Skip to main content Skip to navigation

The classification of the world

The slides for this week's lecture are downloadable here

Was there a revolution in natural history in the seventeenth century? The French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault thought so. In Les mots et les choses, first published in 1966, Foucault argued that the seventeenth century marked the transition between two fundamentally different ways of thinking about plants, animals and minerals. In the Renaissance these bodies were understood in terms of their relationship to human culture, so that descriptions of them were full of references to myths, popular sayings, and moral instruction. By the eighteenth century, by contrast, each specimen was understood in terms of its relationship to other specimens - the study of nature was no longer the study of human culture but of the similarities and differences between specimens. This is a simple and seductive thesis that has stood the test of time. But the changes in natural history were not as clear-cut as Foucault made out, in part because there was more to early modern natural history than description and classification - natural history was hard to separate from natural philosophy, whether mechanical or experimental or eclectic. Natural history was also hard to separate from commerce, collecting, and travel. The primary sources for this week capture the variety of forces at play in early modern natural history.


Read the Foucault extract for a broad survey of changes in natural history in early modern Europe. Then read at least one of the three primary sources on the natural history of one kind of natural body, ie. precious stones. Consider these questions:

What is the difference between the Renaissance way of doing natural history and the Classical way, according to Foucault?

How do the primary sources support or modify Foucault's thesis?

Essential reading

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (first published as Les mots et les choses in 1966, translated into English in 1970) - read pages 135 to 150 in the online edition available here

Primary sources on the natural history of precious stones:

Thomas Nicols, Lapidary or, The History of Pretious Stones (London, 1652, based on a work published in Latin in 1609) - title-page, 'The contents of the lapidary', branching diagram, and the description of a diamond on pages 46-53)

Robert Boyle, "Observations About a Diamond that Shines in the Dark" (first published in London 1664, reproduced in Michael Hunter and Edward Davis, The Works of Robert Boyle (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999), vol. 4

John Hill, A General Natural History (London, 1748), pages 585-588, ie. the headings for the section on 'fossils' and the description of diamond or 'Adamas.'

Further reading

Early modern natural history in general

Findlen, Paula. "Natural History," in CHS3.


Primary source: Catalogue of the Tradescant collection, part of which is still on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. You can browse the catalogue online here. Click on the single blue arrow on the top right of the screen to scroll through the catalogue. Click on the blue headings on the right side-bar for a short introduction to the Tradescants and their collection.

Findlen, P. “From Private to Public: Natural Collections and Museums.” Early Science and Medicine 13.4 (2008): 384–387.

Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Hunter, Michael. 'The Cabinet Institutionalised: The Royal Society’s ‘Repository’ and Its Background.' The Origins of Museums: the Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe. Ed. Oliver Imey and Arthur MacGregor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. 159–167.

MacGregor, Arthur. Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2007.

---. Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum. London: British Museum Press, 1994.

---. The Origins of Museums : the Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe. Oxford: Clarendon press, 1985.

Pomian, Krzysztof. Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice 1500-1800. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990.

Wonders, marvels and monsters

Primary source: Bacon, Francis, New Organon, book 2, section on 'prerogative instances' - see the pdf here

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.

Daston, Lorraine. "The Factual Sensibility.” Isis 79.3 (1988): 452–467

Daston, Lorraine. “Preternatural Philosophy.” Biographies of Scientific Objects. Ed. Lorraine Daston. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 15–41.

Findlen, Paula. “Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe.” Renaissance Quarterly 43.2 (1990): 292–331.

Park, Katharine, and Lorraine Daston. “Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth-and Seventeenth-century France and England.” Past & Present 92.1 (1981): 20–54.

Simon Werrett. “Wonders Never Cease: Descartes’s ‘Météores’ and the Rainbow Fountain.” The British Journal for the History of Science 34.2 (2001): 129–147.

Smith, Pamela, and Paula Findlen, eds. Merchants and Marvels: Commerce and the Representation of Nature in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2001.

Natural history, history and antiquarianism

Cooper, Alix. Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Levine, Joseph. Dr. Woodward’s Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977.

Mendyk, Stanley. Speculum Britanniae: Regional Study, Antiquarianism, and Science in Britain, to 1700. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

Shapiro, Barbara. “History and Natural History in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England.” English Scientific Virtuosi in the 16th and 17th centuries. Ed. Barbara J Shapiro and Robert G. Frank. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library University of California, 1979. 3–55.

Natural history of places outside Europe

Carey, D. “Compiling Nature’s History: Travellers and Travel Narratives in the Early Royal Society.” Annals of Science 54.3 (1997): 269–292.

Gascoigne, J. “The Royal Society, Natural History and the Peoples of the ‘New World(s)’, 1660–1800.” The British Journal for the History of Science 42.04 (2009): 539–562.

Hayden, Judy A., ed. Travel Narratives, the New Science, and Literary Discourse,1569-1750. Farnham, Surrey ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012.

Ryan, Michael T. “Assimilating New Worlds in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23.04 (1981): 519–538..

Natural history as a platform for natural philosophy

Anstey, Peter. “Locke, Bacon and Natural History.” Early Science and Medicine 7.1 (2002): 65–92.

Anstey, Peter, and Michael Hunter. “Robert Boyle’s ‘Designe about Natural History.’” Early Science and Medicine 13 (2008): 83–126.

Findlen, P. “Francis Bacon and the Reform of Natural History in the Seventeenth Century.” History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Ed. R. Kelly. New York: University of Rochester Press, 1997. 239–60.

On Francis Bacon and natural history, see the collection of papers in Early Science and Medicine, volume 17, issues 1-2, 2012

Hunter, Michael. “Robert Boyle and the Early Royal Society : A Reciprocal Exchange in the Making of Baconian Science.” The British Journal for the History of Science 40.1 (2007): 1–23.

Knight, Harriet, and Michael Hunter. “Robert Boyle’s Memoirs for the Natural History of Human Blood (1684): Print, Manuscript and the Impact of Baconianism in Seventeenth-Century Medical Science.” Medical History 51.2 (2007): 145–164.

Taxonomy, especially in botany

Frank, Robert G. Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists: Scientific Ideas and Social Interaction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Morton, Alan G. History of Botanical Science: An Account of the Development of Botany from Ancient Times to the Present Day. London: Academic Press, 1981, chapters 6-8. You will need to hunt around for the sections on classification, but see especially the material on John Ray in chapter 6, Linnaeus in chapter 7, and Adanson in chapter 8.

Ogilvie, Brian W. The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, chapter 5.

Slaughter, M. M. Universal Languages and Scientific Taxonomy in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Sloan, Phillip R. “John Locke, John Ray, and the Problem of the Natural System.” Journal of the History of Biology 5.1 (1972): 1–53.

Philosophical natural history

Morton, Alan G. History of Botanical Science: An Account of the Development of Botany from Ancient Times to the Present Day. London: Academic Press, 1981, chapter 6 - especially the sections on Nehemiah Grew and Marcello Malphigi, on John Ray, and on Rudolf Camerarius

Porter, Roy. The Making of Geology: Earth Science in Britain, 1660-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Rudwick, Martin J. S. The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology. 2nd ed. University Of Chicago Press, 1985.

Wilson, Catherine. The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Plot bone‘Bone of a giant’ [actually the first modern drawing of a dinosaur bone], from Robert Plot, A Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677)