De historia et causis plantarum. Translated from Greek intro Latin by Theodorus Gaza (fl. 1400-75), edited by Georgius Merula (d. 1494).

Treviso: Bartholomaeus Confalonerius, [colophon:] 20 February 1483.

First edition, very rare, of the first work of scientific botany, a subject not addressed in any of the writings of Aristotle. Theophrastus was Aristotle’s associate, his successor as head of the Peripatetic School, and heir to his library. His treatises on plants, written as counterparts to Aristotle’s works on animals, came to be regarded as part of the Aristotelian corpus; their original Greek texts were first printed in the Aldine edition of Aristotle’s works. The Historia plantarum is concerned with the description, classification, and analysis of plants. It originally consisted of ten books, of which nine survive. It describes more than 500 varieties of plants according to a primitive classification scheme that held into the sixteenth century, and offers a description of germinating seeds that was the clearest and most accurate before Malpighi’s study in the seventeenth century. The work is arranged into a system whereby plants are classified according to their modes of generation, their localities, their sizes, and according to their practical uses such as foods, juices, herbs, etc. His system of botanical classification, analogous to the zoological system in Aristotle’s Historia animalium, maintained its authority until the advent of the microscope in the mid 17th century. The first book deals with the parts of plants; the second with the reproduction of plants and the times and manner of sowing; the third, fourth and fifth books are devoted to trees, their types, their locations, and their practical applications; the sixth deals with shrubs and spiny plants; the seventh deals with herbs; the eighth deals with plants which produce edible seeds; and the ninth deals with plants which produce useful juices, gums, resins, etc. The discussion of the medicinal properties of plants in Book IX of the Historia makes the work one of the earliest surviving herbals. Theophrastus noted the principle of drug tolerance, observing that the power of a drug taken over a long period diminishes in people who become accustomed to taking it. He was also aware of individual differences in assimilation. De causis plantarum treats the generation and propagation of plants. It originally consisted of eight books, of which six survive. It concerns the growth of plants; the influences on their fecundity; the proper times they should be sown and reaped; the methods of preparing the soil, manuring it, and the use of tools; of the smells, tastes, and properties of many types of plants. The work deals mainly with the economic uses of plants rather than their medicinal uses, although the latter are sometimes mentioned. Although these works contain many absurd and fabulous statements, as a whole they have many valuable observations concerning the functions and properties of plants. Theophrastus detected the process of germination and realized the importance of climate and soil to plants. Much of the information on the Greek plants may have come from his own observations, as he is known to have travelled throughout Greece, and to have had a botanical garden of his own; but the works also profit from the reports on plants of Asia brought back from those who followed Alexander the Great. To the reports of Alexander’s followers he owed his accounts of such plants as the cotton-plant, banyan, pepper, cinnamon, myrrh and frankincense. The present copy was owned by a contemporary scholar who annotated the first chapters in Greek and Latin, noting variant readings and with reference to the first edition in Greek, printed by Aldus Manutius. These variant readings continued to be noted in later editions; it may be significant that there are no references to the 1541 edition, dating the annotations to before 1541. ABPC/RBH list two other copies since 1967, one in a modern binding, the other (the Norman copy) in 18th century binding rebacked.

Provenance: early marginal annotations in Greek and Latin, those in the first two quires including references to the Aldine edition which formed part of the Aldine Aristotle of 1495-8 – Muzio Capilupi, secretary of Vespasiano Gonzaga (1531-1591) and vicar of Sabbioneta, near Mantua (contemporary inscription on first leaf).

“Theophrastus’ works on botany correspond to Aristotle’s Historia animalium and De partibus animalium; in Historia plantarum he is concerned with description, classification, and analysis, and in De causis plantarum, taking the tree as his standard, he deals with general matters: permanent and annual parts and their composition; classification into tree, shrub, undershrub, and herb; general and special differences in the plants as wholes and in their parts. From this Theophrastus proceeds to particulars; book II, domesticated trees, their propagation, and their care; book III, wild trees: book VI, undershrubs; books VII and VIII, herbaceous plants. Included are three books on special topics: book IV, trees and plants peculiar to certain regions; book V, woods and their uses; book IX, plant juices and medicinal herbs. The main subjects of De causis plantarum are the following: book I, generation and propagation, sprouting and fruiting; book II, effects of natural factors; book III, effects of cultivation; book IV, seeds; book V, alteration, degeneration, and death; book VI, plant juices. (The treatise De odoribus and the lost treatise on wine and olive oil may originally have followed book VI.)

“Within this framework Theophrastus describes and discusses some 550 species and varieties, extending geographically from the Atlantic through the Mediterranean littoral and as far east as India. Among his literary sources he cites poets, philosophers, and scientists from Homer to Plato (notably Empedocles, Menestor, and Democritus among the pre-Socratics who had written on plants). He makes frequent references to the beliefs and practices of farmers, physicians, root cutters, and other groups, as well as to the inhabitants of various regions (especially Macedonia, Arcadia, and the vicinity of Mt. Ida). His anonymous sources undoubtedly include not only oral reports but also technical writings, such as those by Diocles of Carystus on roots and poisons, and nontechnical writings, such as those by men who accompanied Alexander and noted vegetation of military importance or special interest along the way.

“In his typological procedure Theophrastus makes no fundamental innovations; Aristotle had already used the same procedure in many other subjects, including zoology. Nor does he differ from Aristotle in his physiological theory. He regards plants as living things with a life dependent on the proportion of their innate heat and moisture and on the harmonious relation between them and their environment. His chief difference is, rather, in perspective. Aristotle regards plants as the lowest members of a system that culminates in man, as sharing with animals the nutritive faculty of the soul, and as illustrating similarities and dissimilarities within the system as a whole. Theophrastus, on the other hand, concentrates on the plants themselves and avoids systematization beyond his immediate subject. He does not speck of the plant’s soul; and, although he does use analogy between plants and animals, he emphasizes its limits and says that to strive after comparison where none is possible is a waste of effort and may cause us to abandon the method that is appropriate to the investigation.

“Theophrastus’ insistence on appropriate method follows from his recognition of the differences between plants and animals and of the manifold nature of plants. Generalization about plants as a whole is difficult because no part is common to them all as the mouth and stomach are common to all animals; they do not all have root, stem, branch, twig, leaf, flower, fruit, bark, core, fibers, and veins, although these and such parts belong to the plant’s essential nature. This diversity also makes it difficult to generalize about major classes and even about individual kinds; there is overlapping between classes, some plants seem to depart from their essential nature when they are cultivated, and each kind embraces several different forms. It is now clear why in the Metaphysics Theophrastus speaks of a method appropriate to plants as distinct from inanimate substances and even animals. In the study of such diverse material our object is not the universal but the particular, and our instrument is not reason but sense perception; we must pursue the unknown through what is manifest to the senses; and in offering explanations we must use causal principles that are in accord with the particular natures of the plants, for our accounts must agree with our observations.

“Consistent with this methodological principle, Theophrastus treats received theory and opinion with respect and skepticism, and seldom commits himself outright on one side or the other. Thus he quotes Aristotle’s dictum that nature does nothing in vain, but he does so only in support of what is already evident to perception. He explains the pericarp by anthropocentric teleology as being for man’s nourishment, but he goes on to explain it in relation to the seed. The reported infertility of cypress seeds makes him doubt that Aristotle’s dictum is true, but he does not renounce it. So, too, Theophrastus speaks of spontaneous generation and transmutation as if they were simple facts; but again he offers explanations that might have led him to reject these notions, and in the end he leaves the question open. The same noncommittal attitude is evident in his treatment of particular reports. Along with the credible, he includes nonsensical tales, such as that the scorpion is killed by the application of wolfsbane but revived by white hellebore. His comment on this last is significant for his use of all the theories and evidence received from other: ‘Fabulous tales are not made up without reason.’

“By assembling his data impartially, classifying and discussing them within an elastic system, and withholding judgment when it was not secured by facts, Theophrastus created what he called an appropriate method and laid the groundwork for modern botany. Many of his observations and explanations were necessarily incomplete or erroneous; use of the simplest magnifying lens would have resolved many of his doubts. Among his contributions of lasting interest, his accounts of the following may be mentioned: the ‘pericarpion,’ used for the first time as a technical term; parenchymatous and prosenchymatous tissues; petalous and apetalous flowers; hypogynous, perigynous, and epigynous insertions of the corolla; centripetal and centrifugal inflorescences, angiosperms and gymnosperms; monocotyledons and dictyledons. All except the firs of these terms are modern, but there is no doubt that Theophrastus correctly distinguished the features to which they are applied. In the last passage he gives the clearest and most accurate description of germinating seeds before Malpighi in the seventeenth century.

“Theophrastus’ achievement in botany is all the more remarkable when we bear in mind that these two works were a small part of his writings. Their preservation does not allow us to suppose that botany was his primary interest; the loss of his works on other subjects may have been due not to their lesser importance but to the chances of manuscript transmission or to the tastes of later antiquity. Nothing in his writing indicates that he thought himself to be – as he has since been called – a professional botanist or that he considered his work comprehensive in detail or in theory. Of the plants that Theophrastus mentions only a third are not attested from other sources, and domesticated and familiar wild varieties are predominant (he says that most of the wild are nameless and little-known; he also omits many plants that he must have known.

“Although some of his accounts (such as that of germinating seeds) indicate personal observation, they do not warrant the belief that Theophrastus had an experimental garden or made extensive field trips in Greece, let alone abroad. Nor is there any reason to think that he had collaborators or trained informants either in the Greek part of the Mediterranean or with Alexander’s army; if he had, there could hardly be so many gaps and uncertainties in his information. Some of his secondhand information he could not test himself; but, even when he could easily have done so, in some cases he did not. It may be asked what Theophrastus’ intention was in writing at such length about incomplete and unverified evidence. The answer is probably to be found in his frequent reminders to himself and his readers that there must be further investigation. He was aware tat what he wrote was merely the beginning, that more and better data were needed, and that his explanations might need revision. His hopes apparently came to nothing. Later Greek and Roman authors enlarged the stock of useful knowledge and Pliny compiled it, but scientific botany progressed no further until the Renaissance” (DSB).

“Diogenes Laertius is our main source for Theophrastus’ life and works. In his Life of Theophrastus, he reports that Theophrastus was born in Eresos on the island of Lesbos around 371 BCE and his original name was Tyrtamus, but Aristotle changed it to Theophrastus because of the godlike manner of his speech. According to Diogenes Laertius, early in his life Theophrastus was a student of an otherwise unheard of Alcippus in his native city and then of Plato in the Academy, where he met Aristotle, who was not more than fifteen years his senior and with whom he had a relationship of colleagues or associates rather than one of teacher and pupil. After Plato’s death in 347 BCE, Theophrastus travelled with Aristotle to Assos in Asia Minor, back to Lesbos, and later on to Macedonia, because Aristotle was summoned there as tutor of Alexander. Around 335 BCE they both returned to Athens. Aristotle founded his school at the Lyceum but he had to leave again, when Alexander died in 323 BCE, due to the increasing anti-Macedonian feelings. Theophrastus succeeded Aristotle at the school, which during the next thirty-five years, under his headship, acquired a more institutionalized character. It is reported that he lectured to as many as two thousand pupils at a time at the Peripatos, among whom we find the Academic skeptic Arcesilaus, who left him for Polemo’s Academy, the comic poet Menander and the politician Demetrius of Phalerum. So, when Demetrius became governor of Athens in 317 BCE in the Macedonian interest, he protected and helped Theophrastus, whose situation had become precarious, as is testified by a prosecution of impiety that was brought against him by a certain Agnonides. After Demetrius’ expulsion in 307 BCE, he was again persecuted, more seriously this time, when a law was passed forbidding anyone to open a school of philosophy without a government license; Theophrastus as well as many other philosophers left Athens, and he returned only when the law was repealed a year later. He died around 287 BCE and in his will, which survives in a copy provided by Diogenes Laertius, he left all his books to his disciple Neleus, including the manuscripts of Aristotle’s works, which he had inherited when he took over the Lyceum.

“Diogenes attributes to Theophrastus well over two hundred separate treatises in different styles, of varying length and on a very wide range of topics, totaling 232,808 lines; of these less than ten per cent survives. Some works seem to have been intended for use within the school as basis for Theophrastus’ lectures, while others were intended for a wider audience and they were, therefore, written in a popular style or in dialogue form. Judging from the surviving material and from their titles, some works were on the same topics as ones by Aristotle, whereas others seem to have dealt with topics related to those of the Aristotelian treatises but not covered by them” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

HC 15491*; BMC VI, 894 (IB. 28409); Klebs 958.1; Proctor 6480; Dibner, Heralds of Science 18; GM 1783; Stillwell 533, 702; Norman 2066; Goff T-155.

Super-chancery folio (303 x 206mm). Collation: A-H8 I-L6; a8 b6 c-h8 i-k6 (A1 blank, A2r-A2v translator's dedication to Pope Nicholas V, A2v-A4v translator's preface, A4v-K6r Historia plantarum, K6v letter of Georgius Merula to Dominicus Sanuto, L1r-L6v table; a1r-k6r De causis plantarum, k6r colophon, k6v blank), 156 leaves, unpaginated, 41 lines, table in two columns, 9- to 2-line initial spaces, most with printed guide-letter. printed shoulder notes to De causis plantarum (occasional light spotting, faint marginal dampstain in a few leaves, marginal spot and small wormhole in final 3 leaves). Contemporary ?French calf over wooden boards, panelled and with foliate roll tools, author’s name lettered along bottom edges and in a contemporary hand on first blank (rebacked, new endpapers, a little stained and worn, lacking fore-edge clasps).

Item #5237

Price: $145,000.00

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