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INCIPIT HERBARIUM, 1481
AN ALTERNATIVE TO DANGEROUS DOCTORS
The Herbarius by Apuleius Platonicus was printed around 1481 as an incunabulum. These prints frequently have no actual title. However, in order to unequivocally identify them, they were usually named with the first words of the printed text. This incunabulum is entitled "Incipit Herbarium", whereby "Incipit" merely means "It begins".
The publication of the manuscript from late antiquity was intended to improve medical care. The author is extremely derisive of the medical profession in the prologue to the work, in which he distances himself from those physicians whom he identifies as inexperienced and greedy for gain. The Herbarius is supposed to enable the reader to escape these dangerous physicians and cure himself.
The main section describes 129 medicinal herbs, three of which (heliotrope, comfrey and rue) appear twice under two different names. After that follows a chapter on the fantastic herb basilisca, one on special medicinal pastilles and one on the magical mandrake root.
HERBAL KNOWLEDGE OF LATE ANTIQUITY
As a practical medical work, the Herbarius is deliberately directed towards lay people. It is considered one of the most important medicinal herbals of the European Middle Ages.
The work is based largely on the pharmaceutical knowledge of Dioscorides and the "Naturalis Historia" of Pliny the Elder. The original manuscript originated as a revision and merging of these two ancient works in the 4th century A.D. It must have been very popular - today, almost fifty manuscripts are known to exist. They often contain their own recipes, which points to the work's use in everyday life. This printing was based on a manuscript from the 9th century which belonged to the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, which was destroyed during bombing in the Second World War.
UNDER A PSEUDONYM
Apuleius of Madauros was a poet of Roman antiquity who lived in the second century after Christ, in what is today Algeria. Today, scholars generally agree that the Herbarius cannot have been written by Apuleius. The author, a Platonist of late antiquity, took on the pseudonym "Pseudo-Apuleius", "Apuleius Barbarus" or "Apuleius Platonicus".
The work indicates that it comes from "Ciro", meaning the centaur Chiron, a figure of Greek mythology. Half man, half horse, he brought the healing arts to the physician-god Aesculapius and other deities. With the reference to Chiron, the herbal is endowed with a supernatural mystique, and its contents are upgraded to divine wisdom.
The first editions of the Herbarius were published by Johannes Philippus de Lignamine, personal physician to Pope Sixtus IV and the first Italian book printer. The close connection to the papal court enabled him to run a print shop in Rome, where he mainly printed religious works.
MEDICINES FOR THE PRACTICE
The Herbarius was a medieval best seller. What made this book so popular?
The listing of the plants does not follow any alphabetical order, as in the treatises of Theophrastus or Dioscorides. The medicinal herbs are grouped according to diseases. Because of their close association with the treatment of different ailments, it becomes clear that this was a practical pharmacopoeia.
The plant illustrations also contributed to the popularity of the Herbarius. Even today, the schematisation of the woodcuts, which focuses on the most important features, is impressive.
However, these revisions also brought disadvantages with them. The new order first listed the ailments "from head to foot", followed by superordinate disease patterns such as sleep disorders, epilepsy, mental illnesses or cancer. As soon as a plant was used to combat different ailments, however, the reader had to know the relevant disease which was named first in order to find the correct place in the book. In addition, the illustrations were so abstract that it was difficult to equate them to real plants.