Late-Fifteenth and Sixteenth century herbals:
from Classical Antiquity to Pre-Modern botany

by Dr. Alain Touwaide, Historian of Sciences,
Department of Botany
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. (USA)

From the mid-15th to the late 16th century, the European world underwent dramatic transformations of all kinds: in the 1450s the German craftsman Johann Gutenberg (ca. 1400 - before February 1468) created the printing press; in 1453 the Ottomans put an end to the Byzantine Empire; in 1492 the Italian navigator Cristoforo Colombo (1451 - 1506) reached what he believed to be India; in 1494 a disease supposedly previously unknown (syphilis) affected European populations; in 1517 Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) posted his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church and, to quote but a few, in 1516-1519 Charles Quint (1500 - 1558) became successively king of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire thus moving the European center of gravity southwards, and in 1529 Suleyman the Magnificent (1494 - 1566) besieged Vienna.

Culture, the arts, sciences and society were affected by these and other transformations. Scholars virulently rejected the legacy of the previous period, which they deemed as dark, and renovated current knowledge mainly by bringing classical culture, that is, the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, to light again. In the field of science and botany in particular, this revival started with collecting copies of manuscripts (that is, handwritten books) of ancient scientific works, especially Greek texts. Among the many collected texts were the founding treatise of ancient botany, the Historia plantarum (Enquiry on plants) by Theophrastus (ca. 371 - ca. 287 B.C.), and treatises on materia medica, that is, the knowledge of the natural substances (of vegetable, animal, and mineral nature) used to prepare medicines. The most important works in this field were De materia medica (On the natural substances used for the preparation of medicines) by the Greek Dioscorides (1st cent. A.D.) and De simplicium medicamentorum temperamentis et facultatibus (On the mixtures and properties of simple medicines) by Galen (129 - after 216 [?] A.D.). The Naturalis Historia (Natural History) by Pliny (23/24 - 79 A.D.) also contained a wealth of information on botany (books 12-19) and materia medica (books 20-27).

As early as 1478, a medieval Latin translation of Dioscorides’ De materia medica was printed in Colle (Tuscany). In the same period, the Byzantine erudite Theodôros of Gaza (ca. 1400 - ca. 1475) translated Theophrastus’ Historia plantarum into Latin from a Greek copy belonging to the Vatican Library (first published in 1483). Similarly, the Italian Giorgio Valla (1447 - 1500) wrote the section on botany and pharmacology in his scientific encyclopedia by translating passages of Dioscorides and Galen (De expetendis et fugiendis rebus - On the things to be sought out and avoided, first edition Venice 1501). His fellow citizen Ermolao Barbaro (1453-1493) did original philological work: not only did he own at least two copies of Dioscorides’ Greek text, but he also borrowed the several copies preserved in the collections of that time in order to check the exactness of the text in his own exemplars.

The apparent linear progress represented by such works of a philological nature was then stopped by the physician Nicolao Leoniceno (1428 - 1524). In 1492, indeed, he published in Ferrara a booklet entitled De Plinii aliorumque erroribus in medicina (On the mistakes of Pliny and others on medicine) in which he denounced the mistakes made by Pliny and later medieval authors (especially the Arabic ones) and thus recommended the use of only Greek texts. Later on, Leoniceno went further and encouraged scientists to have a personal knowledge of the matters dealt with in their works, in this case the plants. Such theses provoked a virulent polemic for the solution of which the Italian humanist, printer and publisher Aldo Manuzio (ca. 1449 - 1515) published the Greek text of Dioscorides. The progress was only apparent: for sure, Dioscorides’ text was more easily available, but Leoniceno’s scientific methodology stopped current research in the short term and even brought pharmacology back to Antiquity, thus cancelling the updates and discoveries made from Antiquity to the dawn of Renaissance.

It was to the credit of German scientists that they initiated fresh research. In 1529, two new versions of Dioscorides’ Greek text were printed in Köln and Basel. Then, in 1530, Otto Brunfels (ca. 1488 - 1534) published a herbal of a new kind, the Herbarum vivae eicones (Pictures of living plants, Strasbourg): although its text was still made of passages extracted from Classical and Medieval texts, its illustrations faithfully reproduced specimina gathered in the field, including faded flowers and leaves, and broken stems. In 1542, the German physician Leonhart Fuchs (1501 - 1566) improved botanical drawing in his work De historia stirpium (Research on medicinal plants, Basel), by including illustrations that represent the specific characteristics of each taxon (instead of exactly reproducing individuals as Brunfels did). His work, first published in Latin (the scientific language of that time) was translated into German the next year.

Indeed, vernacular languages were becoming more frequent. In 1544 the Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501 - 1577) translated into Italian, and commented on Dioscorides’ De materia medica. Ten years later (1554), the Belgian physician Rembert Dodoens (1517 - 1585) wrote a herbal first published in Flemish (Cruydeboeck, 1554, Antwerp) and translated into Latin only later on. The following year (1555) the Spaniard Andrés Laguna (1510 - 1559) published, also in Antwerp, a Spanish translation of Disocorides, with commentary. Significantly, such original works in, and translations into the vernacular (not so Mattioli but Laguna) included an increasing quantity of data coming from the traditional practice of healers and not necessarily from classical texts.

The first edition of Mattioli’s translation of, and commentary on Dioscorides did not contain representations of the plants discussed in the work. But in 1549 a pirate version of Mattioli’s work was printed in Mantua, which compensated for this lacuna and included illustrations. Five years later (1554), Mattioli added small wood blocks with plant representations to his text and, in 1562, large illustrations covering almost all the surface of the page. As for Dodoens and Laguna, they had had their works illustrated since the very first edition, and Laguna reproduced many of Mattioli’s illustrations according to a practice that was not rare at that time. Illustrations were transferred by publishers from one work to another, indeed, they were also freely copied by publishers, and sometimes printers moved from one place to another, taking their blocks with them.

From the 1560s on, botany and materia medica of the New World began to be better known in the Old World thanks to the works by Garcia de Orta (ca. 1500 - ca. 1568), Cristobal Acosta (ca. 1525 - ca. 1594) and Nicolas Monardes (ca. 1493 - 1588). Data on such plants entered the translations and commentaries on classical works, particularly in Mattioli’s. In his commentary on Dioscorides, indeed, he compared the plants described by the ancient authors not only to those of Italy and Central Europe, but also to those from the New World. In so doing, he gradually alterated and adumbrated Dioscorides’ original classification in such a way to make new systems necessary.

This was all the more true because European botanists had assimilated Dioscorides’ method and used it to describe local flora, from Portugal and Spain to Central Europe. The wealth of data created in this way contributed to making Dioscorides’ classificatory system obsolete and provoked a need not only for new organized synthesis, but also - and more radically - for renewed classification principles. Ancient science was assimilated into Pre-Modern science, where it acted as a catalytic agent. As a consequence, it then began to be the object of historical and antiquarian research. In 1598, a new printed version of Dioscorides was published in Frankfurt, which remained the standard up to 1829-1830.

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