05 April 2017
An illustrated Old English Herbal
Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.
Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v
This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.
A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r
Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes.
‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r
Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.
‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v
A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r
Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.
A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v
However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.
Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v
Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.
Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte. Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.
Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.
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