By one calculation, between 50,000 and 100,000 university dissertations were written in Latin in Germany and Austria between 1650 and 1750 (Leonhardt, 3). While the majority of these have remained unstudied, and may even deserve their obscurity, there are also some that amply reward scholarly attention. This paper analyzes one of the more unusual of these, focusing not on its stylistic merits (it is written in typical Lutheran scholastic prose), but raising questions regarding its literary structure and aspirations.
Despite the first word of its title, Disputatio historica de cultu idololatrico bestiarum, written by Elias Geisler under the supervision of the Lutheran theologian and professor Valentin Alberti (Ben-Tov, 157), pursuant to the former’s receiving his bachelor’s degree at the University of Leipzig in 1669, was clearly never meant to be an actual oral disputation. Its format lacks the enumerated theses one often finds in disputations. (On the historical evolution of the dissertation from the earlier disputation, see Chang, 129-87.) Nor, despite the reference to history in its title, is this a diachronic study. Instead, following the usual preliminary definitions, the bulk of the work takes the form of an alphabetized catalogue, listing some 60 animals from accipiter to vultur, all of them worshipped as divine by some people at some time.
In fact, this work may be situated in a long bestiary tradition, going back to the Physiologus (second century) and medieval bestiaries (e.g., the Aberdeen Bestiary). Unlike its predecessors, however, which often attempted to draw moral lessons from the animals described, Disputatio historica de cultu idololatrico bestiarum aims to describe where and how each animal catalogued may have been an object of zoolatry. Alberti was a firmly orthodox Lutheran theologian, but unlike Luther himself who saw animals as moral exemplars of virtue or vice (Springer, Chap. 4), the student whose dissertation he supervised resists fanciful associations and avoids moral allegory altogether. The point this academic exercise makes is that the worship of animals instead of the Christian God is false doctrine.
But this dissertation does much more than simply make this point. It includes an entire catalogue, many of whose entries are extensively documented, with evidence drawn from Greco-Roman authorities such as Herodotus, Strabo, Plutarch, and Clement of Alexandria. Other more recent sources are cited as well, such as Vossius’s De theologia gentili. Indeed, one of the author’s primary aims appears to be comprehensiveness, following the precedent set by other alphabetical lists and catalogues (see Daly on the history of such alphabetical efforts). Not only animals but insects are included (e.g., vespae and formicae). Nor is the catalogue limited to European specimens only; examples of animal worship are also adduced from “the new world” (e.g., Peru, Mexico, and Virginia) and Asia (India and Japan). Such comprehensiveness is unnecessary for the purposes of a disputation or a dissertation, but accords well with the traditional expectations for a bestiary.
That this work was regarded as theologically sound we may gather from a German poem appended, apparently written by Elias Geisler’s brother, commending him for his industry (Fleiss) in showing the folly of superstition and urging him to give credit for his achievements to God. That this theological bestiary met with the presiding professor’s approval is suggested by the playful Latin poem written by Alberti himself for his student that concludes the volume:
Est aliquid quo tendis, et in quod dirigis arcum;
Namque valent totos perdere tela greges.
Scilicet his gentes replerant templa profanae:
Ast Tibi nunc caesis plena macella precor.
The World of Neo-Latin: Current Research