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

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Navigation, Renaissance Science

Is he  Moonstruck? 

Definition of moonstruck: affected by or as if by the moon: such as: mentally unbalanced

There was a total lunar eclipse on Monday 16 May. This celestial event was, of course, widely announced in advance on social media, with experts giving start and end times as well as duration. They also give detailed explanation of why, how, and when lunar eclipses take place. This meant that worldwide literally millions of people were happily, even excitedly, looking forward, weather permitting, to observing it. So, TV celebrity and aging popinjay Neil deGrasse Tyson decided to dump on all of these people when he tweeted to his 14.6 million followers the following tweet on 16 May:

Lunar eclipses are so un-spectacular that if nobody told you what was happening to the Moon you’d probably not notice at all. Just sayin’.

Ignoring, for a second, the glaring, factual inaccuracy contained in this tweet, it has to be a very serious candidate for the most mean-spirited tweet of the year if not of the decade. One has to seriously ask, why did he do this? Has he become such a desperate, attention-seeking whore that he needs to try and ruin the simple enjoyment of millions world-wide just to provoke a reaction on Twitter?

As a historian of both astronomy and astrology, I expect a man, who once upon a time in his life was an astrophysicist, not to display such ignorance, so publicly in such a spectacular manner. “Lunar eclipses are so un-spectacular…” really? “If nobody told you what was happening to the Moon you’d probably not notice at all,” only if you’ve got your head firmly entrenched in your posterior orifice.

The moon glows red over Columbus, Ohio on Sunday Source

The phenomenon of light pollution, which makes life so difficult for modern astronomers, is actually a very recent development that only became a factor in celestial observation during the course of the twentieth century. Before the eighteenth century, street lighting was confined to large towns and consisted candles or oil lamps and didn’t cause serious light pollution. Even the invention of gas street lighting in the eighteenth century, or of electric street lighting in the nineteenth had no noticeable effect on the night sky. It was first in the twentieth century with the widespread use of strong electric lighting at night that the night skies in towns and cities became so artificially bright as to obscure the night-time celestial sphere. Even then a full moon remains clearly visible for all who are not visually handicapped. 

In the millennia of human existence before the invention of street lighting, the moon was the brightest object in the sky, particularly when full, on a clear night. Lunar eclipses only occur at full moon, and if you happened to be outside in, shall we say, for example, in the eighth century CE, during full moon and the moon started to disappear finally vanishing completely behind a dark shadow, you just might happen to notice. “Just sayin’.” 

Of course, people fucking noticed! Every culture on the Earth, that existed before they discovered the scientific explanation of why lunar eclipses take place has myths, legends, and folktales to explain what happened, when the full moon suddenly started to disappear. For the Maya and the Inca in Middle America, the moon got devoured by a jaguar, which also explained the colour of the so-called blood moon. In ancient Mesopotamia, it was belived that the eclipse was the result of demons attacking the moon and that it presaged an attack upon, or even the death of the king. For the ancient Chinese a lunar eclipse was caused by a dragon biting the moon. For something they didn’t notice, people went to a lot of trouble to invent reasons to explain it.

Tyson, as per usual, doubled down on his mean-spirited tweet with a follow up:

Lunar eclipses occur on average every two or three years and are visible to all the billions of people who can see the Moon when it happens. So, contrary to what you may have been told, lunar eclipses are not rare.

Yes, Mr “I used to be an astrophysicist”, we now know the frequency of lunar eclipses, what sort of eclipse will occur, total, partial penumbral, and can predict the occurrence and duration down to the minute, but have you taken the trouble in your arrogance to ask how we acquired that knowledge? 

Tyson is one of those science communicators, who looks down his nose at the occult sciences, and if he mentions them at all, it is only to sneer at them and the gullible people who believe in them. However, it is to the Babylonian belief in astrology that we owe our original scientific knowledge of the frequency of lunar eclipses. The moon played a central role in Babylonian omen astrology and as noted above, lunar eclipses were considered to presage danger or even death to the king. Because of this, beginning in about 700 BCE the Babylonians began a series of systematic accurate observations and records of eclipses which they continued for about seven hundred years. From this accumulated data they derived the saros series an accurate predictive cycle for eclipses. To quote Wikipedia:

A series of eclipses that are separated by one saros is called a saros series. It corresponds to:

  • 6,585.321347 solar days
  • 18.029 years
  • 223 synodic months
  • 241.999 draconic months
  • 18.999 eclipse years (38 eclipse seasons)
  • 238.992 anomalistic months

The 19 eclipse years means that if there is a solar eclipse (or lunar eclipse), then after one saros a new moon will take place at the same node of the orbit of the Moon, and under these circumstances another eclipse can occur.

The saros series is still used today to predict eclipses. This is a first-class example of how science works: make observations, collect data, look for patterns, derive a law.

I could go on about full moons and lunar eclipses throughout the history of astronomy, but I think I have made my point and will just briefly mention a couple of other examples.

One of the early scientific societies, the Lunar Society of Birmingham, known popularly as The Lunatics, which included Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgewood, and even Benjamin Franklin amongst its shifting membership over the years, derived its name from the fact that their meetings were always held at full moon, so that the members could safely find their way home. If a a lunar eclipse fell on a full moon, they would all, being amateur astronomers, have stayed at home to observe it.

As an American, one would have thought that Tyson might have mentioned one of the most famous lunar eclipse stories in history. On his fourth voyage in 1504, Columbus beached his last two remaining ships on the island of Jamaica on 25 June. The indigenous population of the island were reluctant after many months to continue feeding Columbus and his crew. He persuaded them to do so by using the ephemerides of Abraham Zacuto to predict the total lunar eclipse of 1 March 1504. 

Tyson could have used the total lunar eclipse of 16 May as a teaching moment to interest people for astronomy and its history, instead he chose to mock and ridicule those, who were looking forward to observing this celestial phenomenon. He has the cheek to call himself a science communicator, words fail me.

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Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy

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.

Source

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.

Source

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

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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

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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

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Filed under History of botany, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Illuminating the Middle Ages

It is probably true that no period in European history had been so misconceived, misconstrued, misrepresented, as the Middle Ages. Alone the fact that a period of history that is often considered to have lasted a thousand years from 500 to 1500 CE is perceived as somehow being a single, monolithic entity is at best a joke and at worst total nonsense; one that we owe to the Renaissance Humanists, who regarding themselves as the inheritors of the glory that was the Rome of Cicero and Quintilianus labelled the time span in between antique Rome and their own age, the middle period. A period of ignorance, illiteracy, and barbaric Latin in their opinion. Although we should know better, we continue to live with the Humanists coup de grace that effectively consigned a thousand years of history to the rubbish bin, not worthy of serious consideration. 

Although I assigned dates to it above, alone trying to fix a beginning and/or an end to this period is the subject of hot debates amongst historians. Maybe, the simple answer is that it didn’t really begin or end and there is much more continuity to European history than the labels Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance or Early Modern Period would at first glance imply. 

Unfortunately, whatever historians might think, do, or say, there is a very popular perception of the Middle Ages that gets regurgitated at regular intervals in novels, films, and television entertainment programmes. This is a dark, duster and barbaric period ruled over by the totalitarian, science rejecting, witch and heretic burning Church. A period of brutal wars carried out by tyrannical rulers. A period in which women are either damsels in distress, aged, wizened spinsters, whores, or witches. Peasants are filthy, downtrodden, superstitious, subhumans, who live in hovels and are subjected to the brutal whims of the tyrannical rulers and the Church. The term most often associated with this parody of the Middle Ages, and it really is pure parody, is the Dark Ages, which despite the best efforts of historians in recent decades to replace it with the Early Middle Ages is still widely used.

Two recent books on the Middle Ages have in their titles turned the tables rechristening the Middle Ages with synonyms for illumination. The first was Seb Falk’s excellent presentation of the real history of medieval science, The Light Ages, which I reviewed here. The second is Matthew Gabriele & David M Perry’s The Bright AgesA New History of Medieval Europe[1], which I shall briefly review here.  

Whereas Falk concentrates on the history of medieval science Gabriele & Perry’s book deals with the general political and religious history of Europe from the early fifth century to the early fourteenth century. What Gabriele & Perry can’t deliver in the roughly two hundred and fifty pages of their volume is a detailed historical narrative of the entire European history of the nine hundred years that their book covers; they would probably require two and a half thousand pages for that. What they deliver is an episodic narrative of the period, which sketches very informatively the main developments, illustrating the ups and downs, twists and turns of European history that took place over this almost millennium. 

Whilst the narrative style of the two authors is light and breezy making their book a comparatively easy read and they also succeed in effectively demolishing a lot of myths about the medieval period, the book left me wanting more than they delivered. However, before I explain my reservations a couple of positive aspects of the book.

The first in in terms of the contents. Whereas, it is common in discussions of the Middle Ages to talk, as I did above, of the Church, meaning the Catholic Church, as if there was only one version of Christianity throughout the period, the authors show how different dominant political groups adhered to different interpretations of Christianity, during the Early Medieval Period and that a monolithic Catholic Church was a quite late development.

The second very positive aspect is the clear demonstration that there was more continuity between the decline of the Roman Empire and its political structures and the Early Modern Period than the ‘fall’ of popular perception.

For me the third big plus point is in the bibliography or rather the extensive further reading recommendations. The book is a trade book, not an academic one, aimed at a fairly wide audience and as such has not foot or end notes and no conventional bibliography. However, at the end there is a twenty-page Further Reading section, which chapter for chapter give annotated recommendation for deeper exploration of the topic dealt with in that chapter.

Now my personal reservations. Firstly, maybe it’s my problem, but a lot of the time I found that the authors were assuming too much previous knowledge for the level of text that they are trying to present in their book. For my taste it is neither an introductory text nor an advanced one, but an uneasy hybrid stuck somewhere in between. 

My second reservation is, in my opinion, more important. The book is very heavily tilted towards the two themes of religion and politics in the medieval period, which of course are very much intertwined for most of the period under discussion and this makes the book very narrow in its presentation of the period. There is next to nothing on agriculture, technology, trade, science, or finance, all areas which underwent important developments during the Middle Ages and helped to shape the future. Seb Falk has naturally covered the science and John Farrell the technology in his The Clock and the CamshaftAnd Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without, which I reviewed here. However, I feel that they should at least have been addressed in Garbriele & Perry’s volume.

As it stands The Bright Ages is good on the areas it covers and is definitely worth a read but in my opinion it could and should have been so much more.


[1] Matthew Gabriele & David M Perry, The Bright AgesA New History of Medieval Europe, Harper, New York, 2021.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

Rants, Rage, Rudeness, and Respect

A man that I’ve never come across before, Brett Hall, has taken me to task in, what he terms, a newsletter on YouTube for being rude to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before somebody drew my attention to his comments, I had absolutely no idea who or what Brett Hall was. It appears he is an Australian, who, it seems, studied about seventeen degrees, I might be exaggerating somewhat, I lost count somewhere down the line in his litany of all the wonderful things he had studied. Anyway, if I understand him correctly, he now regards himself as a science communicator and has a podcast where he explicates and propagates the philosophies of Karl Popper and David Deutsch. He also has a blog and apparently, has recently added a newsletter, in the first edition of which he chose to criticise me. 

I am well acquainted with the works of Karl Raimund Popper, he being one of my first two introductions to the philosophies of mathematics and science, the other was Stephen Körner. I read my first philosophy of science books by both of them in the same week many, many moons ago. I read a large amount of Popper’s oeuvre and a decade later studied him at university. Popper led me to Imre Lakatos, the biggest influence on my personal intellectual development. 

I must admit, because I gave up trying to keep up with all the developments in modern physics quite some time ago, that until about two weeks ago I had never heard of David Deutsch. So that you don’t have to go look, he’s a big name in quantum physics and especially in the theory of quantum computing. Purely by chance, the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, had a long interview with him a couple of weeks ago about his views on epistemology and what he sees as the correct approach to the future and development of scientific thinking. Mr Hall will probably come down on me like a ton of bricks for saying this but, for me, it came across as fairly vacuous, a lot of waffle and pie in the sky. But I’m probably just too stupid to understand the great maestro!  

But back to Mr Hall and good old Neil deGrasse Tyson. Mr Hall bemoaned what he saw as increasing rudeness in debate in the Internet age, a common and widely spread trope, and cited my latest diatribe against NdGT, as an example, misquoting the title of my piece, claiming that I had said that Tyson “knows nothing”, whereas I in fact wrote “knows nothing about nothing”, a wordplay on Tyson’s topic the history of zero. There is a substantial difference between the two statements. He then went on to quote correctly that I accused Tyson of “spouting crap.” Strangely, Mr Hall calls me a science historian, whereas the correct term is historian of science. There is a whole debate within the discipline, as to why it’s the latter and not the former. Even more bizarrely, he states that he is not going to name me and then provides a link to the post on my blog that of course contains my name! I have no problems in being named, I’m old enough and ugly enough to defend myself against all comers.

Mr Hall goes on to explain that he also does not always agree with the theories of NdGT, but that there is no reason not to treat him with respect when stating your disagreement. I have no objection to this statement; however, it misses the point entirely. NdGT is not stating a theory in astrophysics, which is, or rather was, his academic discipline. If he had, I almost certainly would not have commented in any way whatsoever, as I’m not an astrophysicist and so not qualified to pass judgement. No, NdGT was doing something entirely different. On a commercial podcast, for which, given his popularity, he is almost certainly extremely well paid, he was mouthing off extemporaneously about the history of mathematics, a topic about which he very obviously knows very little. He was, as I put it, and there really is no polite way to express, spouting crap, with all the assurance and authority that his prominent public persona gives him. He was literally lying to his listeners, who, I assume, mostly not knowing better believe the pearls of wisdom that drip from his lips. That is serious abuse of his status and of his listeners and deserves no respect whatsoever. 

I would also point out that he is a serial offender and regularly delivers totally ignorant speeches about the history of science and/or mathematics. For example, he regularly repeats, with emphasis, that Newton invented calculus in a couple of weeks, on a dare, which, not to put to finer point on it, is total codswallop. Newton developed his contribution to the evolution of calculus over several years having first read, studied, and digested the work of Descartes, Fermat, Wallace, and Barrow. One can point these things out to NdGT but he simply ignores them and carries on blithely spreading the same tired out falsehoods. He has long ago wilfully squandered any right to be treated with respect, when talking about the history of science and/or mathematics.

Returning to Brett Hall’s basic thesis that academics have jettisoned common decency, politeness, and good manners in the computer age as a result of social media, he expounds on this for the whole of his newsletter, claiming that this behaviour from academics put young people off from entering academia to study the sciences. Like NdGT, Mr Hall appears to have very little knowledge of the history of science. Academics/scholars/scientists, or whatever you want to call them, have been slagging each other off, both publicly and privately, since the first Egyptians put brush to papyrus and the first Babylonians wedge to clay.

Just to take the era in which I claim the most expertise, the emergence of modern astronomy in the Early Modern Period. The two Imperial Mathematici, Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Reimers Baer laid into each other in a way that makes the HISTSCI_HULK look like a cuddly kitten. A half generation later the next generation, Kepler and Longomontanus, attacked each other with slightly less expletives, but just as much virulence. Galileo laid into anybody and everybody, that he perceived as his enemies and there were many, with invective that would cause a drunken sailor to blush. Moving to the other end of the seventeenth century. Isaac Newton, Lucasian Professor, treated John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal, like a doormat. In turn, Flamsteed refused to even utter the name of Edmond Halley the Savilian Professor of geometry. Newton and Robert Hooke, demonstrator of experiments at the Royal Society, abused each like a couple of fishwives. Hooke had blazing public rows with virtually every notable scientist in Europe. You get the picture?

In case Mr Hall should argue that modern academics weren’t like that before the advent of the Internet, I could entertain him for hours with anecdotes about the invectives that leading academic archaeologist launched at each other in the early 1970s. One stated that an excavation report by another was about as useful of a mid-Victorian museum guide. The offended party then opened legal proceedings for libel but withdrew them when the offender expressed joy at the prospect of being able to prove his statement under oath in a court of law. I could go on but…

Let us return to myself and my alter ego the HISTSCI_HULK, why do I launch my notorious rants? 

One of my favourite musicians, Robert Fripp, says that one shouldn’t become a professional musician unless one can’t do anything else. This statement is, to say the least, ambiguous. It could mean you lack the ability to do something else, or the compulsion to create music is so great that nothing else comes into question. I have always assumed he intended the second meaning, and this is exactly why I’m a historian of science. The fascination with numbers, number systems, and their origins started very early, at most about five years old, and has simply grown ever since. I can’t explain rationally why I’m fascinated, intrigued, even obsessed by the history of science, I simply am. I have a compulsion to investigate, discover and learn about the history of science so great that nothing else comes into question. 

On a personal level I have always been taught, more by example than anything else, that if one is going to do something then learn to do it properly and then do so. I am from nature a pedant, and I don’t regard pedantry as bad, and a perfectionist. Over the years I have had the good fortune to meet and learn from several excellent teachers, who have helped me to channel that pedantry and perfectionism into my studies and not to accept anything but the best possible.

The history of science is very much a niche discipline within the academic hierarchy and has to battle constantly to justify its existence. There have been and are many excellent historians of science, many of whose books line the walls of my humble abode and nourish my unquenchable thirst for a depth of understanding in the history of science. As I have documented elsewhere, I have a multiple addictive personality and my greatest addiction is without doubt the history of science.

The commercial world of books and television is not interested in the complex and difficult web that is the real history of science, but pop history of science sells well, so they commission not historians of science but scientists to produce pop books and television programmes about the history of science. I mean, after all they are scientists so they must know about the history of their discipline. The results are all to often a disaster. There are exceptions, my friend Matthew Cobb is a professional scientist, who also writes excellent history of science books, several of which adorn my bookshelves. However, the majority of popular history of science books and television programmes are badly researched, shallow perpetuators of myths and inaccuracies–in the Middle Ages the Church opposed science and people believed the world was flat, Newton had an Annus mirabilis and created calculus, and modern optics, physics and astronomy all in one year during the plague, Galileo was persecuted by the Church because he proved that the Earth goes around the Sun, which contradicted the Bible, Ada Lovelace created computer science, and, and, and… A classic example was the original Cosmos television programme from Carl Sagan in which his presentation of the history of astronomy and cosmology was a total and utter cluster fuck, which influenced his tens of million viewers in a very bad way. Whenever I say this on the Internet, I get screamed at by Sagan groupies.

Because I love and live for the discipline, the abuse that it suffers at the hands of these popularises hurts my soul and sets me in a rage causing the HISTSCI_HULK to emerge and go on a rampage. One of the reasons that I do this is because established historians of science are very reluctant to subject these perversions of their discipline to public review. Somehow, they seem to think it is beneath them to engage and point out that the product in question is so much bovine manure. Nobody pays me to be a historian of science, I have no position, no status, and no academic reputation to lose, so I weigh in with all guns blazing and say what I really think. I have a message for Mr Hall and anybody else, who feels offended by my approach, nobody says you have to read it! 

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Filed under Autobiographical, Myths of 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.

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Filed under History of botany, Renaissance Science

NIL deGrasse Tyson knows nothing about nothing

They are back! Neil deGrasse Tyson is once again spouting total crap about the history of mathematics and has managed to stir the HISTSCI_HULK back into butt kicking action. The offending object that provoked the HISTSCI_HULK’s ire is a Star Talk video on YouTube entitled Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains Zero. The HISTSCI_HULK thinks that the title should read Neil deGrasse Tyson is a Zero!

You simple won’t believe the pearls of wisdom that NdGT spews out for the 1.75 million Star Talk subscribers in a video that has been viewed more than one hundred thousand times. If there ever was a candidate in #histSCI for cancellation, then NdGT is the man.

 Before we deal with NdGT’s inanities, we need some basic information on number systems. Our everyday Hindu-Arabic number system is a decimal, that’s base ten, place value number system, which means that the value of a number symbol is dependent on its place within the number. An example:

If we take the number, 513 it is actually:

 5 x 10+ 1 x 101 + 3 x 100

A quick reminder for those who have forgotten their school maths, any number to the power of zero is 1. Moving from right to left, each new place represents the next higher power of ten, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, etc, etc. As we will see the Babylonians [as usual, I’m being lazy and using Babylonian as short hand for all the cultures that occupied the Fertile Crescent and used Cuneiform numbers] also had a place value number system, but it was sexagesimal, that’s base sixty, not base ten. It is a place value number system that requires a zero to indicate an empty place. There are in fact two types of zero. The first is simply a placeholder to indicate that this place in the number is empty. The second is the number zero, that which occurs when you subtract a number from itself.

Now on to the horror that is NdGT’s attempt to tell us the history of zero:

HISTSCI_HULK: Not suitable for those who care about the history of maths

 NdGT: I pick these based on how familiar we think we are about the subject and then throw in some things you never knew

HISTSCI_HULK: All NildGT throws in, in this video, is the contents of the garbage pail he calls a brain.

NdGT: For this segment, we’re gonna talk about zero … so zero is a number, but it wasn’t always a number. In fact, no one even imagined how to imagine it, why would you? What were numbers for?

Chuck Nice, Star Talk Host: Right, who counts nothing?

NdGT: Right, numbers are for counting … nobody had any use to count zero … For most of civilisation this was the case. Even through the Roman Empire…

 Here NdGT fails to distinguish between ordinal numbers, which label the place that object take in a list and cardinal numbers which how many things are in a collection or set. A distinction that at one point later will prove crucial.

HISTSCI_HULK: When it comes to the history of mathematics NildGT is a nothing

CN: They were so sophisticated their numbers were letters!

In this supposedly witty remark, we have a very popular misconception. Roman numerals were not actually letters, although in later mutated forms they came to resemble letters. Roman numbers are collections of strokes. One stroke for one, two strokes for two, and so one. To save space and effort, groups of strokes are bundled under a new symbol. The symbol for ten was a crossed or struck out stroke that mutated into an X, the symbol for five, half of ten, was the top half of this X that mutated into a V; originally, they used the bottom half, an inverted V.  The original symbol for fifty was ↓, which mutated into an L and so on. As the Roman number system is not a place value number system it doesn’t require a place holder symbol for zero. If Romans wanted to express total absence, they did so in words not numbers, nulla meaning none. This was first used in a mathematical context in the Early Middle Ages, often simply abbreviated to N. 

NdGT: [Some childish jokes about Roman numeral] … I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this Chuck, you can’t write zero with Roman numerals. There is no symbol for zero.

The Roman number system is not a place value number system but a stroke counting system that can express any natural number, that’s the simple counting numbers, without the need for a zero. The ancient Egyptian number system was also a stroke counting system, whilst the ancient Greeks used an alpha-numerical system, in which letters do represent the numerals, that also doesn’t require a zero to express the natural numbers.

NdGT: It’s not that they didn’t come up with it, it’s the concept of zero was not yet invented. 

HISTSCI_HULK: I wish NildGT had not been invented yet

This is actually a much more complicated statement than it at first appears. It is true, that as far as we know, the concept of zero as a number had indeed not been invented yet. However, the verbal concept of having none of something had already existed linguistically for millennia. Imaginary conversation, “Can I have five of your flint arrowheads?” Sorry, I can’t help you, I don’t have any at the moment. Somebody came by and took my entire stock this morning.” 

Although the Egyptian base ten stroke numeral system had no zero, by about 1700 BCE, they were using a symbol for zero in accounting texts. Interestingly, they also used the same symbol to indicate ground level in architectural drawings in much the same way that zero is used to indicate the ground floor in European elevators. 

Also, the place holder zero did exist during the time of the Roman Empire. The Babylonian sexagesimal number system emerged in the third millennium BCE and initially did not have a zero of any sort. This meant that the number 23 (I’m using Hindu-Arabic numerals to save the bother of trying to format Babylonian ones) could be both 2 x 601 + 3 x 600 = 123 in decimal, or 2 x 602 + 3 x 600 = 7203 in decimal. They apparently relied on context to know which was correct. By about 700 BCE the first placeholder zero appeared in the system and by about 300 BCE placeholder zeros had become standard. 

During the Roman Empire, the astronomer Ptolemaeus published his Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, better known as the Almagest, around 150 CE, which used a weird number system. The whole number part of numbers were written in a ten-base system in Greek alphanumerical symbols, whereas fractional parts were written in the Babylonian sexagesimal number system, with the same symbols, with a placeholder zero in the form of small circle, ō.

HISTSCI_HULK NildGT now takes off into calendrical fantasy land.

NdGT: So, when they made the Julian calendar, that’s the one that has a leap day every four years, … That calendar … that anchored its starter date on the birth of Jesus, so this obviously came later after Constantine, I think that Constantine brought Christianity to the Roman Empire. So, in the Julian calendar they went from 1 BC, BC, of course, stands for before Christ, to AD 1, and AD is in Latin, Anno Domini the year of our Lord 1, and there was no year zero in that transition. So, when would Jesus have been born? In the mythical year between the two? He can’t be born in AD 1 cause that’s after and he can’t be born in 1 BC, because that’s before, so that’s an issue.

CN: I’ve got the answer, it’s a miracle.

The Julian calendar was of course introduced by Julius Caesar in AUC 708 (AUC is the number of years since the theoretical founding date of Rome) or as we now express it in 44 BCE. The Roman’s didn’t really have a continuous dating system, dating things by the year of the reign of an emperor. Constantine did not bring Christianity to the Roman Empire, he legalised it. Both Jesus and Christianity were born in Judea a province of the Roman Empire, so it was there from its very beginnings. For more on Constantine and Christianity, I recommend Tim O’Neill’s excellent History for Atheists Blog. 

To quote myself in another blog post criticising NdGT’s take on the Gregorian calendar

The use of Anno Domini goes back to Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Short) in the sixth century CE in his attempt to produce an accurate system to determine the date of Easter. He introduced it to replace the use of the era of Diocletian used in the Alexandrian method of calculating Easter, because Diocletian was notorious for having persecuted the Christians. Dionysius’ system found very little resonance until the Venerable Bede used it in the eight century CE in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede’s popularity as a historian and teacher led to the gradual acceptance of the AD convention. BC created in analogy to the AD convention didn’t come into common usage until the late seventeenth century CE. [Although BC does occur occasionally in late medieval chronicles.]

As NdGT says Anno Domini translates as The Year of Our Lord, so Jesus was born in AD 1 the first year of our Lord, simple isn’t it. 

I wrote a whole blog post about why you can’t have a year zero, but I’ll give an abbreviated version here. Although we speak them as cardinal numbers, year numbers are actually ordinal numbers so 2022 is the two thousand and twenty second year of the Common Era. You can’t have a zeroth member of a list. The year zero is literally a contradiction in terms, it means the year that doesn’t exist. 

HISTSCI_HULK You can’t count on NilDGT

NdGT: So now, move time forward. Going, it was in the six hundreds, seven hundreds, I’ve forgotten exactly when. In India, there were great advances in mathematics there and they even developed the numerals, early versions of the numerals we now use, rather than Roman numerals. Roman numerals were letters [no they weren’t, see above], these were now symbolic shapes that would then represent the numbers. In this effort was the hint that maybe you might want a zero in there. So, we’re crawling now before we can walk, but the seeds are planted. 

We have a fundamental problem dating developments in Hindu mathematics because the writing materials they used don’t survive well, unlike the Babylonian clay tablets. The decimal place value number system emerged some time between the first and fourth centuries CE. The symbols used in this system evolved over a long period and the process is too complex to deal with here. 

The earliest known reference to a placeholder zero in Indian mathematics can be found throughout a commercial arithmetic text written on birch bark, the Bakhshali manuscript, the dating of which is very problematical and is somewhere between the third and seventh centuries CE. 

The Aryasiddhanta a mathematical and astronomical work by Āryabhaṭa (476–550 n. Chr.) uses a decimal place value number system but written with alphanumerical symbols and without a zero. The Āryabhaṭīyabhāṣya another mathematical and astronomical work by Bhāskara I (c. 600–c. 680 n. Chr.) uses a decimal place value number system with early Hindu numerals and a zero. With the Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta an astronomical twenty-four chapter work with two chapters on mathematics by Brahmagupta (c. 598–c. 668 n. Chr.) we arrive out our goal. Brahmagupta gives a complete set of rules for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division for positive and negative numbers, as well as for zero as a number. The only difference between his presentation and one that one might find in a modern elementary arithmetic text is that Brahmagupta tried to define division by zero, which as we all learnt in school is not defined, didn’t we? Far from being “hint that maybe you might want a zero in there” this was the real deal. 

HISTSCI_HULK: NildGT would be in serious trouble with the Hindu Nationalist propagators of Hindu science if they found out about his garbage take on the history of Hindu mathematics.

NdGT: These [sic] new mathematics worked their way to the Middle East. Baghdad specifically, a big trading post from all corners of Europe and Asia, and Africa and there it was. Ideas were put across the table. This was the Golden Age of Islam, major advances were made in all…in engineering, in astronomy, in biology, physiology, and vision. The discovery that vision is a passive phenomenon not active. So, all of this is going on and zero was perfected. They called those numerals Hindu numerals; we today call them Arabic numerals. 

What NdGT doesn’t point out is that the Golden Age of Islam lasted from about 700 to 1600 CE and took place in many centres not just in Baghdad. The Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta was translated into Arabic by Ibrahim ibn Habib ibn Sulayman ibn Samura ibn Jundab al-Fazri (ges. 777 n. Chr.), Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Habib ibn Sulayman ibn Samura ibn Jundab al-Fazri (ges. c. 800 n. Chr.), and Yaʿqūb ibn Ṭāriq (ges. c. 796 n. Chr.) in about 770 CE. This meant that Islamicate[1] mathematical scientists had a fully formed correct theory of zero and negative numbers from this point on. They didn’t develop it, they inherited it. 

Today, people refer to the numerals as Hindu-Arabic numerals!

NdGt: So, this is the full tracking because in the Middle East algebra rose up, the entire arithmetic and algebra rose up invoking zero and you have negative numbers, so mathematics is off to the races. Algebra is one of the very common words in English that has its roots in Arabic. A lot of the a-l words, a-l is ‘the’ in Arabic as I understand it. So, algebra, algorithm, alcohol these are all traceable to that period. … So, I’m saying just consider how late zero came in civilisation. The Egyptian knew nothing of zero [not true, see above]. 

The Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780–c. 850) wrote a book on the Hindu numeral system of which no Arabic text is known, but a Latin translation Algoritmi de Numero Indorum was made in the twelfth century. The word algorithm derives from the Latin transliteration Algoritmi of the name al-Khwārizmī. He wrote a second book al-Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar fī Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-Muqābalah (c. 82O), the translation of the title is The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. The term al-Jabr meaning completion or setting together became the English algebra. 

The first time I heard this section I did a double take. “The entire arithmetic and algebra rose up invoking zero and you have negative numbers, so mathematics is off to the races”, you what! Ancient cultures had been doing arithmetic since at least three thousand years BCE and probably much earlier. I can’t do a complete history of algebra in this blog post but by the early second millennium BCE the Babylonians could solve linear equations and had the general solution to quadratic equations but only for positive solutions as they didn’t have a concept of negative numbers. The also could and did solve some cubic equations. In the middle of the first millennium BCE they had astronomical algorithms to predict planetary orbits, as well as lunar and solar eclipses. Brahmagupta’s work includes the general solution of linear equations, and the full general solution of quadratic equations, as we still teach it today. NdGT’s statement is total rubbish.

Of historical interest in the fact that although Islamicate mathematical scientists acquired negative numbers from Brahmagupta, they mostly didn’t use them, regarding them with scepsis 

HISTSCI_HULK: NildGT is off with the fairies

CN: What is this that I hear about the Mayans and zero?

NdGT: I don’t fully know my Mayan history other than that they really worshipped Venus, so their calendar was Venus based. The calendar in ancient Egypt was based on the star Sirius [something unintelligible about new year]. It’s completely arbitrary when you say the new year’s just began. Pick a date whatever matters in your culture and call it new year. Even today when is the Chinese New Year, it’s late January, February. Everybody’s got a different starter date.

The Mayan culture developed a vigesimal, base twenty, place value number system, which included a placeholder zero, independent of the developments in the Middle East and India. The Dresden Codex, one of the most important Maya written documents contains a mixture of astronomy, astrology, and religion, in which observations of Venus play a central role. The first day of Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that appears between 21 January and 20 February

HISTSCI_HULK: I’d worship Venus, she was a very beautiful lady

CN: The Jewish New Year is another new year that…

NdGT: Everybody’s got another new year. The academic calendar’s got a new year that’s September the first…

I assume that NdGT is referring to the US American academic calendar, other countries have different academic years. In Germany where I live, each German state has a different academic year, in order to avoid that the entire population drive off into their summer holidays at the same time. 

NdGT: …and by the way one quick question you’ve got a hundred dollars in your bank account, and you go and withdraw a hundred dollars from the cash machine and the bank tells you what?

[…]

So, here’s the thing, you have no money left in the bank and that’s bad, but what worse is to have negative money in the bank and so this whole concept of negative numbers arose and made complete sense once you pass through zero. Now instead of something coming your way, you now owe it. The mathematics began to mirror commerce and the needs of civilisation, as we move forward, because we are doing much more than just counting. 

CN: So, this is like the birth of modern accounting. Once you find zero that’s when you’re actually able to have a ledger that shows you minuses and pluses and all that kind of stuff.

One doesn’t need negative numbers in order to do accounting. In fact, the most commonly used form of accounting, double entry bookkeeping, doesn’t use negative numbers; credits and debits are both entered with positive numbers. 

Numbers systems and arithmetic mostly have their origin in accounting. The Babylonians developed their mathematics in order to do the states financial accounting. 

HISTSCI_HULK: There’s no accounting for the stupidity in this podcast

NdGT: So now we’re into negatives and this keeps going with math and you find other needs of culture and civilisation, where whole other branches of math have to be developed and we got trigonometry. All those branches of math where you thought the teacher was just being angry with you giving you these assignments, entire branches of math zero started it all. Where it gives you deeper insights into the operations of nature. 

I said I did a double take when NdGT claimed that arithmetic and algebra first took off when the Islamic mathematicians developed zero and negative numbers, which of course they didn’t, but his next claim completely blew my mind. So now we’re into negatives and this keeps going with math and you find other needs of culture and civilisation, where whole other branches of math have to be developed and we got trigonometry. I can hear Hipparchus of Nicaea (c. 190–c. 120) BCE, who is credited with being the first to develop trigonometry revolving violently in his grave.

HISTSCI_HULK: I could recommend some good books on the history of trigonometry, do you think NildGT can read?

There is another aspect to the whole history of zero that NdGT doesn’t touch on, and often gets ignored in other more serious sources. The ancient cultures that didn’t develop a place value number system, didn’t actually need zero. Almost all people in those cultures, who needed to do and did in fact do arithmetical calculations, didn’t do their calculation by writing them out step for step as we all learnt to do in school, they did them using the oldest analogue computer, the abacus or counting board. The counting board was the main means of doing arithmetical calculation from some time a couple of thousand years BCE, we don’t know exactly when, all the way down to the sixteenth century CE. An experienced and skilled user of the counting board could add, subtract, multiply, divide and even extract square roots much faster than you or I could do the same calculations with paper and pencil. 

The lines or column on a counting board represent the ascending powers of ten in a decimal place value number system, powers of sixty on a Babylonian counting board. During a calculation, an empty line or column represents an implicit zero. In fact, there is one speculative theory that realising this led someone to make that zero explicit when writing out the results of a calculation and that is how the zero came into existence. Normally, when using a counting board only the initial problem and the result are recorded in writing and if one is using a stroke collection, ancient Romans and Egyptians, or an alphanumerical, ancient Greeks, as well as ancient Indian and Arabic cultures before they adopted Hindu numerals, number system, then, as already noted above, you don’t need a zero to express any number. 

This blog post is already far too long but before I close a personal statement. I am baffled as to why a supposedly intelligent and highly educated individual such as Neil deGrasse Tyson chooses to pontificate publicly, to a large international audience, on a topic that he very obviously knows very little about, without taking the trouble to actually learn something about the topic before he does so. Maybe the fact that the podcast is heavily sponsored and littered with commercial advertising is the explanation. He’s just doing in for the money.

His doing so is an insult to his listeners, who, thinking he is some sort of expert, believe the half-digested mixture of half-remembered half-facts and made-up rubbish that he spews out. It is also a massive insult to all the historian of mathematics, who spent their lives finding, translating, and analysing the original documents in order to reconstruct the real history. 

HISTSCI_HULK: If I were a teacher and he had handed this in as an essay, I wouldn’t give him an F, I would give it back to him, tell him to burn it, and give him a big fat ZERO!


[1] Islamicate is the preferred adjective used by historians for mathematics and science produced under Islamic hegemony and published mostly in Arabic. It is used to reflect that fact that those producing it were by no means only Arabs or indeed Muslim

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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.

Source

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