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An analytical study made of any problematic item or corpus is rarely less than ten-to-twelve thousand words long* and even given the constraints on study of Beinecke MS 408 and my cutting analysis to basics and omitting most of the point-by-point commentary, this is necessarily a long-ish post.
*An analytical study will include discussion of the materials used, including any lab.studies, must treat the drawing point-by-point and provide well-researched historical and technical commentary, including commentary on the cultural norms and significance for the community in which that image was first enunciated – not to mention tracking evidence of subsequent transmission and/or dissemination. ‘Picture-matching’ isn’t analysis.
An example offering a fairly easy introduction to how most (not all) the Voynich plant-pictures are encoded, while allowing us to test certain assertions made about this section, is provided by the drawing on folio 13r.
The statements to be tested are:
- 1639 – “herbae pereginae” – Georg Baresch.
- 1928 – “escaped all medieval and Renaissance influence” – Robert Steele
- 1944 – “Christopher Columbus…New world specimens” Hugh O’Neill
- 1957 – “awful drawings” – T.A. Sprague
- 1967 – “no .. point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book” -John Tiltman.
- 1969 -? – “botanical and scientific drawings..” Beinecke catalogue.
So far as I know* Edith Sherwood, a pharmacist with a particular interest in the history of that profession, was the first to offer the identification ‘banana-plant’ for the drawing on folio 13r.
*as ever, better information is always welcome.
Sherwood’s identifications are sometimes inspired though are not analytical studies, since they are offered without discussion of the drawing per se, and without explanatory or historical commentary.
Treating this drawing a couple of years later, my conclusions agreed with Sherwood’s in general, but differ in various particulars – chiefly to do with the principles informing the drawing’s construction and certain stylistics* which are present that are rare or found not at all in Europe’s medieval and Renaissance art.
*’Stylistics’ is a general term to describe what you might call, as a very rough analogy, the marks of a particular graphic code.
I was impressed at finding that this drawing presents a more detailed and informative image of the bananas than we find in any European illustration until after the Voynich manuscript had been sent to Athanasius Kircher in 1666.
Disinctions – general
The plant-drawings display no knowledge of, nor interest in, illusionist drawing and many resort to formalisation as a means to indicate depth.
In treating the Voynich drawings, researchers will find no detail is coloured in the pink-purple-black range. I found a consistent practice of colouring any plant-part naturally in that range by using a red pigment for the lighter end of that spectrum and blue for the darker end – except that if parts of a plant appear in life purplish-black or black, that part may be omitted entirely from the drawing. This applies to the drawing on folio 13r where the purple-black male (staminate) flowers are omitted and we are shown only the developing flower-fruits. There are a few instances of this last practice in the Latins’ herbals; before Cadomosto’s herbal (c.1470) it is common to find that the purple spathe of Dracontea is omitted in Latin herbals or (as here) differently coloured.
In the western Christian church, Purple and black were the liturgical colours, respectively, of advent and of the penitential season and of death, but there there was no cultural prohibition against their use in art and, by the early fifteenth century, a Latin illustrator would have no reason not to colour a pink flower pink. That our fifteenth-century manuscript, presumed made in a Latin domain, retains this constant avoidance indicates, with other non-Latin stylistics, that what we have is a careful copy from an original first enunciated elsewhere.
In western botanical science and even before Linnaeus, a plant’s flower is central to plant-identification, yet in all but a handful of the Voynich drawings, a flower-fruit is only included when it has/had an independent commercial value.
Folio 13r is among the many instances within the section that the form given a flower-fruit is clearly well-informed, yet has that detail turned upwards as if facing the sun, regardless of how it appears in life. Though not unknown in medieval Latin art (see example in previous post) the custom is relatively rare there, especially after the fourteenth century. It is found elsewhere.
In terms of Voynich theories:
No type of banana plant has, or ever had, a place in the western pharmacopoeia or been used in medicine. Grieves mentions two incidents reported to The Lancet in 1916, of “plantain juice” being given to a victim of snake-bite in southern India but as this occurred in combination with the usual treatment of ligature, incision, bleeding and application of permanganate, I suspect the ‘plantain juice’ a beer (see below) administered to relieve shock – equivalent to sweet tea or ‘medicinal’ brandy. (As ever, if readers know more, or better, please comment).
The physical appearance of the banana plant(s) remained unknown to Latins’ texts of natural history, botany and pharmacy until long after the Voynich manuscript was made.
Images labelled ‘Musa’ (banana) and made to illustrate Latin copies of Ibn Butlan’s regimen for healthy living, Taqwīm aṣ‑Ṣiḥḥa (Lat. ‘Tacuinum sanitatis’) are obviously drawn from hearsay and we find this stated explicitly in one of the four illustrated copies remaining from the fourteenth century: “we know it [Musa] only from texts or tales from merchants from Cyprus or pilgrims from the Holy Land.” *
- I use Judith Spencer’s translation from Cod. Vindob. ser. nov. 2644. See The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti (1984) p.82 The Vienna is one of four illustrated copies remaining from the late 14thC, all made in Lombardy. On this matter I’d also recommend:
- Jean Ann Givens, Karen Reeds, Alain Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550, (2006) pp. 51–81.
The pictorial evidence confirms this. Below, a selection of ‘banana-plant’ images from European works produced between the fourteenth century and the 1660s. I add a comparison between the Voynich drawing’s ‘corm and root’ detail and that detail as represented by a modern botanical diagram. Note omission of the corm in the pre-1660 illustrations.
This startling difference in quality and accuracy between renderings for ‘bananas’ in European works to as late as the seventeenth-century and that in drawing on f.13r makes clear that wherever our present copy was made, the original drawing did not originate in Latin Europe and whoever first formed the image was familiar with these plants in a way only possible at first-hand. In theory, the drawing might have been made by a Latin in Cyprus or the Holy Land, but the stylistics and the drawing’s construction, as well as historical information about the species grown medieval Cyprus and the Levant oppose such an origin for the drawing. (this is another section from the analytical study omitted here).
That we find no similarly-well informed drawing in the European works, even by the seventeenth century lends support to Tiltman’s assessment of that western textual tradition as he gave it in 1967.
Overall, this drawing presents opposition to various other assertions made about these drawings – as that they are
“Bad, incompetent, careless.. awful drawings” etc.
I found the drawing on folio 13r lucid, even elegant in its arrangement and system of construction. That it remains so in our present copy is evidently due to the care taken by the fifteenth-century copyists and presumably the wishes of whoever paid for the copies to be made. I’d also note that our finding no clear sign of influence from this or other Voynich plant-drawings in subsequent botanical or herbal texts from Europe presents opposition to the idea that it was made for any person or institution important in Europe’s history of its scientific, intellectual, religious or artistic development.
The drawing’s construction.
The drawing on folio 13r, like a majority of the finer drawings, combines a use of near-literal ‘code’ for the defining elements – leaf, habit and habitat (not flower) – with less literal forms designed so that they convey concisely and with precision other information of a kind only relevant for those buying, selling or using the plants.
This difference from the Latins’ approach to image-forming and plant-identification is most interesting and clearly not derived from the ‘single specimen portrait’ principle of the Dioscoridan tradition,
A majority (not all) the Voynich plant-pictures refer to a perceived ‘group’.
This is represented by using one plant (its leaf, habit etc.) as principal or definitive while information about others in the group is reference by lesser details, typically presented in non-literal form, but in folio 13r by a fairly literal rendering of the various leaf-types.
Among them is the distinctive leaf of what are called, where they grow, the ‘blood banana’ (Musa acuminata var. zebrina)* – a plant native to Java but naturalised in parts of Africa, where it is still used to make a traditional beer (not the commercial, bottled beer sold today).
Some scientific schemes today do not recognise var. zebrina, but what is known (by convention) as Linnaean taxonomy was not to exist for some centuries after our manuscript was made. In approaching these drawings, then, what matters is only how persons who knew and used these plants before 1438 AD regarded and grouped them.
The plant-drawings which are constructed as composites are not randomly or whimsically formed but consistently display first-hand knowledge of appearance, habit, habitat, use/s and customary associations, primarily as those matters relate to daily practical use and (thus) commercial value.
I found the most usual groupings (save occasional ring-ins such as the violas) to be determined by natural proximity and common habitat, by having uses alternative/interchangeable (as with the bananas) or complementary as e.g. a plant used in eastern paper-making joined with a plant recorded as used to scent and preserve paper. As a handbook and ‘reminder list’ such a system would obviously be convenient: a sort of field-guide (so to speak) for merchants, factors or overseers.
In a few cases, we found a group’s definition would appear to have been a term in the vernacular as e.g. the word used to refer to any plant classed as a “desert fodder-plant”‘, but since documentation for these terms pre-1440 has been limited to some fragments from the Cairo geniza, this conclusion must be considered tentative.
Not every plant- drawing in the manuscript is composed by these principles of construction; a few look as if they might have come from an Arabic copy of Dioscorides. Most interesting among the exceptions is the ‘violas’ group where the maker has understood the principle of composite construction, but his stylistics are those of a very different – and possibly western European- cultural environment.
John Tiltman sensed that some of the Voynich plant-drawings were composites but since it is not characteristic of the western herbal or botanical illustrative traditions, he supposed the examples he noted due to an individual European’s whim or desire to obscure. (Nevertheless it was with some relief, that I found I had anyone I might mention as sort-of precedent for this in Voynich studies).
Some time after I’d published a longer summary of my analysis, Sherwood published online an article (here) in which she says “botanists, who examined the VM’s botanical drawings, have dismissed them as a mishmash of flowers and leaves belonging to unrelated plants” but since none of these botanists is named, the only near-precedent I can name is still John Tiltman. I don’t consider the Voynich plant-drawings a ‘mishmash’; I found the majority informative, economical and elegant in expression – admirably intelligent.
Sherwood was evidently unware of the role served by mnemonic devices in these drawings – at least when she wrote that article- for she dismisses as ‘fanciful’ any drawings that include them.
A modern viewer certainly might think fanciful the ideas to which those devices speak, but their purpose was to assist identification and (in the Voynich drawings) to indicate a group’s uses and value.
We see the custom of using mnemonic devices to evoke cultural associations in the late-classical, eastern Greek images preserved in the Vienna Dioscorides, and even in the western herbal tradition, albeit in very basic forms, mnemonics are still used in some herbals. Below is an instance from an Anglo-Saxon herbal dated to the early eleventh century.
Sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes.from an article o the British Library’s Manuscripts blog (05 April 2017)
Whoever first gave the ‘bananas-group’ image on folio 13r its form knew these plants well, their diverse forms and the different forms of leaf associated with each. Most impressive is the way the corm is shown effectively anatomised – as if cut through* and a clear distinction made between roots and corm in a way no western botanical or herbal illustration would do until centuries after our present manuscript’s quires were inscribed – and as few formal botanical drawings do even now.
Morphology of Banana Plants
It is evident that the banana-group had certain proverbial associations among the original maker’s community; the same form which is used quite directly in folio 13r is used as mnemonic device in others of the plant- drawings. Its significance I have explained elsewhere and in different ways we find it also understood in (at least) 9th-10thC Baghdad and Mozarabic Spain.
The curved but pointed spike seen to front centre in the Voynich drawing is a sucker-spike, represented in the modern diagram on its right.
Compare the lucidity and intelligence of folio 13r’s drawing with a western botanical illustration made for a European translation of Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India, composed in Goa by Garcia de Orta (1501 – 1568). If it were not for our manuscript’s date, da Orta’s posited original manuscript would have been one on my list of potential sources for many of plant-pictures in Beinecke MS 408.
So, by the testimony offered by folios 25r and 13r only:
- 1639 – George Baresch: “herbae pereginae” SUPPORTED
- 1928 – Robert Steele: “escaped all medieval and Renaissance influence” SUPPORTED (save the dragon on f.25r)
- 1944 – Hugh O’Neill: “Christopher Columbus…specimens” . DENIED
- 1957 – T.A. Sprague – “awful drawings” – OPPOSED
- 1967 – John Tiltman: “no .. point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book” -John Tiltman. SUPPORTED
- 1969 -? Beinecke catalogue: “botanical .. drawings..”. Yes-and-no; depends on the sense intended for ‘botanical’
Postscript – 1
Jules Janick is a respected botanist, author of valuable papers on the history of plants’ dissemination and identification of plants in drawings of various traditions, including the Asian. It is significant that he too did not associate the Voynich drawings with the medieval or Renaissance Latin herbals or botanical texts, but saw the drawings as referring to exotics and even collaborated with Albert O. Tucker in attempting to justify Hugh O’Neill’s “new world” notion. Unfortunately he also presumed that the Voynich drawings wold be specimen-portraits in Dioscoridan style. His involvement in the ‘Voynich Codex Unravelled’ project might have seen another fine academic ship wrecked on the Voynich rock, but in this case, happily, his ship survives.
A wiki article says that the Arabic word for bananas and plantains – Mauz – is discussed by the Persian Avicenna, whose Canon of Medicine, written in the 11thC, was translated to Latin and became well- known in Europe. In the Latin versions the term is rendered ‘Musa’. I find no evidence of the banana-plants’ being described or illustrated in any copy of Avicenna’s text. But if I’ve missed one – correction is welcome.
Postscript – 3
Preview from the next episode, ‘Emerging Botanical art in late-medieval/Renaissance Europe’.
The image above is part of a fresco painted about the time of Dioscorides (c.40 AD – 90 AD) and Pliny the Elder (c.24 AD – 79 AD). Buried by the same eruption of Vesuvius that cost Pliny his life, its recovery has entranced historians of art and of botany, certainly, but in this case even historians of international exchange because the way the garden stake is drawn appears to show it a type of Asian bamboo.
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