Botany and the law

Handbuch aller unter der Regierung des Kaisers Joseph des II, volume 15 (1789)
May 14, 2015

In my search for law books with illustrations, I have never come across botanical illustrations until now. The plant depicted here is belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade. The leaves and berries are highly toxic, although the plant is also used in a wide variety of medicines.

The illustration is found in volume 15 of the Handbuch aller unter der Regierung des Kaisers Joseph des II. für die K.K. Erbländer ergangenen Verordnungen und Gesetz in einer sistematischen Verbindung (Vienna: J.G. Moesle, 1785-1790), an 18-volume compilation of the legislation of Emperor Joseph II of Austria (1741-1790), the brother of Marie Antoinette. The illustration is for a law that required teachers to warn their students about belladonna and other dangerous plants, following a number of deadly incidents. It gives instructions on how to identify belladonna, and describes the symptoms of belladonna poisoning. It is part of a set of public health regulations. (Thanks to Otto Vervaart and Mark Weiner for translation help.)

The Handbuch contains the enormous legislative output of the reform-minded Joseph II. He freed the serfs, abolished the death penalty, ended press censorship, instituted religious toleration, and reformed public administration, among other things. Many of his reforms were rolled back after his death. All 18 volumes are available online, courtesy of the National Library of Austria.

One unusual and attractive feature of the Handbuch is that each of the 18 volumes has a different allegorical frontispiece and engraved border on the title page. You can view all of the frontispieces in an album on our Flickr site. Below is the frontispiece of the last volume, volume 18, published in the year that Joseph II died. It shows a soldier mourning his leader’s death.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

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