A Revisionist revisits… the matter of Canterbury Pt.2


§ 1.  via Egypt..

The Vermont Tuscan Herbal, as some may recall, is notable for often citing a “St.Thomas” as authority for certain remedies.  There are three “Healing Thomas” figures who might have been meant, or have been believed meant, by the maker of that herbal and because one links England and Italy to southern India via Egypt  – Baresch believing the manuscript’s content Egyptian in some way – this post pauses to consider that  ‘Egyptian’ idea in connection with the botanical section before turning again to medieval England and “Healing Thomas”.

Opportunities for bringing information as well as goods from Egypt to medieval Europe were constant during the medieval centuries; at times the Europeans might fetch the matter as part of any other trade, or while en route to the holy land on pilgrimage.  We hear of Il Sabio’s fetching arcane information from Egypt, just as the earlier European monks had done.  All this apart from spoils of war.

Late in the nineteenth century, when F.A. Gasquet was given access to the Vatican library in order to search for writings by Roger Bacon, he found in Vatican MS 4086 what he concluded was a Prefatory letter to that copy of Opus Maius sent by Bacon to Pope Clement in c.1267.  In it, Bacon speaks of having himself sent out men overseas  to seek ancient and classical works of science, though whether any went to Egypt we do not know.  In terms of medicine, Bacon still regards Matthew Platearius as an eminent authority: “a renowned medical author” as he says.  In Howe’s translation the critical sentence reads: [1]

“Again and again, therefore, I sent messengers overseas, to foreign parts, to gatherings of thoughtful men, so that I might [as it were] see these natural phenomena with my own eyes and put them to the test”. 

Around the time that Beinecke MS 408 was made, or a couple of decades before, an English medical manuscript contains fairly typical Latin drawing in its earlier folios, but later we see plants drawn  not unlike those in the Voynich manuscript and on  folio 76v  a perfect echo of the older Egyptian style in drawing. Roots are omitted from all.

Sloane 335 detail folio

(detail) MS Sloane 335, folio 76v

plant papyrus stalk twined with convolvulus Egypt ref

Papyrus stalk twined with Convolvulus.












In 2008, when I began considering the Beinecke manuscript, I saw no reason to dispute the usual opinion that Georg Baresch knew nothing of the manuscript’s history and was offering nothing but ‘guesses’ in his letter to Athansius Kircher, [2] where he says,

In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

It took some years before my attitude began to change but it happened because so often as I sat reviewing my findings about an image or detail or section, Baresch’s words came again to mind, and seemed to sum up those results perfectly.

After six years, I had come to trust his comments sufficiently that I used them as a form of marker: marking a limit to the range of investigation and as pointer to where I might find appropriate comparative imagery or secondary sources.  But that level of confidence was slow in coming, and a result of finding so often that my own conclusions had been foreshadowed by that paragraph.

Let me offer an example:

One peculiarity of the Voynich images’ construction is a regular, though not rigid, practice of setting flower/fruit at top of the plant and turning it upwards to the sun – regardless of  whether those flower/fruits naturally appear at the top of the plant, or upturned.  Another peculiarity is a use of the area below the stem or trunk to add pictorial annotations (what I have sometimes called “mnemonics”) many taking the form of highly stylized ‘roots’.

Seeking precedents for these very un-Latin customs, I found the first characteristic in botanical imagery from two places: Egypt of the dynastic and Hellenistic periods, and  Buddhist India from the 3rdC BC to about the 3rdC AD.

Barhut Madhya plant sml mine

detail of upturned banana fruit – Barhut Madhya stupa

Intercourse between Hellenistic Egypt and Buddhist India (including southern India) was direct during those same centuries, but similar customs had been in place in Egypt from a much earlier period. In Karnak’s “botanical chamber” (so-called), which was made around the middle of the second millennium BC,  ‘exotic’ plants – native to Syria – were carved to cover the walls of a temple’s atrium. Access to that imagery, we believe, was not especially difficult, and one may still see what remains of it.  The same building contained a sanctuary to Alexander, built by his brother Philip Arrhidaeus (323-316 BC). The  images of these plants have served, therefore, as a constant ‘template in stone’ available to visitors and to scribes now for nearly four thousand years.  (details here)

Karnak garden

partim ex monumentis librorum” – Baresch

If we compare that enduring model to folios from the botanical section in Beinecke MS 408, we see echoes of a closely similar attitude to design and construction of the image; the flower-fruits set at the top; the regular disposition of stem and branch;  a similar indifference to relative proportion of the flower-fruit and the plant’s height and emphasis on the first of those two.  Because the Egyptian imagery is some of the oldest we have, we might posit that the Voynich imagery derives from an Egyptian series, though  other factors including one default page layout for this section indicate a first composition during the Hellenistic period, and certainly not later than the 1st-3rdC AD in my opinion.  Omission of any roots from the Egyptian forms offers a reasonable explanation for why the makers should have felt that area the most natural place to add those ‘pictorial annotations’ to the basic image, and why those annotations or ‘mnemonic devices’ should take the form of such highly stylized roots: the roots were not considered part of the ‘plant-picture’ as such, any more than they are at Karnak.

fol 55r detail

detail from f.55r

I am not arguing that the Voynich botanical folios show the same plants as those in Karnak, but that the first enunciator’s approach to his task shows a similar cast of mind, and similar training and expectations, all the more apt when both sources are representing ‘exotics’: non-Egyptian plants in Karnak, and non-Mediterraean plants in the Voynich folios.

and then we find that beautifully ‘Egyptian’ looking drawing in Sloane 335, along with others which evoke though they do not imitate imagery in Beinecke MS 408.

Insofar as those herbals for which Aldrovandi coined the term ‘Plants of the Alchemists’  also include a kind of ‘pictorial annotation’ at the level of roots, so images in those Latin manuscripts [3]  can be compared with the Voynich imagery, though in terms of style, fluidity, subtlety, lucidity, vividness and plain wit, the Voynich images are to the ‘alchemical herbals’  as the gazelle to the rhinoceros.

Aldrovandi fish

The Latin imagery is stolid, perhaps attempting monumental style, but the draughtsmen are, as it were, all hand and no mind.

I agree, however, that those ‘alchemist plant’ pictures constitute another, if markedly different, use of originally ‘Egyptian’ forms, though I should say the ‘alchemist plants’ are made after study of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica or some such text. Another book of such interpretations  is mentioned by Robert Burton.[4]

For a number of reasons, including use of a default layout seen in the 6thC AD, in the Juliana Anicia codex (c.516AD), and the probability that like the texts copied for that codex,  that layout was found in eastern Greek works of the 2ndC BC to 2ndC AD – a majority dating to c.1stC AD, so the same range is the latest date that I would suggest for first formation of the Voynich botanical ‘pages’ as such, not including folio 9v which I consider anomalous in both content and structure.

My conclusion overall, therefore, was that in the Voynich botanical imagery we see a development from what had been a purely Egyptian style, now affected (as the page layout suggests) by interaction with eastern Hellenistic Greek culture during the period 3rdC BC – 3rdC AD.  A first origin in Alexandria is quite probable, although the Lagids also held territory in southern Asia minor on that ‘astronomer’s coast’ adjacent to the port later known as Ayas or Laiazzo, and the eastern Greek domain in Hellenistic and Roman times extended into the region of Gandhara to c.3rdC AD.

The pictures’  pictorial annotations or ‘mnemonic devices’ when considered together with  other stylistic features and details, led me to conclude further that over the centuries following, that older matter had been retained outside the Mediterranean world, and beyond the influence of the older Greco-Egyptian culture.  The plants identified, their native habitat, and various other details lead me to believe that the place of retention, until about the mid twelfth century AD,  lay  by the maritime routes extending between southeast Asia (or southern China) and the western end of the eastern sea: the “Great Sea” as Ibn Majid calls it.

But study of the  botanical folios was just one strand among those which led me, increasingly,  to diverge from the majority view and believe that, as  Georg Baresch said,

“It is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts . ..”

I doubt that Baresch was correct in his “guess” – which really was a guess – that the whole purpose of the present manuscript is to serve medicine.  Nor do I assume that ‘noble character’ was a Latin European, but someone brought the content in the botanical section into the west and that section did not come earlier than the middle of the twelfth century, in my opinion, and not to the notice of Latin Christians in Europe until rather later again – perhaps as late as the fourteenth century.

So,  while I no longer wonder whether Baresch was indulging his imagination, I  wonder increasingly why so very little serious attention had ever been paid to his views.  He had said already, in the seventeenth century, that the plants were exotics – but even after that letter to Kircher was published online in the 1990s, and brought to notice by Rene Zandbergen, the information was (as so very, very often in Voynich studies) – just ignored.

herbae peregrinae, in Volumine depictae, notitiam hominum in partibus Germaniae subterfugientes“.

  • “the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in [seventeenth-century] Germany.”

I had come to that same conclusion about the plants’ being ‘exotics’ by 2009, and my first paper about it was published online in that year. [5] Entirely  independently,  Mazars and Wiart had reached a not dissimilar opinion, at least about some plants’ not being native to the Mediterranean or Europe. They expressed those opinions in an interview, and were reported for the benefit of Voynich researchers through a post published at ciphermysteries in May 2010.  Neither they, nor I,  had based our opinions on anything other than the imagery, and none of us did so by reference to Baresch or to each other’s work.

I now feel that,  had Baresch’s remarks been paid more attention and the ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ rather less,  study of this manuscript might have progressed earlier, more rapidly and along more appropriate lines than we have seen during the past two decades.  I also think it important that Baresch made no allusion to Roger Bacon, and neither did Baresch’s friends in Rome.

Today,  the reason that Baresch’s  information might be the most accurate of which we have documentary evidence seems obvious enough.  He is the earliest witness certainly to have had the manuscript in his keeping, and his dates suggest he may have received it from Jacub Horcicky or from some person whom Horcicky wished to have it.  Baresch is then the only first-hand witness in a position to have gained, when given the manuscript, any unbroken tradition regarding its origin or history.[6]  Marcus Marci, his friend for forty years, says Baresch spent decades struggling with the imagery and text, and it is clear that Barech relied on more than hypothesis and ‘guesswork’.  He  sought the advice of specialists –  of German botanists who were then the most eminent group in Europe, and of Kircher, who was asserted (not least by Kircher himself) to be conversant with most of the world’s ancient and classical tongues and scripts.

And Baresch had the idea that the content was ‘ancient’ and in some sense Egyptian. (With Panofsky’s original evaluation in mind, I have already considered the possibility that Baresch had misheard or mistranslated the term Mizrahi – meaning ‘eastern Jews’ taking it to be Mitzrayimi  – meaning ‘Egyptians’).

To Zandbergen and those others who spent time gathering information about Rudolf’s court in Prague (1576–1612) and who hunted details from its archives and wrote biographies for many persons associated with that court, or with the Voynich manuscript, we owe the information that Baresch’s first approach to Kircher hadn’t been direct, but had been  made through the Jesuit network. We also learn that Kircher’s response had been fairly classic “Sprague effect”.

This means that Baresch’s letter to Kircher is his second attempt to enlist Kircher’s help, and is written in the knowledge that Kircher was not inclined to be receptive.  Altogether then, I now read Baresch’s ‘hypothetical’ sentences not as an excercise of imagination, but as an effort to suggest diplomatically that Kircher is mistaken in dismissing some provenance given earlier.  For example, I now read “In fact, it is easily conceivable”.. as “In fact (sir!) it is easily conceivable…” and so on. For all its attempt at honeyed flattery of the sort required by Kircher, Baresch’s indignation seeps through in other parts of the same letter. (What I take to be suppressed indignation, Neal takes otherwise).

Baresch was guessing about the overall purpose for the compilation; he says plainly that he guesses it involves medicine. At the same time, it is clear from other letters (also transcribed and translated by Philip Neal) that many understood it was supposed to involve ‘alchemical’ matter of some variety.



[1] The whole document of 17 pages is transcribed in Gasquet’s article.  F.A. Gasquet, ‘An Unpublished Fragment of a Work by Roger Bacon’, English Historical Review, Vol.12 (1897) pp. 494-157. (p.  502).  I have the translation fromthe essay by Woodward and Howe in Jeremiah Hackett (ed.),  Roger Bacon and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1996. (p.200)  I note too that Howe has very generously published a webpage with his translation of  sections from Opus Maius pertinent to Bacon’s geography and cartography. (here).

[2] Philip Neal translated this letter along with others noted by Rene Zandbergen among the letters and documents of the Kircher archive when it was put online.  Neal’s translation, notes and acknowledgements are here.

[3] A similarity first noted, I believe, by Philip Neal.

[4] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.  I regret that this is another item no longer in my library, so I cannot check the reference.

[5] first published in 2009 by the kindness of Nick Pelling on ciphermysteries, subsequently transferred to ‘Findings’ (a blogger blog) where it was published on May 24th., 2010.  I made it available through voynichimagery.wordpress.com on closing ‘Findings’ to general readers. I see today, on looking back at the original post, that Dana Scott and not Edith Sherwood was the first to identify 25v as a Dracaena (Dana having seen it as the Mediterranean species which is  now described as D.draco though it was not in medieval times). For the correction on that point, my thanks once again to Nick Pelling.

[6] I understand that Philip Neal, once again, was first to point out that Mnishovsky would not have witnessed the events which he allegedly related.







2 thoughts on “A Revisionist revisits… the matter of Canterbury Pt.2

  1. The first person I know to have mentioned Brit.Lib. MS Sloane 335 in connection with Beinecke MS 408 was Rene Zandbergen, in a comment to Nick Pelling’s post ‘Pre-1450 German possibility?’, ciphermysteries.com (December 18th., 2009)
    The comment (with hotlinked lines removed) reads:
    “I just found a very nice illustration from a pre-1450 manuscript which is more Voynich Herbal-like than anything I can remember..” (Dec. 21st. 2009)..The MS I was looking at is BL Sloane 335, [then follows a copy of catalogue description]..Beside the image of ff. 81v and 82r, there are also interesting other images, e.g. a crossbow on f5v”.(Dec.22nd., 2009).

    This comment by Zandbergen seems to have been no more than another passing reference to a manuscript whose images seemed to Zandbergen to be more, or less, like something in the VMS. If this example was ever followed up, or discussed in any detailed way, I’ve not seen it, but as always, references and notes about precedent are always welcome.


    • Additional NOTES:
      The manuscript Sloane 335 comes from a collection gathered by Hans Sloane, an Irishman who was born in 1660, before Kircher received the Vms. The history of the Sloane collection can be read here.

      MS Sloane 335 is attributed to England and to the last quarter of the 14th or 1st quarter of the 15th century. Medical miscellany by John Arderne, (sometimes: as John of Arderne) including (ff. 1-78v) Liber medicinarum

      In January of this year – 2017 – a person who writes as ‘VViews’ noted in another copy of Arderne’s work a marginal flower-as-asterisk It is drawn in a similarly irregular, sharp, jagged style as the ‘asterisks on strings’ in the Vms calendar.


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