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Leonard Fuchs

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Leonhard Fuchs

‘Leonhardus Fuchs, too, has won great honor among us Germans, as well among foreign nations, with his history of herbs that he published in Latin and German and adorned with beautiful illustrations and thus has made possible diligent research by many others.’*

  Adam Lonicer (1587)


Leonard Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Basle, 1542), portrait of Fuchs.

Both Leonhard Fuchs and Otto Brunfels had much in common. Both were committed to the renaissance project of rediscovering ancient sources, in this case the botanical works of Dioscorides, while at the same time introducing local botanical information. Both led the way in the emergence of a botanical artistic genre which used developing artisanal skills to produce something which had never been seen before, a ‘true’ depiction of plants. Both men had become converts to the Lutheran reformation and both men sought to bring about a similar reform of the investigation of natural history. Just as the reformation had laid stress on the vernacular, so too did Brunfels and Fuchs deliberately give not only the Latin names of plants but their German names also.

However, unlike Brunfels, who bemoaned his lack of control over the publishing of his magnum opus, the Herbarum vivae eicones (1532), it is clear that Leonard Fuchs was very much in control of the production of his De Historia Stirpium (Basle, 1542). In his preface he outlined his aims for his work:

‘Now, to come at last to the point at which I was aiming, I have compiled these commentaries on the nature of plants with the utmost care as well as expense, emulating the devotion of the eminent scholars mentioned above. In the first place, we have included whatever relates to the whole history of every plants, with all the superfluities cut out, briefly and, we hope, in the best order, one we shall follow regularly. Then, to the description of each plant we have added an illustration. These are lifelike and modelled after nature and rendered more skilfully, if I may say so, than ever before. This we have done for no other reason than that a picture expresses things more surely and fixes them more deeply in the mind than the bare words of the text.’*

As Fuchs’ preface makes plain, he was primarily concerned with the medicinal uses of plants and urged physicians to extend their knowledge of simples, arguing that they could not hope to treat diseases until they fully understood the role of simples in medication. The importance of this medicinal focus is readily apparent in the two examples given below.


Leonard Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Basle, 1542), p. 78, Juniper.

Fuchs lists the medicinal properties of Juniper communis as noted not only by Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny, but also by later Greek authorities:

‘It stops nosebleeds if applied to the temples and forehead crushed in egg white. The same suppresses vomiting, taken with a powder of frankincense and egg white. Likewise, rubbed on with the same, it settles diarrhea. A powder of this in egg, taken by sipping, settles a stomach emitting bilious vomit, and stops bloody discharges of the belly. It digests phlegm that has collected in the stomach and intestines. Also it checks the humor that gushes from the brain. It kills tapeworms and other animals in the belly. Applied, it dries up the wet crevices of fistulas. It staunches the menstrual flow. As a fumigant, it helps colds. Rubbed on, it benefits gaping cracks of the hands and feet. And, to sum up, it possesses the powers of succinus [i.e. amber], but a little more efficacious. If it [i.e. Juniperus communis L.] is not available, substitute a double weight [of succinus] instead.’*

Fuchs made it clear, though, that the medical pecking order was as follows: first Galen, then Dioscorides and then finally Pliny.

We selected this woodcut of Juniper communis, a member of the Cupressaceae family growing throughout most of Europe, as an example of the annotations found in the Worth copy of Fuchs. The annotation is carefully fitted around the woodcut images of an individual berry drawn from two aspects, one of which seems to be slit open to show the seed. Two types of Juniper were identified by Dioscorides, one with cypress-like leaves var. cupressifolia and the other resembling the tamarisk var tamariscifolia. The annotation appears to be recognizing this as it notes that the leaves in the woodcut are cypress like and the berries turn reddish when mature. The ‘berries’ are in fact cone scales becoming fleshy and coalescing to form what looks like a berry and containing the seeds.(Webb, 2012)

Common juniper, which was one of the first shrubs to colonize Ireland and Great Britain after the Ice Age 15,000 years ago, is under threat throughout Europe and is a recent subject of an EU 5130 habitat assessment undertaken in Ireland (Cooper, Stone, McEvoy, Wilkins, & Reid, 2012) which considers its current conservation status as ‘unfavourable’. This publication also has a fascinating appendix exploring the history, folklore, medicinal and culinary uses of juniper.


Leonard Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Basle, 1542), p. 325, Lady’s smock.

Fuchs’s woodcut of Nasturtium agreste, identified by a seventeenth-century annotator of Worth’s copy as ‘Ladies Smock’ (and also known as Cuckoo flower), was renamed Cardamine pratensis by Linnaeus in 1753. It is a summer flowering perennial with pale mauve to white flowers growing plentifully on marshes, wet meadows and grassland throughout Europe. It is a member of the Brassicaceae (formerly Cruciferae) family and is plentiful in Ireland. Webb (2012) notes that it is a very variable plant and this may explain the annotations on this page of Fuchs, as the reader/owner tries to sort out the features of the plant. Apart from the English name of the plant written under the German name in the right hand corner, there are two Latin annotations in what appears to be a seventeenth-century hand. The annotation on the left hand side is easily seen but the other on the right hand side under the drawing of a root, is in faint brown ink which makes it difficult to detect.

These annotations refer to characteristics of the plant and other names by which the plant was called. The faint right hand annotation says that it is called Eruca sylvestris in France, which although a member of the Brassica family is a different plant. The more distinct annotation notes that the leaves of the plant are different depending where they grow, with a white flower and a woody root at maturity (which may be the reason for the root drawing) and that it is popularly known as Nasturtium sylvestre. Interestingly, this is the name by which the German herbalist Adam Lonicer calls it in his Naturalis historiae opus novum (Frankfurt, 1551), a text also owned by Worth.

In an appendix Fuchs gives the following information on its medicinal use:

‘The more recent herbalists approve the use of the plant whose picture we show, for lice, if it is steeped in lye. From this it may be gathered that this plant has the property of drying, attracting and drawing out from the deep, about like Nasturtium and Sinape. According to Galen, bk. 4. Ch 7, De compositione medicamentorum, medications that benefit pediculosis necessarily dry and draw out deeply. So that again it is very plain that this plant, which has the properties of Nasturtium, is the true Hibera, notwithstanding that it is rarely or never supported by two roots, but rather by one.’*


Leonard Fuchs, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Basle, 1542), portraits of illustrators and engraver.

What made Fuchs’ herbal a publishing sensation were the illustrations. Fuchs was very much aware of their central importance to the work and took the unusual step of including portraits of the illustrators and the engraver: Albrecht Meyer, Heinrich Füllmaurer and Veit Rudolf Speckle. Fuchs especially singled the engraver, Speckle, who he rightly considered had ‘admirably copied the wonderful industry of the draftsmen, and has with such excellent craft expressed in his engraving the features of each drawing that he seems to have contended with the draftsmen for glory and victory.’* It was clear that Fuchs regarded the work as a collaboration, constantly using the pronoun ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ throughout his preface and in particularly in his discussion of the role of the illustrations in the text. Responding to criticism, Fuchs vehemently defended the use of illustrations:

‘As for the pictures themselves, every single one of them portrays the lines and appearance of the living plant. We were especially careful that they should be absolutely correct, and we have devoted the greatest diligence that every plant should be depicted with its own roots, stalks, leaves, flowers, seeds and fruits. Over and over again, we have purposely and deliberately avoided the obliteration of the natural form of the plants lest they be obscured by shading and other artifices that painters sometimes employ to win artistic glory. And we have not allowed the craftsmen so to indulge their whims as to cause the drawing not to correspond accurately to the truth.’*

But exactly what was the truth of plant illustration? For Brunfels’ illustrator Hans Weiditz, it had been an accurate portrayal of a single plant, crushed and withered leaves and all. For Fuchs and company, the true illustration was not a reproduction on an actual plant in a temporal state, but rather the accurate depiction of what a plant would look like in several stages of its lifecycle (for an example of this see the juniper berries in the juniper woodcut). It was with this in mind that Fuchs ordered his illustrators to portray seeds, roots, flowers and fruits in a simultaneous depiction. As Kusukawa (1997) points out, Fuchs’s use of illustration went beyond that of Brunfels because now the illustration and text were symbiotically connected. As Fuchs himself explained, this had one unforeseen side-effect: it forced him to order the plants alphabetically.

*All translations from Fuchs are from Meyer, Frederick G., Trueblood, Emily Emmart and Heller, John L. (eds.) (1999), The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs (Stanford University Press), 2 vols. None of Fuchs’s medicinal recommendations should be attempted.


Cooper, F., Stone, R.E., McEvoy, P., Wilkins, T. & Reid, N. (2012), ‘The

conservation status of juniper formations in Ireland. Irish Wildlife Manuals’, No. 63

National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local

Government, Dublin, Ireland:

Dioscorides (1959), The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, edited by R. T. Gunther (New York), p 54.

Kusukawa, Sachiko (1997), ‘Leonhart Fuchs on the Importance of Pictures’, in Journal of the History of Ideas 58 no. 3, pp 403-27.

Linnaeus, C (1753) Species Plantarum (Stockholm), vol 2, p. 656.

Meyer, Frederick G., Trueblood, Emily Emmart and Heller, John L. (eds.) (1999), The Great Herbal of Leonhart Fuchs (Stanford University Press), 2 vols.

Webb’s (2012), An Irish Flora 8th edition, edited by John Parnell and Tom Curtis (Cork University Press), p. 258.

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