The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

The Strange and Practical Beauty of Small-Format Herbals

A guest post by Katarzyna Lecky

The Folger Shakespeare Library has a wealth of pre-Linnaean English herbals (printed guides to the medicinal qualities of plants) ranging from gorgeous folios to pocket-sized reference manuals. Although the large-format botanical works boast an undeniable aesthetic appeal with their elaborate frontispieces and pages filled with engraved plates of flora, little herbals are often more compelling for those of us interested in who used them, how, and why. Unlike many folios, whose size and preciousness made them objects to be admired and treasured, pocket herbals were everyday objects printed cheaply and scribbled in extensively by all sorts of people. Many of these individuals worked in early modern England’s sprawling, messy medical industry; and they could as easily be state-sanctioned physics (what we now call doctors) as lay healers, midwives, and other types of “irregular practitioners” who worked at the fringes of official systems of healthcare.

Folger STC 6988 is a case in point. It is a copy of Rams little Dodeon [sic]: A briefe epitome of the new herbal, or history of plants, published in London in 1606 by William Ram. The text is an abridged version of Henry Lyte’s popular A new herball, or historie of plants (1578). It was a sound sales tactic: Lyte’s English translation of Rembert Dodoens’ 1554 Cruydeboeck had already seen four editions in as many decades, while Dodoens’ herbal would continue to be a seminal text for botanists for at least another century. But whereas Lyte’s thick quarto was, like Dodoens’ Old Flemish original, an unwieldy reference for the typical herbalist (who in seventeenth-century England was more likely to be an unlicensed practitioner than an certified doctor or academic scholar), Ram claimed that his “briefe and short Epitome” is a “very samll [sic] volume) So as where the geat [sic] booke at large is not to be had, but at a great price, which can[n]ot be procured by the poorer sort, my endeuor herein hath bin chiefly, to make the benefit of so good, necessary, and profitable a worke, to be brought within the reach and compass aswell of you my poore Countrymen & women, whose liues, healths, ease and welfare is to be regarded with the rest, at a smaller price, then the greater Volume is” (A2r).

Title page of Rams little Dodeon

Although he names Dodoens’ herbal as his source text, Ram qualifies that the structure of the book is more intertextual: “the first page of euery leafe being opened, contayneth the practice of M. R. Dodeon: And that the second opposite page, vnder the Title Incidenta, contayneth the practices of others for the same Physike helpes, collected and inserted by the Author of this Treatise” (A3r). So, while tracing a lineage back to a single authority, the book expands that authoritative ground to include the author’s gatherings of what others have said about a certain remedy: a multiplication of sources that privileges neither the singular nor the transformative but rather the collective and the accretive. Moreover, these cobbled-together recipes are not always strictly herbal: for instance, in the section on diet, under the category “Good for [the] heart” are listed “Saffron, Bourage, Laughing, Joy, Musike, Cloves” (E2r). The things that encourage or signal delight are intermingled with heart-healthy simples: all are similarly remedies. The things bad for the heart, meanwhile, include “Anger, Dread, [and] Too much heauinesse” (E2r).

Users’ additions to the text, including manicules, annotations in red ink, and illustrations

The Folger copy is in marbled leather binding likely from the eighteenth century. It once belonged to John T. Beer, the early twentieth-century fore-edge painter featured in an earlier Collation post. It is filled with very creative users’ marks on nearly every page in at least two different hands, which include manicules, red ink, faces, and strange creatures that look like hybrid human-vegetable species.

Illustrations in the text correspond to the body parts treated

Throughout, various receipts are distinguished with sketches of the body part that they treat; others reveal a reader’s reactions to the sugarcoated language referring to women’s health issues. For example, the printed text offers how “To prouoke flowres when they be destroyed,” next to which the user writes “womens Termes”[periods]; and when the instructions for a suppository specify to “put it in place convenient,” the user clarifies, “viz into her priuety” (E3r).

This herbal shies away from describing womens’ health issues too directly, but readers have added decisive clarifications
User clarification that these directions are for “womens Termes”

Other corrections signal the long history of this book’s use: next to the remedies for “Running of the Reynes,” a much later reader has written in pencil “gonorhea”—a word that only came into common use in the nineteenth century. This little manual exemplifies the appeal of small-format herbals for me; and it is only one of hundreds of these fascinating pocket prints owned by the Folger.

Katarzyna Lecky is an Assistant Professor of English at Bucknell University. Her research explores how concepts of social justice articulated in natural philosophy and the new sciences informed English Renaissance literature. Her first book, Pocket Empire: Portable Maps and Public Poetry, 1590-1649 (forthcoming from Oxford UP), places early modern chapbooks into conversation with small-format cartography to study how poets writing for monarchs and magistrates drew from cheap print to chart Britain as the property of the commonwealth rather than the Crown. She has also published in Exemplaria, The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Philological Quarterly, Reformation, Studies in English Literature, and Spenser Studies, as well as edited collections, and has earned fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Renaissance Society of America, and the Folger Shakespeare, Huntington, and Newberry Libraries, among others. Her current book project examines botanical models of nativity, natality, and naturalization in seventeenth-century literature and medicine.


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