Plants on the Page: dispositions and parchment

letterD[updated 6th March 2016 – to repair format after adopting a new wordpress theme. No additions].

Popular histories of Europe’s herbals give them a lineage which begins in dynastic Egypt, passes through Greece and Rome and then after centuries of inexplicable hesitation arrives finally in Europe with the assistance of translations from Greek,  or Arabic.

It is a lineage oversimplified, generally ignoring the eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor, North Africa (for the most part), as well as the Black Sea, non-Christian works in Europe, and non- Arab and non-Muslim works produced within Islam, but at present that is not our concern, which is rather which among such works changed Europe’s idea of ‘the page’.

In the ancient and medieval world we find only a few methods used to combine text and image on a single page. Europe’s native method was informed by a fixed idea that imagery was ancillary to the spoken word.  The page was conceived and structured as an area to be filled with text. Imagery was not expected to interrupt its flow ~ though this had not been an idea to which the Irish were so attached.

Imagery and text were disposed by certain conventions.

1. as ‘paragraph’ –  The image is treated as if it were an alternative form for text: a pictorial ‘paragraph’ – inserted across the width of the column.

This custom is found in works on papyrus and was already standard custom in classical Latin works. From those roots the habit was maintained in later Latin and Greek texts as well as in those written in  Syriac and, later still,  in Arabic.

Syrian and Persian manuscripts habitually include human figures in botanical pictures.  The Voynich manuscript does not. Nor does its page present as being focused principally on the written segments.

corpus agrimensis blogms Pharm 13thCpage botanical 2 blog Julia Anicia.


This is especially true for the botanical section, though the same can be said of the closely related  ‘pharma-‘ section (so called), and despite its design falling into alternating bands.  Rather,  the script here presents as a labelling or comment on the pictures, which have  precedence in the page-design.

fol 100r pharma pagefol 18v sml blogIf we presume (as many do) that the Voynich manuscript was manufactured in mainland Europe, we may have to assume too that introduction of the matter to Latin Europe gave the written text higher priority, for these plants are not native to Europe. This is the view I reached by considering the style in general and particular examples. I then found I was in agreement with an opinion reached previously by Mazar and Wiart, and one which Baresch himself asserted when the manuscript had been some time in his possession.

The Voynich manuscript’s botanical pictures are drawn with such detail  that if either text or image had to be dispensed with, I rather think the original users of this imagery could have managed without the  script.

But in seventeenth century Prague, that was not the case;  the manuscript’s written text was essential for any European user, as  Baresch makes clear in his 1635 letter to Kircher, and it is generally true for those who work on the text today. Baresch makes clear that because the plants are foreign ones he could not begin to understand the manuscript until its script was identified.

In that same letter he  implies ~ rather interestingly ~ that some earlier efforts to seek advice had led nowhere.  Although he names no-one in particular, and Jungius was the most famous of the secular German botanists of that generation, the context allows me to think Baresch may mean  German Jesuits.  A number  of Jesuits had been active abroad and among them were some personally acquainted with Kircher.

Kircher was thus in a position to consider correspondence and additional information sent from those countries where Jesuits were established.  Certainly they sent back copies of various foreign scripts, sought by the Vatican printery and  of keen interest to Kircher himself.  Johann Adam Schall (1591–1666) is noted among such  German Jesuits, but a list of the best-known is here.

Baresch says  ..

… herbae peregrinae, in Volumine depictae, notitiam hominum in partibus Germaniae subterfugientes.

which Neal translates as

“… the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany”.

Previous to this, exotic botany had been the subject of several books published in mainland Europe, including those by da Orta (translated by Clusius) which I mentioned in relation to the banana, as well as information published by Alpini or that gathered more privately by Sassetti, not to mention information brought much earlier by traders, of whom de Conti is one of the few remembered.

Given this reference to Germania, and the firm opinion of some that the work is entirely of German provenance, so the fact that the Voynich parchment is not perfectly equalised, as German parchment was from the thirteenth century,  is worth pausing to consider.

Note (March 6th., 2015) – here and in all occurrences, for ‘Voynich parchment’ read ‘Voynich vellum

I had hoped for a guest paper on this subject, because I must rely on digital scans and  secondary sources. Unfortunately, a conflict exists between the story given by the Beinecke website’s introduction and the dating obtained by C-14 better: radiocarbon dating, which is also referenced there. That constitutes a difficulty for one of the specialists; the other withdrew after considering posts which have appeared* in the Voynich mailing list.

* note: 6/03/2015 … addressed to me or to my former students. Some list- members, including the nominal ‘moderator’, had attacked without provocation certain of my students – and so savagely that the option of studying this manuscript had been rescinded. The practice continues. A recent example of the style can be read in some comments to Mr. Pelling’s blog, although in general he does act to moderate, rather than to multiply, instances of pack-attack and ‘flaming’.

So in lieu of any opinion from a professional codicologist, what follows comes from online scans and what secondary sources I’ve consulted.

Parchment in the early fourteenth century Latin world:

In 1424,  before de Conti’s return to Europe,   a translation was made into Italian  of a French work entitled ‘Li Livres dou Tresor’. Its Italian title became  ‘Il Tresoro’.

It offers a useful comparison to the Voynich manuscript, for its parchment and for its attitude to the page.

Il Tresoro (Brit.Lib. MS Yates Thompson 28 ff. 43v-130) still assumes the hierarchy of word over image;  still uses the idea of image as replacement ‘paragraph’ but also includes a second way of uniting text-and-image on the page: the ‘cut-out’ ~ as I’ll call it here.

ms Il tresoro f51r blog

folio 51r

2. ‘Cut-outs’ are still envisaged in terms of the page’s text-box, an area of which is simply assigned to the image-as-demonstration. As a rule they attach on one side to the margin,  minimising interruption of the written text. (e.g. folio 51 r  fol.49v ‘Noah’)

As we’d expect, ‘Il Tesoro’ has parchment which conforms to Bloom’s description of the North Italian type.

Italian (Nth): Parchment not equalised;  hair-side openings easily distinguished from the skin-side; hair follicles are visible.

The  text is  provided with punctuation and  diacritics.

Some effort has been made in this manuscript to avoid using the ruler  ~ a quirk adopted  in some European texts, especially those of ‘renaissance’ men.   The left margin and  picture boxes appear to have been drawn freehand. Perhaps co-incidentally, the same custom occurs in Roman paintings – especially frescos – of the early centuries AD.

Prick-marks in the manuscript are on the outer edge and very small, except for one triangular cut which shows that a knife was used and not a needle.

I’ve added a red frame and a black horizontal line, the second to show how the script aligns with that cut.

To enlarge, just click on the picture.  [ms  detailed record].

ms pricked lines early 15thC Italy ll Tresoro

This script itself is about same size as the basic  ‘Voynich’ hand, though ‘Il Tresoro’  contains no micrography.

High.res. scans on the Beinecke website have been digitally equalized, reducing evidence of a distinction between hair- and skin- sides,  so I’ll  refer instead to the scans at bibliotecapleyades.

Voynich MS: The Voynich parchment  (e.g. fol. 36r) is fine and thin. Signs of scraping occur only on the lower corners (at least in the scan – lower right corner). Following this, the surface of  fol.36v also shows scraping (lower left) and various follicles, as does  fol. 37r ~ indicating that this is a hair-side opening.

In having these characteristics, the Voynich parchment is more like the imperfectly equalised parchments produced at that time in  northern France,  northern Spain or England, German parchment having been perfectly equalised (according to Bloom and numerous others) from the thirteenth century.

In that context it is relevant that Wilfrid Voynich saw nothing about the book’s manufacture to contradict his belief it had originated in England.

A fourteenth-century manuscript on similar parchment (as far as one can tell from a scan) is

English: MS Arundel 38 (1411-1432).  Slight signs of scraping can be seen in the corners  ( Folio 36v )  but, as with the Voynich,  hair sides still show numerous follicles (e.g. fol.34r).

Compare these with the parchment of a fifteenth century manuscript from Germany

German: Brit.Lib. Arundel 131 (fol.191v and  88r). Dated to the first half of the fifteenth century, its hair-side and flesh side are distinguished only by a yellowish tinge to the former. Otherwise, its parchment is perfectly smooth and even on both sides,  to the point where it resembles fresh thick paper.

In general, in the early fifteenth century, both German and English manuscripts use ruling-up more often than pricking to define the text-box, and leave signs of that ruling visible   (e.g. f.88r).

Latin or vernacular manuscripts from northern Italy occasionally show evidence that a wire frame was being used as a text guide. That device was an invention of Jewish scribes or stationers.

It is possible that a frame was used for the Voynich manuscript, which contains no evidence of ruling up a page as de-facto text box: no ruling, pricking or scored. Only one page in the manuscript shows a border-line, and that is in the manuscript’s astronomical section.

Northern Spain:  (Brit.Lib. MS Harley MS 4796).  Employing a very conservative approach to its page, this manuscript comes from a region which had been a centre for translation and teaching in the twelfth century. Its parchment appears (to me) to be almost identical to the  parchment in the botanical and pharma sections of the Voynich manuscript. (see folio 2r and  folio 44r ). It is those with which I’m concerned at present, and it should not be forgotten that the Voynich manuscript is a compendium.  Its parts may have been produced within the period 1405-38 but all were not necessarily made in the same region, or same year.

Italian (Sth.) and Spanish parchments from the early fifteenth century are so closely similar that at times no more exact attribution can be made. So, for example,  with Brit.Lib. MS Burney 212.  There again the parchment is beautifully finished but the hair-side retains a number of follicles (e.g.  Folio 14r ).

 Back to Il Tresoro.

Except for just one side of one folio  (below, right),  Il Tresoro disposes its pictures as ‘paragraph’ or as ‘cut-out’  in the Latin mode, and gives no evidence of other than a typically Latin view of how a page should be arranged, nor that an image is ancillary to written word.

Only one folio may be an exception to the rule: folio 43v.  There the imagery seems to carry the bulk of information and to be effectively autonomous and self-explanatory, not only in each discrete picture but in connections between them, which constitute a continuous and complete narrative, to which in this case, labelling and comment is subsidiary. In effect its reference is gained more from the frieze or mosaic than the book.

Throughout the Voynich manuscript, the same image-focussed approach to the page is typical. The sections, in their different ways, can all be envisaged as picture-books to which text was added, but  more as expanded label or added comment upon the imagery than as the manuscript’s principal matter.  In one folio only, the north Italian manuscript manages to imply  near-equality between image and text, but even so treats each unit of picture-with-label as if it were a single  ‘paragraph’ in the narrative page.

ms BritLib Yates Thompson 28 f 51 Tower of Babel and Zoroaster

Il Tresoro folio 51r

ms BritLib Yates Thompson 28 f. 43v Days of Creation page

Il Tresoro folio43v





At just same the time that all these Latin Christian works were being made, another manuscript was being produced in northern Italy, probably in the Veneto.

So radically different is its attitude to the page that at first glance it is slightly shocking. It seems to come from another world, one where all the Latin conceptions of the page are unknown, or at least irrelevant.

Fully a century and a half before de Busbecq noticed Hamon’s Julia Anicia codex,  a very gifted painter by the Adriatic Gulf produced  British Library as MS Additional 41996 ff.113v).

botanical art BritLib NthItaly perhaps Venice blog

The book was  given to  an unspecified convent in northern Italy. Its style has some distant antecedents (in various media) and is plainly related in some degree to Hamon’s copy of Dioscorides (the Julia Anicia codex). But as I expect you can see,  its attitude to the page is not part of the usual Latin tradition,  the painting themselves made with such exceptional skill that when looked at close too, they more nearly resemble the genre of fresco painting than manuscript illustration.

( a pre-Renaissance fresco in Italy; Fresco, Pompeii, 1stC AD. See also Livia’s Villa, Rome).  Those second two both date to the first century AD,  almost exactly the mid-point of that range which I have indicated as being appropriate for the Voynich imagery’s first enunciation. Botanical imagery in the Julia Anicia codex is believed directly derived from the same period.

Brit Lib Add MS 41996 f. 113

Brit Lib Add MS 41996 f. 113

BritLib NthItaly quer detail blog




Finally,  a  manuscript made during the thirteenth century, in southern Italy/Sicily.

ms Sicily 13thC format blog

Brit Lib Arundel 268 f.75

230 x 165 (195 x 120) – trimmed edge.


Afterword: The JULIA ANICIA CODEX also known as the Vienna Dioscorides.

The wiki article  ‘Vienna Dioscorides has substantial omissions, so I add this more complete account.

Some doubt must arise about whether that manuscript newly rebound in a monastery in 1406 is certainly the same as the 6thC anthology in poor condition which was obtained – by pressure and determination – from a Jewish physician in 1569.  De Busbecq had described its condition in 1563, together with the fact that it was owned by a Jewish physician who had inherited it from his father, personal physician to the Turkish ruler of Constantinople.

What follows is derived from the version at History of I have edited it to correct an implication in the original  that when Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq  first began attempting to obtain the manuscript, it was in the possession of the Turks.

What deBusbecq did – thoughtlessly for a foreigner and guest – was to begin trying to convince the earlier physician’s son to sell him an item of personal property. The extraordinary amount cited in response was not an ‘asking price’ for the thing was not on offer, but a convention within Islamic circles to avoid refusing anything to a guest, but politely indicating a desire not to sell nor to give.

A hundred ducats was quite literally the cost of a king’s life – as ransom –  and that was the message conveyed, but which  de Busbecq was too obtuse to hear:  that to surrender the book of a king’s physician would be to risk the health of a king.

deBusbecq saw things otherwise, his vision affected not only by his greed, but self-importance. For him, the fact that a book he found desirable should be owned by Jewish physician was contrary to the state of things. He actually speaks of the book not as owned by a person unwilling to sell, but as being  ‘enslaved’.

The matter is recorded  in de Busbecq’s Turkish Letters (IV, p.243).

“One treasure I left behind in Constantinople, a manuscript of Dioscorides, extremely ancient and written in majuscules, with drawings of the plants and containing also, if I am not mistaken, some fragments of Crateuas and a small treatise on birds. It belongs  to a Jew, the son of Hamon, who, while he was still alive, was physician to Soleiman. I should like to have bought it, but the price frightened me; for a hundred ducats was named, a sum which would suit the Emperor’s purse better than mine. I shall not cease to urge the Emperor to ransom so noble an author from such slavery. The manuscript, owing to its age, is in a bad state, being externally so worm-eaten that scarcely any one, if he saw if lying in the road, would bother to pick it up.

in 1406 the Julia Anicia codex (Hamon’s Dioscorides) had been rebound by a certain John Chortasmenos for Nathanael, a monk and physician in the Prodromos Monastery in Constantinople. It is assumed the same manuscript as that  mentioned seventeen years later by a Sicilian traveler named Aurispa. It is also assumed from inscribed names in Turkish and Arabic that it fell into Turkish hands first after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, though none of this is quite certain.

The manuscript noticed a century later [1553] it was certainly the Julia Anicia inherited by a son from his father,  who had been personal physician to Suleiman the Magnificent.  Names written in Hebrew  appear in the codex,  presumed by Blunt and Raphael to have been added by Hamon or by his son. Again, this is not certain.

Its transfer to the Latin world began from that offensive behaviour by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq who set eyes on it while serving as ambassador for Ferdinand I at the Ottoman court. To begin importuning sale of an item seen in the court was bad enough, but in his case  compounded by de Busbecq’s attitude to the owner.

Altogether, unless you want to imagine that the Voynich manuscript made in Constantinople, more than a century before de Busbecq saw it, comparisons between the Voynich and the Julia Anicia codex are to be made with caution.

and so, in the end,

In 1569 Emperor Maximilian II did acquire the Anicia codex. It is now the Austrian National Library (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek), where it is designated Codex Vindobonensis Med. Gr. 1. (from Vindobona, the Latin name for Vienna) and very often referred to as the Vienna Dioscorides.

6th March, 2015: minor corrections and additional notes (dated)



2 thoughts on “Plants on the Page: dispositions and parchment

  1. Correction: I have expressed myself poorly. ” The left margin and picture boxes appear to have been drawn freehand” should better be read “The left margin and picture boxes appear AS IF drawn freehand”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s