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From the Bookshelf: The Herbalist's Bible

From the Bookshelf: The Herbalist’s Bible: John Parkinson’s Lost Classic – 82 Herbs and Their Medicinal Uses, by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal (2014)

By Michele D. Baker

Cover for The Herbalist's Bible by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal

Always interested in the idea of “food as medicine,” I picked up “The Herbalist’s Bible” while browsing in a local bookseller, only to discover what a magnificent book it truly is. Authors Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal’s connection with John Parkinson began in 2005 with a peek at Parkinson’s “Theatrum Botanicum” (1640) in a rare books collection in Norwich, England. The huge folio contained 1,788 pages of illustrated text in a leather cover and was in mediocre condition – it had formerly been available in the lending library and was marked with rain spatters from a careless patron.

John Parkinson, original creator of The Herbalist's Bible (Theatrum Botanicum, 1640)

Sensing the importance of this weighty collection of botanical lore, the Seals created a book dedicated to the spirit – if not the entirety – of the book; the result is “The Herbalist’s Bible.” It begins with a history lesson on John Parkinson, the historical context of the mid 1600s, and his career path from apprentice botanist to experienced apothecary. Parkinson was also an accomplished gardener, and even did woodcuts of flowers and plants. His life’s work was the production of the “Theatrum Botanicum,” which he dedicated to “the Kings Most Excellent Maiestie” Charles I, calling it a “Manlike Worke of Herbes and Plants.”

Like the Theatrum Botanicum before it, the 256-page Herbalist’s Bible is laid out in the same fashion, with the Latin name of the plant, an image, and a list of “vertues” (uses) such as staunching wounds, treating high blood pressure, or for stomach complaints. The most interesting feature of the book is that the multipage article on each plant shows first the original “Theatrum Botanicum” page, then translates that information into modern English, including updated uses, with color photos.

For example, Parkinson’s page for elder (Sambucus) begins with this introduction paragraph: “Both Dioscorides and Galen doe attribute to the Wallworte, as well as to the common Elder, (for they account their properties both one) an heating and drying quality, purging watery humors aboundantly, but not without trouble to the stomack. The first shootes of the common Elder boyled like unto Asparagux, and the young leaves and stalkes boyled in fat broth, draweth forth mightily choler and tough flegme; the tender leaves also eaten with oyle and salt doe the same.”

The fascinating book continues, mirroring and updating many of Parkinson’s entries page for page, and adding commentary where needed for modern readers. The book translates and comments on 82 plants still in common use today, in both culinary and in medicinal use, and organized alphabetically by the common English name, such as: betony, burdock, chicory, daisies, elder, goldenrod, honeysuckle, hyssop, jasmine, liquorice, mint, onion/leek/garlic, rosemary, sage, seaweed, St. John’s wort, watercress and yarrow.

In the “note to the reader,” the Seals also invite us to browse the book, to dive in and discover – along with Parkinson – the joys and uses of plants and seeds sent to Parkinson by friends overseas in North and South America, China, the East and West Indes, India and the Middle East. Share in Parkinson’s excitement as he experiments with exotic and unheard-of plants such as chili peppers (cayenne), coca, corn, love apples (tomatoes), sassafras and tobacco.

Readers will also want to take advantage of the extensive end notes, appendices, glossary, index, and the brief biographies of well-known botanists, apothecaries, healers, scholars, and surgeons throughout history, all of which make this book both interesting and highly informative. Happy reading!


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