- Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England: Sixteenth-Century Plants and Print Culture
Leah Knight's compact and thought-provoking book Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England explores an area which is usually glossed over and has been little examined to date: the deep connection between the Early Modern conception and framing of botanical knowledge and the emergence of print culture. In the second half of the sixteenth century, herbals were being produced at the same time as the printed book and literacy began to thrive (the formation of the Stationers' Company in 1557 signalled the arrival of print as a cultural industry). The shaping and presentation of information about plants, for consumption in the newly emerging markets for books, was dependent on humanist literary traditions and bore strong resemblances to contemporaneous publications of poetry, commonplace books and other literary works.
Knight's work illustrates the reciprocal relationship between books and botanical culture in various ways. She considers how books were often imagined as gardens, collections of plants, and horticultural experiences. Botanical and horticultural metaphors were ubiquitous in titles, prefaces and dedications of works that had nothing to do with botany, while the language of textual collection (the anthology, the florilegium and the sylva) alluded in their etymology to plants. This produced an ambiguity of genre, created by the paratextual material and enhanced by decorative borders like garden hedges. [End Page 229] There were material connections in the substance of books: pages were, and often still are, 'leaves'.
Knight's work illuminates the striking similarities, shared rhetoric and presentation of poetry and plant descriptions. In Chapter 2 she considers the continental contexts, the herbals and traditions that influenced England. She links the gathering of textual fragments, and the reproducing of them in commonplace books, with the gathering of plant specimens. Plants and texts were both collectible objects and Knight's work draws from earlier studies of collecting in Early Modern culture. Herbals resembled the poetic anthologies that became popular in England in the second half of the sixteenth century: anthologies that frequently used botanical metaphors. At the same time, textual order was applied to the garden.
Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the herbalists William Turner and John Gerard. These bring to light the poetics of plant description. Approaches to plant knowledge, collecting and classifying were highly mediated by text. Poets, and classical poets citing classical naturalists, were seen as reliable sources, or in any event worthy of quoting, for herbal knowledge. The humanist value placed on classical antecedent texts extended to the herbals and natural science generally. Thus, these early herbals commonly quoted from sources such as Virgil and Ovid. For example, Gerard relies on Theocritus's reference to daffodils in a meadow, where Europa and her nymphs played, as the authority for the habitat of the flower. Gerard incorporated poetic accounts of plants seamlessly into his botanical descriptions. The emergence of the disciplines and consequent separation of fictional and empirical modes of thought would not begin until the mid-seventeenth century.
One of Knight's skills is to constantly approach her subject from various angles, situating the plant and book cultural connections within various contexts. With the emergence of print culture came a new consciousness of proprietary ownership of texts. Gerard was criticized for plagiarism yet, as Knight observes, his work can be seen as part of the commonplace tradition in which there were assumptions of shared, communal knowledge. She also highlights the traces of Early Modern women's plant collecting and naming practices that paradoxically emerge from Gerard's work, with references to women as anonymous yet authoritative sources.
Finally Knight considers the parallels between the domestication of books and plants and how both came to be part of domestic space. Knight's work brings some valuable insights. She observes similarities in the spatial design of [End Page 230] gardens, with their enclosing borders and internal divisions, and book...