Hortus Sanitatis.

Benjamin Breen at Res Obscura has thoughts about Why Early Modern Books Are So Beautiful:

The Hortus Sanitatis (Latin for The Garden of Health) is an encyclopedia about the natural world that was first published in Mainz, Germany in 1491. It features 530 chapters on plants, 164 chapters on land animals, 122 chapters on flying animals, 106 chapters on animals that swim in the sea, and 144 chapters on precious stones and minerals. It is 454 pages long.

These are the ways that bibliographers tend to classify books. But nothing I can tell you about the Hortus Sanitatis will do justice to what you learn from looking at it. Because numbers aside, the most salient thing about this book is that it’s incredibly beautiful.

I am sometimes asked why I became a historian. A big part of it is that I just really like looking at old books. Not just looking, exactly, but finding out what we can learn from looking at them — how the meaning and function of a book interacts with the technologies used to produce it and the creativity and craftsmanship of its creators.

The Hortus Sanitatis is what’s known as an incunabulum, or “cradle book,” a term for books produced before 1500 during the infancy of movable type printing. […] Early modern printed books are a much wider category, encompassing the entire period between ~1450 CE and ~1800 CE (I tend to date the end of the early modern period to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, 1815). Printed books from this period cover a huge range of topics and dozens of languages, but for me at least, they have one thing in common: I almost always find them far more interesting — more beautifully designed, more strange, more intriguing — than modern books.

His thoughts are interesting and the illustrations are gorgeous; check it out!


  1. It’s not just the printed books, of course. Manuscript production continued long after the invention of printing, and the two modes of creating physical copies of books fed on each other.

    It is obvious that the incunabula replicated contemporary manuscripts, but manuscripts were also influenced by the new technology. There were manuscript copies of printed books, and more effort went into producing manuscripts that were of finer quality than printed books. It took a long time for printing technology to catch up with the crisp, clean letterforms that could be achieved by a master calligrapher. La guirlande de Julie is one of the best known examples of high quality manuscripts that post-date printing and which arguably couldn’t have been equaled in print before the invention of offset printing.

  2. John Cowan says

    1815 seems rather late for the end of early modernity. I’d say 1789 is more like it, except in England where it’s around 1755 (Johnson’s Dictionary) and in Japan where it’s 1868.

  3. You’re talking about history; he’s talking about books.

  4. I’d say there is a certain amount of survivor bias here. Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance (highly recommended) emphasizes that most printers survived by printing emphemera and books (such as school primers) that were usually read to death. Library special collections tend to hold what was the top of the market.
    Though even there, plenty of poor printing exists: consider the First Folio of Shakespeare. As to dates, a book printer in 1825 differed from one in 1625 only in using an iron press, (probably) machine-made paper, and (perhaps) stereotyping; in 1855, possibly a machine press and cloth binding; and only by 1895 (or later) a composing machine. (A very rough summary of Gaskell’s New Intro to Bibliography–incidentally, he describes English books 1600-1800 (or so) as “set in ill-cast, battered type, clumsily arranged and carelessly printed”.)

  5. Thanks very much for that — I’ll definitely look into Gaskell!

  6. I was taught “historical bibliography” by Nicolas Barker, then of the British Library, a wonderfully flamboyant lecturer, who would turn up with a bicycle basket full of tatty old books, which he would literally rip up to demonstrate their construction. IIRC his vote for the most beautiful incunable went to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published by Aldus Manutius in 1499 (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypnerotomachia_Poliphili). It’s certainly one of the weirdest books ever published…

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Reproductions of the
    Woodcuts in the Dream
    of Poliphilus (Hypnero-
    tomachia Poliphili)
    printed at
    Venice by
    Aldus in

    [published 1893]

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