Pierre Belon’s Book of Fish

Crewe 1.4_p.296

This small printed book  La nature & diuersité des poissons, avec leurs pourtraicts, representez au plus pres du naturel   bound in white vellum arrived at Trinity Library as part of the Crewe Collection in 2016.  It is full of illustrations of fish and animals of the sea including some fantastical creatures.  Printed in Paris in French in 1555, it is not the only edition of this title by Pierre Belon in the Wren Library, but it is the only one with hand-coloured woodcut prints (Crewe 1.4).  The book was originally produced in Latin in 1551. The Wren also holds a 1553 Latin edition (S.22.31) and two earlier French editions with plain woodcuts (S.23.28 and Hare 36.38[2]).  This book was so popular that it was reprinted up until 1620.

‘The Nature and Diversity of Fish’ was the first printed book devoted to fish and gives details of each creature along with its names in Greek, Latin, French and English.  At the time it was written all water creatures were regarded as fish. Belon also studied predators of fish so the book also includes animals such as a water rat, a crocodile and a hippopotamus. This was the first time an illustration of a hippopotamus had appeared in France.

Crewe 1.4, p.20

The book also contains illustrations of mythical creatures or ‘monsters of the sea’. Belon studied the depiction of mythical creatures in classical literature and compared them with his own observations.

Crewe 1.4, p33

Notably this book also contains Belon’s pioneering work on dolphin reproduction and respiration.

Crewe 1.4, p.14

Pierre Belon was born near Le Mans in Paris in 1517. Early in his career he was apprenticed to an apothecary before studying botany and later medicine. Following his study at the University of Wittenberg he then spent several years travelling to observe and identify animals, plants, places and objects as described by ancient writers. He travelled extensively through Europe and further afield writing accounts of his observations in Greece, Egypt and Asia minor, published in both Latin (S.23.34[2]) and French (U.10.114) . He also published a number of books about his travels and observations of the natural world including works on trees and birds (S.23.24[1]).  He was murdered in the Bois de Boulogne near Paris in 1564.

Pierre Belon’s books are currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours. Crewe 1.4 has been fully digitized and can be viewed here.

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