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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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 Buṭlān] 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’.
As 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.
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 Buṭlān 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 Buṭlān: 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.