The ‘beastly’ Lombardy Herbal Pt2

A long delayed post, one of 213 drafts still in queue. I see that it was written on 22 July 2013. 🙂


Plants and creatures in the Lombardy Herbal are not likely to derive directly from Dioscorides as is often supposed; but then again copies of Dioscorides might be found anywhere affected by the Muslim or eastern Christian medical traditions.

Overall, the Lombardy Herbal does not offer a close comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s form, style, tone or imagery.  What the two share is an attitude to page design which sets the plant-pictures central on the page.  This  may be considered more a reflection of contemporary taste when, and where the final version was made – not something inherent in the exemplar(s). The Lombardy Herbal (c.1440) was certainly made close to the date of the Voynich parchment (1404-1438), and the Voynich manuscript has often been argued of North Italian provenance.

Since this is a blogpost, I’ll have to keep the number of examples to a minimum.  What I want to demonstrate are distinctions between the two, not superficial similarities.  A very useful place to begin is folio 91v.Lombardy Herbal Brit.Lib. MS Sloane 4016

As you see, its makers in northern Italy have no hesitation in using black pigment, and fairly lavishly.

Tuscany Herbal simia f91v smal

The British Library’s caption  reads, “Miniatures of plants with two monkeys” and that, no doubt, is how the scribes and painters of the manuscript understood these two figures – from an exemplar which came, as I think we can deduce, from an Islamic source.

This because, when the blackening is removed, we see that it is another example of censorious ‘blackening’ akin to what we see in the Kitab al Bulhan.  remove the colour and it is clear that neither of these figures is a monkey, and that the original blackening has been interpreted later (possibly by the last copyists) as fur.  These are both men – let’s begin with their feet:

Lombardy Herbal 1440

In neither case have they the ape’s prehensile toe; the figure to the left has its front foot provided with an arch(which apes do not have), and both individuals are given ankles, with that on the left figure being especially clear.

Compare with the hands and feet of both monkeys and apes:

primate hands and feet

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the draughtsman was ignorant of how primates appear, and drew these feet by analogy, not example. It is a fair argument, since we have numerous examples of medieval manuscripts which picture monkeys with flat, human-looking but fur-covered feet.  (A nice selection from Pinterest here. By 1469, though, the Prayer Book of Charles the Bold was worked by an illustrator who knew better. J.Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 37, fol. 41v.)

So now, what about the black fur?

The Kitab al Bulhan was made about fifty or sixty years before the Vms parchments’ date, and it shows the gods of polytheist nations as blackened ‘demons’ (as I explained briefly here).  I think the same has happened in this case – where a manuscript with ‘blackened’ figures was employed in Lombardy as an exemplar by people unable to recognise pejorative intent.  The example below is not so good, since it shows Saturn who was coloured black even in Hindu works. 🙂

Istars Saturn as Indian deity in copy of 13thC Persian work

Blackening, though, was also a conventional sign of the evil, or in Muslim custom the ‘accursed’.

So if we lift the curse, by removing the black pigment – what we find revealed are no animals but a pair of very well drawn ‘stock characters’: at once stock characters and very well-drawn generic portraits.  Look…

Tuscany Herbal China India


wise beard blog


Borneo people blog

Notice especially the form for the nose on each: the giver of food has a nose that is long and slender, while that on the right is made broad. The person on the left originally had a wispy beard, which the copyist reproduced only to have it ‘scrubbed’ by someone who thought they knew better. The other figure is just as well drawn, and drawn from life.  That way of keeping hair short, and forward-bushed remained  traditional among the indigenous people of Borneo and Java until after World War II.  In the same way, the old man with the wispy beard is a stock figure for the wise (if mysterious) sage, the old fisherman, old monk and so forth. Sometimes embodied as a scholar, or as a Taoist or Buddhist monk, his character is acutely perceptive and nearly always benevolent, though sometimes deeply uncanny.

The Europeans who copied these ‘blackened’ characters simply did not know enough to remove the blackening, but mistook it for fur, and compounded the error.

What has the pair to do with these plants?

Apparently the wise old Chinese figure  is presenting the other with some new, or special, sort of food.  The label behind the grain reads ‘Siligo’ which in an Italian dialect means ‘hard grain’. There, the term was chiefly applied to rye, and later to good ‘hard’ wheat, but perhaps the older source had referred to rice.  Notice that even though wheat’s defining feature is its long wisps (awns) none are shown. Tuscany Herbal simia f91v smal

The contents of a western herbal such as this were not considered ‘texts’ in the way that books of mathematics, religion, or geometry were.  A text could be altered, adapted, re-organised, its pictures set to another purpose and so forth.  I won’t try to guess what the original plant had been which is here labelled  ‘sinapia’ or mustard (-greens).

In fact, I suspect that even this term ‘simia’ is the effect of compounded ignorance, for the exemplar is unlikely to have been written in Latin.

 ‘Simia’ or ‘Simmia’ etc..

In Latin,  simia means an ape, from the Greek  simos:  “snub-nosed”. The word ‘simian’ doesn’t appear in that sense in English until c.1600 AD.

In the eastern seas, though, another term had was used to mean ‘north’ and it is recorded as having been used ‘until recently’ even by some Mediterranean seamen. As usual, Majid is my source here. Other versions of the term are  Simya or Simmia or Simmiyah.  Whether or not this reflects an original inscription one can only speculate, but since the Mediterranean terms for the directions might be helpful to those working on the Voynich manuscript’s written text, I add a note at the end.

I expect that in its original home, the image had once described some event connected with the arrival of Chinese settlers in Java, or as some think, Borneo in about the  7thC AD.

Differences between the Lombardy Herbal and the Voynich manuscript.

Because the  Lombardy Herbal resembles the Voynich manuscript in its attitude to the page, setting the plants central and so forth, there has been a tendency in secondary sources to confuse this evidence of similar environment with a supposed similar ancestry and evolution.  The similarities are chiefly superficial, and very substantial differences are evident.

The Lombardy, for example, is content to reproduce an image where black pigment is used for the two ‘simiya’.  The Voynich manuscript, on the other hand, appears consciously to avoid ever employing pigments in the purple-to-black range.

The Lombardy Herbal is clearly European in its expectation that human-looking figures should be identified as beautiful or comical, impressive or of no importance, rich or poor.  The Voynich manuscript avoids having even the naked women appear beautiful, and carries no apparent evidence of an interest in impressing others by means of wealth, power or position… the constant and unrelenting theme of all western Christian medieval art.

The Lombardy Herbal evinces the usual range of prejudice against persons other than the white Christian European; the Voynich manuscript does not. One or two figures in it seem to indicate a profession, or role, but overall such emphasis is absent.  Not even the figures in the astronomical section who wear crowns could, in any meaningful sense, be taken for royalty.  They are shown naked, un-seductive (indeed deformed) and are in any case abstractions, not people.


Unlike the Lombardy Herbal and the  ‘Kitab al Bulhan’, the Voynich manuscript shows no evidence of antipathy towards polytheists. The fifteenth century copyist(s) may have been absolutely at one in their prejudices with those who made the Lombardy Herbal – but no sign of it comes through.

It is a remarkably philosophical, or apathetic, manuscript to judge from its pictures alone.


Additional note: ‘Simia/Simya’ – The North.

Ibn Majid speaks an impatient tone of the ‘Egyptian’ mariners ‘innovation’ in referring to  ‘North’ as ‘al Jah’ rather than the traditional ‘Simmiya’.

Majid tends to take a very long view of such things; the  ‘innovation’ may have occurred centuries before.

Since Majid mentions this term when describing the eastern Mediterranean’s mixed wind-and-star names, I’ll quote the passage in case it may assist those working on the written part of the text. I’m quoting from Tibbett’s* translation.

They [the ‘Egyptians’] have the Qumbas …all sixteen points having names of stars in the Egyptian and the Maghribi language and they are Labash (’Aqrab- Scorpius), Shuluq (‘Aqrab), Barani (‘Aiyuq – Auriga), Sheresh (‘Aiuq), Simmiyah (Jah – North Pole), Qiblah (Qutb – South Pole), Sharq (Mashriq – East), Gharb (Maghrib – West). These eight and the house of al-Zauj together make 16 [points]. We use 32 rhumbs… but they [the Mediterranean seamen] are not able to do the things we do …”

  • Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the coming of the Portuguese, being a translation of the Kitab al-Fawaid fi usul al-bahr wal-qawaid of Ahmad b. Majid al-Najdi, London: Luzac 1971 (p.121-2)

This point would be of no importance if the Lombardy Herbal weren’t so often supposed very close indeed in the Voynich manuscript’s ‘family tree’.  And it is true that the Voynich does show knowledge of the maritime world, and that its botanical imagery begins (as I’ve argued) from the same region – from the Moluccas.

In each case, quite clearly, information about that distant region was carried westwards to arrive and be re-copied (as we suppose) in the Latin world during the fifteenth century – the Voynich earlier than the Lombardy Herbal by as much as two or even three generations.

Having shown the various distinctions in character and attitude, I hope you’ll see why I cannot regard the Lombardy Herbal as ‘sibling’ or parent to the Voynich manuscript.

Each appears to me to be an independent witness to that line of trade and migration across which cloves had been coming into Syria from the second millennium BC, and cinnamon reaching England by Bacon’s day.

Where the Voynich imagery remains true to its native culture, and below that its classical basis, the  Lombardy Herbal is so laden with Latinisation, monotheist and European social and cultural assumptions, that the underlying sources are scarcely able to be discerned.

Those same alterations make the Lombardy herbal’s imagery  intelligible to western eyes, where the Voynich remains so close to its roots that the imagery’s meaning has remained a subject of debate in Europe for more than a century.

The two manuscripts are not near kin,  but related only as persons might be who pass each other on the same road.

One travels in covered carriage with its retinue and scented handkerchief, while the other keeps to its road alone, having  an eye to the wind and weather.

One last  image from the Lombardy Herbal sets its stamp, giving us a cue to how and by whom the exemplars were carried west, ultimately to be  re-worked in fifteenth century Italy.  That forms the subject of the next post, the last on the ‘beastly’ Herbal.

Next post: ‘Imagery of Hunting’ and health.

As throughout the Tuscany herbal, plants-with-associated-creatures are meant to tell us where in the world they are native.


  1.   ‘Simiya” properly should not be confused with:-

(i) Islamic ‘letter magic‘ akin to kabbalah

(ii) Simmia of Rhodes (or Simia, in Greek: Σιμμίας Ῥόδιος; Latin: Simmias Rhodius; Rhodes, fl. 4th-3rdC BC. An Alexandrian poet and philologist, member of the school founded by Fileta of Cos.  One of its members was named in Greek ‘Partenio’ or  ‘feverfew’.  Anyway, not him.

2.      In his translation of the Nestorian Christian ‘Book of the Bee’, Budge notes a Nestorian’s use of the word ‘Jah’ for God in a 17thC colophon, the same giving  months according to the Syro-Persian, but years by the ‘Alexandrian’ Greek epoch and specifically 2020 =1790 AD.



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