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Living on Lime Street
"English" Natural History and the European Republic of Letters
In 1597 James Garret, a Flemish apothecary who lived and worked in London, paid a visit to the shop of Bonham and John Norton, one of the City's busiest and most prestigious publishers. The Nortons specialized in expensive, large-format books, and they were in the process of readying John Gerard's massive manuscript of The herball or Generall historie of plantes for the presses (Figure 1.1). It was the most ambitious English-language publication on the subject that had ever been attempted, and its release promised to make Gerard a household name as ladies bought up copies so that they could trace the illustrations in their embroidery and consult its medical lore, and as plant fanciers purchased the item to be conversant with all the newest discoveries of flora from around the globe. The shop would have been abuzz with activity: apprentices carrying paper, journeymen setting the movable type in trays and inking them before loading them into large, imposing presses. Garret would have had to duck to avoid jostling damp sheets of paper pegged up on lines to dry, then swerve to keep from knocking into customers perusing the Nortons' latest releases, such as Plutarch's Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes (1595) and a new edition of Monardes's Joyfull newes out of the new-found worlde (1596). What Garret was about to reveal, however, would bring part of the Nortons' operations to a sudden, though temporary, halt.
Garret presented the Nortons with the unwelcome news that John Gerard's costly new Herball was a mess of inaccuracies, plagiarized passages, and improperly placed illustrations. According to the Flemish apothecary, Gerard's most egregious fault was his crude use of Mathias de L'Obel's (1538–1616) taxonomic system for plants, which he had developed along with Pierre Pena in the Stirpium adversaria nova (1571). Garret complained that Gerard's new Herball was not in fact new at all. Instead, it had been cobbled together — not terribly effectively — by combining L'Obel's work with a translation of a well-known Flemish herbal by Rembert Dodoens that most who were interested in the subject already owned. Garret was L'Obel's neighbor in the parish of St. Dionysius Backchurch, and the two men shared a passion for plants as well as a common immigrant status. To sit by and watch an English Barber-Surgeon like Gerard take credit for the painstaking work of his friend was too much for Garret to bear.
The Elizabethan period was an age when the standards for plagiarism were notoriously low, and Garret's claim that The herball's author had liberally borrowed from other published books would not have been enough for the Nortons to call a halt to the printing process. But the Nortons did want to make a profit on this expensive new book of Gerard's, so Garret's charge that the book was inaccurate was cause for concern. Who would be willing to spend so much money on a book that they could not rely upon to accurately identify common medicinal plants and the more exotic plant specimens pouring into London from the New World and beyond? Garret's observations that there were mistranslations of the Flemish herbal that served as Gerard's source, that the illustrations of plant specimens did not always appear alongside the correct descriptions, and that some illustrations were even inserted upside down had the potential to cut the Nortons' audience dramatically and make them a public laughingstock. Because The herball was a costly publishing endeavor involving hundreds of pages and expensive woodcuts, the Nortons became understandably alarmed at the fiscal implications of Garret's message.
After taking a long, hard look at the manuscript, the Nortons realized that they had to do something to amend it. The herball was not yet in a fit state to roll off the presses and into the hands of London's eager book buyers. Their solution was to hire Garret's neighbor, Mathias de L'Obéi — the same man who had already (albeit unwittingly) made a substantial contribution to the work —to proofread the translations, fix the mismatched illustrations, and right its other textual wrongs. L'Obel began the laborious work of editing straight away and made numerous corrections in the manuscript before John Gerard, tipped off to what was going on in the Nortons' print shop, barged in and had him dismissed. Gerard was outraged at the interference of a foreigner in his great English work and cast aspersions on L'Obel's heavily accented use of English. L'Obel was internationally renowned for his expertise with plants and had the added prestige of possessing a doctorate from France's premier medical institution, the University of Montpellier, but this mattered little to the English Barber-Surgeon. L'Obel was just as furious with Gerard, whose studies he had furthered by providing access to rare plant specimens and, even more important, to his numerous friends who occupied high positions in royal gardens and university medical schools throughout Europe.
The Nortons finally went ahead with the publication of Gerard's Herball, and it sold well despite its length, cost, and the fact that the quality of the work plummeted dramatically in Book III, where the author turned to the subject of grasses. Those who were charitably inclined could attribute this failing to Gerard's intellectual exhaustion, while those less so could point out that the change in tone marked the spot where L'Obel was dismissed from his thankless job of editing the manuscript. Today, however, the efforts that Garret made on behalf of his friend L'Obel are largely forgotten, consigned to a dustbin of publishing anecdotes. Few have ever heard of James Garret, and Mathias de L'Obel's name is known only to serious students of botany and curious gardeners who wonder how the lobelia got its name. The herball's author, John Gerard, on the other hand, is remembered as Elizabethan England's premier naturalist. In his own time, however, his reputation was mixed, and the publication of The herball marked not the apotheosis of England's first great botanist but the development of a schism in London's natural history community.
Until the publication of The herball, London's naturalists revolved like satellites around the parish of St. Dionysius Backchurch in the center of the City where Garret and L'Obel were neighbors. There, on a twisting street only a tenth of a mile long, the two men played a key role in a natural history community that included English and foreign members. It was a wealthy area, and most of the community's members were successful merchants, physicians, apothecaries, and City politicians. Other London naturalists, such as Gerard, paid frequent visits to Lime Street to examine the natural curiosities housed in cabinets there, and to walk the paths of the many fine gardens that graced the parish. They could also post letters to their foreign correspondents, since the postmaster for the Dutch community lived on Lime Street and had an excellent network of friends who sped those letters on their way across Europe no matter how incompetent the political system, vicious the religious dispute, or violent the warfare. Members of the Lime Street natural history community were interested in collaboration and welcomed men like John Gerard into their circles with warm collegiality. Lime Street may have been one of the Republic of Letters' more remote European outposts, but its members conducted business within the parameters of a code of conduct that was rigidly enforced to promote the exchange of information and the courteous acknowledgement of friendly contributions to one's own studies. When John Gerard put The herball together, he violated the rules that governed this closely knit community of students of nature. From 1597 Gerard was an outcast and had to rely on competition rather than collaboration, the patronage of a few court figures rather than the support of a European network of naturalists, and by continuing to set his work out in print rather than engaging in the lengthy (and typically unpublished) collaborative projects that were representative of the Lime Street community.
Gerard may have suffered for a few years from the sting of being shunned by the Lime Street naturalists, but in the long run they paid a higher price: they have been largely forgotten. Gerard's Herball has become a monument of early botanical knowledge that has overshadowed the Lime Street community. Not all the blame for this can be put at Gerard's door, however. While the Lime Street naturalists worked at their collaborative projects and wrote letters to like-minded students of nature, Gerard published his book — imperfect though it was — and it now serves as a touchstone for historians of botany. Some of the Lime Street naturalists did publish, but their works were highly specialized and never received the popular acclaim that Gerard enjoyed. So while members of the Lime Street community are, as we will see, often mentioned individually in historical studies of the Republic of Letters, humanism, and natural history, they do not often appear as part of a coherent and vital intellectual group. And because many of them were immigrants, some members of the community are left out of narratives about the development of "English" science. To fully understand the significance of the Lime Street naturalists, however, we must see them as they saw themselves: as an important community interested in natural history with links to other naturalists in England and on the European continent. To do so, we need first to understand how the community was constituted and how it functioned. Then we will be in a better position to examine their intellectual interests and the debates they engaged in with other leading naturalists at home and abroad. Finally, we will explore how this vital, dynamic group of collectors, plant hunters, and students of nature were lost to historical view through a grand publishing venture and the ambitions of its author.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY: THE LIME STREET COMMUNITY
In 1606 James Cole (1563–1628), a silk merchant and Flemish immigrant, married his second wife, Louisa de L'Obel, the daughter of the famous Flemish naturalist and physician Mathias de L'Obel, in the city of London. It was a moment that the local community and the European Republic of Letters were eager to celebrate. The groom was congratulated by friends at home and abroad for choosing a wife who was not only "beautiful and loving" but also the daughter of a "more diligent searcher after plants than Dioscorides." One friend writing to Cole from the Continent treated the match as an ideal arrangement for the groom and his new father-in-law. He did not mention the bride at all, but commented only that the marriage must make Cole especially pleased because "you have obtained a father-in-law with whom you can continually converse on a part of your studies." When the Cole family and the L'Obel family became entwined in marriage, the ceremony gave formal permanence to the warm relationship that had existed between them for years in the central London neighborhood of Lime Street.
Elizabethans were struck by the area's prosperity. John Stow, in his Survay of London (1598), described Lime Street as an expanse "of fair houses for merchants and others" that twisted and turned from St. Dionysius Backchurch and Fenchurch Street in the south to the parish church of St. Andrew Undershaft and Cornhill Street in the north. Today the landscape is altered from Stow's time. St. Dionysius Backchurch is gone: the medieval church fell prey to the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the rebuilt church was demolished in the nineteenth century. Though St. Andrew Undershaft remains, its once lofty tower is now dwarfed by the neighboring Lloyd's building, and its walls are ringed by motorcycles and scooters parked by City workers. A modern visitor to London can still walk the narrow street, however, which maintains its Elizabethan layout, and can make a pilgrimage to Stow's monument in St. Andrew Undershaft, where the lord mayor of London goes once every three years to put a fresh quill pen in the hands of a stone effigy dedicated to Elizabethan London's best-known historian.
Lime Street had a relatively low population density by Elizabethan standards, and was blissfully free from the apartment-style dwellings known as tenements — old houses converted into multihousehold residences. Behind high walls and through great gates were gardens and a tennis court, and everywhere there was an audible hum of activity. Lime Street's numerous surgeons and apothecaries welcomed patients into their shops and sent apprentices and servants scurrying into nearby markets for supplies. Members of the Pewterers' Company walked the street to enter their guild's hall for ceremonial dinners and to attend meetings. Artists and builders took a shortcut down a small alley on the west side of the street and ended up in the Leaden Hall, whose attics were used to construct and store props and scenery for City pageants and festivals, high above the main floor where the more mundane business of weighing wool and grain took place.
Elizabethan Lime Street boasted the cosmopolitan assortment of residents that was fast becoming the norm in London: English, French, Flemish, and Italian. The southern end of Lime Street, down by St. Dionysius Backchurch, intersected with Lombard Street, once the haunt of London's European merchants who met there twice a day to exchange news and information until 1568, when they were expected to transact their business under the protected porticoes of the Royal Exchange. Many of these Europeans had become permanent residents of London, most to avoid religious persecution, some because of economic opportunity. These immigrants, or "Strangers" as they were called in Stow's time, never became a sizable part of the City's population — at most, the Strangers constituted slightly more than 5 percent of London's population — but few residents were unaware of their presence. The merchants, skilled craftsmen, and simple tradesmen who came from exotic locales like Venice and Antwerp made an impression on London's English residents that was far deeper than their relatively small numbers might suggest.
While any Elizabethan visitor could have grasped these visible and audible features of Lime Street easily and quickly, other significant neighborhood activities would have been harder to discern. For behind garden walls, inside the apothecary shops, and within the well-appointed houses of the merchants lived an important community of naturalists. Lime Street was the English outpost of a Europe-wide network of students of nature — including plant hunters, gardeners, rock and fossil collectors, and scholars interested in animals and insects — who eagerly studied the marvelous and manifold properties of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. Both Strangers and English citizens from the neighborhood around Lime Street made contributions to natural history, enjoyed an active correspondence with other humanists in Europe-wide networks of correspondence and exchange, and forged intellectual alliances that transcended linguistic and national boundaries.
The Elizabethan City was riddled with neighborhoods like Lime Street, where common interests shaped social and intellectual life and an urban sensibility emerged that blended cosmopolitanism with nascent nationalism, competition with collaboration, and theoretical learning with practical experience. Because of the ephemeral nature of most social and intellectual interaction, which relies heavily on face-to-face conversation, it is hard for historians to establish who belonged to a given community or neighborhood, not to mention what those individuals gossiped and thought about as they met over dinner, or in an apothecary's shop while buying a medical elixir to ease their aches and pains. What makes Lime Street unusual is not that it existed but that its existence is well documented in correspondence, bequests in wills, and passing references in printed natural history texts published in England and abroad. These materials enable us to see the Lime Street neighborhood and the naturalists who lived there as friends and intellectual colleagues. We are able to peep into the houses and shopfronts along Lime Street, where animal and insect specimens were studied and classified, fossils were examined and displayed in curiosity cabinets, and rare plants were cultivated and propagated.
It was not easy to forge a natural history community in early modern Europe. You needed an elusive combination of ingredients that, after being mixed and compounded, only then resulted in the intellectual vitality apparent on Lime Street. First and foremost you needed to find other men and women who shared your passion for deciphering the curious natural world through the study of plants, antiquities, and zoological specimens. Once they were located, mundane issues could stunt the development of an otherwise promising community. Naturalists needed ample financial resources so that they could acquire specimens for their own studies, the books that kept them informed of far-flung developments in natural history, and the leisure to engage in the work itself. Not every member of a community needed to be fabulously wealthy, but at least one individual had to be able to finance such a costly and labor-intensive endeavor. And a great natural history community required that most valuable of all urban commodities — space. Space was needed to cultivate gardens, since so much of natural history focused on the study of plant specimens, and unoccupied land came at a high premium in an early modern city like London.
Excerpted from The Jewel House by Deborah E. Harkness. Copyright © 2007 by Deborah E. Harkness. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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