An early 15thC copy of a 13thC text: Thomas of Cantimpré (updated)

(18th. Feb. 2018 – updating consists of new header and background colour. Nothing else altered).


This post should have appeared next after the four posts about the Vermont “Tuscany Herbal” posts, because that’s where I introduce   Thomas of Cantimpré while investigating the authorities cited.

But this is nice and short, and might give readers a break, and perhaps some amusement too because I am no palaeographer.

-I think the glitch is now fixed which led to the reposts. If the illustrations don’t appear for you, email me –


Thomas of Cantimpré’s De natura rerum  was composed between 1228 and 1244 in France during the second or third quarter of the thirteenth century: that is while Roger Bacon lived and before the expulsion of the Jews from England.

The work was copied in England in c.1400-1410, very near the upper end of the radiocarbon range offered for the Voynich manuscript (c.1405-1438).

That fifteenth century copy is in Cambridge, in  Gonville and Caius college ( MS 36/141   35/141). The British Library MS Harley 3717 is thought to have been written in France or in Louvain, and as I write this I feel sure that I have seen mention of MS Harley 3717 before in connection with the Voynich manuscript, though at the moment, I find nothing relevant online. [1]

Assuming for the moment that the exemplar used for that  fifteenth-century English copy was while Thomas lived or soon after his death  (b.1201 –  d.15 May 1272) in this text and its manuscripts we have a close parallel to both the history offered by Wilfrid Voynich and the results of scientific texts for Beinecke MS 408.

I have argued, all along, that the immediate exemplars for our present manuscript should be dated between the  mid-thirteenth to mid-fourteenth centuries. (I might say in passing that i find it amusing now to read on pages written by the same persons who as recently as 2012 derided the very idea that the manuscript might be a collection of excerpts, and who again indulged their humour when I spoke of exemplars, now happily repeat those conclusions on their sites as if they are now “what everyone knows” and are “common sense”.

All the comparative examples shown below come from one folio (folio 3r)  in the Gonville and Caius College manuscript (MS 35/141).  The comparisons from the Voynich manuscript are bordered in red, and all the examples of the script come from Beinecke MS 408, folio 38v (with a nod to Nick Pelling).


Since Pelling drew attention to the fact that the Voynich manuscript’s written text seemed, to him, to be scattered with Latin page references –  pointing this out first in the original Voynich mailing list and later in his Curse of the Voynich  (2006) –  a number of other writers have puzzled over them.

A post to ciphermysteries then summarised the matter:  ‘The Voynich Cipher for Codebreakers‘, (June 6th., 2009), and in demonstrating the range of those forms, Pelling used folio 38v (here). Which is why I have also referred to a single folio from  Gonville and Caius College De natura rerum and used the same folio from the Voynich manuscript.  I’ve also included below,  as ‘Fig.1’,  some of the numerals but chiefly to illustrate how the  “9” abbreviation is there used for a terminal  “-us”.

sort of quiration

The same folio shows a human figure and permits me to highlight the differences as well as similarities between the two manuscripts, and at the same time to compare with imagery in a Sephardi Jewish Haggadah made during the interval between Thomas’ writing De natura rerum, and its being copied in fifteenth-century England.

Similarities and differences:

The male figure is pictured with cropped hair which curls at the edges; the hands are over-large hands and the male is pictured without sexual organs.  In the Voynich manuscript, the first comparative figure has the same attributes, but is not drawn with the urge towards naturalism, nor does it see the body primarily in terms of bone structure; the knee joints are not emphasised, nor the rib-cage.  Conversely, the figure from the College manuscript shows no inclination to deform the human face, or to represent it with the over-large heads which we see in MS Beinecke 408.  One has the impression of a similar, but not identical provenance.

male figures

One might compare this with the way human figures are represented in the Sarajevo Haggadah, a work made in Spain in c.1350.  The English and Spanish Jews were Sephardi, and after the expulsions from France (1182), from England (1290 AD) and gain from France (AD 1394 ), many joined their fellow Sephardi Jews in the papal territories of Avignon and Montpellier etc. after 1305, about which time works of Kabbalah were appearing in northern Spain and southern France. The Zohar is believed to have been written in c.1280. The town of Gerona offers a model for the declining quality of life for Jews in those countries from the last quarter of the fourteenth century to the middle of the fifteenth, and explains why many Sephardi Jews emigrated to the Veneto during the fourteenth century (on which see coming posts of the ‘Tuscany Herbal’ series).

Haggadah 'Saraevo'. Spain c.1320 AD

Haggadah ‘Saraevo’. Spain c.1320 AD

Once the rest of the ‘Tuscany Herbal’ posts are up, I hope it will be clear why I think that Beinecke MS 408 was made in northern Italy while not ruling out the possibility it was made in England.  Evidence and reasons for my preference are given in those (3)  posts in queue.

[1] Postscript: I have it!  The group espousing the  ‘German’ theory, of whom Rene Zandbergen is surely the first and most prominent, have been referring, not to the original author, who worked in France, nor to the place where the Harley manuscript was made (and possibly the original text too)  which was Flanders, but rather to a  fifteenth fourteenth (thanks, Larry) -century German edition of which the translator and editor (not so much  ‘author’) was a gentleman-scholar named Konrad von Megenberg, whose  translated title was  ‘Das Buch der Natur’.

Some members of the same theory-group have strongly urged on the Voynich community that no other sources save fifteenth century (and tacitly fifteenth century central European) manuscript art should be compared with imagery in Beinecke MS 408, the idea being that one is looking for the imagery which supposedly ‘inspired the author’ of the Voynich manuscript!

(Clever ..)

For which reason, of course,  my research having made me quite certain, since 2008, that the Voynich manuscript is not German, I came just now perforce by an entirely different route to  Thomas of Cantimpré viz. because I thought Menno Krull’s assertion about the The Vermont ‘Tuscany Herbal’ worth investigation, and then that the list of its cited authorities was curious for mention of a “St. Thomas” – and thence to wondering if the reference was not to Thomas of Cantimpre, who lived when Roger Bacon did.

Funny how things work out..


Das Buch der Natur (Book of nature) is a Medieval Latin compendium of science that was edited and translated into German in the 14th century by Konrad von Megenberg, a German scholar and writer who was probably born at Mainberg (Megenberg), near Schweinfurt, Bavaria, in 1309, and died at Ratisbon (Regensburg) in 1374. He studied at Erfurt and then at the University of Paris, where he taught philosophy and theology from 1334 to 1342. [and probably first encountered the work of Thomas of Cantimpré – D]

In 1342 he moved to Ratisbon, … [and]… wrote at least 30 books, of which Das Buch der Natur is the best known. The book is based on a Latin compendium, Liber de natura rerum, by the 13th-century Dominican priest Thomas of Cantimpré, but Konrad made many revisions to the original work, omitting much material and introducing his own observations and corrections.

And no, I won’t be crediting those who refer to the German encyclopaedia for being first to refer to the work of the thirteenth century Dominican – but if anyone else did, do let me know. 🙂


  1. Diane

    By coincidence this morning I was studying a number of manuscripts with similar style (to show that it’s not problematic for male constellations to be drawn with female bodies).

    There is this one, where the men have no genitals. The legs did remind me a bit of Voynich nymphs, though the upper body is rather bony (the site offers a pdf of the page which is very small when I open it but you can zoom in).

    [available through the Warburg Institute site]

    Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Urb. lat. 1399, fol. 35v-36r
    [Gerard of Cremona’s translation of the Almagest]

    And then there is this one, which is bony overall with normal proportions, but Hercules, the most manly of constellations, has been given prominent female genitalia.

    Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana → Pal. lat. 1369, fol. 148v
    [15thC copy of al-Sufi’s Book of the fixed stars (Latin translation)]

    Coincidence or similar influences? I mean I can understand that you don’t want to draw a penis, but then why draw female genitalia instead? It seems like the VM has done exactly the same in a number of cases.

    Also in the same set of manuscripts, I found a couple or female and gender-neutral Cepheuses and a bearded Cassiopeia 🙂

    – Koen, I have to edit out your live links and replace them with manuscript and folio details. It should be no real loss; my readers will be able to find the manuscripts online.


    • Nick thank you so much for this. I realised that the secondary source I’d been using has a typo. The page I took the examples from – an exhibition site – is the University’s and must be right – but it gives the reference as 35/141. ( Another jolly correction needed for this jinxed post)

      The exhibition site where you can see that page is

      I expect you have Lynn Thorndike’s encyclopaedia, but I don’t see anywhere else online that you can see that particular manuscript. If you have better luck, do tell.


  2. Koen, I apologise for not having responded to your comment at the time you made it. I’ll try to make up for that now.

    I certainly do see some similarities between the Haggadah figures and one of those among the images from that 15thC copy of the ALmagest (MS Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Urb. lat. 1399). To make the point more accessible for readers, I’ve changed the header-picture for this post.

    I should think these images are all pretty close to their model and – as you probably know – attribution to Gerard of Cremona is something of a polite fiction, now as it was then. Though scholars have demonstrated plainly enough that Gerard’s Arabic was quite poor until after the Almagest translation had been done, he was (as it were) a ‘nihil obstat’ in person. During the re-taking of areas previously under Islamic rule, all the written works being now translated into Latin were a source of concern… they might have been affected by ‘Saracen’ religious beliefs and Ptolemy himself wasn’t of the Latins’ faith, let alone their particular brand of Christianity – so they were worried. Gerard’s role was to check the Latin translations made by the Toledo school (multilingual scholars, mostly Jews as far as we know). Muslims had been worried about Christian books, just as Christians were worried about Muslim influence and Jews were a sort of safety-barrier against inadvertent religious error. Anyway, translations of the Toledo school were ‘vetted’ by Gerard and then issued under his name – which made it all alright for the theologians. I doubt the astronomers and mathematicians cared, much.

    So all in all it would be not much surprise if some images in a copy of the ALmagest show the bones of the sunken rib-cage (very popular in 12thC England especially), where others (like the first, left – above) more nearly resemble drawings from Haggadah.

    I notice something else about those folios: the generic form for ‘star’ is made by three strokes of the pen, not four. Where scribes would copy carefully from their models if instructed to do that, or might obey the fashions preferred by their workshop or the patron, these unthinking, rote motifs are often a valuable tell. And that’s how the Voynich stars are made too: we call it the ‘Syrian star’ because in Syria in antiquity stars had 6 points, where in Egypt they always had 5-points and so on.

    Unless the star-figures in the Vms indicate their index-position by hand-gestures or something, there is that big difference between the Almagest images and the Vms. The figures aren’t marked with numerals, are they?

    I’ve now made the updated header three of those figures, for readers’ ease.


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