MS-Kircher-Linnaeus-O’Neill-MS: Art imitates art?

I have a provenancing problem to address, one that has nothing to do with Beineke MS 408 but will keep me occupied, I should think, until close to the end of this year, or early in the New Year so I hadn’t meant to put anything up here until then. As it is I have no time to spare for editing, cutting-out, proof-reading and marking categories and tags – for these and other errors, your indulgence is requested.

c,2600 words The author’s rights are asserted.

What takes me from more pressing work, is a post by Thony Christie which has put a new angle on the ‘sunflower’ thing and raised some interesting questions which I’d like to share.

For newcomers – in 1944, a minor American botanist wrote a note to Speculum (which not a botanical journal). His note included no references, no sources, no evidence that he had done any work aimed at even discerning whether the drawing’s intention was literal or not. He simply asserted that the drawing on folio 93r ‘was’ an American sunflower.

One important fact often neglected in discussion of this and other Voynich plant drawings is that they do not come with any scale-rule. There are indications of size within the conventions used for these drawings, but of those conventions I believe no commentator on the Voynich manuscript was aware before I published analytical commentaries for about forty of the drawings, and since my conclusions were unhelpful to the most energetically-promoted theories, they met the usual combination of determined ‘blind spot’ and ad.hominem remarks – informed as much by resort to fantasy and imagination as are those theories themselves.

So the fact remains that O’Neill had no grounds for presuming the plant a large one. For all he knew, the drawing might represent a plant no taller than, say, 5cm or 2″ high, or it might allude to one (or more) growing to 100 times that size. His opinions were not derived from any deeper or well-informed study of the drawing. Their only genesis was his imagination – as is the case for so many Voynich theories.

Now, in addition to that obvious, if overlooked fact, there are two historical facts to be kept for what follows.

First, that to date one has seen no objective evidence which requires us to take as fact that the Voynich quires were inscribed later than 1438 AD. Of late there has been some suggestion that the quires might have been left unbound for some time after that date, but so far nothing has been seen by way of evidence – at least not seen by me. Perhaps it will emerge at ‘Voynich 2022’.

However, the vellum’s date is obviously a problem for the three most publicised theories – the ‘New World’ theory, the ‘Central Europe Rudolfine’ theory and the ‘modern fake with telescopes’ theory. What theorists habitually do when the manuscript refuses to endorse their imagination-based theory, is to dismiss or to re-define the manuscript’s evidence, or to tweak the facts. To engineer a situation where there is one and only one theory, obviously the manuscript’s dates must be altered – and a date in the sixteenth century would suit at least two of the three, and also allow absorbtion of a ‘telescope’ theory, amoeba-like, and re-definition of the ‘modern fake’ idea to apply to nothing but the written text which (of course) none of those three theories can account for.

Most Voynich theorists are salesmen – and like salesmen, some really believe in what they want you to buy, and some are no better than con artists. Caveat emptor.

Too many Voynich theories are constructed less like a case for the prosecution than like an alibi, trying for an airtight story than a fair account of the evidence.

O’Neill bothered not at all with evidence, or with research. His position was “Trust me, I’m a botanist”.

He never attempted to show that the Voynich drawings were intended as specimen-portraits of any plant. He presumed so and relied on the tendency in his audience to define contemporary European habit as the right, natural and normal. But if that thoughtless presumption is inaccurate and the drawings not intended as ‘portraits’ of single plants, then how was he to know which elements could, and which couldn’t be read literally?

Again, like Voynich theory-spinners before and after him, he cherry-picked to suit whatever ideas had been produced by his imagination

He also presumed to apply to a manuscript then described as the work of a thirteenth-century Englishman the attitudes and scientific classifications created during the 1750s-1760s by a Swedish botanist named Carl von Linné.. It was he who would describe the Amerian plant as Helianthus annuus, coining an entirely new word from two Greek ones hēlios (sun) and anthos flower]. By convention such neologisms are described today as ‘new Latin’.

Before von Linné, the first European drawings of the American sunflower had appeared around the end of the sixteenth century and earlier seventeenth. The plant wasn’t called a ‘sunflower’ as Helianthus, but as ‘the Peruvian chrysanthemum’ or ‘Flos Solis Peruvianum’ and as Charles Heiser’s study noted “According to the descriptions, the first sunflowers introduced into Europe had purple disks..” The image on folio 93r has no petals and its centre is not dark-coloured.

Theorists have an easy way to avoid modifying their theories in the face of objection from the primary document, or from any better informed research – from a Voynich writer or any other. They say to all within earshot, ‘Pay no attention; this is unnecessary’, proceeding to do as they have advised. Or to that determined ignorance they may add some theory, as imaginative and disconnected to reality as any other, about the dissenters’ motives, character and so forth. Hence theories that the artis-draughtsmen were incompetent, mad and so forth. Persons with plausible-sounding alibis, discourage cross-examination.

O’Neill used the simple ‘Just ignore’ approach – listing no sources, naming none of those he claimed supported his ‘identification’ and determinedly refusing to engage with the criticisms of the far-better informed Fr. Theodore Petersen.

What makes the subject worth another look at Voynich revisionist is an image posted recently by Thony Christie from a book published between the time the first sunflower images were printed in Europe and the time when Carl von Linné was born.

This shows a plant evidently believed to turn with the sun, and which might therefore be used as a kind of living sundial. This Kircher labels in poor Greek – not in Latin or even in ‘new Latin’ – Oroskopion ‘Eliotropikon.

Note – (1st November, 2022). A comment by Thony Christie made me realise I’d expressed the last sentence poorly. Instead of saying that Kircher labelled it in poor Greek, I should have said ‘labelled the drawing’ in poor Greek. The drawing is (as I failed to make clear enough) of Kircher’s conception of a flower-powered time-piece. That Kircher or his illustrator did know what a sunflower’s flower looked like is evident from other illustrations in the same book. These you can see in a short, well illustrated blogpost by Caroline Edge which I first read in 2010 and can still recommend:

‘Kircher’s Magnetism’, Heliolatry: photography and light (blog), 11th Sept. 2008.

As you see from the way that diagram has been captioned (above) everyone who looked at the picture imagined it showed the image of an American sunflower – but it does not. The leaves are not those of Helianthus annuus (as we now call it). And no more is the flower. A sunflower does not have strap-like leaves. Its leaves are not wrapped about the stem or stalk as so many tropical plants’ and lilies’ are, and neither does it have four (or is it five?) layers of petals.

The sunflower (H. annuus) has nothing in common with the plant we are shown in Kircher’s book apart from the fact that sunflowers are included in the enormous family Asteraceae, which at last count contains 32,000 species described in 1,900 genera. Some of them do – unlike the American sunflowers, produce many layers of petals. Here are just four plants among those many.

The image on folio 93r does not show any petals at all. It shows only a seed-head. We know this meant for one of the Asteraceae because the way it is characteristic of that family of plants.

Here are seed-heads from just two of the 32,000 species. Compare particularly the small, outer leaflet- or petal-like phyllaries surrounding each. Again, don’t try to opt for one of these illustrations as the subject of the Voynich drawing.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.93r

Although we do not know just how much the illustrator of Kircher’s book was subject to Kircher’s instructions, nor what other sources he consulted, it is fairly clear that he cannot have been trying to draw the ‘Peruvian chrysanthemum’ from what are now the known illustrations published before 1643. They looked like this. (NOTE- the labels given these next images have added Linnaeus’ descriptions which is – strictly speaking – an anachronism).

Herbal (1615 AD) by Francisco Hernández, court physician to Felipe II of Spain.jpg

We know that Athanasius Kircher proof-read his books before they went into print and I must presume until I have time to check it, that he also approved the drawings made to illustrate his works.

That means, I think, that we cannot resort to the usual last resort of the theorist – blaming the artist for not producing images more like what the theorist’s imagination would like to see.

And since the drawing in Kircher’s book does NOT present us with a specimen-drawing made from a living specimen of any American sunflower, and is not even nearly close to the way American sunflowers had been represented by the three earliest known sources: the Flemish Dodoens in 1568, the Sienese Mattioli in 1586 or by Hernandez in 1615.

This raises several very interesting questions and possibilities. First, whether the ‘sun-turning’ seeds which Kircher hoped to use as a sort of mechanism came from any plant he’d ever seen in life. Second, whether the assumption that his ‘sun-turning’ – heliotrope – plant was in fact the plant which von Linné would later describe as Helianthus annuus, and which – as we’ve seen – resembles neither the plant in on f.93r not that adorning Kircher’s 1643 treatise on magnetism.

It is of course interesting to try working out just what plant was intended by that drawing made for Kircher’s book and which (for the meantime) we must suppose he approved. But for persons working on the Voynich manuscript, the more interesting question is whether that drawing had been influenced by the drawing on folio 93r of what is now Beinecke MS 408.

It will be remembered that the person who had the Voynich material longest and who is reported by himself and by others as having studied with persistence and determination over years, and who had not spared time, expense and even public denigration in the cause of having the mattter better understood had sent copies of some sections to Kircher as early as 1637, asking his help in identifying the Voynich script. Kircher did not trouble to reply for almost 18 months, and then was so ill-mannered as to respond not to Baresch directly but (as it were) by insulting him at one remove, a habit we used to describe as ‘suburban’ in my youth.

So it is not beyond possibility either that Kircher’s access to the enormous range of scripts maintained by the Vatican library had allowed him to identify the Voynich script (his letter to Moretus speaks of Jerome and refers to ‘Illyrian’. I believe I do no Voynichero an injustice in saying that I first introduced the following image to Voynich studies. This was done in 2011, as I looked into the question of what Kircher had meant by ‘Illyrian’ in his letter to Moretus.


We can accept that the seed-head shown on folio 93r is that of some member of the Asteracea and that the flower drawn in Kircher’s Oroskopion ‘Eliotropikon is also a member of the Asteracea.

The real problem on all counts is the way the leaves are drawn on Kircher’s plant.

They are shown as leaf-sheaths, which is no characteristic of the American sunflower, nor generally of the Asteraceae but of grass-like plants of the monocotyledons, including the Graminaceae or Gramineae, and now often called Poaceae, which included grasses, reeds, cereals, and sugar cane. Other monocots have the same characteristic, such as the bananas, ginger plants and Strelitzia. The leaves of H. annuua are not formed in that way.

and while, for reasons I have already explained in considerable detail and by reference oth to detailed analyses of the Voynich plant pictures and what is for me the usual range of documentary, textual and iconographic sources, that the Voynich plant pictures are formed as intelligent and clear composites of plants grouped by non-European customs and by their natural proximity (habitat) and uses that are complementary or alternative, the issue is very different when images are considered that were produced in early modern Europe, by Europeans, for a European audience of that time – already habituated to the idea of realistic (illusionist) scientific specimen-drawings as a norm.

In the circumstances, the inclusion of a scroll reading ‘Nature and art combined’ is certainly intriguing, but utterly unilluminating. One is left asking whether, in fact, Kircher had learned to read Voynichese; whether he understood that the Voynich figures were composites… and so on. So far as I’m aware, the only Voynich writer to have had an intimation of the fact was John Tiltman, to whom the idea had occurred, but whose expectation of a wholly European authorship denied greater insight.

leaf – Lily of the Valley.

The leaves in the Voynich drawing can be fairly argued those of a monocot and if we take the paint’s applications as any useful indication, we might compare them in a very general way to the venation in some other monocots in whose leaves no central vein may be evident from the front – as one sometimes sees e,g, in leaves of Convallaria majalis.

Even so, difficulties remain in comparing the stem/trunk of Kircher’s Heliotrope with this plant drawing from Beinecke MS 408, because even though it is possible to argue both show leaf-sheaths, the Kircher image is unequivocal on that point, where the Voynich image is not, and its leaves are broader, shorter and above all pendulant in contrast to those given Kircher’s ‘heliotrope’ with their prominent central veins.

Was Kircher influenced by drawings in Beinecke MS 408? Was he influenced particularly by the drawing on folio 93r? If so, did O’Neill know Kircher’s book and had that same frontispiece any influence on his decision to proclaim the Voynich drawing to be what it is not in any respect – viz. the drawing of a specimen of H. annuua, or the copy of any early modern European drawing of H. annuua. (If you know better, feel free to say so in a comment – go on, Don’t be afraid of the ‘thou-shalt-not’ brigade. If you prefer, add a ‘NFP note to your comment and I won’t publish it.)

So now, the fascinating question is whether Kircher knew, or believed he knew other kinds of heliotropic plants, of which there are a few. Some European plants were called ‘turnsol’ or ‘turnsole’.

Middle English turnesole, from Middle French tournesol, from Old Italian tornasole, from tornare to turn (from Medieval Latin) + sole sun, from Latin sol (accusative solem)

Miriam webster.

We have a genus Heliotropium, which includes herbs and shrubs of the borage family.

The flowers of Euphorbia helioscopia turn towards the sun.

A dye-plant native to Europe Chrozophora tinctoria is another turnsole.

The wonderful deep red Tulipa schrenckii follows the sun.

None of them have seed heads similar to the Asteraceae.

…neither does the Tree helitotrope, Tournefortia argentea, formerly Heliotropium foertherianum and sometime described (I don’t know why) ?Heliotropium arboreum.

For the Voynich drawing, I think it quite possible and certainly consistent with the results from studying about forty other of its plant-pictures in detail, that T. argentea should provide one element in the group on f.93r, but in that case, I should expect to find the referenced member of the Asteraceae occurring naturally in the same region and employed with, or as alternative for T.argentea. Discovering how a given plant was used in a given time and environment before 1440 is the serious part of investigating these drawings in Beinecke MS 408. ‘Medicinal’ is not a useful default.

What type of plant or plants composed Kircher’s fantasy sun-dial interests me less than whether an image from Beinecke MS 408, copied at Baresch’s initiative and expense, played some role in the form it is given in Kircher’s frontispiece.

And that’s as far as I’ll take the question.


In the earlier page about O’Neill’s theory (here) I referred mischievously to Scalesia villosa – beautifully photographed by David Day (here). It was mischievous – to show that impossible identifications can be suggested by the loose standards of O’Neill’s theory, but here in fairness I should add that the ‘Daisy Tree’ is found chiefly in the Galapagos islands, which had become known to some Europeans as early as 1535. Whether any are heliotropic I haven’t enquired; it is not relevant imo to understanding the Voynich plant-drawings. However, for those interested, a page on earliest recorded Europeans in those islands, a first basic outline is on theDiscovering Galapagossite.

‘Pharma’ – the routes

two prior:

AT PRESENT we’re considering the range over which information might have been gathered and brought to western Europe before 1400-1440, so to inform the pictorial text in Beinecke MS 408.

The reason for doing this is partly that the range and style of artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section (which Newbold imagined dealt with pharmaceuticals) find no comparison in Europe before our present manuscript was made, and partly that Georg Baresch who had the manuscript for about thirty years and who tried repeatedly to get better information about it, thought that the Voynich plants were not native to Europe, and that a person had gathered ‘from eastern parts’ the information now informing the text.

The previous post looked at the six-hundred year long connection between Europe and the territories once part of the Sasanian Persian empire, though which the overland ‘silk and spice’ routes passed.

This post considers the sea- and land routes whose use is attested during the relevant period by the travels of two men, each of whom began their voyages in the western Mediterranean, travelled east, and returned before the mid-1350s.

The first left Venice in 1271, returning in 1295. The other left from Tangier, Morocco in 1325, his final return occurring in 1354, after which he settled in Grenada for a time where his travels were narrated. The name of the first was Marco Polo; of the second, Ibn Battuta.

What we know of Marco Polo’s journey is owed to what might be called ‘the popular press’, a writer having heard of Polo who was then in prison. Polo’s story was constructed by that writer from what Polo told him from the prison cell. Ibn Battuta was received home with honour and his account of his travels recorded by his students for – unlike Latin Europe – the Islamic world had an active tradition of first-hand geographic writing and its study of geography did not await reception of a copy of Claudius’ Ptolemy’s thousand year old text.

Maximus Planudes (1260 – c. 1305 AD). Some scholars associate Planudes with Codex Vatopedinus 65 (early 14thC)

(However, for an overview of Ptolemy’s Geographia in Renaissance Europe, I warmly recommend Thony Christie’s recent post).

Routes indicated by the narrative of Maro Polo’s journeys. For an interactive version, see the website

As you see, the routes agree pretty well, so we may rely upon it that these are the likely routes along which such information might have been gathered by any trader-traveller before 1400, regardless of his birthplace, native language or religion.

So – in theory at least, the drawings of plants and artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section might represent products from anywhere along those much-travelled routes, whether overland or by sea. If the possibilities are many, they are also daunting.

In those days, almost any traveller was perforce a trader, for there was no other way to support the costs of travel except by trading as one went. Some few might be sponsored by kings. Others might find that on reaching a given region the local ruler was willing to provide the necessities of life. But the majority had to trade in order to travel and the hardships and perils of travel meant that most travelled for no other reason. All found that while death might with good luck be avoided, taxes could not.

There have been a few earlier suggestions, by Voynich writers, that the manuscript evinces an ‘eastern’ character in some sense.

While the majority have maintained various versions of Wilfrid Voynich’s basic ‘all-European’ theory, in 2002 Jorge Stolfi concluded from his computer-analysis of the written text that ‘Voynichese’ might be an Asian language and suggested Jurchen as one possibility. His investigation began after a mock-theory had been presented by Jacques Guy, but Guy himself later went into print to make clear that while he had been joking about his ‘Chinese theory’, Stolfi’s method and results should not be regarded other than seriously and saying, further, that he had found no fault with either.

I do not recommend the ‘Voynich wiki’ article on this subject. Its anonymous author has improperly taken, without mention of the source, original contributions to the study made by P.Han, by the present author and doubtless by others,  all represented as if they were original work of that wiki writer. It is not honestly done.

Some years later, two botanists named Wiart and Mazars offered a couple of botanical identifications which named plants from the eastern world. Among the botanical identifications initially offered by Edith Sherwood were some whose form was unknown to formal western botany until after 1450, but well-known along those several of the eastern routes, the luffa and ‘banana'[f.13r] among them. Plants having similar appearance and fruit – thus of the same general ‘banana’ type – exist in a wide variety and are found from Africa to the Himalayas and South-east Asia. (italicised phrase added 27/08/2021)

For some years, those botanical identifications were little regarded and the very short contribution by Wiart and Mazars might have been ignored into oblivion had not Nick Pelling, despite his own clearly sceptical reaction, not noted and commented on their views in 2010, writing:

Guy Mazars and Christophe Wiart in Actualites en Phytotherapie … propose that many of the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious plants may in fact be East Asian plants (for example, that f6v depicts Ricinus communis) or Indian plants (they think that many of the plants shown are types of Asteraceae, with f27r representing Centella Asiatica).

  • Nick Pelling, ‘Chinese Voynich Theories…’ ciphermysteries, 14th May, 2010.
Yale, Beinecke MS 408 fol.13r

I too identified the subject of the drawing on folio 13r as representing plants of the ‘banana’ type, publishing a detailed analysis of the drawing itself and notes on historical context, pointing out that the fairly literal representation, in this case, showed personal knowledge of such plants and thus stood in opposition to the fact that the physical appearance of these ‘banana’ plants had remained unknown to European botany until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The inference then seemed fairly obvious, viz, that the plant-pictures could not be derived from any western botanical or herbal text, a conclusion which agrees in general terms with what John Tiltman had concluded after witnessing the failures of the Friedman groups’ over thirty years. He said, in 1968:

to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed. (p.11)

  • John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World” (1968) NSA DOCID: 631091, released under Freedom of Information Act, Case #19159, 23-Apr-2002.

 I included in my definition of the ‘banana group’ species so grouped by peoples in lands where the plants grow. Of these, some were and others were not later classed by Linnaeus as Musaceae. But Linneus was not the first person to observe and describe plants in ‘groupings’ and botanical observation and classification did not begin in Europe.

The sort of response which my historical commentary met then, and later,  is nicely illustrated by a very late comment (2018) made after I had closed off the research from the public.  The following was made by a pen-named contributor to one Voynich forum, and reads in part: 
[O’Donovan] .. was not the first to correlate (sic!)  banana and f13r, and credits Edith Sherwood with coming up with the banana ID. … while Sherwood (and many others) see 13r as a banana, [O’Donovan’s] idea(sic!) is that this folio depicts the whole Musa “group”, however anachronistic that may seem (obviously the notion of a Musaceae family is a Linnean one, so I really don’t know what kind of “group” she thinks this depicts).
That writer (known as ‘Vviews’) overlooked the critical point –  that such detailed knowledge of the plants’ appearance had remained unknown to western botanical and herbal texts until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The curious assumption that the fact ‘many others’ later accepted the opinion reached independently by Sherwood, and by the present author, constitutes some form of criticism of those authors is more difficult to explain.  Sherwood had been the first since 1912 to offer the identification. 
glass. recovered Begram. Alexandrian influence 1stC BC-1stC AD.

Baresch also said the content represented ‘Egyptian’ knowledge. About seventeenth-century Europeans’ notions of how far ‘Egyptian’ learning and culture had anciently spread, I’ll speak some other time. For now I’ll mention only that between Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli mines and Egypt, connection is attested from about 3,000 years before the Roman era, initially via Mesopotamia, but directly from well before the time of Roman ascendancy in the Mediterranean. We see evidence of this, in the 1stC AD, in the mixed Hellenistic, Egyptian and Roman cultural influence evinced by artefacts recovered from Begram. One example is shown (right).

The routes taken separately by Marco Polo and by Ibn Battuta co-incide in that same region, one that may seem distant and inaccessible from a European point of view but which was quite literally a centre of the world. In medieval times it was a crossroads of the ‘silk and spice’ routes, and a centre for the ancient trade in medicinal plants from the Himalayas east, west and to as far south as southern India.

The four main medical-pharmaceutical traditions of the older world were (in chronological order) the Egyptian, India’s Ayurveda, the Chinese and the Hellenistic. Trade in scented plants for incense, perfumes and items made of scented woods was also well developed by medieval times and those raw materials were traded across both the overland and the maritime routes when Polo and Ibn Battuta were there.

From here – the eastern side of what had been the old Achaemenid Persian empire, and later the limit of Alexander’s conquests, Buddhism was disseminated, and the oldest extant printed book has been recovered – the copy of a Buddhist text dated to the ninth century AD. From here, too, the region’s astronomical tradition – maintained quite possibly in an unbroken line from the period of Hellenistic-Indian interaction – was taken westward as refugees fled under the pressure of the Mongol invasion, their knowledge eventually informing the work done in Tabriz. Syria and Egypt regained, at that same time and evidently from the same cause, the previously ‘lost’ art of enamelling and gilding glass.

Considered in its historical context, the thirteenth-century Syrian glass is a poignant testimony to the fate of Nishapur in 1221 AD. Among the tens of thousands slaughtered was a poet named Attar and I believe the ornament on this glass is intended as a testimony to the city, its images a reference to Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’, the author having been among the thousands massacred when his city of Nishapur was depopulated and systematically destroyed, as so many others in the region were by the Mongols. Attar’s poem, however, survived and is still in print and much loved. It is a superb moral and spiritual allegory. In the view (right) the Simurgh and Hoopoe are both visible.

Between the time when Marco Polo had set off for the east in 1271 and when Ibn Battuta did so in 1325, major changes had occurred in the Mediterranean.

In 1290, the Mamluks of Egypt finally removed the last of the foreign-occupied centres in the Holy Land. Thus, while Marco Polo had been able to enter through Acco (Acre) and then use the Mesopotamian corridor to reach the sea in 1271, but on his return in 1295 that way was barred to European Christians and he had to go north and reach the Mediterranean by way of the Black Sea.

In the meantime, and as I first described when explaining the drawing on folio 5v, a large group of Genoese shipwrights and mercenaries had left for Mesopotamia in 1290, responding to an embassy sent two years earlier to the west by the Mongol il-Khan Arghun, who was planning a war against the Mamluks of Egypt.

Seven hundred of those Genoese went directly to Baghdad, but two hundred stopped at Mosul (ancient Nineveh), where they spent the winter building two sea-going ships. Mosul has no natural supply of ship-building timber but its reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world, and a hull painted with bitumen deterred attacks from the teredo or ‘shipworm’ which was the scourge of shipping in the eastern seas. Mosul was also a major supplier of astronomical instruments through the earlier medieval centuries and here too a version of the Dioscoridan herbal was made in which several elements find their counterpart in plant-pictures from the Voynich manuscript. That herbal was sent to Mashhad.

In posts to voynichimagery, I spoke in greater detail of the matters touched on in the paragraph above.  About the Genoese in Mesopotamia, I spoke initially when explaining the drawing on folio 5v. (Marancini’s ‘bitumen’ essay was published a few years later).  I’ll here add part of a footnote from a late post to voynichimagery  (October 21st., 2016).      ‘Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…’ Using pitch, tar/bitumen to waterproof a hull is as old as the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in Jewish law: Noah is told “Make for yourself an ark ..  make compartments in the ark and cover it with tar [=pitch] inside and outside”.  Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and  from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians would have known the deposits of Mosul (ancient Nineveh).  Herodotus (Bk.1, 179) describes a fountain of pitch in Babylon in lower Mesopotamia and, later, Eratosthenes (as reported by Plutarch Alexander, 35) did the same.   It occurs  in Mosul in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur. On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19.

Using their existing leverage with Constantinople and now with Baghdad, the Genoese were soon (from 1291) able to gain trading privileges amounting at first to near-monopoly in the Black Sea and similar rights of access to the eastern goods which were now being re-routed, from the older direct way via Damascus to that northern route, the same route which linked to the Persian gulf and which Marco Polo had been obliged to follow when returning west. The same route would been taken to Tabriz by ibn Battura in c.1326. All the gems and spices, all the practical and medicinal products, as well as materials used for pigments and dyes, now came west through that route or – with various limits and prohibitions and less reliably – via Cairo, Armenia and Tunis.

In sum:

Having shown that it is theoretically possible for ‘eastern parts’ to have contributed matter later copied to make Beinecke MS 408, the next post will consider details in the drawings from the ‘leaf and root’ section, to see if any offer evidence of such origins.

For anyone to have troubled to copy and to carry to Europe, and there to have copyied again with care any such information would imply (a) that the graphic conventions need not be those of western Europe or indeed of the Mediterranean, and (b) that the persons concerned in such a transmission are unlikely to have been members of those higher social groups who have traditionally peopled Europe’s ‘intellectual history’. More likely by far is that such persons would be practical otherwise unknown individuals, ones motivated chiefly by profit over any literary value though perhaps believing, as most medieval people did, that the oldest sources were the purest. Apart from western missionaries, those who moved between the eastern and western limits of the known world before 1440 were almost all traveller-traders, even if (like the Bolognese doctor mentioned in one letter attributed to the Sicilian missionary John de Montecorvino), their ‘trade’ was medicine.

Cipher versus language – assertions and bundles

Note added May 6th., 2021.

During my year’s absence, wordpress seems to have made an arbitrary decision to remove the black arrow-marker pointing to paragraphs of supplementary data, text or details, replacing that arrow with a simple mark of elipsis (—-).  In some of my posts, half the information was found by clicking on the arrows, so readers are advised now to click on any line of that sort. In some cases, it may be my ornamental division between parts of the post, but now in other cases it will reveal much more information.  One of these days, if I can find the time, I’ll go through all the 50-plus posts and put in some other graphic, though it won’t be clickable.

(that’s just a mark of division between the note and the main text)

_____________________ (ordinary text-division line)

In the ‘About’ page, I explained a habit of ‘Wilfrid-style’ narratives.  By surrounding a baseless assertion with  distracting bits-and-pieces from history, scrutiny of the principal item is avoided.   I compared this to the way the case-moth uses twigs  to pass detection.

The phenomenon in Voynich studies is perfectly illustrated by the question of whether or not the Voynich text is in cipher.  That idea is found in Wilfrid’s first public description of the manuscript, and was repeated in the paper which he presented in 1921.  Yet the notion had no foundation in fact or preliminary research.  It is nothing more than a flight of Wilfrid’s imagination – as he says:

And that’s all there was to it.  No research. No alternative possibilities investigated. No process of elimination. No effort to demonstrate the validity of the idea.  Just a bit of kite-flying, plain and simple. Wilfrid lends it dignity by saying that he ‘found’ the text was in cipher – although in fact all he ‘found’ was that he couldn’t read it.

What is extraordinary, though, is not that Wilfrid indulged his imagination in this way, but that his contemporaries immediately adopted the assertion as if were a fact established;  as an item of faith  and apparently did so  without hesitation, scrutiny, demur or any effort to test the idea or to provide it with some formal defence.  This remained the case for almost a hundred years.

Over that period, persons interested in the manuscript included not only interested laymen but persons trained in analytical method and scientific expectations of evidence to inform conclusions. They included academics and cryptographers, medieval historians and specialists in medieval manuscripts.  To see their apparent gullibility – their setting aside their own standards of critical thinking –  is astonishing.  But that’s what happened, and this item of faith hardened into a standard ‘doctrine’ because the ‘ciphertext’ immediately became a chief focus for interest and discussion.  Until very recently, to so much as suggest the text might be of another kind was to risk ridicule and animosity  – especially during the last decades of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first.

Thanks to Jim Reeds who compiled a bibliography of Voynich writings composed between 1914-2001, you can follow the course of the manuscript’s study through those years, and see how the great majority focus exclusively on ‘cracking the cipher text’.

Formal arguments in favour.  

There may have been  earlier efforts to provide the ‘ciphertext’ idea with a formal argument in its favour but the first of which I know wasn’t published until 2011, when Pelling put his view into a  blog-post:

I won’t comment on that argument because linguistics and cryptography are not my field.  However, in 2016, E.M. Smith was trying to get a clear statement of why the ‘ciphertext’ idea was so widely held.  The responses received display a lessening of faith in the idea.  This is a selection of the more salient comments.

Comments selected from thread  ‘The Voynich Manuscript is a cipher because…..? ‘, forum (online).  Comments to the forum are publicly visible at the time of writing.

Job: It can be difficult to separate a cipher from a constructed language. Maybe a better question would be, why is the Voynich Manuscript not a natural language? (February 15th, 2016)

Emma: It’s really not better to phrase it that way. I want positive reasons for the Voynich manuscript being a cipher. If folks’ beliefs truly boil down to, “it’s a cipher because I don’t think it’s a language”, then I think the whole side of cipher research on the VM has a serious problem.(February 15th, 2016)

Sam G: As of 2016, nobody has ever developed a cipher capable of replicating even a fraction of the VMS text’s properties, despite the enormous advances in cryptography that have been made since the VMS was produced, and the fact that some of the best cryptographers in the world have worked specifically on the VMS.(February 20th, 2016)

 Anton I would like to mention some arguments in favour of the cipher hypothesis [sic.] *… 1) Here and there the text bears evidence of having been put down not in a single pass. ….  2) There is that curious phenomenon of “gallows coverage” there…..  3) There is at least one label consisting of only one character. … (March 23rd, 2016)

Emma: Of your three points in favour of a cipher, I agree that point 2) is good. But point 1) is ambiguous, and point 3) is incredibly thin.(March 24th, 2016)

Note: *the ‘ciphertext’ was not ever an ‘hypothesis’. From the first it was no more than an assertion, adopted on faith.

See also:

E.M. Smith, ‘Why the Voynich Text is not Linguistic’, Agnostic Voynich (blog) January 5th, 2016

The most reasonable explanation for the apparent gullibility displayed by highly intelligent, professionally competent, and formally trained analytical minds over the decades after 1914 is, I think, the skill with which Wilfrid bundled his ‘cipher text’ idea. It was that which apparently froze his readers’ critical intelligence over this item and several others which also became items of ‘Voynich doctrine’.

Wilfrid-style “bundling”

Between 1912-2012 the three most common topics driving discussion of the manuscript were:

  • (a) the ‘cipher-text’;
  • (b) the ‘Roger Bacon’ tale or that of some other posited  ‘author’.
  • (c) a presumption that the manuscript can only be worthy of study if it is an expression of western Christian (‘Latin’) culture.

None of these notions or presumptions was soundly based, to judge from Wilfrid’s own account.  Yet all three became cornerstones of ‘Voynich doctrine’ and to as late as 2011 all energies remained focused on ‘breaking the cipher’ and on identifying the (possibly-imaginary) ‘author’.   To this latter notion, and the bias towards Latin European culture I attribute the fact that Wilfrid seems never to have asked, nor to have been asked, the most obvious question of all, ‘Why can it not be unreadable simply because it’s in a foreign language?’

I am not arguing, here, that the text is not in cipher or that it is in a foreign language.  I’m considering the impact on the nature and direction of the study of  such adoption of ideas on the basis of faith alone, and their hardening into determinedly-maintained ‘doctrines’.

Here’s the origin of those other two ideas. They are part of Wilfrid’s bundle for the ‘ciphertext’ notion:

Note: Wilfrid again merely asserts and implies that he is able to define the nature of the manuscript’s content as ‘natural history’ in the European tradition. He has considered no other possible explanation for the curious style of the plant-drawings for example, though it takes only a moment’s reflection to list several other possibilities – such as (e.g.) designs for textiles, or murals, or ornamental stonework – or a non-European origin. A habit of adopting an authoritative air and unreasonable certainty are other characteristics of the ‘Wilfrid-style’ which became the norm when this manuscript was the subject.

‘Natural history’ enciphered ..?

I’ll return in another post to treat in more detail  Wilfrid’s assertions about the nature of the text. Here it is enough to say the idea depends, yet again, on nothing but personal impressions, lack of critical investigation, and appeals to deeply rooted contemporary assumptions.

His only explanation for the text’s being (supposedly) enciphered depends on his audience’s acquaintance with a particular – now discarded – idea of medieval history: the notion that the church and ‘science’ (in the generic) were naturally opposed to one another.  It was an idea propounded and elaborated during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth: first by a chap named Draper and then by another named White.  The idea still lingers in popular imagination, but its refutation I’ll leave to Thony Christie and Tim O’Neill.

The point is that without the Draper-White thesis, the grounds for imagining that Bacon (or anyone else) would encipher a book about natural history are annulled.

  •  Thony Christie, ‘Perpetuating the Myths’, Renaissance Mathematicus (blog) May 17th  2017. Dismisses the Draper-White thesis in discussing Giordano Bruno and others.

The Condemnations of 1210-1277 that he [‘Skep’] refers to in his mangled reference to Roger Bacon above actually illustrate this point quite neatly. If, as “Skep” claims, the medieval Church stifled proto-scientific inquiry so completely we should have no trouble finding this reflected in clear statements by the Church delineating what was off limits for inquiry. After all, it’s not like the medieval Church was shy about making its position on what could or could not be believed or questioned clear. And it seems “Skep” thinks the Condemnations of 1210-1277 represent just such statements.

But do they? To begin with, if they do we would expect these statements to be made in some kind of proclamation that applied to the whole of Christendom: in, say, a canon of an ecumenical council or at least a Papal bull. But no such statements exist. The 1210-1277 Condemnations, on the contrary, are very specific and highly local in their application: they apply only to the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris and nowhere else. This is hardly surprising, since they arose out of an academic squabble between that university’s Faculty of Theology and the upstarts in the Faculty of Arts, who the theologians thought were intruding on their hallowed turf. Not only did they not apply to anyone outside of the Arts Faculty or the University of Paris, there is little evidence of them having much impact on anyone or any other institution at all. On the contrary, in 1210 rival universities seized on them gleefully and tried to use them to lure students away from Paris, with the University of Toulouse advertising itself as a place to “hear the books of Aristotle which were forbidden at Paris”. When it comes to student recruitment to universities, not much has changed.

But not only did these condemnations apply only to Paris’ Arts Faculty and have no effect at all elsewhere, but they were also very specifically aimed at ideas found in the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle that were brought back to Catholic Europe from Islamic Spain and Sicily in the preceding century. The 1210 Condemnation was broad in its restriction, but still specific to particular works by Aristotle:

“Neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy or their commentaries are to be read at Paris in public or secret, and this we forbid under penalty of excommunication.”

To be fair, in 1210 those “new” works by Aristotle and the mainly Muslim commentaries on them did represent a substantial portion of all “natural philosophy”. Which could explain why the 1210 Condemnation was … almost completely ignored. By 1255 all of Aristotle’s works then available plus a range of commentaries and expansions of his ideas were not only widely read in Paris but were prescribed texts in the Arts Faculty. So much for the terrible restrictive power of the medieval Church. With the total failure of the 1210 Condemnation in restricting those naughty Arts professors, in 1270 the Paris Faculty of Theology tried again.