By Cassandra Contreras
The 16th century was known as the century of great herbals when the dedicated study of herbalism flourished. This allowed for many books to be created based on fieldwork and scientific fact. At around 1507, a German physician and botanist, Leonhart Fuchs, began his greatest work, unbeknownst at the time, that would take 35 years to make and it would make him known as “The Third of the German Fathers of Botany (Glasgow, 2002).” During his 35-year span of research, he studied about 497 plants, jotting down their uses, descriptions, and medicinal purposes as well as borrowing research from previous herbals. During this time, Fuchs also grew all of these plants in his own garden, which allowed him to first-hand observe them. This let him create the most accurate drawings of these plants that anyone had ever seen before. Before his first-hand observation, a lot of illustrations of plants in herbals were inaccurate due to people using the same images for various plants or mislabeling them since a lot of people had never actually seen them.
In 1542, Fuchs research was published in Basel, Switzerland by Michael Isingrin as the Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants). An herbal of 896 pages which contained over 511 woodcut illustrations that were illustrated by Albercht Meyer, the illustrations were transferred to woodblocks by Heinrich Füllmaurer, and they were cut and printed by Rudolph Speckle. The book was first published in Latin and Greek, but it was quickly published to German. “During Fuchs' lifetime, the herbal and its various abridgments went through 39 printings in Latin, German, French, Spanish, and Dutch (Stanford University Press, n.d).” It wasn’t until 20 years after he died that it was finally published in English. All of the plants in all editions are organized alphabetically by their Greek names.
This book brought a lot of firsts for its time. It became known as the best-illustrated book of all time by the Stanford University Press, it is regarded as the most beautiful of all printed herbals, and it is the most accurate for identification purposes. It is the very first book to ever publish about plants from the Americas like pumpkin, maize, marigold, potatoes, tobacco, and chili peppers were described for the first time in this book. It is also the very first book to illustrate over 100 species of plants for the first time and the first to include portraits of both the author and the illustrators. Later on, a smaller pocket-sized version of this book was created to improve on the identification of plants out in the field.
As of today, there are only 150 surviving copies, where 54 of them are hand-colored copies of the first edition and 2 of them are a handsome boxed set. The last recorded book to be sold was in 1997 and it was sold for $17,000. Both the University of Cambridge’s Digital Library and the Smithsonian Library provide a digital copy of this book to the public. These digital copies show the beauty of both books in two forms. The University of Cambridge’s copy is a hand painted copy of the book that was donated by King George I, while the Smithsonian’s copy is a regular copy that has not been hand painted.