‘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.” – voynich.nu 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 voynich.nu 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 exploration.marinersmuseum.org/event/marco-polo-interactive-map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In sum:

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

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