Preserving Herbalism Books From Centuries Past

A history of early herbals and the need for preserving herbalism books from centuries past, includes information on old herbal books, decoding the book catalogs and tips for book collectors.


| December 1991/January 1992


Learn about preserving herbalism books and why these historical books are of such great value.

One of the most intriguing aspects of herbalism is the array of beautifully bound and carefully produced books of herbal knowledge from centuries past. These old books, known as herbals, offer a glimpse into a way of life that largely revolved around the use of plants for medicine and food. The herbalism books' yellowed pages and faded ink can transport the reader back to the garden of someone who may have known Shakespeare.

Much useful information can be found in the bewildering array of new herb books that are flooding the market nowadays, but early herbals are special books. Besides chronicling the history of herbalism, they hark back to a more personable era, and the ­personalities of the writers are clearly evident in many of them, reflecting ­beliefs of and opinions about the times and even attitudes toward certain ­colleagues. After reading the 400-year-old herbal of John Gerard, few can deny that he was a true “dirt gardener”. And the flamboyant, roguish personality of seventeenth-century astrologer-herbalist Nicholas Culpeper emanates like a beacon from each page of his classic herbal. His writings are rife with irrational beliefs and outlandish arguments, yet centuries later, they are still being reprinted!

Interest in collecting old herbals often begins in the fascinating world of old cookbooks, which may contain health-related recipes and advice, remedies for farm animals, and gems of gardening wisdom along with the bill of fare. When I was young, I was attracted to a copy of Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management, an English book that contained a wealth of information on ladies’ toiletries and cookery for invalids, and an 1835 volume (also English) entitled Domestic Cookery, or The Complete Family Economist, which offers the following remedy for “oppression of the chest and hoarseness in children”:



Apply a plaster of coarse brown paper, spread with deer’s suet or old tallow, and dipped in rum; at the same time giving occasionally a teaspoonful of syrup of violets, and oil of sweet almonds. If these should not afford a speedy relief, it may be necessary to apply a leech or two to the chest.

Although children of that day may have questioned whether the cure was worse than the disease, such quaint, sometimes preposterous, always heartfelt prose is part of the charm of early herbals.







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