It’s an oldie, but a goodie: first published in 1979, Wilfrid Blunt and Sandra Raphael’s “The Illustrated Herbal” (particularly the revised 1994 edition) is a must-buy first read for any Voynich Manuscript would-be herbal decipherer – if only to make plain by how much its herbal pages differ from other contemporary herbals.

Of course, Blunt has sneaked a few pictures from the VMs in there (pp. 88-91); and though he cites Alfred Werner’s (1963) observation that one page in the water section is like “a plumber’s dream“, he quickly cautions that “…’Heath Robinson nightmare’ might seem more appropriate” (which is fair enough). But as for commenting on the plants themselves, Blunt is content to pass them by at some speed, in much the same way that Eric Sams fled from the ciphertext. You’ll just have to find your own answers, I guess.

What did I learn? A new way of looking at plants began to emerge from around 1380, which a handful of artists were plugged into – but which most plainly weren’t. For example, even Giotto wasn’t au fait with it (though he “painted birds and other animals with a tolerable naturalism, [he] still made trees like outsize herbs”, p.57), but Leonardo (circa 1500) certainly was (and I would add Van Eyck too). As far as herbals go, if you look at Rinio’s Liber de Simplicibus (1419) [which John Ruskin adored], or even Serapion the Younger’s Herbolario volgare (better known as the Carrara herbal, MS Egerton 2020) (1390-1400), I think there’s something ‘graphic’ about the rendering, that we might today recognise as a “draughtsman-like aesthetic”. But far, far beneath the soaring flights of these stunning, draw-what-you-see masterpieces, the pedestrian copy-what-you-know world of medieval herbals stumbled on regardless.

Voynich Manuscript f17r and f17v, side-by-side
Medieval and modern, on the front and back of the same folio!

In the big scheme of things, I would say that what we see in the Voynich herbal pages is annoying because it fails to fit in either of these two easy pigeonholes – neither the high flyers nor the low achievers. And so the VMs actually has a chasm on each side: and because it contains occasional flashes of both medievalism and modernity, it – doubly annoyingly – lets people read either (or indeed both!) of those into what they see. Yet in order for those flashes of modernity to be present at all, it has to postdate 1380, and must have had an author who was at least aware of both levels: while its overall drawing style matches 15th century stylistic conventions far, far more closely than it does 16th century ones. But there you go.

Blunt and Raphael’s work is built on two lifetimes’ worth of herbal scholarship and reflection: and, nicely, is happy to adopt a light tone when it suits the needs of the passage. This seems to happen particularly when quoting Charles Singer from the 1920s, such as Singer’s description of the Leiden manuscript as “a futile work, with its unrecognisable figures and incomprehensible vocabulary” (the VMs isn’t completely alone, then).

At the end of reading “The Illustrated Herbal”, I came away with my head buzzing with stuff, but none it about where the VMs’ herbals came from – Blunt’s Wittgensteinian “if you can’t say anything useful, stay silent” position on the VMs’ plants has a lot to commend it. No, what I was most inspired by was his discussion of the transmission of ideas about herbals during the 16th century: but I’ll have to return to that in another post (shortly)…

7 thoughts on “Review of “The Illustrated Herbal”…

  1. Mark Knowles on September 29, 2017 at 10:39 am said:

    Nick: I was wondering what you think is the vague quantity of enciphered herbal manuscripts that were produced in the early 15th in Lombardy. Was almost every man and his dog creating an enciphered botanical manuscript during this period or are such manuscripts very rare?

  2. Mark: probably at least one 🙂 , but I’d be fairly surprised if there were double that. 😉

  3. Mark Knowles on September 29, 2017 at 12:20 pm said:

    Nick: I assume they must be pretty rare indeed as I know of only one example of them.

  4. Mark Knowles on September 29, 2017 at 12:21 pm said:

    Nick: Yes that was my thinking.

  5. Mark: it is possible (though unlikely) that there is steganography hidden in plain sight in the ‘alchemical herbal’ manuscripts. But I’m not losing any sleep over that possibility. 🙂

  6. Byron Deveson on September 30, 2017 at 8:00 am said:

    I was searching for Italian medieval poems with 31 or 32 lines, or eight lines, and I stumbled upon Antoine de La Sale. The more I read about de La Sale the more I saw him as a possible author of some or all of the VM text, or somebody that had access to manuscripts and a modus operandi of filching other’s work and recasting it as his own. De La Sale was an Occitan and he sometimes wrote in Macaronic Latin, which is a mix of Latin and a vernacular language. Troubadour poems were often written in mixes of languages and it is said that de La Sale employed multilingual neologisms and linguistic play in his writing which would further complicate his language. I would expect that de La Sale would have turned his hand to composing poetry and minstrel songs.
    Some of the things that caught my eye are:
    – I note that some of the marginalia of the VM appears to be written in the Occitan language.
    – There have been suggestions that de La Sale lifted details from the written accounts of other authors and used these to fabricate his various supposedly autobiographical tales. I particularly note that 19th Century medievalists found that de La Sale’s descriptions and drawings of two plants found near the cave of the Sibyll in Umbria were inaccurate. Reading between the lines the medievalists thought that de La Sale had plagiarised most of the details given in his work La Salade. So, we have de La Sale associated with dodgy descriptions and drawings of plants.
    – Other things that might vaguely link de La Sale to the VM as the author of some, or all, of the VM, or an early owner of the VM, are:
    – He visited Pozzuoli and the thermal baths.
    – de La Sale was, by his own reckoning, a general educator. To my eye the VM looks like a general educational text.
    – He was an Occitan and Occitans at the time were not keen on Papal authority (neither would I given the previous Albigensian crusade – the Cathars and all that).

    I note that Macaronic Latin, that is mixed Latin-vernacular, was used in Medieval Europe, particularly amongst poets, minstrels and storytellers. Mixtures of other languages also occurred.

    I have attached the following material from various sources. I have not given the sources of this material to reduce clutter but the sources can be found with a Google search.

    “The first native Occitan to choose to write in French was Antoine de la Sale
    (ca. 1385-ca. 1460). And although troubadour poetry does occasionally seem to have been used to demonstrate anti-clerical or anti-Papal sentiment this is not indicative of any kind of widespread hostility…”

    De La Sale possibly wrote the text of Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles (MS Hunter 252).
    “This copy is the only surviving manuscript of this collection of burlesque and licentious tales. Modelled on Boccaccio’s Decameron, it was presented to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, at some time in the late 1460s. The tales are recounted by various members of the Burgundian court, but although their composition has been ascribed variously to Antoine de la Sale and also to the Duke’s chamberlain, Philippe Pot, Seigneur de la Roche, their real authorship remains unknown. The one hundred miniatures in the volume, each introducing a tale, illustrate scenes of domestic and intimate life in provincial France……..”

    “Texts that mixed Latin and vernacular language apparently arose throughout Europe at the end of the Middle Ages—a time when Latin was still the working language of scholars, clerics and university students, but was losing ground to vernacular among poets, minstrels and storytellers.”
    “As tutor and writer, La Sale presents himself as another interpreter-guide, the learned compiler who transfers knowledge from Latin to the vernacular …” ” ….sketches of two local plants were inaccurate…. ” … the printed version of La Salade provide a map of the Monti Sibilline, allowing the reader to plot the travels and possibly recreate them. Several medievalists sought to re-enact the climb in the nineteenth century and were disappointed that the journey plan had been subtly flawed and that even detailed descriptions and sketches of two local plants were inaccurate.”

    ” … Duke Louis III owned one of the many descriptions of the healing baths. Although we can assume that the historical La Sale could well have visited the Campi Flegrei, this anecdote, as with so many others, could be culled from purely written sources.” “La Sale’s narrator is notoriously unreliable in several of these first person anecdotes, most notoriously in his geography of the world, which includes the short text titled Le Paradis de la Reine Sibylle and the Excursion aux iles Lipari (1437).”

    “….. Antoine de La Sale, the Provencal born author who wrote initially for the Francophone Angevin court of Provence and Naples and later acquired some literary success in the ambit of the duke of Burgundy. ….. Throughout his writings, La Sale makes occasional appearances as the protagonist of short travel tales that he dates and situates within a fragmented autobiography. He seeks out the the cave of the Sibyl in Umbria in 1420 and accompanies Duke Louis III on an excursion to the Flegrean fields and Pozzuoli in 1429. The same man is presented on his home turf as ducal viguier at Arles in 1439 and protective adviser to the ducal family during the siege of Naples by the Aragonese in 1437.”

    “Texts that mixed Latin and vernacular language apparently arose throughout Europe at the end of the Middle Ages—a time when Latin was still the working language of scholars, clerics and university students, but was losing ground to vernacular among poets, minstrels and storytellers.”

  7. Mark Knowles on September 30, 2017 at 9:05 am said:

    Byron: De La Sale sounds like a really interesting man. However from what you have written I am struggling to see anything more than a very tenuous connection to the Voynich.

    Though it is interesting that you mention Occitan as someone else mentioned this possibility to me.

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