dinsdag 3 juni 2014

The origin and evolution of herbals (Agnes Arber)

It is hard to escape the image of the modern day wild plant watcher as a bearded teacher of the old stamp who would wear a dear stalker on his floral huntings if only his wife would let him. It has not always been like that as Agnes Arber's 'Herbals, their origin and evolution' (1912/1938, reprinted 1986) shows. Arber takes us through the history of herbals between 1470 and 1670, roughly the years spanning the discovery of printing and the emergence of botany as a science in its modern form. There is a great deal to be learned, but what strikes me most is that many of the botanical advances reported share a close proximity to the intellectual spheres as so eloquently described by Frances Yates: the world of Elizabethan Rosicrucians and radical (hermetic) philosophy. Many herbalists were radical protestants, often on the move to avoid prosecution, operating in the intellectual and power hubs of the Renaissance world. We witness the change from medical herbalism to botany, we see how novelties emerge and how stubbornly certain traditions are maintained. We get a glimpse of how the plants of the new world were integrated, and how hard it was to see them for what they were. The earliest herbals in print were often reissues of manuscripts, creating a timeline of at least a millennium for certain texts. 

What makes this book even more wonderful is the liberal use of images. Nothing can beat a good woodcut.

Through sympathetic magic Arber's book also gave me new respect for the Heukels', the most complete lay flora for the Netherlands. Not only does it contain information to the point of singularity it has now also acquired for me the patina of history. If you look of the drawings you can see how little has changed.


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