A Brill Calendar: March 10
Dodoens and The Book of Herbs
According to his fellow professors, only a few years of study and teaching would still be allotted to Rembert Dodoens when Europe’s most famous botanist joined Leiden University in 1582.
At the time, Dodoens - who started his career after his academic study in Louvain, as municipal physician of the Flemish city of Mechelen - was a worthy old scholar at 65 years of age. In its first decade of existence Leyden University had managed to enrol this celebrity in the lore of herbs and plants, as well as his talent to heal Adam & Eve’s offspring.
Dodoens’s ‘Cruydeboeck’ (‘Book of Herbs’, 1554) had made his name of the man already well-known everywhere. The last assignment before his arrival in Holland had been the position at the Imperial Court in Vienna, Austria, with the Emperor Maximilian II (1527 – 1576) for his most illustrious patient.
Like the Renaissance culture in which it prospered, botanical investigation and exploration had come to question conventions which had remained unchallenged for centuries. And in the history of printing and typography it is seldom that its potential to describe and instruct both by texts and images, was so exquisitely tuned to scholarly progress. Europe’s greatest printer, Christoffel Plantijn, employed several botanists and draughtsmen in order to produce all kinds of herbal books - from cheap & simple to expensive & sophisticated ones - for what was practically an insatiable market. Dodoens (Mechelen, Flanders, June 29 1517 – Leyden, Holland, March 10 1585) deserved pride of place among them.
The surmise of his academic peers in Leyden in 1582 proved to be correct. Luckily there is a curious comfort in noticing that in the year following his arrival, Plantijn published a jewel close to the heart of this ‘Prototypographicus’: the ‘Stirpum Historiae Pemptades Sex Sive Libri XXX’; by Rembertus Dodonaeus, with the engravings by Pieter van der Borcht. Even in the five most spectacular examples of a timeless typographical art, this final work reaches perfection, also in the assessment of the Printer & Publisher himself.