The English term "natural history" is a translation of the Latin historia naturalis. Its meaning has narrowed progressively with time, while the meaning of the related term "nature" has widened (see also History below). In antiquity, it covered essentially anything connected with nature or which used materials drawn from nature. For example, Pliny the Elder's encyclopedia of this title, published circa 77 to 79 AD, covers astronomy, geography, humans and their technology, medicine and superstition as well as animals and plants.
Medieval European academics considered knowledge to have two main divisions: the humanities (primarily what is now known as classics) and divinity, with science studied largely through texts rather than observation or experiment. The study of nature revived in the Renaissance, and quickly became a third branch of academic knowledge, itself divided into descriptive natural history and natural philosophy, the analytical study of nature. In modern terms, natural philosophy roughly corresponded to modern physics and chemistry, while natural history included the biological and geological sciences. The two were strongly associated. During the heyday of the gentleman scientists, many people contributed to both fields, and early papers in both were commonly read at professional science society meetings such as the Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences – both founded during the seventeenth century.
Natural history had been encouraged by practical motives, such as Linnaeus' aspiration to improve the economic condition of Sweden. Similarly, the Industrial Revolution prompted the development of geology to help find useful mineral deposits.
The astronomer, William Herschel was also a natural historian. Instead of working with plants or minerals he worked with the stars. He spent his time building telescopes to see the stars and the rest of the time watching the stars. In the beginning, he believed there to be an object known as a nebulae, but then later realized it was just another stage in star development. Herschel can be considered a natural historian because he observed the natural world and attempted to understand it. In the process he made charts of all the stars and kept records of all that he saw (while his sister Caroline did all the documenting).
Modern definitions of natural history come from a variety of fields and sources, and many of the modern definitions emphasize a particular aspect of the field, creating a plurality of definitions with a number of common themes among them. For example, while natural history is most often defined as a type of observation and a subject of study, it can also be defined as a body of knowledge, and as a craft or a practice, in which the emphasis is placed more on the observer than on the observed.