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Hypothesis on botanical illustrations...

Hi everyone,

Here's my working hypothesis on the function of botanical illustrations in herbals. All comments and corrections welcome. :-)

Cheers, .....Nick Pelling.....

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Before writing, items or bodies of knowledge (like the Bible) were constructed by (and within) purely oral cultures, and hence were usually structured like mnemonic poems.

So, when these were later written down, they retained their mnemonic-driven structure. The lack of gaps between words in such early documents makes them extraordinarily hard to read silently: This is now taken to indicate that such works only make sense when read aloud: gaps were later added to enable silent reading.

However, the modern documentary mindset sees knowledge documents as containing information *in themselves*, rather than referring to a previously learnt/taught auditory memory: this formed a major shift in attitude. This is thought to be from roughly 1450 onwards, though (of course) it didn't happen overnight.

The introduction of the humanistic hand ("lettera anticha formata", Niccolo de' Niccoli, 1400 or so) was one of the components that drove this change, by making clarity of presentation an issue: as was the printing press subsequently. Another key impetus was the translation and distribution of many works into vulgar language, such that ordinary people could use them.

So: in the period we're particularly interested in (1400-1500), the use-pattern of knowledge documents was in transition, as people moved from an oral/auditory (medieval) mindset to a written/documentary (modern) mindset - the distribution of knowledge gradually became primarily mediated by the written word, rather than by schools or oral traditions.

Herbals provide an especially interesting example of this transition. The question I'd pose is: in a primarily oral culture, what possible use are botanical illustrations?

My hypothesis is that, in early herbals at least, the pictures were more likely to be used as an ornate indexing mechanism than as a factual/structural reference in themselves. As the plant recognition / picking procedural skills would be taught "in the field", scribal copying mistakes (when copying illustrations) were probably unimportant - the underlying data was held *orally*.

Later, however, when herbals started becoming more widely copied and the text translated into ordinary language, the lack of correspondence between pictures and reality was an "ingenuity gap", which the introduction of naturalism tried to bridge.

Note that this is in the period *before* page or folio numbering, yet the literature I've seen mentions very few mechanisms by which document structure (especially for large documents) was made usable - basically, girdle calendars and physicians' calendars. [Contrary to what I thought before, catchwords only seem to have been used much later (mid-16th Century onwards).]

Therefore, my claim is that botanical illustrations were originally used as the primary document structuring mechanism - for "fast-forwarding" through a document to find the page you want. Without them, I believe that they would be practically unusable.

So: rather than the usual two dimensions of herbal analysis (similarity analysis vs naturalism, AKA "convention vs invention"), I propose an additional dimension, which is *navigability* - ie, to what degree were the illustrations used to navigate the document? (The answer may well be 100% for all of them - but that would need someone with more experience of herbals to say.)

In the case of the VMS: because the text is enciphered, the diagrams had no need to be accessible to a general public, so - despite the dating of (say) 1475 - they remained within the older tradition, ie I believe that they're used for navigation, not elucidation.

Finally, this basic argument could be (and probably has been) extended through to the history of medieval art: in a primarily oral culture, where knowledge is mediated through sound, what use is art? AIUI, art in those times were normally commissioned to depict/iconify references to specific oral elements within Biblical passages... basically, aide-memoires for monks. Perhaps artists like Giotto, with extraordinary gifts for capturing naturalistic detail and poise, would simply have not been useful to such a culture.

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