Early herbals - The German fathers of botany

Amgueddfa Cymru has a number of pre-1701 books in the Museum's Library, including two incunables (books printed before 1501) of Pliny's writings on natural history from 1481 and 1487.

The cowsip as depicted in Fuchs's De Historia Stirpium
The cowsip as depicted in Fuchs's De Historia Stirpium
Part of an early German herbal annotated in Welsh and English, once in the possession of Morris Owen
Part of an early German herbal annotated in Welsh and English, once in the possession of Morris Owen.

There are also a number of 16th- and 17th-century 'herbals' in the collection. Among these are examples of the works of three men who have been described as the 'German fathers of botany', namely Hieronymous Bock (1498-1554), Otto Brunfels (1489-1534) and Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566).

Herbals

Printed herbals give details of plants along with what illness each one could cure. What made the work of these three men stand out in particular is that many of the descriptions and illustrations of the flowers in their books were, on the whole, based on first-hand evidence in the field, and not copied from other writers.

Hieronymous Bock (1498-1554)

As Bock's herbal of 1539 was unillustrated, it forced him to provide detailed and accurate descriptions. The Museum holds a later, illustrated edition, from 1552. Although the opening pages are missing, the main body of the text is complete, along with fine hand-coloured illustrations.

Most of the woodcuts simply show the plants themselves, but occasionally birds and man are shown, such as the rather crude depiction of the effects on eating a fig!

Otto Brunfels (1489-1534)

The work of Otto Brunfels in the Library is the second volume of Herbarum Vivae Eicones (1531). The title translates as 'living picture of plants' and the author was one of the first to turn to nature itself as the source of his illustrations for a book.

Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566)

The Library holds two books compiled by Fuchs, namely De Historia Stirpium (1542) and Plantarum Effigies (1549). Although only some of the descriptions of the plants are by Fuchs, the majority being taken from other books, it is the quality of the illustrations that makes this herbal one of the great books of the 16th century.

The Plantarum Effigies is a pocket-sized version of the 1542 volume to be used in the field; it has very little text, apart from an index to the plants depicted, and with each woodcut the name of the plant is given in three or more languages, usually five (Greek, Latin, French, Italian and German).

Other great herbals of the same period are housed in the Library of Amgueddfa Cymru, notably the works of Rembert Dodoens (1516-1585) and John Gerard (1545-1612).

Rembert Dodoens (1516-1585)

Dodoens' herbal was published in Flemish in 1554. The Museum holds the first English edition of 1578 translated by Henry Lyte, including new material which Dodoens himself had sent to Lyte for incorporation in the new edition.

John Gerard (1545-1612)

One of the most famous herbals written in English is Gerard's The Herball (1597). Head gardener to many properties in and around the London area, Gerard was also responsible for the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth l's Secretary of State and Lord Treasurer, and it was to Cecil that Gerard dedicated his great work.

The Library has a copy of the 1633 edition, along with the original work itself.

Other herbals in the collection include an incomplete German example dating to the first half of the 16th century. It was once in the possession of a Morris Owen of Caernarfonshire who added in ink, around 1767, the names of the various plants in Welsh; the English equivalents are also given in most cases.

This book, and the other herbals, remain of great interest to this day, and are examined in particular by those who study the history of botany and pharmacy, as well as by students of the history of the printed book.

Article Date: 4 July 2007

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Glossary

Woodcut
Illustrations produced when the original printing plate was engraved on a block of wood.

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