Past Event

Columbia Renaissance Seminar: Karen Reeds (Princeton Research Forum)

March 12, 2019
5:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Columbia University Faculty House

“Seeking Snakeroot in Eden: John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum (1640) in colonial Virginia”

This paper offers a case study of the problems that early modern European naturalists faced in collecting, describing, and transmitting New World plants. In 1688, Rev. John Banister, an Anglican missionary in the backwoods of colonial Virginia, was sent a copy of John Parkinson’s huge herbal, Theatrum Botanicum (London: Thomas Cotes, 1640). That volume—with Banister’s signature, annotations, and fragments of pressed American plants—survives in a small New Jersey public library, the Burlington Lyceum of History and Natural Science. Using accounts of Virginian snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria L.), I analyze Parkinson’s entries for North American plants, Banister’s use of the herbal in his own botanical explorations, his English contemporaries’ responses to his work, and the afterlife of Banister’s personal library.   


You are cordially invited to the dinner at Faculty House at 7:00 PM, where you will be able to continue the conversation with the speaker and the other Seminar members. If you plan to attend the dinner, please make your check of $30 payable to Columbia University.

Please contact the Rapporteur, Charles Pletcher (, at least ten days prior to the event, if you plan to attend the talk and, especially, if you plan to stay for the dinner. There is no need to contact the Rapporteur if you will not be attending.

In one of the most evocative frescoes of the Renaissance, Raphael juxtaposes Plato and Aristotle. The pairing would seem obvious, since the two thinkers had been for centuries symbols of philosophy and wisdom. But only the recent revival of Plato, begun in the mid-fifteenth century, had allowed Latin West to gain a better understanding of Platonic philosophy and therefore to compare Plato’s doctrines directly to those of Aristotle. Were master and disciple in harmony? And if not, which of the two should be favored? Such questions were less innocent than one might think, and the answers to them had implications for scholastic philosophy, theology, and speculation on the natural world, among a wide range of topics. A preferred vehicle for confronting these issues were works expressly conceived as comparisons between the two philosophers: the comparationes. The comparatiobetween Plato and Aristotle – a legacy from late antiquity – was initially recovered as a genre by Greek authors such as Pletho, George of Trebizond and Bessarion, and eventually appropriated by Latin authors, from Pico to Fox Morcillo, from Champier to Camutius. Driven by philosophical, apologetic and even political concerns, comparationes between Plato and Aristotle were still being composed even at the end of the seventeenth century, as the genre served as a flexible tool for different intellectual agendas. This talk will outline, on the basis of new archival and bibliographic research, some significant episodes in the history of this genre, focusing on its application in the university world, where it served both as a didactic instrument and a cultural manifesto.