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Welcome to Episode 204 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare

Herballs are the books on plants from Shakespeare’s lifetime. These books contained drawings of various grasses, flowers, herbs, and trees that grew in England. The drawings we have surviving today total more than 1,000 woodcuts from Shakespeare’s lifetime literally illustrating for us that the plant industry in England was big business for the same publishing houses producing Shakespeare’s plays. Our guest this week, Sarah Neville, joins us to explore this part of the publishing industry and explain where herballs came from, who wrote them, and most of all, what kind of person wanted to buy them during Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

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Sarah Neville is an assistant professor of English at the Ohio State University with a courtesy appointment in Theatre, Film, and Media Arts. She is an assistant editor of the New Oxford Shakespeare (2016-17), for which she edited five plays in both old and modern-spelling editions, as well as an associate coordinating editor of the Digital Renaissance Editions. A great believer in experiential learning, Neville is also the founder and creative director of Lord Denney’s Players, an academic theatre company that enables audiences to see how technologies of textual transmission have shaped the reception of Shakespeare’s plays. Her latest book, Early Modern Herbals and the Book Trade: English Stationers and the Commodification of English Botany (Cambridge, 2022), demonstrates the ways that printers and booksellers of herbals enabled the construction of scientific and medical authority in early modern England. 

I’ll be asking Sarah Neville about:

  • We know that poets wrote plays, but who was it that was writing Herballs? 
  • Were herballs written to catalog the plants that were currently growing in England, or were they use guides for people that wanted to grow these plants?
  • What motivated an author to want to write an herball? Was it purely for profit, or did publishing an herbal help a would-be scientist establish their credibility?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Sarah Neville recommends

(Notes below for each record are written by Sarah Neville just for you!):

  1. My book, Early Modern Herbals and the Book Trade: English Stationers and the Commodification of English Botany, is now out, and it is available open-access to either download or to read online.
  2. Last March, I presented some of this work as the Pforzheimer Lecture at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. That lecture, on “Commodifying Botany in Early Modern England”, is archived on YouTube.

My own scholarship is particularly indebted to the work of two pioneering female bibliographers.

  1. Agnes Arber, Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution (Cambridge, 1912). This was the standard book on the history of English herbals for over a century, and it is easy to see why: Arber’s book is lucid, wonderfully illustrated, and an excellent introduction to the subject. This link is to the Project Gutenberg eBook.
  2. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 2005). This accessible abridgement of Eisenstein’s groundbreaking 2 volume The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge, 1979) offers a comprehensible introduction to the ways that printed books impacted intellectual, religious, and social history. A key text in the history of science, it has never been surpassed.
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What’s Inside:

  • Quotes from Shakespeare’s plays about herballs, plants, and herbs
  • Title page of the first printed English Herball ever produced (1552)
  • Images of The Grete Herball (1526)
  • Portrait of Leonard Fuchs
  • Illustrations from John Gerard’s Herball
  • Potrait of Sir Walter Raleigh
  • Bonus resources, articles, and websites you can use to explore herballs further
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