This copy of the late medieval botanical text, Tractatus de Herbis, or Treatise on Plants, is a compilation of hundreds of plants, animals, materials, and foods arranged alphabetically and illustrated in a highly realistic style. Nearly every one of its 108 folios abounds with numerous colorful illuminations scattered across the page and labeled in a square Gothic script. Many copies exist and this one is usually referred to as Sloane 4016 or the Sloane Herbal, named for its last private owner, Hans Sloane.
Created in northern Italy around 1440, it is a fine copy of a new type of scientific manuscript developed during the early Italian Renaissance. These new works were the product of translations from Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese texts and incorporated new information discovered in European universities. Patrons of these books were students, scholars, and wealthy collectors rather than monks and priests. Magnificent in illustrative content, the Sloane Herbal is designed to be a functional manuscript rich in detail and encyclopedic in scope and captures the transition between medieval and early modern Europe.
Encyclopedic Knowledge of Nature
The Sloane Herbal includes animals, tools, materials, and foods among hundreds of images of plants. These are nestled in empty spaces between the leaves and roots, also presented alphabetically rather than by their relationship to the plant. This suggests a growing interest in non-biblical books as repositories of broad types of information.
Its illuminations display a high realism and they focus on diagnostic details such as leaf shape, root color, and flowers. Delicate shading creates the overall effect as if each plant had been pressed into the pages of the book. The Gothic text is relegated to brief captions focused on names over natures.
The New Science of the Renaissance
Unlike herbals based on Classical descriptions popular in previous centuries, the Sloane Herbal reflects the new approach to understanding the world that developed during the fourteenth century in Italy.
The rise of universities coupled with translations of medieval Islamic medical texts saw the development of structured information based on observation and experiment over tradition and sympathetic magic. The ordering of the plants alphabetically by name demonstrates the demand for objective information that is easy to access and understand.
Expensively Illuminated for a Wealthy Patron
The Sloane Herbal is a representative of the Italian group of late medieval herbals beginning with the Manfred Manuscript (Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823), itself developed from the Egerton 747 Herbal (London, BL Egerton ms. 747). It is a northern Italian copy produced to an extremely high standard for an unknown wealthy lay patron.
By the early eighteenth century, it was owned by Nicholas Joseph Foucault and bears his bookplate. It then entered the collection of Hans Sloane. The British Museum purchased it in 1753 as part of the Sloane library.
The post-1600 binding is full green leather tooled with a running vegetal border surrounding a field of scalloped lozenges of alternating Tudor roses and fleur-de-lis. Blind tooled diapering decorates the spine.
- Images courtesy of the British Library