A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 3b-ii

The aim of this post (or paper, since it is over 2,500 words) is to establish whether the content in folio 22r, and in other sections as I’ve explained them, is consistent with the historical records, and to show that this image being included limits possibilities about the ways, and period, within which the botanical section is likely to have come to the view of Latin Europeans. I regret that a near-complete absence of reference to my work on “Voynich”-specific sites means that I must also include more reference to my own earlier work than I or the reader might wish.[1]

Since we are still in the south, in what was once ‘Magna Graecia’, I should have liked to spend some time explaining the demographics of the southern Italian peninsula and Sicily, not least to counter the myth that the population and culture was in any meaningful sense “Langobardic” by the twelfth century, but while the matter is crucial to understanding the environment from which this older and eastern medicine (and materia medica) ‘exploded’ into the Latins’ corpus, I doubt that many researchers into the Voynich manuscript care to be provided with quite so much background. 🙂

And since most are well acquainted with the fact that many medical texts came in Arabic and were translated into Latin in Italy by Constantine the African, or in Iberia  (usually by bilingual or multilingual Jews, though the works emerged under formal attribution to Gerard of Cremona), I do not think it important to review that matter, either.

The less often mentioned element in the new matter emerging from the Sicilian kingdom, and described as ‘Salernitan’  is the role of the Jews in southern Italy and Sicily.  Despite the clear evidence of the historical record both in Islam and in Latin Europe that Jewish physicians were numerous and very highly regarded for most of the medieval period, and that the traditions of the Salerno school include among the four ‘founders’ of its tradition not only those of the Greeks, Latins and Arabs but of the Jews, histories of western medical practice and pharmacy still constantly overlook the fourth. Hence my focus on it in this and subsequent posts.

Being neither an expert on the history of medicine nor of Jewish medical texts, and without access to Monica Green’s coming study of the Great Antidotary, I’ve decided to document the trade in eastern materia medica by reference to the traders’ letters which were preserved in the Cairo geniza, as edited and translated by Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar,  Practical Materia Medica of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean According to the Cairo Genizah (Brill, 2008) [2]

I will begin by emphasising that my opinions about the manuscript’s imagery – throughout – began by a concerted analysis of the images, with the aim merely of finding the historical, geographical and cultural context within which they sat naturally.  The idea that they are “bizarre” is simply a by-product of a viewer’s having nothing similar in their existing range of knowledge; the aim of iconographic analysis is to correct that impression by reference to internal analysis and contextual information.

Having done this initial work, the next step was to disentangle the various indications of chronology and establish a chronological stratification,  the diverse elements and influences then set in order according to their period – cross-referencing with the cultural and regional sets into which they fitted most naturally.

This was followed by a more intense stage of analytical treatment of, and commentary upon, particular folios.

Into this stage (reached by the end of 2010) belong my analyses of the map (folio 86v/85v-and-86r) and of the botanical folios.

Having thus come to the point where I felt the material could be explained in terms of its origin, evolution and (finally) its transmission into Latin Europe, I began writing more about the historical background per se.

Thus, my identifying the subject of 22r as the ‘Myrobalans’ group* was not due to any intention to find support for any preferred theory about the manuscript, its ‘author’ or nationality or any other among the factors which inform the great majority of ideas and writings promoted in connection with this manuscript.  It was solely a product of learning the visual ‘language’ informing these images, and then – in effect – translating them.  I have no vested interest in hunting support for any personal hunch-as-‘theory’: what opinions I have are opinions gained as a conclusion after  close study of the imagery, and by constantly consulting the history of art, of cultures, anthropology, social and economic histories and other pertinent matter. Thus, my conclusions are limited to opinions about the imagery.  If it were proven tomorrow that the written part of the text is sixteenth century Italian, it would neither disturb me nor affect my conclusions. A full translation, however, can be expected to highlight flaws in either. 🙂

FOLIO 22r: Myrobalans group.

* analysis and commentary on this folio was published elsewhere, but repeated in the present blog here (Pt 1) and  here (Pt 2).

The identififol.22r-i Myrobalans croppedcation came from the structure and form of the image on folio 22r.  I have only just now begun reading the text by Lev and Amar from which I will quote, but to investigate the history of Myrobalans’ use, and the question of whether that history is compatible with what has been said so far, I  refer to their translation and discussion of texts found in the Cairo geniza, whose documents cover a period from the ninth to the nineteenth century, and include matter related to every aspect of life, cultures, people, trades and events not only within medieval Cairo, or only among the Jews of Cairo, but of all within the regions linked to medieval Cairo and its peoples.

Within their book, Lev and  Amar begin (p.84) by saying that contrary to saffron, which was traded mainly in its region of origin in the Mediterranean, most myrobalan species were imported from tropical Asia and Africa where they were cultivated (India, Burma, Madagascar), coming first into eastern Mediterranean and from there exported westwards, to Europe. The Kabuli species was exported from Kabul in Afghanistan. In medieval medical literature, several species of Myrobalans are mentioned: ‘Yellow-‘ as the ripe fruit of  Terminalia citrina, and ‘Black-‘ as its unripe fruit;  Indian myrobalan (Terminalia arjuana); Beleric myrobalan (Terminalia bellerica); Emblica myrobalan (Terminalia emblica); Cherbulic myrobalan (Terminalia chebula). The authors add the Arabic and occasionally the Hebrew terms.

This agrees with my findings about folio 22r.

The authors also note (on which see my earlier discussion of the ‘pictorial annotation’ at the roots’ position in f.22r) a number of other purposes for myrobalans, and it is clear these too were well known by the eleventh century –  and thus no doubt added to the reasons for purchase and recommendations of the good by the seller to his prospective client.

The authors make the important point that Myrobalans were unknown to the classical Greek physicians, and were introduced to the Mediterranean during the ninth and tenth centuries, becoming a ‘hit’  in the Arabic speaking world, and that myrobalan is the most commonly specified ingredient in the many pharmaceutical remedies, lists, glossaries and texts which have been recovered from the geniza.

On p.84-5 it is noted that Myrobalan was imported to Egypt through the trading routes of the Indian Ocean. From Aden (Yemen) it was transported to Egypt through the port of Ghadhab [apparently a romanisation of ‘Aydhab. – D]. [3]

Many Genizah fragments such as letters between merchants based in Fustat and Alexandria, deal with the trade in myrobalan. From Egypt, cargoes of Indian and yellow myrobalan were exported to Quayrawan and Sicily through Madhdiyya. Cargoes were also sent from Egypt to the Levant: to the ports of Ascalon, Tyre and Tripoli, and thence over land to the interior. According to the Geniza documents, myrobalan of Egyptian origin was sold in Jerusalem although the precise route is not clear. .. Sometimes the order to sell to a merchant in the west was sent from Fustat through Alexandria to a merchant in the west… A merchant in Alexandria writes a letter (1062 AD), “Chebulic myrobalan has no market…” A year later, the market was rising [Lev quotes the prices]. By 1065, the price had doubled, with the fine … In 1065 ten mann [weight of fine chebulic myrobalans] were sold to a middleman in Sicily for 3.3 dinars“.[emphasis mine -D]

Further notes in a later section of the book include (p.218) the fact that although the Myrobalan fruits’ use as a medical remedy had been well-known in India and in China from ‘early times’, the species find no mention in the Greek and Roman medical treatises, and that most of the species used came from India and from Madagascar.

This range of the species imported agrees well with my own conclusions about folio 22r,  drawn from consideration of the style in which the imagery is composed in the botanical section, the apparent range over which the plants depicted naturally occur,  stylistic characteristics in the present botanical images and the fact that the range and reference appears almost entirely limited to places and goods across the southern, maritime, route that extends from southeast Asia in the east to the head of the Red Sea (and/or Persian Gulf) at the western end.

The relevant section of the Voynich manuscript’s ‘world’ map,[4] and indeed the form and style in which the map is composed, and the fact that its main body omits reference to any site in mainland Europe, together with its lacking any reference to Jerusalem or to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, also accords with the information about the entrepots from which myrobalans were distributed, and thus inclines me to see an original connection between the source from which the map was obtained by Latins, and that which brought the botanical information.

While I’m inclined to believe the botanical folios passed from Syria to the Latin world, their having been obtained from a “thesauros artis medicae aegyptiacos”  in Cairo or even in Alexandria –  as Baresch believed-  is not impossible in the least, though could not have occurred earlier than about the middle of the eleventh century, and I should date the transmission of the botanical folios to the west – as I’ve said before and often – to not earlier than the middle of the twelfth century.

Readers are referred to the book by Lev and  Amar, where the Arabic and/or Hebrew terms are given, with footnotes following almost every sentence, and which refer to a specific Geniza document, to other comparative material, to specifics of palaeography, prices for particular goods at a given time, to the various forms of script and which were used for a particular purpose etc.etc.  One hopes this may aid those labouring over the text’s written part.

In sum: Myrobalans of the type identified in folio 22r were indeed being brought into Sicily by the mid-eleventh century, and to some within the island  were already so well known that they were specified by type and grade,  the finest was being ordered directly from Jewish contacts in Cairo by 1065, by which time Normans efforts to control the island had begun, but were not to succeed until another six years had passed.

By that time, however, Jewish Sicilians already had a long history in the island and on the mainland in Salerno.  Because time is short, I will quote the wiki article on the last point, but readers are welcome to challenge and investigate the information, of course. I correct a couple of typographical errors in the original:

“An inscription on a tombstone testifies to a Jewish settlement in Salerno, possibly as early as the 3rd or 4th century. By the Middle Ages, the town was known for a medical school founded by Jews around the year 800. Jews are mentioned in town records in 872. The Jewish quarter of Salerno is also mentioned in 1005. When Benjamin of Tudela visited Salerno in 1159, he found 600 Jews living in the area. Because of the persecutions in southern Italy around 1290–94, many Jewish families were forcibly baptized.



[1] The codicological discussion of Beinecke MS 408 identifies two distinct sections or phases in the botanical section. I am not entirely convinced that the argument applies to the section, rather than to the script.   I have yet to discuss the Myrobalans’ inclusion in the Nestorian “Syriac Book of Medicine” which was copied and then translated by Wallis Budge.  The index entries can be seen here.  Wallis Budge’s introductory essay appears in Volume 1, together with the Syriac transcription. (here), but apart from noting that the dimensions of the book are “thirteen and a half inches by nine and a half inches” and that the original was in a fine Syriac hand, Budge offers no comment on the artefact, nor hazards a guess about its date. Internal references show influences from India (especially the content of the Brht Samhita), from Greek and from older Egyptian sources among others.

[2]  I would draw readers’ attention to an important publication later than that by Lev and Amar,  and which treats a multilingual Synonym lists composed by a Provençal writer of the eleventh thirteenth century.  Myrobalans are also mentioned there.  Shem Tov ben Isaak (of Tortosa) (author), and Gerrit Bos and Martina Hussein (eds.), Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov Ben Isaac of Tortosa: ‘Sefer Ha-Shimmush’. Book 29: Part1: Edition and Commentary of List 1 (Hebrew – Arabic – Romance/Latin). Chebulic and ‘yellow’ myrobalans on pp.184-185.  The Book of Asaf, which I had reason to mention briefly (here), is also discussed in the Introduction to the translation of Ben Isaac’s work, with further references given (p.31) In 2012  Ephraim Lev delivered a lecture to the Royal Asiatic Society on the history of the Geniza discoveries  which can be heard and/or downloaded here. He reaches the pharmaceutical matter near -22m. and makes the interesting point that while the main texts are in Arabic, Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, numbers are not rarely written in Coptic. He translates one recipe word by word in the broadcast, nothing that it blends Hebrew and Arabic ‘in a beautiful way’ though if the text of the Voynich manuscript is of a similar kind, I doubt that reactions will be so positive.

[3] I have also had reason to spend some time on the subject of the originally Ptolemaic port, and the landscape pictured on f.72v.  Readers interested in that information should search the name of the port or the folio number for related posts.

[4] I refer here to my original identification of the folio as a map, and detailed analysis of it, which was published through “voynichimagery” piecemeal from 2011.  I find myself unable to recommend, either in general or in any particular, some subsequent efforts made to re-work conclusions mis-interpreted as “an idea” of mine.  The effort to offer an alternative, one which limited the informing matter to the region and culture of Christians in Europe was done badly, for example, by Marco Ponzi in posts to Stephen Bax’ blog, and the later (and still worse) paper by  J Wastl & D.Feger whose writings suggest to me that neither has much background in any relevant field.


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