Densely annotated and richly illustrated: a famous herbal in Dutch translation

Den nieuwen herbarius is the Dutch version of a Renaissance herbal that marks an important step in the history of botany: De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Notable commentaries on the history of plants), compiled by the German physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566). There are two copies of Den nieuwen herbarius at Utrecht University Library, with shelfmarks ALV 162-459 and Rariora qu 236. The copy discussed here, ALV 162-459, contains extensive annotations in Dutch, German, and Low German. It even included samples of dried plants.

Dutch, German, and Latin editions

Noted for its innovatively lifelike illustrations of plants, Fuchs’s Latin original De historia stirpium from 1542 was quickly translated into many languages across Europe. Already in 1543, an edition in German appeared, on which the Dutch translation was based. Although the Dutch version is sometimes assumed to date from 1543 as well, it is more probable that it was published in 1545 or somewhat later, as will be discusse below. Both the Latin original - of which a copy is in the Utrecht University Library collection, Rariora fol 72 – and the German and Dutch translations were published by the Swiss printer Michael Isingrin in Basel.

A book of practical knowledge

The sizeable folio volume consists of descriptions of the medicinal and utilitarian properties of plants and the illustrations of those plants. It is designed as a reference book to find remedies for different symptoms.Two indexes at the beginning of the book list the names of the plants, the first one in Dutch and the second in Latin. For the Latin section a Roman font type was used, as was common in the sixteenth century for texts in Latin, whereas the Dutch text in the rest of the book is set in Gothic typeface. The various indexes provide readers easy access to the information they are looking for. The descriptions of plants are organised in alphabetical order throughout the book, according to their Latin names.

The contents are divided into the following sections:

  1. prologue by Leonhart Fuchs
  2. address to the reader by Michael Isingrin
  3. index of plant names in Dutch
  4. index of plant names in Latin
  5. index of ailments, with the corresponding chapter numbers where their remedies may be found
  6. descriptions and illustrations of plants, arranged alphabetically

The growing importance of illustrations

Fuchs’s herbals are among the German publications that started a new tradition in botanical illustration. During the first half of the sixteenth century, Otto Brunfels, Hieronymus Bock, and Leonhart Fuchs – now often referred to as the three fathers of German botany – published several botanical treatises that emphasized the use of naturalistically drawn woodcuts of plants. The texts of these volumes relied on classical sources, such as the Materia medica by the Greek naturalist Dioscorides, but actual observations of the botanists became an increasingly important source as well. The depictions of plants display much more naturalistic characteristics than those in medieval herbs. Whereas ancient naturalists, such as Pliny the Elder, deemed images an unreliable source of information, early modern botanists saw them as an important tool to recognize and study plants. When late medieval herbals started to appear in print, such as Den groten herbarius, plant illustrations already came to occupy an increasingly important role. The German fathers of botany took the portrayal of plants to another level, emphasizing the inclusion of images made from life as the star feature for their herbals.

Woodcuts from a pocket-sized field guide

Fuchs’s Latin and German editions of De historia stirpium  are well-known for their large and drawn-from-life illustrations of plants by Heinrich Füllmaurer and Albrecht Meyer. Each woodcut takes up a full page of a crown folio (approximately 38cm in height). The Dutch edition, however, contains significantly smaller woodcuts. The plants, despite being drawn in the same manner and compositions, measure not even half of the original size. The small woodblocks used for Den nieuwen herbarius also appear in the Latin and German editions of Fuchs’s Primi de stirpium historia commentariorum, first printed in 1545 by Michael Isingrin in Basel. This pocket-sized book was intended to serve as a field guide, containing only a register of plant names and their images, without the descriptions of their properties. Fuchs states, in the dedicatory letter of the pocket-sized editions, that this is the first appearance of these smaller woodcuts. Thus, Den nieuwen herbarius, in which Isingrin used the same woodblocks, must have been printed in 1545 at the earliest.

Read to pieces

This particular copy shows a lot of wear and tear and contains a large number of annotations, indicating that it was extensively utilized. There are water damages on many pages and a deep wormhole goes through almost the entire volume. The first two quires (twenty-three leaves in total, *2-a6) have undergone considerable repairing works for conservation. Modern materials have been applied to reinforce the structure of these pages. Especially fols. *2-*4 have survived only fragmentarily, while fol. *1 – the title page and a full-length portrait of Fuchs on the reverse, see Rariora qu 236 – is missing altogether. At some point in the apparently eventful history of the volume, fol. *12 was wrongly rebound behind fol. *4, and fol. *6 was flipped, disturbing the alphabetical sequence of the index.

Taking notes throughout the centuries

The vast majority of the pages in this copy contain annotations in several different hands from at least the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They are written in Dutch and German, and apparently also in Low German. The annotations include keywords from the text highlighted in the margins, additions, alternative plant names, and corrections. Most of the annotations in German have been written in the lower margins. An insightful remark may be found on fol. p6v, below the woodcut of the plant Viscus: “die hooch duijtschen schreuen veel meer van dit gewas. dan desen Doctoor: en sij schreuen dit gewas veel schoonen teugent toe” (the High Germans wrote much more about this plant than this Doctor did, and they attributed to this plant many beautiful virtues). This might suggest that the additions in German were taken from another book, with which the reader was comparing this copy.

Other interesting users’ traces are slips of paper filled with notes, pasted or pinned to the pages (e.g. fol. e1v, f4v, y4v). In addition, two pressed plants were discovered between the pages (between r1 and r2, and s2 and s3) when digitizing this copy. It is hard to assess what species and how old the samples are. The dried plants are now preserved in separate envelopes.

Further reading

  • Arber, Agnes, Herbals, their origin and evolution: a chapter in the history of botany, 1470–1670, 3rd ed. (Glastonbury, 1986).
  • Blunt, Wilfrid, & Sandra Raphael, The illustrated herbal (New York, 1979).
  • Fuchs, Leonhart, The new herbal of 1543: new Kreüterbuch, complete colored (facsimile) ed. (Cologne, 2001).
  • Knecht-van Eekelen, A. de, ‘Uit de bibliotheek van het Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde: Den Nieuwen Herbarius van Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566) en de opkomst van de botanie’, Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde 139 (1995), 398-406.
  • Kusukawa, Sachiko, Picturing the book of nature: images, text, and argument in sixteenth-century human anatomy and medical botany (Chicago & London, 2012).
  • Saunders, Gill, Picturing plants: an analytical history of botanical illustration, 2nd ed. (Chicago & London, 2009).
  • Swan, Claudia, ‘Illustrated natural history,’ in Susan Dackerman (ed.), Prints and the pursuit of knowledge in early modern Europe (Cambridge, MA, New Haven & London, 2011).
Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen and Andrea van Leerdam, May 2017
Den nieuwen Herbarius 39

Den Nieuwen Herbarius, dat is, dboeck vanden cruijden ... [Basel: Michael Isingrin, 1545 or later]. Utrecht, University Library, ALV 162-459.