In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section European Natural History Tradition

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • General Overviews
  • Pre-histories and Antiquity’s Influence on Natural History
  • Detecting, Cultivating, and Relocating Natural Resources
  • Collecting and Collections
  • Images and Visual Culture in Natural History
  • Debate as Scientific Method
  • Methods in the Study of Nature: Description, Observation, Speculation, and Experiments
  • Cultural Influences on Natural History
  • Popularizing Nature and Naturalists
  • Institutions, Professionalization, and Sub-Disciplines
  • Key Figures
  • Voyaging and Natural History
  • After Europe: Naturalists as Settlers

Ecology European Natural History Tradition
Harriet Ritvo, Kit Heintzman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0206


Though the European natural history tradition can be traced back to antiquity, it is often understood to have taken on more modern characteristics during the 16th century. Knowledge of the natural world had already long been used in agriculture, commerce, and medicine by the 16th century. What changed was a widespread interest in the study of nature as an end in and of itself, one that did not immediately, obviously, or consistently contribute to some tangible utility, save perhaps to better knowing the monotheistic deity said to have created it. Naturalists observed, described, collected, speculated, and experimented so that they could identify, differentiate, and classify nature. Their methods and inquiries encompassed flora, fauna, and minerals. Scholars collaborated across countries and continents in the early modern period, but their individual questions and training were often shaped by particular regional cultures. Thus, while some European and international trends in methods and interests can be found, many of the specifics do not generalize across the continent. Naturalist knowledge remained commercially profitable after natural history emerged as a scholarly form of inquiry. Naturalists identified valuable extractable resources across the globe as a part of colonialism, while collecting specimens to broaden their studies. Naturalists depended on ship captains, navigators, gardeners, farmers, and slaves to gain access to objects of study, often also collecting and recording the knowledge of “unlearned” but informed and essential collaborators. In published texts, printed images, and public lectures naturalists shared this information with both general readers and other experts. Though individual early modern naturalists certainly took special interest in distinct phenomena—such as citrus fruit, volcanos, or zoophytes—strict disciplinary distinctions between those who studied botany, mineralogy, and zoology did not emerge until the professionalization of natural history and other scientific fields in the early 19th century. At that time, periodicals reflected this growing specialization, natural history museums were opened to the public, and naturalists increasingly classified themselves according to their specimens of interest, giving significance to subdisciplines. The sections in this bibliography emphasize shared methods, practices, events, and interests that influenced the development of natural history from the early modern period to the present rather than dividing the literature into categories based on relatively new subdisciplines. This bibliography lists only recent scholarship. A large selection of the primary sources this scholarship interprets can be found online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.


Monographs are the primary mode of academic publishing among historians, articles most often related to larger projects subsequently published as a book. The listings in this bibliography therefore consist of these more expansive and judiciously considered works. In addition, numerous journals offer shorter, self-contained pieces in the history of natural history. Both environmental history and history of science journals address natural history. For the former see Environmental History and Environment and History, both of which have broad geo-temporal coverage. Isis, The British Journal for the History of Science, and History of Science are also open with regard to region and period, whereas Early Science and Medicine predominantly addresses natural history prior to 1800. Archives of Natural History remains the premier English-language journal in the field. Other journals focusing on related practices, including Garden History, Journal of the History of Collections, and Nuncius, also carry relevant content.

  • Archives of Natural History. 1936–.

    The official journal of the Society for the History of Natural History, based in London. It has been in print since 1936. Covers a broad geographic and temporal range. The journal’s coverage of natural history includes geology, zoology, botany, and paleontology, as well as histories of naturalists and their works.

  • The British Journal for the History of Science. 1962–.

    Founded in 1949 as the Bulletin of the British Society for the History of Science, this international journal covers the history of science without geographic or temporal constraints.

  • Early Science and Medicine. 1996–.

    Studies science from ancient times to the 18th century, including topics such as natural history, optics, medicine, the occult, and technology. Founded in 1996.

  • Environmental History. 1996–.

    An international journal, covers interactions between humans and the environment, including the natural world. Founded in 1976 as Environmental Review: ER, it is the journal of the American Society for Environmental History.

  • Environment and History. 1995–.

    Affiliated with the European Society for Environmental History, an interdisciplinary journal aiming to unite scholars studying the environment in the humanities and sciences. Region and periodization open. Founded in 1995.

  • Garden History. 1966–.

    Commenced as a newsletter in 1966 and developed into a journal by 1972. The articles would be useful at the intersection of natural history and botany. Intersecting natural history and botany, gardens put aesthetic ordering alongside scientific, economic, and social classifications.

  • History of Science. 1962–.

    Covers the history of science from the earliest times to the present day. Founded in 1962 with special issues relevant to natural history published in 2004, 2009, and 2011.

  • Isis. 1913–.

    Now affiliated with the History of Science Society, it was founded by George Sarton in 1912 and is the oldest journal in the field of history of science.

  • Journal of the History of Collections. 1989–.

    Dedicated to covering the history of collections—their formation, content, display, and dispersal without geographic or temporal constraints since 1989.

  • Nuncius. 1986–.

    Founded by the Museo Galileo in Florence in 1986, covers the material and visual culture and illustrations of the history of science.

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