“Pharma”? Pt 2-ii. glass?

Recap of previous post.

William Romaine Newbold relied on nothing but his imagination and a false analogy in supposing that a section of the manuscript shows “receptacles used by [western European] pharmacists”.

But that notion was relayed, untested, through following generations of Voynich writers, until its repetition in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and in the Beinecke Library’s catalogue, now sees Newbold’s notion constantly mistaken for fact.

*H.P. Kraus may have influenced the Beinecke and d’Imperio, but his description (Enigma p.79) mentions neither ‘pharmacy’ nor ‘pharmaceutical jars’.

Investigation of the pictorial, documentary and archaeological records, however,  shows that medieval pharmacies in western Europe were using the same practical, utilitarian containers at that time as they had done for generations before and would continue to do for generations more.  Most of the forms and varieties of pharmacists’ containers, other than the albarello and some unguent containers (as seen in images of the ‘three Marys’) are accurately shown in the scene below, in painting made fully sixty years after the manuscript’s radiocarbon range of 1404-1438.  


Abstract. Setting aside Newbold’s anachronistic ‘pharma-‘ jars, it is still worth asking whether any drawings in the ‘leaf and root’ section were meant to describe items made of glass.   Information given to Nick Pelling during his visits to the Murano glass museum, and which he reported in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) opens new avenues for research when considered in the broader historical context, including the work of a ‘Master Aldrevandin’ who worked in Muran from 1290 to 1350. 

An editorial comment considers problems of interpretation and whether we may reasonably read some drawings in the ‘leaf and root’ section as representing glass. 

In a subsequent post, we track the re-emergence of clear (colourless) hard glass from thirteenth-century Venice back to Syria and Egypt where, after 1221, such glass had suddenly re-emerged in beautifully enamelled and gilded glass objects, centuries after the secret of making such glass had been thought lost. 


band Murano floral 15thC gif

Preliminary note: About the Voynich manuscript’s written text – when it was first composed and whether what we now have is a transcription, translation, a text newly composed in the fifteenth century and/or an enciphered text I have no opinion and none, I think, has yet been established certainly. More accessible information is offered by the manuscript’s pictorial text – if treated seriously- and it is with that we are here concerned.

NICK PELLING made his first visit to the Murano glass museum in December 2004, before samples of the manuscript’s vellum returned an adjusted radiocarbon date-range of 1404-1438 AD.

Pelling was hoping to resolve a question as to whether these ‘ornate and florid’ forms (as d’Imperio called them) found any counterpart in glass produced from fifteenth-century Venice. In 2004, Pelling was one of a very few current researchers who considered the manuscript to have been produced during the fifteenth century. (The others who reached that view before the radiocarbon-14 results were published were Philip Neal, Patrick Lockerby and Edith Sherwood. The present author, dating the content distinct from manufacture, had the early fifteenth century as terminus ad quem).

When Acco fell to the Mamluks in 1271 AD, Latin Europe lost its last possession in the Mediterranean’s eastern shore. Venice managed to maintain certain prerogatives in the region (not least by actively collaborating with the Mongols’ plans to invade parts of Europe), but the city realised that it might also capitalise on the fact that other regions of Europe no longer had easy access to glass or to materials needed for its making.

The very next year, 1272, saw Venice issue a law forbidding glass furnaces to be built anywhere in its territory save on the island of Muran, and the glassmakers were thus obliged to remove there too.

(detail) from a 17thC map of Venice and environs. Note that the islands were not yet (or not shown) linked by bridges to each other or to the mainland.

Among the earliest of the glass-makers to arrive were the Barovier family and a certain ‘Master Aldrevandin’. It is possible that the latter, who had the secret of making a good, hard clear glass, was the reason that in 1295 Venice issued a further law, prohibiting glassmakers from leaving Venice, under pain of death.* Muran then became a ghetto but we should not think of it as an artisans’ commune. Epstein, citing Trivellato, speaks of how the concentration of Venetian glassmakers along one street of that small island fostered intense competition. As ever, a technical secret was one’s fortune.

*‘under pain of death’ – allegedly. I’ve not yet verified this.

  • S. R. Epstein, ‘Craft Guilds, Apprenticeship, and Technological Change in Preindustrial Europe’, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 684-713. p.701n.

  • Trivellato, Francesca. “Was Technology Determinant? The Case of Venetian Glass Manufacture, Late 17th Century – Late 18th Century.” Mimeo, University of Venice, 1996.

But none of these laws could overcome the fact that Venice was not naturally endowed with the materials needed for glassmaking. In theory, glassmaking needs silica, usually in the form of sand, and an alkali which was usually natron or ash obtained from salt-loving members of the ‘glasswort’ family and, of course, a constant plentiful supply of fuel for the furnaces. Muran had none of those things, and the Adriatic did not contain sand suitable for glassmaking, nor the right sort of plants to make the right sort of soda-ash..

In Italy, at Torcello (seventh–eighth centuries) and at San Vincenzo al Volturno (ninth century), glass waste found on the site was interpreted as evidence not for a glass factory but for the making of objects from glass using cullet (glass refuse) or glass cakes imported from the eastern Mediterranean. Venice became a major glass-making centre, manufacturing both raw glass and glass objects, only by the [late] thirteenth century. To achieve this status, however, the city was forced to import a considerable range of raw materials, natron, plant ash, sand and cullet, from elsewhere in Italy and the Levant, and to impose stringent trading restrictions on these materials. This level of imports suggests that a trade in raw glass alone might have been generally easier and more straightforward than one in the materials for glass manufacture. (p.36)

  • Liz James, ‘Byzantine glass mosaic tesserae: some material considerations’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 30 No. 1 (2006) 29–47.

see also.

  • various papers in Marlia Mundell Mango (ed..), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange : Papers of the Thirty-eighth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, St John’s College, University of Oxford, March 2004, (2009) pp.199-220. (p.208).

  • One contributor to the same volume comments on inter-regional studies in glass that “locally produced glass [in China] is lead glass, where foreign glass is predominantly soda-lime glass”. Hiromi Kinoshita, ‘Foreign glass excavated in China from the 4thC – 12thC’ in Mango (ed) op.cit., pp.253-262.

While the guide at the Murano glass museum was happy to agree with Pelling’s idea that various details in this section’s drawings found counterparts in works made in Murano, the subsequent radiocarbon dating now makes the most telling question whether or not any of the drawings were meant to refer to clear (decolourised) glass, because the history of ‘clear’ glass provides quite limited historical and geographical parameters and while it is not true that Angelo Barovier ‘invented’ hard, clear glass in 1450, its earlier history in Europe is, again, both clear and clearly limited.

The first and most important question, however, is not how drawings may strike us, but how the person who first gave them form (i.e. first enunciated them) expected they would be read. Since we still do not know when and where the drawings were first enunciated, and have already seen evidence of some antiquity in another section (see ‘Green stars’ posts), so the question of reading becomes of primary importance and worth pausing now to consider.

Discerning intention – editorial comment.

Apart from other important considerations, it must be kept in mind that in different places, and in different times, different codes have been employed to represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface. 

For example, Europe began indicating depth and distance by use of a ‘vanishing point’ perspective, where e.g. the side of a table nearest the viewer was drawn larger and the more distant, smaller.  East Asian art, and Manichaean art did the opposite.  What we find in the Voynich drawings is an apparent lack of interest in, or lack of awareness of, either of those two conventions. This is one reason that Panofsky could say that these drawings are no product of the Renaissance (which in his time was dated from c.1500).

The ‘leaf-and-root’ section uses a very limited palette, This means that we cannot presume that the colours used are being used literally, and in fact we cannot know certainly  whether the colours we see now are those of the first enunciation of these drawings.

We cannot presume that the colours used for parts of these artefacts are used literally, or whether some are employed according to a code of significance – as for example, whether green might mean one material and red another – as between metal and ceramic, or silver versus gold. 

Since the palette includes no pigments in the range from pink though purple to black so – to take another hypothetical example – if one wanted to represent a black stone mounted in silver, the convention might be to leave the silver areas blank and represent black by the darkest colour in the palette, which in this case might be blue or dark red.

The important factor is not what seems ‘commonsense’ to a twenty-first century, western-educated and literate person, but what graphic conventions were shared by the first enunciator and his contemporary audience.

Surfaces which are coloured red, as in examples [A,B] (below) might be intended to be interpreted as showing a red substance through a translucent or transparent material but might, equally, mean that the surface is coated with coloured earth, paint, or enamel – or that it is of some particular material, such as marble or gold.

In example [A] the correct reading might be of a stoppered bottle. Or instead, a solid or a hollow elipsoid with metal mounting. To illustrate the latter, I’ve chosen an object made in nineteenth-century Australia to ensure that no inference will be taken that their juxtaposition implies a Voynich theory. 

Then we have the ‘dots’ seen on some of these drawings; they might be simple ornament as Pelling initially supposed, or they might signify that the material is pieced, or set with jewels, or patterned with dots repousse.,, or something else again.

In my experience, comments made about the drawings in the Voynich manuscript have most often fallen into easy errors when the most intelligent and self-confident researchers suppose that research is unnecessary – who would not bother testing a Venetian hypothesis by visiting a Venetian museum, but would expect the answer could be gained by subjective impressions, or ‘commonsense’.  What any group of people regard as ‘commonsense’ is a product of their own time and community; there are very few universals – not even about whether human beings cannot fly unaided or walk on water, let alone how to convey information through the graphic line.

One error is especially common among Voynich writers, and that it to adopt a ‘binary’ attitude to images, seeing them as being either easy because literal ‘portraits’ of a thing, or as being essentially inaccessible because the result of some ‘artist’s personal creative vision, with which the reader can only connect by turning to his own emotions and responses to the picture.

Newbold made that mistake. He supposed the ‘leaf and root’ section comprised of portrait-style drawings and his ‘commonsense’ reading resulted in anachronism. For other sections, especially the ‘ladies’ pages, he relied on his personal emotions and responses and so interpreted them as a combination of biology and late-classical philosophy.

Botanical scientists have been among the most over-confident, presuming that a plant-picture ‘ought’ to be a specimen-portrait and (worse) one informed by the categories of Linnaeus. Finding that the drawings do not allow such easy reading, most have ignored the fact that these are drawings, not photos nor plants, and have ignored or arbitrarily ‘corrected’ what is on the page – so they identify drawings from a virtual-Voynich manuscript, not the real one. O’Neill was among the first, but has not been the last to presume as default that the purpose of  a botanical image is to relieve ignorance.  A farmer needs no scientifically accurate drawing to know a cabbage; an embroiderer may not care at all whether a design is botanically accurate.

I consider that the vegetable elements in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section, as distinct from the larger plant-pictures, were meant fairly literally – a little stylized to be sure, and with the most important points exaggerated or dramatised (as e.g. spines of Bombax ceiba) but I do not presume the same true of the way these accompanying artefacts are rendered. 

Attempting to discern how those details were designed to be read might be easier if we could access the written text. As it is, the only way is the harder way. 

Five examples.

What persuades me that some, at least, of the artefacts in this section are meant to be read as made of glass is the depiction of a thick ‘white ring’ around the neck of example [C].

‘The neck-ring ‘wreath’

It is a regular feature of glass made during the period of Roman and of Roman-Byzantine rule in those glass-making areas of the lower, eastern Mediterranean shores – the region that was then and which remained the principal source of glass objects and of materials for glass-making.

Photos below: (left) an example from Karanais in Egypt (3rd-4thC AD); The wide top is intended to hold a strainer or materials serving that purpose. (centre and right) four examples from Palestine under Byzantine-Roman rule (3rd-7thC AD).

A scientific study published in 2020 has finally proven beyond doubt that both opaque and transparent decolourised glass (‘white’ and ‘clear’ glass) originated in the same region and principally in what had been the multicultural Hellenistic city of Alexandria. The term ‘Roman’ glass speaks to a period of time, not to provenance.

The sand along the Mediterranean coast of Egypt and Levant (Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and Syria) originates from the Nile and is ideal for glass production because it naturally contains the amount of lime needed to keep the glass stable and not degradable. In the Levant, they made transparent glass by adding manganese – it was good, but not perfect. The second type of Roman glass, which scientists now show came from Egypt, the glassmakers made transparent by adding antimony (Sb), which made it crystal clear….The research team who made the discovery stated that Roman glass was “not surpassed until the rise of the European industries in the eighteenth century,” news release dated July 9th., 2020.

Scientific Reports DOI 10.1038/s41598-020-68089-w

The curious thing is that the secret of making ‘clear’ glass by either method appears to have been lost in about the 2ndC AD, and would not reappear until it does so quite suddenly, in Syria from c.1221 AD  … and then in Europe in the last decade of that century or the first half of the next, first and most notably in the works of Master Aldrevandin within Europe. 

Contrary to what the historians of Murano glass would have us believe, the technique for making clear hard glass was not ‘invented’ there by Angelo Barovier in 1450.  

All of which means that if any drawings in the manuscript’s ‘leaf and root’ section are meant to be read as clear glass, and yet lack any figural decoration, our likely options are limited:

  • the image was first enunciated within the Roman world before the end of the 2ndC AD. 
  • it was first enunciated in whatever region the secret was then preserved, and from whence it would return to the Mediterranean coast early in the thirteenth century.
  • It was first enunciated in the Levant after c.1221 by persons of unknown origin.
  • it was first enunciated in Europe by the only person in Europe who seems to have had the secret of making clear glass before 1440, the a person we know only as ‘Master Aldrevandin’ and who is associated with Muran between the years 1291/2-1350. So far all known examples of his work are drinking beakers and simple, small, bottles. None has a profile ‘ornate’ or ‘florid’.

Thus, understanding these Voynich drawings reduces to two factors – the question of clear glass, and comparable function and/or profiles.

What is not typical of Roman glasses any is inclusion of a lower ring about the object’s stem – as seen in examples [B,C,D] though it does occur in regions of Umayyad influence

In Muran, where the early models imitated pottery goblets we see knobbed stems. The more interesting detail on this example, however, is the style of the gilded ornament as a very simple interlace-and-dot that may be compared with the finer border from a mid-fourteenth century beaker from Mamluk Egypt or Syria, where the ‘dots’ are within the interlace.

early glass [15thC?} from Muran. Photo courtesy N.Pelling (2004)

The conclusion which appears unavoidable, in relation to Muran, is that ‘Master Aldrevandin’ had acquired the secret himself or, more likely, through a master who had worked in Alexandria or in the Levant after 1221 but before 1290 when Master Aldrevandin is said to have arrived in Muran.

Since nothing known of Master Aldrevandin’s work suggests he made other than small beakers and small bottles, and the clear glass of Angelo Barovier comes too late, so the obvious next step is to look to the east.

A series of carvings on S.Marco represent Venetian crafts. Among them is one curious figure, described as an ‘old man’ though his skin is not shown withered; his face is fully-fleshed and his limbs well rounded. He wears a Sasanian(?) style helmet or turban, has a ‘Mosaic’ sort of beard. His eyes are provided pupils yet he appears to be both blind and lame. He sits in a chair, like a master, but with the robe hitched up to show a bare foot. What is he doing there, among the farmers and wine-makers, cobblers and fishermen? The lameness may be literal, and so too the blindness. Both were professional diseases of those who worked with metal or with glass and this is so well known that a seventeenth-century map of Venice makes the wind which blows upon Muran a figure with covered eyes.

In the closed-off world of the Muran glass-makers, talk of old Master Aldrevandin’s clear glass and its lost secret was surely transmitted down the years until, a century later, one of the Barovier family managed to make a similar glass. It was obvious that a fortune had awaited the first to obtain that secret and fame as well as fortune then followed Angelo Barovier.

Unlike the technique for decolourising glass, that of enamelling (well or badly) is quite widely attested and the evidence also suggests that the plain glasses were exported from Muran, and painted by others, to the buyer’s order.

Beaker with prunting 13thC. provenance uncertain. Possibly Germany.

In 1290, Master Aldrevandin may have remained on Muran, but his glasses appear elsewhere in Europe and bear his name, so it is thought possible that he went travelling for a time, making his clear glass beakers and small bottles – perhaps in England but with a better argument possible for Germany where, however, glass of such clarity soon after ceases to appear in the archaeological record.

All our evidence to date indicates that during the last years of the thirteenth century, Master Aldrevandin was, quite literally, the only glassmaker in Europe who knew that secret – which is why it is conceivable that he was a chief reason for the Republic’s introducing the more restrictive law of 1295 prohibiting any glassmaker from attempting to leave the city.

So we have two threads to Master Aldrevandin’s story. One has it that he produced glass only in Venice for sixty years, from 1290-1350, and the other that for a time he made glass elsewhere (rather than Venice’s simply exporting it) and did so chiefly, if not only, in Germany so far as the current archaeological evidence would indicate. One Aldrevandin beaker carries heraldic motifs that were again recorded in the “Züricher Wappenrolle”, dated to about 1320-1330. (Krueger, op.cit.) But for such work, the glassmaker needn’t have been in Germany, nor the enamelling done in Muran.

  • Ingeborg Krueger, ‘A Second Aldrevandin beaker and an update on a group of enameled glasses’, Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 44 (2002) pp. 111-132. (with thanks to Nick Pelling for drawing my attention to the article).

His production ceases in 1350 and though one might posit that the master-apprentice line (if any) was then broken when Plague arrived in Venice in January 1348, two years at most before his death, we have no information about why the secret of his clear glass remained lost to Venice for the following century – that is, until after the date-range for the Voynich manuscript.

The chief objection to positing any European origin for the artefacts in the ‘leaf and root’ section, is that during the years 1404-1438 it appears there was no-one within Europe who made such objects and none living who knew the secret of clear colourless glass – if any is meant to represent glass of that sort.

The next logical place to look is the eastern Mediterranean, where we find some echoes and some items of apparently comparable purpose, though no exact matches.

The curious-looking base of [D] for example, finds an echo, if not ‘match’ in pottery produced in Palestine under Byzantine rule (below, left). (The chevron patterns on those glass and pottery items, like the spiral trail about the bottle’s neck remind us that transmission of a craft in the old way tended to preserve forms over millennia so long as the master-apprentice line could be maintained).

From the ‘Eretz Israel’ pavilion.

Phoenician glass c.700BC

The structure given the object in drawing [B] appears to me to indicate its purpose was that of a strainer and/or cooler for some liquid, possibly wine if we are to read the red pigment literally, but as a rule when a bowl-shape is found formed without any attached base, we should describe it as lamp.* I know of no example having a precisely similar form, but artefacts having that function and a design on similar principles are attested in the same region – as the example shown (below, right). Apparently the drawing envisages a smaller strainer (if that’s what it is) able to sit over an individual vessel (goblet?). Such an arrangement might also be used to add a scent or flavour to the liquid.

*for numerous examples, including examples with bowl of similar ‘goblet’ profile see e.g. Shulamit Hadad, ‘Excavations at Bet Shean, Vol.2: Islamic Glass Vessels from the Hebrew University Excavations at Bet Shean’, Qedem Reports, Vol. 8 (2005), pp. I-IX,1-202. 

An engineer could doubtless explain in technical terms the meaning of the drawing’s ‘cutaway’ parts [B, enlargement below]. My impression – and it is only an impression – is that the parts coloured green might be meant for pottery rather than glass.

The most interesting drawing of our five examples, I think, is drawing [B] if the lower part is intended to represent a substance seen through a transparent or translucent material.

Others of our five examples, and indeed all of them, might be meant for glass, but the rest can be explained as easily as ceramic or as opaque glass of a type made in the Mediterranean from ancient times.

And ‘from ancient times’ may well be a clue, since we know that in late medieval Italy, all things ‘antique’ were highly valued both aesthetically and financially. I think one might also expect that ‘Roman’ glass pieces turned up more often then than now.

Even so the weight of evidence is that the artefacts in the leaf-and-root section, being depicted before 1440, refer either to the pre-Christian era or to Syria and Egypt after .1221 for there too the secret of clear glass, which had been lost for centuries, re-appears suddenly, in the form of clear glass beakers superbly enamelled and gilded.

Postscript –

It is interesting to speculate, but is a matter for the genealogists to discover, whether Master Aldrevandin is related to Ulisse Aldrovandi, a sixteenth-century collector of many things, one of which was a Ming bowl, and another a small group of curious medieval plant-books, for which Aldrovandi coined the term ‘herbals of the alchemists‘ (- not “alchemical herbals” as is sometimes said).

What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’


Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.