‘Tatar’ plant-names in the Trinity College Herbal – brief note

Those researchers such as Koen Gheuens interested in the Trinity College manuscript’s text may like to know that – at just about the time that Athanasius Kircher became interested in the Voynich manuscript –  there was in Berlin a court physician at work on a massive multilingual glossary of plant-names, the published title of which translates as,

A Universal Index of the Names of Plants, A Multilingual Index of the Names of Plants, and (in Greek script) a Polyglot Botanical Pinax.

To quote from a paper available online as a pdf (reference and link below)

“It had its origins, as did so many early modern European works, in a pedagogical exercise. Christian Mentzel (1622-1701), personal physician to Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and his companion on numerous difficult journeys abroad, had finally returned to Berlin. Here he took up the post of librarian in charge of the Great Elector’s striking collection of Chinese-language books, launched a correspondence with several German travellers in the service of the Dutch East India Company,  and tried to resign himself to the fact that his sons had no apparent desire for higher education. .. [but eventually his son, Johann Christian was assigned] “a useful exercise: reading all the botanical works he could get his hands on, from ancient texts to recent reports he had received from the Indies, and compiling an alphabetical list of every name every plant had ever had—in every language. The exercise proved far too much for one person, and father and son ended up working together to complete and then publish it.  When finally ready in 1682, the massive folio volume … so its title page proclaimed, contained the names of plants in dozens of languages and dialects, ranging from Latin and Greek at their head, through the full array of contemporary European languages, into the exotic realms of “Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, Tartar, Persian, Malabaric, Brahman … and Chinese” in Asia, “Egyptian, Ethiopian, Mauritanian … Canarian and Madagascarian” in Africa, and “Brazilian, Virginian, and Mexican” in the Americas.. [etc].

It seems to me that although retrospective by three centuries or so, reference to the Mentzels’ Index may be helpful for those working on the Trinity College text, allowing always for vagaries of transmission and orthography.

It also occurs to me that the Mentzels may in the earlier years have been directly in contact with Athanasius Kircher, who was one of the few among their contemporaries willing to claim acquaintance with Egyptian, Hebrew and Chaldean – for it is unlikely that Mentzel as court physician would have deigned to consult anyone of greatly lower position than himself, as physician to the Elector.

One would have to read the introductory remarks in the Index to be sure of this, and perhaps check the Kircher archives (online), though the habit of those times was not to write footnotes or to credit sources simply for honesty’s sake, but rather to share as closely as a writer could in the glamour surrounding that eminent patron to whom a work was dedicated.

See Alix Cooper, ‘Latin Words, Vernacular Worlds: Language, Nature, and the ‘Indigenous’ in Early Modern Europe’, EASTM 26 (2007): 17-39. (pdf)

EASTM –  East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine [journal] has a webpage here.

Cooper’s book Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe was published by C.U.P (2007) and is reviewed here.


  1. Rather than edit, I add a postscript here:

    I’ve found no mention of correspondence between Kircher and the Mentzels in the Early Modern Letters page online,

    but concerning the invention of artificial languages – something regularly raised in connection with the Vms’ written text – there is an interesting reference in Timothy Michael O’Neill, Ideography and Chinese Language Theory: A History.

    He mentions (p. 149) that Leibniz, who was interested in the idea, became very excited on receiving a letter from Christian Mentzel mentioning a ‘Clavus Sinica’ – a key to the ‘real characters’ of Chinese, something which a number of seventeenth-century scholars hoped would serve to re-create a supposed ur-language or ‘universal language’. For more, see the whole of Chapter 8 in O’Neill’s fascinating book (2016).

    Much of the same matter is in Chapter 4 of
    David Emil Mungello, The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800. Various editions from 2008. The edition I’ve sighted dated 2013.


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