The Herball, or, GenerallHistorie of Plantes.

by John Gerard (1545-1612)

(London, Printed by A. Islip, J. Norton, and R. Whitakers, 1636). Secondedition revised by Thomas Johnson (d. 1644) and first published in 1597.

While the first edition of Gerardís Herball (1597)represented a landmark in botanical publishing, Thomas Johnsonís re-editingafter Gerardís death produced the best editions. Johnson preserved Gerardíswealth of folk medicine and anecdote, while improving the accuracy andutility of the work.

Appointed superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil,Lord Burghley (among the most influential in the court of Queen Elizabeth),Gerard also carried the distinction of Master of the Company of BarberSurgeons. Medicine was his profession and in the sixteenth century herbgardening and medicine were collaborative pursuits. Gerard made his firstproposal to Cambridge University to create a botanic garden in 1588; hedid not wait for initiative.

A Londoner, Gerard lived and gardened in Holborn, on FetterLane. Avid gardener and collector of rare plants, Gerard traveledwidely to enhance his collection. The Herball makes mention of manyof these collecting excursions whether in Lamberth or further afield. FetterLane, in 1600, had long been a site of suburban London gardens and doubtlessGerard received encouragement from neighbors.

If the lector knows of only one herbal, most likely itis Gerardís. The fame of this weighty tome derives deservedly from thetwin beauties of felicitous prose and illustration. This is the most quotedand best known of the old English herbals. The engraved title-page wasone of the most attractive pages published during the sixteenth century.User-friendly in clear Roman type, Gerardís best to be read even centurieslater--thus accounting for the numerous twentieth century reprints--thecopies of which far outnumber original editions.

Described by some as Rembert Dodoensí Herball renderedin English, Gerardís efforts did not immediately garner accolades. He plagiarizeda manuscript by Dr. Robert Priest that was a translation of Dodoensí StirpiumHistoria Pemptades Sex, added 182 new plants, revised the arrangement,and appended his own observations. In a rush to publish, Gerard made agreat number of errors in his first edition. Thomas Johnson, an apothecary,corrected many of these in a second edition published in 1633 and 1636.Johnsonís edition also used Christopher Plantinís woodblocks which weresuperior to the blocks in the 1597 edition.

Despite its shortcomings, the Herball became requiredreading by botany students for over two centuries and formed part of theessential education of botanists well into the nineteenth century. In addition,Gerard produced the first description of the potato--oneof the most economically significant plants to come from the New World.His descriptions come from Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Gerardgrew potatoes in his own garden from roots obtained by New World visitorsbefore this plant became generally known. Gerardís Herball, as wellas other herbals, was an attempt by an apothecary and surgeon to producea useful handbook for other medicos. Botany existed only insofar as itrelated to medicine and the thrust of the work was entirely practical.For example, a garland of pennyroyal, Gerard tells us, when worn aboutthe head diminishes dizziness. The seeds of peonies "taken in wineor mead is a speciall remedie for those that are troubled in the nightwith a disease called the Night Mare...which oppresseth therewith..."Under "gourd" Gerard describes a fever cure which consists of"Along gourd or else a cucumber being laid in the cradle or bed bythe young infant..." It was believed that when the root of the "iacinth"was beaten and taken with wine it would "hinder or keepe back thegrowth of haires." Swallow-wort boiled in wine and drunken remedied"against the gripings of the belly, the stingings of the Serpents,and against deadly poyson..."

Gerard appealed to a different and wider audience. Hewrote about plants largely for their medicinal qualities, but also drewattention to their decorative value. His descriptions had a charming qualityabout them. Depicting the daffodil he writes, "...having small narroweleaves, thicke, fat, and full of slimie juice; among the which riseth upa naked stalke smooth and hollow, of a foot high, beaning at the top afaire milke white floure growing forth of a hood..." Gerard also focusedon plants as a food source. In his Herball, he included culinaryand economic plants. Sow-bread when beaten up and made into "littleflat cakes," acted as an "amorous medicine to make one in love"if eaten. One of Gerardís more amusing depictions include his account ofthe "Barnacle tree," or the "tree bearing Geese." Herelates how trees on a small island in Lancashire bear shells that hatchout barnacle geese.

Although Gerardís Herball contains much misguidedinformation and medical suggestions for readers today, it remains a uniquework of great interest to contemporary botanists. Gerard contributed tothe advancement of plant knowledge in his time, and his published listof plants set the precedent for later catalogues of plants from universitybotanical gardens.

Images from The Herball


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