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Our changing relationship with the natural world, from Tudor to Victorian times

Before 1700

Engraving of Charles II as king. Bust length with lace cravat and Garter robes with Garter collar and George. With Latin inscription on oval border and with publisher's addresses below, 'Sold at the Whitt Bear in King Streat in Covent garden'. Borders tri


People have been studying natural history since the earliest times, as there has always been a need and a desire to learn about the world around us. The oldest surviving books written on the subject can be traced back to Ancient Greece, perhaps most famously by the philosopher Aristotle, whose writings remained popular for over 2,000 years.

During the Renaissance period, Aristotle’s supremacy was challenged by those who decided to examine plants and animals for themselves, rather than blindly follow ancient ideas. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the scientist Sir Francis Bacon came up with a new theory that encouraged people to conduct their own experiments and learn from direct observation. This was an important development as it meant that naturalists began to travel further afield to find new plants and animals, while exotic specimens became increasingly available to study, brought back from overseas by fellow naturalists, wealthy patrons and merchants. New technologies also meant that biologists could study plants and animals in more detail than ever before and hundreds of books were published on these findings.

Charles II was very interested in supporting the work of scientists and founded the Royal Society in 1660 to provide a platform for them to make new discoveries.