Linnaean traditions

A flower king with many interests

Linnaeus in his thirties wearing Sami attire
from Lapland. The portrait was painted in
Holland in 1737 by M. Hoffmann. His interest
in Sami culture shows another aspect of
Linnaeus’ curiosity.

Linnaeus has been somewhat one-sidedly depicted as only being interested in plants. His work in botany is well known, and his sexual system is still studied in schools. It is less well known what an extraordinarily multifaceted scientist he was. All of nature was his research field, and all plants, animals, and minerals needed to be described and systematized. In the 18th century, what Linnaeus did was referred to by the collective name of natural history. Natural history comprised what we today would call botany, zoology, and mineralogy—that is, the sciences of plants, animals, and stones.

So even though the main thrust of the Linnaean tradition consists of botanical research, there are many side branches, major and minor, that are worth knowing about. The Linnaean tradition has also taken new paths, coming to mean different things in different periods.

This is a development that can be likened to a tree and its branches. There is a trunk, a few large boughs, and many small branches in different directions that all combine to make a lush crown.

The most important branches could be summarized under the following headings:

Botany: Read more at Linnaeus, plants, and animals.

Zoology: It might be claimed that Linnaeus’ influence on zoology was greater than on botany. 

Mineralogy: Linnaeus was also interested in stones and minerals. 

Medicine: Linnaeus was a physician, which is often forgotten. In the 19th century he was a major source of inspiration to the remarkable physician and romantic Israel Hwasser. It was through him, for example, that Linnaeus came to be so influential in Swedish idealism.

Literature: Linnaeus’ writings, especially his travel diaries, came to have an important impact on literary developments in Sweden. This involves both what came to be considered worth describing and the way this was done. In other words, there is still today a living literary tradition that harks back to Linnaeus. 

View of nature: Linnaeus and the Linnaean tradition came to influence the view of nature in Sweden in many ways. The protection that plants and animals enjoy in Sweden and the love that many Swedes feel for nature are not self-evident. If you travel to southern Europe you will find an entirely different attitude, with animals and nature not being valued in the same way as in Sweden. Pursuing outdoor leisure activities to the extent we do is typically Swedish. Another way Linnaeus affected our view of nature was his work to raise the status of biology as a school subject.

Broberg, Gunnar ed., Linnaeus: Progress and Prospects in Linnean research (1980).
Brusewitz, Gunnar, Carl von Linné: En introduktion till skrifterna (Gidlunds, 1987).
Dal, Björn, Sveriges zoologiska litteratur: En berättande översikt om svenska zoologer och deras tryckta verk (Kjuge, 1996).
Eriksson, Gunnar, Botanikens historia i Sverige intill år 1800 (Stockholm, 1969).
Frängsmyr, Tore ed., Linnaeus: The Man and His Work (Canton, 1994).
Hagberg, Knut, "Den linneanska traditionen", Svenska Linnésällskapets Årsskrift 1941.

Linnaeus’ method

An ornithologist examining a
stuffed bird.
From E. Streseman Die
Entwicklung der Ornithologie

It is sometimes claimed that Linnaeus and the Linnaean tradition were one-sidely interested in species description and systematization. Linnaeus himself summarized his method in 38 brief rules for the study of an object of nature. These rules, which constitute a research method, show that he was interested in much more.

If we wish to describe a natural object, let’s say a bird, Linnaeus says that it is extremely important to give a specific family and species name. Synonyms must also be given, that is, if the same bird has been given another name by other authors.

Popular names and the etymology of the family name should also be indicated. Then the class and order the bird belongs to should be given, as well as any family it was previously classified under.

The species description must be as complete as possible: all of the bird’s external parts must be described. The most important characteristics should be indicated, and the bird should be compared with other species in the same family. Variation within the species should be described as well. Added to this, information should be supplied regarding time for reproduction, growth, mating, habitat, longitude and latitude, climate, soil, diet, habits, and disposition. The anatomy of the bird should also be described, and a microscope should be used in the examination of the body. Next, some indication should be given of whether the bird has any economic or practical utility.

Birds from Linnaeus’ Fauna Svecica

If it is not a new species, the name of the first person to describe the bird must be mentioned. Historical traditions involving the bird should be recounted and illustrative poetic depictions may be quoted. Any fallacious or superstitious notions must be rejected, however.

Lönnberg, Einar & Aurivillius, Christopher, ”Carl von Linné såsom zoolog” i Carl von Linnés betydelse såsom naturforskare och läkare (Uppsala, 1907).

Linnaeus as a geologist

Fossils, mid 18th century illustrations .

Besides the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom, according to Linnaeus, there was a third kingdom in nature, the mineral kingdom (regnum lapideum in Latin). He included here all stones, types of bedrock and soil, and ores and minerals. Linnaeus maintained that stones grew, but not from eggs or seeds, like everything living, but in the sense that all particles of earth were lumped together and harden into stone. Sandstone, thus, was formed by grains of sand aggregating, the same way for granite from till, and limestone from clay.

Limestone could later harden into marble or be saturated with oxygen for form gypsum or crystallize as calcite. He further understood that corals were generated by living animals and that fossils were originally living organisms.

To Linnaeus, rocks were simple components and minerals complex, just the opposite of today’s view. In Systema naturae he had the following division:

A. Petrae Lapides simplices (rocks)
B. Minerae Lapides compositi (minerals and ores)
C. Fossilia Lapides aggregati (fossils and aggregates)

Minerals were created when various types of soil united with salts. In Linnaeus’ symbolic form of expression, the soil represented the female part and the salt the male, and when they were united in matrimonial act, minerals were the product. What’s more, Linnaeus thought that ores grew in mountains and hills and were formed when a rock was transformed into ore by a chemical process:

“Ores grow gradually, when mineralogical particles are washed around in underground water in the cracks in the rocks, fastening on the stone, which explains why this can vary in the same nature.”

Linnaeus often wrote about ores and mines in his depictions of the provinces. This was only natural, as the mining industry was important in his day. But he also saw the formation of stones and ores as part of a complex natural process, as part of Creation:

”All this places anyone who reflects on it in a position of awe at the Omniscient Creator’s disposition of our globe. Thus speak the stones, when all other things are silent.”

Benedicks, C. 1907. Linnés Pluto sveciciu.
Tore Frängsmyr, 1969. Geologi och skapelsetro: Föreställningar om jordens historia från Hiärne till Bergman.
Sten Lindroth, 1978. Svensk lärdomshistoria: Frihetstiden.

Linnaeus as a zoologist

Linnaeus – the great animal scientist

Carl Clerck was employed by the tax
authorities in Stockholm. Inspired by
Linnaeus, he started studying insects
in his spare time. With time he also
became a highly skilled butterfly painter,
and his book of plates Icones
insectorum rariorum from 1764 is a
world-class work. Linnaeus, who vetted
the paintings, exclaimed: “So beautiful
I feel good down to my toes.”
Linnaeus also wrote the species
descriptions for the butterflies (Museum
Ludovicae Ulricae 1764). The painting is
from Clerck’s Icones insectorum
rariorum 1764.

Linnaeus came to be of great importance to the study of animals, and his work in naming, classifying, and developing the concept of species was just as important to zoology as it was to botany. Why didn’t his efforts in zoology attract as much attention?

Any attempt to answer the question of why Linnaeus has been so one-sidedly associated with botany would have to admit that his animal system was more dependent on his predecessors. This means that his works in this field did not represent such a new departure as his plant system did. His way of systematizing animals also prompted major criticism even during his lifetime. On the other hand, his animal system was more natural than his botanical one, and he effected several major regroupings compared with his predecessors.

Before the middle of the 19th
century, all color pictures were filled
in by hand, which was highly
time-consuming and expensive, of
course. When Clerck died, six
copies of the work had been finished.
The Royal Academy of Sciences
took over, and a total of 60 copies
were completed by 1797, when
publication was terminated. From 
Icones insectorum rariorum 1764.

One example is that he distinguished worms from insects and moved crustaceans to the insect group. Another reason for the dominance of botany may be that his contributions to zoology are more hidden in his works. Several of Linnaeus’ disciples also made major gains in the field of zoology. Thunberg, Sparrmann, Osbeck, and others researched the fauna of other parts of the world, and, just as with Linnaeus, these efforts have often been overshadowed by their botanical work.

To understand his importance as a zoologist, it is necessary to know how chaotic research was at the time.

Imagine a time when there were no particular rules for soccer, for example. Everyone played soccer in their own way. Some people used their hands, others had two goalkeepers, what constituted a goal was unclear, and everyone had their own idea of what a real soccerball was. There were no rules of play and no referees. That’s what the situation was like before Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae.

Linnaeus’ travels in Sweden.
Lapland 1732, Dalecarlia 1734,
Öland Gotland 1741, Västergötland
1746 and Scania 1749. Here you see
the places he visited and animals
and plants he saw.
Watercolor by Gunnar Brusewitz.

The same animal could be described by different zoologists under entirely different names. It was nearly impossible to know for sure whether an animal had already been described or if it was a newly discovered species, and there were many opinions about how they should be classified. In other words, what was needed was a set of fixed frameworks to hold together all the disparate facts that were going around. What was needed was a uniform terminology and a holistic vision of how nature was divided up and how these parts fit together. He personally came to concentrate his research on species descriptions, systematics, and faunistics. However, his vision of what natural history should be about was much broader. In 38 short clauses he laid down how one should go about studying and describing natural objects. This method, together with his system, became the solid foundation zoology needed to be able to develop further. See also Linnaeus’ method.

Several of Linnaeus’ works were of great importance to the development of zoology. Systema Naturæ has already been mentioned. It was the most complete descriptive manual a naturalist could find. It was often found in the luggage of the itinerant Linnaean disciples, and it was indispensable for anyone wishing to organize their specimen cabinet in a systematic way. It ultimately set the norm for what name should be used for various animals.

Fauna Svecica, which is a field handbook for determining the species of Swedish animals, appeared in two editions, 1746 and 1761. It proved to be instrumental in making natural history so popular in Sweden.

For nearly a century it was the only descriptive manual available to anyone wishing to determine the species of an animal they had spotted. The first edition describes 1,691 species of articulated animals, and it might be worth pointing out that the number of Swedish plant species Linnaeus knew about at that time was limited to some 1,300. Besides these two works, mention should be made of all of his zoological treatises, which provide good insight into Linnaeus’ multifaceted zoological work.

Linnaeus’ knowledge of animals was primarily systematic in character. When it came to the behavior and patterns of living of animals, he did not possess as much first-hand experience. This was not a result of lack of skill; on the contrary, Linnaeus had a highly developed capacity to observe, and his writings offer numerous examples of fine observations of the lives of various animals. However, anyone who has undertaken such studies knows how time-consuming they are. It is simply impossible for any one scientist to find the time to study many different animals in detail.

What animal group did Linnaeus study most closely? It seems that insects and birds were his favourites. He says himself that insects were his greatest pleasure, and in his spare time he eagerly collected insects around Uppsala. After all, if you were studying plants, it would be only natural to be interested in all the creeping and flying creatures that are often found on them. It can probably be assumed that Linnaeus was not aware of the role of insects in the pollination of plants. In the twelfth edition of Systema Naturæ the number of articulated animals amounts to 3,000, most of them insects, and among these Linnaeus was the first person to describe 2,000. He based his species descriptions on his own collections, those of his disciples, and those of Queen Ulrika Lovisa at Drottningholm Palace and King Adolf Frederick at Ulriksdal Palace.

Hofsten, Nils von, ”Systema Naturæ: ett tvåhundraårs-minne” Svenska Linnésällskapets Årsskrift 1935.

Lönnberg, Einar & Aurivillius, Christopher, ”Carl von Linnés såsom zoolog” i Carl von Linnés betydelse såsom naturforskare och läkare (Uppsala, 1907).

Nybelin, Orvar, ”Fauna Svecica 200 år”, Svenska Linnésällskapets Årsskrift 1946.

Last modified: 2022-03-08