Bacon’s foreign materia medica in context
Roger Bacon died in 1294, seven years before John of Montecorvino reached Peking, but he must have known of two earlier embassies composed of Nestorians and sent from the east, one in 1285 and the other led by Mar Sawma in 1287. The second, certainly, included visits to European royal courts and in this way the personal ties which gained rarer medicinal ingredients might be established or strengthened.
So, turning again to the great Franciscan to whom Mnishovsky attributed ‘authorship’ of the Voynich manuscript: it is certainly true that Bacon knows that musk is not from mice, but a deer and that his materia medica include items imported from as far as the east Indies but there is no evidence of any links as yet between England and the east which permit us to suppose Bacon’s knowledge of alchemy influenced by the Taoists, a group famed for alchemical knowledge in the east and with whom Nestorian Christians were sometimes classed in official documents in China at that time. As a rule, and by reference to their diffusion, the Manichaeans appear to have held ideas closer to Taoism while living side by side with Nestorians. As you’ve guessed, it’s complicated – but relevant to the Voynich because of the various tabus evident in the imagery and that ‘5-original elements’ diagram.
Bacon insists that ‘alchemical’ knowledge is a necessary adjunct to physic and his materia medica includes a surprising number of eastern plants. His medical ‘alchemy’ however is a basic chemistry using processes of the same sort used in perfumery and in aspects of ceramic production. It would appear that he saw these processes in connection with the theory of ‘gradation’ – a theory of which he approves even while annoyed (as most were) by its inelegant method.
Mathematics, herbal and alchemical information in a medical ‘miscellany’ from Bacon’s England, can be seen in Brit.Lib.MS Harley 3353. Its austere style is typical of works made for and by Latin and Byzantine physicians. In the fourteenth century an oath which apothecaries of Paris are obliged to take each year shows that they not only kept a herbal, but had access to the ‘master’s’ [local physicians’] book‘ from time to time.
Another item from the same Library casts an interesting sidelight on the medicine of Syrian and Jewish physicians.
In the northern French or northern English illuminated Brit. Lib MS Sloane 1975, folio 10v shows the ‘herb of the Veil’ as Veronica, while folio 17v includes a figure which shows Artemis (as Roman ‘Diana’) handing Chiron as patron of healing two plants which the text labels Artemisia Monoglossos, Artemisia Tagantes, and Artemisia Leptasillos. Artemis is thus Latinised and depicted in a way acceptable to the western Christian, but the plants held by her are plainly not those specified by the label. (The plant on the right in the copy below is the blackberry). The plants would appear rather to have been the Palm and the Rose, the Palm initially symbol of the Arabian shield, the ‘Rose’ alluding to that Carian region (adjacent to Antioch) within which lay Cos, island of Hippocrates. Balsam had first signified lower Syria and the lands of Canaan, and, later Cairo. Comparison with the blackberry shows that the original flower on the left was thorny.
The example above is especially informative. Its image of a flaming ‘skirt’ dividing the Centaur’s human and animal parts is not from classical, nor Byzantine-‘Roman’ art, but common in some imagery from Abbasid Baghdad. When Baghdad saw strongest input from Nestorian and Greco-Egyptian ‘Sabian’, Chiron’s image as healer (astron. Centaurus) was evidently being equated or conflated with Sagittarius, and this along with other Persian customs first appears in the west during Charlemagne’s time. Below, a composite of classical and Persian types includes one (lower register, left) from mainland Europe, showing a reversion to the Latin style as the ‘flame’ is now reduced to remnants of animal skin. The ‘flame’ reappears in the west later, after the late thirteenth century.
Bacon further insisted that doctors study the stars, not so much in terms of our notion of astrology but by reference to contemporary religious beliefs. These held that all tides of natural health and strength (‘virtue’) were conferred on living things and stones by the Divine, that power being conveyed by the agency of the stars, each in their season. It remained orthodox Christian belief at a time when medieval Europe still wavered over such questions as whether stars were living, or ensouled, or angels, or simply objects borne across the sky simply by divine volition or by various members of the heavenly host.
The medieval world struggled with the idea than any inanimate object could move unaided.
Of alchemy, Bacon writes in his ‘Errors of the Doctors’:
15. The fifth deficiency [of physicians] is that they are ignorant of [i.e. do not study] alchemy and of agriculture; while on the contrary it is quite evident that practically all simple drugs are discussed in these two subjects. There are a great many difficulties which arise on account of the lack of knowledge of alchemy, because the art of medicine [currently] teaches the use of the virtues of drugs without [instruction in]their substance, yet it is necessary to do this in an infinite number of cases on account of the whole mass of poisonous earthy material. No distinction between them can be made except by means of alchemy, which alone gives the method of extracting each virtue from any substance whatsoever; because it is necessary in working with drugs that there be resolutions and dissolutions of one thing from another which cannot be made without the aid of alchemy which gives the method of resolving any one substance from any other.
– in other words, simple ‘herbal’ mixtures are almost useless since the essential and useful elements are not isolated and extracted from the base or ‘earthy’ matter.
16. There and in many others, it is necessary not only to extract the poisonous virtue [from a substance]but also other useless things – and not only this but it is also necessary to make a variety of resolutions of bodies from other bodies, as in the extraction of elements of various kinds, and various kinds of water and many other things, whether [because]those substances from which they are extracted are merely useless, or [actively] poisonous, or indifferent, or [whether because these are]useful for many other purposes. For thus by means of alchemy is extracted the blessed oil from bricks, rose-water from roses, et cetera which can and should be much improved by alchemical methods rather than by the untutored. Again many drugs should be sublimated, just as AVICENNA (2o) and others have clearly told us.
- with interpolations by D. O’D, translation from Mary Catherine Welborn, ‘The Errors of the Doctors according to Friar Roger Bacon of the Minor Order’, Isis, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jul., 1932), pp. 26-62.. (p.43)
- cf. Treatise of the Errors of the Physicians of Damascus, composed in Arabic by Jacob ben Isaac (fl. AD 1202), a contemporary of Maimonides (1185-1204) in the generation before Bacon’s (c. 1214–1294). Oliver Kahl’s is the critical edition of the Treatise. Published OUP, in 2000.
A nice example of thirteenth century Hebrew cursive – Maimonides’ signature.
As to the Voynich manuscript’s text, presumed enciphered – though Bacon did practice encipherment, I see little reason he would disguise any medical information, or even alchemical information as he describes it here. His aim is plainly to urge use of these processes and to encourage their teaching, whereas the later the obscurantism would be aimed at limiting access to alchemical knowledge, for reasons of commerce, discretion or social elitism. None of these inform Bacon’s attitude to the subject.
As footnote to the previous post – if you’re interested in the sort of remedies tried against Plague in medieval Europe, there is Lynne Elliot ‘s book, Medieval Medicine and the Plague. It’s listed at the moment with Amazon books. The cover shows an unusually fortunate plague-victim, comfortably at home in bed and being fussed over by any number of deeply-caring persons.
Bacon’s materia medica – listed
His materia medica includes a remarkably large proportion of goods that could only have been gained from importers. In the case of very rare ingredients such as musk or balsam, it seems unlikely he could have obtained them save through royal gift. Some plants in the list of his materia medica coincide with those I have already noted in the Voynich botanical and ‘pharma’ sections, though those identifications were made without reference to his or any other medieval western text.
- Semecarpus Anacardium
One item deserves particular comment: Anacardiaceae Ligas Semecarpus cuneiformis (Blanco), popularly known in India as ‘Marking Nut’, is a medicinal ingredient only in India’s Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine, and thereafter in Chinese traditional medicine.
Welborn refers to it by its old taxonomic description (Anacardium orientale), which later became Semecarpus Anacardium ( Blanco) or still more recently the description offered above. Only in some modern naturopathic writings is A. orientale now found, but the present description clearly distinguishes this plant from the Americas’ Anacardiaceae.
Also known as the ‘Varnish tree’ (bibba), L. Semecarpus cuneiformis is a small tree , the nuts of which are best known as a kind of laundryman’s indelible ‘chalk’. The flowers are small, in panicles. At one stage of development the caps have a reddish hue, and the nuts a bluish tinge sometimes emphasised in paintings. (If it is included in the Voynich manuscript, I would suggest folio 8v; or 13v; or 25r, in order of probability).
That Bacon should know this plant at all is significant – it is of most use to cloth-makers, launderers, and workers in timber. That he should know its use in medicine adds to a number of indications that between India and England at that time, connection existed independent of Muslim or Arabic text, or Byzantine and Greek texts.
Materia medica in Bacon’s ‘Errors of Doctors’ – the imports.
Spelling as Bacon gives it. Asterisks refer to entries in the glossary in Welborn’s article).
*Aloes citrinus, yellow aloes
*Aloes epaticus, hepatic aloes
*Aloes rubeum, red aloes
*Anacardum, fruit of an anacardiaceous tree. [Anacardiaceae Ligas Semecarpus cuneiformis]
Apostema gazel, musk.
Aqua rosacea, rose water.
Argentum vivum, quick-silver.
Aurum, folium aurum, gold, gold leaf.
*Benedicta, a compound drug.
Calce cumenon, copper.
Capit draconis, head of the dragon.
Carnes tyri, viper’s flesh.
*Cassia fistula, cassia.
Ciminum, cumin. [perhaps from Egypt – D)
Draco, dragon. [possibly Soqotran dragonsblood resin]
*Epithimumn de Babilonis vel de Creta, epithymon of Babylon.
Lapides pretiosi, precious stones.
*Lignum aloes, xiloaloes, lign-aloes.
Minium, red lead, cinnibar, 31.
*Mirobalanus, myrobalans, 4, 31, 40, 52.
*Oleum benedictum a lateribus, blessed oil of bricks. (?!)
Oleum olive, olive oil.
Oleum sisami, oil of sesame.
*Petroleum citrinum, oil of Peter, or oil of rocks.
Pionie femine, feminine peony.
Pionie masculi, masculine peony.
Piperis rotundi, pepper.
*Piretrus, pellitory of Spain.
*Reu ponticum, Pontic rhubarb.
*Reu senith, cenith, senith rhubarb.
Rubea opiata, red opiate.
*Tyriaca, a compound drug.(?)
Uzifur mineralis, mineral cinnabar.
Zuccarum durum, hard sugar.