Early Botanical Explorations in Latin America: Monardes

3 Tobacco

Nicotinia pictured in Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde in Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of my favorite natural history book titles is Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde, published in England by John Frampton in 1577.  But Frampton didn’t write the book, he just translated it from the Spanish and introduced Latin America to the British reading public.  The author was Nicolás Monardes (1493-1588), who himself never set foot in the New World.  So why mention him in a series of blog posts on botanical exploration in the Americas?  I’ve chosen to deal with him because he wrote a very good book that became popular throughout Europe.  It represents a different approach to learning about exotic plants.  Monardes never saw them growing in their native soil, but he did grow them in his garden where he observed them closely, collected seeds and specimens from them, and distributed these to correspondents throughout Spain and Europe.  He also experimented with preparing medicines from the plants he grew, and this information went into his written descriptions.

Monardes was well-placed to obtain botanical information from Latin America because he lived in Seville, the only port from which Spanish ships sailed to the New World. He was a trader who dealt in a number of products including dyes, hides, medicines, and cloth.  He was also a physician who incorporated new plants he came upon in trade into his medical practice, often after experimenting with what he had grown in his garden.  In addition, one of his sons settled in Peru and sent back specimens, seeds, and information.  While the writers I dealt with in the last two posts—Gonzalo Oviedo, José de Acosta, and Francisco Hernández—all discussed a broad range of topics including not only information on plants, but on animals, geography, and ethnography, Monardes focused exclusively on plants and particularly those that had medicinal uses.  As Daniela Bleichmar (2017) notes, while plants from Constantinople and the Near East, including tulips and other flower bulbs, were treasured for their rarity and beauty, those from the New World were valued more for their medicinal properties.

One of the reasons Monardes’s book was so popular was that he described at length plants with fascinating properties.  For example, he devoted 16 pages to tobacco.  It was one of the first New World plants extensively used in Europe and during the 16th century 60 different European books dealt with it; another 350 were published during the first half of the 17th century.  It can be seen as the marijuana of its time, though admittedly Cannabis was known and used from ancient times.  Monardes named tobacco Nicotiana for his friend Jean Nicot who was French Ambassador to Lisbon and was said to have introduced tobacco to the French court where it soon became popular (see figure above).  Bleichmar gives a thorough review of early attitudes toward this plant’s use.  Some considered it a panacea, a miracle drug to treat a variety of ailments from arthritis to toothaches, and even bad breath.  Monardes was among those with this viewpoint, and the popularity of his book meant that these ideas spread through Europe.  On the other hand, some saw tobacco as a moral poison, a branch of the sin of drunkenness, with the spewing of stinking fumes leading to shameful lust.  In part, this attitude stemmed from reports of how tobacco was used by indigenous peoples which left them in day-long stupors.  Fortunately, other plants Monardes presented were more benign.  Of course, chocolate was discussed as was the sunflower, passion flower, sweet potato, and the pepper.

Vivid descriptions of so many plants is what made Monardes’s book popular.  Frampton’s translation into English definitely had a catchy title, but what also stimulated sales was the brisk trade that existed at this time between the Iberian Peninsula and Britain.  Tobacco and other exotic plant products were becoming available so there was a positive feedback between supply and information, each spurring on the other.  The Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius, who had collected in Spain and spoke Spanish as well as seven other languages, translated the book into Latin, producing an abridged version and giving it a broad audience among the educated classes throughout Europe (Egmond, 2010).  Later, in his book on exotic plants Clusius drew heavily from Monardes.  This was a common practice among botanists of the day and was often responsible for rapid diffusion of botanical knowledge.

The original Spanish edition as well as Clusius’s and Frampton’s books were all illustrated, another reason for the book’s popularity.  By the later part of the 16th century, woodcuts had become more common in the botanical literature, particularly in books that were meant for a wide readership, rather than more technical taxonomic works such as that of Cesalpino (see earlier post).  In the second edition of his book, Monardes quotes a letter from a Spaniard in Peru who wrote that he relied on the book for information identifying native medicinal plants because the indigenous people were not forthcoming with information, one reason being that plant use was often tied to their religion.  This suggests the complexities of communicating botanical knowledge between the new and old worlds in the early modern period.

References

Bleichmar, D. (2017). Visual Voyages: Images of Latin American Nature from Columbus to Darwin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Egmond, F. (2010). The World of Carolus Clusius: Natural History in the Making, 1550-1610. London, UK: Pickering and Chatto.

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