Morison's 'Historiae': Volume 2

Morison's 'Historiae': Volume 2

In 1680, the University published the second volume of Robert Morison’s Historia, a substantial folio-sized mixture of letterpress and copperplate prints. The title page announces that Morison’s system, ‘observed and detected in the Book of Nature’, would be presented in tables of kinships and affinities. For the University Press it was an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of academic printing of which it was capable (Mandelbrote, 2015). For Morison, publication was his opportunity to reveal partially the detail of his much-vaunted classification scheme. For European naturalists, publication was their opportunity to review the scheme and determine whether it met the demands of natural history or the grandiosity of its author’s intentions.

On the title page, Athena sits in the foreground, armed with a lance and clutching the shield of Medusa. She is surrounded by the impedimenta and symbols of academia – a caduceus, wreaths of olive and oak leaves, a globe, dividers, trisquare, manuscripts and books. In the background is the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bodleian Library and, on the right, a collection of houses north of All Souls College; Bobart the Elder probably held a lease on one of these properties. In the 1715 reprint, the Sheldonian background is reversed relative to reality and that presented on the title page of the 1680 original publication.

In addition to a four-page Praefatio ad Lectorem and three-page Index alphabeticus and errata, there are 617 pages of the main text together with 126 pages of plates. The arrangement of these different parts varies among different extant copies of book.

The letterpress and plates are concerned with plants in five of the 15 Sections that make up Morison’s Group IV, the Herbae:

Sectio 1: Scandentes [herbaceous climbers]: e.g., bryony, cucumber and bindweed (8 plates);
Sectio 2. Leguminosae, Papilionaceae siliquis bivalvibus [herbaceous legumes with dry, two-valved fruits]: e.g., pea, vetch and clover (25 plates);
Sectio 3. Siliquosae Tetrapetalae Bicapsulares [herbaceous plants with four-petalled flowers and dry, two-chambered fruits]: e.g. cabbage, milkwort and fumitory (25 plates);
Sectio 4. Hexapetalae Tricapsulares [herbaceous plants with six-petalled flowers and dry, three-chambered fruits]: e.g., iris, hyacinth and lily, where four divisions were made on the form of the roots (31 plates);
Sectio 5. A Numero Capsularum et Petalorum Dictae [herbaceous plants with different numbers of petals on their flowers and chambers in their dry fruits]: e.g., bellflower, violet, geranium, mallow and arsemart, where 11 divisions were made on petal number and fruit chamber number and shape (37 plates).

Morison’s concern that he would die before his Historia was completed was realised on 10th November 1683; he was killed in the Strand, London. However, his work did not fall into incompetent hands; it was taken up by Bobart the Younger.


Mandelbrote S 2015. The publication and illustration of Robert Morison's Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis. Huntington Library Quarterly 78: 349-379.