Voynich botanical reprint (f.33v)

Re-reading the post reproduced below, from my old research blog devoted to the botanical folios, I find that eighteen months has not changed my view on this identification first made in 2012.

Though I cannot transfer the illustrations used, I can reprint the text of those posts: that published on March 24th., 2012 was a condensed version of a much fuller discussion published the previous day (March 23rd. 2012).   The text can be reproduced here, but alas not the original pictures which furnished the argument with more vivid detail and clarity.

The old blog  included a warning to readers who might become confused about authorship. Purely for completeness, I include that line too.

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THIS IS NOT the blog by E. Sherwood! 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

fol.33v – short version (by request)

fol.33v lotus-like ‘Mandragora’ – Mayapple, Paeony and ?Alocasia

Among plants mentioned by Theophrastus is the ‘mandragora’, which Muencher equates* (correctly, in my view) with Podophyllum peltatum, otherwise called the Mayapple.

*Ref: William E. Fortenbaugh (ed.), Theophrastan studies: On Natural Science, Physics and Metaphysics, Ethics, Religion and Rhetoric, Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities (RUSCH), Volume 3 p.79 and p.95 notes 7 and 8..

Podophyllum is one of the few plants of southern Europe which have leaves of the type shown in fol. 16v, and one might take the carefully-drawn differences between the two large flowers as reference to legends attaching to the plant most obviously that it has both a male and a female variety. This story remained current from the time of Josephus (if Gerard is to be believed) until now, and spread even to America, where the American Podophyllum is known as ‘American mandrake’, and Daniel Austin explains the details.

***Daniel F. Austin, P. Narodny Honychurch Florida Ethnobotany (2004) p.902.

It is a curious fact that the leaves on fol. 33v have been paid very little attention, though the drawing clearly shows them peltate, a characteristic shared by few others known in the Mediterranean.
As a rule, peltate leaves are considered typically tropical.

The Flowers
When Theophrastus lived and wrote, the Greeks only looked to the more permanent leaves, stem, roots, and buds to formally describe and classify a plant; the flower was not given any particular importance in that purpose, being regarded as a transient stage in the fruit’s development. As Green puts it:

“.. what we treat as the flower parts the Greeks held to be the fruit, and so forward to their fuller development and final maturity, always the fruit”

Ref: Edward Lee Green (et.al), .. Landmarks of Botanical History Vol.1 p.139.

The wiki article offers online links to readable and/or downloadable copies of the Theophrastan corpus.

If we look at these folios from that point of view, some their peculiarities are more easily understood.

The flower in fol.16v can then be seen as those ‘petals’ which are represented by a stock-motif, one which tells us that the flower appeared ‘lotus-like’, but the centre is to be seen as the fully-formed fruit, since this was of greater interest, in commerce as in early botanical writings. But as with almost all these folios, the plant whose leaves define the group will not be its only member. In this case I think that the Paeony has been included with the Mayapple, not least for the shared character in the lore of the old rhizotomists, as I’ll explain further.
The Himalayan Mayapple (Podophyllum hexandrum [Royle] syn. P. emodi) is a well known eastern species. Chiefly of the Himalayas, it is sometimes called the ‘India-‘ or mayapple. Its uses appear to be exclusively medicinal. A sub-species – also with medicinal uses – is the Chinese P. hexandrum chinense.[Wall.] , P.pleianthum.

The Fruit: ‘Male and Female’
Just as the Mayapple is reputed to have a male and a female variety, so too do the Paeonies: the shrub-peony grows from Asia through southern Europe and north America, but the tree-peony is native to Asia.

Thus, it was the former which Isidore knew, describing it after the Germander:

Paeon was a certain physician by whom the herb peony (paeonia) is thought to have been discovered as Homer says. Some call it glyside because it has a sweet taste or pentoroina from the number of its seeds, or as others say dactylos from its resemblance to fingers. It grows in the woods.

(Etymol. XVII..ix.48),

It is noticeable that Isidore, too, omits mention of the flowers. Distinction between sweet and bitter might be another reference for the division here, the Mayapple’s fruit being poisonous (the flatter cup resembles that of the datura), whereas the Paeony is sweet. But of the two it is the fruit of the edible Paeony which seems to be to be represented here, complete with sprouting seeds.

Grieves explains that, in the case of the Paeony’s supposed ‘male and female’ plants, the difference is due to a difference in types of root, and she ends by mentioning that (again like the mandrake and the Mayapple), the western belief long existed that the Paeony’s root had to be treated with caution.

The varieties female and male paeony have no reference to the sexes of the flowers. The roots of the female or common paeony are composed of several roundish thick knobs or tubers which hang below each other connected by strings.. the leaves are of a paler green colour than those of the so-called Male Paeony.. the roots of the Male Paeony are composed of several oblong knobs hanging by strings fastened to the main head.. the [Male] variety has been known also as Paeonia Corallina. It was thought to shine during the night protecting shepherds and their flocks and also the harvest, from injury, driving away evil spirits and averting tempests. According to Gerard, Josephus said that to pluck it up by the roots will cause danger to he that touches it therefore a string must be fastened to it in the night.. that [a hungry dog] may pluck it up by the roots.”

In Chinese and Indian medicine, the paeony tree is associated with the health of ligaments, used in remedies for strengthening against atrophy (or ‘wilting’) of the limbs, and for increasing flexibility of sinews and tendons.

“in the Neijing Suwen (ca. 100 A.D.), in the chapter on wei syndrome, which is translated as atrophy or wilting syndrome, there were five types of atrophy listed, associated with each of the five organs. The disorder was thought to derive from heat or damp-heat damaging the yin. [The remedy named] Huqian Wan is comprised of anemarrhena, phellodendron, cooked rehmannia, tortoise shell, tiger’s bone (no longer used), peony, citrus, and dry ginger; sometimes cistanche (another parasitic desert plant) is added. The formula was recently described by Kong Lingqi (Resolutely Upholding the Concept of Hardening the Kidneys Method, by Kong Lingqi, Sichuan Chinese Medicine, 1998 (6): 8-9, translated by Bob Flaws):

Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon ‘Cynomorium’

Most paeonies are shrubs, but the tree-paeony Paeonia suffruticosa is native to east Asia. Its ‘lotus’ like arrangement of petals scarcely requires comment.

The Paeony often figures in the art of Persia, India and Asia, and is associated with the phoenix. On trade ceramics that were disseminated through south east Asia, Persia and as far west as Fustat (old Cairo) the paeony is a popular motif.

Ceramics of far-eastern origin, and their nearer imitations, show certain elements comparable to those used in folio 86v, (‘sun-lotus’ western quadrant) and hatching – a common, an entirely natural technique in ceramic decoration, whether painted or incised.

Alocasia – Taro
I would like to add that the roundish tubers bear resemblance to the taro, which again has peltate leaves, though not of the form shown in fol.33v.
Posted by Diane at 11:58 AM

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The post above was a condensed version of the prior, more detailed post, which I add below for any who enjoy minutiae.

Friday, March 23, 2012

fol.33v lotus-like ‘Mandragora’ – Mayapple, Paeony and ?Alocasia
Among plants mentioned by Theophrastus is the ‘mandragora’, which Muencher equates* (correctly, in my view) with Podophyllum peltatum, otherwise called the Mayapple.

*Ref: William E. Fortenbaugh (ed.), Theophrastan studes: On Natural Science, Physics and Metaphysics, Ethics, Religion and Rhetoric, Rutgers University Studies in Classical Humanities (RUSCH), Volume 3 p.79 and p.95 notes 7 and 8..

A perception of likeness between the mayapple and mandrake evidently informs the herbal traditions. The Mayapple is also said to have a male and female type, and like the mandrake, that the mayapple had be lifted by means of a string and a dog. Daniel Austin mentions the belief in the mayapple’s having a male and female variant as current even in America where he learned it as a child. The Mayapple in America is often termed ‘American mandrake’.

***Daniel F. Austin, P. Narodny Honychurch Florida Ethnobotany (2004) p.902.

The fact that the group is defined by a plant with peltate leaves is a fact surprisingly often ignored, though the form given leaves thoughout this section of the manuscript is of far greater importance than any other element in the drawings.

peltate leaves [illus]

Botanists consider peltate leaves typically tropical and relatively uncommon in the temperate zone. There are a few exceptions, even in the Mediterranean, and Podophyllum peltatum is one – at least to the extent that Theophrastus knew it, in Eresus or in Athens, as Muencher (I think rightly) says.

When Theophrastus lived and wrote, the Greeks’ habit was to consider a plant’s more permanent leaves relevant to its description and classification, but to consider those other small ‘leaves’ we call petals as little more than a transient arrangement marking early stages of a fruit’s development. As Green puts it:

“.. what we treat as the flower parts the Greeks held to be the fruit, and so forward to their fuller development and final maturity, always the fruit”

Ref: Edward Lee Green (et.al), .. Landmarks of Botanical History Vol.1 P.139.

The wiki article offers online links to readable and/or downloadable copies of the Theophrastan corpus.

For the philosophers, as for the rhizotomists who served physic, it was by reference to stem, buds, roots and fully developed leaves that plants were identified, described and classified. Precisely similar ideas inform the botanical folios of ms Beinecke 408, from which Dioscorides’ style of individual ‘plant portraits’ is a custom either unknown, or ignored.

Although for us now the norm, individual plant ‘portraits’ in botany were a novelty directly credited, as an invention, to Dioscorides in the Roman era (1stC AD). To separate each individual from its kind, and to devote a folio to but one or two, suited to the tastes and needs of an urban and educated class, in which sedentary scholars might accommodate or even afford those necessarily larger and more lavish texts which resulted. But it was not a custom universally adopted even then, and the Dioscoridan style can be said to inform few – I should say none – of the botanical images in ms Beinecke 408.

There is no doubt that the leaves on fol.33v are peltate leaves, having a noticeably marked or sunken centre to each leaf.

peltate Mayapple leaf [illus]

Our identification then for the base reference which are provided always by the leaves must offer few appropriate examples from the Mediterranean tradition, especially given the many indications in this manuscript that it derives from a Hellenistic and non-Dioscoridan corpus.

The leaf defines the group, providing the characteristics by which others included will be seen as similar – to that plant and to each other.

As for the ‘flowers’ of fol.33v: here again these are drawn in the pre- or extra-Dioscoridan mode. That is, with emphasis on the fruit and seed, the flowers referred to as it were in passing by means of a simple stock-type which tells us in most cases only that the arrangement appears thus-and-so. In this case, the stock type is a ‘lotus-like’ arrangement for the petals. In other examples, as we have noted, the stock-types include the ‘cotton-like’ the ‘carnation-like’ and some few others.

‘lotus-like petals’ motif [illus]

Folio 33v tells us little more about the appearance of the flowers, save that the arrangement arrangement of petals was ‘lotus-like’. ‘Was’ because what is pictured within that fringe is not the flowering stage, but the fully developed fruit, which we term the seed-capsules – and which, in the older way, was relevant to a description where the petals were not. This is one indication that the material does not originate in the culture of the Chinese or Persians, for both of whom the flower was an important – the important – part.

Fruit
While petals about the ‘fruit’ were not drawn literally, the fruit itself is very carefully drawn. A clear distinction is made between the two larger: (that on the left more oval, that on the right ‘eye’ shaped; that on the left two rows of seeds, that on the right, three; the base of each different).
fol.33v detail [illus]
The seed-capsules of the Mayapple are less ordered than we see here. On the plant they appear like a kind of lotus or paeony, but only the Paeony itself offers close comparison with what is drawn.

Mayapple flowers [illus]
Paeony ‘fruit’ [illus]

sprouting seed of the Paeony [illus]

Paeony seeds, late stage [illus]
Once we set aside an instinctive assumption that the images in these folios ‘should’ belong to the culture of medieval Latin Christendom, or (worse) that they are the product of ‘creative imagination’ from a period still later, then we are able at last to take them seriously, and ask – rather than assume – what they are meant to convey. Or more exactly: to ask what they did convey to the persons who originally designed and used them.

What is quite clear is that the picture on fol. 33v cannot represent the sunflower, for it bears no relation to that plant in the leaf, root, seed-capsule, nor linear alignment of the seeds, the only important criteria for plant-identification in the older world and today for economic botany.

For the makers of the figure to suggest a further similarity to the lotus is reasonable, whether by reference to the Mayapples or to the Paeony. The Indian lotus (Nelumbo) has peltate leaves, and the fruit-in-flower of some among the mayapples sit upon leaves that are similarly formed, and open in a way like the lotus’ that it scarcely needs comment.

Acute perception, and personal familiarity, informs these folios’ description of plants; assignment to their groups is not superficial even if it is not ours, and is clearly derived by considering factors other than the appearance of the flower. To have so much information about plants of the eastern sphere of itself requires us to posit at the very least a westerner’s long sojourn, trading in that region or, as I think more sensible, the acquisition of a work maintained outside the culture of the Mediterranean for a very considerable time before the fifteenth-century copy was made.

Errors in the interpretation of these figures by a modern reader (and certainly the present author is no exception) are therefore predictable, but errors are more likely if a reader, affected by ingrained habits appropriate to western tradition, assumes there are flaws in the drawing, and then further assumes them due to an ignorance which is arbitrarily attributed to the designer or maker of the original figures. Nothing in the drawings – in my opinion – can justify such a chain of assumptions.

In regard to implied parallels to the lotus and its flower, I might mention a somewhat curious image (right), which is said to represent one of the Mayapples used in traditional medicine in China. In the leaf, at least, one sees a very clear similarity to the white Nymphaea lotus, otherwise known as the tiger-lotus. I have not been able to confirm the identity of the Chinese plant, although its veins show it is not the Egyptian lotus.

Nucifera lotus [illus]

An even easier equation is made between the Mayapple and Paeony on the one hand and the lotus of India (Nelumbo) on the other. The equation could have been known to the west by Hellenistic times, for as mentioned in another post, representations of the Nelumbo replace those of the Nymphaea in the bowls made in Hellenistic Egypt, and it seems that western knowledge of both Paeony and Mayapple pre-dated Alexander.

Paeonia and its people.
Athena Paeonia [illus]
Paeonies [Peonies] are native to much of the northern hemisphere: to Asia, southern Europe and northern America. Homer spoke of a people known as the ‘Paeonians’ too and in this way the flower would have been familiar to any educated Greek, and probably associated with those people. The “Paeonian” territory formed the northern border of Alexander’s Macedon, and Homer recorded how the Paeonians had come, long before, to the aid of the Trojans.

Other than that we know little about them except that their former lands are in modern Romania; that by Pausanias’ time a figure of Athena Paeonia (a reference to the place, not the flower) stood on the long colonnade by which one of Athens’ potters’ quarters were linked to the port (Pireus), and that Athena of Paeonia is on the coins issued for Paeonia in the time of Alexander and – thus – contemporary with Theophrastus. But we may owe to them some of the legends associated the paeony in western botanical works.

Refs online: Grace Harriet Macurdy, Troy and Paeonia: with glimpses of ancient Balkan history and religion, Columbia University Press, 1925; Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (for the Athenian colonnade see ‘Athenae’ section 18); Wildwinds’ online site (for coins of Paeonia showing the Athena of the Paeonians).

‘Male and Female’
Between the two large ‘flowers’ on fol.33v the distinction between them is made as clearly as their similarity. Yhis again it conforms with common ideas about the Mayapple, considered (like the mandragora or the mandrake) to have a male, and a female variety. Again, between mayapple and paeony there is a natural contrast: the former poisonous, the latter is sweet.

By medieval times, in the Mediterranean, the shrub-peony (if not the eastern tree-peony) was known to the educated of Europe, at least by name – and doubtless in practice to a great many other people. It is briefly described by Isidore (Etymol. XVII..ix.48), immediately following the Germander, and in a way which attributes medicinal value to it. He writes:

Paeon was a certain physician by whom the herb peony (paeonia) is thought to have been discovered as Homer says. Some call it glyside because it has a sweet taste or pentoroina from the number of its seeds, or as others say dactylos from its resemblance to fingers. It grows in the woods.
It is noticeable that Isidore, too, omits mention of the flowers.

Roots/Tubers

Paeony [peony] root [illus]

Like Mandrakes and Mayapples, the Paeony was reputed to have a male and a female type. Grieves explains that in this case (unlike the Mayapple) it is due to a difference between the types of root, and again like the other two those pulling the roots must be cautious:
The varieties female and male paeony have no reference to the sexes of the flowers. The roots of the female or common paeony are composed of several roundish thick knobs or tubers which hang below each other connected by strings.. the leaves are of a paler green colour than those of the so-called Male Paeony.. the roots of the Male Paeony are composed of several oblong knobs hanging by strings fastened to the main head.. the [Male] variety has been known also as Paeonia Corallina. It was thought to shine during the night protecting shepherds and their flocks and also the harvest, from injury, driving away evil spirits and averting tempests. According to Gerard, Josephus said that to pluck it up by the roots will cause danger to he that touches it therefore a string must be fastened to it in the night.. that [a hungry dog] may pluck it up by the roots.”
Alocasia Taro
Alocasia – Taro [illus]
For all this, however, I must say that on appearance alone, I should have taken the roundish tubers for taro roots, got from the Alocasia spp, except that taro are edible and in the Voynich manuscript, edible or ‘good’ parts are normally white, and their plants if cultivated, invariably show a circumscription mark.
Alocasia leaves taro [illus]
Perhaps the image does reference the taro, but while there are reasons to associate the latter with other Buddhist emblems, and once again they have peltate leaves, I cannot see just how they might have otherwise been thought similar to Mayapple or Paeony. Perhaps they were taken as the African equivalent of lotus or paeony root, both of which are eaten.

Paeony root (edible) [illus]

In a late fifteenth-century herbal, known as the Boniface Herbal, there is a beautiful figure for the paeony including its roots. One could imagine that figure derived from ours, assuming the Italian painter had the knowledge needed to re-present and ‘translate’ its elements into conventions of European manuscript art – without which any imagery becomes incomprehensible to a given viewer, as the history of discussion about ms Beinecke 408 must prove.

But that the reverse idea should be entertained – that the figure on fol.33v of Beinecke 408 could have been first conceived in fifteenth century Europe, or copied from such a herbal as the ‘Boniface’ is an idea which frankly beggars the imagination.

Eastern species.
As has been noted in each folio treated from the botanical imagery in ms Beinecke 408 the work is chiefly concerned with plants from outside Europe, though efforts are made wherever possible to reference some example from the older Mediterranean corpus – the Hellenistic Greek – and if an equivalent exists it is that species whose leaves define the type. For fol.33v, the eastern plants are as well known as Mayapple and paeony within the west.

Mayapple
Podophyllum hexandrum [Royle] syn. P. emodi is widely known. Growing chiefly in the Himalayas, it is sometimes called the ‘India-‘ or the ‘Himalayan-‘ mayapple. Its uses appear to be exclusively medicinal.

A sub-species – also with medicinal uses – is the Chinese P. hexandrum chinense.[Wall.] , P.pleianthum.

Paeony [Peony] [illus]
Most paeonies are shrubs, but the tree-paeony Paeonia suffruticosa is native to east Asia. Its ‘lotus’ like arrangement of petals scarcely requires comment.

It is often figured in the art of Persia, India and Asia, and is associated with the phoenix. On trade ceramics that were disseminated through south east Asia, Persia and as far west as Fustat (old Cairo) before the twelfth century (as indeed afterwards through other Red sea ports) the paeony is a popular motif.

On the link just offered, the object also shows in its decoration certain stylistic features habits comparable to those used in drawing the sun-‘lotus’ on folio 86v, (western quadrant). ‘Hatching’ techniques are also common, an entirely natural in ceramic decoration, in both painted and incised ware – in the Mediterranean as on the Asian example shown.

From the ninth century, in China, the paeony became the subject of a Chinese legend and a festival (Mudan Huahui) which has ever since been celebrated annually in Luoyang, on April 10th-25th. It is held in association with the White Horse Temple, a compound established under Chinese imperial protection for the Buddhist scriptures and the monks who brought them to China. That association in itself allows a correspondence between the two types of ‘lotus’ noted earlier in this post, and reflected perhaps in the drawing on fol.33v.

So important has the paeony and its festival become, that paeony is the set flower for the month of April in the twelve-flower calendars of China and of Japan, cultures which place importance on having costume, its adornment, and other paraphernalia accord with the current season and its emblems.

The origin of the Loyang Paeony festival is attributed to an empress Wu of the Tang Dynasty, who when the peony tree ‘refused’ to bloom to order in winter, banished it from the capital (Xi’an) to Luoyang.

Paeony flower and fruit, China 16/17thC [illus]
In Chinese and Indian medicine, the paeony tree is associated with the health of ligaments, used in remedies for strengthening against atrophy (or ‘wilting’) of the limbs, and for increasing flexibility of sinews and tendons.
“in the Neijing Suwen (ca. 100 A.D.), in the chapter on wei syndrome, which is translated as atrophy or wilting syndrome. There were five types of atrophy listed, associated with each of the five organs. The disorder was thought to derive from heat or damp-heat damaging the yin.

[the remedy named] Huqian Wan is comprised of anemarrhena, phellodendron, cooked rehmannia, tortoise shell, tiger’s bone (no longer used), peony, citrus, and dry ginger; sometimes cistanche (another parasitic desert plant) is added. The formula was recently described by Kong Lingqi (Resolutely Upholding the Concept of Hardening the Kidneys Method, by Kong Lingqi, Sichuan Chinese Medicine, 1998 (6): 8-9, translated by Bob Flaws):
Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon ‘Cynomorium’..
Posted by Diane at 6:40 PM

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