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Hypothesis on botanical illustrations...
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
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
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
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