The Reception of Erik Pontoppidan's Det forste forsog Norges naturlige historie (1752-3)
The Danish intellectual, cleric and writer, Erik Pontopiddan (1698-1764) wrote and published (in Copenhagen) his Det forste forsog Norges naturlige historie (1752-3) in Danish shortly after his appointment (and semi-exile) as Bishop of Bergen in Denmark-Norway 1752-3. The work is a detailed survey of the flora, fauna and topography of Norway, with sections also on habits, costume and folklore - and it is famously illustrated with pull-out maps and engravings. It was translated into German a year later and a year after that into a lavish English edition. It was reviewed across Europe in all main reviewing periodicals, the German edition ordered by major institutions across mainland Europe and then the English edition bought by institutions and significant writers and collectors from Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia to the Maharajah of Tranquebar in India.
Pontoppidan pioneered and insisted upon a new scientific and historical method: observation and verification of all natural phenomena and events recorded. But there was a significant twist to the book's reception: to Pontoppidans later chagrin, the global interest focused on Pontoppidan's assertions (involving his scientific verification of evidence techniques) about the existence of sea serpents, kraken, and mermaids and mermen. Most of the surviving copies have annotations to this effect - and for a century or more the book became associated with avowals of the existence of monsters (and an unconscious engagement with a Nordic tradition of storytelling about giant sea creatures and especially Jormungandr, the World Serpent or Midgard Serpent, since at least Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) Swedish Catholic writer and cleric and as incorporated within early modern natural history - most notably by Conrad Gessner (1516-65) the Swiss physician, naturalist and bibliographer). Discussing the tale of Thor fishing for the Midgard Serpent, Bishop Thomas Percy noted in 1770, 'we see plainly in the . . . fable the origin of those vulgar opinions entertained in the north, and which Pontoppidan has recorded concerning the craken and that monstrous serpent described in his History of Norway.'