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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Otto Brunfels

A herbal is a book containing the names and descriptions of herbs or of plants in general, with their properties and uses - medicinal, culinary, aromatic and magical - enumerated. Herbals, which are often illustrated, were popular in medieval Europe, and many survive in manuscript form.

Hand-coloured woodcut showing the mint plantHand-coloured woodcut showing the mint plantThey owed their popularity partly to their perceived practical use - such medical remedies as then existed usually included botanical ingredients - and partly to the way in which they reflected the medieval Christian view of the natural world. To the medieval Christian mind mankind lived in a transcendental universe, where every plant, animal or mineral had its special significance in God’s scheme, a significance often suggested by its physical qualities and their symbolic echoing of a Christian virtue or Biblical event.

The advent of the printed book in the second half of the 15th century saw no diminution in the herbal’s popularity. Herbals of the 15th and 16th centuries are generally illustrated with woodcuts, designs cut in relief on a block of wood, the block then being placed in a press for printing. Blocks could have a long life and were often passed from printer to printer, leading to a considerable standardisation of style in the depiction of individual plant species.

Born in Germany - his surname is derived from the name of his birthplace, Braunfels, near Mainz - Otto Brunfels (1488-1534) was a Carthusian monk who later embraced Lutheranism and moved to Strasbourg. There he worked as a school teacher, before taking up medicine; he was appointed town physician of Bern, Switzerland, shortly before his death.

Brunfels’ Herbarum, published in three parts between 1530 and 1536, owes its significance less to its text, which is largely a compilation of earlier sources, than to its woodcut illustrations, the work of Hans Weiditz. Unlike many botanical illustrators of the day, Weiditz (ca 1495-ca 1536) eschewed imitation and drew his plants from nature, seeking to record accurately what he saw. His illustration of mint, shown here, exemplifies his careful technique and in our copy it has been hand-coloured by an early owner.

Brunfels quotes Pliny’s Naturalis historia on the culinary and medicinal uses of mint, the latter including the treatment of fevers, lung infections and ulcers. Many herbs were used as ‘simples’ in ancient and medieval times, a ‘simple’ being a medicine concocted of one ingredient, usually a herb or other plant, and mint is still used today as an ingredient in decongestive cough remedies. Its use in medicine was later made more effective by the isolation in 1771 of menthol, an organic compound made synthetically from peppermint oil, by the German chemist Hierionymus Gaubius.

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