The matter of ‘alchemical herbals’ in Voynich studies

In 1997-8, in a thread entitled  ‘Historical Precedents for the Voynich manuscript’, contemporary members of the old Voynich mailing list considered whether the Vms might be similar  to Europe’s “alchemical herbals”.


Many of the suggestions raised there have passed into tacit acceptance over the past sixteen-and-more years, but other observations made at the time and equally relevant seem to have faded from memory – which is a pity.


The question itself has been explored, I understand, by Rene Zandbergen, to whose thorough knowledge of medieval Latin herbals I owe my first introduction to  the role which these manuscripts, the so-called ‘alchemical herbals’ have played in Voynich studies since 1997 or so. Which is not to say that Zandbergen and I have similar ideas about the degree or type of connection, and in fact my opinion is far closer to Stallings’ comments quoted below.


After re-reading that old mailing list’s thread,  I’m amazed by how contemporary its matter still seems.  The issue of ‘alchemical herbals’ is still being raised, and debated,  by members of the present list run by Richard Santacoloma.


Rather than summarise sixteen years’ worth of ideas about whether and in what way  those manuscripts might relate to ms Beinceke 408, I’ll revisit the origin of this now-entrenched notion.


Dennis Stallings’  responses to a paper  newly written by Sergio Torasella,  included the following


( Mon, 16 Jun 1997):

1)  “Alchemical herbals” is really a misnomer, since these herbals contain little or no alchemical imagery.  A Bolognese naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) collected some of these herbals and labeled them “plants of the alchemists”.  Toresella calls these “alchemical herbals” ….


(I now insert Aldrovani’s original phase for Torasella’s in recounting the rest of  Stalling’s comment,  as I will in my own i-  D)


2)  Some pictures in the [‘alchemists’ plants’ manuscripts] can be traced to pseudo-Apuleius and the Circa Instans of the Salerno Medical School. However, it is an autonomous tradition that may have begun in the XIII century.  No existing specimens predate the middle of the XIV century, their heyday was the XV century, and they disappeared at the middle of the XVI century.  (52)  “They all seem strictly Italian because, except for two cases, all the [manuscripts of that type], about seventy, were produced in Italy, in prevalence in northern Italy, in the Veneto area.”  (51)


6)  Although Toresella expresses his opinion that the author of the Voynich Manuscript suffered from insanity, that does not necessarily mean that the text has no meaning.  Indeed, his statement that the author “thought that he had discovered the secret of the world; a secret to entrust to a language and a cryptic script” would seem to indicate that the text is meaningful.  There are a range of possible levels of meaningfulness.

7)  Those who used the [alchemists’ plants] practiced “traveling medicine.” (according to Torasella p. 47)  These healers practiced “demotic medicine, the offspring of a very ancient medical culture, mostly transmitted orally, and distinguished from official medicine especially by its lack of an organic theory of illness.” (P. 48) [Stallings accepted the implication of medical use, but added:] Thus saying that they were to impress the ignorant misses the point.  These various types of practitioners of “travelling medicine” were medieval folk healers, such as are found in all pre-modern cultures.  …

(though of course there remains the question of whether alchemists in general were ever greatly interested in medicine as such. In this, some few may have been exceptions, as much later were Tepenecz and Baresch. – D).


Rene Zandbergen’s personal website explains his preferences as they were in 2002 and as, I think, they remain.  Whether the content will be the same in future as it is now, one cannot say, but see his ‘long tour’ page.


Postscript note:

After posting this, I saw that in a comment made to a post at ciphermysteries  (‘Pre-1450 German possibility?’ December 21st., 2009)  Zandbergen had linked to Brit.Lib. Sloane ms 335 saying, “To add to the confusion…. 😉  I just found a very nice illustration from a pre-1450 manuscript which is more Voynich Herbal-like than anything I can remember, yet is neither from Italy nor from Germany:. ”  I have found no further effort made by Zandbergen to explore what significance this similarity might have, and in general (as indeed in that case) Zandbergen avoids suggesting any link to Emgland.  The British Library’s catalogue says of Sloane MS 335 only:  ‘Drawings, some tinted, of various plants. Origin: England.    (See header, above right).


The point, at present, is that Torasella’s term  is a misnomer and one which effectively turns black into white, because Aldrovandi’s term is plainly coined as a way to separate this  type of plant-book from the genre of Latin herbals.  Torasella re-works the description to create an implicit argument that these are, in fact, a variety of the home-grown Latin herbal – which they plainly are not and never were.



Discussions by later-come Voynicheros have necessarily been affected by widepread promotion of Zandbergen’s website, for he and others opted to adopt Torasella’s misnomer and to omit mention of all reasonable hesitation, demur of sensible objection –  by Stallings or anyone else.  One may sympathise with Zandbergen’s drive to achieve a single, unified and unanimous opinion from which none dissent, but eternal truth is a matter of theology, not the stuff of scholarship.

In this case, Torasella’s description of those manuscripts is positively misleading and as a result the central issue – whether or not those ‘plants of the alchemists’ manuscirpts bear any genuine relation to Beinecke MS 408 – has fallen by the way.

I’ll revert to Adrovandi’s term: less neat as a sound-bite perhaps, but the way Aldrovandi set this type of manuscript apart from the ‘herbal’.


Abandoning the misnomer also makes clear that its adoption had another unhappy effect, namely an idea promoted by its use that the Voynich manuscript must contain   ‘alchemical’ matter akin to that found in much later European works/ Adam McLean had written an assessment of the Vms dismissing such a connection in that same thread on the old Voynich mailing list. (‘Historical Precedents’ thread 19 Nov 1998).  [Note: 2017 – McLean appears since to have changed his mind.]


With regard to the style of Europe’s alchemical imagery between the late fifteenth and seventeenth centuries – alchemical sensu strictu –  there are a number of reliable texts.  I still have my copy of Lindy Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, issued by Cambridge University Press (2001) and have found no need to replace it though others have been published since.  You might also consult Adam McLean’s site.


Torasella offered other opinions in 1997, most of which are less often repeated.


His view was – and perhaps still is – that the manuscript had a fifteenth-century Italian author who was insane, sex-obsessed and  highly interested in herbal baths.


Similar views were being promoted quite regularly  (along with discussions of fumaroles) in posts to the present (second) Voynich mailing list hosted by Richard Santacoloma.


In the main, however, Torasella’s paper is remembered only for that term – which I think unfortunate, and it is quite likely that some of his earlier ideas have been abandoned or modified since 1997.


His original view on the Voynich manuscript’s date was that it was   ‘definitely Italian, late fifteenth century’, though the radiocarbon dating now informs us that the parchment is early, not late fifteenth century and was apparently used soon after its manufacture.


Today, I think, there is less certainty than there once was among the Voynich ‘community’ – including Torasella – that the script is an ‘Italian humanist’ hand.


Perhaps if any readers attended the Villa Mondragone Conference in May last year, and recall Torasella’s talk, they might care to comment on his current views?.


But all in all ~


I do recommend that Voynich researchers interested in the manuscript’s imagery – and indeed its script – take the trouble to locate, read, consider, and credit, a wide range of informed opinion, particularly those offered on the first mailing list by its elder members: Stallings, Reeds and Stolfi among them.  Readers may be amused to realise that those presently regarded as ‘elder statesmen’ – Pelling or Zandbergen – were not so, then. 🙂




I do recommend Jean A. Givens’  essay ‘ Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis 1280-1526′  ‘ in Jean Jean Ann Givens, Karen Meier Reeds, Alain Touwaide, Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History: 1200 – 1550, Avista Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, Aldershot: Ashgate (2006) pp 115-146.

Depending on how Google books is feeling on a given day, Given’s chapter may be available to read online.


on the cover of that edition, too, the alchemist’s furnace has  its top shaped  in the way of those from earlier Gandhara and China, both of which I illustrated in an earlier post,  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’.


Karen Reed has an essay in the same volume and she also wrote, ‘Botany in Medieval and Renaissance Universities’ [of Europe]. published in Harvard Dissertations on Science in 1991.  a work mentioned (as it happens) by Rene in the same thread!


Among copies of the Tractatus de herbis often mentioned in this connection is ms Egerton 747. It can be seen in entirety  online through the British Library.


Here are Rosemary and the Blackberry from ms Egerton 747, fol.85v. Discussed in the context of medieval gardening on the Met’s blog-site  e.g.  ‘Rosemary’ and links given.


Manuscripts  equal in interest and importance to Egerton 747, in my opinion, include Sloane 4016, containing some fine imagery of non-European animals among the herbs.


I particularly like the camel on f.24, so if you’d like to see it but haven’t time to go through the whole manuscript just now, you can see that folio and about a dozen others  here.


And speaking of such things:

The British Library contains a twelfth century manuscript which proves that the (or ‘a’) Loch Ness monster lived in the twelfth century, and was a giant bear!

  • Despite the manuscript’s description (London, British Library, MS Cotton Hilarius A. XV, f. 104r), and the date for the relevant post: 01 April 2013, I will not stoop to suspecting so august an institution of trifling with us  …

… much.

article entitled “Loch Ness Monster Found at British Library”.



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