Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/May 1904/English Herbals




IN the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there was a renewal of the scientific spirit, as well as the more obvious revival in art and letters of which we commonly speak as the Renaissance. Among the most striking of the many visible fruits of this revival were numerous herbals, in which all the plants then known were enumerated, described and often beautifully figured. The earliest English example with which I am acquainted is a small, black-letter, anonymous volume published in 1525. The title is 'Here begynneth a newe mater, the whiche sheweth and treateth of ye vertues and propeytes of herbes, the whiche is called an Herball.' There are scarcely any descriptions of the plants, but long and elaborate dissertations on their virtues. Even such a commonplace weed as the plantain is credited with considerable powers: "For heed ache take Plantayne and bynde it aboute thy necke and ye ache shall go out of thy heed." Of rosemary we read: "Take the flowres and make powder thereof and bynde it to the ryght arme in a lynen clothe, and it shall make thee lyght and mery. Also boyle the leves in whyte wyne and washe thy face therwith, and thou shall have a fayre face. Also put the leves under thy beddes heed, and thou shal be delyvered of all evyll dremes. Also make thee a box of the wood and smell to it, and it shall preserve thy youthe."

In the following year was published one of the most famous of the old herbals, 'The Grete Herball which geveth parfyt knowlege and understandyng of all maner of herbes and there gracyous vertues.' This includes in addition to plants, descriptions of a number of substances, such as gold, silver, asphalt, starch, vinegar, butter, honey and the lodestone! It contains delightful prescriptions for healing all manner of ailments. For instance, Apium 'is good for lunatyke folke yf it be bounde to the pacyentes heed with a lynen clothe dyed reed the moone beynge in cresaunt in the sygne of Taurus or Scorpion in ye fyrst parte of the sygne, and he shal be hole anone'; and as a cure 'for werynesse' we read, "To them that be wery of goynge gyve to drink a dragme of the powdre of Bethony with warm water and an once of orimell." The following statement gives an inkling of the condition of plant-geography at the time: Balsam 'is founde towarde Babylon, in a field whereas VII welles or fountaynes be, and is carried from thens'!

Nearly thirty years later, Henry Lyte translated into English the famous Dutch 'Herbal' of Dodoens. Lyte was an Oxford student who traveled in foreign lands and collected a number of rare plants, and on his return to England founded one of the first botanical gardens in this country. The title of his translation is 'A niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes: wherein is contayned the whole discourse and perfect description of all sortes of Herbes and Plantes; their divers and sundry kindes: their straunge Figures, Fashions, and Shapes: their Names, Natures, Operations, and Vertues.' The book is most beautifully illustrated, and contains the records of some capital pieces of observation, but it is startling every now and then to meet with statements like this, 'Alysson hanged in the house, or at the gate, or entry, keepeth both man and beast from enchantments, or witching,' and 'The seede of the garden Larckes spurre dronken is very good agaynst the stinging of Scorpions, and indeede his virtue is so great against their poyson, that the herbe throwen before the Scorpions, doth cause them to be without force or power to do hurte, so that they may not move or sturre, until this herbe be taken from them.'

At the very end of the sixteenth century appeared the best known of all the herbals, that of 'John Gerarde, of London, Master in Chirurgerie.' Gerarde seems to have been an unscrupulous plagiarist, for he bases his herbal, quite without acknowledgment, on Priest's translation of Dodoens's collected works. Also of his eighteen hundred wood-cuts, less than twenty are original! So, altogether, his great reputation seems to have been built on somewhat frail foundations. Still he appears to have been a first-rate botanist, and in his garden in Holborn he cultivated more than a thousand different kinds of plants. I can not help thinking how delighted he would have been with a modern botanic garden, and particularly with one of the modern collections of insectivorous plants. For he gives a little figure of Sarracenia, the pitcher plant, copied from Clusius, who says he received the drawing with one dried leaf from an apothecary of Paris, who himself received it from Lisbon. Gerarde reproduces the figure 'for the strangeness thereof,' and in the 'hope that some or other that travell into forraine parts may finde this elegant plant, and know it b) this small expression, and bring it home with them, that so we may come to a perfecter knowledge thereof.'

Later on the fashion set in of leavening botany with astrology. The best known exponents of this kind* of pseudo-science are Culpeper and Turner. Nicholas Culpeper seems to have been afflicted with boundless self-conceit; the following is a sample of his bombastic style: "To find out the Reason of the operation of Herbs, Plants, etc., by the Stars went I, and herein I could find but few Authors, but those as full of nonsense and contradiction as an egg is full of meat; this not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two Brothers, Dr. Reason, and Dr. Experience, and took a voyage to visit my Mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire, and being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the World, I have done it." Culpeper seems to have been absolutely saturated with his astrological notions; he tells us that 'seed sowed at the wane of the Moon, grows either not at all, or to no purpose'!

Returning to the earliest herbals, we find that the idea of natural relationship between plants, or even of the necessity of any sort of classification, is scarcely existent. The anonymous Herbal of 1525, and the 'Grete Herball' are both arranged alphabetically. But the 'Grete Herball' contains the germ of a classification of the fungi—a classification of the most charming simplicity! "Fungi ben mussherons. There be two maners of them, one maner is deadly and sleeth them that eateth of them, and be called todestoles, and the other dooth not." Exactly fifty years after the publication of the 'Grete Herball,' Lobel's 'Herbal' appeared, and from it we gather that during this half century the idea of natural affinity had been in a sort of dim instinctive fashion getting hold of men's minds. He describes in succession rushes, grasses, bulbous plants, orchidaceous plants, crucifers, composite plants, etc. The arrangements adopted by Dodoens and later by Gerarde are similar to that of Lobel, but slightly more natural. Parkinson in 1640 gives a more elaborate classification, and though it seems very primitive when judged by the standard of the present day, especially as regards the stress laid on the 'virtues' of the plants, yet it shows that great progress had been made since the publication of the earliest herbals. He divides all plants into seventeen classes, some of which are quite satisfactory, while others, such as No. 14, which includes 'Marsh, Water and Sea Plants, and Mosses and Mushrooms,' are a trifle too comprehensive! There is something charmingly naive about the titles of his fifteenth and seventeenth classes. These are 'The Unordered Tribe' and 'Strange and Outlandish Plants.'

Early in the next century Linnæus was born. A vast mass of information had been accumulating for two hundred years, and it needed a luminous intellect like his to reduce it to order. As the fruit of his labor we have his marvelous 'System,' in which he followed a much earlier writer, the Italian botanist, Cesalpinus, in attributing the chief importance to the organs of fructification. The day of the herbal proper may be said to have closed with Linnæus and thenceforward botany proceeded on more strictly scientific lines. The subject sprang into fashion in his time in the most astonishing way, probably owing to the easy method which his 'System' offered of tracking down and identifying plants—from the chosen pursuit of a few enthusiasts it became the heritage of the many—it was dubbed the 'loveliest of the sciences,' and 'recommended especially to ladies, as a harmless pastime, not overtaxing to the mind.'