Museum's oldest natural history book now accessible online

20 December 2016

Historia Naturalis page with decorated letter L

The Museum's first edition of Historia Naturalis - the first natural history book ever published - features exquisitely decorated letters

The Museum's Library and Archives has digitised its oldest book, Historia Naturalis, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The Museum's copy is one of only 100 first editions. It was published in 1469, barely 30 years after the invention of the printing press - and about 1,400 years after it was compiled. Its author is Roman philosopher and scholar Gaius Plinius Secundus, commonly known as Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79).

Historia Naturalis was one of the first manuscripts ever printed and, perhaps more importantly, the first published natural history book. Its 37 volumes spanned all knowledge of natural history at the time as well as mathematics, literature and art. It eventually became a model for encyclopedias as we know them.

In addition to being an invaluable resource, the first edition is also beautiful to look at. Each volume's lead letter is painstakingly decorated (or illuminated) - a work of art in itself.

Natural history, but not as we know it

As one of the BHL's founding institutional members, the Museum has digitised its copy of Historia Naturalis, which in turn will be the BHL's oldest digitised book. The original Latin text will include a link to an English version, translated and edited in the nineteenth century by John Bostock and H T Riley.

Visitors to the BHL website will be able to browse the book's subjects - ranging from cosmology to animals and magic to botany - as related by Pliny around 2,000 years ago. More thorough readers may notice, however, descriptions such as that of headless people with eyes on their shoulders. A number of such bizarre passages show that Pliny and his contemporaries did not test all 37,000 entries.

 

Expert preparation

This project was carried out using specialist imaging and handling equipment to ensure that no physical damage occurred to the 547-year-old book.

According to Andrea Hart, Head of Special Collections in the Museum Library, the remarkably well-preserved book 'has lasted longer than many of the books which have been printed within the past 50 years. Much of the paper nowadays is made from wood pulp and has been chemically treated, as opposed to the rag paper which was used for Historia Naturalis.'

Historia Naturalis book

The ancient first-edition copy of Historia Naturalis requires careful handling
 

Not only does digitising Historia Naturalis benefit online visitors, it provides the Museum with a copy for preservation purposes. 'Not that you can ever replace the sense of history and wonder of the actual physical item,' adds Hart.

Digital collections                                   

This digitisation project was part of the Museum's Digital Collections Programme, which aims to make available the information found within the collections, from specimens to labels and archives. The digitised information can now reach researchers, data analysts and citizen scientists all over the world. Ongoing projects include digitising Mesozoic-Era collections as well as more than half a million butterflies and moths from the British Isles.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that digitise biodiversity literature and archival material for all to access. The Museum Library has so far contributed to the BHL 8,020 volumes from 1,096 titles, amounting to almost four million pages.

See the physical copy on tour

The original copy of Historia Naturalis will feature in the Museum's international tour of some of its treasures, which begins in 2017 in Tokyo.

  • By Marie-Claire Eylott

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