• Hortus Sanitatis

    Hortus sanitatis. De herbis et plantis. De animalibus et reptilibus. De Avibus et volatilibus. De piscibus et natatilibus. De lapidibus et in terre venis nascentibus. De urinis et ear[um] speciebus. Tabulae medicinalis cum directorio generali per omnes tractatus. 

    The Hortus sanitatis, the most popular and influential herbal of its time, and served as an encyclopaedia of the plant, animal, and mineral kingdoms and the medical applications of their products. 

    The Hortus Sanitatis or the Ortus Sanitatis :The Origin of Health), is in the tradition of the medieval herbals. It is partly based on Der Gart der Gesundheit (Garden of Health), which was attributed to Johann von Cube, and was originally printed in 1485. in Mainz by Peter Schoeffer.

    However, it should be regarded as a separate work as it covered nearly a hundred more medicinal plants than the Gart der Gesundheit and also included extensive sections on animals, birds, fish and minerals, as well as a treatise on urine.

    The authorship of this lavishly illustrated herbal is unknown but it is generally believed to have been compiled by its printer, Jacob Meydenbach. It was first printed in 1491 in Mainz and is therefore the last major medical work to cover medicines from the Old World only. The text is a compilation of earlier sources, such as Galen, Albertus Magnus and Dioscorides and is lavishly illustrated. Most of the 1,066 chapters of the first edition are headed by a woodcut and there were also several full page woodcuts. Many of the woodcuts in Meydenbach's edition were based on illustrations from editons of Gart der Gesundheit. However, Meydenbach had to provide several hundred additional illustrations for plants not included in Gart der Gesundheit and also for the sections on animals, birds, fish and minerals. 

    When compairing a 1491, edition of Hortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach in Mainz: to the 1497 Hortus Sanitatis.published in Strasbourg by Johann Prüss the two editions it is clear that many of the woodcuts in the edition of Prüss are based on those of the earlier Meydenbach edition, with some changes made to clothing to reflect local fashion. Prüss produced three editions of Hortus Sanitatis, which were printed more economically than Meydenbach's edition using a smaller typeface and 55 lines to the column. 

    Although it purported to have a serious medical purpose and many of the flowers or roots included retain a use today, many of the entries are fantastical in nature. For example, it states anyone that eats of the fruit of the "Tree of Paradise" will never suffer sickness or tiredness again. Furthermore, while some of the illustrations of the plants are accurate many others are unreliable and are of little practical use to a reader trying to identify a particular medicinal herb. One useful feature ofthe Hortus Sanitatis is its comprehensive index. Ailments and diseases could be looked up in this index and cures for them were listed by chapter and line and letters in the index correspond with letters in the margins of the text. 

    The animal section is particularly interesting with woodcuts and discussions of all manner of mythical as well as real animals including merpeople, unicorns, basilisks and monkfish and dogfish which are portrayed respectively as having the real heads of monks and dogs. Although ostensibly medical in purpose, the book also features many of the standard medieval bestiary accounts including the story of the phoenix, of how bear cubs were born formless and licked into shape by their parents, and how the pelican pricks its breast to feed its young with its own blood The qualities of each creature are given in vivid detail.

    The qualities of stones and minerals are also very detailed. The lodestone could help bring back an errant spouse and could also help detect infidelity. If placed under a pilllow an errant wife would be given nightmares so severe that she would leap from her bed in terror but a faithful wife would sleep well. Sailors should beware of lodestone, however, as it was known to cause shipwrecks by drawing nails and other iron parts of a ship towards itself 

    Hortus Sanitatis was a popular book and went through a number of editions during the late 15th century and the first half of the 16th century. It was translated, in its entirety or in part, into French, English, German and Dutch. A number of abridged versions were also produced. These often only contained the sections on animals and stones, as these were the most popular with the non medical public. One notable abridgement is The Noble Lyfe and Natures of Man, translated by Lawrence Andrews from an earlier abridged Dutch version, and printed by him around 1521. Only two copies of this version survive. 

    The last complete edition of the Hortus Sanitatis was printed in Frankfurt by Herman Gulfferich in 1552. By this time a new more scientific approach to botany was arising throughout Europe, which meant that books such as Hortus Sanitatis were being superceded.


    Article by Hugh Cahill, Senior Information Assistant, Foyle Special Collections Library at Kings College London, And information from various Antiquarian book catalogues.