Gosse's Gossip - GERARD'S HERBAL



THE HERBALL or General Historie of Plantes. Gathered by John Gerarde, of London, Master in Chirurgerie. Very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson, citizen and apothecarye of London. London, Printed by Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers. Anno 1633.


            The proverb says that a door must be either open or shut. The bibliophile is apt to think that a book should be either little or big. For my own part, I become more and more attached to "dumpy twelves"; but that does not preclude a certain discreet fondness for folios. If a man collects books, his library ought to contain a Herbal; and if he has but room for one, that should be the best. The luxurious and sufficient thing, I think, is to possess what booksellers call "the right edition of Gerard"; that is to say, the volume described at the head of this paper. There is no handsomer book to be found, none more stately or imposing, than this magnificent folio of sixteen hundred pages, with its close, elaborate letterpress, its innumerable plates, and John Payne's fine frontispiece in compartments, with Theophrastus and Dioscorides facing one another, and the author below them, holding in his right hand the new-found treasure of the potato plant.

            This edition of 1633 is the final development of what had been a slow growth. The sixteenth century witnessed a great revival, almost a creation of the science of botany. People began to translate the great Materia Medica of the Greek physician, Dioscorides of Anazarba, and to comment upon it. The Germans were the first to append woodcuts to their botanical descriptions, and it is Otto Brunfelsius, in 1530, who has the credit of being the originator of such figures. In 1554 there was published the first great Herbal, that of Rembertus Dodonaeus, body-physician to the Emperor Maximilian II., who wrote in Dutch. An English translation of this, brought out in 1578, by Henry Lyte, was the earliest important Herbal in our language. Five years later, in 1583, a certain Dr. Priest translated all the botanical works of Dodonaeus, with much greater fullness than Lyte had done, and this volume was the germ of Gerard's far more famous production. John Gerard was a Cheshire man, born in 1545, who came up to London, and practised there as a surgeon.

            According to his editor and continuator, Thomas Johnson, who speaks of Gerard with startling freedom, this excellent man was by no means well equipped for the task of compiling a great Herbal. He knew so little Latin, according to this too candid friend, that he imagined Leonard Fuchsius, who was a German contemporary of his own, to be one of the ancients. But Johnson is a little too zealous in magnifying his own office. He brings a worse accusation against Gerard, if I understand him rightly to charge him with using Dr. Priest's manuscript collections after his death, without giving that physician the credit of his labours. When Johnson made this accusation, Gerard had been dead twenty-six years. In any case it seems certain that Gerard's original Herbal, which, beyond question, surpassed all its predecessors when it was printed in folio in 1597, was built up upon the ground-work of Priest's translation of Dodonaeus. Nearly forty years later, Thomas Johnson, himself a celebrated botanist, took up the book, and spared no pains to reissue it in perfect form. The result is the great volume before us, an elephant among books, the noblest of all the English Herbals. Johnson was seventy-two years of age when he got this gigantic work off his hands, and he lived eleven years longer to enjoy his legitimate success.

            The great charm of this book at the present time consists in the copious woodcuts. Of these there are more than two thousand, each a careful and original study from the plant itself. In the course of two centuries and a half, with all the advance in appliances, we have not improved a whit on the original artist of Gerard's and Johnson's time. The drawings are all in strong outline, with very little attempt at shading, but the characteristics of each plant are given with a truth and a simplicity which are almost Japanese. In no case is this more extraordinary than in that of the orchids, or "satyrions," as they were called in the days of the old herbalist. Here, in a succession of little figures, each not more than six inches high, the peculiarity of every portion of a full-grown flowering specimen of each species is given with absolute perfection, without being slurred over on the one hand, or exaggerated on the other. For instance, the little variety called "ladies' tresses" [Spiranthes], which throws a spiral head of pale green blossoms out of dry pastures, appears here with small bells hanging on a twisted stem, as accurately as the best photograph could give it, although the process of woodcutting, as then practised in England, was very rude, and although almost all other English illustrations of the period are rough and inartistic. It is plain that in every instance the botanist himself drew the form, with which he was already intelligently familiar, on the block, with the living plant lying at his side.

            The plan on which the herbalist lays out his letterpress is methodical in the extreme. He begins by describing his plant, then gives its habitat, then discusses its nomenclature, and ends with a medical account of its nature and virtues. It is, of course, to be expected that we should find the line old names of plants enshrined in Gerard's pages. For instance, he gives to the deadly nightshade the name, which now only lingers in a corner of Devonshire, the "dwale." As an instance of his style, I may quote a passage from what he has to say about the virtues, or rather vices, of this plant:


"Banish it from your gardens and the use of it also, being a plant so furious and deadly; for it bringeth such as have eaten thereof into a dead sleep wherein many have died, as hath been often seen and proved by experience both in England and elsewhere. But to give you an example hereof it shall not be amiss. It came to pass that three boys of Wisbeach, in the Isle of Ely, did eat of the pleasant and beautiful fruit hereof, two whereof died in less than eight hours after they had eaten of them. The third child had a quantity of honey and water mixed together given him to drink, causing him to vomit often. God blessed this means, and the child recovered. Banish, therefore, these pernicious plants out of your gardens, and all places near to your houses where children do resort."

            Gerard has continually to stop his description that he may repeat to his readers some anecdote which he remembers. Now it is how "Master Cartwright, a gentleman of Gray's Inn, who was grievously wounded into the lungs," was cured with the herb called "Saracen's Compound," "and that, by God's permission, in short space." Now it is to tell us that he has found yellow archangel growing under a sequestered hedge "on the left hand as you go from the village of Hampstead, near London, to the church," or that "this amiable and pleasant kind of primrose" (a sort of oxlip) was first brought to light by Mr. Hesketh, "a diligent searcher after simples," in a Yorkshire wood. While the groundlings were crowding to see new plays by Shirley and Massinger, the editor of this volume was examining fresh varieties of auricula in "the gardens of Mr. Tradescant and Mr. Tuggie." It is wonderful how modern the latter statement sounds, and how ancient the former. But the garden seems the one spot on earth where history does not assert itself, and, no doubt, when Nero was fiddling over the blaze of Rome, there were florists counting the petals of rival roses at Paestum as peacefully and conscientiously as any gardeners of to-day.

            The herbalist and his editor write from personal experience, and this gives them a great advantage in dealing with superstitions. If there was anything which people were certain about in the early part of the seventeenth century, it was that the mandrake only grew under a gallows, where the dead body of a man had fallen to pieces, and that when it was dug up it gave a great shriek, which was fatal to the nearest living thing. Gerard contemptuously rejects all these and other tales as "old wives' dreams." He and his servants have often digged up mandrakes, and are not only still alive, but listened in vain for the dreadful scream. It might be supposed that such a statement, from so eminent an authority, would settle the point, but we find Sir Thomas Browne, in the next generation, battling these identical popular errors in the pages of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. In the like manner, Gerard's botanical evidence seems to have been of no use in persuading the public that mistletoe was not generated out of birdlime dropped by thrushes into the boughs of trees, or that its berries were not desperately poisonous. To observe and state the truth is not enough. The ears of those to whom it is proclaimed must be ready to accept it.

            Our good herbalist, however, cannot get through his sixteen hundred accurate and solemn pages without one slip. After accompanying him dutifully so far, we double up with uncontrollable laughter on p. 1587, for here begins the chapter which treats "of the Goose Tree, Barnacle Tree, or the Tree bearing Geese." But even here the habit of genuine observation clings to him. The picture represents a group of stalked barnacles—those shrimps fixed by their antennae, which modern science, I believe, calls Lepas anatifera; by the side of these stands a little goose, and the suggestion of course is that the latter has slipped out of the former, although the draughtsman has been far too conscientious to represent the occurrence. Yet the letterpress is confident that in the north parts of Scotland there are trees on which grow white shells, which ripen, and then, opening, drop little living geese into the waves below. Gerard himself avers that from Guernsey and Jersey he brought home with him to London shells, like limpets, containing little feathery objects, "which, no doubt, were the fowls called Barnacles." It is almost needless to say that these objects really were the plumose and flexible cirri which the barnacles throw out to catch their food with, and which lie, like a tiny feather-brush, just within the valves of the shell, when the creature is dead. Gerard was plainly unable to refuse credence to the mass of evidence which presented itself to him on this subject, yet he closes with a hint that this seems rather a "fabulous breed" of geese.

            With the Barnacle Goose Tree the Herbal proper closes, in these quaint words:

"And thus having, through God's assistance, discoursed somewhat at large of grasses, herbs, shrubs, trees and mosses, and certain excrescences of the earth, with other things moe, incident to the history thereof, we conclude, and end our present volume with this wonder of England. For the which God's name be ever honoured and praised."

            And so, at last, the Goose Tree receives the highest sanction.


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