Pliny’s History of the World

September 7th, 2012 by Michael Taylor

Special Collections recently made an exciting new acquisition: the first English edition of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Translated by Philemon Holland (1552-1637) and published in London in 1601 as The Historie of the World, this compendium of ancient knowledge about the natural world and man’s place in it exposed many English readers for the first time to Greek and Roman ideas about everything from physics, astronomy, and zoology, to agriculture, physiology, and the arts. Despite its many fanciful elements (such as the claim that men could live to 800 years of age) and dubious ideas about medicine (“the braines of a wild boar is highly commended against the venom of serpents”), Pliny’s work had been much admired in its original Latin form throughout the Middle Ages, and with the birth of printing in the fifteenth century, it became one of first books to be produced on a large scale and in scholarly editions. Holland’s tranlsation came to be admired in its own right. Pliny would not be translated into English again until the nineteenth century, and some still consider Holland’s version to be the most charismatic. “If he seldom echoed the sound of Greek and Latin,” one commentor has written, “he never missed the sense, nor did he fear a comparison of his own work with the classical texts.”

This volume will make a welcome addition to the library’s already strong collection of early modern works on natural history.

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