Leah Knight, Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England

Leah Knight,Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England: Sixteenth-Century Plants and Print Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009). pp xvi +163. £55.00. hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-6586-1

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Leah Knight’s Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England explores the unexpected ways in which plants and texts were imagined in relation to each other in the sixteenth century. The book investigates these relations in their linguistic, conceptual, and material forms. Semantically, for example, a number of early modern books are identified in their titles as collections of plants or gardens, and many words for textual collection—florilegium, sylva, anthology—allude etymologically to plants. Knight teases out these connections between plant and text in the first chapter, taking us to the physical materiality of the book, itself developed at this time not from softwood but from flax. At this time book illustrations were woodcuts (the special suitability of pear tree wood is noted by Gerard) and ink ‘often derived from galls growing on trees and other botanical materials’ (9). Words like leaves and sheaves ‘then as now, referred equally to pages and to foliage—as, of course did “folio”’ (10).

In the chapter that follows Knight goes on to examine some of these relations as they were perceived and portrayed both in the garden and on the page, drawing on the humanistic mode of plant culture, cultivation and collection. Chapters 3 and 4 each focus on a single English herbalist, contextualising their work whilst paying attention to genre and connections between plant culture and print culture. New research emerges here which allows for a re-evaluation of such works. Knight claims, for example, that William Turner’s Herball, first printed in 1562, was ‘driven by the Reformation’s valorization of vernacular translation and printing’ (11). And that charges of plagiarism against Gerard must be refuted as his problematic relationship to the creation of his Herball (1633) ‘was bound up in the anthological and commonplacing literary culture that surrounded him’ (11). The final chapter returns to the idea of interplay and textual hybridity, examining collections of verse that were represented as gardens and groves. Here, however, she makes bolder claims about the nature of the relationship between plants and texts, claiming that plant metaphors acted to transplant books into a domestic setting, and household plants provided a model for the integration of the printed book.

Knight’s argument is a little unconvincing here but her thesis for the most part is cogent and the book is capable of changing the reader’s perception of the relationship between plants and books completely. The passages on the herbarium are particularly illuminating and pertinent. A physical hybrid of plants and book, herbaria or albums of dried plants are known rather poetically as hortus siccus or hortus hyemalis (a winter garden), and Knight adds insight by suggesting that ‘both terms from the period demonstrate an explicitly and materially botanical, as opposed to a purely textual or literary, use for the metaphor of the book as garden’ (29). The dead material that makes up the remarkable early modern examples of this genre (bound books with plants pressed between heavy paper and then sewn or glued into place on its pages) is brought to life through her detailed descriptions.

Knight’s unwavering enthusiasm for early modern botany books is evident here and this is one of the book’s strengths. In her discussion of the representation of the Hyacinth in such books, she informs us that:

Prose and verse mingled in the herbals, as did fact and fiction: Gerard describes Ovid’s tale as one that ‘faineth’ (101) the origin of the hyacinth, yet happily incorporates this poetic fiction into his own predominantly factual account. Not only does Gerard tell, in the midst of his botanical description a poetic tale of a plant; in the story itself, writing and plants are mysteriously intertwined:

There is a Lilly which Ouid in the tenth booke of his Metamorphosis called Hyacinthus, of the boy Hyacinth, of whose blood he faineth that this flower sprang, when he perished as he was playing with Apollo, for whose sake he saith that Apollo did print certaine letters and notes of his mourning. (xiv)

However, whilst such mythologizing around plants, where classical allusions forge links back to Pliny, Dioscorides and Ovid, may enrich literature, it creates obstacles for the development of a science. In fact, the focus on allegory and on the vernacular in the naming of plants created a chaos of nomenclature at a time when, as Rousseau observed, ‘these plants had a different vulgar name in every province’. For this reason I would have liked to have seen some consideration given to the shortcomings of this early modern emblematic approach to plant study. In the eighteenth century Linnaeus’s standardisation of binomial classification provided the ‘Ariadne thread in botany’, extracting botanists from the labyrinth of local knowledge and instigating botany’s dissociation from medicine, from herbalism and superstition. Some gesturing towards this shift from cataloguing to classifying, and the local to the universal, however critical, might have extended what sometimes feels like an unfinished or aborted project. An analysis of Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal (1737-9) would have served to bridge the gap here and could address the gender inbalance, giving more prominence to women’s writing. Blackwell’s text, not written for classically trained gentleman or those well versed in Latin, complicates Knight’s literary model and can be usefully compared with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century herbals.

The book is elegantly written for the most part, but Knight often lacks confidence, drawing on existing studies such those by W. T. Stearn and Agnes Arber to give authority to her own book. But their quotations stand alone in her text without further commentary. The book’s brevity (the introduction also serves as the first chapter and the full text only amounts to 134 pages (163 with bibliography and index)) makes the volume a little slim to warrant its price. The style of referencing is confusing (discursive footnotes and parenthetical references) and frustrating for the reader (parenthetical references mean turning to the bibliography to find the source when reading every page). This said, Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England provides an original contribution to sixteenth-century plant and print culture and an illuminating and welcome excursion into books and botany in early modern England.

Sam George, University of Hertfordshire