The Sudden Death of the Burning Salamander: Reading Experiment and the Transformation of Natural Historical Practice in Early Modern Europe

in Erudition and the Republic of Letters
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This article uses early modern studies of the salamander to reveal how a natural historical practice focused on the collection of textual testimonies facilitated the rise of the experimental regime that replaced it. Sixteenth-century naturalists emphasized broad collection of evidence—regardless of how credible—ensuring that their works reported salamanders’ widely-doubted ability to live in fire. Late seventeenth-century scholars similarly practiced compilation, but they prioritized the discernment of relationships between texts rather than their accumulation. In the case of the salamander, they separated testimonies into traditions of credulity and criticism, producing the illusory impression that moderns newly rejected an ancient and vulgar conviction that salamanders lived in fire. The claim that salamanders live in fire disappeared not because it was debunked experimentally, but because naturalists’ shifting practices of reading enabled them to forge an experimental tradition that stigmatized the belief and then removed the grounds for repeating it.

The Sudden Death of the Burning Salamander: Reading Experiment and the Transformation of Natural Historical Practice in Early Modern Europe

in Erudition and the Republic of Letters




BirchHistory of the Royal Society2:100.


PlinyNatural History29:23.74–75.


PlinyNatural History29:23.76. The critical passage is ‘si forent cera iam esset expertus Roma’.


PlinyNatural History29:37.116.


GalenDe Temperamentis 3.4 quoted in Pietro Andrea Mattioli Commentaria … de Materia Medicia (Venice 1554) 221: ‘Quo fit Salamandrum ad certum usque temporis spatium ab igne nihil pati: uri tamen si ea longius igni sit admota’.


De CantimpréLiber de rerum natura 286.


Margaret Newell‘Robert Child and the Entrepreneurial Vision: Economy and Ideology in Early Modern England’The New England Quarterly 68 (1995) 223–256; Newman Gehennical Fire.


Ann Blair‘Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: the Commonplace Book’Journal of the History of Ideas 53 (1992) 541–551; Blair The Theater of Nature: Jean Bodin and Renaissance Science (Princeton nj 1997); Ann Moss Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought (Oxford 1996). See also Pomata ‘Observation Rising: Birth of an Epistemic Genre 1500–1650’ in Histories of Scientific Observation 45–80.


GessnerHistoria Animalium2:76–78.


TopsellHistory of Serpents218–219.


BrownePseudodoxia Epidemica140.


Lynn Thorndike‘Medieval Magic in the Seventeenth Century’Speculum 28 (1953) 699. For the broader context see Krämer Ein Zentaur in London.




WurffbainSalamandrologia115–118. On the ambiguity of early modern experiments see Peter Dear’s work cited in footnote 7.


Pierre Louis Maupertuis‘Observations et Experiences sur une des Especes de Salamandre’Histoire de L’Academie Royale des Sciences 1727 [1729] 29: ‘Toute fabuleuse que paroît l’histoire de l’animal incombustible je voulus la verifier & quelque honte qu’ait le Phisicien en faisant une experience ridicule c’est à ce prix qu’il doit acheter le droit de détruire des opinions consacrées par le rapport des Anciens. Je jette donc plusieurs Salamandres au feu. La pluspart y perirent sur le champ: quelques-unes eurent la force d’en sortir à demi brûlées mais ells ne purent resister à une seconde épreuve’.

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