Great news – the possibilities narrowing, thanks to Alain Touwaide

[edited with remarks from a correspondant who has read the original essay]

(quote) “My impression is that Touwaide had been guided by the Beinecke Library’s introduction, and believed that there was no debate about certain things, such as it being a herbal and about baths and astrology and so on, and that we was trying to match his own experience to what he actually saw in the manuscript – but was having a hard time of it.

He didn’t actually say there was no resemblance to Sloane 4016 (the Lombardy Herbal). He says that it certainly isn’t from the same workshop. It’s not in the same style.

I would say that his experience is so extensive, it was a bit embarrassing for him not to find any obvious location or school of herbal painting to match the Voynich drawings too, so he was trying to be non-committal without saying much at all, except about the binding”. I’d guess he was put in touch with the LIbrarians, and some of the better advertised Voynich amateur historians, and supposed that their opinions were based on proper research and adequate formal expertise.  (Bax has made the same mistake I’d say).


A very brief summary has been written by Rene Zandbergen from an eighteen-page essay written by Alain Touwaide, in which the latter offers his insights into MS Beinecke 408.

The big news is that, according to Zandbergen, that long essay by one of the most respected European historians of Latin and Byzantine medicine fails to attribute the work’s manufacture to Byzantium, Germany, Spain, France or even mentions the possibility of any but Italy.

(I had already opted for the Veneto; and Pelling as early as c.2005 for Milan).  Cheers on that point.

As one would expect, Touwaide adopts for his description the old section-epithets, which at the time were on the Beinecke Library site’s introduction.  They’re gone now, but one can hardly criticize Touwaide for not knowing that was about to happen.

A  minor point.

More importantly –  even in the précis which Zanbergen writes of the few comments he chose to review, Touwaide seems to have made some important contributions to our study.

First, he agrees with the radiocarbon dating, rather than the  recently altered range now offered by the Beinecke library,  for Zanbergen reports Touwaide as saying  that the binding is characteristic of fifteenth century Italian manuscripts, though the cover is quite modern, and possibly nineteenth century.

At the same time,  Touwaide  emphasises (just as Panofsky, Steele and everyone else did)  the lack of  Renaissance style in the drawings.

He says, for example:

“The women are not young girls, which would be more typical in a Renaissance setting, ..” and “This section reminds him (Touwaide) of thermal baths of ancient tradition more than of Renaissance fountains and water games.”

I wonder if perhaps Professor Touwaide spent time reading Nick Pelling’s blog or book? I can hardly think he can have found any review of my opinions about the antiquity of the manuscript’s origins, since no-one in Voynichland has so much as offered an appreciative comment, let alone a review, until very recently – so unless he fell over a blog by accident, that’s an independent observation compatible with mine.

BUT, if I’m not mistaken, Touwaide has read something by Pelling, and thinks highly of it, for the following seems to me a near-direct quotation:

As Zandbergen reports it:

[Touwaide] … sees two styles of paint application, which he calls light and heavy, and in particular considers the heavy application of what looks like gouache to have been detrimental to the quality of the MS. He thinks it may have been added at a later stage.’

Remember here, I’m quoting Zandbergen’s summary, not Touwaide’s text direct. That above, is Pelling’s original work being ‘blessed’.

Another point of interest.

Touwaide is an expert not only in the history of medicine in the ancient and medieval west, but also in that of Byzantium, and so it is an expert’s silence when Touwaide does not dispute someone-or-other’s theory that the manuscript might be a Byzantine book of perfumes.

Those who like their theories properly provenanced or who read widely, may know  the first reference  to perfumes and who made it.  I know of none before a post was published entitled  “Alchemy’s sweet scent”, and then – somewhere or other – I mentioned in that connection a Byzantine princess who lived in the eleventh century and who famously made scents, incense and so forth. Her name was Zoë Porphyrogenita.

Again, I have to doubt that Touwaide has ever seen my own work: I expect what he saw was some reference to the person who later wrote to me saying he or she thought the perfume idea exciting and wanted to take it up as a theory of the manuscript.

Zandbergen, I rather think, would prefer Byzantium to Spain or Mallorca, but that’s just an hypothesis. 🙂

Anyway – to more interesting things:

Though using the term ‘herbal’ Touwaide obviously doesn’t see the work as looking ‘characteristic’ of the European herbal style.  And he categorically denies Edith Sherwood’s view (on a website originally dated to 2008, but now dated 2013) that the manuscript looks very like Sloane 4016 – a manuscript on which Touwaide has recently published a monograph.

Touwaide has also heard about an association first made (as I understand it) by Philip Neal – namely between the botanical section and European plants-of-the-alchemists manuscripts once owned by Aldrovandi.

The one  Touwaide particularly indicates  in that context is MS Firenze 106, Zandbergen writing  – though presumably still quoting from Touwaide – that the Florence MS is  “of the same size as the Voynich MS and with equally careless application of paint, includes a cipher table on its first folio”.

The question is, of course, whether the external or internal dimensions are meant.

So – no evidence in favour of German, Byzantine, French, Spanish or English binding style (apparently). Being an expert in the history of western medicine, Touwaide otherwise confines his comments to that subject and region – as one would expect of a scholar.

Perhaps the very  biggest item – in Rene’s summary, at least- may have been made inadvertently, namely –  Touwaide finds no clear resemblance to the Latin herbal manuscripts.  He wouldn’t even rule out the possibility that the manuscript was a fake.(no, not a modern fake)

Of course, we knew it didn’t look like medieval herbals – not only our own eyes, but those of the specialist whom Tiltman interviewed told us that.

But a medieval ‘fake’ fifteenth century manuscript – well, even if just as a possibility which Touwaide is able to contemplate, it’s something that surely Pelling will be chuffed about  🙂

Yes, see his ‘Curse of the Voynich’.

Cheers, all.


  • sorry, all, it’s 3am. I want this up so forgive any typos etc.



  1. Thanks for sharing this, Diane, I think I would have missed it otherwise.
    Great news indeed. I am yet to see anything in the botanical sections that would require a dating of the original material later than the Hellenistic era, so I can only agree 🙂


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