Gardeners explore The Herball – or Generall Historie of Plantes Gathered by John Gerard of London – Master of Chirvrgerie (i.e. Surgery) as means to enjoy historically charming aspects of English knowledge and uses of plants in the first half of the 17th Century. Though neither groundbreaking, nor the best example of an academic treatment, and perhaps not even honestly attributed, The Herball is a serious study, reflecting up-to-date understanding of plants during a significant era, the very time modern English was emerging in literature and performance, a cultural moment that produced King James’ version of The Holy Bible.
Simply called “Gerard,” The Herball remains well-known, not in its initial 1597 edition, but as Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision, covering 800 more plants than the original, adding 700 illustrations, and prolonging its value through the end of the century. This is the version Dover Publications elected to reprint in 1975, making Johnson’s Gerard the only herbal generally available to contemporary audiences, as compared to scores of earlier and much more botanically-significant volumes.
Reading Gerard today is worthwhile. His plant descriptions tell us the kind of information important to gardeners and physicians in the 17th Century, knowledge available to informed people during the lifetimes of some of the greatest authors creating modern English – John Donne, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and a bit later, Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton. These writers were neither gardeners nor physicians, and they were certainly not scientists, as is evident from examining references to plants in their works. The only notable writer of the period with a practitioner’s level of knowledge was Abraham Cowley, whose History of Plants, a Poem in Six Books reflected his late-in-life conversion to medicine, natural science, and botany in Restoration England.
Shakespearean England was a confounding time. New plants from voyages of exploration had been flooding into Europe for a century, something showcased by John Frampton’s Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde (1577), his translation of Monardes’ exciting reports on important natural products from America. But insular English, with its incredible plant-worthy British Isles climate, was not (at that point in time) as horticulturally needy as regions of Europe where new plant introductions, like maiz (American corn), proved welcome. Gerard did include American introductions, even in the 1597 first edition – pumpkin, corn (maiz), sunflower, for example. He wrote about Potato, describing the plant we call Sweet Potato (Ipomea) as the common type, because these tuberous roots were available in England, imported from tropical islands near Europe. He could not cause the plant to thrive (he couldn’t coax out a single flower) in the cool English climate. In his entry following Sweet Potato, Gerard described a rarity, the “Potato of Virginia,” which he disregarded (and Shakespeare never knew), though in just a few decades that plant would become of such importance to Great Britain as to be dubbed the Irish Potato.
Importantly, the plant palettes of our poets and playwrights (Cowley excepted) were minorly impacted by exotic, New World introductions; only a few examples stand out. Shakespeare’s famously-disguised Falstaff exclaims: “Let the sky rain potatoes. Let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves, hail kissing confits and snow eringoes,” referencing confections (confits) made of Sweet Potato and the roots of the native Eryngium – both of which held reputations as aphrodisiacs. Yet another American food plant, the pumpkin, seems to have worked its way into English consciousness; the wives deride Falstaff as a pumpion – which some writers suggest referenced America’s pumpkin, a plant already known to English gardeners.*
One American plant that absolutely had impacted England was tobacco, its availability quickly bolstered through the English relationship with its North American Virginia Colony (chartered in 1606), and its popularity seemingly enhanced by notorious proponent, Walter Raleigh. Ben Jonson celebrated tobacco in his 1598 play “Every Man in His Humour,” having Captain Babodil extol the herb: ”…by Hercules I do hold it and will affirm it before any prince in Europe to be the most sovereign and precious weed that ever the earth tendered to the use of man.” We know tobacco was commonly cultivated and smoked in pipes through Barnabe Rych’s The Honestie of this Age… (1614, HNT #59364) which remarks: “There is not so base a groome that commes into an Ale-house to call for his pot, but he must have his pipe of Tobacco; for it is a commoditie that is now as vendible in every taverne, inne, and ale-house, as eyther wine, ale, or beare…”
Apart from tobacco and a few minor mentions, literary plant palettes were as vernacular as the language, relying almost solely on historically-popular European garden flowers, vines and trees, many carrying traditional symbolic value. Roses, violets, daisies, iris, lily, daffodil, rosemary, ivy, holly, and oak were among the common garden, field, and forest plants favored by poets and playwrights. Trees yielded to frequent analogy, but flowers prevail in literature of the time, projecting transient allure and pleasure, with aroma as important as form. Strewing herbs, violets, roses, even lilies were extolled for their fragrance – “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet). And, from Milton: “whereas sacred Light began to dawn, In Eden on the humid Flow’rs that breathed Thir morning incense.”
But an insular, falsely innocent age was ending. Queen Elizabeth chartered the East India company on the last day of 1600, literally the final day of the 16th century. Francis Bacon penned Novum Organum in 1620, setting philosophy in motion that would underly scientific progress after 1650. Johnson’s Gerard includes an Appendix, a harbinger of the future in which he describes Passion Flower, Papaya, and Chocolate. Had there been another edition, Johnson would have expanded his Appendix to include Tea and Coffee, both of which were available in England by 1650. A century further on, England will have gone through revolution, amalgamated the British Empire, taken rule over India, apprehended the world’s raw materials, embraced its luxuries, and laid the foundation for industrial revolution.
In my own literature-illiterate way, I’ve come to thinking of early modern England as precipitous, a time during which English language, literature, and culture crystallized in advance of plummeting into unimaginable change and globalization. Gerard’s England, the land of Shakespeare, quickly would seem provincial, even quaint – as evident in our reading of The Herball today.
*The Merry Wives of Windsor offers a unique suite of plant allusions for Shakespeare. In contrast to other works, his merry wives make ready reference to humble garden vegetables, foodstuffs commonly known for their exaggerating characteristics – shapes that reference body parts, bulk that provokes flatulence, and relationship to the gritty substance of garden soil. As explained in her careful essay, “‘Cabbage and Roots’ and the difference of the Merry Wives”, (in The Merry Wives of Windsor: New Critical Essays, Kindle Edition, 2014), Rebecca Laroche showcases this Shakespearean outlier: “It is not the vegetable that we laugh at, but rather the image of Slender with a cabbage head, Anne planted stubbornly in the ground just her nose and eyes peaking above, and Falstaff’s large girth of slimy innards. In alienation from the human figure, there is laughter.”
NOTES: Contemporary to the 2nd edition of Gerard, we encounter John Parkinson’s garden book, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, published in 1629, followed by his 1640 Theatrum botanicum. Paradisi was horticultural in character, whereas Theatrum treated 3800 kinds of plants, presented as an herbal and expanding on Gerard. We are informed by exhibits in the Herbal History Network that Parkinson’s Theatrum was heavily plagiarized by Nicholas Culpeper in producing his Complete Herbal (1653), companion writing that enlarged The English Physician (1652). Parkinson and Culpeper covered many exotic plants that were becoming part of the landscape.
“Mary’s Meadow,” published in Aunt Judy’s Magazine (HNT #436859), by Julia Horatio Ewing, re-popularized Paradisi in the 19th Century in spinning a tale of children who read Parkinson’s book and planted their own garden.
In the century before Gerard and the many writers mentioned, Continental botany had spawned work by Leonhart Fuchs, Francisco Hernández (d. 1587), Jean Bauhin (d. 1582), Pietro Mattioli (d. 1577), Rembert Dodoens (d. 1585), Conrad Gessner (d. 1565), and Carolus Clusius, paralleled by A New Herball, William Turner’s vernacular, 3-volume study (Volume I published in 1551) that became the first substantial English botanical contribution – resulting in Turner’s nickname – the Father of English Botany.