Rare Books Highlights: ISU’s oldest botany book

Text: Aemilius Macer De herbarum virtutibus iam primum emaculatior, tersiórque in lucem aeditus. Praeterea, Strabi Galli, poetae et theologi clarissimi, Hortulus uernãtissimus, Vterq; scholijs Ioãnis Atrociani illustratus. Basileae.

Title page of “Virtues of Plants”

Next in my new occasional series on ISU’s oldest book in a subject area, I am examining our oldest botany book. De herbarum virtutibus (Virtues of Herbs), by Aemilius Macer, is an early herbal, or book about plants that refers to their medicinal properties. Before the 16th century, botany did not exist as a branch of science apart from medicine. It wasn’t until three 16th-century German physicians published herbals whose illustrations and descriptions of plants was based on field work and not on the works of previous writers that the study of plants as a field unto itself began to emerge.

Our copy of the Virtues of Herbs was published in Basel in 1527, but it was actually written much earlier, during the 9th century. Charles Loomis Dana writes about it in his book Poetry and the Doctors: A Catalogue of Poetical Works Written by Physicians (1916). This is one of a group of popular medical works from the medieval period written in verse. According to Dana, the author Aemilius Macer, also called Macer Floridus or Odo, likely lived in France and based his work on the writings of Pliny and other classical writers. His materia medica was popular for a few centuries after it was initially written. He describes the work as written in “bad Latin hexameters” that define the characteristics of 88 plants.

Pocket-sized book held in a single hand.

Cover of Virtues of Herbs bound in calfskin leather that has been “mottled.”

The 1527 Basel edition is pocket-sized, perfect for field work, perfect for carrying for easy reference. And our copy is, indeed, much used. Some pages show stains, and there are underlinings and manuscripts notes in the margins throughout the text.

Book opened to a two-page spread.

Pages from Virtues of Herbs, showing marginalia (that has been trimmed in a rebinding), and stains.

It has likely been rebound–you can see that some of the marginalia has been trimmed–and the binding is mottled calf, a style popular from the 18th century on. The binding also has a stamp “Bound by Wood. London.” A quick internet search leads me to believe that this refers to the London bookbinding firm of Henry T. Wood, established 1875. This firm did some eye-catching 19th century bindings, although this early one is less ornate.

Gold-stamped into the inside front cover, “Bound by Wood. London.”

This work has no illustrations, but to give you a taste of the text, I will quote the English translation of the first entry in the work, given in Dana’s book:

De Artemisia

Herbarum varias dicturus carmine vires.” Being about to describe in song the various powers of plants I hold it just to put forth, first, that mother of all herbs to which the Greek gave the name Artemesia. For Diana, who is called Artemis in Greek, is said to have first discovered its power and thence the herb takes its name. It is especially healing in the sickness of women. A decoction of it drank brings on the menses. The root does this also if prepared in the same way, or if the crude parts steeped in wine are drunk. (xii)

First page of the text of “Virtues of Herbs” showing the entry for “Artemisia.”

ISU’s oldest botany book:

Aemilius Macer. De herbarum virtutibus iam primum emaculatior, tersiórque in lucem aeditus. Basel: Ioannem Fabrum Emmeum, 1537. (Call number: QK99 M156d)

Also cited:

Dana, Charles Loomis. Poetry and the Doctors: A Catalogue of Poetical Works Written by Physicians. Woodstock, Vermont: Elm tree Press, 1916.

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