The Virtues of Gerard’s Herbal

That last bastion of sanity on the internets, Archive.org, hosts a copy of John Gerard’s 16th century bestselling foraging manual, The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes. I’ve embeddified it as an alternative to spending an evening staring at the Netflix browse menu or as an opportunity for workplace dinkering.

Here’s how the University of Virginia describes it,

Gerard was superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, advisor to Queen Elizabeth. Gerard was one of the most respected plant experts of his time, but, strangely, he was not the primary author of the famous herbal that bears his name. Except for the additions of several plants from his own garden and from North America, Gerard’s herbal is simply an English translation of Dutch scholar Rembert Dodoen’s highly popular herbal of 1554.

I appreciate Gerard’s (Dodoen’s?) Herbal for two reasons, first the beautiful illustrations but principally for one word that Gerard uses. Where a modern plant guide would have a section devoted to the “uses” of a particular plant, Gerard uses the word “virtue” instead. I propose a revival of this word when we speak of plants.

“Use,” like so many other things in our culture, is far too utilitarian. Speaking of the “uses” of plants reminds me of a professor in my music department who, when arriving at a party, asked the department secretary, “who’s the most powerful person in this room?” so that he would not have to “waste” his time with simply enjoying the company of other people.

Speaking of the “virtues” of plants seems much more civilized.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.