O’Donovan notes #9.2: Plague,Medicine, Money and Secrecy (concluded).

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.

O’Donovan notes #9.1: Plague, Medicine, Money and Secrecy.

c.3700 words

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.

Montpellier was an important centre for medical studies.

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.

More generally…

Voynich text

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

Dorothea Waley Singer (left) Charles Singer (right).

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.

Guglielmo 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.]

O’Donovan notes – 7c.2 and 7c.3: Why a crocodile? Why November? Why c.1350?

A double post for your spare moments from now to the New Year. 🙂

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract: This post considers events around the time when Bodleian MS Douce 313 was made (c.1350), why the crocodile might be introduced (or re-introduced) as November’s emblem then, and whether the statements – and a guess of medicinal purpose – expressed in Georg Baresch’s letter of 1639 are compatible with events of the mid-fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries.

I want to be clear that what follows is no attempt to offer a wide historical survey of plague-related images or -history. It is a pin-point-narrow focus on how one image in a fifteenth century manuscript, and one seventeenth-century document, meet in relation to some few historical moments, persons, records, images and attitudes from the period c.1350-c.1438 and includes one eighteenth-century image because that best expresses a particular religious attitude.

It is an extraordinary moment when one realises that, when John de’ Marignolli left that garment of cannal cloth in Florence, he had just passed unscathed through one region after another where Plague was lurking, and had come back to a Europe where it had been raging for almost six years.

In a time when all Christians of Latin Europe were Catholic, there was added to fear of the disease and grief from loss, an additional fear for the souls of those buried without benefit of confession and too suddenly to have (so to speak) cleared their spiritual debts and made peace with their Gd. Even to be buried in unconsecrated ground was a misfortune.

In the Latin liturgical calendar November 2nd was the day when all the departed were remembered in every church, and with prayers reminiscent of the funeral service: at once asking Gd to forgive sin and offering words of comfort to those present. For many, in time of plague, that day must have gained added significance.

November’s being the month of the dead – the antiquity of that connection, and how Roman thought had come to associate it with Egyptian beliefs has already been outlined and images shown from a mosaic calendar from Roman north Africa and from the semi-Christian Chronography of 354AD.

In those cases the guide who saw souls safely across the bourne had been Anubis or Herm-anubis, but in parts of Egypt itself the ‘bearer/guide’ was a [celestial] crocodile.

more likely imagined as the small and tamer C.suchus than the more savage C.niloticus.

(detail) from a copy of the Book of the Fayum. (copy dated 1st century BCE-2nd century CE)

In connection with this drawing (above) I’d like to draw attention to a filler motif also seen in the Voynich calendar’s ‘March’ diagram (right) and in the Voynich map (the latter often called by Voynich writers the “rosettes page”).

On the other hand, that detail from the Roman-era papyrus contains single- and cross-hatching in the strictest sense, neither of which occurs, so far as I’ve seen, in any Voynich drawing.

From the late 1340s, and from a somewhat different angle, Latin Europe would revive that association between death and Egypt, not so much for hope of ancient medicines as for the antiquity and purity of Egypt’s “ancient” Christian tradition.

In the Voynich calendar, November’s beast is not shown simply as a crocodile, as it is in Bodleian Douce 313, but is specifically associated here with death by inclusion of the human skull, given the hat worn by a traveller or hunter, but which here may indicate ‘the messenger’ (angelos) which is death.

To that extent one can say that both Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 mean the crocodile to serve as memento mori. Perhaps I should also point out that the usual astronomical type for death was the constellation of Perseus in Greek, Roman and Islamic traditions. Perseus means ‘the Destroyer’. There is little doubt, however, that the Voynich crocodile is meant for Scorpius or for another nearby constellation (a question considered in earlier posts in this series).

Egypt – source of plague, and source of cure.

We do not know the direction from which the group of ten plague ships first brought the Black Death to the western Mediterranean.

They docked in Messina, in Sicily, in October 1347, observing the usual routine by which the Mediterranean sailing season formally ended in that month, not to begin again until the next March.

It is certain that Plague was present in Alexandria “in the autumn” of 1347. Messina, on becoming aware of what those ten ships had brought, ordered them out and they went on to infect nearby islands and Tunis before, or in the very beginning of, 1438.

Many suppose they came from the north as would some Genoese and Venetian ships in January 1348 when, flying for home through winter storms they brought the Plague to their home ports from the Black Sea.

The contagion (as it was described) now began moving through the continent, the very first lines of transmission providing another clear illustration of the most-used southern links. The map (below) omits the sea-link through Gibraltar to England via Bordeaux, scarcely used in winter.

This was not the first time that pestilence, or ‘plague’ had occurred, nor were the precedents unknown to Latin Europe. The best-known, in every case, had been associated with Egypt, or at least the north African coast.

There were the ten biblical plagues inflicted on Pharaoh, of course. The third century (c.261 AD) had seen ‘the Plague of Cyprian’ so-called, and in the mid-sixth century a wave of Plague had devastated the whole Byzantine empire. This last was indeed caused by Yersinia. pestis* as modern research confirms. In 9thC England, Bede reported another plague sweeping through England, one which – he believed – left southern England depopulated, though ‘decimated’ may be more accurate.

added note – (December 8th). A reader queries the date “c.261 AD”. It’s a rough description – hence the ‘circa’ – and really depends on what part of the Byzantine empire is meant. Overall, most historians are pretty much agreed the date-range for that episode of plague begins in about AD 249 and subsides by about 262 AD.

*would be more accurately called Yersin-Shibasaburia pestis, since the plague bacillus in Hong Kong in 1894: was identified simultaneously by Alexandre Yersin and Kitasato Shibasabur­ō.

  • Wael M. Lotfy, ‘Plague in Egypt: Disease biology, history and contemporary analysis: A minireview’, Cairo University, Journal of Advanced Research, Vol.6 (2015) pp. 549-544. Can be accessed through Elsevier ‘Science Direct’ website.
  • Description of the plague in Ireland in 1348, written by a Franciscan, John Clyn, has been included in a good wiki article, ‘Black Death in Medieval Culture‘.
  • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – responses in the Islamic world. Justin K. Stearns, ‘Plague and Contagion’, muslim heritage (blog) published 24th August 2020. “We possess dozens of [plague treatises] from the fourteenth and subsequent centuries, and they display a wide variety of approaches to plague and contagion… when it came to medical remedies, … these varied but involved dietary proscriptions, bloodletting, and at times ointments of violets”. This is the only medical use for violets I’ve encountered before the mid-fifteenth century and might one day prove an explanation for the curious addition of that ‘ring-in’ image of the violas in Beinecke MS 408.

In fourteenth-century Europe where learned men were, almost by definition, members of the religious and these remained acquainted with the earliest Christian writers, the severely ascetic style of the first Egyptian anchorites and monks seemed to offer the best advice and solace, though no bodily cure existed. Focus would soon shift, in the Latin west, to less problematic figures than those ascetics but the 1350s have a distinctly ‘Egyptian’ focus on what is termed ‘mortification’. An entry in the Catholic encyclopaedia emphasises, however, that “spiritual writers never tire of insisting that the internal mortification of pride and self-love in their various forms are essential.. external penances good only so far as they spring from this internal spirit.”

Egyptian models.

To a modern viewer, unacquainted with that literature and medieval ideas about death, the sculpture of which part is seen in the header might be felt ‘weird’ or ‘creepy’ or given some politico-religious interpretation. But when the whole image is considered, including its being given the wings of an angel and the draped cloth evocative of Michael as carrier of souls, there is obviously some other intention behind it.

What the modern reader must appreciate is that, just as in the service (Mass) for the feast of all souls, the emphasis was less on hellfire than on overcoming the natural animal fear which people feel at the sight of death and when in constant fear of death.

Above the figure (below), a shield shows stars divided between upper and lower by a ‘wall’ and regardless of what family’s crest it might have been, the juxtaposition allows the viewer to see this as a reminder that above the visible stars is that other realm whose limits were impassable by mortals, the defended ramparts of heaven, which limit is sometimes marked by the ‘cloudband’.

Consider the whole figure, then, as if you were hearing a sermon in which Cyprian’s account of Plague in his time, and in Carthage, was being quoted.

From Cyprian’s De Mortalitate.

18thC work by Pierre le Gros the Younger in Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Rome. Tomb of Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini, (d.1610)..

That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity…

Let us show ourselves to be what we believe.. that when the day of our summons shall arrive, we come without delay and without resistance to the Lord when He Himself calls us...[via his messenger]..

Beloved brethren, with a sound mind, with a firm faith, with a robust virtue, let us be prepared for the whole will of God: laying aside the fear of death, let us think on the immortality which follows…

If we believe in Christ, let us have faith in His words and promises; and since we shall not die eternally, let us come with a glad security unto Christ…

So also in the Psalms, the soul that is devoted to its God in spiritual faith hastens to the Lord, saying, “How amiable are thy dwellings, O God of hosts! My soul longeth, and hasteth unto the courts of God”..

Eusebius in his Chronicon makes mention of the occasion on which Cyprian wrote this treatise, saying, “A pestilent disease took possession of many provinces of the whole world, and especially Alexandria and Egypt; as Dionysius writes, and the treatise of Cyprian ‘concerning the Mortality’ bears witness.” a.d. 252. On the 18thC outbreak, which reached the Adriatic, see here.

So the aim of that sculpture made when Plague was still a constant peril in Latin Europe, was not only to provoke a natural, animal terror at the constant presence of death but, without in any way trying to sweeten or to deny the validity of that fact or those feelings, to lessen that fear and remind the people that the angel of Death – for here it is a great Angel – has as its appointed role to carry the soul between the physical world and the waiting Christ in heaven as a midwife might lift the newborn into the light.

How a modern, secular person reacts to such a sculpture, or what their imagination offers as its explanation is hardly to the point. What we must do is to discover how people who produced this, or any image, used it to speak with their near contemporaries about matters, and in forms, which both understood easily. It is well to remember that in that other country of the past, one is a guest.

During the first wave, the most frequently-mentioned reason for re-emergence of Plague in Europe was excessive self-indulgence – greed, laziness, lust, vanity and gluttony, displays of wealth manifest in fine horses, furs and lap-dogs.

In the next painting, a fresco from burial grounds in Pisa, the theme of penitence and return to the ways of the ‘Desert Fathers’ is already a developed theme immediately before the Plague arrived. In the detail below, the characters are confronted by a man with a scroll and three coffins in which the body’s progressive corruption is shown vividly and accurately. This man with the long ‘ancient’ scroll is Macarius, termed ‘the Egyptian’ to distinguish him from another called ‘the Alexandrian’. He lived c. 300 – 391AD..

The reason for including him was, initially, for the content of his Homilies, but when Plague arrived, one passage would have driven home that call to asceticism and mortification embodied in these frescos, for a passage from the Homilies reads:

“Hearken unto me… and no plague shall come nigh thy dwelling”

Macarius had a prophetic vision, and said to the man who served him, whose name was John, ‘ Hearken to me, brother John, and bear with my admonition. Thou art in temptation; and the spirit of covetousness tempts thee. I have seen it; and I know that if thou bearest with me, thou wilt be perfected in this place, and wilt be glorified, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

But if thou shalt neglect to hear me, upon thee shall come the end of Gehazi, with whose disease thou art afflicted.’

Modern scholars identify this ‘disease of Gehazi’ as elephantisis and/or Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) the second producing spots on the skin and caused by a worm – cf. accounts of the ‘cocodril and hydra’ in Latin bestiaries.

Marcarius’ Homilies shouldn’t be supposed obscure. The saint is still commemorated in the Latin liturgical roster and in the Byzantine and Coptic Christian world whose church did not splinter as the western Church was soon to do, Macarius remains an important figure in the east and his Homilies current reading.

Notice that only the crowned figure displays any sign of shame or thoughtfulness, and note too the height of fashion in this part of Italy during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. correction made 6th Dec., with thanks to Martin K. Menzies for noticing the slip.

From whence? Voynichese

*Concerning the ‘census’ of Franciscan houses mentioned below – that list was not compiled in 1350AD, but from several documents for 1350AD.*

It has to be said that the written text in Beineke MS 408 could have come from almost anywhere, other than the New world or sub-Saharan Africa.

Just two years into the plague’s devastations – that is, in 1350 – a list was compiled that is described as a census of Franciscan houses but better considered a simple record of claim because it does not mention the number of inhabitants in each house.

What it does, for us, is illustrate the range and distance over which, to that time, links had been established between some Europeans and the rest of the world.

Roads were not one-way. Information, goods and people could move along those routes in either direction and by the end of the thirteenth century to, or from, as far as China.

The list of 1350 mentions no house in Egypt, but we know that traders and pilgrims regularly crossed the Mediterranean. Otherwise and apart from the great many Franciscan houses established in mainland Europe, there were now no fewer than fifteen around the Black Sea, including Caffa (‘Vicariate of Aquilonis; Tartaria Aquilonaris). In addition, there are a number listed for Tabriz, another in Amalek on the overland route eastwards, one apparently in what is now Afghanistan and four in China proper.7 For others east of Europe, see the full ‘census’, linked above.

7. The first Franciscan sent to China had arrived sixty years before de’ Marignolli – in 1293/4. This was John of Montecorvino. Here again, I note that the current ‘wiki’ article grossly inflates Friar John’s social status while omitting mention of the fact that he travelled as a Franciscan friar, not in the least as a secular diplomat might do by the sixteenth or seventeenth century,.

John was largely dependent for assistance on an Italian merchant who was already by that time established in India and, apparently, in China. Friar John was never permitted to return home and died in China in about 1328. Scholars doubt the authenticity of two letters attributed to him. The very late, and Chinese, image of him which the wiki writer has used is highly imaginative.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 folio 1r

I do not, however, discount the possibility that we might owe to John some, at least, of what is now in Beinecke MS 408. As I pointed out some time ago, the first folio of Beinecke MS 408 displays a motif that appears to me as an effort to copy, using a quill pen, an inscription originally written with the vermillion brush. Other proposals have been made by other writers. By September 12th., 2010 Rich Santacoloma had collected and shared ‘single bird’ images found in western manuscripts. The work was done again with greater or less success by later writers.

Once again, I should say that the historical data is not offered to promote, or even to infer some theory of authorship for the Voynich manuscript.

At present, the aim is to show that Egypt was not some misty, distant place but an ordinary and busy part of the Mediterranean world – and to show too that for some in western Europe, first-hand knowledge of regions lying east of the Mediterranean did not wait on da Gama. Nor did it depend on some Latin having to ‘fetch’ everything. Some things were brought and simply bestowed upon the west. I’ve noticed that many traditionalists struggle with the idea that in contacts between Europe and elsewhere, the active ‘masculine’ role was not inevitably played by the Latin.

Whatever cryptographers and linguists may think about Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analysis of Voynichese, history presents no obvious opposition to his conclusions..

And while my own analyses of the plant-pictures found them not especially concerned with medicine, we must at least ask whether Baresch’s guess that the work was about medicine is reasonable. I think that though he does not say so, his hope was that the manuscript contained a remedy against plague. After all, Plague had driven Rudolf II from Prague and had killed John Dee’s wife in England. In the seventeenth century, it was still a present danger.


Egyptian Medicinal goods – without prejudice.

“There is no man who lives and, seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand.” Psalm 89:48 from the Targum – the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew bible.

That John Tiltman appears to have conducted a pretty thorough survey of the western herbal manuscripts and related literature and then spoken, in highly diplomatic phrasing, of the null result should have been taken as significant by all Voynich researchers thereafter. But that is another important piece of evidence either ignored or for which some ad.hoc. ‘excuse’ has been offered by traditionalists intent on the hunt for evidence to lend the old ‘Latin herbal’ idea more colour.

It is simply for the sake of balance, then, that I’ll touch on this question of physic in terms of links between southern Europe and Egypt during the Plague years of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries.

About forty years after we think the Voynich quires were inscribed, an Italian Jewish traveller, Obadiah da Bertinoro, wrote of his journey to Egypt. He speaks of the crocodile’s scales as ‘spots’ but for us the most interesting part of his account are details he gives about a fellow passenger on the ship carrying them from Italy towards Egypt in 1481.

Da Bertinoro describes R. Meshullam ben R.Menahem of Volterra as a merchant whose brother R. Nathan, a physician, was then the most distinguished man in Rhodes’ Jewish community.

An early fifteenth-century manuscript by a Venetian of Rhodes who is known simply as ‘Michael of Rhodes” can be seen and its contents discussed in pages at the website of the Museo Galileo, Museum and Institute for the History of Science. [HERE] Michael was first introduced to Voynich studies several years ago in posts to Voynichimagery treating analysis of the Voynich map in the context of maritime matters, mathematics, fifteenth-century iconography and cartography.

Rabbi Meshullam also gave an account of that journey. It too has survived. We learn that in Egypt he encountered the Nagid, the most important official in Cairo, and found that the man was one who had come to his father’s house in Florence more than twenty years before. The Nagid, in true Muslim* style, was generous in his turn, had sought out the son of one who had earlier offered him hospitality in Italy, and we are told that among the many honours and benefits be showered on R. Meshullam was one that was very valuable indeed, not least for the Rabbi’s brother. It was

“a list [or catalogue, or inventory] of all the goods which come into Egypt twice a year, which the gentiles take to Christian countries. There are 3,000 different kinds of goods, mostly spices and medicines.”

*I ought to have said ‘Islamic’ because while Cairo’s culture was informed by Muslim attitudes to the stranger, R. Meshullam is vague about whether the Nagid was a Jew (and if so whether Rabbanite or Karaite), or whether by then Muslim. He might even have been a Mamluk. The position of ‘Nagid’ suggests particular responsibility for the Jewish communities. – note added Dec.5th., 2022.

This is no basis for arguing direct connection between R.Meshullam and the Voynich manuscript’s contents. It does illustrate the lines of connection between southern Europe and Egypt during the fifteenth century, and further that such a list, or catalogue, or inventory was part of the city’s administration at that time, and at that time most of what was being bought by Christian traders (chiefly Genoese and Venetian) were ‘mostly spices and medicines’.

The fact that the Nagid presented R. Meshullam with that list, and the Nagid was chief overseer of tax collection is interesting for two reasons: first because it suggests the list/inventory/catalogue was part of Cairo’s administration and not one produced solely by and for those who bought, sold or used the goods.

Taxation is the most obvious reason for the Nagid’s having such a list, or inventory, or catalogue and it would be wrong to imagine that by presenting the list the Nagid was simply trying to obtain another buyer for those goods. We know from other merchants handbooks and records (such as the Zibaldone da Canal), that merchants simply traded direct with other merchants, the authorities’ involvement being linked to taxation and to criminal matters.

That ‘list’ was a gift of value because while, say, a tourist can travel through any foreign market and see what plants are on offer – living, dried or otherwise – he has no words from the local language with to name them and no idea of their virtues without some additional guide. In what languages, or how many languages those 3,000 and more ‘exotic’ items were named in the list given to R. Meshullam; whether the list/inventory/catalogue was illustrated.. and much else one would love to know, the Rabbi simply does not say.

Taxation is certainly the constant theme of the authorities and of the foreign travellers and traders, who never fail to speak of it.

By analogy with known practices elsewhere on the ‘spice routes’ we may raise the possibility that in Cairo too, the text-book for taxation for such goods took as its template some well-known herbal, all goods including those being taxed on entry and on exit.

The Chinese is the best-known example of using a herbal – in this case works of the ‘Bencao’ genre – as a basis for taxation, but this is not the place to revisit my investigation of the ‘tax-list’ possibility and objects described by archaeologists as ‘tax buckets’. I include one among the images shown in those posts and I daresay that somewhere in the filing cabinet of some Voynich ‘completist’ there may exist printed off copies of the whole series of posts. (And no I didn’t conclude that all the artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section were tax-buckets).

Within medieval Latin Europe some pharmacies, we know, did display those herbals and others texts they were expected or obliged to have and use.

In fifteenth-century Cairo, instead, foreigners purchased goods from and some actually maintained the type of warehouse complex called by Arabs and by some Euroeans ‘funduks’. Genoa, Venice and ‘the Franks’ had, according to R. Meshullam, five such fonduks in Cairo: two each for the first two city states and one for all ‘the Franks’. Overall, one has to agree with Georg Baresch that “it is easily conceivable that..

..some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher, 1639 AD (transcription, transliteration and translation by Philip Neal).

He also says, and others who wrote to Kircher attempted to support him in this, that Baresch’s interest was not in money but in medicine, as:

“the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls”.

There’s no suggestion of medicine or of money about the Voynich calendar’s month-emblems and I think it reasonable to conclude that its November emblem speaks more to the soul’s peril as to the body and that in this case the constellation or sign is of secondary interest.

which . if you’ve read this series from the beginning … is pretty much where we began.

next post: Money Matters: Remedies, wealth and secrecy.