Tiptoe through the tulips: John Gerard’s “Herball”

Hundreds of woodblocks from the great Plantin Press in Antwerp were shipped to London for a magnificent new edition of John Gerard’s “The herball or generall historie of plantes” published in 1633. Gerard’s book first appeared in 1597, and the new edition of 1633 was revised by the apothecary and botanist, Thomas Johnson. It was so popular that it was quickly reprinted in 1636.

John Grerad, from the title page of the 1636 edition of his "Herball"

John Gerard, from the title page of the 1636 edition of his “Herball”

John Gerard (c.1545-1612) was a herbalist and curator of the London physic garden of the College of Physicians. His patron William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was one of the most powerful men in Elizabethan England (and Chancellor of the University of Cambridge) and Gerard was also employed as superintendent of Burghley’s gardens in the Strand and at Theobald’s in Hertfordshire.

His herbal, which was written in English rather than Latin, was a great success despite the fact that he was not regarded as a scholar by his contemporaries. He was condemned for borrowing widely from other scholars, including Dodoens and Lobel, without giving them due credit – a clear example of Elizabethan plagiarism!

Nevertheless, in his revised edition Thomas Johnson (d. 1644)seeks to excuse Gerard’s failings. “His chief commendation is, that he out of a propense good will to the publique advancement of this knowledge, endeavoured to performe therein more than he could well accomplish; which was partly through want of sufficient learning … and although there were many faults in the worke, yet judge well of the Author.” However, Johnson was at pains in his edition to rectify some of Gerard’s shortcomings and the work of 1633 contains his extensive revisions.

The Plantin woodblocks which arrived in London for the new edition had originally been made for an edition of Rembert Dodoens’ herbal “Stirpium historiae pemptades sex”. They are beautifully executed in a lively style and show excellent botanical detail. This made them a valuable resource and eminently suitable for re-use in other publications, as was the case here.

The "pretty Perian tulip", Tulipa Persica

The “pretty Persian tulip”, Tulipa Persica

Amongst a comprehensive array of botanical illustrations in the herbal, there are 30 woodblocks of the genus “tulipa”. Gerard is somewhat overwhelmed by the task of describing the many varieties of tulip available at the time. Instead he confines himself to a few, saying “each new year bringeth forth new plants of sundry colours not before seen; all of which to describe particularly were to rolle Sisiphus stone”. Among the tulips illustrated are “the purple tulip”, “the bright red tulip”, the “white tulip with purple streakes”, “the pretty Persian tulip having a red floure with whitish edges” and “the late yellow, with sanguine spots and a blacke bottome”. Gerard also describes some of the tulips he has seen in cultivation including one “in our London gardens, of a snow white colour, the edges slightly washt over with a little of that we call blush colour”.

The "many branched tulip with a yellow floure", Tulipa Serotina

The “many branched tulip with a yellow floure”, Tulipa Serotina

Thomas Johnson adds a footnote about tulips “I do verily thinke that they are … the Lillies of the field mentioned by our Saviour, Mat. 6.28, 29”. He gives the following reasons “First, their shape: for their floures resemble Lillies; and in these places whereas our Saviour was conversant they grow wilde in the fields. Secondly, the infinite variety of colour… And thirdly, the wondrous beautie and mixtures of these floures.”

The Old Library’s copy of Gerard’s herbal is the 1636 edition, coincidentally published when tulips were at the height of fashion. At this time “tulip mania” had taken hold in the Low Countries, with prices for bulbs reaching their peak in March 1637.

Ballerina Tulip

Tulip “Ballerina”, Trinity Hall gardens

Tulips remain popular spring flowers today. The flower beds of the Old Library, Trinity Hall are planted with two striking varieties which flower in April and early May: the orange and gold “Ballerina” and the appropriately named “Black parrot”. Despite the early season this year, tulip enthusiasts will still have a chance to see a myriad of tulips in bloom if they visit the specialist stands at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Tulip "Black Parrot"

Tulip “Black Parrot”, Trinity Hall gardens

The Old Library’s copy of Gerard’s herbal was recently conserved by the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium through the generous support of alumnus Richard Ferens (TH 1957-1960) and his wife Penelope in celebration of their Golden Wedding.


Most of the refernces are from Wikipedia

Gerard’s “Herball” can be viewed online: https://archive.org/details/herballorgeneral00gera

The Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp is open to the public and has UNESCO World Heritage status

Trinity Hall gardens: http://www.trinhall.cam.ac.uk/about/gardens/