The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Natural History through the Ages

Natural history is the study of the natural world, specifically plants and animals within their environment. The long tradition of the study of the natural history can be traced back all the way to ancient Greco-Roman thinkers, whose writings and teachings have informed the study of natural history for several centuries. The original natural historians, or naturalists, lacked the tools commonly used for observation in later periods, but arrived at various conclusions that informed the study of natural history (Huxley) and established careful and thorough observation as the basis for the empirical study of the natural world. The long tradition of natural history underwent a revival during the Renaissance, with a renewed interst in the human experience and the diversity of the world. Italian thinkers, painters, writers, and humanists turned to antiquity for inspiration in their respective fields. 




Alexander and Aristotle.jpg

An engraving of Aristotle and his pupil, Macedonian King Alexander the Great. 


Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), student of Plato and indelibly important philosopher, scientist, author, poet, rhetorician, and thinker, was critically important to the formation of the field of natural history and is commonly considered the “originator of the scientific study of life.”  Lennox) Aristotle devoted much thought and writing to the observation of the Mediterranean world and the classification of the native fauna. Aristotle wrote numerous treatises about this work, including The History of Animals, Animal locomotion, and Parts of Animals whereby Aristotle attempts to convey a cohesive method of the study of animals. Aristotle applied much of his other philosophy to the study of the natural world and he believed in the essential traits or “causes” of animal life and differentiation that could be identified and used to create classifications. Aristotle believed these essential traits could be used in the division of groups of animals into groups analogous to modern taxonomy (Huxley 6). Aristotle, in his treatise History of Animals, describes a process of inquiry, whereby one identifies the defining traits of animals through careful, objective observation, and then begins a process of reasoning to determine the causes of these attributes. This philosophy can be considered the precursor to the observational and empirical basis of the study of natural history that would continue for many centuries. Through direct observation and reasoning, Aristotle approached understanding of the “cause” of these attributes and traits, or their adaptive purposes, for example, the necessity of a “fleshy esophagus” for the purpose of “dilat[ing]” when food is ingested, is a reasoned conclusion from observation. (Lennox)

Aristotle eventually tutored Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, whose travels across Asia and the Mediterranean allowed Aristotle to observe various foreign specimens. (Huxley). He also taught at the Lyceum, a legendary school in Athens dedicated to the cultivation of knowledge and reason.  

In Aristotle’s wake came the Roman thinkers Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides. Pliny penned an immense 37-volume work, imperiously and simply entitled Natural History. The goal of Pliny’s work was as authoritative as its title: “to summarize all knowledge of the natural world.” (Huxley 6). Pliny’s work was ambitious and eventually served as a staple instructional text in medieval Europe for young natural historians. Dioscorides, a naturalist and physician wrote extensively on medicinal herbs as well, a trend that would eventually result in the creation of the herbal, or an illustrated compilation of plants and their various uses. (Huxley 6). Overall, the ancient thinkers contributed much to the early study of natural history and many would rely on their accomplishments for centuries to come. Between the prolific and early accomplishments of these ancient thinkers and the renewal of the Renaissance, however, the unrivaled power of the Church stifled much scientific curiosity about the natural world. Scientific inquiry was discouraged in favor of religious dogma, which hampered the growth of the field. This held back the development of the field of natural history for several centuries until the humanists during the Renaissance revived the study of the natural world. 


A selection from a 15th century Italian herbal. Herbals were very common during the Middle Ages and proved immensely important to the development of the discipline of natural history during the Renaissance. 

THE RENAISSANCE, 1400s-1600s 

Brian Ogilvie identities the Renaissance period as the definitive origin of natural history as we know it, when he pithily states, “Natural history was born during the Renaissance.” (Ogilvie 1). The cultural flowering of the Renaissance lent itself well to the cultivation of natural history as a distinct discipline and the works of Renaissance scholars left an indelible mark on the nascent field of study.

During the Middle Ages, reasoned, empirical study of the natural world had faded from its zenith Ancient Greece, to be replaced by the more practical concerns of medieval medicinal herbalists who sought merely to treat illness. As this era came to a close, the more everyday concerns of medieval botanists gave way to the rise of humanism and the revitalized interest in antiquity that characterize the Renaissance period. (Ogilvie 3). The rise and eventual cultural dominance of  humanism, an academic emphasis on empiricism, the revived interest in Antiquity and ancient knowledge, the long tradition of medieval herbalists,  and the incredibly nuanced cultural practices surrounding knowledge and learning that took hold during the Renaissance all acted in tandem to create an environment incredibly conducive for the practice of “descriptive botany” to develop into the verified discipline of natural history over the course of about three centuries. 

"Natural history was born during the Renaissance."

In the 15th century, several impressive and lengthy encyclopedias were compiled by humanist scholars such as Giorgio Valla and Polydore Vergil, in the early stages of the Renaissance, which laid the groundwork for the further development of natural history. Several of these works gave lengthy treatment to the attributes of plants, animals, and nature, but none of them considered natural history itself a defined discipline. Over the course of the 16th century,  however, natural history would take shape as a discipline, mostly due to the work of a series of Italian naturalists who considered themselves the revivers of an ancient tradition. These self-styled naturalists embraced the work of the ancients, but were unafraid to expand upon its successes and correct its failings. They were highly educated in various fields, in the humanist tradition, and applied their diverse sets of skills to the empirical observation of the world. They expanded upon and improved the medieval tradition of the herbal by reviving the study of ancient texts and employing the humanist, universalist lens to the study of the natural world. (Ogilvie 4). The work of groups of these Italian humanist naturalists gave a sense of cohesion to the descriptive study of plants and animals. Several descriptive works were published, including Caesalpino's De plantiis. (Huxley  In the 16th century, it would be Francis Bacon who best articulated the new movement in the study of the natural world. Bacon was a philosopher and politician who subscribed to a scientific philosophy emphasizing the importance of observation, reason, and the collection of evidence. Bacon stressed the importance of observation in the scientific process and he believed that a comprehensive and empirical understanding of the world was the surest way to understand the "divine." (Huxley 72) Bacon infused the study of the natural world with a notably religious tone and significance, while also highlighting the importance of empricism and scientific observation to the understanding of the world. Bacon also shifted the focus away from the purely deductive reasoning of the earlier study of natural history by stressing the importance of experimentation to the scienfitic process. As Ogilvie describes, Bacon was also among the first to consider natural history as its own and distinct discipline. (Ogilvie 5).  


Ogilvie, Brian W. The Science of Description: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 

Huxley, Robert. “Challenging the Dogma: Classifying and Describing the Natural World” in Enlightenment: Discovering the World of the Eighteenth Century, 70-91. 

Lennox, James, "Aristotle's Biology", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Natural History through the Ages