The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Cultural Historian

The science of describing, from insects to artifacts
  • Detail of insects in "Monthly Insect Entertainment" (1749) by Rösel.

Ogilvie's study of insects brings together many strands of European culture and offers a window into the changing mindsets of Europeans in the early modern era.

In a constantly-shifting world where interdisciplinary approaches are more imperative than ever, UMass Amherst science historian and Renaissance scholar Brian Ogilvie weaves together strands of natural history, art, culture, and religion to chart our evolving relationship with both natural objects and human artifacts.

Ogilvie’s current research focuses on two major areas - insects and their historic impacts on science, arts, and religion, from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment (1550 to 1750), and the relationship of history to the material remains of classical antiquity during the same period.

Currently in the works is a scholarly monograph titled Nature’s Bible: Insects in European Arts, Sciences, and Religion from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, a project that has taken Ogilvie to France, England, and the Netherlands for intensive research. In this study he is examining how naturalists, artists, physicians, and theologians studied insect habits and life cycle changes and used them in their work and for inspiration, from use as theological symbols to how they were portrayed on parchment and canvas and other works of art. The aim is to use these representations as a window into the changing mindsets of Europeans in the early modern era.

What fascinates Ogilvie about insects is that they bring together many strands of European culture.  “Insects are often beautiful; they were the subject of artistic study before they became the subject of study by scientists,” Ogilvie notes. Scientists learned from artists’ careful observations of insect form and behavior, while theologians used insects’ exquisite forms and amazing instincts to argue for the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful God. “For many Europeans from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment,” Ogilvie adds, “Insects were good to think with.”

In an earlier work, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe, 1490-1620, Ogilvie traces the origins of botany and natural history and its development in Renaissance Europe.  This “science of describing” involved painstaking observation and detailed recording by naturalists, artists, physicians, and theologians.    

In another current project focused on insects, Ogilvie is working on Butterfly, which will condense the natural and cultural history of the butterfly into a succinct 150 pages as part of the “Animal” series from Reaktion Books. Publication is slated for 2014.

In his other line of research – antiquarianism - Ogilvie is studying the works of the famous antiquary Ezechiel Spanheim, who was one of the first to show systematically how coins could be used as evidence for historical developments. Antiquarianism, a ‘predecessor’ to anthropology, utilizes material remains rather than written texts to understand history and how and why ancient societies functioned.

“What European antiquaries did…was that they turned to more material remains, especially from the classical world …to try to understand not only why did Julius Caesar cross the Rubicon and struggle for power in Rome, or how was it that the Roman Empire fell, but also how did the Romans eat? How did they bathe? What did they look like? How did they dress themselves?” Ogilvie says. “In a way, antiquaries were the first cultural historians.”

Ogilvie is also working with colleagues through a Leverhulme Trust International Research Network to compile the works and legacy of 17th century zoologist Francis Willughby (1635-1672). The research team, consisting of biologists, historians, and archivists, is examining Willughby’s family history and personal documents stored at the University of Nottingham, along with other archival collections and publications, to illuminate his considerable scientific contributions, many of which have never been published.

Ogilvie also co-directs the Digital Humanities Initiative in the College of Humanities and Arts, an interdisciplinary initiative that is integrating new digital tools with research in the humanities and arts. He is also affiliated with the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies.

In the classroom, Ogilvie teaches a range of related courses – from the history of science and world religions, to the study of Renaissance and Reformation Europe, to a seminar on the history of witchcraft and magic. His goal is to make students think critically about history and to delve into the underlying reasons why historical events took place in the context of the culture at the time.

“More generally, my research focuses on the relationships between ideas, practices, and communities, and that’s shaped the way I approach my teaching,” Ogilvie says.

Diana Alsabe ('15) and Sharon Tracey

Image: Illustration detail from the frontispiece of vol. 2 of August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof's "Monthly Insect Entertainment" (1749), showing some of the insects that are described and illustrated in the collection.