Comparing Beinecke MS 408 and the ‘Tuscany Herbal’ Pt 1

Vermont Tuscany Herbal p11


In a comment posted to ciphermysteries –  which was long our only open guide to the full range of Voynich researchers present and past, a certain  Menno Krull Menno Knul wrote, on July 4, 2013 at 9:08 am:

similarities between the Voynich MS and the non-coded Vermont MS 2 are convincing.

After the initial,  “Really? that’s wonderful” – the reciprocal reaction set in:  “… Convincing”?!!  Convincing of what? Convincing for whom?”.  Is this another of those myriad assertions, or has it been demonstrated and properly argued?

Keen interest with a little  mild annoyance is a fine  fuel for research, but as things turned out in 2013,  Voynich-related things would soon drop far from the top of my to-do list, and for the next year.  I’d forgotten about  “Vermont MS 2″ until  a few days ago,  when I happened to notice Menno’s comment again, and this time I sought out the manuscript.

Identifying which manuscript is meant in the different sources might be confusing, so let me first clarify that point.

Actually, there’s no manuscript  ” Vermont MS 2″ , as such, because in 1992, it was  “disbound from its 18thC binding .. Individual leaves were dry cleaned and encapsulated in polyester film at that time” – according to the catalogue entry by the University of Vermont, (Burlington).  The manuscript’s former  description was University of Vermont, Burlington, MS 2 (580.9 M 31-45.716). There are other discrepancies and differences in the way the material is described in separate sources, so to prevent confusion, I’ll treat these first.

The digital site lists the disbound pages as ‘Tuscan Herbal’ codex, with no catalogue number or shelf-list number given, but at the end of the listing (see here) is a note that the preferred citation is:

Italian Herbal, TR F Herbal, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library,

~ “mrmc002” pretty obviously   “Medieval [and] Renaissance Manuscripts Collection, [-x- MS] 2″.

The only secondary source I found online was: Henri C. Silberman,  ‘Superstition and Medical Knowledge in an Italian Herbal’, Pharmacy in History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1996), pp. 87-94

Silberman’s  “Vermont (Burlington) herbal” is certainly mrmc 002, though he gives 142 pages for  “Vermont MS 2”,  where the Vermont University catalogue has  “128” because the number of digital pages for the ‘Tuscany Herbal’ is 141( the library catalogue entry for  “mrmc002” ), and  Silberman’s article included illustrations.

batwing critter and roots Vermont MRMC oo2 p.3 pair

(left) detail from Silberman (1996 ) Fig.4.   (right) detail from University of Vermont, mrmc 002 p.3.

Similarities to MS Beinecke 408

1. Marginalia and additions.

In common with many medieval manuscripts, including Beinecke MS 408, Vermont mrmc 002 contains “.. added drawings and notes on many leaves, including several versos”.

2. Pigments and Palette.

The list of colours used (though not the nature of the pigments, which in the Vermont leaves is limited to water-colour and wash) is comparable to part of the Voynich manuscript’s palette. As the Vermont catalogue has it,:

Colors [in Vermont mrmc 002] include dark green, blue-green, dark brown, dark red, dark blue, flesh-colored, golden brown, and orange-red.

The Voynich manuscript’s larger palette includes not only a greater range of colours  but other media including, we are told, some that look like wax crayons.  Dr. Carter’s description is in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma (p.12) and was repeated with comment in an earlier post here. The few pigments which were chosen for analysis by McCrone can be read about in the pdf downloadable from the Beinecke Library site)..

3. Page layout: images and text

A more important point of similarity between these two texts is that, in contradistinction to finer Latin codices,

In the Burlington herbal, the pictures were completed before the text was written. An ink outline was traced before the water colors were applied. The colors were sometimes applied plainly without graduation, and sometimes in different shades”

Silberman, op.cit., p.87.

4. Substrate, Dates and Dimensions.

Though the Vermont leaves are on paper, and Beinecke MS 408 on rough vellum, their dimensions are similar, which is interesting given the distance in time  between the making of each.  Vermont (Burlington) mrmc 002 is dated by the library to  1475 [inferred] – 1525 [inferred].  MS Beinecke 408 is (pace Beinecke) radiocarbon dated to 1405-1438. That is, not less than about three generations earlier and as many as five, so that the person who made the Burlington leaves belonged to a generation whose grandfathers lived when MS Beinecke 408 was made, and possibly (by 1525) their great- or great-great-grandfathers.

Silberman gives dimensions for Vermont MS 2 as “23 by 33 cm large”; the Vermont University   “325 x 225 mm” so I’d guess that Silberman gave the external measure where the library gives the folios’.  See also Seymor de Ricci, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (New York, 1937) p. 2168.

One measure (225mm) then coincides exactly, and the other, longer measure of the Vermont leaves (325mm) is within 5mm of being twice that of the  Voynich manuscript’s  160mm.  In other words, if you took one page of the Vermont and folded it across the middle, the bifolium would overlap a standard one in MS Beinecke 408 by just 2.5mm to either side.

It is a congruence which inclines one to think that both were produced in the same region, or at least that they both used some common supplier for pre-made quires.   It then allows that  possibility which was previously noted in some posts  (e.g. this one),  that the Voynich manuscript’s content could have been gained from exemplars made on paper in a size that had once been fairly common. How common is difficult to determine, since the majority of our extant manuscripts are of the finer sort, and have in addition been trimmed over the centuries, as they were re-bound.  All one can say is that those dimensions are not common in the collections, and in the British Library collection are chiefly found in Jewish manuscripts.

Stationers did, however, sell ready-made quires and as the paper industry had developed the  standard sizes for paper tended to approximate those of the earlier membrane sheets.  (There is a lot of information online about this, about medieval trade in paper and more generally about sciences of the book, but as a starting point for those with no previous background in the study, I recommend the  Institut d’Histoire du Livre).

Paper and membrane  were traded around the Mediterranean, though the good’s weight and bulk made it chiefly a seaborne trade. Paper brought from Mamluk Egypt was carried to Europe chiefly by if not only on Venetian ships and arrived with the other eastern goods such as spices, linen, and perfumes.

Scripts and manuscripts from northern Italy: Tuscany, Lombardy and the Veneto   (in part 2)




[1] Silberman, op.cit., p.88.



  1. As I pointed out in my comment to you about this subject a few days ago on Voynich Ninja, the name of the person you are citing in the introduction to this article is Menno Knul, not Krull.
    You seem keen on accurate referencing so I thought it might be important to you to have the proper spelling for his name.


    • Absolutely.
      Thank you. These posts were scheduled well before they appeared online. I’ll go over the rest and correct them; your comment can serve as correction here.
      I’m glad you like names correctly spelled, too. 😀


  2. As a matter of fact, it isn’t good spelling on which I’m keen, but something which used to be called scholarly ethics, or integrity – the greatest threats to which, in my experience, are team spirit and overweening ambition. These, in combination, can lead to outright lying in order to avoid acknowledging properly (bad spelling or not) the order in which advances have been made in particular field.

    Those who have read ‘Longitude’ or seen the film (movie) will understand what I mean.


  3. Via a message left in a thread at Voynich ninja (which fortunately I happened to notice) Rene Zandbergen referred readers to a comment made fourteen years ago by Dana Scott (27th. August 2002), where Dana brought the Vermont ‘Tuscany Herbal’ to the attention of members of the first mailing list.

    Back then, in 2002, Rene had replied by saying – without any reference given – that it had been discussed a few years earlier, though nothing of any substance is reported of it, and a new subject being immediately interjected, the conversation appears to have been de-railed before it went anywhere. Not an unfamiliar phenomenon in chat-rooms. 🙂
    Disappointing for Dana, though, one would suppose.

    Those interested in reading that thread may begin from:


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