Bodies of the plant and Animal Kingdom: An illustrated manuscript on materia medica in the Netherlands (ca. 1800)

Ingeborg Swart, Mieke Beumer, Wouter Klein, Tinde van Andel*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Ethnopharmacological relevance: Around 1800, Amsterdam was a global trade hub for materia medica of Dutch, European and exotic origin. Contemporary knowledge on medicinal plants in academic circles has been well documented in local pharmacopoeia, illustrated herbals and catalogues of botanic gardens. Until the end of the ancient regime, physicians, surgeons and apothecaries were trained how to use plants in their specific guild or Collegium Medicum. Little is known, however, on how the plant collectors and merchants that provided the pharmaceutical substances to apothecaries learnt to recognise the variety of medicinal products. Aim of the study: To analyse the content, origin, purpose and scientific importance of an anonymous, undated, hand-written Dutch manuscript on materia medica, entitled Corpora ex Regno Vegetabili/Animali (Bodies of the Plant/Animal kingdom) kept by the Artis Library of the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Materials and methods: We digitised the entire manuscript and dated the paper by means of its watermark. We identified the plant and animal species using the historic Dutch and Latin names, the illustrations and historic literature. We compared the plant properties and uses to contemporary literature to check whether the information in the manuscript was original or copied from another source. Results: The paper was produced between 1759 and 1816 in Zaandam, the Netherlands. The manuscript contains 19 substances of animal origin, one mineral and 273 plants and plant-derived products, which belong to ca. 260 species. While most plants are native or cultivated in the Netherlands, 111 plant entries (105 spp.) represent exotic products, imported from as far as Madagascar and Australia. A total of 134 illustrations were cut out from a 1549 Dutch edition of the New Herbal by Leonhard Fuchs (1543), but only 69% correspond to the correct species. The manuscript contains detailed descriptions on growth locations, field characteristics, flowering season, provenance and quality of the medicinal products, including methods to detect forgery. The author mostly described humoral properties of the plants rather than listing medicinal recipes. We did not find evidence that he copied his texts from other sources, but the Dutch and Latin names correspond largely with the Amsterdam pharmacopoeia from 1795. Conclusions: The author's extensive knowledge on trade names, quality and origin of materia medica and his refrain from using literature suggests he could have been a merchant, an intermediary between herb cultivators, overseas traders and apothecaries. This manuscript offers a unique insight in the global trade in medicinal products and the circulation of knowledge in non-academic circles around 1800.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)236-244
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Ethnopharmacology
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jun 2019


  • Amsterdam
  • Animal products
  • Drug trade
  • Historical manuscripts
  • Medicinal plants

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