Treasures of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library: Scientific works

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GERARDE, John. The Herball or General historie of plantes...
London : John Norton, 1597
The Herball. Click to enlarge.

This is probably the most famous of the English herbals. John Gerarde, 1545-1612, was apprenticed to one of the leading surgeons of his day and eventually rose to become warden of the Barber-Surgeons Company. As the officer responsible it was his role to examine and license to practice, all those who aspired to become surgeons. His true interest however lay in botany and he cultivated a celebrated garden in Holborn from which, in 1596, he published a list of his plants.

He dedicated his herbal to Lord Burghley, whose gardens both in the Strand and at Theobalds were in his charge. It is probably true that most of his work was taken from the Stirpium Historiae Pemptades Sex of 1583 by the Belgian botanist Rembert Dodoens. This was being translated into English by one Robert Priest, who died before the completion of his work, and John Norton, the publisher, handed the unfinished manuscript to Gerarde. Gerarde altered the arrangement to fit the system of the French botanist Matthias de l'Obel and added information derived from his practical experience, such as places in England where the plants could be found, and uses in medicine, cooking etc. For example, Gerarde is the major source of information on Elizabethan plant dyes, and it was from here that William Morris was able to obtain the information for his Arts and Crafts movement. Unfortunately he also included mythical plants such as the barnacle tree.

In addition, Gerarde had obtained somehow the series of woodblocks which had been used at Frankfurt for the production of the work Eicones plantarum by Jacob Dietrich of Bergzabern, better known as Tabernaemontanus. These he included in his work but sometimes, either through ignorance or impatience, he sometimes placed the wrong descriptions against some woodcuts. Gerarde, to give him his due, does include a number of new plants, one of the most important and now familiar of which was the potato.

A second, revised edition which was edited by Thomas Johnson appeared in 1633. This edition corrected many of Gerarde's earlier mistakes.

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