‘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.

What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval 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 sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • 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

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’


Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.