One of the particular pleasures of Shakespeare is that he loved the natural world and crammed his work with precise images taken from it: he mentions more than 200 plants and flowers by name – remember Ophelia with her rosemary, her fennel, her columbines and her rue? – and more than 50 bird species, from hedge sparrows to cuckoos. But nowhere, in all the canon, does Our Will name a butterfly.

It’s not that he wasn’t aware of them: there are a number of butterfly references, and he twice refers to them as “gilded” (when the young Coriolanus catches one and tears it to pieces with his teeth, and when Lear tells Cordelia that in prison they will “laugh at gilded butterflies”). But none are named. There are no Red Admirals in Shakespeare.

The reason is simple: in Tudor and Stuart England, these names did not exist. But a century after Shakespeare’s death they suddenly flowered into being, admirals, emperors, dukes and arguses all, and the documenting of this little-known but extraordinary linguistic event is one of the delights of Peter Marren’s captivating cultural history of butterflies in Britain, Rainbow Dust.

English butterfly naming seems to have sprung from English butterfly enthusiasm, which suddenly took off about 1700, probably prompted by the great naturalist John Ray, who was turning his attention from plants and birds to insects, and especially by his friend and fellow Fellow (if such can be said) of the fledgling Royal Society, the London apothecary James Petiver.

Marren unearths a fascinating tale: Petiver was one of the founders of the world’s first entomology club, the Society of Aurelians, aurelian meaning ‘the golden one’, referencing the chrysalises of some butterflies such as Red Admirals, dappled with golden spots; so an aurelian, now a forgotten word, was a butterfly-lover. The club’s actual beginnings are lost to us, because in March 1748 its records were consumed in a fire at its premises, the Swan Tavern in Cornhill in the City of London; but by then it was flourishing, and in those first five decades of the 18th century its members seem to have invented and bestowed nearly all of the striking British butterfly names we use today, from the Purple Emperor to the Duke of Burgundy. (Petiver himself seems to have named the Red Admiral, in an analogy with an admiral’s flag.)

There followed more than 200 years, not only of interest, but also of ardent butterfly collecting in Britain, which reached a peak in Victorian times, when every other gentleman (and many a lady) seemed to possess a display cabinet full of exquisitely mounted specimens, until this became unacceptable sometime after the 1960s. Marren, a keen boyhood collector himself in the 1950s, not only vividly explores this curious backwater of social history, but does so with barely concealed anger at the way in which the practice has today been thoroughly demonised, so that a man with a butterfly net is now seen by some as little better than a serial killer. (“It was not collectors who drained the fens where the large copper once flew.”)

The crux of Marren’s story, based on admirable scholarship, is the powerful human reaction to the insects themselves, these loveliest of the invertebrates, for even if they were not individually named as species, they exercised imaginations back into classical times and beyond – the wall painting on an Egyptian tomb in the Nile valley dating to 1400 BCE shows, as part of a hunting scene, accurate representations of a handsome species we now know as Danaus chrysippus, the Plain Tiger.

But what exactly was the attraction? The beauty, obviously. “You ask, what is the use of butterflies?” wrote Ray. “I reply, to adorn the world and delight the eyes of men – to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels.” But it ran deeper than that. The Greeks equated butterflies with the human soul, so that they used the same word, psyche, for both, and Aristotle wrote about the connection; he seems to have been powerfully impressed by the metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar to pupa or chrysalis to the final, finished perfect insect, or imago, in a way that was later also seen as a metaphor by Christians.

Marren puts it thus: “We live our lives in the sinful caterpillar state and it is only after the death of the body that our soul finally escapes into the spirit world.” Today, however, he suggests, butterflies may represent something else: freedom. “Many of us must have longed, sometimes, for a similar set of wings, to float away from a trapped existence.”

Marren himself, like many others, including me, succumbed to the lepidopteran allure as a young child – he was five when the “rainbow dust”, the brightly coloured wing scales that came off a captured butterfly onto his hand, filled him with a wonder that has never left him. It is the same wonder that down the centuries animated the butterfly devotees whose passions he relates, from the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, an inveterate collector, to the novelist John Fowles, who repented of his former passion; and from the Georgian enthusiast Lady Eleanor Glanville, after whom the Glanville Fritillary is named (and whose relatives attempted to have her will set aside on the grounds that her keenness in pursuing lepidoptera proved she could not have been of sound mind), to the great natural scientist Miriam Rothschild, who lamented in old age that to be in a countryside where fertilisers and weedkillers had destroyed the wild flowers (and hence the butterflies) was “like living on a snooker table”.

All of them – all of us – were touched by something in the fluttering of those wings, which Marren comes as close to capturing as anyone has; they set up a breeze in the human soul, he says, which he invokes “to remind … earthbound humans everywhere of the power and wonder of the natural world”. His book is stunning: as stunning as the first Red Admiral on a June morning.

Michael McCarthy is the author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy.