Pharma? – What’s the problem?

I began writing this post in September, after I’d decided to spike two more posts about the artefacts seen in the leaf-and-root section. One (‘Finials’) had been scheduled for September 14th and the other (Dots, bosses and ornament’) for September 20th.

My problem is that in the absence of any earlier analytical-critical studies of this section – and I found none – I’d had once more to use my own research, examples, sources and illustrations to discuss those details. This blog is not meant to display my work.

The reason for starting the blog was to help serious students who needed to be sure that their own work was based on solid first premises, when so much of what is commonly said to be “what we know” is not ‘what we know’ but century-old guesswork, flights of ill-informed imagination or exaggerated hearsay adopted uncritically by later writers – either because they had not thought to question what was widely repeated, or because they had a particular storyline which appealed to them but which was built from faith in common ‘Voynich doctrines’.

Posts to this blog were to identify one of these many ‘doctrines’, trace it to its origin, sketch the history of its transmission, and add a few bibliographic references to start scholars on their way who were interested in working on a specific question or section.

Voynich ‘doctrines’ treated so far, with bibliographies, are listed and linked in the cumulative TABLE of CONTENTS page (see top bar).

In practice the plan was less easy to keep to. I found time and again that there were no critical-analytical studies for a particular ‘doctrine’ than my own, undertaken between 2009-2017.

The ‘leaf and root’ section’s description as ‘pharmaceutical’ is another instance of an idea which, unexamined and untested against the non-Voynich scholarship has been maintained as an article of faith by Voynich theorists – to the detriment of our better understanding this manuscript.

One very obvious research question among the many never asked, is whether or not we find a comparable range of artefacts as those pictured in the ‘leaf and root’ section attested in western Europe at all before 1450, and if so whether they occur as apothecary jars (or as one other tale has it, alchemical equipment).

How such fundamental questions were never so much as asked is a very interesting historical question in itself, but such is the fact.

It seems to me equally curious, though equally true, that it seems not to occur to the online Voynich community today that if the ‘leaf and root’ section’s artefacts had been apothecary and/or alchemical containers, it would have been noticed and some physical or documentary evidence offered, as early as 1921 when Lynn Thorndike’s survey of medieval European manuscripts about magic, science and pseudo-sciences was available.

By the trick of calling the products of fantasy ‘historical logic’ when it is not any logic of history but the internal logic of historical fiction, some theorists have spurned specialists’ opinions about the manuscript in favour of the imagined character of their theoretical object.

With regard to the leaf-and-root section, this occurred in the early 2000s, when a specialist in the history of European alchemy and its images was asked whether anything in the Voynich manuscript ‘looked alchemical’ and he answered in the negative. After a slight pause, the ‘alchemical Voynich’ theorists simply picked up where they left off.

For theorists of that sort, the theory is the truth, and the manuscript and any effort at research is aimed at developing or ‘patching’ the theory.

It would have been easy enough to take a copy of this section of the manuscript, make an appointment with the curators of some major cross-disciplinary collections (say the British Museum and -Library) and ask the two basic, essential questions apparently never asked before 2009:

  • ‘Where and when do we find closely comparable page-layouts for these fold-ins’?”
  • ‘Where and when do we find artefacts of these forms and range?

I can find no evidence that anyone had asked even those questions between 1921 and the twenty-first century.

The most theory-driven have also developed a habit of creating more fiction as a ‘patch’ when another hole in their theory becomes too obvious to keep ignoring.

Here as example, I might mention the sudden circulation of a bald assertion that Jakub Hořčický  had the manuscript as a “bequest” from Rudolf II.

For an ethical historian to say that, he or she would have to have seen, and to refer others to, some physical document or, at the very least, a document recording first-hand contemporary account of Rudolf’s last will and testament.

Not so for the most dedicated ‘Rudolfine’ Voynicheros, who not only fail to put their evidence where their assertions are, but who greet requests for information about evidence by pretending to take offence, adopting a pose of hauteur, and refusing to reply. Not so scholarly.

But this novel ‘bequest’ meme is a fairly new creation, replacing an earlier and equally fictional assertion that “the manuscript was probably stolen by Jesuits from Rudolf’s library” and that invention, in turn, was formed to replace an earlier assertion that the manuscript had been stolen during the Thirty Years’ War.

In each case the ‘patch’ is no product of better information, but just a workaround for the Rudolfine theorists’ elephant in the room, viz that (a) there is no evidence but a scrap of third-hand hearsay to associate the manuscript at all with Rudolf and (b) there is no evidence among all the records and inventories of Rudolf’s court to support that scrap of hearsay. Pace Clemens, it is false to say that the manuscript is “known to have been in Rudolf’s library”. All we know is that in an offhand comment written by a man who was suffering progressive loss of memory, it is alleged that Mnishovsky – who had died almost thirty years earlier – had once related a rumour to the effect that an anonymous carrier had been given 600 ducats for the manuscript. That’s what we know – that an allegation was made that such a rumour had been relayed long after Rudolf’s death by Mnishovsky, who (as Neal rightly observed) could not have witnessed any such event.

Yet for some long-hauler Voynich theorists, the ‘Rudolfine’ rumour is their one immovable article of faith in an endlessly ‘adjustable’ narrative.

Nick Pelling had made some effort to see how well his theoretical narrative agreed with physical fact when he went to the Murano Glass Museum in Venice.

His aim, however, was not to ask whether Newbold’s “pharma-” idea were justified, but to seek confirmation for his overall (probably correct) idea that the manuscript had been manufactured in fifteenth-century Italy.

Because he did not spend much time asking whether Wilfrid was correct in attributing the manuscript’s content to a western Christian (‘Latin’) author, nor in asking whether Newbold’s “pharma-” notion were justified, so his aim was only to see if a museum dedicated to glass produced from Mura would confirm his idea of the containers as Italian pharmacy ‘jars’. As so often, neither Pelling as Voynich researcher, nor the curator of the Murano museum paused first to ask whether or not their assumption of the drawings as efforts at ‘portrait’ imagery was valid. I’m sorry to say that the curator at Murano showed rather too much flexibility in the matter of chronology, but it was before the radiocarbon-14 range was published.

Pelling’s book, Curse of the Voynich (2006) is now out of print, but basically consisted of two very different types of research: investigation of the manuscript itself, and research to find items which supported, or which he felt supported, his preferred theory.

The first were, and I think remain, valuable original contributions to the study.

Unfortunately there was yet another utterly basic error into which Wilfrid and later Voynich theorists fell. It is what I think of as the ‘French psalter’ fallacy – an assumption that whatever is found inside the manuscript was first created at the time the manuscript was made. If professionals in the field of manuscript studies had the same bad habit, we’d have a ‘history’ for the psalter which had King David composing the Psalms in fifteenth century France.

(Legend ascribes composition of the Psalms to King David of Judah, who lived about a thousand years BC. The Psalms were first written in Hebrew, not in Latin).

My present problem is twofold: first, that I don’t wish to use my own work, its conclusions and illustrations in these posts though for many topics I can find no previous analytical-critical study. Secondly, the Bibliography is not being accessed so often as is my latest post, which suggests to me (correct me if you know better), that the blog is not being used as a research-resource but only as a kind of news bulletin.

So now I’m going to take a little time off to take stock and try to discover whether this manuscript’s study includes enough people who, being interested in the manuscript, have also the time and means to research it in depth, and in the way medieval manuscripts are normally approached and investigated.

To end this post, three propositions which I’d ask readers to consider as they read Voynich-related writings, whether past- or present-day:

  • How a problem is defined determines how the desired solution is defined.
  • How the desired solution is defined determines the choice of method.
  • Definition and method can never be better, nor more valid, than the researcher’s ‘givens’.

Postscript – see again Richard Feynman’s description of scientific method in the video (right bar).


Header image – detail from Pietro Vesconti’s chart of 1321 with (inset) ‘swallowtail’ crenellations on a castle in Almeria.

In treating the large, square, foldout drawing d’Imperio mentions this ‘swallowtail’ motif, initially describing one detail so adorned as being ‘like a castle’. The passage occurs on p.21 of Elegant Enigma. I’ll quote what isn’t speculation.

… a structure like a castle .. [with] a high crenelated wall and a tall central tower.”

Even in that passage, there is an implicit assumption that the detail will be a ‘portrait’ having a physical counterpart somewhere – but let that go for the moment.

We may date the beginning of modern conversations to about 1996, when Guy Thibault was wrestling with the whole drawing and working from an idea that it represented a map and a presumption that everything in the drawing, and in the manuscript altogether, would be a product of, and would refer to, nothing but western Europe’s ‘Latin’ (i.e. western Christian) culture.

He had reached a point where he was homing in on some such region as Venice, or Avignon, when Rene Zandbergen mailed a note to the list. It was not addressed to Thibault and did not engage with anything Thibault had shared from his own work, but was addressed instead to the ‘audience’ at large. Since the drawing was Thibault’s current project, others on the list (quite properly) did not reply and left responses to Guy.

Rene Zandbergen had written:

Tue Jun 18 11:02

Dear all,

I think that it is reasonable to assume that the little castle on f85/86, near the upper right rosette on the mega-foldout is a ‘fantasy’ castle, not intended to represent an existing one…. What I have been trying to find out (so far unsuccessfully) is whether the style of the crenellations of the square and circular buildings give any indication of age and origin of the VMs. These crenellations are .. of the ‘swallow’s tail’ type. ..

So far I have only seen this on medieval buildings in Northern Italy. If this style was already ‘en vogue’ in the earlier middle ages (up to, say, 1200), then, even if it is confined to N.Italy, it does not help us much. Anybody could have seen these or known about them; even Roger B[acon]. If the style is from a later period, it might tell us something, especially if it is regionally confined.

Anybody have any ideas?

Note – what I find surprising is that Zandbergen’s problem was easily resolved. Any good history of medieval architecture in general, or military architecture in particular could have provided the information that such crenellations are not used in Latin Europe before c.1100 AD. Since some examples are extant today, it is clearly impossible to date or place all the matter in the manuscript by reference to that one detail. It might be argued to offer a provisional terminus a quo of 1100AD with the radiocarbon dating providing the terminus ad quem of c.1438 AD. But if the rest of the drawing pre-dates the inclusion of the ‘swallowtails’ by any greater period of time, only the terminus ad quem might stand.

There is nothing about the way the crenellations are drawn in the manuscript which can tell us, of themselves, where, when or by whom the ‘swallowtail’ details were included. Considered in isolation, the ‘castle-like’ form cannot be asserted to have been a ‘portrait-style’ image. I’m not sure what genre of medieval imagery might be described as ‘fantasy’. The map has nothing in common with the drolleries, nor with the religious-visionary imaginings of persons such as Opicinus or Hildegard of Bingen.

In response to Rene Zandbergen’s introducing this note of fantasy, Thibault had replied, evidently a little disconcerted:

18 Jun 1996 11:19:03

I don’t recall if I have even commented on this castle, so please excuse me if I re-state these ideas… Suppose the connection between circles are indeed bridges, is there any way to find out [i.e. identify] ALL the medieval towns with nine (or more) bridges? I guess Venice and Avignon would fit, are there more ? If we find a point linked with those bridges in the same way as depicted in the “map” maybe we could progress a bit…

Did you notice the writings on the right side of the fold out seems to be upside down as if the scribe did not notice/know the full pattern of the circles when he was writing…

Note – I’ve corrected a few typos in the original. I do not think that English was Guy’s first language. 
As full disclosure, I should say that my own analysis of the larger drawing –  engaged after reading Nick Pelling’s post of May 29th., 2010 –  led finally to a conclusion that the whole of the large drawing is a map, one in which western Europe does not feature, save for Sicily, and that altogether it is no product of the western or the Arabic cartographic traditions, though some elements occur in common with the earliest Genoese and Venetian cartes marine
The ‘castle’ is no literal portrait, but it is certainly no fantasy. In much the way images of Egyptian deities or Christian saints’ images were constructed, the so-called ‘castle’ detail combines a reasonable idea of its subject, before adding the ‘swallowtail’ motif for the cultural significance it bore.
The ‘swallowtails’ thus serve to add practical and informative detail for anyone able to read the whole map. The spiral of ‘stars’ is a version of the motif (also seen in slightly different form, later, in the charts of Piri Reis), indicating a body of water mostly enclosed and relatively shallow. Almost all of the map’s research which I decided share online was published between 2011- 2013.
For people who have difficulty understanding why someone might use star-motifs to signify  seawater, may I recommend  … this.  It may also help explain why Hammond felt comfortable translating Homer’s οἶνοψ πόντος not, as was customary, by “wine-dark sea” but by “sparkling sea”. On which see D.M. Goldstein’s review, for the Bryn Mawr Classical Gazette,  of Mark Hammond, The Odyssey (2000).


During the five years from 1996-2001, Zandbergen’s invitation does not seem to have moved his own efforts much further forward. By the end of that time, it was no longer Guy Thibault but John Grove who was actively working on the large drawing which, in honesty, I can only describe as the Voynich map.

Much of what Grove says in the following passage is anachronistic. His understanding of the Guelf-Ghibelline split is inaccurate if, as it sounds, he perceived it in terms of national identities, but so far as I can discover it was he who first informed the ‘Voynich community’ of the swallowtails’ political connotations in medieval Italy. He presumes the ‘stars’ must refer to the heavens and also imagines that images cannot be read without written text to explain them..


Grove wrote:

I’ve been having fun reading about the two types of battlements that seem to have evolved directly from the dispute between the two opposing factions in Italian/German history. The Guelph used the square battlements, while the Ghibelline supporters flaunted their support in their architecture with the ‘fishtail’ battlements. I believe from what I’ve been able to locate on the web that these Ghibelline designs on castle battlements are indeed limited to castles in Northern Italy and Germany that were built in the period 1100-1300. Since the factions were not so big a deal in the 15th and 16th century, the castle design in the VMS only leads to (once again) presenting us with a rough geographical region – the same as has been discussed for quite some time (!).

Why a Ghibelline Castle is present in the large foldout and not a Guelph style may be meaningless to the author except that he lived near one and drew what he knew. The wall extending from the castle around the spiral of stars may be indicative that the castle and wall are only a symbolic representation of a formidable enclosure protecting the ‘heavens’. I don’t know if this sort of speculation has any place in discussions because one could never really prove any number of suppositions until we can actually read the text.


Again to be fair to my readers, I should say that my own survey of the ‘swallowtail’ motif’s occurrence in Europe to1438 (including in manuscript illustrations, charts and other artefacts,chess-rook-ivory-persian-style-12th-c.-constantinople-bargello-mus such as mosaics and early chess-pieces) led me to conclude that, during that period, the ‘swallowtail’ motif as such signified the limit of an area whose people were subject to an emperor, and examples show that in drawing it could refer not only to areas connected to the western emperor but, also, to the eastern Christian emperor, or the Mongol-Chinese emperor. It signified an ‘imperial boundary’.
Image (right)’ Castle’ – rook – chess piece in Persian style. 12thC. from Constantinople. now in the Bargello Museum. First published though voynichimagery, 31st. October 2012. A Persian embassy came to Charlemagne’s court, and a mosaic in Bobbio (c.10thC) shows chessplayers adjacent to Persian-Parthian motifs. 
A comparable – not identical – form has the same significance as early as the Roman Tabula Peutingeriana. Because instances of the ‘swallowtails’ still survive on buildings in and beyond Europe, it is evident that their significance in architecture, generally expressed, is also as marking the boundary of territory regarded – in something of the way a modern embassy is – as one whose residents declare in this way a level of independence from other duties and laws, owing allegiance to their own emperor and being entitled (at least nominally) to imperial protection.
A prime example of expatriate/colonial use is found in what was once a Genoese enclave at Caffa, in the Black Sea.

Back in 2001, John Grove had begun another mailing list topic entitled ‘Dovetail battlements in Rome?’ where he mentioned a drawing he had noticed. 

In response, Jorge Stolfi commented (14th Jan. 2001), nipping in the bud any suggestion that ‘swallowtails’  adorned the walls of ancient Rome, and incidentally proving a model for how such research should be organised.  He first shows that he has considered, and checked, Grove’s reference (the precedent), then provides full details of his own sources, and adds his own comments.  

> [John Grove:] While scanning the online Vatican Library images I found this 1498 sketch of Rome…

Jorge Stolfi:

The caption to that figure is

J. Annius, Antiquitates
Rome, 1498


This image of the earliest stage in the development of Rome is much cruder than Pietro del Massaio’s. Though the unknown artist tried to represent the small compass and exact contours of the early city, and labeled the Forum and other places of note, the crenelated walls and towers reveal the limits of his imagination. Unfortunately the text he illustrated was even less accurate; it was a forgery by the papal theologian Giovanni Nanni of Viterbo.

Inc. II 274 fol. M verso arch25 TG.15

… Jorge Stolfi.

Rene Zandbergen  had replied by posting link to his website where two images of a castle in Friuli could be seen.

Dana Scott had replied to Grove:

6th. January 2001

Then again, just maybe the author of the VMS (whom I think may have been Andrea Cesalpino) supported the Ghibellines of Arezzo (Andrea was born in Arezzo) and Pisa (where he was educated and taught) and the fact that Dante ended up switching his support from the Guelphs to the Ghibellines. Perhaps.

Dana Scott

Which – for all that I admire Scott’s work on the plant-pictures – is another example of chaining speculation to speculation, on premises insubstantial.

But Dana’s response shows that even so early as 2001 the study was moving away from efforts to discover the sense of the manuscript’s drawings, to using bits and pieces from the drawings to serve as springboard for a preferred theory.

Dana’s ‘givens’ – as untested assumptions – are clear enough: that the ‘castle’ is a literal representation of some Italian building, that the significance to be attached to the ‘swallowtail’ or ‘fishtail’ crenellations is limited to Italian politics; that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript is the work of a single author, and that this imagined ‘author’ was a person of such importance in Europe’s intellectual history that his name was recorded in contemporary documents – and so on, and so forth.

Unrecognised by most members in 2001, what Nick Pelling would later describe as the ‘theory-wars’ had already begun.

A majority still held to the opinion, expressed by Kraus and reported by d’Imperio, that the manuscript had been made in Italy.

A couple accepted the opinion offered by Panofsky in 1932 that it was ‘from Spain or somewhere southern’. In fact, the entanglements between regions in the south-western Mediterranean make the ‘Italian/southern’ positions less oppositional than complementary.

The Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic central Europe’ theory was still that of a small minority in 2001, for the simple reason that it found no support in the primary document (exclusive of some marginalia) and no competent specialist had ever suggested that the vellum or binding indicated origins in a German-speaking region.

So long as research remained focused on the manuscript itself, this would remain the case. As attention shifted to ‘theory-wars’, and standards dropped, so too did the process of interaction and the tactics employed by adherents of that novel theory.

It is a curious thing, but true, that neither of that theory’s chief proponents has ever, in twenty years, presented it formally with evidence, argument and the usual documentation. Attempting to find out just what the believers believe has proven very difficult indeed. The two key words appear to be ‘Germanic’ and ‘Rudolf’ but there’s surely more to it.

In 2006, Pelling would publish his Curse of the Voynich, which remained in print for about a decade. Pelling’s research, and opinions having evidently moved on by the end of that period, he withdrew Curse from publication. To me it seemed a pity, because the book contained more than its theoretical history for the manuscript; it included numerous original contributions to other aspects of the study, including codicology, palaeography and ‘Voynichese’ which – whether Pelling’s opinions were the ‘right’ answers or not – were a stimulus to further enquiry and discussion.

Who drew the ‘swallowtails’?

The simple fact is that by 1438, even if the so-called ‘castle’ had been a portrait of some structure then existing, the drawing could have been made by an Englishman, an Ethiopian, an Armenian or a Syrian, a Persian or a Nestorian Chinese, a Jew from Majorca or from Venice.. The greater Mediterranean was a very busy international thoroughfare and to the papal court of Avignon or Rome, as to the Sicilian court, came ambassadors and pilgrims, traders and travellers. Within Rome itself, hospices were built to house foreign pilgrims, so numerous were they, and one ws was built solely for the Ethiopians’ use. Anyone who saw any instance of the Latins’ usage would know what the ‘swallowtail’ signified. Anyone might have used it to signify ‘imperial boundary’.

Of itself, as one small detail in a large and complex drawing, the ‘swallowtail crenellations’ motif tells us only that this particular detail’s first enunciation is most likely to have occurred at some time between 1100AD and 1438.

One might then ask, a more ordinary research environment, what aim Koen’s group has in mind as they try to ‘map’ such physical examples as survive in 2021. We must just wait and see.

I chose a Spanish example of ‘swallowtail crenelations’ for the header. I might as easily have shown one from Caffa in the Black Sea, or another and important example from Sicily, but since most Voynich theorists are focused on Italy or on Germany, I thought to widen the lens a little.