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Seventeenth Century

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Herbals in the Seventeenth Century.

Seventeenth Century1

Johann Bauhin, Historia plantarum universalis (Yverdon, 1650), detail from title page.

Works such as the 1650 Historia plantarum universalis by Jean Bauhin (whose portrait is pictured on the left), and the 1640 Theatrum Botanicum of the English apothecary John Parkinson (1566/7-1650) represent the apogee of the herbal tradition. The title of Parkinson’s magnum opus draws our attention not only to the ongoing publishing market for such herbals, but also to the increasing challenges faced by producers of the genre: Theatrum Botanicum: The Theatre of Plants. Or, an Herbal of Large Extent: Containing therein a more ample and exact History and declaration of the Physicall Herbs and Plants that are in other Authours, encreased by the access of many hundreds of new, rare, and strange Plants from all the parts of the world, with sundry Gummes, and other Physicall materials, than hath beene hitherto published by any before; And a most large demonstration of their Natures and Vertues. Shewing withal the many errors, differences, and oversights of sundry Authors that have formerly written of them; and a certain confidence, or most probable conjecture of the true and genuine Herbes and Plants. Distributed into sundry Classes or Tribes, for the more easie knowledge of the many Herbes of one nature and property, with the chief notes of Dr Lobel, Dr Bonham; and others inserted therein. Collected by the many yeares travaile, industry, and experience in this subject, by John Parkinson, Apothecary of London, and the Kings Herbarist. And published by the Kings Majestyes especiall priviledge (London, Printed by Tho. Cotes, 1640).

Seventeenth Century2

John Parkinson, Theatrum botanicum: The theater of plants (London, 1640), p. 929, Parsley of Clusius.

The fact that two such herbals had appeared in London within seven years of each other attests to the continuing public fascination with medicinal applications of herbs. Thomas Johnson’s 1633 edition of John Gerard’s famous Herbal of 1597 had been a rushed job as Johnson sought to corner the market before Parkinson could complete his long labour of love. By then Gerard’s organizational method had become the English norm and Parkinson sought to defend his work from criticism simply because it did not follow Gerard’s arrangement. Rather than simply regurgitating earlier works, Parkinson sought to bring the works of previous writers on botany together into a coherent whole. From Theophrastus and Dioscorides to some of the most famous late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century botanists, men such as Dodoens, Clusius, L’Obel, to name but the most famous Dutch triumvirate, Parkinson brought them all together in what was truly an encyclopaedic work on the medicinal nature of plants.

Seventeenth Century3

John Parkinson, Theatrum botanicum: The theater of plants (London, 1640), p. 232, Broom.

Parkinson’s  comments on Spanish Broom give an indication, not only of the breadth of his researches but the dangers of this encyclopaedic approach – there was simply too much to know. Concerning the names of ‘Spartum Hispanicum majus flore albo’ (White flowered Spanish Broom), Parkinson tells us the following:

Genista or as some write it Genesta, agenuum flexilitate & ad nexus utilis haud dubie nominator, vel potius quia genibus medeatur dolentibus; and therefore diverse in former times did take Spartium Dioscoridis, to be the Genista latinorum, and even Plinye also in his time was doubtfull whether it were not so, for Spartium as Dioscorides saith vinculi usum in alligandis vitibus prebeant, and therefore controversie among diverse writers, endured until Ruellius his time, who refuted the opinions of Hermolaus and Marcellus, that tooke them to bee both one, but ven Pena and Lobel since them in their Adversaria, call the Genists Scoparia (which is our common Broome) Spartium, as if there were no difference….. But now in these dayes, it is evidently knowne to all that are conversant in Herbarisme, that Spartum, or Spartium as some write it, is one plant by it selfe, and Genista another, although the one be somewhat like the other; and that Spartum frutex is differeing from the other Spartum called Iuncius; the first here set downe is generally by all writers called either Genista vulgaris or Genista aungulosa, or Scoparia vulgi. Lonicerus onely calleth it Genista minor seu non aculeate, and Caesalpinus Genista quadrato junco prima: the Rapum Genista of all sorts (I meane both of this Broome, and of the other Dyers weede and of the hedge sides &c) are called of Clusius Haemoderon, according to Theophrastus lib8. c.8. or Leimoderon as others have it, and of most Orobanche… the second is called by Lugdunensis Genist minima, and by Bauhinus Genista ramose foliis Hyperici; the third is also called by Lugdunensis Genista Iluensis; the fourth is by Tabermontanus called Genista alba, and by Gerard after him Genista tenuifolia…’

This paragraph succinctly demonstrates the need to impose order in the classification of botanical plants, a challenge which would later be addressed by Linnaeus.


Burnby, Juanita (2004) ‘Parkinson, John (1566/7–1650)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).

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