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


First Herbal with Original Pictures for 1000 Years.


1440: The Tractatus de Herbis is published.

Until the 15th C , with its invention of the printing press and the subsequent explosion of Elizabethan era herbals, there were basically two main herbals (at least, illustrated ones) doing the rounds in the ancient world: Dioscorides’
Materia Medica, which was the main body of work in both the Greek and Arabic traditions and, in the West at least, the Herbarius of Apuleius Platonicus, which was produced somewhere around the 3rd - 4th C. These were the ‘big guns’ on any respectable herbalist’s bookshelf even though one was essentially a copy of the other, along with pretty much every other herbal available. Then along came the Tractatus de Herbis.

There is a single significant reason why this manuscript is considered to be such a remarkable herbal: its illustrations. To understand why, let's backtrack a little. Back to ancient Greece, back to before even the great Dioscorides produced his magnificent work. Back to around 350 BCE. The time of Aristotle, Plato and Theophrastus.

This was the time when the very earliest herbals that we know about were produced. None of them have survived and today we know about them only through references in later works. They are thus evocatively known as '
ghost works'. One thing that we do know is that they were illustrated and their illustrations were incorporated (i.e. copied), into the great herbals that do survive; Dioscorides’ work being the main example. What was remarkable about them is that these illustrations were based on observations of the actual plants themselves. Amazing eh?

The bizarre thing is that once these pictures had been produced, common consensus seemed to be that that was that; job done. The same illustrations were then just copied from manuscript to manuscript down the ages - for almost a thousand years. Not surprisingly, many became so derivative that the plants they were supposed to be illustrating were completely unrecognisable. That nobody really minded this is evidenced by the fact that every now and again, someone thought that the, by now highly abstract and botanically useless, pictures were so beautiful they would make a nice book just on their own without all of that distracting writing and herbal lore.

It was not until the 14thC (a thousand years after the original illustrations), that someone thought that perhaps it might be a good idea when writing a herbal to put in illustrations which were not 1000 year old copies of copies of copies but instead were pictures of the actual plants, so that a person might be able to use the pictures to identify the plants. Thus was born the ‘
Tractatus de Herbis’.

It is a beautifully illustrated book specifically designed to show the different plants used in medicine as accurately as possible so that practitioners of different nationalities, languages and reading skills could properly identify the right plant.

This was clearly a far too new-fangled idea because it did not really catch on for another two hundred years, when the production of modern herbals and the development of a more ‘modern’ botanical-medical attitude was in full swing. The pictures from this herbal did however get copied themselves and made into yet another picture book; without any of text to get in the way.

It now resides in the British Library.
A number of images can be seen

Read more on the iPad book here: