How to Name Medieval Plants

Have you ever wondered how medieval Europeans produced their medicine without a universal botanical language? RBC’s new acquisition, a facsimile of the Tractus de herbis manuscript (Sloane MS. 4016 in the British Library), may just have the answer for you.

In the medieval and early modern period, medical professionals needed a way to record descriptions and drawings of the plants they used to make medicines.  They kept this information in books called herbals. Herbals catalog the names and descriptions of plants, usually recording their medicinal value in addition to their culinary and magical properties.

An incunabular print of Pliny's Natural History translated into the Florentine dialect. The initial "D" is decorated with florals.

The “Prohemio”, or preface, of Pliny’s Historia naturalis translated into the Florentine dialect by Cristoforo Landino. Incunabula 373.4

Monasteries produced most of the extant herbals of the Middle Ages since religious institutions frequently had a physic garden and members of the various fraternal orders produced books and studied medicine to care for the sick and elderly.  This practical training aside, medicinal manuscripts from this period often repeat the classical source materials monks would have been reading, such as Pliny’s Natural History or the works of Galen.

Following the crusades, however, medieval Europe began importing ideas from the medieval Islamic world.

Two soldiers, armed, guard Balsam of Mecca growing within the interior court of a castle.

Occasional animal, mineral, and human figures do make an appearance in the Tractus de herbis. Here, two soldiers guard the Balsam we see within the interior court (f. 10v). The inscription reads, “Balsam of Mecca, which in Arabic [is called] lelesem or fructex, which is more authentic” (translation by Alain Touwaide).

Muslim botanists and physicians, like Avicenna, made significant contributions to herbal knowledge, and the advent of print in the 15th century revolutionized and increased the production of and market for herbals.  Some of the best-known herbals were produced during this time, though their manuscript counterparts continued to flourish even as the Protestant Reformation took medicine out of the monasteries and religious apothecaries and into the garden of the laity.

While many manuscripts of the Middle Ages prioritize the image, the Tractus de herbis is based solely on the image. The original manuscript, the British Library’s Sloane MS. 4016, is an herbal album from the 1440s that features more than 500 full-color illustrations of the raw materials — plants, minerals, and animals — used to make common medicines in the mid 15th century.

The page features front-facing images of Ammoniacum, Artamita, Pipevine, and Asafetida with brief commentary that expounds on their other common names, mostly in Arabic.

Because the diversity of languages often caused confusion, albums like the Tractus de herbis often included many of the different names associated with the same plant. Here, the entry for Asafetida (pictured on the bottom right of f. 7r) reads, “Avicenna calls it altit; Dioscorides calls it lassar and says it is the sap of a plant called silfer. He says it is [the plant called] anviden and bearan” (translation by Alain Touwaide).

Although Latin, Ancient Greek, and Arabic unified a portion of international medieval populations, many languages further complicated the already esoteric terms in medicinal literature. A panoply of scientific and traditional plant names prevented mutual understanding across the social hierarchy, so it became necessary to produce visual references that could help medieval medicine-makers differentiate between maleficent and beneficent herbs.  The Tractus de herbis, like other visual herbals of the period, presents an illustration of the plant and accompanies that illustration with its various names, both ancient and contemporary.

The page features front-facing images of Horse Mint, Annual mercury, and Bugle with brief commentary that lists their other common names, mostly in Greek.

Depicted here are (left to right): Horse Mint, Annual mercury, and Bugle (f. 59v). The entry for Annual mercury is an excellent example of how the commentary will often feature plant names from authoritative sources alongside anonymously cited or commonplace terms. The description reads, “Constantin called [it] lichitus. As for Dioscorides, he [calls it] linçostis. Others [call it] parthenion, others parcenotidos, others algumus, others argiritus, others pastemon, others hermuli asilliom, others argilioces, others arumom, others alcancus, others argrarivus and others marcorela” (translation by Alain Touwaide).

In this way, Tractus de herbis personifies the unification of Medieval Europe’s past with its present, tying together classical knowledge, the new discoveries from the Arab world, and those pieces of original Ancient Greek and Roman medical literature that were once thought lost though actually preserved and reproduced by Muslim scholars.

The Rare Book Collection’s facsimile of Tractus de herbis is a replica of the British Library’s Sloane MS. 4016, and it features a companion volume of study by Alain Touwaide of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions.  The facsimile and companion volume are excellent resources for anyone interested in studying medieval herbalism or the history of global medical traditions. 

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