Pharma? Red Cylinders. Bases.

This series of posts places under scrutiny the Voynich ‘doctrine’ that the leaf-and- root* section is “pharmaceutical”.

* (as we’ll call it, following Gheueuns

The problem is not that it might not be about plants’ use in medicine, but that there never was any foundation for that idea, and medicine was just one among many purposes for which plants, and images of plants, might be wanted.

Among those others appropriate to a period before 1440AD were culinary uses, leatherwork, carpentry and glass-making, textiles and painting, the making of inks and dyes, of perfumes and incense.

Images of plants, realistic or otherwise, might also serve as patterns for weaving, tapestry, stone- and wood- carving, murals, frescoes, mosaic designs and embroidery. And, as we’ve seen, to illustrate commercial lists.

In short – the Voynich ‘pharma-‘ doctrine was never reached by elimination of other reasonable options, nor was it ever a conclusion from evidence. It was nothing but one man’s guess, offered in 1921 and thereafter repeated, untested and unproven, for a century.

Recap of the series so far.

Newbold’s “pharmaceutical” idea gained an impression of weight  because repeated for so long, by so many, including  by  Mary d’Imperio and by the Beinecke Library’s catalogue entry.
Yet it is demonstrably true that no western European (i.e. ‘Latin’) pharmacy ever held a similar range of artefacts as those seen in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section – at least not until after 1440 AD, our terminus ad.quem.
Newbold, d’Imperio and the Beinecke, like all others interested in the manuscript before 2000, were  unaware that a letter existed which had been written in 1637 by Georg Baresch, a man who had the manuscript for decades and who insisted in that letter  (some say ‘speculated’) that all the matter in the manuscript had been brought ‘from eastern parts’. He also said he guessed the purpose had been to serve medicine.
So far, the posts in this series have tested if it were physically possible before 1440 for someone to have gathered information ‘in the orient’. We found no objection offered by the historical record.  Writing not less than two hundred years later than our manuscript was made, however, Baresch’s understanding of such terms as ‘the orient’ or ‘Egyptian’ may, or may not, have been what we’d  assume they mean today.  
Seventeenth-century definitions of ‘oriental’ might include Armenia, or north Africa as easily as China or southeast Asia.  Even European Jews were sometimes described as ‘orientals’. 
Similarly with the idea of ‘Egyptian’ – Athanasius Kircher asserts in one of his earlier books that, after the Biblical Flood, the whole of the Asian continent had been repopulated from Egypt by Noah’s son Shem and that Chinese written characters are descended from Egyptian hieroglyphs!
So by ‘Egyptian’ knowledge, Baresch might have believed the matter obtained from Alexandria, or from India, or from the foreigners’ ports of China and south-east Asia, from all of which  regions, native plants as ‘spices’ had been carried further west, some far-eastern plants having been known to Latin (i.e. western Christian-) Europe as early as the ninth century. 
So now – what of the artefacts represented in this section?


JUST AS Newbold’s speculation should have been tested, so Baresch’s opinion must be tested.

Theorists’ can confine their investigations to limits set by their theory, but the revisionist’s search is limited only by the manuscript’s internal evidence, by the terminus ad quem of 1440, and by a requirement that arguments about e.g. lines of transmission, or artefacts, must emerge from evidence and not be imposed on it. Nor may we employ the quasi-historical narrative-style that relies on chaining speculation on speculation, Wilfrid-style.

Illustrations can use recent examples of long-traditional forms, for wood rots; iron rusts, ceramics are shattered. One cannot hope that museums will hold preserved examples precisely matching every item represented in a six-hundred year old manuscript.

Unfortunately, neither can these Voynich drawings be treated as ‘photographic’ images or as physical artefacts. Apart from other considerations, the Voynich drawings display evidence that at some stage in the material’s preservation and transmission, it was affected by certain cultural and/or religious constraints* on how natural phenomena and living things might be represented.

*In the leaf and root section, as throughout the manuscript, certain avoidances are evident – against the realistic/natural depiction of any living creature; against representing closed, rectangular ‘boxes’; against ‘crossed-over’ forms such as interlace; avoidance of dead-straight lines, including ruled lines. Where exceptions occur, as for example in a couple of drawings in the ‘bathy-‘ section, or in folio 57v, they are a brief departure from this constant norm and in the ‘bathy-‘ section, that departure is clearly due to a European copyist’s over-confidence, attempting to improve what he had been set to copy.  That this hand vanishes after one or two pages is evidence enough that accurate reproduction of the exemplars, not ‘improvement’ to suit Latin custom, was required.

What we are left with as our first points of access are a combination of structural details and the range of represented forms. Addressing these in relation to the artefacts represented, the question of ‘who’ first enunciated drawings in this section is less important than “where-and-when” it happened.


The simplest form is the cylinder represented either as open at the top or as having its lid upturned. (see left).

Of this type, the majority are coloured red or blue and if the red colouring maintains that of the original drawing, parallels may be found for it in both the Mediterranean and in the east, chiefly in southeast Asia. The blue is more problematic.*

*as noted earlier, the palette includes nothing in the range pink-purple-black, which brings up questions of substitution where those were natural to the item.

Such cylindrical containers, flat-topped and coloured red with mineral cinnabar, were produced in the Mediterranean to as late as the 1stC AD, and from about that time to the present are characteristic of the orient and most particularly of south-east Asia.

The difference is that in the Mediterranean world, the cinnabar was used as a coating and sealed, whereas in the oriental tradition, the cinnabar was – and still is – incorporated into a vegetable or insect-derived lacquer, which itself is the sealant.

In the Mediterranean, the secret of the separate sealant was lost with the Phoenician genocide and so Vitruvius notes (1stC AD) that since Romans had now lost the secret of that ‘Phoenician wax’, surfaces painted with cinnabar rapidly turned from red to black.

capsa. Pompeii 1stC AD

Images of the old red, flat-topped, cylindrical containers, in fibre or in metal (left) continue to occur in the west to as late as the fifth century, but only as the scroll-holding capsa.

The example shown (below) is from a fifth-century mosaic in Tunis.

Capsa and scrolls. Mosaic. 5thC AD.Tunis.

An image of Vergil in a fifth-century manuscript shows him seated beside another red capsa but evidently relies on some earlier mosaic or monument. Vergil died in 19 BC. (Cod. vat. lat. 3867 f.14r).

In Pompeii, again from the 1stC, wall paintings depict some capsa as red, but others are already coloured black.

So, if the red colouring for such containers in the ‘leaf and root’ section remains true to the drawings’ first enunciation, then that first enunciation is to be dated no later than the 5thC AD, and more probably to the 1stC AD or earlier if originating in the Mediterranean.

I have found no other evidence of red-coated cylinders of any sort, and not of this simple sort, having been a tradition within mainland Europe to 1440 but remain open to evidence for it.

Though such cinnabar-coated containers ceased in the Roman world from about the 1stC AD, Italian dialects retained the idea of the ‘roll’ as a secure container.

By the fifteenth century, a rotula or, in the Venetian dialect rotoli, meant a ‘chest’, and named a measure equal to about 1.2 Kg or about two and a half pounds’ weight.

Linguists and cryptographers may want to know more, so here’s a passage from the Zibaldone da Canal as example of that usage. (Zibaldone da Canal c.1422, Venice. Yale, Beinecke library).

Know that pepper is sold in Alexandria by the carica, that is 5 cantars forfiori. This carica yields 715 light pounds in Venice, and all goods that are drawn from outside Alexandria are sold by this cantar forfiori, and this cantar is 100 rotoli, and a rotoli is 12 occhie, so that the cantar comes to be 143 to 144 light pounds in Venice…

You ought to know that ginger, and indigo, aloe, incense and incense powder, and indigo powder, and lac, and elephant tusks, gum arabic, naibet sugar, encone, tamarinds, white and red sandalwood, citrine myrobalans, tragacanth, all these things are sold in Alexandria by the cantar forfiori… [= 100-rotoli]

Ginger came from south-east Asia as did ‘lac’, other products such as tamarinds and sandalwood from India.

It is a fact that Romans had traded directly with some few ports in India during the early centuries AD.

Greco-Indian products and cultural markers dating from the Roman era have been recovered in Thailand; Sasanian products in Vietnam.

… we can refer to the archaeological details highlighted by Lamb, namely the wealth of small objects of Sassanian origin dug up in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam at the important site of Óc-eo, and the Greco-Roman objects (possibly from Sassanian-controlled regions) found in the Kingdom of Dvaravati in central Siam [mod. Thailand]… 

  • Brian E. Colless, ‘Persian Merchants And Missionaries In Medieval Malaya’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 42, No. 2 (216) (December, 1969), pp. 10-47.
  • Paul Wheatley, ‘Geographical Notes on some Commodities involved in Sung Maritime Trade’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society , Vol. 32, No. 2 (186), (1959), pp. 3, 5-41, 43-139.

When we turn to east Asia, source of ‘spices’ brought as far as Corbie by the ninth century, we find that simple, cylindrical containers coated in red or black lacquer are among the traditional forms for carrying lighter goods in bulk. It is certainly possible – though whether it was done is not known – that goods might have been carried by sea in containers of such a kind even during the fifteenth century.

Here are some examples of the traditional forms, these from Burma and northern Thailand.

As you see from the removeable straps on the examples above, these are meant to be carried on a person’s back. Whether their volume is – or ever was – equal to 100 rotoli I’m unable to discover.

Here are some smaller modern-made examples which are again of a long-traditional type.

Burmese lacquer is not gained from a tree, as the others are, but uses the secretions of Laccifer lacca, one of a group of similar insects whose secretions are also used in India’s traditional medicine, Kerria lacca being the most often mentioned. That secretion is the ‘lac’ mentioned in the Zibaldone da Canal

Smaller containers would contain more precious material, including the type of fat- and oil- based perfumes made in India and imported into medieval Cairo and Alexandria. In western images, as token for the eastern spices said to have been prepared by the ‘three Marys’ and carried to Jesus’ tomb (Luke 24:1) containers of this ‘exotic’ form are often seen. They need not have been coated or coloured.

For readers who like technicalities, some notes on eastern lacquer:

East Asian lacquer is a resin made from the highly toxic sap of Toxicodendron vernicifluum, which is native to [east-]Asia and a close relative of poison ivy.
The tree Toxicodendron vernicifluum (formerly Rhus verniciflua -x-Rhus vernicifera), which is indigenous to China and Korea and has certainly been cultivated in Japan at least since the 6th century CE, is tapped when it is about 10 years old. Lateral incisions are made in the bark, and the running sap is collected during the months of June to September. Branches of a diameter of 1 inch (about 3 cm) or more are also tapped, the bark having first been removed. Smaller branches are cut off and soaked in water for 10 days, and the sap is collected, producing a lacquer (seshime) of particular quality, used for special purposes. These processes kill the tree, but the wood, when of sufficient size, is of some use for carpentry. From the roots five or six shoots spring up, which become available for the production of lacquer after about six years, and the operation can be thus continued for a considerable length of time before the growth is exhausted. –
  • Stephen Sheasby, ‘The conservation of Oriental lacquer’, Victoria and Albert Museum Conservation Journal October 1991 Issue 01.  (The V&A understands the tech-obsessed). 
  • NOTE – many online sources confuse the lacquer tree with Sumac or with others classed as Toxicodendron or as Rhus. 
In essence, lacquer is a natural plastic; it is remarkably resistant to water, acid, and, to a certain extent, heat. Raw lacquer is collected annually by extracting the viscous sap through notches cut into the trees. It is gently heated to remove excess moisture and impurities. Purified lacquer can then be applied to the surface of nearly any object…. The earliest lacquered objects were colored black or red with the addition of charcoal or cinnabar to the refined sap. Because lacquer is such a volatile substance, only a few additional coloring agents will combine with it….
 Lacquer was an important artistic medium [for the Chinese] from the sixth century B.C. to the second century A.D. and was often colored with minerals such as carbon (black), orpiment (yellow), and cinnabar (red) and used to paint the surfaces of sculptures and vessels. There is little evidence for the use of lacquer in China from the second to the eighth century AD: eighth- to tenth-century examples are often beautifully constructed but with simple shapes and little or no decoration. In early examples, [of carved lacquerware] layers of yellow and green lacquer are interspersed among the predominant red to give a subtle depth to the overall design that is set against a plain background.

The Met. collection concentrates on objects of ‘high art’ but the basic techniques were, as ever, discovered by rural workers and many ordinary objects were lacquered simply to protect the contents from air and humidity.


America still uses the name ‘Burma’, but to its own people, the country is ‘Myanmar’.

BASES – details

All these have the object front-facing. All but one may be read as having just three feet. Should we assume a fourth resting-point?

The difficulty here for any ‘all-Latin’ theory is that western convention in drawing turned any legged artefact to show it in profile, or turned it (or just its feet) to whatever angle might show at least three of the westerner’s usual four resting-points. Milking stools and trivets or tripods might have three legs but otherwise Europeans were ‘four-point’ all the way.

Some examples of western representations:

Europeans habitually used dead-straight, ruled lines, too.

But Asia, and especially eastern Asia, placed fewer limits on design. An object might have three, four, five or more legs and since the artefacts in the ‘leaf and root’ section are shown front-on, we can assume neither a European origin nor that four legs may be supposed ‘normal’.

Further – a close look at two versions for the simplest type appears to me to show that the legged bases here show a separate stand, on which the containers are stacked, though evidently the stand’s inclusion was optional.

Once again, Europe might occasionally use a legged stand, chiefly to prevent heated items from damaging a surface, but before 1440, it didn’t make legged stands of this form, even granted that the drawings seem a little confused in places.

There are just four types for these legged bases in the ‘leaf and root’ section. To avoid jargon, I’ve described the four as: ‘the strongly outcurved’; the ‘knife-blade’, the ‘paw’ footed, and the ‘leafy’. Some items include more than one type.

I’ve seen nothing, so far, which compares with the ‘leafy’ type – neither within the Mediterranean nor in Asia before 1440, but other revisionists may do better.

Otherwise, all these forms occur separately and/or in combination in the east and some are so commonly used in traditional Asia that anyone who has travelled there will surely recognise them.

Because many are part of a long and continuous tradition, it is easy to find examples, but the same fact makes more difficult the task of narrowing the date-range.

What they do is reassure us that the artefacts represented in this section, and so probably the plants associated with them, relate to the eastern world and that the drawings were perhaps – but not necessarily – always intended to refer to international trade.

Below is an example in which are combined red and black laquers in a three-legged object.

Three legged, lacquered red and black. Western Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD) From the first
tomb of Mawangdui. Hunan
Provincial Museum.

The next set of illustrations shows the wide variety in possible number of resting points – here showing items with three-, four-, five- and more. Some also show the ‘simplified paw’.

IN the following composite, another view is shown of an object seen above (upper right) to show its five legs more clearly. Separate stands are present in both the upper, and the lower composites.

As anyone will be aware who has travelled to Asia or is familiar with eastern artefacts, to place objects from small to very large on a separate stand was the norm in eastern Asia and even more routinely done in earlier times than today.

The virtue of a stand with three resting points is that it is less likely to tip over – the same reason that western milking stools traditionally had three legs.

One design seen in the ‘leaf and root’ section is not one that was a long tradition and for this reason is more helpful for our effort to date these drawings’ first enunciation.

This is the type I’ve described as the ‘knife-blade’ though often described in China as the [‘tiger- ] ‘claw’. Surviving examples are usually of metal, the legs formed by bending a triangular piece of metal along the perpendicular line. The style is not only rare in Europe before 1440 (I’ve yet to see an example made before that date), but it is relatively rare in Asia.

Tang dynasty

The oldest known examples occur in Shang China ( 1600 BC – 1046 BC) after which the style evidently fell into disuse, then to be revived during the time of the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD) – regarded as a ‘golden age’ of Chinese culture.

Tang rulers were unusually welcoming to foreigners and very open to new ideas. Under the Tang, the foreigner’s port of Guangzhou was established in the south, and in the north, the capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) accepted Buddhists, Nestorian Christians, and Manichaeans among others.

There is record of a Byzantine embassy coming to Emperor Taizong in 643 AD, and by 878-879AD the foreigner’s port-city, Guangzhou, is said to have contained no fewer than 120,00 occupants, these classed as Muslim Arabs, Muslim Persians, Zoroastrian Persians, Christians (Syrian and Nestorian Christians are most likely), and Jews.

It was thus – ultimately – to the power and influence of the Tang rulers that European towns like Corbie owed its access to south-east Asian ‘spices’ in the ninth century, such spices coming chiefly by sea and via Alexandria or Damascus in the pre-Mongol period.

We know the approximate number and demographics of Guangzhou’s population in 878-9 because in that year the city’s population was massacred, the number of dead and their ‘nations’ reported in a single Arab source. The port was closed for the following half-century.

Late in the thirteenth century, the city was evidently thriving again, for one Italian merchant established in China – Peter of Lucolongo – assisted the first Franciscan ‘ambassador’ to China, the Sicilian John of Montecorvino – a fomer secular advisor to Frederick II who was sent to China at the same time that the Genoese mariners went to assist the il-Khan in Baghdad and Mosul. By that time the Mongols ruled China.

(top) detail from folio ; (centre) Shang dynasty burner; (bottom register) 17thC revival.

It is clear from the Voynich drawings that the copyists are confused by the ‘knife-blade’ form and that they worked from a less than perfect model. In some drawings, one leg is rightly represented, as with the left- and right-hand legs here (top register -and see examples underlined in yellow, above) – but others seem confused. I’d suggest that the copyists may have been working from a less-than-perfect printed exemplar and that the confusion pre-dates our fifteenth-century copy.

After again falling from use in the tenth century, the ‘knife-blade’ leg would not be fashionable again until the seventeenth century. (right – bottom register).

The Met. site has a short essay on the Tang dynasty and era, in which one paragraph reads:

Trade routes, such as the network now known as the Silk Road, provided a thoroughfare for goods and ideas between China, Central Asia, India, and Persia. A web of maritime routes connected Chinese seaports (like Guangzhou in the south)  to India, the Persian Gulf, and from there to the east coast of Africa. The direct exchange of goods, such as textiles, metalware, and ceramics, inspired Tang craftsmen. …international trade whetted a taste for striking and sumptuous fashions among the Tang elite. Leopard-skin hats and close-fitting sleeves, imitating the clothing of Central Asians and Persians to the west, were popular in the mid-eighth century.

Kotanese nephrite jade as lamp or inkstone. Note the ‘leopard-skin hat’ – which includes the animal’s paws.

The same era saw the introduction from inner Asia of the three-coloured glaze, called ‘Sancai’. It was always considered a ‘foreign’ style and details often direct attention westward towards the region of Greco-Indian culture about Gandhara and Ai Khanoum. This region was a major crossroads in the ‘silk-and-spice’ routes and had been traversed by at least a couple of Europeans before 1440 among the tens of thousands of non-Europeans who traded and travelled them.

I include the following dish from that region, made before the tenth century it shows Delphic Apollo. I include it mainly to illustrate the ‘leafy’ form taken by the acanthus-motif in that environment.

schist. Greco-Hellenistic style in Gandhara – Parthian period.

A piece of Tang-era sankai ware models a foreigner’s Bactrian camel and saddlebags. The bags show a typically Greco-Indian motif of Dionysos, but here haloed and being supported by an Indian woman who wears the characteristic torque and anklet. Greco-Indian culture is usually said to have given way to the Bactrian by the 3rdC AD, but such relics allow us to suppose the cultural influence survived much longer.

A little later, female figures wearing such torque and anklet – though without any haloed Dionysos – would appear in illustrations made for copies of the Book of the Fixed Stars, composed by al-Sufi, a native of Rey in Iran (903 AD – 986 AD).

Regular readers may also recognise the sense of this image from another piece of Tang-era sankai ware.

Here, in Dionysian style, the ‘Persian Death’ rides a tiger, not the Arabs’ horse.

In summary:

Artefacts in the ‘leaf and root’ section, though not obviously drawn in Chinese style, incorporate typically Asian forms and – so far – details indicate the Tang dynasty period as most likely for first enunciation of the red-coloured cylindrical containers and their bases as represented in this section.

In Guangzhou, the point furthest east where the overland and maritime ‘silk and spice’ routes met, there was a large multicultural community of foreign traders – not including Europeans – resident before 878-879 AD and again from some period after 930 AD. Western Europeans are noted resident, mostly as traders, in Guangzhou as in Baghdad and India from the last decades of the thirteenth century, and most (perhaps all) being from Italy (Bologna, Venice and Genoa) or from Sicily.

‘Pharma’ – the routes

two prior:

AT PRESENT we’re considering the range over which information might have been gathered and brought to western Europe before 1400-1440, so to inform the pictorial text in Beinecke MS 408.

The reason for doing this is partly that the range and style of artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section (which Newbold imagined dealt with pharmaceuticals) find no comparison in Europe before our present manuscript was made, and partly that Georg Baresch who had the manuscript for about thirty years and who tried repeatedly to get better information about it, thought that the Voynich plants were not native to Europe, and that a person had gathered ‘from eastern parts’ the information now informing the text.

The previous post looked at the six-hundred year long connection between Europe and the territories once part of the Sasanian Persian empire, though which the overland ‘silk and spice’ routes passed.

This post considers the sea- and land routes whose use is attested during the relevant period by the travels of two men, each of whom began their voyages in the western Mediterranean, travelled east, and returned before the mid-1350s.

The first left Venice in 1271, returning in 1295. The other left from Tangier, Morocco in 1325, his final return occurring in 1354, after which he settled in Grenada for a time where his travels were narrated. The name of the first was Marco Polo; of the second, Ibn Battuta.

What we know of Marco Polo’s journey is owed to what might be called ‘the popular press’, a writer having heard of Polo who was then in prison. Polo’s story was constructed by that writer from what Polo told him from the prison cell. Ibn Battuta was received home with honour and his account of his travels recorded by his students for – unlike Latin Europe – the Islamic world had an active tradition of first-hand geographic writing and its study of geography did not await reception of a copy of Claudius’ Ptolemy’s thousand year old text.

Maximus Planudes (1260 – c. 1305 AD). Some scholars associate Planudes with Codex Vatopedinus 65 (early 14thC)

(However, for an overview of Ptolemy’s Geographia in Renaissance Europe, I warmly recommend Thony Christie’s recent post).

Routes indicated by the narrative of Maro Polo’s journeys. For an interactive version, see the website

As you see, the routes agree pretty well, so we may rely upon it that these are the likely routes along which such information might have been gathered by any trader-traveller before 1400, regardless of his birthplace, native language or religion.

So – in theory at least, the drawings of plants and artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section might represent products from anywhere along those much-travelled routes, whether overland or by sea. If the possibilities are many, they are also daunting.

In those days, almost any traveller was perforce a trader, for there was no other way to support the costs of travel except by trading as one went. Some few might be sponsored by kings. Others might find that on reaching a given region the local ruler was willing to provide the necessities of life. But the majority had to trade in order to travel and the hardships and perils of travel meant that most travelled for no other reason. All found that while death might with good luck be avoided, taxes could not.

There have been a few earlier suggestions, by Voynich writers, that the manuscript evinces an ‘eastern’ character in some sense.

While the majority have maintained various versions of Wilfrid Voynich’s basic ‘all-European’ theory, in 2002 Jorge Stolfi concluded from his computer-analysis of the written text that ‘Voynichese’ might be an Asian language and suggested Jurchen as one possibility. His investigation began after a mock-theory had been presented by Jacques Guy, but Guy himself later went into print to make clear that while he had been joking about his ‘Chinese theory’, Stolfi’s method and results should not be regarded other than seriously and saying, further, that he had found no fault with either.

I do not recommend the ‘Voynich wiki’ article on this subject. Its anonymous author has improperly taken, without mention of the source, original contributions to the study made by P.Han, by the present author and doubtless by others,  all represented as if they were original work of that wiki writer. It is not honestly done.

Some years later, two botanists named Wiart and Mazars offered a couple of botanical identifications which named plants from the eastern world. Among the botanical identifications initially offered by Edith Sherwood were some whose form was unknown to formal western botany until after 1450, but well-known along those several of the eastern routes, the luffa and ‘banana'[f.13r] among them. Plants having similar appearance and fruit – thus of the same general ‘banana’ type – exist in a wide variety and are found from Africa to the Himalayas and South-east Asia. (italicised phrase added 27/08/2021)

For some years, those botanical identifications were little regarded and the very short contribution by Wiart and Mazars might have been ignored into oblivion had not Nick Pelling, despite his own clearly sceptical reaction, not noted and commented on their views in 2010, writing:

Guy Mazars and Christophe Wiart in Actualites en Phytotherapie … propose that many of the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious plants may in fact be East Asian plants (for example, that f6v depicts Ricinus communis) or Indian plants (they think that many of the plants shown are types of Asteraceae, with f27r representing Centella Asiatica).

  • Nick Pelling, ‘Chinese Voynich Theories…’ ciphermysteries, 14th May, 2010.
Yale, Beinecke MS 408 fol.13r

I too identified the subject of the drawing on folio 13r as representing plants of the ‘banana’ type, publishing a detailed analysis of the drawing itself and notes on historical context, pointing out that the fairly literal representation, in this case, showed personal knowledge of such plants and thus stood in opposition to the fact that the physical appearance of these ‘banana’ plants had remained unknown to European botany until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The inference then seemed fairly obvious, viz, that the plant-pictures could not be derived from any western botanical or herbal text, a conclusion which agrees in general terms with what John Tiltman had concluded after witnessing the failures of the Friedman groups’ over thirty years. He said, in 1968:

to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed. (p.11)

  • John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World” (1968) NSA DOCID: 631091, released under Freedom of Information Act, Case #19159, 23-Apr-2002.

 I included in my definition of the ‘banana group’ species so grouped by peoples in lands where the plants grow. Of these, some were and others were not later classed by Linnaeus as Musaceae. But Linneus was not the first person to observe and describe plants in ‘groupings’ and botanical observation and classification did not begin in Europe.

The sort of response which my historical commentary met then, and later,  is nicely illustrated by a very late comment (2018) made after I had closed off the research from the public.  The following was made by a pen-named contributor to one Voynich forum, and reads in part: 
[O’Donovan] .. was not the first to correlate (sic!)  banana and f13r, and credits Edith Sherwood with coming up with the banana ID. … while Sherwood (and many others) see 13r as a banana, [O’Donovan’s] idea(sic!) is that this folio depicts the whole Musa “group”, however anachronistic that may seem (obviously the notion of a Musaceae family is a Linnean one, so I really don’t know what kind of “group” she thinks this depicts).
That writer (known as ‘Vviews’) overlooked the critical point –  that such detailed knowledge of the plants’ appearance had remained unknown to western botanical and herbal texts until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The curious assumption that the fact ‘many others’ later accepted the opinion reached independently by Sherwood, and by the present author, constitutes some form of criticism of those authors is more difficult to explain.  Sherwood had been the first since 1912 to offer the identification. 
glass. recovered Begram. Alexandrian influence 1stC BC-1stC AD.

Baresch also said the content represented ‘Egyptian’ knowledge. About seventeenth-century Europeans’ notions of how far ‘Egyptian’ learning and culture had anciently spread, I’ll speak some other time. For now I’ll mention only that between Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli mines and Egypt, connection is attested from about 3,000 years before the Roman era, initially via Mesopotamia, but directly from well before the time of Roman ascendancy in the Mediterranean. We see evidence of this, in the 1stC AD, in the mixed Hellenistic, Egyptian and Roman cultural influence evinced by artefacts recovered from Begram. One example is shown (right).

The routes taken separately by Marco Polo and by Ibn Battuta co-incide in that same region, one that may seem distant and inaccessible from a European point of view but which was quite literally a centre of the world. In medieval times it was a crossroads of the ‘silk and spice’ routes, and a centre for the ancient trade in medicinal plants from the Himalayas east, west and to as far south as southern India.

The four main medical-pharmaceutical traditions of the older world were (in chronological order) the Egyptian, India’s Ayurveda, the Chinese and the Hellenistic. Trade in scented plants for incense, perfumes and items made of scented woods was also well developed by medieval times and those raw materials were traded across both the overland and the maritime routes when Polo and Ibn Battuta were there.

From here – the eastern side of what had been the old Achaemenid Persian empire, and later the limit of Alexander’s conquests, Buddhism was disseminated, and the oldest extant printed book has been recovered – the copy of a Buddhist text dated to the ninth century AD. From here, too, the region’s astronomical tradition – maintained quite possibly in an unbroken line from the period of Hellenistic-Indian interaction – was taken westward as refugees fled under the pressure of the Mongol invasion, their knowledge eventually informing the work done in Tabriz. Syria and Egypt regained, at that same time and evidently from the same cause, the previously ‘lost’ art of enamelling and gilding glass.

Considered in its historical context, the thirteenth-century Syrian glass is a poignant testimony to the fate of Nishapur in 1221 AD. Among the tens of thousands slaughtered was a poet named Attar and I believe the ornament on this glass is intended as a testimony to the city, its images a reference to Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’, the author having been among the thousands massacred when his city of Nishapur was depopulated and systematically destroyed, as so many others in the region were by the Mongols. Attar’s poem, however, survived and is still in print and much loved. It is a superb moral and spiritual allegory. In the view (right) the Simurgh and Hoopoe are both visible.

Between the time when Marco Polo had set off for the east in 1271 and when Ibn Battuta did so in 1325, major changes had occurred in the Mediterranean.

In 1290, the Mamluks of Egypt finally removed the last of the foreign-occupied centres in the Holy Land. Thus, while Marco Polo had been able to enter through Acco (Acre) and then use the Mesopotamian corridor to reach the sea in 1271, but on his return in 1295 that way was barred to European Christians and he had to go north and reach the Mediterranean by way of the Black Sea.

In the meantime, and as I first described when explaining the drawing on folio 5v, a large group of Genoese shipwrights and mercenaries had left for Mesopotamia in 1290, responding to an embassy sent two years earlier to the west by the Mongol il-Khan Arghun, who was planning a war against the Mamluks of Egypt.

Seven hundred of those Genoese went directly to Baghdad, but two hundred stopped at Mosul (ancient Nineveh), where they spent the winter building two sea-going ships. Mosul has no natural supply of ship-building timber but its reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world, and a hull painted with bitumen deterred attacks from the teredo or ‘shipworm’ which was the scourge of shipping in the eastern seas. Mosul was also a major supplier of astronomical instruments through the earlier medieval centuries and here too a version of the Dioscoridan herbal was made in which several elements find their counterpart in plant-pictures from the Voynich manuscript. That herbal was sent to Mashhad.

In posts to voynichimagery, I spoke in greater detail of the matters touched on in the paragraph above.  About the Genoese in Mesopotamia, I spoke initially when explaining the drawing on folio 5v. (Marancini’s ‘bitumen’ essay was published a few years later).  I’ll here add part of a footnote from a late post to voynichimagery  (October 21st., 2016).      ‘Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…’ Using pitch, tar/bitumen to waterproof a hull is as old as the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in Jewish law: Noah is told “Make for yourself an ark ..  make compartments in the ark and cover it with tar [=pitch] inside and outside”.  Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and  from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians would have known the deposits of Mosul (ancient Nineveh).  Herodotus (Bk.1, 179) describes a fountain of pitch in Babylon in lower Mesopotamia and, later, Eratosthenes (as reported by Plutarch Alexander, 35) did the same.   It occurs  in Mosul in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur. On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19.

Using their existing leverage with Constantinople and now with Baghdad, the Genoese were soon (from 1291) able to gain trading privileges amounting at first to near-monopoly in the Black Sea and similar rights of access to the eastern goods which were now being re-routed, from the older direct way via Damascus to that northern route, the same route which linked to the Persian gulf and which Marco Polo had been obliged to follow when returning west. The same route would been taken to Tabriz by ibn Battura in c.1326. All the gems and spices, all the practical and medicinal products, as well as materials used for pigments and dyes, now came west through that route or – with various limits and prohibitions and less reliably – via Cairo, Armenia and Tunis.

In sum:

Having shown that it is theoretically possible for ‘eastern parts’ to have contributed matter later copied to make Beinecke MS 408, the next post will consider details in the drawings from the ‘leaf and root’ section, to see if any offer evidence of such origins.

For anyone to have troubled to copy and to carry to Europe, and there to have copyied again with care any such information would imply (a) that the graphic conventions need not be those of western Europe or indeed of the Mediterranean, and (b) that the persons concerned in such a transmission are unlikely to have been members of those higher social groups who have traditionally peopled Europe’s ‘intellectual history’. More likely by far is that such persons would be practical otherwise unknown individuals, ones motivated chiefly by profit over any literary value though perhaps believing, as most medieval people did, that the oldest sources were the purest. Apart from western missionaries, those who moved between the eastern and western limits of the known world before 1440 were almost all traveller-traders, even if (like the Bolognese doctor mentioned in one letter attributed to the Sicilian missionary John de Montecorvino), their ‘trade’ was medicine.