Botany in the Middle Ages, 700-1449

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Botany in the Middle Ages, 700-1449


The ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) and his pupil Theophrastus (c.370-285 b.c.), made important contributions to botany, the study of plants, but there were few significant additions to that body of knowledge by the Romans. All this knowledge was lost to Europeans after the fall of Rome in 476, when Europe settled into a period called the Dark Ages during which there was little attention to science. This period lasted until about a.d. 1000 when a curiosity about the natural world began to increase slowly. Interest was spurred by the translation of Greek and Roman texts into Latin so that the learning of the ancients again became available in Europe. This meant that by the mid-fifteenth century when movable type was invented, the stage had been set for the reemergence of science in the Renaissance.


During the Dark Ages, economic and social conditions were such that the energies of most people went totally into struggling through life from day to day. There was no time or energy left for scholarly pursuits. Also, the influence of the Church was predominant during this time. This religious focus meant that people paid more attention to preparing for the next life than investigating the present world around them. This was especially true until about a.d. 1000. After that time, economic and social conditions began to improve and the attitude of the Church towards the natural world changed to one of interest rather than neglect.

Through much of the Middle Ages, which stretched roughly from 500-1500, there was little attention to science, in the sense of curiosity about the natural world for its own sake. Any interest in living things, including plants, was solely practical. Most of what was written about plants concerned their medicinal uses, and most of these writings were based on the work of Greek and Roman writers. The Roman, Pliny the Elder (23-79), had written an extensive Natural History in the first century of Christian era, and it was the only satisfactory presentation of the botanical ideas of Theophrastus to survive into medieval times. Theophrastus's work itself wasn't rediscovered and translated into Latin until the end of the Middle Ages.

The botanical work that was most influential and most copied was that of Dioscorides (c. 20-90), a Greek physician who wrote a practical guide to medicine that included information on about 500 different plants. While no copies of his original text have survived, it is assumed that, to make identification easier, it included illustrations of the plants he described. Over the centuries many copies of this work were produced, and these too were often illustrated. Such books on plants came to be called herbals. As time went on they became less and less accurate and sometimes careless copying led to the introduction of more and more errors in the text and to simplification of the drawings to the point where they became of almost no help in identifying the plants described.

After Muhammad (c. 570-632) founded the Islamic religion in the seventh century, the Arab world became an important seat of learning. As Europe sank into the Dark Ages, the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans was translated into Arabic by Islamic scholars; these works included the Materia Medica of Dioscorides and the De Plantis of Nicolaus of Damascus (c. first century b.c.). Building on the work of Dioscorides, the great Arab physician Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037) included 650 plants in his list of over 750 drugs. Thus the Arabs preserved and added to knowledge of medicinal plants, but they were not botanists in that they were not interested in plant structure and function outside of practical considerations.

Even before 1000, Europe showed some signs of an awakening interest in knowledge. An important medical school was founded at Salerno in central Italy in the ninth century, and it was strengthened by its connection to the nearby Benedictine monastery of Cassino where Greek texts on medicine and botany were available. It was at Cassino in the mid-eleventh century, that Arabic medical texts, including plant lists, were translated into Latin, and thus became accessible to European scholars.


In the twelfth century, two writers made contributions that indicated the reawakening of interest in intellectual pursuits, including those in botany. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), who is considered the first woman to have written about plants, produced over 200 works, including a book called Physica that contained about 200 short essays on plants and their medicinal uses. She included folk remedies she had collected as well as information derived from other sources such as Dioscorides. The other writer is Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Though again his work on plants was not original, but primarily a rehash of the ancient Greeks, his writing style indicates an increased interest in logic and in the exploration of ideas.

Perhaps the most important figure in botany of the Middle Ages is Albert the Great or Albertus Magnus (1200-1280), who belonged to the Dominican Order of the Church. He studied at the University of Padua, which was the leading medical and scientific center in Italy at the time. He then taught at the University of Paris where Roger Bacon (1220-1292) gave a series of lectures that included a discussion of plants, and these seem to have greatly influenced Albert. Bacon had himself been influenced by the De Plantis of Nicolaus of Damascus which had recently been translated into Latin. Some historians see it as unfortunate that the work of Nicolaus and not that of Theophrastus was translated at this time, because, though it contained a great deal of misinformation, it came to represent Greek learning on botany to European scholars. Bacon relied on it, and in turn, so did Albert who produced his writings on plants between 1250 and 1260.

The first five books of Albert's seven-book De Vegetabilibus are essentially a reworked version of Nicolaus, to which Albert has added some commentaries. These include explanations of astrological influences on plants which are characteristic of medieval writings. There is also information on the magical powers of plants and descriptions of oddities such as vines supposedly growing out of the acorns of oak trees. But in among these are some very accurate observations on plants that indicate that Albert was not just parroting from the writings of others, but had studied plants for himself. He wrote of structures and anatomical details that had not been described before, thus bringing the study of plants beyond the practical. Albert was interested in plants not just for how they could be used in medicine but for their own interesting properties.

One of the rules of the Dominican Order was that its members must travel on foot. Since Albert traveled throughout Germany on various missions for the Order, he had many opportunities to observe plants growing in their natural environments. It was because of these experiences that there are some ecological observations in his writings; he notes how the species found in forests are different from those in swampy areas and in open fields.

The last two books of De Vegetabilibus do not draw on the work of Nicolaus of Damascus and are much more valuable. The seventh book is on agriculture, and while Albert does use many of the ideas of the past, he also describes the farming practices of the day. This work shows how a scientific mind was excited by the changes taking place in agriculture at this time. But it is the sixth book that is most noteworthy; it provides information on the medical and economic uses of about 270 plants. The descriptions are so accurate that they allow identification of at least 250 plants to genus or species. In some cases, the accuracy and amount of detail is superior even to that of Theophrastus. But unlike Theophrastus, Albert did not develop a technical vocabulary of terms to describe the features he identified. This limited the amount of information he could convey and his ability to compare structures in different species. So while his work is a vast improvement over that of others writing at this time, he was not able to go very far toward making botany into a modern science.

Albertus Magnus can be seen as a figure who was still firmly grounded in the Middle Ages but whose thinking was definitely moving in new directions. In the introduction to the sixth book on plants, he emphasizes his reliance on direct observation and personal experience and notes that he is not just reporting on the findings of others but doing his own work. Here he shows that like the scientists of the future, he values direct experience of the natural world rather than accepting the authority of others. It is this attitude which separated him from others of his day who merely reworked the learning of the past without adding to it. During Albert's time, many of the great Gothic cathedrals were being constructed, and in a number of them are very accurate depictions of plants and animals in stone and stained glass. Interest in nature manifested itself first in art and then in science as the Middle Ages came to an end.


Further Reading

Arber, Agnes.Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution 1470-1670. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Blunt, Wilfred, and Sandra Raphael. The Illustrated Herbal. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Iseley, Duane.One Hundred and One Botanists. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Magner, Lois. A History of the Life Sciences. Second ed. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1994.

Morton, A.G. History of Botanical Science. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

Reed, Howard. A Short History of the Plant Sciences. New York: Ronald Press, 1942.

Serafini, Anthony. The Epic History of Biology. New York: Plenum, 1993.

Singer, Charles, and E. Ashworth Underwood. A Short History of Medicine. Second ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.


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