Published! Copy census of Historia Naturalis Brasiliae

Following a seminar on the book Historia Naturalis Brasiliae in October 2016, my colleague Jeroen Bos and started off an epic journey to lcoate al surviving copies of this famous 1648 publication, a so-called ‘copy census’. We tried to see as many as possible ourselves, but also sent out surveys around the world and relied on the information of curators, librarians, researchers and other enthousiastic HNB-followers around the world to come up with a reliable list of copies. Just over six years later, we are pleased to announce that the census has been published in the Routledge volume Toward an Intercultural Natural History of Brazil.

Title-page HNB
Title-page of one of the coloured copies of Historia Naturalis Brasiliae

Historia Naturalis Brasliae

Historia Naturalis Brasiliae is the first scientific work on the natural history of Brasil, published in 1648. It was the authoritative text on the subject for one-and-a-half century. When Johan Maurits was appointed governor of Dutch Brazil in 1636, he soon commissioned a number of scientists and artists to explore and capture the geography and natural history of the colony. Among the scientists that took part in the expedition were German naturalist Georg Marcgrave (1610-1644) and the Dutch physician Willem Piso (1611-1678). Their findings would later be edited by Johannes de Laet and published as Historia Naturalis Brasiliae in 1648.

The ‘HNB‘ has had a huge impact on the knowledge about tropical flora and fauna, the perception of Brazil and natural history in general. It influenced and inspired naturalists such as Ole Worm, Maria Sibylla Merian and Carl Linnaeus and remained the principle text on Northeastern South America until the 19th century. Even though the book has been studied from various angles, we know very little about the material history of the book. There are no reliable estimates of the print run. Furthermore, we assume that the book was disseminated over Europe instantly, but in fact information about the early owners is scarce. Finally, the trajectory of the books in the following centuries can tell us a lot about changing cultural and scientific perspectives.

Copy Census

Some of you may remember that we sent out a survey in 2018, asking you if your institution is in possession of one or more copies of the original 1648 edition, and if you could give an overview of the material details (coloration, binding, annotations, provenance, et cetera) connected to your copy or copies. We are extremely grateful for the response that we got. In total we have collected data on a staggering 302 surviving copies of the book, and even though we have seen a fair share of the copies with our own eyes, we could not have compiled this census without your help in person, or by means of illustrations or bibliographical descriptions.

The methodological implications of working in different tracks (autopsy, bibliography, digital images) ‘have been addressed in the accompanying chapter ‘Cover to Cover’, but we are obviously aware that there are some inevitable inconsistencies left in the census. Furthermore, even if none of the major retrospective bibliographies (STCN, USTC) lists more than fifty or sixty copies, we are aware that there are more copies around than the three hundred plus that we have accounted for.

In brief, the census is by no means meant as a concluding remark, but a first attempt to open up the research into the production, distribution and institutionalisation of this famous book. We would be pleased to receive your thoughts, comments, corrections and additions, but we have no plan to publish a revised version of the census in the near future.

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