Starting from scratch #10c – Fold-outs in Europe 3


We have already seen, in the previous post, a narrow folded calendar ‘book’ owned by a thirteenth-century merchant; these were probably commonplace items, and that so few remain is another reminder of the narrow basis from which our histories are written.

Another example of an early fold-out book only survives because it was bound together with other items in a collection of documents as St. Gallen Cod. Sang. 217. This item is described (here) as “the folding reference manual of a north-Italian wandering physician” .[1]

Once more, we might suppose the type more common, even as early as the ninth century when it was made – but once more, this is our only extant example from that time in Europe, so far as I know.  It is made extremely simple and its folds are narrow, rather like a folded fan. Where these folds caused the parchment to split, it was at some time carefully mended though the catalogue entry does not say when.

wandering physician handbook mended

(detail) St. Gallen Stiftsbibliothek, Cod.Sang. 217, p.272

I have not been able to discover any translation of its content, either, but if any Latin-reader would care to look it over, this would be a very interesting text for our purpose.

That same collection of items includes a botanical text, often referred to as the ‘St. Gall Botanicus‘, which tells us at least that in the ninth and tenth centuries, one person thought it a good idea to combine the itinerant physicians’ notes with a text about plants.

Today the ‘Botanicus’ so-called is known only from this copy in Cod.Sang. 217 but, as the holding library notes, it is cited several times in Simon of Genoa’s  Clavis sanationis, more often known as the Synonyma,  of which a copy was required to be kept by every pharmacist under the rule of Paris from the thirteenth century onwards. So we know that part of its information remained current for more than five centuries and that, through Simon of Genoa’s text, the same parts were once more widely known – at least around Paris. Roger Bacon, who had spent some years in Paris, also refers to Master Simon and presumably again to his Synonyma – telling us that Simon’s text had reached England in the same century it was written, a time when connections between Paris and England were close. 

Pages of the ninth-century “Botanicus” are prepared according to the classic Latin custom, box-like spaces created during the ruling out, cut from the text’s area and intended for the separate work of an illustrator – these illustrations never added.(see also ‘Walafrid’s Hortulus‘).

Once again, the layout of the Voynich botanical section signals that it does not belong to this Latin type. Its pages, which we’ll consider later in more detail, were never conceived or executed in that way. At every turn, in considering the Voynich manuscript, we encounter a very different mind-set to that which marks the Latins’, whether in attitudes to page-preparation, or depiction of anthropoform figures, or how imagery and text should interconnect in the page’s presentation.


St.Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod.Sang. 217 p.286

In some sections of that same codex, however, we find some points in common between the Latin script and the Voynich script –  not many, but they are worth noting.

detail St.Gallen botanicus p.286

(detail) St.Gallen ‘Botanicus’ p.286. St.Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod.Sang. 217.

Some letters have a ‘tail’ which swings from right to left. In the fifth line on the right (above), the doubled “t” of cottidiebibat [cottidie bibat – ‘daily drink’ = drink daily] resembles the form of what Voynich researchers have usually supposed a single glyph ~  as it may well be, with no connection to the Latins’ doubled ‘t’ at all, for all we know. 🙂  In the excerpt from folio 1v shown below, I have placed a red line above the similar-looking glyph.

detail from folio 1v tt

detail. MS Beinecke 408 folio 1v

Luckily, though, “Voynichese” is not our concern and we have no need to resolve such questions.

One more similarity between Cod.Sang. 217 and our manuscript is that the page is left looking ‘clean’; that there is no display made of the ruling out such as we see in Latin manuscripts of later centuries.  That it was a general custom of that time is clear enough by considering other works from that era, even among those held in the same library today.

St.Gallen  Cod.Sang. 868, for example, which is a notebook with commentary on a classical text. Or Cod. Sang. 879, a copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, probably made in France. All have equally clean-looking pages.

But at least we now know that fold-outs as complete “folded books” existed as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, and that by some people of that time, it was not considered odd to include a ‘botanicus’ and a physicians’ book of remedies in the same volume.

By the thirteenth century, a Latin physician’s  vade mecum  was much grander and more complex – and did not include a botanical section.

Now its charts derived from the same matter in the farmer’s or merchant’s calendar/almanac, though with much more –  and more varied – information being included, though pictorial catalogues of plants are absent.

We have bout 30 manuscripts  of this later type.  All have pages which have been prepared and ruled out in the Latins’ invariable habit.  Letters are rubricated; the manuscripts are often provided with pictures, space for which is designated during the preliminary ruling out. Standard stuff.

They invariably include a diagram of the “medical man” in which the 12 astronomical signs do relate to astrological use and not, as the farmer’s did,  just to the constellations as month-markers.

Wellcome ms 14thC astrological man

Wellcome MS 14th/15thC ‘medical body’.

Here is a close-up from another one, a  fourteenth-century example held by the Wellcome Museum.  You see the diagonally-ruled tables for calculation for the moon  (and thus the tides)  which are another regular item in the later physicians’  vademecum.  After the late twelfth or thirteenth century, it is not uncommon to find that the text is written in the vernacular language rather than in Latin.

When Georg Baresch wrote to Athenasius Kircher about our manuscript, he expressed certainty that the work contained medicine gained from the ancients, from Egypt and/or the orient, but regardless of whether he was right or wrong on that point, our manuscript provides relatively little support for its being the handbook of any Latin physician. It contains no diagram of the urine glass wheel, no ‘medical man’, no diagonally ruled table for calculating the moon – and so on. It may be proven to contain those ideas, expressed differently, but to argue from absence is merely to try and force an interpretation that the manuscript itself does not invite.

(N.B. though there is an intriguing chart with fold-out ‘wings’ in a fifteenth-century English medico-alchemical miscellany, BL. Sloane 3747, fol.80v. That one folio is the only one digitised at present. Content  here)

spacer 3 bordered

knots from the Voynich MS binding


Question: A NINTH or TENTH Century text?

– next post..




1. for those who dislike following links: the entry reads:

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 217
Parchment · 342 pp. · 26 x 16 cm · St. Gall · late 8th century and early 9th century

Manuscript compilation from the late 8th and early 9th centuries, opening with the oldest extant St. Gall copy of the Regula Pastoralis of Gregory the Great from the last third of the 8th century, followed by a medical-pharmaceutical compendium. The latter, parts of it badly bound, consists of the folded reference manual of a wandering physician from northern Italy, the so-called St. Gall Botanicus, and the St. Gall Bestiary. (smu).

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