This week is “Shakespeare Week” at my son’s school: his year have been allocated A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and so get to do their lessons in costume for a day. All of which yielded an ideal family opportunity to break out one of those tediously aspirational The-Bard-For-Kidz boxed sets and run through a heavily abridged version with him to see which character he’d like to play (i.e. which outfit we’d be rapidly constructing). And so Puck it was. 🙂

In business school terms, Oberon and Puck come across to me as an idealized (i.e. pragmatic yet dysfunctional) CEO and CTO pair, i.e. where Puck trolls around the wood trying to implement Oberon’s barking mad strategies. Specifically, Puck drops a tincture of “Love In Idleness” into the eyes of those asleep, confident in the knowledge that they will fall in love with the first person (or indeed donkey) they see when they wake up. With hilarious (and/or dramatic) consequences, etc.

Shakespeare is full of folksy herbal stuff like this: in fact, you don’t have to look very far these days to find academics who argue that the witches in Macbeth were talking about not literally about “eye of newt”, “toe of frog”, and “wool of bat”, but referentially to ‘eye’ plants (such as daisies!), buttercups, and holly leaves respectively, as a humorously winking aside to the audience. If correct, this pitches the witches closer to pantomime dames (such as Nana Knickerbocker, my son’s favourite) than to Cruella De Vil… but I digress!


Anyway, it turns out that ‘Love In Idleness’ is actually viola tricolor, the purple wild pansy (from which modern pansies were cultivated in the 19th century), A.K.A. ‘heartsease’ and hundreds of other names. Which, of course, is the cue for a picture of the plant on Voynich Manuscript page f9v, for which numerous people have suggested viola tricolor as a good match:-


As normal, the unsympathetically-applied blue paint looks as though it was added by a later owner’s young child: yet what is strange here is why three of the leaves seems to have had yellow paint added instead (which is what my annoying red arrows are pointing at). If you contrast-enhance the bottom-right flower, you can see this quite clearly:-


Why was this so? I don’t know, but perhaps that’s not a bad question to be asking. Is that enough random digressions for one day? Probably! 🙂

Here’s something neat and slightly unexpected from long-time Voynich Manuscript researcher (and Voynich theory über-skeptic) Rene Zandbergen I think you’ll probably appreciate.

Arguably the least-discussed subject in the VMs is the set of tiny plant drawings in the two ‘pharma’ (pharmacological) sections, which somehow usually manage to fly beneath most researchers’ radars. Yet it has been known for decades that a good number of these plant drawings recapitulate or copy plant drawings in the main herbal sections (though as I recall these are more or less all Herbal A plants, please correct me if I’m wrong) – mapping these correspondences properly is an interesting challenge in its own right, but one to which nobody (as far as I can see) has really stepped up in the last decade.

And so it is that the general indifference to the pharma section forms the backdrop to Rene’s latest observation, which is this: that the pair of roots depicted on the two (now separated) halves of the Herbal A f18v-f23r bifolio recur side-by-side at the bottom of f102r2 in the pharma section. Here’s what the f18v-f23r bifolio would look like if you took out the bifolios currently bound between them (ignore the green mark in the middle from f22v, that’s just my lazy editing):-


…and here’s what the pair of roots at the bottom of f102r2 look like. Somewhat familiar, eh?


Actually, I think it’s fair to say that this is extremely familar.

Now, it should be obvious that that you can (depending on how strong a piece of evidence you think the above amounts to, and what other observations you think are relevant) build all kinds of inferential chains on top of this. Cautious soul that he is, Rene concludes: “the colours of the two herbal pages were perhaps not applied when the bifolio was laying open like this“, basically because the two green paints are so different, which is similar to my observation in yesterday’s post about the two blues in Q9. He continues: “I don’t even think that the colours were applied by the same person who made the outline drawings, not deriving from these drawings though.

Regardless, the pretty-much-unavoidable codicological starting point would seem to be that f18v and f23r originally sat side-by-side, and hence almost certainly sat at the centre of a herbal gathering / quire. It also seems likely that the two green paints were applied after other bifolios had been inserted between f18v and f23r (though not necessarily in their final binding order, or at the same time).

Furthermore, if you look at f23v (i.e. the verso side of f23r), you can see where the tails of the “39” quire number’s two long downstrokes have gone over from the bottom of f24v (the last page of the quire). This indicates to me that the f18v / f23r bifolio was already nested just inside the f17 / f24 bifolio when the quire numbers were added: and when combined with the new idea that f18v-f23r was probably the central bifolio of its original gathering, I think the implication is that (unless Q3 was originally composed of just two bifolios, which seems somewhat unlikely) Q3’s quire number was added after the bifolios had been reordered / scrambled / misordered. OK, it’s pretty much the same thing I argued in “The Curse” (pp.62-68): but it’s nice to see the same ideas coming out from a different angle.


However, the range of green paints is a bit troubling. Even though I’ve just now looked at all the greens in Q3, I’m struggling to reconstruct a sensible codicological sequence: but perhaps the reason for this will turn out to be that there isn’t one to be found. Could it be that a significant amount of Herbal grouping data could be inferred simply by spectroscopically analysing the various green paints used, and looking for recto/verso matches? Glen Claston will doubtless argue otherwise, but the chances that a verso page and a recto page with precisely the same green paint were facing each other at the time they were painted must surely be pretty good, right?

So, Rene: another good find, cheers! 🙂

Blogger of the visually bizarre BibliOdyssey has a number of nice online herbal scans you might well enjoy: each page has a brief description of the related manuscript and links to other places you can read more about the subject, while each picture links to its own Flickr page (which is handy).

  • Arzneipflanzenbuch‘ [BSB Cod.icon. 26], Augsburg circa 1525. Herbal with lots of eccentric roots (sounds familiar, eh)
  • Hieronymous Braunschweig’s Distillerbuch, Strasburg circa 1500. Distillation manual, with plenty of alchemy, chemistry, botany, medicinal tips, etc.
  • Rembert Dodoens’ Cruydeboek, Belgium 1554. Hugely popular herbal built on Leonhard Fuchs’ equally famous herbal (but with many additions).
  • Tacuinum Sanitatis, 15th century copy owned by the Bibliotheque Rouen. An extremely nice-looking herbal book of medicine with herbal bits, exactly the kind of high quality artefact the Voynich Manuscript plainly isn’t.

Here are two German papers (from 2007 and 2008) by Dr. Michael Mönnich on the Voynich Manuscript I stumbled across a few months ago, both of which place it within the context of the history of pharmacy:

Pharmazeutische Aspekte im Voynich-Manuskript.
In: “Drugs and medicines from sides of the Atlantic Ocean”
38th International Congress of the History of Pharmacy, Seville, 21st September 2007

Das Voynichmanuskript aus pharmaziehistorischer Sicht
In: Geschichte der Pharmazie 60 (2008), Heft 1/2, S. 9 – 14.

Dr Mönnich works at the Karlsruhe University Library (his homepage, his publications): I contacted him to ask if he had electronic copies of these articles he could email through for review here. He replied…

Unfortunately the article did not appear in an electronic form, so I could provide only photocopies, and it is in German. Then, I do not intend to publish anything on the Voynich in the near future.

So… if any Cipher Mysteries readers have access to a decent research library and are not put off too much by the idea of reading pharmacy history papers in German, please feel free to have a look at these and tell us all what Dr Mönnich’s particular VMs angle is. Thanks! 🙂

Jan Hurych has very kindly emailed in a translation of the short piece of text I uncovered relating to the 14th century Prague apothecary Antonio of Florence. With a few minor style tweaks, here it is:-

The restoration of gothic painting in the house U Lilie [“By Lilly”] no. 459/1, Malé náměstí [“The Little Square”] 11.

During the 14th century, this house played host to a number of Italian apothecaries, such as Angelus of Florence who arrived in Prague in 1346. It was he who founded – at Emperor Charles IV’s suggestion – the botanical garden in Jindřišské ulici [“Jindrisska street”] in Prague’s Novém Městě [“New Town”] district, where the main Post Office is located today. In 1353, Angelus (who would later own the neighbouring house) lived at no. 459/1a, today called “Rychtrův dům” [Rychter’s house]. The business was continued by his maternal cousin Matthew of Florence. The first record referring to the house ‘U Lilie’ is from 1402 when it was already called that way and housed Rudolph’s pharmacy [no connection to the Emperor! j.h.] In 14th century the pharmacy was owned by Onofrio of Florence who sold the vineyard “Na Slupi” [“at the pillars”] to the apothecary Antonius of Florence, the owner of the neighbouring house no. 459/I, now part of Rychter’s house – apparently at that time these two houses were connected together.

Because I can tell that you’re simply desperate to see what this looks like from space, here’s a Google Maps link. Isn’t it amazing that we can put such a high-powered geographic database to such trivial uses? And as far as “Na Slupi” goes, Wikipedia’s page on Prague’s New Town says that “The slopes and plateaux east of Na Slupi street and south of the Augustinian convent were merely vineyards and extended green spaces.

Jan is convinced that this is indeed probably the specific alchemical Antonio de Florence we were looking for. He also notes:

In the 14th century, Emperor Charles IV brought many Italians in Bohemia – he knew Italy well, he was fighting there with his father John de Luxemburg, the one who fought Edward at Crecy and died there ( the Black Prince was said to take his coat of arms in his honor as his emblem).

Incidentally, while reading up on 13th and 14th century Bohemia, I stumbled across Wikipedia’s page on King Ottokar II of Bohemia, son of (the arguably more famous) King Wenceslaus. Ottokar II’s bitter (but ultimately successful) rival for the Imperial throne was Rudolph of Habsburg. The two were later commemorated by Dante as being locked in amiable discussion beside the gates to Purgatory. What I found fascinating was that this is presumably also why Rudolph II named his pet lion “Ottakar” – to commemorate the political jousting between (the victorious) Emperor Rudolph I and (the subdued) Bohemian king Ottokar II. Of course, I could be wrong but… this does have a certain ring of truth to it, wouldn’t you say?

Italian scientists claim to have solved two mysterious deaths from the Quattrocento: those of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Agnolo Ambrogini, two big-brained Florentines at Lorenzo de’ Medici’s court who suddenly passed away within only a few weeks of each other in 1494.

Though some historians had conjectured the pair might have died of syphilis, the contemporary rumours of poisoning have apparently now been supported by the high levels of arsenic, mercury and lead found (very, very post mortem) “in Pico’s tissues and nails”, the report goes on. All fascinating forensic stuff, I’m sure. (With slightly more in the Telegraph’s coverage).

But… permission to speak, please, Mr Italian Scientists? The 15th century in Italy was full of hazards, no less from your friends than from your enemies. For example, the culinary fashion was for really undercooked meat (and lots of it), which can (quite literally) be a recipe for disaster – and whenever anyone died suddenly, the jabbing finger of retribution usually pointed at anywhere but the kitchen.

For the rich (i.e. those who could afford apothecaries), another major source of death-by-(mis)fortune was the arsenic-, lead- and quicksilver- (i.e. mercury-)based medicines that were sometimes in favour. I would say that the best thing about the medieval cure “theriac” was that its large number (often 70+) of ingredients usually meant that none of them came in a strong enough dose to kill you.

Put bluntly, I would be thoroughly unsurprised if other bones from similar Medici courtiers happened to exhibit precisely the same tox profile: but without actually killing them. And there are many reports of poisoning plots that failed – different groups used different poisons (the Borgias favoured inorganic ones, as I recall), often ineffectively. Did the two men’s similar deaths mean they shared the same enemy, or just the same apothecary and cook?

Merely pointing to the arsenic etc isn’t enough to tell the whole story: and this is why I sometimes despair at the sight of scientists’ trying to do history. Different types of evidence (and inquiry) yield different and complementary types of story, and it is usually only by linking all these together that the whole narrative emerges. These days, history is multimedia, or it is nothing.

Here, “historical documents that have only recently come to light” (suggesting that Piero de’ Medici was angered by Pico’s connection with mad preacher Savonarola) ought to give the inevitable documentary a spin in the right direction. However, only in Hollywood’s cheesier fringes might someone think that writing “kiiiiiill hiiiim” in a letter would be a good idea. Will the archives really have enough to hold it all together?

All the same, if someone could point to some coded letters written in 1493-1494 by Pico della Mirandola’s enemies, well, then we might just be in business… 😉

A few days ago, my wife suggested that the plant depicted on f36r might be a variety of geranium: on a hunch, I thought I’d compare it with the plants in Fuchs’ famous herbal – and Google quite unexpectedly directed me to a museum in Tuscany.

You see, in 2002 the Aboca Museum in Sansepolcro embarked upon an ambitious programme to bring together, to document, and even to publish its own books on the history of herbal medicine in Tuscany. It even has an online virtual tour (in both English and Italian) of its various collections of herbal-/apothecary-related artefacts (such as maiolica, pestles and mortars, books), though I’d recommend broadband. (I can’t stand their background saxophone music, though, sorry!)

For history lovers, they have also put scans of a number of herbals. Here I’m interested in their online browsable copy of Leonhard Fuchs’ Great Herbal (“De historia stirpium”), though only in 72dpi resolution (boo!). Handily, though, this is searchable by keyword: and for “geranium”, you find that Fuchs included drawings of six varieties of geranium (“geranion” in Greek) on plates 204-209. I pasted the images side by side so that I could compare them properly: this is what it looks like (be warned if you click on it, it’s a 3000-pixel-wide image!)

I think that the best match by far is the third plate (plate 206, “Geranium Tertium”, or “Ruprechtskraut”), as this has a similar curious rootball and a hairy lump” (the crane’s bill, I believe!) just beneath each flower. I put this side-by-side along with a picture of the plant on my neighbour’s front step (thanks Alex!) and the Beinecke’s scan of f36r: and now I’m pretty sold on the idea that this is indeed a geranium (thanks Julie!)

There’s another version from the Biblioteca Riccardiana here, and also an uncoloured version of Fuchs’ plate in Yale’s medical library here (on the left).

It is thought that Fuchs’ “Geranium Tertium” corresponds to the “Geranion Eteron” in Book Three (Roots) of Dioscorides. There, Section 3-131 says:-

“Geranium has a jagged leaf similar to anemone but longer; a root somewhat round, sweet when eaten. A teaspoonful of a decoction (taken as a drink in wine) dissolves swellings of the vulva. It has slender little downy stalks two feet long; leaves like mallow; and on the tops of the wings certain abnormal growths looking upward (like the heads of cranes with the beaks, or the teeth of dogs), but there is no use for it in medicine. It is also called pelonitis, trica, or geranogeron, the Romans call it echinaster, the Africans iesce; it is also called alterum geranium by some, but others call it oxyphyllon, mertryx, myrrhis cardamomum, or origanum. The Magi call it hierobryncas, the Romans, pulmonia, some, cicotria, some, herba gruina, and the Africans, ienk.”

What do you think?

Once upon a time, history was a really hard subject to enjoy: a dreary rollcall of [macho/loser] kings and [powerful/scheming] queens, endlessly (a) conspiring against other, (b) fighting expensive wars where both sides tended to lose, and/or (c) endlessly frittering extorted tax money on self-glorifying monuments masquerading as high culture.

Then along came a new generation of “social historians”, who despised the superficial cheesiness of relying on historical records left by the victors, and wanted instead to read “history from below“. To do this, they sought out “authentic” (i.e. non-propagandized) documents to try to give a voice to ordinary people through the centuries and so reconstruct histories of the mundane, the plebeian – the salt rather than the spice.

Of course, each of these two kinds of history is no more or less a lie than the other. For all the self-aggrandizement and posturing implicit in ‘Big Man’ history, the truth of any matter will normally find a way of squeezing through the cracks in the text, particularly with the big-brain close readings of the modern linguistic turn to help it on its way. And even supposedly non-propagandistic items such as wills, inventories and account books are subject to understatement in the age-old “sport” of tax evasion. And so attempts to reduce history to a totalising big picture (whether from above or from below) simply don’t work: historians cannot avoid having to “sweat the small stuff“, because the answer all too often lies in simply getting the details right.

It is in the tension between these two extrema that I look at Evelyn Welch’s “Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400-1600” (2005, Yale University Press). When I was researching my own book on Filarete, her “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” (1995, also Yale University Press) was permanently by my elbow, always at the ready to prevent me becoming entrapped by the sticky bubble of historical propaganda inflated around the Sforza court by Cicco Simonetta (and all too readily accepted as fact by older historians): so I had high hopes for her “Shopping”.

On the one hand, Welch’s book is a slab of social history par excellence, teasing out numerous otherwise marginal strands of ordinary life in the early Renaissance – street-sellers, auctions, lotteries, indulgences, fairs, shoes, shopping hours, pawnshops, feast days, credit, charlatans, and so forth. Yet on the other, Chapter Nine (“Shopping with Isabella d’Este”) is from the diametric opposite end of the social scale, an account of the elitist shopping habits of someone who would have been aghast to find out she had been born 350 years too soon for haute couture. After 240 textured pages of closely observed text riffing on various social historical shopping themes (richly illustrated with wonderful images of the ordinary), I felt somehow betrayed by the abrupt switch: a (quite literally) materialist snob like Isabella d’Este had no right to be there.

As is typical with horizontal historical studies, if you stick with them long enough you’ll find a prize to return home with: in my (Voynichological) case, pp.151-158 contained splendid descriptions and images of apothecaries’ shops, many including the kind of albarelli I put so much time into researching six years ago. A very pleasant surprise!

The one thing I found irritating about the text itself was the jarring style used for the incipits and desinits in each chapter. Rather than using the elegant yet spare historical prose of the chapter bodies themselves, these chatter with the abstracted, vacuous tokens of contemporary sociology-speak: space, surveillance, visibility, environment, transience, consumption, embedded, relations, networks, production. It is as if these were written by another hand, perhaps one attempting to weave together the threads of a decade’s-worth of individual papers into a tangibly coherent theoretical tapestry. If so, I think it was a failed experiment: social history is an activity based not around synthesizing the kind of vaguely structural frameworks beloved by sociologists, but around reconstructing the texture of ordinary lives. Essentially, the rich tapestry was already fully present, so there was no need to embellish the edges as well. Oh well!