Gerard, John

views updated May 23 2018

Gerard, John

(b. at or near Nantwich, Cheshire England, 1545; d Holborn, London, England, February 1612)

botany, pharmacy, horticulture.

Gerard belonged to a branch of the family of Gerard of Ince in Lancashire. He received a grammar school education at Willaston (Wistaston), Cheshire, and was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to a London barber-surgeon, Alexander Mason, for the customary seven years. Some time thereafter he traveled, presumably as a ship’s surgeon, aboard a merchant ship of the Company of Merchant Adventurers in London trading the Baltic, for he stated later that he had been in Denmark, Sweden, (Swenia), Poland, and Russia (Muscovia). He then settled in London and probably carried on his profession of barber-surgeon while developing his horticultural interests.

By 1577 he had become superintendent of the gardens belonging to William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, at the Strand, London, and at Theobalds, Hertfordshire, a post he held for the next twenty-one years. He possessed a garden of his own at Holborn, London, so well stocked in 1597, according to George Baker, surgeon to Queen Elizabeth, with “all manner of strange trees, herbes, rootes, plants, flowers, and other such rare things, that it would make a man woonder, how one of his degree, not having the pursue of another, could ever accomplish the same.” He added, “Upon my conscience, I do not thinke for the knowledge of plants, that he is inferior to any.” In 1596 Gerard issued a catalog of his plants, the first such in England, followed by a second edition in 1599. This period was one of horticultural expansion in England, many new plants being introduced from abroad through the powerful influence of Cecil and others. Gerard undoubtfully acquired a detailed firsthand knowledge of them, which reflected in his Herball. His standing as a barber-surgeon, which necessitated a knowledge of medicinal plants, and as a practical gardener led to his appointment from 1586 to 1603 or 1604 as curator of a physic garden belonging to the College of physicians of London. In 1597 he was elected junior warden of the Barber-Surgeon’s Company and in 1608 master.

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, first published in 1597, is the best-known and most often quoted herbal in the English language. Its lasting repute due not so much to its originality and accuracy, which are offtimes questionable, as to its entertaining Elizabethan descriptive style, its interspersed anecdotes and comments, its antique remedies, and its woodcuts.

It occupies 1,392 pages plus introductory matter and index, and has nearly 2,200 woodcut illustrations, most of which, had already been used by Tabernaemontanus (Bergzabern), whose woodblocks had been obtained from Frankfurt am Main. The work is divided into three books. The first (pp. 1-176) deals with monocotyledons, described as “Grasses, Rushes Come, Flags, Bulbose, or Onion-rooted plants”; the second (pp. 177-1076), with “all sorts of herbes for meate, medicine, or’sweetesmelling use”; and the third (pp. 1076-1392), with “trees, shrubs, bushes, fruit-hearing plants, Rosins, Gums, Roses, Heath, Mosses, Mushroms, Corall and their several kinds.” These books are divided into numerous short chapters, each dealing with a small group of plants and setting forth “the kinds, description, place, time, names, nature, and virtues, agreeing with the best received opinions.”

At the beginning Gerard, genially states his intene: “Now with our friendly labors, we will, accompagnie thee, and lead thee through a grasse plot [i.e., an account of the Gramineae], little or nothing of many Herbarists heretofore touched…Then little by little conduct thee through most pleasant gardens, and other delightfull places where any herbe or plant may be found, fit for meate or medicine.” Such a vast work was necessarily compiled from other works and much of it came from Dodoens’ Stirpiurn historiae pemtades ex (1983). Account 1584 a young London physician and Cambridge graduate Robert Priest, was requested by the London printers and booksellers Bonham and John Norton (who later published Gerard’s Herball) to translate Dodoen’s Latin work into English, and they retained his services until 1590, but this translation had evidently not been completed when he died in 1596 or 1597.

The fate of Priest’s manuscript is not known. Gerard in his preface “stated that “Doctor Priest, one of willing Readers” stated that “Doctor Priest, one of our London ’Colledge, hath (as, I heard) translated the last edition of Dononaeus, which meant to publish the same, but being prevented by death, his translation likewise perished.” Stephen Bredwell, however, in his preface to the first edition of Gerrd’s Herball implied that it then still existed. Johnson in 1633 declared, presumably on the authority of Mathias de L’Obel, that “this translation became the groundworke whereupon Mr Gerard built up this work,” thus directly accusing Gerard of dishonesty concealing his major source. The whole truth of this matter can never be known. It would seem probable, as indicated by Jeffers, that Gerard, with the help of L’Obel, was engaged in compiling a book about plants before Priest began his translation of Dodoens; that Gerard’s book had not reached a state fit for publication when Priest relinquished his task; and that Norton then requested Gerard to produce a work of like character which became the Herball.

To what extent Gerard was indebted to Priest’s work is quite uncertain. Although this book is probably not so gross an example of successful piracy and plagiarism as it is sometimes considered, Gerard’s honesty has certainly been much questioned and little defended since the adverse comments and accusations rendered in the preface to the second edition (1633) by its editor and reviser Thomas Johnson (1604-1644): His Chiefe commendation is, that he, out of a propense good will to the publique advancement of this knowledge, endeavoured to performe therein mote than he could well accomplish; which was partly through want of sufficient learning.” The care bestowed by Johnson in correcting what Raven calls “the errors of Gerard’s book, the misplaced pictures, the confused species, the blunders of fact” and madding much new material made his edition (often cited as Ger. emac., i.e., Gerardus emaculatus) a popular and standard work, which proved of especial value in promoting the study of the British flora well into the eighteenth Century. Yet, the Herball as published contains so much that undoubtedly came from Gerard himself, and its production, even with the possible aid of Priest’s translation, was so massive a task that it seems charitable to credit him with the whole, It remains a valuable source of information about the plants available in western European gardens at the end of the sixteenth century and about the Latin and vernacular names then applied to them.


I. Original Works. The two eds. of Catalogus arborum fruticum ac plantarum tam indigenarum, qua, exoticarum in horto Johannis Gerardi (London, 1596; 2nd ed., 1599) are both reprinted in A Catalogue of Plants Cultivated in the Garden of John Gerard, in the Years 1596-1599; Edited With Notes, References to Gerard’s Herball, the Addition of Modern Names, and a Life of the Author, B. D. Jackson, ed. (London, 1876). Gerard’s major work is The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes Gathered by John Gerard Master in Chirurgie (London, 1597; repro 1598); extracts from the ’’very much enlarged and amended” ed, by Thomas Johnson (London, 1633) are in Marcus Woodward, Gerard’s Herball, the Essence Thereof Distilled (London, 1927; repr., 1964).

II.Secondary Literature. The best source of biographical information is in Jackson (see above), supplemented by R H. Jeffers, The Friends of John Gerard(1545-1612), Surgeon and Botanist (Falls Villages, Conn., 1967). There is an excellent chapter on Gerard, particularly in relation to the British flora, in C.E. Raven, English Naturalists From Neckam to Ray (Cambridge, 1947), pp. 204-217.

William T. Stearn

John Gerard

views updated May 23 2018

John Gerard


English Botanist

John Gerard was one of the most important English botanists. He is known primarily for his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), a book that combined medical knowledge of plants with poetic prose, personal observations, and elaborate illustrations. This book is significant for its content, but is also important because, due to its popularity, it demonstrates the extent to which publishing transformed Elizabethan English society.

John Gerard's botanical texts remain among the most significant and useful written in the English language. Gerard was born in Nantwick in 1545 and was trained as a barber-surgeon. While he never attended university, he was apprenticed to Alexander Mason, a London barber-surgeon with a large practice, from 1561-1568. From 1568 until some time in the 1570s Gerard was the surgeon of a merchant ship. It appears likely that he sailed on a ship of the Merchant Adventurers. The only details known of these voyages are those that Gerard himself recorded. He indicated travel to Moscow, Estonia, Poland, and throughout Scandinavia. These travels were significant in stimulating his interest in the collection of rare and unusual plants.

By 1577 he was married and had established a surgical practice in London. Around this time Gerard was appointed superintendent of the London and Hertfordshire gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Burghley was one of the most influential aristocrats in the court of Queen Elizabeth and helped Gerard through the course of his life. In fact, Gerard dedicated his first book, his catalogue, and the Herball to Burghley.

At this time it was fashionable for the aristocracy to maintain elaborate gardens filled with exotic plants, and to amass extensive collections of herbals in their libraries. As a norm these large, intensively illustrated volumes contained folklore, commentary gathered from antiquity, medicinal uses of plants, and descriptions of the plants themselves. Furthermore, at this point in European history, medicine and herb gardening were intrinsically related. Gerard's status as a surgeon necessitated his botanical knowledge.

Gerard was also responsible for his own garden, located on Fetter Lane, in Holborn, London. This area had, in 1600, long been a site of suburban gardens, and Gerard constantly expanded and enriched his personal plant collection. Indeed, the opening passage of Gerard's First Booke of the Historie of Plants, a catalogue of the plants in Gerard's own garden, depicts the extent of his enthusiasm:

Among the manifold creatures of God (right Honorable, and my singular good Lord) that all have in all ages diversly entertained many excellent wits, and drawne them to the contemplation of the divine wisdome, none have provoked mens studies more, satisfied their desires so much as Plants have done, and that upon just and worthy causes: For if delight may provoke mens labore, what greater delight is there than to behold the earth apparelled with plants, as with a robe of embroidered worke, set with Orient pearles, and garnished with great diversitie of rare and costly jewels?

For Gerard, the individual plant specimen invokes the wonder of an entire universe.

Gerard's most famous work, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, was an expanded version of this first book. Published in 1597, it became a landmark in botanical publishing, and is considered one of the monuments of the English language. Indeed, the fame of this book is the result of its felicitous prose and illustration. He used poetic language to vividly describe the natural world. To him, the lowly dandelion is "a floure . . . thick set together, of colour yellow, which is turned into a round downy blowbal that is carried away with the wind." His work appealed to a wide audience, and included information about both the medicinal qualities of plants and their decorative value. Because of the success of this book, he became the surgeon and herbalist of King James I and was granted a lease to a garden which adjoined the royally-owned Somerset House.

Though the Herball contains many errors in its identification of specimens and has been described by some as Dodoens's Herball for an English audience, Gerard's work dominated its time and is still the best known and most frequently quoted English herbal.


Gerard, John

views updated May 09 2018


Jesuit missionary; b. Etwall Hall, Derbyshire, Oct. 4, 1564; d. Rome, June 27, 1637. During his education at Exeter College, Oxford, where he matriculated in December 1575, he left for Douai in August 1577 to avoid taking the oath of supremacy; he later continued his studies at the Jesuit College in Clermont, Paris. After returning to England in the spring of 1583, he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea. Shortly after his release, about May 1586, he left England and went to Rome, where on August 5 he entered the English College. About a month after his ordination (six weeks short of the required canonical age), he joined the Society of Jesus on Aug. 15, 1588. The same year, in company with Edward Oldcorne, he returned to England, landing at night in early November on a deserted stretch of beach near Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast between Great Yarmouth and Cromer. His adventures during the next 18 years are recorded in his Autobiography, perhaps the most remarkable and exciting narrative of adventure in Elizabethan literature. Between 1588 and 1594 he worked in East Anglia, first in Norfolk and then in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Essex; he made many converts and established a large number of Catholic centers in the houses of the gentry. Several times he narrowly escaped arrest, but finally he was caught in London, on April 23, 1594. After close imprisonment in the Counter-in-the-Poultry he was transferred to the Clink on July 6, 1594; there he was able to say Mass, instruct converts, and establish in London a house for priests entering England from the seminaries. His success led to stricter confinement and to his transference to the Tower on April 12, 1597. He was never brought to trial; but he was tortured twice, principally that he might reveal the names of the persons who had sheltered him and the whereabouts of his superior, Henry garnet. With the help of friends in London, with whom he communicated by letters written in orange juice, he organized his escape by means of a rope slung from the roof of the Cradle Tower over the moat to the wharf below. This was on the night of Oct. 5, 1597.

Thereafter, though closely pursued, he continued his apostolate in Northants, Bucks, and Oxfordshire. At the time of the Gunpowder Plot a proclamation was issued ordering Gerard's arrest along with that of Garnet and Father Oswald Tesimond. Although innocent, Gerard was a friend of several of the conspirators, notably Sir Everard Digby. Gerard eluded capture and on May 3, 1606, crossed from Dover to the Continent disguised as a retainer to the Spanish ambassador. Later he wrote his Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, which remains a primary historical source. Early in 1607 he was appointed English Penitentiary at St. Peter's, and two years later he was sent to Flanders to help in the training of the novices in the English novitiate established at Louvain. In 1614 a Jesuit house of philosophy and theology was established at Liège, and Gerard became its first rector. He built it from the foundations in a fine style with alms collected from all quarters. In 1622 he visited Rome to get papal support for the new Institute of Religious Women founded by Mary ward; and on his return to Belgium was made rector of the house of the English Jesuits at Ghent, where the newly ordained priests made their "third year" of probation under his direction. From 1627 to 1637 he was confessor to the English College in Rome, where he died.

Bibliography: j. gerard, The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, tr. p. caraman (New York 1952). t. cooper, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 7:110102.

[p. caraman]

Gerard, John

views updated May 14 2018

Gerard, John (1564–1637). Jesuit. Gerard was from a Lancashire catholic gentry family and was sent to Douai. He was ordained priest at Rome in 1586 and joined the Jesuits in 1588. Captured on a mission to England, he made a daring escape from the Tower in 1597. He was on the fringes of the Gunpowder plot, aware that something was afoot, but ignorant of the details. He managed to make his escape in 1606 and spent the rest of his life in catholic teaching institutions on the continent. His autobiography throws much light on English catholicism under James I.

J. A. Cannon

John Gerard

views updated May 29 2018

John Gerard (1545–1612), English herbalist. Gerard was qualified as a barber-surgeon in London and soon developed an interest in plants, particularly those with medicinal properties. He was curator of the physic garden of the College of Surgeons and published his Herball, containing over 1,800 woodcuts, in 1597. It became the best-known English herbal.

About this article

John Gerard

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic