Montaigne’s text sometimes reads like an echo of Petrarca but in a new idiom. More than two centuries earlier, in one of the founding texts of the humanities, “Of his own Ignorance and that of Many Others” (1368), Petrarca writes: “What is the use—I beseech you—of knowing the nature of quadrupeds, fowls fishes and serpents and not knowing or even neglecting man’s nature, the purpose for which we are born, and whence and whereto we travel?” (Petrarca 58-59). Petrarca is perhaps only the most outspoken of those who mock the encyclopaedic absurdities of the knowledge of his time. In “On his own Ignorance,” he compiles a list of the facts that a “great man” of knowledge might tell us:
[H]ow many hairs there are in a lion’s mane; how many feathers in a hawk’s tail; with how many arms a cuttlefish clasps a shipwrecked man; that elephants couple from behind and are pregnant for two years; that this docile and vigorous animal, the nearest to man by its intelligence, lives until the end of the second or third century of its life; that the phoenix is consumed by aromatic fire and revives after it has been burned; that the sea urchin stops a ship, however fast she is driving along, while it is unable to do anything once it is dragged out of the waves; how the hunter fools a tiger with a mirror; how the arimasp attacks the griffin with his sword; how whales turn over on their backs and thus deceive the sailors; that the newborn of the bear has as yet no shape; that the mule rarely gives birth, the viper only once and then to its own disaster; that moles are blind and bees deaf; that alone among all living things the crocodile moves its upper jaw. (57)
Petrarca’s sources (which he clearly knew both from the earlier contexts as well as from their later encyclopaedic restatements) might seem to resemble an archaic version of the present situation: the expanding encyclopaedias of global internet knowledge. Vincent of Beauvais, for instance, had produced in the preceding century an encyclopaedic volume named Speculum naturale, which collects and conveniently organises (with no aspiration to any critical assessment) knowledge and opinions from a very wide range of sources. These include, amongst the wisdom of the Aristotlelian tradition, not only the relatively few blunders and later distortions of Aristotle’s biological works (usually from History of Animals and Generation of Animals) but also the lies and inventions of pseudo-scientific scholarship passed down often with the aid of spurious etymologies (the word “viper” was for instance said to mean “giving birth in violence”). Other similar sources include Alexander Neckam, De rerum naturis (see Wright, 1863) and Bartholomaeus Angelus, De propriatatibus rerum (some of which is translated in Steele, R., 1924). The reference to the bee has its source in the opening sentences of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the chief work of the scholastic tradition. He had written: “those [animals] that are not able to hear sounds are intelligent without being able to learn (e.g., the bee)” (980b 23), thus also revealing an interesting assumption about the functions of the different senses (sight and hearing) for memory and learning respectively.