The author’s rights are asserted.
minor correction – 4th Feb.2023; minor typos fixed, 6th Feb.; “1635” corrected to 1639.
For newcomers – I cannot pretend that my own researches and their conclusions allow me to support any theory of medical or medico-alchemical (or alchemical) purpose behind the choice of matter copied to form the contents of Beinecke MS 408. However, ideas of that type were very early attached to the manuscript and are now so commonly repeated that they should be cross-examined with care and with constant reference both to the primary document and to scholarship relevant to the time until when the Voynich quires are believed inscribed (apart from a few lines of marginalia) – that is, c.1404-1438.
If the present author has a ‘Voynich theory’ it is that if works created before that date provide adequate explanation for images in the Voynich manuscript, then they rather than later examples should be referred to. Thus, we find a hatted hunter-crossbowman in a fourteenth century French manuscript fully a century before figures so attired occur in any German calendar… and so on… and so on..
During 2021-22, we investigated some among the Voynich manuscript’s star-related diagrams, and other related matter – including where and when a use of the ‘4’ shape for the numeral “four” occurs in Latin Europe – this because the form given the Voynich glyph suggests hands already accustomed to writing the numeral in that way. As so often, maintaining the radiocarbon-14 date-range means withdrawing support from a number of popular Voynich theories including the ‘New world’ theory and the theory of a ‘German/central European’ origin.
Thus, when considering the Voynich calendar, we found that it was again in regions of southern Europe, but not in the north, that examples occur of a ‘November scorpion’ and, too, the earliest example noted so far of a recognisable ‘November crocodile’ – which is what we find also in the Voynich calendar. The closest comparison to noted so far is in a missal made in an Occitan-speaking region of France, and for a community having direct links to northern Italy. That missal was made c.1350 AD.
We also noted that the calendar’s month-names ‘speak’ a southern French (or English-French) dialect, and in the hope that the Voynich pigments may one day be fully studied, we may mention in this context Nick Pelling’s prediction that the month-names’ dialect would be that of the Toulon region, where (in Le Pradet) there occurs a form of azurite containing the rare combination of Baryte and Mixite, the same being found also (but not only) in Turin. On which see:
- Bryon Deveson, comment 482697 (Jan. 29th., 2023) added below Pelling’s ciphermysteries post, ‘Quire 20 order from chaos part 2’. Deveson references mindat and names other possible mines.
The Voynich manuscript shows signs of haste, and of multiple scribes at work, which again makes relevant the fact that from the mid-fourteenth century to the mid-fifteenth in Latin Europe, amateur bibliophiles directed the movement of Latins’ manuscript production and among them all the most notable save Matthias Corvinus had been residents in French-speaking, Occitan-speaking or Italian-speaking regions. Once more, southern rather than Northern Europe is indicated.
For those reasons – and many others – I’m taking one early plague tract as focus for this post. It proved enormously influential and popular, probably first written in Latin but translated certainly into French and into Hebrew.
Composed in 1365, the copy of interest to us is the translation into French that was made in 1371 and is now in the National Library of France (BNF) as BNF NAF 4516.
The volume contains, with that plague tract, a work known as the ‘Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ which again proved widely popular; even today more than 300 copies survive in manuscript.
The author of both works is believed the same person, known as ‘John of Burgundy’ in connection with the plague tract, and as ‘Sir John Mandeville’ for the Travels.
What is kept hidden is not the content of his plague tract but the author’s true identity, which may never be known beyond doubt. As for money, that motive is also seen indirectly – as an advertisement for the physician ‘John of Burgundy’ by that same ‘Sir John Mandeville’.
So the author of the plague tract introduces himself thus:
“I, John of Burgundy, otherwise called la Barbe, citizen of Liège and professor of the art of medicine, intend, having invoked divine help, to epitomize (enucleare) the preservation and treatment of the epidemic.”BNF NAF 4516
while, as D.W. Singer reports:
It is told in the “Travels” that Sir John met in Egypt an extraordinarily learned and venerable physician, whom he calls Johannes ad Barbam. It was this bearded John, he assures us, who, by a curious coincidence, saved his life many years afterwards in Liège…Dorothea Waley Singer, ‘Some Plague Tractates’ (p.161)
Given what we know of the popularity and wide dissemination of both compositions by this ‘John’, one expects that the perhaps-English, perhaps-Burgundian physician resident in Liège might have enjoyed a very comfortable income for the rest of his life.
Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, Department of Manuscripts, NAF 4516
This manuscript is chosen for discussion not because it is illustrated, and not only because it is treated in D.W. Singer’s monograph on Plague tracts, but because of the volume’s date, its circumstances and provenance, each of which presents points consonant with various among our observations and findings about the Voynich manuscript so far.*
*including matter relating to star-related diagrams on folio 67v-1, on f.85r and in the Voynich calendar. Readers new to this blog may need to read some earlier posts to get the best from this one.
I summarise some of these points below, though in brief, knowing that their implications may be clearest only to longer-term readers of this blog and of voynichimagery. Readers are asked to be patient with any repetition of things heard before. The following is for the convenience of newly-arrived readers. We’ll move on to more overtly ‘secret’ medicine in the next post.
1. c.1350 – France.
BNF NAF 4516 contains the French translation (1371) of John’s plague tract composed in 1365,
We have seen already, from fourteenth-century France, the drawing of a hunter-crossbowman which provides him with one form of ‘tailed’ hat and with a longer garment than would be seen until a century later in crossbowman images created further north, particularly in calendars. Again, treating the Voynich calendar’s ‘November-crocodile’ our earliest-noted comparison (first brought to notice by JKPetersen I think) was in a missal made c.1350 in an Occitan-speaking region of France. It was made for use by the order of preachers known as ‘Friars Minor’ or ‘Franciscans’.
Examples cited to suit theories of a northern Voynich calendar have yet to cite one in which either a scorpion or a crocodile is the image for November. At least, so far as I’ve seen offered over the past decade and more.
2. ‘Franciscans and Dominicans’.
Current opinion on authorship of both the plague tract and its accompanying ‘Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ is given by the British Library (HERE), saying that the author’s true identity is impossible to know but “it seems that he had access to a wide array of source material, particularly to the accounts of Dominican and Franciscan missionaries.”
Whether this knowledge was gained during his time in France, or later in Liege, or during his travels or even in England we do not know, but it covers the period when the Papal court was in Avignon (1309 to 1376) and to that court all missionary-travellers were expected to report on their return. Indeed, in his name of John de Mandeville, the same John of Burgundy tells us that “at mine home-coming, I came to Rome[sic!] , and shewed my life to our holy father the pope , and was shriven of all that lay in my conscience.. as men must needs that be in company, dwelling amongst so many a diverse folk of diverse sect and of belief, as I have been. And amongst all I shewed him this treatise .. and besought the holy father, that my book might be examined and corrected by advice of his wise and discreet council. And our holy father, of his special grace, remitted my book to be examined and proved by the advice of his said counsel“. The two great bibliophile popes John XXII (1316-34) and Benedict XII (1334-42) were, of course, Avignon-period popes.
3. Provenance (chain of ownership).
3.1 Charles V of France (r.1364 – 1380)
BNF ms NAF 4516 was owned by Charles V, the monarch who, by no later than 1380, also possessed the great work by Abraham Cresques of Majorca that is commonly, if a little inaccurately, called the Catalan Atlas.
Another of the earliest ‘amateur collectors’ who maintained “armies of scribes”, Charles V amassed a library of 1200 volumes in Louvre alone – that collection being later purchased by John of Lancaster who was simultaneously Duke of Bedford and Prince Regent of France in the early 15thC. Clearly, though, the collection bought by John, Duke of Bedford did not include the volume that is now BNF NAF 4516.
However, we have seen the work made for Bedford by a Portuguese physician trained in Paris and known as Roland of Lisbon. (Oxford, Bodleian, St.John’s College MS 18). One may wonder if the bearded figures in its frontispiece, like the the portrait of Bedford showing him semi-bearded aren’t both deliberate homage to that other John “..of Burgundy, also known as John la Barbe’ – but to wonder about it is all we can do.
Again, we have seen in the the work of various fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian and Majorcan cartographers, including Cresques of Majorca, points of correspondence between those cartes marine gridded ‘by the Rose’ and drawings in the Voynich manuscript, notably in its map (often called the ‘rosettes’ page, though it contains no ‘rosettes’ and only three versions of compass Roses as such, three of what I’ve argued had been four in the exemplar.) And in considering where and when the numeral ‘four’ occurs as a ‘4’ by 1375, we found it occurs in Cresques’ work and otherwise only in some few places in southern Europe and the Aegean before 1438.
3.2 Charles VI .. to Guglielmo Libri.
NAF 4516 passed directly from Charles V of France into the possession of Charles VI, and subsequently that of Jean d’Orléans, Comte d’Angoulême (1400-1467), thus to be preserved as part of the French Royal Library until 1792, at which time it was acquired by one Joseph Barrois (1780-1855) whose collaboration with the book-thief Guglielmo Libri is to the discredit of both.
Many works ‘acquired’ by Libri and through him by Barrois would then find their way to England and into the great collection of the Earl of Ashburnham. (For more, see postscript).
The role played by Guglielo Libri is often overlooked when catalogue entries and advertisements of manuscript sales are written up, but the BNF has described in full the chain of ownership for BNF NAF 4516, and so among the former (‘ancien’) possessors are listed:
- Barrois, Joseph (b. 1780- died 1855).
- Libri, Guillaume (b. 1803 – d. Fiesole, Italy, Sept. 28th., 1869)
- Ashburnham, Bertram (b.1797- d.1878).
- Bibliothèque nationale (France).
There can be no doubt, then, that when the Voynich quires are believed inscribed (c.1405-1438), what are now the contents of NAF 4516 were in France and nominally in the possession of Jean d’Orléans, Comte d’Angoulême.
I say ‘nominally’ because from 1412-1444, Jean was held hostage by the English, in accordance with terms in the Treaty of Buzançais. Jean’s close relations, Louis Duke of Orléans (1371-1401) and his son Charles of Orléans (d. 1467), are two more among those notable collectors and commissioners of manuscript copies in the fourteenth and fifteenth-century – but this is simply a statement of fact. I do not mean to imply, nor would I support, any theory that the Voynich quires as we have them could be regarded as acceptable product of any noble-, papal-, or royal atelier during or after the fourteenth century.
And here we may say, yet again, that neither Marcus Marci nor any other reliable witness ever said that the Voynich manuscript was owned by Rudolf II. That tale, as already a rumour, can be ascribed to no-one but Rafael Mnishovsky who (as Philip Neal pointed out years ago) cannot possibly have witnessed the purchase that he claims occurred and despite Stefan Guzy’s best efforts, the rumour is still without any evidence to support it, documentary or otherwise.
4. Egypt … and Plague
It is evident that an association with Egypt and its ‘ancient medicine’ enhanced the reputation of a text and a physician, and that in much the way that it was believed that self-denial and the religious asceticism of earlier Egyptian Christianity were a spiritual defence against illness and death and ‘Egyptian medicine’ was in some way most effective against Plague. These things reflected, in the present instance, in John’s having ‘Sir John de Mandeville’ say he met the physician ‘John of Burgundy/John a Barbe’ in Egypt.
It is true that during the Plague’s earlier years (from c.
1438 1348-c.1448), physicians constantly advised a regimen of self-restraint and avoidance of luxury. John of Burgundy’s widely influential tract begins in just that way:
First, you should avoid over-indulgence in food and drink, and also avoid baths and everything which might rarefy the body and open the pores, for the pores are the doorways through which poisonous air can enter, piercing the heart and corrupting the life force. Above all sexual intercourse should be avoided.
Most readers will have encountered in Voynich studies a theory that the unclothed figures in certain sections of the manuscript should be supposed literal and associated, variously, with Latin works about bathing, womens’ herbal medicine or gynaecology. I won’t digress to explain why such theories are unsatisfactory in terms of iconological analysis and the history of western Europe’s Latin art, but in terms of medicine one sees that the balneological theory is inconsistent with the themes which dominate medicine during that first century of Europe’s Plague years – that is, between
1438 1348 and 1448. Bathing is typically treated as contra-indicated while fumigation was a constant recommendation and, given what we now know, a fairly sensible one. Unfortunately, ingredients which are recommended as fumigants don’t include any recognised as flea-repellents today.
As late as
1635 1639, the first certain possessor of the manuscript, George Baresch still held to that old idea that Egypt’s medical knowledge must be superior to the common man’s medicine.
There was some reason for that popular impression, as is so often true. From at least so early as the ninth century, Europe’s most expensive, rarest and thus most highly valued materia medica had come from – or more accurately, though – Egypt.
In earlier research, the present author presented an analysis of various Voynich plant-drawings, noting that they show direct knowledge of plants whose form was to remain unknown to European botanists to as late as the seventeenth century. We spoke in particular of the myrobalans and of ‘true balsam’, but also of the banana-plants and others in this context. As with the cerastes, Latins might know the name but without travelling to foreign parts were unable to give any clear image of the creature, or plant. This is also true of the Egyptian (or Indian) crocodile, called ‘cocodrille’ in the earlier Latin works and usually drawn more like an heraldic dragon. In that mid-fourteenth century missal, as in the Voynich calendar, that creature is well-depicted and is associated with November and its commemoration of the dead.
It is tempting to suppose the French translator of John’s plague tract had mistaken his grammar, when we find that in speaking of fumigation, he lists exotic goods which had their origin in south-east Asia ‘for the poor’ while among those ‘for the rich’ is the Mediterranean’s rosemary. Still, here’s how the text reads:
In cold or rainy weather you should light fires in your chamber and in foggy or windy weather you should inhale aromatics every morning before leaving home: ambergris, musk, rosemary and similar things if you are rich; zedoary, cloves, nutmeg, mace and similar things if you are poor.(!)John of Burgundy, ‘De epidemia’.
Readers interested in exotic plant products imported into Europe might begin with John Riddle’s seminal study and others of his papers that shed more light on this issue. A list of imported ‘spices’ (as luxury-goods were called) can be found for the fifteenth century in the Venetian work, the Zibaldone da Canal, though by then Venice was receiving such goods through Tunis. For more recent studies of medieval trade in such products, including the materia medica used in receipts by Jews and Arabs in medieval Cairo, see studies by Gerrit Bos, Efraim Lev and works cited in their bibliographies.
5. Materia medica.
It is a notable characteristic of the Voynich drawings, one which generally weighs against arguments for the text’s being about medicine that they so rarely include reference to animals and still more rarely to any of those inorganic ingredients which are such a regular feature of the medieval Latin medical tradition, not to mention that of alchemy.
As Lev and others have shown, however, a similar preference for purely plant-based remedies is seen in the Jewish pharmacopoeia. I don’t want to over-emphasise this matter, or spend time on it here, but would again refer interested readers to papers either authored by or co-authored by Lev or Bos. Many offered in English are now available through academia.edu.
Perhaps I should add that in the opinion of the present writer, the plant on folio 1r is the Clove and is one of the very few Voynich plant-pictures which show a single plant rather than a plant group. Among others first identified by the present author are those included the group ‘Myrobalans’.. but since this blog is meant to assist the investigations of others, and not showcase my own, I add no more.
Nonetheless, and despite my opinion being, on balance, that the manuscript’s plants are not primarily medicinal ones, I might agree that many could be termed ‘spices’ in that vague and very general way the word was applied in medieval texts.
Once again, then, I’ll be clear that while I speak of the ‘medical Voynich’ theory, I neither support nor endorse it – pretty much as Marcus Marci would neither support nor endorse Mnishovsky’s story of Rudolfine ownership, though he mentions it for form’s sake.
If, by any chance, the ‘noble soul’ whom Baresch believed travelled east in search of superior eastern and ‘Egyptian’ medicine had been the physician of Liège known to us as John a la Barbe or John of Burgundy, and if (as I suspect) Baresch hoped the Voynich manuscript contained some remedy for Plague, John of Burgundy’s De epidemia would certainly be a candidate for testing against the Voynich text.
An easily-accessible English translation is presently offered (HERE) in a post by ‘stonelund’.
By the holding library, BNF NAF 4516 is described as:
Préservation de Epidémie , traduction française du De morbo epidemiae de Jean de Bourgogne Jean de Bourgoigne), John de Mandeville etc.
If you have difficulty accessing its digitised copy, try clearing your browser. The BNF site is extremely sensitive and you may need to try both the following addresses to gain access, but I hope one of them will work for you.
1. Dorothea Waley Singer
It is a pity that d’Imperio reports comments made by Charles Singer but none by Dorothea Waley Singer, a scholar of international standing, a palaeographer and bibliographer with links to the Medieval Academy of America.
D.W. Singer’ ‘s monograph entitled, Some Plague Tractates (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries) was published in the Royal Society Journal in 1916 and treats in detail BNF NAF 4516.
D.W. Singer worked on compiling a great catalogue of pre-renaissance scientific and alchemical manuscripts and it is to her work that Lynn Thorndike refers in his letter to Scientific American in 1925, and in connection with the Voynich manuscript.
Had Dorothea Waley Singer lived longer – she died in 1964 – or had Kraus donated the manuscript earlier to Yale as a lost leader, then the Beinecke catalogue entry might have been written up rather differently to what it was.
D.W. Singer’s obituary was published by the Royal Society’s Journal for the History of Medicine and includes the following information:
“She served for many years on the council of the History Section of the Royal Society of Medicine; and in the British Society for the History of Science she was a vice-president from its foundation in 1947 until 1950. She was also an executive member of the Academie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences, and a vice-president of the Union International d’Histoire des Sciences, of which body she was for long .. the chairman of its Bibliographical Commission. She was also a Corresponding Member of the Medieval Academy of America” – where she became well known as a specialist in Latin palaeography.
The full text of that biography and obituary can be downloaded as a pdf. (HERE).
- Dorothea Waley Singer, ‘Some Plague Tractates (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries)’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 9, Number (March 1916) – Section of the History of Medicine. [This article is presently available as a free-access pdf on the Journal’s site.
2. Joseph Barrois and Gugliemo Libri.
Muskinsky’s offers a helpful account of Barrois and his relations with Libri (HERE). For more see entry at Arlima [HERE].
In case the Muskinsky page is taken down, I add a couple of paragraphs from it:
Joseph Barrois was an erudite but eccentric and indeed crooked bibliophile who became fatally involved with the notorious and unpunished book thief Guglielmo Libri, who, in his capacity of inspector of public instruction, traveled throughout France [and Italy] surveying libraries and pillaging them.
[Napoleon had ordered the pillaging and removal to France, or to deposits in Italy, of aristocratic and religious libraries in territories he had conquered. Libri lobbied for, and obtained, authority over all these in a role which was effectively that of libraries’ inspector-general. – D.]
Barrois is known have taken in “Libri’s” manuscripts and had them rendered unrecognizable through rearrangement of quires, rebinding, mutilation, etc. The unsigned binding [of Barrois’ ‘Dactylogie’] was confidently attributed by Bernard Breslauer to the Parisian binder Thompson, who assisted Barrois in these fraudulent activities.
Barrois also compiled his own valuable manuscript collection, about ten percent of which stemmed from compromised sources. Foreseeing Libri’s conviction, he had the collection discreetly shipped to England in 1849 and sold to the Earl of Ashburnham (cf. Delisle, pp. xl-xlii; most but not all were eventually repurchased by the French government). Convicted in 1850, Libri himself remained comfortably in England, where he was wined and dined by the likes of Panizzi, Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum.
In Dactylologie et langage primitif restitués d’après les monuments – 1850, published the year of Libri’s conviction, Barrois explores the origins of language in gesture and phonetics, postulating an original universal (Indo-European) language shared by Assyria, India, and China. He traces its roots through cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and classical Greek, and declares the Phoenician digital or finger-alphabet to have been the source of many other writing systems, including Lap, Sanskrit, Chinese, Aztec and other Amerindian languages.
[So the age of Kircher was not quite dead, even then.]