Updated: Jun 19
This is a work of fiction celebrating the copy of Historia animalium by Conrad Gessner at the Portico Library at Manchester. The names and characters are based on real-life people. But the settings, events and plot points are based on the author's imagination and are inspired by the biography of Conrad Gessner.
Historiae animalium, Conrad Gessner, 1560
Conrad pulled on the starched stiff and bright ruff around his neck. His burgundy velvet doublet, equally rigid and heavy, stood fixed.
“… and I thought it was the ale talking last night, but I see that you are adamant to destroy my reputation as a scientist.” Conrad said as he sat back in the leather armchair next to the fireplace facing the room’s centrepiece, a red mahogany writing desk, where Thomas was sitting.
“We talked about a book on the recorded knowledge on animals … and that is exactly what we’re offering. No one said the recorded knowledge is real.” Thomas smiled.
“Knowledge, sir. knowledge! Not myth or dream or any other nonsense.”
“Yes, knowledge, but whose knowledge?” Thomas walked round and leaned back on his desk facing Conrad. “I took the liberty of writing to John Caius whom everyone, including you, accepts and respects as a polymath. You would be glad to know that he didn’t dislike the idea of including what you had dismissed as myth.”
“John is a good friend, but his approval won’t make me change my mind … did John really favour their inclusion?”
“Well, John thinks Qazwini's Aja'ib is in fashion now and he feared writing purely on the base of science might disappoint some readers.” Thomas started to walk to the cabinet at the back of the room. “People often buy a book for the thrill of it.” He picked the red wine glass vessel from the shelf as he continued talking. “Time has changed, The Renaissance is here. And people expect to see the extraordinary.” Thomas decanted the red wine into two glasses. “Books are no longer here to educate, but to give something of interest to say. You know, for the sake of conversations. The stranger the topic the better.”
“Then, let them talk. I am not going to be coerced by unreasonable expectation.” Conrad said looking at the red liquid swirling in his glass. “If anyone wants to read fable, one should not buy science books.”
“My dear Conrad, people like books to give legitimacy to any nonsense that they are capable of reproducing.” He raised his glass. “But let’s not forget that they are our bread and butter. I drink to the people.”
Conrad put his glass on the desk after a sip and reached out for the book that Thomas was holding in front of him. “People deserve more credit than what you are giving them.” Conrad said as he took the book off him.
“Entertainment rather than pure knowledge. You know how much interest Aja'ib has created already. I am sure you have a copy yourself.”
Conrad murmured the complete title. “Aja'ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara'ib al-Mawjudat”, as he started to glance through the pages of the book. “I first came across this book whilst still in Carolinum. Back then I fantasised making enough money to buy my own copy.” The corners of Conrad’s mouth stretched into a vague smile. “And yes, I have a copy. In fact, it was the first luxury that I bought for myself.”
“You see. It’s destiny. Enriching scientific explanations with a flavour of fiction is not a sin, is it?”
“But if we go with your suggestion, my judgment as a scientist would be questioned, if not my sanity.”
“Who dares to question Conrad Gessner? Look, why don’t we include the images but add a sort of explanation, questioning the validity of the creatures ourselves. Think about the possibilities of where we could go with it.”
Conrad scratched his beard but said nothing.
Thomas continued in a softer voice. “Do you think Qazwini knew that three decades after he wrote his book two people in Europe would be having a conversation about it.” Thomas refilled the wine in Conrad’s glass. “Trust me, inclusion of some fantastical-looking creatures is just what we need to take the book to the next level and improve the sell. Anyhow, there are some people who claimed they have seen these creatures and people would like to hear their stories, to say the least. We simply give people what they want to see in the book.”
“It’s nice to see colour has come back to your cheek and you’re feeling better. I best go now.” Thomas made a gesture to stand up.
“Thanks. I’m grateful for your visit but before you go let me tell you that I regret not listening to you when Historia Animalium was first published.” Conrad said before breaking into a cough.
Thomas helped Conrad sit up and rearranged the pillows at the small of his back for support. “Here.” Thomas said as he passed Conrad a cup of water left on the table in the corner of the room.
“Whose knowledge? Remember you asked me …” Conrad paused and took a few breaths before continuing. “When we first discussed the mythical creatures.” Conrad took another sip of water before handing the mug back to Thomas.
“Listen. It’s not too late. What do you say if I include the creatures that we took out earlier and print a new edition? People won’t be questioning your judgment now. Furthermore, they might think that I have done it without your knowledge.”
“Yes, let’s. Besides, my reputation ... I have reached a point that I am questioning my knowledge.” After another pause Conrad continued, “I’ll be meeting Aristotle where I’m going. I want to tell him … my encyclopaedia is so comprehensive that it even has creatures that not even the might God could think of.” Conrad’s laughter changed into a cough.
“It’s good to see that the illness hasn’t dampened your sense of humour.” Thomas said as he helped Conrad to lie back down. “Leave this with me. You just focus on getting better.”
“I’m just sad that I wasted this much time,” Conrad said as he closed his eyes momentary.
“Better late than never. I’m already excited for the new version of the book. The Catholic Church already dislikes your book. Let’s give them something new to hate about.” Thomas smiled and put his hat back on.
“Don't make me laugh my cough starts when I laugh.”
“I’m sure a hard belly laugh will do you good. But I best go before your wife has the servants kick me out.” Thomas tilted his hat as he gestured goodbye and left.
Historiae animalium, Conrad Gessner, 1560