Category Archives: The Voynich Large Plants

Investigation of the large Voynich plant images.

Auction of Libri Manuscripts

There are some interesting entries in the Catalogue of the extraordinary collection of splendid manuscripts: chiefly upon vellum, in various languages of Europe & the East published by Davy in 1859.

It is an auction catalog compiled by or for M. Guglielmo Libri, who was parting with his enviable library through S. Leigh Sotheby & John Wilkinson, apparently due to ill health. His shelves contained many texts on philosophy and science in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages, as well as books of music and maps. The collection is notable for having a significant number of very old manuscripts (early medieval, Merovingian, and Carolingian).

Herbal Traditions

The following entry is for an herbal manuscript on vellum:

482 HERBARIO, CON FIGURE  4to SÆC. XV. ON PAPER (80 leaves)

Each leaf contains a rude drawing in colours of the Plant described in the opposite page. The work, which seems totally unknown, commences “Dacer el qualle te scrive li vertu de alchune herbe in lo so principio mette in parte de le vertu et proprieta de lartemissio, &c.” For the history of botany this manuscript is invaluable. Ancient manuscript Herbarj in Italian, with drawings, are extremely scarce; one only is mentioned by Marsand, and not a single one is to be found in the immenso Catalogue of the Medicean Library by Baudini.

The “Dacer el qualle…” introduction looks like Catalan to me but I am not familiar with all the dialects in that region. The bibliographic entry, as a whole, provides a peephole into what was known about herbal manuscripts (or, at least, what was known or claimed by this collector in the mid-19th century).

Embellished Characters

Something else of interest among his books is an example of littera elongata (similar to the VMS letters with ascenders). Legal documents often include embellished letters, but they are less common in manuscripts like this, a 12th-century book on astrolabe astronomy, with numerous tables written in Roman numerals. Note, in addition to the elongated characters, there is also a figure-8-style flourished character on the right:

I mentioned a while back on the forum, in connection with the 4 x 17 sequence in the VMS, that the Greek letter delta was sometimes written as a triangle without the baseline (similar to the letter alpha) and noticed there was an example of this variation in Libri’s copy of Pancrati Maryris Officium et Passio (catalog #760), which has text related to numbers added to a fore-leaf written in a pre-Gothic script (possibly close to the time of the creation of the manuscript, which is from the 10th century):

Costumes and Human Figures

The facsimile below is from one of the drawings in Libri’s 15th-century copy of the Hagada Schel Pesach. It provides an unusual glimpse of people in a medieval Hebrew manuscript.

There were prohibitions against illustrating humans, so one usually finds decorative embellishments, bodies with blank faces, or human-animal hybrids, rather than people (see example on the right from the Israel Museum).

In contrast, Libri’s copy is illustrated with naturalistic people (in the Spanish style, according to the auction listing):

The garments and the poses are of interest, and also the way the faces are drawn (particularly the women on the left), as they are somewhat reminiscent of the VMS nymphs, with their rounded facial features and indistinctly drawn jawlines.

Auction catalogs do not always make interesting reading material, but this one is an exception, not only for the quality of the collection, as a whole, but because there are facsimiles of some of the illustrations at the end, and longer descriptions than usual. If you are interested in perusing it, there is a copy here.

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.

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

Daisies and Dusters

A quick glance at VMS Plant 10r reminded me of a daisy (family Asteraceae). It has serrated leaves and the characteristic flower whorl that is common for plants in the daisy family. The illustrator has also taken some pains to emphasize the serrated leaves, which gave me some ideas for the identity of the plant… I thought one possibility might be Senecio alpinus (Alpine ragwort) but… many daisies look the same, and the color of flower petals doesn’t help because the VMS is painted with a limited palette and some of the colors might be symbolic.

More importantly, daisies don’t have big red roots that look like yams or water balloons. For a while, I was at a loss to explain the roots.


Prior Plant IDs

I had a suspicion VMS 10r might be Dittrichia viscosa, a plant common to the Mediterranean that has medicinal uses as an astringent, and a strong fragrance (that not everyone finds agreeable). But, I don’t think the red objects are meant to be noses, so what else could they be?

I hadn’t previously looked up other IDs for this plant. I wasn’t even sure what Sherwood had chosen, so I looked around while I was composing this blog and found Sherwood’s ID of Cichorium pumilum. I’m very familiar with chicory, it grows wild in this area, and 10r doesn’t look like chicory, so I searched again…

This time I found Ellie Velinska’s description of the plant as mountain cornflower (Centaurea montana). Except for the discrepancy in the leaves, I like this ID, because it more closely matches the characteristics of the plant and Velinska gives a plausible explanation for the roots as a mnemonic for an ocular medicinal use but, I think there might be another possibility…

Deeply serrated Dittrichia viscosa leaves, courtesy of Wikipedia and Rickjpelleg.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of time googling plant IDs, so I stopped looking so I could talk about Dittrichia viscosa, also known as false yellow fleabane. It is also called “aromatic inula” for its strong fragrance and resemblance to Helenium (Inula).

I’ve said many times that I believe the VMS illustrator cared about leaf margins and drew them quite accurately for some of the more naturalistic plants. This is unusual compared to traditional herbals where leaf margins are often sloppy or wildly inaccurate. Dittrichia viscosa has very distinctive leaves that are deeply serrated and the VMS seems to convey this.

D. viscosa flowers are typical for plants in the daisy family, a sunny ray of yellow petals and a rayed whorl after the seed-fluff has blown away. This plant is well-known around the Mediterranean, from Provençe, Spain, and Sicily to the Levant, and has long been the subject of folklore. For example, Wiki notes a Catalan saying, “Els raïms són madurs quan floreixen les olivardes.”, the grapes are ripe when the yellow [false] fleabane blooms. Unfortunately, the roots don’t look like grapes, at least not entirely.

Is there another way to explain the roots? I couldn’t think of a reason why Senecio alpinus would be drawn with red water-balloon roots. And if it’s Dittrichia viscosa and they’re not grapes (or eyeballs as Velinska suggested), what else could they be?

[Addendum: One idea I forgot to include when I posted this blog earlier today is that the big red “balloons” might be breasts—lactating glands. Lactuca plants are widespread Eurasian plants named for the milky white sap that oozes from the stems when you break them and Lactuca is part of the daisy family. However, as tempting as this idea is, I wanted to suggest one further possibility…]

Farther Afield

If the VMS were created after the conquest of the Americas, the roots might represent red potatoes, oca (Oxalis), or prickly pears (Opuntia), those mouse-ear-shaped lumps that form on the top of cactus plants. The Nahuatl called them Nopalli, and while their origin is not completely clear, they are thought to have originated in Mexico. Prickly pears are now grown worldwide, and D. viscosa is used like a duster to clean off the pear-like fruit after it is harvested.

Using false fleabane to clean prickly pears, courtesy of Carmelo Rifici.

But the New World theory is problematic. The VMS probably predates Columbus’s voyage to the Americas. Is it possible that the practice of cleaning prickly-pear fruit with daisy dusters comes from a long-standing Mediterranean tradition of cleaning similar-looking crops native to the Old World?

What about red-skinned shallots, which are smooth and fairly oval and have a little bump on the ends? Or radishes or beets? All of these come from the ground and need the dirt dusted off, and even radishes, which originated in Asia, have been grown in Europe since before Roman times. The toothy leaves of false fleabane are well suited for dusting. If the VMS roots are meant to express a characteristic of the plant, maybe the roots are breasts. On the other hand, if they show the use of the plant, maybe Velinska is right, maybe they are eyeballs, or maybe they are tubers that need a daisy-leaf dust-off before dropping them in the cart for market.

J.K. Petersen

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

Leaves with Legs?

The leaves of Plant 51r resemble beetles, but could there be any reason to add a beetle to a section devoted to plants?

It was not unusual for medieval manuscripts to include drawings of reptiles and mammals. Snakes were often drawn alongside plants that had “serpentina” in the name, snakelike roots, or which were believed to cure snake bite. Animals with names similar to plants, like camel and Camelina, were often shown next to one another.

Critters are not uncommon in herbal manuscripts and bestiaries, but they are quite scarce in the plant sections of the VMS. The dragon-like creature that appears to be nibbling on Plant 25v is the exception rather than the norm.

Are There Bugs in the Leaves?

When I first saw Plant 51r, the leaves reminded me of stag beetles, industrious little bugs that use their mandibles like a stag uses its horns, to fight off rivals vying for sexual favors. There are three “legs” on each side, a pair of “mandibles” on the outer end, and a decorative line running down the middle.

The VMS leaves are reminiscent of beetles, with the correct number of legs and rounded “mandibles” like the clawlike choppers of the stag beetle. The illustration on the right is from an early 16th-century French manuscript that includes many plants and insects accurately drawn from life. Were the VMS leaves meant to represent bugs, or is it a plant with bug-like leaves?

I’m not aware of any plants that have points coming off the leaves that are quite as exaggerated as f51v, and the unpainted line running across the middle looks less like a plant vein than most of the other plants. I’m also not aware of any plant leaves with this basic shape that have distinctively different end-leaflets. As mentioned in the previous blog, the entire plant strikes me as more stylized than naturalistic, with a somewhat anthropomorphic pose.

Would there be any reason to include beetle leaves (or other insect leaves) in a section about plants? Pliny the Elder, who was the inspiration for many medieval herbal manuscripts, mentions that stag beetles were called “lucanus” after a region of Italy in which they were used as amulets, much as the rounder, less fearsome-looking scarab beetles were used in Egypt. In the middle ages, the horns of stag beetles were said to be medicinal.

Maybe the VMS leaves aren’t beetles, maybe they are visual references to some other kind of bug. Ants were commonly included in medieval bestiaries and you would never guess they were ants if they weren’t labeled:

The ants on the top left are missing a pair of legs, but are otherwise fairly recognizable [British Library Harley MS 3244] and are somewhat similar to the VMS “beetle” leaves. The ants below them, from the 13th century, look more like centipedes or caterpillars. Those on the right are fearsome ants, drawn like dogs and bears, and it’s only because of the text that we know that they are ants [BL Cotton MS Vitellius A XV]. Another example (not shown) depicts ants as lunging hounds on leashes. Naturalism was apparently not as important as getting the concept across.

Sloane 4016, a manuscript familiar to Voynich researchers that has good drawings compared to many of its predecessors, includes an image of a spider on a web that suggests the illustrator had very little knowledge of spiders or their webs. The spider is missing a pair of legs and looks more like an ant than a spider. One might speculate that it’s a reference to a spider-like insect that was used to create red dyes, rather than an actual spider, except that it’s labeled Aranea which specifically refers to orb-weaving spiders.

Decorative Veins

The leaf dots on Plant 51r are out of character with most of the other plant drawings. Many of the VMS leaves are well drawn, accurately recording leaf margins and veins (note that this is my opinion, not everyone agrees), but this one resembles a zipper-like decorative element from a painting or piece of medieval stumpwork. It’s like the pattern on a rubricated initial or a caterpillar’s back.

Beetles have inspired art for thousands of years and often include decorative elements down the middle of the back. Left, antique pin courtesy of Ten Two Three. Right, jewelry by Court Jeweler House of Bolin, est. 1791.

If the leaf were a reference to ants, it would be hard to explain the line. But beetles have wings under a protective cover and when the two sides are slightly spread, a textural difference emerges.

Jewelers often use this anatomical feature as inspiration for adding a row of precious stones down the center of the back. Given that scarabs and other forms of beetles have been used in jewelry for thousands of years, it would not be surprising to see a decorative element added to the back of something based on a beetle.

Possible Plant IDs

What if the resemblance to a stag beetle is unintentional? Can the VMS plant be identified without resorting to mnemonics or stylistic similarities to non-botanical elements? Are there plants with bug-like leaves with exaggerated leaflets?

There are many plants with irregular, lacinated, or ruffled leaf margins, but I’m not aware of any that look like the leaves of f51r if (this is an important “if”) you narrow them down to plants that have flowers with a bulbous section under the petals, as well.

Plants with Pinwheel Flowers and Beetle-Like Leaves

Perhaps the leaves of rocket (Eruca sativa), or one of its relatives, might qualify. Rocket leaves are similar to dandelion, but more deeply indented and with fewer leaflets. The vein down the middle is a little lighter than the rest of the leaf. It has 4-petaled flowers that look like pinwheels with a slightly bulbous attachment to the stem and a narrow tap root.

Rocket, also known as salad mustard or arugula, is widely used as food and was also a medicinal herb in the middle ages. It’s a Eurasian plant common to the Mediterranean that now grows worldwide. If sufficiently stylized, a rocket leaf might resemble 51r, especially if you consider that deer like to walk along and munch off the ends of the leaves, leaving them concave instead of convex.

Groundsel (Senecio) might qualify, but the leaves are longer, with more indentations, and the flowers don’t look like pinwheels. Silene or Saponaria have the right kind of flowers, but the leaves are lanceolate, not at all beetle-like. I glanced at Edith Sherwood’s ID just now, and she has listed sea rocket (Cakile maritima) as a possible ID, but the leaves are quite a bit longer and more narrow than the VMS plant and I think Dame’s rocket (Eruca) is a closer match than Cakile.

What about sound-based mnemonics? There is a plant called beetle daisy, but it doesn’t look like 51r and it’s from S. Africa. Another called beetleweed with rounded leaves grows in the eastern U.S. Trying to search for plants with the names of insects is almost impossible unless you’re willing to sift through millions of insect pictures to find one or two plant names in each language.


The leaves of Plant 51r may have nothing to do with beetles, but I thought it worth exploring because the morphological resemblance is pretty strong and the more stylized a plant, usually the more likely it is to be associative rather than naturalistic. It isn’t the most exaggerated VMS plant, there are some that are even wilder, but it is pretty animated and that adds to both its mystery and its charm.


J.K. Petersen

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

Things that Make Your Head Spin

Do These Heads Tell Tales?

Some of the Voynich plants have a more naturalistic feel to them, including “viola” and the “water lily”, and some have stylistic differences and less obvious botanical structures that may be mnemonic, or representative of something more than (or something different from) a botanical illustration.

Plant 51v strikes me as more stylized than many of the other plants. The leaves look like beetles, the flowers have alternating colors that remind me of pinwheels (I call them spinnerheads), the roots look like a pair of medieval hose with legs crossed, including the long pointed toes that were all the rage.

Taken as a whole, the composition has a lively dancing feel to it, but I held off writing about it because I didn’t know how to convey this impression in words.

And then I stumbled upon an 11th-century image that conveys the same feeling I get from looking at the VMS plant drawing and it has the added bonus of… alternating flower-like “petals” in the same basic colors as the VMS.

Troubadours and Jongleurs

Medieval peasants and gentry loved entertainment and many of the nobility had live-in musicians, magicians, jugglers, and poets. There were also itinerant storytellers and colorful entertainers who traveled the country in wagons, a tradition that continues today in the modern circus.

This fabulous image is startling in its tropical brightness at a time when natural earth pigments could be quite pale and subdued. The colors fit well with the theme, commemorating those who brighten our day with music and sport. Other folios with musical notation are created in a similar style.

On the left, the musician wears a jaunty two-toned shirt with red collar and cuffs, and plays a double-reed flute (a forerunner to our oboe). Each cheek sports a clown-like spot of red. His fingers are unusually long and gracefully curved, reminiscent of Balinese dancers and elegantly long Buddha fingers. In fact, there’s a gourd named “Buddha’s hand” that looks just like this. The eyes resemble those in Persian paintings that feature almond shapes and long curving eyebrows.To his right is a person of small stature. Dwarves and midgets had limited opportunities for employment in the middle ages, so those with special talents often ended up as entertainers in royal courts. It is said that a gifted poet whose name may be featured on the Bayeau tapestry may have been a dwarf. Like the musician, the juggler has stage-makeup cheeks, very long, eastern-style fingers, and two objects that may be balls or some kind of round object that he is deftly spinning on his fingertips. There is a second folio that repeats this theme and shows the balls high in the air.

Musician and juggle in the Tropaire-Prosaire à l’usage d’Auch, c. 990 to c. 1010, Abbey Saint-Martial de Limoges

It’s tempting to think the manuscript was created by someone from the southern or eastern Mediterranean (or someone influenced by eastern art), but it’s illustrated by the painter of the lectionary of the library of the Abbey of Saint-Martial in Limoges, France, and much of the painter’s work shows Roman influence rather than eastern. The same painter is said to have worked on a large number of manuscripts.

Even the images with Roman themes have very long pointed fingers, mixed with fingers of normal proportions with rounded ends. The large portions of blue pigment in the jongleur images are absent in many of the other drawings, giving these pages a special look and feel.


I don’t have time to look into the Tropaire-Prosaire à l’usage d’Auch in more depth, but I thought Voynich researchers might enjoy the unique style of the image, and the juggling balls that resemble the VMS flowers. I don’t know if the pattern on the balls is meant to be decorative or to simulate the motion of spinning balls, but it’s one of the few examples of alternating orange and light “petals” that I’ve seen so far.

Getting back to the VMS plant, the shape of the plant very much reminds me of a dancer. Whether this is accidental or intentional, I can’t be sure, but if it is intended to be botanical, perhaps the unusual pose has some stylistic or mnemonic significance to the plant.


J.K. Petersen

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

Pigments and Painters

How Many Scribes?

Some time ago, Currier proposed that more than one hand penned the Voynich Manuscript and labeled the pages as to which hand scribed it. I haven’t looked at these designations because I wanted to decide for myself whether more than one hand was present.

After creating my own transcript of the VMS text, and looking at every word in the document, I’m convinced there was more than one scribe and perhaps more than two. The hand at the beginning is a little rounder, the one that follows a little smaller, slightly less round, and shows signs of maybe being a quicker hand. I have more to say about this later, but it brings up questions about whether the VMS was 1) a cooperative project or 2) a situation where someone picked up the work where someone else left off. It is evident that the same systems of composing the glyphs were known by both scribes—there is a high level of consistency between the construction of the VMS word-tokens on the various pages—so perhaps the two main scribes were contemporaries.

How Many Painters?

It’s more difficult to assess whether those who added the text also created the drawings or added the paint, but it is possible to assess the styles to see if they were painted by different hands.

After looking through all of the VMS illustrations, I’m reasonably sure there was more than one person painting the drawings. The easiest way to explain my observations is with visual examples. This is not a comprehensive overview of the drawings (it deals only with the paint), and it doesn’t include examples that might have been painted by a third hand (if such a hand exists), but it’s enough to give a sense of why I believe there was more than one painter.

Some pages are hard to assess. They don’t have enough paint to reveal the style and those with blue pigment are problematic because the blue appears to have been more difficult to mix and apply, making it harder to distinguish any difference in styles, but those with a preponderance of greens and browns, which blended more readily, give some clues as to painting styles.

It’s a large image—you may have to click on it (and click again when it opens) to see the details, such as the brush strokes, and the tips of the leaves:


If the only difference between the two sets of samples were the care and attention with which the paint was applied, it would be hard to know if this were two painters, or one painter having good days and bad days, but the different way the brushstrokes are blended or not blended, the greater propensity for color mixing, and the different color “sensibility” (use of brown for accent and variety) increase the likelihood that more than one person painted the images.

J.K. Petersen

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

When Herbal Traditions Gang Awry          16 Jan 2016

The Mutation of Information

Our Grade 3 teacher wrote something on a piece of paper one day and handed it to the first student at the front of the class and told the student not to show the note to anyone, but to whisper the message to the next student. That student was then directed to whisper it to the next and so on, from mouth to ear, around the room.


Detail of The Whisperer by Gustave Leonhard

We waited in anxious anticipation to find out the secret message. At the end of the chain, the final student repeated the words out loud and we laughed because it didn’t make much sense. When the original note was read out loud, quite a few of us were surprised at how the message had changed.

That was my introduction to how information can mutate, when passed from one person to the next, and I soon realized that drawings and text could undergo signification transformations as well. Like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, the original intent gets blurred and sometimes, as future copyists try to guess what is missing and reinsert it, it takes on a new life in a different form.

Herbal Traditions

Medical papyrus from c. 1600 BCE held in the New York Academy of Medicine

Medical papyrus from c. 1600 BCE held in the New York Academy of Medicine

Medical writings date back more than 4500 years, to a time when only the elite had the knowledge and materials to record them. Due to high levels of illiteracy, much of what medieval westerners knew about herbs had been passed down unchanged from the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Arabs. The words of Pliny, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen were still considered expert knowledge, with little critical analysis, centuries after they had passed away.

The earliest herbal descriptions do not include drawings, other than the occasional sheaf of grain, or an unidentifiable three-leaved plant meant to be symbolic rather than literal. Even when the plant was carefully described in words, those words were often very brief, and later students who studied the written descriptions sometimes misidentified the plants due to their limited understanding of botany or because they lived in regions where plants that looked similar could be entirely different species.

OldestHerbWe’re not sure when the tradition of creating illustrated herbals began but the Egyptian fragment on the right is from a c. 400 BCE herbal papyrus called the Johnson Papyrus. In the 1st century BCE, a physician known as Crateuas/Kratevus may have been a pioneer and it’s thought that his work influenced later illustrated copies of Dioscorides’ work. His name is mentioned in several Latin and French editions on the general history of plants from the 16th and 17th centuries but only a few fragments of his work survive.

The Development of Herbal Traditions

When efforts to illustrate plants became more common, those who drew them were often doctors and apothecaries rather than artists, limited in their drawing skills. To make matters worse, sometimes only the parts with medicinal properties were illustrated, leaving out features that might not be relevant to medicine, but which would have helped identify the plants. On top of this, copyists sometimes misinterpreted the older drawings and changed their features unintentionally.


KohlerCSativusIf we take the example of saffron, which is revered for its golden-orange threads that are used as a dyestuff to color foods such as rice, we can see how herbal tradition can misinform.

The plant that the ancients identified as saffron is a form of crocus, a relative of the iris. The crocus plant, a bulbous harbinger of spring, is found worldwide and comprises almost 100 species. Saffron comes from a specific crocus (Crocus sativus), which may have been deliberately bred thousands of years ago, for its desirable threads.

CSativasNoLeavesThe saffron crocus propagates through divisions of the bulb, and here is where herbal tradition goes awry. At some point, an attempt to document this propagation resulted in a drawing of a bulb that resembles a lily or garlic bulb more than a crocus. It doesn’t accurately illustrate the way crocus bulbs divide, and thus could lead to misidentification of the plant. The leaves are sometimes also represented incorrectly. Various crocus species can be recognized by the shape, width, and length of their leaves in combination with other features. In fact, some species have no leaves at all. If the plant is drawn inaccurately, the wrong species may be harvested. C. sativus has slender leaves yet some of the herbal manuscripts show it with no leaves.

If you consider that the autumn crocus, a toxic plant that looks very similar to spring crocus, is a different species that grows in many of the same areas, you can see why details are important. Except for the protruding threads, the botanical drawing on upper-left resembles certain varieties of autumn crocus (Colchicum speciosum) more than it does Crocus sativus. Worse yet, Colchicum is sometimes called “autumn saffron” or “meadow saffron”, even though it is not the plant that supplies saffron.

Peculiarities and Provenance

From a historian’s point of view, a mistake by the original scribe or illustrator isn’t always a bad thing. Imperfections and peculiarities in plant drawings can sometimes help us chart the provenance of a manuscript. If the drawings are accurate, it’s difficult to know whether they are based on live plants or on previous drawings. When they are inaccurate, especially if several plants in a compendium are inaccurate in the same specific ways, sometimes the quirks can reveal the illustrator’s sources.

Other aspects of the plant, such as the way it is rendered, or the addition of snakes or faces, or its relationship to other elements of the page, can also provide clues as to where the illustrator got his ideas. For example, in the Voynich Manuscript, roots shaped as animals and roots with human faces suggest a familiarity with other herbal manuscripts of the time.

Oddities That May Not Be So Odd

Sometimes eccentricities in herbal drawings are based on superstition, and sometimes they have other explanations. It’s not uncommon for herbal drawings to express similarities to animals. In fact, in the middle ages some people believed that if a plant was shaped like a body part, it was God’s signal that the plant should be used to cure that part of the anatomy. Or, if it resembled an animal, it was meant to attract or deflect that animal or to cure a specific kind of animal bite.

MandrakeThumbThe legend of the mandrake plant, which has a root that resembles the human form, is that it screams when it is uprooted and will harm those who hear the scream. The solution is to tie a dog to the plant, get out of hearing range, and then have the dog pull out the plant by its roots.

DragonThumbIt’s tempting to interpret VMS Plant 25v as a mandrake, with its whorl of basal leaves, but the root isn’t thick enough and the critter nibbling on the leaf looks more like a dragon than a dog. Also, the mandrake doesn’t have parallel veins, and the VM illustrator has clearly illustrated this leaf structure, so it’s not likely that this is intended to be Mandragora—it may be something else related to dragons (or possibly to sheep, since this may be a badly drawn turtle-shell lamb).

Another VMS plant has leaves that look like bird heads. The shape may be symbolic, intentional exaggeration, or perhaps there’s a simpler explanation. There are some plants that curve dramatically in one direction or the other as they dry. Sometimes leaves that hang down may turn upward or the tips of the leaves may rotate in one direction until they resemble the heads of birds. There is an African plant with symmetric leaves that look like birds’ heads when they dry.

Some of the peculiarities in the VMS may be due to tradition or superstition, they certainly appear fantastical in many ways… others may be artistic expressions of natural processes that aren’t so peculiar as they seem at first glance.

J.K. Petersen


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

Large Plants – Folio 96v

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I have a mass of information on the Voynich Manuscript plants on my hard drive (I created the identifications and most of the notes in 2007 and 2008 and rewrote a few of the notes in more readable English in 2011 and then, once again, abandoned the project due to time constraints). I am uploading the notes and linking the pictures as I have time. This is not easy, since I am working long hours but I’ll get the task done when I am able.