c. 3250 words
The authors rights are asserted.
Before we begin.
If you have encountered social media stuff about the Black Death and cats, witches &ct.. then before going further, please take the full remedial dose: Tim O’Neill’s podcast ‘Cats and the Black Death‘ .
OK – that done, let’s hope Voynich studies will never see any ‘Voynich-magical-women-plague-medicine’ theories.
“false and advertising leches.”
We are all familiar with the stories about how spouses deserted their spouses and parents their children, priests their parishioners and physicians their patients during the Plague years, and especially during its first onslaught in 1348-1442.
But as usual things weren’t really so simple, and Amundsen describes well the dilemma faced by contemporary physicians, whose ethics were opposed to seeking money for money’s sake:
The conscientious physician was in a delicate position in relation to public opinion that impugned his actions with charges of avarice if he seemed too eager to take on cases (especially if they terminated with death) and with charges of cowardice or irresponsibility if he were not willing to undertake the care of those ill with contagious disease. .. There was in medieval medical ethics a strong tradition of refusing to treat those whom the art of medicine could not help.
- Darrel W. Amundsen, ‘Medical Deontology and Pestilential Disease in the Late Middle Ages’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct. 1977), pp. 403-421.
This attitude might be compared with the rule among English lawyers that, if you know the accused is guilty of the crime, you do not pretend otherwise in court. Here if you were convinced the patient’s disease could not be cured by medicine, to pretend otherwise was unethical because the physician’s aim in attending would be – or would appear to others to be – merely mercenary.
He notes that the anonymous author of a plague tract composed c. 1411 – that is, within the period to which the Voynich quires’ vellum is dated – said this quite plainly: “if the patient is curable, the physician will undertake treatment in God’s name. If he is incurable, the physician should leave him to die.”
However, the medieval physician wasn’t just there to act as pill-dispenser or blood-letter. Caroline Proctor emphasises, when describing the career of Maino de Maineri, who died in about 1368, how that fourteenth-century, Paris-trained, court physician and his patrons “viewed the role of physician as much more than doctoring to the sick …. The good physician sought to preserve and conserve the health of his household, acting as dietician, moralist and guardian to his clients.” and she is correct in saying that view of the physicians’ role is “echoed throughout other contemporary sources” of the fourteenth and earlier fifteenth century.
- Caroline Proctor, ‘Perfecting prevention : the medical writings of Maino de Maineri (d.c. 1368)’, Doctoral thesis, University of St.Andrews (2006).
So ethical considerations alone meant that the physician would not hide information which he believed was for the public good.
At the same time, we hear from Boccaccio that even in those early plague years, when people already knew that the Plague had arrived from regions to the east of Europe, there began to emerge persons who claimed to be able to address it. Writing of that time, and in this connection, he recalls how
“.. over and above the men of art, the number became exceedingly great of both men and women who had never had any teaching of medicine…“Boccaccio, Decameron. the Introduction ‘to the Ladies’.
Three hundred years afterwards, in the mid-seventeenth century, and as Plague continued to flare up, subside, and return in one part of Europe and another, we find that ‘plague remedies’ are now being touted by charlatans, but most educated people believe that one either recovered, or one died, and that while various precautions might be taken there was no ‘plague cure’ in medicine. To them, if not to the masses in Europe, anyone claiming to know a ‘cure’ was supposed, by default, an avaricious quack.
Whether Boccaccio might have classed Theobaldus Loneti as physician or as charlatan I do not know but writing after 1450, and with apparent honesty, Loneti had claimed for himself an unusually positive attitude.
‘When … there was a debate among physicians over incurable diseases such as leprosy, paralysis, pestilence, and the like, they finally came to the conclusion that no remedy for the pestilence could be found, especially since Galen and Hippocrates and other ancient physicians made no mention of one. But after much discussion, it was I alone who maintained that many remedies against this plague could easily be employed.’
Of course, that’s another instance of self-advertisement but once again his treatments were set forth in plain text, without any effort to make them secrets in our modern sense of the word.
These diverse attitudes, over time, toward physic and the plague help explain, I think, both Kircher’s persistent rudeness towards Baresch, and why Baresch’s own letter to Kircher and those of mutual friends lay such emphasis on the fact that Baresch’s interest was “in medicine, and not money.” It makes sense if one posits that Baresch believed the Voynich text included some ancient, eastern, plague remedy. Baresch himself speaks of medicine as the most worthy occupation of men, after religious service and in this expresses the same ideals as we see in John of Burgundy’s plague tract, three centuries before when he wrote:
Moved by piety and anguished by and feeling sorrow because of this calamity … I have composed and compiled this work not for a price but for your prayers, so that when anyone recovers from the diseases discussed above, he will effectively pray for me to our Lord God. . .
One has to be a little cautious, too, because in medieval texts the term ‘remedy’ often means something closer to ‘relief’ or ‘alleviation’ or ‘avoidance’ in order to allow preservation and recovery of health rather than being a cure.
Unlike secrets of the diplomatic sort, which certainly were being rendered unreadable by use of encryption, rare scripts or obscure languages in some western courts by the mid-fifteenth century, we find that medical ‘secrets’ were still secrets only in the medieval sense – that is, specialised techniques and knowledge gained by masters of an art, craft or profession as a result of their formal training and long experience. More like tricks of the trade than commercial secrets.
About this time, i.e. about the mid-fifteenth century, we do begin to see recipes for some medicines and ointments – often including roses and violets, but those recipes – once more – are written in plaintext.
Regarding theories of a ‘medical Voynich’, therefore, the points to be taken are that if, as may be reasonably supposed, the Voynich text was inscribed before 1440, and its text is rendered obscure by use of cipher or encryption as so many believe, then it is unlikely to be product of Latin Europe’s medical or pharmaceutical tradition; the historical record shows that even that disease, for which any claimed cure might be expected to gain great profit, did not yet see physician-authors attempting to keep their knowledge hidden. On this, we may again quote Amundsen:
Although to the modern reader the plague tractates may seem at worst fraudulent and at best esoteric, they were in reality exoteric in the best sense of the word. While they provide sidelights on the ethics of medieval medical practice, they also illustrate a high degree of ethical motivation on the part of their authors, because almost all were written for the use of the public and represent a massive effort, in the aggregate, at popular health education.Amundsen, op.cit. p. 421
Note: For readers’ convenience, I limit the number of sources quoted directly; I try to choose only those whose work is well-researched and in keeping with the most reliable scholarship, but I would like to think that any Voynich researcher worth his/her salt will check back to the original medieval sources before accepting anything repeated at second- or third- remove.
Things begin to change somewhat later, around the late sixteenth century and by the mid-seventeenth century, even as printed ‘remedies’ begin to be sold to the ordinary public we also see some chroniclers and other observers almost on the verge of understanding the chain of Plague’s transmission.
In one case, in Florence, we hear of how a weaver opened some bales of wool – then he and his weavers all died of plague; then that a chicken-farmer dies of it; and then across the courtyard from the weaver, a woman and her children receive a bag of flour – and they die.
- Giulia Calvi, ‘A Metaphor for Social Exchange: The Florentine Plague of 1630’, Representation, Winter, 1986, No. 13 (Winter, 1986), pp. 139-163.
Just so, it is common enough to hear that to open a bale of cloth, wool or of furs first brings plague into a community and some link was understood to exist between plague and domestic (if not always domesticated) animals.
When Plague struck a certain village in England in 1665 it was understood that plague began in that village* after a tailor opened a bale of cloth from which fleas escaped and bit him.
*Eyam, Darbyshire. Noted for the number of inhabitants who survived. Recent scholarship revealed that those who survived did so because they had inherited a certain gene (delta 32). On this, a documentary made by Timeline has the usual high-pitched introduction but improves from about 8:22.
Seventeenth-century: cheap print culture.
By the seventeenth century, we now find that in the family setting (not identical to a household setting) the kind of ‘secrets’ books whose Victorian equivalent would be Mrs. Beeton’s often now include a family’s secret recipes against plague and these are the family’s secrets in a more modern sense.
Further, that such recipes, as claimed plague remedies, had become by this time “important and established features of early modern medical cultures, both domestic and commercial and were sold widely in marketplaces, streets and through cheap print cultures” – so that the ‘money’ part of plague and money was now well to the fore – but even so I’ve encountered none that were actually encrypted, either before or in publication.
Crawshaw also notes (with references given*) that in Venice “The submission of secrets to the Health Office requests for privileges, reminiscent of the patents studied by Luca Mola’s work on the Venetian silk industry, became more common towards the end of the sixteenth century and continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”(p.615)
*in particular the Introduction in Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800 (Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2011)
- Jane Stevens Crawshaw, ‘Families, medical secrets and public health in early modern Venice’, Renaissance Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (September 2014) issue: Women and Healthcare in Early Modern Europe, pp. 597-618. Linked to the quotation as note 15 is a short bibliography of plague recipes and charlatan-literature.
The case of one Marieta Colochi shows how a seventeenth century Venetian family regarded their plague ‘secrets’ in just the way an eminent chef might treat a superior culinary recipe – that is, as potential key to a family’s present and future financial and social position.
The same attitude is attested there some decades earlier when in 1576, an important medical officer in Venice decided in the public interest to give up his own ‘secrets’ for treating victims of plague – by selling those secrets to the state. The price Ascanio Olivetti sought, during the lifetime of the future Rudolf II, was an initial payment of 5,000 ducats and thirty ducats’ salary per month for the rest of his life, with the same salary to be given for life to his children, male or female, on the understanding that they would serve the Health Office as needed. Clearly, Olivetti believed that in selling his medical ‘secrets’ he was selling what had been the key to his own and his family’s financial security.
So by the third quarter of the sixteenth century, at least in commercially-minded Venice with its passion for commercial secrecy and commercial exclusivity, the medical secret might be a commercial secret.
Reporting this, Crawshaw notes that 5,000 ducats was the equivalent of almost thirty-five years’ Ascanio’s official salary. In the event, Venice agreed to a one-off payment of just 800 ducats (five times his annual salary) but did agree to increase his monthly salary to thirty ducats, provide for his children, and exempt him from all taxes including the Venetian decima.
From this example we learn that in late sixteenth-century Venice, at least, the medical secret – or one aimed against plague – really could have immediate
commercial pecuniary value.
Ascanio’s salary having been until then about 160 ducats a year, and he one of the highest ranked physicians of the Venetian state, the amount puts into perspective Mnishovsky’s story about the Voynich manuscript’s having been bought from an anonymous carrier* for 600 ducats.
* Marci’s convoluted sentence (which Philip Neal parses in meticulous detail in his Notes) is translated by Neal as: “Doctor Raphael, the Czech language tutor of King Ferdinand III as they both then were, once told me that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolph and that he [Mnishovsky or Rudolf is left ambiguous in the original too] presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book”. For a safe link to Neal’s site, see ‘Constant References’ section in the Bibliography in this blog’s top bar.
A notorious example of profit-seeking from plague during the sixteenth-century is that of Caspar Kegler‘s publishing his own snake-oil ‘plague medicine’ recipes. I have written of him before – HERE – and referred readers to Heinrichs’ study, whose details I give again.
- 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.
- A more upbeat and laudatory perception of Kegler appears more recently on the Danish ‘Hypotheses‘ website, from which I have the illustration shown at the end of this post. By the mid-to-late sixteenth century, too, German hands are now often using the ‘4’ shape for the numeral four – not as a result of education in the mercantile-commercial calculation schools (‘abbaco’ or ‘abaco’ schools) as occurs so much earlier in the south, but in imitation of printers’ having adopted that form in the meantime.
What we learn from all we’ve seen is that within the Voynich vellum’s radiocarbon-14 dates of 1405-1438, medicine within Latin Europe was perceived as public service and while individual physicians and others might attempt to raise their professional profile to boost their income, we’ve found nothing of ‘secretly written plague remedies’.
Writings touting ‘secret plague medicines’ appear in western Europe in the sixteenth century, proliferating from that time into the seventeenth- and not least because access to print had become very easy and relatively inexpensive.
But even then, one does not find such texts encrypted.
One is free to imagine that some medical ‘secret’ might be encrypted or enciphered in western Europe by the early modern period, if not in the early fifteenth century, and it is conceivable – just – that it might have been encrypted using a system that defies even modern tools for cryptanalysis. But to imagine such a desire among qualified European physicians, and/or that they would use a cipher of such sophistication before 1440 demands a suspension of disbelief greater than the present author can manage.
This may, of course, be due to my own insufficient understanding of cipher techniques and their imponderables before 1440, or to the fact that some regions of Europe have manuscripts less easily accessible than others’ and are being omitted from the surveys and data-collection.
Solely from what has been considered, though, one must conclude that if the whole Voynich text is enciphered and was composed before 1438 in Latin Europe, then it is highly unlikely to be a text first composed there by a physician trained in the Latin medical tradition.
With regard to which – Elonka Dunin and Klaus Schmeh reported at a recent Voynich zoom-conference that they had found only six encrypted books dating to the fifteenth century. Despite their paper’s displaying insufficient background in medieval history, -iconology and manuscript studies, it is of value in that each of two authors has a high and well-earned reputation in their own field of cryptology and their survey found not a single instance of a fifteenth-century encrypted herbal or an encrypted medical treatise.
After explaining carefully their criteria for defining a text as “an encrypted book” – though not the geographic parameters for their survey – the authors list the following:
(i-iii) three texts by Giovanni Fontana (1395–1455), a man of Padua whose family had come from Venice, and who was trained in engineering and medicine*;
*for reasons we cannot spare time to go into here, Fontana’s probably having served (as Long** says) most of his working life as a military physician and also serving for a time as municipal physician to the city of Udine in Friuli – which is adjacent to the Veneto – are factors relevant to Voynich studies, though neither point is mentioned by the Dunin-Schmeh paper. **Pamela Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge …(2001). For Fontana’s enciphered works, Long refers to the studies by Eugenio Battisti and Giuseppa Saccaro Battisti.
(iiii) a late work called Steganographia, attributed to a German Benedictine monk named Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516). The paper’s authors see Trithmenius’ work as a satire (they use the word ‘hoax’) rather than regarding it, as do e.g. Pelling and Reeds, as simply a model- or text-book for steganography. I’m given to understand that Reeds deciphered the content of Steganographia‘s third volume.
Dunin and Schmeh also refer to (v) a manuscript they call “Codex Palatinus Germanicus”, but the description leaves the text unidentifiable since there are 848 codices bearing that description, all having been formerly in the Palatine library in Heidelberg.
Fontana’s medical degree notwithstanding, none of his encrypted books is about medicine.
Additional note (10th Feb 2023). The assertion seen under Fig.3 in the Dunin-Schmeh paper, “… two more Giovanni Fontana books (not depicted) have the closest visual similarity with the Voynich Manuscript” is unexplained and unattributed, but appears to be derive from an observation made by Philip Neal [HERE], who wrote “some – not all – of the diagrams illustrating [mnemonic machines described in Fontana’s Secretum de Thesauro] slightly resemble Voynich illustrations”. The wiki article, last updated in Dec. 2022, says that “it has been suggested…” and references Neal. The Dunin-Schmeh paper omits mention of Neal and asserts the item as fact. Thus are tentative comments by single individuals elevated into anonymous ‘dicta’ in Voynich studies.
Balance of Probability
If one presumes – as most Voynicheros do presume – that the Voynich text was first composed in Latin Europe and that it was inscribed before 1440, and further assume that it is encrypted, then it becomes highly unlikely that the content is medical. Pace Brewer, the evidence is that Latins just weren’t into encrypting medical texts and recipes, let alone whole books of them.
*Kegan Brewer’s paper entitled, ‘ “I beg your grace to suppress this chapter or else to have it written in secret letters”: The Emotions of Encipherment in Late-Medieval Gynaecology’ has an ambitious title but in the event describes no more than occasional instances of words or phrases being omitted, erased or otherwise censored in much they way that medical works did if the material could be misused or misconstrued. As late as the early twentieth century it was still the norm that “certain things are best left in the Latin” – and for much the same reason. Brewer’s paper was delivered at the zoom conference held courtesy of the University of Malta, as were those of Schmeh and Dunin; of Fagin Davis, of Painter and Bowern and others. All can be read online through CEUR, an online journal dedicated to publishing workshops in computer science.
Postscript – thanks to Monica Green and Rae Ellen Bichell’s blogpost [HERE] I owe readers an apology: the header picture for the previous blogpost does not show victims of the Plague, but of leprosy, and comes from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, a 14th-century encyclopedia. But as Bichell points out, Getty images, which distributes that picture and the British Library itself in a 2012 exhibition mis-labelled the detail as an image of the Plague. I should have checked the original, nonetheless.