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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Gerard's Herbal

Probably the best known English herbal, John Gerard’s monumental work, first published in 1597, has gained for its author a lasting reputation which he does not entirely deserve. Gerard’s text was largely derived from an unfinished English translation made by a Dr Priest of an earlier work, Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, by the great Flemish herbalist Rembert Dodoens (1517-85), a fact which Gerard failed to acknowledge in his preface.

Woodcut illustration of the potatoWoodcut illustration of the potatoNor were the vast majority of the 1,800 woodcut illustrations original; most had appeared in Eicones plantarum, a herbal published in Frankfurt in 1590 and the blocks had later been bought by London printer John Norton from his Frankfurt counterpart. Gerard did, however, expand Dodoens’ text, adding new entries, details of localities where he had observed certain plants and 16 new woodcuts, one of which, of the potato, is shown here.

This is thought to be the earliest published picture of the potato, and Gerard commends it as a ‘wholesome’ food, ‘being either rosted in the embers, or boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegar and pepper.’ He mistakenly describes the plant as ‘Virginian’ in origin; the potato was actually first cultivated in Peru, a fact which Gerard should have been aware of through other written accounts.

Notwithstanding such instances of plagiarism and inaccuracy, John Gerard (1545-1612) remains an important figure in the story of herbals. The huge scope of the Herbal, its copious illustrations and the author’s lively and readable text ensured its lasting popularity and in 1633, over 20 years after Gerard’s death, the revised and expanded edition featured here was published.

The reviser, Thomas Johnson (d 1644), was an apothecary and noted herbalist, who would later be killed in the Civil War, fighting for the Royalist cause. He created a number of new entries for tropical plants, such as the banana, which had been little known in England when Gerard first compiled the Herbal.

Gerard himself had close connexions with the area now occupied by the Maughan Library. A member of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, he was employed as superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, one of which was in the Strand,  and he lived in a house situated between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane. In 1604 he was granted the lease of a garden adjoining Somerset House, Strand, by Anne of Denmark, consort of James I, and upon his death in 1612 he was buried in the church of St Andrew, Holborn.

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