Additional information, corrections and updates made after publication-date are posted as ‘Comments’ below the post. Header – detail from Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 2020 f.20v.
Trying to link the Voynich plant drawings to Europe’s medieval herbal-medical-pharmaceutical gardens and related texts pre 1440AD means an effort – conscious or not – to link them to the works of Dioscorides of Anazarbos – a Greek from Asia minor who lived during the 1stC AD.
Before 1440, other eastern sources were certainly known in western Europe and an illustration from a translation of one is shown in our header, but overall it was as Sprengel would later write:
During more than sixteen centuries, [Dioscorides] was looked up to as the sole authority, so that everything botanical began with him. Everyone who undertook the study of botany or the identification of medicines swore by his words. Even as late as the beginning of the seventeenth century both the academic and the private study of botany may almost be said to have begun and ended with the text of Dioscorides.
Kurt Polycarp Joachim Sprengel. Historia rei herbariae, 2 vols, Sumtibus Tabernae Librariae et Artium, Amsteldami (1807-1808). pp149-151.
Dr. T.A. Sprague appears to have realised at first glance, and John Tiltman would come to realise after another decade’s effort that as a group* the Voynich plant-drawings cannot be located within the Dioscoridan illustrative tradition.
*those analysing the written text speak of ‘Herbal A’ and ‘Herbal B’ but for those working on the drawings there has been no significant difference in levels of difficulty between the two.
Dioscorides’ great work has the Latin title DeMateria medica, and Sprengel’s view, expressed in the 19thC, remains standard today as, for example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica article:
Although the work may be considered little more than a drug collector’s manual by modern standards, the original Greek manuscript, which was copied in at least seven other languages, describes most drugs used in medical practice until modern times and served as the primary text of pharmacology until the end of the 15th century.
In other words, any researcher since 1912 who presumed the Voynich manuscript wholly a product of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe and supposed the content about medicine, pharmacy and/or botany had a very narrow compass and that flaw was constantly overlooked by a habit of taking ‘European’ and ‘Latin’ as a tacit default – as if what was true there must have been true everywhere. Many modern writers still do the same. Within such an artificially narrow definition of the medieval world, and fixed on Wilfrid’s storyline or some variation of it, Voynich researchers constantly attempted to read the Voynich plant-pictures as Disocoridan ‘specimen portraits’.
Yet even before knowing of the letter that Georg Baresch wrote to Athanasius Kircher in 1639, saying the Voynich drawings referred to exotics (‘herbae peregrinae”), Robert Steele had been uneasy about those assumptions.
1928 – Robert Steele,
An editor of Roger Bacon’s works, Steele sensed a problem even though, being a man of his time, he too treats the qualifier ‘European’ as a natural default, writing:
The usual methods of dating a manuscript fail us…Only the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased. It is strange that the draftsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influence‘.
It is not true that the drawings have a ‘complete absence of style’; it is quite true that a majority do not reflect Latin Europe’s traditions in style. If one makes overt that habit of assuming the European a norm, and write as one would for a global audience today, then Steele’s observation is expressed as:
“… absence of European style.. completely escaped all influence from Latin Europe’s medieval or Renaissance‘.
Whether I agree can wait a while.
John Tiltman’s talk in 1967:
Having worked, by then, for fifteen years with the Friedmans as they attempted to read Voynichese, John Tilman said in 1967 while addressing a group of Baltimore Bibliophiles – and after first describing reference to early printed herbals as ‘a digression’:
“we have a right to expect … the greater part of that text is related to plants… [yet] to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of 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.”
John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript: the Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World’. [released by the NSA under Freedom of Information request, 23rd April 2002. pdf is online,]
But there again, we must insert the omitted terms if the statement is to be true:
… in Latin Europe the range of 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.
and that is true.
Ten years before delivering that talk, Tiltman had approached Dr. T.A. Sprague, Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew Gardens for help in identifying the plants in the Voynich manuscript. He was plainly stunned by Sprague’s vehemence in refusing to have anything to do with “these awful drawings”.
No doubt disappointing for Tiltman in 1957, but enlightening in the longer term, for him and for us, even if Tiltman still evidently expected all the content to be European in origin.
Until next time, readers might care to write this on a mirror or ‘fridge..
Is it true that Ramon Llull was acquainted with Kabbalah? How long has the idea been around? Who first suggested it? Was there, then – or is there now – any evidence to justify the idea/assertion?
Is it true that Llull’s ‘combinatorial’ system was devised, or used by Lull, as a method for encryption? Who first suggested that use for it? Was there then, or is there now, any evidence to justify the idea?
Who first associated Ramon Llull with the Voynich manuscript? What reason did they give? Was there then, or is there now, any evidence dating from between c. 1260 (Lull’s maturity) and 1348 1438 which might lend support to that notion?
The short answer to all three ‘Is there any evidence..?’ questions is a simple “No”.
There is no evidence to support, and much to deny even the possibility that Ramon Lull was familiar with Kabbalah, or that his combinatorial system was ever devised from an idea that it might be used to encipher or encrypt text. There is no evidence that anything in Lull’s work influenced Alberti, his wheel, or the Voynich manuscript.
So before any revived “Llull-Voynich” notion transmutes into another faith-dependent ‘doctrine’, here’s the lineage for the three-link, circular, ‘Llull-Alberti-Voynichese’ storyline.
To break it down:
Lull and … Kabbalism.
This speculation arose first in connection with a specific and unusual Kabbalist, the messianic Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia. But after almost five hundred years’ intermittent scholarly investigation, that imagined link has been found an idea without merit and rejected by a consensus very neatly summarised by Jan R. Veenstra’s note within his review of a book published in 2004 and whose author was attempting to justify the old idea. Veensta’s footnote reads:
The issue has been touched upon by a few scholars and was first raised in the fifteenth century by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who, in one of his Conclusiones , suggested that Llull’s combinatory art resembles Abulafia’s ecstatic Kabbalah.
The systems, however, are too distinct to argue for any kind of substantial influence and any research focusing on a text-immanent reading of Llull and his possible sources will be bound to conclude that Kabbalah plays no significant role in his works ….. Explicit references to Kabbalah seem to be absent; parallels between Lullian and Kabbalistic concepts are often too vague or incomplete to warrant an undeniable influence.”
Jan R. Veenstra, [Review of] Harvey J. Hames, ‘The Art of Conversion: Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century’. Vivarum, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2004), pp. 262-266.
David Abulafia’s review of Hames’ Like Angels on Jacob’s Ladder: Abraham Abulafia, the Franciscans, and Joachimism (2007), review published in Speculum, Vol. 87, No. 2 (April, 2012), pp. 561-562.
So the judgement of half a millennium’s investigation of Lull’s works and of Kabbalism rejects Pico della Mirandola’s impression of common character between Abulafia’s Kabbalism and Llull’s approach to preaching Christianity to Muslims.
To the first set of questions, therefore, the answers are:
The first person to ever suggest connection between Lull and Kabbalah was Pico della Mirandola, in a non-specific simile proffered without evidence and for which no support has been found to this day.
2. Lull … and cipher. (specifically, polyalphabetic substitution ciphers).
In 1980, David Kahn claimed responsibility for this one. Wanting to provide a different explanation for how Alberti came to invent his cipher-wheel, and while disputing an earlier posited explanation, Kahn wrote:
Alberti himself never said where he got the idea for his epoch-making invention. … the significant feature of [Alberti’s] cipher disk [is] the juxtaposition of two [alphabetic] sequences…. I propose [as its source] the mechanism devised by the medieval Catalan mystic Ramon Lull (c. 1232-1315) to combine letters, which stand for philosophical concepts, in groups of three. Although it cannot be proved that Lull’s device inspired Alberti, there are grounds for suspecting that it did.
David Kahn, ‘On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution’, Isis , Mar., 1980, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 122-127.
Note – 9th Jan. 2022 – I apologise for not having earlier noticed that Kahn’s name had been ‘autocorrected’ to Khan.
I’m not sure how grounds for supposing so can be judged if they don’t admit of proof, but here I want to make the point that each of the three links in that Lull-Kabbalah-cipher chain has been introduced by persons interested in cryptography, and not by persons adducing such a connection from their close study of Lull’s life and works nor (on the other side of the coin) of medieval Kabbalism. It’s a cipher-guy (or gal) thing.
If Kahn ever suggested that the Voynich text is the product of an Alberti-style polyalphabetic cipher, I’ve not seen the article, so if you know of his ever making such an argument, please leave a comment and reference below and I’ll add a note of correction here.
Readers uninterested in cryptography and unlikely to buy Kahn’s books, will find a Voynich-context discussion of polyalphabetic substitution ciphers in a post by Nick Pelling (2016) and if the reader is disinclined to follow the following link and read the post, with or without its 891 comments (yes, that is eight hundred and ninety-one), I’ll quote you just a couple of paragraphs from it.
Since the Voynich Manuscript surfaced in about 1912, many of the best-known codebreaking experts have studied its writing (‘Voynichese’) in depth. Of them, many have concluded that it was written using a cipher system that was (a) stronger than a simple (monoalphabetic) substitution cipher, yet (b) mathematically weaker than a polyalphabetic cipher.
If the University of Arizona’s 2009 radiocarbon dating of the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum (which points to the first half of the fifteenth century) is correct, the most likely reason for (b) becomes blindingly obvious: polyalphabetic ciphers (such as those of Leon Battista Alberti, Abbot Trithemius, and Vigenère) hadn’t yet been invented.
To which I’d add “… in Latin Europe, so far as we know.”
The history of cryptography is still a little old-fashioned; a bit ‘Europe-and-its-important-men’. On the other hand, statistical analyses are indifferent to nationality and vested interest in any theory, so it looks as if the chief contrary argument isn’t whether Alberti was old enough to have made Voynichese as a polyalphabetic cipher, but that the statistics don’t support the idea of the text – if it is enciphered – as either or both a product of Latin Europe and of Alberti’s system.
Simple alphabetic substitution ciphers had been known for not less than five centuries by the thirteenth century when Roger Bacon described that system. For Roger Bacon’s text and (again) John Block Friedman’s important article, it’s easiest to just start from this post:
With regard to documentation in Voynich studies, and the ludicrous obedience of Voynicheros to ‘rule by meme’ asserting that to refer to precedents and sources is ‘unnecessary’, here is a perfect example of why documentation defines ideas as legitimate or otherwise. Pesic’s perfectly enunciated lineage for the “Lull and ciphers” storyline is how I came to know of David Kahn’s paper, too.
In the remoter background also lies Ramon Llull’s ‘Ars inventiva veritatis’, his “art of finding truth” through the symbolic use of letters to stand for philosophical concepts. Leibniz was interested in Llull, whom David Kahn has proposed as the source for the idea of polyalphabetic substitution, especially in the form of Alberti’s cipher disks. See David Kahn, “On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution,” Isis, 1980, 71:122-127; rpt. in Kahn on Codes (New York: Macmillan, 1983), pp. 56-61. For Leibniz’s reading of Llull see Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 379-389; and Allison P. Coudert, Leibniz and the Kabbalah (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995), pp. 148-149, 153-154. Beyond Llull lies the kabbalistic Sefer Yezirah, the Book of Creation, which for Vigenère gave an account of the divine cipher immanent in the creation and which he thought also was the source of polyalphabetics. On the Sefer Yezirah (ca. third-sixth centuries) see Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Scholem, 1969),pp. 166-169.
Peter Pesic, ‘Secrets, Symbols, and Systems. Parallels between Cryptanalysis and Algebra, 1580-1700’, Isis, Vol. 88, No. 4 (December, 1997), pp. 674-692. **highly recommended.
You see the point? Vigenère thought that a Kabbalistic text, Sefer Yezirah, was the source of polyalphabetics. David Kahn thought, on the contrary, that Alberti had the idea for his polyalphabetic cipher wheel from Ramon Llull.
But cryptologists often show an excessive preoccupation with the requirements of their craft – that a text be composed as ‘plaintext’ and transmitted encrypted in a form to which the intended recipient has not only the key but the same standards with regard to spelling, grammar, and a single target language.
Yet in the real world, as anyone may know who has lived in an international student house abroad, or in a multicultural and multilingual community at home – mixed terms and even mixed forms of writing are the norm, not the exception. We learn new terms from the mouth of someone who uses his/her own language to express them and, more or less often, others simply adopt that term rather than hunting to find their own. As the joke has it, the English speaker asks ‘What is the French for je ne sais quoi?’ Or: ‘… the Italian for chiaroscuro?’ Where does Yiddish fit, or any other among the dozens of ‘combinatorial’ languages.. Among them one might include English if it hadn’t been elevated to the status of a true language rather than a heterogeneous patois, part Latin, part Greek, part Gaelic, part.. well, you get the idea. The classic etymologies tell only half the story.
And so now, at last, we consider the addition of the Voynich manuscript to that lineage of passing impressions, false assumptions, tenuous and even plainly disproven connections, the basic compounding of speculation, ignorance and error.
After Voynichese was stirred into the mix, the result just sat simmering for half a century. Not even tested. Just left to sit there.
Llull … and Voynichese
It is likely that to re-present d’Imperio’s mentions of Lull other than entire will lead some to suspect it may be over- or under-emphasised so here they are, in full. I apologise for the horrible quality of the print. Perhaps one day we’ll see the text re-typed and put it up as a digital text.
d’Imperio’s Index in Elegant Enigma spells Llull’s name ‘Lull’. (If you don’t have a touch-screen, you can open the image below in a new tab).
Note: Llull was never a Franciscan nor, according to the latest update of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, a Dominican.
For the other side of the coin – to show just how badly mangled information can become when ideas are presented without any lineage in the form of precedents and cited sources, here’s a writer who plainly never read Pesic’s paper, or many of the sources Pesic included in his note.
Sieburth is here discussing a poem written by Quirinus Kuhlmann, born in 1651 in Breslau (Silesia) and executed for heresy in 1689, in Moscow.
Kuhlmann’s sonnet is accordingly entirely made up of monosyllabic Stammwdrter (stem-words) ? nouns, adjectives, interjections all treated here like those primal Chinese ideograms that Leibniz thought could be manipulated into the perfect conceptual components of the combinatory machinery of symbolic logic ? an idea that reached back toward the ecstatic thirteenth-century Christian Kabbalah of the Catalan Ramon Llull.
Quirinus Kuhlmann and Richard Sieburth, ‘Love-Kiss XLI’, Poetry, Vol. 194, No. 1, (April 2009) pp. 13-16.
Another paper I’d recommend to anyone interested in how this curious idea arose that Ramon Llull had anything to do with Beinecke MS 408, is:
Janet Zweig, ‘Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer’, Art Journal, Vol. 56 (1977): Digital Reflections: The Dialogue of Art and Technology, No. 3, pp. 20-29. Recommended.
My recommending Zweig’s paper comes with a caution. Readers should take as it’s pivotal sentence,” Contemporary with Abulafia, and not far away, Ramon Llull was born ...” and so be able to appreciate the way Zweig separates a discussion of Abulafia’s Kabbalism from discussion of Ramon Lull’s Christian thought.
To end, a pictorial cipher from an image included in Pesic’s paper, This cipher is said to be in a volume held by the Beinecke Library, but I found no mention of it today, and as you’ll see, no shelf-number was provided. I hope that, under the circumstances, the library will forgive my reproducing it.
Could any reader who visits the ninja.forum be kind enough to refer them to Ellie Velinska for her study and data about how many figures in the ‘ladies’ folios are made to resemble men, and how many, women. She did that work several years ago; I don’t think it needs to be re-done as if for the first time.
Similarly, the whole discussion, a present, of the ‘ladies’ having been given one breast each, and then at some unknown time a second breast, is another instance of the ‘groundhog day’ fog which results from denying ideas their proper lineage by refusing to cite precedents and contemporary studies, even ones whose conclusions a given Voynich theorist may not like.
There are a few old-timers at the forum and they will know this perfectly well the true origin of those ideas and who should be credited with having contributed them to Voynich studies. It matters not at all whether the matter is still ‘in print’ – if you know, you know. If you pretend not to know, you are lying by omission,
Pelling’s observation about the originally one-breasted figures (he calls them nymphs) was part of his interview in 2009 and was referenced again – for example – in a ciphermysteries post dated June 29th., 2015.
I won’t pretend that Pelling and I have often agreed when it comes to iconological analysis of the images in Beinecke MS 408, but his confidence in his own powers of observation is not wholly unjustified and in this case certainly his observation is an original and valuable contribution to the study.
I do, absolutely, accept his observation that the ‘ladies’ had originally a single breast. Where Pelling and I differ is in the inference drawn from that fact. About others of his comments in the same blogpost I’ll not comment here.
I HAD MEANT to revisit artefacts as represented in drawings from the ‘leaf-and-root’ section, but this is a convenient place to add another horizon-broadening topic/possibility/avenue for enquiry – the matter of commerce.
I think it significant that, though so much of the manuscript is about plants, there’s no obvious interest in the animal and/or mineral products so important for Europe’s medicines and its late-Renaissance alchemy.
Elsewhere, and especially in ‘eastern parts’ (to quote Baresch), we do find a greater reliance on purely plant-based products, including medicines and even in old Cairo – once a major hub of the east-west trade – a list of the top ten medicinal substances used by the Jewish population is plant-based, and are among goods recorded used in western Europe. A list of the ten is included (as Table 1) in a valuable paper:
Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev, ‘The Significance of the Genizah’s Medical Documents for the Study of Medieval Mediterranean Trade’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2007), pp. 524-541.
NOTE – for any long-term researchers who remember my plant-identifications, I should add that I had not read Lev’s article before explaining one drawing as representing the ‘myrobalans’ group, or accepting Dana Scott’s identification of the rose in another folio. Scott did not publish his work independently online, and his contributions are now available at their source only to members of Rich Santacoloma’s mailing list. I have Rich’s word that he intends to do as Jim Reeds did before him and offer the past conversations as a searchable database – when time and other pressures might permit him.
In recent years much scholarly attention has been turned to the role of trade and commerce in widening medieval Europe’s horizons. In 2014 this growing interest prompted the University of Illinois to launch a new journal, The Medieval Globe, to “bring into view phenomena that have been rendered practically or conceptually invisible by anachronistic boundaries, categories, and expectations”.
As another writer puts it,
In the years since 2001, there has been a flood of studies seeking to combat .. parochialism and highlight the cultural fluidity and porous boundaries that existed between the various ethnic and religious sects that populated the medieval Mediterranean. [Scholars] have convincingly shown the Mediterranean as a fragmented terrain imbued with strands of cultural hybridity.
Bruce P. Flood, Jr., ‘Sources and Problems in the History of Drug Commerce in Late Medieval Europe, Pharmacy in History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1975), pp. 101-105.
Other paragraphs from that paper could almost serve as a blueprint for revisiting Newbold’s ‘pharma’ theory. Flood writes,
One important source for information on drug commerce in the late Middle Ages are the drug inventories and price lists (usually compiled for the purposes of taxation and the settling of estates) of several of the Italian and German cities. Examination of some of the information which these documents yield raises a number of questions for future research in the history of drug commerce, as well as indicating some of the problems encountered in dealing with these sources…
One major problem encountered immediately is that since most of the imported items also had other uses, such as spices for culinary purposes, various gums, oils and resinous substances for religious and cosmetic needs, it is impossible to separate drugs as such from the spice and luxury trade. Most of the spices came from Asia and India by sea or overland caravan routes from the Near East. Most gums and resinous products came from the coasts of East Africa, and there was also some trade from North Africa and Spain.
The coastal route of East Africa was that sailed in the fourteenth century by Ibn Battuta – as passenger – and regularly in the fifteenth century by Ibn Majid as master pilot. It is seen on a map in the previous post.
Leather-tanning is among the less-often considered uses for plants. A useful reference is here.
For the ‘leaf-and-root’ section, one question which might reward investigation is that of illustrated commercial lists – inventories, invoices, bills of lading (what Florentines called libri di mandate), taxation records and catalogues of various types.
Among these, within Europe, its herbals represented a catalogue of (usually) local plants, and the common Dioscordian-style herbals were sometimes on display as a medicine-maker’s ‘catalogue’ – the Anicia Juliana codex was probably used in that way for a time, if it is the volume reported as on display in the ‘Moor’s Head’ in Venice.
Correction (Sept.5th., 2021). There was an apothecary shop in Venice known as the ‘Moor’s Head’, but according the Thorndike, the incident was described as follows
“There, in the street of the spice-dealers, in a shop having as its sign the head of an Ethiopian, he had consulted an herbal in which the plants were represented so carefully and artfully that you would have thought they grew on its pages.”
Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic & Experimental Science, Vol.IV (p.599)about Pandolphus Collenucius of Pesaro’s time in Venice.
But so few of the Voynich images come from that western herbal tradition, as a century of failed efforts to ‘match’ them has proven – and notwithstanding the valiant effort made in the essay included in the Yale facsimile edition, which presents as a history of western herbals, adorned with clips from the Voynich manuscript – that the last word remains that pronounced by John Tiltman in 1968.
I’ve included two detailed analytical discussions of such ‘matches’. One treats O’Neill’s “sunflower” (see page in top bar) and the other treats a supposed ‘oak-and-ivy’ identification – see post ‘Retrospective justifications‘.
Proof that some commercial documents did include illustrations is offered by the example shown below. It is an invoice from the Datini archive (fondo Datini), whose documents cover the years 1363 to 1410 AD.
For linguists and cryptographers, the ‘merchants handbook’ genre may prove helpful, as texts of that kind include non-standard vocabularies, technical terms for commercial practices, local and foreign terms for weights and measures (as pronounced and written at the time), and place-names that have been since forgotten or replaced, or which are now rather differently spelled.
As Stanley says when speaking of Pegolotti’s ‘Guide for merchants’,
[The section] entitled Dichiarigioni … translates a host of commercial and nautical terms from Pegolotti’s native Tuscan Italian into twenty-two dialects spoken throughout the Mediterranean. Here, the reader becomes familiar with phraseologies in Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Cuman, even Trapezuntine – the local vernacular of Trebizond. The striking similarities found in Pegolotti’s translations (doana, for instance, denotes “tariff ” in the Arabic, Sicilian, Neapolitan, and Pugliese dialects) immediately conjure up the lingua franca, the amalgamation of Arabic and Romance vernaculars that served as a “language of convenience” in the pre-modern Mediterranean. According to Karla Mallette, this communicative tool – constantly shifting to meet local dialectic exigencies – served to transcend the linguistic divisions that stymied communication and functioned as a strong vehicle of acculturation (Mallette, 2014: 332).
Joseph F. Stanley, ‘Negotiating Trade: Merchant Manuals and Cross Cultural Exchange in the Medieval Mediterranean’ Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Vol. XXX, Issue 1, (January 2018): pp. 102-112.
Mallette, Karla. “Lingua Franca.” in Peregrine Horden, Sharon Kinoshita (eds.), A Companion to Mediterranean History.(2014). pp. 79-90.
Stanley’s article also includes a handy list of published examples:
Allan Evans, ed., Francesco Balducci Pegolotti: La pratica della mercatura (1936).
Alison Hanham, ‘A Medieval Scots Merchant’s Handbook’, The Scottish Historical Review, Oct., 1971, Vol. 50, No. 150, Part 2 (Oct., 1971), pp. 107-120. The volume is described as ‘thirty-five vellum leaves sewn up in three gatherings into a small book measuring 31.1 X 9.5 cm.
George Christ, Trading conflicts : Venetian merchants and Mamluk officials in late medieval Alexandria (Brill: 2012)
I don’t normally list sources written in languages other than English since it’s the only language I can be sure all readers are comfortable with. In this case I must make an exception because there is nothing in English covering the Spanish merchant handbooks.
M. Gual Camarena, El primer manual hispánico de mercadena, siglo XV (Barcelona, 1981); The so-called Libre de conexenses de spicies – a manuscript in Catalan dating to 1455.
M. Gual Camarena, Vocabulario del comercio medieval (Barcelona, 1976), 200-202,
J. A. Sesma Muñoz and A. Líbano Zumalacarregui, Léxico del comercio medieval en Aragón (Siglo XV) (Zaragoza, 1.982), 81-82.
For myself, I don’t believe the whole ‘answer’ to the Voynich manuscript lies in such merchant handbooks. Illustrations in the zibaldoni are as plainly an expression of western Christian culture as images in the Voynich manuscript are not. Pace Gheuens and others, the Voynich manuscript contains none but a few peripheral allusions to Christian culture, while those western mercantile handbooks are very plainly a product of that environment, manifested in their written texts as in their illustrations.
There may be more hope from illustrated commercial ‘lists’ as invoices or bills of lading. One expects that any purchasing agent working in a distant port or market would be more likely to rely on local residents for his vocabulary and any images of local goods. To buy in a foreign market you need a way to name the desired goods, and to ensure that what you get is what you wanted. Caveat emptor was the ruling principle of medieval trade.
A rare insight into western agents abroad:
Deborah Howard, ‘Death in Damascus: Venetians in Syria in the Mid-Fifteenth Century’, Muqarnas, Vol. 20 (2003), pp. 143-157.
Robert Sabatino Lopez, ‘European Merchants in the Medieval Indies: The Evidence of Commercial Documents’, The Journal of Economic History , Nov., 1943, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Nov., 1943), pp.164-184. A seminal paper, still worth reading.
Two papers on echoes of eastern art in western medieval works.
Philippe Junod, ‘Retour sur l’Europe “chinoise”‘, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 32, No. 63 (2011), pp. 217-258.
David Jacoby, Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 58 (2004), pp. 197-240.
Since I’ve broached the subject of foreign agencies in distant ports and markets, and we’re discussing trade in vegetable products, I should add some brief notes on the conditions of trade east of Suez. I expect that any researcher having the necessary interest, and languages, won’t need any start-up bibliography, though, so will add none.
In an earlier post,* I quoted a passage describing how tax-assessors registered goods brought to Vietnam by sea. My source used an obsolete term – ‘Annam’ – to describe the greater coastal region of Vietnam, a term that is no longer used in modern secondary scholarship.
*D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Pharma’ Pt.2.i – the legend’, Voynich Revisionist (blogpost, 8th August 2021) citing Moti Chandra, Trade and Trade Routes in Ancient India (1977) p.206.
We are not told if any eastern inventory lists were illustrated but it is telling that they are said to be ‘on leather’.
About China, one website mentions that “two graves from the Han Dynasty (c. 202 BCE to c. 220 CE) contained ancient silk scrolls with references to 247 herbal substances used for medicinal purposes” and that “At the grave site of a doctor from the Later Han era (c. 25 to c. 220 CE), archaeologists found 92 wooden bamboo slips with pharmaceutical data which included a list of thirty prescriptions, referring to a hundred herbal medicines”. The site is anonymous and offers no references for that information.
I include it here chiefly because Marcus Marci’s letter of 1640 uses a term (schaedata) which, as Neal notes, is not in the classical dictionaries. On looking into it, I concluded that the word connects with the small wooden or papyrus slips once used as a ‘tag’-label for scrolls in Hellenistic and Roman libraries.
Books made of small wooden – or more exactly of palm-leaf – strips were once very widely used in regions beyond Europe, from North Africa through Arabia to the Himalayas and from India to south-east Asia. They are still used in some areas to this day and may take various forms, from the concertina-fold characteristic of Japanese and Chinese works on paper, to the wheel-form, or just a stack of strips pierced and linked at one or more points. Some palm-leaf books – especially those concerned with medicine or magic, were occasionally adorned with images.
It will be remembered that Georg Baresch said the information gathered in ‘eastern parts’ had been brought back and then copied (presumably on vellum) using the present Voynichese script and that no other European manuscript dated to before 1440 has yet been found in which there are long lengths folded in as we find in the Voynich manuscript.
Again in a commercial context we learn that the herbal-pharmaceutical genre known as Shennong Bencao jing (Shen Nong’s classic of Herbal Medicine), of which there were several versions, served as a basic forme for commercial documentation – tax assessment or to create bills of lading in areas under Chinese influence.
On the same point, the Bencao Gangmu ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’ which was produced during the Ming dynasty includes in addition to pharmaceutical information, information about biology, chemistry, geography, mineralogy, geology, history, mining and astronomy. This Bencao Gangmu has been translated into more than 20 languages and is still in print and used as a reference book.
A related work, Nong Shu, described as an agricultural text, includes a useful commercial object – a revolving typecase. Written by the Chinese official and agronomist Wang Zhen, the Nong Shu was published in 1313 AD. (image and information from ‘Chinese inventions’ – wiki article.
For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the present regime in China does not like the herbal ‘Shen nong’ to be spoken about. Shen nong was the legendary creator of the far east’s herbal medicine tradition.
Shouzhong Yang, The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica: A Translation of the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Blue Poppy Press. 2007).
Below is an illustration from a nineteenth-century account of Chinese medicines, one which retains the layout of the original works.
The diverse sites and pages maintained by CMU includes the following, which has a useful bibliography.
Nestorian influence is posited for the fact that the earlier [Shen-nong] Xinxiu bencao includes a recipe for theriaca.
Greek medicine is believed introduced into China by the Nestorians, whose influence is also seen by some scholars in works recovered from Dunhuang, in which the Greeks’ “four-element” theory and medical treatments are mentioned that similar to those practiced in ancient Greece. They also contain what is described vaguely as “certain Christian teachings concerning the sick”. An important study of Nestorian influence across early medieval China focuses on transmission of the eggplant (aubergine) but though I introduced this theme in my own research posts some time ago and treated it then in detail in discussing the presence of the Nestorians and Armenians in the medieval east, and the extant books of Nestorian medicine, I won’t repeat those references here. They are better left for posts about other sections.
To while away the tedium of long journeys, there was a genre of ‘journey books’, in which there was usually a combination of practical information, passages of one’s favourite epics or poetry and so on. In Persian, these were known as ‘Ark books’ (sefinat) and the poems of Hafiz were especially popular. In the west, the ‘Journal of Michael of Rhodes’ is a good example of the usual mix in Latin works.
Alan Stahl, Pamela Long, and David McGee. The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript (2009).
It was in a very late sixteenth-century illustrated ‘catalogue’ of goldsmiths’ designs that I found the first evidence of any forms akin to anything in the ‘leaf and root’ section. Far too late to have influenced the Voynich manuscript, it is not entirely impossible that a reverse influence might have occurred. This is one for the ‘Rudolfine’ theorists because although these drawings were made before the designer, Erasmus Hornick, went to Rudolf’s court, he did die there.
Erasmus Hornick had been born and/or trained as a goldsmith-jeweller in Antwerp, then lived for some years in Augsburg (1555?-1559) before moving to Nurnberg (1559-1566) where he published his designs as pattern books. Returning Augsburg in 1566, he was later – during the last months of his life – appointed Hofwekstatt by Rudolf II (1582-3) with “the distinctly modest salary of six Guldern monthly”, to use Hayward’s phrase.
John Hayward, ‘The Goldsmiths’ Designs of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek [Cod. Icon. No.I99] reattributed to Erasmus Hornick’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 110, No. 781 (Apr., 1968), pp. 201-207.
A closer, but spurious, connection to Rudolf was created when some of Hornick’s fanciful patterns, included in a volume of such designs, was later inscribed on its frontispiece, in Latin, Sunt Figurae num 275 Rudolfi Caesaris Thesaurus Delineat (There are designs the number of 275 representing the treasury of the Emperor Rudolf.) It is not true. One of these days I might satisfy my curiosity about how the handwriting compares with Mnishovsky’s.
There is some doubt about when Hornick produced the last of his designs, but it is clear that his relatively simple designs (such as the three perfume-containers) belong to his early, Antwerp period, so that while they would appear to be influenced by an idea of the exotic and ‘ancient’, any closer connection to the Voynich manuscript must relate to the port of Antwerp or some similar centre whose trade permitted a local resident to see curious foreign models and build his own fantastic, forms in the post-Renaissance ‘Mannerist’ taste by incorporating disparate elements from the originals.
A similar implication of commercial access to eastern routes and goods informs works produced by the family Miseroni, who also produced works for Rudolf II. A discussion of the Miseroni works, in connection with the Voynich manuscript, came, and went, some years ago. I’m afraid I cannot now discover who began that discussion – it may have been Rich Santacoloma.
I don’t want to waste time discussing such post-1450 events or persons, so I’ll close with a brief comment on the routes and goods which brought such things as lapis lazuli and nephrite jade to Prague by the late sixteenth century.
The interesting thing about Miseroni is that his work incorporates lapis lazuli (obtained from Afghanistan) and nephrite jade, which at that time is most likely to have been obtained from Khotan in the Tarim basin, brought then along high ‘silk roads’. What is puzzling is that jade, like porphyry (gained from a mine in Egypt), cannot be carved like any other stone, but only shaped. The skill must be taught by a master and in fact when it comes to porphyry, the secret of working it was only rediscovered about the turn of the twentieth century.
Add to these points that a number of the designs which were produced in Mannerist style purported to reproduce ancient or classical artefacts – though they display distinctly eastern characteristics – and it is clear that Athanasius Kircher was not the only man of his time to believe that something of the classical Mediterranean had reached so far. Certain of the Miseroni works appear to be artefacts brought from the east and only provided with decoration and mountings. Weight for weight, jade has always been more expensive than gold.
A series of articles on Miseroni, Rudolf and jade was published by ‘Friends of Jade’. here.
NOTE: Some of the information above (including the maps) was first published through voynichimagery in posts of Sept.12th., 2012 and December 26th., 2012 and another post which I drafted in 2017 but did not publish, 2017 being the year I closed off public access. Anyone wanting details of sources etc., from the original posts is free to email me.
Header image: (left) Isidore of Seville, from the Aberdeen bestiary; (right, upper register) detail from Brit.Lib. MS Add. 17808 f.89r (lower register) left: detail from Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.67v; right: (detail) tapestry from the formerly Hellenistic region of Bactria.
Note– (July 25th). These posts are being written ten days to two weeks before they are published, so there may be a delay in noting responses.
Part A treats of the ‘bearded sun’; of a ‘sun of night’ in eleventh-century Burgos; and of the regular passage of persons, goods and information back and forth across the Mediterranean during the medieval centuries. It is far from inconceivable that the material now in Beinecke MS 408 might have been collected in ‘eastern parts’ including medieval Egypt and contain (as Baresch also said) pictures of plants not native to Europe.
Part B considers earlier Latin attitudes to the stars, and another eleventh century manuscript – one made in northern France. It is the first known Latin copy of the astrological work, Liber Alchandri. In the margin of one folio two very large green stars were placed, apparently by the copyists’ overseer.
This is another post that includes enough material for three or four. I regret being unable to make editorial comment optional, collapsed text.
A diagram on folio 67v has at its centre the face of a woman or of a young man that is provided with artificial hair and beard, and with eyes unfocused, surrounded by stars apparently disposed in seventeen unequal sectors. (see previous post)
Comparable forms for an artificially-bearded sun are attested from the eastern side of the Mediterranean – first in artefacts from pre-Christian Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. The oldest show a leonine female (Sekhmet) termed ‘daughter of the sun’ who was typically shown with the sun-disk and serpentine uraeus. The word for sun takes male gender in the Egyptian language as it does in Greek and Latin, the image on folio 67v nicely ambivalent creating a ‘universal’ form. Its having a human face points to origins in a Hellenistic- rather than a Pharaonic environment, I should think.
As to the sun’s gender, that varies with language. Some languages have it female, and among those, some – including Hebrew – allow its description as male or as female, though as not both at once. The image on folio 67v is not alchemy’s rebis.
We have some reason* to believe that matter now in the Voynich manuscript may have been copied from materials collected in “eastern parts” though the Voynich manuscript itself was made in the earlier part of the fifteenth century and is reasonably thought to have been made in Europe.
Since the sun-face on folio 67v with its artificial mane and serpentine sidelocks is plainly no Christian helios but does shows this sun-face surrounded by stars, one must ask how the fifteenth-century copyist, or the person for whom the manuscript was being copied, might have understood this motif and the diagram’s purpose.
First – is any other sun-of-night attested in medieval western Europe and if so, when and where? The answer is ‘yes’ – but rarely and in the earlier medieval period – that is, before the twelfth century. It was not envisaged by the Latins as female.
‘Sun of Night’ in medieval Spain.
Among several examples noticed and translated by Carey, one comes from an eleventh-century manuscript produced in Silos abbey of Burgos. It uses the instructional mode:
Tell me: does the sun shine at night, or not?– It does.
Tell me: in what way? – For three hours in the abyss, for three hours in the sea, for three hours in the city of Nataleon, and for three hours in the city of Jerusalem. Then it returns to the east [i.e. the point of sunrise on the western viewer’s horizon] in the first hour of the day, and shines for the twelve hours of the day, and returns into the west.
John Carey, ‘The Sun’s Night Journey: A Pharaonic Image in Medieval Ireland’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 57 (1994), pp. 14-34. Carey does not provide full details of the manuscript. It may be the Silos Apocalypse but I’ve not been able to verify.
Carey does not mention it, but the four stages may be equated with the four elements – abyss (air); sea (water); nataleon (fire – by association with the lion); Jersualem (earth as foundation).
Transmission and exchange across the Mediterranean.
Given that our clearest extant example of the artificially-bearded sun is in an ivory attributed to Phoenicians and some Phoenician cities in the western Mediterranean were as much as seven hundred years old before the rise of Rome, so we do not necessarily have to pass very far from Burgos to find the source of ideas and images akin to those in folio 67v.
Gerard Gertoux, Dating the Foundation of Carthage’ (paper at academia.edu)
On the other hand, Baresh’s letter seems to demand that we do, so I include the following broad-brush overview as editorial, not least to serve as counterweight for the now traditionally-Eurocentric narratives created for the Voynich manuscript, almost all being derived from that which Wilfrid Voynich forged from no more than a signature in the manuscript and a rag of unsubstantiated, third-hand hearsay. Though rarely questioned, the Mnishovsky rumour is certainly questionable historical evidence. Assertions such as that the manuscript is ‘known’ to have been in Rudolf’s library, or that Rudolf ‘bequeathed’ it to anyone are due to more recent writers’ historical imagination.
In the following editorial comment, I mean to emphasise that by present standards, the old assumptions of a western Europe unaffected by any unsolicited ‘foreign’ matter can no longer be maintained. In the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries which were the formative years for those first involved with the manuscript, it was imagined that no non-Latin matter entered the western Christian (‘Latin’ European) intellectual horizons except it were deliberately chosen and – as it were – passed the rigors of ‘customs inspection’, monitored transition, ideological cleansing and subsequent naturalisation. The stories of Leonard of Pisa (Fibonacci), Gerard of Cremona etc. serve as paradigm for that idea of a ‘white-walled’ Europe.
An idea that nothing could arrive in Europe but what been ‘passed’ does apply, to an extent, to the Latins’ ‘bookish’ tradition, but the Voynich manuscript offers much in its internal evidence, and of course Baresch’s letter to Athanasius Kircher adds more, which should have led more researchers than John Tiltman or Erwin Panofsky to doubt the story created by Wilfrid with William Romaine Newbold.
Europe’s Christianity was scarcely well rooted before the time of Columbanus and his fellows, but Irish monasticism in turn had its source and model in earlier Egyptian monasticism, and with it their liturgical calendar and computus, their tradition of copying older manuscripts and, tellingly, their dissemination and use of that extraordinary work, The Marriage of Mercury and Philology in which- by the way – the ‘number of the sun’ is explicable only by reference to the old Boharic Egyptian-Coptic dialect.
Leslie S. B. MacCoull, ‘Coptica in Martianus Capella De Nuptiis 2.193’, Classical Philology , Oct., 1995, Vol. 90, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 361-366.
In northern Italy, the monastery of Bobbio (in whose library Gerbert of Aurillac would later say he found a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica) was founded and its library first furnished by the Irish Columbanus. Similarly St.Gallen was founded one of Columbanus’ fellows and it oldest manuscripts too were copied by Irish peripatetic scribes.
Egyptian life and traditions did not vanish at the moment when Caesar first set foot on Egyptian soil, nor when the last Pharaoh died, though some Voynich writers have supposed it so, dismissing Baresch’s comments from that erroneous belief. Not until the third century AD were Egyptian temples closed by Roman edict, and many still stood in the 7thC AD. The role of liturgical Coptic in assisting our understanding of the older Egyptian language and script is now well known, and as Baresch’s letter to Kircher shows, it was in response to Kircher’s appeal for material to help decipher hieroglyphics that Baresch sent the copied sections. Regardless of indications in the imagery, however, results of numerous statistical studies of Voynichese have not suggested derivation from any Egyptian dialect, or any other language as it was spoken and/or written in Egypt. The matter in the manuscript may have been gained ‘in the east’ but that is not reason enough to presume the same is true for the present manuscript’s written text.
Alan K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs 332BC-AD642. (1986).
Throughout the medieval centuries, however, Egypt continued to be a major entrepot though which Mediterranean traders and pilgrims passed constantly during the sailing year from the beginning of Spring until October-November and, occasionally locally, December.
In twelfth-century Exeter, for example, evidence of direct free contact is offered by some of the misericords’ carvings. Those are not ‘official’ carvings, but a space which the workers might ornament ad.lib. That shown (below) accurately represents a pair of Egyptian ‘ba’ birds, both in their form and still more strikingly, with their original significance. For these two ‘souls’ he almost got the forms perfect. (I regret not being able to show here a facing pair from Karnak). The most interesting point is that so late as the mid-thirteenth century someone – some guide, presumably – had still been able to rightly explain the sense of the originals.
Though the ‘ba’ bird usually stood on bird-feet, where these are provided hands, it is an understandable mis-reading if (as I suspect) he’d seen high above him and foreshortened, the pair at Karnak. He certainly meant to make the faces European, and one must wonder whether these ‘soul-mates’ are the woodcarver and his wife.
Europeans in medieval ports and markets had little difficulty with language. As one mid-fourteenth century traveller describes:
If you ask how I could converse with the interpreter .. the interpreter is of Jewish descent and came to Misr [Egypt/old Cairo] to return to Judaism, because he is a Spaniard.. He knows seven languages – Hebrew, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, German and French. .. In Misr there are many fondaks … a thousand and more warehouses in each fondak..
Venice and Genoa had more than one fondak assigned exclusively for their use at various times, though free access to Egypt fluctuated with changing political tides. Practical reasons for travel included the chance to buy cheaply in the east what might be sold at greater price in the west – such things as Indian gems, Chinese silk and plant-products whose ultimate source was India and south-east Asia.
Studies of the Latin, Greek and Arabic antidotaries tell us, for example, that a trade in eastern plants was maintained – not directly, but via Cairo or some other eastern centre – from southeast Asia to as far as England before the twelfth century. One of the first to engage with that topic was John Riddle. Today there is a great body of scholarship available for study of medieval pharmacy, antidotaries and related trades, but in 1965 Riddle could speak of,
a manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, lists ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger.
and e.g. that
The word cafora, coming from the Arabic kâfôur, is found in the same manuscript as ambergris and also in an antidotary written in Lombardie script in the 9th or 10th centuries. As a product of the plant cinnamomum camphora nees, cafora or camphor is found only in the orient.
John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.
Note – I have tried as far as possible throughout all these posts to cite articles accessible through libraries and online outlets such as researchgate, JSTOR and academia.edu. I’ve selected them not only for the article’s content, but the value of an author’s sources and bibliography to assist in further research. In some cases this was simply not possible and I’ve had to cite the works used i my own research, some of which I know only the keenest researcher would care to hunt out, but the necessary information is nowhere else.
Altogether, it is now clear that ideas prevalent in the nineteenth century and which Friedman, or d’Imperio took as ‘givens’ into the post-WWII period, were badly skewed. Medieval Europe lived in no cultural ‘bubble’. The monks and secular scholars who made Europe’s ‘bookish’ history and textual traditions did, it is true, become increasingly skittish over time about having ideas they thought contrary to western Christian doctrine brought west by foreign residents and by such groups as the Italian humanists. The less able the authorities were to ignore or to control such information, the more savage their efforts became to ensure it was not disseminated through the western Christian populace without being provided a western Christian commentary and interpretation. But these efforts were long limited to the more highly educated class, no effort made during the earlier medieval period to monitor the activities of traders, incoming travellers, or minority non-Christian communities. If a text was neither in Latin nor (later) widely circulated in the vernacular, it could be ignored.
The practice of just ignoring ‘foreign’ material saw some sad losses to European learning, and it is surprising to see how much valuable information was ignored. As one example, we may refer to Idrisi’s radically new astronomical-geography completed after all most two decades’ work, in Sicily, in 1154, at least one copy having been prepared in a Latin translation, but we find no interest in it ever shown by Latin Europe for almost five hundred years – not until a copy of the Arabic text was published in Rome in 1592 by the Medici Press.
Idrisi did not simply copy or update Ptolemy’s data, Over nineteen years, Idrisi had permission to interview any of the myriad travellers, traders and pilgrims who, perforce, called in at Sicily during their east-west journeys.
The result was a new astronomy as well as a new geography and, using both in tandem, it described the world from China to Britain, region by region. Some of Michael Scot’s work is thought to have depended on Idrisi’s astronomical information.
Perhaps the Latins (i.e. western European Christians) rejected it because they disapproved of Roger’s multi-cultural ‘international’ court. Perhaps it was one of those times when Roger was under ban of excommunication. Perhaps it was because Idrisi used south (the direction of the Latins’ Hell) as his primary direction. Perhaps because the real world didn’t display a neat tripartite division reflecting the Biblical assignment to one part to each of Noah’s sons. Who knows? Here’s a reconstruction of Idrisi’s south-oriented world-map.
The people who brought ‘caphora’ to Cairo, or to north Africa, or to Lombardy didn’t need a map of this sort, nor a handbook of geography to do it.
*Frances Carney Gies, ‘Al-Idrisi And Roger’s Book’, Saudi Aramco World, Volume 28, Number 4 (July/August 1977) pp.14-19. online.
To further illustrate the range over which the ‘Sun of night’ had been accepted in the older near east, I’ll mention the Babylonian version, too and Europe does acknowledge a passive debt to Babylonia in mathematical astronomy.
Wolfgang Heimpel, ‘The Sun at Night and the Doors of Heaven in Babylonian Texts’, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 127-151.
Having found mention of a ‘sun of night’ in eleventh-century Burgos (see above), we may now consider another manuscript of that period, this one made in northern France (Brit.Lib. MS 17808). To understand how its material was viewed at that time, we must better appreciate how Latins thought about the stars in those days, and how they regarded mathematical calculations.
By the eleventh century, the two greatest voices in Latin Christianity were those of the north African, Augustine, and that of Isidore of Seville.
Augustine (354 – 430 AD) had been of Phoenician parentage, had a passion for studying the stars (in a combined astronomy-and-astrology), then became attracted to the original form of Manichaeism, at that time one of the major world religions and which by the tenth century was established to as far as the borders of China. Along those eastern roads, it was a major provider of centres for traders and travellers – groups largely associated with the spread of that religion. In north Africa, however, Augustine had eventually abandoned his early interests, converted to Latin Christianity and through his writings become one of western Christianity’s earliest and most revered theologians.
With regard to astronomical learning, and the seeking of wisdom from Egypt, I might also mention Gregory the Great (540 – 604 AD), author of the ‘Commentary on Job’, but Isidore, his contemporary, had much broader and more lasting influence.
Isidore of Seville lived from 560-636 AD. His huge work, Etymologiae, remained the standard reference for information about .. well, almost everything… from the time of its composition to as late as the sixteenth century. Today there survive more than a thousand manuscripts in which the work is found copied in part, entire, or as a compilation of excerpts. According to one anonymous modern author, the full text of the Etymologies was printed in ten separate editions between 1470 and 1530, that is, at the height of the Renaissance.
We can safely suppose, therefore, that what Isidore says about the stars would have been known to the monks of Burgos, as to the scribes in northern France who made Brit.Lib. MS Add. 17808 in that same century. Of this second manuscript, more below. Here are some of Isidore’s dicta:
Astronomy distinguished from astrology.
The difference between astronomy and astrology
There is some difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy concerns itself with the turning of the heavens, the rising, setting, and motion of the stars, and where the constellations get their names. But astrology is partly natural, and partly superstitious.
It is natural as long as it investigates the courses of the sun and the moon, or the specific positions of the stars according to the seasons; but it is a superstitious belief that the astrologers (mathematicus) follow when they practice augury by the stars, or when they associate the twelve signs of the zodiac with specific parts of the soul or body, or when they attempt to predict the nativities and characters of people by the motion of the stars.
Despite that last sentence, his Etymologiae was still copied, and then published to a willing public, long after the ‘zodiac body’ became a commonplace in medical texts.
Proper purpose for stars – including those of the zodiac.
Constellations (sidus) are so named because sailors ‘take bearings on’ (considerare) them when they set their course, lest they be led elsewhere by deceptive waves and winds. And for that reason some stars are called signs (signum), because sailors observe them in steering their rowing, taking note of their keenness and brightness, qualities by which the future state of the sky is shown. But everyone pays attention to them for predicting the qualities of the air in the summer, winter, and spring seasons, for by their rising or setting in specific places they indicate the condition of the weather.
That is why so many medieval breviaries and calendars can include emblems for the 12 constellations. It is not evidence for, nor indication of, astrological reference, but that has proven difficult for some Voynicheros to absorb, since today many regard any zodiac as if astrological by definition, and regard the constellation emblems as no more than ‘birth signs’.
Mathematics and improperly ‘calculating’ the stars.
For Isidore – and thus for most medieval Europeans – the evil uses were those employed by a calculating mind.
But whatever the type of superstition with which they have been named by men, the stars are nevertheless things that God created at the beginning of the world, and he set them in order that they might define the seasons by their particular motions. Therefore, observations of the stars, or horoscopes, or other superstitions that attach themselves to the study of the stars, that is, for the sake of knowing the fates – these are undoubtedly contrary to our faith…
But some people, enticed by the beauty and clarity of the constellations, have rushed headlong into error with respect to the stars, their minds blinded, so that they attempt to be able to foretell the results of things by means of harmful computations, which is called ‘astrology’ (mathesis) .
24. These are commonly called astrologers (mathematicus); the Romans call this kind of superstition ‘constellations’ (constellatio), that is, observation of the stars – how they relate to each other when each person is born.
The first interpreters of the stars were called Magi (magus), as we read of those who made known the birth of Christ in the Gospels; afterwards they only had the name mathematicus.
Knowledge of this skill was permitted only up until the time of the Gospel, so that once Christ was born no one thereafter would interpret the birth of anyone from the heavens.
A scholastic miscellany made in France between 1309 and 1316, Brit.Lib.Burney MS 275 includes matter from Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, and Ptolemy and its tables (e.g. on f. 398) are written in Hindu-Arabic numerals.
Nonetheless, the margin of f.336r includes a visual ‘warning off’ about these numerals as founded on matter ‘of the devil’.
In depictions of the liberal arts, the teacher is normally an allegorical figure, but here she is made alive, a woman looking upon these innocent students and with wide, bold eyes (i.e. in an ‘unwomanly-wicked’ way). Even so late in European history, there was plainly some residual suspicion of Arabic numerals, introduced to Europe as they had been in association with the Arabs’ ‘mathesis’.
Understanding these ideas, it is easier to appreciate what implications might be carried by two large green stars set in the margin of a page in Brit Lib. MS Add 17808, whose incipit (first phrase) reads:
‘Mathematica Alhandrei – summi astrologi..’
Mathesis and astrology and from a foreign author and he not Christian.
Very worrying stuff for an eleventh-century monastic scribe, concerned for his immortal soul, yet bound by a vow of obedience even as Isidore’s words came to mind, “harmful computations, which is called ‘astrology’ (mathesis)”.. “undoubtedly contrary to our faith”.
These marks are so unusual that the cataloguer describes them as “stars(?)”.
They are not formed like the asterisks which, in Latin manuscripts, mean that a passage ‘a‘ links to passage ‘b‘. Nor are these like Quire 20’s flower-stars.
The Latins’ textual asterisk was formed as an ‘X’ with a dot in each quarter – as Isidore says:
In the eleventh-century manuscript (Brit.Lib. Add. MS 17808) the first of those two ‘green stars’ is set beside an area left blank.
We would usually suppose that the space had been left for the pictor to add some image, and since the other ‘starred’ paragraph names the 12 constellations of the zodiac, we might expect that image to be a depiction of the 12 constellations or their emblems, and further suppose that the pictor just never got around to it. This is not the only example of such blank spaces in medieval manuscripts.
However, those easy assumptions are not so easy in this case, because the character of this text is unorthodox for that time and someone – presumably the same overseer who put those green stars in the margin – has instructed the scribe to go back and insert into what had been a paragraph space, immediately after the names of the twelve constellations, the text of biblical passage and to write it all in capital letters.
The passage is from the book of Genesis. Its quotation, in this context, conveys a caution – even a warning – to scribes and subsequent readers. Given the nature of the text and Isidore’s proscriptions, the addition of the sentence: ‘God disposed them as signs for the hours of the night’ reminds a reader that the purpose in copying this material is to assist with correct observations of the night offices and the calendar, so as to remain in step with the divinely ordered heavens.
For that, no anthropomorphic images of ‘pagan’ gods were necessary; the constellations (constellatio) need not be drawn. The hours’ stars could be pointed out in the sky and calculation limited to that needed for computus, to establish the date of easter.
An entire side of folio 100 is also left blank.
That manuscript is very well known today and despite any effort to keep its use on the right side of a theological line, the Liber Alchandi came to be associated chiefly with ancient mysteries and near-magic. Not everyone felt so averse to picturing the pagan constellations, of course.
Thorndike refers to this manuscript when noting that Peter of Abano, in his Lucidator astronomiae (1310) “mentions Alchandrus…
“..as a successor of Hermes Trismegistus in the science of astronomy but as flourishing before the time of Nebuchadnezzar.”
Al chandrus was scarcely as ancient as that, but the treatise ascribed to him also exists in Latin in a manuscript of the tenth century.. it is full of Arabic and Hebrew words, and professes to cite the opinions of Egyptians, Ishmaelites, and Chaldeans in general as well as those of Ascalu the Ishmaelite and Arfarfan or Argafalan or Argafalaus the Chaldean in particular.”
The holding library recommends this paper which I’ve not yet seen:
Charles Burnett, ‘King Ptolemy and Alchandreus the Philosopher: The Earliest Texts on the Astrolabe and Arabic Astrology at Fleury, Micy and Chartres’, Annals of Science, 55.4 (1998), 329-68 (pp. 334, n. 28, 335, 339, n. 55, 341, 343, 368).
Marco Zuccato’s paper is well researched and documented. It’s available at JSTOR.
Marco Zuccato, ‘Gerbert of Aurillac and a Tenth-Century Jewish Channel for the Transmission of Arabic Science to the West’, Speculum , Jul., 2005, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 742-763
In sum:Editorial ‘green pencil’?
All of which, together, leads me to think that the ‘green stars’ in that French manuscript are more like marks from an editor’s blue pencil – Someone had to instruct the scribe to add the biblical passage, and perhaps instructed the pictor that his work would not be needed for some parts of the copying.
Might the green stars on folio 67v of Beinecke MS 408 be another case of an overseer’s corrections, rather than indication of the three stars’ having some special significance?
I’ll take a closer look at that in the next post and touch on the fascinating topic of colour and its associations in pre-Renaissance period.
More ideas from Isidore about the stars.
Isidore was a man of his own time, not ours and also believed the following:
lxi. The light of stars (De lumine stellarum). Stars are said not to possess their own light, but to be illuminated by the sun, as the moon is.
lxii. The location of the stars (De stellarum situ) Stars are unmoving and, being fixed, are carried with the heavens in perpetual motion. They do not set during the day, but they are obscured by the brightness of the sun.
lxiii. The course of the stars (De stellarum cursu) Stars are either carried or move. The ones that are fixed in the sky and turn with the sky are carried. But some [like] planets, that is, ‘wanderers,’ move. However, they carry out their roaming courses within a defined boundary.
Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, CUP (2006)
Addendumto Part A. extracted from a much longer post first published in Findings (May 15th., 2010). I add it for those interested in the traditions which came to inform western medieval ideas and art, but not to assert or imply that the makers of our fifteenth-century manuscript were so deeply informed.
The ‘bearded sun’ wasn’t the first intimation that the manuscript’s pictorial text’s themes and forms do not originate in medieval European culture, but it was an important detail, and the idea of a bearded sun was not unfamiliar, but chimes rather well with what Georg Baresh believed about how the material for the manuscript had been gathered.
I began explaining the diagram and its implications quite early, sharinngthat information, initially, in a post of April of 2010, and adding more in subsequent posts to clarify e.g. a link to Carthage, to the ‘grape-pressing’ motif seen in early Latin representations of (St.) Barbara and explaining that character’s ancient origin in North Africa, where the ‘grape-crushing’ is partly an allusion to suffering, but also to the “wine-dark sea” as Homer knew.
As late as the fifteenth century, Ibn Majid confirmed that the mariner-pirates of the north African shore had the same skills and star-lore as his own, and that the two were therefore brethren by that an inheritance which predates the 7thC Ad. Here’s a little of what I posted on May 15th., 2010, including the two previous illustrations above and those below. (Notice also the wreathed face at the apex of that Punic tombstone).
In the classical period, North Africa had a very considerable industry in wine and grapes. It was remembered by the maker of the Atlas Catala, Abraham Creques, who wrote that after the Flood, Noah came to rest in North Africa, and first planted the vine there on the shores between the sea and Monte Clara.
The Berber and Bedu tribes of North Africa had been largely instrumental in finding the way for the Muslim armies to successfully enter Spain. At that time they spoke of themselves as the “men of the ribat” – the military tower. The same term is used in that region for the sequence of lunar asterisms which the Arabs call the moon’s resting-places, or manzil al kamar. That sequence described as of 27 or of 28 asterisms is a convenient way to make finer divisions of the year’s circle, and thus to reckon such things as direction time and tide.
The name ‘Barbara’ sounds innocuous enough, but it seems it anciently named the star-[worshipping] people who considered stars to be small, distant lights: “grandchildren of the sun” [bar-bar-ra].
Hourani reports of the eastern tribe of the Azd, formerly of Arabia, that when were these Arab mariners [of the eastern sea] found themselves deep in a trough between mountainous waves, a chant was started which ran: “Barbara and Jafuna: look to your waves. Jafuna and Barbara: your waves are wild [lit: mad]. Jaffna is still the name of a Tamil area in Sri Lanka; the Barbara belonged to both the eastern and western horns of Africa. The greeks employed a similar term to mean ‘barbarians’ as persons who did not speak Greek.
Lawyers may have ‘learned friends’; scholars only colleagues.
Added note – 13th. March 2022. I’d prefer to add this as a ‘Comment’ but wordpress having decided comments are closed, I must add it here.
I have today received an email in which the writer expresses themselves rather strongly on what they see as my ‘hypocrisy’ for complaining about mis-use, co-option and so on of earlier writers’ work. They point to this post in particular, saying that I have wrongly credited Rene Zandbergen with making the ‘oak and ivy’ connection, and that Zandbergen simply took a different copy of the same work, then asserting or permitting others to believe it a discovery gained by him as result of original effort. If that is so, my apologies to Edith Sherwood and I agree that precedents should always be honoured even if a person later reaching the same opinion was, at the time, ignorant of that precedent. Sherwood is of course not the author of the email but is the person whom the correspondent asserts should be credited with that ‘find’. Since – as you’ll see from the post below, I dispute Zandbergen’s idea, and have not seen the precedent by Sherwood, I can only report the complaint publicly and apologise should an apology be in order. If anyone would care to provide me with evidence of Sherwood’s having earlier made that connection, I’ll happily accept it and add the details here. In the absence of date-able evidence, however I must leave the original post (below) as it is.
I’m going to be away for some weeks, so here’s an extra-extra-long post (originally designed as five separate posts) to serve as holiday reading while I’m gone. 🙂
NB. To skip the preliminaries, start from the heading: ‘Living Ivy’.
Abstract: The Yale facsimile edition includes an essay predicated on the theory that the plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript are related to the European ‘herbals’. In that essay a comparison is offered which, if it were it valid – might constitute the long-sought (but never found) proof for that theory, and further indicate that a niche exists for the Voynich plants within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis type. Credit for a comparison or ‘pairing’ of folio 35v with ‘oak and ivy’ from the ‘Manfredus’ herbal is claimed by Rene Zandbergen, whose influence on the study has been constant since the early 2000s. The following considers that experience, weighing the probability and evidence for and against such an interpretation of the image on f.35v.
WHEN later generations consider Rene Zandbergen’s contributions to Voynich studies, rating high on the list will surely be his constant presence.
For at least two decades Zandbergen has been constant in reading and collecting work and ideas related to this study, incorporating his selections from such matter into his website (since 2010), and sharing information more widely in comments to group discussions and in private communications. Voynich studies needs people with long memories; given the high turn-over in researchers and degrading standards for credits and documentation of precedents, for any true history of this study we must depend increasingly on the memories of a few among the old guard and the energetic efforts of even fewer among the new. Attempting to discover whether precedents exist before embarking on a line of investigation can be very hard work indeed, and whether one of the ‘old guard’ will trouble to consult their own memories can be a bit touch-and-go. After all, the study has devolved into a permanent ‘groundhog day’ since the early 2000s to the point where now any genuinely new insights are soon swallowed up in the mist, grabbed and repeated without mention of the source and then endlessly re-used and ‘re-discovered’ by amateurs – many of whom confuse original contribution with ‘unprecedented invention’ and fear to admit their debts lest it cost them glory.Trying to work against that tide, to disentangle genuine from spurious claims of ‘discovery’ would require an entire team of fiercely determined and rigidly ethical members of an ‘old guard’. And what Voynichero would care to spend more time on seeing justice done than on following his own area of interest? But, as and when they choose, ‘old-timers’ such as Pelling and Zandbergen are our best hope.How many hours Zandbergen has devoted to building his website one cannot imagine. It has now become the ‘go to’ site for newcomers, journalists and others who want a quick key, to check details of dates or of biographies. It has also provided Zandbergen himself with a ready reference from which he, no less than journalists or newomers, can draw in writing essays.Despite this time-consuming project, Zandbergen has still found enough time (almost every day) to be present in most often-visited public arenas and there to take account of the discussions and contribute to them from the mass of material at his fingertips.His early achievements include his translation into machine code of Gabriel Landini’s transcription of Voynichese – giving us EVA. Another was his liaison with an Austrian television company which commissioned certain scientific tests.For all this – as Zandbergen reminded members of a forum just today – his qualifications are not in any field relevant to medieval manuscript studies, history or art and he should be regarded as an amateur.Few amateurs having twenty years’ interest in anything could resist the temptation to “puff” rather more.Also of value have been Zandbergen’s computing skills which produced the graphs and diagrams used to illustrate the information collected into his website.
As constant as that work has been, and his presence in most public conversations about the Voynich manuscript, so too he has shown unwavering fidelity to a theory which he and his co-author, Rafel Prinke, espoused early – perhaps as early as 2000.
At the time it was a ‘fringe’ theory, asserting that the manuscript had been made in German-speaking regions and was in some sense an expression of central European culture, and more specifically with content congenial to the interests of Rudolf II and other members of the central European nobility.While the evidence for this variation on d’Imperio’s version of the Wilfrid-Friedman theory is no more than it was two decades ago, the intervening period has seen constant efforts at its retrospective justification: German calendars have been hunted for images of Saggitarius with a crossbow and other German-language or German-made works hunted for costume which could be argued similar to costumes seen on figures in the Vms. An enormous amount of time and talk has been expended on a couple of lines of marginalia which are claimed German. For lack of other researchers as constant and equally consistent in enthusing others to collaborate, material accumulated today not only leans heavily to that side of the scales but almost entirely on it. Today the ‘central European’ idea has achieved the status of what Santacoloma might call canonised myth, but which is better described, I think, as the process by which ‘I feel’ becomes ‘it might have been’ and gradually via ‘it could have been’ is taken for ‘it must be’. The process has taken twenty years and the labour of a great many co-operating ‘ants’ as Ellie Velinska once called that group.Without being strident, Zandbergen has also quietly and unwaveringly introduced an idea that not only Rudolf, but Rudolf’s brother Matthias (Corvinus) owned the manuscript.Whether the notion that the manuscript was stolen by Jesuits originated with the Prinke-Zandbergen theory or not is another point difficult to determine but as yet there is no evidence offered by the manuscript or by any document of which I’m aware to justify either the the ‘Corvinus’ idea or that one. On the face of it, the Jesuits’ acquisition of the work is perfectly transparent: it became a Jesuit possession when gifted to Athanasius Kircher by Marcus Marci – and we have the letter of gift to prove it.Otherwise, the Prinke-Zandbergen narrative appears to maintain the standard ideas in, or extrapolated from, Wilfrid’s tale of 1921 – such as that the manuscript is obscure only because meant for a social and intellectual elite, and that it is at base a manuscript composed of ‘ordinary’ European material including occult and/or scientific matter such as alchemy, magic, astrology and medicine in which Rudolf II (1552-1612) and his aristocratic circle were most interested.Here, however, we must be grateful for the radiocarbon dating which permits us (if we wish) to limit the range of Voynich research to the terminus ad. quem of 1438.I say this because it is easy to imagine where the ‘Corvinus’ idea might lead theorists less self-controlled than Zandbergen. Matthias was initially given control over Hungary at a time when a large part of it was owned by Rudolf’s close contemporary Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) and within modern Hungary there is a popular movement re-inventing her image to have Bathory a nice aristocratic woman interested in women’s medicine. It takes little imagination to see how such an idea could be imposed on the manuscript’s content.But, as I say, we can halt if we choose at 1438 and maintain a proper level of skepticism not only about the ‘Corvinus’ idea but about the third-hand rumour of Rudolf’s supposed ownership.My own position is best expressed by quoting Patrick Lockerby, one of the very few left standing when the vellum’s radiocarbon date-range was published. Well before the test was run he had said:
My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.
~ Patrick Lockerby.
Zandbergen has proven no less constant in maintaining his opinion of the plant-pictures, assuming (as had almost all before him) that these must constitute a variant form of Latin herbal: that is, a catalogue of medicinal plants employed in Latin (western Christian) Europe.
During the nineteen-twenties or -thirties when the manuscript was generally believed personally written by Roger Bacon, the limited horizons* of Wilfrid’s narrative and of any dependent on it permitted few alternatives.
However, one might have supposed that by 2000, with nine decades’ of failed attempts to discover in the Latins’ herbals any matching images – that is, matching in sequence and in style of drawing – and with Tiltman’s negative judgement on that score expressed in the late 1960s, that researchers might have begun casting about more widely: extending the research laterally (to include other regions and peoples) or vertically to consider plant-imagery made to other purposes and/or in other media.
It didn’t happen – not even when Tiltman’s paper was released by NSA in 2002, under the Freedom of Information Act, or when qualified persons differed from the conservatives. Those who were not ignored (as Mazars and Wiart were for years), were met with the usual methods by which the most conservative element avoids discussion of evidence and argument. On a personal note, I gained most amusement from Pelling’s suggesting that in explaining the botanical imagery and the role of mnemonics that I suffered from pareidolia. The role of mnemonics in imagery had been unexplored by the Voynicheros before then, but the term is now constantly used, even if rarely informed by knowledge of the scholarship or of any work later than Yates – Yates being mentioned by d’Imperio. Carruthers’ revolutionary studies have been often recommended by the present author, but no evidence of them appears in other Voynich writings to date.
Part of Tiltman’s verdict was quoted earlier, but here it is in more detail:
if the plain text of the Voynich manuscript belongs to the illustrations on the same pages, as we have a right to expect in the complete absence of evidence to the contrary, then much the greater part of that text is related to plants. However, I have to admit that to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of 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.
[pdf] John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript: ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’ [released by NSA under the Freedom of Information Act, 23-Apr-2002 (Case #19159)
Tiltman was not a man to accept hearsay and I think we may take it that he spoke from personal knowledge of the Friedman groups’ range of research. It is possible that some combined list of works they consulted might one day be found among documents still at the NSA, or in the George C. Marshall Foundation.
[Part 2] What was it which prevented Tiltman’s pronouncement’s being taken seriously, and the lesson taken from the failures of the preceding decades?
It is an interesting question and deserves more than the briefest answer, but in the space of this post the short answer will have to do, and it is this: that by the time the first mailing list closed there was a small but growing and determined ‘conservative’ element which adopted d’Imperio’s version of Wilfrid’s narrative with others of the Friedmans’ ideas as constituting a final word on the manuscript’s history and character, and perceived its own task less as work of investigation than of retrospective justification for that matter.
Before the 1960s, none had looked further than Europe because they supposed the manuscript’s composition coeval with its manufacture and they supposed all due to a single author imagined European.
After the early 2000s, any who began to consider any but a Latin European as determining the manuscript’s content was discouraged from doing so by the ‘mass’ online – and often as much by personal ridicule as by reasoned argument. Of this unpleasant tactic – playing the man, not the ball – a precedent was also provided by reports of the Friedmans’ mockery of others, including of Professor Romaine Newbold. Jorge Stolfi was among the first of the more recent ‘scalps’ taken by such means.
A hardening ‘conservative’ position presented itself as the ‘common sense’ position, and for the new wave of Voynicheros who appeared in public conversations after c.2004 or so, these now-entrenched ideas were accepted as if they had been established from solid evidence: they served as premises rather than as speculations to be tested – and most obviously with the ‘softer’ narratives about theoretical histories for the manuscript or notions about its imagery.
Efforts to describe, explain, decipher or translate Voynichese remained generally subject to more rigor and overall remained focused on the researcher’s work not his character. Critics were expected to explain their criticisms in detail; and (unlike other areas) no vague assertion that the researcher was ‘talking nonsense’ was enough. Witness the technical and well informed criticisms of even so patently nonsensical a paper as Cheshire’s.
But with that difference between standards for discussing ‘Voynichese’ theories versus historical or iconographic matters, there began the dichotomy which exists today. Opinions about the written part of the text usually weigh the statistical and linguistic evidence, but those focused on the pictorial content or historico-social environment regularly witness the personality-centred sort of attack as theory-defence. It is a pity that this dividing fence has been flattened recently – again with criticisms of Cheshire as example.
Any Voynich researcher or writer soon becomes aware that ad.hominem regularly meets dissent from the ‘conservative’position in certain areas and almost invariably follows criticism of any opinions or theories particularly associated with a few of the best known ‘Voynicheros’.
Here, Nick Pelling has a well-earned reputation for directing fluent streams of vitriol against any who are less than approving of his friends’ theories and methods and, to a lesser extent of his own. In general, however, he has an equally well-earned reputation for permitting free expression in comments to his blog, sometimes extraordinary patience with the most ‘out there’ theorists, and his academic standards in keeping clear the difference between his own work and others’ remains impeccable.
In one way, there can be no criticism made of any blogger’s choice of opinion, or of response to comments to their blog, but given Pelling’s large following, high profile and standing as one of the ‘old guard’, the old problem of influence and responsibility must arise. Knowing that any who would subject Pelling’s “machine-plants” idea to detailed criticism and dismissal, or dispute Zandbergen’s ‘oak-ivy’ comparisons as I’m about to do may incur public denigration of their intelligence, competence, motives and personal character is certainly a deterrent to putting higher value on the manuscript’s accurate evaluation than on the ‘Voynich community’s bonhomie. The revisionist might hope for both, but I should think not in this generation.
Since my own is the only name I feel entitled to mention, I’ll say that during the near-decade in which I offered historical notes and analytical-critical commentary on the Voynich manuscript’s imagery the work received only two types of response from the ‘conservatives’: results gained from that original research were taken and re-presented without acknowledgements, and/or were met by ‘criticisms’ of the ad.hominem sort.
There was just one informed criticism made over the entire period: a correction to my description of the religious order to which Hugh of St. Victor belonged.
No qualified person in my field had been involved in the study, as far as I could discover, since the 1930s and that might explain the resort to personal criticisms by persons lacking the wherewithall to make comments of any other type. Recently, the well-qualified Alexandra Marracini has produced a paper which reminds me of my very first essays on the subject of this manuscript, when I still thought I’d be dealing with nothing more unusual than the home-made book of some amateur western Christian author.
It was from about 2010, once I began sharing online and it became clear that this material could not be made to fit a ‘central European’ or ‘Latin cultural expression’ theory that the nasty response began. From the first it was of the ‘no-holds-barred’ type and was disseminated as brainless and information-zero ‘memes’, inventing which seems to be the one real skill that a couple of ‘Voynicheros’ may claim.
My persistence in seeking to read, and then to acknowledge precedents – if any – for my views was re-interpreted by ‘meme’ as an effort to claim credit: ‘to make a name’ as that meme had it. Another meme that I recall said that some students of mine were not real people (the reason being, apparently, that we decided their only access to the ‘Voynich-Colosseum’ should be through my own email address). The result of that little ‘meme’ was abuse which the students, their parents and the school found as irrational as it was unmerited, and the ‘Voynich’ option was terminated. You may be pleased to hear the credits were made transferrable since cyber-bullying should not cost credit-points. Another slander-meme impugned by qualifications; the least principled did not think it too grubby for them to start memes calling me a liar, or when that one didn’t quite catch on, upgrading it to mental derangement. Of late, it seems, the one or two core bullies have been toning it down a bit: perhaps someone explained to them in one-syllable words the meaning of ‘fact’ ‘fiction’ ‘slander’ and ‘libel’.
The meme of the month – towards me; but I’m not the only troublemaker – is ‘nonsense’. Not exactly the quality of a Times Higher Education review for the amount of research it tries to cover, is it?
It wasn’t the memes, or even the fools who are unable to find better ways to defend their theory which bothered me most; it’s the number of sheep who, when the water-cooler guy says ‘Bah! duly say ‘Baaah’.
I had supposed that with a manuscript which presents so many non-trivial problems, the sort of person who’d stick around would be one having the type of critical intelligence which likes difficult problems.
But of course, anyone with that sort of intelligence can’t be hypnotised into saying ‘baaa’ just because the chap next to them got it from someone who was told it by someone else.
They say instead – ‘where did you get that idea?’ and ‘Show me your evidence’ and.. in this particular case ‘And exactly what does this tell me that might help me better understand Beinecke MS 408’?
And so back to that more interesting matter…
The ‘Oak and Ivy’ comparison in the Yale facsimile essay.
In its premises and its approach the ‘herbal’ essay in the Yale facsimile edition has much in common with the book by Tucker and Janick, in that it aims only to illustrate and thus to convince readers of its premises and its premises are its (foregone) conclusions. It is an engaging history of the medieval herbal manuscript, but one illustrated by ‘pairings’ from the Voynich manuscript – pairings whose validity is treated as self-evident.
Among them is one which – were it valid – would be of enormous importance for this study for it would offer the long-sought proof for that ‘variant herbal’ speculation, and indicate that within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis mss exists some niche for the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.
Because it could be of such great importance, it has to be treated seriously and seriously evaluated. One might wish it were not a ‘pairing’ for which the credit falls to a member of the ‘old guard’ but the credit is claimed by Rene Zandbergen.
He presented his ‘match’ some years ago in a power-point presentation, later passing it to others to re-present (with credit accorded him) as e.g. to Ellie Velinska. Still later, it was used in forum discussions where again the thanks and credit were received by Zandbergen. Finally, with acceptance already general among the ‘online community’ the same pairing was included in the Yale essay.
On occasion Zandbergen has mentioned that Edith Sherwood had ( I am told ‘earlier’) compared folio 35v with one in a medieval manuscript. Zandbergen’s comment takes the following form in one forum exchange:
EllieV – 11-02-2016 The most popular example is the oak/ivy combination found by Rene in other old herbals
ReneZ – 11-02-2016 Edith Sherwood independently noticed the similarity, in her case with the Sloane MS, while I saw it in the Paris BN manuscript.
The British library’s Sloane collection includes more than one herbal, as does the collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France but I note that where Sherwood’s habit was always to pair a picture from the Voynich manuscript to some later botanical illustration or to a modern photograph of her preferred ‘i.d.’, some images are now included from medieval manuscripts and now she pairs folio 35v with an image of oak-and-ivy from Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 (folio 38v) – to which I’ll return further below,
About Zandbergen’s alleged ‘match’ only one point need be addressed and I’ll treat the vine-like element. To discuss the pairing in full detail (as I’ve done elsewhere) would quadruple the length of this post.
Zandbergen’s discussion of the plant-pictures, from 2000 until the Yale essay was published has relied in one sense on generations of the ‘Voynich herbal’ idea but more particularly on Minta Collins’ book to which Zandbergen has constantly referred, and just as constantly referred others.
Published in that year (2000), Collins’ Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition became available two years before the NSA released Tiltman’s paper of 1967/8. It would be two years later still before we had Touwaide’s critical review of Collins’ book in 2004, but that appears to have escaped general notice for the following decade and more, until the present author brought it to the attention of Voynich ninja members.
Minta Collins, Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition.(2000)
the above, reviewed by Alain Touwaide – Isis, Vol. 95, No.4 (2004) pp. 695-697.
Meanwhile, constant mention and recommendations of Collins’ book within the ‘Voynich community’ had seen it elevated to a status almost equal to that accorded d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – whose quotation some suppose a final word. This same period saw escalate a trick of equating conservative ideas with the ‘good and sensible’ to the point where those engaging in original lines of research were discouraged – and if not easily by ‘blanking’ or by citations from the two ‘bibles’ or items extracted from German medieval works, then next by comments suggesting that only a ‘bad or irrational’ person would oppose the ‘central European cultural expression’ theory.
By about 2013-14, assertions of ‘likeness’ met positive comment only if the comparison came from a Latin herbal or from central European manuscripts and books made between the thirteenth-mid sixteenth centuries – unless it were to ‘prove’ the work a Latin product. Velinska’s ‘Duc de Berry’ theory was exempt. The temporal range narrowed somewhat after 2013, as challenges to the radiocarbon dating of 2011 fell silent. The conservatives’ geographic bounderies are widening a little further today but speculations about alchemical content, inherently anachronistic, remain current and so widely believed that to so much as doubt them has recently evoked an ‘eye-rolling’ from Pelling. It would seem that another myth has achieved canonisation.
Zandbergen has displayed the same constancy in maintaining the Voynich plant pictures a ‘herbal’ as he has shown in all else, discouraged neither by Tiltman’s negative judgement nor by a century’s failure to find any place for them in that tradition. It is not an idea of Zandbergen’s invention, merely maintaining the speculations and assumptions of Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 and by the Friedman groups from 1944 onwards.
[Part 3] The ‘Manfredus herbal’
Against this pairing by Zandbergen of an image from the Voynich manuscript with one from the ‘Manfredus’* herbal we have the general objection that the ‘herbal’ idea remains a speculation and that were it well-founded there is a low probability that the same alleged ‘match’ would have passed all earlier notice. Believing the labels might offer a key to Voynichese, the Voynich plant-pictures and accompanying text have always been a focus of study.
*properly: Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823, but very often seen as ‘Manfredus de Monte Imperiali’
The Manfredus ‘herbal’ has been among the best- and most widely known of all medieval Latin copies of the ‘tracts on herbs’ and was so before Wilfrid had ever seen his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript. By then the ‘Manfredus’ was already in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and detailed knowledge of it had spread across the Atlantic, in proof of which I’ll cite the book-length monograph by Edward Sanford Burgess, published in 1902.
Burgess was then a resident of New York and was still so when Wilfrid migrated to that city from London, bringing his widely-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ – most of it filled with plant-pictures.
Burgess’ book-length monograph had been published by the Torrey Botanical Club journal (which is still in publication). As handy guide to the text, Burgess included a ‘Tabular view of Plant-writers before 1600’ and as you see from the clip below (from p.98) the ‘Manfredus’ manuscript is included, dated it to c.1400.
Edward Sandford Burgess, ‘Studies in the History and Variations of Asters: Part 1: History of PreClusian Botany in its relation to Aster, Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol.10 (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.r
Within his monograph, in speaking of Dianthus, Burgess says, “… I have seen the plant pictured in a book which is written by Manfrēdus de Monte Imperiali.” (” Librum de simplicibus , qui in bibl. Parisina latet,”said Sprengel of Manfred’s work, in 1797 ; Fabricius knew of a copy in Paris about 1750..” (p.380)
Today, the date offered for Manfredus manuscript – that is, the digitised copy – at Gallica is again circa 1400, but the Bibliothèque nationale de France has 1330-1340, leaving place of manufacture unspecified. A website called ‘Manuscript Miniatures’ ascribes it to Pisa without explanation. And to Lillian Armstrong it was ‘Lombard’.
Lillian Armstrong, ‘The Illustration of Pliny’s Historia naturalis: Manuscripts before 1430′, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 46 (1983), pp. 19-39.
Some of those earlier attributions to place may owe less to consideration of the drawings or palette than to interpretations of the description ‘… Monte Imperiali’ – on which subject the present writer’s opinion as offered after looking into the question in 2016. Taking it that the ‘di’ here signifies “sent out from” rather than “born in” I concluded the post by saying:-
I see no reason why the “Manfredi di maestro Berardo da Montepeloso medicus” listed by Calvanico [on whom see Collins n.119] should not be the same person as that associated with BNF Lat 6823…Nor is it difficult to suggest why a clerk sent ‘abroad’ on behalf of Maestro Berardo might choose to describe himself in that way rather than as from Montepeloso. A mere clerk, coming to an urban centre from the remote south of Italy – and from a place called “Mount Hairy” – would surely be sensitive to the sort of ridicule which urban lads would delight in heaping on a lowly ‘rustic’. Nor would that description be a lie, for Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) and its castle were imperial possessions until Frederick II gave them to the then newly-sanctioned Francsican order of preaching friars. Perhaps the local community itself had been used to speaking of the mount and its castle as ‘imperial’, but to determine the last point either way would require research of a depth it scarcely warrants.
D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A note on Manfredus di Monte…’ voynichimagery, (July 10th., 2016)
At the time none of the items in that paragraph, save Collins’ reference to Calvanico, was to be found in any of the usual Voynich writers, though (as so often) the situation may have changed without notice.
A more recent scholarly source is the following volume, with Givens’ valuable essay on the Tractatus de herbis:
Jean A. Givens, ‘Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis, 1280-1526′ in Givens, Reeds and Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550 (2006). pp.115-156.
In c.2010, the idea was prevalent in Voynich forums that ‘Manfredus di Monte Imperiali’ was son to Frederick II. This is not so, though he may have been a namesake and the same idea is found in other and older writings. It is not inexplicable if we suppose it due to a misinterpretation of the dedication which the noble Manfredus included in a thirteenth-century copy of Pseudo-Aristotle’s ‘De pomo’. That dedication is quoted in
Lynn Thorndike, ‘The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle and Medieval Occult Science’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1922), pp. 229-258. (n.39 p.237).
[Part 4] So, to return to Burgess. A botanist with a particular interest in the history of plant-pictures and -texts made within the Greco-Latin world and to the 17th century lives in a city to which there comes a much-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ filled with what are thought to be herbal pictures. His particular focus is on antique and later mentions of the ‘aster’ family. Does it seem likely that he could resist trying to discover what members of that family were recorded by Roger Bacon, an idol of the time?
And if he were to go to Wilfrid’s bookshop to express interest in the manuscript, would Wilfrid deny a potential buyer? And seeing those images, is it likely that Burgess (among the many others, including Fr. Petersen or members of the Friedman groups) would consistently fail to notice that folio 35v was ‘identical’ or even a ‘close match’ for an image in the well-known ‘Manfredus’ manuscript?
I do not know if Burgess ever saw the Voynich manuscript, though I suspect Tiltman saw Burgess’ ‘Tabular view’ and that it is among the reasons he can speak with such certainty of the “very limited range” of “writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries”.
But Burgess’ example illustrates my point that the Manfredus ‘herbal’ was well and widely known to specialists on both sides of the Atlantic even before Wilfrid bought the ‘ugly ducking’. Seeking precedents those as interested and well informed as Petersen was and as dedicated as the Friedman groups were could hardly have failed to hunt it for something ‘like’, whether or not they heeded the vital point already made by RIchard Salomon in 1936, that locating precedents or antecedents means matching style of drawing and comparable sequences. I’ve already quoted that letter to Anne Nill in full, but here’s the critical sentence:
“… I am convinced that the only possibility of deciphering would be given by finding an older series of plant pictures corresponding in its sequence to the arrangement of pictures in the Voynich manuscript.”
Richard Salomon to Anne Nill (July 9th., 1936 ),
Altogether the circumstances offer an a priori argument against Zandbergen’s ‘match’ being valid – at least within the historical and social context he presumes – but here it will be enough to address just one of the many points at which the ‘match’ fails – the vine-like plant which Zandbergen claims equates to the Manfredus’ image for ivy.
Unless employed for purely decorative effect (e.g. ivy-rinceaux), or as crown for Dionysos or something of that kind, the depiction of ivy in medieval Latin graphic art identifies a living plant by two elements, only one of which is invariable.
The leaf was drawn (European ivy is evergreen) and if any form of support was shown, the image emphasises the ivy’s clinging character. That second is the invariable element . It is clear, too, that to the medieval draughtsman, ivy’s clinging was tp be depicted as ‘twining’ – akin to that of the bean or of the Convolvulus.
Sherwood’s current comparison for f.35v, as I mentioned before, is Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 folio 38v. This certainly does show ivy (accuracy in a manuscript’s labels are not to be presumed), and it is equally clear that this draughtsman expresses himself through the usual conventions of Latins’ art; his ivy is denoted by its twining habit. He has also included the umbels of black berries. His leaves are given five lobes. Neither of the last two features is invariable. The ‘clinging’ character is.
Climbing ivy has leaves of varying form, with those of a non-flowering stem having 3–5 triangular-shaped lobes and those of flowering shoots being oval to eliptical. There is also a ‘ground ivy’ depicted in some herbals, but the point is that when shown with any supporting object or plant, the medieval image tells the reader it is an ivy plant by means of that character of ‘clinging’ which is depicted as a twining about the support. Not what we see in folio 35v of Beinecke MS 408, where the vine-like plant is not only shown to be unable to cling, but lacks any leaf. If the latter was intended to signify the plant a deciduous one, then it cannot be European ivy. Again, though perhaps less significant, is the fact that the berries are not depicted using the convention of that ‘fan-shaped’ umbel. Whether the supporting plant is meant for an oak is a separate question, but the fact remains that if the vine was not intended to be read as ivy, Zandbergen’s comparison and claimed ‘match’ is invalid and once more we have no reasonable evidence, documentary or otherwise, retrospective or otherwise, in support of the constant assertion that the Voynich plant-pictures should belong in the Latins’ ‘herbals’ tradition.
Another ‘Sloane manuscript’ Sherwood had noted, inspiring Zandbergen to find more, was Sloane MS 56 (f.81r). Once again, the ‘twining’ habit and a leaf.
The next example (below, right) comes from another of the best-known Latin (western Christian) herbals, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 747, and yet again we see that to define ivy it was not the flower or any set form for the leaf which was employed, but that close-clinging habit envisaged as twining. The suckers which we now suppose essential to the ivy are not depicted.
But here’s the interesting thing; that other Sloane manuscript (MS 56) noted by Sherwood is not a herbal. It’s an early fifteenth-century copy of John of Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis.
[Part 5] John of Arderne’s glossary and its images
In a passing comment to Pelling’s blog, in 2009, Zandbergen mentioned a different copy of it, though also from the Sloane collection (Brit.Lib. Sloane 335), saying under Pelling’s post, ‘Pre-1450 German possibility’- Dec.21st., 2009) :
“ To add to the confusion… I just found a very nice illustration from a pre-1450 manuscript which is more Voynich Herbal-like than anything I can remember, yet is neither from Italy nor from Germany:. ”
He omitted there to mention that it was English or to give any details or date, but in the British Library catalogue Sloane MS 335 is dated to the ” last quarter of the 14th or 1st quarter of the 15th century”.
I find no evidence that Zandbergen explored the perceived similarities – nor did he specify any – but I agree that there are valid points of comparison to be found in some drawings from that manuscript and some few of the Voynich plant-pictures.
Still other copies remain of Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis and I think readers will be most interested in the catalogue record provided with another copy (made c.1475-1500) and now in Glasgow University’s Special Collections as MS Hunter 251 (U.4.9). Part of that record reads:
Arderne’s style of Latin is rather colloquial; indeed, his texts may almost be described as polyglot as his use of Latin is somewhat inconsistent. As well as providing glosses in English and Anglo-Norman, the text occasionally lapses in to sections written in English for no apparent reason. Although it is impossible to say whether this was how Arderne himself originally composed his work, or whether such anomalies crept in as his texts were copied from manuscript to manuscript, it nevertheless demonstrates the multilingual nature of literate medieval English society.
More, the pictures of interest in Sloane 335 follow after Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ of the ‘French’ plant-names used in Paris in his day. This raises the interesting question of whether the pictures in the earlier copy (Sloane MS 335) may derive from a source which Arderne had copied in Paris during the first half of the fourteenth century. (He is mentioned as serving at the Battle of Crecy). Here, some of the pictures
.. and below Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ courtesy of the University of Glasgow and the internet archive, reproduced from a paper which D’arcy Power delivered in 1913 to the 17th. International Congress of Medicine in London. (Note: Power used the letter i in isolation to signify (that is…) which we normally render as ‘i.e.’.
Stylistic tricks in common.
The drawings do share certain stylistic tricks in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, but the comparison offers no easy key to the Voynich drawings; it is important to distinguish between the graphic techniques employed by draughtsmen and the objects of their attention.
Buds or fruit are shown emerging from the calyx in similar ways, in two cases in Sloane 335 and as comparison the image from folio 1r.
More interesting is the placement of just one black dot on each of a plant’s leaves.
The Sloane drawing appears to me (correct me if you know better) to use the dots to mean ‘burres’ or burrs. It may – but need not – carry the same sense in the Voynich image, though we note the leaves there are are also given spines, or bristles, along the leaf-margins
I would agree then with Rene’s observation, quoted above, that the drawings made in England about the same time as the Vms – but possibly from a French exemplar – display points in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, and that they look “more ‘Voynich like'” than anything I’ve seen so far cited by a Voynich writer – certainly more ‘Voynichlike’ than any image cited from a Latin herbal including the Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, (Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823).
When commenting earlier on these drawings from Sloane 335 (in a postscript to ‘The Matter of “alchemical herbals”‘, voynichimagery, (April 8th., 2013), I added mention of a Peter of Arderne, referring to: Stewart C. Easton, Roger Bacon And His Search For A Universal Science (1952) pp.120-121.
Among other pointers to an Anglo-French environment for manufacture of the Voynich manuscript and its early use are that the month-names are closely similar to the Anglo-French forms; that (as I first pointed out), the linguistic link between a crossbowman and Sagittarius is offered by entries into the English military rolls where ‘Sagittario’ (and variants) are found used for crossbowmen hired for service in Calais, and again (this being now much re-used without mention of the present author), similarity in form between the type of ‘cloudband’ seen in some manuscripts of John Gower’s Vox Clamantis and (in those same), use of the ‘orb’ in three divisions to represent the world – replacing the older ‘T-O’ form. That ‘orb’ form is seen used for the same purpose in works by Roger Bacon and has been attributed to him. I won’t elaborate now, having already published several posts on these matters at voynichimagery.
In closing, readers please note that by c.2010, Dana Scott was alone convinced of an English provenance for the Voynich manuscript and he continued actively engaged in investigating English sources when I last saw his comments to the second mailing list. Any researcher finding him/herself moving towards a similar position should not neglect to consult the work Dana has done over so many years, nor to credit him by name when taking any of it… up. The second mailing list is still running, thanks to the generosity of Rich Santacoloma and I believe Dana remains a member.
typo corrected (thanks, Michael).25th May 2019; abstract added May 27th., 2019 and clarifications for the sense in which ‘Tractatus de herbis’ is used in this paper.
June 1st – Gower images added at Dr.O’Donovan’s instruction. June 3rd, detail from Brit.Lib. Arundel MS 83 f.130. L.S.