In December 2021, herbalist, author, and researcher Christopher Hobbs, PhD, LAc, donated a 1636 edition of John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes to the American Botanical Council (ABC). Commonly known as Gerard’s Herbal, the text is considered one of the most well-known and influential English herbals, a term that refers to books that contain descriptions and other information about selected medicinal plants.
“For the development of herbal medicine in the West, and as a document that collects and organizes our knowledge of the ancients and through the Middle Ages, the Gerard Herbal is central,” Hobbs wrote (email, April 6, 2022). “It documents the history of Western herbalism, and the important and huge advances that were made in human knowledge, in botany and medicine.”
John Gerard (1545–1612) was trained as a surgeon, but he had a passion for plants and primarily worked as the superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, and as curator of the Royal College of Physicians’ medicinal garden in London. In his expansive private gardens, Gerard “grew all manner of strange trees, herbes, rootes, plants, flowers and other such rare things,” according to the Royal Collection Trust.1
Gerard’s Herbal, his magnum opus, was first published in 1597. Roughly 1,600 pages in length and with more than 800 chapters, the text describes at least 1,000 plant species,2 including their common and botanical names, uses (“virtues”), habitats, and flowering times, among other details. It also includes 1,800 hand-colored woodcut illustrations.3
Although Gerard claimed the publication as his own work, its origins are complicated. The text is principally an English translation of the 1583 work Stirpium historiae pemptades sex by 16th-century Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens, according to the US Library of Congress.4 London physician Robert Priest began to translate the Stirpium but died before completing it.5 Gerard apparently finished the translation — despite writing in the preface of the Herbal that Priest’s manuscript had been lost6 — and expanded the text with new entries, original observations, extensive commentary, and 16 new woodcuts. However, most of the 1,800 woodcuts in the Herbal, which the publisher John Norton had acquired from a colleague, also had been published previously, in German botanist Jacobus Theodorus’ Eicones plantarum (1590).5
Regardless of its authorship, Gerard’s Herbal remains one of the most famous English herbals and was a widely used reference for centuries after its publication.3 “Among the ‘Great Herbals,’ the Gerard is one of the best-known and cited by herbalists, writers, and scholars today because it is one of the most complete histories we have of the uses of plants for medicine in the English language,” Hobbs said.
Two subsequent editions of the Herbal were published. In an attempt to update and correct errors in the original publication, the publisher hired London botanist Thomas Johnson to revise the 1597 Herbal. The second edition, published in 1633, included a preface by Johnson and a completely new set of 2,766 woodblock illustrations that replaced those in the first edition.5,6 The third edition was published in 1636.
“The book was highly revised and updated, and many corrections were made by Thomas Johnson in 1633. Apparently, Gerard was not as current or accurate on the newest botany, nomenclature and uses, so it was really a great update,” Hobbs noted. “Although the original edition is more rare, the second 1633 edition is always preferred for herbalists, scholars, etc. The third edition had more revisions and corrections, but it wasn’t as great a change as between the first and second editions.”
Hobbs, a bibliophile, acquired the 1636 Herbal at a book fair in London. He said that he was thrilled when he came across the text “because the binding and paper was so good, fairly free of browning and spotting, what we call ‘foxing.’” For years, Hobbs kept the Herbal in his private collection, but, recently, he began to take stock of his library and decided to make some changes.
“I’m in the process of lightening and simplifying my life,” he explained. “I have 8,000 books in my library, many in my home, and though I’m very attached to them and love them and they have so many good memories attached to them, it is time to place the very rare ones with organizations that will honor and care for them, be good stewards, and even open them up to videos or stories about them.”
ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal and the ABC leadership team have discussed multiple possibilities for the 386-year-old Herbal. In keeping with ABC’s nonprofit educational mission, preserving and displaying the book for the benefit of the public are top priorities. Options being considered include housing the book in a special section of the herbal library or in a protected glass case in the lobby of ABC’s headquarters at the Case Mill Homestead in Austin, Texas.
“All of us here at ABC are deeply grateful to Christopher for this very generous donation of the 1636 Gerard Herbal,” said Blumenthal. “We look forward to showing it and sharing it with members of the Austin herb community and visitors to the Case Mill Homestead. This is just one of the many ways that Chris has shown his support for ABC for more than three decades, from writing some of the first herbal monographs published in HerbalGram starting in 1989 and acting as an expert peer reviewer for various ABC publications, to joining the Board of Trustees and donating his valuable time to help enhance ABC’s unique research and educational mission and exciting future.”
A digitized version of Gerard’s 1597 Herbal is available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s website.7
- The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes 1636. The Royal Collection Trust website. Available at: www.rct.uk/collection/1057467/the-herball-or-generall-historie-of-plantes. Accessed April 12, 2022.
- John Gerard. Encyclopedia Britannica website. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Gerard. Accessed April 12, 2022.
- The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. Rare Books and Manuscripts blog. University of Adelaide website. Available at: https://blogs.adelaide.edu.au/special-collections/2017/07/03/the-herball-or-generall-historie-of-plantes-gathered-by-john-gerarde-very-much-enlarged-and-amended-by-t-johnson-1636/. Accessed April 13, 2022.
- The herball: or, Generall historie of plantes. Library of Congress website. Available at: www.loc.gov/item/44028884/. Accessed April 13, 2022.
- Take a closer look at Gerard’s herbal. Royal Horticulture Society website. Available at: https://www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/blogs/libraries/June-2016/gerard-s-herbal. Accessed April 12, 2022.
- Titlepage, with portraits of Theophrastus and Dioscorides, to the second edition of John Gerard’s ‘The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes’ (London, Adam Islip and others: 1633). The British Museum website. Available at: www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1881-0611-291. Accessed April 11, 2022.
- The Herball, or Generall historie of plantes. Biodiversity Heritage Library website. Available at: www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/109874#page/1/mode/1up. Accessed April 13, 2022.