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 was 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.