Whether they were introducing materia medica into the medical curriculum at the universities, going out into the countryside to search for and study plants for themselves, leading students on field trips to do the same, establishing and developing botanical gardens, or creating their herbaria, the Renaissance humanist physicians in the first half of the sixteenth century always had their botanical guides from antiquity to hand. Mostly one or other edition of Dioscorides but also Theophrastus on plants, Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and Galen’s texts on medical simples. The work of all four of these authors concentrated largely on plants growing around the Mediterranean, although they did include some medical herbs from other areas, India for example. The North Italian, Renaissance, medical humanists also started out studying the Mediterranean plants, but soon their field of study widened, as the changes they had initiated spread throughout Europe led to other medical humanists to search for and study the plants of their own local regions. This expansion became even larger as colleagues began to study and compare the plants growing in the newly discovered land in the so-called age of exploration. Reports began coming into Europe of plants growing in the Americas and Asia. These developments meant that Dioscorides et al were no longer adequate guides for the teaching of medical herbal lore and the age of the Early Modern printed herbal began.
As already noted in an earlier episode of this series Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, which is, of course, a herbal, was well known and widely available throughout the Middle Ages, but it was by no means the only medieval herbal. Herbal medicine was widely used throughout the Middle Ages and many monks, apothecaries, and herbalists, who utilised herbal cures, compiled their own herbals, some of which were copied and distributed amongst others. A few of these herbals were printed during the incunabula period in the second half of the fifteenth century. Many printer publishers in this early period were on the lookout for potential money earning publications and herbals certainly fit the mould.
The earliest of these was the De proprietatibus rerum of the Franciscan friar Bartholomeus Anglicus (before 1203–1272), written in the thirteenth century and printed for the first time about 1470, which went through twenty-five editions before the end of the century. This was an encyclopaedia containing a long section on trees and herbs.
Shortly after the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici, three other medieval herbals were printed and published in Mainz in Germany. The Latin Herbarius (1484), and the Herbariuszu Teutsch or German Herbarius (1485), which evolved into the Hortus or Ortus sanitates (1491).
These herbals probably date back to the Early Medieval Period but unlike the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici there is no hard proof for this. All three books went through numerous editions under various titles in various languages. In England the first printed herbal was by Rycharde Banckes in which the title page begins Here begynneth a newe mater, the whiche sheweth and treateth of ye vertues and proprytes of herbes, the which is called an Herball, which appeared in 1525.
It had no illustrations. This was followed by the more successful The grete herbal, printed by Peter Treveris in 1526 and then again in 1529. Many of the illustrations were taken from the French Le GrantHerbier,but which originated in the Herbariuszu Teutsch, continuing an old process of copying illustrations from earlier books, which as we will see continued with the new Renaissance herbals to which we now turn.
Whereas the printed medieval herbals were largely derived from the works of Dioscorides and Pliny, the Renaissance humanist physicians produced new printed herbals based on new material, which they and their colleagues had collected on field trips. However, these new herbals were still based in concept on Dioscorides’ De materia medica, were medical in detail, although they gradually led towards botany as an independent discipline throughout the century.
We begin with four Germans, who are often described as “The Fathers of Botany”. The first of these was Otto Brunfels (possibly 1488–1534), a Carthusian monk, who converted to Lutheran Protestantism and became a pastor.
He was the nominal author of the Herbarumvivae eicones published in three volumes between 1530 and 1536 and the German version of the same, Contrafayt Kräuterbuch published in two volumes between 1532 and 1537. Both publications were published by Hans Schott in Straßburg and were illustrated by Hans Weiditz the Younger (1495–c. 1537). I said nominal author because it is thought that the initiative for the book was Schott’s centred around Weidnitz’s illustrations with Brunfels basically employed to provide the written descriptions of the plants. Weidnitz’s illustrations, drawn from nature, are excellent and set new standards in the illustration of herbals.
They are, however, not matched by Brunfels’ descriptions, which are very poor quality, simply cobbled together from early descriptions.
The second of the so-called “German Fathers of Botany” was Hieronymus Bock (1498–1554), whose Latin texts were published under the name Hieronymus Tragus (Tragus is the Greek for the German bock, a male goat).
Like Brunfels he converted from Catholicism to Lutheran Protestantism. His knowledge of plants was acquired empirically on botanical excursions. His first publication was Deherbarum quarundam nomenclaturis, a tract linking Greek and Latin names to local plants, which, interestingly was published in the second volume of Brunfels’ Herbarumvivae eicones. It was also Brunfels who persuaded him to publish his own herbal. This was titled Neu Kreütterbuch and appeared in 1539. Unlike Brunfels book, Bock’s herbal had no illustration, however, his plant descriptions were excellent, setting new standards. In 1546 there was a second expanded edition with illustration by David Kandel (1520–1592).
A third expanded edition was published in 1551 of which a Latin translation, De stirpium, maxime earum, quae in Germania nostra nascuntur …, was published in 1552. All these editions were published by Wendel Rihel in Straßburg, who produced an edition without the text in 1553 and several editions after Bock’s death.
The original German edition without illustrations had less impact that Brunfels’ herbal but after the addition of the illustrations and the Latin edition his work became successful. Bock was very innovative in that instead of listing the plants in his book in alphabetical order, he listed them in groups based on what he perceived as their similarities. An early step towards systematic classification.
The third of the German herbal authors Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566) was the most well-known and successful of the quartet.
He received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Ingolstadt in 1524. After two years of private practice followed by two as professor of medicine in Ingolstadt, he became court physician to George von Brandenburg Margrave of Ansbach. He acquired a very good reputation and was reappointed to the professorship in Ingolstadt in 1533. As a Lutheran, he was prevented from taking up the appointment and became professor for medicine in Tübingen instead in 1535, where he remained until his death despite many offers of other positions. In Tübingen he created the botanical garden. He edited a Greek edition of Galen’s work and translated both Hippocratic and Galenic medical texts. Fuchs became somewhat notorious for his bitter controversies with other medical authors and the sharpness of his invective.
Unlike Brunfels and Bock, whose herbals were based on the own empirical studiers of local German herbs, Fuchs concentrated on identifying the plants described by the classical authors, although when published his herbal included a large number of reports on local plants as well as new plants discovered in the Americas. In 1542 he published his De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Notable commentaries on the history of plants) in Latin and Greek, it contained 512 pictures of plants, which are even more spectacular than the illustrations in Brunfels’ Herbarumvivae eicones.
In a rare innovation he named the Illustrators, Heinrich Füllmaurer and Albrecht Meyer along with the woodcutter Veit Rudolph Speckle including portraits of all three.