Monthly Archives: May 2017

Two of This or One of That?

One of the difficulties in creating a transcript and analyzing textual patterns in the Voynich Manuscript is the ambiguity in some of the characters. When this occurs in common words, it makes it more difficult to assess glyph relationships and frequencies.

A simple example might illustrate this problem. I mentioned in my previous blog that I believe the paired c-shapes are meant to be read as one character (in most instances). There is also a single c (EVA-e) which may occur next to a double-c, to create three in a row. When there are three in a row, how does one decide whether it’s three cees, a double-c following to a single-c, or a single-c following a double-c?

In this example, I’m leaning toward the VMS glyphs (top) being two double-c shapes because of the slightly larger gap between the two pairs and the way the cc behaves in other parts of the manuscript, but I’m not 100% sure because the two latter cees are more tightly written than the first two. Is this normal pen-variation or are the first two cees single cees followed by a double-c?

Sometimes all we have to go on is slight differences in the spaces between characters and that’s not a good way to do it—there will always be some uncertainty, which is one of the reasons I feel it’s important to study the rule set and possible pairing paradigm for the VMS. Then the context can help us determine which glyphs are intended as ligatures and which might function as pairs.

The Devil in the Details

Unfortunately, ambiguity exists in one of the most common VMS word-tokens, one that is popularly called “dain”. I don’t use the EVA font-set, I developed my own based on shape designations, but you should be able to see the correspondence in the following illustration fairly readily.

In this example, there is ambiguity in the straight shape that alternately resembles a double-i or possibly a “u” as it was often written slightly separated, with straight legs, in the middle ages. I use a “v” and sometimes a “w” to describe the ending shape with a tail but I make no assumptions about what these shapes mean or whether the swept-up tail indicates an abbreviation, as it would in classical Latin, or whether it is an embellished glyph designed to look like Latin, just as the “9” shape (EVA-y) morphologically and positionally follows Latin conventions:

To complicate matters further, there are places in the manuscript where there is an additional stroke between the a-shape and the swept-up tail, one that Takahashi (and perhaps other transcribers) sometimes missed.


A fresh transcript is needed, and not just a “corrected” transcript that makes better assessments of the spaces (I’ve noticed errors in which glyphs with clear spaces around them have been attached to nearby words), but one in which all the glyphs are included, even ones that “look funny” because there are so many in a row, along with consideration for alternate interpretations for ligatures (combined glyphs) and paired glyphs.

I created a transcript that corrects some of these problems, but it’s not a stand-alone file. I’ve integrated it with a set of self-made VMS fonts and applications so that the whole thing is an interdependent set of tools that can’t really be split apart as they currently stand.

I can make some suggestions, however. When I created my fonts, I put the VMS characters in the upper register and the regular characters in the lower register as they are usually typed on the keyboard, so that it’s seamless to combine VMS and regular characters in the same document (handy if you’re writing an article about the VMS). This also allows comments to be added to the transcript that don’t interfere with searches of the VMS glyphs. Unicode standards have plenty of space for this, and it’s not difficult to come up with mnemonic references to the shapes to make it easier to type. I also set up glyphs that are similar such that they can be searched together or separately. Adding a symbol to the glyph is usually a better overall solution than putting each variation of a basic form in a different font-slot, a point that I’ll discuss more fully in my next blog.


                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Construction of the Voynich Manuscript Text

In previous blogs, I gave quick examples of the rule-dependent way in which Voynich Manuscript glyphs are combined (it’s far beyond the scope of a blog to define the entire rule-set, so I used a single page of text as an example and have been working on a long paper that describes the overall manuscript more fully). I also pointed out some of the more common atomic units, as I think of them.

Since that time I’ve been trying to think of a way to make these patterns and relationships easier to understand.

Hopefully this visualization method can illustrate why computational and linguistic attacks that assess individual glyphs may not yield fruitful results. The VMS has very particular ways of combining glyphs that affect not only which ones appear next to one another with greater frequency, and in what order, but also controls word-length in unique ways.

  • Note, as mentioned in the diagram below, a VMS double-c-shape (adjacent EVA-e glyphs) appears to function as a single unit in much the same way as a double-c shape in Carolingian script (right) represents the single letter “a”.
  • Certain glyphs, like EVA-d and EVA-s appear to function as single glyphs unless paired in very specific ways (with certain glyphs in certain positions, such as EVA-dy at the ends of words).
  • Note the prevalence of combinations like EVA- or, ar, oI, 4o, ly, che, sho, and ey. These pair-syllables, in various combinations with glyphs that function as singles, characterize the entire manuscript, including text in labels and wheels.
  • Note also the difficulty of assessing whether 4o is intended as separate glyphs or as a pair (in some tokens, it could be assigned either way and there are a few other combinations with this characteristic). I have included examples of both possible interpretations of 4o-tokens in the following illustration with the caveat that I am less sure of the 4o- breakdowns than most of the others.

Despite the difficulty of distinguishing singles from pairs with complete accuracy, I think these short examples come close and may help illustrate how the VMS text differs from common natural language patterns and patterns evident in medieval ciphered texts, and especially why one-to-one substitution systems have so far been unsuccessful.


Also, give some thought as to how paired glyphs affect entropy and word length…

Paired glyphs greatly increase the number of letters or sounds a system could potentially represent. For example, if you had only o, a, r, and x, and placed them in a grid as pairs, your four glyphs could yield 16 pair-glyphs plus the four original glyphs to represent 20 letters or sounds. There aren’t as many combinations as this in the VMS, because glyph order is deliberately restricted and it’s not practical to put mirror pairs next to each other as they are hard to distinguish without extra spaces, but even so, the concept applies—entropy increases

As to word length… the VMS word-tokens are already short compared to natural languages, but if some of the glyphs are paired, word-length decreases further. If one is looking for letter or sound correspondence in text that has a large number of paired glyphs, then it’s more likely that they represent syllables, fragments, or abbreviations, rather than full words.

So, enough discussion… here are two examples that I grabbed arbitrarily. They’re short, but hopefully long enough to get the ideas across.

You can click on the image to see it full-sized  (you may have to click again when the new tab opens to read the small print):


Postscript (after getting some much-needed sleep): I hope it is apparent from my previous comments that these are examples, not a definitive breakdown. In the illustration, I have broken down the “4o” words and some of the “9” words (EVA-y) in both ways to show both possibilities—with the 4 and 9 as singles and as pairs, because there is evidence elsewhere in the manuscript that both are possible interpretations. Some pairs (the common ones) are much more consistent and discernible than 4 and 9 word-tokens and I have a long list of stats for some of the more consistent pairs.

The distinction is important because pairs and singles may have different classes of meaning. For example, in Latin, the 9 character (which frequently functions as a single in the VMS, except when paired with EVA-d and possibly EVA-e) expands into prefixes like con- and com- and suffixes like -us and -um, which brings up the question of whether pairs might represent letters and singles might represent abbreviations, as were commonly used in medieval scripts, or (another possibility) whether they were intended to be differentiated in some other way, such as singles representing nulls, modifiers, or markers and pairs representing something else (letters, sounds, or concepts). Note that the singles are often at the beginnings of paragraphs and word-tokens, and also sometimes form one-glyph word-tokens. It is further possible that the high preponderance of “o” glyphs (particularly those in the first position) might be evidence of a pairing process intended to make tokens come out in a certain way (with a particular pattern or length).

All this assumes, of course, that the VMS text is meaningful, something that has not been proven. The pattern of pairs and singles could just as easily have been devised to make it easier to write meaningless text that looks like syllables and abbreviations. I still have a certain cautious optimism that there is meaning behind the text and will post another blog soon that explores some of the details of gallows characters that haven’t yet been discussed.

                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The Lion and the Phoenix

In a previous blog, I illustrated some of the Asian stylistic conventions that influenced Persian art in the middle ages, with dragon and phoenix imagery as examples. A while later, it occurred to me that someone reading the blog might get the misimpression that the phoenix itself had been inherited from east Asian art, but that is not that case. Persian culture was already rich with “phoenix/firebird” legends prior to the infusion of Asian illustrative traditions.

The Simurgh is a mythical bird that greatly resembles the east Asian phoenix except that it was originally drawn with a lion’s face and forepaws. In most respects, however, it would be mistaken for a phoenix by anyone not familiar with Arabic script or ancient Persian culture and, indeed, the two became almost indistinguishable after Asian drawing styles and myths were absorbed into Persian art, as is illustrated by this 17th century example:

In Isfandiyâr’s fifth trial in the Book of Kings (1616), he battles the simurgh with a well-aimed swipe to the neck. In the same manuscript, the simurgh is present at the birth of Rustam,legendary hero-to-be, who teams up with the simurgh to defeat Isfandiyâr. [Image courtesy of NYPL Spencer Coll. Pers. MS 3.]

We can trace the evolutionary development of the Persian simurgh in reverse. In this 1330 manuscript from Shiraz, we see the simurgh with phoenix body and a shorter raptor neck and head, engaged in a fierce battle with Isfandiyâr. It is similar in form to an illustrated version of The Wonders of Creation that was written in the 13th century. This Sassanid silver plate has a bird-like version of the symurgh motif that was popular from around the 7th to 10th centuries:

This birdlike simurgh retains very little of the lion shape other than the forepaws, and includes a more extravagant tail similar to later expressions of phoenix imagery. [Photo credit: Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran.]

In even earlier depictions, the lion head and paws of the Simurgh are more evident, as in this silk fabric based on a griffon-style simurgh, a motif that was popular from the 6th to 9th centuries and possibly earlier. The only really bird-like aspect is the wings, although sometimes a mammalian face would include a beak:

Silk fabric featuring two simurghs facing one another with a tree (possibly the tree of life) between them. [Image credit:Tehran National Museum photo by Fabien Dany –]

Sometimes a dog was substituted for the lion, but either way, the simurgh of this time period was rather gryphon-like.

This 13th-century image from the Aberdeen Bestiary, resembles the earlier raptor-like versions of the simurgh more than the eastern phoenix or later Persian simurghs:

In the Aberdeen Bestiary, from about 1200, a raptor-like phoenix sits in a container that it has created with aromatic substances such as frankincense and myrrh. It looks toward the sun and fans the flames that will soon consume it. This hawk or eagle form of phoenix is more similar to the earlier Persian simurghs than later ones that show far-Asian influence. [Image credit: Aberdeen Univ Lib. MS 24.]

In ancient depictions, from several centuries BCE until the Roman period, in both text and image, the Simurgh, or Senmurw, is a raptor associated with health and prosperity and has linguistic associations with a bird that collected and dispersed seeds far and wide to facilitate a good harvest. The imagery was merged with a lion or dog and then gradually morphed into an eastern-style phoenix. This detail of ancient harvest myths may be of interest to Voynich researchers.

It’s difficult to know how long the tree-of-life and harvest associations with the simurgh were retained, as the simurgh was constantly evolving, but there is a perplexing image in the Voynich Manuscript in which a creature that looks like a bird sits in a nest (or some kind of container) on a precipitous tor. Next to the bird is a tree-like structure that might be a tree, bush, or perhaps stalks of grain. It’s difficult to tell because many medieval drawings of trees are rather twig or grain-like.

Assuming this is a bird in a nest, it’s almost impossible to guess what kind of bird it is—it’s not very clearly drawn and many birds nest on the ground or in high places. There is another bird, or possibly another rendition of the same bird, in the upper right corner, which may or may not relate directly to the one below.


I’m sure there are already many explanations for the identity and meaning of the VMS bird—there are thousands of bird stories, many of them featuring raptors that nest in high places—but I wonder if anyone has suggested that this might be the ancient phoenix, in the style of some of the more ancient Persian harvest birds, or the firebird in the Aberdeen Bestiary presiding in its aromatic container. Could the grain-like “tree” that hovers over the VMS bird represent both crop fertility and the tree of life? These days, we’re accustomed to very extravagant drawings of phoenixes, but the earliest depictions of the symurgh and its medieval European variations were much simpler than they are now.

A phoenix drawn with Asian influence snatches baby Zal, the legendary warrior king and father of Rostam, in a detail from a c. 1370 manuscript from the Topkapi Palace Museum.

It was not uncommon for the simurgh to be drawn next to steep hills. The example on the right shows the phoenix rescuing baby Zal by a tall tree-flecked tor. The “Conference/Councourse of Birds” (a legend about birds seeking the phoenix to be their king) also frequently shows the birds against the backdrop of a steep mountain.

I’m not inclined to identify the VMS bird as a phoenix—the surrounding images don’t seem to confirm that idea. The bird in the top-right corner looks like it’s flying past a cloud deluge rather than into the sun to be consumed by flames, and phoenix myths don’t shed any light on the mysterious half-hidden figures on the left. But I wanted to mention the possibility in case there might be other myths or associations with the phoenix that could explain aspects of this folio. Three of the corners look like there is something flowing out of them, so the bottom-right is unique in having a plant-like structure rather than streams of mist or water (or spiritual energy). I’ve been assuming each corner is somehow associated with the others, but how direct that association might be is hard to say.

So, it’s just a thought (out of many), something to mull over until more is known about the bird.

                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen © Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The Cardinal’s Nymphs

I had hoped to write a whole series on this one specific topic (the Villa d’Este). I have thousands of images and copious notes, but I simply cannot find the time to sort and credit all the images and grammatize my notes. The material has been languishing in my files for nine years, so at the risk of never posting it at all, I have decided to upload it in skeletal form…

Of Water and Worts

In 2008, as I was familiarizing myself with the VMS plant drawings, and looking at the pool pages, I spent several months looking up all the botanical gardens that were in existence prior to 1520 and, while doing so, also investigated the culinary/medical gardens that were present in most large estates, including castles, universities, monasteries, and medical schools. Some of the ones I found were later than my cutoff date of 1520 but I hoped they might provide clues to earlier structures that inspired them.

What motivated me to look into botanical and courtly gardens was the VMS emphasis on plants and water, and several “map” rosettes that looked like they might be related to gardens, as well (particularly the “aerial” view on rosette 9, which resembles a garden design with water flows).

The Farnese Gardens were created on the Capotilline hill in Rome, in the mid 16th century. This shows an aerial view of the garden layout with each section arranged with different geometric shapes. Culinary, medical, and decorative gardens were an integral part of court and institutional life, and gardens with waterworks were particularly popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Other parts of the VMS “map” could be interpreted as fountains and pipes. The little decorative element between rosette 6 and 7 (right) might be a fountain and there are obvious parallels to water and streams in rosettes 3 and 7. Other parts look like water spraying and it’s possible that rosette 2 represents a water source with gargoyle spouts around a central column, as were found in many pubic squares.

In my search for medieval gardens that might have a strong connection to water, especially piped water, I explored the Vatican gardens, the Garzoni Gardens, the Versailles gardens, the Dresden fountains, the Salerno, Padua (which were framed by a circular wall), and Verona gardens, St. Petersburg gardens, English gardens (especially ones near Roman baths), the Villa d’Este, in Tivoli, Italy, and many others. I also looked into spa areas in Bohemia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and some of the Grecian islands. Information on similar themes in Spain was sparse. They may exist, but in 2008 there was almost no information on the Web about them.

Viva Villa d’Este

The d’Este estate particularly interested me because it had piped water and many Pagan artworks and architectural structures strongly connected to water, nymphs, and plants—reminiscent of VMS plant-and-water imagery in general and to the rosettes page, in particular. One could describe the d’Este estate as “unapologetically” Pagan for reasons I’ll discuss below.

A diagram of the extensive gardens, fountains, and waterworks of the Villa d’Este. Water was also a prominent geographical feature on the lands surrounding the main estate, with many waterfalls and pools, some of which are a bright green.

A Brief Background

The d’Este family was wealthy, influential, and strongly interested in the arts. The Villa d’Este, in a scenic mountainous area near Rome, was commissioned by Ippolito II d’Este (1509–1572) and even though he was connected to the Roman Catholic church and became a cardinal, he was apparently more interested in Roman history and beliefs than in contemporary Christian customs. As such, the artworks on the estate include Greco-Roman gods, the Ephesian Diana, and round arched Pagan temple pools with nymphs sheltered under archways. Throughout the estate are fountains, cascades, gargoyles, and pools.

Thus, there are many parallels between the d’Este estate and the VMS and rather than blog about each one, as I originally hoped, I’m simply going to list them

The dangling teats/testicles under the nymph on folio 77v is reminiscent of the acorns/testicles/breasts depicted on many ancient sculptures of Diana. It’s difficult to know what the breast-like shapes signify in the VMS. At first I thought it might refer to the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. Then I thought the figure might represent the Sabine who stopped the fight between the Romans and the native hill people. K. Gheuens has pointed out that it might represent a constellation, in which case Cassiopaea would be a good candidate. On the left, the Ephesian Diana is framed by an arched grotto, as are several of the VMS nymphs, as water streams around her and from the breast-like forms on her chest. Note also that the crown-veil shape framing the head of one of the VMS nymphs could be based on crown-veil shape imagery related to an ancient goddess. [Image courtesy of Yair Haklai, Wikimedia Commons.]

A number of the canopies and arches over the nymphs in the VMS look like the grotto structures surrounding goddesses and Greco-Roman gods on the d’Este grounds. Water was an intrinsic aspect of Pagan religion, and nymphs were believed to live in water or were created in (or from) water. There are also ancient caves nearby, carved into the cliffsides, and an ancient goddess temple by the road on a hilltop—the whole area is steeped in ancient traditions.

Legendary Greco-Roman figures are framed by archways and numerous fountain works. Trees and water were sacred and intrinsic to Pagan religion, as water was believed to be the birth and dwelling place of goddess nymphs. [Image courtesy of Google Maps Street-view].

One of the more breathtaking corners of the estate is an oval pond, in the Pagan style, which includes a semi-circle of archways with sculptures under the arches, and a richly textured grotto-like waterwall behind the stone balcony.

The Della Ovata pond and archways are evocative of Pagan goddess-temple styles. The VMS central rosette, which features a circular structure with stars and decorative “columns” could be an iconic representation of ancient goddess temple architecture. The Falda grotto-style fountain pool (below), built on a similar concept, shows what the rockwork around the Della Ovata may have looked like before the more recent low-wall was added.

Waterfalls and Green Pools

In the middle ages, the Villa d’Este was surrounded by natural wonders: mountains, cliffs, crooked roads, and many rivulets and waterfalls. The VMS is full of “waterfall”, pool, and bathing imagery that bears similarities to this topography. The VMS rosettes page includes many escarpments, and there is a shape between rosettes 4 and 6 that could be interpreted as a fountain. There is also a crooked mountain road connecting rosettes 1 and 4 leading from what might be an eye-shaped mountain or volcano. A similar road leads to the Villa d’Este. Notice the pipes coming out of the VMS volcano-like “mountain” (water was piped down to feed the estate’s cistern and extensive waterworks).

The Cascadia is a scenic landmark in Tivoli, by the Villa d’Este. Notice the green pools and the rivulet connecting the pools, very similar to how green pools are arranged in folios 78r and 81r. The Cascadia lower river has terraced pools, some of which have been shaped with nearby rocks to make them more comfortable for bathing.

This image, from the 1930s, shows the topography of the d’Este estate in Tivoli, Italy, with its many waterfalls and green-water bathing pools. In the 16th century, the gardens were much more extensive.

The pool imagery on folio 78r might represent natural waterholes that have been rocked in for bathing, so it’s difficult to know whether the VMS “pipes” that appear to be feeding the pools represent natural water, or aquaducts and pools constructed to create bathing holes.

Natural water holes existed in the landscape in countless regions, including the Alps, Bohemia, Pozzuoli, and the town of Tivoli, Italy, and there may also have been bathing holes in the Villa d’Este grounds, which were larger in the 16th century than they are now, which makes it very difficult to know if these pool pages are generalized, allegorical, or meant to represent a specific location.

The Villa d’Este had a large culinary/medical garden, similar to those at monasteries. It’s possible that rosette 9 is an aerial view of gardens common to castles, monasteries, and universities.

The VMS map is full of pipe shapes. They come out of the mountain, they surround the central rosette, and they spray between rosettes 2, 4, 6, and 8. No one has been able to convincingly explain the meaning of the pipes or their relation to the rest of the imagery, and they may be allegorical, but if they are intended to be real pipes, here is one thought…

The Villa d’Este was built with some incredible piping systems and waterworks, centuries ahead of their time. They form a lattice underneath the grounds and are not just there to provide water to people and plants, but also to feed elaborate fountains and whimsical waterworks, throughout the estate, some of which were triggered by people walking nearby, so they would be showered unexpectedly as a form of entertainment. The estate was a marvel of hydraulic engineering and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A popular theme in medieval imagery is the courtly garden party, which is often shown as a ringed area with a central fountain. You might notice in the second picture below that the fountain embellishment resembles not only the containers in the VMS small-plants section, but also the VMS “architectural columns with feet” that look like large containers in the central rosette.

I didn’t want to constrain my research to Europe, I always search as far afield as possible, but information on medieval spa sites and gardens east of Constantinople or south of the Mediterranean is scarce and was especially scarce nine years ago, but I did find some information on gardens in the Levant, including the area around Jerusalem. The idea of Jerusalem intrigued me because I thought the “mountain” in rosette 1, with its almond-shaped “eye” (similar to an olive pit) might be the Mount of Olives.

The Garden of Gethsemane (image from 1893) is in an arid region, where it’s harder to grow things, but still bears some similarities to more northerly gardens, with a circular design and a fountain-like centerpiece, but I wasn’t able to reconcile many features of the VMS map with this part of the world.


I hate to stop in the middle of a topic, I have much more information but so little time, so I’ll end by saying I wasn’t able to convince myself that the rosette map was the Villa d’Este or any of the similar gardens that preceded it (many of which no longer exist except in verbal descriptions). The reason I’m not sure is because I couldn’t reconcile what looks like compass points (the two suns and the T-O map) with the layout of the d’Este estate. It’s close… the “mountain”, the water, the escarpments, and some of the other features could be related to real physical features, but it takes a bit of wrangling, and there is some imagery that doesn’t quite seem to fit this location.

Villa d’Este was one of many ideas, and I’m keeping it on the table, but it post-dates the VMS by more than a century, and information on its predecessors is scanty. Also, I subsequently found a location that MIGHT explain the rosettes page better than Villa d’Este, a location that better fits the compass points. It doesn’t have extensive waterworks, but it did have piped water and nearby natural waters, and some of the other features on the rosettes. Unfortunately, I can’t spare time to describe it today. It will have to wait for another blog.

                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The Gumshoe Herb Hunter

It’s a delight to look through old herbal manuscripts, especially those with text that describes the plants and their uses. Even if the language and style of script are unfamiliar (and heavily abbreviated), that’s part of the fun—you get to be a detective.

Trinity College MS O.2.48, for example, is full of intriguing details. Created a century or so before the Voynich manuscript, it includes more than 300 herbal images. Some plants are recognizable and others take effort to decipher, even when names are provided in several languages. Fortunately, the Web is full of resources to help us unravel the identifications.

MS O.2.48 parallels Plut.73.Cod.16 (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) in many ways, which means the two can be enjoyed side-by-side while sorting out some of the more puzzling imagery.

They are not exact copies, the two manuscripts differ in drawing style and page layout—Plut.73 is more heavily and evenly painted, and the plants are more stylized and symmetric, as can be seen in these examples:

The Plutei and Trinity College manuscripts differ in drawing style, layout and content, but include many parallels that can help sort some of the less obvious plant IDs.


MS O.2.48 was created sometime in the 1300s at an uncertain location. In addition to images of herbs, there are scenes about how herbs were used. For example, on folios 54v and 55r, herbe salomonis is held aloft by an important figure to help him exorcise the demons to the right:

At the top of the scene is something of particular interest to Voynich researchers, V-shaped crenellations called swallowtail merlons, similar to those on the rosettes foldout in Beinecke 408. This architectural style was associated, in earlier centuries, with the Ghibellines, supporters of the Holy Roman Empire, who were at political odds with those who supported the pope in Rome. Swallowtail merlons have become decorative elements since that time, but in the 14th and 15th centuries, they were still emblems of a long-standing power feud between the loyalists and the papists.

So what exactly do those merlons signify in a section devoted to herbs? Do they reveal the political leanings of those who created the manuscript? Or were the creators contemptuous of attempts to establish power centers outside of Rome? Or are they saying that supporters of the emperor are heretics in need of herbal “therapy”?

The text to the left of the plant gives us a clue. It identifies the man holding the plant as “beat[us] augustin[us] and describes a brief legend of the saint and the martagon plant (also labeled salominis, ventriosa/ventuosa, and vermatore). Thus, St. Augustine, who was born in Algeria and served as bishop of the region before traveling to northern Italy, was chosen to administer the rights. St. Augustine is an important symbol of the Catholic church and thus would be considered by papists as an appropriate emissary for wielding herbal power.

The provenance of MS O.2.48 is uncertain, but it’s thought it may have been created in Germany. The Ghibelline merlons suggest that if it is Germany, it’s probably southern Germany or Lombardy (which is now part of northern Italy). Lombardy was much larger in the middle ages, with an interesting blend of cultures (Scandinavian, German, Italian, and Bohemian) and was known to have a number of illumination studios. Sloane 4016 (mid-15th century) is one of the best-known herbal manuscripts created in this region.

On the Trail of the Martagon

Thus, the drawing reveals something about those who created the manuscript, but the label next to the plant is hard to reconcile with the plant itself. Most of the Trinity MS plant illustrations are reasonably naturalistic, but this plant doesn’t resemble the martagon lily (aka Turk’s cap lily) in any way—the roots, leaves, and flowers are all wrong.

A closer look at the flowers shows red droplets. Is this a reference to sap or perhaps to blood? There are a number of plants with red sap, but most of them don’t look like this. The alternate names aren’t helpful either. ventuosa/ventriosa, and vermatore/virmatore aren’t easy to reconcile, many old plant names have been lost, but Salonis/Salomonis might be helpful. There are a number of plants that go by this name, which is an ancient reference to King Solomon.

The most well-known plant associated with the name is Sigillum salomonis, or Solomon’s seal, due to the round seal-like scars on the plant’s knobby roots. Unfortunately, its distinctive bell-like white flowers dangling from one side of the stem don’t look like the plant in Trinity O.2.48.

Verbena was once called “tears of Isis” and was later adapted into the Christian religion as the herb that was placed on Christ’s wounds. This might explain the red droplets, but Verbena is already represented in the Trinity MS by a drawing that more closely resembles the actual plant. The herbs in the Nine Herbs Charm didn’t provide any close matches either. Mugwort fits the context, but the flowers are spikes and the leaves are deeply serrated.

Bishop’s wort (Stachys officinalis) is an ingredient in remedies to exorcise demons. It has elliptical leaves but doesn’t closely match the flowers, and doesn’t explain the red droplets, but it’s closer to the drawing than plants called “martagon” or “Salomonis”, and fits the context.


I considered that the plant might be St. John’s wort (Hypericum), which has elliptical leaves, red sap that appears when the leaves are pounded, and fuzzy yellow flowers that change to a berry-like fruit. It is said to provide protection against demons, but it doesn’t appear to have a strong connection to exorcisms, and the plant in Trinity O.2.48 is quite large, larger than one might expect Hypericum to be drawn.

Laurus nobilis courtesy of Wikipedia.

The best candidate I’ve found so far, and I’m not certain it’s the right one, is Laurus nobilis, known as sweet bay. Laurel is a large shrubby plant with elliptical leaves and clusters of yellow flowers that point in various directions and change to small black fruits. It was a healing herb with the power to exorcise demons. In the 19th century, Parkinson writes: “It serveth to adorne the house of God, as well as of man; to procure warmth, comfort, and strength…” Northcote notes in 1903 that the Romans called it “the Plant of the Good Angell” and that it was used, in Rome, to “trim up their Churches and Monasteries on Solemn Festivals…” So Laurus nobilis has a strong connection to the Christian church consistent with the legend of St. Augustine.

So perhaps sweet bay is the puzzling plant and perhaps not. As far as Voynich research goes, a number of detractors have used the difficulty of identifying the VMS plants as a rationale for calling the VMS a hoax, but Trinity O.2.48 demonstrates that a plant can be clearly drawn and labeled, and even include allegorical imagery to explain it further, and still be a challenge to unravel.

                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen


Postscript: After I wrote this blog, I became aware of M. Ponzi’s translation of the story of St. Augustine in the Trinity MS text. You might enjoy reading the story so I have added a link here.

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