The Herbal or General Historie of Plantes. 

London, Adam Islip, Joice Norton, and Richard Whitakers, 1636.


Folio pp. (xl) 1630 (xlviii). Italic, Roman, and black letter. Historiated woodcut initials, head- and tailpieces throughout, title page beautifully engraved by Io. Payne, featuring illustrations of flowers, Ceres, Pomona, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and the author, surrounding a central lozenge with title. Hundreds of botanical illustrations throughout, in strong impression. Light age yellowing, occasional oil splashes to margins of a few leaves, 1711 autograph of Edward Watts, John Young, and 1831 autograph of Joseph Frowd Spencer to free endpapers. A very good, clean copy in contemporary calf, handsomely rebacked in modern morocco, gilt fleurons, ruled in five compartments with raised bands, marbled endpapers, all edges red.

“The importance of Gerard’s ‘Herball’ in the history of botany is chiefly due to an improved edition, brought out by Thomas Johnson in 1633, thirty-six years after the work was originally published. Johnson was an apothecary in London and cultivated a physic garden on Snow Hill. His first botanical work was a short account of the plants collected by members of the Apothecaries’ Company on an excursion in Kent. This is of interest as being the earliest memoir of that kind published in England. (…) But it is as the editor of Gerard that he is chiefly remembered. He greatly enlarged the ‘Herball’ and illustrated it with Plantin’s woodcuts. His edition contained an account of no less than 2,850 plants. Johnson also corrected numerous errors, and the whole work, transformed by him, rose to a much higher grade of value. It was reprinted, without alteration, in 1636.” Arber, ‘Herbals’ p. 113.

The success of Gerard’s monumental work was doubtless its appeal to so many different interests. The mère de famille, pharmacist or physician could use it as a pharmacopoeia to seek the right palliative or cure; the housewife or cook for its vast knowledge of herbs, plants and vegetables (it contains the first illustration of the Virginian potato), the gardener as his encyclopaedia.

Gerard was not a scientist, but he was scholarly, thorough, absorbed in his subject, had correspondents on a national and international scale and a long lifetime’s practical experience. That the volume included hefty slabs of contemporary folk lore does not detract from its interest. His combination of learning, love of plants and flowers, and matchless Elizabethan English has now appealed to four centuries of common, and not so common readers. Shakespeare drew from him his herb lore, and William Morris sought inspiration for his designs.

Joseph Frowd Spencer was a surgeon from Wiltshire who owned and operated a Lunatic Asylum in Fonthill Gifford between 1790-1844, one of the oldest in England and one which did not offer religious service, but provided Bibles and prayer books for its inmates and allowed card-playing and singing-birds as pets.

STC 11752. Wellcome 2754. Lowndes 1633 ed. III 879. Alden 633/39. Nissen 3580. Henry I 47-54.


Print This Item Print This Item