Comparing Beinecke MS 408 and the Tuscan Herbal 3-b postscript: Juliana Anicia codex

Before seeing how the text-versus-imagery balance changes through copies of the Circa instans, I want to take a backward look at a manuscript which was not to arrive in Latin Europe until long after Beinecke MS 408 was made. The date of the Juliana Anicia codex (c.512 AD), its layouts,  and the sources from which its matter was taken will (I hope) illuminate certain aspects of the Voynich botanical folios and, more generally, illuminate an important stratum in the Voynich imagery. To argue any more direct connection between the making of Beinecke MS 408 and the Anicia Juliana would, however, be inappropriate.

As far as the  Voynich manuscript’s written text is concerned, readers are referred to  specialist papers.  I  recommend, as a model of palaeographic analysis, papers by  Esteban-Segura about a fifteenth-century manuscript now in the University of Glasgow Library. (see GUL, MS Hunter 509 and cf. GUL MS Hunter 497).

Laura Esteban-Segura, ‘Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter 509: A Description / Glasgow, Biblioteca Universitaria, Ms Hunter 509: Una Descripción’, Atlantis, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Diciembre 2011), pp. 105-122. [1]

That manuscript was chiefly written in  middle English, the exception being excerpts from Macer Floridus ~  an author with whom we shall now have more to do.  [2]

detail Image of coral from the Juliana Anicia

Rufus and the Juliana Anicia Codex.

Between the oldest material in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery (details which I date to the late Achaemenid-early Hellenistic period), and the time of the latest exemplars (posited as mid-twelfth to c. mid-fourteenth century AD),  there is evidence of a period of alteration and addition which I have dated to about the 1stC AD, though not only because of the red containers that initially (in 2009-10) I described as ‘capsae’.

After that layer  which altogether appears to cover the 1st-3rdC AD, the only signs of alteration to images in the Voynich manuscript  – in any section –  for the following eight or nine centuries are of the minor sort that one would expect to occur from repeated copying and such adaptation as might be needed to prevent offense or bewilderment  in the region, and community, where the older works were bring preserved over that long period.

It was also during the 1stC AD that most of the texts informing the Juliana Anicia codex had been composed – and despite its popular name as the ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ it includes excerpts from sources other than Dioscorides’ Materia medica.  I want to focus here on one of those other sources, partly because it appears in the Anicia Juliana opposite an illustration of some importance to us, and partly because of the way in which a derivative Latin poem passed through medieval Europe.

One of the most beautiful and vivid images within the Anicia Juliana depicts the red coral ‘tree’, and it faces a passage from a ‘Song of the powers of plants’ written in Greek in the first century (or so) and generally believed composed by a Rufus who may have been Rufus of Ephesus. The ‘Song’ is usually called the Carmen de viribus herbarum rather than by its Greek title. Rufus of Ephesus lived in the time of Trajan, though authorship for the Carmen.. is less certain than one might think from passing allusions in modern secondary works.  One online site puts the matter neatly:

There are tantalizing fragments of a long botanical poem, in four books of hexameters, and of [Rufus’] views on plague, which may include a very early reference to plague buboes in North Africa.

And that, I would argue, is why Rufus’ name continues to be mentioned by later Latins.  Chaucer, for example, sees him as an essential authority for any “model physician”, despite the fact that the original Greek poem had been replaced in Latin Europe from the eleventh century, by a derivative composition attributed to Macer Floridus. Thus Chaucer:

Wel knew he the olde Esculapius/ And Deyscorides and eek Rufus/ Olde Ypocras, Haly, and Galyen, Serapioun,/ Razis, and Avycen / Averrois, Damascien, and Constantyn / Bernard, and Gatesden, and Gilbertyn.

which list is still considered a fair survey of the European medical and pharmaceutical corpus to that time. [3]

Rufus had certainly studied in Egypt, and some believe that he spent many years there.  Like Chaucer, and all the persons who figure in the Voynich manuscript’s seventeenth century history, Rufus had experienced bubonic plague at first hand, for in the first century an outbreak had emerged  from Egypt, Syria and Libya.  Later Europeans, including Baresch, did not seek new discoveries in medicine to address the plague, but the oldest and wisest forms of ‘pristine ancient’ treatments, and surely knew that Rufus had first said that  ‘the buboes which are called pestilential’ usually proved fatal.

In Chaucer’s England, the plague raged and in 1594 one of many later waves of the disease took John Dee’s son, born in Prague. In 1599  Prague itself was devastated, Rudolf II fleeing to Pilsen in September of that year, and remaining until 1600. Again in England, in 1604, John Dee lost his wife to another tide of the epidemic, while in the region of Prague Pilsen was struck in 1635 and again little more than a decade later, in 1648.  There seemed no-where that a person might be safe. By that time the Plague had hovered and struck at times and in places unpredictable – for fully three hundred years.

It does not seem at all incredible that Rudolf is alleged to have supported efforts to make alchemical gold  “less for its monetary value” – as one author writes – “than as an antidote to plague”.[4]

Alchemical processes were considered able to refine any natural material of its baser matter, for which reason Roger Bacon had urged the ‘achemical’ processing of vegetable and other natural ingredients used in pharmacy.

In the fourteenth century, Chaucer’s ‘model physician’ claims to amass gold only for its virtue in medicine, and his Pardoner and  the Pardoner’s Tale meditate sotto voce on the Peste,  on related legends about the Jews, on medical advice against drinking wine in time of plague, on the nature of “impure gold” and on moral exhortations that the Plague was a divine punishment.  Chaucer may have believed the explusions one reason for that divine wrath.

Rufus’ Carmen..  had been available, it seems, in eleventh-century France, when an author generally agreed to be one Odo of Meung-sur-Loire near Orleans, under the pen-name of ‘Macer’ or ‘Macer Floridus’ had created his Latin version. It is entitled De viribus herbarum, or “the strength of plants”.

Something about the original, quite apart from its being in Greek, seems to lie behind the creation of this Latin version.  The original might just as easily have been translated into Latin directly and further hints that Odo’s work was considered one more acceptably orthodox is offered by the unusual distribution pattern for ‘Macer’s’ work.

It  passed first [5] from France though the Norman network to England and  Occitania, but then moved south into Iberia. In all those areas there are Latin manuscript copies which are dated between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries, and they are soon paralleled by translations into the vernacular languages of those regions.  It is evident that the work was being distributed to an audience already receptive and even expectant, and that their number included persons without formal education in Latin.  In Italy, by contrast, the first vernacular version was not to be made until the fifteenth century, and then in the form of prose.

The first Hebrew translation had evidently been made as early as the twelfth century.   MS Paris, BN hebr. 1190, no. 23 preserves  a list which an anonymous Jewish scholar made of the works which he had translated between 1197 and 1199, among them is “another herbal book, called Macer, after the name of its author” [and which] “refers to herbs neglected by other authors.” [6]

Despite the wide popularity of Odo’s Latin work, however,  Rufus’ name was remembered in Latin Europe, and perhaps that was also due to the fact that being “in the eyes of the Byzantines, one of the four great names in their medical literature”, the later Greek medical encyclopaedists quoted him at length, and these were the works most often cited as authorities by the pharmaceutical ‘receipts’ copied into Latin collections as ‘antidotaries’.  I’ve had reason to mention two authors of those compendia:  Aetius, and Paul of Aegina.[7]

More recent studies of the medieval medical literature in Arabic have brought more of Rufus’ works to light, but altogether it does not seem unreasonable to suggest Rufus as another possible candidate for that ‘worthy man’ whom Baresch believed had first collected the matter in the Voynich text.  Nor to suggest that in an exemplar of the twelfth or thirteenth century, whether gained from Iberia or from England, from Jewish or from Latin precedents, the ‘Carmen…’ or Odo’s ‘De viribus’ might be included.  The Voynich botanical imagery, however, argues earlier rather than later origin.

And so does the image in the Anicia Juliana which faces an extract from Rufus’ Carmen… (continued in the  next post).

coral from the Julia Aninica codex




[1] An English translation was later made of the text in GUL Hunter 497 by Javier Calle-Martín, Javier  and Antonio Miranda-García (eds.), The Middle English Version of De Viribus Herbarum (GUL MS Hunter 497, ff. 1r-92r),  Late Middle English Texts series – Volume 2. Peter Lang Publishers, (2012).

[2] The identity of Macer Floridus was known by 1927, when George Sarton wrote, in his ‘Introduction’ to The History of Science, that it “was probably composed by Odo of Meurg, or by another Frenchman”, and this remains the standard view – vide Esteban-Segura (2011) who writes   “The author under this name [Macer Floridus] was in all probability Odo de Meung sur Loire” (p.120).

[2trans. Well read was he in Aesculapius / And Dioscorides, and in Rufus / Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen / Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicenna / Averrhoes, John Damascene and Constantine / Bernard and Gatisden, and John Gilbert.

[4] Joseph Patrick Byrne, Encyclopedia of the Black Death, Volume 1 (2012),  p.252

[5] A Latin translation earlier than Odo’s has been posited, apparently proposed as having been made in central Europe (i.e. Germany). The idea is  repeated in a German wiki article, though I can find no evidence offered in support.  Thus, a website devoted to an exhibition of Linnean botany (‘Order from Chaos’). The undated site says, without references given, that  “De Viribus Herbarum was probably (sic) written in an earlier version, perhaps (sic) during the tenth century in Germany. The text was further expanded, including new data from the translation of Arabic texts into Latin in Salerno from the end of the 11th century onward”.  No evidence is offered for any of this, and no manuscript sources cited. That website is undated, but a note on the  ‘History of Information’ page – shows the link downloaded there in 2009. What is certain is that we only have Odo’s version cited in the Latin herbals.

[6]  The article in the Jewish Encyclopaedia (1906) only reports Moritz Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebers (p.809) as saying that  Macer Florius’ poem was translated into Hebrew (M. Steinschneider, Die Hebraeischen Uebersetzungen, Berlin, 1893). A fragment preserved in Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz 241, 4 (fols. 72a-73b) has been discussed by Bos and Mensching.  (Gerrit Bos and Guido Mensching, ‘Macer Floridus: a middle Hebrew fragment with Romance elements’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, [vol.] XCI, Nos. 1-2,  July-October, 2000,  pp. 17-51) and those authors note that “while there is no connection between the Occitan versions and our Hebrew text, as we will demonstrate in this article, it is quite significant that the Hebrew translation is also of Occitan origin”. (p.19)  They also make the interesting observations that while translation of Macer Floridus’ work show that at least four versions have been known in Occitania since the fourteenth century, from when the first translations into English also date, than the poem was rendered into Castilian, Aragonese and Catalan from the fourteenth century, but the Italian does not appear until the 15th and then in  prose.

[7] see John M. Riddle,’The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’,  Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198, and my post whose title is taken from Baresch’s reference to the manuscript’s content as he understood it.  ‘ “Thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” Pt2‘, voynichimagery.wordpress. com, (July 8th., 2013).  Riddle comments that the early antidotaries are a collection of receipts, with recipes drawn  “especially [from] Alexander of Tralles, Aetius of Amida, and Paul of Aegina … though no two antidotary or receptary are [exactly] alike”.



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