Friday, April 07, 2006

The early modern fossil-collector: 'proselites to Nature's wonders'

William Simpson's book (1679, 1680) is mainly concerned to boost Scarborough as a spa town, but once you had recovered your health, then Scarborough had to offer something to see, and, at the very end of his book, p. 123 onwards, Simpson is game to tell his readers of its natural wonders, the 'The Rarities at Scarbrough'.

In the following passage, Simpson wonders at belemnites, which, as calcitic fossils, always stand out strikingly against their (commonly) mudstone matrix. The common local explanation he relegates to a parenthesis, though he half-retains in his language an idea that they are some kind of projectile:

To see some Pyrites or fire-stones (some call thunderbolts) inclosed in other textured rocky stones, so shaped and figured as if shot in by some unseen hand, as well as invisible bow; which (although both are Stone) yet the former as much differs from the stony soyl of the latter they are planted or grow in, as a vegitable plant differs from the earth is springs from, such an object I say can beget no less than wonder.

A belemnite is a most un-organic looking fossil. But other things to be seen in the foreshore rocks look like petrefactions of living things. So he tries to account for the other common fossils, the pectens and ammonites of the Yorkshire coast, attempting to imagine how the rock containing these things was formed:

To see (by viewing again) Cockle or Muscle-shells inclosed in great bulky stones … To see others, viz. Cockles in their intire form inclosed in and perfectly walled about which (sic) lesser stones like as if involved in stony bags or petrifick cases. Also to view other stones (there found) like boulders to inclose the perfectly wrought bodies of Snakes and Serpents Spirally wrought up in a small compass, where the Snake stone has left such an impression upon its case or print as if it had been the mould, about which clay or some succulent stone had been so wrought and then hardned or petrified by the Salt-water and nitreous air.

Two pages later, Simpson gives what may be the first account on record of people beachcombing for these ‘rarities’, but is now retreating from speculation into the neutral (and issue-avoiding) view that these are 'sports of nature':

To see each Proselite to Natures Wonders searching for Rarities upon the Sea-shore … either some curious stones, or some Marcasite with a Cockle or Serpent wrapt therein, which when the petrifick shell is broke, appear plain to view in their intire and curious form, or some pretty Sea-Plant; for after every flood, a new scene of Rarities in one sort or other appears, where are to be seen those Ludicra Naturae, in which Nature sports her self in great variety.

In his closing remarks, Simpson wraps up the matter with reference to God. He advances a point of view in which the Creator is (perhaps strangely) more obvious in these 'petrified' rarities than in other things:

Whose Superscription is upon it, or whose Image doth it bear? … that of the great King of Heaven and Earth; who as he hath stamped the character of his Wisdom and power upon every visible created object, so more particularly some things seem to bear bolder shadows of the Divine Pencil, and to retain more vigorous impressions and lively drafts of the Image thereof.

Simpson was writing in the age of the first geological publications - Thomas Lawrence, friend of Sir Thomas Browne, is just about the earliest in English, in his brief
Mercurius centralis, or, A discourse of subterraneal cockle, muscle and oyster-shels found in the digging of a well at Sir William Doylie's in Norfolk many foot under ground and at considerable distance from the sea / sent in a letter to Thomas Brown by Tho. Lawrence. (London, 1664).

So, which comes first, the publications, or the presence of 'proselites to Nature's wonders' on the Yorkshire coast? Do publications prompt the search, or vice versa? Really, what comes first is there in Simpson's title: a Spa, the quest for health, when a largely urban elite find a reason to go somewhere where people had always known that there were strange things to be seen in the rocks. And once the chattering classes find something to talk about, there will soon be rival theories.

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