Secretum secretorum - De Mirabilibus Mundi - Natural history
Background for Ars Magica sagas

Natural History

Natural history in the Middle Ages was a complex amalgam of fact and fancy, in which reports concerning fabulous and exotic animals, plants and minerals were indistinguishable from everyday experiences concerning indigenous species and domesticated varieties. Because of the guidelines established by theology and philosophy, the wide range of data derived from practical experience and the crafts rarely conflicted with the dicta derived from the Scriptures or excerpted from Patristic writings.

The methods, vocabulary and conceptual frameworks employed by medieval writers who touched upon the world of nature were shaped by a plan loftier than the empirical study of animals, plants and minerals. As a result, medieval natural history might be compared to a scrapbook: of the beliefs and claims regarding the creatures of nature are like so many clippings, each page, so to speak, representing the random notices concerning a single species with little attempts at verification or scientific accuracy. For these reasons, then, it is preferable to speak of "natural history" than of "biology" and to organize selected materials in a manner that accords with medieval modes of thought and experience.

The complex relations between the world of nature and the world of texts are everywhere apparent in writings on and allusions to natural history throughout the Middle Ages. As a consequence, the enormous debt owed to classical antiquity must always be taken into consideration. Many medieval reports concerning the fauna, flora and mineralia have their origins in Greco-Roman texts. It is from such texts (including excerpts, epitomes, paraphrases and the like) that much of the detailed information was transmitted, later to be amplified or modified depending upon circumstances; for example, lexica, poems, sermons and so forth, imposed different requirements upon the use of ancient and possible pagan material.

The medieval bestiaries, in one fashion or another, were descended from the anonymous Physiologus, originally written in Greek and its early Latin versions. With the passage of time, the number of animals was increased, their names and the order of presentation changed, various plants and mineral substances added, and the illustrations and their extra-biological interpretations varied in accordance with changes in taste. These variations are readily understandable when it is borne in mind that the ultimate purpose served by the bestiary was didactic and that the assorted creatures described therein were merely the vehicles for arresting the reader's attention. However, despite all the variations, the beliefs concerning the animals described but not invariably illustrated were endlessly embellished, with little regard for factual details based on observation. As such, those beliefs thoroughly permeated medieval literature and art, sacred and profane alike. Armed with such texts, surrounded by legends and fables in which the traits of imaginary creatures were as credible as those of real ones, and reinforced daily by their symbolic associations, the independent study of animals for their own sakes was rarely undertaken. In the strict sense, then, there was no scientific study of animals such as we associate today with zoology.

The situation is somewhat different with respect to plants because the descriptions of the several hundred herbs, shrubs, trees and their products found in herbals were designed to serve the eminently practical purpose of medical therapy. As such, fabulous and imaginary plants, though often cited in medieval texts of various kinds, found little space in herbals. Owing to the very old and widespread belief in the virtues of curative properties (virtutes) attributed to many plants and to the training required in collecting the correct species for a specified purpose, the compilers of herbals, many of whom are now unknown, wisely restricted themselves, for the most part, to practical information. In this respect, they differed considerably from the bestiarists, some of whom seem to have had inflated ideas of their literary abilities. The fund of useful and practical information found in herbals was based on many centuries of experience with local plants and the accumulated wisdom associated with the uses, internal and external, of those plants. As a consequence of the practical needs which the herbal was designed to meet, the descriptions of many of the species indigenous to Western Europe were based on or supplemented by personal knowledge of the plants in question.

Like the bestiaries, lapidaries, or books of stones, seemingly describe natural objects. In many instances, the precious and semiprecious minerals and gemstones described therein can be identified, just as can some of the picturesque beasts of the bestiaries. But, to continue the analogy, the description of the gems and jewels figured in the lapidaries are based as much on imagination, fables, classical mythology, and misunderstandings of earlier reports, ultimately Greco-Roman, as are those of bestiaries. In addition to recounting some of the physical properties of minerals (usually restricted to color and hue), their medicinal, magical and apotropaic virtues are given a prominent place.

The aforementioned literary genres - bestiaries, herbals and lapidaries - provide a basis for understanding the principal contributions of medieval natural history and, as such, furnish a convenient point of departure for examining in greater detail its form and content. However, as popular as they were - and of that, the surviving manuscripts and incunabula amply testify - they are not the only sources available to us. A wide range of collateral material may be consulted profitably, including lexica; leechbooks; hunting, fishing and agricultural manuals; books of antidotes and recipes; encyclopedias; books of secrets; travel accounts; and, of course, theindefinably large class of belles-lettres and theology.


With respect to the study of animals, the bestiary is perhaps the most typical and accessible class of sources. Bestiaries, along with encyclopedias, provide the best means of ascertaining both what was known and what was believed about animals in the Middle Ages. To a limited extent, herbals and books of medical recipes are also useful, insofar as they describe various invertebrates (especially mollusks and insects), portions of which were popularly believed to possess therapeutic value. Other, more specialized, tracts will be mentioned below.

Despite the fact that the general purpose of bestiaries, encyclopedias, and herbals differed, the methods employed in their compilation were much the same, namely, excerpting previous texts and only rarely introducing material gained through personal observation. Accordingly, consistency and agreement in matters of detail are not to be expected. This is much more the case with bestiaries than with herbals, for while the order of presentation in the latter frequently is alphabetical and the sources are more limited, in the case of bestiaries the order sometimes follows the Physiologus, but at other times seems to have been determined by the compiler according to criteria now unknown. Furthermore, since the names of animals were not standardized, greater freedom was shown in the order of presentation in the vernacular bestiaries. Finally, one particular class of bestiaries can be identified readily by the addition of a short etymological exursus on the name of the animal in question. These etymologies, usually as fanciful as they were charming, ultimately stem from Isidore of Seville's Origines sive Etymologiae, one of the earliest of the encyclopedias and, subsequently, a common source for medieval writers.

Thus, because it is difficult to correlate the accounts of the same object in different texts, the technique adopted by the medieval encyclopedists provides a convenient starting point. They divided the animal kingdom into quadupedia (essentially mammals), aves (birds and other flying creatures), serpentes (reptiles, including amphibia), and vermes (literally, worms, but including insect larvae, spiders and almost anything that was not readily accommodated elsewhere). If to these classes are added the fabulous animals and composite monsters, we have a family complete roster of the kinds of animals described or referred to in the Middle Ages.


Following the example of the Physiologus, which probably originated in Alexandria, perhaps as early as the second century A.D., a number of African and Asian species were included in the bestiaries and encylopedias, but only rarely in the herbals. Because little, if any, accurate information regarding such exotic beasts was available to the compilers, the descriptions in classical texts, which supplemented the Physiologus, were slavishly copied or misunderstood or booth. As a consequence, the compilers were at liberty to alter the accounts in whatever manner they chose. Usually, however, it was either to sharpen the moral or allegorical significance or to embellish the original account, for example, size, ferocity or speed.

Despite these fanciful additions, some of which quickly became a part of general European animal lore, most of the larger mammals can be identified. With respect to extra-European species, their Greek names or synonyms (often in a debased form and ultimately deriving largely from Aristotle by way of Pliny, Aelian, Solinus and Isidore), plus crude but recognizable illustrations, enable us to recognize the lion, tiger, panther, elephant, camel, onager and hyena. The identification of the elephant is a case in point. Owing to the convergence of its name in Greek and Latin, then later in several of the vernacular languages, references to its large size and thick skin, the value placed upon its tusks, and some fanciful but still elephantine illustrations, there is little doubt about the animal intended by writers, most of whom probably never saw a live specimen. Each of these animals became the subject of fables and anecdotes, many variations of which appear in the descriptions.

Two other kinds of information, plus the illustrations, frequently, but not invariably, appear as part of the description. One, an etymology of the animal's name, has been mentioned above. A second kind of information is characteristic of bestiaries but less frequent in encyclopedias and altogether absent in herbals, namely, the moral, allegorical, or mystical significance of the animal. Oftentimes set off by rubricated initials or by a marginal device, the significatio was the symbolic analogue of the more prosaic, but not necessarily more accurate, description. Whether or not the significationes were believed literally, the fact remains that they provided the preacher with entertaining illustrations for his sermons and, thus, reached a large audience. The great emphasis on the significatio lends credence to the opinion that moral edification, rather than zoological observation, was, indeed, the basic motive for the compilation of bestiaries.

Considerable space is devoted in medieval writings to two other classes of quadrupeds -- indigenous species and domesticated varieties. Among the former of those two classes, the wolf, bear, hedgehog and fox attracted much natural and much more unnatural history in the form of fables, anecdotes, proverbs and superstitions. The wolf and bear, for example, were feared by all, not only because of the physical harm which they were capable of inflicting, but because of another kind of harm as well. Throughout the whole of Europe, including the British Isles, the wolf was the subject of widespread superstition. A great deal of energy was devoted to compiling prayers and charms and to manufacturing amulets, periapets and other protective devices, some of which appear to protect you from becoming a wolf.

Despite the practical experience that must have been gained by hunting wolves, boars, stags and bears - the latter for the purpose of bear-baiting -- accounts of these animals in bestiaries and encylopedias are not appreciably more accurate or realistic than those concerning more exotic species. By consulting hunting manuals, however, and comparing them with allusions to the chase in literary texts and with the abundant iconographic evidence, a balanced account can be reconstructed. The notices concerning the stag (cervus) provide a good example of the limitation of bookish accounts found in bestiaries. Except for some miscellaneous remarks which indicate otherwise, one would little guess that stag hunting involved considerable preparation and that many observational data were ready at hand by merely consulting the hunters and others engaged in the chase. The notices concerning the stag indicate, rather, how deeply ingrained were the fables emanating from the Physiologus. It may be noted, however that the popularity of the Physiologus and the bestiaries did not interfere with the attempts made by miniaturists and artists to portray what they saw.

The icongraphical evidence pertaining to medieval natural history is much too large to be discussed ere. It must be taken into account, though, as an additional source of information and as a corrective to some one-sided accounts which emphasize the unworldliness and otherworldliness of the Middle Ages. By consulting the iconographical data, not only can the influence of the bestiaries be visually traced, but the popularity of certain themes can be better understood within the medieval context -- for example, the enduring appeal of the fox or the frequency with which the hare appears in fables, proverbs or recipes.

Domesticated animals, the other class of quadrepeds to be discussed, include the ox, cow, horse, donkey, sheep, goat, and, of course, the dog. Pigs, which foraged for themselves and were only partially domesticated, bore little resemblance to the short-legged heavily-built hogs raised today. Horses, oxen and donkeys were the basic source for transportation, hauling and plowing. As such, they were a normal part of the medieval scene, and the average citizen could be expected to know something of their habits. Little of the common knowledge appears in the bestiaries and encyclopedias. However, by virtue of their importance in the economy, various specialized tracts were circulating, though on a plane quite distinct from that of the bestiaries. The former included agricultural tracts and those pertaining to veterinary medicine. The military uses of horses, finally provided another rich source of firsthand information. However, when transmuted by chivalric romances, there was as little resemblance to campaigns as the bestiaries bore to plowing.


Medieval knowledge of and beliefs about birds cover a broad spectrum, the polar opposites of which may be represented by the empirically based De arte venandi cum avibus, written by the Emperor Frederick II, and the Anglo-Saxon allegorical poem Phoenix, long attributed to Cynewulf. If to these be added the loose collection of popular tales, exemplified by Chaucer's lines on Chanticleer and Pertelote, a basis is furnished for understanding three of the major attitudes towards birds in the Middle Ages -- practical, symbolical and anecdotal.

There is very little doubt that a good portion of the information which went into the various tracts of hawking and falconry was based on the close examination of several species of accipiters. Details regarding their diet and longevity, mating habits and change of plumage, diseases and their remedies were based on many years of experience. The different patterns of moulting, for example, are described thus: "raptores, that are in constant need of their flight feathers to aid in capturing their prey, have a regular form of moult, so that they never entirely loose their flying ability. Harmless birds that are not in such urgent need of wing power to gain a living moult in less orderly fashion; but as they require flying powers to secure shelter and to avoid dangers, the moult is not entirely without plan. Waterfoul, on the other hand, make a complete and unusual moult influenced by the fact that they do not escape dangers nor obtain their sustenance by flight. By living in the water they attain both objectives." If the authors of these treatises on birds were acquainted with the bestiary tradition, they wisely ignored the heroics of the eagle and such like; in the same fashion, there is no evidence that the bestiarists knew or cared to know anything about falconry.

The heavily allegorical accounts of the birds of prey in the bestiaries represent, so to speak, another world. While some of the fables have their peculiar charm and may even possess some slight literary value, they were based not on real birds but on literary types in which birds are reminders of our moral duties. The turtle dove was praised in many bestiaries, and other genres as well, for her quiet, retiring nature, her shyness, constancy and fidelity. As such, a model was provided for mortal man to remain constant in belief and steadfast in the face of adversity.

When we come to domestic fowl, we see still a different world. The cock and hen, and usually nearby the wily fox, the doves in the loft, ducks in the pond, and geese in the barnyard were part of the real world, only fragments of which appear in the bestiaries. Their presence is presupposed in other texts, even though the storyteller's art sometimes may supply them with a set of all-too-human attributes.


In general, fish did not attract the attention that mammals or birds did, nor, but for different reasons, reptiles. After all, fish could not be tamed nor easily domesticated, and their life histories were virtually unknown. Smoked, salted or fresh, they formed a dietary staple for many. Yet there was little romance or poetry connected with that; only hard, and sometimes dangerous, physical labor.

This does not mean that fish in the broad sense, were ignored by the bestiarist, encyclopedist, physician or cook. Grouping together different litrary genres, approximately fifty different species of fish are mentioned (for example, bream, carp, cod, flounder, herring, mackerel, perch, pike, salmon, trench, trout, turbot and wrasse) along with some twenty-five aquatic creatures which today are assigned to other phyla (for example, crab, dolphin, and sea urchin) or dismissed as imaginary (for example, the hydrus).

Despite the fact that Aristotle had differentiated between whales and dolphins, on one hand, and bony and cartilaginous fish, on the other, the whale was commonly regarded as a fish throughout the Middle Ages. Since the sight of a living whale was restricted to fishermen, among whom few literati normally would be included, reports of its size became exaggerated in direct proportion to the distance from coastline. Such reports, moreover, fitted nicely with the biblical accounts of Jonah and his misadventures. As a consequence, the whale became a popular subject, not only of bestiaries but in ecclesiastical art and sculpture as well.

Even more fabulous than the whale was the serra. Although the characteristics attributed to it are purely imaginary, it is worth noting as a typical example of a rather common phenomenon in the history of zoology. As an ordinary animal, albeit an unusual one and usually uncommon, undergoes a double transformation: first, one or more of its own characteristics becomes exaggerated, and second, properties of another animal are grafted onto it. In the present case, the underlying animal seems to be a sawfish (Pristis), to which was later added a somewhat vague report concerning flying fish (family Exocoetidae), many genera of which are able to glide above the surface of the water by virtue of their winglike pectoral fins. The union of these two different fishes produced a strange creature: "There is a beast in the sea which we call a serra and it has enormous fins. When this monster sees a ship sailing on the sea, it erects its wings and tries to outfly the ship, up to about two hundred yards. Then it cannot keep up the effort; so it folds up its fins and draws them in, after which, bored by being out of water, it dives back into the ocean," and "Serra is called thus because he has a serrated cock's comb and, swimming under the vessels, he saws them up."

As noted above, medieval writers often included, along with fish, a variety of other aquatic, usually marine, organisms. Mussels and calms, for example, were prized as delicacies, while the oyster was valued even more for is pearl, though there is little indication that its formation was understood. Mollusks, moreover, was used in medicine for numerous complaints. It may be noted that in the absence of a taxonomic system, terrestrial mollusks, such as the common snail and slug, were considered vermes, while the squid and octopus, also mollusks, were considered pisces or marine creatures.


The numerous chapters on reptiles in bestiaries ad their widespread occurrence in various art forms cannot be explained on ecological or toxicological grounds alone. The repugnance felt towards serpents and, on the other hand, their fascination for poets and theologians rest on the same grounds. Both attitudes go back to a literal acceptance of the creation story in which the serpent plays a role no less important than the other two figures. Yet the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of paradise was not the only subject with which serpent lore was connected.

The viper (or adder, Vipera berus), for example, appears in a variety of contexts. The strong language of Matthew 3:7 ("brood of vipers") naturally became a text with endless possibilities for allegory. And because only viper's flesh, so it was believed, was acceptable in the preparation of the famous antidote theriaca andromachi, much effort and not a little cunning was involved in preparing it, sometimes fraudulently, for therapeutic use.

The asp and the crocodile are further examples of reptiles with a rich tradition in medieval literature and art. The latter, especially, is a good example of how the accounts of exotic creatures become exaggerated and merge into the fabulous, resulting, in the case of reptiles, in a strange brood, for example, the basilisk, dragon, griffon and amphisbaena.


Used as a catch-all taxonomic term, vermes served naturalists until the time of Linnaeus. In medieval texts, it was not only a taxonomic term, but a term which connoted vague yet pronounced value judgements, hence, the origin of our word "vermin." Insofar as the entities covered by this class word can be sorte iut, insects, both mature and alrval forms, various arachnids, and the common earthworm are among the most prominent.

Because of their abundance and probably also because of their annoying habits, mosquitoes, houseflies, lice and fleas were objects to be eliminated rather than to be studied. The scorpion, however, because of its larger size and it's painful, poisonous sting was an object of dread and, as such, received some notice. For much the same reason, spiders, too, were specifically commented upon. Their webs, moreover, lent themselves to poetic fancy but were also used for medicinal purposes.

Among the insects, the bee and the ant received the most favorable notice. The former, one of the very few domesticated insects, was well known because of its economic importance; honey and wax, along with vinegar, were three of the widely used natural products, and neither household or physician nor apothecary could do without them. Ants, like bees, because of clearly observable social habits, lent themselves to moralization and became established in literature as well as in folklore.

For butterflies and moths the case is somewhat different. Neither vicious nor harmful (the voracious larval forms, or caterpillars, were not associated with the mature adults), their colorful patternings attracted the attention of miniaturists. A wide range of lepidopterous species are thus depicted in illuminated manuscripts along with a few more the more conspicuous Coleoptera.

Monsters and Fabulous Creatures

No account of the animal life recognized in the Middle Ages would be complete without at least a brief mention of monsters and the life. This category included imaginary animals, mythological creatures, and composite forms, some of which were semi-human, for example, sirens, satyrs, and assorted giants. The extent to which the existence of these creatures was seriously believed in depends partially on the entity in question. Some of the imaginary zoophytes, for example, were taken seriously though the eighteenth century. However, whether believed or not, monsters and their ilk played no small role in art and literature and occur not only in bestiaries and encyclopedias, but also in lexica, travel accounts and theological writings.

Some of these creatures, for example, the phoenix and siren, owed their existence to the survival of classical mythology. Others were the product of Christian bibliolatry, in which, for example, the dragon, like the devil (or the angels), plays an almost necessary role in the cosmic drama. Some, like the leucocrota and manticora, are wholly imaginary. Others, however, may have resulted from the fusion of real animals, for example the eale and the autolops (both of which seem to have been based on an African antelope) or the unicorn, called monoceros in some bestiaries. The latter is perhaps the best known of the fabulous creatures which helped to make the medieval forest - usually their favorite haunt - as exciting as it was dangerous.


It is even more the case with plants than with animals that the medieval records represent two distinct levels: (1) an empirico-practical level in which the descriptions and uses are based upon a knowledge of the living plant and (2) a learned-scholastic level in which the discussions of and references to plants are based on little, if any, empirical data.

Herbals, with their descriptions (sometimes accompanied by illustrations) of plants, may appear at first glance to be the exact counterpart of bestiaries. Herbals resemble bestiaries in the following respects: (1) they contain an enumeration of the virtues of the "species" (usually medicinal, in herbals, rather than allegorical, as in bestiaries); (2) there is a separate section devoted to each "species"; (3) the order of the sections is determined by nontaxonomic criteria; and (4) the basis of many of the descriptions, especially of exotica, is to be found in Greco-Roman writings.

A closer comparison, however, of herbals and bestiaries (and lapidaries, which stand closer to the latter) will reveal some fundamental differences both with respect to method and with respect to content. First, because the cultivated, indigenous and naturalized species were often locally abundant and/or widely distributed, many of them were well known and commonly used for alimentary and other domestic purposes, for example, cereal grasses, fruit trees, herbs and legumes. Second, the habitat of such plants, often described as "known to everyone," is often carefully and accurately specified in order to facilitate their collection in the fresh state. Third, except for the exotica and the magical plants (which latter seldom occur in herbals), the fabulous aspects are absent. In short, herbals were designed as practical manuals and were, to the extent that they were used, continually subjected to testing and refinement. Bestiaries and lapidaries, on the other hand, were designed for moral edification, and additions or alterations were the results of reading other texts, rather than a closer reading of nature.

Whatever might be the limitations of medieval herbals with respect to taxonomic niceties, they provide us with the fullest information about the largest numbers of plants known and used. On matters of detail and for various specialized problems, they must be supplemented by other sources. Especially useful are leechbooks, recipe books, encyclopedias, and lexica, many texts of each of these genres supplying details not found in herbals.

A typical chapter in a herbal may contain the following information: name and synonyms (sometimes accompanied by an etymology); description of the plant, including habitat and other practical information which subserved its therapeutic uses, for example, phenological data, especially the proper time to collect and the part or portion to be used; the virtues of the plant in question; and instructions regarding preparation, administration, dosage and storage. The format employed was first enunciated in Dioscorides' De materia medica. It was followed, with only modern modifications, throughout the Middle Ages.

In the main, most of the larger and more conspicuous flowering plants indigenous or naturalized in Western Europe were believed to possess one or more virtues; consequently, their descriptions outnumber those of any other class of plants in medieval writings. On the basis of the accumulated experience of many centuries, it was known that certain plants that led to marked and predictable physiological responses on the part of the user: for example, as diuretics, purges, emetics, sternutatories (substances that provoke sneezing), vermifuges, and so forth, a number of common plants were routinely used. Many further species were used whose rationale is not so obvious, for example, as galactagogues (which promote the secretion of milk), sudorifics (which induce sweating), aphrodisiacs and rubefacients (which cause redness of the skin), or which were used, often in compounds, because of a pronounced taste or odor. The analgesic and narcotic effects attributed to many plants in the Middle Ages require close examination when one considers the crude form in which plant material was taken and the size and frequency of the dosage. Finally, many plants were alleged to be specific for a particular complaint, but the concept of disease specificity, like that of pathogenic microorganisms, rested on no experimental evidence. Nevertheless, because of the necessity of self-medication, local plants were widely used in times of illness. Their recognition and collection, preparation and storage, were part of the local tradition and contributed its share to natural history. Whether the motive was medical, alimentary or pecuniary, a knowledge of the local flora was often the beginning of a medical or scientific career. Herborizations and the formation of herbaria, a part of the normal training for physicians in the Renaissance, were outgrowths of established medieval custom.

In the case of cryptogam (for example, mosses, ferns and fungi), the medieval records are comparatively scanty. Although a few of the cryptogams which were mentioned by medieval writers can be identified, principally the ferns and horsetails, they played on the whole a small role. Since their life cycle was unknown, a bit of mystery was associated with them. This was especially the case with the fungi, because of their gross morphology and the highly poisonous species, were treated in a fashion analogous to the vermes noted above.

Exotic plants, like animals, were virtually unknown in their native habitat, though a few reports from travelers to the Holy Land indicate some recognition of a alien flora. But, in the form of spices, for both medicinal and culinary purposes, the dried seeds, bark, leaves and roots formed a major part of the Levantine imports. For example, pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg were available in most of the larger cities; another dozen or so pant products are occasionally encountered. In the same fashion, various gums and resins, some of which were for liturgical purposes, others for various economic purposes, were transshipped to Europe. Some of these substances, for example, frankincense, myrrh, and dragon's blood (a resin from the species Dracaena), were sufficiently valuable as to have created myths of their own. Not surprisingly, fabulous accounts of the origin of such substances found a ready place in certain genres of medieval writings.

As noted above, descriptions of imaginary and fabulous plants did not often appear in herbals. But, as is the case with nearly all medieval writings, there were exceptions; for example, the barnacle goose tree and the mandrake both appear in herbals, while the arbor vitae, the arbor scientiae, the peridexion, and the like, found an even wider audience, aided perhaps by their iconography.

However, the near absence of fabulous plants and trees from herbals should not be taken to mean that the natural history of the vegetable kingdom was devoid of unnatural elements. Along with the medieval romances and hagiographical texts, where one, like Brendan's companions, expected the miraculous, many plants were invested with extraordinary properties, usually therapeutic, but capable, at the hands of enchanters, necromancers, and the like, of being used for nefarious purposes. Many of the plants which fall under this heading were real plants, for example, betony, peony, rue, sage and verbena. Yet when these plants were subjected to rituals or incorporated into artifacts (amulets, talismans, and so forth), their virtues were greatly augmented. Such plants, which might be called "magiferous" plants, dot the pages of herbals, leechbooks, and books of medical recipes.

Some mention must be made, finally, of the nonmedicinal, nonmagical use of plants and their products. While there existed an abundance of iconographical evidence and literary references to the economic uses of plant material, occasionally supplemented by physical evidence, only a few texts specifically devoted to such uses have been published. Among these documents might be mentioned agricultural and horticultural texts which exhibit a range of knowledge based on practical experience with only a minimum of theorizing.

In addition to the separate tracts noted above, there exist many data regarding the diverse uses of plant material n the household and for sundry artistic and technological purposes. Together, they indicate a close familiarity with the physical properties of woods, fibers and other portions of plants which were necessary for the maintenance of daily life and its amenities.


For our purposes it is convenient to consider the lapidary as the mineralogical analogue of the bestiary and, though to a lesser extent, of the herbal. Though somewhat simplified, this procedure serves to bring out several similarities of lapidaries to the other two genres: (1) The order of presentation varies from one lapidary to another and is not determined by taxonomic criteria. (2) Major emphasis is placed upon the medicinal and magical virtues of the stones (3) Rocks and minerals native to Western Europe are subordinated to precious and semi-precious gems of exotic origin. (4) A Greco-Roman basis underlies the accounts of many of the gems. In three further respects, lapidaries show a closer similarity to bestiaries than to herbals. (5) Material of a fabulous nature constitutes an essential part of the description. (6) The stones are often interpreted allegorically. And (7) biblical allusions are common.

As the foregoing summary makes clear, lapidaries are to modern mineralogy as bestiaries are to modern zoology. The compilers of lapidaries (and the corresponding books in encyclopedias and entries in glossaries devoted to minerals) had little knowledge of minerals beyond the cursory inspection of the cut, polished and mounted gemstones which were widely used in ecclesiastical art. Moreover, they exhibited little interest in the allied technological processes, for example, mining, ore-separation, and the like. With the exception of Albert the Great's De mineralibus, which demonstrates his curiosity about and some firsthand information on techniques, the lapidaries must be supplemented by "Books of Secrets." The latter contain a wealth of information of a most practical kind. It can only be noted here that their authors demonstrate a thorough familiarity with many complicated techniques pertaining to the preparation and use of mineral substances.

Because, in the descriptions of the stones, all but the most superficial of physical properties were lacking, lapidaries became pious catalogs of miracles. The variations in nomenclature, orthography, and order of presentation, moreover, made it hazardous to estimate with any degree of precision the number of different mineral, metallic, and other substances (for example, amber, karabe, and so forth) described therein. Suffice it to say, a interest in their miraculous powers and, consequently, in ownership did not appreciably further experimental investigations.

Nonetheless, like the bestiaries, lapidaries served the minimal function of acquainting their readers with the existence and names of substances whose exotic origin and wonderful properties stimulated the curious.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest