am 28. Juni 2009
It was none other than the great Hermann Fischer himself who in several publications, but most accessibly in his (1929) "Mittelalterliche Pflanzenkunde" pp. 56-59, drew attention to the at times amazingly naturalistic plant illustrations found in a codex herbal by the monk Vitus Auslasser from the Tyrol, and dated as early as 1479. I wonder whether the geographic vicinity of the Tyrol to Northern Italy might have played a part in the development of Auslasser's realism since the Northern Italy of the15th century was the cradle of several magnificent realistically painted herbals, e.g. Benedetto Rinio's with illustrations by Andrea Amadio.
All 198 Auslasser aquarelles, painted on paper (personal communication K. Goehl), are preserved in ms Clm 5905 of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich, often seemingly still defying their age by the vividness of their colours.
The by now well-known team of medicine historians, J. G. Mayer, K. Goehl and K. Englert, who are connected to the University of Würzburg, have produced this volume on the occasion of an exhibition in Neuburg/Bavaria titled "Die Pflanzen der Klostermedizin in Darstellung und Anwendung". Fortunately our team thought of producing a dual purpose volume serving on the one hand as the exhibition catalogue, but more importantly also as a general introduction to Auslasser's opus within the history of medicine, which makes this book valuable to the general reader.
In an extensive introduction of ca 60 pages most important historical aspects of medicine and pharmacy are touched upon: beginning in antiquity - Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder, Galen, Pseudo-Apuleius - progressing to the Arabic literature - Avicenna, Ibn Butlan, the `Aggregator' - and convent medicine - Walahfrid Strabo, Macer Floridus, Liber graduum, Circa instans, Physica Hildegardis - and going on to the late medieval and early modern printed herbals, e.g. by the "Fathers of Botany", i.e. Brunfels, Bock and Fuchs, and Matthioli and later herbalists.
All this is in preparation for the main part, i.e. Vitus Auslasser's plant illustrations. Every plant he has accompanied by its Tyrolean German and Latin name(s); and for those of his illustrations here reproduced our team supply an extensive modern commentary comprising remarks on the plant's name(s) as well as illustration-related aspects, and the plant's traditional and modern uses. This allows the modern reader to gain a comprehensive appreciation of all important aspects concerning this plant.
Of the altogether 198 original illustrations 71, a good third, are reproduced here in colour, with 49 of them measuring ca. 12.5 cm x 17cm and 22 in a smaller format of ca. 8,5cm x 12cm. I cannot find any mention of the dimensions of the original pictures.
With very few exceptions all of Auslasser's depictions are botanically easily identified. But this pictorial precision is in stark contrast to the absence of virtually all medico-pharmaceutical comments, which at his time were the main purpose of all herbals. This then poses the question: why did Auslasser paint his herbal in the first place? Although the majority of plants have (or had) some medicinal use, quite a number of them seem to be medicinally or in any other application "useless". Fischer (p.59) thinks that Auslasser was just interested in the German flora, that he drew "aus reinem Interesse", which - if correct - would be extraordinary for that period of time.
In the original ms the illustrations are arranged without any conceivable ordering principle. Every picture is numbered in early modern number symbols of the Hans Talhoffer variety, symbols that are still much closer to the number signs used in Arabic speaking countries today, with the symbols for 4, 5 and 7 being markedly different from the ones used by us.
In this book the numerical ordering of the original has been abandoned and a themed arrangement is chosen with the following 6 themes:
I: Healing plants still in use today. II: plants rarely or no longer used today but of significance in the Middle Ages. III: plants that illustrate the doctrine of signatures. IV: plants that indicate by their names their use in craft and household. V: the most beautiful flowers from the herbarium. VI: a botanical walk through the plant families divided into monocotyledons and dicotyledons.
It is to be hoped that this publication will make Auslasser's work more widely known, because he is on any level remarkable. For anyone interested in the history of botanical illustration or late medieval art, etc., this book is a must.