From Plant Press Vol. 17 no. 1, January 2014.
The Tractatus de Herbis (Treatise on Medicinal Plants) is a manual of materia medica compiled during the 13th century. It describes the plants that were used for therapeutic purposes together with their medicinal uses. Text would often accompany the color illustrations of the plants. Users of this manual, however, eventually stopped reproducing text and illustrations together and started producing copies of the illustrations only. The manuscript Sloane 4016 made around 1440 in Italy is one such edition. It has recently been reproduced in a limited edition facsimile replica of 987 copies by the Spanish publishing house Moleiro Editorial. This limited edition is joined by a full-color commentary volume of study (512 pp.) by Alain Touwaide, Research Associate of the Department of Botany and Scientific Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions.
The major question posed by the commentary volume is why Tractatus de Herbis researchers abandoned writing text. The captions of the illustrations provided the names of the plants in the different languages used in the 15th century, all written with the Latin alphabet. The illustrations hint at the function of the botanical album as an international work that could be used by all the different linguistic groups, whereas the text of the Tractatus could be used only by those who understood Latin. In this view, the development of the botanical album is an unsuspected very modern phenomenon that sheds a completely new light on the history of botanical illustration and highlights a process of internationalization and, at the same time, of linguistic specialization coupled with a principle of economy that had not been uncovered so far.
Such is the Tractatus de Herbis, codex Sloane 4016 – a book without narrative text, containing only captions, so that it could be used by all readers. It was a book connecting the populations of the Middle Ages thanks to its visual nature, a book that was based on image. This was a manuscript that allowed for transcending differences, in short, a book that shows us that the Middle Ages were not an obscure era, but one perfectly capable of mastering visual communication within a modern framework.
A selection of 18 pages from the Tractatus de Herbis is available on the Moleiro website <http://www.moleiro.com/en/books-of-medicine/tractatus-de-herbis.html>.
The Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History holds the Smithsonian’s collection of rare books in the natural sciences. This library has acquired this publication and it is available to view by appointment.