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The Sudden Death of the Burning Salamander: Reading Experiment and the Transformation of Natural Historical Practice in Early Modern Europe

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image of Erudition and the Republic of Letters

This article uses early modern studies of the salamander to reveal how a natural historical practice focused on the collection of textual testimonies facilitated the rise of the experimental regime that replaced it. Sixteenth-century naturalists emphasized broad collection of evidence—regardless of how credible—ensuring that their works reported salamanders’ widely-doubted ability to live in fire. Late seventeenth-century scholars similarly practiced compilation, but they prioritized the discernment of relationships between texts rather than their accumulation. In the case of the salamander, they separated testimonies into traditions of credulity and criticism, producing the illusory impression that moderns newly rejected an ancient and vulgar conviction that salamanders lived in fire. The claim that salamanders live in fire disappeared not because it was debunked experimentally, but because naturalists’ shifting practices of reading enabled them to forge an experimental tradition that stigmatized the belief and then removed the grounds for repeating it.

Affiliations: 1: Department of History, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23185


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