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Brian W. Ogilvie: Research

I am actively engaged in two related areas of research. One, growing out of my earlier research on Renaissance natural history, examines insects as objects of study and as sources of meaning in European art, science, and religion from the late Renaissance through the Enlightenment. The other focuses on the scholarly study of the material remains of classical antiquity in the later seventeenth century. Further interests include Renaissance botany and the history of natural theology and the "argument from design." More generally, I am interested in the relationship between scholarly disciplines and the broader culture in which they are situated, the history of the classical tradition, humanism and science (see the Teaching section), and, increasingly, the history of affect and emotions.

Nature's Bible: Insects in European art, science, and religion from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

From the late Renaissance through the Enlightenment, European artists, naturalists, physicians, and theologians developed an intense, unprecedented interest in insects. Artists such as Joris Hoefnagel, Johannes Goedaert, Maria Sibylla Merian, and August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof studied and depicted insects in exquisite detail. Naturalists and physicians, like Ulisse Aldrovandi, Outgaert Cluyt, Jan Swammerdam, Martin Lister, Marcello Malpighi, Francesco Redi, and René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, studied their habits, metamorphoses, and classification. Theologians, meanwhile, from the Jesuit Leonard Lessius to the Lutheran Friedrich Christian Lesser, drew upon insects to demonstrate the power and benevolence of God. These strands of knowledge were closely related: Swammerdam, for instance, saw his scientific work as a form of divine worship, and he drew upon the accomplishments of artists like Goedaert even while sharply criticizing them.

I have published several articles and book chapters on this theme; a book chapter is in preparation. I have also made many presentations on the subject at workshops and conferences. I am working on a scholarly book, with copious illustrations, that will explore how insects mattered from c. 1580 to c. 1760: why they received such intense attention and how they fit into contemporary debates about aesthetics, science, and theology.

I am also writing a book titled Butterfly on the natural and cultural history of lepidopterans; it is under contract with Reaktion Books.

Renaissance and early modern antiquarianism and history

My second active project examines the relationship between history and antiquarianism from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. I am beginning with an intellectual biography of Ezechiel Spanheim, a Calvinist diplomat and antiquarian who was one of the founders of modern numismatics. In December 2003, I received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship that let me begin in-depth research on this book in Europe from June 2004 through May 2005, but administrative responsibilities and several conference and workshop invitations have led me to focus most of my energy on the insect project.

Renaissance botany

My first book, The Science of Describing: Natural history in Renaissance Europe, 1490-1620, was published in 2006 by the University of Chicago Press. This study traces the formation of a new scientific discipline in the sixteenth century out of different threads in classical philology, medical botany, horticulture, and the Renaissance culture of curiosityé I have written several essays and conference papers on early modern natural history (see below).

History of natural theology and the design argument

I am also planning a book-length essay on the history of the "argument from design"--the claim that the world we live in shows signs of having been designed by a powerful and wise (even omnipotent and omniscient) Creator--and natural theology, the attempt to elucidate the character and attributes of this Creator by studying the creation. In connection with this, I have written an op-ed essay on the Kitzmiller v. Dover "intelligent design" trial that took place in Fall 2005. In 2009 I co-organized a panel for the History of Science Society's annual meeting on the theme of "Beyond the Argument from Design: Natural theology in late medieval and early modern Catholic thought."

Selected publications (all single author unless noted)


The science of describing: Natural history in Renaissance Europe, 1490-1620. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Paperback edition, 2008.

       Articles and chapters

“Maria Sibylla Merian et la mouche porte-lanterne du Surinam. Naissance et disparition d’un fait scientifique,” in Les savoirs-mondes: Mobilités et circulation des savoirs depuis le Moyen Âge, ed. Pilar González-Bernaldo et Liliane Hilaire-Peréz, 147-57 (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015).

“Science and medicine,” in The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin, ed. Sarah Knight and Stefan Tilg, 263-277 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

“Insects in John Ray’s natural history and natural theology,” in Zoology in early modern culture: Intersections of science, theology, philology, and political and religious education, ed. Karl A. E. Enenkel and Paul J. Smith, 234-60 (Intersections, 32) (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

“Order of insects: Insect species and metamorphosis between Renaissance and Enlightenment,” in The life sciences in early modern philosophy, ed. Ohad Nachtomy and Justin E. H. Smith, 222-245 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

“Naturkunde,” in Renaissance-Humanismus: Lexikon zur Antikenrezeption (Der neue Pauly – Supplemente, 2. Staffel, Band 9), ed. Manfred Landfester, col. 682-93 (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2014).

“The pleasure of describing: Art and science in August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof’s Monthly Insect Entertainment,” in Animals on display: The creaturely in museums, zoos, and natural history, ed. Liv Emma Thorsen, Karen A. Rader, and Adam Dodd, 77-100 (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2013).

Brian W. Ogilvie, “Beasts, birds, and insects: Folkbiology and early modern classification of insects,” in Wissenschaftsgeschichte und Geschichte des Wissens im Dialog – Connecting science and knowledge: Schauplätze der Forschung – Scenes of research, ed. Kaspar von Greyerz, Silvia Flubacher, and Philipp Senn, 295-316 (Göttingen: V&R unipress, 2013).

“How to write a letter: Humanist correspondence manuals and the late Renaissance community of naturalists,” Jahrbuch für europäische Wissenschaftskultur/Yearbook for European Culture of Science 6 (2011 [2012]): 13-38.

Attending to insects: Francis Willughby and John Ray,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society 66, no. 4 (2012): 357-72, doi:10.1098/rsnr.2012.0051.

Bridget M. Marshall and Brian Ogilvie, “‘There shall be a wonder in Hadley!’ Mary Webster’s ‘hideous witchcraft’,” in Cultivating a past: Essays on the history of Hadley, Massachusetts, edited by Marla R. Miller, 135-153 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).

“Nature’s Bible: Insects in seventeenth-century European art and science,” Tidsskrift for kulturforskning [Journal of Cultural Research, Oslo, Norway] 7, no. 3 (2008): 5-21.

“La storia naturale tra libro ed esperienza” [Natural history between books and experience], in Il Rinascimento italiano e l’Europa, vol. 5, Le scienze, ed. Antonio Clericuzio and Germana Ernst, 163-178, trans. Maria Conforti (Vicenza: Angelo Colla Editore, 2008).

“Leonhart Fuchs: The value of illustrations,” in The great naturalists, ed. Robert Huxley, 48-58 (London: Thames & Hudson in association with the Natural History Museum, 2007).

“Natural history, ethics, and physico-theology,” in Historia: Empiricism and erudition in early modern Europe, edited by Gianna Pomata and Nancy G. Siraisi, 75-103 (Boston: MIT Press, 2005).

“Science,” in Palgrave advances in Renaissance historiography, edited by Jonathan Woolfson (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

“The many books of nature: Renaissance naturalists and information overload,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (2003): 29-40.

“Image and text in natural history, 1500-1700,” in The power of images in early modern science, ed. Wolfgang Lefèvre, Jürgen Renn, and Urs Schöpflin, 141-166 (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2003).


"A triumph for religion as well as for science," op-ed essay distributed by the History News Service, December 22, 2005; published in the following newspapers (and possibly others): Providence (R.I.) Journal; Montreal (Québec) Gazette; Winona (Minn.) Daily News; Lakeland (Fl.) Ledger; Harrisburg (Penna.) Patriot-News.

Research resources at UMass

For students and research assistants, I have compiled a list of online and print resources for research in Renaissance and early modern European history.


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