28 June 2013

Generall Historie of Plantes

Following on from Pete’s fascinating forays into the Latin naming of plants (originated by Linneaus) I have been doing some research on one of my favourite items in Hill Top – Gerards Herbal, more officially known as the Generall Historie of Plantes.

Gerard's Herbal with its specially made cabinet in the New Room at Hill Top

If you have visited Beatrix’s Hill Top you will have seen the Herbal in a glass case in the New Room at the back of the house. Many people glance at it but pass it by as the room contains some of Beatrix’s larger writing desks and the prominent oil paintings by her brother Bertram which are much quicker to catch your eye; however, I think the Herbal is one of the more wonderful pieces as it predates Beatrix by a significant margin. Containing over 1800 detailed illustrations it really is a delight and also a challenge trying to figure out the old English spellings and type.

The Prickly Indian Fig Tree - Ficus Indica
  The Herbal was first published in 1597 by the Queens printer John Norton, who initially commissioned a Dr. Priest, a member of the college of physicians, to translate Rembert Dodoen’s extremely popular herbal Pemptades (1583) from Latin to English. Priest died before the work was completed and the unfinished work was passed on to Gerard. However this is a source for some controversy! While Gerard claimed most of Priest’s work was lost, many accuse him of plagiarising a lot of the book. His edition reused many of the printers woodcuts from Dodoen’s book whilst Gerard rearranged and also extended it with his unique humour and anecdotes to 1480 pages in total, including folklore and the particular ‘Vertues’ of each species. Interestingly he mentions that Foxglove (Digitalis) is good for thinning the blood but doesn't mention that it could kill you!

Beatrix refers to the Herbal in her story The Fairy Caravan when Mary Ellen the cat is called upon to administer a herbal remedy to Paddy Pig, who is suffering the after effects of eating toadstool tartlets: “What says old Gerard in the big calfskin book?”

Posted by Katie Tiley, VE Assistant