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Conclusions Herbals

( Originally Published 1912 )

GENERAL review of the subjects discussed in the foregoing chapters brings home to us several results of some interest. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the incalculable debt which Botany owes to Medicine. An overwhelming majority of the herbalists were physicians, who were led to the study of botany on account of its connection with the arts of healing. As we have already pointed out, medicine gave the original impulse, not only to Systematic Botany, but also to the study of the Anatomy of Plants.

However, as the evolution of the herbal proceeded, we have shown that botany rose from being a mere hand-maid of medicine to a position of comparative independence. This is well exemplified in the history of plant classification. When the early medical botanists attempted any arrangement of their material, it was on a purely utilitarian basis ; the herbs were merely classified according to the qualities which made them of value to man. But as the science grew, the need of a more systematic classification began to make itself felt, and in some of the works published in the latter half of the period we are are considering, there is a distinct, if only partially successful, attempt to group the plants according to the affinities which they present when considered in themselves, and not in relation to man. The ideal of a natural system in the Vegetable Kingdom, in which each plant should find its inevitable place, must have been clear for instance to de l'Obel, when he wrote in the ` Adversaria,' of " an order, than which nothing more beautiful exists in the heavens, or in the mind of a wise man."

Second only to the debt of botany to medicine is its debt to certain branches of the fine arts, more especially wood-engraving. The draughtsman and engraver not only disseminated the knowledge of plants, but their work must often have revealed to the botanist features which had escaped his less highly educated and subtle eye.

As we have already pointed out, the art of plant description lagged conspicuously behind that of plant illustration. The vague and crude, but often picturesque, accounts, given by the early herbalists of the plants which they observed, contrast curiously with the technically accurate, but colourless and impersonal descriptions from the pens of modern botanists.

The rapid rise of botany, in the two centuries which we have reviewed, must have been greatly stimulated by the cosmopolitanism of the savants of the renaissance. Periods of study at a succession of different universities, and wide European travel, including visits to scientific men of various countries, seem to have formed part of the recognised equipment of the botanical student. Possibly the zeal for travel was not altogether spontaneous, but was artificially stimulated by the religious disturbances so common at the period of the Reformation and later, which often drove into exile the adherents of the Reformed Faith, among whom many botanists were numbered. This is exemplified in the cases of William Turner, Charles de l'Écluse, and the Bauhins.

It is interesting to notice that, in the works of the best herbalists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such for instance as Bock, Turner, Dodoens and Gaspard Bauhin, we find, comparatively speaking, little belief in any kind of superstition connected with plants, such as the doctrine of signatures, or astrology. A number of books dealing with such topics appeared during the period we have considered, but their writers form a class apart, and must not be con-fused with the herbalists proper, whose attitude was, on the whole, marked by a healthy scepticism which was in advance of their time. It would, naturally, be far from true to say that they were all quite free from superstition, but, considering the intellectual atmosphere of the period, their enlightenment was quite remarkable.

When we come to consider the origin of the herbal, we find that it is impossible to assign any date for its beginning.

In manuscript form, herbals have existed from very early times, but, in the present book, those prior to the invention of printing have been scarcely touched upon. Our subject has been limited to the most active life period of the printed herbal, which may be reckoned as beginning in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, with the ` Book of Nature,' the ` Herbarium' of Apuleius, and the Latin and German ' I- erbarius.' When this active period ended is less easily decided, but in some senses it may fairly be taken as covering only the comparatively short space of two hundred years. There are, of course, a very large number of later herbals, belonging to the end of the seventeenth, the eighteenth, and even the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but their importance in the history of botany appears to the present writer to be relatively small, and hence, in this volume, attention has been almost entirely confined to works which appeared before 167o.

After this period, botany rapidly became more scientific ; the discovery of the function of the stamens, which was first announced in 1682, marking a very definite step in advance. As time went on, the herbal, with its characteristic mixture of medical and botanical lore, gave way before the exclusively medical pharmacopoeia on the one hand, and the exclusively botanical flora on the other. As the use of home-made remedies declined, and the chemist's shop took the place of the housewife's herb-garden and still-room, the practical value of the herbal diminished almost to vanishing point.

The best epoch in the history of the herbal, from the point of view of book-illustration, is confined within much narrower limits than the two centuries we have been considering. The suggestion has been made, and seems thoroughly justified, that the finest period should be reckoned as falling between 1530 and 1614, that is, between the wood-cuts of Hans Weiditz in Brunfels' ` Herbarum viva eicones,' and the copper-plates of Crispian de Passe in the ` Hortus Floridus.' This good period thus lasted less than one hundred years, and belongs chiefly to the sixteenth century. From the artistic point of view, its zenith is perhaps reached in the wood-engravings which illustrate Fuchs' great work, ` De historia stirpium' (1542), though, from a more strictly scientific standpoint, the drawings by Camerarius and Gesner, which appeared in 1586 and 1588, may be said to bear the palm.

As far as the text is concerned, the culmination of the botanical works of the period under consideration may be regarded as foreshadowed in the ' Stirpium Adversaria Nova' of Pena and de l'Obel (1570—71) and attained in the ' Prodromos' (162o) and the ` Pinax' (1623) of Gaspard Bauhin. In the works of the latter author, classification, nomenclature and description reach their high-water mark, though it is to de l'Obel, and to his precursor, Bock, one of the " German Fathers of Botany," that we owe the first definite efforts after a natural system. It is pleasant to remember that Jean Bauhin, to whom his younger brother Gaspard probably owed his first botanical inspiration, was a pupil of Leonhard Fuchs at Tübingen, so that the latter has a double claim to be associated with the results of the " herbal period " at its best. We began this book with a portrait of Leonhard Fuchs, and we may well conclude with his name—that of the greatest and most typical of sixteenth-century herbalists.

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