The Story of Rare Things. “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum” Ole Worm (1655)

Latin was pivotal to the spread of ideas during the Renaissance. It was the common language of scholars and scientists from different countries, enabling them to correspond, read each other’s books, and exchange ideas. Latin was also the language of the Renaissance church, and the Cathedral Library at Worcester has a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century science books in Latin. Examples from the collection by Kircher and Kaempfer (German), Niceron (French), Ray (English) have appeared in other blogs and today’s topic is a work by a Danish physician and university professor Ole Worm (pronounced Ohluh Vorme).

Engraving of Ole Worm aged 66 from “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum”. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Written in Latin and published posthumously in 1655, the “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum” (Wormian Museum or the Story of Rare Things) is a complete description and discussion of the objects which Ole Worm had acquired during his lifetime, and displayed in a “cabinet of curiosities” in Copenhagen.

Title page from “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum”. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Ole Worm was born in 1588. His father was Mayor of Aarhus and the family was wealthy so although young Ole went to a local school, at the age of thirteen he began an extensive “Grand Tour” of Europe which lasted more than 10 years. This was not a prolonged holiday, he attended universities in most of the cultural capitals of the Renaissance, travelling through Germany, Italy, France, Holland and spending some time in London. He studied philosophy, theology, languages, anatomy and medicine and was awarded a doctorate in medicine by the University of Basel, Switzerland in 1611.  Returning to the University of Copenhagen, he spent the rest of his life teaching Latin, Greek, Physics and Medicine. He was awarded professorships in Physics and Medicine, and became Director of the Botanic Garden and Dean of the University. He was appointed personal physician to the Danish King Christian IV and his successor, Frederick III and was one of the few physicians to remain in Copenhagen to care for the sick during an epidemic of the Black Death.

Throughout his life, Ole Worm was an avid collector. Starting during his educational grand tour, he acquired hundreds of objects and even more importantly he collected friends and colleagues across Europe with whom he corresponded throughout his life. On his return home, he added to his collection with the help of this network of friends, gathering a wide range of different objects from the natural world as well as man-made artefacts and antiquities, including Roman jewellery, tools and scientific instruments.

In 1639 Worm wrote: “I have collected various things on my journeys abroad, and from India and other very remote places I have been brought various things: samples of soil, rocks, metals, plants, fish, birds, and land-animals, that I conserve well with the goal of, along with a short presentation of the various things’ history, also being able to present my audience with the things themselves to touch with their own hands and to see with their own eyes, so that they may themselves judge how that which is said fits with the things, and can acquire a more intimate knowledge of them all.”

Frontispiece from “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum”. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Worm’s book opens with an engraving of his museum in which you can see skis, harpoons, a stool fashioned from a whale vertebra, a kayak, and even a polar bear hanging from the ceiling. In the left corner, leaning against the wall in the window niche, there is a skull with a long horn or tusk attached. It was this skull which Worm used to show that the so-called unicorn horn was not the horn of a horse-like creature but was rather the tusk of a narwhal.

The text is not merely a catalogue, but a scholarly work with references to, and quotations from, other writers. It is divided into four books, the first three dealing with minerals, the plant and animal kingdoms. The fourth details manufactured objects, for example archaeological and ethnographical items, coins and some original works of art.

Drawing of a lemming from “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum”. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

In addition to proving that the unicorn was a myth, Ole Worm also showed that lemmings, which could suddenly appear in huge numbers, did not generate spontaneously out of thin air, as was a common belief at the time, but were normal rodents with the ability to breed very fast!

One of the exhibits in the museum was a horse jaw, imprisoned in a small tree trunk that had grown around it. It is on the top shelf, in the centre of the engraving. This specimen still survives in the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Worm’s book also contains engravings of two of his pets, a Great Auk and a coati (or possibly a raccoon). The great Auk was apparently permitted to wander freely around the museum and Worm’s drawing, taken from life, is the only such image of the flightless bird. Driven to extinction by 19th century hunters, all other images of the bird are from stuffed museum specimens.

Image of a great auk from “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum”. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The Museum Wormianum became internationally famous. Not only was it used by generations of Worm’s students at the university but was visited by “many royal persons and envoys visiting Copenhagen” who “…..ask to see the museum on account of its great fame …and they wonder and marvel at what they see.”

Image of a coati or raccoon from “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum”. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Worm’s Museum marked a pivotal point in the history of collecting, as museums evolved from treasure-troves of spectacular exotica to organised collections of objects which could be studied and understood.

Worcester Cathedral Library’s book is the third catalogue, written by Worm during the last years of his life and it includes a full account of the derivation, history and significance of the objects on display. In 1654, working through another outbreak of plague, he succumbed to the disease himself before his book was published. His son Willum published the work in 1655.

 After his death, some of the collection was purchased by Danish King Frederick III who built a museum to hold it, admitting the public on payment of a fee. A few items still survive in the Royal Collection and in the Danish Natural History Museum, but many are lost. In 1831 one of the doctor’s direct descendants appears to have offered up further specimens from Worm’s collection to the Royal Museum of Natural History but “The museum declined the offer on the grounds that the specimens were of no particular interest” No one seems to know what happened to the objects after that, perhaps one day, they might turn up in a dusty attic!

Ole Worm himself is far from forgotten. In 2004, the artist Rosamund Purcell recreated the scene on the frontispiece of Ole Worm’s cabinet, from the tiny snarling polar bear cub on the ceiling down to the shallow trays of minerals. Now permanently installed in the Geological Museum at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the work manages to embody 17th century curiosity in science and the diversity of the world and our continued obsession with the cataloguing and sorting of objects. A YouTube video of the installation is available via this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tx0h9-tKYnA

Ole Worm would have been delighted with the installation. Today it is not necessary to learn Latin to reach a worldwide audience!

Image of a walrus from “Museum Wormianum seu Historia Rerum Rariorum”. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Diana Westmoreland

Bibliography

1.      A cabinet of curiosities: Ole Worm’s ‘Museum Wormianum’ (1655) https://collections.reading.ac.uk/special-collections/2020/05/12/a-cabinet-of-curiosities-ole-worms-museum-wormianum-1655/

2.      Calling all Worms. Do you own an object from the 17th-century Museum Wormianum? https://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2013/dec/13/calling-all-worms-do-you-own-an-object-from-the-17th-century-museum-wormianum

3.      Ole Worm: The man who studied Unicorns https://cphpost.dk/?p=64625

4.      Valdimar Tr. Hafstein (2003) “Bodies of knowledge: Ole Worm & Collecting in late Renaissance Scandinavia” Ethnologia Europaea 33: 1; 5-20

5.      Ole Worm and the Danish Museum that changed everything (https://worcestercathedrallibrary.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/ole-worm-and-the-danish-museum-that-changed-everything/ )

6.      Allison Meier (2013) Ole Worm Returns: An Iconic 17th Century Curiosity Cabinet is Obsessively Recreated https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ole-worm-cabinet

7.      Scientist of the Day – Ole Worm (May 2013) https://www.lindahall.org/ole-worm/

8.      Kate McQuillian, Worm’s cabinet of curiosities.  https://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/image_of_the_month/worms-cabinet-curiosities/

9.      Rafael Romero-Reverón, Luis A. Arráez-Aybar. Ole Worm (1588-1654) – anatomist and antiquarian Eur. J. Anat. 19 (3): 299-301 (2015)

 

 

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