Back to Medical Library Search
Gerard's Herball: the Essence thereof distilled by
edited by Marcus Woodward
Crescent Books, New York, 1985, 303pp, HC
from the Edition of TH. JOHNSON, 1636
JOHN GERARD' name, his Historie of Plants, its glorious Elizabethan prose, the folk-lore steeping its pages, and all its quaint conceits about the "Vertues" of herbs, are know by reputation the world over. This is partly because no book on flowers or trees can be written without quotations from his glowing pages, but mainly because the work has won an unchallenged place of honour as the most delightful, fragrant, and refreshing of all old-time herbals: as it is by far the most amusing. Among many testimonies which might be gathered (if need be) as to the delight which discerning and sensitive minds have ever found in the "Herball", there comes first to remembrance a passage in the beautiful prose of W. H. Hudson; and it is a pleasure to transcribe this (from Nature in Downland), with its echo of Gerard's own flowing periods:
"Next to the delight of flowers themselves is to me that of listening to the old herbalist discoursing of the same; and this would I say of no other work on plant lore, for these are mostly a weariness to read. The old author is simple, not concerning himself over much about the reason of things, or as he would say he loveth not to dance in quagmires.... The colour of his style is never overworn, and he is for ever fresh and full of variety and agreeable surprises, like Nature herself, who maketh her plants nor for meat and medicine only, but some to be esteemed for beauty alone, and as garlands and crowns for pleasure. Indeed, there is not seldom a lustre in his words that serves to remind one of the red whortle he greatly admired, which is full of juice of so orient and beautiful a colour to limn withal that Indian lacca cannot be compared thereunto. Nor let it be forgot that it was he who invented the pleasure which all have in that green and silver adorner of our country ways and hedges, may even be said to have added something to Nature."
Our most diligent searcher of old Herbals, Miss Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, in The Old English Herbals, thus dwells on Gerard's charm:
"His Herbal gripped the imagination of the English garden-loving world, and now, after the lapse of three hundred years, it still retains its hold on us. There are English-speaking people the world over who may know nothing of any other, but at least by name they know Gerard's Herbal.... One reads his critics with the respect due to their superior learning, and then returns to Gerard's Herbal with the comfortable sensation of slipping away from a boring sermon into the pleasant spaciousness of an old-fashioned faire-tale. For the majority of us are not scientific, nor do we care very much about being instructed. What we like is to read about daffodils and violets and gilliflowers and rosemary and thyme and all the other delicious old-fashioned English flowers. And when we can read about them in the matchless Elizabethan English we ask nothing more."
When reading Gerard we are wandering in the peace of an Elizabethan garden, with a companion who has a story for every flower and is full of wise philosophies. We are admiring his Violets: "It would be an unseemly thing", says he, "for him that doth look upon and handle fair and beautiful places, to have his mind not faire, but filthy and deformed." He inspires us with his own simple faith in the healing virtues of herbs. We must agree that Sweet Marjoram is for those who are given to over-much sighing; that the smell of Basil is good for the heart, takes away sorrowfulness and make a man merry and glad. We shall lament the passing of the cunning cook who would serve the old salad-dishes; we do not doubt that Chervil roots are excellent in a salad, "if they be boiled and after dressed as the cunning cook knoweth how better than my selfe; it rejoiceth and comforteth the heart, and increases their lust and strength". Courage! -- we may need it ourselves though not dull nor old, and where more easily could we find it than in a tankard flavoured with Borage?--
Bring alwaies Courage.