- Sacred Seeds: New World Plants in Early Modern English Literature by Edward McLean Test
Edward McLean Test's new monograph, Sacred Seeds: New World Plants in Early Modern English Literature, is advertised as an examination of "New World plants and their indigenous myths as they move across the Atlantic and into English literature and European markets" (3). Yet the volume accomplishes much more than cataloguing the movement of plants and the stories people tell about them—rather, Test weaves together an enjoyable and at times surprising narrative about the ways in which those indigenous stories played a crucial role in the European imagination. Chapters range from a study on early modern herbals (Chapter 1) to individual case studies of four key Mesoamerican plants: "tobacco, amaranth, guaiac, and the prickly pear cactus" (4). In each chapter, Test creates a lively story about the connection between botanical history and literary legacy that ensures this monograph will be of interest to historians of science and literary scholars alike.
The first chapter, "New Seeds, Strange Countries," inspects the herbals described by Spanish explorers and naturalists Nicolas Monardes and Francisco Hernández (among other authors) to highlight the extent to which the "discovery" of the New World exploded conventional ideas about bio-diversity among European botanists and intellectuals (20-22). Indeed, we learn that the New World was a rich resource of new plant life and biota, expanding European knowledge of plants expanding from about five hundred in 1545 ("pretty much the same plants that Dioscorides identified some fourteen centuries earlier") to six thousand in 1623 and then a stunning twenty thousand in 1704 (22-23). Another strength of this section is Test's deft analysis of several cover pages of herbals from the early modern period, including two different versions of Rembrandt Dodoens' Cruydeboeck. His assessment of images is among the strongest elements of the book and conveys the full range of botanical influence that New World plants had on Old World cultures, making this book a valuable resource for scholars studying the history of science, widely conceived (24-31). [End Page 107]
The second chapter, "People of the Figs," brings the monograph to a focus on the first of its four organizing plants: the prickly pear cactus and the practically priceless cochineal insects that fed upon them. In addition to a useful and at times humorous history of the red dye produced by the cochineal beetle, this chapter contains a compelling reading of Aztec myth surrounding this distinctive plant, tracing its transformation from indigenous story into another myth that imbricated Catholicism with the perceived barbarity of Aztec peoples (37). Scholars of the Restoration (and England's fraught relationship with Catholicism) will especially appreciate this historical context. Here Test's overarching argument becomes even clearer—these are plants of significance not only to a particular period, but to human history on a grander scale.
The third chapter—and one of the most fascinating—is entitled "King Tobacco." This chapter covers a wide-ranging selection of plays, masques, poetry, and prose fictions that characterize tobacco as either genteel and sacred or loutish and profane, tracing the shifting reception to the plant in England and in Europe over the period roughly between 1590 to 1615 (102). With close readings of, among other texts, Ben Jonson's twinned plays Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man out of His Humour (1599), Test accomplishes a thorough examination of the ways in which perceptions of tobacco changed from a view of it as a symbol of hospitality and greeting (82) to understanding it as a marker of either dandyism or stupidity (85-86). Sir Francis Bacon's Masque of Flowers (1613) is also keenly dissected here to great success, with meticulous attention paid to the characterization of tobacco in relation to Indian and Greek characters and the surprising reversal of associated characteristics.
In the fourth chapter, "The Holy Wood of the Americas," Test engagingly lays out the botanical and cultural trajectory of the guaiac or "heben" tree before returning to...