A Fickle Friend

Soon Parliament will reconvene. Brexit is bound to dominate the agenda and many Anglo-European friendships will come under severe strain. But there have been tensions before. In this guest post, Jaap Harskamp gives a (biased) explanation.

The so-called album amicorum is a book of ‘autographs’ collected by wandering scholars from the Low Countries or Germany as they moved from one city or university to another. The craze started in the middle of the sixteenth century. A typical album page contains a poem or prose text in Latin or Greek (sometimes in Hebrew) and a formal greeting to the owner of the book. As part of the salutation there may be a heraldic shield or an emblematic picture. Possibly the best known example is the album of the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, held in the collections of Pembroke College, Cambridge.1 The contributions to his album were gathered over a long period of time and more than 130 of his contemporaries are represented (Ortelius started his collection in 1574 and continued doing so until his death in 1598).  The cosmopolitan list of friends includes William Camden, Gerhard Mercator, Christopher Plantin, Philip Galle, Justus Lipsius, John Dee, Jean Bodin, and many others. The album represents a European community of learned friends.

Geographer and map-maker Abraham Ortelius was born on 14 April 1527 in Antwerp. His Theatrum orbis terrarum first appeared in 1570 and continued to be published until 1612. It is considered the first atlas as we know it: a collection of uniform map sheets with additional text bound together to form a book. Ortelius supplied a useful source list to his work (the ‘Catalogus auctorum’ identifying the names of contemporary cartographers, and an ‘Index tabularum’, or a list of regions and place names). The Theatrum was the most authoritative atlas of its time. The original 1570 Latin edition consists of seventy maps on fifty-three sheets. The work established Ortelius’s reputation as a leading cartographer and would make Flanders a centre of map-making activity, replacing Italy. After its initial release, Ortelius regularly expanded the atlas, re-issuing it in various formats until his death in 1598.2 In 1612, the atlas had been expanded to 167 plans. By then, the accuracy of the work was called into question by more recent atlases produced in Amsterdam by the Blaeu family and Jodocus Hondius. Astonishingly, during the four decades, thirty-one editions were printed in seven different languages.

Many signatories to Ortelius’s book of friends were part of the Lime Street community. A minor road leading from Fenchurch Street to Leadenhall Street, Lime Street was already mentioned in the twelfth century. John Stow (who himself resided in the street) suggests that the name was derived from the making or selling of lime in the area (for use in building and construction). The trade of lime-burners was perpetuated in the London district of Limehouse. The street is now best known as home to the insurer Lloyd’s of London. Lime Street however had a scientific reputation before it became a centre of finance and commerce. Since the 1570s it had been the focus of the European Republic Letters from where many local and refugee intellectuals exchanged ideas and information with their counterparts on the Continent.

In 1581 Antwerp-born merchant and historian Emanuel van Meteren was appointed Consul for ‘the Traders of the Low Countries in London’. The family had long been in close contact with Britain, his father Jacobus had published and financed early English versions of the Bible. Emanuel, a nephew of Abraham Ortelius, was an influential figure who was close to William the Silent, Prince of Orange. He was granted personal access to Henry Hudson’s (now lost) journals, charts and logbooks which he used for his History of the Netherlands, a unique chronicle of the events of his time. Living among refugees from the Low Countries on Lime Street, he handled the correspondence to and from a number of scientists who lived along the street in spite of politico-religious upheavals, making sure they received letters, books, maps, plant samples, tarantulas, caterpillars, or rhino horns, that were sent to them from colleagues living all over Europe.

Another outstanding member of this intellectual community was Flemish physician and botanist Mathias L’Obel. Better known under the Latinized name of Lobelius, he was court physician to the Prince of Orange in Delft where he served until his patron’s murder in 1584. In 1590 he was employed as superintendent of the well-stocked Hackney garden owned by the diplomat Edward, Lord Zouche, before being appointed in 1607 as ‘botanographer’ (responsible for describing plants) to the court of James I. It has been calculated that the first records of more than eighty British wild plants stand to his credit and it is likely that he introduced the tulip into England.

  • The herball or Generall historie of plantes

A major role in the group was played by Antwerp-born silk merchant Jacob Cools, known as Jacobus Colius Ortelianus (he was the nephew of Abraham Ortelius). His parents belonged to the Dutch-Walloon refugee community in London. He followed in his father’s footsteps as a cloth merchant, specialising in the silk trade. However, it was his interests in cartography, poetry, numismatics, and botany, which came to dominate his life. His scientific pursuits formed the basis for his friendships with scholars such as William Camden, Van Meteren, Carolus Clusius, and Mathias de L’Obel (his father-in-law). He was in continuous contact with his uncle Abraham Ortelius in Antwerp through occasional visits and a regular exchange of letters.3 The latter send parcels of books and maps to his nephew (and sun flower seeds – a trendy urban garden flower at the time). Scientific contacts between London and Antwerp were close and constructive. Abraham himself resided in London for a time around 1576. Within the Lime Street community, the name of Abraham Ortelius figured strongly.

IMG_4120Members of the Republic of Letters conducted research within the parameters of an accepted code of conduct in order to promote the flow of information and the acknowledgment of contributions of other researchers to one’s own studies (an attitude of which Ortelius’s Theatrum was a splendid example). Herbalist John Gerard’s botanical menagerie in Holborn was set outside of Lime Street, but it flourished because of the specimens and knowledge made available to him by the magnanimity of refugees from the Continent. He proved to be a fickle friend. By shamelessly plagiarizing their research, and publishing Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597)4 under his own name alone, he undermined the conventions of co-operation and dismissed his former scientific allies – most notably Lobelius who had greatly assisted him in his work. Gerard abused the intellectual generosity governing relationships within the European Republic of Letters. Having betrayed the spirit of the Lime Street community, John Gerard was – in contemporary terms – a Boris Johnson of botany and horticulture (himself an expert in growing cucumbers and bananas).


1. Album amicorum Abraham Ortelius: reproduit en facsimile / annoté et traduit par J. Puraye, avec la collaboration de M. Delcourt… [et al.]. Amsterdam: A.L. van Gendt, 1969. 899.c.298

[The original copy is held at Pembroke Colle library and was digitised in 2003].

For an oversight of such albums in the Low Countries, see:

Voorlopige lijst van alba amicorum uit de Nederlanden voor 1800 / samengesteld door C.L. Heesakkers & K. Thomassen. ‘s-Gravenhage: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 1986. 9000.b.4630

2. The atlas collection at the Library holds a rich number of early editions of the Theatrum (1570, 1573, 1575, 1579, 1584, 1595, 1601, 1602, 1603, and 1606).

For an expert evaluation of Ortelius and his work, see:

Abraham Ortelius and the first atlas: essays commemorating the quadricentennial of his death, 1598-1998 / with an introduction by Leon Voet; edited by Marcel van den Broecke, Peter van der Krogt, Peter Meurer. Houten: HES, 1998. S696.b.99.199

 3. Since Ortelius had been active in the book and map trade since an early age, he collected books and manuscripts for his own scholarly purposes. After his death, his collection went to Jacob Cool who later donated part of it, including the Liber amicorum, to the library of Pembroke College. His correspondence was also left to Cool and was subsequently kept at the archives of the Dutch Church, Austin Friars. In an act of vandalism, the letters were sold at public auction in 1955. Today, they are spread throughout various libraries. The Royal Library (KB) in The Hague holds the largest collection: 164 of the total of 376 letters.

4. John Gerard. The herball or Generall historie of plantes / gathered by John Gerarde … Imprinted at London: by [Edm. Bollifant for Bonham Norton and] John Norton, 1597.

The Library holds three copies of the first edition (SSS.1.5, Syn.3.59.2, CCA.47.206).

Guest author: Dr Jaap Harskamp

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s