TOPSELL, Edward.


TOPSELL, Edward. The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes. [with] The Historie of Serpents.

London, William Jaggard, 1607, 1608


FIRST EDITIONS. 2 works in one vol. Pp. (xlii) 758 (xii); (x) 316 (vi). Roman letter. First work lacking first and last blanks and K3 of text; Second lacking first blank and Hh6, final leaf of Latin table. Ms ‘y-f’ to first tp, some lines of text underlined in ink in both, scribbles of ‘man’ to p. 693 in first work, ms note to p. 758 of first work ‘Read & make table of all the medilons’, very occasional faded marginalia. Tps with woodcuts of gorgon and serpent respectively, historiated head and tail pieces, floriated initials. Full and half page woodcuts of beasts and reptiles, both mythical and real, the majority strikingly hand coloured. First tp damaged, cut down and pasted, repairs to 54 leaves of first work, affecting text significantly on 3. Second tp repaired, repairs to 33 leaves of second, affecting text significantly on 2 leaves, some repairs encroaching on marginal text and/or illustrations. Light age yellowing, some leaves a bit browned, foxing on a few, mainly marginal ink and water staining, as well as show through of paint here and there. A well-used but charming copy with wide margins in modern half calf over C18 marbled boards, spine with red morocco label.

First editions of the two hugely popular works by Edward Topsell (c. 1572-1625), The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts (1607) and The Historie of Serpents (1608), exquisitely hand coloured in this robust and impressive volume. Printed by William Jaggard, the printer of Shakespeare’s early quartos and first folio, these bestiaries presented the Jacobean reader with the first major English collection of both fantastical and familiar creatures, evoked in finely wrought and highly detailed woodcuts and listed alphabetically. Topsell asserts that the majority of these creatures are real and do exist in the world. The content was largely not from Topsell’s own studies; he was a man of the church, and relied on the publications of the Swiss scholar Conrad Gesner and his ‘Historiae animalium’ (1551-58). Topsell acknowledges this in a lengthy section dedicated to Gesner.

Topsell was born in Sevenoaks and attended Christ’s College, Cambridge before joining the Church as a clergyman and later rector. In 1607 Shakespeare was completing Macbeth and the translators of the King James I Bible were halfway through their feat; during this time Topsell had set about collecting information for his animal compendiums from “divine scriptures, fathers, philosophers, physicians, and poets” for his epic collection of beasts. Topsell believed that animals had intrinsic worth, moral qualities and a hatred of mankind. The first work includes animals like apes, cats, extensive sections on dogs and horses, as well as lions, tigers, and bears and exotic and fantastical creatures including camels, rhinoceros’s the mythical lamia, sphinx and unicorn. On the unicorn he states that their horns, beaten and dissolved in water, protect the drinker against poison. The section on horses is around 120,000 words and includes a section on the ‘river-horse’, the hippopotamus, which he states “is a most ugly and filthy beast”. The dog section lists the many breeds and their uses, including familiar types such as beagles, greyhounds and terriers. Not so familiar is the Mimick or the Getulian Dog, also seen in Gesner’s Historia Animalum. The creature has a shaggy coat, curved back, and face of a hedgehog which he states is “apt to imitate al things it seeth, for which some have thought that it was conceived by an ape”. The dog certainly evades comparison with any modern dog breed, and he even states they were trained to act human parts in plays or to perform as servants.

These books are especially prized for their lively and numerous illustrations, here carefully hand coloured in bright colours and superb patterns. The famous image known as Durer’s Rhinoceros is included and coloured in grey hues, the importance of the woodcut exemplified in Clarke’s assertion “probably no animal picture has exerted such a profound influence on the arts”. Topsell’s intense admiration of this animal is clear, especially of its alleged courage and status as sworn enemy of the elephant. As well as this the lamia from Greek mythology is displayed; a monster with the legs of a goat and a bear combined with a woman’s upper body and scales like a dragon. Topsell warns the reader – “when they see a man, they lay open their breastes, and by the beauty thereof, entice them to come neare to conference, and so, having them within their compasse, they devoure and kill them”.

The book of serpents, not always bound together with the former, is similarly filled with wondrous illustrations including a fantastically coloured full page spotted chameleon. The title page exhibits a terrifying image of a boa constrictor swallowing a human child. Topsell combines real observation with excerpts from other authors and biblical accounts of reptiles like snakes and lizards, insects, amphibians and mythical creatures like dragons and the Herculean hydra.

ESTC S122276; S122051; Lowndes Vol 3 883. Not in Pforzheimer or Grolier.
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