Early herbals from Rome, Mainz and Lübeck

Mulber, from Herbarius latinus, Inc.4.A.1.3b[19]

Mulber, from Herbarius latinus, Inc.4.A.1.3b[19]

Passing reference was made in Jaap Harskamp’s post on sixteenth-century Dutch botanical publishing to Konrad von Megenberg’s Buch der Natur, a general work on natural history containing some of the earliest printed references to plants. There were six incunabula editions of the text, the first printed by Johann Bämler in Augsburg and dated 30 October 1475. Cambridge University Library does not have any pre-1501 edition of Buch der Natur, though we do have two 19th century editions of the text (MA.5.55 ; MA.5.76), which do not reproduce the illustrations. A modern critical edition is also in process (746:01.c.25.57). This is a publishing enterprise of long duration, keeping librarians on their toes and making for slight complications in processing. Volume 2 (the text) was published in 2003, but the publisher’s website indicates that the project is still on-going, with an introduction (v. 1), a commentary (v. 3) and a dictionary (v. 4) to appear “at a later stage”.

The Herbarium Apulei was printed in Rome by Johannes Philippus de Lignamine, a Sicilian courtier and physician to Pope Sixtus IV, in about 1481-1482. Strictly speaking the text is a medical compendium of herbal remedies, but it is the first printed book with significant woodcut images of plants. The Library does not hold the original, but it does have a facsimile published in Milan in 1979 (9370.b.115).

The earliest incunable depicting plants which the University Library owns is the Herbarius latinus, produced by Peter Schoeffer in Mainz in [14]84, Inc.4.A.1.3b[19] (Oates 35A). This describes and illustrates 150 plants used by apothecaries in a sequence of highly decorative woodcuts. The Library’s copy is hand-coloured.

The following year Peter Schoeffer printed his Gart der Gesundheit, for which the Buch der Natur is considered to be one of the sources. This primarily depicts plants which grow in spring and early summer, and also features 25 medicines derived from animals and 28 minerals. Whilst the Library does not have a first edition, it does have the Low German edition, the Gaerde der Suntheit, printed in Lübeck by Stephanus Arndes in 1492, Inc.3.A.14.4[1024] (Oates 1192).

Another early herbal, and another jewel in the Library’s collection, is the Hortus sanitatis, printed in Mainz by Jacob Meydenbach on 23 June 1491, Inc.3.A.1.8[37]  (Oates 55). This work is richly illustrated. Although predominantly a herbal, it also depicts animals, birds, fish and minerals, and whilst it purports to be a medical treatise, it also includes many standard bestiary accounts. It concludes with a series of woodcuts showing the world of the medieval medical practitioner – the inside of a dispensary and a surgery.

David Lowe and Laura Nuvoloni

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