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Rembert Dodoens

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Rembert Dodoens

Rembertus Dodoneus a Physition borne at Mechlin in Brabant, about this time begun to write of Plants. Hee first set foorth a Historie in Dutch, which by Clusius was turned into French, with some additions, Anno Domini 1560. And this was translated out of French into English by Master Henry Lite, and set forth with figures, Anno Dom. 1578 and diuers times since printed, but without Figures… Afterwards hee put them all together, his former, and those his later Workes, and diuided into thirtie Bookes, and set them forth with 1305 figures, in fol. An. 1583. This edition was also translated into English….’

Thomas Johnson in the preface to his 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herbal, Sig ¶¶5r.


Rembert Dodoens, Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, sive libri XXX (Antwerp, 1616), p. 214, Crocus.

The publishing history of Dodoens’ works attest to their popularity throughout Europe. His emphasis on the use of the vernacular ensured that his works found a ready popular audience and it was no doubt for this reason that John Gerard decided to use Dodoens’ text as the basis for his Herbal of 1597. Dodoens had studied medicine at the University of Louvain and in 1548 because one of three municipal physicians for the city of Mechelen. It is not surprising then, that his earliest exploits in botany were written very much from a medicinal standpoint. However, as Ogilvie (2006) suggests, Dodoens was a ‘transitional figure’ between the early sixteenth-century botanical writers of herbals, such as Leonhard Fuchs and Otto Brunfels, and their late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century counterparts, botanists such as Matthias de L’Obel and Carolus Clusius, who gradually turned the focus of their botanical studies away from medicinal uses and towards a study of botany as a discipline in its own right. In 1574 Dodoens had accepted the position of physician to the Emperor Maximilian II. He therefore travelled to Vienna and it was there that he met Clusius.


Rembert Dodoens, Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, sive libri XXX (Antwerp, 1616), p. 673, Turnip.

Dodoens in his Stirpium historiae pemptades sex shows two woodcuts of the turnip, the round turnip which he calls Rapum vulgare and an oblong form, Rapum oblongius.  Turnips have a long history of cultivation beginning from about 1800 BC with the Assyrians. It was an important crop for the Greeks and Romans extending from the Byzantine period and through the medieval period right down to the end of the early modern period. Recurrent food shortages were a feature of the Little Ice Age which peaked from around 1600 to 1700 and turnips proved to be an important crop. A letter to the Royal Society gave a recipe for bread from turnips made by the poor in Essex when corn was dear in the year 1693. Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend (1675-1738) known as ‘Turnip’ Townshend because of his enthusiasm for the vegetable, popularised the use of turnips in crop rotation and their use as overwinter fodder for animals. Berry (1915) reports that in 1741 the Royal Dublin Society announced a Premium for sowing turnips and so successful did this appear to be in the neighbourhood of Dublin that a note in the RDS minute book of 1751 says that beef had to be brought from Tipperary because there was insufficient good grazing around Dublin as all the land was in turnips (Berry, p 66). Dr John Rutty in his chapter on edible or ‘Esculent Vegetables’ in his Essay towards a Natural History of the County of Dublin 1772, mentions that sheep were fed in winter and spring with turnips when grass was scarce. The use of the turnip was one of the important changes in the revolution in agriculture in later eighteenth-century Britain though unfortunately it did not displace the monoculture of potatoes in Ireland until after the Famine.  The Turnip is now known as Brassica rapa L.

The illustrations used by Dodoens had a lively afterlife: John Gerard used a translation of the Dodoens text, rearranging sections and published it as his own Herbal in 1597 using a different set of woodcuts to minimize the resemblances (Pavord, 2005). In the second edition of Gerard, edited by Thomas Johnson in 1636, the original woodcuts used in Dodoens were restored and the edition includes these two woodcuts (on page p. 323). The use in Johnson’s Gerard was apparently the last use of the original woodcut blocks which Plantin had recycled on so many occasions for different herbals.


Rembert Dodoens, Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, sive libri XXX (Antwerp, 1616), p. 716, Capsicum.

Dodoens was himself very aware of the need for a collaborative enterprise in botanical research (although he may not have had in mind Gerard’s type of collaboration!):

‘The magnitude or difficulty of this science is such that it cannot be comprehended without early and careful examination of all plants and exact reading of many ancient writers – that is, without great labour, long travel, and continuous devotion. Furthermore, it is scarcely possible that the life and diligence of one or a few men could be equal to the task. Hence it should not be surprising that, despite the number of moderns who have diligently investigated this subject, others come along who desire to increase this science, and that I too publish my history of plants.’*

Sixteenth-century botany was very much a collaborative exercise but perhaps few collaborations were as close as that between Dodoens and his fellow botanists from the Low Countries, Matthias de L’Obel and Carolus Clusius. This was not only because all three were friends but also because works by all three were published by the Plantin Press. Woodcut illustrations for all three writers were used inter-changeably by Plantin, who had built up a large stock of botanical woodcuts precisely for this purpose. Sometimes, as in the case of the title-frames in Worth’s editions of Dodoens’ and Clusius’ work, the same woodcut was used. We see this in this example of Worth’s copy of Dodoens Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, printed at Antwerp in 1616 and on Worth’s copy of Clusius’s Rariorum plantarum historia (Antwerp, 1601). For more information on this see the Clusius webpage of this exhibition.


Rembert Dodoens, Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, sive libri XXX (Antwerp, 1616), title page.


*Translation of Dodoens’ Histoire des plantes, sig *iiiv from Ogilvie (2006), p. 51-2.


Arber, Agnes (1953), Herbals: their origin and Evolution. A chapter in the History of botany 1470-1670 (Cambridge University Press), pp. 108-113.
Berry, H. F. (1915), A History of the Royal Dublin Society (London : Longmans,Green and Co.), p. 58.
Dale, S. (1693), ‘An abstract of a letter sent from Mr Samuel Dale to Mr Houghton SRS concerning the Making of Turnep-Bread in Essex’ in Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775) vol 17, p. 970.
Fagan, B. (2002), The Little Ice Age. How Climate made History 1300-1850 (New York: Basic Books).
Florkin, Marcel (1971), ‘Dodoens (Dodonaeus), Rembert’, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie (New York), vol IV, pp. 138-140.
Louis, Armand (1950), ‘La Vie et L’Oeuvre Botanique de Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585)’ in Bulletin de la Société Royale de Botanique de Belgique/ Bulletin van de Koninklijke Belgische Botanische Vereniging vol 82, no 2, pp. 271-293.
Ogilvie, Brian W. (2006), The Science of Describing (University of Chicago Press).
Gerard, John (1636) Herbal edited by Thomas Johnson (London).
Pavord, Anna (2005), The Naming of Names (London: Bloomsbury Publishing), pp332-336.
Reiner H., Holzner W., Ebermann R (1995), ‘The development of turnip-type and oilseed-type Brassica rapa crops from the wild type in Europe. – An overview of botanical, historical and linguistic facts’ in Rapeseed today and tomorrow, Vol 4, pp 1066-1069, 9th International Rapeseed Congress, Cambridge, UK 4 – 7 July 1995.
Rutty, J. (1772), An Essay towards a Natural History of the County of Dublin (Dublin), p.76.

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