‘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). https://doi.org/10.2478/9788376560236 – 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.

the ‘Pharma’? section – Catalogue mode.

two posts prior:

I HAD MEANT to revisit artefacts as represented in drawings from the ‘leaf-and-root’ section, but this is a convenient place to add another horizon-broadening topic/possibility/avenue for enquiry – the matter of commerce.

I think it significant that, though so much of the manuscript is about plants, there’s no obvious interest in the animal and/or mineral products so important for Europe’s medicines and its late-Renaissance alchemy.

Elsewhere, and especially in ‘eastern parts’ (to quote Baresch), we do find a greater reliance on purely plant-based products, including medicines and even in old Cairo – once a major hub of the east-west trade – a list of the top ten medicinal substances used by the Jewish population is plant-based, and are among goods recorded used in western Europe. A list of the ten is included (as Table 1) in a valuable paper:

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

NOTE – for any long-term researchers who remember my plant-identifications, I should add that I had not read Lev’s article before explaining one drawing as representing the ‘myrobalans’ group, or accepting Dana Scott’s identification of the rose in another folio.  Scott did not publish his work independently online, and his contributions are now available  at their source only to members of  Rich Santacoloma’s mailing list. I have Rich’s word that he intends to do as Jim Reeds did before him and offer the past conversations as a searchable database – when time and other pressures might permit him. 

In recent years much scholarly attention has been turned to the role of trade and commerce in widening medieval Europe’s horizons. In 2014 this growing interest prompted the University of Illinois to launch a new journal, The Medieval Globe, to “bring into view phenomena that have been rendered practically or conceptually invisible by anachronistic boundaries, categories, and expectations”.

As another writer puts it,

In the years since 2001, there has been a flood of studies seeking to combat .. parochialism and highlight the cultural fluidity and porous boundaries that existed between the various ethnic and religious sects that populated the medieval Mediterranean.  [Scholars] have convincingly shown the Mediterranean as a fragmented terrain imbued with strands of cultural hybridity.

  • Bruce P. Flood, Jr., ‘Sources and Problems in the History of Drug Commerce in Late Medieval Europe, Pharmacy in History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1975), pp. 101-105.

Other paragraphs from that paper could almost serve as a blueprint for revisiting Newbold’s ‘pharma’ theory. Flood writes,

One important source for information on drug commerce in the late Middle Ages are the drug inventories and price lists (usually compiled for the purposes of taxation and the settling of estates) of several of the Italian and German cities. Examination of some of the information which these documents yield raises a number of questions for future research in the history of drug commerce, as well as indicating some of the problems encountered in dealing with these sources…

One major problem encountered immediately is that since most of the imported items also had other uses, such as spices for culinary purposes, various gums, oils and resinous substances for religious and cosmetic needs, it is impossible to separate drugs as such from the spice and luxury trade. Most of the spices came from Asia and India by sea or overland caravan routes from the Near East. Most gums and resinous products came from the coasts of East Africa, and there was also some trade from North Africa and Spain.

The coastal route of East Africa was that sailed in the fourteenth century by Ibn Battuta – as passenger – and regularly in the fifteenth century by Ibn Majid as master pilot. It is seen on a map in the previous post.

Leather-tanning is among the less-often considered uses for plants. A useful reference is here.

For the ‘leaf-and-root’ section, one question which might reward investigation is that of illustrated commercial lists – inventories, invoices, bills of lading (what Florentines called libri di mandate), taxation records and catalogues of various types.

Among these, within Europe, its herbals represented a catalogue of (usually) local plants, and the common Dioscordian-style herbals were sometimes on display as a medicine-maker’s ‘catalogue’ – the Anicia Juliana codex was probably used in that way for a time, if it is the volume reported as on display in the ‘Moor’s Head’ in Venice.

Correction (Sept.5th., 2021). There was an apothecary shop in Venice known as the ‘Moor’s Head’, but according the Thorndike, the incident was described as follows

“There, in the street of the spice-dealers, in a shop having as its sign the head of an Ethiopian, he had consulted an herbal in which the plants were represented so carefully and artfully that you would have thought they grew on its pages.”

Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic & Experimental Science, Vol.IV (p.599)about Pandolphus Collenucius of Pesaro’s time in Venice.

But so few of the Voynich images come from that western herbal tradition, as a century of failed efforts to ‘match’ them has proven – and notwithstanding the valiant effort made in the essay included in the Yale facsimile edition, which presents as a history of western herbals, adorned with clips from the Voynich manuscript – that the last word remains that pronounced by John Tiltman in 1968.

I’ve included two detailed analytical discussions of such ‘matches’. One treats O’Neill’s “sunflower” (see page in top bar) and the other treats a supposed ‘oak-and-ivy’ identification – see post ‘Retrospective justifications‘.

Proof that some commercial documents did include illustrations is offered by the example shown below. It is an invoice from the Datini archive (fondo Datini), whose documents cover the years 1363 to 1410 AD.

Image courtesy of the Fondo Datini. istitutodatini.it/schede/archivio/eng/arc-dat1.htm First introduced to Voynich studies in D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Avignon manuscripts – bottega versus scriptorium- 1309 to 1377’, voynichimagery, October 9th., 2015.

For linguists and cryptographers, the ‘merchants handbook’ genre may prove helpful, as texts of that kind include non-standard vocabularies, technical terms for commercial practices, local and foreign terms for weights and measures (as pronounced and written at the time), and place-names that have been since forgotten or replaced, or which are now rather differently spelled.

As Stanley says when speaking of Pegolotti’s ‘Guide for merchants’,

[The section] entitled Dichiarigioni … translates a host of commercial and nautical terms from Pegolotti’s native Tuscan Italian into twenty-two dialects spoken throughout the Mediterranean. Here, the reader becomes familiar with phraseologies in Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Cuman, even Trapezuntine – the local vernacular of Trebizond. The striking similarities found in Pegolotti’s translations (doana, for instance, denotes “tariff ” in the Arabic, Sicilian, Neapolitan, and Pugliese dialects) immediately conjure up the lingua franca, the amalgamation of Arabic and Romance vernaculars that served as a “language of convenience” in the pre-modern Mediterranean. According to Karla Mallette, this communicative tool – constantly shifting to meet local dialectic exigencies – served to transcend the linguistic divisions that stymied communication and functioned as a strong vehicle of acculturation (Mallette, 2014: 332).

  • Joseph F. Stanley, ‘Negotiating Trade: Merchant Manuals and Cross Cultural Exchange in the Medieval Mediterranean’ Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Vol. XXX, Issue 1, (January 2018): pp. 102-112.

  • Mallette, Karla. “Lingua Franca.” in Peregrine Horden, Sharon Kinoshita (eds.), A Companion to Mediterranean History.(2014). pp. 79-90.

Stanley’s article also includes a handy list of published examples:

And see:

  • Allan Evans, ed., Francesco Balducci Pegolotti: La pratica della mercatura (1936).

  • Alison Hanham, ‘A Medieval Scots Merchant’s Handbook’, The Scottish Historical Review, Oct., 1971, Vol. 50, No. 150, Part 2 (Oct., 1971), pp. 107-120.    The volume is described as ‘thirty-five vellum leaves sewn up in three gatherings into a small book measuring 31.1 X 9.5 cm.

  • George Christ, Trading conflicts : Venetian merchants and Mamluk officials in late medieval Alexandria (Brill: 2012)

I don’t normally list sources written in languages other than English since it’s the only language I can be sure all readers are comfortable with. In this case I must make an exception because there is nothing in English covering the Spanish merchant handbooks.

  • M. Gual Camarena, El primer manual hispánico de mercadena, siglo XV (Barcelona, 1981); The so-called Libre de conexenses de spicies – a manuscript in Catalan dating to 1455.

  • M. Gual Camarena, Vocabulario del comercio medieval (Barcelona, 1976), 200-202,

  • J. A. Sesma Muñoz and A. Líbano Zumalacarregui, Léxico del comercio medieval en Aragón (Siglo XV) (Zaragoza, 1.982), 81-82.

For myself, I don’t believe the whole ‘answer’ to the Voynich manuscript lies in such merchant handbooks. Illustrations in the zibaldoni are as plainly an expression of western Christian culture as images in the Voynich manuscript are not. Pace Gheuens and others, the Voynich manuscript contains none but a few peripheral allusions to Christian culture, while those western mercantile handbooks are very plainly a product of that environment, manifested in their written texts as in their illustrations.

There may be more hope from illustrated commercial ‘lists’ as invoices or bills of lading. One expects that any purchasing agent working in a distant port or market would be more likely to rely on local residents for his vocabulary and any images of local goods. To buy in a foreign market you need a way to name the desired goods, and to ensure that what you get is what you wanted. Caveat emptor was the ruling principle of medieval trade.

A rare insight into western agents abroad:

  • Deborah Howard, ‘Death in Damascus: Venetians in Syria in the Mid-Fifteenth Century’, Muqarnas, Vol. 20 (2003), pp. 143-157.

  • Robert Sabatino Lopez, ‘European Merchants in the Medieval Indies: The Evidence of Commercial Documents’, The Journal of Economic History , Nov., 1943, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Nov., 1943), pp.164-184. A seminal paper, still worth reading.

Two papers on echoes of eastern art in western medieval works.

  • Philippe Junod, ‘Retour sur l’Europe “chinoise”‘, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 32, No. 63 (2011), pp. 217-258.

  • David Jacoby, Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 58 (2004), pp. 197-240.

Since I’ve broached the subject of foreign agencies in distant ports and markets, and we’re discussing trade in vegetable products, I should add some brief notes on the conditions of trade east of Suez. I expect that any researcher having the necessary interest, and languages, won’t need any start-up bibliography, though, so will add none.


In an earlier post,* I quoted a passage describing how tax-assessors registered goods brought to Vietnam by sea. My source used an obsolete term – ‘Annam’ – to describe the greater coastal region of Vietnam, a term that is no longer used in modern secondary scholarship.

*D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Pharma’ Pt.2.i – the legend’, Voynich Revisionist (blogpost, 8th August 2021) citing Moti Chandra, Trade and Trade Routes in Ancient India (1977) p.206.

We are not told if any eastern inventory lists were illustrated but it is telling that they are said to be ‘on leather’.

About China, one website mentions that “two graves from the Han Dynasty (c. 202 BCE to c. 220 CE) contained ancient silk scrolls with references to 247 herbal substances used for medicinal purposes” and that “At the grave site of a doctor from the Later Han era (c. 25 to c. 220 CE), archaeologists found 92 wooden bamboo slips with pharmaceutical data which included a list of thirty prescriptions, referring to a hundred herbal medicines”. The site is anonymous and offers no references for that information.

I include it here chiefly because Marcus Marci’s letter of 1640 uses a term (schaedata) which, as Neal notes, is not in the classical dictionaries. On looking into it, I concluded that the word connects with the small wooden or papyrus slips once used as a ‘tag’-label for scrolls in Hellenistic and Roman libraries.

Books made of small wooden – or more exactly of palm-leaf – strips were once very widely used in regions beyond Europe, from North Africa through Arabia to the Himalayas and from India to south-east Asia. They are still used in some areas to this day and may take various forms, from the concertina-fold characteristic of Japanese and Chinese works on paper, to the wheel-form, or just a stack of strips pierced and linked at one or more points. Some palm-leaf books – especially those concerned with medicine or magic, were occasionally adorned with images.

It will be remembered that Georg Baresch said the information gathered in ‘eastern parts’ had been brought back and then copied (presumably on vellum) using the present Voynichese script and that no other European manuscript dated to before 1440 has yet been found in which there are long lengths folded in as we find in the Voynich manuscript.

Again in a commercial context we learn that the herbal-pharmaceutical genre known as Shennong Bencao jing (Shen Nong’s classic of Herbal Medicine), of which there were several versions, served as a basic forme for commercial documentation – tax assessment or to create bills of lading in areas under Chinese influence.

On the same point, the Bencao Gangmu ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’ which was produced during the Ming dynasty includes in addition to pharmaceutical information, information about biology, chemistry, geography, mineralogy, geology, history, mining and astronomy. This Bencao Gangmu has been translated into more than 20 languages and is still in print and used as a reference book.

A related work, Nong Shu, described as an agricultural text, includes a useful commercial object – a revolving typecase. Written by the Chinese official and agronomist Wang Zhen, the Nong Shu was published in 1313 AD. (image and information from ‘Chinese inventions’ – wiki article.

an image of Shen Nong

For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the present regime in China does not like the herbal ‘Shen nong’ to be spoken about. Shen nong was the legendary creator of the far east’s herbal medicine tradition.

  • Shouzhong Yang,  The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica: A Translation of the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Blue Poppy Press. 2007).

Below is an illustration from a nineteenth-century account of Chinese medicines, one which retains the layout of the original works.

The diverse sites and pages maintained by CMU includes the following, which has a useful bibliography.

Nestorian influence is posited for the fact that the earlier [Shen-nong] Xinxiu bencao includes a recipe for theriaca.

Greek medicine is believed introduced into China by the Nestorians, whose influence is also seen by some scholars in works recovered from Dunhuang, in which the Greeks’ “four-element” theory and medical treatments are mentioned that similar to those practiced in ancient Greece. They also contain what is described vaguely as “certain Christian teachings concerning the sick”. An important study of Nestorian influence across early medieval China focuses on transmission of the eggplant (aubergine) but though I introduced this theme in my own research posts some time ago and treated it then in detail in discussing the presence of the Nestorians and Armenians in the medieval east, and the extant books of Nestorian medicine, I won’t repeat those references here. They are better left for posts about other sections.

Journey Books

To while away the tedium of long journeys, there was a genre of ‘journey books’, in which there was usually a combination of practical information, passages of one’s favourite epics or poetry and so on. In Persian, these were known as ‘Ark books’ (sefinat) and the poems of Hafiz were especially popular. In the west, the ‘Journal of Michael of Rhodes’ is a good example of the usual mix in Latin works.

It was in a very late sixteenth-century illustrated ‘catalogue’ of goldsmiths’ designs that I found the first evidence of any forms akin to anything in the ‘leaf and root’ section. Far too late to have influenced the Voynich manuscript, it is not entirely impossible that a reverse influence might have occurred. This is one for the ‘Rudolfine’ theorists because although these drawings were made before the designer, Erasmus Hornick, went to Rudolf’s court, he did die there.

Erasmus Hornick had been born and/or trained as a goldsmith-jeweller in Antwerp, then lived for some years in Augsburg (1555?-1559) before moving to Nurnberg (1559-1566) where he published his designs as pattern books. Returning Augsburg in 1566, he was later – during the last months of his life – appointed Hofwekstatt by Rudolf II (1582-3) with “the distinctly modest salary of six Guldern monthly”, to use Hayward’s phrase.

  • John Hayward, ‘The Goldsmiths’ Designs of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek [Cod. Icon. No.I99] reattributed to Erasmus Hornick’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 110, No. 781 (Apr., 1968), pp. 201-207.

A closer, but spurious, connection to Rudolf was created when some of Hornick’s fanciful patterns, included in a volume of such designs, was later inscribed on its frontispiece, in Latin, Sunt Figurae num 275 Rudolfi Caesaris Thesaurus Delineat (There are designs the number of 275 representing the treasury of the Emperor Rudolf.) It is not true. One of these days I might satisfy my curiosity about how the handwriting compares with Mnishovsky’s.

There is some doubt about when Hornick  produced the last of his designs, but it is clear that his relatively simple designs (such as the three perfume-containers) belong to his early, Antwerp period, so that while they would appear to be influenced by an idea of the exotic and ‘ancient’, any closer connection to the Voynich manuscript must relate to the port of Antwerp or some similar centre whose trade permitted a local resident to see curious foreign models and build his own fantastic, forms in the post-Renaissance ‘Mannerist’ taste by incorporating disparate elements from the originals. 

A similar implication of commercial access to eastern routes and goods informs works produced by the family Miseroni, who also produced works for Rudolf II.  A discussion of the Miseroni works, in connection with the Voynich manuscript, came, and went, some years ago. I’m afraid I cannot now discover who began that discussion – it may have been Rich Santacoloma.

I don’t want to waste time discussing such post-1450 events or persons, so I’ll close with a brief comment on the routes and goods which brought such things as lapis lazuli and nephrite jade to Prague by the late sixteenth century.

Lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, part on object created by Miseroni for Rudolf II

The interesting thing about Miseroni is that his work incorporates lapis lazuli (obtained from Afghanistan) and nephrite jade, which at that time is most likely to have been obtained from Khotan in the Tarim basin, brought then along high ‘silk roads’. What is puzzling is that jade, like porphyry (gained from a mine in Egypt), cannot be carved like any other stone, but only shaped. The skill must be taught by a master and in fact when it comes to porphyry, the secret of working it was only rediscovered about the turn of the twentieth century.

Add to these points that a number of the designs which were produced in Mannerist style purported to reproduce ancient or classical artefacts – though they display distinctly eastern characteristics – and it is clear that Athanasius Kircher was not the only man of his time to believe that something of the classical Mediterranean had reached so far.   Certain of the Miseroni works appear to be  artefacts brought from the east and only provided with decoration and mountings.   Weight for weight, jade has always been more expensive than gold.

  • A series of articles on Miseroni, Rudolf and jade was published by ‘Friends of Jade’. here.

NOTE:  Some of the information above (including the maps) was first published through voynichimagery in posts of Sept.12th., 2012 and December 26th., 2012 and another post which I drafted in 2017 but did not publish, 2017 being the year I closed off public access. Anyone wanting details of sources etc., from the original posts is free to email me.

A central Asian nephrite jade inkstone, or lamp, that was given ornate mountings by one of the Miseroni family, to serve as a lamp for Rudolf II. The style of helmet suggests derivation from a Greek or a Luristan tradition. Another late (9thC AD) development is shown below from a 9thC image of foreigners on the silk roads.

‘Pharma’ – the routes

two prior:

AT PRESENT we’re considering the range over which information might have been gathered and brought to western Europe before 1400-1440, so to inform the pictorial text in Beinecke MS 408.

The reason for doing this is partly that the range and style of artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section (which Newbold imagined dealt with pharmaceuticals) find no comparison in Europe before our present manuscript was made, and partly that Georg Baresch who had the manuscript for about thirty years and who tried repeatedly to get better information about it, thought that the Voynich plants were not native to Europe, and that a person had gathered ‘from eastern parts’ the information now informing the text.

The previous post looked at the six-hundred year long connection between Europe and the territories once part of the Sasanian Persian empire, though which the overland ‘silk and spice’ routes passed.

This post considers the sea- and land routes whose use is attested during the relevant period by the travels of two men, each of whom began their voyages in the western Mediterranean, travelled east, and returned before the mid-1350s.

The first left Venice in 1271, returning in 1295. The other left from Tangier, Morocco in 1325, his final return occurring in 1354, after which he settled in Grenada for a time where his travels were narrated. The name of the first was Marco Polo; of the second, Ibn Battuta.

What we know of Marco Polo’s journey is owed to what might be called ‘the popular press’, a writer having heard of Polo who was then in prison. Polo’s story was constructed by that writer from what Polo told him from the prison cell. Ibn Battuta was received home with honour and his account of his travels recorded by his students for – unlike Latin Europe – the Islamic world had an active tradition of first-hand geographic writing and its study of geography did not await reception of a copy of Claudius’ Ptolemy’s thousand year old text.

Maximus Planudes (1260 – c. 1305 AD). Some scholars associate Planudes with Codex Vatopedinus 65 (early 14thC)

(However, for an overview of Ptolemy’s Geographia in Renaissance Europe, I warmly recommend Thony Christie’s recent post).

Routes indicated by the narrative of Maro Polo’s journeys. For an interactive version, see the website exploration.marinersmuseum.org/event/marco-polo-interactive-map

As you see, the routes agree pretty well, so we may rely upon it that these are the likely routes along which such information might have been gathered by any trader-traveller before 1400, regardless of his birthplace, native language or religion.

So – in theory at least, the drawings of plants and artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section might represent products from anywhere along those much-travelled routes, whether overland or by sea. If the possibilities are many, they are also daunting.

In those days, almost any traveller was perforce a trader, for there was no other way to support the costs of travel except by trading as one went. Some few might be sponsored by kings. Others might find that on reaching a given region the local ruler was willing to provide the necessities of life. But the majority had to trade in order to travel and the hardships and perils of travel meant that most travelled for no other reason. All found that while death might with good luck be avoided, taxes could not.

There have been a few earlier suggestions, by Voynich writers, that the manuscript evinces an ‘eastern’ character in some sense.

While the majority have maintained various versions of Wilfrid Voynich’s basic ‘all-European’ theory, in 2002 Jorge Stolfi concluded from his computer-analysis of the written text that ‘Voynichese’ might be an Asian language and suggested Jurchen as one possibility. His investigation began after a mock-theory had been presented by Jacques Guy, but Guy himself later went into print to make clear that while he had been joking about his ‘Chinese theory’, Stolfi’s method and results should not be regarded other than seriously and saying, further, that he had found no fault with either.

I do not recommend the ‘Voynich wiki’ article on this subject. Its anonymous author has improperly taken, without mention of the source, original contributions to the study made by P.Han, by the present author and doubtless by others,  all represented as if they were original work of that wiki writer. It is not honestly done.

Some years later, two botanists named Wiart and Mazars offered a couple of botanical identifications which named plants from the eastern world. Among the botanical identifications initially offered by Edith Sherwood were some whose form was unknown to formal western botany until after 1450, but well-known along those several of the eastern routes, the luffa and ‘banana'[f.13r] among them. Plants having similar appearance and fruit – thus of the same general ‘banana’ type – exist in a wide variety and are found from Africa to the Himalayas and South-east Asia. (italicised phrase added 27/08/2021)

For some years, those botanical identifications were little regarded and the very short contribution by Wiart and Mazars might have been ignored into oblivion had not Nick Pelling, despite his own clearly sceptical reaction, not noted and commented on their views in 2010, writing:

Guy Mazars and Christophe Wiart in Actualites en Phytotherapie … propose that many of the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious plants may in fact be East Asian plants (for example, that f6v depicts Ricinus communis) or Indian plants (they think that many of the plants shown are types of Asteraceae, with f27r representing Centella Asiatica).

  • Nick Pelling, ‘Chinese Voynich Theories…’ ciphermysteries, 14th May, 2010.
Yale, Beinecke MS 408 fol.13r

I too identified the subject of the drawing on folio 13r as representing plants of the ‘banana’ type, publishing a detailed analysis of the drawing itself and notes on historical context, pointing out that the fairly literal representation, in this case, showed personal knowledge of such plants and thus stood in opposition to the fact that the physical appearance of these ‘banana’ plants had remained unknown to European botany until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The inference then seemed fairly obvious, viz, that the plant-pictures could not be derived from any western botanical or herbal text, a conclusion which agrees in general terms with what John Tiltman had concluded after witnessing the failures of the Friedman groups’ over thirty years. He said, in 1968:

to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed. (p.11)

  • John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World” (1968) NSA DOCID: 631091, released under Freedom of Information Act, Case #19159, 23-Apr-2002.

 I included in my definition of the ‘banana group’ species so grouped by peoples in lands where the plants grow. Of these, some were and others were not later classed by Linnaeus as Musaceae. But Linneus was not the first person to observe and describe plants in ‘groupings’ and botanical observation and classification did not begin in Europe.

The sort of response which my historical commentary met then, and later,  is nicely illustrated by a very late comment (2018) made after I had closed off the research from the public.  The following was made by a pen-named contributor to one Voynich forum, and reads in part: 
[O’Donovan] .. was not the first to correlate (sic!)  banana and f13r, and credits Edith Sherwood with coming up with the banana ID. … while Sherwood (and many others) see 13r as a banana, [O’Donovan’s] idea(sic!) is that this folio depicts the whole Musa “group”, however anachronistic that may seem (obviously the notion of a Musaceae family is a Linnean one, so I really don’t know what kind of “group” she thinks this depicts).
That writer (known as ‘Vviews’) overlooked the critical point –  that such detailed knowledge of the plants’ appearance had remained unknown to western botanical and herbal texts until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The curious assumption that the fact ‘many others’ later accepted the opinion reached independently by Sherwood, and by the present author, constitutes some form of criticism of those authors is more difficult to explain.  Sherwood had been the first since 1912 to offer the identification. 
glass. recovered Begram. Alexandrian influence 1stC BC-1stC AD.

Baresch also said the content represented ‘Egyptian’ knowledge. About seventeenth-century Europeans’ notions of how far ‘Egyptian’ learning and culture had anciently spread, I’ll speak some other time. For now I’ll mention only that between Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli mines and Egypt, connection is attested from about 3,000 years before the Roman era, initially via Mesopotamia, but directly from well before the time of Roman ascendancy in the Mediterranean. We see evidence of this, in the 1stC AD, in the mixed Hellenistic, Egyptian and Roman cultural influence evinced by artefacts recovered from Begram. One example is shown (right).

The routes taken separately by Marco Polo and by Ibn Battuta co-incide in that same region, one that may seem distant and inaccessible from a European point of view but which was quite literally a centre of the world. In medieval times it was a crossroads of the ‘silk and spice’ routes, and a centre for the ancient trade in medicinal plants from the Himalayas east, west and to as far south as southern India.

The four main medical-pharmaceutical traditions of the older world were (in chronological order) the Egyptian, India’s Ayurveda, the Chinese and the Hellenistic. Trade in scented plants for incense, perfumes and items made of scented woods was also well developed by medieval times and those raw materials were traded across both the overland and the maritime routes when Polo and Ibn Battuta were there.

From here – the eastern side of what had been the old Achaemenid Persian empire, and later the limit of Alexander’s conquests, Buddhism was disseminated, and the oldest extant printed book has been recovered – the copy of a Buddhist text dated to the ninth century AD. From here, too, the region’s astronomical tradition – maintained quite possibly in an unbroken line from the period of Hellenistic-Indian interaction – was taken westward as refugees fled under the pressure of the Mongol invasion, their knowledge eventually informing the work done in Tabriz. Syria and Egypt regained, at that same time and evidently from the same cause, the previously ‘lost’ art of enamelling and gilding glass.

Considered in its historical context, the thirteenth-century Syrian glass is a poignant testimony to the fate of Nishapur in 1221 AD. Among the tens of thousands slaughtered was a poet named Attar and I believe the ornament on this glass is intended as a testimony to the city, its images a reference to Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’, the author having been among the thousands massacred when his city of Nishapur was depopulated and systematically destroyed, as so many others in the region were by the Mongols. Attar’s poem, however, survived and is still in print and much loved. It is a superb moral and spiritual allegory. In the view (right) the Simurgh and Hoopoe are both visible.

Between the time when Marco Polo had set off for the east in 1271 and when Ibn Battuta did so in 1325, major changes had occurred in the Mediterranean.

In 1290, the Mamluks of Egypt finally removed the last of the foreign-occupied centres in the Holy Land. Thus, while Marco Polo had been able to enter through Acco (Acre) and then use the Mesopotamian corridor to reach the sea in 1271, but on his return in 1295 that way was barred to European Christians and he had to go north and reach the Mediterranean by way of the Black Sea.

In the meantime, and as I first described when explaining the drawing on folio 5v, a large group of Genoese shipwrights and mercenaries had left for Mesopotamia in 1290, responding to an embassy sent two years earlier to the west by the Mongol il-Khan Arghun, who was planning a war against the Mamluks of Egypt.

Seven hundred of those Genoese went directly to Baghdad, but two hundred stopped at Mosul (ancient Nineveh), where they spent the winter building two sea-going ships. Mosul has no natural supply of ship-building timber but its reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world, and a hull painted with bitumen deterred attacks from the teredo or ‘shipworm’ which was the scourge of shipping in the eastern seas. Mosul was also a major supplier of astronomical instruments through the earlier medieval centuries and here too a version of the Dioscoridan herbal was made in which several elements find their counterpart in plant-pictures from the Voynich manuscript. That herbal was sent to Mashhad.

In posts to voynichimagery, I spoke in greater detail of the matters touched on in the paragraph above.  About the Genoese in Mesopotamia, I spoke initially when explaining the drawing on folio 5v. (Marancini’s ‘bitumen’ essay was published a few years later).  I’ll here add part of a footnote from a late post to voynichimagery  (October 21st., 2016).      ‘Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…’ Using pitch, tar/bitumen to waterproof a hull is as old as the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in Jewish law: Noah is told “Make for yourself an ark ..  make compartments in the ark and cover it with tar [=pitch] inside and outside”.  Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and  from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians would have known the deposits of Mosul (ancient Nineveh).  Herodotus (Bk.1, 179) describes a fountain of pitch in Babylon in lower Mesopotamia and, later, Eratosthenes (as reported by Plutarch Alexander, 35) did the same.   It occurs  in Mosul in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur. On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19.

Using their existing leverage with Constantinople and now with Baghdad, the Genoese were soon (from 1291) able to gain trading privileges amounting at first to near-monopoly in the Black Sea and similar rights of access to the eastern goods which were now being re-routed, from the older direct way via Damascus to that northern route, the same route which linked to the Persian gulf and which Marco Polo had been obliged to follow when returning west. The same route would been taken to Tabriz by ibn Battura in c.1326. All the gems and spices, all the practical and medicinal products, as well as materials used for pigments and dyes, now came west through that route or – with various limits and prohibitions and less reliably – via Cairo, Armenia and Tunis.

In sum:

Having shown that it is theoretically possible for ‘eastern parts’ to have contributed matter later copied to make Beinecke MS 408, the next post will consider details in the drawings from the ‘leaf and root’ section, to see if any offer evidence of such origins.

For anyone to have troubled to copy and to carry to Europe, and there to have copyied again with care any such information would imply (a) that the graphic conventions need not be those of western Europe or indeed of the Mediterranean, and (b) that the persons concerned in such a transmission are unlikely to have been members of those higher social groups who have traditionally peopled Europe’s ‘intellectual history’. More likely by far is that such persons would be practical otherwise unknown individuals, ones motivated chiefly by profit over any literary value though perhaps believing, as most medieval people did, that the oldest sources were the purest. Apart from western missionaries, those who moved between the eastern and western limits of the known world before 1440 were almost all traveller-traders, even if (like the Bolognese doctor mentioned in one letter attributed to the Sicilian missionary John de Montecorvino), their ‘trade’ was medicine.

‘Pharma’ – Pt 2-i. the legend

Two posts prior
Header  – (left) portrait of Professor William Romaine Newbold; (right) Mary d’Imperio; (centre – background) Beinecke Library (centre, lower register) detail from folio   ; trunk of young specimen of Bombax ceiba


THROUGHOUT LAST CENTURY, a number of statements made about the manuscript were accepted entirely on faith, and not least because the persons making those statements were associated with institutions whose reputations pre-disposed others to accept what was said. The result was a habit of believing without evidence a range of ‘Voynich legends’.

Professor Newbold had held a chair at the University of Pennsylvania; William Friedman was associated with the American Department of Defence, and the NSA, as was d’Imperio. Robert Bumbaugh held a chair at Yale and the person who wrote the manuscript’s catalogue description, Barbara Shailor, was senior librarian and keeper of manuscripts in Yale’s Beinecke library.

Because it is a source on which most people expect they might rely, I’ll begin with the Beinecke catalogue entry, written c.1969-78, and from there trace back to its origin the idea that one section of the manuscript is about pharmacy.

Beinecke Library (1969-1978).

Describing the section as ‘Part 5’, the catalogue reads:

Part V. ff. 87r-102v Pharmaceutical section containing drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots, all with identifying inscriptions. On almost every page drawings of pharmaceutical jars, resembling vases, in red, green and yellow, or blue and green. Accompanied by some continuous text.

How much of that is true? I mean, how much is either self-evident fact or represents conclusions from research asking, for example, whether the historical and archaeological evidence supports an idea that in medieval Europe before 1440 pharmacies used equipment of the same types and range as the artefacts depicted in that section?

By that criterion, and with some modifications, this is how much is true: 

Part V. ff. 87r-102v Pharmaceutical section containing drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs plant-parts including leaves and roots, all with identifying inscriptions. On almost every page drawings of pharmaceutical jars, what seem to be containers of various types, resembling vases, in red, green and yellow, or blue and green. Accompanied by some continuous text.

As best I’ve been able to discover, no-one over the entire century from 1912 to 2012 had questioned, or attempted to establish, whether the ‘pharmaceutical jars’ idea was justified. So I did. And it isn’t.

After some time I did learn that Nick Pelling had made a trip to the Murano glass museum in Venice – not to test the ‘pharma’ idea, but in pursuit of evidence that would support his own theory of an Italian provenance for the Voynich text.  More of his Murano trip, in a following post. 

Otherwise, for the hundred years from 1912-2012, that ‘pharmacy’ idea had been taken on faith, repeated without evidence and by sheer repetition had been elevated to the status of a ‘Voynich doctrine’ – that is, something founded on faith alone but which one dares doubt only at one’s peril.

When I did look into the question, the answer from the historical and archaeological evidence was a definite and resounding negative.

There is nothing to support the idea that between 1200-1438, within England and/or continental Europe, people who dispensed medicines or their raw ingredients used containers of such a range and in such forms as the artefacts drawn in that section.

Even the concept of ‘a pharmacy’ is a little dubious for that period, its validity dependent on just where, and when, it is applied.

Within western Europe, people who sold materials such as dried plants, minerals or animal parts would sell them to whomever wished to buy.  The customer might be a painter, or a quack, a potter or a carpenter, a weaver, a cook or indeed a patient bearing a prescription from some reputable doctor. It mattered not at all to the seller.

  • with regard to vegetable and mineral substances –  “…  the point when an item was transformed from ‘azurite’ or ‘cochineal’ to ‘pigment’ or ‘dye’ or ‘medicine’ occurred when it was bought and put to use…. The emphasis for early modern merchants was less on who would be using these goods – painters using pigments, dyers using dyes, doctors using simples – and more with their impact (as color).” Julia A. DeLancey, ‘ “In the Streets Where They Sell Colors”: Placing “vendecolori” in the urban fabric of early modern Venice’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, Vol. 72 (2011), pp. 193-232.

  • Filippo de Vivo, ‘Pharmacies as centres of communication in early modem Venice’, Renaissance Studies, Vol. 21 No.4 (September 2007) pp.505-521. [a vivid picture of the ‘spicers’ as a social centre, much like a 1950s American drugstore.]

Dispensaries (as apothecaries) who were directly connected to a hospital, or under the rule of the Physicians’ guild, or of a university faculty (as happened first in Paris) were being formally regulated during the period of interest and these do deserve description (more or less) as ‘pharmacies’.  It was largely up to the seller of goods as to how his business was described, and to which guild he would therefore pay dues.

But not even by 1500 did Europe’s sellers of materia medica use containers of such a range, form and ornament as those depicted in the Voynich manuscript’s leaf-and-root section, and indeed not until long after that date. The best comparison for the medieval pharmacy is to a local grocer’s (dry-goods) store.

Here I might also quote Parani as a caution to those who think research need involve nothing but pictures. Her comment applies equally to western Europe before 1450:

Scholars have pointed out that paintings cannot be used with confidence in reconstructing the typology, chronological sequence, or distribution map of particular artifact categories without first addressing questions concerning the potential use of iconographic formulas, the imitation of pictorial models, the availability of pattern books, and the dissemination of popular artistic types over wide geographic regions.

  • Maria G. Parani, ‘Representations of Glass Objects as a Source on Byzantine Glass: How Useful Are They?’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers , Vol. 59 (2005), pp. 147-171.

The conclusions from my enquiry during 2012-14, denying the traditional theory about this section and its ‘jars’, are unlikely to be mentioned in many Voynich-related sites today, but at the time some writers did begin trying variations on the Newbold theory.

Such ‘alternatives’ were not presented as formal arguments with documentation and references, but would appear online or in a chat-room as no more than ‘picture-matches’. I’ve shown this example before, of course, but in its way, the example is perfect.

containers plate7 Sherwoods new pages

One might fairly ask why Barbara Shailor included so much ‘kite-flying’ into the library’s formal description of the manuscript, a description that could be predicted to be received as a final word.

I’d suggest her overreach was partly due to the respect she felt due to the work done by the Friedmans and d’Imperio, partly to an understandable combination of mystification and embarrassment, because if a person has risen to a certain position of authority, it becomes very difficult to admit being at a complete loss to understand some artefact supposedly within one’s area of competence. 

Panofsky could do it; and John Tiltman too, and some other few external specialists, but the person had to be someone quite secure in their reputation and in their sense of their own abilities if they were to admit, without fear of losing face, that some item was inexplicable from their own knowledge and experience.

To judge by the readings listed in that catalogue entry, Shailor may have imagined that each source was informed by independent study, but on close inspection each (aside from Zimansky’s paper which I’ve not sighted) is found to be just another link in the relay-chain along which was transmitted, untested and unchallenged, one of Professor Newbold’s speculations from 1921.

Select Bibliography: Exhibition Catalogue, pp. 271-72, no. 85.
W. R. Newbold and R. G. Kent, The Cipher of Roger Bacon (Philadelphia,
J. H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript’ (Baltimore, 1968).
C. A. Zimansky, “William F. Friedman and the Voynich Manuscript,”
Philological Quarterly 49 (1970) pp. 433-43.
The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages, exhib.
cat. (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975) p. 203, no. 217 (with illus.)
and color pl. 9.
R. S. Brumbaugh, ed., The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The
Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript (Carbondale, Illinois, 1978),
with additional bibliography.
M. E. D’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma (National
Security Agency/ Central Security Service, Fort Meade, Maryland, 1978),
with additional bibliography.

In the same way, Mary d’Imperio’s book, Elegant Enigma was invested from the first with the prestige of the NSA and military cryptographers’ reputation for cool, clear fact-dependent logic.

Mary d’Imperio. NSA 1978

But by the 1970s, d’Imperio clearly felt the matter settled, though there is nothing in Elegant Enigma which indicates an effort made to test the historical worth of Newbold’s guess – a guess which she, too, simply repeated and passed along.

One faint faint caveat (‘objects that have been said to resemble..) is meaningless given that the section is headed: Pharmaceutical drawings.

She wrote,

Voynich containers 2The other salient feature of these pages is the presence of objects that have been said to resemble pharmaceutical jars or drug containers. On some folios.. the jars are ‘labelled’ with phrases or words in the Voynich script … In other cases a ‘label’ seems to appear near the jar which probably relates to it or to the “recipe” it stands for. .. The jar is usually at the left margin of each such row, irresistibly suggesting that the plants in that row were used to make up the compound prescription symbolised by that jar. The design of the jars is very ornate and florid…” (Elegant Enigma p.16)

In modern terms, we might describe Mary d’Imperio as a minimalist.

It is clear that she likes things neat, orderly and unfussy, so it should come as little surprise that her book often shows signs of her struggling against a personal distaste for the difficulties which the manuscript causes – particularly its drawings.

I cited one such passage in an earlier post, but now her use of ‘ornate’ implies antipathy, and her use of ‘florid’ is plainly pejorative.

To quote Collins’ dictionary:

Florid: If you describe something as florid, you disapprove of the fact that it is complicated and extravagant rather than plain and simple.

What this implies, I think, is that d’Imperio expected the manuscript to be more ‘normal’ and her idea of ‘normal’ was defined – as we’ve seen – as the usual customs of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.

I think that, at some level, d’Imperio knew that the Voynich drawings are not in keeping with that medieval European norm, but given her other constraints such as a need to feel the manuscript ‘important’, and her personal distaste for the ‘foreign’, I doubt if she ever quite allowed that awareness to become a conscious idea.

So she did what so many would later do, inventing and then blaming an imaginary character as ‘the author’ or ‘the artist’ for not having drawn in the ‘normal’ way. Some claimed that figure was an infant; others a mad genius; others again a brilliant but fiendishly clever encoder of messages [invariably imagined a white European Christian]; others again a heretic desperate to obscure a record of heterodox beliefs – though it’s difficult to imagine any manuscript more likely to attract attention.

It is worth keeping in mind, too, that d’Imperio was very comfortable with the binary reduction of information and the elegance characteristic of a well-written computer program. As Vera Filby said, when introducing d’Imperio at the NSA seminar in 1976:

She is a linguist and cryptanalyst, but she thinks of herself mainly as a computer programmer.

  • [NSA] ‘New Research on the Voynich Manuscript: Proceedings of a Seminar 30 November, 1976’. [Doc ID: 6588659] pdf from the NSA website.

In short – d’Imperio also just took Newbold’s original notion on faith as ‘simple and obvious’ and passed it on. Among those who had seen that as confirmation of Newbold’s guess, and so again taking the tale on faith and again passing it on, untested, was Barbara Shailor, whose description of the manuscript so nearly reflects what is in Elegant Enigma.

But where d’Imperio is critical of the drawings as not ‘normal’, Newbold had tried, on the contrary, to urge his original audience to see the drawings as really quite normal. He was the first to imagine this section ‘pharmaceutical’, and the containers ‘pharmacy jars’.

I find no evidence that he so much as consulted a museum curator, archaeologist or any history of pharmacy and its ‘jars’ as to whether his guess made sense in terms of medieval history, although to be fair in his day economic history was yet to be a separate discipline and this sort of thing wasn’t what interested contemporary historians and archaeologists about medieval Europe.

NEWBOLD – the legend’s origin. 1921

William Romaine Newbold

Professor Newbold introduced his idea in a form more appropriate to Wilfrid Voynich’s approach to history than a professor at UPenn.

He had said,

The fourth division contains on 34 pages drawings of flowers, fruits, leaves, roots, and of the receptacles used by pharmacists for their drugs; it is almost certainly pharmaceutical in character. (p.462).

In other fields of research, such terms as ‘probably’ or ‘almost certainly’ imply that the scholar has already studied a range of evidence and opinion and is speaking to the balance of evidence.

In Wilfrid-speak. though, a different inference must be taken. Wilfrid’s “almost certainly” means ‘I don’t know’; his “certainly” means ‘I have no evidence for this’; his “probably happened” means ‘absolutely no evidence that this event applies to the manuscript’s history but it suits my theory’.

Wilfrid-speak became endemic in Voynich theory-creation and proved highly contagious. Two examples even occur in a recent video posted on the Beinecke website and entitled, ‘What we know…’

Newbold had told his audience, in 1921:

The first and fourth sections, dealing with the medicinal properties of plants and the methods of preparing from them drugs… are probably connected with the preceding by their common reference to the problem of the prolongation of life, the “secret of secrets,” the discovery of which [Roger] Bacon seems to have regarded as the chief practical end of science.

a passage which the only non-fiction is: “first and fourth sections….. plants”.

And finally, showing the audience a slide, he said:

One page from the pharmaceutical section of the manuscript. On the left margin three of the receptacles used by pharmacists for their drugs, resembling in appearance the large glass “bottles” still sometimes seen in pharmacists’ windows. Three rows of roots and leaves accompanied by text.

Those paragraphs from Newbold’s talk are the whole basis for the Voynich “pharma-” doctrine.  Nothing more – nothing else.  Just a flawed speculation and flawed analogy offered in 1921. 

I’ve found no evidence of anyone’s researching, or even of enquiring of medieval historians, whether one might, indeed, transfer to thirteenth-century England, or even to Europe before 1440, the norms of 1920s America.  

Newbold’s error: 1920s America ≠ Medieval Europe.

You can check Newbold’s account of contemporary American pharmacies. The evidence is there and supports his description of the situation in 1920s America. 

There, pharmacy was a distinct profession, the pharmacy a distinct type of shop, and glass bottles plentiful because they were being mass-produced.

techne glass mass production Canning town machine

His reference to ‘glass bottles’ is a fair comment, too, but again only as comment on 1920s America.  During the Victorian era (1837-1910) there had been a fashion for making exotic- looking display bottles and carboys. Here are some examples.

Victorian display and Carboys pharmacy

Newbold’s interpretation of every section in the manuscript was a product of his believing that the manuscript’s entire content had been inscribed, personally, by a thirteenth-century English Franciscan friar named Roger Bacon and that drawings could be interpreted by no more than ‘commonsense’ impressions. Occasionally, in response to a question put to me along the lines of ‘well, what else could it be?’ I’ve had to respond – ‘Don’t ask me; ask the historical record’. 

The ‘Roger Bacon’ idea, itself, had no other basis than Wilfrid’s own speculations, and a bit of seventeenth-century speculation reported within some third-hand hearsay. 

Poor premises on which to base research into a six-hundred year old, problematic manuscript.

But  setting aside that erroneous idea that medieval European pharmacies used containers of the range and style depicted in the manuscript’s  ‘leaf-and-root’ section, the general idea of the plants being ‘medicinal’ might yet prove valid.  Unknown to Newbold, or to d’Imperio or Shailor, it was an idea that had been raised as early as 1637.

But the person who raised it then also says the plants are foreign ones – that is,  not native to Europe and therefore unlikely to figure in western Europe’s medieval herbals. 

 ‘Foreign plants’ – GEORG BARESCH – 1637.

Athanasius Kircher.

A letter addressed by Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher in 1637 only came to light after 2001.

That letter has been largely neglected by the traditionalists because the most important insight it offers does not support the traditional expectation that the whole content of this manuscript should be an expression of western Christian Europe’s culture and intellectual history.

Nor does Baresch, writing to Kircher almost thirty years before Marci was to mention to him the incident of Mnishovsky’s ‘Rudolf’ rumour, give any indication that he had heard anything of that sort about the manuscript. More to the point, neither does Marci in 1640 when wrote to Kircher and spoke about Baresch and, it is thought, about the manuscript’s ‘Voynichese’ script.

I won’t speculate on why neither man seems to have known of any supposed connection to an emperor at so late a date (Mnishovsky was to die in 1644), but if they had known and believed that tale, there could hardly have been a better way to enlist Kircher’s help than by relaying it. Kircher was an out-and-out snob.

What Baresch says of the plant-pictures, in his letter of 1637 is:

Augent probabilitatem herbae peregrinae, in Volumine depictae, notitiam hominum in partibus Germaniae subterfugientes

“it [a foreign origin for the manuscript’s content] is all the more probable because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany”. (Philip Neal’s translation).

Here in Germany’.

Baresch was writing before the time of Linnaeus, but a number of German Jesuits were active abroad who were interested in botany and some were also acquainted with Kircher.

It is possible therefore, but we have no evidence either way, that just as Baresch first approached Kircher through the Jesuit community of Prague, he might have asked the help of those German Jesuits in the same way.

Some of the better known seventeenth-century Jesuit botanists include Giovanni Battista Ferrari, who tended the gardens of Cardinal Barberini and who had published in 1633 a lavishly illustrated De florum cultura.

Another, later but widely known Jesuit botanist was Georg Joseph Kamel (also known as Camellus), born in Brünn, Moravia (now Brno, the Czech Republic) in 1661. He is credited with the first written history of botany in the Philippines.

Another possible explanation for Baresch’s reference to Germany and his being vague about his source is that in his time the most notable scholar interested in botany was a staunch Protestant, Joachim Jungius, of whom one writer has said:

The founding fathers of modern botany are Joachim Jungius (1587-1657), John Ray (1627-1705) and Carl von Linne (1707-1778) – ‘Diptyque’.

  • see also ‘Jungius, Joachim’ – encyclopaedia.com.  Article’s references include and list manuscripts. 

To those possibilities we might add others.

Given Baresch’s ethical position which he mentions in writing to Kircher, and which Marci would emphasise in his own letter of 1640, Baresch may have seen his own task in opposition to that of a new breed of mercenary physician exemplified by one Caspar Kegler.

Though plague had surged intermittently through Europe for three hundred years by this time since 1347, Caspar Kegler had between 1521 and 1607 made his own fortune and that of his immediate descendants not by selling his services as a physician, but touting ‘patent’ potions which he claimed were Plague cures.

In memory of Nicander we might call Kegler the first seller of patent ‘snake-oil’ remedies.

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

Clearly indifferent to his Hippocratic oath, Kegler is known to have refused even to let other physicians have the benefit of his recipes, and this may be the point of Marci’s emphasising, in his own letter, that Baresch is interested not in money but only in medicine. He wrote, in 1640:

The Sph*nx [Kircher] will understand from the attached sheet what my friend Mr Georg Barschius wanted to have written by me. Though he is undoubtedly a man of the highest quality and greatly skilled in chemical matters, he has not in fact achieved the real goal he longs for. He seeks it for the sake not of money but of medicine. – Neal’s translation.


It would be very difficult to argue that none of the plants referenced in the Voynich manuscript had medicinal use, because almost every plant on earth has at some time been ascribed medicinal qualities.

Almost all – but not quite all.

A number among those images for which I have offered identifications appear to me to refer to plants whose uses were primarily non-medical, but which were widely traded and employed in other, equally practical, ways. Two such images, these from the manuscript’s leaf-and-root section. are shown in the detail below.

detail from folio 101v plants identified: upper register, Bombax ceiba (DOD); lower register Luffa (DOD and reportedly Edith Sherwood); Other, incorrect, attribution may occur on some Voynich sites.

For the second, my identification, (Luffa) has a precedent I was later informed, that kind informant naming Edith Sherwood as having earlier come to the same opinion. It is always good thing, and something of a relief, when two researchers have come independently and by different methods, to the same view.

From evidence additional to my reading of the drawings, I identified those two as: (upper register) the Kapok tree (Bombax ceiba)*; and (lower register) the Luffa (Luffa aegyptica).

*not to be confused with the South American and east African Ceiba Pentandra

While the fruit of the luffa may be eaten as a vegetable when very young, its chief use in its mature form was as a ‘sand-paper’ in carpentry. Today it is better known to English speakers as a ‘loofah’ and used in the bathroom.

trunk of a young specimen of Bombax ceiba. Photo thanks to author of the wiki article ‘Bombax ceiba’.

The bark of a young ‘kapok’ tree (Bombax ceiba) is covered with thick spines which reduce as the tree ages. Its fruit-pods, as they dry, produce a silky but short fibre.

Kapok was widely traded in south-east Asia, and, during the period to which I date the last major recension of material now in the Voynich manuscript (i.e. 1290-1330 AD) it was also being traded into Europe the evidence strongest for its coming via the Black Sea.

Those two identifications were first published in ‘Findings’ and some again in voynichimagery, but research and its results published in those blogs was regularly misused, so that when finally one chap began routinely announcing my latest botanical identifications as his own in a Voynich forum, and then responded to protests by continuing to ‘lift’ the information but now assigning the identification to some other folio, apparently at random, I felt it better to stop catering to such habits and closed off the material from public view.

Treating everything found online as if it were an anonymous wiki article hinders the process of work on this manuscript, making more difficult not only the labour of serious scholars (because the ‘lifter’ habitually omits the original’s cited sources and reasoning), but also that of editors working for academic publishers when original work is ‘lifted’ and then appears, unattributed or wrongly attributed, on sites whose copyright date may precede by several years the time when the original research was really done.

Below, I append extracts from two of the rarer sources which helped clarify for me a question about whether kapok was a product only in local use where it grew, or was part of a wider trade.

These two sources speak only to the eastern end of the sea-routes. About trade into the west, some other time. I include them because they are not easily come by, but if any reader wishes to use the information, the ethical thing to do is to cite the passage directly, to name the author and provide your own readers with the publication details as given below on the clip, so that they, in turn, may check that you’ve reported accurately.

Potions and lotions – the ‘pharmaceutical’ section. Perfect antiquity and a Voynich legend.

Two posts previous:

Header image – from the Iliad Ambrosiana.

Medieval Europe did not share the modern preference for new ideas and the latest information, but believed that the more ancient a text was, the more trustworthy and less degraded by the vicissitudes of time and inaccurate repetition.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if some images in Beinecke MS 408 reveal evidence of Hellenistic* or Roman character.

*The Hellenistic period in the Mediterranean is usually said to begin with Alexander and end with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. In fact, in the eastern region of Alexander’s empire and colonies, Hellenistic culture survived for almost three centuries more and the influence of Greek and Roman art persists still longer in some regions east of the Bosporus.

We are used to thinking of human history in terms of an ongoing ascent, but the medieval west saw it rather as a process of descent from an imagined pristine origin.

To some extent the recovered classical and ancient texts appeared to support that view.

There was no doubt that Virgil and Cato spoke better Latin; that Ptolemy had access to better information about astronomy and geography, than did fifteenth-century Latins. I do not think they imagined what they were doing as a ‘renaissance’ so much as a re-discovery and recovery of what had been a greater glory.

That is why European elites of the fifteenth century devoted so much time, effort and money to having agents find and bring copies of ancient and classical works to Europe and then have them copied and, where necessary, translated.

Such things cost money, and it is no co-incidence that the Church, the merchant classes, and the artisans whom they employed were what drove the first, Italian, phase of that great recovery we call the Renaissance. Texts which they wanted and copied include everything from legal orations to epic poetry, botany, history, geography and other matters of the natural world.

Nor were even the most ancient of those works necessarily ‘dead texts’.

The most strongly Greek-speaking areas of the Byzantine empire (or what was left of it by then), long used the poems of Homer as the basis of education, in much the way the book of Psalms was used in the west. By the fifteenth century, the text of Psalms was as much as three thousand years old; that of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey about 2,200 years old. Neither was a ‘dead text’ but very much alive.

In those two cases – that is of the Psalms and of Homer – the custom was to have students first commit the verses to memory, each verse then used as both a springboard for, and a memory-cue to, more developed commentary spoken by the teacher.

It was an entirely practical system in a time when books were rare and most education conducted by words, word-pictures or actual figures from the natural world or public imagery (vide depiction of the constellation-emblems and their labours of the months in churches and on the exterior of a cathedral in the west).

To take one example, to show how Homer’s work could remain relevant, here’s one passage. You can see that the passage naturally opens a path to commentary about astronomy and geography, but all being framed by an adventure-story in beautifully turned Greek and sure to grip the interest of any young lad.

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. …. For seventeen days then he sailed over the sea, and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of the land of the Phaeacians, where it lay nearest to him; and it shewed like unto a shield in the misty deep.(Bk.V ll.269-280)

Any well-educated person in the Byzantine sphere could have recited this by heart, and over the centuries, a myriad of metaphors and proverbs in daily life referred back to Homer much as in western Christendom they often derive from biblical ideas and tropes. 

The first Latin translation of Homer – both his Iliad and his Odyssey – was produced by the Calabrian scholar, Leontius_Pilatus, who also translated Euripides (c. 480 – c. 406 BC) and  Aristotle (384-322 BC).  

Thus, to find matter in a manuscript made in the early fifteenth century, and probably in Italy or the western Mediterranean, in which there are images reflective of the pre-Christian world, should not greatly surprise us.

Another ancient author whose writings were found, brought, translated and then eagerly copied was Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BC) among whose many subjects were plants, meteorology and winds.

Because his work on Plants appears not been noticed by Voynich writers (the present author having met what might be described as ‘expressions of surprise’ on introducing his name some years ago), I’ll add a longer than usual list of first-stage references further below.

The century-long focus on the Dioscoridan tradition and its herbals, in Voynich studies, has not led to any clear understanding either of the plant-pictures or of the ‘leaf and root’ folios, which latter section is now habitually described as forming a “pharmaceutical” section – an idea based on nothing but speculation and never since proven true, but which has hardened over time to become yet another of those Voynich doctrines well deserving revisionists’ attention.

A copy of Theophrastus’  ‘Historia Plantarum’ now in the Vatican library is dated to the tenth or eleventh century. It is in Greek. (Vatican City, Urbinas graecus 61; eleventh (?) century).  Some of Theophrastus’ work was preserved, with his name, in Pliny, and in the works of Jerome (see here) but otherwise his works were scarcely known to the west until a Latin translation was made of what is more properly known as the Historia Plantis, that translation made by Theodore of Gaza at the request of Pope Nicholas V.  The Theodore of Gazatranslation is said to have been completed in 1454. It would be published in Treviso, in 1483. During the three decades which intervened, the text both in Latin translation and in the Greek were evidently being passed around in manuscript, and copied eagerly.  In a sense it was considered a replacement for the better known text of Dioscorides, but even today the problems of matching plants to the terms used by Theophrastus – or indeed by Dioscorides – is no trivial problem.  From whence Theodore had his copy we do not know, but in speaking of Leontis Pilatus, Holton placed  emphasis on the fact that the fourteenth-century scholar had “spent several years in Crete” around 1350 and from Byzantine sources too, we get a glimpse of a ‘Recovery’ in Crete before that in Italy.

  • Holton David  Literature and society in Renaissance Crete. p. 3. (1991).

  • Benedict Einarson, ‘The Manuscripts of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum’, Classical Philology, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 67-76.

Perhaps it was during the three decades between its translation into Latin and its publication in print, that the copy of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum was made, in Greek, which is now included in a compilation of copies from Greek texts dating from the fifteenth century (Vat.gr.1759). The other texts  bound with it offer a window into contemporary interests, and its being devoid of  separation between secular and the religious interest.  The copied authorities relate to astronomy and to theology, to pre-Christian philosophy, astrology and botany.

Some helpful references.

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Botany’ in A. Classen (ed.), Handbook of Medieval Studies. The section can be downloaded through academia.edu.
  • Moshe Negbi, ‘Male and Female in Theophrastus’s Botanical Works’, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 317-332.
  • John Scarborough, ‘Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies’, Journal of the History of Biology,  Vol. 11, No. 2, (Autumn, 1978) pp. 353-385. JSTOR
  • ___________________, ‘Drugs and Drug Lore in the time of Theophastus: folklore, magic, botany, philosophy and the rootcutters’, Acta Classica, Vol. 49 (2006), pp. 1-29. 
  • Charles B. Schmitt, ‘Theophrastus in the Middle Ages’, Viator, II, 1971, pp. 257-70.
  • R. W. Sharples, ‘Some Medieval and Renaissance Citations of Theophrastus’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 47 (1984), pp. 186-190. Very technical; interesting chiefly for its connecting Theophrastus to passages in the work of Albertus of Lauingen [called ‘magnus’], and for mention of a known Syriac copy of Theophrastus’ meteorological works (n.35).
  • Peter Lautner, ‘Theophrastus in Bessarion’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 155-160.
  • Chicago Botanic Garden, Lenhardt Library ‘Theophrastus and the beginnings of modern botany in the Renaissance’, (December 2012)
  • Michael L. Satlow, ‘Theophrastus’s Jewish Philosophers’, Journal of jewish studies, vol. lix, no. 1, spring 2008. (at academia.edu)
  • Dr. Efraim Lev, ‘Drugs held and sold by pharmacists of the Jewish community of medieval (11th -14th centuries) Cairo according to lists of materia medica found at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge’.  A first draft has been posted at academia.edu, with the author’s caution that it is only a draft that has been accepted for publication.

Theophrastus’ work on winds begins, 

“We have earlier considered [in his ‘Meteorologica’] the nature of winds: of what they consist, in what way they come to be, and by what they are caused. We must now try to explain that each wind is systematically accompanied by effects and in general by phenomena whereby the winds are differentiated from each other” – Theophrastus, de Ventis.

For more on this see last see,

  • V. Coûtant and V. Eichenlaub, ‘the De Ventis of Theophrastus: its contributions to the theory of winds’, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 55, No. 12. (December 1974), pp. 1454-1462.

For any reader who feels an especially strong interest in Theophrastus, most of the information in the references listed above are embraced by Brill’s series of authoritative editions and commentaries.

Beyond the learned halls.

In the elite and carefully-monitored, interconnected circle of western literati during the early Renaissance, ancient and classical texts were studied, but beyond that environment, the erudite selection of worthy material and decisions about translation no longer apply.

What the new and slowly emerging commercial class wanted was practical information that was both rare enough and ‘new’ enough to be of financial advantage over others enagaged in similar business.

Some of the ‘new’ techniques that Europe habitually ascribes to some particular Latin’s invention (as gunpower was earlier claimed to be Roger Bacon’s “invention”), were not.

In the next post, I’ll consider one of those legends – one maintained to this present day and which attributes to a Venetian named Angelo Barovier the invention of clear glass – quite two decades centuries after it appears in the eastern Mediterranean, and a couple of decades at least after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum has been dated.

There was advantage to be gained by pretending some technical secret an invention rather than an importation – a rival was deterred from attempting to find another source for that information. But avoiding acknowledgement of any debt by Europe in general, to a foreign source, to any ‘foreigners’ or even to European Jews has been a long-standing and pervasive problem in the way Europe has written its history.

Scholars had begun to open their eyes by the 1960s but it is evident they had no immediate influence in general attitudes. Apparently none at all on d’Imperio, even as late as 1978 when her own initial impression that the Voynich images suggested ‘foreignness’ was one she quickly suppressed – as we’ve seen.

In was in 1960 that Lynn White had written:

IN I499 when Polydore Vergil published the first history of technology that amplified the Greco-Roman tradition, it did not occur to him that, save for silk and cotton, Europe might owe anything in these matters to Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia: his horizon in that direction was the “Magi, qui Persica lingua Sapientes appellantur.” It was not until the seventeenth century that Jesuit missionaries to the Orient persuaded Europeans to believe that several of the fundamental inventions which are alleged to have made the modern world modern were of Chinese origin: notably gunpowder,* the compass, paper, and printing. The process of scholarly erosion then began, and our view today is moderately changed. What has emerged is a sense of the remarkable complexity of the interplay between the Occident and East Asia from Roman and Han times onward. This involved a two-way traffic, in many items, along many routes, and of varying density in different periods…

*as we’ve seen, this particular Eurocentric myth was maintained by the general population in Europe and in America well into the twentieth century.  

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.

  • Lynn White Jnr., ‘Natural Science and Naturalistic Art in the Middle Ages’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Apr., 1947), pp. 421-435.


A three-hundred year gap between knowledge of some debt owed by European learning to ‘foreigners’ and the general recognition of that fact within the west, is the sort of thing which causes a scholar to feel irritation and frustration.  We’ve seen this sort of irritation in Lynn Thorndike’s letter to Scientific American in 1921 and here again – fourteen years later than the earlier paper – Lynn White now writes with an understandable exasperation: 

Except for the folklorists, medievalists are not habituated to thinking about the borrowing of cultural items from alien peoples in distant parts, and seem curiously resistant to the idea. When one talks about diffusion, for example of the spinning wheel or of the magnetic compass .. some skeptic is sure to assert his faith that our crafty medieval ancestors were as capable of inventing such devices for themselves…. One can only reply that each case must be examined in the context of all that we know: there are indeed a few clear instances of separate invention.  When, however, we find Indian buffaloes in medieval Europe, we may be confident that the buffalo was not invented twice.

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221.

Indic buffalo Pisanello from Lynn White 'Indic Elements..'Two years after that paper was written, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma was in process. 

Published in 1978 it never for a moment looks beyond medieval European culture, assumes that Jews had literature exclusively religious or ‘superstitious’, presumes that any version of such material can be relevant only in forms mediated by western Christian ‘translation’ and in one place clearly expresses her personal aversion, in general, to the ‘foreign’.  

What Lynn White knew to be true of western medievalists half a century ago is less true of those scholars now, but the same attitudes had been pervasive in the general culture of Europe and America, thus influencing the first generations of Voynich writers and thanks not least to d’Imperio’s record of the Friedmans’ efforts, informs the lineage of current-day Voynich traditionalists.

That the study remains in that state is chiefly due to the determined and defensive-aggressive posture of some core-traditionalists and others adhering to the same ‘history’ for the manuscript.

How such attitudes and responses deter researchers and hinder any new approaches can be attested by many, among whom one might again mention Jorge Stolfi who simply reported the results of his computer-analysis of the written text.  Whether his results were right or wrong is yet to be known; but it was a fair contribution to the study and one whose rejection was achieved by means other than civil scholarly discourse.

 The faithfulness with which certain core traditionalist adhere to the Wilfrid-Friedman-d’Imperio line is the main reason that ‘Voynich studies’ today conveys something faintly musty and quaint as exercises in historiography.  A constant emphasis on nationalism is so typically nineteenth-century, and today recognised as being inappropriate for the medieval world; the notion that any image found in a region must in some (ill-defined) way the unique expression of a local ‘cultural character’ –  within medieval Europe – is embarrassing when we know that a manuscript may be found, by research, to have been made  not in Spain but in Sicily, or not England but in France with the only discernible difference the saint’s name is listed in a calendar. 

The same excuses which White assigned to ‘some skeptic’ have really been offered by Voynich theorists when informed that some aspect of the manuscript’s codicology, or imagery, presents irrefutable opposition to their theory.  ‘Our chaps could have done that too’ is not an uncommon response and for some ultra-traditionalists ‘could have done’ means ‘certainly did – pure Wilfrid style.

And so to the next ‘Voynich doctrine’, by which folios 99r-102v are deemed the ‘pharmaceutical section’.

Voynich bit leaf-and-root fols

Folios 99r-102v. ‘Pharma’

About this section, again, close inspection shows its ‘Voynich doctrine’ to be an elaboration without foundation. The ‘pharmacy’ idea was built on nothing but air – or at least, airy notions.

In the next post, its roots are traced. The following post starts asking specific questions.

Next post – the legend.