The mythology and symbolism historically associated with reptiles and amphibians is unequaled by that of any other taxonomic group of animals. Even today, these creatures serve as icons - often indicating magic or evil - in a variety of media. Reptiles and amphibians also differ from other vertebrates (i.e. fish, mammals and birds) in that most have never been valued in Europe as food or for sport. Aside from some limited medicinal uses and the medical concerns related to venomous species, there was little utilitarian value in studying the natural history of reptiles and amphibians. Because of this history and other characteristics of these animals, the images of reptiles and amphibians played a unique role in the study of natural history from the Medieval through the Early Modern periods. The images I will discuss come from books that have been analyzed by other scholars, but in most cases there has been little or no scrutiny of the portrayal of the herpetofauna. Because much of my research as a biologist has focused on reptiles and amphibians, I will consider their differences from mammals and birds. In doing so, I will address image content from a somewhat different point of view than that of an art or science historian. My contention is that understanding the evolving portrayal of these “loathsome beasts” is particularly useful in tracing the development of the study of natural history. I also will address how changes in these images over time reflect a transformation in how nature was viewed and valued in western European culture. [excerpt]
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Etheridge, K. "Loathsome beasts: Images of reptiles and amphibians in art and science." Origins of Scientific Learning: Essays on Culture and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Eds. S.L. French and K. Etheridge. (Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007), 63-88.
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