Pharma? Red Cylinders. Bases.

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

* (as we’ll call it, following Gheueuns

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

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

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

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

Recap of the series so far.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

capsa. Pompeii 1stC AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

BASES – details

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

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

Some examples of western representations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tang dynasty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In summary:

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

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

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. 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.