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.

Touring the Near East: Leonhard Rauwolf

3 Limonium sinuatum

Limonium sinuatum collected in Lebanon by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1575. Collection of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands.

In the last post, I discussed Ogier Ghiselin Busbecq’s introduction of many Near Eastern plants into Western Europe through the writings, specimens, seeds, and bulbs he distributed.  Twenty years after Busbecq left for Constantinople, the German physician and botanist Leonhard Rauwolf (1535-1596) set out for an extensive tour of the Near East.  While Busbecq went as a diplomat, Rauwolf went primarily as someone interested in plants; he was sponsored by his brother-in-law, a prominent trader who had agents in several countries including Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.  Rauwolf was charged with providing medical treatments for the trader’s employees and also with investigating medicinal plants and treatments that might be profitable for his patron.

Rauwolf was well-equipped for his mission.  He was born in Ausburg in southern Germany and studied medicine in France, including some time at the University of Montpellier, tutored by the noted botanist Guillaume Rondelet in 1560.  From this time on Rauwolf kept a herbarium, which documented not only what but where he collected.  He also carefully studied the work of Dioscorides, the first-century physician whose herbal was the major botanical text still relied upon by doctors in the 16th century.  But as botanists studied plants more carefully in their native ranges they realized that the characteristics of the species in France and Germany did not always match with Dioscoridean descriptions.  This was a major reason Rauwolf wanted to visit the Mediterranean region:  to see firsthand the plants that Dioscorides had described (Dannenfeldt, 1968).

Rauwolf set out in May 1573 and traveled to Marseilles with a friend and from there sailed to Tripoli.  He went to Aleppo with a camel caravan and then beyond to the Euphrates River in southern Turkey, sailing on the river to Baghdad.  On the return trip, it was caravan all the way until they again reached Tripoli.  They went through a lot of rough country not just in terms of geography, but also because of encounters with local tribes that were often wary of foreigners and questioning of their loyalties.  These details make Rauwolf’s journal intriguing.  The reader wants to find out what is going to happen next.  For each of the places he visits he describes not only the plants he encountered, but also the terrain, the people and their customs, and the problems that arose.  He tells of others who had been captured and held prisoner for years on this route, and he himself turned back after reaching Baghdad because of violence in the area.

Despite all the problems, it’s clear that Rauwolf is enchanted by the plants he sees, and he frequently notes how they are similar to those described in Dioscorides and Theophrastus.  This is indeed what he came for, though at several points he writes of how disappointed he is in the medicinal herbs that are available from local apothecaries when he is looking for treatments for his patients.  This dearth may be real, or it may be that the remedies are so different from what he is accustomed to he can’t appreciate what he’s offered, or that the locals aren’t willing to share their finest sources with him.  In any case, he does his best to record what he sees growing around him and writes, for example, about “plants, which I gather’d during my stay in Aleppo, in and round about it, not without great danger and trouble . . . All these and several other herbs have I preserved and glued to some paper, with great and peculiar care, so that they are to be seen in their natural colors so exact, as if they were green “ (pp. 73, 77).

Many of these specimens still exist.  There are four volumes of Rauwolf’s herbarium preserved at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, and they are now the subject of an intensive study being conducted on 16th-century herbaria by a group that Tilde van Andel heads.  In her inaugural address as the Clusius Chair at Leiden University in 2017, she noted that Rauwolf’s “herbarium was locked in a treasure room for more than 400 years, where it was only seen by a handful of botanists” (p. 5).  Now things are changing, and it is exciting to see this much attention given to these early specimens.  The fourth volume of Rauwolf’s specimens is a particularly important historical document, because the 191 species preserved there were collected on his Near East trip and are supported by his published journal and the illustrations it includes (Ghorbani et al., 2018).  One early result of this new attention is the typification of two Linnaean plant names based on two of these illustrations.  There are also herbarium specimens relating to these images (Ghorbani et al., 2017).

Another reason Rauwolf’s work is more accessible today is that his journal is available electronically through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Both the 1583 version in German is there as well as a translation into English that was published in 1693 by the botanist John Ray.  I was curious as to what moved Ray to work on Rauwolf, so I consulted Charles Raven’s (1950) biography of Ray.  It turns out that Ray himself did not do the translation.  It was created by a German apothecary under the aegis of Hans Sloane, the great collector and botanist.  Sloane and others thought the manuscript needed editing to improve the English and also to update the plant identifications.  They urged Ray to take on the job, and though he was busy with his own work, he accepted the assignment, appending a list of the plants Rauwolf discussed.  Also added were excerpts from the writings of a number of other travelers to the Near East.  I’ll touch on these and later explorers in the next post.


Dannenfeldt, K. H. (1968). Leonhard Rauwolf, Sixteenth-Century Physician, Botanist, and Traveler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ghorbani, A., de Boer, H. J., Maas, P. J. M., & van Andel, T. 2017. The typification of two Linnaean plant names based on illustrations published by Leonhard Rauwolf in 1583. Taxon, 66(5), 1204-1207.

Ghorbani, A., Wieringa, J. J., de Boer, H. J., Porck, H., Kardinaal, A., & van Andel, T. (2018). Botanical and floristic composition of the Historical Herbarium of Leonhard Rauwolf collected in the Near East (1573-1575). Taxon, 67(3), 565-580.

Raven, C. E. (1950). John Ray Naturalist: His Life and Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

van Andel, T. (2017, January). Open the Treasure Room and Decolonize the Museum. Inaugural Lecture, Leiden University.