Medieval File Sharing. How a single manuscript became the most copied herbal in history.

65–75 Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica written and published.

arum drakontia

“Dioscorides Recommends the juice of the seeds for earache and for adding to a drink to aid abortion, the root for coughs and the leaves to eat and for wrapping cheese to preserve it. He also states that Arum is an aphrodisiac and will excite a vehement desire when drunk with wine. Dioscorides also states that rubbing the root, specifically, on one’s hands, will protect one from being bitten by snakes. He describes it as being suitable as a vegetable, with the leaves either being preserved in salt or boiled. The root was also edible, particularly when roasted with honey. Dioscorides also says that the leaves are good to eat and will preserve cheese if it is wrapped up in the leaves.”

Around the same time that Pliny produced the first volume of his great encyclopaedia, there occurred the third and probably most significant publication of this period. This was the creation of a herbal called
De Materia Medica, written by a Greek soldier and army doctor known as Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarba. This single work was to have more influence on herbal literature than any other for the next two thousand years.

It was in Dioscorides’ great manuscript that the medical herbal found its foundation. Dioscorides had travelled and practised widely for many years in his career as a physician and soldier before setting down his experiences on parchment around 65 CE. Dioscorides incorporated material from a number of earlier authors such as Theophrastus, Crateus, Diocles and the Herbal of Sextus Niger. That said, this was not just a compendium of earlier herbals. Dioscorides’ five-volume work included the results of his own investigations, experience and observations and contains details of around 600 different plants, which is around 100 more than anyone else had previously described. He also presented a system of botanical classification which was essentially pharmacological, grouping the plants together according to their medical properties. This was so far ahead of its time that, in subsequent copies, scribes ignored Dioscorides’ ideas and reverted the manuscript to the traditional alphabetical order of listing the plants. So much for innovation.

The original manuscript of Dioscorides has long since disappeared. The earliest complete version to have survived is a manuscript from 512 CE known as the Juliana Codex or the Codex Vindobonensis. Few other books have such an illustrious history. It was produced as a gift by the local townspeople of Constantinople for Juliana Anicius in response to her construction of a local church. Juliana was the daughter of Flavius Anicius Olybrius, who was briefly the Roman Emperor of the Western Empire in 472 CE.

The manuscript is around a thousand pages in length and magnificently illustrated, with almost 400 full-page colour paintings opposite the plant descriptions. Already, the plants have been arranged alphabetically, ignoring Dioscorides’ original classification system. Extra material from other ancient authors has also been added, including a guide to over 40 Mediterranean birds - not what one would expect to find in a herbal and definitely not part of Dioscorides’ original text. Many of the illustrations though are thought to be copies of those found in the now extinct
Rhizotomicon of Crateus.

Following its creation and presentation to Juliana Anicius, the manuscript then disappears from history. We don’t know who owned it or to what countries it travelled, yet a measure of how useful and valuable it was considered is that by the time it resurfaces, over a thousand years later in 1652, its parchment pages are teeming with handwritten notes and amendments in over 20 different languages including Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and French. It had clearly passed through a wide variety of privileged hands. Remarkably, rather than sitting forgotten on the dusty shelves of a library, this single individual book had been in constant use for over a thousand years.

This use would seem to have taken its toll. At the time the book resurfaces into written history, it is the property of a physician in Constantinople who received it from his father; the personal physician of Süleyman the Magnificent (after the city came under Turkish rule in 1453). The manuscript was described as being in such a bad state that ‘no one, if they saw it lying in the road, would even bother to pick it up’. These were the words of an ambassador of the Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, who wished to buy the manuscript but could not afford the 100 ducats being asked for it.

Such was the pull of this work though that by 1659, only 7 years later, the Emperor Maximilian II did buy it, to be held by the Austrian National Library in Vienna, where it has remained to this day. Though
De Materia Medica was translated into a great many mainland European languages throughout the centuries, it was not until 1652-5 that a John Goodyear produced an English version, writing below the original Greek with a line-by-line English translation. The book took him 3 years to write and filled over 4000 pages, each one handwritten, yet strangely, it did not see the light of day until 1933, when it was finally published after being rediscovered in an Oxford library. Incredibly, this was the sole translation into English until a completely modern translation was published in 2000.

De Materia Medica was effectively the last word in herbal books for the next 15 centuries, dominating the contents of virtually all subsequent publications which mostly just copied directly from Dioscorides whilst adding some 'padding' of their own. It was the one source to which anyone aspiring to be, or working as, a herbalist would refer. In fact, despite that many of the medical recipes contained in it would not now be considered effective, it would be so slavishly copied, referenced and referred to that no real developments took place in the science of herbalism for the next 1500 years, because no one thought that anyone could do anything better. To question Dioscorides was unthinkable. To copy him, absolutely fine.

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A is for Arum in the first ever encyclopaedia.


Arum has its place in the first ever encyclopaedia. Known as the Naturalis Historia it was written by a Roman known as Pliny the Elder in around 77 CE. It is the only one of his works to have survived to the present day.

Pliny’s encyclopaedia spanned 40 volumes covering everything which was known about everything which was known. What makes Pliny the Elder such an amazing chap was that the entire work was written in the evenings when Pliny arrived home after his day job of administrating for the Roman Emperor. This must have involved longer hours and more stress than the average office management job does today, yet Pliny still found time and energy to spend his evenings writing and researching, creating volume after volume of his steadily growing magnus opus. What’s even more amazing is that he wrote the entire work by hand on parchment. Presumably by the light of just his oil lamps. I guess he did a bit more at the weekends but either way, his diligence is heroic and illustrates just how much more people achieved in the days before the Internet and TV.

Pliny’s encyclopaedia contained radical new concepts such as an index, it referenced its sources (a habit which was studiously ignored by most later herbals) and was written in a simple and accessible fashion to allow all to understand and benefit from its contents.

Arum has a number of entries in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia and he includes a large number of uses for the plant, drawn from a wide range of courses. The main section is in Book XXIV, Chapter 92, entitled The Aon: Thirteen Remedies. Pliny mentions here that Arum can be boiled in milk and used for cloudiness of the eyes, internal ulcerations and inflammation of the tonsils. It is recommended here for freckles, foreshadowing its use two thousand years later by the French as a skin cosmetic. Pliny quotes other sources as stating that Arum is good for difficulty in breathing and general conditions of the lungs and coughs, and restates its use as a facilitator of birth delivery for all animals. He also reaffirms the belief in Arum’s efficacy against serpents and snake bite.

Interestingly, he writes that already there is disagreement about whether Arum is one plant or many, on account of the different variations found around Europe, all quite similar but with noticeable differences. It is already known as ‘Aron’, ‘Dracunculus’ and ‘Dracontium’, and the Arum which Pliny mostly discusses is not the British Arum but the Egyptian Arum: a plant now known as Arum colocasia or Taro. This is a notable example of plant observation (along with that from Egypt) which was subsequently forgotten in the later herbals.

For more information, see the online version of Pliny’s works: as well as the wiki page on his encyclopaedia at and a BBC podcast at

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Arum's weird roots ; the deeper they go the thicker they get.


380–327 BCE Theophrastus, pupil of Aristotle (and both pupils of Plato), writes his Enquiry into Plants.

Arum first puts in an appearance in the early herbals and writings of Ancient Greece. It is from this time and culture that our knowledge of Arum’s herbal properties has its origins, firmly embedded within the roots of western culture. Three works by the founding figures of the great Mediterranean tradition of herbal medicine all mention Arum.

The first of these is by a student of Plato and Aristotle, named Theophrastus. Around 340 BCE he wrote his Enquiry into Plants, one of the earliest written attempts to codify the natural world and a precursor to modern botanical classification. It is also the earliest written reference we have to Arum. In his Enquiry into Plants, Theophrastus gives the first description of Arum being used as food and mentions a medicinal use: ‘The root of cuckoo-pint is also edible, and so are the leaves, if they are first boiled down in vinegar; they are sweet, and are good for fractures’.

Theophrastus was a philosophical botanist. In the style of his time, he debates whether Arum really has roots in the same way that other plants do because instead of tapering to a point, the way that ‘
true roots do’, they instead get wider the deeper into the ground they go. Hence, they cannot really be ‘proper’ roots. An interesting point for discussion perhaps, but he didn’t really come up with any suggestions as to what else they might be, if not roots.

Theophrastus’ work was less a herbal as we might understand the term and more a very early work of botanical enquiry about the nature of plants. It was an attempt to understand, mostly from a philosophical viewpoint, how plants ‘worked’ and how they could be classified. Agnes Arber says in her book Herbals, ‘
Aristolelian botany suffered from one serious handicap: an inadequate basis of actual fact’. She describes how Greek botany was created by philosophers who, being completely at home in the world of ideas, believed that any knowledge could be derived from thinking about ‘general principles of the world’ without any need for actual observation: ‘… it was left for workers in the apparently less promising field of medicine’ to do that. Ouch.

Perhaps there was some truth to that criticism but Theophrastus also embodied the spirit of intellectual investigation that the Greek's excelled in and in many ways set out the foundations of today's scientific worldview. He took issue with faith healing, religious authority and beliefs not based on experimentation. He ended up being known as the Father of Botany and was even the tutor of Alexander the Great, which is impressive enough in itself. But for us, his main claim to fame of course is that he was the first to put pen to paper about Arum.

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