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Introduction to De Materia Medica
Pedanius Dioscorides

Tess Anne Osbaldeston,
translator and editor

Ancient herbal traditions claimed plants were the flesh of the gods, who instructed men in their proper use. The earliest fragmentary herbal records are Egyptian, Sumerian, and Chinese. Emperor Shen Nung composed the Pen T'sao Ching about 2700BCE; medical prescriptions are listed on a 5000 year-old Sumerian tablet; and the earliest surviving herbal is the Papyrus Ebers from about 1550BCE, containing material gathered five to twenty centuries before. The earliest herbal writers we can name are Greek: Theophrastus, with his Enquiry into Plants of 350BCE; Hippocrates; Diokles of Carystus; Krateuas and his contemporary the Roman Sextius Niger (first century BCE); Nicander of Colophon (second century BCE); and Nicolaus of Damascus with his De Plantis of about 30BCE. Krateuas is the first noted instance of both author and artist.

The earliest surviving records of illustrated Greek Herbals indicate De Materia Medica was widely read and reproduced during the Middle Ages in Latin, Arabic and Greek. For fifteen hundred years it was the standard authority both in botany and materia medica, assuming considerable significance in the development of western and Islamic cultures. The great paradigm for botany is that the history of botany before 1700 was really the history of pharmacy. Had printing existed earlier, it is possible Dioscorides' overwhelming influence would have confined later writings on the subject to glossaries on De Materia Medica. As it was, most herbalists were heavily indebted to him, just as he had drawn from authorities before him.

De Materia Medica may be partially based on the lost work of Diokles (called Hippocrates II by his contemporaries), which dealt with hygiene and prophylaxis, and gave detailed instructions for sound living. The physician Galen, an influential Greek writer in the development of the herbal, cited Dioscorides. Galen's De Simplicibus, prepared around the year 180CE, dealt with medicine, pharmacy, and drugs, giving the name, locality, and uses for each plant. The Greek Oribasios [325-403CE] produced the popular manuscripts Synagoge and Euporista, drawing freely from both Dioscorides and Galen, and being translated into Latin. A concise manuscript of western Roman origin, Herbarium Apulei Platonici, was well-regarded in late Roman times. Its 150 illustrations include some of Greek provenance, mainly from manuscripts based on De Materia Medica. In the Dark Ages these herbal manuscripts lost some influence to simpler herbals, the creative period of Greek science having passed.

The earliest copies of Dioscorides' manuscript were not illustrated. The oldest survival is a fragment, the Michigan Papyrus. The finest surviving comprehensive manuscript copy, magnificently illustrated, was made in the sixth century in Constantinople [about 512CE] and is known as Codex Vindobonensis. The citizens of Honoratae, a suburb of Byzantium in Turkey, presented it as a birthday gift to their Christian patroness Patricia Juliana Anicia, daughter of Flavius Anicius Olybrius, Emperor of the West briefly in 472CE. This was in appreciation for Juliana Anicia having arranged the construction and decoration of a church dedicated to Polyeuktos, a martyr. The manuscript is on vellum, written in Greek uncials in the tradition of early sixth-century calligraphy. Alternate plant names in many languages were probably added to the manuscript from the work of Alexandrian lexicographer Pamphilos in the first century CE. These synonyms are provided in African, Andreae medici, Armenian, Bessicum, Boeotian, Cappadocian, Dacian, Dardana, Democriti, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Gaulish, Spanish, Istrici, Lucanica, Marsum, Osthanis, Prophetae, Pythagorean, Roman, Tuscan, and Zoroastrian. The coloured paintings of plants date from the second century CE. They are splendid and reveal a naturalism alien to Byzantine art of the time; some are remarkably life-like with accurate colour, but others vary in quality, the level of botanical observation frequently inadequate. Eleven items are clearly derived from the writings and drawings of Krateuas (Cratevas), pharmacologist and physician to Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus from 120 to 63BCE. Codex Vindobonensis is a large book, roughly thirty centimeters square, of four hundred and ninety one parchment sheets, with nearly four hundred full-page paintings of plants, and some smaller ones of birds. Many plants discussed are indigenous to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, or cultivated as edible crops. The first pages of Codex Vindobonensis have smaller paintings, including one showing Dioscorides at work while Intelligence holds up a mandrake for Krateuas to draw. Some paintings are quite skilful, handling awkward details such as how the leaf-bases clasp the stem; fine-leaved plants such as fennel are well drawn; other beautiful illustrations include cyclamen, wormwood, delphinium, scarlet pimpernel, and asphodel. In this Codex an alphabetic extract of the original text is given.

Polygonatum multiflorum - Solomons Seal from Faguet - 1888 Nearly nine centuries pass before we next hear of the manuscript. In 1406 it was rebound by John Chortasmenos for Nathanael, a monk and physician in the Prodromos Monastery in Constantinople. After the Muslim conquest in 1453 the manuscript fell to the Turks. A century later a Jew named Hamon, body physician to Suleiman the Magnificent, owned it. In 1562 Augier Ghislain de Busbecq, ambassador from the Emperor Ferdinand of Habsburg to the Sublime Porte saw and coveted it, and reported its existence. He wrote that he could not buy it because he had been asked one hundred ducats, a sum too large for his pocket. Seven years later the manuscript found its way through the good offices of Ferdinand's successor, Maximillian II, into the Imperial Library in Vienna (now the Bibliothek Nationale). Codex Vindobonensis is probably the earliest, most splendid, and most important illustrated herbal manuscript of classical times. Before conveying it to the Imperial Library, de Busbecq lent it to Mattioli who drew heavily on it for commentaries on De Materia Medica. Master printer Christoffel Plantin used illustrations from Codex Vindobonensis for herbals published in the late sixteenth century for Dodoens, Clusius, Lobelius, and Lyte.

There are many surviving manuscripts of De Materia Medica after Codex Vindobonensis, an important example being the seventh-century Greek alphabetic Codex Neapolitanus, in the possession of a Neapolitan monastery for many years, and then presented to Emperor Charles VI in 1717. It was taken to Vienna and subsequently to the Bibliotheca Nazionale in Naples. The drawings in Codex Neapolitanus are from the same source as Codex Vindobonensis, but are smaller and grouped together on fewer pages. A good copy of the Codex Vindobonensis from the fifteenth century is in the Cambridge University library; there is a line of descent to a fourteenth century manuscript, Paris GR 2091; and a seventeenth century descendant at Bologna, these four forming the primary alphabetic group. The secondary alphabetic group includes eleventh- and twelfth-century manuscripts at Pierpoint Morgan, Mount Atlas and the Vatican (GR 284). Next is the non-alphabetic Greek group, the best example the Paris Grec 2179 in the Bibliotheque Nationale, written in ninth-century Egypt, its naturalistic illustrations dating the draughtsmanship to the second or third century CE. Later manuscripts of the same group reside at Venice (St Marks 273 of the eleventh century), Florence, the Vatican, and Vienna.

The Ostrogoths and Lombards encouraged Latin translations. The ninth-century Dioscorides Lombardus in the Munchener Staatsbibliothek (with its direct descendant, a South Italian manuscript in Beneventan script, Codex Longobard, Munich 337) has an excellent text, making it the most important of the Latin manuscripts. It is illustrated with approximately 900 lovely miniatures, more than twice as many as the 387 in Codex Vindobonensis. Herbarium Apulei (Codex Cassinensis 97), a ninth-century manuscript herbal from the late Roman period (about 400CE) preserved at the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy, is based partly on Dioscorides Lombardus. Dioscorides Vulgaris (Palimpsest Lat 16), a sixth-century manuscript now in Vienna, is the second primary Latin translation. Up to the seventeenth century we find many commentaries and inferior later manuscripts such as Liber Dioscuridis de herbis feminis by Sextus Placitus Papyriensis. Dioscorides Lombardus was one of the source documents (with 22 others) for the celebrated botanical poem Macer floridus of 1161 by Odo of Meune. He recounts the virtues of 77 plants in verse dedicated to Aemilius Macer, a contemporary and friend of Ovid. Dioscorides Vulgaris led to a number of further versions, one with Anglo-Saxon glossaries.

Arabic/Muslim medical scholars rose to prominence during the fifth to twelfth centuries, with Arabic the new language of learning, and many Greek works translated into Arabic from Syriac. In the ninth century monasteries, such as the Benedictine at Monte Cassino and St Gallen on Lake Constance, became centres of herbalism in Europe. Arabic and monastic writings drew heavily on Dioscorides and Pliny. Arabic works were also translated into Latin, such as the twelfth-century herbal of Johannes Serapion the younger (Ibn Sarabiyun), translated by Simon Januensis and Abraham ben Shemtob, in about 1292. Quoting extensively from Dioscorides and Galen, this was published as Liber Serapionis aggregatus in medicinis simplicibus, Milan, 1473.

In the Dark and Middle Ages Nestorian Christians banished for heretical views carried the works of Dioscorides and others to Asia Minor. The Greek text was translated into Syriac when pagan Greek scholars fled east after Constantine's conquest of Byzantium. Stephanos (son of Basilios, a Christian living in Baghdad under the Khalif Motawakki) made an Arabic translation of De Materia Medica from the Greek in 854CE. In 948CE the Byzantine Emperor Romanus II, son and co-regent of Constantine Porphyrogenitos, sent a beautifully illustrated Greek manuscript of De Materia Medica to the Spanish Khalif, Abd-Arrahman III. Spaniards were unfamiliar with Greek, so in 951CE a learned monk, Nicolas, arrived in Spain so that physicians in Cordoba might be taught Greek. Nicolas and his Arabic-speaking pupils then prepared a new corrected edition. The Syriac scholar Bar Hebraeus prepared an illustrated Syriac version in 1250, which was translated into Arabic. An Arabic translation from the eleventh century in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (Codex arab. 4947) shows how faithfully the Arabs reproduced the Greek illustrations. Arabic modifications rendered the figures more symmetrical, achieving naturalistic fidelity. A Persian translation from the thirteenth century is preserved in the Shrine at Meshed, Iran; and an Arabic Dioscorides is in the Bodleian Library. A richly-illustrated Arabic Dioscorides manuscript of 1224 (Codex 2148) in the Top Kapu Saray Museum has exquisitely detailed figurative scenes. A number of other illustrated Arabic manuscripts of De Materia Medica are known. The teachings of Dioscorides have been used in the practice of medicine in the Middle East from their first writing to the present day

Tess Anne Osbaldeston, translator and editor
Johannesburg, South Africa,
June 2000
Introductory notes by R.P.Wood.

To order
Dioscorides. De materia medica. - five books in one volume:
A new English translation by T.A.Osbaldeston.
Introductory notes by R.P.Wood.
First Edition, 2000.
Published by IBIDIS Press, Johannesburg, South Africa.
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