The Tradescants—father and son—naturalists, gardeners, and collectors, are credited with major contributions to seventeenth-century Britain’s natural and cultural landscapes. Keen collectors, they amassed artefacts and other objects in what soon became Britain’s most illustrious “cabinet of curiosities”—known as Tradescant’s “Ark.” Here, drawing from historical and scientific evidence, I discuss ways in which the Tradescants’ collection reflects, reinforces, and challenges the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century understanding of human relation to knowledge, and offers an alternative interpretation of the conceptual categories that it represents. Specifically, I propose a shift of emphasis from the contrast between the natural and the artificial—the two categories into which the collection is explicitly divided—to the one between the normal and the deviant. I suggest that, by embodying the coexistence and juxtaposition of the familiar and the foreign, the near and the far, the common and the rare, Tradescant’s Ark provided a safe physical and intellectual context for encountering normality and deviance, possibly marking the way seventeenth-century British (and Westerners at large) imagined, learned about, and engaged with the other, and with the self.

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