BACKSTORY so far (June 2012-March 2013):

[2300 words]

This blog is not about the manuscript-as-object. I’m happy to accept that its parchment dates to the earlier part of the fifteenth century and that its inscription is generally attributed to one or more people trained in some part of Europe.

My interest is in what its imagery tells about its matter and prior history.

Since last March I’ve written posts on…

The Botanical Section

The largest part of the manuscript.

The plants are drawn in a way which makes them appear mysterious, and almost unreadable to western eyes, even when compared with some of the less realistic imagery in western texts. Even more to the point, it includes plants whose forms do not appear at all in western works until centuries after the manuscript’s date.

root-mnemonic 'Brews'
Musaceae f.13r

One undisputed example is  folio 13r. It  shows a group of plants from the Musaceae [banana/plantain] family  in my opinion, though others believe it shows a single specimen as  European works do.

Other plants pictured in this section are ones which did not grow in Europe or the Mediterranean, though some products from them were traded into it ~ such as Myrobalans.

This raises a question as to whether the manuscript we have contains content first created in western Europe, or whether its content (quite apart from the book’s manufacture) originated elsewhere. If so, then  it was  somewhere these plants were well-known, because they are clearly drawn from first-hand knowledge.

In terms of drawing-style, too, the section does not conform with the example offered by extant medieval western manuscripts.

On one point it may connect with medieval practices: certain motifs are used quite systematically across the entire botanical section and consistently serve to indicate common qualities and uses.

I’ve explained these visual mnemonic elements when analysing specific  folios, and I’ve given a quick outline of references to similar practices in medieval Europe.

Three posts show the most common among those motifs as they appear across the botanical section.

Water-plants and Vines;    Cultivated and rapidly regenerating plants;    Brews.

Once I recognised and accepted that this section of the manuscript does include plants  that grow only outside Europe and whose form was not known, or much less accurately drawn in western texts than they are here –  something widely agreed with regard to folio 13r, and which over time I came to believe was true of the majority – then it was plainly worth investigating whether  stylistic details and habits also suggested external custom or whether the drawings used typically European style, which would indicate not so much the bringing of an eastern source-work as perhaps the work of some traveling European fascinated by botany and having some skill in drawing.

I found that eastern habits*  are evident not only in the subject-matter itself but also in  customs of drawing, and not just  in the botanical section but throughout the various sections, if more pronouncedly  in some than in others.

As one example of what turned up during the research I might cite the Asian motif used to indicate water-plants (shown below). It’s  a customary form easily  recognised by most people, whether or not familiar with Asian art.

*for present purposes, ‘the eastern sphere’  is generally defined by a line of longitude passing through the centre of the Caspian Sea, although lines of transmission link those regions very closely with the eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the Black Sea).

ceramic Singapore preColonial
ceramic Singapore pre-Colonial

f.94v-iii detail blog



Historical context

I then asked whether  such  implications gained by considering the imagery found a contradiction in  European history, but once more nothing provided any reasonable objection to them;  that one or more eastern sources could have reached Europe ~ where the manuscript is thought to have been made ~ by the earlier part of the fifteenth century was unquestionably possible.

I sketched the historical background in outline over a number of posts, referring to some among  those Europeans who certainly had travelled towards eastwards, as far as Persia, the Tarim, India, the Spice islands, and some even as far as China itself before that time. The fact is that before the fifteenth century some Europeans had been resident in China itself.

Equally,  persons coming from the eastern world  might have brought the matter with them –  I mean persons other  than Europeans who might have fetched it.  We have record of traders, refugees, missionaries and ambassadors who came from the east into Europe (if Byzantium is included as ‘Europe’) from considerably before the date of the manuscript’s parchment.

So there seemed little reason not to accept as valid the inference of the imagery’s content and style in regard to the botanical section.

And the sort of information in that section, as in others, was valuable – of a type which we know might be maintained as part of a community’s heritage and which was sometimes accorded quasi-religious status.

Then too, there was one person (Baresch=Barschius) who had  urged Kircher to consider this manuscript precisely because he believed it contained matter brought from the east. He believed the plants were medicinal.

So despite the common impression that a ‘fortress Europe’ refused all influences save chosen texts in Greek and Arabic, the fact is that if cloth and cloves could come from the east into western Europe thoughout  the centuries, so might an eastern book have come.

Next, I turned to see how early we find similar imagery in western manuscripts, or other western art.

In a number of posts I gave examples of where some detail  was somewhat similar to one in the manuscript.  They occur as early as the ninth century, and even include a late strand among the western herbals, but none show tropical plants such as bananas or the Indian myrobalans as the manuscript does.

So the works informing this manuscript were more likely to have arrived in the later rather than the earlier medieval period: likely, but not certainly, since many older books were scarcely known except to people with access to a specific collection.

So what other indications were there in the manuscript that the matter might have originated somewhere other than in Europe?

The routes: Folio 86v

I read folio 86v as a ‘real’ rather than a fantasy map.

Apart from a single building in the ‘mini-map’ – a vignette included within the North roundel –  folio 86v appears not to refer at all to mainland Europe.

I found that exclusive of architectural details and the north roundel’s vignette,  both of which are drawn in a European style and appear late additions, folio 86v had been designed and drawn in a style not remotely European – adding yet more to the pile of evidence suggesting that the matter and style had not originated within mainland Europe.

What  I call the ‘mini-map’ is differently drawn from the greater part and shows an evident connection to western map-making, as do the architectural details.

The connection (as I explain in the posts) comes closest to the type of map that began to appear in the west from the 12thC-14th centuries. The later type are known as portolan charts. Of that genre, our earliest remaining western example is a north African map, followed by charts made by the Vesconte (sometimes ‘Vesconti’) family, and a world-map made the Balearic islands.

So from that, it seemed most likely that the Voynich manuscript’s content had reached the western sphere some time between the twelfth century and early fifteenth centuries – though a possibility also remains that ms Beinecke 408 contains a late compilation from a number of manuscripts obtained and copied in the fifteenth-century.

The mini-map’s  ‘castle’  and swallowtails are part of the late additions, in my opinion; the castle cannot be identified and ‘swallowtail’ crenellations I found from as far north as Caffa to far south as northern Africa, so whatever the first origins of the style – and they may be Achaemenid, Sasanian or Lydian  –  by the fifteenth century they were a European detail which could be seen as far as Jerusalem.
Other motifs in fol.86v reinforce this view that in origin the map is not medieval European, but that there is a connection between the additions (including the mini-map) to maps and charts made in Jewish and Genoese convention.

Thus, the type of plants in the botanical section pointed to the eastern seas and its trade; so did stylistics in the botanical section, and fol.86v seems scarcely to refer to mainland Europe, but instead shows overland routes by which eastern goods and people came westwards before the 1430s.

Looking for other signs of similar knowledge within the Mediterranean to that time, it was clear that so much and more was certainly known in twelfth-century Sicily, when Al-Idrisi’s geography shows the world as far as China and we know that unlike the habit in mainland Europe, he constantly collected and then cross-checked information gained from travellers and merchants – for fifteen years!

Which means that people were making the round trip in his time just as the Radhanites had done in the earlier medieval centuries.

Again, there was nothing I could use to argue against the indications given by the imagery, in its content and in its style, that it was a work whose botanical section at the very least had been composed and long preserved  beyond Europe.

The extent of the world known to Idrisi in 12thC Sicily.

East-west trade routes in use to the 13thC (though not known to most Europeans of the time) in the header bar.

Having reached that stage in the research I felt it would be simply unreasonable to cling to the idea that the manuscript was European in content as well as in manufacture.

It appears to consist of matter about the eastern sphere, drawn by easterners – perhaps Indian, or Asian, or southeast Asian… that had to be tested.

But the east was where  plants in the botanical section grew naturally*** or were cultivated and which (like renaissance Europe) revered the works of antiquity.

*** Obviously, there will be some disagreement likely over identifications for the plants depicted.


Close connection between the botanical folios and the ‘pharma’ section is, I think, undisputed and makes it highly likely that these were originally part of the same source, though I should date the ‘pharma’ section somewhat later than most of the botanical drawings.

There is an evident difference in style, too, between the botanical-pharma and those sections containing diagrams, as different again between the style of the  ‘bathy’ and meteorological diagrams.

To cut a longer story a little short: the whole might be termed ‘eastern’ in its matter, and in its style and customs in drawing, but  no simple solution can be obtained by suggesting for the whole a quasi-nationality. This, of course, is a pity with regard to efforts at deciphering the written text, but such efforts are not assisted by ‘fudging’, either.

Another reason for its being impossible to nominate one or another nationality here is that under those Indo- Asian customs in drawing, the diagrams strongly (and even the botanical section, though less obviously) show evidence of having been derived from very much older works characteristic of the eastern Mediterranean – including Egypt but especially focussing on the region around the ‘elbow’ between the levant and Asia minor, where Egyptian, Hellenistic, Achaemenid, Syrian and other influences tended to meet and meld.

Perhaps the most obvious example here is the ‘bearded sun’ in folio 67v-ii’. Its nearest type is found in a Syrian ivory dated to the 8thC BC and   recovered by Layard from Nimrud in Mesopotamia. sun barbee

Its showing clear influence from Egypt is no illusion.  Egyptian influence in non-Egyptian imagery is also to be seen in folio 86v and less obviously in other diagrams. Medieval Europe never imagined, either, that the sun was daily reborn from a lotus.

west lotus

And again the same was present – to my considerable astonishment –  in f.67r-ii.  Here the lotus filling the centre of a ‘compass rose’ is shown in the way  conventional for such imagery in Egypt: not only  pre-Roman times  but in this case  pre-Hellenistic.

fol 67v-ii detail centre flowerbowl Egypt faience New Kingdom c 1500bce southdown

So, it gradually emerged, this manuscript not only included eastern plants, and drawings in eastern styles, but that these stylistic features were (in various sections) affecting what had originally been much older eastern Mediterranean matter – preserved, evidently, in that eastern environment much as similar works were preserved in the equally unexpected environment of early medieval Latin Europe.

A clear example of where the ancient and the eastern influences occur together is offered by fol.67.

There, on the same foldout showing the ‘bearded sun’ is a plainly Asiatic face having tiara-like head-dress. But this isn’t the Babylonian, nor the western Papal type of ‘tiara’. It shows a form that occurs in regions adjacent to the Great Sefol 67v i Guards detail Asian querya; attested particularly in traditional Arabia and in Kerala (the form from Kerala is illustrated below).

Such indications kept on presenting themselves as I worked through the manuscript: cdress hat green Kerala f67onsistent in form, in presentation, application and thus in implication.

I could only conclude that what was copied ~  likely within mainland Europe ~ had come most directly from the east, and had represented some long-treasured corpus of works composed in the earliest centuries of the Hellenistic period – long before Claudius Ptolemy.

Whether or not that conclusion proves correct, it is clear that any explanation which is offered for this manuscript –  at least with regard to its content –  cannot simply ignore such details and must account  for not only what is shown, but the antecedents of its style.

The evidence proved consistent, no matter what part of the manuscript was investigated.

For example, there were only two traditions in which I could discover any consistent meaning being accorded the gesture given one of the figures  in f.57v.

One was the Armenian convention in which it  signifies ‘blessing’ .

The other was the Indian, where this mudra (formal hand-sign) is named ‘peacock’ and is employed to convey the idea of  “praise” (among other things).

Armenians themselves were established in SouthEast Asia and in China before the middle of the fifteenth century.

Attempting to name one particular place  as that where this matter had been preserved would not be easy. Indeed, some might consider the question quite irrelevant. Over so long a time it is only to be expected that people and objects would have moved, and indeed the different sections in the manuscript do, as I’ve said, show influence from more than one eastern tradition in art.

I might suggest northern India and Baghdad as two among the many places possible. Each held a wide variety of peoples, customs and religions before the Islamic era, and thereafter still a variety of peoples even if all were of necessity become Arabic-speaking monotheists.

Scattered still more widely were centres of settlement formed after one of another diaspora and from repeated instances we know that there was a constant tendency for dispersed peoples to treasure and transmit  texts first composed in their original homeland.

Among these scattered peoples, I’ve so far mentioned Manichaean communities and some eastern Christian communities, including those about the Tarim and Thomas Christians in southern India. The extent, nature and lasting influence of Manichaean thought is itself an interesting if unresolvable question. In theory, at any rate, its influence in India never penetrated far south.

fol 77r detail top branch

The Persian Gulf is another point of exchange, not only of goods but of information and culture.

It served as a fulcrum on the east-west line. So too in the north at various times, centres such as Damascus or Trebizond served in that way. And southerly, so did Egypt.

Intersecting all three of these  is another ‘line’ –  that along which we find scripts having an ornate “P”-shape not unlike those employed in Voynichese. Two are illustrated.

script Vms pole glyphs

The next post begins with medieval Egypt and its maritime links to India, the ‘Spice islands’ and southern China.

I think, though, that the form given the written text  will probably be found to derive  from those of Sasanid Persia.


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