[posted automatically at 6.45 am – minor typos then corrected (6.53am.
(one Picture replaced; two more added; minor changes to improve grammar – 13th June 2016)
An important point of difference between the two manuscripts is their attitude to living creatures. In the Voynich botanical folios they are not drawn literally, save for the little dragon on 25v, which is shown with its long hare-like ears and endearingly ‘cute’ appearance, reminiscent of older Anglo-Saxon and insular art,
Note The page has been inscribed [folio] ‘5’, but the holding library lists it as page 4, and that is the correct reference.
If an earlier source should carry a different folio or page number, one way to handle it is to first quote the original material exactly and then to put the superseded foliation into square brackets thus: [-x- folio 86v] Beinecke f.86v and 86r. It is a mistake to omit superseded folio numbers – it will only confuse those who come to the study later.
Living creatures (cont.)
APART from that little dragon, the Voynich botanical folios use allusive forms for living creatures, in imagery that is evidently aimed at aiding the reader’s recall of matter already known about a given group of plants. Most of these mnemonic devices are set at the level of the roots, though folio 5v is one of the exceptions, setting at the top another mnemonic which I read as reference to the Dioscuri or Kabeiroi. (about this, see earlier posts. Search ‘5v’).
Even Voynich researchers who have no previous knowledge of the use of mnemonics and of their prominent place in ancient and medieval learning may recognise that the following detail from folio 32v intentionally evokes the form of a bird having a peacock-like stance and tail – while also realising that it is no decorative ‘portrait’ of any bird. If one had any doubts, the spike at the tail and the provision of what seem to be five insect-like legs should alert the viewer: this is not an image to be “looked at”. It is one designed to be read: it is a pictorial text.
Few mnemonics in the Voynich botanical folios are so easily read as this one by people unaccustomed to conventions in other than Mediterranean art. However, they are common in the botanical section and mostly set below the stem of the plant(s).
Mnemonic devices are a technique used to prompt recall, not to teach matter previously unknown. Those who have followed the recent contributions to Voynich studies by Koen Gheuens will see this is as distinction in our respective understandings of the purpose for which these mnemonic devices were included.
In my opinion, the subject of a mnemonic in any manuscript must relate either to the object to which it attaches, or to some passage in the accompanying text – except when it relates the current item to matter already held in memory – to ‘second-nature’ things such as well-known songs, sayings, prayers, proverbs and cultural allusions familiar to the original maker, from everyday life.
The ‘bird’ mnemonic being so easily legible for western readers, it is perhaps the best example for explaining how they work in this manuscript. I have included, below, a couple of passages reprising the content of a more detailed analysis of the folio, published in 2011.
As I read it, Folio 32v depicts a group of great ‘spreading trees’ – alluding to the plane tree as the base-type, and so using its leaves to signal the character of this group of plants. However, the focus is chiefly on those among such ‘spreading trees’ which local parlance named ‘Peacock tree’ and ‘Phoenix tree’.
In common with the plane tree, these others served as markers for that place in any village where traders might display their wares and where a physician might be available. Brought from central Asia, the Plane Tree served exactly the same purposes within the Mediterranean, from the early Hellenistic period when it appears first in Cos, a noted centre for medicine. Perhaps co-incidentally, the peacock also served as a sign for the work of the physician and was adopted as the ‘ex libris’ mark for the Juliana Anicia codex (see detail below, right)
The mnemonic’s showing the bird’s tail closed or cut is doubtless relevant, though I can only suggest it may embody a proverb still common in regions where the ‘peacock’ and ‘phoenix’ tree are native. In Hindi for example, it runs:
जंगल में मोर नाचा किस ने देखा ? Jangal main mor nacha, kisne dekha.
literally : ‘Who sees a peacock dance [with tail open] in the woods?’ – meaning that what is not publicly displayed is not appreciated.
Again, if I read the image correctly, a parallel allusion is made for this group – to the ‘Phoenix tree’. In the longer analysis of 2011 I offered an explanation for why the flower chosen to represent this group should be that of Phoenix tree and not the red-orange of the ‘Peacock’ tree.
The Paulownia is called the ‘Phoenix tree’ not only for its brilliant ‘royal’ canopy of blue-purple flowers, but also for the speed with which it regenerates and grows. It rises in some cases as much as thirty feet in a year, and even in Europe it grows swiftly to a great size, as the specimen near Buda castle, in Budapest proves.
these pictures have been turned upright. The drawing at left shows a flower from P. tomentosa
from: ‘fol 32v – (revised) “Peacock Trees” and “Phoenix tree”, (blog-post) Findings, December 9th., 2011.
Though rare in India, the Paulownia is known there as the “Empress tree”.
Luxury items such as marriage chests, scented woods, the substance for eastern paper etc. occur in various folios in the botanical section, leading me to conclude that luxury goods – chiefly of vegetable origin – I formed an important part of the business for which the images apparently once served as constant reference.
In the Tuscan Herbal we do see emblems set at the roots of some plants, but these are designed in the style of the ‘Alchemists’ plants’ books and display nothing of the same sophistication or detailed knowledge of the plants above them as we see in Beinecke MS 408. Their presence in the Tuscan herbal is the very opposite of evidence for common origins, rather emphasising the distance between the two manuscripts in time, culture, conception and source-works. The Vermont ‘Tuscan Herbal’ displays a late and eclectic character in every folio.
Where such emblemata appear in the Latin herbals, they carry a constant sense that the Latin painter was ‘painting the text’.
In the Voynich manuscript’s botanical folios mnemonics speak rather to the original makers and users having a direct knowledge of the plants in their native habitat; they are pictured in a different way, and to read the mnemonics one does not need the still unknown written text, but only to read the information embedded in these carefully constructed pictures.
What is essential – as I’d say from my experience of researching the manuscript – is that the researcher have the time, energy and interest to look further than the corpus of western herbal imagery, and to research the images as forms of image, rather than pre-empting that analysis in favour of efforts to force-fit them into one or another system more familiar and congenial.
To ask “which Latin herbal manuscript comes nearest to imagery in Beinecke MS 408?” is to prevent any useful discussion of the very details which tell us, plainly enough, that the Voynich botanical images are no offshoot of the ordinary Latin herbals.
To say that the ‘alchemist plants’ books also have emblemata at the level of the root fails to address the more important question of why the emblems in the Latin ‘alchemists plants’ are instantly legible where those in the Voynich manuscript are so opaque by the standards of the Latin herbal manuscripts. It is to fail to explain why the ‘sun’ in the Tuscan Herbal is typically European, while that on folio 67v of the Voynich manuscript is not.
I’ve seen no Latin herbals using mnemonic devices in a way so detailed, apt, direct, sensible, practical and succinct, especially when (as in the case of the Voynich botanical folios) a majority have as their subject plants not native to the Mediterranean. In some few, the flower is represented by using a stylised form which was immediately recognisable as a traditional one in regions where the plants of the group were natives – the flowers on folio 33v offering a case in point. I have identified them not as sunflowers (which the rest of the image denies) but a group perceived as like the lotus, and specifically the paeony and mayapple.
I think it extremely probable that Beinecke MS 408 was made in the Veneto – between Padua and Udine – early in the fifteenth century, but II cannot suppose its imagery first enunciated then, or there. I must conclude it a copy made from matter that had been gained from elsewhere, this matter brought to mainland Europe or the south-western Mediterranean in about the fourteenth century, and the botanical section having come, as details in its imagery suggest, through the Yemen-Syria link that had earlier seen the making of the Mashad Dioscorides.
Panofsky’s initial attribution to southern (Sephardi) Jews of “Spain or somewhere southern” seems eminently reasonable and probable, but since those expelled from England only shortly before Roger Bacon’s death were also Sephardi, as were those in Calais and Picardy (where we find orthography similar to that on the month-roundels),* so I conclude that it is most probable that it was also Sephardi immigrants from Spain France and earlier England, coming into Padua and the Veneto during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, who had brought the content in one or more works which then served as the sources from which the Voynich manuscript’s diverse sections were compiled. Not all refer to the southern, maritime route as the botanical section does, but that matter has been discussed elsewhere.
There is no doubt that the new wave of immigrants came to the same centres referenced by the Belluno Herbal and the Koch leaves and specifically to Treviso and Cividale. But Padua had a particular attraction in that, although its teaching was in Latin, students were admitted regardless of religious affiliation.
We find knowledge of non-Mediterranean plants in parts of Europe well before the fifteenth century, and attitudes to the page do not change overnight, either. Both these things must be sketched to show why we posit the Veneto rather than (say) Salerno or Spain.
 thus: “Paulownia [grows] up to 20 feet in one year when young. Some species of plantation Paulownia can be harvested for saw timber in as little as five years. Once the trees are harvested, they regenerate from their existing root systems, earning them the name of the “Phoenix tree.”
- an observation for which we acknowledge Don Hoffmann.