Florilegium is a modern Latin term for a type of book composed of a collection of flowers, either literal drawings and descriptions of real flowers, or, metaphorically, a collection of the flowers of literature. We’ll explore the second type of book in another post, but for now let’s think about the florilegia created as botanical records.
Florilegia as literal collections of flowers emerged as a genre in the 1400s, with a few earlier works of a similar nature. Herbals were books devoted to the description of plants used for cooking or healing, and florilegia were devoted to ornamental plants and flowers. Botanical illustration as an art form rose in popularity as the interest in documenting plants increased, along with the ability to collect and distribute information.
At first, these books were gorgeous and expensive to produce, created at a time when private gardens were on the brink of becoming all the rage among wealthy Europeans. Before the printing press made books easy to reproduce, artists had to be commissioned, parchment had to be made (although starting around 1450 or so, paper became more commonly available), scribes needed to be engaged to handwrite the descriptions, and the pages, once completed, needed to be bound. Books of this type were private, shared with a select audience, and rarely served a public function.
Of course, the printing press changed everything, and between more readily found paper (by the 1600s, paper mills could be found all over Europe) and the ability to print multiple copies, the drawings and descriptions found in florilegia could be shared widely.
Passions for exotic plants collected from overseas travel spurred on the production of botanical illustrations as a way to share (or show off) one’s collection, especially as overseas exploration in the 1600s brought more variety. Later versions tended to focus on the plants and flowers growing in a specific region or garden, and the florilegia that survive often contain precious information about extinct or endangered species.
Florilegia strike me as the great-great-great-grandmothers of today’s gardening notebooks or nature journals. How so? While today’s gardeners aren’t going to hire an artist and plan a fancy book to show off, a modern gardening notebook documents both the current state of a garden, along with its past and future. Similarly, a nature journal is a collection of nature experiences, drawn or written by a regular person to document the experience. Both types of collections typically operate along a chronological timeline, noting what is happening when.
Gardening notebooks, though, have room to expand beyond simply documenting what is growing to include notes and reference material. Plant care information is collected, and logs are kept throughout the year to note watering and feeding efforts, pests noted and battled, and so on. In terms of function, a gardening notebook is valued more as a useful product rather than a creative experience in itself or a finished work of art, although there are exceptions.
Nature journals tend more towards combining the creative experience and finished product, depending on the mindset of the journaler.
To me, the value of a nature journal is in the experience of tuning into the natural world and tuning out my own thoughts and impressions. Similar to the way you are instructed in yoga class to focus on your breath, I say in nature journaling workshops: focus on one color, one line, one movement, just the one thing. Forget everything else.
I encourage people to draw on paper bags or plain paper on a clipboard, aiming for a process over a product. Other nature journalers draw in nice hardbound books, using a pen and watercolors, aiming for artistic integrity. In keeping a nature journal, your experiences of tuning into the natural world are collected and embodied in the material form of whatever kind of book you decide to keep
Last year I developed an interest in the stories of women committed to insane asylums. Why is this intriguing? For starters, it is important to understand the history of women’s rights in general, and of women’s power to determine their own identity and role in society in particular. The 19th century insane asylum is a hotbed of power issues and a fascinating–yet disturbing–setting for a story. You’ll see this as a common thread in these stories as women attempt to fight back against their prescribed roles.
The novels on this list each create a world in which the writer can ask big questions. I’ve got a quotation from Barbara Kingsolver tucked away in my commonplace book that speaks to this:
I devise a very big question whose answer I believe will be amazing, and maybe shift the world a little bit on its axis. Then I figure out how to create a world in which that question can be asked and answered.
~ Barbara Kingsolver, on her writing process
Without further ado, here’s my list:
- Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. I haven’t read this yet; I’ve only just come across its existence after reading Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft blazed a path into feminist territory, introducing the concept of egalitarian relationships between men and women. I am a huge Mary Shelley fan (I believe she is the Kevin Bacon of the literary world) and have only just dipped into her mother’s work.
- Sarah Waters, Fingersmith. Set in the late 19th century London slums, this novel twists and turns through a broad range of emotional, physical, and ethical territory. Definitely a provocative page turner.
- Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. I haven’t read this, but just saw that it likely inspired Fingersmith, so I’m including it. It was first published in 1860 and is a classic mashup of Victorian Gothic and Realism.
- Kathy Hepinstall, Blue Asylum. This one is from the Civil War period and sets the protagonist, Iris Dunleavy, in a state of powerlessness rooted in isolation, both political and geographic. The muggy swampy Florida landscape will draw you into the slow hot world of Iris’ story.
- Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. This was the story that got me started down this topic path. Set in 1843 Canada, this is based on real events.
- Marcia Hamilcar, Legally Dead: Experiences During Seventeen Weeks Detention in a Private Asylum. This appears to be a work of nonfiction, and it’s interesting to see that the preface was written by a doctor who offers disclaimers and defense of contemporary practices.
- Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House. This one is also nonfiction, the work of journalist Nellie Bly who in 1887 pretended to be insane in order to report on the conditions inside Blackwell’s Island Asylum.
- Megan Chance, An Inconvenient Wife. Chance’s narrative gets to the heart of female identity and power in ways that modern readers will relate to. Lucy is an upper-class woman in the 1880s who longs for sex and art, both completely taboo desires for a woman in her position.
Goodness knows there are many more titles out there, and you can easily find longer, better descriptions that what I’ve written here. I’ve linked to Goodreads for most of these, so that’s a great place to start. Listopia has a list called Victorian Asylums, so check that out too. I’m planning to work my way through that list over the course of the year, but I’m terrible at recording what I read on Goodreads. If you are there, let’s connect.
Here’s a bonus nugget of Quaker history from Max Carter regarding this drawing below:
The Quakers, following in the footsteps of the English Friends who established the world’s first mental hospital, the Retreat in York, in the 1790s, purposefully described it as a hospital and pioneered in using botanical therapy. The azalea gardens are still a major attraction and opened to the public each spring