‘Pharma’? – getting the goods.

WE’RE CONSIDERING whether Baresch was being realistic in supposing matter now in Beinecke MS 408 had been collected – or could have been gathered no less than two hundred years earlier – from ‘eastern parts’.

So far, we’ve seen that it was certainly possible for a person to travel between the western Mediterranean and China before 1440.

As for plant-products, some eastern plants appear regularly in Europe’s antidotaries by the ninth century.

Riddle’s survey of early medieval Latin antidotaries remains a valuable study. He comments:

From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper white-, long-, and black- (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).

An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient. Though it is impossible always to identify each according to the exact plant species, one can be fairly certain of the family or, at least genus.

  • Amomum is an aromatic shrub said by Pliny to come from India, Persia, and the Aral Sea region and presently attributed to Persia and the Aral Sea region.
  • Ammonicum, a salt, is ammonium chloride and apparently associated in antiquity with the oracle Hammon in the desert regions of Africa where ammonicum is found. Both Pliny and Galen note its use in early medicine, but it is known to have been manufactured in the late middle ages from the distillation of the horns and hoofs of oxen.
  • Aloes, employed extensively in ancient medicine, is found in south Africa but mostly in India where there exists a variety of species. Medicinal aloes is a resin described in the Materia Medica of Dioscorides.
  • Cassia, probably a product of cinnamomum pauciflorum nees*, is said by Pliny to be the “skin” of a shrub, and it is known to be found only in the far east.
  • Crocus is simply the Latin and Greek form for saffron, an oriental product.
  • Libanus, or frankincense, is a product of the orient, though one variety of the tree bearing this gum is indigenous to the Somalia region.
  • Murra, or myrrh, remembered along with frankincense as two of the Magi’s gifts, is the gum resin product of commiphera myrrha, found only in Arabia and Abyssinia.
  • mastice or mastic, a resinous exudation obtained from the lentisk plant, is presently grown in the entire Mediterranean area though evidence shows that in antiquity and the middle ages it was imported from the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Pepper, of course, is a product of the far east, a fact widely recognized in antiquity.
  • Scammony [derived from the plant convolvulus scammonia].is found only in the eastern Mediterranean area especially Asia Minor.
  • Storace or storax, widely employed in ancient medicine, comes from Asia Minor, Syria, and the far east.
  • zinziber or ginger [described by many ancient writers], is a native to the warm parts of Asia.
  • The remaining substances, apium semen (parsley seeds), colofonia (a resin product), ciminum*, fenogrecum (or fenum Grecum, a plant), Unum (flax), petroselinum (rock-parsley), picea (various forms of pitch), and terebentina (terebinth) are all found in western Europe. Thus, the evidence from this typical antidotary of 9 th century Europe discloses a large use of eastern products which had to have been imported. That is to say, the drugs were imported if the manuscripts of recipe literature were in actual use.

In the same paper, Riddle comments on his various sources saying (e.g.):

A manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, lists ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. (Kitāb al-ishārati ilà mahāsini ‘t-tjāra (Cairo A. . 1318), as cited by T. W. Arnold, “Arab travellers and merchants, A. D. 1000-1500”, Chapt. 5 of: Arthur Percival Newton, Travel and travellers of the middle ages (New York 1926), 93-4..

We know that the monks of Corbie in the 9th century planned to buy the followingmap Corbie France herbs and spices at the market: piper, ciminum, gingember [ginger?], gario file, cinamomum, galingan, reopontico, costus, spicum, mira, sanguinem draconis, indium, percrum, pomicar, zedoarium, styrax, calaminta, apparment, thyme, gotyumber, clove, sage, and mastick.”

To bring to the local market of Corbie such substances as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, galingale and cloves, and what may have been the true ‘dragonsblood’ of Soqotra, (resin of Dracaena cinnabari),* it was not necessary for the monks to travel east in person, but neither were Muslim traders so welcome in medieval France and England.

*After submitting, in 2009, an article identifying the chief subject of folio 25v as Dracaena cinnabari –  formerly described as Dracaena draco – I learned that Edith Sherwood had earlier offered an identification as the western Dracaena(s) from Morocco and the Canary islands. One of these is now called ‘Dracaena draco’.  As so often, botanical nomenclature has a long, confusing and irresolute history. The line is very easily blurred, in Voynich writing, between modern use of Linnaeus’ categories – which is the basis for modern botanical descriptions – and the ways of seeing which applied in ancient, medieval and non-European communities three centuries and more before Linnaeus was born. 

The cosmopolitan traders who passed easily through areas of diverse religious jurisdiction during the earlier medieval centuries included Nestorians, Radhanites and Jews,  groups whose networks extended far into the east, and who were content to ally in business with local merchants and middle men regardless of race or creed –  as documents of the Cairo geniza attest clearly for the India-to-Mediterranean region.*

*today, the Radhanites are said to be Jews, and were so classed by the Muslim rulers for purposes of taxation, but the earlier historical evidence suggests this might not have been the case and some medieval Jewish comments insist that they were only ‘messengers of the Jews’. This blogpost isn’t the place to explore the question.

apothecary Circenster 4thC gifWithin the Islamic empire, however, the itinerant Indian merchant-physician was also a well-known character, appearing in the Arabian nights as a stock character before the 12thC, and still so common a sight in the nineteenth century that it was in that guise Richard Burton lived in Egypt and travelled towards Mecca. We are yet to see a comprehensive study, in English, of the debt which Mediterranean countries owe to southern India and Ashoka.

Half-way Houses: Fonduk and Apotheca.

Baresch’s letter of 1639 1637 includes the following passage:

Regiones orientis adijsse, ibique thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos, partim ex monumentis librorum, tum etiam ex conversatione cum peritis artis adeptos, indeque reportatos, talibus notis in libro eo defodisse.

Neal translates this, “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”.

I won’t presume to correct Neal’s translation, but note that in medieval Latin, ‘thesauros’ meant not only a ‘treasure-house’ – as it did in classical Latin – but also now a commercial warehouse in which goods were kept and so organised that any item could be brought forward with ease. To the Greeks, the warehouse was an ‘apotheka’. To the practical traders working from Cairo, Alexandria or Tunis, storehouses meant the warehouse-complexes termed fonduks in Arabic. Each fonduk included many store-rooms in which goods being imported, or purchased for export, could be held securely. A favoured city, such as Venice or Genoa, might be granted use of one or more entire fonduks.

But there was a metaphorical sense, too, in which medieval Latins used the word ‘thesauros’ – to describe the memory’s ‘stored treasures’. Altogether, these diverses senses in which the Latin term had been used might have later affected Baresch’s understanding of just how matter now in the manuscript had been (or could have been) gained.

Writing almost two centuries later, Baresch envisages ‘thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos‘ as ‘treasures’ of Egypt’s medical learning, where it might been ‘the learning of the storehouses’. One bought or sold goods for their practical applications, and (as Flood says),* medical uses were among those for which ‘oriental’ plants were traded. It’s just a thought.

*passage quoted in the previous post.

The equivalent Greek term for a warehouse – ‘apotheka’ – had also shifted in meaning. Here again, Riddle

The best illustration of trade in drugs is exemplified in the derivation of the word apotheca or apothecary. The Byzantines had local depots, called àποθηκαι, in the main harbors and road termini of the Mediterranean area. Just how or when the word changed from a general depot to a dispensory of drugs is unknown, but some clues can be found. An edict of Frederick II, regulating medical activity, referred to apotheca apparently in the sense of a store house for drugs. During the 13th century, at least, the word apotheca comes to have the specialized meaning of the modern word. The very fact that the word for an import-export house came to be associated entirely with the meaning “drug-store” demonstrates vividly the relation between trade and drugs.

  • John M. Riddle, The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

What I’d like to point out in this context is that

  1. The ‘leaf and root’ section’s unusual format finds few parallels in the west, but we’ve noted (in the previous post) two commercial documents, the one an illustrated invoice from fourteenth-century France by an Italian businessman, and the other the style of Chinese ‘Bencao’ herbal texts which were also employed as ‘forme’ for bills of lading and for the purpose of inventory and taxation.
  2. Artefacts represented in the ‘leaf and root’ pages display details characteristically ‘oriental’ (as I’ll show in the next post) and may represent the forms in which particular goods were presented, purchased, carried and/or stored.

The ‘Spice Islands’ –

As late as October 8, 2019, a blog devoted to the history of the ‘Spice Islands’ titled a blogpost “The first appearance of the Spice Islands on a world map – the Atlas Miller (1519-1522).”

The author’s definition of ‘world map’ allows him to claim the sixteenth century map a ‘first’ but in point of fact those islands had appeared on three notable worldmaps centuries earlier, viz. al-Idrisi’s twelfth-century world-map; Abraham Cresques’ great worldmap of 1375, and in specifically Latin European cartography, the Genoese ‘eye-map’* of 1457.

* Biblioteca Estense e Universitaria in Modena – shelf-mark C.G.A.5.b.)

Cresques’ worldmap refers to ‘Jeylan’ (Ceylon) as an important source for eastern spices, though in reality it was another trading hub trading not only in Indian, but in Arabian, Himalayan and far-eastern ‘spices’. Soqotra was another eastern mart of that that kind.

The earliest of the three is Al-Idrisi’s world-map. Al-Idrisi is also credited with a compendium of plants in which each was provided with a detailed description and its name in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Berber and Arabic, predating by a century the Clavis sanationis – popularly known as the ‘Synonyma’ – composed by Simon of Genoa and which was then presented to Pope Nicholas V (1288), commended by Roger Bacon and soon required by the faculty of the University of Paris to be held by every registered apothecary.

Two other books credited to al-Idrisi were about pharmacology, and medicine, but so far I’ve not found mention of any extant manuscripts.

For a first reference to the Jewish works of this type, see below.

  • Barbara. Zipser, Simon of Genoa’s Medical Lexicon (2013). https://doi.org/10.2478/9788376560236 – open access.

  • Simon Online‘ – the translation project. *highly recommended*

  • Savelsberg. Bos, Hussein, Mensching (authors), Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov ben Isaak of Tortosa: Sefer ha – Shimmush. (Book 29, Études Sur Le Judaïsme Médiéval), Multilingual Edition (English, … Aramaic, Arabic, Latin and Romance).

  • “Only ten manuscript copies of the Book of Roger currently survive, five of which have complete text and eight of which have maps. Two are in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, including the oldest, dated to about 1325. Another copy, made in Cairo in 1553, is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, acquired in 1692. The most complete manuscript, which includes the world map and all seventy sectional maps, is kept in Istanbul”. (source – wiki article)

Genoese ‘Eye’-Map. and another traveller – Niccolo de’Conti

For this map, the original essay at the Henry Davis’ site cites a study by G.H.T. Kimble for recognising three distinct influences in it, apart from the western cartes marine namely, the Classical, the western Christian and the Arab. Of these Kimble said that only the Arab influence is strong, and that it is improbable that the Classical influence was direct.

However, in what appears to be an increasing tendency within certain central European faculties towards regression to the old Eurocentric default,* a recent essay published online (to which I won’t refer readers) claims that the ‘eye-map’ relies for much of its content on information delivered to Poggio Bracciolini by by Niccolò de’ Conti (c. 1395-1469).

*In the same way, in another paper from the same central European university – one fast gaining a reputation for ‘white washing’ European history – it is asserted that Abraham Cresques’ worldmap was influenced by no more than a couple of western Christian sources chiefly Marco Polo and Oderic of Pordenone.  The author of that paper offers no evidence, and makes no attempt to provide specific textual comparisons, his assertions defying both reason and the informed, detailed commentaries by earlier specialists whose better-informed and better-documented opinions have traced the literary sources referenced by Cresques’, finding that they refer, among other sources, to the ‘Alf Layla wa Laya’, to Ibn Jubayr’s travels and to others accounts of foreign parts such as that by Bejamin of Tudela who moved between centres of the Jewish diaspora.

Niccolo de’ Conti was a Venetian who lived and traded in the east for a quarter of a century, finally returning to Italy in 1439. During his lifetime in the east, de’Conti had married an Indian wife and by the time of his return had a large family by her. She may have been a southern Indian Christian, of the ‘Community of St. Thomas’ – traditionally said to have been founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD. The literature, religious images and history of this church was eradicated by the western church through the agency of the Portuguese, a new legend then created and still maintained by which which all Christian churches of southern India were asserted founded from Syria in the 3rdC AD. Little material evidence remains now to support the older tradition.

At some stage, de’ Conti had adopted Islam and as penance for that ‘heresy’ de’Conti was obliged to “deliver the narrative of his journey” to Poggio Bracciolini.

Whether this was done orally or whether it included surrendering other documents, is not known, but from that material Bracciolini then created a bowderlised and gentrified narrative in which de’ Conti is made a socially elevated ‘traveller’ – more or less a passing tourist – and his 25 years’ residence and life in eastern trade reduced to cursory and uninformative survey of ‘foreign marvels’.

It is evident from other sources of the time, that de’ Conti could not have spent a quarter century in the east as ‘a traveller’ of the sort Bracciolini makes him, but was an resident trader.

I’m not particularly inclined think that Beinecke MS 408 is Bracciolini’s copy of matter delivered to him by de’ Conti, but the possibility has to be noted, and it would at least offer an explanation for a text whose hand is said to be ‘humanist’ appearing in a manuscript whose layout and images are anything but characteristic of Latin Europe, let alone of the Italian renaissance.

I also doubt that de’ Conti could be the chief source of information for the ‘eye-map’ of 1457, because while certainly drawn in the style of the western cartes marine, it includes an image for Canopus+Crux which has it half bull and half fish. A ‘bull of the sea’ was one way to describe a master mariner and Canopus is the chief star of the once enormous ‘ship’ constellation, but in terms of the image qua image, the combination of bull and ‘fish’ is ancient in India. The example shown below was carved in Bharhut, in an early house established by Buddhists for the shelter and care of foreigners..

The idea of mariners as ‘sea-bulls’ was apparently not wholly unknown to the Mediterranean. The following is said (by Charles Singer) to copy an image in a fifteenth-century English manuscript but he offers no references. As I read its details, this image represents the ‘ship of the world’ as allegory of the universe.

  • A list of nine notable foreign traders, emissaries and visitors to India before 1450 is given here.

So now, having established that there is nothing in the historical record to oppose Baresh’s view that a ‘traveller’ might gather material from ‘eastern/oriental’ parts before 1440, we can turn to analyse the drawings in the leaf-and-root section, while keeping in mind that Baresch’s intention in using terms like ‘oriental’, ‘Egyptian’ or of thesauros remains uncertain.

What magic? Where magic? – 4. Whose magic?

[6th July – post shortened, by request]

I’d like to begin by quoting more of what Stuart Buck said to the assembled NSA tem in 1976.  I’ve added one word, because while keeping clear of most typical ‘blind spots’, he did overlook the possibility that what is contained in the written and/or pictorial text did not necessarily originate in the time and place the artefact was made.

from Buck to NSA at seminar 1976

As my readers will be aware, I have reason to be grateful for Nick Pelling’s willingness to treat decently with the newcomer, and to answer the usual research questions about sources, earlier studies on a topic, precedents and so forth. For many, there has been no other reliable source of information about such things, because regardless of his own preferred theories, Nick has always been willing to treat honestly with others’ work.

That said,  I should also make clear that each of us approaches the manuscript from a very different angle.

Pelling sees it as an historical problem and has said, in the past, that the aim of  historical research is to form a theory. 

My approach is  material and pragmatic –  identifying and then working to resolve any set or series of questions arising during close examination of an artefact.   In other words – my approach is question-driven and my research is thematic in style.  In response to an idea of the manuscript as about magic, my response is to consider the range and type of magical imagery and where – if anywhere – that item from the manuscript might belong.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with forming an historical theory. In practice a theory, once espoused, can so easily lead researchers by the nose, to the point where they find confirmation everywhere and become so certain of the theory’s rightness that some have even invented fictions to serve as ‘patch’ over some hole in that theory.  I suppose what I mean is that theories can be seductive – as Newbold and too many others have found to their cost. The internal logic of an unfounded narrative can persuade even those who construct them.   It was the flaw in Wilfrid’s story, in O’Neill’s ‘note’ of 1944, in Brumbaugh’s papers and in much more Voynich writing produced since then. 

But at base, it is a problem of methodology, tools and validation.  

Methods – Thematic research vs theory-focused. 

A theory-driven study, on considering some possibility such as ‘magical’ content tends to define the parameters of study by their theory, not by the ostensible subject – the manuscript – and the topic for research – magical images.

Thematic research sets the limits of investigation without regard for any theory. Theories can wait, and wait indefinitely, and can – often must – be modified after the detail is, or isn’t, found to accord with both the historical evidence and the rest of  manuscript’s internal evidence.

In relation to the ‘occult Voynich’ narrative we see it informing method is  theory-driven because it begins where it ends: with the Germanic/central European theory or some other theory-defined locus, and without any effort to honestly consider the evidence for any other possibility.  No-one has, compared and contrasted – for example – alchemical images from Spain, England, Italy, France, Sicily and Byzantium or the Aegean islands and concluded that the closest in style to the Voynich images are characteristically ‘Germanic’.  But to be of assistance to those working to understand the written part of the text, such a process of investigation and elimination is important.  

I think I should give a specific example here of the contrast in method between a theory driven driven approach and a thematic, question-driven approach works in practice, but since much of my work in recent times has been doing ‘background checks’ on ideas currently circulating, it’s difficult to find an example that won’t upset someone.  I’m reminded of what Curt Zimansky once said, as he began a talk:

I HAVE CHOSEN TO TALK about a work that has been praised and damned for two centuries, about which one cannot venture an opinion without offending two thirds of one’s colleagues, and about which there is still no critical agreement. … Where there is so much disagreement about a work of acknowledged importance all parties will plead from the historical approach. I hope to show that … history can be used to re- inforce a prejudice, or can combine with critical techniques to obscure what is clear; that on the other hand a rigorous use of the history of ideas can rectify error and permit us to extend critical dimensions. (p. 45)

  • Curt A. Zimansky, ‘Gulliver, Yahoos, and Critics’, College English, Oct., 1965, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Oct., 1965), pp. 45-49.

Perhaps the best illustration is one which has no clear-cut conclusion, and so I’ll use the example of a recent enquiry into whether or not, as Pelling recently suggested, Quire 20 should be imagined two quires rather than one,

Nick Pelling remarked – almost as if were self-evident – that:  

… Q[uire] 20 … contains far too many bifolia to be a single quire,… I think may originally have been constructed as two separate gatherings Q20A and Q20B.

That’s the theory.

Readers might find it plausible; they may find it suits a preferred theory of their own. It may be a valid notion. It may not.

My first inclination, then, is to consider first that the Beinecke library’s description has the quire as a single gathering, one which was a septenion (seven bifolios) but from which the centre bifolio has been lost. 

Pelling says it has  “too many” bifolios and my immediate question is  “too many compared to what?” –  and the first answer which occurs (and which may be inaccurate) is that the comparison is to  ‘normal’ Latin custom. 

So where is the justification for altering the form of a manuscript to make it less obviously unlike a Latin ‘norm’?  Especially this manuscript whose quires contain so much else that has no parallel in any known Latin manuscript.

Its ‘fold-outs’ might be better termed ‘fold-ins’ since they most resemble scroll-lengths folded in to the size of the Voynich quires and stitched in. Then there is the assertion, always somewhat problematic, that ‘Voynichese’ is written in a humanist hand.  The Voynich pages’ lack of ruling out and lack of simplicity in their arrangement has always seemed to me to sit uncomfortably with that ‘humanist’ idea.  But it may be right.

In terms of codicology, too, there are other other a-typical quires, including what had been two quinions.

Quire 8 was- and quire 13 is a quinion.


Evidence for Quire 20 as  originally a septenion seems clear enough.  The quire was sewn as a single quire.  

But perhaps  it merits some digging to see how unusual were septenions and quinions in the fifteenth century.

A first search through JSTOR produced an article which looked promising.

  • E.K. Rand, ‘A Harvard Manuscript of Ovid, Palladius and Tacitus’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 26, No. 3 (1905), pp. 291-329 (39 pages).

Rand’s article is of interest not least because the the ‘humanist hand’ is usually said to have been first used by Poggio Bracciolini and one of the two manuscripts bound in the Harvard volume is written in that humanist hand, includes an introductory letter to Bracciolini, and consists of a single septenion. 

The other of the two manuscripts bound to form that volume consists of ten quinions.

I’ll quote some of Rand’s commentary.

The most important fact omitted in Quaritch [the seller’s catalogue] is that the volume includes two separate manuscripts; they are noted here as MS I and and MS. II. The contents of the volume are as follows: fol. I-4. Two uniones, added when MS. I and MS. II were combined. .. Both MSS., naturally, were written before the date of binding. ..

Manuscript 1: “This manuscript consists of a single septenion. It has 22 lines to the page.  The text occupies 12.2 x6.4 cm.
fol. 5. Rynucius Poggio suo Oratori Eximio I felicitatem (in red) Ille Rem optimam et sibi salutarem ….. (fol. I8). At inuita nemini datur effugere fatum. (One line blank) FINIS.
fol. x8.’ Blank.
An unpublished letter of Rinucci da Castiglione to Poggio, with translations of the Athenian decrees contained in the De Corona of Demosthenes. The letter must have been written before I459, when Poggio died; probably before I453, when he left Rome; and possibly much earlier still, as he was studying Greek with Rinucci as early as 1425. See Voigt, Wiederbelebung des klass. Alterthums, 1893, II, pp. 45, 84. The present copy might well have been made about the middle of the century.

Manuscript 2:

MS. II. This manuscript consists of ten quinions. It has 23 lines to the the text occupies 12.7x 6.4.

N.B. This manuscript contains a work by Ovid, and while it is Ovid’s Heroides, not his Metamorphoses, it’s only fair to mention that Koen Gheuens has (or had) a theory that the Voynich text represents matter from the Metamorphoses.

While I am unable to agree with Koen’s reading of the Voynich drawings, I have long been of the opinion that the oldest chronological layer informing the drawings – if not all the drawings in every section of the Voynich  – is Hellenistic, first enunciation having been, in my opinion, contemporary with the Seleucids. A later layer I date to the 1st-3rdC AD and  latest of all (barring some pigments and marginalia) to between 1290-1330.  Manufacture of our present manuscript-as-object I date, naturally, to the early fifteenth century..
  • Harvard has made the volume available online. Phillipps MS 6748 describing it as “an anthology of humanist texts” and dating the whole, as bound, to between 1425 and 1500. 

What was being copied by these humanists and scribes were copies of ancient and classical texts in versions previously unknown to Latin Europe, being brought or fetched into Italy, by Byzantine immigrants.

So, we  have one useful example. The Harvard volume’s manuscripts were certainly made and written in Italy. Both are dated to the fifteenth century, with the septenion perhaps inscribed within a short time of the Voynich manuscript, and since the Harvard volume shows the humanist hand already in use (before 1440?) we don’t have to abide by the usual dating for that hand’s appearance in Italy. The layout issues remain, but there seems no obvious reason for supposing septenions weren’t being used in fifteenth-century Italy.

A cross-check with Beit Arie, reveals another example. Beit Arié says that septenions are very rare in Jewish manuscripts before listing 31 examples. He says they are “found only in seventeen paper manuscripts, in thirteen manuscripts with mixed quires from Spain, Italy, and Byzantium, and in one Italian parchment manuscript.” Beit Arié does not distinguish vellum from parchment.

  • Malachi Beit-Arié, Hebrew Codicology: historical and comparative typology of hebrew medieval codices based on the documentation of the extant dated manuscripts using a quantitative approach‘, unrevised (2018) preprint  of

So there’s an interesting possibility – that text in  Quire 20 might have been copied onto vellum from a septenion quire in a paper manuscript .

Note to self – what is known of the parchminers’- and stationers’ network for the early fifteenth century? Quires ready-made?  

Like the Voynich manuscript, the Harvard volume also contains quinions.

Less rare than the septenion in Latin European manuscripts, they were actually standard for quires in medieval Arabic manuscripts. 


Altogether, so far, this information raises a possibility that quires of this type, being atypical for Latin European works, may have been – for some reason as yet unexplored –  deliberately selected and/or what was on offer from the stationers or parchminers, who not only sold sheets of membrane but ready-made quires. 

Another possibility is that use of the quinion, and/or the septenion, was some quirk of the small circle of 15thC Italian Graecophiles and/or a usage familiar to the Byzantine Greeks who had emigrated into Italy. 

A third possibility is that the ancient and classical texts which are copied into that Harvard volume had been of that form when brought into the west, and so the form as well as the content was being imitated – perhaps as sign of authenticity, or to avoid risking quires of a rare text being separated.

The ‘Graecophile/Byzantine’ possibility took prioriy –  first, because if it were found to so, it might tell us what sort of text may be written in the quinions and septenion of the Voynich manuscript. 

Naming a paradigm.

Which of the various Byzantines sent to fetch manuscripts from libraries of the Greek domains shall I mention here?  Perhaps one from the second half of the fifteenth century.  Janus Lascaris will do well.

Janus Lascaris was known to the Latins as John Rhyndacenus ( i.e. from Rhyndakos in Asia Minor. The Rhyndakos village and river are now known as Mustafakemalpaşa,

He was a scholar from an eminent Byzantine family, and being native to Asia minor was surely as familiar with the other Byzantine capital of Trebizond/Trabzon on the south-eastern shore of the Black Sea.

Having come to Italy under the patronage of Cardinal Bessarion, Janus Lascaris was made welcome in Florence by Lorenzo de Medici after Bessarion’s death.

He was then sent twice  by Lorenzo to fetch copies of ancient and classical texts from ‘eastern parts’ and we are fortunate that some of Lascaris’ personal notebooks survive, listing titles wanted, titles sighted and titles bought.  One of these notebooks records his itinerary, which ended with his returning to Italy with 200 manuscripts from Athos:

From Florence Lascaris’ itinerary took him to Ferrara, Venice, Padua, Corfu, Arta, Salonica, Galata, Sozopolis, Athos, Salonica, Crete, Apulia, Corigliano, and Monte Sardo. He lists manuscripts acquired or at least seen at each of those points. We shall restrict ourselves to Athos where, apart from one book at Chilandari and another at “Simenou» .. he confined his attention to the collections of Vatopedi and Megiste Lavra.

I’ve had reason to mention Vatopedi before. To save readers the effort of finding the earlier reference, here’s the critical paragraph again.

That the texts of Strabo, and of Dionysius of Byzantion were still known and copied in Constantinople during the early fourteenth century is proven by the deservedly famous Vatopedi manuscript, a compilation of texts from major and minor classical authors describing the sea-routes of the Black Sea, Red Sea and to as far as England. It is difficult to think other than the compilation was made for contemporary needs, and these may have included the needs of foreigners resident in the enclaves of Pera and within Constantinople, wanting to know those routes.

from: D.N.O’Donovan, ‘The skies above Pt.5: bodies in baskets’, voynichrevisionist.com (12th September, 2019).

Manuscripts copied by Janus Lascaris again include quinions, Young mentioning specifically, 

Venice, San Marco, Codex XCII, 7 (gr. 522), ff. 181-198, given in 1468 by Cardinal Bessarion, describing it as “a handsome vellum codex, of 23 quinions, 268×193 mm.” and Am(brosianus) D 210 inf. (gr. 940), “a parchment quinion, 292×160 mm., contains Theognis vv. 1-618 only, 31 lines a page in a writing-space 180×80 mm., … It follows another quinion with an unfinished Timaeus Locrus De natura mundi, on parchment leaves, 274×157 mm.,, J. Lascaris writing 35 lines a page in single column.”  And again, Florence, Laur. XXXI, 20, ff. 35v-57r, leaves being lost between ff. 41/2, 42/3, 44/5, 45/6 … the second and fourth broadsheets of a quinion having gone astray.”

  • Douglas C. C. Young. ‘A codicological inventory of Theognis manuscripts With some remarks on Janus Lascaris’ contamination and the Aldine editio princeps’, Scriptorium, Tome 7 n°1, 1953. pp. 3-36. 

A much more detailed account of Lascaris’ travels, including mention of Lascaris’  notebooks:

  • Graham Speake, ‘Janus Lascaris’ visit to Mount Athos in 1491’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 34 (1993), 325-30.

Review of information so far.

  1. Evidence that the humanist hand was employed as early (perhaps) as 1425.
  2. Evidence that works of that date, in the humanist hand, using quinion and one example of a septenion can be identified as work accomplished in Italy.
  3. The interest of humanists was chiefly in copying classical and ancient texts brought from ‘eastern parts’.
  4. The page layout and scribal customs seen – so far – in the Humanist and Byzantine scholars’ works do not accord with those of the scribes who worked on the Voynich manuscript.

Interim conclusions

From the evidence sighted and cited so far,  I can draw only one conclusions –  that there is not enough in the historical record to support Pelling’s theory that Quire 20 has ‘too many bifolios’, and enough to dispute the idea. No justification exists for attempting to presume that what was the usual habit in central Europe should be imposed on Italy, Spain and southern regions.

The quire-stitching does not support the idea, and the historical evidence considered so far  shows that while septenions would appear to be rare, they are not unknown and we have already seen two attested from Italy, one being reasonably attributed to the first half of the fifteenth century and inscribed in a humanist hand, the other being sighted but not described in more detail by Beit Arié,


To end this post-  description of another fascinating manuscript held by Yale. Made about a century before the Voynich manuscript, it even includes mention of alchemy (and no I don’t have ay ‘medical Voynich’ theory. I avoid having theories; I find they interfere with work..



Yale University, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney  Medical library Manuscript 28. (here). 

Medical compilation (“codex paneth“). Northern Italy, (Bologna ?), 1st quarter of the 14th century. Vellum; 685 folios; 2 35 X 337 mm· (Yale Medical Library, Ms. 28)

The curriculum of a fourteenth-century medical school was based on works of Hippocrates and Galen, rounded out and brought up to date with writings of Arabic origin and the best contemporary physicians of Salerno, Bologna, and northern Europe.

The “Codex Paneth” preserves precisely such a collection of medical tracts.

The forty-two separate tracts have been identified by K. Sudhoff. Included are several works of Hippocrates and Galen, others by such authors as Roger of Salerno, Rhazes, Albucasis, and other lesser known French and Italian writers.

Each tract is introduced by a historiated initial showing physicians in discourse with students or patients with various afflictions. The subjects covered in the compilation include anatomy, bloodletting, acute illness, diet, urine, the pulse, diseases of the eye, childhood diseases, herbal and lapidary remedies, alchemy, astrology, medical recipes, veterinary medicine, and an Arabic-Latin vocabulary (fols. 235^2 38V).

A large portion of the manuscript, some one hundred eighty folios, deals with surgery, not usually included in traditional medical texts. Perhaps the most interesting of the surgical treatises is that of Albucasis (fols. 200r~318v) in the translation of Gerard of Cremona.

It contains two hundred fifteen paintings of surgical instruments, inserted in the appropriate places within the text. The manuscript was written by two or possibly three scribes in northern Italy, probably at Bologna, the most likely place where such a vast compendium of current medical writings might be found at this time.

Two distinct hands are to be discerned also in the illustration, which has a generally Bolognese flavor. The volume was in Bohemia by 1326, as an obit on the last folio indicates.

Provenance: “Tomazlaus notarius Mylewfensis],” 1326 (obit, 6851:). Cathedral of Olomouc (Czechoslovakia), 16th century (fol. 4). [bought from] Fritz Paneth, Königsberg. Gift of the Yale Medical Library Associates in 1955.


  • Walter Cahn and James Marrow, ‘Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Yale: A Selection’,  The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 52, No. 4 (April 1978), pp. 173-284.