Musaceae ~ fol. 13r Bananas Pt2(concluded)


Copyright. Permissions.


As the  ‘Banana palm’ this printed illustration appeared in a work published in Lyon in 1602, the text credited to Cristóvão da Costa, though it is no more than the translation into French of a work published in Antwerp 25 years before: Carolus Clusius’  Aromatum (1576).


Nor was  Clusius’ work his own composition. It, in turn, translated from the Portuguese,  Garcia da Orta’s,  Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”) – published neither in France nor Spain but in India (Goa) itself – 1563.


For reasons which are not entirely clear, the church decided after da Orta’s death that he had returned to the Jewish religion of his parents (they having been forcibly converted from Judaism to Christianity),  and so ordered his grave and body desecrated. Similar scenes marked all the activities of western Christianity at the time, and one doubts that the bigotries of Christians preferring their national church differed greatly from those preferring the ‘universal’ church. It was the  habit of mind wihch then prevailed in Europe, and not one expression of it, which informed these extraordinary irrational attitudes during the fifteenth century and later.


Da Orta himself appears to have lived  all his life as a Christian. By profession he was a physician.  We may suppose he probably knew a little Portuguese at least, and perhaps some Arabic and Hebrew, even if only to be able to work as a physician in India. Goa was the Portuguese centre after da Gama arrived.


His  medical education in Spain, as well as his time of residence in India, means hat da Orta was in a position, at least, to have read works by al-Nabati and Ibn al-Baitar (d. 1248), the two of the greatest names of their time.


To quote the wiki article – which is easiest for readers to check:

“da Orta’s remarkable knowledge of Eastern spices and drugs is revealed in his only known work, Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”), published at Goa in 1563. This deals with a series of substances, many of them unknown or the subject of confusion and misinformation in Europe at this period”


With regard to those earlier works by al Baitar’s, Schwab mentions The Complete Work on Nutrition and Medicines and Guide to Simple Medicines. He is of the opinion that Kitab al-Nasiti was unequalled by any European work of its time, and is not known to have been translated into Latin, or any western vernacular tongue though he wrote during the period of the Salerno medical school. al-Baitar’s pharmaceutical encyclopedia describes 1,400 plants, foods, and drugs, 300 of which are said to have been original discoveries.


A detailed comparison of the various sources incuding the Nestorian Book of Medicines would certainly be enlightening, but for our purpose and the seventeenth-century context, the important point is that the same person who rendered Clusius’ Aromaticum into French, Antoine Colin,  also made translations whose focus was, again, on the materia medica of regions beyond Europe.


Colin bore the title “Master Apothecary of the City of Lyon” and it was his publisher, Jean Pillehotte, who was the nominated printer for the Society of Jesus in Lyons.


From Pillehotte’s press, therefore, issued a great number of works, commissioned texts and (presumably) commissioned translations, works both religious and scientific, whose market were the merchants and the missionaries looking eastward, as well as the medical or educational fraternities. He published from the end of the sixteenth century to the earlier part of the seventeenth: only a few decades after which we hear that Kircher was now urging the current owner of the Voynich manuscript to send it to him for an attempted translation.


This would appear to suggest that Kircher believed it contained something that was not already available in print, and that he supposed whatever the manuscript was about would be relevant to his own interests: as a man with a reputation for understanding ancient or distant languages, or as a priest, or as a priest particularly hoping to be assigned to his Society’s missions in China.


As it happened, he was never permitted to travel so far.


But what is evident from the illustration shown above, is a knowledge of the Muscaceae (or within it, of the bananas) far below that intimate knowledge of these plants that is demonstrated by the botanical image in the Voynich manuscript. The woodcut does, however, show a mark reminiscent of the circumscription line ~  the sign used in our manuscript to indicate cultivation.


What Europe considered ‘exotic plants’ as late as the seventeenth century are habitually depicted in the Voynich ms botanical folios (of c.1438) with knowledge of form, and of uses for each plant-group, that is every bit as clear for other folios as in those described so far in this blog.


Thus, to hold that this manuscript – as an object – is a product of the fifteenth century is a perfectly reasonable supposition, and to suppose it inscribed by a person trained in the European style is not unreasonable. But to insist on attributing its entire creation and content to persons whose horizons (in 1438) were no wider than mainland Europe is a view that can hardly be maintained.


Products obtained from many of the ‘exotics’ had certainly been known to western Europe for a great deal longer: myrrh, frankincense, and the myrobalans among them, but in many cases the appearance of the plant from which such goods came would remain unknown, still, in Kircher’s time.


A study of da Orta’s life and works summarised ~ here.


Note: Bananas were once a staple food across the Pacific islands, and appear to have been carried habitually, and transplanted, by the kanakas (mariners/men) of both the Pacific and the Indian.


Banana fruit was once considered that of  the tree of paradise, or of wisdom, something reflected in the old scientific names for the two wild species of plaintain banana:  Musa acuminata (formerly Musa sapientum) and Musa balbisiana (formerly Musa paradisiaca)…  fruit from the Musaceae come in a variety of sizes and colors, including yellow, purple, and red…[and] the term ‘banana’ is also used – more loosely – to describe the Ensete.


On April 10th, 1633 a man in Bermuda sent to the President of the College of Physicians in England a bunch of bananas, which there then sent to the apothecary John Argent, who hung them from his doorway, had their portrait made and included in the same year in a new edition of  Gerard’s Herbal (1633).


Theophrastus made it into the same edition. But the point is that bananas had never before been known in England.