Comparing Beinecke 408 and the Tuscany Herbal Pt 2

detail Egerton 2020 f.166

(detail) B.L. MS Egerton 2020 f.166.  ‘The Carrara Herbal’


The catalogue entry for the Vermont (Burlington) ‘Tuscany Herbal’ says there are two scripts in it:  “[the] Primary script is a small but bold, vertical Cursiva with un-looped ascenders. …

detail script from Vermont University mrmc 002 p.3


….[the]  Secondary script is a lighter, sloping cursive with looped ascenders”. 

Variant hands, or haste, affect the second script.  Below:  (1) detail from p.75; (2) detail from page 25.

detail script Vermont mrmc 002 p.56detail script 2 Vermont mrmc 002 p.25

All three  are seen on some pages of the Vermont leaves  – e.g. page 14.

Claims that one manuscript is ‘convincingly similar’ to another should, ideally, include the way the scribes’ hands were trained. A clip of the Voynich script and various comparisons follow, including that from  herbals produced in the Veneto during the earlier part of the fifteenth century, and showing how hands might vary even in the one region and in books of similar content.

The first example is earlier: it’s a thirteenth-century Latin cursive written personally by Thomas Aquinas, and of which Mary Carruthers wrote, “littera inintelligibilis, a kind of shorthand that fully lives up to its name (Dondaine says that the great nineteenth-century editor, Uccelli, lost his eyesight scrutinizing these drafts) ` for it was not designed to be read by anyone other than the author himself”. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) p.4.[1]

script cursive 13thC Thos Aquinas

script. cursive Latin 13thC (autograph by Thos Aquinas, Italian Dominican)

Cursive Roman is not unlike that, and quite as difficult. Oxford’s “Vindolanda tablets online” site gives a taste of it (here).  One hardly sees why invention of any cipher would be needed with scripts of that sort about.

Here is the one that I think Panofsky viewed as being like the Voynich script, and one item contributing to his assigning the content to   Jews of  “Spain or somewhere southern” when he assessed the manuscript.

script 14thC Spain Sephardi cursive

14thC. Spain. Sephardi cursive script, closely following the style of that in the original text, written in the mid- to late- 12thC.   BL MS 16 A XI.


script light and dark detail of f

c.1405-1438. Nth.Italy? detail from Beinecke MS 408


Some other early fifteenth century hands:

script detail Carrara Herbal early 15thC

c. 1390 – 1404 AD. Prob. Padua.  from folio 166 of the Carrara Herbal  (BL MS Egerton 202).


Thomas of Cantimpré, Gonville and Caius College MS 35-141 f3r 1400-1401

1400-1401. England. Thomas of Cantimpré, De anathomia humani corporis, Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College MS 35-141 f.3r England


script humanist BL Arundel 70 f.3 (1440 and 1463 AD)

1440 to 1463 AD. Padua.  BL Arundel 70 f.3 Collection of various humanist letters and speeches.This  hand is described as a mixture of Gothic and humanist style.


I’m sure readers will be able to find other examples, from their preferred region,online.



Pagination seems to my unqualified eye to change in style between sections of the Vermont Herbal, though page numbers are always in an L-shaped “bracket”, something I’ve not noticed in MS Beinecke 408.  (Page numbers  under these examples refer to the Vermont leaves’ order.  Notice the ‘ampersand’ form on p.56).

pagination Vermont mrmc 002

Binding and other regional markers

We have Alain Touwaide’s recent comment to tell us that the Voynich manuscript’s binding is characteristic of  Italian work. The radiocarbon date-range suggests manufacture in the early decades of the fifteenth century (c.1405-1438): that is, after the return to Rome of the first Avignon papacy.   In Italy, Padua and its wider region, the Veneto, produced the most important  herbals of this time, the region then including most of the present-day ‘Friuli-Venezia Giulia’. I add a modern map of the administrative regions.


Nick Pelling’s view is  that the  Beinecke manuscript was made in Milan, capital of Lombardy, while mine is that the manuscript was more likely made in the Veneto – a view chiefly reached by considering the range of extant manuscripts having closely-similar dimensions and format, though re-inforced by matter explained in the rest of these ‘Tuscany Herbal’ posts.

I’d suggest manufacture of the manuscript to the stage of binding occurred not later than c.1426-8, and in what follows it is important to keep in mind that the first makers of the Voynich botanical imagery were unaware of the ‘new realism’ which emerges in Latin herbals here from the early fifteenth century and that they were evident equally unaware of the classic custom in Latin, Greek and Arabic language herbals, by which each image conforms to the Dioscoridan method of picturing a single plant in each image.

John Tiltman first rightly observed that the Voynich manuscript’s botanical images are formed a composites –  that is, each image references more than one plant. This was a view I reached after analysing a good number, but discovering Tiltman’s earlier observation gave me the courage to share that result. The reaction of the second mailing list was much as one might expect.

In their according primacy to the drawn line over the written line, however, the Voynich manuscript’s botanical folios find accord with some north Italian herbals.  Here, I’m not simply referring to the order in which the scribe set the picture or text onto the page, but conception of the relative importance due each element.

Plants on the Page: a radical approach.

Placing  an image central in the page and only afterwards fitting written text around it  is a practice contrary to the customs of formal western Christian manuscript production (i.e. Latin European). Exceptions have been seen earlier in Iberia.   (Examples and further references in previous posts e.g. this one.)

The Voynich manuscript’s botanical folios consistently do this, yet one of the earliest of the ‘realist’ herbals produced in the Veneto shows that the introduction of the new ‘realist’ imagery was not inevitably accompanied by changed attitudes to the page, or to the habit of treating the drawn line as inferior to the written. This is shown by the Carrara Herbal (B.L. MS Egerton 2020), one page of which is shown below (left).

The Carrara Herbal never permits the image to cross into the area prepared and assigned for writing. However, the older attitude page preparation and the primacy of word remained unchanged in the great scriptoria and ateliers –  England, France and Germany – throughout the fifteenth century. The herbal genre itself was a peripheral one. Below (right) we see one of many depictions of the scribe   Jean Miélot, Burgundian court scribe from  c.1449 -1467. Every manuscript and document shown in those pictures is shown  fully ruled out, with manuscripts usually prepared in two columns.

Carrara and Mielot

(left) BL MS Egerton 2020 fo.166; (right) detail of a scene including Jean Miélot

The more formal conception of the page persists, if less obviously, as late as the end of the century or beginning of the next, in the Vermont “Tuscany Herbal”.  In Page 5 (below) the upper part of the page is inscribed in the more elegant hand, while the copyist who reproduces this page or that from his various exemplars works the whole into what is effectively a single ‘picture box’.  There is no need for this text to hold so close to the pictured plant; had the footer margin been reduced, the text could have been written without interruption.

In the  Vermont Herbal we see there is no consistent view of the ‘image over word’ in any but a technical sense. The line drawings were set on the page before the text.

The Voynich manuscript is consistent, save for the occasional ‘ring-in’ folio such as 9v, not only in having the line-drawings set down before the text, but in conveying the sense that the picture is the more important element.

On folio 87v (below) we see that the script has even been forced from its horizontal line by the need to fit in the space left by the drawing.

folio 87v detail text and image

(detail) Beinecke MS 408 f.87v

The ‘revolution’ in attitudes to the image did not come with the Carrera Herbal, despite its new and ‘photographic’ style; it arrives at much the same time, probably on the eastern side of the Veneto, with the dramatic image seen below, from a fragment (Brit.Lib. Additional MS 41996 folio 113v).

botanical art BritLib NthItaly quer blog

B.L. MS Additional 41996 folio 113v

It is an extraordinary picture, with an energy and power that is absent from other herbals whether made at that time or in the century which followed.  The leaf also treats the written text as scholia, or as mere annotation to a to the painting.

Different in its way of approaching plant-pictures, it does include here a plant having i ‘leaf-shaped’ roots, those in the Voynich manuscript (f.93v) having been mentioned recently for their inscriptions.

detail from f.93v

From the holding library’s description of that fragment, as  “from a companion volume to” the Belluno Herbal (Add.MS 41623)” the reader would be forgiven for supposing that the Library had been presented with two volumes one the Belluno Herbal and the other more-or-less its “volume 2” – but that is not the case.

The folio catalogued as  MS Additional 41996, folio 113v , arrived at the British Museum with one other herbal folio and apparently nothing else. The notice of gift reads:

“Two leaves from an Italian herbal, late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, closely akin to Add. MS. 41623, Presented by Victor Koch, Esquire” [1]

[1]’Other Gifts’, The British Museum Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Mar., 1930), pp. 122-125.

The first published reference to Koch’s leaves’ inclusion in the folder MS Add. 41996 dates to 1959 as far as I’ve found.

The folder’s contents do not tell us exactly where the Koch folios came from.  The documents range widely, and were written from the fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. Its “folio 18” is written in a seventeenth century England hand and gives step-instructions for a “Maurice Dance”.   A letter written in Portuguese to the King of Portugal is concerned with the Jesuits in Ceylon.  Two more items relate to market regulations in fifteenth-century Perugia.  For a complete list see  the Catalogue entry.

The Koch leaves have no certain provenance, but plants pictured on them (there are two leaves, each painted on both sides) find counterparts in the Belluno Herbal.  Unfortunately the Herbal is not available online, so there’s little point in going into more detail.


Robin Flower’s article on the Belluno Herbal was written in 1928, and he first remarked on how the text includes notes of where the pictured plants grow, and particularly that

 ” Various plants are noted  as growing at Treviso and Cividale”

Robin Flower, ‘A North Italian Herbal of the Fifteenth Century’,  The British Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Sep., 1928), pp. 55-56.

Cividale does not appear on the map below.

But one sees that on the road which joins Belluno to Padua, via Teviso, a road branches off to the east, to Pordenone and thence to Udine.[2] Silberman argued, convincingly, that a manuscript formerly in Udine is the closest in form and imagery to the Vermont Herbal.

Pordenone is the nearest large town to the birthplace of one Odoric, who served in the early fourteenth century as Papal ambassador to the east, and who returned from China in 1330, relating the story of his travels to a fellow Franciscan in a monastery of Padua in May of that year.  In Avignon, another account was made from the stories told by Odoric’s companions, and the story of Odoric of Pordenone exists in a number of manuscripts throughout Europe.

map northern Italy Udine Veneto Pordenone Belluno


For all its sophisticated plant pictures, the  Belluno Herbal’s pages include some whose Latin is of appalling quality.  One recently-published writer describes it as ‘debased Latin’, though on consulting the archives of the first mailing list I find that in 2003, Nick Pelling had said much the same, and with better detail.  See the post VMs: Gasparinus’, 02 Aug 2003 10:26:30.

Perhaps the different exemplars used will explain why the format, imagery and attitude to the page changed so suddenly in herbals produced in Padua and the Veneto early in the fifteenth century.  There too, we might find the reason why the nearest to the Vermont Herbals’ style of drawing is a manuscript that was in Udine, and not in Florence.

next post... Authorities and Texts:  the Belluno and the ‘Tuscany’ Herbal.



[1] For those interested in Aquinas’ littera inintelligibilis, and how such texts were later interpreted and transliterated, I refer to the paper by Roberto Busa (S.J.), ‘Transcriptions of an Autograph Text of Thomas Aquinas from 1260 – 65 to the Present Day’, typescript published online as a pdf. With illustrations.

[2Enluminures refers to two other herbal manuscripts from Udine when describing the paper-marks on a later example of the Veneto herbal style. (here).

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