Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes


The Greek scientist Theophrastus (ca.370–ca.286 B.C.), a pupil of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), is often considered the father of botany. In his two treatises, Historia Plantarum (Research on plants) and De Causis Plantarum (On the causes of plants), he analyzed the constitutive parts and the reproduction of plants and proposed a system of classification in four categories: trees, shrubs, undershrubs, herbs. However, his work was lost from the beginning of the first millennium until the Renaissance and was not the most important for premodern botany.

Theophrastus (HI Archives portrait no. 1)

Dioscorides (HI Archives portrait no. 3)

Aristotle (HI Archives portrait no. 3)
That role was played by the famous Peri Ulês Iatrikês (De materia medica in Latin, or Treatise on medicinal products) by the Greek Dioscorides (first century A.D.). In this work, the author listed and described the substances used for medical purposes and their therapeutic properties and uses. The treatise was considered the most authoritative not only in pharmacology but also in botany, resulting in total confusion between the two disciplines. The treatise was continuously reproduced in Byzantium and was later translated into Latin, probably during the sixth century, and into Arabic during the ninth. In the West, both the ancient Latin translation and the Greek text were abundantly studied during the Renaissance, as had been the case with the Naturalis Historia (Natural history) of the Roman Pliny (23/24–79).

Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbos, first century. Virtutum Simplicium Medicinarum … (Lyons, 1512).

Pietro d’Abano (ca.1250–ca.1315), professor of medicine in Padua, traveled to Constantinople and saw one or more Greek manuscripts of Dioscorides’ treatise. Later, he commented on the work, largely by comparing Dioscorides’ data with those provided by Galen (130–201) in his treatise of pharmacology (De Simplicium Medicamentorum Temperamentis et Facultatibus, according to the Latin translation of the Greek title). This is the second edition.

Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbos, first century. Den Herbarius in Dijetsche (Antwerp, 1511).

After Johann Gutenberg (1397?–1468) created a press with movable characters to produce printed books, German printers soon added illustrations by means of wood blocks. In continuity with previous production, they began to produce herbals, books dealing with the therapeutic properties of plants, which also contained crude reproductions of the plants. Among the many volumes of this kind, there is the so-called Herbarius. While in Latin in its earlier versions, this popular text was soon translated into vernacular languages, German or Dutch, for example. This anonymous tract has been identified as the prototype for many of the subsequent herbals printed in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Shown here is a rare early-16th-century Dutch edition, the only copy currently known in America.

Theophrastus, ca.370–ca.286 B.C. Theophrasti De Historia Plantarum. Lib. IX … De Causis Plantarum. Lib. V. [Lyons, 1505?].

After the Fall of Constantinople (29 May 1453), Byzantine scholars and others emigrated to the West, particularly to Italy. Among them was Theodoros of Gaza (ca.1400–ca.1475), who translated many Greek works, classical or Byzantine, into Latin. One of these translations revealed the treatise of Theophrastus to the West. A particular problem in this translation was the rendering of the technical terms: either Gaza did not know them or there was no exact Latin equivalent. In many cases, he simply transliterated the Greek term into the Latin alphabet without translating. According to Baudrier’s Bibliographie Lyonnaise (Lyons, 1895 and 1921), the edition shown here is a counterfeit of the edition published by Aldus in 1504.

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Detail of plate 73 from John Bartholomew, ed., The Times Atlas of the World: Vol. 4, Southern Europe and Africa (London, 1956). © Bartholomew Ltd 2002 Reproduced by Kind Permission of HarperCollins Publishers www.bartholomewmaps.com

The Mediterranean world and its major political and cultural centers through history: Athens; Alexandria, seat of one of the greatest schools of antiquity (ca.300 B.C.–A.D. 632); Pergamon, capital of one of the kingdoms created after Alexander the Great’s death; Rome; Pompeii, destroyed in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Vesuvius; Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire (332–1453); Ravenna, until the eighth century one of the last Byzantine positions in the West and seat of an active medical school; Baghdad, created in 762 as the capital of the Arabic empire; Florence, one of the greatest centers of Renaissance humanism.