'Den groten herbarius'

Healthy herbs in print

Den groten herbarius is a late medieval herbal that contains descriptions and illustrations of hundreds of plants, as well as animals, stones, metals and other natural resources, focusing on their medicinal virtues. It may be counted among the best-sellers of the first half of the sixteenth century in the Low Countries, considering that no fewer than six different editions were published between 1514 and 1547. This 1526 edition was printed in Antwerp by Claes de Grave (Nicolaes Grapheus), who had published it before in 1514. The work is a translation of the German Ortus sanitatis … ein Gart der Gesuntheit (the Garden of Health, also called the smaller Ortus), which was first printed in Mainz by Peter Schöffer in 1485The woodcuts in Den groten herbarius derive, however, from another famous herbal printed in Mainz, by Jacob von Meydenbach: the Latin Ortus sanitatis of 1491.

A beneficial work of reference

Detail uit Den groten Herbarius, 1526 uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteit Utrecht

In general, a herbal is a treatise describing the names and the properties of plants, usually with information on their medicinal, culinary, or other significant qualities. The traditional purpose of a herbal is to enable readers, such as doctors, apothecaries, and amateurs to know which plants to use for different symptoms.

Den groten herbarius has clearly been designed as a work of reference, allowing for a quick and easy retrieval of information. Although this may seem obvious from our present-day point of view, it was quite a novelty in the early sixteenth century. This is explicitly demonstrated in the sixth part of the book, which consists of an extensive register of remedies. Preceding this register, nearly a whole page is dedicated to an appraisal of its usefulness and an explanation of how to use it (fol. K2r). Apart from this tool of reference, the work contains many other structuring elements, such as leaf numbers and chapter headings. Most notably, each of the short chapters is illustrated with a woodcut. Whether this particular copy of Den groten herbarius has been used as extensively as the publisher might have hoped is difficult to assess: the book hardly contains any user’s traces and the pages look remarkably clean.

Five or six parts?

The prologue, translated from the German original, explains that the work consists of five parts. In this Dutch edition, there are actually six numbered parts:

  1. the prologue (a1r-a2r);
  2. descriptions of plants and other creatures and their virtues, in alphabetical order (“in ordinancie vanden alphabeet”) by their Latin name (a2r-H3r);
  3. a register of medicines, ordered by their qualities (e.g. medicines that purge, medicines that stimulate sweat, fruits, animals, roots - H4r-J1r); this text is preceded by a full-page anatomical diagram of a skeleton (H3v);
  4. a urine treatise on the meanings of different colours of urine (J1v-J4r);
  5. a urine treatise by Master Arnoldus de Villanova (J4r-K2r);
  6. a register of remedies against many diseases and ailments, with corresponding chapter numbers where these remedies may be found (K2r-M3v).

Classical roots

Detail uit de index van Den groten herbarius, 1526 uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteit Utrecht

The origin of the herbal can be traced back to antiquity. The Materia medica by the Greek naturalist Dioscorides, a five-volume work dating from the first century AD, became the base work of herbals in the centuries to come, throughout the Middle Ages and well into the beginning of the Renaissance. These medieval herbals rely heavily on the textual, rather than visual, descriptions of the plants. The entries are usually arranged in alphabetical order, and the images are often generalized and not very naturalistic. Their decorative qualities are emphasized by symmetrical compositions. While the format and approach remained the same over the centuries, later authors added new entries on local herbs, expanding the botanical knowledge available to readers of herbals.

Herbals in print

Insecten in Den groten herbarius, 1526 uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteit Utrecht

The medieval herbal tradition continued into the era of print. At the end of the fifteenth century, physicians and apothecaries in German states began to produce printed herbals that are more encompassing in content than their medieval predecessors, although they are still based on the Materia medica. The German or smaller Ortus sanitatis was printed during this wave of German herbals by Peter Schöffer in Mainz in 1485. Textually deriving from the German Ortus sanitatis, the Dutch Groten herbarius still follows closely the practice of the medieval herbal. In contrast to the text, it appears that Claes de Grave modelled the illustrations in his Dutch editions after the Latin Ortus sanitatis, first printed in Mainz by Jacob von Meydenbach in 1491. De Grave adapted the compositional scheme, however. In general, the woodcuts in the Ortus sanitatis are carved onto rectangular blocks, which make the compositions more elongated. De Grave’s images, on the other hand, fit into semi-square boxes with a printed border around the plants.

Lifelike illustrations?

Detail uit Den groten herbarius, 1526 uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteit Utrecht

Although to modern viewers the illustrations may not stand out for their accuracy, they appear to have been an important feature of Den groten herbarius and its German predecessors. This is suggested in the first place by their being highlighted in the title of the 1514 edition (the title page of the present copy from 1526 is unfortunately missing): Den groten herbarius met al sijn figueren [...].

Even more interestingly, a lengthy passage in the prologue discusses how the illustrations have been made. This prologue in Den groten herbarius is a literal translation of the one in the first edition of the smaller Ortus sanitatis from 1485. In this passage, the anonymous author explains how it has taken him a long time to finish the work. Because many of the plants he describes do not grow in the German countries, he was not able to compose accurate depictions other than from hearsay. When he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he took an accomplished painter with him (whose name is not mentioned) so that the work could be finalized with lifelike images based on first-hand experience. To underline the illustrations’ trustworthiness, the author enumerates the many countries that he and the painter travelled through on their long journey.

Detail met een geit en een kreeft uit Den groten herbarius, 1526

Two copies at the Special Collections

Utrecht University Library holds two copies of Den groten herbarius. This digitized version is a 1526 reprint of the first Dutch edition of 1514. There is also a 1547 edition by Symon Cock in the collection, which contains largely the same woodcuts but has a slightly different layout (Rariora qu 294).

The 1526 copy was rebound in later centuries. The first four leaves, including the title page, are missing, as well as leaves k1, k4, and the final leaf M4. In its present form, the book contains over 430 woodcut illustrations, the majority of which depict plants. A smaller number depicts animals, as well as human figures engaging in the extraction or application of the resources described in the text. There is also a full-page anatomical illustration of a skeleton in which each bone is labelled (fol. H3v). Sometimes the same woodblock has been used to illustrate different entries. For example, the chapters on honey and wax (ch. 137 fol. m3v, and ch. 274 fol. x6r) both have the same illustration of two beehives. The chapters on silver and gold even have the same image twice on the same page spread (chapters 38-39, fols. d4v-e1r).


Jessie Wei-Hsuan Chen en Andrea van Leerdam, April 2017

Skelet, Den groten herbarius, 1526 uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteit Utrecht