-existent coverings in bark (Adelmann, 1966, 844, 902), indeed most any part of the plant in which leaves unfold around a central stalk. He also applies the metaphor to the development of animals, writing:

there is present in the cicatrix a compendium of the animal, by which I mean the first outlines of the principal parts, or in other words, their outermost boundaries, which – through the mediating liveliness, communicating fluid motion – is made sensible when the cavities are gradually filled up and swell.

in cicatrice adesse compendium animalis, hoc est, delineationes primas principalium partium; extimos scilicet fines, qui vegetatione media, communicato fluidis motu, cum sensim repleantur concavitates & turgeant, obviae fiunt sensibus. [2]

Note the phrase vegetatione media – which Adelmann translates as “the agency of growth” but might more directly be rendered as “mediating liveliness,” akin to a vital spark[3] as well as the verb communicato. When paired with the metaphor of the compendium, these words construct an image of animal development as the enlargement of a text that expands to communicate ever more details about the organism. Importantly, the metaphor draws on both the generic and formal qualities of a compendium. In other words, the bud (or fetus) does not only conceptually “abbreviate” the fully-grown plant (or animal) but physically mimics the structure of a compiled text, abstracting its “principal parts” (principalium partium) into its “first outlines” (primas delineationes). Moreover, at least twice in his correspondence Malpighi refers to actual books as “compendia,” once in a letter to Henry Oldenburg describing his own dissertation on chick development (Adelmann, 1966, 844n6).

[26] Another example from Highmore shows the complexity of the compendium metaphor for plant and animal reproduction when married to an image of the body as a territory:

This blood, that all parts might be irrigated with its benigne moisture, is forc’d by several chanels, to run through every region and part of the body; by which means every part out of that stream, selects those Atomes which they finde to be cognate to themselves. Amongst which the Testicles … abstract some spiritual Atomes belonging to every part; which had they not here been anticipated, should have been attracted to those parts, to which properly they did belong for nourishment. As the parts belonging to every particle of the Eye, the Ear, the Heart, the Liver, Stomack, Guts, the Hand, every particular bone, and muscle, &c. which should in nutrition, have been added (to repair the continual deperdition) to every one of these parts, are compendiously, and exactly extracted from the blood, passing through the body of the Testicles; and being in this Athanor cohobated and reposited in a tenacious matter (lest being spiritual, and very fine, they should lose their vigor) at last, passe from the body of the Testicles, by certain vessels, in which through infinite Meanders, it undergoes another digestion and pellicanizing, (as in another place I have shown.) And from thence, being now delivered from all its excrements, and furnisht with Atomes, fit for the making of every part and particle of an other Individuall; is treasured up in certain Granaries, till the seed time comes. And this is the nature, substance, and manner of collecting the Seed. This shall be further illustrated by the several wayes of Generation in severall Creatures, and first in Plants. (Highmore, 1651, 44-6)

Here, the body is a vast landscape irrigated with channels that, like streams, communicate the nutrient-rich seeds of life to other regions – to the eyes, the ears, the heart, each body part its own ecosystem. While most of these seeds take root, thereby repopulating (and expanding) the body’s landscape with new life, some collect in the testicles, the body’s granaries, which collate these seeds into a compendium. Reproduction, then, is the act of migrating this human compendium – each chapter a set of instructions for seeding new body parts – to another territory, the female body.  Thus folding the life cycle of plants into a flow model of communication, Highmore’s account transforms the human into a text-generating mechanism, spitting out abstracts to seed its ideas on the New Worlds of other bodies. Indeed, Highmore uses the social life of texts to conceptualize reproductive mechanisms in much the same way, three centuries later, Richard Dawkins would turn to genetics to explain how ideas spread.

[27] Far from novel, the conceit of man as compendium or epitome is an ancient one. If the world is the Book of Nature – a similitude for God’s book, the Bible – then man was its compendium: an abstract or microcosm of the entirety of Creation (see, e.g., Nicolson, 1950, esp. 22). Like the Book of Nature, this trope experienced a revival in the seventeenth century, in no small part because the observations and debates of experimental philosophers infused the metaphor with new meaning. In his Religio medici Thomas Browne links preformationist theories of plant reproduction to the compendium model of man, writing:

[28] In the seed of a Plant to the eyes of God, and to the understanding of man, there exists, though in an invisible way, the perfect leaves, flowers, and fruit thereof: (for things that are in posse to the sense, are actually existent to the understanding.) Thus God beholds all things, who contemplates as fully his workes in their Epitome, as in their full volume, and beheld as amply the whole world in that little compendium of the sixth day, as in the scattered and dilated pieces of those five before. (Browne, 1643, 115-116)

[29] Thus the seed encapsulates the preformed plant the same way man encapsulates the glory of God, who alone can view the whole volume of creation. In a letter to Thomas Browne, Henry Power recapitulates this view, writing that “the smallest seeds are nothing but their own plants shrunk into an atome, which though invisible to us, are easyly discernable to nature, and to that piercing eie, that sees through all things.” Power goes on to suggest the vanity of expecting “an ocular demonstration of these things, unless,” he hopefully (and perhaps a bit sarcastically) adds, “wee had such glasses (as some men rant of) whereby they could see the transpiration of plants and animals, yea the very magnetically effluviums of the loadstone” (Wilkin, 1835, 405-8). Thus by extending the human eye, the microscope brings the vision of compendious man closer to that of God, who sees the full volume – which itself turns out to be nothing but nested compendia all the way down. Here, the weight of materiality – the experimental philosopher’s insistence on the physical make-up of nature – begins to break apart the image.

[30] By describing a plant as an “Animal in Quires,” Grew collapses the textual metaphor into a formal analogy. The quire was an important structural unit in early modern printing. To facilitate binding, printers nested the conjugate leaves cut from a printed sheet of paper into small pamphlets, or quires. The number of leaves in a quire thus determined the order in which the pages were imposed on a whole sheet of paper. (For instance, in a quire of four leaves, two conjugate pairs are stacked and then folded together, the first printed with pages two and seven on the front, and pages one and eight on the back; the second printed with pages four and five on the front, and pages three and six on the back.) Because a quire with many nested pairs of leaves complicated the process of ordering and imposing pages, marks or “signatures” (recall the significance of this word in earlier Paracelsian philosophy, here materialized) along the bottom of the leaves guided printers and binders in gathering the conjugate pairs into one fold, as well as in stacking the quires to form a full volume. To analogize a plant to an “Animal in Quires,” then, is to imagine the organism as an assemblage of individual parts, each part related to the whole in the same way. Pairs of leaves unfurl from a single stalk like folia from a quire’s fold; cut one leaf and the structure survives, though its symmetry suffers.

[31] By contrast, the animal operates at the level of the individual, its parts subordinate to the operation of the whole organism. Cut off a deer’s leg and it may live; however, unlike a tree with one less branch, the three-legged deer is critically transformed, its ability to survive greatly diminished. Thus if a plant is like a paper quire both in structure and in function, the animal is, Grew posits, like several quires “bound up into one Volume.” That is, the animal’s anatomy is not loosely gathered, like that of the plant, but “bound” together as a whole, its inner text shut between leather covers. A single volume (“one”) has a spine to hold it together, and a title to give it a unique identity in the ecosystem of ideas. As a compilation of his previous publications, each printed with a unique title page and dedication, Grew’s own book reconfigures his many unique organs of thought into a single unit – it is both an “Animal in Quires” and “many Plants bound into one Volume.” In this ostensibly homely analogy, then, Grew presents a comparative anatomy, an incipient physiology and, perhaps most interestingly, a theory of the book – all mediated through the physical structure of the codex. Life arises mysteriously from organized matter, Grew seems to be saying, in the same way immaterial concepts – life-altering, world-changing ideas – emerge from the mediated materiality of texts.

*          *          *

           [32]  Man as compendium; as the bud of the Book of Nature; as a landscape seeded with the texts of life. When Grew opens his magnum opus on plant physiology with the sentence, “So that a Plant is, as it were, an Animal in Quires; as an Animal is a Plant, or rather several Plants bound up into one Volume,” he does not indulge in strange or useless analogies; rather, he draws on a rich history of relating plants to animals, and animals to plants, using the metaphor of textuality. In fact, as Kay (2000) and van Rijn-van Tongeren (1997) argue, textual metaphors persist in biology today in the form of DNA synthesis and the genetic code. Grew’s sentence is no dead timber, then, but a living system of thought situated within a changing media ecology.

[33] As this tangle of ideas has shown, the history of science is always also a history of media – of how the objects, laws and mechanisms of our world come to be known as and through our own technologies. Much of the work in book history explores how the codex platform fomented particular epistemologies or social transformations; however, few scholars have focused on what Andrew Piper (2009) calls the “bibliographic imagination,” that is, the symbolic dimension of the book as embedded in a particular culture. In Grew’s work, as well as the bibliographic imagination of the seventeenth-century experimental philosophy writ large, the book not only literally disseminated ideas but also metaphorically inspired them. From the book of nature to the nature of the book, the material codex form was becoming a map of new worlds.


[1]   This quote comes from the MS. Cotton Titus version edited by P. Hamelius for the EETS. The Pynson edition omits the final sentence.

[2]   Adelmann translates this sentence: “there is present in the cicatrix a compendium of the animal, by which I mean the first outlines of the principal parts, or in other words, their outermost boundaries, which through the agency of growth become visible when motion has been communicated to the fluids and the cavities gradually fill and become turgid” (Adelmann, 1966, 867). I have modified his translation to emphasize Malpighi’s use of the words media and communicato.

[3]   Note the similarity of Highmore’s theory to Darwin’s pangenetic notion of heredity.



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7 Responses to Whitney Trettien – “Becoming Plant: Magnifying a Microhistory of Media Circuits in Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants (1682)”

  1. Karl Steel says:

    [2] the logic of the *thus* not entirely clear to me. Is it something like this: the characteristic of ‘modern’ science is that it pretends to be free from rhetoric [part of the modern divorce of logic from rhetoric], and Grew/Malpighi’s Anatomy was too rhetorical for its work to be picked up and developed by later botanists?

    [3] this is so cool. The big question [via Laurie Shannon, eg, her 2009 PMLA article] is what ‘animal’ means here. Does it mean any living thing, or is it beginning to mean, specifically, a living thing that isn’t a plant or human [its modern meaning, I guess]. This answered implicitly in graph [9], but still might be clarified, if only with a reference to Shannon’s work. And do you know Marjorie Swann’s essay on Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici in the Hanawalt/Kiser anthology Engaging with Nature? I’m guessing you do. I’m just reminded of Browne’s wish that we could propagate like trees. This is a *very* lateral suggestion, and one probably useful only for your larger project.

    [4] Incidentally, Mandeville gets the lamb fruit from Odoric of Pordenone. See Henry Yule’s Cathay and the Way Thither. Had no idea that it’s called the Borametz. This has something to do with graph [8], since I’m not sure the Borametz ever *technically* appeared in any medieval bestiaries or for that matter the Physiologus, which predates the bestiary [for a convenient summary, see Jill Mann From Aesop to Reynard pp 23-24]. For what it’s worth, it doesn’t appear here.

    [5] I’d like some early modern statements about Aristotelian hierarchies of creatures here or elsewhere just to show that the ranking you use was current. You seem to assume here that the EMs thought ‘animals’ (as we understand them) ‘higher’ than plants, but was this *necessarily* so?

    [7] Boramets or Borametz? I love that it’s a limit case–like any monster–that helps these thinks figure out an otherwise received opinion of the difference between plant and animal while ALSO bringing the two closer together simply by virtue of their being *thought together.*

    [8] I love how medieval Giralamo’s critique is: it has nothing to do with observation and everything to do with classification.

    [10] Musty what!? My curiosity here is: what organs and systems do the EM botonists describe/discover in plants? We have bowels, veins, lungs, even a nervous systems. Surely no eyes, I imagine, or hands [but roots?]; what about genitals? Is there a limit to the analogizing [which, as you observe, goes both ways, rendering animals more plant like by discovering their systems and order in plants]? Last sentences of this paragraph not as clear as they could be.

    [11] “by a sameness of species across an entire print run of a title”: huge applause for this metaphor. I love it.

    [12] And very good reading of the book object: does it hybridize with its readers as well?

    [13] I think it’s best not to use the ‘medieval’ as a whipping boy here/elsewhere. I don’t know medieval botony well [perhaps see Grieco, Allen J. “The Social Politics of Pre-Linnean Botanical Classification.” I Tatti Studies: Essays in the Renaissance 4 (1991): 131-49, which briefly considers both the barnacle goose and the lamb fruit], but I expect the book of nature [represented by Mandeville] is not the only way plants might be read.

    [14] the best treatment of the barnacle goose that I know is Maaike van der Lugt, “Animal légendaire et discours savant médiéval: la barnacle dans tous ses états,” Micrologus 8 [2000]: 351–93. Some other references: quoting from my notes to Lugt: “Not in Pliny, Solon, Isidore, Aristotle, or Avincenna either. The Harley ms and another get their description from Gerald of Wales’ Ireland thing. Earliest reference she finds is in the Exeter Book of Riddles, c. 970-990, possible riddle 10, or 74. 353 n1 gives reference for this. But Gaelic language has same word for barnacle and this goose, so probably very ancient (357). 11th century gives us two other instances: an Arab geographer of the 13th century cites an 11th century Arab geography for his reference to the Barnacle marvel of Saxony and England, but, 353 n2, ref to German article of 1929-30, and cannot be confirmed. Peter Damien also in his Letter of Divine Omnipotence, 1067, ed. A. Cantin, SC 191.457. Other references include those famous Salernitan questions. Turn of 13th we have Peter of Cornwall (Disputations with Simon the Jew), Alexander Neckham, De naturis rerum I.48, and Gervase of Tilbury, who gives us possibility that they might develop like fruits, and we have others, Jacques de Vitry, Thomas of Cantimpré, and Vincent of Beauvais (354). We have two branches then: the old one with birds developing from floating wood, and the Mediterranean variety, in which they are a fruit, and here we don’t get the barnacle, and these versions were combined at the end of the 12th century (355).” Here’s the question from the Prose Salernitan questions: “B138 speaks about the barnacle goose. Queritur quare quedam animalia nascuntur ex arboribus, ut avis quedam? (68-69) Also b171, 89-90″ Lawn, Brian, ed. The Prose Salernitan Questions. An Anonymous Collection dealing with Science and Medicine written by an Englishman c. 1200 with an Appendix of Ten Related Collections. Auctores Britannici Medii Aevi V. London: Oxford UP, 1979. Also see here for my favorite barnacle goose story. Check of my database gets me a few other sources: Frederick II’s falconry manual, which reads:”There is, also, a small species known as the barnacle goose, arrayed in motley plumage (it has certain parts white and in others black, circular markings), of whose nesting haunts we have no certain knowledge. There is, however, a curious popular tradition that they spring from dead trees. It is said that in the far north old ships are said to be found in whose rotting hulls a worm is born that develops into the barnacle goose. This goose hangs from the dead wood by its beak until it is old and strong enough to fly. We have made prolonged research into the origin and truth of this legend and even sent special envoys to the North with orders to bring back specimens of those mythical timbers for our investigation. When we examined them we did observe shell-like formations clinging to the rotten wood, but these bore no resemblance to any avian body. We therefore doubt the truth of this legend in the absence of corroborating evidence. In our opinion this superstition arose from the fact that barnacle geese breed in such remote latitudes that men, in ignorance of their real nesting places, invented this explanation” (51-52). Finally, FWIW, Higden/Trevisa Polychronicon’s section on Ireland has a brief reference to the Barnacle goose: they call it as goose, not a plant.

    Also [14] would Geraldus be sorted in the library under Geraldus or Cambrensis? The latter isn’t a surname, but a place name, but library catalogs might not know this. At any rate–this for [16]–it’s usual practice just to call him Gerald, especially because you anglicize the other medieval churchmen (Thomas of Cantimpre, Peter Damian, Gervase of Tilbury). So for consistency’s sake, call him Gerald.

    and [16] oh my! I did NOT expect Gerald to go in the direction of anthropophagy. I wonder if he’s thinking of Eucharist doctrine here [since the flesh of the Host isn't *exactly* born of flesh, though it is/must be flesh]. One question here might be: where DOES Gerald doubt the existence of his reported wonders and why? Is there a pattern?

    [17] this is a point Gerald himself makes: that the West has its own wonders, just like the East.

    [18] interesting that Early Modern works continuing to promote existence of Barnacle Geese when they had “already” been disproved by Frederick II and Albert the Great. The teleological narrative of the ‘March of Science’ may need some revising. Q of ‘biological possibility’ needs to be done in ref to Gerard’s own biology, which might include such legendary creatures, and thus ‘biologically possible’ only means ‘supported by tradition.’ In other words, I think the phrase ‘biologically possible’–at least as currently framed–sounds a bit anachronistic here.

    [19] or indeed, looking at similar evidence, Grew comes to an entirely different conclusion than Albert the Great did. Quick Google Books check: are you familiar with Edward Heron-Allen’s ‘Barnacles in Nature and Myth’: maybe unreliable, but I imagine a great resource for directing one to primary texts. See page 15 for a reference to Albert: http://books.google.com/books?id=oVJU6ruH7SIC&lpg=PA16&dq=%22albert%20the%20great%22%20barnacle&pg=PA15#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Here’s a question that goes with no particular paragraph? Where did the early moderns physical thinkers think FLESH came from? What was the origin of flesh and how did that differ from the origin of animal matter? This is perhaps a fundamental question for this article, as it might get more directly at what’s AT STAKE in this. I love what you’re doing in this paper, but I’d like a clearer sense of how humans felt themselves threatened, enlarged, or made curious by these investigations, for example…although perhaps this doesn’t fit with your narrative about the turn from animal/plant texts as kernels around a Christological truth to animal/plant texts as things-in-themselves and your larger exploration–most suitable for this volume–of bookish metaphors for anatomy and flora and fauna in general.

    One last bibliographic suggestion: a quick check on Google Books for liber/librum naturae–because I’m curious to know when the term first appears–turns up Klaas van Berkel, Arie Johan Vanderjagt, eds., The Book of Nature in Early Modern and Modern History. No doubt there’s some material in here that you will find useful (see the first essay by Peter Harrison, for example)

    • whitneytrettien says:

      Many, many thanks for your comments, Karl. I wanted to respond to a few points. Following my responses might be a bit complicated — but it’s still better than a messenger pigeon sent Brooklyn thitherward. So here goes. Karl’s original comments are in quotes; I’m after the >>.

      [2] “Is it something like this: the characteristic of ‘modern’ science is that it pretends to be free from rhetoric [part of the modern divorce of logic from rhetoric], and Grew/Malpighi’s Anatomy was too rhetorical for its work to be picked up and developed by later botanists?”

      >> Yes; Grew wrote in a time before science forgot its own metaphors. I had a paragraph (which I cut) about the general in-between status of second-gen Royal Society figures like Grew, caught between the Society’s heady Gresham College days and its decline in the eighteenth century. That Grew struggled to receive financial support is symptomatic of this.

      [3] “The big question [via Laurie Shannon, eg, her 2009 PMLA article] is what ‘animal’ means here.”

      >> Great point. I took out a section on the arbor inversa trope precisely because I don’t want to conflate the human and the animal — and because human/tree analogies have their own lineage only distantly related to zoophytes, and not represented in Grew’s sentence.

      [4] >> Borametz (Borometz, etc.) is, I believe, a later term for it. I think I’m going to replace it on the next round of edits, to avoid confusion (and potential anachronism). I was aware that Mandeville’s source was Odoric but should perhaps add a citation; thanks. Also, you’re right re: the lamb fruit’s absence from bestiaries and the Physiologus; the final sentence of [8] is a bit of linguistic legerdemain.

      [5] “You seem to assume here that the EMs thought ‘animals’ (as we understand them) ‘higher’ than plants, but was this *necessarily* so?”

      >> Another good question. The bigger point I should make explicit is that Aristotelian hierarchies still dominated biological thought in the seventeenth century, although its often assumed all post-Bacon thought is non-Aristotelian. I’ll drop in some quotes.

      [10] “Musty what!?”

      >> :) “Musty” is invoking the historians of botany quoted in the introduction.

      “My curiosity here is: what organs and systems do the EM botonists describe/discover in plants? We have bowels, veins, lungs, even a nervous systems. Surely no eyes, I imagine, or hands [but roots?]; what about genitals?”

      >> No eyes to my knowledge — this gets at broader questions of perception which bump plants into higher orders of life — although Cesalpino thinks he’s found a vegetable brain.

      [12] “does it hybridize with its readers as well?”

      >> Yes!

      [13] “I think it’s best not to use the ‘medieval’ as a whipping boy here/elsewhere. … I expect the book of nature [represented by Mandeville] is not the only way plants might be read.”

      >> Yes, ‘medieval’ is a bit sloppy in the first sentence. The broader point is that the (ostensibly medieval) book of nature trope doesn’t disappear, to be replaced by (ostensibly early modern) empiricism, but shifts to signify the book as an object. The materiality of media platforms — their object-ness — is in the process of being invented, or at least acknowledge and emphasized in new ways during the seventeenth century.

      [14] >> Many, many thanks for these resources. (Is the Exeter riddle generally considered to be a barnacle goose? A few secondary sources I consulted pointed to it as an early instance of the barnacle goose tree, but it seems ambiguous to me.) I’ve been casually gathering citations on my wiki of notes here. I’ll add these.

      “Also [14] would Geraldus be sorted in the library under Geraldus or Cambrensis?”

      >> Geraldus has been rechristened Gerald. It’s also unclear to me what edition is best to cite from. Collating various translations, I’ve found subtle (but significant) differences; so for final edits I may revert to the Latin from his collected Works.

      [18] “interesting that Early Modern works continuing to promote existence of Barnacle Geese when they had “already” been disproved by Frederick II and Albert the Great. The teleological narrative of the ‘March of Science’ may need some revising. Q of ‘biological possibility’ needs to be done in ref to Gerard’s own biology, which might include such legendary creatures, and thus ‘biologically possible’ only means ‘supported by tradition.’ In other words, I think the phrase ‘biologically possible’–at least as currently framed–sounds a bit anachronistic here.”

      >> Oh my, a progressivist narrative certainly wasn’t intended, although I see your point about the phrase ‘biologically possible.’ The argument I’m attempting is not that marvels have evolved into the stuff of biology, but that while the image in the Livre des merveilles trades in *wonder* — an immaterial network of marvel, curiosity — Gerard treats the barnacle goose tree as a biological *object*, as materialized life. I’ll tighten up this paragraph.

      [19] “Where did the early moderns physical thinkers think FLESH came from? What was the origin of flesh and how did that differ from the origin of animal matter? ”

      >> Excellent questions. You’re right that delving into this may detract from the media angle of the paper, although it’s worth underscoring the “body of the book” concepts in the sections on reproduction.

  2. mfoys says:

    (Karl – whoa! Now that’s a response!)

    Whitney –

    There’s much I’m really keen on in this essay – most generally how you consider overlaps between the pre-emptive categories of plant, animal and book, and not just in simplistic figural modes. But for now I’ll just hit one major bit of feedback.

    Unsurprisingly, I’m most taken with the media aspects of your argument – where nature and technology intersect, and would like to see your thoughts here built out a bit more (though the hammer comes down, wonderfully, in your final points on the vehicle of the book in paras 30ff.

    In [13] you start in on a discussion of the reformulation of books of nature that I’d love to see more developed in relation to other other arguments. McLuhan first develops this approach, way back, and it might be worth revisiting. There’s his bit about if “the entire Middle Ages had regarded Nature as a Book to be scanned for the vestigia dei, [the typographic man] took the lesson of print to be that we could now literally get Nature out in a new and improved edition” (/GG/, 185). It strikes me that your argument could be also positioned to be a vital updating of this early and foundational view of media history in regards to print and nature.

    Also – the detail of the book’s “spine” with regards to the assemble of quires in [31] especially got me wondering about the intersection of anatomical studies of the nervous system and the construction of the book. Alas, “spine” in the publication sense is way too late (at least according to the /OED/, but still, the thought now remains with me . . .

    ~ Martin

    • whitneytrettien says:

      Martin — thanks for the response. When you point out that “McLuhan first develops this approach, way back, and it might be worth revisiting,” you’re tugging at a root which makes visible exactly what’s absent from this draft: the Digital! The book’s objectness is being recognized again today precisely because the book is (we’re reminded) being unbound by digital media. While this thought was working itself out as my own head as I was writing, the paper could perhaps be improved by making an explicit link to contemporary discourse about the “unbook.” Zoophytic category jumbling, a return to questions of materiality, media platforms as metaphors for life (the computational model of the mind, brain as computer) — these are all trends evident in today’s discourse.

  3. Whitney, I wanted first to say that I love the prose of this essay, how intricately wrought it is, with tiny figurative passages (stomata!) between the different discourses and ontological categories you’re working with. Awesome; very much enjoyed it. I admit that I did find some of its periodizing very conventional – i.e., in [7], [11], in [18] and [19]; in the contrast between Parcelsian metaphor and analogical reasoning; in its general account of medieval vs. early modern. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the historical account necessarily; I offer my reactions more as those of an idiosyncratic medievalist test-screener, who happens to be currently intrigued by the so-called “post-historical” approach to the past, with its refusal of synchronicity and insistence that any given present is always out-of-synch with itself, shot through with multiple, heterogeneous temporalities (like the set of illustrations in Gerard’s /Herball/, beautifully read by you) — a kind of an anti-/Order of Things/ perspective. By contrast, this essay’s periodizing moments confirm a pretty traditional account of epistemological change. To return to Karl’s question, of “what’s AT STAKE in this” — how important is the narrative of historical change to what you’re saying? *Why* is it important?

    I’d also love to see a bit of a manifesto-for-media-studies moment in this essay. As a few minutes of preliminary googling and a dip into your awesome blog lead me to believe, you’ve been reflecting seriously (and playfully) on media for awhile, thinking within and about the terms of the media-studies community. I think there’s a pedagogical/ methodological opportunity to suggest what’s specific about a focus on media.

    {Digression: For instance, I’d love to better understand the relationship, or contrast, between FIGURATION and MEDIATION — or how media theory identifies the specific difference between the study of media and the study of tropes. Is it a question of materiality? One way to ask this question would be, what if the extraordinary quote you cite from Grew HADN’T included any reference to books (or other traditional media), but had simply posited that a plant is, as it were, an animal in sections, just as an animal is several plants joined together — ? Such a change would leave intact the basic metaphorical structure of the sentence, sans the triangulating third term, the book. Without the traditional medium of the codex showing up, would/could the figurative, tropological relationship between plant and animal still be productively understood through media theory? Is media theory defined by the object it takes (books) or by a methodology that can be applied to what may be only provisionally, situationally defined as media (plants and animals)?}

    All in all, great essay; thanks for sharing.

  4. Asa Mittman says:

    First, I’d echo the positive sentiments voiced by others. The writing is smooth and clear, which is a real accomplishment, given the knotty nature of the subject.

    Re: Milton epigraph, I have used this to head up a few essays! So lovely.

    [3] Great, clear and sharp.

    [5] “midle Natures” seems a phrase worth comment, and perhaps is something to return to at later points. Seems a missed opportunity.

    [14] typos: “into th water,” “juices fo the wood.” Also, introduced him as “Gerald of Wales,” but call him “Giraldus” in [15] and [16]. Either is fine, but seems should be consistent.

    [15-6] I think a bit more attention is due to the barnacle part of the equation. You hint at it, but don’t really explore it. IS this a plant-animal, at all, or is the barnacle just stuck to the tree, in which case it is an arthropod-bird hybrid, right?

    [17] I can never let pass the frequently expressed notion of “the respect for otherness found throughout Mandeville’s Travels.” Doesn’t his major hangup about Jews suggest that he does not really have a “respect for otherness,” in and of itself? I think this needs to be qualified. This seems particularly important, since you then seem to contrast Mandeville with Gerald’s “unhappy Jew,” as if this sort of thing is not present in Mandeville.

    [19] The second paragraph here is not quite clear — are you suggesting that he really DID see barnacles on a bit of driftwood that had embryonic birds in them, to which he applied his scientific gaze? What *did* he see? How could such a text come into existence? This is a very important question, here, I think.

    [21] I think that the reader needs the other passages describing the Barnacle Goose. You only give Gerald and Mandeville. I am having a bit of trouble with this: “No longer marked by metamorphic marvels but not yet wholly taxonomized, the natural world revealed itself to man through analogies. That is, a plant might no longer be thought capable of generating an animal, as the medieval barnacle goose was; but it could produce a better understanding of animal reproduction through experimentation and simple observation.” I am not sure that all the medieval ones were really metaphorical, nor that they were not taxonomized (though in a different taxonomic scheme). This division seems too sharp to me. Relatedly, see Karl’s comment on your [13]. Also, Frederick II’s falconry manual (quoted in Karl’s [14] points to the use of empirical study in the Middle Ages. There is plenty of evidence on this sort of thing, but this one gets right to it with the Barnacle Goose, no less. The unintentionally progressivist tone Karl observed in [18] is here, as well.

    [30 and elsewhere] How influential and known was Paracelsis? This is not my field, but I am not clear on his place in a more mainstream scientific development, rather than an occult one, if that distinction means anything in this period.

    Another issue to consider: There is not much attention paid to the difference in medieval books (ie. manuscripts handwritten on animal skin) and early modern books (printed on paper). This seems an essential component of the metaphor. Perhaps it has something to say about the change in the metaphor of the book/body/animal/vegetable? The epistle by Bishop John Wilkins seems a possible point of entry into this discussion, since it presents the “midle Natures” of the early printed book, still produced with a number of animal components though now primarily made of plant.

    Many thanks for the interesting essay!

  5. JB says:

    [Full name: Julia Bolotina]

    First of all, thank you for this article. I love your prose!

    [7] ” In other words, for Charleton, Bacon, Browne and Ross, wonder initiates inquiry into the natural world not as always/already inscribed with divinity, but as a material reality comprised of objects able to be dissected, examined and compared.”

    [10] “In the Paracelsian thought of an earlier century, plant-animal resemblances revealed the signatura rerum written into nature, such that, for instance, the screaming mandrake’s man-shaped roots showed the zoophyte’s ability to cure barrenness in women…By contrast, Grew uses plant-animal analogies to bring the anatomy of each – especially their internal anatomies – into greater relief.”

    [11] “However, that nature no longer glows with divine illuminations does not indicate that it is no longer a book, only that it no longer takes the form of a handwritten manuscript.”

    [13] “yet, unlike the medieval book of nature, Grew’s text does not simply mirror the divinity of plants but, importantly, offers an entirely new view into their inner life.”

    I’m having some trouble understanding how divinity fits into your argument here and in the paper at large. Are you suggesting that these scientists stopped seeing divinity in nature altogether and towards a wholly secular understanding of nature, or that they simply shifted focus towards a different aspect of nature, while retaining the understanding that it also bore the “divine stamp”? This is unclear throughout your paper. If it is the former, then is this necessarily the case? Does a secular focus and method of inquiry have to be incompatible with the “book of nature” view? Could one scientist have not seen nature as something that is “able to be dissected, examined, and compared,” while also acknowledging that it could also be read as the divine “book of nature”? I haven’t read enough about the later metaphor of the “divine watchmaker,” but from what I’ve read it seems like this would be a good example of seeing nature as something that is “able to be dissected, examined, and compared,” while at the same time definitely divinely influenced. I don’t know whether this double view was the case or not for the people and period you are examining, but your article leaves it ambiguous.

    Likewise, since much of your article seems to focus on a shift from seeing nature as something whole an indivisible, like a miracle or God’s “stamp,” towards something made up of complex parts that could be examined, it is unclear whether and how divinity is relevant to the discussion at all. This is especially a problem in the quote from [13], above, where the comparison between “mirror[ing] the divinity of plants” and examining their “inner life” seems like a non sequitur.

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