Alchemy,Medicine and the Vms ~ #3

The manuscripts’ sections  with their varying styles and apparently diverse content appear to have been brought together and inscribed in ‘Voynich script’ before the middle of the fifteenth century.

By the end of the seventeenth, the person whose name is inscribed in the front (folio 1r) and the person in whose possession it then was had shared some connection with alchemy (small ‘a’ or large ‘A’ ) and the second – Georg Barschius – certainly believed the manuscript was concerned with medicine and with some type of chemistry or alchemy.

Writing a second letter* to Athanasius Kircher about the manuscript,  Baresch says (1637):-

From the pictures of herbs, of which there are a great many in the codex, and of varied images, stars and other things bearing the appearance of chemical symbolism, it is my guess that the whole thing is medical, the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls. .. this thing cannot be for the masses as may be judged from the precautions the author took in order to keep the uneducated ignorant of it. … true medicine …  the treasures of Egyptian medicine [gained] partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art …  the volume contains pictures of exotic plants …

*all Latin correspondence about the Vms as translated by Philip Neal.

Three years later  (1640) Marci refers to Baresch’s opinions, now emphasising medicine:

.. Though he [Baresch] is undoubtedly a man of the highest quality and greatly skilled in chemical matters, he has not in fact achieved the real goal he longs for. He seeks it for the sake not of money but of medicine…

and immediately Marci then alludes to the higher nobility, leaving the reader with a sense that Kircher was much impressed by social status:

His Majesty also asked me very keenly about that heliotrope. Did I know it or had I at least seen the effect?

~ a gentle pressure, perhaps, to encourage Kircher in efforts at decipherment.

But so far Kircher seems to have been uninterested, despite having been given a considerable number of pages copied in facsimile, sent by Baresch with an earlier letter which seems to be lost.

By 1640, Marci makes  only passing mention of ‘Dominus’ Barschius (who is supposed the same). At that time ‘domine’ might imply, among other things, a teacher of higher standing – a master.

An in that letter, again,  Marci juxtaposes mention of Baresch with reference to royalty, and once more moves to another – apparently non-consequential – mention of the exotic:

Count Bernard has now been away for over three weeks, gone to Silesia by order of the Emperor. Our other mutual friends cordially salute your Reverence, particularly Father Santinus and Dominus Barschius..

On another topic, could you be so kind as to bring with you the description of the journey of the Ethiopian whose country contains the source of the Nile.

Perhaps Marci thought the script might be Ethiopic or ‘Chaldaean’ – the latter term applied with a variety of meaning by different sectors of European society and according to current politico-religious winds, but which sometimes did refer to Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Christian Ethiopia.

By the seventeenth century, and indeed by the end of the fifteenth, numerous accounts of Ethiopia existed, though the earlier ones reaching Europe were not by native Ethiopians so far as the extant records show.

Ethiopian pilgrims had been travelling to Rome by the twelfth or eleventh century, and as early as 1428 Alfonso of Aragon had received a letter from Yeshak, the Ethiopian king,  proposing an alliance and the betrothal of an Ethiopian princess to the Infante Don Pedro. (Crawford, O.G.S. (ed.), Ethiopian Itineraries 1400-1524  pp. 12-13).

A Venetian had left for Alexandria with merchandise for sale in 1482, later reported to have reached Ethiopia and been made secretary to the king, given his own estate, and being accustomed to play at cards and chess with the monarch each evening.  (ibid. p.21).

His story was told by Alessandro Zorzi, another Venetian who spent  decades of his life in Ethiopia and who composed his ‘Itineraries’ at the age of about seventy –  by Crawford’s estimate.

But perhaps for our purposes the most interesting of the earlier Italian expatriates is a Florentine named Andrea Corsali, who is recorded as having connection with the Medici, and who in one letter to them mentions setting up a printing works on one of the major crossroads of the east-west trade, within Ethiopia, intending as he says to print ‘Chaldaean books’ .

How he fared in that endeavour is not known, but Zorzi also mentions him in a context which suggests that Corsali’s travels may have taken him as far as India.  Referring to the island of Suakin, Zorzi says:

Andrea Corsali, a Florentine, who writes from India, says that [‘Soachen’] is on lat.18 degrees, and in his letter to the Duke Juliano de Medici he calls it Surcen… (ibid. p.137)

Crawford assumes Corsali’s ‘Chaldaean script’ refers to  Ge’ez (Ethiopic), but the issue is not really so clean-cut.

As mentioned earlier, Muslim Egyptians found the ‘Chaldean script’ in old Egyptian temples, saying it was beyond their ability to read, whereas Ge’ez was then a living language, and certainly known to the Muslim world.

When used by medieval and later Latin authors, ‘Chaldean’ can be a strongly  pejorative term, used to refer to the wickedness of astrology. On the other hand it can be a neutral reference to astronomy, astrology or both. Depending on who uses the term, and in what context, it can also be an epithet used approvingly of those eastern churches which had bowed to Rome’s insistence of primacy over the claims of the other and more ancient heads of the eastern churches, known in the Greek-speaking world as Patriarchs. Christianity had originally been assigned by five divisions of which the western only was in the jurisdiction of Rome (and about that the Irish initially disputed in their own case).

The term ‘Chaldaean’ might be used in  different sense again, to refer to any people originating in upper Mesopotamia and who had as part of their heritage a reputed or actual expertise in matters of astronomy in the broad sense: that is, including use of the stars in various forms of prognostication.  Again, use of the term might signal approval: Abraham had come from Chaldaea, or it might be used critically – the Harranians are called Chaldeans (or: Chaldaeans). We also find ‘Chaldeans’ marked on medieval maps within centres of the Persian gulf.  In that case the term describes a people who worships the stars.

So when Corsali wrote to the Medici in what we can assume was the oblique and often euphemistic style of the time that he hoped to print ‘Chaldaean’ books, all one can say certainly is that they involved astronomical lore of some kind.

Secular Latin writers tend to mean by ‘Chaldean’ something closer to some type of rare and ancient astronomy and/or prognostication.  So it is true that Corsali may have meant the script of Ethiopian Christianity – and equally true that he may not.

By the time that Marci finally sent the Voynich manuscript to Kircher in 1665, his memory seems to have been fading. The date on the letter appears to have been corrected and just two years later a mutual friend writes to Kircher (1667):

Our own Marcus, so widely known for his writings in mathematics and other studies has now fallen into the second infancy of old age. He barely understands everyday necessities, as I note with much sadness and distress whenever I happen to visit him.


So back to the larger issue

Why did Kircher want the manuscript by 1665 but not in 1640,  despite  the various entreaties?

If it were  ‘Egyptian’ medicine his interest in things Egyptian was certainly pronounced; if it was any kind of new medicine it could have assisted in efforts to avoid, or treat, plague – which still regularly swept over Europe taking thousands in a season.

Kircher might have been concerned that the book was about money-grubbing alchemy, it’s true. But his own interest in the less dubious work of chemistry is clear enough.

He published, in 1665 and in the second volume of his Mundus Subterraneus. (Amsterdam, 1665) (p.260)  a table of equipment and processes employed in contemporary chemistry. That table is re-presented on the Alchemy website, which on other pages shows Libavius’  vessels for digestion and circulation. (Alchymia…, 1606) an a late 17thC  depiction of al-Geber’s furnaces ~ not to mention a set of alchemical drawings from  “a medieval Syrian manuscript

But to those drawings  nothing in the Voynich manuscript, not even the small motifs in the botanical section, appears to conform.

One reason for thinking that there still may be reference to chemistry of sorts, though in the eastern rather than western manner, is the presence folio 4v detail gourdof that bottle-gourd on folio 4v, where it is shown in association with a plant which to me appears one of the  narrow-leafed and blue-flowered clematis of Asia.

Western alchemical apparatus and equipment do not include this type of gourd or vessel as far as I have discovered, and western pharmacy has never been greatly impressed either with Clematis.

Alice Coats (1992) puts the matter succinctly:  “The leaves [of  blue-flowered C. vitalba] are acrid and poisonous, and not even the early herbalists attempted to use the plant in internal medicine”.

Gerard’s Herbal does refer to  C. flammula as  ‘biting- or purging periwinkle’  (as Coats also mentions) and Gerard is further credited with being the first to refer to C.vitalba  as Traveller’s Joy, but the plant was not well-regarded and in Mrs. Grieves’ Modern Herbal only C. recta is given a heading, and under it receives short shrift.

It is certainly possible that the original maker of the image on f.4v intended some allusion to the Mediterranean species, since this east-west connection is constantly made, but the plant which occupies the drawing in f.4v is not V. vitalba, whose broader leaves and separated petals are shown at left, while the narrow leaf and tighter bell shown in the picture does closely resemble a number of the Asian species, one example shown below (centre).fol4v flower detail blog

C. vitalba

C. vitalba

Clematis pseudootophora small

In Asia  C.chinensis is most widely used in medicine. Earlier uses for Clematis (as noted earlier) were primarily as an ingedient for incense.

Current medical use in China is described below. The information is online though I won’t link to the site. If you want to find it, I’d suggest googling a sentence or two from the quotation.

The species Clematis chinensis, which grows in Eastern Asia and Western China, is a key herb in Chinese medicine. The roots or rhizomes are the plant parts that are used medicinally…. Clematis is used primarily to ease arthritic and joint pain, especially the kind that becomes worse when the weather is cold and/or damp. It is also used to relieve abdominal pain and abdominal distention.

Clematis can also be prepared with rice vinegar and brown sugar and taken orally to dissolve small fish bones lodged in the throat. Use 15 to 30 grams of clematis, make a thick decoction, cooking it with vinegar and brown sugar and when cooled down, swallow slowly.
If ingested in large amounts, the compounds in clematis can cause internal bleeding of the digestive tract. The toxicity of the plant is dissipated by heat or by drying. Clematis is also a mild skin irritant.

In recent years C.vitalba has been used for  creating a great many  cultivars, so if seeking comparative pictures, take care!.

Trade in scented goods such as incense, perfume and objects made of scented woods formed a trade much greater in Asia than the trade in spices to the west.  It was a massive international trade, especially into Han China.

This wiki article ‘Incense in China’ gives an historical outline and a worthwhile bibliography.

So maybe part, or even much, of the botanical section shows ‘plants of the alchemists’ or those used in some type of chemistry ~ question is, what kind and whose might it have been?

  • In the next post, I’ll post the table of  proportions for the ‘Perfume Ocean’ as given in  vol.2 of the Brhat Samhita. It’s not the only table in the same section though I hope it may amuse any Voynich-oriented mathematicians.

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