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Written by:
Paul Holland
25 Mar 2021

When Trinity Hall’s Jenni Lecky-Thompson was looking for an interesting animal book to write a blog post about she discovered a pressed butterfly, beautifully preserved in the folds of England’s earliest insect book.

The butterfly, as colourful as the day it was pressed between the book’s pages, could be almost as old as the tome itself, which was published in 1634.

Even it if it is “more modern” the tiny insect must have been in the folds of the book, nestled next to the black inked 17th Century woodcut image of itself, since before it came to be in the Trinity Hall collection in the 1990s.

Although examples of plant specimens being pressed into books are fairly common, it is rare to find a pressed insect.

Jenni, Head of Library Services at the College, said “I was looking at some of the fantastic animal books we have and I was going through the pages of the wonderful Theatre of Insects, or Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum to give it its true title.”

While looking through our copy I chanced upon a butterfly (a small tortoiseshell I think) next to its accompanying image. There is a striking similarity between the woodcut and butterfly, which of course was the intention so that the various species could be identified by the amateur insect enthusiast.

“It is relatively common to find botanical specimens inside old books, but unusual to find an insect specimen. This one could have been put there by the first owner back in the 17th century, and if so it is amazing that is has survived there for so long.”

The book was donated to the College by the family of former Trinity Hall undergraduate Lawrence Strangman who died in 1980. He was a passionate book collector whose antiquarian books included early books on natural history. His eclectic collection of books was presented to the College in 1996 by Lawrence Strangman’s niece, Geraldine Essayan, in his memory, and is now housed as the Strangman Collection in the Jerwood Library.

The Insectorum Sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (Theatre of Insects) published in 1634, is the first book published in England which is exclusively about insects.  It covers the appearance, habits and habitats, of what we think of today as insects, as well as arachnids and worms.

Jenni has found some contemporaneous advice on how to preserve insects:

James Petiver a London apothecary writing at end of 17th century provided these instructions: “Butterflies must be put into your Pocket-Book or any other small printed book  as soon as caught after the same manner as you dry plants” James Petiver, Musei Petiveriani (London 1695), 31.

This simple method would allow insects to be preserved for hundreds of years.

After posting an image of the butterfly on social media, Jenni’s discovery was the subject of debate among experts.

The Linnean Society’s librarian said in a tweet:

More on Lawrence Strangman and Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum

Lawrence Strangman (11 May 1907 – 15 Feb 1980) was an undergraduate at Trinity Hall from 1925-1928. He was a passionate book collector who put together an eclectic collection of antiquarian books. His interests were wide-ranging, taking in early books on natural history, travel, 19th century English novels, the classics, twentieth century humour, private press books and much more besides.

The Insectorum Sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (Theatre of Insects)

has a complex history and is the product of various authors. When Conrad Gesner died in 1565, he left among his papers an unfinished book on insects, which was eventually sold to his assistant Thomas Penny. Penny acquired the notes of Edward Wotton, and began combining Gesner’s and Wotton’s information before his death in 1589. Penny’s manuscript passed to his friend Thomas Moffett who enlarged and completed the work.

Negotiations for its publication fell through and the book was still in manuscript form when he died in 1604. The manuscript remained in the Moffett family for many years, until it was sold to French physician Théodore Turquet de Mayerne (1573–1655), who finally published it in 1634. The book is copiously illustration with almost 600 illustrations. To reduce costs, the book contains woodcuts, rather than the more expensive engraved illustrations.