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A “Foure-Footed Beaste”

Edward Topsell’s 1607 bestiary depicts grisly creatures, both actual and mythical.

This rather ferocious porcupine is one of numerous strikingly illustrated animals from The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607) by the English clergyman Edward Topsell. Topsell’s book includes, among others, period representations of a beaver, a lion, an elephant, a greyhound, a water spaniel, a panther, and a hedgehog.

In composing this book as well as his earlier Historie of Serpents, Topsell based his writing and illustrations largely on the work of German naturalist Konrad Gesner, whose Historiae Animaliam had been printed in 1585. To Gesner’s basic text, Topsell added exhaustive accounts of the prevailing traditions and scientific beliefs of his own age. The result includes not only a few mythical beasts such as the sphinx among the real ones, but also hearsay evidence as well as actual fact.

For example, Topsell notes (incorrectly) that porcupines can shoot their quills at pursuers: “The beast strecheth his skin, and casteth them off, one or two at a time, according to necessity upon the mouths of the Dogs, or Legs of the Hunters that follow her, with such violence that many times they stick into trees & woods.” The change in gender is typical of Topsell’s descriptive style.

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