fol.16r Hempen-fibre group

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The classification for this  group of plants is provided  – as usual – by the leaf. And – as usual – the leaf is that of a plant that was known to the ancient Mediterranean. In this case, Cannabis sativa.  Although it is not included in our copies of Theophrastus’ works, classical sources tell us that the Latin term for hempen cloth and books had come from the Phoenician spoken in Spain (where it had already become acclimatised).  The portrait of C. sativa in the Vienna Dioscorides represents the plant differently.

Here the leaf not only looks like the hemp-leaf, but appears to express a not-uncommon uncertainty over whether the leaf should be drawn as peltate, or not.  (A peltate leaf has the stalk attached to the back of the leaf, not its edge). The uncertainty is understandable in the real world, and adds to our confidence that the leaf really is meant for C. sativa and not another having similar leaves –  but no such uncertainty is reflected in Vienna Dioscorides!

Just as accurately, here, the drawing shows the hemp’s habit and appearance, with the leaves correctly arranged on the branch and all set on a slender stem.

But caution is still in order, since hemp-like leaves are seen on many plants .. so a quick glance at the mnemonic, set at the root of the plant, acts as a check. It shows that the plants in this group are associated with, and most likely valued for providing, a somewhat hairy-looking material, which might include a reference to hides, but by default we will suppose a textile for the moment.

That material apparently comes as, or is made into, a thick roll..I don’t take this part of the figure literally  – though many folios accurately represent their root –  because first, if less importantly, it is in the right position to be read as a mnemonic (‘memory-jog) in this manuscript and secondly, no groundline in indicated.  This part of the figure is not a clincher; – just an indication that we are probably on the right track, since the chief reason for harvesting C. sativa in earlier times was for the fibre obtained from it.

… but so far so good.

btw: the same technique is used in fol.70v to distinguish the rough coat of the wild, browsing goat from the smooth, tamed counterpart which appears in the folio that follows it. Here’s the hairy goat – you can see it in perfect detail through the Beinecke library website’s “zoom” function.

As to which other plants were supposed part of the ‘hempen’ group in the habit of the work’s earlier maker/s, the picture gives only a few clues to a modern reader, and chiefly through:

(i) the motif that I call the ‘cut-bole’, and

(ii) the form and colour of the fruit/flower at the top.

(This is another thing which chimes which a ‘Theophrastan’ frame of mind. Theophrastus considered a ‘flower’ as no more than the early stage of a fruit, the  petals just as a transient arrangement of minor leaves. In other words, flowers were almost irrelevant and were identified in any case as a stage of the fruit).

‘Cut Bole’ motif.

In some regions, even by the time of Theophrastus, C. sativa which was native to India, had been carried as far as Spain, where it was already acclimatised by the time of the Romans.  Its use was for tent-cloth and ropes, for the rougher material for sacks and  among the few who had the technical skill, for a type of linen which classical authors describe as being finer even than flax-linen. By the medieval centuries, and perhaps earlier, C. sativa was  cultivated, especially near Mediterranean ports,  in order to provide the hemp needed for a ship’s caulking, ropes and other equipment. It would later be included in the process for making paper (though most paper was made from rags) and it is assumed too that this form of hemp was used in medieval western medicine.

But no part of the hemp- plant yields anything like a wood or timber, and since that is the meaning of the cut-bole motif, which is different from the simple circumscription-mark that means cultivation, it is clear we have a reference here to more than one plant. And that’s the case for every folio, I think except perhaps fol 1v which I believe represents only the Clove plant.

In fol.16r, the ‘cut-bole’ motif is provided with several rising shoots, a combination which as you’ll find throughout the botanical section, consistently points to one or more members in a group which have the ability to regenerate rapidly after being cut. A small bole usually means an herbaceous plant (a shrub), whose ‘small-t’ timber is used for smaller items. Examples as we reach them.

I strongly suspect ~from the context suggested overall by the manuscript’s imagery and by the range of plants in the botanical section ~ that the first maker/s saw here an implied connection to the ‘eastern twin’ for C. sativa, a plant which precisely parallels the hemp’s famous qualities and in everything but outward appearance: a ‘lettuce’ to the hemp’s ‘turnip’ as it were.

As wit hemp, the fibre from M. textilis is extracted by peeling off the plant’s outer skin and stripping the cover from around the inner core. Like hemp it has a remarkable ability to withstand the effects of weather, wind and water; so much so that it would become the official standard for ships of Europe. It too made a rougher and a finer fabric, and so on. The parallels are so close that Musa textilis is to this day known as  ‘Manila hemp’.  Unlike C. sativa though, it was also used for a ‘small-t’ timber. Its branches were the material for roofing where it grew in southeast Asia, and  a cover for temporary awnings such as those used in markets or onboard an anchored ship.  Being technically a herb a member of the Musaceae (banana family), it certainly does regenerate rapidly.

However, while I do feel sure that it is implied here, the fact is that the image does not show its leaves, so I’ll move on to the flower/fruit, and  plants which present in this way and which were closely-associated with the hemp (and indeed with M.textilis in the east).


In the upper part of the drawing we see this fruit/flower. It appears only at the top of the drawing; none are set in the spaces between stem and leaf as happens with heads of C. sativa (and which are so drawn in the Vienna Dioscorides). As it happens that is not an argument against these being heads from C. sativa, since in these botanical folios, flowers are relatively unimportant and to see only one ‘head’ at the top of the figure would not be a problem. What does make it difficult to argue that this represents a head of C.sativa is that  they are coloured red and white.

C. sativa doesn’t produce red heads or nodules or berries, but only small orange-coloured pistils within the flower – which is not what we are seeing here. (Nor are the heads of M. textilis particularly close, though they are reddish).

But plants whose association with C. sativa ~ bought and used in connection with it ~ do include several whose red ‘berries’ take this form. Most were plants used to dye hemp-cloth, and M. textilis too where it grew.  I’ll begin from the west, and move eastwards: hemp cloth was common as far as China.

The associations here do suggest again the life of the trader, buying items of related use, from the centres which provided the raw materials and techniques.

Associated Dyes

Where it grew wild in the western world during the classical and medieval eras, C. sativa was often found close by Rhus coriaria, the Mediterranean Sumac.  (R. coriaria is named for its use in tanning, but it was also well-known as a fabric-dye, especially for hemp).

Most photos will show you perfect, dense, red heads for T. coriaria, so I’ve added two more pictures here – one to show that ‘red-and-white’ effect in the drawing and another to explain why it could be drawn as spikes of berries were interspersed with leaflets.

Rhus coriaria flower

R. coriaria

In India, which was the home of  C. sativa, dyers had several other ‘red-berried’ dyeplants to choose from, including Asian mulberry species, but perhaps the best known was ‘Kamala’ or ‘Red Kalama’ which we call  Mallotus Philippinensis.  Fibre from both C. sativa and M. textilis was dyed with Kamala.


In the Philippines proper..

three important traditional dye-plants among  traditional people of the Philippines are ” … nino (Morinda bracteata Roxb.), kinarum (Diospyros pauciflora C.N. Rob.) and dilau (Curcuma longa L.)… [which] were used for dyeing abaca [M. textilis] fibers and related materials.

The Asian Sumac (Pistacia chinensis), though native to China, also occurs throughout southeast Asia too, and like the mulberry its wood, was valued. From P. chinensis were made the finest bows, and like mulberry woods, it is still used for smaller carved objects such as sticks or carved bowls or jewellery boxes. The combination of mulberry and hemp was especially meaningful for the Chinese. As one researcher notest:

“Hemp (fibre) was so highly regarded by the Chinese that they called their country the “land of mulberry and hemp”. In that case, however the mulberry was probably M. alba, on which silkworms thrive.

For others among the  Sumacs, including their culinary uses, I suggest Gernot Katzer’s ‘Spice pages or  Grieves’ Modern Herbal (but not the abbreviated version online)’.

a Mulberry flower (female)


Hemp-fibre paper has been found in tombs of the western Han (1st-4thC BC).

And in this use too, we have Musa textilis, though when it was first put to this purpose, I can’t discover.  In any case, I see no reference to paper in the figure on fol.16r. Those interested in the question, might enjoy the entry here.

Dye-plants are nearly always ones that were used in medicine, either east or west, and so too in this case. This site – about Indian medicine – gives pictures of both Mallotus Philippinensis and the eastern dyer’s mulberry, Morinda tinctoria. See also Morinda tinctoria Roxb

And just to finish off… here’s the image on fol.16r again.

Even if I don’t want to opt for which among the various  plants-with-spikes-of-red-berries-grouped-with-hemp-and-useful-for-small-wood,

I don’t really think it’s a  ‘bizarre’ picture .. do you?

It simply reads:  hemp(en) plant, (gives) fibre/textiles  (and with) red berried plant(s).. for dyeing same, and their small ‘timber’ .



If you’d like more on M. textilis, see:

Abaca: technical description  Listing of all known uses.



4 thoughts on “fol.16r Hempen-fibre group

  1. I am not sure that I have followed the train of thought, but a person called “SD” (who earlier credited Dana Scott with precedence in the identification of the Clove plant), has now written with great excitement about having discovered a ‘Rhus’ plant in the Voynich manuscript.

    In the excitement SD – or perhaps Edith Sherwood with whom SD is closely associated – seems to have forgotten to mention which folio. I may have missed the reference, of course. Any reader is welcome to see if they can find it.

    Where SD uses ‘anthropomorphic’ Australian English would say “anthropocentric”.

    SD uses ‘portola’: Australian English uses either ‘portolan’ or ‘portolano’ for the handbook and ‘portolan chart’ for the map.

    To the best of my knowledge, I need not acknowledge any scholar before me in regard to my discussion of fol.86v, and especially its inset north emblem.


  2. I received a note from

    (thank you)
    which let me know that other identifications for this folio have been:

    *Rumex crispus – (Dana Scott) a tentative identification see Scott references the scientific and medieval literature

    * Cannabis – Edith Sherwood (undated) No explanation of method, but some quotation from modern herbal literature.

    My own identification was not of ‘Cannabis’ but of a group of fibre-and-dye plants, one of which was hemp – whose leaf gave the group its definition.

    I have followed Dana Scott’s practice in avoiding reference to other researchers’ opinions and working solely from the manuscript, from medieval works and from descriptions in scientific botany.

    But thank you to the person who sent the comment – it’s always good to be able to cite other researchers. I should add that the botanical pages published here were mostly written some time ago, in the old blogger blog.


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