Alchemical Herbals

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Herbals, compendiums of plant lore, have a more complex history than most mediaeval books. They typically consist of short chapters each devoted to a single plant, with its various names, a description of its properties and (usually but not always) an illustration which was more often copied from an older manuscript than drawn from life. Compared with most mediaeval manuscripts, herbals were subject to much editing and rewriting at each copying, in part to suit patrons in different botanical regions of Europe: we therefore speak not of different copies of the same work but of successive works in certain well defined traditions, rather like successive editions of the same atlas or dictionary today. The principal traditions such as Dioscorides and Pseudo-Apuleius go back to individual books written in classical antiquity, as is shown in the recent comprehensive survey of the subject by Minta Collins.

The Voynich manuscript has been compared to a particular herbal tradition known by the slightly misleading name of 'alchemical herbals' (they are simply herbals and are not about alchemy). An examination of works in this tradition shows that the Voynich manuscript is certainly not a copy or translation of any of them, but like the Fontana ciphers they are a close analogue in various ways. The alchemical herbals are characterised by their somewhat surreal illustrations, similar in each manuscript and deriving from a lost original probably composed in early fifteenth century Italy: many of the plants are pictured with strange roots shaped like animals or contorted into geometrical patterns, and some of the leaves are drawn with eyes. They also share a common textual tradition based on a fixed list of 98 plants which is extended in some manuscripts but always appears in the same, non-alphabetical order. The unfamiliar names are derived from Italian folk tradition and enable most of the plants to be identified. This web page has an image of one page from an alchemical herbal.

The alchemical herbals have been studied by Vera Segre Rutz, the material on this page being a summary of her work. Segre Rutz identifies a direct tradition of seven manuscripts and an indirect tradition of seventeen others which rework the same material more freely. Four manuscripts of the indirect tradition were owned by the distinguished naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1607) and bequeathed by him to the university library of Bologna. He identified them as describing plants of particular interest to alchemists (for instance the herba lunaria was reputed to aid the transmutation of base metal into silver and gold). Aldrovandi himself was not an alchemist and his own herbal belongs to a later, more scientific period in the history of botany.

Manuscripts in the direct tradition

Manuscripts in the indirect tradition

History of the direct tradition

The textual history of the seven manuscripts in the main tradition is this. An original manuscript 'x' was the exemplar of two direct copies 'y' and 'z'. All three are now lost, but 'y' was copied twice as the two Paris manuscripts; and the Vicenza manuscript is a copy of the Paris manuscript 17844. The other four surviving manuscripts are direct copies of the lost 'z'.


Lupo presents an edition and facsimile of the Trent manuscript with selected illustrations from other manuscripts in the direct and indirect traditions. Ragazzini gives an edition of the Florence manuscript and Segre Rutz an edition of the Pavia manuscript with pictures of each of its illustrations and a verbal description of all the other manuscripts in the direct and indirect tradition. Collins briefly surveys the tradition of alchemical herbals but avoids duplicating Segre Rutz's work.

Names of the 98 herbs in the alchemical herbals

  1. Herba Antolla minor
  2. Herba Bortines
  3. Herba Torogas
  4. Herba Nigras
  5. Herba Stellaria
  6. Herba Bonifatia
  7. Herba Betonega
  8. Herba Instanutia
  9. Herba Canalaritas romana
  10. Herba Rena
  11. Herba Triacho
  12. Herba Bososilles
  13. Herba Angalles
  14. Herba Toros
  15. Herba Grantia
  16. Herba Tortorellis
  17. Herba Lingua cornena
  18. Herba Trifolio
  19. Herba Ariola
  20. Herba Superna
  21. Herba Faba inversa
  22. Herba Paris
  23. Herba Ciloga
  24. Herba Antollas
  25. Herba Antolla lupanas
  26. Herba Cofflesanas
  27. Herba Cancealis
  28. Herba Toffanas
  29. Herba Brancha lupina
  30. Herba Salsifica
  31. Herba Sabastrella
  32. Herba Amorsu serpentis
  33. Herba Tedorixe
  34. Herba Lucea et de nouem una
  35. Herba Ditimo biancho
  36. Herba Requificia
  37. Herba Illocharias
  38. Herba Foleas
  39. Herba Angalles
  40. Herba Luza Mandragora
  41. Herba Illioris
  42. Herba Tilles
  43. Herba Paroischas
  44. Herba Corporelis
  45. Herba Cipola marina
  46. Herba Palma Christi
  47. Herba Bazea minor et de nouem una
  48. Herba Folio
  49. Herba Rigogola
  50. Herba Pane porcino
  51. Herba Artetica montaria
  52. Herba Mula campana
  53. Herba Zinziana
  54. Herba Oculus Domini
  55. Herba Sancta Maria
  56. Herba Lunaria greca
  57. Herba Capalias
  58. Herba Nascurso
  59. Herba Belletollis
  60. Herba Metries
  61. Herba Ystatoris
  62. Herba Polexinas
  63. Herba Serpentina
  64. Herba Pionica
  65. Herba Rucha savlaticha
  66. Herba Caspetres
  67. Herba Brancha
  68. Herba Spigonarda
  69. Herba Lunaria
  70. Herba Erba rigano
  71. Herba Sigillo de Sancta Maria
  72. Herba Rapillis
  73. Herba Bustania
  74. Herba Forus
  75. Herba Capalarices
  76. Herba Luminellas
  77. Herba Ruschasia
  78. Herba Scudaria
  79. Herba Lunaria
  80. Herba Tunegi
  81. Herba Lactica
  82. Herba Barbaria
  83. Herba Tura
  84. Herba Gerbia
  85. Herba Bruza
  86. Herba Lunaria tercia
  87. Herba Attillia
  88. Herba Victoria
  89. Herba Rondella
  90. Herba Genesiana aliter Genciana
  91. Herba Fiorina
  92. Herba Capillaria
  93. Herba Giralia
  94. Herba Gratilia sive Gratiana
  95. Herba Granellaria
  96. Herba Pionia
  97. Herba Consolida mayor
  98. Herba Consolida minor

Sample text: description of Antolla minor

Ad sanandum omnia vulnera. Accipe folia et radices et fac pulverem et de pulvere pone in vulneribus; facit sanare et purificare illa vulnera. Item mulier que patitur egritudinem in matrice asuescat comedere de ista herba per spatium triginta dierum et erit sanata. Item persona quem momorderit bissa vel alia bestia venenosa, accipiat de dicta herba et pistet eam et faciat emplastrum super morsuram, subito removet dolorem et tosicum. Item si quis habet angustiam aut dolorem in corpore, bibat de pulvere superscripte herbe et subito curatur. Nascitur in terreno macro ubi sunt castani.