Alain Touwaide on the Voynich – a review by René Zandbergen

I am grateful to René Zandbergen, whose authoritative site on the Voynich manuscript can be found here, for contributing the following review:


On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the acquisition by the Society of Jesus of Villa Mondragone, the Second University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’ has published a new book about the Villa.

The book, written in Italian, was presented to the world one month ago, on 25 February 2016.

Such a volume had to include an article about the Voynich MS, and we find it on pp.141-158, written by the well-known historian of medicine Alain Touwaide, with a few small illustrations. While he is author of many scholarly articles about medieval medicine in general, and illustrated herbals in particular, the present article does not go in this direction, but is presented as an overview written for the general public. It does not include any new revelations about the MS, but it is still of significant interest, as it is one of the rare occasions that a renowned historian writes about the MS and presents expert opinions based on his own observations of the MS and the digital scans. He was one of the experts participating in a small symposium about the MS organised by the Folger Shakespeare library on 7 November 2014:

The article begins with an introduction covering the enigmatic figure of Wilfrid Voynich and the history of the MS, clearly rejecting the roles of Roger Bacon and John Dee in the tradition. His first observation about the MS itself is that many of its plant illustrations present a correspondence with botanical illustrations from the 14th and 15th centuries, and he compares the MS with two herbals from this period, namely  Paris BNF Lat 6823 and London BL Sloane 4016, devoting two of the four illustrations to parallels between these MSs and the Voynich MS [Note 1]. Touwaide has recently published a scholarly edition of the Sloane MS with a 500-page commentary [Note 2].


Comparison of the Voynich, folio 35 verso, with the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, BNF Lat 6823, folio 60 recto



Comparison of the Voynich manuscript folio 2 recto, with Sloane ms. 4016, London,British Library,folio 81 recto

He briefly addresses the forensic dating of the MS, and states as one of the few new insights that the binding is typical for Italian MSs of the 15th century. Later in the article the cover is identified as a modern (possibly 19th century) replacement.

Probably the most interesting part of the article is Touwaide’s own description of the various sections of the MS. He calls the first part a herbal, but does not add anything to his earlier comparisons, except generic statements about what one should expect to find in the accompanying text.

The following part he calls astrological and astronomical, and he confirms the logic of the presence of such a section near a botanical section, as it would help the physicians and healers to read in the stars the present and future medical condition of their patients, among other things.

He spends a bit more time on the next part, which he describes as balneological. He stresses the fact that the water is running freely, without any visible pumping mechanisms, and that the scenes are of relaxing nature, without any sign of eroticism. The women are not young girls, which would be more typical in a Renaissance setting, but older women marked by the events of life and the bearing of many children. This section reminds him of thermal baths of ancient tradition more than of Renaissance fountains and water games. Such baths can be encountered in the Eastern Mediterranean, in central Italy and also in Germany (e.g. Baden Baden).

Skipping the next cycle of illustrations, which he consider difficult to interpret, possibly astrological, he arrives at the part with examples of what he calls “cylindrical container[s], resembling an albarello, a pharmacy jar or a small colour phial with engravings, gilding or other refined decoration”. He points to the fact that the plants in this part are small and simplified, and suggests that they are probably intended to refer to the earlier botanical part of the MS, and perhaps show the species to be used for the preparation of the product contained in the jars at the side of the text.

The text-only section at the end of the MS he interprets as an index, and he points out the large amount of information suggesting that it could be a synopsis of the foregoing.

In summary, he considers the overall composition of the MS as highlighting a coherence which resembles the often accurately built organization of medicine manuals. He praises the careful handwriting throughout the MS, which he places in strong contrast with the application of paint in the botanical figures. He sees two styles of paint application, which he calls light and heavy, and in particular considers the heavy application of what looks like gouache to have been detrimental to the quality of the MS. He thinks it may have been added at a later stage.

One of the striking aspects of the article is Touwaide’s frequent mention of the idea that the MS could be a fake. While he clearly rejects the possibility of a modern fake, he does not exclude the possibility of a fake from Rudolphine times. He also addresses the point that the world of codicological, paleographic, artistic and historic erudition seem to have distanced itself from the MS, and the fact that the “Voynich world” is rife with theories. He cites two more exotic theories about the MS: the meso-american theory by Tucker and Talbert, and a second theory (whose author he does not specify) that the MS is written in Greek and includes recipes for perfumes, originating in a multi-cultural setting in Constantinople at the end of the Byzantine empire. He is careful not to state any opinion about the credibility or likelihood of both of these theories.

Some minor points of interest are that the colour annotation on f4r (illustrated as Fig.4) is read as the German word ‘rot’, which he contrasts with his general view that the MS is Italian, and the parallel he notes with the alchemical herbal MS Firenze 106. This MS, of the same size as the Voynich MS and with equally careless application of paint, includes a cipher table on its first folio.

As mentioned at the start, while there are no major new insights, this paper is another relevant source and interesting for our understanding of the Voynich MS.


René Zanbergen


[Note 1] He presents the oak-and-ivy illustration found in BNF Lat 6823, and a similarity of Sloane 4016 fol. 81r with Voynich MS fol. 2r, where the Sloane MS plant does not include the flowers.

[Note 2] See here: . The sales video included on this page is the source of the suggestion, mentioned also in the paper, that the Voynich MS may come from the same atelier as Sloane 4016, which Touwaide clearly contradicts.



  1. Neville Macaulife

    I really like that Alain Touwaide retains a suspicion that the VM might be a fake and thus have no valid content. The problem with this idea is, of course, that it is hard to believe anyone would fake such a seemingly complex manuscript on the off-chance of finding a patsy rich enough to make the game worthwhile. However, the lack of a valid content does not necessarily require an assumption of fakery.

    I – uh – just coincidentally happen to have my own theory in this regard, so if I have the site’s permission, I will give it a run here. _________________________________________
    All the theories and discourses as to the meaning of the Voynich manuscript are quagmired in differing degrees of complexity – and what happens when they are found insufficient? They are made even more complex. Is it possible that the true explanation for the production of the manuscript is so utterly simple that is has been overlooked? I am a newcomer to the VM, but I would like to offer the following explanation for consideration by those far more knowledgeable about it than myself:

    The Voynich manuscript is not a hoax, it’s not a secret language, it’s not a cipher, it’s not a code. None of the drawings represent real objects or bear any relationship whatsoever to the text, and It will never be translated because it has no meaning at all. If you go back in time and ask the author what the book is about, she will tell you, “I haven’t the slightest idea.” Ask her why she’s writing it, and you’ll get your answer, “Because the spirits told me to.”

    It’s automatic writing! Produced by an author and possible polyglot with a genius-level dose of the Savant syndrome in the field of languages. Thus she is able to peacefully write and draw her book while offering no interference to the apparently slumbering aspects of her mind that formulate the strange characters of her “alphabet,” and string them into meaningless “words” that follow the basic rules of language composition. A field of which she has little or no consciousness knowledge.

    Here are some early clues I found when reviewing the various VM sites: There are almost no corrections (typical Savant). The drawings are badly done. (Her Savant skills are confined only to writing!) The folio and quire numbers are wrong, the binding’s a mess, and some of the bifolios may even be upside-down. (She doesn’t care about any of that – she only cares about writing her symbols – that’s her one big special thing.)

    Note, however, that that the writing of literature is not a normal savant skill. Thus the author is following directions from a supposed external source as she patiently constructs her book symbol by symbol. Other than the drawings, only the symbols matter to her. Thus there is no message and nothing to decipher.

  2. Rene,
    I am attempting to discover
    (a) whether Touwaide’s paper was first composed and/or delivered after May, 2013.

    (b) whether the direct comparison of Beinecke MS 408, folio 35v with oak and black ivy on BNF Lat.6823 fol.60r, should be credited to you or to Touwaide. Here you seem to credit Touwaide, but other sources suggest that they know of it through earlier “ids” credited to you and make no mention of Touwaide. I should have preferred to ask this at your own site, rather than using Stephen’s, but your website doesn’t permit.

    • I was recently asked the same question for another publication in which this appears, and the answer is very simple: this has been noted by several people independently. These are at least Edith Sherwood, J.K.Petersen and myself.

      I presume that Alain Touwaide also noted it independently as well, even though that would not have been before mid-2014.

      • Rene,
        Perhaps it has not been customary in Voynich studies, but the usual standards which apply in the ‘world out there’ mean that even if duplication is inadvertent, the person still acknowledges when they are second, third or fourth etc. This is immensely helpful for future research, and saves the ‘baton race’ of scholarship from turning into a circle-dance.

        I well know how much time and effort is involved in researching the botanical section, and would hate to think that I’d failed to recognise the first person to have recognised similarity between folio 60r of the ‘Manfredi’ herbal and folio 35v of Beinecke MS 408. I’d be very glad if you could rack your brains to recall who was the first to make that connection. I prefer not only to cite the original worker correctly, but add a date and if possible a link to that person’s work. At present, I have no reference earlier than Ellie Velinska’s crediting this and other comparisons only to you. If Sherwood precedes you, I should be surprised because Ellie (and you, of course) are so thorough in studying Sherwood’s identifications. Is the “j.k. petersen” whom you mention the same fairly recent arrival who contributes to Voynich ninja? If so, that would be marvellous: I could ask him when he first discovered it for himself.

        It is so nice to be able to refer to someone who has been involved in Voynich studies for 20 years or more, and who is in a position to know and properly credit earlier work.

        • I consider all discussions about who was the first (or second or third) to ‘observe point X’ or ‘mention point Y’ pointless. Especially since in most cases there is no way of knowing, let alone proving anything.

          Why not just enjoy the advancement of our understanding of the MS?

          • Helmut Winkler

            The best idea I have read for some time

          • Stephen Bax

            I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. In the end we should surely be involved in this investigation for interest, not for any sort of glory or credit.

            I hereby announce that anyone can take any of my small contributions and use them without crediting me! 🙂

            • The whole idea of discussion boards is of course the free exchange of ideas. In the old mailing list this has been happening since the early 1990’s, and there was a good collaborative spirit. In that case, and probably consistent with the limited technology, it was a closed group and people knew it, though later nobody seems to have had a problem that the discussions were made available afterwards through a publicly available ‘archive’.
              This archive can now be searched via the Ninja forum, thanks to David Jackson, but many of the later years are not included in it.

              At the same time, significant new insights, such as the word structure work of Jorge Stolfi, and I dare say the discovery of Barschius as the earlier owner of the MS, are properly credited to individuals, simply because they are indeed significant. In parallel, some people published their work in the peer-reviewed journal Cryptologia. Jim Reeds, Jacques Guy, Gabriel Landini, Gordon Rugg are among those who also participated in the mailing list discussions, but there are publications many others who did not.

              Over the last 5-10 years, there have been many unnecessary discussions about the lack of crediting various bits and pieces, to the point that they seriously annoyed several people. It’s a pity that this is still happening. I know several people in these discussions (including myself) who have passed a complete academic curriculum, have published peer-reviewed articles and/or were themselves reviewing such papers. The difference between proper acknowledgement and common courtesy, between original insights, trivialia and textbook material is really always clear.

              When several people make an observation independent from each other, the correct thing is to state it like that. When one cannot demonstrate who was the first, it is also correct to state it like that.
              To insist that one needs to know who was the first, and then pick one based on no particular information, so not more than a whim, and end up by crediting the wrong person, is completely unscholarly.

            • Stephen,
              In general that is a nice idea. In practice, the hours of work involved and the generosity in sharing original insights and research deserves at least honest acknowledgement of the sources used. It is perfectly possible to know who first made a new observation or conclusion, so long as those following the first person *say* where they got the information. There is an inherent dishonesty in repeating matter not gained from ones own work while omitting due acknowledgements: because in default of such reference, it can be predicted that a reader will assume that the copyist/repeater (even ‘plagiarist’) is, in fact, the original researcher.

              To say there is no point to honest acknowledgements undermines the entire integrity of our traditions of scholarship.

              Newcomers are prevented from researching the back-story to find the basis for often-repeated notions, simply because trying to find out who first proposed an idea, and where one can read the basis from which they did so, is made almost impossible by the very common omission of appropriate references and accurate acknowledgements.

              • Stephen,
                I would also add the point that it is only those who are hungry for “glory” (as you put it) who are unwilling to admit that the ideas they repeat are no product of their own research.

                Scholars are only too willing to do so, in my experience. The only thing worse than having an idea for which there is no precedent is being found stupidly claiming to have none – as poor Juergen was recently put in the position of doing, because there had been a bit of a policy about never acknowledging my work, and it had included a full analysis of the folio which – for want of proper information – Juergen imagined his own to be the first.

                This also brings up complications for many other people – newcomers, those with higher standards of practice and, not least, publishers.
                That bias often informs the amateurs’ decisions hardly helps, either.

                I simply don’t understand why we can’t keep things clean, clear and well-ordered. So much more elegant, don’t you think?

  3. MarcoP

    Thank you very much for this extensive review, Rene! Not many well know scholars have expressed their point of view about the Voynich manuscript. These are a few of the precedents I am aware of:

    * Erwin Panofsky (referenced on your site). His opinions about the origin of Voynich manuscript include a number of possibilities. In 1931 he proposed an origin from Spain, Portugal, Catalonia, or Provence, with Jewish or Arab and Dutch or Flemish influences. Many years later, he proposed a German origin.

    * Sergio Toresella is an Italian bibliographer who has published tens of works mostly about ancient herbals. In 1996 he wrote a paper about the so called alchemical herbals (“Gli erbari degli alchimisti”) and commented on the similarity between the Voynich manuscript and exemplars from that tradition.

    * Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow has published a huge number of works about the history of astrology. Thanks to Rafal T. Prinke, in 2001 she informally provided some comments about the Voynich zodiac, pointing out that some of the peculiar elements also appear in works produced in Central Europe. It has taken the Internet community many years to collect evidence illustrating her brief statements.

    * Stephen Bax constitutes a major exception: as far as I know, he is the only professional linguist who took an interest in the VMS. It is also exceptional that he favors direct interaction with amateur researchers. In my opinion, his example and his open-mindedness have greatly contributed to the cultural growth of the community of Internet researchers.

    Alain Touwaide’s new paper is an important addition to this list. He is a historian of medicine and sciences whose expertise is amazingly wide, ranging from codicology and paleography to botanics and anthropology. In my view, this paper fills the need for an authoritative paper about the iconographic elements of the VMS, ideally complementing Stephen’s work on the linguistic side and Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot’s precious but brief comments about some of the astrological illustrations. In my opinion, this excellent paper suggests that the gap between the Internet community and academic experts has reduced since the time of Prof.Sniezynska-Stolot’s notes: I think this is the effect of a huge advancement in the possibilities of amateurish research, thanks to on-line availability of primary and secondary sources. For instance, the parallel with Manfredus De Monte Imperiali BNF Lat 6823 f60r presented by Touwaide was been presented by yourself years ago, and Ellie Velinska helped to make it well known.
    It is also noteworthy that this new paper mentions and confirms Toresella’s observations about the relevance of the so-called alchemical herbals: experts agree on some basic hypotheses about the VMS (the relevance of these herbals for the Voynich ms has been brought to the attention of the Internet community by Philip Neal). Personally, I find Touwaide’s paper focus on Italian parallels an important element. The likely connection between this geographic area and the origins of the VMS was not previously clear to me. Touwaide’s analysis of the different sections of the manuscript and his interpretation of its structure will also be extremely valuable as a solid framework to guide further research. His vision of the manuscript as a well planned and meaningful work is very inspiring.

  4. Diane, you clearly haven’t read the paper. Let me just clarify for anyone who is interested that:
    – the introduction is part of the paper written by Alain Touwaide
    – he describes the MS in his own words, based on his own observations
    – he does not give insight into his more specific views about the MS in this paper
    – the Beinecke description of the MS is still online here: . This is from a printed catalogue: Shailor (1984). ( )
    – he provides close to 50 references to relevant literature in the footnotes. This includes also Shailor’s catalogue. He deliberately avoids references to internet sites.
    – he specifically confirms the similarity of the herbal part of the Voynich MS with herbal illustrations in 14th and 15th century European herbals. He equally writes that supposedly exotic plants (i.e. from the Orient) were known in Europe: Byzantium, pre-Renaissance Italy and Central Europe

    • Rene –
      You were perfectly right.
      If I had yet read the paper I shouldn’t have needed to ask those questions at all, should I?.

  5. D.N. O'Donovan

    Dear Rene,
    You do not mention who wrote the introduction, about which you say,
    “The article begins with an introduction covering the enigmatic figure of Wilfrid Voynich and the history of the MS, clearly rejecting the roles of Roger Bacon and John Dee in the tradition”.
    I should like to know who wrote it, if that is mentioned.

    I am not surprised, of course, that Touwaide should have referred to the manuscript’s sections by the old titles-of-convenience which were then still to be seen as part of the Beinecke Library’s introduction to the manuscript. One should not from this suppose that Touwaide’s own name may be used as any “seal of approval” for those old assumptions and classifications.

    I am making this point chiefly because when Touwaide used those headings, the Library had not updated its introduction, and removed the hypothetical descriptions-of-convenience as it has now done.

    It would not do to allow Touwaide to be thought to have created the classifications, nor to be responsible for them now – and newcomers may not realise that Touwaide is merely employing what had been long part of the Beinecke’s old introduction, most of it from sources now fifty years out of date.
    Rene, you say that Touwaide “compares” the folios; does he also contrast them? Does he offer any firm identifications?
    I’m delighted to learn that the library could persuade a person of Touwaide’s eminence, and undoubted knowledge of medieval Latin and Islamic medicine, to comment on such a contentious volume.

    I recall that when I first brought his name to the attention of Voynicheros back in 2012 or whatever it was, I was hoping for just such a miracle but never thought any specialist of his calibre would want a bar of MS Beinecke 408. A real coup for the Folger.

    Now all we need is a formal paper from Oliver Kahl, and my year will be made!

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