Natural History in 17th-Century Britain: John Ray

1 Ray

Title page of John Ray’s Historia Plantarum, from the Biodiversity Heritage Library

I’ve written a number of posts about 16th-century naturalists who opened the field of early modern botany, especially about Luca Ghini, an early advocate for the herbarium, and those who worked with him (1,2,3,4).  In this series, I want move on to the 17th century and discuss a circle of naturalists working in Britain.  They knew each other, as least causally, in part because they were all members of the Royal Society of London (RS), which was founded in 1660.  This was in the latter days of a turbulent time in Britain when kings had been killed, Oliver Cromwell took over the government, and finally the monarchy was restored by bringing Charles II to the throne.  Part of this political turmoil was religious as well, with Catholics and different Protestant factions at odds with each other—and with the government.

But what does this have to do with plants?  Well, quite a bit, because many of those interested in natural history were products of Cambridge and Oxford Universities, which were then religious institutions devoted primarily to training clergy.  They were affected by the political upheavals, especially when Cromwell.  When King Charles II reached the throne, those working at the universities was asked to sign a loyalty oath to the Church.  John Ray (1627-1705), a naturalist who had been teaching at Oxford for 13 years, refused and lost his job.  He responded by not only leaving the university but the country and spent the next three years traveling in Europe, most of the time with Francis Willughby  and Philip Skippon, both of whom he had tutored.

Ray and Willughby had already made several collecting trips to areas in Britain, and Ray had published a Flora of Cambridgeshire (1660), the first of its kind for the British Isles and one that served as a model of such books.  This came to my attention recently when I read Tim Dee’s (2015) Four Fields, one of which is in Cambridge where he lives.  Dee writes of Ray’s work:  “I can think of nothing more thrilling, nothing that our species has done better, than this benign capture and permanent vivifying of a season, a pathway and a field edge, and its simpling, or its lovable mapping of what might be in front of us” (p. 236).  In other words, Ray makes the nature of Cambridge come alive.  Early his book, Dee himself writes that as a child he was enchanted by the world of books and found that books about the living world made that world more vivid and real.

Ray’s interests, like those of most naturalists of his time, extended well beyond plants.  With Willughby, he investigated birds, insects, and fish, publishing the results of their work after Willughby’s early death.  There will be more on Willughby in the next post.  For now I want to stick with Ray’s major work, his massive three-volume Historia Plantarum (1686-1704).  Agnes Arber (1943) suggests that its size, as well as its Latin text, led to its lack of popularity, but it’s nonetheless an important resource.  Ray is credited with one of the best pre-Linnaean classification schemes.  He built on the much earlier work of Andrea Cesalpino and still divided plants into trees, shrubs and herbs, but he also differentiated between monocots and dicots, and between angiosperms and gymnosperms.  These were not totally new discoveries, and much of the terminology came from the writings of Joachim Jung.  But Ray’s genius was in gathering all this information together and presenting it in a clear, organized way.  His work is considered one of the forerunners of Antoine Laurent de Jussieu’s natural system of classification.

Alexander Wragge-Morley (2010) argues that Ray’s descriptions were a form of picturing, they “enjoyed the same epistemic status as graphic representations, because they provoked images—and knowledge—of the same sort.  An image revealed immediately, a verbal description, more slowly” (p. 174).  Ray himself wrote that images can enhance the intelligibility of text, but can’t replace it because there is information about a species that can’t be conveyed in an engraving.  This was an opinion Ray shared with others like Robert Hooke and Nehemiah Grew, both of whom did use illustrations in their publications.  One reason Ray didn’t was their cost, but he also seemed to gravitate toward words.  He didn’t think much of herbaria, though there is one in the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London containing plants he collected on his European tour.  He doesn’t seem to have kept specimens relating to his Historia, though he did examine plants in a number of herbaria including those of Hans Sloane, Leonard Plukenet, and James Petiver.

Ray wrote a number of other works, including some I’ll mention in the next post on Francis Willughby.  He also produced a collection of translations of travel writings by authors who had toured parts of the Middle East.  The major portion was a translation by a German writer into English of Leonhard Rauwolf’s travelogue, noting the many plants he encountered along the way (see earlier post).  Ray also wrote a theological tract.  Throughout his life he remained religiously fervent, like many of his day, and saw the study of nature as a way to learn more about the creator.


Arber, A. R. (1943). A seventeenth-century naturalist: John Ray. Isis, 34, 319–324

Dee, T. (2015). Four Fields. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Ray, J. (1660, 1975). Ray’s Flora of Cambridgeshire. Hitchin, UK: Wheldon and Wesley.

Wragge‐Morley, A. (2010). The work of verbal picturing for John Ray and some of his contemporaries. Intellectual History Review, 20(1), 165–179.

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