Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Plants before the Revolution

Posted on by royvickery |

Sue McDowall, Plants before the Revolution: Food, Remedies, Festivals and Beliefs in Pre-Industrial England, Hurstwood Publications (, 2018.

Although recently published this attractive book dates from the 1970s, when its author studied at the University of Leeds.  Consequently it does not take advantage of Ronald Hutton’s work on folk customs,  Iona Opie and Moira Tatem’s 1989 Dictionary of Superstitions, and other recent studies.  Indeed the most recent publication cited is Roy Judge’s Jack-in-the-Green, published in 1979.  Rather strangely the author suggests that Jack ‘was a figure of ancient origin’, whereas Judge’s work showed that it evolved towards the end of the eighteenth century.

The problem of establishing when a belief or practice was current recurs throughout the book; often the author seems to assume that a practice recorded in Victorian England, or sometimes later, must have also been known in pre-industrial times.  An extreme example of this is the assumption that the legend  that the fig tree which grows from the wall of St Newlyn East church in Cornwall grew from a staff carried by St Newlina, was current before 1800.  In fact it appears to have been first collected (or perhaps invented) in the 1930s.

The work is embellished by a number of attractive drawings of some of the plants mentioned, but the illustration on p.46, labelled ‘Primrose’, (Primula vulgaris), in fact depicts the unrelated evening primrose (Oenothera sp.).  The lack of an index is a major drawback.

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