A Renaissance herbal owned by a noble lady

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 Rariora qu 236 and  ALV 162-459. The copy discussed here, Rariora qu 236, had an eminent female owner at some point in the sixteenth or early seventeenth century, as indicated in the hand-written phrase “Herbarius toebehoorende vrouwe Henrica van Egmondt vrouwe tot Warmont” (Herbal belonging to the Lady Henrica of Egmond, Lady of Warmond) on the endpaper connecting to the front cover.

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. The present copy of the undated Dutch edition has the year 1543 inscribed by hand on the title page. In fact, however, the Dutch edition probably dates from 1545 or somewhat later, as will be discussed below. The Latin original – of which a copy is also in the Utrecht University Library collection, Rariora fol 72 – as well as 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 herbals. 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.

Author’s and artists’ portraits

At the beginning of the Latin, German, and Dutch versions of Fuchs’s De historia stirpium is a full-length portrait of the author. Conventionally, authors were depicted inside a small cartouche, focusing only on their heads. Fuchs’s stately-looking figure signifies the break away from medieval tradition: he proudly presents this work as his invention. Equally unprecedented is the inclusion at the end of the Latin and German editions of the portraits of the images’ creators: Heinrich Füllmaurer and Albrecht Meyer are identified in these half-length portraits as the designers of the plant drawings and Veit Rudolph Speckle as the woodblock carver. Apparently, this novelty was not considered relevant to the Dutch market, because the artists’ portraits have been left out of the Dutch edition. While herbals published before and after De historia stirpium often claim their images of plants to be drawn from life, many of them do not live up to this claim. In fact, many later illustrations are derivative or even direct copies of the illustrations designed by Füllmaurer and Meyer.

Date of publication: 1543 or 1545?

The year 1543 is handwritten at the bottom of the title page in this copy. This seems logical because the date March 3, 1543, is printed in Fuchs’s prologue of Den nieuwen herbarius. The same date is mentioned in the prologue of the German edition from which Den nieuwen herbarius was translated. However, the woodcuts suggest a later date of publication for Den nieuwen herbarius. Unlike the Latin and German editions with their monumental full-page illustrations, the Dutch edition contains much smaller woodcuts. Despite being drawn in the same manner and compositions, they measure not even half of the original size. These small woodblocks 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.

A female owner

The present copy shows a substantial amount of users’ traces, left by users throughout several centuries, judging by the different writing styles. A relatively early owner was a woman of noble birth: Henrica van Egmont (1525-1606), who married Jacob van Duvenvoorde (1509-1577) in 1542. The couple held the title of Lord and Lady of Warmond only for a brief period of time, in 1558-1559. Therefore, the inscription in which Henrica conspicuously identifies herself as “vrouwe tot Warmont” (assuming that she wrote this inscription herself), might date from this period. Although the female ownership is highly intriguing, it is not conclusive whether any of the other annotations were written by Henrica.

Underlinings, highlights, and cross references

Many passages in the volume have been underlined. Most of the notes in the margins are keywords from the text, probably written down as reminders of what the readers thought was important. Some of the annotations are in Latin, but most are in Dutch. Interestingly, certain remedies have been marked repeatedly throughout the book, in particular for toothache or problems with the mouth, including “wilt vier” (skin condition or infectious disease) and “wondcruyt” (herbs for wound healing). On the endpaper connecting to the back of the book is a handwritten list of chapters and page numbers. There is a star symbol drawn at the top of the list, but similar stars found in the book do not seem to correspond to the page numbers listed here.

A note on fol. G3r suggests that the book was still being used in the eighteenth century. It gives a reference to the Lexicon medicum graeco-latinum by the Dutch physician Steven Blankaart, first published in 1679. The comment notes “Ganseric” as an alternative name for Argentine, with a reference to Blankaart’s Lexicon “fol. 66 in voce Anserina et Argentina.” The commentator may have used the Blankaart edition of 1735, where the name “Ganseryk” is indeed provided on page 66 in the entry on “Anserina seu Argentina”.

There are also several pencil markings throughout the book, suggesting an even more recent user engaged in reading the herbal. Despite its use throughout several centuries, the volume has been preserved in an old – possibly even original – binding.

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).
  • Witkam, Jan Just & H.J. Smeets (ed.), Het Huys te Warmont. Zijn geschiedenis en zijn bewoners (Leiden, 1963).
Around 1545
Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen and Andrea van Leerdam, May 2017
Leonhart Fuchs
Herbarius toebehoorende vrouwe Henrica van Egmondt vrouwe tot Warmont
Index of plant names

Den Nieuwen Herbarius, dat is, dboeck vanden cruijden ... (Basel: Michael Isingrin, 1545 or later). Utrecht, University Library, Rariora qu 236.