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Eberly College of Arts and Sciences




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).


View the Big Green Data online exhibit.



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