O’Donovan notes #13.2 d – Botanical-medical-garden theories (cont.) & folio 13r.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c.2600 wds.

An analytical study made of any problematic item or corpus is rarely less than ten-to-twelve thousand words long* and even given the constraints on study of Beinecke MS 408 and my cutting analysis to basics and omitting most of the point-by-point commentary, this is necessarily a long-ish post.

*An analytical study will include discussion of the materials used, including any lab.studies, must treat the drawing point-by-point and provide well-researched historical and technical commentary, including commentary on the cultural norms and significance for the community in which that image was first enunciated – not to mention tracking evidence of subsequent transmission and/or dissemination. ‘Picture-matching’ isn’t analysis.

An example offering a fairly easy introduction to how most (not all) the Voynich plant-pictures are encoded, while allowing us to test certain assertions made about this section, is provided by the drawing on folio 13r.

The statements to be tested are:

  • 1639 – “herbae pereginae” – Georg Baresch.
  • 1928 – “escaped all medieval and Renaissance influence” – Robert Steele
  • 1944 – “Christopher Columbus…New world specimens” Hugh O’Neill
  • 1957 – “awful drawings” – T.A. Sprague
  • 1967 – “no .. point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book” -John Tiltman.
  • 1969 -? – “botanical and scientific drawings..” Beinecke catalogue.

Folio 13r

So far as I know* Edith Sherwood, a pharmacist with a particular interest in the history of that profession, was the first to offer the identification ‘banana-plant’ for the drawing on folio 13r.

*as ever, better information is always welcome.

Sherwood’s identifications are sometimes inspired though are not analytical studies, since they are offered without discussion of the drawing per se, and without explanatory or historical commentary.

Treating this drawing a couple of years later, my conclusions agreed with Sherwood’s in general, but differ in various particulars – chiefly to do with the principles informing the drawing’s construction and certain stylistics* which are present that are rare or found not at all in Europe’s medieval and Renaissance art.

*’Stylistics’ is a general term to describe what you might call, as a very rough analogy, the marks of a particular graphic code.

Preliminary remarks

I was impressed at finding that this drawing presents a more detailed and informative image of the bananas than we find in any European illustration until after the Voynich manuscript had been sent to Athanasius Kircher in 1666.

Disinctions – general

The plant-drawings display no knowledge of, nor interest in, illusionist drawing and many resort to formalisation as a means to indicate depth.

In treating the Voynich drawings, researchers will find no detail is coloured in the pink-purple-black range. I found a consistent practice of colouring any plant-part naturally in that range by using a red pigment for the lighter end of that spectrum and blue for the darker end – except that if parts of a plant appear in life purplish-black or black, that part may be omitted entirely from the drawing. This applies to the drawing on folio 13r where the purple-black male (staminate) flowers are omitted and we are shown only the developing flower-fruits. There are a few instances of this last practice in the Latins’ herbals; before Cadomosto’s herbal (c.1470) it is common to find that the purple spathe of Dracontea is omitted in Latin herbals or (as here) differently coloured.

In the western Christian church, Purple and black were the liturgical colours, respectively, of advent and of the penitential season and of death, but there there was no cultural prohibition against their use in art and, by the early fifteenth century, a Latin illustrator would have no reason not to colour a pink flower pink. That our fifteenth-century manuscript, presumed made in a Latin domain, retains this constant avoidance indicates, with other non-Latin stylistics, that what we have is a careful copy from an original first enunciated elsewhere.

In western botanical science and even before Linnaeus, a plant’s flower is central to plant-identification, yet in all but a handful of the Voynich drawings, a flower-fruit is only included when it has/had an independent commercial value.

Folio 13r is among the many instances within the section that the form given a flower-fruit is clearly well-informed, yet has that detail turned upwards as if facing the sun, regardless of how it appears in life. Though not unknown in medieval Latin art (see example in previous post) the custom is relatively rare there, especially after the fourteenth century. It is found elsewhere.

fruit upturned – a banana plant, from a wayhouse provided for foreigners in Madhya Pradesh. c.1s-2ndC AD

In terms of Voynich theories:

Medical-herbal theories.

No type of banana plant has, or ever had, a place in the western pharmacopoeia or been used in medicine. Grieves mentions two incidents reported to The Lancet in 1916, of “plantain juice” being given to a victim of snake-bite in southern India but as this occurred in combination with the usual treatment of ligature, incision, bleeding and application of permanganate, I suspect the ‘plantain juice’ a beer (see below) administered to relieve shock – equivalent to sweet tea or ‘medicinal’ brandy. (As ever, if readers know more, or better, please comment).

Natural History

The physical appearance of the banana plant(s) remained unknown to Latins’ texts of natural history, botany and pharmacy until long after the Voynich manuscript was made.

Images labelled ‘Musa’ (banana) and made to illustrate Latin copies of Ibn Butlan’s regimen for healthy living, Taqwīm aṣ‑Ṣiḥḥa (Lat. ‘Tacuinum sanitatis’) are obviously drawn from hearsay and we find this stated explicitly in one of the four illustrated copies remaining from the fourteenth century: “we know it [Musa] only from texts or tales from merchants from Cyprus or pilgrims from the Holy Land.” *

  • I use Judith Spencer’s translation from Cod. Vindob. ser. nov. 2644. See The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti (1984) p.82 The Vienna is one of four illustrated copies remaining from the late 14thC, all made in Lombardy. On this matter I’d also recommend:
  • Jean Ann Givens, Karen Reeds, Alain Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550, (2006) pp. 51–81.

The pictorial evidence confirms this. Below, a selection of ‘banana-plant’ images from European works produced between the fourteenth century and the 1660s. I add a comparison between the Voynich drawing’s ‘corm and root’ detail and that detail as represented by a modern botanical diagram. Note omission of the corm in the pre-1660 illustrations.

This startling difference in quality and accuracy between renderings for ‘bananas’ in European works to as late as the seventeenth-century and that in drawing on f.13r makes clear that wherever our present copy was made, the original drawing did not originate in Latin Europe and whoever first formed the image was familiar with these plants in a way only possible at first-hand. In theory, the drawing might have been made by a Latin in Cyprus or the Holy Land, but the stylistics and the drawing’s construction, as well as historical information about the species grown medieval Cyprus and the Levant oppose such an origin for the drawing. (this is another section from the analytical study omitted here).

That we find no similarly-well informed drawing in the European works, even by the seventeenth century lends support to Tiltman’s assessment of that western textual tradition as he gave it in 1967.

Overall, this drawing presents opposition to various other assertions made about these drawings – as that they are

“Bad, incompetent, careless.. awful drawings” etc.

I found the drawing on folio 13r lucid, even elegant in its arrangement and system of construction. That it remains so in our present copy is evidently due to the care taken by the fifteenth-century copyists and presumably the wishes of whoever paid for the copies to be made. I’d also note that our finding no clear sign of influence from this or other Voynich plant-drawings in subsequent botanical or herbal texts from Europe presents opposition to the idea that it was made for any person or institution important in Europe’s history of its scientific, intellectual, religious or artistic development.

The drawing’s construction.

The drawing on folio 13r, like a majority of the finer drawings, combines a use of near-literal ‘code’ for the defining elements – leaf, habit and habitat (not flower) – with less literal forms designed so that they convey concisely and with precision other information of a kind only relevant for those buying, selling or using the plants.

This difference from the Latins’ approach to image-forming and plant-identification is most interesting and clearly not derived from the ‘single specimen portrait’ principle of the Dioscoridan tradition,

A majority (not all) the Voynich plant-pictures refer to a perceived ‘group’.

This is represented by using one plant (its leaf, habit etc.) as principal or definitive while information about others in the group is reference by lesser details, typically presented in non-literal form, but in folio 13r by a fairly literal rendering of the various leaf-types.

Among them is the distinctive leaf of what are called, where they grow, the ‘blood banana’ (Musa acuminata var. zebrina)* – a plant native to Java but naturalised in parts of Africa, where it is still used to make a traditional beer (not the commercial, bottled beer sold today).

Some scientific schemes today do not recognise var. zebrina, but what is known (by convention) as Linnaean taxonomy was not to exist for some centuries after our manuscript was made. In approaching these drawings, then, what matters is only how persons who knew and used these plants before 1438 AD regarded and grouped them.

The plant-drawings which are constructed as composites are not randomly or whimsically formed but consistently display first-hand knowledge of appearance, habit, habitat, use/s and customary associations, primarily as those matters relate to daily practical use and (thus) commercial value.

I found the most usual groupings (save occasional ring-ins such as the violas) to be determined by natural proximity and common habitat, by having uses alternative/interchangeable (as with the bananas) or complementary as e.g. a plant used in eastern paper-making joined with a plant recorded as used to scent and preserve paper. As a handbook and ‘reminder list’ such a system would obviously be convenient: a sort of field-guide (so to speak) for merchants, factors or overseers.

In a few cases, we found a group’s definition would appear to have been a term in the vernacular as e.g. the word used to refer to any plant classed as a “desert fodder-plant”‘, but since documentation for these terms pre-1440 has been limited to some fragments from the Cairo geniza, this conclusion must be considered tentative.

Not every plant- drawing in the manuscript is composed by these principles of construction; a few look as if they might have come from an Arabic copy of Dioscorides. Most interesting among the exceptions is the ‘violas’ group where the maker has understood the principle of composite construction, but his stylistics are those of a very different – and possibly western European- cultural environment.

John Tiltman sensed that some of the Voynich plant-drawings were composites but since it is not characteristic of the western herbal or botanical illustrative traditions, he supposed the examples he noted due to an individual European’s whim or desire to obscure. (Nevertheless it was with some relief, that I found I had anyone I might mention as sort-of precedent for this in Voynich studies).

Some time after I’d published a longer summary of my analysis, Sherwood published online an article (here) in which she says “botanists, who examined the VM’s botanical drawings, have dismissed them as a mishmash of flowers and leaves belonging to unrelated plants” but since none of these botanists is named, the only near-precedent I can name is still John Tiltman. I don’t consider the Voynich plant-drawings a ‘mishmash’; I found the majority informative, economical and elegant in expression – admirably intelligent.

Mnemonic devcies.

Sherwood was evidently unware of the role served by mnemonic devices in these drawings – at least when she wrote that article- for she dismisses as ‘fanciful’ any drawings that include them.

A modern viewer certainly might think fanciful the ideas to which those devices speak, but their purpose was to assist identification and (in the Voynich drawings) to indicate a group’s uses and value.

We see the custom of using mnemonic devices to evoke cultural associations in the late-classical, eastern Greek images preserved in the Vienna Dioscorides, and even in the western herbal tradition, albeit in very basic forms, mnemonics are still used in some herbals. Below is an instance from an Anglo-Saxon herbal dated to the early eleventh century.

Sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes.

from an article o the British Library’s Manuscripts blog (05 April 2017)


Whoever first gave the ‘bananas-group’ image on folio 13r its form knew these plants well, their diverse forms and the different forms of leaf associated with each. Most impressive is the way the corm is shown effectively anatomised – as if cut through* and a clear distinction made between roots and corm in a way no western botanical or herbal illustration would do until centuries after our present manuscript’s quires were inscribed – and as few formal botanical drawings do even now.

Morphology of Banana Plants

Cultural associations

It is evident that the banana-group had certain proverbial associations among the original maker’s community; the same form which is used quite directly in folio 13r is used as mnemonic device in others of the plant- drawings. Its significance I have explained elsewhere and in different ways we find it also understood in (at least) 9th-10thC Baghdad and Mozarabic Spain.

The curved but pointed spike seen to front centre in the Voynich drawing is a sucker-spike, represented in the modern diagram on its right.

Compare the lucidity and intelligence of folio 13r’s drawing with a western botanical illustration made for a European translation of  Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India, composed in Goa by Garcia de Orta (1501 – 1568). If it were not for our manuscript’s date, da Orta’s posited original manuscript would have been one on my list of potential sources for many of plant-pictures in Beinecke MS 408.


So, by the testimony offered by folios 25r and 13r only:

  • 1639 – George Baresch: “herbae pereginaeSUPPORTED
  • 1928 – Robert Steele: “escaped all medieval and Renaissance influence” SUPPORTED (save the dragon on f.25r)
  • 1944 – Hugh O’Neill: “Christopher Columbus…specimens” . DENIED
  • 1957 – T.A. Sprague – “awful drawings” – OPPOSED
  • 1967 – John Tiltman: “no .. point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book” -John Tiltman. SUPPORTED
  • 1969 -? Beinecke catalogue: “botanical .. drawings..”. Yes-and-no; depends on the sense intended for ‘botanical’

Postscript – 1

Jules Janick is a respected botanist, author of valuable papers on the history of plants’ dissemination and identification of plants in drawings of various traditions, including the Asian. It is significant that he too did not associate the Voynich drawings with the medieval or Renaissance Latin herbals or botanical texts, but saw the drawings as referring to exotics and even collaborated with Albert O. Tucker in attempting to justify Hugh O’Neill’s “new world” notion. Unfortunately he also presumed that the Voynich drawings wold be specimen-portraits in Dioscoridan style. His involvement in the ‘Voynich Codex Unravelled’ project might have seen another fine academic ship wrecked on the Voynich rock, but in this case, happily, his ship survives.

Postscript -2.

A wiki article says that the Arabic word for bananas and plantains – Mauz  – is discussed by the Persian Avicenna, whose Canon of Medicine, written in the 11thC, was translated to Latin and became well- known in Europe. In the Latin versions the term is rendered ‘Musa’. I find no evidence of the banana-plants’ being described or illustrated in any copy of Avicenna’s text. But if I’ve missed one – correction is welcome.

Postscript – 3

Preview from the next episode, ‘Emerging Botanical art in late-medieval/Renaissance Europe’.

Pompeii. ‘House of Bracelets’ or: ‘House of the Golden Bracelet’ or:

The image above is part of a fresco painted about the time of Dioscorides (c.40 AD – 90 AD) and Pliny the Elder (c.24 AD – 79 AD). Buried by the same eruption of Vesuvius that cost Pliny his life, its recovery has entranced historians of art and of botany, certainly, but in this case even historians of international exchange because the way the garden stake is drawn appears to show it a type of Asian bamboo.

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O’Donovan Notes: #13.2c – “different folks make different strokes.”

Header: – images of the Paradise tree.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c. 1180 words

Any hypothesis that would have the Voynich plant-drawings a result of Latin students or botanists drawing exotics in a European botanic gardens requires four things be true; first, that gardens of such a kind existed there before 1440; secondly, that the attitudes of scientific botany existed there before 1440 AD; thirdly that the manuscript does include plants not native to Europe – ‘herbae peregrinae” as Baresch put it – and, fourthly, that the Voynich plant-drawings speak the visual ‘language’ of Latin Europe, its medieval or Renaissance art.

The last item, as we saw, Steele plainly opposed and by implication so did Panofsky in 1932, Sprague in 1957, Tiltman in 1967 and many others. The ‘others’ include all those, including d’Imperio, who since 1912 have felt obliged to invent stories and rationalisations for finding the plant-drawings opaque. Some have simply adopted the position that the drawings were “all normal, really” while others have invented the figure of ‘ author’ or ‘ artist’ and then accused him (usually a ‘him’) of being mad, deliberately devious, secretive, incompetent, careless, a child or a sex-crazed herbalist (etc.), thus performing that ritual we call scapegoating or “dolly-did-it”.

An important part of the problem, as I see it, is that in our modern world in general and especially in botany, literalism (‘illusionism’) in drawing is an ingrained expectation. It seems right, normal and ‘commonsense’ that any proper image of a plant should present us with a specimen’s superficial form.

Over the years, working with botanists, interested laypersons and students (not only in regard to the Voynich drawings) I’ve tried various approaches to modify that habitual assumption that a drawing is inferior or deficient which doesn’t use the illusionist mode (or the ‘realistic’ as some call it).

What follows below is an approach that has most often struck a chord with people whose chief areas of interest are in mathematics, economics, computer programing and the pragmatic sciences.. including botany.

I hope readers may find it helpful here too.

All analogies are flawed, so your indulgence is appreciated because I begin with an extended analogy:

Given that: an object is not its name, the name given it in the spoken word is a convention, and the recording of that word in written (graphic) form is an encoding of that convention, so those conventions and forms of encoding are mutable: they may change according to communities, place and/or time, as we know languages, pronunciations and orthographies do.

In addition we can, if we wish, make the encoding – the graphic form – more complex by rendering it as a cipher, but since we hold the key to that cipher, as far as we are concerned the encoded convention remains just that – we have simply changed the rules for rendering and reading.

Art is a different means for graphic encoding.

Most pre- and non-modern images work less like photographs than like the written word.

Hence, the forms employed in forming an image change according to time and place and the community of those making and and reading the images though like languages, words and scripts, they may form ‘families’ and have discernable lines of descent. A medieval French image of an oak-tree is likely to resemble a medieval English image of an oak-tree.. and so on. Differences are not to be dismissed or ignored. They are critical markers – different folks make different strokes.

If you’re dealing with images given form in a pre-modern community, you can be confident that the rules for encoding will not be much affected by individual whim but only differ as words do – according to the regions. time and community.

The point about asking a modern botanist for assistance when trying to read a pre-modern drawing – even one certainly made in medieval Europe – is that unless the botanist has had the time and interest to learn those pre-modern codes, the one they know and can read will render “oak” pretty much like this.

It creates the illusion of three-dimensionality and is what we may call ‘literal’ rendering – but while today we might suppose that this form of encoding is right and normal, it is no better or worse than any other. And if the botanist knows only that code, but the drawing puzzling you was encoded like this (below) you may have a problem:

I chose that easy example because the acorn’s distinctive form and its being drawn fairly ‘plain’ in the medieval image would mean that so long as you had encountered an oak before, you probably wouldn’t need to ask a botanist’s advice and if you did, by the acorn alone he/she would agree it was some kind of oak.

But what might happen if you asked that botanist to offer an opinion on where and when the manuscript-drawing was first made is anyone’s guess, and the chances are that the botanist would regard the medieval drawing as a ‘bad’ representation of an oak-tree, which might be valid – the equivalent of an Englishman’s criticising another’s pronunciation of ‘oak’ – but is too often more like his dismissing the Spaniard’s ek as “bad English”. In fact, of course, neither of those two representations (above) was very much like a living oak-tree, was it?

Literalism -or illusionism – is just one type of graphic encoding. It is a mistake and an anachronism to impose on all other peoples and times a modern idea that literalism is the ‘right’ form of encoding. To the readers for whom that medieval drawing was made, it wrote “oak” perfectly.

I’m not saying all botanists are ignorant of any graphic code save ‘literalism’ or ‘illusionism’. It is enormously important, and significant, that T.A. Sprague’s twenty years’ study of the Anicia Juliana codex required him to know the spoken, written and pictorial vocabularies used in copies of Dioscorides, including (at least) those of the Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic traditions. Even just by exposure he would have recognised distinctions between pictorial codes. Like this:

Greek portrait of Dioscorides – from the Anicia Juliana codex.

When Sprague called the Voynich pictures “awful” he meant that he had so far seen nothing like them. Interesting, don’t you think? That he was shown black-and-white copies would make little difference. In the same situation, in 1932, Panofsky asked to see the original. By 1957, if he wished, Sprague could have asked for photographs. But from his point of view, one look was enough.

However – at present the point is that to understand correctly the intention for which a drawing was made and to grasp any significance it was meant to bear, the approach of modern, scientific botany isn’t enough and – this is an equally important point – it’s hardly fair to ask a botanist questions that haven’t been thought through and might very well irritate the botanist while missing entirely the provenance and point of a given image – such as asking:

“What are these plants?”

And so again,

There are no PLANTS in the Voynich manuscript.

The manuscript contains drawings with what we should call “vegetable forms” though ‘plant-pictures’ will do as an established habit in Voynich studies.


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O’Donovan notes #13.2 b – ‘Botanical-medical theories’ Part 2

The author’s rights are asserted.

Additional information, corrections and updates made after publication-date are posted as ‘Comments’ below the post. Header – detail from Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 2020 f.20v.

c.970 words.

sculpture labelled ‘Dioscorides’ – date and location not given.

Trying to link the Voynich plant drawings to Europe’s medieval herbal-medical-pharmaceutical gardens and related texts pre 1440AD means an effort – conscious or not – to link them to the works of Dioscorides of Anazarbos – a Greek from Asia minor who lived during the 1stC AD.

Before 1440, other eastern sources were certainly known in western Europe and an illustration from a translation of one is shown in our header, but overall it was as Sprengel would later write:

During more than sixteen centuries, [Dioscorides] was looked up to as the sole authority, so that everything botanical began with him. Everyone who undertook the study of botany or the identification of medicines swore by his words. Even as late as the beginning of the seventeenth century both the academic and the private study of botany may almost be said to have begun and ended with the text of Dioscorides.

Kurt Polycarp Joachim Sprengel. Historia rei herbariae, 2 vols, Sumtibus Tabernae Librariae et Artium, Amsteldami (1807-1808). pp149-151.

Dr. T.A. Sprague appears to have realised at first glance, and John Tiltman would come to realise after another decade’s effort that as a group* the Voynich plant-drawings cannot be located within the Dioscoridan illustrative tradition.

*those analysing the written text speak of ‘Herbal A’ and ‘Herbal B’ but for those working on the drawings there has been no significant difference in levels of difficulty between the two.

Dioscorides’ great work has the Latin title De Materia medica, and Sprengel’s view, expressed in the 19thC, remains standard today as, for example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica article:

Although the work may be considered little more than a drug collector’s manual by modern standards, the original Greek manuscript, which was copied in at least seven other languages, describes most drugs used in medical practice until modern times and served as the primary text of pharmacology until the end of the 15th century.

In other words, any researcher since 1912 who presumed the Voynich manuscript wholly a product of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe and supposed the content about medicine, pharmacy and/or botany had a very narrow compass and that flaw was constantly overlooked by a habit of taking ‘European’ and ‘Latin’ as a tacit default – as if what was true there must have been true everywhere. Many modern writers still do the same. Within such an artificially narrow definition of the medieval world, and fixed on Wilfrid’s storyline or some variation of it, Voynich researchers constantly attempted to read the Voynich plant-pictures as Disocoridan ‘specimen portraits’.

detail from the Vienna Dioscorides – also known as the Anicia Juliana Codex – which was brought to Europe more than a century after the Voynich quires were inscribed.

Yet even before knowing of the letter that Georg Baresch wrote to Athanasius Kircher in 1639, saying the Voynich drawings referred to exotics (‘herbae peregrinae”), Robert Steele had been uneasy about those assumptions.

1928 – Robert Steele,

An editor of Roger Bacon’s works, Steele sensed a problem even though, being a man of his time, he too treats the qualifier ‘European’ as a natural default, writing:

The usual methods of dating a manuscript fail usOnly the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased. It is strange that the draftsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influence‘.

It is not true that the drawings have a ‘complete absence of style’; it is quite true that a majority do not reflect Latin Europe’s traditions in style. If one makes overt that habit of assuming the European a norm, and write as one would for a global audience today, then Steele’s observation is expressed as:

“… absence of European style.. completely escaped all influence from Latin Europe’s medieval or Renaissance‘.

Whether I agree can wait a while.

John Tiltman’s talk in 1967:

(left) William Friedman (right) John Tiltman

Having worked, by then, for fifteen years with the Friedmans as they attempted to read Voynichese, John Tilman said in 1967 while addressing a group of Baltimore Bibliophiles – and after first describing reference to early printed herbals as ‘a digression’:

we have a right to expect … the greater part of that text is related to plants… [yet] to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed.”

  • John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript: the Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World’. [released by the NSA under Freedom of Information request, 23rd April 2002. pdf is online,]

But there again, we must insert the omitted terms if the statement is to be true:

in Latin Europe the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed.

  • and that is true.

Ten years before delivering that talk, Tiltman had approached Dr. T.A. Sprague, Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew Gardens for help in identifying the plants in the Voynich manuscript. He was plainly stunned by Sprague’s vehemence in refusing to have anything to do with “these awful drawings”.

No doubt disappointing for Tiltman in 1957, but enlightening in the longer term, for him and for us, even if Tiltman still evidently expected all the content to be European in origin.

Until next time, readers might care to write this on a mirror or ‘fridge..

There are no PLANTS in the Voynich manuscript.

For readers’ information – re voynich.ninja forum

Some time ago, a certain member of that forum made public comments which went beyond the usual slanging to assertions which, produced entirely from that person’s over-active imagination passed into the realm of what I was advised constituted a public libel.

I waited for the moderator, David Jackson, to admonish the person concerned. When he failed to do so, I wrote directly to him letting him know that those comments not only breached forum rules but might well be judged in breach of the laws relating to libel.

Mr. Jackon’s response was to leave the apparently libellous comments in place, but to ban my membership.

The end result is that researchers who only share their work in that forum cannot be read, or receive their due acknowledgements. Nor can I exercise the normal right of reply to matters raised there in reference to my own research, or respond to imitators.

Personal friendship is something I also value, but to find that it leads to relaxation of forum rules on the basis of personality and mateship – let alone to addressing breaches by evicting the person subjected to such breaches – seems to send entirely the wrong message to other forum members – just as putting the word ‘banned’ below my name has done, since it conveys an entirely false impression that I, rather than that other person was at fault.

So, since this reply is made to the umpteenth query about why my blog isn’t included in the ninja blogosphere (I don’t know; its inclusion was refused even while I was a member and despite applications by me and by two other members independently) and why my name appears with the gratuitous additional slur of the recently-added ‘banned’ tag, I hope readers will be satisfied.

One might suggest that, given the number of people who, for various reasons, have quit that forum, a more appropriate and objective tag, if past members’ comments are not to be entirely removed, is to tag them ‘no longer active’, which would serve as neutral notice to present members that they will receive no response to comments they may make to, or about, what those members have contributed.

How it serves the manuscript’s study to do otherwise, others may be able to justify.

O’Donovan Notes #13.2a “Botanical-medical-pharmaceutical” theories. Pt 1.

c.1150 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.


The tendency to speak of it in sweeping generalities has been largely due to a lack of detailed research on the subject” – Lynn Thorndike.

Wilfrid Voynich

If you survey the history of Voynich studies in any depth, you may decide that its most remarkable feature is the blind faith placed in assertions made by Wilfrid Voynich and which he said quite openly were products of nothing but his imagination.

To that imagination alone we owe the ‘high tale’ of figures eminent in the history of Europe, eminent institutions, Science with a capital ‘S’ (Wilfrid called it natural philosophy) what Mary d’Imperio was to call “Europe’s intellectual history”.

Excluding, for the moment, Voynicheros who could never accept any other origin for the manuscript’s content save the work of Latin authors nor its expressing any culture save that of Latin Europe, we will consider in this series of notes how those who are able to accept that the plant-pictures include plants not native to Europe (and some whose form remained unknown to German botanists even as late as the seventeenth century) have tried to reconcile such things with the now-traditional ‘high story’ first invented by Wilfrid and thereafter built upon or modified but never discarded.

I recommend all newcomers read the whole of Wilfrid’s talk of 1921, while asking of item in his chain of ‘probably’s and ‘almost certainly’s: “Why – that is, on the basis of what evidence.. does he claim this thing or that relates to our manuscript’s materials, script, form or content?”

Wilfrid presented to his audience as ‘authors’ only two possibilities: one German cleric and one English friar, the former discarded.

The only idea that occurred to Wilfrid as a way explain the plant-pictures was that it should be a variety of Latin herbal – a notion that led in turn to Newbold’s imagining that the leaf-and-root section was ‘Pharmaceutical’. How many demurred or objected to these confidently-asserted flights of imagination, and how little attention was paid to such objections, you will see by the list of published papers and books in Jim Reeds’ Voynich Bibliography‘ covering the years 1914-2001.

By the 1960s, John Tiltman realised that there is no niche for the plant-pictures in the stemmata of the Latins’ herbal traditions. Following the release of that paper in 2002 under a Freedom of Information order, that information became available to the wider Voynich community.

Nevertheless, researchers would persist (and some still do) in trying to find support for an idea that underneath it all, the Voynich plant pictures really are really nice, ordinary all-European herbal pictures. You see that statement everywhere and an effort to argue that position appeared as recently as 2015, in an essay by Clemens for the Yale photo-facsimile edition. Rene Zandbergen’s website, last I looked, still asserts that folio 35v depicts ‘Oak and Ivy” in Latin style, no mention made of a dissenting opinion.

For those determined to maintain some version of Wilfrid’s all-European ‘high’ story, the knottiest problem is not that the plant section finds no place in the stemmata of Latin herbals, but that the drawings are so obviously informed by first-hand knowledge of plants and creatures not found in England, Germany, northern Italy or France and in European works absent or poorly represented even as late as the seventeenth century.

It is certain that words for quite a number of foreign plants and creatures (including the cerastes) can be found in Latin works well before our manuscript was made, There are even drawings made – apparently by guesswork or hearsay – that are labelled as e.g. papyrus or bananas – but these resemble neither those plants, nor the Voynich drawings.

As examples, below (1.) ‘Dragonsblood’ (the resin, not the tree) in a 14thC manuscript and (2) an attempt to represent banana plants – from a fifteenth century copy of a fourteenth-century Italian version, in Latin, of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwīm aṣ‑Ṣiḥḥa, the Latin versions being entitled ‘Tacuinum sanitatis’.


Creating a theory patch: ‘a Medical-botanical Garden‘.

One way a researcher might try both to maintain the older ‘all European, scientific, personality-focused’ sort of storyline and to accept that the Voynich drawings show non-European plants is to posit that foreign plants were being drawn in Europe and by Latins, and to imagine this occurring because living specimens were bein drawn within some high centre of learning, or under the patronage of some high status European (usually a male).

The theorist may find their speculation considered ‘plausible’ so long as no-one bothers to test it. If tested, their options reduced to two before 1440:

  • Aristotle’s garden (4rdC BC) or
  • a garden established as part of the Vatican gardens at the direction of Pope Nicholas IV – elected in 1288; died in 1322 1292- after which, by all accounts, that garden fell into disuse.

Oddly enough both these possibilities have an attested connection to Roger Bacon, even if one must judge tenuous in the extreme any direct connection to Beinecke MS 408 or its content, the reasons to be given in later parts of this series.

To end this first part, I quote from an essay posted on the Kew Gardens’ website in 2019. Written by Sharon Willoughby, it has a sub-section on the history of Botanic Gardens.

Willoughby writes:

Most writers agree that the oldest ‘still existing’ botanic gardens date back to the 16th century in the first gardens created to train medical students in plant identification – Physic Gardens. These gardens include Pisa built in 1544, Padua and Florence in 1545.

Others argue that the first true botanic garden to have both ornamental and scientific value was Leiden created in 1590.

Others say that the garden created by Pope Nicholas IV (1221-1292) in the 13th century is the first.

There may have been earlier gardens that resemble modern botanic gardens in purpose such as the 4th century BCE garden of Aristotle at the Lyceum in Athens. It is here that Aristotle collected plants sent to him by Alexander the Great. Theophrastus used the observations he made in the garden to write Historia Plantarum.

You will notice there is no mention made of the Islamic world, nor of medieval Spain.

We’ll return to Kew Gardens in the next section and again consider what happened when John Tiltman, on behalf of the Friedmans, approached its Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium for help to read the Voynich plant-drawings.

After that, we’ll look at each of two options more closely, widening a little the geographic and temporal lens as we balance evidence for and against the ‘medical-botanical-science gardens’ idea.

Q: “Evidence please?” (f.25v)

c.2500 words
I am grateful to a correspondent who has asked… well, not exactly asked… to see evidence that I treated f.25v in 2009.

This is an analytical study of the plant-drawing, treating it detail by detail and bringing in comparative and historical arguments, though the last are briefer than they might be in a formal study. If writing the paper today, I should probably leave out the ‘either-or’ argument because subsequent work on the plant-pictures showed that they are not single-plant ‘portraits’ in the European – or if you prefer, the western ‘herbal’ – mode.

The 2009 version was published at ciphermysteries courtesy of Nick Pelling and at the request of Adam Morris. I provided the paper as an outsider who as yet had no contact with Voynich community apart from Adam and Nick, knew of no precedents, and as yet hadn’t read Elegant Enigma..

I soon decided I should start a blog and stop wasting Voynich researchers’ time typing up my work, so Nick agreed to let me have the paper back and so it went up at my first ( ‘Blogger’) blog called Findings on May 24th., 2010. In retrospect, that wasn’t such a great idea.

What I’ve done now is copy-and-paste from my 2010 Findings post. The illustrations had to be re-made. For some I’ve used screen-print copies; for others, accessed the original sources again; for a few I’ve had to find different photos – those have inset labels.

The paper as I sent it to Nick was, I guess, around the five- or six-thousand word mark, and covered much more than folio 25v. Pelling edited it very well and wisely, and I’ve now pruned it even more, adding bridges in italics where the gaps became too great.

Re-reading it now, after so long a time, two things impress me: first the fact that by not later than 2010, Adam Morris had told me about Dana Scott’s offering “a Dracaena” for the plant on f.25v in a communication to Jim Reeds’ mailing list, seven years before* – yet my memory held only the names Neal and Sherwood. So the second lesson from revisiting this paper has been, for me, that not even a memory which has served me so well, for so long, can be expected to perform perfectly always. I have no cause to complain about its failing me on that point, but others may feel they do.

In 2009, I used the form ‘Socotra’; these days I use ‘Soqotra’.

(16th May) – photos that are mislabelled and altered are everywhere online when it comes to the Dracaenas but at least since the post was written the ‘mystery’ of D.cinnabari’s reproduction is gone. I think I can safely recommend the photos on one Yemeni ‘tour’ site; they give a clear idea of the island’s appearance and include genuine photos of D.cinnabari in bloom – some of which appear to be the source of altered/enhanced photos you’ll see elsewhere.


FIG. 1

Folio 25v shows a plant whose form, habit, and implied habitat are indicated, and confirmed by the additional device of the supping ‘dragon’ (Lat: draco).

I believe that the subject of the image is the plant whose current taxonomic description is Dracaena cinnabari, and which produces neither fruit nor flowers. That Socotran plant, and the one now described as  Dracaena draco, were known to classical authors, valued for the type of resin they produced and for one reason and another – not only because the resin was called ‘dragonsblood’ were associate with ideas about preservation and delayed aging as longevity.

It has always been the resin of the Socotran species preferred for medical and for the various other uses to which the ‘dragonsblood’ was put.


Illustrated (aboveD. draco, Morocco. The photo shows the yellow racemes of fruit and flowers – things that D. cinnabari does not bear.

(below) D. cinnabari.  (earlier ‘D. socotrana’). Soqotra. 


Modern opinion calculates there to be about fifty species of Dracaena, most in tropical Africa and Asia, with six in China.

The illustrator drew the plant’s roots in fol.25v forming a noticeable mound, evoking the sense of steep or rocky habitat in which these two dracaenas are normally found, but the propensity of the Socotran tree for lifting surrounding ground and for showing so much of its roots is, in my opinion, the distinction being emphasised in f.25v.

FIG 4 – detail f.25v

(above) Root-mounds of D. cinnabari, Soqotra. This phenomenon does not occur in the Mediterranean species -not even in mature plants, no matter what you may see in labels added to photos on commercial sites.

The roots of the fruit- and flower-bearing  D.draco scarcely show above ground when a specimen is mature. What we see in f.25v is not growth-habit of D. draco.

FIG 7 D. draco – fully mature tree.
FIG, 6

This view is reinforced still further by the form given the leaves on f.25v These broad soft leaves forming a ‘whorl’ are the leaves of a young plant of D.cinnabari – nothing like appearance of the Mediterranean’s D.draco- whether young (see FIG. 9) or mature, and that includes the Gran Canary species (Fig 10.).

FIG. 8 (left) detail from f.25v. (centre) young leaves of D. cinnabari (right) full grown tree of D. cinnabari.
FIG 9. Young plant of D.draco

The next illustration shows a Dracaena in a public gardens of the Canary islands. Despite what you may see online, the Gran Canary species is neither D. draco not D. cinnabaris. On which see:

  • Marrero, A., Alemeida, R.,et.al., (1998) ‘New species of the Wild dragon tree, Dracaena  (Dracenaceae) from Gran Canaria and its taxonomic and biogeographic implications’.   Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 128 Issue 3, Pages 291 – 314. 
FIG 10 Dracaena photographed in gardens in the Canary islands.

A pale trunk is not natural to D. cinnabari, whose bark is naturally reddish but occurs when the outer bark splits (as it will do naturally) or when it has been removed to make extraction of the resin easier. The wounds you see in the tree shown in Fig.3 are also due to this removal of the bark – a sight so widely seen in Socotra that the draftsman’s leaving the bark uncoloured in f.25v is entirely understandable.

FIG. 11

The resin of Socotra’s D. cinnabari is still a commercial product today. In 1932 an important English pharmacopoeia refers to it as being imported to England through entrepots in India and in Zanzibar just as it had been ever since Roman times, and:

The resin extracted from the bark of D. cinnabari is called “Socotrine Dragon’s Blood” when imported from Bombay, and “Zanzibar drop’” when imported through Zanzibar”.

Mrs. Grieve’s New Herbal,

added note – 13th May 2023. On preferred sources and continuity:the Zibaldone da Canal‘s one reference to dragons’ blood lists it among the more expensive among the eastern ‘spices’ then being obtained through the port of Ayas, or Laiazzo* : “New cloves, and cubebs, and rhubarb, and spike lavender, and long pepper, and cardamoms, dragons’ blood, lign aloes [also gained from Soqotra], camphor [southern India and the far east], and all small spices are sold at Ayas [Laiazzo] by the light ounce of the market, and light twisted silk in colours

  • John E. Dotson (translation and commentary), Merchant Culture in Fourteenth-Century Venice (1994) p.162. The manuscript is in the Beinecke Library as MS 327.

*Ayas/Laiazzoater was later re-named by the Turks as Yumurtalık.

Both  Dracaena cinnabari and D. draco were widely associated with longevity and preservation. Socotra’s trees are credited with being thousands of years old, while the Guanches of the Canary islands were said – again in 1932 = to maintain a reverence for it, and to use “its product for embalming in the fashion of the Egyptians.”  

To see insects preserved in the resin is not rare and among its other names, the Soqotran plant has been known is ‘Phoenix tree’. Unlike its Mediterranean cousin, Soqotra’s D. cinnabari seems to produce neither fruit not flowers, and what appears to be its ‘youthful’ phase thus lasts longer than human memory – or so it has ever seemed to people who knew it.

Western drawings

The 1633 edition of Gerard’s European Herbal contains our earliest printed picture of the Mediterranean plant, labelling it a ‘Dragon tree’ – but not yet ‘Dracaena draco’.

FIG. 12
FIG. 13. I suggest that folio 36r represents D. socotrana in the late stage of flowering.

For that ‘Dragon tree’ the reader is shown as a composite image, with racemes of fruit – which D. cinnabari does not bear but the Mediterranean species does. Those things are not shown in folio 25v, though in western botany, fruit and flower define a plant.

The mystery of how D. cinnabari reproduces has always intrigued commentators and had not been solved even by 2010. Some reports mention popular legend that another Soqotan plant (Fig. 13) was the ‘female’ but I have no more information than that.

Thus, the form given the roots on folio 25v, their being shown exposed to a substantial length, with the absence of fruit or flowers all direct us towards the Soqotran rather than the Mediterranean ‘dragon tree’ as the focus of f.25v

*Darius Lorek recently found reason to refer to Psalm 1:3 when illustrating that the term ‘leaf’ in Biblical Hebrew can refer not only to the offshoot of a plant but to living offspring. “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither.” – this note added, May 2023

The Socotran dragonsblood resin was so famed in classical times, and so constantly preferred to other materials even during the the west’s medieval centuries (as indeed into modern times, as we’ve seen), that the seemingly barren D. cinnabari, with its highly visible roots and wide flat young leaves is unsurprising to find here.

Leaf-footed dragon.

FIG. 14 From Clonmacnois. Often called a ‘gargoyle’. This is the nearest form, stylistically, that I have seen for the little dragon in fol. 25v. It was found after making the 2010 post.
FIG. 16

In the original post, I said much more about Soqotran fauna and flora, but for this revisiting, I’ve cut the section to a few paragraphs.
Socotra is renowned for the number and variety of its reptiles. Among its geckos are the ‘Leaf-footed’ genus (Hemidactylus) of which, alone, Soqotra has 22 endemic species of the 25 species that are known world-wide. (Whether these numbers are still accurate, in 2023, I don’t know)

Geckos are the most represented reptiles in the island.. and there are also other lizards, snakes and a chameleon. They are everywhere, from the high mountains of Haggeher to the desert lowland of the south coast, basking on tree branches as on nearly every rock around – and Socotra is a rocky place indeed! -. And even underground: there are, in fact, five worm-like reptiles, suited to a completely chthonian life. Although the herpetofauna of the island is considered to be relatively well known by scientists, new species have been described up to a few years ago and still most aspects of their life-history remain unknown.

from a website devoted to Soqotra’s flora and fauna. No longer a live link in 2023.
FIG. 17

Socotra’s giant gecko, Haemodracon is so named for itsdevotion to the island’s dragonsblood trees and it exists nowhere but Socotra where the two species are as H. riebeckii and H. trachyrhinus.
H. riebeckii is describes as the largest nocturnal gecko on [Socotra] island, frequently found associated with Dracaena trees or found in rock holes.” The specimen seen in the illustration (above), though labelled H. riebeckii is out and about in daylight, and has climbed another of Socotra’s endemic species, Adenium obsesum socotranum.  (2023 – there is now a wiki stub Haemodracon)

The island was once called Disocorides.  

Practical/commercial uses

The sap-resin of D. cinnabari, cooked over an open fire and made into balls, seems to have been used from before historical records begin. It was certainly traded through middlemen into western Europe, where it was used to stain glass and marble, as well as being used in internal and external medicine. It gave the reddish lustre to gold. In the east it was a pigment for paints used in pottery decoration and was used as a cosmetic.

Today in Socotra, the dragonsblood resin is used to treat dysentery and burns, and for fastening loose teeth. We are told the Romans used it as an antiseptic, and that it was specially valued by gladiators.

The red  pigment used in manuscripts to indicate the points of beginning and end, or to indicate the holy word was still sometimes termed ‘dragonsblood’ (rather than ‘minim’) in medieval times and described thus even if other forms of red pigment were used. The idea came from older traditions in which dragonsblood was imagined the colour and material of immortal ichor. The association is particularly clear in astronomical figures, where that colour (often as cinnabar or as vermillion) marks the stars that compose a figure.

[paragraphs omitted]

It should not be thought that none but Socotran plants appear in the manuscript’s botanical section. Its subject would appear to be, rather, the range of commercially valuable plants, including but not limited to those of the east Indies.  Socotra was among the chief entrepots, a point of exchange between the eastern and western sphere in this trade, even before medieval Europeans found their way east by sea.

Early travellers speak of Socotra as fringed with ships from all the eastern countries, and they remark on its limited trading season, due to the winds which prevented access for most of the year. 

Each ship which came served as the traders’ own floating market.

It is interesting to note that when the first ships sent by the Dutch Company for Afar reached Java, they found a similar custom in place. It is telling that the account seems to have an underlying petulence, as if the Dutch foreigners resented finding that distant places contain distant peoples.

…such a multitude of Javanese and other nations such as Turks, Chinese, Bengali, Arabs, Persian, Gujrato and others that one could hardly move. .. each nation took a spot on the ships where they displayed their goods, for all the world as if it were a [proper] market.”


The task of recording Socotra’s genus and species is still in progress. More than 900 species have been documented so far, of which some 305 are endemic. The island is popularly called today “the Galapagos of the east”. Yet at the time of writing, a most valuable record on this subject was a set of documentary photographs – some provided with polyglot labels –  created by a Japanese scholar in her personal blog online. Sadly, that blog has now been archived in a Yemeni website, among its “uncatalogued photos” section.

Note: May 2010: efforts to re-locate that blog have failed.

© Diane O’Donovan. Dec.2009; (and 2010- 2023 etc.).

Some other time, if it’s needed, I’ll see if I can find that post about the many terms used for these plants over the centuries.

Postscript (16th May). See comments below this post. I meant to add a link to this diagram (below) rather than copy it, but the hotlink is being refused. The link to that article is given in the ‘Comments’ section below.