Book Review: Markus zum Lamm Die Vogelbilder

Marcus zum Lamm (1544-1606) must be one of the best kept secrets in the history of the canary.  Most people with an interest in the subject have never heard of him.  Neither had I until Tim Birkhead told me about the work of two German researchers who had published a book on zum Lamm’s illustrated manuscripts on ornithology.

Those researchers were Ragnar K. Kinzelbach and Jochen Hölzinger who followed up the work of Erwin Stresemann, one of the outstanding ornithologists of the twentieth century, and his student Albrecht Schwan who discovered zum Lamm’s manuscripts (1). Their book Markus zum Lamm Die Vogelbilder (Markus zum Lamm: the bird pictures) was published in 2001.

zum Lamm portraits-fss

Markus zum Lamm (1544-1606) was a Protestant cleric at the court of the prince-electors of the Palatinate in Heidelberg (2).  He produced a manuscript entitled the Thesaurus Picturarum, a personal illustrated encyclopaedia in 33 volumes, which recorded what he knew of the world around him.  The manuscripts have become an important historical resource for studies of Calvinism (and thus German history) and climate change (3).  Fortunately for ornithologists and aviculturalists, zum Lamm devoted three volumes to birds, and it is these that are the subject of the book.

These volumes cover 185 kinds of birds, although some, like the Phoenix, are mythological subjects.  zum Lamm followed the format of Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (4) but crucially made revisions based on his own observations of the birds he saw in the wild, in the local market, and in the palace menagerie.  He employed four artists to illustrate the birds working to a standard pattern (e.g. most of the birds look left).  They are all hand coloured and the colours are still vivid after more than 400 years (5).

zum Lamm grouped the canaries with the Yellowhammer, presumably because the yellow mutations confused him.  He illustrated four birds: the wild type, male (illustrated) and female; and two mutations, one of which appears to be an intensive yellow colour (6) and the other a variegated bird with a crest which was shown in History, Part 6.

zum Lamm male canary-fss

His description tells us that the birds had been kept in a cage since they were youngsters and that they were drawn from life.  These were therefore domesticated canaries, not imports.

The yellow mutation is clearly a canary, not a bunting, although the confusion is understandable.  zum Lamm had to rely on his own observations; there were no bird books to guide him, and even Gesner’s description was based on reports from others (7). Kinzelbach and Hölzinger believe that these mutations had ‘apparently only quite recently entered the trade from Tyrol or Nurnberg’.  I can’t vouch for the bird trade, but I think this is a reasonable inference: their presence in a royal palace seems to endorse Gesner’s report that they could be found only ‘in the houses of great men’.

These paintings were probably created around 1580.  That is an astonishing fact.  Great authors like Aldrovandi (1600), Olina(1622), Jonstonus (1657) and Ray (1676), all writing later than zum Lamm, talk about the canary as a luxury pet but illustrate only the wild type. Thanks to zum Lamm’s wonderful record we now know that the domestication of the canary was well advanced in the previous century.

Markus zum Lamm Die Vogelbilder is not just a milestone in the development of the canary; it’s real appeal is to those interested in the development of ornithology.  The illustrations are wonderful, and for those able to translate the text, it gives a marvellous insight to a world where ornithology had not been invented.  Knowledge of bird life was distorted by myth and folklore; progress dependent on original observation and an enquiring mind.  Against the odds, zum Lamm succeeded.

The book is beautifully presented, but it has its weaknesses.  The most obvious is that it is available only in German, and academic German at that, which I found difficult to translate into English (8).  As a result it is little known outside Germany, and apart from Tim Birkhead’s writings, the rest of the western world seems oblivious to it (9).  There are also some howlers in the text.  According to the authors ‘the canary was initially a Spanish monopoly’  and ‘supposedly only females were exported’ (!).

For anyone interested in bird history, this book is a treasure.   It deserves to be better known, but that is unlikely unless an English translation is published.  In the meantime, let’s be glad that Kinzelbach and Hölzinger made it available in German.  A good buy. (10)

Foonotes:

  1. Stresemann was professor in charge of the bird department at the Berlin Zoological Museum.  Schwan discovered the manuscripts while researching for his Ph.D. published in 1926.  Source: The Red Canary by Tim Birkhead,  2003, p.98-103.
  2. The Palatinate was a patchwork of princely states in the Rhineland.
  3. zum Lamm kept a meteorological diary which is of particular interest to climatologists because Europe was going through a mini-Ice Age at this time.  He also predicted climatic changes from his observations of nature.
  4. Historiae Animalium, by Conrad Gesner, 1555, q.v. History, part 6.
  5. Artists hand-mixed their colours right up to the late eighteenth century when ready-mixed products started to become available.  Yellow was a difficult colour to achieve until Gamboge (a tree resin) was imported from Asia in the seventeenth century.
  6. It seems that the wild-colour birds were buffs/non-intensive/schimmel, while the mutation was a yellow/intensive feathered bird.
  7. Historiae Animalium, by Conrad Gesner, 1555, q.v. History, part 6.
  8. All translations into English are mine.  Beware!
  9. Valerie Chansigaud does not mention zum Lamm in her otherwise comprehensive history of ornithology All About Birds (2009).
  10. I obtained my copy via www.Abebooks.co.uk .

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Markus zum Lamm Die Vogelbilder

  1. It would be nice if you could post zum Lamm’s other two canary pix to complete the set … Just curious.

    1. If I thought they were exceptional, I would have published them. Besides, it provides an incentive for people to buy the book!

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