Materia medica from the Cairo geniza documents – courtesy of Dr. Lev

Dr. Efraim Lev has kindly provided his paper, co-authored with Prof. Amar, through  academia.edu.

For a myriad of reasons, it is of interest to know the range of eastern Mediterranean plants, and of plants from further east, which were available in medieval Cairo – then the chief centre of the east-west trade.  One of these many reasons is that Baresch clearly believed the matter in the manuscript was written in an ancient or rare script and that the content derived from Egyptian medicine (however one defined ‘Egyptian’ in his time).  Another reason, which readers may or may not accept, is that the botanical sections refer chiefly to plants that did not grow around the Mediterranean, but in the east (roughly, Soquotra to the Moluccas, imo).  A third reason, of course, is Panofsky’s evaluation of the work as southern (Sephardi, or just possibly Karaite) Jewish.  And a fourth is the existence of a script which looks not unlike some of the Voynich script, and which appears in connection with medieval Cairo and alchemical processes  – in some sense .  A few of the posts where these things were investigated are linked a little further below.  I won’t go into the many other reasons why this information is likely to prove as valuable as rare. But on behalf of all interested in Beinecke MS 408, I offer again sincere thanks to Dr. Lev and Prof. Amar.

In what follows, all  quotations and details of the plants are taken from:

  • Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar, ‘Reconstruction of the inventory of materia medica used by members of the Jewish community of medieval Cairo according to prescriptions found in the Taylor–Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge’, Journal of Ethnopharmacology 108 (2006) 428–444.
    It is available now through academia.edu or (if you have access) through www. science direct.com

———–

Here’s one interesting point raised by their paper:

The geniza documents show regular use of  ‘groupings’ that are independent of our ideas about genera and species.

The paper by Lev and Amar is relevant to a number of lines of investigation whose results I’ve published in this blog, including 1) non-European materia medica;  2) knowledge of such matter in Bacon’s England; 3) Baresh’s view of the manuscript; 4) the nature of the trade in eastern vegetable goods and products; and 5) the role of the Jews in bringing information and such materia medica to Latin Europe. A few of those posts are linked.

__________

Thus, Lev and Amar write:

“The medieval system tended to classify plants and animals in larger groups according to external morphological characters, with no consideration of genetic proximity or anatomical similarity as is the case today. Therefore, the existence of a collective (general) name for a group of several similar species was common. Here, are some examples of this feature:-

1. Fūdanj: collective name for various species of aromatic plants, namely of the family Labiatae (Maimonides, 1940).
2. Zaj: collective name for salts of sulphuric acid (verdigris,vitriol) compounded with various metals such as iron, copper, lead, and zinc (Maimonides, 1940; Amar and Serri, 2004).
3. Awsaj: collective name for spiny bush species such as boxthorn, buckthorn (Lycium sp.), (Rhamnus sp.), and bramble.

__________

Interestingly, and due to the uncertainty over exactly which species are meant in a given case, the same approach to their own classifications proved the most effective:

“In our work, on account of the uncertainty we have bundled such similar substances in one entry under a general (collective) name, even though they could be different species or kinds (identified by us in most cases).”

The authors also observe something which too few Voynicheros account for: that is, the weight and effect of precedent and tradition.  Moderns are too ready to ascribe what they cannot interpret or understand to an anachronistic “personal creativity” and to mistake the draughtsman-artisan for an “artist” in a sense scarcely imagined by persons of the early fifteenth century.  Artist and artisan are now separate categories in the public imagination, but that is a very modern habit.

The authors say:

“the most important criterion, which took us to the highest or most satisfactory level of identification, is the continuous and reliable “tradition of identification”. Many substances that appear in the texts are used today (with the same names) for medical purposes by various ethnic groups.”

I cannot in fairness reproduce the whole of Lev’s tables, so I’ve omitted the data about which part/s were used; where the plant grew; whether it is a cultivated or wild plant;  the diseases for which each is used, and how many documents in the geniza mention it.

An asterisk in the following, indicates a plant that I’ve already identified in the Voynich botanical folios  or in the ‘roots and leaves’ section.  I’d be happy to add references to any other researcher who believes one of these plants present in the botanical section.

1 Agaric ~ Agaricus sp.
2 Almond ~ Amygdalus communis
3 Aloe ~ Aloe sp. [Liliaceae] Domesticated [liquid from the leaves]
4 *Aloe wood ~ Aloexylon (=Aquilaria agallocha) [Thymelaceae]
5 Ammoniacum ~ (gum ammoniac) Dorema ammoniacum [Umbelliferae]
6 Amomum ~ Amomum sp. [Zingiberaceae]
7 Anise ~ Pimpinella anisum [Umbelliferae]
8 Apple ~ Pyrus malus = Malus sylvestris [Rosaceae]
9 Apricot ~ Prunus armeniaca [Rosaceae]
10 Asa foetida ~ Ferula assafetida [Umbellieferae]
11 Ash tree ~ Fraxinus sp. (excelsior, syriaca) [Oleaceae]
12 Asparagus ~ Asparagus officinalis [Liliaceae]
13 Asphodel ~ Asphodelus aestivus (=ramosus) [Liliaceae]
14 Balm ~ Mellisa officinalis [Labiatae] Mediterranean
15  * Balsam ~ Commiphora gileadensis (=opobalsamum) [Burseraceae]
16 Bamboo [chalk, tabashir]  Bambusa vulgaris [Gramineae] South-east Asia.
17 Barley ~ Horedeum sp. [Gramineae].
18 Basil ~ Ocimum basilicum [Labiatae].
19  * Bdellium Commiphora mukul [Burseraceae]
20 Bean ~ Vicia faba [Papilionaceae]
21 Beet ~ Beta vulgaris [Chenopodoaceae].
22 Ben tree ~ Moringa peregrina [Moringaceae].
23 Berberry ~ Berberis cretica [Berberidaceae]
24 Betel ~ (areca) palm(nut) Areca catechu [Palmae].
25 Birthwort ~ Aristolochia sp. [Aristolochiaceae].
26 Bitumen trefoil ~ Bituminaria bituminosa [Papilionaceae]
27 Black cumin ~ Nigella sativa [Ranunculaceae].
28 Black spleenwort ~ Asplenium onoperis [Aspleniaceae].
29 Borage ~ Anchusa sp. (italica and officinalis)[Boraginaceae]
30  * Bottle gourd Lagenaria vulgaris [Cucurbitaceae] Cultivated [seeds] 7 Fever, cough, plaster, ointment
31 Box ~ Buxus scmpervirens [Buxaceae].
32 Boxthorn ~ Lycium afrum [Solanaceae].
33 Cabbage ~ Brassica oleracea [Cruciferae].
34 Calamus (sweet-flag) ~ Acorus calamus [Araceae].
35 Camphor ~ Cinnamomum camphora [Lauraceae].
36 * Cannabis [Indianhemp] ~ Cannabis sativus var. indica [Cannabinaceae]. I believe that numerous people have made an identification as one of the Cannabis.
37 Caraway ~ Carum carvi [Umbellifereae].
38 Cardamom ~ Elettaria cardamomum[Zingiberaceae]
39 Carob ~ Ceratonia siliqua [Caesalpiniaceae].
40 Carrot ~ Daucus carota [Umbelliferae].
41 Cassia [senna] especially: Cassia acutifolia [Caesalpiniaceae]
42 Cassia, purging ~ Cassia fistula [Caesalpiniaceae].
43 Castor oil ~ Ricinus communis [Euphorbiaceae].
44 Celandine [swallow-wort] ~Chelidonium majus [Papaveraceae].
45 Celery ~ Apium graveolens [Umbelliferae].
46 * Centaury ~ Centaurea sp. [Compositae].
47 Chamomile ~ Matricaria aurea [Compositae].
48 Chate melon ~ Cucumis melo var. chate [Cucurbitaceae]
49 Cherry ~ Prunus ovium, Prunus cerasia (sweetcherry), Prunus cerasus (sour cherry)[Rosaceae]
50 Chicklingvetch ~ Lathyrus sativum [Papilionaceae].
51 Chickpeas ~ Cicer arietinum [Papilionaceae].
52 Cinnamon ~ Cinnmomum sp. (zeylanicum and cassia) [Lauraceae]
53  * Clove ~ Eugenia caryophyllata [Myrtaceae].
54  * Colocynth (bitter gourd, bitter apple) ~ Citrillus colocynthis [Cucurbitaceae].
55 Common caper ~ Capparis spinosa [Capparaceae].
56 Common reed ~ Phragmites communis [Gramineae].
57 Coriander ~ Coriandrum sativum [Umbelliferae].
58 Costus (Arabian costus) ~ Costus speciosus [Zingiberaceae].
59  * Cotton ~ Gossypium herbaceum [Malvaceae].
60 *Cubeb pepper ~ Piper cubeba [Piperaceae].
61 Cucumber ~ Cucumis sativus [Cucurbitaceae].
62 Cumin ~ Cuminum cyminum [Umbelliferae].
63 Cypress-tree ~ Cupressus sempervirens [Cupressaceae]64 Dates ~ Phoenix dactylifera [Palmae].
65 Dill (anet) ~ Anethum graveolens [Umbelliferae].
66 Dodder ~ Cuscuta sp. [Convolvuulaceae].
67 Dodder of thyme (lesser or heath dodder) ~Cuscuta epithymum [Convolvuulaceae]
68 Eggplant ~ Solanum melongena [Solanaceae].
69 Egyptian clover ~ Trifolium alexandrinum [Papilionaceae]
70 Egyptian marjoram ~ Origanum maru [Labiatae].
71 Endive (chicory) ~ Cichorium intybus (Cichorium endivia, Cichorium pumilum) [Compositae]
72  * False safflower (bastard saffron) ~ Carthamus tinctorius [Compositae].
73 Fennel ~ Foeniculum vulgare [Umbelliferae].
74 Fenugreek ~ Trigonella foenum-graecum [Papilionaceae]
75   * Frankincense (olibanum) ~ Boswellia carteri [Burseraceae].
76 Fumitory ~ Fumaria officinalis [Fumariaceae].
77 Galbanum ~ Ferula galbaniflua [Umbelliferae].
78  * Galingale ~ Alpinia galanga [Zingiberaceae].
79 Garden cress (pepper grass) ~ Lepidum sativum [Cruciferae].
80 Garden rocket ~ Eruca sativa [Cruciferae].
81 Garlic ~ Allium sativum [Liliaceae].
82 Ginger ~ Zingiber officinale [Zingiberaceae].
83 Grapevine (products: wine, vinegar, raisins) ~ Vitis vinifera [Vitaceae].
84 Gum Arabic (babul acacia) ~ Acacia arabica (=Acacia nilotica) [Mimosaceae]
85 Hazelnuts ~ Corylus avellana [Betulaceae].
86 Hellebore ~ Helleborus niger/albus [Ranunuculaceae]
87 Henbane [hemlock] ~ Hyoscymus albus [Solanaceae].
88  * Henna Lawsonia inermis (alba) ~ [Lythraceae]
89 Horehound ~ Marrubium vulgare [Labiatae].
90 Horned poppy ~ Glaucium corniculatum [Papaveraceae]
91 Hypocist [rape of cistus] ~ Cytinus hypocistis [Rafflesiaceae].
92 Hyssop ~ Hyssopus officinalis [Labiatae] Mediterranean [leaves, stems] 1 None
93  * Indigo ~ Indigofera tinctoria [Papilionaceae].
94 Iris ~ Iris sp. (florentina, mesopotamica) [Iridaceae]
95 Jasmine ~ Jasminum sp. [Oleaceae].
96 Judas-tree Cercis siliquastrum [Caesalpiniaceae]
97 Jujube ~ Ziziphus (jujuba) vulgarus [Rhamnaceae]

98 Ladanum Cistus (ladanifer) [Cistaceae]
99 Laurel ~ Laurus nobilis [Lauraceae]
100 Lavender ~ Lavandula officinalis [Labiatae].
101 Leek ~ Allium porrum [Liliaceae] Cultivated [stems, leaves] 4 None
102 Lemon Citrus limon [Rutaceae].
103 Lemon-grass ~ Andropogon schenanthus [Gramineae]
104 Lentil ~ Lens esculenta [Papilionaceae].
105 Lentisk ~ Pistacia lentiscus [Anacardiaceae].
106 Leopardus bane(panther strangler) ~ Doronicum scopiodes [Compositae].
107 Lettuce ~ Lactuca sativa [Compositae].
108 Lichen ~ Usnea sp. [Usnceae].
109 Licorice ~ Glycyrrhiza glabra [Papilionaceae].
110  * Linseed (flax) ~ Linum usitatissimum [Linaceae].
111 *Long pepper ~ Piper longum [Piperaceae].
112 Lotus [GN] ~ Nymphaea sp.; Nuphar sp.[Nymphaeceae].* – but not in any of the botanical folios.
113 Lovage Levisticum officinale [Umbelliferae].
114 Madder ~ Rubia tinctorium [Rubiaceae].
115 Maidenhair ~ Adianthum capillus-veneris[Adiantaceae].
116 Malabathrum ~ Cinnamomum citriodorum [Lauraceae].
117 Mandrake ~ Mandragora autumnalis [Solanaceae].
118 Marsh-mallow ~ Althea officinalis [Malvaceae].
119 Meadow saffron ~ Colchicum sp. (automale, Ritchii) [Liliaceae].
120 Melon ~ Cucumis melo [Cucurbitaceae].
121 Mint ~ Mentha sativa [Labiatae].
122 Mustard ~ Sinapis alba [Cruciferae].
123  * Myrobalan (cherry plum) Terminalia sp. (arjuana, citrina,chebula, bellerica, emblica)[Combretaceae]
124 Myrrh ~ Commiphora myrrha [Burseraceae].
125 Myrtle ~ Myrtus communis [Myrtaceae].
126 Nutmeg ~ Myristica fragrans [Myristicaceae].
127 Oak gall ~ Quercus sp. [Fagaceae].
128 Olive oil ~ Olea europaea [Oleaceae].
129 Onion ~ Allium cepa [Liliaceae].
130 Opium (poppy head) Papaver somniferum [Papavraceae].
131 Opopanax ~ Opopanax chironium [Umbelliferae].
132 Oxymel [Honey and vinegar].

133 Parsnip ~ Pastinaca schekakul [Umbelliferae].
134 Pear ~ Pyrus communis [Rosacea].
135 Pellitory of Spain ~ Anacylus {Anthemis} pyrethrum [Compositae]
136  * Peony ~ Paeonia sp. [Paeoniaceae].
137 *Pepper ~ Piper nigrum [Piperaceae].
138 Perfumed cherry ~ Prunus mahaleb [Rosaceae].
139 Pilosum basil ~ Ocimum pilosum [Labiatae].
140 Pine (nuts) ~ Pinus pinea [Pinaceae].
141 Pistachio, Atlantic ~ Pistacia atlantica [Anacardiaceae].
142 Pistachio ~ Pistacia vera [Anacardiaceae].
143 Plantain [fleawort] ~ Plantago afra [Plantaginaceae].
144 Plum ~ Prunus domestica [Rosaceae].
145 Pomegranate ~ Punica grantum [Punicaceae].
146 Purslane ~ Portulaca oleracea [Portulacaceae].
147 Quince ~ Cydonia oblonga [Rosaceae].
148 Radish ~ Raphanus sativus [Cruciferae].
149 Red-behen [sea-lavender] ~ Statice limonium [Plumbaginaceae].
150 Resin ~ Pinus sp. [Pinaceae] Europe, Asia [resin] 1 Linctus for cough
151 Rhubarb ~ Rheum sp. [Polygonaceae].
152 Rose (dog rose) ~ Rosa canina [Rosaceae].
153 Rosemary ~ Rosmarinus officinalis [Labiatae].
154 Rue ~ Ruta chalepensis; Ruta graveolens [Rutaceae]
155 Saffron ~ Crocus sativus [Iridaceae].
156 Sagapenum ~ Ferula persica [Umbeliferae].
157 Salep ~ Orchis sp. [Orchidaceae].
158 Sandalwood (red,white, yellow) ~ Santalum album [Santalaceae].
159 Sarcocolla ~ Astragalus sarcocolla [Papilionaceae].
160 Savory ~ Satureja sp. [Labiatae].
161 Scammony (Syrian bindweed) ~Convolvulus scammonia[Convolvulaceae]
162 Sea squill ~ Urginea maritima [Liliaceae].
163 Sebesten ~ Cordia myxia [Boraginaceae].
164 Sedge [cocograss, coconut grass] ~ Cyperus longus [Cyperaceae].
165 Service tree ~ Sorbus domestica=Pyrus sorbus [Rosaceae].
166  * Sesame ~ Sesamum indicum [Pedaliaceae].
167 Soap [Ash, olive oil].
168 Sorrel (dock) ~ Rumex sp. [Polygonaceae]
169  * Spikenard (nard) ~ Nardostachys (Valeriana) jatamansi [Valerianaceae]
170 Spinach ~ Spinacia oleracea [Chenopodoaceae].
171 Spurge (milkwort) ~ Euphorbia sp. [Euphobiaceae].

172 Staphisagria(lousewort) ~ Delphinium staphisagria [Ranunculaceae]
173 Starch [Grains].
174 Sugar cane ~ Saccharum officinarum [Gramineae].
175 Sweet clover (white melilot) Melilotus albus [Papilionaceae].
176 Sweet lime ~ Citrus medica [Rutaceae].
177 Sweet marjoram ~ Origanum majorana [Labiateae].
178  * Sweet violet ~ Viola odorata [Violaceae].
179 Tamarind ~ Tamarindus indica [Papilionaceae].
180 Tamarisk ~ Tamarix gallica, Tamarix orientalis [Tamaricaceae]
181 Tar (liquid) ~ Pinus and Cederus sp. [Pinaceae,Coniferae Cupressaceae]
182 Tragacanth ~ Astragalus gummifer [Papilionaceae].
183 Tumeric ~ Curcuma longa [Zingiberaceae].
184 Turpeth (turbith, Indian jalap) ~ Ipomoea turpethum [Convolvulaceae]
185 Wallflower ~ Cheiranthus cheiri [Cruciferae].
186 Walnuts ~ Juglans regia [Juglandaceae].
187 Watermelon ~ Citrullus vulgaris [Cucurbitaceae].
188 Wheat ~ Triticum vulgare [Gramineae].
189 White-behen ~ Centaurea behen [Compositae].
190 Wild marjoram ~ Majorana syriaca [Labiatae].
191 Wild nard (Asarabacca) ~ Asarum europaeum [Aristolochiaceae].
192 Wild rue ~ Peganum harmala [Rutaceae].
193 Willow ~ Salix sp. [Salicaceae].
194 Wormwood ~ Artemisia sp. (absinthium, sieberi,judaica, arborescens) [Compositae]
195 Yew ~ Taxus bacata [Taxaceae].

Following the tables of vegetable, mineral and animal materia medica, the authors add:

“Various parts (root, seeds, leaves, fruit, bulb, flower, etc.) of hundreds of plants, as well as extracts, gums, resin, oil, and other products, were used in Muslim medicine. Most were plants already used by Greek and Roman physicians and pharmacologists and mentioned in classical medical literature; a few were medicinal plants introduced by the Muslims.” (p.440)

The most frequently mentioned substances were the rose(57), myrobalan (55), sugar (30), almonds (27), and endive (23).
Grapevine products and licorice were mentioned 22 times, honey and spikenard 19, borage 17, lentisk and salt 16, fennel and gum Arabic 14, aloe, cassia, lavender, marsh-mallow, pepper, saffron and sweet violet 13, agaric, anise, basil and lemon 12. The rest of the substances were mentioned 11 times (5), 10 times (4), and less (209)…..

A few substances might have been of local origin … others were brought from the Levant …. Many others had to be imported into Egypt from southeast Asia … and others from the western Mediterranean.”