31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts · Medieval Art and Architecture

Herbals – Day Twelve of Medieval Manuscripts

Serapion the Younger, Translation of the herbal (The ‘Carrara Herbal’), including the Liber agrega, Herbolario volgare; De medicamentis, with index (ff. 263-265) Italy, N. (Padua); between c. 1390 and 1404. (BL. Ms. Egerton 2020 f.4). Photo from The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Herbals were exactly what they sound like – books about herbs. In the days before prescription or over-the-counter medicine, herbal remedies were common, and herbals illustrated and described the medicinal properties of various herbs. Not being too familiar with herbal medicine, I’m not sure how accurate these herbals were, but I certainly hope they were less fantastical than the bestiaries we talked about the other day.

Asphodel and garlic. Bartholomaei Mini de Senis; Platearius; Nicolaus of Salerno, Tractatus de herbis (Herbal); De Simplici Medicina ; Circa instans; Antidotarium Nicolai Italy, S. (Salerno); between c. 1280 and c. 1310 (BL. Ms. Egerton 747 f.5). Photo from The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

While perhaps not as colorful or decorative as those in the Worksop Bestiary, the illustrations in the herbals featured here are really beautiful, precise, and faithful to their subject matter. Some of them remind me of the pressed flower books I used to make when I was little.

Detached leaf from a herbal. Italy, N. E., possibly Veneto. (BL. Ms. Add. 41996, f. 112v). Photo from The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Herbals seem to be related to bestiaries, and quite a few manuscripts contain both. I was particularly intrigued by MS Harley 1585, which contains, according to the British Library’s online catalog entry, “Medical miscellany of a pharmacopeial compilation, including a herbal and bestiary illustrating the pharmocopeial properties of animals”. Click the link to view all of the manuscript on the British Library’s online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts; the book includes illustrations of plants, animals real and fantastical, and medical procedures. The image below depicts plants and a centaur on the same page. I wonder what medicinal properties a centaur has!

Medical miscellany of a pharmacopeial compilation, including a herbal and bestiary illustrating the pharmocopeial properties of animals. Netherlands, S. (Mosan region), or England?, 3rd quarter of the 12th century. (BL. Ms. Harley 1585 f.21v-22). Photo from The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
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