System and Science.

If the imagery were fantasy or hoax, we’d know by now.

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Every folio in the manuscript has been scrutinised by experts in everything from ancient Egyptian to code-breaking.

A forgery might be more difficult to pick, but most forgers don’t create an imaginary text; they make something so like another that people are duped.  Even medieval forgeries pretending to be  ancient  don’t fool many now.

But the Voynich botanical section isn’t like that. It isn’t in a familiar style; it doesn’t reproduce  some famous European herbal, or art-style; and yet it is systematic, consistent and most importantly, sensible.

The pictures include details which tell us that a given type of plant is wild, or that it is cultivated; whether its timber is useful; its principal (and not rarely also its subsidiary) commercial use, and which other plants the maker/s believed belonged to the same  class or plant-group. To that extent, it deserves to be called scientific, and botanical, imagery.

However: the  system used to decide which plants form a group isn’t ours today, and isn’t medieval European either. For one thing, each picture is the picture of a group of plants, not just one. And the thinking behind decisions about which plants compose a particular group isn’t the thinking of our  taxonomy. It is also  quite unlike a medieval herbal from western Europe. Those sometimes have odd impressions of known plants, but these botanical folios show very accurate figures for the plants in them, even though many would not be known to western botanical science for a couple of centuries after the Voynich manuscript was made. In fact, some don’t appear  rightly labelled and reasonably-well pictured  in European texts until as much as four hundred years later!

That doesn’t mean the manuscript was made later than 1438: it means that the manuscript contains information gained from somewhere else, even if the manuscript was made in fifteenth century Europe. The most obvious question then is why we don’t see the same plants in other western works of the fifteenth, or sixteenth centuries. And the most logical explanation (unless you ignore all the eastern matter and style in the manuscript itself) is that the people who had a copy of the manuscript weren’t in a position to disseminate the information, or didn’t want to disseminate it, or simply couldn’t understand it. There’s no evidence that anyone has ever understood it in Europe, not in the fifteenth century when the manuscript itself was made, nor in the seventeenth century, when its then-owner asked Athanasius Kircher (reputed to be an expert on ancient languages) to see if he couldn’t interpret it.

 ‘Plant-portraits’ ~ The Dioscoridan style

From about the 1stC AD, the western world had adopted the habit of making single-plant ‘portraits’.  That method was introduced to the Roman world at that time, by a man named Dioscorides [sometimes spelled ‘Dioscurides’]. He inherited the idea, and he certainly inherited the knowledge in his written herbal: a lot of it from work by Theophrastus of Eresus who’d lived several centuries earlier, and who is important for our study.

Dioscorides’ emphasis, though, was on medicinal uses for plants and there was great excitement in the late sixteenth century (about 150 years after the Voynich ms was made) when a sixth-century manuscript of his Materia medica turned up. Interestingly, even in the sixth century, the maker of the Vienna Dioscorides omitted mention of Theophrastus in his picture of Dioscorides’ predecessors. This is probably because unlike them, Theophrastus had not made single ‘portraits’ of plants. Pliny remarked of the inventors of the ‘new’ method, saying that:

“Krateuas, Dionysios and Metrodoros took up a very attractive-looking method, though one which makes clear little except the difficulty of employing it. They painted [realistic] likenesses of the plants and then wrote under them their properties.

But not only is a picture misleading when the colors are so many, particularly as the aim is to copy nature, but besides this, much imperfection arises from the manifold hazards in the accuracy of copyists. In addition, it is not enough for each plant to be painted at one period only of its life, since it alters its appearance with the fourfold changes of the year.”

Pliny, Natural History (XXV.4)

.. versus Theophrastan style

Theophrastus had lived in the days of Alexander the Great’s  immediate successors, and had been one of the first in the west to classify plants into their families and groups. He began by describing a plant’s leaf, and then the growth-habit: whether a plant grew upright or sprawling and so on.  But since the leaf of a turnip looks very like the leaf of an ancient lettuce (for example), his system could include them into a single group. In the case of the lettuce and the turnip, he even believed that the plant which sprang up as a turnip one year might next year rise as a lettuce. That attitude came into early medieval Europe, and in some cases persisted until long after the Voynich was made. But Theophrastus also thought that the way a plant looked chiefly depended on where it grew, and when it grew.

In a way, we still think so. We call it adaptation or evolution, but Theophrastus didn’t think in terms of evolutionary time. He thought – in the case of the lettuce/turnip for example  – that such similarity meant these were really  the same plant in changed conditions,  that forms were mutable, and so a grouping of plants was defined not just by appearance but by common nature; he called it the  ‘soul’. That meant that a given plant could be considered the same as one (or more) of different appearance so long as character and uses were more-or-less identical. Long before the time of those who began painting single plant-portraits in the Roman world, Theophrastus (apparently) accepted the idea of the composite ‘group’ image. Whether his works were illustrated we don’t know.

But after considering the various options, Theophrastus further concluded that this constant ‘soul’ resided in the region between a plant’s roots and its stem. Obviously, since the leaves might appear as (e.g.) a lettuce, and the root next year as the turnip, the constant soul had to be in some part which did not seem to change.

What has this to do with the Voynich manuscript?

First: Theophrastus’ works were the standard ones during the Hellenistic period, even if they were often not credited, or wrongly credited (e.g. to Aristotle). His connection to the Library of Alexandria, and to contemporary geographers, as well as his following Aristotle as head of the Peripatetic school in Athens ensured that his knowledge and attitudes, at least, became widely known in the time up to the arrival of the ‘Dioscoridan’ method for picturing plants.

Secondly, the pictures are composites. It doesn’t prove they come from Theophrastus’ works, but does indicate a non-Dioscoridan or pre-Dioscoridan approach.

Thirdly, the imagery in the Voynich’s botanical section flags the group’s nature and purpose by the form given the picture’s leaves, which is also in keeping with the Theophrastan style.

Fourthly, Theophrastus laid little importance on the flower, considering it no more than a transient arrangement of minor leaves. This is quite contrary to the western tradition, in which the flower effectively identifies the type of plant. The Voynich imagery rarely bothers to show flowers in any detail, unless the flower itself contains the valuable matter: it is not there to aid identification as western botany and medieval herbals do.

Fifthly, the drawings appear to have been originally uncoloured, or only lightly coloured line-drawings – something which Pliny’s comments suggest must have been true in general of the older and non-Dioscoridan habit.

Sixthly: wherever possible the first maker/s take the defining leaf from a plant already known in the Mediterranean by Theophrastus’ time.

Seventhly: the form for the leaf defines the class or group, but others of different appearance may then be included,  so long as they display that common ‘nature’  chiefly demonstrated by their products.

In short, the classification system refers to the old Mediterranean, and definition of a ‘group’ is usually by means of a leaf from plants of the  Theophrastan corpus, despite the fact that the focus of this  section in the manuscript, and of any given folio, is on plants from the eastern trade routes whose uses are equivalent to the Mediterranean’s ‘base’ type.

Positing a connection between Greek-speakers and the eastern trade routes poses no particular problem, even by the time of Theophrastus. Enclaves of Greeks were established by Alexander and his successors throughout the east and despite the changes wrought by the centuries, there are still some descendant communities (no longer speaking Greek) living in those same centres.

Theophrastus also wrote on meteorology, medicine, stones and more.

Equivalence between the different plants within a group is not by appearance, then, but by the similarities manifested overall, as much in products as in leaf or fruit.

So, for example, one folio I’ll analyse in the next post uses the hemp and its leaf to define the group. But since it is really focused on the  fibre ~ a  focus  signalled by the  memory-jogging picture (mnemonic device) at the root level ~ the remainder of the drawing is concerned with eastern plants whose purpose and context are closely equivalent to hemp’s.

A fair number of the mnemonic devices  are found placed precisely at the ‘Theophrastan’ line.  I take them as  expressing ( to use Theophrastan ideas) the nature or  ‘soul’ expressed by plants in a given group, despite the fact that their appearance differs in these different climes.

It is by thinking of them in Theophrastus’ terms,that  the botanical pictures reveal their meaning, and show why an eastern plant such  as Musa textilis can be included with C. sativa.  Their nature and produce was perceived (accurately) to be almost identical, and this is perfectly true. Even today the fibre from M. textilis is commonly called ‘Manila Hemp’.

The first maker/s of the botanical imagery viewed the world differently from us, but they were not less intelligent or less accurate in their observations.  The plants in this section are very well and accurately drawn, and clearly informed by long first-hand experience, very likely accumulated over generations.

Point is, though, that M. textilis grows in Borneo and the Philippines, and in 1438 when our manuscript was made, no Portuguese ships had yet ‘discovered’ those regions, though most of the world east of Suez had been trading there for centuries.

I don’t think our manuscript is a straight copy of a Theophrastan one, not only because of the additions, but because some of the louder mnemonics make most sense if they are ‘seen’ in Latin, rather than Greek.

There are also some small drawings in the astronomical section that have been drawn very like ones  in a  few (a very few) older western manuscripts (12th-13thC AD). So the Voynich’s botanical section is most likely the copy of a copy in which the mnemonic devices and some other late additions were already present. When the current script and text were devised, I shall not speculate.

Standard ‘cues’ (see end of post for some illustrated) include:

If one or more in a ‘group’ is cultivated, the picture includes a ‘circumscription line’.  If not, it was only known as a wild plant.

If the picture shows a cut bole, at least one in the group is valued for its timber ~ as well as for any other uses.

If it shows a perfectly-level area at, or below the root, one or more of these plants is a water-plant.

A slender, near-vertical, but slightly undulating stem indicates the vine.

If leaves are shown  ‘harlequin’ style it means that the plant has a noticeably different colour on one side of the leaf than on the other.  This is one artistic convention with a counterpart (of sorts) in early medieval manuscripts of western Europe, but those trees, as far as we can tell, represent a single plant, not a group as the manuscript does.

An interesting feature is that in the botanical section ~ unlike other sections of the manuscript~  the maker/s had difficulty rendering depth, unless they used a profile view.  I’ll explain more when we get to an example.

In  lowest part of the plant, the  ‘roots’ are stylised to include a hint of why this specific plant was wanted. Sometimes the root is arranged to suggest a little roof, or perhaps a helmet-peak. Other roots are entwined, hinting at the way we weave yarn or hair.  Others again ‘flow’ and these yield oil or a dye. Some few suggest a reptile or insect.  They are all perfectly appropriate to the plants shown above them.  The ‘nib’ is included among such simpler types of mnemonic.

As part of these simpler, root-level mnemonics, a couple of folios have in them an element which I’ll call  the ‘nib’ motif and which  indicates (I think) that the plant’s materials give inks, dyes, and/or paper, materials used by the scribal class/castes in the east, and by those who drew and painted on fabric.

A number of  folios contain the very ‘loud’ mnemonics which best make  sense if you describe them in Latin. Since Latin was the usual language of learning right through Europe from Roman to medieval times, and later, this type of mnemonic could have been added any time after the Roman conquests in 2ndC BC. Of course by the time of Pliny, Romans and the Greeks were living and trading in India, while ships from Arabia, India and (by 164AD) from China  were trading regularly into the Persian Gulf. On the other hand a Latin-speaker could have added memory-jogging emblems of this type as late as the fourteenth century.

Exceptions to these standards for formulating the are rare in the botanical folios. Folio 9v is one. It is generally agreed to represent the violas, and  is among the very few which would look at home in a medieval European herbal. Its emphasis is equally on flower and leaf; it refers to no product; the roots bear no mnemonic apparent to me and one has no hint given for its uses.**

So – these drawings are otherwise regular, systematically constructed and accurate.  They only look peculiar to us because they didn’t come from our own traditions in art or botany. That’s all.

The next few posts will show more examples of these elements, and the principles for interpretation, but I’ll leave a page-by-page description of the botanical section to the end. Most people find them of less interest than the folios that show stars or animals.


** the earliest identification (though partial) for 9v as a viola that I can find is credited to ‘Petersen’. Additional or alternative identifications as one or other of the group are credited here.


Using the header illustration (fol.53v), here are some of the emblems illustrated.

More of them will be illustrated in the next post, using fol.16r – the hemp/abaca group.

Copyright notice:

This is published to assist study of MS Beinecke 408.
It constitutes the results of personal academic research.
To fellow professionals: Each of these post is to be considered a formal publication, being thereby declared and subject to copyright. You may use it for personal research, but publication of the papers, or unacknowledged adoption of their conclusions and/or  proposed analytical method without proper citation, in any media, will be deemed a breach of copyright. Permissions – see email address in sidebar.


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