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Medieval book is important resource for how plants were once collected, treated and used

Among its treasures, the Bibliothèque de France in Paris holds a great many splendidly illustrated books on medieval herbs and medicines. One of these manuscripts is latinus 9333, which recently was reproduced in facsimile with a volume of study. Alain Touwaide, Historian of Sciences in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonain’s National Museum of Natural History, contributed three chapters in the study volume highlighting the history, importance and originality of the manuscript.

Touwaide - Tacuinum Sanitatis Moleiro

Image: The manuscript of Paris, Bibliothe`que nationale de France, latinus 9333: f. 36 verso: Ocimum basilicum L.; and f. 37 recto: Mandragora officinarum L.

Latinus 9333 is the Latin translation of the so-called Tacuinum sanitatis, a medieval handbook on wellness written in Arabic by the 11th-century physician ibn Butlan. It  deals with factors influencing human health: from the air, the environment and food, to physical exercise and sexual activity.

In contrast to the Arabic original, several copies of the Latin version are illustrated. Characteristically, these illustrated Tacuinum sanitatis come from northern Italy and date to the 14th century. Their illustrations include scientific representations of plants and other substances used as medicines, as well as illustrations featuring other factors that influence human health. The illustraions offer snapshots of medieval daily life, environment and activities.

Such images are of particular importance to the history of botanical knowledge and illustration, Touwaide points out in the study volume. Plants are represented here in great detail, inserted into their environment, be it natural or human. Many of the images include human figures and illustrate the way plants were collected, treated, used, or were embued with cultural meanings. They constitute material of great interest for the study of the interaction between men and plants.

The manuscript encapsulates a knowledge and wisdom gained by trial and error over centuries, often going back to a much earlier period. The archeology of its text brings to light the odyssey of medicine and science in the Mediterranean and beyond, as latinus 9333 moved from Italy further north, where its Latin text was translated into German.




  • Been doing some research here on this exact subject. It never ceases to amaze me when I see how far we have come in botany and plant “shaping” as I’ll call it.

  • I still find it amazing that we can literally get a glimpse into what life was like back then, particularly here in relation to plant life and agriculture.

    You really get to see how science has slowly evolved over the centuries and millenia.

  • I’m on facebook a lot and I’d love to find you on there, not sure if you are.

  • Deirdre Larkin

    Dear Alain,

    I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing this facsimile of the Paris Tacuinum, but will have the opportunity, as it has been acquired by the Watson Library downtown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, the librarian here at The Cloisters has provided me with an extract from your commentary, which I have read with profit. As always, you open new doors into the fascinating world of ancient and medieval botanical texts. I often refer to the Tacuinum Sanitatis in interpreting medieval medicine and diet to the public here at The Cloisters, either in the gardens or on our blog, The Medieval Garden Enclosed, and I now have a better understanding of the history and character of the Tacuinum, for which I thank you.

    Deirdre Larkin, Horticulturist
    The Cloisters Museum & Gardens

  • From where can this facsimile be obtained?

    • Alain Touwaide

      It can be purchased through the publisher, Moleiro Editor, in Barcelona, Spain (a publisher specialized in facsimile editions). The facsimile is accompanied by a volume of commentary, which presents and analyzes the tacuinum, and includes the transcription and the English translation of its text. The commentary is available also in Spanish and French.

  • Alain Touwaide

    This number is the shelfmark of the volume in the collections of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, in Paris. Actually, the shelfmark is made of two elements: latinus refers to the collection (because the Bibliotheque has several collections, the others being graecus [Greek], arab. [Arabic], etc), and 9333 is the number of the item within this collection. In the same way, the manuscripts of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, for example, are: Oxford, Bodleian Libray, Canonicianus, 1 for example; or at the British Library in London: Harleianus 5629 (again as an example). Often, the collections are named by languages (latinus or graecus here); but in many libraries, they are named after the former owner who donated his/her collection to the library. This is the case of the Harleianus example above, which refers to (citation from the Web site of the British Library): “Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (1661-1724), and his son Edward, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741), assembled an extensive collection of manuscripts with the assistance of their librarian, Humfrey Wanley.”

  • Meredith McQuoid

    I’m curious about the number 9333. Was it the number of entries or pages? Or a catalog number given by an early publisher or librarian?

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