1542. Fuchs and The Most Beautiful Herbal Ever Written.


The Most Beautiful Herbal Ever Written.

Introducing Leonard Fuchs' herbal of 1542; the Historia Stirpum. In this magnificent and ground-breaking book, Fuchs produced what was clearly a labour of love in the form of the most beautifully and accurately illustrated herbal ever produced.

What made his herbal so outstanding was that each picture in his herbal was from an original woodcut based on the actual living plant. While today we would not expect illustrations to be based on anything else, in Fuchs’ time, this represented an incredibly unique effort and a marked break with tradition. Such was indeed his intention. In not allowing his craftsmen to ‘indulge their whims’, he desired to produce a book which would genuinely help people to identify the plants described. In many ways, his success in this is notable in that this was primarily a picture guide book to plants. The descriptions of the herbs and their uses was still based largely on classical sources,particularly Dioscorides, but annotated where possible with Fuchs’ own knowledge, though in practice this meant plants which grew near to where he lived in Germany.

Nevertheless, Fuchs’ book was a game changer. No one now could realistically produce books which did not properly illustrate the plants they were describing; at least not if they wished to be taken seriously. Renaissance botany would rest upon this work as its reference point. In practice, sadly, this meant that many subsequent books would simply copy Fuchs’ prints and reproduce them in their own pages. Even that though was an improvement to the dire state botanical illustration had sunk to for the last thousand years. Even more unusually, Fuchs actually gave credit to the artists involved in illustrating the work. Given that the absolute norm was to copy and copy and copy, this was so radical one wonders how it was perceived at the time. Fuchs must have been supremely confident in his belief in the value of his new herbal to have so clearly emphasised its contemporary nature, rather than relying on ‘ancient authority’ as was the more typical fashion.

Of Arum, Fuch says:
“Later physicians tell us the aron has the property of dispersing, reducing, and cleansing; therefore it heals swellings of the ears, piles, strumas and hard tumors, removes deformities of the face and skin. Lastly, they write that its root, reduced to a powder, diminishes the overgrowth of flesh in wounds. The very extreme bitterness to the taste that it asserts emphatically demonstrates that it can excel in this. Dioscorides too wrote that arisaron had considerable bitterness and so, rubbed on, reduced corroding sores and that a salve, very efficacious against ulcers, was made from it. He also says that its root, applied to the private parts of any animal, damages them. Pliny too has written that arisaron heals running sores, burns, and fistulas. He also says that mixed in an ointment, it curres running sores.”

For a great description of Fuchs’ book and work, take a jump to the
Glasgow University Library write up of Leonard Fuchs