Botany is not without its mysteries. And one that’s previously eluded solution for 600 years or so is that of the so-called Voynich manuscript, an illustrated codex (a book made up of a number of sheets) consisting of about 240 pages, hand-written in an unknown writing system. Carbon-dated to the early 15th century, there are nevertheless suggestions that it might not be an ancient language but a hoax. And, despite containing many images of plants and other biological entities, its message and purpose has remained obscure (although an imaginative botanical interpretation is that it might represent a mediaeval plant physiology treatise). However, Stephen Bax, Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire (UK) has now claimed to have begun to decipher the manuscript’s text.
Progress is slow, but amongst the first few words to have been revealed are juniper, taurus, coriander, Centaurea, chiron, hellebore, Nigella sativa, kesar and cotton. A confident Bax declared, ‘… my research shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language’. Clearly, some way to go before we have a final, complete version, and can use it as a set text in plant physiology classes (so don’t throw out Taiz & Zeiger’s Plant Physiology just yet!). But another ancient manuscript whose purpose is more obvious is the Tractatus de Herbis (‘Treatise on Medicinal Plants’), a manual of materia medica [‘a Latin medical term for the body of collected knowledge about the therapeutic properties of any substance used for healing (i.e., medicines)’] compiled during the 15th century. This tome has been reproduced in a limited edition facsimile replica of 987 copies (price available ‘on request’, though I suspect that if you’ve got to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it…). This limited edition is accompanied by a full-colour commentary volume by Alain Touwaide,Research Associate of the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, USA and Scientific Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC (USA).
[If you want to view the Voynich manuscript – for free! – it is available on-line. Even if the majority of the words are elusive, the images are quite wondrous… For more Voynich images and interpretations – e.g. putative plant identifications – Ellie Velinska’s blog is worth a visit – Ed.]