Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe

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In the wake of expanding commercial voyages, many people in early modern Europe became curious about the plants and minerals around them and began to compile catalogs of them. Drawing on cultural, social and environmental history, as well as the histories of science and medicine, this book argues that, amidst a growing reaction against exotic imports — whether medieval spices like cinnamon or new American arrivals like chocolate and tobacco — learned physicians began to urge their readers to discover their own "indigenous" natural worlds. In response, compilers of local inventories created numerous ways of itemizing nature, from local floras and regional mineralogies to efforts to write the natural histories of entire territories. Tracing the fate of such efforts, the book provides new insight into the historical trajectory of such key concepts as indigeneity and local knowledge.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Cooper has produced a succinct and judicious study that contributes much to our understanding of the development of natural history and environmentalism in Europe. It is a powerful reminder of how patriotism and suspicions about the global economy of the day created a movement to study indigenous expressions of nature. But it also shows how such attempts, when entered into dialogue with studies of the larger natural world, led to the appropriation and silencing of the knowledge of local people. It deserves to be widely read."
-Harold J. Cook, Professor and Director, the Welcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London

"Finally a book that explains the rich cultural history of the 'indigenous.' Cooper's book is smart, highly readable, and a treasure trove of information for understanding how Early Modern Europeans viewed nature in their own backyard."
-Londa Schiebinger, John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science, Stanford University, and author of Plants and Empire

"Alix Cooper[...]adds a wealth of interesting and significant detail by looking at less well known authors and their works, revealing how the lessons of earlier scholarship can be extended to cover other parts of Europe, and other thinkers. The result is a valuable addition to the literature on the development of early modern natural history."
-John Henry, University of Edinburgh, American Historical Review

"Cooper's study deserves to be widely read."
-Christopher Cumo, Canadian Journal of History

"Cooper's study is invaluable, well informed, and, in making a case for the role of German territories and of learned local physicians in the pursuit of natural history, imaginative and challenging in its focus. It brings to light important sources that would otherwise remain obscure and makes a convincing case for their relevance among the practices of natural knowledge in the early modern era."
-Bruce T. Moran, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"This is a highly stimulating history of the indigenous and local in early modern Europe." -Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Journal of Modern History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521124010
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 1/7/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 236
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Alix Cooper is Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University, where she teaches early modern European history and the histories of science, medicine, and the environment.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-87087-0 - Inventing the Indigenous : Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe - by Alix Cooper


In the year 1643, on the shores of the Baltic, an obscure author published a small book on the plants to be found growing near his home town. Nicolaus Oelhafen’s treatise was tiny, but it discussed what its author felt was a significant problem, one which extended far beyond its immediate setting, the merchant town of Danzig (today’s Gdańsk). Why, Oelhafen complained, were so many people in his day fascinated by “strange” natural objects, “brought from faraway regions at great expense,” while they “trod underfoot” those to be found at home? Rebuking them for their “ingratitude,” he bitterly remarked that “Meanwhile, those things which grow under our own sun, in our own soil…if they don’t lie entirely neglected and in contempt, are at any rate held to be viler than seaweed”!1 In his book, Oelhafen attempted to reintroduce his readers to the richness and variety of their own easily accessible countryside by compiling a detailed inventory of hundreds of local plant species, together with notes on where they could be found. By thus documenting local nature, he hoped, he could help to remedy his compatriots’ ignorance while reestablishing a sort of balance and harmony in the greater world.

   By taking thisstep, Oelhafen joined himself to a much larger enterprise. For across early modern Europe, many of his contemporaries – in such areas as Italy, France, England, the Netherlands, and the scattered territories of the Holy Roman Empire – were also beginning to contribute to “natural history,” as they saw it, by documenting their own local natural worlds. Natural history, which comprised the study of rocks, plants, animals, and any other phenomena that might conceivably be described as “natural,” was a pursuit with a venerable genealogy dating back to Greco-Roman antiquity.2 But Oelhafen’s early modern counterparts had few words to describe exactly what it was that they were doing, in their efforts to investigate local nature in particular. The ubiquity of the term “local” is itself a relatively modern phenomenon; during the early modern period, it was used only in certain fairly narrow contexts, for example to discuss “local motion” in physics. Some compilers of inventories, then, declared the essence of their projects to be the study of their “domestic” natural worlds, while others talked of the “indigenous” or the “native,” or used other similar terms (these decisions, of course, being highly dependent on the languages they spoke and wrote). Many just simply announced their intention to focus on natural objects in a particular place, whether a town or entire territory. Gradually, these compilers of inventories became aware of each other’s existence; they began to cite each other and to compare their own local natural phenomena, wherever in Europe they might be, with those elsewhere. And gradually, they came to see their projects as sharing a common goal: not only the furthering of knowledge about the natural world in general, but also the furthering of a very specific sort of natural knowledge, that of “indigenous” natural kinds profoundly influenced by the places where they were to be found.

   This book explores the meanings of the “indigenous” and related concepts in early modern Europe. When we use the term “indigenous” today, we tend to refer almost exclusively to the non-European – to those species, peoples, cultures, and knowledges most dramatically affected by the Columbian Encounter and its aftermath. Yet over the course of the early modern period, Europe saw the emergence of a fascination with a very different “indigenous”: its own. Many early modern Europeans, as they struggled to make sense of the kinds of diversity they confronted from the fifteenth century on – previously unknown peoples, rediscovered ancient authorities, disturbing religious differences – sought new ways of understanding their worlds, and especially of coping with what they often perceived as “strange” and “foreign” influences.3 In the process, many of them came to see these influences as embodied not just in human affairs, but also in the material world, most visibly in the trade in foreign medicines and exotic substances that had existed ever since antiquity, but had expanded substantially following medieval urbanization and the Columbian Encounter itself.4 Debating the qualities and merits of these substances, many early modern Europeans thus came to interpret their experiences of the foreign in large part through the natural world as well as the human one. And as they grappled with issues of geography, identity, and natural origins, many Europeans began to look inwards as well as outwards. In short, they began to pay attention to an “indigenous” located within Europe itself.

   This may seem a controversial claim. But it is one rooted in intellectual debates and practices within early modern Europe, ones we have long since forgotten. In the wake of the Columbian voyages and early colonial endeavors overseas, a number of impulses joined to promote the scrutiny of local nature in Europe. New forms of fascination with the material world led to new conceptions of knowledge. New preoccupations with difference, both between and within communities, prompted new technologies for the gathering and recording of information. And polemics arose in which many Europeans – from physicians to popular pamphleteers – began to question the value of what they termed “exotic” substances more generally. Challenging boosters of expensive and fashionable remedies from afar, whether lavishly-prepared medicines long imported from the Mediterranean world or the increasingly trendy hot beverages of chocolate, coffee, and tea, some physicians in particular began, in reaction, to declare the need to take inventory of what they called the “indigenous” or “domestic” natural worlds of their own towns and territories. The resulting movement reached deep into Europe, attracting supporters not only in such colonial powers as England, France, and the Netherlands, but also, even more prominently, in the fragmented and decidedly non-colonial territories of the Holy Roman Empire, where local institutions and sentiments combined to produce the strongest push for the rediscovery of European natural objects and environments. In each of these places, people began to put pen to paper and to attempt, haltingly at first, to catalogue the “lowly” and “humble” weeds and pebbles in front of their doorsteps.

   This book is thus, in part, about the ways in which, during the early modern period, the “indigenous” natural worlds of early modern Europe came to be debated and, ultimately, painstakingly documented. It was in Europe, rather than its colonies, that the kinds of works we today call “local floras” – books that catalogued the plant species to be found within a given radius of a town (often three, four, or five miles) – first began to be written. While medieval authors and, even more notably, the humanist botanists of the early Renaissance had shown a keen eye for local nature, their tendency had been to embed their descriptions of local species within universalizing works, ones which aimed to encompass all existing knowledge.5 But early modern local florists gloried in their self-prescribed limitations to the local, explicitly restricting themselves to the pursuit of species “indigenous” or “native” to strictly limited regions. Such works were soon followed by other local inventories, from mineralogical surveys of areas’ “subterranean riches,” to ambitious schemes to write the “natural histories” of entire territories. The production of these kinds of inventories, which would ultimately shape many of the most basic structures and assumptions of today’s environmental surveys, came to constitute one of the most significant arenas through which early modern Europeans engaged in reflecting on their own natural worlds – and, ultimately, on their perceptions of their own place within them.

   By investigating this series of attempts to rediscover European nature, Inventing the Indigenous pursues several broader goals. One of these is to reconsider the ways in which Europeans thought about issues of geography and identity during this crucial period, so often labeled the “Age of Discovery.” Recently, in the wake of the quincentenary of Columbus’s first American voyage, a veritable explosion of scholarship on Europeans’ encounters with extra-European peoples has occurred, examining these encounters anew from a wide range of critical perspectives, including those of postcolonialism and the emerging field of Atlantic history.6 This literature has brought many new insights. For example, while some scholars of colonialism have unfortunately tended to treat Europe as a monolithic entity, others have begun to use more sophisticated analyses to reveal the ways in which religiously and politically diverse European polities in fact drew on colonial encounters to shape their identities in very different ways.7 Similarly, studies of the ways in which differences between culturally, ethnically, and religiously disparate groups were perceived at the time have shown the complexity of early modern views on these differences, in an era when modern reifications of “race” had not yet fully developed.8 In short, as recent research has revealed, contacts with newly-trafficked continents reached much more deeply into particular European societies than has previously been realized, as new ideas about their own place in a broader world subtly shaped their self-conceptions.9

   Yet early modern Europeans grappled with issues of geography and identity not only through reports of new and strange peoples, but also – as scholars have only recently begun to recognize – through the natural world, both near and far. Europeans had long been accustomed to attaching meanings to natural objects based on their perceived origins, experiencing exotic products like spices, for example, as freighted with the mystery of the Eastern lands they came from, while viewing the vegetables that grew in peasants’ gardens as emblematic of their “lowly” and humble nature.10 This tendency seems only to have intensified in the wake of the Columbian voyages. As natural objects flowed in from an increasingly wide array of far-off continents, Europeans constructed imaginative geographies around their supposed origins. The New World medicaments known as “Brazil wood” and “balsam of Peru,” for example, advertised their exotic genealogy through their very names, and descriptions of their virtues reflected this positioning.11 Cartographers, meanwhile, drew strange creatures onto their new maps to fill uncharted spaces, and these came to symbolize entire continents; thus, for example, images of macaws, opossums, and armadillos increasingly took on the symbolic freight of South America in its entirety.12 Not only plants and animals, but also a wide range of other kinds of natural phenomena were assigned their places in the European imagination. The appearance in 1494 of the disease now known as syphilis, for example, sparked a controversy around its own naming, as soldiers on the Italian battlefields where it first struck debated whether to call it the “French” or the “Neapolitan” disease.13 This kind of imaginative geography was, obviously, often mistaken in its attributions of origin. The wild “Turkey” fowl brought back from the New World had, for instance, no connection whatsoever with the Ottoman Empire.14 But early modern Europeans nevertheless seem to have found natural objects “good to think with,” to paraphrase Lévi-Strauss.15 Literally thousands of treatises were published over the course of the early modern period debating the merits of particular substances, from local beers or wines to exotic tinctures. In almost every case, the geographical origins of each item, as well as its prospects for replication or naturalization in Europe, were presented as key topics for consideration. Natural objects thus offered Europeans attractive opportunities to think not only about faraway places, but also about where they themselves stood in a rapidly-changing world.

   A striking example of this phenomenon may be seen in a cycle of four seventeenth-century paintings on the popular early modern theme of the “Allegory of the Continents,” completed by the Flemish still-life master Jan van Kessel of Antwerp between the years 1664 and 1666. In these paintings, devoted to “Europe,” “Asia,” “Africa,” and “America,” respectively, van Kessel allegorized each continent as a queen, surrounded by a plethora of artifacts and, most prominently, natural objects clearly set forth as emblematic of the continent itself. Thus “Africa,” for example, features a gigantic lion being stroked by its queen, while “America” is adorned by anteaters, an armadillo, a monkey, and several exotic birds.16 Let us turn our attention, though, to the painting of Europe, or “Europa” as it is in fact titled (see Figure 1). Here Europe herself, represented as a queen, is seated in a large hall crammed full of objects and artifacts. Through a giant archway on the painting’s left side can be seen the Castello Sant’ Angelo with its bridge over the Tiber, placing the scene firmly in the traditional European cultural capital of Rome. Inside the hall, meanwhile, are ranged a vast array of both natural and artificial items which, it soon becomes apparent, symbolize the products of Europe. Among the artifacts shown strewn around the room, for example, are a celestial globe; several suits of medieval armor; a tall flag; assorted statues in the wall niches; an hourglass; a papal tiara; a portrait of Alexander Ⅶ (the Pope at the time); the Bible; and in the foreground, appearing somewhat incongruous amidst these more elevated objects, a set of playing cards and a tennis racket. Here, then, are depicted many of the most important symbols of European culture, representing its military, technological and scientific achievements as well as its religious triumphs, and not omitting its recreational pastimes – all displayed in liberal profusion around the figure of Europa herself.

   Yet these symbols of European culture are in many ways overshadowed by the representations of European nature that occupy an even more prominent role in this painting. For the smiling queen’s gaze is admiring not the above-mentioned symbols of her power, but rather a gigantic horn of plenty, stuffed full of fruit and grains, being handed to her by a cherub half its size. Meanwhile, at the very center of the picture stands a man (could he be Jan van Kessel himself?) holding up and gesturing at a painting of butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects, depicted flat against its surface as if pinned. This painting is, in turn, surrounded by others: a gigantic still-life of carnations, roses, and tulips emerging from a tiny vase; another painting of butterflies, this time portrayed in mid-flight against a background of peaceful hills; and, most curious of all, a painting depicting writhing snakes and caterpillars spelling out the name of the artist himself. Nor is this cluster of paintings, occupying a vast block of space in the image, the only reference to the natural world. Shells spill out over the floor, perilously close to Europa’s and the cherub’s feet, while an open book reveals still more images of butterflies and other insects, a closed book labeled “Plinius” alludes to the famous Roman’s Natural History (which indeed enjoyed a considerable revival during the early modern period), and in the lower left corner, yet another painting (half-draped) can be seen, illustrating mandrake roots. Meanwhile, above all this profusion, murals of marine invertebrates, high on the topmost walls, overlook the scene. All of these naturalia are presented as emblematic of the European continent, bountiful in its harvests of grain, surrounded by the sea as well as mistress of it, and of a wide variety of technologies for understanding and representing the beauties of the natural world. For the European viewer, in short, every natural object in this and other similar visual and verbal descriptions of the world was replete with meaning. Nature’s productions helped serve as means of interpreting the geography of a world in flux, where trade and travel increasingly connected Europeans with wider horizons, and forced them to attempt to construct their own sense of their place in the world.

   Under these circumstances, as this image suggests, Europeans began to pay new kinds of attention to natural objects, as well as to “nature” in the abstract. Collectors, for example, drew on correspondence networks and personal ties to assemble vast quantities of unusual and rare natural objects, which they then showcased in their cabinets of curiosities or Wunderkammer, with walls, cupboards, and even ceilings hung with specimens and/or depictions of naturalia.17 Painters and engravers, meanwhile, carefully studied particular items so as to produce such depictions, sharpening their skills at new naturalistic forms of representation in the process.18 Goldsmiths and other artisans labored to transform select natural objects, such as giant conch shells, into magnificently-crafted artifacts like drinking cups, inviting these objects’ users to reflect and converse on the paradoxical relationships between art and nature.19 Courtiers at Renaissance princely palaces – and, eventually, the earliest scientific academies – honed their wits on discussions of striking natural phenomena from the mysterious “Bologna stone” to the “Medicean stars” observed by Galileo (now known as the moons of Jupiter).20 And, last but not least, a wide range of writers and compilers scratched their heads and attempted to figure out how, using newly-arrived printing technologies and older manuscript ones, to develop new intellectual tools to enable them to set these newly vibrant natural worlds down on paper.21

   Historians of science in particular have, over the past several decades, done much to illuminate how these and similar practices came to infuse the study of nature in early modern Europe with still further cultural meaning and importance. Whereas traditional Aristotelian natural philosophy, as taught at medieval universities, had emphasized a “common-sense” understanding of nature, grounded on the commonly observed attributes of living organisms and other natural phenomena, the “new science” of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe came to focus more and more on strange and unusual phenomena, on “particulars” and other isolated “facts” that often posed challenges to traditional natural-philosophical explanations.22Virtuosi sought out naturalia that were rare and unusual, that challenged conventional expectations of nature, and sought to explain them. Many of the natural objects that attracted the most interest within learned circles were, in fact, exotic. Stuffed birds or animals from the Indies, or depictions of strikingly-shaped or -colored fruits of the tropics, fascinated viewers through their revelations of the diversity of forms that nature could produce. Though few natural inquirers were willing to undertake perilous journeys to new continents themselves to collect strange specimens, they nonetheless hastened to examine them as they arrived in Europe, and avidly read accounts of natural phenomena from newly-trafficked lands, in search of whatever new insights about nature’s workings these might provide.23

   Yet as this book demonstrates, even while early modern Europeans sought out the rare and exotic, new and divergent ways of valuing nature simultaneously came into being, as many – especially the great majority of naturalists who would not have dreamt of travelling overseas – also began to pay new attention to what they called the “humble” and “common,” even “vulgar” natural worlds surrounding them. The “rarities” of nature, they argued, could be found as well at home as abroad, and even the most apparently undistinguished kinds of plants or minerals might possess hidden value.24 These kinds of objects, they felt, were well worth cataloguing in their own right – hence the profusion of local floras, regional mineralogies, and other kinds of local natural histories that began to be produced documenting towns’ and territories’ natural “wealth.” This development has, by and large, received little attention. On the whole, most historians – and, for that matter, other scholars in the humanities and social sciences – have long tended to regard topics relating to the natural world itself as beyond their purview.25 Meanwhile, those scholars who have taken natural history seriously have, until quite recently, focused overwhelmingly on its classificatory aspects, to the exclusion of the many other meanings it held within early modern European culture.26 Yet early modern writings on local nature, however obscure their “stay-at-home” authors, are, in fact, well worth our notice.27 As they demonstrate, the early modern period saw the rise of new ways of valuing and understanding European objects and environments. By recovering this lost historical episode, and its consequences, this book aims to enhance significantly our understanding of how early modern Europeans actually thought about ideas of geography and identity, as they saw them mirrored in the natural world.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
List of Illustrations     xiii
Introduction     1
Home and the World: Debating Indigenous Nature     21
"There are in Germany so many more and better medicines..."     22
"Garlic and Onions"     32
"Indigenous Medicine"     41
Field and Garden: The Making of the Local Flora     51
Field Trips     57
Texts     72
Places     80
From Rocks to Riches: The Quest for Natural Wealth     87
Mineral Kingdoms     89
Natural Treasures     94
Excavating Wurzburg     101
Dealing in the Local     109
The Nature of the Territory     116
"Procure us an Account"     121
Translating the New Science     131
"The Possibilities of the Land"     140
Problems of Local Knowledge     152
"The Indies in Switzerland"     156
Florists and Critics     166
Conclusion     173
Works Cited     187
Manuscript Sources     187
Printed Primary Sources     187
Secondary Sources     195
Index     213
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