Comparing Beinecke 408 and the Tuscan Herbal 3-a

This post is not intended to study the stemma for herbal texts produced in Latin Europe, but to identify more nearly when and where we find similar attitudes to the page as those found in the botanical folios of Beinecke 408,  similar materials used, and so more nearly locate the time and place where it was made – apparently in Italy during the early decades of the fifteenth century.  Because the different approach to the page and to depiction of plants which appears at that time might be owed to the exemplars and their authorities, some are considered here with manuscripts made between the fourteenth and fifteenth century – not all of them herbals.

Belluno Herbal (Brit.Lib. MS Add. 41623) early 15thC.

“The chief source of the text is Dioscorides. Other names, mentioned once each, are Serapion (f. 31b), Avicenna (f. 31b), T[h]eodorus (f. 92) and ‘Magister Stephanus qui fuit jude[us]’ (f. 106 b); verses from Macer Floridus on salvia and ruta occur on ff. 58, 68, and the ‘Circa i[n]stans’ is mentioned on f. 61b.”

from the Catalogue entry.

A model for intensely realistic plant-pictures is certainly offered by the much-cited  Juliana (sometimes ‘Julia’)  Anicia Codex, but that manuscript was not to arrive in mainland Europe until the late 1560s, which makes one wonder whether the sketchy wiki article entitled ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ wasn’t written by a Voynichero: its reference to the Voynich manuscript appears somewhat gratuitous.

The Belluno Herbal’s dependence on Dioscorides contrasts strongly with the Carrara Herbal, in which, as we’ve seen, vivid plant-portraits already occur. Its text is chiefly the Latin translation of work written by a ninth-century Syrian named Ibn Sarabi, known as   ‘Serapion the Elder’. The Latin translation is a product of the Toledo school, issued under the name of Gerard of Cremona, and is referred to as the Practica Joannis Serapionis dicta Breviarium,   Practica Serapionis or Breviarium medicinae  etc.

Two fourteenth century manuscripts – one from Bologna and another from the Veneto – offer additional reason for believing that while the the Beinecke manuscript was made in the early fifteenth century, its exemplars had been made in the fourteenth.

MS Harley 1914 is an Italian copy of the Practica, made in Bologna and displays a perfectly conventional format for Latin works of the time.  every page is fully ruled out, in double columns.   It includes no illustrations of plants.  Its folio dimensions are 380mm x 225mm.

  MS Harley 5437 is not a herbal, but a copy made in the Veneto of a poem first composed in twelfth-century France, William of Châtillon’s Alexandreis.  Its dimensions are those of the Beinecke manuscript’s standard folios 225mm x 160, and the presence along the margin of the pricking lines suggests that it has not been trimmed – at least not on that side.

Once again, these dimensions are found in works produced in the Veneto and Padua, and as much as a century before the making of Beinecke MS 408.

MS Harley 1914 and  MS Harley 5437.

The incipit of MS Harley 1914  reads, “Tractatus primus breviarij Johannis fil/ij serapionis medici”.  There are no illustrations save rubrication – in this case a rather pretty penwork, possibly done by an ancestor of Ulisse Aldrovandi, for there is an annotation on its folio 113v which relates to the delivery of the book to one ‘Magistro Aldrovando miniatore de Bononia’.

penwork from MS Harley 1914 folio 1r

detail B.L. MS Harley 1914, folio 1r.

script Adrovandi miniator f133v from MS Harley 1914

(detail) folio 133v, Brit.Lib. MS Harley 1914.

The Bolognese naturalist, Ulisse –   of whom we have already heard so much  – would not be born until 1522, but it is interesting to ponder  whether some family connection to that fourteenth-century rubricator ‘Master Aldrovando’ might not have sparked Ulisse’s keen interest in a particular type of plant-book, one which he called ‘Plants of the Alchemists’.  If so, then the description need not be supposed fanciful; it may have been one handed down.   Philip Neal made a  list of the ‘Alchemists'”   98 plants, offering it online:  here.

Other inscriptions from the same manuscript are found on folios 11v and 12r, these  in a hand which the holding library describes as fourteenth-century, too, but now of  “Italy or southern France” –  which may surprise those   who imagine ‘nationality’ in fourteenth century Europe as no less an exclusive idea than it later became.

A detail from  folio 12r  is shown (below) and one of the letters compared with the Voynich glyph rendered as “R” in Gabriel Landini’s  “EVA”  transcriptionThe  transcription was then rendered in digital form by Rene Zandbergen, although I am not sure than the font is still workable or available online. (Comments on that point, if posted to this blog, would be helpful to my readers).

Voynich 'r'

(detail) folio 12r from B.L. MS Harley 1941. written in “an Italian or southern French hand” 14thC .

Some Voynich writers have floated the idea that the detailed patterning used on folio 86v (Beinecke foliation 85v and 86r) is nothing more than pen-work and doodling.  The present writer does not agree, but readers must decide for themselves.

detail Beinecke MS 408 f.86v (85v and 96r)

(detail) Beinecke MS 408, [Yale f.86v] Beinecke Library foliation 85v and 96r.

 Our second manuscript attests, again, to the close cultural links between France and northern Italy during the fourteenth century, and it contains other points in common with the Voynich manuscript – that is, apart from precisely the same dimensions for its parchment.  This one was made in the Veneto.

Brit. Lib. MS Harley 5437.

The page is written in long lines, not  the double column format. In the detail below you see how the initial letters for each line have been set a little distance from the rest, line by line.

clip from Harley 5437 folio 1 Alexandreis

(detail) Brit.Lib. MS Harley 5437, folio 1.

This ‘itemised’ format is found in other contexts, including in mercantile documents, but in this case the aim appears to be to aid memorization and recall of the poem.  Why it is used in the Voynich manuscript is still unknown.  Below is a detail from one of the botanical folios  (folio 49v).

folio 49 v item list

(detail) folio 49v Beinecke MS 408. Image scan ID: 1006171

Ii expect that this post has provided quite enough food for thought, so I’ve cut the paragraphs about ‘Serapion’, and further discussion of the Belluno and Tuscan Herbals.  That can wait.

Readers interested in Walter’s poem might  find helpful the ‘Introduction’ to David Townsend’s translation, The Alexandreis: A Twelfth-Century Epic by Walter Chatillon (2006).


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