Herbolarium et Materia Medica

ms. 296 - Biblioteca Statale di Lucca (Lucca, Italy)

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Extent / Format

218 pages / 24.0 x 17.8 cm

9th century

Anthology of medical texts


122 illustrations of plants and animals

Short description

In the 9th century, Charlemagne charged the monks of his empire with the task of studying medicinal botany. In the course of this task, the monks compiled the most varied growths and medicinal plants and documented what they learned in the manuscript Herbolarium et Materia Medica. The work is furnished with 122 colored, informative illustrations of plants as well as animals. It is the earliest medicinal treatise that was produced in medieval Europe.

Facsimile editions available


Herbolarium et Materia Medica

The codex Herbolarium et Materia Medica is a medical anthology concerning the world of plants and animals as well as the healing arts of the Early Middle Ages. The 218-page work concerns itself with the description of the most varied growths, plants, and animals. It contains 122 richly-detailed, colored illustrations in the style of Carolingian Illumination. The manuscript was of immeasurable importance for the history of the natural sciences. It is one of the earliest examples of natural science worldwide and was considered to be the most important medical texts in Europe for a long time. Today, the precious original edition of the codex can be found in the Biblioteca Estatal in the Italian city of Lucca.

The Significance of Plants in the Early Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, plants were used, among other things, for cooking or as a seasoning in the kitchen. Equally so, they served as medicinal remedies, for the dying of fabrics and were also used in other various areas. It was often repeated that many plants were not only medicinal, but possessed mystical powers. In the 9th century, Charlemagne induced the monks of his empire to concern themselves with the healing arts and to cultivate medicinal plants. This very work is documented in the manuscript of the Herbolarium et Materia Medica. Additionally, the Carolingian monks described their experiences in animal husbandry and describe the biological characteristics of the animals, which had been heretofore unexplored.

Informative Illumination

The biological knowledge of the monks – considered modern for the time – was vividly explained with the help of enchanting illustrations. The 122 colored depictions of the plants and growths in the manuscript were drawn by the early-medieval illuminators as accurately as was possible at the time. The aplastic-looking depictions of the animals are particularly attractive, and still bring a smile to the face of some modern beholders. Today, there exists no earlier treatise concerning biology, natural history, and medicine that is so expressive and informative as the Herbolarium. This is why the manuscript possesses immeasurable worth for historical research.

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