First Issued: 6 September 2012
Revised (substantive): 6 December 2012
Part I: Editor’s Introduction to Paré’s illustrated essay on the chameleon
HE Frenchman Ambroise Paré (1510?–1590) was a highly-accomplished and innovative barber-surgeon (or chirurgeon), and is now regarded by historians as the “founder of modern surgery.” Even in the 17th century, Paré’s work was “esteemed, admired, and embraced ... above all other workes of Surgery” across Europe (Johnson, Workes, 1634, “To the Reader”). His writings, originally published in French, were influential in England, not just for those in professional medical circles, but also for a burgeoning upper- and middle-class audience with an insatiable appetite for medical information of all kinds. Thomas Johnson’s English translation of Paré’s Oeuvres, which was dedicated to Sir Edward Herbert, baron of Cherbury, and deliberately suited “to the capacity of the meanest Artist” tasked with completing medical procedures, admirably met this need. It was still listed among “the most valuable books printed in England” and recommended as a core medical textbook by the Athenian Society at the end of the century (Young-Students-Library, 1692, x).
The 17th century was an age in which the unlicensed empiric, including many women practitioners, flourished, especially in areas outside the larger cities. Thomas Johnson (1595x1600–1644) was a London apothecary with a keen interest in botany, who did field research of his own, published several updated plant lists based on this research (in 1629, 1632, 1634, and 1641), and in 1633, brought out his “very much enlarged and amended” edition of John Gerard’s The Herball, or, A Generall Historie of Plantes (reprinted in 1636). In all such projects, he “laboured for my Countries good,” “desiring more a publike good, than private praise.” (Johnson, Workes, 1634, “To the Reader”)
In this same public spirit, Johnson was asked to translate Ambroise Paré’s collected works by medical practitioners with an interest in unsettling those who strove to protect their privileged hold on the information commons by insisting “that we must bee forced to learne to understand two or three tongues [languages], before wee can learne any science”:
I being by the earnest perswasions of some of this profession, chiefly, and almost wholly perswaded and incited to take this paines, who knowing the disability of understanding this Author in Latine or French, in many of the weaker members of the large body of their profession, dispersed over this Kingdome, and the rest of his Majesties Dominions, whose good, and encrease in knowledge may be wisht, that so they may be the better enabled to doe good to such as shall implore their aide in their profession.
(Johnson, Workes, 1634, “To the Reader”)
Johnson describes Paré as a model clinician, akin to Hippocrates and Galen in his ability to combine theory with practice: “hee was a man well versed in the writings of the antient and moderne Physitians, and Surgeons” and “his experience, or practice (the chiefe helpe to attaine the highest perfection in this Art) ... was wonderfull great” (Johnson, 1634, “To the Reader”).
But in his write-up on the chameleon, tellingly located at the end of Chapter 22 (“Of the Admirable Nature of Birds, and of Some Beasts”) in his treatise Of Monsters and Prodigies, only Paré’s extensive book learning was on display. He does not mention having ever encountered a chameleon himself, and instead repeats information derived from the works of Pliny and Aristotle, whose authority Paré neither questions nor updates. His source for information regarding medicinal uses of the chameleon — e.g., to dispel cataracts — is Andreas Mathiolus (aka Pietro Andrea Mattioli, 1501–1577), the Italian physician and naturalist who practiced at the courts of Ferdinand II of Austria, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II.
Johnson’s edition of Paré’s Workes was lavishly illustrated (as were the French originals), and the images of “monsters,” in particular, created a compelling spectacle of the glory of God, His ire, and the terrestrial activities of demons and devils, even to the most scientific mind (Packard, 93). Selected illustrations from Paré’s collected works showed up in other books printed during the 17th century, and in general, they enjoyed a wide cultural currency.
In keeping with the theme of Paré’s Des Monstres tant terrestres que maras avec leurs portraits (first published in 1573 along with Paré’s treatise on obstetrics, De la generation de l’homme, et maniere d’extraire les enfants hors du ventre de la mère), the engraving depicts a “monstrous” chameleon, with emphatically bared teeth and distorted feet. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century images of natural history and landscape were notoriously “fanciful,” as Robert Hooke pointed out on more than one occasion, as had Sir Thomas Browne before him. For those of us today who lean to material-history analysis — hoping “to chart the track of mind, or what the American historian Henry Classic calls ‘the architecture of past thought’” — such fanciful reproductions are fraught with meaning:
... inherent in each image is a reflection of the style of its day. Each embodies certain assumptions about the makers and the viewers of the object, their interests and their understandings, the cultural lens through which they view the image.
(Dickenson, 1998, 14)
This is true of less fanciful images, also. Even the most objective, mechanically-reproduced photographs of the 21st century carry such cultural meanings.
Sir Thomas Browne’s comment on “the remarkable teeth” of the chameleon (added to the 6th edn. of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica) may well have been inspired by the curious effigy in Johnson’s Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey.
The Athenian Society. The young-students-library. Containing, extracts and abridgments of the most valuable books printed in England, and in the forreign journals, from the year sixty five, to this time. To which is added, a new essay upon all sorts of learning; wherein the use of the sciences is distinctly treated on. By the Athenian Society. Also, a large alphabetical table, comprehending the contents of this volume. And of all the Athenian Mercuries and supplements, &c. printed in the year 1691. Ed. by John Dunton. London: Printed for John Dunton, at the Raven in the Poultry. Where is to be had the intire sett of Athenian Gazettes, and the supplements to 'em for the year, 1691. bound up all together, (with the alphabetical table to the whole year) or else in separate volumes, (or single Mercuries to this time), 1692.
The Athenian Society had earlier discussed the question of “Chamelion, its properties, and living on Air, whether true?” in vol. 2, no. 14, q. 7 of their popular science journal, the Athenian Gazette.
Browne, Thomas, Sir. Pseudodoxia epidemica: or, Enquiries into very many received tenents, and commonly presumed truths. By Thomas Browne Dr. of Physick. London: Printed by Tho. Harper for Edward Dod, 1646.
1st edn. Browne’s essay “Of the Cameleon,” with a lengthy digression on air (as the “food of life”) and on combustion is available as a She-philosopher.com digital edition.
Dickenson, Victoria. Drawn from life: science and art in the portrayal of the New World. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
Hooke, Robert. “An instrument of use to take the draught or picture of any thing.” Paper delivered to Royal Society, 19 Dec. 1694. In Philosophical experiments and observations of the late eminent Dr. Robert Hooke, S.R.S. and geom. prof. Gresh. and other eminent virtuoso’s in his time. With copper plates. Publish’d by W. Derham, F.R.S. London: Printed by W. and J. Innys, printers to the Royal Society, at the west end of St. Paul’s, MDCCXXVI . 292–296.
Hooke here complained “that many relations of foreign countries do give us pictures of towns, prospects, people, actions, plants, animals, and the like; and those beget in us ideas of things, as they are there represented. But, if we enquire after the true authors of those representations, for the generality of them, we shall find them to be nothing else but some picture-drawer, or engraver, here at home, who knows no more the truth of the things to be represented, than any other person, that can read the story, could fancy of himself, without that help. Such are all the pictures in the books of Theodore de Brie, concerning the East and West-Indies: such are also the greatest part of the pictures in Sir Thomas Herbert’s travels; and those of Mr. Ogylby’s Asia, Africa, and America; which are copies of the Dutch originals, and are, originally, nothing but Mr. Engraver’s fancy: so that instead of giving us a true idea, they misguide our imagination, and lead us into error, by obtruding upon us the imaginations of a person, possibly, more ignorant than our selves.”
Johnson, Thomas, trans. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine and compared with the French. By Th: Johnson. London: Printed by Th: Cotes and R. Young, anno 1634.
1st edn. of what was also known as “Johnston’s translation” (during the 16th and 17th centuries, variant spellings of names abounded). Ambroise Paré’s Oeuvres were first printed at Paris in 1575.
Johnson’s popular English edition of the Workes was reissued in 1665, 1678, and 1691. The third reissue of the Workes was printed in 1678 by a woman — Mary Clark (fl. 1678–1704) — who specialized in printing scientific and technical titles.
“The figure of a Chameleon” is from Book 25 (“Of Monsters and Prodigies”), Chapter 22 (“Of the Admirable Nature of Birds, and of Some Beasts”) of Paré’s Oeuvres.
Packard, Francis R. Life and times of Ambroise Paré (1519–1590). With a new translation of his Apology and an Account of his journeys in divers places. By Francis R. Packard, M.D. Editor of Annals of medical history, New York. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1921.
21st-century scholars now think Paré was born around 1510.
NOTE: This original She-philosopher.com e-publication is
one of several digital editions relating to our ongoing
Study: The Natural and Cultural History of the Chameleon.
go up a level: Table of Contents page for the She-philosopher.com LIBRARY