Comparing Beinecke MS 408 and the Tuscan Herbal 3-b-i

Testing Menno  Knul’s view that”similarities between the Voynich MS and the non-coded Vermont MS 2 are convincing”, we saw  in Parts 1 and 2 some points in common but substantial differences, and the points of similarity being a result of technical matters of manuscript production in northern Italy: sheets of closely similar dimensions, a palette which co-incides – although that in the Voynich manuscript has a wider range – and both setting down the drawing before the text is inscribed.

Otherwise they have very little in common, and the Tuscan Herbal is  too late and too eclectic to answer questions about the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures, their origin or related text – so now we leave the Vermont Tuscan Herbal, though this series  continues under the same title.

This might be a good moment to say plainly that I’m no specialist in Latin herbal manuscripts.

These posts are not intended as argument for where  the Voynich manuscript should be placed within the various strands (stemma) of herbal texts used in Latin Europe ~ even if in a general way the botanical folios appear to fit, somehow, in that erratic progression. What marks the Voynich pages apart is chiefly their imagery’s higher intellectual content, the original makers’ approach to constructing such images, and  the idea of how to define a ‘class’ of plants. The previous post (.. ‘Living creatures‘) touched on that last point briefly. If I have identified the plants correctly, there is also their focus on plants whose appearance was generally unknown to Latin Europe.

Alain Touwaide says the manuscript’s binding is  characteristic of Italian works; the manuscript’s untrimmed substrate has dimensions found in a number of manuscripts produced in northern Italy between the end of the fourteenth century through to the end of the fifteenth, and the vellum from four folios returned a median radiocarbon dating of 1405-1438.

Altogether it seems only reasonable to concentrate  our comparisons around manuscripts produced in the earlier decades of the fifteenth century and in northern Italy, but we must also bear in mind that works copied there at the time were not rarely gained from elsewhere and were, by definition, first written earlier.

Connection with northern France is further indicated by the general opinion that the dialect which produced the month names in the calendar foldouts is Occitan or Judeo-Catalan, while thanks to Don Hoffmann, we know that a similar orthography occurs on an astronomical instrument made in or near Picardy, late in the fourteenth century, and the Rolls for adjacent Calais (while part of England’s territory) provide our earliest instance of the crossbowman’s being called a ‘Sagittario’. The lines which join these regions to Veneto were heavily travelled then, and remain so.

Archer f67v

(detail) Beinecke MS 408 folio 73v. [formerly folio 75r]. IMAGE ID 1006207

In addition, the crossbow which best explains that pictured on folio 73v  – made of wood and requiring a curious position for the archer’s hand – is of an unsual type, presently known only from an archaeological find on Padre island –  thus, discovered in the Americas though made in Spain c.1510. I have still not been able to learn whether the same design is pictured  in a French manuscript dated between 1302 and 1303. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone  able to visit the original. (B.L. MS Yates Thompson 8, folio 61).

Clearly, if the content in Beinecke MS 408 is relevant to the needs of mariners, as well as traders, then the whole would have been most use to such Mediterranean centres as Venice, Genoa, Portovendres or (earlier) Ancona, but in the east to the Indian, Yemeni and Omani master-mariners, termed ‘pilots’ and who had carried generations of traders, including the Radhanites of the earlier medieval period and agents of the Karimi who took their place during the Mamluk period.

Given that eight hundred  Genoese – mariners and ship-builders (not just ‘carpenters’) – were directly invited to assist in the Persian Gulf at exactly the right time (c.1290), there is a real possibility of direct information transfer and the botanical section’s stylistic similarities to Yemeni imagery in the Mashad Dioscorides, and to Sephardi  imagery gained from the eastern Mediterranean, are neither of them inexplicable. (these items have earlier been treated in my blogposts).

We must not forget, of course,  that  Steele, Panofsky and other specialists saw the manuscript’s presentation overall as appropriate to the mid-to-late thirteenth century, most attributing it to England but Panofsky initially to “Spain or somewhere southern”  (i.e. to Sephardis).  None attributed it to Italy, because nothing indicates an origin in the Italian renaissance style (a point on which Pelling disagrees).

So we may well owe the Voynich manuscript’s compilation and manufacture to northern Italy and the early fifteenth century, but its nearest exemplars (variously) to  thirteenth-century France and/or England,  to the Balearics and/or Iberia…  at a time when the botanical section could have reached the west along the very direct route from Oman. The botanical section’s images includes nothing save folio 9v which could be taken as reflecting Latin conventions in art or in attitude to the page.

I would emphasise, here, that the Voynich manuscript is plainly not the result of copying a single, homogenous ‘authorial’ creation. It is a copy which reflects a compilation from several older sources, though most conveniently divided into three classes: one, the botanical folios (with supplementary ‘leaves and roots’ section); two, the folios which include ‘ladies’; and three, the map.

To provenance the look of the present manuscript overall is not to determine where the content  originated, nor when it was first enunciated, section by section.   In my opinion, the botanical folios’ content probably came through Mesopotamia and Syria, between the late twelfth to late-thirteenth centuries, but the  first enunciation of its imagery is surely much earlier and I have always attributed its origins to the Hellenistic period, though acknowledging that the root mnemonics were added rather later – in one or two cases not earlier than the tenth century, in my opinion.  The whole also shows such strong evidence of impact from eastern style in drawing and attitudes, that I believe the original matter (regardless of present text) had been retained for centuries, if not a millennium or more, in the eastern sphere: that is, from east of a line drawn through the centre of the Caspian, and I should think from the southern, maritime routes  rather than  those passing  overland. I take the reciprocal view of the ‘ladies’ sections’ history.

Overall, the manuscript’s  latest, apparently European, additions( apart from post-manufacture marginalia and foliation etc.) are not many, and most are restricted to reverse sides of the fold-outs, save modifications to the calendar’s central emblems. Apart from the last, the rest occur as diagrams or as additions to the map on folio 86v (Beinecke f.85v and 86r). Some I have attributed to the period 1252-1253; another (at least)  to the time of the Avignon papac(ies), and I have strong reservations about folio 57v. I should suppose, on stylistic grounds, that it might be as late as Kircher’s time, save that the ink has not been distinguished as any later than the rest.

None of this affects the botanical folios, even if its folio 9v is anomalous, for reasons explained in other posts.

Disposing text and plant imagery.

Trying to keep imagery of plants close to their associated text  is surprisingly problematic, but has been resolved in just a few ways whether one considers the corpus of Latin, Islamic, Byzantine, Armenian, Syrian, Persian or Asian works.  In some regions, a purely pragmatic solution was hindered by the social status accorded the writer of words as against the maker of pictures.

One solution to layout problems was to set the image down first and then fit the text around it, but this was more common where reverence for word was less pronounced than in earlier Latin works.  Still – the image-first method had been employed earlier, and as early as the classical period and recurs in every tradition.  The example below is included, not to argue that the Voynich botanical imagery is Tibetan, but because in making comparisons, the reader might not think to include this group.

Between Europe and Tibet, during the thirteenth and fourteenth century, connections were quite close. More to the point,  the region was a major centre for the production of, and trade in, medicinal plants used in Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine, some also featuring in the Islamic and Chinese pharmacopoeias.  The Himalayas were not the remote backwater often imagined by contemporary Europeans and it is thought that Odoric of Pordenone travelled through Tibet before returning to Padua and Udine in the Veneto – where he died. (Note – earlier accounts supposed that he had first reported to the papal court in Avignon, but this is not now thought so. The current ‘wiki’ biography isn’t too bad, actually.).

herbal Tibetan medicineIn eleventh-century Europe, the manuscript page is envisaged as primarily the platform for written text,  with  plant pictures – if included at all – serving are mere illustration, confined to spaces prescribed by the scribe’s preparation of the page.

The plant-picture will then occupy a ‘cut-out space’ or be closely wrapped by the text. One useful example is offered by Oxford, Bodleian, MS. Ashmole 1431 where the  ‘cut out’  can be seen (e.g.) on  fols 17v and 18r and the ‘wrapped’ style  on (e.g.)  fols. 19v and 20r.

In Beinecke MS 408, the plant-pictures are never fitted into a  ‘cut out’ –  a point of interest in itself and a clear distinction between the usual Latin herbals and especially those made before the mid-fifteenth century.

The Voynich page-layout  gives one the impression  (not necessarily correct)  that most information about these plant(s)  is embodied by the image, with written text serving as the ancillary addition or elucidation. The opposite is true of the Latin herbals, where the written word addresses the plant, and the ornamental image addresses the text.

The Voynich botanical imagery speaks directly about the plants, their habit, uses, and means to obtain the valuable material as well as uses for it.  These images are extraordinarily self-contained despite their formalised construction, and where Latin herbals might omit illustrations, the impression here that if  choice were demanded, the pictures would remain and the written text  go – but it is only an impression. One cannot quiz even the fifteenth century copyists.

Folio 7r is fairly typical, both in layout and in  relative weight accorded image over written word. Not that the latter is treated cavalierly.

It is is written carefully, typically in long lines and in ‘paragraphs’ –  and not so much ‘wrapped’ about the image as being expected to make way for it. The usual Latin deference towards Word  is here effectively reversed.

fol 7r

Beinecke MS 408, folio 7r

Though  characteristically elegant, succinct, and informative, I have chosen folio 7r not least to show that if one hasn’t the necessary range of knowledge, no amount of intelligent construction can help the modern reader be sure of his or her interpretation.  This is not at all a case of “all imagery being subjective” as is sometimes said – as if imagery in a medieval manuscript were something by Kupka – but rather that the nature of communication requires both parties to understand the same ‘visual language’ and we don’t.  This doesn’t mean that one cannot interpret any of the image, and notice how it is neither a generic image nor a purely illustrative ‘portrait’ of one plant: these two being the range of the Latin herbals’.

Reading the image on folio 7r, one sees that where we might expect to see the convention denoting cultivated plant(s) (illustrated first below) we see instead something like a reduced version of the vase, or bound bouquet motif seen on a larger scale on folio folio 19r, which latter image I take to represent a non-Mediterranean version of the lulav, probably one used in earlier times by persons resident  between southern Arabia and coastal India, where the medical citron did not grow.

fol 53 v circumscription mark

(detail) folio 53v.

lulav vase motifAbove that mark, on folio 7r, the stem’s whiteness tells us that the skin or bark has to be removed to obtain the matter of economic value.  A mnemonic at the level of the roots is usually helpful, at this juncture, in limiting the possibilities still further, but here my own lack of the needed visual vocabulary leaves me unsure.of the original makers’ intention.   I can recognise a similarity to the Chinese character for “man/person”, but not determine whether that was the makers intention.

folio 7r root ren

The ‘flower’ is a little easier to read, and together with the other points suggest to me that it is meant for the cinnamon flower or for Euphorbia sikkimensis, though one still assumes that in this case as in the rest a group of plants considered interchangeable and equivalent are being referenced.  Below are the two compared, so that the reader may decide the degree of similarity.  The Euphorbia shown is E.sikkimensis which, like the Cinnamon, includes both red and yellow-green in its leaves.

Euphorbia sikkimensis and Cinnamon flower(left) Euphorbia sikkimensis. For the reddish hue in larger plants see here.

(right) flower of the Indonesian Cinnamon. For the reddish colour of its new leaves, see here. (This image from a commercial site, where it is labelled “cinnamon leaf essential oil” looks astonishingly – some might say suspiciously –  like  those of a Euphorbia!).

Since I first published a discussion of folio 7r, I have been told that there is, somewhere or other online, at least one other Voynich writer’s assertion that the folio pictures a Euphorbiaceae though I would expect – since it has happened so often – that the identification when taken up, was altered so as to suit an expectation that the botanical folios were a Latin European herbal manuscript.  Since  (also as usual) such attributions lack acknowledgements for any precedent, or are highly selective, I can only say that I found no earlier mention of Euphorbiaceae or cinnamon as the subject of folio 7r.  As always, I am happy to correct such omission if order for publiction can be determined – just leave a note here or email me. [1]

Both the cinnamon plant and E. sikkimensis had commercial value.

Among other uses for Cinnamon, the oil was, and remains, an aphrodisiac used by men in India and Asia. Euphorbia sikkimensis’ use in medicine is now restricted to use of the tubers, known as  Tharnu. Several other members of the Euphorbiacaea are widely-known as a source for traditional dyes,  and that may also be the sense of the mnemonic.

I incline to a group of the Euphorbiaceae not least because an equivalence is recognised in the Yemen between uses for  E. balsamifera and Boswellia sacra (Frankincense).

The bright green leaves were gathered and used for men and for animal fodder;  the bark of frankincense trees, stripped, yielded a dark red dye. The gum of E.balsamifera and B. sacra was chewed to improve health.

The best reference on this point is surely Miranda Morris and Anthony G. Mililer, Plants of Dhofar. The Southern Region of Oman: Traditional, Economic and Medicinal Uses. ( 1988 ), but since that is quite rare and equally expensive, I refer readers to a section  transcribed at Enfleurage, here.


I’ll break this post here. The rest – which gets straight back to the layout of Latin herbals – should appear in an hour or so – as Pt 3-b-ii.


1 post entitled,  ‘Fol.7r a note on cinnamon and some members of the Euphorbiaceae’, Findings, (Blogger)  April 20th., 2011. There I noted that “E.sikkimensis is native to the elevated forests and alpine meadows of southeastern Asia (India, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal), where its root is said by Kew gardens to be “commonly put toward medicinal ends”.





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