Category Archives: Voynich Medicine

Mayhem, Macaroni-Style

It’s a challenge to read old manuscripts. Language has changed, writing styles were very different, a bewildering array of abbreviations occupies each sentence like a mine field, and there were no spelling checkers (or hard-and-fast rules about spelling) in the 15th century. To complicate matters, scribes often copied manuscripts in languages they didn’t fully understand.

The last page of the VMS reads like a cryptic alphabet soup, but are texts with blended languages that unusual?

Support for Billy Goat Liver?

My gut feeling, even before investigating it, was that blended languages were bound to occur in societies where a second language was an essential tool of commerce and scholarly correspondence. But a sixth sense and real data are two different things, so I kept my eyes open for an unambiguous example and found one, and inside was the most surprising Easter egg, something I never expected…

BSB CGM 8137 is a tract on fishing and has no obvious connection to the VMS, but the recipes use many of the same ingredients as folk medicine, so it reads very much like a medical manuscript. It mentions tormentilla, wine, beer and “pockleber” (goat liver)—that was the surprise! Finding goat liver is not particularly unusual, but finding goat liver in a manuscript that blends languages in such a quirky way made me sit up and take notice…

As far as I’m aware, no one has mentioned CGM 8137 “pockleber” in connection with the VMS, but it’s important because it demonstrates that this ingredient was used in ways other than cooking and might relate to the words written at the top of folio 116v. The spelling is different, but substituting “x” (Greek chi) for hard-h, ch, or ck was not unusual and “p” was often used where modern German uses “b”.

If poxleber and pockleber refer to the same thing, then this manuscript offers evidence to support the interpretation offered by Johannes Albus and anyone else who may have read the text as “goat liver”.

I was happy to find this example for two reasons:

•  it offers evidence that pockleber (both the word and the ingredient) was probably in use in the 15th century, and

•  the script is an excellent example of mixed language. CGM 8137 demonstrates that macaronic text was in practical use.

I’ve long wondered if some of the not-quite German words on f116v that are mixed with readable German might be fractured Latin (mixed in with accepted Latin) and that some of the text on the second line might even be Spanish. Here is an excerpt from fishing recipe #12 to give an idea of how intimately languages could be blended. Note also that the interpretation of “pockleber” as a compund word is unambiguous, as “leber” is mentioned again, by itself, on the fourth line:

Item rec[ipe] mayen et prachmonet pro piscib[us] et cancris ain pockleber et assa bene, pus?post? assacionem sparge desuper pulverem de gaffer. Postea? recipe das kalbs netzlen oder schaff netzlen das da frisch ist, und schlags umb die leber. Postea liga super asserem parvulum ad capiendum pisces et cancros…

The first word, “Item”, was widely used in both German and Latin, and “recipe” is middle French for “medical prescription”. Then there’s an odd combination of month names, the first Latinesque (mayen), the other German (prachmonet) (note that once again, a “p” has been substituted for “b”). Brachmonat is June in German, and calendars illustrating the month’s labors often illustrate June as a farmer tilling his fields. The next four words are Latin, followed by two German words (ain pockleber), and three more in Latin instructing the reader to dry or roast well.

The month names really caught my eye. You would think the writer would choose one language or the other for related concepts in the same sequence, but apparently there was no impulse to organize the languages this way.

The other recipes are interlaced in the same way.

It’s significant that German and Latin are mixed not just line-by-line (as in macaronic verse) or phrase-by-phrase, but sometimes word-by-word.

That’s the important part. If “pox leber” turns out to be German and even if “pfer” at the end turns out to be a German word like “pferd” that doesn’t mean the words in between have to be German. If CLM 8137 is any example, the word “um?n” and some of the German-looking words on the last line could be Latin (or something else).

The Possibilities…

CGM 8137 was created about a century after the VMS, so it’s not an exemplar, but “goat liver” was no doubt a common phrase—goats were an integral part of medieval society—which means that other examples might be found, as additional manuscripts are scanned and read.

This isn’t proof that “pox leber” says goat liver, there may be other interpretations, but it is greatly intriguing, especially considering polyglot manuscripts have been found to exist.


J.K. Petersen

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

Ther i c Galen

Have you ever come across a single piece of information that gives everything a different perspective?

In 2008 and 2009, I obsessively perused every herbal manuscript I could find, going back to them again and again (you know you’ve been looking at too many herbals when you recognize crudely drawn plants without looking at the labels).

But I didn’t know this… I didn’t understand why some odd ingredients like storax (styrax), turpentine, and castoreum showed up together with leaves and roots, sometimes even interposed between plants that were not in alphabetical order. Not that it’s unusual to find these items in medicinal concoctions, but why these particular ingredients, and not the dozens of other commonly used non-leaf-or-root ingredients?


First let’s summarize castoreum, sometimes written as “castor”. Castoreum/Castore is not the same as the Ricinus (castor oil) plant. Ricinus is included in many herbal manuscripts—it’s an ancient medicinal plant—but castoreum or castore (castor) is an animal product that seems oddly out of place with sage, rosemary, and thyme. In fact, references to castoreum can be startling when you first see them as images of animals castrating themselves by biting off their testicles:

StagCastore CastoreHarley3244

These animals can be stags or mythical animals, but a favorite is the poor beaver, which can look like anything, including a deer, fox, boar-with-webbed-feet, or dog-with-fat-tail to an anatomically correct (or sometimes anatomically bereaved) beaver:

CastorBeaver1CastorBeaver5CastorBeaver4 CastorBeaver3


As can be seen from these examples, the animal is recognized more by context (and labels) than the accuracy of the drawings. And their bizarre actions are not as masochistic as they seem. The beaver (shown here as a boar with webbed feet and scaly fat tail) knows the hunters are after his jewels and discards them in their path so he can escape with his life.


Theriac apothecary jar courtesy of Wellcome Library.

Testicles as ingredients are popular worldwide for a variety of medicinal concoctions and were featured in Galen’s famous Theriac recipe, originally developed as a cure for snake bites, but which was gradually marketed as a tonic and general panacea, one that remained popular for almost 2,000 years. Galen was a highly revered physician and scholar, and theriac became a staple in apothecary houses that catered to wealthy patrons.

I must have compartmentalized my familiarity with Galen and my reading of the contents of medieval herbals, because I never directly connected the herbals with theriac. I assumed castor and storax and a few other oddballs were in herbal manuscripts due to their general use in remedies but now I realize due to the express absence of other similar ingredients, they may have been there specifically because they were part of Galen’s famous remedy.

ViperBirthSnakes have long been used in medicinal concoctions and continued to be popular in the middle ages. There was a widely perpetuated myth that male vipers inseminated the females through their mouths and their young would later gnaw their way out of their mother’s body (right). This magical property probably elevated the status of viper as an ingredient in herbal remedies.

Snakes have many meanings in herbal manuscripts.

VMSSnakeRootOften, they indicate a plant that is suitable for curing snake bites. Sometimes they refer to the name of a plant (like snake-weed) or the shape of a plant (e.g., one with a snake-like root). Snakes and dragons can mean a plant is toxic, the way we use a skull-and-crossbones symbol.

But… there are times when a snake appears on its own, and I now realize it might be because viper was an essential ingredient in Galen’s formula, along with castoreum.

Relevance to the VMS


Mining sulphur, Egerton 747, c. 1280–c.1310.

In the Voynich Manuscript, there’s a distinct lack of non-root/leaf ingredients. There are no pictures of bitumen or chalciditis, nothing that looks like styrax or gum arabic in its chunky resinous form, and no gated balsam orchards, as there are in many other herbals. There are a few drawings that resemble snakes or worms, but they appear to be associated with the roots of plants, not with snake as an ingredient on its own. In other words, if there’s a strong Theriac influence in some of the other herbals, there’s no obvious corollary in the VMS.

But… is there a reference to castoreum?

PongolinEngravingIs it possible the strange unidentifiable critter that looks like pangolin, sheep, and anteater all rolled into one could possibly be a beaver? Could the scales be like the scales sometimes depicted on medieval beaver’s tails but applied to the whole body in the VMS?

I honestly don’t think the VMS “pangolin” looks anything like a beaver, but neither do many of the other medieval depictions of beavers.

Maybe it’s a pangolin, an animal that curls up like an aardvark to protect itself, as has been put forth by quite a few Voynicheros (I like the idea of a pangolin), or a rain dragon, as been suggested on the Voynich forum, or if we glance back at a similar curled-animal drawing on another page…

VMSCurledCritterResearchers have suggested the dead-looking creature on folio 79v might be a fleece (see earlier post). Could the pangolin-like creature also be a fleece? Could the curled-up creature be a pointy nosed lamb? Maybe those lines are nebuly lines after all and they indicate a dearly departed creature rather than a live one. The problem is it doesn’t look like the other sheep-like creatures in the VMS, it has a very sharp snout and the others are blunt, and the illustrator has made the back very scale-like—quite different from most sheeply creatures.

Could it be a beaver about to become a beaveress or some other animal making a lifestyle change? Looking at the drawing by itself, it seems possible that it is eyeballing its undersides but… context should never be overlooked, and beneath the critter is a woman with a ring, and the animal seems to be suspended above her as though on a cloud or canopy. That seems an odd place for him to aim his teeth at his chestnuts.

Well what about the fleece idea? Golden fleece pendants were worn by members of the order of the Golden Fleece in the 15th century, but could a door above a meeting place have a suspended fleece as a sign? They have them now, but that doesn’t mean such a thing existed in the early 1400s. As usual, the way it’s presented in the VMS makes it hard to pin down.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Sex & Procreation in the Voynich Manuscript

When Mores were Less


A portion of a wall fresco from Pompeii after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, preserved in the archaeological museum of Naples, Italy.

In pre-Christian times, sex and procreation were viewed as natural and commonly depicted on vases, statues, and walls. Everyday objects such as oil lamps or tokens were embellished with images of coitus.

Many ancient Irish places of worship and sometimes even stone perimeters included a carved Sheila-na-gig symbol, a woman not just displaying her vagina, but opening it wide to celebrate fertility, childbirth, and the source of life. In some instances, the Sheila-na-gig warded off evil spirits and it’s been suggested that some served as reminders against excessive lust (you have to wonder if this was a later interpretation).

Gradually, Christianity was enforced by kings and embraced by the pious, and sexual repression was justified by stories of Adam and Eve donning clothes after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Prohibitions against nudity and sexuality increased and a proliferation of fig leaves appeared on artworks. Sculptures were emasculated with hammers and private parts were expunged from manuscripts with knives and acids. At one point religious teachings were so strict, husbands weren’t even permitted to see their wives nude and a marriage shroud with one small opening between the legs had to be draped over the woman before they had sex.


Joseph and Mary c. 1383. By the end of the 16th century, this popular motif openly showing the breast, known as Maria Lactans, was no longer common. Mary giving life to the baby Jesus through breastfeeding was branded obscene rather than as a nurturing part of life.

Usually it was the male sex organs that were removed from manuscripts and other artworks, but in some documents, women’s breasts were scraped away, as well, and it eventually become rare to depict Mary explicitly feeding her baby.

But these prohibitions weren’t as widespread in the early 15th century as they were in later centuries, and don’t entirely explain why some of the VMS sexually suggestive drawings appear to be coy and symbolic. There is plenty of nudity in the VMS, and some regions still retained their Pagan or other non-Christian beliefs into later centuries despite the Inquisition, so it’s possible the illustrator was from a non-Christian culture or an area where Christian prohibitions against nudity were less strictly enforced.

In fact, in the 15th and 16th centuries, encoding information could sometimes get you in more trouble than expressing taboo subjects openly. Medieval academics and alchemists inventing ciphers for recreational reasons, or to legitimately hide trade secrets, risked being accused of witchcraft.

Sexuality in the VMS

In the VMS, there is nudity on many pages, including the figures around the zodiac circles, but there are no explicit references to coitus. There is at least one image of an ejaculating phallus and some of the male figures are anatomically correct but, other than that, there is little to suggest procreation. Babies are completely absent. A number of drawings do, however, resemble internal organs with nymphs walking all over them. Is it possible to make any sense of these drawings?

SelkieStampNymphinFishOne figure that has particularly captured the attention of researchers is the “mermaid” on folio 79v, in the bottom left corner. It could be a mermaid, a melusine (as described in a previous blog), or perhaps a selkie (right), a mythical sea creature who could shed her seal tail to walk on land.

The fact that the nymph appears to be separate from the fish-like creature in which she stands seems to argue against most of these interpretations, especially when it’s noted that it’s not only the tail of a fish—it has eyes.

In some ways the VMS image resembles depictions of the biblical Jonah emerging from the fish, but other references to this tale appear to be absent. Perhaps the picture can be explained by looking at other drawings in the left margin of this and the preceding page.

Bodily Functions and Fluids

DigbyElementsIn medieval philosophy, a great deal of attention was given to organizing the universe according to general principles. Humans invest vast amounts of time trying to simplify a complex universe into simple building blocks in the hopes of understanding it. Sometimes it works; but more often it creates a shaky foundation that is eventually overthrown as knowledge advances.

In the Middle Ages, everything was considered to be comprised of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water (or of five elements, when aether was included). Similarly, in medieval medicine, it was believed everything could be described as hot or cold, wet or dry, and that anatomy could be understood in terms of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Notice that the latter are all liquids and that flowing liquids are prevalent in the VMS.

Interpreting Folio 79

It’s possible that folios 79r and 79v represent internal anatomy. Both pages are similarly organized—several fairly dense paragraphs of text combined with a chain of images running down the left side and across the bottom. On both folios, liquids appear to flow from top to bottom into pools. A distinction has been made by painting the upper liquids blue and the lower pools green.

VMSDigestiveIn the first series, the nymphs on the right have shorter hair (or hair that’s tied back), the ones on the left longer hair. Length of hair distinguished a person’s age or marital status in parts of medieval society. In fact, in some cultures, a woman was required to cut her hair and wear hats or a veil when she was married. Note that the double pods near the bottom (see right) are not directly attached to the main “pipeline” of flowing liquids.

In the absence of textual confirmation, there are many possible interpretations of these illustrations but if you were to look at this as a diagram of a digestive system, for example, the top could be the esophagus, the next might be the stomach, the third could be ovaries (which are not connected directly to the digestive system) and the last could be the bladder and/or bowels. It’s difficult to interpret what’s going on in the green pool but it looks like a male figure leaning against a log that has two spikes through it (or behind it) and the squire’s arm is wrapped around one of them. One leg is bent forward as though he is walking or bracing his foot on something. Could the log be a phallic reference or something entirely different?

Voy79rLongVoy79vLongThe image on 79v is similar to 79r in that it runs down the left margin, shows flowing liquid in blue, and terminates in a green pool. There is some rare symbology on this page. The upper nymph holds a cross, the second one a ring. There are very few references to Christianity in the VMS, but if the cross were interpreted as Christian imagery, it might possibly stand for Confirmation, a religious ritual common to many cultures in which a pubertal child is initiated into adulthood.

Following this line of reasoning, the second nymph with the ring might mean marriage. A ring was a symbol of marriage in many cultures and notice that the nymph is lying down, as a married woman would lie with her husband.

The third nymph isn’t holding anything, she is dipping her hand into the apparently liquid-filled vessel, but she does have a very round stomach and could be heavily pregnant. The previous nymphs have fairly big stomachs too (as would be expected in the days before Photoshop and liposuction) but this one is even larger than the others. Is it possible that the nymph in the pool, stepping out of the fish’s mouth, is a symbolic representation of birth? If so, what would be the significance of all those other animals?

It might be possible to explain the animals in terms of common creation myths. The story of Genesis is at the beginning of the old testament and thus underlies both Jewish and Christian religions and medieval depictions of creation often show animals emerging out of the ground and out of the water. One of the animals emerging from the water in many European texts is a mermaid or mermaid-like creature. If the concept of creation is doubling as a metaphor for childbirth, it might explain the animals, the fish-and-woman, and the drawings along the side.


79vRingIt’s possible the fish represents the birth canal. In many Mediterranean mythologies, the word fish or dolphin also stood for womb or vagina. The ancient Ichthys fish symbol, later adapted by Christians to represent Jesus, originally represented fertility and was the name given to the offspring of Atargatis, a northern Syrian deity who, in turn, was a continuation of the concept of Asherah, the goddess of the sea who, even earlier, represented the concept of renewal and was, at that time associated with trees (as with the tree of life).

Without text, it’s difficult to confirm whether these folios represent bodily functions such as digestion and procreation, but I wanted to put forward the idea that the woman-in-fish could be something other than the more traditional imagery built around mermaids, selkies, and melusines. These might be biological symbols running down the left-hand side or perhaps biology and mythology combined.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Curiosity Shop or Little Shop of Horrors?          30 Jan. 2016

A Treasure Trove on a Single Page

LesserChrsI wasn’t sure what to title this blog because it’s not clear what is going on at the bottom of Folio 66r. Is this a murder mystery? Is that a dead body?

Audrey the ailing plant begs for blood in Little Shop of Horrors, courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1986.

Audrey the ailing plant begs for blood in Little Shop of Horrors, courtesy of Warner Brothers, 1986.

In fact, Folio 66r is unusual in many ways. Not only is there a mystery pic at the bottom, with some altered text beside it, but the upper left is full of character glyphs that differ from the majority of the text in both shape and position.

Since there are enough head-scratchers on this page to fill several blogs (perhaps several papers), I’ll start with the image and marginal text at the bottom. It might be a mistake to describe it out of context with the text at the top but, since we haven’t deciphered the big block of text, maybe it’s okay to start with the picture.

What is Going On Here?


It’s possible the Voynich Manuscript is a medical text, with a particular emphasis on women’s health. It is full of plants (plants were medicine in the Middle Ages), nude ladies bathing, women’s cycles, and stylized drawings of internal body parts.

On Folio 66r, there is a figure in the lower left, presumably female, with a distorted stomach and an oddly curved back. The back might be some excess poundage or maybe some swelling. It may also be an example of weak drawing skills.

The bottom of the stomach is sticking out in an oddly irregular way, compared to the round bellies in other parts of the manuscript. Nearby are three objects: a spotty irregular mass that resembles a sponge but could be almost anything, a rounder spotted object (a lid? a rock? a rounded tuber?), and what might be a container of some kind (it has lines on it like a woven basket, but it’s very hard to tell—it could be a bucket, a cup, or a chamber pot).

Dead or Alive?


Is this prostrate figure a corpse? Or a figure looking toward us, with eyes open? Is it the face of distress or someone lying on a board waiting to be examined? Is she pinching her stomach? With so few details, it’s difficult to tell.

The face of the woman is faded, as though the quill were running out of ink, but it looks like the eyes might be open, and her right arm seems to be pinching and pulling the stomach, so maybe it isn’t a dead body after all—it might be someone in distress. Assuming for the moment that the prostate figure is alive (and female), what could be causing a problem?

  • Stomach ache?
  • Dysentery? (King Henry V is said to have died of dysentery in 1422)
  • Injury?
  • Appendicitis?
  • Menstrual cramps?
  • Childbirth pains?
  • Post-partem distress?

I hate to suggest abortion, because it’s always a touchy subject, but we have to consider this possibility. In medieval times, many girls, from peasants to royalty, were sold off as wives in their mid-teens and sometimes endured fourteen or more pregnancies when they scarcely had food to feed two or three mouths and, if their husbands were soldiers, the breadwinner was frequently away from home burning and pillaging, leaving the women to cope with the household and children alone.

15thcTortureThey were turbulent times. People were hung, dragged behind horses, burned at the stake, castrated, and drawn and quartered in the public square, where even the smallest child could sit and watch. Explicit examples of these procedures were recorded by 15th century artists such as Giovanni Boccaccio (right).

Given this attitude toward life and death, abortion was a very common occurrence and abortifacient plants are mentioned in many herbal manuscripts, sometimes euphemistically as, “a plant that encourages courses” (“courses” meaning menstrual bleeding).

Maybe the other objects can shed some light on what’s happening to the recumbent figure.

F66rBucketPerhaps the explanation is simple—the naked damsel might have a tummy ache. The irregular mass could be an unfortunate consequence of diarrhea, or it might be the afterbirth following pregnancy and childbirth. Maybe it’s a tumor or cyst (surgery has been around since Egyptian times and even Caesarian sections were performed in centuries past).

Note that images of children are conspicuously absent in the VMS. If you consider it’s full of cavorting naked women and women in various stages of pregnancy, it’s surprising there are no offspring. It does show a few girls on the cusp of puberty in the zodiac wheels, but they are included to show the beginning of the maturation process and very young children are not shown.

Men are not completely absent from the VMS. There are illustrations of men both clothed and naked, and details of body parts engaged in ejaculatory activity, as in the left margin of Folio 77v. If the drawing on 66r is a reference to childbirth, it would not be out of place.

What’s the Yellow Stuff in the Bucket?

BucketBellyIf you look closely, you’ll note that the inside of the bucket (assuming it’s some kind of container) is a pale golden color. Maybe it was painted this way to make it look three dimensional and there’s nothing in the bucket, but there’s a splotch on the woman’s stomach that seems to match, so perhaps there’s a connection between the two.

It’s difficult to tell from a digital scan if the spot on the stomach is a natural discoloration in the page (it matches the ragged yellow edge of the parchment on the right) or is intended to refer to the contents of the bucket, but let’s assume it was painted there.

Urine chart illustrating different possible colors, Wellcome Library, London. Epiphaniae medicorum, Pinder, Ulrich, 1506

Urine chart illustrating different possible colors, Wellcome Library, London. Epiphaniae medicorum, Pinder, Ulrich, 1506

Could the substance be a salve to relieve distress, or a reference to something going on inside the belly? Is the yellowish color urine?

Diagnosis with urine specimens was a hot topic in medieval circles. Many herbal compendiums include wheels showing beakers filled with liquid in a range of colors. When urine was reddish, dark brown, or even purple, it was assumed some disease or internal malfunction might be present, but the substance in the VMS bucket is the color of healthy urine so it seems unlikely it relates to someone lying down, pulling on her belly.

F66rMelMaybe it’s not urine; maybe it’s something used to treat disease or injury. Medieval pharmaceutical recipes often recommended mixing oil, wine, or honey with herbs for making ointments for external use, or potions for internal use. Assuming white wine rather than red, all of these might be a pale yellowish color. So how do we know? There might be a clue. If you look at the text above the container (which has been altered, but which may have originally read “mel”), then you have the word for honey that was commonly used in herbal manuscripts.

Which brings us to the text. Can the text help us understand the puzzling image?

Did the Right Hand Know What the Left Hand Was Doing?

VoyGothic116There are a few places in the Voynich Manuscript where we see marginal text in a Gothic cursive hand, separate from the main text. Normally Voynichese and marginal text are not combined, but there are some instances where it happens, as on Folios 116v (right) and 17r. This only deepens the VMS mystery. Do different hands represent different people? Or did the VMS scribe write the marginal notes as well?

On 66r, the two forms of script are not intermingled, but there are definitely two different scripts—Voynichese above the drawing, and Gothic cursive (or something close to it) above the bucket. We don’t know which was added first, but the drawing was possibly there before the Voynichese was added, as the tail of the glyph next to the head looks like it has been shortened so the tail doesn’t clobber the head.


VenMusMelLooking at the text on the left, I can’t interpret the lonely letter at the top because it’s halfway between an “r” and a “v” as they were written at the time, or perhaps it’s the Greek ypsilon.

The text by the bucket is similar to the Germanic hand on Folios 17r and 116v.

TaxSanHoneyAs with the other marginal texts in the VMS, this one is difficult to read, but ignoring the over-writing, it looks like “ven muß mel” in Germanic or a mixture of Germanic and Latin.

It’s tempting to interpret this as “when one should use honey” or “in this situation one must use honey”. This assumes the first letter in the bottom word was an “m” before it was obscured.

HoneyBeesSL4016In modern German, honey is “honig” but in the 15th century, throughout Lombardy, France, Italy, and Greece, variations on “mel” included meile, melle, meli, etc., and were used to notate honey in herbal documents, plus most scribes knew Latin, in which honey is “mel”. Honey is frequently mentioned in herbal compendiums in combination with Artemisia, Viola, garlic, and horehound. Examples of honey recipes can be seen in Ms. Egerton 747 and many others.

What about that first word of “ven muß mel”? Could it be something besides an old Germanic reference to “when”? Is it possible it relates to the old Anglo-Saxon word for swelling which is “wen” or “wenn”? Then the phrase might mean, “honey should be used for a swelling” (note that in German, a “w” is pronounced as a “v” in English).


Honey as Traditional Medicine

Honey was used as traditional medicine at least as early as Egyptian times. In the Ebers Papyrus of c.1550 BCE, which was found between the legs of a mummy, are passages about women’s health, with honey mentioned as a base for salves for treating wounds and other disorders.

KahunPapyrDetailAn even earlier document, called the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, dating from c.1800 BCE, is specifically devoted to women’s health.

Here are some examples of medical recipes from the Ebers and Kahun papyri related to complaints of the belly, or conception and childbirth:

  • A paste of honey and yellow ochre was suggested for intestinal or urological complaints.
  • “For the evacuation of the belly: Cow’s milk 1; grains 1; honey 1; mash, sift, cook; take in four portions.”
  • “To prevent conception, smear a paste of dates, acacia, and honey to wool and apply as a pessary.”
  • Another recipe for contraception was a paste of crocodile dung, honey, and sour milk (hopefully the document also includes a treatment for crocodile and leech bites).
  • “hin of honey, sprinkle over her womb, this to be done on natron bed”

Herbal traditions in ancient Rome included honey as a barrier method to contraception. Mixed with sodium carbonate to create a paste, it was used to cover the cervix.

Medieval Use of Honey

In the Wellcome library there’s an interesting 11th century folio that was preserved in a book from the 9th century, in which medical recipes have been added in more than one hand, apparently by monks. Here is a translation of a section that mentions honey as a treatment for “wenns” (which can mean either tumors or swellings):

WellcomeLeachTo make yourself an ointment for tumours [wenns], one shall take pure honey, such as is used to lighten porridge, boil it to almost the thickness of porridge; take radish, elder, wild thyme, cinquefoil, pound them as well as you can; and when it is almost done mix in a good measure of garlic and put to it as much pepper as you think.
A salve against tumours, water cucumber, a handful of spearmint, dittany, woodwax, mulberry; boil in malt-ale; squeeze through a linen cloth, boil in honey-droppings; take then clean spring barley, grind (it) in a handmill; then take madder, dry it in (an oven); grind a handful of red-cabbage seed in a peppermill; boil all together, not too hard. Use it three times a week, as is most convenient.
This salve is good for tumours and for the bleeding of piles. But it should be stirred up, lest it should be spoiled.



Preparing honey in an Arabic version of De Materia Medica from c.621 AD

The use of honey for belly complaints or gynecological purposes has been passed down for thousands of years and was not new to medieval physicians and midwives. Oils and wines were also used for tonics and salves, but it’s harder to reconcile those with the word “mel” appearing above the bucket.

We don’t know if the label in another hand accurately represents the drawing (or possibly a translation of the text above the drawing). Maybe the person who wrote the marginal notes was guessing, just as we are, but if it’s the same writer who added notations to f77r and f116v, it’s possible he had some knowledge of what was in the VMS.

Until we can decode the rest of the text, the purpose and contents of the bucket will remain a mystery and the status of the woman uncertain, but it’s reasonable to think it might be honey, and that’s a more pleasant note to end on than some of the other possibilities.

J.K. Petersen


© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved