November 26, 2006

The Naming of Names

About five months ago, dhruva passed on a link about an interesting-looking book (The Naming of Names, by Anna Pavord) to peacay, who passed it along to me. A couple of weeks later, a copy arrived from Amazon, and, over the following months I slowly read it, eventually reaching the end a couple of weeks ago. It’s an absorbing history of the study, classification and illustration of plants, from the time of Theophrastus and Dioscorides, up to the birth of modern botany at the end of the 17th Century. It’s a beautifully-illustrated book, featuring over 150 plates of pages from mediæval and early-modern herbals—details from five of these follow below:

Detail from a manuscript page illustrating a bramble from the 'Vienna Dioscorides,' (ca. 512 AD) as reproduced in 'The Naming of Names' by Anna Pavord.

#1: Part of a bramble, from the manuscript oftenest known as the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ This ‘is an illuminated Byzantine manuscript produced about AD 512 for Anicia Juliana, [Pavord calls the manuscript Juliana’s Book’] the daughter of Flavius Anicius Olybrius, who had been emperor of the western empire in AD 472. Presented in appreciation for her patronage in the construction of a district church in Constantinople, the parchment codex comprises 491 folios (or almost a thousand pages) and almost four hundred color illustrations, each occupying a full page facing a description of the plant’s pharmacological properties.’ The manuscript, which is now in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, is remarkable for the vividness and lifelikeness of its illustrations, which achieved a degree of verisimiltude that would not be equalled for more than eight hundred years…

Detail from a manuscript page illustrating a vine from the 'Carrara Herbal,' (1390s) as reproduced in 'The Naming of Names' by Anna Pavord.

#2 Part of a vine, from folio 27v of the so-called Carrara Herbal, a manuscript made in Padua at the end of the fourteenth century, which is now in the British Library. The text in this codex was a translation into Italian of the Liber aggregatus in medicinis simplicibus by the ninth-century Arab physician Serapion the Younger, ‘a sort of synthesis between Dioscorides and Galen's teaching’ This manuscript reflects the slow absorption of Arab botanical knowledge at Italian universities, first at Salerno from the late 13th Century, then later at Padua; its illustrations reflect a concern with attention to natural detail quite absent from the majority of mediæval herbals.

Detail from a manuscript page illustrating poppies from the 'Codice Rinio,' (1440s) as reproduced in 'The Naming of Names' by Anna Pavord.

#3: Poppies, from the manuscript called the Codice Rinio, after Benedetto Rinio, its second owner, or the Codice Roccobonella, after the Padua-based physician Nicolò Roccabonella, who commissioned it ca. 1445. Its illustrations, about twenty of which are thought to have been copied from the Carrara Herbal were the work of a painter named Andrea Amadio. This codex is currently in the Biblioteca Marciana of Venice. It contains more than four hundred herbs ‘illustrated with remarkable precision in every morphological detail.’ Despite these advances in illustrative fidelity, the study of plants had scarcely advanced since Dioscorides’ day, and was still squarely subordinate to the study of medicine: plants with no perceived pharmacological effect (or agricultural utility) were considered not to be worth writing about.

Detail from a manuscript page illustrating the tobacco plant from the unpublished botanical encyclopaedia of Leonhart Fuchs (1550s?) as reproduced in 'The Naming of Names' by Anna Pavord.

#4: Detail showing the flowers of the tobacco-plant, from a manuscript compiled under the direction of Leonhart Fuchs (1501-66), professor of medicine at the university of Tübingen. Fuchs was one of the first men to study plants for their own sake, as well as for their medical applications. His De historia stirpium commentarii insignes of 1542 was the second notable printed herbal produced in Germany, supplanting Otto BrunfelsHerbarum vivae icones (1530-36), even though the illustrations in the older work were of a higher quality. Fuchs laboured for the last twenty-four years of his life in the compilation of a much larger botanical encyclopædia, commissioning and collecting hundreds of high-quality illustrations, which included some of the earliest known depictions of such novelties as the tomato and tobacco plants: but this opus never made it to the press.

Detail from a coloured page illustrating various daisies from de Bry & Merian's 'Florilegium renovatum et auctum' (1641), as reproduced in 'The Naming of Names' by Anna Pavord.

#5: Various forms of daisy, from the Florilegium renovatum et auctum, issued in Frankfurt by Matthæus Merian for the house of de Bry, in 1641. This was an enlarged and revised version of the Florilegium novum that his father-in-law J. T. de Bry had issued in 1610. Many of the ‘new’ floral illustrations added by Merian were apparently adapted by Merian from Cornelis Bloemaert’s engravings for the De florum cultura by Giovanni Battista Ferrari. Merian’s engravings were likewise recycled in later publications, such as Michael Bernhard Valentini’s 1719 Viridarium Reformatum.

Click on the details above to see them enlarged, and in full.

Posted by misteraitch at November 26, 2006 07:47 PM

I gave this to my Mam last Christmas. It's a beautiful book. I have an inability to buy ugly books as gifts so I was thrilled to find something so wonderfully illustrated in an area of her interest.

Posted by: Pierce on November 27, 2006 01:09 PM

I think this' a great addition to your collection. Nothing to add, but one silly thing. Surely you have already heard of the Tacuinum Sanitatis; although it is not necessary related (as the Tacuinum is about "the six things that are necessary for every man in the daily preservation of his health, about their correct uses and their effects..") this made me remind it. Pictures from it are available at

Posted by: El Mantícora on November 30, 2006 09:27 AM

That must be a beautiful book: those reproductions are just exquisite, particularly the colouring in the poppy and those delicate tobacco flowers - good thing they don't put pictures of those on the sides of Marlboro packets! Thanks for this.

Posted by: peacay on December 4, 2006 07:12 AM

lovely stuff!

Posted by: johnb on December 5, 2006 05:34 AM

Amazon has this book as a bargain book at $15 and several of the used book sellers have it at $5. I ordered a copy right away and can't wait to get it.

Thanks for the post, Mr. H!

Amazon link:

Posted by: Jonathan on March 15, 2007 08:33 PM

Anna Pavord also wrote a book about Tulips that is a fascinating and fabulously illustrated read. If you enjoyed that you might enjoy this too:

Posted by: Sal on July 25, 2007 10:15 PM
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