Janus Cornarius (ca. 1500 – March 16, 1558) was a Saxon humanist and friend of Erasmus. A gifted philologist, Cornarius specialized in editing and translating Greek and Latin medical writers with "prodigious industry," taking a particular interest in botanical pharmacology and the effects of environment on illness and the body. Early in his career, Cornarius also worked with Greek poetry, and later in his life Greek philosophy; he was, in the words of Friedrich August Wolf, "a great lover of the Greeks." Patristic texts of the 4th century were another of his interests. Some of his own writing is extant, including a book on the causes of plague and a collection of lectures for medical students.
Details of the life of Cornarius are taken in large part from the Latin biography by Melchior Adam in Vitae Germanorum medicorum ("Lives of German Physicians," 1620). Cornarius was born Johann or Johannes Hainpol, the son of a shoemaker, but adopted his fashionably Latinized name by the time he reached age 20. The toponymic Zuiccaulensis ("of Zwickau") is sometimes added. His name may appear as Giovanni Cornario in Italian, Jano Cornario in Spanish, Jean Cornario in French, and Janus Kornar in German.
Cornarius began his education at the Latin school in his native Zwickau. He studied with Petrus Mosellanus at Leipzig, matriculating in 1517 and earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1518. He enrolled at the University of Wittenberg in 1519, where he earned a master's degree (1521) and a license in medicine (1523). He thus would have been at Wittenberg when the Zwickau Prophets, an anti-authoritarian Anabaptist movement from his place of birth, attempted to seize power in 1521. They were successfully opposed and rendered ineffective by Martin Luther in 1522. That Cornarius condemned the Anabaptists is clear from his later book on plague, in which he argued that a particular epidemic in Westphalia was sent as punishment from God for their heretical activities.
After experiencing these political and spiritual upheavals, Cornarius set out on a "soul-searching journey" around Europe, visiting Livonia, Sweden, Denmark, England, and France. While he was looking for work, he settled for a time in Basel, where he gave lectures on Greek medicine at the University of Basel. There he began his efforts to restore the study of the Greeks, whose works, he believed, had been neglected during the Middle Ages in favor of Arab medical authorities. In 1527–28, he was a physician to Prince Henry of Mecklenburg. Returning to Zwickau in 1530, he established a medical practice and married the first of his two wives; she died not long after. With his second wife, he had four sons. For the remainder of his life he was a physician and professor of medicine as well as a prolific editor and translator.
Cornarius came to know the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus while living in Basel, and was encouraged by him to persist with his work in translating Greek texts into Latin; at the time, ancient Greek was little known, but Latin was still in living use as an international language among scholars for such purposes as letter-writing, informational or philosophical essays, and even some literary compositions. Erasmus wrote to him around the time Cornarius was resettling in Zwickau, addressing him as ornatissime Cornari ("oh-so-refined Cornarius"). Of his translation of Hippocrates, Erasmus effused, "The genius is there; the erudition is there, the vigorous body and vital spirit are there; in sum, nothing is missing that was required for this assignment, confronted happily, it would seem, despite its difficulty." The junior philologist was so pleased by Erasmus's many compliments in this letter that sixteen years later he proudly quoted from it in the introduction to his Latin version of Hippocrates. At the same time, his intellectual independence is indicated by his willingness to set aside the translations of Basil and Galen made by Erasmus in favor of his own.
His work as a philologist was not merely academic or text-oriented, but animated by a commitment to teaching. Melchior Adam wrote that Cornarius "tried to render the Greek physicians into Latin with a translation that was not vague and confusing, but lucid and fully articulated." His goal, as Cornarius himself stated in his commentary on Dioscorides’ De materia medica, was first to read and hear the author in Greek, and then through translation to enable his medical students to hear and read him in Latin. A scholar of Byzantine studies took a more dismissive view of Cornarius as one of the "Renaissance humanists, fully confident that dissemination of a revered classical text would better mankind’s lot," motivated by "a contempt … for the brutish peasant and his slovenly practices."
Like the physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs, Cornarius devoted himself to reviving and perpetuating the classical tradition, seeking to restore both the texts and practice of Greek medicine, which they felt had been eclipsed during the medieval era by Avicennism; Cornarius did not, however, reject the study of Arabic texts and seems to have known the language. While Fuchs approached Galen’s work on medicinal plants as a methodology, Cornarius, grounded in philology, believed Dioscorides’ knowledge of plants resided in accurately capturing the original author’s voice and words, and the two engaged in a vigorous intellectual debate over the value of illustrations in books. With his sometime collaborator Andrea Alciati, Cornarius treated the emblema or image as a verbal construct, and in his index to Dioscorides refers to his own verbal description of a plant as a pictura. In his commentary, Cornarius insisted that pictures were of no benefit to readers who had never seen a particular plant vivam et naturalem ("alive and in nature"), arguing that the static quality of an illustration was misleading, since plants change according to their environment. Thus he stated:
My intention is not to gorge the eyes, but to nourish the mind and spirit, and to quicken critical thinking.
The majority of Cornarius's books were published through the printing house of Hieronymus Froben and Nicolaus Episcopius. For a thorough overview (in French), see Brigitte Mondrain, "Éditer et traduire les médecins grecs au XVIe siècle: L'exemple de Janus Cornarius," in edited by Danielle Jacquart (Paris 1997), pp. 391–417.Les voies de la science grecque: Études sur la transmission des textes de l'Antiquité au dix-neuvième siècle,
Cornarius's complete works were listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, an index of books prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the year after his death. As in the case of several other northern Protestant scholars, general content or scientific controversy was less at issue than religious conviction. Writing that could be regarded as anti-Catholic was held to contaminate other works that might be in and of themselves unobjectionable.
Works are listed below in chronological order of publication, except that editions and translations from the same author are grouped.