Brunfels, Otto

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Brunfels, Otto

(b. Mainz, Germany, ca. 1489; d. Bern, Switzerland, 23 [?] November 1534)


The earliest of the three “German fathers of botany” (the others being Jerome Bock and Leonhard Fuchs), Brunfels pioneered the dramatically sudden emancipation of botany from medieval herbalism.

Otto was the son of Johann Brunfels, a cooper; his mother’s name is unknown. He received his early education locally and the master of arts degree at the University of Mainz in 1508/1509. Subsequently, he entered the Carthusian monastery in Strasbourg. He remained there until 1521, when, aided by Ulrich von Hutten, one of Luther’s principal defenders, he fled the monastery and the Catholic faith as well. For the next three years he served as a pastor in Steinau and engaged in theological controversy. He returned to Strasbourg in 1524 and opened his own school. That same year he married Dorothea Heilgenhensin, who later helped to prepare his manuscripts for posthumous publication. There is no record of children from the marriage. He soon demonstrated his interest in medicine by editing and translating various older medical texts and by writing one of the earliest medical bibliographies, the Catalogus (1530). In that same year, Volume I of the Herbarum vivae eicones appeared, a book destined to change the direction of botany. Between 1530 and 1532, Brunfels supervised the publication of Volume II of the Herbarum and Volume I of the Contrafayt Kreüterbuoch while writing several other books. About this time, he moved to Basel, where he received the doctor of medicine degree from the university in late 1532. On 3 October 1533 he was appointed town physician in Bern for a period of six years. Approximately a year later, he fell seriously ill and died, possibly from diphtheria. He is commemorated by the genus Brunfelsia (Solanaceae), named in his honor by Charles Plumier in 1703.

Through his early theological and pedagogical writings and his wide correspondence (still unedited), Brunfels became associated with the local Strasbourg humanists, one of whom, Johann Schott, printed many of his books. Presumably it was through Schott that he became acquainted with the artist Hans Weiditz, whose name is inseparably linked with the Herbarum.

Judged by modern standards, the Herbarum is a curious combination of the old and the new. The text is a typical late-medieval collection of extracts uncritically compiled from earlier writings and possessing little independent value. The illustrations, on the other hand, are detailed, accurate renderings of plants executed with a realism that revolutionized botanical iconography. Most subsequent sixteenth-century herbals are the direct descendants of a method first enunciated under Brunfels’ guidance. The impact of his contribution and the scientific value of the Herbarum would have been incalculably greater if the descriptions, like the illustrations, had been taken from nature.

The Herbarum is divided into rhapsodiae (chapters), each of which is devoted to one plant. The text, essentially a series of verbatim quotations from older authorities, is thematically connected by a concern to identify therapeutically useful plants. For this purpose, classical Greek and Latin names are correlated with the German vernacular names. The plants are not arranged in any systematic order, for it was not Brunfels’ intention to propose a classification. Nevertheless, the arrangement is not alphabetical, and related species often appear on successive folios. Most of the plants described (approximately 230 species) were indigenous to Strasbourg and its environs. Over forty species were first described by Brunfels. Exotica, frequently encountered in the incunabula herbals, are ignored.

The bulk of each rhapsodia is devoted to the medicinal properties of the plant. Pertinent information includes preparation, administration, and dosage of some specified portion of the plant, time of collection, and the ailments for which the prepared drug was reputedly beneficial. Pharmacological uses are expressed in terms of the Galenic doctrine of “grades” and “temperaments.” This information is derived almost exclusively from Brunfels’ sources, forty-seven of whom are listed (sig. A iiiv). His main authorities were classical, principally Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen, although medieval, Arabic, and especially contemporary Italian writers are also cited. Following the extracts from his authorities, there is often a section entitled “Iudicium nostrum” (“My Opnion”), in which Brunfels presents his own evidence.

At the end of Volume Ii of the Herbarum are twelve tracts, collectively entitled “De vera herbarum cognitione appendix,” edited by Brunfels. The tracts are devoted primarily to the nomenclature of plants known to the ancients. Both Bock and Fuchs first appear as authors in this collection.

The Contrafayt Kreüterbuoch, a German adaptation, not a translation, of the Herbarum, was undertaken by Brunfels before the Herbarum was completed and prior to his departure for Basel. All but sixteen of the illustrations of the Herbarum are repeated, with about fifty additional figures. Not all of the plants discussed are illustrated, however. Altogether about 260 species were depicted in the Herbarum and the Kreüterbuoch. The text of the latter is better organized, the text being arranged under sectional headings dealing with nomenclature, appearance and form, habitat, time of collecting, and medical uses and properties. The long verbatim extracts were abandoned, although their content was closely paraphrased. Like the Herbarum, the Kreüterbuoch remained incomplete at Brunfels’ death.

One other botanical work was published under Brunfels’ name, the posthumous In Dioscoridis historiam. It is a series of illustrations taken from the same wood blocks as those used for the Herbarum, presented without preface or text save the plants’ names, which appear alongside the illustrations.

The three volumes of the Herbarum contain 238 woodcut illustrations, ranging in size from full folio to small text figures and normally illustrating the text of the facing or adjacent folio. The illustrations, a happy combination of scientific accuracy and aesthetic charm, were designed by Weiditz, who also cut the majority of the blocks. Despite the width of even the finest lines (less than 200μ) and the fact that Weiditz had had no previous botanical training, details of floral structure and vegetative organography are readily apparent. Moreover, careful attention was given to the general appearance of the plant and its typical habitat. Usually the entire plant is depicted, all portions (root, stem, leaves, blossom, and fruit) receiving equal attention, even though, for example, the function of the stamens or the taxonomic importance of foliaceous bracts was then unappreciated. Leaves damaged by insects, broken petioles and bent stems, and blossoms in different stages of development leave no doubt that the illustrations were based on living plants. The drooping appearance of some stems and leaves suggests that the plant was dug up entire and had begun to wilt when illustrated. Owing largely to the fidelity of the woodcuts, the great majority of the plants discussed by Brunfels have been identified with reasonable certainty.

While Brunfels must be given credit for planning an illustrated herbal and overseeing its preparation, credit is also due Weiditz for executing the realistic illustrations. The Herbarum is the first printed botanical book in which scientific value can be assigned to the illustrations. Weiditz’ contributions were noted by Brunfels, and through his appreciative comments in the preface of the Kreüterbuoch the artist assumes, for the first time, a recognized place in botanical literature. Some of Weiditz’ watercolor drawings that served as the originals for the wood blocks of the Herbarum were discovered by Rytz in Bern. Their publication demonstrated that the success of the Herbarum was, in large measure, the result of Weiditz’ participation.

Although Brunfels’ other writings were of less scientific importance, they deserve a brief note because they were typical of the times and, contributing to his reputation, they facilitated the acceptance of his botanical work. Leaving aside his theological and pedagogical writings (about twenty-eight separate publications), his nonbotanical work was principally in medicine and pharamacology. In the former, Brunfels was active as a translator (Lanfranchi, Paul of Aegina, Galen) and as an editor (Dioscorides, Fries, Tanstetter, Serapion, and others). He was no less industrious in compiling practical texts designed for the use of physicians and apothecaries, which contained prescriptions and related pharmacological matter and were usually well indexed for ready reference. His most important pharmacological work was the Reformation der Apotecken. Originally written in Strasbourg, it was enlarged to serve as a city ordinance for apothecaries in Bern. It contains one of the earliest Swiss dispensatories. Brunfels’ passion for compiling and organizing reference material, already evident in the “Appendix de usu et administratione simplicium” (Herbarum, I, fols. 273–329) was fully exhibited in his ’Ονομαστικóν, a comprehensive dictionary containing a wealth of material related to medicine, botany, alchemy, and metrology. One other writing, the De diffinitionibus, is of interest because of its criticism of astrology.


I. Original Works. Brunfels was active as editor, translator, and author.

His own works are Von allerhandt apoteckischen Confectionen, Lattwergen, Oel, Pillulen, Trencken, Trociscen, Zuckerscheiblin, Salben und Pflastern… (Strasbourg, ca. 1530; repr. Frankfurt, 1552); Catalogus illustrium medicorum, sive de primis medicinae scriptoribut… (Strasbourg 1530); Herbarum vivae eicones ad naturae imitationem, summa cum diligentia et artificio effigiatae, una cum effectibus earundem…, 3 vols.: I (Strasbourg, 1530; repr. 1532, 1536, 1537; with II and III, 1539); II (Strasbourg, 1531 [colophon, 1532], 1536, 1537, 1539); III, Michael Heer, ed. (Strasbourg, 1536, 1537, 1539, 1540); Contrafayt Kreüterbuoch, 2 vols.: I (Strasbourg, 1532; repr., with different title, Strasbourg, 1534, 1539; with II, Frankfurt, 1546, 1551); II (Strasbourg, 1537, 1540); facsimile repr. of I (1532) and II (1537) (Munich, 1964); Theses seu communes loci totius rei medicae. Item. De usu pharmacorum, deque artificio suppressam alvum ciendi, liber (Strasbourg, 1532); De diffinitionibus et terminis astrologiae libellus isagogicus, in Julius Firmicus Maternus, Ad Mavortium Lollianum astronomicon libri VIII (Basel, 1533; repr. Basel, 1551); Jatrion medicamentorum simplicium continens remedia omnium morborum quae tam hominibus quam pecudibus accidere possunt.. 4 vols. (Strasbourg, 1533); ’Ονομαστικóν medicinae… (Strasbourg, 1534; repr., with different title, Strasbourg, 1543 [colophon, 1544]); Weiber und Kinder Apoteck, 2 vols. (Strasbourg, ca. 1534; Annotationes in quatuor evangelia et acta apostolorum (Strasbourg, 1535), which, besides autobiographical material, has the only known authentic portrait of Brunfels on the reverse of the title page; Reformation der Apotecken… (Strasbourg, 1536); Epitome medices summam totius medicinae cornplectens… (Paris, 1540); and In Dioscoridis historiam herbarum certissima adaptatio… (Strasbourg, 1543).

Among the works he edited are Alessandro Benedetti, Anatomice; sive, De hystoria corporis humani libri quinque (Strasbourg, 1528); Dioscorides, Pharmacorum simplicium, reique medicae libri VIII, Jo. Ruellio interprete… (Strasbourg, 1529); Lorenz Fries, Spiegel der Arizney… (Strasbourg, 1529; repr., with slightly changed title, Strasbourg, 1532, 1546); Georg Tanstetter von Thannau, Artificium de applicatione astrologie ad medicinam, deque convenientia earundem… (Strasbourg, 1531); and Neotericorum aliquot medicorum introductiones (Strasbourg, 1533).

He translated Guido Lanfranchi, Kleyne Wundartznei… auss fürbit des Gregorii Flüguss.. (Strasbourg, 1528; repr. with slightly changed title, Strasbourg, 1529; Erfurt, 1529; Zwickau, 1529; Cöllen, n.d. [after 1529]; Frankfurt, 1552, 1569; Magdeburg, n.d. [not before 1578]); Paul of Aegina, Pharmaca simplicia, Othone Brunfelsio interprete. Idem, De ratione victus Gulielmo Copo Basiliensi interprete… (Strasbourg, 1531); In hoc volumine continentur… Joan. Serapionis Arabis de simplicibus medicines… Averrois Arabis de eisdem liber eximius. Rasis filii Zachariae de eisdem opusculum… Incerti item autoris de centaureo libellus hactenus Galeno inscriptus. Dictionum Arabicarum juxta atque Latinarum index valde necessarius… (Strasbourg, 1531); and Galen, De ossibus ad tyrones (Padua 1551).

II. Secondary Literature. Biographical data on Brunfels’ life are meager and ultimately derive from the preface of the Annotationes in quatuor evangelia. Supplementing them are many references to him and his religious activities in contemporary theological and humanistic writings.

The following concern his scientific work: H. Christ, “Otto Brunfels und seine Herbarum vivae eicones. Ein botanischer Reformator des XVI. Jahrhunderts,” in Verhandlungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Basel, 38 (1927), 1–11; A. H. Church, “Brunfels and Fuchs,” in Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 57 (1919), 233–244; F. A. Flückiger, “Otto Brunfels, Fragment zur Geschichte der Botanik und Pharmacie,” in Archiv der Pharmacie, 212 (1878), 493–514; Friedrich Kirschleger, Flore d’Alsace et des contrées limitrohpes, II (Strasbourg-Paris, 1857), xiii-xvii, which contains the identifications of 106 species figured in the Herbarum; E. H. F. Meyer, Geschichte der Botanik, IV (Königsberg, 1857), 295–303; Claus Nissen, Die Botanische Buchillustration, 2 vols. (Stuttgart, 1951), I, 40–44; II, nos. 257–261; F. W. E. Roth, “Otto Brunfels. Nach seinem Leben und litterarischen Wirken geschildert.” in Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins, n.s. 9 (1894), 284–320; “Die Schriften des Otto Brunfels. 1519–1536,” in Jahrbuch für Geschichte, Sprache und Literatur Elsass-Lothringens, 16 (1900), 257–288, the best bibliography of Brunfels’ writings, 49 publications plus 3 dubious ones, but still incomplete; and “Otto Brunfels 1489–1534. Ein deutscher Botaniker,” in Botanische Zeitung, 58 (1900), 191–232, a well-documented biographical study; Alfred Schmid, “Zwei seltene Kräuterbücher aus dem vierten Dezennium des sechzehnten Jahrhunderts,” in Schweizerischen Gutenbergmuseum, no. 3 (1936), 160–180, the only study of the quarto eds. of the Kreüterbuoch (1534, 1539, 1540, 1551) and the best bibliographical analysis of the complex dating of the various eds. and vols. of the Herbarum; Thomas Archibald Sprague, “The Herbal of Otto Brunfels,” in Journal of the Linnean Society (London), 48 (1928), 79–124, a fundamental study with modern identifications of the plants figured by Brunfels; and Kurt Sprengel, Geschichte der Botanik, I (Altenburg-Leipzig, 1817), 258–262, containing the identifications, some dubious, of 131 species figured by Brunfels.

Also of interest are Karl Hartfelder, “Otto Brunfels als Verteidiger Huttens,” in Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins, n.s. 8 (1893), 565–578; Heinrich Röttinger, “Hans Weiditz, der strassburger Holzschnittzeichner,” in Elsass–Lothringisches Jahrbuch, 16 (1937), 75–125; Walther Rytz, Pflanzenaquarelle des Hans Weiditz aus dem Jahre 1529. Die Originale zu den Holzschnitten im Brunfels’schen Kräuterbuch (Bern, 1936); and Erich Sanwald, Otto Brunfels 1488–1534. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Humanismus und der Reformation. I. Häifte 1488–1524 (Bottrop, Germany, 1932).

Jerry Stannard