Section 3. Books of Materia Medica: Readers, Collections of Recipes, Inventors of ‘Secrets’
From the fifteenth century onwards, thanks to the spread of movable type printing, books on materia medica – first in Greek and Latin, and then mostly in the vernacular languages – flooded the European market, greatly expanding the number of materia medica users and enthusiasts. Herbals were enriched with illustrations – at first unsophisticated, then increasingly reliable – to aid in the identification of plants, a crucial factor for their correct use in the compounding of medicines. It often happened that even literate but not particularly well-read readers filled in the blank spaces of these books by adding pictures of plants, or correcting them based on their own experience. Very often they added annotations in the margins of printed texts, or appended handwritten notes at the end of the book with recipes they had already tried or suggested for specific instances. In the early modern age, there was also a torrent of printed recipe books – called ‘books of secrets’ – that taught ordinary people to prepare their own medicinal remedies for the most common ailments. Many individuals continued to compile handwritten recipe books for personal use, assembled from multiple sources: recipes suggested by acquaintances and friends appeared alongside those from very famous physicians and empirics, from printed books, and from other sources. Some keen investigators of materia medica could even patent a medicinal remedy, subject to positive evaluation by the local College of Physicians.