Big Green Data: Herbals, Science, and Art
WVU Downtown Library, October–December, 2019
Exhibit Designer: Lara Farina, Professor of English
With environmental concerns looming large, the question of how we count and account for biodiversity is an urgent one, but we are not the first people to wrestle with it. Earlier cultures developed tools of categorization that set templates for those of today. By drawing connections between discrete things -- whether those be individual organisms, or parts of an organism, or particular qualities like color and size – both premodern and modern peoples use(d) categories as conceptual tools for studying the world and understanding their place in it.
This exhibit shows some of the ways in which plant life was understood and conceptually organized in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, particularly in medieval herbals. Herbals, which usually took the form of substantial illustrated books, are not field guides to plants or botanic encyclopedias, though they have elements in common with those kinds of works. Instead, herbals are “pharmacopeia,” lists of medicines that could be made from single kinds of plants. But their approach to identifying plant species is worth noting, not just as an important part of botanical history, but also for its interest in the language of naming. Herbals’ emphasis on etymology, translation, and the multiplicity of synonyms demands that their readers think extensively about the relation between bio-matter and the language we use to “analyze” it or divide it for the purpose of study (see OED, s.v. “analysis” 2a).
WVU is home to several resources that provide information about the history of botanical study and the naming of plant species.
The Libraries' Rare Book Collection contains printed herbals from the sixteenth century onward, together with a wealth of botanical publications from Europe and North America. The Library’s rare items include Nehemiah Grew’s The Anatomy of Plants (which shows the impact that early microscopes had on botany), a lavishly illustrated seventeenth-century account of the flora of southern India, and the twelve-volume Hough’s American Woods (with pages are made of thin slices of tree woods).
The WVU Herbarium has been archiving plant specimens since 1889. It houses the world’s largest collection of vascular plant specimens from central Appalachia and also receives and records plants from many other regions. The “voucher” specimens held by herbaria like WVU’s provide the basis for species identification and scientific nomenclature. WVU Herbarium even has a vote in the global standardization of botanic names.
The content of “Big Green Data” is based on the research of the exhibit designer, Prof. Lara Farina, published as “Vegetal Continuity and the Naming of Species,” postmedieval 9.4 (December 2018), 420–431: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-018-0100-8
This exhibit features images of manuscripts housed in major research libraries. Some of these manuscripts have been digitized so that they can be viewed online.
- Use the arrow keys above the viewing window to flip back and forth. Or you can simply take a look at some of the book’s remarkable illustrations.
The content of “Big Green Data” is based on the research of the exhibit designer, Prof. Lara Farina, published as “Vegetal Continuity and the Naming of Species,” in a special issue of the journal postmedieval devoted to “Premodern Plants.”