A German Botanical Renaissance

By Michael North

This post is the third 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.

An open book showing two botanical line drawings.

Water Lilly from Brunfels’ Herbarum Vivae Eicones, Strasbourg, 1530

As discussed in a previous post, herbals based on ancient and medieval texts began to be printed in the 1470s in Latin and also local languages like German, French, and Italian, making them available to a much wider audience. The information in these texts was not based on original research, however; “research” mainly consisted of looking for older texts that hadn’t yet been published, or editing multiple manuscripts to create one marketable printed book. By the 1530s and 1540s, a new generation of physicians began remarking that these older works were not accurate or useful, as their texts contained inconsistencies and major gaps in the plants discussed and that their illustrations were useless in helping readers identify the plants described because they were so rudimentary. Many of these new physicians were Germans who witnessed or came of age during the Protestant Reformation, a tumultuous period when old hierarchies and beliefs were being challenged on a grand scale. Herbals produced by these reformers, sometimes called the “German Fathers of Botany,” were considered some of the first “modern” books about medicinal plants, and they set the stage for a new approach in research and publishing. Three of these significant early botanists were Otto Brunfels, Hieronymus Bock, and Leonhart Fuchs.

The first of the German Protestant herbal innovators was Otto Brunfels (ca. 1488–1534). Brunfels studied theology at the University of Mainz in the early 1500s and entered a Carthusian monastery, but he fled and converted to Lutheranism in 1521. Having a strong interest in medicinal plants, he later received an M.D. from the University of Basel (1532), becoming the City Physician of Bern until his death in 1534. He authored what is considered by some to be the first “modern” illustrated herbal, Herbarum Vivae Eicones (Living Pictures of Plants), printed in Strasbourg by Johann Schott in 1530, with a German translation following in 1532. The book is considered more important for its realistic and beautiful woodcuts from nature by Hans Weiditz (ca. 1495–ca. 1536) than for its text; in fact, the images drove the text rather than the other way around, as the order of the plants in the text was arranged according to when the woodblock illustrations were completed. It marked the first use of scientifically informed depictions of plants in the herbal literature. The plant illustrations in Brunfels’s book were so popular and profitable that publisher Johann Schott sued Christian Egenolph of Frankfurt in 1533 for plagiarizing the woodcuts and was awarded 132 of Egenolph’s woodblocks.  Brunfels and his book inspired many other Protestant German physicians interested in plants, such as Euricius Cordus (1486–1535) who wrote in his Botanologicon (Cologne, 1534) about “botanizing” in the German countryside, examining and comparing plants first hand in the same manner that his contemporary Andreas Vesalius examined human bodies by performing his own dissections in the late 1530s and early 1540s.

Otto Brunfels also inspired Hieronymus Bock (1498–1554), who may more properly be called the “first modern botanist” because of his attempts to classify plants for the first time in nearly 2,000 years. Bock attended the University of Heidelberg in 1519 and soon became a Protestant. After teaching in Zweibrücken for nine years, he served as physician and garden caretaker of Count Palatine, and eventually became a Lutheran minister in Hornbach in 1534 until his death in 1554. His notable New Kreütter Buch appeared unillustrated in Strasbourg in 1539, followed by an illustrated edition in 1546 by artist David Kandel (died 1587). While many of the detailed images were derived from works by Otto Brunfels and Leonhart Fuchs, Bock’s descriptions of regional plants in vernacular German and based on his observations rather than ancient texts were not dissimilar from Vesalius’s descriptions of the human body in De Fabrica. An example of his use of observation and experimentation was his discovery of fern seeds by laying down a sheet on mid-summer eve following information from local folklore, thus disproving ancient sources stating that ferns did not produce seeds. Bock also created a rudimentary “system of botany” and classification: as opposed to listing plants alphabetically in his book (as was the custom), he followed the lead of ancient botanist Theophrastus (4th century B.C.E.) and divided plants into three classifications: herbs, shrubs, and trees; he then arranged the plants by appearance within each class.

Perhaps the most famous of the “German Fathers of Botany” was Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566), a highly prolific and sought-after physician in Northern Europe in the mid-1500s (NLM has over 120 editions of his works dating from 1530 to 1665). Originally from Bavaria, Fuchs received a medical degree from the University of Ingolstadt in 1524, where he became a professor in 1526. As a Lutheran, he had to leave the Catholic city of Ingolstadt in 1535, moving to Tübingen where he became a professor and settled for the rest of his life. Taking an interest in medicinal plants, he founded and managed the medicinal herb garden there and eventually produced the monumental De Historia Stirpium (On the Study of Plants), printed in Basel in 1542 at the press of Michael Isingren (1500–1577), a top scientific publishing house at the time.

Colored portraits of three men in colored robes and hats, two are shown drawing a plant from life.

Artists Albrecht Mayer, Heinrich Füllmaurer, and Veit Rudolph Specklin from Leonhart Fuchs’ De Historia Stirpium, Basel, 1542

In the volume’s preface, Fuchs complained that few physicians of his day knew anything about medicinal plants (often relying on illiterate apothecaries and root-gatherers). Instead, he felt that learning about plants should be central to medical education (much as Vesalius said about anatomy), and he set out to create a book based on direct observation of plants. His approach was reflected in the volume’s production, for which he hired a highly skilled illustrator Albrecht Mayer to draw the plants from nature, along with artist Heinrich Füllmaurer to transfer the images to woodblocks and Veit Rudolph Specklin to cut the woodblocks. This process was of such importance to Fuchs that he included woodcut portraits of himself and the three artists in the book, all depicted examining plants first hand. De Historia Stirpium was large, at 896 pages, containing 512 woodcuts, with over 400 showing German plants and over of 100 foreign plants. The plants are arranged according to the Greek alphabet, so it was not an advance in the classification of plants, and Fuchs’s text drew on the botanical works of Hieronymus Bock and Conrad Gessner, but it was considered a milestone in the scientific approach to placing botany at the center of medical education and research. Many later herbals copied his illustrations, including those by Rembert Dodoens, William Turner, and Caspar Bauhin, sometimes even using the same woodblocks. Among the notable images in the book was the first illustration of American corn or Maize, although Fuchs incorrectly described it as coming from Turkey.

Because of their Protestant beliefs, all the works of Brunfels and Fuchs were banned by the Catholic Church in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of prohibited books by heretics. Several books by Fuchs in the NLM collections bear the scars of this ban, as his name was often crossed out on title pages by Catholic owners in places like Italy. Their books were still most likely available to serious scholars in Catholic Europe, where botanists were just as active as in Germany—a topic we will take up in the next article in the series.

This article is the third 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.