Imagine rows and rows of bookshelves, tightly arrayed in a layered cube, all made of steel and glass. That’s how I picture The Huntington’s rare book stacks. Dating to 1919, this isn’t a browsing library; it’s more of a safe deposit box. Books are shelved based on number and size, rather than topic. Scattered throughout this crowded vault and other tightly-controlled areas, staff curate ancient volumes that document how English became the language of modern-day science.  Published over five centuries in a changing world stage, those books are part of the Library’s internationally-significant Early Modern English collections and history of science holdings.

Huntington Library, housing millions of revealing documents

They remind us an educated person living in Venice or Paris at the end of the 15th century would have disdained English.  Latin was the lingua franca of the learned, while German, French, and Spanish held the greater potential in technology and commerce.(1)  Though not much science had surfaced in England as of 1500, by 1600 Britain had fully entered the Western vortex of religious Reformation and voyages of discovery.(2)  Somehow, Science emerged from the drama, as ancient manuscripts became available through printing houses, bringing new light to Medieval lore.(3)

Entering the period with a comparatively modest-sized literate population, though not out of the race, the English were dark horses. Huntington collections allow us to step back to 1500, where we can ponder botanical nascency and follow leads to the moment when plants were Englished — presaging a time when world science would follow suit.  Just as Tyndale and Coverdale had rewritten the Bible, their accomplice William Turner pointedly reworded botany.

Sometimes called the “Father of English Botany,” Turner was a naturalist, a physic (doctor), and a cleric.  His weren’t the first English plant treatments; Peter Treveris generated The Grete Herbal in 1526 as a translation of Le grand herbier. But Treveris was not a plantsman, and his book reflected nothing about the particular nature of English plants or gardens. Turner, however, studied plants in the field and in cultivation, determined to make important information regarding botany, as well as scripture and medicine available to English-speaking people.  In every case, his mid-century writings reflected personal research, relating some pure thought or, in the case of nature, reporting personal observation and study.  Importantly, Turner was loath to accept Medieval lore. 

As an example, consider mandrake, a poisonous plant surrounded by myth. Turner warned:  “The juice of Mandrag, drunken in the quantity of a scruple in honeyed wine, draweth forth Melancholy and phlegm by vomiting, after the manner of Helleborus.  But if a man take too much of it, it will kill him.”

Mandrake illustration, from Turner (copied from Fuchs)

Regarding the long-standing mistruths, Turner tells us:  “The roots which are counterfeited and made like little puppets and mammets, which come to be sold in England in boxes, with hair and such form as a man hath, are nothing but foolish feigned trifles, and not natural; for they are so trimmed of crafty thieves to mock the poor people withal, and to rob them both of their wit and their money.  I have in my time, at divers times taken up the roots of Mandrag out of the ground, but I never saw any such thing upon or in them as are in and and upon the pedlars’ roots that are commonly to be sold in boxes… It groweth only in gardens in England and in Germany, but it is more common in England than it is there.  But it groweth not under gallosses (hanging gallows), as a certain doting doctor of Cologne in his physic lecture did teach his auditors; neither doth it rise of the seed of man that falleth from him that is hanged; neither is it called Mandragoras because it come of man’s seed as the aforesaid Doctor dreamed.”

Curiously, Turner was more a botanical beacon than a gateway. His tremendous outpouring of personal observation and reporting did not hugely impact the evolution of botanical science.  But as Charles Raven wrote in 1947: “It is this attitude of objective interest in nature, an attitude at once aesthetic and inquisitive and indeed imbued with specifically religious emotion, which is the source and impetus of the scientific movement.”

John Parkinson, in Theatricum botanicum…(1640), details his further understanding of mandrake, using the image from Gerard, which was taken from L’Obel. Note the L’Obel image has greater detail than Turner’s copy of the Fuch’s image – but both retain a touch of human reference with twisted, even cross-legged roots….

Some related Huntington treasures and defining moments in the first two centuries of Englished botany….

1491 John Trevisa’s 1397 trans of Bartholomeaus Anglicus’ De Proprietatibus Rerum HNT 82741 (1495)

1519 Reformation emerges with Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli

1522 Martin Luther translated the Bible in German, which was fully issued in 1534,  HNT 40542, the 1546 printing

1526 William Tyndale, English New Testament  (published in Worms) HNT 32194 1534 printing.

1526 Peter Treveris, The Grete Herbal (from “Le grand herbier”, Fr version of “Circa instans” HNT 335634

1534 Church of England established, headed by the Monarch

1535 Miles Coverdale English translation of the Bible HNT 97048

1536 John Calvin (Jehan Cauvin) published his earliest important tract, Institutio Christianae Religionis, HNT 21397 1st English ed 1561

1536 Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones.  HNT 489000

1539 Otto Brunfels, Kreuterbüch contrafeyt… HNT 312058  (first significant treatment of German plants)

1540 Thomas Cromwell was done in….

1543 Fuch’s (HNT 24361) New kreüterbuch

1547 Death of Henry VIII

1551 William Turner, New Herball (1st of 3 vols) HNT 61542 (1568 printing vol I & II)

1552 Calvinism is named as a movement

1567 John Maplet, A Greene Forest or a Naturall Historie….  HNT 59181

1577 John Frampton, trans. of Monardes’, i.e. Joyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde HNT 3446

1578 Henry Lyte, A niewe herball… translation of Dodoens.  HNT 259559 1586 printing

1584 Richard Hakluyt, A Discourse of Western Planting (manuscript, now in facsimile)

1585 Virginia (Roanoke) becomes the first English colony in North America

1590 William Shakespeare begins reign of productivity

1597 William Langham, The Garden of Health, HNT 62134

1597 John Gerard, The herball, or generall historie of plantes HNT 61079

1598 Ben Jonson begins period of notoriety

1600 The Honourable East India Company was chartered (by Elizabeth)

1611 King James Holy Bible, of which HNT 458800 is a single a single leaf

1617 Pharmacopoeia Londinensis  HNT 603567 – the first written formulary, prescribing medicines, etc. (see 1549, Culpeper)

1620 Francis Bacon, Novum Organum HNT various copies

1626 Francis Bacon, New Atlantis HNT 601353 (18252, 2nd ed 1629)

1629 John Parkinson, Paradisi…Predominantly in English, Paradisi includes parallel Latin and English legends for illustrations.

1633 Gerard, The herball, Thomas Johnson edition HNT 485990

1640 John Parkinson, Theatricum… A somewhat modern-seeming text, in which content is all English, but the plant names are Latinized.

1649 Nicholas Culpeper, A physical directory: or A translation of the dispensatory made by the Colledge of Physitians of London. HNT 371846 (the 1650 printing) – a blow to the limitations that Latin meant to availability of knowledge.

1653 Cromwell formally takes control

1659 Robert Lovell, Pambotanologia HNT 302983, 415652, 618619 1660 Restoration, and founding of The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge

1661 Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist HNT 480005, 1669 ed.

1664 John Evelyn, Sylva….

1665 Robert Hooke, Micrographia… HNT 94610

1666 The Great Fire

1672 Nehemiah Grew, The Anatomy of Vegetables Begun…  HNT 328263

1682 Nehemiah Grew, Anatomy of Plants, HNT 14186

1686 John Ray, Historia plantarum…. HNT 762212

1688 The Bill of Rights

1704 Isaac Newton, Opticks…. HNT various

1721 Hans Sloan and the London Pharmacopoeia

1727 Stephen Hales, Vegetable Staticks….  HNT 335067


Chapman, G.T L and M. N. Tweedle, 1995.  William Turner, A New Herball, Part I 1568. Cambridge Press Syndicate, ISBN 0-521-44548-5

Chapman, G.T L, F. McCombie, and A. I Wesencraft, 1995.  William Turner A New Herball, Parts II and III, 1568.  Cambridge Press Syndicate, ISBN 0-521-44549-3

Knight, L.  2009.  Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England – 16th Century Plant and Print Culture. 2016 ebook version Routledge Press, ISBN 978-0-7546-6586-1

Raven, C. E.  1947.  English Naturalists from Neckham to Ray, Cambridge Library Collection, Reprint 2010, ISBN 978-1-108-01634-5


(1) Each region of Europe had its moments of genius in scattered achievements that are the nuclei for today’s science, from natural history, calculations, astronomy, and alchemy, to medicine. Centers of learning developed in Italy and Spain.  With herbal medicine, Germany and the Netherlands were among the first countries where botany flourished, where plant information was published for increasingly literate populations.

(2) That maelstrom is not my realm – beyond the observation that it was a time filled with leaders who were as mean as snakes.  A gruesome death was the end for many brilliant thinkers – branded heretics and traitors.  Cruelty was expected.  

(3) From the religious to the secular, revelation was anticipated through fresh translations of Greek, Latin and Arabic texts. Aristotelian logic and Arabic inquiry prompted renewed inquiry.

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