This blog post was written by Chloe McCarthy, graduate library trainee at the Warburg Institute. It is part of a series of posts on Environmental History for History Day 2021.

Books and plants. Two distinct things and yet when considering the history of man’s attempt to describe, organise and classify the universe surrounding him, books and plants have more in common than one might imagine. Going back to the 13th century, French trouvère, physician and erudite Richard de Fournival used a garden metaphor to describe his library. In his Biblionomia, which might well have been a catalogue of part of his personal library, Richard compares libraries to gardens in which the books are the fruit. He expresses his wish to classify the various branches of human knowledge in the same way as plant beds. Far from being a mere inventory of books, his Biblionomia aims to allow the student to penetrate his hortulus – his library – and understand its organising principle [1]. Fast forwarding to the 18th and 19th centuries, this age of scientific progress saw the expansion of classification in all fields. New species of plants were being discovered outside Europe, modern plant taxonomy emerged, horticultural societies were founded and botanical gardens were being opened to the public. Similarly, librarianship was also turning into a science, with the publication of Melvil Dewey’s first work on the Decimal Classification system.

This post will consider the classification of books and plants together by examining the Warburg Library’s holdings on botany – that branch of science dealing with the study of plants. This will lead us up to the 4th floor of the library, in part dedicated to one of the four main themes defined by Aby Warburg to organise his collections: Orientation (in other words, religion, philosophy and magic and science, 3rd and 4th floors) – the three other themes being Image (history of art, 1st floor), Word (language, literature and the transmission of texts, 2nd floor) and Action (cultural and political history, 4th floor). Books on botany have a classmark starting with FOH or FOM. F indicates that the items relate to magic and science, and FO that they concern zoology, botany, mineralogy or pharmacy.

Classification table of the Warburg Library

Classification table of the Warburg Library

FOH 520-810 characterises sources (meaning primary sources) on botany. Here, gathered in chronological order, we find editions of books by Theophrastus, the Greek philosopher famous for his works on plants and often referred to as the first botanist. Further along the stacks are editions of medieval sources and authorities, such as book XVII of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae on agriculture, or Albertus Magnus’ De Vegetabilibus, as well as a huge number of editions of medieval herbals, those treatises drawing on works of classical antiquity and describing plants, with a strong emphasis on their medicinal properties.

FO classification bays at the Warburg

Bays 218-219 where books with the FOM classmark are shelved

One of the key principles of the Warburg Library is that almost all of its books, old and new, are on open shelves. This means that the reader browsing through its stacks often encounters two books from quite different periods positioned next to one another. As in the case of a modern edition of a 16th century Italian herbal by Raffaella Bruzzone (classmark FOH 637.5) which is to be found right next to the Herbario nuovo by Castore Durante (classmark FOH 638), a herbal first published in 1585, here in its 1617 edition. In this work Durante, who was a Roman physician, listed and described over 900 species of plants presented in alphabetical order. The description of each species is accompanied by an illustration.

Castore Durante’s Herbario nuovo

Moving forward, the reader gets to the two bays of shelves which house books with the FOM classmark – studies on botany (secondary sources). The underlying logic is that the subjects of the books go from general to specific and follow chronological as well as geographical patterns. The first items on the shelves (FOM 4 to 10) are general studies on the history of botany, gardens and greenhouses, followed by books on the geography and social uses of plants. A book from the Elizabeth David collection is kept here. Elizabeth David was a British cookery writer, a researcher on the social history of food and a book collector. She donated her private collection of historical books to the Warburg Library. A project to digitise these books is underway, many of which are already accessible on the Digital Library’s page, as is the case of The Vegetable World (FOM 10), an 1868 English edition of a work originally published in Paris in 1865 by Louis Figuier, a French scientist and author of a great deal of popular works. His “History of Plants” – as it is subheaded – is illustrated by 446 engravings by M. Faguet.

Next are books on specific plants, trees or fruit, from the palm tree (FOM 11) to the strawberry, apple and orange (FOM 12), potato (FOM 17) or rhubarb (FOM 19) amongst many others. We then encounter works on plants in the Bible (FOM 33) or plants in India (FOM 34). On the way, under classmark FOM 13, two more books from the Elizabeth David collection can be found:

  • A facsimile edition of A Short Discourse of Peppers by Walter Baley dating from the 16th century and focusing on the therapeutic use of pepper.
  • An original edition of Mémoire sur le safran by Jacques-Hector de La Taille Des Essarts, dating from 1766, which studies the variety of saffron cultivated in the Beauce and Gatinois regions in France, of which a trade had developed at the time of the author. He stresses in his prologue that the aim of his work is practical and it is intended for growers of saffron and not botanists.

Mémoire sur le safran by J.-H. de a Taille Des Essarts

The logic then switches to chronological: studies of plants in the classical world – including studies on Theophrastus (FOM 75), on plants in Ancient Rome (FOM 105); studies on plants in the Arab world – including, but not limited to, Moorish Spain (FOM 115); the Ottoman Empire (FOM 118); on plants in the Middle Ages (FOM 120), which include several books on German Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (FOM 120 M58). One of the next group of books particularly catches the eye. It consists of books on demonic plants (FOM 125), including works on the mandrake, a name given to the root of a plant – and, by metonymy, to the plant itself –, traditionally associated with a variety of superstitious practices because of its hallucinogenic properties. In The Mystic Mandrake, British physician Charles J.S. Thompson (1862-1943) explains that extraordinary powers became attributed to the mandrake, particularly in medieval times, on account of the resemblance of its roots to the human form. Women carried them as a charm against fertility and they were considered useful in bringing prosperity to their owners, in giving the lover the object of his affection and also for the purpose of witchcraft [2].

Mandrake illustration, Hortus Sanitatis (1491), National Library of Medicine

We then get to books on botanical illustration: from reference works (FOM 152), to bibliography (FOM 153) and exhibition catalogues (FOM 154). Finally, the reader interested in flowers in the Renaissance and onwards will stop at FOM 159, with, if he wishes, an emphasis on the Low Countries (FOM 159.41), England (FOM 159.5), or even the tulip (FOM 164).

This overall and partial presentation of the two classmarks of the Warburg Library relating to botany (FOH and FOM), in the course of which were highlighted some of if its most noteworthy items, has led us to tackle the idea of classification from the botanical perspective as well as from the library one.


[1] C. Lucken, « La Biblionomia et la bibliothèque de Richard de Fournival. Un idéal du savoir et sa réalisation », IN C. Angotti, G. Fournier and D. Nebbiai, Les livres des maîtres de Sorbonne : histoire et rayonnement du collège et de ses bibliothèques du XIIIe siècle à la Renaissance, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2017, pp. 69-70.

[2] C.J.S. Thompson, The Mystic Mandrake, London, Rider & Co., 1934, p. 120