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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/February 1882/A Botanist of the Ninth Century

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 20‎ | February 1882


THE contemplation of the progress of science in our days shows us a whole host of zealous investigators bringing stone after stone to raise to a prouder height the structure of knowledge whose richly diversified pillars and towers, seemingly disposed without order, all contribute to the common design. From this view we readily turn to the foundations and basement-stones of the edifice, which, gray and weathered as they seem to be, yet form the basis of the heaven-aspiring building. Our greatest interest is enlisted in the story of the men who, amid the general perversion of manners and contempt for all learning of the middle ages, lived for knowledge in their study-rooms or shut up in silent cloisters. Although they did not make any great discoveries, they still endeavored to keep alive the little flame which yet shone weakly from the intellectual fires of antiquity. Still more fascinating are such views in the case of men who came out into the life of the times, and, with their sharp minds schooled in the philosophy of the ancients, entered actively into the often erratic course of the world, and by word and writing presented themselves undismayed before those in power here checking the spirit of boundless avarice and wild excess, there defending the oppressed. It is with a man of this kind, the Abbot Rabanus Maurus Magnentius, of Fulda, that we have to do in this essay. After the fall of the Roman Empire the spirit of knowledge became quite extinct, except for a few Greek minds in the Eastern Empire, and in England and Ireland, where gentler manners followed the introduction of the Christian faith and the Latin language, and learning gained a place of refuge; and the knowledge of antiquity spread after Archbishop Theodore and his deacon, Hadrian, founded the school of Canterbury about 680. At last, also, a short but relatively bright period of scientific awakening broke over Central Europe during the reign of Charlemagne, who strove to increase culture and learning in his own land and to introduce them into the countries that he acquired, and for that purpose called learned men to his court, among them Alcuin of England. The cloister schools prospered greatly under Alcuin, and some among them cultivated knowledge with quiet assiduity in the midst of the decline that set in soon after his death. Of these was the cloister of Fulda, to which our Rabanus Maurus was attached. He was born at Mayence, of an old noble family, in 774 or 776, and entered the cloister of Fulda as a puer oblatus (destined for the Church) when nine years old. He acquitted himself so well here that the Abbot Ratgar, in 802, sent him to the celebrated Alcuin at Tours to finish his education. Rabanus resided there a year, a favorite pupil of Alcuin's, who, according to the custom of the time, gave him the surname of Maurus. On his return to Fulda, Ratgar appointed him chief of the cloister school, which became famous under him. Soon afterward, however, the abbot changed his mind very suddenly, prohibited studies, and set the monks at manual labor in building churches. A poem written by Rabanus at this time has come down to us, in which he bewails the loss of his books. The monks soon became disgusted with this rude treatment, and complained of Ratgar to the Emperor, who removed him. Eigil was appointed to succeed him, and restored Rabanus, whose intimate friend he was, to his school. Monks came to Fulda from great distances to learn Rabanus's method of teaching, and his scholars were sought for on all sides, so that he soon became known as the first teacher in Germany. Rabanus himself became Abbot of Fulda after Eigil's death in 822.

Under his lead Fulda reached the height of its fame, and no other German cloister, except perhaps Reichenau, could compare with it. He committed the school to the care of his pupil Walafriedus Strabus, author of a work, "De Hortulo," in which twenty-three plants of the author's garden are celebrated in hexameter verses, and in the performance of his duties as abbot himself had but little time to devote to study. Politics claimed much of his attention, and in the x contentions which arose for the throne of the empire he defended the' cause of Louis against his son, composing in view of the strife a work on the duties of children to their parents, and afterward supported the pretensions of the claimant, whom he considered the rightful heir, without regard to the probable result of the contest. He laid aside his office in 842 and retired to private life, where he employed his time in the composition of his most important work, "De Universo" He was, however, permitted to remain at this congenial pursuit only till 847, when he was chosen Archbishop of Mayence, and was confirmed by the Emperor Louis, notwithstanding he had been a steadfast adherent of his brother and adversary Lothair. He died in the possession of this office in 856, leaving his books to be divided between his beloved Fulda and St. Alban's monastery at Mayence.

It is now time to estimate the value of the life of Rabanus to science, and especially to botany. In the long period between the irruption of the barbarians and the revival of learning in the fifteenth century, three persons whose labors were independent of each other stand especially prominent—Rabanus Maurus, the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, and Albertus Magnus. The two latter were superior in originality to the other, but Rabanus was the first German who took the pen and endeavored in his work, "De Universo", to make accessible to his contemporaries what the ancients knew.

Of course, he worked in the spirit of his times, and the theologian is constantly appearing between his lines, endeavoring to keep what he might write in accord with the Holy Scriptures. The principal authority from which he drew was the "Origines" of Isidore of Seville, who himself again drew chiefly from Pliny. His work considers in twenty-two books the following subjects: 1-5. Theology; 6. Man and his parts; 7. Kindred, longevity, marriage, death, monstrosities, and beasts of burden; 8. Other animals; 9. Astronomy and meteorology; 10. Chronology and festivals; 11. Water; 12-14. Geography; 15. Philosophers, poets, sorcerers, and heathen; 16. Languages, civic and military ordinances; 17. Mineralogy; 18. Measures, weights, music, and medicine; 19. Agriculture and plants; 20. War, armor, and the theatre; 21. Arts and trades; 22. Household and farming implements. After the fashion of his time, he gave more attention to the mystic meaning of the objects of nature than to their real properties, and attached the greatest importance to the explanation of names, in which so curious ingenuity was employed as to justify the quoting of a few specimens: Death is called mors quod amara sit, or in English because it is bitter; the horse is called equus, because only those horses are harnessed together that are alike in size and color (æquare); the panther has received that name because he is a friend of all (πάντων) animals; the swan is called olor, because its feathers are entirely ('ὅλος) white; the ivy is called Hedera, because it is given to kids (hælis) for food; the willow is called Salix (quod celeriter saliat), because it springs up or grows fast. Rabanus adhered quite closely and uncritically to his originals, and it therefore gives us no surprise to find in his work many of the fables of the ancients. These fables, indeed, endured long after his age, and even as late as the beginning of the seventeenth century editions of Egenolph's formerly very popular book of plants appeared, containing the time-honored stories of the basilisk, griffin, dragon, phœnix, etc., almost in the words of the originals, with each animal represented in a neat woodcut. The botanical part of the work of Rabanus particularly claims our attention. We have examined this, not in the entire work, but in a later compendium of the scientific parts made by Stephen Fellner, at Fulda, who in his review described two hundred and sixteen plants as having been mentioned by Rabanus. I have compared these descriptions with the table of plants described by Isidore of Seville, as given in Meyer's "History of Botany," and have found that the latter has fifty plants more than Rabanus, of which a few, however, are synonyms, and should not be counted to his credit. On the other hand, Rabanus has a few plants that I have not found in Isidore, such as lychnis, lichen, corchorus, fœnum, linum, byssus, farrago. The lichen is, as Fellner declares, Marchantia polymorpha. Fœnum is, according to Fellner, Fœnum græcum. Fellner identifies byssus with Gossypium herbaceum, but translates it in another place by wool, while the text says of the plant: "Byssus is a kind of flax. It is very soft and white; it arises out of the earth, is deprived of its moisture by several protracted processes, and is formed into a handsome cloth." Does not this all agree with asbestus? The account continues, however, "Purple is made of it—a cloth for kings—by dyeing it with the blood of a certain sea-shell animal"; and the ancient name for cotton cloth was generally byssus. Asbestus appears again among the minerals as amianthus; but its application to the manufacture of cloths is not mentioned, except with reference to its incombustible quality, where it is said, "Cloth which is in contact with it resists the fire." Fellner defines farrago as a mixture of various forage-grasses. Some of the plants have not been correctly identified by Fellner. Rabanus in the beginning speaks of the distinction between a tree and a herb, which he regards as consisting only in a difference in age, for a tree, he says, can be developed out of a carefully cultivated herb. In the next chapter he treats of the improvement of trees, of grafting, and budding. The third chapter considers the parts of the tree: the root, which is supposed to reach as deep into the ground as the stem rises above it; the stem, crown, flowers, and fruits, which last he distinguishes as hard-skinned or nut-like, and soft-skinned, like the apple. The fourth chapter relates to the vine. This is the only plant of which a measurably comprehensive description is given, and I will therefore quote from the account, omitting the explanations of the names: "The vine consists of the stock and its shoots. The ends of the branches, the younger shoots, are driven back and forth by the wind. The branches have curled tendrils, by means of which they can cling to the trees, and thereby put themselves in a condition to resist the attack of the wind, to support the fruits, and to spread themselves out. Those stocks that bear fruit are called palmites, the fruitless ones spadones. The leaf of the vine serves to protect the branches from cold and heat, and to defend the clusters against injury. The clusters are composed of fat and juicy berries hanging from the comb." The different kinds of fruits, pulse, field-plants, and kitchen-garden vegetables are then described.

The next division treats of the habitat of plants, and shows how each plant prefers a particular kind of soil, whence one will succeed better on one kind of soil, another on a different kind, and neither will do well in a situation badly adapted to it.

Descriptions are afterward given of plants coming under other heads than those above mentioned—those whose fruits are fit for food: the oak, beech, Phœnix, Pomaceæ, Syrian bean, fig, cherry, mulberry, almond, cherry, Ceratonia, pepper (with a recipe for detecting adulteration), Nardus crocus (saffron); those which are antidotes to poison: the walnut (Nux), radish (Raphanus), celery, rue, oleander, germander; medical plants: myrtle, sage, hyacinth, lettuce, thyme, aristolochia, Prunus, Solarium, mallow, mint, ceterach, saxifrage, dictamus, wormwood, spurge, fennel, ivy, madder, hellebore, heliotrope, thistle, maiden-hair, borage, cinnamon, cyclamen, mandrake, poppy; poisonous plants: hemlock, water-hemlock, hyoscyamus, aconite, Ocimum, basil (if one pulls up a handful of basil, he says, all the scorpions in the neighborhood will come around); resin-and gum-bearing plants: the pine (which affords amber), cedar, pistachio, olive, Docema, Populus, Boswellia, balsam-tree (with a recipe for the detection of adulterations), liquidambar, convolvulus, ferula; timber-trees: spruce, cypress, juniper, persimmon, linden, willow, poplar, oak, larch, aquilaria, box.

The scope, arrangement; and method of treatment of the several parts of the work differ but little from those of the botanical department, which we have thus briefly reviewed.

We close with a return to the figure with which we began. Rabanus is not one of the grand towers of the temple of Science at which posterity will gaze admiringly, nor is he one of the massive buttresses whence numerous shafts and points arise; we should rather compare him to one of the solid stones that are sunk one upon the other into the soft ground to be hardly ever seen again by the eyes of men—one of those who in quiet, busy toil have laid the foundation among the people which now bears so mighty a structure. Such men will always be worthy of our esteem, and should be gratefully remembered by us. Rabanus was one of the most eminent among these men. He was incontestably the most learned man of his times; and he was the first German who ever wrote on science.

  1. Translated for "The Popular Science Monthly" from "Die Natur."