Pin It

Otto Brunfels

Facebooktwitterby feather

Otto Brunfels

‘The first among these was Otto Brunfels.’

Preface to Fuchs’ De Historia Stirpium (1542).*

Brunfels (c. 1489-1534), is known today as one of the three German ‘Fathers of Botany’ – the other two being Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554) and Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566). Though Fuchs disagreed with Brunfels on a number of issues, he was conscious that Brunfels had led the way in plant iconography, declaring that Brunfels was ‘a learned and most industrious man, who, writing first in Latin, then in German, tried to improve and illumine herbal medicine… he deserves that all should vie in praise of him for this reason alone, that he was the first of all to bring back the correct method of illustrating plants into our Germany, giving others something to imitate.’* And imitate they did, though few were lucky (or skilled enough) to produce such a beautiful work of art as Brunfels’ Herbarum vivae eicones (1532).

Otto Brunfels1

Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem (Strassburg, 1532), p. 96, Cowslip.

Perhaps the greatest charm of Brunfels’ herbal lies in its treatment of simple well-known plants such as Primula veris, the cowslip. This plant, a member of the Primulaceae family, is a plant of the temperate regions of Europe and Western Asia extending northwards as far as Scandinavia including Finland ( In most countries, because of declining numbers due to pressure on its habitat associated with changes in agricultural practices, it is a protected species. A native flower in Ireland (called in Irish Bainne bó bleactáin), it had been in decline for some years, but its numbers have begun to recover ( and it is common in pastures in the centre of Ireland. Rare in the North-East it is protected in Northern Ireland (Webb, 2012). The flowers were used to make cowslip wine or tea (used in some parts of Ireland for insomnia and for palsy – Mac Coitir (2008)). Primula veris L. remains in herbal medicine use mainly as an expectorant and has been the recent subject of a European Medicines Agency Assessment Report (2012)** .

Flowering in April and May, the cowslip, like the peony, is found in the ‘flowery mead’ of Renaissance paintings such as ‘The Paradise Garden’ in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt. The cowslip also appears in the works of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English poets such as Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton and Herrick. On a more mundane note, its English name derives from the Old English ‘cu-sloppe’, meaning a cow pat, thus indicating its original habitat in cattle pastures.
Otto Brunfels2

Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem (Strassburg, 1532), p. 137, Violets.

Members of the Violacaea family, these attractive woodcuts of violets which Brunfels calls Violae Nigrae are specimens of two different types of violet. The upper one and the plant on the left are examples of sweet violets or Viola odorata L. which grow through Europe in woodland. Brunfels took the name Viola Nigra from Virgil’s reference in his Xth Eclogue line 120 to his shepherdess Amyntas, comparing her dark colouring to a dark violet or ‘viola nigra’. (Nieuewland and Kaczmarek, 1914). The fresh flowers are edible and were great favourites with the Romans who flavoured their wine with them. The violet on the lower right is the ‘Hairy violet’, a different species. Linnaeus, who gave it its current name of Viola hirta L., specifically refers to this woodcut of the plant as an example of Viola hirta in his Species Plantarum 1753.

Both species of violet are found in Ireland. Viola odorata, according to Webb (2012) is probably native but often a garden escape whereas Viola hirta, is rare, growing on sand dunes, grassland and limestone rocks in the southern part of the country. In the Christian symbolisism of medieval Europe and the Renaissance, violets symbolized the humility of the Virgin Mary in accepting the Archangel Gabriel’s annunciation message. Their dark blue black flowers can be seen scattered round the vase of lilies and iris in the foreground of the Portinari Altarpiece, a representation of the Nativity by Hugo van der Goes painted c 1475 now in the Uffizi in Florence (Fisher, 2011).

Otto Brunfels3

Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem (Strassburg, 1532), p. 217, Pasque flower.

Pulsatilla or Pasqueflower: The Pasque flower or Pulsatilla vulgaris L. is a member of the Ranunculaceae family. The genus Pulsatilla is composed of 38 species found in the Northern Hemisphere mostly in Europe and Asia with two species found in North America. Pulsatilla vulgaris is a beautiful European wildflower, which grows on chalky grassland, has single purple flowers with a yellow centre and silky finely divided leaves and silky stems. Grown as a garden plant by John Gerard who changed its name of ‘Passefloure’ from the French to ‘Pasque Flower’ because it flowers around Easter, it was also found wild in Britain by John Ray on the Gog Magog hills in Cambridgeshire in 1660 – not far from where Gerard described it growing in a pasture in Mr Fuller’s rectory in Hildersham, four miles from Cambridge. Gerard was not always a reliable source but perhaps this time he was right!

Brunfels nearly left this beautiful engraving by Weiditz out of his Herbarum Vivae eicones because the pasque flower was not of use to apothecaries and at that time had no Latin name. Plants such as these he called ‘herbae nudae’ or bare plants. Brunfels was correct to be cautious: fresh Pulsatilla is poisonous because of a glucoside called ranunculin and this compound, when broken down, yields a highly irritating compound Protoanamonin. The inclusion of flowers such as the pasque flower demonstrate that the real guiding force behind the Herbarum vivae eicones was its publisher, Johann Schott, who commissioned a gifted artist, Hans Weiditz, to produce accompanying woodcuts for Brunfels’ work. It is thanks to Weiditz that we have such naturalistic illustrations as the above pictures. Weiditz was undoubtedly influenced by the works of Hans Burgkmair and Albrecht Dürer. As Landau and Parshall (1994) have shown, Weiditz produced detailed watercolours from, in the main, living plants and it seems likely that these had been commissioned by the publisher as a guide for coloured copies of Brunfels’ text. Brunfels’ irritable remarks in his preface concerning his lack of control over the finished product clearly point to Schott’s role as the guiding light. The herbal’s title of ‘Images of living plants’ demonstrates that for Schott, what was important here were the illustrations. Producing so many woodcuts was a costly process but Schott had cunningly spotted that an illustrated edition of such a practical text could sell well. He was right – illustrated printed herbals found a ready market.

Otto Brunfels4

Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem (Strassburg, 1532), p. 38, Cinquefoil.

*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.

** The Worth Library does not advocate its use as a medicine.


Arber, Agnes (1953), Herbals: their origin and Evolution. A chapter in the History of botany 1470-1670 (Cambridge University Press).

European Medicines Agency Assessment report on Primula veris L and/or Primula elatior (L) Hill,flos 19th September 2012.

Fisher, C. (2011),  Flowers of the Renaissance. Frances Lincoln (London), pp 6, 7, 39,142-143.

Gerard, John (1633), The herball or Generall historie of plantes. Gathered by Iohn Gerarde of London Master in Chirurgerie very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Iohnson citizen and apothecarye of London (London), p. 385.

Hobhouse, P. (1992), Plants in Garden History (London: Pavilion Books).

Jarvis, C. (2007), Order out of Chaos Linnean Plant names and their Types.  The Linnaean Society of London in Association with the Natural History Museum (London).

Landau, David and Parshall, Peter (1994), The Renaissance Print. 1470-1550 (Yale University Press).

Linnaeus, C (1753) Species Plantarum (Stockholm) p. 934.

Mac Coitir, N. (2008), Irish Wild Plants Myths, Legends and Folklore (Cork: The Collins Press).

Nieuwland, J. A.  and Kaczmarek  R. M. (1914), ‘Studies in Viola. I.’ in American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 3, No. 8 (Feb., 1914), pp. 207-217.

Smith, J. (1996), ‘In search of the Pasque Flower’ in Bulletin: The Alpine Gardener, vol 64, pp. 380-381.

Smith, Pamela H. (2008), ‘Artisanal Knowledge in the Renaissance: Background, Interaction, Contradictions’ in The Art of Natural History: Illustrated Treatises and Botanical Paintings 1400-1850 edited by Therese O’Malley and Amy R. W. Meyers (Yale University Press), pp. 15-32.

Stannard, Jerry (1970), ‘Brunfels, Otto’, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie (New York), Vol II, pp. 535-538.

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


Facebooktwitterby feather