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Re: VMs: 1006184 & 1006185



The ramble is fine.

I'll keep it short.

Many plants today are still described in terms of partial similarity to others - and interesting bit of semantics.

The point about original versions of plants is good.  Curative properties and monastries...  I do wonder if that is all the story.  Richard Mabey's Flora Brittanica and other sources indicate that some plants were known for curative properties, possibly before the Romans, but certainly by around the time monasteries were set up (think about where they might have got their plant stock from in the first place).

It boils down to the old diffusionist versus parallel separate development debate in so many spheres.  Diffusionism is an easier story to tell, but not necessarily right for being easy.



GC wrote:
William wrote:

It turns out
there was a booming business in herb trade, but few of the people using
these plants had ever seen them.

Using as "end-users" or as traders?  And see below on prevalence.

When medications were prescribed to "end-users" (doctor's patients or
apothecary's clients), these herbs were already processed, in incense,
tinctures, salves, pills (yes, they made pills), suppositories or
douches, to name a few "end-user" products.  Herbs were hardly ever
prescribed alone.  (Flash back to the pharma or "antidotary" pages of the
VMS)  Mixtures based on "astronomical" (astrological) influences for the
particular patient and malady was the typical approach.
Traders on the other hand, many times held patents of monopoly for their
goods, and had every reason to make sure they didn't get into someone's
garden.  I could really write at length in clarifying this, but it's
important to know what time period we're talking about when making such
broad generalizations as I've just made here.  Documentation for the lower
end of the VMS spectrum is not as prominent as that found in the first half
of the 16th century.

Most historians note that there was a standard list of herbs grown in just
about every household, but the curative herbs were the realm of monastic
gardens, at least up to about the beginning of the 16th century.  Those
monastic gardens were based on the writings of the ancients, and as long as
there was a strict adherence to the knowledge of the ancients, new knowledge
was only very slowly added, so the gardens didn't grow much.  By the middle
of the 16th century we see many
books on new curative herbs, and expanding gardens (slightly earlier in
France and Italy).  An interest in new
herbs generated trade and also expanded the role of the garden from
monastery to the public sector.

The problem is that our VMS appears to fall somewhere between 1450-1550, and
not during the time frame when the most activity in this regard is recorded.
During the VMS time frame the ancients are still the authority, and the
herbal of Macer Floridius, based on the ancients, is a standard textbook.
Writings of this time still hold the monasteries as the source for curative
herbs, and while trade is picking up and new information being exchanged,
herbalism and herb gardens are not getting a lot of attention.  From about
1530 onward, the printed book started to make a difference, and new ideas
began to become open for wide discussion.

One of the reasons things moved so slowly is that during VMS times, medicine
is still in the hands of the Church.  Medicine is not really part of a
university curriculum, and it was considered beneath the wealthy to to enter
into such a "charitable" profession.  There are some notable exceptions to
this rule, but primarily the church offered "poor" scholarships to
financially strapped students in exchange for religious servitude.  I don't
know the length of the servitude, but one indication that this was still
strong at the end of the 16th century is the fact that Bright and the other
early writers on shorthand were both physicians and clergy at one time or
another, so their education was still tied in some way to the church grants
for the study of medicine.  Jumping to the 17th century reveals a drastic
change in the way this business is conducted, but that would be going
outside the boundaries of the VMS time frame.

What's interesting about the early printed books is that, even though you
may have the same plant growing in your back yard, if it didn't come from
the place Pliny or Dioscorides, or some other ancient author said it should
come from,
your local plant was never as good as the foreign one.  There had to be some
reason the local plants didn't cure as the ancients promised, so naturally
they couldn't be the same as the originals, because the ancients couldn't be
wrong, could they?

There was certainly a craving for new information during the century in
question, but there wasn't the revolution in information that is seen toward
the end of the VMS time frame, with newly printed books and new discoveries
in plants, from both the old and new world.  Even during our VMS time frame
there are two distinct mindsets - if the VMS was authored post-1493, it
could well be a different animal entirely than if it was authored pre-1493.
Even the astronomical information could take a different shape than it would
have before one was allowed to openly (or at least confidently) debate the
spherical nature of the world.  Post-1493, Ptolemy takes second stage to
authors like Sacro Bosco, who it now appears knew all along the earth was

I've just noticed that I've rambled way off the subject, which was what -
why the herb drawings are largely unidentifiable?  For some of the reasons
I've stated before, and a host of others, I think the VMS is the work of a
single author, for private use, and the herbs only had to be identifiable to
him.  He drew them so he'd know what they were, consider it a form of
encipherment, similar to the text.  It is left to us to interpret his
"cryptographic" surrealism?  I still think some of these were drawn from
description only however.  If you look at some of the descriptions in say,
Macer, they're always "this plant has a flower like another plant, leaves
like yet another, and a stalk like a third, but slightly longer or shorter.
Several of the VMS drawings appear (at least to me) like composites of
plants, just like the written descriptions.

If I can answer any question specifically, contact me off list where I can
go into more detail. I have several books in pdf format that may be of use
to you as well.  Sorry for the ramble.


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Dr William H Edmondson
School of Computer Science
University of Birmingham
Edgbaston B15 2TT
United Kingdom

Voice  -  +44-121-414-4763
email  -  w.h.edmondson@xxxxxxxxxx