200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 176: “Words and Plants ”

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Fuchs botanical open to a page on succulents
De historia stirpium commentarii insignes by Leonhart Fuchs. Academy Library & Archives, QK41.F91

Words and Plants

In the Middle Ages, books were handwritten works of art. They were carefully transcribed, often by monks and priests in religious orders, who saw the works as prayer and thanksgiving. Often these works had touches of gold, silver, or small drawings incorporated into the letters. The use of the gold and silver appeared as a light to the reader, so these works were called “illuminated manuscripts.”

With the invention of the printing press in the latter part of the fifteenth century, books became more commonplace. Only books considered extremely important continued to have pages of text that were highly decorated, colored, or illuminated. Consisting of approximately 115 woodcuts of plants, De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, or “Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants,” (1542) by Leonhart Fuchs was such a book. Known as “herbals,” books like this one provided information on the medicinal properties of plants. The drawings set forth a standard for botanical illustration that remains in place today and also introduced the world to more than 100 species. Fuchs also introduced 12 plants from the New World, including maize, kidney bean, chili pepper, cactus, and tobacco.

Fuchs provided commentary, detailing genus and species, additional characteristics, and optimal climate. Each plant illustration shows the name in Latin, German, and sometimes French. The book was considered valuable in its time. Today it is relatively rare, with only a few copies still in existence in libraries’ rare book collections. A copy sold in 1997 for $17,000, and, in 1999, Stanford University Press published a facsimile edition.

When the Academy Library brought this book out to display during a tour by botany students, staff discovered that the first letter of the first word in the description of each plant, and occasionally additional words in the text, have slight touches of gold leaf. The Academy Library has its own illuminated manuscript!

Stop in to see the Library weekdays at 3:15 pm for our daily page turning of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.

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