Of Herbs and Herbals.

Herbals are a fascinating genre of books, they not only describe the medical beliefs, thoughts and practices of the cultures in which they were produced, and every literate culture has produced herbals, but also often reveal much about the scientific or proto-scientific methodology of the same cultures.

In the Renaissance the great printed herbals of the age laid the foundations of modern botany, and the more general concept of biological species, as their authors sort new methods of systematically categorising the plants that they described and illustrated. One of the first of these was the German Leonhart Fuchs, after whom the fuchsia is named, with his De historia stirpium commentarii insignes from 1542.


Portrait of Fuchs, by Heinrich Füllmaurer, Tübingen, 1541 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fuchs still listed his plants alphabetically as did his models in antiquity but set new standards for the quality of his illustrations and descriptions.

One of those who followed and improved on Fuch’s work was the Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens who was born on the 29th June 1517.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

His Cruydeboeck published in 1554 was modelled on Fuch’s book but divided the world of plants into six categories.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Those of you who speak or read German will recognise the German word for herbs Kräuter in Dodoens’ Old Flemmish Cruyde. The book was very popular and was translated into French by Charles de L’Ecluse, Latin by Dodoens himself and into English from the French by Henry Lyte.

However it turned up again in another highly controversial English translation under the name of John Gerard. Gerard took over a partial translation done by a Dr. Priest, who had died, combined it with parts of the herbal from Matthias de L’Obel and published the whole as his own work.


John Gerard Source: Wikimedia Commons

The irony is that Gerard’s Great Herbal became the most popular and most widely consulted English herbal of the 17th century.


Generall Historie of Plantes, p. 1,329; describing Ficus indica Source: Wikimedia Commons


Filed under Renaissance Science

8 responses to “Of Herbs and Herbals.

  1. jeb

    Gerard did give it a distinctive cultural and regional spin with the addition of his observations and use of local folklore.

    His discription of the barnacle goose is still used in newspaper accounts in the 1850’s. Newly found barnacle encrusted logs and broken ships masts were still a popular public spectacle at this time that drew in big crowds when they were towed into major harbours.

    They had a commercial value.

    Local shopkeepers would purchase them in a bid to sell other wares.

    I suspect Gerard was also well aware of the local appeal and potential of the inclusion of such creatures. Still helping to draw attention and maintain the popularity of his book in the 19th century.

  2. Today we’d call what Gerard did plagiarism, but the giving of credit was not so well developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, nor earlier. Pliny’s Natural History, for instance, is a compilation of many other people’s work, including Aristotle’s and Theophrastus’. And he doesn’t cite them, either.

    The herbalist tradition, which is well investigated by Jerry Stannard:

    Stannard, Jerry. 1980. Albertus Magnus and medieval herbalism. In Albertus Magnus and the sciences: commemorative essays, edited by J. A. Weisheipl. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

    Stannard, Jerry, Richard Kay, and Katherine E. Stannard. 1999. Herbs and herbalism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Aldershot ; Brookfield, Vt., USA: Ashgate Variorum.

    was a folk scholarship of a kind such that as late as Tournefort’s Institutiones rei herbariae in 1700, botanists still compiled work done by others under their own name.

  3. jeb

    I can’t remember who but the claim has been made that the additional observations elevate the work from something more than simple plagiarisim; but it’s a retro perspective.

    I think they simply help explain it’s popularity in the u.k.

  4. Herbal plants used in the Ayurvedic system of medicine are facing extinction.
    Definite cause of concern, as Ayurveda is increasingly being used around the world to treat various disorders such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, ulcers and many others.

    Some herbs that have been identified are – Ulteria salicfolia, Hydnocarpus pentandra, Gymnocladus assamicus, and Begonia tessaricarpa.

    Conservation of traditional herbs and plants should become a high priority for all. Challenge
    becomes more severe as many of these herbs grow in the wild and are not cultivated.

    Planet Green (a discovery.com venture) reported on this earlier this month.

    http://ayurvedagroup.com/blog/2010/93-of-ayurvedas-wild-medicinal-plants- threatened-with-extinction/

  5. All fascinating (including comments) – Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Yar 2, Vol. #47 | Whewell's Ghost

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