folio 13r – a fuss of bananas


I’ll begin with a correction to an apparent error published at where the Voynichero who runs the site – Rene Zandbergen – comments under folio 13r that

“This has been compared to a banana plant but this tentative identification is not generally accepted”. Rene Zandbergen


This is not quite the situation today.   One might argue that Edith and Erica Sherwood merely ‘compared’ the drawing on folio 13r to a banana-plant, but there is nothing tentative about their identification, as you can see.  (and notice  Sherwood’s meticulous habit of dating each version separately.  Unusually ethical.)


Sherwood on folio 13r. (2008a)  2.(2008b)   3. (2013)


My own identification was reached independently, and by way of a different  discipline’s method and I hold opinions very different from Sherwood’s about the manuscript’s origins and cultural character.


Which makes our common identification a bigger matter for the  ‘conservatives’ than it might otherwise be.


Sherwood is fairly described as a conservative herself, because her theory is one of the many variants on the Wilfrid-Friedman hypothesis.


The Wilfrid-Friedman hypothesis, in the most extreme version,  has  the manuscript not only a cultural product of  Latin Europe, and the intellectual expression of a western Christian, probably male, but will have him a man of such importance that his name is presumed to exist in the historical record and the most hearty believers truly believe that he will be revealed a person connected more-or-less closely with some royal line linked to that of the Holy Roman Emperors.



But not all are quite such hard-liners. 🙂


Anyway, my identification wasn’t tentative either.


D.N. O’Donovan on folio 13r  Part 1 (July 7th, 2012);   Part 2 (July 9th, 2012).


And since Sherwood and I were the first to come to that opinion., though Zandbergen here avoids mention of either of us, it is difficult to know just  where Zandbergen gets his impression  that there was only a ‘tentative identification’ made.


Harper McAlpine Black seemed to offer some hope to the conservatives in the content of his post (28th. Feb. 2014).  He found  Edith Sherwood’s web-page and after copying Edith’s illustration and accompanying text  Harper commented as follows:

… it sure looks like a banana plant to me. This would be interesting, because the banana was cultivated by and was distributed by Muslims. Muslim traders took the plant from South East Asia and introduced it throughout the Muslim world, especially in Africa. But it was growing in Cyprus by the later Middle Ages, and the Italian traveller Capodalista wrote about them in the late 1450s. They were therefore a known plant, albeit exotic and the commercial preserve of the Muslims.


More likely because he relies on the wrong type of sources for his information,  Black’s comment  turns out to be wrong in every sentence save the first: viz.

… it sure looks like a banana plant to me.


He is quite wrong in saying:

They were therefore a known plant’… because what he means is  ‘a plant known to the Latins in Europe’.


To step back a moment – conclusions about folio 13r matter at more than the level of ‘identification’ for if the folio depicts one, or more, plants from the ‘banana’ family (Musaceae) and does so in a way that shows details requiring the draughtsman to have close personal acquaintance with such plants, then it lies like the tip of an iceberg which the  conservative Titanic is trying to ignore.


If the plant so well depicted on folio 13r is the banana plant, the conservatives’ mental image of the Voynich manuscript, and of this section as a product of Latin European culture, in its ‘herbal’ tradition, cannot stand.


Among the small library of references which Rene Zandbergen recommends to others, is a coffee-table book by Minta Collins, published almost twenty years ago to less than public acclaim by scholars in the subjects of medieval manuscript art, and the art of medieval herbals in particular.  However, for novices it is a handy guide and Collins herself is a trained scholar.


In her book, she mentions that while pictures labelled ‘Musa’  appear in some illustrated herbals, these all appear to derive from an original image composed from a verbal description, not from personal knowledge of the plant, its fruit, or the physical form for either. (see header for example brought to notice by Marco Ponzi).


It is important that the issue not be clouded by references to those inaccurate images, produced by people who had never seen a living banana plant.  The point of folio 13r is that whoever made the drawing was representing well the form of the living plant.  Since no Latin (i.e. western Christian) of whom any record exists knew the form of the plant by 1438, it follows that whoever first drew the picture is overwhelmingly likely to have NOT been a Latin, and the picture itself to have been first enunciated  somewhere NOT Europe,  for purposes not necessarily related to medicine, and within a tradition therefore distinct from that forming the  stemmae  for  Latin herbals.


The story to which the conservative camp are so deeply attached (i.e some version of the Wilfrid-Friedman idea) requires that the manuscript be an expression of the mainstream culture of central Europe – or at the very least  that the ‘Latin male’ have determined every aspect of selection and production  to form the present manuscript and its content.  In one way or another, their faith demands it be deemed an expression of Latin cultural values – which idea the imagery fails signally to support.


It is scarcely possible for the conservative theory to accept that in a manuscript manufactured by 1438 there should be a picture which shows clearly the form of a plant of which the Latins were still ignorant and of which (as I’ve shown) the establishment remained ignorant for generations to come.


Experience suggests that when the conservative theory is threatened, the threat is addressed with vigor, but the theory never abandoned.


Harper Black’s assertions about Muslim traders sound good, don’t they?

This would be interesting, because the banana was cultivated by and was distributed by Muslims. Muslim traders took the plant from South East Asia and introduced it throughout the Muslim world, especially in Africa.


But… oh dear.  Where to begin?


The 1970s and 1980s saw a temporary enthusiasm, soon modified, for Watson’s theory of a massive ‘Agricultural revolution’ across all the areas taken by the Arabs in the first phases of conquest.  Among the first to tug at the reins was an eminent scholar of Islamic history and sciences, Jeremy Johns, whose review for the Journal of African History includes the comment shown below.


A longer and thoughtful weighing of Watson’s theory, evidence and conclusions was then published in a longer paper by Michael Dekker,  which I highly recommend.

  • Michael Decker, ‘Plants and Progress: Rethinking the Islamic Agricultural Revolution’, Journal of World History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 187-206.


Again, therefore, when Harper Black speaks of ‘the banana’ as being

“cultivated by and was distributed by Muslims [whose] traders took the plant from South East Asia”,


He makes clear that his impression is of a great volume of exchange akin to the scale of the seventeenth century ‘Tulip mania’, but this is not remotely the picture offered by the historical evidence,  and more importantly  Black fails to distinguish between the introduction of a banana plant and trade some form of related produce or product.


One has only to consider the nature of banana fruits, their perishability compared with, say, the orange, and the short span of time between the banana’s green stage and that of the over-ripe to realise the improbability of transport by land or by sea of fresh banana fruit from southeast Asia or India, even to as far as Cairo.  Even today, storage and transshipment requires air transport or artificial retardants to ripening and/or refrigeration to see bananas reach the market, even if taken green.


To imagine ‘Arabs’ sailing from Southeast Asia into Latin Europe via Cairo with a load of fresh bananas is to imagine something improbable.  Nor is there any evidence of which I’m aware that fresh bananas were shipped from anywhere closer into Europe.


If any form of the fruit was traded into Europe earlier than 1438, no record of the trade seems to have survived, and one has to suppose what arrived could only have been some form of fruit as a preserve: perhaps as the dried and sugared chips we find today.  But that would be pure speculation.  As far as the historical record goes, there is no evidence that any Latin European who had not travelled personally to the east, had ever seen the fruit, let alone the living plant.


And that, of course, is the point: the living plant is what is pictured on folio 13r, in a way that shows not only close knowledge of the plant, but knowledge of certain cultural and artistic habits for which there was neither need nor precedent in the traditions of Latin Europe.


That is the real problem for the Voynich conservatives.  Past experience suggests that the methods used to ‘deal’ with the problem will be practical and very likely effective in the shorter term, but will not include any abandonment of the ‘central European/Germanic’ fantasy story.  We are likely to see a period where the information is ignored, and off-hand disincentives offered against paying it any serious attention.  Then, if the pattern holds true, we will see active denigration of the persons providing the information.  That failing, an energetic attempt to find ‘alternative explanations’, and finally an effort to re-write the historical record to suggest that what is not so, was so, and what is untenable is ‘probable’.


But let’s look on the positive side.  Black’s assertions are positively mistaken.  🙂

He says, to end, that:

… it was growing in Cyprus by the later Middle Ages, and the Italian traveller Capodalista wrote about them in the late 1450s. They were therefore a known plant, albeit exotic and the commercial preserve of the Muslims.



Best things first.  Yes,  a type of banana plant with edible fruit was growing in Cyprus by the end of the fifteenth century – though the Voynich manuscript was made before the middle of that century.  All the internal evidence offered by the manuscript points to the fifteenth-century manuscript being created from precedents made in the fourteenth century.


Which means that whether or not bananas were growing in fifteenth-century Cyprus, and whether or not we can artificially stretch the radiocarbon dating to suit an hypothesis,  the evidence still says that the form of the living plant was unknown to the learned and elite of Latin Europe before the Voynich manuscript was made.


“Capodalista” = Capodilista.

It is especially interesting that Black should mention Capodilista because Capodilista was a man of Padua, a centre of medical study where one of Europe’s earliest botanical gardens was established, and by the late 1450s, Capodilista had plainly never heard of, nor seen, nor tasted the  banana.


Black has been told by some wiki or other, I suppose, that Capodilista  “wrote about bananas in the 1450s.”   Not exactly, and there is nothing to suggest he  played modern botanist and drew the living plant, or even cared much about it.  Even if he had made a sketch of it in his notes, the way in which those notes reached a wider public shows such a drawing never made it to the wider public.  And, as I say, Capodilista did not go to Cyprus (en route to the Holy Land) until twenty years after the Voynich manuscript was made.



The quickest clarification is to quote from the original translation into English:


Perceiving banana fruits as akin to cucumbers seems to have been natural to the medieval Latin.  Marco Ponzi’s translation of the text  in BNF Lat 6823 (‘The Manfredus compilation) speaks of the Musa’s having ..

“leaves similar to those of elecampane [enula], but longer and larger; [it has] long and thick stems on which it makes fruits that look like cucumbers”.


On which Marco commented at (if I may be permitted to quote this for the benefit of scholars)

The effect is very similar to what we observed when discussing Trinity MS.O.2.48; the text was apparently written by someone who had seen a banana palm tree and tried to describe it making reference to plants that were common in Europe. While I don’t see why choosing elecampane in particular, cucumber makes perfect sense as a parallel for the shape and size of banana. The illustrator who started this tradition (possibly in Lat 6823) had no idea of what a banana palm tree looks like, he could only follow the text: the result is an elecampane with cucumber-like fruits. 


I have not covered all the pertinent material, including a (single) reference to bananas in a trader’s letter preserved in the Cairo geniza, but in essence the historical picture remains the same.  If folio 13r shows the living form of a group of plants from the  Musaceae, as I’m certain it does, or even if it pictures just one as Sherwood asserts, then the theoretical history promulgated by the most staunch among the conservatives finds yet another in a growing number of objections, against which ‘could have been..might have done..’ just won’t do.


  1. Interesting. The banana is an important folio since its depiction is relatively natural and its presence has implications for the whole manuscript.

    What drew my attention is that the roots show clear signs of appropriate human interference. The focus of the image appears to be on plant care/propagation rather than trade of the fruit or identification in the wild.

    If someone were to build an argument based on historical attempts to cultivate bananas outside of their native habitat


    • I would expect someone to make that argument because it permits to be maintained an expectation of Latin control over information-exchange. I rather think anyone hoping to create such an argument beyond the level of meme or bald assertion, is more likely to gain credence for it if they build the story around the figure of Ibn Bassal who (and I’ll quote wikipedia, ‘Botanical gardens’:
      “……founded a garden in Seville, most of its plants being collected on a botanical expedition that included Morocco, Persia, Sicily, and Egypt”.

      Then all that has to be explained is why the style of drawing is so very different between the Vms plant drawings and those in Islamic herbals. Oh, and the cultural cues, and the pink-purple-black avoidance in the palette, and the reason the map should be drawn in that style and .. you know, all that.

      Would you like to guess who’ll be first off the mark with the “historical attempts to cultivate bananas outside of their native habitat” theory? 🙂

      • I’ve already spoken of the ‘little edens’ of Datini; and those in Padua and elsewhere.

      There’s a nice video about the history of gardens which places appropriate weight on the ‘Eden’ idea. The speaker’s voice may put you off at first, but bear with him. It’s a lucid and very well-informed lecture. If I have a niggle it’s about his apparently accepting Watson’s theory entire.


      • Heh, somehow only the first half of my comment showed up. Anyway…

        I see little evidence in the VM of it being some kind of “divine garden planer”. Although European plant collectors may have been interested in a document like this, it doesn’t mean that they made it.

        Maybe I should rephrase “native habitat” to “wild habitat”. By which I mean that this drawing appears to be intended to assist someone willing to cultivate and/or propagate banana plants, not just recognize them.

        You might say that the cut marks are signs that the leaves were harvested or symbols of rapid regrowth. This is probably true, but as I also mentioned in the discussion on my coppicing post, the marks reflect actual practice and might be relatively “picture-like”. Kind of the drawing a banana gardener would make to assist in explaining the concepts of the plant’s maintenance.


      • Koen,
        I see where you’re coming from, but I’m considering also that the picture isn’t the portrait of a single plant, and that there is a mnemonic in the root, easily overlooked because it fits so easily into the natural form. When this picture is considered in the context of the botanical folios overall, and of the collation of sections, too, the purpose which is indicated isn’t something so simple. Besides, there’s no ‘circumscription line/mark’ which is the constant indicator for a cultivated plant in these folios, and I haven’t found any reference to banana plantations as such. I doubt there’d be any need to have them in those days, since demand wasn’t global and they grow as easily as the herbs that they are – wherever they grow. Or at least that’s how it looks from the historical record as I’ve found it. I really ask more questions than these posts may suggest. I don’t believe in hypothesising. I ask questions and then do the work to discover if, and what, answers there are. And way back when, I did consider the ‘agricultural handbook’ idea – and even bought a copy of the Nabataean Agriculture, and compared the calendar to the Yemeni agricultural calendars, and all that sort of thing. Results were ‘not an agricultural handbook’. Sorry.

        As far as the European scene goes, I think the easiest thing is to quote again the passage I quoted first in ‘The Great Aldrovandi‘ (April 24th., 2013).

        The person I’m quoting is Anna Roos, who edited an online edition of Lister’s Travel Journal and Memoirs for the Oxford site. Among her explanatory notes is the following (f.315r):

        start quote

        “Alpini’s De plantis Aegypti … Accessit etiam liber de balsamo, alias editus (Venice, 1592), later edited by Johannes Vesling (Padua, 1638; 1640).

        This work was a pioneering study of Egyptian flora [later to be] included in the writings of Linnaeus, who named the genus Alpinia (Zingiberaceae) in his honor.

        Among the plants previously undescribed by a European botanical text were the coffee bush (Coffea arabica L.), banana (Musa sp.), and baobab (Adansonia digitata L.). As the result of his studies of Egyptian flora, Alpini also published De balsamo dialogus (1591), a fictional dialogue involving the author, an Egyptian physician, and a Jew, who discuss the source of balsam.

        See Jerry Stannard, ‘Alpini, Prospero’, Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008.”

        end quote

        So – as far as the history of European botany is concerned – or was up until the Oxford site published Roos’ notes – the first European to describe the banana plant is Alpini, in that publication of 1592.

        For people who are not aware of the manuscript’s radiocarbon dating to 1405-1438. What this tells us is that knowledge of the plant was introduced to Europe by Alpini’s book not less than 154 years too late and quite possibly as much 177 years after the Vms was made. Of course, any number of hypothetical tales could be created to cover the period from 1415/38 to the late seventeenth century. It can be pointed out, too, that Jakub Horcicky maintained the Jesuit community garden, was a pharmacist-physician and lived at a time when ‘little edens’ were a bit of a fad. All very nice..

        BUT the fact remains, as a I said above:

        The form of the living plant was unknown to Latin Europe and its botanical/herbal culture until well after the Voynich manuscript was made.


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