Category Archives: Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXVII

Over a series of posts, we have followed the emergence of the science of botany out of the Renaissance humanist physicians’ endeavours to integrate materia medica, the study of simples or medical herbs, into the Renaissance university teaching curriculum. By the end of the sixteenth century the books on plants that were being published were definitely works of botany and no longer works of medicine. However, one of the books that helped launch the gradual rise of botany during the century, Pliny’s more than somewhat disputed[1]Naturalis historia was actually encyclopaedic in its scope covering much more than just the flora of antiquity, which only made up sixteen of the thirty-seven books. Four of the other books were devoted to the fauna of antiquity, covering mammals, snakes, marine animals, birds, and insects. Aristotle had also written two books on the fauna his De Partibus Animalium and his Historia Animalium as well as the De Generatione Animalium, which is attributed to him. All three books were well known and published in the Renaissance. Albertus Magnus (c.1200–1280), who digested, interpreted, and systematized the whole of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century, also wrote a De animalibus, which was known and read in the Renaissance.

Albertus Magnus De animalibus (c. 1450–1500, cod. fiesolano 67, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) via Wikimedia Commons

All of this raises the question, was there development of zoology as a discipline during the sixteenth century similar to that of botany? The answer is both yes and no. A much smaller number of authors wrote books on the fauna and the development, at that time, progressed by no means as far as that of botany. However, as we will see two authors in particular stand out and they can and have been labelled the founders of modern zoology, they are the Swiss polymath Conrad Gesner (1516–1565) and the equally polymathic Italian natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605). However, before we look at the work of these two intellectual giants, and it is not an exaggeration to call them that, we will first take a look at the others, who published on fauna in the period and, to begin, briefly discuss why the development of zoology lagged behind that of botany.  

When you spell out the reasons why the development of zoology in the Renaissance lagged behind that of botany, they seem pretty obvious, but you first have to think about the problem.  Whereas the ongoing botanist could and did send each other, seeds, bulbs, dried plants in the form of herbarium sheets, and even living plants carefully packaged in letters and packages with the post you can’t pop a rhinoceros in an envelope and send it to someone. 

My example may seem more than somewhat ridiculous, but it refers to a real, notorious, historical occurrence. Perhaps the most well known of all Renaissance prints is Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros, which we will meet again later. Dürer’s print is based on verbal descriptions of an Indian rhinoceros that was sent, by ship, as a gift to King Manuel I of Portugal in 1515. Manuel actually staged a combat between his rhinoceros and a young elephant to test Pliny’s account that elephants and rhinoceroses were enemies. The young elephant fled, and the rhinoceros was declared the winner. Manual decided to give his rhinoceros to the Medici Pope Leo X, and it embarked one again on a ship across the Mediterranean, but this time did not survive the journey dying in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy. Dürer’s print was based on a letter and sketch of the beast sent from Lisbon to Nürnberg. As we shall see, many of the early printed accounts of animals were based on verbal descriptions and sketches rather than actual encounters with the animals themselves. The animal studies of Renaissance artists like Dürer or Leonardo also played a role in stimulating interest in animals amongst the humanist scholars. 

Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros woodcut Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another major problem is that if you go out on excursions or field trips to empirically study plants, the plants remain quietly where they are whilst you examine, sketch, or even dig them up to take them home with you. Most animals aren’t as accommodating. In fact, most wild animals will take to their heels and disappear when they hear humans approaching. Proto-zoologists were dependent on the second hand reports of hunters, field workers, or foresters of animals they didn’t get to observe themselves. Putting this all together, it is simply much more difficult to conduct empirical research on animals than on plants. It therefore comes as no surprise that the first zoological publications in the Renaissance were about fishes and birds, animals that humans eat and are thus more accessible to the researcher. It should be noted that in the Early Modern period people ate a much wider range of birds than we do today and that whales were also extensively eaten throughout Europe. In fact, the European whaling industry began in the Middle Ages because the Church classified them as fish, meaning they could be eaten on a Friday, a fast day when eating meat was forbidden. 

Before turning to the early Renaissance zoologists, we will take a brief look at the medieval manuscripts of animals, the bestiaries. Unlike the medieval herbals, which served a practical medical function, the bestiaries served a philosophical or religious function. The natural histories and illustrations of the individual beasts were usually accompanied by a moral lesson. The animals served a symbolic function rather than a practical one. The illustrations were mostly copied from earlier ancient Greek sources, the earliest known example is the second century Greek work, the Physiologus, which draws on earlier authors such as Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny, and others.

Panther, Bern Physiologus, 9th century Source: Wikimedia Commons

The genre was further developed by Isidore of Seville and Saint Ambroise, who added a religious dimension. Bestiaries were very popular in the High Middle Ages, but had little or no influence on the beginnings of zoology in the Renaissance, unlike the influence herbals had with plants. 

Detail from the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest zoological text from the sixteenth century was published by the English naturalist William Turner (1509/10–1568), who, as we saw in the episode on herbals, was motivated by his travels and studies in Northern Italy. Before he began publishing his more famous herbal in 1551, he had already published Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia (The Principal Birds of Aristotle and Pliny…), which not only discussed the birds to be found in the two authors from antiquity but contained descriptions of birds based on his own empirical observations.

Title page of Avium Praecipuarum, 1544, by William Turner. This was the first ever printed book devoted wholly to ornithology. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much more extensive are the zoological works by the French traveller and naturalist, Pierre Belon (1517–1564).

Pierre Belon artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Little is known of his origins, but in the early 1530s he was apprenticed to the apothecary René des Prey. He entered the service of René du Bellay Bishop of Le Man (c. 1500–1546) in the second half of the 1530s, who permitted him to study medicine at the University of Wittenberg under Valerius Cordus (1515–1544).[2] He travelled through Germany with Cordus in 1542, continuing on through Flanders and England alone. He continued his studies in Paris, and then became apothecary to Cardinal François de Tournon (1489–1562) in whose service he undertook diplomatic journeys to Greece, Crete, Asia Minor, Egypt, Arabia, and Palestine between 1546 and 1549. An avid polymath he recorded everything he saw and experienced on his travels. During a Papal conclave, 1549–1550, he met up with Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566), who would be appointed professor for medicine in Montpellier, and the Italian physician Hippolyte Salviani (1514–1572). Returning to Paris he began to sort his notes and publish his zoology texts. In 1557 he undertook another journey to Northern Italy, Savoy, the Dauphiné, and Auvergne. In 1558 he obtained his medical licence and began to practice medicine. He became a favourite of the Kings Henry II (1519–1559) and Charles IX (1550–1574). The latter providing him with lodgings in Château de Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne. His promising career was cut short when he was murdered in 1564.

Between 1551 and 1557 he wrote and published a series of books based on his travel observations. His first book was his L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins, avec la vraie peincture & description du Daulphin, & de plusieurs autres de son espece. Observee par Pierre Belon du Mans published in Paris in 1551.

L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins A Paris :De l’imprimerie de Regnaud Chaudiere,1551. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is a description of the fish and cetaceans, such as dolphins and porpoises, that he had observed and dissected on his travels. Aristotelean in nature the work contained a classification system for marine fish, including both cetaceans and hippopotami under fishes, although he recognised that cetaceans had mammalian milk glands and were air breathing. Two years later he published a more general book on fish, his De aquatilibus. Libri duo Cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem, Quoad eius fieri potuit, expressis, also in Paris. This contained descriptions of 110 fish species and is a founding text of the discipline of ichthyology. A French edition De aquatilibus. Libri duo Cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem, Quoad eius fieri potuit, expressis was published in Paris in 1555.

In 1553 he also contributed to the botanical literature with his De arboribus Coniferis, Resiniferis aliisque semper virentibus…, a book on confers, pines and evergreen trees. It was published in both Latin and French in the same year. The same year saw the publication of his more general Les obsevations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrsas well as a three-volume work on funerary customs in Antiquity. A revised edition of his Observations was published in 1555 and Clusius translated them into Latin for an international readership in 1559.

In 1555 he turned his attention to birds publishing his Histoire de la nature des oyseaux in Paris. It describes about 200, mostly European, birds. This book is particular notable for its comparison of the skeletons of a bird and a human, one of the earliest examples of comparative anatomy.

A comparison of the skeleton of birds and man in Natural History of Birds, 1555 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He rounded off this burst of publications with his Portraits d’oyseaux, animaux, serpens, herbes, arbres, hommes et femmes, d’Arabie et Egypte, in Paris in 1557.

Portraits d’oyseaux, animaux, serpens, herbes, arbres, hommes et femmes, d’Arabie et Egypte, 1557 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much of the information in his books on both fishes and birds was obtained by investigating those that came to market in the towns that he visited. On his trip to England, he also met the Venetian humanist scholar and architect, Daniel Barbaro (1514–1570), Palladio’s patron, who had made many drawings of Adriatic fish. 

Etching of Daniele Barbaro by Wenzel Hollar Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Italian physician, humanist scholar, and naturalist Hippolyte Salviani (1514–1572), who as we saw above met Belon at the Papal conclave in 1549–1550, was the personal physician to the House of Farnese from 1550 till 1555 and taught at the University of Rome until 1568.

Frontispiece of Hippolyte Salviani’s Aquatilium animalium historiae  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Belon he wrote and published a work on fish Aquatilium animalium historiae (1554-1558), which depicted about one hundred Mediterranean fish species and some molluscs. He was aware of the difference between cephalopods and fish. This work was based on his own empirical observations, and he was supported financially in his work by Cardinal Marcello Cervini (1501–1555), later Pope Marcellus II. The work was dedicated to Cervini’s successor Gian Carafa (1476–1559), Pope Paul IV. Like Belon most of his fish research was done with fish from the markets.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566), who was also at that Papal conclave, went on to become professor for medicine at the University of Montpellier, where he taught several important natural historians including Charles de l’Écluse (Carolus Clusius) (1526–1609), Matthias de l’Obel (Matthias Lobelius) (1538–1616), Pierre Pena (c. 1530–c. 1600), Jacques Daléchamps (1513–1588), Jean Bauhin (1511–1582), and Felix Platter (1536–1614).

Guillaume Rondelet Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although he was one of the greatest teachers of medicine and natural history in the sixteenth century, he published very little himself. However, like Belon and Salvini, he published a work on marine life, his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt (Lyon, 1554).

Libri de piscibus marinis, 1554 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the title refers to fish (piscibus), the book actually deals with all aquatic animals. Rondelet makes no distinction between fish, marine animals such as seals and whales, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. He investigated the difference between fresh water and saltwater fish. His approach was Aristotelean emphasising function. He dissected and illustrated many of his specimens and his anatomical drawings off a sea urchin is the earliest know drawing of an invertebrate. He made anatomical comparisons and found similarities between dolphins, pigs, and humans. The book became a standard reference work for many years and was translated into French in 1558 as L’histoire entière des poissons (The complete history of fish). 

Extract from Rondelet’s 1554 work De piscibus Source: Wikimedia Commons

Without doubt the most influential text on the road to the discipline of zoology published in the sixteenth century was the more than four-thousand-and-five-hundred-page, five-volume Historia animalia issued by the Swiss polymath Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) between 1551–1558 and 1587 posthumously in Zurich.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have written about Gessner in the past, but the short version is, he was the polymath’s polymath. A humanist, encyclopaedist, philologist, bibliographer, zoologist, botanist, alpinist, linguist, and professional physician. He was not only an encyclopaedist but a completist. His Bibliotheca universalis (1554–) was an attempt to list alphabetically all of the books printed and published in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew since the invention of printing with movable type. He followed this with a thematic index to the Bibliotheca universalis, the Pandectarum sive Partitionum universalium Conradi Gesneri Tigurini, medici & philosophiae professoris, libri xxi with thirty thousand entries in 1548. 

His approach to the Historia animalia was the same, it was an attempt to provide descriptions of all known animals. The animals were listed alphabetically but divided up in divisions in the style of Aristotle. Volume I Quadrupedes vivipares. 1551 (Live-bearing four-footed animals), Volume II Quadrupedes ovipares. 1554 (Egg-laying quadrupeds, reptiles and amphibia), Volume III Avium natura. (Birds) 1555, Volume IV Piscium & aquatilium animantium natura 1558 (Fish and aquatic animals), Volume V De serpentium natura (Snakes and scorpions).

Tiger and leopard, Book 1:Viviparous Quadrupeds Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1638 a further volume on insects was published from his Nachlass. To write his book, Gessner drew on multiple sources giving credit to their authors. As well as an illustration of each animal, here he famously used Dürer’s rhinoceros, he included vast amounts of information–the animal’s name in all the languages know to him, habitat, description, physiology, diseases, habits, utility, diet, curiosities, all crossed referenced to ancient and modern authorities. Gessner, in has attempt at completeness, also included some mythical creatures, in some cases stating that he didn’t know if they existed or not.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Historia animalia was immensely successful and an abbreviated version, the Thierbuch, appeared in German in 1565. 

Fantastical creatures in a copy of Historia Animalium in The Portico Library in Manchester, England. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Just as encyclopaedic as Gessner’s work were the volumes on animals put together by the Italian natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), whose five hundredth birthday we will be celebrating on 11 September.

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605). Ornithologiae, hoc est de avibus historiae libri XII. (De avibus), Bologna, 1599. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was born in Bologna into a noble family, a nephew of Pope Gregory XII. He father, a lawyer, died when he was seven. In his youth he studied first mathematics and then Latin under prominent private tutors. Following his mother’s wish he studied law but shortly before graduating he switched to philosophy. To complete his philosophy studies, he switched to the University of Padua, where he began to study medicine in 1545. In 1549 he was accused of heresy and had to go to Rome to clear his name. In 1550, he met Guillaume Rondelet, whom he accompanied on his visits to the local fish markets to study fish, which awakened Aldrovandi’s interest in zoology. Returning to Bologna he met Luca Ghini (1490–1556), who played such a central role in the early study of plants, and this awakened his interest in botany. When Ghini returned to Pisa, Aldrovandi followed him to attend his lectures on medical simples. In 1552 he graduated in philosophy at Bologna and a year later in medicine. In 1554 he was appointed lecturer for logic at the university and in 1559 professor for philosophy. 

In 1561 he became the first professor of natural history at Bologna, Lectura philosophiae naturalis ordinaria de fossilibus, plantis et animalibus. Aldrovandi devoted the rest of his life to the study and propagation of natural history. He set up the university botanical garden in 1568 and a museum for natural history, which I will look at more closely in a later post. Like Gessner, he spent years collecting material for a Historia Animalia, but didn’t start writing it until he was seventy-seven-years-old. He only managed to publish three of the eventual eleven volumes before he died aged eighty-two. The other eight volumes were published posthumously by Johannes Cornelius Uterverius (1592–1619), Thomas Dempster (1579–1625), and Bartholomäus Ambrosinus. Ornithologiae, hoc est, de avibus historiae libri XII. Agent de avibus rapacibus (1600); 

Aldrovandi Owl Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ornithologiae tomus alter de avibus terrestribus, mensae inservientibus et canoris (1600); De aninialibus insectis libri VII (1602); 

De animalibus insectis libri septem, cum singulorum iconibus ad vivum expressis, Bologna, 1602. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ornithologiae tomus tertius ei ultimus de avibus aquaticis et circa quas degentibus (1603); De reliquis animalibus exanguibus, utpote de mollibus, crustaceis, testaceis et zoophytis, libri IV (1606); Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum historia (1613); 

Aldrovandi Red Hartebeest and Blackbuck Source: Wikimedia Commons

De piscibus libri V et de cetis liber unus (1613); De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri III, et de quadrupedibus oviparis libri II(1637); Historiae serpentum et draconum libri duo (1640);

Basilisk from Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo (1640) Source: Wikimedia Commons

 Monstruorum historia(1642)

Harpy. Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia, Bologna, 1642. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There were also some smaller individual studies published in the sixteenth century. The Cambridge scholar and physician John Caius (1510–1573)

John Caius, Master (1559-1573); Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge; artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

was a correspondent of Gessner’s and produced a study of British dogs for him, which Gessner didn’t publish, so he published it himself in 1570, De Canibus Britannicis.


In the same year he also published De Rariorum animalium atque stirpium historia, libellus (Of Some Rare Plants and Animals).

The Bologna senator, Carlo Ruini (1530–1598) wrote a very accurate and comprehensive Anatomia del cavallo, infermità, et suoi rimedii (On the Anatomy and Diseases of the Horse), which was published posthumously in Venice, in 1598.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, the English student of Felix Platter, Thomas Moffet (1533–1604) compiled the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (Theatre of Insects) based on his own work and that of Gessner, Edward Wotten (1492–1555) and the physician Thomas Perry (1532–1589).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Edward Wotten, a graduate of Padua, had earlier published his Aristotelian research on animals De differentiis animalium libri decem, in Paris in 1552. 

Edward Wotton an engraving by William Rogers c. 1600 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the developments in zoology in the sixteenth century were not as widespread or as progressive as those in botany as we have seen they were not insubstantial and laid foundations that were developed further in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

[1] For details of that dispute see Episode XXXII of this series

[2] For more on Valerius Cordus see Episode XXXV of this series


Filed under History of science, History of Zoology, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXVI

As I have sketched in recent episodes of this series, the adoption of materia medica into the curriculum for medical studies at the Renaissance universities, led fairly rapidly to an empirical turn in the study of simples (i.e., medical herbs) and over time the study of plants in general. Initially, this consisted largely of going out into nature and observing growing plants in their natural habitat and recording those observations. At first just individual physicians acquiring knowledge for themselves and their teaching and then later taking the students out on field trips and doing the teaching on the growing plants rather than in the lecture halls. Academics very soon took the next natural step and began collecting plants within the universities as teaching and research material. At first, in the form of living plants in the newly created university botanical gardens, modelled on the earlier monastic medical herb gardens. The next step was dried plants collected in herbaria, to provide study and teaching material, when the living plants were not available in winter etc. The final step was to transfer the newly acquired empirical knowledge onto the printed page in a new generation of herbals containing both illustrations and verbal descripts of the plants together with instructions in their usage. 

These collections of plants–living, dried, printed–all had one limiting factor in common, their scope.  If you restricted your botanical excursions or field trips, commonly called botanising or herborizing, to what could be reached by foot in a day, a weekend or even a week, then your plant collections are going to be by definition local. However, the botanical physicians of the sixteenth century were very much interested in extending their plant collection beyond, in fact well beyond, the local. How could they achieve this? The first possibility, and one that was indeed utilised, was travel. Longer journeys, beyond the local radius, to go botanising in other areas, other regions and this is exactly what some of those Renaissance botanical physicians did. 

Perhaps, the most extreme example of the roving Renaissance botanist was Charles de l’Écluse, L’Escluse (1526–1609), better known under his nom de plume Carolus Clusius, who during his lifetime travelled extensively throughout Europe, studying the local flora wherever he went.

Portrait attributed to Jacob de Monte Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1560s, Employed by the Augsburger banking dynasty, the Fuggers, as a tutor to one of the sons of Aton Fugger (1493–1560), he undertook a plant collecting expedition to Spain, which resulted in his,  Rariorum alioquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia: libris duobus expressas, published by Christoph Plantin in Antwerp in 1576. Whilst in Spain, he also took the opportunity to question those travellers returning from the Americas about the flora of the New World. 

Anton Fugger portrait by Hans Maler zu Schwaz (1480/1488–1526/1529) Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1573, he was appointed director of the imperial botanical garden in Vienna by Emperor Maximilian II. Here, he used the opportunity to carry out an extensive survey of the flora of Austria. This included ascents of the Ötscher and Schneeberg mountains in Lower Austria in order to study their botany. This knowledge flowed into his Caroli Clusii Atrebatis Rariorum aliquot stirpium: per Pannoniam, Austriam, & vicinas quasdam provincias observatarum historia, quatuor libris expressa also published by Christoph Plantin in 1583. Pannonia is the Roman name for the western part of Hungary

Maximilian II portrait by Nicolas Neufchatel Source: Wikimedia Commons

He continued his botanical surveys in the area around Frankfurt am Main, where he resided from 1587 to 1593, then he was appointed professor of botany at the University of Leiden, where he established the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands.

Hortus Botanicus Leiden in 1610. Print by Jan Cornelisz. Woudanus and Willem Isaacsz. van Swanenburg. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As well as his longer periods in Spain, Austria, and Frankfurt, Clusius also travelled extensively throughout Europe observing and collecting botanical data wherever he went. He travelled to England four times: 

Rarer but important were long-distant journeys to visit colleagues. Often, combined with herborizing, such trips could take weeks or months. Clusius, ever the restless soul, made four trips to England in the course of his career–twon in 1579 and 1580, when he was residing in Vienna. On the second, he had originally planned to go only as far as the Netherlands, but on learning that Francis Drake’s expedition had returned to Plymouth after circumnavigating the world, he took ship across the Channel to meet the explorer and his crew. In his Exoticorum libri (1605), Clusius described many of the objects he had acquired on that trip, including a root that he named after Drake. En route, he visited friends, colleagues, and patrons, including Wilhelm, Landgrave of Hessen, noted for his interest in the observational sciences.[1]

In terms of his wanderings, Clusius, whilst, here given as an example of the travelling botanist, is exceptional, other physicians and proto-botanists also travelled throughout Europe and also further afield, observing and recording the flora in the regions that they passed through. They transmitted the information that they thus acquired to other interested colleagues throughout Europe by publication or by correspondence. The latter brings us to the other widespread method of acquiring botanical knowledge from outside of your own locality, the botanical Republic of Letters. 

There were no scientific societies or scientific institutions other than the universities but the herborizing and botanising physicians, apothecaries and fellow travellers formed a Europa wide community via their republica literaria. In the first instance this referred to those who had published on materia medica, herbals or other botanical works but it also referred to the extensive exchange of letters between these practitioners. Returning to Clusius, as well as being a constant traveller, was also an inexhaustive letter writer corresponding with fellow botanists all over Europe and beyond. His surviving correspondence numbers about 1500 letters from 320 correspondents in six languages between 1560 and 1609. 

Clusius was by no means unique in the scope of his correspondence. Conrad Gessner (1516–1565), who was one of Clusius’ correspondents, had an even bigger circle of correspondents, who supplied much of the natural history information that landed in his publications. Many others we have encountered, including Felix Platter (!536–1614) and Joachim Camerarius the Younger (1534–1598) had large correspondence circles. As in other areas of the Republic of Letters, recipients of letters often passed on the information that they contained to their own circle of correspondents and also locally by word of mouth. Interestingly, the students of medicine, from all over Europe, studying at the major university medical faculties in Norther Italy, Montpellier and later Leiden, often acted as postal couriers carrying letters and packages in both direction between hometowns and universities. Through these exchanges the newly acquired botanical knowledge permeated the whole of Europe.

As well as illustrations and verbal descriptions the postal missives often contained herbaria, seeds, bulbs, or even complete plants thus enabling botanists to extend their public and private botanical gardens beyond the local. Clusius notoriously commissioned imperial representatives in Constantinople to supply him bulbs for his imperial botanical garden in Vienna.

Gessner described tulips flowering in the garden of Heinrich Herwart in 1559. However, it was Clusius, who having planted tulips in the imperial botanical garden in Vienna in 1573, who published the first major work on tulips in 1592, planting them in the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden in 1593. This was the start of the tulip mania, which culminated in the massive financial crash in the tulip market in 1640.

A tulip, known as “the Viceroy” (viseroij), displayed in the 1637 Dutch catalogue Verzameling van een Meenigte Tulipaanen. Its bulb was offered for sale for between 3,000 and 4,200 guilders (florins) depending on weight (gewooge). A skilled craftsworker at the time earned about 300 guilders a year Source: Wikimedia Commons

This notorious episode is symptomatic of a change in the botanical Republic of Letters at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century. Throughout the sixteenth century the exchange of seeds, bulbs, and plants was carried out on the basis of friendship and common interest, without money being involved, By the turn of the century a flourishing commercial market in plants and flowers had begun to develop throughout Europe of which the tulip mania was the most extreme development.

[1] Brian W. Ogilvie, The Science of DescribingNatural History in Renaissance Europe, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2006, ppb 2008, p. 77

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Filed under History of botany, History of medicine, Renaissance Science

Around the World in One Thousand and Eighty-three Days 

Growing up in the UK in the 1950s, history lessons in primary school, that’s elementary school for Americans, still consisted to a large extent of a glorification of the rapidly fading British Empire. The classroom globes were still covered in swathes of pink and there, at least, the sun never set on the empire that was. Another popular theme, in this collection of fairy tales and myths, was the great period of European exploration and discovery in the Early Modern Period, in which Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan were presented as larger than life, heroic, visionary adventurers, who respectively discovered America, became the first European to sail to India, and, perhaps the greatest achievement of all, circumnavigated the globe. 

At grammar school history became modern European history–Napoleon, Vienna Conference, Franco-Prussian War, unification of German, First World War, rise of Fascism and Hitler, and Second World War–my generation was after all born in and grew up in the aftermath of WWII. The “heroes” of the so-called age of discovery faded into the background, becoming nothing more than a handful of half-remembered facts–1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Somewhere down the line those early tales of daring do became tarnished by inconvenient facts, such as the information that the Vikings almost certainly got to America before Columbus or that Vasco da Gama only managed to sail from Africa to India because he employed a local navigator, who knew how to get there. On the whole it was not a topic that particularly interested me in the early part of my adult life. As far as history went, it didn’t seem to me at that time to be part of the history of mathematics, boy was I wrong on that, so I largely ignored it. 

However, I was aware of the gradual dethroning of Columbus, who having been appointed governor by the Spanish Crown of the islands he had discovered was later stripped of his title because of incompetence and brutality towards the indigenous population. Also, that de Gama had had to use military force to persuade the Indians to trade with him. These men were not the saints they had been painted as in my youth. However, through it all Magellan remained a heroic role model, the first man to circumnavigate the globe. 

I first became more interested in more detail about the so-called age of discovery about fifteen years ago when I became aware that the Renaissance mathematici, who now occupied a large part of my historical activities, were not mathematicians in anything like the modern sense of the word but were, as the English term has it, mathematical practitioners. That is, that they were actively engage in particle mathematics, not to be confused with the modern term applied mathematics, which included navigation and map making, as well as the design and production of mathematical instruments for navigation, surveying, and cartography. All of these activities have, of course, a direct and important connection to those voyages of discovery. This was brought home to me when I discovered that one of my favourite mathematici, the Nürnberger Johannes Schöner (1477–1547 most well known as a pioneer in the production of printed globes, had probably produced a terrestrial globe in 1523 displaying Magellan’s circumnavigation. As I wrote in a blog post from 2010:

So, what does all of this have to do with Magellan and the first circumnavigation? As Schöner was in Kirchehrenbach in his banishment he tried to curry favour with his Bishop in that he dedicated his newest terrestrial globe to him, produced in 1523 this globe featured the route of Magellan’s circumnavigation only one year after those 18 seamen struggled back to Spain. At least we think he did! The accompanying cosmographia for the globe exists but none of the globes has survived the ravages of time. How did Schöner manage to transfer the knowledge of this epic voyage so quickly into a printed globe? In this day and age where the news of Ms Watson’s achievement is blasted around the globe in all form of media within seconds of her landfall, we tend to forget that such news sometimes took years to permeate through Europe in the 16th century. At the instigation of Cardinal Matthäus Lang a great sponsor of science in this age Maximilianus Transylvanus interviewed the survivors in Spain and published his account of the voyage in 1523 and it was this account, which Schöner, who made sure to always acquire the latest travel reports through a network of contacts, used to make his globe. I said that none of his Magellan globes have survived but there is a set of globe gores in New York that appear to be those of Schöner’s 1523 globe. Globes were printed on gores, these are strips of paper shaped like segments of an orange that were then glued on to a papier mâché sphere and coloured by hand. The set of gores in New York have Schöner’s cartographical style and Magellan’s route printed on them and although there are some dissenting voices, in general the experts think that they are Schöner’s original.

Included in this quote in the information that only a very small number of the 237 seamen, who set out on this much acclaimed voyage actually made it back to Spain, and only one of the original five ships. Moreover, Magellan was not amongst the survivors having been killed in an imperial attack on indigenous natives on the island of Mactan, who refused to accept the authority of the king of Spain. I had personally garnered this information somewhere down the line.

I became increasingly interested in the mathematical aspects of the so-called age of discovery and became embroiled in an Internet debate on the naming of America with a famous, British pop historian, who was erroneously claiming that it was far more likely that America was named after the Welsh merchant, Richard Ap Meric, an investor in John Cabot’s voyages of discovery, than after Amerigo Vespucci. Being well aware of the reasons why Waldseemüller and Ringmann had named America after Vespucci on their 1507 map of the world, I wrote a long blog post challenging this twaddle. 

As part of my study of this piece of history I acquired my first book by historian extraordinary of exploration, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, his excellent biography of Vespucci, AmerigoThe Man who Gave His Name to America.[1] This was quickly followed by his equally good biography of Columbus,[2] and somewhat later by his PathfindersA Global History of Exploration.[3] So, when it was announced that Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s latest book, he’s incredibly prolific, was to be a biography of Magellan, I immediately ordered a copy and this blog post is a review of  his STRAITSBeyond the myth of Magellan.[4]

I will start by saying that Fernández-Armesto does not disappoint, and this biography of the man and his infamous voyage is up to his usual very high standards. If you have a serious interest in the topic, then this is definitely a book you should read. Although this is a trade book rather than an academic tome, Fernández-Armesto has scrupulously researched his topic and all of the book’s statements and claims are backed up by detailed endnotes. While we are by the apparatus the book also has an extensive and very comprehensive index but no general bibliography. This is one of several new books that I have without a general bibliography, meaning that if you become interested in a referenced volume and it’s not the first reference, then you have to plough your way back through the endnotes, desperately searching for that all important first reference, which contains the details that you require to actually find the book. Staying briefly with the general description, each chapter has a frontispiece consisting of a contemporary print with a detailed descriptions that related to the following chapter. There are also five grey tone maps scattered throughout the book showing places referred to in the narrative.

One thing that Fernández-Armesto makes very clear throughout his book is that the sources for actual hard information about Magellan are very thin and those that do exist are often contradictory. Because he very carefully qualifies his statements concerning Magellan, weighing up the sources and explaining why he believes the one version rather than the other, this makes the book, whilst not a hard read, shall we say a very intense read. Put another way, Fernández-Armesto doesn’t present his readers with a smooth novel like narrative, lulling them into thinking that we know more than we do, but shows the reader how the historian is forced to construct their narrative despite inadequate sources. This is a lesson that other trade book authors could learn.

The central myth of the Magellan story that Fernández-Armesto tackles in his book is that of the inspirational figure, who set out to circumnavigate the world. Not only did Magellan personally fail to do so, a fact that is so often swept under the carpet in the simple claim that he was the first man to do so, but that he in fact never had the intention of doing so. 

In the somewhat less than first half of his book Fernández-Armesto takes the reader through the details of what we know about Magellan’s life before that infamous voyage. His origins, his life and education on the Portuguese court, his service for the Portuguese Crown both as a seaman and a soldier. His reasons for leaving Portugal and moving to Spain, where he offered his services to the Spanish Crown instead. All of this leads up to his plans for that voyage and the motivation behind it. His intended aim was not to sail around the world but to find a passage through the Americas from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or Southern Sea, as it was generally known then, and then to sail across the Pacific to the Moluccas (Spice Islands), today known as the Maluka Islands, and hopefully demonstrate that they lay in the Spanish half of the globe, as designated by the Pope’s Tordesillas Treaty. Having done so to then return to Spain by the same route. Nobody actually knew in which half of the globe the Moluccas lay, as the treaty only specified the demarcation line or meridian in the Atlantic and it was not known where the anti-meridian lay in the Pacific, which in general everybody, including Magellan, thought was much smaller than it actually is.

Due to the uncertainties that this plan, was there even a passage through the Americas joining the two oceans, was it possible to cross the Pacific by ship, did the Moluccas actually lay within the Spanish hemisphere, the negotiations to set up the voyage and the persuade the Spanish Crown to finance it were tough and complex and Fernández-Armesto takes the reader through them step by step. Having succeeded, we then set sail with Magellan on a voyage that was an unmitigated disaster every single sea mile of the way.

The somewhat more than second half of Fernández-Armesto’s narrative is a detailed account, as far as it is possible to reconstruct it, of what might be described, with only slight exaggeration, as the voyage to hell and back with long periods in purgatory. Possibly the only thing that is admirable about Magellan and the voyage is his tenacity in the constant face of doom and disaster, although that tenacity takes on more and more maniacal traits as the voyage proceeds.

Fernández-Armesto’s biography of the man and his voyage is a total demolition of the myths that have been created and propagated over the last five centuries, leaving no trace of valour, heroism, or gallant endeavour. The voyage was an unmitigated disaster perpetrated by a ruthless, driven monomaniac. At the end of his excellent tome Fernández-Armesto illustrates how the myth of Magellan and his circumnavigation was put into the world, starting almost as soon as the Victoria, the only one of the five ships to complete the circumnavigations, docked in Spain more than a thousand days after it set sail with only a handful of the crews that started that voyage. Fernández-Armesto also list some of the myriad of organisations, objects, institutes, prizes etc. that proudly bear Magellan’s name, his attitude to all this being summed up perhaps by his comment on the Order of Magellan awarded by the Circumnavigators Club of New York:

Though it seems astonishing that an award for “world understanding should be named for a failed conqueror who burned villages ad coerced and killed people. (p. 277)

As a final comment on this possibly definitive biography, I learnt in reading this book that the early explorers, Columbus, da Gamma, Magellan et al identified both themselves and their endeavours with the heroic knights in the medieval tales of chivalry and romance, riding their ships out on quests of discovery that would bring the fame, fortune, and honour. Magellan’s quest was about as far removed from this image as it was possible to get. 

[1] Felipe Fernández-Armesto, AmerigoThe Man who Gave His Name to America, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2006.

[2] Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus, OUP, Oxford & London, 1991, ppb Duckworth, London, 1996

[3] Felipe Fernández-Armesto, PathfindersA Global History of Exploration, W W Norton, New York, 2006, ppb 2007

[4] Felipe Fernández-Armesto, STRAITSBeyond the myth of Magellan, Bloomsbury, London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney, 2022


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Navigation, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXV

Whether they were introducing materia medica into the medical curriculum at the universities, going out into the countryside to search for and study plants for themselves, leading students on field trips to do the same, establishing and developing botanical gardens, or creating their herbaria, the Renaissance humanist physicians in the first half of the sixteenth century always had their botanical guides from antiquity to hand. Mostly one or other edition of Dioscorides but also Theophrastus on plants, Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and Galen’s texts on medical simples. The work of all four of these authors concentrated largely on plants growing around the Mediterranean, although they did include some medical herbs from other areas, India for example. The North Italian, Renaissance, medical humanists also started out studying the Mediterranean plants, but soon their field of study widened, as the changes they had initiated spread throughout Europe led to other medical humanists to search for and study the plants of their own local regions. This expansion became even larger as colleagues began to study and compare the plants growing in the newly discovered land in the so-called age of exploration. Reports began coming into Europe of plants growing in the Americas and Asia. These developments meant that Dioscorides et al were no longer adequate guides for the teaching of medical herbal lore and the age of the Early Modern printed herbal began. 

As already noted in an earlier episode of this series Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, which is, of course, a herbal, was well known and widely available throughout the Middle Ages, but it was by no means the only medieval herbal. Herbal medicine was widely used throughout the Middle Ages and many monks, apothecaries, and herbalists, who utilised herbal cures, compiled their own herbals, some of which were copied and distributed amongst others. A few of these herbals were printed during the incunabula period in the second half of the fifteenth century. Many printer publishers in this early period were on the lookout for potential money earning publications and herbals certainly fit the mould.

The earliest of these was the De proprietatibus rerum of the Franciscan friar Bartholomeus Anglicus (before 1203–1272), written in the thirteenth century and printed for the first time about 1470, which went through twenty-five editions before the end of the century. This was an encyclopaedia containing a long section on trees and herbs.

De proprietatibus rerum, Lyon 1482, erste Seite (Eisenbibliothek, Schlatt) via Wikipedia Commons

This was followed by the herbal of Apuleius Platonicus, also known as Pseudo-Apuleius, about whom almost nothing is known, but it is assumed he probably wrote his herbal the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici in the fifth century; the oldest known manuscript dates from the sixth century. It is a derivative text based on Dioscorides and Pliny. It is a much shorter and simpler herbal than Dioscorides, but was immensely popular throughout the Middle Ages, existing in many manuscripts. The first printed edition appeared in Rome in 1481. 

Herbarium Apuleii Platonici Print Rome 1481. Plantago, Arnoglossa Source: Wikimedia Commons
Herbarium Apuleii Platonici  Print Rome 1481. Dracontea Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici, three other medieval herbals were printed and published in Mainz in Germany. The Latin Herbarius (1484), and the Herbarius zu Teutsch or German Herbarius (1485), which evolved into the Hortus or Ortus sanitates (1491).

Fruits of Paradise. Hortus sanitatis 1491 Source: Wikimedia Commons

These herbals probably date back to the Early Medieval Period but unlike the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici there is no hard proof for this. All three books went through numerous editions under various titles in various languages. In England the first printed herbal was by Rycharde Banckes in which the title page begins Here begynneth a newe mater, the whiche sheweth and treateth of ye vertues and proprytes of herbes, the which is called an Herball, which appeared in 1525.

Bankes Herbal Source

It had no illustrations. This was followed by the more successful The grete herbal, printed by Peter Treveris in 1526 and then again in 1529. Many of the illustrations were taken from the French Le Grant Herbier, but which originated in the Herbarius zu Teutsch, continuing an old process of copying illustrations from earlier books, which as we will see continued with the new Renaissance herbals to which we now turn.


Whereas the printed medieval herbals were largely derived from the works of Dioscorides and Pliny, the Renaissance humanist physicians produced new printed herbals based on new material, which they and their colleagues had collected on field trips. However, these new herbals were still based in concept on Dioscorides’ De materia medica, were medical in detail, although they gradually led towards botany as an independent discipline throughout the century.

We begin with four Germans, who are often described as “The Fathers of Botany”. The first of these was Otto Brunfels (possibly 1488–1534), a Carthusian monk, who converted to Lutheran Protestantism and became a pastor.

Otto Brunfels portrait by Hans Baldung Grien Source: Wikimedia Common

He was the nominal author of the Herbarum vivae eicones published in three volumes between 1530 and 1536 and the German version of the same, Contrafayt Kräuterbuch published in two volumes between 1532 and 1537. Both publications were published by Hans Schott in Straßburg and were illustrated by Hans Weiditz the Younger (1495–c. 1537). I said nominal author because it is thought that the initiative for the book was Schott’s centred around Weidnitz’s illustrations with Brunfels basically employed to provide the written descriptions of the plants. Weidnitz’s illustrations, drawn from nature, are excellent and set new standards in the illustration of herbals.

Nymphaea alba, also known as the European White Waterlily, White Lotus, or Nenuphar from “Herbarium Vivae Eicones” Hans Weiditz the Younger Source: Wikimedia Commons

They are, however, not matched by Brunfels’ descriptions, which are very poor quality, simply cobbled together from early descriptions.

The second of the so-called “German Fathers of Botany” was Hieronymus Bock (1498–1554), whose Latin texts were published under the name Hieronymus Tragus (Tragus is the Greek for the German bock, a male goat).

David Kandel (1546) – Kreütter Büch, (1546) a Herbal Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Brunfels he converted from Catholicism to Lutheran Protestantism. His knowledge of plants was acquired empirically on botanical excursions. His first publication was De herbarum quarundam nomenclaturis, a tract linking Greek and Latin names to local plants, which, interestingly was published in the second volume of Brunfels’ Herbarum vivae eicones. It was also Brunfels who persuaded him to publish his own herbal. This was titled Neu Kreütterbuch and appeared in 1539. Unlike Brunfels book, Bock’s herbal had no illustration, however, his plant descriptions were excellent, setting new standards. In 1546 there was a second expanded edition with illustration by David Kandel (1520–1592).

Neu Kreütterbuch  Steinbrech David Kandel Source: Wikimedia Commons

A third expanded edition was published in 1551 of which a Latin translation, De stirpium, maxime earum, quae in Germania nostra nascuntur …, was published in 1552. All these editions were published by Wendel Rihel in Straßburg, who produced an edition without the text in 1553 and several editions after Bock’s death. 

The original German edition without illustrations had less impact that Brunfels’ herbal but after the addition of the illustrations and the Latin edition his work became successful. Bock was very innovative in that instead of listing the plants in his book in alphabetical order, he listed them in groups based on what he perceived as their similarities. An early step towards systematic classification.

The third of the German herbal authors Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566) was the most well-known and successful of the quartet.

Leonhart Fuchs portrait by Heinrich Füllmaurer Source: Wikimedia Commons

He received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Ingolstadt in 1524. After two years of private practice followed by two as professor of medicine in Ingolstadt, he became court physician to George von Brandenburg Margrave of Ansbach. He acquired a very good reputation and was reappointed to the professorship in Ingolstadt in 1533. As a Lutheran, he was prevented from taking up the appointment and became professor for medicine in Tübingen instead in 1535, where he remained until his death despite many offers of other positions. In Tübingen he created the botanical garden. He edited a Greek edition of Galen’s work and translated both Hippocratic and Galenic medical texts. Fuchs became somewhat notorious for his bitter controversies with other medical authors and the sharpness of his invective.

Unlike Brunfels and Bock, whose herbals were based on the own empirical studiers of local German herbs, Fuchs concentrated on identifying the plants described by the classical authors, although when published his herbal included a large number of reports on local plants as well as new plants discovered in the Americas. In 1542 he published his De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Notable commentaries on the history of plants) in Latin and Greek, it contained 512 pictures of plants, which are even more spectacular than the illustrations in Brunfels’ Herbarum vivae eicones. 

Cannabis plant from ‘De historia stirpivm commentarii insignes … ‘ Source: Wellcome Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

In a rare innovation he named the Illustrators, Heinrich Füllmaurer and Albrecht Meyer along with the woodcutter Veit Rudolph Speckle including portraits of all three.

Portrait of the three engravers of Fuchs’ ‘de Historia….’ Credit: Wellcome Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

A German translation New Kreüterbuch was published in 1543. Alone, during Fuch’s lifetime 39 editions of the book appeared in Dutch, French, German, Latin, and Spanish. Twenty years after his death an English edition was published.

Fuchs influence went further than the editions of his own books. The excellent illustrations in his Historia Stirpium were borrowed/pirated reused in a number of later herbals and botanical books:

The majority of the wood-engravings in Doeden’s Crūÿdeboek (1554), Turner’s New Herbal (1551-68), Lyte’s Nievve Herball (1578), Jean Bauhin’s Historia plantarum universalis (1650/1), and Schinz’s Anleitung (1774), are copied from Fuchs, or even printed from his actual wood-blocks, while use was made of his figures in the herbals of Bock, Egenolph, d’Aléchamps, Tabernaemontanus, Gerard, Nylandt, etc., and in the commentaries on Dioscorides of Amatus Lusitanus and Ruellius. It was not the large woodcuts in De Historia Stirpium (1542) which chiefly served for these borrowings, but the smaller versions of the blocjks, made for Fuchs’ octavo herbal of 1545.[1]

If Fuchs is the most well known of the so-called four German “Fathers of Botany”, then Valeriuis Cordus (1515–1544) is the least well known.

Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

His father was Euricius Cordus (1486–1535), who published his Botanologican, a guide to the empirical study of plants in 1534. Valerius can be said to have gone into the family business, studying medicine and botany under his father at the University of Marburg from the age of twelve in 1527. He graduated bachelor in 1531 and changed to the University of Leipzig, also working in the apothecary shop of his uncle Johannes Ralla (1509–1560), where he learnt pharmacology. In 1539 he changed to the University of Wittenberg, where he once again studied medicine and botany, and lectured on the De materia medica of Dioscorides. In Wittenberg he continued his studies of pharmacology in the apothecary shop of the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1473–1553), where he wrote his Dispensatorium, a pharmacopoeia, a systematic list of medicaments. During a short visit to Nürnberg in 1542, there were strong ties between Wittenberg and Nürnberg, Cordus presented his Dispensatorium to the city council, who awarded him with 100 gulden, paid for it to be printed posthumously in 1546, as the Dispensatorium Norimbergense. It was the first officially government approved pharmacopoeia, Nürnberg being a self-governing city state. It soon became the obligatory standard throughout Germany. 

Source: Wellcome Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

On the last of his many journeys from Wittenberg, Cordus travelled through Italy visiting Padua, Lucca, Florence, and Rome, where he died, aged just twenty-nine in 1544. When he died, he had published almost nothing, his Dispensatorium, as already stated was published posthumously as were two further important books on botany. In 1549, Conrad Gessner published the notes on his Wittenberg lectures on Dioscorides De materia medica, which had collected by his students, as Annotationes in Dioscoridis de materia medica lihros in Straßburg.


Gessner also published his Historiae stirpium libri IV (Straßburg 1561), which was followed in 1563 by his Stirpium descriptionis liber quintus. As with the other German herbals, Cordus’ books were issued in many further editions. Like Brock, Cordus rejected the alphabetic listing of the earlier herbals and in fact went much further down the road of trying to distinguish what we now call species and genus.

Not considered one of the “German Fathers of Botany”, the work of Joachim Camerarius the Younger (1534–1598) was also highly influential.

Joachim Camerarius the Younger Engraving by Bartholomaeus Kilian Source: Wikimedia Commons

Son of the famous philologist and the friend and biographer of Philip Melanchthon, Joachim Camerarius the Elder (1500–1574), he studied at Wittenberg and other universities before completing his doctorate in medicine in Bologna in 1562. Following graduation, Camerarius returned to Nürnberg where he set up as a physician practicing there for the rest of his life. Already a lifelong fan of botany, influenced by his time in North Italy he set up a botanical garden in his home city. He was a central figure in the reforms in the practice of medicine in Nürnberg similar to those I outlined in episode XXXII of this series, of which the publication and adoption of Cordus’ Dispensatorium was an important element.[2] Camerarius was also a central figure in the medical-botanical republic of letters that I will deal with in a later episode. As well as his own herbal Hortus Medicus et Philosophicus (Frankfurt/M., 1598), he published an expanded German translation of the Di Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeo Libri cinque Della historia, et materia medicinale tradotti in lingua volgare italiana (1554 and later editions) of Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501–c. 1577), as Kreutterbuch deß hochgelehrten unnd weitberühmten Herrn D. Petri Andreae Matthioli : jetzt widerumb mit viel schönen neuwen Figuren, auch nützlichen Artzeneyen, und andern guten Stücken, zum andern mal auß sonderm Fleiß gemehret und verfertigt (Frankfurt, 1586).

J. Camerarius. Mattiolisches Kräuterbuch Cichorium intybus Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with the introduction of the materia medica into the university medical curriculum, the field trips, the botanical gardens, and the herbaria, which all spread out through Europe from Northern Italy, the new style herbals also spread throughout the continent during the sixteenth century.

In the Netherlands, the printer-publisher and bookseller Christophe Plantin (c. 1520–1589), who I dealt with fairly extensively in an earlier post, contributed much to the dissemination of herbals and other plant books. The first notable Flemish author was the physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585), who published a herbal in Dutch, his Cruydeboeck, with an emphasis on the local flora of the Netherlands, with 715 images, 515 borrowed from the Dutch edition of Fuchs’ herbal, and 200 drawn by Pieter van der Borcht the Elder (c. 1530–1608) with the blocks cut by Arnold Nicolai (fl. 1550–1596), published in Antwerp in 1554 and again in 1563.

Rembert Dodoens portrait by Theodor de Bry Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Fuchs, who still listed his herbs alphabetically, Dodoens grouped his herbs according to their properties and reciprocal affinities, making his book as much a pharmacopoeia as a herbal. The Cruydeboeck was translated into French by Charles de l’Ecluse (1526–1609) in 1557, Histoire des Plantes, into English via the l’Ecluse French by Henry Lyte, A new herbal of historie of plants in 1578. Later in 1583, it was translated into Latin Stirpium historiae pemptades sex. Both the French and the Latin translations were commissioned and published by Platin. It is claimed that it was the most translated book after the bible during the late sixteenth century and in its numerous versions it remained a standard text for two hundred years.

Title page of the Crvydt-Boeck (1618 ed.) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Charles de l’Ecluse, better known as Carolus Clusius, was himself a physician and botanist, a student of Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566) at the University of Montpellier, he became one of the leading medical botanists in Europe.

This portrait is the only known painted portrait of Clusius. It was made in 1585 when Clusius was in Vienna. Attributed to Jacob de Monte Source: Wikipedia Commons

Clusius had two great passions languages and botany. He was said to be fluent in Greek. Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Flemish, and German He was also a polymath deeply knowledgeable in law, philosophy, history, cartography, zoology, minerology, numismatics, and epigraphy. In 1573, he was appointed director of the imperial botanical garden in Vienna by Maximillian II (1564–1576) but dismissed again shortly after Maximillian’s death, when Rudolph II (1576–1612) moved the imperial court to Prague. Later in his life, when he was called to the University of Leiden in 1593, he created the university’s first botanical garden. His first botanical publication was his translation into French of Dodoens’ Cruydeboeck.This was followed by a Latin translation from the Portuguese of Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios dos simples e Drogas da IndiaAromatum et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum apud Indios nascentium historia (1567) and a Latin translation from Spanish of Nicolás Monardes’  Historia medicinal delas cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven al uso de la medicina, , De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis quorum in medicina usus est (1574), with a second edition (1579), both published by Plantin.His own  Rariorum alioquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia: libris duobus expressas (1576), based on an expedition to Spain and Portugal followed.  Next up Rariorum aliquot stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam, & vicinas quasdam provincias observatarum historia, quatuor libris expressa … (1583). All of these were printed and published by Plantin. His Rariorum plantarum historia: quae accesserint, proxima pagina docebit (1601) was published by Plantin’s son-in-law Jan Moretus, who inherited the Antwerp printing house. Appended to this last publication was a Fungorum historia, the very first publication of this kind. In his publications on plants, Clusius definitely crossed the boundary from materia medica into the discipline of botany qua botany.

Title page, Rariorvm plantarvm historia Source: Wikimedia Commons
Chestnuts Source: Wikimedia Commons

The third Platin author, who made major contributions to the herbal literature was another of Guillaume Rondelet’s students from Montpellier, Mathias de l’Obel (1538–1616), a Frenchman from Lille also known as Lobilus. 

Matthias de l’Obel by Francis Delaram, print, 1615 Source: Wikimedia Commons

His Stirpium aduersaria noua… (A new notebook of plants) was originally published in London in 1571, but a much-extended edition, Plantarum seu stirpium historia…, with 1, 486 engravings in two volumes was printed and published by Plantin in 1576.

Plantarum, seu, Stirpium historia /Matthiae de l’Obel page 111 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1581 Plantin also published a Dutch translation of his herbal, Kruydtboek oft beschrÿuinghe van allerleye ghewassen… There is also an anonymous Stirpium seu Plantarum Icones (images of plants) published by Plantin in 1581, with a second edition in 1591, that has been attributed to Loblius but is now thought to have been together by Plantin himself from his extensive stock of plant engravings. Like others already mentioned, de l’Obel abandoned the traditional listing of the plants alphabetically and introduced a system of classification based on the character of their leaves.

The major Italian contributor to the new herbal movement in Europe was Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli (1501–c. 1577),

Pietro Andrea Mattioli portrait by Moretto da Brescia Source: Wikimedia Commons

who, as already mentioned in the episode on the publication of the classical texts as printed books, produced a heavily annotated Italian translation version of Dioscorides’ De materia medica, which included descriptions of one hundred new plants, Commentarii in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei, de medica materia, which went through four editions between 1544 and 1550, published by Vincenzo Valgrisi (c. 1490– after 1572) in Venice, and selling thirty-two thousand copies by 1572.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mattioli’s annotations, or commentaries, were translated into translated into French (Lyon, 1561), Czech (Prague, 1562) and German (Prague, 1563). 

Another Italian botanist was Fabio Colonna (1567–1640)

Fabio Colonna artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

who disappointed by the errors that he found in Dioscorides researched and wrote two herbals of his own Phytobasanos (plant touchstone), published in Naples, 1592 and Ekphrasis altera, published in Rome, 1616. Both books display a high standard in the illustrations and in the descriptions of the plants. 

Fabio Colonna, Phytobasanos Sive Plantarum Aliquot Historia Source

The main Portuguese contribution was the Coloquios dos simples, e drogas he cousas mediçinais da India by Garcia de Orta (1501–1568) published in Goa in 1563, one of the earliest European books printed in India, which as we have seen was translated into Latin by Clusius.

Statue of Garcia de Orta by Martins Correia at the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Lisbon Source: Wikimedia Commons
Title page of Colóquio dos Simples de Garcia de Orta. Goa, 1563. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was the Portuguese, who brought the herbs of Asia into the European herbals in the sixteenth century, those of the newly discovered Americas were brought into Europe by the Spanish, most notably by Nicolás Monrades (1493–1588).

Nicolás Monrades Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monrades learnt about the American herbs and drugs not by visiting the Americas but by collecting information at the docks in Seville. He published the results initially in three separate parts the first two parts in 1569 and 1571 and in complete form in 1574 under the title Primera y Segunda y Tercera partes de la Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en Medicina

Nicolas Monardes, Dos libros, 1565, title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the book that once again Clusius translated into Latin. It was also translated into English by John Frampton, a merchant, who specialised in books on various aspects of exploration, and published under the titles The Three Books of Monardes, 1577, and Joyfull newes out of the new founde worlde, 1580. 

Nicolas Monardes, John Frampton translation Joyfull newes out of the new-found world (1596), University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives, SPEC Fraser 567. Source

The most significant herbal produced in Switzerland didn’t become published in the sixteenth century. This was the general history of plants, Historia plantarum compiled by the polymath Conrad Gessner (1516–1565), which was still unfinished when he died.

Conrad Gesner by Tobias Stimme Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was partially published in 1750, with the first full publication being by the Swizz Government at the end of the nineteenth century. The quality of the drawings and the descriptions of the plants would have set new standards in botany if Gessner had published it during his lifetime. A student of Gessner’s, who also went on to study under Fuchs was Jean Bauhin (1541–1613).

Jean Bauhin Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a young man he became an assistant to Gessner and worked with him collecting material for his Historia plantarum. Later he decided to compile his own Historia plantarum universalis. Like his teacher he died before he could complete and publish his work. It was first published in full in three volumes in 1650/1.

Historia plantarum universalis, 1650 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jeans younger brother Garpard (1560–1624) also set out to produce a complete catalogue of all known plants, but like Jean he never lived to see it published.

Gaspard Bauhin Source: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, unlike Jean’s Historia plantarum universalis, it was not even published posthumously. He did, however, publish sections of it during his life: Phytopinax (1596), Prodromos theatre botanici (1620,) and Pinax theatre botanici (1623). The Pinax contains a complete and methodological concordance of the names of plants, sorting out the confusing tangle of different names awarded by different authors to the same plant.

Caspar Bauhin (1623), Pinax Theatri Botanici, page 291. On this page, a number of Tithymalus species (now Euphorbia) is listed, described and provided with synonyms and references. Bauhin already used binomial names but did not consistently give all species throughout the work binomials. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was a major step in the development of scientific botany. The work of all three Swiss authors transcends the bounds of the herbal into the science of botany.

The only notable French botanical author of the sixteenth century was Jean Ruel (1474–1537), who produced a Latin translation of Dioscorides in 1516, which served as the basis for Mattioli’s Commentarrii. He also wrote a general botanical treatise on Aristotelian lines, De Natura stirpium, published in 1536.

De natura stirpium Basel 1537. Title page Source: wikimedia Commons

One should, however, remember that the students of Guillaume Rondelet in Montpellier form a veritable who’s who of botanical authors in the sixteenth century. 

Turning finally to England the earliest herbal author was William Turner (c. 1509–1568), who during his wanderings through Europe had studied botany at the University of Bologna under Luca Ghini (1490–1556), who, as we saw in the previous episode, had a massive influence on the early development of medical botany in the early sixteenth century. Turner also knew and corresponded with Conrad Gessner and Leonhart Fuchs. Turner’s first work was his Latin, Libellus de re herbari novus (1538). In 1548, he produced his The names of herbes in Greke, Latin, Englishe, Duche, and Frenche with the common names that Herberies and Apotecaries use. His magnum opus was his A new herball, wherin are conteyned the names of herbes… published in three volumes, the first in London 1551, the first and second on Cologne in 1562, and the third together with the first and second in 1568.

llustration of Mandrake plant from William Turner’s Herbal,

It was illustrated with the pictures from Fuchs’ De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes. Henry Lyte (1529?–1607),

Henry Lyte Source: Wikimedia Commons

an antiquary, published an English translation of Dodoens CruydeboeckA nievve Herball, or Historie of Plantes,…, from the French of Clusius in 1578. This included new material provided by Dodoens himself. Once again the illustration were taken largely from Fuchs. 

A page on gillofers (gillyflowers, that is, carnations and pinks), from A niewe Herball by Henry Lyte, 1578. Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Gerrard produced the most successful English herbal, his The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes(1597), which was however, a plagiarism.

John Gerard Frontispiece of 1636 edition of Herball Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Dr Priest had been commissioned by the publisher John North to translate Dodoen’s Stirpium historiae pemptades sex into English, but he died before completing it. Gerrard took the work, completed it, and rearranged the plants according to the scheme of de l’Obel from that of Dodoens, and then published it as his own work. 

Gerrard Herball 1579 Virginia Potato

As I hope is clear from the above herbals were an important genre of books in the sixteenth century, which over time gradually evolved from books of a medical nature into the earliest works in the science of botany. 

[1] Agnes Arber, HerbalsTheir Origin and EvolutionA Chapter in the History of Botany 1470–1670, CUP; 1912, republished Hafner Publishing Company, Darien Conn., 1970, p. 70

[2] This is wonderfully described in Hannah Murphy, A New Order of Medicine: The Rise of Physicians in Reformation Nuremberg, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2019, which I reviewed here


Filed under Book History, Early Scientific Publishing, History of botany, Mediaeval Science, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Scotland’s premier topographer

For those of us, who grew up in the UK with real maps printed on paper, rather than the online digital version offered up by Google Maps, the Ordnance Survey has been delivering up ever more accurate and detailed maps of the entire British Isles since their original Principal Triangulation of Great Britain carried out between 1791 and 1853.

Principal Triangulation of Great Britain Source: Wikimedia Commons

Supplied with this cartographical richness it is easy to forget that England and Scotland once had separate mapping histories, before James VI & I[1] became monarch of both countries in 1603, and later the Act of Union in 1707, joined them together as one nation. 

Rather bizarrely, the Ptolemaic world map rediscovered in Europe in the fifteenth century but originating in the second century CE gives an at least recognisable version of England but with Scotland turned through ninety degrees, pointing to the east rather than the north. 

1482 version of the Ptolemaic map of the British Isles Source: National Library of Wales via Wikimedia Commons

The same image can be found on a world map from the eleventh century in the manuscript collection of Sir Robert Cotton (1570/1–1631). 

Detail of the 11th-century map of the world showing Britain and Ireland: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

The most developed of the maps of Britain drawn by the monk Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259), also in the Cotton manuscript collection, has Scotland north of England but very strangely divided into two parts north of the Antonine Wall joined by a bridge at Stirling.

Detail of a map of Britain by Matthew Paris showing Scotland: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1, f. 12v Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

Whereas on Matthew Paris’ map, the northern part of Scotland is only attached by the bridge at Stirling, on the Hereford Mappa mundi from c. 1300, Britain looks like a shapeless slug squashed down into the northwest corner of the map with Scotland, a separate island, floating to the north. 

Britain on the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Scotland separated left). Source

On the medieval Gough Map, the date of which is uncertain, with estimates varying between 1300 and 1430, Scotland, whilst hardly recognisable, had at least achieved its true north pointing orientation, although the map itself has east at the top. 

Gough Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

The version of Britain on the Ptolemaic, the eleventh century Cotton, and the Hereford world maps show almost no details. Matthew Paris’ map is part of a pilgrimage itinerary and shows the towns on route and very prominently the rivers but otherwise very little detail. The Gough map, like the Paris map emphasises towns rivers and route. Also compared to the Ptolemaic map, its depictions of the coastlines of England and Wales are much improved. However, its depiction of the independent kingdom of Scotland is extremely poor.

All the maps presented so far show Scotland in a much wider geographical context, part of the world or part of Britain. The oldest known existing single map of Scotland was created by John Hardyng (1378–1465) an English soldier turned chronicler, who set out to prove that the English kings had a right to rule over Scotland. As part of the fist version of his Chronicle of the history of Britain, which he presented to King Henry VI of England, in a failed attempt to instigate an invasion of Scotland, he included a strangely rectangular map of Scotland with west at the top and north to the right. 

John Hardyng’s map of Scotland: Lansdowne MS 204, ff. 226v–227r Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

As can be seen, this map contains much more detail of the Scottish towns, displaying castles and walls, as well as in two cases churches instead. 

Detail of John Hardyng’s map of Scotland, showing Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dunfermline and St Andrews: Lansdowne MS 204, f. 226v Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

The next map of Scotland was produced by the English antiquarian, cartographer, and early scholar of Anglo-Saxon and literature, Laurence Nowell (1530–c. 1570) in the mid 1560s. Around the same time he produced a pocket-sized map of Britain entitled A general description of England and Ireland with the costes adioyning for his patron Sir William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520–1598) Elizabeth I chief adviser.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley portrait attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger Source: National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

His map of Scotland, with west at the top, is much more detailed than any previous maps and bears all the visual hallmarks of comparatively modern mapmaking.  

Map of Scotland by Laurence Nowell: Cotton MS Domitian A XVIII, ff. 98v–99r Source: British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog

With Nowell we have entered the Early Modern Period and the birth of modern mapmaking in the hands of Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), who published the first account of triangulation in 1533, Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) creator of the first modern atlas[2] in 1570, and Gerard Mercator (1512–1594) the greatest globe and mapmaker of the century. As I have already detailed in an earlier post, England lagged behind the continental developments, as in all of the mathematical disciplines. 

Burghley motivated and arranged sponsorship for other English mapmakers, which led to the publication of the first English atlas, created by Christopher Saxton (c. 1540–c. 1610), in 1579, following a survey, which took place from 1574 to 1578. Scotland was at this time still an independent country, so Saxton’s atlas only covers the counties of England and Wales.

Saxton England and Wales proof map Source: British Library

Various projects were undertaken to improve the quality of Saxton’s atlas of which, the most successful was by the John Speed (1551/2–1629), who published his The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, which was dated 1611, in 1612. By now James had been sitting on the throne on both countries for nine years, however, Speed’s Theatre only contains a general map of Scotland and not detailed maps of the Scottish counties. 

John Speed’s map of Scotland

Why was this? The annotations to the facsimile edition of Speed’s Theatre give two reasons for this. Firstly, the book was originally conceived in 1590, when the two kingdoms were still independent of each other, and it was production delays that led to the later publication date, when modification to include the Scottish counties would have led to further delays. However, in our context, the mapping of Scotland, it is the second reason that is more interesting:

Secondly, Speed knew of the Scotsman Timothy Pont’s work in surveying Scotland. The have extended the Theatre to include maps for Scotland similar to those for England, Wales and Ireland would have been to duplicate Pont’s efforts, even if cartographical aspects were differently emphasised by the two men.[3]

We have now reached the title topographer of this blog post, Timothy Pont (c. 1560–c. 1614), who was he and why is there no Pont’s Atlas of Scotland?

Timothy Pont was the first person to make an almost complete topographical survey of Scotland. Unfortunately, as with many people from the Early Modern Period, we only have a sketchy outline of his life and no known portrait, in fact we know far more about his father, Robert Pont (1529–1606), a minister, judge, and reformer, an influential legal, political, and religious man, who rose to be Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in 1575. Timothy was his eldest child by his first wife Catherine daughter of Masterton of Grange, with whom he had two sons and two daughters[4]. By his second wife Sarah Denholme he had one daughter and by his third wife Margaret Smith he had three sons.

In 1574 Timothy received an annual grant of church funds from his father, he matriculated at the University of St Andrews in 1508 and graduated M.A. in 1583. It was possibly at St Andrews that he learnt the art of cartography, but it is not known for certain. It is not known when he carried out his survey of Scotland. Only his map of Clydesdale contains a date, (Sept. et Octob: 1596 Descripta) and it appears he ended his travels around this time and that he began them after graduating from St Andrews.

Pont’s Map of Lanark from 1596 Source

Somewhat earlier in 1592, he had received a commission to undertake a mineral reconnaissance of Orkney and Shetland, so his activities were obviously known. In 1593 his father again supported him financially, assigning him an annuity from Edinburg Town Council.

His wanderings and topographical activities apparently terminated, in 1600 Timothy was appointed minister of the parish of Dunnet in Caithness. He is recorded as having visited Edinburg in 1605. In 1609, he applied unsuccessfully for a grant of land in the north of Ireland. There is evidence that he was still Parson of Dunnet in 1610 but in 1614 another held the post, and in 1615, Isabel Pont is recorded as his widow both facts indicating that he had died sometime between 1611 and 1614. Unfortunately, as is often the case with mapmakers in the Early Modern Period, we have no real information as to how Pont carried out his surveys or which methods he used. 

We now turn to Pont’s activities as a topographer and mapmaker. Pont never finished his original project of producing an atlas of Scotland. Only one of Pont’s maps, Lothian and Linlithgow,

Pont’s map, Lothian and Linlithgow,

was engraved during his lifetime, by Jodocus Hondius the elder in Amsterdam,

Lothian and Linlithgow engraved by Jodocus Hondius the elder in Amsterdam
Same map in Joan Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland Source: Wikimedia commons

sometime between 1603 and 1612. However, the map, dedicated to James VI &I, was first published in the Hondius-Mercator Atlas in 1630. In a letter from 1629, Charles I wrote in a letter that his father had intended to financially support Pont’s project and granted the antiquarian Sir James Balfour of Denmilne (1600-1657), the Lord Lyon King-of-Arms, who had acquired the maps from Pont’s heirs, money to plan the publication of the maps. 

Sir James Balfour artist unknown Source: (c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation via Wikimedia Commons

At this point Sir John Scot, Lord Scotstarvit (1585-1670) entered the story. Already a correspondent of Willem (1571–1638) and Joan Blaeu (1596–1679), of the Amsterdam cartographical publishing House of Blaeu, he informed them of Balfour’s acquisition of Pont’s topographical survey of Scotland, Willem Blaeu having already asked Scot about maps of Scotland in 1626. Through Scot’s offices Pont’s maps made their way to Amsterdam. What then followed is briefly described by Joan Blaeu in his Atlas Novus in 1654.

Scot collected them and other maps and sent them over to me but much torn and defaced. I brought them into order and sometimes divided a single map. into several parts. After this Robert and James Gordon gave this work the finishing touches. and added thereto, besides the corrections in Timothy Pont’s maps, a few maps of their own.

Robert Gordon of Straloch (1580–1661) and his son James Gordon of Rothiemay (c. 1615–1686) were Scottish mapmakers, who obviously played a central role in preparing Pont’s maps for publication.

Source: National Portrait Gallery

Robert was called upon to undertake this work by Charles I in a letter from 1641; Charles entreated him “to reveis the saidis cairtiss”. Acts of parliament exempted him from military service, whilst he undertook this task and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland published a request to the clergy, to afford him assistance. 

The exact nature of the role undertaken by Robert and James Gordon in the revision of the maps is disputed amongst historians and I won’t go into that discussion here. However, following his father’s death in 1661, James preserved all of Pont’s surviving maps, along with his and his father’s own cartographical work and passed them on to the Geographer Royal to Charles II, Sir Robert Sibbald (1641–1722), in the 1680s. Sibbald’s own papers along with the Pont maps were placed in the Advocates Library following his death in 1772. The Advocates Library became the National Library of Scotland, where Pont’s maps still reside[5].

Robert Sibbald artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

As already indicated above Pont’s maps formed the nucleus of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland, the fifth volume of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum sive Atlas Novus published in Amsterdam in Latin, French, and German in 1654.

Joan Blaeu Atlas of Scotland German title page
Caithness Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland The parish of Dunnet where Pont was minister is in the bottom corner od the rectangular bay Source: Wikimedia Commons
Pont’s map of the area around Dunnet

This was the first atlas of Scotland, and it wasn’t really improved on in any way until the military survey of Scotland carried out by William Roy (1726–1790) between 1747 and 1755. Roy would go on to be appointed surveyor-general and his work and lobbying led to the establishment of the Ordnance Survey, whose Principal Triangulation of Great Britain, mentioned at the beginning of this post, began in 1791, one year after his death. 

My attention was first drawn to Pont’s orthographical survey of Scotland by advertising for a new permanent exhibition “Treasures of the National Library of Scotland”, which prominently features Pont’s maps, so I went looking for the story of this elusive mapmaker. 

[1] For any readers confused by James VI & I, he was James VI of Scotland and James I of England

[2] This and other uses of the term atlas here are anachronistic as Mercator first used the term in the title of his Atlas, sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi published in 1585

[3] The Counties of BRITAIN: A Tudor Atlas by John Speed, Introduction by Nigel Nicolson, County Commentaries by Alasdair Hawkyard, Published in association with The British Library, Pavilion, London 1998, p. 265

[4] I can’t resit noting that Timothy’s youngest sister, Helen, married an Adam Blackadder!

[5] The National Library of Scotland has an extensive website devoted to Pont and his maps from which much of the information for this blog post was culled


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Cartography, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXIV

The major problem with the big names, big ideas, big books version of the history of science is that it very often overlooks many highly influential figures in the development of a science discipline. A classic example of this is the physician and botanist Luca Ghini (1490–1556). Ghini published almost nothing in his entire career but his influence on the development of the science of botany out of materia medica in the sixteenth century was immense. As we have already seen he began lecturing on simples at Bologna in 1527 and was appointed professor for simples in the academic year 1533-34. When Cosimo reopened the University of Pisa in 1543, he wooed Ghini away from Bologna to hold the chair of simples. The list of important students who received their introduction to botany in his lectures is truly impressive. It was also Ghini, who was the first to introduce the field trip to study herbs in the nature into the university curriculum. He followed this by becoming the head in Pisa of one of the first university botanical gardens. If this was all that he initiated, he would be a major figure in the history of botany but there is more. 

Luca Ghini Source: Orto botanico di Pisa – Museum via Wikimedia Commons

The major problem with excursion in nature, field trips, and even botanical gardens is that plants have growth cycles. You cannot observe a plant in bloom all the year round but only for a short period. This of course applies to all the phases of its growth. How do you demonstrate to students the flowering phase of a particular simple in the middle of winter? It seems that once again Ghini was the first to solve this problem with the creation of a herbarium, that is a collection of dried and pressed plants. It appears that before Ghini came up with the idea sometime between 1520 and 1530 nobody had ever built up a collection of dried and pressed plants or at least no earlier ones are known. 

Within the historical context it is important to note that in the sixteenth century the term herbarium didn’t refer to a collection of dried and pressed plants, as it does today, but to what we now call a herbal; a book with descriptions of herbs, a topic that I will deal with in a future post in this series. In the Renaissance such collections were known as a Hortus hiemalis or Winter garden, others called them living herbals that is Herbarius vivus or Hortus siccusa dry garden. The earliest known use of the term herbarium in the modern sense is by the French botanist Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708) in his Eléments de botanique, ou Méthode pour reconnaître les Plantes published in 1694.

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort Portrait by Ambroise Tardieu Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although various historical herbaria still exist, Ghini’s doesn’t. Around 1551, when he sent dried plants gummed upon paper to Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli (1501–c. 1577) his collection was known to contain around three hundred different plants. However, it must have been in existence well before that date as the oldest extant herbarium is that of his pupil Gherado Cibo (1512–1600), which he began at the latest in 1532. Cibo was an avid botanist, known for his plant illustrations, who like Ghini never published anything, although he kept extensive diaries and notebooks of his botanical studies. 

Gherado Cibo Full page painting of lichens and ferns growing on a rock face with a pastoral scene in the background; the date ‘febraro 1584’ is written beneath. Source: British Library

Of interest is that fact that initially there were no publications about herbaria and knowledge of their existence and how to create them seems to have been spread by word of mouth and correspondence by Ghini and his students.

The earliest known printed reference to a herbarium is by the Portuguese, Jewish physician Amatus Lusitanus (1511–1568) in one of his works on Dioscorides in 1553, where he mentions the dried plant collection of the English botanist John Falconer (fl. 1547), who is known to have travelled in Italy and probably learnt how to make a herbarium either from Ghini directly or one of his students. 

In the late 1540s, Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566) travelled with his patron Cardinal François de Touron (1489–1562) around Europe and in Italy got to personally meet and talk with Ghini in Pisa. When he returned to Montpellier in 1551, he took with him the knowledge of how to make a herbarium, which he passed on to his students, including Felix Platter (1536–1614), who graduated in Montpellier in 1557.

Felix Platter portrait by Hans Bock Source: Wikimedia Commons

Platter took that knowledge with him to Basel after graduation. So, spread the knowledge slowly through Europe. Part of Platter’s own herbarium is one of the sixteenth century ones that still exist or at least part of it, totalling 813 specimens. 

Plants and Images from Felix Platter’s Herbarium

Information on how to make a herbarium was first published by Adriaan van de Spiegel (1578–1625), who studied medicine in Padua under Girolamo Fabrizio da Acquapendente (c. 1535–1619), in his Isagoge in rem herbariam in (Padua, 1606).

To quote Agnes Arber:

In his Isagoge–a general treatise on botany–he explans the method of pressing between two sheets of good paper, under gradually increasing weights, and notes that the plans must be examined and turned over daily. When they are dry, they are to be laid upon inferior paper (charta ignobilior), and, with brushes of graded sizes, painted with a special gum, for which he gives the recipe. The plants are then to be transferred to sheets of white paper; linen is to be laid over them, and rubbed steadily until they adhere to the paper. Finally the sheets are to be placed between paper, or in a book and subjected to pressure until the gum dries.[1]

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was one of the most influential naturalists of the sixteenth century.

Ulisse Aldrovandi portrait by Agostino Carracci Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1533 he obtained a degree in medicine and philosophy and in 1554 he began to teach philosophy in the following year, appointed professor of philosophy in 1561. Already an enthusiast for botany, zoology, and geology he was appointed the first professor of natural philosophy at Bologna in 1561 (lectura philosophiae naturalis ordinaria de fossilibus, plantis et animalibus). Never a student of Ghini, he might better be described as a disciple. Inspired by Ghini’s garden in Pisa he was responsible for the botanical garden in Bologna in 1568. Also inspired by Ghini, he created an extensive herbarium which eventually numbered about 4760 specimens on 4117 sheets in sixteen volumes, which are preserved in the University of Bologna.

Ulisse Aldrovandi Herbarium Source: University of Bologna

Like the botanical garden the herbarium or winter garden survived and developed upto the present. There are large scale herbaria in universities, museums and botanical gardens throughout the world often numbering millions of specimens. The largest in the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris has more than nine million. 

[1] Agnes Arber, HerbalsTheir Origin and EvolutionA Chapter in the History of Botany 1470–1670, CUP; 1912, republished Hafner Publishing Company, Darien Conn., 1970, p. 142


Filed under History of botany, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXIII

As I stated at the start of the last episode both Niccolò Leoniceno (1428–1524) and Pandolfo Collenuccio (1444–1504), in their dispute over the quality, or lack of it, of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, saw the need to go beyond comparing the description of plants in Pliny with those in the works of Theophrastus and Dioscorides and actually go out into nature and look at real plants. This empirical turn was the start of something new within the intellectual culture of medieval Europe and would eventually lead to the establishment of botany as an independent scientific discipline.

As Collenuccio wrote in his Pliniana defensio in 1493,

[The researcher] ought to ask questions of rustics and mountaineers, closely examine the plants themselves, note the distinction between one plant and another; and if need be he should even incur danger in testing the properties of them and ascertaining their remedial value.

and this is exactly what they began to do. Although they all contained information on plants from other parts of the world, India for example, the works of Pliny, Theophrastus, and Dioscorides were all predominantly based on the flora of the Mediterranean, so it was comparatively easy for those professors of medicine in the Northern Italian universities to actually undertake empirical surveys of the local plant life and compare it with the information contained in the works of the botanical authorities from antiquity. 

Since antiquity, apothecaries and herbalists had been going out into nature to search for and harvest herbs for their work. However, the scholars from the university were now going out for the first time and with a different aim. On their excursions, they were looking for herbs to describe, to study them and bring specimens back to both study in depth and to show to students in their materia medica courses. Leoniceno and his students Euricus Cordus (1486–1535) and Antonio Musa Brasavola (1500–1555) led the way in this new activity for scholars, with Cordus and Brasavola publishing guides to collecting. The former his Botanologicon (1535) and the latter Examen omnium simplicium medicamentorum, quorum in officinis usus est (1537).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The next development was not just to bring back specimens to display to students during their courses but to take the students out with them on the botanising excursions, and so the field trip was born. The first professor of simples at both Bologna and Pisa, Luca Ghini (1490–1556) initiated the field trip.

Luca Ghini Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with the spread of the materia medica lectures at the North Italian universities, the field trip quickly spread to universities throughout Europe by 1540. Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1666) in Montpellier was particularly renowned for his field trips, influencing a whole generation of future influential physicians. 

Guillaume Rondelet Source: Wikimedia Commons

The next development in the empirical study of simples was instead of taking the students into the countryside to search for and study the herbs in their natural habitat, to bring the living specimens to the universities in the form of the botanical garden. 

Herbal gardens for growing medicinal herbs were not a new invention in the Renaissance they had existed in one form or another since antiquity. There is some evidence that Aristotle and/or Theophrastus established a physic garden in the Lyceum at Athens but to what extent it was similar to the highly organised Renaissance botanical gardens is disputed. Pliny relates that the Roman botanist and pharmacologist, Antonius Castor (1stcentury CE) cultivated a large botanical garden. Gardens in general declined with the Roman Empire but during the Carolingian Renaissance gardens became an important feature of European monasteries. As well as gardens for fruit and vegetables, which the monks grew from their own nourishment, these featured section for the cultivation of medical herbs known as the herbularis or hortus medicus and more general as physic gardens. 

The typical cloister garden was a square or rectangular plot divided into quadrants by paths. The centre, where the paths intersected was often occupied by a well, which provided water for the monastery as well as for the garden itself. 

The cloister garden at the Cathedral of St. Martin in Utrecht, the Netherlands, dates from 1254. Today it remains a traditional cloister garden.

As medieval aristocrats began to create pleasure gardens on their estates in the High and Late Middle Ages these were mostly modelled on the monastery gardens.

Gardens and palace of Versailles in 1746, by the Abbot Delagrive Source: Wikimedia Commons

By the early sixteenth century private gardens were quite common.

Peter Brueghel the Younger Spring 1633

As it was often impossible to create gardens in the densely built inner towns and cities, the gardens were often outside of the city walls. In 1334, Matthaeus Silvaticus (c. 1280–c. 1342), the author of notable pharmacopoeia, Pandectarum Medicinae, established a botanical garden in Salerno in Southern Italy, home of the Schola Medica Salernitana. In 1447, Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455), who had facilitated the acquisition of the botanical works of Theophrastus and their translation into Latin, set aside part of the Vatican grounds for a garden of medicinal plants that were used to promote the teaching of botany.

On 29 June of 1545, the Republic of Venice authorised the foundation of a botanical garden at the University of Padua so that “scholars and other gentlemen can come to the gardens at all hours in the summer, retiring in the shade with their books to discuss plants learnedly, and investigating their nature peripatetically while walking”

The Botanical Garden of Padova (or Garden of the Simples) in a 16th-century print; in the background, the Basilica of Sant’Antonio. Source: Wikimedia Commons

We can see in this quote that like the libraries, which were being established around the same time, that the gardens were conceived as places were scholars could exchange and discuss their academic views.

A month later, in July, The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I, concluded negotiations for a garden at the University of Pisa, founding another at the convent of San Marco in Florence in December. The university botanical garden was under the leadership of Luca Ghini (1490–1556) the professor for medical simples.

Botanical school Pisa Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with other development in the establishment of materia medica at the universities Florence followed suit in 1545, Pavia in 1558, and Bologna in 1568. In Spain, the royal physician pharmacologist, and botanist, Andrés Laguna (1499–1559), used the Italian example to persuade Philip II to fund a royal physic garden at Aranjuez, as he wrote in his translation of Dioscorides’ De materia medica in 1555.

All the princes and universities of Italy take pride in having excellent gardens, adorned with all kinds of plants found throughout the world, and so it is most proper that Your Majesty provide and order that we have at least one in Spain, sustained with royal stipends.   

His appeal was successful. The concept of a university botanical garden spread throughout Europe, Valencia in 1567, Kassel 1568, Leiden 1587, Leipzig 1580, Basel 1589, and Montpellier 1593. In the seventeenth century the concept spread into Northern Europe and Britain.

The botanical gardens were created with plants from all over the world, this meant the necessity to acquire plants and seeds from other areas by some means or another. We shall address this aspect of the development of botany in a future episode. A final aspect of the development of the botanical gardens was that they were not simply collection of living plants to be studied by students, so that they could learn to recognise the ingredients of the medicines they would be prescribing but they became centres of botanical and medical research. Rooms containing distilleries and other apparatus that could be used as laboratories were built around the gardens to enable scientific research to be carried out on the plants grown there. Along with the anatomical theatres and libraries the botanical gardens became part of an increasing research apparatus on the Renaissance universities.


Filed under History of botany, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXII

Following the publication of the major natural history texts in the new print technology and the dispute amongst humanists concerning the errors in Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, the next major developments were not driven by a direct interest in botany as botany, but by a desire to reform the teaching and practice of medicine. In their personal dispute Niccolò Leoniceno (1428–1524) and Pandolfo Collenuccio (1444–1504), although they disagreed on the quality of Pliny’s work, agreed that for the identification of the plants discussed by Pliny, Dioscorides, and Theophrastus a study of the literature was insufficient and needed to be substantiated by a study of the plants growing in the wild. 

As the Ferrarese professor of medicine and critic of Pliny, Niccolò Leoniceno, queried in 1493, “Why has nature provided us with eyes and other organs of sense but that we might discern, investigate, and of ourselves arrive at knowledge?”[1]

Collenuccio wrote in his Pliniana defensio in 1493:

For fitness to give instruction in botany, it does not suffice that a man read authors, look at plant pictures, and peer into Greek vocabularies … He ought to ask questions of rustics and mountaineers, closely examine the plants themselves, note the distinction between one plant and another; and if need be he should even incur danger in testing the properties of them and ascertaining their remedial value[2]

This awareness of the necessity of empirical study of the plants under discussion kicked off the study of practical botany in the sixteenth century. We will follow this development in future post and here just mention the publication of guides to such a study in the 1530s, by two students of Leoniceno. Euricus Cordus (1486–1535) published his Botanologicon, a discussion on the topic between five participants in 1535 with a second edition appearing in 1551.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Antonio Musa Brasavola (1500–1555) published his dialogue on the topic, Examen omnium simplicium medicamentorum, quorum in officinis usus est in 1537.


Here I will address Leoniceno’s motivation for his studies and their consequences. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his detailed philological study of Pliny, Dioscorides, and Theophrastus, Leoniceno’s concerns were with the medical treatment of patients. He wanted to be certain that when applying the herbal remedies of Dioscorides or Galen that the apothecaries, who produced the medical concoctions had correctly identified the simples to be used. To fulfil this aim, he was of the opinion that medical students should learn the materia medica, as part of their studies. This idea was revolutionary in the medical education on the medieval university. In the Middle Ages the materia medica, the preparation of herbal medicines, was the province of the monks in their hospices and the apothecaries and not the learned professors of medicine. This changed under the urging of Leoniceno and his students. 

A chair for simples was established by Pope Leo X in Rome in 1513 with the appointment of Guiliano da Foligno. However, La Sapienza was closed with the sack of Rome in 1527. The chair was re-established in the middle of the century. The first permanent chair for medical simples was established at the University of Padua in 1533. At the University of Bologna Luca Ghini (1490–1556) began lecturing on the topic in 1527 and was appointed professor in the academic year 1533-34.

Luca Ghini Source: Wikimedia Commons

At Ferrara, Leoniceno’s own university, Antonio Musa Brasavola and his student Gaspare Gabrieli (1494–1553)

Antonio Musa Brasavola Source: wikimedia Commons

as well as the Portuguese physician Amato Lusitano (1511–1568), author of a key works on Dioscorides, Index Dioscoridis (1536); Enegemata in Duos Priores Dioscoridis de Arte Medica Libros (Antwerp, 1536); In Dioscorides de Medica materia Librum quinque enarrationis (1556), pushed the study of materia medica.

Statue of Amato Lusitano in his hometown Castelo Branco Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1543, Grand Duke Cosimo reopened the University of Pisa and wooed Ghini away from Bologna to hold the chair of simples. As the century progressed the smaller universities such as Parma, Pavia, and Siena followed suit. 

The study of simples did not remain confined to the Italian universities. When Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566) was appointed professor of medicine at the University of Tübingen he began teaching Dioscorides’ Materia medica.

Portrait of Leonhart Fuchs by Heinrich Füllmaurer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guillaume Rondelet (1507–166) began to teach Dioscorides at the University of Montpellier, a major centre for the study of medicine, in 1545.

Guillaume Rondelet Source: Wikimedia Commons

When the University of Leiden was founded by William of Orange in 1575, the professors of medicine were almost all graduates of the North Italian universities, who brought the teaching of simples with them.

Having established themselves as authorities in the field of materia medica the medical authorities now applied themselves to establishing that authority over the apothecaries, creating a medical hierarchy with themselves at the top and the apothecaries answerable to them. This was a major change in the field of medicine in the Early Modern Period. Throughout the Middle Ages the various branches offering medical services, university educated physicians, barber-surgeons, apothecaries, midwives, and herbalists existed parallel to each other with differing cliental. The barber-surgeons and the apothecaries served the needs of the physicians but were not beholden to them. If the patient of a physician needed a bloodletting, a barber-surgeon was called in to perform the task. If a physician’s patient required a herbal remedy, then this was supplied by an apothecary. However, the three branches functioned largely independently of each other. This would change during the sixteenth century. 

To effect this change, the physician moved away from the medieval system of control through the universities and guilds, setting up colleges of physicians organised and legitimised by the ruling political authorities. These colleges of physicians were responsible for the activities of all physicians within their political domain. The apothecaries mirrored this move by setting up colleges of apothecaries, later the barber-surgeons would do the same. The political authorities in the Italian states also set up the Protomedicato, a board of physicians appointed to oversee the medical provision within the area. The concept of the Protomedicato predated the introduction of the materia medica into the university medical curriculum but the major change was that the apothecaries were now answerable to the Protomedicato, which had the power to control their activities. To check that they were using the correct simples in their recipes, to control the quality simples and so forth. The physicians now also had the power to grant or deny a licence to an apothecary, who wished to open for business within their area of control. 

The final act of dominance of the physicians, with their newly won knowledge of materia medica, was the Antidotarium. This was a catalogue of antidotes or remedies issued by the college of physicians that proscribed for the apothecaries how these were to be concocted. Through these various developments the apothecaries had ceased to be independent and were now subservient to the physicians. As with the other developments, this power takeover within the medical professions, whilst it had its roots in Northern Italy was not restricted to it and spread fairly rapidly throughout Europe and the European colonies. Later the barber-surgeons and the midwifes would also become incorporated into this medical hierarchy.

[1] Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature, University of California Press, 1994. ppb, p 158 

[2] Findlen, p. 165

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Filed under History of botany, History of medicine, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXI

In the last episode of this series, I traced the roots of natural history in Europe in antiquity and through the medieval period. Beginning roughly in the late fifteenth century, over the next one hundred and fifty years those roots were brought together and transformed in a series of stages into the modern science of natural history. Two major factors contributed to the first stage of this process in the fifteenth century, the reinvention of moveable type in Europe and with it the printed book, and the critical intervention of the North Italian Renaissance humanists with their philological analysis of Greek and Latin texts.

Gutenberg printed and published his famous Bible around 1450 and the print technology that he invented spread first throughout Germany and then into the neighbouring countries fairly rapidly. As I wrote in an earlier episode:

The first printer-publishers in Italy were Arnold Pannartz and Conrad Sweynheym, who set up a press in the Benedictine abbey of Subiaco in 1464. Their output was from the beginning humanist orientated. Their first book was by Aelius Donatus a Roman grammarian of which no copies survived. Next, they printed Cicero’s De oratore followed by religious books by Lactantius and Augustinus.

From the very beginning, the new art of book printing was closely associated with the Renaissance Humanists in Italy[1]. In terms of the sources for natural history we looked at in the last episode the works of Aristotle found their way into print fairly early. Individual works found their way into print earlier, but the first edition of his Opera (complete works) in Latin was issued in Venice by Philippus Petri, in 1482. Earlier, his three works on biology, including his De Historia Animalium had been issued separately in Latin also in Venice by Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen in 1476. They reprinted this work in 1492, 1495, and 1498. It was also reissued by the Aldine Press in 1504 and 1513 and by Hieronymus Scotus in 1545. 

In 1495, Aldus Manutius published the first volume of a five-volume edition of the opera of Aristotle in Greek, in Venice. The subsequent volumes followed in 1497, volumes two three and four, and 1498, volume five. Reprinted in 1504 by Aldine, in 1513 by Alde, and in Basel in 1534.  As well as the works of Aristotle, including, of course, his biological books, it contained works by other notable Greek authors.

Aristotle Opera Aldus Manutus 1495

As we saw earlier the Renaissance Humanist ideal was a back-to-the-roots-movement. Original Latin texts in the classical Latin of Cicero and co and not in the barbaric Latin of the medieval scholastics. Greek manuscripts in the original form, freshly translated into Latin and not corrupted and polluted by translation into and out of Arabic. At the end of the fifteenth century no printer-publisher did more to fulfil this ideal than Aldus Manutius (c.1450–1515) and his Aldine Press. A humanist scholar with close connections to Giovanni Pico (1493–1494), who helped to finance Manutius’ printing venture, he became the first printer publisher to systematically publish original Greek works in Greek and also to publish the new Latin translations of those texts.  Manutius printed thirty editio principes of Greek texts.

Aldus Pius Manutius, illustration in Vita di Aldo Pio Manuzio (1759) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Imprint of Aldus Manutius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manutius also laid great value on the unique presentation of his published volumes. The humanists had criticised the scholastic handwriting and they developed a new style of handwriting. In particular Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) developed a much admired and copied script.

1597 engraving of Poggio Bracciolini Source: Wikimedia Commons
A sample of Poggio’s handwriting Source: Wikimedia Commons

The French type-designer, Nicholas Jenson (c. 1420–1480) created a new type face, Antiqua, based on this script, and Manutius had the type-cutter Francesco Griffo (1450–1518) create a version of it for his Greek publications. 

Portrait of Nicholas Jenson Source: Wikipedia Commons
Griffo’s first Antiqua typeface 1495 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Manutius also introduced a series of octavo pocketbook publications, which were very popular, and he had Griffo created the first italic typeface, probably based on the handwriting of Niccolò de’ Niccoli (1364–1437) especially for his pocketbooks.

Sample of Niccoli’s cursive script, which developed into Italic type Source: Wikimedia Commons

These pocketbooks are said to be the forebears of the paperback. However, it should be noted that it is not true that Manutius was the first to print and publish octavo volumes.

Griff’s Italic typeface in Aldus Manutius’ Horace Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under Aldus Manutius, the Aldine Press was the material embodiment of the Renaissance Humanist ideal, and his books remained much sought after and highly prized long after his death and the later demise of his publishing venture.

As another major Greek author, highly regarded during the Middle Ages, Galen’s books received the same major treatment in the age of print, as Aristotle’s. His Opera in Latin was first issued by Philippus Pincius in Venice in 1490. However, this did not include either of his texts on simples. The Greek Opera, which did contain the texts on simples, was first published Ex aedibus Aldi et Andreae Asulani soceri in Venice, in five volumes, in 1525. In 1538, a new edition was published in Basil by Andreas Cratander, edited by Joachim Camerarius, Leonhart Fuchs and Hieronymous Gemusaeus. There had been earlier editions of separate Galen texts in Latin earlier in the fifteenth century but not of his texts on simples. 

Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, immensely popular during the Middle Ages, was just as popular during the early age of the printed book. The first printed edition was issued not later than 1469 in Venice by Johann von Spier. At least forty-six editions were printed before 1550. An Italian edition was published by Nicolas Jenson in Venice in 1476. The medical sections, De re medica V, which include much of his work on plants, were issued separately in the Collectio edited by Alban Thorer (c. 1489–1550), professor for medicine in Basel, and published by Andreas Cratander in Basel in 1528. 

PLINIUS SECUNDUS, Gaius (Pliny the Elder, 23-79). Historia naturalis. Venice: Johannes de Spira, [before 18 September] 1469. Source

Theophrastus is an interesting case, because although his name was known in the Middle Ages, through Pliny amongst others, his work wasn’t. A Greek manuscript 0f his two botanical works were brought to Rome through the offices of Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455), a humanist bibliophile, who initiated the Vatican Apostolic Library, although he didn’t live to see it built. Theodore Gaza (c. 1398–c. 1475), was commissioned by Pope Nicholas to produce the Latin translations of De plantis and De causis plantarum in 1454. The Greek originals were printed by Aldus Manutius in his Opera of the works of Aristotle 1495–1498. The Latin translation were first published as De historia et causis planatarum by Bartholomaeus Confalonerius in Treviso in 1483. 

De historia et causis planatarum 2nd edition 1529 Source:

Our last natural history author from antiquity is Dioscorides. His De materia medica rivalled Pliny in its popularity in the early days of print. The first Latin edition, a translation credited to Constantinus Africanus (d. before 1098), was published by Johannes de Medemblick in Colle di Valselsa in 1478. The first Greek edition was issued by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499. Additional texts by other authors were often added to both Greek and Latin editions. 

There were at least thirty-two editions of Dioscorides are known to have been published between 1478 and 1550. Three of these were in Greek, one of them an improved text edited by Girolamo Rossi and Francesco Torresani, and published by the Aldine Press in Venice, in 1518. Three editions had both Greek and Latin texts.  Nineteen editions were in Latin, ten of them in the new Latin translation of Jean Ruel (1474–1537), which was first published by Henri Estienne in Paris, c. 1516. A German addition by J. Danz van Ast was issued in Frankfurt in 1546. 

De materia medica 1554 edition

There were six Italian editions during this period of which the most important were the four editions of the humanist physician and naturalist Pietro Andrea Gregorio Mattioli (1501–c. 1577) issued in 1544, 1548, 1549 and 1550 by Vincenzo Valgrisi (c. 1490– after 1572) in Venice.

Pietro Andrea Mattioli, by Alessandro Bonvicino called il Moretto c. 1533 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mattioli’s Italian translation was based on Jean Ruel’s Latin translation but was accompanied by lengthy Commentarii (commentaries) of his own. The book also included descriptions of a hundred new plants. In 1554, an edition of Ruel’s Latin translation with the addition of Mattioli’s Commentarii translated into Latin was published in Lyon. The Commentarii were also translated into French (Lyon, 1561), Czech (Prague, 1562) and German (Prague, 1563). The four Italian editions sold thirty-two thousand copies during Valgrisi’s lifetime. 

Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501–1577). Commentarii in libros sex Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei, de medica materia. Venice: Vincenzo Valgrisi, 1554. Source:

All of the major botanical texts from antiquity had become established printed works by the beginning of the sixteenth century and the number of editions published by 1550 indicated a major interest in the topic of natural history amongst the scholars of that century. The humanists began to apply their philological skills to the study of these texts, and this led to what might be called the Pliny wars. The two main contenders in the humanist disputes about Pliny’s Historia Naturalis were Ermolao Barbaro (1454–1493) and Niccolò Leoniceno (1428-1524)

Ermolao Barbaro was a scion of prominent, wealthy, patrician family of Venice with roots back to the ninth century. The family produced many noted church leaders, diplomats, patrons of the arts, military commanders, philosophers, scholars, and scientists. He was a Renaissance Humanist scholar, educated in various places throughout Northern Italy ending in Padua where he was appointed professor of philosophy in 1477. He was elected to the Senate of Venice in 1483. In 1486 he was appointed Venetian ambassador to the Dutchy of Milan and in 1490 ambassador to the Holy See. Embroiled in a political dispute between Venice and the Papacy he was sacked as ambassador and exiled him from Venice. He moved to Rome where he died of plague in 1493. He often complained that his political life interfered with his studies.

Ermolao Barbaro Source: Wikimedia Commons

Barbaro carefully and accurately analysed the first printed edition of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and his not very positive conclusions were published in his Castigationes Plinainae et Pomponii Melae by Euchrius Silber in Rome, in 1492. Barbaro claimed to have identified and corrected five thousand errors in the Historia Naturalis. He attributed these errors not to Pliny but to the numerous copyists, who had copied the manuscript down the centuries.

In Caii Plinii Naturalis historiae libros castigationes, 1534 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He also produced a translation of Dioscorides, In Dioscoridem corollariorum libri V., published by Aloysius et Franciscus Barbari in Venice, in 1516.

Dioscorides, version by Barbaro, 1516: title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Niccolò Leoniceno was a physician and humanist scholar born in Lonigo, Veneto, he graduated at the University of Padua. In 1464, he was appointed to teach mathematics, philosophy, and medicine at the University of Ferrara, where he remained until his death.

Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also in 1492, he launched an attack on the Historia Naturalis in his pamphlet, De Plinii et plurium aliorum medicorum in medicina erroribus, published by Laurentius de Rubeis and Andreas de Grassis, in Ferrara.

De Plinii, & plurium aliorum medicorum in medicina erroribus opus primum (BEIC) Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was the opening salvo in a dispute over Pliny with Pandolfo Collenuccio (1444–1504) another humanist scholar.

Pandolfo Collenuccio artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Collenuccio’s response, Pliniana defensio adversus Nicolai Leoniceni accusationem, was published by Andreas Belfortis in Ferrara, in 1493.

Pliniana defensio adversus Nicolai Leoniceni accusationem title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Barbaro, Leoniceno did not blame the copyists in his attack on the botanical section of Pliny’s work, but rather Pliny himself. Leoniceno was of the opinion that many of Pliny’s error were produced because his translations from the Greek were defective. Other local humanists, such as the physician Alessandro Benedetti (c. 1450–1512) and the poet and translator Giorgio Merula (1430–1494), also defended Pliny’s honour against Leoniceno’s harsh criticism.

Due to large parts of it having been published in print the discussion over Pliny and the reliability of the natural history in his encyclopaedia spread throughout Europe as a talking point for much of the sixteenth century. However, it is two spin offs from the original debate that were most significant for the future development of natural history during that century. Firstly, the touchstone, the standard by which Pliny’s knowledge of natural history was judged was the works of Theophrastus and Dioscorides. The three areas of the study of natural history, the philosophical (Aristotle and Theophrastus), the medicinal (Dioscorides and Galen), and the encyclopaedical (Pliny), which had always been seen as separate in antiquity and the Middle Ages, now coalesced into a single stream, one topic and no longer three. Secondly, some of the participants in the debate, most notably Leoniceno, realised that to really identify the plants being discussed by Pliny and the others, reading the descriptions in their books was not enough, the scholar had to leave his study and venture out into the world and actually study plants empirically. We shall be following the results of this empirical development in further episodes.

[1] Most of the information on published editions of texts and their dates of publication are taken from Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Awakening Interest in Science during the First Century of Printing 1450–1550: An annotated Checklist of First Editions viewed from the Angle of their Subject Content, The Bibliographical Society of America, New York, 1970


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXX

The life sciences and geoscience did not play any sort of significant role in medieval academia. This changed during the Renaissance, which saw the emergence over the sixteenth century of natural history, in its modern meaning, in particular botany. This a several subsequent episodes of this series will deal with the various aspects of that emergence[1].

As is the case with almost every development in the sciences during the Renaissance, if one wants to understand the emergence of natural history in this period, then one first needs to know what existed earlier. One first needs to understand what existed in antiquity and then examine how the knowledge from antiquity was received and regarded in the Middle Ages. 

There was no coherent, single area of knowledge in antiquity that can be labelled natural history but rather three distinct areas of information about plants and animals that would partially coalesce many centuries later, during the Renaissance. The first of these areas was philosophy and in the first instance the work of Aristotle (384–322). In his vast convolute of books Aristotle also turned his attention to animals, his principal work being his History of Animals (Latin: Historia Animalium).

Historia animalium et al., Constantinople, 12th century (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, pluteo 87.4) Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is very much an application of his philosophy to a largely empirical study of animals based on observation. Aristotle says that his is investigating the what i.e., the factual facts about animals, before establishing the why i.e., the causes of these characteristics. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus (c. 371–c. 287), who took over as head of the Lyceum after Aristotle, applied Aristotle’s philosophy to the world of plants in his Enquiry into Plants (Latin: Historia Plantarum) and his On the Causes of Plants (Latin: De causis plantarum).

The frontispiece to an illustrated 1644 edition of Historia Plantarum by the ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus Source: Wikimedia Commons

The second area of interest in antiquity was medicine and the use of plants in the treatment of ailments. Here the central text is the On Medical Materials (Latin: De materia medica) of the Greek physician, Dioscorides (c. 40–90 CE). This five-volume work, composed between 50 and 70 CE, contains description of about 600 plants as some animal and mineral substances and approximately 1000 medicines made from them. The emphasis is very much on the medical, so the botanical descriptions of the plants are fairly simple but the descriptions of their medical uses comparatively extensive and detailed. The therapeutical work of the Greek physician Galen (129–c. 216) also contains lists and descriptions of simples i.e., that medicinal plants or a vegetable drug with only one ingredient. 

Our last source from antiquity is vast, sprawling encyclopaedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History) of the Roman aristocrat Gaius Plinius Secundus (23/24–79 CE), known in English as Pliny the Elder, the book that would go on to give the discipline its name. This monumental work, 37 books in 10 volumes, was intended to cover, according to Pliny, “the natural world or life” and covers topics including astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, pharmacology, mining, mineralogy, sculpture, art, and precious stones, so not natural history as we now know it. Nothing in it is original from Pliny himself but is drawn together from a myriad of diverse sources. It claims to contain 20,000 facts drawn from 2,000 books. Unlike, Aristotle’s work it is not based on empirical observation. On plants, Pliny lists far more plants than Dioscorides, but they are by no means all medicinal, one of Pliny’s main sources was the works of Theophrastus.

Die Naturalis historia in der Handschrift Florenz, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82.4, fol. 3r (15. Jahrhundert) Source: Wikimedia Commons

We now turn to the reception of these authors from antiquity in the Middle Ages. Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280) included Historia Animalium in his edition of the works of Aristotle and would go on to write works on zoology and botany in his own writings. However, these played no significant role in the curricula of the medieval universities. The works of Theophrastus remained unknown in Europe during the Middle Ages, although his name was known through other sources such as Pliny

Albertus Magnus, engraved portrait, Jean-Jacques Boissard, Icones, 1597-99 (Linda Hall Library)

Galen was one of the major medical influences on the medieval European universities next to Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine, but mostly in translation from Arabic into Latin and not from the original Greek. As I pointed in an earlier episode the discovery and translation of Greek manuscripts of Galen’s work by Renaissance humanists led to a neo-Galenic revival as opposition to the work of Vesalius. 

A group of physicians in an image from the Vienna Dioscurides; Galen is depicted top center. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The De materia medica of Dioscorides did not need to be rediscovered either in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance because it never went away. In the medieval period manuscripts of the De materia medicacirculated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. It was present even in the Early Medieval Period. Probably the most famous manuscript is the so-called Vienna Dioscorides, an elaborately illustrated, Geek manuscript produced in Constantinople for the imperial princess Anica Juliana (462–527), daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Anicius Olybrius (died 472). The manuscript was created in 512. The illustrations are thought to have been copied from the of Krateuas, a first century BCE Greek herbalist, none of whose work has survived.

Vienna Dioscorides Folio 83r Rubus fruticosus (bramble) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Vienna Dioscorides Folio 167v, Cannabis sativa (hemp) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The illustrations in the Vienna are stunning but exemplify a major problem, not just with De materia medica but with almost all other medieval herbal manuscripts. The, probably, mostly monks who copied them over the centuries did not make their plant drawing by looking at real plants but merely copied the drawing from the manuscript they were copying. This meant that the illustrations degenerated over time and were oft barely recognisable by the Renaissance. 

The medicine taught at the European, medieval universities was notoriously theoretical and almost wholly book based. This meant that the texts on medicinal plants by Galen and Dioscorides found little use on the universities. Instead, they were consulted by the apothecaries and the monks, who cared for the sick in the hospices of their monasteries, the earliest European hospitals. 

Hôtel-Dieu de Paris c. 1500. The comparatively well patients (on the right) were separated from the very ill (on the left). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia was, of course, ubiquitous throughout the High Middle Ages, which given the number of errors, myths, and falsehood it contained, was perhaps not such a good thing. Pliny is the main source for all the monsters and strange human races, such as the headless Blemmyes or the one-legged Sciapods, found on medieval Mappa mundi.

A Blemmyae from Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) Source: Wikimedia Commons
A monopod. From the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the Renaissance shift towards the creation of the modern natural history began, as we will see, with a philological analysis of the Naturalis Historia.

Right up to the late fifteenth century the three fields of natural history information, the philosophical, the medicinal, and the encyclopaedic remained separate areas dealt with for completely different reasons. Beginning in the late fifteenth century and continuing throughout the sixteenth, as we will see, they began to fuse together and to evolve in phases into the modern discipline of natural history. Over the next few episode we will follow that evolution.

[1] In writing this and several of the following episodes, I shall be moving out of my safe zone as a historian of science. I don’t usually include sources in my essays, as I regard them more as newspaper columns for the general reader than academic papers. However, in this case I want to point my readers to Brian W. Ogilvie’s The Science of DescribingNatural History in Renaissance Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2006, ppb. 2008), which together with other sources formed the backbone of my writings on this topic. It is a truly excellent book and I recommend it whole heartedly to my readers. Brian Ogilvie is naturally not to blame for any rubbish that I might spout in this and the following blog posts. 


Filed under History of medicine, Natural history, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized