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Banckes' Herbal

( Originally Published 1912 )

The first book printed in England, which can really be called a herbal, is an anonymous quarto volume, with-out illustrations, published in 1525. The title-page runs, " Here begynneth a newe mater, the whiche sheweth and treateth of ye vertues and proprytes of herbes, the whiche is called an Herball." On the last page we find the words "Imprynted by me Rycharde Banckes, dwellynge in London, a lytel fro ye Stockes in ye Pultry." I have not been able to satisfy myself that this work is directly derived from any pre-existing book, and it seems possible that it may really have some claim to originality. Dr Payne suggests that it is probably an abridgement of some mediŠval English manuscript on herbs. It is certainly quite a different work from the much more famous Grete Herball, printed in the succeeding year, and, although there are no figures, it is in some ways a better book. Distinctly less space, in proportion, is devoted to the virtues of the plants, and, on the whole, more botanical information is given. For instance, under the heading "Capillus veneris," we find the following description : " This herbe is called Mayden heere or waterworte. This herbe hathe leves lyke to Ferne, but the leves be smaller, and it groweth on wanes and stones, and in ye myddes of ye lefe is as it were blacke heere." The Grete Herball, on the other hand, vouchsafes only the meagre information, " Capillus veneris is an herbe so named " !

In cases where the virtues of the herbs are not strictly medicinal, they are described in Banckes' herbal with more than a touch of poetry. Rosemary has perhaps the most charming list of attributes, some of which are worth quoting. The reader is directed to " take the flowres and make powder therof and bynde it to the ryght arme in a lynen clothe, and it shall make the lyght and mery... Also take the flowres and put them in a chest amonge youre clothes or amonge bokes and moughtes shall not hurte them.... Also boyle the leves in whyte wyne and wasshe thy face therwith...thou shall have a fayre face. Also put the leves under thy beddes heed, and thou shalbe delyvered of all evyll dremes.... Also take the leves and put them into a vessel of wyne...yf thou sell that wyne, thou shall have good lucke and spede in the sale.... Also make the a box of the wood and smell to it and it shall preserne [preserve] thy youthe. Also put therof in thy doores or in thy howse and thou shalbe without daunger of Adders and other venymous serpentes. Also make the a barell therof and drynke thou of the drynke that standeth therin and thou nedes to fere no poyson that shall hurte ye, and yf thou set it in thy garden kepe it honestly for it is moche profytable."

The popularity of Banckes' Herbal is attested by the fact that a large number of editions appeared from different presses, although their identity has been obscured by the various names under which they were published. To consider these editions in detail is a task for the bibliographer rather than the botanist, and it will not be attempted here. We may, however, mention a few typical examples.

In 1550, a book was printed by " Jhon kynge" with the title ` A litle Herball of the properties of Herbes newly amended and corrected, wyth certayn Additions at the ende of the boke, declaring what Herbes hath influence of certain Sterres and constellations, wherby maye be chosen the best and most lucky tymes and dayes of their ministracion, according to the Moone beyng in the signes of heaven, the which is daily appointed in the Almanacke, made and gathered in the yeare of our Lorde God. M DL the X I l daye of February, by Anthony Askham, Physycyon.' This work, which is generally called Askham's Herbal, is directly derived from Banckes' Herbal, with the addition of some astrological lore.

The book known as Cary's or Copland's Herbal, which was probably first published about the same time as Askham's Herbal, is simply a later edition of the herbal of Rycharde Banckes, and another closely similar edition with an almost identical title was published by Kynge.

Another version of the same work, undated, and printed by Robert Wyer, appeared under an even more deceptive titleŚ'A newe Herball of Macer, Translated out of Laten in to Englysshe.' There was, as a matter of fact, a certain AEmilius Macer, a contemporary of Virgil and Ovid, who wrote about plants in Latin verse, and there is also a herbal which was first printed in the fifteenth century, and which is known by the name of `Macer Floridus de viribus herbarum.' Macer Floridus or .AEmilius Macer is supposed to have been the pseudonym of a physician whose real name was Odo. 'De viribus herbarum' deals with seventy-seven plants in alphabetical order, and describes their virtues in mediŠval Latin verse, which is believed to date back to the tenth century. It is illustrated with wood-cuts which are apparently copied from those of the Herbarius zu Teutsch.

There seems to be no justification whatever for the use of Macer's name on the title-page of `A newe Herball of Macer.' Except for some slight verbal differences, it is identical with Banckes' herbal of 1525. Another closely similar edition, also undated, was published under the name of `Macers Herbal. Practysd by Doctor Lynacro.' Macer's name was probably merely borrowed in each case, in order to give the books a well-sounding title, and thus to increase the chances of sale.

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