- Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England: Sixteenth-Century Plants and Print Culture
Studies of literature and science in recent decades have focused, variously, on scientific topics within literary works and on literary and rhetorical features of science writing, especially from the seventeenth century to the present, and their aims often have been to bridge historically situated disciplinary divides between these fields. Leah Knight has a clear literary orientation to the botanical material that she studies, but her larger point is pre-disciplinary. Of Books and Botany concerns an earlier time, especially the second half of the sixteenth century, when 'words' and 'things' were not sharply demarcated, and when the Book of Nature was read both materially and metaphorically. Knight alerts readers to her approach by pointing out in the book's prelude ('Writing on Hyacinths') that early modern printed books were literally made from 'botanical pulp,' the plant materials that comprised their paper, glue, or covers. She goes on throughout the book to make the apt and often eye-opening point that references to the 'dissemination' of ideas and to 'culture' and 'cultivation' have a material base in the natural world of plant growth. In sixteenth-century England, she argues, terms like these could be read, and moreover were understood, as an integration of the botanical and the textual in a 'bookish' culture of plants. 'Collections' of poems, 'gatherings' of thoughts, 'florilegia' of verse symbolized the inseparability of plants and writing, each embedded in the other, and with much cross-pollination between them. [End Page 339]
Within a framework of developments in sixteenth-century Europe because of printing and the establishment of botanical gardens, this engaging study puts English botany books into book history. Leah Knight focuses on botanical texts by William Turner and John Gerard, with a chapter apiece on their seminal works in the vernacular, contextualized in relation to sixteenth-century issues of religion, nomenclature, genre, and authorship. Turner, a physician, medicinal herbalist, and Protestant reformer, who is conventionally considered the father of English botany, wrote a number of books about plants in both Latin and English, most notably The Names of Herbs (1548); there Turner gathered plant names from across time and languages, established terms for them in English, and coined many names that exist to this day as the common name of a plant (e.g., Loosestrife). John Gerard's Herball, or General Historie of Plants (1597) is an encyclopedic book filled with medicinal and botanical information as well as poetic descriptions of plants and their aesthetic pleasures. Some historians have labelled John Gerard a plagiarist because he drew so much on other writers and texts, but Leah Knight firmly locates his book within the same anthological literary tradition that is found in commonplace books and collections of verse aphorisms.
Of Books and Botany is itself a florilegium, a garden that gathers diverse topics within its compact and enclosed form. Knight finds references to female herbalists and plant-namers in Gerard's Herball, for example, that provide material about the involvement of women in early modern plant and print culture in England. The closing chapter, entitled 'Domesticated Plants and Domesticating Books,' examines the rise of a home library in relation to sixteenth-century print and consumer cultures. We learn that botanical metaphors and references to plants and gardens could enhance how printers marketed books as objects to have at home, in rooms that were just beginning to have spaces designated for bookshelves. Now, four centuries later, when scholars across many fields are interested in cultures of collecting, the social and material dimensions of books and of reading, and the integration of scientific and aesthetic approaches to the natural world, it would be good to have Leah Knight's bookish cultural study benefit from similar advertising strategies.
Rusty Ann Shteir, Department of English, York University