Potions and lotions – the ‘pharmaceutical’ section. Perfect antiquity and a Voynich legend.

Two posts previous:

Header image – from the Iliad Ambrosiana.

Medieval Europe did not share the modern preference for new ideas and the latest information, but believed that the more ancient a text was, the more trustworthy and less degraded by the vicissitudes of time and inaccurate repetition.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if some images in Beinecke MS 408 reveal evidence of Hellenistic* or Roman character.

*The Hellenistic period in the Mediterranean is usually said to begin with Alexander and end with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. In fact, in the eastern region of Alexander’s empire and colonies, Hellenistic culture survived for almost three centuries more and the influence of Greek and Roman art persists still longer in some regions east of the Bosporus.

We are used to thinking of human history in terms of an ongoing ascent, but the medieval west saw it rather as a process of descent from an imagined pristine origin.

To some extent the recovered classical and ancient texts appeared to support that view.

There was no doubt that Virgil and Cato spoke better Latin; that Ptolemy had access to better information about astronomy and geography, than did fifteenth-century Latins. I do not think they imagined what they were doing as a ‘renaissance’ so much as a re-discovery and recovery of what had been a greater glory.

That is why European elites of the fifteenth century devoted so much time, effort and money to having agents find and bring copies of ancient and classical works to Europe and then have them copied and, where necessary, translated.

Such things cost money, and it is no co-incidence that the Church, the merchant classes, and the artisans whom they employed were what drove the first, Italian, phase of that great recovery we call the Renaissance. Texts which they wanted and copied include everything from legal orations to epic poetry, botany, history, geography and other matters of the natural world.

Nor were even the most ancient of those works necessarily ‘dead texts’.

The most strongly Greek-speaking areas of the Byzantine empire (or what was left of it by then), long used the poems of Homer as the basis of education, in much the way the book of Psalms was used in the west. By the fifteenth century, the text of Psalms was as much as three thousand years old; that of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey about 2,200 years old. Neither was a ‘dead text’ but very much alive.

In those two cases – that is of the Psalms and of Homer – the custom was to have students first commit the verses to memory, each verse then used as both a springboard for, and a memory-cue to, more developed commentary spoken by the teacher.

It was an entirely practical system in a time when books were rare and most education conducted by words, word-pictures or actual figures from the natural world or public imagery (vide depiction of the constellation-emblems and their labours of the months in churches and on the exterior of a cathedral in the west).

To take one example, to show how Homer’s work could remain relevant, here’s one passage. You can see that the passage naturally opens a path to commentary about astronomy and geography, but all being framed by an adventure-story in beautifully turned Greek and sure to grip the interest of any young lad.

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. …. For seventeen days then he sailed over the sea, and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of the land of the Phaeacians, where it lay nearest to him; and it shewed like unto a shield in the misty deep.(Bk.V ll.269-280)

Any well-educated person in the Byzantine sphere could have recited this by heart, and over the centuries, a myriad of metaphors and proverbs in daily life referred back to Homer much as in western Christendom they often derive from biblical ideas and tropes. 

The first Latin translation of Homer – both his Iliad and his Odyssey – was produced by the Calabrian scholar, Leontius_Pilatus, who also translated Euripides (c. 480 – c. 406 BC) and  Aristotle (384-322 BC).  

Thus, to find matter in a manuscript made in the early fifteenth century, and probably in Italy or the western Mediterranean, in which there are images reflective of the pre-Christian world, should not greatly surprise us.

Another ancient author whose writings were found, brought, translated and then eagerly copied was Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BC) among whose many subjects were plants, meteorology and winds.

Because his work on Plants appears not been noticed by Voynich writers (the present author having met what might be described as ‘expressions of surprise’ on introducing his name some years ago), I’ll add a longer than usual list of first-stage references further below.

The century-long focus on the Dioscoridan tradition and its herbals, in Voynich studies, has not led to any clear understanding either of the plant-pictures or of the ‘leaf and root’ folios, which latter section is now habitually described as forming a “pharmaceutical” section – an idea based on nothing but speculation and never since proven true, but which has hardened over time to become yet another of those Voynich doctrines well deserving revisionists’ attention.

A copy of Theophrastus’  ‘Historia Plantarum’ now in the Vatican library is dated to the tenth or eleventh century. It is in Greek. (Vatican City, Urbinas graecus 61; eleventh (?) century).  Some of Theophrastus’ work was preserved, with his name, in Pliny, and in the works of Jerome (see here) but otherwise his works were scarcely known to the west until a Latin translation was made of what is more properly known as the Historia Plantis, that translation made by Theodore of Gaza at the request of Pope Nicholas V.  The Theodore of Gazatranslation is said to have been completed in 1454. It would be published in Treviso, in 1483. During the three decades which intervened, the text both in Latin translation and in the Greek were evidently being passed around in manuscript, and copied eagerly.  In a sense it was considered a replacement for the better known text of Dioscorides, but even today the problems of matching plants to the terms used by Theophrastus – or indeed by Dioscorides – is no trivial problem.  From whence Theodore had his copy we do not know, but in speaking of Leontis Pilatus, Holton placed  emphasis on the fact that the fourteenth-century scholar had “spent several years in Crete” around 1350 and from Byzantine sources too, we get a glimpse of a ‘Recovery’ in Crete before that in Italy.

  • Holton David  Literature and society in Renaissance Crete. p. 3. (1991).

  • Benedict Einarson, ‘The Manuscripts of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum’, Classical Philology, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 67-76.

Perhaps it was during the three decades between its translation into Latin and its publication in print, that the copy of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum was made, in Greek, which is now included in a compilation of copies from Greek texts dating from the fifteenth century (Vat.gr.1759). The other texts  bound with it offer a window into contemporary interests, and its being devoid of  separation between secular and the religious interest.  The copied authorities relate to astronomy and to theology, to pre-Christian philosophy, astrology and botany.

Some helpful references.

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Botany’ in A. Classen (ed.), Handbook of Medieval Studies. The section can be downloaded through academia.edu.
  • Moshe Negbi, ‘Male and Female in Theophrastus’s Botanical Works’, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 317-332.
  • John Scarborough, ‘Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies’, Journal of the History of Biology,  Vol. 11, No. 2, (Autumn, 1978) pp. 353-385. JSTOR
  • ___________________, ‘Drugs and Drug Lore in the time of Theophastus: folklore, magic, botany, philosophy and the rootcutters’, Acta Classica, Vol. 49 (2006), pp. 1-29. 
  • Charles B. Schmitt, ‘Theophrastus in the Middle Ages’, Viator, II, 1971, pp. 257-70.
  • R. W. Sharples, ‘Some Medieval and Renaissance Citations of Theophrastus’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 47 (1984), pp. 186-190. Very technical; interesting chiefly for its connecting Theophrastus to passages in the work of Albertus of Lauingen [called ‘magnus’], and for mention of a known Syriac copy of Theophrastus’ meteorological works (n.35).
  • Peter Lautner, ‘Theophrastus in Bessarion’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 155-160.
  • Chicago Botanic Garden, Lenhardt Library ‘Theophrastus and the beginnings of modern botany in the Renaissance’, (December 2012)
  • Michael L. Satlow, ‘Theophrastus’s Jewish Philosophers’, Journal of jewish studies, vol. lix, no. 1, spring 2008. (at academia.edu)
  • Dr. Efraim Lev, ‘Drugs held and sold by pharmacists of the Jewish community of medieval (11th -14th centuries) Cairo according to lists of materia medica found at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge’.  A first draft has been posted at academia.edu, with the author’s caution that it is only a draft that has been accepted for publication.

Theophrastus’ work on winds begins, 

“We have earlier considered [in his ‘Meteorologica’] the nature of winds: of what they consist, in what way they come to be, and by what they are caused. We must now try to explain that each wind is systematically accompanied by effects and in general by phenomena whereby the winds are differentiated from each other” – Theophrastus, de Ventis.

For more on this see last see,

  • V. Coûtant and V. Eichenlaub, ‘the De Ventis of Theophrastus: its contributions to the theory of winds’, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 55, No. 12. (December 1974), pp. 1454-1462.

For any reader who feels an especially strong interest in Theophrastus, most of the information in the references listed above are embraced by Brill’s series of authoritative editions and commentaries.

Beyond the learned halls.

In the elite and carefully-monitored, interconnected circle of western literati during the early Renaissance, ancient and classical texts were studied, but beyond that environment, the erudite selection of worthy material and decisions about translation no longer apply.

What the new and slowly emerging commercial class wanted was practical information that was both rare enough and ‘new’ enough to be of financial advantage over others enagaged in similar business.

Some of the ‘new’ techniques that Europe habitually ascribes to some particular Latin’s invention (as gunpower was earlier claimed to be Roger Bacon’s “invention”), were not.

In the next post, I’ll consider one of those legends – one maintained to this present day and which attributes to a Venetian named Angelo Barovier the invention of clear glass – quite two decades centuries after it appears in the eastern Mediterranean, and a couple of decades at least after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum has been dated.

There was advantage to be gained by pretending some technical secret an invention rather than an importation – a rival was deterred from attempting to find another source for that information. But avoiding acknowledgement of any debt by Europe in general, to a foreign source, to any ‘foreigners’ or even to European Jews has been a long-standing and pervasive problem in the way Europe has written its history.

Scholars had begun to open their eyes by the 1960s but it is evident they had no immediate influence in general attitudes. Apparently none at all on d’Imperio, even as late as 1978 when her own initial impression that the Voynich images suggested ‘foreignness’ was one she quickly suppressed – as we’ve seen.

In was in 1960 that Lynn White had written:

IN I499 when Polydore Vergil published the first history of technology that amplified the Greco-Roman tradition, it did not occur to him that, save for silk and cotton, Europe might owe anything in these matters to Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia: his horizon in that direction was the “Magi, qui Persica lingua Sapientes appellantur.” It was not until the seventeenth century that Jesuit missionaries to the Orient persuaded Europeans to believe that several of the fundamental inventions which are alleged to have made the modern world modern were of Chinese origin: notably gunpowder,* the compass, paper, and printing. The process of scholarly erosion then began, and our view today is moderately changed. What has emerged is a sense of the remarkable complexity of the interplay between the Occident and East Asia from Roman and Han times onward. This involved a two-way traffic, in many items, along many routes, and of varying density in different periods…

*as we’ve seen, this particular Eurocentric myth was maintained by the general population in Europe and in America well into the twentieth century.  

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.

  • Lynn White Jnr., ‘Natural Science and Naturalistic Art in the Middle Ages’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Apr., 1947), pp. 421-435.


A three-hundred year gap between knowledge of some debt owed by European learning to ‘foreigners’ and the general recognition of that fact within the west, is the sort of thing which causes a scholar to feel irritation and frustration.  We’ve seen this sort of irritation in Lynn Thorndike’s letter to Scientific American in 1921 and here again – fourteen years later than the earlier paper – Lynn White now writes with an understandable exasperation: 

Except for the folklorists, medievalists are not habituated to thinking about the borrowing of cultural items from alien peoples in distant parts, and seem curiously resistant to the idea. When one talks about diffusion, for example of the spinning wheel or of the magnetic compass .. some skeptic is sure to assert his faith that our crafty medieval ancestors were as capable of inventing such devices for themselves…. One can only reply that each case must be examined in the context of all that we know: there are indeed a few clear instances of separate invention.  When, however, we find Indian buffaloes in medieval Europe, we may be confident that the buffalo was not invented twice.

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221.

Indic buffalo Pisanello from Lynn White 'Indic Elements..'Two years after that paper was written, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma was in process. 

Published in 1978 it never for a moment looks beyond medieval European culture, assumes that Jews had literature exclusively religious or ‘superstitious’, presumes that any version of such material can be relevant only in forms mediated by western Christian ‘translation’ and in one place clearly expresses her personal aversion, in general, to the ‘foreign’.  

What Lynn White knew to be true of western medievalists half a century ago is less true of those scholars now, but the same attitudes had been pervasive in the general culture of Europe and America, thus influencing the first generations of Voynich writers and thanks not least to d’Imperio’s record of the Friedmans’ efforts, informs the lineage of current-day Voynich traditionalists.

That the study remains in that state is chiefly due to the determined and defensive-aggressive posture of some core-traditionalists and others adhering to the same ‘history’ for the manuscript.

How such attitudes and responses deter researchers and hinder any new approaches can be attested by many, among whom one might again mention Jorge Stolfi who simply reported the results of his computer-analysis of the written text.  Whether his results were right or wrong is yet to be known; but it was a fair contribution to the study and one whose rejection was achieved by means other than civil scholarly discourse.

 The faithfulness with which certain core traditionalist adhere to the Wilfrid-Friedman-d’Imperio line is the main reason that ‘Voynich studies’ today conveys something faintly musty and quaint as exercises in historiography.  A constant emphasis on nationalism is so typically nineteenth-century, and today recognised as being inappropriate for the medieval world; the notion that any image found in a region must in some (ill-defined) way the unique expression of a local ‘cultural character’ –  within medieval Europe – is embarrassing when we know that a manuscript may be found, by research, to have been made  not in Spain but in Sicily, or not England but in France with the only discernible difference the saint’s name is listed in a calendar. 

The same excuses which White assigned to ‘some skeptic’ have really been offered by Voynich theorists when informed that some aspect of the manuscript’s codicology, or imagery, presents irrefutable opposition to their theory.  ‘Our chaps could have done that too’ is not an uncommon response and for some ultra-traditionalists ‘could have done’ means ‘certainly did – pure Wilfrid style.

And so to the next ‘Voynich doctrine’, by which folios 99r-102v are deemed the ‘pharmaceutical section’.

Voynich bit leaf-and-root fols

Folios 99r-102v. ‘Pharma’

About this section, again, close inspection shows its ‘Voynich doctrine’ to be an elaboration without foundation. The ‘pharmacy’ idea was built on nothing but air – or at least, airy notions.

In the next post, its roots are traced. The following post starts asking specific questions.

Next post – the legend.

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