Theriaca: an illustrated manuscript

In the 12th century, a book sometimes attributed to Ibn al-Fath [1] includes illustrations of plants employed to make theriaca. Entitled Kitab al-Diryaq, or ‘Book of Antidotes’ it is held by the Bib.Nat. Paris (MS arab. 2964).

Theriaca Kitab al Diraq facsimile editionThese photographs are of  pages from a facsimile edition but you can see that the manuscript contains diagrams in addition to its written text and imagery.

Kitab al Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris ms. Arabe 2964 facsimile


You may wonder why I don’t course this hare myself. The answer is the same as why I’ve never chased anyone else’s theories, and raised very few of my own.

It tends to interfere with the effort to see pictures as they are when, deep down, there’s some pet theory you want them to prove for you.

But this is an interesting manuscript, and I’m fairly sure that it has been mentioned often in connection with the Voynich manuscript. I’m not claiming this is a discovery of mine, but it does bear on the subject of theriaca recipes.

It is like the imagery in ms Beinecke 408?  – not exactly.

The botanical figures are laid out not unlike what is seen in printed copies of the Asian bencao literature, and it is included among those attributed to the Jazira of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for its fusion of Hellenistic, Islamic (“Arab’) and Mongol influences.[2]

The time is certainly close to that I’ve proposed for one critical stage in the Voynich imagery’s evolution, and the locus is close enough. However,  in  Bib.Nat. de paris ms arab. 2964, as in the Mashad Dioscorides (as I mentioned in earlier posts, most recently here)  there is not the same intelligent use of plants’ roots as mnemonics which informs almost every one of the Voynich manuscript’s botanical folio.

Hence, the advantage in considering this manuscript of Ibn al-Fath’s text and/or its facsimile, is not to prove direct correspondence to the Voynich (unless that’s what you really want to try), but just to check the way that theriac and its ingredients were conceived in the Jazira at that time.[2]  The area, and that time, are ones to which I have for some years assigned one important phase of the Voynich manuscript’s evolution.

As you can see from the picture above, right administration of medicines was also considered to need some reference to the moon and its “tides”.

In fact, if anyone can show certainly that our manuscript represents the same series of plants in the same style as those in the Book of Antidotes, I might even modify my present view that there is no obvious sign of medical matter in MS Beinecke 408. (recognise this picture?)

[1] an undated article in Qantara  says the author of the ‘Book of Antidotes’ is unknown,  attributing it merely to ‘pseudo-Galen’. The same article mentions theriac being produced in Montpellier…

At the end of the Middle Ages, Venice possessed the secret recipe of a theriac, thanks to its connection with the East. But this ‘fine Venetian theriac’ had a competitor in the form of a French version from Montpellier, a town where the medical know-how from al-Andalus was perpetuated. The Montpellier theriac was prepared under the supervision of magistrates and doctors. Eventually, due to its high price and many ingredients, the theriac was considered a universal panacea. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was prescribed in Europe as a tonic and a tranquilizer. It was listed in the French pharmacopoeia until 1884.

[2] on the interaction of Greek, Islamic (‘Arab’), Syriac and Mongolian influences in the Jazira during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries see e.g.

Maja Kominko, ‘Constantine’s Eastern Looks: The Elevation of the Cross in a Medieval Syriac Lectionary in Piotr L. Grotowski Slavomir Skrzyniarz (ed.), Series Byzantina vol. VIII (2010) p. 177-194


5 thoughts on “Theriaca: an illustrated manuscript

  1. The reason for uncertainty about the name of the scribe as ‘author’ is explained by Pancaroǧlu who writes:
    The inscription on the right-hand page states that the book is for the library of a certain Imam Abu’l-Fath Mahmud who, it appears from his patronymic, may well have been the nephew of the owner/scribe named on the frontispiece [of the Paris manuscript].

    Oya Pancaroǧlu, ‘Socializing Medicine: Illustrations of the Kitāb al-diryāq’, Muqarnas, Vol. 18 (2001), pp. 155-172. (JSTOR)


  2. Thanks Diane, fascinating indeed. I don’t follow one thing though. You say that: “As you can see from the picture above, right administration of medicines was also considered to need some reference to the moon and its “tides”.”

    I can’t see any reference in the pictures, or in the pages of the original manuscript, to the moon and the tides. Am I missing it?


    • Stephen,
      Feel free to ignore the comment; to explain how form itself conveys certain automatic inferences within a given society or broader culture (i.e. for example within Syrian Christianity, or more broadly within the empire of Islam) is always difficult, and impossible for me to do within a blogpost comment. (Others may be better at condensing, of course).

      – basically, the implication is inherent in the form chosen for the diagram, evoking as it does the style of compass and its instinctive association (in Islam) with quiblah and the (religious) lunar calendar. A very famous instance of the way that the moon’s journey was linked to other stages of a progress, had been created about a century earlier* by Ibn Arabi.
      * than I date revision of these sections of the Vms. The Kitab.. was composed, it is thought, in 1199 and Ibn Arabi lived till 1250 AD.

      But I mustn’t digress…

      The interest generated by your notice of my blogpost has encouraged Google to produce more information about the Paris Theriac manuscript.

      Today I see that there is an article about it published in 2011 by an online magazine. The by-line names Ashley Lindstrom.

      I hope that a publication offered some time ago by the Aboca Museum isn’t yet out of print. I’ve written off to them today.

      On the whole, though, I expect that people for whom the Voynich botanical sections are a kind of “home territory” will be hopping onto the subject, and I also hope that Dr. Arshad will have time to translate more of the inscriptions.


  3. This is marvellous. Thanks, no doubt, to your interest, the manuscript’s G/gle profile has been raised and now I am even shown a page where the essays accompanying the facsimile are listed.

    Those of most interest, I should say are (and I quote) by:

    Oleg Grabar, a professor of Islamic art at the Universities of Princeton and Harvard, [who] gives a scientific and artistic analysis in his Interpretative essay.

    Françoise Micheau, a lecturer in the medieval history of Islamic countries at the Paris-Sorbonne,[who] describes the use of the medicine in the Graeco-Roman, Arab and Western worlds in her essay ‘The medical purpose of the Book of Theriac’.

    Anna Caiozzo, an Arabist at the Université Paris-Diderot, [who] analyses the splendid frontispiece in her monograph ‘The three states of the moon, describing the myths and magical and astrological interpretations’.

    What a pity that G/gle ranks information as it does, thinking that one’s chief interest is in commerce. Indeed, I now have this information only because as advertisement for the facsimile and the aboca museum’s shop, the latter issued a pdf giving these details.


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