"One of the earliest Western documents showing a revival of interest in botany" (Hunt): A magnificent, heavily annotated copy, ex-libris Fairfax Murray

Macer Floridus [i.e. Odo de Meung]. De viribus herbarum.

[Geneva, Jean Belot, printer of the 1495 'Fardelet du temps', ca. 1496].

4to (193 x 134 mm). (52) ff., with large woodcut on title-page of a physician in his study, surrounded by books and jars, repeated on verso, as well as 66 half-page woodcuts of plants. Gothic type, 33 lines per page. An exceptionally large, broad-margined copy, with frequent contemporary Latin annotations (often untrimmed). Bound in brown morocco ca. 1900, all edges gilt. Ex-libris Fairfax Murray (his numbered label on pastedown, this copy described as #669 in his Catalogue). Light spotting throughout; lower blank corner of title-page discreetly repaired. With a handwritten letter enclosed from a curator at the Cambridge University Library, addressed to "Dr. Fleming" and dated 7th March [19]49, discussing this copy.


The Fairfax Murray copy of a landmark botanical incunable, being the first or second illustrated edition of "one of the earliest Western documents showing a revival of interest in botany" (Hunt I, p. 4). Following unillustrated Italian printings in 1477 and 1482, the Genevan Jean Belot (printer of the 1495 "Fasciculus temporum", the 'Fardelet du temps') issued two variants of the present work, each employing 66 woodcuts illustrating the herbs of medieval medicine followed by an appendix of 12 (unillustrated) chapters on the medical qualities of various spices. Fairfax Murray cites this as the earliest edition in his collection, based on the state of the woodcuts.

Belot's two printings were imitated in a series of four further editions by his fellow Genevan printer Louis Cruse, also undated but easily distinguishable from the present ones due to their use of fewer woodcuts. Lökkös attributes the first edition to ca. 1495 and the present edition to ca. 1496, and claims that they must have been printed in quick succession: "L'erreur de numérotation des chapitres (xxix pour xxvi) n'est pas corrigée dans la deuxième edition. Ce fait semble confirmer l'hypothèse d'une sortie très rapprochée de la première. L'erreur 'cognoscre' du colophon se retrouve également dans l'exemplaire de la British Library" (Lökkös, p. 163).

Describing the medicinal properties of 77 herbs and spices, the work is written in 2,269 verses of Latin hexametre, a poetic form probably employed as a mnemonic device for physicians or apothecaries. In the 15th century, these verses were confused with a lost poem "De herbis" by the Augustan poet Aemilius Macer ['Floridus'], hence the attribution on the title-page.

"The text titled 'De Viribus Herbarum' (On Properties of Plants) has been traditionally attributed to Odo de Meung (Odo Magdunensis), who is believed to have lived during the first half of the 11th century and was from Meung on the Loire [...] The text was further expanded, including new data from the translation of Arabic texts into Latin in Salerno from the end of the 11th century onward. If this is the case, this text is good evidence of the continuity of scientific activity in the Middle Ages: its most ancient parts come from a period when there was a revival of interest in botany and a recovery of the classical tradition, while the most recent additions integrate the contribution of the Arabic world" (Hunt Botanical Library, online exhibition "Order from Chaos: The Birth of Modern Botany", 2009).

Having belonged to the celebrated collector, art dealer, and Pre-Raphaelite painter Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), the present copy is in a magnificent state of preservation. Relative to the British Library copy, the present copy is much larger (193 x 134 mm vs 183 x 130 mm). It is unwashed, and most of the annotations by a contemporary pharmacist have been preserved almost in their entirety. The Fairfax Murray catalogue describes the binding as "brown morocco extra, gilt edges in rough"; the present copy is cited in most bibliographical studies of "De Viribus Herbarum" including that of Lökkös. Hain, Reichling, and the BMC fail to record the present variant with the error "cognoscre" on the penultimate line of the final leaf.


Fairfax Murray #669 (this copy). On the chronology of the Genevan editions of Macer Floridus cf. Delarue in Genava 2 (1924), pp.177-86, and Lökkös, Catalogue des incunables imprimés à Genève, #86 (citing this copy); ISTC im00003000, showing 22 copies (of which 7 defective), including just 3 complete copies in US libraries; cf. also Hunt, I, p. 4; Goff M-3; Klebs 637.2; Hain/C. 10418; BMC VIII 371 (none of which note the variant "cognoscre").

Stock Code: BN#57451 Tags: , , ,