Popular Science: A trip in Baroque Bohemia
Why should a contemporary natural scientist be interested in the works of Bohuslav Balbín (1621–1688) – a catholic priest, member of the Jesuit order, humanist scholar and Bohemian patriot? He is the type of personality that college students encounter in History and Czech textbooks. Seen in close-up, with regard to details and context, it is clear that Bohuslav Balbín may be highly interesting even for scientists of our time. His monumental work „Miscellanea from the History of the Bohemian Kingdom” (Rozmanitosti z historie Království českého) includes a book dealing with zoological, botanical, geological and geographical remarkabilities of the Czech country. The observations are concerned with high precision. As such, the Miscellanea is a source of valuable knowledge on different subjects.
Bohuslav Balbín was born in a family of Czech gentry. Since his childhood, he was interested in natural history, especially as a passionate hunter. As a young man, he was lucky to have received a good education – in spite of the turbulent times of the Thirty Years’ War. His studies extended far beyond the training necessary for ecclesial service. In the course of his (quite long) life, he was active as a teacher and a priest in many places throughout the country. On his journeys, he collected products of nature and made notes of his findings. Continuously, he exchanged letters and debated with leading scientists of his day. In the last years of his life, he transformed his accumulated findings and knowledge into the aforementioned monumental series of books.
The first part of his great work has recently been published in the Czech language for the first time. Actually, it is the very first (and for a long period the only) thorough natural history of the Czech lands. The author gives a very readable and detailed account of the Czech geography, mountains, rivers, mineral deposits, precious stones, caves, springs, plants, fish and pisciculture, game and game parks, and birds and birding. The work is interwoven with quotations from other (Renaissance) natural historians and from ancient writers.
Some of the zoological groups are discussed only superciliously (invertebrates, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles); the authors’ attention is rather focused on bigger mammals, birds and fish. Especially the parts dedicated to birds offer impressive reading for any professional or hobby ornithologist. By the way, these chapters include a list of all bird species that were known to Balbín and were found in that time in the Bohemian Kingdom. In many cases, the author does mention detailed observations not only about their localities, but also about the ways they hunt. The reader might be surprised to read about catching many kinds of birds of prey at the foothills of Říp Mountain. They used to be caught for the purposes of falconry. There is information about birding nets used for catching larks and, most surprisingly, about the occurrence of bustards in the Czech lands.
The book mentions many of the author’s hunting and breeding experiences. He writes, for example, about a domesticated sparrow that a Franciscan friar kept in the cowl of his frock, or the story of an escaped monkey, who was believed to be a devil by local peasants.
The parts devoted to ichthyology are very detailed. He gained a great amount of information personally from fishermen. He writes very precisely about fish migration and the breeding of salmon, and about sturgeon and halibut. In the chapters dealing with big mammals, he offers important information about beavers, big predators, wild cats, as well as the introduction of European bison, fallow deer, mouflon and wild rabbits.
Jesuits ranked among the Baroque intellectual elite and many of them achieved great success (e.g. Georg Joseph Kamel, a native of Brno and the discoverer of Camellia). Even in this milieu, the work of Balbín is of unique value. With its scope and precision it is an excellent example of Czech Baroque erudition. The significance of this work for knowledge about the fauna and flora of Bohemia is unsurpassable.
The book is available in the library of the Department of Philosophy and History of Natural Sciences at Viničná 7. The publication of the following volumes of Balbín’s Miscellanea is being prepared.
Bohuslav Balbín: Rozmanitosti z historie Království českého. Academia, Praha: 2017. Notes: Stanislav Komárek, Václav Cílek and Roman Figura. Translation: Jiří Čepelák.