Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 4.  Sensation

Philosophical Letters
between the late Learned Mr. Ray
[English naturalist, John Ray (1628-1705)]
and several of his Ingenious Correspondents....
Published (1718) by William Derham (1657-1735)


Mr. Ray to Dr. Lister [English physician and naturalist, Martin Lister (c. 1638-1712)].

Middleton, March 2. 1671.

Dear SIR,

...Thanks and Commendation for so frankly communicating your ingenious Observations and useful Discoveries to the World, and will, doubtless, be recompensed with the Honour due to you therefore.  In one thing I am as yet of a different Opinion from you, and that is the Origine of those Stones which we usually call petrified Shells, tho' you want not grood [sic; good] Ground for what you assert.

Dr. Lister to Mr. Ray.

York, June 20. [16]73.

Dear SIR,

...I have very little Time to bestow upon Natural History; yet what Pleasure I give my self, is to divert my self that way.  I have been at Bugthorp since I last writ to you, to view the Place of Petrified Shells.  I shall not trouble you at present with any of my Observations made there, save, that I have found some Star-Stones branched, as I had found formerly St. Cuthbert's Beads in Craven....

[To see photographs of, and read more about St. Cuthbert's Beads, Star-stones and all the other intriguing fossils described in these letters, explore the wonderful fossil website of London's Natural History Museum.]

Mr. Ray to Dr. Lister.

Middleton, Novem. 29. [16]73.

Dear SIR,

I received your last Letter of Novemb. 11 with your accurate Observations about St. Cuthbert's Beads.  A strange thing it seems to me, that the broken Pieces of those Bodies which you find, I mean of the main Stems, should be of equal Bigness from Top to Bottom, and not at all tapering, if they be indeed the Bodies of Rock-Plants.  There are found in Malta certain Stones called St. Paul's Bastoons, [sic; Bastions?] which I suppose were originally a Sort of Rock-Plants, like small snagged Sticks, but without any Joints; the Trunks whereof diminish, according to the Proportion of other Plants, after the putting forth of their Branches.  Those Roots that you have observed, are a good Argument that these Stones were originally Pieces of Vegetables.  Wonderful it is, that they should be all broken, and not one Plant found remaining entire; and no less wonderful, that there should not at this Day be found the like Vegetables growing upon the Submarine Rocks, unless we will suppose them to grow at a great Depth under Water.  And who knows but there may be such Bodies growing on the Rocks at this Day, and that the Fishers for Coral may find of them, tho', being of no Use, they neglect and cast them away.  Certain it is, that there is a Sort of Corall jointed....

Dr. Robinson [English clergyman, Thomas Robinson (d. 1719)] to Mr. Ray.

Geneve, April 18. [16]84.  S. N.


...I had several Conferences with S. Malpighi [Italian physiologist, Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694)] at Banonia, who expres'd a great Respect for you, and is not a little proud of the Character you give him in your Method. Plantar. nov. which Book I had presented him withal a Day before.  He honour'd me with two Visits at my Inn, where once he took Occasion to be a little angry with Dr. Lister (whose History he had by him) for his Opinion of the Origine of Stones, and Shells, resembling animal Bodies.  He is very positive that he can demonstrate against the Doctor, having been very industrious upon that Subject when he pass'd the Italian Mountains, and when he was in Sicily and Maltha; besides, he shew'd me several Letters sent lately from Bishop Steno [Danish physician, Niels Stensen (1648-1686)], (who after a Pilgrimage to Loretto, got that Preferment of the great Duke) now at Florence, concerning that Hypothesis:  All which put him into some Passion against our sagacious Country-man, tho' he profess'd himself a great Admirer of Dr. Lister.  I took Occasion from this to interpret some Passages and Discourses in your Travels relating to this Point, which pleas'd Malpighi to that Degree, that he smil'd to see you inclinable to his Opinion....

Mr. Lhwyd [Welsh naturalist, Edward Lhwyd (1660-1709)] to Mr. Ray.

Oxford, Feb. 25. 1689/90

Honoured SIR,

THE same Varieties of Entrochi, with those you sent me, are found in Staffordshire; but I had none exactly like them:  For tho' I pick'd up some Variety of them in Wales, yet they all differ from these in Texture, Consistence and Colour.  About Oxford we have considerable Variety of form'd Stones, more than Dr. Plot [English naturalist, Robert Plot (1640-1696)] has mention'd in his History:  But no Entrochi were ever found in this County that I have heard of.  If any of these form'd Stones may be acceptable to you, I can send you a Parcel when ever you please to command it.

Dr. Morison's [English botanist, Robert Morison (1620-1683)] first Tome, which with the second already printed, contains all the Herbaceous Kind, is ready for the Press.  Pray excuse this hasty Scribble, and repute me, &c.

Mr. Lhwyd to Mr. Ray.

Oxford, April 14. 1690.

Honoured SIR,

...I only expect your Commands for some figured Stones:  Those that this Countrey affords are chiefly in Imitation of Shells.  We have none that resemble Fish, or any other Animals besides, nor that have the Resemblance of any PlantsCornu Hammonis, Asteriscus, Asteria S. Astroites, and Belemnites of divers Sorts, we have plentifully, as also some others that I cannot compare to any natural Bodies that I have any Notion of.  One Quarry within 2 Miles of Oxford I have search'd at least 40 times, and sometimes had 5 or 6 with me; yet last Saturday I discover'd there 3 Varieties of Glossopetræ, tho' none had ever been observ'd in this Part of England before for what I can clearn.   One of them is a Tricuspis, such as Dr. Lister's in one of the Phil. Transact.

Mr. Lhwyd to Mr. Ray.

Oxford, July 1. 1690.

Honoured SIR,

THE form'd Stones were very acceptable.  The Oculi Serpentum are indeed of the same Kind with those they call Toad-Stones.  The Cats-heads seem to me to be Arches or Joints of some Cornu HammonisBaculi S. Pauli are of the same Substance with those Stones that resemble the Bristles of some American Echini, which (as I mention'd in my last ) Dr. Plot has call'd Lapides Judaici; nor is the Doctor much mistaken therein, for the real Lapides Judaici seem to be nothing else but over-grown Stones of this Kind, as your large Glossopetra is amongst the rest of that Sort; whereof I have seen one found in Shepey much larger than that elegant one you sent me.  When I say over-grown, I mean a large Sort, or Variety, much exceeding those of its Family; which puts me in mind of a current Report, how that in the County of Antrim in Ireland there are divers large Pillars of Star-stones able to support a Church.  How your Bastions of St. Paul differ from our Bristlestones, you'll best judge from some I shall send you.  The Vertebræ seem to be so indeed, and to have undergone but a small Alteration.  Those inscrib'd Dentes Serpentum, and Ova, I can say nothing to.

A Synopsis Method. of the Animals and Fossils of England would doubtless prove very instrumental to the Advancement of Natural History:  And tho' a compleat Enumeration of those Things would require much Time, Labour, Expence, and Travail; yet I doubt not but such a Catalogue as you could give us would be very grateful to the Publick, and prove a Direction to several others to make farther Observations of that Kind, as well as your Catalogue of Plants has done.  I question not but you may give us a great deal of Information in the Catalogue of Insects, as well as you have already done in the Histories of Birds and Fish.  I shall be very forward to give in my Contribution, which will be some Observations of Form'd Stones, and of the Exanguia Marina.  Dr. Plot will likewise as ready.

We have perform'd our Visit to Mr. Cole, and receiv'd abundant Satisfaction in our Journey.  He receiv'd us (tho' all unknown to him) very friendly, and spent 6 Hours in shewing us his Collection, without any Interruption, or the least Sign of being weary:  It consists altogether of natural Things, and seem'd to us a very extraordinary Collection for one Person (and who perhaps had not the Advantage of a liberal Education to invite him to such Studies) to be able to amass together....

He has several curious figur'd Stones and Shells, found in the West of England and in South Wales; very elegant Trees of the Abrotanoides Planta Saxea Clusii, with considerable Variety of other Pori, Coralls, Horny Sea Plants, &c.  I admired a Sort of Cornu Ammonis found somewhere in Somersetshire, resembling a Nautilus; but having two Prominencies, each Side of the Aperture about as thick and taper as the End of a Walking-Staff to be screw'd in and out.  Another Cornu of a Rainbow Colour, about 6 Inches Diameter, and as thin as a Shilling, composed of a Sort of Selenitis, or Talk.  The Resemblance of several exotick Plants (as it should seem to me) in a Kind of Cole-flat, found somewhere near Bristow:  They seem'd to be of several Capillaries, and one particularly like the Capillus Ven. verus; the Signatures of the Leaves as curiously vein'd as the real Plants have.  I have room to add no more at present.

Mr. Lhwyd to Mr. Ray.

Oxford, Nov. 25. [16]90.

Honoured SIR,

...The Pectinites Amphiotis latinsculè sulcatus, and the Echinites rotularis minor a[u]gustclavius, (with some others) are commonly found in Beds of Sand, which lie under the Vein of Stone at the Bottom of the Pits, tho' sometimes I have found the former in the Stones by breaking them; but those of a different Colour from the Sand Shells.  Whether they were ever the Tegumenta of Animals, or are only primary Productions of Nature in Imitation of them, I am constrain'd to leave in Medio, and to confess I find in my self no sufficient Ability or Confidence to maintain either Opinion, tho' I incline much to the latter.  However it be, it seems an extraordinary delightful Subject, and worthy the Enquiry of the most judicious Philosophers. 

On the one hand it seems strange if these things are not Shells petrified, whence it proceeds that we find such great Variety of them, so very like Shells in Shape and Magnitude, and some of them in Colour, Weight and Consistence; and not only Resemblances of Sea Shells should be found, but also of the Bones and Teeth of divers Sea-Fish, and that we only find the Resemblances of such Bodies as are in their own Nature of a Stone-like Substance. 

On the other hand it seems as remarkable, that we seldom or never find any Resemblance of Horns, Teeth, or Bones of Land Animals, or of Birds, which might be apt to petrify, if we respect their Consistence; insomuch that I suspect few form'd Stones are found, (at leastwise in England) except in some extraordinary petrifying Earth, but what a skilful Naturalist may (and that perhaps deservedly) assimilate to some marine Bodies; but yet when we confer thenm with those Bodies they seem most to resemble, they appear generally but as Mock-Shells and Counterfeit-Teeth, differeing from them little less than the Works of Art do from those of Nature, which we endeavour to imitate; as if the Earth in these Productions (to speak vulgarly) should only ape the Sea.  To find out the Truth of this Question, nothing would conduce more than a very copious Collection of Shells, of the Skeletons of Fish, of Corals, Pori, &c. and of these supposed Petrifications.

The Figures of Plants in the Cole-flat I have formerly mention'd to you, is clearly a different thing from the Pictra Imboschata of Imperatus.  Indeed I have hitherto seen imperfect Pieces of it; but whereas the Pictra Imboschata (of which Kind of Figures we have also some Variety in England and Wales) represents only rude Branches imitating rather some Coralline or Sea-moss than Trees; the Cole-flat exhibits whole Branches with Leaves and Distinction of the Veins and Texture of them.  I have a small Piece, which seems to resemble a Branch of the Filix Foem. very much; but the Specimen is very imperfect....

Since I sent you the Collection of Stones, I have discovered several new ones, whereof you may hereafter expect some farther Account from, &c.

Mr. Lhwyd to Mr. Ray.

Oxf., Feb. 30. [sic] 1691.

Honoured Sir,

...[Dr. Richardson of North Bierley in Yorkshire] informs me that he was present when a Stone was Broken by Workmen, which lay upon the top of the Ground, wherein was contained a Toad; in Form and Colour altogether resembling the common one, tho' something less; which being laid upon the Ground crawled about as long as the Sun shone warm upon it, but towards Night died.  I examin'd the Stone (says he) and suppos'd it at first to be of an extraordinary open texture, or else the hole wherein the Toad lay to have some private communication with the Air; but upon a more strict enquiry I found the Stone of a close Grit, but that place especially where she lodge, to be of a much harder texture, much of the naure of the Iron Stone which the Workmen call an Iron Band....

Mr. Lhwyd to Mr. Ray.

Oxford, Octob. 7. [16]92.

Honoured SIR,

WHEN your last Letter came, I was at London about a Legacy of Books, Medals, and Pictures, bequeathed by Mr. Ashmole [wealthy collector of curiosities and scientific dilettante, Elias Ashmole (1617-1692)] to the University [Oxford]; since which Time I have been so continually employ'd in taking a Catalogue of them, that I have had but small Leisure to go abroad to make any Discoveries.

My Discoveries in Form'd Stones of late are but few.  I have a Stone almost a Foot long, (but broken in several Pieces) something of the Colour, Shape, and Politeness of a Rhinocerot's Horn, which perhaps is congenerous with what they call Unicornu Fossile:  And have also found at Witney and Charleton in Oxfordshire, and Faringdon in Berkshire, several very odd petrified Bones, to me at present unaccountable, and like to continue so, at leastwise a long time.  At present I only suspect them to be the Bones of some marine Creatures:  'Tis certain they differ totally from the Bones of any Land-Animals at present in the Island; and we have no reason to imagine that this Countrey was possessed anciently of any other Land-Animals than what it is at present, unless we should give way to Dr. Burnet's [English geologist and theologion, Thomas Burnet (1635-1715)] Hypothesis, or some such other Invention.  I have also two Fossils, which seem to be Fragments of Fish-Jaws petreified, each of them having their Teeth (to wit Toad-stones, or the Occhiedi Serpi of the Maltese) placed in their natural Order, as they are in the Lupus, and probably in some other Fish.  I have likewise discovered very elegant Stones of those Kinds, which I have called Siliquastrum and Punctularia.  As for the Cornua Hammonis, I am now satisfy'd they are all of the Nautilus Kind, and of such-like Shells; but as you say, what's become of all these Species, if they are petrified Shells?  I say they are all of the Nautilus Kind, not that any of them scarce resemble the known Species of Nautili, (for such as do have been called by Calceolarius and Morcardo, Nautili, &c. and not Cornua Hammonis) but because they consist of several Articulations, which is a Structure agrees with no other Shells but the Nautili.  The Sutures upon them, which Boccone and others compare to Oak-Leaves, are nothing else but the Commissures of the Joints; and these Joints nothing else but the Spar, or other Stone, filling the Cavities of the Cells in the Nautilus:  And this I conclude from one or two Specimens I have found, which have the Shell still remaining in the Interstices of the Joints.  That Figure of the Joints which I compared to Vertebræ as acquir'd from the Shape of the Septum, or Partition in the Shell.  I think Olaus Wormius [Danish zoologist, Ole Wurm (1588-1654)] was the first that compared any Cornu Ham. to a Nautilus.

Mr. Lhwyd to Mr. Ray.

Oxford, Dec. 29. [16]92.


...As to the Fossil Oisters, and my other Observations of late in this Kind, they do I must confess confirm me in my Apostasy; for I have been inclined to a Misbelief of their being Mineral Forms, ever since I found the first Ichthyospondylus, viz. above a Year since.  If I had Abilities of travelling one or two Summers, I believe I could make this Matter clear enough, and beyond Dispute....

Mr. Lhwyd to Mr. Ray.

Oxford, Aug. 28 [16]95.

Dear Sir,

THE first of your Queries was, Whether the impressions be all of Leaves, or parts of Leaves?  To which I Answer, That the Stone wherein these mineral Leaves are exhibited, is generally so brittle, that when we endeavour to split it, to get out a Plant, it breaks also transversly; so that for one whole Fern-branch we find, we see twenty broken ones, but for single Leaves they are very common.  Moreover, those Stones are broken in such small pieces, by the Workmen in the Pit, that we find few lumps big enough for whole Plants; and indeed if they contain'd whole ones, it seems impossible so to split them as an entire Plant should be exposed to view.  Howbeit it has not been my Fortune hitherto to meet with any other parts of Plants than either single Leaves or Branches:  Whether there be any Roots or Flowers to be met with, I shall endeavour (God willing) to be inform'd hereafter. 

Your other Questions are, Whether they are found smooth or crumpled, and whether we meet with the impressions of each side of a Leaf?  To which I Answer, They are always smooth and fair, and that I have seen both sides of Leaves.  Nay, lately (since the Date of my last) I have seen both sides of the same numerical Leaf; so that I can now confirm that Observation of Dr. Woodward's [English geologist, John Woodward (1665-1728)], which I mention'd in that Letter.

I have sent you here a Figure of one these Cole Plants, from which, and those in Camden, you may make some Estimate of the rest.  I found it at a Cole-Pit in the Forest of Dean, together with several others.... 

This seems to resemble partly the Osmund Royal, but to me the Leaves are too small, too [? illegible] set, and round pointed; but I leave you to [? illegible] it, who are best able.

Mr. Lhwyd to Mr. Ray.

Oxford, Sept. 12. [16]95.

Honoured SIR,

I Receiv'd your Letter of the fourth; and that you may have a truer Idea of these Subterraneous Plants, than I can possibly give you by Correspondence; I have sent this Day by the Carrier, a small Box of them, directed for you to be left with Mr. Smith.  I had brought a great Clod of them about half a Year since, from the Forest of Dean, and had bury'd it in the Ground here in a moist place, in hopes 'twould keep the better, the Figures being very apt to disappear after some Months keeping.  This, at the taking of it up, crumbl'd in pieces; however, I have sent it you as it is, and hope it may serve to give you as clear a Notion of the state of these Fossil Leaves, as if you were your self at the Cole-pits. 

I have also added those three Specimens I have figur'd in Camden, tho' one of them (I mean that which I suppose to be an undescrib'd Plant;) I was willing to venture only the one half, not knowing whether I may ever meet with the like again.  These three are much fairer than those we have from Glocestershire and Somerset, and lodged in firmer Stone. 

When you have view'd them sufficiently, be pleas'd to take what you like out of the Glocestershire Parcel, and return the rest to me at your leisure.  I heartily wish you may be able to satisfy your self upon sight of them, whether they are original Productions, or the Remains of once real Plants:  For I must confess that at present I cannot acquiesce in the Opinion of their having been once mere Plants growing on the surface of the Earth. 

I have in my Custody a piece of native Silver, lodg'd in Spar, brought four Years since out of the West Indies; whereof some part appears out of the Stone, in the form of a small spiral or twisted Capreoli; and another part is a thin Plate, having such a Superficies on each side, as if it had receiv'd an impression from a piece of fine Cloth.  Now seeing that Fossils do naturally shoot into these Forms, may we not reasonably suspect they might also put on the shapes of Leaves and Shells? 

I have likewise several times seen somewhat like the Form of a piece of fine Linen in Flint, which seems to require no less Admiration than these Plants; tho' we are the more affected with them, because we find the same natural things in the Bowels of the Earth as we know before in the Surface. 

However I am almost fully convinced (and have been so for several Years,) that many of those Vertebræ and Shells which I have met with, are the Spoils of once living Animals; my chiefest reason for which, is, because many of the Vertebræ and other Bones are of a mere bony Substance; and several Shells which we meet with, are scarce distinguishable in consistence from the same Species on the Sea Shores.

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