The Medieval Review 12.10.33

Black, Winston. Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus Ortus: A Verse Herbal of the Twelfth Century. British Writers of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period 3, Studies and Texts 180. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2012. Pp. xiv, 562. $175.00. ISBN: 978-1-85124-284-9. . .

Reviewed by:

John Riddle
Emeritus, North Carolina State University

Winston Black demonstrates why Henry of Huntingdon, well-known for his History of England, should also be known as one of the natural science contributors in the Middle Ages. Henry writes on 160 plants in 169 separate poems in six books. Information, predominantly about botany and medicine, is related as a mnemonic device similar to Macer's Herbal and Walahfrid Strabo's Little Garden, both of which Henry utilized in addition to Pseudo-Apuleius On the Virtues of Herbs, Constantine's On Degrees, Pliny's Natural History, and Dioscorides' Materials of Medicine, as well as possibly direct or indirect uses of such authors as Galen and Quintus Serenus' Book of Medicines. Black's characterization of Henry's treatment of Macer seems fitting as a generalization for Henry's entire work: "his material ranges from the delightful to the banal from inspired explorations of nature's virtues to mere paraphrases" (29). To this reviewer the weight belongs more to the delightful than banality. Henry was truly a humanist whose love of the classics led him to numerous references to poets, gods, and goddesses. Black skillfully assembled manuscript evidence and reassembled secondary sources, and, thereby, enabled us to appreciate the range of Henry of Huntingdon's writings as no prior author has previously done.

Winston Black's sleuthing posits that Henry composed an eight-book verse compendium, mostly in dactylic hexameters with occasional rhymes, on plants and minerals. Only after preparing a critical text from five manuscripts (one now in Prague) and a clever, readable translation facing the Latin text, he realized that three works (De herbis, De aromatibus, and De gemmis) attributed to Henry were all part of a whole compendium in eight books. The title Anglicanus ortus or "English Garden" is not directly attributed to Henry. In this publication, Black has reassembled the first two titles here as Books 1-6. Subsequently and separately Black published the last two books on minerals (De gemmis) in Mediaeval Studies 68 (2006): 43-87, even though the chronology for publications are different. Combining internal and external evidence, Black demonstrates that the sections on herbs were written in two time-periods. Books 1-4 were composed between 1129 and 1135 and the latter books sometime from the mid-1130s to mid-1150s. Henry's Preface to Book 6 makes this clear: the first section (Bks. 1-4) is an indistinct work. Books 5-6 add herbs and spices; some, such as camphor and frankincense, being more exotic and from foreign lands, such as eastern traded-items.

The first sections (Bks. 1-4) were carefully planned with twenty-five plants per book, which Henry describes as he walks through his four-sectioned garden. The sections are by cardinal quadrants in a circle around a lake with an island in the center connected by a land bridge. The layout is the same as the botanical garden later in Padua forming plants from various compass habitats. Henry's plants do not appear to be arranged by habitats or morphological characteristics. The center section in the lake has herbs, plants, and spices found in Books 6-7 and, in Henry's text, Books 7-8 on minerals. A scribe of one manuscript (BM Sloane 3468) rearranged Henry's order by the alphabet, probably as an aid to physicians and those using the work for medicinal purpose. Henry's medical knowledge is that of an informed person of his age, not that of a physician, and who combines personal experience and a surprising mastery of classical and medieval authorities. In a friendly, causal manner, Henry guides his guest, plant by plant, singing forth the plants' characteristics and citing classical gods and poets when appropriate, much as later Vergil will guide Dante.

The first book begins with "Artemisia" ( Artemisia vulgaris L.), the so-called Mother Herb, because, Henry explains, it was named after Artemis, the mother goddess, and exists in three "species", only one described here with other two in other books. Artemisia provokes the "menses" (incidentally, which it does according to modern science), but then Henry asks his guest: Scis quid menstrua sint?. He delivers a definition helpful to his obvious male guest. In a casual, conversational manner, Henry relates what appear to be personal experiences, albeit not about menstruation! For example, artemisia is frequently taken with wine and counters those "slowed" by opium. The German word for artemisia is Wermut, our vermouth, and, in large amounts, is harmful. Our vermouth has artemisia only in small amount as a flavoring agent. Contrary to our modern experiences Henry declares that wine steeped artemisia is a pleasant, unharmful medicine, thereby differing with his contemporaries who asserted harmful effects. Without evidence to the contrary, one might conclude that Henry did not drink to excess with this medicine. Another species of the same plant, southernwood (A. abrotanus L.) appears in Book 2, chapter 23, where he relates it is either eaten raw or drunk in wine. In Book 3, chapter 11, another species of the same plant is discussed, namely wormwood or absinthe (Artemisia absinthium), which contains a higher concentration of thujone, a psychedelic (mind altering) drug. Except in minute quantities, the drink is illegal in most Western countries. Henry neglects to mention what is, to us, a defining characteristic.

Henry's experiences with plants do not always match our expectations. Oregano (1.7) is given for melancholy, our depression, and he omits the use for lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.), asserted by most classical and medieval herbalists for melancholy. He omits altogether St. John's wort, which we take for depression. In Book 4, chapter 23, Birthwort (Aristolochia spp.), as the medieval English word implies, was given to assist in childbirth (or even causing late term abortions); Henry gives the Latin and a Greek name for the plant, omitting any allusion to the vernacular name, and says only that it removes a delayed afterbirth. In Book 3, chapter 4 on feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium Bernh.), Henry was aware of the common English name: "Who doesn't know, when hearing its name, that Feverfew fights fever?" and he implies that there is controversy over a link between feverfew and artemisia plants. Recently we rediscovered that artemisia plants contain a substance we are now using for malaria. Henry did not always accept the authority of his sources as when he expressed skepticism about whether a person pulling a mandrake (3.1)--he calls it herbarum princeps--leads to his death after hearing the herb scream as it is torn from the earth's womb.

The critical Latin text and translation are easily accessible on opposite pages. Black supplies a helpful scholarly commentary especially related to sources and vocabulary. A late-12th century collection of short entries from Books 1-4 appears as an appendix. He provides separate indices for herbs and medicines, anatomical and nosographical terms, persons and places and unusual vocabulary terms. An index of plants according to science nomenclature would have been helpful. In addition to Henry of Huntingdon's History of England and a work on epigrams, he wrote two religious tracts and an eight-book verse work on love, both of which are lost. Through this publication and Winston Black's outstanding scholarship, the eight-book poem on plants and minerals enables us to lift Henry of Huntingdon to the highest level of English medieval authors and us to elevate Winston Black among the foremost young medievalists