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Two-Tailed Mermaids and Dog-Headed Men: Looking at a 15th Century Herbal

Since starting my internship on January 10th, I have searched through hundreds of 18th-early 20th century books for period dress and steampunk-like technology, sorted thousands of papers with exhibit-related information, and worked on catalog entries for around 120 Heralds of Science.  While I have enjoyed all the work that I’ve done so far, one of my favorite tasks has been enhancing the catalog records for the Heralds of Science collection. This collection is composed of what Bern Dibner deemed the most important texts in science, and includes multiple incunabula in the library.

Bern Dibner’s copy of Johann Prüss’s Ortus Sanitatis, donated with most of the other Heralds as part of the gift that founded the Dibner Library, is at first glance unassuming despite its 1497 publication date. A sizable volume with a faded green leather cover much younger than itself, it appears almost plain next to many of the other Heralds with their elaborately gilt-tooled covers and ornate designs. Once opened, though, the care taken in the book’s binding and conservation immediately becomes visible. Gilt-tooled leather accents beautifully marbled endpapers that are marked with two different bookplates. These plates distinguish the book’s history of ownership, or provenance.


James Franck Bright (1832-1920) was a British historian  and Master of the University College at Oxford. Jacobi (James) P.R. Lyell (1871-1948) was a solicitor, book collector, and bibliographer who focused on the Medieval period.  Who owned the text earlier than that seems to be a mystery, though they have left their marks!


Typical of many incunabula, hand-drawn initials and rubrication appear throughout the text; like most hand-created items, they bear signs of human error. In this book, the rubricator obviously tried to move along too quickly. His mistakes are visible in ink smudges, or on the occasional chapter title where part of the opposite page sticks to once-fresh paint.

The most interesting thing about the text, at least to me, is its variety of bizarre illustrative woodcuts. The first half of the text, “De Herbis,” contains many woodcuts of various plants. Three more sections follow, including the next section, “Tractatus de Animalibus,”  which focuses on animals both real and imagined. Prüss immediately catches the reader’s attention with a detailed, labeled woodcut of a human skeleton, then continues with hundreds of odd woodcuts, some of which depict animals that the artist had clearly never seen.


Since I can’t read Latin (something that I’ve learned will likely have to change!), I have little concept of why these strange things are in a book that otherwise seems quite concerned with identifying herbs and their purpose. However, I’m glad they are; they provide a fascinating window into the mindset of people living around 500 years ago, especially when considered next to the ink stains, handwriting, and bookplates.

—Betsy Hagerty, Smithsonian Libraries intern

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