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The 'lesser herbals' in early modern natural history

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In many traditional historiographies, the history of early modern English herbals ended with John Parkinson’s encyclopaedic Theatrum Botanicum (1640), followed by the rise of pre-Linneaus botany in the eighteenth century. This paper will unravel a forgotten history of late seventeenth-century English ‘lesser herbals’ and their significance. A term borrowed from the pseudo Hannah Woolley, the ‘lesser herbals’ refer to a group of herbal literature emerged in the second half of seventeenth century characterised by their small size. Written by learned physicians, these herbals usually focused on plants locally available in England, aiming to offer the public practical guidance for collecting, preserving and curing. Characteristically, they were heavily influenced by astrological botany and the doctrine of signatures – a Paracelsian theory connecting plants’ medicinal value to their morphological resemblance with human body parts. This paper will exhibit a reading history of the ‘lesser herbals’ through actors ranging from London wine merchants to apothecary James Petiver and natural historian John Aubrey. I will show how the ‘lesser herbals’ were highly regarded by readers from various backgrounds, and how their compactness and unique structure benefited readers’ retrieval and reorganisation of herbal knowledge. More importantly, it was those so-called superstitions – astrological botany and the doctrine of signatures – that provided new methods and diverse practice-oriented taxonomies, which influenced latter history of botany.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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