“Such a harmlesse treasure”

Would you pay $20.00 for a plagiarized book? You might if it were over 350 years old, 1650 pages long, and weighed in at over half a stone.

I’m talking about the Dover reprint of the complete 1633 edition of The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard, as revised and amended by Thomas Johnson. Ever since I picked it up at a natural history book sale two weekends ago, I’ve spent at least an hour a day poring over it.

Part of its charm lies in the illustrations, which are engravings accurate enough to use for identification in most cases. This was crucial, because a standard descriptive language for botany had yet to emerge. Another consequence of that lack is a vividness in the plant descriptions, made all the more interesting by the expressive language and idiosyncratic spelling of the Elizabethan era. Gerard’s description of the wild cucumber, for example, conveys a sense of earthiness and grotesque sexuality:

The wilde Cucumber hath many fat hairie branches, very rough and full of juice, creeping or trailing upon the ground, wherupon are set very rough leaves, hairy, sharp pointed, & of an overworne grayish greene colour: from the bosome of which come forth long tender foot-stalks: on the ends of which doe grow small floures composed of five small leaves of a pale yellow colour: after which commeth forth the fruit, of the bignes of the smallest pullets egge, but somewhat longer, verie rough and hairy on the outside, and of the colour and substance of the stalkes, wherin is contained very much water and smalhard blackish seeds also, of the bignesse of tares; which being come to maturitie and ripenesse, it casteth or squirteth forth his water with the seeds, either of it owne accord, or being touched with the most tender or delicate hand never so gently, and oftentimes striketh so hard against those that touch it (especially if it chance to hit against the face) that the place smarteth long after: whereupon by some it hath been called Noli me tangere, Touch me not. The root is thicke, white and long lasting.

Much of the text was lifted from other sources, as were almost all of the illustrations. As Johnson put it, Gerard “accommodated” virtually the entire English translation, by one Dr. Priest, of the magisterial 1583 Latin herbal by Rembert Dodoens. The illustrations for Gerard’s original (1597) edition were taken from a Frankfurt herbal, whose engraver had copied at least six earlier works, mostly Dutch. The chain of copies of copies of copies extends well back before the age of printing. At least one illustration in the 1633 edition of Gerard’s herbal has been traced as far back as a sixth century manuscript copy of the Codex Vindobonensis by Dioscorides, which is presumed to follow the original, first century work fairly closely. Thus Gerard’s Herball preserves a link, however tenuous, with Hellenistic botany.

Histories of the Renaissance tend to emphasize the rediscovery of classical authors, but what really distinguished the age in my view was the unprecedented privileging of vernacular knowledge, after centuries in which allegory and abstraction reigned supreme. One sees this quite clearly in the evolution of herbals. Many of the woodcut illustrations from the earliest printed herbals reflect a sophisticated sense of design, but betray little familiarity with the plants they supposedly represent. Less than fifty years later, in Otto Brunsel’s Herbarum Vivae Eicones, the influence of the Renaissance painters and engravers, combined with the stimulation of new discoveries from overseas, resulted in woodcuts more naturalistic and finely detailed than the illustrations in some modern field guides.

Gerard was faithful to his continental models also in the attention he paid to philology, giving not just the Greek, Latin and English names but also Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian and others. Medieval scholasticism persists in the form of a brief attempt in each chapter to describe the plant or plants in terms of “Temperature”: i.e., its place in the (to us) bizarre doctrine of the four temperaments or humors. This, along with the Doctrine of Signatures, was the Medieval Christian’s way of coming to terms with the seemingly chaotic diversity of nature. (And in fact, Gerard’s alternate title for this section is “The Nature.”)

By the end of the 17th century, the growing influence of the modern, mechanistic worldview, with its emphasis on the primacy of human reason, would leave little room for the particularistic knowledge of herbals and herbalists. It was simply too unflattering to the Western European mind to contemplate a universe in which an anthropomorphic deity would make the well-being of his favorite creations dependent on something so base as the idiosyncratic qualities of disparate plants. And, of course, the growing centralization of power put village-level herbal practitioners at increasing risk of persecution. For the sake of so-called science, with nothing tangible to replace this suddenly discredited tradition, Western medicine took a great leap backwards, not to recover for close to 300 years.

Gerard and Johnson were intersted in more than just medicine. They aimed at nothing less than a complete British botany, including naturalized plants, plus whatever could be grown in gardens or was then imported for medicinal or other purposes. Although most people value the work for its insights into Elizabethan botanical folklore, I am finding the incidental descriptions of the English countryside included in the “Place” section of many chapters almost as engaging. This passage is not at all atypical in its specificity:

The Vervaine Mallow groweth not everie where: it growes on the ditch sides on the left hand of the place of execution by London, called Tyborn: also in a field neere unto a village fourteene miles from London called Bushey, on the backe-side of a Gentlemans house named Mr. Robert Wylbraham: likewise among the bushes and hedges as you go from London to a place called the Old Foord; and in the bushes as you go to Hackny a village by London, in the closes next the town, and in divers other places, as at Bassingburn in Hartfordshire, three miles from Roiston.

[Addition by Johnson:] Mr. Goodyer found the Vervain Mallow with white floures growing plentifully in a close neere Maple-durham in Hampshire, called Aldercrofts.

Nevertheless, the final sections of each chapter, where the authors discuss “The Vertues,” remain the most entertaining parts of the text. They often convey a sense of wonder and intense engagement with the natural world on its own terms, even if much of the natural history seems archaic. For example:

Beares after they have lien in their dens forty dayes without any manner of sustenance, but what they get with licking and sucking their owne feet, do as soone as they come forth eate the herbe Cuckowpint, through the windie nature whereof the hungry gut is opened and made fit again to receive sustenance: for by abstaining from food so long a time, the gut is shrunke or drawne so close together, that in a manner it is quite shut up, as Aristotle, Aebianus, Plutarch, Pliny, and others do write.

As a homebrewer with a particular interest in herbs other than hops, I am keeping a sharp eye out for any mention of the medicinal benefits of herbal beers. Chapter 314, Of Ground-Ivy, or Ale-hoofe, contains a brief reference to the then-flourishing tradition of brewsters, or female brewers – already much-maligned figures, along with midwives, “neighbor ladies,” and of course the proverbial, tale-telling “old wives.”

The women of our Northern parts, especially about Wales and Cheshire, do tunne the herb Ale-hoofe into their Ale, but the reason thereof I know not: notwithstanding it is most singular against the griefs aforesaid [i.e., “the humming noyse and ringing sounde of the eares . . . Sciatica, or ache in the huckle bone . . . the yellow jaundice . . . stoppings out of the liver . . . all manner of inflamation, spots, webs, itch, smarting, or any grief whatsoever in the eyes, yea although the sight were nigh hand gone”]: being tunned up in ale and drunke, it also purgeth the head from rhumaticke humors flowing from the braine.

About another brewing herb, Gerard writes:

Sage is singular good for the head and braine; it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsie upon a moist cause, takes away shaking or trembling of the members; and being put up in the nostrils, it draweth thin flegme out of the head.

It is likewise commended against the spitting of blood, the cough, and paines of the sides, and biting of Serpents….

No man needs to doubt of the wholesomness of Sage Ale, being brewed as it should be, with Sage, Scabious, Betony, Spikenard, Squinanth, and Fennell seeds.

Gerard himself, plagiarist though he might be, comes across as an earnest and enthusiastic lover of plants in his preface “To the courteous and well willing Readers.” He begins by contrasting his own search for “such a harmlesse treasure of herbes, trees, and plants, as the earth frankely without violence offereth unto our most necessarie uses,” with prospectors for gold and silver.

Harmelesse I call them, because they were such delights as man in the perfectest state of his innocencie did erst injoy: and treasure I may well terme them, seeing both Kings and Princes have esteemed them as Jewels; sith wise men have made their whole life as a pilgrimage to attain the knowledge of them: by the which they have gained the hearts of all, and opened the mouths of many, in commendation of those rare vertues which are contained in these terrestriall creatures. I confesse blind Pluto is now adayes more sought after than quick sighted Phoebus: and yet this dusty metall, or excrement of the earth (which was first deeply buried least it should be an eye-sore to grieve the corrupt heart of man) by forcible entry into the bowels of the earth, is rather snatched at of man to his owne destruction, than directly sent of God, to the comfort of this life.

Gerard did not stint in portrayals of plants for which the only “vertues” were aesthetic. He devotes many pages to detailing varieties of daffodils, tulips and sweet-williams. Of the last, he concludes that “These plants are not used either in meat or medicine, but esteemed for their beauty to deck up gardens, the bosomes of the beautiful, garlands and crownes for pleasure.” Gerard ends another chapter, on a group of orchids called fox stones, by saying that “notwithstanding there is no great use of them in physicke, but they are chiefly regarded for the pleasant and beautifull floures, wherewith Nature hath seemed to play and disport herself.” Such statements capture as well as any the generous spirit of Renaissance humanism, all too soon swept away by tides of religious intolerance, revolutionary violence and the rise of monopoly capitalism.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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