Collecting Nature: Discover the Hortus Sanitatus on History Day

04th November 2021

Collecting Nature: Discover the Hortus Sanitatus on History Day

Happy History Day! Mount Stuart is delighted to join over 50 libraries, archives, museums & history organisations across the UK and beyond to celebrate History Day 2021.

History Day is an annual free online event for students, researchers and history enthusiasts to explore treasured collections around the globe, organised by the Institute of Historical Research and Senate House Library. To celebrate this year's environmental history theme, we are taking a look at one curious book from the Libraries of the Bute Collection at Mount Stuart - read on to discover the Hortus Sanitatus.

The Hortus Sanitatus is an early natural history encyclopedia, which readers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries consulted for guidance on curative remedies that could be found in the natural world and environment around them. Printed in Latin, the book's full title is: Ortus sanitatis de herbis et plantis. De animalibus et reptilibus. De Avibus et volatilibus. De piscibus et natatilibus. De lapidibus et in terre venis nascentibus. Urinis et earum speciebus.

Translated out of Latin, we also know the Hortus Sanitatus as 'The Garden of Health'.

The Hortus Sanitatus is also categorised as a 'herbal', and it sits within the collection of botanical books in the Libraries at Mount Stuart which includes the 3rd Earl of Bute's Botanical Tables and florilegia collected by 2nd Earl and 3rd Marquess of Bute. Herbals are books describing the medicinal (and sometimes magical) powers of plants and the folklore behind their properties.

The Bute copy of the Hortus Sanitatus was printed in 1517 in Strasbourg by Reinhard Beck, though it was not the first edition of this text. The first edition was printed on 23rd June 1491 by Jacob Meydenbach in the city which sparked the Western print revolution: Mainz, Germany. The first edition is classed as incunabula - books printed before 1501 - and followed Peter Schöffer and Johannes de Cuba's herbals, the 1484 Herbarius moguntinus and 1485 Gart der Gesundheit (printed in Latin and German respectively).

However, the publication of the 1491 Latin edition of the Hortus Sanitatus saw the inclusion of not just the remedies of plants as the Herbarius moguntinus and Gart der Gesundheit provided, but it included animals, birds, fish and minerals too. Many of the cures which the book suggests are familiar to us today, from Papaver (poppies) to Palma christi or Ricinus communis (castor oil plant). However, some recommendations are more fantastical than others.

The Mandragora - also known as mandrake - is depicted in an evocative woodcut too. Many today may recognise them from a memorable scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets featuring their deathly cries, but historically, the potent narcotic properties of mandrake roots were employed to induce unconsciousness and (in lower quantities) as pain relief. Its pronged root resembled a human, which is why if pulled from the ground it would scream as a deadly defence mechanism. To enable the plant collector and reader to harvest the mandrake, the text suggests the use of a dog on a lead to pull the root up while the collector protects their ears (and life) from its screams.

Interestingly, the unknown author of the Hortus Sanitatus does not confine themselves to looking at just real animals such as goats, spiders and lions. The text also explores mythical creatures and their medicinal benefits, such as the phoenix, zitiron, harpy and pegasus (the latter pictured in the above woodcut).

Woodcuts are the product of relief printing, where a design is carefully carved into a block of wood by a craftsman, and the flat uncarved surface is covered with ink, which becomes a print when the ink comes into contact with paper. Woodcuts and the paper used to create the Hortus Sanitatus were the most expensive parts of the book to produce, which is why the woodcuts here were reused in other publications of the era.

Books were and continue to be vital vessels of information, and the fascinating Hortus Sanitatus shows us how human knowledge about the natural world and environment was organised, understood and spread in the Renaissance.

Learn more about fascinating history collections across the UK and beyond by delving into the History Day Discovering Collections Gallery.