Natural histories of the North

Clergymen Abiding in the Field:
The making of the observer in eighteenth-century Norwegian natural history
Brita Brenna
By the mid-eighteenth century, governors of major European states promoted the study of nature
as part of natural-resources based schemes for improvement and economic self-sufficiency.
Procuring good knowledge about nature, however, required observers, collectors, and compilers
who were able to produce useable and useful descriptions of nature. The way governments
promoted scientific explorations varied according to the form of government, the makeup of the
civil society, economic ideologies and practices, and geographical situations. This article will
show that the roots of one of the major natural historical initiatives in Denmark-Norway are
firmly planted in the state-church organization. Through the clergymen and their activities, a
bishop, supported by the government in Copenhagen, could gather a huge collection of natural
objects, receive observations and description of natural phenomena, and produce scientific
publications where many of the species of the north were described for the first time. Devout
naturalists were a common species in the eighteenth century, when clergymen involved
themselves in the investigation of nature on a grand scale all over Europe. The specific interest
here is in how natural knowledge was supported and enforced as part of church practice, and the
degree to which this influenced the character of the science produced and the evaluation and
identity of the observers.
Botanizing in the parishes
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
In the spring of 1770, Bishop Johan Ernst Gunnerus of Trondhjem diocese in the state of
Denmark-Norway was planning his forthcoming visitation journey to the northern-most parts of
Norway. A visitation journey was a highly ritualized church administrative tour, regulated by
law and the chief means of governing and controlling the religious state of affairs in the
kingdom. Moving from parish to parish, the bishop would interrogate, supervise, and admonish
deans, clergymen, schoolteachers, and parish clerks, representing the highest authority of state
and church in this absolutist Protestant monarchy. As one of only four bishops in Norway,
Gunnerus supervised an enormous diocese, stretching up to the Russian border, and it would take
the bishop four to six months to travel back and forth to the most distant parishes in need of
guidance and supervision (see Dahl, Hagland 2002, Ramberghaug 2006).
Planning for the visitation journey this summer, the bishop invited two newly appointed
professors of natural history in Copenhagen to accompany him. In his letter to the professor of
economy and natural history at the University of Copenhagen, Johan Christian Fabricius,
Gunnerus described how most of the trip would be conducted by sea, where the bishop’s boat
would offer comfortable boarding, and “under these conditions the journey would surely prove
agreeable, and the expenses would not be considerable, as in my company you will have free
food and drink in the vicarages” (Gunnerus to Fabricius, 6 March 1770, in Dahl). The
professorship in natural history was a poorly paid post, hence Gunnerus emphasized that the
expedition would cost Fabricius nothing.
The letter described in detail the route they were to follow. When the party went ashore,
they would be offered “handsome situations” and “attractive fields,” Gunnerus assured, and “by
all such occasions Your Honourable will have time to observe and collect a large amount of
natural objects and to make important discoveries in natural history and other things, which
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could deserve Your attention” (Gunnerus to Fabricius, 6 March 1770, in Dahl). Along the route
natural objects of all kinds abounded, and this was the bait Gunnerus could lay out for the young
and poor professor of natural history in Copenhagen. But he would have an additional piece of
bait. He was at this time one of the most renowned scholars of natural history in the kingdom,
and his visitation journeys to the north were reputed as expeditions of discovery. His
correspondents would enquire and congratulate him on the “treasures from his northbound
journey,” (Klevenfeldt to Gunnerus, 15 October 1762, in Dahl) or recount how they had heard
rumors in Copenhagen about “beautiful collections of rarities from the northern countries”
(Müller to Gunnerus, 20 October 1762, in Dahl). Gunnerus also mustered his own assistants. As
he particularly urged professor Fabricius to bring his own draughtsman, he made it clear that he
was himself traveling as a naturalist, emphasizing that the draughtsman he brought along “will
overcome to draw only half of what is collected for me on a voyage like this, and which need
immediate drawing” (Gunnerus to Fabricius, 6 March 1770, in Dahl).
When receiving his calling as a bishop in Trondheim in 1758, Johan Ernst Gunnerus had
very limited knowledge of natural history. Now, 12 years later, he could invite able professors to
take part in journeys which were esteemed as important contributions to the field of knowledge.
He had written the first Norwegian Flora and close to thirty papers on natural historical topics, he
had set up a scientific society, and corresponded with learned men and reputed naturalists in
northern Europe(for the history of the Society and Gunnerus’ role within it see Andersen
2009). Since his arrival in Norway, the bishop had been transformed from a learned metaphysical
university lecturer into a renowned naturalist. But the letters quoted above also show how
Gunnerus’ raise to fame as a naturalist depended on the church organization he controlled. He
used the free board and travel which were his due as a bishop to undertake scientific work.
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
Moreover, as I will show, his naturalist practice was the result of work performed by clergymen,
commoners, and state officials. The organization, or network, which he built has been accurately
labeled as a church-scientific organization (Hagland 2002), an organized scientific endeavor
which took place through and by way of the church.
The importance of trade and trading companies, colonial administrative bodies, and
mission organizations has been shown to have enabled and been decisive for natural historical
projects in early modern Europe. In the case of Northern European Protestant States, and perhaps
particularly in the case of Norway, the state-church seems to have played a far greater role than
any other single institution. What I will try to reveal in this article is how the church came to play
such an important role, and what the implications of this were for the participation of lay persons
in producing knowledge about nature.
A modern divide between expert and lay knowledge was nowhere to be found at this
time. The naturalists, “the experts,” were more often than not themselves uneducated in the
subject they excelled in, they mostly earned their money from other sources or occupations, and
they would rarely define themselves socially in relation to the science they followed (Clarke,
Shapin). Hence the demarcation line in relation to the non-expert, “the lay person,” was blurry,
without in any way implying that there were particularly unclear criteria for evaluating
knowledge. What I want to emphasize is that the lay-expert divide was articulated differently. In
this case we will deal with many persons who had no or little knowledge of natural history, and
where some became highly esteemed practitioners, others remained unknown and their
knowledge was not attributed to them. Precisely this question is of importance when studying
this process: who were counted, and whose knowledge was accounted for. To complicate the
issue, the clergymen whom I deal with here were all considered as learned as opposed to the
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
laity, the lay persons. Their standing as learned persons was, however, important in their local
community, but not necessarily in relation to the centers of natural historical inquiry.
Earlier treatments of Gunnerus’ scientific activities have tended either to look at the
“pure” scientific content of his work, portraying him as the first Norwegian scientist and hailing
his Linnaean connection, or to approach his activities as part of a strictly national culture. If we
use an approach inspired by recent colonial history of science and works focusing on the
specificities of German and Scandinavian early modern natural history, Norwegian natural
history in the second half of the eighteenth century can both be understood as less peripheral and
more specific than earlier approaches have allowed.1 On the one hand, the approaches to natural
history which were developed around the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences in Trondheim
(established 1760) were internationally oriented and part of broader international currents of
scientific practice. On the other hand, the specific social system with clergymen as the largest
group of learned people, the predominance of free peasants, the special situation as a semicolony of the Danish crown, and the topographical traits of the country which made travel and
correspondence slow and difficult, are only four of the factors which make Norwegian
eighteenth-century natural history a local and unique phenomena.
First I want to establish the state and contemporary state practices as central conditions
for Gunnerus’ use of his subject clergymen and other parishioners as scientific observers. I will
proceed by focusing on the ways of making the subjects interested: How did he make the
subjects work for him? How did he approach them, and what were their reactions? Next, I
examine what sort of knowledge was provided by the lay observers, before I turn to the question
of how nature was transformed into a specific kind of object through this network.
Of special relevance has been the articles in Mac Leod, 2001, Schiebinger and Swan, 2005, For the German and
Scandinavian countries, see especially the work of Sverker Sörlin, Stafan Müller-Wille and Lisbet Koerner.
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
The Sciences in Absolutist Denmark-Norway
“Our fatherland was enveloped by darkness, its sight obliterated by haze,” the historian Gerhard
Schøning wrote in his obituary for Bishop Gunnerus, who had died on a visitation journey in
1773. Gunnerus, Schøning stated, was the man who finally succeeded in bringing Norway the
light of science which had been ignited in most other European countries. This country with no
university, no academy, no scientific society, no public library, no cabinets of natural objects,
medals, arts, or antiquities, should look upon herself in shame because she was surrounded by
sister countries, which, though poor, had such institutions (Schøning 1805). Clerics working as
naturalists, collecting and recording local floras, mineralogies, and natural histories, were far
from uncommon in early modern Europe (see for example Bravo and Sörlin, 2002; Cooper 2007;
Outram 1995, Shapin 2003). The special aspect of the Norwegian case was that the clerics were
almost alone in pursuing natural knowledge. There was, as Schøning so eloquently pointed out,
no university, and preciously few other learned institutions. Small academies for mining
engineers, military officers, teachers, and Sami missionaries had been set up during the 1750s,
but they were small and scattered around in a number of cities. There were, moreover, four
Cathedral schools in Norway which prepared Norwegian students for university training in
Copenhagen. Albeit important, these institutions had too few teachers to make an impact. Neither
were there physicians who could act as a collective in the pursuit of natural history. Norway had
approximately seven hundred thousand inhabitants, four hundred and eighty clergymen, and
about ten physicians (for clergymen: Mansåker 1954, 21; for physicians: Utheim 1901, 4).
In the first part of the eighteenth century, natural knowledge was at a low tide in
Denmark-Norway, according to both contemporaries and later historians. The turning point is
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said to have occurred around the middle of the century (Kragh 2005; Dahl 1888-90, 136). The
king’s interest in promoting natural philosophy, mathematics, natural history, and economic
sciences grew as he and his ministers came to see them increasingly as useful sciences. The
king’s support for the sciences (in the sense of the Danish videnskaber, which equals the German
Wissenschaften) was not new, but the extent and consequence of King Fredrik V’s interest were
unprecedented (Feldbæk 1994, 3). While “the politics of science and culture” under his father’s,
Christian VI’s reign, was aimed at an audience within the borders of the kingdom, this changed
with Frederik V, who reigned from 1746-1766. His policy was directed at Europe. Within the
fine arts, literature, and history, measures were taken to promote excellence and Europeanize the
Copenhagen scene. He aimed not only to lift Danish science and culture to a high European
level: his ambition was to give specific Danish contributions to the enlightened cultures of
Europe. As kings and ministers in other European kingdoms collected and experimented, and
promoted science within their countries, the Danish king and his ministry also wanted to improve
the scientific reputation of the country (Feldbæk 1994).
There were various new measures taken on to achieve these goals. The most important
were calling in new professors from the continent, establishing a botanical garden and a natural
cabinet with professorships, installing a pro-chancellor at the university in an attempt to reform
it, initiating work on a Danish flora, organizing and financing a large scale international
scientific expedition to Arabia felix (Yemen), and supporting publications on economy and
natural history (see Kragh 2005; Sörlin 2001; Wagner 1992).
The Making of the Naturalist-Clergyman
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
But how could these initiatives aimed at improving science and making it useful for the welfare
of the nation be transported out of the capital? How could enlightenment and science spread
throughout the vast Danish-Norwegian kingdom, reaching from North Cape, by way of
Greenland and Iceland, to the Elbe? One attempt was to make the clergymen the spearheads of
science. The University of Copenhagen was basically a clergyman’s institution: about 67 percent
of the students left university with a degree in theology, and about 30 percent were educated in
law. Even though the university was economically self-sustaining, the king exerted political
influence on certain aspects of university life through the patron who was also one of his
ministers. But within a limit: when one of the king’s ministers wanted to install the German
Georg Christian Oeder as a professor in economy (natural history), he was rejected by the
university on the official grounds of lack of knowledge in Latin. He was instead offered a
professorship at the king’s new Botanical Garden and paid directly by the king (Wagner 1992).
With a keen eye on developments in Sweden, and especially informed by the rhetoric of
Linnaeus, numerous voices expressed the advantage that could be gained from giving the
theological students a broader scientific education. The man who was offered the position as prochancellor at the university was the bishop of Bergen, Erich Pontoppidan, in the years 1748 to
1754. He was a learned man of considerable power, as the chief ideologue of the particular kind
of state-pietism in the kingdom, but also as a historian, antiquarian, and church historian. In
Norway he had devoted himself to natural history and in 1752 he wrote the first natural history
of the kingdom, Natural History of Norway, which soon appeared in German and English
translations, and here he mentioned the usefulness of natural knowledge ( in the following quotes
I use the English 1755 translation): “If physical knowledge be not, like godliness, profitable to
all things, yet it is so to many, and in a certain degree to most things” (Pontoppidan 1755, v).
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Natural knowledge was useful for the practice of law. It was obviously useful for medicine,
according to Pontoppidan. But first and foremost it was a science that was useful for those who
were going to educate others on the road to salvation. A theological candidate ought to study
physics as well as metaphysics and logic, but “these last not being so indispensably necessary
and useful as the former,” argued Pontoppidan (ibid). For clergymen who were called to attend a
country parish, natural knowledge will “not only furnish them with many clear arguments, and
edifying reflexions to themselves and their hearers,” Pontoppidan contended, “but it will besides
prove a liberal amusement in their solitude; it will enable them, by much greater opportunities
than the learned enjoy in towns, to make useful discoveries or improvements, from the products
of nature, to the lasting benefit of their country, which it is their duty to promote (ibid).” In
Norway, skills in metallurgy would be of the greatest importance, that is knowing “the species of
ores and minerals, to make little experiments by fusion, and thus to form a judgment of the
intrinsic value of a mine, and how far it will answer the expence of opening (Pontoppidan 1755,
This tripartite motivation for studying nature embraced science as a pleasurable pastime
which kept the clergymen away from idleness and furnished them with work to perform as good
Protestants. It would also furnish them with intellectual stimulation as they moved to the barren
peripheries. But not least, it would make them useful servants of the state, helping to harness the
treasures of the countryside. The bottom line was that science was useful, and even more useful
in the provinces than in the capital; therefore the clergymen were the prime targets of reform.
There were ambitions to get more theological students to study physics and mathematics (Kragh
2005, 47), and there were also suggestions that clergymen who could document natural
knowledge should be preferred for new positions. Even if these initiatives did not have
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immediate effects, they were well-known and would provide strong motivation for clergymen
with an interest in the study of nature. They were official ambitions to hook on to.
The dark north which needed to be civilized and polished by means of the educated elites
in Copenhagen was printed on one side of the coin of Denmark-Norway’s peripheries. The other
side depicted vast natural resources to be prospected and put to good use for the state. The
ancient myth of the gold that waited in the mountains of the north was an oft-repeated theme.
This myth had its important realities as Norway had provided the state with precious metals since
the sixteenth century. The picture of a resourceful north was painted even more vividly around
the middle of the eighteenth century, spurred by the obvious importance of natural resources in
the economic expansion of colonial states, by the new importance attributed to agricultural
improvement especially in England, and by the doctrine of cameralism which gave an
unprecedented role to the management of internal territorial resources as the basis of good
government. Whether the impetus came from the Swedish preoccupation with cameralist ideas
and Linnaean ideology, or more directly from the newly established disciplines in German states,
cameralism was utilized as an economic ideology which underpinned the charting of national
territories for new natural resources and the implementing of improvement schemes in
agriculture (for Camerlism and the Linnean tradition, see Koerner 1999; Müller-Wille 2005; for
Denmark-Norway, see Markussen 1995; Bisgaard 1902; Glamann 1983).
Natural resources had become the principal source for keeping the populace happy and
the nation rich. This is an important background for understanding how a bishop who had made
his most important contributions to learned life within metaphysics converted to natural history
after a year in Norway. “He arrived in our Trondheim, … almost totally foreign to the delights of
nature,” wrote Schøning (Schøning 1805).
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
A Pastoral Letter of Scientific Advancement
The bishop’s duties were extensive: he had to supervise deans, ministers and parish clerks,
churches, schools, and poor-houses. Bishops were religious leaders in a monopoly system in
which only one religion was accepted and deviants were punished. They were first and foremost
loyal civil servants to the king, and they controlled, administered and judged according to the
king’s will. On the one hand, the king’s decrees were brought out to the subjects as
proclamations and propaganda, on the other hand, information traveled the opposite direction in
the form of careful visitation reports and tabulations of the living and dead. The bishop would
report to the central administration on numerous matters, including the knowledge of the Bible to
be found in the parishes, the voices of the clergymen, their ability to ignite their subjects, and the
moral and religious standards both of clergy and the population as a whole (Supphellen 1989;
Horstbøl 2004).
The newly appointed bishop of Trondheim was a learned man. Born in Christiania in
1718, in a family impoverished after the death of the father, the town physician, Gunnerus was
helped by patrons to obtain a degree at the Latin school, and later to pursue studies in theology in
Copenhagen. From Copenhagen, Gunnerus went to Halle on a scholarship and later moved to
Jena where he obtained degrees and became a university lecturer and author of books on
theology, philosophy, and natural law. When he was summoned back to Copenhagen in 1753, he
was given an extraordinary professor’s chair in theology at the university before being appointed
bishop in Trondheim in 1758. In Jena and Copenhagen, Gunnerus had studied and lectured about
a wide variety of topics, deeply inspired by German metaphysics in general and the philosophy
of Christian Wolff in particular. Gunnerus studied in Halle after Wolff’s return to the university,
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
and his enlightened practices can be seen as a product of German Aufklärung, informed by the
reconciliation of Pietism and Wolffianism (Clarke 1999). His knowledge was broad, but there
are no signs that he had any interest in natural history before arriving in Trondheim.
Soon after his appointment as bishop, he issued a pastoral letter expressing his theological
philosophy and practice. But his emphasis was elsewhere: he expressed that he expected the
clergymen to cultivate knowledge, on a broad range from oratory and mathematics to
metaphysics. “We are called learned, well and high learned,” he explained. “Therefore, it would
be a great shame for us, my brothers, if we did not aim at well-founded knowledge” (Gunnerus
1758, 20). Gunnerus encouraged the clergymen to produce learned writings, first by showing all
that had been previously accomplished in this supposedly unlearned country in the form of an
intellectual bibliography of Norway listing all written works of merit. These were examples to be
followed. A compilation of what had already been achieved could encourage the ministers to see
themselves as the learned men they were, according to Gunnerus. His insistence on his subjectministers being well and highly learned could be seen just as much as rhetorical encouragement
as a statement of what he considered to be fact, as most clergymen would have had only a
rudimentary university education, often spending only months at the university and earning their
living through house teaching or other temporary jobs (see Hodacs and Nyberg 2007 for the
importance of house teaching). But he continued by urging his clergymen to serve the Church
and the Fatherland with their learned writings. He also presented his ambition to establish a
learned society, where the clergymen could present their texts in “Oratory, poetry, natural and
other history, physics, the intent and divine hallmarks of natural things, economy, Psychologia
Empirica and other subjects that … can be treated in a beautiful and pleasurable way, and do not
exceed the horizon of the reasonable but untrained” (Gunnerus 1758, 31).
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
A pastoral letter urging clergymen to pursue scientific studies, and especially in the form
of secular sciences, was totally unprecedented. Such letters would normally contain theological
explorations and statements. Gunnerus’ ambitions were clearly transformative, and he put great
stress on the importance of publicly conveying learning. Gunnerus urged the learned to present
their texts in a form that could be comprehended also by the uneducated. It would please me, he
wrote, if those of you who were capable would present your insights, and so “serve the Public in
one way or another” (Gunnerus 1758, 21). To present one’s thoughts in writing would always be
beneficial. As Gunnerus puts it, “it is seldom that one thinks through a case as careful and
accurate, and reaches as deep within it, as when one delivers one’s thoughts in writing, most
especially when one aims to convey them in public” (Gunnerus 1758, 30). Writing was the
essential technology of the learned for Gunnerus. He insisted that all sermons ought to be
written, word for word, and read according to the written text. This was the only way to follow
the best rules of oratory. The implication was that oral culture was to be supplanted by a culture
of writing. The clergymen needed to pursue writing to be learned, and the public they should
serve was not the congregation, or not only the congregation, but a wider imagined community.
The clergymen were called upon to make a public sphere, to use an anachronistic term.
Another main theme was that the clergymen were to set an example for their
congregations, not in their practice of Christianity, but as practical working men. They were to
teach them both by giving advice and through example how to understand their houses and
improve their circumstances, insisted the bishop, and “haul the peasant under his arms and show
him … how he can take better advantage of his land and his other assets (Gunnerus 1758, 40).”
Thus the clergymen’s efforts should be directed both toward making them writing partners with a
wider community of learning in which they would take part, and moving them towards practical
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
farming, making them living examples of the rational tenure of the earth. The farmer, Gunnerus
later came to emphasize, was a subject with great potential. In Norway farmers were endowed
with more wit, wisdom, capability, and ingenuity than in other parts of the world, according to
the bishop. They possessed patriotic sentiments, eagerness, audacity, and ardor. What they
lacked was encouragement, counseling, and instruction (Gunnerus 1758, 21).
Traveling Objects
Deans and ministers answered the call of the pastoral letter; one might ask, how could they not?
A number of manuscripts arrived with promises and plans for literary activities. Given both the
pastoral letter and the learned background of the bishop, this was not surprising. But in a few
months, the arts and historical narratives were far outnumbered by natural objects and
observations. The big shift was the visitation journey which Gunnerus undertook to Vardø and
Vadsø during the summer of 1759. After the first journey, which lasted from May to September,
the clergymen began to deliver.
“Following orders, I send 12 stuffed birds packed in a half-barrel, small sticks are tied to
their necks with numbers written on,” wrote sogneprest (clergyman) Augustin Buschmann from
Nesna (Buschmann to Gunnerus, 31 August 1759, in Dahl). He expressed doubts as to whether
he could find a vessel which would carry the living eagle he wanted the bishop to have. The
sogneprest Ole Ross in Orkdalen humbly asked the bishop to receive a couple of living hares
(Ross to Gunnerus, 10 October 1759, in Dahl). The personlig kapellan (personal chaplain) at
Inderøy, Ole Høyer, had made an appointment with the Sami people to bring Gunnerus a living
reindeer. “I ask you humbly to receive this small and meager present which I hope will not be
disagreeable with you” (Høyer to Gunnerus, 25 October 1759, in Dahl). The variety and volumes
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of the gifts are amazing, and so are the priests’ struggles to fulfill the bishop’s wishes. “Of
Naturalibus I have not yet been fortunate enough to overcome anything, but, if God were to
preserve my life and health until spring, I have fair hope of some achievement,” wrote
sogneprest Molde (Molde to Dahl, 31 July 1759, in Dahl). “It shall be my devotional duty and
proof of my loyalty to do my utmost to find and retrieve to give my merciful Master some
elevated pleasure,” replied residerende pastor (residing pastor) Bruun from Øksnes (Bruun to
Gunnerus, 6 August 1759, in Dahl). “Your least command, then, should be enough to make me
most active in procuring anything that I may be able to achieve. There is nothing that I would
strive for with more Empressement, than your satisfaction …,” the missionary Eric Schytte from
Lyngen wrote (Schytte to Gunnerus, 15 August 1759, in Dahl). Hundreds of letters and as many
objects arrived at the bishop’s home, and the tone of these letters was exceedingly submissive
and written in a rhetoric fitting the subordinates writing to their bishop.
The traveling objects and animals can be seen as means of achieving personal favor with
the bishop – and ultimately the king. And it was indeed reasonable to seek to enjoy the bishop’s
favors: Many priests were isolated in extremely poor parishes, where promotion was the only
path to a better income. “I offer myself to be enveloped in Your memoirs of promotion,” wrote
the personal chaplain to Tromsø, Fredrik A. Bødtker, in the last paragraph of a letter where he
described a runebomme, a Sami ritual drum he tried to get hold of for the bishop (Bødtker to
Gunnerus, 11 September 1759, in Dahl). This was a normal phrase, but Bødtker was making
more out of his case than many others, “Pious Father! Do something for the sake of my minor
children! ” (ibid). And Gunnerus never made it a secret that advancing science, especially by
procuring objects for him or undertaking natural historical observations, would be a good career
move: “I greatly thank you for the two very beautiful pieces,” he wrote to missionary Mathias
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Birch in Snåsa, “and it will be my pleasure if I can return the favor, even in relation to Your
promotion” (Gunnerus to Birch, 30 March 1763, in Dahl). In short: Interest and participation in
natural historical investigation would be beneficial for securing a better position. It was not
among Gunnerus’ prerogatives to hire priests, but his recommendations were important. This is
also obvious in the many letters from grateful priests who had obtained better positions.
Personal earthly ambitions were not the only reason why ministers would strain
themselves to provide for the bishop’s interest in natural history. The positive value of natural
knowledge and natural history in serving God was repeatedly stressed in the bishop’s scientific
works. He insisted that the study of nature was an important way to honor God: “Natural
knowledge as well as natural history serves splendidly in convincing us that there is a God, and
to introduce to us his eternal perfection in its complete Glory (Gunnerus 1758, 7).” These were
common natural theological reflections in Gunnerus’ times, but his claims had more to them than
both a physico-theological defense of faith and a general legitimation of pursuing natural
historical interests. In the introduction to his Flora Norvegica, published in 1766, he wrote: “In
an excellent way, natural history confirms what is proven by Divine reality, and it throws light
on its Divine and unlimited perfection. It provides a foundation for all branches of natural
knowledge. Thus, it is a most useful aid to us citizens, both in private and in public. For this
reason, it is the duty of any human being, and in particular of the good Christian citizen, to
promote this most useful, yes, one should really say Divine discipline, as much as he is able to
(as cited in Ramberghaug 2006, 58).”
Any human being was obliged to pursue this discipline and, to a subordinate clergyman,
this message was a strong obligation to act and react. But Gunnerus also expressed another
sentiment in this text: a sense of mission, of scientific work as an honor to God, and not only to
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honor God by studying his work, but to enlighten others scientifically: “Therefore, it is my
opinion that this duty and this task was given to me not only so that I should devote myself to
science, but also so that I should enlighten in the greatest possible degree, and not even that
being enough, I should inspire others to do their best to the benefit of science and the Fatherland.
Two things have been of great use to my goal and my work: travels of exceeding length, both at
sea and on land (on which I set out every year to attend church meetings), and the eagerness and
enthusiasm of my countrymen in recounting anything that may seem remarkable in the realm of
Nature” (as cited in Ramberghaug 2006, 58).
The Bishop’s Nature
His countrymen were enthusiastically conveying to him what they found remarkable, Gunnerus
claimed, and that is something of an understatement when one looks at the extent to which they
presented him with nature’s gifts. There was a steady flow of objects: some living, but for the
most part dead birds and fishes, models, ritual Sami drums, old daggers and swords, flowers,
seeds, trees, and landed coconuts. How could the ministers know how and what to collect? Some
of them did not. Gunnerus not only received scientific specimens, but barrels of butter, cloud
berries, and smoked salmon—objects suggesting that the understanding of the bishop’s wish for
“natural objects” was indeed wide. “As there is a lack here of rarities to send, I humbly beg for
Your Highness to accept 1 barrel of oysters and a small pot of sprat, which I send to You with
the utmost devotion,” wrote the clergyman From (From to Gunnerus, 27 March 1765, in Dahl).
The fiscal market was only a small part of the economy, and payment in kind was common
practice. In this sense, the natural objects continued a well known tradition of giving the bishop
natural gifts. The way Gunnerus’ subjects “misunderstood” his appeals to be provided with
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
natural objects shows how he tapped into a tradition of gift economy as analyzed by Harold J.
Cook’s study of the gift economy of a naturalist’s exchanges with people in the East Indies
(Cook 2005, esp. 116-7). This gift economy was highly routinized in Norway as the salaries of
clergymen would themselves be in part paid in gifts for the performance of baptisms,
confirmations, weddings, and burials. The bishop introduced a new definition of the good gift in
an existing gift economy. In Danish naturalia as a term implied payment in kind, but the term
naturalia had a second meaning – natural objects. One of the achievements of Gunnerus was to
help redefine nature as naturalia.
He also instructed his subjects on what could count as natural objects and how to make
precise descriptions. He was, on the one hand, interested in all things, “natural objects… be they
of any kind, also the ordinary” (Gunnerus to Kolderup, 20 April 1762, in Dahl). “I happily
receive everything You collect ex 3bus regnis naturæ” (Gunnerus to Kaurin, 10 December 1764,
in Dahl). On the other hand, his conception of what was ordinary was not easy to convey. He
would be interested in everything that was ordinary in northern Norway, but things were of
greater value if they at the same time were extraordinary within the learned community of
scholars: “There is nothing unusual about this Molluscum (an ink-fish), as it has been described
and drawn by many authors, but it is very good that You do exercise by describing these sorts of
things” (Gunnerus to Hagerup, 25 May 1768, in Dahl).
He would encourage the use of systematic approaches, as he stated in the introduction to
the first issue of Skrifter (the papers, or writings, of the Scientific Society in Trondheim) in 1761.
The society would especially wish for the countrymen to work within economy and natural
history, “but to ensure that one could work with more happiness, order and clarity, it would be
most welcome, if one were to make a thorough acquaintance with Linnæi floram, as well as
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
Faunam Svecicam, and in addition the newest or tenth edition of his Systema Naturæ”
(Gunnerus 1761). Books, and most importantly Linnaeus’ works, were the scientific tools that he
most eagerly wanted his subjects to put into use.
He also gave more explicit practical advice for those who wished to collect and send
natural objects, and detailed descriptions of how to prepare flowers and insects, and increasingly
asked for specific exemplars.
To others he posed questions, following a long tradition for collecting facts through
surveys, which had been used with success since the early days of the Royal Society in London,
and perhaps more directly relevant, as addressed in the Kungliga Svenska Vetenskaps
Academiens Handlingar. He inquired about two types of capelin he had received: When were
they fished? If any of them smelled bad? On what time of the year did they come and depart
from the fjord? Are the fish eaten? And so on (Gunnerus to Frugaard, March 29 1765, in Dahl).
Many of the priests’ answers pointed to the great difficulties involved in obtaining the kind of
information Gunnerus requested: From the allegedly wrecked, unhealthy, illness-infected and
poor parish of Vardø, clergyman Kaurin wrote with resignation that he was unable to provide the
Norwegian names of the flowers he sent. He had no tools, that is books, to help him, and from
the ignorant inhabitants there was no help to be had. They knew all the plants by “the wellknown name flowers” (Kaurin to Gunnerus, 10 August 1764, in Dahl). Kaurin’s position also
gives a good indication of how precarious the livelihood of the priests could be, and thus
explains their ambitions for promotion and natural history. Kaurin and his family had arrived in
Vardø after six weeks of strenuous travel. On arrival they found that most of the inhabitants had
died, only 20 Rettighedsmænd (property owners) were left, and even many of the soldiers had
died, leaving only twelve. In addition, the fisheries had failed, and that left the last inhabitants
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
without means to pay the priest (Kaurin to Gunnerus, 25 June 1764, in Dahl). Kaurin would stay
in Vadsø for several years, but he would strain himself to observe and procure natural knowledge
for the bishop, acquiring better understanding of what natural history with a bishopian flavor was
all about.
Gunnerus was educating the priests by interrogating and explaining. He encouraged a
certain kind of observation, a certain kind of “factual sensibility,” to use the words of Lorraine
Daston (Daston 1988). A kind of observation and collecting that could be used to bring forth
good natural objects. The objects ought not to be improved upon by human ingenuity. When he
encountered an especially well-made basilisk, he admitted that a person without good knowledge
about such things could easily be fooled: “Nevertheless it must be stated: The more natural, the
better; because pure Nature… without human hand and art intervening is by far the best for
honoring the Wisdom, Power and Goodness of God,” he exclaimed (Gunnerus 1763, 312). The
nature he preferred was one that honored God, that proved useful in all matters of improvement,
but which could also deliver facts to the greater world of learning. What he promoted was to
observe in and collect from nature what contemporary naturalists would deem scientifically
interesting. Thus he directed the eyes of the priests towards a specific nature, which consisted of
objects of “pure” nature, one that could be collected and described. Naming and describing the
surface, and noting possible uses were all-important. According to his eulogy the fruit of his
work was that others were encouraged and enlightened: “A passion to wander about in the
Kingdom of nature, to contemplate its riches, to observe its magnificence and graces with a more
attentive eye, and to collect thereof, all unfolded everywhere” (Schøning 1805, 67).
But the objects needed names, as eighteenth-century natural history was at its core a
naming sport. The visible should be provided with a nomenclature. This indeed is the essence of
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
Gunnerus’ activity, he was naming the visible nature, and he trained observers to look and
identify with him. This does not mean that everything visible was important, one had to learn
what to see, as Foucault underlines in his exposition of eighteenth-century natural history
(Foucault 2002 [1966], 144). One of the most striking traits of the natural historical research of
Gunnerus, but also of the majority of works of natural historians in the period, was that one name
was not enough. For Gunnerus, all the names of a plant or a fish were important, the Sami, the
Finnish and the local Norwegian dialect. But this was highly dependent on the existence of one
common denominator which, of course, was Latin. Thereby the politics of language in this
natural historical enterprise made certain kinds of knowledge a precondition for participation.
But this had another implication: The bishop and other naturalists were deeply dependent on the
local population when it came to providing names for the natural objects.
The meetings between Gunnerus, the clergymen, and the members of the congregations
might accurately be described as micro-rituals of official presence. This concept originating with
Stephen Greenblatt has been used by the historian of northern science, Sverker Sörlin, to
describe the encounters between clergymen and the local inhabitants in northern Scandinavia,
where the most prominent aspect of official presence was the church and the clergy (See Bravo
and Sörlin 2002, esp. 83-85). These micro-rituals of official presence would also become rituals
for interrogation where the powerful one depended on the knowledge of the weaker. As for
Kaurin, who complained about the ignorance of the inhabitants of his parish, his complaint
shows the degree to which he was unable to fulfill the naturalist ambition when a flower was
only a flower, without the specific names that were needed.
The need for mastery of Latin put severe limits on who could participate in the realm of
natural history. Clerics and others who had graduated from the Latin schools could be taught to
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
be good observers as well as collectors. Those with knowledge in Latin would in many instances
be encouraged to write pieces and publish them in Skrifter, while those who had no such training
were bound to be observers of another category, and would thus also be barred from becoming
members of the Scientific Society in Trondheim. Most notably this is expressed by P. C. Buck,
the head of the Den Kongelige Handel (The Royal Commerce), the privileged commerce
company for the north, who became an important participant in Gunnerus’ natural observation
and collection network. Living in Hammerfest, what was to become the world’s northernmost
town when it acquired town status in 1789, he lived in an environment with few learned men. Or
to put it more bluntly: Hammerfest became the allegedly smallest town in the world with its 77
inhabitants (1801). But Buck, claiming to be an untutored lover of naturals, was a busy merchant
and naturalist. He had ample contact with people who visited areas untouched by science,
ishavsfarere (hunters in the Arctic sea region) who docked in the town, Russian traders from
Siberia, and Sami hunters and herders. He saw natural history as a possibility of finding new
resources for commercial activity in the north, but he also eagerly made descriptions of creatures
and objects which were meant to support the scientific enterprise of the bishop. His letters also
clearly expressed his reluctance to appear in public. Buck explained that he did not want to have
his observations presented – “I am too weak to withstand the critique” – he claimed, pointing to
the way the newspapers criticize the learned and famous (Buck to Gunnerus, 6 July 1771, in
Dahl). However, we can deduce from his humble letters an ambition to be invited to become a
member of the Society in Trondheim, an honor he would never attain, notwithstanding the
drawings, relations, and observations he produced.
Representations of nature
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
Those named in the publications and who appear in the voluminous correspondence of Gunnerus
are predominantly of the clergy. But there were, as we have seen, other important conveyors of
knowledge for Gunnerus – and then one important question was how the observations made
could and should be represented. One case in point is the representations made of basking sharks,
which was a creature Gunnerus desperately wanted to get hold of. A basking shark is an
enormous fish which can be up to fifteen meters long. In the summer of 1763, a basking shark
was harpooned off the coast of Smøla, not far from Trondheim. Commonly these gigantic fishes
would be killed and their livers cut out while at open sea. This time the fish was towed to shore.
There four horses were needed to get it up on to the beach. The skin was then removed, before
being filled with grass and moss. The upholstered fish was thereafter sent by boat to Trondheim
and transported by way of two horses to the Berg farm just outside the city. Here at the residence
of Bishop Gunnerus, the stuffed animal was observed with utmost care. Gunnerus had been
waiting eagerly for this possibility to examine the previously undescribed basking shark, which
he was subsequently able to name Sqvalus maximus.
The year before, fishermen had been instructed to gather specific information about the
fish, and they had provided him with a drawing, a wooden model, and eye-witness accounts. And
now finally he could see for himself. All visible traits were recorded: mouth, eyes, gills, the size
and placement of the fins. Bits of the thorny skin were scrutinized under Cuff’s microscope,
newly arrived from London. In an article in the Skrifter of the Scientific Society, the information
was conveyed in Danish (and later in German), accompanied by a drawing. There the whole
process of getting hold of the species was described, and some of those who had helped him
were mentioned. But the bishop was not wholly satisfied, as he still was unable to confirm
whether the shark had teeth or not. The mouth and jaw-bones had not arrived with the rest of the
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
animal, and the eye-witness accounts were uncertain. Or better, Gunnerus did not wholly believe
the fishermen, who argued that there were no teeth and that the throat of the fish was very
narrow. The preface of the Skrifter thus informed the readers that all new information about the
basking shark would be positively valued, while the article actually stated that the shark had no
In Gunnerus’ great pains to establish the facts about the shark, numerous different
methods were used. He approached fishermen, local merchants, and the schoolteacher for the
area. He made it clear that he appreciated different sorts of representations, including wooden
models, upholstered skins, and written statements. And he also made it clear that he valued the
different observations made—but he still insisted that the most certain account about the fish, the
way of establishing it as a new species, was that he himself had the thing brought to his premises.
The hierarchy of knowledge and of observers was clear. Fishermen were necessary as they were
normally the only people who actually got to see the shark, which seldom came close to land.
But they were not named in the accounts provided by Gunnerus. The schoolteacher fared better,
as he was named, and lastly the most grateful statements were reserved for the rich merchants
who employed the fishermen and organized the fishing. They were even given remuneration for
their work, a habit the bishop seldom practiced.
The next year, a new article on the basking shark was published in the Skrifter. This time
Gunnerus had received a complete and fresh head—and especially by examining the teeth and
mouth of the shark, Gunnerus was now able to establish more facts about the creature. Again he
provided information about the work involved in getting the head from the far away ocean to his
own collection. But now he also established the animal within another scientific field. The article
proved, according to Gunnerus, that the basking shark was the animal that the biblical figure of
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
Jonas was swallowed by. After considering all relevant sources, Gunnerus could show by way of
a detailed examination of the facts that the animal was the only likely fish which could have
swallowed Jonas without hurting him. The natural fact was thus situated within the field of
theology as well as within the field of natural history.
Learned or Lay?
The flow of objects into the bishop’s house testifies to the success of the project of making
attentive collectors; but did he succeed in making good observers and learned writers? Gunnerus
not only directed his efforts at the potentially learned men in the North. His pastoral letter in
German was distributed to foreign contacts. In company with a few other intellectuals in
Trondheim he was able to establish a Society of Science in 1760. A publication series,
Tronhjemske Selskabs Skrifter was then established, with the first issue arriving in 1761 and with
Gunnerus as the most productive author. It was stated that all articles should be presented in the
vernacular (which was Danish), thereby emphasizing the ambition of creating a national
scientific culture. Still, German translations of the first volumes were soon issued, clear evidence
of the international ambitions of Gunnerus. Only a few persons would actually produce material
that could be worthy of a place in these books, which were intended both for the reasonable but
untutored Norwegians and for international scholars. This double ambition must also be seen as
the reason why the threshold for producing scientific pieces was high for the local clergy and
other lay observers. If too many “uninteresting” local facts were gathered in these collections, it
would lower the status of the society. Yet if it were too advanced, it would lose its local and
national audience.
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
The consequence of the high ambitions of the Skrifter was dire for the establishment of a
writing and learned Norwegian clergy elite. From the vast material the lay observers of
clergymen and commoners collected in Norwegian nature, Gunnerus was the one to extract the
matters of fact that deserved to be put down in writing. One could claim that Gunnerus made
neither the clerics nor the peasants into a writing scientific elite but into providers of raw
material for his scientific projects. Perhaps the strongest expression of this comes from a
missionary, later to become a clergyman, who complained rather bitterly that every time he was
at the point of having something approaching a mineralogical collection, someone demanded the
contents. There seems to be no doubt that this someone was the bishop (Hagland 2002).
But indirectly the local, national audience would have a great influence on the content of
the scientific articles, certainly as providers of the observations and specimens that were
described, but perhaps even more profoundly as part of the intended public for the writings.
Gunnerus’ articles were pedagogical pieces. “Your works are so beautiful, so fulfilled and
elegant that I have hardly ever read anything with greater pleasure,” wrote Linnaeus from
Uppsala; “you present the natural objects so visibly that I imagine seeing them with my own eyes
and feeling them with my own hands” (Linnaeus to Gunnerus, 12 March 1764, in Amundsen).
Gunnerus’ papers on specific specimens give exact information on how he goes about examining
the objects, how one dissects and how one observes, and he explains the essential and enduring
qualities one has to look for. Thus the pedagogic ambitions and the interest in creating local
observers and producers of natural knowledge had a great impact on the way Gunnerus produced
his articles, his style and way of presenting natural knowledge.
Gunnerus’ first scientific article in the first volume of Skrifter began with the following
sentence: “On my visitation journeys, and especially in Nordland and Finnmark, I have collected
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
some natural objects of all kinds, and I have prepared myself to describe some of the pieces,
those that seems to me to deserve it the most” (Gunnerus 1761,184). In this first article about the
fulmar (havhest) he established himself as a collector, and at the same time, the collection as the
place for doing scientific work. He immediately stated that this strange bird was a worthy object
of scientific study, not least because it “gives us sufficient proof of the Wisdom of God” (ibid.).
The collection was thereby established as a place where Science and God were honored through
the bishop’s work.
After this initial framing there followed an extensive description of the bird: the color, the
size, the form of the eyes and the head, the length of the throat, the form of the body, the length
of feathers and wings, with special attention paid to the feet and beak. He painstakingly
examined the bird, all its visible and differential signs. Then he opened the insides, evaluated the
intestines, nerves, blood vessels, and muscles—it was a bird of strong nature and long life (ibid,
184). Gunnerus was not describing a general fulmar, he was describing this particular one, this
exemplar, found by the North Cape, transported for weeks or months on a boat before arriving in
the hands of Gunnerus. Throughout the text Gunnerus guides the reader, focusing his gaze on
this specific bird. We feel like we are with him, watching closely over his shoulder. He
compares, and fetches books where similar birds are described or illustrated. He looks at the
books, we look at the bird, and compare together with him. And then he cuts. On occasions he
must make do with birds decomposing already on arrival, and only compare their surfaces.
Sometimes he dissects on his own, at other times he says, “I let the specimen be cut,” implying
mostly that the town-physician Henrici, educated by Albrecht von Haller in Göttingen, did the
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
Thus the fact emerged: the object was described and encoded in writing. Once
established, Gunnerus could use the facts to counter other descriptions. Other naturalists’
misperceptions and false descriptions were contradicted. Old-fashioned stories in classical
works, or fable and folk tales were presented, evaluated, and corrected. The direct experience of
the object in the enclosed space was the warrant of truth, as he sat there directly sensing it. In this
he relied on a specific use of the senses. Establishing differences in species through sounds
would not do. Plain observation out there in the field was also more or less reliable. But sitting
there, object in hand, with the possibility of opening it up, caring for it, provided by far the most
trustworthy information.
Paula Findlen writes in her book, Possessing Nature, on the early natural historical
collections in Italy, that the collectors saw the museum as a key to making a more precise natural
history. Nature became uniquely close in the museum, and just as the telescope and the
microscope, the collection was a place that enhanced the human senses (Findlen). And this also
seems to have been the function of Gunnerus’ collection – the man who was among the first to
investigate large parts of Norway scientifically, to observe and name Norwegian nature in its
large variety, needed the collection to get close enough to nature to describe it. Authoritative and
true knowledge about nature was hence best produced in a collection in Trondheim.
At the time of his death in 1773, he was a member of numerous scientific societies,
Linnaeus had given his name to an exotic plant family, and the aging Linneaus could write with
remorse, “Salvius is dead, von Switen is dead, Bishop Gunnerus … is dead” (as quoted in Sörlin
and Fagerstedt 2004, 208). Gunnerus experienced an epiphany in Trondheim, by way of the
clergymen. To what degree the clergymen and the laymen were transformed is harder to
establish, but their work as observers was all-important to Gunnerus transformation. However,
Ch. 2 (Brenna: “Clergymen in the Field”)
most of them seem to have contributed in converting and shaping nature into an object worthy of
theological and scientific attention. The laymen abiding in the fields made lasting contributions
to the use and understanding of Norwegian nature.
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