1542. Fuchs and The Most Beautiful Herbal Ever Written.


The Most Beautiful Herbal Ever Written.
Introducing Leonard Fuchs' herbal of 1542; the Historia Stirpum. In this magnificent and ground-breaking book, Fuchs produced what was clearly a labour of love in the form of the most beautifully and accurately illustrated herbal ever produced.

What made his herbal so outstanding was that each picture in his herbal was from an original woodcut based on the actual living plant. While today we would not expect illustrations to be based on anything else, in Fuchs’ time, this represented an incredibly unique effort and a marked break with tradition. Such was indeed his intention. In not allowing his craftsmen to ‘indulge their whims’, he desired to produce a book which would genuinely help people to identify the plants described. In many ways, his success in this is notable in that this was primarily a picture guide book to plants. The descriptions of the herbs and their uses was still based largely on classical sources,particularly Dioscorides, but annotated where possible with Fuchs’ own knowledge, though in practice this meant plants which grew near to where he lived in Germany.

Nevertheless, Fuchs’ book was a game changer. No one now could realistically produce books which did not properly illustrate the plants they were describing; at least not if they wished to be taken seriously. Renaissance botany would rest upon this work as its reference point. In practice, sadly, this meant that many subsequent books would simply copy Fuchs’ prints and reproduce them in their own pages. Even that though was an improvement to the dire state botanical illustration had sunk to for the last thousand years. Even more unusually, Fuchs actually gave credit to the artists involved in illustrating the work. Given that the absolute norm was to copy and copy and copy, this was so radical one wonders how it was perceived at the time. Fuchs must have been supremely confident in his belief in the value of his new herbal to have so clearly emphasised its contemporary nature, rather than relying on ‘ancient authority’ as was the more typical fashion.

Of Arum, Fuch says:
“Later physicians tell us the aron has the property of dispersing, reducing, and cleansing; therefore it heals swellings of the ears, piles, strumas and hard tumors, removes deformities of the face and skin. Lastly, they write that its root, reduced to a powder, diminishes the overgrowth of flesh in wounds. The very extreme bitterness to the taste that it asserts emphatically demonstrates that it can excel in this. Dioscorides too wrote that arisaron had considerable bitterness and so, rubbed on, reduced corroding sores and that a salve, very efficacious against ulcers, was made from it. He also says that its root, applied to the private parts of any animal, damages them. Pliny too has written that arisaron heals running sores, burns, and fistulas. He also says that mixed in an ointment, it curres running sores.”

For a great description of Fuchs’ book and work, take a jump to the
Glasgow University Library write up of Leonard Fuchs


1256: Albertus Magnus writes De Vegetabilis


Less a herbal than an original work of early botanical science. He does mention Arum in his manuscript, stating that it gives protection against all kinds of serpents. “Arum maculatum basilicas 'is a plant, which dracontea' or serpentaria said, having Ionga leaves, and in the midst of a broad, but fastened to the utraraque extreraitatem. But it is in the flower of the saffron, and he does many things in the seed grains, as a cluster, and they are its first green, red, and afterwards, when they are ripe. Now the first in the pods, it bringeth forth, which is like the latter part of the serpent, as at the end of the tail of the serpent, and has a variety of his own in a tree trunk of the serpent. And the serpent 's bite has power against the juice thereof, and also it is said that they must be carried safe from all the serpents.

The site ‘famous-mathematicians.com’ describes him thus: “He wrote more than seventy books and papers and if combined his written work add up to twenty two thousand five hundred pages...He not only taught theology but also lectured on mathematics, logic, economics, rhetoric, ethics, zoology, chemistry, mineralogy, phrenology, politics, metaphysics and many other divisions of science. He also did some work in astronomy, realising that the Milky Way consisted of stars. He also worked in the fields of geology and botany doing a substantial amount of work in both. His written works includes ‘
Physica’, ‘Summa theologiae’ and ‘De Natura Locorum

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1250. How a family in Wales were taught healing by a fairy woman and passed their skills on for 400 years. The Physicians of Myddfai.


As well as the Leechbook, the other healing tradition of which we have written record is that of a magical healing family from Wales. The Physicians of Myddfai were a family of healers and physicians from the parish of Myddfai in Carmarthenshire in Wales. They were said to have descended from three sons whose mother was one of the fairy folk to whom their father was married until she returned to her lake.

In 1897, a John Pugh published a translation of a transcript of an interview which took place in 1743 with a John Jones; the last surviving member of this family line. The resulting translation was called
The Physicians of Myddvai.

The Fairy Wife.

The beginning of the family's story, in brief, has its origins with the sole son of a poor widow, who meets a fairy woman coming out of a lake in the mountains, where he is tending his cattle. With his mother's help, he wins her hand in marriage and they have three sons. The marriage is destined to last only until he has 'struck her three times'. After the third strike, she leaves him and returns to the lake. However, she does come back on occasion to visit her children. Upon the eldest, she bestows her healing skills and knowledge.

Royal Approval.

The eldest Son was called Rhiwallon and his sons became Physicians to Rhys Gryg, Lord of Llandovery and Dynevor Castles, who gave them rank, lands, and privileges at Myddvai for their maintenance in the practice of their art and science, and the healing and benefit of those who should seek their help, thus affording to those who could not afford to pay, the best medical advice and treatment, gratuitously. Such a truly Royal Foundation could not fail to produce corresponding effects. So the fame of the Physicians of Myddvai was soon established over the whole country, and continued for centuries among their descendants.

The Welsh Healers.

The family practised their fairy-derived healing skills from at least the 13th century until the mid 1700's. The last practising descendent was John Jones, a respected surgeon, who died aged only 44 in 1789. He and his family's gravestones can still be seen in the parish churchyard today. This line of healers represents a distinct and separate and equally ancient healing tradition of these lands. It contains, like the Leechbook, a mixture of herbal cures and deep superstitions as well as strange rituals of cure.


Arum is mentioned in the recipes of The Physicians of Myddfai. As in the Leechbook it records its use for dissolving growths and blockages in the body by boiling the root in wine and drinking the decoction over three days.

"Take the root of the dragons, cut them small, dry and make into a powder, take nine pennyweights of this powder, boil in wine well and give it to the patient to drink, warm, for three days fasting, and it will cure him; and I warrant him he will never have it again."

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400 CE. The Anonymous Herbal Written by a Roman African and Copied by Hand for Over 1000 years.


The Singularity of the Printing Press.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, herbal manuscripts were reproduced by being copied, written, drawn and bound by an individual's hand. There were rare, expensive and valuable items; each one at least a little bit, unique.

The printing press changed all of this. It was a new industry, creating a new world and ushering in new possibilities. In every field of endeavour the relative ease of printing meant that existing manuscripts along with bright-new works could suddenly be mass produced, expanding the accessibility to knowledge to more and more people. The new masters of the art: the printmakers, were quick to realise its potential.

The Incunabula Books.

The first herbals produced with this new technology were often simply printed reproductions of works which had already been in existence in manuscript form for hundreds of years. They are known collectively as the ‘Incunabula Herbals’, incunabula meaning ‘wrapped in swaddling clothes’, and so rather lovingly referring to works produced in the first 50 years of the printing press: the newborn books.

The Herbarium of Apuleius Platonicus.

One of the first herbals of these 'new born' books to be given the 'mass-production' treatment was a small volume known as the Herbarium of Apuleius Platonicus.

This was effectively a popular 'everyman's' version of Dioscorides' master tome. The original author is unknown, the name 'Apuleius Platonicus' being only a pseudonym, though some evidence points to the author being a writer from (what is now) Algeria, in Roman Africa called Lucius Apuleius. The herbal does also contain a number of herbs found in Northern Africa, but no one really knows for sure.

Copied by Hand for over 1000 years.

The content of the early hand written manuscript was drawn (ie copied) primarily from Dioscorides and Pliny and so popular was this herbal that, if it did indeed first appear in the 5th century, and was first printed in the 15th century, then it would have been in continual production, through being copied by hand, for over 1000 years by the time it was first printed.

It was one of the first, if not the first, translations of the Mediterranean herbal tradition into English and was around at the time of the Leechbook we have already looked at. When printed in the 15th century, it also became one of the first illustrated printed herbals, though the illustrations, being copies of copies of copies, were more 'artistic' than 'botanical'.

A copy of an English translation exists today in the British Library. It of course mentions Arum, as Dracunculus, giving much the same information as Dioscorides.

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