In the Harry Potter novels, we encounter a range of exotic flora and fauna, from unicorns and dragons to mandrakes and merpeople. The existence of such things is taken for granted by those inhabiting J. K. Rowling's magical world, but the same was also true of many Renaissance naturalists. Much of what they knew confirmed this belief: unicorns and basilisks had been described and discussed from antiquity, the fatal cry of the mandrake was widely reported, and the bodies of several presumed dragons were found and displayed in 17-century collections of naturalia. The voyages of discovery to the New World brought to light even stranger animals and plants, and many thousands of specimens were shipped back to Europe to fill museums, laboratories, and princely courts.
At the same time, the universe of Renaissance thinkers extended well beyond animals and plants: a mainstay of many philosophies was the connection between the individual and the surrounding cosmos. The individual was often seen as a microcosm, a miniature reflection of the universe or macrocosm, and the one could have a tremendous influence on the other. Astrology taught that the motions and properties of the planets directly affected life on Earth, influencing everything from behavior to health.
Thus, for many in this period, a variety of intimate connections existed between humanity and nature. The world was full of an astonishing array of strange and marvelous things, the formation and behavior of which were often dictated by the movements of the heavens. The result was a seamless conception of nature that inspired some of the most innovative intellectual changes in Western history.
“I have noticed a relationship between science and natural philosophy…those writings interest me the most which deal with minerals, plants, and animals.” —Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551
“Three times a week they went out to the greenhouses behind the castle to study Herbology…where they learned how to take care of all the strange plants and fungi, and found out what they were used for.” —Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling