As we prepare to celebrate the 300th anniversary tomorrow of the birth of Gilbert White, whose Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has proved so popular that it has never been out of print since its first appearance in 1789, we may wonder whether a similar figure â both priest and naturalist â ever emerged in Bohemia. In fact, there is a close parallel in his nearly exact contemporary, AleĹĄ PaĹĂzek, whose accomplishments ranged from composing and performing music to drawing, painting and illustrating some of his own books.
Portrait of AleĹĄ Vincenc PaĹĂzek. Source: Wikimedia Commons
PaĹĂzek was born on 10 November 1748. Although his parents were not wealthy, he received a good education, and in 1765, aged 17, he entered the Dominican order and was ordained to the priesthood in 1771, serving in Prague as a confessor, preacher and monastery librarian.
When a new teacher training college was established in Prague he studied the Socratic method, attended lectures on pedagogics, and was appointed to conduct catechism classes at the parish school of St. Aegidius. He subsequently taught history, calligraphy and natural history at the college, and in 1783 became head of a new high school in Klatovy. By the time of his death on 15 April 1822, he had risen to become dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Prague. His works in both Czech and German include a book of prayers in Czech for children (1789) a concise history of the world for young readers (1782), handbooks on religious education for parents and teachers, and a manual of Czech orthography for schools in Bohemia (1812). Here, however, we consider the KurzgefaĂte Naturgeschichte BĂśhmens, zum Gebrauch der Jugend (âConcise Natural History of Bohemia, for the Use of the Youngâ), published in 1784, of which the British Library possesses a first edition.
Frontispiece of AleĹĄ Vincenc PaĹĂzek, KurzgefaĂte Naturgeschichte BĂśhmens, zum Gebrauch der Jugend (Prague, 1784) 973.a.14
PaĹĂzek explains in the preface that his aims are twofold: to provide young people with information which may be of practical use in their future careers, but also to inspire them with wonder at Godâs creation and the natural history of their homeland (the word âpatrioticâ frequently recurs).
From the outset PaĹĂzek emphasises that this is not a work of scholarship, and that details of specific types of teeth and claws, for example, would only render it dry and tedious. It is divided into three sections on the minerals, plants and animal life of Bohemia, with an appendix on a creature found far beyond its borders â man â noting the similarities between humans and other living creatures. In keeping with his intentions, PaĹĂzek explains the useful properties of different types of minerals, plants and timber, possibly foreseeing that his juvenile audience might adopt careers as mining engineers or physicians.
As the book was written in German, it seems likely that it was aimed at the educated middle classes, and this may explain a curious feature of the third section, in which domestic animals are given much more coverage than the wildlife of Bohemia. Presumably, PaĹĂzek was envisaging his readers becoming estate managers or gentleman farmers; he devotes considerable amounts of space to diseases which may affect livestock, explaining that poor husbandry is generally to blame (keeping animals in dirty stables and sties, or driving cattle to pasture when the ground is frozen), rather than the activities of witches and suchlike, as âfoolish and superstitiousâ people believe. His statements are supported by practical observation, but his scientific objectivity is not always unblemished. While he devotes a lengthy paragraph to the praises of the faithful dog, âalmost indispensable to the householdâ, he dismisses the cat in a mere four lines, stating that although it is âcrafty, cunning and falseâ, it is useful for driving away mice, rats and toads. Clearly PaĹĂzek was no cat-lover.
Frontispiece from an 18th century German book by the painter, naturalist and entomologist August Johann RĂśsel von Rosenhof. Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium... (NĂźrnberg, 1758) 458.f.12.
Turning to wild animals, PaĹĂzek describes many species which are still found in the region today or, like the lynx, are making a comeback. He notes that the bear is usually peaceable except when disturbed, and that the wolf, though so fierce that sometimes it does not even spare human beings, normally only shows itself in especially harsh winters. Plentiful details are provided of âred gameâ (various species of deer) and âblack gameâ (boar), and the reserves where they are protected for hunting purposes. Birds, fish and insects are similarly described, and if we might raise an eyebrow at the lip-smacking relish with which the author evokes the âdeliciousâ or âextremely tastyâ nature of certain types of fish such as salmon or trout, this may be forgiven when we recall that as a devout Catholic he would have consumed these regularly on Fridays or fast-days.
His awe and reverence for Godâs creatures, however, appears limited when he considers certain amphibians. Describing the toad (included in the section on quadrupeds), he dismisses it as âmuch uglier than the frogâ, covered with yellow and green warts and spots all over its body. The equally luckless frog is âa small, naked amphibious creature, of a somewhat disgusting appearanceâ, although he comments that, unlike toads, âsome of them are eaten by usâ.
Yet even these less appealing beings have one attribute which might startle many theologians â a soul. Although man is âthe masterpiece of creation, and the noblest and most splendid creature on the whole earthâ, he shares an immortal soul with other living creatures, distinguished only by the fact that while the human soul is endowed with reason, those of animals are not. They do, however, have the power to feel emotions such as affection, sorrow and pain, and the underlying message to the young reader is that all sentient beings deserve humane and respectful treatment.
Just four years before PaĹĂzekâs death, the National Museum in Prague had opened its doors, displaying magnificent collections of mineral, plant and animal specimens as well as antiquities, coins and medals. We may imagine how many visitors, and possibly contributors, had first had their love of natural history kindled by reading PaĹĂzekâs little book.
Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services