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.
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.
His Cruydeboeck published in 1554 was modelled on Fuch’s book but divided the world of plants into six categories.
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.
The irony is that Gerard’s Great Herbal became the most popular and most widely consulted English herbal of the 17th century.