This post – an essay of almost 5,000 words – is written for readers whose interest is not primarily in the Voynich manuscript but in medieval manuscripts, art history, the history of cartography and so on.
The very different attitudes of Voynich writers, when wearing their ‘Voynich’ hat, to the usual scholarly methods, to citing sources and accurately describing precedents, and the high level of reliance on theory-making means that scholars from other disciplines may need an initial orientation. This post is for them.
The Voynich manuscript’s vellum* is dated to the range 1404-1438 AD and in my opinion the manuscript is most likely to have been put together then under the auspices of some member of an Italian city-state. Pelling precedes me in accepting that view expressed earlier on behalf of H.P. Kraus in the 1960s. Pelling ascribes the work to Milan; I am inclined more to those cities which had a direct connection to maritime trade and culture, though on this point while our views diverge they are not necessarily in opposition, given events of the mid-fourteenth to mid-fifteenth centuries.
*More exactly, four samples were taken and dated by radiocarbon-14 at the University of Arizona. Despite the biased sample – three of the four samples were taken from the few ‘typically Latin’ quarterions and all from the top eleven quires though the manuscript contains 20 quires. Nevertheless, the results agree pretty well with the assessment made by specialists in manuscript-evaluation and as reported Hel[l]mut Lehmann-Haupt in 1963. For more details on the manuscript’s structure see here. For Lehmann-Haupt’s comment see here.
The questions which served as constant in my investigation of the manuscript’s images were the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of their first enunciation and of what information the primary document might provide, if any, about preservation and transmission before the matter was copied to form our present manuscript.
Meaning is context-dependent, and the visual vocabulary and ‘grammar’ of images is also a result of where, when and for whom they were first enunciated. To determine meaning one has to know, or at least to ask, where, when and for whom the work was first enunciated.
Even Voynich writers thoroughly competent in their own field of employment remain amateurs in this regard – they tend to presume that the problem posed by the manuscript’s drawings is simply that of telling others what the picture is “about” and just as reflexively tend to pick one drawing, or one detail in a drawing, to assert the nature and meaning of the whole.
The practice is as old as ‘Voynich studies’ and has passed down the decades since 1912 along with much else deriving from the theories which Wilfrid Voynich and William Romaine Newbold expounded in 1921.
The great flaw in that approach to the drawings in Beinecke MS 408 will be immediately evident to specialists. It is that such a theory-dependent method routinely ignores points of difference, yet those are precisely the things that allow us to separate out a group of images of, say, the Madonna into those first enunciated, variously, in tenth-century Toledo, in fifteenth century Italy, in sixteenth-century Egypt or in seventeenth-century China.
What one normally finds in Voynich writings is, on the contrary, a habit of treating all matter subjectively defined as ‘similar’ as interchangeable images, so long as all are compatible with the theorists’ preferred theory.
That is why a theorist will presume that the intention of every image focused on a crossbowman is definable as just ‘man with crossbow’ and that to prove their regional theory true, all they need do is produce more images of ‘man with crossbow’ from within the limits of their preferred theory than anyone else does.
In addition, there is also the sad, hard truth that just as a person highly literate may yet be insensitive to poetry, or a person with excellent hearing unresponsive to music, so many people are simply unable to appreciate or even to ‘see’ telling markers. It is no reflection on their intelligence or their ability in other fields. It’s just that they haven’t that potential.
The same Voynich theorist who may be indifferent to, or genuinely oblivious of, vital differences in imagery may yet able to recognise very small variations in script, or to point out overlooked errors in statistical studies of Voynichese.
The history of the study is littered with examples of individuals who, being competent in one discipline, presumed themselves superior minds and therefore omnicompetent.
Many – one might fairly say most – Voynich enthusiasts writing today plainly believe – and some have said openly – that the drawings in this six-hundred year old and problematic manuscript are ‘easy’ and need no more than ‘two eyes’ and a moment of ‘inspiration’ for their understanding.
Such attitudes, combined with a prevalent idea that all newcomers should begin by announcing a ‘theory’ – even before beginning research – certainly makes more difficult the work of anyone attempting to address images from this manuscript in what is fairly described as the usual way.
Consent and Dissent
It has been my experience, from 2009 to the present, that any conclusion reached is met by theorists with one of three responses if it seems incompatible with their preferred theoretical narrative. It is simply ignored; or the theorist begins hunting within the bounds of their theory for an ‘alternative match’ or, as some did from the very beginning, will attack ad.hominem the author of such work as being the perceived source of the theorist’s discomfort.
Hostility and demeaning an author has been another long-standing custom among traditionalists and for decades was aimed at an entirely imaginary person as the supposed ‘author’ of the whole manuscript. That ‘author’ or ‘artist’ was blamed for the fact that the drawings are not instantly legible by the conventions of an an ‘all-western-Christian’ theory, and so regularly castigated as having been someone childish, mad, incompetent, paranoid, and even ‘sex-crazed’ – all to explain why the theorist was frustrated by the pictures’ confounding efforts to interpret them in more familiar terms.
Informed debate I’d surely expected, and then hoped for, but it is something in which Voynich writers rarely engage, especially since the early 2000s when Voynich research morphed from a co-operation of some few scholars into a sort of public amateur team sport or – as Pelling once described it – a ‘theory war’. These days one is expected to respond in a simple binary ‘like/agree’ or ‘dislike/disagree’ to anything said, and individuals are more likely to accuse one of ‘not liking’ than of disagreeing.
Another casualty of the ‘theory-war’ has been the usual scholarly practice of truthfully acknowledging and providing details of the original source from which a recent insight or new information has come.
Not every Voynich writer plagiarises by co-opting others’ research, or by just re-defining points made and conclusions reached as no more than ‘ideas’ to be re-used sans attribution (and all too often sans comprehension) – but many do, and almost invariably do if they have it from research done by someone who doesn’t “like” the plagiarist’s theoretical narrative or that of some group who are likely to snarl if the dissenter’s name is mentioned.
It is as well for newcomers and external specialists to know that even in ‘Voynich’ sources ranked highest by G’gle, attributions made in footnotes and bibliography may willfully misrepresent, fudge or deliberately substitute the name of a crony to avoid ‘confusing’ readers by indicating the existence of detailed arguments incompatible with a preferred theory. This is so of what you find posted online, written up as Voynich-related wikipedia entries, and in print.
I found that the same stock responses met explanation of even those few plant-pictures fairly easily read in terms of the Mediterranean world’s graphic traditions.
An obvious example here is the image on folio 13r* which I identified as representing a group of plants which the first maker of that image had regarded as forms of banana plant.
After publishing that analysis and commentary, I was informed (apparently incorrectly) that Edith Sherwood had earlier said the picture showed a banana plant. I was delighted to have an independent precedent to cite, but if there had been a precedent it wasn’t claimed by Sherwood herself and efforts to find and credit the earlier source met blank faces and an assertion from the leader of one theory-team that ‘to cite precedents is unnecessary’ (sic!).
Matters were further confused a few years later when a person known as ‘Steve’, who claimed to be working with Edith Sherwood, Sergio Toresella and Rene Zandbergen to create for the popular market an ‘official Voynich herbal’, began co-opting and redistributing apparently at random to other folios, my past identifications and any new identification as it was published. Attribution was also evidently decided at random. I know that my work was not the only material so plundered.
It is partly to counteract such mayhem that I’ll add an asterisk* after folio numbers whose identification as given in these posts was first provided by the present writer. I should add that “Steve”‘s activity was not the only case where normal ethical standards were blatantly disregarded, and as evidence mounted that such corrupt practice was increasing almost exponentially, I decided finally late in 2017, to close off Voynichimagery from the public.
* signifying that the present writer’s rights are asserted.
Information vs Theory
That the drawing on folio 13r* in its clarity and botanical detail cannot have been first enunciated by a Latin in western Europe so early as the first decades of the fifteenth century did not lead to any modification of the usual theories. Most Voynicheros of the time simply ignored it; some returned to their illustrated Latin herbals and asserted some ‘alternative’ identification for the drawing, or pointed to a notably inaccurate image labeled ‘bananas’ in an illustrated Latin copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis (whose text is of non-Latin origin) so as to argue, in defiance of all the historical evidence, that this very detailed and unusually literal picture could have been first created in medieval Latin Europe.
Such responses naturally influenced the approach and level at which I posted information online.
The plant-pictures in Beinecke MS 408
The drawing on folio 5v* was one of the last studies of the plant-pictures to be published through Voynich Imagery. It appeared as a series entitled ‘Clear Vision’, between September 16th., and November 5th., 2017.
Over the previous seven years I had gradually worked through about 60 of the Voynich plant-pictures and had reached certain conclusions about the system informing their construction.
As I’ve said, the Voynich plant-pictures are not intended to represent single specimens, but each represents a ‘plant group’, each group having for its constituent plants a number that occur naturally in proximity (i.e. shared native habitat) and by their having alternative and/or complementary uses and value for commerce. It is not difficult to appreciate how practical a method this would be, if in a handbook intended for use by the traders, or by buyers or even by managers of those warehouses which the Greeks called ‘apotheca’ and the Latins ‘thesauri’ or (from the Arabic) ‘fondaks’.
Overall, the plant-groups seem to me to fall into two main categories: first, those useful in the maintenance and provisioning of a caravan or ship and, second, those whose products were regularly traded within, and beyond, the maritime ‘spice routes’. As example of the former, I’d cite again folio 13r* and of the latter the Myrobalans group represented on folio 22r*.
I consider the ‘Violas’ group (fol.9v) an outlier. Everything about it is odd by comparison with the rest: its construction, its lack of deeper information about use, its containing no evident mnemonic device. It comes closest to the style characteristic of the usual Mediterranean-world herbal images yet, most interestingly, includes what one eminent historian of Hebrew palaeography has explained to me as an apparent effort to reproduce the style of Jewish micrography, while failing to write accurately the forms of Hebrew letters.
I have been unable to name that specialist in this regard. Given the vituperative responses made by some few but implacable Voynich theorists when I explained my inability to concur with the usual ‘all-Latin-Christian-European’ theories, and that those persons occasionally passed the line between fantasy-driven ad.hominems into what observers might class as defamation before witnesses, I’ve never mentioned the name of any colleague or other specialist without first directing them to such published canards and explaining the risk of harassment.
Most have then preferred to limit their association with ‘Voynich studies’ to their privately-given though invariably generous advice. A few others, to whom I must express my lasting gratitude, were willing to be named. One has since told me that he received a “charmingly arrogant” invitation to join a particular theory-team. 🙂
That few among the vegetable products traded through the maritime and overland ‘spice routes’ had solely medicinal use will not be news to historians of that trade, nor that the largest part of that ‘spice-route’ trade was concerned fabrics both as finished cloth and as raw materials serving that industry.
The ‘medical plants’ theory.
Though I found that some plants referenced in the Voynich plant-pictures are ones which had a medicinal use, such as products from the Myrobalans (f.22r*) or the resin from the Dracaenas (f.25v**) or the nut of the ‘Varnish tree’ (f.25r?*)- the last being used both in medicine and as a tailor’s chalk and attested imported into Europe during the thirteenth century – it is clear that medicine was not the only use even for those few and that medicinal uses held no particular interest for the persons who first enunciated these drawings, nor for those who preserved, copied and maintained them between the time of their origins and when they were eventually copied for inclusion in our present manuscript.
** after publishing my analysis of the drawing on folio 25v**, and identifying the type as the Soqotran Dracaena, I was kindly told that Edith Sherwood had earlier offered an identification as that other, fruit-producing Dracaena known in north Africa, southern Spain and the Canary islands. Alteration in popular and modern botanical nomenclature is important here, but a detailed explanation here would take us too far from our subject .
With regard to theories about the manuscript’s being about medicine, I note that no-where among its images have I found reference made to those animal and mineral substances that had so essential a role in the medical traditions of medieval Islam and of medieval Europe. It is possible, of course, that the written text mentions them.
Nor did I find any obvious link between my final list of identified plants and any medicinal-herbal corpus of the medieval Mediterranean world, including Europe, though occasionally, as one might expect, one does find after c.1400 what appear to be echoes of similar images in works produced in the west. One example was discussed in the ‘Clear Vision’ posts and I’ll include it again in the re-printed version.
The more uses a substance could be said to have, of course, the better for the seller. In that way, a plant chiefly valued for, say, its wood, the flower’s scent or the plant’s resin might be said also to have medicinal value. Here I might mention that I follow Dana Scott in identifying the subject of the image on f.19v as ‘the rose’. There is no doubt at all that roses were valued for their scent as medicine and for their wood, and again for the flowers and hips nutritional value.
The Research – process, method and sources.
Before troubling Voynich readers by publishing any analysis, I naturally tested initial readings and later stages of interpretation constantly against historical and other sources to test whether the plant was known, and whether attested as having one or more recognised uses and included all available information across the the half-millennium from the 10thC AD to the 15thC AD, with additional sources (in such languages as I read) covering the Hellenistic and the medieval Islamic environment.
I see no point in asserting a drawing meant to reference this plant or that if the plant is not attested as growing in a given time or region, or for which no use is attested prior to 1400, within or beyond western Europe.
The drawings’ internal evidence made clear that the majority belonged along that line of trade between south-east Asia and the bridges into the Mediterranean world, and this meant including in my own work research into evidence of use, terminology, habits in iconography, and that difficult characteristic, ‘quality of mind’. Since the aim was to identify the ‘where and when’ of first enunciation and any paths for transmission before c.1400, so this process of testing and checking the (non-Voynich-focused) scholarship had to occur in parallel with each stage of an evolving analysis and identification.
Historians of ethno-botany will appreciate that the paucity of surviving evidence from the 10th-15thC meant that as a result of these self-imposed strictures I shared with the public only a small proportion of those analytical studies, whether or not I felt confident that I had read an image correctly. Among the tongues which I think might have enabled the study to be more complete were medieval Turkish, Cuman, Arabic, Tamil, Thai and Chinese. Ideally too, the dialects of Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Romance and the near-extinct Mahri.
Despite such deficiencies in the present writer, what emerged fairly early from within the primary evidence was the presence of clear ‘default’ for the plant-pictures’ construction.
Observations: informing structures
It was not an iron-cast mould but, as I say, a ‘default’. Unless there was some widely-known stylised form, or some information to be conveyed which required a different construction for that image, this was the usual pattern, and it was this that suggested to me a translation into graphic form of some informing rote-patterned learning:-
The most commonly known or most useful plant in the group serves as that group’s definition. Its habit, stem/trunk and petioles (if any) are usually drawn quite literally and with an accuracy which makes clear that the first enunciators knew these plants intimately – certainly well enough to avoid being sold ‘a pup’ in any market. I have not, so far, found an error when leaves are depicted as alternate or as opposite. Habitat is also indicated, but more quietly, using a set of schematic forms. One fascinating exception that ‘quiet’ allusion to habitat occurs on folio 43r* where the mangroves, so valuable in themselves and whose roots are so teeming with sources of fresh food are yet so threatening to those approaching by sea. The mangroves’ ‘doubled’ roots, and even their appearance as if mirrored through the water’s clear surface is beautifully rendered and its first enunciation very obviously from first-hand knowledge.
Within a group, the defining plant’s leaf is often drawn literally, when it serves as part of the group’s definition or typing. However, there are times when the leaf is simply described, in visual terms, as e.g. ‘spinach-like’ or ‘nettle-like’. Over time I learned that this recourse to generality in representing the leaf-type indicates that either that the group is comprised of plants used as provisions or that some other part of the plant (such as its wood) was its chief commercial value.
Overall, the drawings’ system of classification by leaf and habit and their indifference, in general, towards the flower (another reason folio 9v is an outlier) suggests a way of thinking about plants more akin to Theophrastus’ than to Dioscorides’. Inclusion of the flower in some – such as that image on folio 43r* is easily understood; in the dense mangrove habitat, where a variety of mangroves are found side-by-side, those wanted can only be distinguished in that way.
Suggestion of Hellenistic influence, or remote origins, found an unexpectedly clear confirmation from details in the drawing on folio 5v*. In terms of the overland and maritime links to India, Arabia and Egypt, this poses no problem in terms of the historical record, of course, but equally obvious is that between (at latest) the 5th-6thC AD which sees the final dissolution of Hellenistic culture in Asia and the time when the Voynich manuscript was made, any material from the Hellenistic era had to be preserved and transmitted by one or more other cultural communities. So another constant of the research became awareness of any details indicative of cultural disjunction and intermediate affect.
In terms of how the plant pictures are constructed, we find when the earlier draughtsmen and their intended audience had been familiar with some stylised version of a plant, that stylized form might be employed to represent part, or in one case, the whole of a constructed image.
To offer an example using the terms of western Christian iconography – it is as if a draughtsman were to represent naturalistically the Apothecary Rose’s habit and leaf, but then instead of drawing the way its flower appears, instead to use the Lancastrian emblem. That shift from one mode to another would be not only convenient but meaningful for persons native to that time and cultural environment. And while such a composite construction might make a purely botanical interpretation for the whole impossible, it would not have caused a moment’s hesitation for an heir to that English cultural tradition. What certainly would cause an intransigent problem is if someone began by asserting that since the Apothecary Rose is native to China, therefore everything about the image should be presumed Chinese and none but Chinese medieval sources hunted to provide ‘a match’ to explain its intended significance.
And last, the Voynich plant-group is normally provided with some more overt mnemonic device. It is most often, but not always or only, set where one would expect to see the root.
To my knowledge, only this last observation and the term ‘mnemonic device’ or, less accurately just ‘mnemonic’ has been widely imitated or adopted by later-come Voynich writers, though to judge from what has appeared online, few seem to have troubled to study the subject and appear to imagine that any abstract-looking motif in the Voynich plant-pictures will prove to be no more than a kind of personal doodle or will be explained in terms of the lumpen, rather childish emblems used in a group of western herbals called by Aldrovandi ‘herbals of the alchemists’. Philip Neal pointed out years ago, that such works are just herbals and have no connection with European alchemy, but his information has been largely ignored too. One theory-group is excessively fond of an ‘alchemical’ theory, not least because they are excessively fond of a rumour connecting the manuscript with a Holy Roman Emperor who was born about a century and a half (six generations) after the Voynich manuscript was made and, in my opinion, not less than twelve hundred years after much of its imagery was first enunciated.
Over time, I came to realise that earlier researchers should have given much greater weight to the views expressed by Georg Baresch, and certainly more weight than was given, and still is still given, that rumour attributed to Mnishovsky by Marcus Marci who reports it in a dismissive tone in one late letter to Athanasius Kircher.
While I think Baresch’s admitted ‘guess’ that the content was about medicine was mistaken, the results of analysing so many images in the Voynich manuscript was to make me think that he was right in emphasising (not ‘hypothesising’) that the plants represented in these drawings are not ones native to Europe and that matter now included in the manuscript had been obtained from ‘oriental’ sources.
Parsing – learning a new graphic language.
Parsing the Voynich plant-pictures was at first excruciatingly slow work.
Even the very easiest (fol. 25v**) took almost a year’s worth of what time I could spare, because this was an iconographic ‘language’ in which only a few elements were familiar to me.
I never did learn to speak it like a native. To this day, for example, I have no final reading to offer for the image on folio 2v, with leaf like waterlily’s and its flower reminiscent of an hibiscus.
Learning to read any new iconographic tradition is very like learning a new language, or studying a musical instrument for the first time – constant work sees gradual improvement in one’s ability to apprehend the sense as well as the mechanics – to recognise and interpret the finer points of the new visual grammar and vocabulary. Usually, though, we have libraries full of studies of art-history, cultural history and archaeology to help locate any image against its proper background. Not so in this case. And to my chagrin, it was not so much the decades’ experience in iconographic analysis but an earlier background in comparative studies of ancient and classical history and literatures which saved the greatest amount of time.
Over time, too, it became evident that the groupings were informed not only by the plants’ having a common native habitat and mutual or complementary uses, but by a sort of conceptual ‘label’ – a single thought or phrase that linked all the diverse references in, and implied by, a particular drawing. I don’t claim to have been able to ‘read’ that label so clearly in every case, but that which encompasses the forms and allusions in folio 5v* was especially clear.
These drawings, once understood, reveal in their maker(s) a remarkably lucid intelligence, a lightness of touch and a vitality that to my regret I’ve never been able to fully communicate to readers. There is in them, too, an absence of ideological bias that I found both surprising and then something of a relief, given that one so rarely finds works in which religious beliefs do not serve as a primary and pervasive influence on writings, art and the products of craft.
I don’t mean to imply that they reflect a world wholly secular. If they did, I should doubt the work’s authenticity. Within the plant-pictures and the leaf-and-root section, certain forms and allusions led me to conclude that whichever community had maintained these images before they entered the Latins’ domain, it had had regular dealings with various among the religious communities of the east. So for example on folio 19r* we have what I read as a curious version of the lulav, but with a flower (which I think most likely intended to be read as a Paulownia* flower) with a natural colour in the purple-black range avoided by the earlier makers of these images) in the place of the Jewish etrog. Other details in the plant-pictures and the leaf-and-root section allude to Buddhist and to Hindu and east Asian cultural practices and festivals.
cf. details in folio 32v* Throughout the mss. the images reflect and evidently maintain a cultural avoidance that is certainly not native to the western Mediterranean or Europe, and by which colours in the pink-purple-black range are eschewed, the darker end of the range represented by blue. There is no technical explanation for it; the fifteenth-century copyists might not have had access to logwood, but certainly knew how to combine primaries and tones. The Pawlonia was, and still is, popularly known as the Phoenix tree or the Peacock tree though the latter term is more usually associated today with Delonix regia.
How to explain for an amateur audience?
When explaining the plant-pictures for a Voynich audience, my usual practice was to begin by parsing the image – describing each element in the drawing – then put the elements together, identifying the chief constituent, the ancillary constituent plants, distinguishing between literal and stylised details, explaining historically-attested commercial uses, and finally showing how the mnemonic device (normally just one) encapsulated those attested uses. That type of mnemonic ‘root’ was always left until last, and used only to show its consonance with the rest. I kept historical, cultural and other comments to a minimum, though of course before publishing any asserted identifications I had checked the historical and other sources for knowledge of the plant, contemporary uses for the plant in a given time and environment, traditional modes of drawing.. and so on. Where, when, and cultural context.
Analysis of each picture was engaged independently of results gained from any other. Since my aim was to provide those working on the written text with reliable information, a break-link method seemed most appropriate, as a way to prevent some error in one analysis leading to exponential error.
Research conclusions and opinions.
I have opinions – as research conclusions – about the manuscript, but had not then, nor have I now, any all-encompassing ‘Voynich theory’ about the content now in Beinecke MS 408. I have not seen the need to form or to present any such theory. Cryptology needs the tool of theory-making; my sort of work doesn’t and have my doubts about the degree to which theory-invention promises results of lasting value for historiography.
I accept happily that our present manuscript – as artefact – was made or largely made during the first decades of the fifteenth century and I concluded it was very likely made then under Italian auspices. Whether its present ‘Voynichese’ written text first gained its form in the fifteenth century or earlier, I cannot say.
I am sure the majority of the manuscript’s drawings were not first enunciated in Latin Europe, nor first enunciated in the fifteenth- or even in the fourteenth century, but that many had their first origin in the Hellenistic era and had been preserved over the centuries by peoples living in a region which lay east of the Bosporus (i.e. east of Long. 38° E) – until the period known as the ‘Mongol century’ (usually dated 1271-1368 AD).
I have seen nothing in the manuscript, apart from late marginalia on f.116v, expressive of western Europe’s Christian religious culture – and to that extent I concur whole-heartedly with Panofsky’s assessment made in 1932 after he had spent two hours in examining this manuscript.
Explaining the image on folio 5v*
In treating folio 5v* for a Voynich audience, in 2017, I again addressed certain chronic issues in Voynich studies and began exposition of that drawing differently from the rest – not by first parsing the image but by providing first what I had gained only as a conclusion to the analysis – that final illuminating phrase as ‘label’.