Disembodied Birds Natalie Lawrence


This article addresses some of the topics that I am researching for my doctoral thesis on the construction of exotic animals in 16th and 17th century natural history. One of the focal texts of my study is the Exoticorum libri decem (Ten books of exotics) (1605). This was one of the first natural history works published in Europe dealing exclusively with novel exotic plants and animals. In the appendix to book five are entries on two very different birds: the dodo, a rotund and flightless bird from the island of Mauritius, and the birds of paradise, spectacularly plumed creatures from the forests of Papua New Guinea. Though dissimilar, these birds were both exotic wonders from distant places, and just the type of monsters that sold books and contributed to an author’s social standing. This article will compare the way in which these two animals were crafted into commodities, in the form of highly saleable sets of exotic imagery in this critical work of early modern natural history.  

Charles L’Écluse (Carolus Clusius, 1526-1609) was born in Enkhiuzen in northern Holland, and became professor of botany at Leiden University in the 1590’s. He came into contact with a wide array of naturalia through his extensive network of contacts, including merchants, scholars, collectors and apothecaries.[1] L’Écluse added material about the dodo and birds of paradise to the Exoticorum even as the book was being published, distinguishing his work amongst the learned scholars and naturalists for whom it became an authoritative text.

The dodo and birds of paradise in collections and texts

The dodo and birds of paradise were both disembodied creatures when each first arrived in Europe, but they had contrasting physical histories. The birds of paradise reached Spain in 1522 as disemboweled skins, the form in which they had been traded across South East Asia for hundreds of years.[2] These dried skins were prepared by hunters in Papua New Guinea, often without legs or wings [Fig.1]. The beautiful but strange appearance of these plumed skins contributed to the idea in Europe that the birds never landed, but floated perpetually as dew-drinking, angelic entities. They were called Manucodiata in Europe, derived from the Islamic Malay name, Mamuco diuata (birds of God).[3] This paradisiacal imagery added to the considerable market value of the bird of paradise skins and their desirability for curiosity collections. They were scarce in the early sixteenth century but became increasingly common in European collections over the following century.

In contrast, the dodo was not part of any pre-existing value system of trade, but from an hitherto uninhabited island. It was rarely brought to Europe as a physical specimen, much less a live animal, but used as a source of provisioning for Dutch ships heading to the Indies in the early seventeenth century. Some feet and heads were to be found in the collections of scholars, while a very few whole birds or their stuffed skins were included in prominent menageries and curiosity collections.[4]  Unlike the luxury naturalia like bird of paradise skins, dodo parts were not valuable as physical objects. The dodo’s value as a commodity lay in its image, a virtual bird that appeared in publications and paintings through the seventeenth century.

The textual history of the two birds also differed greatly at the time that L’Écluse wrote about them. The dodo was relatively unknown, first described in the published travelogue of the first Dutch fleet to land at Mauritius in 1598. The sailors had described many ‘foules twice as bigge as swans, which they called Walghstocks or Wallowbirds, being very good meat,’ although soon ‘they disdained any more to eat of those… lothsome or fulsome birdes.’[5]  There were no scholarly descriptions to speak of, so L’Écluse could assemble his own.

Since their first arrival as legless skins aboard the ships returning to Portugal from Magellan’s voyage to the East Indies in 1522, the birds of paradise had been the subject of considerable scholarly discussion. The first account of them was derived from Malay tales told to the first European sailors, of the birds’ origins in Paradise and their heavenly nature.[6] Naturalists such as Conrad Gesner had debated the nature of the birds, especially whether they drank dew, or had legs. By the late sixteenth century, these birds had become symbols of a spice-filled lost Eden. They were used widely as cartographic symbols for the treasure-filled Southland and in emblems to represent a lofty and pure existence.

Sources for absent birds

Both the cachet of the birds of paradise and lack of physical value of the dodo meant that L’Écluse’s had limited access to specimens of these birds. Despite his intention to gather first-hand information, L’Écluse had to overcome the challenge of creating authoritative and marketable ‘histories’ of largely absent birds.

L’Écluse’s project with the birds of paradise was one of reconstruction, creating a new and saleable version of a valuable exotic using recently-arrived specimens and material. He was frustrated in his attempts to see new, legged specimens that arrived at Amsterdam in 1601 but were rapidly sold to a wealthy collector. He was forced to describe only legless specimens that he had seen himself, such as that in the cabinets of his colleague Peter Pauw.

L’Écluse did, however obtain a letter from the vendor of the Amsterdam specimens describing their ‘unseemly and ugly’ feet, ‘like a sparrow hawk or harrier.’ Recent information from travellers from the Indies also reinforced his new image of stoutly-legged birds of paradise, however, because the living birds of paradise were unknown outside of New Guinea, this information consisted of ambiguous second-hand reports and Malay imagery about ‘king’ birds of paradise.

In contrast, the dodo was largely unknown in Europe until L’Écluse constructed it for the first time in the Exoticorum. L’Écluse was not only staking a claim over this bird, but undertaking its textual genesis. There were very few whole dodo specimens in Europe, and L’Écluse certainly never saw a whole bird. As with the birds of paradise, he instead used his network of correspondents to secure experience of partial specimens. Pauw owned a ‘leg cut off as far as the knee’ and another the collector owned ‘certain stones’ from the dodo’s stomach.[7] L’Ecluse, adding painstaking descriptions of these objects to information and an image based on the journals from the first Dutch landing on Mauritius.[8]

Shaping saleable images

L’Écluse formed each of these birds from a set of reproducible and validated particulars. In doing so, he made a standardised ‘type’ of each animal. These ‘set pieces’ were favoured in descriptions over personal experience by curators, travellers for the following century.[9] These virtual commodities had far greater value and longevity than the specimens of the animals they represented. In the case of the dodo, the bird was almost entirely constituted by a frequently-replicated body of textual and pictorial dodo imagery initiated by L’Écluse’s publication. As such, these birds were part of a cache of wonders that fuelled the sales of books and paintings.[10]

A significant reason for the replication of particular sets of imagery in descriptions of these birds is the symbolic value that the birds held, generated by their construction in natural histories like the Exoticorum. For example, L’Écluse described the dodo’s flesh as remaining ‘hard and difficult to digest’ even after long boiling.[11] Such particulars became part of the symbolic resonance of the dodo, a bird whose physical form and ‘greedy’ behavior represented the moral ills of gluttony. This resonance was shared with other large flightless birds such as the ostrich, with which the dodo was closely associated. It also became linked to the imagery of the consumptive Dutch East India enterprise in later natural history works.[12]

Even with legs, the birds of paradise that L’Écluse described were ‘wonders,’ whose form engendered infatuation in the viewer.[13] The association of the birds of paradise with a heavenly existence in an Eastern Paradise certainly persisted well after L’Écluse’s publication, and the newly terrestrialised birds gained other symbolic associations. With the increasingly bloody cost of the Dutch monopoly over spice trade came a shift in European perceptions of the East Indies through the sixteenth century. The ‘fabled Southland’ became an ‘infernal Southland.’[14] The newly legged and sharp-taloned birds of L’Écluse’s work, and in the natural histories after him, reflected this shift in perception, as the aerial dew-drinkers became fierce carnivores.


The earthly dodo and angelic birds of paradise were both of great interest to naturalists and collectors, but they had very different values in terms of ‘extractive’ capital, to use Stephen Greenblatt’s terms.[15] Bird of paradise skins were self-evidently luxury commodities from South East Asia, while the dodo was used as ship’s provisions. However, both the earthly dodo and angelic birds of paradise were presented as valuable exotic ‘wonders’ in the virtual cabinet of L’Écluse’s Exoticorum libi decem. Through his presentation of new material, he crafted these birds into symbolically resonant creatures, each with significant and persistent ‘mimetic’ value.

[1] Kasper van Ommen (ed.), The Exotic World of Carolus Clusius, 1526-1609, Leiden University Library, 2009, pp.10, 27; Peter Mason, Before Disenchantment: Images of Exotic Animals and Plants in the Early Modern World, Reaktion Books, 2009, pp.127-130; Harold J. Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007, p.129.

[2] The most complete history of the trade in bird of paradise skins and spices is Pamela Swadling, Plumes from Paradise: trade cycles in outer South East Asia & their impact on new guinea & nearby islands until 1920, Boroko: Papua New Guinea National Museum & Robert Browne, 1996.

[3] Maximilianus Transylvanus, in Johann Schöner (ed.), A reproduction of his globe of 1523… and the ‘de Moluccis’ of Maximilianus Transylvanus… Edited with an introduction and bibliography by C. H. Coote, London: Henry Stevens & Son, 1888, pp.106, 205.

[4] For more on the specimens present in Europe, see Jolyon C. Parish, The Dodo and the Solitaire, A Natural History, Indiana Press, 2013, ch.5.

[5] Anonymous, A true report of the gainefull, prosperous and speedy voiage to Iava…, 1599, pp.16-17 (English translation of a lost Dutch edition), quoted in Jan Den Hengst, ‘The Dodo and Scientific Fantasies: Durable Myths of a Tough Bird,’ Archives of Natural History, 2009, 36:136–145.

[6] The first published account was the De Moluccis Insulis of the court secretary, Maximilianus Transylvanus (1523, Rome), see Schöner. The second account was that of the ship’s chronicler on Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage, Antonio Pigafetta.

[7] L’Ecluse, pp.100-1; Parish, pp.107-8.

[8] L’Écluse, pp.100-1, Parish, pp.107-8.

[9] See Lawrence.

[10] L’Écluse, pp.100-1, Parish, pp.107-8.

[11] L’Écluse, pp.100-1, Parish, pp.107-8.

[12] See Natalie Lawrence, ‘Domesticating the dodo in early modern natural history,’ forthcoming.

[13] L’Écluse, p.360.

[14] William Eisler, The Furthest Shore: Images of Terra Australis from the Middle Ages to Captain Cook, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.74; Swadling, pp.41-3.

[15] Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Oxford University Press, 2003.