A revisionist revisits.. Canterbury Pt 4-i

Since the previous post ended with a picture of a commercial list recovered from the Cairo Geniza, and we are in the south where that less-than-formal Greek script was being used as late as the end of the fourteenth century, I’d like to spend this post talking of alchemical-pharmacy and other forms of ‘trivial’ text- structures – together. So it’s a long post. (With regard to Greek influence, too, I might mention a recent post by Ruby Novacna where she interprets some star-names as Greek).

So – to continue our triple themes of the Via Appia, the Greek-saturated south, and ‘trivial’ texts,  I must mention two more places before leaving this region from which that ‘explosion of new medical learning’ emerged in the Norman period.  The two places are Taranto and Lecce.

Taranto, by reference to a certain Franciscan named Paul who lived there in the late thirteenth century;  Lecce because Marsilio Ficino requested assignment there to study an ‘ancient Greek’ dialect spoken by the local people – within a wider south which had been the original home of neo-Platonism. Ficino’s book on health and medicine is an unusual one, and some of its recipes are identical to those in the [Nestorian] Syriac Book of Medicines which I’ve mentioned before.

Lecce Carpignano


Paul of Taranto has been identified as the author of an alchemical work entitled Summa Perfectionis.  Opinion was divided as to whether Paul’s focus was primarily on  gold, or on medicine but William Newman who identified Paul as its author concluded that its most practical use was as an aid to pharmacy.

“The Summa is above all useful as a text-book for carrying out preparatory cleansings and purifications of pharmaceuticals … the Summa appears as part of the [later]  Medicina practica of William Salmon, who like Russell was an iatrochemical physician”.

While I do not pretend to think the imagery in the Voynich manuscript is primarily concerned with medicine, alchemy, or ‘alchemical medicine’, this doesn’t prevent due consideration of evidence, historical or internal, which might be adduced in favour.  Over the past century, study of the Voynich manuscript has advanced little,  not least because so many of its more prominent figures have held adamantly to opinions owing more to the proponents’ self-confidence and refusal to consider alternatives than to a desire to understand the manuscript’s intentions, though among the exceptions John Tiltman deserves our continued attention for his observations.*

The case in favour of medicine and alchemy is, first, that these combined subjects were of interest to Georg Baresch –  the person first certainly aware of this manuscript ;  Jakub Horcicky whose name was inscribed on it; Roger Bacon and other thirteenth century Franciscans ; and persons who knew both Baresch and Athanasius Kircher appear to have believed that alchemy formed part of the manuscript’s matter.

Alchemy of the “iatrochemical physician’s” type, which is what we should call basic chemistry,  is intended to assist pharmacy and is precisely the type of ‘alchemy’ which was urged by Roger Bacon in his Errors of the Doctors. He also recommended the Synonyma of Simon of Genoa (not of Nicolaus). Throughout the medieval and renaissance centuries, Paul’s Summa was attributed to Geber, as he intended, but later scholars realised the ascription false and spoke instead of pseudo-Geber until William Newman’s Doctoral thesis  showed convincing evidence and argument for the Summa’s author as Paulus de Taranto,  and its date of composition 1270 – c.1310AD.[1]

So Paul was a younger contemporary of Roger Bacon, and of Thomas of Cantimpré,  and  lived through the time of the Jews’ expulsion from England.

The Summa Perfectionis was known to Peter of Abano (1257 – 1316), a darling of the early Renaissance, and who is credited with information about the Egyptian decans painted in the Shiffanoia at Ferrara.  Abano refers several times to the Summa in his own Consiliator, referring to its author as “Ieber”.

I haven’t looked into the earliest extant manuscripts of the Summa, or its first mention in France or England,  but it received a translation from Latin to English in 1678 by Richard Russell, a London physician. Nine years later another Englishman, William Salmon, included it in his Medicina Practica (1678).

So, altogether:

The Summa Perfectionis was  composed in Taranto, a city with a long and ancient history of non-Latin influence and direct connections to the sea-trade from Cairo, chief source of  eastern materia medica.  One might reasonably suppose that the work of a Franciscan might pass through the order’s lines of communication, even to as far as England, within a fairly short time.  As an alchemical work, too, it could be argued to explain the vague similarity between plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript and those other “Plants of the Alchemists” books.  It would be less a parent-daughter relationship, but more like cousins once- or twice- removed.

As a gift to a chemist-physician in Prague, or even as a copy on offer to him, a work of that type might well be acceptable, and it must be remembered that Jakub was the local physician-chemist and had a flourishing practice.  Rudolf was  one of his patients, but from what we know it would appear that Jakub did not live as a member of the court, and apart from the ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ there is no reason to suppose Rudolf ever saw the manuscript.  There is no evidence or reason to suppose, either, that  Jakub was given it by Rudolf.  No extant document – other than the Voynich manuscript – ever refers to  Jakub in this connection.

That sort of alchemy seems also to have been the type in which Georg Baresh was interested. He emphasises that his interest in the manuscript is “not for money, but for the medicine”.  I rather think he believed it might hold a remedy against the plague (which, by the way, carried off both those English physicians mentioned above).

Again, a historical note from d’Imperio, who tells us that  Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt,  who is described as bibliographical consultant to H. P. Kraus, owner of the Voynich manuscript from 1962 and 1969,  wrote to John Tiltman in a letter dated I November, 1963 saying   that Italy was a likely country of origin and that:

“while both paleographically and historically speaking, Italy is as likely a place of origin as any other country of Europe, there is no evidence that the manuscript must have been made in Venice, or elsewhere in Northern Italy. The possibility that it comes from Central or Southern Italy is still open, and this could very well mean exposure [sic.] to the Arab world”.

I confess that I hadn’t read that paragraph until today, or if I’d ever read it before, it had slipped my mind. I’ve come by a different route to the opinion that the manuscript we have is likely to have been made in the Padua-Veneto region, but Lehmann-Haupt was writing from information available half a century ago. It is nice, though, to know the same proposal had already been made by that time.

However,  ‘exposure to the Arab world’ hardly gives an accurate impression of the far south, whose range and depth of non-‘Italian’ character is so very pronounced.

Greek, ‘Saracen’ and Semite had moulded its history, languages and cultural character and medieval Jews were also an important group in the southern part of the peninsula and Sicily, so early known for medicine and for active connections with the Arabic-speaking world.

Basilicata Tricarico

So, for example, the mountain peak which rises directly behind Montepeloso holds another walled town first established centuries before the birth of Alexander.  It is now called Tricarico and is famous for its terrace-gardens carved out by the ‘Saracens’ of the earlier medieval period;  it was home to a large and flourishing Jewish population whose number greatly increased after the Spanish occupation of Sardinia and Sicily –  and then again in the 1490s.

So while one is inclined to agree with some of Lehmann-Haupt’s views, and wonder how it was that opinions later became so very narrow about where the manuscript might have been made, Lehmann-Haupt’s choice of words might be a little misleading if one did not know better.  [2]

Structures of the written text.

An argument for the Voynich manuscript’s text consisting partly or largely of alchemical and/or pharmaceutical instructions could also be made.   John Tiltman was able to demonstrate what d’Imperio describes as

“a ‘precedence’ structure of symbols within words and the orderly behavior of characters as “beginners”, middles” and “enders’ of words, [which] has remained one of the most solid and useful findings gleaned by students of the manuscript during many years of study”

– which I think a rather sad comment, given that the Friedmans had already been interested in the manuscript for more than two decades before 1951 when John Tiltman was asked to lend a hand, and that so many others before and after failed to achieve so much.

Having made that observation, though, Tiltman was diverted into a hunt for a “book-text” which might agree with those structures, and in particular to investigate possible candidates for what Friedman thought could be an artificial language.  Another avenue which led no-where.

As we’ve seen, a trivial writing of the commercial kind could – with certain abbreviations – yield just such patterns and conform to that opinion of the text which was voiced by both Tiltman and William Friedman, namely that the Voynich text consists of “… categories or classes of words with coded endings or other affixes…”

Technical instructions as a class of trivial writing don’t seem to have been considered at all by Voynich or the Friedmans, but that is understandable given the bias of their time, which considered ‘techne’ an inferior theme for the historian.  I’ve seen no example of anyone’s having explored the possibility in regard to the written text before Don Hoffmann did,  although my own opinion of the whole as a  technical ‘non-book’ was firming by 2010.  What Hoffman did was address the written part of the text, and in general his model structure seems to fit the Voynich text easily and naturallly. I say his model, because I do not think there is enough historical or documentary evidence offered to support the specifics of his explanation – the particular connections he makes between a glyph and a given plant, or a particular unit of measure.  He reads it all as pharmaceutical recipes (see  here).

I do agree – for what my opinion on the script is worth – that as a sort of template or model of  “technical instruction” forms, his model works very well.

To test whether it also applied – as a general model – to other types of technical instructions/recipes, I took texts from a variety of practical subjects:  from navigational instructions to culinary recipes, to documents of lading and tax lists, and instructions for fabric-production. In each case the model seemed to suit the text, just as easily and naturally, and I was especially impressed by its power to explain certain differences recognised between ordinary prose and poetry and the form of the Voynich text.  By omitting spaces between a quantity and a good, or something equally minor sort, there was no need to alter the original texts which I tested Hoffmann’s model with.  Below is a ‘postcard’ I made to illustrate this, and those who happen to understand how knitted fabrics are constructed will know that such patterns cannot be arbitrary or random.  They must balance.  Apparent absence from the text of articles, definite or indefinite, might be another item in favour of Hoffmann’s model.


The great problem, as readers doubtless realise, is that with any writing so very heavily abbreviated, it becomes almost impossible to be sure without knowing the language, subject and some comparative example, whether any posited expansion is valid.  Finding “sp” doesn’t tell us whether the writer was referring to a spelling error, or to a spoonful of some substance.

Marsilio Ficino’s book, the Liber Triplicitas has been translated into a number of modern languages,  English among them, so I won’t expand on it here.


[1.] d’Imperio p.7.  d’Imperio also records (p. 8) that Lehmann-Haupt said in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November, 1963 that “there is a near agreement on the date of the CIPHER manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400.”  Experts then were just as expert as experts now, and all the more to be admired for having fewer laboratory methods and data-sets available to them.

[2] William Royall Newman, ‘The Summa Perfectionis and late medieval alchemy: A study of medieval chemical traditions, techniques and theory in thirteenth century Italy’, Harvard Dissertation (PhD), 1986.  I have those details from Adam McClean’s website Levity.com.  where you can read the thesis’ abstract. I also have access to a paper by Newman entitled, ‘Arabo-Latin forgeries: the case of the Summa Perfectionis…’  Unfortunately the copy does not include publication details.  What I have said above about Paul of Taranto and the seventeenth century English physicians comes from these two works by Newman.

*Postscript note: This post was already written and in queue when I received a note to the previous one, Nick Pelling suggesting my opinion of d’Imperio’s book needs balancing. Ironically, the reason I wrote what I did was to provide a more balanced view of its content, which does not still deserve the reputation accorded it.  🙂


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