King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
The printed page

Hortus sanitatis

Hand-coloured woodcuts and text from Hortus sanitatisHand-coloured woodcuts and text from Hortus sanitatisHand-coloured woodcuts and text from Hortus sanitatisHand-coloured woodcut and text from Hortus sanitatisHortus sanitatis, or Garden of health, is in the tradition of medieval herbals. It was first printed in 1491 in Mainz, Germany, by Jacob Meydenbach, who is thought to have also been the compiler of the book. Due to its date of printing, it is the last major medical work to cover medicines from the Old World only.

The book provides information on the medicinal use of plants and animals both real and mythical, and these themes are illustrated by its accompanying woodcuts which are of both a scientific and a fantastical nature.

It is partly based on the Gart de gesundheit, published in 1485, which is sometimes attributed to Johann von Cube, and was originally printed by Peter Schoeffer at Mainz in 1485.

However, it should be regarded as a separate work, as it covers nearly 100 more medicinal plants than the Gart der gesundheit and also includes extensive sections on animals, birds, fish and minerals, as well as a treatise on urine.

Bookplate of Douglas HarrodBookplate of Douglas HarrodHortus sanitatis had numerous editions published throughout the latter 15th and early 16th centuries before becoming obsolete with the discovery of the New World and its medical remedies.

There are two copies of this work in the Foyle Special Collections Library. The first copy is part of the historical medical collection of St Thomas’s Hospital and is a hand-coloured copy of Meydenbach’s 1491 edition.

The second copy is from the library of Douglas Charles Harrod (1910-94), a former senior lecturer in pharmacy at King’s and is a copy of the Strasbourg edition printed by Johann Prüss in around 1497.


When a wax seal remains a mystery

Red wax seal on page of bookRed wax seal on page of bookLetter of correspondence from Howard NixonLetter of correspondence from Howard NixonIn the study of incunabula, the provenance of a book is of great interest. As we see in this online exhibition, indications of provenance can take many forms and can include inscriptions, handwritten notes, bookplates and marginal illustrations.

To a contemporary book lover’s eye these earlier markings can sometimes appear like defacements, but they may contain clues to the item’s history, ownership and movement through the centuries, and can prove very useful when studying the ownership history of incunabula.

An indication of provenance, or perhaps an element of the book’s production, is found on the 63rd leaf of the 1497 Hortus sanitatis displayed here. This is a wax seal, which is unusual in both nature and placement. The mystery of the seal has clearly baffled previous owners of the book, as revealed by two letters, dated 12 and 15 January 1948.

These letters were discovered in the book and comprise correspondence between Dr Fleming (the former owner of the book) and Howard Nixon of the British Museum. They discuss the provenance of the seal, with Nixon’s original theory being that the seal was a printer’s mark, added to the batch of paper before printing took place.

However, in his second letter, the revelation that the red residue of wax is found above the seal disproves his theory. The wax is covering the printed text, indicating it would have been made after printing had taken place.

These letters also contribute to the rich tapestry of the history of this book. Subsequently, there is no evidence of further correspondence and 80 years have passed with the seal remaining a mystery.

Questions have yet to be answered.

Is the seal a printer’s mark after all, and the spilled wax above the text of a later date? Or was a previous owner using their own seal? This red seal, tantalisingly unexplained, becomes part of the story of the Hortus sanitatis’s journey across Europe, over the centuries.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:
Jacob Meydenbach. Hortus sanitatis. [Mainz]: [Jacob Meydenbach], [23 June 1491]
Johann Prüss. Hortus sanitatis. [Strasbourg: Johann Prüss, c1497]
Note regarding the the letter from Howard Nixon, which is reproduced above.

We believe that this letter, which appears to be part of work carried out as part of Nixon’s official duties is exempt from copyright under ‘Crown copyright’ privilege. 

However, if you are concerned that this, or other material on our website may be in breach of copyright laws, please contact us. A link to contact details and our takedown policy is available here.

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