A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 3b-iii

Non-Mediterranean Plants in MS Beinecke 408, in medieval Cairo, and in Sicily before 1065 AD … continued.

Here’s the rest of the previous post; I thought you might like a few days to cope with the first part. Time is so short and the entries for these plants so short in Lev and ‘Amar that I’m hoping Brill won’t object to my reproducing them here (less than 1%) . If they do, I’ll come back and transcribe.


For the plant-group on folio 52r, (sometimes as:  fol. 52r-1), I’ve described one element as referring to G.herbaceum. To find information about cotton fabrics and their trade is easy enough, but medical uses not so much, so here’s the entry:

VM 52r-i

fol. 52r-1

Cotton geniza______________

fol 96v

fol 96v

Among those I’ve suggested for the group referenced by folio 96v is Cubeb pepper (P.cubeba), see here together with ‘long pepper’ (P. longam).

P. cubeba

P. cubeba








It was not as firm an identification as the others were: I still think the image could refer to what I have described as  ‘Spinach-leaf [-ed] berry vines’, and Ellie Velinska has  also seen Chenopodium here, as I mentioned in the post of Feb. 28th., 2013. Sorry if my opinion sounds dilatory or ambivalent, but the image doesn’t include enough information to allow me to express greater certainty. If fact, given that Cubeb pepper- and the spinach-vine plants I mention all have a similar habit,  leaf and form, and all were dietary staples, so it is quite possible in my opinion that the person who first constructed the image regarded them all as having a common nature and intended reference to all, as one group.

Cubeb pepper Geniza


Folio 25r: D. cinnabari (formerly D. draco)’

de Conti 7 VM fol 25vdetail beast

fol. 25r

I  finish with the first image for which I published an explanation, optimistic (in 2009) that it would be of immediate assistance to, and happily received by, those  interested in understanding the manuscript. What I received by response over the following seven years modified  that initial optimism.  Until early this year, the process of sharing the research and its conclusions online was met with an atmosphere which leads one to agree with Pelling that the online environment, and study of this manuscript, has become “a bad place” for a scholar to be. Though I have published online the equivalent of two full volumes of original investigations and conclusions, they are chiefly mined for new “ideas” and the recurring pattern suggests that such an “idea” only inspires an adherent of the all European theory once the body of evidence and argument presented here reaches a certain critical mass. At that point, however, the evidence and argument are not so much addressed, or adopted, as an attempt is made to create some ‘alternative’ version which will permit the ‘all-European-authorship’ theory to settle down again. To differ from a seminal study is not unusual. To pretend it does not exist, or to avoid addressing the detailed evidence and argument in order to convey an impression that no such study exists, is a phenomenon peculiar to Voynich studies. Protest on behalf of the scholar, or of readers who will be mislead, usually leads to some response along the lines that the decision to pretend the earlier work does not exist is a matter of ‘principle’.  Go figure.

Note: The passage below, from ‘Amar and Lev, has a couple of errors. The Soqotran dracaena tree (D. cinnabari) was endemic to that island and its resin is generally known as the ‘dragonsblood’. I have not discovered evidence of the tree’s growing naturally in Sumatra, though I am of the opinion that the Sumatran and Javanese type of Dracaena form the subject of folio 3r (see below).  Taxonomic descriptions have also altered over time, on which see comment following.

Dracaena Geniza“Taxonomic description …”

D. draco was long the term by which the Soqotran tree was described, and as late as 2009 when I published (a year after the publication of the book by ‘Amar and Lev), most of the sources available to me still used that description. However, at some stage the taxonomists had decided to change things about, and now D. draco refers to the Mediterranean ‘dragonsblood’ palm which grows in the south-western Mediterranean.   In the passage reproduced above, there is mention of a merchant’s letter which was sent to Cairo and preserved there, and which refers to dragonsblood among things needed in Palermo.  Now, had the species in question been that from northwest Africa and Iberia there would have been no need to write to Cairo; that the letter went there indicates that the substance was the imported variety. As late as the nineteenth century, Mrs. Grieves still treats the Soqotran tree’s resin as “the” dragonsblood, and the only one suitable for pharmaceutical use.  In practice, of course, the variegated Sumatran and Javanese dracaenas may have been used just as often, and the presence of both plants in Beinecke MS 408 would certainly suggest that they were.

folio 3v comparisons

Analysis of this folio as the group defined by the “Javanese dracaena” was published on ‘Findings’ – now closed to the public. I described the group by reference to Java, rather than to Sumatra as ‘Amar and Lev do but as any glance at a map will tell you, these places are adjacent.

More examples from the botanical ids which I’ve offered could be added to the list, but these should establish my point well enough – that there is no reason to suppose Beinecke MS 408’s botanical section inconsistent with the trade (in regard to exotic species) which existed between Egypt and  Sicily before the Norman period.

In citing documents from the Cairo geniza, I repeat, I’m not trying prove these identifications correct, but that the inclusion of the exotics which I identify in MS Beinecke 408 is not incompatible with evidence of the trade in exotics into Egypt and thence to Sicily  before the texts were composed which we now associate with the  ‘Salernitan’ school.  I can find no evidence that the imagery now in this section of the manuscript had come to Latin notice or possession any earlier than the mid- to late- thirteenth century,* for the habit of Latin scribes had been immediately to reform  ‘foreign’  imagery to accord with their own theology and traditions in art. Had it come earlier, it would not have its present form. By the early fourteenth century, however, interest was growing among the few in both the content and the form of  ‘antique’ documents.

* the central emblems within the calendar section offer a possible exception, but the external tiers do not.

I do not believe that the botanical imagery in this manuscript is a ‘herbal’.  Its plants are not only, or even primarily, ones which relate to pharmacy.  They include plants of use only as  provisions, or for materials needed to maintain the ship and caravan, and goods such as paper and ink are referenced.  In addition, other folios depict maritime routes, or charts that – in my opinion – relate to calculations of time, tide, and the stars and winds of navigation.

The Karimi merchants, and before them the Radhanites,  are the most likely groups to have earlier access to matter now in the manuscript.

From this part of the Via Francigena, en route to Canterbury, our postcard.  It is one made in 2013, in the hope that where evidence and argument had failed, a simpler image might.  🙂




  1. Diane

    Thank you for the extra background on f25r. I remember that for some reason I looked into “dragon blood” plants some time ago, though I did not find any connection with D. cinnabari. However, comparing the picture on the wiki of a young tree with the VM plant, I do see the similarities: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/07/Dracaena_cinnabari_-_Koko_Crater_Botanical_Garden_-_IMG_2295.JPG/360px-Dracaena_cinnabari_-_Koko_Crater_Botanical_Garden_-_IMG_2295.JPG

    Interestingly, in my monkey plant post, my conclusion was that the leaf must have been drawn from a relatively young plant as well. Could this be a coincidence, or perhaps a consequence of plantation settings?

    Also, have you by any chance looked into the history of the linguistic association of the dragon with this plant’s name? If the dragon at the root can be taken as a linguistic cue, it forms an interesting bridge between the Cetus in the Juliana Anicia and Herculeaf 🙂


    • Koen,
      That paper about f.25v was first published in 2009, and I referred then to the ‘little dragon’ as a confirming mnemonic – i.e. by reference to the Latin ‘draco’ or the Greek.

      In one sense, my reference to the little dragon as a mnemonic was an original observation, though of course I later learned that Dana Scott had made the same connection before me – except that he was guided by the assumptions then general and by the present-day taxonomic “D. draco” which refers to a Mediterranean species, but that was not the case at the time the manuscript was made.
      Unlike the other pictorial annotations, this little dragon has a very European style; I thought it looked quite Celtic, but if its funny-looking tail-end is a later version of the old “lily-tail’ motif, one which had the tail webbed, then it might be a re-worked version of an originally Greek type. No way to be sure, since it is now thoroughly translated into early-medieval European style.

      Discussing this figure, I used a Hellenistic vase as illustration – it is in one of the old ‘Findings’ posts, but I’ll see if I’ve re-used it or if I can dig it up again for you. I don’t think one say say certainly either way in this case: sometimes history, archaeology and all the rest retains so little that for the moment honesty demands silence. 🙂

      As for linguistics – not my field.

      Postscript: How to say ‘Dragon’ in many languages:


    • Here’s that image. Athena with her owl; Poseidon with his dragon and the Pillar on which is a very interesting form for the Sphinx – these determining the proper domain of each deity, and the constantly-shifting boundary between them. A curious incident that occurred on the east African coast during the Portuguese period suggests that the division between the gods of the land and those of the sea was a theme informing some ancient conventions or “international trading law”.

      Sorry – of course you wont have read my posts to ‘Findings’ – the point is that those who follow the ways of the sea and thus Poseidon’s men, often contracted scurvy, for which Dragonsblood was a remedy. It is for that reason, quite possibly, that little dragon eats one of leaves: not only mnemonic for the plant and its resin, but reminder of use. (it wasn’t the leaf, but the resin which served, but mnemonics don’t have to be scientific; they just have to jog the user’s memory).


  2. Wow, that sure is a special vase. So crowded. I have never seen a sphinx like that. And what is wrong with Athena’s face, it almost looks like she got the Voynich treatment.

    This dragon is surely an odd one in the tangle of stylistic influences. It looks too realistic and in proportion to be a product of those who made the large plant mnemonics. Might it be of the same ‘Syrian’ style as the month emblems? It looks a bit more sketchy but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility.


    • Koen it’s described as a Greek vase mid-4thC BC.

      Compare that sphinx with the one in the frontispiece to Kircher’s “Oedipus…”

      In this case, we call it a sphinx as a generic description but the multiple breasts probably refer to the heavens’ watchful guardian, and that’s not an especially Greek motif. You get a fair bit of syncretism in imagery about that time, partly because before the Romans there were a greater variety of peoples in the Mediterranean; partly because the post-Alexander-but-pre-Roman era saw remnants of the old Egypto-Persian, Phoenician, Greek influences still vivid. My only point was to illustrate the older sort of “cute little dragon” to show that it had a webbed tail, because this sort of figure might, just conceivably, have preceded what we now see. As I said, it’s pretty thoroughly western European now.

      More like THIS

      But now I’m just repeating what I said in the original paper in 2009, and which I reprinted (minus its illustrations) – in March 2013 HERE; the same time when I re-printed the lovely little two-headed one. So cyuute.


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