For the love of plants : sixteenth-century botany in the Low Countries


Pictores operis, from De historia stirpium commentarii insignes. Classmark: Sel.2.81.

Books by the sixteenth-century Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens are remarkably well represented in the University Library, both in Dutch and in translation. The Library holds 32 different imprints, 18 of them published in the sixteenth century. Dodoens was amongst the most skilled botanists of his time, spearheading the rapid development of the science and exercising considerable influence upon later English practitioners. The word ‘herbal’ is derived from the mediaeval Latin liber herbalis or ‘book of herbs’, and much of the information which herbals contained arose out of traditional medicine that predated the invention of printing. They were initially produced as illustrated manuscripts and ‘published’ through repeated copying by hand, with the copyist often translating, expanding or adapting the content. At this time botany was not an independent discipline, but rather an auxiliary science to medicine. It was the Germans who during the first half of the sixteenth century abandoned the slavish imitation of the ancients and delivered original and richly illustrated works. Konrad von Megenberg’s Buch der Natur was an early natural history. Six editions appeared between 1475 and 1500, but there is no incunabula version in the University Library. On the other hand Leonhard Fuchs’s De historia stirpium commentarii insignes of 1542, a landmark in the history of botany because of the accuracy of its drawings and descriptions of plants, and its glossary, is present in 4 copies, with a range of interesting provenance and in some cases with hand-coloured or partially hand-coloured illustrations (Keynes.I.7.4 ; N*.1.24(A) ; Sel.2.81 ; CCA.47.46). Fuchs’s name is commemorated by a genus of flowering plants (fuchsia).

Botany during the second half of the sixteenth century belonged to the Southern Netherlands, its progress being dominated by three physicians: Rembert Dodoens, Carolus Clusius, and Matthias Lobelius. The reputation of these undisputed masters was enhanced by the involvement of Christopher Plantin who ensured that their work found international distribution. The Officina Plantiniana actively participated in the evolvement of this scientific discipline, producing a total of no fewer than twenty-six botanical treatises. Plates were an essential part of these early publications, and since woodcuts and metal engravings could be reproduced indefinitely they were traded among printers and used time and again. The market was vast, especially since these works tended to be written in the vernacular. Most households made sure that Bible and herbal were at hand at all times in order to look after the spiritual and physical health of the family.

 William Turner was a Fellow and Senior Treasurer of Pembroke Hall. Whilst at Cambridge, he published several works, including Libellus de re herbaria of 1538 (the Library has several editions, but only in facsimile reprint). Turner left Cambridge in 1540 and travelled abroad until the accession of Edward VI, when he returned to England and eventually became Dean of Wells. He spent much of his leisure in the careful study of plants which he sought in their native habitat. Turner had nothing but contempt for earlier herbals which he described as ‘full of unlearned cacographies and falselye naming of herbes’. His ambition was to create a work based upon minute observation and communicated with scientific precision. He described the English flora with a level of detail hitherto unknown in the popular genre of the herbal.

In 1551 Steven Mierdman printed the first part of Turner’s great work, A new herball, wherin are conteyned the name of herbes in Greke, Latin, Englysh, Duche, Frenche (Sel.3.145). Steven Mierdman was a printer and bookseller, born in Hooge Mierde (Noord-Brabant, Low Countries), who had moved from Antwerp to London in 1546 after Charles V had strengthened the supervision of the printing press in that once free-thinking city. The second part of Turner’s book (also at Sel.3.145) was published in 1562 and the third (Sel.3.9 ; Peterborough.P.4.17 ; CCA.47.209) in 1568, both by Arnold Birckman of Cologne. These volumes gave the first systematic survey of English plants. With their fine woodcuts and detailed observations based on Turner’s own field studies, they raised the herbal to a higher footing than in earlier works. In his preface Turner predicted that some critics would accuse him of divulging to the general public what should have been reserved for the medical profession. Such criticism did not concern him. Turner did not only aspire to scientific accuracy; at the same time he intended to inform and educate the public at large, an aspiration which the revolutionising introduction of the printing press was now making possible.

 Herbals became the cutting-edge medical manuals of their day, combining the received wisdom of the ancients with a new emphasis on observation of the natural world. Dodoens’s Cruydeboeck with 715 images, published in Antwerp in 1554 and influenced by the work of Leonhard Fuchs, made a European-wide impact. The original is available in a facsimile reprint of 1971 (S370.b.97.6), with 2 copies of the later revised version of 1664 at Adams.1.64.1 and CCF.47.39.

Somerset-born Henry Lyte translated the study into English by way of Clusius’s French translation of 1557. It bears the title, A nievve Herball or Historie of Plantes . . . first set foorth in the Doutche or Allmaigne tongue by that learned D. Remburt Dodoens, Physition to the Emperour: And now first translated out of French into English by Henry Lyte, Esquyer. At London by me Gerard Dewes, dwelling in Pawles Church-yarde, at the signe of the Swanne, 1578. This first edition of the translation was actually printed as a folio at Antwerp (the colophon reads: ‘imprinted at Antwerpe, by me, Henry Loë, book-printer’), in order to secure the woodcuts of the original, since the blocks were commercially too valuable to be transported. It has 779 pages and 870 illustrative woodcuts, about thirty of which are original, and the book is mostly in black letter. It became the standard work on herbs in the English language during the latter part of the sixteenth century and the first work to list every known plant. On the back of the title-page one finds Lyte’s coat of arms and a crest, followed by a dedication to Queen Elizabeth, commendatory verses, and a portrait of Dodoens. The Library has a remarkable 5 copies (Keynes.S.6.15 ; Syn.4.57.7 ; CCA.47.196 ; CCB.47.49 ; CCB.47.50) , though some have slight imperfections.

A second edition, without woodcuts, was printed in London by Ninian Newton, in square octavo, in 1586 (Adams.6.58.5), and a third by Edmund Bollifant, in the same size, in 1595 (L.5.12). A folio edition, also without woodcuts, was published by Edward Griffin in 1619 (L.3.7 ; Peterborough.E.18.8). These publications firmly established the English herbal tradition which was to be continued by such eminent researchers as John Gerard, Thomas Johnson and John Parkinson.

Guest author: Jaap Harskamp

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