Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Patrick Anthony on Paleontology and German Romanticism

by contributing editor Max Norman

Patrick Anthony is a historian of science and the environment and received his PhD from Vanderbilt University in 2021. He recently spoke with Max Norman about his article “Making Historicity: Paleontology and the Proximity of the Past in Germany, 1775-1825,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2).

Max Norman: Who was Johann Christian Rosenmüller, and why did you choose to use his investigation of a “cave bear” to explore the relationship between paleontology and German Romanticism?

Patrick Anthony: Rosenmüller (1771-1820) was a surgeon and speleologist of middle-class origins, and he is one of the most fascinating Romantic figures I’ve encountered. This is because he worked between human and terrestrial interiority—bodies and caves, Menschen- and Erdkörper (literally, ‘earth body’). I believe the Romantic era generally saw a spatialization of time. Especially significant in German-speaking Europe was the new earth science of “geognosy,” which classified rocks according to the age of their formation, correlating depth and time. Rosenmüller belonged to a generation of naturalists and poets who shared the geognists’ historicism and saw mountains in particular as repositories of the past, which one might enter and investigate. When he inspected the fossil-rich caverns of Franconia in the 1790s, Rosenmüller became especially interested in the bones of an extinct animal that others had called a whale, unicorn, or perhaps a polar bear. Rosenmüller re-imagined these curious fossils as a “cave bear” indigenous to German lands, whose extinction was not caused by great primordial floods but by the more recent arrival of human beings. By re-interpreting the bear as such and spinning a great saga of human events around it, Rosenmüller responded to a longing for natural monuments and mythologies, which was palpable in the Romantic art of his time.

MN: How did Rosenmüller explain the presence of the bear in Germany? In what ways was his account inflected by politics?

PA: Naturalists before and after Rosenmüller used catastrophic events to explain the bear’s disappearance from German lands. Some believed the Deluge had swept the bear from its arctic home into Germany, while others thought the bear had dwelt in German caverns before being extinguished by the Flood. But both explanations implied a clear distinction between former and present worlds, relegating the bear to prehistory. By contrast, Rosenmüller used the early evolutionary thinking, especially Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s concept of Bildungstrieb (‘formative drive’), to establish a continuity that brought the primordial nearer the present. By viewing the bear not as a fixed natural kind but a species subject to environmental modifications, Rosenmüller was able to theorize its development as a product of “our German forests” and even speculate about its “degeneration” after being driven into new climes by the advance of humans. It was not new evidence that made this explanation possible. What changed was the political milieu in which Rosenmüller theorized as a cultural nationalism took root in Germany on both a local and national level. A native of Franconia, Rosenmüller presented “our cave bear” as a link between present-day Germany and a heroic past that pitted humans against beasts. Like Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, similarly imbued with Highland mythology, the caves of Franconia now stored narrative of national heritage.

MN: You draw on Foucault’s concept of historicity to explain what German paleontologists were seeking in their work. What does historicity mean, and why is it useful for you methodologically?

PA: Rosenmüller’s study of fossils reflected a dizzying array of scholarly traditions and social aspirations, from anatomy and archaeology to “primitivist” poetry and revolutionary politics. This article’s source base has a corresponding breadth, ranging from Rosenmüller’s own illustrations of skulls and caverns to the practices of stone- and stalagmite-inscription by which contemporaries literally wrote themselves into natural history. But there was a common way of thinking underlay all this activity: a sense of historical continuity, which Rosenmüller inscribed—literally and figuratively—into the mountains. In The Order of Things, Foucault described analogous process by which “moderns” inscribed the continuity of time into the cognitive depths of Man between ca. 1775 and 1825. He called this “historicity.” I think Foucault is a great source of inspiration for anyone interested in charting pervasive and sometimes ineffable patterns of thought through various disciplines, media, and forms of knowledge, as was my aim in this article. And so I have made use of a Foucauldian lexicon here to articulate Rosenmüller’s efforts to recover from the depths of the earth a historicity into which he inscribed his own being. For the cave-goers, paleontologists, and “primitivist” poets of his time, underground travel allowed one to perform historicity—to move between natural and human history, or to collapse them altogether.

Max Norman studied comparative literature and classics in America and England, and now writes often on art and literature for magazines in both countries.

Featured Image: Drawing from Johann Christian Rosenmüller, Beiträge zur Geschichte und nähern Kenntniss fossiler Knochen, 1795. Scan courtesy of Göttinger Digitalisierungszentrum.

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