O’Donovan Notes – #8.3 Angles of approach – Medicine, Newbold and ‘astral spirits’ in the VMS (Pt 2)

c.2800 words.

[update – 10th January. Persistent format error finally fixed, a caption added, couple of minor typos corrected.]

The author’s rights are asserted.

Sections – Neoplatonic stars and biology – Whose idea? Neoplatonist anatomy??; de duodecim portis; Cotton MS Galba E IV; comparing styles; Newbold’s contribution.

It is a nice question whether Newbold gained his ideas of neoplatonic influence from his own imagination, or whether that idea too had come from Wilfrid along with the ‘Roger Bacon autograph’ theory.

Wilfrid had lived in England for a quarter of a century before moving to New York, having arrived in London in the autumn of 1890. He had been granted British citizenship in 1906 when his sponsors included Richard Garnett,* Keeper of Printed Books in the British Museum and who, under the pseudonym ‘G.R.Kent’, had published in the early 1890s a monograph entitled The Soul and the Stars.

  • Colin MacKinnon, ‘The Naturalization Papers of Wilfrid Michael Voynich’ (2013).
Richard Garnett

Richard died before Wilfrid acquired the manuscript, but Richard’s son Robert succeeded to the post and since at this time the Museum’s collection of medieval manuscripts had not been re-housed in the British Library, it does not seem unreasonable to think that Wilfrid would know Richard’s monograph, and even the manuscript Cotton MS Galba E IV which we’ll mention later, and which was then still in the Museum’s library.

Some further reason to believe this association of the manuscript’s figures with ‘souls’ predates Wilfrid’s first contact with Newbold is offered by what Kahn reports of Wilfrid’s approaching various persons in England during the period between 1912 and 1916. Kahn says these included a vice president of the Royal astronomical society and Andrew George Little, a medieval history professor whose special interest was the Franciscan religious order. Little had been until 1901 Professor of History at the University College of South Wales, but by the time Wilfrid acquired the manuscript was serving as professor of palaeography at Manchester.

After Wilfrid moved to New York, he at some time contacted the very wealthy and somewhat eccentric businessman George Fabyan, among whose funded projects was the Riverbank Laboratories (so termed) where William Friedman and his future wife Elizebeth first met. Three years before Wilfrid would settle in New York, Fabyan directed his Riverbank establishment to build an acoustical levitation machine, using specifications allegedly gained by decoding some of Francis Bacon’s writings and with technical assistance from Wallace Clement Sabine. On the surface of it, Fabyan must have seemed a perfect potential buyer for the manuscript – but neither he or anyone else would buy it.

But for all these reasons and others, it appears that Newbold had met Wilfrid early – perhaps as early as 1916 – and from that time onwards Newbold worked on the assumption that he was researching a ‘Bacon scientific autograph’. Wilfrid’s persuasive character clearly had its effect on Newbold’s more pliant one, to the point where by 1921 Newbold had so lost his sense of proportion that he not only brought to the scheduled lecture for the College of Physicians a person who was not a member, had no relevant qualifications or experience in medicine, and who was plainly a bookseller hunting a rich client but he permitted Voynich to address the assembled scientists and take up a third of the allotted time.

About a month later, Scientific American published an editorial based on the content in that lecture. It shows that even with the best will – even conceding such impossibilities as the manuscript’s including a drawing of a spiral galaxy – the meeting’s atmosphere had not remained solemn.

This is all there is to the still-persistent notion of a ‘biological Voynich’ story and it must have gone hard for Newbold because by then he had come to believe his own imagination, and Wilfrid’s, and was particularly sensitive to ridicule – as remarks made even in that lecture make clear.

In 1921, there was no protective bubble or ‘Voynich-R-us’ community that might insulate him from opinions voiced by the public at large or by more objective academic or scientific specialists. Below (right) is how the New Scientist editorial closed.

NOTE – when sections of text are reproduced as images in these posts, it is not only to save my time.

Sometimes it is important that readers see for themselves that a passage is represented precisely as published, free of any editorialising and in some cases too – as in this case – it avoids excessive attention from bots.

This effort to describe a Neoplatonic biology formed the medical part of Newbold’s lecture. Here are his comments on the drawing he labelled Plate IV. And before anyone laughs, just think how many other writers, since 1921, have relied on exactly the same flawed method, imposing on the drawings in just this same way the fruits of sheer imagination and without the slightest effort made to demonstrate that at any time, in any place or by any group of people, drawings of such a kind were ever made to convey the posited meaning.

Neoplatonist anatomy?!?

For people of Newbold’s time, an obvious objection was that neoplatonic philosophies were regarded as in every way antithetical to a focus on the material, especially when it came to the human body. A ‘neoplatonic physician’ seemed a contradiction in terms; and so a manuscript of neoplatonic biology would seem immediately ridiculous.

In preparing to oppose that long-held view of neoplatonism, James Wilberding recently described it well:

The true object of care for a Neoplatonist is one’s soul; one’s body is at best an object of indifference and at worst an obstacle to one’s philosophical ascent. Why, then, should a Neoplatonist engage with a field whose goal is the health and preservation of the body?

In 1921, Newbold was likely to find that most historians – whether of science or of religion – would object to the idea that a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar would produce a work combining reference to ‘astral spirits’, the rebirth of souls (a non-Christian belief) and explicit description of human generation.

But in fact, and in fairness to Newbold, there had been a philosophical-medical treatise on sperm circulating in England by, and indeed before, the thirteenth century.

de duodecim portis

For general background on that text, here’s Merisalo:

Along with Galen’s authentic texts revolutionizing Western medicine, less well-known ones gain popularity in the thirteenth century, not least thanks to being attributed to the [some?] great authority on Ancient medicine. One of these texts is a Latin treatise variously titled ‘Liber spermatis/De spermate/Microtegni/de duodecim portis’ etc., consisting of an embryological and an astrological part.

It starts circulating in the middle of the twelfth century in England and Southern France together with late Antique and early Mediaeval texts of philosophical, scientific and medical content. It appears at the end of the twelfth century in Bavaria, attributed to Galen as author and Constantine the African as translator.

The attribution to Galen, however, ensured the success of the treatise in its [most extended] form as a recurrent element in the Northern French Galenic omnibus volumes, with variable sets of texts, such as nos. 7-10 and 12. Apart from no. 7, which shows affinities both to the “Bavarian” and the Northern French texts, these volumes transmit a remarkably unified Galba + Berlin version.
It is, however, quite obvious that as late as the end of the thirteenth century, the
[most extended] text circulated in more than one version in Northern France, and that shorter extracts would be copied as well.

from: Outi Merisalo, ‘The Early Tradition of the Pseudo-Galenic De spermate (Twelfth-Thirteenth Centuries’, Scripta, Vol 5 (2012) pp. 99-109. [now accessible through JSTOR]

That reference to ‘Galba’ is to a manuscript once owned by John Dee, who wrote for it a table of Contents which allows us to see exactly which extracts were later removed.

British Library, Cotton MS Galba E IV.

This manuscript was already in the British Museum’s collection when Richard Garnett was there, and thus throughout the time Wilfrid lived in London – Cotton MS Galba E IV is now held in the British Library.

The contents range in date from 1175-1350 AD, and the volume is described by the Library as “a composite manuscript made up of two parts” the second part “produced in South-East England in the last quarter of the 12th century. It contains a collection of scientific texts” – which I’ll list in tabular form:

  • An anonymous text on natural philosophy, beginning:‘Sciendum est quid sit philosophia’.
  • Marius (fl. 1160), De Elementis (On the Elements), beginning: ‘[Natura] aque que est’.
  • Nemesius of Emesa (fl. 390), De Natura Hominis; the chapter De Elementis (On the Elements)
  • Hippocrates (b. c. 460 BC, d. c. 380 BC), De Aere, Aqua et Regionibus (The Book on Water, Air and the Regions).
  • Nemesius of Emesa, De Natura Hominis (On the Nature of Man), translated by Alfanus of Salerno (d. 1085).
  • Adelard of Bath (fl. 12th century), Questiones Naturales (Questions on Nature).ff. 228r-233v:
  • Pseudo-Aristotle (fl. 4th century BC), De Phisionomia (About Physiognomy).ff. 233v-238v:
  • Pseudo-Galen, De Spermate (On Sperm).
  • Soranus of Ephesus (fl. early 2nd century), Questiones Medicinales (Medical Questions)

In John Dee’s list; not in the present manuscript.

I owe the following to Thomson and include his apparatus:

  • De phisionomia; extracts from “Aristotle,” “Loxus,” “Palemon.” (TKI 538; several MSS, one of the eleventh century.) and, among various other extracts,
  • A commentary on part of Hippocrates’ Epidimiarum, entitled ‘Expositio quintae incisionis epidemiarum Hippocratis’
  • Dioscorides, De herbis femineis. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 59, without incipit and explicit. As he mentions illustrations, his source might well have been Bodl. MS 130, made at Bury, eleventh-twelfth century. TKI 182 etc.)
  • Oribasius, De herbarum virtutibus. (TKI 6 etc.)
  • Odo de Meung, Versus de virtutibus herbarum, or Macer. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 107, as Macer, De viribus herbarum; inc. as in TKI 610.)
  • Palladius, De agricultura. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 113; incipit
    as in TKI 1026, and also explicit of complete work.)
  • Liber de simplici medicina’; Platearius?

For readers without Latin I should add that “De herbis femineis” does not mean ‘herbs for women’ but describes plants having characteristics associated with feminine character: such as roundness or softness of leaf and so on. If ‘feminine’ bothers you, think of it as ‘Yin’.

Had Newbold known of this manuscript, and it is evident that he dug into the question of what books had once been owned by Dee since this was another element in Wilfrid’s spell-binding but unsupported tale of genius science, misunderstood magician and pinnacle of European social aspiration, so it is possible that Newbold came to know something of Cotton MS Galba E IV and its earlier contents having included works on herbs and epidemics etc., I say it’s possible, but I’ve seen no evidence that he did know it.*

*Cotton MS Galba E IV is referenced in Burkhardt (1891-1902) and again in (1917); its contents would be described briefly by Haskins in 1927. For details of these publications see British Library Catalogue and Richard C. Dales, ‘Anonymi De elementis: From a Twelfth-Century Collection Scientific Works in British Museum MS Cotton Galba E. IV’, Isis, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Summer, 1965), pp. 174-189 (JSTOR)

Hague MMW A 10 11, Oxford, St.John’s MS 18, Beinecke MS 408 – How similar?

Though the format for those two fifteenth-century images was comparable, the context of each was very different: the Hague manuscript being a copy of a theological text by Augustine, and the St.John’s a text which moderns would call pseudo-science – a treatise on physiognomy.

But in what are the contents of Cotton MS Galba E IV, and what were, one does see adjacent texts from ancient and from more recent authors, from Christian and pre- or non-Christian writers, from treatises on generation to works about plants, and meteorology – all found together in this one English manuscript apparently complete half a century before the Voynich quires were inscribed.

What Newbold saw in the Voynich drawings may have been – and I think was – very largely a product of his following up a single good observation that the star-holders are meant for disembodied characters. One may call them souls, or pre-Christian daimons or deities but ‘demons’ seems inapt. Newbold was also reasonable in expecting that what would be so about the type in one section would be true in all.

His fundamental error was to adopt another person’s theory without careful scrutiny.

But then, after identifying the figures as disembodied characters, not to then turn and seek to discover where, when and in what context such forms are actually attested in any medieval art.

Instead, possessed of unreasonable certainty, he turned his eyes inward (as it were) and began to impose on the drawings whatever appeared consistent with that theory – one whose foundations were (and are) dubious in the extreme.

A scholar is expected to scrutinise carefully the foundation on which he/she intends to build. This is one reason that precedents are cited for any assertion made about a medieval manuscript.

However, from there he began seeking one, and then another detail he could be interpreted as consonant with that theory, in the back-to-front process still endemic in Voynich studies and which is known as allegoresis,

Consider his comments on folio 75. Questions of stylistics, of layout, of proportions in the figures, and all else – and whether or not these characteristics accord with his posited thirteenth-century English context are questions he never pauses to ask.

Why his heavens (it is ‘the heavens’ not Heaven which the bible describes as spread out lie a tent) should have sections carved from its boundary Newbold does not explain, nor why a birth canal should be coloured green; though the joy of allegoresis is that the perpetrator can always pull up some explanation for anything and everything, being freed of the normal constraints imposed by history, art history, manuscript studies and the general standards of proof.

I do think Newbold’s first insight was reasonable, and though I’ve described the anthropoform figures, myself, as ‘hours’ and ‘tyches’ I see no reason to believe that the first enunciator mightn’t have called them daimons – or even ‘demons’ as Augustine did.

Two images and human forms in the Vms.

Clearly by the time that the images in Oxford, St.John’s MS 18 and Hague MMW 10 A 11 – Augustine’s City of God were painted, ideas so strongly opposed by Augustine met less objection from John of Bedford or contemporary painters in France and England.

One scholar argues the frontispiece for Roland’s text is taken directly from Bedford’s presentation copy (now Lisbon, Biblioteca d’Ajuda MS 52,XII,18), and another attributes it to the London illuminator (“lymnour”) William Arbell. For more on that, see the Bodleian’s catalogue entry.

The point is that with such patterns of circulation and exchange, one can say no more yet than that both belong to that ‘southern’ region of western Europe earlier defined.

There are differences between those two paintings, and still more points of difference between the way these bodies appear, and the form given the Voynich manuscript’s anthropoform figures. What the first two allow us to say is that during the fifteenth century, in southern Europe, unclothed bodies pictured in ranks along an horizon, or walking elevated paths, can refer to stars or daimons and their supposed influence..

Notice how, in both those manuscripts, the males are given the same ‘pudding-bowl’ haircut as we see on John of Bedford himself in the Bedford Hours. All the Hague manuscript’s elevated, unclothed figures are clean shaven; the figures placed on earth in the Roland frontispiece include one (second from left) that is bearded and another (second from right) which, like John, has a kind of five-o-clock shadow.

Otherwise, though these two images may resemble each other in some ways, they have not very much in common with the Voynich drawings as drawings.

(detail at right) shows “The text prefaced with a painted frontispiece on four levels: the signs of the zodiac, twelve men exhibiting the influence of these constellations, the stars (or planets generally), and seven men with rays shining on them exhibiting the appropriate influence.” Bodleian Catalogue of manuscripts in Oxford.

True, St.Johns’ manuscript shows a similar inclination to draw over-large heads, but we saw the same in an earlier post, in some illustrations from an Italian copy of Dante’s Cantos.

(detail) Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Holkham misc. 48 p.4. Italy (Genoa?) c 1350–1375

In sum

Despite Newbold’s efforts, and despite his range of reading and honest intentions, his solid contribution to the manuscript’s study comes down to a simple recognition that the Voynich figures should not be presumed literal. To that we may add that in a few known fifteenth-century works, elevated and unclothed figures are intended for what we may call, until we know better, ‘daimons’.

The original sense of that term:

Daimon: ” a lesser deity or guiding spirit such as the daimons of ancient Greek religion and mythology, and of later Hellenistic religion and philosophy.”

I can’t be sure, but it does not seem that this male from the Voynich calendar has a pudding-bowl haircut under his magnificent cap – the type of headwear I’ve called a tailed beanie.

Nice ‘tailed beanie’.

Here are some more examples, from 6thC Toledo, through the fifteenth century and sixteenth century until today. This type of headwear is still around. The most recent version nicely illustrates why one might have an end that looked pointed or more-or-less squared off. It depends on the type of fabric and, in examples formed by hook or needles, how the maker chooses to shape it and end it off.

Some recommended sources:

Simon Trépanier, ‘From Hades to the Stars’, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 36, No. 1 (April 2017), pp. 130-182. [JSTOR].

Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies) . Essential reading. If you decide to buy a copy, I suggest getting the hardcopy first edition.

Rodney M. Thomson, ‘ “Liber Marii de Elementis”; the work of a hitherto unknown Saliternian Master?‘, Viator, Vol. 3 (1972) pp.179-189. [pdf]

For the very keen:

Merisalo, O., & Pahta, P. (2008). ‘Tracing the trail of transmission: The pseudo-Galenic De spermate in Latin’. In M. Goyens, P. de Leemans, & A. Smets (Eds.), Science Translated: Latin and Vernacular Translations of Scientific Treatises in Medieval Europe (pp. 91-104). (Medievalia Lovaniensia). Leuven University Press.


D’Imperio reported that “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.’” but I’m yet to see any evidence he relied on other than imagination and guesswork, his knowledge of Newbold’s views, and his own inclination to civilly accommodate the opinions of others. Lynn Thorndike he wasn’t. I think the more telling fact is that although his area of specialisation was medieval technology – including mechanics, plumbing and hydraulics etc., he suggests those ‘tubes and pipes’ might be someone else’s problem: organs of the body. One more item for the ‘Not One of Mine’ set.

O’Donovan notes #8.2 Angles of approach: physic and psyche.

c.2300 words including some optional sections

[Jan 2nd 2023 – passage from Lactantius added; minor edits made]

Header shows Hippocrates (seated), Asclepius (disembarking) and a very Roman Hermes greeting the latter with an arcane hand-gesture, to which Hippocrates unnoticed responds.. Mosaic, Roman, 2nd-3rdC AD, Image courtesy theoi.com

Et in Arcadia…

The author’s rights are asserted.

So here are two gods whom [Tresmegistus] affirms to have been men, Æsculapius and Mercury. Now concerning Æsculapius, both the Greeks and the Latins think the same about that; but as to Mercury, there are many who do not think that he was formerly a mortal, though Hermes [Tresmegistus] testifies that he was his grandsire. … It is sufficient to know that this Mercury of whom Hermes speaks is, as well as Æsculapius, a god who once was a man, according, to the testimony of this same Tresmegistus, esteemed so great by his countrymen, and Mercury’s own grandson.

Augustine, City of God. Bk 8, Ch.10

The French manuscript cited by Ellie Velinska (see previous post) was made several decades too late for its images to have influenced those in the Voynich manuscript, but it still has something to tell us.

Another of its illustrations (below) emphasises for the viewer that Hermes Tresmegistos was a character well known and quite well thought of by Augustine – that thinker and theologian who had lived in the 5thC and defined the future theological character of western Christian Europe. It is was from a fifteenth century French version of Augustine’s ‘Civitate Dei” that Ellie had that detail.

Below, another detail from that same manuscript shows Tresmegistus* wearing red hat used in Latin works to denote an elite easterner. He is putting Asclepius right on the subject of pagan deities. Asclepius is here imagined by the painter entirely Greek, but that’s not what Augustine says – and this isn’t the only time when the fifteenth-century Parisian illuminator tactfully avoided suggesting that any figure admired by the Greeks is even partly ‘Asiatic’.

*as it is spelled in Latin.

detail of folio 390r – The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11. manuscript made in Paris, illuminated there by Maïtre François who completed it c. 1475. The work was begun for Jacques d’Armagnac, duke of Nemours (1433-1477) and after his capture continued for Philippe de Commines (1447-1511), lord of Argenton..

The same impression is conveyed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica which says, “There are frequent allusions to Hermes Trismegistus in late medieval and Renaissance literature” but implies that it came only after the seventh century and from works transmitted in Arabic. This just isn’t so.

For any western student of theology, as for an educated layman, comments made in Augustine’s work told them otherwise. By the early fifteenth century, Civitate Dei (City of God) with its comments attributing medicine’s origin to Egypt would, whether true or not, have been considered general knowledge among the educated.

True, Augustine seems only to have known the Asclepius dialogue, but for our present question it’s enough – and another test for the value of Georg Baresch’s description of the Voynich manuscript.

Concerning Georg Baresch – for newcomers.

Georg Baresch is the first person whose possession of the manuscript is undisputed (save by those who argue the manuscript a modern fake). In his letter to Kircher, Baresch says (in 1635) that German specialists in botany (these being the best in Europe at that time) do not know the Voynich plants’ identities, adding that the plants are exotics – i.e. not native to Europe. That Baresch himself insists (not ‘hypothesises’) that the material in the manuscript was gained in “oriental parts” is what we keep testing against the evidence offered by the Voynich drawings and diagrams, although on the point of medicinal purpose, Baresch himself says that’s only his “guess”. His having paid for copies of sections to be made, and then having them sent to Kircher because the latter had appealed for materials to assist decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics (hieratic) indicates, I think, that Baresch did honestly believe the content was in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’. So as we go, we test his views. So far, he’s looking good, but that only means his belief was not unreasonable or a-historical – not that it is certainly true.

What the text of Augustine’s Civitate Dei makes clear is that for a well educated person, it might seem logical to seek superior or ancient “pristine medicine” in Egypt.

In Book 8, Augustine writes,

Your grandsire, O Æsculapius,[was] the first discoverer of medicine, to whom a temple was consecrated in a mountain of Libya, near to the shore of the crocodiles. In that temple in which his body lies – his earthly man – … he affords to the infirm even now by his divinity those aids he used to afford them formerly by the art of medicine”. (Augustine, Civiate Dei. Bk VIII Ch. 26).

Augustine also knew, in fifth-century North Africa, what few medieval or Renaissance European artists appear to have known – namely that this Asclepius was not Greek, but half Hellenistic Greek and half Egyptian.* The story we see in the images made for Hague, MMW 10 A II, suggest rather that the Greek ancestor ‘Mercury’ is the patron of healing, though that’s not what Augustine knew, and he was quoting the original text.

*I stand corrected. Some Greek presence in Egypt dates to before Alexander’s conquest, leaving open the possibility that the Egyptian temple may have been frequented by Greeks, and by them associated with Asclepius, even before Alexander’s time.

“…by the shore of the crocodiles”

Augustine means lake-shores near that cult-centre called by the Greeks Krokodilopolis or Arsinoë, and by the Romans Arsinoë or, sometimes, Arcadia.

*autocorrect’s Antinoe un-corrected to Arsinoë, which is correct.

In traditional style, Augustine’s ‘Libya’ includes all land west of the Nile, save only the delta, and in fact, remnants survive today of a temple on the hills overlooking that shore.

Its nearest village was known in Ptolemaic times as Dionysias and so in modern accounts that temple is sometimes described as ‘The Temple of Stones’ or else the temple near Dionysias. It is now so reduced as to be all but devoid of interest, resembling an empty warehouse.

You can see both those places on the map (below). Dionysias is seen to the upper left [look for 184]. Crocodilopolis/Arsinoe/Arcadia near the centre [1935]. The numbers refer to the number of papyri found in a given site. [Other places called Arsinoe HERE]

Another site, rich in finds of papyri as the other two combined lies near the map’s top-right. It Karanis [2,474] and this isn’t the first time that Karanis and the Faiyum have cropped up while researching this manuscript’s drawings. Last year, treating the calendar’s ‘November’ emblem, I showed a detail from a Roman-era papyrus. That work is known as the ‘Book of the Fayum’ but Karanis in particular was noted some time ago when the present writer investigated some artefacts seen in the Voynich ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

Here’s a brief recap from that earlier work. This is less than a twentieth of it, but will do here. 🙂

Faiyum, glass and the Voynich ‘leaf and root’ section.

Karanis (sometimes Karanais) cropped up while considering artefacts seen in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

notice the vestigial ‘wreath’ ring around the neck. The brownish discolouration is a natural effect post-production. This image courtesy collection of John and Carole Alaire.

Some appear meant to represent glassware.

Some of those include a feature made by trailing an extra rod of glass to form what you may think of a ‘wreath’-ring.

In combination with that feature, you see what is evidently meant to dnote glass that is white or clear,

As I explained at length and with many illustrations at a time when any suggestion of ‘Asiatic’ influence caused severe allergic reaction among hard-core Voynich traditionalists – not so often these days – to find this combination is not very common. The ‘wreath’ ring indicates the eastern Roman empire in c.1st-2ndC or so, and clear or white glass with that indicates Egypt over Syria at that time.

Karanis was a major centre of glassmaking. Glassmaking tended to maintain similar forms and techniques until the craft-families were lost to illness or war who had kept those secrets. Enamelled and gilded glass, attested in finds from Begram (1st-2ndC AD), returned to Syria only with the Mongol’s eruption and consequent population movement. From there, Venice would acquire workers who were imprisoned on the city’s islands and whose techniques continue to echo those used in the eastern Mediterranean a thousand years earlier.

As for the earlier glass of Karanis and Syria – though called ‘Roman’ glass, Romans as such are unlikely to have had much to do with the process of manufacture. Other details suggest a context beyond Roman rule for some artefacts in this section, but we know that Hellenistic-Persian communities in what is now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan were making or importing glass of fine quality to as late as the 2ndC AD.

IF anyone had been intending to seek ‘ancient’ pristine medicine in what Baresch calls “oriental parts”, then if they had read Augustine’s ‘Asclepius’ dialogue, the Faiyum is surely one region they’d have on their itinerary, though Cairo’s fonduks are another, and perhaps also what remained of the temple to the other god-man, Hermes whom the Romans and Latins called ‘Mercury’. A temple to him lay further upriver than the Faiyum, at Hermopolis‘. Thus Augustine – “For this elder Hermes…who, he says, was his grandsire, is said to be buried in Hermopolis…”and

…[Tresmegistus says] Does not Hermes, who was my grandsire, and whose name I bear, abiding in the country which is called by his name, help and preserve all mortals who come to him from every quarter?

Thoth was also known through patristic writings, including those of Lactantius,whose life overlapped Ausonius’ and who served as advisor to Contantine I, the emperor to whose youngest son Ausonius’ uncle had been tutor.

Lactantius’ classical education allows him to refer easily to the works of Homer and to the many deities and philosophies of the empire that was still, to his time, ‘Roman’ in every sense. Nonetheless, he knew less than he believed he did. Literati of the Italian Renaissance spoke of Lactantius as the ‘Christian Ciceero’, his Institutiones Divinae offering a venerable authority for melding Christian and pre-Christian allusions.

In Bk I, Ch.6, a passage shows what he understood of Tresmegistus – and that he believed Egypt had first gained writing and laws from an outlawed Greek(!). It is an oddly European arrogance: The Greek Herodotus writing in the 5thC BC had known better and so would Augustine. But here is Lactantius – who says among other things that who is buried in Hermopolis is not Hermes, but Tresmegistus(!):

According to Cicero, Caius Cotta the pontiff, while disputing against the Stoics … says that there were five Mercuries; and having enumerated four in order, says that the fifth was he by whom Argus was slain, and that on this account he fled into Egypt, and gave laws and letters to the Egyptians. The Egyptians call him Thoth; and from him the first month of their year, that is, September, received its name among them. He also built a town, which is even now called in Greek Hermopolis (the town of Mercury), and the inhabitants of Phenæ honour him with religious worship. And although he was a man, yet he was of great antiquity, and most fully imbued with every kind of learning, so that the knowledge of many subjects and arts acquired for him the name of Trismegistus. He wrote books, and those in great numbers, relating to the knowledge of divine things, in which be asserts the majesty of the supreme and only God, and makes mention of Him by the same names which we use — God and Father. And that no one might inquire His name, he said that He was without name, and that on account of His very unity He does not require the peculiarity of a name. These are his own words: God is one, but He who is one only does not need a name; for He who is self-existent is without a name. God, therefore, has no name, because He is alone; nor is there any need of a proper name, except in cases where a multitude of persons requires a distinguishing mark, so that you may designate each person by his own mark and appellation. But God, because He is always one, has no peculiar name.

Healing from the spirit; attending to the body.

Healing in the style of ‘Asclepian’ medicine paid more attention to healing as a benefit of both physical and spiritual healing. That of Hippocrates had a more pragmatic concentration on the body as such.

The following is slightly edited from a Polish article, but this is standard information which you should find in any reliable history of the Greek tradition.

Ancient Greece had two types of medicine: one priestly-religious and associated with temple treatment and the divine Asclepios; the other Hippocratic and rational. Both types of medicine co-existed, representing two non-antagonistic alternatives in treatment. In spite of apparent differences in their approach, we have no evidence of either collaboration between Asclepian priests and Hippocratic physicians, nor of any mutual misunderstanding or hostility between them. Followers of Asclepios respected tradition, believed in a divine descent for their profession, but remained loyal to the Hippocratic Oath. The fact that when the rational type of medicine did not help a patient, the patient might seek then healing through religion and other alternatives is not rare even today.[i.e. it implies no exclusive attachment to either remedy].

see Marketos SG, Poulakou-Rebelakou E. Tradycyjna medycyna w starozytnej Grecji (współistnienie sztuki asklepiejskiej i medycyny hipokratejskiej) [Traditional medicine in ancient Greece (coexistence of Asclepian art and Hippocratic medicine)]. Przegl Lek. 1995;52(12):612-4. Polish. PMID: 8834663.

What that summary implies, and what we find in Latin Europe, is a deliberate ‘wiping’ of the older and once well-understood seminal contribution made by Egypt.

this is very clear in the fifteenth-century illustrations for the Hague copy of Augustine’s work, but is far more widespread within medieval and early Renaissance Latin Europe. I should add that Augustine has played a bit fast and loose with his terminology, choosing to use ‘demon’ rather than, as he should, daimon or daemon. Many in Augustine’s time still held the ancient belief that the stars were ensouled, and Augustine’s detestation of such figures may be a hangover from his Manichaean period. Here’s the text for which Ellie’s example is the illustration:

Chapter 10 – Concerning Theurgy, Which Promises a Delusive Purification of the Soul by invocation of demons.

These are the delusive appearances of that spirit who longs to entangle wretched souls in the deceptive worship of many and false gods, and to turn them aside from the true worship of the [one] true God, by whom alone they are cleansed and healed, and who, as was said of Proteus, turns himself into all shapes, equally harmful, whether he assaults us as an enemy, or assumes the disguise of a friend.

As to those who… see… certain wonderfully lovely appearances of angels or gods, this is what the apostle refers to when he speaks of Satan transforming himself into an angel of light – (referring to 2 Corinthians 11:14).


Despite the reverence in which Augustine was held, some parts of his ‘Cite de Dieu’ are tactfully passed over in medieval images. Augustine identifies Asclepius’ Egyptian grandfather as inventor of medicine healing, but the Latins uniformly accord that role, instead, to Asclepius himself or others such as Chiron etc. (badly scrambled sentence, sorry – corrected 6th Jan).

Another remarkable fact is that although we see Hermes’ staff correctly represented in North Africa in the period of Roman occupation, a sophisticated fifteenth-century French illuminator has no idea what it should look like.

Hermes. drawing from a classical Greek Attic vase.

North Africa c.2ndC BC – 1stC AD. Herm-Anubis with daemones.

The belief against which Augustine rails in Chapter 10 of Civitate dei – of a soul’s being carried up by daemones is seen vividly in a near contemporary ivory. Their ‘Mercurial’ nature is indicated only by the bird-wings of their hair.

British Museum Object No.1857,1013.1, dated 402 AD. T

The coin on the left still has the staff fairly correct, and helps us understand the strange saw-toothed weapon given ‘Mercury’ in Hague, MMW 10 A 11 folio 197r,

Roman Egypt. mid-2nd and early 3rdC AD.

Mercury, patron of traders and travellers with insignia in Hague MMW 10 A 11.

(detail) Hague, MMW 10 A 11 folio 197r

That this isn’t a unique error is evident from other Latin examples, of which there are many, even from about the same time:

provenance unspecified.

I differ on some statements in the British Museum’s description of the next image, but reproduce it in full.

British Museum. Object 1845,0825.347. Late 15thC. Italy possibly Ferrara

Mercurio (Ferrara, c.1470-1480) Mercury; facing right, wearing winged helmet and sandals (boots), he holds the caduceus with entwined serpents and plays a flute; the decapitated head of Argus full of eyes and a cock at his feet; inscribed at lower left: ‘A’, at lower centre: ‘MERCVRIO XXXXII’ and at lower right: ‘4Z’; encircled by a frame of diamonds.

I hope that by now you are asking, ‘What have these late fifteenth-century French and Italian images got to do with the Voynich drawings?

I do hope it’s what you’re thinking, because the answer is – not very much.

Those drawings bear no resemblance to anythin in the Voynich manuscript. Not in the arrangement of the page, not in the border ornament, not in their style of drawing, not in their subject matter, the degree of immediate legibility, not in any associated script nor their attitude to human society – not even in their ideas about who should and should not be hatted and booted.

And that IS the point.

All those images in the Hague manuscript, and the other medieval western European images I’ve mentioned in this post are “new wine in new skins” – nothing about the pictures suggests origins in some earlier copy of Augustine’s text.


The Hague site is not the easiest to navigate. To see more of Hague, MMW 10 A 11 best go directly to:


To be fair, one image said to be of Anubis (friend of Mercury), lets us add a few grains’ weight on the positive side for that ‘St.Theodore’ in Venice.