“Volume 173: John Ray’s Cambridge Catalogue (1660) translated and edited by P. H. Oswald and C. D. Preston 2011”
John Ray is the outstanding British natural historian of the 17th century. This 624-page book far surpasses Ewen & Prime’s (1975) Ray’s Flora of Cambridgeshireby providing the first complete translation from the Latin of his first publication, A catalogue of plants growing around Cambridge (1660).This is famous as the first British County Flora, but it is a much more complex work than its title suggests. It includes not only a botanical catalogue, but also “for the benefit of beginners” indexes of English names and of places (with lists of the rarer species of 12 areas in the county) and hitherto untranslated chapters on the meanings of plant names and of botanical terms. Ray’s abilities as an all-round naturalist are apparent from the numerous digressions in the text, which include pioneer observations on insect parasitoids and the hermaphrodite mating of slugs and snails and a suggestion that gardeners may control plant pests by fostering “a great army of frogs”. The rare appendices to the Catalogue, published in 1663 and 1685, are also translated here for the first time.
The editorial commentary on the text is included in nearly 2,000 footnotes which outline problems of translation, discuss the identity of some of Ray’s more problematic species, identify his cited and some of his uncited sources and detail the treatment in his later works of some of the plant variants (such as colour forms) that he regarded as species in 1660.
The translated text is preceded by introductory chapters which draw upon unpublished manuscripts and recently published studies to present a new account of Ray’s time in the University of Cambridge and the role that his collaborators might have played in the preparation of the Catalogue. They also analyse its structure and sources, provide brief biographical portraits of the botanists cited by Ray and discuss the problems of equating his names to modern taxa. The book ends with a vocabulary of the epithets in Ray’s Latin plant names, a gazetteer and a bibliography.
As Professor Oliver Rackham comments in his foreword, other editions and commentaries on the Cambridge Catalogue exist “but none does justice to its complexity, its discursiveness, its allusiveness, the circumstances of its writing, its vast bibliography or Ray’s other works associated with it as appendices or supplements”.
The authors both live in Cambridge and are Honorary Members of the Botanical Society of the British Isles and graduates of the University of Cambridge, Philip Oswald with a degree in Classics and Theology and Chris Preston with a doctorate in Botany, thus combining John Ray’s principal interests.
The Society for the History of Natural History awarded the 2012 John Thackray Medal to Philip Oswald and Chris Preston, for this work.