In the beginning, the Earth spontaneously generated forms in rock, some of which resembled living organisms. Stone forms grew within stones. Just as living organisms above ground gave birth to living young, so the Earth itself produced subterranean stone simulacra of living organisms. As above, so below. That was how they came about – mostly.
Some fossil seashells on the tops of mountains were said to be formed by the stars. Swiss physician, zoologist and botanist Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) wrote that gems were earthly reminders of the jewelled heavenly City of God. Influential Persian philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) stated that fossils were produced by vapours and exhalations in the depths of the earth, like gallstones and pearls.
Some fossils were assumed to be generated through astrological influences, or were "sports of nature", put there by a playful Mother Nature or by a time-travelling Satan to test men's faith. Other fossils were the bodies of the many people and animals that were collateral damage from and evidence for Biblical Flood, including the shells of sea creatures found at the summits of mountains.
Or fossils were just artefacts left by supernatural beings – such as the lethal darts and arrows of the fairy folk. Or fossil finds were "thunderstones" that fell from the sky, or the curled ram's horns adorning the brows of the god Amun, or the chakras from the centre of the hand of Vishnu. Some were the bones of human giants, as documented in Genesis - "There were giants in the earth in those days." In the earth, so presumably underground.
Where fossils did look like the bones of animals that bore little resemblance to animals still alive, it was deduced that such animals were still extant, just awaiting discovery in a part of the world yet to be explored. The American Incognitium, whose fossilised bones were discovered in the Ohio River in 1740, displayed similarities to an elephant but with teeth suggesting a carnivorous diet. The backers of the Lewis and Clark transcontinental expedition that set out in 1805 were confident the Incognitium (later known as the mastodon) would be found alive and well by the explorers in the vast prairies of the American West.
There couldn't anyway have been much time for the animals still alive at the time of the fossil bones' discovery to have changed over the generations from something originally very different. There hadn’t been all that many generations in which to pass on characteristics in a universe in which most of human and natural history were packed into the four millennia between the Creation (on 4th October 4004BC, as helpfully calculated by Bishop Usher of Armagh) and the birth of Christ.
There wasn't even the expectation that fossils were once anything alive. The word "fossil" comes from the Latin fossilus, literally something dug up. Interesting-looking minerals, worked flints used by early humans and meteorites (FT 265) were all lumped together with what we today would define as fossils.
The idea that fossils were the petrified bones of long-dead animals, was quite the least fashionable explanation. The baggage of fossil folklore about fairy darts, fairy loaves, "tongue stones" and "thunder stones" didn't help – such old wives’ tales made natural philosophers wary of approaching the subject.
The great Aristotle, who had dominated the "natural philosophy" curriculum for centuries, could still do no wrong. Aristotle had dealt with the issue of fossils definitively inOn Generation and Corruption. Here he concluded that the starfish found turned to stone in the mountains had spontaneously formed and had come to life when the mountains "hardened", there followed much discourse about wetness and dryness and life and death. Aristotle’s idea of two extremes of "wet and dry" dominating the world were themselves informed by the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon, who lived from around 570BCE to 478BCE and whose works survive in commentaries by Hippolytus. Xenophanes argued that fluctuating extremes of wetness and dryness would result in the extinction of humankind, and later bring it back to life.
As evidence, Xenophanes cited fossilised fish and seaweed in Syracusian quarries, a bay leaf found in marble and impressions of “all kinds of marine life” far inland on Malta. He concluded that water must once have covered the Earth’s surface. Albertus Magnus in The Book of Minerals, the first major work on mineralogy, developed Aristotle's ideas. Magnus was convinced all stones are formed where they are found through "some force of the configuration of heaven," that in “regions of the Pyrenees” rainwater turns to stone, that "reliable reports" mention a spring in Sweden that turns everything dipped in it to stone, and that "sigils" - signs on stones showing the markings of leaves – indicate that those stones have medicinal properties. Other natural philosophers attributed fossils to a vague "lapidifying virtue", a “plastick virtue" or "moulding force", an inherent Aristotelian characteristic of the Earth.
At a time of very limited knowledge of skeletons and anatomy, the principle of comparative anatomy was not as obvious at it seems today, with so little collected physical evidence to go on. A tooth of St Christopher venerated in Italy turned out to be a mammoth molar.The long-venerated bones of the founding fathers of Christianity on the island of Cyprus turned out to be those of pygmy hippos.
Invertebrate fossils were even harder to interpret – their soft tissue is rarely preserved, only the hard shells survive, often less recognisable. The numerous internal cast fossils of the innards of the fossil shrimp Branchiopoda, preserved in abundance in strata in Michigan after its shell had rotted away, were easily mistaken by European settlers as the petrified trackway of ancient deer. The spines of sea urchins seldom survive fossilisation, so what remains is their inner shell. When these were dug up inland they were taken to be “fairy loaves” because of their resemblance to a roundish loaf of bread.
German philosopher, scientist and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz (1646-1716) reconstructed mammoth bones as a unicorn. As late as 1850, fossil mammals were still being interpreted as mythical beasts. It’s noteworthy that the serious investigation of fossils and their origins really took after the invention of printing, which made comparison of specimens much easier.
That the most obvious explanation is probably the best one was an alien concept in the days when scholarship was the preserve of a very narrow elite, their thinking dominated by the study of Aristotle and the fathers of natural philosophy.
Into this world of stone simulacra spontaneously generated by the Aristotelian “wetness” or “dryness” stepped a proto-fortean outsider, heretic, polymath, dissident and genius Bernard Palissy, who by accident stumbled across the truth about what fossils were. He was not the first and certainly not the last in a long line of thinkers who played a part on the gradual process of figuring out fossils and who did their bit in overturning the prevailing fashionable scientific Establishment paradigm.
Palissy was a surveyor (his most profitable side-hustle), a worker in stained glass, a potter and a builder of aqueducts who hadn’t even learned Greek or Latin but whose programme of public lectures would later inspire the foundation of the Academie Francaise. Despite enjoying the patronage and protection of the Queen Mother of France, Pallisy became a martyr to his beliefs, refusing to recant when facing life imprisonment in old age in the Bastille. Although it wasn’t for any scientific heresy about fossils that Pallisy was condemned, but for his Protestantism.
He was some 40 years ahead of his time in setting up a Parisian "Little Academy 'at which he gave paid-for lectures on a variety of subjects. One of the regular attendees was a young English University of Paris student named Francis Bacon, who was greatly influenced by Palissy’s ideas, in particular Palissy’s assertion that "Practice is the source of theory... By experiment I prove in several places that the theory of several philosophers is false, even of the most renowned and the most ancient."
Bernard Palissy was born into a French family of modest means around 1510. Speculation places his birth at either the town of Saintes, in the Charente region of Aquitaine (Western France) and not far from the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle, or possible la Chapelle-Biron, near Agen or in the nearby glassworkers' settlement in the woods in Agenois.
He certainly spent much of his early life around Saintes. His father was poor, but of "noble birth" and Bernard inherited his father's profession of painter in stained glass and a manufacturer of roof tiles. This was at a time when fashions in church decoration meant that the demand for stained glass was falling, with plain glass becoming more fashionable, so Bernard struggled to make a living. His education in literature and maths was of a high standard for the time, later landing him surveying work.
It was as a semi-itinerant stained glass painter that the young Palissy wandered across France for at least five years starting from 1525, a voyage that took in Nimes, the southwest, the Paris region, through the and the Pyrenees and onward to Antwerp and Brest, possibly even into the Netherlands and into Germany.
It was while travelling to find work that he came across whole strata of the petrified shells of sea creatures. He later noted that the flood from Genesis would have left just a layer of dead seashells at the tops of mountains as the waters receded after 40 days – but here in the mountains was layer upon layer of seashells – if you hacked into that bed of seashells there were just more and more of them underneath. Bernard eventually settled in Saintes in 1535 as a glazier and painter in stained glass. He married in 1539 at the age of 29 and went on to have six children.
One day in Saintes, so the probably embellished story goes, Palissy was shown a small cup made of enamelled pottery, which had probably come from Italy or possibly have been majolica earthenware from Spain, via Italy. In any event, such techniques were unknown at the time in France. He was transfixed, he found the cup “enamelled with so much beauty the from that time I entered into controversy with my own thoughts... I began to think that if I should discover how to make enamels I could make earthen vessels and other things very prettily.” He vowed to his make it his life’s mission to recreate that enamel glaze on pottery, becoming "Pallisy the potter".
He built a kiln near his home and threw all his resources into experimenting with exotic and expensive glazes at high temperatures for the next six years. Palissy later described this as a time of being "wonderfully” poor" and "despised... as one little better than a madman." He recalled smashing up and burning the "tables and floorboards of my house" to fuel the kiln, although this story is probably an invention.
In 1543 King Francois ordered a new - much-hated - salt tax, whose orderly administration required a survey of the salt marshes around Saintonge, near Saintes. Palissy spent most of the next year carrying out the survey, the fee for which allowed him to renew his efforts into finding that perfect white enamel, using higher temperature glass blowing kilns with more success.
Palissy "began to look for enamels as a man gropes in the dark." In his ten-year search (or sixteen years according to some versions), he in his own words “blundered many times at a great expense... pounding and grinding new materials and constructing new furnaces, which cost much money and consumed my wood and my time... I fooled away several years with sorrow and sighs.” Eventually, out of the glass furnace he pulled a shard with "a suitably beautiful white enamel."
There followed seven months in secret learning to work clay. In his third furnace he discovered the earthenware came out encrusted with jagged bits, the local clay being so flinty. Clay from other regions of France solved that problem.
It's not clear whether Palissy had actually cracked his quest for the perfect enamel, although he claimed to have. At around this time, though, he began to produce rustiques figurlines (“rusticware”, later known as Palissyware). This caught the eye of the Constable (later Duke of) Montmorency, who was in the area on a punitive expedition against a salt tax rebellion. Montmorency had seen some fine examples of Palissy’s “rusticware” in local manor houses and on the strength of these commissioned Palissy to build retreats on his estates.
The striking Palissyware took the form of sumptuous dishes and bowls in natural colours, with mouldings and reliefs in the shape of a cornucopia of creatures - usually frogs, snakes, snails, small fish, plants, bugs, tortoises, crustaceans and seashells from the local Santoigne marshes, painted in a smooth glossy glaze that resembled their glossy skin. He used coloured lead glazes, lead silicates with added oxides of copper, cobalt, manganese or iron with tin added.
The animals depicted on Palissyware were extraordinarily realistic – because they were actually cast from moulds made from dead animals. These included impressions taken from fossils of the shells of long-extinct Tertiary gastropods from the Paris basin. He took his secret of how he cast these creatures "from life", with no signs of harm, to the grave.
Through making moulds for his pottery using the real bodies of recently dead animals, Palissy quickly grasped that a similar process was at work in nature – sediments formed around the remains of plants and animals and over time these solidified into rock-hard fossils – particularly the hard shells of invertebrates. There were no stones forming within stones, nor was some sort of Aristotelian natural mechanism at work that threw up spontaneous forms or through “wetness” or “dryness” petrified still living animals or brought them back to life again. The great philosophers were wrong.
It was around the time that his Palissyware began to take off that he converted to Protestantism and became one of the founders of the Reformed Church of Saintes, after holding meetings in his studio.
After 16 years mostly in poverty, Palissy suddenly found rich patrons. As well as Montmerency, the Count of Maulevrier, the Montpensiers and the Valois family all employed him to decorate their palaces, grottos and gardens. Palissy spent a while working on tiles for Montmorenci’s new palace, Chateau d’Ecouen. He came to the attention of the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, the powerful regent of France during the minority of her son Charles IX. Catherine’s accounts for 1570 include, "To Bernard, Nicholas and Mathurin Palissys, sculptors in earth, the sum of 2600 livres for all the baked and enamelled work which were required for the completion of the four bridges which lead to the grotto commenced for the queen, in her palace near the Louvre".
The laying out of royal gardens at Tuileries in Paris, a project originally for the Constable of Paris, was quickly taken over by Catherine, who employed Palissy on it. He became "Bernard of the Tuileries". His work on landscape planning became important in the development of forestry conservation.
Palissy's aristocratic clients issued him safe conducts to complete his work. But his openly expressed views identified him as a Protestant. His enemies broke into his pottery studio at a time when they knew that Palissy’s client Sire de Pons, the king’s lieutenant in Saintogne, would be away. They destroyed the studio and arrested Palissy for Calvinism. He was imprisoned first in Saintes and then in Bordeaux. His protectors managed to have him moved from Bordeaux - away from the vindictive Bordeaux Parliament - and to prison in Paris. There he wrote his first book, Recepte véritable par laquelle tous les hommes de la France pourront apprendre à multiplier et augmenter leurs trésors (True recipe by which all the men of France will be able to learn to multiply and increase their treasures), published shortly after his release in 1563.
In Recepte véritable, Palissy recalled how walking among rocks around the town of Saintes, he came across "stones which are made in the manner of a sheep's horn, not so long nor so curved, but commonly are arched" are about half a foot long. Years later a citizen of Saintes gifted him "one of the said stones, which was half open, and had certain indentations, which joined admirably one in the other." From then on, Palissy “knew that the said stone had been at other times a fish shell, of which we no longer see any. And we must estimate and believe that this kind of fish has frequented other times in the sea of Saintogne: because there are a great number of said stones, but the kind of fish has been lost" - through over-fishing, he speculated.
Palissy commented “how ignorant people assert that nature or the sky created [the fossils] by celestial influences”. He posed the question, "Why do we find so many fragments of shells between two layers of stones, if not because these shells already deposited on the beach were covered with a land thrown back by the sea, which land then came." He argued that minerals, dissolving into water to form “congelative water,” would precipitate and thereby petrify once living organisms in order to create fossils. He even observed that a recently dead sea urchin was beginning to shed its spines, making it more closely resemble the "fairy loaves" of its fossil form.Dunwich Museum. Photo by the author.
Montmorenci persuaded Catherine to declare Palissy a "royal servant", which shielded Palissy from the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, after which he laid low in Sedan, returning to Paris two years later. It was there that he started the Little Academy, lecturing on subjects as diverse as fountains, drinking water, alchemy, metallurgy, the causes of earthquakes and volcanos and fossils. These were a great success and continued to 1584.
The Little Academy included a cabinet of curiosities – fossils, shells and natural history illustration. He describes spoil form roadworks in La Rochelle containing chunks of rock so crowded with shells he couldn'g put a knife between them. He employed "a score of women and children" to hunt fossil shellfish him.
During his Little Academy period, Palissy wrote his second book, Discours admirables de la Nature des Eaux et Fontaines tant naturelles qu'artificielles des métaux, des sels et salines, des pierres, des terres, du feu et des émaux (Admirable Discourse on the Nature of Waters and Fountains, both Natural and Artificial, Metals, Salts and Salines, Stones, Earths, Fire and Enamels), a collections of his lectures which appeared in 1580. The Admirable Discourse described in detail his theories on fossils, along with rants about “immodest” contemporary fashion and condemnations of doctors prescribing gold dust to patients.
The Biblical deluge, felt Palissy, had been of too short a duration to explain seashells on mountain tops. He’d heard of a cliff high in the Apennine Mountains where shells are hacked out of the bottom, the beginning and the middle of a deep fossil bed. He asked, “By what door the sea entered to place the said shells in the middle of the hardest rock".
Arrested again in 1586, Palissy was banished to Sedan in 1587. He breached the terms of his exile and returned to Paris the following year, where he was arrested yet again and condemned to death. One of his admirers, the Duke of Mayenne, tried to obstruct and delay his trial for the next four years. His friends succeeded in having Palissy’s death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. King Henry III visited Palissy, then aged 79, in the Bastille, where it is said Palissy rejected the King's offer of a pardon if he converted to Catholicism. Palissy also gave help and comfort to younger Protestant prisoners, at great personal risk. He died of "hunger, cold and poor treatment" in the Bastille in around 1589.
Palissy's lack of Greek or Latin meant he didn't enjoy an international audience. But some 30 years after the young Francis Bacon had attended Palissy's Little Academy, Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) became the basis for what's now known as the Baconian Method for scientific investigation, partly inspired by Palissy. Another attendee at Palissy's little academy had been Pierre de la Priumaudaye, the presumed author of the book series Academie Francaise - an attempt at an encyclopaedic work begun in 1618, including a "notable description of the whole world". Naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), author of the groundbreaking 36-volume Histoire Naturelle also read and was influenced by Palissy's works.
© Matt Salusbury 2021Further reading:
Oeuvres de Bernard Palissy, Rualt, Paris, 1777,
"Bernard Palissy : artiste, savant, écrivain et naturaliste de la Renaissance", Aurélien Morhain, Ouest Paleo,
Prehistoric Mammals and Fossils, Micheal Smith, Ladybird, Loughborough, 1974
The Book of Minerals, Albertus Magnus
The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Gary D. Rosenberg (ed.), Geological Society of America Memoir, Boulder, Colorado, 2009
On Generation and Corruption, Aristotle,
"The Bacon brothers in France", Peter Dawkins, Francis Bacon Research Trust 2020.
The Rise of the Mammals, Dr Michael Benton, The Apple Press/Quarto Pubs, 1991
Bernard Palissy the Huguenot Potter, Annie E Keeling, Wesleyan Conference Office, London 1881
Palissy the Potter, Henry Morley, Chapman and Hall, London, 1885
The Story of Palissy the Potter (Lessons from Noble Lives), T. Nelson and Sons, London, 1875 ‘