March 19, 2005

Bishop Wilkins’s Ark

Bishop John Wilkins’s Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668), has enjoyed a revival of interest in recent years, thanks on one hand to the researches of Umberto Eco, who discusses the Essay at length in his book In Search of the Perfect Language, and on the other to the endeavours of Neal Stephenson, in whose Baroque Cycle of novels, Wilkins features as a character. The second part of the Essay is an ‘enumeration and description of all those things and notions to which names are to be assigned:’ that is, an attempt to provide a structured classification for every possible noun.

Thumbnail image of the table concerning Ark species quotas on p.164 of Wilkins's 'Essay'.

In Part 2, Chapter V, Wilkins enumerates and describes the animal kingdom, which he subdivides into imperfect creatures (invertebrates) and perfect ones, where the latter are further split into the categories of fishes, birds and beasts. To this taxonomy, Wilkins appends a curious digression, explaining how, in his opinion—and contrary to the views of ‘some hereticks of old, and some Atheistical scoffers in these later times,’—all of the world’s beasts could have easily been accommodated in Noah’s Ark, as described in Genesis, 6/15. On the crucial question of how many sorts of beasts or birds there are in the world, Wilkins optimistically reckons that ‘it will appear that they are much fewer then is commonly imagined, not a hundred sorts of Beasts, nor two hundred of Birds.’

Thumbnail image of the interior of the Ark on p.167 of Wilkins's 'Essay'.


Thumbnail image of the exterior of the Ark on p.167 of Wilkins's 'Essay'.

There is even an illustration (of which the pair of images above are details) depicting an exterior view of the Ark as Wilkins imagines it, along with a plan view of its interior. It is an ugly and impractical-looking vessel, an enormous floating barn. Its seaworthiness seems questionable, but, Wilkins claims, ‘tis not likely that in the time of the deluge, when the whole Earth was overflowed, that there should be any such rough and boisterous winds as might endanger a Vessel of this Figure; such winds usually proceeding from dry Land.’ He takes greater pains to assure the reader that its capacity was sufficient for the several hundred species in question, and for their food, which should have included, according to his calculations, 40,500 solid cubits of compressed hay, and, for the ‘rapacious beasts,’ 1,825 sheep.

Thumbnail image of a table on the classification of shapes, on p.187 of Wilkins's 'Essay'.
It is plain in the description which Moses gives of the Ark that it was divided into three stories, each of them ten cubits or fifteen foot high, besides one cubit allowed for the declivity of the roof in the upper story. And ’tis agreed upon as most probable, that the lower story was assigned to contein all the species of beasts, the middle story for their food, and the upper story, in one part of it, for the birds and their food, and the other part for Noah, his family and utensils.
Thumbnail image of a table on the classification of directional terms, on p.311 of Wilkins's 'Essay'.

I lifted the quotations above from the on-line edition of the Essay (see the fifth link in the first paragraph). Refer to pages 162-8 for the digression concerning the Ark. The tables and images (the last two having nothing to do, by the way, with the Ark) were scanned from my copy of the Thoemmes Press edition of the book. Click on the details to see them in full.

Posted by misteraitch at March 19, 2005 11:31 AM

This is really neat stuff! Thank you for bringing this to our attention - as always.


Posted by: kartien on March 20, 2005 07:51 PM

Yet again a very extraordinary link, which sometimes makes me believe that your library is in fact a T.A.R.D.I.S. I just adore the complete feasability study he has done trying to cover most practical details and the conclusions he derives.

Posted by: Gamera on March 20, 2005 08:51 PM

If you are interested in Wilkins, and the intellectual milieu and tradition from which he came, I thoroughly recommend _The Garden, Ark, Tower and Temple: Biblical Metaphors of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe_, the catalogue of a wonderful exhibition I saw at the Bodleian Library a few years ago:

Posted by: John Hudson on March 21, 2005 12:45 AM

Thanks H!, intresting stuff, as always

Borges has written an essay "El idioma analtico de John Wilkins" about Wilkins' analytical language.


Posted by: Jari T on March 21, 2005 02:58 PM

I've discovered your blog last weekend, and I'm amazed and delghted. I specially love the posts about the baroque art and times.

I also must recommend that Borges essay. And apologize for my english

Posted by: C. Rancio on March 21, 2005 11:45 PM

Further to John Hudson’s comment above: the website for ‘The Garden, The Ark, The Tower, The Temple’ exhibition is still on-line: which is good, as that catalogue is proving difficult to find!

And of course I should have mentioned Borges’s essay. Its English translation can be found here, at Paul Perry’s

Posted by: misteraitch on March 22, 2005 03:50 PM

Hm, yes, without being too original here: I have just discovered your blog and I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. This is so great!

Posted by: Loxias on March 23, 2005 07:13 AM

Is this the same Bishop Wilkins who said that someday man would invent a craft to take him to the moon ???

Posted by: Bill Graves on May 13, 2005 02:39 AM
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