Interim Post: Nails in the wood – symbol of resurrection.

c.1870 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

(edited 15th Sept 2022 – minor typos corrected)

As I’ve said, there are only a handful of images in the Voynich manuscript which employ a visual language, or express a worldview compatible with the customs of medieval western Europe.

However, there is some reflection of Christian beliefs to seen in some of the drawings, one of which is among the plant-pictures.

Having discussed that image quite some time ago, I’ve decided instead to republish part of a different post from voynichimagery, one which alludes to the ‘nails in the wood’ idea, and as a sort of peripheral note for efforts (presently being made by Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport) to re-assert the oldest and most traditionalist Voynich theory, namely that the whole content in Beinecke MS 408 as an expression of Europe’s medieval Catholic culture.

I doubt that theory will find support from any qualified and experienced external specialist in western Christian art and culture, but so little is impossible

The written part of what follows I’ve simply copied-and-pasted from the original .. I’ve remounted the illustrations, because wordpress won’t let you see images transferred in that way.

As you’ll see, this comes from what was the last post in a series, published through voynichimagery on May 8th., 2013. I’ve left the written part precisely as published and left in the weblinks for historical reasons.


Paradoxical History of Balsam #5 (final)

© D. O’Donovan [2000+ words]

Afterword (May 8th., 2013) – I have found a late fifteenth-century description of a garden in Egypt where balsam was harvested.  It reads very like the image in Manfred’s herbal. – D)


The miracle of life preserved within death.

The paradox of true Balsam oil was that greatest of all; life in and arising from that which was not, or appeared not to be, living.

Even today, in Afrikaans,  plants of the Commiphora group ( corkwoods having scented resin; the group includes myrrh) are all known as the  ‘unkillable’ or ‘cannot die’ (kanniedood) tree. I expect the Africaans word preserves more ancient terms, once current in lands taken by the Dutch.  Exactly the same idea is embodied in a pre-Islamic image from Christian Egypt. Here the Balsam is pictured on the left and with a rising star.


Nor did Christianity first create an association between tree, its two nails and belief in resurrection.

A stele carved for a queen of Egypt’s First dynasty embodies the same ideas (the object to the left standing for the ‘Great House’, and the time of the annual  ‘crossing over’ as well as the constellation on which the spirit rose was identified initially with Orion. The term ‘star of the crossing [- over’] remained current in the seventh century AD and mentioned in the Qur’an.


For Egyptian Christians, Coptic was the liturgical language;  Christians of Ethiopia developed Ge’ez, but Syrian Christians of the pre-Islamic period maintained Syriac,  former language of Rome’s eastern empire, in their texts both secular and religious.

From Syriac originals first-generation translations into Arabic continued to be made to at least as late as the thirteenth century, so had the western church not rejected their more learned brethren in the east, they might have had a copy of Dioscorides a thousand years earlier.

That Coptic manuscript (shown above, and first shown on Alin Suciu’s  site) is also what permits me to suggest that Dioscorides’ description o Balsam may not have been referring to C. gileadensis at all, but to a cultivar and possibly a hybrid of Commiphorae now extinct.  Dioscorides describes it, as it is shown in that image, as a plant growing no more than a meter or so in height, and having leaves that are  ‘like rue’.


Loss of the old groves from Judaea, and balsam being (apparently) soon reduced to a single grove in Egypt, so with the loss of that grove to over-use and a great flood, we may have lost the original plant forever, the grove in Egypt being restocked with C. gileadensis,  brought as replacement from Arabia.

(On the reduction, and loss of the first grove at Heliopolis, see article by Milwright, cited below).

C. gileadensis has a more solidly tree-like form, and by the thirteenth century, certainly, that is how Balsam is pictured.

Clear connection to the older Egyptian associations for Balsam are plainly being maintained in the Arab-Christian tradition from which came the picture below.  In most Arabic texts, that tradition of the graceful tree is soon lost and the two nails become two knives.  Balsam is already a tree in the late tenth-century manuscript from Samarqand.

Fig. 4

From Egypt through to Arabia and thence (it would seem) to upper Mesopotamia, older ideas about Balsam were evidently along a line of connection pre-dating the coming of Muslim rule, and passing from Egypt, to Arabia, to Mesopotamia.


More relevant to the Vms’ botanical section, is the typically Egyptian (and, later Indian) custom of picturing a plant with its fruit at the top of the plant and turned upward towards the sun.

This is not invariable, but evidently conventional and a convention unusual enough to be remarked upon.

It is seen in the Coptic image, and in the Voynich imagery, as in Indian art of the Gandharan period, but is much rarer in Muslim art within Islam.

What we find instead is, often, a subversion of the older imagery to remove from it such figures as the heavily robed ‘ancient’ priest and even his young assistant. No longer haloed (or hallowed) figures, they are removed, or reduced to their emblems – here simply knives and not the formerly-traditional iron nails.

However, since it had not been the custom in ancient or even Hellenistic Egypt to provide plants with their roots (save for a few images in medical texts such as the Roberts Papyrus), to add scholia as hieroglyphics, actual or virtual, would be natural enough, creating forms parallel to those of the herbals which Aldrovandi described as ‘of the alchemists’.  Here is the usual form for depicting plants in earlier Egypt. This from Karnak’s “herbal chamber”.


As Neal points out, existing manuscripts of that ‘alchemists’ type apparently derive from some original that was in northern Italy in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.

It was in 1419 that Buadelmonte brought Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica to Italy, electrifying the renaissance men of that time, both clerical and lay. Then began a characteristic effort among these people to apply the principles of such ‘hieroglyphiks’ in imagery of their own creation. Dürer most famously.

It should not be forgotten, though, that there were a considerable number of monuments inscribed in hieroglyphic within Rome itself.  One Emperor had been so besotted with things Egyptian that he had his own official decrees translated and carved in hieroglyphs.  How the populace managed to understand and obey those decrees, history does not relate.

(If you’d like to see the Hieroglyphica in parallel  Latin and Greek text, an edition is available at

In this way, it is not so surprising to find herbals of that type in vogue for a time in Italy, just as the iconoclastic imagery which tended to replace human figures with emblematic objects, persisted in some regions of Islam.

In my opinion, the absence of natural, or realistic, human figures throughout the Voynich manuscript is due to that same, constantly-recurring objection to picturing living forms which is characteristic of the eastern sphere and communities originating from it. In my opinion, the figures within the Voynich are meant as abstractions, and even then are drawn marred and deformed.  In this,  I may be in a minority, but  it is also a custom attested from before the Roman era, and not absent even from the modern world. For a time it even affected the imagery of Christian Byzantium, as ‘iconoclasm’.  However, like the ‘ornate P’ form in the script, this avoidance is most characteristic of regions eastward from the eastern Mediterranean and never noticeably affected the dominant culture of mainland Europe.

Back to the Balsam.

Increasingly, during the later medieval centuries,  ‘Balsam’ is shown not as a herb but as a tree with a long, bare trunk.

I should mention in passing that Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 is not an exception to the dictum that Europe had no knowledge of the Balsam’s appearance until long after the time the Voynich manuscript was made.


Pace Pavord, I do not think this represents the  ‘balsam poplar’ but rather that it is a generic image, a product of some verbal information that the plant resembled a herb or young tree.  The form given it has the typical poplar leaf but I think it is probably a generic form and based on no more than that the scent of balsam is very like that released when any poplar’s catkins are crushed.  Modern descriptions still speak of it as a balsamic odour.

Thus the wall may be at once imitating an exemplar which in the same way used a generic form for its tree or talisman, or simply a way to remind the reader that Balsam, and the recipe for the Myron was to be closely guarded (‘secretum’).

True Balsam

Even that tenth-century image in the manuscript from Samarqand manuscript might show no more than a generic image for trees that yielded oil or resin. Very similar forms (minus the knives) are used for olive, ben oil and so forth.

The true balsam that had been planted in those groves in Judea to which the Jews took such exception may have been of a cultivar, a sport, or a hybrid which could never be readily propagated and which were first reduced to no more than a single grove at Heliopolis before becoming, in all probability, extinct**  due to over-working and a flood.

The tree-like C.gileadensis was certainly the plant brought from Arabia to re-build that grove, until the last of them also died.

So exactly how the original plant looked we don’t know, nor whether it was the plant from Ein Gedi.  What is certain is that the older imagery does not show a tree, but something more like a herb, springing without bole or trunk directly from the ground.

C. gileadensis was surely a close relation among the Commiphorae if not the original Balsam.

** an inference by the present writer, from consideration of imagery over the centuries, and Milwright’s account of the Egyptian grove.

I shan’t pursue this topic any further here, but if the reader finds it interesting, do include the following if you can in your reading.

  • Encyclopaedia Iranica: ITALY – iv. Travel Accounts
  • O. W. Wolters, The “‘Po-ssŭ” Pine Trees’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 323-350.
  • Marcus Milwright, ‘The Balsam of Maṭariyya: An Exploration of a Medieval Panacea’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 66, No. 2 (2003), pp. 193-209.



All the above to explain why, as late as the seventeenth century, a European botanist was able to treat the question of Balsam as still an open one, writing a dialogue discussing its source, and having as the three interlocuters an Arab, a Jew and the European author.

Paradox, mystery and closely-guarded secret.


Balsam oil (C. gileadensis) can be listed on some commercial sites even today. One seller stamps the catalogue-entry with a bright red notice:  ‘Expensive’ and then writes ..

Unfortunately, this tree is rare, difficult to cultivate, and highly protected in areas where it will grow. Because of this situation, it seems unrealistic that genuine authentic oil is easy to find.

Not much has changed, has it?


Published Sunday, May 5th, 2013

re-issued, September 14th., 2022

‘Pharma’? – and f.13r

Header – Thomas Johnson’s illustration of his banana plant from The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1633)

AS A RULE, I do not recommend using evidence from one section of the manuscript to support an idea/theory/opinion proposed about any other.

Clear stylistic differences in images from, say, the plant-pictures as against the ‘ladies’ folios means that the material copied and collected to form Beinecke MS 408 cannot be presumed united by any single theme, nor inferences from one section be presumed to apply to another. As I’ve said earlier, we cannot know when the written part of the text was devised, and in any case a consistent written text cannot be presumed to imply any constant theme – such as medicine – will inform the whole work.

However, since the present question is whether the primary evidence offers any support for Georg Baresch’s assertion of ‘oriental’ origin for the information and images, including the plants’, the latter having also been – according to him – still unknown to German botanists in 1639, so it seems reasonable here to consider the drawing on folio 13r as one of the most easily ‘read’ by modern viewers, and which appears to offer Baresch positive support and add to the evidence seen so far in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

I believe Edith Sherwood was first to identify the subject of the drawing on folio 13r as the (or ‘a’) banana plant. It was not her custom to offer analytical or historical commentary to explain how her opinions were reached, and it seems that in 2008, when offering this one, she did not realise that identification must oppose the theory she then held, namely that the manuscript’s drawings had been made by a young Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) – a theory further challenged when, a few years later, the radiocarbon-14 results were published, giving a range of 1404-1438 AD.

Meanwhile, unaware of her views, I had published in 2010 a full analytical study of the drawing, identifying its subject as a group of plants which, in regions where they grew, were all perceived as ‘bananas’. I also noted that certain details in the drawing – such as depiction of the fruit up-turned – are characteristic of regions east of the Mediterranean and that other details in the drawing show a first-hand knowledge not only of such plants but of certain specific uses for them – matter which was as much unknown to medieval Europe’s textual traditions as was the appearance of such plants until centuries after the Voynich manuscript was made.

first published in D.N. O’Donovan “f.13r: bananas – Pt 1” July 7th., 2012

Their uses need not be revisited in this post, but evidence of first-hand knowledge is surely relevant. The drawing on folio 13r includes an unusually literal representation of leaf-types, of the corm-as-root, and of the plants’ habit.

first published in D.N. O’Donovan “f.13r: bananas – Pt 1” July 7th., 2012

Bananas are not trees but after producing fruit on one pseudo-stem which dies off, the corm will usually produce another each year, making it effectively if not technically perennial. This too the first enunciator of the drawing knew, that detail enlarged below.

(In my opinion, the motifs employed here together, as a white ‘collar’ and shooting stem signify ‘cultivated plant’ and ‘rapidly regenerates’ respectively and do so consistently throughout the Voynich botanical drawings.)

The rest of the drawing is just as accurate when one is aware that this drawing is meant to represent a group – a ‘class’ – of plant, and not a single specimen as was the Latins’ habit.

Researchers have to keep in mind that drawings in the Voynich manuscript received their final form three centuries before Linnaeus was born, so any grouping or system of classification will not be his, but reflect the perceptions and linguistic habits of those of persons who were familiar with the plants, and to a large extent Linnaeus’ decisions about genus and species are irrelevant to an understanding of the manuscript, though obviously convenient for researchers’ in conversation.

Rather than simply repeating what I said in 2010, or in two detailed essays published in July of 2012, I’ll link to a couple of current wiki articles. So (here) Valmayor et al. are cited for saying that “In Southeast Asia – the center of diversity for bananas, both wild and cultivated – the distinction between “bananas” and “plantains” does not work.”

and (here),

“In other regions of the world, particularly India, Southeast Asia and the islands of the Pacific, there are many more kinds of banana and the two-fold distinction (between the ‘bananas’ and ‘plantains’ including ensete) is not useful and [is] not made in local languages”.

A somewhat simplified distribution map includes only the plants which modern botany describes as ‘Musa’ or ‘Ensete’ – here – but will be enough to show readers who’ve followed this series from the first that the line of distribution overlays the maritime routes which altogether connected southeast Asia to as far as Madagascar and constitute the eastern side of the maritime ‘spice route’.

It is fair, then, to say that plants of the ‘bananas’ are ‘exotics’ and ‘from eastern parts’ in relation to Europe. So far, so consistent with those views which Baresch urged on Kircher in 1639.

As for Baresch’s saying that he “guessed” the manuscript’s content was chiefly medicinal, we may have reservations; the fruit’s chief use was as a foodstuff and, in a time without refrigeration, bananas would last no more than a few days. Even if one were to imagine the fruit carried to medieval western Europe – and imagination is all it would be – that would not include such detailed knowledge of the plants which produced it.

For Voynich studies, then, the obvious implication must be that John Tiltman was perfectly right when he made clear, in 1967, that for researchers to continue hunting for ‘matches’ in nothing but medieval Europe’s herbals would be an exercise in futility. As it had been to that time, and has been since.

And, now, Baresch’s views find support from both details given artefacts in the ‘leaf and root’ section and from at least one of the plant-pictures.

Some in Latin Europe had heard of some form of ‘banana’ by the late fourteenth century, but only from hearsay and it clearly did not include any detailed botanical description of the plant’s habit or structure.

This we know because it was in the late fourteenth century that a few select persons in Latin Europe obtained access to a translation of Ibn Buṭlān’s ‘Tables of Health’ known in the Arabic as as Taqwim al-sihha, but in the Latin translations as ‘Tacuinum sanitatis‘ or ‘tacuini sanitatis‘.

When they came to mention of ‘bananas’, the Latin translators set aside the usual seven-point format by which the author described every good, and instead included a form of apology for this unknown and irrelevant item, by describing its appearance from hearsay and suggesting it was not entirely irrelevant to Italians, French or Germans because it was known in Sicily and Cyprus. They ended with one sentence translating Ibn Buṭlān’s comment on the bananas’ relevance to health.

Precisely what type of ‘bananas’ were meant, we cannot know.

Here’s the passage from an illustrated copy of Tacuinum sanitatis now in Vienna, as translated from the Latin by Judith Spencer.

Musse – Bananas.

It is no surprise that Ellbochasim [i.e Ibn Bulān] mentions this plant and its fruit but as far as we are concerned we know of it only from texts or tales from merchants of Cyprus or pilgrims from the Holy Land. Sicilians, on the other hand, know them well. The leaves are fan-shaped and have a hard rib and a thin blade , which dries up in the summer. The banana has a yellow skin when ripe and white pulp. It seems at first to be very insipid tasting but then, they say, one can never eat enough of them due to their delicious flavour, which gradually emerges very pleasantly. They weigh heavily on the stomach and their only virtue [for health] is that they are sexually arousing.

Descriptions were rare, so much so that the most-often mentioned today comes from a traveller who stopped off in Cyprus in 1450 the late 1450s. It is so often cited that in an ‘afterword’ post to voynichimagery I finally reproduced the entire passage to prove that the description was in no sense a botanical one. Here’s that clip again.


Some copies of the Tacuinum were illustrated, but in the case of Ibn Buṭlān’s “bananas” the illustrators were plainly at a loss.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the first illustrator turned to a Latin herbal of the southern, Sicilian-Salernitan type, akin to the ‘Manfredus’ herbal, and so depicted some plant whose Latin name included some such term as ‘Musa’. To have looked towards Sicily was reasonable enough, but of course no Latin herbal includes a banana, so the image selected was wrong, showing again that the Latins had no idea of the plants’ appearance and this reinforced by the fact that subsequent copies of that translation copied the same mis-matched image.

(This point was revisited fairly recently (2018) by J.K. Petersen, about whose post I’ll say more further below.)

For the period between the late fourteenth century and 1639 when Baresch wrote to Athansius Kircher, I’ll quote a few paragraphs from the analysis of the drawing (2010) and from the second essay published in 2012, which was concerned with Europe’s knowledge of the plants’ form.

If one is to imagine the Voynich manuscript’s content entirely the creation of some Latin author, one would surely have to posit a Genoese or a Venetian, these city-states having regular links to ‘eastern parts’ where a Latin *might* have had an opportunity to draw such plants accurately, but if that ever occurred, it was plainly without effect on the Latins’ illustrative tradition, reflected in neither the western herbals nor in the printed botanical works.

Banana fruit was once considered that of  the tree of paradise, or of wisdom, something reflected in the old scientific names for the two wild species of plaintain banana:  Musa acuminata (formerly Musa sapientum) and Musa balbisiana (formerly Musa paradisiaca)…  [the] fruit .. comes in a variety of sizes and colors, including yellow, purple, and red…[and] the term ‘banana’ is also used – more loosely – to describe the Ensete.

On April 10th, 1633 a man in Bermuda sent to the President of the College of Physicians in England a bunch of bananas, which were then sent to the apothecary John Argent, who hung them from his doorway, had their portrait made and included in the same year in a new edition of  Gerard’s Herbal (1633). Theophrastus made it into the same edition. But until then, bananas had never before been seen in England and no European work had come close to representing the plants’ leaves and habit. Even then, the image did not show the ‘root’. 

da Orta bananaAs the  ‘Banana palm’ this printed illustration appeared in a work published in Lyon in 1602, the text credited to Cristóvão da Costa, though it is no more than the translation into French of a work published in Antwerp 25 years before: Carolus Clusius’  Aromatum (1576).

Nor was  Clusius’ work his own composition. It, in turn, translated from the Portuguese,  Garcia da Orta’s,  Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”) – published neither in France nor Spain but in India (Goa) itself – 1563.

For reasons which are not entirely clear, the church decided after da Orta’s death that he had returned to the Jewish religion of his parents (they having been forcibly converted from Judaism to Christianity),  and so ordered his grave and body desecrated. His works were apparently just plagiarised and credited to a Latin as ‘author’.  

To quote the wiki article – which is easiest for readers to check:

“da Orta’s remarkable knowledge of Eastern spices and drugs is revealed in his only known work, Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”), published at Goa in 1563. This deals with a series of substances, many of them unknown or the subject of confusion and misinformation in Europe at this period”

Schwab is of the opinion that al Baitar’s Kitab al-Nasiti was unequalled by any European work of its time, and is not known to have been translated into Latin, or any western vernacular tongue though he wrote during the period of the Salerno medical school.

al-Baitar’s pharmaceutical encyclopedia describes 1,400 plants, foods, and drugs, 300 of which are said to have been original discoveries.


… for our purpose and the seventeenth-century context, the important point is that the same person who rendered Clusius’ Aromaticum into French, Antoine Colin,  made other translations whose focus was on the materia medica of regions beyond Europe.

Colin bore the title “Master Apothecary of the City of Lyon” and it was his publisher, Jean Pillehotte, who was in Lyon the nominated printer for the Society of Jesus, the religious order to which Athanasius Kircher belonged.

From Pillehotte’s press, therefore, issued a great number of works, commissioned texts and (presumably) commissioned translations, works both religious and scientific, whose market were the merchants and the missionaries looking eastward, as well as the medical or educational fraternities. He published from the end of the sixteenth century to the earlier part of the seventeenth: only a few decades after which we hear that Kircher was now urging the current owner of the Voynich manuscript to send him the whole manuscript (where to send a faithful copy was more usual, and more sensible as Baresch had said in his own letter of 1639 – note added 2021).

This would appear to suggest that Kircher believed it [the Voynich manuscript] contained something that was not already available in print, but was relevant to his own interests: as a man with a reputation for understanding ancient or distant languages, or as a priest, or as a priest particularly hoping to be assigned to his Society’s missions in China.

Nonetheless, as as will be seen from the seventeenth-century woodcut illustration (above), Europe had not even nearly approached the level of accuracy in depicting the plant/s that is found two hundred years earlier in the Voynich manuscript. 

What is evident from the illustration shown above, is that a knowledge of the bananas, (and, within them, of those Linnaeus would later exclude from his Muscaceae) which falls far below the level of  intimacy demonstrated by the image on folio 13r. The woodcut does, however, show a mark reminiscent of the circumscription line ~  the sign used in our manuscript and which- in my opinion- is deployed as sign of the plant’s being cultivated. 

Thus, to hold that [Beinecke MS 408]  as a finished text is a product of the fifteenth century and a generally ‘Latin’ environment is reasonable, and to suppose it inscribed by a person trained in the European style is not unreasonable. But to insist on attributing its entire creation and content to some ‘author’ whose horizons (in 1438) were no wider than mainland Europe is opposed by all the historical evidence at our disposal, especially in regard to the drawing on this folio.

Whoever first created this drawing on folio 13r, regardless of where and when the drawing was subsequently copied, had done so in a region where plants of the ‘bananas’ sort actually grew and where they, themselves, had seen the formation of the plant(s) root, and habit, and understood its several uses in those regions.

In the Mediterranean world between 1438 and 1639 there are few accounts of ‘the’ or of ‘a’ ‘banana’ and these have it as a rare exotic encountered in passing and in regions beyond and ‘eastward’ of mainland Europe. 

Note (2021) – Capodilista is also mentioned by Harper McAlpine Black in a post of 2014, though his impression of an exclusively Arab-driven ‘agricultural revolution’ in the southern Mediterranean has been questioned, and is less categorically expressed in more recent scholarship. 

In summary.

Plants of the ‘bananas’ type were known only by hearsay in northern Italy by the late fourteenth century with Sicily and Cyprus said to have some type of ‘banana’ grown by that time – but no Latin work depicts them with anything like the same completeness and accuracy, even to so late as Baresch’s letter to Kircher in 1639.

Together with indications offered by details in the ‘leaf and root’ section, the manuscript offers support for Baresch’s saying that the matter had been obtained ‘from eastern parts’ and some support for his belief that the plants represented by the larger drawings were not native to Europe and were still unrecognised by contemporary European (specifically German) botanists in his day.

It should be obvious, therefore, that (1) the drawing on folio 13r will find no counterpart in any Latin European work made earlier than our manuscript, and continuing efforts to find ‘matches’ in Latin herbals are likely to prove as fruitless in future than they have been hitherto. (2) that no European herbal or botanical text is directly derived from matter in our manuscript and (3) that whoever first made the drawing on folio 13r had seen a living plant and knew it intimately enough to depict its uses and its ‘root’ – something rarely done even in the fully ‘literal’ plant portraits created by early modern western botanists.

Acknowledging previous contributions.

I happened to notice in 2013 – five years after Sherwood’s identification had been offered, and after I had published my own more detailed essays, that Rene Zandbergen’s entry for folio 13r read:

“This has been compared to a banana plant but this tentative identification is not generally accepted.” – in 2013.

Whether Sherwood’s identification was offered in a ‘tentative’ mood or not I cannot say. My own was a conclusion reached after doing the necessary research and was presented with my evidence and the usual apparatus.

If Rene Zandbergen’s site used a less impersonal tone, rather than attempting to convey an impartial and authoritative air appropriate to some such work as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one might excuse his failure to correctly acknowledge the source of an original contribution to this study. His omission of Sherwood’s name could only frustrate serious researchers who would, as a matter of normal method, go back to the origin of any ‘Voynich’ contribution and test the evidence and reasoning that had produced it. As it was, a reader was blocked from that information and left unsure whether it mightn’t have been a ‘tentative’ identification offered by Zandbergen himself.

Zandbergen’s refusal to acknowledge the more detailed studies that had been contributed by the present writer is not surprising; Zandbergen has no desire to direct his readers towards work unsupportive of his preferred ‘central European voynich’ theory.

Before the rise of that theory in the early 2000s, discovering precedent studies and the origin of various ideas and theories was not particularly difficult. Most of those involved were trained to properly acknowledge their sources and were happy to direct newer-come researchers to any useful precedents. The ‘sunflower’ idea, for example, was routinely credited to Hugh O’Neill, and one had no difficulty then in reading the seminal ‘article’ and realising the idea was presented without any argument or evidence of any effort to test it against the iconographic or historical record.

However – and for reasons I don’t pretend to understand – the rise of that ‘central European’ theory saw in parallel an increasing effort to turn the process of Voynich research into one where energy was no longer directed towards better understanding the manuscript but to successfully promoting one theory or another while suppressing opposition to it, whether such opposition was supposed embodied in written research or in the person of the researcher.

By the time I was asked to consider the manuscript’s drawings it had become a ‘dictat’ in Voynich arenas that – and I quote – “to cite precedents is unnecessary”. Requests for information about where I might read anything previously done on (for example) the subject of the plant-pictures as pictures was met by pack-attacks, and assertions that no-one would ask about precedents unless (and again I quote) “they were out for glory”.

After that time, the habit of supposing one need – and in fact ought – never credit any original contribution to the study unless attributing it to a ‘team-member’ also grew apace, and to this day, sites such as inaccurately or improperly modify their documentation in that way.

The results of combined ignorance and ‘policy’ have been disastrous for any serious advance in this manuscript’s study, producing endless ‘re-inventions’ of work earlier done, effectively legitimising plagiarism, and preventing new-comers from building upon or re-considering the range of earlier and current studies.

Not a few newcomers – and I speak from experience – on hearing it denied that any precedent existed which should be considered, embarked on a line of research only to find, on completing it, that their conclusions were dismissed as ‘nothing new’ and/or that they were accused of plagiarising the very precedents whose consideration had been asserted ‘unnecessary’. This is also why, years after the subject of the drawing on folio 13r was first identified, and also independently identified with the drawing explained and the historical context and implications laid out in detail, a Voynichero such as ‘vviews’ could suppose that ball was still in the air.

[NOTE. added Sept 29th., 2021]. While trying to decide, in 2010, whether or not to post online my evidence and conclusions about the manuscript’s plant-pictures, I looked again for some reputable precedent, and my enquiring of the older participants at a certain Voynich arena meeting only with immediate hostility, I turned to Nick Pelling, whose memory was also among the longest in Voynich studies. He very kindly directed me to remark once made by John Tiltman, to the effect that one or more of the images might be ‘composites’.  Though Tiltman supposed the plants would be European, and evidently thought such ‘composites’ would be random, it was a precedent of sorts that I might safely cite, and enough to decide me in favour of publishing online the summaries, at least, of my own investigations in the hope of assisting those who were struggling to understand the written part of the text.  The point I’d like to emphasise here is that not every ‘Voynich traditionalist’ is ignorant of, or indifferent to, our discipline’s ethics and method.

Among the most adamant in their support of the idea that “to cite precedents is unnecessary” has been Mr. J.K. Petersen, who has said plainly more than once that he feels no obligation to acknowledge any precedent, nor to cite any sources, except as and if he pleases.

Which brings me back to Mr. Petersen’s blogpost of November 2018. (J.K. Petersen, voynichportal (blog) 10th November 2018.

In recommending readers consider it, I add the caveat that Mr. Petersen’s position means one can never be wholly certain if ideas presented by his posts as if new and original insights are so in fact, or derive from one or more earlier studies which he does not choose to acknowledge..

Ibn Buṭlān, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Mukhtār ibn ‘Abdūn (d. 1066/458)
ابو الحسن المختار ابن عبدون ابن بطلان

Ibn Bulān was a Christian physician of Baghdad. In 1049 he left Baghdad to travel to Aleppo, Antioch, Laodicea, Jaffa, Cairo and Constantinople. Toward the end of his life he settled in Antioch, where he became a monk and died in the monastery on 8 Shawwal 458 (2 September 1066). His treatise on medicine for monks is preserved in a copy at NLM.

His treatise on hygiene and dietetics, Taqwīm al-sihhah (The Almanac of Health) presented a guide to medical regimen in tabular form. It was probably the most well-known of his treatises, and was later influential in Europe through its Latin translation, Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina. For an edition of the text with French translation, see Hosam Elkhadem, Le “Taqwim al-sihha” (Tacuini sanitatis) d’Ibn Bulān: Un traité médical du XIe siècle. Histoire du texte, édition critique, traduction, commentaire (Académie royale de Belgique, Classe des lettres, Fonds René Draguet, vol. 7) (Leuven, Belgium: Aedibus Peeters, 1990).

For his life and writings, see L.I. Conrad, “Scholarship and social context: a medical case from the eleventh-century Near East” in Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions, ed. Don Bates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 84-100; GAL-S, vol. 1, p. 885; Ullmann, Medizin, pp. 157-158; J. Schacht, “Ibn Butlan”, EI (2nd ed.),vol. 3, pp. 740-742; and Ibn Butlan, The Physicians’ Dinner Party, ed. & tr. Klein-Franke, (Wiesbaden: Olms, 1985).

from: ‘Biographies’ at website Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the [U.S.] National Library of Medicine.

When, in 1491, the brothers de Gregorii printed Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae in Venice that year, it was Europe’s first illustrated medical book.

‘Pharma’ – the routes

two prior:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Routes indicated by the narrative of Maro Polo’s journeys. For an interactive version, see the website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In sum:

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

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

‘Pharma’ – Pt 2-i. the legend

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


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

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

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

Beinecke Library (1969-1978).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

containers plate7 Sherwoods new pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary d’Imperio. NSA 1978

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

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

She wrote,

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

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

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

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

To quote Collins’ dictionary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEWBOLD – the legend’s origin. 1921

William Romaine Newbold

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

He had said,

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

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

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

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

Newbold had told his audience, in 1921:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

techne glass mass production Canning town machine

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

Victorian display and Carboys pharmacy

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘Foreign plants’ – GEORG BARESCH – 1637.

Athanasius Kircher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here in Germany’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To those possibilities we might add others.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Almost all – but not quite all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • 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

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’

Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.


Retrospective justifications

Lawyers may have ‘learned friends’; scholars only colleagues.

Added note – 13th. March 2022.  I’d prefer to add this as a ‘Comment’ but wordpress having decided comments are closed, I must add  it here.

I have today received an email in which the writer expresses themselves rather strongly on what they see as my ‘hypocrisy’ for complaining about mis-use, co-option and so on of earlier writers’ work. They point to this post in particular, saying that I have wrongly credited Rene Zandbergen with making the ‘oak and ivy’ connection, and that Zandbergen simply took a different copy of the same work, then asserting or permitting others to believe it a discovery gained by him as result of original effort.  If that is so, my apologies to Edith Sherwood and I agree that precedents should always be honoured even if a person later reaching the same opinion was, at the time, ignorant of that precedent.  Sherwood is of course not the author of the email but is the person whom the correspondent asserts should be credited with that ‘find’.  Since – as you’ll see from the post below, I dispute Zandbergen’s idea, and have not seen the precedent by Sherwood, I can only report the complaint publicly and apologise should an apology be in order.  If anyone would care to provide me with evidence of Sherwood’s having earlier made that connection, I’ll happily accept it and add the details here.  In the absence of date-able evidence, however I must leave the original post (below) as it is.


I’m going to be away for some weeks, so here’s an extra-extra-long post (originally designed as five separate posts) to serve as holiday reading while I’m gone. 🙂

NB. To skip the preliminaries, start from the heading: ‘Living Ivy’.

Abstract:  The Yale facsimile edition includes an essay predicated on the theory that the plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript are related to the European ‘herbals’.  In that essay a comparison is offered which, if it were it valid – might constitute the long-sought (but  never found) proof for that theory, and further indicate that a niche exists for the Voynich plants within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis type.  Credit for a comparison or  ‘pairing’ of folio 35v with  ‘oak and ivy’ from the ‘Manfredus’ herbal  is claimed by Rene Zandbergen, whose influence on the study has been constant since the early 2000s.  The following considers that experience, weighing the probability and evidence for and against such an interpretation of the image on f.35v.

WHEN later generations  consider Rene Zandbergen’s contributions to Voynich studies, rating high on the list will surely be his constant presence.

For at least two decades Zandbergen has been constant in reading and collecting work and ideas related to this study, incorporating his selections from such matter into his website (since 2010), and  sharing  information more widely in comments to group discussions and in private communications. Voynich studies needs people with long memories;  given the high turn-over in  researchers and degrading standards for credits and documentation of precedents, for any true history of this study we must depend increasingly on the memories of a few among the old guard and the energetic efforts of even fewer among the new. Attempting to discover whether precedents exist before embarking on a line of investigation can be very hard work indeed, and whether one of the ‘old guard’ will trouble to consult their own memories can be a bit touch-and-go.  After all, the study has devolved into a permanent ‘groundhog day’ since the early 2000s to the point where now any genuinely new insights are soon swallowed up in the mist, grabbed and repeated without mention of the source and then endlessly re-used and  ‘re-discovered’ by amateurs – many of whom confuse original contribution with ‘unprecedented invention’ and fear to admit their debts lest it cost them glory.Trying to work against that tide, to disentangle genuine from spurious claims of ‘discovery’ would require an entire team of fiercely determined and rigidly ethical members of an  ‘old guard’. And what Voynichero would care to spend more time on seeing justice done than on following his own area of interest?  But, as and when they choose, ‘old-timers’ such as  Pelling and Zandbergen are our best hope.How many hours Zandbergen has devoted to building his  website one cannot imagine. It has now become the ‘go to’ site for newcomers, journalists and others who want a quick key, to check details of dates or of  biographies.  It has also provided Zandbergen himself with a ready reference from which he, no less than journalists or newomers, can draw in writing essays.Despite this time-consuming project, Zandbergen  has still found enough time (almost every day)  to be present in most often-visited public arenas and there to take account of the discussions and contribute to them from the mass of material at his fingertips.His early achievements include his  translation into machine code of Gabriel Landini’s transcription of Voynichese – giving us EVA.  Another was his liaison with an Austrian television company which commissioned certain scientific tests.For all this – as Zandbergen reminded members of a forum just today – his qualifications are not in any field relevant to medieval manuscript studies, history or art and he should be regarded as an amateur.Few amateurs having twenty years’ interest in anything could resist the temptation to “puff” rather more.Also of value have been Zandbergen’s computing skills which produced the graphs and diagrams used to illustrate the information collected into his website.

As constant as that work has been, and his presence in most public conversations about the Voynich manuscript, so too he has shown unwavering fidelity to a theory which he and his co-author, Rafel Prinke, espoused early – perhaps as early as 2000.

At the time it was a ‘fringe’ theory, asserting that the manuscript had been made in German-speaking regions and was in some sense an expression of central European culture, and more specifically with content congenial to the interests of Rudolf II and other members of the central European nobility.While the evidence for this variation on d’Imperio’s version of the Wilfrid-Friedman theory is no more than it was two decades ago, the intervening period has seen constant efforts at its retrospective justification: German calendars have been hunted for images of Saggitarius with a crossbow and other German-language or German-made works hunted for costume which could be argued similar to costumes seen on figures in the Vms. An enormous amount of time and talk has been expended on a couple of lines of marginalia which are claimed German.    For lack of other researchers as constant and equally consistent in enthusing others to collaborate,   material accumulated today not only leans heavily to that side of the scales but almost entirely on it.  Today the ‘central European’ idea has achieved the status of what Santacoloma might call canonised myth, but which is better described, I think, as the process  by which ‘I feel’ becomes ‘it might have been’ and gradually via ‘it could have been’ is taken for ‘it must be’. The process has taken twenty years and the labour of a great many co-operating ‘ants’ as Ellie Velinska once called that group.Without being strident, Zandbergen has also quietly and unwaveringly introduced an idea that not only Rudolf, but Rudolf’s brother Matthias (Corvinus) owned the manuscript.Whether the notion that the manuscript was stolen by Jesuits originated with the Prinke-Zandbergen theory or not is another point difficult to determine but as yet there is no evidence offered by the manuscript or by any document of which I’m aware to justify either the the ‘Corvinus’ idea or that one.   On the face of it, the Jesuits’ acquisition of the work is perfectly transparent: it became a Jesuit possession when gifted to Athanasius Kircher by Marcus Marci – and we have the letter of gift to prove it.Otherwise, the Prinke-Zandbergen narrative appears to maintain the standard ideas in, or extrapolated from, Wilfrid’s tale of 1921 – such as that the manuscript is obscure only because meant for a social and intellectual elite, and that it is at base a manuscript composed of ‘ordinary’ European material including occult and/or scientific matter such as alchemy, magic, astrology and medicine in which Rudolf II (1552-1612) and his aristocratic circle were most interested.Here, however, we must be grateful for the radiocarbon dating which permits us (if we wish) to limit the range of Voynich research to the terminus ad. quem of 1438.I say this because it is easy to imagine where the ‘Corvinus’ idea might lead theorists less self-controlled than Zandbergen.   Matthias was initially given control over Hungary at a time when a large part of it was owned by Rudolf’s close contemporary Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) and within modern Hungary there is a popular movement re-inventing her image to have Bathory a nice aristocratic woman interested in women’s medicine. It takes little imagination to see how such an idea could be imposed on the manuscript’s content.But, as I say, we can halt if we choose at 1438 and maintain a proper level of skepticism not only about the ‘Corvinus’ idea but about the third-hand rumour of Rudolf’s supposed ownership.My own position is best expressed by quoting Patrick Lockerby, one of the very few left standing when the vellum’s radiocarbon date-range was published.  Well before the test was run he had said:

My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.

~ Patrick Lockerby.


Zandbergen has proven no less constant in maintaining his opinion of the plant-pictures, assuming (as had almost all before him) that these must constitute a variant form of Latin herbal: that is, a catalogue of medicinal plants employed in Latin (western Christian) Europe.

During the nineteen-twenties or -thirties when the manuscript was generally believed personally written by Roger Bacon, the limited horizons* of Wilfrid’s narrative and of any dependent on it permitted few alternatives.

*for those limited horizons and  reasons for them see ‘Fear of the Unknown and Raft Elegant‘.

However, one might have supposed that by 2000, with nine decades’ of failed attempts to discover in the Latins’ herbals any matching images – that is, matching in sequence and in style of drawing –  and with Tiltman’s negative judgement on that score expressed in the late 1960s, that researchers might have begun casting about more widely: extending the research laterally (to include other regions and peoples) or vertically to consider plant-imagery made to other purposes and/or in other media.

It didn’t happen –  not even when Tiltman’s paper was released by  NSA in 2002, under the Freedom of Information Act, or when qualified persons differed from the conservatives.  Those who were not ignored (as Mazars and Wiart were for years), were met with the usual methods by which the most conservative element avoids discussion of evidence and argument.   On a personal note, I gained most amusement from Pelling’s suggesting that in explaining the botanical imagery and the role of mnemonics  that I suffered from pareidolia.  The role of mnemonics in imagery had been unexplored by the Voynicheros before then, but the term is now constantly used, even if rarely informed by knowledge of the scholarship or of any work later than Yates – Yates being mentioned by d’Imperio.  Carruthers’ revolutionary studies have been often recommended by the present author, but no evidence of them appears in other Voynich writings to date.

Part of Tiltman’s verdict was quoted earlier,  but here it is in more detail:

if the plain text of the Voynich manuscript belongs to the illustrations on the same pages, as we have a right to expect in the complete absence of evidence to the contrary, then much the greater part of that text is related to plants. However, I have to admit that 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.

  • [pdf] John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript: ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’ [released by NSA under the Freedom of Information Act, 23-Apr-2002  (Case #19159)

Tiltman was not a man to accept hearsay and I think we may take it that he spoke from personal knowledge of the Friedman groups’ range of research.  It is possible that some combined list of works they consulted might one day be found among documents still at the NSA, or in the George C. Marshall Foundation.

[Part 2] What was it which prevented Tiltman’s pronouncement’s being taken seriously, and the lesson taken from the failures of the preceding decades?

It is an interesting question and deserves more than the briefest answer, but in the space of this post the short answer will have to do, and it is this:  that by the time the first mailing list closed there was a small but growing and determined ‘conservative’ element which adopted d’Imperio’s version of Wilfrid’s narrative with others of the Friedmans’ ideas as constituting a final word on the manuscript’s history and character, and perceived its own task less as work of investigation than of retrospective justification for that matter.

Before the 1960s, none had looked further than Europe because they supposed the manuscript’s composition coeval with its manufacture and they supposed all due to a single author imagined European.

After the early 2000s, any who began to consider any but a Latin European as determining the manuscript’s content was  discouraged from doing so by the ‘mass’ online – and often as much by personal ridicule  as by reasoned argument.  Of this unpleasant tactic – playing the man, not the ball – a precedent was also provided by reports of the Friedmans’ mockery of others, including of Professor Romaine Newbold.   Jorge Stolfi was among the first of the more recent ‘scalps’ taken by such means.

A hardening ‘conservative’ position presented itself as the  ‘common sense’ position, and for the new wave of Voynicheros who appeared in public conversations after c.2004 or so, these now-entrenched ideas were accepted as if they had been established from solid evidence: they served as premises rather than as speculations to be tested – and most obviously with the ‘softer’ narratives about theoretical histories for the manuscript or notions about its imagery.

Efforts to describe,  explain, decipher or translate Voynichese remained generally subject to more rigor and overall remained focused on the researcher’s work not his character. Critics were expected to explain their criticisms in detail; and (unlike other areas) no  vague assertion that the researcher was ‘talking nonsense’ was enough. Witness the technical and well informed criticisms of even so patently nonsensical a paper as Cheshire’s.

But with that difference between standards for discussing ‘Voynichese’ theories versus historical or iconographic matters, there began the dichotomy which exists today.  Opinions about the written part of the text usually weigh the statistical and linguistic evidence, but those focused on the pictorial content or historico-social environment regularly witness the personality-centred sort of attack as theory-defence.  It is a pity that this dividing fence has been flattened recently – again with criticisms of Cheshire as example.

Any Voynich researcher or writer soon becomes aware that ad.hominem regularly meets dissent from the ‘conservative’position in certain areas and almost invariably follows criticism of any opinions or theories particularly associated with a few of the best known ‘Voynicheros’.

Here, Nick Pelling has a well-earned reputation for directing fluent streams of vitriol against any who are less than approving of his friends’ theories and methods and, to a lesser extent of his own.  In general, however, he has an equally well-earned reputation for permitting free expression in comments to his blog, sometimes extraordinary patience with the most ‘out there’ theorists, and his academic standards in keeping clear the difference between his own work and others’ remains impeccable.

In one way, there can be no criticism made of any blogger’s choice of opinion, or of response to comments to their blog,  but given Pelling’s large following, high profile and standing as one of the ‘old guard’, the old problem of influence and responsibility must arise.   Knowing that any who would subject Pelling’s “machine-plants” idea to detailed criticism and dismissal, or dispute Zandbergen’s ‘oak-ivy’ comparisons as I’m about to do may incur public denigration of their intelligence, competence, motives and personal character is certainly a deterrent to putting higher value on the manuscript’s accurate evaluation than on the ‘Voynich community’s bonhomie.  The revisionist might hope for both, but I should think not in this generation.


Since my own is the only name I feel entitled to mention, I’ll say that during the near-decade in which I offered historical notes and analytical-critical commentary on the Voynich manuscript’s imagery the work received only two types of response from the ‘conservatives’:  results gained from that original research were taken and re-presented without acknowledgements, and/or were met by ‘criticisms’ of the ad.hominem sort.

There was just one informed criticism made over the entire period:  a correction to my description of the religious order to which Hugh of St. Victor belonged.

No qualified person in my field had been involved in the study, as far as I could discover, since the 1930s and that might explain the resort to personal criticisms by persons lacking the wherewithall to make comments of any other type.   Recently, the well-qualified   Alexandra Marracini  has produced a paper which reminds me of my very first essays on the subject of this manuscript, when I still thought I’d be dealing with nothing more  unusual than the home-made book of some amateur western Christian author.

It was from about 2010, once I began sharing online and it became clear that this material could not be made to fit a ‘central European’ or ‘Latin cultural expression’ theory that the nasty response began.   From the first it was of the ‘no-holds-barred’ type and was disseminated as brainless and information-zero ‘memes’, inventing which seems to be the one real skill that a couple of ‘Voynicheros’ may claim.

My persistence in seeking to read, and then to acknowledge precedents – if any – for my views was re-interpreted by ‘meme’ as an effort to claim credit: ‘to make a name’ as that meme had it.  Another meme that I recall said that some students of mine were not real people (the reason being, apparently, that we decided their only access to the ‘Voynich-Colosseum’ should be through my own email address).  The result of that little ‘meme’ was abuse which the students, their parents and the school found as irrational as it was unmerited, and the ‘Voynich’ option was terminated.   You may be pleased to hear the credits were made transferrable since cyber-bullying should not cost credit-points.   Another slander-meme impugned by qualifications;  the least principled did not think it too grubby for them to start memes calling me a liar, or when that one didn’t quite catch on, upgrading it to mental derangement.    Of late, it seems, the one or two core bullies have been toning it down a bit: perhaps someone explained to them in one-syllable words the meaning of ‘fact’ ‘fiction’ ‘slander’ and ‘libel’.

The meme of the month  – towards me; but I’m not the only  troublemaker – is ‘nonsense’.  Not exactly the quality of a Times Higher Education review for the amount of research it tries to cover, is it?

It wasn’t the memes, or even the fools who are unable to find better ways to defend their theory which bothered me most; it’s the number of sheep who, when the water-cooler guy says ‘Bah! duly say  ‘Baaah’.

I had supposed that with a manuscript which presents so many non-trivial problems, the sort of person who’d stick around would be one having the type of critical intelligence which likes difficult problems.

But of course, anyone with that sort of intelligence can’t be hypnotised into saying ‘baaa’ just because the chap next to them got it from someone who was told it by someone else.

They say instead – ‘where did you get that idea?’ and ‘Show me your evidence’ and.. in this particular case ‘And exactly what does this tell me that might help me better understand Beinecke MS 408’?

And so back to that more interesting matter…

The ‘Oak and Ivy’ comparison in the Yale facsimile essay.

In its premises and its approach the ‘herbal’ essay in the Yale facsimile edition has much in common with the book by Tucker and Janick, in that it aims only to illustrate and thus to convince readers of its premises and its premises are its (foregone) conclusions.  It is an engaging history of the medieval herbal manuscript, but one illustrated by ‘pairings’ from the Voynich manuscript – pairings whose validity is treated as self-evident.

Among them is one which – were it valid – would be of enormous importance for this study for it would offer the long-sought proof for that ‘variant herbal’ speculation, and indicate that within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis  mss exists some niche for the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.

Because it could be of such great importance, it has to be treated seriously and seriously evaluated.   One might wish it were not a ‘pairing’ for which the credit falls to a member of the ‘old guard’ but the credit is claimed by Rene Zandbergen.

He presented his ‘match’ some years ago in a power-point presentation, later passing it to others to re-present (with credit accorded him)  as e.g. to Ellie Velinska.  Still later, it was used in forum discussions where again the thanks and credit were received by Zandbergen.  Finally, with acceptance already general among the ‘online community’ the same pairing was included in the Yale essay.

On occasion Zandbergen has mentioned that Edith Sherwood had ( I am told ‘earlier’) compared  folio 35v with one in a medieval manuscript.  Zandbergen’s comment takes the following form in one forum exchange:

EllieV – 11-02-2016 The most popular example is the oak/ivy combination found by Rene in other old herbals

ReneZ – 11-02-2016 Edith Sherwood independently noticed the similarity, in her case with the Sloane MS, while I saw it in the Paris BN manuscript.

The British library’s Sloane collection includes more than one herbal, as does the collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France but I note that where Sherwood’s habit was always to pair a picture from the Voynich manuscript to some later botanical illustration or to a modern photograph of her preferred ‘i.d.’, some images are now included from medieval manuscripts and now she pairs folio 35v with  an image of oak-and-ivy from  Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 (folio 38v) –  to which I’ll return further below,

About  Zandbergen’s alleged ‘match’  only one point need be addressed and I’ll treat the vine-like element.  To discuss the pairing in full detail (as I’ve done elsewhere) would quadruple the length of this post.


Zandbergen’s Resources:

Zandbergen’s discussion of the plant-pictures, from 2000 until the Yale essay was published has relied in one sense on generations of the ‘Voynich herbal’ idea but more particularly on  Minta Collins’ book to which Zandbergen has constantly referred, and just as constantly referred others.

Published in that year (2000), Collins’ Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition became available two years before the NSA released Tiltman’s paper of 1967/8.   It would be two years later still before we had Touwaide’s critical review of Collins’ book in 2004, but that appears to have escaped general notice for the following decade and more, until the present author brought it to the attention of Voynich ninja members.

  • Minta Collins, Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition.(2000)
  • the above, reviewed by Alain Touwaide – Isis,  Vol. 95, No.4 (2004) pp. 695-697.

Meanwhile, constant mention and recommendations of Collins’ book within the ‘Voynich community’ had seen it elevated to a status almost equal to that accorded d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – whose quotation some suppose a final word.    This same period saw escalate a trick of equating conservative ideas with the ‘good and sensible’ to the point where those engaging in original lines of research were discouraged –  and if not easily by ‘blanking’ or by citations from the two ‘bibles’ or items extracted from German medieval works, then next by comments suggesting that  only a ‘bad or irrational’ person would oppose the ‘central European cultural expression’  theory.

By about 2013-14,  assertions of ‘likeness’ met positive comment only if the comparison came from a Latin herbal or from central European manuscripts and books made between the thirteenth-mid sixteenth centuries – unless it were to ‘prove’ the work a Latin product.  Velinska’s ‘Duc de Berry’ theory was exempt.   The temporal range narrowed somewhat after 2013, as challenges to the radiocarbon dating of 2011 fell silent.  The conservatives’ geographic bounderies are widening a little further today but speculations about alchemical content, inherently anachronistic, remain current and so widely believed that to so much as doubt them has recently evoked an ‘eye-rolling’ from Pelling.  It would seem that another myth has achieved canonisation.

Zandbergen has displayed the same constancy in maintaining  the Voynich plant pictures a ‘herbal’ as he has shown in all else,  discouraged neither by Tiltman’s negative judgement nor by a century’s failure to find any place for them in that tradition. It is not an idea of Zandbergen’s invention, merely maintaining the speculations and assumptions of Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 and by the Friedman groups from 1944 onwards.

[Part 3] The ‘Manfredus herbal’

Against this pairing by Zandbergen of an image from the Voynich manuscript with one from the ‘Manfredus’* herbal we have the general objection that the ‘herbal’ idea remains a speculation and that were it well-founded there is a low probability that the same alleged ‘match’ would have passed all earlier notice. Believing the labels might offer a key to Voynichese, the Voynich plant-pictures and accompanying text have always been a focus of  study.

*properly:  Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823, but very often seen as ‘Manfredus de Monte Imperiali’

The Manfredus ‘herbal’ has been among the best- and most widely known of all medieval Latin copies of  the  ‘tracts on herbs’ and was so before Wilfrid had ever seen his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript.  By then the ‘Manfredus’ was already in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and detailed knowledge of it had spread across the Atlantic, in proof of which I’ll cite the book-length monograph by Edward Sanford Burgess, published in 1902.

Burgess was then a resident of New York and was still so  when Wilfrid migrated to that city from London, bringing his widely-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ – most of it filled with plant-pictures.

Burgess’ book-length monograph had been published by the Torrey Botanical Club journal (which is still in publication).  As handy guide to the text, Burgess included a ‘Tabular view of Plant-writers before 1600’ and as you see from the clip below (from p.98) the ‘Manfredus’ manuscript is included, dated it to c.1400.

  • Edward Sandford Burgess, ‘Studies in the History and Variations of Asters: Part 1: History of PreClusian Botany in its relation to Aster, Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol.10  (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.r

Within his monograph, in speaking of Dianthus, Burgess says, “… I have seen the plant pictured in a book which is written by Manfrēdus de Monte Imperiali.” (” Librum de simplicibus , qui in bibl. Parisina latet,”said Sprengel of Manfred’s work, in 1797 ; Fabricius knew of a copy in Paris about 1750..” (p.380)

Today, the date offered for Manfredus manuscript – that is, the digitised copy – at Gallica is again circa 1400, but the  Bibliothèque nationale de France has  1330-1340, leaving place of manufacture unspecified.  A website called ‘Manuscript Miniatures’ ascribes it to Pisa without explanation. And to Lillian Armstrong it was ‘Lombard’.

  • Lillian Armstrong, ‘The Illustration of Pliny’s Historia naturalis: Manuscripts before 1430′, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes  Vol. 46 (1983), pp. 19-39.

Some of those earlier attributions to place may owe less to consideration of the drawings or palette than to interpretations of the description ‘… Monte Imperiali’ –  on which subject the present writer’s opinion as offered  after looking into the question in 2016.   Taking it that the  ‘di’ here signifies “sent out from” rather than “born in” I concluded the post by saying:-

I see no reason why the “Manfredi di maestro Berardo da Montepeloso medicus” listed by Calvanico [on whom see Collins n.119] should not be the same person as that associated with BNF Lat 6823…Nor is it difficult to suggest why a clerk sent ‘abroad’ on behalf of Maestro Berardo might choose to describe himself in that way rather than as from Montepeloso.  A mere clerk, coming to an urban centre from the remote south of Italy – and from a place called “Mount Hairy” – would surely be sensitive to the sort of ridicule which urban lads would delight in heaping on a lowly  ‘rustic’.  Nor would that description  be a lie, for  Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) and its castle were imperial possessions until Frederick II gave them to the then newly-sanctioned Francsican order of preaching friars.  Perhaps the local community itself had been used to speaking of the mount and its castle as ‘imperial’, but to determine the last point either way would require research of a depth it scarcely warrants.

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A note on Manfredus di Monte…’ voynichimagery, (July 10th., 2016)

At the time none of the items in that paragraph, save Collins’ reference to Calvanico, was to be found in any of the usual Voynich writers, though (as so often) the situation may have changed without notice.

Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) today. Image published earlier in post to voynichimagery ((July 10, 2016)

A more recent scholarly source is the following volume, with Givens’ valuable essay on the Tractatus de herbis:

  •  Jean A. Givens, ‘Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis, 1280-1526′ in Givens, Reeds and Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550  (2006). pp.115-156.

In c.2010, the idea was prevalent in Voynich forums that  ‘Manfredus di Monte Imperiali’ was son to Frederick II.  This is not so, though he may have been a namesake and the same idea is found in other and older writings. It is not inexplicable if we suppose it due to a misinterpretation of the dedication which the noble Manfredus included in a thirteenth-century copy of Pseudo-Aristotle’s ‘De pomo’.  That dedication is quoted in

  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle and Medieval Occult Science’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1922), pp. 229-258.  (n.39   p.237).

[Part 4] So, to return to Burgess.  A botanist with a particular interest in the history of plant-pictures and -texts made within the Greco-Latin world and to the 17th century lives in a city to which there comes a much-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ filled with what are thought to be herbal pictures.   His particular focus is on antique and later mentions of the ‘aster’ family.  Does it seem likely that he could resist trying to discover what members of that family were recorded by Roger Bacon, an idol of the time?

And if he were to go to Wilfrid’s bookshop to express interest in the manuscript, would Wilfrid deny a potential buyer?  And seeing those images, is it likely that Burgess (among the many others, including Fr. Petersen or members of the Friedman groups) would consistently fail to notice that folio 35v was ‘identical’ or even a ‘close match’ for an image in the well-known  ‘Manfredus’ manuscript?

I do not know if Burgess ever saw the Voynich manuscript, though I suspect Tiltman saw Burgess’  ‘Tabular view’ and that it is among the reasons he can speak with such certainty of the “very limited 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”.

But Burgess’ example illustrates my point that the Manfredus ‘herbal’ was well and widely known to specialists on both sides of the Atlantic even before Wilfrid bought the ‘ugly ducking’.  Seeking precedents those as interested and well informed as Petersen was and as dedicated as the Friedman groups were could hardly have failed to hunt it for something ‘like’, whether or not they heeded the vital point already made by RIchard Salomon in 1936, that locating precedents or antecedents means matching style of drawing and comparable sequences.  I’ve already quoted that letter to Anne Nill in full, but here’s the critical sentence:

“… I am convinced that the only possibility of deciphering would be given by finding an older series of plant pictures corresponding in its sequence to the arrangement of pictures in the Voynich manuscript.”

Richard Salomon to Anne Nill (July 9th., 1936 ),

Altogether the circumstances offer an a priori  argument against Zandbergen’s ‘match’ being valid –  at least within the historical and social context he presumes – but here it will be enough to address just one of the many points at which the ‘match’ fails –  the vine-like plant which Zandbergen claims equates to the Manfredus’ image for ivy.

Living Ivy.

Unless employed for purely decorative effect (e.g. ivy-rinceaux), or as crown for Dionysos or something of that kind,  the depiction of ivy in medieval Latin graphic art identifies a living plant by two elements, only one of which is invariable.

The leaf was drawn (European ivy is evergreen) and if any form of support was shown, the image emphasises the ivy’s clinging character.  That second is the invariable element .   It is clear, too, that to the medieval draughtsman, ivy’s clinging was tp be depicted as ‘twining’ – akin to that of the bean or of the Convolvulus.

Sherwood’s current comparison for f.35v, as I mentioned before, is Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 folio 38v.  This certainly does show ivy (accuracy in a manuscript’s labels are not to be presumed), and it is equally clear that this draughtsman expresses himself through the usual conventions of Latins’ art; his ivy is denoted by its twining habit.  He has also included the umbels of black berries.  His leaves are given five lobes.  Neither of the last two features is invariable.  The ‘clinging’ character is.

Climbing ivy has leaves of varying form, with those of a non-flowering stem having 3–5 triangular-shaped lobes and those of flowering shoots being oval to eliptical. There is also a ‘ground ivy’ depicted in some herbals, but the point is that when shown with any supporting object or plant, the medieval image tells the reader it is an ivy plant by means of that character of ‘clinging’ which is depicted as a twining about the support.    Not what we see in folio 35v of Beinecke MS 408, where the vine-like plant is not only shown to be unable to cling, but lacks any leaf.  If the latter was intended to signify the plant a deciduous one, then it cannot be European ivy.  Again, though perhaps less significant, is the fact that the berries are not depicted using the convention of that ‘fan-shaped’ umbel.  Whether the supporting plant is meant for an oak is a separate question, but the fact remains that if the vine was not intended to be read as ivy, Zandbergen’s comparison and claimed ‘match’ is invalid and once more we have no reasonable evidence, documentary or otherwise, retrospective or otherwise, in support of the constant assertion that the Voynich plant-pictures should belong in the Latins’ ‘herbals’ tradition.

Another ‘Sloane manuscript’  Sherwood had noted,  inspiring  Zandbergen to find more, was Sloane MS 56 (f.81r).  Once again, the ‘twining’ habit and a leaf.

The next example (below, right) comes from another of the best-known Latin (western Christian) herbals, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 747, and yet again we see that to define ivy it was not the flower or any set form for the leaf which was employed, but that close-clinging habit envisaged as twining.  The suckers which we now suppose essential to the ivy are not depicted.

But here’s the interesting thing; that other Sloane manuscript (MS 56) noted by Sherwood is not a herbal. It’s an early fifteenth-century copy of John of  Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis.

[Part 5] John of Arderne’s glossary and its images

In a passing comment to Pelling’s blog, in 2009, Zandbergen mentioned a different copy of it, though also from the Sloane collection (Brit.Lib. Sloane 335), saying under Pelling’s post, ‘Pre-1450 German possibility’- Dec.21st., 2009) :

“ To add to the confusion…  I just found a very nice illustration from a pre-1450 manuscript which is more Voynich Herbal-like than anything I can remember, yet is neither from Italy nor from Germany:. ”

He omitted there to mention that it was English or to give any details or date, but in the British Library catalogue Sloane MS 335 is dated to the ” last quarter of the 14th  or 1st quarter of the 15th century”.

I find no evidence that Zandbergen explored the perceived similarities – nor did he specify any – but I agree that there are valid points of comparison to be found in some drawings from that manuscript and some few of the Voynich plant-pictures.

Still other copies remain of Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis and I think readers will be most interested in the catalogue record provided with another copy (made c.1475-1500) and now in Glasgow University’s Special Collections as  MS Hunter 251 (U.4.9). Part of that record reads:

Arderne’s style of Latin is rather colloquial; indeed, his texts may almost be described as polyglot as his use of Latin is somewhat inconsistent. As well as providing glosses in English and Anglo-Norman, the text occasionally lapses in to sections written in English for no apparent reason. Although it is impossible to say whether this was how Arderne himself originally composed his work, or whether such anomalies crept in as his texts were copied from manuscript to manuscript, it nevertheless demonstrates the multilingual nature of literate medieval English society.

From the university’s website – Glasgow University  (Special Collections  .

More, the pictures of interest in Sloane 335 follow after Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ of the ‘French’ plant-names used in Paris in his day.  This raises the interesting question of whether the pictures in the earlier copy (Sloane MS 335) may derive from a source which Arderne had copied in Paris during the first half of the fourteenth century.  (He is mentioned as serving at the Battle of Crecy). Here, some of the pictures

image above from the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts site. (Not  yet on its  ‘Digitised Manuscripts’ site).

.. and below Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ courtesy of the University of Glasgow and the internet archive, reproduced from a paper which  D’arcy Power delivered in 1913 to the 17th. International Congress of Medicine in London.  (Note: Power used the letter i in isolation to signify (that is…) which we normally render as ‘i.e.’.

Stylistic tricks in common.

The drawings do share certain stylistic tricks in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, but the comparison offers no easy key to the Voynich drawings; it is important to distinguish between the graphic techniques employed by draughtsmen and the objects of their attention.

Buds or fruit are shown emerging from the calyx in similar ways, in two cases in Sloane 335 and as comparison the image from folio 1r.

(left) detail from Brit.Lib. MS Sloane 335 folio 82r.   (right) detail from Beinecke MS 408 fol. 1r.

More interesting is the placement of just one black dot on each of a plant’s leaves.

The Sloane drawing appears to me (correct me if you know better) to use the dots to mean ‘burres’ or burrs.  It may – but need not – carry the same sense in the Voynich image, though we note the leaves there are are also given spines, or bristles, along the leaf-margins

I would agree then with Rene’s observation, quoted above, that the drawings made in England about the same time as the Vms – but possibly from a French exemplar – display points in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, and that they look  “more  ‘Voynich like'”  than anything I’ve seen so far cited by a Voynich writer – certainly more ‘Voynichlike’ than any image cited from a Latin herbal including the Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, (Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823).


  • When commenting earlier on these drawings from Sloane 335 (in a postscript to ‘The Matter of “alchemical herbals”‘, voynichimagery, (April 8th., 2013), I added mention of a Peter of Arderne, referring to:   Stewart C. Easton, Roger Bacon And His Search For A Universal Science (1952) pp.120-121.

Among other pointers to an Anglo-French environment for manufacture of the Voynich manuscript and its early use are that the month-names are closely similar to the Anglo-French forms; that (as I first pointed out), the linguistic link between a crossbowman and Sagittarius is offered by entries into the English military rolls where ‘Sagittario’ (and variants) are found used for crossbowmen hired for service in Calais, and again  (this being now much re-used without mention of the present author), similarity in form between the type of  ‘cloudband’ seen in some manuscripts of John Gower’s  Vox Clamantis and (in those same), use of the ‘orb’ in three divisions to represent the world –  replacing the older ‘T-O’ form.  That ‘orb’ form is seen used for the same purpose in works by Roger Bacon and has been attributed to him.  I won’t elaborate now, having already published several posts on these matters at voynichimagery.

Noting that in  2014 Ellie Velinska had described an incidence of this form as an ‘inverted T-O’, the present author provided in August-October 2017 its history in brief, explaining its evolution within Christian imagery, and this ‘orb’s replacing the the earlier ‘book of the world’ emblem, first in English works. detail from Brit.Lib. Arundel 83 f.130 (c.1310-1320). See also Pelling’s comments on Ellie’s post (ciphermysteries. Oct.18th., 2017).

detail from Bodleian MS Laud Misc. 719 f.21r (1425-1450). Introduced in ‘The Orb, the Book and Equivalence Part 2’  voynichimagery (Mon. November 20th, 2017) and a detail (below) illustrating its style of ‘cloudband’ – this item from the author’s research having been shared with  members of the forum at that time.

In closing, readers please note that by c.2010, Dana Scott was alone convinced of an English provenance for the Voynich manuscript and he continued actively engaged in investigating English sources when I last saw his comments to the second mailing list.  Any researcher finding him/herself moving towards a similar position should not neglect to consult the work Dana has done over so many years, nor to credit him by name when taking any of it… up.  The second mailing list is still running, thanks to the generosity of Rich Santacoloma and I believe Dana remains a member.

typo corrected (thanks, Michael).25th May 2019; abstract added May 27th., 2019 and clarifications for the sense in which ‘Tractatus de herbis’ is used in this paper.

June 1st – Gower images added at Dr.O’Donovan’s instruction. June 3rd, detail from Brit.Lib. Arundel MS 83 f.130. L.S.