O’Donovan notes #13.2 d – Botanical-medical-garden theories (cont.) & folio 13r.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c.2600 wds.

An analytical study made of any problematic item or corpus is rarely less than ten-to-twelve thousand words long* and even given the constraints on study of Beinecke MS 408 and my cutting analysis to basics and omitting most of the point-by-point commentary, this is necessarily a long-ish post.

*An analytical study will include discussion of the materials used, including any lab.studies, must treat the drawing point-by-point and provide well-researched historical and technical commentary, including commentary on the cultural norms and significance for the community in which that image was first enunciated – not to mention tracking evidence of subsequent transmission and/or dissemination. ‘Picture-matching’ isn’t analysis.

An example offering a fairly easy introduction to how most (not all) the Voynich plant-pictures are encoded, while allowing us to test certain assertions made about this section, is provided by the drawing on folio 13r.

The statements to be tested are:

  • 1639 – “herbae pereginae” – Georg Baresch.
  • 1928 – “escaped all medieval and Renaissance influence” – Robert Steele
  • 1944 – “Christopher Columbus…New world specimens” Hugh O’Neill
  • 1957 – “awful drawings” – T.A. Sprague
  • 1967 – “no .. point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book” -John Tiltman.
  • 1969 -? – “botanical and scientific drawings..” Beinecke catalogue.

Folio 13r

So far as I know* Edith Sherwood, a pharmacist with a particular interest in the history of that profession, was the first to offer the identification ‘banana-plant’ for the drawing on folio 13r.

*as ever, better information is always welcome.

Sherwood’s identifications are sometimes inspired though are not analytical studies, since they are offered without discussion of the drawing per se, and without explanatory or historical commentary.

Treating this drawing a couple of years later, my conclusions agreed with Sherwood’s in general, but differ in various particulars – chiefly to do with the principles informing the drawing’s construction and certain stylistics* which are present that are rare or found not at all in Europe’s medieval and Renaissance art.

*’Stylistics’ is a general term to describe what you might call, as a very rough analogy, the marks of a particular graphic code.

Preliminary remarks

I was impressed at finding that this drawing presents a more detailed and informative image of the bananas than we find in any European illustration until after the Voynich manuscript had been sent to Athanasius Kircher in 1666.

Disinctions – general

The plant-drawings display no knowledge of, nor interest in, illusionist drawing and many resort to formalisation as a means to indicate depth.

In treating the Voynich drawings, researchers will find no detail is coloured in the pink-purple-black range. I found a consistent practice of colouring any plant-part naturally in that range by using a red pigment for the lighter end of that spectrum and blue for the darker end – except that if parts of a plant appear in life purplish-black or black, that part may be omitted entirely from the drawing. This applies to the drawing on folio 13r where the purple-black male (staminate) flowers are omitted and we are shown only the developing flower-fruits. There are a few instances of this last practice in the Latins’ herbals; before Cadomosto’s herbal (c.1470) it is common to find that the purple spathe of Dracontea is omitted in Latin herbals or (as here) differently coloured.

In the western Christian church, Purple and black were the liturgical colours, respectively, of advent and of the penitential season and of death, but there there was no cultural prohibition against their use in art and, by the early fifteenth century, a Latin illustrator would have no reason not to colour a pink flower pink. That our fifteenth-century manuscript, presumed made in a Latin domain, retains this constant avoidance indicates, with other non-Latin stylistics, that what we have is a careful copy from an original first enunciated elsewhere.

In western botanical science and even before Linnaeus, a plant’s flower is central to plant-identification, yet in all but a handful of the Voynich drawings, a flower-fruit is only included when it has/had an independent commercial value.

Folio 13r is among the many instances within the section that the form given a flower-fruit is clearly well-informed, yet has that detail turned upwards as if facing the sun, regardless of how it appears in life. Though not unknown in medieval Latin art (see example in previous post) the custom is relatively rare there, especially after the fourteenth century. It is found elsewhere.

fruit upturned – a banana plant, from a wayhouse provided for foreigners in Madhya Pradesh. c.1s-2ndC AD

In terms of Voynich theories:

Medical-herbal theories.

No type of banana plant has, or ever had, a place in the western pharmacopoeia or been used in medicine. Grieves mentions two incidents reported to The Lancet in 1916, of “plantain juice” being given to a victim of snake-bite in southern India but as this occurred in combination with the usual treatment of ligature, incision, bleeding and application of permanganate, I suspect the ‘plantain juice’ a beer (see below) administered to relieve shock – equivalent to sweet tea or ‘medicinal’ brandy. (As ever, if readers know more, or better, please comment).

Natural History

The physical appearance of the banana plant(s) remained unknown to Latins’ texts of natural history, botany and pharmacy until long after the Voynich manuscript was made.

Images labelled ‘Musa’ (banana) and made to illustrate Latin copies of Ibn Butlan’s regimen for healthy living, Taqwīm aṣ‑Ṣiḥḥa (Lat. ‘Tacuinum sanitatis’) are obviously drawn from hearsay and we find this stated explicitly in one of the four illustrated copies remaining from the fourteenth century: “we know it [Musa] only from texts or tales from merchants from Cyprus or pilgrims from the Holy Land.” *

  • I use Judith Spencer’s translation from Cod. Vindob. ser. nov. 2644. See The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti (1984) p.82 The Vienna is one of four illustrated copies remaining from the late 14thC, all made in Lombardy. On this matter I’d also recommend:
  • Jean Ann Givens, Karen Reeds, Alain Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550, (2006) pp. 51–81.

The pictorial evidence confirms this. Below, a selection of ‘banana-plant’ images from European works produced between the fourteenth century and the 1660s. I add a comparison between the Voynich drawing’s ‘corm and root’ detail and that detail as represented by a modern botanical diagram. Note omission of the corm in the pre-1660 illustrations.

This startling difference in quality and accuracy between renderings for ‘bananas’ in European works to as late as the seventeenth-century and that in drawing on f.13r makes clear that wherever our present copy was made, the original drawing did not originate in Latin Europe and whoever first formed the image was familiar with these plants in a way only possible at first-hand. In theory, the drawing might have been made by a Latin in Cyprus or the Holy Land, but the stylistics and the drawing’s construction, as well as historical information about the species grown medieval Cyprus and the Levant oppose such an origin for the drawing. (this is another section from the analytical study omitted here).

That we find no similarly-well informed drawing in the European works, even by the seventeenth century lends support to Tiltman’s assessment of that western textual tradition as he gave it in 1967.

Overall, this drawing presents opposition to various other assertions made about these drawings – as that they are

“Bad, incompetent, careless.. awful drawings” etc.

I found the drawing on folio 13r lucid, even elegant in its arrangement and system of construction. That it remains so in our present copy is evidently due to the care taken by the fifteenth-century copyists and presumably the wishes of whoever paid for the copies to be made. I’d also note that our finding no clear sign of influence from this or other Voynich plant-drawings in subsequent botanical or herbal texts from Europe presents opposition to the idea that it was made for any person or institution important in Europe’s history of its scientific, intellectual, religious or artistic development.

The drawing’s construction.

The drawing on folio 13r, like a majority of the finer drawings, combines a use of near-literal ‘code’ for the defining elements – leaf, habit and habitat (not flower) – with less literal forms designed so that they convey concisely and with precision other information of a kind only relevant for those buying, selling or using the plants.

This difference from the Latins’ approach to image-forming and plant-identification is most interesting and clearly not derived from the ‘single specimen portrait’ principle of the Dioscoridan tradition,

A majority (not all) the Voynich plant-pictures refer to a perceived ‘group’.

This is represented by using one plant (its leaf, habit etc.) as principal or definitive while information about others in the group is reference by lesser details, typically presented in non-literal form, but in folio 13r by a fairly literal rendering of the various leaf-types.

Among them is the distinctive leaf of what are called, where they grow, the ‘blood banana’ (Musa acuminata var. zebrina)* – a plant native to Java but naturalised in parts of Africa, where it is still used to make a traditional beer (not the commercial, bottled beer sold today).

Some scientific schemes today do not recognise var. zebrina, but what is known (by convention) as Linnaean taxonomy was not to exist for some centuries after our manuscript was made. In approaching these drawings, then, what matters is only how persons who knew and used these plants before 1438 AD regarded and grouped them.

The plant-drawings which are constructed as composites are not randomly or whimsically formed but consistently display first-hand knowledge of appearance, habit, habitat, use/s and customary associations, primarily as those matters relate to daily practical use and (thus) commercial value.

I found the most usual groupings (save occasional ring-ins such as the violas) to be determined by natural proximity and common habitat, by having uses alternative/interchangeable (as with the bananas) or complementary as e.g. a plant used in eastern paper-making joined with a plant recorded as used to scent and preserve paper. As a handbook and ‘reminder list’ such a system would obviously be convenient: a sort of field-guide (so to speak) for merchants, factors or overseers.

In a few cases, we found a group’s definition would appear to have been a term in the vernacular as e.g. the word used to refer to any plant classed as a “desert fodder-plant”‘, but since documentation for these terms pre-1440 has been limited to some fragments from the Cairo geniza, this conclusion must be considered tentative.

Not every plant- drawing in the manuscript is composed by these principles of construction; a few look as if they might have come from an Arabic copy of Dioscorides. Most interesting among the exceptions is the ‘violas’ group where the maker has understood the principle of composite construction, but his stylistics are those of a very different – and possibly western European- cultural environment.

John Tiltman sensed that some of the Voynich plant-drawings were composites but since it is not characteristic of the western herbal or botanical illustrative traditions, he supposed the examples he noted due to an individual European’s whim or desire to obscure. (Nevertheless it was with some relief, that I found I had anyone I might mention as sort-of precedent for this in Voynich studies).

Some time after I’d published a longer summary of my analysis, Sherwood published online an article (here) in which she says “botanists, who examined the VM’s botanical drawings, have dismissed them as a mishmash of flowers and leaves belonging to unrelated plants” but since none of these botanists is named, the only near-precedent I can name is still John Tiltman. I don’t consider the Voynich plant-drawings a ‘mishmash’; I found the majority informative, economical and elegant in expression – admirably intelligent.

Mnemonic devcies.

Sherwood was evidently unware of the role served by mnemonic devices in these drawings – at least when she wrote that article- for she dismisses as ‘fanciful’ any drawings that include them.

A modern viewer certainly might think fanciful the ideas to which those devices speak, but their purpose was to assist identification and (in the Voynich drawings) to indicate a group’s uses and value.

We see the custom of using mnemonic devices to evoke cultural associations in the late-classical, eastern Greek images preserved in the Vienna Dioscorides, and even in the western herbal tradition, albeit in very basic forms, mnemonics are still used in some herbals. Below is an instance from an Anglo-Saxon herbal dated to the early eleventh century.

Sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes.

from an article o the British Library’s Manuscripts blog (05 April 2017)


Whoever first gave the ‘bananas-group’ image on folio 13r its form knew these plants well, their diverse forms and the different forms of leaf associated with each. Most impressive is the way the corm is shown effectively anatomised – as if cut through* and a clear distinction made between roots and corm in a way no western botanical or herbal illustration would do until centuries after our present manuscript’s quires were inscribed – and as few formal botanical drawings do even now.

Morphology of Banana Plants

Cultural associations

It is evident that the banana-group had certain proverbial associations among the original maker’s community; the same form which is used quite directly in folio 13r is used as mnemonic device in others of the plant- drawings. Its significance I have explained elsewhere and in different ways we find it also understood in (at least) 9th-10thC Baghdad and Mozarabic Spain.

The curved but pointed spike seen to front centre in the Voynich drawing is a sucker-spike, represented in the modern diagram on its right.

Compare the lucidity and intelligence of folio 13r’s drawing with a western botanical illustration made for a European translation of  Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India, composed in Goa by Garcia de Orta (1501 – 1568). If it were not for our manuscript’s date, da Orta’s posited original manuscript would have been one on my list of potential sources for many of plant-pictures in Beinecke MS 408.


So, by the testimony offered by folios 25r and 13r only:

  • 1639 – George Baresch: “herbae pereginaeSUPPORTED
  • 1928 – Robert Steele: “escaped all medieval and Renaissance influence” SUPPORTED (save the dragon on f.25r)
  • 1944 – Hugh O’Neill: “Christopher Columbus…specimens” . DENIED
  • 1957 – T.A. Sprague – “awful drawings” – OPPOSED
  • 1967 – John Tiltman: “no .. point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book” -John Tiltman. SUPPORTED
  • 1969 -? Beinecke catalogue: “botanical .. drawings..”. Yes-and-no; depends on the sense intended for ‘botanical’

Postscript – 1

Jules Janick is a respected botanist, author of valuable papers on the history of plants’ dissemination and identification of plants in drawings of various traditions, including the Asian. It is significant that he too did not associate the Voynich drawings with the medieval or Renaissance Latin herbals or botanical texts, but saw the drawings as referring to exotics and even collaborated with Albert O. Tucker in attempting to justify Hugh O’Neill’s “new world” notion. Unfortunately he also presumed that the Voynich drawings wold be specimen-portraits in Dioscoridan style. His involvement in the ‘Voynich Codex Unravelled’ project might have seen another fine academic ship wrecked on the Voynich rock, but in this case, happily, his ship survives.

Postscript -2.

A wiki article says that the Arabic word for bananas and plantains – Mauz  – is discussed by the Persian Avicenna, whose Canon of Medicine, written in the 11thC, was translated to Latin and became well- known in Europe. In the Latin versions the term is rendered ‘Musa’. I find no evidence of the banana-plants’ being described or illustrated in any copy of Avicenna’s text. But if I’ve missed one – correction is welcome.

Postscript – 3

Preview from the next episode, ‘Emerging Botanical art in late-medieval/Renaissance Europe’.

Pompeii. ‘House of Bracelets’ or: ‘House of the Golden Bracelet’ or:

The image above is part of a fresco painted about the time of Dioscorides (c.40 AD – 90 AD) and Pliny the Elder (c.24 AD – 79 AD). Buried by the same eruption of Vesuvius that cost Pliny his life, its recovery has entranced historians of art and of botany, certainly, but in this case even historians of international exchange because the way the garden stake is drawn appears to show it a type of Asian bamboo.

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O’Donovan Notes: #13.2c – “different folks make different strokes.”

Header: – images of the Paradise tree.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c. 1180 words

Any hypothesis that would have the Voynich plant-drawings a result of Latin students or botanists drawing exotics in a European botanic gardens requires four things be true; first, that gardens of such a kind existed there before 1440; secondly, that the attitudes of scientific botany existed there before 1440 AD; thirdly that the manuscript does include plants not native to Europe – ‘herbae peregrinae” as Baresch put it – and, fourthly, that the Voynich plant-drawings speak the visual ‘language’ of Latin Europe, its medieval or Renaissance art.

The last item, as we saw, Steele plainly opposed and by implication so did Panofsky in 1932, Sprague in 1957, Tiltman in 1967 and many others. The ‘others’ include all those, including d’Imperio, who since 1912 have felt obliged to invent stories and rationalisations for finding the plant-drawings opaque. Some have simply adopted the position that the drawings were “all normal, really” while others have invented the figure of ‘ author’ or ‘ artist’ and then accused him (usually a ‘him’) of being mad, deliberately devious, secretive, incompetent, careless, a child or a sex-crazed herbalist (etc.), thus performing that ritual we call scapegoating or “dolly-did-it”.

An important part of the problem, as I see it, is that in our modern world in general and especially in botany, literalism (‘illusionism’) in drawing is an ingrained expectation. It seems right, normal and ‘commonsense’ that any proper image of a plant should present us with a specimen’s superficial form.

Over the years, working with botanists, interested laypersons and students (not only in regard to the Voynich drawings) I’ve tried various approaches to modify that habitual assumption that a drawing is inferior or deficient which doesn’t use the illusionist mode (or the ‘realistic’ as some call it).

What follows below is an approach that has most often struck a chord with people whose chief areas of interest are in mathematics, economics, computer programing and the pragmatic sciences.. including botany.

I hope readers may find it helpful here too.

All analogies are flawed, so your indulgence is appreciated because I begin with an extended analogy:

Given that: an object is not its name, the name given it in the spoken word is a convention, and the recording of that word in written (graphic) form is an encoding of that convention, so those conventions and forms of encoding are mutable: they may change according to communities, place and/or time, as we know languages, pronunciations and orthographies do.

In addition we can, if we wish, make the encoding – the graphic form – more complex by rendering it as a cipher, but since we hold the key to that cipher, as far as we are concerned the encoded convention remains just that – we have simply changed the rules for rendering and reading.

Art is a different means for graphic encoding.

Most pre- and non-modern images work less like photographs than like the written word.

Hence, the forms employed in forming an image change according to time and place and the community of those making and and reading the images though like languages, words and scripts, they may form ‘families’ and have discernable lines of descent. A medieval French image of an oak-tree is likely to resemble a medieval English image of an oak-tree.. and so on. Differences are not to be dismissed or ignored. They are critical markers – different folks make different strokes.

If you’re dealing with images given form in a pre-modern community, you can be confident that the rules for encoding will not be much affected by individual whim but only differ as words do – according to the regions. time and community.

The point about asking a modern botanist for assistance when trying to read a pre-modern drawing – even one certainly made in medieval Europe – is that unless the botanist has had the time and interest to learn those pre-modern codes, the one they know and can read will render “oak” pretty much like this.

It creates the illusion of three-dimensionality and is what we may call ‘literal’ rendering – but while today we might suppose that this form of encoding is right and normal, it is no better or worse than any other. And if the botanist knows only that code, but the drawing puzzling you was encoded like this (below) you may have a problem:

I chose that easy example because the acorn’s distinctive form and its being drawn fairly ‘plain’ in the medieval image would mean that so long as you had encountered an oak before, you probably wouldn’t need to ask a botanist’s advice and if you did, by the acorn alone he/she would agree it was some kind of oak.

But what might happen if you asked that botanist to offer an opinion on where and when the manuscript-drawing was first made is anyone’s guess, and the chances are that the botanist would regard the medieval drawing as a ‘bad’ representation of an oak-tree, which might be valid – the equivalent of an Englishman’s criticising another’s pronunciation of ‘oak’ – but is too often more like his dismissing the Spaniard’s ek as “bad English”. In fact, of course, neither of those two representations (above) was very much like a living oak-tree, was it?

Literalism -or illusionism – is just one type of graphic encoding. It is a mistake and an anachronism to impose on all other peoples and times a modern idea that literalism is the ‘right’ form of encoding. To the readers for whom that medieval drawing was made, it wrote “oak” perfectly.

I’m not saying all botanists are ignorant of any graphic code save ‘literalism’ or ‘illusionism’. It is enormously important, and significant, that T.A. Sprague’s twenty years’ study of the Anicia Juliana codex required him to know the spoken, written and pictorial vocabularies used in copies of Dioscorides, including (at least) those of the Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic traditions. Even just by exposure he would have recognised distinctions between pictorial codes. Like this:

Greek portrait of Dioscorides – from the Anicia Juliana codex.

When Sprague called the Voynich pictures “awful” he meant that he had so far seen nothing like them. Interesting, don’t you think? That he was shown black-and-white copies would make little difference. In the same situation, in 1932, Panofsky asked to see the original. By 1957, if he wished, Sprague could have asked for photographs. But from his point of view, one look was enough.

However – at present the point is that to understand correctly the intention for which a drawing was made and to grasp any significance it was meant to bear, the approach of modern, scientific botany isn’t enough and – this is an equally important point – it’s hardly fair to ask a botanist questions that haven’t been thought through and might very well irritate the botanist while missing entirely the provenance and point of a given image – such as asking:

“What are these plants?”

And so again,

There are no PLANTS in the Voynich manuscript.

The manuscript contains drawings with what we should call “vegetable forms” though ‘plant-pictures’ will do as an established habit in Voynich studies.


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O’Donovan notes #13.2 b – ‘Botanical-medical theories’ Part 2

The author’s rights are asserted.

Additional information, corrections and updates made after publication-date are posted as ‘Comments’ below the post. Header – detail from Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 2020 f.20v.

c.970 words.

sculpture labelled ‘Dioscorides’ – date and location not given.

Trying to link the Voynich plant drawings to Europe’s medieval herbal-medical-pharmaceutical gardens and related texts pre 1440AD means an effort – conscious or not – to link them to the works of Dioscorides of Anazarbos – a Greek from Asia minor who lived during the 1stC AD.

Before 1440, other eastern sources were certainly known in western Europe and an illustration from a translation of one is shown in our header, but overall it was as Sprengel would later write:

During more than sixteen centuries, [Dioscorides] was looked up to as the sole authority, so that everything botanical began with him. Everyone who undertook the study of botany or the identification of medicines swore by his words. Even as late as the beginning of the seventeenth century both the academic and the private study of botany may almost be said to have begun and ended with the text of Dioscorides.

Kurt Polycarp Joachim Sprengel. Historia rei herbariae, 2 vols, Sumtibus Tabernae Librariae et Artium, Amsteldami (1807-1808). pp149-151.

Dr. T.A. Sprague appears to have realised at first glance, and John Tiltman would come to realise after another decade’s effort that as a group* the Voynich plant-drawings cannot be located within the Dioscoridan illustrative tradition.

*those analysing the written text speak of ‘Herbal A’ and ‘Herbal B’ but for those working on the drawings there has been no significant difference in levels of difficulty between the two.

Dioscorides’ great work has the Latin title De Materia medica, and Sprengel’s view, expressed in the 19thC, remains standard today as, for example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica article:

Although the work may be considered little more than a drug collector’s manual by modern standards, the original Greek manuscript, which was copied in at least seven other languages, describes most drugs used in medical practice until modern times and served as the primary text of pharmacology until the end of the 15th century.

In other words, any researcher since 1912 who presumed the Voynich manuscript wholly a product of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe and supposed the content about medicine, pharmacy and/or botany had a very narrow compass and that flaw was constantly overlooked by a habit of taking ‘European’ and ‘Latin’ as a tacit default – as if what was true there must have been true everywhere. Many modern writers still do the same. Within such an artificially narrow definition of the medieval world, and fixed on Wilfrid’s storyline or some variation of it, Voynich researchers constantly attempted to read the Voynich plant-pictures as Disocoridan ‘specimen portraits’.

detail from the Vienna Dioscorides – also known as the Anicia Juliana Codex – which was brought to Europe more than a century after the Voynich quires were inscribed.

Yet even before knowing of the letter that Georg Baresch wrote to Athanasius Kircher in 1639, saying the Voynich drawings referred to exotics (‘herbae peregrinae”), Robert Steele had been uneasy about those assumptions.

1928 – Robert Steele,

An editor of Roger Bacon’s works, Steele sensed a problem even though, being a man of his time, he too treats the qualifier ‘European’ as a natural default, writing:

The usual methods of dating a manuscript fail usOnly the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased. It is strange that the draftsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influence‘.

It is not true that the drawings have a ‘complete absence of style’; it is quite true that a majority do not reflect Latin Europe’s traditions in style. If one makes overt that habit of assuming the European a norm, and write as one would for a global audience today, then Steele’s observation is expressed as:

“… absence of European style.. completely escaped all influence from Latin Europe’s medieval or Renaissance‘.

Whether I agree can wait a while.

John Tiltman’s talk in 1967:

(left) William Friedman (right) John Tiltman

Having worked, by then, for fifteen years with the Friedmans as they attempted to read Voynichese, John Tilman said in 1967 while addressing a group of Baltimore Bibliophiles – and after first describing reference to early printed herbals as ‘a digression’:

we have a right to expect … the greater part of that text is related to plants… [yet] to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of 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.”

  • John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript: the Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World’. [released by the NSA under Freedom of Information request, 23rd April 2002. pdf is online,]

But there again, we must insert the omitted terms if the statement is to be true:

in Latin Europe the range of 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.

  • and that is true.

Ten years before delivering that talk, Tiltman had approached Dr. T.A. Sprague, Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew Gardens for help in identifying the plants in the Voynich manuscript. He was plainly stunned by Sprague’s vehemence in refusing to have anything to do with “these awful drawings”.

No doubt disappointing for Tiltman in 1957, but enlightening in the longer term, for him and for us, even if Tiltman still evidently expected all the content to be European in origin.

Until next time, readers might care to write this on a mirror or ‘fridge..

There are no PLANTS in the Voynich manuscript.

O’Donovan notes #12.2 – The merlons thing (cont.) Provenancing.

c.1700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Part 1 in the current series includes a link to one of Koen Gheuens’ blogposts. If you followed that link you’ll appreciate Koen’s generosity in sharing the work that he and some other members of a Voynich forum were doing.

I meant this post to be about that work and why its approach is exceptional, but because an important point is how their approach differs from most, I think it may be useful to introduce it by considering the problem of provenance-research.

Ever since 1912, Voynich writers have continually confused one kind of provenancing for another, apparently because they did not pause to think through their aims in those terms.

Provenance just means “Where it came from”; the problem arises because of how “it” is assumed defined.

Provenance-research can be divided into three kinds, the first being research into how a finished, or nearly finished object has travelled from where and when it was made to where it is now.

This can be described as ‘chain-of-ownership’ provenance, or – because is primarily associated with descriptions provided by librarians, curators and sellers of artefacts – as ‘Catalogue’ provenance.

That sort of research starts from the time the artefact was manufactured, and ends with the latest acquisition. So in a sense its terminus a quo is finite, but its terminus ad quem indefinite.

Catalogue-style provenance.

The quality of that kind of provenance research can be judged by how severely factual the description is.

To illustrate a near-perfect example of Catalogue Provenance, I’ve chosen that written for a manuscript whose text is written entirely in Tironian shorthand. You will notice that the following description meticulously quotes and dates on palaeographic grounds every post-production inscription (marginalia).

Page from a ninth-century Psalter.

Provenance: [1] A scriptorium in Northeastern France: suggested by the script (according to Bischoff, Katalog (2004), p. 93 (no. 2356)). [2] The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Remi at Rheims: its ownership inscription and book curse added to f. 1r in a 10th- or 11th-century script: ‘Liber Sancti Remigii qui eum abstulerit anatema sit’; its ownership inscription added to f. 1v and f. 33v in a 13th- or 14th-century script: ‘Liber Sancti Remigii Remensis vol VIIxx et V’; the manuscript is listed as no. ‘CXLV’ in an early 13th-century manuscript catalogue from its library (see Dolbeau, ‘Un catalogue fragmentaire’ (1988), p. 215). [3] An unknown 19th-century French owner: added a description of the manuscript in French on f. 101 recto. [4] Thomas Thorpe (b. 1791, d. 1851), London bookseller: [5] purchased from him by the British Museum in August 1832 (see note on f. [iv] verso).

*numerals in square brackets by the present author.

It would obviously be an error to try provenancing the original manuscript by its marginalia, yet in Voynich studies we regularly see efforts made to create a story for the whole manuscript’s content, and for its place and date of manufacture, from no more than a couple of lines of undated marginalia. That’s one of the things which makes Voynich writings seem so very odd to the wider world of manuscript studies. It’s just a wrong way to go about things.

One reason Voynich studies sees such curious habits as attempting to use marginalia to provenance both ownership and subject-matter, is that when interest in the manuscript was revived in the 1990s, the little book written by Mary d’Imperio was adopted as an easy-to-read ‘bible’ by a number of amateurs, many of whom had no prior acquaintance with medieval studies, historical studies, palaeography, codicology or the technical aspects of art history. The same had been true of William Friedman.

Even before Jim Reeds’ ceased managing the first Voynich mailing list, an idea was gaining ground that provenancing the manuscript was a matter of getting an ‘idea’ and then attempting find ways to persuade others to believe that idea plausible. When a television program was made focussing on legends and various theories, the habit of story-telling was reinforced. The people interviewed were not codiocologists or palaeographers, or specialists in medieval history, but persons who had read d’Imperio and who had a novel theory of their own.

You may read a dozens of equally inventive theoretical Voynich narratives today, but it is rare to find any which do not conflate Catalogue provenance with one form or another of Contents provenance.

On the one hand, Catalogue provenance begins with the object’s manufacture and moves forward in time, tracing the hand-to-hand passage of the object from when it was made until now. On the other hand, Contents provenance involves tracking back from the time of manufacture to discover how the text(s), images and materials came to be at last in the place where they came together to make the object/manuscript in question.

So Contents provenance ends at the point where Catalogue provenance begins.

Wilfrid Voynich was the first to conflate the two when he guessed the manuscript made in thirteenth century England, and then relied on nothing but his imagination to assert the whole content of the manuscript created in thirteenth century England, and then interpreted all the contents in terms of what he imagined that thirteenth-century Englishman, Roger Bacon, would write about.

Provenancing Contents

Provenance of this sort rightly asks, “How did these materials and contents come to be employed in the making of this artefact?

Research of this sort, if you think about it, must require require research-parameters and informing sources rather different from those of catalogue-provenance research.

Consider the range, geographic and temporal, needed to get the right answer to such questions as ‘Who composed the Psalter?’ or ‘Who is the King David alleged to have composed some, or all of the Psalter’s contents?’ or ‘What is the origin of the script used in this ninth-century Psalter?’

Provenance research has not been widely understood by Voynich writers since 1912, but chiefly because few stopped to think through their aims in those terms.

Point of View – the drawings

It really doesn’t matter what the modern-day viewer finds easy to understand about pre-modern art. What matters is how the first person to give that image form, and the person who put it in the present manuscript thought, and how they expected their drawing would be understood by their contemporary audience.

For that, it is nonsense to imagine that the modern viewer can pick and choose ad.lib. which images or details they will consider important. If it were true, as it is not, that you can identify the ‘important’ details because (to quote a real Voynich meme) they will be “the most specific and unambiguous” then you’d say the most important detail in this image of King David was his fleur-de-lys crown! But the crown is not unambiguous – you certainly cannot take it to signify that there was ever a King David on the throne of France, or that a French, or indeed an English, king wrote the Psalms.

and so again to the Merlons.

King David. Castile 15th.C

Just as King David lived in c.1000 BC on the other side of the Mediterranean but might be pictured in late medieval western Christian art with a crown as sign of ‘royalty’, and the crown appear variously as one of French-, English-, German-, Persian-, Byzantine- or Spanish type, or with the maker’s idea of a ‘foreign-looking’ crown, so too a structure whose walls had no merlons, or had merlons of some other kind, might still be drawn with those which Voynich writers call ‘swallowtails” and others describe as the Sicilian-Valle d’Aosta type,

Another common error has been to imagine that every drawing is a drawing from life. Yet another has been to imagine that if we find a motif in a manuscript, it is necessarily something copied from some other manuscript.

If we were attempting to research the ‘swallowtail’ motif(s) lineage in art as it might relate to the Voynich map’s examples, we should have to begin from the manuscript’s early fifteenth century date and follow the motif back in time, across a much broader geographic range than is needed to describe the chain-of-ownership and the range of sources and media would have to be broader than Voynich-related writings or only medieval manuscripts.

What Koen Gheuens and his friends did was to carefully frame their question in terms of a specific aim: as he puts it, to discover where, within the Latin west, examples survive of drawings in which merlons are drawn as ‘swallowtails’.

It’s a perfectly reasonable aspect of Content research.

Were the question a broader one, examples would have to be sought in manuscripts and in various other media from the time the first instance of the flat sort of ‘swallowtail’ merlons are attested – round about the eleventh century – until the Voynich manuscript’s date (c.1405-1438).

In that case, the examples would certainly include the next image, though found in mosaic. Dated to the eleventh century, it comes from Piacenza, a town that has cropped up several times in relation to Beinecke MS 408, and first in Reeds’ comments on the Voynich ‘gallows glyphs’ (so called). In this blog, we’ve referred to Piacenza in discussing the assignment of month-to-emblem in the Voynich calendar.

A black ‘swallowtail’ rook is seen in the lower-left hand corner.

Piacenza lies in a region that by now will be fairly familiar to regular readers.

Koen’s post carefully explains too that (a) he had not intended to include extant buildings and (b) swallowtail merlons seen on castles today were not necessarily present, or present in that form, during the fifteenth century.

He was wise to make that point.

The nineteenth century’s ‘Gothic’ revival saw various forms of merlon added to older and to contemporary structures but even examples asserted accurate reconstructions can be problematic.

Take Piacenza’s Palazzi Communale, popularly known as the Palazzo Gotico. The building, or a good part of it, was certainly standing in the thirteenth century, but like most medieval buildings, its architectural history is complex. The Italian wiki [HERE] should provide food for thought.


The subject of Tironian notes has been raised often in Voynich studies. See for example d’Imperio’s The Voynich Manuscript: an Elegant Enigma, and entries to the first (Reeds’) mailing list, Pelling’s book of 2006 or his blog ciphermysteries… for a start.

O’Donovan notes 12.1: The Merlons thing.

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

First, let’s put that detail into physical perspective.

From the Yale facsimile edition, we find that the entire Voynich map measures, overall near enough to 420 mm square. That’s 16.5 inches each side.

Within that map, the roundel containing the detail of interest measures close to 100mm (3.9 inches)

Within that, the structure given crenellations measures just 30mm by 45mm (1.2 x 1.8 inches).

.. for reasons I’ve never seen explained, it’s a habit among Voynich writers to omit or truncate the flanking arcs, thus reducing the detail to the size of an ordinary postage-stamp – about 25mm (1 inch) square.

That’s about the length of your thumb’s top joint. Try taking your finest pen and reproducing it there some day when you’re bored at work. 🙂

What does this tell us about this detail-in-a-detail-in-a drawing?

First, that given the physical constraints on the draughtsman, this detail isn’t likely to be a detailed and literal portrait of any single structure or location, simply because the scale precludes inclusion of enough details to clearly distinguish one structure from all others of similar form within a purely literal genre.

The same constraints tell us that for a given place or location to be clearly identifiable, some of what is included should be there for its resonance in terms of medieval iconographic forms: that is for its existing symbolic or metaphorical hooks.

To put this another way, the constraints imposed by the available space mean that the structure must serve as token for that place and while some elements may indeed be literal, others will not or may not be so.

Consider the difference between what you would produce if asked to present a literal portrait of your local place of worship, as distinct from marking it on a map. In the first place you would need to add far more detail to show the ways in which it differs from all other churches built in the same architectural style, but in the second case, you might just draw one of these:

or you might use a more literal-looking token, detailed only enough that a visitor will connect your drawing to a local building when she or she comes across it – even though the drawing is in no sense a literal ‘portrait’. Like this:

The idea of a ‘token’ image embraces the purely symbolic and the merely generic.

A token can include some literal details (such as the rose window, if your local building has one), but omits all non-essentials and can even include non-literal details – your local building may not have a cross on its door, for example. As you see, this drawing doesn’t show whether the building is made of stone, of brick, of stucco or of wood, which a literal portrait would have to do.

Given the very limited space assigned this detail in the Voynich map, our default assumption (pending other evidence) must be that for the first maker of this detail, each item he did include here had no less weight and importance than any other, regardless of whether one item is drawn in a way generic, symbolic or literal.

It is irrelevant that one or another of the inclusions springs more readily to a modern eye; it is quite as much a mistake to ignore the form of the central tower or the subsidiary towers or the square merlons as the fishtails.

So then, to the degree that the drawing must necessarily be reduced to whatever the maker considered essential elements, what we have is a token, but one hopes a significant token, for the intended place.

For the moment we set aside the various theories which have the Voynich map a description of some poetic, theological or other set of ways. We’ll start from an initial position that the map is not of some otherworld and see how we go.

Given a combination of an intention to communicate information of some kind, and the constrained space available, we now consider each of those features the first maker considered distinctive – even definitive – and suppose further (for the time being) that the place indicated did exist to so late as c.1440.

The structure is placed between two great curving ‘walls’ though it isn’t immediately clear whether those are meant for topographic or for man-made forms. Certainly no defensive walls would be found extending across the lowest point of a very narrow and very steep river valley – a moment’s thought will show you why.

At the front we see a great entry-way opening directly onto what is shown (by a fairly-well known convention in late medieval cartography) as a waterway, shallow and having only one opening. Today we don’t conceive of the Mediterranean as a large shallow ‘bay’, but evidently that’s how the maker viewed it and in fact that’s exactly what the Mediterranean is. By comparison with the open ocean, the Mediterranean is shallow and it does have only one natural opening to the deep sea, through the straits of Gibraltar.

So, without presuming which elements in the Voynich detail convey information by literal depiction and which by symbolic value, consider the remaining items included.

The enclosed area is drawn about twice as wide as it is deep. It is enclosed on three sides by walls.

Inside those walls is drawn nothing but one great tower, apparently round since two others which are square are found outside the back wall and are clearly shown so.

That central tower is evidently distinctive in having three storeys (assuming one window-token equals one storey). The roof is tall and conical, but seems to sit within the tower’s upper edge, which suggests that between the tower proper and the roof is an upper parapet or walkway.

Behind the rear wall, there is placed to our left one of those square towers and this has its top coloured blue, the same pigment used to colour an adjacent area. Where that ends, to the right, is a second square extramural tower, this having its top coloured yellow.

We may suggest, then, that perhaps here the blue is used to denote water, so the front entryway is a water-gate and the tower to the left, outside the walls is a water-tower. If that is what the maker intended, then perhaps the lines of blue which we see following along the top of those curving flanks could indicate aqueducts of the sort so often seen in Roman-era settlements, especially in the near east. But, on the other hand, those lines may only indicate some natural descent of fresh water down steep hillsides. No need to decide yet which the maker intended. The analysis is still in its early stages.

As we look for sites fulfilling our criteria so far, the nature of the less easily discerned will serve as a test for each possible identification.

And now at last we come to the merlons.

There are at least two, and possibly three forms of merlon shown on these walls – the ordinary square merlons and what might be described as two forms of fishtail merlons or, perhaps, an attempt to draw twice the same form of fishtail merlons, but whatever the case, the form given those across the front appear different from those seen on the right side of the rear wall.

As you’ll see (further below) there wasn’t just one form of fishtail merlon, but of course the difference may again be due to the scale at which the draughtsman was obliged to work.

Since we don’t yet know when the drawing was first enunciated, so even if we date our present copy 1405-1438, some effort will be needed to determine by research which elements are employed for their symbolic information and which are more nearly literal within this token. Nor can be even guess, as yet, whether the intended place and structures remained standing beyond 1440 AD, even if they existed to that time.

A common and very typical error in Voynich studies is to begin by assuming that one can identify the place by adopting Mary d’Imperio’s suggestion that its resembled a castle, and then start collecting photographs of such examples of castles having fishtail merlons as exist today, without doing any deeper investigation of the date to which such merlons are dated – in fact many examples seen in Europe today are the result of romantic nineteenth-century ‘renovations’.

Merlons – geographic range.

Merlons of various kinds, including the fishtail type are attested during the medieval centuries from as far north as the Black Sea to as far south as Egypt, and from Asia Minor to western Europe. Some are attested by contemporary writings, some by relics in near-ruins, others by what little still remains in structures often destroyed and re-built since those times.

These facts are well-known to historians and to students of military architecture, and have been reprised and documented often enough in contributions to Voynich studies, that there is really very little excuse one can offer, in 2023, for such misleading assertions as – and I quote:

The swallowtail merlons on the Rosettes** castle and city walls tie the manuscript to southern-German or northern-Italian contexts.

The term ‘context’ avoids saying ‘locations’ while implying it; the substitution provides a loophole, so that in future the theorist can claim the assertion applies to any time when any southern German or northern Italian may have been in any place – including the Black Sea, or Egypt, or somewhere in between such as Constantinople.

But asserting that the type is tied to southern Germany and northern Italy is easily disproven and here again, the work has already been done and more than once since 2010. If readers find no reference to the earlier contributions or to these Sicilian precedents shown below (again) it may be because those researchers have relied too heavily on specifically Voynich-related sites rather than turning to external and more impartial [non-wiki] sources.

The following three images all show buildings in Sicily, and all having their merlons in original style(s), according to our best current information. The first example dates to the tenth century and it is said the merlons which had crumbled over time were accurately repaired; the second example is dated to the twelfth century; the third to the thirteenth century, from which time we see such forms first used by the Franco-Savoyard Challant family* in the Valle d’Aosta, west of Milan.

*They built the famous Fénis castle, among others, and it remained in the possession of the Fénis branch of the lords of Challant until 1716.

Notice the varied forms given these older fishtail merlons in Sicily.

TENTH CENTURY: This part of the tower dates to the period of Arab rule in Sicily (i.e. from 902AD). Before that time, the island had been part of the Byzantine empire. It was gradually re-taken by Christian forces and freebooters in numerous battles between 999 and 1139AD. The Latins who finally took it decided to keep it rather than returning it to the Byzantine emperor, although Byzantine and Arab influence remained strong in the island to the end of the 13thC.
c. TWELFTH Century.
THIRTEENTH CENTURY – Palazzo Corvaja, Taormina.

Nick Pelling’s historical research led him to made a fair case for the present manuscript’s having been made in, or near Milan.

He did begin by expecting all the content would be the original composition of single Latin Christian author who had lived contemporary with the present manuscript’s manufacture. This was in keeping with most theoretical Voynich narratives to that time (2006)

Unlike the creators of many other Voynich narratives, Pelling adopted standard scholarly ethics and used accepted methods, while taking pains to consider the codicological evidence and, as best he could, to date and describe the manuscript’s palaeography. All this in addition to attempting to explain the whole work in the light of his studies of late medieval cryptology.

Pelling was (so far as I know) the first among the Reeds’ list generation of Voynich writers to pay attention to the implications of the script’s “4o” form, while being chiefly interested in its presence in some early fifteenth-century Milanese ciphers.

Pelling read the Voynich map as a city-plan or city-scape rather than a map in any narrower sense.

Unlike many other creators of variants on the traditionalist narrative, Pelling laid out for his readers the course of his own research. He gathered and then presented and cited honestly the full range of precedents and sources he found; he explained his reasoning and the data used to inform that reasoning. He was prepared – within limits – to debate his own findings as few later traditionalists would do, and as some have never done. Even more in keeping with the better type of scholarship, Pelling himself published comments and responses made to his work – the positive and the negative, both. This sort of open-intelligence attitude attracted so many researchers that to just one of the posts listed below he received more than 600 comments.

Pelling represents the last flicker of that energetic, co-operative and actively debating atmosphere which initially gave the first mailing list under Reeds such energy and which led rapidly to numerous new insights still being re-discovered by those living in the present ‘groundhog day’ fog. Thereafter the rise of a ‘believe my theory or else’ and degradation of ethics and standards in the online arenas saw debate and any honest engagement with informed dissent constantly discouraged or disdained by the more ambitious theorists until today one finds little activity of that kind in any Voynich arena.

Whether any of the Voynich research published since 2006 has moved Pelling’s own opinions on any point, I cannot say. It is something which readers must discover for themselves.

Below are linked two of Pelling’s earlier posts. one about the larger drawing and the other about the detail presently of interest, I add a link to a post made by Koen Gheuens in 2017 and, because it tracks the history of this particular ‘groundhog day’, a post made for this blog about 18 months ago. Perhaps after that discussion of Pelling’s contributions to the study I should add that he and I differ on a great many points, especially those invoking one or other of the manuscript’s drawings. 🙂

more on the backstory in an earlier post at this blog:

  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Swallowtailsvoynichrevisionist (October 8th., 2021)

In the next post, we’ll move from surviving examples in Sicily to those which begin to appear from about the 13thC in the Franco-Savoyard Valle d’Aosta.

The Valle d’Aosta is not on the Venetian side of Italy, but in an area which will have become familiar to any readers who laboured through our analyses of the calendar’s ‘July’ and ‘November’ emblems. That is, a region between Milan-Genoa and adjacent to regions in which forms of Occitan were spoken during the middle ages – including Genoa. In the map detail shown below, the marker for Valle d’Aosta is seen slightly left of centre at the top of the image.

Valle d’Aosta in the mountains west of Milan, above the Lombardy plain.

O’Donovan notes #9.2: Plague,Medicine, Money and Secrecy (concluded).

c. 3250 words

The authors rights are asserted.

Before we begin.

If you have encountered social media stuff about the Black Death and cats, witches &ct.. then before going further, please take the full remedial dose: Tim O’Neill’s podcast ‘Cats and the Black Death‘ .



OK – that done, let’s hope Voynich studies will never see any ‘Voynich-magical-women-plague-medicine’ theories.

“false and advertising leches.”

We are all familiar with the stories about how spouses deserted their spouses and parents their children, priests their parishioners and physicians their patients during the Plague years, and especially during its first onslaught in 1348-1442.

But as usual things weren’t really so simple, and Amundsen describes well the dilemma faced by contemporary physicians, whose ethics were opposed to seeking money for money’s sake:

The conscientious physician was in a delicate position in relation to public opinion that impugned his actions with charges of avarice if he seemed too eager to take on cases (especially if they terminated with death) and with charges of cowardice or irresponsibility if he were not willing to undertake the care of those ill with contagious disease. .. There was in medieval medical ethics a strong tradition of refusing to treat those whom the art of medicine could not help.

  • Darrel W. Amundsen, ‘Medical Deontology and Pestilential Disease in the Late Middle Ages’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct. 1977), pp. 403-421.

This attitude might be compared with the rule among English lawyers that, if you know the accused is guilty of the crime, you do not pretend otherwise in court. Here if you were convinced the patient’s disease could not be cured by medicine, to pretend otherwise was unethical because the physician’s aim in attending would be – or would appear to others to be – merely mercenary.

He notes that the anonymous author of a plague tract composed c. 1411 – that is, within the period to which the Voynich quires’ vellum is dated – said this quite plainly: “if the patient is curable, the physician will undertake treatment in God’s name. If he is incurable, the physician should leave him to die.”

However, the medieval physician wasn’t just there to act as pill-dispenser or blood-letter. Caroline Proctor emphasises, when describing the career of Maino de Maineri, who died in about 1368, how that fourteenth-century, Paris-trained, court physician and his patrons “viewed the role of physician as much more than doctoring to the sick …. The good physician sought to preserve and conserve the health of his household, acting as dietician, moralist and guardian to his clients.” and she is correct in saying that view of the physicians’ role is “echoed throughout other contemporary sources” of the fourteenth and earlier fifteenth century.

  • Caroline Proctor, ‘Perfecting prevention : the medical writings of Maino de Maineri (d.c. 1368)’, Doctoral thesis, University of St.Andrews (2006).

So ethical considerations alone meant that the physician would not hide information which he believed was for the public good.

At the same time, we hear from Boccaccio that even in those early plague years, when people already knew that the Plague had arrived from regions to the east of Europe, there began to emerge persons who claimed to be able to address it. Writing of that time, and in this connection, he recalls how

“.. over and above the men of art, the number became exceedingly great of both men and women who had never had any teaching of medicine…

Boccaccio, Decameron. the Introduction ‘to the Ladies’.

Three hundred years afterwards, in the mid-seventeenth century, and as Plague continued to flare up, subside, and return in one part of Europe and another, we find that ‘plague remedies’ are now being touted by charlatans, but most educated people believe that one either recovered, or one died, and that while various precautions might be taken there was no ‘plague cure’ in medicine. To them, if not to the masses in Europe, anyone claiming to know a ‘cure’ was supposed, by default, an avaricious quack.

Whether Boccaccio might have classed Theobaldus Loneti as physician or as charlatan I do not know but writing after 1450, and with apparent honesty, Loneti had claimed for himself an unusually positive attitude.

‘When … there was a debate among physicians over incurable diseases such as leprosy, paralysis, pestilence, and the like, they finally came to the conclusion that no remedy for the pestilence could be found, especially since Galen and Hippocrates and other ancient physicians made no mention of one. But after much discussion, it was I alone who maintained that many remedies against this plague could easily be employed.’

Of course, that’s another instance of self-advertisement but once again his treatments were set forth in plain text, without any effort to make them secrets in our modern sense of the word.

These diverse attitudes, over time, toward physic and the plague help explain, I think, both Kircher’s persistent rudeness towards Baresch, and why Baresch’s own letter to Kircher and those of mutual friends lay such emphasis on the fact that Baresch’s interest was “in medicine, and not money.” It makes sense if one posits that Baresch believed the Voynich text included some ancient, eastern, plague remedy. Baresch himself speaks of medicine as the most worthy occupation of men, after religious service and in this expresses the same ideals as we see in John of Burgundy’s plague tract, three centuries before when he wrote:

Moved by piety and anguished by and feeling sorrow because of this calamity … I have composed and compiled this work not for a price but for your prayers, so that when anyone recovers from the diseases discussed above, he will effectively pray for me to our Lord God. . .

One has to be a little cautious, too, because in medieval texts the term ‘remedy’ often means something closer to ‘relief’ or ‘alleviation’ or ‘avoidance’ in order to allow preservation and recovery of health rather than being a cure.

Unlike secrets of the diplomatic sort, which certainly were being rendered unreadable by use of encryption, rare scripts or obscure languages in some western courts by the mid-fifteenth century, we find that medical ‘secrets’ were still secrets only in the medieval sense – that is, specialised techniques and knowledge gained by masters of an art, craft or profession as a result of their formal training and long experience. More like tricks of the trade than commercial secrets.

About this time, i.e. about the mid-fifteenth century, we do begin to see recipes for some medicines and ointments – often including roses and violets, but those recipes – once more – are written in plaintext.

Regarding theories of a ‘medical Voynich’, therefore, the points to be taken are that if, as may be reasonably supposed, the Voynich text was inscribed before 1440, and its text is rendered obscure by use of cipher or encryption as so many believe, then it is unlikely to be product of Latin Europe’s medical or pharmaceutical tradition; the historical record shows that even that disease, for which any claimed cure might be expected to gain great profit, did not yet see physician-authors attempting to keep their knowledge hidden. On this, we may again quote Amundsen:

Although to the modern reader the plague tractates may seem at worst fraudulent and at best esoteric, they were in reality exoteric in the best sense of the word. While they provide sidelights on the ethics of medieval medical practice, they also illustrate a high degree of ethical motivation on the part of their authors, because almost all were written for the use of the public and represent a massive effort, in the aggregate, at popular health education.

Amundsen, op.cit. p. 421

Note: For readers’ convenience, I limit the number of sources quoted directly; I try to choose only those whose work is well-researched and in keeping with the most reliable scholarship, but I would like to think that any Voynich researcher worth his/her salt will check back to the original medieval sources before accepting anything repeated at second- or third- remove.

Things begin to change somewhat later, around the late sixteenth century and by the mid-seventeenth century, even as printed ‘remedies’ begin to be sold to the ordinary public we also see some chroniclers and other observers almost on the verge of understanding the chain of Plague’s transmission.

In one case, in Florence, we hear of how a weaver opened some bales of wool – then he and his weavers all died of plague; then that a chicken-farmer dies of it; and then across the courtyard from the weaver, a woman and her children receive a bag of flour – and they die.

  • Giulia Calvi, ‘A Metaphor for Social Exchange: The Florentine Plague of 1630’, Representation, Winter, 1986, No. 13 (Winter, 1986), pp. 139-163.

Just so, it is common enough to hear that to open a bale of cloth, wool or of furs first brings plague into a community and some link was understood to exist between plague and domestic (if not always domesticated) animals.

When Plague struck a certain village in England in 1665 it was understood that plague began in that village* after a tailor opened a bale of cloth from which fleas escaped and bit him.

*Eyam, Darbyshire. Noted for the number of inhabitants who survived. Recent scholarship revealed that those who survived did so because they had inherited a certain gene (delta 32). On this, a documentary made by Timeline has the usual high-pitched introduction but improves from about 8:22.

Seventeenth-century: cheap print culture.

By the seventeenth century, we now find that in the family setting (not identical to a household setting) the kind of ‘secrets’ books whose Victorian equivalent would be Mrs. Beeton’s often now include a family’s secret recipes against plague and these are the family’s secrets in a more modern sense.

Further, that such recipes, as claimed plague remedies, had become by this time “important and established features of early modern medical cultures, both domestic and commercial and were sold widely in marketplaces, streets and through cheap print cultures” – so that the ‘money’ part of plague and money was now well to the fore – but even so I’ve encountered none that were actually encrypted, either before or in publication.

Crawshaw also notes (with references given*) that in Venice “The submission of secrets to the Health Office requests for privileges, reminiscent of the patents studied by Luca Mola’s work on the Venetian silk industry, became more common towards the end of the sixteenth century and continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”(p.615)

*in particular the Introduction in Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800 (Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2011)

  • Jane Stevens Crawshaw, ‘Families, medical secrets and public health in early modern Venice’, Renaissance Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (September 2014) issue: Women and Healthcare in Early Modern Europe, pp. 597-618. Linked to the quotation as note 15 is a short bibliography of plague recipes and charlatan-literature.

The case of one Marieta Colochi shows how a seventeenth century Venetian family regarded their plague ‘secrets’ in just the way an eminent chef might treat a superior culinary recipe – that is, as potential key to a family’s present and future financial and social position.

The same attitude is attested there some decades earlier when in 1576, an important medical officer in Venice decided in the public interest to give up his own ‘secrets’ for treating victims of plague – by selling those secrets to the state. The price Ascanio Olivetti sought, during the lifetime of the future Rudolf II, was an initial payment of 5,000 ducats and thirty ducats’ salary per month for the rest of his life, with the same salary to be given for life to his children, male or female, on the understanding that they would serve the Health Office as needed. Clearly, Olivetti believed that in selling his medical ‘secrets’ he was selling what had been the key to his own and his family’s financial security.

So by the third quarter of the sixteenth century, at least in commercially-minded Venice with its passion for commercial secrecy and commercial exclusivity, the medical secret might be a commercial secret.

Reporting this, Crawshaw notes that 5,000 ducats was the equivalent of almost thirty-five years’ Ascanio’s official salary. In the event, Venice agreed to a one-off payment of just 800 ducats (five times his annual salary) but did agree to increase his monthly salary to thirty ducats, provide for his children, and exempt him from all taxes including the Venetian decima.

From this example we learn that in late sixteenth-century Venice, at least, the medical secret – or one aimed against plague – really could have immediate commercial pecuniary value.

Ascanio’s salary having been until then about 160 ducats a year, and he one of the highest ranked physicians of the Venetian state, the amount puts into perspective Mnishovsky’s story about the Voynich manuscript’s having been bought from an anonymous carrier* for 600 ducats.

* Marci’s convoluted sentence (which Philip Neal parses in meticulous detail in his Notes) is translated by Neal as: “Doctor Raphael, the Czech language tutor of King Ferdinand III as they both then were, once told me that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolph and that he [Mnishovsky or Rudolf is left ambiguous in the original too] presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book”. For a safe link to Neal’s site, see ‘Constant References’ section in the Bibliography in this blog’s top bar.

A notorious example of profit-seeking from plague during the sixteenth-century is that of Caspar Kegler‘s publishing his own snake-oil ‘plague medicine’ recipes. I have written of him before – HERE – and referred readers to Heinrichs’ study, whose details I give again.

  • 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.
  • A more upbeat and laudatory perception of Kegler appears more recently on the Danish ‘Hypotheses‘ website, from which I have the illustration shown at the end of this post. By the mid-to-late sixteenth century, too, German hands are now often using the ‘4’ shape for the numeral four – not as a result of education in the mercantile-commercial calculation schools (‘abbaco’ or ‘abaco’ schools) as occurs so much earlier in the south, but in imitation of printers’ having adopted that form in the meantime.


What we learn from all we’ve seen is that within the Voynich vellum’s radiocarbon-14 dates of 1405-1438, medicine within Latin Europe was perceived as public service and while individual physicians and others might attempt to raise their professional profile to boost their income, we’ve found nothing of ‘secretly written plague remedies’.

Writings touting ‘secret plague medicines’ appear in western Europe in the sixteenth century, proliferating from that time into the seventeenth- and not least because access to print had become very easy and relatively inexpensive.

But even then, one does not find such texts encrypted.

One is free to imagine that some medical ‘secret’ might be encrypted or enciphered in western Europe by the early modern period, if not in the early fifteenth century, and it is conceivable – just – that it might have been encrypted using a system that defies even modern tools for cryptanalysis. But to imagine such a desire among qualified European physicians, and/or that they would use a cipher of such sophistication before 1440 demands a suspension of disbelief greater than the present author can manage.

This may, of course, be due to my own insufficient understanding of cipher techniques and their imponderables before 1440, or to the fact that some regions of Europe have manuscripts less easily accessible than others’ and are being omitted from the surveys and data-collection.

Solely from what has been considered, though, one must conclude that if the whole Voynich text is enciphered and was composed before 1438 in Latin Europe, then it is highly unlikely to be a text first composed there by a physician trained in the Latin medical tradition.

With regard to which – Elonka Dunin and Klaus Schmeh reported at a recent Voynich zoom-conference that they had found only six encrypted books dating to the fifteenth century. Despite their paper’s displaying insufficient background in medieval history, -iconology and manuscript studies, it is of value in that each of two authors has a high and well-earned reputation in their own field of cryptology and their survey found not a single instance of a fifteenth-century encrypted herbal or an encrypted medical treatise.

After explaining carefully their criteria for defining a text as “an encrypted book” – though not the geographic parameters for their survey – the authors list the following:

(i-iii) three texts by Giovanni Fontana (1395–1455), a man of Padua whose family had come from Venice, and who was trained in engineering and medicine*;

*for reasons we cannot spare time to go into here, Fontana’s probably having served (as Long** says) most of his working life as a military physician and also serving for a time as municipal physician to the city of Udine in Friuli – which is adjacent to the Veneto – are factors relevant to Voynich studies, though neither point is mentioned by the Dunin-Schmeh paper. **Pamela Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge …(2001). For Fontana’s enciphered works, Long refers to the studies by Eugenio Battisti and Giuseppa Saccaro Battisti.

(iiii) a late work called Steganographia, attributed to a German Benedictine monk named Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516). The paper’s authors see Trithmenius’ work as a satire (they use the word ‘hoax’) rather than regarding it, as do e.g. Pelling and Reeds, as simply a model- or text-book for steganography. I’m given to understand that Reeds deciphered the content of Steganographia‘s third volume.

Dunin and Schmeh also refer to (v) a manuscript they call “Codex Palatinus Germanicus”, but the description leaves the text unidentifiable since there are 848 codices bearing that description, all having been formerly in the Palatine library in Heidelberg.

Fontana’s medical degree notwithstanding, none of his encrypted books is about medicine.

Additional note (10th Feb 2023). The assertion seen under Fig.3 in the Dunin-Schmeh paper, “… two more Giovanni Fontana books (not depicted) have the closest visual similarity with the Voynich Manuscript” is unexplained and unattributed, but appears to be derive from an observation made by Philip Neal [HERE], who wrote “some – not all – of the diagrams illustrating [mnemonic machines described in Fontana’s Secretum de Thesauro] slightly resemble Voynich illustrations”. The wiki article, last updated in Dec. 2022, says that “it has been suggested…” and references Neal. The Dunin-Schmeh paper omits mention of Neal and asserts the item as fact. Thus are tentative comments by single individuals elevated into anonymous ‘dicta’ in Voynich studies.

Balance of Probability

If one presumes – as most Voynicheros do presume – that the Voynich text was first composed in Latin Europe and that it was inscribed before 1440, and further assume that it is encrypted, then it becomes highly unlikely that the content is medical. Pace Brewer, the evidence is that Latins just weren’t into encrypting medical texts and recipes, let alone whole books of them.

*Kegan Brewer’s paper entitled, ‘ “I beg your grace to suppress this chapter or else to have it written in secret letters”: The Emotions of Encipherment in Late-Medieval Gynaecology’ has an ambitious title but in the event describes no more than occasional instances of words or phrases being omitted, erased or otherwise censored in much they way that medical works did if the material could be misused or misconstrued. As late as the early twentieth century it was still the norm that “certain things are best left in the Latin” – and for much the same reason. Brewer’s paper was delivered at the zoom conference held courtesy of the University of Malta, as were those of Schmeh and Dunin; of Fagin Davis, of Painter and Bowern and others. All can be read online through CEUR, an online journal dedicated to publishing workshops in computer science.

Postscript – thanks to Monica Green and Rae Ellen Bichell’s blogpost [HERE] I owe readers an apology: the header picture for the previous blogpost does not show victims of the Plague, but of leprosy, and comes from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, a 14th-century encyclopedia. But as Bichell points out, Getty images, which distributes that picture and the British Library itself in a 2012 exhibition mis-labelled the detail as an image of the Plague. I should have checked the original, nonetheless.