There are many “plants” (herbs if you will, although I doubt all them are) in the Voynich Manuscript. Is it worthwhile trying to identify them?
For any identification attempt is a two edged sword that can easily lead us astray.
First off, we have to consider whether
a) the plants are drawn in the traditional sense or
b) are the results of an individual working off their own experience.
or c)…… that they don’t actually have a maning.
then they are being copied from earlier sources, and hence will correspond to the bulk of the literary tradition in Europe. If we assume they are, then there will be many clues that give us access to their identifications as their use will be symbolised. Remember that there are many herbals in existence – most of them, as Don on the mailing list has been discovering, are just copies of earlier or contemporaneous works, following set patterns, even if the individual monastery did add commentaries to the “official” text.
People simply did not want innovation in their herbs – we are talking about medicine here. Without going deeply into the subject, the literary tradition of medicine was institutionalised, it was traditional. Herbals were part of a tradition from the past, based usually on the doctrine of signatures, medicine that was assumed to work, and nobody wanted to be the guinea pig for some quack with new ideas.
Herbals of the age followed the tradition. We obviously cannot know what local doctors (wise women or men, leechs, hedge magicians, call them what you will) knew or thought, for they left no written record, but it seems a safe bet that oral teaching would filter out from the monasteries, communicating their knowledge, and that this knowledge would be passed between villages and medics. We know that the common name for herbs changes drastically from region to region, even village to village in old England, but their essential purpose remains the same.
As an example, the Old English Herbolarium, an AngloSaxon turn of the millennium work, is a herbal written in Old English in the continental style, translating the original continental works. However, most of the herbs depicted are unrecognisable, which lead scholars to assume that the scribes who translated the work didn’t have access to any original illustrations (many of the herbs are, in any case, not native to the British Isles). The assumption was that the scribes had no real life models, and so after several editions of the work had been copied, the original illustrations had morphed unrecognisably. Not so: Voigts in his 1979 work proved that the herbs are depicted in their dried form, the only way that Brits would have had access to them (via trade to central and southern Europe), and far more useful a depiction to them than their fresh form. The scribes had kept the knowledge and power of the authoritative written text, but had changed the illustration to fit their needs.
But the symbolised “clues” are still there. Basilicia, adderwort, a herb assumed to protect against adders continues to have its association with the three snakes and so can be recognised. Adderwort without the snake & basilisk association serves no point!
So if we assume a), we can then go ahead and look for symbolic clues in the Voynich. Let us look at 49r
. A plant with multi colour golden (well, reddish) bulbs and snakes around the roots. Ah ha! It’s Adderwort.
Or is it?
Well, adderwort traditionally has three snakes, not two as depicted in the Voynich. The snakes are usually called Eriseos, Stillatus & Hematites (or Crysofalus) according to Pollington, at least in the old English tradition, with their associated characteristics that give the plant its power (I skip over the details here). So why does the Voynich only have two? And are they really snakes? Where are their fangs, or the vertical stripes showing that these are indeed the poisontooth snakes of antiquity, the adder family?
So the symbology does not help us. Either the symbology is adhered to as per tradition, or it is thrown out of the window and a new schematic is inserted. We cannot pick on one half recognised detail and expand it to the rest of the material without proof.
Let’s consider b).
The Voynich is the work of someone not following the traditional patterns.
Well, in this case, we cannot assume. We must be sure. And how can we be sure if the text is not there to describe what we are seeing?
Ah ha! We think. This is a rose. No, replies the author, it’s a dog rose, or a badly drawn daisy. How dare you think it is a rose.
Ah ha! This is Adderwort. Look at the snakes. No, replies the author, for that is the medicine of the old guard, not the new exciting stuff I am developing and anyway those are worms showing that these flowers grow in the decay of waste, signifying a phoenix like revival from the ashes of our waste. Or whatever.
We cannot match these illustrations to plants, for the simple reason that the genre is just too large.
Yes, it looks like a red onion. But why should it be a red onion? It could be that the author is referring to a specific type of potato… no wait, potatoes came in later. You know what I mean. Maybe a fat carrot or any other tuber of a specific shape.
But there is a further problem with b). The fact that it doesn’t fit in with our accepted understanding of how later medieval medicine would work.
Early / middle medieval thought discarded original thought. Biblical teachings said that the Ancients possessed all knowledge as granted by God, and that human hubris had lead to this information being lost. Therefore, there was no point in poking around thinking up new things for yourself, you had to rely on the teachings of the Ancients.
That’s not to say that people weren’t curious, of course they were. It’s to say that in “formal” discussion and argument, rhetoric based on the arguments of the ancients was standardised and would overturn any original thought, even when the ancient information was clearly wrong. There is a story that Aristotle claimed the honeybee has eight legs, when any fool can see that it only has six – but this was accepted as fact right up until the Renaissance!
Monasteries copied books because they, in some way, transmitted information as revealed by God in the past and it was their duty to do so. They modified the useful bits of them as they went along, but the essential knowledge was protected – it was their duty to protect the holy knowledge of times past, and of course, they believed implicitly in it.
That’s part of the reason Rudolph II was revered by the early European intellectual – he was the original Renaissance patron, hunting out new information. He was living right at the time when new access to information and greater literacy was starting to evolve thought into the Renaissance, but the old regime continued with their medieval mindset elsewhere. His Spanish Uncle for example was most dismissive of his nephew and his intellectual mindset – it wasn’t something that was “done”. The Italian princes had been doing it for years, by the way, but they were never Holy Roman Emperors – Rudolph main-streamed this rather eccentric pasttime.
And look at Paracelsus. He is known now not for any innovation in medicine (his cures were as claptrap as the ones they were replacing) but because he broke with tradition and urged innovation, trial and error, experimentation and actually discarding old knowledge that didn’t lead anywhere. That’s why he was revolutionary. He was the first figure to become famous for such work, in the same way that his contemporaries such as Martin Lucer would become famous for defying the Catholic Church. OK, neither of them was the first to advocate such a movement, but they were the first to actually create movements. Which, I understand, does not imply that the VM cannot have been an earlier attempt, some visionary who realised that medicine was claptrap and attempted to create his own medicine. But this is a circular argument – for since we cannot read the text, we return to the beginning of this argument!
But all this came after the VM, in the middle 16th century.
There is a c).
That the content in the book simply doesn’t lead anywhere. That the illustrator had access to herbals but no understanding (or interest) of medicine or their purpose, and so just used them as a basis for his work as he went along. Which explains why we only have two snakes instead of three, the illustrator was unaware of the significance of three snakes.
No matter which of the three arguments we choose, there isn’t a lot of point in trying to identify the plants in the VM, since we know (after decades of trying) that they aren’t real life representations.
We can build up logical arguments pointing to this plant or the other, but we cannot be sure. We cannot know the true intention of the artist, because we have no textual confirmation. And so far, we have never been able (Prof Bax aside, ah hem) to use a plant ID to identify words.