Sources for a study of the herbalist and gardener John Parkinson (1567–1650)

by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal, herbalists, researchers & authors

For this blog we’ve chosen to refer to the sources used and methodology of our book The Herbalist’s The Herbalist's Bible coverBible: John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered: A Selection and Commentary (Ludlow: Merlin Unwin Books, 2014). The third element of our long title gets to the nubbins of what we wanted to do, namely transcribe a number of Parkinson’s accounts of the ‘virtues’ or medicinal qualities of selected herbs and comment on them from the standpoint of modern herbalism.

There was a multi-level selection process at work in our approach to Parkinson’s 1640 herbal masterpiece (as we see it), the Theatrum Botanicum.

  1. Above all, we wanted to share anew a neglected and forgotten text, whose reputation has fared badly against two more popular but in our view inferior contemporary herbals (Gerard 1597 or especially Johnson’s update of 1633, and Culpeper’s English Physitian 1652 [known everywhere as Culpeper’s Herbal]).
  2. We chose some 100 plants out of Parkinson’s 3,800 or so, selecting on three broad criteria: (a) herbs known to Parkinson that are still medicinally used today; (b) or herbs known to him that have dropped out of common practice, but that we think are worth a second look (such as bugle, ground ivy, figwort, sanicle and weld); (c) and herbs ‘new’ to Parkinson as exotic imports (such as chilli, coca, corn, sassafras and tobacco).
  3. Of his lengthy plant entries themselves, we focused on the ‘virtues’ section, where Parkinson examines the medicinal values of the plant. Parkinson’s ‘names’ section narrates his sources, and it is diverting to see him take on Galen or Matthiolus, Bauhinus or Pliny, indeed any of at least fifty other authorities, about the provenance of a family or species – in terms of herbal history there’s a wealth of material for a whole other book here.

Using these yardsticks we pared down the huge bulk of Parkinson’s 1,788 pages to the ‘virtues’ of a hundred or so plants. But there was another underlying criterion at play:

  1. The chosen plants were already (or would be) plants that Julie made use of and valued in her
    Sanicle woodcut from Theatrum Botanicum
    Sanicle woodcut from Theatrum Botanicum

    herbal practice. In other words, studying Parkinson has been for the immediate purpose of taking advantage of his vast knowledge as a gardener and apothecary as expressed through his writing.     This is where our transcript of Parkinson’s words and our glossaries for them fits in with our             facing-page commentary.

The Theatrum Botanicum is our first port of call to look up a new plant we don’t know well, and we find our copy to be a valued reference.  The indexes are fairly easy to use, and plants are listed by Latin and by common names. There is also an index by ailment. We have tried many of his recommendations, including distilled strawberry water as an eye-wash for sore eyes, and his aqua vitae recipe, distilled in white wine. One of the most valuable discoveries for Julie’s practice is the use of bugle (Ajuga reptans) externally to relieve pain from joints, tendons and ligaments and to re-align bones.


Parkinson in his time: We needed to do more and provide a context and rationale for studying Parkinson. We engaged with the only biography, by Anna Parkinson (a probable descendant), Nature’s Alchemist: John Parkinson, Herbalist to

e From Parkinson, John (1640). Theatrum Botanicum : The Theater of Plants. Or, An Herball of a Large Extent, Containing therein a More Ample and Exact History and Declaration of the Physicall Herbs and Plants that are in Other Authours, Encreased by the Accesse of Many Hundreds of New, Rare, and Strange Plants from All the Parts of the World, with Sundry Gummes, and Other Physicall Materials, than hath beene hitherto Published by Any before; and a Most Large Demonstration of their Natures and Vertues. Shevving vvithall the Many Errors, Differences, and Oversights of Sundry Authors that have Formerly Written of Them; and a Certaine Confidence, or most Probable Conjecture of the True and Genuine Herbes and Plants. Distributed into Sundry Classes or Tribes, for the More Easie Knowledge of the Many Herbes of One Nature and Property, with the Chiefe Notes of Dr. Lobel, Dr. Bonham, and Others Inserted therein. Collected by the Many Years Travaile, Industry, and Experience in this Subject, by Iohn Parkinson Apothecary of London, and the Kings Herbalist. And Published by the Kings Majestyes Especiall Priviledge. London: Thomas Cotes. Reprinted in Agnes Arber (1912). Herbals : Their Origin and Evolution : A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470–1670. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
John Parkinson (1640). From: Theatrum Botanicum. Source: Wikimedia commons

Charles I (London, 2007), met the author and shared ideas with her. This helped us in our plan to have a short introduction to situate Parkinson in his time, and ours. We chose to focus on four aspects:

  • a brief Parkinson bio;
  • Parkinson as an apothecary (and his role in founding the Society of Apothecaries, 1617);
  • Parkinson as a gardener (and author of Paradisi in Sole, 1629);
  • and Parkinson as a herbalist (and author of Theatrum Botanicum, 1640).
  • We also added a fifth aspect on a Parkinson revival in the late nineteenth century and the annus mirabilis of Parkinson studies (1922: see below) as an appendix (our pp. 240–1).

Turning to primary sources, we faced a dearth of material. Given his use of available printed sources in many languages, Parkinson must have had and used a vast personal library, but this disappeared without trace in the last ten years of his life, as did his garden in Long Acre and his apothecary business. Following the high point of his declaration as King’s Herbalist (and hence a member of the king’s court) in 1640, in time to be added to the eulogies in the Theatrum when it was published later that year, we have minuscule knowledge of Parkinson’s movements and actions. Anna Parkinson’s best guess is that he did not join the king in Oxford, as would be expected of a courtier, but laid low in London, perhaps in the house of a friendly patron. Parkinson is mentioned in some letters from John Morris of Isleworth, one such friend, but these are asking a Dutch colleague in 1646 if he had any news; indeed Morris thought Parkinson was already dead.

Goodyer and Gunther: With few clues about Parkinson’s last decade (it seems that he died in London, aged 83, in August 1650) and in the absence of his library, there remains a glimmer of his presence. The transmission route is unclear, but an old friend of his, the gardener and estate manager John Goodyer, deposited his own books and papers to Magdalen College, Oxford. The papers languished from the 1660s to the 1920s, safe but unseen, in the College library. In 1922 the then librarian, Robert Gunther, identified a signature in Goodyer’s loose papers as ‘John Parkinson’. This was potentially a Rosetta Stone-type find, but with resounding anticlimax it emerged that there were only some 25 pages attributable to Parkinson. These consisted of several ‘wants lists’, some notes on Bermudan botany and a bill for rebuilding his garden wall in Long Acre in 1636 following a storm.

Most of the pitifully few Parkinson papers are reproduced in Gunther’s book Early British Botanists and their Gardens (1922), which is essentially a collection of primary source material linked by Gunther’s commentary. It is an important source for pre-John Ray British botany.

Availability of Parkinson’s books: Parkinson’s delightful gardening book, the Paradisi of 1629, was reprinted in 1656 and again in 1867 and 1904; our own copy is a Dover paperback of 1976, and there is an e-book. This contrasts with the Theatrum, which has never been reprinted since 1640; we found and bought our copy online, and there are many deposited in British and American libraries (a hand-coloured copy can be found in the Bodleian and another in Christ’s College, Cambridge library); an online version exists but it is (or was last time we looked) not searchable.

Apothecaries Hall, London ©Julie Bruton-Seal
Apothecaries Hall London ©Julie-Bruton-Seal

Other contemporary documents: We followed up a few scattered other contemporary documents relating to Parkinson: the minute books of the Society of Apothecaries, held at Apothecaries’ Hall (Parkinson was a committee member for several years); one instance in 1596 when Parkinson faced a charge at the College of Physicians (it was overruled) (from the database of Margaret Pelling and Frances White, Physicians and Irregular Practitioners in London 1550–1640,; his apparent death notice for 6 August 1650, with the added phrase by a later hand, ‘a famous Botanist’ (St Martin in the Fields, burial register: Westminster Archives, Mf3, Mf 1546­9).  We’d love to find more!

Our secondary sources included reference to the standard recent botanical histories by Henrey (1975) and Canon Raven (1947); older botanical histories, like Pulteney (1790) and Smith (1819); more specifically herbal histories, like Arber (1912, rev. 1986), Rohde (1922, rpt 1971) and, for illustrations, Blunt (1979); gardening histories, such as Prest (1981) and Wiles (2013); official histories of the apothecaries (Hunting, 1998) and physicians (Clark, 1964); and a small periodical literature (e.g. Boulger, 1918; Riddell, 1986; Burnby, 1994). These author/dates relate to our annotated bibliography of secondary sources that we used (our pp. 250–1). Finally, we should mention the online reference texts available via our Norfolk library cards, namely the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, both of which we used in researching the book.

The Culpeper issue: It is one of our contentions in The Herbalist’s Bible that Nicholas Culpeper copied extensively from the Theatrum when writing The English Physitian; we’d say it was actually a large-scale plundering, without attribution. Culpeper’s book, remarkably, has never been out of print since 1652. We have come to see it as a kind of Reader’s Digest version of Parkinson’s original, perhaps achieving what Parkinson could not in making hard-earned herbal knowledge available cheaply and within a small book. It is some consolation, but not much! We can only urge people to get to grips with the originals of both Parkinson books, and share his long experience, deep consideration and careful appraisal of the medicinal plants of his time.

Julie & Matthew with the Theatrum Botanicum. Photo by Tara Ridgewell
Julie & Matthew with the Theatrum Botanicum. Photo by Tara Ridgewell

A Parkinson Select Bibliography

A selection of the books that have inspired and maddened us in getting to know John Parkinson (sometimes the same book does both things), with Parkinson-relevant page numbers. Our comments are also offered, in square brackets.


Arber, A., (1912, rev. 1986). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution: A Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470–1670. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Takes a purist line on botanical history, and Parkinson is found wanting]


Bacon, F., (1625). Of gardens. In: M. Kernan ed. The Essayes or Counsells, Civill and Morall. (1985). Oxford: Oxford University Press. [The famous essay, which may owe something to Parkinson’s example, finds Gunther – see below]


Bekkers, J.A.F., (1970). Correspondence of John Morris with Johannes de Laet (1634–1649). ’s-Gravenhage, Netherlands: Van Gorcum. [This exchange of letters is a source for much of what little is known of Parkinson’s latter years; in Latin]


Blunt, W. and Raphael, S., (1979). The Illustrated Herbal. London: Thames & Hudson. [Authoritative scholarship, displayed with much affection]


Borodale, J.(2012). The Knot. London: HarperCollins. [A novelist’s take on Henry Lyte’s efforts to translate Rembert Dodoens’ Cruÿdeboeck from the French edn of Charles l’Ecluse; Lyte’s A Nieuwe Herball appeared in 1578]


Boulger, G.S., (1918). A 17thc Botanical Friendship. Journal of Botany, 56, pp. 200–222. [The friendship is the enduring one between John Tradescant the Elder and Parkinson]


Burnby, J., (1994). Some Early London Physic Gardens. Pharmaceutical Historian, 24(4), pp. 2–7 [With accounts of Parkinson’s Long Acre garden, among others]


Clark, G. (1964).  A History of the Royal College of Physicians of London, Vol. I. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [The official College history]


Clarke, W. A., (1900). First Records of British Flowering Plants, 2nd edn. London: West, Newman & Co. [A source for our list of Parkinson plant namings, Appendix 5, p244]


Coleman, M., (2012). Fruitful Endeavours: The 16th-Century Household Secrets of Catherine Tollemache at Helmingham Hall. Andover: History Press 2012. [Scrupulous examination of an Elizabethan manor’s household accounts, with 42 recipes]


Cook, H. J., (1986). The Decline of the Old Medical Regime in Stuart London. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press. [The book that launched the ‘medical marketplace’ hypothesis; Parkinson does not appear in the index]


Culpeper, N., (1649, revised 1654). Pharmacopoeia Londinensis or the London Dispensatory. London: Printed for Peter Cole. [Iconoclastic translation and brave demolition of the Apothecaries’ Pharmacopoeia, with Culpeper’s own additions; modern facsimile printed by Early English Books Online, n.d.]


Desmond, R., (1977, revised 1994). Dictionary of British & Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists. London: Taylor & Francis. [Itemises useful bibliographic sources for further Parkinson studies]


Evelyn, J., (1658). The French Gardiner: Instructing How to Cultivate All Sorts of Fruit-Trees…. London: T.B. for B. Took. [This began as a translation of a work in French by Nicolas de Bonnefons, much revised by Evelyn. Evelyn had been inspired by Parkinson’s Paradisi, and added experiences from his French travels to this translation]


Ewing, J. H., (1886, revised 1915) Mary’s Meadow & Other Tales of Fields & Flowers. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. [The children’s story whose popularity gave rise to the short-lived Parkinson Society]


Francis, J., (2014). John Parkinson: Gardener and Apothecary of London. In: S. Francia and A. Stobart. eds. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine.  London: Bloomsbury. pp. 229–246 [The latest addition to Parkinson studies, focusing on the herbal wisdom of the Paradisi]


Gerard, J., (1597, revised Thomas Johnson 1633) The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. London: John Norton. [The pre-eminent herbal before Parkinson; the charm remains, as do many of the errors, in Johnson’s revision, whose appearance so pained Parkinson]


Guibert, P., (1639). The Charitable Physitian with the Charitable Apothecary. Translated by  I.W.  London: Thomas Harper. [Popular recipes from both physicians and apothecaries; Guibert’s list of apothecary prices forms our Appendix 2, p238]


Gunther, R.T., (1922). Early English Botanists and Their Gardens. Oxford: F. Hall. [Gunther gave a voice to early English botanists, made sense of the Goodyer archive at Magdalen and identified Parkinson’s papers]


Harkness, D. E., (2007). The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. [Buoyant, warm account of a vibrant intellectual community, Lime Street, which Parkinson knew]


Hawks, E. and Boulger, G.S., (1928). Pioneers of Plant Study. London: Sheldon Press. [Rather condescending and critical of Parkinson, as overly botanic accounts often are]


Henrey, B., (1975). British Botanical and Horticultural Literature before 1800, Vol. I: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, History and Bibliography. London: Oxford University Press. [The authoritative literature survey, with excellent, if critical coverage of Parkinson]


Hill, T. (1577). The Gardener’s Labyrinth. London: H. Bynneman. Reprint 1987. R. Mabey, ed. Oxford; Oxford University Press. [Charming predecessor to the Paradisi; Hill wrote under the pseudonym Didymus Mountain, sharing authorship with Henry Dethick]


Holmes, P., (1989, revised. 1993). The Energetics of Western Herbs: An Herbal Reference Integrating Western and Oriental Herbal Medicine Traditions. Berkeley: Snow Lotus Press. [Ground-breaking integrative herbalism by an admirer of Parkinson]


Hunting, P., (1998). A History of the Society of Apothecaries. London: The Society of Apothecaries. [The fourth, latest and most engaging of the Society’s official histories]


Johns, A. (1998). The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press. [Amazing and vast survey of the evolution of print and scientific cultures in early modern England]


Jones, R. F., (1984), Genealogy of a Classic: The English Physitian of Nicholas Culpeper. PhD thesis, University of California, San Francisco. [A pioneering thesis, with brief account of Parkinson; much of it is now superseded]


Laroche, R., (2009). Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550–1650. Farnham: Ashgate. [A feminist critique of ‘masculine’ texts, including Theatrum, through analysis of 24 female- )owned herbals]


Morellus, P. (1657). The Expert Doctors Dispensatory. London: Nathaniel Brook. [Morellus was physician to the French king; this English translation by John Winand was praised by Culpeper]


Parkinson, A. (2007). Nature’s Alchemist: John Parkinson, Herbalist to Charles I. London: Frances Lincoln. [The first biography and at the centre of burgeoning Parkinson studies]


Parkinson, John (1629) Paradisi in Sole: Paradisus Terrestris…. London: Humfrey Lownes & Robert Young; reprinted as A Garden of Pleasant Flowers, New York: Dover Publications, 1976. [STC 19300]


Parkinson, John (1640) Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plantes… London: Thomas Cotes. [STC 19302]

Pavord, Anna (2005) The Naming of Names: In Search of Order in the World of Plants. London: Bloomsbury. [A wonderful survey of plant nomenclature from the ancient Greeks to today; Parkinson features but does not fare too well]

Plomer, Henry R. (1907) A Dictionary of the Booksellers and Printers who were at work in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1641 to 1667. London: The Bibliographical Society. [Useful for details of Thomas and Richard Cotes, Parkinson’s printers]


Poynter, F.N.L. (ed.) (1965) The Evolution of Pharmacy in Britain. London: Pitman Medical [especially where two leading medical historians summarize their findings: L.G. Matthews, ‘Herbals and Formularies’, pp187–213; R.S. Roberts, ‘The Early History of the Import of Drugs into Britain’, pp165–86]


Prest, John (1981) The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. [Pioneering and ambitious; many unusual illustrations]


Pulteney, R. (1790, rev. 2011) Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Progress of Botany in England. London: T. Cadell in the Strand, and online; modern edn by Cambridge University Press. [Rescues many botanists from obscurity in his time, including Parkinson; even-handed account of both Parkinson books]


Raven, Charles E., Canon (1947) English Naturalists from Neckam to Ray: A Study of the Making of the Modern World.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [Still a formidable account, written with impeccable judgement]


Riddell, John N.D. (1986) ‘John Parkinson’s Long Acre Garden 1600–1650’, Journal of Garden History 6(2), 112–24 [Precedes Burnby (1994), and gives best account of Parkinson’s garden]


Rohde, Eleanour Sinclair (1922, rpt 1971) The Old English Herbals. London: New York: Longmans Green. [An author who really ‘gets’ Parkinson’s deep delight in gardens and flowers; excellent examples quoted from both books]


Seaver, Paul S. (1985) Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in 17th-century London. Stanford & London: Stanford University Press. [Intellectual biography of a Puritan lathe-turner, compiled from a surviving stash of his personal papers]


Sloan, A.W. (1996) English Medicine in the Seventeenth Century. Durham: Durham Academic Press. [Short, approachable summary of its subject]


Smith, Sir J.E. (1819) ‘John Parkinson’, The Cyclopaedia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, ed. A Rees. London: Longman, Hurst etc., vol. 26 [no pagination] [Confirms that the Theatrum was the leading medical textbook until the mid-18th century]


Spurling, Hilary (1987) Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking. Harmondsworth: Penguin/Viking. [More than well-presented recipes – a cultural history, beautifully edited]


Thomas, Keith (1971) Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in popular beliefs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.Harmondsworth: Penguin. [Like Trevor-Roper, another historian to envy, for his vast reading, complex but clear arguments and commanding style]


Tobyn, Graeme, Denham, Alison & Whitelegg, Margaret (2011) The Western Herbal Tradition: 2000 years of medicinal plant knowledge. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone. [The authors take some 30 herbs and see what the leading source books say about them; Parkinson is one of four sources selected for the 17th century]


Trevor-Roper, H. (2006) Europe’s Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, ed. Blair Worden. New Haven & London: Yale University Press [Posthumous publication of the first full biography of de Mayerne; wonderful prose, a treat to read, even if he has only one sentence on Parkinson: but this is the critical one, confirming Sir Theodore’s role in securing Parkinson’s elevation as the King’s Herbalist]


Willes, Margaret (2013) The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration, 1560–1660. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. [Comprehensive, scholarly but readable modern account]


Woolley, Benjamin (2004) The Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper and the fight for medical freedom. London: HarperCollins. [The subtitle gives the game away, but if it is partisan it is also thorough and entertainingly written]