Why is a Chameleon like a Mermaid?

In April 1691, a reader wrote in to a new periodical, The Athenian Mercury, with a pressing question: “Whether, since Mermen and Mermaids have more of the humane shape than other Fishes, they may be thought to have more Reason.” I can honestly say this question had never occurred to me before reading the Mercury, the world’s first question-and-answer periodical. (The editors didn’t really answer the question of reason, but gave an account of a mermaid found in the Netherlands once when the dikes broke.) While we might write off questions about mermaids and unicorns as nonscientific early modern ignorance, the fascinating thing is that readers took exactly the same stance toward topics that we would now classify as natural history. The July 11, 1691, edition included two such questions: “Whether there be any such thing as a Chameleon, and whether the Properties reported thereof are true, that it changes into Colours, and lives upon Air?” and “Is the Story of the Tarantula, &c real, or only a Fable?” Just as with the mermaid question, the editors cite “other accounts” in affirming that both chameleons and tarantulas actually exist.

The technique of using reader letters to raise such questions offers an unique window onto early modern “scientific” method. The periodicals of the late seventeenth century, as I’m discovering, were heavily reliant on letters as what we might now call “content aggregators.” There were no professional reporters when newspapers were just starting out, so the periodicals were more assembled than written. Almost as soon as there were papers, readers began writing letters to the editor, an amazing phenomenon given the unsteady state of the postal system at the time (London had an efficient, central postal system with up to 12 (!) daily deliveries, but sending mail from the country to the capital or between provincial towns was difficult and expensive). The editors cultivated and, often, exaggerated this active readership, but it also seems to be a somewhat spontaneous trend—one that has continued to the present day.

The use of letters allowed the papers to include an incredibly wide range of content. Every issue of John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury (1691-97) consisted of a series of readers’ letters and the answers of the “Athenian Society,” which Dunton claimed had around 10 members but in fact consisted of himself and two friends. The letters provided free and easy content (sound familiar?), but also served an epistemological purpose, as they allowed Dunton to jump from topic to topic without any transitions. The letter-based format of the Mercury reveals much about early modern knowledge, as it demonstrates a world without clear boundaries between science and magic/religion.

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