Preserved Butterfly Accidentally Found In a 390-year-old Insect Book

A perfectly preserved butterfly specimen was discovered pressed between the pages of a 390-year-old book found on the endless Cambridge University Library shelves. The find has generated much excitement, as the preserved butterfly, a Small Tortoiseshell (pictured above), is perhaps as old as the book itself!

The book has been the property of Trinity Hall, Cambridge since 1996. It is a first edition of Thomas Moffet’s (or Muffet’s) seminal work,  The Theatre of Insects , which was published posthumously in 1634, and is England’s oldest recorded work on insects.

A physician and naturalist by profession, Moffet wrote, compiled, studied and published a series of individual and collaborative works documenting silkworms, moths, butterflies and other flies. Popular legend has it, that the protagonist of the nursery rhyme,  Little Miss Muffet , was, in fact, his daughter.

Browsing for material Jenni Lecky-Thompson accidentally picked up Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (the Latin name of the book), where she found the perfectly preserved Small Tortoiseshell specimen lying right next to the black-inked, 17th-century woodcut image of the same species. ( Trinity Hall Cambridge )

How the Long-lost Preserved Butterfly Was Found

College librarian Jenni Lecky-Thompson was performing her duties diligently and sifting through the books gathering dust in the library. She was also on a mission, to write an animal blog post, and was looking for an interesting  book on animals . The discovery was accidental as her eyes glanced over  Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (the Latin name of the book), and she found the perfectly preserved specimen nestled next to the black-inked 17 thcentury woodcut image of the same species.

She was quoted on the  Trinity Hall  webpage as saying,

“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.”

The librarian noted that the find was rather unexpected, “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.” 

Lecky-Thompson went on to find insect  preservation advice from the period when the book was published, showing that the practice has been carried out for centuries.

In Musei Petiveriani  (1695), London apothecary James Petiver wrote, “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.”

Another image of The Theatre of Insects book, in which the preserved butterfly was found, looks like inside (this is likely another copy of the book and not the original first print edition at Cambridge where the butterfly was found). ( National Museum Wales )

The History of  The Theatre of Insects  Book

Before it was acquired by  Cambridge University  in 1996, the  Theatre of Insects  book was in the possession of former Cambridge and Trinity Hall alumnus Lawrence Strangman, who died in 1980. His family donated the book to the university 16 years later.

Strangman was a passionate and avid  book collector  and had a keen interest in “antique” natural history books. His unique and valuable collection of books was gifted by his niece, Geraldine, to the Strangman Collection in Jerwood Library, Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

The Theatre of Insects  focuses on the appearance, habits and habitats of insects,  arachnids, and worms. And Moffet was only one of the voluminous book’s many authors.  The Theatre of Insects  was published after he died.

In 1590, Moffet completed a compendious work on the natural history of insects, partly compiled from the unpublished writings of Edward Wotton, Conrad Gesner and Moffet’s friend Thomas Penny. After Moffet’s death, this still unpublished manuscript became the possession his apothecary Darnell, who sold it to Sir Theodore Mayerne.

Mayerne finally published the book in 1634 as Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum. It was translated into English and titled  The Theatre of Insects .

The illustrations in the book are an old form of printing called woodcutting, used as an alternative to cut costs. In woodcutting, knives and other sharp-edged tools are used to carve a design into the surface of the wooden printing block.

This Polish museum insect specimen collection drawer full of butterflies is the work butterfly collectors or people interested in the study of lepidopterology do. (Marek Slusarczyk /  CC BY 3.0 )

Lepidopterology and the Study of Butterflies

Lepidopterology is a discipline that is a subset of  entomology. Entomology is the scientific study of insects and is part of the much larger zoology category. Lepidopterology is the scientific study of butterflies and moths, and those who are engaged in this professional or scientific field are called lepidopterists, or aurelians.

In Europe, from the 17 th and 18th centuries onwards, along with significant improvements in modes of intercontinental travel, there was also a professionalization of the disciplines of zoology and botany. This period preceded  Darwin’s research  and theory in the 19 th century, setting the grounds for inquiry and study into flora and fauna. This was spearheaded by the imperial powers, who had begun to express an interest in the acquisition of information and control over the earth’s species and resources.

This process was facilitated not just by respective monarchs and governments, but also by wealthy philanthropists, collectors, and financiers, who wanted to contribute or donate their findings to various natural museums being set up over Europe. Simultaneously, lepidopterological societies and journals also began cropping up all over the continent. 

Butterflies have always held aesthetic, scientific, cultural and ecological significance, enhanced by the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies, which holds great sway in philosophical and metaphorical terms. There are around 17,500 butterfly species in the world today. Sadly, many have gone extinct over the last 200-300 years. 

Top image: The preserved butterfly found in the Cambridge library copy of The Theatre of Insects.   Source: Trinity Hall Cambridge

By Rudra Bhushan


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