Clear vision (cont-2)

folio 5v flowers

If the Dioscuri at the head of the image on f.5v were the seamens’ Saviour deities, the creature at the base was their bane.  Linnaeus called it “calamitas navium” and the  Greeks, teredon.  It is also called the ‘termite-worm’ and that is exactly how it is depicted here: half worm and half blind ant,  gripping the wood with that white ‘collar’ that is actually a pair of hard, white, thin shell “lips”.

fol 5v foot detail
the termite-worm: Gk. teredon (ship-worm)

An earlier post explained how I came to identify it, and here are two of the illustrations from that post. The creature turns brown only after exposure to the air; while alive it is soft and grey-ish.  In effect the picture on folio 5v ‘kills it’ and I daresay the Dioscuri were often urged to do the same; the teredon’s boring can render a ship’s hull below the waterline as porous as sponge, and infested ships might founder with all hands, unexpectedly, in the finest weather.  [1]

Teredo navalis

And here we come to an interesting point; another indication of the first enunciator’s environment and cast of mind.

It is evident that he knew the culture of the sea as a mariner did, and not as an urban mythographer would, for the scholars on land supposed the mariner’s greatest peril an enormous monster of some sort: a great whale,  fearful dragon, a snarling long-toothed Leviathan or a sea-serpent so enormous it could overtake a ship and pick off the crew from the open deck.


Mariners might also believe such fabulae existed, but they knew that that their greatest fear apart from storm and tempest, or being becalmed was the ‘termite-worm’ teredo navalis  which grows to no more than quarter- to a half an inch in diameter and from five to ten inches in length –  and that it does not devour the crew one at a time, but the ship itself, so that all are lost at once.  And it is the teredo which the maker pictured  ‘gnawing at the root’.

Secondly, he must have lived at a time and in a cultural environment where the Dioscuri, and not any Christian saint or single deity was invoked to protect the ship, its crew and cargo and it is difficult to imagine that being so after the 3rdC AD.  By contrast, the Dioscuri appear as the patron gods of the Seleucid  Hellenistic kingdom, whose successive members include the Dioscuri on their coins, from the first.

coin Antiochus I Dioscuri
coin Antiochus I ‘Soter’ (Seleucid). ὁ Σωτήρ “Saviour”. c. 324/3 – 261 BC; Dioscuri
Antiochos VII (138–129 BC) with_Dioscuri

Thirdly, the first enunciator  effortlessly alludes to correspondences across botanical, astronomical and cultural matter in folio 5v; but in his astronomical matter includes only practical uses for the stars; there is no hint of zodiac-and-planet focus which marks the style of astrology.

Those asterisms in Gemini called the ‘turned about’ and ‘the ell’ are astronomical, and while in medieval Europe knowledge of the lunar mansions was considered not merely arcane, but positively occult, they had been common reference even in pre-Islamic Arabia and served as the horizontal axis for the mariners navigational grid as well as naming the months of the Islamic religious year and of the old agricultural roster. [2] Only the north African mariners, whom Ibn Majid calls his brethren, offer an exception to the rule that the navigational star grid – and knowledge of how to use it – was unknown to Mediterranean mariners.  In Hellenistic times, the Phoenician or Cretan mariners might have shared that knowledge; some suggestion of it is made by the story of  Pompey’s flight, but I’ll omit details as this post will be long enough without them.

Overall, then, the indications are that the person who first enunciated the image on f.5v belonged within a distinctly Hellenistic and Greek-influenced culture, but had first-hand knowledge of the seas, and probably of the eastern seas, for a majority of the plants in the manuscript are (in my opinion) ones proper to that world.

Another level of natural ‘complement-and-opposition’ which he might have associated with the Dioscuri and  teredon was a geographic one.

In the world known to the Greeks, and even before Alexander reached the Indus, there existed  in the far north on the eastern side of the Black Sea a town reputedly founded by the Twins themselves, and so named Dioskurias.  And to the southern limit of the Seleucid kingdom, on the shore of the Great Sea,  was a market town founded first by Nebuchadrezzar and which the Greeks knew as Teredon.


Quite apart from whether the first enunciator had that geographic pair in mind, each is of interest to us: Teredon as an early market for eastern goods and as the point of embarkation for India and the far east to about the tenth century AD,  while Dioskurias not least because the Genoese had a factory there in the fourteenth century.




[1] There is a giant teredon found near Sumatra; it doesn’t live in wood as t.navalis does, but in the muddy bottom, though one doubts if foreign seamen would have trusted to that difference, even if they knew it.  For those who enjoy biology, there’s an ongoing scientific study of the teredo and the site has nice photos and diagrams. (here)

[2] According to the Yemeni/Soqotran calendar reported by Serjeant, al Han’ah marks the lunar month beginning on January 4th, save in Hadramawt, where the month begins on January 1st. The Soqotri name, he gives as Ma’ōdīf.  al-Dira’ is called in Soqotri Franzak, and begins on 17th. January.  Note that the advent of Islam saw the older lunar calendar ‘frozen’ and we may not presume to apply the same dates after c. 8th-10thC AD as were in affect before that time, when irregular intercalations were permitted.   R.B. Serjeant, ‘A Socotran star calendar’, Irvine (eds.), A Miscellany of Middle Eastern Articles.. (1988) pp. 94-100. Reproduced as Paper IV in R.B. Serjeant, Farmers and Fishermen in Arabia: studies in customary law and practice  edited by G. Rex Smith (Variorum)  (p.96)


stop Press. Geniza pharmaceuticals, terms and ‘groupings’ – courtesy of Ephraim Lev

Dr. Lev has now kindly agreed to provide his paper, co-authored with Prof. Amar, at

I’m posting this as a “stop press” but after ten days or so, when I’m back at my desk I’ll transfer the content to a permanent page.

For a myriad of reasons, it is of interest to know the range of eastern Mediterranean plants, and of plants from further east, which were available in medieval Cairo – then the chief centre of the east-west trade.  One of these many reasons is that Baresch clearly believed the matter in the manuscript was written in an ancient or rare script and that the content derived from Egyptian medicine (however one defined ‘Egyptian’ in his time).  Another reason, which readers may or may not accept, is that the botanical sections refer chiefly to plants that did not grow around the Mediterranean, but in the east (roughly, Soquotra to the Moluccas, imo).  A third reason, of course, is Panofsky’s evaluation of the work as southern (Sephardi, or just possibly Karaite) Jewish.  And a fourth is the existence of a script which looks not unlike some of the Voynich script, and which appears in connection with medieval Cairo and alchemical processes  – in some sense .  A few of the posts where these things were investigated are linked a little further below.  I won’t go into the many other reasons why this information is likely to prove as valuable as rare. But on behalf of all interested in Beinecke MS 408, I offer again sincere thanks to Dr. Lev and Prof. Amar.

In what follows, all  quotations and details of the plants are taken from:

  • Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar, ‘Reconstruction of the inventory of materia medica used by members of the Jewish community of medieval Cairo according to prescriptions found in the Taylor–Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge’, Journal of Ethnopharmacology 108 (2006) 428–444.
    It is available now through or (if you have access) through www. science


Here’s one interesting point raised by their paper:

The geniza documents show regular use of  ‘groupings’ that are independent of our ideas about genera and species.

The paper by Lev and Amar is relevant to a number of lines of investigation whose results I’ve published in this blog, including 1) non-European materia medica;  2) knowledge of such matter in Bacon’s England; 3) Baresh’s view of the manuscript; 4) the nature of the trade in eastern vegetable goods and products; and 5) the role of the Jews in bringing information and such materia medica to Latin Europe. A few of those posts are linked.


Thus, Lev and Amar write:

“The medieval system tended to classify plants and animals in larger groups according to external morphological characters, with no consideration of genetic proximity or anatomical similarity as is the case today. Therefore, the existence of a collective (general) name for a group of several similar species was common. Here, are some examples of this feature:-

1. Fūdanj: collective name for various species of aromatic plants, namely of the family Labiatae (Maimonides, 1940).
2. Zaj: collective name for salts of sulphuric acid (verdigris,vitriol) compounded with various metals such as iron, copper, lead, and zinc (Maimonides, 1940; Amar and Serri, 2004).
3. Awsaj: collective name for spiny bush species such as boxthorn, buckthorn (Lycium sp.), (Rhamnus sp.), and bramble.


Interestingly, and due to the uncertainty over exactly which species are meant in a given case, the same approach to their own classifications proved the most effective:

“In our work, on account of the uncertainty we have bundled such similar substances in one entry under a general (collective) name, even though they could be different species or kinds (identified by us in most cases).”

The authors also observe something which too few Voynicheros account for: that is, the weight and effect of precedent and tradition.  Moderns are too ready to ascribe what they cannot interpret or understand to an anachronistic “personal creativity” and to mistake the draughtsman-artisan for an “artist” in a sense scarcely imagined by persons of the early fifteenth century.  Artist and artisan are now separate categories in the public imagination, but that is a very modern habit.

The authors say:

“the most important criterion, which took us to the highest or most satisfactory level of identification, is the continuous and reliable “tradition of identification”. Many substances that appear in the texts are used today (with the same names) for medical purposes by various ethnic groups.”

I cannot in fairness reproduce the whole of Lev’s tables, so I’ve omitted the data about which part/s were used; where the plant grew; whether it is a cultivated or wild plant;  the diseases for which each is used, and how many documents in the geniza mention it.

An asterisk in the following, indicates a plant that I’ve already identified in the Voynich botanical folios  or in the ‘roots and leaves’ section.  I’d be happy to add references to any other researcher who believes one of these plants present in the botanical section.


1 Agaric ~ Agaricus sp.
2 Almond ~ Amygdalus communis
3 Aloe ~ Aloe sp. [Liliaceae] Domesticated [liquid from the leaves]
4 *Aloe wood ~ Aloexylon (=Aquilaria agallocha) [Thymelaceae]
5 Ammoniacum ~ (gum ammoniac) Dorema ammoniacum [Umbelliferae]
6 Amomum ~ Amomum sp. [Zingiberaceae]
7 Anise ~ Pimpinella anisum [Umbelliferae]
8 Apple ~ Pyrus malus = Malus sylvestris [Rosaceae]
9 Apricot ~ Prunus armeniaca [Rosaceae]
10 Asa foetida ~ Ferula assafetida [Umbellieferae]
11 Ash tree ~ Fraxinus sp. (excelsior, syriaca) [Oleaceae]
12 Asparagus ~ Asparagus officinalis [Liliaceae]
13 Asphodel ~ Asphodelus aestivus (=ramosus) [Liliaceae]
14 Balm ~ Mellisa officinalis [Labiatae] Mediterranean
15  * Balsam ~ Commiphora gileadensis (=opobalsamum) [Burseraceae]
16 Bamboo [chalk, tabashir]  Bambusa vulgaris [Gramineae] South-east Asia.
17 Barley ~ Horedeum sp. [Gramineae].
18 Basil ~ Ocimum basilicum [Labiatae].
19  * Bdellium Commiphora mukul [Burseraceae]
20 Bean ~ Vicia faba [Papilionaceae]
21 Beet ~ Beta vulgaris [Chenopodoaceae].
22 Ben tree ~ Moringa peregrina [Moringaceae].
23 Berberry ~ Berberis cretica [Berberidaceae]
24 Betel ~ (areca) palm(nut) Areca catechu [Palmae].
25 Birthwort ~ Aristolochia sp. [Aristolochiaceae].
26 Bitumen trefoil ~ Bituminaria bituminosa [Papilionaceae]
27 Black cumin ~ Nigella sativa [Ranunculaceae].
28 Black spleenwort ~ Asplenium onoperis [Aspleniaceae].
29 Borage ~ Anchusa sp. (italica and officinalis)[Boraginaceae]
30  * Bottle gourd Lagenaria vulgaris [Cucurbitaceae] Cultivated [seeds] 7 Fever, cough, plaster, ointment
31 Box ~ Buxus scmpervirens [Buxaceae].
32 Boxthorn ~ Lycium afrum [Solanaceae].
33 Cabbage ~ Brassica oleracea [Cruciferae].
34 Calamus (sweet-flag) ~ Acorus calamus [Araceae].
35 Camphor ~ Cinnamomum camphora [Lauraceae].
36 * Cannabis [Indianhemp] ~ Cannabis sativus var. indica [Cannabinaceae]. I believe that numerous people have made an identification as one of the Cannabis.
37 Caraway ~ Carum carvi [Umbellifereae].
38 Cardamom ~ Elettaria cardamomum[Zingiberaceae]
39 Carob ~ Ceratonia siliqua [Caesalpiniaceae].
40 Carrot ~ Daucus carota [Umbelliferae].
41 Cassia [senna] especially: Cassia acutifolia [Caesalpiniaceae]
42 Cassia, purging ~ Cassia fistula [Caesalpiniaceae].
43 Castor oil ~ Ricinus communis [Euphorbiaceae].
44 Celandine [swallow-wort] ~Chelidonium majus [Papaveraceae].
45 Celery ~ Apium graveolens [Umbelliferae].
46 * Centaury ~ Centaurea sp. [Compositae].
47 Chamomile ~ Matricaria aurea [Compositae].
48 Chate melon ~ Cucumis melo var. chate [Cucurbitaceae]
49 Cherry ~ Prunus ovium, Prunus cerasia (sweetcherry), Prunus cerasus (sour cherry)[Rosaceae]
50 Chicklingvetch ~ Lathyrus sativum [Papilionaceae].
51 Chickpeas ~ Cicer arietinum [Papilionaceae].
52 Cinnamon ~ Cinnmomum sp. (zeylanicum and cassia) [Lauraceae]
53  * Clove ~ Eugenia caryophyllata [Myrtaceae].
54  * Colocynth (bitter gourd, bitter apple) ~ Citrillus colocynthis [Cucurbitaceae].
55 Common caper ~ Capparis spinosa [Capparaceae].
56 Common reed ~ Phragmites communis [Gramineae].
57 Coriander ~ Coriandrum sativum [Umbelliferae].
58 Costus (Arabian costus) ~ Costus speciosus [Zingiberaceae].
59  * Cotton ~ Gossypium herbaceum [Malvaceae].
60 *Cubeb pepper ~ Piper cubeba [Piperaceae].
61 Cucumber ~ Cucumis sativus [Cucurbitaceae].
62 Cumin ~ Cuminum cyminum [Umbelliferae].
63 Cypress-tree ~ Cupressus sempervirens [Cupressaceae]64 Dates ~ Phoenix dactylifera [Palmae].
65 Dill (anet) ~ Anethum graveolens [Umbelliferae].
66 Dodder ~ Cuscuta sp. [Convolvuulaceae].
67 Dodder of thyme (lesser or heath dodder) ~Cuscuta epithymum [Convolvuulaceae]
68 Eggplant ~ Solanum melongena [Solanaceae].
69 Egyptian clover ~ Trifolium alexandrinum [Papilionaceae]
70 Egyptian marjoram ~ Origanum maru [Labiatae].
71 Endive (chicory) ~ Cichorium intybus (Cichorium endivia, Cichorium pumilum) [Compositae]
72  * False safflower (bastard saffron) ~ Carthamus tinctorius [Compositae].
73 Fennel ~ Foeniculum vulgare [Umbelliferae].
74 Fenugreek ~ Trigonella foenum-graecum [Papilionaceae]
75   * Frankincense (olibanum) ~ Boswellia carteri [Burseraceae].
76 Fumitory ~ Fumaria officinalis [Fumariaceae].
77 Galbanum ~ Ferula galbaniflua [Umbelliferae].
78  * Galingale ~ Alpinia galanga [Zingiberaceae].
79 Garden cress (pepper grass) ~ Lepidum sativum [Cruciferae].
80 Garden rocket ~ Eruca sativa [Cruciferae].
81 Garlic ~ Allium sativum [Liliaceae].
82 Ginger ~ Zingiber officinale [Zingiberaceae].
83 Grapevine (products: wine, vinegar, raisins) ~ Vitis vinifera [Vitaceae].
84 Gum Arabic (babul acacia) ~ Acacia arabica (=Acacia nilotica) [Mimosaceae]
85 Hazelnuts ~ Corylus avellana [Betulaceae].
86 Hellebore ~ Helleborus niger/albus [Ranunuculaceae]
87 Henbane [hemlock] ~ Hyoscymus albus [Solanaceae].
88  * Henna Lawsonia inermis (alba) ~ [Lythraceae]
89 Horehound ~ Marrubium vulgare [Labiatae].
90 Horned poppy ~ Glaucium corniculatum [Papaveraceae]
91 Hypocist [rape of cistus] ~ Cytinus hypocistis [Rafflesiaceae].
92 Hyssop ~ Hyssopus officinalis [Labiatae] Mediterranean [leaves, stems] 1 None
93  * Indigo ~ Indigofera tinctoria [Papilionaceae].
94 Iris ~ Iris sp. (florentina, mesopotamica) [Iridaceae]
95 Jasmine ~ Jasminum sp. [Oleaceae].
96 Judas-tree Cercis siliquastrum [Caesalpiniaceae]
97 Jujube ~ Ziziphus (jujuba) vulgarus [Rhamnaceae]

98 Ladanum Cistus (ladanifer) [Cistaceae]
99 Laurel ~ Laurus nobilis [Lauraceae]
100 Lavender ~ Lavandula officinalis [Labiatae].
101 Leek ~ Allium porrum [Liliaceae] Cultivated [stems, leaves] 4 None
102 Lemon Citrus limon [Rutaceae].
103 Lemon-grass ~ Andropogon schenanthus [Gramineae]
104 Lentil ~ Lens esculenta [Papilionaceae].
105 Lentisk ~ Pistacia lentiscus [Anacardiaceae].
106 Leopardus bane(panther strangler) ~ Doronicum scopiodes [Compositae].
107 Lettuce ~ Lactuca sativa [Compositae].
108 Lichen ~ Usnea sp. [Usnceae].
109 Licorice ~ Glycyrrhiza glabra [Papilionaceae].
110  * Linseed (flax) ~ Linum usitatissimum [Linaceae].
111 *Long pepper ~ Piper longum [Piperaceae].
112 Lotus [GN] ~ Nymphaea sp.; Nuphar sp.[Nymphaeceae].* – but not in any of the botanical folios.
113 Lovage Levisticum officinale [Umbelliferae].
114 Madder ~ Rubia tinctorium [Rubiaceae].
115 Maidenhair ~ Adianthum capillus-veneris[Adiantaceae].
116 Malabathrum ~ Cinnamomum citriodorum [Lauraceae].
117 Mandrake ~ Mandragora autumnalis [Solanaceae].
118 Marsh-mallow ~ Althea officinalis [Malvaceae].
119 Meadow saffron ~ Colchicum sp. (automale, Ritchii) [Liliaceae].
120 Melon ~ Cucumis melo [Cucurbitaceae].
121 Mint ~ Mentha sativa [Labiatae].
122 Mustard ~ Sinapis alba [Cruciferae].
123  * Myrobalan (cherry plum) Terminalia sp. (arjuana, citrina,chebula, bellerica, emblica)[Combretaceae]
124 Myrrh ~ Commiphora myrrha [Burseraceae].
125 Myrtle ~ Myrtus communis [Myrtaceae].
126 Nutmeg ~ Myristica fragrans [Myristicaceae].
127 Oak gall ~ Quercus sp. [Fagaceae].
128 Olive oil ~ Olea europaea [Oleaceae].
129 Onion ~ Allium cepa [Liliaceae].
130 Opium (poppy head) Papaver somniferum [Papavraceae].
131 Opopanax ~ Opopanax chironium [Umbelliferae].
132 Oxymel [Honey and vinegar].

133 Parsnip ~ Pastinaca schekakul [Umbelliferae].
134 Pear ~ Pyrus communis [Rosacea].
135 Pellitory of Spain ~ Anacylus {Anthemis} pyrethrum [Compositae]
136  * Peony ~ Paeonia sp. [Paeoniaceae].
137 *Pepper ~ Piper nigrum [Piperaceae].
138 Perfumed cherry ~ Prunus mahaleb [Rosaceae].
139 Pilosum basil ~ Ocimum pilosum [Labiatae].
140 Pine (nuts) ~ Pinus pinea [Pinaceae].
141 Pistachio, Atlantic ~ Pistacia atlantica [Anacardiaceae].
142 Pistachio ~ Pistacia vera [Anacardiaceae].
143 Plantain [fleawort] ~ Plantago afra [Plantaginaceae].
144 Plum ~ Prunus domestica [Rosaceae].
145 Pomegranate ~ Punica grantum [Punicaceae].
146 Purslane ~ Portulaca oleracea [Portulacaceae].
147 Quince ~ Cydonia oblonga [Rosaceae].
148 Radish ~ Raphanus sativus [Cruciferae].
149 Red-behen [sea-lavender] ~ Statice limonium [Plumbaginaceae].
150 Resin ~ Pinus sp. [Pinaceae] Europe, Asia [resin] 1 Linctus for cough
151 Rhubarb ~ Rheum sp. [Polygonaceae].
152 Rose (dog rose) ~ Rosa canina [Rosaceae].
153 Rosemary ~ Rosmarinus officinalis [Labiatae].
154 Rue ~ Ruta chalepensis; Ruta graveolens [Rutaceae]
155 Saffron ~ Crocus sativus [Iridaceae].
156 Sagapenum ~ Ferula persica [Umbeliferae].
157 Salep ~ Orchis sp. [Orchidaceae].
158 Sandalwood (red,white, yellow) ~ Santalum album [Santalaceae].
159 Sarcocolla ~ Astragalus sarcocolla [Papilionaceae].
160 Savory ~ Satureja sp. [Labiatae].
161 Scammony (Syrian bindweed) ~Convolvulus scammonia[Convolvulaceae]
162 Sea squill ~ Urginea maritima [Liliaceae].
163 Sebesten ~ Cordia myxia [Boraginaceae].
164 Sedge [cocograss, coconut grass] ~ Cyperus longus [Cyperaceae].
165 Service tree ~ Sorbus domestica=Pyrus sorbus [Rosaceae].
166  * Sesame ~ Sesamum indicum [Pedaliaceae].
167 Soap [Ash, olive oil].
168 Sorrel (dock) ~ Rumex sp. [Polygonaceae]
169  * Spikenard (nard) ~ Nardostachys (Valeriana) jatamansi [Valerianaceae]
170 Spinach ~ Spinacia oleracea [Chenopodoaceae].
171 Spurge (milkwort) ~ Euphorbia sp. [Euphobiaceae].

172 Staphisagria(lousewort) ~ Delphinium staphisagria [Ranunculaceae]
173 Starch [Grains].
174 Sugar cane ~ Saccharum officinarum [Gramineae].
175 Sweet clover (white melilot) Melilotus albus [Papilionaceae].
176 Sweet lime ~ Citrus medica [Rutaceae].
177 Sweet marjoram ~ Origanum majorana [Labiateae].
178  * Sweet violet ~ Viola odorata [Violaceae].
179 Tamarind ~ Tamarindus indica [Papilionaceae].
180 Tamarisk ~ Tamarix gallica, Tamarix orientalis [Tamaricaceae]
181 Tar (liquid) ~ Pinus and Cederus sp. [Pinaceae,Coniferae Cupressaceae]
182 Tragacanth ~ Astragalus gummifer [Papilionaceae].
183 Tumeric ~ Curcuma longa [Zingiberaceae].
184 Turpeth (turbith, Indian jalap) ~ Ipomoea turpethum [Convolvulaceae]
185 Wallflower ~ Cheiranthus cheiri [Cruciferae].
186 Walnuts ~ Juglans regia [Juglandaceae].
187 Watermelon ~ Citrullus vulgaris [Cucurbitaceae].
188 Wheat ~ Triticum vulgare [Gramineae].
189 White-behen ~ Centaurea behen [Compositae].
190 Wild marjoram ~ Majorana syriaca [Labiatae].
191 Wild nard (Asarabacca) ~ Asarum europaeum [Aristolochiaceae].
192 Wild rue ~ Peganum harmala [Rutaceae].
193 Willow ~ Salix sp. [Salicaceae].
194 Wormwood ~ Artemisia sp. (absinthium, sieberi,judaica, arborescens) [Compositae]
195 Yew ~ Taxus bacata [Taxaceae].


Following the tables of vegetable, mineral and animal materia medica, the authors add:

“Various parts (root, seeds, leaves, fruit, bulb, flower, etc.) of hundreds of plants, as well as extracts, gums, resin, oil, and other products, were used in Muslim medicine. Most were plants already used by Greek and Roman physicians and pharmacologists and mentioned in classical medical literature; a few were medicinal plants introduced by the Muslims.” (p.440)

The most frequently mentioned substances were the rose(57), myrobalan (55), sugar (30), almonds (27), and endive (23).
Grapevine products and licorice were mentioned 22 times, honey and spikenard 19, borage 17, lentisk and salt 16, fennel and gum Arabic 14, aloe, cassia, lavender, marsh-mallow, pepper, saffron and sweet violet 13, agaric, anise, basil and lemon 12. The rest of the substances were mentioned 11 times (5), 10 times (4), and less (209)…..

A few substances might have been of local origin … others were brought from the Levant …. Many others had to be imported into Egypt from southeast Asia … and others from the western Mediterranean.”


Rum cove – Nick Pelling wants to make a pirate movie

Nick Pelling wants to make a little movie about pirates in Mauritius.  If you’re a generous soul, and/or someone who enjoys his blog,  how about tossing some change his way? (here).

If you’re  a bit more hard-nosed.. well, for the price of a great tee-shirt, you get a great tee-shirt sweat-shirt. Win-win. One less Christmas present to worry about.  (Project at Kickstarter).

And for you really low, mean bastards – you know who I mean –   true pirate-types inclined to  schadenfreude…  well cheer up, mateys!  There’s a chance that your money  will get you a DVD showing a proud, balding Englishman talking pirates to a screaming cyclone.  (Now, wouldn’t that be fun?).(Project at Kickstarter).

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Clear Vision (continued)

folio 5v allI wish it were possible to explain as elegantly as the original presents it, the ground-plan with each of its details nested in it, and that  lucidity with which every part relates to every other, from that initial  ‘flash’ I’ve expressed as: “Protectors of the ship.”

We must a slower way, de cap à pied; and this post being meant to illustrate that quality of mind which is our subject, most of the original discussion of the folio is omitted, having been (as it were) exegetical.  Almost half this post is footnotes.


fol 5v detail dancerSwaying with a delicate balance on the height is a hatted figure with  lower limbs  ‘bent around’ – it is one of the Twins: the Dioscuri or Tindaridai [1] as the Greeks called them, but here the first and immortal brother Polydeuces is associated with Liber, as was done by the mysteries of Samothrace. [2] The form given the lower limbs alludes, simultaneously, to virtu in the elm, to the egg from which they were born, and to the lower of two lunar asterisms in Gemini,  which constellation is everywhere associated with these Twins. By the Arabs the same asterism is called “the bent, or turned around” as Ib Majid explains in the fifteenth century. [3]

Here too we have the first clue to the plants’ identities, for as the figure appears bow-legged [4] and as Liber “clings to the high elm” [5] so elm-wood’s being famously pliant had it sought-after by bowyers. The archer was a ship’s chief defence, and so bow and arrow another attribute of the Dioscuri.[6]  This figure’s balancing as if in a high wind,  seeming to hold fire in its hands reminds us too that Liber’s harmless ‘lightning'[7] – was ever a good omen for the storm-tossed ship, when all other lights were extinguished:

Leaping on the peaks of their well-benched ships,
brilliant from afar as you run up the fore-stays,
bringing light to the black ship
in the night of trouble.
from: Alcaeus’ Hymn to the Dioscuri, trans. Alexander Nikolaev.


Just so this flameless light is sometimes called “harbour fire” still, though we call it St.Elmo’s fire, he the patron of Formio, named Hormiae (good harbour) by the Greeks.

Another form of ‘fol 5v detail fire sticksneed fire’ comes again from the elm; made by its wood as fire-drill[8] often miscalled a ‘dowel'[9].  The figure’s hands are formed as if twirling small fire-sticks  and (though this last may be co-incidental)  are drawn overall in a way suggesting the pomegranate flower, the Phoenicians’ emblematic ‘lily’.

On folio 5v, the pair are correctly provided with their star-topped caps [10] telling us that the maker was naturally familiar with the older forms of image.  The two examples shown below are from the last phase of Hellenistic rule in the Mediterranean.

folio 5v flowers
(detail) Beinecke MS 408 fol.5v
coin of Dioskourias, Colchis c.105- 90BC.
from image uploaded by 'Uploadalt'
coin  Antiochus IV (175 BC- 164 BC)

This second century BC is also when the earliest of the eastern Greek works were written from which passages were taken and included in the  Anicia Juliana codex, where we also find a ‘template’ layout very common among botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408. (The point was discussed here.)

Distance between Gemini’s two head stars (α and β Geminorum), was taken as a standard measure by navigators of land or sea, and was reckoned an ell’s length –  that is, the length of an average clothyard shaft or a weaver’s beam: about 28 inches.   In modern terms the distance is measured as 4½ °.

Dioscuri as defenders of the ship and its cargo. (Antiochus I (324/3-261 BC)

An earlier Hellenistic coin (above) shows the Dioscuri with the arrow-shaft; its length  being approx. 30 inches, that of the Greek ‘step’, the  haploun bēma (ἁπλοῦν βῆμα), and two made the  pace.  The Arabs also called the asterism formed of α and β Geminorumal Dhira’: “the ell-length”.

In folio 5v, the relative distance between these two, and the slight difference in elevation reveals the first enunciator’s entire ease with these matters: the Greek context; Hellenistic forms; the parallel botanical, cultural and astronomical matter.   While I daresay those determined on a theory of all-Latin medieval or ~renaissance origin for these images might attempt an argument about it as an  allegorical or mnemonic construct of medieval European type, I could not begin to agree. It comes down to that ‘cast of mind’.  This image is so easily and effortlessly done. More to the point, it is so effortlessly conceived and its purpose (as we’ll see) is not literary, nor is it allegory, but absolutely and utterly practical. As a whole, the image is a sort of shopping list of products gained from the plants in this group – it’s not about the Dioscuri, but about the economic and practical worth of plants and matter associated with them. It simply happens that, for the first enunciator, the Dioscuri were the ‘second nature’ association for this diverse but related set of items, whose single theme (as we’ll see later in more detail) are materials serving to ‘protect the ship’. But it is significant that he supposed these hats as high-crowned and star-topped in a way characteristically eastern Mediterranean and Hellenistic.

folio 5v flowers

All the compositional elements I’ve mentioned  so far were part of that “ground-plan perceived in a flash” – to use Kitto’s words again. There’s nothing heavy, nothing forced or laboured in the enunciation even if, necessarily, in the present exposition. For all its complexity, the image remains simple; its design perfectly lucid. We can only be grateful that the 15thC copyists (and all before them) were so faithful to the original.

The Dioscuri were, of course, the quintessential “Protectors of the ship” having been conferred power over wind and waves:

sailors when caught in storms always direct their prayers to the deities of Samothrake (Samothrace) and attribute the appearance of the two stars [α, β Geminorum] to the epiphany of the Dioscuri.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, Book 4.43.2


… continued ….



[1] The English word ‘tinder’ may be suggested by the image so I thought I might mention that etymology evolves, like any other science. The habit of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century etymologists was to derive almost everything in English from Latin or German, but in this case the latest view is:  “Old English tynder, related to tendan “to kindle”, from Proto-Germanic *tund- “ignite, kindle.”  In other words that the German, like Dutch, Swedish or  Norse terms are related but less directly than formerly thought.

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6. 78 (trans. Rackham) : “Most people assign to India the city of Nisa and Mount Merus which his sacred to father Liber [Dionysos], this being the place from which originated the myth of the birth of Liber [Dionysos] from the thigh of Jove [Zeus].” But the Homeric hymns and other older sources show this an error. The original Liber, the first Dionysius, was Egypto-Phoenician. The first Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, dated 7th-4thC BC has:  “[Zeus] gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoinike, near the streams of Aigyptos…” Homeric Hymn 1 to Dionysus (trans. Evelyn-White). The ‘first Dionysos’ was Sabazios, or Zagreus. A good online site for the myths and sources are an excellent pair of blogposts at Spacezilotes, a wordpress blog:  “Metis Menis of Dion Ysus (A)  (15th. Feb. 2013) and  … (B), (1st. May 2014).

[3.]  ‘al-Han’a. This rises at dawn after the 221st day of the [Persian] year and it is a windy and good-omened group. It consists of stars formed like the letter n ( ن ) and it is given this name because it is bent round, i.e. its ends come together as the Arabs say hana’at, i.e. some such thing is bent or turned around, meaning that part of it is turned round towards another part. There are no well-known stars in it except one which is called al-Maisān of the third magnitude..’  Kitāb al Fawā’id.. (Tibbetts’ translation pp.88-89). In Ibn Majid’s system, according to Tibbetts,  al-Han’a consists of ε,γ,ζ,λ,δ Geminorum. (op.cit., p. 552).

[4] The term used by the Greeks of pre-Roman times is uncertain. The Roman term blaesus means “curved legs” and while its etymology derives it from the Greek βλαιiσóς, Simon and Steger ( Sudhoffs Arch. [2011] Vol. 95, No.2, pp. 209-221) point out that the Greek does not mean quite the same.

[5] “Liber…”  A visual/verbal pun –  deliberate, I think. So, Isidore quotes Virgil concerning the elm’s bast fibre, writing Liber is the inner membrane of bark, which clings to the wood. With regard to this, Virgil thus: The bark (liber) clings to the high elm.  I cannot think the medicinal Slippery Elm meant; Ulmus rubra is an American species.  Perhaps Timperly is correct, connecting the word to the Latin word for a book –  initially a type was made of the inner bark (bast fibre) –  though he refers to Europe’s use of the lime tree not the elm, while referring to the Egyptians having used the elm among other trees for the same purpose. I regret being unable to spare time to consult more recent sources on this last point.  (Timperly, The Dictionary of Printer and Printing (1839) p.22.

[6] The elm’s wood bends well … making it quite pliant. …Elm is also prized by bowyers; of the ancient bows found in Europe, a large portion of them are elm. During the Middle Ages elm was also used to make longbows if yew was unavailable. The … trunks were favoured as a source of timber for keels in ship construction (in medieval Europe). – from a wiki article ‘Elm’.

I  omitted other allusions here  though they were probably known to the first enunciator and could be relevant  e.g.,  an inference might taken that the mariner’s entry into the Erythrean Sea was equated at that time with descent into the underworld.  Homer tells us that elms were planted by nymphs over the underground tomb of Eetion, king of Trojan Thebes slain by Achilles; the Metamorphoses tells of the nymph Erytheia becoming an elm (Ptelea); and the Roman Virgil has the spirits of dreams (Oneiroi) perch in an elm at the entrance of Hades.

[7] Liber [Zagreus] was identified with Polydeuces. Debate continues among scholars over the origin of this ‘first’ Dionysius, but opinion tends towards a Phoenician origin and identification in the first instance with Zabazios. The issue need not concern us. The point is that Zagreus, another son of Zeus, was famously permitted to play childishly -i.e. harmlessly – with his father’s lightning.

[8] Richen says that “It was probably the toughness of wood which led to the elm being used for production of fire by drilling [in many parts of the older world]” and that the ancient practice survived to recent times in Europe ” as a ritual performance, for the generation of need-fire”. R.H. Richens, Elm, C.U.P 1983   (pp.109-9).

[9] As it is often used, but invariably described in archaeological reports.  The University College, London (here) notes it found in “wide use in ancient Egypt, most often smaller objects such as dowels” with an additional note that it is “tough and durable when permanently wet”. Whether it like salt-water spray as much, I’ve not determined.

[10] “During the voyage of the Argonauts .. when the heroes were detained by a vehement storm, and Orpheus prayed to the Samothracian gods, the storm suddenly subsided and stars appeared on the heads of the Dioscuri” For the source texts see Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Vol. 1, p.1053. online.

Meme style

[edited from spoken to written English]

Honestly, there isn’t much about the state of Voynich studies to make any serious person laugh out loud –  especially when it comes to the appallingly low-brow tactics that are applied with the aim of ‘discouraging’ one from reading evidence or argument which offers solid reasons for doubting the ideas so confidently pushed forward by the “meme” crowd.

But occasionally one really has to admire their neat footwork.  When the problem is a substantial body of analysis and documented historical context for the primary document’s content,  written by an appropriately qualified person, and which clearly contradicts the theory-line, what is a poor meme-er to do?

In the absence of any relevant competencies, it is impossible to debate the details as rational persons might do, and in any case the theory-possessed never debate: they simply assert their theory and only consider things which could be (however dubiously) adduced in support.  No, the answer is always a meme, and ad.hominem – invariably.

First, the line was tried that the person is not a “real” expert; apparently that didn’t quite gel.  So then the more radical expedient of issuing an order to the troops (sorry, that’s raising the ‘suggestion’) that the followers should shield their tender minds by avoiding any exposure to other ideas:  “hit the ignore button on your forum menu”…

But here’s the glorious latest meme – note the invariable tone of “you-and-I alone are morally and socially superior beings; those who differ from us are inferior beings”  It’s an essential meme-ingredient, like sweetener in cake.  But it runs something like this

“I/we are far too busy and important to spend much time on research, let alone reading and absorbing historical and comparative studies as the “other” has done.  But that tells us that the “other” who has done so much detailed analysis and produced so much original research must be a person less busy and therefore important than I/we –  and because they are less busy and important, so what they produce is that of a person inferior to me/us, and  therefore it is beneath us to trouble with, and certainly infra.dig. to acknowledge any validity in that body of research.  Burn it all.”

So very funny; so mindlessly propagandist.  But like most expert productions of the think-thank, instantly by-passing the rational faculty.  It’s funny because it’s so persuasive.  What it says is that we should pay more attention to the people who know less; most to the people who know nothing and have produced no original studies – ever.   Yay the LCD!  Real meme-style.

  • sent from holiday for publication – thanks to Shannon.

For Anton, Ellie and About fols.70r et. sqq.

Thanks to some recent comments in a thread begun by Ellie Velinska, I’ve returned to a post published in 2011, where I was comparing the patterns used on the map, with those used in other sections.  The aim was to see whether there was any constant significance discernible.  (Koen Gheuens has recently made some excellent finds, showing comparisons for this palette of  patterns, just btw.)

Some recent work which is being done by Anton Alipov, together with my long-standing view that each of the anthropoform figures has its star – not just in the calendar section, but wherever they occur – makes me think this item worth revisiting.

Because it’s easier than re-typing,  I’ll  start by adding the first part from my earlier post, though I add only the mosaic from Siena to illustrate one point.


Given that we have the inclusion of a star-flower around the circuit of figures in the month-roundels, and a possibility that the patterns might relate to a particular type of stone or goods of a specific type, then the link could refer to the responsibility accorded the stars, by their conferring a specific virtue (quality or ‘goodness’ on natural products and produce. So the patterns may serve as system of classification, related to days, months or the nature of the contents.

East of the Mediterranean, the agricultural sequence of days and produce was tied to the stars of the lunar path, where Europe’s calendar referred to the ’12’ of the sun’s way.

Nor do I assume the central emblems in fols 70r – 74v were first intended as reference to the zodiac ’12’ – they plainly don’t show the Roman zodiac sequence.  It is equally likely they were meant to refer to a series of ports or cities, in a line of regular commerce.

[That such systems were used is well known; here’s a simple one from medieval Italy.- added note 16/09/2016]

mosaic opus sectile Diena Lucca leopard Duomo Siena

Around the innermost ring of fol.70r (Beinecke numbering) the barrels are all marked with an identical pattern …though one uses an inset pattern of the same type used for the  ‘scintillations’ of water – which custom is seen in some fifteenth-century works just as it had been in Egyptian works as early as the pre-dynastic period.  I have turned the detail ‘right way up’ …


The basic pattern of those inner barrels occurs again in fol. 78r, showing what seem like pipes through which fluids run. We might then suggest that pattern of parallel lines of dots or short dashes indicates a material which is associated with water and evidently impervious to it, though one should never suppose that any literal intention precludes parallel reference to other, metaphorical significance.)


Terracotta is one obvious possibility since it is a common medium for water-pipes, which were certainly in use by Hellenistic times, some having been recovered in Ephesus (in Asia Minor), beneath the temple of Ephesian Artemis. Roman pipes were often of lead; some of Etruscan origin are made of a natural concrete, known as “Roman concrete” but I think this pattern can be taken to refer more generally to impervious earths. (A similar, if not identical sense is probably intended when this motif is used for such things as the impervious elephant hide).


One among  those barrels is marked with a  ‘plimsol’ line formed as we see the  ‘closed waters’ referenced in Egypt  ~ so altogether that having the ‘plimsol line’ might allude to amber, since it is the only stone (according to Aristotle Mete., 388b21) which is said formed by being chilled in water:  ‘refrigeration’.  If we refer to the star, though, the reference could be to Sirius or  the ‘water-bringer’ star, or again – if we suppose influence from the Arab star-names – that star could be Thurayya (Pleiades) as “water in the ground.”

…. reprised  from: ‘fol 86v: Stones retrospective 3: Stones and barrels’, Findings, (Sunday, July 24, 2011)


I had also considered a detail from folio 78r(below)  noting recurrence of the “Peg” and “Pole” motif.  The two motifs of ‘Peg and Pole’  refer respectively, as I understand them, to South/Homeward/Port side  and  North/Outward/Starboard side, respectively.


In one of the most telling images (folio 79r) the “home/port” is directly connected to a centre in Egypt, though whether it is meant for Alexandria, Canopus or Fustat (or even Herakleion) I cannot say.

The sequence of ‘water-barrels’ on folio 78r, however, I suggested at that time might refer to stages of a journey, and further that given the care with which the draughtsman distinguishes between the sort of lines which emerge from the one, and from the other, I posited a reference to the trade in oil and in wine. I also noted how the south-mark (‘Peg’) has the area below its ‘aegis’ filled with dots, as if they might represent seed, but the north has none.

That use of the Pole shown on the left in folio 78r (detail, above) to represent North, and the ‘Peg’ shown to the right (detail, above) is consistent through the manuscript.

In western custom, including cartography and the compass-diagram, the ‘Pole’/North was to become a fleur-de-lys and a custom in itself.

One notes, though, that the earliest example we have of a  compass diagram’s being includd on any western map or chart is in the work of a Jewish chart-maker from the Mallorcan chart-makers school (c.1375). Abraham Cresques was commissioned – probably by the King of France – to prepare a great illustrated version of an Islamic style of almanac.  We may suppose the work had taken a couple of years, to  judge by the amount of work needed to make and illuminate the map, charts and other matter in it, and further in reading and excerpting short passages from the numerous texts which inform the map’s labels.  By the time it was all finished, however, Mallorca now lay under direct Spanish control, the new ruler (not the maker) delivering so-called “Catalan Atlas” in person to the court of France.  This item is but one of a  substantial number which indicate that Beinecke MS 408 derives from precedents which had come from  southern, Jewish (Sephardi) owners or makers.  This compass-diagram has been mentioned here before, in relation to an early Genoese cartographer and to a figure which is placed in the equivalent position on the Voynich map that the compass is set on Cresques’ worldmap.[1]

Cresques compass rose

In any case, use in the Voynich manuscript of the Pole (left side in the detail from f.78r) and the Peg (right), appears to be quite consistent in the ‘bathy-‘ section of the manuscript.  For that reason, I suggested the reference of the detail from f.78r might be the northern and southern ends of a route.

I note that the draughtsman distinguishes carefully between the steams which emerge from the one, and from the other.  A further mark of difference is seen in the way that the area below the southern ‘aegis’ here has each small segment provided with a dot, where the northern has none.

Initially I posited that the two might refer to  oil and wine;  it also seemed possible that the reason for the ‘barrels’ being included along that stream might relate to the kombologion, by which time and distance was measured.  The kombologion was a string of beads given to the Egyptian monks and the ancestor of the western rosary – except that the number of its beads (108) was the same number as that of the stars which, in the earliest period, were sung to ‘affix’ them to the heavens, and these were then the number of the liturgi – the term from which descends our ‘liturgy’.[2]

Today, reading over those posts from Ellie Velinska’s thread, and from Anton, a further thought occurs to me.

The two “passages” which I had taken for passages of water, divided into stages by those bead-like ‘barels’ might in fact be meant for those of the ‘sea of heaven’.  I mean, that the ‘barels’ may maintain the same reference here as they do around the tiers of the month-roundels and represent the stars’ passage across the skies – the northern and/or the southern.  Naturally enough, orienting by the stars on a journey from the north is not the same as on the reverse line of transit.

And if they so mark a sequence of guiding stars (star-days?) – perhaps again as in the ‘bathy-‘ folios equated with the place over which each star nominally stands, so we might have a reasonable explanation for those impervious ‘barels’ having been laid so unequally along their respective lines.

From the manuscript as a whole, the impression I’ve gained is that the standard, literary dictionaries and literary prose probably need to be supplemented by more technical glossaries, and some notice taken of more than the forms for the ‘Arabic’ stars known to medieval Europe… or indeed, those adopted as the Greco-Roman standard by medieval writers in Arabic.


[1] see posts entitled ‘Angel of the Rose’ here and at

[2] Jim Tester, in his History of Western Astrology (p.116-118), had his “astrological” cap on too firmly. He failed to realise that –  the basis of astrology being astronomy – the answer to the “108” conundrum might like in pure astronomy, and not in the zodiac-obsessed astrology whose history he was writing. The factors of 108 are 27  and 4.  Twenty-seven is the number to which the circuit of lunar mansion asterisms was formally reduced for purposes of astronomical calculations, even after the introduction of the Islamic calendar’s “28”.  We see the ’27’ used, for example, by Ibn Arabi in Spain, and the Tamils who were the masters of such calculations in the estimation of early Baghdad, used it as the basis from which they performed calculations which were ‘astronomical’ in the literal and metaphorical sense.  We see the factors of 27 x 9 used for a calculating table made for the future Pope Sylvester I, while he was still Gerbert d’Aurillac: the best description one of his students could give was that it was an ‘abacus’ but the factors used and the richness of the making speak, rather to the fields of heaven and earth.  Those same factors, and a board, are recorded used to predict agricultural yields.. But I digress.  The ‘108’ are found by taking 27 for the horizontal line and adding others between the visible Pole and the horizon.

That a similar grid served to map the world (and thus suggest that the rhumb gridded chart revived pre-Roman custom) is indicated by Manilius.  I may come back to that last point another time.

For all typos and other errors, dear readers forgive us.  This is being typed at the last second before leaving for a while..

Clear vision

There are some things we don’t talk about when provenancing an object, especially a picture.  In explaining why one painting is by a master and another by a minor painter, or why one work is genuine and another isn’t, we may talk to the client about canvas and threads per inch, about scientific analyses, about brush-strokes and documentation.

What we don’t talk about very often, because the matter  is not transferable, is something easily mistaken for “instinct’ – though it isn’t.  It’s a level of perception not learned, but a faculty that some people have and others happen not to have, and which is not quantifiable in the way that clients and ‘the man on the street’ expect information to be. So we don’t talk about it often, and when we do it is usually dressed in the less unnerving clothing of details.  We may talk about the Voynich feline’s having rounded ears, and crossed eyes.  Put that differently – though it is apparent to me that while the image of the Voynich feline could have been in mainland Europe (perhaps even in a manuscript) as early as the tenth century, it still radiates a Greek-and-Semitic cast of mind.  In looking at it there is first that instant sense of recognition, followed by what I suppose I could describe as a fast-motion ‘film’ of as few as a dozen or as many as a couple of hundred concordant examples.  I don’t say “matches” but ‘concordances’ because what is being ‘matched’ isn’t the two-dimensional form or any particular set of details, so much as this item with a myriad other enunciations of the same attitude or cast of mind.  (See I what I mean? That’s why we don’t talk about it).

If you’re musical, you might understand what I mean; if an unknown piece of music was discovered and played to a maestro, then he might say, “It’s Mozart!” or “It’s French Baroque!” even though it is not exactly like any other known piece from Mozart or the Baroque corpus.  Just as he might identify it purely by sound, so here, by that aptitude for perception.  What is recognised, I can only describe as something like the informing  ‘cast of mind’ or ‘worldview’; you simply know where it fits.  Then, of course, the task is to explain that to a person who may, or may not, be able to connect with what you’re saying.  Some people are – as it were ‘tone deaf’.  They simply can’t see why all pictures of a black cat aren’t equivalent images.  And explanation doesn’t help.  Sometimes it’s a case of “you see it or you don’t” – though again the usual practice is to talk details.

In recent days and by different routes, several researchers have come by discernible and clearly independent routes to a similar opinion about the Voynich feline as I did; one by the very simple means of going to the Getty and asking the curator if the style reminded her of anything.  She directed him to a Syrian mosaic, made during the period of Byzantine rule.

Another who in my opinion has a real talent for this sort of work found for themselves an example in a north African mosaic – again one made during the period of Byzantine rule.

Through the Aegean, the line between North Africa and Syria is one with an extensive and continuous history of cultural connections and it is along the same line that my preferred comparisons have come.  That below is from Delos, and again a mosaic.

beast leopard Dionysus Delos small mosaic Hellenistic

National borders and the strange in-house custom of limiting the search for comparative images to medieval European manuscript art, added to a habit of less seeking to find the imagery’s antecedents than to find an instance supportive of a preferred theory have badly skewed this type of discussion in Voynich studies.  It is less a matter of seeking “more black cats” than of seeking evidence of what I can only call ‘cast of mind’.

Once or twice before, I have tried to convey this but not, I think, with any great success.   Only today I think I’ve found a way to do it: using the words of a classical historian, H.D.F Kitto.

Speaking of Greek art,  he once wrote of it as expressing the same qualities that mark the structure and form of the Greeks’ language, and how language relates, in turn, to that quality of mind which informs a people’s way of seeing the world.  Though, of course, I use his words as analogy they very well express that character in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical imagery which – as it strikes me – puts it in a class apart from the imagery in the Latin herbals.

He says:

.. in the Greek language – in its very structure – are to be found that clarity and control, that command of structure… it is the nature of Greek to express with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning.  .. Both Greek and Latin have an architectural quality. But there is a significant difference between them. …  Greek  is well stocked with little words, conjunctions that hunt in couples or in packs, whose sole function is to make the structure clear. They act, as it were, as signposts… we always have a perfectly limpid and unambiguous ordering of the sentence, as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words. It is the nature of the Greek language to be exact, subtle and clear. The imprecision and the lack of immediate perspicuity in which English occasionally deviates and from which German occasionally emerges, is quite foreign to Greek..

-and that’s it, you see. That ‘first flash’ and the same exactitude, subtlety and clarity.  It is something quite different from fussiness or detail or simple ‘realism’ in imagery.

Let me contrast those qualities, that ‘cast of mind’ with that in the sort of imagery usually compared with figures in the botanical section.  I hope you will see that the Latin herbal imagery comes… how shall I say … as it if were heavy with baggage. A little overladen with the weight of earlier models; with a focus on form rather than on being.  The great majority of it is lumpen as the Voynich images are not.

Take, for example, the following composite made by Marco Ponzi and which he knows I’ve been obliged to use taking his consent from the principle qui tacet consentur.

Can you see how much heavier the  images are which here  flank the detail from folio 43v?  You can feel the Latin scribe’s  “being a painter” –  a sense of labouring; of physical effort.  It is as if you feel how the the painter toils and the picture grows heavy from it.  The Voynich image by contrast lifts itself with a lightness due to something other than  lighter pigments; there’s an effortlessness of apprehension there – and yet one combined with greater precision despite the seeming indifference to literalism.

snakey-roots The root coils in a way  less immediately reminiscent of some dead creature’s intestine than the energetic coiling of some strangely hairy viper, about to defend itself.  And, of course, the Voynich picture was painted rather earlier, uses pigment differently and depicts a plant having a different leaf, a different habit and different flower/fruit from either of the other two.  But that’s about the subject of the image, not this quality of mind I’m trying to explain.  In any case, I expect Marco was focusing their all having more or less S-shaped roots.

Folio 5v is one which I’ve mentioned again recently, and it may still be fairly fresh in reader’s minds, so  I’ll use that again to demonstrate how well  Kitto’s description works by analogy, the  “…clarity and control … with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning…. as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words“.

That first flash which gives the ground-plan can be expressed as “... Protectors of the ship” and to that first ‘sentence’  every element relates with clarity, control, accuracy and shades of meaning.  Details in the next part.

folio 5v all

I must add that while the characteristic quality of mind might be immediately evident, reading that ‘sentence’ isn’t instantaneous.  In fact, like a primary school child struggling through a passage in another language, the process was slow, step-by-step parsing of each separate part – until finally the ‘sentence’ was translated.   Luckily, these images appear to be largely independent of any one language – quite unlike mnemonic elements in the Latin herbals.




A friend recently pointed out that we do have one thing in common, the cryptologists and I.  We are bored by easy problems.

The Voynich manuscript’s imagery was a great challenge – even given those pre-requisites I’m fortunate in having.  In the same way, this artefact was a bit of a challenge: took almost half an hour before I was confident that I had it right.


I see the problem posed by the manuscript to be one of provenancing: rightly determining the appropriate time and place not only of manufacture but of the matter represented.  Provenancing the artefact shown above is a little easier because its intended purpose and its date of manufacture (not of publication for the picture) are sufficient. Comment on why the surface carries the lines and pattern which it does moves the comment from the bare Pass through to Honours level.  Because that can’t be cribbed, pinched, distorted or fudged. 🙂

If you can’t provenance that from your own knowledge, or explain it by reference to appropriate documentation and comparisons; if all you can produce is a ‘cheat’ taken from someone else, or a theory which you then attempt to force by silencing every other effort to talk about the artefact itself, then hey, I know which Voynich theory-team will welcome you with warmth and mate-ship.

Theory-madness has infected Voynich studies which – if it were to infect archaeology or history – would see that item “confirmed” Norwegian (which it isn’t).  The argument would run something like:

“My theory is that it is Norwegian.  Here are Norwegian pictures from Norwegian manuscripts which show Norwegian chairs with knobs on them like that.  Scale? – irrelevant.  It’s Norwegian, that’s the thing.  And here are Norwegian pictures showing hands like the one holding that thing. Here are Norwegian people eating fruit shaped like that.  Ergo, it’s Norwegian. It’s a piece of fruit.   My friends have told you all other talk is irrelevant. Now be silent”.

Really – that’s how it goes – except some theory-men come with a Chorus.

No objective or balanced debate to be permitted.  We must all concur.. with the Norwegian theory. Anyone disputing that it is Norwegian, and a piece of fruit, is just a trouble-maker.  Hit the “ignore” button.

I’m not talking about the ‘germanic’ Voynich theory versus a theory about flying saucers.

I’m talking about a state of things where it is – truly – effectively forbidden to begin a discussion about something as relevant as the relative weight which should be given to two historical documents, or what has been said about the vellum in the past, or more recently, and what inferences can be made given the lack of any formal technical appraisal.

The first topic was de-railed at by a proponent of the ‘germanic’ theory, who (as usual) began attacking the persons who dared raise a point not yet “accounted for” by the germanic theory: in other words, another crack for which the paper-and-glue was still being readied.

The second – well, that rather specialist topic saw Zandbergen “confirm” Zandbergen’s personal opinon.  Nothing unexpected there.  But what was so sad is that the person who did the job of  “ending the discussion” – what discussion? – was Nick Pelling, the very person who first raised the importance of codicology and who, in his turn, was marginalised and ignored.  Zandbergen couldn’t find a way to incorporate that into his German theory… he’s started to try, lately, after 20 years.

From what I have been told about Zandbergen’s comments on researchers who disagree with his theory: what he has said to librarians, and media people, and to his followers, Zandbergen has a deep-seated idea that all reasonable people and all people of ‘decent’ character must be in his camp; that any who do not think the primary document offers sufficient support for his ‘germanic’ theory are by definition in some way ‘lesser men’ –  mentally deficient or deficient in character.  Objections come only from “trouble-makers”.  Any discussion which moves in a different direction is a ‘threat’ and the persons involved are ‘dangers’ which need to be addressed and eliminated to prevent “confusion” among the innocent.  Zandbergen’s opinion on any matter whatever is to be treated as the final word.

Any professional whose opinion Zandbergen finds disagreeable is – truly – likely to be  deemed “not a real expert” by Zandbergen whose confidence in his ability – even his right – to make such ‘final’ judgements – appears unshakeable.

There’s a word for that level of self-confidence.  Can’t think of it at the moment.  Begins with “m….”.

I’ve seen more bright, rational, intelligent and evidence-based researchers driven out of the online “community” than I can count.  Lunatic ideas actually persist longer.  They are no threat.  The Zandbergen’s closest clique operated that way in Santacoloma’s list; they are operating the same way at and now I expect that any moderator who dares expect Zandbergen to keep to the same rules as any other member will soon find him/herself the object of a negative campaign. The aim is always the same: total  conformity or execration and departure.

“Ignore-dismiss-discourage- denigrate/admonish”.

Vellum was the latest item to frighten that crew: the raising of a topic which should be considered open, objective, neutral, valid and evidence-based.

But it might not turn out to be  German vellum, you see.  That’s a potential threat. So I daresay you read the comments here.

The really sad thing is that poor Nick Pelling – who first  studied the issue of  codicology, was marginalised and ignored for years where that subject was concerned,  has now been reduced to attempting to quash any related subject.  Not because the vellum has been properly studied, or any formal description and assignment issued, but at the level of perceived personal loyalties.  I mean it when I say it is a sad thing to see.  Objective study of materials is now re-defined in terms of partisan loyalties, and a person attempting to raise and engage in a codicological issue is interpreted only as “making trouble”.  For whom?  Why should it cause “trouble” rather than enlightenment to have a better evaluation of the vellum than can be achieved by a vote of persons who couldn’t provenance a piece of vellum to save their lives?  Where is the reason in such manipulated uniformity?  It defies all reason.  At least from the perspective of any person in the big world beyond.

I fully agree that the manuscript’s vellum is reported on all sides to be not terribly bad. Zandbergen is not in a position to suppose his opinion worth much, however.  He cannot “confirm” anything except his personal impressions and the content of any evidence which he has gathered.  Just like everyone else, inside and outside Voynich studies.

Pelling’s recent “review” of Rugg’s paper in Cryptologia,  also bodes ill for the study and that blog, I rather think.

Believe it or not, ciphermysteries was once the last place where real discussion was permitted of things like codicology, vellum, or the relative weight to be accorded different historical items.  Pelling himself – truly – showed intelligence, moderation and helpfulness to others.  He had his theory, true, and on that matter showed a certain inability to adapt to new information, but for some time his focus remained on the manuscript.

Let’s hope he remembers that a scholar’s first duty is to the subject of study and those who follow us; and the second is a sense of proportion.


A “Book of Life” – coincidences

  • It’s easy to forget that the published radiocarbon range for the Voynich manuscript (1404-1438) co-incides with an  event which had massive repercussions for the history of England and of France.   Friday, 25 October 1415 was the Battle of Agincourt, and a manuscript finished on or near 1 June included a verse from the scribe:

Et estoit apesee la guerre
Fors au faulx anglois dangleterre
Verse moy du vin en ce verre
Si nen ya si en va querre

And so oppressive war must be
Thanks to English treachery
Pour some wine in this my glass
If there is none then go and ask.

(Wellcome MS. 790)  The manuscript is interesting for other reasons – here’s one of the diagrams.

detail Wellcome MS 790 f.29r


  • Another co-incidence ~ remember Paul of Taranto, about whom I wrote  recently (here) – the Franciscan who ascribed his book about alchemy to Geber?


Late in the fifteenth century, in France, part of Paul’s text was included with other bits and pieces, the compilation entitled “Ymage de Vie” – the Book of Life, but it is not the work by Raymon Llull or by pseudo-Llull.   For those who missed Pelling’s recent post:   a Czech woman claims to have translated the Voynich text,  and says it is “The Book of Life” (sorry the linked article is in Czech).

Mulling over,  since then, what texts I know with similar titles, Marsilio Ficino’s “Book of Life” otherwise entitled “Via triplicitas” I’ve mentioned often enough before.

There’s the Theban recension of the Book of the Dead, also known as the Book of Gates (no, don’t get too excited; Koen and I have had this conversation, so he is way ahead of you, “many gates” and all).

Now, today, I came across this other-  Ymage de Vis with some of Paul’s alchemical text in it –  Wellcome MS 446

“The text has traditionally been held to be a Middle French translation of a Latin Pseudo-Ramon Llull treatise entitled ‘Imago vitae’, but a close examination of the text and its sources reveals that this is not in fact the case. The structure of the text does not match any known Latin versions of the ‘Imago vitae’. Rather, the text seems to be a patchwork of several sources in Latin and Middle French, including the ‘Testamentum’ of Pseudo-Llull, ‘Le Rosaire’ (a Middle French rendition of Pseudo-Arnau de Vilanova), the ‘Summa perfectionis’ of Pseudo-Gerber and, finally, a Pseudo-Pope John XXII treatise known as ‘L’élixir des philosophes’. The compiler of the text selected theoretical parts and pieces that fitted his own process of experimentation, so the compilation does seem to be the work of an actual practitioner of alchemy.”

And here’s one not called ‘Book of Life’ but I like it best of this group:


The Library’s comment on its own collection, and the curious lack of medical books referring to the Plague, or recipes for medicine against it adds considerable historical weight to Baresch’s  having believed (or supposed) that some noble person had been obliged to travel east to collect useful receipts – presumably against the plague:

“.. How can it be that some 300 mainly medical books, many of which were written and read by individuals who must have lived through the most searing epidemic in recorded history, remain stubbornly silent witnesses?

There are probably several answers to this apparent conundrum, which mostly boil down to one overriding explanation: to expect our manuscripts to speak to us directly about contemporary events is to make a sort of category error. Our medieval manuscripts are overwhelmingly ‘literary’ productions rather than documents; their purpose was to transmit knowledge, often very ancient knowledge, from the past to the future. To that extent contemporary events, even ones of the enormity of the Black Death, were irrelevant.”

 Wellcome MS 335 is an exception. And it’s a pocket-book (almost).

Its recipes  include some against plague; its plant-pictures are very nice (and yes,  they are a ‘herbal’)… and the whole is well worth a look.  ‘Plants-prayers-and-plague-wellcome-ms-335′, (July 2015)

All the posts linked have slider-viewers inset.

[a couple of typos corrected – 15/09/2016]

Evidence, evidence, evidence.

We’ve recently seen a rash of Polls at, the aim of which is to reach ‘consensus’ about the sort of things “we all agree on” – and which of course will thereafter been deemed indisputable.

First this one:

The manuscript does not contain standard religious iconography from any of the three main Abrahamic religions known to 15th century Europe….With the single exception of one nymph holding a cross ( f79v ), there are no examples of 15th century Catholic, Jewish or Islamic religious imagery within the manuscript.

Is the “one exception” actually an exception – is what she holds intended to be a cross of the religious sort or is it an instinctive interpretation by a person of Christian antecedents? How do you define “religious: imagery?  Is the lulav a religious image?   Is  avoidance of natural forms expressive of religious culture?

What on earth is the aim of asking such a question?  More importantly what are the likely consequences of taking a ‘vote’ without any links to evidence or argument for any of these propositions?

Will it now be deemed “irrelevant” to refer to the evidence of Jewish and Christian culture within the manuscript?

Why should “we” all agree about something which a majority have never considered in any depth?

Now this one:  “wrong” in every conceivable way, again including implications for later parameters permitted in discussion”

  • The leaves of the manuscript are parchment made of calfskin.
  • The quality of the parchment is of average quality, neither being fine nor course.

I arrived to find that every person before me had voted that “we can all agree on both propositions”.

The first proposition is plain wrong.  The animal from which the membrane came may well have been a calf, but to agree to call the membrane ‘calfskin’ is just wrong.  Not one of the previous voters knew enough to recognise that, yet voted anyway.  Evidence-based opinions are not all that strong outside discussions of the written text.

“The quality of the parchment is of average quality, neither being fine nor course”

Everyone voted for that too, although the constant description of the membrane (bar errors) is that it is not parchment, but vellum.

Specialists may quibble – after all, that’s why we normally opt for ‘membrane’ but since 1912 every qualified person evaluating the manuscript described the material as ‘vellum’

But if everyone votes ‘yes’ then what is not calfskin will be ‘deemed agreed’ to be calfskin, and the vellum “agreed” not to be vellum.

No evidence, documentary or otherwise seems to have been consulted here. ~ except perhaps something written in the wiki or on (?)

So now we come to the third point:

“of average quality, neither being fine nor course” (read: coarse).

here again, as with the parchment or vellum thing, experts can and will quibble.  But basically the important issue is how well equalised the membrane is – because it’s an important clue to where the thing was made.  Spanish and southern Italian manuscripts have notably poorer finish – more visible hair-follicles, especially in the corners, and that sort of thing – where German parchment and vellum was really beautifully equalised by the fourteenth century.  You can scarcely tell the hair-side from the flesh-side (that’s what ‘equalised’ means).


Robert Steele, who was well-qualified and experienced as a professional evaluator of medieval manuscripts remarked on the vellum before the manuscript moved into a library and said:

“The vellum is coarse, even for the thirteenth century” – Robert Steele

Robert Steele, ‘Science in Medieval Cipher’, Nature 122, (13 October 1928)  pp. 563-565 .

Dana Scott, spent a full week visiting the Beinecke daily in 2006 and wrote:

At least one (probably 2) of the folios have a very fine peach fuzz feel to the touch. Folios where there had been prior stitching were interesting because the skin is tough and the holes are just fine the way they are now without the prior stitching. If one looks very closely at the VMs folios, you may find tiny “black” dots scattered around a number of the folios. These are actually hair follicle holes in that remained after the hair was removed.
I spent a week visiting the VMs. …  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Beinecke Library in September 2006….

On the other hand, in that same year Nick Pelling’s book includes the comment that”:

“… it is very hard to distinguish between its hair and flesh sides…”

Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.53

The overall impression given by these accounts ( I do not know whether Pelling had actually seen the manuscript)  is not of a first-grade, book-quality vellum which has been equalised to the highest – i.e. German – standard but perhaps appropriate to southern France or Italy or (as most people had agreed before 1931) England – where follicles and ‘peach fuzz’ were typically still in evidence.

NOW – today, and referring to some documents unpublished, Rene Zandbergen says he has information direct from the Beinecke librarians that the persons who worked on the vellum “tried very hard” to smooth it.

This seems to mean that no, it isn’t perfectly equalised (which is of considerable importance for codicological assessments and provenancing) but that the vellum itself has a fairly good writing surface even if as some have said, it is coarse “even for the thirteenth century”.

So what do you think?  Do you feel you know enough to form any useful opinion?

But I hope you’ll see now why I object to the idea that voting for “what we can all agree on” serves any useful purpose in the absence of preliminary research.

Not just a quick consult with the wiki, or with Rene’s own website – real digging.

This sort of polling, in my view, only creates an artificial pressure within the group to forever after conform to ideas initially  promoted and presented for whatever reason, for approval by a group whose individual members may have nothing to go on but gut-feeling.

That’s not likely to produce anything but “group-think” in which investigation and consideration of evidence, or the raising of valid questions is discouraged.  “we” can be a very dangerous state of mind when intellectual enquiry is the aim.

And imagine if “we all agree” to deem the manuscript’s leaves calfskin?!

We’d be the laughing stock of every serious scholar, every codicologist, librarian and appraiser.

But guess what – it may be “what we all agree on”.

In the absence of evidence…

POSTSCRIPT – Misled by referring to too few, or wrong earlier researchers, my own earlier post also called the vellum “parchment”. 🙂

A revisionist revisits…. Canterbury Pt. 4-iii

Because the last three posts have been long ones, this one is pretty short.

Moving northwards from Oria and Tarento, along the via Francigena, we are in country testifying to the enduring power of tradition, in imagery and customs re-interpreted to survive the  effects of war, time, conquest, and religions introduced or imposed.  Imagery can do this; it can retain faithfully the forms and original character of things long after memory of their formal codes of belief are quite lost.

Here, it seems hardly surprising that a fifteenth-century manuscript should still evince a Hellenistic origin and character; the following is but one instance of many within this manuscript. You either see it, or you don’t. The medallion celebrates Alexander’s admiral, Nearchus.

medallion Hellenistic celeb Nearchus voyagefol 72r-ii centre blog fairy







I am no great enthusiast for using genetic patterns to explain cultural products: one’s Y haploid group does not determine what languages one learns, what books one reads or whether or not one has  intellectual capacity and curiosity.  But such maps do illustrate one thing well: the oldest and most natural lines of movement across a region.  That shown below shows why southern Italy was more open to influence from Syria and north Africa than from the north, and there existed a similar connection between Greece and north Africa.  The sea-lanes were travelled regularly, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, before the end of the second millennium BC.,  Sicily serving as a form of half-barrier which effectively directed that movement from its eastern side to the coast of North Africa.  Within the southern end of the peninsula, as in Sicily, Hellenistic workshops produced artefacts in Egyptian style before the rise of Rome. [1]


The Great Angel.

To Christianity, Michael is the name of that great Angel whose role is that of defender and deliverer, and the church still says that Michael’s shrines on the hilltops were first made in the fifth century AD.  But that same character, under a name now forgotten, had been  revered  in this part of the world from the time the  first urban settlements occur, in the seventh or sixth centuries BC.

Originally manifesting attributes of both male and female, it must have once been widely known. In the eastern Mediterranean, the earliest strand of Jewish religious thought carries a trace of some similar character [2] and by Strabo’s time it must have been known to the peoples who lived in the south in his time:Samnites, Brutians and  Lucanians.

When the first Roman emperor in Byzantium promoted Christianity as the preferred religion, Michael changed his religion too.

Basilicata Melfi hermafroditos
Basilicata – Melfi
Basilicata Melfi bronze Michael female
Basilicata – Mefi


Michael Monastery of Sinai
Monastery of Sinai.


Michael Shaftesbury Psalter
Shaftesbury Psalter

St.Michael bronzein Italy from Constantinople

flower servant aegis angel
4thC BC


Michael Gravina and Gargano late 16thC
late 16thC Gravina/Gargano southern Italy
Abbey of Mont “Saint-Michel au péril de la mer” off the west coast of France


Norman French Mont St Michel
detail of a manuscript written in Norman French. Mont Saint Michel, Normandy coast.

He became the first winged figure in western and Byzantine Christian art, but does does not appear so in Christian iconography until the middle of the 1st millennium AD, unless this Coptic figure said to date to the 1stC AD, is an exception.

Michael Coptic allegedly 1stC AD
Michael Coptic allegedly 1stC AD

When Theodore passed through (if he did) the populace paid their taxes to a Langobard king, but  century later the Langobard’s hold which was always tenuous, was gone and the kingdom dissolved. They left little trace in the south, no more than a few buildings and those mainly ecclesiastical.  On the other hand, Michael certainly impressed them.  Remnants of the Langobard population congregated in Benevento and  around Naples, and since the road from Benevento to the Adriatic touches the sea near a cave-shrine to Michael at Gargano, it became their most revered shrine too.  That road became known as the ‘Langobard Way’ – an important pilgrimage route in medieval times.

Via_Appia_map Rome to Brindisi
The via Appia through Benevento. The cave at Gargano is by Manfredonia, known in Roman times as Sipontum.



[1] see László Török, Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas from Egypt (1995) refers to Besques (1963) and (1992) as authority in this connection.

Simone Mollard-Besques, Catalogue raisonné des figurines et reliefs en terre-cuite grecs, étrusques et romains [Musée du Louvre. Département des antiquités grecques et romaines, Paris : Editions des Musées nationaux. (1954 and 1992)

[2] The older figure may represent the original ‘Adam’, made in the image of the creator-deity. In the works of the Jewish law, the earliest idea of Adam has him also, in one version of the creation story, both male and female, for the text reads literally: “male and female He created him” – not ‘them’ as the translations have it.  Michael’s name is translated as if it meant “Who is as Gd?” which is the import of the name, though in the original was expressed as  [the being who] “is as Gd” – that is, made as the image of the deity.

Apulia mirror world detail blog
vase – Apulia. 6thC BC

Jewish religious thinking had very early moved away from that idea of the male-and-female being, the story of Adam’s rib showing the moment of  distinction between the sexes as one held to be natural and intended by Gd.  Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: a study of Israel’s second God, SPCK (1992) remains the principal study of the ‘Great Angel’ in Jewish thought available in English.



A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 4-ii

Palermo and Salerno: Jewish-Greek learning.

This is a reference-post:  to be read if and when it may be helpful.

(detail) Cairo Geniza fragment of a 12thC copy of Donolo’s text, first composed in southern Italy in the 10thC AD.

When the Norman free-booter found himself king of Sicily, his newly acquired territory contained two well-established medical schools, one in Palermo and the other on the mainland at Salerno.  The origins of that in Palermo are obscure; it may have been founded before the Roman era, but that in Salerno was established by Jewish scholars and physicians in c.800 AD, and we may suppose that by the last quarter of the eleventh century its texts included at least a copy of the ‘Book of Asaf’; of Shabbatai Donolo’s ‘Book of Treasures’ and one or more of those written by Isaac Israeli (whom the Latins would mis-call Isaac Judaeus).

Since the Book of Asaf and Donolo’s works rely chiefly on Greek traditions, and Isaac al-Israeli was an Egyptian Jew who wrote in Arabic, we could say that, already, three and perhaps all four of those medical traditions were present which legend  maintained had formed the foundations of  ‘Salernitan’ medicine.

The Book of Asaf

The ‘Book of Asaf’ is an antidotary described by Lieber as  “.. a Hebrew encyclopaedia of Greek and Jewish medicine, possibly compiled in Byzantium after an Indian model.” [1] I regret having been been unable to consult the only source cited by Lieber (or by anyone else) for its materia medica. [2]

The Book of Mixtures: Shabbatai Donolo.

Shabbatai Donolo’s “Book of Mixtures” or “~Remedies” ( Sefer HaMirkachot)  contains medical receipts too, but more of theory.  Donolo also wrote a treatise on religious cosmology (Sefer Hakhmoni) which has been overshadowed by the ‘Mixtures’, but could have been meant as companion to it.  The importance of his phamaceutical work (‘HaMirakachot) was such that part of a twelfth-century copy would be among the items recovered from the geniza in Cairo. [3]

Oria Apulia Asaf

Donolo was born in 913 AD in Oria, another of Puglia’s ancient hill-top settlements on the Via Appia, mid-way between Tarento and Brindisi. [4]

When Shabbatai was twelve years of age, a Saracen invasion left the town ruined, and all Donolo’s close family killed or enslaved.  Only he was able to be ransomed by more distant relatives.  It may explain why works composed or transmitted in Arabic are not mentioned in his own book,  although he studied  the medical traditions of the Greeks, Arabs, Babylonians, and Indians.

It may also explain why he chose to write his work in Hebrew, at a time when the revival of Hebrew as a language in daily use was only just beginning, the usual lingua franca of Mediterranean Jews having been Greek.  In addition to Italian, Greek and Hebrew, Donolo also knew Aramaic – which later becomes the language of the Zohar – and so he might have been able to read medical works written in Syriac, a western Aramaic dialect.  Once the common language of  Rome’s eastern empire it was maintained as the liturgical language of the Church of the East, the so-called ‘Nestorians’, whose interest in medicine was central to their religious views and made them renowned as masters of natural medicines.  Theodore’s interest in the subject led to speculation that he, too, had been a Nestorian before being appointed head of the Anglo-Saxon church.   He certainly knew Syriac, whether or not he taught it in Cantebury, three centuries before Donolo lived. Shown are three forms of Syriac script, which is read right to left.syriac-scriptsIsaac Israeli

One of the most widely known of the early Jewish physicians, Isaac Israeli ( 832 – c. 932 AD) spent the first half of his life – possibly fifty years – in Egypt, before travelling – or being appointed to – Kairouan at some time between 905–907. There he served as physician to the first Fatimid ruler in North Africa. [5] al-Israeli (sometimes ‘al-Israīli’) had gained such renown by the second half of the eleventh century that we may fairly assume that his work, too, was in the Salerno medical school. Israeli  (Latinised as ‘Isaac Judaeus’) is everywhere described as the  ‘father of Jewish neo-Platonism’. For the local inhabitants of Sicily and Salerno, Isaac’s works having been written in Arabic would pose no difficulty. Arabic was Sicily’s official language for two centuries before the Normans, and the fact that Latin then became the language of administration, diplomacy and formal education did not prevent the people’s continuing to use Hebrew, Greek or Arabic as in fact we know they did. Arabic and Hebrew would later be ‘first languages’ of the future Frederick II, King of Sicily, learned from the community which welcomed him into their homes, when he roamed the town as a young boy.

Altogether, and although historians of Latin medicine imagine that Constantine the African brought all this ‘new’ learning to the Latin-speaking world from North Africa, it is  equally possible that he worked in this case from copies of texts in the Salerno school – where he spent some time (perhaps two years) in study,  between arriving in Sicily and his later settling in Monte Cassino.

Constantine the African

Constantine is another of the many multilingual people we meet outside the Latins’ world.   He learned Latin rather late, but his earlier life as a trader had meant extensive travel in Syria, India, Ethiopia, Egypt and Persia and gave him proficiency in  Greek, Arabic, and “several Oriental languages” – though I regret my source does not specify which ones.  I use this allusion to Ethiopia – which medieval Latin Europe believed the source of all plagues – as an excuse to add an image from an Ethiopian Healing Scroll.

detail-ethiopian-healing-scrollmateria medica

Since – as we’ve seen – there was also trade in eastern materia medica into both Palermo and Salerno before the Normans, linking Jewish connections at each end of that line (which does not preclude any other), so it does not seem too much to posit that what occurred in Palermo and Salerno with the advent of Norman rule was less any explosion of  new medical learning as a translation into Latin, within their Sicilian kingdom, of matter already established there – the translation occurring in parallel to Constantine’s work in Montpellier and Montecassino.  Unlike Green and Walker-Meikle, I do not attribute to Constantine the first presence in Europe of all the matter in the Great Antidotary, generally agreed to have originated in the south, and in general terms attributed to the ‘Salernitan’ school.

The Great Antidotary.

Close upon the heels of Latin rule in Sicily and Salerno, came a great compendium of medical recipes written in Latin and called Antidotarium Magnum, from which, as Walker Meikle says, the Latins gained knowledge of far eastern materia medica. With the arrival of Norman rule, the language of administration, education and diplomacy became Latin by default, since it was then usual for any new ruler replace the language of a region with that of his own liturgy.  From that time Sicily becomes part of medieval Latin Europe. A page from a twelfth century copy of the Great Antidotary is shown further belowAt present, Monica H. Green and Kathleen Walker-Meikle are working on a critical edition of  Antidorarium Magnum. Walker-Miekle  mentions (In her blog) a digital edition being developed online through T-Pen .  It is twelve months since Meikle announced that.

Kathleen Walker-Meikle,Antimony and Ambergris: ‘New’ Ingredients in the Antidotarium magnum’, The Recipes Project, (October 22nd., 2015).

Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. (12thC). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. (12thC). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Eastern materia medica

(detail) Bl MS Egerton 747 fol.9. Bitumen

Walker-Meikle says of the Antidotarium Magnum that it first brought to Latins eastern materia medica such as ” zedoary, musk, and camphor,…bitumen of Judea, myrrh, musk, and dragon’s blood (a plant resin).. Ground-up burnt elephant bones (spodium), musk, sumac, white sandalwood, ginger, mace, musk, cinnamon, roses, camphor, cardamom, galangal, nutmeg …”

A majority of those,  including bitumen,  are represented among the botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408 –  in my opinion. As examples:

  • Rose and Bitumen in MS Beinecke 408 (folios 5v and 19v)

Bitumen I found was referenced in Folio 5v.

Originally published in ‘Findings‘, my original discussion of this folio  was republished with additions at voynichimagery as the first of three posts (i) the primary analysis and discussion; to which I added (ii)  explanation of a pictorial annotation (as mnemonic) and (iii) recap and textual evidence.

fol 5v detail fire sticks

The Rose-tree(s) folio 19v. Here I follow Dana Scott who first made the identification



  1. The persons who first made use of the “Rose”(s) image apparently – and unusually – had no interest in the flower or -petals, but in the rosehip; the image indicates removal of the bark for some purpose, though whether  the bark was used, or  the softer wood below it [7] the image does not say.  Not unexpectedly,  the circumscription mark is present – the plant(s) were known in cultivation, not gathered in the wild.


fol 86 mummia small
(detail) map from folio 86v (Beinecke foliation “85v-and-86r”). See my original   commentary to this section of the map (August 11th., 2012)


2. Terms for bitumen, and for mumia are used interchangeably in some medieval sources, but both may be referenced in Beinecke MS 408; bitumen proper I feel reasonably sure is referenced by f.5v, and on the map on folio 86v (Beinecke foliation  “folio 85v-and-86r”) includes  form which, by reference to contemporary beliefs and popular etymology (cf. ‘pyramid’ in Isidore’s Etymologiae) I read as referring to a pyramid. Its being formed as a headless ‘mummy’, though patterned like rubble and with a vapour emerging from it, may be an allusion to the pyramid as source of mumia and other items of value.

I’d emphasise (yet again) that the botanical identifications were gained by analysis of the imagery and references limited to secondary academic sources about art history, economic and historical botany, and the history of trade – all of which related to the themes evinced by the style and form of these pictures.  My initial approach had been informed by the fact that I was approached and asked to comment on some items of the manuscript’s imagery; initially I saw my role only as advisory  so that from 2009- 2012 I offered comments in detail, added full bibliographies and extensive marginal notes – whatever I thought most likely to be helpful as those  working on the text came to a particular folio.

The reactions I received were limited to overt hostility, or ‘active indifference’, with one or two of the more political characters beginning and maintaining an ad.hominem campaign whose aim was evidently a form of  ‘boycott’.  I was certainly not the only non-conforming researcher to be subjected to negative “lobbying” practices by one persuasive individual; I saw a number of interesting new minds forced from the old mailing list by the same small group.  However, none was  pursued with quite so much vigour or malice – which extended to the public abuse of my students, and to approaches being made to owners of public forums and prominent blogs, indicating that dissenters from the ‘standard opinion’,  should be prevented from speaking in public discussions of the manuscript and “post their views only on their personal blog”.

Exactly the same tactics and lobbying has recently infected a new Voynich forum, but the present moderators appear to be of admirable independence in mind and character and have censored equally the perpetrator and the victim, which in the circumstances seems exactly the right approach to take.   This promising sign has been met with others in my case.  Some of the new arrivals have found no difficulty citing matter from this blog, and acknowledging the source in the normal way.

The older practice had been to take the research, without acknowledgement, and re-work it so that the result appeared to support, rather than obviously contradict an “all Latin European” and central European storyline.

Such habits have seen many promising researchers driven out, or led to give up in disgust during the past decade and more.  One cannot pretend that the routine of combining refusal to acknowledge or engage, with a parallel ad.hominem campaign conducted without reasonable limits, is not effective in reducing all opinions to just one.  Except occasionally.



[1] E. Lieber, ‘Asaf’s Book of Medicines: a Hebrew encyclopaedia of Greek and Jewish medicine, possibly compiled in Byzantium after an Indian model’,  in John Scarborough (ed.), Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 38, Symposium on Byzantine Medicine (1984), pp. 233-249.  Lieber notes elsewhere that 18 manuscripts of the Book of Asaf were known at the time of writing, from various European libraries and that they contain greater or lesser parts of the Book, the longest continuous section being of 250 folios.  “On palaeographic evidence, however, the dates of the manuscripts range from the 12th to the 15th or 16th centuries, and all are apparently of European origin, mainly from Italy. However, there is some reason to think that part, at least, of the content may derive from Jews of Hellenistic or Byzantine Alexandria .. from the 3rd century B.C. or earlier…. It is thus almost impossible to determine the actual extent of the work.. It almost certainly grew by accretion over the years — or even the centuries — and appeared in a number of different versions”.

[2] i.e.  L. Venetianer, Asaf Judaeus, der aelteste medizinische Scritftsteller in hebraeischer Sprache, 3 pts., Budapest, 1915-17.  Another which might prove helpful is another I have not sighted: Meir Bar-Ilan (מאיר בר-אילן), ‘Medicine in Eretz Israel during the First Centuries CE / הרפואה בארץ-ישראל במאות ‘, הראשונות לספירה, Cathedra: Vol. 91 (1999), pp. 31-78.

The eastern influence in the ‘Book of Asaf’  may be less due to Byzantium than  centres in the east, formerly Hellenistic, in which some communities had settled before the loss of Jerusalem.  Their return to the west finds them – and particularly those of India – distinguished as  ‘al-Israeli’ or ‘al-Israili’, a name often associated with physicians and pharmacy in the medieval Mediterranean.  Isaac Israeli ( 832 – c. 932 AD) is one of the earliest and best known, but not the only one.

[3] The Cairo geniza fragment contains part of Donolo’s commentary and had been bound with a fragment of Kabbalistic text.  ( Bodleian Library, MS. Heb. e. 26 Cowley Catalogue 2762).

[4] The JVL comments that  Shabbetai Donnolo was born in 913 in Oria spent the rest of his life in southern Italy and that “It appears that Donnolo was the first person to write about medicine in Christian Europe. His Sefer HaMirkachot, “the Book of Remedies” is a summary of his forty years of medical experience. …As pharmacy and medicine in the tenth century were inextricably interwoven with astrology and cosmology Donnolo sets out his idea of a divinely created universe, with man in the image of God, based on a synthesis of contemporary thought, but his medical reputation has overshadowed his cosmological writings, the most important of which is his Sefer Hakhmoni, a title implying Wisdom.  Donnolo wrote in Hebrew, which was very unusual for his time. He died in 982″.

[5] The only reference which I find to the bark of the tree or its soft inner wood being used in medicine is in this source online which says: “Rose leaves, flowers, bark and roots are generally considered to be cooling in Western herbalism, with authors as varied as Avicenna, Dioscorides, Bauhin and Hildegarde specifically mentioning plant’s place on the colder end of the thermal spectrum although Galen seemed to feel that it had some warming properties. The fruits are closer to neutral in temperature”. Specialists may care to comment.


A revisionist revisits.. Canterbury Pt 4-i

Since the previous post ended with a picture of a commercial list recovered from the Cairo Geniza, and we are in the south where that less-than-formal Greek script was being used as late as the end of the fourteenth century, I’d like to spend this post talking of alchemical-pharmacy and other forms of ‘trivial’ text- structures – together. So it’s a long post. (With regard to Greek influence, too, I might mention a recent post by Ruby Novacna where she interprets some star-names as Greek).

So – to continue our triple themes of the Via Appia, the Greek-saturated south, and ‘trivial’ texts,  I must mention two more places before leaving this region from which that ‘explosion of new medical learning’ emerged in the Norman period.  The two places are Taranto and Lecce.

Taranto, by reference to a certain Franciscan named Paul who lived there in the late thirteenth century;  Lecce because Marsilio Ficino requested assignment there to study an ‘ancient Greek’ dialect spoken by the local people – within a wider south which had been the original home of neo-Platonism. Ficino’s book on health and medicine is an unusual one, and some of its recipes are identical to those in the [Nestorian] Syriac Book of Medicines which I’ve mentioned before.

Lecce Carpignano


Paul of Taranto has been identified as the author of an alchemical work entitled Summa Perfectionis.  Opinion was divided as to whether Paul’s focus was primarily on  gold, or on medicine but William Newman who identified Paul as its author concluded that its most practical use was as an aid to pharmacy.

“The Summa is above all useful as a text-book for carrying out preparatory cleansings and purifications of pharmaceuticals … the Summa appears as part of the [later]  Medicina practica of William Salmon, who like Russell was an iatrochemical physician”.

While I do not pretend to think the imagery in the Voynich manuscript is primarily concerned with medicine, alchemy, or ‘alchemical medicine’, this doesn’t prevent due consideration of evidence, historical or internal, which might be adduced in favour.  Over the past century, study of the Voynich manuscript has advanced little,  not least because so many of its more prominent figures have held adamantly to opinions owing more to the proponents’ self-confidence and refusal to consider alternatives than to a desire to understand the manuscript’s intentions, though among the exceptions John Tiltman deserves our continued attention for his observations.*

The case in favour of medicine and alchemy is, first, that these combined subjects were of interest to Georg Baresch –  the person first certainly aware of this manuscript ;  Jakub Horcicky whose name was inscribed on it; Roger Bacon and other thirteenth century Franciscans ; and persons who knew both Baresch and Athanasius Kircher appear to have believed that alchemy formed part of the manuscript’s matter.

Alchemy of the “iatrochemical physician’s” type, which is what we should call basic chemistry,  is intended to assist pharmacy and is precisely the type of ‘alchemy’ which was urged by Roger Bacon in his Errors of the Doctors. He also recommended the Synonyma of Simon of Genoa (not of Nicolaus). Throughout the medieval and renaissance centuries, Paul’s Summa was attributed to Geber, as he intended, but later scholars realised the ascription false and spoke instead of pseudo-Geber until William Newman’s Doctoral thesis  showed convincing evidence and argument for the Summa’s author as Paulus de Taranto,  and its date of composition 1270 – c.1310AD.[1]

So Paul was a younger contemporary of Roger Bacon, and of Thomas of Cantimpré,  and  lived through the time of the Jews’ expulsion from England.

The Summa Perfectionis was known to Peter of Abano (1257 – 1316), a darling of the early Renaissance, and who is credited with information about the Egyptian decans painted in the Shiffanoia at Ferrara.  Abano refers several times to the Summa in his own Consiliator, referring to its author as “Ieber”.

I haven’t looked into the earliest extant manuscripts of the Summa, or its first mention in France or England,  but it received a translation from Latin to English in 1678 by Richard Russell, a London physician. Nine years later another Englishman, William Salmon, included it in his Medicina Practica (1678).

So, altogether:

The Summa Perfectionis was  composed in Taranto, a city with a long and ancient history of non-Latin influence and direct connections to the sea-trade from Cairo, chief source of  eastern materia medica.  One might reasonably suppose that the work of a Franciscan might pass through the order’s lines of communication, even to as far as England, within a fairly short time.  As an alchemical work, too, it could be argued to explain the vague similarity between plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript and those other “Plants of the Alchemists” books.  It would be less a parent-daughter relationship, but more like cousins once- or twice- removed.

As a gift to a chemist-physician in Prague, or even as a copy on offer to him, a work of that type might well be acceptable, and it must be remembered that Jakub was the local physician-chemist and had a flourishing practice.  Rudolf was  one of his patients, but from what we know it would appear that Jakub did not live as a member of the court, and apart from the ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ there is no reason to suppose Rudolf ever saw the manuscript.  There is no evidence or reason to suppose, either, that  Jakub was given it by Rudolf.  No extant document – other than the Voynich manuscript – ever refers to  Jakub in this connection.

That sort of alchemy seems also to have been the type in which Georg Baresh was interested. He emphasises that his interest in the manuscript is “not for money, but for the medicine”.  I rather think he believed it might hold a remedy against the plague (which, by the way, carried off both those English physicians mentioned above).

Again, a historical note from d’Imperio, who tells us that  Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt,  who is described as bibliographical consultant to H. P. Kraus, owner of the Voynich manuscript from 1962 and 1969,  wrote to John Tiltman in a letter dated I November, 1963 saying   that Italy was a likely country of origin and that:

“while both paleographically and historically speaking, Italy is as likely a place of origin as any other country of Europe, there is no evidence that the manuscript must have been made in Venice, or elsewhere in Northern Italy. The possibility that it comes from Central or Southern Italy is still open, and this could very well mean exposure [sic.] to the Arab world”.

I confess that I hadn’t read that paragraph until today, or if I’d ever read it before, it had slipped my mind. I’ve come by a different route to the opinion that the manuscript we have is likely to have been made in the Padua-Veneto region, but Lehmann-Haupt was writing from information available half a century ago. It is nice, though, to know the same proposal had already been made by that time.

However,  ‘exposure to the Arab world’ hardly gives an accurate impression of the far south, whose range and depth of non-‘Italian’ character is so very pronounced.

Greek, ‘Saracen’ and Semite had moulded its history, languages and cultural character and medieval Jews were also an important group in the southern part of the peninsula and Sicily, so early known for medicine and for active connections with the Arabic-speaking world.

Basilicata Tricarico

So, for example, the mountain peak which rises directly behind Montepeloso holds another walled town first established centuries before the birth of Alexander.  It is now called Tricarico and is famous for its terrace-gardens carved out by the ‘Saracens’ of the earlier medieval period;  it was home to a large and flourishing Jewish population whose number greatly increased after the Spanish occupation of Sardinia and Sicily –  and then again in the 1490s.

So while one is inclined to agree with some of Lehmann-Haupt’s views, and wonder how it was that opinions later became so very narrow about where the manuscript might have been made, Lehmann-Haupt’s choice of words might be a little misleading if one did not know better.  [2]

Structures of the written text.

An argument for the Voynich manuscript’s text consisting partly or largely of alchemical and/or pharmaceutical instructions could also be made.   John Tiltman was able to demonstrate what d’Imperio describes as

“a ‘precedence’ structure of symbols within words and the orderly behavior of characters as “beginners”, middles” and “enders’ of words, [which] has remained one of the most solid and useful findings gleaned by students of the manuscript during many years of study”

– which I think a rather sad comment, given that the Friedmans had already been interested in the manuscript for more than two decades before 1951 when John Tiltman was asked to lend a hand, and that so many others before and after failed to achieve so much.

Having made that observation, though, Tiltman was diverted into a hunt for a “book-text” which might agree with those structures, and in particular to investigate possible candidates for what Friedman thought could be an artificial language.  Another avenue which led no-where.

As we’ve seen, a trivial writing of the commercial kind could – with certain abbreviations – yield just such patterns and conform to that opinion of the text which was voiced by both Tiltman and William Friedman, namely that the Voynich text consists of “… categories or classes of words with coded endings or other affixes…”

Technical instructions as a class of trivial writing don’t seem to have been considered at all by Voynich or the Friedmans, but that is understandable given the bias of their time, which considered ‘techne’ an inferior theme for the historian.  I’ve seen no example of anyone’s having explored the possibility in regard to the written text before Don Hoffmann did,  although my own opinion of the whole as a  technical ‘non-book’ was firming by 2010.  What Hoffman did was address the written part of the text, and in general his model structure seems to fit the Voynich text easily and naturallly. I say his model, because I do not think there is enough historical or documentary evidence offered to support the specifics of his explanation – the particular connections he makes between a glyph and a given plant, or a particular unit of measure.  He reads it all as pharmaceutical recipes (see  here).

I do agree – for what my opinion on the script is worth – that as a sort of template or model of  “technical instruction” forms, his model works very well.

To test whether it also applied – as a general model – to other types of technical instructions/recipes, I took texts from a variety of practical subjects:  from navigational instructions to culinary recipes, to documents of lading and tax lists, and instructions for fabric-production. In each case the model seemed to suit the text, just as easily and naturally, and I was especially impressed by its power to explain certain differences recognised between ordinary prose and poetry and the form of the Voynich text.  By omitting spaces between a quantity and a good, or something equally minor sort, there was no need to alter the original texts which I tested Hoffmann’s model with.  Below is a ‘postcard’ I made to illustrate this, and those who happen to understand how knitted fabrics are constructed will know that such patterns cannot be arbitrary or random.  They must balance.  Apparent absence from the text of articles, definite or indefinite, might be another item in favour of Hoffmann’s model.


The great problem, as readers doubtless realise, is that with any writing so very heavily abbreviated, it becomes almost impossible to be sure without knowing the language, subject and some comparative example, whether any posited expansion is valid.  Finding “sp” doesn’t tell us whether the writer was referring to a spelling error, or to a spoonful of some substance.

Marsilio Ficino’s book, the Liber Triplicitas has been translated into a number of modern languages,  English among them, so I won’t expand on it here.


[1.] d’Imperio p.7.  d’Imperio also records (p. 8) that Lehmann-Haupt said in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November, 1963 that “there is a near agreement on the date of the CIPHER manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400.”  Experts then were just as expert as experts now, and all the more to be admired for having fewer laboratory methods and data-sets available to them.

[2] William Royall Newman, ‘The Summa Perfectionis and late medieval alchemy: A study of medieval chemical traditions, techniques and theory in thirteenth century Italy’, Harvard Dissertation (PhD), 1986.  I have those details from Adam McClean’s website  where you can read the thesis’ abstract. I also have access to a paper by Newman entitled, ‘Arabo-Latin forgeries: the case of the Summa Perfectionis…’  Unfortunately the copy does not include publication details.  What I have said above about Paul of Taranto and the seventeenth century English physicians comes from these two works by Newman.

*Postscript note: This post was already written and in queue when I received a note to the previous one, Nick Pelling suggesting my opinion of d’Imperio’s book needs balancing. Ironically, the reason I wrote what I did was to provide a more balanced view of its content, which does not still deserve the reputation accorded it. 🙂

Palaeography and orthography – nat eveyon wret wol. Pt1

I wonder whether the written text in the Voynich manuscript hasn’t defied efforts to understand it for much the same reason that the imagery is so easily misinterpreted: not because it is the product of a devious or secretive mind but because the past century’s accumulated assumptions and presumptions include some small error overlooked. In the case of the Voynich botanical images, for example, the basic error was a failure to examine the older idea that the pictures were the product of some European ‘artist’ and formed a medical type of Latin herbal. Unexamined premises are a constant source of error, because the researcher is so easily misled into thinking that a logical structure is sufficient to justify, retrospectively, whatever premise it was built on.

The picture which forms the current header and is shown again below demonstrates a form of Greek which was in use in Carpignano, in the toe of the Italian peninsula, during the late fourteenth century. Use of Greek in the peninsula did not begin with Bessarion’s arrival.

script Safran Sth Italy Gk

About the Voynich manuscript’s written text, one assumption  is near-universal: that if it conceals a plain text, that plain text will conform to “book-standards”:  with its language-use, grammar and orthography (spelling) clear, consistent and so on.

A cryptanalyst can assume nothing else, of course.  The whole science of cryptanalysis depends on assuming that an underlying plain text will convey, without ambiguity, one particular message or set of messages.  For this to occur, it must be formed as a “book” text.

Unfortunately, and despite its valuable substrate of vellum, its competent hands and a few expensive pigments, the Voynich manuscript is manifestly more likely to be a “non-book”- that is, of that other class of writings called ‘trivial’.

Forms of ‘trivial’ writing include rough copies made from older works, personal letters, shopping lists, lists of materia medica, theological notes, commercial documents and so forth.   They may, or may not be bound, but they are distinguished from  ‘second-grade books’  because book-standards of grammar, spelling and so forth may not be observed by the writer.  And their being ‘trivial’ in that sense does not preclude their having great historical importance.  Here’s an example of a most important ‘trivial’ writing: a page from the Bobbio Missal  (Paris, BNF lat. 13246).

Bobbio Missal page cropped

Inscribed in the seventh century,  probably in a town on the Rhône a little south from Lyons, the Missal was described thus by Burkett in 1925:

Nearly thirteen hundred years ago, in an obscure village .. in a district where French was the spoken language, near a convent of nuns, an old cleric once copied a Service-book. His hand was not very steady, but he wrote with a will…. The old scribe was trying to follow his original page for page. When he came to passages he knew by heart … he often cast a mere glance at his copy, and trusted his memory for the rest. He was …no purist in spelling or grammar. He wrote as he spoke, with ci for ti, soft g for j, and vice versa; and he had small regard for case or verb endings. …”

from F.C. Burkett, ‘The Bobbio Missal’, The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 26, No. 102 (January, 1925), pp. 177-179.

Compare that example with the Bobbio Orosius, written at much the same time, but which even at first glance presents as a ‘book’ and which closer inspection shows to be indeed a product worthy of that term. I apologise for the poor quality of the picture. 7thC insular Bobbio

A trivial work.

Quality in appearance, of course, does not necessarily imply quality of the content, but a trivial writing – a ‘non-book’ –  is so often no more than a rough copy of some standard text, or some ephemeral matter, that to dismiss a “non-book” is not uncommon now, and was routine in the last century when Wilfrid Voynich and then the Friedmans became preoccupied with the Voynich manuscript.

It was an unfortunate time as far as open-minded initial reception for the ‘ugly ducking’ was concerned.  The current idea of history had it a subject which should treat of  important themes, defined by important events and the actions of important persons: what we tend to call now “Kings and Things” history.

When Wilfrid Voynich discovered the manuscript, and recognised the contents as atypical, he first presumed it a product of Latin European culture and then from that assumption formed another: that the contents’ non-European appearance was the result of an effort to conceal content of enormous importance; importance being defined by reference to persons and subjects important in his time –  when Roger Bacon and big-S science were hot topics.  I believe he rightly recognised the object’s manufacture as compatible with Franciscan products of the late thirteenth century but otherwise his ‘history’ for the manuscript was a form of story-telling ~ so far as anyone has been able to determine.

William and Elizebeth Friedman saw history the same way as most of their generation.  William was born in 1891 and his future wife Elizebeth in 1892.  Like Wilfrid, they thought it self-evident that any manuscript worthy of attention must be linked in some way to themes, persons and events of importance to Europe’s idea of its history, and that history scarcely referred to any place below the 32nd parallel of latitude, unless it were the site of a battle.  Such presumptions only served to further inflate the already excessive emphasis which Wilfrid had given the  ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ – a  perfunctory last note in a letter which Marcus Marci had written to Athanasius Kircher.

Less elevated historical themes were scarcely treated before the second world war;  economic history was emerging but still openly derided by the older scholars;  social history (initially dismissed as “laundry list history”) effectively arrived with Braudel. Womens’ history was unheard of and would not appear until the 1970s.  “Kings and Things’ was pretty much it, save for Lynn Thorndike’s magnificent study, one that left him an islolated figure for decades.

William Friedman’s request for financial support to continue his efforts to ‘break’ the Voynich text might then have been predicted to be rejected by the academic board in question, but on learning that the grounds were that the content was ‘probably trivial’, outrage rather than understanding followed.

Mary d’Imperio was later given the task of recording the Friedman group’s unsuccessful  efforts to interpret the text and imagery, so let her tell the story:

Some students of the manuscript, and others … have advanced the view that its content can have no value for science or for the study of human thought. Tiltman… says, “I do not in any case imagine there is anything historically or scientifically important contained in the manuscript” ( 1951, p. I)… Elizebeth Friedman [apparently said] “It appears to be gibberish to many serious-minded academics, who are apt to scoff at the idea that its solution would be of any value to science or learning, as did a great foundation to which [William] Friedman once applied for a grant for the detailed study of the manuscript. In the opinion of the board, a solution would not advance human knowledge. The manuscript probably contains only trivia, the board said.” (1962)

(I’ve added  red asterisks to  outmoded, ill-founded, unfounded, hypothetical, erroneous, presumptive, disproven or entirely hypothetical assertions in the next paragraph):

I must confess that I can see little justice in the reasoning of those “academics”* who dismiss the Voynich manuscript out of hand, after what can only be* the most superficial attention. Even if it is, in fact, a fabrication* associated with the court of Rudolph II,* an understanding of who wrote* it, its passage from one to another of Rudolph’s* familiars, and the part it played* in the remarkable congeries of religious and political activities at Prague in those* times could prove to be of great interest. .. If the manuscript is a compilation, however “deranged”* or idiosyncratic,* drawn from earlier magical,* alchemical, or medical* works, it has at least as much intrinsic interest and “scientific’ import for the history of Western* thought as do other similar* manuscripts which are readable, and concern only one topic (i.e.. they are either astrological* or alchemical* or medical*). Reputable scholars apparently see no waste of time in studying “plaintext” manuscripts of this* type, and may spend much of their lives so occupied”.

Cryptologists tend to revere William Friedman, not as an historian but for his having broken a Japanese military cipher during the second world war.  Transferring that admiration to his interest in the Voynich manuscripts has proven, overall, a hindrance to this study. d’Imperio’s fifty-year old book, filled as it is with wrong perceptions and assumptions has been raised to a status more appropriate to a work of holy writ.  The Table of Contents, alone, testifies to the Friedmans’ limited vision of history, and biases characteristic of early twentieth century. One cannot imagine that it would occur to either of the Friedmans that the content in the Voynich manuscript might have been first compiled by an anonymous dyer working in Venice; or by an  Alexandrian shop-keeper;  a north African mariner; a Turkish map-maker;  a member of the Karimi in Yemen; a Christian in India; an anonymous clerk in Naples or even –  if it were first composed in Europe – that any scientific content might come from a sober Jewish lineage, uninfluenced by any form of magic.  One finds little  evidence of any informed study of the imagery by any member of the group.

More examples of ‘trivial’ writings in the next post a little while. The next post returns to our pilgrimage, but meanwhile  here’s another fragment recovered from the Cairo geniza: it’s a list of goods prepared for shipment from Tunis.

script Geniza inventory Tunis
Cf “… categories or classes of words with coded endings or other affixes…” Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma p.42.  🙂





A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 3b-iii

Non-Mediterranean Plants in MS Beinecke 408, in medieval Cairo, and in Sicily before 1065 AD … continued.

Here’s the rest of the previous post; I thought you might like a few days to cope with the first part. Time is so short and the entries for these plants so short in Lev and ‘Amar that I’m hoping Brill won’t object to my reproducing them here (less than 1%) . If they do, I’ll come back and transcribe.


For the plant-group on folio 52r, (sometimes as:  fol. 52r-1), I’ve described one element as referring to G.herbaceum. To find information about cotton fabrics and their trade is easy enough, but medical uses not so much, so here’s the entry:

VM 52r-i
fol. 52r-1

Cotton geniza______________

fol 96v
fol 96v

Among those I’ve suggested for the group referenced by folio 96v is Cubeb pepper (P.cubeba), see here together with ‘long pepper’ (P. longam).

P. cubeba
P. cubeba








It was not as firm an identification as the others were: I still think the image could refer to what I have described as  ‘Spinach-leaf [-ed] berry vines’, and Ellie Velinska has  also seen Chenopodium here, as I mentioned in the post of Feb. 28th., 2013. Sorry if my opinion sounds dilatory or ambivalent, but the image doesn’t include enough information to allow me to express greater certainty. If fact, given that Cubeb pepper- and the spinach-vine plants I mention all have a similar habit,  leaf and form, and all were dietary staples, so it is quite possible in my opinion that the person who first constructed the image regarded them all as having a common nature and intended reference to all, as one group.

Cubeb pepper Geniza


Folio 25r: D. cinnabari (formerly D. draco)’

de Conti 7 VM fol 25vdetail beast
fol. 25r

I  finish with the first image for which I published an explanation, optimistic (in 2009) that it would be of immediate assistance to, and happily received by, those  interested in understanding the manuscript. What I received by response over the following seven years modified  that initial optimism.  Until early this year, the process of sharing the research and its conclusions online was met with an atmosphere which leads one to agree with Pelling that the online environment, and study of this manuscript, has become “a bad place” for a scholar to be. Though I have published online the equivalent of two full volumes of original investigations and conclusions, they are chiefly mined for new “ideas” and the recurring pattern suggests that such an “idea” only inspires an adherent of the all European theory once the body of evidence and argument presented here reaches a certain critical mass. At that point, however, the evidence and argument are not so much addressed, or adopted, as an attempt is made to create some ‘alternative’ version which will permit the ‘all-European-authorship’ theory to settle down again. To differ from a seminal study is not unusual. To pretend it does not exist, or to avoid addressing the detailed evidence and argument in order to convey an impression that no such study exists, is a phenomenon peculiar to Voynich studies. Protest on behalf of the scholar, or of readers who will be mislead, usually leads to some response along the lines that the decision to pretend the earlier work does not exist is a matter of ‘principle’.  Go figure.

Note: The passage below, from ‘Amar and Lev, has a couple of errors. The Soqotran dracaena tree (D. cinnabari) was endemic to that island and its resin is generally known as the ‘dragonsblood’. I have not discovered evidence of the tree’s growing naturally in Sumatra, though I am of the opinion that the Sumatran and Javanese type of Dracaena form the subject of folio 3r (see below).  Taxonomic descriptions have also altered over time, on which see comment following.

Dracaena Geniza“Taxonomic description …”

D. draco was long the term by which the Soqotran tree was described, and as late as 2009 when I published (a year after the publication of the book by ‘Amar and Lev), most of the sources available to me still used that description. However, at some stage the taxonomists had decided to change things about, and now D. draco refers to the Mediterranean ‘dragonsblood’ palm which grows in the south-western Mediterranean.   In the passage reproduced above, there is mention of a merchant’s letter which was sent to Cairo and preserved there, and which refers to dragonsblood among things needed in Palermo.  Now, had the species in question been that from northwest Africa and Iberia there would have been no need to write to Cairo; that the letter went there indicates that the substance was the imported variety. As late as the nineteenth century, Mrs. Grieves still treats the Soqotran tree’s resin as “the” dragonsblood, and the only one suitable for pharmaceutical use.  In practice, of course, the variegated Sumatran and Javanese dracaenas may have been used just as often, and the presence of both plants in Beinecke MS 408 would certainly suggest that they were.

folio 3v comparisons
Analysis of this folio as the group defined by the “Javanese dracaena” was published on ‘Findings’ – now closed to the public. I described the group by reference to Java, rather than to Sumatra as ‘Amar and Lev do but as any glance at a map will tell you, these places are adjacent.

More examples from the botanical ids which I’ve offered could be added to the list, but these should establish my point well enough – that there is no reason to suppose Beinecke MS 408’s botanical section inconsistent with the trade (in regard to exotic species) which existed between Egypt and  Sicily before the Norman period.

In citing documents from the Cairo geniza, I repeat, I’m not trying prove these identifications correct, but that the inclusion of the exotics which I identify in MS Beinecke 408 is not incompatible with evidence of the trade in exotics into Egypt and thence to Sicily  before the texts were composed which we now associate with the  ‘Salernitan’ school.  I can find no evidence that the imagery now in this section of the manuscript had come to Latin notice or possession any earlier than the mid- to late- thirteenth century,* for the habit of Latin scribes had been immediately to reform  ‘foreign’  imagery to accord with their own theology and traditions in art. Had it come earlier, it would not have its present form. By the early fourteenth century, however, interest was growing among the few in both the content and the form of  ‘antique’ documents.

* the central emblems within the calendar section offer a possible exception, but the external tiers do not.

I do not believe that the botanical imagery in this manuscript is a ‘herbal’.  Its plants are not only, or even primarily, ones which relate to pharmacy.  They include plants of use only as  provisions, or for materials needed to maintain the ship and caravan, and goods such as paper and ink are referenced.  In addition, other folios depict maritime routes, or charts that – in my opinion – relate to calculations of time, tide, and the stars and winds of navigation.

The Karimi merchants, and before them the Radhanites,  are the most likely groups to have earlier access to matter now in the manuscript.

From this part of the Via Francigena, en route to Canterbury, our postcard.  It is one made in 2013, in the hope that where evidence and argument had failed, a simpler image might. 🙂



A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 3b-ii

The aim of this post (or paper, since it is over 2,500 words) is to establish whether the content in folio 22r, and in other sections as I’ve explained them, is consistent with the historical records, and to show that this image being included limits possibilities about the ways, and period, within which the botanical section is likely to have come to the view of Latin Europeans. I regret that a near-complete absence of reference to my work on “Voynich”-specific sites means that I must also include more reference to my own earlier work than I or the reader might wish.[1]

Since we are still in the south, in what was once ‘Magna Graecia’, I should have liked to spend some time explaining the demographics of the southern Italian peninsula and Sicily, not least to counter the myth that the population and culture was in any meaningful sense “Langobardic” by the twelfth century, but while the matter is crucial to understanding the environment from which this older and eastern medicine (and materia medica) ‘exploded’ into the Latins’ corpus, I doubt that many researchers into the Voynich manuscript care to be provided with quite so much background.🙂

And since most are well acquainted with the fact that many medical texts came in Arabic and were translated into Latin in Italy by Constantine the African, or in Iberia  (usually by bilingual or multilingual Jews, though the works emerged under formal attribution to Gerard of Cremona), I do not think it important to review that matter, either.

The less often mentioned element in the new matter emerging from the Sicilian kingdom, and described as ‘Salernitan’  is the role of the Jews in southern Italy and Sicily.  Despite the clear evidence of the historical record both in Islam and in Latin Europe that Jewish physicians were numerous and very highly regarded for most of the medieval period, and that the traditions of the Salerno school include among the four ‘founders’ of its tradition not only those of the Greeks, Latins and Arabs but of the Jews, histories of western medical practice and pharmacy still constantly overlook the fourth. Hence my focus on it in this and subsequent posts.

Being neither an expert on the history of medicine nor of Jewish medical texts, and without access to Monica Green’s coming study of the Great Antidotary, I’ve decided to document the trade in eastern materia medica by reference to the traders’ letters which were preserved in the Cairo geniza, as edited and translated by Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar,  Practical Materia Medica of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean According to the Cairo Genizah (Brill, 2008) [2]

I will begin by emphasising that my opinions about the manuscript’s imagery – throughout – began by a concerted analysis of the images, with the aim merely of finding the historical, geographical and cultural context within which they sat naturally.  The idea that they are “bizarre” is simply a by-product of a viewer’s having nothing similar in their existing range of knowledge; the aim of iconographic analysis is to correct that impression by reference to internal analysis and contextual information.

Having done this initial work, the next step was to disentangle the various indications of chronology and establish a chronological stratification,  the diverse elements and influences then set in order according to their period – cross-referencing with the cultural and regional sets into which they fitted most naturally.

This was followed by a more intense stage of analytical treatment of, and commentary upon, particular folios.

Into this stage (reached by the end of 2010) belong my analyses of the map (folio 86v/85v-and-86r) and of the botanical folios.

Having thus come to the point where I felt the material could be explained in terms of its origin, evolution and (finally) its transmission into Latin Europe, I began writing more about the historical background per se.

Thus, my identifying the subject of 22r as the ‘Myrobalans’ group* was not due to any intention to find support for any preferred theory about the manuscript, its ‘author’ or nationality or any other among the factors which inform the great majority of ideas and writings promoted in connection with this manuscript.  It was solely a product of learning the visual ‘language’ informing these images, and then – in effect – translating them.  I have no vested interest in hunting support for any personal hunch-as-‘theory’: what opinions I have are opinions gained as a conclusion after  close study of the imagery, and by constantly consulting the history of art, of cultures, anthropology, social and economic histories and other pertinent matter. Thus, my conclusions are limited to opinions about the imagery.  If it were proven tomorrow that the written part of the text is sixteenth century Italian, it would neither disturb me nor affect my conclusions. A full translation, however, can be expected to highlight flaws in either.🙂

FOLIO 22r: Myrobalans group.

* analysis and commentary on this folio was published elsewhere, but repeated in the present blog here (Pt 1) and  here (Pt 2).

The identififol.22r-i Myrobalans croppedcation came from the structure and form of the image on folio 22r.  I have only just now begun reading the text by Lev and Amar from which I will quote, but to investigate the history of Myrobalans’ use, and the question of whether that history is compatible with what has been said so far, I  refer to their translation and discussion of texts found in the Cairo geniza, whose documents cover a period from the ninth to the nineteenth century, and include matter related to every aspect of life, cultures, people, trades and events not only within medieval Cairo, or only among the Jews of Cairo, but of all within the regions linked to medieval Cairo and its peoples.

Within their book, Lev and  Amar begin (p.84) by saying that contrary to saffron, which was traded mainly in its region of origin in the Mediterranean, most myrobalan species were imported from tropical Asia and Africa where they were cultivated (India, Burma, Madagascar), coming first into eastern Mediterranean and from there exported westwards, to Europe. The Kabuli species was exported from Kabul in Afghanistan. In medieval medical literature, several species of Myrobalans are mentioned: ‘Yellow-‘ as the ripe fruit of  Terminalia citrina, and ‘Black-‘ as its unripe fruit;  Indian myrobalan (Terminalia arjuana); Beleric myrobalan (Terminalia bellerica); Emblica myrobalan (Terminalia emblica); Cherbulic myrobalan (Terminalia chebula). The authors add the Arabic and occasionally the Hebrew terms.

This agrees with my findings about folio 22r.

The authors also note (on which see my earlier discussion of the ‘pictorial annotation’ at the roots’ position in f.22r) a number of other purposes for myrobalans, and it is clear these too were well known by the eleventh century –  and thus no doubt added to the reasons for purchase and recommendations of the good by the seller to his prospective client.

The authors make the important point that Myrobalans were unknown to the classical Greek physicians, and were introduced to the Mediterranean during the ninth and tenth centuries, becoming a ‘hit’  in the Arabic speaking world, and that myrobalan is the most commonly specified ingredient in the many pharmaceutical remedies, lists, glossaries and texts which have been recovered from the geniza.

On p.84-5 it is noted that Myrobalan was imported to Egypt through the trading routes of the Indian Ocean. From Aden (Yemen) it was transported to Egypt through the port of Ghadhab [apparently a romanisation of ‘Aydhab. – D]. [3]

Many Genizah fragments such as letters between merchants based in Fustat and Alexandria, deal with the trade in myrobalan. From Egypt, cargoes of Indian and yellow myrobalan were exported to Quayrawan and Sicily through Madhdiyya. Cargoes were also sent from Egypt to the Levant: to the ports of Ascalon, Tyre and Tripoli, and thence over land to the interior. According to the Geniza documents, myrobalan of Egyptian origin was sold in Jerusalem although the precise route is not clear. .. Sometimes the order to sell to a merchant in the west was sent from Fustat through Alexandria to a merchant in the west… A merchant in Alexandria writes a letter (1062 AD), “Chebulic myrobalan has no market…” A year later, the market was rising [Lev quotes the prices]. By 1065, the price had doubled, with the fine … In 1065 ten mann [weight of fine chebulic myrobalans] were sold to a middleman in Sicily for 3.3 dinars“.[emphasis mine -D]

Further notes in a later section of the book include (p.218) the fact that although the Myrobalan fruits’ use as a medical remedy had been well-known in India and in China from ‘early times’, the species find no mention in the Greek and Roman medical treatises, and that most of the species used came from India and from Madagascar.

This range of the species imported agrees well with my own conclusions about folio 22r,  drawn from consideration of the style in which the imagery is composed in the botanical section, the apparent range over which the plants depicted naturally occur,  stylistic characteristics in the present botanical images and the fact that the range and reference appears almost entirely limited to places and goods across the southern, maritime, route that extends from southeast Asia in the east to the head of the Red Sea (and/or Persian Gulf) at the western end.

The relevant section of the Voynich manuscript’s ‘world’ map,[4] and indeed the form and style in which the map is composed, and the fact that its main body omits reference to any site in mainland Europe, together with its lacking any reference to Jerusalem or to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, also accords with the information about the entrepots from which myrobalans were distributed, and thus inclines me to see an original connection between the source from which the map was obtained by Latins, and that which brought the botanical information.

While I’m inclined to believe the botanical folios passed from Syria to the Latin world, their having been obtained from a “thesauros artis medicae aegyptiacos”  in Cairo or even in Alexandria –  as Baresch believed-  is not impossible in the least, though could not have occurred earlier than about the middle of the eleventh century, and I should date the transmission of the botanical folios to the west – as I’ve said before and often – to not earlier than the middle of the twelfth century.

Readers are referred to the book by Lev and  Amar, where the Arabic and/or Hebrew terms are given, with footnotes following almost every sentence, and which refer to a specific Geniza document, to other comparative material, to specifics of palaeography, prices for particular goods at a given time, to the various forms of script and which were used for a particular purpose etc.etc.  One hopes this may aid those labouring over the text’s written part.

In sum: Myrobalans of the type identified in folio 22r were indeed being brought into Sicily by the mid-eleventh century, and to some within the island  were already so well known that they were specified by type and grade,  the finest was being ordered directly from Jewish contacts in Cairo by 1065, by which time Normans efforts to control the island had begun, but were not to succeed until another six years had passed.

By that time, however, Jewish Sicilians already had a long history in the island and on the mainland in Salerno.  Because time is short, I will quote the wiki article on the last point, but readers are welcome to challenge and investigate the information, of course. I correct a couple of typographical errors in the original:

“An inscription on a tombstone testifies to a Jewish settlement in Salerno, possibly as early as the 3rd or 4th century. By the Middle Ages, the town was known for a medical school founded by Jews around the year 800. Jews are mentioned in town records in 872. The Jewish quarter of Salerno is also mentioned in 1005. When Benjamin of Tudela visited Salerno in 1159, he found 600 Jews living in the area. Because of the persecutions in southern Italy around 1290–94, many Jewish families were forcibly baptized.



[1] The codicological discussion of Beinecke MS 408 identifies two distinct sections or phases in the botanical section. I am not entirely convinced that the argument applies to the section, rather than to the script.   I have yet to discuss the Myrobalans’ inclusion in the Nestorian “Syriac Book of Medicine” which was copied and then translated by Wallis Budge.  The index entries can be seen here.  Wallis Budge’s introductory essay appears in Volume 1, together with the Syriac transcription. (here), but apart from noting that the dimensions of the book are “thirteen and a half inches by nine and a half inches” and that the original was in a fine Syriac hand, Budge offers no comment on the artefact, nor hazards a guess about its date. Internal references show influences from India (especially the content of the Brht Samhita), from Greek and from older Egyptian sources among others.

[2]  I would draw readers’ attention to an important publication later than that by Lev and Amar,  and which treats a multilingual Synonym lists composed by a Provençal writer of the eleventh thirteenth century.  Myrobalans are also mentioned there.  Shem Tov ben Isaak (of Tortosa) (author), and Gerrit Bos and Martina Hussein (eds.), Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov Ben Isaac of Tortosa: ‘Sefer Ha-Shimmush’. Book 29: Part1: Edition and Commentary of List 1 (Hebrew – Arabic – Romance/Latin). Chebulic and ‘yellow’ myrobalans on pp.184-185.  The Book of Asaf, which I had reason to mention briefly (here), is also discussed in the Introduction to the translation of Ben Isaac’s work, with further references given (p.31) In 2012  Ephraim Lev delivered a lecture to the Royal Asiatic Society on the history of the Geniza discoveries  which can be heard and/or downloaded here. He reaches the pharmaceutical matter near -22m. and makes the interesting point that while the main texts are in Arabic, Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, numbers are not rarely written in Coptic. He translates one recipe word by word in the broadcast, nothing that it blends Hebrew and Arabic ‘in a beautiful way’ though if the text of the Voynich manuscript is of a similar kind, I doubt that reactions will be so positive.

[3] I have also had reason to spend some time on the subject of the originally Ptolemaic port, and the landscape pictured on f.72v.  Readers interested in that information should search the name of the port or the folio number for related posts.

[4] I refer here to my original identification of the folio as a map, and detailed analysis of it, which was published through “voynichimagery” piecemeal from 2011.  I find myself unable to recommend, either in general or in any particular, some subsequent efforts made to re-work conclusions mis-interpreted as “an idea” of mine.  The effort to offer an alternative, one which limited the informing matter to the region and culture of Christians in Europe was done badly, for example, by Marco Ponzi in posts to Stephen Bax’ blog, and the later (and still worse) paper by  J Wastl & D.Feger whose writings suggest to me that neither has much background in any relevant field.

A revisionist revisits…Canterbury 3-b i


Like the custodians of Gravina’s Cathedral and the authors of the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1912), any online tourist guide will say that an arm of Thomas Becket is held in an impressive reliquary within the Cathedral, taken there in 1179 by a certain ‘Bishop Roberto’ – yet modern studies of relics’ distribution, and distribution of Becket’s relics in particular, lack any reference to Gravina.  So the question is why, whether or not Becket’s relics are there, a town in the centre of southern Italy, in that region saturated with Greek heritage and from which there had come recently into the Latins’ horizon “an explosion of new [medical learning]”[1] should feel any inclination to admire an English saint, even one associated with healing.

The year in question – 1179 –  was six years after Becket’s canonisation, and more noted for the Third Lateran Council, presided over in that year by  a strongly pro-Norman Pope named Alexander III.  Diplomacy by certain Venetians had reconciled Alexander just two years before to a man he detested, the German king, Frederick Barbarossa, whose ambitions included possession of the Italian peninsula and Sicily.

Frederick’s behaviour suggests an immoderate sense of self-importance, an  egoism so extreme that it defeated his own ambitions, having led to a united front in opposition, composed of the Lombard league, the rulers in Constantinople and the papal states.  Not even the Germanic  “Henry the Lion” would assist him.  Frederick – like a number of his modern biographers –  interpreted the united opposition of the Greek, Latin and Lombard as a “conspiracy” of inferiors, rather than a clear and coherent expression of political and cultural opposition by those representing the major components of the population.  Frederick Barbarossa seems to have been unable to grasp the fact that he was not entitled merely by his genetic inheritance to assume the title “Roman Emperor of the West” but that the title’s having been revived – or more properly ‘exhumed’ and re-invented,  for it was defunct – by the Papacy, so the Papacy might bestow it on whom they chose.   When Alexander did confer that title on Barbarossa,  it  seems only to have removed any last vestige of self-restraint. Frederick wanted control not only in terms of politics, but of religious faith.  We find another instance of his self-regard in a gold reliquary, where his own portrait replaces the usual depiction of the saint, or some other religious scene.  (note, though, this use of  ‘hatching’- characteristic of ornament in monochrome media).


Becket’s immediate and near-universal popularity throughout Europe must be understood in the context of the times, of Barbarossa’s behaviour and its seeming contempt for all others, including God’s  duly elected representative on earth – as the Pope was then believed to be.[2]

Becket’s was murdered for having opposed another dictatorial ruler and he was murdered within the Cathedral, an act of appalling sacrilege by the standards of those times.  It offered a graphic illustration of the way in which secular powers seemed to admit no limits on their decisions and behaviour, and Becket’s being so soon declared a saint offered a way for the common people – usually so powerless before the nobility –  to give public expression to their opinions.  Every church where Becket was venerated,  and to which the people flocked to support his image as an exemplary character – which is what a saint was – made the public statement that not even a monarch should believe his power unlimited,  and that even if the individual was condemned to death for opposing a king, such action was justified by a higher authority still.  Becket was, in effect, a symbol of rebellion against the growing belief among kings that neither religion nor law should affect them.  It is no wonder then, that Henry VIII later had Becket’s remains in Canterbury disinterred and burned – or what he believed were Becket’s bones. Becket had spoken truth to power. For those of the Christian faith, it was a model which (including the consequences of opposing “Caesar”) resonated from the very foundations of their religion.

Becket was not described as “of England” but “of Canterbury”, for   “England” consisted of whatever territory the king carrying that title might claim: Canterbury meant the Cathedral town and its traditions, including an early study of Greek and possibly of Greek medicine first brought by Theodore five centuries earlier than Becket’s time.

And although the king whom Becket opposed was a Norman (Henry II), it was through the ‘Norman’ network that Becket’s reputation and veneration first spread. Our earliest portrait of him is not that in Canterbury, but in Sicily whose continuing Greek heritage is evident in it.

Thomas becket in MonrealeConcerning our current interest in how the west gained materia medica from as far as southeast Asia, including plants which are represented in Beinecke MS 408 and which were available in England by Becket’s time,[3] we need to consider less which  Latins of Europe were fetching goods from Tunis or Alexandria, than the documented fact that such materials were being brought into southern Italy and Sicily before the time of Norman rule.  I would argue that while the  ‘Norman line’ linked Becket to the court of France during his exile, and brought his family and friends to seek refuge in Sicily under William II, so it also carried these materials northwards together with  knowledge of their uses, and thus maintained a still older line of transmission which we associate with the Radhanite period.

Though the notion of a ‘Norman’ hegemony began as a myth promoted by the Normans of France, their efforts and their adding practice to propaganda soon gave it real substance.  So, for example, one of our earliest extant copies of the Sicilian Circa Instans was made in France  (BL MS Harley 270), and is bound with a  rhymed biography of Becket composed as early as 1173 by Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence. It nicely epitomises that line of connection between England, France and the old region of ‘Magna Graecia’ which will offer our best explanation for the otherwise curiously diverse elements in the imagery of Beinecke MS 408.

The medical lore which emerged from Norman Sicily into Latins’ horizons is less well described as ‘new’ medical knowledge than older medical knowledge newly-introduced to the Latins; to identify it with the institution in Salerno is inappropriate. To call it  “Lombardic” is to misrepresent it, and certainly to pretend it could be called “germanic” is nonsensical. Its character and heritage are plain enough from those paired portraits [4] in the Manfredus manuscript.

Here is Hippocrates (as ‘Ypocras’) an Asiatic Greek from Cos, off the ‘astronomers coast’ of Asia Minor, and who is believed to have worshipped as a priest of the god Asclepius, in the temple at Cos. He faces Galen, another Asiatic Greek, from Pergamon.

folio 1v lower Hippocrates and Galen ManfedusThere is the Iberian, Ibn Rushd, known to the Latin as Averroes, who lived under the Caliphate and who is shown with Porphyry, a Semite of Tyre whose name was actually Malchus, which means ‘king’ or ‘messenger’.  Educated in Athens (where he probably gained his sobriquet as allusion to the ‘purple’ of Tyre), Malchus’ philosophy was that which anciently flourished in the south of Magna Graecia: neo-Platonism. Porphyry lived in the mid- to late third century AD.

Averroes and porphyry Manfredus f2r

With its medicine referring to eastern materia medica, this learning which now spread into the Latin world came from the Greek, Jewish, Saracenic and north African.  Its masters were  Asiatic Greeks and Semites, Muslims and Neo-platonists, and a Nestorian who, though apparently abjured by the early fourteenth century among the people with whom Manfredus was associated, had not been dismissed by everyone.

A copy of the Articella was being made in Paris close to when Manfredus was at work on his compilation, and the Paris manuscript show no aversion to Johannites. BL Ms Harley 3140 consists of excerpts from:

A) Johannitius, Isagoge (ff. 2-7); –
B) Galen, Tegni (ff. 7v-21); –
C) Hippocrates, Aphorisms (ff. 21-29); –
D) Hippocrates, Prognostics (ff. 29-32v); –
E) Theophilus, Urines (ff. 32v-37v); –
F) Philaretus, Pulses (ff. 37v-39); –
G) Hippocrates, De regimine acutorum (ff. 39-43v); –
H) Isaac, Urines (ff. 44-67v); –
I) Isaac, Universal Diets (ff. 68-110v); –
J) Isaac, Particular Diets (ff. 110v-137); –
K) Isaac, Fevers (ff. 137-195v); –
L) Constantine, Viaticum (ff. 196-254v); –
M) Nicholas, Antidotary (ff. 255-272v); –
N) Giles of Corbeil, Urines (ff. 273-274v); –
O) Giles of Corbeil, Pulses (ff. 274v-276v).

~ among them are, I should think, those three unnamed figures in Manfredus’ frontispiece.[5]

In the next post, I’ll revisit some of the plant-ids I’ve offered, and demonstrate their having been traded into the south before the Normans ruled there.  To argue that MS Beinecke 408 consists of matter gained and first disseminated in connection with that trade does not require any late date for the content, and the radiocarbon range for the vellum (1405-1438) is, from what we know at present, sufficient as terminus ante quem.



[1] Monica H. Green, ‘The Antidotarium magnum: A Short Description’ revised draft:2 June 2015.

[2] Oldfield offers details on reverence for Becket in southern Italy, also noting the role of France which continued the ‘Norman’ theme under Angevin rule. Paul Paul Oldfield, Sanctity and Pilgrimage in medieval Southern Italy, 1000-1200, p.82. Becket had also sought sanctuary among the canons of Agnani, a papal seat southeast of Rome.

[3] by Becket’s time and even before it.

[4] “Schemes of this type had been widely used and often repeated, as is testified, for instance, by the manuscript of Solinus’s Collectanea rerum memorabilium from the first half of the 14th century (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS C. 246 inf., fol. 51v), in which the busts of as many as seventeen antique writers and scholars are shown in pairs.” Marek Walczak, ‘The Figures on the Sides of the Tomb-Chest of King Casimir the Great: A Reassessment of the Iconography of the Polish Kingdom Reborn’, Transactions of the British Archaeological Association [BAA Trans.], Vol. xxxvii (2014), pp. 48–75. The author of that article also mentions Ewa Sniezynska-Stolotowa, she being one of a number who have offered a theory about the figures around Casimir’s tomb. Rene Zandbergen asked Sniezynska-Stolotowa for comment on the Voynich calendar’s central emblems and was, like Cicero, expressed himself satisfied: pro me satis testium est dictum.

[5] Other manuscript copies at the Brit.Lib.  That page describes Isaac as “Abū Ya’qūb Ishāq ibn Sulaymān al-Isrā’īlī (fl. c.855-932), known to the West as Isaac Judaeus or Isaac Israeli, [sometimes Isaac Isra’ili ben Solomon] a Jewish doctor and philosopher, born in Egypt, migrated to Tunisia and served as physician of the Fatimid caliph ‘Ubayd Allāh al-Mahdī of Kairouan (909-934)”. The name al-Isrā’īlī signifies a connection to Jews who had emigrated from the holy land before the Roman destruction of the Temple and designation of the land as “Judaea”.  From that time, natives of the new Roman province were called “Jews” but the word remained unknown to certain Eastern Jews, who continued to refer to themselves (as had apparently been the norm in the pre-Roman period) as Beni Isroel.  Veit says that Isaac is known as the father of Jewish neo-Platonism.  Raphaela Veit, ‘Isaac Judeus’ in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven Livesey, Faith Wallis (2014) pp.275-6.







Heretics, orthodox and censored content in medieval imagery

There are ‘pictorial annotations’ in medieval Latins’ imagery; some refer to status (as a European crown upon the head of the Jewish king David). Others signal lower status, whether social or theological.

Headwear (apart from a crown) serves that purpose.  Pictorial “annotation” can be literal, but is more than just the literalism of a portrait; it is meant to tell of origins, attitudes, religious beliefs, profession – and any combination of such things.

Below are eight seated physicians, pictured across folios 1v and 2r of the “Manfredus” manuscript.  The most admired are in the lower registers, the less admired in the upper registers.  One figure is plainly to be abhorred, and he sits to the inner margin, on the upper  register of folio 1v – Johannitus.

The four foreigners Manfredus folio 1v four physicians Manfredus 6823 folio 2r

Feet on the ground meant  “A-ok” – checked and approved, theologically speaking.   Ankles crossed meant they were not a Latin Christian – or to all intents and purposes not.

Legs crossed higher, or at the knee(heaven forfend!!) meant a deliberately wayward character, the theological equivalent of which, in this case, is the Nestorian.

folio 1v top two Johannitus Manfredus

In fact, poor Johannites is not only given the “wicked” person’s high-crossed legs; his very speech is written “on its head” – this is how it looks. No mistake about it.

Johannitus Manfredus 1v

In the ‘Mongol century’ the Nestorians served as ambassadors to the west, so their costume wasn’t unknown before the Manfredus manuscript was made.  And the Latin church wasn’t pleased to hear that half the known world had been converted to this other ‘heretic’ form of Christianity.   Take a look at “Johannites” headwear.  Below, a figure from folio 85r, and further below a Mongol costume and 13thC Mongol coin that I’ve shown before.

Johannitus head Manfredus

Partisan detail f.85r

Mongol coin and costume

It’s this sort of thing which, in my opinion, prohibits the content in Beinecke 408 from being a German cultural product or, indeed, a product of any period later than 1440 – and there’s much more than this.

I was going to explain more of the cues built into the pictures of those physicians, but the latest product of Mr.Meme’s “meme-factory” has infected poor Thomas Spande, who has become the latest, and a rather sad example of the “mugger-with-meme” able to think of no productive comment on one’s volume of work, but only parrot the latest mean-nothing ad.hominem while ransacking the research I’ve published online.

He has first ‘adopted’ the material which I published (and he read) about Genoa and the Community of Thomas, simultaneously “rediscovering” a series of my plant ids – as he complains that I have far much to say, in too much detail.

In recognition of his comment, this post leaves out two thirds of the intended commentary.
















Help! (updated)

A classical Latinist has thrown up his hands in despair over an inscription in the ‘Manfredus’ herbal.

Would anyone care to improve on this partial translation, which apparently contains a number of non-classical terms which could not be translated:

I have the partial translation (the Latinist calls it the conglomerate)
  mediana divides into two parts i itheovai (?) q praticae q theovai (?) divides into three q. (often q is short for some pronoun – quo, quorum etc).
If I might make bold to offer a suggestion: I think “mediana” might be “medicina”?  Could it mean something like: Medicine is divided into two partes: first theory (the theoretical) and [then?] the practical, of which the theoretical is divided into three parts. ?)
More interesting, to me, is where the non-standard Latin terms might have come from, and whose medical theory this reflects.  The maker of this folio plainly considers the scheme one promoted by heretical or other persons whom they considered undesirable.
  All comment welcome.
Manfredi herbal script upper left folio 1v
{click to enlarge}











The “heretical” medicine is that of the Nestorian physician, Hunayn ibn Ishâq (809-887), otherwise known as one of the Mesue dynasty, generations of which served as physicians to the Caliphs of Baghdad.  Translation of his work into Latin is traditionally credited to Constantine, called ‘The African’, who first brought these works to the court in Palermo (not Salerno). Constantine arrived as a layman and merchant, whose interest in bringing modern medicine to mainland Europe first led him to bring a collection of medical texts to the court of Palermo, where his translations were begun. He soon passed to the mainland, became a monk, and ended his days in Montecassino.

So much for Constantine.  The thing is that the Nestorian’s name, rendered in Arabic, makes it seem as if Hunayn were might have been a Christianised Jew: John, son of Isaac, a name which Constantine translated as Johannitus, which means the same.  One can see how parts of his work might be considered heretical: he speaks of a person as having three spirits, where the Latin theologians recognised only one ‘spirit’ as soul within any person.  One doubts also whether the population of the Sicilian kingdom, a majority of which were of Greek, Arab, north African, Berber and Jewish descent would have greatly appreciated that theory found in Johannitus’ Isagogue, by which all eye-colours save blue, and all hair-colours save yellow are said to be a product of disease, or more exactly of humoral imbalance.

I’ll explain how the presentation of that sentence, and the accompanying image tell us that wherever the “Manfredus” herbal comes from, this treatise was abjured.

However,  in translation the opening sentence reads:

Medicine is divided into two parts, namely, theory and practice. And of these, theory is further divided into three, that is to say the consideration of things that are natural, and of things that are non-natural (whence comes knowledge of health, disease, and the neutral state), and when these natural things depart from the course of nature – that is, when the four humours depart from the course of nature; and from what cause or symptoms disease may arise.[1]

Which I think pretty much clinches the “who wrote this” bit of the question, don’t you?

Now, since the Isagogue is regularly said to be a foundation text of the Salerno school – at the very least as its second-hand excerpts within the Articella, which collection was presented as “Greek” medicine – so here we see that the “four” traditions of the Salerno school were actually five – the Nestorian subjected to censorship as early as the time of the Manfredus manuscript.   How do I know from this picture that he was “censored”?  Perhaps you can work it out.  (here’s the link, if Gallica permits hot-links.

The four foreigners Manfredus folio 1v
BNF Paris, Lat.6823 folio 1v



[1] Faith Wallis, Medieval Medicine: A Reader, University of Toronto Press, 2010. pp.139ff.

Crackpots, sharks and scholars

With a stunning directness, Nick Pelling said during an interview with the BBC World Service News (here) that the Voynich manuscript is

… kyptonite for academics.. a thing that destroys reputations rather than builds them. People [i.e. scholars] steer away from the Voynich manuscript because if you’re accurate, you still get savaged by people and what can happen is that you just end up falling into a pit of sharks. It’s a bad place for an academic to be. And this really doesn’t suit the Beinecke, I think..

There are really two issues here: one being the destruction of a scholar’s reputation by particular members of the Elasmobranchii and the other that ‘pit of sharks’  per se which will attack any person not conforming to their preferred narrative line, their “theory”.  One way in which the attack is achieved is by never addressing argument or evidence which leads to a conclusion different from the shark’s.  Another is the lower road which responds by ignoring the research while attempting to debase the opponent’s character.  Neither is a means to help elucidate the manuscript.

But from such practices, persons are not exempt simply because they hold a  degree in something-or-other.

The two issues  are united by one common phenomenon: a strange notion that the aim of speaking about this manuscript is less to  better understand it than to triumph in a form of testosterone-driven competition:  “my brain is bigger and more virile than your brain, therefore you will conform to my theory.”

Sharks do not play fair with anyone: not with people who hold a different opinion, nor with their readers.  As example of fair play, let me illustrate from an article by a normal, un-shark like academic. I chose an article about the Book of Kells, because as far as I know, no-one has yet proposed an Irish-Voynich theory:

Paul Meyvaert, ‘The Book of Kells and Iona’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 6-19.

First, he defines the limits to a specific question that he wants to address:

No agreement exists on the place of origin of the Book of Kells: Northumbria, Eastern Scotland, and the monastery of Hy (our lona) have all been suggested. This article explores three new lines of argument, all leading to the island monastery of Hy. ..

Now here’s where we separate the scholars from the sharks.

Fair play.

Suppose that you, the reader, want to know more about that “Eastern Scotland” idea that Meyvaert obviously disagrees with.  If he is a genuine scholar, you should find that he will make a point of naming the original proponent of the other opinion, and will tell you just where you can read their evidence and argument.

and of course, Meyvaert does.  Fairly, fully and in detail in his footnote 6.  He does so with such meticulous detail that it will bore you if I put it here – so it’s at the end of this post.

  • but that’s fair play.

For examples of the opposite in Voynich studies, we can begin as early as the 1940s.

Hugh O’Neill. ‘Botanical Observations on the Voynich MS’, Speculum,Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1944), p. 126.

Hugh O’Neill mentions no previous research or opinion; he omits mention of the fact that he had been told his “sunflower” idea inconsistent with palaeography and codicology before he published!.

While some of the drawings appear to be conventionalized or otherwise altered (perhaps designedly) beyond recognition, other drawings can easily be assigned to one of several species and sometimes to only one species; e.g., fol. 25 is a species of nettle (Urtica) as shown by the opposite, ovate, serrate leaves with the axillary catkins; fol. 100v has a plainly drawn figure of Botrychium Lunaria L. The most startling identification, however, was fol. 93, which is quite plainly the common sunflower, Helianthus annuus L. Six botanists have agreed with me on this determination. This immediately recalls the date 1493, when the seeds of this plant were brought to Europe for the first time (by Columbus on his return from his second voyage). Again fol. 101v shows a drawing which does not resemble any native European fruit, but suggests plainly Capsicum, a genus strictly American in origin, known in Europe only after the above date. Inasmuch as the pages of the Ms. on which these drawings appear have the drawings and accompanying text in a handwriting not obviously different than the other pages, it seems necessary to consider this Ms. as having been written after 1493.

O.Neill may well be right about the ‘Nettle’ picture, but his “sunflower” is untenable, misled his audience and he already knew that well-informed and experienced persons objected to it before the article was published.  His refusal to mention them is pure Voynichero!

Another of similar type was Robert Brumbaugh.  In 1987, and although no botanist, no codicologist or art historian,  but a professor of Philosophy, he wrote an article for the Yale Library in-house journal with a most ambitious title and made all the same mistakes as O’Neill.

Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich Cipher Manuscript: A current report’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 61, No. 3/4 (April 1987), pp. 92-95.

His botanical sources reduce to one: Hugh O’Neill. He chose O’Neill because it suited his own theory, and no alternative views to his own are referenced – not even the obvious “Roger Bacon theory” opinions, and no mention is made of any views opposing O’Neill’s either.

..One strand of the case did unravel. A group of botanists, led by Hugh O’Neill, agreed in identifying four of the plants in the Voynich drawings – two from the first and two from the fourth section – as having first been brought to Europe in 1493. This established the date of composition as the sixteenth century, not the thirteenth. And various other minor illustration details suggested the same attribution. (So, of course, had the suspected role of Kelley and Dee.)

Brumbaugh then moved from mere ‘Voynichero” arrogance to what I’d call the full crack-pot level:

Now, on fol. 100r, there was a drawing of a pepper,[1] and its label gave, with my puzzle numbers, 757752 – just right for PEPPER.[2] Other herbal labels could be read as well, and it turned out that the cipher here was taken from numerology.[3]  Each letter, that is, was assigned a value from 1 to 9 and “enciphered” by its number (remember, however, that each number could be written with either of two designs). What confirmed this was that my cipher box read the names in the second section of the manuscript, which consists of twelve maps of stars: these had no text, but only the star maps. I published an article on the pepper label and one on the first three star maps, with decipherments of the latter. All that remained was to apply the cipher to the text. This gave interesting results at once.

  • For one later evaluation of Brumbaugh’s ideas see Nicholas Pelling, The Curse of the Voynich (2006) pp.158-9.

[1] Here, he should have offered a citation, with details of the person who first said that drawing was of a pepper plant, and specifying which of the various  “pepper” plants he meant.

[2] Here he should have added detail about when the word “pepper” is first found in that particular spelling (orthography), and where. and whether it was then used of the new world capsicum or not.

[3] The reader is entitled to see Brambaugh’s “working-out”.


O’Neill and Brumbaugh were academics, but their attitude to their readers, lack of perspective, lack of interest in any ideas incompatible with their own show that indifference to their readers’ rights, which insults both the readers and those holding contrary but informed opinions adduced from evidence. The “shark” mentality isn’t of recent growth.


In the BBC interview, the interviewer tried a few times to get Pelling to tell the listeners about research into the botanical section. Pelling might have mentioned one or more of, say,  Fr. Theodore Petersen, O’Neill, Torasella, Sherwood, Dana Scott, me or Ellie Velinska, but as it happens the  response he gave might have given listeners the idea that we are all still completely bewildered by those drawings.

Four starsGreat interview, nonetheless and  highly recommended.

Due modesty – a Footnote from: Paul Meyvaert, ‘The Book of Kells and Iona’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 6-19.

6.  I. Henderson, “Pictish Art and the Book of Kells,” Ireland in Early Medieval Europe, ed. D. Whitelock, R. McKitterick, and D. Dumville, Cambridge, 1982, 79-105, on the basis of the points of contact she has discovered between Pictish art and the Book of Kells, has suggested Dunkeld on the east coast of Scotland as a possible place where the Book of Kells could have been produced. Though no evidence survives to show that a vigorous scriptorium ever existed at Dunkeld, the Old English list of saints’ resting places, known as the Secgan – whose two manuscripts date from the 11th century – lists Duncachan (Dunkeld) as the resting place of Columcylle (see D.W. Rollason, “Lists of Saints’ Resting-Places in Anglo-Saxon England,” Anglo-Saxon England, vii, 1987, 87). There is an ancient Scottish chronicle contained, among other items, in the 14th-century Popleton manuscript (Paris, Bibl. Nat. lat. 4126), which records that Kenneth Mac Alpine “septimo anno regni sui [i.e. 849] reliquias sancti Columbae transportavit ad ecclesiam quam construxit” (see M.O. Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, Edinburgh, 1980, 250). The suggestion that the church alluded to here was that of Dunkeld goes back to W.E Skene, Celtic Scotland, I, Edinburgh, 1876, 310, 316. That some relics of Columba were taken to Scotland at the time of the enshrining in the 8th century or at a later period seems very likely.

Mnemonics, devices and “pictorial annotation”

I’m gratified to see that in recent months, some Voynich researchers have taken up the theme that the botanical imagery includes elements intended as memory-prompts.  I believe the first among recent writers to do this is Koen Gheuens, though others including Don Hoffmann have taken it to heart, too.

I would like, though, to emphasise one clear distinction between this newer approach initiated by Koen, and the way in which it had earlier been described in my work: that is, that where I had seen – and still see – such elements as independent of language, and as a direct reference to the plant(s) practical and economic value, Koen and the more recent writers take elements in the imagery which they perceive as having mnemonic purpose, and treat them as cues to items of vocabulary – to names for plants.

That shift in focus, to proposing a textual and linguistic purpose for any mnemonic elements appears to me a substantial difference from my views, which means that while Koen was not first to raise the matter of  ‘pictorial annotations’ in the botanical imagery, his argument is an original one.

For readers wishing to weigh the evidence and relative merits of these views, I thought it might be convenient to have a brief account of my work here to compare with that published by Koen and others.  I’ve reprinted three posts marking the earlier, middle, and later stages of my own discussion.

The first time I mentioned mnemonics in relation to Beinecke MS 408 was in a paper written about folio 25v and initially published  in 2009 courtesy of Nick Pelling. Later (again, courtesy of Nick Pelling) it was transferred to a blog that I had just begun. That post about folio 25v is already reprinted in the present blog.

Reprinting the following three, I’ve added an occasional point of punctuation, corrected one or two typos, removed links that no longer work, and replaced link addresses with a hot link.  I’ve checked the pagination from the older Yale site  against the Beinecke site’s current foliation, but other than that the posts are as  first written and illustrated when published in  “Findings”, a blogger blog now closed to the public (i.e. effectively ‘out of print’ although still copyright, so re-use requires attribution). Any remarks made today are in green.


Monday, July 26, 2010  ~ ‘A Plant: fol. 22r the “Myrobalan” ‘

fol.22r-i Myrobalans cropped

I should like to begin by recommending this link, and in particular its treatment of al-Dinwari’s work:
According to that article, al Dinwari was born in western Iran, studied in Kufa and Basra, and died in Dinawari.

He is called the founder of Arabic botany – by which is meant the corpus of botanical works first composed in the Arabic language.  Al-Dinwari was not an Arab as such, and by the time he wrote – in the 9thC AD – some botanical works earlier produced by Greeks, Indians and Tamils had already been translated into the Arabic script and/or language: – The Ocean of Attainments in particular.

I realise that with the majority of Voynich research being focused on the manuscript’s script, codicology and likely transmission through Europe, work on the origins of its content, and from a study of the imagery alone, may seem irrelevant.

The pleasant part of Voynich research, though, is the way it enables one to match areas of its study to those in which one is personally interested and it is possible to go quite deeply into some of the questions raised by this manuscript without encroaching on others’ work to any noticeable extent.

Study of the manuscript’s botanical drawings is not a particular interest of mine but is, or has been, to scholars including Dana Scott and others listed at Cipher Mysteries and at (Rene Zandberger’s site).

But in a couple of cases I have tried, in these posts, to demonstrate that a diagrammatic quality and mnemonic purpose exists within these drawings: that they were not meant to be as Pliny put it, ‘portraits’ of these plants. Their presentation tells us something more about the time in which the content was first formulated.

fol.22r-i Myrobalans croppedConcerning such drawings, and the mnemonic type generally – in which religious painters of both west and east have long been expert – Mary Carruthers’ works are particularly helpful, touching on the scholarly traditions of medieval Europe.

I believe this picture in fol. 22r is such a drawing, intended as a generic representation of the Myrobalan spp.

Here is why –
The form given these stems does not appear so unusual if you look at the image as a product of the spice-roads’ eastern end, the region in which Buddhism first developed and spread.

The same form as we here see given the stalk or stem echoes the object commonly seen in figures of ‘Healing Buddha’, always held in the figure’s left hand. I think the stems are a conscious prompt to memory of the plant’ uses, the plant associated with the Medicine Buddha being invariably that group known popularly as the Myrobalans.

fol 22r-ii medicine-buddha small

In the detail from fol.22r one sees a cluster or racemes above which is a simple threefold group of buds, or seeds. These, I think represent two distinct types of the myrobalan, the three-fold quality referring to the type depicted in religious imagery.
In the Tibetan tradition, as we see from the figure (below), the Healing Buddha is shown with the myrobalan, and here the sprig – on figure’s right – terminates in just such threefold cluster of buds.

fol 22r-iii the_medicine_buddha_seated_on_doublepetalled_lotus

These associations were encountered in everyday life, so that the form given the usual container, and its association with the plants called Myrobalans seemed obvious. Myrobalans are used in Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine, still, and throughout the same regions where eastern spice plants were anciently grown , to provide for the local and for foreign users.

The corpus of Auyrvedic medicine was finalised about five hundred years earlier than Alexander reached the Indus and is current to this day. (Tibet did not become, officially, a Buddhist kingdom for some centuries after the establishment of the Seleucid kingdom).

Different types of plant are included in the medical Myrobalans. Here, the curiously down-turned pods, or cups are those seen in the Beinecke manuscript. This is the Terminalia belerica, sometimes called the ‘lesser-‘, ‘inferior;’ or ‘bastard-‘ Myrobalan.

fol 22r-iii plant Ayurvedic terminalia-belerica Myrobalan quer

fol 22r detail pods
fol 22r detail pods

The plant is “…reputed to improve immunity and bodily resistance to infectious disease and is therefore used for coughs, sore throats, and eye and skin diseases such as conjunctivitis and leprosy. The preparation Triphala [with 3 types of myrobalan] is widely prescribed for liver disorders and gastrointestinal problems. The seeds are generally used to treat wounds of ruminants.”
The cracked, grey bark of the plant is not used in medicine, and is not depicted in fol.22r. These are not ‘botanical drawings’ in the sense we use that term of our own scientific drawings, but aids to recalling what the person has already learned by heart.

Higher up the stem, in the drawing on fol.22r, we have what appear to be the flowering racemes, or sprays of flowers, and again their arrangement is accurate enough, once we know we are looking at Myrobalans … even if we would expect them to be shown drooping. Showing flowers upturned is a regular convention in these folios.

Terminalia belerica (bastard Myrobalan) "Beddha"
Terminalia belerica (bastard Myrobalan) “Beddha”
fol 22r Myrobalans racemes
fol 22r racemes








A triple-branched myrobalan known as the ‘Arjuna myrobalans’ in the Ayurveda of India is illustrated, and may be compared with a detail from another image of the medicine Buddha.

fol 22r-vi plant Ayurvedic Arjuna myrobalanfol 22r-vii Med-bud-statue detail









Leaves are omitted from the image on fol.22r because they were not necessary in this case; a person trained in medicine, like the person sent to purchase it, needed only to refer to those characteristics that distinguished different grades of a good, and permitted a false product’s being identified before the purchase was made.
[I’ve put up a separate page listing plants used in Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine. See page entitled ‘Botanicals’ – link omitted]

If this topic is an area of interest for you, then you might like this site from among many that are recommended, plant-names being given in a number of languages.

For an Hadith (tradition) concerning the Myrobalan in Muslim lore see this excellent paper:

List of ‘Myrobalans’ according to wikipedia:

Cherry plum myrobalan plum (Prunus cerasifera)

Amla, Amalaki, Emblic myrobalans (Emblica officinalis)
Bibhitaki, Belliric myrobalans (Terminalia bellerica)
Haritaki, Chebulic myrobalans (Terminalia chebula)
Arjuna, Arjun myrobalans (Terminalia arjuna)


Sunday, May 22, 2011 ~ ‘Fol 52r. Arabian cotton (Gossypium herbaceum) and Flax (Linum usitatissimum)’
This time I’ll test the system.VM 52r-i

First – this plant[-group] lacks the ‘circumscription’ mark so we’ll suppose it probably grows freely, or wild.

Secondly – the plants’ habit should show in one case a mass of branches/leaves at ground level, and another a central stem producing multiple leaves or new branches higher, from which a single(?) bloom extends some way above that crown.

Thirdly, its root formation should present much as shown, but including in one or more motifs signifying the plant’s use/s.

The form given the flower or emerging fruit is distinctive in this case, a tipped ball, covered with small spines or prickles and held in a crown-like formation. I am inclined to read it literally.

detail Torchwood f52r-ii

It is also worth noting, with regard to the way the leaves and stem are drawn, a similarity here to the depictions on the wall of Karnak’s Herbal Chamber. It may be no more than coincidence, but is worth keeping in mind.

fol 22r mnemonicThe form devised for the root here I take as a mnemonic (i.e. pictorial annotation) and it suggests – intentionally, I think- a person carrying a torch, or perhaps overall an oil-lamp of the classical kind, so I’d suggest that the plant will yield plentiful seeds whose oil may safely be burned. In addition, that extension rising from one ‘arm’ might be read as a wick, or set of stalks, so it is possible that the plant also provides the fibre needed for the flame, or a wick.

fol 52r-v lamp Roman prob Balkans 1stC ce

I note that the figure so formed also has some similarity to the motif of the female figure holding a ‘cross’ in folio 79v. [Discussed in three earlier posts to Findings – links removed.]

Given the environment posited, and other allusions noted so far, two obvious identifications are cotton, and flax.

Both were widely used well before our period of interest, and for long afterwards; both yield copious oil-seed, and from it oil that was being used in lamps, even before the 3rdC BC. In those aspects, both Gossypium herbaceum (the Arabian cotton plant) and Linum usitatissimum (flax) are comparable to the castor plant, but where the former were also used to produce fibre of a kind used for wicks, castor was not.

I thus identified the reference of the lower set of leaves as Flax, and that of the upper set as G. herbaceum
Flax plant

fol 52r-iii Flax plant“Flax is native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Flax was extensively cultivated in ancient Ethiopia and ancient Egypt. In a prehistoric cave in the Republic of Georgia, dyed fibers have been found dated to 30,000 BC” and they are said to come from the flax plant.  -wiki article, ‘Flax’ –

I think the image probably means to represent both. The stalk and general growth habit recall those of the flax, while the form given the leaves (reminiscent of others whose leaves are shaped like a hand) refers to a primary characteristic of another oil-and-wick plant; the species of wild cotton widely known to Arabia, Egypt and Africa. The form of the flower is devised again to evoke features of both plants. As ever, proximity of natural occurrence, and common purpose for the product are what define plants as ‘related’ in this manuscript –  not modern taxonomic descriptions and classes.

fol 52r-iv Flax flowers botanical
Flax flowers
fol 52r-iii Gossipim herbacium cotton Arabia
Gossypium herbaceum Arabian cotton plant










fol 52r-vii lamp anc India SashwathiMuseum_5882
Oil lamp. Ancient India. Sashwathi Museum.



fol 52r-vi oil Hellenistic lamp 2ndC bce
Oil lamp. Hellenistic. 2ndC BC







Postscript: I might add that the idea of the flame’s use to represent the head is not unknown, though I won’t elaborate here.



March 18th., 2012 ~ ‘Flow chart’, Findings (blogger blog)

I’ve been asked whether or not I start by hunting manuscripts for plants which resemble those in the botanical folios. To say ‘no’ may just seem perverse, or as if I’m relying on imagination. So I thought I’d summarise the points in a list which has evolved over the past three years of my own research, and which has increasingly proved very helpful. These days an identification can take as little as a day, where once it took no less than ten; and that’s one reason why the ‘banana plant’ post includes much less explanation that my old exploration of the ‘sorrels’. I think the turning point came with discovering the structure used to compose the ‘myrobalans’ picture.
Anyway, here’s my present template, as it were. In explaining the system, I’ll refer chiefly to one or other of two posts: that on the Artocarpus and that on the Mangroves, because although neither links to the Theophrastan corpus – no equivalents existed in it – between them these two posts include examples of most points listed below,save the Theophrastan-style of mnemonic device.
Whoever designed, or developed the images in the botanical section did not know the algorithmic (or ‘flow-chart’) method we use today to identify and classify plants, but for all that had a rational and logical approach.
Using the form of leaf, and a plant’s habit, as the basis for classification reflects a style attested in Mediterranean works from the time of Theophrastus, whose works I take as a defining corpus here.
In addition to that basic classification method, various parts of the drawing regularly include ‘cues’ (not ‘clues’) which indicate to the viewer what it is which constitutes the perceived ‘innate similarity’ between plants in the group picture (i.e. picture on a given folio), while simultaneously the same cues can indicate differences between the members in that same group, depicting distinctions which are specific, and sometimes very precise indeed.
I do not believe that I have been able to identify all such ‘cues’ – at least not to the point where I can recognise them with the same precision that they were initially drawn and read.
I haven’t followed up – for example – what I believe to be the differences between the way roots are shown. Indeed, I suspect that it might have been the original user/s habit to take the roots as a separate or complementary classification system. I think I might have better defined the variant forms for roots, and also that I should have considered the classes of leaf-types more closely.
Perhaps the time and opportunity will arise in future.
Here is a fairly rough idea of how the ‘flow-chart’ (as it were) was considered by designer/s and user/s of the original imagery.The pattern has only emerged during the course of the research, so it isn’t an hypothesis so much as a record of observations – and observations which made the task of identification increasingly easier as time went on. Although in all botanical identification, ‘easy’ is a relative term.
1. Leaves… resemble a plant-type (x) from the Theophrastan corpus (Y/N)
if yes then consider the text where Theophrastus explains that plant’s nature and uses before proceeding … to step 2
if no…. to step 2
2. Mnemonic
Is there a detailed mnemonic device at/near the point where root and stem meet?
If yes , consult local names and/or vernacular Latin vocabularies to identify the reference here, and note down that the plant/s in the picture will have those routine associations – if you have rightly read the mnemonic!.. and go to step 3b.If no … to step 3b.
3a. Habitat and Habit.
Where a ground-line is drawn in detail (e.g. the mangroves) it indicates usual habitat:
*water (see posts on water-plants),
*lowland (usually tidal and/or sea-shore – again see mangroves)
*flat, brown, not emphasised – ordinary soil
are among the more common
.. and onwards as below..
3b Is habitat indicated Y/N
If yes the plant will occur in that habitat, and ones not belonging there must be removed from the list of possibilities.
If no, then the plant can be considered not a shore- or water-plant, and any which are can be removed from the list of possibilities.
4. Is the plant cultivated (i.e has it a circumscription mark?) Y/N
If yes , discard from the list any plants which are unknown in cultivation, then move to 5
If no, move to 5.
5. Are the roots drawn ‘flowing’ (e.g. myrobalans)
If yes , the plant is likely to yield an oil and or oily dye, employed for hair or textiles. (‘Likely’ because I have not properly defined the variations of ‘flowing’ – so there’s still a fair margin for error). Go to 7
If no, go to 6.
6. are the roots drawn as withies? (interlaced or interwoven with regular thicknesses – see mangroves post)
If yes , then one use for the plant will be to provide flexible lengths of wood, for such uses as stakes, staves and poles – in addition to any others. Go to 7.
7. Is the habit..
*upright but very slender – a vine or creeper
*upright but thick – tree or tree-like
*spreading from close to ground level – a shrub or shrubby-looking plant
*springing sprouts from a cut bole – at least one member of the group is used for timber (in addition to any other uses).
… and to 8..
8. Are the leaves of a group shown as very similar in shape, and massed, but variegated (e.g. mangroves): Often, tho’ not invariably, this formation indicates a group of plants all of whose leaves have upper and lower sides displaying different colour or tone, perhaps most often (as with mangroves) a silvery appearance which is noticeable at a distance. 9..
9. Are any flowers or buds shown?
If stylised, treat as a mnemonic (see above)
If apparently literal, use as a final test or refinement between species included in the picture, but only after an initial identification for the group by reference to uses, habitat and other indicators. Flowers are generally irrelevant for the classification system here.
..last checks.. go to 10.
10. Anomalies (e.g. the latex detail in the Artocarpus species; the ‘shrimp’ attached to the hook for the fish-taking plants)
Anomalies often point to – I’m tempted to say emphasise – inclusion of one particular plant in the group, as with Artocarpus elasticus, which appears to be considered an essential item among this group, for the person/s who used the work.

After running through these initial checks you should have a basic list of features, criteria which if not all met are likely to invalidate any identification.
So even before seeking out plants at all, you should be able to limit the search by already having..
* a fair idea of where the species, or most members of the group, are likely to occur (geographically speaking);
* a fair idea of the habitat in which at least the prominent members of the group are to be found.
* the group’s salient habit and general appearance, though some members of a shrubby group may differ, as the convolvulus from forms of hibiscus which were perceived as ‘similar’ here.
* whether or not the group is/includes cultivated types or was only known from the wild.
*some of the chief – invariably commercial – uses,
*and, often as not, some allusions to associated lore. (e.g. Peacock trees, ‘clavus’).
So if you know the focus is on the Indian ocean, and you have indications that you are looking for a waterside plant, one whose roots also emerge from the water, and whose roots are used as poles and stakes, whose leaves are similar across the many different types, but all being different on upper and lower surface, and all forming a dense canopy.. well, it wasn’t so hard to identify the mangroves then, especially with the flowers drawn so clear.
But the method is systematic and clear: not necessarily the modern reader’s ability to interpret correctly, as my own posts show, without need to say more.
Still, the system does seems to work – the errors are mine, I’m sure. It’s also possible some species pictured in the botanical folios are now extinct.


POSTSCRIPT (added 21 August 2016): I should have liked to add the post about the “fish-taking” plants, especially, but this is surely long enough. Also, I’m still satisfied with the ‘Myrobalans’ id, but less so by the ‘Flax and cotton’.

A Revisionist revisits… Canterbury Part 3a


Having been born and spent the greater part of his life on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, an elderly man named Theodore came for a time to Rome. There he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in the seventh century and  though Greek and Syriac were his natural languages, and his Latin apparently poor, he set out for Canterbury, and  probably along that great arterial highway of the medieval world which today we call the Via Francigena.  It does not stop at Calais; the water crossing becomes part of that road, then continuing through London to end at Canterbury.

map via Francigena Rome to Calais 990AD
Via Francigena from Rome to Calais (and Canterbury) c.990 AD

It has what is, effectively, a southern continuation from Rome, one passing through the wilder southern region to the port of Brindisi and the old harbour at Tarento, that road known as the via Appia, the most famous of the Roman roads, which brought Greeks and people from the east, and eastern goods too, from before the time of Strabo.  Brindisi is thus the most probable point from which Theodore began his ‘road’ that would end in Canterbury. (click to enlarge)

Via_Appia_map Rome to Brindisi
Rome to Tarento and Brindisi. The Appian Way.

This road offers a practical link between diverse items connected to study of Beinecke MS 408, so I have taken its full length as a unifying motif for this series, whose chief questions relate to the unexpected number of exotic plants referenced in pre-Salernitan antidotaries and, in addition, to mentions of a “Thomas” as authority for medicine in the same antidotaries and, later, of “St.Thomas” in the Vermont ‘Tuscan’ Herbal.

From Egypt – whose influence on the botanical imagery was considered in the previous post – as from Syria, Byzantium or north as far as the Black Sea, entry into the Italian peninsula was most often made in Theodore’s time as it had been in Strabo’s: from Brindisi or Taranto and then upon the Appian Way to Rome.

In a sense, that side of the peninsula like the south, was ever the “foreigner’s coast” and remained so in the thinking of northern Italians well into the modern era.

All the peninsula from south of Cumae and including Sicily, was known as ‘Magna Graecia‘ for the number and prosperity of its Greek cities before the rise of Rome.  Thereafter, Imperial Roma had settled captives from Syria and from Jerusalem around the northern end of the Adriatic, and it was there that the secret of glass-making was practiced by the enslaved and so perforce taught to Roman artisans.

In the south much remained of that older Greek character in the seventh century, and Greek culture under the Byzantines extended still more widely. Theodore went to a Rome where the man elected head of the western church was also Greek. As late as the last decades of the fifteenth century, according to Marsilio Ficino, an ancient Greek dialect was spoken in Lecce in the heel of Italy, Ficino requesting appointment to a parish there in order to study and learn it.[1]

In 965,  Byzantine rule was re- established in the south with the Catepanate of Italy which survived more-or-less until after the Norman conquest of England.  In any case, and regardless of who nominally ruled a given area in the south, the habit continued of settling ‘foreigners’ on the Adriatic side, whether they were traders, or refugees, or even the bones of a ‘foreign’ saint.  A multicultural character and dialects in which the entire history of the regions’ successive conquests, occupations and ethnic variety found its echo made the southern end of the peninsula remarkable then, and to a large extent still does.[2]

Strabo was certainly a Roman. He described the roads in his Geographica a couple of generations before those giants lived who were so revered by  Latin Christian scholarship: Claudius Ptolemy of Egypt, Pliny the Elder from the Celtic region of  Gallia Transpadana, and the Greek Aratus from Sicyon in the Peloponnese. Persons living in areas invaded and conquered by Rome were sometimes permitted to be classed as Roman citizens and persons who were Roman citizens sometimes lived elsewhere, but the term ‘Roman’ is by convention used far more loosely than it might be. Strabo was more nearly contemporary with  eastern Greeks,  whose botanical and herbal works were extracted to make the Juliana Anicia codex in early sixth-century Byzantium, little more than a century before Theodore’s arrival.

From the South..

So, having  said that nearly all travellers  from Greece and from the East arrived through Brindisi, Strabo had then described the way north in detail and because some of these towns, in their modern names, feature in our own way north I will have to risk boring my readers and repeat the text verbatim:

“From thence there are two ways to Rome, the one [the via A. Traiana] adapted only for mules … the other through Tarentum, deviating a little to the left, and going round about a day’s journey, which is called the Appian, and is better adapted for carriages. On this are situated Uria (between Brundusium and Tarentum) and Venusia (mod. Venosa)… Both these roads, starting from Brundusium, meet at Beneventum. Thence to Rome the road is called the Appian, passing through Caudium, Calatia, Capua, and Casilinum, to Sinuessa.  [Sinussia also called Monte Dragone].[3]

This  ‘Voynich studies pilgrimage’ begins in the south, not only because Theodore probably first set foot in mainland Europe at Brindisi, but because late in the twelfth century or the first half of the thirteenth, the reverse journey was taken by another Archbishop of Canterbury – or a part of him.  By the good offices of one ‘Roberto’, Thomas Becket’s arm was brought to Gravina, where Frederick II had recently built a cathedral and his new castle, giving that he had inherited in Montepeloso (modern Irsina) to the Franciscan order at some time between 1209 and 1250.

map detail Venusia Gravina Metaponto Tarento
The south –  Venosa to Taranto; distances;  image of St.Thomas Becket from Canterbury Cathedral [4]
The map above also shows one of the most ancient stops on the via Appia – old Venusia, medieval and modern VENOSA.  Because this was the birthplace of Manfred, born in 1232 to Frederick II and Bianca Lancia (or Lanzia), I’ll make the first “postcard” for this route one which compares an image from Beinecke MS 408 (below, right) with one from BNF Latin 8623 6823, a compilation of herbal and medical matter whose incipit is inscribed  “Manfredus of Monte Imperiale”. It is not believed made or owned by Frederick’s “Manfred” who lived from 1232 – 1266. BNF Latin 8623 6823 is dated 1310-1350.

little tears

The pictures are shown side by side, not to argue that the Voynich image represents the same plant as that labelled Diagridium,  but as a first instance of the way in which any  effort to argue that Voynich botanical imagery is part of the Latin herbal traditions (stemma), will constantly result in no more than a feeling that there is something ‘like’ but that the Latin never really offers a true parallel.

For those who like detail, the Diagridium was sometimes associated with the “little tear” frequently mentioned by the Lydian Greek, Alexander of Tralles (c. 525 – c.605), a common authority in the old antedotaries.  However, Platearius says rather that that “little tear” refers to the sap or gum of a kind of grass that grows in lands “over the sea”. The following note as it appears in  J.L.G Mowat’s edition of Bodleian Selden B.35 a Glossary made in England c.1462 –  evidently from one much older. [5]

Diagridium Alexander of Tralles Platearius etc note from

The next post takes a closer look at the “Manfredus” who made that herbal but with regard to those  pre-Salernitan antidotaries with their large number of non-Mediterranean materia medica, Riddle says:

Some [receipts] have emperors’ names, e. g., Vespasian and Alexander of Macedonia, and other writers of the early middle ages, e. g., Afrodisius, Thomas, Gentilis, Neuclerius, and Eugenius.[6]

… to be continued…



  1. On the same point, I might quote from a more recent source (here):
    … Italo Talia has written: “The same Basilicata dialects distinguish themselves from those of Campania and Puglia by a more accentuated conservation of archaic residues: in the Potenza territory the long Norman, Swabian and Angevin dominations, have barely grazed the Latin lexical patrimony, and in the Matera territory the Greek-classical heritage is more evident than the Byzantine (Talia, 1976, p. 146). Anna M. Compagna attests that the passage from the use of Latin to the vernacular is to be dated from the first decades of the Fifteenth Century and, in fact, it can be surmised that the “lack of an intense communal life in the Kingdom during the Fourteenth Century explains the absence of local vernacular documentary texts, found in such abundance elsewhere” (Compagna, 1983, p.280). Raffaele Nigro has documented a widespread usage, beginning with the Seventeenth Century, of poetic and political texts, but also religious and scientific, written in vernacular (Nigro, 1981).
  2. Again for the linguists: Adam Ledgeway, From Latin to Romance: Morphosyntactic Typology and Change,OUP (2012).
  3. Thus Smith writes in more detail: “Strabo distinctly speaks of the Appian Way as extending, in his time, from Rome to Brundusium; and his description of its course and condition is important. After stating that almost all travellers from Greece and the East used to land at Brundusium, he adds: “From thence there are two ways to Rome, the one adapted only for mules, through the country of the Peucetians, Daunians, and Samnites, to Beneventum, on which are the cities of Egnatia, Caelia, Canusium, and Herdonia; the other through Tarentum, deviating a little to the left, and going round about a day’s journey, which is called the Appian, and is better adapted for carriages. On this are situated Uria (between Brundusium and Tarentum) and Venusia, on the confines of the Samnites and Lucanians. Both these roads, starting from Brundusium, meet at Beneventum. Thence to Rome the road is called the Appian, passing through Caudium, Calatia, Capua, and Casilinum, to Sinuessa [Monte Dragone]. The whole distance from Rome to Brundusium is 360 miles. There is yet a third road, from Rhegium, through the Bruttians and Lucanians, and the lands.of the Samnites to Campania, where it joins the Appian; this passes through the Apennine mountains, and is three or four days’ journey longer than that from Brundusium.” (Strabo, Geographica. Bk6, Ch.3, §7 online) .
  4. From modern Gravina, known to Stabo as Silvium, it is about 15½ kilometers to Irsina, known in medieval times, and until late in the nineteenth century, as Montepeloso. Gravina Cathedral (11th-12th centuries) was built by the Normans in Romanesque style and it houses a splendid reliquary of an arm of the English Thomas Becket, obtained by Bishop Roberto in 1179. The castle at Gravina was destroyed by fires and earthquakes in the mid-15th century.
  5. John Lancaster Gough Mowat, Alphita, a medico-botanical glossary from the Bodleian manuscript, Selden B 35, (1887) (p.50).  I would also note the apology and caveat beginning “The editor finds…”  on  The volume is available online.  Regarding this species, a comment in de Venenis, a work commonly ascribed to Arnold of Vilanova, reads “Species omnes titimalli ut solben seu sene Hyspanie seu mesaira ulcerativa ac necativa”.  For anyone interested in the subject, I highly recommend Michael A. McVaugh, ‘Two Texts One Problem: The Authorship of the Antidotarium and de Venenis attributed to Arnau de Vilanova’, in Josep Perarnau (ed.), Actes de la I Trobada Internacional d’Estudis sobre Arnau de Vilanova, Institut d’Estudis Catalans, Vol.2 (1995), pp.75-95.
  6. John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’,Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198. (p.186). His footnote after ‘..Eugenius’ refers to Henry Sigerist, Studien und Texte zur frümittelalterlichen Rezepliteratur, (Leipzig 1923), pp. 182-4. I first referred to Riddle first some time ago in connection with mention of ‘exotics’ in medieval Europe. The first of the posts published through voynichimagery is dated Jan.25th., 2013, but see especially ‘…”thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” series which begins here; Riddle’s article was fully referenced in Pt2 of that series.


A Revisionist revisits… the matter of Canterbury Pt.2


§ 1.  via Egypt..

The Vermont Tuscan Herbal, as some may recall, is notable for often citing a “St.Thomas” as authority for certain remedies.  There are three “Healing Thomas” figures who might have been meant, or have been believed meant, by the maker of that herbal and because one links England and Italy to southern India via Egypt  – Baresch believing the manuscript’s content Egyptian in some way – this post pauses to consider that  ‘Egyptian’ idea in connection with the botanical section before turning again to medieval England and “Healing Thomas”.

Opportunities for bringing information as well as goods from Egypt to medieval Europe were constant during the medieval centuries; at times the Europeans might fetch the matter as part of any other trade, or while en route to the holy land on pilgrimage.  We hear of Il Sabio’s fetching arcane information from Egypt, just as the earlier European monks had done.  All this apart from spoils of war.

Late in the nineteenth century, when F.A. Gasquet was given access to the Vatican library in order to search for writings by Roger Bacon, he found in Vatican MS 4086 what he concluded was a Prefatory letter to that copy of Opus Maius sent by Bacon to Pope Clement in c.1267.  In it, Bacon speaks of having himself sent out men overseas  to seek ancient and classical works of science, though whether any went to Egypt we do not know.  In terms of medicine, Bacon still regards Matthew Platearius as an eminent authority: “a renowned medical author” as he says.  In Howe’s translation the critical sentence reads: [1]

“Again and again, therefore, I sent messengers overseas, to foreign parts, to gatherings of thoughtful men, so that I might [as it were] see these natural phenomena with my own eyes and put them to the test”. 

Around the time that Beinecke MS 408 was made, or a couple of decades before, an English medical manuscript contains fairly typical Latin drawing in its earlier folios, but later we see plants drawn  not unlike those in the Voynich manuscript and on  folio 76v  a perfect echo of the older Egyptian style in drawing. Roots are omitted from all.

Sloane 335 detail folio
(detail) MS Sloane 335, folio 76v
plant papyrus stalk twined with convolvulus Egypt ref
Papyrus stalk twined with Convolvulus.












In 2008, when I began considering the Beinecke manuscript, I saw no reason to dispute the usual opinion that Georg Baresch knew nothing of the manuscript’s history and was offering nothing but ‘guesses’ in his letter to Athansius Kircher, [2] where he says,

In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

It took some years before my attitude began to change but it happened because so often as I sat reviewing my findings about an image or detail or section, Baresch’s words came again to mind, and seemed to sum up those results perfectly.

After six years, I had come to trust his comments sufficiently that I used them as a form of marker: marking a limit to the range of investigation and as pointer to where I might find appropriate comparative imagery or secondary sources.  But that level of confidence was slow in coming, and a result of finding so often that my own conclusions had been foreshadowed by that paragraph.

Let me offer an example:

One peculiarity of the Voynich images’ construction is a regular, though not rigid, practice of setting flower/fruit at top of the plant and turning it upwards to the sun – regardless of  whether those flower/fruits naturally appear at the top of the plant, or upturned.  Another peculiarity is a use of the area below the stem or trunk to add pictorial annotations (what I have sometimes called “mnemonics”) many taking the form of highly stylized ‘roots’.

Seeking precedents for these very un-Latin customs, I found the first characteristic in botanical imagery from two places: Egypt of the dynastic and Hellenistic periods, and  Buddhist India from the 3rdC BC to about the 3rdC AD.

Barhut Madhya plant sml mine
detail of upturned banana fruit – Barhut Madhya stupa

Intercourse between Hellenistic Egypt and Buddhist India (including southern India) was direct during those same centuries, but similar customs had been in place in Egypt from a much earlier period. In Karnak’s “botanical chamber” (so-called), which was made around the middle of the second millennium BC,  ‘exotic’ plants – native to Syria – were carved to cover the walls of a temple’s atrium. Access to that imagery, we believe, was not especially difficult, and one may still see what remains of it.  The same building contained a sanctuary to Alexander, built by his brother Philip Arrhidaeus (323-316 BC). The  images of these plants have served, therefore, as a constant ‘template in stone’ available to visitors and to scribes now for nearly four thousand years.  (details here)

Karnak garden
partim ex monumentis librorum” – Baresch

If we compare that enduring model to folios from the botanical section in Beinecke MS 408, we see echoes of a closely similar attitude to design and construction of the image; the flower-fruits set at the top; the regular disposition of stem and branch;  a similar indifference to relative proportion of the flower-fruit and the plant’s height and emphasis on the first of those two.  Because the Egyptian imagery is some of the oldest we have, we might posit that the Voynich imagery derives from an Egyptian series, though  other factors including one default page layout for this section indicate a first composition during the Hellenistic period, and certainly not later than the 1st-3rdC AD in my opinion.  Omission of any roots from the Egyptian forms offers a reasonable explanation for why the makers should have felt that area the most natural place to add those ‘pictorial annotations’ to the basic image, and why those annotations or ‘mnemonic devices’ should take the form of such highly stylized roots: the roots were not considered part of the ‘plant-picture’ as such, any more than they are at Karnak.

fol 55r detail
detail from f.55r

I am not arguing that the Voynich botanical folios show the same plants as those in Karnak, but that the first enunciator’s approach to his task shows a similar cast of mind, and similar training and expectations, all the more apt when both sources are representing ‘exotics’: non-Egyptian plants in Karnak, and non-Mediterraean plants in the Voynich folios.

and then we find that beautifully ‘Egyptian’ looking drawing in Sloane 335, along with others which evoke though they do not imitate imagery in Beinecke MS 408.

Insofar as those herbals for which Aldrovandi coined the term ‘Plants of the Alchemists’  also include a kind of ‘pictorial annotation’ at the level of roots, so images in those Latin manuscripts [3]  can be compared with the Voynich imagery, though in terms of style, fluidity, subtlety, lucidity, vividness and plain wit, the Voynich images are to the ‘alchemical herbals’  as the gazelle to the rhinoceros.

Aldrovandi fish

The Latin imagery is stolid, perhaps attempting monumental style, but the draughtsmen are, as it were, all hand and no mind.

I agree, however, that those ‘alchemist plant’ pictures constitute another, if markedly different, use of originally ‘Egyptian’ forms, though I should say the ‘alchemist plants’ are made after study of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica or some such text. Another book of such interpretations  is mentioned by Robert Burton.[4]

For a number of reasons, including use of a default layout seen in the 6thC AD, in the Juliana Anicia codex (c.516AD), and the probability that like the texts copied for that codex,  that layout was found in eastern Greek works of the 2ndC BC to 2ndC AD – a majority dating to c.1stC AD, so the same range is the latest date that I would suggest for first formation of the Voynich botanical ‘pages’ as such, not including folio 9v which I consider anomalous in both content and structure.

My conclusion overall, therefore, was that in the Voynich botanical imagery we see a development from what had been a purely Egyptian style, now affected (as the page layout suggests) by interaction with eastern Hellenistic Greek culture during the period 3rdC BC – 3rdC AD.  A first origin in Alexandria is quite probable, although the Lagids also held territory in southern Asia minor on that ‘astronomer’s coast’ adjacent to the port later known as Ayas or Laiazzo, and the eastern Greek domain in Hellenistic and Roman times extended into the region of Gandhara to c.3rdC AD.

The pictures’  pictorial annotations or ‘mnemonic devices’ when considered together with  other stylistic features and details, led me to conclude further that over the centuries following, that older matter had been retained outside the Mediterranean world, and beyond the influence of the older Greco-Egyptian culture.  The plants identified, their native habitat, and various other details lead me to believe that the place of retention, until about the mid twelfth century AD,  lay  by the maritime routes extending between southeast Asia (or southern China) and the western end of the eastern sea: the “Great Sea” as Ibn Majid calls it.

But study of the  botanical folios was just one strand among those which led me, increasingly,  to diverge from the majority view and believe that, as  Georg Baresch said,

“It is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts . ..”

I doubt that Baresch was correct in his “guess” – which really was a guess – that the whole purpose of the present manuscript is to serve medicine.  Nor do I assume that ‘noble character’ was a Latin European, but someone brought the content in the botanical section into the west and that section did not come earlier than the middle of the twelfth century, in my opinion, and not to the notice of Latin Christians in Europe until rather later again – perhaps as late as the fourteenth century.

So,  while I no longer wonder whether Baresch was indulging his imagination, I  wonder increasingly why so very little serious attention had ever been paid to his views.  He had said already, in the seventeenth century, that the plants were exotics – but even after that letter to Kircher was published online in the 1990s, and brought to notice by Rene Zandbergen, the information was (as so very, very often in Voynich studies) – just ignored.

herbae peregrinae, in Volumine depictae, notitiam hominum in partibus Germaniae subterfugientes“.

  • “the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in [seventeenth-century] Germany.”

I had come to that same conclusion about the plants’ being ‘exotics’ by 2009, and my first paper about it was published online in that year. [5] Entirely  independently,  Mazars and Wiart had reached a not dissimilar opinion, at least about some plants’ not being native to the Mediterranean or Europe. They expressed those opinions in an interview, and were reported for the benefit of Voynich researchers through a post published at ciphermysteries in May 2010.  Neither they, nor I,  had based our opinions on anything other than the imagery, and none of us did so by reference to Baresch or to each other’s work.

I now feel that,  had Baresch’s remarks been paid more attention and the ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ rather less,  study of this manuscript might have progressed earlier, more rapidly and along more appropriate lines than we have seen during the past two decades.  I also think it important that Baresch made no allusion to Roger Bacon, and neither did Baresch’s friends in Rome.

Today,  the reason that Baresch’s  information might be the most accurate of which we have documentary evidence seems obvious enough.  He is the earliest witness certainly to have had the manuscript in his keeping, and his dates suggest he may have received it from Jacub Horcicky or from some person whom Horcicky wished to have it.  Baresch is then the only first-hand witness in a position to have gained, when given the manuscript, any unbroken tradition regarding its origin or history.[6]  Marcus Marci, his friend for forty years, says Baresch spent decades struggling with the imagery and text, and it is clear that Barech relied on more than hypothesis and ‘guesswork’.  He  sought the advice of specialists –  of German botanists who were then the most eminent group in Europe, and of Kircher, who was asserted (not least by Kircher himself) to be conversant with most of the world’s ancient and classical tongues and scripts.

And Baresch had the idea that the content was ‘ancient’ and in some sense Egyptian. (With Panofsky’s original evaluation in mind, I have already considered the possibility that Baresch had misheard or mistranslated the term Mizrahi – meaning ‘eastern Jews’ taking it to be Mitzrayimi  – meaning ‘Egyptians’).

To Zandbergen and those others who spent time gathering information about Rudolf’s court in Prague (1576–1612) and who hunted details from its archives and wrote biographies for many persons associated with that court, or with the Voynich manuscript, we owe the information that Baresch’s first approach to Kircher hadn’t been direct, but had been  made through the Jesuit network. We also learn that Kircher’s response had been fairly classic “Sprague effect”.

This means that Baresch’s letter to Kircher is his second attempt to enlist Kircher’s help, and is written in the knowledge that Kircher was not inclined to be receptive.  Altogether then, I now read Baresch’s ‘hypothetical’ sentences not as an excercise of imagination, but as an effort to suggest diplomatically that Kircher is mistaken in dismissing some provenance given earlier.  For example, I now read “In fact, it is easily conceivable”.. as “In fact (sir!) it is easily conceivable…” and so on. For all its attempt at honeyed flattery of the sort required by Kircher, Baresch’s indignation seeps through in other parts of the same letter. (What I take to be suppressed indignation, Neal takes otherwise).

Baresch was guessing about the overall purpose for the compilation; he says plainly that he guesses it involves medicine. At the same time, it is clear from other letters (also transcribed and translated by Philip Neal) that many understood it was supposed to involve ‘alchemical’ matter of some variety.



[1] The whole document of 17 pages is transcribed in Gasquet’s article.  F.A. Gasquet, ‘An Unpublished Fragment of a Work by Roger Bacon’, English Historical Review, Vol.12 (1897) pp. 494-157. (p.  502).  I have the translation fromthe essay by Woodward and Howe in Jeremiah Hackett (ed.),  Roger Bacon and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1996. (p.200)  I note too that Howe has very generously published a webpage with his translation of  sections from Opus Maius pertinent to Bacon’s geography and cartography. (here).

[2] Philip Neal translated this letter along with others noted by Rene Zandbergen among the letters and documents of the Kircher archive when it was put online.  Neal’s translation, notes and acknowledgements are here.

[3] A similarity first noted, I believe, by Philip Neal.

[4] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.  I regret that this is another item no longer in my library, so I cannot check the reference.

[5] first published in 2009 by the kindness of Nick Pelling on ciphermysteries, subsequently transferred to ‘Findings’ (a blogger blog) where it was published on May 24th., 2010.  I made it available through on closing ‘Findings’ to general readers. I see today, on looking back at the original post, that Dana Scott and not Edith Sherwood was the first to identify 25v as a Dracaena (Dana having seen it as the Mediterranean species which is  now described as D.draco though it was not in medieval times). For the correction on that point, my thanks once again to Nick Pelling.

[6] I understand that Philip Neal, once again, was first to point out that Mnishovsky would not have witnessed the events which he allegedly related.






A Revisionist Revisits the Revisions: the matter of Canterbury

Long before it was proven that Roger Bacon’s hand could not have written Beinecke MS 408, most researchers had abandoned that point in Mnishovsky’s tale – one which had also been maintained by Wilfrid Voynich. It might have been better had researchers abandoned their idea that the manuscript was an original ‘autograph’ whose first composition was evidenced by Beinecke MS 408.

But by then, the idea of the ‘auteur’ had become a fixed idea which neither evidence nor reason appeared able to shift, so that when it became clear that Roger Bacon could not have inscribed these pages, everything associated with Bacon was dropped: by 2008, one could scarcely refer to England, nor to the thirteenth century, nor to Franciscans nor to Bacon – neither his own works nor any which he might have owned – without being accused of attempting to revive the dead donkey of a “Bacon autograph” hypothesis.

As late as 2012 – after I’d been writing for some time about the Franciscans’ role in west-to-east communication, from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries – I learned that most readers of ‘Findings’ thought I was simply behind the times, when I was actually seeking some reason why the eastern influence I had noted in the botanical imagery would appear in a fifteenth-century manuscript probably made in Latin Europe.  I admit that I was also seeking some evidence that the first independent appraisals of the manuscript had not been set aside arbitrarily by Voynich researchers. Until about the time when William Friedman became involved in study of this manuscript, the near-universal consensus of medieval scholars, as of keepers of and dealers in medieval manuscripts had been that the work presented as one of the thirteenth century or so, and none found any obvious objection to the proposal of English provenance – an opinion with which Panofsky’s original assessment, attributing it to southern Sephardi Jews, is not incompatible as I hope I have shown.

I could not think that such weighty opinions could be set aside arbitrarily, especially for so trivial a reason as that Bacon could not have personally inscribed the pages.

But that was the case. A secondary argument, depending upon the assertion that the written part of the text was encrypted, held that no text from the thirteenth century could pose such a problem for cryptanalysts.  Of course, there is also the possibility that one or more thirteenth-century works might be closely copied in the fifteenth century, and the written text then encrypted. That possibility was one among many which seemed never to have been considered – perhaps because the notion of an ‘author’ still filled the horizon.

One item from Wilfrid’s ‘English’ provenance survived a little longer -his assertion that John Dee had carried the manuscript to Prague in about 1586.

Whether  Wilfrid  simply ‘took up’ that idea from Professor William Romaine Newbold’s researches we do not know; Wilfrid was not accustomed to providing his opinions with footnotes. However by 1997 it was known to members of the first Voynich mailing list that this opinion had received some support from an expert in Dee’s somewhat variable handwriting.  Andrew Watson had given it as his opinion that the Arabic numerals used as foliation in Beinecke MS 408 had been written by Dee himself. [1]

This news happened to coincide with the first rise of a variant on a new  ‘continental European’ idea, one which was about to begin its surprising rise to prominence, and to achieve and then maintain a dominance in the field from the early 2000s until very recently indeed.  That variation which we describe as the ‘central European’ idea was so consistently maintained and positively urged through every available avenue, including personal networks and public media, web pages, and comments to blogs – and combined with very public deterrent offered those suggesting an alternative view –  that the original ‘English’ provenance was not so much argued, disproved, or rationally dismantled as swamped into near-oblivion. Though on the face of it still a rational option as source for the manuscript’s content, the ‘English’ hypothesis was spoken of in a tone suggesting it had long been superseded.

That this could happen was  due not least to Wilfrid Voynich’s  having very early conflated the proposal that Dee carried the manuscript to Prague with a rumour known only by attribution to Mnishovsky, that some nameless person, described without reference to any native country, had come to Prague with the manuscript and there allegedly received from the Emperor Rudolf the amount of 600 ducats.

Proponents of the  ‘central European’ hypothesis then argued that since there was no record of Dee’s having received 600 ducats from Rudolf, so Dee could not have brought the manuscript to Prague.  The fact that no-where is there any record of Rudolf’s ever paying such an extraordinary sum for any manuscript tells us only that Dee’s not having received such an amount, either, is unremarkable. It does not disprove the idea that Dee brought the manuscript to Prague, but does add to the number of reasons why one might reasonably doubt the  ‘Mnishovsky rumour’.

Such doubt was evidently not felt by many and the ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ has become the foundation text (as it were) for the ‘central European’ hypothesis, with various subsidiary arguments made for deeming the content in some way a unique expression of Germanic culture.

Not even Marcus Marci, our sole source for what Mnishovsky is supposed to have said, added anything by way of support or so much as suggested that he believed the story.  His tone is offhand; a last fragment of information which, true or not,  refers to the manuscript he is sending Kircher.

It might, theoretically, be entirely true, along with a myriad of other storylines which could, theoretically, find some evidence in support one of these days.

At present it has none.

For the extraordinary amount of credence which is accorded Mnishovsky’s scarcely-believable tale, the most obvious explanation is its reference to royalty, an immediate appeal to that general fascination felt by the public at large.  Mnishovsky’s nameless and featureless ‘traveller’ also offers better elbow-room for those preferring to argue for a continental (and  ‘central European’) storyline.

There is some evidence that Rudolf’s pharmacist-physician may have once have owned the manuscript There is none for the  often-repeated assertion that any interesting book owned by Jakub Horcicky “must have been given him by Rudolf.” It might just as easily have been a gift, or an inherited manuscript, or one which Jakub himself had bought.  His name’s being written on folio 1 does not make it a signature; it might as easily have written by a conscientious man to whom it had once been lent, for Jakub had died unexpectedly after a fall, and even today there are people so scrupulous that they will write the owner’s name in a borrowed book if its return becomes impossible or delay unavoidable. It would not do to be mistaken for a thief.  Georg Baresch also made clear that he was not the owner though the manuscript lay taking up space (as he put it) on his shelves.

As a bookseller, Wilfrid Voynich certainly found association with royalty just as attractive as the idea that Roger Bacon personally inscribed its pages, but while his approach to history-writing is looser than one might hope, and he knew how to tell a sparkling story, there is no evidence to suggest that he would intentionally deceive prospective clients.

He was not a poor provenancer and genuinely believed (as so many others also did) that the manuscript’s appearance, hand and vellum were appropriate for a thirteenth-century, English, and Franciscan provenance.

For one reason, or for another, Voynich researchers having a prominent online presence seemed to preferred the story of the “anonymous traveller given 600 ducats by the Emperor’ to that less remarkable narrative proposed by Newbold, which had Dee give the manuscript directly to Jakub Horcicky.  In terms of sixteenth century courtly manners, this is the more believable scenario, and it should not be forgotten that Dee had spent a considerable part of his life as tutor and scholar advising Elizabeth I.  He would certainly appreciate that an act of generosity to one of Rudolf’s most trusted subjects was more likely to earn the Emperor’s approval than any stranger’s showing him a poor looking manuscript for which the virtual  price-tag was more than a king’s ransom, yet whose script (so far as we know) could be read by no-one in Europe. Rudolf may have been mad, but he was notably careful about where and on what he spent large amounts of money and, in the usual way of monarchs, he left the sordid business of handing over cash and receiving goods to the court administrators, who in turn kept records of what came and went across their desks.  Tomorrow, perhaps, someone will find a copy of receipt, or of payment – but the evidence in support of Mnishovsky’s “600 ducat” story is so far … zero.

There’s a certain unreality, then, about encountering the Mnishovsky rumour everywhere, and seeing it so continually and consistently  urged, and with such apparently authoritative air, as if it were solid fact, that few stop to ask about what evidence informs such certainty.

There is none.

For  the ‘Dee’ scenario, the only item certainly in evidence (for we do not know the details of Newbold’s research nor of Wilfrid’s) is Watson’s opinion.

Today, few believe other than that the present manuscript is most likely to have been made in northern Italy between 1405 and 1438, give or take a little.  The object’s manufacture does not tell us when or where the content originated or evolved.

So overall, the balance of evidence and informed opinion remains, still, with the earlier specialists, who said that the manuscript presents like one made in Iberia ‘or somewhere southern’ and/or in England during the twelfth or thirteenth century.

One obvious way to reconcile these various opinions and facts is to posit that our present manuscript is, essentially, a copy of near-facsimile quality from precedents dating to as early as the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.

This, just by the way, is not my own opinion; I should date the posited exemplars to the time of the Avignon Papacy, but we are talking about the weight of evidence and the cursory dismissal of what had been a generally accepted appraisal of the manuscript’s appearance.

It is time, I think, to re-consider  ‘revisionist’ view which may itself be in need of revision.


So now again to England, but this time not to Oxford but to Canterbury and “Thomas-the-Healer”.





[1] information communicated to the first Voynich mailing list by P.Neal, Tuesday, 28th. January 1997 (search or scroll the page here).