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Education: Higher Education

“Things Most Strange and Wondrous”: The Hidden Roots of Modern Science and Medicine

Class 1: Investigating Nature


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 17th-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.

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 of this thinking 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

Key Concepts
  1. In the early Renaissance, authority and credibility were derived from the testimony of ancient authors, many of whom reported the existence of creatures such as unicorns and basilisks.
  2. Slowly, however, the authority of ancient texts was replaced by the authority of observation and direct contact with nature.
  3. The voyages of discovery exposed Renaissance thinkers to a wide range of new and unusual plants and animals.
  4. In many esoteric philosophies, humanity and the wider universe were seen as inextricably connected—the one could have tremendous impact on the other. This notion was the cornerstone of astrology, which examined the links between human life and the motions of the heavens.
  5. Many physicians took astrological notions into account as part of their medical practice, for example, scheduling certain procedures only when the planets were properly aligned. For some, like Paracelsus (1493–1541), the connection between humanity and the surrounding world was absolutely central to the practice of medicine.
Class Resources
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
  • Ariew, Roger. “Leibniz on the Unicorn and Various Other Curiosities.” Early Science and Medicine 3, no. 4 (1998): 267─288.
  • Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC., 2006.
  • Daston, Lorraine. “What Can Be a Scientific Object? Reflections on Monsters and Meteors.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 52, no. 2 (1998): 35─50.
  • Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.
  • Gerbi, Antonello. Nature in the New World: From Christopher Columbus to Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. Translated by Jeremy Moyle. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.
  • Grafton, Anthony. Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Harrison, Mark. “From Medical Astrology to Medical Astronomy: Sol-Lunar and Planetary Theories of Disease in British Medicine, ca. 1700–1850.” The British Journal for the History of Science 33, no. 1 (2000): 25─48.
  • Moyer, Ann. “The Astronomers’ Game: Astrology and University Culture in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” Early Science and Medicine 4, no. 3 (1999): 228─250.
  • Ogilvie, Brian W. The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Smith, Pamela H., and Paula Findlen, eds. Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Visual Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. Where did Renaissance naturalists turn for descriptions of exotic plants and animals? Why did they put such store in these sources?
  2. There are still parts of the world that remain largely unexplored today; most of us, however, do not believe that these uncharted regions might contain unicorns, dragons, or other exotic creatures, as did naturalists in the Renaissance. Why is this, do you think? Do we require “hard evidence” before we believe something, and if so, is this problematic?
  3. Study Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium through the “Turning the Pages” website, and record your impressions. In what ways does it resemble, or differ from, a modern zoological treatise?
  4. Why was astrology taken so seriously, and how did the methodologies and concerns of astrologers contribute to astronomical innovation?
  5. How did Paracelsus conceive of the microcosm/macrocosm relationship, and what role did this have in his medical philosophy?
  6. Cast your own horoscope online—do you find it accurate? Why or why not? Can we understand why such things have had a powerful claim on minds and imaginations for centuries?
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