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THE GREAT HERBALL

The Great Herball newly corrected.

London, In edibus Thome Gybson, Anno. 1539.

£85,000

Folio. 110 unnumbered leaves. pi⁴, A-2B⁴, 2C⁶. Black letter in double column. Title within architectural border with the monogram of William Rastell W. R. (one letter in each column) historiated white on black initials. Light age yellowing, t-p slightly dusty, text a bit faded in places. A good clean copy, in handsome C19th calf over bevelled wooden boards, the original dark calf binding, (triple blind ruled to a panel design) laid down on pastedowns, covers (in imitation of the original), triple blind ruled to a panel design, fleurons to corners panel filled with blind roll, spine with raised bands with blind fleurons in compartments, vellum end leaves, inner dentelles blind rolled, all edges gilt. 

An extremely rare copy of this very early most important English herbal; possibly the fourth edition, of “the most famous of all the early printed herbals” (Rohde, 65), the only important botanical work printed in Henrician England. Except for the preface and the treatise on urines, derived from the Gart der Gesundheit, the Grete Herball is fundamentally a translation of the French Grant Herbier or Arbolayre. It is a single volume compendium which details the medicinal properties (or virtues) of plants and some non-botanical items according to the system of humoralism. The surviving editions were printed between 1526 and 1561. It contains extensive information on plant life as well as entries on animals, comestibles, and minerals. There are approximately 400 entries for plants and non-botanical items. Of these, 150 plants are English natives. Plants include mugwort, cypress, mandrake root, grapes, chamomile, muscat, and marrubium (horehound). Animals recommended for their medicinal value include hare, fox (fox grease is recommended for muscle cramps), goat, ox, elephant ivory, and beaver. Some of the minerals and liquids listed are lyme, glass, magnets, pearls, amber, sulpher, water, and vinegar. Foods that double as remedies are also present, with cheese prescribed for purgation, butter, honey, and zipules (a type of heavy fritter) recommended for toothaches. Some of the entries feature truly unusual remedies, such as a lengthy section on the use of mummy (spelled as mommie), the powdered version of which is described as a remedy for stopping nosebleeds. Besides medical uses, these entries also provide information on cosmetic applications, such as the bones of sepia (cuttlefish) for whitening the teeth and complexion.

The Grete Herball contains remedies for everything from melancholy to baldness, invoking God and the Virgin Mary alongside Diana and the Centaurs. It is profoundly utilitarian in approach, and designed to be accessible to a relatively broad public, as may be seen from its publication in English rather than Latin; copies have always suffered heavy use. The Herball “contains much that is curious, especially in relation to medical matters.  Bathing was evidently regarded as a strange fad. … Water drinking seems to have been thought almost equally pernicious” (Arber, Herbalis, 42). The descriptions of less common remedies, such as the lodestone, often incorporate vivid travellers’ tales. The author displays pride and integrity in his profession, warning against peddlers of harmful fake remedies.  The book contains a glossary, and a self-consciously useful index: “There after followeth a table very utyll and profytable for them that desyre to fynde quyckely a remedy agaynst all maner of dyseases & they be marked by the letters of the A.B.C. in every chaptre”. 

The intermittent fading in the text may be the result of poor inking or printing or later washing, though if the later it is remarkably uneven, the text is always legible. 

ESTC S119819. STC 13178. Lowndes III, 1047. Wellcome I, 3114 (1529 edn only) Ames III, 401. Rohde, The Old English Herbals, 65-74, Henrey 15-18; Arber, Herbals, 40-45

K155