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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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Shall I not lie in publishing a truth?

Troilus, Troilus and Cressida (V.2)
Title page of the first printed English herball ever produced. It was written by Richard Banckes and is today referred to only as “The Banckes Herball” | Richard Banckes, A Boke of the propreties of herbes called an herball. London: Printed by William Copland for Richard Kele, by 1552. (sig. A1r) | U.S. National Library of Medicine, WZ 240 M927m 1546 (public domain) | Source | Description Source

Books Written for the Publisher, but not the Author

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, printed books were for the profit of the publisher, not the author who wrote the book. The industry existed for the benefit of the publisher. Unlike today when we ask “Who wrote that book?” when someone in Shakespeare’s lifetime wanted to give credit to anyone for a good book, they’d likely say “Who published that book?”

As an example, Sarah points out that one of the most popular books in Shakespeare’s lifetime is anonymous.

One of the most popular books that anybody sold or read in English was a tiny little herbal who had no author at all. 20 editions in about 40 years, one of the best sellers in the book trade….

The success of this book and one other small herball, led people to want to buy more herballs. Of course, if there was a demand, then booksellers were seeking a way to fill the supply.

The books came from the publishers and book sellers, not so much about the author. Quite frequently the people at the bottom–the publishers to the stationers created herballs as a way to have a book they could sell prolifically. They setup the terms by which an herball could be produced, they got the blocks to make the woodcuts, even sometimes renting the woodblocks from a continental bookpublisher and by finding someone who could produce a text to serve that need in the market, the publisher is the prime mover of the renaissance herballs, not the figure we associate with them as the author.

“Let the sky rain potatoes…”

Falstaff, Merry Wives of Windsor (V.5)
The title page with frontispiece of garden scene from the 1526 edition of the Grete Herball as printed by Peter Treveris, held at Special Collections, The Claremont Colleges Library, Claremont, California. | Anonymous author, Printed in 1526 | Public Domain | Source

Illustrating Herballs

Illustrations stand out inside herballs that survive today as a key element of the publication. Created on commission, these illustrations did not feature in all editions of early modern herballs. Some popular herball editions went to print without any illustrations at all.

The book producer would have access to a group of woodcuts. Book seller would know before they would commission a book whether they’d have access to those woodcuts so they would regularly make that determination early on and reprints Example:  “The Grete Herball” didn’t have illustrations in the 3rd or 4th edition because it was not profitable to include illustrations.

Portrait of Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) by Heinrich Füllmaurer (1530/40), Description of the portrait, translated from German: “Portrait of the botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501 – 1566) in a cartridge: Leonhart Fuchs Doctor. Contrafayt im 42 years old. 1541. Tubingen Scanned from: The Renaissance in the German Southwest between the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War. An exhibition by the state of Baden-Württemberg, Heidelberg Castle, June 21 – October 19, 1986” | Source | Public Domain

In other cases, sometimes an author themselves can arrange for funding to have some woodblocks cut. Less common in England, Leonard Fuchs produced in the 16th century one of the most famous books of the german renaissance 30 editions in Fuchs lifetime, Professor of Natural History at the University of Tubingen and as part of his salary he had money to produce books. [Gerard partnered] with a publisher who helped to commission woodblock cuttings drawn from life and he supervised all of that and images of the artist–the person who drew the images of plants and transferred those drawings onto the woodblocks and the person who cut the woodblocks is featured in Fuchs’ edition of his herball with author credits. 

Very soon after that those illustrations were copied by someone who wanted to have plant illustrations in their own herball. This created a little bit of a stir because those commodities could be rented and reused.

When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

Servant, Richard II (III.4)
Illustration of a Virginia Potato from John Gerard’s Herball, first published in 1597. | Description from the Royal Collection Trust: “Trained as a Barber-surgeon, John Gerard (1545-1612) divided his time working as superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1521-98), as curator of the Physic Garden at the College of Physicians as well as maintaining his own private garden in which he “grew all manner of strange trees, herbes, rootes, plants, flowers and other such rare things” including the first potato grown in England. His Herball, the most famous of all English herbals, was first published in 1597 and reprinted in 1633 and 1636. It was an instant success and remained influential until the eighteenth century. Gerard was acquainted with the famous botanist Carolus Clusius, who travelled to London three times between 1571 and 1581, and his Herball has many similarities to Clusius’ publications (see, for example RCIN 1057452), even using the same woodcuts from the publisher Christopher Plantin (c. 1520-89) to illustrate the text. Gerard’s Herball however, also included an extensive commentary with anecdotes on the folklore surrounding certain plant species. This book is a copy of the 1636 edition, and contains over 800 species of plants and more than 2,500 woodcuts. Entry adapted from Painting Paradise London 2015.” | Public Domain | Illustration of Potato of Virginia from The herball or, generall historie of plantes / Gathered by John Gerarde | This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive). | Image Source | Description Source

John Gerard

One of the most famous herbalists of his time (and indeed the one you are most like to hear mentioned in context of Herballs still today) is John Gerard. Published in 1597, the herball functioned as a reliable gardening manual for many in England for centuries.

Sarah explains that Gerard received plants and herbs brought back from the Colonies that he then included in his book.

[Gerard] was friends with Sir Walter Raleigh who would bring plant samples home from his voyages and [Gerard] was heavily associated with the court of ELizabeth I as the Chief Gardner of Lord Burleigh and one of the things this meant is that as particular plants were brought back from the New World Explorations they were given to Gerard to try and support and nurture them through Gerard’s own gardens as well as Lord Burleigh’s gardens in Holborne, a region of London. Gerard was a figure on the rise. [An expert gardener] with some renown in London, and arguably the most famous gardener in London so when publisher John Norton wanted an English herball–recognizing there had not been an english herball done by an Englishman for 25 years, he offered the opportunity to Gerard. The thing we know as Gerard’s Herball, massive tome of 1400 images and 2000 woodcuts from 1597 is an extravagantly expensive publishing enterprise, almost in the same way as a massive film undertaking. 

19th century picture of Sir Walter Raleigh smoking tobacco, one of the most popular products he brought back to England from the Colonies. This image is portraying the popular tale that when Raleigh’s servant first saw him smoking, he doused him with water, thinking his master was on fire. | Source | Public Domain

Why, your herb-woman; she that sets seeds and roots of shame and iniquity.

Lysimachus, Pericles (IV.6)

The Herb Woman

Shakespeare’s works identify husbandry of plants as important to prevent herbs from dying and later uses the phrase “herb-woman” for someone that grows particular herbs. While it was primarily men who authored herballs, knowledge of plants and their uses was common among women. Herb-women mixed up medicinal remedies from plants and herbs.

Medical authorities are recognizing that their skills at healing is dependent on the accuracy of plant knowledge all the way down to the herb-woman. That herb-woman has a lot of authority and that concerns medical practitioners at higher levels of status. One of the ways they could fix this problem is by writing books that dictated what plants had particular equivalencies. When we see references to herb-woman or wise-woman demonstrates an awareness of medical care not necessarily reside with the established medical authorities. There were other ways to gain access to medicine and one of her chapters talks about how the stage operates to show some of these debates about authorities.