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Ralph Thoresby’s Natural and Artificial Rarities 1715

From the Barwicker No. 89
March 2008

In the early eighteenth century, most villagers lived short, cold, painful, and uncomfortable lives, by our standards. The astonishing developments in medicine which were to bring anaesthetics, antiseptic and aseptic surgery, immunology, an understanding of germ theory, and diagnostic medicine, into a hospital system, were to occur in the nineteenth century.

The eighteenth century was a transitional period in medicine. The surgeon was likened to a butcher because of his direct association with cutting and bleeding; he was classed with barbers and trained by the medieval Company of Barber Surgeons. Medical training was to be revolutionised by the work of pioneering anatomists like John Hunter, (1728-1793) who helped to develop a growing understanding of how the body functioned.

A new scientific spirit of enquiry was emerging which was to transform our perception of medicine. Eighteenth century Britain witnessed a remarkable explosion of knowledge in all areas of human endeavour. The development and application of this knowledge created the machine age and the basis of a wealth creating industrial economy.

It was an age of intense curiosity, exploration and widening boundaries and Ralph Thoresby’s Leeds Museum reflected the spirit of his times. In his monumental, Ducatus Leodiensis published in 1715, he included ‘A Catalogue with Curiosities Natural and Artificial.’ This short article is intended to give a flavour of the period by highlighting some of the hundreds of specimens in his remarkable natural collection.

‘The bones of a human foetus, extracted from the navel of a poor woman at Coxwold in 1701 by Mr Birbeck of York, who presented them to me. ..Paper stained to a perfect claret colour by the urine of Capt Croft of Leeds. The fatal stick cut out of the body of Edmund Preston of Leeds, the noted butcher, thought to be the best footman in England; he died of the wound he received by it in skipping over a hedge after some strayed sheep, in 1700…….A shred of a man’s skin, extremely thick, being tanned’.

There was a great deal of interest at the time in the removal of gallstones and a leading surgeon like William Cheseldon (1688-1752) developed an operation to remove stones in minutes rather than hours. This agonising procedure undertaken without anaesthetic, was universally dreaded. Thoresby was proud of his huge and varied collection of stones.

‘Four score stones of different forms and bigness, some an inch and a half long, others roundish and rugged, voided from the penis of an aged minister Mr Creswick of Beghall and sent me by his executor Mr Priestly, who had a box containing about six hundred of them; they are dark coloured and gritty. Some large stones voided and others cut out of the urethra of Joshua, the son of Thomas Spurret of Leeds; two very odd ones taken out of the right kidney, and two very large found in the bladder when he was dissected Nov. 1711 by the ingenious Mr S. Pollard , who presented them to me.

But the most remarkable one is voided 16 Febr. 1710 by Anne Moorcraft a poor widow…It is 4½ inches in circumference one way and above half a foot the other. This was the acceptable present of the Reverend Mr Scot Vicar of Wakefield.

…Another in the form of a heart, lately voided by an ancient person at Ardsley and sent me by Dr Craister.’

Thoresby lists dozens of other examples.

‘Here are some plum stones voided by Mrs C. (with one of these balls that endangered her life) though she had not of twelve months eaten any of that fruit’.

Thoresby was fascinated by the Bolton boy (Nathan Hulme)-

‘upon whose thumbs, fingers and toes grew certain horny excrescencies, which fell off once a year.. The Reverend Dr Wroe of Manchester College obliged me with one of these horns, which is three inches long… A late author has given us the picture of Mary Davis of Chester, with two growing upon her head.’

But his prize exhibits were-

‘A pugill (loam) of the dust (unmixed with Earth) of a noble Countess, not easily distinguished from common dust and ashes .But the most noted of all the humane curiosities is the hand and arm cut off at the elbow, positively attested to be that of the celebrated Marquis of Montrose, whose quarters were disposed of to several cities of Scotland. It hath never been interred, has a severe wound in the wrist, and seems really to have been the very hand that wrote the famous epitaph (Great, Good and Just) for King Charles 1st, in whose cause he suffered. Dr Pickering would not part with it ‘till the descent into Spain; when dreading it should be lost in his absence, he presented it to this respository, where it has more than once had the same honour that is paid to the greatest ecclesiastical Prince in the World.’

Thoresby’s thoughts and sentiments in this paragraph reveal the yawning chasm in outlook and attitudes between his times and our own.

His encyclopaedic natural collection had many animal specimens,

'The pizle of a Hippopotamus (the Behemoth mentioned in Job) twenty inches long, the glans now being dried, but seven inches round.
A young cat (littered at Leeds) with six feet and two tails having two distinct bodies from the mid back…..
A prodigious tooth of an elephant; it is eleven inches in circumference, besides what hath been broken off. The bones of this creature are frequently exposed as humane, and this accordingly passed as a Giant’s Tooth, but is one of the grinders of an elephant.’

In a time when few would have seen live tropical animals, people would gaze in wonderment at the museum specimens, as they tried to make sense of it all.

‘The horn of an anonymous creature, curiously wreathed; it is black and shining, 3½ inches in length and 1½ thick at the root, whence it tapers to a sharp point.’

In examining some wool, Thoresby ponders on what will fascinate future students of Mendelian genetics.

‘Laughton wool from the Isle of Man, remarkable because not to be met with at any certain place; but that one only sheep of a whole flock hath of this dark coloured wool.’

By identifying and puzzling why something was different, thinkers like Thoresby, helped to prepare the ground for the intellectual revolution that was to come: a revolution led by individuals who saw things differently.

There was a fascination with the oddities and freaks of the natural world; in our own times such exhibitions were seen in Blackpool.

‘Two horns each 6½ inches long that grew out of the foot of a sheep killed in the Shambles at this town…
..The quills of a porcupine, 10½ inches long, alternately black and white from end to end, but the black commonly of a triple proportion. These were plucked by a virago from a living porcupine at Leeds.
....The pizle of a sea tortoise 12 inches long and 2½ round. Their embraces continue a whole lunary month, as a grave author tells us.’

There is an endless list of stones, hair balls, shells and bits and pieces taken from the bellies of animals and fish and despatched to Mr Thoresby’s museum. A traveller sent him-

‘A crocodile, six foot wanting three inches in length, the same animal that is called the Leviathan in Job. There are some in Panama 100 foot long.’

Thoresby was interested in comparing his rattle snake skins, one rattled from six joints, another was ‘curiously variegated, but without the rattle and two inches shorter, in another… ‘the rattle consists of ten cells. Here is a rattle of four only; and another of eight that was brought from Pennsylvania.’ He makes an astonishing comment about the Bird of Paradise-

‘called The Bird of God, by the natives of the Molucca Islands who worship them. It was not long since generally believed, not by the vulgar only, but the greatest naturalists themselves, that they wanted feet; and I lately saw one, that, to countenance this error, was mutilated; but all persons are now sufficiently convinced that this is false, both by the testimony of eye witnesses, and the birds themselves brought over entire, as this was from Java, by Dr Midgley, who presented it to me.’

Thus step by step, the foundations of modern zoology were being laid by different people comparing specimens from different locations, intent on studying and analysing their findings and pooling their ideas.

‘A chicken with four legs hatched at Leeds…Another chicken with four legs and as many wings; this, to prevent the fate of the former, I put into spirits of wine.’

All creatures fascinated Thoresby.

‘The pizle of a whale in length a yard and a quarter, and at the glans above a foot round, and though now shrunk up and hard as horn.’
…….’Part of the fin of another great fish, vulgarly called a Bottle-nose, 25 of which were cast upon the Yorkshire shore.’

He analysed differences between whirled, singled, double and multiple shells in painstaking detail. The escalopes interested him.

‘But the most remarkable of all is an ash coloured one, from the top of the Appalachian mountains, that part Virginia on the west, from the rest of the American continent; upon which mountains great numbers of them, and other shells are found, which is an undeniable argument of an universal deluge.’ repository, where it has more than once had the same honour that is paid to the greatest ecclesiastical Prince in the World.’

Thoresby would have been astounded to learn that these shells were deposited when the land was under the sea, before the mountains were formed, rather than as a result of a biblical flood.

Insects are presented in amazing detail; he was particularly interested in butterflies. He tells of a strange occurrence in May 1699 in Lincolnshire when the sky darkened with

‘a prodigious swarm of flies ..which went with such a force.. that persons were forced to turn their backs to them, to the wonder of those that were abroad.’

Thoresby had 800 dried plants in his collection, many from the American colonies. The tobacco plant has

‘very much bewitched the inhabitants from the more polite Europeans to the barbarous Hottentots.’

The extensive ten page catalogue on plants proceeds, listing, describing, comparing, measuring, dissecting, evaluating and sometimes detailing history.

‘The kernels of the coconut, of which chocolate is made, small at one end, about the size of almonds, but not so flat. In some parts of the West Indies , these cacaos pass for monies, and are given to the poor; and with the chocolate the Indians treat Noble Men that pass through their country.’

Thoresby concluded his catalogue of natural curiosities by referring to his extensive collection of stones, corals, fossil shells, gems, metals and minerals. The Ducatis concludes by listing all his-

‘Artificial curiosities, Various editions of the Bible, Manuscripts, Ancient Writings, and Antiquities and Appendix.

In conclusion, one can only admire Ralph Thoresby’s prodigious achievements in assembling his museum, started by his father and writing his Ducatus. We can see how far we have come in the modern world by considering the progress made since the times he recorded for us. The question arises, how far we have yet to travel?


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