Poscript: the Juliana Anicia codex (concluded).

[added note – July 6th., 2016].  Best information at present is that Edith Sherwood, an American pharmacist to whose botanical ids Rene has always referred his readers, first offered the comparison of folio 35v in Beinecke MS 408 with folio 60r in BNF [MS] Lat 6823. See also ‘comments’ to this post.]


The Anicia Juliana codex is a Romano-Greek Byzantine manuscript made in c.512AD, and using text from various older works of the eastern Greeks: chiefly Dioscorides’ but the rest including part of Rufus of Ephesus’ Carmen… , a poem that would receive a Latin re-working in eleventh century Europe, probably by Odo de Meung, under the name ‘Macer Floridus’.

The Anicia Juliana codex is notable not least for the number of its images. In Brubaker’s words:

“.. most Dioskorides manuscripts do not include pictures: though the text was the basic pharmaceutical guide until the Renaissance, only about a dozen of the Greek copies are illustrated”

Precisely for that reason, researchers use and re-use the same sources in efforts to support a preferred theory, and for the same reason often limit the range of unnecessarily.

Designation of the Voynich plant-pictures as a ‘herbal’ is, of course, no more than an hypothesis itself, but from constant repetition over almost a century, it has come to be imagined a fact.  Media other than manuscripts included plant-pictures, the following a pattern in stone.

slate square oak and acorn

Alain Touwaide, Rene Zandbergen and the ‘Manfredi’ manuscript.

Lately, we have had a scholar of undoubted expertise in the areas of Latin and Byzantine medicine, pharmacy and related manuscripts agree to offer some comment, and when a person of  Alain Touwaide’s ability does so it is an enormous gift to us all.

In one case, he appears to have adopted among other comparisons included in a publication of  2015, an identification and comparison credited to Rene Zandbergen in 2013, by Ellie Velinska who includes the same two images, paired, which appear again within Zandbergen’s review of Touwaide’s essay – which I have yet to read in full [1].

It is surely a great compliment to any unqualified person, to have a specialist adopt their ideas, and in this case Zandbergen’s “ids” appear to have impressed Touwaide to that extent.  Curiously, however, in his review, Zandbergen seems to credit Touwaide rather than himself.  I have asked Rene for a resolution of the puzzle, but since ‘first published’ is usually to be first credited, I’ll meanwhile assume that the proposal was first made by Zandbergen, before June 2013.

That composite image, first posted on Ellie’s blog with the credit to Rene Zandbergen compares folio 35v with the oak-and-ivy image that appears on the right hand side of folio 60r in BNF [MS] Lat 6823.

Each shows a berry-bearing plant, of  naturally lax habit, which has been  set close to and is thus supported by another of stronger and more upright growth.  The image in the Voynich manuscript, though, shows the upright plant serving only as a kind of ‘living stake’, where the Paris manuscript shows the oak as host to the parasitic ivy.

bnf comparison Touwaide

The manuscript now in Paris (BNF [MS] Lat 6823) was made in Pavia in 1330-1340, which is about a century before Beinecke MS 408.  It is not exactly a ‘herbal’ but a compendium of herbs and various other plants, as its title informs us: Liber de herbis et plantis..

I’ve had reason to mention this manuscript before, when investigating what Georg Barsch might have meant when he spoke of the “thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” in his letter to Athanasius Kircher.  I considered the image of the balsam in that manuscript, because to the tree, its form, the circumstances in which it grew, and how the balsam was extracted were matters  known to just a few in Egypt, and to very few beyond it, yet they are well depicted in the ‘Manfredi herbal’.  I’ll be returning to it later, to consider another exotic plant pictured fairly well, and whose product was certainly known to England before the end of the thirteenth century, but the form of which was, or should have been unknown in Europe so early as the fourteenth century.

As regards the lineage for imagery of exotic plans in Latin manuscripts before 1415..

Bacon himself had been born in 1220 and died in 1290/92, and upon their expulsion in 1290, the English Jews were obliged to leave their possessions behind.  We know that those perforce abandoned in Oxford fell to the masters of the University.

So it is possible, in theory, that the Voynich manuscript had come direct to Prague from England, as Wilfrid believed, while yet containing matter commensurate with earlier contacts in France, Spain and Italy, but – again in theory – similar matter could have reached Pisa from any of those regions.   The city contained an old Jewish community, permitted displaced Sephardis to settle there, and like Padua and Veneto, saw an a notable increase in Jewish arrivals during the fourteenth century.  We know, in particular, that a large number of Sephardi Jews came to Pisa from Provence and Spain after 1438, the spread of plague in that year having led to attacks and persecution – as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post.

On the subject of what degrees of similarity there might be between any Voynich botanical figure those from European and Byzantine manuscripts, Touwaide’s opinion is surely authoritative, but since the proposition would appear to have been Rene Zandbergen’s in the first instance, I feel it less improper to add some notes from the perspective of art analysis.

Comparison and Difference

In both folio 35v from the Beinecke manuscript, and folio 60r from the Paris manuscript, some elements are rendered by a conventional form rather than a literal one.  The ivy’s being shown with very delicate stems in the Paris manuscript not meant to suggest  ivy stems stay slender, or that the slender stem is an aid to identification.  Because everyone knew that the larger the oak, the larger the ivy it might support, the aim was to present a stock form meaning ‘ivy’.

ivy and oak photo Devon

Now, in the folio 35v of the Beinecke manuscript,  the case is different, because although conventional forms occur in it, they are not used in the same way at all. When an image in the Voynich shows a plant with a slender stem, then a slender stem is what you will find in the field, and it will always be a slender stem.   In other words, one which is drawn so fine as that in the Paris manuscript could not represent ‘ivy’ in the  Voynich manuscript, but would represent a plant having a growth habit like the Convolvulus (bindweed).

In addition, if the reader is to be told the plant is a true vine, the draughtsman includes a tendril.  On the other hand, the leaf may be rendered by the conventional stock form we call “sorrel leaf” and which indicates an edible green.  That particular form is a very old convention indeed and occurs also in Latin herbals.

detail 17v vine and sorrel leaf

Considered together, such factors make it very unlikely that the scrambling plant shown on folio 35v is meant for any sort of ivy, and it cannot be a grape. (The image from Manfredi’s herbal shows oak and black ivy).

It is quite remarkable to see that the same plant is pictured without leaves in folio 35v, for the leaf is the major classification marker in these images.   I can only offer possibilities as to why they are omitted: perhaps  the plant’s leaves fall before the fruit ripens; perhaps the leaves are so variable that to depict them is useless as was the case with the Artocarpus group.  Perhaps the leaves are coloured in life in that range of pink-mauve-purple-black, prohibition against which is so constant in the botanical folios that we take it as a cultural marker.  Complete omission of plant-parts having such natural colour or the replacement of their natural colouring by using red or blue is the norm.  But perhaps the leaves on f.35v have a form so like the larger plant’s that the makers and users needed no more detail.

The stronger plant, on the other hand, may still be a form of oak, for the genus is native to the northern hemisphere, through Asia, Europe and north Africa within latitudes from the cool temperate to tropical. China alone has 100 native species.

My reason for accepting that the  larger plant may be an  oak has less to do with a desire to argue identification by reference to the Paris manuscript than the fact that the root in folio 35 takes so unusual a form.

root folio 35v
(detail) root and mnemonic device in f.35v

If one relied on fantasy and imagination, I  suppose the form could be likened to a clothes’ peg, but when it is considered in the wider context offered by the content in the manuscript overall, including the range of that map I first explained here in detail in 2011, then the more likely form that it was designed to evoke  is that of the  solid saddletree –  which are found made of oak,  from the western isles to Japan. The image is simply an illustration of a solid saddletree; it happens to be Icelandic.  This is meant for a pack-animal but much the same form was used on a riding-animal.

pack_saddle mod Iceland from hurstwic

I do not insist on that identification, but all things considered, identification of the larger plant on 35v as an oak seems reasonable.

As to origins, they are not incompatible with what has been noted in earlier research: At the end of the third century BC, the first solid saddletrees are attested in Asia, appearing about a century later in the Roman world.[1]  A find made in Ireland, also dated to the Roman imperial period, shows rapid adoption of the technology, being described as “a fragmentary wooden object… plausibly identified as part of a pack saddle.” [2]

Oak and ivy bore almost as great a significance in antiquity as did the laurel, and though each is usually represented separately in the iconography,  instances do occur of their being combined.[3] There is nothing to prevent the basic form for the image on f.35v having been enunciated in the Hellenistic period, though the 1st-3rdC ADwould seem more reasonable.

A major difference between the Paris and the Beinecke manuscript here is the Paris’ omission of roots from its image of the ‘oak and ivy’.  And not that the roots were omitted, but that the patron and/or draughtsman could make that choice without apparent qualm.

In the Voynich botanical imagery that part of the drawing is intrinsic, and constant – one is tempted to say essential – to the “pictorial text” presented by the image.  As analogy –  removing subtitles from a foreign film might have much the same effect as removing the roots from the Voynich botanical figures – at least it would have that effect for an informed reader or draughtsman.  Thereafter, one might look, and try to work out what is going on in the picture, but half the information is gone.

Finally, I reproduce a footnote from Minta Collins’ oft-cited book, for those who conflate Manfredi with the ruler of Sicily:

Collins Manfredi note
Minta Collins, Medieval Herbals: The Illustrative Traditions (2000) p.293. n.119.




[1] From the account given in Rene Zandbergen’s review of Touwaide’s contribution to a recent publication, I had the impression that comparison of f.35v with the Paris illustration of oak and ivy had been first proposed by Alain Touwaide.  However, I have also seen the same composite image used in a post on Ellie Velinska’s blog June 2nd., 2013, and there she says:-

“Rene Zandbergen proposed several very interesting possible ids for the VMs plants based on similarities with the 14th century French manuscript Manfredus de Monte Imperiali … My favourite among this [his?] ids is the oak/ivy combination on fol. 35v ”

This year (2016) Zandbergen himself wrote (on Stephen Bax’s site):-

“The article [by Touwaide] begins with an introduction covering the enigmatic figure of Wilfrid Voynich and the history of the MS, clearly rejecting the roles of Roger Bacon and John Dee in the tradition [..unspecified]. His first observation about the MS itself is that many of its plant illustrations present a correspondence with botanical illustrations from the 14th and 15th centuries, and he compares the MS with two herbals from this period, namely  Paris BNF Lat 6823 and London BL Sloane 4016, devoting two of the four illustrations to parallels between these MSs and the Voynich MS.”

It is at that point that Zandbergen inserts the same figure as that included in my post, and which in 2013 had been published in Ellie Velinska’s blog, showing folio 35v beside BNF LAt. 6823 folio 60r..

I have asked for clarification so that my acknowledgements are correct. If not, I’ll add a ‘comment’ below.

[2] On saddletrees: Gawronski R. S. “Some Remarks on the Origins and Construction of the Roman Military Saddle.” Archeologia, (2004), Vol. 55, pp. 31–40. This reference is also cited by a wiki article on the history of stirrup use. and Nancy Edwards, The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland, (2013) p.59.

[3] oak-leaf wreaths, and ivy ornament of the late 4th-3rd centuries BC  recovered in Thrace.  See Milena Tonkova, ‘Gold Wreaths from Thrace’, in Vol.2  The Thracians and their Neighbors in the Bronze and Iron Ages, Proceedings of the 12th International Congress of Tracology, Targoviste, September 10th-14th., 2013.  pp.413-445.  A late example shows both plants together, somewhat unusually, in the authentic base of a much ‘restored’   funerary urn in the Sloane Collection.


8 Replies to “Poscript: the Juliana Anicia codex (concluded).”

  1. This Touwaide episode makes me wonder if any people exist with the necessary expertise to say something sensible at first glance about the Voynich large plants… I think the answer is no.

    Have you considered (black) pepper for the “berries”? They ripen from green to red and are today still grown attached to large trees. I don’t know if oak was used historically, though I guess they could use one if it was available 🙂


    1. Koen,
      Thanks, I can answer your question and correct the credits too.

      First – about pepper. Looking into the ‘Community of St.Thomas’ in southern India, back in 2009 et.seq., I found they had the monopoly over pepper sales in that part of southern India. Trying to discover exactly how they grew the pepper, or whether they merely acted as middlemen, the historical accounts were not really specific enough but the general picture is that the cultivated vines were grown on stakes, and the wild grew on … trees.. in the forests.

      In the usual way, I would think it odd if oak and pepper were combined by the makers of the Voynich botanical pictures; their regular habit is to make the plant-group picture by reference to uses that are either in common, or very naturally associated: fibre plant(s) with the dye-plant(s) actually used for that fibre, or (in another case) fish-poison trees with the hooks which – as the archaeological and ethnographic records show – were made from the same woods.
      On the other hand, to refer to a great tree and associated vine or creeper etc. is a standard metaphor in parts of the east – I’m thinking again of southern India – for the emotional tie between male and female. I found accounts of the Nair especially informative on that point.

      On the other matter, Rene responded to a request (left, necessarily, through Stephen Bax’ site, since there is no means to ask questions, or leave comments at Rene’s website).

      From what he has now told me, it would seem that an American pharmacist, Edith Sherwood, first made the observation. As well as Rene, a couple of other people followed, or re-discovered the pairing later. Edith Sherwood’s original website is dated to 2008, but like Rene’s own site, the additions and ‘updates’ are not themselves dated, so there’s no way to know exactly when she made that observation. Everything on the site after it is set-up is simply backdated. I’m not comfortable with what is, effectively, a systematic ‘retrospective copyright’. While not suggesting that Edith or Rene use it as a way of plagiarising, the fact that such sites work that way always makes me feel uncomfortable about using them or citing them.

      Anyway, it seems pretty clear that Rene believes Edith first made that connection and obviously before June 2013, when Rene included it among that list he showed Ellie Velinska.

      edit – I should add that Edith Sherwood has offered many identifications for plants in the Voynich manuscript and is the person to whom Rene has been referring readers constantly for about ten years, since she first began offering her views.

      I find her approach lacks an appreciation of the Voynich drawings as made imagery – that they are neither ‘scientific’ drawings, nor attempted photographic likenesses, but rene has always referred to her work, and referred others to it.

      When last I looked at her site a few years ago, I did not see any comparisons to imagery in manuscripts – only to photographs and not a few were actually to fairly modern hybrids, such as the pansy. I daresay the site has seen improvements, but … the dating problem.

      I’ve always regretted that Dana Scott’s acute observations weren’t published on a site of his own.


      1. So basically it *could* be pepper, though they would stray from their system then – but there’s a possible explanation.

        This makes me wonder about the big plants in general (they are still relatively foreign to me, showing a whole different mentality than the root section ;)): I thought they were generally “purchase-oriented”, often depicting a plant part as one would see it when buying it. But if for example pepper is depicted as it grew in the wild, then the reasoning would be that some drawings are field-oriented as well, showing the plant as one would look for it when harvesting.

        Reading your post, I always pictured people traveling from market to market, so to speak. Is it possible that it’s a bit of a field guide as well?


      2. Koen,
        I don’t think it is meant for pepper – for a number of reasons, including the way the fruit is depicted. Pepper doesn’t become so dark on the vine, and forms as drupes – as any wiki picture should show.

        That’s nothing like what we see in f.35v, and while the Voynich pictures are a little schematic in drawing flowers, and the makers are rarely much worried about where the flower is put (usually on top of the plant, facing upwards), leaves, petioles and the way fruit looks are (in the Theophrastan way) taken as definitive.

        So they’re not treated casually and apart from instances when local conventions in art are used, they are all depicted literally. I guess if I were interested in the possibility of its being pepper, I’d hunt for Indian, Yemeni or south-east imagery to see how the pepper vine was depicted, from the 1stC AD to c.1150 AD. And then compare with any images in Latin, north African, Spanish, Armenian, Syrian and Egyptian texts across the same range. 🙂

        Except that the pepper vine is more like a liana (no tendrils) I’d think the detail on f.17v in the post above is closer to how we’d expect the pepper vine to look in this manuscript. It might even be so, but then what I’ve described as a tendril wouldn’t be.

        As to the way trade was conducted in the pepper-regions, it differs. In India, foreigners on arrival were assigned lodgings and a purchasing agent who was (at least) bilingual, but more likely multilingual. The foreigner then said what they wanted to buy, and the agent had the responsibility of getting what was wanted at a reasonable price and ensuring the goods were taken to the ship (or whatever) and safely stowed without loss or damage. In Java, and around Soqotra, though, the ships found the island or harbour ringed with ships which lay like market-stalls, and the foreign buyers would then go from one to the other and try to get what they wanted at a reasonable price. There was also a system (not so much open to Europeans) by which a person acting as agent for a company, or family firm etc. would buy up a crop before it was ready for sale. I’ve often thought that this last was a likely environment for the sort of imagery in the botanical section: it seems to show just enough to enable accurate identification and so on, but also implies very close contact with the plants even if the user wasn’t himself a local where they grew. It might, of course, be an eastern ‘herbal’ of which many survived to the nineteenth century in copies made, or derived, from ones available from Baghdad as early as the tenth century. I’ve written of an Englishman who was there at the time and bought a large number of the older works, only to have them lost in a ship which foundered and on which he was to have made his way back to England.


      3. Ahh, I see. I have no intention to study the large plants in depth, so I’ll take your word for it that it’s probably not pepper 🙂 I’ve been studying the growth of pepper once because I thought it was depicted in the root section. But there it has the correct form and, for some reason, is left white like some other fruits there.

        But if I recall correctly you do believe that the large plants make reference to Theophrastus? Maybe that is enough to have them represented in a form that looks like a herbal, even though it’s not strictly necessary?


      4. Koen, What I realised, as the system emerged by which the plant-pictures were constructed, was that the scale of relative importance for e.g. flower versus leaf, or the use of the position between stem and root for mnemonics, was that the system was ‘Theophrastan’ rather than ‘Dioscoridan’. One of Theophrastus’ books was about plants, though he was a philospher so I suppose you’d call it less a herbal than a work on the nature of plants. That book, like a number of others was wrongly attributed to Aristotle, and in that way came to be preserved in the west. No-one seems to have noticed the inherent contradiction between Dioscorides’ approach with his “one plant” portrait pictures and emphasis on flowers, versus Theophratus’ fairly cursory interest in flowers and discussion of how a plant that takes one form in one place or year can emerge differently in another. But that composite, or metamorphic nature seemed to me also compatible with what I found in the botanical section. I suppose I should always put “Theophrastan” in quotes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s