The First Edition of the Most Famous English Herbal

Gerard, John (1545-1612)

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. Gathered by John Gerarde of London master in Chirurgerie

London: by [Edm. Bollifant for [Bonham Norton and] Iohn Norton, 1597


Folio: 31.8 x 21 cm. A⁴B⁶ ²A-3V⁸ 3X¹⁰ 4A-4T⁸ 4V⁶ 5A-5I⁴.


A fine, complete copy in early 20thc. green morocco, gilt, by Riviere. First and last leaves gently washed, slight wear to engraved t.p., occ. light stains, very short wormtrail in outer margin of two signatures, occ. touching the text. Illustrated throughout with woodcuts of plants and an engraved portrait of the author. The title page is engraved and signed "Will[ia]ms Rogers inuen. et sculp."

The rare first (only 16thc.) edition of the most famous of the early English herbals. It differs greatly from the subsequent editions (of 1633 and 1636), which were heavily altered by Thomas Johnson. The more than 1,800 woodcuts have a distinguished history. They were obtained from the publishers of in J. T. Tabernaemontanus' "Icones Plantarum" (1590) and many were copied from earlier woodcuts in the works of Dodoens, Mattioli, Fuchs, and other earlier herbalists.

John Gerard is to this day one of the best known of English herbalists. In 1586 the Royal College of Physicians established a garden of physic and appointed Gerard its curator. Gerard also supervised the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and mentions Burghley’s garden frequently in his herbal. 

The genesis of this herbal was complex. At its core is the physician Robert Priest's translation of Dodoens' collected botanical works, the "Stirpium Historiae Pemptades Sex" (1583). Priest died before finishing the work and the task of completing the herbal fell to Gerard, who grafted onto Priest's work the catalogue of his own garden, and appropriated Priest's work as his own. Gerard's Herbal is also heavily indebted to Mathias Lobel, whose classification scheme Gerard adopted in place of Dodoens'.

“The 'Herball'contains many of Gerard's own remarks, such as localities in various parts of England for scarce plants, and many allusions to persons and places now of high antiquarian interest. Many friends, among them Jean Robin, director of the Jardin Royal at the Louvre, sent him specimens and information. In his own garden Gerard raised many exotic plants such as the potato. His illustration of that plant is the first to appear in any herbal, although his naming of the plant as the ‘Virginian potato’ caused some confusion. Jean l'Ecluse (Clusius) had correctly identified the origin as Peru. Despite the many errors [many of which were corrected by Johnson in this new edition] and repetition of folklore, such as the story of the barnacle tree from which geese were supposed to be hatched, Gerard's 'Herball', being in the English vernacular, is still one of the best-known English herbals.”(Smolenaars, ODNB)

Henrey 154; Hunt 175; Luborsky & Ingram. Engl. illustrated books, 1536-1603, 11750