My research is broadly centred on natural history in the early modern period, and more specifically on the ways in which natural history was researched and written. My PhD focused on a 1660 French manuscript of ornithology written by an obscure tax collector, J.-B. Faultrier, as a present to Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s superintendent of the finances. Through it, I became interested in early modern commonplace books, and more generally in information retrieval techniques, information processing practices, and the relationship between print and manuscript.
I am currently in the last year of a three-year research fellowship which concentrates on the writing technologies of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), working with Staffan Mueller-Wille at the University of Exeter. The project’s aim is to reconstruct the ways in which Linnaeus assembled, filed, and cross-referenced information about plants and their medicinal virtues. Linnaeus has been described as a “pioneer in information retrieval” and his manuscripts, held at the Linnean Society (London), provide an excellent opportunity to understand how information processing practices can determine ideas about the order of nature. While analysing these manuscripts, I was struck by the extent to which Linnaeus used visual representations (drawings but also tables, maps, diagrams…) in his manuscripts. I have recently published on the subject in Historical Studies in Natural Sciences (November 2011). This has led me to want to investigate further the epistemic value of images and illustrations in the practice of early modern natural history.
I am also a member of a newly-formed international network which aims to understand better the life and work of Francis Willughby, FRS (1635-1672). Among other topics, the network will be investigating the role illustrations, images and drawings played in the publication of his works on fish, birds, and insects.