Paradoxical History of Balsam #3


For those who’ve just arrived ~ the first post in this ‘Balsam’ series should be the ‘Aldrovandi’ post. That’s where I first mention a discrepancy of two centuries between the time that ms Beinecke 408 was made, with its botanical imagery which includes the Musaceae – and the first known description of the banana plant in any western text of botany or medicine, including herbals. That is: the first known description. The first known illustration is later still.


It was Edith Sherwood, I believe, who first recognised Musa in folio 13r. I came to the same identification some years later. Since then, I understand, others have also come to the same view – from their own work, by accepting Sherwood’s opinion, or my explanation.


Folio 13r is unusually clear and  accurate. By comparison, this woodcut (below) made almost two centuries later in Europe for  Cristóvão da Costa’s Traicté de Christophe de la Coste…, Lyon, (1602) looks wooden and barely recognisable.  da Costa’s work was not original; scarcely more than  a translation, via Clusius’ Aromatum (1567),  of Garcia da Orta’s Colóquios… (see John Carter Brown exhibition, Brown University, item 36).


Two among my earlier posts were devoted to analysis and commentary for folio 13r. (See: INDEX – Botanical Section -f.13r ‘Musaceae’).


Musaceae: fol. 13r Bananas Pt.1

Musaceae ~ fol. 13r Bananas Pt2(concluded)

Even though no Latin works include these plants, it is certain that they had been seen earlier by various missionaries, not to mention traders, eastern pilgrims and ambassadors. What the absence of such imagery tells us is that if the plant had ever been drawn by someone in Europe, the person was not sufficiently important for their knowledge to be taken into account.


Latin Christendom was incurably addicted to its social, racial and religious segregation(s).


Even today, the large numbers of slaves in medieval Europe is constantly ‘invisible’ to European histories, despite the volume of that trade over centuries. (Aldrovandi, by the way, had two slaves: one was a Molgol woman and the other an African).


I should have liked, a this stage, to consider all the extant mappaemundi to discover whether any made before 1438 included a picture of banana plants, but time does not permit.  If they were shown, it would offer another link to those chartmaking traditions that I’ve mentioned earlier in relation to folio 86v.


There is no doubt that the eastern world had maintained copies of Dioscorides’ text and other matter used by mariners from before the coming of Islam.


These were translated from the Syriac into other languages until the thirteenth century, usually being translated on demand for Arab or Turkish rulers. Syriac had been the common language of the Eastern Roman empire, and remained a scholarly and liturgical language of eastern Christianity  for many centuries, even after the Muslim conquests.


From this it is reasonable to suppose that in this case too, it was mainland Europe’s hostility to t follows that had Latin Europe been receptive to it, the same information might have reached the west much earlier than it did through the network of Christian communities.


One especially opportune moment had occurred in the seventh century, when one Theodore was appointed (from Antioch, it is said) to serve as head of the Anglo-Saxon church in England.


We know of his extreme interest in the image of Christ-healer, and that he had brought with him herbals which contained many plants that were then unknown and unprocurable in England.


We know this because the clerics under his tutelage wrote to the mainland, complaining bitterly and demanding to have a different herbal provided them. (Note ‘herbal’ in the singular).


  • Jane Stevenson’s work, some published in the online journal of Syriac studies Hugoye has been particularly helpful on this point. Stevenson deserves to be considered almost as a cryptanalyst – she first managed to interpret and translate the extraordinary Irish monastic language known as ‘Hisperica famina’.


Some scholars are of the opinion that Theodore was not a member of the Syrian or Greek Orthodox churches, but of the Church of the East, otherwise known as the Nestorian church, whose members had been centred in Edessa’s original religious ‘Church and House of Wisdom’.  Greatly respected for their theological and their secular learning, the ‘Nestorians’  maintained a presence in Egypt, Jerusalem and Byzantium for centuries after that great doctrinal dispute (schism) which had seen the Edessan school closed, and separated the eastern branch from others,  and indeed most o f the Christian churches from each other.


In fact, the first known translation of Dioscorides’ text (in full)  into Latin was not to be made  until half a century or so after the Voynich manuscript.  Earlier sources employed in the west – not only in medicine but in education and moralia which employed use of herbals – had relied on textual sources quoting matter that was often misattributed: to Pliny or to Aristotle and so on.  Among the ‘Aristotelian’ sources was not rarely the text of works by Theophrastus of Eresus, who had been Dioscorides’ predecessor by about three centuries and who had succeeded Aristotle as head of the Platonic Academy of Athens.


Dioscorides did  not mention the banana plant, and said that the Balsam grew (only) in Arabia.


It is clear that the hunt for Dioscoridan plants so energetically pursued in the seventeenth century had as its aim the identification of the ‘Dioscoridan’ plant and if possible its acquisition by European kings and botanists.


This because cinnamon and balsam are both listed as absent from the initial list of those plants, but cinnamon as a spice was perfectly well known. Its product is included with those of several eastern plants that a fourteenth-century Venetian merchant* might easily acquire  in Acco or in Tunis.  Others mentioned there are  myrobalans, galingale, Soqotran aloes and Soqotran dragonsblood (resin).  This genre of the Zibaldone, as a personally-compiled commercial trader’s ready reckoner is one that appears in many ways similar to what is presently contained in ms Beinecke 408.

* I’m referring here to the Zibaldone da Canal.


If galingale could reach mainland Europe from the far east by the mid-fourteenth century (and  Rene Zandbergen has pointed out that galingale appears, labelled,  in some western herbal manuscripts) there seems no particular reason why the Balsam tree’s resinous oil should be so long absent: absent from the formal herbals, as from the merchants’ inventories and so ambiguously represented in the ‘Simple Medicine’ or Circa instans tradition (if at all).  The last  precedes by about a century the first appearance of the more emphatic style which led to description of some herbals as  books of  ‘alchemists plants’.


Why is Commiphora gileadensis either missing from the earlier type, or so very  differently represented there? Why the wall?

Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12

Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12

In western herbal tradition  the whereabouts of Dioscorides’ Balsam tree was to remain a mystery in Europe for another century and a half after the Voynich manuscript had been made, and if it is in the botanical section at all, its identity is far less plainly announced there than the banana’s.  There is one which sets two side-shoots in a form similar to the conventional placement of the two iron nails, or (less accurately) two knives, but I shouldn’t be prepared to argue the case for it yet.


To save you flicking back, here again from Anna Roos comment on Alpini’s De plantis Aegypti:


 …  Among the plants previously undescribed by a European botanical text were the coffee bush (Coffea arabica L.), banana (Musa sp.), and baobab (Adansonia digitata L.). .

.. Alpini also published De balsamo dialogus (1591), a fictional dialogue involving the author, an Egyptian physician, and a Jew, who discuss the source of balsam. See Jerry Stannard, ‘Alpini, Prospero’, Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008.

(from:) “Memoirs and  Travel Journal of Dr Martin Lister (1639-1712)” – Bodleian MS Lister 5, ff. 215-227.


And yet in parallel to all this mystery surrounding the tree that is clear from Europe, the fact is that the Balsam tree’s resinous oil had been employed as an  indispensable part of eastern Christian ritual, very probably from the 1stC AD. And the plant had been known from pre-Roman times near Ein Gedi (near the southern end of the Dead Sea), transplanted even to Egypt in the century when Dioscorides lived.


Commiphora gileadensis‘ oil had been produced on a potentially commercial scale centuries before the common era at Ein Gedi. Its residue is thought to be that found in a jug recovered from Qumran, and had been grown ‘in groves’ in Judea, though plainly not by the Jewish population, who made concerted efforts to destroy them.


The most likely reason for this paradoxical situation is  probably indicated by the wall seen in that figure from  ms Egerton 747.  Access to C. gileadensis, and any use of its oil was highly restricted;  jealously guarded by people, walls, myths and secrecy where it grew and no matter which forms of religion or government currently obtained in those regions.


(It is possible that Dioscorides’ balm or Balsam was not sC. gileadensis but that question is one  the botanists and classicists have decided between them, generally in the affirmative).


As late as 1911, the Catholic Encyclopaedia speaks of ‘Balsam oil’ in a curiously wistful tone.


Referring to its use in the Eastern Churches’ anointing oil,  by contrast to the western church’s traditional lack  and need for substitution..(I’ve slightly modernised the English):

The Latin Church does not insist on the quantity or the quality [i.e. type] of the balsam to be used in the oil (see Chrism); any substance commonly known as a “balsam” may be utilized, and enough to confer its odour to the oil is sufficient.

Scarcity and high price … has obliged the Latin Church to be content with balm in the mixture ..

But in the East, where the climate is more favourable than ours to the growth of such plants, eastern Christian churches use no less than thirty-six species of precious perfumes, according to the Orthodox Greek Euchologion, which makes it an ointment of exquisite fragrance.


and this is what you might call pure politeness, for it is  clear that the eastern Church had a long tradition of including balsam oil in its own mixture. Religious beliefs older than Christianity –  not climate –  was responsible for keeping the plant’s form and location secret, apart from allowing vague references to Arabia whence came the myrrh that was gained from another member of the same family of plants.


Speaking of  the groves once grown in the Roman province of Judaea and the Jews’  antipathy towards them,   Zohary suggests the motive economic, but given this plant’s constant and all but exclusive association with  royalty and priesthood, religious motives are just as likely.


Zohary writes:


“… during the war with the Romans (i.e. 2stC AD), the Jews tried in vain to destroy Judea’s near-monopoly of balm groves. At approximately that time Balsam [C. gileadensis] was successfully introduced into Egypt…Accounts of travellers in the early centuries of this era show that the remains of the balm plantations survived the destruction of Judaea… The words basam, bosem, and besem appear more than forty times in the Bible and the Apocrypha … usually in connection with healing, balms and incenses…”


Michael Zohary, Plants of the Bible, CUP (1982) p.198


And from that time, from the time of the original apostles, eastern Christian churches had evidently used balsam’s resinous oil for the ‘holy Myron’ prepared initially only in Passiontide (Good Friday to Easter), using it for healing, priesthood and kingship.


Because it appears that access to the plant or to its oil was effectively denied to the Latin-speaking churches in earlier times, our information about it comes from one of those once-numerous sects of eastern Christianity – now limited to those affiliated with Greek-, Coptic- and Syrian Orthodox churches.

Among Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Myron (Μύρον, Holy Oil) … is prepared periodically by the Orthodox Patriarchates .. The Consecration of the Oil… occurs [only] during  Holy Week.  Within the Patriarchate of Constantinople, its preparation is [now]  is under the care of  lay officials of the Patriarchate, known as the Archontes Myrepsoi. Various members of the clergy may also participate in the preparation, but the Consecration itself is always performed by the Patriarch or a bishop deputed by him specifically for that purpose. The Myron is thereafter .. distributed to the Orthodox Churches.


A modern web-site still repeats the common belief that:


The Myron is made of olive oil and a guarded recipe of aromatics (myra) infusing it.


And indeed that recipe is not provided by the Catholic Encyclopaedia, nor by official sites of the Greek Orthdox Church but as it happens I found a recipe for ‘Holy Myron’ with the ingredients on a site about the Armenian church.  I cited it then, a few years ago, and included in the research-blog’s bibliography.


None among those researching Beinecke MS 408 ever took up the information or made use of it so far as I’m aware, and I didn’t think it necessarily a genuine 15thC recipe because of the wide geographic range from which the ingredients would have had to come.


I would suppose it taken from some manuscript as manual of church practice, and these permitted variations according to where in the world the church stood, and in the case of the Armenian churches to the fifteenth century, these might be as widely separated as Egypt or outer Mongolia.


If any reader cares to compare the list with that shorter one transcribed in Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 I’d be very interested to hear the result. The British Library  captions the following picture:

.. miniature of a man working in a walled garden to gather balsamus, or balsam plants.

Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12

Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12


In the next and last of the ‘Balsam’ posts, I’ll explain why I think that copy of the Circa instans relates to a type of walled garden whose origin may be the type of the ‘birbar’ or alchemist’s centre and garden of which we hear in earlier works written in Arabic and by Egyptian Muslims, about the ancient Egyptian ‘alchemists’.   It may well be that association which led to inclusion of certain   ‘hieroglyphic’ elements within the manuscripts that  Aldrovani later classed as  ‘alchemists plants’.


The Armenian ‘Balsam’ oil.


  1. Balsam oil…………….Palasan.
  2. Olive oil …………….Tzet.
  3. Carnation …………….Mekhag.
  4. Nutmeg …………….Mshgenguyze.
  5. Sweet Flag …………….Pagheshdag.
  6. Spikenard (sic)…………….Hntig Nartos.
  7. Gooseberry …………….Sev Peran.
  8. Cinnamon …………….Tariseng.
  9. Incense (sic)…………….Khoung
  10. Cyclamen …………….Archedag.
  11. Crocus …………….Kerkoum.
  12. Sweet Marjoram ……..Marzanon.
  13. Hors elder …………….Geghmough.
  14. Camel’s hair …………….Vaghmeroug.
  15. Hazelwort …………….Merouandag.
  16. Camomile …………….Yeritsoug.
  17. Violet …………….Manishag.
  18. Water Lily …………….Nounoufar.
  19. Orange flower …………….Narnchatzaghig.
  20. Allspice …………….Tarabeghbegh.
  21. Laurel …………….Tapnee.
  22. Myrtle …………….Mourd.
  23. Narcissus …………….Nargiz.
  24. Laurel seed …………….Tapnehound.
  25. Laurel flower …………….Tapnetzaghig.
  26. Crystal tea …………….Ladan.
  27. Ginger …………….Godjabeghbegh.
  28. Mastic …………….Mazdakeh.
  29. Musk …………….Moushg.
  30. Hyacinth …………….Hagint.
  31. Orange flowerwater …. Narinchatzaghigeechour.
  32. Rose water …………….Varti chour.
  33. Aloes …………….Haloueh.
  34. Cardamon …………….Antridag.
  35. Sandal …………….Jantan.
  36. Rose …………….Vart.
  37. Olibanum …………….Gntroug.
  38. Storax …………….Sdaghee.
  39. Galingale …………….Giberis.
  40. Cubeb …………….Hntgabeghbegh.
  41. Lavender …………….Housam.
  42. Rosemary …………….Khengounee.
  43. Lemon balm …………….Tor.
  44. Spearmint …………….Ananoukh.
  45. Wild mint …………….Taghtz.
  46. Basil …………….Rahan.
  47. Thyme …………….Tuem.
  48. Summer Savory …………….Tzotrin.

(regrettably the original page online which informs the list is no longer.)

I  hope the next post be the last I need to complete this series.  Other duties and so forth mean I will probably have to take a longish break from Voynich things  –  but I’ll see how I go.


  1. Rene Zandbergen later sent me an image taken from a copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis. Certainly intended to refer to the “fruit of paradise” or “fruit of wisdom” it only emphasises my point: that no-one in the Latin herbal manuscript tradition had any idea of what the plant looked like.

    Whereas whoever made the image on f.13 knew exactly how a number of the Musaceae presented, and their uses, including use of the blood banana (whose variegated leaf is included in the image).


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