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Herbal In The Low Countries

( Originally Published 1912 )

In the sixteenth century, the Herbal flourished exceedingly in the Low Countries. This was due in part to the zeal and activity of the botanists of the Netherlands, but perhaps even more to the munificence, and love of learning for its own sake, which distinguished that prince of publishers, Christophe Plantin of Antwerp. In these qualities he forms a notable contrast to Egenolph of Frankfort, to whose shortcomings we have already drawn attention.

Plantin's life extended from about 1514 to 1589, and thus included the central years of that wonderful century. He was a native of Touraine, and studied the art of printing at Caen and other French towns. Towards 1550, he and his wife, Jeanne Rivière, settled in Antwerp, where he worked at book-binding, and his wife sold linen in a little shop. Later, he returned to the profession of printing, and his business in this direction gradually developed, and was eventually transferred to the famous Maison Plantin. Christophe's reputation grew to such an extent that great efforts were made, in various quarters, to tempt him from Antwerp. The Duke of Savoy and Piedmont, for instance, did all he could to persuade him to come to Turin, promising him extensive printing works and all necessary funds—but he remained faithful to the city of his adoption. Perhaps the most potent factor in his success was his keen judgment of men, which enabled him so to choose his subordinates that he gathered around him an unrivalled staff.

One of Plantin's daughters married Jean Moretus, her father's chief assistant and successor, and from him the business descended through eight generations of printers to Edouard Jean Hyacinthe Moretus, the last of his race, from whom, in 1876, the citizens of Antwerp purchased the Maison Plantin and its contents. The house had remained practically unchanged since the days when Christophe Plantin lived and worked there, and it is now preserved as the Musée Plantin-Moretus. It is built round a rectangular courtyard, and its beauty, both in proportion and in detail, is such, that one feels at once that Plantin achieved the ambition he expressed in his charming sonnet—' Le Bonheur de ce Monde '—"Avoir une maison commode, propre et belle." The pictures, furniture and hangings, and not only the very presses, fonts, and furnaces for casting the type, but even the old account books and corrected proof-sheets are still to be seen, all in their appropriate places. The wage-books are preserved, showing the weekly earnings of compositors, engravers and book-binders, throughout a period of three centuries. In short, the Maison Plantin beggars description, and a visit there is an infallible recipe for transporting the imagination back to the time of the Renaissance, when printing was in its first youth, and was treated with the reverence due to one of the fine arts.

The first Belgian botanist of world-wide renown was Rembert Dodoens [or Dodonaeus] (Text-fig. 36). He was a contemporary of Plantin, having been born at Malines in 15171. He studied at Louvain, and visited the universities and medical schools of France, Italy and Germany, eventually qualifying as a doctor. He was successful in his profession, being physician to the Emperors Maximilian II and Rudolph I I, and finally becoming Professor of Medicine at Leyden, where he died in '585. His interest in the medical aspect of botany led him to write a herbal, and, in order to illustrate it, he obtained the use of the wood-blocks which had been employed in the octavo edition of Fuchs' work. To these a number of new engravings were added. The book was published in Dutch in the year 1554 by Vanderloe, under the title ` Crüydeboeck,' The text is not a translation of Fuchs, as is sometimes supposed, although Dodoens took Fuchs as his model for the order of description of each plant. The method of arrangement is his own, and he indicates localities and times of flowering in the Low Countries, information which clearly could not have been derived from the earlier writer, Almost simultaneously with the first Dutch edition, a French issue appeared under the title of Histoire des Plantes.' The translation was carried out by Charles de l'Écluse, with whose own work we shall shortly deal. Dodoens supervised the production of the book, and took the opportunity to make some additions. It became known in England through Lyte's translation, which will be discussed in a later section of this chapter.

The last Dutch edition of the herbal, for which the author himself was responsible, was printed by Vanderloe in 1563. The publisher then parted with Fuchs' blocks, which were probably acquired by the printer of Lyte's Dodoens in England. This circumstance put great difficulties in the way of Dodoens' wish to reproduce his herbal in Latin. However it proved a blessing in disguise, for he had: the good fortune to meet, in Christophe Plantin, "un homme qui ne reculait devant aucune dépense, pour donner aux ouvrages qui sortaient de ses presses toute la perfection et le mérite dont ils étaient susceptibles." Plantin undertook to produce a much modified Latin translation of the herbal, and to have new blocks engraved for it, whilst Dodoens, on his side, engaged to supply the artists with fresh plants, and to superintend their labours. The work proceeded slowly, and was published in parts. It was finally completed in 1583, and was produced in one volume, under the name of ' Stirpium histories pemptades sex sive libri triginta.' In this work, by far the larger number of the figures are original (see Text-figs. 37, 38, 96 and 97) ; some, however, were borrowed from de l'Écluse and de l'Obel. This arose from the fact that Plantin was also the publisher for both these writers, and as he bore the expense of their blocks, he had an agreement with the three authors that their illustrations should be treated as common property. A few of Dodoens' figures were based upon those in the famous manuscript of Dioscorides, now at Vienna.

In the Pemptades,' the botanist in Dodoens was more to the fore, and the physician less in evidence than in his earlier work. It is particularly difficult to appraise with any exactness the services which Dodoens rendered to botany. Between him and his two younger countrymen, de l'Écluse and de l'Obel, there was so intimate a friendship that they freely imparted their observations to one another, and permitted the use of them, and also of their figures, in one another's books. To attempt to ascertain exactly what degree of merit should be attributed to each of the three, would be a task equally difficult and thankless.

Charles de l'Écluse [or Clusius] (Plate VII) was born at Arras in the French Netherlands in 1526; like Dodoens, he passed the closing years of his life at Leyden. He studied at Louvain, and other universities, including Montpelier, where he came under the influence of the botanist, Guillaume Rondelet, who also numbered d'Aléchamps, de l'Obel, Pierre Pena and Jean Bauhin among his pupils. De l'Écluse was an enthusiastic adherent of the reformed faith; to which he was converted by the influence of Melanchthon and he suffered religious persecution, which brought even actual martyrdom to some of his relatives. Though he did not himself lose his life, he was deprived of his property, and, between poverty and ill-health, his career seems to have been a melancholy one. He passed a nomad existence, attached at one time as tutor to some great family, while, at others, he was occupied in writing or translating for Rondelet, Dodoens or Plantin, or undertaking precarious employment at the court of Vienna. The University of Leyden finally appointed him to a professorship. It is interesting to note that he paid more than one visit to England, and that he was intimate with Sir Francis Drake, who gave him plants from the New World.

De l'Écluse had a reputation for versatility scarcely exceeded by that of his contemporary, the " Admirable " Crichton. He is said to have had a wide knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, German, Flemish, Spanish, law, philosophy, history, geography, zoology, mineralogy and numismatics, besides his chosen subject of botany. Since his, botanical début was made as the translator of Dodoens, we may with reason look upon him as a disciple of the latter.

The first original work de l'Écluse produced was an account of the plants which he had observed while on an adventurous expedition to Spain and Portugal with two pupils. This was so successful botanically that he brought back two hundred new species. The description of his finds was published by Plantin in 1576, under the title of 'Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum Historia.' Wood blocks were engraved purposely for this book (see Text-figs. 39, 59 and 98), but, for the confusion of the bibliographer, some of them were also used to illustrate Dodoens' work in the interval while the Spanish flora of de l'Écluse awaited publication. In 1583 appeared our author's second work, which did the same service for the botany of Austria and Hungary as the previous volume had done for the botany of Spain. These two works, together with some additional matter, were republished in 1601 as the ' Rariorum plantarum historia.' In this book, the species belonging to the same genus are often brought together, but, beyond this, there is little attempt at systematic arrangement.

De l'Écluse was weak in the synthetic faculty, his strength lying rather in his powers of observation. Cuvier reckons that he added more than six hundred to the number of known plants. It is characteristic of his versatile mind, that his botanical interests were not confined, like those of most of the early workers, to flowering plants. A manuscript is preserved in the Leyden Library' containing more than eighty beautiful water-colour drawings of fungi, executed under the direction of de l'Écluse, by artists employed by his great friend and patron, Baron Boldizsir de Batthyány. This gentleman is said to have been so enthusiastic a botanist, that he set a Turkish prisoner at liberty, on the condition that he should obtain plants for him from, Turkey.

De l'Ecluse seems to have been a man of wide friend-ships, and his botanical correspondence was very large. He did much for horticulture, and is called by his friend, Marie de Brimen, Princesse de Chimay, " le pére de tous les beaux Jardins de ce pays." He deserves especial gratitude for one benefit of a very practical nature, namely the introduction of the Potato into Germany and Austria. It is worthy of note that de l'Écluse, unlike the majority of the herbalists, was not a physician, and although he laid considerable stress on the properties of plants, he was not preoccupied with the medical side of the subject. He studied plants for their own sake, and abandoned the futile effort to identify them with those mentioned by the ancients.

The third of the trio of botanists whom we are now considering is Mathias de l'Obel [de Lobel or Lobelius], who was born in Flanders in 1538, and died in England, at Highgate, in 1616 (Plate VIII). He studied at Montpelier, under Guillaume Rondelet, who, finally, bequeathed to him his botanical manuscripts. Here also he became acquainted with a young Provençal, Pierre Pena, with whom he afterwards collaborated in botanical work. De l'Obel took up medicine as his profession, and eventually became physician to William the Silent, a post which he held until the assassination of the Stadtholder. Later on, he and Pena came to England, probably to seek a peaceful life under the prosperous sway of Queen Elizabeth which was so favour-able to the arts and sciences. Their principal work was dedicated to her, in terms of hyperbolic praise. De l'Obel seems to have been well received in this country, for he was invited to superintend the medicinal garden at Hackney, belonging to Lord Zouche, and he eventually obtained the title of Botanist to James I.

De l'Obel's chief botanical work was the ` Stirpium adversaria novas,' published in 1570, with Pena as joint author. Pena does not appear to have been a botanist of much importance, and he eventually quite forsook the subject in favour of medicine. It has been suggested, however, that de l'Obel was inclined to minimise the value of his colleague's work. The system of classification, upon which de l'Obel's reputation really rests, is set forth in this book. The main feature of his scheme is that he distinguishes different groups by the peculiarities of their leaves. He is thus led to make a rough separation between the classes which we now call Dicotyledons and Monocotyledons. The details of his system will be considered in a later chapter.

In 1576 the work was enlarged, and republished as the ` Plantar= seu Stirpium Historia' ; it was also translated into Flemish, and appeared under the title of ` Kruydtbceck' in 1581, dedicated to William of Orange, and the Burgomasters and other functionaries of Antwerp. The blocks (see 'Text-fig. 67) used to illustrate this work were taken from previous books, especially those of de l'Écluse. Immediately after the publication of the Kruydtbœck, Plantin brought out an album of the engravings it had contained, which, although they had been also used to illustrate the herbals of Dodoens and de l'Écluse, were now grouped according to de I'Obel's arrangement, which was recognised as the best.

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