The Medieval Review 13.03.20

Birkhan, Helmut. Pflanzen im Mittelalter: Eine Kulturgeschichte. Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2012. Pp. v, 310. 24.90 EUR. ISBN: 978-3-205-78788-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Paolo Squatriti
University of Michigan

Though Helmut Birkhan calls his Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter a "Buchlein" (273), there is nothing diminutive about the book. It is almost 300 pages long, without notes, and though it contains fourteen grainy, black-and-white illustrations, the print is small and the text dense. It is quite a slog to work one's way through it, also because of the unusually convoluted German syntax. In fact, Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter was probably not conceived as a book to be read in the traditional manner, beginning at the beginning and ending with the conclusion, for it is a (modern) herbal and, like older herbals, is designed foremost for ready reference and occasional consultation, using the compendious index of species (293-310). As a book to be dipped into, it is excellent, consistently delivering data of great interest along with the author's acute observations on medieval plant lore. Birkhan says that he hoped to engage modern botanists and those consumers of plants who of late have become concerned with autochthonous plants as food and remedies, as well as the usual academic-humanistic suspects (7, 8). His book's organization into long lists of plants (51-178, 229-236), followed by some shorter essays on the cultural understanding of plants, mostly by high medieval German writers (Chapters 4-7), should help reach these audiences.

A leisurely introduction launches Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter (7-48). In it Birkhan points out that studying steady universals, like stars or plants, is the best medium through which to measure the alterity of other cultures and perceive their remoteness from one's own. He generalizes on vegetative characteristics that made plants enduringly fascinating to humans, and explains that medieval botany was a form of pharmacology, or "magia naturalis." He introduces his main guides into medieval plant lore, Hildegard of Bingen and Konrad of Megenburg (+1374), and gives his reasons for privileging these voices (basically, no one else has). Chapters 2 and 3 catalogue plants of economic or medicinal importance, especially as evinced from the two main sources. Far shorter are the following four chapters. Chapter 4 offers a fine treatment of the medieval literary theme of the garden, with excursuses on grafting and topiary as forms of domination, and on elite pastimes in gardens. In Chapter 5, which is the best illustrated, Birkhan comments on plants' role in medieval legislation, especially forest law, and in heraldry (205-224). In Chapter 6 Birkhan turns to medieval conceptions of plants mentioned in the Bible, and incorporates a nice section on "Marian botany" that lays out all the (luxuriant) vegetation associated with the Virgin. This chapter also discusses medieval exegesis of the wood of the cross and trees in Eden. The seventh and final chapter allows Birkhan to take up the topic of vegetable ornament in medieval art, and the chronology of the fashion for representing plants in medieval painting and sculpture. The chapter also analyzes literary depictions of humanized plants and vegetablized humans, including plants to which people ascribed prophetic powers, beginning with the daisy whose petals uncertain lovers still pluck for guidance.

Clearly Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter is a rich compendium and a useful reference for any who wonder about plants in the Middle Ages. But it is also, as its subtitle indicates, a culture-oriented account, based on elite, mostly textual sources. Indeed, one of the strengths of Birkhan's discussion is his linguistic awareness. Birkhan, who has published on etymology and linguistics, is supremely capable of tracing the origins of plant names and qualities into remotest times through the analysis of words. Scattered throughout the 273 pages of Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter are many word genealogies, mostly for German plant names, but encompassing how plants have been labeled and qualified in other European languages too.

On the other hand Birkhan's omission of the astonishingly informative data produced over the past two decades by archaeobotanists lends his book the somewhat unreal air that hangs over late medieval tapestries and miniatures (two sources Birkhan does include). Throughout the book, Birkhan struggles with "our helplessness before such statements" as medieval textual botany offers (238), and he is frequently unsure what (modern) species a medieval author is actually writing about (39-48). The lack of correspondence between contemporary and medieval modes of botanical inquiry could have been compensated by careful inclusion of palaeobotanical data, duly analyzed, to show with what real plants medieval writers might have been familiar. Birkhan is commendably aware of the substratum of traditional ecological knowledge (or TEK, in contemporary ecologese) that underlay the constructions of Hildegard and Konrad (and the host of other authors Birkhan mentions, especially in Chapters 4-7). Yet he is unable to evaluate the relationship between high and low botanical culture in the Middle Ages (see 24-25). Archaeobotany could have furnished a way to tackle this problem, and to show the obligatory grounding in local practicalities of any intellectual living in an organic economy. For example, Birkhan attempts to explain the absence of apricots in medieval literature by suggesting apricots were considered, and called, peaches (56), whereas apricot pits are glaringly missing from excavated medieval middens, and thus Prunus armeniaca probably really did disappear from Europe with Roman authority.

Ironically, in our "globalized" world of accelerated cultural flows, Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter remains as tightly wrapped to a specific cultural context as ivy to an oak tree. The book contains numerous references to gastronomic and homeopathic fashions that hold (or, more likely, held when Birkhan was writing) sway in Austria. It prevalently refers to manuscripts and paintings in Mitteleuropa, often gives modern or Bavarian dialectical forms to explain etymologies or connotations of plants and their names, and reports on the date of introduction to Austria of various exotics, like crocus (88), or on the current ecological consequences near Austrian towns of medieval cultivations (e.g. green hellebore, 144). More importantly, the literary database upon which Birkhan based Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter is heavily slanted toward texts produced in German-speaking areas of Europe. Some sagas, a few French Romances or Trecento writings from Italy, and the odd Anglo-Saxon poem notwithstanding, the botanical lore explored in this book emanates from German ecclesiastical, courtly, and (less) urban centers. Thus the "Mittelalter" of the title is actually geographically limited, and aside from limited engagement with France, Britain, and Italy, neither Slavic nor Iberian plant knowledge receive much attention, nor Byzantium or Islamdom.

That geographical specificity has chronological repercussions, for in much of Europe it is difficult to consider writings of the 1400s "medieval" at all. Even the plant drawings of Bernard of Breidenbach (+1497)--heralded as the first accurate, empirical ones made in Europe since the sixth century--have the whiff of new things about them (34-36). Birkhan, who occasionally pursues his themes into Baroque poetry, acknowledges that his investigations transgress the boundaries of "the Middle Ages in the traditional sense" (38). If such unwillingness to accept canonical chronologies is refreshing, still Birkhan's Middle Ages sometimes dissolve into a mush, and important distinctions between Carolingian and (say) Gothic botany get lost. More chronological precision, and better-defined cultural contexts for the botanical texts Birkhan parses, would have rendered clearer "medieval" vegetative culture's evolution, avoiding the impression that the study of plants between Isidore of Seville and Bernard of Breidenbach was static. Tellingly, potential agents of change in the vegetable world, like climate, are left aside (213).

One key to understanding a herbal is how it orders its data. Medieval herbals used various criteria, and of course ordering could change to suit new needs: thus Dioscurides, who wrote a pharmaco-botanical encyclopedia in the first century, would have been surprised to read his own text in the version preserved for us by the famous Vienna Dioscurides, a sixth-century codex that omits much and includes matter from other authors. As Foucault taught us, the order of things matters because it expresses ideology, as well as power relations. Therefore, the order in which Konrad, or Hildegard, presented their plants, and their reasons for choosing that way of ordering, are not indifferent. In his own herbal, Birkhan gamely discusses mushrooms, as his sources did, though modern botanists no longer consider them plants at all. But Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter opts for an alphabetical listing of modern botanical names divided into economically useful cereals, vegetables, and fruit-, fiber-, dye-, and wood-producing plants, followed by plants with medical applications. This choice obscures whatever strategies the twelfth-century mystic or the fourteenth-century Bavarian priest adopted for their botanical compilations, and medieval botanists' sense of vegetative hierarchy. Instead, it reveals how modern westerners rank plants.

Birkhan's book is nonetheless a treasure-trove of fascinating material about the cultural elaboration of a seemingly inert form of life. Within its covers, readers can discover, among many other interesting things, how medieval literati explained the toxicity of mushrooms, why boiled vegetables were etymologically linked to charity, what medieval people made of Cannabis sativa, which plants control hair loss and which give headache, why gardening was a gendered activity, how come medieval observers thought the smell of a plant its defining characteristic, what plants grew in the medieval locus amoenus, how the lily became Mary's sign, which two dozen species may be recognized in the c. 1420 Rhenish "Garden of Paradise" currently in Frankfurt's Städel-Museum, and how the spirit of dead people could endure in living trees. Anyone concerned with (mostly) high and late medieval understandings of vegetation, mostly in the German cultural Gebiet, will get great satisfaction from Die Pflanzen im Mittelalter.