Theses Doctoral

On Naming and Knowing Plants: Botanical Latin from Pliny the Elder to Otto Brunfels’ 1530 Herbarum Vivae Eicones

Petrella, Erin

In 1530, a German physician named Otto Brunfels published an herbal entitled Herbarum Vivae Eicones (Living Images of Herbs). In it, he planned to map the names of medicinal herbs known in and native to Germany onto their Greek and Latin names. Brunfels’ audience included fellow physicians and in order to assist with the identification of the herbs in his book, his publisher employed a woodcut artist to produce realistic images of them, a novelty in the genre of printed herbals. Over time, Brunfels’ work was superseded by 16th-century botanists and his legacy was relegated to the illustrations of his herbs, while his contributions to the naming and description of them were dismissed as unoriginal. However, a closer examination reveals Brunfels’ herbal as a transitional text bridging the gap between the herbal tradition and the development of the science of botany.

In addition to citing Pliny the Elder as his primary authoritative influence, Brunfels also references a number of 15th-century Italian humanist scholars who were neither botanists nor physicians, but who were known for their critiques of the early printed editions of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis and even of Pliny himself as a natural history authority. Thus, Brunfels’ herbal is tied to the manuscript and printing history of Pliny and to humanist attempts to correct and stabilize his text. Moreover, in the course of his work, Brunfels encountered a number of herbs that were known to him, but whose Latin and Greek nomenclature he could not accurately identify. As a result, he was forced to describe in his own words, in original Latin, these herbae nudae with German nomenclature but with unknown Greek and Latin names.

In addition, Brunfels encounters considerable disagreement among the ancient authorities about the naming and classification of other herbs and he is again forced to insert his own opinion, which he calls iudicium nostrum. I argue that Brunfels’ original Latin is a very early example of what would eventually become formal botanical Latin. Brunfels’ herbal is situated in such a way that it looks backward whilst simultaneously looking forward. It is an object of reception, appropriating terminology and methods from Pliny the Elder and from the humanist scholars who debated the quality of the printed editions of his work and the accuracy of the information provided in it. It is simultaneously the subject of reception, demonstrating a halting, hesitant vocabulary and style of Latinity that would eventually come to be identified with botany as a discipline.

Chapter 1 addresses Pliny’s ideas of what constitutes knowledge (cognitio) about plants in the Historia Naturalis, via his arguments against improper nomenclature (nomina nuda) and the alignment of herbal medicine with magic (magicae herbae). Pliny’s advocacy for proper methodology (experience over book learning) is also examined. Chapter 2 turns to the manuscript tradition of Pliny’s text and the first two printed editions, in 1469 and 1470, which were corrupt and resulted in an unstable, inaccurate text.

In Chapter 3, the reactions of the Italian humanists to these early printed editions are considered, along with the transition from critiques of the editors and printers to debates about inaccuracies that can be traced to Pliny himself. Chapter 4 turns to Otto Brunfels and traces his reliance on Pliny as well as on the Italian humanists, especially Ermolao Barbaro, who claimed to “heal” the errors in Pliny and stabilized his text. Brunfels’ original descriptions of herbs are also discussed. In the conclusion, Brunfels’ work is compared with that of botanists who postdated him, including Leonhard Fuchs, Kaspar Bauhin, and Karl Linnaeus.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Franklin, Carmela V.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 12, 2023