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Herbal In England

( Originally Published 1912 )

The greatest name among British herbalists of the Renaissance period is that of William Turner, physician and divine, the " Father of British Botany." He was a north-countryman, a native of Morpeth in Northumberland, where he was born probably between 1510 and 1515. He received his education at what is now Pembroke College, Cambridge. Pembroke deserves to be especially held in honour by botanists, for a hundred years later, Nehemiah Grew, who was as pre-eminent among British botanists of the seventeenth century as Turner was among those of the sixteenth, also became a student at this college.

Like so many of the early botanists, William Turner was closely associated with the Reformation. He embraced the views of his friends and instructors at Cambridge, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, and fought for the reformed faith throughout his life, both with pen and by word of mouth. His caustic wit was also used, with almost equal vehemence, to attack the abuses which crept into his own party. A ban was put upon his writings in the reign of Henry VIII, and for a time he suffered imprisonment, but, when Edward V I came to the throne, his fortunes improved, and, after a long and tedious period of waiting for preferment, he obtained the Deanery of Wells. Difficulty in ejecting the previous Dean caused much delay in obtaining possession of the house, and Turner lamented bitterly that, in the small and crowded temporary lodging, " i can not go to my booke for ye crying of childer & noyse y is made in my chamber."

A clergyman's life must have been full of unwelcome vicissitudes in those days, if Turner's career was at all typical. During Mary's reign he was a fugitive, and the former Dean of Wells was reinstated. However, when Elizabeth ascended the throne, the position was reversed, and Turner came back to Wells, "the usurper," as he calls his rival, being ejected. But his triumph was short-lived, for in 1564 he was suspended for nonconformity. His controversial methods were violent in the extreme, and he seems to have been a thorn in the flesh of his superiors.

The Bishop of Bath and Wells wrote on one occasion that he was " much encombred w m Doctor Turner Deane of Welles, for his undiscrete behavior in the pulpitt : where he medleth w all matters, and unsemelie speaketh of all estates, more than ys standinge withe discressyon."

Christian doctrine was by no means the only subject that occupied Turner's attention. He had taken a medical degree either at Ferrara or Bologna, and, in the reign of Edward VI, he was physician to the Duke of Somerset, the Protector. He had travelled much in Italy, Switzerland, Holland and Germany, at the periods when his religious opinions excluded him from England. One of the great advantages, which he reaped from his wanderings, was the opportunity of studying botany at Bologna under Luca Ghini, who was also the teacher of Cesalpino. Another savant, with whom he became acquainted on the Continent, was Konrad Gesner, whom he visited at Zurich, and with whom he maintained a warm friendship. He also corresponded with Leonhard Fuchs.

Turner's earliest botanical work was the ` Libellus de re herbaria novus' (1538), which is the first book in which localities for many of our native British plants are placed on record. In 1548 this was followed by another little work,

The names of herbes in Greke, Latin, Englishe Duche and Frenche wyth the commune names that Herbaries and Apotecaries use.' In the preface to this book, Turner tells us that he had projected a Latin herbal, and had indeed written it, but refrained from publishing it because, when he "axed the advise of Phisicianes in thys matter, their advise was that I shoulde cease from settynge out of this boke in latin tyll I had sene those places of Englande, wherein is moste plentie of herbes, that I might in my herbal declare to the greate honouree of our countre what numbre of sovereine and strang herbes were in Englande that were not in other nations, whose counsell I have folowed deferryng to set out my herbal in latin, tyl that I have sene the west countrey, which I never sawe yet in al my lyfe, which countrey of all places of England, as I heare say is moste richely replenished wyth all kyndes of straunge and wonderfull workes and giftes of nature, as are stones, herbes, fishes and metalles."

He explains that while waiting to complete his herbal, he has been advised to publish this little book in which he has set forth the names of plants. He adds, " and because men should not thynke that I write of that I never sawe, and that Poticaries shoulde be excuselesse when as the ryghte herbes are required of them, I have shewed in what places of Englande, Germany, and Italy the herbes growe and maye be had for laboure and money."

Turner's chef-d'oeuvre was his ` Herball,' published in three instalments, the first in London in 1551, the first and second together at Cologne in 1562, during his exile in the reign of Mary, and the third part, together with the pre-ceding, in 1568. The title of the first part runs as follows, `A new Herball, wherin are conteyned the names of Herbes...with the properties degrees and naturall places of the same, gathered and made by Wylliam Turner, Physicion unto the Duke of Somersettes Grace.' The figures illustrating the herbal are, for the most part, the same as those in the octavo edition of Fuchs' work, published in 1545.

The dedication of the herbal, in its completed form, to Queen Elizabeth, throws some light on Turner's life, and incidentally on that illustrious lady herself. The doctor recalls, with pardonable pride and perhaps a touch of blarney, an occasion on which the Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, had conversed with him in Latin. " As for your knowledge in the Latin tonge," he writes, "xv111 yeares ago or more, I had in the Duke of Somersettes house (beynge his Physition at that tyme) a good tryal thereof, when as it pleased your grace to speake Latin unto me : for although I have both in England, lowe and highe Germanye, and other places of my longe traveil and pelgrimage, never spake with any noble or gentle woman, that spake so wel and so much congrue fyne and pure Latin, as your grace did unto me so longe ago."

Turner defends himself against the insinuation that " a booke intreatinge onelye of trees, herbes and wedes, and shrubbes, is not a mete present for a prince," and certainly, if we accept his account of the state of knowledge at the time, the need for such a book must have been most urgent. He explains that, while he was still at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, he endeavoured to learn the names of plants, but, " suche was the ignorance in simples at that tyme," that he could get no information on the subject, even from physicians. He claims that his herbal has considerable originality—a claim which seems well founded. In his own words—" they that have red the first part of my Herbal, and have compared my writinges of plantes with those thinges that Matthiolus, Fuchsius, Tragus, and Dodoneus wrote in ye firste editiones of their Herballes, maye easily perceyve that I taught the truthe of certeyne plantes, which these above named writers either knew not at al, or ellis erred in them greatlye.... So y as I learned something of them, so they ether might or did learne somthinge of me agayne, as their second editions maye testifye. And because I would not be lyke unto a cryer yt cryeth a loste horse in the marketh, and telleth all the markes and tokens that he hath, and yet never sawe the horse, nether coulde knowe the horse if he sawe him : I wente into Italye and into diverse partes of Germany, to knowe and se the herbes my selfe."

This herbal contains many evidences of Turner's independence of thought. He fought against what he regarded as superstition in science with the same ardour with which he entered upon religious polemics. The legend of the human form of the Mandrake receives scant mercy at his hands. As he points out, " The rootes which are conterfited and made like litle puppettes and mammettes, which come to be sold in England in boxes, with heir, and such forme as a man hath, are nothyng elles but folishe feined trifles, and not naturall. For they are so trymmed of crafty theves to mocke the poore people with all, and to rob them both of theyr wit and theyr money. I have in my tyme at diverse tymes taken up the rootes of Mandrag out of the grounde, but I never saw any such thyng upon or in them, as are in and upon the pedlers rootes that are comenly to be solde in boxes." Turner was, however, by no means the first to dispute the Mandrake superstition ; in the Grete Herball of 1526 it is definitely refuted, and it is ignored in some works that are of even earlier date. The hoax was long-lived, for we find Gerard also exposing it in 1597.

Turner had a fine scorn for any superstitious notions he detected in the writings of his contemporaries, and seems to have been particularly pleased if he could show that in any disputed matter they were wrong, while the ancients, for whom he had a great reverence, were right. For instance he has a great deal to say about a theory, held by Mattioli, in opposition to the opinions of Theophrastus and Dioscorides, that the Broomrape (Orobanche) could kill other plants merely by its baneful presence, without any physical contact. He declares that this view is against reason, authority and experience, and points out that the figure which Mattioli gives is faulty, in omitting to show the roots, which are the real instruments of destruction. He triumphantly concludes, "And as touchynge experience, I know that the freshe and yong Orobanche bath commyng out of the great roote, many lytle strynges...wherewith it taketh holde of the rootes of the herbes that grow next unto it. Wherefore Matthiolus ought not so lyghtly to have defaced the autorite of Theophrast so ancient and substantiall autor." Turner's work is largely occupied with the opinions of early writers, especially Dioscorides, and his respect for their authority is a somewhat curious trait in a character which seems, in other directions, to have been so unorthodox. He did not however treat their books as the last word on the subject, and the third part of his herbal is occupied with plants " whereof is no mention made nether of ye old Grecianes nor Latines."

Turner's herbal is arranged alphabetically, and does not show evidence of any interest in the relationships of the plants. It is as individuals, and essentially as "simples," that he regarded them. His descriptions of them were often vividly expressed, though not markedly original. It must be remembered that botany was not the only science which he studied. He wrote about birds, and also contributed information about English fishes to Gesner's Historia Animalium.'

Before discussing the next herbal which appeared in this country, we may refer in passing to a botanical book which hardly comes under this heading, but which is of interest in relation to the history of the time. Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish physician, had published, in 1569 and 1571, some account of the plants which had lately been brought to Europe from the recently discovered West Indies, and this work was translated into English by John Frampton in 1577, under the title of `Joyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde.' This book contains a good figure of the Tobacco plant (Text-fig. 52), perhaps the first ever published, and also a long account of its virtues. The reader is told that the Negroes and Indians after inhaling tobacco smoke " doe remaine lightened, without any wearinesse, for to laboure again : and thei dooe this with so grelte pleasure, that although thei bee not wearie, yet thei are very desirous for to dooe it : and the thyng is come to so muche effecte, that their maisters doeth chasten theim for it, and doe burne the Tabaco, because thei should not use it."

Twenty-seven years after the appearance of the first part of Turner's herbal, a translation of Dodoens' work, made by Henry Lyte, appeared in England. Lyte was born about 1529, and, towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII, he became a student at Oxford. He was a man of means, addicted to travel, and his temperament seems to have been much milder and less revolutionary than that of his predecessor Turner. He did not perhaps add very greatly to the knowledge of English botany, but he did a valuable service in introducing Dodoens' herbal into this country. His book, which was published in 1578, was professedly a translation of the French version of Dodoens' Crûydeboeck of 1554, which had been made by de l'Écluse in 1557. Lyte's copy of this work, with copious manuscript notes, and, on the title-page, the quaint endorsement, " Henry Lyte taught me to speake Englishe," is preserved in the British Museum. This copy proves that Lyte was no mere mechanical translator, for the work is annotated and corrected with great care, references to de 1'Obel and Turner being introduced.

The title of Lyte's book is as follows : `A Niewe Herball or Historie of Plantes : wherin 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 : and that not onely of those which are here growyng in this our Countrie of Englande, but of all others also of forrayne Realmes, commonly used in Physicke. First set foorth in the Doutche or Almaigne tongue, by that learned D. Rembert Dodoens, Physition to the Emperour : And nowe first translated out of French into English, by Henry Lyte Esquyer.' The illustrations used in the book were the same,as those which had appeared in the translation by de l'Ecluse, and were for the most part copies of those in the octavo edition of Fuchs' herbal, with some additional blocks, which had been cut specially for Dodoens. The result is that many of the same figures occur both in Turner and in Lyte. There are said to be 87o figures in Lyte's herbal, of which about thirty are new. Of the latter Centaurea rhaj'onticum is an example.

Lyte occasionally adds a criticism of his own in a different type from that used in the main body of the text. At the beginning of the book, there is a long set of doggerel verses "in commendation of this worke," which imply that Rembert Dodoens himself made additions to the English translation. The most important stanza is the following :

"Great was his toyle, whiche first this worke dyd frame.
And so was his, whiche ventred to translate it,
For when he had full finisht all the same,
He minded not to adde, nor to abate it.
But what he founde, he ment whole to relate it.
Till Rembert he, did sende additions store.
For to augment Lyles travell past before."

We now come to John Gerard' (Plate X II), the best known of all the English herbalists, but who, it must be confessed, scarcely deserves the fame which has fallen to his share. Gerard, a native of Cheshire, was a "Master in Chirurgerie," but was better known as a remarkably successful gardener. For twenty years he supervised the gardens belonging to Lord Burleigh in the Strand, and at Theobalds in Hertfordshire, besides having himself a famous garden in Holborn, then the most fashionable district of London. In 1596 he published a list of the plants which he cultivated in Holborn, which is interesting as being the first complete catalogue ever published of the contents of a single garden.

Gerard's reputation rests however on a much larger work, 'The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes,' printed by John Norton in 1597, but the manner in which this book originated does the author little credit. It seems that Norton, the publisher, had commissioned a certain Dr Priest to translate Dodoens' final work, the ` Pemptades' of 1583, into English, but Priest died before the work was finished. Gerard simply adopted Priest's translation, completed it, and published it as his own, merely altering the arrange-ment from that of Dodoens to that of de l'Obel. He adds insult to injury by gratuitously remarking, in an address to the reader at the beginning of the herbal, that "Doctor Priest, one of our London Colledge, bath (as I heard) translated the last edition of Dodoneaus, which meant to publish the same ; but being prevented by death, his translation likewise perished." After the manner of the period, the herbal is embellished with a number of prefatory letters, in one of which, written by Stephen Bredwell, a statement occurs which is so inconsistent with Gerard's own remarks that he certainly committed an oversight in allowing it to stand ! In Bredwell's words—" D. Priest for his translation of so much as Dodonæus, hath hereby left a tombe for his honorable sepulture. Master Gerard comming last, but not the least, hath many waies accommodated the whole worke unto our English nation."

The ` Herball' is a massive volume, in clear Roman type, contrasting markedly with the black letter used in the works of Turner and Lyte, and giving the book a much more modern appearance. It contains about 1800 wood-cuts, nearly all from blocks used by Tabern emontanus in his ` Eicones' of 1590, which Norton obtained from Frankfort ; less than one per cent. are original. There is an illustration representing the Virginian Potato, which appears to be new, and is perhaps the first figure of this plant ever published (Text-fig. 6o). Gerard did not know enough about botany to couple the wood-blocks of Tabernaemontanus with their appropriate descriptions, and de l'Obel was requested by the printer to correct the author's blunders. This he did, according to his own account, in very many places, but yet not so many as he wished, since Gerard became impatient, and summarily stopped the process of emendation, on the ground that de l'Obel had forgotten his English. After this episode, the relations between the two botanists seem, not unnaturally, to have become some-what strained.

Gerard evidently aimed at conveying information in simple language, for in one place, where he speaks of a preparation being "squirted " into the eyes, he apologises for the colloquialism, explaining that he does not wish " to be over eloquent among gentlewomen, unto whom especially my works are most necessary."

The value of Gerard's work must inevitably be at a discount, when we realise that it is impossible, from internal evidence, to accept him as a credible witness. His oft-quoted account of the " Goose tree," Barnakle tree," or the " tree bearing Geese," removes what little respect one may have felt for him as a scientist, not so much because he held an absurd belief, which was widely accepted at the time, but rather because he went out of his way to state that it was confirmed by his own observations ! He gives a figure to illustrate the origin of the Geese (Text-fig. 54), which is not, however, original.

Gerard relates how trees, actually bearing shells which open and hatch out barnacle geese, occur in the "Orchades," but he states that on this point he has no first-hand knowledge. He proceeds, however, to remark, " But what our eies have seene, and hands have touched, we shall declare. There is a small Ilande in Lancashire called the Pile of Foulders, wherein are found the broken peeces of old and brused ships, some whereof have beene cast thither by shipwracke, and also the trunks or bodies with the branches of old and rotten trees, cast up there likewise : wheron is found a certaine spume or froth, that in time breedeth unto certaine shels, in shape like those of the muskle, but sharper pointed, and of a whitish colour ; wherein is conteined a thing in forme like a lace of silke finely woven, as it were togither, of a whitish colour ; one ende whereof is fastned unto the inside of the shell, even as the fish of Oisters and Muskles are ; the other ende is made fast unto the belly of a rude masse or lumpe, which in time commeth to the shape and forme of a Bird : when it is perfectly formed, the shel gapeth open, and the first thing that appeereth is the foresaid lace or string ; next come the legs of the Birde hanging out ; and as it groweth greater, it openeth the shell by degrees, till at length it is all come foorth, and hangeth onely by the bill ; in short space after it commeth to full maturitie, and falleth into the sea, where it gathereth feathers, and groweth to a foule, bigger then a Mallard, and lesser than a Goose."

The fable of the Goose Tree was rejected in the later editions of Gerard's ` Herball,' published after the author's death. It reappears, however, late in the seventeenth century, in the ` Historia Naturalis' of John Jonston. The legend is of respectable antiquity, being found in various early chronicles. Sebastian Muenster, for example, in his ` Cosmographial,' printed at Basle in 1545, refers to it as recorded by previous writers, and figure's a tree with pendent fruits, out of which geese are dropping into a lake or stream.

Hector Boethius [Boece] in his Scottish Chronicle gives a quaint account of the origin of geese from drift-wood in the sea, " in the small boris and hollis " of which "growls small wormis. First thay schaw thair heid and felt, and last of all they schaw thair plumis and wyngis. Finally quhen thay ar cumyn to the iust mesure and quantite of geis, thay fle in the aire, as othir fowlis dois."

It is rather surprising to find that William Turner was a believer in the same myth, although, unlike Gerard, he took great pains to satisfy himself of the truth of the story, which he seems to have approached with quite an open mind. His account is as follows :

"When after a certain time the firwood masts or planks or yard-arms of a ship have rotted on the sea, then fungi, as it were, break out upon them first, in which in course of time one may discern evident forms of birds, which after-wards are clothed with feathers, and at last become alive and fly. Now lest this should seem fabulous to anyone, besides the common evidence of all the long-shore men of England, Ireland, and Scotland, that renowned historian Gyraldus,...bears witness that the generation of the Bernicles is none other than this. But inasmuch as it seemed hardly safe to trust the vulgar and by reason of the rarity of the thing I did not quite credit Gyraldus,...I took counsel of a certain man, whose upright conduct, often proved by me, had justified my trust, a theologian by profession and an Irishman by birth, Octavian by name, whether he thought Gyraldus worthy of belief in this affair. Who, taking oath upon the very Gospel which he taught, answered that what Gyraldus had reported of the generation of this bird was absolutely true, and that with his own eyes he had beholden young, as yet but rudely formed, and also handled them, and, if I were to stay in London for a month or two, that he would take care that some growing chicks should be brought in to me."

The Goose Tree is also figured by de l'Obel and d'Aléchamps, but it is refreshing to find that Colonna in his ` Phytobasanos ' (1592) flatly denies the truth of the legend.

The importance of Gerard's `Herball' in the history of botany is chiefly due to an improved edition, brought out by Thomas Johnson in 1633, thirty-six years after the work was originally published. Johnson was an apothecary in London, and cultivated a physic garden on Snow Hill. His first botanical work was a short account of the plants collected by members of the Apothecaries' Company on an excursion in Kent. This is of interest as being the earliest memoir of the kind published in England. Later on, descriptions of botanical tours in the west of England, and in Wales, appeared from his pen. But it is as the editor of Gerard that he is chiefly remembered. He greatly enlarged the ` Herball,' and illustrated it with Plantin's wood-cuts. His edition contained an account of no less than 2850 plants. Johnson also corrected numerous errors, and the whole work, transformed by him, rose to a much higher grade of value. It was reprinted, without alteration, in 1636.

When the Civil Wars broke out, Johnson, who is said to have been a man of great personal courage, joined the Royalists. He took an active part in the defence of Basing House, and received a shot wound during the siege, from which he died.

John Parkinson (1567—1650) may be regarded as the last British herbalist, of the period we are considering, whose work was of any great interest from the botanical point of view. His portrait is shown in Plate XIII. Like Gerard and Johnson, he cultivated a famous garden in London. In these days of bricks and mortar, it is hard to realise that gardens of such importance flourished in Holborn, Snow Hill, and Long Acre respectively. Another important London garden of the period was that at Lambeth, belonging to John Tradescant, gardener to Charles I.

Parkinson became apothecary to James I and botanist to Charles I. The earlier of the two books, by which he is remembered, was rather of the nature of a gardening work than of a herbal. It appeared in 1629 under the title, ` Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. A Garden of all sorts of pleasant flowers which our English ayre will permitt to be noursed up together With the right orderinge planting and preserving of them and their uses and vertues.' It has lately become accessible in the form of a facsimile reprint. The words " Paradisi in Sole " form a pun upon the author's name, and may lie translated "Of park-in-sun." The book was dedicated to Queen Henrietta Maria, with the prayer that she will accept " this speaking Garden."

The preface to this work is entirely at variance with the idea that scientific knowledge has only been gradually acquired by the human race. In Parkinson's words :—"God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, at the beginning when he created Adam, inspired him with the knowledge of all naturall things (which successively descended to Noah afterwardes, and to his Posterity) : for, as he was able to give names to all the living Creatures, according to their severall natures ; so no doubt but hee had also the knowledge, both what Herbes and Fruits were fit, eyther for Meate or Medicine, for Use or for Delight."

Elaborate directions for the planting and treatment of a garden precede an account of a large number of plants cultivated at that time, with some mention of their uses. The book is illustrated with full-page wood engravings of no great merit, in each of which a number of different plants are represented (Text-fig. 55 is taken from part of one illustration). The figures are partly original and partly copied from the books of de l'Ecluse, de l'Obel and others.

In 1640, Parkinson followed up this work with a much larger volume, dealing with plants in general, and called the ` Theatrum botanicum : The Theater of Plants. Or, an Herball of a Large Extent.' He complains that the publication of the work has been delayed, partly through the "disastrous times," but chiefly through the machinations of " wretched and perverse men." According to the preface to the ` Paradisus Terrestris,' the author's original idea was merely to supplement his description of the Flower Garden by an account of "A Garden of Simples." This scheme grew into one of a more extensive and general nature, but without losing the predominant medical interest, which would have characterised the work as originally planned. In accordance with this intention, the virtues of the herbs are dealt with in great detail.

Parkinson's herbal is in some ways an improvement on that of Johnson and Gerard. Almost the whole of Bauhin's Pinax ' is incorporated, with the result that the account of the nomenclature of each plant becomes very full and detailed. Many of de l'Obel's manuscript notes are also inserted. The scheme of classification adopted is, however, markedly inferior to that of de l'Obel.

Occasionally, in spite of his comparatively late date, Parkinson displays an imagination that is truly mediæval. He is eloquent _on the subject of that rare and precious commodity, the horn of the Unicorn, which is a cure for many bodily ills. He describes the animal as living "farre remote from these parts, and in huge vast Wildernesses among other most fierce and wilde beasts." He discusses, also, the use of the powder of mummies as a medicine, and his description is enlivened with a picture of an embalmed corpse.

The illustrations to the Theatrum Botanicum are of no importance, being chiefly copied from those of Gerard.

The great British botanists who follow next upon Parkinson, in point of time, are Robert Morison (b. 1620) and John Ray (b. 1627), but as their chief works appeared after the close of the period selected for special study in this book (1470-1670), and as they were botanists in the modern sense, rather than herbalists, we will not attempt any discussion of their writings.

While Morison and Ray were advancing the subject of Systematic Botany, Nehemiah Grew and the Italian, Marcello Malpighi, born respectively in 1641 and 1628, were laying the foundations of the science of Plant Anatomy. Their work, also, is outside, the scope of the present book, and it is only mentioned at this point in order to show that the latter part of the seventeenth century witnessed a considerable revolution in the science. From this period onwards, with the opening up of new lines of inquiry, the importance of the herbal steadily declined, and though books which come under this heading were produced even in the nineteenth century, the day of their preeminence was over.



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