…”thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” Pt2

I haven’t forgotten northern Syria, nor the line which brought Thomas’ bones to Ortona, and waves of Jewish refugees and foreign merchant-settlers to the Adriatic coast.

Just as those measurements of 225 mm x 160 mm do seem (from an admittedly very cursory survey) to follow in chronological order a line from Egypt to England and then to the region around the Veneto, so too we may follow the history of this trade from eastern warehouses to the western cities.

Europeans had – and tend still to have – a very static view of cultural history. In medieval Europe individuals’ lives, like their libraries, tended to move in a limited compass until the colonial period;  but beyond Europe, a bird’s eye view and fast-motion photography would show, century after century, only occasional islands of calm amid populations constantly in motion, the swirling of some endlessly troubled sea.

As illustrated by the history of the North French Miscellany, western Jews were being harried increasingly from the thirteenth century, seeking desperately some place where they – and not only they but their children and grandchildren – might be  allowed to dwell and prosper.

There is nothing impossible about the idea that refugees as well as armies might come along the northern routes of silk and linen in the north or, as traders in pepper and porcelain came, across the southern sea-roads, at last to find themselves by the Mediterranean. One group among the ‘Gypsies’ who arrive in Europe during the twelfth century appear to have come from southern India along that route which had been bringing pepper to Europe for almost two thousand years.

But before the Mongols, earthquake and plague, those  moving westwards tended to halt in some major trading centre to which the roads naturally led: to  Samarkand, Damascus, Aleppo or Cairo in the first instance. To these same centres, merchants came to buy, or from them travelled west to sell materials known to Bacon as materia medica.

Riddle describes this trade to the west as one established before any Latin translation of medical texts:

… the large amounts of oriental products mentioned in western texts indicates both extensive trade contact and a type of communication about new drugs. This development comes prior to any known translations of medical texts ..

The best illustration of trade in drugs is exemplified in the derivation of the word apotheca or apothecary. The Byzantines had local depots, called αποθηκαι, in the main harbors and road termini of the Mediterranean area. Just how or when the word changed from a general depot to a dispensory of drugs is unknown, but.. an edict of Frederick II [of Sicily], regulating medical activity, referred to apotheca apparently in the sense of a store house for drugs. During the 13th century, at least, the word apotheca comes to have the specialized meaning of the modern word.

  • John M. Riddle,’The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’,  Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

The Byzantine apotheca, then,was initially equivalent to the storehouse or warehouse, for which clerical Latin sometimes used thesaurus – which Isidore defines as repository for gold. It  raising again the question of whether Baresch meant to imply something more concrete and practical by his “thesaurus artis medicae Aegyptos“. Taken that way, the picture is more intelligible: a man who on finding Europe’s ordinary medicines ineffective – perhaps against Plague – goes to the warehouses and ‘workshops’ of Egypt, the land whose ancient plagues and equally ancient (and attested) superiority in medicine was vouched for by ancient and classical writers.

The same shifting sense for the term ‘apotheca’ leaves open, too, the question of what was meant in works of Bacon’s time when references are made to  ‘the apothecaries’ as a group.  Is it meant as a description of foreign merchants within a warehouse, or  local individuals managing what we should term a pharmacy?

As I’ll show below, our first accounts of the ‘herbal’ genre suggest an initial source not with tomes transmitted from library to library, but handbooks and catalogues maintained by sellers.  The custom of keeping such a book as catalogue and volume of ‘receipts’ is found as late as the sixteenth century, though commercial custom figures less prominently in secondary histories of the herbal.

It is reasonable enough to suppose that these more expensive eastern goods would need additional effort  put into their sale; the customer must be assured that these strange plants are being rightly represented; encouragement is needed to persuade the buyer that this new product is superior to those which are tried-and-true.  Even  today such strategies are needed if a market wants to move an unfamiliar vegetable or fruit; an image is provide with a slip offering ideas for the thing’s use.

And the seller, having been put to trouble and expense to bring such goods to England as tamarind or myrobalans  would hardly  limit the number of uses advertised. If the tamarind can be sold as a medicines and as an item of cuisine, all the better. In the same way, myrobalans use is to be commended the physician for his nostrums, the ink-maker and the dyer for its wonderful fixative quality.  The repository of wisdom in this case was not the book in the monastery library, or the physician’s studies; it was the warehouse and the seller with their catalogues and spiel.

Evidence from the centuries prior to Bacon’s life support this inference, and in a couple of cases we have documentary evidence.  or the following example – from the later period – I am   indebted to Nick Pelling, on whose blog I first read the following:

“There, in the street of the spice-dealers, in a shop having as its sign the head of an Ethiopian, he had consulted an herbal in which the plants were represented so carefully and artfully that you would have thought they grew on its pages.”

  • – Thorndike’s “History of Magic & Experimental Science” Vol.IV (p.599) describing Pandolphus Collenucius of Pesaro in Venice.

What brings that particular catalogue and ‘herbal’ into the pages of history is not amazement at any practice unexpected, but simply that the pictures in this spice-seller’s book were so very fine.  ‘Spice’ here means the whole range of exotics brought from eastern parts, including minerals, and pigments and other things.  (see the goods described as ‘Spices’  in the fourteenth-century trader’s manual, the Zibaldone da Canal).

So it is understandable that the new attitude to the page, when it came, came and largely remained within the ‘herbal’ genre, and among that single genre only a few examples resemble (more or less nearly) what we find in the Voynich botanical folios ~ these examples having been noted by various researchers, principally Neal, Scott and Zandbergen.

Manfred’s Herbal is the earliest to resemble the Voynich botanical folios, though the resemblance is less like brother and sister than second cousins somewhat removed.  Manfred’s Herbal, like the Tuscany Herbals contains (unlike the Vms) detailed imagery of foreign animals, too.  That animals and spices might arrive in the same consignment is beautifullly illustrated by an image of medieval Hormuz.


Such plants such as ginger and galingale had been imported to the west from the days of  Rome and cloves from the second millennium to as far as Syria.  By  Bacon’s time some exotics were already cultivated in Egypt and even in parts of Europe,  but others were necessarily brought from a great distance.  Some  items which regularly appear in the Latin herbals –  such as balsam or true ambergris –  were  almost impossible for ordinary purchasers in the early fifteenth century. Papyrus’ production had ceased even in Egypt by the eleventh.

Unlike other forms of received text, the herbal literature was not copied with reverence. It is treated almost cursorily before the second Latin translation of Dioscorides.   Pictures are retained, but their labels changed – a very old habit in Latin Europe.

Paragraphs may be taken here, but left elsewhere.  Herbals are tailor-made for individual clients, who may want pictures of papyrus and theriaca, though neither was procurable.

What I have described in the botanical section of the Voynich as a constant effort to relate a set of eastern plants to their Theophrastan equivalent may be intended to aid the vendor, as the physician, in substituting one ingredient for another.  The same is done today in cooking, and herbal medicine was largely perceived in the same way.

What we can assume when we find theriaca or papyrus pictured in medieval manuscripts of Bacon’s time and later is that this matter copies a much earlier source.

As Riddle observes for the ninth and tenth centuries, European practice was not yet to make  ‘herbals’ as such, but to include medical receipts  here and there in a miscellany. Their casual placement makes clear that these receipts were obtained opportunely and unpredictably, by recommendation from friends or upon purchase of a given quantity.  Not ony do most of the older receipts use the same eastern products again and again in various forms, but they come from just a few recurring source-texts, and show no sign of having been taken from any particular volume.  This would be the case later, as ‘herbals’ became objects for the library: but in the earlier period all signs are that individual recipes came along with their ingredients from the vendor.

Riddle notes that the receipts in European miscellanies mostly derive:

…  especially [from] Alexander of Tralles, Aetius of Amida, and Paul of Aegina, but no two [collected] antidotary or receptary are [exactly] alike.

… which again points to occasional provision not concerted copying.

spice sellers

It is interesting to note that of those few source-texts, two speak approvingly of Syrian and Jewish physicians’ expertise.  Interesting because other reports indicate that most exotic goods entering Europe (including silk) were brought by the same trading communities. What is more, in an early English miscellany, that ‘palm and balsam’ which served as the insignia of Jewish traditions appears to have been re-worked and re-labelled.  About that, more in another post.

But as for those popular authors:

Aulus Cornelius Celsus, writing in the first century C.E., refers to salves compounded by skilled Jewish physicians. Galen reports on the Jewish physician Rufus Samaritanus in Rome in the first-second centuries C.E.  Similar references are made by Marcellus Empiricus, Aetius of Amida*, and Paulus of Aegina*. Pliny (Hist. Nat., 37.60.10) mentions a “Babylonian physician – Zechariah,” … who dedicated his medical book to King Mithridates. .. The personal physician of St. Basil (c. 300 C.E.) was the Jew, Ephraim. The bishop Gelasius refers to his Jewish physician Telesinus as his “trusted friend.” At the same time, numerous restrictions against Jewish doctors were already being promulgated by Christian bishops and emperors.

Jewish physicians …  were apparently organised in some type  guild having for its insignia the ḥarut – the branch of a palm or a balsam bush (Jews at that time regarded balsam as the best remedy for wounds; cf. Pliny, Hist. Nat., 12:54).

‘Medicine’ Jewish Virtual Library.

*Aetius of Amida: (dates uncertain c.3rd – 5thC AD).  Native of Amida (modern Diyarbakır, Turkey).  Studied at the most famous medical school of his time, in Alexandria. Sometime accorded the title komēs opsikiou (κόμης οψικίου), lat: obsequii, chief officer in attendance on the emperor.  His work is valued as  “a very judicious compilation from the writings of many authors, many from the Alexandrian Library whose works have been long since lost”.

*Paulus of Aegina: Born Aegina. Travelled a good deal, visiting Alexandria among other places. Sometimes given the epithet Iatrosophistes and Periodeutes (‘probably a physician who travelled from place to place). Because he  mentions Alexander of Tralles, and is himself quoted by Serapion the Elder,  Abu-al-Faraj is correct in placing him in the latter half of the 7th century.

Either of these two – among a great many others – would meet Baresch’s description of that ‘noble man’ who sought to gain the ‘treasures’ of Egyptian medicine.

Riddle also mentions:

A manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, list[ing] ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger.

(Riddle, op.cit.  p.190)

– I regret that I’ve been unable to trace the traders’ manual he mentions.


So – if the Voynich manuscript is considered as a compendium, its disparate sections do form an intelligible when supposed made to suit such persons as traders,  itinerant physicians or vendors.

Plants of eastern origins do,  in my opinion, occupy the greater part, and again in the closely related ‘pharma-‘ section regardless of whether all the plants or vessels have any relation to pharmacy.

 Another  part of the manuscript does appear to me to includes imagery in which one intended reading is allegorical and small-a ‘alchemical’.

Another section offers description and, I assume, a discursus, on the nature of winds and seasons, vital to the long-distance trader but already important in theories of medicine which had reached the west by Bacon’s time.

Among the diagrams  in the Voynich manuscript are also included a world-map, and folios whose schema relates to calculations of tides and sailing season, charts or the sailing routes, and perhaps the bodily tides if we suppose that these too have an additional and allegorical reading.

Overall, it is plainly a collection made to suit someone actively engaged in travel or trade than the sedentary scholar.

Unlike Sindbad, most medieval traders did not venture alone and they handed on their profession not only by direct descent but laterally through the family’s network. This may well prove an important clue to understanding the manuscript’s additional and marginal inscriptions, as well as the changing ‘hands’.


One Reply to “…”thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” Pt2”

  1. speaking of skilled compounds. One of the plague remedies is spoken of as one “… quod nominatur Thesaurus et gloria inestimabilis. Cuius elcunarii compositionem ponit Aristoteles in sua episula ad Alexandrum…” Simonini, Maino de Maineri, 27. 75)
    I found this in
    Christiane Nockels Fabbri, ‘Treating Medieval Plague: The Wonderful Virtues of Theriac’,
    Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2007), pp. 247-283. The passage is in a note: p.269 n.74.


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