Comparing Beinecke MS 408 and the Vermont Tuscan Herbal 3c-i

[picking up where we left off in ‘Comparing… Pt 3 b-ii]

Exotic plants are seen among those pictured vividly in Roman paintings of the early centuries AD, that time when most of the eastern Greek works were written that were later excerpted for Juliana Anicia’s codex (c.512 AD) – yet only a few images in that codex come close to the degree of naturalism seen, for example, in this wall-painting from 1stC Pompeii.

pompeii_garden_painting house of bracelets

(detail) wall painting, Pompeii ‘House of Bracelets’

In fact, we find nothing approaching that level of naturalism in European botanical imagery again until about 1440 AD, when the Flemish, German and French painters began turning their attention to plants and flowers. The detail below shows a superbly rendered carpet of strawberries and violets from a fairly early example of the northern style. The detail is from Stefan Lochner’s ‘Madonna im Rosenhag’ (1440) and shows just how rapidly the new vision had matured.detail Stefan Lochner

What we have in Beinecke 408, however,  are botanical folios which (in the present writer’s opinion) depict exotic plants, yet do not employ that habit constant in Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Latin and later in Arabic works, whereby the single-plant portrait is the norm.  In addition, the Voynich manuscript’s images show overall  no discernible interest in – one would say no awareness of – the most noticeable trends in botanical imagery, and especially in herbal imagery, in the very region and time to which Beinecke MS 408 is most reasonably ascribed: northern Italy 1405-1438. 

And still more curious is that, while one supposes the manuscript made within a Latin environment where translation of ‘foreign’ imagery had been routine for centuries,  the Voynich botanical imagery shows no attempt whatever at such ‘translation’ – that is, no effort made to render the images into a form more easily intelligible by Latin conventions in graphic art, which are those common to most of the peoples within the Mediterranean.  A modern European can more easily read a Greek image made in the 8thC BC than they can any of those in our fifteenth century manuscript.

Other sections of Beinecke MS 408 do show evidence of some effort to make ‘translation’ of that kind, something which only emphasizes the fact that the imagery was perceived already as being non-Latin or ‘foreign’ rather than consciously obscure in the way that, for example, the later alchemical imagery is deliberately obscure.

The point about ‘translation’ is critical one, so I’ll devote the next post to it.

Antiquity alone cannot explain all these things, but we may at least explain the default page layout of the botanical section by reference to the Anicia Juliana, where it appears in connection with copies made from texts composed by eastern Greeks, as we’ve seen.  At the very least we may say that such a layout was used no later than the early sixth century AD.

Juliana Anicia Codex kentaureion

Page layout, a model comparable to that used for most of the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section.

Eastern plants and the west.

The detail from that wall-painting from Pompeii (c.1stC AD) includes a bamboo garden stake with its characteristic splashes of darker colour, hollow centre and segmented length. That detail alone makes the painting priceless, for it constitutes our only historical evidence (so far as I know) for importation of Indian bamboo any further west than Berenike. (Just btw, Pompeii is 36 kilometers/28.5  miles from Salerno).Bamboo splashes crecianbamboo No  extant Greco-Roman writer mentions the importation of bamboo, nor does any other source known to date though a recent book (whose title Lynn White would have rejoiced to see) notes that an Indian classic text on statecraft and economics, the Kautiliya Arthasastra, speaks of bamboo being exported from the western Deccan no later than the third or fourth centuries CE.[1] The painting is our only proof of bamboo’s having being part of the eastern trade into the western Mediterranean.

Through the centuries which followed, trade into the west of eastern vegetable products continued, as well as it could, but by the 8thC -10thC AD only the Radhanites served the western end of the routes. Wars and catastrophes had so disrupted the trade that even memory of those routes had otherwise been lost, until Islamic rulers returned a more stable regime to areas they governed, and Islamic geographers and masters of the post set out to re-discover the ways.

Successive loss of the foreigner’s port in China after a ninth-century massacre, increasing loss of the southern Arabian ports to desiccation, natural and human catastrophes, and the terrible loss of Muziris in 1341, altogether caused not only the reduction of the older trade direct to the west, but any continuous history for it in the Latin world.  By about the eleventh century, the Radhanites are mentioned scarcely at all, and then apparently only to the north.  The eastern trade was then mediated by the Karimi, of whom we shall say more, and Europeans used entrepots in Egypt, Tunis, Syria and the Black Sea – for the most part.

Somehow, despite all this, the botanical imagery in Beinecke MS 408 came to be copied in early fifteenth century Europe – in Padua or the Veneto in the opinion of the present writer.  What had not happened, and what did not happen in these folios, was any conscious  ‘translation’ of the images into the visual language of western Europe or, indeed, of the Mediterranean peoples and those who used Roman and Byzantine models.   I have not identified this plant-group in folio 40v, but the way these drawings are constructed is rational, and sufficiently consistent that I can describe the plant as one that is large and upright in habit, a tree which probably grew then to a great size, that it has leaves similar to the palm’s, a flower/fruit which was perceived as similar to the lotus or to the mayapple, which makers of these folios saw as variations of the same plant. If it were not for the turnip-shapes below the root, I should have considered this an image of pandanus, especially given the way the roots (as such – not the ‘turnips’) are drawn.
detail fol 40v

detail fol.40v Beinecke MS408.

Exotic plants for western eyes, and rebellion in Egerton 747
Anacardium oriental detail from MS Egerton 747 folio 6v

(detail) folio 6v MS Egerton 747. Semecarpus anacardium.

MS Egerton 747 is believed made in southern Italy between c.1280 and 1310, and includes with the ‘Circa instans’ text extracts from others [2]. Its large number of illustrations is unusual for the time, and includes  illustrations for plants which are not native to the greater Mediterranean (i.e. including the Aegean and Black Seas). Although believed made in Salerno, where the author of the ‘Circa Instans’ (Mattheus Platearius) had lived, it is not the earliest copy of ‘Circa instans’ to survive.  As example, we’ve noted MS Harley 270, (ff. 123-149) [3],  made in England during third quarter of the twelfth century and so perhaps while Platearius still lived.

A century later, the text and pictures in MS Egerton 747  refer to Aloe wood, Balsam, Cassia, Cloves, Galangal, Nutmeg, Coconut, Malegueta Pepper, Tamarind, Pepper, Liquorice of India,White Sandalwood, Alexandrian senna, Ginger and Turmeric, some of which I’ve found referenced by the botanical folios of MS Beinecke 408. Some products, such as  Malegueta pepper, came from west Africa and were probably imported through Tunis. The rest are native to southern Arabia, India and southeast Asia.

NOTE:  ‘Malegueta’ pepper is  Aframomum melegueta –  also known as ‘Guinea grains’ or ‘Alligator pepper’.   It should not be confused (though it often is) with the new world’s  Malageuta pepper (Capsicum frutescens). [4]

Balsam I’ve also had reason to mention.[5]

In this connection, too, one should note that Minta Collins’ work wrongly identified the ‘Cashew tree’ in Egerton 747 as Anacardium occidental, a native of the new world.   The image is rather of the oriental tree, once called  Anacardium orientale,  subsequently Ligas Semecarpus cuneiformis (Blanco), or synonymously  Anacardium cuneiformis (Blanco) and now Semecarpus Anacardium;  in Mrs. Grieves’ Modern Herbal, used as the official pharmacopoeia in England until the second world war, it receives a cursory mention.

.. I break the post here, the remainder will go up in an hour or so..


  1. In relation to the accurate depiction of plants, I can’t help but mention the “Fountain of Life” panel of the 1432 Ghent Altarpiece. The work is famous for its attention to detail and evidence of drawing from life in geeral. As far as I know it might be the earliest prominent example of minute attention for botanical accuracy in the European tradition.

    Those Pompeii frescos always make me wonder how much has been lost, seeing how so many houses were adorned with some of our best remaining sources for antique custom. There’s so much that was once normal, even in a heavily studied empire like Rome, which we just don’t know about.

    Finally, about the f40v plant: why do you think the turnip-roots should hinder an identification as pandanus? Can’t the bulbs represent some kind of mnemonic rather than a botanical reality?


    • Koen,
      Yes, the longer one works as an historian the longer one feels a quiet sympathy with Henry Ford, who famously said “History is bunk”. I’m not fond of that painting by Van Eyck, but you’re right about the carpet of grass: very pretty.

      About folio 40v. Well, the mnemonics are usually telling of the plant-group’s practical uses. When I imagine the book being used, I think of someone saying to themselves… now, ummm. What did I have to buy this for? or What’s my selling-pitch for this? And the mnemonic reminds them. So there’s a basic set of those: fibre-plant, dye-plant and that sort of thing. But “turnip-plant?” Unless I think I’ve explained every part, and consistently with uses for similar forms in others among the botanical folios, then I’d rather not seem more sure than I can reasonably prove. Still inclined to think it’s the pandanus group, though. 🙂


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