‘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.

Skies above 5b: Star and basket

Header: detail from Madrid [ms] VITR/26.2 image/page 30.  Ionannes Scylitzes, [Synopsis historiarum] (1126 – 1150?).. 

Two preceding:



Précis of previous post.

The depiction of C.Sergius Orata in a fifteenth-century French manuscript provides him with seemingly inappropriate ‘oriental.Asiatic’ dress.  In the previous post, I argued that this was no arbitrary decision on the painter’s part and, further, that while the immediate cause was a misreading of  Pliny, it  owed something too to a broader impression among Romans of that era  (1stC BC – 2ndC AD) that an ‘oriental’ character affected certain men in Campania  engaged in large-scale fish-breeding – and all the more when it involved building large pools or a re-working the landscape in a way evocative of Byzantion, renowned for its abundance.

Byzantion’s coins reflect its reputation with an emblem of ‘two – or more – fishes’.

Fish ≈ Star: ‘Oriental’ character in Byzantion.

British Library Cartographic Items Cotton MS. Vespasian a.XIII.art.1

The drawing (left) is dated to 1422 which, as most readers will know, is near enough to the mid-point of the radiocarbon range (1404-1438 AD) obtained by the University of Arizona from samples of vellum taken from the Voynich manuscript.


portrait of Isabella of Castile from Rimado de la Conquista de Granada. Painted 1482-1502.  Note retention of that custom traditional in Iberia and in Byzantine art of putting bright ‘roses’ in the cheek – a custom also present in the Voynich month-diagrams.

In that linked article about the radiocarbon dating, a caption describes the date range (1404-1438) as “the beginning of the Renaissance”- an unfortunate addition to the scientific matter.  “The Renaissance” is not a chronological epoch with a set date as beginning and end, and to employ it in connection with the Voynich manuscript’s date-range was ill-advised.  Whether or not the scientists (or article-writer) knew it, to use that term for those years is to imply the content and imagery in the Voynich manuscript was first formed in Flanders, France or Italy.  Though such ideas are part of certain speculative theories,  they are not a matter of fact.  Even by the end of that range – 1438 – the  term ‘Renaissance’ is to be applied  with care, and on a case by case basis, if describing objects. images or script.   What  one writer might call a work of the  ‘early French Renaissance’ – such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – another  writer (perhaps better informed) would describe as  ‘late International Gothic’.   The image at right, for example,  is described as a ‘product of the Spanish Renaissance’ but still carries more of the medieval Spanish than what is generally envisaged as ‘Renaissance’ style.  It was painted between 1482-1502. 

Pace Pelling and others – the mages in the Voynich manuscript are not expressions of  ‘Renaissance’ style – not in attitude to depiction, nor admiration for the human form, nor drive towards literalism, nor use of perspective, nor techniques of drawing.  No matter when he lived, the first enunciator was unaffected by the ideas and practices of the European ‘renaissance’.

The drawing shows Pera (north/top) and Constantinople (south/below) as they appeared in 1422 when the Florentine Franciscan,  Cristoforo Buondelmonti, visited the region, the account of his travels entitled Liber Insularum Archipelagi (“A Book on the Islands of the Archipelago”),.

  • Thomas Thomov, ‘New Information about Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Drawings of Constantinople’, Byzantion Vol. 66, No.2 (1996) pp..431-453.


IN the days when Orata, Strabo and Pliny lived, Byzantion used a second emblem on its coins as  alternative – effectively as synonym – for its ‘two fishes’, and this other certainly implied at that time a connection to  ‘oriental’ ways. It was formed as a Syrian star on a crescent. As you see from the insets (left, above), the motif continued to be used and to carry significance for the city  long after its Christianisation.  But – as we’ll see again in speaking of fishpools in Syria – a practice may survive changes of rule and of religion.

 Syrian Stars.

As distinct from the Mesopotamian custom of depicting a star with eight rays, or the invariable practice of the Egyptians in having a star of five points, the most usual custom in Syria was to have a star of six points.  This customary regional distinction was never part of Latin thought, but may appear in Latin works when a text or an object is closely copied  from some older and non-indigenous work – whether at one or more remove.   In any case, the six-pointed star on these coins for pre-Christian Byzantion was consciously ‘Syrian’.

In the 12thC AD illustration shown in the header, the message was that the person being crowned was secondary ruler of ‘all below the moon’ – in other words, of matters mundane, though simultaneously elevated to serve as the ‘shield’ of those below him and to become an intermediary between humanity and deity.    For other proposals see:

  • Christopher Walter, ‘Raising on a shield in Byzantine iconography’, Revue des études byzantines Vol,33 (1975), pp. 133-176.


IN earlier times, the crescent shape could evoke any number of well established associations – the physical moon, of course,  and various deities such as Isis, Selene or the Roman Luna. But it would have suggested, too,  the horns of a bull, and that ’round  ship’ which served throughout the classical Greek and Roman periods as the quintessential cargo-vessel for people or for goods.

To depict the ’round ship’  then became a convention  of  Mediterranean art, and in this way its form survived in both Byzantine and Latin works to as late as the fourteenth century.  To envisage the night skies as the shield of the world, or as a sea on which the moon and stars sailed were other natural metaphors, none exclusive of any other. In Egypt, the ‘star-ship’ was envisaged instead as a shallow-draught reed-boat.*

*The ’round ship’ was developed by the Syro-Palestinian seamen over the period from 1500BC-1200BC, the design proving so practical it remained in use for at least two millennia more than three and a half thousand years.

Artemis with Aphrodite at Pera.

Of the two coins shown (above, right), the earlier  maintains Hellenistic style, and pairs the  ‘star-on-crescent’ with a deity.  In this case we may identify that figure with one or both of those worshipped at Pera until at least the second century AD.  If you missed the previous post, that precinct lay at Bolos, on the eastern side of Pera.* and though dedicated to Artemis Phosphoros, it was where ‘mild Aphrodite’ was honoured too.   The cult was active during Claudius Ptolemy‘s lifetime.

* Bolos “on the east part of Galatea (Pera)” according to Richard J.A.Talbert (ed.), Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Map-by-map Directory, Volume 1  Map 53. Key p.801.

  •  Stella Chrysochoou, in her paper ‘Ptolemy’s Geography in Byzantium’ (academia.edu} comments on the fact in Byzantium from the ninth century to the twelfth “there was a tendency to comment on the writings of Strabo and Ptolemy jointly, treating them as complementary to each other other.”

Just in passing, here, I’ll mention that when the earlier of those ‘star in crescent’ coins was made, Ephesus in Asia minor was still showing on its coins  the type of ornate baskets known as ‘cistophorus’ or ‘cista’.  The type was first disseminated from Pergamon, and issued between c.170 BC  until 140 BC  – which overlaps with (e.g.) the composition of PolybiusThe Histories. When the Voynich manuscript was made, Polybius’ work was known to only a few among the literati of Florence – but among them was  Leonardo Bruni. For more on that last matter see e.g.

  • Gary Ianziti, ‘Between Livy and Polybius: Leonardo Bruni on the First Punic War’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 51/52 (2006/2007), pp. 173-197.

emblems on two coins for Tralles in Lydia. (BC 155-145).

Cistophoric tetradrachams

The cistophorus (Ancient Greek: κιστοφόρος, kistophoros) was a coin of ancient Pergamum. It was introduced sometime in the years 175–160 BC at that city to provide the Attalid kingdom with a substitute for Seleucid coins and the tetradrachms of Philetairos.”

Scholars in classical and ancient studies may not need the next two posts.


For the convenience of Voynicheros I’ll be treating as briefly as possible the equation of Artemis Phosphoros with aspects of the Syrian goddess, before turning to mentions of Artemis with  kanephorai and then tracking in outline the shifting sense and significance  of  kan[e]on and kaniskos –   those objects into which  were placed a variety of things for the continuing protection of a city.  The outline will  cover (lightly) the centuries from the pre-Roman period to the fourteenth century. Thereafter, we turn to re-consider the implications of the so-far unparalleled combination of star (aster), ‘string’, patterned container and anthropoform figures in the Voynich month-diagrams, found chiefly in its ‘March’ diagram.




The following should have been listed in the previous post:

  • Thomas James Russell, Dionysius (of Byzantium), Byzantium and the Bosporus: A Historical Study, from the Seventh Century BC Until the Foundation of Constantinople (OUP; 2017). The two ‘Hierons’ see p. 41
  • on the eastern and greater ‘Hieron’ see Alfonso Moreno, ‘Hieron: The Ancient Sanctuary at the Mouth of the Black Sea’, Hisperia, 77 (2008) pp. 655-709.