Voynich plants – fact, fantasy or other?

Apart from a single passing comment by John Tiltman, recorded by d’Imperio and subsequently ignored for the next half-century, there had been only two lines adopted by the ‘voynich community’ to 2008 in approaching the Voynich plant-pictures, viz.

  1. aberrant version of a ‘normal’ Latin herbal.  The idea of the ‘normal’ was rather curiously defined by that further presumption of Latin Christian authorship, so a ‘normal’ herbal was taken as being one created by a Latin author, or at least supervised and controlled by a Latin authority-figure.  Or,
  2. figments of some Latin author’s imagination.  To this was sometimes added an assertion that the supposed ‘author’ was childish, incompetent, mad or deliberately devious.

A century of constant assertions of the one or the other idea have failed to demonstrate either true, or even a reasonable guess as to the original makers’ intentions. Nevertheless,  for one to hold that   neither was true was ever to meet with immediate outrage from the online “community” and to see earnest injunctions to others that they should ‘pay no attention’ to such ideas.

Though one might invite intelligent debate on the basis of evidence and formal argument, the response  (f any) was always personality-based.  One said about the manuscript, ‘this is…’ and any response began “you are…” …’.

Already, by 2010, the mixture of the snide and the savage which an independent opinion might expect to meet had been made very clear indeed –  so much so that I hesitated to share online any more of my research into the plant-pictures. I had to admit that I could find no precedent for my conclusions in any previous Voynich writer’s work.

In the end,  I turned to Nick Pelling  who, regardless of his ‘Voynich’ position, is a trained historian who understands  immediately why one would prefer not to claim one’s ideas wholly and entirely ‘original’.  He  very kindly directed me to that passing comment by Tiltman.  Tiltman’s observation was acute, even if not  entirely right, but he had observed at least the likelihood of a structured composite image.

So then, and with so thin a shield, I went ahead and published a series of severely curtailed summaries of my studies.  Each in the series included material I thought fairly easily apprehended by an intelligent layman and thus most likely to be helpful to the serious linguists and cryptographers,  none of whom could be expected to read on other subjects as widely or deeply as must the iconological analyst.   One of the posts is reproduced further below.

However, there are certain difficulties in republishing just one post of the series in isolation from the rest.  First, there remains the probability of mis-use and distortion of the work, and there is the more important fact that in the original series  each part added to, and was tested against, all that went before and in turn added to the material against which the next must survive testing.  Further, each item’s interpretation had itself been obliged to survive all the objective tests against historical and technical information which one would expect in iconological analysis of a highly problematic or contentious item.  One has to prove that a posited plant was known at a given time, in a given region and that it  had certain demonstrable uses.. and so on.

My posts passed over much of the informing research; my aim was only to provide those working on the written text with information  which –  to the very best of my ability – I had tested to ensure it was reliable.  That proof was indicated, within the series, by the way the limits established by one analysis was shown compatible with the conclusions of another.  Each image had been analysed as it were ‘from scratch’ and not from any theoretical model obtained from analysis of any other.

Re-posting just one of those summary posts, here, is all the more likely to give readers an impression that the conclusions and inferences were more arbitrary and subjective than, in fact, they were.

I should also explain my reason for re-publishing one now.

Though my work offered a third alternative to the two standard approaches which had been maintained since 1921, and which were still maintained until recently, I have noted in recent weeks the  faint tide-line ‘ripple’ which has so often signalled that less-than-honest means by which my work and that of others dissenting from the core-conservative theory is being systematically ‘palimpsested’.

It may be convenient if I begin by summarising the conclusions reached by my research, conducted between 2007-2012, and every post of which was downloaded and kept on file “for future reference” by one or two of the most self-confident among the core-conservatives.

The conclusions.

What I found, overall, was that each image is a composite representing a particular ‘class’ of plant – that is, a perceived “plant-group” – and that the group was not defined arbitrarily nor drawn in an arbitrary manner, but on the contrary with elegance, economy and according to a rational system which applies throughout the great majority of these images.   At the same time the perception of a ‘group’ or ‘class’ has nothing to do with European botanical classifications, even if at times, the two might overlap. After all, the  Musaceae (for example) appear similar to everyone.

Some of the botanical elements are represented in a conventionalised way –   leaf-forms and so forth, but never idiosyncratically and never to be supposed due to some personal flaw in the original makers, nor imagined a result of  personal ‘artistic invention’ nor any lack of skill.

Such formalised or conventionalised elements reflect, rather, the requirement that these images should fulfill two aims:  (i) to make quite clear which plant of a given group  was to be understood as defining the constitent plants’ shared nature and usefulness and (ii)  to have an image include the greatest possible amount of information in the most minimal and condensed form.   To that end, too, certain motifs are included as sort of visual ‘shorthand’, with many being simply customs already employed within  the traditional art of that wider eastern region to which, as I concluded after analysing these images individually, the great majority of the plant-groups and their members belong.

I think it important to emphasise that the elements I describe as ‘visual shorthand’  were perfectly legible to peoples living within the regions where the plants themselves were native and from which they were obtained.  The images are allusive rather than literal, but not intentionally deceptive. Quite the opposite – their clarity and economy is remarkable. They are are simply not a product of European culture.

In all but a very few cases, the reader can rely on an image accurately depicting the type (if not always the form) of a leaf, the way it attaches to the stem, the habitat and the chief member’s habit. Usually all are of similar habit as ‘vines’ or ‘trees’ etc.

What occupies the position where we might expect to see roots – and I do not believe the  very oldest version showed  roots at all  – one finds a purely mnemonic device, summarising the  group’s common practical uses and economic value. Thus, if one member in a group is unobtainable in a particular place or time of year, the image serves as ready key to those with equivalent value and usefulness.  I find no overt reference to medicine, though this may be treated in the accompanying text.

The idea of ‘root mnemonics’ was later taken up – and indeed that of  mnemonics in a general way – but only the ‘idea’ and that poorly understood or studied by those who adopted the word as ‘an idea’.

When I began to publish the summaries (in 2008-11) it was still necessary to explain the meaning of the word ‘mnemonic’ for the online ‘voynich community’ – there were the usual reactions of snorts and sneers (allowing the sneerer time to learn the word’s definition) and thereafter retrospective efforts to suggest that “the idea” was nothing new”.   Despite the efforts I made to encourage ‘the community’ to learn something about how mnemonic devices were constructed in a world before printed books and general literacy – doing all but begging them to read Carruthers’ landmark studies cover-to-cover, most seemed to think   they could understand the historical issue without resort to reading anything other than the conservative’s “bible” (d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma).    Finding there  only  Frances Yates’ study mentioned, together with a reference to Ramon Lull’s “combinatorial” stystem, we then saw efforts to apply those ideas to the Voynich plant pictures, thus at once co-opting and distorting the vital point as well as the name and work of the researcher who had introduced the matter in Voynich studies.

Neither of the sources known to d’Imperio has the slightest relevance for understanding the Voynich root-mnemonics; the period Yates covers is far too late and  the Renaissance ‘theatre of memory’ has no bearing, while Ramon Lull’s method is again of a wholly different type, being informed by that idea -common to some medieval religious  – that people may be logicked into religious conversion.

Even Augustine knew that trying to reason with people about ideas which they have not adopted from reason, but faith, is all but useless.  It is a lesson amply demonstrated by the case of Nachmanides and the Disputation of Barcelona.

One can only do so much.

But this is why, in Voynich writings today, you may see the word ‘mnemonic’ used fairly often, but in anachronistic ways, as if it meant ‘doodles’ or a writer’s “memo to self” and serving less to explicate any image than as a way to assign arbitrary meaning to one element or another in the picture.

I find it astonishing that the majority of Eurocentrics in Voynich studies prefer to treat their theory as if it, rather than the primary evidence, were the touchstone  by which to determine the truth of information and commentary.

I should emphasise, here, that I do not say that the Voynich manuscript was inscribed or the text-block bound east of Suez.  It is not impossible, but the evidence is that the content had come west and that what we have now is a copy made and bound somewhere in the greater Mediterranean where Latins and/or Armenian binding-style was employed.

What I do say is that a majority of the manuscript’s images evince pre-Christian origin and a distinctly – definable –  non-Latin overlay.

It may then seem paradoxical, though it is true, that much in the plant-pictures led to think  that the earlier makers had a distant and, I think, inherited model in some work of the Theophrastan type.   While treating chiefly of eastern plants, the images also show an apparent effort made to relate the non-Mediterranean plant-groups to some originally Mediterranean system of classification. I have described it as ‘Theophrastan’ because the classification scheme relies not at all upon the flower, but chiefly upon the leaf, and then on habit and habitat.

[note – I had already mentioned, in an earlier post in the series, that the Theophrastan view of ‘flowers’ as transient leaves, and the ‘flower’ as merely a phase of the fruit’s development is another constant. It is so again in the example below which is why I’ve put the word  ‘flowers’ in quotation marks – note added 26th Jan 2020]

To the post which I re-produce  below I’ve added a few phrases to compensate for its separation from the series and, for the same reason, have slightly re-ordered the paragraphs.  Otherwise, it is as it was first published and I have altered nothing of the brief analytical, historical and technical notes. These are all just as published, including all the  links  – whether or not they still work.

My reason for re-printing an old post now is that recent writings by certain ‘tide-line’ (rather than ‘core’) traditionalists suggest that there is, yet again, an effort being made to incorporate the results of a dissenter’s work into the traditionalists’ theory-narratives.  Past experience has shown that the distortion (and palimpset-ing) of the original research to achieve that aim does no service to the manuscript or to those more interested in it than in century-old ideas and theories maintained, in the main, since 1921.

The process has been observed at work for many years, and is perfectly described by Pelling as early as 2011 in another, if also Voynich-related context.  He wrote:

I knew at the time [certain persons] weren’t ‘playing fair’, but it was only [later] that I realised quite how unfair that actually was. It wasn’t even that they were ignoring me, but rather that they gave every impression of trying to re-create my results by other means so as to avoid having to credit (or even name-check) me.

Since then one has observed a further refinement in this type of plagiarism – the results of a dissenter’s work is presented as an unattributed “idea” to some newcomer or ‘tide-line’ researcher, with the suggestion that they ‘investigate’ or ‘explore’ it… or the ‘idea’ begins to be asserted as if it were general knowledge.   To objections from the researcher whose work is thus misused, the response soon comes that one is attempting to leap upon this “bandwagon”.  Disenchantment with such tactics soon sees the most intelligent, and certainly the most ethical, fall silent or abandon the public arenas and with them goes remembrance of where these ‘ideas’ were first obtained.

Two recent items, in particular, are suggestive of this transmission to innocents on the ‘tide-line’.

Since the point at issue is this phenomenon in general, and not personalities, I’ll quote only two paragraphs from the first example, so as to illustrate the difficulties experienced by those attempting to apply an ‘idea’ of that sort within the fixed assumptions of a Eurocentric theory.    There is no need to mention the name of the person who wrote this in a comment to Pelling’s blog;  it is not the only example, nor he the only person to begin writing in this way.  Note how the first paragraph depends on the traditionalists’ assumption of literalism, while the second requires adopting assumptions diametrically opposed to them.

…”You need all the basic parts of the plant to make an ID. There are tens of thousands of plants that have almost every characteristic in common except for one single thing that distinguishes them from the others. ..

..,And, as I mentioned in the earlier comment, it’s possible that some of the plant parts are mnemonic in one case and literal in another, in which case even if it is the same plant, the drawings in the two different sections are not going to match.

 In Ponzi’s article of December 22nd – and I regret not being able to omit his name, too – there seems to be another indication of attempting to reconcile two inherently opposed views of the manuscript.   It is a pity that Ponzi’s association with Voynicheros should inform a sub-text to his laudable aim of translating Trinity MS O/2/48, but there you are.

I can find no other reason for his use of such loaded terms as ‘combinatorial’ and ‘assembled’ while presenting an idea that the whole of the Trinity manuscript can be imagined the work of some single Sicilian Latin ‘author’ and further imagining that – rather than the work’s having been illustrated by an ingenious  draughtsman of limited artistic vocabulary – he should have this imagined ‘author’  responsible for everything and, further,  to have had an influence far broader than can be reasonably argued from the historical evidence or the internal evidence provided by the Trinity material.   Ponzi’s final sentences read, at first, as a reasonable  summary of his own observations … until we reach its  final and rather extraordinary sentence:

These examples illustrate the combinatorial nature of a large part of the Trinity herbal, where hundreds of different plant drawings are assembled with only a few shapes for leaves, flowers, fruits and roots. One can guess that the illustrations were created on the basis of the text by someone who had never seen the plants discussed here. Also, by describing roots as scorpion-like or flowers as similar to priest heads, the author of the text promoted the creation of interesting hybrids.

Exactly what Ponzi means here by ‘hybrids’ is not defined, but  the reader acquainted with Beinecke MS 408 is clearly invited to draw parallels between these plant-pictures and those.  ‘Hybrid’ thus invokes the idea of the composite and, at the same time, of the mnemonic and Ponzi’s vagueness is not least responsible.

It is true that details of  his  ‘scorpion’ sort do occur in Latin herbals, but while they can be said to serve as memory-aids they are not ‘mnemonic images’ of any similar sort to those in the Beinecke manuscript.  Such motifs in a Latin herbal connect in a very simple way to the look of the plant, to its folk-name and/or European legends about it, often specifically Christian motifs. Otherwise, they may provide a simple one-to-one link to use in a herbal remedy. They are ornaments, not visual texts.

The Voynich plant-pictures’ mnemonic elements speak of a very different mentality.


fol 16r : Dye and Fibre – PHILIPPINES

The group’s defining element – the leaf – is that employed elsewhere to denote hemp, and the form given the roots (as mnemonic element) indicates use as a fibre. This, then, defines the value and uses for this grouping.

The ‘roots’ are drawn on fol. 16r to show precisely the appearance of that thick, and slightly hairy finish which is characteristic of coarse hemp cloth whose interchangeable eastern counterpart is known as abaca.  Their equivalence in value and practical use is embodied in what is still the latter’s usual description even in Europe,  viz. ‘manila hemp’.  (The material is illustrated.)

[added note 26th Jan. 2020] The appearance of these rolls of hemp or abaca fabric are similar to those of ‘hessian’ as illustrated here.]

Since, as we have already seen, another folio in this section of the manuscript is primarily focused  on hemp (C. sativa – also a native plant in  the east, and to as far as China), I’ll dispense with that member of the group and treat the other, and equivalent, eastern plant.  Manila hemp is obtained from fibres of  Musa textilis.

This next link has a technical description of the fibre, together with its various known uses – which could also include certain grades of paper – a use for which hemp-fibre was also put, as was emphasised in that other folio earlier discussed.

The theme of the image on folio 16r is, as indicated by the root mnemonic, cloth and fabric  rather than writing materials.  Both hemp and ‘Manila’ hemp are so used, but where hemp-plants are macerated whole, Manila hemp ‘leaves’ are stripped off from the ‘trunk’ and this, as in the case of the ‘musa group’ [another already treated in detail] is indicated, again by the same cue, in folio 16r –  the trunk/stem is shown as white and bared of its ‘bark’.

Rope and rough cloth

In both cases,  these plants [i.e. Cannabis sativa and Musa textilis] were ones whose fibres were sought by mariners –  for ropes and matting, as well as for some types of cloth, and not least because these two only were particularly resistant to strain in combination with the effects of salt-water. Of the two, the fibre from cannabis was less durable, and so a custom arose among Europeans of coating hemp-ropes with tar.

Their closely equivalent uses and value saw description of abaca rope  as ‘the hemp of Manila’ by later Europeans, and it is near the Philippines – adjacent to the spice islands – that M.textilis was found in plenty.

As with all the other examples so far treated (in that series of posts), flowers are only included in these composite images when they have a specific and independent commercial value – a marked difference from the Dioscoridan (and thus the Latins’)  tradition.

In this case the ‘flowers’ are not those of the hemp  nor of the Abaca (Musa textilis), but in both cases apply to the flowers of plants found naturally in proximity with each and employed in commercial uses for each – as  I’ll explain further below.

M. textilis has always been a cultivated plant, just as the circumscription line indicates here,  [and, as had been already shown repeatedly]  it does consistently in these Voynich plant pictures. This, of course, is further indication that C.sativa is neither the only, subject of this image.

(This watercolour of M. textilis from Sefton Park shows just how the leaf of such plants become ‘tattered’ as they age).

The last function in common, and which renders the two  effectively equivalent as far as the trader and user was concerned, might be extended to the Asian mulberries which also provided fibre used in making making paper – that technology and method being well demonstrated here).

Fol. 16r also includes a  cutting across the bole which, as usual in these images, signifies that one or more of this group provides a useful timber, but smaller than in cases where we, today, might term the plant a ‘timber tree’ today. I take it that use of M.textilis‘ leaves and stalk as roofing ‘shingles’ was thought by the maker to deserve additional description of it as a ‘small-t‘ timber plant (so to speak).

M. textilis has an upright habit, and the group is so depicted in this image from folio 16r.  The stalk is white as it was with the Ensete-‘banana’ group , and again the sense conveyed is that the outer layer must  be removed to obtain this  bast-fibre – D].  As with those of the  ‘ensete-‘ group so again with Musa textilis –  since plants of the banana family show no  clear distinction between  ‘leaf’  ‘stalk’ and  ‘stem’.

I can find no evidence for the the core and/or stalks of M. textilis  having been eaten or  used in traditional medicine before the 15thC.


Maintaining the equivalence indicated by the form given the root-mnemonic and leaf, are these  ‘berries’  – which are of a type found on plants  occurring naturally in proximity to  each of the the principles.  Just as hemp (C.sativa) was often found near, and used with e.g.  Sumac (sumach)  Rhus coriaria  to dye its cloth so abaca  occurs naturally in proximity to   the dye-yielding   Mallotus Philipinensis.  Here again, too – considering what matter may be in the accompanying written text – I note  that some eastern ‘mulberrry’ plants were used as dyes including e.g. Morinda bracteata, Mordinda tinctoria, and/or Mordinda citrifolia – though caution is in order since these three are very commonly confused for one another, even today.


Information about indigenous peoples’ use of plants is not always easily available, since documenting such information is now increasingly less a matter for scholars than for companies interested in new fields of economic endeavour. However, an abstract published online in 2008 notes that:

three important traditional dye-plants among  traditional people of the Phillipines are,  ” … nino (Morinda bracteata Roxb.),  kinarum (Diospyros pauciflora C.N. Rob.) and dilau (Curcuma longa L.)… [which] were used for dyeing abaca [M. textilis] fibers and related materials.


One commonly finds  dye-plants also figure in regional medicine, and such is  true again for a number mentioned above.   See e.g. this site on Indian medicine, where both Mallotus Philipensis and Morinda tinctoria (sic) are pictured. Use of hemp and sumac in medicine are well documented.

In sum: Yet again, this image from among the Voynich manuscript’s plant=pictures strongly suggests on-site mercantile and practical exchange and needs (including those of caravans, ships and crews) and that economic uses and value were the  primary interest of the persons who formed, maintained and used these images. It should also be noted that textiles formed the single largest commodity-group traded within and beyond the eastern seas from ancient to later medieval times.  Economic historians are well aware of the same being true of the greater Mediterranean but (perhaps because considered ‘feminine’) it has been often overlooked by the popular literature.  Textiles, their technology and techniques, as well as alum and dyes – including the terms used – are all substantial subjects, worthy of study.

Postscript (Jan 24th., 2020).  Readers interested in the question of hemp versus ‘marijuana’ see

G. Piluzza, et.al.,  ‘Differentiation between fiber and drug types of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) from a collection of wild and domesticated accessions’. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution,  Vol. 60 (2013) October Paper no. 1007. (online journal. Article available through Researchgate).



6 thoughts on “Voynich plants – fact, fantasy or other?

  1. J.K. Petersen says:

    I don’t know if mentioning an “original” date is of much use, since you obviously didn’t discuss Marco Ponzi’s translations of the Trinity herbal in 2011. His posts on this subject are recent. My comments about plants made in response to Mark K. are also recent.

    In other words, your blog is a mixture of information you MIGHT have published in 2011 (we have no way to verify this) and new information.

    That wouldn’t matter except that you keep begging for others to cite your work as a precedent, while confusing the issue by blending new information with old information that cannot be seen and thus cannot be cited. Why not just open up the original post?

    • D.N. O'Donovan says:

      You really don’t understand what citing sources and precedents is about. You’re thinking by analogy with a money-tree; you should be thinking in terms of the knowledge-tree or, for example, the genealogical chart. You sometimes admit that your ideas have siblings, but never legitimate parentage.

      My work was open to public readers from 2009-2017. You read some of it yourself, as you well know.

      Do you think that everyone else, among the tens of thousands who also read it, are now dead? Now, for why it was removed, go to voynich.nu and name-search me. Then look up one of the various original contributions to this study introduced from within that research put online between 2009-2017 e.g. ‘map’.

      Now this is a seriously meant and kindly advice: you would do well to spend much more time learning and much more time musing about the difference between what you think, and what you actually *know*.

  2. D.N. O'Donovan says:

    JKP – I should thank you for providing my readers with an fine example of how ‘memes’ invented from nothing more solid than malice, are used maintain conformity of thought. It is basic social psychology that persons willing to parrot slogans (”memes’) without further mental process are the type who place most priority on acceptance by a the ‘gang’.

    Among the many interesting studies of such behaviour, the question which always arises is why normally decent people behave badly. This was well explained by one author, recounting his interviews with gangs in Rwanda and elsewhere.

    One fellow whom he interviewed, had taken part in the savage public bashing and abuse of an old woman. Asked if it hadn’t occurred to him to refuse to take part – if he stopped to think that what he was doing was wrong the lad replied that, in the mood of the gang, he felt it would be ‘wrong’ not to join in.

  3. J.K. Petersen says:

    Diane, I have never bashed you. I do sometimes debate your research and I do frequently disagree with your theories.

    You are the one who makes it personal. You have numerous blogs that are heavily laced with snide attacks and editorial opinion, you twist subjects, and have held me up as an example a number of times on blogs that you obviously scan-read rather than reading what I actually had to say.

    You also continually berate me for not citing you even though you KNOW I have not seen your early blogs, the ones that are not currently available.

    As I keep pointing out, researchers cannot cite what they cannot see. Why not re-post them in their original form? If you WANT the credit you have to make the research available. If you don’t want to make the research available then stop harassing people to give you credit.

    • D.N. O'Donovan says:

      JKP – so long as your comments relate to the manuscript Beinecke MS 408, to the general state of Voynich studies, or offer informed debate about some particular item, your comments will be welcome.

      From now on, comments which begin by attacking my character, qualifications, motivation and other off-centre matters, I will edit, or decline to publish. This will apply to all comments – not just your comments.

      This rule I’ve decided to apply after ten years’ of enduring and observing such ‘deterrents’ employed by certain Voynicheros, whose number appears to increase rather than reduce.

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