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).


Comparing.. the issue of translating imagery ~ Postscript

Postscript – “Eastern Plants”.
Tiltman provided me with a precedent for recognition of the images as being composite figures, and his tone suggests an opinion accepted by the Friedman group.
However, I had a double-barrelled problem, because the identifications I’d reached and some specific forms used for the imagery, led me to conclude that the plants were very largely ones whose forms remained unknown to Latin European botany until long after Beinecke MS 408 was made.
Tiltman gave no indication of ever thinking the manuscript’s content was other than medieval and European.
Once more, for such precedent as I may cite for my conclusions, I am indebted to Nick Pelling, who had an earlier habit of reviewing as much of the latest writing and thought about the manuscript as he could.
In a post which he had written in 2010, but which I didn’t see until rather later, he had added a last paragraph mentioning an interview that was conducted with two specialists, Guy Mazars and Christophe Wiart, who  had told the interviewer that they recognised( in at least a couple of cases), plants that were east Asian.
It was a very  general sort of precedent because my conclusions had been that the plants were ones which were obtained across the maritime routes between southeast Asia and southern Arabia/Soqotra, where they had specified “East Asian”.
Mazars and Wiart also described the images as single ‘plant-portraits’ but at least I was not entirely alone in having entered what Richard Santacoloma once called derisively the “Asian swamp” saying that none would follow me there!  He was right, in a way; “Steve D” picked up a number of my identifications – too many – but announced them as part of a ‘Voynich herbal’ which was attributed to an imaginary “Italian herbalist” of dubious moral character and weak intellect, I believe.  That, of course, may have changed.
 I should have seen that comment earlier, but apparently I’d stopped reading before I got to that paragraph, until one delightful day some two years and more later.  As the first of my studies to be published, I’d chosen folio 25v, identifying the plant as Dracaena cinnabaris.  I distinctly recall being stunned to read a comment that the ‘work was not original’ because as far as I knew at that time, no-one had ever suggested the botanical section was other than a form of Latin European herbal – but the picture of D. cinnabaris was very clear, and the plant is native to no-where in the world but Soqotra!
However, here’s the paragraph from Pelling’s post, which I hope he won’t mind my quoting.  I want to make clear that his was the only attention paid to this matter until well after I’d published my studies.  These days, mention of  Wiart and Mazars is not so rare.🙂

from:  ‘Voynich Chinese Theories’,, May 14th., 2010

 Incidentally, there’s a little-known interview with  in Actualites en Phytotherapie to be found here (in French) where they propose that many of the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious plants may in fact be East Asian plants (for example, that f6v depicts Ricinus communis) or Indian plants (they think that many of the plants shown are types of Asteraceae, with f27r representing Centella Asiatica). But you’d have to point out that there are also many, many, many plants in the VMs that are unlikely to match anything these (very learned) experts on Indian and East Asian plants have ever seen.
Those authors’ identifying folio 6v as Ricinus communis offers independent agreement with an identification first made by Father Th. Petersen OFM.  In the usual way, a botanical description would mention only the first, but for Voynich studies it is useful to know whether others have agreed, and whether independently or by following an earlier opinion. In order, the same identification is given by Ethel Voynich, Dana Scott, Mazars and Wiart (2006), [Sherwood?], D.N. O’Donovan (2010), and Ellie Velinksa (2012?/13?).


I might add  for those working on the written text, that a secondary reference in folio 6v may be Nephelium lappaceum. The picture draws the lower part of the stem so thick that it should be considered a bole, and the equally solid form and extent shown for the roots seems to me to  appropriate to a tree of some size.   N. lappaceum grows 20 to 30 meters in height.

The wiki article ‘Rambutan’ cites J.F. Morton on the plant’s having been transplanted from southeast Asia to east Africa at some time between the 13thC and the 15thC, apparently by Arab traders.

J.F. Morton, “Rambutan” in Fruits of warm climates. Center for New Crops & Plant Products, Purdue University Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, (1987) pp. 262–265.



Response to request – Illyrian, Illyrican and Dalmatia

I’ve had an email request from Janya asking whether I’ve explored any links to Illyria etc.

List of posts:-

These come up when I search ‘Dalmatia’ in voynichimagery.  The earlier studies, in posts to ‘Findings’, are closed – sorry, but you might like to check in case I included some of that matter in the summaries.

.. some of these posts show the process of research and exploration of some topic or theme that had opened up. Not all represent my final opinion from the evidence found en route..



Another distraction – revisiting the ‘ladies’, Amazons etc.

“One-breasted ladies”

Apart from the metaphor of “Amazonian” torsos, which I intended as a nod to my long-term readers concerning the Black Sea and earlier posts about the imagery in the ‘ladies’ folios, (see brief outline as third section of this post) there is one fairly obvious and simple possibility for the ladies’ having been given a single breast.

Stars were often likened to drops of milk..  Most visible stars are single stars… so one breast each. 🙂

galaxy:  Middle English (originally referring to the Milky Way): via Old French from medieval Latin galaxia, from Greek galaxias (kuklos) ‘milky (vault)’, from gala, galakt- ‘milk’.

I’ve already explained why I consider the first enunciators of the outer tiers  (not the central emblems)  in the calendar section to have been a person who thought in Greek:

see e.g.  posts ‘Folio 70r: Star-hours & months ~ for the mathematicians’, Voynichimagery‘ October 28th., 2012  and briefly reprised in the summary post ‘Boundaries – the ins and outs’, published at, October September 30th., 2013)



But since we’ve raised the subject of Amazons, let’s go there.  I won’t bother you with the whole load of historical and archaeological stuff, but I think a nice introduction, if you have JSTOR is:

E. Baynham, ‘Alexander and the Amazons’, The Classical Quarterly, Vol.51, No.1 (2001) pp. 115-126.

Baynham first refers to the “Amazon” type in legend but quickly moves on to  more solid sources such as Arrian.

All ancient and later writers locate Amazons in Scythian lands near the Black Sea around the Thermodon River  –  the link to the sea making it  part of that network which criss-crossed the Black Sea.   The Amazons are said to have lived inland from the shore  between Sinope and  Trebizond – and Trebizond would be where Gregory Chionades later translated for his Byzantine audience the corrections to Ptolemy’s Tables, completing the work c.1295 AD. (see note in third section of this post, below: ‘Persian Syntaxis’).

Trebizond was among the earliest Greek foundations in the Black Sea, though originally ancillary to Sinope.  After the Roman period Trebizond would be held by, and remain longest, a Byzantine possession.  I’ve written before at some length about these matters in relation to Beinecke MS 408 ( see e.g. the ‘Temple of the Angels’ series of posts at

map Black Sea southwest detail of a map by Michael Angel

Here’s how the region (‘Pontus’)   looked as a Christian diocese by 400 AD.

Black Sea southwest Diocese of Pontus 400_AD


For a neat list of the classical sources, here’s the entry for Thermodon from Smith’s Dictionary of Classical Geography (vol. 2, p.1161).

Thermodon River from Smith Dict Geog Vol2 p1161

From the late 6thC BC to the 4thC BC, Amazons were mentioned regularly by Greeks, something which is of interest given that there was an active Greek network into that region.  A line of ancient Greek towns and cities: termed ‘colonies’  lined the Black Sea’s coast, and a few Phoenician colonies too.

Perhaps their inhabitants invented the Amazons, but there’s nothing impossible about such group’s having existed, even if more recent writers have attempted to claim that the women were only  “lightly-armed auxiliary troops” assisting their men, from the assumption that (a) women couldn’t live without men to tell them what to do and (b) that the society couldn’t possibly have been matriarchal and (c) that women would have had to give up any military activity once they began producing children – except in emergencies.  (I won’t add references for those opinions here).

See however the “Greeks of Pontus” map, covering the 8thC BC – 3rdC BC, courtesy of wiki article here.)

Baynham notes – and how could one not  – that there is a pronounced hostility expressed in the Greek and the Latin literature towards the Amazons, though their way of life is evocative of the Greeks’ Artemis.  One can understand that when any one class of person, and in this case a classical Greek male, finds a universal acceptance in their own world of their being ‘naturally’ one of the dominant class, that offence might be taken when encountering what would appear an inversion of that ‘universal and natural’ order.


Reprise: Astronomical imagery in the ‘Ladies’ Section, the  Black Sea High northern road.

I haven’t yet published anything on the line of transmission to Sephardi Jewish communities of the south-west Mediterranean through the Aegean, of astronomical matter gained from the northern road, from the Black Sea, Maragha and other centres once on the Hellenistic and Persian roads – though  I am strongly inclined to believe that northern route from the Black Sea was that along which which the ‘ladies’ folios came – still bearing evidence of their Hellenistic origin – to medieval Europe.

The centres’ including the  ‘Scales’ would normally date the centres in the calendar series no earlier than the second century AD;  other centre-emblems indicate subsequent re-working to suit more contemporary and (I’d argue) specifically Latin ideas.

The inclusion of the apotropaic ‘splash’ on the feline emblem, the form given the two fishes suggests to me a period of about the tenth century for those emblems, at least, while (by contrast) the archer’s present form argues a re-working even later – I’d say about the  twelfth-to-early fourteenth centuries. If we had a better idea of when bows with the additional roll-lock were first invented, a more exact date might be posited for its final version. Where the central emblems were first enunciated I have no certainty, but I suspect they might come from some source earlier in Fleury and possibly gained from Syria or southern Asia minor.  The outer tiers tell a different story.

As I’ve said in several earlier posts, the ‘ladies’ having an enlarged belly, over-large heads, with exaggerated thighs and yet not rarely – especiall in the ‘bathy-‘ section –  shanks made so thin as to be little more than the thickness of a bone offers a set of characteristics so unusual that I have found them together only in imagery from earlier Kiev, in sculptures generally believed to date from before the region’s conversion to Christianity. fol84v low

pre-Christian deities Kiev. Ascribed to the ?8-9thC AD
pre-Christian deities Kiev. Ascribed to the ?8-9thC AD

However, the Kiev sculptures show the breasts heavy, and the air of heavy ‘guardianship’ which they exude is more akin to the monumental quality of older Egyptian than of any Greek sculpture. Below are some archaeological drawings from the same site.

characters sculpture Kiev

Other regions where we find a Hellenistic root in combination with Scythian presence and an older Persian culture provides other comparable features to those given the ladies.   At the eastern end of that same northern high road, imagery of the Greco-Buddhist, Greco-Bactrian-, and Indo-Scythian periods shows again the enlarged head and very narrow limbs, but now we also see small, pointed breasts.  A particularly good example is provided by the coin shown below, which I’ve noted two or three times before (as, subsequently, did  Koen Gheuens and perhaps other researchers hunting similar forms, for there are very few to be found).

coin Indo-Scythian 1stC AD
coin Indo-Scythian 1stC AD

Astronomical lore and observation across that high northern route, and especially near what was once the eastern boundary of Alexander’s empire, has a history much older than Christianity or Islam, but it was from the observatory of Maragha that there came the information to Trebizond which enabled the Byzantines to update their copies of Ptolemies’ tables.

A separate line of transmission brought astronomical imagery and -tables to the south-western Mediterranean and specifically to the Sephardi or southern Jewish communities.

Thus, one line went via Trebizond and the Byzantine Greeks to finally inform the Latins (early in the early fifteenth century) while an independent one passed via the  northern Jews and the Aegean to Iberia and, more widely, to the Sephardi communities.

From that non-Latin tradition we appear to have matter within  MS Sassoon 823, now in the University of Pennsylvania’s Schoenberg Collection as LJS 57. That manuscript was unknown to Irwin Panofsky, and it offers us evidence that what he called ‘shapely ladies’ – and as astronomical figures – appears earlier in the west than he thought it did.  Their presence led him to suppose they could date from no earlier than the fifteenth century since he knew of no similar forms in Latin Europe before that time.   The  manuscript LJS 57 (formerely MS Sassoon 823) is dated c.1361 AD.

At some future date, I’ll try to find time for a summary post about this issue of non-Latin transmission of scientific evidence to the south-west but at present I don’t want to go too far from the botanical folios and –  to be quite honest –  since whatever I have published online for the past eight years has been regularly adopted without acknowledgement, mis-represented as an “idea” and then re-worked or otherwise misused – when it is used at all –  I’m not so keen as I was to publish everything for the benefit of others online.  These days, having constantly to track back to my first post or mention of some point or other, simply to add a footnote to the work in press to demonstrate that I’m not plagiarising the plagiarists is, frankly, a pain in the neck. Particularly objectionable is the sort of person who reads the original post, picks up the conclusion from the research – sometimes from the extraordinarily egotistical idea that they are entitled to “check and correct” without acknowledgements, and sometimes in order to present it, supposedly as an anonymous “idea”,  to some poor third-party fool who is asked to “investigate the idea” and who then unwittingly launders the stolen goods.  How the study is supposed to advance in such an environment, I cannot imagine, especially when this sort of thing occurs simultaneously with a mad hunt through Voynich archives to find something – anything – which might be revived in order to claim my work is ‘not original’.  Of course, I’m always happy to hear of precedents, whether or not previously aware of them. (And on the matter of letting me know about precedents etc., I once more owe thanks to Nick Pelling for sending me me a copy of his notes to the first mailing-list when he argued the map on f.86v (Beineke foliation 85v-and-86r) to be a city street-map or aerial view, an  idea he later set aside).

So that’s why I’m now keeping back part of my “working out”. Sorry. Anyone keen enough will  be able to fill those gaps by doing a bit of their own research.





An earlier (though not my first) allusion to the statues from Kiev and the imagery from Indo-Scythian regions:-



Entry in Smith’s Dictionary of classical Geography


On the background to the “Persian Syntaxis” a good place to start might be the following,  bfirst published by Springer, now online as a pdf.

Raymond Mercier, ‘Shams al‐Dīn al‐Bukhārī’, in Thomas Hockey (eds.), The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Astronomers, Springer (2007), pp.1047-1048.




Comparing… the issue of translating imagery Pt.3

Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t have said this post would be about how two people have treated this folio, because I hadn’t already considered it, researched it or come to any conclusion about the data. Having no time to do the proper depth of research at present, I can only add an off-the-cuff sketch to illustrate how I go about it and – entirely contrary to my usual practice – I have put the “posited id” first.

In what follows, our different approaches are not just  those of botany versus art-analysis.  Edith sees her task as divining which (single) plant underlies an image which she supposes the original, ‘fanciful’  creation of a renaissance Italian artist, in a work whose model she takes to be that of Latin Europe and its herbal-and-health texts.

Since I accept only the high probability that our present manuscript was made in early fifteenth century Europe, and cannot agree that this imagery shows any sign of first enunciation at that time or by a Latin ‘artist’, my aim is to consider the image, and ‘translate’ its content, stylistics and embedded information into terms (including botanical terms) familiar to readers of the present day.


Below is  Edith Sherwood’s identification for folio 35r.  On her website these pictures are paired just as you see them.  Edith’s accompanying notes – as she says – come from wiki articles and a severely abbreviated on-line version Mrs. Grieves’ Modern Herbal (Edith’s remarks see  here).  Edith offers no explanation of how, or why, she thinks the Italian chicory is the subject of the picture, nor does she offer any analysis of the image-as-image, so I am unable to explain why she thinks the picture would include a leaf-shaped root, nor the stem be drawn so very slender, nor so smooth,  nor why the colours used are not those of the Radiccio (please ignore her mis-typing of Radiccio; no-one makes more typos than I do!).

plant35r Sherwood
I am not sure if this is the identification included in a compilation made with the assistance of “Steve D” and which described the creation of a garden in a place – evidently a fantasy location – and which Steve called “the Villa Voynichi” but Steve also informed members of the mailing list that the compilation would be named the “official Voynich herbal” so perhaps this is also the identification to be found there.
And so that you can get an idea of why opinions about these plants’ identities diverge so widely, here –  just for the sake of the exercise – is the same image used to illustrate how I have learned to approach the analysis of these images, and their research.  Since this is an off-the-cuff proposal, just to give readers an idea of contrasting method,  please don’t mistake it for any final opinion.

Preliminary remarks reflect the results of having completed a full analysis of forty folios – not all of which ended with a final opinion.  Three or four, I felt, did not adequately explain and contextualise every item in a picture, and for that reason ended with the range of possibilities, not a firm conclusion.  In my opinion, since the aim of this work is supposed to be that of assisting those working on the written part of the text, identifications should not be offered too lightly.


I begin from an expectation  – which the research may lead me to think incorrect in a given case, even if it hasn’t so far – that the image on folio 35r will conform  to the same general pattern that emerged from those more detailed analyses.  That is, that the picture will again be a composite image, representing two or more plants which are perceived as forming a ‘plant-group’ by reference to their proximity in their natural habitat, their interchangeable and/or complementary practical uses, and that they were part of eastern trade along the chief sea-lanes that connected southeast Asia (perhaps to as far as southern China) to  the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea.
Resources: analysis of the image will, as I’ve learned, inform me of habit, sometimes of habitat, and which parts of the plant have economic value.  The persons who first designed the imagery (folio 9v being the exception) ignored flowers that had no economic value of their own, and in any case usually set them, as formality, at the top of the plant, facing upwards, regardless of whether that is where they usually appear.   In a sense, one might describe the images as consisting of the essential elements considered necessary for identification ‘in the field’ with pictorial “annotations” included.
Leaves and petiole are accurate when shown and further limit the range of possibilities for identification when they are present. Mnemonics are often, if not always included – a form of ‘annotation’ – these set at the point between stem and root. In addition a set number of formal ‘root’ images  also serve as ‘annotation’ and prompt the reader’s recall of the  group’s commercial uses and thus it’s members’ value.
Within those indicated limits, and given the predictable limits of distribution, one is usually left with less than ten possibilities to research in depth.   That research will normally include historical, ethnographic, botanical and sometimes archaeological evidence: the uses for a plant in the fifteenth century or earlier may well be forgotten now; conversely, modern economic botany may have uses for a plant which had not been discovered in the fifteenth century.
Since I have no time to make a ‘short list’ and then do the research and eliminations,  what follows is an off-the-cuff proposal just for the exercise.  Explanation for this illustration follows.
folio 35r composite
 Analysis and proposed id.
For the common ‘group-principle’ here, I’d suggest the ‘stink’ plants – those which emit a foul odour but were valued for medicine and for food.
The basic form, I’d suggest, comes from Amorphophallus,  A. titarum and/or A. paeoniifolius being among the more likely included.
It is to be expected, in the Voynich manuscript, that anything purple-coloured will be omitted or differently-coloured – which practice is so constant through the botanical folios that I now consider it a cultural marker.
For that reason, use of green for the interior need not trouble us.
Flower: The flower of A. titarum appears only once every seven years and being less often available, a regularly available alternative could be expected to be grouped with that serving as the group’s definition – a model which has been noted in other images from this section previously treated in depth.
I’d then suggest, from the appearance of the “flower” on f.35r, that it represents another ‘stink’ plant named Rafflesia, which grows as parasitic of a native vine – the vine being the reason for the very slender and slightly undulating stem shown here.
In the botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408, an undulating stem always refers to a ‘vine’ – including plants which we might distinguish as scrambler or creeper. I also note a grape-y sort of vine pictured on the reverse of the same folio ~ folio 35v.
While it is true that A. titarum grows on a surprisingly slender stem, it is Rafflesia which certainly uses the vine-stem and especially vines in the genus Tetrastigma (Vitaceae).  I have that last item of information from wiki, but because  this is an initial proposal, not a finished conclusion, that source will do.
I’d suggest, more hypothetically, that Rafflesia might have once been believed the female (flower) form of the same plant(s) among the Amorphophallus, though to check that would take time and access to some fairly early ethnographic and historical studies.
Distribution:  A.titarum and Rafflesia  grow in the same region of southeast Asia.
So –  I’d conclude (for this exercise) that, just as Tiltman said of this folio, that it was constructed as a composite figure, one which includes reference to more than one plant but that those referenced are intelligently grouped, from the basis of having equivalent and/or complementary uses in the region to which they are native, and that (as we’d expect from earlier folios), they naturally occur in close proximity. Their association in the image then reflects that which occurred in reality. The composite becomes an intelligently condensed and visually “annotated” guide to commercial use.
Composite figures:
On this point of composite figures, I note that while I assume that Edith Sherwood is aware of Tiltman’s paper, and know certainly that she is well aware of the botanical analyses’ which I published some time ago, that she makes no reference to either of us having concluded that the imagery is so constructed.
Edith does refer in a general – and somewhat disparaging – way to generic ‘modern botanists’ who,  she says, describe the folios as a “mishmash” ( a very meme-ish word, ‘mishmash’). Since Edith names none, nor cites any, for want of better information, I must cite Edith herself, who says:
Botanists, who examined the VM’s botanical drawings, have dismissed them as a mishmash of flowers and leaves belonging to unrelated plants. The fanciful nature of some drawings makes identification with 21st century plants difficult (link).”
Modern botanists have ignored their work, dismissing these drawings as a mishmash of flowers, leaves and roots belonging to unrelated plants and not worthy of any attention.”(link)
– not terribly helpful, especially given that she does not clarify the sense in which she, or they, mean the term  ‘related’.*
 We may contrast  her tone with that of John Tiltman’s comment on this folio.  His phrase provides a precedent for which I am enormously grateful – and not a little envious, for Tiltman was not obliged to expect after publishing that opinion, any continuing impact on his name or reputation from the “Sprague effect”.

Tiltman had written:

“Plate 8” [folio 35r]: This is an example of the many drawings which appear to be composite and cannot be identified as any one plant..”
John H. Tiltman, The Voynich manuscript, “the most mysterious manuscript in the world” (NSA doc. 631091, published online).p.21.
I have found the groupings of the Voynich botanical folios to be intelligent and informed, a rational form enabling instant cross-reference between plants that occurred in close proximity, whose physical forms are usually similar, and whose traditional uses are invariably found to have been regarded as interchangeable and/or complementary.  For example, Amorphophallus titarum and Rafflesia were valued for food and for similar purpose in medicine.
* It would be a-historical, as well as irrational, for anyone to expect these  drawings to conform to the scientific taxonomic descriptions used today –  and by which we define our present ideas of ‘related’ plants.
Indeed, even today no-one who has studied botanical nomenclature and wrestled with the hydra-headed, eel-like quality of taxonomic descriptions would presume that any given ‘group’ will be defined today exactly as it was last year, or will be next year.  And things were worse even in Europe before Linnaeus.  Theophrastus had believed that a  lettuce and a turnip were not just ‘related’ but were the same plant, a plant which appeared one year as one thing, and another year as the other!  It seems to me that the same habit of mind may inform this image and overall a ‘Theophrastan’ system has been shown to apply to these images where the Dioscoridan and later systems do not.
(Hence I speak of the point between stem and root as the ‘Theophrastan point’ for it was there that Theophrastus believed the constant ‘soul’ – inherent nature – of any plant was found, regardless of apparently diverse forms, or versions.)

Further Questions – the sort I would ask of myself having got so far with this one in a longer list of possibilities …


The corm of the Amorphophallus is not leaf-shaped, as we see the root formed on f.35r.  Perhaps the ‘leaf’ form is an allusion to the native vine on which the Rafflesia depends?  The corm was certainly the part used for food; is there any evidence that the ‘leaf’ which rises from the centre of the corm (or any of the roots) was particularly valued by inhabitants of the regions the plants grew?   Is the  sweetener-flour  made today from the corm of Amorphophallus titarum another of the type,  A. konjac (Thanks Keely),  a traditional food? Is it attested before the advent of modern economic ethno-botany? Do we hear of any similar ‘sweet flour’ being traded during the early or later medieval period? If so did it reach the western Mediterranean?  Do we have record of the name(s) under which it was it traded?
As a rule, this process of research would be engaged for every recognised candidate, and there have been times when the evidence gained during the course of research has left me having to scrap an entire list of possibilities and begin again. If evidence runs counter to theory, the theory is the thing to ignore.

Comparing… the issue of ‘translating’ imagery Pt2

[corrections and additions in green 29/07/2016 AEST]
This post considers the somewhat delicate, but critical issue of the translator in relation to an audience whose reactions may not be purely intellectual, but more human, and the fairly limited set of responses which form the classic model of hostility that inhibits the reception of any translation.
From what I have observed and experienced over the past eight years, and on looking back through the history of this study in an effort to understand why it seems as a whole unable to progress as fields of study normally do, I have come to the opinion that responses which are recognised in other contexts are here again the  principle cause –  most noticeable in this study since  c.2002, after which a shift began to occur, from study by independent scholars in loose association which had been seen earlier to the present situation in which the field is dominated by ‘theory-groups’ among whom certain members consciously exert overt and indirect pressure for the wider ‘community’ to conform.  The “I” of conversation has quietly shifted to a “we” versus “you”.
This post, I know, is very long.  I see no purpose in dividing it, but add a numbered line every so often, as a sort of book-mark.
Whether the ‘translator’ of imagery is a gallery guide, or is working for a private collector or institution, the pattern of negative response, and the reasons for it, need to be understood.  The action of that stock-pattern within Voynich studies is illustrated by instances between the seventeenth century and present day.  It can be predicted that, in a number of readers, the pattern of response to this information will also accord with the model described.
It is not true that information is as good as the source from which we get it; it is as good as the evidence on which it is founded. The person presenting that evidence may be of any social status, any nationality and any personal religious or philosophical group, but history shows that when a person brings to notice information about anything, including a set of images, which runs counter to established and comfortable ideas, the evidence too often becomes irrelevant – because reason is not the first or even third response for a majority of people.
Translating imagery is not mechanical and rarely error-free but it is also not without  risk –  though a professional is aware from the first of the fairly limited set of negative reactions which form the classic negative-response model likely to lead to some form of harm to the translator.  Within the context of Voynich studies, this pattern of response to ‘alien’ ideas and imagery has had a clear and increasing impact on possibilities for genuine advance, particularly after the rise of ‘theory-groups’ since c.2002.
Athanasius Kircher

Confronted with a text whose script, language and imagery he could not immediately understand as he expected to be able to do, Athanasius Kircher responded in the classic, reflexive, way   – displaying hostility without any logical reason for it, making efforts to denigrate the object sent him and to demean the social and intellectual standing of whoever was  responsible for having introduced the disturbing and ‘alien’ item into his  ‘comfort zone’.

Hugh O’Neill

It is seen again in relation to Hugh O’Neill’s supposedly identifying a sunflower among the botanical images.  That identification is usually discounted among Voynich researchers, but remains in circulation on the net and elsewhere. The reason, unacknowledged, is that the period post-1493 and the ‘new world’ constitutes the ‘comfort-zone’ and only area of interest for many.  By contrast, the fact that O’Neill was neither the first to refer to a ‘sunflower’ nor unaware before he published that the identification was untenable is scarcely known.


It is pertinent that Fr. Petersen, who  informed O’Neill of the contrary evidence, was a member of the religious whereas O’Neill was a university-trained botanist: perceptions or assertions of a superior status are inextricable from the set of stock reactions against discomforting information.

Rene Zandbergen’s 20-year collection of past and present researchers’ works recently permitted him to share snippets from two letters that were written to Anne Nill about O’Neill’s ‘sunflower’.

He repeats these sentences:
(From Fr.Petersen – date given as July 27, 1942).
Dear Miss Nill,
I was very much mortified when I saw in yesterday’s “Sunday Star” …. a gabled [read ‘garbled’ -D] report of the short article which Dr. O Neill wrote for the “Speculum” and which has not yet appeared in print. …. Dr. O’Neill has not partially translated the cipher manuscript; nor was he the first to notice that two of the drawings resembled the sunflower and the red pepper. Moreover, if his guesses were to prove correct he would have no right to argue that the MS should be dated at least a century later than Roger Bacon, but he would have to maintain that the MS was 2 ½ centuries later than R. Bacon in which claim no paleographer can support him. ..
The important point is the last phase: “in which claim no palaeographer can support him”.  On learning that, O’Neill was reading an assertion about objective evidence.  Apparently O’Neill didn’t trouble to ask that question which is the touch-stone of the scholar as rational man:  “Is it true?”.  It was, and is, true: a date of 1492 or later is untenable on palaeographic grounds.
Rene quoted part of a second letter, dated December 1st., 1944  including:
I personally am sorry that he wrote that note for the “Speculum”, for I am certain that he is wrong in his conclusion. I have told him many times that he is wrong, that the MS is certainly older [i.e. earlier -D] than 1493. He did not show me his manuscript before he sent it to the “Speculum” …
The second letter has less value.  Anyone can tell another person they are “wrong” – it means nothing of itself.  Given that  O’Neill held formal qualifications in the relevant discipline  and Fr.Petersen did not, that the first would ignore the second could be predicted, unless self-image meant less than academic rigor.
In O’Neill’s case, there is evident a notable lack of intellectual rigor: he is indifferent to the fact that he should acknowledge precedence; indifferent to Fr. Petersen’s information; indifferent to the question of palaeography, and indeed indifferent to anything else about the manuscript except his theory.

Another fine illustration of what the ‘translator’ of unwelcome information and imagery may expect is less likely to stir up the emotions of any reader.


I once sat in on a translation class working through an old religious text. The students were translating a sentence in turn, but one, when his turn came, showed signs of distress, refused to do the translation, picked up his bag and headed for the door.  The lecturer called to ask why he was leaving so early – thinking the boy might be ill – and  the student replied, “that text you gave us – God wouldn’t have said that!”
The moral isn’t that the student was silly; his distress was real. Something had appeared before him which not only offended his idea of “what ‘we’ all know” but his previously secure sense that within that environment he should encounter nothing ‘alien’ had been shattered.
His reaction was, essentially, one of fear, and his responses were made at the primal and emotional level, though expressed in the form of logic (if not reason).
As some readers here may have noted, the student’s outburst carries a sub-text.  It carries a tacit accusation that in bringing the disturbing item to the class, the lecturer had in some sense committed a “wrong” act.   Thus it was not any reasoned critique of the document which the student offered but he impugned the bearer – the ‘translator’ in that sense – and the student’s confident assertion that he knew what the deity would say and not say is another expression of the same assertion of moral, social and/or intellectual superiority as we see in these other cases; it serves to obscure the person’s recognition of their own bias. The same set reactions are observable in Kircher’s responses, and will be see again in Sprague’s.
In some parts of the world today, and certainly within medieval Europe, the student’s reaction to that document might have ended very unhappily for the lecturer.  A person’s being incapable of reasoning does not make them incapable of creating a seemingly logical, or “commonsense”  attack, one appealing to group-think and defining the translator (rather than the object) as ‘alien-and-inferior’.
T.A. Sprague
T.A. Sprague was shown photostat copies of some among the Voynich botanical images by  John Tiltman, who later reported:
 In 1957 I paid visits to a few specialists in early herbals in England. Among them I saw the late Dr.T.A. Sprague in Cheltenham and showed him a few specimen photostats of herbal drawings from the Voynich manuscript, of which he had been previously unaware. As he looked at them he became more and more agitated and eventually said, “Do you know what you are asking me to do? I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”

The set, and the order, of reactions is the same as that student’s, and indeed Kircher’s and others.  A combined assertion of social or intellectual superiority; an attack without reference to evidence upon the image and the person responsible for bringing it to notice.  Sprague’s first focus of attack was Tiltman: “Do you know what you are asking me to do?”

The answer he plainly expects would have Tiltman instantly accepting an inferior stance and status –  by reason of supposed ignorance, poor manners or insensitivity – and saying some such thing as “No I had no idea…  You are important… I am ignorant..foolish.. I apologise for disturbing you..”

In reality, of course, Tiltman had no reason to apologise.  Sprague had been asked if he would assist and had agreed to do so.

In each case – Kircher, the student, and Sprague – we find that a person expecting to have his self-image and his confidence in a given field  enhanced and ratified by a given document or image, instead found himself confronted with something alien to his experience  – so ‘alien’ that he became visibly distressed.  Reasoned comment did not occur. The distress at confronting “the entirely other” was alleviated in the reflexive, emotion-based way, absolutely refusing any objective comment on the script, format, or forms, but only attacking the object and the person who had introduced it.  Like O’Neill,  Sprague had fair reason to feel confident and ‘at home’ when the subject was botany.  Like Kircher, Sprague had reason to feel himself an important person in his chosen field

Sprague did not comment on the quality of the copy; he did not enquire if it might be fake.  He did not suggest that a photograph might be more informative.  Comments of that kind would be reasonable as response to an illegible text or image –  and if the aim were no more than to identify a plant.

Sprague’s responses are of the other sort entirely – first being focused on Tiltman, then shifting (as one might expect) to the person who might have foisted such images on the world: the imagined ‘artist’.   Because Sprague cannot admit his own inability to identify plants, the sense of inability is instantly, and instinctively transferred to that imagined figure, making “awful drawings” ( not an “awful photostat”).   We have seen already how convenient this malleable and mythical individual is, the “incompetent artist” and how its use has enabled decades of Voynich research to avoid any true translation of the imagery in favour of one which will not disturb the prevalent theory: anything and everything beyond their ability to explain might now be attributed (‘Dolly-did-it) to that figment of the imagination, the ‘artist’.  In that way, the plainly ‘alien’ imagery in the Voynich manuscript could continue to be deemed  (to quote “characteristically European”.  Attitudes to the month-roundels is another classic case in point.

At this point, I might remind my readers that the point of this post is to show how such re-actions have adversely affected this study, and positively inhibited advances, as well as to show their effect on particular items interpretation, on researchers and on the field as a whole. The focus, however, is one particular set of human reactions exhibited when faced with unexpected matter and the manuscript, not the individuals referenced. 

The habit was communicated to Jens Sensfelder and affected his conclusions about the Voynich ‘archer’ figure, permitting a Spanish bow to be described as suiting the ‘central European’ theory when in fact and with evidence, the bow plainly opposes it.  Since a colleague allowed that detail to be correctly explained (though involvement in Voynich studies is now so inglorious a pursuit that he refuses to be named in connection with it), the information continues to be ignored and Sensfelder’s more comfortable and theory-suited account is retained.  Pelling responded by trying to represent the evidence and obvious correction to Sensfelder’s account as being in some way hypothetical;  members of the former ‘central European’ (very recently morphed to the ‘Italo-central-European’) theory’  said nothing and ignored the evidence altogether, while not failing in their obligation to express personal hostility towards the bearer. (perhaps we may call this the ‘Sprague reaction’).


The next example, I can only recount, since I made no log entry of the details.

In some non-Voynich forum where the subject of the manuscript was raised, I referred to Sprague’s reaction, saying that it seems to imply that he recognised nothing  – not even a general indication of species. I asked what others might think. One response came within a couple of minutes. Its tone was matter-of-fact and sensible, though a  *sigh* appeared as prelude – a signal to other readers not to take the question seriously, or any further. He then said, as if it were what “we” all know:

Of course Sprague couldn’t recognise the herbal images; he had only looked at the pretty images in the Anicia Juliana codex.

Whether anyone else ever asked, “Is that true?” I don’t know, but of course I did, and here’s the thing:

Sprague (1877-1958) had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist. He also spent time in northern India. He spent forty-five years as a member of staff at  Kew gardens, and fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium. He had retired in 1945, only two years before meeting Tiltman, and had by then spent (literally) decades of his working life classifying and labelling plants  from Europe,  Asia, and the Americas, live specimens, pressed specimens, drawings and paintings both technical and ‘realist’. In addition to that immensely practical and wide-ranging work, his academic research and commentaries on the Dioscoridan corpus  was one area among many explorations of classical and later works that had influenced the Latin herbal tradition.  The research and his regular work had required him to read and compare imagery and labels in Latin, Greek and Arabic and in more than one modern language, over forty years.

So that seemingly well-informed and ‘sensible’ comment was surely by a seasoned ‘Voynichero’ and no more than an invention, prefaced by an expression of hostility and denigration (the *sigh*).  To some it might seem no more than a ‘plausible’ explanation, but being based on no evidence and uttered in such a way, it is a rationalization, the aim of which was to dispel some perceived threat in the question and (of course) to diminish any notice which might be paid the bearer of that ‘alien’ idea which might disturb the comfort of his established beliefs.


One can appreciate his agitation,   for by the time Tiltman spoke with Sprague in 1957, Sprague could be reasonably expected to identify any plant from the European herbal corpus, whether he saw it as a living plant or as a pressed specimen, as a photograph, a photostat or a European-style ‘plant-portrait’.   What stumped him, I’d suggest,  could have been the poor quality of the photo-stats but more than that – that the makers of these pictures did not approach their subject in the way expected by persons who assumed that the Latin herbals were the default.   The implication, then, as I’d argue, is that the plant images looked ‘alien’ to Sprague.. because they are, in content, conception and form. They are ‘alien’ not only to the Latin European tradition, but to all those ‘herbals’ and botanical texts whose images accord with a Dioscoridan principle: viz. the single-plant ‘portrait’.
The fact is that at least seventy years of research-time has been wasted in the endless, circular and always fruitless search through Latin European herbals for ‘similar’ imagery to that in the botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408.  The hunt had to continue within that very limited range of manuscripts (not even extending to other media) for one simple reason: the ‘herbal’ was the only form of plant-book in medieval Europe, and if the images were not a ‘herbal’ they could not be from the European corpus.  That these images’ origin and transmission might not have occurred under the direction of a Latin (i.e. Christian) European was an idea absolutely unacceptable to many, and simply never considered by the majority.  And so that endless and fruitless search continued, through the same few illustrated herbals, for imagery similar to the Voynich imagery – even though such similarities were known not to exist.

Of his own studies and those done by the Friedman group with the aid of experts, John Tiltman had concluded and repeated to the Baltimore Bibliophiles in 1967 before publishing an expanded paper the following year:

I have to admit that to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval
[European] manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed. (p.11)
His omission of the ‘default’ European removes the initial shock from that statement, making it seem more universal a truth than it is.  What he was saying was that no similar imagery existed in the corpus of European plant-books, not even in ones produced as late as the seventeenth century – a fact that the endless and relentless circular seeking has, at least, served to confirm beyond reasonable doubt.
Why did the parameters of research not widen? To widen, they would have had to widen beyond the environment of Latin Europe, and that would have been uncomfortable for a majority and for many reasons, including nationalistic sentiment and attachment to a given theory to which a researcher had devoted time, energy and their self-esteem.
So the problem in Voynich studies – or rather in study apart from technical discussions of the written text –   is that the aim in embarking on this study shifted over time, from a desire to rightly translate the intention of the original, to that of impressing as many others as possible by finding sufficient support for a personal ‘hunch’ (termed ‘theory’) that it might be termed ‘plausible’ and generally adopted, with kudos galore accruing to the ‘master’ cryptanalyst or quasi-historian.
 The primary source’s offering an opposite testimony could be ignored, for the evidence used in support of the theory was chosen at discretion – and to the extent that it could be interpreted as supporting the theory.  At the same time, any item produced or explained as plainly opposing the theory became unwelcome, and no matter how much or how clear that evidence, the ‘Sprague reaction’ met any disturbance of the theory-field.

That any true translation of the botanical imagery will demonstrate the whole content in the manuscript “characteristically European” is impossible; at the same time, the theory that its content is “characteristically European” is so widely espoused and advocated, that it is presently impossible for a majority to abandon it.  The situation threatens to devolve so far that the meaning, purpose, origins and content in this manuscript may well be decided as if by a show of hands –  and the majority of hands remain those within the ‘Italo-central-European theory’ party. Truth by consensus is a not valid principle when a systematic neutralisation of any opposition precedes it.  Even when silent, the dead cannot consent.


I will not tire my readers emotions by listing the way in which dissent is actively pursued and discouraged in this field of endeavour.  Any newcomer will soon notice the use of silence, of memes, of unrelenting attacks when the dissenter offers a comment online, constant assertions that new insights or research are to be deemed ‘not new’; the meme against an interesting new voice that it is ‘just popularist’ and so forth.
I do note that the selective application of acknowledgements is another  ‘weapon’ in this situation, but that is also what one might expect when dispassionate or even intellectual approaches are increasingly less common.   Kircher would never acknowledged Baresch, nor thank him for bringing the manuscript to his notice; Sprague seems not to have thanked Tiltman for doing the same.  That student would have considered it an act of something close to lèse-majesté to have thanked his lecturer. Refusing thanks and acknowledgements is another item forming the ‘Sprague reaction’ – it signals the ‘alien-is-inferior’ thing.
Apart from a handful who display integrity as individuals and as scholars,  and a majority of whom are relatively new to this field and unlikely to stay long if past experience tells us anything, the field has become a sort of sand-pit in which the members act out, singly of in groups, their preferred story-narrative.  The most basic questions are not established but presumed; there is little solid foundation to any of the things that have been repeated generation after generation.  There are some among the amateur theorists, today, who are flicking through medieval herbals, still looking for ‘similar’ images.

Knowing well that already, by the early days of 2011, become subject to the ‘Sprague reaction’, I hesitated to publish my results from analysing a number of the botanical folios, for I had concluded that each image was formed as a composite, showing a perceived ‘plant-group’ as western herbal and botanical imagery never did – nor indeed did the Arabic texts, nor the Byzantine.

I confided this hesitation to Nick Pelling, who then kindly directed me to John Tiltman’s paper of which I’d heard but which I had not read, believing it would be wholly concerned with the written text and its decryption.  But it was then that  I first had the pleasure of reading the comment attached to his “Plate 8” (folio 35r), in which a single line  provided me with that delightful thing, a precedent (albeit discovered afterwards).  The caption reads in part…

This is an example of the many drawings which appear to be composite and cannot be identified as anyone plant.
Concern about one’s own well-being is not unreasonable for the translator of ‘alien’ material, but fear of the material, or of predictable responses to its translation, can waste too much of one’s own time, and undoubtedly has wasted decades of everybody’s time in this study.  The antidote, if I might suggest, is that lovely question, “Is it true?”
In the next post, mainly as light relief,  I’ll show how two persons have treated that folio,  each of them confident of their own qualifications and experience.
(Check your blood-pressure …).

Cautious debate

I can’t resist sharing with my readers the salutary example provided by one astronomer’s robust criticism of another –

Luyten astronomer

W.J. Luyten was no amateur astronomer; many of his theoretical and practical observations are still noted in the literature.  His letter follows the pattern which I think some Voynicheros will find not unfamiliar – characteristic of what happens when one experienced person becomes a little more involved with their self-importance than with the subject in hand, to the point that they may begin to feel it a form of effrontery that anyone should hold an opinion differing from their own.  When one ceases to feel a keen and active interest in new ideas and new approaches to old topics, intellectual advances tend to become ever fewer.

Luyten’s letter of 1940, published in the The Observatory, begins with the usual expressions of incredulity and astonishment that attention should be paid to opinions of which he disapproves.  The Observatory had recently published two papers, each by a person whose opinions Luyten had previously subjected to his scrutiny and dismissed.  The journal’s having then published their papers affronted him – particularly, it seems, because his own criticisms had not been given sufficiently respectful attention.

He says:

To say that such a statement [by Hoyle] would sum up the substance of all criticisms is so manifestly unfair that one is forced to conclude that Mr. Hoyle has not read, or is not interested in criticisms which Hill and myself, and later I alone, have advanced.

Luyten later alludes to an apparent (if indirect) insinuation by Hoyle that Luyten – with or without Hill –  has a ‘medieval’ mindset. Luyten returns the insult in kind:

… evidently the proponents of this catastrophic theory are religious fundamentalists at heart, who are unalterably opposed to the plurality of worlds, and hence also to any theory that does not imply the near-uniqueness of our solar system: in those circumstances a high improbability becomes an asset to the theory and one might even speak of a return to the credio quia absurdum.

Immediately following which, Luyten’s indignation about emotional arguments’ being introduced into a scientific discussion seems a little hollow. He then moves on to disparage Lyttleton for having failed to attend to his maths and … then the [yawn] hackneyed accusation of “irrelevance”:

Lyttleton has made one attempt at calculating what happens when the presumed planetary filament condenses, but his calculations are again irrelevant..

Luyten’s letter runs for three pages, ending with a crescendo of wonderful, rolling prose:

When a theory such as Lyttleton’s in its present form proves to be astrophysically objectionable, as well as dynamically untenable, and is, in addition, superlatively improbable, then I believe we are justified in concluding that it has been removed from the realm of scientific discussion. I shall therefore consider the case as closed until such time as really new arguments, scientifically tenable, may be advanced.


In the longer perspective ..

W.J. Luyten

Luyten had a knack for finding fault with the researches of others … it seemed as though he correlated diplomacy with hypocrisy, which he could not tolerate. I  sometimes jested that you could not be a good astronomer unless you were on Luyten’s blacklist, so many astronomers of his time came under his criticism; some he even described as liars.

~ extracted from the obituary/biography by D. Hoffleit, ‘Self-Styled Curmudgeon, W.J. Luyten 1899-1994’, The Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, vol. 24, no. 1, p. 43-49.

R.A. Lyttleton

Ray (as he was known to all and sundry) Lyttleton was an important figure in British theoretical astronomy. By nature heterodox, his work was yet underpinned by his remarkable command of that most traditional branch of his subject, dynamical astronomy. His fluency in the relevant fields of mathematics served well to give substance to his imaginative outlook as regards the physical aspects of astronomical and geophysical situations. He had an intense dislike of sloppiness, wherever he thought he found any.

If the general herd of his colleagues appeared to him to follow a trend without having properly disproved the alternative, he could be counted on to pursue it with vigour and persistence.

~ from the obit/biography written by Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle for the Royal Society, 1997.

Fred Hoyle

In 1957, Hoyle and Fowler showed that all the elements from which our world is made – from carbon atoms to uranium atoms – had been cooked inside stars eons ago from a basic fuel of hydrogen. These heavy elements were then blasted into space in great stellar explosions called supernovae, where they later congealed into planets, mountains – and humans. We are stardust, in other words.

“There is no doubt that Fowler and Hoyle’s 1957 paper is of Nobel quality and standing,” says Hoyle’s biographer, Simon Mitton, a Cambridge astronomer. “And in terms of understanding the chemical elements, Hoyle made the greater contribution when you compare it with Fowler’s. The latter was a nuclear physicist who provided basic data. Hoyle provided the insights.”  .. [Hoyle] could be cantankerous and opinionated and had offended a large number of influential colleagues unused to his Yorkshire bluntness. He had called some of them liars and cheats in public, while his beliefs, in later life, verged on the lunatic. .. But were they grounds for refusing Hoyle a Nobel prize?”

– from an article by Robin McKie, The Guardian, October 3rd., 2010.

Hoyle and Lyttelton
Hoyle and Lyttleton

“All the world is mad, save thee and me, and even thou art a little strange” –  modern colloquial rendering of Robert Owen’s famous words to William Allen when withdrawing from a venture in common.

Comparing… the issue of translating imagery. Pt 1

Visual language, visual vocabulary and visual ‘characters’.
 Even the more arcane forms of pre-modern European imagery, such as that used in alchemical texts, render individual items in forms immediately legible to Europeans and indeed to most inheritors of Mediterranean culture.  Though the maker’s meaning might be obscure to the viewer, most readers here could be confident of adding a descriptive label to each item in the following picture, and of doing so accurately. That this is possible is because though the pictorial elements speak in code, they take the form, as it were, of  European ‘characters’. The sun is a sun in European style, the stars and the human form (two-headed or not) are easily described. The sphere will be read as referring to a planet, though some will probably mistake the intention of its wings; the dragon is immediately seen as a dragon … and so forth.alchemical imageBy contrast, the Voynich manuscript’s imagery uses a visual vocabulary and grammar which barely intersect with the Latins’,  and any reader knowing no other conventions will be puzzled not only by  what these pictures mean, but what the reader is supposed to be seeing
There is no immediate sense of certainty about any element in it, so that the ‘labels’ initially attached to sections or to details were no more than generalities of the vaguest type:  ‘tube-like things’, or were formed by analogy and imagination:  ‘biological forms’ ‘bathing women’ and so on. (One of the tragi-comic elements in Voynich studies is that such initial admissions of ignorance would come, over the decades, and merely by their repetition, to be mistaken for expressions of certainty).
In the composite below, the image on the lower right has been interpreted as being anything from the Andromeda nebula to the sort of thing one sees in pondwater under a microscope. (The present writer’s opinion is that that diagram represents the rhumbs).
 I’ll turn again to the botanical folios in the next post, but since they show no sign of attempted ‘translation’, I’ll first consider folios from another section, which do. These folios include anthropoform figures (called ‘nymphs’ or ‘ladies’ by Voynich writers) and, in the  present writer’s opinion, this imagery entered medieval Latin Europe from the northern, overland routes from the east rather than through Mesopotamia or direct from Egypt as I hold the botanical and ‘leaves and roots’ sections did. (The body of evidence which led to those conclusions has been presented in earlier posts, accumulating over the past eight years).
In these folios which show affect from efforts at ‘translation’, the changes made did not create any exact counterpart for the original, so does not constitute so much a  genuine ‘translation’ of the original imagery  a loose  ‘rendering‘ or re-definition, enabling it to make a little more ‘sense’ to a Latin European viewer.
In the calendar section, the ‘ladies’ originally had only one breast, and it is telling of the degree to which research has been focussed on arguing a theory rather than studying the object that it took a century and more for this to be noticed.  It was only last year (here) that Nick Pelling made that observation and commented on it.  Those accustomed to the knee-jerk hostility which often greets any reference to potentially non-Latin elements in the manuscript will not be surprised to learn that this observation was met only by comments which attempted to rationalise it into insignificance.  The “all Latin European creation” idea has been floated for so long that there are some who find any contrary evidence or discussion intolerable, unless restricted to an acceptable ‘Arabic’ or ‘Byzantine Greek’ topic.
Pelling also observed, rightly, that there was evidently some lapse in time between the first setting down and those subsequent additions or ‘corrections’. Since Pelling himself accepts the theory of an all-Latin medieval or renaissance authorship, he described these changes as a “later phase or composition[al] pass” ~ where I hold that they mark the point of transition between the sources which held the original imagery, and re-use of it within Latin Europe.
Pelling wrote: Not only were they originally all drawn with a single breast … but many specific details – most notably things such as these three crowns and the tressed head-dresses [better: tressed hair – D]  – were apparently added to the original drawing in a later ‘phase’ or composition pass… What was so wrong with the original unadorned … layer that the author felt compelled to dress it up with additional breasts, as well as crowns and tressed hairstyles?  
one of the crowned figures – one of  the illustrations from Pelling’s original post.
While leaving open the matter of these hairstyles, and what meaning should be attributed to the term “tressed” (why not curling hair, or braided hair?),  I would submit that what was “wrong” with the imagery was that it was unreadable in terms of Latin conventions, its forms not those of the ‘Latin characters’ and conveying no clearly intelligible sense within the environment of Latin Europe.   When that happens, most readers will either fail to “see” telling details in the imagery, or will look blankly at it and say, in effect, “Huh?!” That didn’t happen, if you recall, when the image came from the alchemical corpus.  Mysterious it might have been, and its message obscure, but the forms used for the imagery were intelligible and relatively familiar: dragon, planet, human shape, star-shape, moon, sun… and so forth.
So – once the  ‘Voynich’ copyists had set down the original imagery ,[1] another hand came and began to ‘correct’ it, to re-interpret the older forms for an environment where a very different set of expectations and a different way of seeing were in operation.  Even if the additions had not included a typically European crown among the  three crowns, we might guess from the emphasis placed on these crowns that the person serving as ‘correcter and translator’ had a habit of mind very similar to the Latin European – which is characterised by a compulsion to mark persons, objects and even animals or material things, in such a way that each is assigned a specific position/status with the notional hierarchy of all creation.
In some cases, what Pelling calls the ‘compositional pass’ relied more on the brush than the pen.  Religious or ideological factors are also operating upon the ‘translator’ who seems to serve as both monitor and censor. Below, the detail from folio 79v shows that the draughtsman/copyist had rendered clearly a cruciform object which has an additional peg or similar extension rising from the right-hand crossbar.   That short piece seems to have been removable, for we see a curved socket extending opposite its base, from the underside of that crossbar.
f67v cross high res blog adj What might that object be?  It has no counterpart in any Latin work that I’ve seen, and no comparable object has been produced so far as I know from the Latin, Byzantine or even the Arabic corpus to the time of writing.  After it was drawn, the hand which then set about ‘correcting’ and ‘translating’ the object  added paint to so strongly emphasise the crossbar that one could predict any casual glance  (and much of the glancing done in Voynich studies is fairly casual),  would reflexively ‘read’ the object as the familiar, Latin-style, Christian cross.  To this day many Voynich writers still insist it depicts nothing but a Latin cross, and I have been accused of ‘hallucinating’ those finer details. That is only to be expected: the ‘all-Latin author’ idea has been the dominant one now for a century and in any case without care, natural facility or training the eye naturally slides over – fails to see – details for which there is no counterpart in the viewer’s experience.  Only the Latin cross, by the way, has a single crossbar and a length roughly twice that length.
The process of ‘correcting’ the fishes folio (originally folio 70r, but by the Beinecke library described as folio 70v) proved even more troublesome. I  treated its several stages of revision and correction in 2012 (here).
Again in the calendar section, after using the pen to ensure the females appeared two-breasted in the “proper way”, a decision seems to have been made that this was still insufficient; pigment was then applied in a tertiary stage, so finally ‘translating’ each naked star-soul with an ‘Amazon’ torso into a contemporary European  “lady.”
Fortunately, the work of ‘correction’ was never finished. We can still compare the forms on f.73v, which show the secondary additions made in pen, with those on f.71, where they are now ‘decently dressed’.
details from (top) fols 71v and (lower) 73v
details from Beinecke MS 408 showing stages of attempted ‘translation’. Upper register: corrections in ink on f.71v.
That clothing gave the figures a position in the world-view of contemporary Latins; it denoted status, permitted their being read as ‘normal’ Christian figures, and removed the signs of cultural difference which had informed the original and made them indefinable. Different techniques were employed in other cases to achieve intelligibility for a Latin reader.[6] But while the older imagery now “made sense” for a European Christian audience, the changes would have made the images “mysterious” for the original enunciators. (Ellie Velinska has offered many comparisons for the hats and dresses, examples taken chiefly from German sources).
The Voynich botanical imagery shows no sign of similar effort made; the forms and system of their construction are equally alien to the Latin tradition, and while Touwaide has recently noted some not-dissimilar forms in fifteenth century works, overall I’d say that Tiltman’s comment stands true to this day:
“to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [Latin Christian] mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even the 17th centuries is very limited indeed…”
~ More about the nature of the botanical imagery, and Tiltman, in Part 2 ~


Postscript: since the subject of the female figures remains uncertain, I describe them as ‘anthropoform’ – formed in the shape of a human being.  This is distinct from ‘anthropomorphic’ which refers to beings that are essentially non-human being represented as if they were.  If it should turn out that the star-holding figures these are not (for example) famous characters associated with a star, but are simply personifications for the star, then ‘anthropomorphic’ would apply.


  1.  “faithfully”.. The suggestion that some, at least, of the Voynich folios had been traced was raised more than thirteen years ago in a thread to the first mailing list discussing whether the vellum was translucent.

Science and the Voynichero.

Voynichero, addressing a science class:

V’chero: All matter is made of atoms.

Student: Who discovered that?

V’chero: What does it matter who discovered it, the point is that I’m saying it now and lots of other people say it.  I said it twenty years ago.

Student: But can we read the person who first said it?

V’chero: It is impossible to know certainly who first said it, and anyone who might claim to be the first is mad for glory, so if you want to footnote anyone, footnote my web-page, all right?

Student: yes, sir. I mean, lord, I mean right royal master.

V’chero: right, now – (assumes deeply wise and scholarly air).  Everything on earth has evolved from earlier stuff.

Student: what earlier stuff?

V’chero: really, if you can’t be bothered paying attention to me, there’s no point in paying attention to you.  Henceforth you shall be deemed the “invisible boy” and no-one is to acknowledge your existence.  Is that clear, class?

Class chorus’ timidly: Yes, sir.

V’chero to head bully: Head bully – go smack that one around the head – to encourage the others. And put down that whelk.

(Head bully does so – with alacrity)

V’chero: right.  Now, next topic.  Astronomy.  There are 88 constellations..

Invisible boy: who made the decision it would be 88?

V’chero: Anyone know the answer to that?

Student: Yes, sir. It was….

V’chero: Head bully….!

(Head bully goes to work).

Right class, the correct answer is pretty bleeding simple. What did I say about constellations two seconds ago?

Class: Sir, you said there were 88 constellations.

V’chero: Who said it?

Class: YOU did, sir.

V’chero:  Good to know there are some intelligent lads in the room.

etc. etc.


Interrupting the series – a botanical folio

[18th July 2016.  finally able to edit, correct and add the remaining pictures.]

Anton Alipov, a recent arrival who has quickly earned respect across the spectrum of Voynich studies is preparing two analytical papers, referring to examples of text.  His samples include text from some botanical folios, one being folio 28r.

I treated folio 28r in 2011,  a time when the “lift-and-twist-without-acknowledgements” virus was rampant, and protests unavailing, I decided to close those posts off.

Having sent Anton a copy of that published on Wednesday, December 21st., 2011, I realised that it assumes a lot of matter that had been covered earlier in the series on the original blog.  So here is the text of that post, with the other explanatory matter included. (If you have read anything similar, or seen the same plant referenced by any other Voynichero, do please let me know.)

fol 28r Ensete ventricosum (formerly E. edule; E. edulis) – the “false Banana” of Ethiopia and finger millet (Eleusine coracana)

fol 28r smaller
folio 28r. for large image see Beinecke new scan id 1006128

A custom which had originated in Egypt is occasionally reflected in western herbals, chiefly in illustrating Dracunculus. Parts of a plant which are coloured naturally in the purple-to-black range are omitted.  In the Voynich botanical imagery, the prohibited range is evidently wider: pink-mauve-purple-black.  When the part is not omitted, it is coloured differently – usually by using red or blue.  This isn’t attributable to the final painter’s palette: people knew how to mix red and blue, or to lighten red to a pink.

In folio 28r, this avoidance is also present, affecting the way the head is drawn.

I identify the chief plant in the group as the Ensete though to my knowledge the identification is not only the original, but still the first here.  Western taxonomy originally included Ensete among the Musaceae or true bananas, but now distinguishes it,  just as the original makers knew it should be.  As one would expect, the  drawing on folio 28r does not include the purple-coloured bud-leaves. Below, two views of Ensete superbum. 

banana Ensete_superbum Syn Musa superbum
Ensete Superbum (Roxburgh)

Ensete superbum










Attempting to identify plants in any of the botanical section in Beinecke MS 408 using nothing but photographs would be a foolish thing to do. A constructed image is a qualitatively different thing from a photograph, and the Voynich drawings differ from even the sort of drawing which attempts ‘photographic’ likeness.  The drawings must be approached *as* drawings, and an effort made to read the maker’s ideas and intentions in the image as it is. To use a little jargon, the Voynich images are not “portraits of..” the plant, but “pictures about…” them.

True, learning to read rather than ‘look at’ drawings takes time, effort, training, practice and in this case even historical, ethnographic and other matter.  The aim is to understand the picture from the first maker’s point of view, to understand what he assumed his readers would recognise and how he expected them to interpret what he set on the page.

To show why the photograph is a poor basis from which to make identifications for drawn imagery, let me illustrate by reference to folio 3v – another in which Anton happens to be interested.  I identify the drawing’s subject as the group of Cordylines native to the eastern sea.  All the comparative drawings below, bar one, represent Cordyline fruticosa. None ‘looks like’ the Voynich drawing, but the photographs look nothing like any of the drawings.folio 3v comparisons

C fruticosa pics

In fourteenth century Java, C. fruticosa was (as now) Andong[1] and among the many terms for Cordyline Fruticosa I might mention Dracaena Javaensis, cabbage tree, palm lily and many more.( see those listed at

The Voynich botanical imagery is “constructed’ imagery is the most technical sense.  To understand what the original maker built and what he intended his construction to convey to readers of his own time, the image has to be de-constructed, considered in detail, and each part explained in a way not only consistent with the rest of the image, but by reference to similar forms and/or motifs employed across the full range of this section in the manuscript. Every part of the image (including any mnemonic devices) must be demonstrated as being consistent with the proposed ids – and again by reference to the context suggested by the rest, as well as conventions evidenced across that section.  Well, that’s my approach; I’ve little sympathy with the old habit of being indifferent to geographic, cultural, practical and historical context, or of tossing aside any part of the image found inexplicable by imagining it the maker’s fault: asserting his childishness, incompetence, insanity, or ‘difficulties in drawing’.  I’ve seen no evidence of anything of the sort.  The drawings appear to me admirably intelligent, informative and lucid.

Thdetail fol 28rat the plant’s head should appear without its sheath of purple bud-leaves is understandable, and without them we see it has a form and colour like enough to the appearance of the ensete’s fruit, the end of which is, indeed, red).

One must also take the root-mnemonic into account too. That used on f.28r has been noted in other folios, as for example in folio 13r which shows a group of ‘true bananas’ and includes the striped leaf of the ‘blood banana’ from which beer was made (and still is). On folio 21v it appears with a group that includes hops (I accept Dana Scott’s original identification for that plant).  However, another included in that drawing I’ve identified as the bitter melon – which served an equivalent purpose in the far east.  So that particular root-mnemonic appears to refer to plants used to make brewed drinks –  ‘beers’ –  and we should expect the same is true for folio 28r.  Beers usually begin with some form of grain-mash.

It is certainly true that Ensete ventricosum (x edulis) yields a type of flour, and this has been a staple food in the region of modern Ethiopia  since the third millennium bce. (For those who may feel a slight touch of panic about non-European character for these plants, I might mention that a number of the early Franciscans prepared for a journey east by going to Ethiopia and/or Anatolia).

As an allusion to that ‘false-grain’, the granular pattern given sections of the stem might be explained, for although removal of the bud-leaves could be argued to leave close-set ‘scars’, it couldn’t explain why the pattern appears in other sections of the stem.

Today, the false-grain ‘flour’ of E.ventricosum is gained from the root, but older ethnographic and other accounts show that in earlier times the stem had also been used.   For example, Marcus reported that in Ethiopia in his own time, flour for bread was derived “from the stalk (actually a pseudo-stalk) of Ensete adulis(sic)” adding that “the pulp was …after a complex process..  made into a flour for the bread or porridge still eaten in large parts of southern and southwestern Ethiopia.”

So that use for the stalk  to create a kind of ‘grain’ flour is, I’d suggest, one reason for the peculiar pattern applied in three places to the stem.  Not unlike tapioca, or – more likely – by the model of the typical grain used in the same region: Finger millet, or “Teff”. Ensete and teff are so closely associated in their region, in their complementary uses, that I’d suggest teff another plant referenced by the image on f.28.

Teff Eleusine coracanaRussell wrote of them as a natural pair, as most accounts do:

“[a] grain in just as common use throughout Abyssinia [as the Ensete] is the teff (Poa Abyssinica) [now Eragrostis tef] [from which]  common bread of the country is made ….  From this bread, when fermented with water till the mixture acquires an acid taste, is prepared a kind of beer in general request by the Abyssinians”

So here we have flour-producing ‘grains’ at least one of which was traditionally used for a brewed drink, or ‘beer’.  The group on f.28r appears to be another of those which may have relevance to trade on the east-west routes, but as with others it appears chiefly to do with provisioning the trader’s caravan or ship. Ensete and teff were obtained around the shores of Africa’s east horn – once called the ‘horn’ or ‘cape of Spices’ – and whose ports continued to be major points for importation of eastern products into the west, well into the twentieth century.

Teff is called ‘Nagli’ in some dialects.  So the image, deconstructed, has parts which are intelligible individually, and together when re-constructed.  Consistent not only with the general system used in constructing these images, but consistent across the section, and again consistent with the content and range of the map on folio 86v (now “85v-and-86r”). Their being combined in a single group-image also makes sense; both plants are staples; both occur in proximity to one another; their cultural and practical association is habitual where they grow and even in more recent secondary literature. “Ensete and teff” provided bread and drink. Although we know teff-flour was used to make a form of beer, I have found no record of the same for Ensete: which doesn’t prove that its flour was never used so, but only that no record of it, and no similar practice, apparently survives.

We’ve already had reason to mention Africa’s east horn when considering the form of ‘crown’ worn by the bicorporate creature on folio 34v.  Its ancient Oromo people were called ‘Galla’ by colonial writers, but it is a term considered derogatory by the Oromo themselves.  They are agreed by tradition, historical authors, and by modern DNA tests to be the oldest inhabitants of the east horn of Africa – a “primal people” to use Dante’s words.  Precisely the same implication of a “first people” is, in my opinion, intended by that head-dress in folio 34v.

34v and Oromo crown

I’ve found no reference to Ensete flour’s being used to make a beer, but traditional customs may vanish.  Knowledge even of that flour made from it, which was recorded in the nineteenth century, in 2011 is unknown to Ken Albala:

Until recently teff and ensete were not cultivated anywhere else in the world (but Ethiopia) .. Among the cereals, Teff is most important to the Amhara, though it is highly desirable in the cruisine of much of Ethiopia… All of the cereals are used to make porridge, fermented or unfermented flatbreads, raised breads or hard bread balls carried by travellers. ..Some of the cereals have other uses, for instance in the making of beer (talla)… Next to cereals, Ensete edule .. Although it grows to a height of 43 feet, only the underground shoots and stem are used for food [although] the seeds of the fruit are sometimes boiled and fed to children. ..[2]

But as late as the nineteenth century, other parts of the ensete were those used, and the usage remembered by ethnologists early in the twentieth century. At the time when Bruce wrote,  it was the stem and not the root which was used for food, and he explained that the plant was cut:

” immediately above the small detached roots, and perhaps a foot or two higher, as the plant is of age. You strip the green from the upper part till it becomes white ; when soft, like a turnip well boiled, if eaten with milk or butter, it is the best of all, wholesome, nourishing, and easily digested.”

Quoted by Russell, M., Nubia and Abyssinia: ..Civil History, antiquities, arts, religion, literature and natural history (1901).

Albala is mistaken about finger millet’s being cultivated no-where but Ethiopia. Together with other plants native to that region it was being grown in southern India from the second or third millennium BC.  Ensete was also known more widely.  By the ninth or tenth centuries, some ‘exotics’ were growing about the Mediterranean and it is said that some sort of banana plant is reported in Norman Sicily but I have not seen the original documents, and even if they refer to a banana (as accounts from Muslim Spain do), we cannot be certain whether the plant was one of the true bananas (Musaceae) or an Ensete as  ‘false’ bananaThe Ensete (or Enset) is native to tropical regions of Africa and Asia.


the region traditionally occupied by the ‘Galla’ (Oromo) is said by an encyclopedia of 1913 to have been the region of Healal, lying between the junction of the two Niles and the River Baro. The same source notes that the “Galla are divided into two principal branches, the Borana or Western Galla, and the Barentouma or Eastern Galla, both of them subdivided into numerous tribes. Eventually, about the fifteenth century, they began to invade Abyssinia, where they soon became so powerful that they shared the power with the Negus of Ethiopia. There exist among the Galla other important tribes, some African and some Muslim…” (Arab?)

As its association with Java or Madagascar suggests, C. fruticosa and C. gloriosa are native to the same part of the world, and a maritime context is suggested by that alone, but also by the reference made (f.25v) to  Dracaena cinnabari which is found nowhere but Soqotra, along the same line of sailing in medieval and later times. Soqotra, like Java, were most important trading ports, and points of transfer from traders of the eastern to those of the western sphere throughout the medieval and early modern times.

[1] On the fourteenth century see Theodore G.Th. Pigeaud, Java in the 14th Century: A Study in Cultural History (2013), p.36. Medicinal uses are listed in a modern site, here. Cultural associations referenced by Helen Creese, Women of the Kakawin World: Marriage and Sexuality in the Indic Courts of Java and Bali (2015) pp.142-3.

[2] Ken Albala (ed.), Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia [4 volumes], (2011), pp.61-62.

Additional references.
A number of blogs by archaeologists, ethnologists and others provide useful and rare information about the animals and customs of regions within Africa or the east sea. On the topic of cultivated plants, for example see:

Comparing… 3c-i (concluded)

[ continuing from 3c-1, and with reference to B.L. MS Egerton 747, folio 6v…]

In its native India, S.anacardium is known as  the ‘Varnish tree’ and its nut as the ‘Marking Nut’ (as I first mentioned here some years ago).[6]   Chiefly used as a kind of chalk in carpentry and in textile processes, the nut is also mentioned in Avyurvedic and Siddha texts, whence it entered Chinese traditional medicine. One must suppose knowledge of its medicinal use then came to Latin Europe from one of those three medical traditions, and it was certainly known to thirteenth century England, for it figures among Roger Bacon’s materia medica. By the fourteenth century, it appears illustrated in Egerton 747, and fairly surprisingly, the picture isn’t too bad, although only the nut might have been drawn directly from life.

detail marker nut Egerton 747 f.6vbotanical marker nut fruit







One sees how well the sparse fruiting branch is represented and the rounded end for leaves is correct, even if the leaves’ form overall,  their disposition, density and the plant’s habit are not. [7]

Anacardium orientale detail nutsbotanical art Marker nut











When exotics are represented even as well as in MS Egerton 747, in a region where the  majority could never have seen the living plant, then we must suppose some effort taken to introduce  ‘foreign’ imagery and/or information into the scriptorium.  Persons without training in the conventions which governed the manufacture of Latin manuscripts, or persons whose cultural traditions were quite other were not likely to be invited impromptu by the master of the scriptorium to add a few pictures, or to sit and chat about trees (as Poggio Bracciolini would later try, and fail to do) – not without some external pressure.  The most likely motive force is a patron, wishing to have exotics illustrated, not any artistic flowering within the Latin scribal tradition itself.  There is also evidence of this ‘foreign element” in  other Latin herbals, but let me illustrate first by reference to Egerton 747:

Folio 8r is a model page.  After the scribe had prepared it, ruled it out and made the page into the usual two columns, allowing the painter more space than earlier works had done, the painter then co-operated, and worked to the instructions implicit in the prepared page, apart from any explicit ones.  All well and good –  the scribes received what they had expected to receive from the painters.

BL MS Egerton 747 folio 8
Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 747 folio 8r

On folio 16v, however, white Bryony riots about the lower part of the page, ignoring the box, the margins, the expected size for the picture, and even the scribe’s writing-area.

detail BL MS Egerton 727 fol16v

At the very least,  irritation would have followed, if not uproar.  Perhaps that seems unlikely today, but perhaps you’ve never seen what happens when you to write across pigment with a fountain pen.  The residue turns the script ‘fuzzy’ and if too much is scraped up by the pen, the ink stops running.  With a quill, the edge would have roughened rapidly and the nib needed constant trimming. Polishing the pigment’s surface would only lead to a lack of sufficient ‘grip’ for ink upon the substrate.  Indeed, one marvels at the perfection of the finished text here.  But no similar image appears on any subsequent folio – so I think we may conclude that the medieval scribes had quite failed to appreciate such exuberance on the painter’s part.  But why had it happened? I’d say the painter was simply a painter, brought in or working ‘piecework’ for his skill in the emerging ‘naturalist’ style but had no prior training in manuscript-production, and/or lacked a proper sense of his traditionally-inferior status.  Fine painter, though.

Any illuminator who’d been apprenticed at that time knew his place – in every sense.  A modern reader’s aesthetic sense may find the Bryony attractive, but our sensibility isn’t that of a fourteenth-century scribe. The Anicia Juliana’s blackberry – to which we might liken the image – was unknown to Latin Europe so far as we know.   Nor was Bryony an exotic; it is native to Europe, Eurasia and northern Iran. So the painter’s being a ‘foreign element’ within the scriptorium doesn’t make him a non-Latin.  Perhaps the patron wanted this painter given work, but perhaps it also had something to do with the changing status of the painter in Italy at that time – the artisan was being transformed into the renaissance image of an “artist”.  Other examples of rebellion occur – even in the very staid-looking Carrara Herbal.  But sources of information about the look of exotic plants cannot have been many; so in having to call upon outsiders to describe, or sometimes even to depict those plants, not only rebels, but non-Latins may have been invited.  The legend has it that the medical school in Salerno was founded on the wisdom of Greek, Jew and Muslim.  Metaphorically true or actually true, the traditions of Salerno were anything but Germanic in origin.(see postscript 1).


  1. It has been brought to notice that some Voynich writers think  Salerno was .. “the site of the first medical school in the world.” It is not so, and that anyone should think it in an age of free libraries and the internet is astonishing.
  2. my attention was drawn to a comment made (not to my blog but to another online site), informing readers that  Dana Scott once attempted to begin a discussion about similarities he perceived between the Vermont Tuscan herbal and Beinecke MS 408. Unfortunately, that remark by Dana had led to nothing more – the next contributer immediately de-railing the conversation to his own theory –  so exactly what Dana thought, or said, or what he might have wanted to say,  I cannot tell you.  Since he appears to have never been able to expand on his first thought, I suppose I may be the first to have investigated the issue in any detail.



[1] See Michael C. Howard, Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel, (2012)  and Steven E. Sidebotham, Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route (2011) p.240.  It may be as well here to remind readers as Howard does, quoting Casson, that  “the people who manned those [Roman] ships were not Romans; they were Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Syrians, Slavs..” in quoting which Howard adds that most of the masters (‘officers’) were Greek. I find it fascinating that the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 should reflect formative influences chiefly from the same five, though the Slavic influence is least prominent.

[2] Bartholomaei Mini de Senis – Tractatus de herbis (Herbal); De Simplici Medicina ; Platearius –  Circa instans; Nicolaus of Salerno- Antidotarium Nicolai.

[3] By other authorities MS Harley 270 is dated to c.1175-1249; the holding library is more reserved: “the first half of the thirteenth century”.  The middle English copy in Glasgow (MS Hunter 307, fols. 167r–172v) has been mentioned earlier in this series of posts, together with studies by

[4] See Jean A. Givens, ‘Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis‘ Ch.5 in Jean Ann Givens, Karen Reeds, Alain Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550. (2006)

[5] D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Paradoxical History of Balsam’ (Parts 1-5), (2013).  Note that I no longer believe the drawing of the Balsam garden in Egerton 747 to be schematic – more on that in the post about ‘translation’.

[6] D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Thesauros artis medicae aegyptiacos Pt. 4 Bacon’s materials’, (July 13th., 2013).

[7] More on Semecarpus Anacardium Lf on PROTA4U, including bibliographies.  One item there caught my eye:  L.J. King,(1957) – ‘A unique reported use for the fruit of Semecarpus anacardium L. f. (Anacardiaceae) in ancient Arabian and Indian medicine’. – Econ. Bot. 11: 263-266.  I haven’t had an opportunity to read it yet.


detail folio 16v, MS Egerton 747

Comparing Beinecke MS 408 and the Vermont Tuscan Herbal 3c-i

[picking up where we left off in ‘Comparing… Pt 3 b-ii]

Exotic plants are seen among those pictured vividly in Roman paintings of the early centuries AD, that time when most of the eastern Greek works were written that were later excerpted for Juliana Anicia’s codex (c.512 AD) – yet only a few images in that codex come close to the degree of naturalism seen, for example, in this wall-painting from 1stC Pompeii.

pompeii_garden_painting house of bracelets
(detail) wall painting, Pompeii ‘House of Bracelets’

In fact, we find nothing approaching that level of naturalism in European botanical imagery again until about 1440 AD, when the Flemish, German and French painters began turning their attention to plants and flowers. The detail below shows a superbly rendered carpet of strawberries and violets from a fairly early example of the northern style. The detail is from Stefan Lochner’s ‘Madonna im Rosenhag’ (1440) and shows just how rapidly the new vision had matured.detail Stefan Lochner

What we have in Beinecke 408, however,  are botanical folios which (in the present writer’s opinion) depict exotic plants, yet do not employ that habit constant in Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Latin and later in Arabic works, whereby the single-plant portrait is the norm.  In addition, the Voynich manuscript’s images show overall  no discernible interest in – one would say no awareness of – the most noticeable trends in botanical imagery, and especially in herbal imagery, in the very region and time to which Beinecke MS 408 is most reasonably ascribed: northern Italy 1405-1438. 

And still more curious is that, while one supposes the manuscript made within a Latin environment where translation of ‘foreign’ imagery had been routine for centuries,  the Voynich botanical imagery shows no attempt whatever at such ‘translation’ – that is, no effort made to render the images into a form more easily intelligible by Latin conventions in graphic art, which are those common to most of the peoples within the Mediterranean.  A modern European can more easily read a Greek image made in the 8thC BC than they can any of those in our fifteenth century manuscript.

Other sections of Beinecke MS 408 do show evidence of some effort to make ‘translation’ of that kind, something which only emphasizes the fact that the imagery was perceived already as being non-Latin or ‘foreign’ rather than consciously obscure in the way that, for example, the later alchemical imagery is deliberately obscure.

The point about ‘translation’ is critical one, so I’ll devote the next post to it.

Antiquity alone cannot explain all these things, but we may at least explain the default page layout of the botanical section by reference to the Anicia Juliana, where it appears in connection with copies made from texts composed by eastern Greeks, as we’ve seen.  At the very least we may say that such a layout was used no later than the early sixth century AD.

Juliana Anicia Codex kentaureion
Page layout, a model comparable to that used for most of the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section.

Eastern plants and the west.

The detail from that wall-painting from Pompeii (c.1stC AD) includes a bamboo garden stake with its characteristic splashes of darker colour, hollow centre and segmented length. That detail alone makes the painting priceless, for it constitutes our only historical evidence (so far as I know) for importation of Indian bamboo any further west than Berenike. (Just btw, Pompeii is 36 kilometers/28.5  miles from Salerno).Bamboo splashes crecianbamboo No  extant Greco-Roman writer mentions the importation of bamboo, nor does any other source known to date though a recent book (whose title Lynn White would have rejoiced to see) notes that an Indian classic text on statecraft and economics, the Kautiliya Arthasastra, speaks of bamboo being exported from the western Deccan no later than the third or fourth centuries CE.[1] The painting is our only proof of bamboo’s having being part of the eastern trade into the western Mediterranean.

Through the centuries which followed, trade into the west of eastern vegetable products continued, as well as it could, but by the 8thC -10thC AD only the Radhanites served the western end of the routes. Wars and catastrophes had so disrupted the trade that even memory of those routes had otherwise been lost, until Islamic rulers returned a more stable regime to areas they governed, and Islamic geographers and masters of the post set out to re-discover the ways.

Successive loss of the foreigner’s port in China after a ninth-century massacre, increasing loss of the southern Arabian ports to desiccation, natural and human catastrophes, and the terrible loss of Muziris in 1341, altogether caused not only the reduction of the older trade direct to the west, but any continuous history for it in the Latin world.  By about the eleventh century, the Radhanites are mentioned scarcely at all, and then apparently only to the north.  The eastern trade was then mediated by the Karimi, of whom we shall say more, and Europeans used entrepots in Egypt, Tunis, Syria and the Black Sea – for the most part.

Somehow, despite all this, the botanical imagery in Beinecke MS 408 came to be copied in early fifteenth century Europe – in Padua or the Veneto in the opinion of the present writer.  What had not happened, and what did not happen in these folios, was any conscious  ‘translation’ of the images into the visual language of western Europe or, indeed, of the Mediterranean peoples and those who used Roman and Byzantine models.   I have not identified this plant-group in folio 40v, but the way these drawings are constructed is rational, and sufficiently consistent that I can describe the plant as one that is large and upright in habit, a tree which probably grew then to a great size, that it has leaves similar to the palm’s, a flower/fruit which was perceived as similar to the lotus or to the mayapple, which makers of these folios saw as variations of the same plant. If it were not for the turnip-shapes below the root, I should have considered this an image of pandanus, especially given the way the roots (as such – not the ‘turnips’) are drawn.
detail fol 40v
detail fol.40v Beinecke MS408.
Exotic plants for western eyes, and rebellion in Egerton 747
Anacardium oriental detail from MS Egerton 747 folio 6v
(detail) folio 6v MS Egerton 747. Semecarpus anacardium.

MS Egerton 747 is believed made in southern Italy between c.1280 and 1310, and includes with the ‘Circa instans’ text extracts from others [2]. Its large number of illustrations is unusual for the time, and includes  illustrations for plants which are not native to the greater Mediterranean (i.e. including the Aegean and Black Seas). Although believed made in Salerno, where the author of the ‘Circa Instans’ (Mattheus Platearius) had lived, it is not the earliest copy of ‘Circa instans’ to survive.  As example, we’ve noted MS Harley 270, (ff. 123-149) [3],  made in England during third quarter of the twelfth century and so perhaps while Platearius still lived.

A century later, the text and pictures in MS Egerton 747  refer to Aloe wood, Balsam, Cassia, Cloves, Galangal, Nutmeg, Coconut, Malegueta Pepper, Tamarind, Pepper, Liquorice of India,White Sandalwood, Alexandrian senna, Ginger and Turmeric, some of which I’ve found referenced by the botanical folios of MS Beinecke 408. Some products, such as  Malegueta pepper, came from west Africa and were probably imported through Tunis. The rest are native to southern Arabia, India and southeast Asia.

NOTE:  ‘Malegueta’ pepper is  Aframomum melegueta –  also known as ‘Guinea grains’ or ‘Alligator pepper’.   It should not be confused (though it often is) with the new world’s  Malageuta pepper (Capsicum frutescens). [4]

Balsam I’ve also had reason to mention.[5]

In this connection, too, one should note that Minta Collins’ work wrongly identified the ‘Cashew tree’ in Egerton 747 as Anacardium occidental, a native of the new world.   The image is rather of the oriental tree, once called  Anacardium orientale,  subsequently Ligas Semecarpus cuneiformis (Blanco), or synonymously  Anacardium cuneiformis (Blanco) and now Semecarpus Anacardium;  in Mrs. Grieves’ Modern Herbal, used as the official pharmacopoeia in England until the second world war, it receives a cursory mention.

.. I break the post here, the remainder will go up in an hour or so..

A note on Manfredus of Monte…

[second edition]

Manfredis Herbal detail
detail from the “Manfredi” compilation. BNF [MS] Lat 6823.

The compilation in BNF [MS] Lat 6823 is sometimes referred to, rather inexactly to be sure, as the Manfredi herbal because in addition to its copy of Liber de herbis et plantisDe avibus et piscibus, and texts by Nicholaus, it contains an appendix annotated by one “Manfredus de Monte Imperiali”.

There has been some debate over where this “Manfredus” might have come from.  Minta Collins’ note covers the ground fairly well to the time her work on the illustrated herbals was published.  Here’s the note again (publication details in previous post).

Collins Manfredi note

I see no reason why the “Manfredi di maestro Berardo da Montepeloso medicus” listed by Calvanico should not be the same person who annotated BNF Lat 6823.

Where “de” in Latin indicates belonging: Manfredus “of” Monte Imperiali,  I am told that use of  “di” in Italian names  “signifies migration from one place to another.”  In other words “di” here seems to imply that Manfredi had been sent off, or out, from one place to another by the master of medicine in Montepeloso.

And he may well have sent out Manfredi  precisely because, as master of medicine, he wanted copies from several works now found the Paris manuscript bearing Manfredi’s name.  And perhaps the task required required two journeys,  made in the warmer part of two successive years.

Seeking any ‘Monte Imperiali’ online may lead you to Kaiserberg or to Lombardy, or even to Siena,[1]  but I agree with Collins that the Manfredi  connected to masestro Berardo is the most most likely to have made the anthology in the Paris manuscript.

And one can suggest why a clerk sent ‘abroad’ might refer to his native town as  ‘Monte Imperiali’ rather than as Montepeloso.

map Sth Itay Salerno to Adriatic and Montepeloso herbal

One might point out, for example, that to admit having come from “Mount Hairy” would surely be to lay oneself open to the mockery of distant urbanites.

Or one might concentrate on the sober fact that Montepeloso and its castle were given as a gift to the newly-recognised order of friars minor by Frederick II, king of Sicily, who had their possession.

Irsina mount

Frederick became King of Sicily  in 1197, and  the Franciscanorder was accredited only in 1209,  so Montepeloso must surely have been one of the earliest and grandest of gifts they had received to that time.   Montepeloso monastery, though not the surrounding lands, remains even now a Franciscan holding, and well deserving of some description such as “Monte Imperiali”.

Irsina monastery

If Manfredi can be argued a native of Montepeloso, the opposite might be argued for the ‘master of medicine’ there, Mastro Berardo.  As a surname it had been in existence for little more than a century and it came from the north, emerging from “the valleys of Maira, which lie south of Turin” very shortly after the canonisation (in 1123 AD) of a Saint Berardo born in that region. [2]  So Maestro Berardo may have been “of Montepeloso” but his name allows the possibilty that his parents, or earlier life, lay in the north.

Another Berardo features in Frederick’s history.  A diplomat appointed to mediate between the Popes and Frederick, Berardo surnamed “di Castaca” (1214-52) seems to have been someone sent out from, or in this case perhaps displaced from, Terni.

There, about twenty years’ before Frederick was made king of Sicily, Terni had been sacked by Christian of Mainz, a man who saw nothing incongruous about being a general in Barbarossa’s army and a Christian archbishop.  It is hardly surprising that the townsfolk welcomed St. Francis’ preaching peace and poverty as the proper condition of Christian religious, and it was a centre which Francis often visited.

But perhaps that diplomat, di Castaca, had been a refugee from Terni, “obliged to migrate from one place to another”

Postscript: The townsfolk of Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) are said to have their own language, or dialect, known as Irsenese. (according to a travel agency website here.)


[1] Poggibonsi near Siena, having been destroyed in 1270 by Guelfs of Florence, was intended by the emperor Henry VII to be rebuilt and re-named Monte Imperiale.  Since Henry announced that intention in 1313,  and died in the same year,  “the work” as the wiki puts it “did not survive him”, and one cannot suppose  that the name intended was long or widely adopted.

[2] I have this information from one of those ‘family crests and mottos’ sites online that you go to at your own peril.



Poscript: the Juliana Anicia codex (concluded).

[added note – July 6th., 2016].  Best information at present is that Edith Sherwood, an American pharmacist to whose botanical ids Rene has always referred his readers, first offered the comparison of folio 35v in Beinecke MS 408 with folio 60r in BNF [MS] Lat 6823. See also ‘comments’ to this post.]


The Anicia Juliana codex is a Romano-Greek Byzantine manuscript made in c.512AD, and using text from various older works of the eastern Greeks: chiefly Dioscorides’ but the rest including part of Rufus of Ephesus’ Carmen… , a poem that would receive a Latin re-working in eleventh century Europe, probably by Odo de Meung, under the name ‘Macer Floridus’.

The Anicia Juliana codex is notable not least for the number of its images. In Brubaker’s words:

“.. most Dioskorides manuscripts do not include pictures: though the text was the basic pharmaceutical guide until the Renaissance, only about a dozen of the Greek copies are illustrated”

Precisely for that reason, researchers use and re-use the same sources in efforts to support a preferred theory, and for the same reason often limit the range of unnecessarily.

Designation of the Voynich plant-pictures as a ‘herbal’ is, of course, no more than an hypothesis itself, but from constant repetition over almost a century, it has come to be imagined a fact.  Media other than manuscripts included plant-pictures, the following a pattern in stone.

slate square oak and acorn

Alain Touwaide, Rene Zandbergen and the ‘Manfredi’ manuscript.

Lately, we have had a scholar of undoubted expertise in the areas of Latin and Byzantine medicine, pharmacy and related manuscripts agree to offer some comment, and when a person of  Alain Touwaide’s ability does so it is an enormous gift to us all.

In one case, he appears to have adopted among other comparisons included in a publication of  2015, an identification and comparison credited to Rene Zandbergen in 2013, by Ellie Velinska who includes the same two images, paired, which appear again within Zandbergen’s review of Touwaide’s essay – which I have yet to read in full [1].

It is surely a great compliment to any unqualified person, to have a specialist adopt their ideas, and in this case Zandbergen’s “ids” appear to have impressed Touwaide to that extent.  Curiously, however, in his review, Zandbergen seems to credit Touwaide rather than himself.  I have asked Rene for a resolution of the puzzle, but since ‘first published’ is usually to be first credited, I’ll meanwhile assume that the proposal was first made by Zandbergen, before June 2013.

That composite image, first posted on Ellie’s blog with the credit to Rene Zandbergen compares folio 35v with the oak-and-ivy image that appears on the right hand side of folio 60r in BNF [MS] Lat 6823.

Each shows a berry-bearing plant, of  naturally lax habit, which has been  set close to and is thus supported by another of stronger and more upright growth.  The image in the Voynich manuscript, though, shows the upright plant serving only as a kind of ‘living stake’, where the Paris manuscript shows the oak as host to the parasitic ivy.

bnf comparison Touwaide

The manuscript now in Paris (BNF [MS] Lat 6823) was made in Pavia in 1330-1340, which is about a century before Beinecke MS 408.  It is not exactly a ‘herbal’ but a compendium of herbs and various other plants, as its title informs us: Liber de herbis et plantis..

I’ve had reason to mention this manuscript before, when investigating what Georg Barsch might have meant when he spoke of the “thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” in his letter to Athanasius Kircher.  I considered the image of the balsam in that manuscript, because to the tree, its form, the circumstances in which it grew, and how the balsam was extracted were matters  known to just a few in Egypt, and to very few beyond it, yet they are well depicted in the ‘Manfredi herbal’.  I’ll be returning to it later, to consider another exotic plant pictured fairly well, and whose product was certainly known to England before the end of the thirteenth century, but the form of which was, or should have been unknown in Europe so early as the fourteenth century.

As regards the lineage for imagery of exotic plans in Latin manuscripts before 1415..

Bacon himself had been born in 1220 and died in 1290/92, and upon their expulsion in 1290, the English Jews were obliged to leave their possessions behind.  We know that those perforce abandoned in Oxford fell to the masters of the University.

So it is possible, in theory, that the Voynich manuscript had come direct to Prague from England, as Wilfrid believed, while yet containing matter commensurate with earlier contacts in France, Spain and Italy, but – again in theory – similar matter could have reached Pisa from any of those regions.   The city contained an old Jewish community, permitted displaced Sephardis to settle there, and like Padua and Veneto, saw an a notable increase in Jewish arrivals during the fourteenth century.  We know, in particular, that a large number of Sephardi Jews came to Pisa from Provence and Spain after 1438, the spread of plague in that year having led to attacks and persecution – as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post.

On the subject of what degrees of similarity there might be between any Voynich botanical figure those from European and Byzantine manuscripts, Touwaide’s opinion is surely authoritative, but since the proposition would appear to have been Rene Zandbergen’s in the first instance, I feel it less improper to add some notes from the perspective of art analysis.

Comparison and Difference

In both folio 35v from the Beinecke manuscript, and folio 60r from the Paris manuscript, some elements are rendered by a conventional form rather than a literal one.  The ivy’s being shown with very delicate stems in the Paris manuscript not meant to suggest  ivy stems stay slender, or that the slender stem is an aid to identification.  Because everyone knew that the larger the oak, the larger the ivy it might support, the aim was to present a stock form meaning ‘ivy’.

ivy and oak photo Devon

Now, in the folio 35v of the Beinecke manuscript,  the case is different, because although conventional forms occur in it, they are not used in the same way at all. When an image in the Voynich shows a plant with a slender stem, then a slender stem is what you will find in the field, and it will always be a slender stem.   In other words, one which is drawn so fine as that in the Paris manuscript could not represent ‘ivy’ in the  Voynich manuscript, but would represent a plant having a growth habit like the Convolvulus (bindweed).

In addition, if the reader is to be told the plant is a true vine, the draughtsman includes a tendril.  On the other hand, the leaf may be rendered by the conventional stock form we call “sorrel leaf” and which indicates an edible green.  That particular form is a very old convention indeed and occurs also in Latin herbals.

detail 17v vine and sorrel leaf

Considered together, such factors make it very unlikely that the scrambling plant shown on folio 35v is meant for any sort of ivy, and it cannot be a grape. (The image from Manfredi’s herbal shows oak and black ivy).

It is quite remarkable to see that the same plant is pictured without leaves in folio 35v, for the leaf is the major classification marker in these images.   I can only offer possibilities as to why they are omitted: perhaps  the plant’s leaves fall before the fruit ripens; perhaps the leaves are so variable that to depict them is useless as was the case with the Artocarpus group.  Perhaps the leaves are coloured in life in that range of pink-mauve-purple-black, prohibition against which is so constant in the botanical folios that we take it as a cultural marker.  Complete omission of plant-parts having such natural colour or the replacement of their natural colouring by using red or blue is the norm.  But perhaps the leaves on f.35v have a form so like the larger plant’s that the makers and users needed no more detail.

The stronger plant, on the other hand, may still be a form of oak, for the genus is native to the northern hemisphere, through Asia, Europe and north Africa within latitudes from the cool temperate to tropical. China alone has 100 native species.

My reason for accepting that the  larger plant may be an  oak has less to do with a desire to argue identification by reference to the Paris manuscript than the fact that the root in folio 35 takes so unusual a form.

root folio 35v
(detail) root and mnemonic device in f.35v

If one relied on fantasy and imagination, I  suppose the form could be likened to a clothes’ peg, but when it is considered in the wider context offered by the content in the manuscript overall, including the range of that map I first explained here in detail in 2011, then the more likely form that it was designed to evoke  is that of the  solid saddletree –  which are found made of oak,  from the western isles to Japan. The image is simply an illustration of a solid saddletree; it happens to be Icelandic.  This is meant for a pack-animal but much the same form was used on a riding-animal.

pack_saddle mod Iceland from hurstwic

I do not insist on that identification, but all things considered, identification of the larger plant on 35v as an oak seems reasonable.

As to origins, they are not incompatible with what has been noted in earlier research: At the end of the third century BC, the first solid saddletrees are attested in Asia, appearing about a century later in the Roman world.[1]  A find made in Ireland, also dated to the Roman imperial period, shows rapid adoption of the technology, being described as “a fragmentary wooden object… plausibly identified as part of a pack saddle.” [2]

Oak and ivy bore almost as great a significance in antiquity as did the laurel, and though each is usually represented separately in the iconography,  instances do occur of their being combined.[3] There is nothing to prevent the basic form for the image on f.35v having been enunciated in the Hellenistic period, though the 1st-3rdC ADwould seem more reasonable.

A major difference between the Paris and the Beinecke manuscript here is the Paris’ omission of roots from its image of the ‘oak and ivy’.  And not that the roots were omitted, but that the patron and/or draughtsman could make that choice without apparent qualm.

In the Voynich botanical imagery that part of the drawing is intrinsic, and constant – one is tempted to say essential – to the “pictorial text” presented by the image.  As analogy –  removing subtitles from a foreign film might have much the same effect as removing the roots from the Voynich botanical figures – at least it would have that effect for an informed reader or draughtsman.  Thereafter, one might look, and try to work out what is going on in the picture, but half the information is gone.

Finally, I reproduce a footnote from Minta Collins’ oft-cited book, for those who conflate Manfredi with the ruler of Sicily:

Collins Manfredi note
Minta Collins, Medieval Herbals: The Illustrative Traditions (2000) p.293. n.119.




[1] From the account given in Rene Zandbergen’s review of Touwaide’s contribution to a recent publication, I had the impression that comparison of f.35v with the Paris illustration of oak and ivy had been first proposed by Alain Touwaide.  However, I have also seen the same composite image used in a post on Ellie Velinska’s blog June 2nd., 2013, and there she says:-

“Rene Zandbergen proposed several very interesting possible ids for the VMs plants based on similarities with the 14th century French manuscript Manfredus de Monte Imperiali … My favourite among this [his?] ids is the oak/ivy combination on fol. 35v ”

This year (2016) Zandbergen himself wrote (on Stephen Bax’s site):-

“The article [by Touwaide] begins with an introduction covering the enigmatic figure of Wilfrid Voynich and the history of the MS, clearly rejecting the roles of Roger Bacon and John Dee in the tradition [..unspecified]. His first observation about the MS itself is that many of its plant illustrations present a correspondence with botanical illustrations from the 14th and 15th centuries, and he compares the MS with two herbals from this period, namely  Paris BNF Lat 6823 and London BL Sloane 4016, devoting two of the four illustrations to parallels between these MSs and the Voynich MS.”

It is at that point that Zandbergen inserts the same figure as that included in my post, and which in 2013 had been published in Ellie Velinska’s blog, showing folio 35v beside BNF LAt. 6823 folio 60r..

I have asked for clarification so that my acknowledgements are correct. If not, I’ll add a ‘comment’ below.

[2] On saddletrees: Gawronski R. S. “Some Remarks on the Origins and Construction of the Roman Military Saddle.” Archeologia, (2004), Vol. 55, pp. 31–40. This reference is also cited by a wiki article on the history of stirrup use. and Nancy Edwards, The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland, (2013) p.59.

[3] oak-leaf wreaths, and ivy ornament of the late 4th-3rd centuries BC  recovered in Thrace.  See Milena Tonkova, ‘Gold Wreaths from Thrace’, in Vol.2  The Thracians and their Neighbors in the Bronze and Iron Ages, Proceedings of the 12th International Congress of Tracology, Targoviste, September 10th-14th., 2013.  pp.413-445.  A late example shows both plants together, somewhat unusually, in the authentic base of a much ‘restored’   funerary urn in the Sloane Collection.

Postscript: the Anicia Juliana (cont./3)

Concerning Rufus, Plague and Owls.

[this post began short …  but .. oh well.]

Another mosaic made in Tunis under Roman rule provides us with a first example of the owl’s being associated with instant death.  Here, the spotted owl stands as stricken birds drop from the sky in mid-flight. It carries under one wing what is evidently the itinerant’s scrip and/or despatch bag. (yerss..)

Thysdrus Own and dying birds Roman period

That mosaic depicts, fairly well, a type of owl found across north Africa and in Egypt.


but for a sense of that awe with which the owl and its image were seen in the older world, we must turn to the eastern Mediterranean, and appreciate that the very word for death, in Egypt, had the owl as its first hieroglyph; that the words for ‘death’ and for ‘mother’ were the same  [mwt] and that when the Pharaoh handed the owl-glyph to a minor official, the latter was obliged to suicide.[1]   ‘Sudden death from on high, by divine decree’ is what this bird signified.

spotted barn Owl
picture courtesy Uni of Chicago and exhibition “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt.” 2012-2013.

According the University of Chicago, the owl of the hieroglyph was a Barn owl – but the same idea in general was just as natural to the Semitic-speaking peoples influenced (as most were) by Egyptian culture. A Semitic root from which such terms as ‘king’, ‘noble’, ‘messenger’, ‘angel’ and ‘lord’ are derived.  (mlk cf. Lat. domine) sounded like the Egyptian word for any owl, and even under Roman rule, we have seen in that mosaic from Tunis the same network of ideas current. Still another  shows a ‘messenger of the winds’ in a way that evokes the idea of the Eagle owl (Bubo bubo).

eagle owl and Bardo wind-messenger

Before Roman military activity destroyed much of the southern and eastern Mediterranean, there had been a long history in common between them: a mixture of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Semitic, with later input from Macedonians and Greeks. A common history does not necessarily imply uniform attitudes or visual language, however and one might predict that imagery on a series of coins produced in Athens might appear filled with ill-omen beyond Greece. The coins show a martial woman, an owl, and an ‘overturned’ or horizontal amphora.

Athena owl coin winged caduceus
coin Athens

One of the type (above) includes the messenger’s winged staff (“Hermes’ caduceus “)  but gives it a peculiar terminal, somewhat like a horned head, and somewhat like the Egyptian ankh which signified continuing life.  The unusual form for the caduceus may represent efforts to reassure non-Greeks who had very different first impressions of owl-imagery, of the death-bringing woman, and of the amphora’s human-like form. [2]  Hermes’ sacrifice was the ram.  In the following example – from Cyprus  of the 6thC BC –  there is a curious but pronounced  Egyptian influence reflected in the ram’s face. I won’t expand on the message implied by this statue, but it may interest some readers to know that the character shown here was already ancient when the Cyprian statue was made and that it has survived the rise and fall of empires, the loss of older languages, and the revolutions of religion. The character, as  religio-mythic icon, now has an attested history of constant reference over more than six thousand years.

Hermes head and ram Cyprus 6thC BC

Athens itself may have evoked the fear of plague for distant peoples.  When ‘owl and amphora’ coins were being produced, memory still remained of the horrific plague that decimated Athens in 430 BC –  horrific to the point that it has been identified by more than one medical writer as ebola. [3]

Another issue replaces the caduceus with the human figure of a peripatetic physician, in his traveller’s hat and with his serpent-twined staff, emphasising health and life in still more obvious ways.  Numismatists call that small figure ‘Asclepius’ though I rather think it is meant to represent real peripatetic physicians and may be again an effort to reassure the older and non-Greek peoples that the imagery brought no danger or ‘evil eye’.

coin Athens c135 BC owl Asclepius query
coin Athens c.135 BC

Athenian  coins of that ‘owl-and-amphora’ type were widely disseminated, with imitative coins attested as far as pre-Islamic Arabia, where local inscriptions highlight the different perception of these iconographic elements.[4]

Already, therefore, by the time that Rufus of Ephesus lived, an association of some antiquity existed between the owl and the strike of death – and was already widely known through the southern and the eastern Mediterranean at least. In later centuries, in Islam as in Christendom, the ‘Angel/Messenger’ who brought death was a well-known figure.

Classical Roman authors had regarded the bird as ill-omened and refer to three of their emperors’ having died after an owl alighted on the roof: the emperors were Augustus, Valentinian and Commodus Antonius.[5]

It was in the language of Latin, not of Greek that connection was particularly suggested between the strike of the owl and bubonic plague. The Greek word for an owl was tuto, but the Latin was bubo.  Thus, when Rufus wrote, in Greek, about a plague’s buboes  (βουβϖνης) he meant swellings of the groin, if we may rely on  Oribasius who preserves the text in which it says that  “the buboes that are called pestilential [are] especially fatal … chiefly in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.”[6]

Thirty years after the Empress Juliana Anicia received her illustrated herbal dedicated to the eastern Greeks and their superior medical traditions,  some new form of the sudden, un-opposable “owl-death” struck again in the Mediterranean.  Historians refer to that pandemic as the Plague of Justinian (541–542), and its extent and effects were frightful.

We have no record of eastern Greek physicians wearing masks in the 6thC AD, but someone who had lived in the early years of that century apparently knew, or believed, they had been worn by physicians of Rufus’ tradition as late as the 1stC AD.  He had been born then in Ephesus, received his education in Egypt, and in general his style of medicine is considered Hippocratic.  He is thought to have lived while  Trajan was emperor in Rome ( 98 AD – 117 AD).

If Georg Baresch believed, as I rather think he did, that the text in Beinecke MS 408 contained an “ancient Egyptian medicine” which might cure plague, then Rufus’ works are the sort of thing he might have been thinking about.

In the generation preceding Rufus, Pliny’s Natural History (23 AD – 79 AD) associates death and a certain horror with the eagle-owl:

The eagle-owl is thought to be a very bad omen, being as it is a funereal bird. It lives in deserts and in terrifying, empty and inaccessible places. Its cry is a scream. If it is seen in a city, or during the day, it is a direful portent.. The owl never flies directly to where it wants to go, but always travels slantwise from its course.

(Natural History, Book 10, 16-19).

Eurasian eagle-owl ears up

By the fourteenth century, in Latin Europe, those ancient associations were – in a sense – maintained, but by some peculiar twist of logic, re-inforced by the story of Moses, and a habit of regarding Jewish communities as ‘itinerant’ arose a conception of the “itinerant” physician which no longer saw him as bearer of rare medicines from afar, nor  representative of healing, nor ~ of the winds, nor ~of the king, nor  as one labouring to  assuage the plague’s effects. All that remained of the ancient forms was a plague-physician’s mask with its beak and red glass eyes.

The Latins  turned upon their most accomplished physicians  –  the Jews – and as far as I’m aware no other people did so, although the plague swept throughout central Asia, mainland Europe, the whole of the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, the Middle East and Persia. Language as well as religious books and Europe’s own history formed part of the cause.  Latin ‘bubo’ for an owl was combined with the adopted term ‘bubo’ for a lethal swelling, while the word ‘Plague’ suggested the the ‘striker’s arrow’. Plague is from plaga, ‘to strike’ or plangere “to strike, or to strike down”.  The imagery which resulted is expressed in these few of many examples:

beast owl misericord StLawrences Ludlow
The Plague is imagined to separate the good from the evil/ the ‘doves’ attack the Owl.   St.Laurence’s, Ludlow. image courtesy of ‘Robin’.

from a French book of hours…

French hours owl crossbow-detail
French bk of hours [ref wanting]
BL Harley MS 5401 folio 46
England 1450-1500.   (detail) BL Harley MS 5401 f. 46.  “Marginal drawing of an owl (‘bubo’ in Latin), to mark a passage relating to a cancerous swelling, also known as ‘bubo’ in Latin.” – library catalogue.

Thysdrus Own and dying birds Roman periodLuttrell Pilgrim BL MS Add 42130 folio 32r c1325-1340.








1.  For the last item, I rely on Peter Tate , Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition (2007). I haven’t checked his sources yet.

2. just by the way, it is my opinion that emblemata described as ‘finger-rings’ in the Voynich manuscript are a debased form of the ankh, such debased forms seen even in Egypt by the 1stC AD.  See e.g. posts in which I’ve illustrated wall paintings from Tigrane Pasha catacomb courtesy of M. Venit. One very short reprise is in  ‘Ring/situla. Another from the, (December 8th., 2014).

3. The suggestion that it was ebola was first raised by Gayle Scarrow, “The Athenian Plague: A Possible Diagnosis”, The Ancient History Bulletin, Vol.2, No.1 (1988). Eight years later it was suggested again, in a paper by Olson, Benenson, and Genovese, who had overlooked the earlier, and who published their own without reference to it in The Journal of Infectious Diseases (1996;2:155-6). Upon realising that they had failed in their acknowledgements – even though inadvertently – those authors immediately, and very properly, sent to the same Journal a ‘Letter to the Editor’, which says in part:

Gayle D. Scarrow had published a paper entitled “The Athenian Plague: A Possible Diagnosis” in The Ancient History Bulletin 2.1 (1988). Unfortunately, this had not come to our attention in our literature search, and therefore we assumed that we were the first to recognize the possibility. Clearly, Ms. Scarrow deserves credit for suggesting this first. Her arguments are compelling, even without the support of more recently available information and the observations advanced in our publication.

and in the big outside world, dear Voynicheros, integrity of that sort is what earns respect.

4. On interpretation of this imagery in pre-Islamic Arabia see e.g. Yoel Natan, Moon-o-theism, (2006) 2 vols. Vol.1 p.348.

5. see note 1, above .

6. Oribasius’ reference to Rufus and Plague in Oribasium Collectionum, 44.14.  The swollen lymph nodes may have suggested comparison to snake or scorpion poison; I cannot otherwise explain Oribasius’ reaction when he himself contracted plague.  According to John Paris, Oribasius “applied a ligature around the leg, under the ham, immersing it in warm water and then, after beating it with reeds to make it swell, made fine incisions (scarification) with a scalpel.”    We may suppose that traditional popular and religious associations already existed between the bird and plague, but any linguistic association is better ascribed to later influence.  Rufus referred to older works, by Dionysius the Hunchback (3rdC BC) and by Poseidonius and Dioscorides (1stC AD), but his reference to buboes is generally accepted as the first to ‘bubonic’ plague.  Doubts have been raised more recently as to whether Y.pestis was involved in those pre-medieval ‘plagues’.  See  e.g. Lester K. Little, Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750 (OUP, 2007). For more recent investigations see summaries online e.g. (2014)  the Crossrail discoveries in England or (2016) those in Marseilles and Germany.  Online, the only source I have found where Oribasius’ quotation from Rufus is quoted in the Greek was: John Ayrton Paris, Pharmacologia: Being an Extended Inquiry Into the Operations of Medicinal Bodies, Upon which are Founded the Theory and Art of Prescribing, Harper & Brothers, (1844) p.55.



Postscript: the Anicia Juliana (cont./2)

detail Image of coral from the Juliana Anicia small

[formatting ‘bug corrected]

To the left-hand side the monkey holds an object which I read as a container for pebbles, herbs and so on, with the monkey (at that time) an emblem of north Africa. In that way it is seen in earlier works and is associated with  figures bearing the goat-skin ‘aegis’ over one shoulder and upper arm –  signifying agency for Egypt, in these cases, not for the Greek gods.  In medieval Latin Europe, the ‘monkey’ character would take on another significance.

aegis Kushite 8th-7thC BC blogNimrud ivory SyroPhoenician humanfaceThe person who made Banks’ copy of the Anicia Juliana mistook the form of the instrument which Rufus holds but he conveys its sense well enough. 

detail Joseph Banks' Rufus of Ephesus

The more interesting error is familiar to scholars of art history and iconography. It is a common phenomenon that when an original image has no counterpart in a viewer’s existing range of knowledge. Without any particular training to overcome it and see what is actually there, a great many will either fail to see the detail at all, or will instinctively treat the  detail as irrelevant or ‘wrong’.  It is a deep-seated instinct, to balance which becomes part of the iconographic analyst’s formal training, though children and those with natural facility in ‘ways of seeing’ may not succumb.  

In sense, given that the imagery in the Voynich manuscript is so plainly resistant to superficial reading, and few troubled to suppose the fault their own rather than due to flaws in the maker, the history of Voynich studies is saturated with foolish and impressionistic assertions about the nature, origin and content of that imagery.  One sighs to see, even now, that the botanical images are called “otherworldly” drawings, or that some of the ‘ladies’ folios are asserted (as Newbold did before Panofsky saw the manuscript) to be about gynecology, biological ‘tubes’ or some other form of domestic plumbing.  One does not condemn the persons who are so bewildered that they begin to describe the metaphors which arise in their own minds, rather than what is set down in a medieval manuscript.  It is a little more difficult to justify continued ignorance, and in some cases an ignorance not only insisted upon, but maintained by attempting to obscure or denigrate better information when it is offered.  Another of those curious social aspects of Voynich studies is an expression of indignation, disbelief, indeed sometimes even outrage which may follow attempts to explain that not all imagery is meant to be ‘seen’ rather than ‘read’ and that some fairly concentrated study and application is needed to rightly interpret imagery in this manuscript. Flicking through Latin manuscripts of one’s choice seeking ‘look-alike’ images simply isn’t enough. Nor is pure imagination, otherwise known as ‘the hypothesis’.

However ~ Rufus’ face in the original  wears a half-mask from the hairline to the nose. That is  coloured yellow – perhaps to represent gold.  For the copyist in eighteenth- century Europe, where physicians did not wear such things, the detail would have seemed invisible at worst and meaningless at best: only theatricals used masks in his time.  Whichever the case, the copyist’s eyes slid past the detail, re-interpreting what he saw to suit the ‘common sense’  expectations of his own time and culture.  Compare Rufus’ face with others in that group-portrait in the Anicia Juliana, and see if you can recognise the distinction made.

knife container Banks Anicia Juliana

I haven’t seen Rufus’ mask  mentioned in any previous work, and though it may not hold great interest for most Voynich researchers, historians of ancient and classical art and history will feel differently.  Use of the mask outside the theatrical and funerary context has been an ongoing question for many decades, so for those readers interested in the manuscript chiefly because I’ve attributed the earliest stratum in the imagery to the early Hellenistic period, here is a bit more detail. (For my statement as early as 2009 that the earliest stratum in the imagery is Hellenistic, see e.g. the page posted above: here).


Rufus’ mask and western medieval imagery.

Scholars have long suspected that masks were used in other than the theatrical or the funerary context. Some have noted depictions in Egypt of what appear to be Anubis masks worn by the priestly caste who oversaw mummification.  From the Greeks we have one ivory mask, said to be Apollonian, but that is full face.  Another, found in a potter’s work-shop in Carthage may have been less a mask in itself than a model  for making masks –  half-masks or full-face.

mask terracotta carthageand this is not the first time, in the context of Voynich research, that we’ve noted use of a mask-like form to denote the ‘inhuman among us’.  It has occurred already in connection with two early-fourteenth century manuscripts from France. One from eastern France (Metz 1302-1303) and the other from the southern Occitan region (possibly near Toulouse, 1st quarter of the 14th century).

crossbowman Yates Thompson Ps109 first verses
(detail) BL MS Yates Thompson 8, fol. 61

The former shows a crossbow which may represent the same design as the Padre Island crossbow –  seen again in the hands of the Voynich archer. The latter echoes closely an ancient emblem for Tyre,  as I’ve already had reason to mention in the same connection.  Here, the coin from Tyre also conveys the impression of a masked face. It was made in the earlier Hellenistic period, while Tyre was part of the Ptolemaic (Lagid) kingdom whose capital was in Egypt, though Tyre would soon be absorbed into another which embraced most of Asia minor, including Rufus’ city of Ephesus (details – map).

Sagittarius Occitan MS detail
(detail) BL MS Royal 19 C I f. 37
coin Tyre 347-332 BC
coin Tyre 347-332 BC

In the Anicia Juliana, the image of Rufus of Ephesus is the first example I’ve seen of any gold half-mask, though we do have hints from later Sicyon and its folk practices which may be relevant here. (for some bibliographical references, email me).

I expect that Rufus’ mask is meant to refer to his medical service in Alexandria, as to that cult of Asclepius prominent in his time in Ephesus, Sicyon and elsewhere.

But altogether it is not these details, so much as the figures of the marine deity and ‘beast’ which tell us most clearly that the Anicia Juliana’s makers had as their model for the ‘coral tree’ an image of eastern Greek, and pre-Roman character.

Roman imagery will use the crab-claw ‘antennae’ for any male marine figure, whether triton, Okeanus, Poseidon/Neptune, or Cetyx (‘son of the dawn star’) and Alcyone (daughter of the winds) – a Roman version of the last shown below in a recently-restored mosaic in Isthmia.

sea deity crab claws Roman baths Istria

In those, as you see, the marine figure is the male, and he is given a horse’s forelegs and the tail of the sea-serpent. Cetyx is part marine ‘centaur’ and part dolphin or sea-serpent.   In a late Hellenistic rhyton, though, we find a centaur-like figure whose hair is formed like sea-weed at the back and who is given ‘horns’ of wind-swept hair at the front.  The holding museum describes it as a centaur, but since the centaur is not normally horned, though it was certainly associated with medicine, we reserve judgement on the point. The detail is from a rhyton, a drinking vessel.

rhyton Centaur query c.160 BC Hellenistic
Rhyton. late Hellenistic c.160 BC [1]
In origin, and from before the time of Alexander,  the horse-headed sea-beast representing intelligence in the ways of land and sea was the city emblem for another Phoenician centre, Byblos.

c.330 BC
coin of Byblos, Phoenician.  c.330 BC (early Hellenistic period).

Where ‘sea spirit’ type is male in Roman imagery, and is given equine forelimbs, the Anicia Juliana figure is female and has a wholly human form.  Nor is the emblematic object it holds the usual trident of Neptune or sea-box etc, but  form of oar, paddle or measuring staff.  This was originally a “queen of the sea/underworld” familiar to us from the earlier Mediterranean; her rods or fan are those of the measurer of stars and winds. We may call her Alcyone, since her true name is unknown.

Juliana Anicia sea-beast

Anchor mariner goddess 3dot

Above that more ancient figure is another item which was to survive the centuries and re-appear in Latin works of the fourteenth century: what I’ve termed in these posts the “vine-road” motif, signifying the ways of the sea.   It appears fairly often in manuscripts of Jewish and of French making, the usual colours of white-on-blue indicating a tie to earlier Egypt, though intermediary phase probably Jewish (esp. Karaite).

Beside the seated, female figure in the Anicia Juliana is a creature with the marine ‘lily tail’ and certainly meant for a sea-beast whom we may call Cetus.  Its head is rounded, like that of a dog or a seal; the snarling mouth also resembles their. But its throat has a webbed ‘beard’ and, most unusually of all, from its nose a delicate, branching antenna, unlike any Roman image of Cetus I’ve encountered to date.

Compare, for example is the form given the constellationCetus on the Mainz globe (tentatively ascribed to Egypt or to Anatolia, and dated to 150-220 AD).

dog bound globe 1st-2ndC now in Mainz

And the emerging pattern we’ve seen in exploring the Voyich imagery and its sources emerges here once more.  Another instance of  imagery appropriate to the Hellenistic world and the earlier Radhanites turns up in medieval France.

Below, as you’ll see, the manuscript shows the same delicate, branching antennae rising from the nose of a sea-beast whose ‘lily-tail’ is revealed the serpent’s jaws. Here again, it is associated with a female figure.  In French manuscript, though, the costume is one well-known from earlier depictions of traders along the high ‘silk road’ and found again on the maritime route as south-east Asia by the tenth century.beast two headed BLATA

Thai, Radhanite, France: restraint, please.

I have already published here the title of an essay which will be included in the forthcoming book and whose originality I do hope will not be compromised by any Voynichero’s ambition or lack of scruple: it traces the Radhanites’ history as far as medieval Thailand.  Here is one of the images I’ll be referring to, from Lyons’ paper.  The style of hat and the ‘cross the heart’ costume may be compared with that in an Occitan medieval manuscript.  Such things are why I offered the opinion by 2010-11 that certain specific matter in the Voynich manuscript had probably first reached mainland Europe with the Radhanites where it was preserved until later by the Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews. If some Voynicheros now suggest that the attribution to Hellenistic and Radhanite are ‘old stuff’ or that the Thai link is  ‘an idea everyone knows” then I would suggest that they produce examples of it older than 2010-11.  If it is now what “everyone knows” it is because “everyone’ has been exposed to repetition of my findings which are unaccompanied by proper footnotes, references and proper acknowledgements.

Thai traders 10thC


usual pattern for transferrence occurs again in this instance: from the Hellenistic Mediterranean to sudden re-appearance in the south-western Mediterranean.  In this case, the round-headed and ‘lily-tailed’ creature turns up in an Occitan manuscript along with a figure who is dressed in the costume we know well from imagery across the eastern roads before the 12thC, and which reached China as early as the tenth.  The type is usually identified with the Radhanites, sometimes called Jews in the medieval works, but otherwise described as ‘messengers for the Jews’ or, in one case, ‘trader-messengers of Khorasan.’When we return to the ‘Comparison…’ posts, I’ll take a look at some of the better known translators who worked to bring the older Greek works into the Latin domain.  (That’s if some other Voynichero doesn’t decide to do the work for me, before I get to it – hint, hint).  Some names will be immediately attractive I should think: Michael Scot for those who believe the knowledge in the manuscript is astrological and esoteric – as I do not.  William of Moerbecke will doubtless be of more immediate interest to those espousing the ‘central European’ hypothesis, since a Fleming can surely be taken as a ‘near-central-European’.  Our main focus, though, will be Frankish Corinth where, as it happens, a prevalent local language (or dialect) in medieval times was Arvanitic. I’m not saying the Voynich manuscript’s text is in Arvanitic; I’m more inclined, myself, to think that it is a form of cursive script which has had its natural ligatures removed, but that’s just speculation on a part of the text which is none of my concern.

Finally – I should think that the Empress Juliana herself would have read the figures by the Coral tree as a reference to Andromeda, rescued from being sacrifice by Persus, who petrified the monster Cetus by using the head of Medusa, she having been one of the Gorgons.  The word for ‘coral’ in Greek is ‘Gorgeia’.

“Having [by means of Medusa’s head] petrified Cetus, Perseus placed the head on a riverbank while he washed his hands. When he recovered it, he saw that Medusa’s blood had turned the seaweed (in some variants the reeds) into red coral, Gk: gorgeia.

One wonders whether that myth is the reason that an order of soft corals now bears the name Alcyonacea?

Plague again.. and the owl.  ( next post, and short).



1. the figure has been reconstructed making oak-leaves of the hair. Cf  here.

Postscript: Juliana Anicia codex (cont.)

The Anicia Juliana and the Voynich manuscript  – Layout.

The Anicia Juliana codex is our oldest remaining herbal manuscript. Its making is dated to c.512 AD, and in it are some folios laid out in the same format which is standard in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section. The folio showing ‘Kentaurion’ in the Anicia Juliana may be compared with examples from Beinecke MS 408 cited earlier in the present series of posts.

Juliana Anicia Codex kentaureion
‘Kentaurion’ from the Juliana Anicia codex, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.


(click to enlarge)

fol 7r
Beinecke MS 408 folio 7r.
Beinecke MS 408 folio 2v.
folio 32v peacock
Beinecke MS 408 folio 32v







The point is not that we may now start formulating novelettish stories in which the Anicia Juliana is imagined to have, in some way or other,  directly affected the fifteenth-century makers of Beinecke 408 who were (probably) in northern Italy while the Anicia Juliana certainly wasn’t.

No – the point is that, like the first who enunciated the Voynich folios, some among the Anicia Juliana’s Greek source-texts had treated such an approach to the page –  and a similar relative importance for image and text – as the norm,  even if each displays different attitudes to how the botanical figure itself should be constructed.

That we owe the Anicia Juliana’s  ‘Kentaurion’ page to the one of its precedent texts is plain enough, for where  the Beinecke manuscript uses that format as the default for its botanical folios, the Byzantine codex uses a range of different formats, widely different in appearance and showing a strong  dichotomy between the ruled, boxed and rigid type already shown in the Latin works, and folios with that very different style: one which could be described as making an open, ‘breathing’  page.  The more rigid layout also shows imagery reminiscent of older Latin herbals’:

page botanical 2 blog Julia Anicia

On relative weight for image and text, Leslie Brubaker describes the Byzantine work:

In the Vienna manuscript …[are] full-page images of each plant facing a page of description of its pharmaceutical properties… The balance between word and image is, however, tilted slightly in favor of words. Once, for example, a plant – the Daphne gnidium – is embedded in the text ..The illustration was not an afterthought: as is evident from the way the text flows smoothly around its contours, the image was painted before the words were written. Presumably, the amount of space needed in the quire had been underestimated; rather than condensing the text – a formula followed in certain illustrated biblical manuscripts of the period – the image was reduced, though not abandoned. The solution indicates the relative importance of both….The normal pattern, however, remains a single image facing a page of text.

Leslie Brubaker, ‘The Vienna Dioskorides and Anicia Juliana’, from Antony Littlewood, Byzantine Garden Culture, Dumbarton Oaks, 2002. pp.189-214. (p.191  )

And this reminds  us that in exploring similarities between these manuscripts, we must not forget the substantial differences between them. Despite the closely similar layout, overall the conception and execution of each finished work is quite different.  They evince a different character.  For example, there is no evidence that it  ever occurred to the persons who first made the Voynich botanical folios that image and text might lie on facing pages.  It is also clear that the image is never an ‘afterthought’ nor adjusted to suit the written text.  And whatever the reason that the written text in the Voynich folios clings to the image, it cannot be an under-estimation of the space needed by the scribe.

MS Beinecke 408 folio 24r

There is also a clear implication of different use intended.  Size implies that context for use, and that of the Anicia Juliana (380 mm x 330 mm) shows it a work for display within the library or other static indoor setting.  It is a ‘public’ volume in the sense that it is made to be used by persons without direct access to the makers or any one user in particular: its text is legible and intelligible,  and the volume is made large enough to be viewed easily by two or more people at once.  Its having openings in which one side is devoted entirely to an image implies a ‘no cost spared’ attitude quite at odds with the way in which Beinecke MS 408 presents. It is “pocket-size” (225mm x 160 mm). The nature of its imagery (let alone the the written text) makes it a more private work: made for persons sharing a certain body of knowledge between them, but which was never ‘common knowledge’.

In the Anicia Juliana, the message of extravagance is met by announcement of the glories of the eastern, Greek sphere and its Hellenistic heritage and as both Collins and Pavord have remarked, that message expressed by the content of the codex is made even plainer by  portraits in the frontispiece and following folios.

Those portraits tell us which persons were most revered in early sixth-century Byzantium in connection with plants and medicine . One group includes   Pamphilios [Pamphilos/Pamphilus]”of Alexandria” – though he of Sicyon should be there[8], Xenocrates of Alexandria, Quintius Sextus Niger, Heracleides of Tarentum, and Mantias.

Mantius [also as ‘Mantias’] is perhaps the oldest. He lived in the 3rd-2ndC BC and Galen says that he was the first to write a book on pharmacy (Galen, de Compos.Med. sec.Gen ii, 15, vol.13 pp. 462 and 502).

Rufus of Ephesus appears in the next group (folio 3v)  with  Galen, Crataeus, Dioscorides, Nicander of Colophon, Andreas of Carystos, and Apollonius Mys of Alexandria.

Aside: On a personal note, I am oddly pleased to think that these luminaries may have arrived in Australia, in portrait, before the first shipment of England’s unwanted.  In 1777, the botanist who accompanied James Cook and who stopped at a little bay (later called ‘Botany Bay’ for want of better knowledge) had a personal, hand-made copy of the Anicia Juliana. I like to think he had had it made for the voyage and brought it ashore to assist his collecting of specimens.  If so, it would have been the first book ever seen in the continent.  Below, the picture of Rufus from Banks’ copy.  For more, see post dated July 25th., 2011 at the Natural History Museum blog – here).

detail Joseph Banks' Rufus of Ephesus
Ruphus ‘of Ephesus’ detail from  Joseph Banks’ 18thC copy of the Juliana Anicia codex. Cf the original .. here.

Those figures in the Anicia Juliana portraits have in common that (to quote Pavord)  “all of them wrote in Greek and all were based in towns of the eastern Roman empire.”

And that is logically the point of intersection between the layout of the Anicia Juliana’s  ‘Kentaurion’-style folios and those in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section.

Since the Anicia Juliana was made in the second decade of the sixth century, using content derived from earlier precedents and texts, all from authors who lived between the 2ndC BC and 2ndC AD and were of the older, eastern, Greek world – so this too is the most probable region and time for  original enunciation of the Voynich section.

It is not a conclusion supported only by this page-layout, but accords with the end-result of investigating separately each section of Beinecke MS 408, a large number of particular folios, and specific details found throughout.

The results have indicated, consistently, that the oldest stratum of matter contained in Beinecke MS 408 originated in the Hellenistic period and east of mainland Europe, and that a period of around the 1stC AD had seen a critical stage in its evolution.  About the present written text in the Beinecke manuscript,  of course, caveat necessarily applies.[9]

So, one wonders, which of the source(s) used for the Anicia Juliana might have contributed that ‘Kentaurion’ style of layout?

Keyser and Irby-Massie[10] attribute to Diophantes of Lycia (Gk. Λυκία, aka Lucia) the first reference to Kentaurion in the Greco-Roman literary-pharmaceutical tradition.  Diophantes lived before the 2ndC AD.  Next listed is  Severus Iatrosophista (fl. BC 30- 14 AD) but he is remembered today chiefly for his clysters, not anything on botany. It is Diophantes who is mentioned by Galen  [11], though Galen also mentions in several places a Pamphilos, author of a work on botany, of whom he disapproves. Regardless of the text placed opposite it in the Anicia Juliana, one of these might have served as model for the text-with-image. [8]

Researching such questions would surely be interesting, whether or not any certainty could be reached, but we need not take quite so much trouble in attempting to discover whether imagery in the Anicia Juliana derives from much older sources.

That image facing a passage from  Rufus’ Carmen de viribus herbis’ is enough to tell us certainly that some, at least, of the  pictorial sources were either untouched by the Roman style, or came direct from works of the pre-Roman, Hellenistic, world.

coral from the Julia Aninica codex


Juliana Anicia sea-beast

In the next post we put it under the magnifying glass.


Postscript: I might add that this picture also provides some – if only a little – circumstantial  support for Koen Gheuens’ recent efforts to demonstrate that the Voynich manuscript’s “roots and leaves” section does or once did allude to classical mythology.  The image from the Anicia Juliana shows that there had indeed been an earlier custom of adding to the image of a plant associated mythic and proverbial figures.





[8] Confusion in late classical and medieval sources is not rare, even by the sixth century.  A philosopher Pamphilios of Sicyon is known to have composed a work called “Likenesses in alphabetical order” and is also thought likely the composer of a work on plants which is mentioned several times, and critically, by Galen who says its author had never seen the plants he described.  Pamphilos of Alexandria composed a miscellany called a ‘lexicon’ which paid attention to dialectical variants, but it does not appear to have had any special focus on botany or pharmacy. On this and the other biographies see Smith’s Dictionaries of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, which with his Geography and Antiquities are available online through the internet archive. The first two remain standard references. All are worth bookmarking, at least.  The Dictionary of Biography.. is in 3 vols. VOL. 1 (Abacaenum-Hytanus) ;  VOL 2 (Earinus-Nyx); VOL 3 Oarses-Zygia.

[9With regard to the Voynich text, a constant caveat applies: it may have been devised no earlier than c.1438, though this is unlikely, given that we have  already seen that the handwriting has features in common with a script used in fifteenth century England, copying  a thirteenth-century French work.  And it was to the thirteenth century that most  nineteenth-century appraisers (that is, those experienced and qualified) immediately assigned the present object that is Beinecke MS 408.

The present writer believes that the present, fifteenth century artefact represents an effort at near ‘facsimile’ reproduction from the available examplars, and that these dated to a period between the  late thirteenth century and mid-fourteenth. Some writers have gone so far as to suggest that some of the diagrams in the Voynich manuscript were made by tracing from the earlier source. Another has observed that the Voynich manuscript’s written text looks less like ‘writing’ than drawing of writing.  Perception that the present manuscript resembles imitation of one(s) made earlier has been several times repeated, but in each case has received scant consideration.

[10] Paul T. Keyser, Georgia L. Irby-Massie (eds.), Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists: The Greek Tradition and its ManyHeirs, (Routledge, 2008). The volume contains a convenient list of plants with the authorities in which each is first listed.

[11] Galen, De Comnpos. Medicam. sec. Locos, 9.4, vol. xiii. p. 281. I have the reference from William Smith (ed.), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Vol.1 (p.1051). The dates for Severus Iatrosophista are taken from Author/Number Index To The Library Of Congress Classification Schedules Volume Two (L-Z).