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John Gerard

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Gerard’s Herbal

Thomas Johnson’s rudimentary life of John Gerard, quoted in Johnson’s letter to the Reader of his 1633 edition of Gerard, is extraordinary. Compared with Johnson’s far more fulsome biographies of earlier botanists in the same prefatory material, his decision to merely note the dates and places of Gerard’s birth and death, along with a scant reference to his profession as a surgeon, is strikingly unfavourable, not only for the brevity of its treatment, but also because it is immediately followed by a critique of Gerard’s skills (with examples of his mistakes attached). The latter were included because Johnson felt he should put the matter straight, having ‘met with some that haue too much admired him, as the only learned and iudicious writer.’ With an editor like this Gerard did not require any additional enemies! Johnson’s strange editorial decision does however point to the rapid rise in reputation which Gerard’s herbal had attained by 1633. Today it remains as the best known herbal, still frequently reprinted in abbreviated form.

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John Gerard, The herball or Generall historie of plantes (London, 1633), portrait detail from title page

But if Johnson gives us hardly any information about Gerard the man, he provides us with a fascinating explanation of the genesis of Gerard’s 1597 work which Worth bought in the 1633 edition edited by Johnson:

Now let me acquaint you how this Worke was made vp. Dodonaeus his Pemptades coming forth Anno 1583, were shortly after translated into English by Dr. Priest a physition of London, who died either immediately before or after the finishing of this translation. This I had first by the relation of one who knew Dr Priest and Mr Gerard: and it is apparent by the worke it selfe, which you shall finde to containe the Pemptades of Dodonaeus translated, so that diuers chapters haue scarce a word more or less than what is in him…. And Lobel well knew that it was Dr Priest that committed this error, and therefore blames not Mr Gerard, to whom he made shew of friendship, and who was yet liuing: but yet he couertly gaue vs to vnderstand, that the worke wherein that error was committed, was a translation of Dodonaeus, and that made by Dr Priest, and set forth by Mr Norton. Now this translation became the ground-worke whereupon Mr Gerard built vp this Worke: but that it might not appear a translation he changed the generall method of Dodonaeus, into that of Lobel, and therein almost all ouer followes his Icones both in method and names, as you may plainely see in the Grasses and Orchides. To this translation he also added some plants out of Clusius, and other some out of the Adversaria, and some fourteene of his owne not before mentioned. Now to this historie figures were wanting, which also Mr Norton procured from Frankfort, being the same wherewith the Works of Tabernamontanus were printed in Dutch: but this fell crosse for my Author, who (as it seemes) hauing no great iudgement in them, frequently put one for another: and besides, there were many plants in those Authors which he followed, which were not in Tabernamontanus, and diuers in him which they wanted, yet he put them all together, and one for another; and oft times by this means so confounded all, that none could possibly haue set them right, vnlesse they knew this occasion of these errors. By this meanes, and after this manner was the Worke of my Author made vp, which was printed at the charges of Mr Norton. An. 1597.’

Johnson was correct to point to Gerard’s heavy reliance on works by the triumvirate of Dutch botanists. In fact, L’Obel, who was initially employed by the printer of the 1597 edition to correct the text, was the first to accuse Gerard of plagiarism (Elliott, 2011). More recently, scholars such as Knight (2009) have taken pity on Gerard, pointing out that if Gerard was guilty of plagiarism he was but following in the footsteps of earlier botanists. She points out that his Herbal also contains much original work which is often ignored in the rush to condemn him.

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John Gerard, The herball or Generall historie of plantes (London, 1633), p. 1263, Great Holland Rose.

Gerard’s book was conceived primarily as a herbal, based on the pattern laid down by earlier sixteenth-century herbals by Brunfels and Fuchs. We see this in his comments on the Great Holland Rose, which include not only a description of the plant but also a comment on its medicinal ‘vertues’:

The Vertues.

The distilled water of roses is good for the strengthening of the heart, & refreshing of the spirits, and likewise for all things that require a gentle cooling.

The same being put into iunketting dishes, cakes, sauces, and many other pleasant things, giueth a fine and delectable taste.

It mitigateth the paine of the eies proceeding of a hot cause, bringeth sleep, which also the fresh roses themselues prouoke, through their sweet and pleasant smell.

The iuice of these roses, especially of Damask, doth moue to the stoole, and maketh the belly soluble: but most effectually that of the Musk roses: next to them is the iuice of the Damask, which is more commonly used.

The infusion of them doth the same, and also the syrup made thereof, called in Latine Drosatum, or Serapium: the Apothecaries call it Syrrup of roses solutiue, which must be made of the infusion in which a great number of the leaues of these fresh roses are diuers and sundry times steeped.

It is profitable to make the belly loose and soluble, when as either there is no need of other stronger purgation, or that it is not fit and expedient to vse it: for besides those excrements which stick to the bowels, or that in the first and nearest veines remaine raw, flegmaticke, and now and then cholericke, it purgeth no other excrements, vnlesse it be mixed with certaine other stronger medicines.

This syrup doth moisten and coole, and therefore it alayeth the extremitie of heat in hot burning feuers, mitigateth the inflammations of the intrails, and quencheth thirst: it is scarce food for a weake and moist stomacke, for it leaueth it more slacke and weake.

Of like virtue also are the leaues of the these preserued in Sugar, especially if they be onely bruised with the hands, and diligently tempered with Sugar, and so heat at the fire rather than boiled.’*

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John Gerard, The herball or Generall historie of plantes (London, 1633), p. 343, Marvell of the World.

As Pavord (2005) states, the London focus, so evident in Gerard’s comments on roses, was a feature of the text as whole. However, Gerard was also keen to include more exotic plants. Few were more exotic than the ‘Marvell of Peru’ (Mirabilis jalapa L.), which had been imported from Peru in the mid sixteenth century and which had extended its regional base into Europe, particularly in Southern Europe, though Gerard notes that he himself had, at times, cultivated it in England.

‘This admirable plant called the maruell of Peru, or the maruell of the World, springeth forth of the ground like vnto Basill in leaues; among which it sendeth out a stalke two cubits and a halfe high, of the thickeness of a finger; full of iuice, very firme, and of a yellowish greene colour, knotted or need with ioints somewhat bunching forth, of puplish color, as in the female Balsamina: which stalke diuideth it selfe into sundrie branches or boughs, and those also knottie like the stalke. His branches are decked with leaues growing by couples at the ioints like the leaues of wilde Peascods, greene, flehsie, and full of ioints; which being rubbed doe yeeld the like vnplesant smeall as wilde Peascods doe, and are in taske also verie vnsauorie, yet in the latter end they leaue a taste and sharpe smacke of Tabaco. The stalkes towards the top are garnished with long hollow single flowers, folded, as it were, into fiue parts before they be opened; but being fully blowne doe resemble the flowers of Tabaco, not ending into sharpe corners, but blunt and round as  the flowers of Bindeweede, and larger than the flowers of Tabaco glittering oftentimes with a fine purple or Crimson colour; many times of an horse-flesh; sometimes yellow; sometimes pale, and sometimes resembling an old red or yellow colour; sometime whitish, and most commonly two colours occupying halfe the flower, or intercoursing the whole flower with steakes and orderly streames, now yellow, now purple, diuided through the whole; hauing sometime great, sometime little sports of purple colour, sprinkled and scattered in a most variable order, and braue mixture. The ground or field of the whole flower is either pale, red, yellow, or white, containing in the middle of the hollownesse a pricke or pointell set round about with sixe small strings or chiues. The flowers are very sweet and pleasant, resembling the Narcisse of white Daffodill, and are very sudently fading; for at night they are flowred wide open, and so continue vntill eight of the clocke the next morning: at which time they beginner to close or shut vp (after the manner of the Bindeweede) especially if the weather be very hot: but if the aire be more temperate they remaine open the whole day, and are closed onely at night, and so perish, one flower lasting but onely one day, like the true Ephemerum or Hemerocallis. This marvellous varietie doth not without cause bring admiration to all that obserue it….

Gerard’s comments on the unusual opening times of this plant concur in the main with experience elsewhere. As a result, Mirabilis jalapa has earned itself the common name of ‘four o’clock’ flower. Gerard was unable to give much information on medicinal uses but today the plant is used medicinally in a number of ways.*

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John Gerard, The herball or Generall historie of plantes (London, 1633), p. 153, Crocus.

Johnson’s editorial addition of a mark preceding figures 3-6 here indicates that the illustrations were later additions, included by Johnson. As can be seen on the Dodoens webpage of this site, numbers 4, 5 and 6 were clearly taken from Dodoens’ woodcuts. Number three was taken from Clusius. Unlike Gerard, Johnson was eager to acknowledge his sources. He explained his methodology in his preface:

‘Now it remaines I acquaint you with what I haue performed in this Edition, which is either by mending what was amisse, or by adding such as formerly were wanting…. I determined, as wel as the shortnesse of my time would  giue me leave, to retaine and set forth whatsoeuer was formerly in the booke described, or figured without description (some varieties that were not necessarie excepted) and to these I intended to adde whatsoeuer was figured by L’Obel, Dodonaeus, or Clusius, whose figures we made vse of; as also such plants as grow either wilde, or vsually in the gardens of this kingdome, which were not mentioned by any of the forenamed Authors; for I neither though it fit nor requisite for me, ambitiously to aime at all that Bauhine in his Pinax reckons vp, or the Exotickes of Prosper Alpinus containe, not mentioned in the former. This was my generall intention.’

*None of the treatments and remedies mentioned should be attempted.


Elliott, Brent (2011), ‘The world of the Renaissance herbal’ in Renaissance Studies vol 25, no. 1, pp. 24-41.

Gerard, John (1633) The herball or Generall historie of plantes. Gathered by Iohn Gerarde of London Master in Chirurgerie very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Iohnson citizen and apothecarye of London (London, 1633).

Knight, Leah (2009), Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England. Sixteenth-Century Plants and Print Culture (Farnham).

Smolenaars, Marja (2004), ‘Gerard, John (c.1545–1612)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).

Stearn, William T. (1972), ‘Gerard, John’, in Charles Coulston Gillispie (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York), vol V, pp. 361-23.

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