by Nicholas Gibbs
enlarged image of the translated text...
For medievalists or anyone with more than a passing interest, the most unusual element of the Voynich manuscript - Beinecke Ms. 408, known to many as "the most mysterious manuscript in the world" - is its handwritten text.
Although several of its symbols (especially the ligatures) are recognizable, adopted for the sake of economy by the medieval scribes, the words formed by its neatly grouped characters do not appear to correspond to any known language.
It was long believed that the text was a form of code - one which repeated attempts by cryptographers and linguists failed to penetrate.
As someone with long experience of interpreting the Latin inscriptions on classical monuments and the tombs and brasses in English parish churches, I recognized in the Voynich script tell-tale signs of an abbreviated Latin format.
But interpretation of such abbreviations depends largely on the context in which they are used. I needed to understand the copious illustrations that accompany the text.
I first came across the Voynich manuscript some fifteen years ago when, as a professional history researcher, I was looking into some of the more bizarre claims by commentators about some of my ancestors - John Florio (1553-1625) and Jane Fromond (1555-1604/5), the wife of Dr John Dee and grand-daughter of Thomas Fromond, the great English herbalist.
I am also a muralist and war artist with an understanding of the workings of picture narration, an advantage I was able to capitalize on for my research.
A chance remark just over three years ago brought me a commission from a television production company to analyze the illustrations of the Voynich manuscript and examine the commentators' theories.
By this time the manuscript had been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century.
One of the more notable aspects of the manuscript were the illustrations on a bathing theme, so it seemed logical to have a look at the bathing practices of the medieval period. It became fairly obvious very early on that I had entered the realms of medieval medicine.
To those who have studied medieval medicine, and possess a good knowledge of its origins, the classical physicians Galen (AD 129-210), Hippocrates (460-370 BC) and Soranus (AD 98-138) among them, the Voynich manuscript's incorporation of,
...side by side will not be surprising.
They are all in tune with contemporary medical treatises, part and parcel of the medieval world of health and healing.
Bathing as a remedy is a time-honored tradition:
The central theme of the Voynich manuscript is just such an activity, and one of its chief characteristics is the presence of naked female figures immersed in some concoction or other.
Classical and medieval medicine had separate divisions devoted to the complaints and diseases of women, mostly but not exclusively in the area of gynaecology, and covered other topics such as hygiene, food, purgatives, bloodletting, fumigations, tonics, tinctures and even cosmetics and perfumes:
On the evidence of previous commentaries, one could be forgiven for thinking that the sole piece of useful information to have emerged from all the research done on the manuscript since 1969 has been its carbon dating (to 1403-38).
But from the point of view of the importance given to bathing, precision carbon dating is not necessary. Medical research into the period one hundred years either side of the carbon date will attain the same basic result.
One of the more celebrated collections of medical doctrine emerged in the twelfth century from the Italian port city of Salerno, a major centre of medical learning. This compilation of medical do's and don'ts is known by its generic name of the Trotula.
I first came across the Trotula in an eighteenth-century printed edition in Latin some years before I began my research on the Voynich manuscript, as I browsed through a private library (I had worked in the book department at Christie's in the 1970s).
The Trotula specializes in the diseases and complaints of women, and encouraged a regime of bathing (among other cures) for a range of maladies; not inconvenient for a city famed for its monastery baths.
The Trotula had many incarnations all over Europe, and was widely adapted right up to the 1700s. Its selected procedures, remedies and cures were filched, on the whole, from the earlier writings of Galen, Hippocrates, Pliny and others, who had been guilty of exactly the same plagiarism in their own time.
The most interesting aspect of certain passages of the Trotula is their remarkable similarity, in the details of subject matter - gynaecology, bloodletting and bathing - to the narrative details in the drawings of the Voynich manuscript; and it dawned on me that the Trotula was quite possibly the model for many of its illustrations.
The Trotula is closely linked to another widely copied manuscript of the medieval period.
De Balneis Puteolanis, which first appeared around 1220, was - unlike the Trotula, which contained blocks of handwritten and partially abbreviated instructions - wonderfully illustrated.
Its theme, unsurprisingly, is the health benefits of bathing, specifically in the volcanic springs and mineral baths of Puzzuoli, an ancient health resort on the Phlegraean fields, a volcanic area not far from Naples.
On close inspection of each illustration (there are digitized copies in several world-renowned libraries), I found that the story-board narrative appeared marginally out of step with the poetic text.
I also noted that several of the details in each illustration of De Balneis Puteolanis recalled scenes from personal anecdotes in the writings of either Galen or Hippocrates:
Several of these are replicated in the Voynich manuscript and without much trouble their descriptions can be tracked down in the Trotula.
The external parts of the body are not the only parts the waters are able to reach in medieval medicine.
The illustrations of De Balneis Puteolanis also extol the virtues of consuming the mineral waters, either straight or as part of a cocktail of processed herbs and plants.
De Materia Medica, a reference book compiled by the Greek physician and early botanist Dioscorides (40-90), was another widely copied and illustrated manuscript.
The work that appears to have attained real popularity, however, and was also copiously copied, was Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus, by the publicity-shy author of the fifth/sixth century.
Its artists represented each plant, with varying degrees of success, and the scribes supplied the text; this gave each plant's attributes, and those of the target illness. Indexes or tableaux were much in evidence.
The text of the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus was well tailored and succinct, and used a standard format generally repeated in each entry:
To match this confident work, the physician Paulus Aegineta, a near contemporary of the mysterious Apuleius, brought out his "own" version of a herbarium.
It contained plant entries termed "simples" on the basis that the medicine and its target illness depended on the attributes of a single plant. Aegineta's work also included a separate reference list with descriptions of diseases, complaints and illnesses shamelessly plagiarized, word for word, from the writings of Galen.
This was accompanied by an impressive array of Galen's compound medicine ingredients, along with the required quantities or measures for the doses, all in conjunction with an overactive desire to bleed the unfortunate patient, in some cases almost to death.
Clothed with indexes, this volume, too, would find a place on the shelves of medieval medical practitioners.
The very same practices are reiterated in passages of the Trotula, and thence in the illustrations of the Voynich manuscript. It goes without saying that "taking the waters" was well represented.
Medicine in the Middle Ages had a superstitious element. Its practitioners truly believed in the influence of the planets, as did those classical physicians who had gone before them.
The position of the Pleiades, the Dog star, and the Arc of Arcturus, along with the most favorable days of the month - known as "the critical days" - were all-important.
Such astrological observations were inextricably bound up with the quest for a successful medicinal outcome. And that quest included bathing...
Less than a century after the carbon date given for Beinecke Ms. 408, a collection of medical treatises in a printed edition hit the streets.
As was customary at that time (1528), it had an impossibly long title:
Incorporated into this edition was a text-only version of Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus.
In the same book, and in support, there was also a treatise from the second century AD, on the twelve "special" herbs, entitled Herbarum Singulorum Signorum Zodiaci Demonstratio, along with an index.
The traditional trademark for Zodiac influence on medical diagnosis came in the form of the Zodiac man, a full-frontal naked figure marked in appropriate regions of the body with Zodiac iconography:
...and so on.
On the other hand each of the twelve special herbs sat under its own Zodiac sign; each listed the stable of illnesses within its sphere of influence; and, where necessary, extra ingredients were also listed.
Today only fragments of this treatise survive in manuscript form from the medieval period.
It is reflected, however, in the illustrated Zodiac wheels of the Voynich manuscript; the additional ingredients can be identified by the trademark patterns on the bathing tubs, a practice of ingredient identification used by many a medieval apothecary on his albarelli (storage jars).
Each Zodiac wheel in the Voynich manuscript is populated by depictions of naked female figures in the classical tradition of either bathing in hip baths or in physical exertions.
(These water tubs receive more than a passing mention both in the various versions of the Trotula and in The Seven Books of Paulus Aegineta. Hip baths are an essential element for many of the cures listed in medieval medicine, ostensibly, and as in the case of the Voynich manuscript, to be combined with solutions of the preordained herbs.)
Each Zodiac wheel is edged with the repetitious and abbreviated letter/ligature groupings that can be found elsewhere in the manuscript.
Curiously, each bemused-looking female figure clasps a floating star by a cord. Wondering what it might represent, I looked at the star iconography used in such profusion in other folios of the manuscript.
The foldout diagram of nine illustrated spheres found in the Voynich manuscript proved the key to understanding it. The Voynich manuscript has been digitized by the Beinecke library, and this allowed me, at maximum magnification, to take a patchwork pencil tracing of the entire sequence of nine spheres.
When I laid out my copy and turned it through 360 degrees, I noticed some interesting perspective properties.
The design, in spite of its Persian influence, is definitely Mediterranean in style and content. The entire diagram can be viewed either as a lozenge shape or like a board of noughts and crosses.
Every detail shown inside each circle or in their immediate connecting pathways - whether tent canopy, water fountain, fortification, cardinal point or wind direction - is depicted in the illustrations of De Balneis Puteolanis and copies of what was eventually to become the highly decorated manuscript Tacuinum Sanitatis (thirteenth century) gleaned from an eleventh-century Arab script, which in turn can be traced to Pliny.
The sources common to all three titles come as no surprise - Galen, Hippocrates and Pliny.
The imagery in one of the Voynich manuscript's nine spheres reveals a hitherto unrecognized medieval sea port. There is no mistaking the fort that guards the harbor approaches, the crescent quay and the lighthouse on the mole at the end of the causeway, all overseen by its citadel.
From an earlier project exclusively focused on the Crusades, I had come across a 1487 manuscript of Conrad Grünenberg's travelogue of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The manuscript was stuffed full of illustrations of medieval sea ports. On revisiting this volume I noticed an image of Rhodes harbour which clearly reflected many of the features of the harbor of the Voynich nine spheres.
Traditionally, water is depicted by a series of swirled or undulating parallel lines. In the Voynich manuscript, the harbor water is represented by star motifs.
This provides a credible explanation for the star motif as a water symbol elsewhere in the manuscript.
The artists engaged in illustrating the Voynich manuscript ranged from the proficient to the downright naive. There appears to have been a different hand for each genre incorporated in it.
The draughtsman responsible for the botany possessed a good sense of depth, while the colorist of the same images was slapdash, not with a brush but with a nib.
The artist of various cylindrical and bulbous vessels had an eye for detail, but absolutely no sense of depth, and in stark contrast to the attached depictions of the root and leaf ingredients; while the artist of the nine spheres appears to have used an optical device.
All the detail and objects depicted in such manuscripts are salient points picked out from a story. Abstract and perhaps unrecognized at first, they can suddenly surprise as a narrative comes into focus.
Artists who illustrate instruction manuals - for that is what the Voynich manuscript is - are naturally economical and only provide detail where necessary. In the Voynich manuscript, the same object - an oversized doughnut with a hole and a carbuncle attached to its side - is proffered by several of the unclothed women.
Its significance only became apparent when, as I was casually leafing through a medical-related book, Ortis Sanitatis (1482), its pages overflowing with woodcuts, I came across the doughnut object depicted as a lodestone (natural magnet).
Passages in the versions of the Trotula, Galen, Hippocrates and Paulus Aegineta advocate a lodestone as part remedy for gynaeocological complaints in the same region of the body as the figures demonstrate in the Voynich manuscript.
Further details emerge from other sources.
The cylinder-churns mentioned above are plainly medieval cooking stoves with inverted boiling vessels.
Once again I was trawling through the woodcuts of two related books of the period when I came across an example of the stove on the title page of Das Buch Zu Distillern (1485), by the surgeon and botanist Hieronyus Brunschwygk (1450-1512).
The square ventilation apertures are clearly visible in both drawings and woodcuts.
The bulbous vessels, meanwhile, whose classical antecedents can be found in the ruins of Pompeii, are clearly early forms of samovar, with firebox used for infusions.
They, too, are accompanied by the same repetitive, neatly grouped letter sequences.
By now, it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is: a reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual.
The script had hitherto proved resistant to interpretation and presented several hurdles. Medieval lettering is notoriously fickle: individual letter variations, styles and combinations are confusing at the best of times.
I recognized at least two of the characters in the Voynich manuscript text as Latin ligatures, Eius and Etiam. Ligatures were developed as scriptorial short-cuts. They are composed of selected letters of a word, which together represent the whole word, not unlike like a monogram.
An ampersand is just such an example.
The design combines the letters "e" "t"; and "et" is the Latin word for "and". On the strength of this I consulted the Lexicon Abbreviaturarum of medieval Latin (1899) by Adriano Cappelli, sometimes referred to as the medievalists' Bible.
Systematic study of every single character in the Lexicon identified further ligatures and abbreviations in the Voynich manuscript and set a precedent.
It became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word and not a letter.
From the herbarium incorporated into the Voynich manuscript a standard pattern of abbreviations and ligatures emerged from each plant entry.
The abbreviations correspond to the standard pattern of words used in the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus:
So the herbarium of the Voynich manuscript must therefore be a series of ("simple") recipe ingredients with the necessary measures.
One other noticeable difference from the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus is that not a single plant name or malady is to be found in the Voynich manuscript.
This was problematic until I realized that not only had the folios of the manuscript been cropped (the images of flowers and roots have been severed and the tops of folios hacked) but, more importantly, the indexes that should have been there were now absent.
Indexes are present in many other similar books: a system of cross-reference for illness, complaints, names of plants and page numbers.
For the sake of brevity, the name of both plant and malaise were superfluous in the text so long as they could be found in the indexes matched with a page number.
Recipes require an index to function in a reference book.
The same recipe format is replicated throughout the manuscript: recipes for bathing solutions, tonics, tinctures, ointments, unguents, purgatives and fragrant fumigations - and not a name in sight.
Not only is the manuscript incomplete, but its folios are in the wrong order - and all for the want of an index.