Behold a 15th-Century Italian Manuscript Featuring Medicinal Plants with Fantastical Human Faces

No mat­ter where you may stand on herbal med­i­cine as a viable 21st-cen­tu­ry option, it’s not hard to imag­ine we’d have all been true believ­ers back in the 15th-cen­tu­ry.

In an arti­cle for Heart Views, car­di­ol­o­gist Rachel Hajar lists some com­mon herbal treat­ments of the Mid­dle Ages:

Headache and aching joints were treat­ed with sweet-smelling herbs such as rose, laven­der, sage, and hay. A mix­ture of hen­bane and hem­lock was applied to aching joints. Corian­der was used to reduce fever. Stom­ach pains and sick­ness were treat­ed with worm­wood, mint, and balm. Lung prob­lems were treat­ed with a med­i­cine made of liquorice and com­frey. Cough syrups and drinks were pre­scribed for chest and head-colds and coughs.

If noth­ing else, such approach­es sound rather more pleas­ant than blood­let­ting.

Monks were respon­si­ble for the study and cul­ti­va­tion of med­i­c­i­nal herbs.

You may recall how one of Fri­ar Lawrence’s dai­ly tasks in Romeo and Juli­et involved ven­tur­ing into the monastery gar­den, to fill his bas­ket full “bale­ful weeds and pre­cious-juicèd flow­ers.”

(The pow­er­ful sleep­ing potion he con­coct­ed for the young lovers may have had dis­as­trous con­se­quences, but no one can claim it wasn’t effec­tive.)

Monks pre­served their herbal knowl­edge in illus­trat­ed books and man­u­scripts, many of which cleaved close­ly to works of clas­si­cal antiq­ui­ty such as Pliny the Elder’s Nat­u­ralis His­to­ria and Dioscordes’ De Mate­ria Med­ica.

These ear­ly med­ical texts can still be appre­ci­at­ed as art, par­tic­u­lar­ly when they con­tain fan­tas­ti­cal embell­ish­ments such as can be seen in Erbario, above, a hand­made 15th-cen­tu­ry herbal from north­ern Italy that was recent­ly added to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia Library’s col­lec­tion of rare books and man­u­scripts.

In addi­tion to straight­for­ward botan­i­cal illus­tra­tions, there are some roots, leaves, flow­ers and fruit (par­don the pro­noun) of a decid­ed­ly anthro­po­mor­phic bent.

Fan­cy­ing up draw­ings of plants with human faces and or drag­on-shaped roots was a medieval con­ven­tion.

Man­drake roots —  pre­scribed as an anes­thet­ic, an aphro­disi­ac, a fer­til­i­ty boost­er, and a sleep aid — were fre­quent­ly ren­dered as humans.

Wired’s Matt Simon writes that man­drake roots “can look bizarrely like a human body and leg­end holds that it can even come in male and female form:”

It’s said to spring from the drip­ping fat and blood and semen of a hanged man. Dare pull it the from the earth and it lets out a mon­strous scream, bestow­ing agony and death to all those with­in earshot.

Yikes! Can we get a spoon­ful of sug­ar to help that go down?

No won­der Juli­et, prepar­ing to quaff Fri­ar Lawrence’s sleep­ing potion in the fam­i­ly tomb, fret­ted that it might wear off pre­ma­ture­ly, leav­ing her sub­ject to “loath­some smells” and “shrieks like man­drakes torn out of the earth.”

Methinks some chamomile might have calmed those nerves…

View a dig­i­tized copy of Erbario here, or at the Pub­lic Domain Review.


via the Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent 

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

A Beau­ti­ful 1897 Illus­trat­ed Book Shows How Flow­ers Become Art Nou­veau Designs

The New Herbal: A Mas­ter­piece of Renais­sance Botan­i­cal Illus­tra­tions Gets Repub­lished in a Beau­ti­ful 900-Page Book by Taschen

A Curi­ous Herbal: 500 Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Med­i­c­i­nal Plants Drawn by Eliz­a­beth Black­well in 1737 (to Save Her Fam­i­ly from Finan­cial Ruin)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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