By Cassandra Contreras
The 16th century was known as the century of great herbals when the dedicated study of herbalism flourished. This allowed for many books to be created based on fieldwork and scientific fact. At around 1507, a German physician and botanist, Leonhart Fuchs, began his greatest work, unbeknownst at the time, that would take 35 years to make and it would make him known as “The Third of the German Fathers of Botany (Glasgow, 2002).” During his 35-year span of research, he studied about 497 plants, jotting down their uses, descriptions, and medicinal purposes as well as borrowing research from previous herbals. During this time, Fuchs also grew all of these plants in his own garden, which allowed him to first-hand observe them. This let him create the most accurate drawings of these plants that anyone had ever seen before. Before his first-hand observation, a lot of illustrations of plants in herbals were inaccurate due to people using the same images for various plants or mislabeling them since a lot of people had never actually seen them.
In 1542, Fuchs research was published in Basel, Switzerland by Michael Isingrin as the Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants). An herbal of 896 pages which contained over 511 woodcut illustrations that were illustrated by Albercht Meyer, the illustrations were transferred to woodblocks by Heinrich Füllmaurer, and they were cut and printed by Rudolph Speckle. The book was first published in Latin and Greek, but it was quickly published to German. “During Fuchs' lifetime, the herbal and its various abridgments went through 39 printings in Latin, German, French, Spanish, and Dutch (Stanford University Press, n.d).” It wasn’t until 20 years after he died that it was finally published in English. All of the plants in all editions are organized alphabetically by their Greek names.
This book brought a lot of firsts for its time. It became known as the best-illustrated book of all time by the Stanford University Press, it is regarded as the most beautiful of all printed herbals, and it is the most accurate for identification purposes. It is the very first book to ever publish about plants from the Americas like pumpkin, maize, marigold, potatoes, tobacco, and chili peppers were described for the first time in this book. It is also the very first book to illustrate over 100 species of plants for the first time and the first to include portraits of both the author and the illustrators. Later on, a smaller pocket-sized version of this book was created to improve on the identification of plants out in the field.
As of today, there are only 150 surviving copies, where 54 of them are hand-colored copies of the first edition and 2 of them are a handsome boxed set. The last recorded book to be sold was in 1997 and it was sold for $17,000. Both the University of Cambridge’s Digital Library and the Smithsonian Library provide a digital copy of this book to the public. These digital copies show the beauty of both books in two forms. The University of Cambridge’s copy is a hand painted copy of the book that was donated by King George I, while the Smithsonian’s copy is a regular copy that has not been hand painted.
The Enigma of the Voynich Manuscript
Named after one of the book’s many owners, Wilfrid Voynich, The Voynich Manuscript is a 9x6 inch vellum codex that dates between 1404 and 1438. (1) It is partially damaged with 240 of 272 pages intact, but is otherwise in readable condition. It was hypothesized the book is a type of medicinal guide due to its illustrations of plants, zodiac charts, and various images of women bathing. This manuscript is a famous cryptography case due to its mysterious writing system, only becoming partially deciphered last year. Up until then, armature cryptographers and WW1 and WW2 code breakers have not been able to decipher the text.
The text remains infamous for its many wild hypotheses: was it written by aliens or part of a government conspiracy? Or was the language was completely fabricated by its author? Guesses for its language include Latin, medieval Hebrew, Malay, Arabic, and Amharic. (2)
After hundreds of years of mystery, Amet Ardic, a Canadian researcher, claims the text resembles the Turkish language from his home country and was “written in a poetic, rhythmic method called "Phonemic Orthography" which describes speech visually” (3). Working with his son, he was able to translate one of the manuscript’s many astronomical calendar pages. Months like November are roughly translated into modern Turkish as “Seper Ayi” meaning “moon of rain”.
Folio 67-R depicting the 12 months as a type of astronomical calendar.
Folio 33-v (which depicts two blue blooming flowers surrounded by text) was successfully translated; here are some notable portions:
“…the head of the plant becomes heavy and bends its head to a side and might surprisingly split the stalk.” In the accompanying illustration, you can see a wilting flower below the right flower.
“The taste of the first fruits (nuts) and the attractive appearance of the ornamented crown captivates those buying the plant and takes full control of the buyer (impressing), for even the dying person will remain impressed.”
“The harvester (farmer) cuts the spikes and fills the bag and barn. The buyer weighs it and feels heart warmed (satisfied).” (4)
Folio 33-V depicting three blue flowers, one of them wilted and hidden
Combined “P” and “L” making a visual representation of an “eep” sound, which translates into Turkik as “rope”. The visual depiction is rope-like. The word below translates to “measurements”, meaning the whole word is “rope measurements”.
However, Ardic’s research isn’t free from criticism. It is hypothesized that the manuscript draws from multiple languages, not just Turkish. Another team of Canadian researchers approached this book, this time with AI and Google Translate to help. Using a manmade computer algorithm, the researchers were able to identify 80% of the sampled manuscript pages as Hebrew. When it came time to decipher the phrases, they relied on Google Translate with some luck. However, because the text is written in some form of Medieval Hebrew, and not Modern Hebrew, there is more room for error. The goal of this study was to specifically pinpoint the code and language used in the Voynich Manuscript, not to translate the entire book.
What could be translated and observed by studying the scrip’s illustrations reveals this text is most likely women’s health guide and herbiary. Major portions of the book are dedicated to illustrations of plants that have been identified as “native to or cultivated in the Mediterranean region, in particular, Italy”. (5) Though some of these illustrations have fantasy elements (the roots of the plant in folio 90-V are cats’ bodies), it can be understood that it is some sort of plant guide. The illustrations of round women bathing in green liquid leave more to the imagination, however.
The Voynich manuscript
By Christine Beatty
Currently preserved in the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Libarary of Yale University, The Voynich Manuscript is a peculiar item that many have worked to decode and understand for years. Across the pages are various illustrations that appear to be ritualistic as well as nature-based, and the script has been a mystery for much of it’s discovered years. A viewer will find peculiar and almost alien-like plants sprawling the pages, as well as figures of nude women sitting in odd positions with strange contraptions surrounding them.
The first mention of it seems to be from 1639, when Georgius Barschius of Prague wrote to Jesuit Kircher of Rome, mentioning that, “he owned a mysterious book which was written in an unknown script and was profusely illustrated with pictures of plants, stars, and alchemical secrets.” Barschius wrote to Kircher mentioning that his own speculation on the origin is perhaps that it was brought to Europe by a traveller from the Orient, which brings association especially to Leonhard Rauwolf, who collected herbs and plants from his Orient travels. Kircher remained primarily silent on the matter, other than stating he had not figured it out yet, and eventually the manuscript found it’s way to an old castle in Southern Europe, where it was not discovered until 1912 by Wilfrid Voynich. Since Voynich brought the discovery to light, the odd manuscript was given his name.
Despite Voynich's desperate attempts to have the riddle solved, he continued to reach stubborn ends, despite finding out that Kircher's correspondence on the matter was actually a twelve-volume binding. After heavily researching and looking for these volumes, he found an official historian who unfortunately said that they must have been lost, though it is assumed he may not have been at liberty to discuss it. The Voynich Manuscript continued on it’s journey and ended up in the United States in 1915, where true fame reached it in the 1920’s when a new translation was supposedly deciphered by William Romaine Newbold. His thought was that the manuscript was written by Roger Bacon, a man who had reportedly built microscopes and telescopes. This theory was eventually disproven in 1931, and the long journey ended when H.P Kraus, a book antiquarian, was unable to sell it and then donated it to Yale University in 1961.
There are long lists of theories about what the meaning and purpose could be behind the cipher, however, only a select number of discoveries have been made. One significant finding is the carbon dating result, which found it to be leading back to between 1404 and 1438 with 95% confidence. Otherwise one of the most important discoveries came about with great excitement in 2014 when Stephen Bax, a professor of linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire in England, claimed to have deciphered fourteen characters of the script as well as a handful of words. He discussed that he was able to pick out the words regarding herbs and plants next to the drawings, and used historic approaches that have previously been used for Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In discussion of what the manuscript details, there seem to be specific sections, such as an herbal section, astronomical, biological, and even a recipe section. Given all of the peculiar depictions, some of the popular theories say that it is nonsense written on purpose by medieval quack, a prayer book from the Cathars, a string of characters composed by John Dee, or written discoveries by the friar Roger Bacon. It seems however with all of the research put into it, that there is certainly meaning and the answer must be out there. Researchers have found similarities between some of the characters and those in the Latin language, as well as words written not in the normal script but actually in the normal Roman alphabet.
Further detailing the characters of the unknown language, there are many that have high-reaching, vertical lines, which which are referred to as "gallows" characters and are comparable to the dictionary of Capelli. However, the more promising lead lies in early renaissance cipher systems, in which there are striking similarities such as in the codex of Tranchedino that lists sets of ciphers matched to different correspondents. It is also worth noting that it is speculated by Prescott Currier that it was perhaps not just the work of one author, but of two.
In discussion of the physical materials that were used to create the book, the parchment is made of calf-skin, and the cover of goat skin. The quality is not superb, with some undone stitching and even the paper is not of top-grade, however the parchment was prepared very carefully and with great effort. All of the pages are numbered, and the binding has had the paper pastedown removed perhaps for previous observation. There are also various marks and notations made at different times by those who seemingly were trying to decipher the material.
In total, The Voynich Manuscript is a beautiful mystery, which as many have said would not be nearly as valued and intriguing if it were not for the inability to decipher it. Perhaps one day more than fourteen words will be known but until then the theories live on and leave room for many discoveries.