Inset in the text, a wood cut of an Iris plant in bloom,

A New Herbal in the Collection

By Margaret Kaiser

Under the title of the book a woodcut of a bearded man in a flat hat and furred robes holding a branch.
Titlepage of Benefice commun, with portrait of Leonhart Fuchs, 1555-56

The Library has recently acquired a rare work on medicinal plants by Leonhart Fuchs: Le Benefice commun de tout le monde, ou commodité de vie d’un chascun, pour la conservation de santé [the common benefit of all, for the preservation of health], 1555-56. The book is a very small volume, about 4 inches tall, and is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts which depict the plants from life.

The Benefice commun de tout le monde is a collection of medical and pharmaceutical texts. It was published in 1555-56 in Rouen in the north of France, one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe. As the title suggests, the book is a guide for living a healthy life.   The first two parts include suggestions for healthy living, general information on plants and food, as well as medical recipes for oils, pills, and other preparations to treat maladies including fever, plague, and wounds.  The third part deals with medicinal plants and gives descriptions of plants and their uses in medicine.

Fuchs’ descriptions of the medicinal properties of the plants were based largely on traditional medical texts, especially the writings of Dioscorides and Galen.  Fuchs was renowned as a physician and a teacher and is best known as the author of the magnificent herbal De historia stirpium… , 1542 and is the third of the ‘German Fathers of Botany’, after Otto Brunfels and Hieronymus Bock.  Fuchs was born in Bavaria and received his medical degree at the University of Ingolstadt but later moved to Tübingen to accept a professorship of medicine at the university.  He would remain in Tübingen for the rest of his life.

The knowledge of plants and their uses as medicine was very important to Fuchs.  He tended the herb garden at Tübingen and as a teacher, he encouraged his students to study plants and would lead field trips to observe plants and their characteristics as they grew.  Many of the plants described were, and still are, easily found in gardens or in the wild.

For questions about these titles, including how to consult them, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at hmdref@nlm.nih.gov or (301) 402-8878.

Margaret Kaiser is Acquisitions Librarian for the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

One comment

  1. How timely that the library should come into possession of Fuchs’ work now, at time when interest in medicinal plants and their practical applications seems to be at an all time high. As an associate at Harvard studying targeted cancer therapies, our lab frequently sought out herbal alternatives. At the time, funding was severely lacking; the studies are incredibly longitudinal and expense. Fortunately though, we are starting to catch up.

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