In the previous post I listed some characteristic layout features of the Voynich large-plant pages.  Now it’s time to see if there are any other plant manuscripts using the same layout. I will only consider the layout, so aspects like drawing style, color, plant types, language and physical material will be ignored. I will simplify the original list by dropping the properties related to the amount of text, because I figured those have more to do with the contents and the language, rather than layout preferences.

  1. One large plant image per page.
  2. No imaginary box around the image (text hugs plant).
  3. Text starts at the top if the image allows this.
  4. No text under the plant or next to the root.
  5. Text is left-aligned and starts at the left side of the image. 

Let’s have a look at a few typical examples of Voynich layouts to refresh our mental image of the page. The rules lead to three main types of large-plant pages.

Type 1: tall

A tall plant that reaches to the top margin. The text starts as high and as left as possible, taking margins into account.



Type 2: wide

A relatively wide plant that touches the lateral margins before it can reach the top. This leaves space above the plant, which the text readily occupies. If there is a lot of text, additional paragraphs may be added lower, left of the plant.


Type 3: top heavy

When a plant widens at the top, leaving little space to the left of the image, the scribe may choose to start lower, in this case at the stem. This type is relatively rare.



Almost there: single plants and soil text

It’s not uncommon for plant manuscripts, or indeed entire traditions, to be as image-centered as the VM. Indeed, some manuscripts feature page-filling plant drawings with not more than a few words of text. And even manuscripts with smaller drawings and multiple plants per page may contain a few single, full page plants as well.

Sloane 4016 usually groups various items per page, but features a few folios filled by a single plant as well.
Canon Misc 408
A typical page from “alchemists’ herbal” MS. Canon. Misc. 408, 15thC Italian. One plant per page but no text. Additionally, the plant drawings are more modest in their expanse than those in the VM.

What I’m interested in here, though, is rather the question how the large image and full paragraph(s) are integrated on the page. A common style quite different from the VM layout is what I call “soil text”. Here the text is placed next to the root, making it look like the ground the plant is growing in. A surprising number of manuscripts and traditions favor this layout. It appears to be especially common in Latin herbals and later traditions.

These are some examples of “soil text”:

Clm 337
Munich Clm 337, 10th century, South Italy
Liquorice in MS ljs 419, 15th century Italy. Text and image overlap.
From MS Cim. 79, 15th century Germany. Text in two columns, likely written before image.
Vermont TR F Herbal
Vermont TR F Herbal, late 15th C. Italy

The reason why I focus on soil text is twofold: in one way it behaves a lot like VM text, but in another way the two are opposites. As the examples from the Vermont herbal (bottom) and Clm.337 (top) show, soil text often “hugs” the plant, adapting to its shape effortlessly just like VM text. But on the other hand soil text, as the name implies, hugs the plant as low as possible even when there is room next to the flowers. The VM always prefers a high placement for the text, and only crosses the imaginary horizon on a few occasions. Never is there any text beneath the plant.

A large percentage of manuscripts appears to focus on economy of space by combining image and text in the most pragmatic way. They don’t really care about top text (VM) soil text, as long as the page is filled nicely. An interesting example of such an economizing manuscript is the enigmatic Trinity College MS O.2.48. It looks like several images were drawn on the page first, and the text runs on relentlessly beside them. However, just like the VM, it’s got a strong preference for text to start left of the plant, which makes its layout more Voynich-like than one would expect at first glance.

Trinity College MS O.2.48


Best Layout Matches

Luckily, there are a few manuscripts which do match the VM’s large plant layout almost completely. I found three manuscripts, though I hope there are more; don’t hesitate to let me know which ones I missed. I will not discuss the Topkapi museum Cod. 2127 here, since not enough of its pages are available online to form an opinion. Moreover, the relevance of the parallel I pointed out earlier transcends layout. That leaves two manuscripts to be discussed in this post: the Juliana Anicia Codex and Padua, Biblioteca del Seminario 194.

Juliana Anicia Codex

A known [1] candidate for a layout match is the Juliana Anicia Codex (Vienna Dioscorides), a beautifully illustrated late Antique manuscript. A large number of its folios follow the strict standards I have deduced from the VM’s layout. The following images represent completely different plants: left a blackberry plant from the Juliana Anicia, right an oak twig with berry-tentacles from the Voynich. It’s not about the plants though, it’s about the way the image and its accompanying paragraph(s) are stuck together, the way they inhabit the page.


Here’s another example, where the Dioscorides plant represents a (very weird) water lily. Compare the top paragraphs:


This deserved some more digging. I read in Collins’ Medieval Herbals that the Vienna Dioscorides was written in Greek uncial script (basically a late Antique equivalent of ALL CAPS). Those pages which struck me as particularly Voynich-like, however, are written in a fluent Greek minuscule. The following picture is an example of what the Juliana Anicia codex initially looked like (from the facsimile) [2]. Note that image and text are placed on different pages; the only text near the image are labels added at various later stages, and the uncial script from the other side of the page shining through.


This was the original layout of many pages of the codex, as it was produced for Juliana Anicia: text on one page, and a beautiful, page-filling illustration on the next.

In a minority of the cases, the uncial text is placed around the plant, but this is definitely not the rule. Consider the following example, where we get uncial script in “soil text” position, and Greek minuscule in “Voynich position”. On the right a Voynich plant (f23v) for layout comparison.


The origin of the Greek minuscule is explained by Janick & Hummer (2012, pdf):

[The Juliana Anicia Codex] was fully restored, foliated, and rebound in 1406 by the notary John Chortasmenos at the request of Nathaniel, a monk at the St. John Prodromos Monastery in Constantinople, who placed the cursive numberings on the plant paintings and the transcript of the plant titles and some descriptions in Greek minuscule.

So the text with Voynich-like layout was added by a monk (Nathaniel) in Constantinople, in 1406. Remember that the vellum of the VM was dated to 1404–1438. I hope you don’t find it too complicated yet, because there’s more to consider.

Padova, Biblioteca del Seminario, 194

Another manuscript with Voynich-like layout is Padova, Biblioteca del Seminario, 194. Its paper pages were unbound and badly damaged when it was recovered in the mid-20th century. The manuscript is a faithful copy of the Juliana Anicia Codex as illustrated by the image below, with the original from the JAC left and the Padua MS on the right.


It was copied in the middle of the 14th century, which predates the additions of the Voynich-like schollia to the JAC by half a century. However, many of its pages bear text in Voynich-layout, where those in its exemplar are text-free (bar a few labels).

Collins (p. 75) writes that the Padua MS is “thought to have been collated and copied at the monastery of St John Prodromos in Petra in Constantinople during the fourteenth century”. In other words, it was made in the same monastery where the scholia were added to the JAC some 50 years later. The exact date and maker of the manuscript are debated, but it is likely connected to the monk Neophytos and Mioni [3] dates it between 1339 and 1406, arguing for a date closer to the end of the 14th century.

It is safe to say, then, that the Voynich-like layout in both manuscripts is connected to the monks of the Byzantine monastery of St John Prodromos. So we’ve got a group of monks between 1339 and 1406 adding Greek minuscule to full-page plant drawings, in the rare layout the VM uses as well. And, as things Voynich tend to go, not much is known about this monastery.

Although the monastery of St. John Prodromos τῆς Πέτρας was a major monastic establishment in the capital, little information about it has come down to us. According to tradition its founder was an Egyptian monk named Baras, who lived at the capital during the reign of Theodosios the Great. [4]

It might be worth a closer look though.



[1] See Diane O’Donovan’s post on the subject here.

[2] Many thanks to Marco Ponzi for showing me this image, and his help with the subject of herbals in general.

[3] See pdf in Italian (slow download for me).