‘Pharma’? – and f.13r

Header – Thomas Johnson’s illustration of his banana plant from The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1633)

AS A RULE, I do not recommend using evidence from one section of the manuscript to support an idea/theory/opinion proposed about any other.

Clear stylistic differences in images from, say, the plant-pictures as against the ‘ladies’ folios means that the material copied and collected to form Beinecke MS 408 cannot be presumed united by any single theme, nor inferences from one section be presumed to apply to another. As I’ve said earlier, we cannot know when the written part of the text was devised, and in any case a consistent written text cannot be presumed to imply any constant theme – such as medicine – will inform the whole work.

However, since the present question is whether the primary evidence offers any support for Georg Baresch’s assertion of ‘oriental’ origin for the information and images, including the plants’, the latter having also been – according to him – still unknown to German botanists in 1639, so it seems reasonable here to consider the drawing on folio 13r as one of the most easily ‘read’ by modern viewers, and which appears to offer Baresch positive support and add to the evidence seen so far in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

I believe Edith Sherwood was first to identify the subject of the drawing on folio 13r as the (or ‘a’) banana plant. It was not her custom to offer analytical or historical commentary to explain how her opinions were reached, and it seems that in 2008, when offering this one, she did not realise that identification must oppose the theory she then held, namely that the manuscript’s drawings had been made by a young Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) – a theory further challenged when, a few years later, the radiocarbon-14 results were published, giving a range of 1404-1438 AD.

Meanwhile, unaware of her views, I had published in 2010 a full analytical study of the drawing, identifying its subject as a group of plants which, in regions where they grew, were all perceived as ‘bananas’. I also noted that certain details in the drawing – such as depiction of the fruit up-turned – are characteristic of regions east of the Mediterranean and that other details in the drawing show a first-hand knowledge not only of such plants but of certain specific uses for them – matter which was as much unknown to medieval Europe’s textual traditions as was the appearance of such plants until centuries after the Voynich manuscript was made.

first published in D.N. O’Donovan “f.13r: bananas – Pt 1” July 7th., 2012

Their uses need not be revisited in this post, but evidence of first-hand knowledge is surely relevant. The drawing on folio 13r includes an unusually literal representation of leaf-types, of the corm-as-root, and of the plants’ habit.

first published in D.N. O’Donovan “f.13r: bananas – Pt 1” July 7th., 2012

Bananas are not trees but after producing fruit on one pseudo-stem which dies off, the corm will usually produce another each year, making it effectively if not technically perennial. This too the first enunciator of the drawing knew, that detail enlarged below.

(In my opinion, the motifs employed here together, as a white ‘collar’ and shooting stem signify ‘cultivated plant’ and ‘rapidly regenerates’ respectively and do so consistently throughout the Voynich botanical drawings.)

The rest of the drawing is just as accurate when one is aware that this drawing is meant to represent a group – a ‘class’ – of plant, and not a single specimen as was the Latins’ habit.

Researchers have to keep in mind that drawings in the Voynich manuscript received their final form three centuries before Linnaeus was born, so any grouping or system of classification will not be his, but reflect the perceptions and linguistic habits of those of persons who were familiar with the plants, and to a large extent Linnaeus’ decisions about genus and species are irrelevant to an understanding of the manuscript, though obviously convenient for researchers’ in conversation.

Rather than simply repeating what I said in 2010, or in two detailed essays published in July of 2012, I’ll link to a couple of current wiki articles. So (here) Valmayor et al. are cited for saying that “In Southeast Asia – the center of diversity for bananas, both wild and cultivated – the distinction between “bananas” and “plantains” does not work.”

and (here),

“In other regions of the world, particularly India, Southeast Asia and the islands of the Pacific, there are many more kinds of banana and the two-fold distinction (between the ‘bananas’ and ‘plantains’ including ensete) is not useful and [is] not made in local languages”.

A somewhat simplified distribution map includes only the plants which modern botany describes as ‘Musa’ or ‘Ensete’ – here – but will be enough to show readers who’ve followed this series from the first that the line of distribution overlays the maritime routes which altogether connected southeast Asia to as far as Madagascar and constitute the eastern side of the maritime ‘spice route’.

It is fair, then, to say that plants of the ‘bananas’ are ‘exotics’ and ‘from eastern parts’ in relation to Europe. So far, so consistent with those views which Baresch urged on Kircher in 1639.

As for Baresch’s saying that he “guessed” the manuscript’s content was chiefly medicinal, we may have reservations; the fruit’s chief use was as a foodstuff and, in a time without refrigeration, bananas would last no more than a few days. Even if one were to imagine the fruit carried to medieval western Europe – and imagination is all it would be – that would not include such detailed knowledge of the plants which produced it.

For Voynich studies, then, the obvious implication must be that John Tiltman was perfectly right when he made clear, in 1967, that for researchers to continue hunting for ‘matches’ in nothing but medieval Europe’s herbals would be an exercise in futility. As it had been to that time, and has been since.

And, now, Baresch’s views find support from both details given artefacts in the ‘leaf and root’ section and from at least one of the plant-pictures.

Some in Latin Europe had heard of some form of ‘banana’ by the late fourteenth century, but only from hearsay and it clearly did not include any detailed botanical description of the plant’s habit or structure.

This we know because it was in the late fourteenth century that a few select persons in Latin Europe obtained access to a translation of Ibn Buṭlān’s ‘Tables of Health’ known in the Arabic as as Taqwim al-sihha, but in the Latin translations as ‘Tacuinum sanitatis‘ or ‘tacuini sanitatis‘.

When they came to mention of ‘bananas’, the Latin translators set aside the usual seven-point format by which the author described every good, and instead included a form of apology for this unknown and irrelevant item, by describing its appearance from hearsay and suggesting it was not entirely irrelevant to Italians, French or Germans because it was known in Sicily and Cyprus. They ended with one sentence translating Ibn Buṭlān’s comment on the bananas’ relevance to health.

Precisely what type of ‘bananas’ were meant, we cannot know.

Here’s the passage from an illustrated copy of Tacuinum sanitatis now in Vienna, as translated from the Latin by Judith Spencer.

Musse – Bananas.

It is no surprise that Ellbochasim [i.e Ibn Bulān] mentions this plant and its fruit but as far as we are concerned we know of it only from texts or tales from merchants of Cyprus or pilgrims from the Holy Land. Sicilians, on the other hand, know them well. The leaves are fan-shaped and have a hard rib and a thin blade , which dries up in the summer. The banana has a yellow skin when ripe and white pulp. It seems at first to be very insipid tasting but then, they say, one can never eat enough of them due to their delicious flavour, which gradually emerges very pleasantly. They weigh heavily on the stomach and their only virtue [for health] is that they are sexually arousing.

Descriptions were rare, so much so that the most-often mentioned today comes from a traveller who stopped off in Cyprus in 1450 the late 1450s. It is so often cited that in an ‘afterword’ post to voynichimagery I finally reproduced the entire passage to prove that the description was in no sense a botanical one. Here’s that clip again.


Some copies of the Tacuinum were illustrated, but in the case of Ibn Buṭlān’s “bananas” the illustrators were plainly at a loss.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the first illustrator turned to a Latin herbal of the southern, Sicilian-Salernitan type, akin to the ‘Manfredus’ herbal, and so depicted some plant whose Latin name included some such term as ‘Musa’. To have looked towards Sicily was reasonable enough, but of course no Latin herbal includes a banana, so the image selected was wrong, showing again that the Latins had no idea of the plants’ appearance and this reinforced by the fact that subsequent copies of that translation copied the same mis-matched image.

(This point was revisited fairly recently (2018) by J.K. Petersen, about whose post I’ll say more further below.)

For the period between the late fourteenth century and 1639 when Baresch wrote to Athansius Kircher, I’ll quote a few paragraphs from the analysis of the drawing (2010) and from the second essay published in 2012, which was concerned with Europe’s knowledge of the plants’ form.

If one is to imagine the Voynich manuscript’s content entirely the creation of some Latin author, one would surely have to posit a Genoese or a Venetian, these city-states having regular links to ‘eastern parts’ where a Latin *might* have had an opportunity to draw such plants accurately, but if that ever occurred, it was plainly without effect on the Latins’ illustrative tradition, reflected in neither the western herbals nor in the printed botanical works.

Banana fruit was once considered that of  the tree of paradise, or of wisdom, something reflected in the old scientific names for the two wild species of plaintain banana:  Musa acuminata (formerly Musa sapientum) and Musa balbisiana (formerly Musa paradisiaca)…  [the] fruit .. comes in a variety of sizes and colors, including yellow, purple, and red…[and] the term ‘banana’ is also used – more loosely – to describe the Ensete.

On April 10th, 1633 a man in Bermuda sent to the President of the College of Physicians in England a bunch of bananas, which were then sent to the apothecary John Argent, who hung them from his doorway, had their portrait made and included in the same year in a new edition of  Gerard’s Herbal (1633). Theophrastus made it into the same edition. But until then, bananas had never before been seen in England and no European work had come close to representing the plants’ leaves and habit. Even then, the image did not show the ‘root’. 

da Orta bananaAs the  ‘Banana palm’ this printed illustration appeared in a work published in Lyon in 1602, the text credited to Cristóvão da Costa, though it is no more than the translation into French of a work published in Antwerp 25 years before: Carolus Clusius’  Aromatum (1576).

Nor was  Clusius’ work his own composition. It, in turn, translated from the Portuguese,  Garcia da Orta’s,  Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”) – published neither in France nor Spain but in India (Goa) itself – 1563.

For reasons which are not entirely clear, the church decided after da Orta’s death that he had returned to the Jewish religion of his parents (they having been forcibly converted from Judaism to Christianity),  and so ordered his grave and body desecrated. His works were apparently just plagiarised and credited to a Latin as ‘author’.  

To quote the wiki article – which is easiest for readers to check:

“da Orta’s remarkable knowledge of Eastern spices and drugs is revealed in his only known work, Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”), published at Goa in 1563. This deals with a series of substances, many of them unknown or the subject of confusion and misinformation in Europe at this period”

Schwab is of the opinion that al Baitar’s Kitab al-Nasiti was unequalled by any European work of its time, and is not known to have been translated into Latin, or any western vernacular tongue though he wrote during the period of the Salerno medical school.

al-Baitar’s pharmaceutical encyclopedia describes 1,400 plants, foods, and drugs, 300 of which are said to have been original discoveries.


… for our purpose and the seventeenth-century context, the important point is that the same person who rendered Clusius’ Aromaticum into French, Antoine Colin,  made other translations whose focus was on the materia medica of regions beyond Europe.

Colin bore the title “Master Apothecary of the City of Lyon” and it was his publisher, Jean Pillehotte, who was in Lyon the nominated printer for the Society of Jesus, the religious order to which Athanasius Kircher belonged.

From Pillehotte’s press, therefore, issued a great number of works, commissioned texts and (presumably) commissioned translations, works both religious and scientific, whose market were the merchants and the missionaries looking eastward, as well as the medical or educational fraternities. He published from the end of the sixteenth century to the earlier part of the seventeenth: only a few decades after which we hear that Kircher was now urging the current owner of the Voynich manuscript to send him the whole manuscript (where to send a faithful copy was more usual, and more sensible as Baresch had said in his own letter of 1639 – note added 2021).

This would appear to suggest that Kircher believed it [the Voynich manuscript] contained something that was not already available in print, but was relevant to his own interests: as a man with a reputation for understanding ancient or distant languages, or as a priest, or as a priest particularly hoping to be assigned to his Society’s missions in China.

Nonetheless, as as will be seen from the seventeenth-century woodcut illustration (above), Europe had not even nearly approached the level of accuracy in depicting the plant/s that is found two hundred years earlier in the Voynich manuscript. 

What is evident from the illustration shown above, is that a knowledge of the bananas, (and, within them, of those Linnaeus would later exclude from his Muscaceae) which falls far below the level of  intimacy demonstrated by the image on folio 13r. The woodcut does, however, show a mark reminiscent of the circumscription line ~  the sign used in our manuscript and which- in my opinion- is deployed as sign of the plant’s being cultivated. 

Thus, to hold that [Beinecke MS 408]  as a finished text is a product of the fifteenth century and a generally ‘Latin’ environment is reasonable, and to suppose it inscribed by a person trained in the European style is not unreasonable. But to insist on attributing its entire creation and content to some ‘author’ whose horizons (in 1438) were no wider than mainland Europe is opposed by all the historical evidence at our disposal, especially in regard to the drawing on this folio.

Whoever first created this drawing on folio 13r, regardless of where and when the drawing was subsequently copied, had done so in a region where plants of the ‘bananas’ sort actually grew and where they, themselves, had seen the formation of the plant(s) root, and habit, and understood its several uses in those regions.

In the Mediterranean world between 1438 and 1639 there are few accounts of ‘the’ or of ‘a’ ‘banana’ and these have it as a rare exotic encountered in passing and in regions beyond and ‘eastward’ of mainland Europe. 

Note (2021) – Capodilista is also mentioned by Harper McAlpine Black in a post of 2014, though his impression of an exclusively Arab-driven ‘agricultural revolution’ in the southern Mediterranean has been questioned, and is less categorically expressed in more recent scholarship. 

In summary.

Plants of the ‘bananas’ type were known only by hearsay in northern Italy by the late fourteenth century with Sicily and Cyprus said to have some type of ‘banana’ grown by that time – but no Latin work depicts them with anything like the same completeness and accuracy, even to so late as Baresch’s letter to Kircher in 1639.

Together with indications offered by details in the ‘leaf and root’ section, the manuscript offers support for Baresch’s saying that the matter had been obtained ‘from eastern parts’ and some support for his belief that the plants represented by the larger drawings were not native to Europe and were still unrecognised by contemporary European (specifically German) botanists in his day.

It should be obvious, therefore, that (1) the drawing on folio 13r will find no counterpart in any Latin European work made earlier than our manuscript, and continuing efforts to find ‘matches’ in Latin herbals are likely to prove as fruitless in future than they have been hitherto. (2) that no European herbal or botanical text is directly derived from matter in our manuscript and (3) that whoever first made the drawing on folio 13r had seen a living plant and knew it intimately enough to depict its uses and its ‘root’ – something rarely done even in the fully ‘literal’ plant portraits created by early modern western botanists.

Acknowledging previous contributions.

I happened to notice in 2013 – five years after Sherwood’s identification had been offered, and after I had published my own more detailed essays, that Rene Zandbergen’s entry for folio 13r read:

“This has been compared to a banana plant but this tentative identification is not generally accepted.” – voynich.nu in 2013.

Whether Sherwood’s identification was offered in a ‘tentative’ mood or not I cannot say. My own was a conclusion reached after doing the necessary research and was presented with my evidence and the usual apparatus.

If Rene Zandbergen’s site used a less impersonal tone, rather than attempting to convey an impartial and authoritative air appropriate to some such work as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one might excuse his failure to correctly acknowledge the source of an original contribution to this study. His omission of Sherwood’s name could only frustrate serious researchers who would, as a matter of normal method, go back to the origin of any ‘Voynich’ contribution and test the evidence and reasoning that had produced it. As it was, a reader was blocked from that information and left unsure whether it mightn’t have been a ‘tentative’ identification offered by Zandbergen himself.

Zandbergen’s refusal to acknowledge the more detailed studies that had been contributed by the present writer is not surprising; Zandbergen has no desire to direct his readers towards work unsupportive of his preferred ‘central European voynich’ theory.

Before the rise of that theory in the early 2000s, discovering precedent studies and the origin of various ideas and theories was not particularly difficult. Most of those involved were trained to properly acknowledge their sources and were happy to direct newer-come researchers to any useful precedents. The ‘sunflower’ idea, for example, was routinely credited to Hugh O’Neill, and one had no difficulty then in reading the seminal ‘article’ and realising the idea was presented without any argument or evidence of any effort to test it against the iconographic or historical record.

However – and for reasons I don’t pretend to understand – the rise of that ‘central European’ theory saw in parallel an increasing effort to turn the process of Voynich research into one where energy was no longer directed towards better understanding the manuscript but to successfully promoting one theory or another while suppressing opposition to it, whether such opposition was supposed embodied in written research or in the person of the researcher.

By the time I was asked to consider the manuscript’s drawings it had become a ‘dictat’ in Voynich arenas that – and I quote – “to cite precedents is unnecessary”. Requests for information about where I might read anything previously done on (for example) the subject of the plant-pictures as pictures was met by pack-attacks, and assertions that no-one would ask about precedents unless (and again I quote) “they were out for glory”.

After that time, the habit of supposing one need – and in fact ought – never credit any original contribution to the study unless attributing it to a ‘team-member’ also grew apace, and to this day, sites such as voynich.nu inaccurately or improperly modify their documentation in that way.

The results of combined ignorance and ‘policy’ have been disastrous for any serious advance in this manuscript’s study, producing endless ‘re-inventions’ of work earlier done, effectively legitimising plagiarism, and preventing new-comers from building upon or re-considering the range of earlier and current studies.

Not a few newcomers – and I speak from experience – on hearing it denied that any precedent existed which should be considered, embarked on a line of research only to find, on completing it, that their conclusions were dismissed as ‘nothing new’ and/or that they were accused of plagiarising the very precedents whose consideration had been asserted ‘unnecessary’. This is also why, years after the subject of the drawing on folio 13r was first identified, and also independently identified with the drawing explained and the historical context and implications laid out in detail, a Voynichero such as ‘vviews’ could suppose that ball was still in the air.

[NOTE. added Sept 29th., 2021]. While trying to decide, in 2010, whether or not to post online my evidence and conclusions about the manuscript’s plant-pictures, I looked again for some reputable precedent, and my enquiring of the older participants at a certain Voynich arena meeting only with immediate hostility, I turned to Nick Pelling, whose memory was also among the longest in Voynich studies. He very kindly directed me to remark once made by John Tiltman, to the effect that one or more of the images might be ‘composites’.  Though Tiltman supposed the plants would be European, and evidently thought such ‘composites’ would be random, it was a precedent of sorts that I might safely cite, and enough to decide me in favour of publishing online the summaries, at least, of my own investigations in the hope of assisting those who were struggling to understand the written part of the text.  The point I’d like to emphasise here is that not every ‘Voynich traditionalist’ is ignorant of, or indifferent to, our discipline’s ethics and method.

Among the most adamant in their support of the idea that “to cite precedents is unnecessary” has been Mr. J.K. Petersen, who has said plainly more than once that he feels no obligation to acknowledge any precedent, nor to cite any sources, except as and if he pleases.

Which brings me back to Mr. Petersen’s blogpost of November 2018. (J.K. Petersen, voynichportal (blog) 10th November 2018.

In recommending readers consider it, I add the caveat that Mr. Petersen’s position means one can never be wholly certain if ideas presented by his posts as if new and original insights are so in fact, or derive from one or more earlier studies which he does not choose to acknowledge..

Ibn Buṭlān, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Mukhtār ibn ‘Abdūn (d. 1066/458)
ابو الحسن المختار ابن عبدون ابن بطلان

Ibn Bulān was a Christian physician of Baghdad. In 1049 he left Baghdad to travel to Aleppo, Antioch, Laodicea, Jaffa, Cairo and Constantinople. Toward the end of his life he settled in Antioch, where he became a monk and died in the monastery on 8 Shawwal 458 (2 September 1066). His treatise on medicine for monks is preserved in a copy at NLM.

His treatise on hygiene and dietetics, Taqwīm al-sihhah (The Almanac of Health) presented a guide to medical regimen in tabular form. It was probably the most well-known of his treatises, and was later influential in Europe through its Latin translation, Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina. For an edition of the text with French translation, see Hosam Elkhadem, Le “Taqwim al-sihha” (Tacuini sanitatis) d’Ibn Bulān: Un traité médical du XIe siècle. Histoire du texte, édition critique, traduction, commentaire (Académie royale de Belgique, Classe des lettres, Fonds René Draguet, vol. 7) (Leuven, Belgium: Aedibus Peeters, 1990).

For his life and writings, see L.I. Conrad, “Scholarship and social context: a medical case from the eleventh-century Near East” in Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions, ed. Don Bates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 84-100; GAL-S, vol. 1, p. 885; Ullmann, Medizin, pp. 157-158; J. Schacht, “Ibn Butlan”, EI (2nd ed.),vol. 3, pp. 740-742; and Ibn Butlan, The Physicians’ Dinner Party, ed. & tr. Klein-Franke, (Wiesbaden: Olms, 1985).

from: ‘Biographies’ at website Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the [U.S.] National Library of Medicine.

When, in 1491, the brothers de Gregorii printed Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae in Venice that year, it was Europe’s first illustrated medical book.

Pharma? Red Cylinders. Bases.

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

* (as we’ll call it, following Gheueuns et.al.)

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

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

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

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

Recap of the series so far.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

capsa. Pompeii 1stC AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

BASES – details

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

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

Some examples of western representations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tang dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:

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

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