The Naming of Names, by Anna Pavord

Order in the garden - and the world

Toby Green
Friday 18 November 2005 01:00 GMT

The study of history is just as much the study of how ideas and people failed to change as of how they progressed. The failure is as instructive as the capacity to evolve. In fact, ideas have often proved most resistant to change precisely where change would have proved most valuable. This is certainly one of the points of Anna Pavord's history of the classification of plants.

A proper understanding of plants would have revolutionised medicine and the understanding of the world, but for thousands of years the subject was spurned. An eloquent champion for this esoteric subject, Pavord also knows that her narrative embraces far more than just plant names. Science's move towards a system of universal classification is representative of humanity's struggle to discern order in the universe.

Pavord explores the evolution of plant names through the life and works of thinkers, beginning with the Athenian philosopher Theophrastus (born 372BC). He was a student of Aristotle's and composed the first serious inquiry into plants. Before he collated specimens from the East, Asia Minor and North Africa, no one had sought to define a plant; with Theophrastus, the search for order began.

His attempt to group plants according to essential characteristics was millennia ahead of its time, and he was soon forgotten. Athenian power waned, and his work was mishandled by Pliny in Rome. Manuscripts of his enquiry were miscopied, then destroyed in the fires that burnt Alexandria's library. His work was not rediscovered until the Renaissance, when scholars realised their knowledge of plants was no better than Theophrastus's had been.

This stagnation reflects an intellectual void in Europe. Pavord's passion for "the big picture, the altruistic, intellectual search for the key to the order of the universe" leads her to rail against the " blindness" of medieval scholasticism. Yet the adherence to obsolete ideas reveals the world as it then was: defined by holy texts, not a place worthy of study in itself.

With the Renaissance, all that changed, and the book comes into its own with the giddy acceleration of ideas in the mid-15th century. The study of plants was finally unshackled from scholasticism, complementing the humanist ideal of delight in nature. Pavord's account of the discoveries and rivalries of thinkers in England, Flanders, France, Germany and Italy excels at recreating the excitement of that age, and she bestows her love of the natural world on the descriptions of plants and flowers that garlanded illustrated books of the time. Her book is beautifully illustrated with over 100 colour plates from these rare publications.

As Theophrastus must have realised when he embarked on his lonely road toward order, this was a vastly ambitious project. Something of this ambition pervades Pavord's book, which has to embrace more than 2,000 years of history in describing the classification of plants, from the struggles of Greece and Rome to the golden years of Islamic scholarship, the rise of humanism and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. She is stronger on some areas than others; but by and large she succeeds, and The Naming of Names is a tribute to prodigious research.

By the time the Englishman John Ray laid the foundations for the modern classification of plants at the end of the 17th century, scientific order was in the ascendant. The superstition of some of the older ideas about plants ­ that some roots screamed as they were dug up, or that mugwort warded off devils ­ was embarrassing.

The parochialism of local names, leading inevitably to misunderstandings between languages, was being discarded by scientists in favour of more universal ideas. But the fact that it had taken more than two millennia to embrace Theophrastus' call for order showed just how deep-rooted the battle to shake off the old ideas had been. Ultimately, as Pavord shows, the truth behind his noble idea overwhelmed the dogmatists.

Toby Green's 'Thomas More's Magician' is in Phoenix paperback

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