f.33v ‘Lotus-like’ Plants – updated (Part 2)

In addition to other differences in style and attitude, the large botanical images manifest another – definitive – difference from western herbals.


Each shows a systematically-constructed composite picture, presenting a group of plants that the makers regarded as interchangeable or (less often) complementary in their commercial and practical uses. Medieval herbals, on the other hand, show individual specimens and refer to medicinal or legendary matters.


Realising that the botanical imagery’s attitudes and stylistics, both,  constitute substantial opposition to the  ‘Wilfrid-Friedman’ hypothesis, my first hope was that I was not the only person in a century to have said something similar as a conclusion from solid research –  because the reactions of the most adamant conservatives, when I published, were easily predicted.


Nick Pelling kindly referred me to John Tiltman’s report to the NSA in 1967, though its caption to a single picture offered no storm-shelter of the sort I was hoping for.  The caption appears under a photostat reproduction of folio 35r:


Plate 8.- “This is an example of the many drawings which appear to be composite and cannot be identified as any one plant.” 


That’s all – just an anonymous observation uttered with seeming hesitation ‘…appear to be…’


When Mary d’Imperio wrote her report for the NSA about the Friedman group’s efforts she said the same: at greater length but with no more substance.

(That Swedish botanist seems to have been Lennart Holm, a specialist in fungi).


Tiltman had also said, fairly clearly  more than half a century ago that the hunt for ‘like’ imagery in European plant-books was an exercise in futility.  And so it has proven to be. He said,


 I have to admit that to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed.


Had he not presumed ‘European’ might be taken as a default, the implications of that passage might have registered with later researchers.  One can only wish he had written ” … any other European  manuscript or book…”


Logic would  then – one would think – have suggested to those coming later that if such an informed and concerted survey of the western traditions had ended with that conclusion, the study should then advance by looking at botanical imagery in other (non-book) media and should that also fail, by widening research-horizons beyond the Latin west.


It just didn’t happen.


Why it didn’t, when the majority of researchers from that time to this have been men skilled in cryptology, in one of the sciences or in computing  – all of which expect logic and formal methodology – is yet another Voynich enigma.  But the evidence of the study’s history is that logic and method are usually abandoned and presumption or credulity takes its place when the subject is the imagery and the readers have a theory to which they are attached.


I have tried to shift the ‘blind spot’ by showing examples where similar stylistics and forms do occur in other media and other regions.  This quite apart from detailed analyses of particular folios.  Here are some of the more general examples I offered from within, and without Europe and in other media.



embroidery. Suzani. I’m aware of one researcher who took up the idea of botanical imagery in embroidery, but she employed it in service to a ‘Nordic theory‘.


Woodwork (from 1903)

Gemstones (from 2000)

African bloodstone

Imitation Asian ware in 15thC Syria – termed ‘Mamluk ware’

and of course late 15thC ‘Majolica’ white glaze imitated from Asian and Persian models. (Note hatching in the wreath about the figure’s head)


Comment (2018): ‘ANALYSIS OF THE IMAGERY’ 


Since I introduced the term ‘analysis’ in this context, the term itself has become a bit of a buzz-word, though few now using it appear to have grasped either the principles or the fact that it is not something which can be achieved by relying on superficial impressions. The aim of analytical-critical method in iconographic analysis aiding provenancing of problematic objects is to answer outstanding questions – not to try validatating a preferred theory by pointing to a couple of ‘good bits’ in an otherwise inappropriate piece.


It is understandable that if a bank should question the authenticity of a  fifty-Euro note you think is ok that your argument will be based on similarity between the true note and the ‘good bits’ in your dubious one.  But when the bank-manager compares the two, it is not to validate your hypothesis, but to obtain an accurate and balanced opinion about your note, from his or her much better knowledge of both true notes and spurious ones.


You’re seeking support for an hypothesis and your focus is upon your own note; the manager is addressing a question by reference to the primary evidence  –  which is not your note, but the bank’s.


That’s why not everything said about this manuscript is an ‘hypothesis’ or fairly described as a subjective opinion.  Conclusions from research presented (with accurate references to the sources) are in a different class of writing.  You may surely debate the source-materials, research methods and conclusions drawn. But debate itself must be sufficiently well-informed and to stamp unwelcome information ‘To be ignored by my gang’ is not a particularly useful practice.



It did not occur to anyone at all from  1912 to 2011 to look east for imagery displaying similar characteristics and attitude.


Even a short article (2006) reporting the opinion of  Mazars and Wiart  that two botanical folios show Asian plants is not a substantial exception, for they too approached the imagery from an assumption it would be informed by attitudes and practice akin to that of the  Latin ‘herbal’ genre and made no attempt to address the information offered by the imagery’s form, stylistics or cultural cues.


Their point of difference, therefore, was only ‘identification’ not dispute about the idea of plant-portraits or the work as a sort of ‘herbal’.   Assuming, too, an intention of literalism, they did not pause to how that idea squared with what we know of the eastern traditions in art.


To say so is not to say their plant- identifications are mistaken, for there is scarcely an eastern plant without some use in medicine, regardless of what where the other uses to which it was put, but they did not offer comparisons by comparing drawings against drawings, nor broach the vital subject of when, and where they thought the images in question were first enunciated. For those attempting to evaluate the pictures and judge the identification – as for those trying to read the written part of the text – this is the sort of comparative discussion that is most useful.


Retrospective revival of Mazars and Wiart’s identifications would much later prove convenient for certain among conservatives, but when Mazars and Wiart’s opinions came out in 2006, and until I began referencing their paper in my posts from 2013, nothing stood between that paper and  Voynich oblivion except a single paragraph in one post written by Nick Pelling in 2010.


Finding it there – much later than I should have – I added credits to my previous posts, leaving a note on Pelling’s blog (March 5, 2013).


Here’s Nick’s paragraph:


There’s a little-known interview with Guy Mazars and Christophe Wiart in Actualites en Phytotherapie to be found here (in French) [pdf] where they propose that many of the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious plants may in fact be East Asian plants (for example, that f. 6v depicts Ricinus communis) or Indian plants (they think that many of the plants shown are types of Asteraceae, with f27r representing Centella Asiatica). But you’d have to point out that there are also many, many, many plants in the VMs that are unlikely to match anything these (very learned) experts on Indian and East Asian plants have ever seen. Make of all this what you will (as per normal).


-N.Pelling, ‘Chinese Voynich Theories’, ciphermysteries (14th. May, 2010).


So, five years after first drawing attention to the non-European character of plants in the botanical section, and three years after beginning to issue the results of my research as online papers in a blog including the information about composition as composites, I still had no real precedents and still have nothing one could rightly call successors.  What I had by that time was, on the one hand, the Friedman group’s vague and Euro-centred recognition of composite construction and, on the other hand,  an identification of Asian plants from which any mention of stylistics or structural construction was absent.


Such a situation is hardly a scholar’s dream.


The conservative kernel had reacted as negatively as expected, though in forms more personal, more vehement and far more sustained than anticipated. Things began to look up when Rene Zandbergen decided to include mention of Wiart and Mazars on his (highly conservative) website, and lately things are looking better still.


One sign that  the conservative is being obliged by the weight of evidence to concede a point from some research under a ‘to-be-ignored’ advice is that a rumour begins that those conclusions are ‘not original’ and ‘nothing new’ and one sees mounted a hunt for something, anything, which can be used as a way to adopt the conclusion without acknowledging the informing research or its author.


At present, and while not abandoning their theory,  conservative die-hards are trying to assert that if folio 13r is a banana plant, then it really was known to Latin Europe by 1438, or that the manuscript should be dated later, or – given that nonsensical and awkward-looking argument, that some other identification entirely is to be created and then preferred.


My advice – watch how they treat the corm!



… to be continued in Part 3.



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