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Bock, Jerome

Bock, Jerome

(b. Heidesbach, or Heidelsheim, Germany, 1498; d. Hornbach. Germany, 21 February 1554)


Bock (also known as Hieronymus Tragus) was one of the three “German fathers of botany.” Along with Otto Brunfels and Leonhard Fuchs, he represented the transition from late medieval botany, with its philological scholasticism, to early modern botany, with its demand that descriptions and illustrations be derived from nature.

Melchior Adam, Bock’s first biographer, provides the earliest, and in some cases the only, information on his career. His birthplace is debatable, but internal evidence indicates that his adult life was spent in the Saar. His parents, Heinrich and Margarethe (maiden name unrecorded), apparently wished their son to enter a cloister. Where he received his early schooling is unknown. He may have attended the University of Heidelberg; but whether he studied medicine, philosophy, or theology is uncertain, for there is no record that he received a degree. In January 1523 Bock accepted a position in Zweibrücken; and on 25 January 1523 he married Eva, daughter of Heinrich and Margarethe Victor. He remained in Zweibrücken until 1533, when he accepted a canonry at the Benedictine church of St. Fabian in nearby Hornbach. The growing religious unrest forced Bock, who had become a follower of Luther, to leave Hornbach in August 1550. For a short period he acted as personal physician to the Landgraf Philipp II of Nassau, whose garden he is said to have supervised and to whom his Kreuterbuch was dedicated. In 1551 he returned to Hornbach, where he died three years later, probably of consumption. Bock’s memorial tablet at St. Fabian’s, where he was buried, was later discovered by Adam, who preserved a transcript of it.

The first result of Bock’s botanizing excursions, dating from his years at Hornbach and conducted, he states, while dressed as a peasant, is the short tract De herbarum quarundam nomenclaturis. As the title suggests, it is concerned primarily with nomenclature—more specifically, with relating Greek and Latin names to local plants. Despite the lexicographical orientation, the brief entries indicate a personal acquaintance with plants, and Bock is not afraid to admit that he has never seen some of the plants mentioned by the ancients.

The appearance of Bock’s Neu Kreütterbuch (1539) marked a new beginning in botany. It was some time, however, before his departure from tradition found general acceptance. Written in the vernacular, lacking illustrations, and sandwiched between the better-known writings of Brunfels and Fuchs, it was soon lost from sight. Only with the publication in 1546 of the first illustrated edition, and bolstered by the Latin translation of 1552, did Bock’s position become assured. As the first to describe the local flora, Bock has been credited with discovering many new species. The lack of illustrations turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for it forced Bock to describe plants in such a manner that they could be recognized by a reader whose botanical knowledge was limited to local species and their vernacular names.

Bock’s lasting contributions to botany, commemorated by Charles Plumier, who named the genus Tragia (Euphorbiaceae) in his honor, were the result of a happy union of talent and perseverance. By combining personal observation and precise description with an attempt to establish taxonomic relationships on a new basis, Bock broke sharply with the past. Being neither a physician, at least in the ordinary sense, nor a university scholar, he looked at plant life with the eyes of a true amateur, unencumbered by the necessity of finding a therapeutic rationale or a classical antecedent for every plant.

The third German edition (1551), from which the Latin translation was made, may be considered Bock’s final statement. Despite such additions as a preface and an index, the text and illustrations remained essentially unaltered in successive editions. It will be convenient first to note the general format of the Kreuterbuch. The descriptions of approximately seven hundred plants and trees are arranged in three parts. The first two deal with herbs, monocotyledons, and cryptogams, while the third part treats of shrubs and trees. Each of the more than four hundred chapter divisions follows a set formula: “On Names.” “On the Power and Effect.” “Internal Uses.” and “External Uses.” Prior to the section on nomenclature, which contains Greek, Latin, and Arabic synonyms, there is an untitled section in which the plant is described. It is this material upon which Bock’s reputation depends. Innocent of the sexuality of plants and the taxonomic significance of the reproductive organs Bock necessarily based the descriptions upon the morphological characteristics of the vegetative portions. The descriptions usually contain the following information: the general aspect, including height, sometimes expressed in the form of a comparison with another, better-known plant; remarks on the foliage, including any noteworthy shape, texture, odor, or color; and miscellaneous observations concerning root systems, time of flowering, and economic uses. By establishing marks useful for field identification—the presence of milky sap or stipules, the distinction between various underground parts or between terete and quadrangular stems—Bock was the first modern botanist to teach the importance of fine structure. Although this momentarily diverted attention from the potential significance of floral organs, it stimulated inquiry until optical aids changed the conception of plant anatomy.

Floral structure was not ignored, however, and it is here that Bock’s powers of observing and recording details are most apparent. He described the stamen, noting that it was typically composed of two parts, the filament and anther, and that while the number of stamens varied, their number was constant for a given species. This description, one of the earliest in botanical literature, is matched by his account of the pistil, which he correctly noted was composed of stigma and style. Another remarkable observation was his recognition that species of the birch family (Betulaceae) have, in addition to the familiar, tassel-like aments, other, quite inconspicuous flower clusters. In neither case, however, was Bock able to identify them with the staminate catkins or the pistillate inflorescence recognized today.

Passing from the blossom to the subsequent seed or fruit, another side of Bock’s ability is revealed. As the first to describe the lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis L.), his account is the more noteworthy because it calls attention to the fruit, which he likens to red coral (fol. 204v, 1577 ed.). Ever searching for more accurate information or a confirmation of his suspicions, he planted the downy catkins of a willow. He was pleased to see them germinate, which demonstrated that they were seeds (fol. 380v). An even more determined effort was his nightly vigil to collect seeds from a fern (Osmunda regalis L.). Naturally he failed, but by collecting some of the ejected sporangia without resorting to incantations or other superstitious practices (fol. 194v), he made a major, if unappreciated, step forward.

The larger, drupaceous fruits, which served many domestic purposes, did not require so exacting a description. On the other hand, in order to illustrate a fruit-bearing tree in the same naturalistic manner as herbs, a different technique was demanded. In conjunction with David Kandel, the Strasbourg artist whom Bock employed, a workable solution was found for some thirty trees. The woodcuts depict the characteristic leaf, the shape of the fruit (often disproportionately enlarged and placed in inset), and various genre scenes representing the symbolic value or economic use of the tree in question.

In his efforts to observe native plants, Bock traveled widely in the Rhineland and elsewhere, often supplying the names of towns where he encountered unusual plants. He recorded such ecological and phenological data as would provide a more accurate account, including habitat, occurrence of weeds, and time of budding. Not all of his observations were made in the field, however, for he mentions his friends’ gardens, some of which he visited or from some of which he received specimens.

As a consequence of his wide knowledge, it was inevitable that Bock made some effort at classification. Expressly rejecting an alphabetical arrangement, he made the fullest possible use of relating plants in terms of similarity of form, corolla shape, and formation of seed capsules. Because of his ignorance of plant sexuality, his efforts have only historical interest today. Nevertheless, by indicating a method based upon more than one criterion, he provided guidelines for succeeding generations of taxonomists.

By focusing attention on the plants themselves and by daring to question the high authority of Dioscorides and other classical writers, Bock laid down methodological canons whose future importance transcended even his own accomplishments. The rapid development of botany in the latter half of the sixteenth century owed much to the schoolteacher from Zweibrücken who led the exodus from the library into the fields.


I. Original Works. Because of serious discrepancies in the accounts of Nissen, Pritzel, and Roth (1899), and in the absence of any bibliography of Bock’s published writings, the following list may be useful.

Bock’s major work is, of course, the Kreuterbuch. It first appeared as Neu Kreütterbuch von Underscheydt, Würckung und Namen der Kreutter, so in teutschen Landen wachsen… (Strasbourg, 1539). The second German ed., the first to be illustrated, was Kreuterbuch. Darin Underscheid, Würckung und Namen der Kreuter, so in deutschen Landen wachsen… (Strasbourg, 1546); there was an enlarged edition entitled Kreuterbuch, darinn Underscheidt, Namen und Würckung der Kreuter, Stauden, Hecken und Beuman, sammt ihren Früchten, so in deutschen Landan wachsen… (Strasbourg, 1551, 1556, 1560, 1565, 1572, 1574). Melchior Sebizius edited Kreütterbuch, darin Underscheidt, Nammen und Würckung der Kreütter… (Strasbourg, 1577, 1580, 1586, 1587, 1595, 1630; facsimile reprint, Munich, 1964, essentially a reprint of the 1551 ed.). The Speisskammer has been added as pt. 4, and there is new material in the preliminary leaves.

Others works by Bock are De herbarum quarundam nomenclaturis, in Otto Brunfels, Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem…, II (Strasbourg, 1531–1532), the ninth of twelve tracts appearing under the title De vera herbarum cognitione appendix (the pagination varies with the ed. of Brunfels); Hieronymi herbarii Apodixis Germanica, ex qua facile vulgares herbas omnes licebit perdiscere, ibid., the last tract of the collection De vera herbarum…—although sometimes ascribed to Bock, it may well be the work of Hieronymus Brunschwig (1450–1512); Der vollen brüder ordern. Diss buchlein zeyget an was der wein würcke inn denen so ihn missbrauchen (Strasbourg, ca. 1540); Kurtz regiment für das grausam Haupt, wehe und breune, vor die Gemein und Armes heuflin hin und widerim Wasgaw und Westereich… (Strasbourg, 1544); Regiment für alle zufallende kranckheit das Leibs auch wie man die Leibsgebrechen so jetzund vorhanden sol abschaffen (n.p., 1544; vide Roth [1899], p. 67, no. 3); Regiment für das Hauptweh, in Artzneybuch köstlich für mancherley Kranckheit des gantzen Leibs… (Erfurt, 1546; Frankfurt, ca. 1549; Nuremberg, 1549 [the title of the collection is differnet]; Königsberg, 1565); Bader Ordnung…aufs den Hochgelerten Hippocrate und Barptholomeo Montagnana, sampt andern auffs kürtzest, allen frommen Barden zu Trost, ins Teutsch gestelt (Strasbourg, 1550); Teutsche Speisskammer (Strasbourg, 1550, 1555); Verae atque ad vivum expressae imagines omnium herbarum, fructicum et arborum… (Strasbourg. 1550, 1553); De stirpium maxime earum quae in Germania nostra nascuntur…interprete Davide Kybero…(Strasbourg, 1552), a translation of the 1551 edition of the Kreuterbuch that also contains tracts by Conrad Gesner and Benedict Textor; Artzneibüchlin, in Johannes Dryander, New Artznei und Practicierbüchlin (Frankfurt, 1557, 1572).

II. Secondary Literature. Works concerning Bock are Melchior Adam, Vitae Germanorum medicorum (Heidelberg, 1620), pp. 67–72; J.-E. Gérock, “Les illustrations de David Kandel dans le Kreuterbuch de Tragus,” in Archives alsaciennes d’histoire de l’art (1931), 137–148, with eleven figures; Edward Lee Greene, Landmarks of Botanical History, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, LIV (Washington, D.C., 1909), 220–262; Heinrich Marzell, “Das Buchsbaum-bild im Krauterbuch (1551) des Hieronymus Bock,” in Sudhoffs Archiv, 38 (1954), 97–103; Louis Masson, “Le’Livre de plantes‘ de Tragus,” in Aesculape, 24 (1934), 301–310, ten figures; Ernst H. F. Meyer, Geschichte der Botanik, IV (Konigsberg, 1857), 303–309; Claus Nissen, Die botanische Buchillustration, II, nos 182–184 (Stuttgart, 1951); Georg A. Pritzel, Thesaurus literaturae botanicae, end ed. (Milan, 1950), facsimile reproduction of Leipzig 1872 ed., nos. 864–868; F. W. E. Roth, “Hieronymus Bock, genannt Tragus (1498–1554),” in Botanisches Centralblatt, 74 (1989), 265–271, 313–318, 344–347; and “Hieronymus Bock, genannt Tragus, Prediger, Arzt und Botaniker 1498 bis 1554,” in Mitteilungen des historischen Vereins der Pfalz, 23 (1899), 25–74; Kurt Sprengel, Geschichte der Botanik, I (Altenberg-Leipzig, 1817), 269–272, which contains a list of 109 plants first described by Bock.

Jerry Stannard

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