This series of posts is on books I’ve encountered recently that forced me to look at botany in wider cultural contexts, to examine how the science relates to other parts of society. Most of these works were published fairly recently and reflect the trend toward examining issues of gender, colonialism, economics, and social structures. I tend to evaluate books that deal with plants in terms of what they can tell me about botany, but I’m becoming more aware that learning about botany can mean learning about many other things along the way. The first book is a case in point: Sara Neville’s Early Modern Herbals and the Book Trade: English Stationers and the Commodification of Botany (2022).
Right away, commodification puts me outside my comfort zone. I want to learn about William Turner, John Gerard, and John Parkinson, not their publishers. However, Neville makes the case that early modern botany and the publishing business are inextricably linked, and that the names of these botanists would not be remembered today without the work of printers. At the time, the people who traded in paper, the stationers, were connected to the printing trade as a way to sell more of their commodity. In the 16th century, English paper production was less sophisticated than on the continent, so stationers were involved in trade relationships throughout Europe and thus knew of the latest trends in publishing as well.
By the 1540s, there were several good herbals available in Latin from German and Dutch publishers, so it made sense that one should be printed in English. The first was produced by the stationer Richard Bankes in 1525 with the title Herball. No author was given since it was a translation based on an anonymous medieval manuscript in Latin called Agnus Castus. This was a short text introducing plants, mostly of medicinal interest, in alphabetical order making it easy to use for reference. There were no images and it was printed in a small, affordable format. It went through several editions and was a financially successful venture. The next year Peter Treveris published The Grete Herball, and true to its name it had more text and four hundred illustrations. The latter were not of high quality, and readers recognized this. Neville makes a point about the importance of readership in publishing: word gets around if a book is not up to snuff. Making botany public knowledge involved a complex social network of which botanists were only a small part, especially in the early years of printed herbals when the texts being produced were often simply copies of ancient texts.
After dealing with these anonymous publications, Neville goes on to discuss William Turner’s A New Herball, released in three volumes (1551-1561). Turner is identified on the title page as gatherer rather than author. In other words, he had gleaned information from a variety of sources: ancient texts, personal observations and experiences, and facts gathered in his European travels. His work was large and well-illustrated; it was printed in the Netherlands, where higher quality books were produced. The text received much more attention over the years than the earlier anonymous works, even though they had sold well.
After Turner, the next important herbal was John Gerard’s Herball or General Historie of Plants (1597). The saga of this 1,400-page tome has been told many times (Arber, 1938; Harkness, 2007) including evidence that Gerard had cavalierly used the work of others, particularly Matthias de l’Obel with whom he was at first collaborating. Neville sees the story differently, focusing on the communal aspects of the publication and production of early modern books. The publisher began the enterprise seeking out L’Obel and Gerard as botanical experts. Both were in London, and Gerard had a garden where he grew and observed a large number of plants. In a book of this size, errors were inevitable, and Neville sees some of them as being unavoidable because of how the book was put together. She also argues that movement of information from one writer to another was not uncommon at the time. Writing was seen more as a pooling of ideas with one writer commenting on and building on the works of others. She sees the same thing happening with images, which were the most costly elements in publishing. It made sense to reuse woodblocks from earlier works. Knowledge of a plant may change over time, but what it looks like wouldn’t. Why not use a good image if one were available?
Neville goes on to discuss Thomas Johnson’s revisions to the Gerard herbal which he was asked to undertake by the same publisher when the defects of the original became apparent. It was the focus on these issues that planted the idea in the historical record that Gerard was less that a competent botanist. I am in no position to weigh in on either side, but I did enjoy being presented with a different perspective, in part because it reminded me that in history as in life there are always at least two sides to a story. Broadening horizons is what reading is all about, and this book definitely helped me to see stationers as part of the story of botany in the early modern era.
Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution, A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harkness, D. E. (2007). The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Neville, S. (2022). Early Modern Herbals and the Book Trade: English Stationers and the Commodification of Botany. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.