‘Above all else consult the Herbarium of Dioscorides, who described and illustrated the herbs of the fields with amazing exactness.’*
Cassiodorus (6th century), cited in Stannard (1966).
Dioscorides, De medicinali materia libri sex I. Ruellio … interprete… (Frankfurt, 1549), p. 1, Iris.
‘Iris [Somme call it Iris Illyrica, somme Thelpida, somme Urania, somme Catharon, somme Thaumastos, the Romanes call it Radix Marica, somme Gladiolus, somme Opertritis, somme Consecratrix, the Egyptians call it Nar] is soe named from the resemblance of the rainbow in heaven, but it beares leaves like unto a little sword but greater & broader & fatter [or thicker]: the flowers on the stalke are bended in, one ouer against another, & diuers, for they are either soon which or pale or black or purple or azure. Whence for the varietie of colours it is likened to the heauenly rainebow. The rootes under are knotty, strong [or sound], of a sweet savour, which after the cutting ought to be dryed in the shade, & soe (with a linen thread put through them) to be layd up. But ye best is that of Illyria & Macedonia, & of these the best is that which hath a thick roote, stumped, & hard to breake, & in color of a faint yellow, & exceeding well-scenting, & very bitter to the tast, of a sound smell, & not enclining to nastinesse, & moving to sneesing in ye beating. The second is that of Lybia, [or Africa] white according to the colour, bitter according to the tast, next in strength (to the former), but when they grow old they will be worm-eaten, yet then they smell the sweeter. But all of them haue a warming, extenuating facultie, fitting against coughs, & extenuating grosse humors hard to get up. They purge thick humors & choler, being dranck in Hyromel to the quantity of seven dragms they are also causers of sleep & prouokers of tears & heale the torments of ye belly. But dranck with vinegar they help such are bitten by venomous beasts….’**
John Goodyer’s 1655 English translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides is ample proof of the enduring appeal of this, the most famous of all ancient herbals. Dioscorides’ work provided the template for nearly all future herbals. In the words of the writer of one of the best known (and last) of the herbals, Thomas Johnson, in his preface to John Gerard’s Herbal, Dioscorides ‘treats of each kinde of herbe in particular, first giuing the names, then the description, and then the place where they vsually grow, and lastly their vertues.’ This practical approach ensured the survival of the text in manuscript form throughout the Middle Ages and, with the advent of print, the Materia Medica became a printing sensation.
Dioscorides, Opera quae extant omnia ex nova interpretatione Iani-Antonii Saraceni (Frankfurt, 1598), portrait of Dioscorides.
We know very little about Dioscorides himself. His statement that he had ‘led a soldier’s life’ has sometimes been taken to mean that he was an army physician, while his references to Areius and Laecanius Bassus (a consul during Nero’s reign), point to operations in the near east in the first century AD – hence Dioscorides’ dates are usually given as fl. 50-70 AD. Tradition suggests that he was born in Anazarbos in Cilicia – and beyond this has little to add to Dioscorides’ biography. But if we know little of the man, the same is decidedly not true of his De Materia Medica. Stannard (1966) gives the contents of the five books of De Materia Medica as follows:
Book I (129 chapters) aromatic substances, oils of vegetable origin and fruits.
Book II (186 chapters) drugs of animal origin, cereals, and herbs of bitter and acid taste.
Book III (158 chapters) herbs and roots.
Book IV (192) herbs and roots.
Book V (162 chapters) wines and drugs of mineral origin.
Certainly Dioscorides’ knowledge of plants was Mediterranean-based and was the result not only of his own researches but also combined observations from others. Writing in his preface Dioscorides explains that his researches were the result of ‘knowing most herbs with my own eyes, others by historical relation agreeable to all and by questioning [and] diligently enquiring of the inhabitants of each sort.’ (Morton, 1981). Dioscorides’ focus, primarily on the Mediterranean litoral, especially attracted Italian botanists to the text. However, as Reeds (2006) points out, sixteenth-century botanists at Italian universities quickly went beyond him in their studies. Inspired by Dioscorides’ emphasis on personal experience, scholars such as Ulisse Androvandi at the University of Bologna and Antonio Musa Brasavola at Ferrara included their own observations in their lectures on De Materia Medica and in this they were followed by their French and German colleagues, men such as Leonard Fuchs, who taught at the University of Tübingen, and Guillaume Rondelet at the University of Montpellier.
Worth collected a number of editions of Dioscorides’ work, among them the first edition published at Venice in 1499. Keen to restore the ancient text of Dioscorides, Renaissance commentators focused initially on identifying the plants he had described but they soon realised that the text presented them with significant problems. As Goodyer’s translation reminds us, one of the chief problems facing any early modern botantist was the problem of nomenclature. This was a problem which Dioscorides himself had faced, as he made clear in the short preface to the work which was dedicated to his friend Areius. Another problem was that of scope for Dioscorides often omitted very well known herbs, such as sage and rosemary or trees such as ash and oak, simply because they were so well known as not to require a full description. Once these problems had been surmounted, commentators in Early Modern Europe were faced with a third realization: that Dioscorides’ book of its time and place (i.e. first century AD around the Mediterranean litoral) and so could offer little to botanists in parts of Europe to which Dioscorides had had no access. Even more seriously, the avalanche of plants becoming known from exploration of the New World and the East, presented sixteenth and seventeenth century botanists with a different order of challenge.
Dioscorides, Opera quae extant omnia ex nova interpretatione Iani-Antonii Saraceni (Frankfurt, 1598), portrait of Sarazin.
Throughout the sixteenth century numerous editions of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica appeared – Stannard (1966) states that 78 editions appeared in the sixteenth century. Worth collected three of these: the editio princeps, published by Aldus Manutius at Venice in 1499; a 1549 edition, published at Frankfurt by Christoph Egenolph, which incorporated notes by Jean Ruel (1474-1537), Euricius (1484-1535) and Valerius Cordus (1515-1544) and Konrad Gesner (1516-1565); and a 1598 edition by Jean Antoine Sarrasin (1547-1598), which had been published at Frankfurt by the Wechel press. As Elliott states (2011), it was the Wechel edition which became the standard edition. Its editor, Jean Antoine Sarrasin was a French physician, born in Lyons in 1547. Like many other Calvinists at the time, his family had been forced to flee to Geneva and it was there that he started his medical education before journeying, as so many others had done, to the University of Montpellier. On his return to Geneva he had been appointed to a chair of medicine there. Worth had two editions of De Materia Medica dating from 1598, Sarrasin’s and a 1598 Basle edition which had been prepared by the Sienese physician, Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-77), the most renowned commentator on Dioscorides in sixteenth-century Europe.
Dioscorides, De medicinali materia libri sex I. Ruellio … interprete… (Frankfurt, 1549), p. 116, detail.
*The complete quotation is as follows: ‘If you cannot read Greek easily, above all else consult the Herbarium of Dioscorides, who described and illustrated the herbs of the fields with amazing exactness.’ (Stannard, 1966, p. 4). This quotation is attributed to Cassiodorus. Dioscorides had of course written his text in Greek – what Cassiodorus was referring to here were the Latin translations that had been made available by the sixth century AD.
**All treatments and remedies mentioned on this page refer to ancient and early modern remedies and should not be attempted.
** Gunther, Robert T. (1959), The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. Illustrated by a Byzantine AD 512, Englished by John Goodyer AD 1655 and Edited and First Printed AD 1933 by Robert T. Gunther (Hafner Publishing Co.: New York), pp 5-6.
*** Morton, A. G. (1981), History of Botanical Science (London and New York), p. 67.
Elliott, Brent (2011), ‘The World of the Renaissance Herbal’, in Renaissance Studies vol 25, no1, pp 24-41.
Gunther, Robert T. (1959), The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. Illustrated by a Byzantine AD 512, Englished by John Goodyer AD 1655 and Edited and First Printed AD 1933 by Robert T. Gunther (Hafner Publishing Co.: New York), pp 5-6.
Hoefer (1969), ‘Sarrasin, Jean-Antoine’ in Nouvelle Biographie Générale (Copenhagen), vol XLIII-XLIV, p. 342.
Riddle, John M. (1971), ‘Dioscorides, also known as Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus’, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie (New York), vol IV, pp. 119-123.
Stannard, Jerry (1966), ‘Dioscorides and Renaissance Materia Medica’ in Herbs and Herbalism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance edited by Katherine E. Stannard and Richard Kay (Ashgate Variorum, Aldershot), no. IX, pp. 1-21.by