Comparing… 3c-i (concluded)

[ continuing from 3c-1, and with reference to B.L. MS Egerton 747, folio 6v…]

In its native India, S.anacardium is known as  the ‘Varnish tree’ and its nut as the ‘Marking Nut’ (as I first mentioned here some years ago).[6]   Chiefly used as a kind of chalk in carpentry and in textile processes, the nut is also mentioned in Avyurvedic and Siddha texts, whence it entered Chinese traditional medicine. One must suppose knowledge of its medicinal use then came to Latin Europe from one of those three medical traditions, and it was certainly known to thirteenth century England, for it figures among Roger Bacon’s materia medica. By the fourteenth century, it appears illustrated in Egerton 747, and fairly surprisingly, the picture isn’t too bad, although only the nut might have been drawn directly from life.

detail marker nut Egerton 747 f.6vbotanical marker nut fruit







One sees how well the sparse fruiting branch is represented and the rounded end for leaves is correct, even if the leaves’ form overall,  their disposition, density and the plant’s habit are not. [7]

Anacardium orientale detail nutsbotanical art Marker nut











When exotics are represented even as well as in MS Egerton 747, in a region where the  majority could never have seen the living plant, then we must suppose some effort taken to introduce  ‘foreign’ imagery and/or information into the scriptorium.  Persons without training in the conventions which governed the manufacture of Latin manuscripts, or persons whose cultural traditions were quite other were not likely to be invited impromptu by the master of the scriptorium to add a few pictures, or to sit and chat about trees (as Poggio Bracciolini would later try, and fail to do) – not without some external pressure.  The most likely motive force is a patron, wishing to have exotics illustrated, not any artistic flowering within the Latin scribal tradition itself.  There is also evidence of this ‘foreign element” in  other Latin herbals, but let me illustrate first by reference to Egerton 747:

Folio 8r is a model page.  After the scribe had prepared it, ruled it out and made the page into the usual two columns, allowing the painter more space than earlier works had done, the painter then co-operated, and worked to the instructions implicit in the prepared page, apart from any explicit ones.  All well and good –  the scribes received what they had expected to receive from the painters.

BL MS Egerton 747 folio 8

Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 747 folio 8r

On folio 16v, however, white Bryony riots about the lower part of the page, ignoring the box, the margins, the expected size for the picture, and even the scribe’s writing-area.

detail BL MS Egerton 727 fol16v

At the very least,  irritation would have followed, if not uproar.  Perhaps that seems unlikely today, but perhaps you’ve never seen what happens when you to write across pigment with a fountain pen.  The residue turns the script ‘fuzzy’ and if too much is scraped up by the pen, the ink stops running.  With a quill, the edge would have roughened rapidly and the nib needed constant trimming. Polishing the pigment’s surface would only lead to a lack of sufficient ‘grip’ for ink upon the substrate.  Indeed, one marvels at the perfection of the finished text here.  But no similar image appears on any subsequent folio – so I think we may conclude that the medieval scribes had quite failed to appreciate such exuberance on the painter’s part.  But why had it happened? I’d say the painter was simply a painter, brought in or working ‘piecework’ for his skill in the emerging ‘naturalist’ style but had no prior training in manuscript-production, and/or lacked a proper sense of his traditionally-inferior status.  Fine painter, though.

Any illuminator who’d been apprenticed at that time knew his place – in every sense.  A modern reader’s aesthetic sense may find the Bryony attractive, but our sensibility isn’t that of a fourteenth-century scribe. The Anicia Juliana’s blackberry – to which we might liken the image – was unknown to Latin Europe so far as we know.   Nor was Bryony an exotic; it is native to Europe, Eurasia and northern Iran. So the painter’s being a ‘foreign element’ within the scriptorium doesn’t make him a non-Latin.  Perhaps the patron wanted this painter given work, but perhaps it also had something to do with the changing status of the painter in Italy at that time – the artisan was being transformed into the renaissance image of an “artist”.  Other examples of rebellion occur – even in the very staid-looking Carrara Herbal.  But sources of information about the look of exotic plants cannot have been many; so in having to call upon outsiders to describe, or sometimes even to depict those plants, not only rebels, but non-Latins may have been invited.  The legend has it that the medical school in Salerno was founded on the wisdom of Greek, Jew and Muslim.  Metaphorically true or actually true, the traditions of Salerno were anything but Germanic in origin.(see postscript 1).


  1. It has been brought to notice that some Voynich writers think  Salerno was .. “the site of the first medical school in the world.” It is not so, and that anyone should think it in an age of free libraries and the internet is astonishing.
  2. my attention was drawn to a comment made (not to my blog but to another online site), informing readers that  Dana Scott once attempted to begin a discussion about similarities he perceived between the Vermont Tuscan herbal and Beinecke MS 408. Unfortunately, that remark by Dana had led to nothing more – the next contributer immediately de-railing the conversation to his own theory –  so exactly what Dana thought, or said, or what he might have wanted to say,  I cannot tell you.  Since he appears to have never been able to expand on his first thought, I suppose I may be the first to have investigated the issue in any detail.



[1] See Michael C. Howard, Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel, (2012)  and Steven E. Sidebotham, Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route (2011) p.240.  It may be as well here to remind readers as Howard does, quoting Casson, that  “the people who manned those [Roman] ships were not Romans; they were Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Syrians, Slavs..” in quoting which Howard adds that most of the masters (‘officers’) were Greek. I find it fascinating that the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 should reflect formative influences chiefly from the same five, though the Slavic influence is least prominent.

[2] Bartholomaei Mini de Senis – Tractatus de herbis (Herbal); De Simplici Medicina ; Platearius –  Circa instans; Nicolaus of Salerno- Antidotarium Nicolai.

[3] By other authorities MS Harley 270 is dated to c.1175-1249; the holding library is more reserved: “the first half of the thirteenth century”.  The middle English copy in Glasgow (MS Hunter 307, fols. 167r–172v) has been mentioned earlier in this series of posts, together with studies by

[4] See Jean A. Givens, ‘Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis‘ Ch.5 in Jean Ann Givens, Karen Reeds, Alain Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550. (2006)

[5] D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Paradoxical History of Balsam’ (Parts 1-5), (2013).  Note that I no longer believe the drawing of the Balsam garden in Egerton 747 to be schematic – more on that in the post about ‘translation’.

[6] D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Thesauros artis medicae aegyptiacos Pt. 4 Bacon’s materials’, (July 13th., 2013).

[7] More on Semecarpus Anacardium Lf on PROTA4U, including bibliographies.  One item there caught my eye:  L.J. King,(1957) – ‘A unique reported use for the fruit of Semecarpus anacardium L. f. (Anacardiaceae) in ancient Arabian and Indian medicine’. – Econ. Bot. 11: 263-266.  I haven’t had an opportunity to read it yet.



  1. about King’s article of 1957 (see Note 7 above). If S. anacardium should be identified among the botanical images in Beinecke MS 408, I would recommend reading King’s article which contains a good list of the ancient, classical and Islamic authors who mention the nut. I was rather pleased to see that he mentions the name given it in Galen, Paul of Aegineta(?) and others .. as “the Golden Acorn” (Chrysobalanos). Looks as if I read that one aright! 🙂


    • Koen, I was amazed to find, when I read that 1957 article, that so many classical and Islamic writers mentioned that nut. Apparently the juice in it was supposed to assist memory.

      I interpret the image on f.40v that way I mean as flower/fruit because it’s at the top of the plant – token position for flowers in that section, but since the way of thought, overall, comes closest to the Theophrastan (i.e. pre-Dioscoridan) and Theophrastus considered flowers a sort of passing phase in the fruit’s formation, so one can’t be entirely sure in the more difficult images whether what is pictured is what *we* would term a flower or what *we* would differentiate as fruit. Yes, the ‘sunflower’ is a good example of how expecting the imagery to be our sort of literal image trips people up.


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