John Ray's Cambridge Catalogue (1660) translated and edited by P.H. Oswald and C.D. Preston . London: The Ray Society. 2011. ix + 612 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-0903874-43-4. £80.


  • Charlie Jarvis

The publication in 1660 of John Ray's Catalogus plantarum circa Cantabrigiam nascentium: … was significant in a number of ways. Modelled broadly on an early account of the plants growing in and around Basel produced by Caspar Bauhin (1622), this was both Ray's earliest publication and the first English County Flora. A blacksmith's son from Essex, Ray was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1644 at the age of 16, taking his B.A. degree in 1648, and his M.A. three years later. It was at this point that he first started to take an interest in the plants of the area in and around Cambridge, the first product of which would be the Catalogus. Written predominantly in Latin (though with vernacular names and comments on localities in English), Ray's book contains short accounts of some 630 species, along with a number of complementary chapters including indices of English names and places, and a chapter on etymology.

An English translation of Ray's work was published nearly 40 years ago by Ewen & Prime (1975), which might make one question the need for the new edition that has been prepared by Philip Oswald and Chris Preston and published by the Ray Society. Ewen & Prime's aim in preparing their earlier translation was to provide ready access to the information that they judged to be of most interest to field botanists, providing binomial names for each of the plants, transcribing Ray's English text and translating his other notes from Latin. However, they omitted any synonymy, which (as Oswald and Preston observe) ‘eviscerates the work, depriving it of its historical context and making it impossible to understand the task confronting Ray. The very act of excluding those portions of the book [technical terms, etymology] that they thought would be of no interest to the modern reader …itself introduces so great a bias that it invalidates any attempt to produce a balanced assessment of Ray's work’. Oswald and Preston therefore set themselves the task of translating the whole of Ray's book in order to allow it to contribute to ‘an increased understanding of Ray at the start of his scientific career’ and in the hope that ‘it will focus attention on the Catalogus as a subject for future research’. While Ewen & Prime's book ran to fewer than 160 pages, Oswald and Preston's runs to a little over 600 and the two publications are very different works.

The latter is a triumph for its authors, who have produced a magnificent book which manages to be both immensely scholarly and at the same time very accessible, readable and informative. The arrangement of the translated chapters follows that of Ray but this core section of Oswald and Preston's book is preceded by a great deal of very valuable additional material. A particular feature is the many hundreds of footnotes (more than 500 appear in the main catalogue alone, many of them very extensive).

A short Introduction is followed by a concise and highly readable biography of Ray (see Raven, 1950 for a more detailed account), which does much to explain the university environment in which Ray was to thrive, in Cambridge.

Chapter Three is devoted to the structure and sources of the Catalogus and its various Appendices and contains much of interest. Ray's book was printed by John Field, notorious as the printer of the error-strewn ‘Unrighteous Bible’ of 1653, in which ‘Know ye not that the unreighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven?’ appeared. However, by 1660, Field's expertise seems to have improved somewhat and Ray's text suffers from few misprints, although the standard of printing was still not high. Various models for the Catalogus are discussed and illustrated, followed by notes on Ray's ‘Preface’ and ‘Explicatio’ with an analysis of the sources of the names found in the main catalogue (among which, works by Caspar and Jean Bauhin, John Parkinson, John Gerarde and Thomas Johnson are prominent). Ray's approach to the way in which he dealt with the names he adopted, his species concepts, indications of localities and habitats are all analysed thoughtfully by the authors who also consider the medical background to the Catalogus, listing the many sources on which Ray drew. A discussion of Ray's Indexes of English plant names and places follows, along with notes on his sections on ‘Etymology’, ‘Interpretation’ and ‘The more customary headings or divisions of plants’ (a classification of ‘perfect plants’).

The authorship of the Catalogus was not stated and some have questioned its attribution. Oswald and Preston conclude that Ray was undoubtedly its author, albeit with the assistance of various of his friends, but they argue that the later of two rare Appendices (published in 1663 and 1685 respectively) should be attributed to Ray and Peter Dent (the compiler) as co-authors.

Chapter Four provides an extremely useful series of biographical notes on some of the authors (classical and mediaeval as well as modern) cited by Ray, while Chapter Five explores the degree to which he may have studied copies of the works he cites first-hand, based on the recorded presence of particular books in the University, College and personal libraries (not only of Ray himself but also those of his friends John Nidd and Francis Willughby).

Chapter Six deals with the identification of Ray's Cambridgeshire plants (noting the difficulties in identifying with any certainty Ray's taxa of Carex and Rumex with modern species concepts) and Chapter Seven discusses the authors' translation and editorial methods. It is rare, and extremely welcome, in a book of this sort to see such an explicit explanation of the methods adopted and the solutions applied to knotty problems of translation.

The translation of the Catalogus follows in its entirety (including the three sections omitted by Ewen & Prime), followed by translations of the 1663 and 1685 Appendices. To this, Oswald and Preston have added a detailed (and diverting) gazetteer and conclude with a vocabulary of the Latin epithets used sensu Ray, an extensive bibliography and a comprehensive index.

This reviewer's familiarity with John Ray's botanical work has chiefly been with the later Historia Plantarum (1686-1704) and the posthumously published third edition of his Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum (1724). Names from these publications were frequently cited by Carl Linnaeus as synonyms under his newly coined binomial names (Linnaeus, 1753). Recent research on parts of Sir Hans Sloane's herbarium has led me to his MSS in the British Library. There, in Sloane's chronologically arranged correspondence, one is struck by the high frequency of letters in Ray's neat and legible hand. It is almost impossible to resist reading such letters when one encounters them (even when they are not the focus of study), for the enjoyment of Ray's perceptive observations (both scientific and social), modestly expressed.

Oswald and Preston's fine book brings Ray to life through his Catalogus. It is clear that theirs has been a labour of love and their enthusiasm and erudition shine through in what is a meticulous and delightfully well-written book. One of Ray's contemporaries thoughtfully observed that in the Catalogus, ‘you will find a great deal put into a little Room’. Oswald and Preston have done a great deal to unpack it and lay it out before us. While some may be deterred by the book's £80 price tag, it has been well produced (I noted only one error – ‘Gamingay’ for ‘Gamlingay’ on p. 494) and is printed on high quality paper. It thoroughly deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in the history of botany, 17th century Cambridge printers, East Anglian county boundaries in the 1660s, the early years of Trinity College's Library, the use of Papaver in a baby's ‘pap’ to banish sleeplessness or, indeed, Cambridge botany.