Comparing Beinecke MS 408 and the Tuscany Herbal 3-b-ii

fol 7r

folio 7r

We may compare folio 7r’s layout  with that in early manuscript copies of the Circa instans, a text first written in the second part of the twelfth century, and which became immediately popular.  Within a decade of so of its composition in southern Italy, it had spread through the Norman domains to be copied in France and was perhaps known just as early in England.

BL Harley MS 270 Incipit Circa Instans 1173-1249 AD

BL MS Harley 270. Incipit Circa Instans (1173-1249 AD)

The earliest copies have no imagery and the page is ruled into two columns, as was the norm. Penwork adorns the written word.

Such was the Latin reverence for the word, and for the literate classes, that the scribe was assumed to control the page-layout and to decide what images would be included, how much space they might occupy, and even what colours might be used.

The attitude would change substantially for a little while, though it remains deeply embedded in the European psyche.

Apart from herbal texts attributed to classical or late classical authorities,[1]  medical works were often copied without any illustrations. Even those which include plant-pictures proclaim on every page that the written line is the more important element, and this remains true in Latin herbals to the end of the fourteenth century.

In England, another critical change had occurred before Roger Bacon was born.  To quote d’Aronco:

The twelfth century dramatically marks the passage from the usage of Anglo-Saxon vernacular to Latin in medicine, as the number of Norman physicians practicing in England steadily grew.”

Maria Amalia d’Aronco, ‘Gardens on Vellum’, in Peter Dendle and Alain Touwaide (eds.), Health and Healing  from the Medieval Garden (2015   ) p.125.

From the second half of that century, we have BL MS Harley 5294, where no particular preference is seen for the ‘boxed’ image over the wrapped image. At the same time, the page makes a clear statement of the word’s greater importance, with the pigment never permitted to encroach upon the area assigned the work of the pen.

MS Harley 5294 folio 56v

BL MS Harley 5294 folio 56v. second half of the twelfth century.

By the end of the fourteenth century, the Carrara Herbal gives the image a box the same height and width as a large paragraph of text, but as in the other examples, the written text addresses the plant; the image addresses the text, adding no information about the plant but only demonstrating its physical form.

herbal Carrara Egerton 2020 f17v lg

(detail) BL Egerton MS 2020 folio 17v. The Carrara Herbal.

In these Latin works, from the twelfth to the early fifteenth century (as later), text and the illustrating image co-exist rather than actively complementing each other on the page.  Were one or the other to be omitted, there is little doubt which would have to go, but the appearance of the Voynich botanical pages does not permit such easy decisions. Early in the fifteenth century, within that same region which had produced the Carrara Herbal, some few pages announce a very different view.

One might argue this no more than a reprise of the older Pseudo-Apuleius style, now with more naturalistic imagery, but that is not so.  These pages quite overturn the longstanding reverence for word – and for the writers of word – which had grown over the centuries in Latin Europe.

These pages assert that the image is the essence; they might be taken for an artist’s personal notebook rather than the labour of a draughtsman ornamenting the written text.

Detached leaf from a herbal.

Detached leaf from a herbal.

What is more, though this imagery may look hyper-real –  almost as a classical fresco might –   they may be less simple than they seem.

For example, the space between the denuded lower part of the stem and that  thinner part from which leaves emerge,shows a hint of something not unlike that  ‘circumscription mark’  used regularly in the Voynich botanical imagery.

Brit Lib Add MS 41996 f. 113

Brit Lib Add MS 41996 f. 113 (one of the two Koch leaves)

fol 53 v circumscription mark

(detail) Beinecke MS 408 folio 53v

It is no more than a hint, and so faint that it could be fairly dismissed as accidental similarity,  but the mere possibility – in this time, and this region –  is rather exciting.

So rapidly did opinion alter that by  the end of the sixteenth century, a herbal made in Germany could look like this:-

carlina MS Harley 3736 fol20

BL MS Harley 3723 folio 20r

The Voynich folios are never quite so disrespectful of the written word, even if they never grant it absolute importance.

Another interesting anomaly of the Voynich manuscript is the lack of ruling out.  It is not that the page was ruled out and the lines later erased. There appears to be no evidence that it was ever ruled out at all. Nor is it a case of marginal marks and prick-lines having been lost by trimming, if Zandbergen is not mistaken in saying that the folios are untrimmed.

That some folios may have been traced is an idea raised first long ago [2] and in terms of manuscript studies remains a point of considerable interest.

With regard to comparative imagery, we do sometimes find some detail in a Latin manuscript made before the fifteenth century which  reminds one faintly of  one in Beinecke MS 408, but  the similarity usually evaporates when the images are compared directly: it becomes just the form for  Umbelliflorae or some  hint of the peacock – but  no substantial similarity.

umbellifloraepeacock like plants

In other cases, similarities may have more substance.

One curious instance is the use of a  zig-zag pattern to represent flowing water, because the convention In Latin works is to use parallel and evenly undulating curves..

The ‘zig-zag’  was called the  “water ripple” in Egypt,  where it was the standard convention for marking moving water. The pattern became the  hieroglyph “N” .

Egypt provided the first model for Latin monasticism, and we sometimes find echoes of Egyptian style in that contexxt.  Below is a detail from a  twelfth-century mosaic in San Savino in  Piacenza, though it imitates another, made earlier for Bobbio.   The paired ‘standing fish’ show signs of the old dog-and-dragon pairing  I’ve mentioned before, and which is also found in Egypt, in Hellenistic Alexandria.

Piacenza mosaic Pisces

(detail) mosaic from San Savino, Piacenza. 12thC. closely following that in Bobbio.

By inheritance, continuing tradition,  co-incidence, or some other influence, the Luttrell Psalter uses a similar line to indicate running water, and again it occurs in a section of Beinecke MS 408. The detail below is from folio 75v.

water zig zags

water zig-zags

The Luttrell Psalter (1325-1340 AD).also shows repeated use of roughly parallel lines, again similar  to what we find in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery, though some writers (notably Pelling) have urged that in the Voynich manuscript it reflects the style of Renaissance ‘hatching’.

If this reference to Egypt startles any reader, I should explain that we must constantly test this connection because Georg Baresch, who had the manuscript for decades and studied it to the day he died, believed the content had come from Egyptian sources, monuments, and inscriptions.  In the seventeenth century, the definition of ‘Egyptian’ was more elastic, but I won’t elaborate here.

The detail from the Luttrell Psalter allows us to test, also, the opinions of early twentieth century appraisers who attributed the manuscript to late thirteenth century England.

One opinion doesn’t necessarily negate the other.

By the late fourteenth century, Latin Europe saw the scribe’s profession separate from the draughtsman’s.

The scribe was an educated man, often a cleric, and the  ‘clerical scribe’ was highly valued and sought-after.   On the other hand, the scribe was no longer expected to ornament the text, and the illustrator usually had a lesser standing: a novice, a secular professional, a piece-worker in an atelier, or just a local chap with some talent.

In  Part 3a, we saw that the inscription in  B.L. MS Harley 1914, an un-illustrated copy of Serapion’s Practica, records the work’s being sent to  a ‘miniator’ – likely for its red and blue penwork to be added.

We’ll  now follow the changing attitude to the page though copies of Platearius’ Practica brevis (Circa Instans).

Factors driving the change  included the patrons’ desire for naturalistic imagery, and the effect on the draughtsman’s self-image of  renaissance elevation of the picture-maker from artisan to ‘artist’.  Neither of these   is noticeable in the Beinecke manuscript,  though a  third element is present, one which brought  surprisingly clear ideas about  the appearance of plants which are not native to mainland Europe nor to anywhere in the greater Mediterranean.



1. e.g. in BL MS Harley 5294: Pseudo-Antonius Musa, Pseudo-Apuleius Platonicus, Pseudo-Dioscorides, Johannitius, Isagoge ad Tegni Galeni (translated by Marcus of Toledo), (Pseudo-?) Sextus Placitus.

2. Pelling cites Torasella on this, in a post  to the mailing list dated 24 Dec 2002.


    • Gregor –
      I cannot think of any Voynich writer who was (in the earlier years) so fair in his surveys of writings related to study of the Voynich manuscript. I found no-one else who so much as understood that it is a filthy habit to take the results of someone else’s hard work – and genuine research is hard work – and use it while determinedly refusing to acknowledge the original. When I asked whether this or that avenue of investigation had already been explored, ALL the more prominent Voynicheros who bothered to respond – save only Nick – suggested that such acknowledgement of previous research “was unnecessary” and they certainly applied that same idea when treating the conclusions of my own research as a ‘free-range idea’ to be exploited without acknowledgements. Nick never uses another person’s work without making very clear whose work it is, and when it was published, and where.

      I also found, after finally getting a copy of Nick’s book (about four years into my own writings-up) that he and I had many thoughts in common, and very much respected his restraint in not suggesting that my own work had derived from his. Debts of that sort are not cancelled by time, or even by immoderate criticism. So – sorry – but you won’t find an appreciative audience here for criticisms of ciphermysteries.


      • and Gregor –
        I have been subjected, myself to the peculiar custom of the “death-by-meme” which has come to be associated with adherents of Rene Zandbergen (much to his chagrin, no doubt) that I can recognise it a mile away. Saying that Nick has written a “popularist” post is absolutely typical of that death-by-meme style in that (a) it denigrates without actually saying anything (b) it is designed not to evaluate anything which has been published, but only to create the impression that the person’s work should not be read, or taken seriously(c) marks out someone who steadfastly refuses to conform to meme-writers preferred theory. I have found that the uttering of some stock “death-dealing meme” is a sure mark of the intellectually lazy: the sort of person who thinks that to understand this highly problematic artefact, and all its content, one need only read the long-ago (and largely superseded) booklet by d’Imperio, and put a website marker on The “death-by-meme” chappies are also noted for never having contributed, as a hardcopy or interwebs publication, so much as 5,000 words of solid, original and properly documented research. One feels enormous sympathy for persons such as Rene who have worked so very hard to archive and collate matter so published, though of course – because it is his personal website – Rene is entitled to bias what he puts there to show his preferred theory in its best light. Nick’s work is, above all, the result of his own investigations into the primary source – and so is mine. Could this be part of the reason we have each been subjected to the “death by [air-head] meme”: though in my case it began from the moment I joined the second mailing list. The initial “meme’ there was that I was “out to make a name for myself” and when that had run its course, others followed. One cannot help but notice the degree to which such ill-informed assertions reflect, fairly closely, the truth of their instigator’s situation. Psychologists doubtless have a word for it.


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