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The world of the Renaissance herbal

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A herbal is a treatise on medicinal plants; the intended audience was traditionally one of doctors and apothecaries, and the purpose was to enable them to know which plants to use for medical purposes, and how to identify them in the field. In the 1530s appeared the first herbals for which artists were employed to draw plants from real specimens, rather than simply copying older illustrations – which, as a result of generations of manuscript copying, were not useful for practical identification purposes. Herbals became a genre with a strong market, and all the publishing traditions of plagiarism and competition can be traced during the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. They also became the focus for one aspect of the rediscovery of the classical past: the endeavour to rediscover the works of Pliny and Dioscorides, and the attempt to determine accurately which plants those authors had described – for there was no significant concept of geographical distribution in the early 16th century, until previously unknown plants began to be introduced from the Americas. As the interest in both classical botany and new plants spread, the market for herbals widened, and they began to include information on garden varieties, thus providing a record of European horticultural activity.

Keywords: botany; garden; herbal; illustration; publishing

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Lindley Library, Royal Horticultural Society

Publication date: February 1, 2011


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