‘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’ – encyclopaedia.com.  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.