Tabula picta – 5v. Habits, qualities and ‘hands’.

This post contains almost 3,000 words and several large jpg pictures.

The previous post ended by saying that, in publishing information about the drawing on folio 5v*, I had not followed my usual habit of beginning by parsing and then explaining a plant-picture, but instead began by providing readers with that single unifying thought which, in practice, became evident only as a conclusion. I’ll say now that the unifying theme for folio 5v* proved to be something I might express as ‘Preserving the ship’.

But in 2017 I felt it so important that readers appreciate something of the quality of mind informing that image on folio 5v* and so many others in Beinecke MS 408, and how distant it is from that which informs images expressing medieval Christian Europe’s ‘Latin’ mindset, that I devoted the first segment to that matter.

I first quoted as an analogy for the qualities informing the Voynich plant pictures (and very close analogy it is) part of H.D. F. Kitto’s description of the ancient Greeks’ language and the mutual interdependence of their thought, language and art. His contrasting the Greeks’ mentality and language with those of other ancient and modern peoples is also to the point.

.. in [their] language – in its very structure – are to be found that clarity and control, that command of structure… it is the nature of Greek to express with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning. .. Both Greek and Latin have an architectural quality. But there is a significant difference between them. … Greek is well stocked with little words, conjunctions that hunt in couples or in packs, whose sole function is to make the structure clear. They act, as it were, as signposts… we always have a perfectly limpid and unambiguous ordering .. as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words. It is the nature of the Greek language to be exact, subtle and clear. The imprecision and the lack of immediate perspicuity in which English occasionally deviates and from which German occasionally emerges, is quite foreign to Greek..

  • H.D.F Kitto, The Greeks.

[quoted with a blush]

Attempting, then, to illustrate this crucial difference in ‘mindset’ by using pictures, I re-considered the juxtaposition of a detail from folio 43v with two later Latin works, this being a group of three that had been included not long before in a post by Marco Ponzi and met no response save applause from the Voynicheros by the time I’d read it (see further below)

Soon after my own analytical commentary was posted online, I found my name now among those black-listed and denied further access to Marco’s posts. I mention this to explain not only the classic response of traditionalists to informed dissent, but why I’m unable to check the bibliographic details for that article today, or to add the usual direct link.

Though Marco described himself as an amateur translator of medieval Latin text, I found his readings and translations of Latin works to be of a professional standard and many students of the Voynich manuscript have reason to be grateful for what he has chosen to let them know.

I have no hesitation in recommending his translations to others, though I might add that Marco is a deeply committed – one might say dedicated – Voynich traditionalist. I’m given to understand that he is (or was) a member of good standing in a society dedicated to study of the succession of Holy Roman Emperors, but here again I have been unable to ask him directly whether this is so, or whether it influenced his becoming interested in Beinecke MS 408.

It is precisely because Marco is so competent in his own area, being meticulous and observant, that I felt his approaching the Voynich drawings as he did proved just how pervasive the inappropriate ‘matching’ method had become; it is inherited along with the ‘traditionalist’ narrative and found as early as the traditionalists’ foundation narratives of 1921 and their standard reference, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma published in 1978 but which reflects, in this regard, the popular attitudes of Europeans more than half a century earlier.

In his original article Marco, had made a sort of triptych in which a detail from a drawing on folio 43 was set between two others taken from western Christian manuscripts made decades, or over a century, later than the range for Beinecke MS 408. To be exact, Marco took half the drawing on folio 43v, and I consider both parts intended to be read together.

In reproducing those examples, I’ve re-ordered them, left to right, into chronological order.

NOTE: The third example (below, far right) comes from a manuscript dated by its holding library to between c 1475 and c. 1525 AD, with comment given (here) that certain additions “may be by the first known owner, Konrad Peutinger, a German jurist, politician, diplomat, economist and humanist who studied law at the universities of Padua and Bologna. He may have acquired Harley MS 3736 during his studies or, later in his life, through his connections with Italian humanists”.

Addition (18th Feb. 2022). Thanks to Matthias Wille for providing link and full details of the image (above, centre). Macer de viribus herbarum, BSB Clm 5905, 1479, page 343 ( folio 170r ).

That Marco looked to later- rather than earlier ms in hunting comparisons for a detail seemed a little curious and is another point I’d have liked to have understood, but since he refuses any form of communication one cannot know the reason.

I chose the example from one of Marco’s posts chiefly because he is clearly an acute observer and a meticulous worker when dealing with medieval writings. My point was that if someone so careful and so observant in that work could suppose images might be provenanced and read by hunting nothing but ‘likeness’ within a pre-determined boundary, then it was reasonable to suppose that others with fewer skills, or less inclined to precision, would make the same mistakes and that if he could see nothing odd about that method, one could hardly expect others less able would do so.

It was no longer uncommon, by the last quarter of the fifteenth century, that herbals made for a Latin (i.e. western Christian) reader might have some type of ornamental or mnemonic device drawn below a plant; I suspect it may have given the work some additional cachet.

To that extent, one surely can agree that there is that single point in common between the three details Marco chose to juxtapose, implying some more direct connection existed between the three and perhaps that the content of the Latin work(s) might be imposed on the Voynich text, written and/or pictorial.

Apart from that very general ‘plant and root-device’ arrangement, though, the other two examples he cited have, quite literally, NO point in common with the Voynich drawing. Well, I suppose at a stretch one could count their all having a notional root formed boustrophedon.

That this fact, overlooked by Marco and by all who applauded his post, should need only a simple parsing of the image to prove it, shows just how rarely Voynicheros diverge from that ‘form a theory and match by likeness’ method.

So here, top down and point by point, is the analytical ‘parsing’ with comparison and contrast, both.


The Voynich drawing shows an upright plant; the two Latin images show their subject having a bushy or shrubby habit.

Flower/seed head

The Voynich image represents its flower/seed-head set within what could be read as surrounding leaves or as long, thin, sepals. In the Voynich plant-pictures the flower is normally regarded much as Theophrastus saw them, that is, as an early and ephemeral aspect of the plant’s formation of fruit and seed.

Marco’s first comparison shows the ‘flower’ as seed-head drawn in a way reminiscent of the bulrush, with neither sepals nor surrounding leaves. His second comparison, for which he gives a sixteenth-century date, has a very simple flower of four petals elevated well above any leaf, and again with no sepals shown. The latter comes from a manuscript whose date-range overall is given by the holding library as c 1475- c. 1525. In regard to its flower it is quite as different from the other Latin image as are both from the Voynich drawing.


Leaves included in the Voynich image are shown deeply divided – so deeply as to be reminiscent of the palm – and are shown springing along the whole length of one slender stem.

In Marco’s first comparison, the leaves are shown all rising directly from ground-level. each is given its own stem, in which one, central, vein is emphasised. In his second selected comparison, the leaves again rise directly from ground level but now have strong parallel veins as certain bulbs’ do. (I’m trying here to avoid technical terminology).

So far, when read simply as drawings, Marco’s compared images contain no detail ‘similar’ to that in either of the other two and neither of the other two is ‘similar’ to the detail from folio 43v.

That any reader, but especially a casual reader, should find their mind sliding over differences to focus on any hint of the ‘similar’ is perfectly normal.

The human brain is hard-wired to respond more positively and comfortably to similarity, because similarity suggests the familiar and, very often, what is ‘natural’ for the viewer. The ‘different’ evokes instantly in a majority of people a first inclination to avoid, re-define or dislike what is seen. Like all hard-wired responses, this one has, or anciently had, its practical value but learning to notice that it is happening and how consciously to oppose and balance that natural instinct, is part of the analyst’s training. In other contexts, we might describe that training as fostering a person’s intellectual curiosity.

‘Root’ element.

Here too, the analyst must protest assertions of similarity, or similar intent, in common between the detail from folio 43v and those two images which Marco selected.

What we see in the two later drawings are conventions by which Latin art represented boneless things such as a leech or slug and also used to represent e.g. the innards of an animal or of a human being.

At a stretch, I suppose a case might be made that in the detail labeled ‘Macer Floridus’, the bump seen just below ground level was meant for an animal’s head, though that’s not a case I should care to make and doubt if, using that image alone, anyone could surely identify an intended genus, let alone species.

By contrast, I do think this detail in the Voynich drawing contains enough information to identify the type of creature meant, and thus to narrow the region in which the associated plant(s) were to be found. I did not analyse f.43v in detail and am adding the following analytical notes only today (Feb. 13th., 2022) without having run any of the usual cross-checks. My first thought, then, is that the maker likely intended to speak of one of the horned vipers and most likely Cerastes cerastes whose Latin nomenclature we owe to NIcholas Laurenti (1768). I won’t discuss all the details such as one’s eye’s being shown as if open but the other as both closed and crossed.

As so often in the Voynich manuscript, the drawing is not only highly detailed and extraordinarily fine and precise but very informative for anyone accustomed to be in the regions where the referenced plants occur.

‘fine and precise’ – The closeup I’ve shown (above) measures, in the original, about 25 mm x 25 mm (!!) and the head measures 5 mm x 5 mm (!!).

‘regions where the plants occur’ – According to the VAPA guide, the present=day distribution of Cerastes cerastes is North Africa, from Morocco and Mauritania to Egypt and northern Sudan, southern Israel, western Jordan. Cerastes gasperetti is found in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, western Iran and Cerastes vipera in the Sahara from Mauritania to Egypt, Israel. To make any determination about the Voynich drawing, however, one would have to find information proper to the period c.10tC AD-15thC AD (at least) for both the viper and any associated plant(s).

To find images of C.cerastes is easy enough. Those shown (below) are included only to show details not always evident – the lines of a long ‘nose’ and the way the back swells to develop the appearance of a central ridge when the snake is just about to strike. That slight movement in the sand might well be the only warning a traveller got. This viper is mentioned in Biblical literature (as ‘adder’) and is the one that proverbially ‘lies-in-wait’ in a person’s path. But as I say, this identification is a first thought, prior to any research being done.

This post isn’t about identifying the intended subject of that detail but the fact that Marco was, as it were, unable to ‘see’ these signs of difference, as were those Voynicheros who read his posts left no comments save applause, It shows quite clearly I think that the traditionalist’s expectation of ‘hunting matches’ as an appropriate method, and their equally traditionalist practice of ignoring or ‘blanking’ difference, can only be counterproductive in the longer term. Indeed it has been counterproductive ‘in the longer term’ since 1912.

Techniques and visual vocabulary:

There are items common to the graphic vocabulary of the western Christian (‘Latin’) world and to others, some being employed from their own traditions by the persons to whom we owe so many of the drawings now in Beinecke MS 408.

In the detail from folio 43v I might mention a ‘fringing’ which we see around the creature’s body.

A similar ‘fringing’ motif certainly occurs in medieval Latin art, where it is used to convey a variety of meaning – to represent spines on a plant, or for a horse’s mane, or to express the idea of radiance, as of fire, of a star or of a saintly halo and it can also be used as a form of modelling, including modelling the hollow fold of draped cloth or of terrain.

Clearly, I’m inclined to take as first option here that the fringing was meant to describe a hollow fold in the terrain, especially since the same usage is found in the Voynich map. How it might relate to a horned viper is easily understood, for any description of Cerastes will repeat:

The horned viper hunts by hiding under the sand (leaving only its horns, eyes and nose exposed) and striking at what comes close.

Pinney’s account is more detailed, and his book – though not without its flaws – remains a valuable ancillary reference. On this point, he writes:

.. older works have it classified as Cerastes hasselquistii, a desert species with a very toxic venom. It is relatively small .. and as pale and sandy as the desert it thrives in..They hide in the sand, in depressions such as those made by the hoofs of camels and horses, and if a man or some animal steps into such a hollow it strikes without provocation, and its venom can kill within half an hour, making it as deadly as a cobra

Roy Pinney, The Animals of the Bible: the natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible with a collection of photographs of living species taken in the Holy Land by the author. pp.174-5. First edition 1964.

Added image April 2nd., 2022:

As another possible insight into the intention of the first enuciator of that ‘root mnemonic’ one might consider another part of Pinney’s description.

‘They (the desert vipers) have developed a good method for fast movement in sand.. The slow forward progress of a viper is not actually a glide but, closely watched, will be seen to consist of a movement of the [flattened] ribs beneath the skin which might be compared to a centipede.

Ibid., loc.cit.

For those wanting the Biblical references, as cited by Pinney they are: Genesis 49:17, Job 20:16 and within works of Christian origin, Acts 28:3. As part of any formal analysis one would have to consult medieval and earlier commentaries on those verses and consider both verbal and pictorial images of the creature and so on. Time, Place and cultural context are what determine the intended meaning of a drawing. These are factors to be determined, and not presumed.

I hope readers will begin to appreciate that my opposition to the traditionalists’ “all-western-Christian-Europe” narrative is a consequence of my studying these drawings and not a product of any pre-determined theoretical or ideological stance.

Despite the reactions which dissenting views prompt among adherents of the ‘traditionalist’ position, one remains interested in this manuscript for its intrinsic interest and in my case, a feeling that it deserves better.

I’ve always liked Jim Reeds’ description of his early study group as ‘Friends of the Voynich manuscript’. It surely needs more.

Save where another author is credited, the material in the present post contains with some additional comment, original research published by the present author in 2017. The author’s rights are asserted.

And so, at last, having now addressed the endemic problem of theory-driven comparisons and the more general matter of different attitudes to forming images, we turn at last to the image on folio 5v*…

5 thoughts on “Tabula picta – 5v. Habits, qualities and ‘hands’.

  1. Matthias,
    We had a bit of a translation problem there. To a native English-speaker your comment means, ‘I think perhaps that the Harley image should be in the middle’… but then I realised that you must have some other language as your first language (possibly German?) and so your comment should be read as ‘I don’t think you should have the Harley image in the middle’. And so long as Marco dated the detail correctly, you were quite right. Thanks again. I really appreciate your taking the time to draw attention to it.


  2. Unrelated to the conversation above.

    For those interested in the Harley ms cited above, The detail chosen by Marco comes from f.13v
    The basis of that late, German, manuscript was a re-working of matter from the Tacuinum Sanitatis that had been originally made in Italy and presented to the d’Este family of Ferrara by Giovanni Cadamosto.
    Other versions of Cadamosto’s work exist which are closer in date to the Voynich manuscript – namely

    (1) Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 5264: Venice or Verona, third quarter of the 15th century Written in Venetian dialect.

    (2) Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Ital. 1108: northern Italy, before 1471 (Avril, ‘Giovanni Cadamosto da Lodi: Libro de componere herbe et fructi’ (1991), no. 54);

    (3) New York, Public Library, Spencer MS 65: Ferrara, after c. 1470-72 (Alexander, ‘Health Book’ (2005), no. 75).

    While I cannot offer Marco’s explanation for his choosing a later and German image as comparison for a detail in Beinecke MS 408, one possible explanation is that in 1985 Sergio Toresella discussed it in an article entitled,
    G.Toresella, ‘Il Codice di Giovanni Cadamosto,’ L’Esopo, 27 (1985), 45-64.

    Another possible explanation is the interest of some Voynicheros in a theory of ‘central European’ origins and links to Holy Roman Emperors for the Voynich manuscript.
    Sergio Toresella, along with Edith Sherwood and a self-described hobbyist named Rene Zandbergen were named (rightly or not) by the notorious ‘Steve’ as being his associates in a projected publication that was to be sold as an ‘official Voynich herbal’.

    For serious students of Beinecke MS 408 I’d note that Jean Givens, Alain Touwaide, Gerit Bos and others are better-known historians of medical, herbal and pharmaceutical traditions in the Mediterranean world (including Europe) and all have expressed some level of interest in the Voynich manuscript at different times.

    According to one early member of Jim Reeds’ mailing list, in the early 2000s, Toresella’s theory of the Voynich manuscript was that it had been composed by a single, Latin Christian, author who was a sex-crazed herbalist – but any theorist can at any time abandon one fictional/theoretical scenario for another so that situation may have changed over the past few years.


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