Enlightened Fish Books: A New History of Eighteenth-Century Ichthyology (1686-1828)
How did learned natural historical inquiries into the underwater world develop in eighteenth-century Europe?
- 2015 - 2020
Naturalis Biodiversity Center
During the long eighteenth century, ranging from the 1680s to the 1820s, various ‘fish books’ were published. This project focuses on four of these foundational works to unravel the development of ichthyology (the branch of zoology which studies fishes) as a field of inquiry. How was knowledge of aquatic fauna gathered, assessed and presented?
In each of the fish books that were published in the period I study, the authors present their knowledge of the underwater world in distinct ways – each generating their own representation of the aquatic realm. The Cambridge parson naturalists Francis Willughby and John Ray, for example, were the first to stress the importance of first-hand observation in their Historia piscium (1686). The Swedish naturalist Peter Artedi, whose book was posthumously published in 1738 thanks to Carl Linnaeus, designed a classification system with which inhabitants of the sea could be organized. The physician Marcus Élieser Bloch, based in Berlin, from 1783 to 1789 published lavishly illustrated fish books with hand-coloured images. The French savants Saint Germain Lacépède and Comte de Buffon deployed a prosaic rhetorical strategy in their descriptions of aquatic fauna (published from 1798–1803). Despite their different emphases, however, these authors drew on each other’s works. This project thus also studies the overlap that can be discerned in the people (like naturalists’ dealings with fishermen and fish mongers, or the involvement of artists in creating illustrations) and practices (the preservation of specimens, for example) that were entailed in these processes of knowledge production, so as to understand more about the development of the field of ichthyology as a whole.
The project ties in with some pertinent research themes in early modern history of science. These include voyages of exploration, collecting cultures, the knowledge of objects, visual cultures of science, epistemologies of observation, the evaluation of experts and expertise, and discipline formation avant la lettre.