Bureaucracy: A compleat herbal of the late James Newton, M.D

Newton, James. A Compleat Herbal of the Late James Newton, M.D. Containing the Prints and English Names of Several Thousand Trees, Plants, Shrubs, Flowers, Exotics, & c. London: Printed by E. Cave at St. Johns Gate, 1752.


The contents of this printed herbal are based on compilations from earlier herbals made James Newton (1639-1718), a physician and botanist. Newton’s research took him throughout England and the Netherlands and he corresponded with noteworthy contemporary men of science, including Paul Hermann at Leiden, James Sutherland at the Edinburgh Physic Garden, Hans Sloane of British Museum fame, and John Ray, author of the compendious Historia Plantarum (1686-1704). Inspired by the work of these men and others, Newton attentively and meticulously lorded over the realm of botany. Newton’s work aims to fully account for—by name and appearance—the entirety of late seventeenth-century botanical knowledge. An early biographer speculated that botany was a way for Newton, the administrator of a London madhouse, to  “divert his attention, in some measure, from the sad objects under his care” (Noble 280). As an imminently rational endeavor, systematically accounting for the universe of plants might have, for Newton, staved off frightful chaos of human minds unloosed from their moorings.

This herbal features images—referred to as “icons” in the Preface—and English names for several thousand trees and plants. This information is organized in 174 tables containing about 20 icons grouped by type. John Ray, whose influence on this herbal is clear, implemented groupings of images by type, which are typical of the Peterson field guides of today. Additionally, each icon is titled with the English names of the plants represented and one or more initials. The initials refer the book’s reader to other botanical texts listed in an opening table. Newton drew much of his information, visual and textual, from these other texts, and, in many cases, the Latin names for the plants are included as part of these inter-textual references.  An alphabetical index—also employing the English names of the plants—facilitates navigation of the numerous plates. The order of the plates reflects the progress of the author’s original work as a botanical author. His first book began with grasses and his second, more comprehensive, book began with apples. The contents of both these earlier publications are printed in this herbal, beginning with types of grasses and continuing through, among others, types of horsetails, reeds, corn, beans, peas, lentils, vetches, violets, daffodils, tulips, onions, leeks, garlic, crocuses, turnips, radishes, mustards, rockets (arugulas), endives, dandelions, lettuces, cabbages, beets, ferns, mallows, hollyhocks, apples, poppies, rhubarbs, anemones, foxgloves, carnations, aloes, yuccas, flaxes, potatoes, gourds, pompions (pumpkins), bindweeds, strawberries, mints, hemps, sages, ground pines, marigolds, sunflowers, daisies, thistles, carrots, parsnips, and mushrooms.

Even though this 1752 Herbal was derived from earlier sources, the edition on display here speaks very clearly to its own moment of coming into being. Newton’s son—also named James Newton (1664-1750)—was also a botanist and physician. But his son—that is, the grandson of the compiler of this herbal—entered a different profession when he was educated in Oxford and took a post in the Anglican clergy. This third James Newton arranged for his grandfather’s two seventeenth-century herbals to be printed again in London in 1752, pages of which are reproduced here.

Several motives were at work in the reprinting of these older materials in the middle of the eighteenth century: for one, Newton, the clergyman’s father, had died just two years earlier, in 1750, leaving behind his and his father’s research materials. The publication of this herbal collected these materials and brought them into public view once again in a more comprehensive format. The book’s dedication to Earl Harcourt provides another clue regarding motive: in 1749, the  England system of hereditary titles was expanded, with the addition of the titles Earl of Harcourt and Viscount of Nuneham. Both these titles were bestowed upon Simon Harcourt (1714-1777), a British general, diplomat, and Fellow of the Royal Society. As the noble most closely attached to the third James Newton’s church and the village it served, Harcourt made a fitting dedicatee for this book. The herbal would have served as a token of obligation, potentially aimed at ingratiating Newton to this local dignitary; at the very least, it reminded Harcourt of the fact that the Rector of the local church was descended from a line of men of scientific accomplishments.

Two ironic turns close the chapter on the role this herbal played in the relationship between Harcourt and his de facto dependent, Newton. In 1759, Harcourt had the village and church that were Newton’s home and workplace destroyed. This was done to clear land for the building of villa with a carefully landscaped park (designed by the renowned architect, Lancelot “Capability” Brown) for the use of Harcourt and his guests. Newton’s congregation was greatly diminished by this act, even if the park may have provided a pleasant location for the uninterrupted observation of plants. For his part, Harcourt’s ended his busy political and administrative career in 1777, when he retired and took up residence at Nuneham House, built on the site of Newton’s place of worship and work. Within the year of arriving in Oxfordshire, however, Harcourt drowned in a well in an attempt to save his dog that had fallen into it. It is speculated that the destruction of Newenham Courtenay inspired Oliver Goldsmith’s famous poem, The Deserted Village (1770) and its critique of luxury (McConnell).

Find Newton's Herbal in the UNT Libraries Catalog.