Ivy and so forth. The much-mentioned comparison

It’s no pleasure to write posts about a particular instance without first being able to  assure whoever [1]  offered it that the aim is to understand the manuscript better, not to disturb them.

The  comparison so often mentioned is between folio 35v of Beinecke MS 408 and folio 60r of BNF MS  Lat 6823, the second manuscript being the often-mentioned ‘Manfredus’  about which I’ve written before. (search ‘Montepeloso’).

[1]  On the problem of correct credits in this case see also ‘Postscript: the Juliana Anicia Codex (concluded)

Basic questions:

  1. Are the two pictures alike? If so – ‘like’ in substance, in form, in circumstances of production, or can one say demonstrate similar intention in each case?
  2. Was either image meant be read as the literal ‘portrait’ of the plants?

Next, the more detailed ‘inventory’ – forensic description of exactly and only what is set on the page.  I find it surprising that one so rarely sees evidence of its being done.

Of the two images compared, the detail from the ‘Manfredus’ will easier to treat – it is easily legible to a modern western reader.

Curiously,  I have never yet seen online any Voynich writer comment on the fact that even though a Latin text is as unintelligible to them as Voynichese, accompanying Latin imagery presents little difficulty.  Inability to read a written text does not alone prevent fairly accurate reading so long as the maker expresses himself through familiar forms and habits in art.

1. What is on the page – the right-hand detail.

A single, larger, central stem, or – stalk or – trunk, has its top (‘crown’ if a tree) provided with lobate leaves whose prominent veins are painted in a much darker green, like the leaves’ borders.  I needn’t labour the point: most readers know that the plant is meant for an oak tree and that its leaves are drawn with an aim of showing a portrait-like image of those leaves.

Just below the crown, higher branches are shown closely wound about by a second plant’s thin stems or tendrils.

That it is meant to represent  a plant different from the first is made is clear by  leaves of distinctly different shape, though if no-one had  explained the Latin text here, we might wonder which climbing plant was meant.  As it is, we know it’s meant for ivy, and can appreciate how well the painter rendered those leaves too in a ‘realistic’ way.

With pictures of this sort we can say fairly, “It is about x because it looks like x” .  The same is not always and everywhere true, but that expectation is deeply embedded in our own western tradition and, as a result,  constantly impacts on the way imagery in this manuscript is perceived and treated.

The photograph is not meant to imply a simple ‘match’ for either detail. It illustrates the text of a scientific description.  It is  preferable to compare images by separately comparing each to a set of objective criteria; it helps lessen over-reliance on personal impressions.

I’ve bolded the characteristics which were chosen to represent the ivy in the Manfredus manuscript.

Leaves: alternate, dark green, waxy, somewhat leathery; extremely variable leaf forms, from unlobed to 3-5 lobed; typically green with whitish veins.

Flowers, fruits and seeds: flowering occurs in late summer to early autumn… flowers are small, greenish-yellow and occur in globular starburst type inflorescences at tips of flowering stems; fruits are black with a fleshy outer layer and stone-like seeds.


That should clarify the intention in the ‘Manfredus’ picture:  to provide a portrait-style image.  Was it the intention of the other?

Here the small round berries, or berry-like fruits appear on a stem (or cane) devoid of leaves. If  that omission were meant to be taken literally, the plant’s being deciduous or bearing its berries on bare canes prohibits identification as the ivy.

If, instead, one argued that the maker never meant to make a portrait-like picture, omission of the leaves need not alter the identification – and in this case it is true that other plants are pictured in the Voynich botanical section without their leaves. So it is possible but not certain yet either way.

Comparing the number and density of seeds on a living ivy-fruit with the details each, the Manfredus’ comes closer  to both the  ivy’s form and formal description than does the Voynich image.  Was the Manfredus’ draughtsman just better at his work?

When such questions emerge, they can’t rightly be answered by guesswork or imagination to which ‘probably’ is added. Still less should they be ignored or rationalised, if the aim is to correctly understand the intention of the original. So now we must ask

Are these differences substantial or superficial?

Again –  the best method is to compare each to the set of objective criteria.

This time the bold type highlights obvious DIFFERENCES between the way each vine is represented.

ivy … evergreen perennial climbing vine that attaches to bark of trees, brickwork and other surfaces by root-like structures that exude a glue-like substance to aid in adherence.

Item by item:

evergreen, perennial – true for the Manfredi vine; not for the Voynich.  .

vine that attaches.. by root-like structures that… aid in adherence.

And there you have a key detail – a ‘telling’ detail.

Medieval Latin art, in presenting an image of the ivy plant (as distinct from ivy-motifs as decorative element) doesn’t  inevitably rely on accurate forms for the leaf, but always refers to an assumed common knowledge that  ivy clings close upon its support.

At this point some illustration of the medieval Latin imagery was obviously in order, but since the pairing has been a subject of talk for quite a while, I checked online to see what had already offered and found a post written about four years ago, by J.K. Petersen (not to be confused with Theodore C. Petersen). The post includes most of the examples I would have chosen, too.  See: J.K. Petersen, ‘Voynich Large Plants, folio 35v’ voynichportal.com (21st July, 2013). here.

I’ll  add just one more illustration – from the University of Glasgow, Sp Coll. MS Hunter 251 (U.4.9).

With regard to points I’m about to make, I’ve found no precedent so far, but do let me know if you do.

In a late-fifteenth century copy of an earlier English work we see an ivy pictured  without any but one sign of its identity. There is no obvious effort at literal depiction for the leaf; flower, fruit and so on are omitted. All we are shown is that definitive ‘clinging’ character.

What this shows is that even so late as the last quarter of the fifteenth century, Latin art could still express “ivy-ness” by nothing more.  But the Voynich plant does not cling.  More than that, it is shown to be a plant which has no means at all by which to attach itself to any host or other object.

Realising that fact allows us to free ourselves from expecting the proffered comparison valid, and instead to concentrate on what the Voynich image says of itself.

Boxes added (below) isolate the first, and the second, details now treated briefly. (click to enlarge).

First:  The long, gangly looking shoots or limbs are drawn laid one upon one another –  so arranged that they hold each other in place, a practice natural to the gardener or farmer in keeping paths clear of lax shoots, and when ensuring that fruit will not rot or spoil before it ripens fully – as it will do in contact with the soil.

Second: This is surely the most intriguing and potentially informative detail on f.35v


We are shown the supporting  plant pierced, as if the better to support the lax vine as it grows.

However one identifies the  support, the vine is not ivy.

At such a point, I’d usually turn  from the primary source to find an explanation for this detail in one (and usually more than one) historical source.

I’m not inclined to donate so much time and effort now as I’ve done the past several years, so just a couple of notes and pointers:

I have said that the central element of the root-mnemonic is a saddle-tree.

I’d suggest anyone interested in f.35v take a close look at how a saddle is finished but then if they are keen to take on the more demanding approach to this manuscript which I’ve preferred, then the next task is to find (if possible) evidence of where and when  any form of vine is known to have been grown threaded through a supporting tree’s pierced trunk or bark. If the information can be found, it will be another helpful indicator of provenance, and another detail in the original explained by reference to relevant sources over guesswork, invention, assumption and sheer exuberant imagination.

Literal and metaphorical reference operate in parallel and in tandem constantly within the botanical folios.   During these past years of research and publication to share the results, I’ve also found that the key to understanding this imagery at both levels has most often lain in the most practical and pragmatic sources relating to the east-west trade – its history, goods, routes, materials and the sort of astronomical, meteorological and navigational information essential to the practical men  engaged with it.  There is no zodiac, or even a full calendar in the manuscript – nor is there any reason that their should be, apart from the very simplest observations of important dates, and such things as ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ dates.

As regards the two compared images, though: perhaps the tree in folio 35v will prove an oak, but the vine is no ivy.




10 thoughts on “Ivy and so forth. The much-mentioned comparison

  1. Diane,
    You make a very good case for its not being ivy. Though with the missing leaves, it will be hard to find out what is actually intended. Like you say, the “piercing” of the tree might turn out to be the clue.

    I’ve also looked for alternatives to oak for the large tree, but apparently there are really not that many leaves which look like this. The closest I’ve found was common fig, which in some specimens comes quite close to oak, but all considered it was not satisfactory. So it seems like oak is all we’ve got for now…


    • Koen,
      Please don’t mistake analysis for proposition, hypothesis or argument. I’m not “making a case” but showing why the intention of the image cannot have been to communicate an identification for that vine as ‘ivy’.

      Sorry if that sounds grumpy. I enjoy your own posts and I know many others do too. Thanks for taking the time to comment; it’s nice to have something come back when posts are sent into the void. 🙂

      PS – http://www.treenames.net/ti/quercus/oak_trees.html


      • Koen,
        Since Wilfrid provided the paradigm which was intensified by the Friedmans, we have seen nothing but re-enforcement of the law that doing the same thing while hoping for a different outcome isn’t too intelligent.

        Holding off taking other scholars’ research and opinion ‘until the text is translated’ is exactly what the Friedmans did. And meanwhile they ignored all indications that their certainty was an illusion, and treated with scant courtesy all who held informed opinions opposing their hypothesis: snigger-fests focused on Professor Newbold; Irwin Panofsky treated in a way openly contemptuous, given his eminence; forty years’ of Theodore Petersens’ research treated as if it were no more than something laid out for the cat, and Friedman certainly pawed it over for the bits he liked the look of and then effectively destroyed the rest.

        ‘Waiting till the text is translated’ before accepting evidence even so clear as that the vine on f.35v is not ivy…’ doesn’t augur well. So far, the old notions of the botanical folios as Latin herbal have resulted in zero folios’ being translated in 105 years.

        So I think it’s more a question of whether one has greater investment in the old ideas – in which case I expect Godot will arrive before any translation – or the old hypotheses are admitted a dead-end, and we start paying attention to the primary source.

        But that’s just how I see it. We can settle for a lovely bed-time story, or we can start behaving as scholars should.


    • Josef,
      It is not a work deriving from the Latin or mainstream Arabic herbals, nor do I think the use for which these plants were drawn was chiefly to serve medicine. However, the botanical section and the ‘leaf and root’ section are about plants. There is a constant practice, throughout the botanical section of trying to define these non-Mediterranean plants by reference to a perceived kinship to one or another of the classical world’s plants. The classification system appears, to me, to be similar to Theophrastus’, but I’m open to other classifications systems which grouped plants partly by the habit and uses for a plant, and partly similar form for the leaves. In some folios there simply was no equivalent known, and in those cases the eastern plants are represented in their own terms, and sometimes these employ a way of drawing a flower or a plant which are characteristic of certain regions east of Suez.


  2. Diane. Manuscript 408, is not herbarium. It’s not alchemy,astrology, astronomy and botany. Manuscript are numbers. On page 35v. It is written about number 8.
    You will surely see it as well. When I wrote you whwt to look for.


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