The matter of ‘alchemical herbals’ in Voynich studies

In 1997-8, in a thread entitled  ‘Historical Precedents for the Voynich manuscript’, contemporary members of the old Voynich mailing list considered whether the Vms might be similar  to Europe’s “alchemical herbals”.

Many of the suggestions raised there have passed into tacit acceptance over the past sixteen-and-more years, but other observations made at the time and equally relevant seem to have faded from memory – which is a pity.

The question itself has been well explored, I understand, by Rene Zandbergen, to whose thorough knowledge of medieval herbals I owe my first introduction to  the role the ‘alchemical’ group have played in Voynich studies. Which is not to say that Rene and I hold identical opinions about degrees or type of connection.

After re-reading that old mailing lists’ thread,  I’m amazed by how contemporary its matter still seems.  The issue of ‘alchemical herbals’ is still being raised, and debated,  by members of the present list.

So rather than try to summarise sixteen years’ worth of ideas about whether and how those manuscripts may or do relate to ms Beinceke 408, I’d like to revisit their origins.

In particular, I think that observations made in 1997 by Dennis Stallings (while  referring to a paper  written by Sergio Torasella) are certainly worth bringing again to the attention of more recent researchers.

Among other things, Stallings noted that the description  ‘alchemical herbals’ was a misnomer, a term which had been only recently invented by Torasella to group a number of Italian manuscripts.

Among other notes, Stallings said (Mon, 16 Jun 1997):

1)  “Alchemical herbals” is really a misnomer, since these herbals contain little or no alchemical imagery.  A Bolognese naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) collected some of these herbals and labeled them “plants of the alchemists”.  Toresella calls these “alchemical herbals” for lack of anything better.

  • (Hence I insert Aldrovani’s phase for Torasella’s in the remainder of Stalling’s comments,  as in mine –  D)

2)  Some pictures in the [‘alchemists’ plants’ manuscripts] can be traced to pseudo-Apuleius and the *Circa Instans* of the Salerno Medical School. However, it is an autonomous tradition that may have begun in the XIII century.  No existing specimens predate the middle of the XIV century, their heyday was the XV century, and they disappeared at the middle of the XVI century.  (52)  “They all seem strictly Italian because, except for two cases, all the [manuscripts of that type], about seventy, were produced in Italy, in prevalence in northern Italy, in the Veneto area.”  (51)

6)  Although Toresella expresses his opinion that the author of the Voynich Manuscript suffered from insanity, that does not necessarily mean that the text has no meaning.  Indeed, his statement that the author “thought that he had discovered the secret of the world; a secret to entrust to a language and a cryptic script” would seem to indicate that the text is meaningful.  There are a range of possible levels of meaningfulness.

7)  Those who used the [alchemists’ plants] practiced “traveling medicine.” (according to Torasella p. 47)  These healers practiced “demotic medicine, the offspring of a very ancient medical culture, mostly transmitted orally, and distinguished from official medicine especially by its lack of an organic theory of illness.” (P. 48) [Stallings accepted the implication of medical use, but added:] Thus saying that they were to impress the ignorant misses the point.  These various types of practitioners of “travelling medicine” were medieval folk healers, such as are found in all pre-modern cultures.  …

  • though of course there remains the question of whether alchemists in general were ever greatly interested in medicine as such. In this, some few may have been exceptions, as much later were Tepenecz and Baresch. – D.

Rene Zandbergen’s own site explains his views on the subject as they were in 2002 and as, I think, they remain.

See his ‘long tour’ page.

Postscript note:

After posting this, I found that in a post to ciphermysteries (December 21st., 2009 ‘Pre-1450 German possibility?’, Rene Zandbergen notes another  – Sloane ms 335 on which the  library’s comment reads simply ‘Drawings, some tinted, of various plants. Origin: England


Now, the point is that Torasella’s term has become so widely used over the past sixteen-plus years that it occurs on a multiplicity of online sites, and even in some published texts. It is assumed a formal description within Voynich studies, as well as in some primarily related to medieval alchemy.  But it begs the question of why Aldrovani should have specified this group as alchemists’ plants, if they were mere variant forms of older medicinal herbals – which they are plainly not to be considered.

Ideas about these manuscripts and their import for Voynich studies is unavoidably affected by the assumptions implicit in Torasella’s coining that term with its evident assumption of medical use ~ just as is  Torasella’s assertion of Italian origin rather than prevalence – and both ideas can be seen  repeated as if they were proven rather than supposed.

But instead of continuing, here, to beg such unexamined questions, I’ll revert to Adrovandi’s term: it may be less catchy, but it is the original term used by him for his own European manuscripts.  His term avoids, rather than enforces, an association with the medicinal herbals, and so avoids implying (in the context of Voynich studies) that any points of similarity indicate medicinal uses for plants depicted in the Voynich manuscript.

It also reduces the assumption that other imagery in the Voynich ought to contain ‘alchemical’ imagery like that in later Europe’s alchemical works, something  Adam McLean wrote dismissing  – in that same thread on the old Voynich mailing list – many years ago. (‘Historical Precedents’ thread 19 Nov 1998).

  • For people interested in European alchemical imagery of the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries – alchemical sensu strictu –  a number of reliable texts are available.  I still have my copy of Lindy Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, issued by Cambridge University Press (2001) and have found no need to replace it though others have been published since.

“Plants of the alchemists” or “alchemists’ plants” is more cumbersome and less of an easy sound-bite, but it has historical context in relation to a group of medieval manuscripts and avoids begging the question (still largely uninvestigated) of whether the Voynich manuscript’s plants were intended primarily to serve medicine.

Of  Torasella’s other opinions, given by 1997, many are less often seen today.

His view was – and perhaps still is – that the manuscript had a fifteenth-century Italian author who was insane, sex-obsessed and  highly interested in herbal baths.

However, in saying that I do not mean to imply those views are quite abandoned by the whole Voynich community: until recently, and perhaps still, some were being promoted regularly  (along with discussions of fumaroles) in posts to the present Voynich mailing list.

In the main, however, the chief legacy of Torasella’s paper that term he coined – something I think unfortunate.

His initial views of course on this as on other matters, may well have changed since 1997.

For example, his original view was that the Voynich manuscript was ‘definitely Italian, late fifteenth century’, though since then we have the benefit of a  C-14 dating to inform us that the  parchment is early- rather than late fifteenth century, and that it was apparently used quite  soon after its manufacture.

Less weight is also placed today, I think, on the once widely held view – shared by Torasella – that the script is an ‘Italian humanist’ hand.

Perhaps if any readers attended the Villa Mondragone Conference in May last year, and recall Torasella’s talk, they might care to comment on his current views?.

But all in all ~

I do recommend that researchers trouble to consider, and credit, earlier work including informed opinions published on the old mailing list. Too much time is constantly wasted re-inventing wheels, when a simple quotation or citation allows one to move on to new matter.

It  is certainly true that in style of drawing there are some among the  ‘alchemists plants’ with points of similarity to images in ms Beinecke 408, but the similarities are not many, and not particularly close over the range of those ’70 or so’ western manuscripts.

What connection may exist between that fairly small group on the one hand, and the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section on the other is still not established, so that assumptions that the Voynich plants must have some counterpart and match within the European herbal corpus is an idea that should be maintained only with caution. Aldrovani distinguished his manuscripts not as ‘Alchemists’ herbals’ but simply  ‘Alchemists’ plants’.


I do recommend Jean A. Givens’  essay ‘ Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis 1280-1526′  ‘ in Jean Jean Ann Givens, Karen Meier Reeds, Alain Touwaide, Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History: 1200 – 1550, Avista Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, Aldershot: Ashgate (2006) pp 115-146.

  • Depending on how Google books is feeling on a given day, Given’s chapter may be available to read online.
  • on the cover of that edition, too, the alchemist’s furnace has  its top shaped  in the way of those from earlier Gandhara and China, both of which I illustrated in an earlier post,  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’.

Karen Reed has an essay in the same volume and she also wrote, ‘Botany in Medieval and Renaissance Universities’ [of Europe]. published in Harvard Dissertations on Science in 1991.  a work mentioned (as it happens) by Rene in the same thread!

Among copies of the Tractatus de herbis often mentioned in this connection is ms Egerton 747. It can be seen in entirety  online through the British Library.

  • Here are Rosemary and the Blackberry from ms Egerton 747, fol.85v. Discussed in the context of medieval gardening on the Met’s blog-site  e.g.  ‘Rosemary’ and links given.

Manuscripts  equal in interest and importance to Egerton 747, in my opinion, include Sloane 4016, containing some fine imagery of non-European animals among the herbs.

I particularly like the camel on f.24, so if you’d like to see it but haven’t time to go through the whole manuscript just now, you can see that folio and about a dozen others  here.

And speaking of such things:

The British Library contains a twelfth century manuscript which proves that the (or ‘a’) Loch Ness monster lived in the twelfth century, and was a giant bear!

  • Despite the manuscript’s description (London, British Library, MS Cotton Hilarius A. XV, f. 104r), and the date for the relevant post: 01 April 2013, I will not stoop to suspecting so august an institution of trifling with us  …

… much.

article entitled “Loch Ness Monster Found at British Library”.



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