Like animals, plants were viewed as part of the Book of Nature--a book one could read if he only knew the symbols. And like the study of animals, the study of plants has a history that stretches back to classical and biblical times. In the Old Testament certain plants stood out as having special significance or special properties. No one reading the Old Testament can miss the central importance of the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Life; nor can one overlook the purification significance of the hyssop plant. As with the animals, however, it was Aristotle who was the ultimate source of herbal material in the Middle Ages. Although Aristotle's primary work on botany has unfortunately been lost, he does refer to plants in a number of his other works, and he left his library of materials to his pupil Theophrastus (b. 370 B.C.). Theophrastus's botanical work, Enquiry into Plants, passed through Arabian channels to resurface in Western thought in the thirteenth century.
The other source for medieval herbals comes from the area of medical botany--the concern with the healing qualities of certain plants. Aristotle may also have influenced this branch, and a ninth book added to Theophrastus's Enquiry into Plants includes superstitious material about plants. The truly important figure in this area of botany is a man, known as Dioscorides, writing in the first century A.D. His work, known best by its Latin title, De materia medica libri quinque, contains descriptions of over 500 plants, including the specific healing virtues. Well into the Renaissance this work continued to be copied, glossed--and accepted as infallible.
So far in the history of the herbal the material passed on tended to be a mixture of botanical observation and superstition. With the advent of Christian exegesis, Christian writers began to transform this classical material into Christian allegory, transforming the flowers and plants sacred to the pagan gods into attributes of Christ and the Virgin Mary. In this period the works which represent the greatest wealth of botanical symbolism are the Hexameron by St. Ambrose (4th century), the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (6th), the De Universo by Hrabanus Maurus (9th), and the Repertarium morale and Reductorium morale by Pertrus Berchorius (14th). As this botanical material continued to be copied and allegorized, it expanded from the classical concern with herbs and some flowers to include many flowers, fruits, and trees. Even on into the Renaissance this material continued to be copied and illustrated in many herbals and popularized in the newly emerging Emblem books.
Like the bestiaries, the herbals contain a fascinating array of material. In the herbal we can learn the mystery of the mandrake plant whose root was said to resemble the human form. According to Dioscorides, the mandrake symbolized lust, and others believed that an infusion of this plant allowed people to change sex. Such knowledge helps to understand Donne's poetic line about getting with child a mandrake root. From the herbal we also learn that the cucumber is a symbol for the human sin that did not affect the Immaculate Virgin and is based on an interpretation of Isaiah 1:8: "And the daughter of Zion is left...as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city." In De universe Hrabanus Maurus tells us that the cucumber symbolized lust, because the Jews in the desert "preferred cucumbers to the manna sent from Heaven." It is surely not without significance that the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight carries a bob of holly in his stunning entrance to King Arthur's court. From classical tradition we learn that the holly was a sign of peace, and from the herbals we learn that holly symbolized the passion of Christ because tradition said the crown of thorns was made from holly. It was also the attribute of John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod. Taken together these meanings certainly help to support the Green Knight's statement that he came to Arthur's court in peace. The connection with John the Baptist may foreshadow the beheading about to take place, and the allusion to Christ's passion may suggest a more serious role for the Green Knight than might first be suspected.
Certain groups of plants deserve a brief discussion of their own. Given the yearly cycle of the seasons, flowers and fruits suggest a cycle of life, death, and resurrection. More particularly flowers are directly associated with the Virgin Mary, based on passages in Scripture, on Christ's conception in the springtime, and Mary's frequent depiction in an enclosed garden (based on Canticles 4:12). Remnants of this remain today in the names of some flowers associated with Mary: Lady's slipper or Lady's smock. In medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Annunciation there is usually a pot or vase of lilies somewhere in the painting--and there is a good reason for their traditional inclusion. According to medieval tradition, the lily symbolizes chastity, virginity, and the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The specific reference, however, may come from Albertus Magnus who said that "Mary's womb was like a field surrounded by lilies because she was a virgin before, during, and after giving birth to Christ." It is not surprising, therefore, that the lily also comes to be an attribute of the Archangel Gabriel.
Fruits, too, are sometimes singled out for special symbolism. Because they contain seeds for new plants, fruit often suggests fertility and regeneration. But fruit can also suggest the overripe pleasures of earthly pursuits--and sometimes fleshly desires. In a specifically Christian context, fruit can also refer to the twelve Scriptural "fruits of the spirit." A good example of the range of symbolism is the pear. In some context it suggests the Virgin and Child because of its sweetness. This may account for the many artistic depictions of the Madonna, Christ Child, and pear. Another reason, however, may be that the pear was sometimes seen as the alternate fruit of the fall. This may, in fact, be the tradition behind Chaucer's use of the pear tree in the "Merchant's Tale." There a kind of symbolic fall takes place beneath the tree when Damian, who has been described as being like a snake, tempts the young May to commit adultery in the pear tree. In that sense the pear was a fruit of earthly desire and the flesh--the very weakness Christ's incarnation at Christmas was designed to redeem. So the inclusion of the pear in the Madonna pictures may have a double meaning.
One other category deserves more attention than we can give it here. That is the area of trees.
Agnus Castus: A Middle English Herbal. Ed. Gosta Brodin. Essays and Studies on English Language and Literature. Upsala: A.-B. Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1950.
Organized alphabetically by Latin names, this text was written by an Englishman in the 14th century. It also includes introductory material.
Behling, Lottlisa. Die Planze in der Mittelalterlichen Taffelmalerei. Köln: Bölau Verlag, 1967.
This very scholarly work is organized historically and by artist. It includes pictures with enlargements of plants and flowers and an index of plant names. Although the work is in German, it is a very important source.
Behling, Lottlisa. Die Pflanzenwelt der Mittelalterlichen Kathedral. Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 1964.
This is the companion volume to the one listed above and includes an index of plants, detailed photographs, and a thorough bibliography.
D'Ancona, Mirella Levi. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Arte e Archeologia: Studie Documenti, no. 10. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1977.
Although the title focuses on Italian painting in the Renaissance, the scope of the work is actually much broader. There is excellent introductory material, but the bulk of the work is a detailed listing of the various plants, flowers, and trees. For each he includes a variety of meanings, specific sources, a listing of pictures illustrating the particular meanings. The work is very scholarly and is a standard source.
Friend, Hilderic. Flowers and Flower Lore. 2 vols. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1892.
The focus is on flower lore past and present. Although the author generally gives some idea of sources, this one should be used with care because it includes modern meanings. It includes herbs, flowers, and some trees.
Grigson, Geoffrey. A Herbal of All Sorts. London: Phoenix House, 1959.
This work is organized in rough alphabetical order and tends to focus more on the Renaissance, but does include some medieval meanings. It is an interesting popular approach, but use with care.
Larkey, Sanford and Thomas Pyles. An Herbal, 1525. New York: New York Botanical Garden, 1942. 615.32 H413L
After a good introduction and a facsimile of the original, there is a modern version which lists the qualities and folklore of herbs. It is arranged alphabetically by the plants' Latin names.
Lehner, Ernst and Johanna. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1960.
Organized around topics rather than particular plants, this work claims to focus on late medieval and early Renaissance. It tends to be more popular in approach, but does include helpful material.
Quinn, Vernon. Stories and Legends of Garden Flowers. New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1939.
This source gives legends of flowers but gives no real documentation although it does give some idea of historical period. There is an alphabetical listing but no bibliography.
Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols.
Clement, Clara Erskine. A Handbook of Christian Symbols and Stories of the Saints.
Cooper, J. C. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols.
Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art.
Forstner, Dorothea. Die Welt der Symbole.
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art.
Hulme, F. Edward. The History Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Christian Art.
Kirschbaum, Engelbert. Lexicon der Christlichen Ikonographie.
Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend.
Reau, Louis. Iconographie de L'Art Chretien.
Sill, Gertrude Grace. A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art.
Vries, Ad de. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery.
Whittick, Arnold. Symbols, Signs and Their Meaning.
Selected Secondary Sources
Anderson, Frank J. An Illustrated History of the Herbals. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
Arber, Agnes. Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. 2nd. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953.
Blunt, Wilfrid and Sandra Raphael. The Illustrated Herbal. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1979.
Singer, Charles. From Magic to Science. London: Ernest Benn, Ltd., 1928.