Following Dioscorides, medieval herbals provided more than just information about the medical use of plants. A typical entry might contain synonyms for the plant and details of its characteristics, distribution and habitat. As well as existing knowledge and lore about the plant, there might be instructions on how it should be gathered and prepared and recipes for cures.
For nearly a thousand years the same patterns of illustration were copied from one manuscript to another with little alteration. The original illustrations were created primarily for identification in nature. As with all natural illustration, the artists were faced with the challenge of depicting a recognisable image of the plant while also including all its different parts, large and small. The images needed to both record and instruct. Some of the images also served a decorative purpose, capturing the general essence of the plant with or without botanical accuracy. In Medieval Herbals (2000), Minta Collins refers to these as “plant portraits”.
The mandrake root
Perhaps no plant illustrates the evolution of the “plant portrait” in herbals more than the mandrake.
According to the medical doctrine of signatures, there was a clue to the medicinal use of a plant in its similarity to a body part or organ – if there was a likeness, it was meant to treat that part of the body. In medieval herbals the mandrake is consistently depicted as a human form, so powerful that the scream of the living root when wrenched from the ground is believed to be deadly to humans. The recommended method of extraction is often represented as a dog pulling the root from the ground while the plant gatherer stands at a safe distance.
Mandrake was believed to exercise almost magical control over the body. No wonder then that the form of a whole human could be discerned in its roots. It was recognised as an anaesthetic from Roman times. Mandrake was also said to improve fertility and act as an aphrodisiac, so both male and female forms were identified in herbals.
Even if the Benedictine monks did not believe the mythology around the plant, it’s a testament to the copying tradition that this “plant portrait” persisted for hundreds of years.