If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’re probably aware that the Potterverse is about to expand with the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This new film follows the adventures of Newt Scamander, the wizard who authored the textbook Harry and his fellow Hogwarts students used in their Care of Magical Creatures class. While we Muggles (or No-Majs, as we’re called in North America) are unlikely to encounter any hippogriffs, acromantulas, and grindylows in person, if you venture up to Becker’s Archives and Rare Books you can see them in some of our historical texts!
One of the best sources of information on fantastic beasts is Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium, which was first published in four volumes in Zurich from 1551-1558. During the Renaissance, humanist scholars were interested in organizing the explosion of information made available by the printing press. Many of them began to work on comprehensive reference works such as bibliographies, indices, and encyclopedias. The Historiae Animalium grew out of Gesner’s desire to classify and describe all known animals. In addition to familiar European fauna, this massive encyclopedia depicted “new” animals discovered after the European powers ventured into the New World and the East Indies, and a variety of mythical creatures such as unicorns and hydras.
Gesner’s encyclopedia isn’t the only book where you’ll find fantastic beasts. You can also look at Jon Jonston’s Theatrum universale ominium animalium. Jonston (1603-1675) was a Polish physician of Scottish descent who earned medical degrees from Cambridge and Leiden and briefly served as the professor of medicine at the University of Frankfurt. Like many other physicians of this time period he had diverse intellectual interests, and was fascinated by natural history. His work Historiae naturalis, which contained beautiful zoological illustrations created by the engraver Matthäus Merian the Elder, was published between 1650 and 1653. This work was later edited by the Dutch physician and botanist Heinrich Ruysch, and published as the Theatrum universale in 1718. This is the edition we hold here at the medical library. Similar to Gesner’s Historiae animalium, Jonston’s work was illustrated with both fantastic and factual beasts. Some of the most striking illustrations in the Theatrum animalium depict the mythological unicorn, but depictions of everyday beasts such as goats and giraffes also have a touch of the fantastic.
If you’re more interested in seeing magical creatures in their natural environments, you might want to look at the works of Ambroise Paré. Paré (1510-1590) was a French barber surgeon whose writings were widely distributed. One of the topics he wrote on was monsters, which he described as “things that appear outside the course of nature (and are usually signs of some forthcoming misfortune).” His text On Monsters and Marvels was illustrated with several woodcuts depicting marvelous creatures in a variety of habitats. These included a giant snail with antlers, a whiskered nose, and a colored tail which lived in the Sarmatian Sea; and the Hoga, a fish “as big as a sea-calf” with a swine-like face.