Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/March 1889/Sketch of Pierre Belon

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PSM V34 D594 Pierre Belon.jpg



"IN 1555" says M. Louis Crié, "Pierre Belon, of Mans, well known by his travels in Italy, Greece, and the East, revealed himself as an observer of great sagacity and as a bold thinker. With him came at once the end of compilation and the beginning of observation. He added to the common treasure of knowledge more wealth than all his predecessors from antiquity and all his contemporaries put together." M. Gustave Tissandier calls him one of the great savants of the sixteenth century, who, like his contemporary, Bernard Palissy, would rather study facts in the book of nature than in men's books—"a conscientious observer, fascinated with the truth, we may consider him one of the initiators of modern natural history."

Pierre Belon was born at Soulletière, near Mans, in 1517, and died in 1564. His tastes for studies in natural history were developed at an early age, and were encouraged by his friend Rend de Bellay, Bishop of Mans, with whose aid he entered upon the study of medicine at Paris. There he formed a friendship with the poet Ronsard. Having obtained his doctor's degree, he went, in 1540, to Würtemberg, to attend the lectures of the botanist Valerius Cordus. In company with his teacher he traveled through Germany and Bohemia. The country was greatly excited over the controversies of the Reformation; and at Thionville, on his return journey home, he was arrested by the Spanish occupants, under suspicion of being a partisan of the new doctrines. He was obliged to buy his freedom with funds that were advanced by a learned gentleman named Dehamme, who was a great admirer of Ronsard. Returning to Paris, he found generous protectors in Bishop Duprat of Clermont, the Cardinal of Lorraine, and the Cardinal of Tournon. Tournon provided him with quarters in the Abbey of Saint-Germaine, and advanced the cost of the voyages which he desired to make for prosecuting his studies. The words in which Belon conveyed his request for this aid at once attest his earnestness in the pursuit of his object, and illustrate the spirit of a time when the small were free to call upon the great for help in such matters. "When you know," he said, "the desire that I have to obtain knowledge of the things pertaining to the material of medicines and plants, which I can not well acquire except by a long pilgrimage, you will be pleased to command me to go and seek them in distant regions, in the places of their origin."

Belon left France at the beginning of 1546, and was gone between three and four years. He went to Crete and Constantinople; then visited Lemnos, Mount Athos, Thrace, and the Grecian islands; thence went to Egypt, where he made observations that have become famous at Alexandria and Cairo; traveled through Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople; and returned to France, by way of Rome, during the year 1549. To his friend Ronsard this journey had all the adventure and importance of a general exploration of the globe, and he celebrated it appropriately in verse, glorifying Belon as if he had been one of the greatest of navigators.

The accounts of his observations during this great tour were published in the remarkable book known as "The Singularities," the full title of which is, "Les observations de plusieurs singularités et choses mémorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arable, etc., et autres pays estranges" ("Observations of many Singularities and Memorable Things found in Greece, Asia, Judea, Egypt, Arabia, and other Foreign Countries"), Paris, 1553. It was illustrated with numerous figures of animals and birds, etc., engraved on wood. This book abounds in novel observations on the natural history and geography of the countries visited, with descriptions of their monuments or ruins, and of the manners and customs of their people. One of the most interesting parts of it, according to M. Louis Crié,[1] is the story of his travels in Egypt, in which we read with pleasure the pages which he has devoted to the geography, ethnography, medicine, the fauna and flora of that strange country. Very curious details are found in his book respecting Alexandria, the manners of the Alexandrians, the city of Rosetta, the fishes of the Nile, the houses and gardens of Cairo, the pyramids, "the mummy," the plants that grow around Suez, etc. The same work contains a plan of the city of Alexandria and views of the island of Lemnos, Mount Athos, and Mount Sinai. Although the geometry of these cuts is elementary, they give evidence of careful observation. Belon drew after nature, and for the first time, such animals as the ichneumon, the hippopotamus, the crocodile, the chameleon, the hawk, the black ibis, and several fishes. His 'Singularities,' replete with local originalities, is remarkable for the amplitude of the information it affords. We notice in it rigorous good faith attentive to the discovery of the significance of facts without dissimulating in anything. "A queer description is given of the giraffe," whose fore-feet, when it runs, go together. It lies with its belly against the ground, and has callosities on the chest and thighs like the camel. It can not feed on the ground standing without spreading its fore-legs away out, and that is very hard. Hence it is easy to believe that it does not live in the fields, but upon the branches of trees, having a neck so long that it can extend its head to the height of a short pike. And having drawn it from nature, we here present its portrait."

In 1556, King Henri II granted Belon, in recognition of his work, a pension, which appears to have never been anything but honorary. He was also given a residence in the Château de PSM V34 D712 Portrait of the giraffe.jpgFig. 1.—Portrait of the Giraffe (after Pierre Belon). Madrid, in the Bois de Boulogne, where, during the remaining years of his life, he studied natural science and wrote his celebrated books. One evening in 1564, as he was crossing the Bois, on the way to visit his friend Jacques du Breuil, he was attacked, by highwaymen, it is supposed, and killed, in the forty-eighth year of his age.

The "Natural History of Fishes"[2] marks Belon, according to M. Crié, as the founder of modern ichthyology. While rectifying and enlarging what Aristotle had said, the Mansian naturalist gave a positive basis to ichthyology by descriptions and figures of a considerable number of species. In the 'Aquatilibus' are described a hundred and ten fishes, of which twenty-two are cartilaginous, seventeen fresh-water, and the rest sea fishes. . . . The figures representing them are easily recognizable, not-withstanding the simplicity of the style of the wood-engravings.

"His philosophical mind had a very correct appreciation of the genera. His groupings were made with a surprisingly just instinct. To an indefatigable activity he joined vast erudition. He brought to the front the study of nature and of the books that treat of it. . . . The feature that especially prepared new bases for the science of fishes was his observations on the thoracic and abdominal splanchnology of those animals. He gives with infinite sagacity correct details respecting the liver, its shape, and the number of its lobes; the spleen, its position, volume, and size; the gall; the intestine, its direction and disposition; and the pyloric appendages, which he called apophyses cæcos. Long before the fine researches of Cuvier, Mierendorff, Valenciennes, and Duvernay, Belon first studied the conformation of the liver in more than thirty species of fishes. We copy from this book a curious picture of a hippopotamus of the Nile devouring a crocodile (Fig. 2). The germ of embryology appears

PSM V34 D713 The hippopotamus of the nile.jpg

Fig. 2.—The Hippopotamus of the Nile (after Pierre Belon).

in a most remarkable manner in a representation, in the first of the books named in our note, of the matrix and embryo of the porpoise. These works, in which the genius of Belon showed itself to be of a superior order, were followed by the book on the "Nature of Birds,"[3] which is described by M. Crié as an "imperishable work, a fruitful source of instruction to the philosopher and the naturalist." It was the crowning work of Belon's life, and marks an era in the history of science, for in it was developed and illustrated the idea of a uniform plan of structure among animals. Belon had already in his "Fishes" and his descriptions of plants definitely applied the distinctions of genera and species, and had invented the binary nomenclature to take the place of the long-drawn and often not satisfactory descriptions with which previous authors had tried to mark these differences. More than one hundred and eighty years before Linnæus he had brought similar plants into single groups, to which he applied common or generic names—as Fagi, Ulmi, Fraxini, Aceres, Corni, etc.—and had then substituted for the usual descriptive phrase a specific name, sometimes an adjective relating to an external quality, as Smilax aspera, Smilax lævis, Papaver corniculatum; sometimes one of the common names of the period or of a celebrated person.

At the very beginning of his book on "Birds," Belon placed a representation of the skeleton of a bird face to face with a human skeleton, and marked by a common lettering the features and parts common to both. By this, creating the comparative method, he opened a new pathway in science. The thought of unity thus presented for the first time by Belon is the same that was declared two hundred and fifty years afterward by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Belon's division of birds—into the Fissipedes and the

PSM V34 D714 Skeletons of a bird and man.jpg

Fig. 3.—Skeletons of a Bird and of Man.

AB. Birds have no teeth, but a cutting beak, strong or weak, large or small, according to the matter they have to pick to pieces and on which they live. M. Two long and narrow scapulæ, one on each side. Œ. Bone called the merry-thonght, or breast-bone, found in no animal except the bird. D. Six ribs, attached to the chest of the stomach in front, and behind to the six vertebræ of the back. F. The two bones of the hips are long, for there are no vertebræ below the ribs. G. Six bones of the ramp. H. The round bone of the knee. I. The sutures of the skull do not show unless it is boiled. K. Twelve vertebræ of the neck, and six of the back. L. The two key-bones. N. The bones of the arms or shoulders. O. The chest of the breast. P. The little bone of the elbow. Q. The large bone of the elbow. K. The bone of the wrist, called carpus. S. The knots and articulations, called condili. T. The pinion, called appendix, which is related to the wing as the thumb to the band. T. The bone after the wrist called metacarpium. U. The extremity of the wing, which is like our fingers. V. A number of bones at the end of the wing, two of which have the form of netting-needles (or shuttles); one larger and the other smaller, which is proportioned in the bird as in us the hollow of the hand, which is called in Greek Thenar, and in Latin Palma. X. The large bone of the thighs, one on each side. Y. The large bone of the leg. Z. The small bone of the leg. &. The bone given for the leg to birds, corresponding with our heel. AA. Just as we have four (quatre) toes on the feet, so have birds four (quatre) fingers, the hinder one of which is given in proportion as the big toe with us. BB. Four articulations in the outer finger. CC. Three articulations in this finger. DD. Two articulations in this finger, as also in the hinder one.

Palmipedes—is precisely that of Cuvier which is taught in elementary books. Other correspondences of classification with the classifications of Linnæus and Cuvier will be found in the following: table:

Belon's classification. Classification of Linnæus. Cuvier's classification.
Day and night birds of prey. Accipitres. Birds of prey.
Birds having flat feet and swimming on the water. Anseres. Palmipedes.
Birds having flat feet, etc. Seolopeces, or Grallæ. Waders.
Birds that build their nests on the ground. Gallinæ. Gallinaceæ.
Birds that are found everywhere. Galingale Passeres. Gallinaceæ Passeres.
Birds that haunt hedges, sticks, thickets, thorns, and briers. Passeres. Passeres.

The main classification of birds has thus not been materially changed since 1555. The portrait of a wren is a specimen of the ordinary illustrations in "The Birds" (Fig. 4).

Belon composed a treatise on agriculture,[4] in which was included a list of exotic plants which it would be desirable to acclimate PSM V34 D715 The wren.jpgFig. 4.—The Wren (after Pierre Belon). in France, and suggested the foundation of an establishment for that purpose. Something of the kind was carried out under Belon's direction by René de Bellay on his estate of Touvoy, near Mans.

Besides the works already described, Belon published a history of conifers[5] and a treatise on the funeral monuments and sepultural usages of the ancients and the substances used by them for the preservation of bodies.[6] According to Renouard, he translated the treatise of Dioscorides into French. He also made a version of Theophrastus's "History of Plants," which has been lost. The magnitude of his works indicates that he had an enormous capacity for labor. His writings on anatomy, botany, agriculture, and medicine, as measured by M. Crié, display a rare critical faculty, and nearly all his observations overreach the horizon of his epoch.

A statue of the great naturalist was unveiled at Mans on the 9th of October, 1887, with an address by M. Crié. The portrait we publish is a copy of the engraving that was prefixed to the "Singularities," and represents Belon in his doctor's cap.

  1. "Les Voyages de Pierre Belon." "Revue scientifique," 1883, No. 7.
  2. "Histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins, avec le vraie peinture et description du dauphin et de plusieurs autres de son espèce," 1551, with woodcuts; "Nature et diversité des poissons, avec leurs portraicts," 1553; "De aquatilibus libri duo, cum iconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem quoad fieri potuit," 1553.
  3. "Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, avec leurs descriptions et naifs pourtraicts retirez du naturel, escripte en sept livres," 1555.
  4. "Les remonstrances sur le défaut du labour et culture des plantes, et de la connoissance d'icelles, contenant la manière d'affranchir et apprivisoir les arbrcs sauvages," 1558.
  5. "De arboribus coniferis, resiniferis, aliisque nonnullis sempiterni fronde virentibus," 1553.
  6. "De admirabili operum antiquorum præstantia," 1553.