The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes, gathered by English surgeon and botanist John Gerarde, is a lushly illustrated guide to botany and herbal medicine. Special Collections is home to a rare first edition printing of the Herball, published by John Norton in 1597. This 419-year-old book is remarkably intact; however abrasions on the cover and minor stains and tears throughout demonstrate that this book was frequently consulted. In fact, Gerarde’s Herball was the most widely circulated book on plants published in English in the 17th century.
The first edition of the Herball consists of 1,484 pages divided into three books: “The First Booke of the Historie of Plants, Containing Grasses, Rushes, Corne, Flags, Bulbose, or Onion-rooted Plants,” “The Second Booke… Containing the description, place, time, names, nature, and vertues of all sorts of herbs for meate, medicine, or sweete smelling use, etc.,” and “The Third Booke… Containing… Trees, Shrubs, Bushes, Fruit-bearing plants, Rosins, Gums, Roses, Heath, Mosses: Some Indian plants, and other rare plants not remembered in the Proeme to the first booke. Also Mushrooms, Corall, and their several kindes, etc.”
The Herball was published more than a century prior to Linnaean taxonomy; therefore, the plants discussed within the book are not organized according to rank-based classification. Instead, Gerarde arranged the plants using a classification system based on differences of leaf structure. The back of the Herball contains multiple indices, including a table of the “Nature, Vertue, and Dangers of all the Herbes, Trees, and Plants, of the which are spoken in this present Herball.”
Gerarde’s prose combines naturalistic description and Elizabethan folklore. For example, Gerarde writes that Tragopogon, pictured on these pages, is commonly known as “Go to bed at noone,” “for it shutteth it selfe at twelve of the clocke, and sheweth non his face open until the next daies sunne do make it flower anew” (595). The author’s description of the medicinal uses for Tragopogon is equally poetic. He writes that the root of Tragopogon “warmeth the stomacke, prevaileth greatly in consumptions, and strengthneth those that have been sicke of a long lingering disease” (596).
Although the Herball bears Gerarde’s name, most of the book is a translation of a renowned herbal published by Dutch scholar Rembert Dodoen in 1554. Furthermore, Gerarde did not translate the entire book himself; he took over the translation project from Robert Priest, a member of the London College of Physicians who died before the book was published. Additionally, almost all of the eighteen hundred woodcuts in the Herball were taken from the Eicones Plantarum of Jacobus Theodorus, published in 1590, which were in turn reproductions from other earlier works. Though Gerarde was the superintendent of the gardens of the adviser to Queen Elizabeth, his knowledge of botany fell short and he paired many plant descriptions with the wrong illustrations. A second edition of the Herball, corrected and expanded to around 1,700 pages by London apothecary Thomas Johnson, was published in 1633, two decades after Gerarde’s death.
Gerarde is often credited with contributing original entries about plants from his own garden, including plants from the New World that were considered rare and exotic at the time. Notably, Gerarde’s Herball contains the first English description of the potato. Gerarde obtained a Virginian potato plant for his own garden through his contacts with explorers Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. The illustration included with his entry, which is one of the only original woodcuts in the Herball, was the first depiction of the potato many English people had ever encountered.
We encourage anyone with an interest to drop by Special Collections and take a look at this book in person. Special Collections and Archives is open to the public 1:30-5:00pm Monday through Friday and mornings by appointment. Additional information about the Herball can be found on the websites for the University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Heath Sciences Library and on the Encyclopaedia Romana published in affiliation with the University of Chicago.