Cataloguing the Physick Garden (1648 and 1658)

Cataloguing the Physick Garden (1648 and 1658)

Image 1. In 1648, an anonymous catalogue of the Garden, Catologus Plantarum Horti Medici Oxoniensis, was published (note the typographical error in the title). Traditionally, the author is identified as Jacob Bobart the Elder, and the book is considered the first publication produced by the Garden. The Catologus's two, unannotated, alphabetical lists of names, Latin-English and English-Latin, comprise 1,368 polynomial names. No references to published literature are associated with the names.

Many of the names can be matched to modern plant names, through comparison with herbarium specimens, e.g., ‘Mandragora mas Mandrake’ (Mandragora officinarum), ‘Taxus Yew tree’ (Taxus baccata) and ‘Fritillaria varigata Checquer’d frittilarie’ (Fritillaria meleagris). However, in some cases the names are meaningless in modern terms, e.g., ‘Fungus albus White toadestoole’ and ‘Fungus niger Blacke toadestoole’.

Notwithstanding issues over placing precise modern identifications on the names listed, the Physic Garden in 1648 contained a diverse array of plants from Britain and parts of Europe. In six years, despite the professed desires of the University, Bobert the Elder had brought together a nucleus of plants that approached John Evelyn’s concept of a ‘Philosophico-Medical Garden’, rather than a collection of plants focused around medical training.

The 1648 Collection, in the south-west corner of the walled portion of the Botanical Garden, still grows several of the species listed in the catalogue of that year.  Perhaps the most exciting and exotic of these is the Virginian spidewort, otherwise known as the Tradescantia virginiana, after John Tradescant, who first sent it to England from America.

Image 2. In 1658, the Oxford-based academics Philip Stephens (c.1619-1679) and William Browne (1629/30-1678) wrote a second edition of the Catologus, the Catalogus Horti Botanici Oxoniensis. The 1658 Catalogus has a strong academic content, as suggested by the subtitle. The Bobarts, father and son, are given fulsome acknowledgment for their work on the title page and in volume’s preface.

The structure of the book emphasises the academic nature of the work. Front matter includes a preface in Latin, epigraph in Greek, plus compositions in Latin, Greek and English praising the Physic Garden, the Catalogus and the authors. Individual entries in the Catalogus include a description of the kinds of plants and the names of all the plants found in the Garden under that kind, with reference to the published literature.

The main body of the text is a detailed alphabetical list of 1,889 Latin names including English names and partial references to classical botanical works, although the main references are to the English works of John Gerard and John Parkinson 'out of the respect we have for our own country'. There is also an incomplete alphabetical list of English-Latin names. For example, ‘Mandragora mas Mandrake’ from the 1648 catalogue is expanded to become ‘‘Mandragora mas, male Mandrake, P: 344. G: 352’ in the Catalogus. The references are to Parkinson’s Theatrum botanicum (1640) and Gerard’s Herball (1633), there is also the plant’s name in Greek and a reference to the works of the Swiss botanists Johann (1541-1613) and Gaspard (1560-1624) Bauhin.

The printing of the 1658 Catalogus is of a higher standard than in the 1648 edition. The former is by William Hall of Oxford, the latter by Henry Hall of Oxford.

Commentary: Stephen Harris (July 2020)