fol 3v: Figs and Festivals

[tidied up to suit the new ‘theme’ format; additional image inserted 13/04/2016]
.This is a detailed analysis of the image on this folio, considering each major element and how all together led to the conclusion that the image on folio 3v describes a group which the makers appear to have perceived as being “fig-like” plants. The reasoning which underlies the Voynich botanical images’ construction as been explained in earlier posts as reflecting a Theophrastan rather than Dioscoridan attitude, so that the leaf and not the flower defines the class, and the plants’ common uses are taken (in the Theophrastan habit) to indicate a nature or ‘soul’ in common.

fol 3v detail

Previous Identifications – reasons for rejection or acceptance. 
From an assumption that the manuscript was likely to reflect European customs and the medieval era, and thus that the botanical section would show  single plants – as western herbals did – so the previous identifications were (e.g.)
* The caper bush (Capparis spinosa)

Capparis spinosa

*Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus – E. Sherwood)


Capparis spinosa (–?) and  Helleborus foetidus are rejected here, but given the wide currency those identifications have gained, I think it only fair to consider each part of fol.3v in detail, to make clear why I reject them.

H. foetidus fruit

Briefly: In reality, the leaves of H. foetidus – but not its uses – are immediately reminiscent of  C. sativa‘s – and those leaves the maker drew in quite a different way, as we have seen (e.g. on folio 16r), the stinking hellebore having otherwise very little in common  with what we see in fol.3v, apart perhaps from a reader’s imagining that the points given the leaves on f.3v allude to the Hellebore’s tiny,  twinned fruits. Otherwise, the Hellebore resembles the drawing in fol.3v scarcely at all, and Sherwood’s effort to make the resemblance seem stronger by alluding to the Hellebore’s connection to a bear’s foot does not quite work, for a bear’s spoor is even-toed.


fol 3v small

When wedetail fruit folio 3v consider together how the stem and fruit are drawn on folio 3v –  the fruit lacking, for example, the citrus’ segmentation,  and the inclusion here of a white or milky substance, which is pictured down the length of the stem, pooling at the ‘Theophrastan point’ where stem and root meet – then one of the ‘milk’ producing plants has evidently served as base type and key to the common nature of the group. One obvious possibility that ‘base’ type – a Mediterranean plant in most cases – is   Ficus carica – .. with one unexpected provisio: that the fig is imagined unripe(!), for that is when a  fig’s flesh can appear white, and while unripe it oozes the ‘milk’.

unripe fig







So – blinking a bit – we may tentatively take the defining or theoretical classifier or  ‘base type’ as the unripe Mediterranean fig.

Closer consideration of the picture’s details will tell us which eastern plants were seen by the original makers as being eastern versions of that defining class: which appeared to be variations of the “fig”.

To anticipate,let me say here that the most important of these plants not only oozed ‘milk’ and produced edible fruit, but were immensely valuable as provisions for ships and for crews in the eastern seas.  Just as was the case with the folios picturing the sesames and myrobalans, the style of grouping and classification is one to which our own taxonomy is almost irrelevant.  The chief species referenced by folio 3v is one which we call Artocarpus.  But to see why they appeared ‘fig-like’, consider first the comparable appearance of leaves and petioles, and why they should be drawn as they are on folio 3v.:

Leaves & petioles
Artocarpus leaves are highly variable, even on a single plant. The next three pictures all show leaves from one of the breadfruits,  Artocarpus altilis.  For comparison, the fourth picture shows Ficus carica, the Mediterranen fig. and I believe that these pictures are enough to show just why these plants – the breadfruits –  might reasonably have been perceived as  ‘fig-like’  even to the details of how the leaves might appear, and how the  young fruit sat in them.

A. altilis

Mediterranean fig

These variable leaves are, in sum,  round or flabellate-to-oval, with a varying number of lobes, and in some cases tips which present as ‘spines’. This fairly well covers what we see in the leaves on fol.3v though this drawing is less precise in its  ‘labelling leaf’ than most of the botanical folios are and (in this case) more like some schematic leaf-forms that occur in western and some Islamic herbals and other imagery of plants.  One might contrast their near-generic form  with the precision with which other leaves for e.g. the Sesame-group were drawn.

Other plants included in this ‘fig-like’ group.

Another suggestion for this folio – though I cannot find who first offered it – is the eggplant, S. melongena.

The eggplant is native to southern India and was early disseminated through lands linked to that region by the oldest routes of the eastern seas.The flesh of the eggplant remains white – in a sense like an unripe fig – and it has a purple-black skin though producing far less ‘milk’.The difficulty with identifying the plant(s) on f.3v as eggplants and nothing else is that the ‘face’ for the fruit on fol.3v is drawn to show clear concentric lines of dots or short lines [use the Beinecke site’s zoom function], and this is not quite the appearance of an eggplant (Solanum melongena).

detail fruit folio 3vS. melongena had been carried – overland, we think –  into mainland China during the early centuries AD where, under cultivation, it  developed a variety of leaf-forms. All these variant forms were known to western botany through pictures, at least,  by the middle of the fifteenth century AD.

Solanum melongena, evolution depicted in Chinese painting

Once again, however, members of the genus Artocarpus are natives of the same region, and these also have white-fleshed fruits and (as we saw above) leaves which offer a more reasonable explanation for the what we see in fol.3v.

Artocarpus altilis cross section

Artocarpus species are all ones producing a milky sap, the fruit from a number being the very large  ‘breadfruits’: soft-skinned, white-fleshed and with seeds scatted through that flesh.  Their habit of oozing considerable amounts of juice when ripe is  proverbial in regions where they grow. One might describe the ripe breadfruit as a kind of mirror image to the unripe fruit of F. caricus.

Others which one might expect to have been referenced by the makers include  Ficus pumila (‘jelly fig’)., the climbing fig of the east, whose fruit is shown (below).  Its skin remains pale even in maturity.

Ficus pumila

However, leaves of neither the Mediterranean or the eastern fig grow opposite, but alternate, though contrary to rumour the fruit of F. pumila‘s vine is also edible.  Thus, the reason that I cannot accept that the drawing on f.3v is intended chiefly as image of either fig is that on  such points as whether leaves are alternate or opposite, the imagery does not err.

Other details in the drawing again turn us towards the Artocarpus, their commercial value and many valuable uses. First, the important clue to the ‘soul’ of this group – to use Theophrastus’ conception of plants and their mutability.
Stem & root ‘Theophrastan point’:

Plants of the Artocarpus genus are, again, noted both for their sustaining fruit and for their milk, but I believe  it was the milk  even more than the leaf or fruit which expressed this group’s ‘common nature’  in the view of the figure’s original makers. This because the milk  is given that critical ‘Theophrastan point’ at the juncture of stem and root, and indeed is shown to form a join between them. For someone trained in the European frame of mind, the ‘latuca’ or milky plant was rather the lettuce.

What we see at the Theophrastan point here is not a stipule; the white matter extends (or descends) along the high green stem, merely collecting or pooling and ‘fixing’ at that defining point.

In certain members of the Artocarpus genus, the milk (as latex) was employed in the eastern world as a commonly-known adhesive used for woodwork and carpentry. The latex from A. elasticus was particularly employed in that way,  and was better known in that use than the one we know better today, Ficus elastica (the rubber plant).

‘Keel’ – Timber: Artocarpus hirsutus etc.

All the plants considered so far: Ficus pumila, Solanum melongena, A. elasticus, and another, A. hirsutus, were native to the maritime  ‘spices and textiles’ routes, which ran between  Borneo, Madagascar, and Java to southern India, the Philippines and thence to Vietnam, Nagaland, Cambodia and China (not necessarily in that order). These routes were densely-travelled ones long before the arrival of the Portuguese, and by boats which passed between the islands as by the much larger ships which made the longer runs.

A majority of the most important  of these plants grew naturally in southern India: in the western Ghats, close by the ancient traders’ port of Muziris.  Into that port, first Hellenistic traders, and later servants of imperial Rome had been sailing before the Christian era, and when one considers the extent of that connection, it will be found that a majority of plants referred to in the botanical section occur within its compass:

Relics of Muziris:

Muziris’ port survived from ancient times until the early fourteenth century, when a flood wiped out the town. It was refounded a little further along the coast, but the original  has recently been re-discovered, and in anticipation of points which will occur in discussing other sections of the manuscript, I illustrate some of the finds.  From Muziris (and Muziris as Quilon)  some Byzantine coins have also been recovered.

Roman glass beads – old Muziris

inscribed papyrus


But trade and the availability of suitable harbour was not the only reason for Muziris’ importance.

As Clemensha describes, the Malabar coast was vital to the maritime trade as such, because it afforded access to essential supplies for maintenance and provisioning.

Speaking in 1947, Clemensha said:

“The only place where the materials for ships could be obtained in the Indian ocean was the Malabar coast of India. This was the origin of the great importance of the trade with southern India. It is no exaggeration to say that practically every ship that was built in the Indian ocean (excluding catamarans and sampans) was built with Malabar timber. Africa …[had] … plenty of forests inland, but there was very little near the seaboard..

Not only did the forests on the western Ghauts produce an adequate quantity but the quality was of the finest in the world. It is today [1947]. For outside planking, keels, stem and stern posts, Malabar teak (Tectona grandis) cannot be beaten. Another wood, Velamadhu (Terminalia tomentosa)*, was preferred for keels in ancient days; “aine” [Artocarupus hirsuta]* was also used. Frames (ribs) were usually constructed of “jack” [Artocarpus integrifolia]*; “pun” (Calophyllum tomentosa) made the most perfect masts; and “pali” (Palaquum ellipticum) the long lateen gaffs—a very flexible and practically unbreakable wood.

Note 1.- the original transcript had errata, giving tomentosum for tomentosa, Autocarpus for Artocarpus, and intergrifolia for integrifolia.

2. Terminalia tomentosa = Terminalia elliptica (syn. T.alata Heyne ex Roth, T. tomentosa (Roxb.)

Ref: W. CLEMESHA, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol.52, No.3 (1943) pp.110-131

In the usual way, one would expect that if a timber- plant were included in a given group in the  botanical section, the figure would include a larger version of the ‘cut bole’ motif (cf. fol.47v). [note – 5/03/2015: f.47v is a poor example of that motif. folio 36r is the model; folio 19v is another – for this I accept Dana Scott’s i.d. as the Rose].

PRESENTING THE WHOLE: a new sort of mnemonic for MS Beinecke 408.

In my view, the only reason for its absence from fol.3v  is that the ‘cut-bole’ in this case was redundant, since the whole figure evoked – intentionally, I think – the form of a water craft which was immediately recognisable throughout the whole of these routes,  from India to Java to China, and today including Japan.

That craft is known as  the ‘Naga-‘ boat  and as the  ‘Dragonboat’ in the Hindu and the east Asian traditions, respectively.

I realise this will be a bit of a leap for some readers, for whom the eastern world before da Gama is a imagined a distant, almost mythical world, but we are considering here a section of the manuscript whose original makers probably thought of  Athens or Rome in much the same way: as a semi-mythical places known chiefly from popular legends and ancient works of art and literaure – at least until some time after our manuscript was made.

Serpent- & Dragon boats.

The Hindu and the Chinese serpent ships are allied, but distinct.  Both are frequently depicted in art, and the dragonboat is still the heart of a great annual festival throughout Asia.

The dragonboat (and serpent boat) are characterised by anexaggerated high prow, topped by a head which faces forward, or (for the Nagamakara boat, aft). The  ‘tail’ can be curled over, or under, both variants employed from classical times until today.

Since modern dragonboats of Asia are more often built for speed than tradition, I’ll illustrate the older type by just a couple of museum specimens, imagery in art, and  replicas.

Philippines dragonboat

Note the extensions from the dragon’s neck in the Thai figure above, on the Chinese burner below, and in the image of the Nagamakara from India, the same custom present in a highly traditional design preserved in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. If the intention was to suggest the leaves lifted in the wind like banners or gills, one would understand. The mature leaves of A.elasticus offer a case in point.

A. elasticus mature leaf

Chinese dragonboat incense burner

Vishnu on the Nagamakara. Courtesy Himmacom

(As a rule Vishnu’s serpent-boat is made a multi-headed cobra, and the Hindu image does not refer to the Asian dragon-boat festival)

Dragonboat Kyoto

As I see them,  the styles which employ a near-vertical prow/neck come closest to the form given the group-figure in fol.3v and these are evidently oldest in China,  the Philippinefol 3v smalls and Thailand.





It may not be co-incidental, in relation to the Voynich manuscript, that the same centres for production of the trade ceramics  –  carried as far as the Persian Gulf, or into the high reaches of the Red Sea from the ninth century – also celebrate the annual river festival of the Dragonboats.

Such goods as textiles, cloves, and ceramics were carried from those ports and harbour to Java, or to  Muziris/Quilon and thence to the Persian gulf and Red Sea ports, from whence they passed into the largest contemporary centres of Baghdad, Damascus, or Fustat (old Cairo), Acco and so forth.

From there, some few (very few) of those ceramics  made their way into the Mediterranean and mainland Europe before that critical date of 1438. Where goods can pass, people may, and information with either.

This point about the ceramics trade will be  relevant again in later posts, when certain elements of design and ornament are discussed.

The annual Dragonboat festival was (and is) one of the permanent red-letter day in the marketer’s calendar.

And on a minor note. This same festival was, by tradition, the only day when a treat known as Zongzhi was made and sold.

Ships’ provisions ~ Artocarpus spp.

In Southern India and the Western Ghats, as I’ve mentioned, there grew naturally and in proximity most of the plants mentioned so far: the eggplant, climbing fig, and some breadfruits, including  Artocarpus altilis, which grew without cultivation in  New Guinea, the Moluccas (Indonesia) and Philippines.  The fruit  of A. hirsutus was yet another in this genus which served equivalent purposes, and so any one of the breadfruits, in fol.3v, might stand for all.

The sweet, edible pulp was eaten directly, or preserved, the  seeds dry-roasted for eating. The most popular breadfruit of all, however, until it became seriously endangered, was another: Artocarpus treculianus. The importance of these fruits – as ships’ stores – cannot be underestimated.

Oozing breadfruit

“Look for the oozing breadfruit” runs an Hawaiian proverb concerning the choice of a good friend or wife. Underlying it is not only the plain observation that a ripe breadfruit oozes juice but that its product endures to nourish and sustain one for years.

Over the wide region where various breadfruits grew, similar observations were doubtless common.

Preservation of breadfruits (A. altilis, A. treculianus, A. camansi, A. incisa) was achieved by pulping, drying and then storing that pulp in a pit underground.

In  that dried, condensed form it has been reported as remaining viable for up to seven years, and was one of the most widely-used of all ships’ provisions, both before and after the arrival of Europeans.

A number of formerly plentiful breadfruits  are now rare and seriously endangered, but in earlier times the distinctive grey-green or grey-blue skin of A.treculinianus  may (together with the eggplant) have informed the  blue coloring used in fol.3v.

And one more use for the Artocarpus should be mentioned here, I think.


Fire piston


In connection with the fitted segments of the ‘keel-root’, I should mention that the fire-piston is an invention of the Borneo peoples.

Its technology remained unknown in Europe, so far as I know, until the nineteenth century, when a German car-manufacturer saw the traditional artefact demonstrated at a public lecture.

The body of the piston was made from wood as a rule, though the illustration shows an old example in ivory. In either case, fibre from the bark of  A. elasticus (terap) – which also provided a woodworking glue – was the only one  employed for the sealing gasket.

The method of manufacture and some technical details are available (at time of writing) in two videos online here.

Internet links may vanish overnight, and information about the artefact is extremely rare, so I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the caption text below.

As you will see in those short films, the form of the traditional piston does resemble these ‘keel’-sections in fol.3v, even to the way alternate sections are fitted with a gasket which extends beyond the cut edge.

Anyone who has ever found themselves away from home, in the tropics or  in a northern rain,  without means to make a flame will surely appreciate this ingenious artefact.

So, doubtless, did the mariners and traders of the eastern seas.


(Text provided with the videos describing the Borneo fire-piston)

Jamri, a native Semelai, demonstrates the lost art of firepiston construction. The firepiston creates fire by rapidly compressing a column of air, and thereby sufficiently increasing the temperature in the chamber to ignite the tinder placed in the cup at the head of the piston. (In excess of 430 degrees C). In the early 19th century European explorers began encountering the native peoples of South East Asia and were astonished to see them utilizing a fire-lighting device they could not comprehend. In 1877 Carl Linde gave a lecture in Munich in which he demonstrated a firepiston. Rudolph Diesel was in attendance and this experience later stimulated him to designing the diesel engine. Unfortunately, amongst its original inventors the knowledge of its construction and use is almost totally lost, replaced by the trappings of the modern world. The process took approximately 2 hours, the gasket is made from fibres extracted from the bark of the Terap tree (Artocarpus elasticus), the tinder is extracted from palms such as the Fishtail palm (Caryota) in Malaysia or the Apiang palm (Arenga undulatifolia) in Borneo. It is scraped from the layers which surround the palms heart.

– Filmed in Malaysia.

Figs and Dragons


(a) regarding the segmented root of fol.3v – a similar ‘root’ is used in fol.45

(b) Theophilus and stag-horn glue in Europe.

In the 12thC (or so) a western monk, named  Theophilus  in religion but born  Roger, recorded the method  for stags’ horn glue.  In the 13thC another western monk named Roger, a Franciscan surnamed Bacon, also interested in technical things. Now whether these two men were ever confused in earlier times, I can’t say, but it certainly did happen in the nineteenth-century, and by a person who translated Theophilus’ De diversis artibus.  The point is of some interest in relation to the Voynich manuscript, for when Marcus Marci sent a manuscript (almost certainly the Voynich manuscript) to Athanasius Kircher in the late seventeenth century, he related a bit of hearsay to the effect that it was said to have been ‘written by Roger Bacon”.  Perhaps the bearer of that hearsay had confused the one ‘Roger’ for the other – but speculation aside, ms Harley 3915 is our best remaining copy of Theophilus’ de diversis artibus. Others who have mentioned Theophilus’ work in association with the Vms include McCrone.

I should have liked to hear that a glue could be made from Ficus milk too, but no such luck!


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