Konrad von Megenberg and His Illustrated Herbal

A modern field guide to plants or a book about the plants found in a particular region would sell rather few copies if it lacked illustrations. Modern photographic and printing technologies make it relatively simple to include colored illustrations, but this is a recent advance. Before the invention of photography and offset printing, an illustration in a book printed from movable type began as carved block made from a very hard wood that would survive the wear it received in the printing press. Each line in the illustration was raised on the surface of the block by cutting away the wood on either side. The woodcut engraver was highly skilled. Consequently, illustrated books cost a great deal to produce and to buy, and illustrations were usually included purely for ornament, to make the book more visually attractive.

In that way the printer could produce two versions, one with illustrations and the other without, to sell at different prices. The first book to be printed in Europe with illustrations as an integral part, augmenting the text rather than merely decorating it, was published by Hans Bamler in Augsburg, Germany, in 1475, and many of the illustrations were of plants. The book was called Puch der Natur (The book of nature) and, very unusually for the time, it was in German rather than Latin. Its author was Konrad von Megenberg (1309–74).

Von Megenberg based his work on an earlier book Opus de naturis rerum (Work on natural things) of 20 volumes by Thomas of Cantimpre (1201–72), a priest born near Brussels who was a student of Albert the Great in Cologne. Although von Megenberg may have set out to reproduce Thomas's work, in doing so he corrected it, added many of his own observations, and omitted much of what Thomas had written. His aim was to present in one volume a summary of everything that was known about natural history. The book had eight sections called books on:

  1. mankind, anatomy, physiology (50 chapters)
  2. the sky, the seven planets, astronomy, and meteorology (33 chapters)
  3. zoology: quadrupeds (69 chapters), birds (72 chapters), sea monsters (20 chapters), fish (29 chapters), snakes, lizards, and other reptiles (37 chapters), worms (31 chapters)
  4. ordinary trees (55 chapters) and aromatic trees (29 chapters)
  5. herbs and vegetables (89 chapters)
  6. precious and semiprecious stones (86 chapters)
  7. 10 kinds of metal (1 chapter)
  8. streams and rivers (1 chapter)

There was also a section on races of fantastic humans found in distant lands. Rather more than one-quarter of the book was devoted to plants. Puch der Natur was reprinted many times and remained in circulation until the 16th century. More than 100 copies still survive, and all of them are now very valuable.

Von Megenberg was born in 1309, probably at Mainberg, Bavaria, although he calls his birthplace Megenberg. He studied first at the University of Erfurt and later at the University of Paris, where he obtained a master's degree and stayed on for several years teaching philosophy and theology. He was appointed head of St. Stephen's School in Vienna in 1337. In 1342 he moved to Regensburg, Bavaria, to become a parish priest. Later he was promoted to an official ecclesiastical position at the cathedral. He was a highly prolific author who, in addition to his book on nature, wrote on astronomy and physics, economics, history, and moral philosophy, as well as biographies of several saints. He also composed hymns and wrote poetry. He died at Regensburg on April 11, 1374.