Collections Highlight: Hortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health)

Lynsey and Sarah interview Keith O’Sullivan, Senior Rare Books Librarian at the Special Collections Centre.

Can you tell us a bit about your job?
I manage, develop, care for and promote the 200,000 printed rare books in the Special Collections.  That means I am responsible for their security and the environment they are kept in.  So for example, if we lend a book for exhibition somewhere else, I have to make sure the storage, conditions, security and insurance at the other venue are satisfactory.
I also speak about our printed holdings to different groups of people including students, local societies and communities.

What do you like about your job?
The best bit of my job is that I learn something new every day about the collections.  The scale of the collections means that I can’t know every book.  Every time there is a request for information from somebody I find out something new.  For example, yesterday I discovered an extremely rare version of the title page in a first edition of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which I didn’t know we had.

Tell us about one of your favourite items in the collection.

One of my favourite rare books is the Hortus Sanitatis.  This is one of a series of late medieval herbals (a book about plants and how they can be used for medicine).  It was printed in 1491 in Mainz in Southern Germany, by Jakob Meydenbach.

This herbal is unusual because it also shows animals, birds, fishes and stones.  It ends with a series of woodcut illustrations of medical practitioners going about their business: for example, the interior of a dispensary (medieval equivalent of a chemist’s); a doctor’s surgery and a hospital room.

The animals, birds and fishes are a mixture of real and mythical, and the way they are presented is heavily influenced by the bible.  For example the snake is shown in the Garden of Eden.

Why is this one of your favourite books?

It’s one of my favourites because it’s particularly rich visually, and unusually the illustrations are coloured.  They would have been coloured in by hand after the book was printed.  The book shows a tension between known scientific knowledge and popular and superstitious belief.

Can you show us some of your favourite pages?

I like this page at the start of the chapter on fishes.

It’s one of the best illustrations in the whole book.  There are two tradesmen beside the river, and you’ve got both real and fantastical fish, including completely mythical merfolk (mermaids and mermen).  The monkfish is interesting because the artist has interpreted the name literally, showing a fish with the head of a monk!  That’s probably because the artist had never seen a monkfish.

This second illustration is a hospital setting.  The person with the line running down their body looks like they’ve had a major abdominal operation and survived, which is quite unusual for that time!    The figures at the front are patients, with boils on their legs.


Thanks Keith, for our first Collections Highlight!  We will be bringing you more posts like this in the future from the rest of the Special Collections team.

You will be able to see this amazing rare book on display at the University Library after the summer, when it will feature in an exhibition.

Posted by: Sarah and Lynsey

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