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Rebecca Laroche, 'Elizabeth Isham's Herbal'

Elizabeth Isham's Herbal



Rebecca Laroche, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs




Beginning and ending with the forty-first item in one of Elizabeth Isham’s book inventories found at the Northamptonshire Records Office (NRO IC 4829), “An Herball,” my study examines the significance of Elizabeth Isham’s herbal ownership through the contexts of Englishwomen’s ownership of authoritative folio vernacular herbals in the period and of that provided by the autobiography. With more than twenty examples of early modern women owning the large comprehensive volumes written by William Turner, Rembert Dodoens, John Gerard, and John Parkinson – most famously in the figures of Margaret Hoby, Grace Mildmay, Anne Clifford, and Elizabeth Freke – and presenting slides of some of the more compelling herbal inscriptions I have found, I demonstrate how Isham’s “An Herball” is likely to have been one of these authoritative texts.

I then turn to the remembrances themselves. While Isham does not overtly mention in the autobiography that she reads the herbal, she does record the moment in 1633 when she decides to pursue herbal knowledge (fol. 28r) over the further studies of Latin. Briefly outlining the various motivations for such a decision, I conclude that Isham chooses a kind of knowledge that reflects her familial love and is an extension of her personal history.

The remembrances also hold evidence of Isham’s herbal reading not in the main body of the text but in the margins. Specific references to herbs in the marginalia, which I posit were written after the central narrative, add detail to general references to medicaments and seem to indicate a moment of study. If the memoir was indeed written in 1638/39 as the Constructing Elizabeth Isham team has concluded and the marginal herbal notations were written after that main narrative, I posit that the herbal listed in Isham’s book inventory may be John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum (1640). It is certain that Elizabeth Isham throughout her life had several different herbal authorities available to her in family resources and practitioners and smaller handbooks listed in the inventories, but the entry “An Herball” may record specifically the alternate title of the Theatrum, “An Herball of Large Extent,” and an intertextual analysis between Parkinson’s entries on the herbs listed and the virtues of the plants recorded in the autobiography suggest a direct correspondence. The late date of the Theatrum thus provides evidence of Elizabeth Isham’s sustained pursuit of medical knowledge beyond the death of her sister and the writing of the autobiography.

As an addendum to my presentation, the conversation after revealed that the research of Michelle DiMeo may provide the means of substantiating or revising my hypothesis in that Isham’s medical papers seem to contain copied passages from an herbal – with page citations! I cannot thank the members of the project enough for including me in the conversation.