Mediaeval herbal manuscripts

Here I have collected together interesting examples of mediaeval herbal manuscripts and related documents which might help us to understand the Voynich plants better. My aim is to offer a respoitory to help everyone to find them and comment on them.

If you know any, and you want me to include them, please add a comment on this page.

Origin, language & script, date, locationDescriptionLink to full manuscriptLink to discussion (coming soon)
Italy, Italian, 15th century
University of Vermont
128 leaves, paper,
Date, c. 1475 - 1525
Click hereItalian herbal manuscript - Vermont
Italy, Italian and Latin, 15th century192 drawings of plants, Manuscript on paper. Veneto? Italy, S. XV
"This herbal was begun in the first half of the 15th century and continued for about half a century. It presents an interesting contrast between the early, conventional representation of plants and the naturalistic style, which was becoming common by the end of the century.

The roots are heavily emphasized and are often depicted as fantastic faces and creatures, e.g. the female mandragora (f. 36) and the woad plant (f. 42), which has a blue root with a human face."
Click hereItalian herbal – Veneto 15th century
Eastern Mediterranean, Greek cursive, 15th c, The Herbal of Dioscorides Pedanius, Isocrates and Galen], in Greek. Illustrated Manuscript on Paper. Written in the Eastern Mediterranean in the fifteenth century.

"the inspired work of the wise teachers Galen Claudius (Pergamum 129-ca. 200), Isocrates (Athens 436 BC-338 BC) and Dioscorides Pedanius (Cilicia ca 60) on the making of medicines from plants"
Click here
Leiden Dioscorides (Date: 1082, Place: Samarkand, Language: Arabic) Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš fī hāyūlā al-ʿilāg al-ṭibbī, Dioscorides Pedanius, Manuscript OR 289, Wonderful 11th century translation into Arabic of Dioscorides. To see it, click on this link and then click on the picture of manuscript Or. 289

Click here
Hunayn ibn Ishaq was the Syriac translator who translated many Greek works into Syriac and Arabic, including Galen's 'Hidden Drugs', with his commentary. This discusses a Hebrew version.Not a full herbal, but an interesting discussion about a Hebrew version of Galen's original Greek text, with commentary by Hunayn ibn Ishaq. Part 2 mentions hellebore as 'kharbaq'.

Discussion of many individual plants.
Click here for Part 1 of the blog

Click here for Part 2, mentioning Hellebore as 'kharbaq'

Click here for the full original pdf
Not a full herbal manuscript, but a useful list of Arabic plant names from a 9th century source.: "ABU HANIFAH AL-DINAWARI'S BOOK OF PLANTS
Catherine Alice Yff Breslln 1986
"Abu Hanifah al-Dinawari's 9th century Kitab al-Nabat (Book of
Plants) became the standard reference work on Arabic plant names and
botanical terms for later generations of lexicographers and pharmaco-
Click hereThanks to Marnix Hoekstra for this reference
A description and discussion of an Arabic version of Qazwini's 'Book of wonders'This is an article in Google Books about an Arabic manuscript from 1322, a version of Qazwini's Book of Wonders. It includes a page-by-page list of contents, including several of the plants I have identified with relation to the Voynich, such as Juniper ('Ar'ar).Click here
Wonderful herbal in Arabic, a late copy of Qazwini's Book of Wonders, with page after page of plants with Arabic names

كتاب عجائب المخلوقات و غرائب الموجودات. زكريا بن محمد بن محمود القزويني
= Kitāb 'ağā'ib al-maḫlūqāt wa ġarā'ib al-mawğūdāt by Zakariyyā ibn Muḥammad

Edition: 1762-1763
For example see 'Kharshaf', artichoke, at the bottom of folio 174r: here, last picture on the page.

Also see the wonderful depiction of the Castor Oil Plant here, second picture, at the bottom, which fits well with the discussion elsewhere on this site.
Click here
A wonderful earlier edition of Qazwini's Book of Wonders, in Arabic. Now in a library in Bordeaux. Around 1274Lots of wonderful illustrations of astrology, animals and plants

Bibliothèque de Bordeaux

Source : ms 1130, Bibliothèque/Médiathèque, Bordeaux

180 folios

Author: Qazwīnī, Zakariyyā ibn Muḥammad ibn Maḥmūd al- (1203-1283)
Date : 1199 - 1298
Subject matter : Astrology / Botany / Zoology / Astronomy / Geology / History / Algeria / Cosmography / Mythology
Click here, then click on the box 'Tout afficher' to see a gallery of all the pages.Thanks to Marco Ponzi for the reference
Spanish manuscript "Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book XI, the longest in the codex, is a treatise on natural history."For those wishing to compare the Voynich with Latin American flora and fauna.Click hereThanks to devarshi for the reference






  1. MarcoP

    Florence Riccardiana ms 2174 is a XV Century (after 1463) Florentine herbal, apparently connected with the so called “alchemical herbals”. The illustrations are less schematic than in other exemplars of that tradition. The attached image compares Ricc.2174 f96r (“scorza di mandragola”) with one of the plants in Voynich f89r2.

    • Peter

      Nice book Marco
      Personally, I think F44v could also be the Mandragola. The similarity speaks for itself.

      • MarcoP

        Hi Peter,
        an unverifiable speculation I find attractive is that Mandrake was represented in the typical anthropomorphic way and is one of the pages that are now missing from the manuscript. Some of the most “telling” pages possibly were removed by someone who intended to use them to decipher the ms. I am sure I read of this idea somewhere, but I can’t remember where it was 🙂

        • Peter

          Now that you’re talking about it, somewhere I’ve read something about this theory. The possibility exists, however, if I miss the important medicinal plants where I miss in the VM.
          White thorn
          These are very interesting for a speech indivi- dual

  2. Darren Worley

    I came across this unusual 15th-century German encyclopedia – it seems interesting enough to warrant a post. (I don’t think its been reported elsewhere in connection with the VM.)

    Ref : National and University Library of Strasbourg, Ms.2.152 here

    Unfortunately not all pages are available online, unless anyone know’s differently?

    Its a manuscript copy of the Hortus Sanitatis its dated to 1489. I’m unclear if its a copy from an earlier printed book (it was first published in 1485) or if it represents an earlier tradition.

    Its an early natural history encyclopedia – and it is comprised of various sections :

    Tractatus De Herbis (“Treatise on Herbs”)
    Tractatus De Animalibus (“Treatise on Animals”)
    Tractatus De Avibus (“Treatise on Birds”)
    Tractatus De Piscibus (“Treatise on Fish”)
    Tractatus De Lapidibus (“Treatise on Stones”)
    Tractatus De Urinis (“Treatise on Urine”)

    The herbal/animal section contains what I think are some of the roughest plant drawings I’ve seen in a medieval manuscript – much more like the VM depictions than most examples.

    I think the VM also contains similar thematic divisions – the VM Zodiac section, has perhaps closest parallels with the Lapidary of Alfonso X the Wise [ms. H. I. 15 › Real Biblioteca del Monasterio (San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain)]. The VM Zodiac section may therefore represent illustrations originally accompanying a section on Lapidary (and its relation to astrology or medicine).

    The bathing section, I believe is more likely to be a treatise on urine (which would explain the bodily organs that are shown).

    Some of the animal drawings are also worth a look – the elephant and the way some of the smaller animals are simply drawn, share parallels with the VM.

  3. Hello all

    Looking for some help:
    I am trying to locate pages about Viburnums in old manuscript herbals. This page is wonderful—but is there a way, here, or on other sites, or is there a human source that could help me since I don’t speak the various languages.
    I appreciate any assistance.
    Thank you!

  4. Darren Worley

    Here’s a German Herbal manuscript (Kräuterbuch) dating from 1462 (or possibly earlier) and originating from Northern Bavaria. Its reference is Kräuterbuch, Staatsbibliothek Berlin, MS. germ. qu. 2021.

    It was written by Johannes Hartlieb (c. 1410 – 18 May 1468), a physician of Late Medieval Bavaria. He seems to have been an archetypal Renaissance man : he wrote a “Compendium on Herbs” in c1440, and in 1456 the “Buch aller Verpoten Kunst, Ungelaubens und Der Zaubrey” (Book on all Forbidden Arts, Superstition and Sorcery) on the Artes Magicae, containing the oldest known description of Witches’ Flying Ointment. Hartlieb also produced German translations of various classical authors (Trotula, Macrobius, Gilbertinus, Muscio).

    The herbal manuscript can be viewed here.

    Here’s the description:

    Johann Hartlieb’s Kräuterbuch (Book of Herbs), dating from the middle of the 15th century, is basically an extract of Konrad von Megenberg’s Buch der Natur (Book of Nature) that was written one century earlier. The main subject of the text are plants – mostly herbs – and their medical use. What makes the Kräuterbuch special is the side-by-side presentation of text and images. The high costs of such a richly decorated book makes it highly unlikely that it was actually used by doctors or pharmacists of the time. Furthermore, the botanical imprecision of the 160 pictures would make an identification of a specific plant in nature difficult, not to speak of the ten animals whose images were added. Hartlieb’s work was obviously created for representational purposes, he himself being the long time personal physician of Duke Albrecht III. of Bayern-München.

    I attach a few sample images below.

    Interestingly, it contains depictions of several plants that are not native to Germany eg. Aloe. (Its has been erroneously claimed before that the VM cannot possibly be from 15th-century Germany for this reason!)

    I located another 15th-century Kräuterbuch, [Staatsbibliothek Berlin MS Germ. 515]; it only contains plant descriptions without illustrations. Its incomplete – containing only plants from Arthemisia to Crocus.

    It can be accessed here

  5. MarcoP

    I have now read “Il giardino magico degli alchimisti” by Segre Rutz Vera. It discusses the “alchemical herbals” tradition and in particular the manuscript now in Pavia, Biblioteca Universitaria MS Aldini 211. About alchemical herbals, see this web page by Philip Neal.
    There are some excellent discussions of the related subject of color annotations available on line: this web page by Rene Zandbergen (see also Rene’s post here); this post by Nick Pelling.

    Segre notices that almost half of the 98 plants in the Pavia herbal could not be identified with certainty (and we are speaking of an herbal written in plain Latin!). In particular, 13 plant names seem to be corruptions of known names (e.g. “Antolla” for “Anthyllis”, “Ariola” for “Oriola”). 23 plant names possibly are badly corrupted (e.g. “Metries” for “Myrtus”, “Rigogola” for “Galega”). 10 plant names could not be related to any known plant names.

    Another interesting thing I found in Segre’s book is that, even if the oldest existent alchemical herbals were written in Latin in Italy, the tradition later spread to other languages: Italian (rather obviously), German and Hebrew. One of the German manuscript translates the text back from Italian to Latin (obviously introducing numberless errors). Rene discusses an alchemical herbal written in Latin, but with German color annotations (Vicenza, Biblioteca Bertoliana MS 362). Segre deducts from this detail that the manuscript was created in a German speaking country. Rene discusses the color annotation “rot” in f4r: the analogy with the “rot” annotation in MS 362 seems to me the strongest evidence for the place of origin of the Voynich manuscript.

    Both the Hebrew herbals discussed by Segre are now in Paris. Ms Latin 17844 was written in Latin, but the plant names have been translated into Hebrew. Color annotations are written in Hebrew as well.
    Manuscript Hébreu 1199 (to access images, search 1199 in this page) was entirely translated into Hebrew. I attach an image of f37v. According to Segre, both manuscripts were produced in Italy in the XV Century.

    • A very interesting read indeed. Also of interest is the earlier work mentioned by Segre Rutz, namely: Ragazzini, Stefania: Un erbario del XV secolo: il Ms. 106 della Biblioteca di Botanica dell’Universita di Firenze, Firenze, 1983. This herbal has the specially interesting feature that it has a cipher alphabet on f1r. This is, however, not the Voynich MS alphabet 🙂
      It has other things in common with the Voynich MS, and it was once owned by the French physician and botanist Jean Ruel. Ruel lived in the area matching the dialect of the month names in the Voynich MS. Something worth following up, and the least it shows us is that it is entirely possible for a 15th C North Italian herbal to spend some time in N. France, and then end up in Florence.

      What I really wanted to say, however, is something more problematic. The text of the alchemical herbals are like ‘recipes’ and their length is not that different from the text on the herbal pages of the Voynich MS. They also vary in a similar way. In some MSs they are written near the drawings, and in others they are collected together on dedicated pages.
      These recipes, however, are full of standard phrases that repeat many times, from one herb to the next. This we do not see *at all* in the Voynich MS, and it is in fact hard to imagine how the Voynich MS herbal text can be considered herbal recipes….

      • MarcoP

        Hello Rene, the cipher alphabet in Florence MS 106 is also mentioned by Segre Rutz. Obviously, I was curious to see it. A few weeks ago, I browsed through Ragazzini’s book in search for it, but I could not find it. Do you please have an image of that page? Is it actually reproduced in Ragazzini’s book and I was too hasty to see it?

        • Hello Marco,

          the alphabet was just cut off in the illustration of Ragazzini, but I attach an image below. I also showed this in the Mondragone in 2012. Rafal Prinke immediately recognised this cipher alphabet, but I could not find its name just now.

          One other thing about the Florence MS is that almost every page has later annotations that start with ‘fo’ (for folio), and a similar one is found on the Voynich MS f2v just above the first word in the second paragraph.
          It allows for a lot of speculation…..

          • – forgot the image –

          • MarcoP

            Thank you Rene! It looks similar to the Fontana alphabet discussed by Stephen one year ago… similar but different. Very interesting!

    • I’m not sure that the idea of the MS’ botanical imagery being a “herbal” isn’t a circular argument: I mean they are assumed to be from the “herbal” tradition of Europe only because so much is assumed about the origin of the manuscript, and Latin Europe had only that one tradition.

      Of interest (for that reason) St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44 which is not a herbal, but (to quote the holding library) ” a “compendium of 27 medical and pharmaceutical treatises by known and unknown authors of the 9th century”. It was copied for, or perhaps in, the monastery of St.Gall but it is interesting not least because so many of the ingredients are not western, but eastern species.

      And (as I have pointed out in a very recent post – October 16th., 2015) all our accounts (chiefly written in Arabic) agree that the only people bringing such things into Europe at the time were Radhanites, classed by the Islamic writers as Jews.

      I should be very cautious about assuming that all Jewish texts derive from Latin ones, or indeed from making the complementary assumption. The western herbal genre, itself, is acknowledged as deriving from earlier traditions of the eastern Mediterranean – mainly Egypt and southern Asia minor. Earlier, I mean, even than the Islamic conquests.
      I wrote on this topic, and referred to Riddle’s seminal article analysing the recipes in that manuscript, in January 2013. Riddle’s one mistake (common in his time) was to assume that ‘Arabs’ conducted the trade, but the Arab writers of the time themselves say that none but the Radhanites knew the routes across the range from France to China, whether through modern Switzerland, Germany, Poland and Ukraine etc., or through Syria and Iraq, or Egypt and Arabia, to India, south-east Asia and (perhaps) southern China.


      • I might also point out that to provenance a physical object is an entirely different matter from provenancing the matter it contains. This is too often forgotten by people interested in MS Beinecke 408.
        A copy of the Psalter made in England does not make the book of Psalms an expression of English native culture. The same is true of a book translated from Italian into Spanish or (as with MS Beinecke 408) even if one could be persuaded to accept a manufacture in Germany etc., it is not sufficient basis to classify the content – especially when there is nothing about the style of drawing, nor much in the content to support that idea. As for the written part of the text… I can’t recall any analysis ever done which came up with a result suggesting German – can you?

    • Derek Vogt

      The uncertainty over plant names in a Latin document reminds me of something I ran into once about Julius Caesar’s “De Bello Gallico”. At one point he comments about some northern tribes in which people color themselves blue, but it isn’t clear whether he’s talking about paint or tattoos, and the usually attributed source of the color, a plant called “woad” in English, isn’t certain either. (I think the plant’s possible Latin name was conflatable with a word that could refer to a tattooing needle.)

      If a known language can give us a book where we can only tell what about half of the plants are, then I wonder what standard we should measure ourselves against to see whether we’re on the right track with an unknown language. By my count, the best we could claim right now is slightly under one third, and that’s if none of the identification & name combinations so far are wrong, which I’m sure some must be. (Blue in this image is for plants with potential name-matches; yellow is for plants with suggested identifications from the pictures but no found name-matches; red is for plants that nobody seems to have even suggested an identification for yet.)

  6. Darren Worley

    Here’s an image from a mid-14th century Byzantine herbal manuscript from Constantinople.

    I think this demonstrates that medieval herbals similar to those being produced in Italy were also being produced in Constantinople, Byzantium (Istanbul in modern day Turkey.)

    • Stephen Bax

      Thanks Ellie – fabulous. If you don’t mind I will add them to my list when I have a moment.

      • Ellie Velinska

        Thanks for taking the time. It is nice to have a link base to related manuscripts – all piled up in one place. All the best! Ellie

  7. Marco

    The second manuscript in the list (ljs419 [Herbal containing 192 drawings of plants] Veneto? Italy, S. XV) has a few “snake roots” similar to Voynich f49r

    35: ‘Tiles’ with a wavy blue root (with a face on one end), four erect leaves with flowers between; the root might indicate a water plant

    49: ‘Corbealis’ with another blue root ending in an animal head

    50: ‘Bustana’ with a red snake rouond its stem, presumably a herb recommended for snake bite

    To me it’s very instructive to see that many images of the Voynich ms that seem weird to modern eyes actually belong to a consolidated tradition in late medieval science.

    • Stephen Bax

      Yes, I agree totally with your last comment, and it is helpful to show, through looking at specific details like these, exactly how it does fit in. I would only add that these traditions spread beyond Europe to include Arabic and other cultures.

  8. Marco

    Thank you for the new manuscript section, Stephen!
    I think it would also be interesting to collect relevant astrological manuscript.

    For instance, this “Medical and astronomical miscellany” (Germany, ca. 1446),

    Diagram f9v (eclipsis) / Voynich f67r2
    Diagram f1v (the four cardinal points) / Voynich f67v2 / f57v

    f12r and the following pages present illustrations of the signs of the zodiac (Voynich f70v2 and following pages)

    • Stephen Bax

      I agree! I’ll make one.

    • orun rubaci
      • MarcoP

        Very cool, Orun!

        Aqua Vitae: the Water of Life and / or Sol (the Sun) / Gold.

        • orun rubacı

          According to many legends water of life in the Zulmet Country ( Country of Darkness). Another opinion it’s a plant that grown only depths of Red Sea. its name is “Galsam otu” or “Şah-ı Galsam”.

          in the story of prophet muhammad and moses its a water. according as Zülkareyn’s story (Alexander the great).
          in the story of Gilgameš its a plant. He found the pland but a snake took it and run away.

          Turk traveller Evliya Çelebi says the water is in Bingöl/ Anatolia. there is a strong belief in east of Turkey about the waters place in Bingöl. (LoL)

          i think we need a country of darkness or Galsam plant around Red Sea :))

  9. Book 11 of the Florentine Codex deals with natural history. Starting around page 224 there are perhaps hundreds of plant drawings, in a style that is somewhat similar to the Voynich drawings. You can browse the entire book here:

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