Another interruption – sorry.

I’ve been asked by a certain scholar to provide another example of the interaction of literal with mnemonic elements in the Voynich plant pictures. This is one of the earliest I published – through a ‘Blogger’ blog where, for about three years, I published research-summaries before switching to wordpress.

Originally published in 2010 for a ‘Voynich’ audience then entirely and quite fiercely Eurocentric, I should be less terse if publishing now. By 2012 I did at least feel comfortable enough to publish more detailed information in two posts to voynichimagery, but here I’ll begin by reprinting that original post from 2010. The identification of Myrobalans as the subject of folio 22r* is the result of original research by the present author and had no precedent to that time in any Voynich author’s work. This is indicated in what follows by an asterisk added to the folio number.

The author’s rights are asserted.


D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A plant: Myrobalans folio 22r*’, Findings (blogger blog) July 26th., 2010

I should like to begin by recommending this link at muslimheritage, and in particular its reference to al-Dinawari’s work.

Al Dinawari was born in western Iran, studied in Kufa and Basra, and died in Dinawari. He is called the founder of Arabic botany – by which is meant the corpus of botanical works first composed in the Arabic language.  

al-Dinawari was not an Arab as such, and by the time he wrote – in the 9thC ce – some botanical works earlier produced by Greeks, Indians and Tamils had already been translated into the Arabic script and/or language: – The Ocean of Attainments notably among them.

This is the original work, not a later one called in translation the ‘Essence of…’

I realise that with the majority of Voynich research being focused on the manuscript’s script, codicology and likely transmission through Europe,* work on the origins of its content, and from a study of the imagery alone, may seem irrelevant.

*the sole pre-occupations of the Voynich community in 2010.

The pleasant part of Voynich research, though, is that it enables one to match areas of its study to those in which one is most interested and it is possible to go quite deeply into some of the questions raised by this manuscript without encroaching on others’ work to any noticeable extent.

.. I have already tried to demonstrate that a diagrammatic quality and mnemonic purpose is evident within these drawings: that they were not meant to be – as Pliny put it – ‘portraits’ of these plants. Their presentation tells us something more about the environment in which the drawings content had been first formulated.

Concerning such drawings,  and the mnemonic type generally –  in which religious painters of both west and east have long been expert – Mary Carruthers’ works are particularly helpful, and I’d (yet again) recommend all Voynich researchers read her Book of Memory as a cure for relying on an impression that medieval people had simplistic ways of thinking about the world..

I read the image on fol. 22r* as such a structured representation of the Myrobalans spp., with mnemonic elements included in the drawing. The nature of the mnemonic elements as well as the accuracy of the typically literal details in these plant-group images strongly suggest first origins in a region where the plants grew and not in mainland Europe.

In detail-

The form given these stems in the lower part of the plant is not unusual as it may seem to readers expecting to see an image produced in Latin Christian Europe.

If, instead, if you look at them as a product of the spice-routes which brought eastern plant-products into the Mediterranean you find a similar form alludes to Buddhist associations for the Myrobalans.

Below, for example, you see the same form as we here see given the stalk or stem of the plant in folio 22r* being echoed by the object which is commonly found with figures of the ‘healing Buddha’, where it is always held in the figure’s left hand.

To people in those regions, accustomed equally to the plants’ form and to Buddhist imagery, the formation given the lower stems in this drawing would be instantly evocative of the myrobalans as healing plants, especially with a ‘threefold’ way being associated with both Ayurvedic medicine and the Healing Buddha. I’ll speak of the medical Triphala below. The ‘threefold’ way of Buddhism is usually described as consisting of ethics, meditation, and wisdom.

In the Tibetan tradition, for example, as we see from the figure (below) the Healing Buddha is shown with the myrobalan, as a sprig – seen on the figure’s right – terminating in just such threefold cluster.

For modern Europeans, religious imagery is generally perceived as compartmentalised – occupying a niche independent of, and separate from, daily human activity and interactions, but in earlier centuries, whether in Islam, in the east, or in mainland Europe, religion was ‘nationality’ and indistinguishable from ordinary daily life and culture. Thus, to allude to conventions of religious art in a given region – in this case the region the plants grew – was not necessarily a religious comment or even a sign of religious allegiance in cultures as accepting of diverse religious views as much of the eastern world was.

In this case, an existing connection between iconography of the Healing Buddha and myrobalans made it natural, in regions where the plants grew, to use a device of that kind a as a memory-prompt.

The classifications and descriptions used by modern botanical science often differ from the perceptions of older peoples and it is the latter which inform the groupings seen in the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.

The three plants particularly referenced in this drawing as the ‘Myrobalans’ group are those we call now call

 Terminalia belerica, ‘Belleric’ myrobalans in medieval European works. Proper name in Indian tradition – Bibhitaki. Western writings sometimes call this the ‘lesser-‘, ‘inferior;’ or ‘bastard-‘ Myrobalan.

Emblica officinalis. Called Emblic myrobalans. Proper name in the Indian tradition – Amla or Amalaki
Terminalia chebula. Chebulic myrobalans. Proper name in the Indian tradition – Haritaki.

Returning now to folio 22r* and moving upwards we have the curiously down-turned pods characteristic of Terminalia belerica.

The drawing is not coloured perfectly but, considered only in terms of the line-work, its basic form is good.

I think the pods’ being given a scalloped edge is done to indicate that if fruits of T. bellerica are not available the dried fruits of Terminalia arjuna will do.

additional Image – April 16th., 2022

Above those pods are the racemes which I take to be those of ‘Arjuna’ myrobalans. (Terminalia arjuna) though an argument could be made for another.

In the manuscript these racemes are drawn upturned, as if towards the sun – a convention constant in the (non ring-in) Voynich plant- drawings whenever a ‘flowering fruit’ is shown. It is also a convention attested in some relics from early Buddhist India.

And at the top, we have the threefold form of myrobalans which I take to be fruit of the ‘official’ and best of them – Emblica officinalis.

Image added here April 16th., 2022 – from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r’, voynichimagery, June 29th., 2012

Its scientific descriptions are Emblica officianalis and Phyllanthus emblica, and was widely known before the time of Linnaeus as emblic myrobalans, Indian gooseberry, Malacca tree. Its name in the Indian tradition is Amla, from the Sanskrit amalaki.

I read its hollowed fruit as again referring to a dried form – presumably with stone removed. Use of blue to colour it (the living fruit is gooseberry green) is enough to tell us that when dried, this fruit becomes black. Avoidance of colours in the range pink-purple-black is another constant in the Voynich drawings and is so consistent that I’ve described it as tabu on the part of that community which preserved and maintained the matter in these drawings until the time they entered the Latins’ horizons. For the darker end of that range, dark blue is the usual substitute in these pictures. In a number of cases when the purple-black is natural. that part of the plant may be omitted altogether but this wasn’t necessary for folio 22r.*

Emblica officinalis – dried fruits. Additional image – April 16th., 2022.

There is a preparation known as Triphala [with 3 types of myrobalans] which is widely prescribed for liver disorders and gastrointestinal problems Ayurdedic and Siddha medical tradition. The three fruits are those of Terminalia chebulia, Emblica officinalis (Phyllanthus emblica) and Terminalia bellirica. The seeds. however, were generally used only to treat wounds in ruminants.

Chebulic myrobalans – image added April 16th., 2022
Chebulic myrobalans – detail of a Thai image of the Healing Buddha.

The leaves were omitted from the image on fol.22r* because they were not needed, in this case, to identify the plants wanted, nor did they have any independent commercial value.  

The corpus of Auyrvedic medicine was finalised about five hundred years before Alexander reached the Indus and is current to this day. Tibet did not become officially a Buddhist kingdom for some centuries after the establishment of the Seleucid kingdom but it has proven impossible to date the beginning of that trade in medicinal plants for which the Tibetan-India route was so well known in earlier centuries..

More on T. bellerica – as ‘Bahira plant


Additional notes

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r*’ Parts 1 & 2 published through voynichimagery, June 2012.

The roots (on folio 22r*) appear to reflect uses associated with just one among the myrobalans: T. chebula, which both in Europe, and in the eastern medical tradition, was considered less important than the Emblic and the Beleric myrobalans.

T. chebula was noted rather as a source for tannins. These were used as inks, as leather-dyes and in textile work, functions which in Europe were typically by oak-galls and barks….Powdered (immature) fruit, and seeds, from T. chebula  provide a sizing-and-mordant for kalamkari work,  allowing the black dye (kasimi) to be applied without any mordanting agent being added to the ink itself….

According to a recent (2007) draft Standards paper published by the Indian government as a pdf, commercial ink production [still] includes tannin extracted from T. chebula. The same source reports that tannin extracted from the  seeds of T. chebula has been used from time beyond memory as “a tanning agent. for hides and skins. Known as HARRA (Hindi), HIRDA (Marathi), ANALE (Kannada), KADAKAI (Tamil), KARAKKAYA (Telugu), HARITAKI(Bengali)”.

Imported into the Mediterranean.

By not later than the end of the fourteenth century that is, and from at least fifty years before the Voynich manuscript’s vellum’s dating – several kinds of Myrobalans were being imported into Venice and Genoa through Acco and Tunis.

Added note (18th April 2022) – in 2010 I looked no further than the mercantile zibaldoni, it being necessary at that time to demonstrate that materials sourced from the east were relevant to the study of a fifteenth century manuscript which (in 2010) was still widely, and indeed almost universally, believed the work of a contemporary and western Christian (‘Latin’) European ‘author’. Since 2010, I’ve been able to refer, over time and with less ‘flak’ resulting to e.g. the role of medieval Jewish networks and to records of earlier centuries including those of the Cairo geniza. Here I’ll quote from just one study, for its reflecting the earlier medieval usage among the Jews and in Arabic. 

    • Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev, ‘The Significance of the Genizah’s Medical Documents for the Study of Medieval Mediterranean Trade’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2007), pp. 524-541.
    • Myrobalans in Cairo geniza

[back to the 2010 2012 post ..]

In this case, the only use to which they were put by Europeans seems to have been medicinal, though this impression may be due to our lack of documentation more than contemporary Europeans’ lack of information about these plants.

[According to lists in the later zibaldoni] Venice and Genoa imported the top two grades in larger quantities:-

the ‘Emblic’ as they called it (Emblica officinalis) and the ‘Beleric’ (Terminalia belerica) and only in very small quantities two more: the ‘Chebulic-‘ (Terminalia chebula) and the ‘Citron-‘ myrobalans (Terminalia arjuna).

So depending on which of these the reader associates with each level in fol.22r*, it is possible to see the whole images as describing the three grades or four. For example, the husks occupying the topmost position might be read as the ‘top’ grade – Emblic or as those of T. chebula.

My experience of working on these images is, however, that none of them save perhaps folio 1v (cloves) is a portrait of a single plant.



WordPress retains comments for only for 3 years, so I’m transcribing them here.

Note 1 re de-seeded fruits

“Triphala (“three fruits”) is an Ayurvedic herbal rasayana formula consisting of equal parts of three myrobalans, taken without seed:” – wiki. The same wiki article gives the three as: Amalaki (Phyllanthus emblica), Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellirica), and Haritaki (Terminalia chebula).

Note 2. topmost section of the drawing serving as memory prompt for Emblica officinalis and/or for the tannin-rich T. chebula, an early treatise in Arabic speaks of the ‘yellow’ myrobalans in a recipe for ink.

  • Martin Levey, ‘Mediaeval Arabic Bookmaking and Its Relation to Early Chemistry and Pharmacology’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 52, No. 4 (1962), pp. 1-79.

A note [n.301] from that paper includes information that may prove helpful for those working on the written text of Beinecke MS 408, so I quote it complete. From various studies it is clear that what is here (below) described as the ‘black and small’ type could as easily be referring to the dried form of E. officinalis as to T.chebula.

301 halilaj. There are four kinds of myrobalan, yellow, Indian (black and small), Chebulic (black and large), and the Chinese (I. B., 2261). Halilaj or ihlilaj comes from the Persian halilah which may come from the Sanskrit haritaki (al-Ghafiqi, 264). The yellow kind is probably Terminalia citrina Roxb. (hara nut). It is a stage in the growth of the Chebulic myrobalans as are the other myrobalans. The belleric myrobalan (T. bellerica Roxb.) is balilaj (al-Ghafiqi 123, Tuifat al-ahbab, 43, 122, 126). Emblic myrobalan, amlaj, is treated by al-Ghafiqi (13). These were unknown to the [western] Greeks but were known early in India (Ainslie 1: 236-241). The “three fruits” of the myrobalan are distinguished as follows: when very immature, it is called Indian, when half mature and still yellowish, Chinese, and when yellow and quite mature, Chebulic. The unripe fruits contain 20-30 per cent gallic and tannic acids and a greenish oleo resin, myrobalanin. The myrobalanins are still sold (Ducros, 13, 14, 15) as intestinal astringents and purgatives as well as tanning agents. According to Ducros, the Chebulic and Indian types come from Terminalia Chebula Retz. while the yellow is from T. citrina Roxb. Al-Kindi knew amlaj, the emblic myrobalan, in musk recipes. Meyerhof 81) says that this is the fruit of Phyllanthus Emblica L., a Euphorbiacea which has no relation to the Terminaliae.

So even that author appears impose modern taxonomic distinctions retrospectively on the perceptions of early medieval peoples – who certainly did regard all these myrobalans as related one to one another.

(where identifications differ from those given by Lev, the difference may be due to differences in the medieval documents, but in cases of doubt, Lev’s identifications are preferred).

Note 3. Simon of Genoa’s Synonyma (13thC) includes myrobalans, but as ‘Emblici’ and ‘Bellirici’.

Emblici et bellirici apud arabes inter mirabolanos non computantur, et ideo vides quod diversa facit capi. Avic. et Ser. et alii quamvis similis sint operationis, amblegi arabice dicuntur.

Note 4. European perspective.

Riddle wrote the seminal study, and is still essential reading. He approached the subject from a study of the western manuscripts dating to what he calls ‘pre-Salernitan’ Europe. Consideration of one 9thC antidotary led Riddle to observe:

From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper [white, long, and black] (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).
An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient.

John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

Folio 43v* – identification update.

(detail) two plants drawn on f.43v*
Otto Wilhelm Thomé: Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz (1885) – Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber. Source: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this image under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License”. courtesy

In 2015 I offered identifications for the plants represented on folio 43v* as (left) Bupleurum falcatum and (right) Bupleurum rotundiflolia, though only as a proposal from first-level sources, not as a research conclusion.

A modern botanical drawing of B. rotundifolia with B. falcatum is shown at right.

Later, I contrasted the style of drawing with two details from Latin herbals referenced by Marco Ponzi as comparisons for left-half of the drawing in folio 43v* (the plant-and-snake), noting how much more detail we find in the Voynich drawing for its ‘snake’, details so clearly informed by immediate knowledge that we are shown the Cerastes’ horns, long nose and – as I’ll add here – even the way the eye-ridge makes the eye seem semi-circular when seen from above, and how the horns appear like spines as extension of that ‘nose’, together the fact that its markings are generally invisible to a person happening on it, because the Cerastes lie buried in a depression in the earth and, indeed, with no more than eye, ‘nose’ and horns visible.

Marco Ponzi’s articles are (or were) published through the Medium site, under the title ‘Viridis Green’.

Added note (March 26th., 2022) I have reason to think the detail shown above (upper left) was wrongly labelled by the source I used. It may not be a ‘hornless cerastes’ but a different snake altogether. The Cerastes’ nose appears more noticeable when little else is visible above the sand. see the’Alamy’ image included among the comments under this post.

Although it seemed evident to me that this ‘reminder’ detail in folio 43v*, being placed close by the plant’s base, displays too much care and accuracy to have no purpose save ‘name-of-thing-equals-name-of-plant/value’ and realising, further, that the creature’s native range, combined with that of the associated plant’s, should add a little more light on the important questions outstanding about the plant-pictures’ antecedents, there were other questions having higher priority in 2015, and without more detailed investigation I felt nothing useful could be said about co-incident range.

A fairly recent comment turned me to the folio again.

This post isn’t more than a note of ‘work-in-progress’ yet one thing is quite clear – that unless my identification for the snake’s genus as Cerastes is wrong, the drawing’s origin cannot possibly be credited to western Christian Europe.

There, any ‘horned serpent’ figure would be drawn in very different style and present an imaginary figure from some system of religious or semi-religious thought. Instead, we have a nearly literal drawing for this creature, one which does not occur within Europe at all, not even in southern Spain or Sicily.

The detail is a fortunate exception to the rule in this manuscript where the majority of included drawings still show evidence of some earlier influence and its determined effort to avoid forming a naturalistic ‘portrait’ of any living creature. That attitude is not of Latin origin and was antithetical to the Latins’ worldview. In fact, that distinction is one of the keys which allows us to know, for example, that the month-folios’ diagrams come from origins different from emblems now seen in their centres.

It is that marked difference in information, attitude and stylistics, not any lack of objective skill, which led earlier generations of Voynich researchers, fixed on a Eurocentic theory, to assert the ‘artist’ had been childish, incompetent and so forth. To the best of my knowledge no qualified specialist in what today we call iconographic analysis, commented on Beinecke MS 408 between 1932 and the first decades of the present century. The person who seems to have first sensed the ‘foreignness’ in Voynich drawings spoke even before Panofsky and wrote, a little vaguely of what he had observed quite accurately, saying:

It is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences.

Robert Steele, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928) from the Abstract available online

As early as 1909, in editing the works of Roger Bacon, Steele had referred to a thirteenth-century work on medicine, translated by Wallis Budge. Steele speaks of it as ‘Syrian’ though it was a text of Nestorian origin written in Syriac.

The point was mentioned in an earlier post (here).

The other plant on folio 43v*, for which I proposed the identification Bupleurum rotundifolia is of less interest at present, and I’ll concentrate on the plant-and-snake.

I still consider the the details included as its salient features agree with the form for B. falcatum, yet that plant- identification presents problems if we are to associate that plant with the genus Cerastes. for each has a native range not native to the other.

I would suggest that the dilemma may be more apparent than real; that some other Bupleurum species is meant or that distinctions between plants made by taxonomists were not ones recognised by earlier and other peoples and therefore by their perceptions and vocabulary.

So though a modern botanist distinguishes (say) B.falcatum from B.lancifolia, the same word may have been applied to both by the language in which the maker formed his thoughts.

To see whether that possibility is contradicted or supported by those languages which were spoken, before 1440, across the geographic range in which Cerastes occur, and to find enough documentary evidence to maintain such an idea, would take far more work than I’m prepared to devote to that question. One piece of circumstantial evidence may support it.

In a modern website entitled “Egyptian-Arabian Endemic Plants”, a long list of plants, subdivided by genus and species and with scientific descriptions given, includes B. falcatum and specifies its range as:

“… east of the Nile Valley in Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, the extratropical part of the Arabian Peninsula, most of southern Palestine, part of Jordan, the southern part of the Syrian Desert and lower Mesopotamia where the boundary continues just north of Balad, Kuwait and the Bahrain Islands.”

‘Endemic’ in botanical terms means that a plant occurs naturally no-where else.

That site is clearly intended as a scientific survey; yet if we turn to another scientific source, Kew gardens’ information, states the range for B. falcatum as:

“Europe to Caucasus”.

For that southern range, it has several species of Bupleurum including B.lancifolia, whose range is said there to be:

“Algeria, Azores, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Kriti, Kuwait, Lebanon-Syria, Libya, Madeira, Morocco, Palestine, Sinai, Spain, Transcaucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Western Sahara” and now extinct in the Canary Islands.

This does co-incide with the native range for Cerastes’ species, of which there are only three. For readers’ convivence, I reproduce here a table included in a wiki article whose anonymous author cites as sole source for its information:

  • McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T., (1999) Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Volume 1. Washington, District of Columbia: Herpetologists’ League.

Cerastes, as you see, do not occur anywhere in mainland Europe, not even in southern Spain. One would have to travel into ‘oriental parts’ in order to find anyone who could represent these vipers with anything close to the accuracy we find on folio 43v*

I prefer to leave it to the botanists to decide which (if any) of the genus Bupleurum is the subject of the left-hand detail on folio 43v*. Of more interest to us is what this association between plant and viper tell us about the region implied, and in the context of those critical issues of maintenance before the plant-pictures’ transmission to the medieval west or, at least, to the medieval Mediterranean world’s common culture.

Here we are fortunate that the two principal species of Cerastes – the less venomous C. cerastes and the highly venomous C. gasperettii are not found together at all, the limits for each being given in the table above and that for C. gasperettii by following map (again thanks to a wiki author).

The map is a little generalised for we are told that C. cerastes and C. gasperettii do not share a common habitat though both are said to occur within Yemen. C. cerastes is called, in Egypt, el-ṭorîsha (حية الطريشة); and in Libya um-Goron (ام قرون). One would hope that these or some other regional names for Cerastes are to be found in the written text on folio 43v*

Though I do not think the snake is drawn in sufficient detail on folio 43v* for us to decide on any Cerastes species in particular, it is another item in evidence – and there is a great deal of such evidence – that the content in Beineke MS 408’s plant-pictures is no product of any western Christian literary tradition. It is as well to remember that if any argument is to be made that tese images belong within the western ‘herbal’ manuscript tradition, the very limited range of texts on which that tradition relied must be shown to have a place within its lineage for the ‘Voynich plant book(s)’ – something which researches have utterly failed to do despite constant efforts and unwavering determination, for one hundred and ten years.

Newcomers may not be aware that the same point was made more obliquely and tactfully but quite clearly by John Tiltman, a man of unusually clear and balanced mind, fully seventy fifty years ago.

However, those interested only in plants for which a place was found in pharmacy might like to investigate some possibility that there might exist in some non-European corpus a receipt in which both viper and a Bupleurum (perhaps) both occur.

To attempt to fit the image into an ‘all-Latin-Christian’ theory, by asserting the image a product of imagination or metaphor, might be an attractive possibility for those so attached to an ‘all European Christian’ narrative for the manuscript that any means available must be taken to prevent its being discarded. For myself, I do not think one can ignore the style of drawing, the manifest clarity and accuracy of its detail, and such things as ignoring the natural markings on the creature to convey the vital information that it is the hidden ‘serpent on the path’ whose body is not seen, save its head, ‘nose’, an eye and the horns. Force-fitting the manuscript to a predetermined theory is not the best way to assist people whose time and efforts are being devoted to the written text. One cannot help but be wrong in some things, but why spoil their day with another dead-end ornament for a quasi-historical narrative whose first premises derive, still, from assertions made by Wilfrid Voynich as part of his romantic-fictional sales pitch delivered to a gathering of physicians in Philadelphia in 1921?

Medicinal snake & plant? Plague remedies?

This is a possibility though not one I’m inclined to rate highly. Still, it deserves mention for those who find the idea attractive.

Many in Europe believed the Black Death had come from Egypt, and was the same as one of those the plagues which the Bible says were inflicted on Egypt for the Pharaohs’ mistreatment of the Jews. Plague still regularly swept Europe during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it may have been for that reason that Baresch hoped the Voynich manuscript’s content would be not only ‘ancient’, ‘Egyptian’ and ‘gained from the orient’ and depicting exoti plants but also about medicine.

We do know that from about the time of Galen ‘viper’ was sometimes included in ‘cure-alls’ known as Theriac or Mithridatum, though it had not been part of the earliest, or true ‘Mithridatum’.

Added note (26th. March 2022): The European (hornless) viper, Vipera_berus, is described as “extremely widespread and can be found throughout most of Western Europe and as far as East Asia”

Our source for the addition of viper-flesh in ‘Theriac’ recipes is Galen, who attributes it to Andromachus (the Elder), a Cretan who had become Nero’s physician.

Andromachus’ recipe is said to have been couched in 174 lines of Greek verse. In the later fifteenth century, the Italian Saladino d’Ascoli, who graduated in medicine from Padua in 1431, composed a treatise entitled “Compendium Aromatariorum” in which says (folio 324r of the 1495 edition), respecting the ‘Galieni’ theriac: “Dico quod non est verum salua pace Nicolai quia Andromachus singularis medicus eam composuit.” d’Ascoli’s Compendium remained in print continually from 1488 – 1623. A good online biography for him is (here), and includes ia list of extant manuscripts and editions.

Added note (March 26th., 2022) – a loose translation would be ‘with all due respect to Nicholai [author of the earlier Antidotarium parvum], to call this ‘Galieni’ is a misnomer; the medicine was composed by the singular physician, Andromachus.

‘Mithridatum’ is named for Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus, who inherited his kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea in 120 BC. For more historical detail see e.g.

  • Adrienne Mayor, ‘Mithridates of Pontus and His Universal Antidote’, Chapter 4 in her History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014). The chapter can be downloaded through ResearchGate.

Other sources to begin with:

  • Watson, G. Theriac and Mithridatium. Wellcome Historical Medical Library. William Clowes and Sons, Ltd. London (1966).
  • A few basic sources,courtesy of Science Direct. Looking over the list, I’d be inclined to leave aside “Placebo Studies (Double-blind Studies)” but I haven’t read it.

Medical uses of e.g. B. falcatum or B. rotundifolia, see also

  • WHO monographs (2004) – “not pharmacopoeial monographs, rather they are comprehensive scientific references for drug regulatory authorities, physicians, traditional health practitioners, pharmacists, manufacturers, research scientists and the general public”.

Oddly enough a lot of modern advertisements for traditional Asian (by which I mean east Asian and south-east Asian) medicine claim to employ root of B.falcatum, which isn’t native to that part of the world. Older sources refer instead to roots of B. rotundifolium.

That’s all so far. I’d be glad if anyone could direct me to multilingual glossaries for animal and for plant-names. Modern or pre-modern.

Added note – March 26th., 2022.

and see comments below this post.

Tabula picta – 5v. Habits, qualities and ‘hands’.

This post contains almost 3,000 words and several large jpg pictures.

The previous post ended by saying that, in publishing information about the drawing on folio 5v*, I had not followed my usual habit of beginning by parsing and then explaining a plant-picture, but instead began by providing readers with that single unifying thought which, in practice, became evident only as a conclusion. I’ll say now that the unifying theme for folio 5v* proved to be something I might express as ‘Preserving the ship’.

But in 2017 I felt it so important that readers appreciate something of the quality of mind informing that image on folio 5v* and so many others in Beinecke MS 408, and how distant it is from that which informs images expressing medieval Christian Europe’s ‘Latin’ mindset, that I devoted the first segment to that matter.

I first quoted as an analogy for the qualities informing the Voynich plant pictures (and very close analogy it is) part of H.D. F. Kitto’s description of the ancient Greeks’ language and the mutual interdependence of their thought, language and art. His contrasting the Greeks’ mentality and language with those of other ancient and modern peoples is also to the point.

.. in [their] language – in its very structure – are to be found that clarity and control, that command of structure… it is the nature of Greek to express with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning. .. Both Greek and Latin have an architectural quality. But there is a significant difference between them. … Greek is well stocked with little words, conjunctions that hunt in couples or in packs, whose sole function is to make the structure clear. They act, as it were, as signposts… we always have a perfectly limpid and unambiguous ordering .. as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words. It is the nature of the Greek language to be exact, subtle and clear. The imprecision and the lack of immediate perspicuity in which English occasionally deviates and from which German occasionally emerges, is quite foreign to Greek..

  • H.D.F Kitto, The Greeks.

[quoted with a blush]

Attempting, then, to illustrate this crucial difference in ‘mindset’ by using pictures, I re-considered the juxtaposition of a detail from folio 43v with two later Latin works, this being a group of three that had been included not long before in a post by Marco Ponzi and met no response save applause from the Voynicheros by the time I’d read it (see further below)

Soon after my own analytical commentary was posted online, I found my name now among those black-listed and denied further access to Marco’s posts. I mention this to explain not only the classic response of traditionalists to informed dissent, but why I’m unable to check the bibliographic details for that article today, or to add the usual direct link.

Though Marco described himself as an amateur translator of medieval Latin text, I found his readings and translations of Latin works to be of a professional standard and many students of the Voynich manuscript have reason to be grateful for what he has chosen to let them know.

I have no hesitation in recommending his translations to others, though I might add that Marco is a deeply committed – one might say dedicated – Voynich traditionalist. I’m given to understand that he is (or was) a member of good standing in a society dedicated to study of the succession of Holy Roman Emperors, but here again I have been unable to ask him directly whether this is so, or whether it influenced his becoming interested in Beinecke MS 408.

It is precisely because Marco is so competent in his own area, being meticulous and observant, that I felt his approaching the Voynich drawings as he did proved just how pervasive the inappropriate ‘matching’ method had become; it is inherited along with the ‘traditionalist’ narrative and found as early as the traditionalists’ foundation narratives of 1921 and their standard reference, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma published in 1978 but which reflects, in this regard, the popular attitudes of Europeans more than half a century earlier.

In his original article Marco, had made a sort of triptych in which a detail from a drawing on folio 43 was set between two others taken from western Christian manuscripts made decades, or over a century, later than the range for Beinecke MS 408. To be exact, Marco took half the drawing on folio 43v, and I consider both parts intended to be read together.

In reproducing those examples, I’ve re-ordered them, left to right, into chronological order.

NOTE: The third example (below, far right) comes from a manuscript dated by its holding library to between c 1475 and c. 1525 AD, with comment given (here) that certain additions “may be by the first known owner, Konrad Peutinger, a German jurist, politician, diplomat, economist and humanist who studied law at the universities of Padua and Bologna. He may have acquired Harley MS 3736 during his studies or, later in his life, through his connections with Italian humanists”.

Addition (18th Feb. 2022). Thanks to Matthias Wille for providing link and full details of the image (above, centre). Macer de viribus herbarum, BSB Clm 5905, 1479, page 343 ( folio 170r ).

That Marco looked to later- rather than earlier ms in hunting comparisons for a detail seemed a little curious and is another point I’d have liked to have understood, but since he refuses any form of communication one cannot know the reason.

I chose the example from one of Marco’s posts chiefly because he is clearly an acute observer and a meticulous worker when dealing with medieval writings. My point was that if someone so careful and so observant in that work could suppose images might be provenanced and read by hunting nothing but ‘likeness’ within a pre-determined boundary, then it was reasonable to suppose that others with fewer skills, or less inclined to precision, would make the same mistakes and that if he could see nothing odd about that method, one could hardly expect others less able would do so.

It was no longer uncommon, by the last quarter of the fifteenth century, that herbals made for a Latin (i.e. western Christian) reader might have some type of ornamental or mnemonic device drawn below a plant; I suspect it may have given the work some additional cachet.

To that extent, one surely can agree that there is that single point in common between the three details Marco chose to juxtapose, implying some more direct connection existed between the three and perhaps that the content of the Latin work(s) might be imposed on the Voynich text, written and/or pictorial.

Apart from that very general ‘plant and root-device’ arrangement, though, the other two examples he cited have, quite literally, NO point in common with the Voynich drawing. Well, I suppose at a stretch one could count their all having a notional root formed boustrophedon.

That this fact, overlooked by Marco and by all who applauded his post, should need only a simple parsing of the image to prove it, shows just how rarely Voynicheros diverge from that ‘form a theory and match by likeness’ method.

So here, top down and point by point, is the analytical ‘parsing’ with comparison and contrast, both.


The Voynich drawing shows an upright plant; the two Latin images show their subject having a bushy or shrubby habit.

Flower/seed head

The Voynich image represents its flower/seed-head set within what could be read as surrounding leaves or as long, thin, sepals. In the Voynich plant-pictures the flower is normally regarded much as Theophrastus saw them, that is, as an early and ephemeral aspect of the plant’s formation of fruit and seed.

Marco’s first comparison shows the ‘flower’ as seed-head drawn in a way reminiscent of the bulrush, with neither sepals nor surrounding leaves. His second comparison, for which he gives a sixteenth-century date, has a very simple flower of four petals elevated well above any leaf, and again with no sepals shown. The latter comes from a manuscript whose date-range overall is given by the holding library as c 1475- c. 1525. In regard to its flower it is quite as different from the other Latin image as are both from the Voynich drawing.


Leaves included in the Voynich image are shown deeply divided – so deeply as to be reminiscent of the palm – and are shown springing along the whole length of one slender stem.

In Marco’s first comparison, the leaves are shown all rising directly from ground-level. each is given its own stem, in which one, central, vein is emphasised. In his second selected comparison, the leaves again rise directly from ground level but now have strong parallel veins as certain bulbs’ do. (I’m trying here to avoid technical terminology).

So far, when read simply as drawings, Marco’s compared images contain no detail ‘similar’ to that in either of the other two and neither of the other two is ‘similar’ to the detail from folio 43v.

That any reader, but especially a casual reader, should find their mind sliding over differences to focus on any hint of the ‘similar’ is perfectly normal.

The human brain is hard-wired to respond more positively and comfortably to similarity, because similarity suggests the familiar and, very often, what is ‘natural’ for the viewer. The ‘different’ evokes instantly in a majority of people a first inclination to avoid, re-define or dislike what is seen. Like all hard-wired responses, this one has, or anciently had, its practical value but learning to notice that it is happening and how consciously to oppose and balance that natural instinct, is part of the analyst’s training. In other contexts, we might describe that training as fostering a person’s intellectual curiosity.

‘Root’ element.

Here too, the analyst must protest assertions of similarity, or similar intent, in common between the detail from folio 43v and those two images which Marco selected.

What we see in the two later drawings are conventions by which Latin art represented boneless things such as a leech or slug and also used to represent e.g. the innards of an animal or of a human being.

At a stretch, I suppose a case might be made that in the detail labeled ‘Macer Floridus’, the bump seen just below ground level was meant for an animal’s head, though that’s not a case I should care to make and doubt if, using that image alone, anyone could surely identify an intended genus, let alone species.

By contrast, I do think this detail in the Voynich drawing contains enough information to identify the type of creature meant, and thus to narrow the region in which the associated plant(s) were to be found. I did not analyse f.43v in detail and am adding the following analytical notes only today (Feb. 13th., 2022) without having run any of the usual cross-checks. My first thought, then, is that the maker likely intended to speak of one of the horned vipers and most likely Cerastes cerastes whose Latin nomenclature we owe to NIcholas Laurenti (1768). I won’t discuss all the details such as one’s eye’s being shown as if open but the other as both closed and crossed.

As so often in the Voynich manuscript, the drawing is not only highly detailed and extraordinarily fine and precise but very informative for anyone accustomed to be in the regions where the referenced plants occur.

‘fine and precise’ – The closeup I’ve shown (above) measures, in the original, about 25 mm x 25 mm (!!) and the head measures 5 mm x 5 mm (!!).

‘regions where the plants occur’ – According to the VAPA guide, the present=day distribution of Cerastes cerastes is North Africa, from Morocco and Mauritania to Egypt and northern Sudan, southern Israel, western Jordan. Cerastes gasperetti is found in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, western Iran and Cerastes vipera in the Sahara from Mauritania to Egypt, Israel. To make any determination about the Voynich drawing, however, one would have to find information proper to the period c.10tC AD-15thC AD (at least) for both the viper and any associated plant(s).

To find images of C.cerastes is easy enough. Those shown (below) are included only to show details not always evident – the lines of a long ‘nose’ and the way the back swells to develop the appearance of a central ridge when the snake is just about to strike. That slight movement in the sand might well be the only warning a traveller got. This viper is mentioned in Biblical literature (as ‘adder’) and is the one that proverbially ‘lies-in-wait’ in a person’s path. But as I say, this identification is a first thought, prior to any research being done.

This post isn’t about identifying the intended subject of that detail but the fact that Marco was, as it were, unable to ‘see’ these signs of difference, as were those Voynicheros who read his posts left no comments save applause, It shows quite clearly I think that the traditionalist’s expectation of ‘hunting matches’ as an appropriate method, and their equally traditionalist practice of ignoring or ‘blanking’ difference, can only be counterproductive in the longer term. Indeed it has been counterproductive ‘in the longer term’ since 1912.

Techniques and visual vocabulary:

There are items common to the graphic vocabulary of the western Christian (‘Latin’) world and to others, some being employed from their own traditions by the persons to whom we owe so many of the drawings now in Beinecke MS 408.

In the detail from folio 43v I might mention a ‘fringing’ which we see around the creature’s body.

A similar ‘fringing’ motif certainly occurs in medieval Latin art, where it is used to convey a variety of meaning – to represent spines on a plant, or for a horse’s mane, or to express the idea of radiance, as of fire, of a star or of a saintly halo and it can also be used as a form of modelling, including modelling the hollow fold of draped cloth or of terrain.

Clearly, I’m inclined to take as first option here that the fringing was meant to describe a hollow fold in the terrain, especially since the same usage is found in the Voynich map. How it might relate to a horned viper is easily understood, for any description of Cerastes will repeat:

The horned viper hunts by hiding under the sand (leaving only its horns, eyes and nose exposed) and striking at what comes close.

Pinney’s account is more detailed, and his book – though not without its flaws – remains a valuable ancillary reference. On this point, he writes:

.. older works have it classified as Cerastes hasselquistii, a desert species with a very toxic venom. It is relatively small .. and as pale and sandy as the desert it thrives in..They hide in the sand, in depressions such as those made by the hoofs of camels and horses, and if a man or some animal steps into such a hollow it strikes without provocation, and its venom can kill within half an hour, making it as deadly as a cobra

Roy Pinney, The Animals of the Bible: the natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible with a collection of photographs of living species taken in the Holy Land by the author. pp.174-5. First edition 1964.

Added image April 2nd., 2022:

As another possible insight into the intention of the first enuciator of that ‘root mnemonic’ one might consider another part of Pinney’s description.

‘They (the desert vipers) have developed a good method for fast movement in sand.. The slow forward progress of a viper is not actually a glide but, closely watched, will be seen to consist of a movement of the [flattened] ribs beneath the skin which might be compared to a centipede.

Ibid., loc.cit.

For those wanting the Biblical references, as cited by Pinney they are: Genesis 49:17, Job 20:16 and within works of Christian origin, Acts 28:3. As part of any formal analysis one would have to consult medieval and earlier commentaries on those verses and consider both verbal and pictorial images of the creature and so on. Time, Place and cultural context are what determine the intended meaning of a drawing. These are factors to be determined, and not presumed.

I hope readers will begin to appreciate that my opposition to the traditionalists’ “all-western-Christian-Europe” narrative is a consequence of my studying these drawings and not a product of any pre-determined theoretical or ideological stance.

Despite the reactions which dissenting views prompt among adherents of the ‘traditionalist’ position, one remains interested in this manuscript for its intrinsic interest and in my case, a feeling that it deserves better.

I’ve always liked Jim Reeds’ description of his early study group as ‘Friends of the Voynich manuscript’. It surely needs more.

Save where another author is credited, the material in the present post contains with some additional comment, original research published by the present author in 2017. The author’s rights are asserted.

And so, at last, having now addressed the endemic problem of theory-driven comparisons and the more general matter of different attitudes to forming images, we turn at last to the image on folio 5v*…

‘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.” – 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 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

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

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

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

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

Recap of the series so far.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

capsa. Pompeii 1stC AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

BASES – details

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

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

Some examples of western representations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tang dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:

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

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

‘Pharma’? – getting the goods.

WE’RE CONSIDERING whether Baresch was being realistic in supposing matter now in Beinecke MS 408 had been collected – or could have been gathered no less than two hundred years earlier – from ‘eastern parts’.

So far, we’ve seen that it was certainly possible for a person to travel between the western Mediterranean and China before 1440.

As for plant-products, some eastern plants appear regularly in Europe’s antidotaries by the ninth century.

Riddle’s survey of early medieval Latin antidotaries remains a valuable study. He comments:

From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper white-, long-, and black- (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).

An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient. Though it is impossible always to identify each according to the exact plant species, one can be fairly certain of the family or, at least genus.

  • Amomum is an aromatic shrub said by Pliny to come from India, Persia, and the Aral Sea region and presently attributed to Persia and the Aral Sea region.
  • Ammonicum, a salt, is ammonium chloride and apparently associated in antiquity with the oracle Hammon in the desert regions of Africa where ammonicum is found. Both Pliny and Galen note its use in early medicine, but it is known to have been manufactured in the late middle ages from the distillation of the horns and hoofs of oxen.
  • Aloes, employed extensively in ancient medicine, is found in south Africa but mostly in India where there exists a variety of species. Medicinal aloes is a resin described in the Materia Medica of Dioscorides.
  • Cassia, probably a product of cinnamomum pauciflorum nees*, is said by Pliny to be the “skin” of a shrub, and it is known to be found only in the far east.
  • Crocus is simply the Latin and Greek form for saffron, an oriental product.
  • Libanus, or frankincense, is a product of the orient, though one variety of the tree bearing this gum is indigenous to the Somalia region.
  • Murra, or myrrh, remembered along with frankincense as two of the Magi’s gifts, is the gum resin product of commiphera myrrha, found only in Arabia and Abyssinia.
  • mastice or mastic, a resinous exudation obtained from the lentisk plant, is presently grown in the entire Mediterranean area though evidence shows that in antiquity and the middle ages it was imported from the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Pepper, of course, is a product of the far east, a fact widely recognized in antiquity.
  • Scammony [derived from the plant convolvulus scammonia].is found only in the eastern Mediterranean area especially Asia Minor.
  • Storace or storax, widely employed in ancient medicine, comes from Asia Minor, Syria, and the far east.
  • zinziber or ginger [described by many ancient writers], is a native to the warm parts of Asia.
  • The remaining substances, apium semen (parsley seeds), colofonia (a resin product), ciminum*, fenogrecum (or fenum Grecum, a plant), Unum (flax), petroselinum (rock-parsley), picea (various forms of pitch), and terebentina (terebinth) are all found in western Europe. Thus, the evidence from this typical antidotary of 9 th century Europe discloses a large use of eastern products which had to have been imported. That is to say, the drugs were imported if the manuscripts of recipe literature were in actual use.

In the same paper, Riddle comments on his various sources saying (e.g.):

A manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, lists ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. (Kitāb al-ishārati ilà mahāsini ‘t-tjāra (Cairo A. . 1318), as cited by T. W. Arnold, “Arab travellers and merchants, A. D. 1000-1500”, Chapt. 5 of: Arthur Percival Newton, Travel and travellers of the middle ages (New York 1926), 93-4..

We know that the monks of Corbie in the 9th century planned to buy the followingmap Corbie France herbs and spices at the market: piper, ciminum, gingember [ginger?], gario file, cinamomum, galingan, reopontico, costus, spicum, mira, sanguinem draconis, indium, percrum, pomicar, zedoarium, styrax, calaminta, apparment, thyme, gotyumber, clove, sage, and mastick.”

To bring to the local market of Corbie such substances as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, galingale and cloves, and what may have been the true ‘dragonsblood’ of Soqotra, (resin of Dracaena cinnabari),* it was not necessary for the monks to travel east in person, but neither were Muslim traders so welcome in medieval France and England.

*After submitting, in 2009, an article identifying the chief subject of folio 25v as Dracaena cinnabari –  formerly described as Dracaena draco – I learned that Edith Sherwood had earlier offered an identification as the western Dracaena(s) from Morocco and the Canary islands. One of these is now called ‘Dracaena draco’.  As so often, botanical nomenclature has a long, confusing and irresolute history. The line is very easily blurred, in Voynich writing, between modern use of Linnaeus’ categories – which is the basis for modern botanical descriptions – and the ways of seeing which applied in ancient, medieval and non-European communities three centuries and more before Linnaeus was born. 

The cosmopolitan traders who passed easily through areas of diverse religious jurisdiction during the earlier medieval centuries included Nestorians, Radhanites and Jews,  groups whose networks extended far into the east, and who were content to ally in business with local merchants and middle men regardless of race or creed –  as documents of the Cairo geniza attest clearly for the India-to-Mediterranean region.*

*today, the Radhanites are said to be Jews, and were so classed by the Muslim rulers for purposes of taxation, but the earlier historical evidence suggests this might not have been the case and some medieval Jewish comments insist that they were only ‘messengers of the Jews’. This blogpost isn’t the place to explore the question.

apothecary Circenster 4thC gifWithin the Islamic empire, however, the itinerant Indian merchant-physician was also a well-known character, appearing in the Arabian nights as a stock character before the 12thC, and still so common a sight in the nineteenth century that it was in that guise Richard Burton lived in Egypt and travelled towards Mecca. We are yet to see a comprehensive study, in English, of the debt which Mediterranean countries owe to southern India and Ashoka.

Half-way Houses: Fonduk and Apotheca.

Baresch’s letter of 1639 1637 includes the following passage:

Regiones orientis adijsse, ibique thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos, partim ex monumentis librorum, tum etiam ex conversatione cum peritis artis adeptos, indeque reportatos, talibus notis in libro eo defodisse.

Neal translates this, “He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script”.

I won’t presume to correct Neal’s translation, but note that in medieval Latin, ‘thesauros’ meant not only a ‘treasure-house’ – as it did in classical Latin – but also now a commercial warehouse in which goods were kept and so organised that any item could be brought forward with ease. To the Greeks, the warehouse was an ‘apotheka’. To the practical traders working from Cairo, Alexandria or Tunis, storehouses meant the warehouse-complexes termed fonduks in Arabic. Each fonduk included many store-rooms in which goods being imported, or purchased for export, could be held securely. A favoured city, such as Venice or Genoa, might be granted use of one or more entire fonduks.

But there was a metaphorical sense, too, in which medieval Latins used the word ‘thesauros’ – to describe the memory’s ‘stored treasures’. Altogether, these diverses senses in which the Latin term had been used might have later affected Baresch’s understanding of just how matter now in the manuscript had been (or could have been) gained.

Writing almost two centuries later, Baresch envisages ‘thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos‘ as ‘treasures’ of Egypt’s medical learning, where it might been ‘the learning of the storehouses’. One bought or sold goods for their practical applications, and (as Flood says),* medical uses were among those for which ‘oriental’ plants were traded. It’s just a thought.

*passage quoted in the previous post.

The equivalent Greek term for a warehouse – ‘apotheka’ – had also shifted in meaning. Here again, Riddle

The best illustration of trade in drugs is exemplified in the derivation of the word apotheca or apothecary. The Byzantines had local depots, called àποθηκαι, in the main harbors and road termini of the Mediterranean area. Just how or when the word changed from a general depot to a dispensory of drugs is unknown, but some clues can be found. An edict of Frederick II, regulating medical activity, referred to apotheca apparently in the sense of a store house for drugs. During the 13th century, at least, the word apotheca comes to have the specialized meaning of the modern word. The very fact that the word for an import-export house came to be associated entirely with the meaning “drug-store” demonstrates vividly the relation between trade and drugs.

  • John M. Riddle, The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

What I’d like to point out in this context is that

  1. The ‘leaf and root’ section’s unusual format finds few parallels in the west, but we’ve noted (in the previous post) two commercial documents, the one an illustrated invoice from fourteenth-century France by an Italian businessman, and the other the style of Chinese ‘Bencao’ herbal texts which were also employed as ‘forme’ for bills of lading and for the purpose of inventory and taxation.
  2. Artefacts represented in the ‘leaf and root’ pages display details characteristically ‘oriental’ (as I’ll show in the next post) and may represent the forms in which particular goods were presented, purchased, carried and/or stored.

The ‘Spice Islands’ –

As late as October 8, 2019, a blog devoted to the history of the ‘Spice Islands’ titled a blogpost “The first appearance of the Spice Islands on a world map – the Atlas Miller (1519-1522).”

The author’s definition of ‘world map’ allows him to claim the sixteenth century map a ‘first’ but in point of fact those islands had appeared on three notable worldmaps centuries earlier, viz. al-Idrisi’s twelfth-century world-map; Abraham Cresques’ great worldmap of 1375, and in specifically Latin European cartography, the Genoese ‘eye-map’* of 1457.

* Biblioteca Estense e Universitaria in Modena – shelf-mark C.G.A.5.b.)

Cresques’ worldmap refers to ‘Jeylan’ (Ceylon) as an important source for eastern spices, though in reality it was another trading hub trading not only in Indian, but in Arabian, Himalayan and far-eastern ‘spices’. Soqotra was another eastern mart of that that kind.

The earliest of the three is Al-Idrisi’s world-map. Al-Idrisi is also credited with a compendium of plants in which each was provided with a detailed description and its name in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Berber and Arabic, predating by a century the Clavis sanationis – popularly known as the ‘Synonyma’ – composed by Simon of Genoa and which was then presented to Pope Nicholas V (1288), commended by Roger Bacon and soon required by the faculty of the University of Paris to be held by every registered apothecary.

Two other books credited to al-Idrisi were about pharmacology, and medicine, but so far I’ve not found mention of any extant manuscripts.

For a first reference to the Jewish works of this type, see below.

  • Barbara. Zipser, Simon of Genoa’s Medical Lexicon (2013). – open access.

  • Simon Online‘ – the translation project. *highly recommended*

  • Savelsberg. Bos, Hussein, Mensching (authors), Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov ben Isaak of Tortosa: Sefer ha – Shimmush. (Book 29, Études Sur Le Judaïsme Médiéval), Multilingual Edition (English, … Aramaic, Arabic, Latin and Romance).

  • “Only ten manuscript copies of the Book of Roger currently survive, five of which have complete text and eight of which have maps. Two are in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, including the oldest, dated to about 1325. Another copy, made in Cairo in 1553, is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, acquired in 1692. The most complete manuscript, which includes the world map and all seventy sectional maps, is kept in Istanbul”. (source – wiki article)

Genoese ‘Eye’-Map. and another traveller – Niccolo de’Conti

For this map, the original essay at the Henry Davis’ site cites a study by G.H.T. Kimble for recognising three distinct influences in it, apart from the western cartes marine namely, the Classical, the western Christian and the Arab. Of these Kimble said that only the Arab influence is strong, and that it is improbable that the Classical influence was direct.

However, in what appears to be an increasing tendency within certain central European faculties towards regression to the old Eurocentric default,* a recent essay published online (to which I won’t refer readers) claims that the ‘eye-map’ relies for much of its content on information delivered to Poggio Bracciolini by by Niccolò de’ Conti (c. 1395-1469).

*In the same way, in another paper from the same central European university – one fast gaining a reputation for ‘white washing’ European history – it is asserted that Abraham Cresques’ worldmap was influenced by no more than a couple of western Christian sources chiefly Marco Polo and Oderic of Pordenone.  The author of that paper offers no evidence, and makes no attempt to provide specific textual comparisons, his assertions defying both reason and the informed, detailed commentaries by earlier specialists whose better-informed and better-documented opinions have traced the literary sources referenced by Cresques’, finding that they refer, among other sources, to the ‘Alf Layla wa Laya’, to Ibn Jubayr’s travels and to others accounts of foreign parts such as that by Bejamin of Tudela who moved between centres of the Jewish diaspora.

Niccolo de’ Conti was a Venetian who lived and traded in the east for a quarter of a century, finally returning to Italy in 1439. During his lifetime in the east, de’Conti had married an Indian wife and by the time of his return had a large family by her. She may have been a southern Indian Christian, of the ‘Community of St. Thomas’ – traditionally said to have been founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD. The literature, religious images and history of this church was eradicated by the western church through the agency of the Portuguese, a new legend then created and still maintained by which which all Christian churches of southern India were asserted founded from Syria in the 3rdC AD. Little material evidence remains now to support the older tradition.

At some stage, de’ Conti had adopted Islam and as penance for that ‘heresy’ de’Conti was obliged to “deliver the narrative of his journey” to Poggio Bracciolini.

Whether this was done orally or whether it included surrendering other documents, is not known, but from that material Bracciolini then created a bowderlised and gentrified narrative in which de’ Conti is made a socially elevated ‘traveller’ – more or less a passing tourist – and his 25 years’ residence and life in eastern trade reduced to cursory and uninformative survey of ‘foreign marvels’.

It is evident from other sources of the time, that de’ Conti could not have spent a quarter century in the east as ‘a traveller’ of the sort Bracciolini makes him, but was an resident trader.

I’m not particularly inclined think that Beinecke MS 408 is Bracciolini’s copy of matter delivered to him by de’ Conti, but the possibility has to be noted, and it would at least offer an explanation for a text whose hand is said to be ‘humanist’ appearing in a manuscript whose layout and images are anything but characteristic of Latin Europe, let alone of the Italian renaissance.

I also doubt that de’ Conti could be the chief source of information for the ‘eye-map’ of 1457, because while certainly drawn in the style of the western cartes marine, it includes an image for Canopus+Crux which has it half bull and half fish. A ‘bull of the sea’ was one way to describe a master mariner and Canopus is the chief star of the once enormous ‘ship’ constellation, but in terms of the image qua image, the combination of bull and ‘fish’ is ancient in India. The example shown below was carved in Bharhut, in an early house established by Buddhists for the shelter and care of foreigners..

The idea of mariners as ‘sea-bulls’ was apparently not wholly unknown to the Mediterranean. The following is said (by Charles Singer) to copy an image in a fifteenth-century English manuscript but he offers no references. As I read its details, this image represents the ‘ship of the world’ as allegory of the universe.

  • A list of nine notable foreign traders, emissaries and visitors to India before 1450 is given here.

So now, having established that there is nothing in the historical record to oppose Baresh’s view that a ‘traveller’ might gather material from ‘eastern/oriental’ parts before 1440, we can turn to analyse the drawings in the leaf-and-root section, while keeping in mind that Baresch’s intention in using terms like ‘oriental’, ‘Egyptian’ or of thesauros remains uncertain.