Comparing… the issue of translating imagery Pt.3

Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t have said this post would be about how two people have treated this folio, because I hadn’t already considered it, researched it or come to any conclusion about the data. Having no time to do the proper depth of research at present, I can only add an off-the-cuff sketch to illustrate how I go about it and – entirely contrary to my usual practice – I have put the “posited id” first.

In what follows, our different approaches are not just  those of botany versus art-analysis.  Edith sees her task as divining which (single) plant underlies an image which she supposes the original, ‘fanciful’  creation of a renaissance Italian artist, in a work whose model she takes to be that of Latin Europe and its herbal-and-health texts.

Since I accept only the high probability that our present manuscript was made in early fifteenth century Europe, and cannot agree that this imagery shows any sign of first enunciation at that time or by a Latin ‘artist’, my aim is to consider the image, and ‘translate’ its content, stylistics and embedded information into terms (including botanical terms) familiar to readers of the present day.

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Below is  Edith Sherwood’s identification for folio 35r.  On her website these pictures are paired just as you see them.  Edith’s accompanying notes – as she says – come from wiki articles and a severely abbreviated on-line version Mrs. Grieves’ Modern Herbal (Edith’s remarks see  here).  Edith offers no explanation of how, or why, she thinks the Italian chicory is the subject of the picture, nor does she offer any analysis of the image-as-image, so I am unable to explain why she thinks the picture would include a leaf-shaped root, nor the stem be drawn so very slender, nor so smooth,  nor why the colours used are not those of the Radiccio (please ignore her mis-typing of Radiccio; no-one makes more typos than I do!).

plant35r Sherwood
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I am not sure if this is the identification included in a compilation made with the assistance of “Steve D” and which described the creation of a garden in a place – evidently a fantasy location – and which Steve called “the Villa Voynichi” but Steve also informed members of the mailing list that the compilation would be named the “official Voynich herbal” so perhaps this is also the identification to be found there.
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And so that you can get an idea of why opinions about these plants’ identities diverge so widely, here –  just for the sake of the exercise – is the same image used to illustrate how I have learned to approach the analysis of these images, and their research.  Since this is an off-the-cuff proposal, just to give readers an idea of contrasting method,  please don’t mistake it for any final opinion.

Preliminary remarks reflect the results of having completed a full analysis of forty folios – not all of which ended with a final opinion.  Three or four, I felt, did not adequately explain and contextualise every item in a picture, and for that reason ended with the range of possibilities, not a firm conclusion.  In my opinion, since the aim of this work is supposed to be that of assisting those working on the written part of the text, identifications should not be offered too lightly.

Preliminary:

I begin from an expectation  – which the research may lead me to think incorrect in a given case, even if it hasn’t so far – that the image on folio 35r will conform  to the same general pattern that emerged from those more detailed analyses.  That is, that the picture will again be a composite image, representing two or more plants which are perceived as forming a ‘plant-group’ by reference to their proximity in their natural habitat, their interchangeable and/or complementary practical uses, and that they were part of eastern trade along the chief sea-lanes that connected southeast Asia (perhaps to as far as southern China) to  the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea.
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Resources: analysis of the image will, as I’ve learned, inform me of habit, sometimes of habitat, and which parts of the plant have economic value.  The persons who first designed the imagery (folio 9v being the exception) ignored flowers that had no economic value of their own, and in any case usually set them, as formality, at the top of the plant, facing upwards, regardless of whether that is where they usually appear.   In a sense, one might describe the images as consisting of the essential elements considered necessary for identification ‘in the field’ with pictorial “annotations” included.
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Leaves and petiole are accurate when shown and further limit the range of possibilities for identification when they are present. Mnemonics are often, if not always included – a form of ‘annotation’ – these set at the point between stem and root. In addition a set number of formal ‘root’ images  also serve as ‘annotation’ and prompt the reader’s recall of the  group’s commercial uses and thus it’s members’ value.
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Within those indicated limits, and given the predictable limits of distribution, one is usually left with less than ten possibilities to research in depth.   That research will normally include historical, ethnographic, botanical and sometimes archaeological evidence: the uses for a plant in the fifteenth century or earlier may well be forgotten now; conversely, modern economic botany may have uses for a plant which had not been discovered in the fifteenth century.
Since I have no time to make a ‘short list’ and then do the research and eliminations,  what follows is an off-the-cuff proposal just for the exercise.  Explanation for this illustration follows.
folio 35r composite
 Analysis and proposed id.
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For the common ‘group-principle’ here, I’d suggest the ‘stink’ plants – those which emit a foul odour but were valued for medicine and for food.
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The basic form, I’d suggest, comes from Amorphophallus,  A. titarum and/or A. paeoniifolius being among the more likely included.
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It is to be expected, in the Voynich manuscript, that anything purple-coloured will be omitted or differently-coloured – which practice is so constant through the botanical folios that I now consider it a cultural marker.
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For that reason, use of green for the interior need not trouble us.
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Flower: The flower of A. titarum appears only once every seven years and being less often available, a regularly available alternative could be expected to be grouped with that serving as the group’s definition – a model which has been noted in other images from this section previously treated in depth.
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I’d then suggest, from the appearance of the “flower” on f.35r, that it represents another ‘stink’ plant named Rafflesia, which grows as parasitic of a native vine – the vine being the reason for the very slender and slightly undulating stem shown here.
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Stem:
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In the botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408, an undulating stem always refers to a ‘vine’ – including plants which we might distinguish as scrambler or creeper. I also note a grape-y sort of vine pictured on the reverse of the same folio ~ folio 35v.
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While it is true that A. titarum grows on a surprisingly slender stem, it is Rafflesia which certainly uses the vine-stem and especially vines in the genus Tetrastigma (Vitaceae).  I have that last item of information from wiki, but because  this is an initial proposal, not a finished conclusion, that source will do.
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I’d suggest, more hypothetically, that Rafflesia might have once been believed the female (flower) form of the same plant(s) among the Amorphophallus, though to check that would take time and access to some fairly early ethnographic and historical studies.
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Distribution:  A.titarum and Rafflesia  grow in the same region of southeast Asia.
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So –  I’d conclude (for this exercise) that, just as Tiltman said of this folio, that it was constructed as a composite figure, one which includes reference to more than one plant but that those referenced are intelligently grouped, from the basis of having equivalent and/or complementary uses in the region to which they are native, and that (as we’d expect from earlier folios), they naturally occur in close proximity. Their association in the image then reflects that which occurred in reality. The composite becomes an intelligently condensed and visually “annotated” guide to commercial use.
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Composite figures:
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On this point of composite figures, I note that while I assume that Edith Sherwood is aware of Tiltman’s paper, and know certainly that she is well aware of the botanical analyses’ which I published some time ago, that she makes no reference to either of us having concluded that the imagery is so constructed.
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Edith does refer in a general – and somewhat disparaging – way to generic ‘modern botanists’ who,  she says, describe the folios as a “mishmash” ( a very meme-ish word, ‘mishmash’). Since Edith names none, nor cites any, for want of better information, I must cite Edith herself, who says:
Botanists, who examined the VM’s botanical drawings, have dismissed them as a mishmash of flowers and leaves belonging to unrelated plants. The fanciful nature of some drawings makes identification with 21st century plants difficult (link).”
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and
Modern botanists have ignored their work, dismissing these drawings as a mishmash of flowers, leaves and roots belonging to unrelated plants and not worthy of any attention.”(link)
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– not terribly helpful, especially given that she does not clarify the sense in which she, or they, mean the term  ‘related’.*
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 We may contrast  her tone with that of John Tiltman’s comment on this folio.  His phrase provides a precedent for which I am enormously grateful – and not a little envious, for Tiltman was not obliged to expect after publishing that opinion, any continuing impact on his name or reputation from the “Sprague effect”.

Tiltman had written:

“Plate 8” [folio 35r]: This is an example of the many drawings which appear to be composite and cannot be identified as any one plant..”
John H. Tiltman, The Voynich manuscript, “the most mysterious manuscript in the world” (NSA doc. 631091, published online).p.21.
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I have found the groupings of the Voynich botanical folios to be intelligent and informed, a rational form enabling instant cross-reference between plants that occurred in close proximity, whose physical forms are usually similar, and whose traditional uses are invariably found to have been regarded as interchangeable and/or complementary.  For example, Amorphophallus titarum and Rafflesia were valued for food and for similar purpose in medicine.
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* It would be a-historical, as well as irrational, for anyone to expect these  drawings to conform to the scientific taxonomic descriptions used today –  and by which we define our present ideas of ‘related’ plants.
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Indeed, even today no-one who has studied botanical nomenclature and wrestled with the hydra-headed, eel-like quality of taxonomic descriptions would presume that any given ‘group’ will be defined today exactly as it was last year, or will be next year.  And things were worse even in Europe before Linnaeus.  Theophrastus had believed that a  lettuce and a turnip were not just ‘related’ but were the same plant, a plant which appeared one year as one thing, and another year as the other!  It seems to me that the same habit of mind may inform this image and overall a ‘Theophrastan’ system has been shown to apply to these images where the Dioscoridan and later systems do not.
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(Hence I speak of the point between stem and root as the ‘Theophrastan point’ for it was there that Theophrastus believed the constant ‘soul’ – inherent nature – of any plant was found, regardless of apparently diverse forms, or versions.)
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Further Questions – the sort I would ask of myself having got so far with this one in a longer list of possibilities …

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The corm of the Amorphophallus is not leaf-shaped, as we see the root formed on f.35r.  Perhaps the ‘leaf’ form is an allusion to the native vine on which the Rafflesia depends?  The corm was certainly the part used for food; is there any evidence that the ‘leaf’ which rises from the centre of the corm (or any of the roots) was particularly valued by inhabitants of the regions the plants grew?   Is the  sweetener-flour  made today from the corm of Amorphophallus titarum another of the type,  A. konjac (Thanks Keely),  a traditional food? Is it attested before the advent of modern economic ethno-botany? Do we hear of any similar ‘sweet flour’ being traded during the early or later medieval period? If so did it reach the western Mediterranean?  Do we have record of the name(s) under which it was it traded?
As a rule, this process of research would be engaged for every recognised candidate, and there have been times when the evidence gained during the course of research has left me having to scrap an entire list of possibilities and begin again. If evidence runs counter to theory, the theory is the thing to ignore.
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