Postscript: Juliana Anicia codex (cont.)

The Anicia Juliana and the Voynich manuscript  – Layout.

[overlapping images – corrected March 10th., 2016]

The Anicia Juliana codex is our oldest remaining herbal manuscript. Its making is dated to c.512 AD, and in it are some folios laid out in the same format which is standard in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section. The folio showing ‘Kentaurion’ in the Anicia Juliana may be compared with examples from Beinecke MS 408 cited earlier in the present series of posts.

Juliana Anicia Codex kentaureion

‘Kentaurion’ from the Juliana Anicia codex, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.


The point is not that we may now start formulating novelettish stories in which the Anicia Juliana is imagined to have, in some way or other,  directly affected the fifteenth-century makers of Beinecke 408 who were (probably) in northern Italy while the Anicia Juliana certainly wasn’t.

No – the point is that, like the first who enunciated the Voynich folios, some among the Anicia Juliana’s Greek source-texts had treated such an approach to the page –  and a similar relative importance for image and text – as the norm,  even if each displays different attitudes to how the botanical figure itself should be constructed.

That we owe the Anicia Juliana’s  ‘Kentaurion’ page to the one of its precedent texts is plain enough, for where  the Beinecke manuscript uses that format as the default for its botanical folios, the Byzantine codex uses a range of different formats, widely different in appearance and showing a strong  dichotomy between the ruled, boxed and rigid type already shown in the Latin works, and folios with that very different style: one which could be described as making an open, ‘breathing’  page.  The more rigid layout also shows imagery reminiscent of older Latin herbals’:

page botanical 2 blog Julia Anicia

On relative weight for image and text, Leslie Brubaker describes the Byzantine work:

In the Vienna manuscript …[are] full-page images of each plant facing a page of description of its pharmaceutical properties… The balance between word and image is, however, tilted slightly in favor of words. Once, for example, a plant – the Daphne gnidium – is embedded in the text ..The illustration was not an afterthought: as is evident from the way the text flows smoothly around its contours, the image was painted before the words were written. Presumably, the amount of space needed in the quire had been underestimated; rather than condensing the text – a formula followed in certain illustrated biblical manuscripts of the period – the image was reduced, though not abandoned. The solution indicates the relative importance of both….The normal pattern, however, remains a single image facing a page of text.

Leslie Brubaker, ‘The Vienna Dioskorides and Anicia Juliana’, from Antony Littlewood, Byzantine Garden Culture, Dumbarton Oaks, 2002. pp.189-214. (p.191  )

And this reminds  us that in exploring similarities between these manuscripts, we must not forget the substantial differences between them. Despite the closely similar layout, overall the conception and execution of each finished work is quite different.  They evince a different character.  For example, there is no evidence that it  ever occurred to the persons who first made the Voynich botanical folios that image and text might lie on facing pages.  It is also clear that the image is never an ‘afterthought’ nor adjusted to suit the written text.  And whatever the reason that the written text in the Voynich folios clings to the image, it cannot be an under-estimation of the space needed by the scribe.

MS Beinecke 408 folio 24r

There is also a clear implication of different use intended.  Size implies that context for use, and that of the Anicia Juliana (380 mm x 330 mm) shows it a work for display within the library or other static indoor setting.  It is a ‘public’ volume in the sense that it is made to be used by persons without direct access to the makers or any one user in particular: its text is legible and intelligible,  and the volume is made large enough to be viewed easily by two or more people at once.  Its having openings in which one side is devoted entirely to an image implies a ‘no cost spared’ attitude quite at odds with the way in which Beinecke MS 408 presents. It is “pocket-size” (225mm x 160 mm). The nature of its imagery (let alone the the written text) makes it a more private work: made for persons sharing a certain body of knowledge between them, but which was never ‘common knowledge’.

In the Anicia Juliana, the message of extravagance is met by announcement of the glories of the eastern, Greek sphere and its Hellenistic heritage and as both Collins and Pavord have remarked, that message expressed by the content of the codex is made even plainer by  portraits in the frontispiece and following folios.

Those portraits tell us which persons were most revered in early sixth-century Byzantium in connection with plants and medicine . One group includes   Pamphilios [Pamphilos/Pamphilus]”of Alexandria” – though he of Sicyon should be there[8], Xenocrates of Alexandria, Quintius Sextus Niger, Heracleides of Tarentum, and Mantias.

Mantius [also as ‘Mantias’] is perhaps the oldest. He lived in the 3rd-2ndC BC and Galen says that he was the first to write a book on pharmacy (Galen, de Compos.Med. sec.Gen ii, 15, vol.13 pp. 462 and 502).

Rufus of Ephesus appears in the next group (folio 3v)  with  Galen, Crataeus, Dioscorides, Nicander of Colophon, Andreas of Carystos, and Apollonius Mys of Alexandria.

Aside: On a personal note, I am oddly pleased to think that these luminaries may have arrived in Australia, in portrait, before the first shipment of England’s unwanted.  In 1777, the botanist who accompanied James Cook and who stopped at a little bay (later called ‘Botany Bay’ for want of better knowledge) had a personal, hand-made copy of the Anicia Juliana. I like to think he had had it made for the voyage and brought it ashore to assist his collecting of specimens.  If so, it would have been the first book ever seen in the continent.  Below, the picture of Rufus from Banks’ copy.  For more, see post dated July 25th., 2011 at the Natural History Museum blog – here).

detail Joseph Banks' Rufus of Ephesus

Ruphus ‘of Ephesus’ detail from  Joseph Banks’ 18thC copy of the Juliana Anicia codex. Cf the original .. here.

Those figures in the Anicia Juliana portraits have in common that (to quote Pavord)  “all of them wrote in Greek and all were based in towns of the eastern Roman empire.”

And that is logically the point of intersection between the layout of the Anicia Juliana’s  ‘Kentaurion’-style folios and those in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section.

Since the Anicia Juliana was made in the second decade of the sixth century, using content derived from earlier precedents and texts, all from authors who lived between the 2ndC BC and 2ndC AD and were of the older, eastern, Greek world – so this too is the most probable region and time for  original enunciation of the Voynich section.

It is not a conclusion supported only by this page-layout, but accords with the end-result of investigating separately each section of Beinecke MS 408, a large number of particular folios, and specific details found throughout.

The results have indicated, consistently, that the oldest stratum of matter contained in Beinecke MS 408 originated in the Hellenistic period and east of mainland Europe, and that a period of around the 1stC AD had seen a critical stage in its evolution.  About the present written text in the Beinecke manuscript,  of course, caveat necessarily applies.[9]

So, one wonders, which of the source(s) used for the Anicia Juliana might have contributed that ‘Kentaurion’ style of layout?

Keyser and Irby-Massie[10] attribute to Diophantes of Lycia (Gk. Λυκία, aka Lucia) the first reference to Kentaurion in the Greco-Roman literary-pharmaceutical tradition.  Diophantes lived before the 2ndC AD.  Next listed is  Severus Iatrosophista (fl. BC 30- 14 AD) but he is remembered today chiefly for his clysters, not anything on botany. It is Diophantes who is mentioned by Galen  [11], though Galen also mentions in several places a Pamphilos, author of a work on botany, of whom he disapproves. Regardless of the text placed opposite it in the Anicia Juliana, one of these might have served as model for the text-with-image. [8]

Researching such questions would surely be interesting, whether or not any certainty could be reached, but we need not take quite so much trouble in attempting to discover whether imagery in the Anicia Juliana derives from much older sources.

That image facing a passage from  Rufus’ Carmen de viribus herbis’ is enough to tell us certainly that some, at least, of the  pictorial sources were either untouched by the Roman style, or came direct from works of the pre-Roman, Hellenistic, world.

coral from the Julia Aninica codex


Juliana Anicia sea-beast

In the next post we put it under the magnifying glass.


Postscript: I might add that this picture also provides some – if only a little – circumstantial  support for Koen Gheuens’ recent efforts to demonstrate that the Voynich manuscript’s “roots and leaves” section does or once did allude to classical mythology.  The image from the Anicia Juliana shows that there had indeed been an earlier custom of adding to the image of a plant associated mythic and proverbial figures.





[8] Confusion in late classical and medieval sources is not rare, even by the sixth century.  A philosopher Pamphilios of Sicyon is known to have composed a work called “Likenesses in alphabetical order” and is also thought likely the composer of a work on plants which is mentioned several times, and critically, by Galen who says its author had never seen the plants he described.  Pamphilos of Alexandria composed a miscellany called a ‘lexicon’ which paid attention to dialectical variants, but it does not appear to have had any special focus on botany or pharmacy. On this and the other biographies see Smith’s Dictionaries of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, which with his Geography and Antiquities are available online through the internet archive. The first two remain standard references. All are worth bookmarking, at least.  The Dictionary of Biography.. is in 3 vols. VOL. 1 (Abacaenum-Hytanus) ;  VOL 2 (Earinus-Nyx); VOL 3 Oarses-Zygia.

[9With regard to the Voynich text, a constant caveat applies: it may have been devised no earlier than c.1438, though this is unlikely, given that we have  already seen that the handwriting has features in common with a script used in fifteenth century England, copying  a thirteenth-century French work.  And it was to the thirteenth century that most  nineteenth-century appraisers (that is, those experienced and qualified) immediately assigned the present object that is Beinecke MS 408.

The present writer believes that the present, fifteenth century artefact represents an effort at near ‘facsimile’ reproduction from the available examplars, and that these dated to a period between the  late thirteenth century and mid-fourteenth. Some writers have gone so far as to suggest that some of the diagrams in the Voynich manuscript were made by tracing from the earlier source. Another has observed that the Voynich manuscript’s written text looks less like ‘writing’ than drawing of writing.  Perception that the present manuscript resembles imitation of one(s) made earlier has been several times repeated, but in each case has received scant consideration.

[10] Paul T. Keyser, Georgia L. Irby-Massie (eds.), Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists: The Greek Tradition and its ManyHeirs, (Routledge, 2008). The volume contains a convenient list of plants with the authorities in which each is first listed.

[11] Galen, De Comnpos. Medicam. sec. Locos, 9.4, vol. xiii. p. 281. I have the reference from William Smith (ed.), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Vol.1 (p.1051). The dates for Severus Iatrosophista are taken from Author/Number Index To The Library Of Congress Classification Schedules Volume Two (L-Z).




  1. These are really good illustrations for what you say about the attitude to the page. I don’t see how anyone could disagree – but I have thought that many times before.

    This sea goddess figure is just fascinating (does she have some kind of Cetus on her lap?). There is a difference of course: the memory boosters provided by the figures I see are linguistic in nature, rather than pointing to the plant’s “domain”. Still, like you say, the practice of placing a mythological figure at root level is similar, though it doesn’t prove anything.

    I have a nagging suspicion that the large plants in the Voynich may have once had similar figures at their roots. But they got (gradually?) replaced by the very different, practical type of mnemonics you have analyzed. I have no evidence for that suspicion whatsoever – only a forgotten tendril 🙂


    • Koen,
      Yes, Cetus. It’s a spoiler for part of the next post but I expect the empress would have read it as an allusion to Cetus according to the myth of Perseus (which I don’t think was the intention of the original). The myth says that after using Medusa’s head to petrify the sea beast (i.e Cetus) he put the head down while he washed his hands and the blood flowing from it stained the sea-weed (or the reeds) red, hence coral which in the Greek is Gorgeia, Medusa being one of the Gorgons. But that’s only half the story of that image. Andromeda never had crab-claw antennae, for one thing. Neither did Medusa.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So there is a bit of a linguistic component after all. The Greeks and their desire to provide an etymology for every untransparant word. It’s strange that I have never thought of linking this tendency to the Herculeaf system. It’s not quite the same, but it shows that they were very much used to this kind of “sounds like”-exercise.

        I thought the woman woud be some sea deity since she appears to be buddies with Cetus – though I have no idea about the further background. Looking forward to the next post! 🙂


      • Mnemonics are often related to etymology, which is one reason that I’ve urged Voynicheros interested in the imagery to consult Isidore of Seville. (He makes an easy transition for people just getting used to the idea that the manuscript isn’t necessarily WYSIWYG) In explaining why any medieval Latin Christian would have read the Voynich calendar’s goats as goats and not sheep, I quoted him.

        I was a little chuffed, about three years afterwards to find that item about the ‘sheep’ being goats had entered a number now treated as something ‘everyone knows’ though often Rene Zandbergen is wrongly credited with having done the research, pointed to the Latin and so forth to explain why every literate Latin European would have picked up the cues immediately.

        That’s a different sort of mnemonic, though, one which expects book-learning. Those in the botanical section only expect you to be where the plants grew and have some knowledge of them – making those rather easier to read than the ‘bookish’ type which set an intermediate barrier of language and related books before the meaning can be read.


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