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The Collecting Practices of an Unknown Naturalist: Specimens from John Gerarde’s Herball of 1636

John Gerarde’s Herball is a landmark work of natural history in the English tradition. The work is an exhaustive encyclopaedia of early modern botanical knowledge, comprising almost 1000 woodcut engravings of botanical specimens and totalling 1630 pages in length.

 An edition of Gerarde’s Herball of 1636 was donated to the Fisher Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections in early 2018 by Isaac and Susan Wakil. Wedged tightly within the spine of this work of early modern natural history were roughly 20 botanical specimens. Accompanying these specimens were handwritten labels which identified the species of the botanical material catalogued by the unknown naturalist. From identifying marks, particularly the use of taxonomic language unique to the 1650s through 1690s, my conjecture is that the specimens date from the mid to late 1600s.  

Little is known about the naturalist who gathered, identified and catalogued the specimens preserved in the Herball of 1636. As part of this multidisciplinary research project we seek to discover who was this aspiring naturalist. We believe they lived in the seventeenth century, but where? How far did this person travel to collect their specimens? How accurate were they when they catalogued their discoveries according to the engravings contained in this encyclopaedic work of natural history? What multidisciplinary tools can we avail ourselves of in developing an understanding of our early modern forbear?

I am the academic lead (CI) on this multidisciplinary research project that will examine the collecting practices of and specimens collected by our unknown early modern naturalist. Our team is in the process of examining the specimens found in the manuscript in terms of their age and identification, and offering some evaluation of the accuracy of the unknown naturalist's taxonomic classifications. We are using a combination of Raman, IR and XRF to identify the labels, will draw on the expertise of the University of Sydney Herbarium and hope to partner with Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) to identify the age of the specimens.

A Sample of the Specimens Extracted from John Gerarde’s Herball of 1636: