Rembert Dodoens and the First Flemish Herbal

In 1578 a printer called Gerard Dewes, living at the Sign of the Swan in St. Paul's Churchyard, London, published a new herbal for which he claimed much. He advertised it as (with the original 16th-century spelling):

A nievve herball, or, Historie of plantes: wherein is contayned the vvhole discourse and perfect description of all sortes of herbes and plantes, their diuers and sundry kindes, their straunge figures, fashions, and shapes: their names, natures, operations, and vertues, and that not onely of those whiche are here growyng in this our countrie of Englande, but of all others also of forrayne realmes, commonly used in physicke/ first set foorth in the Doutche or Almaigne tongue, by that learned D. Rembert Dodoens, physition to the Emperour/and nowe first translated out of French into English, by Henry Lyte Esquyer.

The book Dewes was offering was the English translation of Cruydeboeck (Plant book), a herbal with more than 700 illustrations, written by Rembert Dodoens (1517–85) and first published in 1554. The French translation, Histoire des plantes, had appeared in 1557. This was the most extensively translated book of its time and appeared in a total of 13 editions, growing from 877 pages in the first edition to more than 1,500 pages. (It remained the most widely used botanical reference work for more than 200 years.) Copies of Lyte's English translation, as well as the Dutch, French, and Latin editions, are held in several museums and are bought and sold by antiquarian booksellers (they are very expensive!). Henry Lyte (ca. 1529–1607) was a botanist and antiquary.

Dodoens obtained much of his information and some of the woodblocks for his illustrations from the work of the German botanist Leonhard Fuchs, but there was an important difference. Fuchs had arranged his plants alphabetically; Dodoens arranged them in six groups according to their properties, which he considered to be “species, form, name, virtue, and temperament” (by “virtue” he meant “usefulness”). With each translation Dodoens took the opportunity of refining and expanding the work. By the time the Latin translation (Stirpium historiae pemptades sex) appeared in 1583, published in Antwerp by Christopher Plantin, the plants were arranged in 26 groups, there were 1,309 woodcut illustrations, and the work came to 900 pages. Effectively, it was a new book.

Rembert Dodoens was born Rembert Van Joenckema on June 29, 1517, in Mechelen (Malines is the French name) in what was then the Spanish Netherlands and is now Belgium. He studied medicine at the University of Louvain, graduating in 1535 when he was 18. He spent some time traveling in France and Germany before returning to his hometown in 1538 where he settled down as the town physician. In 1539 he married Kathelijne De Bruyn(e), and from 1542 until 1546 the couple lived in Basel, Switzerland. Dodoens wrote works on cosmography and physiology before turning to botany with De frugum historia (On the natural history of fruit), published in 1552. In 1557 he refused an invitation to become a professor at the University of Leuven. His wife died in 1572, which was also the year the Dutch population rose up against the Spanish occupation.

In the course of the revolution, Dodoens's house was looted and the town burned. He lost all of his possessions. The king of Spain, Philip II (1527–98), invited him to become his personal physician but Dodoens declined, becoming instead the physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527–76) and his successor, Rudolph II (1552–1612), accompanying them to Vienna and Prague. In 1582 Dodoens returned to the Netherlands, becoming professor of medicine at the University of Leiden, where he remained until his death on March 10, 1585.