In 2015 I offered identifications for the plants represented on folio 43v* as (left) Bupleurum falcatum and (right) Bupleurum rotundiflolia, though only as a proposal from first-level sources, not as a research conclusion.
A modern botanical drawing of B. rotundifolia with B. falcatum is shown at right.
Later, I contrasted the style of drawing with two details from Latin herbals referenced by Marco Ponzi as comparisons for left-half of the drawing in folio 43v* (the plant-and-snake), noting how much more detail we find in the Voynich drawing for its ‘snake’, details so clearly informed by immediate knowledge that we are shown the Cerastes’ horns, long nose and – as I’ll add here – even the way the eye-ridge makes the eye seem semi-circular when seen from above, and how the horns appear like spines as extension of that ‘nose’, together the fact that its markings are generally invisible to a person happening on it, because the Cerastes lie buried in a depression in the earth and, indeed, with no more than eye, ‘nose’ and horns visible.
Marco Ponzi’s articles are (or were) published through the Medium site, under the title ‘Viridis Green’.
Added note (March 26th., 2022) I have reason to think the detail shown above (upper left) was wrongly labelled by the source I used. It may not be a ‘hornless cerastes’ but a different snake altogether. The Cerastes’ nose appears more noticeable when little else is visible above the sand. see the’Alamy’ image included among the comments under this post.
Although it seemed evident to me that this ‘reminder’ detail in folio 43v*, being placed close by the plant’s base, displays too much care and accuracy to have no purpose save ‘name-of-thing-equals-name-of-plant/value’ and realising, further, that the creature’s native range, combined with that of the associated plant’s, should add a little more light on the important questions outstanding about the plant-pictures’ antecedents, there were other questions having higher priority in 2015, and without more detailed investigation I felt nothing useful could be said about co-incident range.
A fairly recent comment turned me to the folio again.
This post isn’t more than a note of ‘work-in-progress’ yet one thing is quite clear – that unless my identification for the snake’s genus as Cerastes is wrong, the drawing’s origin cannot possibly be credited to western Christian Europe.
There, any ‘horned serpent’ figure would be drawn in very different style and present an imaginary figure from some system of religious or semi-religious thought. Instead, we have a nearly literal drawing for this creature, one which does not occur within Europe at all, not even in southern Spain or Sicily.
The detail is a fortunate exception to the rule in this manuscript where the majority of included drawings still show evidence of some earlier influence and its determined effort to avoid forming a naturalistic ‘portrait’ of any living creature. That attitude is not of Latin origin and was antithetical to the Latins’ worldview. In fact, that distinction is one of the keys which allows us to know, for example, that the month-folios’ diagrams come from origins different from emblems now seen in their centres.
It is that marked difference in information, attitude and stylistics, not any lack of objective skill, which led earlier generations of Voynich researchers, fixed on a Eurocentic theory, to assert the ‘artist’ had been childish, incompetent and so forth. To the best of my knowledge no qualified specialist in what today we call iconographic analysis, commented on Beinecke MS 408 between 1932 and the first decades of the present century. The person who seems to have first sensed the ‘foreignness’ in Voynich drawings spoke even before Panofsky and wrote, a little vaguely of what he had observed quite accurately, saying:
It is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences.Robert Steele, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928) from the Abstract available online
As early as 1909, in editing the works of Roger Bacon, Steele had referred to a thirteenth-century work on medicine, translated by Wallis Budge. Steele speaks of it as ‘Syrian’ though it was a text of Nestorian origin written in Syriac.
The point was mentioned in an earlier post (here).
The other plant on folio 43v*, for which I proposed the identification Bupleurum rotundifolia is of less interest at present, and I’ll concentrate on the plant-and-snake.
I still consider the the details included as its salient features agree with the form for B. falcatum, yet that plant- identification presents problems if we are to associate that plant with the genus Cerastes. for each has a native range not native to the other.
I would suggest that the dilemma may be more apparent than real; that some other Bupleurum species is meant or that distinctions between plants made by taxonomists were not ones recognised by earlier and other peoples and therefore by their perceptions and vocabulary.
So though a modern botanist distinguishes (say) B.falcatum from B.lancifolia, the same word may have been applied to both by the language in which the maker formed his thoughts.
To see whether that possibility is contradicted or supported by those languages which were spoken, before 1440, across the geographic range in which Cerastes occur, and to find enough documentary evidence to maintain such an idea, would take far more work than I’m prepared to devote to that question. One piece of circumstantial evidence may support it.
In a modern website entitled “Egyptian-Arabian Endemic Plants”, a long list of plants, subdivided by genus and species and with scientific descriptions given, includes B. falcatum and specifies its range as:
“… east of the Nile Valley in Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, the extratropical part of the Arabian Peninsula, most of southern Palestine, part of Jordan, the southern part of the Syrian Desert and lower Mesopotamia where the boundary continues just north of Balad, Kuwait and the Bahrain Islands.”
‘Endemic’ in botanical terms means that a plant occurs naturally no-where else.
That site is clearly intended as a scientific survey; yet if we turn to another scientific source, Kew gardens’ information, states the range for B. falcatum as:
“Europe to Caucasus”.
For that southern range, it has several species of Bupleurum including B.lancifolia, whose range is said there to be:
“Algeria, Azores, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Kriti, Kuwait, Lebanon-Syria, Libya, Madeira, Morocco, Palestine, Sinai, Spain, Transcaucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Western Sahara” and now extinct in the Canary Islands.
This does co-incide with the native range for Cerastes’ species, of which there are only three. For readers’ convivence, I reproduce here a table included in a wiki article whose anonymous author cites as sole source for its information:
- McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T., (1999) Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Volume 1. Washington, District of Columbia: Herpetologists’ League.
Cerastes, as you see, do not occur anywhere in mainland Europe, not even in southern Spain. One would have to travel into ‘oriental parts’ in order to find anyone who could represent these vipers with anything close to the accuracy we find on folio 43v*
I prefer to leave it to the botanists to decide which (if any) of the genus Bupleurum is the subject of the left-hand detail on folio 43v*. Of more interest to us is what this association between plant and viper tell us about the region implied, and in the context of those critical issues of maintenance before the plant-pictures’ transmission to the medieval west or, at least, to the medieval Mediterranean world’s common culture.
Here we are fortunate that the two principal species of Cerastes – the less venomous C. cerastes and the highly venomous C. gasperettii are not found together at all, the limits for each being given in the table above and that for C. gasperettii by following map (again thanks to a wiki author).
The map is a little generalised for we are told that C. cerastes and C. gasperettii do not share a common habitat though both are said to occur within Yemen. C. cerastes is called, in Egypt, el-ṭorîsha (حية الطريشة); and in Libya um-Goron (ام قرون). One would hope that these or some other regional names for Cerastes are to be found in the written text on folio 43v*
Though I do not think the snake is drawn in sufficient detail on folio 43v* for us to decide on any Cerastes species in particular, it is another item in evidence – and there is a great deal of such evidence – that the content in Beineke MS 408’s plant-pictures is no product of any western Christian literary tradition. It is as well to remember that if any argument is to be made that tese images belong within the western ‘herbal’ manuscript tradition, the very limited range of texts on which that tradition relied must be shown to have a place within its lineage for the ‘Voynich plant book(s)’ – something which researches have utterly failed to do despite constant efforts and unwavering determination, for one hundred and ten years.
Newcomers may not be aware that the same point was made more obliquely and tactfully but quite clearly by John Tiltman, a man of unusually clear and balanced mind, fully
seventy fifty years ago.
However, those interested only in plants for which a place was found in pharmacy might like to investigate some possibility that there might exist in some non-European corpus a receipt in which both viper and a Bupleurum (perhaps) both occur.
To attempt to fit the image into an ‘all-Latin-Christian’ theory, by asserting the image a product of imagination or metaphor, might be an attractive possibility for those so attached to an ‘all European Christian’ narrative for the manuscript that any means available must be taken to prevent its being discarded. For myself, I do not think one can ignore the style of drawing, the manifest clarity and accuracy of its detail, and such things as ignoring the natural markings on the creature to convey the vital information that it is the hidden ‘serpent on the path’ whose body is not seen, save its head, ‘nose’, an eye and the horns. Force-fitting the manuscript to a predetermined theory is not the best way to assist people whose time and efforts are being devoted to the written text. One cannot help but be wrong in some things, but why spoil their day with another dead-end ornament for a quasi-historical narrative whose first premises derive, still, from assertions made by Wilfrid Voynich as part of his romantic-fictional sales pitch delivered to a gathering of physicians in Philadelphia in 1921?
Medicinal snake & plant? Plague remedies?
This is a possibility though not one I’m inclined to rate highly. Still, it deserves mention for those who find the idea attractive.
Many in Europe believed the Black Death had come from Egypt, and was the same as one of those the plagues which the Bible says were inflicted on Egypt for the Pharaohs’ mistreatment of the Jews. Plague still regularly swept Europe during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it may have been for that reason that Baresch hoped the Voynich manuscript’s content would be not only ‘ancient’, ‘Egyptian’ and ‘gained from the orient’ and depicting exoti plants but also about medicine.
We do know that from about the time of Galen ‘viper’ was sometimes included in ‘cure-alls’ known as Theriac or Mithridatum, though it had not been part of the earliest, or true ‘Mithridatum’.
Added note (26th. March 2022): The European (hornless) viper, Vipera_berus, is described as “extremely widespread and can be found throughout most of Western Europe and as far as East Asia”
Our source for the addition of viper-flesh in ‘Theriac’ recipes is Galen, who attributes it to Andromachus (the Elder), a Cretan who had become Nero’s physician.
Andromachus’ recipe is said to have been couched in 174 lines of Greek verse. In the later fifteenth century, the Italian Saladino d’Ascoli, who graduated in medicine from Padua in 1431, composed a treatise entitled “Compendium Aromatariorum” in which says (folio 324r of the 1495 edition), respecting the ‘Galieni’ theriac: “Dico quod non est verum salua pace Nicolai quia Andromachus singularis medicus eam composuit.” d’Ascoli’s Compendium remained in print continually from 1488 – 1623. A good online biography for him is (here), and includes ia list of extant manuscripts and editions.
Added note (March 26th., 2022) – a loose translation would be ‘with all due respect to Nicholai [author of the earlier Antidotarium parvum], to call this ‘Galieni’ is a misnomer; the medicine was composed by the singular physician, Andromachus.
‘Mithridatum’ is named for Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus, who inherited his kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea in 120 BC. For more historical detail see e.g.
- Adrienne Mayor, ‘Mithridates of Pontus and His Universal Antidote’, Chapter 4 in her History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014). The chapter can be downloaded through ResearchGate.
Other sources to begin with:
- Watson, G. Theriac and Mithridatium. Wellcome Historical Medical Library. William Clowes and Sons, Ltd. London (1966).
- A few basic sources,courtesy of Science Direct. Looking over the list, I’d be inclined to leave aside “Placebo Studies (Double-blind Studies)” but I haven’t read it.
Medical uses of e.g. B. falcatum or B. rotundifolia, see also
- WHO monographs (2004) – “not pharmacopoeial monographs, rather they are comprehensive scientific references for drug regulatory authorities, physicians, traditional health practitioners, pharmacists, manufacturers, research scientists and the general public”.
Oddly enough a lot of modern advertisements for traditional Asian (by which I mean east Asian and south-east Asian) medicine claim to employ root of B.falcatum, which isn’t native to that part of the world. Older sources refer instead to roots of B. rotundifolium.
That’s all so far. I’d be glad if anyone could direct me to multilingual glossaries for animal and for plant-names. Modern or pre-modern.
Added note – March 26th., 2022.
and see comments below this post.