The ‘Beastly’ Lombardy Herbal & Balneis Puteolanis Pt 2

Originally published with part 1 on August 25th., 2013


Peter of Eboli (fl. 1196–1220).

As far as we know, Peter of Eboli never went to the Levant, and while he flourished during the time of the Crusader Principality of Antioch and served as court poet to William of Sicily, it is arguable whether he would have approved of his poem being used to inform manuscripts carrying the sort of images included in the Latin copies.

His clerical vocation might lead one to suppose the opposite and I’d suggest that his poem was employed in the west to make it more relevant.

For this opinion I refer to numerous contradictions between the Latin and conservative Christian character of the written text and the rather different character of this imagery.

In northern Europe, baths which are patronised by Christians are not depicted as sea-baths but more clearly as a type of sauna; while  in the south baths are depicted more like a swimming pool but in either case, European women did not go naked in mixed baths.  On the contrary, and as Rudofsky describes:

Men kept their hats on, women were impeccably groomed for the occasion–from the navel upwards, wearing chokers and necklaces, turbans and towering headdresses. A veil marked the status of a married woman.

This is certainly not what is pictured in copies of the Balneis, and we may even discount the idea of women’s being quite naked below the waist, for in the fifteenth century, Poggio Bracciolini describes Baden Baden saying:

When bathing in public or mixed groups, a person might wear a light bathing costume (linen trunks for men, or a open-sided shift for women).

What we  find in images of western Christians’ bathing is that if they show a naked woman she is either alone in her bath, or with a single lover/husband,  These are images of the private room, and not of the public bath.

Exceptions which are provided by imagery in the Balneis speak to a different social environment, just as Dürer’s pictures of women bathing so resemble the form given his imaginary, and his mythological characters including witches.

Legal history [also] suggests that ordinary public bath-houses were often segregated by gender, or different times or days were restricted for each gender. Private bath-rooms in castles, such as the one at Leeds, could often accommodate multiple bathers as well.

This is not the situation reflected by illustrations in copies of the Balneis.

Nor is that the only reason for reading the Balneis as depicting ‘exotic’ women rather than typical Latins.

As those examples from the Angelica manuscript show, the women’s’ hair may be shown cropped, and coloured an artificial red.

Either practice was among Latins a sign of the degraded and the foreign woman.  The Latins cropped the hair only of women convicted of crime, and they associated  artificial reddening of hair (with henna) a sign of the prostitute and foreigner.


when hennae’d hair appears in western Latin imagery it  denotes a prostitute. The first instance recorded is in a painting by  Jacometto Veneziano c.1490.  Titian also dared to depict women with reddened hair, but only as actual or metaphorical/allegorical ‘Venus’.

Had they only known it, the same Latins who abhorred use of henna for ‘respectable’ women, had an allusion to Henna blossoms recorded in their Bible (Song of Songs 1:4). By one of those not-uncommon errors, however, it came into English versions as the ‘camphire’. That error persisted in the west until the nineteenth century and remains in present copies of the older translations.

Given that general ignorance, and an association with the ‘Venus’, it is noteworthy that in Norman Sicily, in the twelfth century, Michael Scot’s astronomical texts composed for the Sicilian-Norman king should picture with an anthropomorphic Venus a flower which appears to be the henna’s. Scot lived 1175 – c.1232 his life thus overlapping that of the eastern Crusader period and contemporary with Peter of Eboli.

However, the practice of using henna to redden hair was so detested by Latin Christian culture that the whole Spanish empire saw it banned by an edict of 1517,  Prosper Alpini – the same who went seeking true Balsam in Egypt – is believed the first European writer to mention the plant at all, and then he knows it only as a deodorant. Alpini was also the first to write of the coffee plant.

The henna (Lawsonia inermis)  is absent, as one would expect, from the western medieval pharmacopoeia, though Dioscorides certainly (1.124) and Pliny probably (N.H. mentioned it.  L, inermis is unattested in cultivation in any part of Europe up until the time our manuscript was made ~ and in this regard I would note again that L. inermis appears to me a chief reference in  folio 90r of MS Beinecke 408 ~ on which (sorry)  see yet another  earlier post.

Among  African, Egyptian, Jewish, Persian, Arab and Syrian communities, affection for, and use of henna was an ancient tradition of the eastern world.  Its flowers were offered as we should offer roses; it was employed by the perfumer; used to colour and to nourish hair; a paste from it was (and is still today) used to paint women’s limbs at times of celebration.

In Egypt its use is so old that authorities are content to describe it as in use “from time immemorial”.

On which points see e.g.

  • Zohary, Plants of the Bible (1982) p.190
  • Manniche, Lise, An Ancient Egyptian Herbal (1989) pp.120-21
  • Moldenke, H.N. and A.L., Plants of the Bible (1952/1986) passim. (Moldenke’s text is outdated in some parts and should be cross-checked with ones more recent).

Being by definition an ‘exotic’ habit in the Latin world, its depiction in images of the Balneis reinforces a suggestion given by other details including their cropped hair that not only is the imagery not indigenous to the Latin world but that to Latins these women did not appear ‘respectable’.

(a timeline of henna here).

Altogether, the Balneis’ imagery strongly suggests that while the present text was gained in Norman Sicily or in later Italy, it merely replaced that to which these heavily Persianised images had been original.

That we should see the bathing figures depicted with the same long shanks, hollow-chests etc. ( esp. the Angelica copy) again takes us to the Norman, and then to the Spanish environment, adding to the probability that the text to which the imagery attaches is not its original one. Copies of the Tacuinum Sanitatis map a similar if less dramatic progress.

Even if these indications had been insufficient (that is the chimney-caves, green sea and reddened cropped hair), we would have to suspect that the Latin copies refer not to ‘ordinary’ but to exotic women, outside the circle of normative Latin culture. Two clothed figures are seen to the upper left of one illustration, and their poses are the formal ones given haggling merchants or star-gazers. The former seems better to apply here.   (c.f. details included right, here).

In addition, gestures whose import can hardly be misread are given the male figure nearest the descending woman (below, right). The woman is pictured pointing to breast and pudendum in a complete reversal of the classic gestures used to indicate that modesty which the Latin world expected of the virtuous female. These women are meant for prostitutes, and probably for slaves.

Bal Put ms

Foreign slaves

Europeans continued to buy and use slaves though the medieval centuries, with slave markets remaining longest in southern Italy, Sicily and Spain but it may be recalled that as late as the seventeenth century,  Ulisse Aldrovandi, the Bolognese naturalist  – he who first coined the term ‘plants of the alchemists’ – owned two slave women, one a Mongol and the other an African.

Points in common with MS Beinecke 408.

In Folio 90r, an unlined green-coloured sea alludes again to non-Latin habit and employs a much clearer green than that in copies of the Balneis.

Copies of the Balneis employ a trop by which any natural or ‘god-given’ cover can be represented as a tent or awning.  This general idea also occurs in the Voynich manuscript, but in a very different sense and a very different form.

All they show is a mutual derivation from ‘the eastern side’, but nothing more.

How the Balneis and ms Beinecke 408 depict female forms constitutes a major and most important difference between them. The bodies’ relative proportions and whether their limbs are rendered by curves of flesh or the underlying muscle and bone is not merely a ‘stylistic’ difference but a clear mark that they do not come from similar communities.

Between the two extremes we may place imagery from the Spanish Haggadahs, where the physical proportions and, e.g. method for rendering waters, are typical of the Latin west and yet which manage (as Latins’ art never did) to depict the unclothed female figure without conveying a sense of the female as having a primarily sexual purpose,

For these reasons and more, I could agree that all three – that is the Spanish Haggadahs, the Voynich ‘nymphs’ folios and copies of the Balneis – may well owe their transmission to a line between the old ‘Phoenician basin’ and the eastern side of the Mediterranean, and very possibly to communication between the Crusader states and their various home regions, especially those  which lay under Spanish and Anglo-French governments.

Between the Voynich manuscript and the Spanish Jewish works, numerous points of comparison and similarity exist.  Similarly, there are some important points of similarity between works produced by the Spanish Jews and ones made in fifteenth century Italy.

But to use that to argue a direct link between imagery in De Balneis Puteolanis and in the Voynich manuscript is, I would strongly argue, inappropriate and inaccurate.

What the Balneis has in common with the Voynich manuscript comes down to very little –  some unclothed female forms, the use of green to indicate salt water and that very general and eastern idea – very differently expressed  – that a ‘god-given’ cover  may be depicted as awning or tent. Only in some eastern languages such as Arabic and Persian is that equation usual.

The Voynich ‘nymphs’ are not depicted in similar caves; the sea in which they wade or bathe is not depicted using an overlay of parallel curves and what is more important, the ‘nymphs’ are very carefully made both individual and inhuman. They do not appear as ‘portrait’ images, but – if I may express it so – as generic figures individuated.

These ‘nymphs’ are given human attributes, but not human proportions as the Balneis women are. The Voynich ‘nymphs’ have heads are exaggerated in what is a standard convention of earlier Persian works and only incidental product of imitation or poor drawing in the Latin world.  Each of the nymphs’ is given a  face is deformed by the same details which distinguish it from another. This is not something characteristic of children’s’ drawings, or of the incompetent draughtsman.

Indeed, some of their bodies are drawn so competently, with lovely curves for belly, back and thigh, that it is certain this deformation of the faces is deliberate – removing any hint of personal sexuality, personality or beauty.

Another difference between these ‘nymphs’ and women of the ‘Balneis‘ is that while the latter have forms most similar to Carolingian or Saxon imagery, those of the Voynich nymphs are best compared with some few in ms Sassoon 823, an astronomical text by a Khwarazmi astronomer,  that was miscellany, gained though Spanish Jewry.

Interestingly, a number among the other images in that manuscript evoke the style of Carolingian manuscript copies of the Arataea.

I think is becoming clearer why Panofsky did not attribute the Voynich imagery to mainland Europe when he saw it in 1931, saying it was from Spain, or ‘somewhere southern’ and was immediately redolent of Jewish art and attitudes – rather than those of medieval Latin art, in which Panofsky was even then a renowned expert, and well able to decide what was, or was not, characteristically Latin in style.

It is my opinion still, as it has been now for some years, that the Voynich ‘nymphs’ are personifications and not meant to represent living women at all.  Even before seeing ms Sassoon 823, I deduced that some and very likely all refer to one or other among the navigators’ “hour” stars.

More on baths and bathing.


3 thoughts on “The ‘Beastly’ Lombardy Herbal & Balneis Puteolanis Pt 2

  1. Very interesting to read your analysis of the Balneis imagery.

    There is one woman in the VM with short hair, and she also wears visible earrings. Can’t provide page number since I’m on my phone. It’s bottom right in one of the narrative bathing folios and she looks like she’s showering. Do you think her appearance tells something similar?

    Also, thanks for republishing this one, it contains some useful bits I can refer to in my next post 🙂


    • Koen, I tried to read it and it was too long even for me – all I’ve done is split it into two.

      All I was pointing out here is that images from copies of the Balneis are, in my opinion, less than apt comparisons for that in the Voynich “bathy-” sections.

      In my opinion the Voynich “nymphs” are personifications, alluding simultaneously to astronomical and geographic loci by reference to a ‘tyche’ or presiding spirit for each place. This is just as true – imo – of those in the calendar-folio’s tiers. But as I think I’ve mentioned, this appeared to me a depth of information which was not wanted by the ‘voynich community’ when I began working on that section – so I stopped publishing that research. Like you, I’ve always seen the figures as appropriate to first enunciation in the Hellenistic era, though the stunted proportions are best likened to imagery found in Greco-Bactria and in Egypt under Roman rule. I cited Venit’s article on the tombs in Tigrane Pasha street, where you have focused more recently on imagery from the temple-tomb of Petosiris.


  2. Some added detail – a comment from Ibn Battuta (1304–circa 1377 AD) whose account of his travels (Rihla) greatly influenced works such as that by Abraham Cresques for the court of France (c.1378) shows that it was certainly not usual, in Battuta’s experience, for men and women to bathe together. Two points are of especial interest for discussion of imagery in Latin copies of the Balneis Puteolanis. First, that in regions where to colour hair with henna was not uncommon, women who did enter the baths with men were indeed (as the illustrations in the Balneis suggest) slaves put out to prostitution. Secondly, the inclusion of Cappadocia’s unique chimneys in the distance in some illustrations of the Balneis is offered explanation – because it was only in Laodicae ad Mare (Latakia; Lattakia or Latakiyah (Arabic: اللَاذِقِيَّة‎‎ al-Lādhiqīyah), directly south of Cappadocia, that Ibn Battuta encountered such practice. While he thought nothing of slavery, including use of slaves as mistresses, such behaviour in the public baths shocked him deeply.

    I will not transcribe the passage here. For English translation and commentary of the Rihla see e.g.
    Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century (University of California), pp.137ff
    Note that Ibn Battuta did not keep a journal during his travels, but dictated the text of the Rihla (Rehla) from an extraordinarily accurate and capacious memory after his return.

    For English translation and commentary of the Rihla concerning India, Maldives and Ceylon only, see also
    Mahdi Husein, The Rehla of Ibn Battuta, published by the Oriental Institute of Baroda (1976) available online (here) thanks to the internet archive.


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