Ortus

ORTUS SANITATIS DE HERBIS ET PLANTIS

ANONYM, 1497

Of plants, animals and uroscopy

This early work is an incunabulum. This printing technique involved positioning the letters and images on page after page, dying the template and printing onto paper. Incunabula emerged around the year 1500 when European book printing first began. This example was published as a third edition by Johann Prüss in Strasbourg in 1497. It is uncoloured, yet includes blank spaces for initials that were never applied.

The sequence of six chapters follows the themes mentioned in the title: First of all, it describes plants. "Tieren" or "animalia" are general references to four-legged animals as well as reptiles, birds and other flying creatures, fish and other aquatic creatures. The inanimate material includes stones such as minerals that form in the ground. It concludes with a treatise on uroscopy, the most popular method of diagnosis at the time.

A large and a small hortus

Two hortus incunabula were pioneering for the subsequent printing of books on natural science: "Gart der Gesundheit" by Johannes de Cuba, which was also referred to as the "Kleiner Hortus", and the anonymous "Ortus sanitatis", which was called the "Grosser Hortus" and was first printed by Jacob Meydenbach in Mainz in 1491.

The illustrations in the book attracted significant attention at the time. The small illustrations are in no way restricted to plants, animals and inanimate materials; they also demonstrate different everyday situations or special features, such as the preparation for a bladder stone operation. The anatomical illustration of a skeleton and a discussion between a doctor and an apothecary are shown on the three full-page woodcuts. The woodcuts are reduced to clear shapes and express the view of nature and medical culture in the Middle Ages.

Subsequent nature books were split into plants, animals and the earth. The healing effect of each individual substance listed separately below the title "Operationes" was also copied by subsequent pharmacopoeias.  

An unknown compiler

The author is unknown. In fact this person was not a writer, but rather a compiler who took parts of existing texts and combined them together to create a new whole. Possible sources for Ortus Sanitatis are the nature encyclopaedia by the Dominican monk Vinzenz de Beauvais from the middle of the 13th century as well as the 600-page-thick Latin pharmacopoeia by the medieval medical writer and botanist Matthaeus Silvaticus from the year 1317. In later editions, the author or compiler is still wrongly cited as Johannes de Cuba, to whom the "Gart der Gesundheit“ is traced in 1485.  

Some of the illustrations in the works by Johann Prüss were created purely for the printing of Ortus Sanitatis, and others simply taken from the nearby print workshop belonging to Johann Grüninger. The three full-page woodcuts from Hieronymus Brunschwig's "Kleines Destillierbuch" originated in this manner.

Demand for medical knowledge

A printing technique was discovered with the Gutenberg Bible in 1454, whereby movable metal letters enabled the printing of text in larger print runs. A new era in the history of knowledge was born. While the medieval manuscripts were only accessible to travelling scholars in their original form or as individual extracts thereof, book printing was of interest to a great many who wanted to read the works themselves.

In the beginning, bibles and other religious scripts were printed. A few years later, however, there was already demand for medical literature. The print works started to print bloodletting calendars, followed by pharmacopoeias in the style of Ortus Sanitatis. The present edition was used as a template for many other texts. The woodcuts belong to some of today's most popular medical history illustrations of daily medical practice at that time. 

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