In a previous post, I addressed the issue of trees in the Voynich manuscript – or rather its possible lack thereof. Many people understandably believe that the Voynich plants are herbs, not trees. This is caused by, and has implications for, an expected link between the Voynich plants and the medieval herbal traditions.

Of course there are exceptions, but medieval manuscript makers were mostly concerned with the medicinal properties of plants (which meant mostly herbs). You won’t find many medieval manuscript illustrating plants just for the benefit of botanical science. Other considerations, like a plant’s economical value or aesthetic appeal and even culinary applications, were relatively unimportant in medieval herbals, and if there were any they would always be subordinate to medicinal applications.

In my first post on the subject of trees, I argued that there are trees in the manuscript, but that we don’t recognize them easily for two reasons:

  1. With just plant drawings which occupy an entire page each, we have no indication of scale at all. We have to guess whether something is ten centimeters or ten meters in height.
  2. There is a clear case where people agree that an oak-like tree is shown as the host of a vine. Yet, this tree looks exactly like an oak twig or a young shoot, rather than a full tree.
twig
I digitally removed the vine in the image above for easier comparison.

 

The ancient customs of Flemish stick farmers

The cause for this second post arrived a bit later, as it happens, during a stroll in the local forest. Farmers had just been harvesting a large amount of long, straight sticks, which lay along the paths in bunches, looking somewhat like this:

normal

As it turned out when I looked into this, the sticks were harvested from pollarded willows. These trees are sawed off either near the ground or at a height of about two meters in order to encourage the rapid growth of new shoots. They are a common sight in the Dutch and Belgian countryside. Below, willows with new shoots and some from which the shoots have been harvested.

willow

The sticks are used for a variety of purposes, including weaving baskets and building natural fences:

vlechtwerk20van20wilgentenen201

Of course, the willow is not the only species suitable for coppicing, as the technique is called. The wiki lists the following species for southern Britain, though different practices would exist in other areas:

In southern Britain, coppice was traditionally hazel, hornbeam, beech, ash or oak, grown amongst oak or sometimes ash or beech standards. In wet areas alder and willows were used. These coppices provided wood for many purposes, especially charcoal, which before coal was economically significant in metal smelting. A minority of these woods are still operated for coppice today, often by conservation organisations, producing material for hurdle-making, thatching spars, local charcoal-burning or other crafts.

Coppicing was a common part of everyday life until fairly recently. From before the Middle Ages until the late 19th century, most woodlands were coppiced.

Culturally, coppicing played a huge role in the development of our society and its technology. Coppicing has been traced back to as far as Neolithic times (c4000 BC). Historians believe that during the medieval period over half of the woodlands in the UK were managed through coppicing. [1]

In fact, it was so common for forests to be heavily managed, that specialized wildlife organizations encourage coppicing techniques in order to restore forests to their “original” state. Depending on the type of shrubs or trees, they have to be cut every two to ten years. That is, to maintain the forest in its original state of high-intensity maintenance.

Examples

The point relevant to Voynich studies is that any pre-modern person would have recognized and understood the appearance and purpose of coppiced trees. Modern viewers might know what a cut tree looks like, but they will be less likely to recognize at a glance the signs and purpose of coppicing. Hence, before we get to the Voynich part, I will show some more images of coppiced trees. Experienced Voynich researchers will see from a mile away what will come next.

coppicing
From the wiki, a freshly cut stump of an alder (top), and the very same stump with fresh shoots one year later (bottom).

2998918_orig
Coppiced smaller stems [2]
lime
These lime shoots at Westonbirt’s arboretum are believed to be 2.000 years old. They all belong to the same root system. It is the sustainable technique of coppicing which has allowed the tree to live this long. The stems are harvested every twenty years. [3]

linden
Linden coppice.

You get the point. A fully grown tree is cut, leaving the root system alive. As a result, the strong roots will quickly shoot out lots of straight, new branches in order to produce enough leaves. It is the most sustainable and effective way to produce specific wood resources.

So what does all of this have to do with the Voynich?

I believe that a case can be made for the presence of coppiced trees in the Voynich manuscript. A particularly strong example is f.9r.

f9r

The image appears to show a cut trunk from which fresh shoots spring. One could argue that this is a herb, in which case the entire brown part is the underground root, which has a white “flat top” from which several growths emerge. However, in my opinion the drawing is more properly described as roots with an above-ground stump with fresh branches. This is illustrated in the image below; the top part shows the plant as if it was a coppiced trunk, with the imaginary ground line indicated in red and the underground part in orange.

tree

The bottom half shows what the ground line would look like if this were a herb.

Now if we assume for a moment that this is indeed a coppiced tree with new shoots, then it is in fact a damn fine representation of one. If I am familiar with the practice – like anyone before say the 19th century would have been – then I would recognize it at a glance.

In fact, the aspects it gets right are stunning. Have a look at the image below. The two coppiced stumps I add are freshly cut, which means that they have no new shoots yet, but this will give us a better view of what’s going on.

wow

First of all, notice that the tops are cut at an outward angle in order to prevent rainwater from gathering in the middle and causing the tree to rot. A consequence of the cutting pattern is that the stump is generally wider at the top, as is also the case in the Voynich image. Secondly, note how the Voynich trunk’s top outline wonderfully captures the organic shape of half-merged tree stems. And finally, perhaps most obviously, coppicing perfectly explains why the top of the Voynich trunk is white and the sides are brown: the inside of a trunk is generally lighter than the bark.

The implications

There is a tree trunk on f.9r, so what? Why is this such a big deal? Well, there are a number of consequences which should affect the way we look at the Voynich plant sections.

  • In coppicing, the new growths are the product, and those are generally used for timber, fuel, construction, weaving and a large amount of other applications. For example, oak was coppiced to harvest its bark for tanning. This might imply that the focus of the Voynich plants, unlike the standard medieval herbal, is not exclusively on medicine but rather on general practical or commercial goods (which may include any medicinal value as well).
  • There should come a general shift in Voynich research from medicinal herbs to useful plants.
  • The plants that are shown with a coppiced trunk are likely ones that were carefully managed and benefited from coppicing techniques. It goes without saying that coppicing was known as a traditional way of harvesting plant materials outside of Europe as well. For example, cinnamon trees are coppiced after the second year to make them produce more stems – and hence more of their valuable bark.
  • And finally, the person who first made the Voynich drawings knew very well what he was doing.

Some more Voynich examples

There are a number of plants in the VM which appear to be coppiced. The following is just a selection of the examples, there are too many to show and discuss here.

11v
f.11v: The Voynich does it the right way.
13r
f.13r. I’m not entirely sure if this is supposed to represent coppicing or just leaves that have fallen off. The plant appears somewhat palmate but on the other hand new leaves are springing from various cut “stems”, which would indicate coppicing. This might be one of the Voynich’ infamous hybrid plants.
44v
f.44v similarly might be a palm instead of a coppiced tree. The stem is clearly elevated above ground level though, which makes for a difficult reading of this plant as a herb.

 

14r 16r
f.14r and f.16r, some nice coppicing going on there. Note how the trunk is clearly higher than the actual root system.
36r
f.36r, another clear example.

 

45v
f.45v still has many mysteries, but look at that beautiful coppiced trunk.

 

Finally, there are also several examples in the small-plants section.

Untitled-4

 

Of course, there is much more to the Voynich plants than this, but I hope that this post may have added a new, and hopefully fruitful concept to our collective Voynich vocabulary.

 

 


NOTES

[1] See http://coppicecrafts.blogspot.be/2014/01/the-art-of-coppicing.html

[2] Source: http://theurbancountryman.weebly.com/blog/coppicing-for-woodland-management

[3] https://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-6zpgub

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