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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.