AN UNUSUAL HERBAL BOOK
The title of the work is "Herbal, of All Herbs, Animals, Stones and Metal, Nature, Value and Use". It was published by Christian Egenolff in Frankfurt am Main in 1538. The title already makes it clear that this work is not a herbal in the classic sense.
With the first edition of 1533, Roesslin intended to combine two important works in one handy book and make the contents accessible to a wide readership. The book is divided into four parts and covers the art of distillation, then animals, inanimate nature, and finally plants. Their uses follow each description. The more than 300 pages contain almost 250 old-coloured woodcuts, as well as a title woodcut and a title-page border. The binding of the present example consists of a two-column, medieval manuscript on parchment with a coloured initial H.
The woodcuts represent plants, animals, and the processing of mineral soils using alchemy. The work also contains famous images of a physician at a patient's bedside, an apothecary and herb collectors at work.
A HEALTH BOOK FOR THE COMMON MAN
In the prologue, Eucharius Roesslin makes it clear that his work is specifically directed at the "common man"; i.e., the general public, the entire alphabetised population, all professionals and individuals who could read and write the common language. It was intended to convey the current knowledge of nature and its use. Its purpose was not to increase general knowledge, but rather to outline how nature could be used to maintain one's health and to treat diseases.
The image material was intended to convey to the readers what the plants, animals and minerals looked like and how they could be processed. The woodcuts originated from earlier editions of the "Gart der Gesundheit" (Garden of Health) or similar works.
The work was a great success with his contemporaries, also evidenced by the numerous editions published within just a few years. Only in later centuries was the work heavily criticised and deemed plagiarism.
ROESSLIN JUNIOR AND SENIOR
The author is not listed on the title page of the work. It is a new edition of a work that was already known at that time which Eucharius Roesslin the younger (before 1500 to about 1554) had written. Roesslin was the son of the city physician of the same name from Frankfurt am Main who had become famous through his work "Der schwangeren Frauen und Hebammen Rosengarten" (The Rose Garden of Pregnant Women and Midwives). Eucharius Roesslin the younger translated this book, which was aimed at the female readership, and published his own works in the common language. Like his father, he also held the position of city physician. He adapted his name, as was common among scholars during the Renaissance, to an ancient language and called himself "Rhodion" in ancient Greek.
Roesslin's herbal resulted from a compilation of two works which played a prominent role when books were first printed for medicine: "Gart der Gesundheit" by Johann de Cuba and the Small Book of Distillation by Hieronymus Brunschwig published in 1500.
A MEDIEVAL MEDICINAL TREASURE
The book is not an original creation. Rather, it brought the treasure that was medieval medicine into modern times and enriched it with additional knowledge of nature. This knowledge formed a basis which continued to be handed down into the 18th century.
Roesslin enabled his contemporaries to acquire the knowledge of the time and implement it to promote their own health. Despite distancing itself to a certain extent from the purely religious interpretation of nature which prevailed in the Middle Ages, early modern natural science remained strongly interwoven with moral and magical ideas.
According to the logic of the time, white saltpetre cleaned people inside and out, the shining stone of Ophtamus not only healed eye problems but could also make its wearer invisible by dazzling his/her surroundings, and holy incense healed every wound, strengthened the heart and made it joyful.