Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, Victoria University in the University of Toronto

John Gerard’s The herball, or Generall historie of plantes (1633)

THE HERBALL OR GENERALL Historie of Plantes. Gathered by Iohn Gerarde of London Master in CHIRVRGERIE. Very much Enlarged and Amended by Thomas Iohnson Citizen and Apothecarye of LONDON. London Printed by Adam Islip, Ioice Norton and Richard Whitakers Anno 1633.

Ecce dedi vobis omnes herbas sementantes semen, quæ sunt. Gen: 1.29.
Excideret ne tibi diuini muneris Author / Præsentem monstrat quælibet herba Deum.
Io: Payne Sculps.

[Translation: Behold, I gave you all the plants that exist that bear seeds. Genesis 1.29. Lest the Author of the divine work would evade you, any plant should show God as present. John Payne engraved.]


The title page features יהוה (Yahweh [God], misspelled as יחוח, top-centre), Ceres (Roman goddess of agriculture, top-left), Pomona (Roman goddess of fruitful abundance, top-right), Theophrastus (Greek botanist, mid-left), and Dioscorides (Greek philosopher, herbalist and botanist, mid-right), and John Gerard (author, bottom-centre).

STC 11751
Collation: Folio. ¶⁸ 2¶–3¶⁶ A–B⁸ C–6V⁶ 6X⁴ 6Y–7B⁶.
Pagination: [38], 1630 (i.e. 1634, due to incorrect pagination), [50] p. : ill. (woodcuts).

The Text

The herbal genre dates back to antiquity, but it was during the period from 1530 to 1640 that it bloomed. Renaissance botanists attacked medieval herbals for their inaccuracies and sought to correct those errors in new editions, as well as to restore classical publications that were considered to be poorly edited and unfaithfully reproduced by medieval scholars. In addition to the general desire for greater accuracy in publication, the discovery of previously unknown plants brought over from the Americas familiarized botanists with the concept of geographical variation and distribution, broadening the scope of the genre. Locations of plants were added to and expected of herbals, with Gerard’s 1597 publication of The Herball serving as the exemplum; Gerard used a network of correspondents in England to detail where plants had been found.

Although Renaissance herbalists were critical of medieval practices, they inherited the tradition of plant portraiture from their predecessors. The tradition was much improved by this new wave of herbalists who used illustrations drawn from actual plants, rather than stock images privileging mythological or emblematic considerations, which were useless for identification purposes.

The publication of Gerard’s Herball was initiated and led by printer John Norton. Norton commissioned a new translation of D. Reinbert Dodoen’s 1569 herbal, Florum, et coronariarum odoratarumque nonnullarum herbarum historia (originally translated by Henry Lyte in 1578 as Historie of Plants) and planned to accompany it with new and improved illustrations. He arranged to rent woodblocks illustrating plants from continental publisher Nicholaus Bassaeus, who previously used a series of impressive illustrations in Eicones plantarum (1590) by Jacob Theodor (otherwise known as Tabernaemontanus). After the first commissioned author died, leaving the volume unfinished, Norton hired Gerard to finish the work. Gerard wrote his text to fit the previously-printed continental woodblocks, explaining how many included plants are plants that are not native to England. Despite this deficiency, Gerard’s herbal remained the most sought after for several decades.

In the 1630s, a new edition was commissioned by Norton’s widow to compete with a highly anticipated herbal by John Parkinson. Thomas Johnson quickly revised the text, which was issued in 1633 and was received so well that it was published again in 1636. Parkinson’s herbal was not published until 1640.

The Authors

John Gerard was born in Nantwich, Cheshire around 1545. Little is known about his upbringing and education but it is known that he attended school in Willaston, close to Nantwich. In 1562, he started as an apprentice for Alexander Mason, a surgeon in London, and on December 9, 1569, joined the freedom of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company. In 1586, he was appointed curator of the College of Physicians’ physic garden and acted as superintendent of William Cecil’s (Lord Burghley’s) gardens in the Strand and at Theobalds in Hertfordshire. He was the first to suggest that the Barber-Surgeons keep a garden for the study of plants but the suggestion was never taken up. He later served as examiner for the Barber-Surgeons’ Company and was selected master in 1607. In 1604, he was granted a lease of a garden neighbouring Somerset House by Anne of Denmark, consort of James I, and was described as James I’s “herbarist” in that legal document.

Gerard published several texts on herbals, including the Catalogus arborum, fruticum, ac plantarum tam indigenarum (1596), which is said to be the first print catalogue of all the plants in a single garden, but he is best known for The Herball, first published in 1597. For this publication, he used a translation by Dr Priest of Dodoens’s Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, without citation. The botanist Matias de Lobel (1538–1616), who was hired by publisher John Norton to correct Gerard’s Herball, noted this unauthorized use and accused Gerard of plagiarism. Johnson’s 1633 and 1636 revisions of The Herball, which carefully identify source texts, are, thus, more scholarly editions than Gerard’s original.

Thomas Johnson was born just before the turn of the century at Selby in Yorkshire. Although nothing is known about his childhood, it is presumed he received a good education. He was apprenticed to William Bell, a London apothecary, in 1620, and joined the Freedom of the Society of Apothecaries in 1628.

While an apprentice, he traveled and found several previously unknown plants in Britain, then continued his botanical explorations and published two books on the subject: Iter plantarum investigationis (Journey for the Discovery of Plants, 1629) and Descriptio Itineris (Description of a Journey, 1632). Above and beyond his work as an apothecary, he wrote frequently and edited and contributed to works of contemporaries. He was a mindful editor: in his most important work, the latter editions of Gerard’s Herball, he indicated his additions and alterations, marking substantial emendations with a dagger and new passages with a double cross.


The text is comprised of front matter (dedicatory epistle to William Cecil, letters to the readers, catalogue of additions), three books illustrating the “history of plants,” an appendix of plants omitted in the 1597 Herball, and back matter (Latin Index, Nominum quorundam interpretation, A Table of English Names, A Table of obsolete and less used English Names, A Table of Brittish Names, The Table of Vertues). An chapter is dedicated to each plant and each of these entries includes a detailed portrait that includes “The Description,” “The Place,” “The Time,” “The Names,” “The Nature,” “The Vertues,” and “The Danger.” Because The Herball includes detailed descriptions of both wild and cultivated plants, it is considered both an herbal and a gardening book.

Several of the leaves of plants featured in the book are pressed in this copy, including between pages 1072 and 1073 and 1342 and 1343.

The English Language

The Herball not only introduced newly discovered plants to England, but also contributed new words to the English language to accommodate these additions. According to the OED, Johnson’s 1633 edition is the first example of words such as “acrid,” “cloudberry,” and “muck thistle” and the only example of “brant-barley” and “brish-grass.” The 1633 edition alone contributes to 162 entries and the 1597 to another 1169 entries.

Bibliographic Description

See collation and pagination above for further detail.

Many of the pages are mis-numbered, including: 29–30 for 31–32, 141 for 241, 343 for 355, 400–401 for 370–371, 424 for 328, 626 for 620, 797 for 795, 1204 for 1240, and 1478 for 1480. In addition, what should be page 33 is numbered 29, and so forth, so that all pages following the 33rd page are four numbers off .

Leaves Nnnn6 and Yyyy4 are missing from this copy, as are several leaves from the appended Index Latinus and Nominum quorandam.

Several leaves feature marginalia of various hands. In the inside cover is written “F.D. Hoeniger Gerard 1633 corrected by Thomas Johnson” and the facing blank leaf is signed “F.D. Hoeniger.” On the verso of the title page is signed, in a different hand, “For The Raspies, See Page 1273.” ¶3 and the errata page bear a third hand.


This 1633 copy of The Herball was generously donated to the CRRS by F. David Hoeniger, former director of the Centre from 1964–1969 and 1975–1979.


Elliot, Brent. “The World of the Renaissance Herbal.” Renaissance Studies 25 (1), 2011: 24–31.

King, C.J. “Johnson, Thomas (1595×1600–1644).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB).

Smolenaars, Marja. “Gerard, John (c.1545–1612).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB).

The ESTC lists 75 copies of The Herball (not including the CRRS copy). The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has a mixed 1633 and 1636 edition, also not included in the ESTC.

This article was prepared by Elisa Tersigni (PhD Student, English and Book History & Print Culture), with many thanks to Eduardo Fabbro (PhD Student, Medieval Studies) for the translation of the title and to Prof. Randall McLeod for consultation.



Leave a Response

Please note: comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.