John Gerard

John Gerard (also John Gerarde, c. 1545–1612) was an English botanist with a large herbal garden in London. He was the author of a 1,484-page illustrated Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, first published in 1597. It became the most prevalent botany book in English in the 17th century. Except for additions of some plants from his own garden and from North America, Gerard's Herbal is largely an unacknowledged English translation of Rembert Dodoens's herbal, published in 1554, itself highly popular in Dutch, Latin, French and other English translations. Gerard's Herball contains profuse, high-quality drawings of plants, with the printer's woodcuts largely derived from Continental European sources, but there is an original title page with a copperplate engraving by William Rogers. Two decades after Gerard's death, the book was corrected and expanded to about 1700 pages. The botanical genera Gerardia were named in Gerard's honour.

John Gerard
Gerard John 1545-1612.jpg
John Gerard
Frontispiece of 1636 edition of Herball
Nantwich, Cheshire, England
Died1612 (aged 66–67)
London, England
Resting placeSt Andrews, Holborn
Known forThe book Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes
Scientific career
Author abbrev. (botany)J.Gerard


Early life and educationEdit

Gerard was born at Nantwich, Cheshire, towards the end of 1545, receiving his only schooling at nearby Willaston, about two miles away. Nothing is known of his parentage,[1][2] but the coat of arms on his Herball implies he was a member of the Gerards of Ince.[3] Around the age of 17, in 1562, he became an apprentice to Alexander Mason (died 3 April 1574), a barber-surgeon of the Barber-Surgeon's Company (Company of Barbers and Surgeons) in London. Mason had a large surgical practice and had twice held the rank of Warden in the company, and later became Master.[3] Gerard did well there, and was admitted to freedom of the company on 9 December 1569 and permitted to open his own practice.[4][2] Although he claimed to have learned much about plants from travelling to other parts of the world (see for instance a letter to Lord Burghley in 1588), his actual travels appear to have been limited. For example, at some time in his later youth, he is said to have made one trip abroad, possibly as a ship's surgeon on a merchant ship sailing around the North Sea and Baltic, for he refers to both Scandinavia and Russia in his writings.[5][2][6]

Later life, family and deathEdit

Gerard married Anne (or possibly Agnes), who died in 1620, and by her had five children, of whom only one, Elizabeth, survived them. He spent his entire adult life in London, close to Barnards Inn, between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane. It is thought he resided in a tenement with a garden belonging to Lord Burghley. After his death in February 1612, he was buried at St Andrews, Holborn on 18 February, but the grave is unmarked.[4][2][3]


Gerard had a successful career with the Barber–Surgeons' Company. He became a member of the Court of Assistants (board of directors) on 19 June 1595, despite being accused of defaming the wife of a colleague in 1578.[3] He was made an examiner of candidates for admission to the freedom of the company on 15 January 1598 and Junior Warden in August 1597, under the mastership of George Baker.[a] Following a further dispute with a senior warden, he relinquished his positions of "second warden and upper governor" on 26 September 1605, but this was resolved and on 17 August 1607 he was elected Master of the company.[1][3][7] In the Annals of the company, published in 1890, a biography of Gerard appears under a list of "Eminent Members".[6]

While he was studying he developed the tenement garden in Holborn, that he refers to frequently in his work, and later published a catalogue of the plants there. This became popular, and he received gifts of seeds and plants from around the world. He also received offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen.[4] In 1577, he began work as superintendent at the gardens of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (Lord Burghley, the Queen's Lord High Treasurer) at the Strand and Theobalds, Hertfordshire, a position he continued in for more than 20 years.[1][5] In 1586, the College of Physicians established a physic garden with Gerard as curator, a position he held till 1604.[2] In 1588, Burghley was Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and Gerard wrote to him commending himself as a suitable superintendent of the university botanic garden, writing "to signe for ye University of Cambridge for planting of gardens". Amongst his qualifications he wrote "by reason of his travaile into farre countries his great practise and long experience". There is no evidence for this claim and nothing seems to have come of his application.[8][9] By 1595, when he was appointed to the Court of Assistants, he had established a reputation as a skilled herbalist and spent much time commuting from the Court to the garden he established close to his cottage in the suburb of Holborn, London and also attending to his duties for Burghley. In 1596 he requested that the Barber–Surgeons' Company establish a physic garden ("Mr. Gerrard's garden") in East Smithfield, but this was not proceeded with.[2][3] It was reported that Queen Elizabeth held his achievements in high regard.[6] In 1604 he was granted a lease on a garden adjoining Somerset House, by Anne, the Queen Consort to King James I, but the following year relinquished it to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, second son of Lord Burghley, in which he was described as "herbarist" to James I.[3]

According to Anna Pavord, Gerard was a doer, not a thinker and a plantsman, not a scholar.[5] Deborah Harkness notes that Gerard was not part of the community of Lime Street naturalists in London at the time.[10][b] His somewhat flawed (from the perspective of some of his contemporaries) Herball is dedicated to Burghley. He surrounded himself with influential friends and contacts, including Lancelot Browne, George Baker, and the apothecaries James Garrett, Hugh Morgan and Richard Garth. Garret was a Huguenot living and working in London, and a neighbour of L'Obel. Many of these had fine gardens and would exchange plants. Garth, who described Gerard as "a worshipful gentleman and one that greatly delighteth in strange plants" had South American contacts from where he would import rarities. He also exchanged plants with Clusius and cultivated a certain "Captain Nicholas Cleet of the Turky Company" from whom he obtained specimens from the Middle East. He would also visit other collectors and nurserymen such as Richard Pointer of Twickenham, Master Fowle, keeper of the Queen's house at St. James and Master Huggens, keeper of the garden at Hampton Court. His servant, William Marshall travelled to the Mediterranean on his behalf and Jean Robin, the French king's botanist sent him seeds.[5] After his death in February 1612 he was buried at St Andrews, Holborn.[4]


Illustrations from the Herball (1597)
Virginia Potato
The Goose or Barnakle tree, that bears geese

Catalogue of Plants 1596Edit

In 1596, Gerard published his Catalogue (Catalogus arborum, fruticum, ac plantarum tam indigenarum, quam exoticarum, in horto Johannis Gerardi civis et chirurgi Londinensis nascentium), a list of rare plants (1,039 different kinds) he cultivated in his own garden at Holborn, where he introduced exotic plants from the New World, including a plant he misidentified as the Yucca.[12] The Yucca failed to bloom during his lifetime, but a pip taken from his plant later bloomed for a contemporary. To this day Yucca bears the name Gerard gave it. This list was the first catalogue of this type ever produced. The only known copy is in the Sloane collection at the British Library.[5] The Flemish botanist L'Obel (also called Matthias de l'Obel or Lobelius) wrote an introduction to the text.George Baker describes this garden in his preface to the Herball as follows "all manner of strange trees, herbes, rootes, plants, floures and other such rare things, that it would make a man wonder, how one of his degree, not having the purse of a number, could ever accomplish the same".[13] A revised edition was issued in 1599 by John Norton, the Queen's Printer, this time with English and Latin names in opposite columns.[2]

Herball 1597Edit

The publisher John Norton, who was the Queen's Printer, approached Gerard regarding a possible English translation of Dodoens' popular herbal, Stirpium historiae pemptades sex (1583).[14][15] This was a Latin version of an earlier work in Flemish by Dodoens, his Cruydeboeck (Herb Book, 1554) which had already been translated into English by Henry Lyte, under the name A Niewe Herball in 1578 and had proved popular. Gerard was not Norton's first choice, the translation having originally been commissioned from Dr Robert Priest,[c] a member of the London College of Physicians[19][8] who had died untimely. Although Gerard acknowledges Priest's role, he implies that he died prior to commencing the work. As curator of the College garden, he would have been familiar with Priest, and his work. The completed book appears to incorporate much of Priest's work, together with his own completion of the text in the form of annotations from his own garden and for the first time, some North American plants.[20] For instance, the first description of the potato in English appeared in this work,[21] although he mistakenly believed it came from Virginia rather than South America (see illustration).[19] He then incorporated as-yet-unpublished material from his friend, L'Obel and also material from the work of Clusius and rearranged this to more closely follow and L'Obel's scheme from his 1570 Stirpium adversaria nova.[22][5][8] It is thought this was to disguise the original source.[23]

In the preface ("To the courteous and well-willing Readers"), Gerard admitted Priest's efforts but claimed the work was his own;

"and since that Doctor Priest, one of our London Colledge, hath (as I heard) translated the last edition of Dodonaeus, which meant to publish the same; but being prevented by death, his translation likewise perished: lastly, my selfe one of the least among many, have presumed to set foorth unto the view of the world, the first fruits of these mine own labours"[24]

This has led to Gerard being accused of plagiarism, and even a "crook".[5][15] This work, published in 1597, was his Great Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes.[25] This edition reused hundreds of woodblocks from Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus' Kräuterbuch or Eicones Plantarum seu stirpium (Frankfurt, 1590),[23][8] which themselves had been reused from earlier 16th-century botanical books by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Rembert Dodoens, Carolus Clusius, and L'Obel. Gerard's lack of scientific training and knowledge led him to frequently include material that was incorrect, folklore or mythical, such as the barnacle tree that bore geese (see illustration).[26][5] Nevertheless, the work, which includes more than 1,000 plants in 167 chapters remained popular, providing in English much information about the names, habits and uses ("vertues") of many plants known and rare.[15] At the time it was considered the best and most exhaustive work of its kind, and a standard reference for some time.[6]

Publication controversyEdit

Modern-day authorities disagree as to how much of Gerard's Herball was original. Garret made a chance visit to the Norton publishing shop, where he discovered the proofs of the Herball, and alerted the Nortons as both to errors he discovered in the proofs and to the incorporation of some of L'Obel's material in Gerard's new book.[5] This story is recounted by L'Obel in his Stirpium illustrationes (1655)[27] in which he accuses Gerard of plagiarism.[28][15] Although they were not concerned about plagiarism, the Nortons, fearing errors in a book that was supposed to be an expert reference guide, hired L'Obel, as an internationally recognised expert on plants (who had as Gerard's friend, unwittingly contributed to his book) to proof the translations, fix the mismatched illustrations, and right its textual wrongs. When Gerard discovered L'Obel's thankless efforts, he had him dismissed. Although Gerard was an experienced collector and plantsman, unlike L'Obel he lacked scholarship, as is evident in his dedication to Burghley, where he paints a picture of himself as a gardener.[29] Gerard dismissed L'Obel's criticisms as being due to his unfamiliarity with English idioms. Norton decided to proceed with publication despite these difficulties. He decided against using Dodoens' original illustrations since this would have revealed the actual source of the material, but instead rented woodblocks from Nicolaus Bassaeus in Frankfurt, about 1,800 in all, only 16 being original. However, Gerard was then faced with the difficulty of matching them to the text and frequently mislabelled them.[5]

Selected publicationsEdit


After Gerard's death in 1612, an enlarged, revised and corrected edition of the Herball was issued in 1633[30] and reprinted as a third edition in 1636.[31] These editions were edited by Thomas Johnson, an apothecary and botanist who lived in London, under commission from the heirs to the estate of John Gerard. His edition contained many corrections and new information based on empirical observation. He added over 800 new species and 700 figures.[32] Through anecdotal comments, Johnson carefully distanced himself from the original work. For example, he wrote of the entry on the saffron crocus, "Our author in this chapter was of many minds." The plant drawings in the 1633 and 1636 editions used hundreds of woodblocks originally made for an edition of Rembert Dodoens's original herbal, the basis of Gerard's work. The woodblocks were shipped from Antwerp to London for the purpose.[33] Johnson's revisions are the most well known versions and the ones that most later authors generally refer to, sometimes called Gerard emaculatus[d] ("Gerard freed from blemishes"). Long attributed to John Ray,[32][35] this description is thought to have been used earlier by John Goodyer amongst others.[36]

Gerard may be considered one of the founders of botany in the English language, but he was not well educated, was more interested as a herbalist and barber-surgeon in the medicinal properties of the plants than botanical theory[9] and was not notable as a botanist in terms of technical knowledge in his own time according to his critics.[37] Amongst these was John Ray, who commented that despite the fact that the book was the standard botany text in the seventeenth century, it was the work of an ignorant man, and that lacking any foreign languages he could not have translated the work.[23] Because it was a practical and useful book, packed with helpful drawings of plants, and because Gerard had a fluid and lively writing manner, his Herball was popular with ordinary literate people in 17th-century England. Although it was recognised amongst scholars that it was a pirated work, with many limitations, at that time[23] there is evidence of the book still being in practical use as a medicinal herbal, even in the early 19th century. Agnes Arber recounts a story of a man born in 1842 that in his childhood there was a woman who used the Herball for treating the ailments of her neighbours.[38]

Despite some shortcomings in Gerard's effort, Linnaeus honoured him in the name of the plant species Gerardia. Gerard's Herball references many of the poisonous plants mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. Additional value has been placed on the Herball by students of literature. For example, the herb which produces the deathlike sleep of Juliet or Cymbeline may refer to nightshade, Mandragora or Doronicum, all of them listed and described in the Herball.[39] It has been suggested by historian Mark Griffiths that the image of an unknown man, on the title page of the Herball is in fact Shakespeare himself.[40]

The art of describing the natural world through direct observation divides Renaissance natural historians from their medieval predecessors, whose practitioners were largely uncritical adherents of the ancient texts. The earliest printed works in Renaissance natural history fell into two categories: 1. newly recovered, translated and corrected editions of ancient texts, and 2. herbals based on the empirical knowledge of the early botanists. Although Francis Bacon advocated inductive thinking based on observation or description (empiricism) as the way to understand and report on the natural world, the early Renaissance printed herbals were slightly modified adaptations of the works of their medieval predecessors. Generally, these somewhat unscientific early scientists contented themselves with listing plants and occasionally other things like animals and minerals, and noting their medical uses.[15][41]

John Gerard worked within the early wave of Renaissance natural historians, who sought to systematise natural history while retaining the works of the ancients.[41] The basis for Gerard's Herball, like those of Dodoens and other herbalists, was the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides, an early Greek writer whose work was considered a definitive text, as well as the works by Gerard's contemporaries, the German botanists Leonard Fuchs, after whom Fuchsia is named, and L'Obel after whom Lobelia is named (from the Latin form of his name, Lobelius). Both Fuchs and L'Obel were early botanists who worked empirically with plants. They were well educated, as were other members of the "Lime Street community" in the City of London. Gerard and L'Obel were friends who made occasional field trips together.


  1. ^ Officers of the company were elected every year, with a Master and three Wardens, ranked from Senior to Junior[7]
  2. ^ The Lime Street Naturalists were a group of naturalists, including botanists and apothecaries, living in the vicinity of Lime Street, and who exchanged correspondence amongst themselves and between themselves and like minded naturalists across Europe[11]
  3. ^ Presumably Dr Robert Preest (c.1549–1596)[16][17][18]
  4. ^ Also: Gerardus Emaculatus and Ger. emac.[34]



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