Luke Demaitre

title.none: Daston and Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (Luke Demaitre)

identifier.other: baj9928.0210.014 02.10.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Luke Demaitre, Univiversity of Virginia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. NY, NY: Zone Books, 2001. Pp. 511. $24.95. ISBN: 0-942299-91-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.10.14

Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. NY, NY: Zone Books, 2001. Pp. 511. $24.95. ISBN: 0-942299-91-4.

Reviewed by:

Luke Demaitre
Univiversity of Virginia

Punning or not, the adjectives wonderful, marvelous, and fabulous are inevitable for this book. It reaped two prestigious awards in 1999 (the Pfizer Prize of the History of Science Society and the Roland H. Bainton Prize for History and Theology of the Sixteenth Century Conference), and it deserves a place on the shelves of everyone who professes an interest in historical perspective, whether general or specialized. No summary can convey the richness of its content, and no review can do justice to the uniqueness of its approach. Sophisticated and intellectually demanding, each of the chapters has the substance and the annotation of a complete monograph. At the same time, proving that even the most solid scholarship need not be dull, the book is a joy to read, with many provocative propositions and a consistently animated narrative, and written with a literate elegance too rare in our circles; it is also graced with a hundred arresting and instructively captioned illustrations. There is reason for celebration when two distinguished historians of science offer their findings and insights with such limpid accessibility, palpable sense of personal involvement, and graceful combination of weight and wit. Their analysis is incisive, yet their views remained flexible while maturing, underwent at least one profound reversal (of which the account on p. 176, in a pivotal chapter on monsters, is exemplary), and were formulated without dogmatic cliche or grand thesis. Moreover, determined to read the sources with meticulous attention for nuance and without the lenses of modern constructs, the authors have avoided many traps, not only of anachronism but also of the simplification inherent in periodization and linearity. Guided by the image of overlapping and recurring waves (11), the undulatory story (17) follows the change and continuity of a dual theme, namely, of wonders as objects and wonder as a reaction: the former marked the boundaries of what was perceived as natural, and the latter revealed the sensibility of naturalists.

In a sprawling panorama, peopled by philosophers and scientists on a background of cultural ebb and flow, wonders appear variously as portents or riddles, monsters or commodities, and errors or pranks of nature; the emotions which they inspired fluctuate between awe and pleasure, curiosity and fear, and fascination and distaste. The discussion spans far more than the centuries identified in the title (1150-1750), for it reaches back to authorities such as Aristotle and Augustine and forward to luminaries such as Diderot and d'Alembert and Kant. It is focused on the period between Gervase of Tilbury's compilation of marvels and Voltaire's distrust of fantasies. Between the early twelfth and the late fourteenth century, a wide and dynamic spectrum of sensibilities was displayed by compilers, scholastic philosophers, and feudal courtiers. Between 1370 and 1590, however, major changes occurred, among which the most notable was the emancipation of natural history from traditional natural philosophy. Soon thereafter, in the early seventeenth century, a historic turning point was marked by Francis Bacon's program for the reform of natural history and natural philosophy, with the gathering of data -- matters of fact -- allocated to the former and their explanation -- matters of judgment -- to the latter. In vivid sketches, Daston and Park evoke the social settings of diverse collections of rarities, and of the collective inquiry in the Royal Societies and Academies. At the same time, and never losing sight of the full historical scope, they expose the growing intellectual distance from Aristotelian legacies such as the antagonism between nature and art, and the dependence on function and utility, and from Scholastic trends such as the anthropomorphism of nature.

Vast as the range of covered sources and viewpoints may be, the examination leaves fertile areas to be explored by the same compass. Suffice it to mention three thematically related indications of this potential. First, Augustine's association of curiosity with lust is documented (122-123 and 306) primarily -- and, I would submit, at the risk of slanting the evidence -- from his Confessions, even though his criticisms are more reasoned and complex in the City of God. Book 22, chapter 24 of the City of God, in particular, powerfully summarizes Augustinian tenets on awe and disrespect, and on mystery and inquiry, applying them to the secrets of the human body. This leads us to a second aspect that seems worth pursuing in the framework of Wonders and the Order of Nature, namely the attitude towards the innermost natural processes of nascence and reproduction. The authors make several references to the idea of nature as maker of wonders (201), but few to the curiosity about the making of babies -- so sensationally exemplified in the legend and iconography of Nero dissecting his mother. Still another, much broader, path for further inquiry is left open when Daston and Park, while fully acknowledging the role of physicians at several junctures, cite Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey only in passing. The near-invisibility of these two anatomists may surprise readers who are familiar with Katharine Parks pathbreaking inquiries into the history of dissection, and it should challenge students to apply or test the theses of Wonders and the Order of Nature. After all, Vesalius repeatedly expressed the pleasure and fascination of his anatomical inquiries, his wonder at the purposefulness of the Creator and Nature, and his interest in bodily aberrations (see, for example, On the Fabric of the Human Body, A Translation of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem by William Frank Richardson and John Burd Carman, Vol. I, [San Francisco, 1998], iii, 32, 48, etc.). Harvey, whose fascination was equally passionate if less theatrical, underlined the contrast between the wisdom of Nature and miraculous and incongruous suppositions when he marshaled observation against the fables of the poets and the fancies of the vulgar (De motu cordis, tr. Chauncey D. Leake [Springfield, 1970], 22 and 5).

In a stimulating epilogue, Daston and Park briefly contemplate whether wonder and wonders still seize us (365). Drawing a distinction between the cultivated and the not-so-cultivated in the contemporary world, they indicate differences and similarities with earlier sensibilities. They observe that, today, some wonders are respectable and others are disreputable; but none threatens the order of nature and society (ibid.). When they elaborate on this observation, the authors reveal a slight scientific perspective -- if not bias -- by contrasting the celebration of wonders and wonder in tabloids and science fiction with the mild condescension of the learned (367). Their illustrative modern marvels range from Martians to meteor showers, but they do not include any of the scientific discoveries and technological achievements which cause wonder, fascination, and fear among the vulgar. Thus, the reader is left in a quandary about certain instances, particularly in the areas of genetics and nuclear physics, in which the cultivated also see threats to the order of nature and of society. Nor does the epilogue consider a different category of wonders which are often associated with natural and social threats, and which may even be introducing a counterpart to the medieval portent: how to apply the lessons of Wonder and the Order of Nature to El Nino or five-legged frogs, for example? But then, an epilogue is not a conclusion, and this book is not a closed treasure chest but an open cornucopia, mirabile dictu.