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HoS Advent Calendar 2016

The Mouse Ear Plant

The Mouse-ear and Isatis plants from a 9th-century illustrated copy of Dioscorides’ “De materia medica,” BN graec. 2179, fol. 5r

These illustrations are found in a 9th-century manuscript of Dioscorides’ “Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς,” known more commonly by its Latin title, “De materia medica.” The top plant is called Μυοσωτίς (mouse-ear plant); the bottom is Ἰσάτις (sometimes identified as “woad”). Note the reclining figure under the Μυοσωτίς. Note also the Greek and especially the Arabic and Latin glosses added to the text. Next to both plants are their names in Arabic and Latin. There is additional Arabic added vertically in the left margin and at the very top right corner, and some Latin under the Ἰσάτις. Latin numerals seem to number these plants 48 and 49.[1] Such Arabic and Latin glosses continue throughout this copy and testify to the work’s circulation in different linguistic contexts and the effort earlier scholars put in to make the work comprehensible.

Today Dioscordes’ “Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς” is one of the most widely known works from the Byzantine period, thanks in part to its beautiful illustrations of plants.[2] Written sometime in the mid-first century CE, the “De materia medica” compiles medical uses for hundreds of plants from across the Mediterranean—Dioscorides was a surgeon in Nero’s army and travelled widely around the Mediterranean. In addition to its illustrations, the work included descriptions of each plant’s virtues and therapeutic effects.


  1. It is unclear what these numbers suggest—these plants are 8th and 9th plants in the this copy, so perhaps the first folia have been lost. No doubt one of the scholars who has studied this copy explains what these numbers mean.  ↩

  2. Individual copies of the work are themselves well known for different reasons, e.g., “Vienna Dioscorides” is the oldest surviving copy, prepared for the emperor’s daughter, Juliana Anicia; the “Dioscurides Neapolitanus” is a nice copy and the version used for the World Digital Library.  ↩