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Treasures of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library: Scientific works

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Hortus Sanitatis
Mainz : Jacob Meydenbach, 1491
Hortus Sanitatis. Click to enlarge.

The Hortus, or Ortus, Sanitatis, the Garden of Health, is a rich compendium of information and misinformation which combines elements of natural history with those of the herbal.To some extent it is a translation of an earlier Latin work but it gives more information as to the medicinal qualities of the plants included and it contained new, long., sections on animals, fish, birds and minerals.

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 world of fable extends to the botanical area. Included for example the "Bausor Tree" which was believed , like the Upas Tree, to give forth a narcotic poison - in the accompanying woodcut two men are shown beneath it, deep in the sleep of death. Another plant to appear was the mandrake.

The rich variety of the woodcuts makes this a very attractive book. The engraver was a skilled craftsman, but there is some botanical retrogression, since he did not always fully understand the plants he was copying from previous cuts. Full page illustrations introduce each section. One of the things to look for is the representation of qualities by symbols e.g. "Bread" is illustrated by a housewife with her loaves; "wine" by a man gazing at a glass: "water" represented by a fountain.

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