What’s a “Herball”?

At the moment, I’m researching herbal books printed all over Europe starting in the 1400s an onwards. This includes The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard produced in 1597 in London. In 1639, Thomas Johnson ‘expanded’ Gerard’s herbal and freely copied the gorgeous engravings of the plants. Amazingly, a copy of the Johnson edition is available in the Toronto Reference Library. Here’s what happened when I decided to have a look at it.

Thomas Johnson’s herbal at Toronto Reference Library

On a bright, winter day I walk through two sets of glass doors into the special collections room at the Toronto Reference Library. No drinks allowed. No coats, bag or pens allowed either anywhere on the circular tables. My excitement builds. The open, two-storey space is dimly light and dead quiet. A staff member pushes a metal cart into the room. On it: THE BOOK! I’m provided with two black, foam triangles to hold up the fragile, perfect-bound  spine wrapped in a dark brown cover that still seems to faintly smell of leather. I’m not supposed to lift the book. It probably weighs as much as a large bag of potatoes. The yellowing, onion skin pages crackle as I carefully flip through the Herball. Old English words decorate – yes decorate – hundreds of huge pages. I  notice a stunning wood engraving of a garden crocus.

Hey, wait!! I’ve seen this image before…

ebook edition of an old herbal

(Yes, the engraving appears in other herbals; no worries about copyrights back then. But too much story here).

So, a few days later I discover the library has an e-book edition available of yet another herbal. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal can be downloaded in a few minutes for free. Cool. Sad also. Is this a book? (Left: photo of e-book on Kobo)

As I ponder this question, let’s smell the roses!

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