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Sixteenth Century

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Sixteenth Century Herbals

‘Not a hundredth part of the herbs existing in the whole world was described by Dioscorides, not a hundredth part by Theophrastus or by Pliny, but we add more every day and the art of medicine advances’.

Antonio Musa Brasavola, Examen Omnium Simplicium (1536), cited in Morton (1981), p. 118.

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Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Opera quæ extant omnia : hoc est, Commentarij in VI. libros Pedacij Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica materia (Basle, 1598), title page detail.

The sixteenth century witnessed the rise of the illustrated herbal. The first three decades had witnessed the rediscovery (and re-invention) of ancient texts, most notably the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, which continued to find avid readers throughout the century due to  the commentaries on it by the Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli. The next three decades, 1530-1560 saw northern European scholars (invariably physicians) such as Otto Brunfels, Leonhard Fuchs, Adam Lonicer and Konrad Gesner, extend the boundaries of Dioscorides’ work by applying themselves to an investigation of plants native to their own areas. By the end of the sixteenth century and leading into the seventeenth, a triumvirate of Dutch writers on botany, Matthias de L’Obel, Rembert Dodoens and Carolus Clusius were seeking to redefine the role of botany as a subject in its own right, gradually distancing botany from medicine but focusing on plants as a study in itself, rather than a means to a medical end.

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Jacques Dalechamps, Histoire generale des plantes (Lyon, 1615), vol. 1, p. 84.

Worth’s collection of sixteenth-century authors of herbals is extensive. Only two of his texts are coloured: Lonicer’s Naturalis historiae opus novum (Frankfurt, 1551) and Jacques Daléchamps’ Histoire generale des plantes (Lyon, 1615). As Schmitt suggests (1971), Daléchamps (1513-1588) was a ‘medical humanist’, something he had in common with nearly all the writers on botany in this section. He had studied at Montpellier in the middle of the sixteenth century and, like Clusius and L’Obel had been taught there by Guillaume Rondelet. The Histoire generale des plantes was a massive work, ‘the most complete botanical compilation of its time’ and in this it reflected the drive towards encyclopedism which would be such a feature of seventeenth-century botany also.

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Jacques Dalechamps, Histoire generale des plantes (Lyon, 1615), vol 2, p. 375.


Elliott, Brent (2011), ‘The world of the Renaissance herbal’, in Renaissance Studies vol 25 no 1, pp. 24-41.

Morton, A. G. (1981), History of Botanical Science (Academic Press: London, New York).

Ogilvie, Brian W. (2006), The Science of Describing (University of Chicago Press).

Schmitt, Charles B. (1971), ‘Daléchamps, Jacques’, in Charles Coulston Gillispie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York), vol III, pp. 533-4.

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