Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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Dr Robinson to Mr Ray.

"London, August 1, —84.

"Sir,—I have sent you two Macreuses, male and female, and hope they will come safe to Black Notley. My ingenious and worthy friend Mr Charlton (now at London) procur'd them for me at Paris, who hath them both design'd to the life in proper colours by the most accurate hand in France. If you saw the pictures I believe they would give you a better insight than these skins, which are a little broke and chang'd; yet nevertheless[Pg 158] your most discerning faculties may discover that in the dark which few can distinguish at noon-day. This Parisian bird (very famous of late) may be no unwelcome subject, it being in Lent, and upon maigre days, the greatest dainty of convents. I have been told by several of the most learned priests beyond sea, that the macreuse was as much a fish as the barnacle (and indeed I am of the same opinion), that the blood was the same in every quality with that of fishes; as also the fat, which (as they falsely affirm) will not fix, dry, or grow hard, but always remains in an oily consistence. Upon these and other reasons the Sorbonists have ranked the macreuse in the class of fishes. For the rest I refer you to my paper from Paris, and impatiently wait for your judgment, for which I have a particular esteem."

The bird referred to in this letter, and concerning which Mr Ray had not previously been able to satisfy himself, is the scoter or black-duck (Anas nigra of Linnæus, Latham, and Temminck). "Why they of the Church of Rome should allow this bird to be eaten in Lent, and upon other fasting days, more than others of this kind," we see no reason, any more than Mr Ray did. Perhaps the story of the barnacle's originating from a shell of the same name, may have been invented for a similar purpose. On this head we have the following testimony from Hector Boëce:—"All trees that are cast into the seas, by process of time, appear first worm-eaten, and in the small holes and bores thereof grow small worms; first, they show their head and feet, and last of all they show their plumes and wings; finally,[Pg 159] when they are coming to the just measure and quantity of geese, they fly in the air as other fowls do, as was notably proven in the year of God 1480, in sight of many people, beside the Castle of Pitsligo." The evidence of Gerard, the herbalist, on this subject is an excellent specimen of leasing:—"What our eyes have seen," saith the venerable man, "and our hands have touched, we shall declare. There is a small island in Lancashire, called the Pile of Soulders, wherein are found broken pieces of old and bruised ships, some whereof have been cast thither by shipwrecks; also the trunks and bodies, with the branches, of old and rotten trees, cast up there likewise, whereon is found a certain spume or froth, that in time breedeth into certain shells, in shape like those of the muscle, but sharper-pointed, and of a whitish colour, and the end whereof is fastened unto the inside of the shell, even as the fish of oysters and muscles are, and the other end is made fast unto the belly of a rude mass or lump, which, in time, cometh into the shape and form of a bird. When it is perfectly formed, the shell gapeth open, and then the first thing that appeareth is the aforesaid lace or string; next cometh the legs of the bird hanging out; and, as the bird groweth greater, it openeth the shell by degrees, till at length it has all come forth and hangeth only by the bill. In short space after it cometh to full maturity, and falleth into the sea, where it gathereth feathers, and groweth to a fowl, bigger than a mallard, and lesser than a goose, having black legs and bill or beak, and feathers black and white, spotted in such manner as our magpie, called in some places pie-annes, which the people of Lancashire call by no other[Pg 160] name than tree-goose; which place aforesaid, and all those places adjoining, do so much abound therewith, that one of the best is bought for three-pence. For the truth hereof, if any doubt, may it please them to repair to me, and I will satisfy them by the testimonies of good witnesses."

Now the whole substance of this wondrous narrative is simply this:—There is a species of goose called barnacle, and there is a species of cirripedous animal or shell-fish bearing the same name. The latter animal is furnished with certain filamentary organs which may be imagined to bear a semblance to feathers; and hence the conclusion that it must be a bird in the progress of development, which is finally converted into a goose. A refutation of the inference here made does not require the acuteness of an Aristotle. Gerard saw the shells, no doubt, but the rest he dreamt; and the good people beside the Castle of Pitsligo may have seen a flock of geese, but what else they saw nobody cares. But let us now hear Sir Hans.

Sir Hans Sloane to Mr Ray.

"London, March 9, 169-8/9.

"Sir,—This day a large tyger was baited by three bear-dogs, one after another. The first dog he kill'd; the second was a match for him, and sometimes he had the better, sometimes the dog; but the battle was at last drawn, and neither car'd for engaging any farther. The third dog had likewise sometimes the better, and sometimes the worse of it; and it came also to a drawn battle. But the wisest dog of all was a fourth, that neither by fair means nor foul could be brought to go within reach of the tyger, who was chain'd in the middle of a[Pg 161] large cock-pit. The owner got about £300 for this show, the best seats being a guinea, and the worst five shillings. The tyger used his paws very much to cuff his adversaries with, and sometimes would exert his claws, but not often; using his jaws most, and aiming at under or upper sides of the neck, where wounds are dangerous. He had a fowl given him alive, which, by means of his feet and mouth, he very artfully first pluck'd, and then eat, the feathers, such as got into his mouth, being troublesome. The remainders of his drink, in which he has lapp'd, is said by his keeper to kill dogs and other animals that drink after him, being, by his fome, made poisonous and ropy. I hope you will pardon this tedious narration, because I am apt to think 'tis very rare that such a battle happens, or such a fine tyger is seen here."

Ray had many other correspondents besides those of whom mention has been made. Their communications, however, seem neither very interesting in themselves, nor so closely connected with our narrative as to render it necessary to introduce any extracts. But, as we have given some samples of his friends' letters, it may be thought right to present one of his own.

Mr Ray to Dr Robinson.

"Black Notley, Dec. 15, —98.

"Sir,—The essay you propound concerning the ancient and modern learning were not difficult to make; but I think you are better qualified for such an undertaking than I, and therefore shall refer it to you. In summe the ancients excel the[Pg 162] moderns in nothing but acuteness of wit and elegancy of language in all their writings, in their poetry and oratory. As for painting and sculpture, and musick and architecture, some of the moderns I think do equal, if not excel, the best of them, not in the theory only, but also in the practice of those arts: Neither do we give place to them in politicks or morality; but in natural history and experimental philosophy we far transcend them. In the purely mathematical sciences, abstracted from matter, as geometry and arithmetick, we may vie with them, as also in history; but in astronomy, geography, and chronology, we excel them much. No wonder they should outstrip us in those arts which are conversant in polishing and adorning their language, because they bestowed all their time and pains in cultivating of them, and had but one, and that their native tongue, to mind. But those arts are by wise men censured, as far inferior to the study of things, words being but the pictures of things; and to be wholly occupied about them, is to fall in love with a picture, and neglect the life; and oratory, which is the best of these arts, is but a kind of voluptuary one, like cookery, which sophisticates meats, and cheats the palate, spoiling wholsome viands, and helping unwholsome."

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