Medieval Herbals in Movable Type

By Michael North

This post is the second in a series exploring the National Library of Medicine’s rich and varied collection of “herbals,” which are books devoted to the description of medicinal plants (and sometimes other natural substances) with instructions on how to use them to treat illness. The Library’s herbals are some of the most beautifully illustrated books in the collection, and they are full of remedies that have not yet been tested by modern science.

Barely twenty years after Johann Gutenberg invented printing using a press and movable metal types in the 1450s, printers began publishing herbals. Most of the several dozen herbals which came out before 1500 were amalgams of anonymous herbals produced in manuscript during the middle ages (about 700 to 1400 C.E.), often containing information from ancient sources such as Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides, Hippocrates, and Galen. These manuscripts were sometimes copied and handed down verbatim, but often they combined texts from many different sources. Printers of early herbals like Peter Schöffer often had collections of these manuscripts and commissioned editors to create “new” herbals for the market using this varied and sometimes ancient information, without new research about plants or medicine playing any role whatsoever.

Many of these herbals were intended to be reference books for people who did not have access to a physician. Printing reduced the price of books from the manuscript era, making the information in them more widely available, and publishing in vernacular languages like German or Italian rather than Latin or Greek also broadened the market and spread this older but untested knowledge further.

Engraving of a bunch of onions, with roots, foliage and flower.

The onion,
in Macer Floridius, De Viribus Herbarum, Geneva: Printer unknown, circa 1495

The first herbal printed in Europe was De Viribus Herbarum (On the Powers of Herbs), ascribed to “Macer Floridus,” whom some believed to be a pseudonym of Odo, Bishop of Meung in the 11th century. This first herbal was published in Naples in 1477 and copies of it are exceedingly rare; in fact, the NLM only owns a facsimile edition of it printed in 1990. Fortunately, the Library does have a fragmentary copy of the first illustrated edition of the book printed in Geneva in about 1495. The text of this herbal was strongly based on Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, and Hippocrates and described only 77 plants. It was written in Latin verse, which made it easier to memorize and may have helped make it so popular.

An important figure in the production of two of the next most famous herbals was printer Peter Schöffer (1425–1503), who had apprenticed with Johann Gutenberg in Mainz. Schöffer was a savvy businessman and owned a large collection of manuscripts on many different topics, and it is likely that he commissioned an editor to draw materials from several sources to create the Herbarius Latinus, published in 1484 and the German Herbarius, Gart der Gesundheit, the following year.

Herbarius Latinus was originally published in 1484 in Latin with German terms listed for each plant, and the text was derived from a smattering of ancient and medieval sources, mainly dating before 1300. Most of the 150 plants cited could be found in Germany, and each was accompanied by a woodcut illustration that contained so little detail that they were not very useful for identifying the plant in question. It came out in eleven editions before 1501, including translations in Dutch and Italian, with the latter containing an added section dealing with ingredients you could get at the apothecary’s shop. The work was extremely popular and was pirated by other printers almost immediately. In fact, NLM owns an early pirated edition printed in Passau by Johann Petri in 1485, just a year after the extremely rare Schöffer first edition.

The German Herbarius, known as Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health), or sometimes Herbarius zu Teutsch, was printed by Peter Schöffer in Mainz the following year in 1485. It was clearly a more ambitious project than the Herbarius Latinus, written in German vernacular (in a Bavarian dialect) rather than Latin and describing more than double the number of plants with over 435 chapters mainly dealing with plants but also including text on animal products and minerals. The woodcuts were larger, which allowed them to include more detail: of 379 illustrations, 65 are considered realistic, as if drawn from nature. The book also includes a chapter on uroscopy, the medieval art of performing diagnoses through examination of a patient’s urine. Schöffer made another important innovation to the herbal by printing indexes of both ailments and drug recipes, pointing to the place in the main text where they could be found. The text was immensely popular and came out in 14 editions before 1501.  The Gart der Gesundheit was plagiarized within five months of its release by printer Johann Schönsperger in Augsburg, who eventually issued eight more printings through 1502.

Another landmark herbal produced in the era of early printing also came out of Mainz: Hortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health), published by Jacob Meydenbach in 1491. It too was anonymous, and its core consisted of a modified Latin translation of Gart der Gesundheit, however it was nearly doubled in size with 1066 chapters and 1073 woodcut illustrations. The text contains descriptions not only of plants but also of animals, birds, fishes, and minerals. Two thirds of the woodcut illustrations were copied outright from Gart der Gesundheit, but one third were new, created to accompany the many new plants added to the text. As with the other herbals mentioned above, Hortus Sanitatis was extremely popular, eventually translated into French, Dutch, English, and German and reprinted numerous times into the 1530s. In fact, herbals did not evolve significantly until the first “modern” herbal was published in 1530…but that’s a story for another post.

This article is the second in a series about NLM’s large and varied collection of herbals dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. To learn more about them, please feel free to contact me at northm@mail.nih.gov.

Michael J. North in the incunaMichael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.