…well, not entirely something else. Recently a herbal manuscript, Trinity College MS O.2.48, rose to prominence in the Voynich.ninja forum. It is not yet clear whether this manuscript will help us understand the Voynich plants, or whether there is any connection at all, but it certainly deserves the attention it’s getting from Voynich researchers.
It starts off in a relatively normal way, with plants that can be easily linked to the Pseudo-Apuleius tradition. This is the behavior one would expect of the average herbal manuscript. Then there are a number of additional plants, up until f.106. This, too, is not strange, since herbals are often composite documents, drawing from different sources depending on the needs of the intended audience. It is in this first “additional” section that I found the best matches with Voynich plants so far, and I may return to it in later posts.
After this, there is another section (f.107 onward) packed with dense text and plant drawings, which occupies half of the entire manuscript. This section adds over 800 images of plants with text. We don’t know yet where these come from, and unfortunately this herbal has largely escaped the attention of experts so far.
Apart from the apparent disconnection from known herbal traditions, there is something else going on in the second additional section. The names of the plants are weird. To make this clear, let me contrast it with the first additional section, which I shall henceforth call the Normal Name section, in contrast with the (much larger) Weird Name section.
The top fragment is typical for the Normal Name section. The scribe first writes the name of the herb, and then gives a number of synonyms, perhaps from other dialects or regions. At times, these differences are minor, as one would expect. “This plant is called deronica, but others call it veronica”. Names in other languages can be provided as needed, but this is not always the case. In other words, the name section varies depending on the amount of synonyms and translation available to the scribe, or those he finds most relevant.
In the Weird Name section, however, the vast majority of plants get one “name”, one “Greek name” and one “Hebrew name”.Remember that these are around 800 plants. Not one synonym or variation is provided, but all plants get one translation in Greek and one in Hebrew? This is incredibly fishy…
It doesn’t end there though. The format is weird, sure, but the names themselves are as well. So far we (the Voynich researchers who are discussing this manuscript) are not certain which language the “common” name is in. With plant names like boriey, fabiar and amest, it doesn’t look much like Latin, nor is it what one would expect in a European vernacular. The “Greek” names don’t sound very Greek either, with names like vabin, jodoysyr and babionisiri.
At first sight, there seems to be something Semitic (language family) to a number of names, so perhaps Hebrew or a related language is really involved. But then again, these names are somewhat evenly spread across the three categories.
So I wondered: are these names real, and how can we test this?
Since we are dealing with 800 plants with three names each (1800 words!) it was necessary to define a subset. I chose the exotic plants, mainly from India, Arabia and Cappadocia, for two reasons:
- The amount of exotics that are likely to show up in European herbals is somewhat limited. I found around 50 of them in this section.
- Exotic plants tend to have a similar name in many languages. Words like ginger and cumin are typical Wanderwörter: they travel along the trade routes together with the products themselves, and get adopted into countless languages along the way.
So I transcribed the three names of 52 exotic plants in an excel sheet. One first observation is that the “common”, “Greek” and “Hebrew” names of a plant are almost always very different. For example, the common name for one exotic plant is addib, its Greek name fleneris and its Hebrew name verbion. This makes the subject even more intriguing – where are these words coming from?
Now I could do this the sensible way , and look for a possible match for one of the names, possibly identifying one of the plants and perhaps gaining insight into the languages used. However, I wasn’t feeling very sensible and decided to try brute force.
So what I did was the following: I put all the names in one column which I sorted alphabetically, resulting in a list of 156 strange words.
These words supposedly refer to exotic plants in an unknown common language, Greek and Hebrew. So now I needed to look for a reference list of plant names which includes their locations.
At this point it appears that Diane O’Donovan had predicted what I was up to, and she recommended me to have a look at the website dedicated to the work of Simon of Genoa , which includes a handy index of locations. Simon’s clavis sanationis is exactly the kind of resource I was looking for. From the project’s website:
The clavis sanationis was written in the thirteenth century by Simon of Genoa, a physician to pope Nicolas IV. It is a multilingual dictionary that covers medical terminology in Latin, Greek and Arabic language. It uses, and often quotes, a number of valuable sources which are otherwise lost today.
Note that while our herbal’s Weird Name section gives each plant’s name in an unidentified common language, supposed Greek and supposed Hebrew, Simon’s clavis uses the more realistic approach of providing translations and synonyms on an individual basis, depending on the plant. At times he also provides the names of products derived from the original plant part, which I also included.
So I made a second column in my Excel sheet, with an alphabetical list of all names for exotic plants and plant products found in the clavis. While going through the synonyms provided by Simon of Genoa, I noticed something else that was missing from the Trinity MS Weird Names section: all plant names in my list are just one word. This might just be an indication that no Latin is involved, since in the clavis you get names like “palea camelorum”.
Now, as one might expect, there were hardly any matches. There were many near-matches though, but these will require quite some research. Are tamaradus and tamariscus the same plant? Narbithen and nabati? Lakir and lacca or lech? Kaki and kakia? Bal and balanum or balsamus? I might get back to this later, but I will attach the Excel file for anyone to use as they wish: Trinity.slsx.
Now, the fact that there is no immediate large overlap between both lists can be explained in several ways:
- The Trinity plant names are fictional.
- The Trinity plants are fictional altogether.
- The exotic plants from the Trinity MS “Weird Names” section are not mainstream.
- The Trinity plant names are badly transcribed or otherwise deformed.
- The names of the Trinity plants are not consistently “common, Greek and Hebrew”.
It is especially this last point I find puzzling. No medieval scribe should be able to provide exactly one common, one Greek and one Hebrew name for over 800 plants. This is just not the way synonyms were provided, and such consistency is practically and linguistically implausible.
In conclusion, I must say that my approach has, so far, failed to find any clarification for these weird names in the Trinity herbal. But negative results are results just as well.
 The script in this manuscript is highly abbreviated and difficult, and I had no experience with this kind of writing whatsoever. I am grateful to Marco Ponzi and JKP for their useful pointers.
 For some great translations from the Trinity manuscript, see Marco Ponzi’s blog: http://viridisgreen.blogspot.be/2017/05/trinity-college-ms-o248-dabelion.html
 See also https://voynichimagery.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/thesauros-artis-medicae-aegyptiacos-pt1/