Mainz: Jacob Meydenbach, 23 June 1491
The hand-coloured illustrations of the Ortus sanitatis (Garden of health) depict real fish, animals and plants alongisde fabulous and fanciful images of unicorns, dragons and mermaids.
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This is the first natural history encyclopaedia. Today we consult such works to discover more about wonders of the world we live in, but readers at the end of the fifteenth century had more practical concerns. They believed that the natural world had been created by God to be of use to humanity and that animals and plants were there to provide cures for diseases. So this encyclopaedia is entitled Hortus sanitatis, ‘The garden of health’.
Two earlier such books had dealt with plants, but this one, compiled by Jacob Meydenbach, adds sections on mammals, fish, birds, and rocks, and concludes with a description of the diagnostic qualities of urine, presumably so that readers might discover the sources of the remedies they needed. Many of the plants Meydenbach describes are immediately recognisable, but there are some where fantasy has taken over. The mandrake, in truth, has a near magical ability to relieve pain. Its wrinkled forked root, however, was believed to represent a man. Furthermore, if it was pulled up it would emit a shriek so appalling that it would kill the collector. Meydenbach provides the solution: the collector should take a dog with him and tie its lead to the plant. Then, after stopping his ears to shut out the lethal shriek, he should beat the dog so that it flees and so pulls up the root.
Hortus sanitatis describes familiar animals too, but adds details of which readers might be ignorant: bile from gall bladders, for example, could be used to treat infected wounds. It also includes descriptions of exotic creatures which few, if any, of its readers could have seen. The crocodile was of interest because, perhaps paradoxically, ointments made from its body parts would cure wrinkled skin. Even dragons appear amongst Meydenbach’s descriptions, as does the unicorn, which he recommends as a fertility aid for those struggling to conceive.
The University’s copy of this book belonged to John Moore, who was Bishop of Ely in the early eighteenth century. He would have had no difficulty, of course, in reading the Latin. For most of us, however, the charm of this wonderful book rests in its woodcut illustrations. Many of the plants, while delightfully stylized, are easily recognizable. But it is the human figures, surrounded by birds or standing by rivers containing not only fish but mermaids, that take us back most vividly to the birth of scientific natural history.
Essay by Sir David Attenborough