Medieval File Sharing. How a single manuscript became the most copied herbal in history.
13/07/02 /08:56 Category: Timeline
65–75 Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica written and published.
“Dioscorides Recommends the juice of the seeds for earache and for adding to a drink to aid abortion, the root for coughs and the leaves to eat and for wrapping cheese to preserve it. He also states that Arum is an aphrodisiac and will excite a vehement desire when drunk with wine. Dioscorides also states that rubbing the root, specifically, on one’s hands, will protect one from being bitten by snakes. He describes it as being suitable as a vegetable, with the leaves either being preserved in salt or boiled. The root was also edible, particularly when roasted with honey. Dioscorides also says that the leaves are good to eat and will preserve cheese if it is wrapped up in the leaves.”
Around the same time that Pliny produced the first volume of his great encyclopaedia, there occurred the third and probably most significant publication of this period. This was the creation of a herbal called De Materia Medica, written by a Greek soldier and army doctor known as Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarba. This single work was to have more influence on herbal literature than any other for the next two thousand years.
It was in Dioscorides’ great manuscript that the medical herbal found its foundation. Dioscorides had travelled and practised widely for many years in his career as a physician and soldier before setting down his experiences on parchment around 65 CE. Dioscorides incorporated material from a number of earlier authors such as Theophrastus, Crateus, Diocles and the Herbal of Sextus Niger. That said, this was not just a compendium of earlier herbals. Dioscorides’ five-volume work included the results of his own investigations, experience and observations and contains details of around 600 different plants, which is around 100 more than anyone else had previously described. He also presented a system of botanical classification which was essentially pharmacological, grouping the plants together according to their medical properties. This was so far ahead of its time that, in subsequent copies, scribes ignored Dioscorides’ ideas and reverted the manuscript to the traditional alphabetical order of listing the plants. So much for innovation.
The original manuscript of Dioscorides has long since disappeared. The earliest complete version to have survived is a manuscript from 512 CE known as the Juliana Codex or the Codex Vindobonensis. Few other books have such an illustrious history. It was produced as a gift by the local townspeople of Constantinople for Juliana Anicius in response to her construction of a local church. Juliana was the daughter of Flavius Anicius Olybrius, who was briefly the Roman Emperor of the Western Empire in 472 CE.
The manuscript is around a thousand pages in length and magnificently illustrated, with almost 400 full-page colour paintings opposite the plant descriptions. Already, the plants have been arranged alphabetically, ignoring Dioscorides’ original classification system. Extra material from other ancient authors has also been added, including a guide to over 40 Mediterranean birds - not what one would expect to find in a herbal and definitely not part of Dioscorides’ original text. Many of the illustrations though are thought to be copies of those found in the now extinct Rhizotomicon of Crateus.
Following its creation and presentation to Juliana Anicius, the manuscript then disappears from history. We don’t know who owned it or to what countries it travelled, yet a measure of how useful and valuable it was considered is that by the time it resurfaces, over a thousand years later in 1652, its parchment pages are teeming with handwritten notes and amendments in over 20 different languages including Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and French. It had clearly passed through a wide variety of privileged hands. Remarkably, rather than sitting forgotten on the dusty shelves of a library, this single individual book had been in constant use for over a thousand years.
This use would seem to have taken its toll. At the time the book resurfaces into written history, it is the property of a physician in Constantinople who received it from his father; the personal physician of Süleyman the Magnificent (after the city came under Turkish rule in 1453). The manuscript was described as being in such a bad state that ‘no one, if they saw it lying in the road, would even bother to pick it up’. These were the words of an ambassador of the Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, who wished to buy the manuscript but could not afford the 100 ducats being asked for it.
Such was the pull of this work though that by 1659, only 7 years later, the Emperor Maximilian II did buy it, to be held by the Austrian National Library in Vienna, where it has remained to this day. Though De Materia Medica was translated into a great many mainland European languages throughout the centuries, it was not until 1652-5 that a John Goodyear produced an English version, writing below the original Greek with a line-by-line English translation. The book took him 3 years to write and filled over 4000 pages, each one handwritten, yet strangely, it did not see the light of day until 1933, when it was finally published after being rediscovered in an Oxford library. Incredibly, this was the sole translation into English until a completely modern translation was published in 2000.
Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica was effectively the last word in herbal books for the next 15 centuries, dominating the contents of virtually all subsequent publications which mostly just copied directly from Dioscorides whilst adding some 'padding' of their own. It was the one source to which anyone aspiring to be, or working as, a herbalist would refer. In fact, despite that many of the medical recipes contained in it would not now be considered effective, it would be so slavishly copied, referenced and referred to that no real developments took place in the science of herbalism for the next 1500 years, because no one thought that anyone could do anything better. To question Dioscorides was unthinkable. To copy him, absolutely fine.
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