Paradoxical history of balsam #1

[original research into ms Beinecke 408 is included in the following post. The author asserts the usual copyright over intellectual property published in this medium]


That description, in the previous post, of Italians’ reaction to eastern visitors illustrates well the essentially acquisitive nature of contemporary European attitudes to science as to commerce.


Scientific objectivity and skepticism are not seen as dominant traits in the main. An aristocrat is easily delighted merely by the scent of a wood used to make an inkwell; the costume presented to the Doge of Venice is described in such detail a competent painter could use it to create a portrait. That may have been its aim, for only externals are so carefully described; the  ‘regimental’ weapon is represented in words down to its last ornamental tassel, but no mention at all of its purpose, or the fabulous quality of Japanese steel.


In contemporary Italy and, one might argue, throughout all Europe at that time, everything turned on social precedence and status among those with any pretention to it.  Understandably so: one’s survival depended on being constantly in good standing with church and/or nobility.


Letters from that time seem to us to gush expressions of undying affection and sincere friendship, sometimes so passionately phrased (in direct proportion to the writer’s relatively lower status by comparison to the receiver’s)   that modern scholars of the Anglo-American school have not rarely been moved to speculate about sexual orientation.


Consider the letters to Kircher sent by Marci and  Baresch, and the terse rather formal responses (if any) which they received in reply.


Kircher was the darling of his times, one negative word from whom could deprive men of property and less directly of life, as happened when Kircher pursued a savage vendetta against poor Galileo.


And so in asking Kircher’s attention to the manuscript,  the Czech alchemist writes carefully, in guarded language and forbears from sending the thing directly. It might, for all he knows, contain heretical matter.  Later,  Marci writes apologetically to Kircher simply because his friend had kept [his own?] property, rather than handing it over as Kircher had evidently desired.


Science was a hobby, a set of opinions, a grain in the balance and like any other cabinet of curiosities or magpie-collection of learning, its chief aim at that time was to earn more glory and respect.  ‘Learning for its own sake’ had been a stronger ideal by the twelfth century than it would be again for many centuries to come.


In that context, for a man to be being brought a fine costume all the way from Japan and have it passed on to him, though the visitors went first to His Holiness the Pope, added doubly to the gift – now being (as it were) bestowed with Papal blessing it was surely worth a memorial portrait, in words and quite possibly in paint.


Something of the opposite mood seems to have infected Sassetti’s comment on that visit.  His letter has a distinctly petulant tone.  It is understandable, though;  neither Italy nor the Medici, to whom Philippo was still bound by ties of allegiance, had forgotten Francesco.


More than any high-minded urge to further science for its own sake, Sassetti’s presence in southern India (where he arrived in 1582/3) is most easily explained in terms of that  same Italian system of allegiance and protection.


Sassetti died in India five years after his arrival,  having sent a stream of correspondence back to Europe, the Medici’s own equivalent of Caliph Mahmud’s  al-Biruni, known as the Kwarazmi.


(Whether Sassetti’s letters are on parchment or paper, I’ve not been able to discover).


A general study..

Nunziatella Alessandrini, “Images of India through the eyes of Filippo Sassetti, a Florentine Humanist merchant in the 16th century”, Mary N. Harris, ed., Sights and Insights: Interactive images of Europe and the wider world.


By the second decade of the seventeenth century things had changed little. It is in then the Voynich manuscript is thought to have surfaced in Prague.


Thereafter, had the manuscript not survived, the discovered correspondence would surely suggest it had been some form of eastern/Egyptian book of  alchemical medicine.  Allegations of Rudolf’s having arranged for 600 ducats to be paid the carrier might lead us to presume it had been a work of some rarity.


Further, if the ‘nihil obstat’ appears on f.116v, as Nick Pelling argues, then we can suppose some suspicion of heresy had arisen and been satisfied – perhaps by excision and omission.


Pace Neil, manuscripts of the  ‘alchemical’ style, and ones that are solely herbals may well have been disseminated to fifteenth century Italy from earlier precedents -their source might even have been, ultimately, Egyptian.


Together with Greek, Roman, Asian and Indian systems of medicine, the Egyptian had contributed, centuries earlier, to Islam’s newly-emerging style in medicine, taught and disseminated from Baghdad and Jundishapur.


Writing to the Royal Geographical Society in  the late nineteenth century, one English emissary in Sri Lanka wrote reporting loss of a substantial collection of ancient and medieval books collected over years and chronicling the culture and history of surrounding Tamil-speakers, all those books gone down with the ship which had been intended to bring them home.


He describes particularly the many texts of medicine, gained originally from Baghdad by the various owners’ ancestors, fully eight or nine centuries before.


From that time, the earliest example I have is attributed somewhat curiously to Samaqand. It includes what are plainly mnemonics as ‘hieroglyphic’, showing the balsam whose sap was its chief merit, and below those creatures which by legend guarded the “Balsam” plant.


The word ‘Balsam’ appears again in illustrations for  Platearius’ Simple Medicines in mid-thirteenth century Sicily, yet in Mattioli’s list of items  ‘missing’  items from the Dioscoridan corpus, ‘balsam’ remains through several editions.


Nor does the plant in the centre of that walled garden actually resemble any of the true, eastern ‘balsam’ family.


To the question of what ‘balsam’ it was, and the curious custom employe in depicting such these plants, I’ll return in the next post.

botanical art Balsam Samarqand

Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12

‘Balsam’ Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12 (mid 13thC.)

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