17th August: Adopt an 'Ortus Sanitatis'

Published on 17th August 2017

Ortus Sanitatis, 1491

The Library of the Linnean Society wants to conserve two of its oldest books, from the library of Carl Linnaeus. The two books are two different editions of the first natural history encyclopaedia, the Ortus (or Hortus) Sanitatis, or Garden of Health. The Ortus Sanitatis was first published by Jacob Meydenbach in Mainz, Germany in 1485. Linnaeus owned the second edition (1491) as well as the fourth edition (1499), published in Strasbourg by J. Prüss.

Written at the end of the Middle Ages, the Ortus Sanitatis is a wonderful window into an age when it was believed that the natural world had been created by God to be of use to humanity and that animals and plants were there to provide cures for diseases. The Ortus Sanitatis describes species in the natural world, from plants, to animals and minerals along with their medicinal uses and modes of preparation. It was also a world filled with wonder and belief in extraordinary creatures. Mythical creatures are therefore included, and the pages are filled with creatures such as the phoenix, dragon, mermaid and other monsters.


The work includes tracts on medicinal plants, animals, birds, fish; mining and gemstones; and a work on the analysis of urine. This last tract is illustrated by a woodcut showing medical men examining phials of urine, in a shop. Two children seem to be fighting in the foreground, perhaps afflicted by the choleric disposition that the physician is trying to diagnose.

The 1491 edition is particularly impressive, being one of the bulkiest books in the Library of Carl Linnaeus. The charm of this wonderful book rests in its woodcut illustrations. Many of the plants, while delightfully stylized, are easily recognizable, helped by the rudimentary colouring that was added by hand. There are numerous annotations throughout, in various hands. The title page (see above) indicates the numerous readers to which this book belonged, before coming into the hands of Linnaeus and, in 1784, of James Edward Smith and ultimately the Linnean Society.

The 1499 copy is of particular Swedish interest: one entry at the end of the book is dated 1519 and gives the price given for it. In addition, an old Swedish print pasted on the inside of the cover indicates that the binding was done in Sweden. A name scribbled on the third page indicates that it once belonged to Olaus Johannes Holus [?].

Conservation of these two books is essential if they are to remain in use. Once damaged, such heavy volumes, when handled, soon deteriorate and access will become more restricted.

Ortus Sanitatis

In both books, the front boards are detached, exposing the first several pages to unnecessary wear and at risk of becoming adrift from the sewing stations. The missing spines has resulted in damage to the sewing cords and there is a danger that the rear boards will also detach. Some pages are torn and the paper has become fragile and prone to loss.

The aim of conservation will be to make the books safe to handle while still retaining their original features and any historic evidence. The boards will be re-attached and the sewing supports strengthened. The spines will be recovered and any fragile or torn pages repaired. A new box will be made for each book.

You can help us conserve these two beautiful books by adopting them through our AdoptLINN scheme. Due to the high level of expertise and intervention required, each book is within the AdoptLINN Treasures category: for £1,500, you can adopt one of the Ortus Sanitatis. The benefits include:

  • Your name will be permanently associated with the book you are adopting on the Online Library Catalogue.
  • You will receive a certificate with details of your item.
  • Your donation will be acknowledged on our website and proceedings.
  • A conservation demonstration by our Conservator for you and up to four guests.
  • Once conserved, your item will be displayed with an acknowledgement of your contribution.

Please contact the Library team if you are interested.