O’Donovan notes – 7c.2 and 7c.3: Why a crocodile? Why November? Why c.1350?

A double post for your spare moments from now to the New Year. 🙂

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract: This post considers events around the time when Bodleian MS Douce 313 was made (c.1350), why the crocodile might be introduced (or re-introduced) as November’s emblem then, and whether the statements – and a guess of medicinal purpose – expressed in Georg Baresch’s letter of 1639 are compatible with events of the mid-fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries.

I want to be clear that what follows is no attempt to offer a wide historical survey of plague-related images or -history. It is a pin-point-narrow focus on how one image in a fifteenth century manuscript, and one seventeenth-century document, meet in relation to some few historical moments, persons, records, images and attitudes from the period c.1350-c.1438 and includes one eighteenth-century image because that best expresses a particular religious attitude.

It is an extraordinary moment when one realises that, when John de’ Marignolli left that garment of cannal cloth in Florence, he had just passed unscathed through one region after another where Plague was lurking, and had come back to a Europe where it had been raging for almost six years.

In a time when all Christians of Latin Europe were Catholic, there was added to fear of the disease and grief from loss, an additional fear for the souls of those buried without benefit of confession and too suddenly to have (so to speak) cleared their spiritual debts and made peace with their Gd. Even to be buried in unconsecrated ground was a misfortune.

In the Latin liturgical calendar November 2nd was the day when all the departed were remembered in every church, and with prayers reminiscent of the funeral service: at once asking Gd to forgive sin and offering words of comfort to those present. For many, in time of plague, that day must have gained added significance.

November’s being the month of the dead – the antiquity of that connection, and how Roman thought had come to associate it with Egyptian beliefs has already been outlined and images shown from a mosaic calendar from Roman north Africa and from the semi-Christian Chronography of 354AD.

In those cases the guide who saw souls safely across the bourne had been Anubis or Herm-anubis, but in parts of Egypt itself the ‘bearer/guide’ was a [celestial] crocodile.

more likely imagined as the small and tamer C.suchus than the more savage C.niloticus.

(detail) from a copy of the Book of the Fayum. (copy dated 1st century BCE-2nd century CE)

In connection with this drawing (above) I’d like to draw attention to a filler motif also seen in the Voynich calendar’s ‘March’ diagram (right) and in the Voynich map (the latter often called by Voynich writers the “rosettes page”).

On the other hand, that detail from the Roman-era papyrus contains single- and cross-hatching in the strictest sense, neither of which occurs, so far as I’ve seen, in any Voynich drawing.

From the late 1340s, and from a somewhat different angle, Latin Europe would revive that association between death and Egypt, not so much for hope of ancient medicines as for the antiquity and purity of Egypt’s “ancient” Christian tradition.

In the Voynich calendar, November’s beast is not shown simply as a crocodile, as it is in Bodleian Douce 313, but is specifically associated here with death by inclusion of the human skull, given the hat worn by a traveller or hunter, but which here may indicate ‘the messenger’ (angelos) which is death.

To that extent one can say that both Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 mean the crocodile to serve as memento mori. Perhaps I should also point out that the usual astronomical type for death was the constellation of Perseus in Greek, Roman and Islamic traditions. Perseus means ‘the Destroyer’. There is little doubt, however, that the Voynich crocodile is meant for Scorpius or for another nearby constellation (a question considered in earlier posts in this series).

Egypt – source of plague, and source of cure.

We do not know the direction from which the group of ten plague ships first brought the Black Death to the western Mediterranean.

They docked in Messina, in Sicily, in October 1347, observing the usual routine by which the Mediterranean sailing season formally ended in that month, not to begin again until the next March.

It is certain that Plague was present in Alexandria “in the autumn” of 1347. Messina, on becoming aware of what those ten ships had brought, ordered them out and they went on to infect nearby islands and Tunis before, or in the very beginning of, 1438.

Many suppose they came from the north as would some Genoese and Venetian ships in January 1348 when, flying for home through winter storms they brought the Plague to their home ports from the Black Sea.

The contagion (as it was described) now began moving through the continent, the very first lines of transmission providing another clear illustration of the most-used southern links. The map (below) omits the sea-link through Gibraltar to England via Bordeaux, scarcely used in winter.

This was not the first time that pestilence, or ‘plague’ had occurred, nor were the precedents unknown to Latin Europe. The best-known, in every case, had been associated with Egypt, or at least the north African coast.

There were the ten biblical plagues inflicted on Pharaoh, of course. The third century (c.261 AD) had seen ‘the Plague of Cyprian’ so-called, and in the mid-sixth century a wave of Plague had devastated the whole Byzantine empire. This last was indeed caused by Yersinia. pestis* as modern research confirms. In 9thC England, Bede reported another plague sweeping through England, one which – he believed – left southern England depopulated, though ‘decimated’ may be more accurate.

added note – (December 8th). A reader queries the date “c.261 AD”. It’s a rough description – hence the ‘circa’ – and really depends on what part of the Byzantine empire is meant. Overall, most historians are pretty much agreed the date-range for that episode of plague begins in about AD 249 and subsides by about 262 AD.

*would be more accurately called Yersin-Shibasaburia pestis, since the plague bacillus in Hong Kong in 1894: was identified simultaneously by Alexandre Yersin and Kitasato Shibasabur­ō.

  • Wael M. Lotfy, ‘Plague in Egypt: Disease biology, history and contemporary analysis: A minireview’, Cairo University, Journal of Advanced Research, Vol.6 (2015) pp. 549-544. Can be accessed through Elsevier ‘Science Direct’ website.
  • Description of the plague in Ireland in 1348, written by a Franciscan, John Clyn, has been included in a good wiki article, ‘Black Death in Medieval Culture‘.
  • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – responses in the Islamic world. Justin K. Stearns, ‘Plague and Contagion’, muslim heritage (blog) published 24th August 2020. “We possess dozens of [plague treatises] from the fourteenth and subsequent centuries, and they display a wide variety of approaches to plague and contagion… when it came to medical remedies, … these varied but involved dietary proscriptions, bloodletting, and at times ointments of violets”. This is the only medical use for violets I’ve encountered before the mid-fifteenth century and might one day prove an explanation for the curious addition of that ‘ring-in’ image of the violas in Beinecke MS 408.

In fourteenth-century Europe where learned men were, almost by definition, members of the religious and these remained acquainted with the earliest Christian writers, the severely ascetic style of the first Egyptian anchorites and monks seemed to offer the best advice and solace, though no bodily cure existed. Focus would soon shift, in the Latin west, to less problematic figures than those ascetics but the 1350s have a distinctly ‘Egyptian’ focus on what is termed ‘mortification’. An entry in the Catholic encyclopaedia emphasises, however, that “spiritual writers never tire of insisting that the internal mortification of pride and self-love in their various forms are essential.. external penances good only so far as they spring from this internal spirit.”

Egyptian models.

To a modern viewer, unacquainted with that literature and medieval ideas about death, the sculpture of which part is seen in the header might be felt ‘weird’ or ‘creepy’ or given some politico-religious interpretation. But when the whole image is considered, including its being given the wings of an angel and the draped cloth evocative of Michael as carrier of souls, there is obviously some other intention behind it.

What the modern reader must appreciate is that, just as in the service (Mass) for the feast of all souls, the emphasis was less on hellfire than on overcoming the natural animal fear which people feel at the sight of death and when in constant fear of death.

Above the figure (below), a shield shows stars divided between upper and lower by a ‘wall’ and regardless of what family’s crest it might have been, the juxtaposition allows the viewer to see this as a reminder that above the visible stars is that other realm whose limits were impassable by mortals, the defended ramparts of heaven, which limit is sometimes marked by the ‘cloudband’.

Consider the whole figure, then, as if you were hearing a sermon in which Cyprian’s account of Plague in his time, and in Carthage, was being quoted.

From Cyprian’s De Mortalitate.

18thC work by Pierre le Gros the Younger in Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Rome. Tomb of Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini, (d.1610)..

That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity…

Let us show ourselves to be what we believe.. that when the day of our summons shall arrive, we come without delay and without resistance to the Lord when He Himself calls us...[via his messenger]..

Beloved brethren, with a sound mind, with a firm faith, with a robust virtue, let us be prepared for the whole will of God: laying aside the fear of death, let us think on the immortality which follows…

If we believe in Christ, let us have faith in His words and promises; and since we shall not die eternally, let us come with a glad security unto Christ…

So also in the Psalms, the soul that is devoted to its God in spiritual faith hastens to the Lord, saying, “How amiable are thy dwellings, O God of hosts! My soul longeth, and hasteth unto the courts of God”..

Eusebius in his Chronicon makes mention of the occasion on which Cyprian wrote this treatise, saying, “A pestilent disease took possession of many provinces of the whole world, and especially Alexandria and Egypt; as Dionysius writes, and the treatise of Cyprian ‘concerning the Mortality’ bears witness.” a.d. 252. On the 18thC outbreak, which reached the Adriatic, see here.

So the aim of that sculpture made when Plague was still a constant peril in Latin Europe, was not only to provoke a natural, animal terror at the constant presence of death but, without in any way trying to sweeten or to deny the validity of that fact or those feelings, to lessen that fear and remind the people that the angel of Death – for here it is a great Angel – has as its appointed role to carry the soul between the physical world and the waiting Christ in heaven as a midwife might lift the newborn into the light.

How a modern, secular person reacts to such a sculpture, or what their imagination offers as its explanation is hardly to the point. What we must do is to discover how people who produced this, or any image, used it to speak with their near contemporaries about matters, and in forms, which both understood easily. It is well to remember that in that other country of the past, one is a guest.

During the first wave, the most frequently-mentioned reason for re-emergence of Plague in Europe was excessive self-indulgence – greed, laziness, lust, vanity and gluttony, displays of wealth manifest in fine horses, furs and lap-dogs.

In the next painting, a fresco from burial grounds in Pisa, the theme of penitence and return to the ways of the ‘Desert Fathers’ is already a developed theme immediately before the Plague arrived. In the detail below, the characters are confronted by a man with a scroll and three coffins in which the body’s progressive corruption is shown vividly and accurately. This man with the long ‘ancient’ scroll is Macarius, termed ‘the Egyptian’ to distinguish him from another called ‘the Alexandrian’. He lived c. 300 – 391AD..

The reason for including him was, initially, for the content of his Homilies, but when Plague arrived, one passage would have driven home that call to asceticism and mortification embodied in these frescos, for a passage from the Homilies reads:

“Hearken unto me… and no plague shall come nigh thy dwelling”

Macarius had a prophetic vision, and said to the man who served him, whose name was John, ‘ Hearken to me, brother John, and bear with my admonition. Thou art in temptation; and the spirit of covetousness tempts thee. I have seen it; and I know that if thou bearest with me, thou wilt be perfected in this place, and wilt be glorified, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

But if thou shalt neglect to hear me, upon thee shall come the end of Gehazi, with whose disease thou art afflicted.’

Modern scholars identify this ‘disease of Gehazi’ as elephantisis and/or Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) the second producing spots on the skin and caused by a worm – cf. accounts of the ‘cocodril and hydra’ in Latin bestiaries.

Marcarius’ Homilies shouldn’t be supposed obscure. The saint is still commemorated in the Latin liturgical roster and in the Byzantine and Coptic Christian world whose church did not splinter as the western Church was soon to do, Macarius remains an important figure in the east and his Homilies current reading.

Notice that only the crowned figure displays any sign of shame or thoughtfulness, and note too the height of fashion in this part of Italy during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. correction made 6th Dec., with thanks to Martin K. Menzies for noticing the slip.

From whence? Voynichese

*Concerning the ‘census’ of Franciscan houses mentioned below – that list was not compiled in 1350AD, but from several documents for 1350AD.*

It has to be said that the written text in Beineke MS 408 could have come from almost anywhere, other than the New world or sub-Saharan Africa.

Just two years into the plague’s devastations – that is, in 1350 – a list was compiled that is described as a census of Franciscan houses but better considered a simple record of claim because it does not mention the number of inhabitants in each house.

What it does, for us, is illustrate the range and distance over which, to that time, links had been established between some Europeans and the rest of the world.

Roads were not one-way. Information, goods and people could move along those routes in either direction and by the end of the thirteenth century to, or from, as far as China.

The list of 1350 mentions no house in Egypt, but we know that traders and pilgrims regularly crossed the Mediterranean. Otherwise and apart from the great many Franciscan houses established in mainland Europe, there were now no fewer than fifteen around the Black Sea, including Caffa (‘Vicariate of Aquilonis; Tartaria Aquilonaris). In addition, there are a number listed for Tabriz, another in Amalek on the overland route eastwards, one apparently in what is now Afghanistan and four in China proper.7 For others east of Europe, see the full ‘census’, linked above.

7. The first Franciscan sent to China had arrived sixty years before de’ Marignolli – in 1293/4. This was John of Montecorvino. Here again, I note that the current ‘wiki’ article grossly inflates Friar John’s social status while omitting mention of the fact that he travelled as a Franciscan friar, not in the least as a secular diplomat might do by the sixteenth or seventeenth century,.

John was largely dependent for assistance on an Italian merchant who was already by that time established in India and, apparently, in China. Friar John was never permitted to return home and died in China in about 1328. Scholars doubt the authenticity of two letters attributed to him. The very late, and Chinese, image of him which the wiki writer has used is highly imaginative.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 folio 1r

I do not, however, discount the possibility that we might owe to John some, at least, of what is now in Beinecke MS 408. As I pointed out some time ago, the first folio of Beinecke MS 408 displays a motif that appears to me as an effort to copy, using a quill pen, an inscription originally written with the vermillion brush. Other proposals have been made by other writers. By September 12th., 2010 Rich Santacoloma had collected and shared ‘single bird’ images found in western manuscripts. The work was done again with greater or less success by later writers.

Once again, I should say that the historical data is not offered to promote, or even to infer some theory of authorship for the Voynich manuscript.

At present, the aim is to show that Egypt was not some misty, distant place but an ordinary and busy part of the Mediterranean world – and to show too that for some in western Europe, first-hand knowledge of regions lying east of the Mediterranean did not wait on da Gama. Nor did it depend on some Latin having to ‘fetch’ everything. Some things were brought and simply bestowed upon the west. I’ve noticed that many traditionalists struggle with the idea that in contacts between Europe and elsewhere, the active ‘masculine’ role was not inevitably played by the Latin.

Whatever cryptographers and linguists may think about Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analysis of Voynichese, history presents no obvious opposition to his conclusions..

And while my own analyses of the plant-pictures found them not especially concerned with medicine, we must at least ask whether Baresch’s guess that the work was about medicine is reasonable. I think that though he does not say so, his hope was that the manuscript contained a remedy against plague. After all, Plague had driven Rudolf II from Prague and had killed John Dee’s wife in England. In the seventeenth century, it was still a present danger.


Egyptian Medicinal goods – without prejudice.

“There is no man who lives and, seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand.” Psalm 89:48 from the Targum – the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew bible.

That John Tiltman appears to have conducted a pretty thorough survey of the western herbal manuscripts and related literature and then spoken, in highly diplomatic phrasing, of the null result should have been taken as significant by all Voynich researchers thereafter. But that is another important piece of evidence either ignored or for which some ad.hoc. ‘excuse’ has been offered by traditionalists intent on the hunt for evidence to lend the old ‘Latin herbal’ idea more colour.

It is simply for the sake of balance, then, that I’ll touch on this question of physic in terms of links between southern Europe and Egypt during the Plague years of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries.

About forty years after we think the Voynich quires were inscribed, an Italian Jewish traveller, Obadiah da Bertinoro, wrote of his journey to Egypt. He speaks of the crocodile’s scales as ‘spots’ but for us the most interesting part of his account are details he gives about a fellow passenger on the ship carrying them from Italy towards Egypt in 1481.

Da Bertinoro describes R. Meshullam ben R.Menahem of Volterra as a merchant whose brother R. Nathan, a physician, was then the most distinguished man in Rhodes’ Jewish community.

An early fifteenth-century manuscript by a Venetian of Rhodes who is known simply as ‘Michael of Rhodes” can be seen and its contents discussed in pages at the website of the Museo Galileo, Museum and Institute for the History of Science. [HERE] Michael was first introduced to Voynich studies several years ago in posts to Voynichimagery treating analysis of the Voynich map in the context of maritime matters, mathematics, fifteenth-century iconography and cartography.

Rabbi Meshullam also gave an account of that journey. It too has survived. We learn that in Egypt he encountered the Nagid, the most important official in Cairo, and found that the man was one who had come to his father’s house in Florence more than twenty years before. The Nagid, in true Muslim* style, was generous in his turn, had sought out the son of one who had earlier offered him hospitality in Italy, and we are told that among the many honours and benefits be showered on R. Meshullam was one that was very valuable indeed, not least for the Rabbi’s brother. It was

“a list [or catalogue, or inventory] of all the goods which come into Egypt twice a year, which the gentiles take to Christian countries. There are 3,000 different kinds of goods, mostly spices and medicines.”

*I ought to have said ‘Islamic’ because while Cairo’s culture was informed by Muslim attitudes to the stranger, R. Meshullam is vague about whether the Nagid was a Jew (and if so whether Rabbanite or Karaite), or whether by then Muslim. He might even have been a Mamluk. The position of ‘Nagid’ suggests particular responsibility for the Jewish communities. – note added Dec.5th., 2022.

This is no basis for arguing direct connection between R.Meshullam and the Voynich manuscript’s contents. It does illustrate the lines of connection between southern Europe and Egypt during the fifteenth century, and further that such a list, or catalogue, or inventory was part of the city’s administration at that time, and at that time most of what was being bought by Christian traders (chiefly Genoese and Venetian) were ‘mostly spices and medicines’.

The fact that the Nagid presented R. Meshullam with that list, and the Nagid was chief overseer of tax collection is interesting for two reasons: first because it suggests the list/inventory/catalogue was part of Cairo’s administration and not one produced solely by and for those who bought, sold or used the goods.

Taxation is the most obvious reason for the Nagid’s having such a list, or inventory, or catalogue and it would be wrong to imagine that by presenting the list the Nagid was simply trying to obtain another buyer for those goods. We know from other merchants handbooks and records (such as the Zibaldone da Canal), that merchants simply traded direct with other merchants, the authorities’ involvement being linked to taxation and to criminal matters.

That ‘list’ was a gift of value because while, say, a tourist can travel through any foreign market and see what plants are on offer – living, dried or otherwise – he has no words from the local language with to name them and no idea of their virtues without some additional guide. In what languages, or how many languages those 3,000 and more ‘exotic’ items were named in the list given to R. Meshullam; whether the list/inventory/catalogue was illustrated.. and much else one would love to know, the Rabbi simply does not say.

Taxation is certainly the constant theme of the authorities and of the foreign travellers and traders, who never fail to speak of it.

By analogy with known practices elsewhere on the ‘spice routes’ we may raise the possibility that in Cairo too, the text-book for taxation for such goods took as its template some well-known herbal, all goods including those being taxed on entry and on exit.

The Chinese is the best-known example of using a herbal – in this case works of the ‘Bencao’ genre – as a basis for taxation, but this is not the place to revisit my investigation of the ‘tax-list’ possibility and objects described by archaeologists as ‘tax buckets’. I include one among the images shown in those posts and I daresay that somewhere in the filing cabinet of some Voynich ‘completist’ there may exist printed off copies of the whole series of posts. (And no I didn’t conclude that all the artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section were tax-buckets).

Within medieval Latin Europe some pharmacies, we know, did display those herbals and others texts they were expected or obliged to have and use.

In fifteenth-century Cairo, instead, foreigners purchased goods from and some actually maintained the type of warehouse complex called by Arabs and by some Euroeans ‘funduks’. Genoa, Venice and ‘the Franks’ had, according to R. Meshullam, five such fonduks in Cairo: two each for the first two city states and one for all ‘the Franks’. Overall, one has to agree with Georg Baresch that “it is easily conceivable that..

..some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher, 1639 AD (transcription, transliteration and translation by Philip Neal).

He also says, and others who wrote to Kircher attempted to support him in this, that Baresch’s interest was not in money but in medicine, as:

“the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls”.

There’s no suggestion of medicine or of money about the Voynich calendar’s month-emblems and I think it reasonable to conclude that its November emblem speaks more to the soul’s peril as to the body and that in this case the constellation or sign is of secondary interest.

which . if you’ve read this series from the beginning … is pretty much where we began.

next post: Money Matters: Remedies, wealth and secrecy.

O’Donovan notes – 7c.i – Calendar. Bodleian Douce 313.

c.4700 words (including references. longish footnotes and a Notice to Readers.)

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract – A crocodile as emblem for November has been noted in these posts, so far, only in Beinecke MS 408 and in a Franciscan missal (Bodleian, Douce 313), both being pocket-sized manuscripts, noted for the extraordinary number of their drawings and, in different senses, for the simplicity of those drawings.

This post considers other possible points in common, because if the ‘Marci’ letter of 1665/6 should be genuine, an idea of connection between Beinecke MS 408 and the Franciscans has been around, now, for three and a half centuries, yet remains largely unexplored. We also consider the different attitudes towards making books and images between the early Franciscans and that other preaching order, the Dominicans – and certain interests common to both.

Prefatory remarks:

The opinion I hold, after more than a decade’s working through the sections of Beinecke MS 408, is that a majority of its drawings entered Latin1 horizons only c.1350 AD and that the style of that majority fall into two groups, of which one derives ultimately from works of Hellenistic origin (c.3rdC BC – 5thC AD)2 and the other from a Roman cultural context c.1st-3rdC AD. All which fall into one or other of those groups demonstrate evidence of non-classical and non-Latin affect over the intervening period, that is, to c.1350 AD. Though relatively few drawings in Beinecke MS 408 are expressed in the way of art in the medieval Mediterranean and Latin west, the calendar’s central emblems are among those few.

1. By ‘Latin’ Europe is meant here, and throughout posts to this blog, that part of western Europe whose shared culture had been formed by use of Latin for its language of liturgy, scholarship and diplomacy – the counterparts elsewhere in the Mediterranean world being Arabic and Greek.

2.in certain regions not invaded by Rome, Hellenistic culture survived much longer than it did in the Mediterranean.

It is also my opinion – though the informing research was never shared online beyond one a vague hint – that the manuscript is likely to have been among those improperly acquired by Guglielmo Libri, the manuscript being entrusted (or returned) to a member of the Jesuit order after Libri’s death in Fiesole as an effort at restitution and so reaching Fr. Beckx, in whose trunk Voynich says he first saw it in about 1911. Beckx was head of the Jesuit order when he resided in Fiesole from 1873-1883/4, a time when his order was suppressed in Rome.3

3. for more detail about Fr Beckx life, and relevance for Voynich studies, see separate page in the top bar (HERE). Catholics believe not only that they should acknowledge sins of commission and omission in confession, but that sins are not forgiven unless and until some effort is made to restore, or make other restitution, for harm done.

Libri had died four years before Beckx arrived, the doubtful honour of becoming Libri’s chief executor falling to Count Giacomo Manzonia, resident of the same same town, and by all reports noble in character and not merely in name.

  • Jeremy M. Norman, Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel: A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri. (2013)
  • Andrea Del Centina, ‘The manuscript of Abel’s Parisian memoir found in its entirety’, Historia Mathematica Vol. 29 (2002) pp. 65-69.
  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘A True and Faithful Relation of the Death of Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carucci dalla Sommaia’, voynichimagery, (March 23rd., 2015) – that post was published and I’ll provide a copy to any wanting it. email: voynichimagery AT gmail com.

As I say, that research was never shared online other than a couple of faint hints, so I was interested to see that quite soon afterwards a member of one voynich forum asked in that place – though had not asked me, nor named me – what lay behind reference to Libri. Not unpredictably, another asserted with quite magnificent self-assurance (given that he knew no more than did the questioner) that it was “100% hypothetical”.

That bit of trivia is now called to mind because to illustrate Dominican attitudes to painting in that part of Italy about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ve chosen a praedella painted for a church in Fiesole by a native of the region, the Dominican friar popularly known as ‘Fra Angelico’. (Part of the praedella serves as our heading).

Rupecanina is a small hamlet in the mountains about 27 km (17.3 miles) north of Florence.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in about 1395 – some say in Rupercanina and others in nearby Vicchio. Because friars took a new name on entry to their religious order, with a surname from the place they joined it, so Guido became the Dominican friar, Fra John of Fiesole. His brother Benedetto also joined the Dominicans. Both are believed trained as illuminators of manuscripts before entering the order – Fra John perhaps in 1407 or perhaps in 1417. Sources differ, but this bracket of 1407-1437 is nicely convenient for us and the palette used by Fra Angelico a potentially useful comparison for that in Beinecke MS 408. N.B. I’m not suggesting that Fra Angelico or his brother made the Voynich drawings!

Both brothers produced works for the Dominican convent of S. Marco in Florence; Benedetto illuminated choral books for San Marco and for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole and is thought to have assisted Fra John in creating his frescos in Florence and possibly also assisted with that praedella.

  • Graves, Robert Edmund (ed.). Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (A–K). Vol. I (3rd ed.) .p.494.

The Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and the order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) were established as mendicant orders with a charter to preach without being tied to any parish, but the Dominicans began by studying rhetoric, logic, theology and languages, from a theory that they could overwhelm others and convert them by force of logical argument. (That their logical arguments might be built on arguable premises did not occur to them.) That they made so few converts in that way would eventually cause a number of Dominicans to become enraged beyond reason and and simultaneously incur the wrath – sometimes fatal – of non-European communities whose sensibilities their style of missionary preaching offended.

Franciscans believed, on the other hand – in the earlier years at least – that by simply living as Christ had done, in poverty and as an itinerant who relied on the local community for daily sustenance and to whom they should speak very simply, would not only bring others to Christianity but encourage Christians to a more authentic Christian life. This philosophy was so obviously in contrast to the way of life practiced by ‘princes of the church’ and other religious orders that the founder, Francis of Assisi, came within a hairsbreadth of being executed for heresy but led, equally, to an enormous popularity among the ordinary people.

Both orders required that members to take a vow of poverty but here again their practices differed before the mid-fourteenth century. Dominicans defined that poverty merely as a nominal personal poverty and had no objection to the priory being wealthy in lands, money or goods, or in using lavish pigments and gilding for their manuscripts and churches. The early Franciscans, in Italy, had refused gifts of land or money for their community, and while their attitudes would change over time, and fourteenth-century France is often mentioned as part of the reason for that change, we see that difference of opinion expressed in illustrations made for a mid-thirteenth century Dominican bible known as the ‘Abbey’ bible. In the detail (below) the sub-text is that Christ loves Dominicans; that Franciscans’ manuscripts are mean and amateurish; that none can read music; that they are poorly dressed, wear sandals over dirty feet and are ‘dumb’ in more than one sense of the word.

image from Elizabeth Morrison, ‘Far from Marginal’, Getty Museum Blog (Sept. 7th., 2011). Morrison’s comment in more diplomatic.

Many early Franciscans had been unlettered men, but not all – and by the 1400s many were being formally trained in theology and ordained as priests. However, the thirteenth-century work shows that there may have been more than just gut-feeling, or the rumour allegedly mentioned by Marci, behind Wilfrid’s asserting that his small, pocket-sized ‘ugly ducking’ manuscript was a thirteenth-century Franciscan product, despite its being unlike texts produced in centres such as Oxford or Paris even by a Franciscan as Roger Bacon was.

Franciscan simplicity – and a crocodile.

In marked contrast to Dominican ornament – whether in the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries – we have the style of Bodleian, MS Douce 313. It presents as simple and of an almost penitential restraint, but the drawings are fine, fairly sophisticated and in a currently-fashionable form, known as grisaille. Below, its emblem for November, which we’ll compare later with that in Beinecke 408.

The example of Douce 313 provides some helpful information – first, that the Voynich November crocodile is not the result of individual whim. Secondly, that the crocodile was regarded in at least one place in Europe, among certain Franciscans at least, as an acceptable form for Scorpio – its presence in Beinecke MS 408 is not a mistake or the result of the maker’s being ignorant.

Thirdly, that because the drawing in Douce 313 is part of a ‘labours and months’ series of which the remainder is entirely conventional – one might even say ‘classical’ – it suggests the existence of some model regarded as equally conventional in which also a crocodile was drawn for November, despite this being the earliest noted so far in medieval Latin art. Prior to this, we’ve seen November associated with Egypt only in much older works – a Roman-era mosaic calendar from north Africa and the Chronology of 354.

Otherwise, the series of month-emblems in Douce 313 is unlike that of Beiencke MS 408. For Sagittarius it has the Centaur-with-bow, not the fully-human archer seen in the Voynich calendar and first attested among eastern Jews. The emblem for July is a simple Crab, not the ‘locusta’ which, paired, serve as the Voynich calendar’s emblem for July.

While medieval Latin manuscripts often show confusion about the proper form for Scorpius, sometimes drawing it as a crustacean; as an insect; in various lizard-like forms and like forms of dragon similar to those labelled ‘crocodrill’ in the bestiaries, what we have in Douce 313 is recognisably a crocodile, and a beast associated in the medieval imagination with Egypt and more specifically with the Nile.

Thus, Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 are certainly not ‘sister’ manuscripts, but this fairly literal image of a crocodile as November’s emblem makes the context which produced Bodleian, Douce 313 worth looking at more closely.

Where and when?

The writer JK Petersen included the crocodile from Douce 313 in a montage, describing it as difficult to explain. Acknowledging no precedent, he implies originality, so we credit him with first introducing Douce 313 to Voynich studies.

Mr. Petersen did not explain why he supposed the manuscript made in Paris. The holding library speaks of van Dijk having linked it, albeit tentatively, to the Franciscan priory in Brive (since 1919 Brieve-la-Gaillarde), Corrèze – several hundred kilometers4 south of the capital, in a region where dialects of Occitan were spoken in medieval times. (see map HERE).

4. The French wiki article gives distance to Paris by road as 483  km. or 300 miles. St. Anthony of Padua founded a monastery there in 1226.

If, as many have argued (first, if I recall, Jorge Stolfi), the Voynich month-names reflect the form of an Occitan dialect, then we might say that link to an ‘Occitan-speaking region’ is another point in common between Beinecke 408 and Douce 313. [for more information see further below]

In Brieve, in 1226, one of the first generation of Franciscans, a Portuguese called Anthony of Padua had founded a monastery. Because – as said above – a Franciscan was named for the house in which he joined the order, (e.g. John of Fiesole) or, if he had led an itinerant life as Anthony did, where he died, so Anthony is called ‘of Padua’ by reason of having died there in 1231, at the age of just 36 years and, incidentally, while both Roger Bacon and Michael Scot both still lived.

In the calendar of Douce 313, Anthony is commemorated on 13th. June.*

*”the feast of St. Anthony of Padua (13 June) has no octave but is entered as: S. pastris nosti Antonii conf.” – Bodleian catalogue description.

As I’ve attempted before to explain for Voynich researchers, it makes more sense to consider the physical and community networks along which people, goods, ideas, and fashions travelled than to define a subject in terms of modern notions of nationality or national character. Together with topography, it permits us to include in ‘southern’ Europe not only Italy and Spain, but France, and England.

The matter is easily demonstrated by considering that technique of ‘greyscale’ drawing (grisaille) though it is not employed anywhere in Beinecke MS 408. Some scholars also distinguish ‘brown-scale’ (bruneille). Modern English scholars tend, instead, to describe the technique as ‘tinted line drawing’.


NOTE – re Occitan for the month-names – this not the only language or dialect proposed for the Voynich calendar’s month-names. Panofsky spoke of ‘regional French’. Others have suggested Judeo-Catalan, or Norman French (of England), Picard and (so I’ve heard as rumour) even one of the ‘Allemannic’ dialects, the author of the last idea evidently not yet having published his argument (?) – (if you know better, or know the person’s name, do leave a comment).

However, as Nick Pelling earlier noted and Don of Talahassee discovered and explained in detail, quite independently, posting to his own site and in communications to voynich ninja (the last largely ignored as he said), the Voynich month-names’ orthography is close to that found on an astronomical instrument believed made in Picardy. (for more, see references below)

  • The Picard instrument is illustrated as Plate 6 in D.A. King, ‘A medieval astrolabe from Picardy’, book chapter available separately as a pdf though academia.edu.
  • Nick Pelling, crediting Joge Stolfi, had earlier formed an idea that the month names were “probably written in an Occitan dialect close to the Provencal spoken in Toulon, a busy medieval port near Marseilles.” (Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.23. He refers again, rather later, to those early and repeated hints of links to the Franciscan order in ‘The Franciscan Voynich hypothesis – Roger Bacon Redux!ciphermysteries (blog) April 12th., 2012.
  • Don of Talahassee also briefly outlined his findings later in a comment to ciphermysteries ( June 9th, 2015), though I’m unable to find any geared astrolabe whose manufacture is credited to Picardy. This may be due to my failure to find it rather than any error by Don.
  • David A. King (2001), The Ciphers of the Monks: A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages.

Yet another line of connection between England, France and Italy is presented by the grisaille.

England – Paris – Italy. Grisaille. (13thC – mid-14thC).

The technique had been common in England from Anglo-Saxon times, and the first person to make it a special feature of his own work and so inspire in its dissemination in the Continent was an Englishman known as ‘Matthew [of] Paris’ (c. 1200 – 1259).

Fifty years later, in c.1304, it is employed by Giotto in Padua, in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Very shortly after we find it adopted in Paris by a near contemporary, Jean Pucelle, who flourished c. 1320–1350.

And in c.1350, as we know, it is employed in a southern French Franciscan missal – Bodleian Douce 313.

(Northern Europe would take it up rather later, and it would not become really popular in that region until the later sixteenth- through to the seventeenth centuries).

Sculptural and literal. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artists use the technique, quite specifically, to imitate sculpture, and by this time Latin art in Italy and France was moving towards a revival of classical-era literalism. In Douce 313, the ‘labours and months’ drawings don’t quite give the sense of depth seen in other cases, nor do they attempt any trompe l’oeil, but they do allow a possibility that the series copies one of those found carved in reflief on the exterior of medieval churches and cathedrals, from the twelfth century onwards. The example shown below was carved in Amiens, capital of Picardy, in 1220-1270 AD. close to when the monastery in Brieve was founded by Antony. These constellations and labours, however, use forms consistent with what we find in Latin manuscripts from as early as the 8th and 9th centuries.

Amiens Cathedral. 13thC. Amiens the administrative capital of Picardy

It is possible that the calendar series in Douce 313 copies one since lost which has passed unremarked. What we can say is that by 1350 AD, some Franciscans in southern France (at least) found no objection to having a crocodile for November’s emblem, and had by then acquired that style of drawing gained from older England and currently popular among some painters in Italy and in France.

The Voynich drawings appear to have been at first simple line and wash before some heavier hand added heavier pigments to some. The line work does not approach the sophistication of Douce 313 and the two use very different methods to indicate curves and volume. That contrast between the ‘line and wash’ and additions by the heavy painter* is especially noticeable in the Voynich calendar.

*’heavy painter’ – first recognised and the term first coined, I believe, by Nick Pelling. *Note added 17th.December 2022 – although I first saw the term in one of Pelling’s posts, he had earlier credited Stolfi, writing, “Jorge Stolfi pointed out the disparity between the Voynich’s various paints (in terms both of the range of painting materials used, and of the degree of skill employed) and suggested that a “heavy painter” may have added his/her paint much later (say, a century or more), there has been significant doubt about how much paint the manuscript originally had – really, which paints were (deliberately) original, and which were (speculatively) added later?” [note by D.N. O’D – I would agree that the heavy painter came into the history of the drawings quite late, but not necessarily later than the last pre-binding stage of the present manuscript’s evolution. The aim of the heavy painter seems to have been, not least, to make the unclothed figures more ‘decent’ according to a fairly strict western standard, and he appears to me to have also served as overseer and monitor of the work in its last stage, because the majority of drawings are still quite remarkably clear in revealing their earlier roots and the non-Latin environment. For imported images not to have been ‘translated’ into Latin forms is most unusual. I attribute this exactness, which I’ve described as ‘near facsimile’ exactness, to an original direction by the person commissioning the work that the images should be simply copied, not made more compatible with Latin conventions – as done routinely when foreign matter entered Latin horizons. One might consider the way images in the ‘Tacuinum Sanitatis’ are changed, copy by copy. The ‘heavy painter’s agenda was not that of the person who first engaged the copyists].

The passage just quoted above – in italics – is taken from N.Pelling, ‘ Voynich Colour Inference. A Sure Path to Madness…’, ciphermysteries, December 20th., 2011.

St. Anthony of Padua – by Giotto

Lines of connection – Giotto.

In the same way that we associate Fra Angelico’s paintings with a Dominican context, so in a more general way Giotto is associated with the Franciscans. He is another of those important thirteenth-century figures, having been born in 1267 AD or 1277 AD.

Before being commissioned for work in Padua’s Scrovegni chapel in c.1305 he had already worked on the Basilica built in Padua for St. Anthony (yes, the Portuguese one), and before that for the Franciscan friars of Assisi and of Rimini.

In Douce 313 bishop Gaudentius of Rimini is commemorated – an inclusion difficult to explain in terms of the usual French liturgical roster but easily understood in terms of the Franciscan network.

Gaudentius had come to Rimini from Asia minor about the time the Chronography of 354 was made with its ‘Egyptian’ November and while memory was still fresh of what is called ‘The Plague of Cyprian’ (c.251–270 AD).

Other Times and other Places – define ‘Egyptian’.

One thing which Europe in general, and the preaching orders and the Italian mercantile cities in particular, did have in common was a keen interest in regions lying to the east of Europe.

Christian Europe was well aware that it had been from the east that their religion had come. In the east, too, lay the holy land, the chief point of orientation for Latins’ mappamundi.

Models of monasticism were presented in the form of early Egyptian ascetics, such as Antony of the desert – whose relics arrived in France after being carried first from Alexandria to Constantinople, and rather later from Constantinople to France, at times when theach of the first two cities was in peril.

Eventually (in 1297) the saint’s relics were given a church which soon became a centre of pilgrimage: Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye.

The Life of Antony, translated into Latin as early as the 4thC, was “one of the best known works of literature in the Christian world, a status it would hold through the Middle Ages”.

Fra Angelico pictured that early ascetic in a rather curious garment. The usual reading of the ‘Life’ says Antony had only a couple of rough skin robes – of the sort which Latin Europe gave John the Baptist or Mary Magdalen. One possible explanation is that, living only six kilometers from Florence, Fra Angelico had heard tell of a certain ‘primordial’ robe left there by a Franciscan friar named John de’Marignolli in 1353. de’Marignolli was not the first Franciscan to go to China. He also believed that along the maritime route he had seen the original Paradise and for reasons I won’t go into here, he may have been right.

Before being sent east, however, de’Marignolli had taught theology at the University of Bologna, and we about that ‘primordial’ robe he brought back because years later, in Prague and being given the rather dreary task of re-writing the Annals of Bohemia, he interspersed that narrative with occasional reminiscence.

In one passage he wrote, first quoting Genesis 3:21:

“And the Lord made for Adam and his wife coats of skins or fur, and clothed them therewith. …” [Gen. 3:21]. Now then I say, without however meaning to dogmatize, that for coats of fur we should read coats of fibre. For among the fronds of the Nargil, of which I have spoken above, there grows a sort of fibrous web forming an open network of coarse dry filaments. … A garment such as I mean, of this cannall cloth (and not camel cloth), I wore till I got to Florence, and I left it in the sacristy of the Minor Friars there. No doubt the raiment of John Baptist was of this kind.

from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China VOL. II. pp. 240-242 ‘ The Travels of John de Marignolli 1339-1353’.

This is repeated in another passage, with the Latin terms included the Yule translation reading: “And he made them coats of skins: so at least we com­monly have it, pelliceas,”of fur,” but we should do better to read filiceas,”of fibre”; because they were no doubt of a certain fibrous substance which grows like net-work between the shoots of the coco-palm; I wore one of these myself till I got to Florence, where I left it. ibid. p.227.

John the Baptist was certainly another desert ascetic like Antony, but te conventions of western Christian art meant that the Baptist could not be dressed so unconventionally, so instead – as it seems to me – Fra Angelico has put the ‘paradiscal’ ascetic robe on Antony. He has had to use his imagination or some other eastern souvenir as his model, though, because the natural fibre de’Marigolli meant was coir, and what Fra Angelico painted is more like Asian basketry, rush-matting or a type of woven cape known from parts of India.

Whether there exists, or ever existed, an earlier written account of de’Marignolli’s journey, we know that on his return he had to report to his superiors, and make a formal report to the papal court in Avignon. We may reasonably suppose that he would also have had to answer the usual raft of questions from his fellows, explaining the curious garment left in Florence and speaking about those far-off ‘pagans’ who members hoped one day to convert.

In the European imagination, all eastern peoples were of Egyptian origin and this was so even so late as 1636, when Athanasius Kircher used that to argue that Chinese characters descended from Egyptian hieroglyphic (hieratic) writing. The belief was gained from the Bible, which said that after the Flood, the world had been repopulated by Noah’s sons, one seeing to Africa exclusive of Egypt, another given Europe and the third ‘Asia’, ‘Asia’ defined as beginning from Egypt and the Bosphorus. Because this belief was still current belief among even learned European Christians so lateas the 1630s, we describe the comments made to Kircher by Baresch as meaning that he thought manuscript’s content in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’ – though in my own opinion, when he says the plants are exotics, we may believe him.

  • Kircher argued, initially, that Chinese characters evolved from Egypt’s hieroglyphic (hieratic) script, but would later believe the Chinese to be ‘Adamites’. cf. Wang Haili, ‘Chinese Approaches to Egyptian Hieroglyphs: liushu and bushou’, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 165, No. 2 (2015), pp. 279-302.

Other forms of book (and other crocodiles).

Another detail from praedella shows the interest felt in early fifteenth century Italy in distant peoples and places. Below, a Dominican friar is included in a group which otherwise consists of St. Thomas, best known as Christ’s apostle to India, and two foreign-looking men who wear pink, with no hint of that censure we saw in Bonaiuti’s depiction of Michael Scot.

St. Thomas was one of Christ’s apostles, best known as the apostle to India. There, a community known as the ‘Community of Thomas’ attribute their founding to that apostle and say they were founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD.

St. Thomas didn’t dress as he’s represented here, of course, but his bones had eventually been moved from southern India to Syria and (so it is said) later to Chios, from which another Florentine, a member of the Acciaiuoli family, carried them in 1258 to Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they remain.

That detail in the praedella is not entirely clear, but among the easterners associated with Thomas, one holds what I believe is a set of inscribed palm-leaf books, palm-leaves having once been a common medium used from north Africa through Arabia and the east. The quill which Fra Angelico gives that figure signifies, in the visual language of Latin Europe, a scribe.

We may again cite de’Marignolli though a good number of westerners had seen these things before him and he himself had a guide from India, a friar named Peter. But he says, of people in Sri Lanka [Seyllan] “they teach boys to form their letters, first by writing with the finger on sand, and afterwards with an iron style upon leaves of paper, or rather I should say upon leaves of a certain tree”.

And there, for the moment, we pause.

Additional note –

As antidote to the wiki article on de’ Marignolli (which attempts to make him a person of high social consequence, ties him chiefly to Prague, and quite omits to mention that he was an Italian Franciscan, I provide the following – from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

“John de’ Marignolli. Born at Florence about 1290; place and date of death unknown. When quite a youth he received the Franciscan habit at the convent of Santa Croce, Florence; later on, as he himself tells us, he held the chair of theology at the University of Bologna. Nothing more is known of his religious life until Benedict XII sent him with other Franciscans on a mission to the Emperor of China”… etc. It is evident to anyone who has actually read the Franciscans’ accounts of their own travels that wiki writers err who attempt to make of those friars personages of high social status travelling with pomp and circumstance. They carried letters and messages but were not ‘diplomats’ in the modern sense.


NOTICE TO READERS: I regret that, in order to refer in these posts to my own work, while avoiding readers’ wondering if they’ve not seen something similar elsewhere in Voyich-land, I must be clear that no precedent existed when I contributed the following texts and topics (among numerous others) to Voynich studies:

Italian mercantile handbooks other than Milanese cipher-books; the history of imported goods; the history of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries and accounts of their journeys; the astronomical studies conducted in Constantinople, Trebizond, as in Maragha and Tabriz under under Mongol rule; detailed historical studies of the overland ‘silk’ routes and maritime ‘spice routes’; the Armenians in the east and in Europe; the question of perfumes and incense ingredients; accounts of and by secular travellers (other than vague allusions made earlier, by some, to Marco Polo); I introduced matters relating to cartography and cartographers of the period from the early 14thC to mid-fifteenth century, (including Abraham Creques’ Catalan Atlas and Genoese and Venetian chartmakers of the period); celestial navigation and its calculations; compass-roses named by winds, stars, or both; handbooks of navigation; the type of notebooks and guides which emerged from Genoa, from Venice and from the House of Datini (in Prato and in Avignon); other travellers whose accounts of the world beyond western Christian Europe relate to the period before the 1450s, the idea of mnemonic devices and their relevance – for the pre-Renaissance period and introducing in that context the works of Mary Carruthers. Note and comment on Greek and ‘a form of Jewish’ influence noted in certain drawings. Other than Jorge Stolfi I know of no earlier Voynich research which investigated eastern routes or artefacts, or indeed considered any non-Latin-European origin for anything in BeineckeMS 408. Those matters and texts are just some of the material first introduced to Voynich studies by the present writer in the course of sharing research explaining my analytical studies and their conclusions about one and then another, section of Beinecke MS 408 – from 2008 to the present. The habit of some Voynich writers in re-using research, and even attempting to publish it or copyright it to themselves, while neglecting to name the source – and some quite deliberately and systematically re-assigning such credits and thus misdirecting other researchers – would finally lead to my closing Voynichimagery from the public in 2017. That these things are all simple statements of fact is something that the few other Voynich “old boys” know well enough.

India too has its crocodiles, of course.

‘Mugger’ crocodile – India

The following image relates to the Comment I’ve left below.

Interim Post: Nails in the wood – symbol of resurrection.

c.1870 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

(edited 15th Sept 2022 – minor typos corrected)

As I’ve said, there are only a handful of images in the Voynich manuscript which employ a visual language, or express a worldview compatible with the customs of medieval western Europe.

However, there is some reflection of Christian beliefs to seen in some of the drawings, one of which is among the plant-pictures.

Having discussed that image quite some time ago, I’ve decided instead to republish part of a different post from voynichimagery, one which alludes to the ‘nails in the wood’ idea, and as a sort of peripheral note for efforts (presently being made by Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport) to re-assert the oldest and most traditionalist Voynich theory, namely that the whole content in Beinecke MS 408 as an expression of Europe’s medieval Catholic culture.

I doubt that theory will find support from any qualified and experienced external specialist in western Christian art and culture, but so little is impossible

The written part of what follows I’ve simply copied-and-pasted from the original .. I’ve remounted the illustrations, because wordpress won’t let you see images transferred in that way.

As you’ll see, this comes from what was the last post in a series, published through voynichimagery on May 8th., 2013. I’ve left the written part precisely as published and left in the weblinks for historical reasons.


Paradoxical History of Balsam #5 (final)

© D. O’Donovan [2000+ words]

Afterword (May 8th., 2013) – I have found a late fifteenth-century description of a garden in Egypt where balsam was harvested.  It reads very like the image in Manfred’s herbal. – D)


The miracle of life preserved within death.

The paradox of true Balsam oil was that greatest of all; life in and arising from that which was not, or appeared not to be, living.

Even today, in Afrikaans,  plants of the Commiphora group ( corkwoods having scented resin; the group includes myrrh) are all known as the  ‘unkillable’ or ‘cannot die’ (kanniedood) tree. I expect the Africaans word preserves more ancient terms, once current in lands taken by the Dutch.  Exactly the same idea is embodied in a pre-Islamic image from Christian Egypt. Here the Balsam is pictured on the left and with a rising star.


Nor did Christianity first create an association between tree, its two nails and belief in resurrection.

A stele carved for a queen of Egypt’s First dynasty embodies the same ideas (the object to the left standing for the ‘Great House’, and the time of the annual  ‘crossing over’ as well as the constellation on which the spirit rose was identified initially with Orion. The term ‘star of the crossing [- over’] remained current in the seventh century AD and mentioned in the Qur’an.


For Egyptian Christians, Coptic was the liturgical language;  Christians of Ethiopia developed Ge’ez, but Syrian Christians of the pre-Islamic period maintained Syriac,  former language of Rome’s eastern empire, in their texts both secular and religious.

From Syriac originals first-generation translations into Arabic continued to be made to at least as late as the thirteenth century, so had the western church not rejected their more learned brethren in the east, they might have had a copy of Dioscorides a thousand years earlier.

That Coptic manuscript (shown above, and first shown on Alin Suciu’s  site) is also what permits me to suggest that Dioscorides’ description o Balsam may not have been referring to C. gileadensis at all, but to a cultivar and possibly a hybrid of Commiphorae now extinct.  Dioscorides describes it, as it is shown in that image, as a plant growing no more than a meter or so in height, and having leaves that are  ‘like rue’.


Loss of the old groves from Judaea, and balsam being (apparently) soon reduced to a single grove in Egypt, so with the loss of that grove to over-use and a great flood, we may have lost the original plant forever, the grove in Egypt being restocked with C. gileadensis,  brought as replacement from Arabia.

(On the reduction, and loss of the first grove at Heliopolis, see article by Milwright, cited below).

C. gileadensis has a more solidly tree-like form, and by the thirteenth century, certainly, that is how Balsam is pictured.

Clear connection to the older Egyptian associations for Balsam are plainly being maintained in the Arab-Christian tradition from which came the picture below.  In most Arabic texts, that tradition of the graceful tree is soon lost and the two nails become two knives.  Balsam is already a tree in the late tenth-century manuscript from Samarqand.

Fig. 4

From Egypt through to Arabia and thence (it would seem) to upper Mesopotamia, older ideas about Balsam were evidently along a line of connection pre-dating the coming of Muslim rule, and passing from Egypt, to Arabia, to Mesopotamia.


More relevant to the Vms’ botanical section, is the typically Egyptian (and, later Indian) custom of picturing a plant with its fruit at the top of the plant and turned upward towards the sun.

This is not invariable, but evidently conventional and a convention unusual enough to be remarked upon.

It is seen in the Coptic image, and in the Voynich imagery, as in Indian art of the Gandharan period, but is much rarer in Muslim art within Islam.

What we find instead is, often, a subversion of the older imagery to remove from it such figures as the heavily robed ‘ancient’ priest and even his young assistant. No longer haloed (or hallowed) figures, they are removed, or reduced to their emblems – here simply knives and not the formerly-traditional iron nails.

However, since it had not been the custom in ancient or even Hellenistic Egypt to provide plants with their roots (save for a few images in medical texts such as the Roberts Papyrus), to add scholia as hieroglyphics, actual or virtual, would be natural enough, creating forms parallel to those of the herbals which Aldrovandi described as ‘of the alchemists’.  Here is the usual form for depicting plants in earlier Egypt. This from Karnak’s “herbal chamber”.


As Neal points out, existing manuscripts of that ‘alchemists’ type apparently derive from some original that was in northern Italy in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.

It was in 1419 that Buadelmonte brought Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica to Italy, electrifying the renaissance men of that time, both clerical and lay. Then began a characteristic effort among these people to apply the principles of such ‘hieroglyphiks’ in imagery of their own creation. Dürer most famously.

It should not be forgotten, though, that there were a considerable number of monuments inscribed in hieroglyphic within Rome itself.  One Emperor had been so besotted with things Egyptian that he had his own official decrees translated and carved in hieroglyphs.  How the populace managed to understand and obey those decrees, history does not relate.

(If you’d like to see the Hieroglyphica in parallel  Latin and Greek text, an edition is available at archive.org).

In this way, it is not so surprising to find herbals of that type in vogue for a time in Italy, just as the iconoclastic imagery which tended to replace human figures with emblematic objects, persisted in some regions of Islam.

In my opinion, the absence of natural, or realistic, human figures throughout the Voynich manuscript is due to that same, constantly-recurring objection to picturing living forms which is characteristic of the eastern sphere and communities originating from it. In my opinion, the figures within the Voynich are meant as abstractions, and even then are drawn marred and deformed.  In this,  I may be in a minority, but  it is also a custom attested from before the Roman era, and not absent even from the modern world. For a time it even affected the imagery of Christian Byzantium, as ‘iconoclasm’.  However, like the ‘ornate P’ form in the script, this avoidance is most characteristic of regions eastward from the eastern Mediterranean and never noticeably affected the dominant culture of mainland Europe.

Back to the Balsam.

Increasingly, during the later medieval centuries,  ‘Balsam’ is shown not as a herb but as a tree with a long, bare trunk.

I should mention in passing that Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 is not an exception to the dictum that Europe had no knowledge of the Balsam’s appearance until long after the time the Voynich manuscript was made.


Pace Pavord, I do not think this represents the  ‘balsam poplar’ but rather that it is a generic image, a product of some verbal information that the plant resembled a herb or young tree.  The form given it has the typical poplar leaf but I think it is probably a generic form and based on no more than that the scent of balsam is very like that released when any poplar’s catkins are crushed.  Modern descriptions still speak of it as a balsamic odour.

Thus the wall may be at once imitating an exemplar which in the same way used a generic form for its tree or talisman, or simply a way to remind the reader that Balsam, and the recipe for the Myron was to be closely guarded (‘secretum’).

True Balsam

Even that tenth-century image in the manuscript from Samarqand manuscript might show no more than a generic image for trees that yielded oil or resin. Very similar forms (minus the knives) are used for olive, ben oil and so forth.

The true balsam that had been planted in those groves in Judea to which the Jews took such exception may have been of a cultivar, a sport, or a hybrid which could never be readily propagated and which were first reduced to no more than a single grove at Heliopolis before becoming, in all probability, extinct**  due to over-working and a flood.

The tree-like C.gileadensis was certainly the plant brought from Arabia to re-build that grove, until the last of them also died.

So exactly how the original plant looked we don’t know, nor whether it was the plant from Ein Gedi.  What is certain is that the older imagery does not show a tree, but something more like a herb, springing without bole or trunk directly from the ground.

C. gileadensis was surely a close relation among the Commiphorae if not the original Balsam.

** an inference by the present writer, from consideration of imagery over the centuries, and Milwright’s account of the Egyptian grove.

I shan’t pursue this topic any further here, but if the reader finds it interesting, do include the following if you can in your reading.

  • Encyclopaedia Iranica: ITALY – iv. Travel Accounts
  • O. W. Wolters, The “‘Po-ssŭ” Pine Trees’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 323-350.
  • Marcus Milwright, ‘The Balsam of Maṭariyya: An Exploration of a Medieval Panacea’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 66, No. 2 (2003), pp. 193-209.



All the above to explain why, as late as the seventeenth century, a European botanist was able to treat the question of Balsam as still an open one, writing a dialogue discussing its source, and having as the three interlocuters an Arab, a Jew and the European author.

Paradox, mystery and closely-guarded secret.


Balsam oil (C. gileadensis) can be listed on some commercial sites even today. One seller stamps the catalogue-entry with a bright red notice:  ‘Expensive’ and then writes ..

Unfortunately, this tree is rare, difficult to cultivate, and highly protected in areas where it will grow. Because of this situation, it seems unrealistic that genuine authentic oil is easy to find.

Not much has changed, has it?


Published Sunday, May 5th, 2013

re-issued, September 14th., 2022