natural history

John Parkinson and the Rise of Botany in the 17th Century

By Guest Contributor Molly Nebiolo


John Parkinson, depicted in his monumental Theatrum botanicum (1640).

The roots of contemporary botany have been traced back to the botanical systems laid out by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Yet going back in further in time reveals some of the key figures who created some of the first ideas and publications that brought horticulture forward as a science. John Parkinson (1567-1650) is one of the foremost in that community of scientists. Although “scientist” was a word coined in the nineteenth century, I will be using it because it embodies the systematic acts of observation and experimentation to understand how nature works that I take Parkinson to be exploring. While “natural philosophy” was the term more commonly in use at the time, the simple word “science” will be used for the brevity of the piece and to stress the links between Parkinson’s efforts and contemporary fields. Parkinson’s works on plants and gardening in England remained integral to botany, herbalism, and medicinal healing for decades after his death, and he was one of the first significant botanists to introduce exotic flowers into England in the 17th century to study their healing properties. He was a true innovator for the field of botany, yet his work has not been heavily analyzed in the literature on the early modern history of science. The purpose of this post is to underline some of the achievements that can be  attributed to Parkinson, and to examine his first major text, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, a groundbreaking work in the field of history in the mid-1600s.

Parkinson grew up as an apprentice for an apothecary from the age of fourteen, and quickly rose in the ranks of society to the point of becoming royal apothecary to James I. His success resulted in many opportunities to collect plants outside of England, including trips to the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa in the first decade of the seventeenth century. At the turn of the seventeenth century, collectors would commonly accompany trading expeditions to collect botanical specimens to determine if they could prosper in English climate. Being the first to grow the great Spanish daffodil in England, and cultivating over four hundred plants in his own garden by the end of his life, Parkinson was looked up to as a pioneer in the nascent field of botanical science. He assisted fellow botanists in their own work, but he also was the founder of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and the author of two major texts as well.

His first book, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) reveals a humorous side to Parkinson, as he puts a play on words for his surname in the title: “Park-in-Sun.” This text, published in 1628, along with his second, more famous work published in 1640, Theatrum botanicum (The Theater of Plants), were both immensely influential to the horticultural and botanical corpori of work that were emerging during the first half of the 17th century. Just in the titles of both, we can see how much reverence Parkinson had for the intersection of fields he worked with: horticulture, botany, and medicine. By titling his second book The Theater of Plants, he creates a vivid picture of how he perceived gardens. Referencing the commonly used metaphor of the theater of the world, Parkinson compares plants as the actors in the the garden’s theatrum. It is also in Theatrum Botanicum that Parkinson details the medicinal uses of hundreds of plants that make up simple (medicinal) gardens in England. While both texts are rich for analysis, I want to turn attention specifically to Paradisus terrestris because I think it is a strong example of how botany and gardening were evolving into a new form of science in Europe during the seventeenth century.


Title page woodcut image for Paradisus Terrestris. Image courtesy of the College of Physicians Medical Library, Philadelphia, PA.

The folio pages of Paradisus terrestris are as large and foreboding as those of any early modern edition of the Bible. Chock full of thousands of detailed notes on the origins, appearance, and medical and social uses for pleasure gardens, kitchen gardens and orchards, one could only imagine how long it took Parkinson to collect this information. Paradisus terrestris was one of the first real attempts of a botanist to organize plants into what we now would term genuses and species. This encyclopedia of meticulously detailed, imaged and grouped plants was a new way of displaying horticultural and botanical information when it was first published. While it was not the first groundbreaking example of the science behind gardens and plants in western society, Luci Ghini potentially being the first, Parkinson’s reputation and network within his circle of botany friends and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries bridged the separation between the two fields. Over the course of the century,  the medicinal properties of a plant were coherently circulated in comprehensive texts like Parkinson’s as the Scientific Revolution and the colonization of the New World steadily increased access to new specimens and the tools to study them.



Paradisus terrestris includes many woodcut images of the flowers Parkinson writes about to help the reader better study and identify them. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, MO.

Another thing to note in Paradisus terrestris is the way Parkinson writes about plants in the introduction. While most of the book is more of a how-to narrative on how to grow a pleasure garden, kitchen garden, or orchard, the preface to the volume illustrates much about Parkinson as a botanist. Gardens to Parkinson are integral to life; they are necessary “for Meat or Medicine, for Use or for Delight” (2).  The symbiotic relationship between humans and plants is repeatedly discussed in how gardens should be situated in relationship to the house, and how minute details in the way a person interacts with a garden space can affect the plants. “The fairer and larger your allies [sic] and walks be the more grace your Garden shall have, the lesse [sic] harm the herbs and flowers shall receive…and the better shall your Weeders cleanse both the beds and the allies” (4). The preface divulges the level of respect and adoration Parkinson has towards plants. It illustrates the deep enthusiasm and curiosity he has towards the field, two features of a botanist that seemed synonymous for natural philosophers and collectors of the time.

John Parkinson was one of the first figures in England to merge the formalized study of plants with horticulture and medicine. Although herbs and plants have been used as medicines for thousands of years, it is in the first half of the seventeenth century that the medicinal uses of plants become a scientific attribute to a plant, as they were categorized and defined in texts like Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris and Theatrum botanicum. Parkinson is a strong example of the way a collector’s mind worked in the early modern period, in the way he titled his texts and the adoration that can be felt when reading the introduction of Paradisus terrestris. From explorer, to collector, horticulturist, botanist, and apothecary, the many hats Parkinson wore throughout his professional career and the way he weaved them together exemplify the lives many of these early scientists lived as they brought about the rise of these new sciences.

Molly Nebiolo is a PhD student in History at Northeastern University. Her research covers early modern science and medicine in North America and the Atlantic world and she is completing a Certificate in Digital Humanities. She also writes posts for the Medical Health and Humanities blog at Columbia University.

Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Brothers of Continuity

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a young German polymath ventured into the heart of the South American jungle, climbed the Chimborazo volcano, crawled through the Andes, conducted experiments on animal electricity, and delineated climate zones across continents.  His name was Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). With the young French scientist Aimé Bonpland and equipped with the latest instruments, Humboldt tirelessly collected and compared data and specimens, returning after five years to Paris with trunks filled with notebooks, sketches, specimens, measurements, and observations of new species. Throughout his travels in South America, Russia and Mongolia, he invented isotherms and formulated the idea of vegetation and climate zones. Crucially, he witnessed the continuum of nature unfold before him and set forth a new understanding of nature that has endured up to this day. Man existed in a great chain of causes and effects in which “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” Humboldt sought to discover the “connections which linked all phenomena and all forces of nature.” The natural world was teeming with organic powers that were incessantly at work and which, far from operating in isolation, were all “interlaced and interwoven.” Nature, he wrote, was “a reflection of the whole” and called for a global understanding. Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807) was the world’s first book on ecology in which plants were grouped into zones and regions rather than taxonomic units and analogies drawn between disparate regions of the globe.

In this manner, Alexander sketched out a Naturgemälde, a “painting of nature” that fused botany, geology, zoology and physics in one single picture, and in this manner broke away from prevailing taxonomic representations of the natural world. His was a fundamentally interdisciplinary approach, at a time when scientific inquiry was becoming increasingly specialized. The study of the natural world was no abstract endeavor and was far removed from the mechanistic philosophy that had held sway up till then. Nature was the object of scientific inquiry, but also of wonder and as such, it exerted a mysterious pull. Man was firmly relocated within a living cosmos broader than himself, which appealed equally to his emotions and imagination. From the heart of the jungle to the summit of volcanoes, “nature everywhere [spoke] to man in a voice that is familiar to his soul” and what spoke to the soul, Humboldt wrote, “escapes our measurements” (Views of Nature, 217-18). In this manner Humboldt followed in the footsteps of Goethe, his lifelong friend, and the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, in particular the latter’s Naturphilosophie (“philosophy of nature”). Nature was a living organism it was necessary to grasp in its unity, and its study should steer away from “crude empiricism” and the “dry compilation of facts” and instead speak to “our imagination and our spirit.” In this manner, rigorous scientific method was wedded to art and poetry and the boundaries between the subjective and the objective, the internal and the external were blurred. “With an aesthetic breeze,” Alexander’s long-time friend Goethe wrote, the former had lit science into a “bright flame” (quoted in Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 146).

Alexander von Humboldt’s older brother, Wilhelm (1767-1835), a government official with a great interest in reforming the Prussian educational system, had been similarly inspired. While his brother had ventured out into the jungle, Wilhelm, on his side, had devoted much of his life to the exploration of the linguistic realm, whether in his study of Native American and ancient languages or in his attempts to grasp the relation between linguistic and mental structures. Like the German philosopher and literary critic Johann Gottfried Herder before him, Humboldt posited that language, far from being a merely a means of communication, was the “formative organ” (W. Humboldt, On the Diversity of Human Language, 54) of thought. According to this view, man’s judgmental activity was inextricably bound up with his use of language. Humboldt’s linguistic thought relied on a remarkable interpretation of language itself: language was an activity (energeia) as opposed to a work or finished product (ergon). In On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species (1836), his major treatise on language, Wilhelm articulated a forcefully expressivist conception of language, in which he brought to bear the interconnectedness and organic nature of all languages and by extension, various worldviews. Far from being a “dead product,” an “inert mass,” language appeared as a “fully-fashioned organism” that, within the remit of an underlying universal template, was free to evolve spontaneously, allowing for maximum linguistic diversity (90).


Left to Right: Friedrich Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander von Humboldt, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, depicted by Adolph Müller (c.1797)

To the traditional objectification of language, Wilhelm opposed a reading of language that was heavily informed by biology and physiology, in keeping with the scientific advances of his time. Within this framework, language could not be abstracted, interwoven as it was with the fabric of everyday life. Henceforth, there was no longer one “objective” way of knowing the world, but a variety of different worldviews. Like his brother, Wilhelm strove to understand the world in its individuality and totality.

At the heart of the linguistic process lay an in-built mechanism, a feedback loop that accounted for language’s ability to generate itself. This consisted in the continuous interplay between an external sound-form and an inner conceptual form, whose “mutual interpenetration constitute[d] the individual form of language” (54). In this manner, rhythms and euphonies played a role in expressing internal mental states. The dynamic and self-generative aspect of language was therefore inscribed in its very core. Language was destined to be in perpetual flux, renewal, affecting a continuous generation and regeneration of the world-making capacity powerfully spontaneous and autonomous force, it brought about “something that did not exist before in any constituent part” (473).

As much as the finished product could be analyzed, the actual linguistic process defied any attempt at scientific scrutiny, remaining inherently mysterious. Language may well abide by general rules, but it was fundamentally akin to a work of art, the product of a creative outburst which “cannot be measured out by the understanding” (81). Language, as much as it was rule-governed and called for empirical and scientific study, originated somewhere beyond semio-genesis. “Imagination and feeling,” Wilhelm wrote, “engender individual shapings in which the individual character […] emerges, and where, as in everything individual, the variety of ways in which the thing in question can be represented in ever-differing guises, extends to infinity” (81). Wilhelm therefore elevated language to a quasi-transcendental status, endowing it with a “life-principle” of its own and consecrating it as a “mental exhalation,” the manifestation of a free, autonomous spiritual force. He denied that language was the product of voluntary human activity, viewing instead as a “mental exhalation,” a “gift fallen to [the nations] by their own destiny” (24) partaking in a broader spiritual mission. In this sense, the various nations constituted diverse individualities pursuant of inner spiritual paths of their own, with each language existing as a spiritual creation and gradual unfolding:

If in the soul the feeling truly arises that language is not merely a medium of exchange for mutual understanding, but a true world which the intellect must set between itself and objects by the inner labour of its power, then the soul is on the true way toward discovering constantly more in language, and putting constantly more into it (135).

While he seemed to share his brother’s intellectual demeanor, Wilhelm disapproved of many of Alexander’s life-choices, from living in Paris rather than Berlin (particularly during the wars of liberation against Napoleon), which he felt was most unpatriotic, to leaving the civilized world in his attempts to come closer to nature (Wulf 151). Alexander, the natural philosopher and adventurer, on his side reproached his brother for his conservatism and social and political guardedness. In a time marred by conflict and the growth of nationalism, science, for him, had no nationality and he followed scientific activity wherever it took him, especially to Paris, where he was widely celebrated throughout his life. In a European context of growing repression and censorship in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, he encouraged the free exchange of ideas and information, and pleaded for international collaborations between scientists and the collection of global data; truth would gradually emerge from the confrontation of different opinions. He also gave many lectures during which he would effortlessly hop from one subject to another, in this manner helping to popularize science. More generally, he would help other scholars whenever he could, intellectually or financially.

As the ideas of 1789 failed to materialize, giving way instead to a climate of censorship and repression, Alexander slowly grew disillusioned with politics. His extensive travels had provided him insights not only on the natural world but also on the human condition. “European barbarity,” especially in the shape of colonialism, tyranny and serfdom had fomented dissent and hatred. Even the newly-born American Republic, with its founding principles of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was not immune to this scourge (Wulf 171). Man with his greed, violence and ignorance could be as barbaric to his fellow man as he was to nature. Nature was inextricably linked with the actions of mankind and the latter often left a trail of destruction in its wake through deforestation, ruthless irrigation, industrialization and intensive cultivation. “Man can only act upon nature and appropriate her forces to his use by comprehending her laws.” Alexander would later write in his life, and failure to do so would eventually leave even distant stars “barren” and “ravaged” (Wulf 353).

Furthermore, while Wilhelm was perhaps the more celebrated in his time, it was Alexander’s legacy that would prove the more enduring, inspiring new generations of nature writers, including the American founder of the transcendentalist movement Henry David Thoreau, who intended his masterpiece Walden as an answer to Humboldt’s Cosmos, John Muir, the great preservationist, or Ernst Haeckel, who discovered radiolarians and coined our modern science of ecology” Another noteworthy influence was on Darwin and his theory of evolution. Darwin took Humboldt’s web of complex relations a step further and turned them into a tree of life from which all organisms stem. Humboldt sought to upend the ideal of “cultivated nature,” most famously perpetuated by the French naturalist the Comte de Buffon, whereby nature had to be domesticated, ordered, and put to productive use. Crucially, he inspired a whole generation of adventurers, from Darwin to Joseph Banks, and revolutionized scientific practice by tearing the scientist away from the library and back into the wilderness.

For all their many criticisms and disagreements, both brothers shared a strong bond. Alexander, who survived Wilhelm by twenty-four years, emphasized again and again Wilhelm’s “greatness of the character” and his “depth of emotions,” as well as his “noble, still-moving soul life.” Both brothers carved out unique trajectories for themselves, the first as a jurist, a statesman and a linguist, the second arguably as the first modern scientist; yet both still remained beholden to the idea of totalizing systems, each setting forth insights that remain more pertinent than ever.


Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, from a frontispiece illustration of 1836

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford.