Honegger, R. E. and D. G. Blackburn 2022. The Arrival of the Dragons of our Forefathers, or Some Remarks on Early [non-English] European Encounters with Exotic Reptiles. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 16(9):94–117. Published Sept. 18, 2022.
Reptiles always fascinated humankind: they stood for fear, superstition, and danger. With the publication of the first animal encyclopedia (1551–1587) by Conrad Gessner (1516–1565), the “Amphibians” (as they were called at that time) gained much attention in Europe. Giant reptiles, especially giant snakes and crocodiles, were of great interest – the former as descendants of the Dragons (sensu Gessner), and the latter as dangerous exotic man-eaters.
With the process of European colonization of tropical regions and the beginning of scheduled ship traffic, an increasing number of live, strange, unknown reptiles and other animals started to arrive at the ports of London, Amsterdam and later Hamburg. These animals were exhibited by wandering showmen, presented at markets and fairs, displayed in traveling menageries, lodged in royal courts, and eventually, housed in zoological parks. Accordingly, for hundreds of years, the European populace had opportunities to observe living reptiles from foreign lands. This situation represents an aspect of the public face of herpetological history that tends to be overlooked in academic studies, given that relevant written sources and printed materials are scarce, obscure, and difficult to access.
This account draws upon such sources to trace historical aspects of the early introduction of living reptiles from around the world into continental Europe. Features that are considered herein include the public display of such reptiles, their transport from abroad, and their maintenance in captivity. In addition to works in the primary and secondary literature, we offer documentary evidence in the form of the rare “broadsheets”, posters, newspaper articles, and advertisements that described public displays of reptiles in the 16th through 19th centuries