Trinity College MS O.2.48 and Marco Ponzi’s translation (#2).

I have long admired Marco Ponzi’s skill in interpreting and translating  Latin texts, which is why his latest article in Viridis Green (22 December), provoked both depression and indignation in present reader.  Depression because Ponzi seems to be slipping into habits not just formally ‘amateur’ but actually ‘amateurish’.

He begins by announcing as if he were repeating  fact, a date-range for the manuscript which is wrong; then adding an attribution at odds again with the Trinity Library catalogue.  Since Ponzi offers the reader nothing to explain or prove good grounds for this divergence, the implication that a reader must ‘believe or else’ is an immediate stimulus to indignation.

His bald assertions, presented as if statements of fact, constitute errors either of fact or of method.   One does not merely ‘assert’ – without reason given – something obviously contrary to the holding library’s description.

How any Latinist of Ponzi’s  calibre could make ‘bloomers’ of this sort I cannot think, unless he has been infected with ”Voynich-virus’.

The Trinity College catalogue dates MS O.2.48 plainly enough “fourteenth century”.

It is true that Montague Rhodes James found attribution a knotty problem, and despite having a number of historians and specialists to call upon.  In the end, and to make quite clear that the question couldn’t be resolved, James took the unusual, but entirely ethical. course of using the first person singular.  He wrote “I think the manuscript is German.”

The first person of whom I know, who arbitrarily altered the manuscript’s date  to fit better some flight of personal imagination, and who also had the temerity to do so without troubling to argue the case was  Minta Collins.  Her book is badly-flawed for many more reasons than this, and while it is still a nice coffee-table book, it was not well regarded then by scholars and now, twenty years later, occurs only in an occasional footnote.

Except within the closed world of the online ‘Voynich community’.

  • Minta Collins, Herbal Manuscripts: the Illustrative Traditions (2000).

Here’s the passage where Collins, in historical-fictional mode, draws the Trinity manuscript into her narrative.   Her ‘wilfridisms’ are ringed in red.

A meticulous, and devastating review by Alain Touwaide in 2004, left no ripple on the waters of the conservative Voynich pond.  Indeed,  winds of change are often met, immediately, with kindly injunctions that other Voynicheros should  ‘pay no attention’ – a position which might explain why Collins’ book is still touted in that small world as a sort of final guide to plant-books.

The last paragraph from Touwaide’s review:

To sum up: Medieval Herbals does not fulfill its promises and falls short of the expectations it ambitiously raises. Moreover, the combination of lacunas and mistakes in the information and the inappropriateness of Collins’s method generates misleading conclusions, particularly on the mechanisms of the creation and diffusion of herbals.  Nonexpert readers will probably be favorably impressed by the book because of its lavish illustrations, the quality of its presentation, and the renown of the series in which it appears. They will not be aware, however, that Medieval Herbals... reinforces the defects of the earlier literature that it criticizes, introduces many mistakes, and in the end provokes more confusion and presents more misleading information than it corrects.

  •  Alain Touwaide  in  Isis , Vol. 95, No. 4 (December 2004), pp. 695-697.

Collins added an arbitrary half-century to suit her theory, and announced it as if it were fact within her own ‘List of manuscripts consulted’.  However she did  accept James’ proposal of  a German provenance for Trinity MS O.2.48, so Ponzi’s adding a full century, and an arbitrary assignment to ‘probably’ southern Italy can’t be laid entirely at Collins’ door.

Whatever the causes,  Ponzi’s assertions about date and place for Trinity MS O.2.48 give one no reason for thinking the Trinity Library Catalogue entry must be revised.

Ponzi’s surprising lack of engagement with the ostensible subject of his study, is maintained when it comes to  the ‘plant names’.


Ponzi notes the interesting point that in Trinity MS O.2.48, entries follow a more or less set format, beginning from the plant’s name in an unusual suite of languages, viz.    ‘common name’, Hebrew, and Greek names’.

But instead of doing as any researcher and translator will normally do, whose subject of study is a work of this kind, Ponzi dismisses this vital matter altogether.  He writes:

Until now, I have been unable to make much sense of these names. One would expect the common names to be Latin or Italian, but they are not. The Greek names do not look like Greek either. I know too little of Hebrew to say anything about these names, but I suspect they are problematic as well.

And that’s all.

Now,  in the first edition of this post of mine, I had spoken at some length of how inappropriate it was to pass over the vital matter of ‘plant names’ in a given manuscript.  To this, Koen Gheuens responded, saying among other things:

…Each plant is given a location where it is found, and a “name” in some language presumed common. It [the ‘common name’] is not Latin, nor does it look like any other real language. Then for each plant, the name is also given in Greek and Hebrew. No other languages, always those two (three if you count common).  Taken as a whole, the names cannot be recognized as Greek or Hebrew….

I had also mentioned, citing the example of SImon of Genoa’s lexicon and essays in a book of 2013, edited by Barbara Zipser, that a ‘common name’ may well be the name by which a plant is commonly known within the region to which it is native.

On this second matter, Koen’s comment said:

It’s also absurd that for each plant, no matter where in the world it is from, these three languages are known and provided, while no other language is deemed necessary. This is entirely opposed to what we’d expect in practice.

In short, I don’t think Marco deserves criticism on this point.

One of the nicest things about comments made by Gheuens is that he recognises the difference between a person’s objective and subjective criticisms.   He says ‘I don’t think Marco deserves criticism on this point’ and not – as a less intelligent person might – ‘I don’t think you should criticise Marco’.

All the same, Marco’s post betrays a lack of concentration on the ostensible subject of his study, and by comparison with the way in which so many other texts of this sort (eastern or western) are being studied, and have been studied over the past two decades, his indifference to what is a chief focus of such studies does represent a criticism.  Not because he failed to get results but because he failed to set about seriously seeking answers.

Koen also kindly referred me to a spread-sheet prepared (as I understand) not by Ponzi but by a helpful group of ‘Voynicheros’.  Here’s the link:

And in case it is taken down.. what it shows is a list of 52 plants, described as of Alexandria (1); Arabia (15); Arabia Cappadocia (2); Arabia Sicily (1); Barbaria (1); Cappadocia (7); Cappadocia Alexandria (1); Cilicia (1); India (3); India Cappadocia (2); India Maior (6); India Minor (9); Syria (1); Syria advene (1); Tunis Alexandria Arabia (1).

After looking down the list (and with memory of my own research, and conclusions, about the Voynich plant-pictures in mind), I responded pretty much immediately…

When you look at the regions from which the plants come (according to your linked spreadsheet) then it seems pretty obvious we’re looking at trade-routes and -hubs through which these plants as goods were traded. India and Arabia, Cappadocia Syria and Alexandria. [map below added Jan. 3rd., 2010 – just to give an idea of the distributions.]

So why shouldn’t the ‘common names’ be local to those areas? If the first compilation has been done in, say, Cappadocia, the common names might even be Armenian or a Turkic dialect. Since most of those routes went though Arabic lands, the terms called ‘Greek’ might mean any Christian community, but particularly the Syriac-speakers. As for the word given as ‘Hebrew’ it might mean, rather, ‘a language of the Jews’ including Karaite and Yemeni dialects, for example. The Jews weren’t monolingual, and didn’t only use the terms of Biblical (classical) Hebrew.

In fact, in that latest post [by Ponzi], the word which follows that class [Hebrew] coincides with a poor-Latin form meaning ’empty’ or useless. Is that what happened, perhaps?

Is the Latin ‘scribe’ actually saying that the Jewish sources from which he worked didn’t include a use for this plant of ‘Arabia and Medina?’ or said it wasn’t much use?

These are questions which the first serious translation of a medieval manuscript [i.e. Trinity MS O.2.48]  is expected to address and try to resolve by solid research ..

What I found most depressing about Ponzi’s post is that he adopts the classic ‘Voynichero’  habit of asserting his own imaginative ideas as if they were facts, then coming to believe them to be fact, comes to re-work all that comes subsequently to light so that it ‘fits’ the self-created narrative.  As Collins did. As some Voynicheros do habitually.  In the extreme, the ‘theory’ comes to be imagined the measure of what is true, and not any balance of evidence of compatibility with the wider world of scholarship.

True, this was long the typical approach taken by the old-style conservative Voynicheros, but it’s a very, very bad model to adopt now if Ponzi hoped to be (as I certainly hoped he would) the author of the first scholarly edition and translation of  Trinity MS O.2.48.

A Phantom ‘Italian author’.

As to  the path along which Ponzi’s phantom ‘Italian author’ leads him… well, see his post for yourself – if Ponzi doesn’t exercise the ‘Viridis Green’ option of  blocking access to any post, or  any individual, at any time, ad.lib.

Sources listed in the first and much longer edition of this post (D.O’D.)

  • Barbara Zipser (ed.), Simon of Genoa’s Medical Lexicon (2013)
  • Wallis Budge, ‘Syriac Book of Medicines’ – now online in the original Syriac (vol. 1) and in English translation (Vol.2)?
  • Ibn Baklarish

from Siam Bhayro, ‘Simon of Genoa as an Arabist’ in Zipser (op.cit.) p.61 n.39.

  • Paula de Vos, ‘Pharmacopoeias and the Textual Tradition in Galenic Pharmacy’ [pdf]
  • Gerrit Bos,. Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tove Ben Isaac of Tortosa, Sefer Ha-Shimmush, Book 29 Part 1. Études sur le judaïsme médiéval. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011.
  • D. N. O’Donovan  – post published at voynichimagery, July 15th., 2013.

Postscript (Jan. 1st., 2020) – since I’ve mentioned this to Koen, I felt I should also share it with my readers – viz. that the relative concentration of the plants in Arabia and ‘India’ (-maior et -minor), when combined with the relatively heavy concentration in Cappadocia suggests a focus on some place – such as Soqotra, for example – which served as a major hub of the medieval east-west trade.

Jan.2nd. –  self-censored to remove irrelevancies.

2 thoughts on “Trinity College MS O.2.48 and Marco Ponzi’s translation (#2).

  1. D.N. O'Donovan says:

    A source fairly well known but worth mentioning here is the website of Gernot Katzer, where the names for various spices (117 of them) are given in many languages.

    In the present context, Katzer’s “Geographic Index” is probably a good place to start, although I suspect that if the ‘common name’ were an Arabian dialect, it might well be Mahri – now almost extinct but once a language spoken in Socotra, -in ancient and medieval times a major centre of the Arabia-India spice trade.

  2. D.N. O'Donovan says:

    A reader has queried my relating Cappadocia to the India-Arabia trade route and its centres of trade.
    This map shows the points of connection which existed between western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean’s trade ports and -hubs in 1200.

    Political events thereafter saw (1) loss of most centres of the eastern Mediterranean to Europeans post 1290s and at the same time (2) a shifting of the routes most often used towards the north-west. There, thanks to good relations with Constantinople and workable relations with the Mongols, Genoa established new centres around the Black sea when then became for a time (in the words of one historian) the ‘turntable’ of trade into the western end of the Mediterranean. Before that time, spices might be bought in Damascus, or Aleppo, or in the Crusader cities and Ayas (Laiazzo) but after the 1290s these centres were increasingly denied to the Latins. That’s a potted history, the reality being (as always) less simple, but it explains why Cappadocia took on greater importance.

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