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Prediction time...

Hi everyone,

Happy New Year to you all!

In the spirit of medieval almanackes and soothsayers, here's my New Year's Day best-guess of what the VMS are all about (and why) - feel free to shoot me down in flames for the next 12 months, until we can restart the process in Jan 2003. :-)


The VMS are a Northern Italian proto-gynaecologist's version of the early 15th Century "Physician's folding calendar" as found in Sloane MS 2250. But instead of uroscopy charts and "zodiac man" diagrams, it holds information pertinent to her own particular profession.

This (of course) begs the question - what information would that be?


The primary information would be her own copy of a herbal (like Dioscorides): and (unsurprisingly) this is what I think we will find when we decode the botanical pages - I don't expect any huge
surprises here. In fact, my strategy will be to find existing Southern European Dioscorides' text and use the structure of that on those botanical pages strongly identified by Dana to crack the code.

My suspicion here is that our gynaecologist lives in a large urban area, and only has access to the roots (or, rather, the active parts) of herbs and plants via a herb-woman/herbalist or perhaps apothecary: and has particularly concentrated on diagrammatising the root-systems - the (fantastical) flowers are (in many cases) works of imagination based on dried specimens (or written descriptions). In cases like f21r's Rupturewort (where she knows the leaves but not the roots) she barely bothers to draw the roots in at all - that would go against the grain for someone whose stock-in-trade is roots.

This of course leads on to the whole pharma section: these would be then recipes for women's-health-related ailments or conditions. My suspicion is that the mysterious containers depicted are a particular type of albarelli made specially for our wealthy gynaecologist, and are an index for her to make fresh batches of each multi-herb recipe.

There's a point to be made here: later medical practitioners moved to one-problem-one-herb solutions, but our author clearly worked within a multi-herb solution mindset. I'll re-read Siraisi on this to see what this implies as for dates and places.


The astrological section's function is now painfully obvious to me - and (as normal) I should have listened to Steve Ekwall months ago. In essence, it's vaguely similar to FAC 8 [1], but for predicting male/female conception.

Steve said (way back) that ES told him that the dots in the stars indicated male/female births: at the time I took this metaphorically, when in fact (like everything else in the VMS) it is probably completely diagrammatic and/or representational.

I think these diagrams are probably meant to be read like this: get an astrologer to determine which degree of which sign the sun is currently in, and then refer to the diagram as to whether conceiving then would yield a male or a female birth. It shouldn't matter to us whether this works or not - but rather whether our gynaecologist believed it to be true.

Many other types of data are likely to be encoded here - hopefully this is a start in decoding them.


The balnaeological section's link (via Tony Clarke's pineapple mayweed + period pains observation in New Scientist) with the botanical section is another indication to me that gynaecology is basically where we should be looking for the narrative thread behind the VMS.

Anecdotally: when I show people the balnaeological section, they always comment (unprompted) on the resemblance between the sketch at the top of f77v's and fallopian tubes.

I believe that part of the author's duties/jobs involved consulting at a large public baths: and that this section contains information that she would use as part of her work.

Another tack I intend to take involves identifying which towns in Europe (specifically in Northern Italy) had large public baths at this time, and if any records of the workers on their payroll during 1400-1500 still exists - basically, to try to identify the social ecology of bath-workers of the time (in the style of the Cambridge historian Peter Burke).

5. MAP

It's entirely possible that the map section holds representation of the gynaecologist's own conception [sorry] of developmental biology - some of the images may even represent her stylistic idea of the inside of the womb - I don't know.

However, I think it's many times more likely that it simply holds stylised maps of nearby towns and roads to help her travel between clients. Map-making skills were in transition during this period, and it may well be that the structure of the VMS' maps can be decoded stylistically using other similar documents. I don't think that this has been adequately explored to date.


At a time when the church strongly disapproved of gynaecology, the owner of the VMS needed to carry round specific data necessary for her work - she had wealthy patrons/clients throughout a large urban area. Basically, she needed an encrypted physician's folding calendar to take with her.

This included data on not only herbs and medicines, but also on women's-health-related issues, such as period pains, fertility and conception, perhaps even contraception as well.

She therefore commissioned an intelligencer (which is what many historians now call code-makers - but back then, such individuals would have usually been well-versed in alchemical and kabbalistic ideas as well) to devise a new code that was not only secure but readable (though not necessarily compact). This was because - for her - it was (literally) a case of life or death. :-|


I'm fairly certain that the above will turn out to be true: but, for a bit of spice, here are some more speculative ideas - make of them what you will. ie, "it would be nice if any of the following were true, but I honestly have no idea one way or the other... yet." :-)

(a) The "tall barrels" from the pharma folios were specially commissioned for the gynaecologist to hold her potions - the recipes beside them show what goes into each. These appear nowhere else in records, so would have been a very local phenomenon - hence would have been produced by local ceramics artisans.
(b) Only someone with wealthy women patrons would have the money to commission such tall barrels - so this limits the VMS to being used within a rich urban area. Apothecaries were very rich, so there would have been room for a specialist type of apothecary - though I don't know whether women were allowed to be members of guilds like the Arte dei Speziale e Medici... my guess is not.
(c) I'd only predict wealthy women patrons to be found in an early modern slightly matriarchal society, or a society with what modern screenwriters call "strong women" - the Church was very strong in some towns, and had the power to burn gynaecologists (or in fact anyone they didn't like much). Our author would have to be operating within a locally modern, humanist, inclusive society, rather than a medieval, religious, purely church-mediated one.
(d) So: we're looking for a Northern Italian town, with highly-skilled local maiolica-making artisans, large public baths, and an early-modern slightly-matriarchal society, with a number of wealthy families who would be modern-minded enough to want a gynaecologist. And with a nearby castle with swallow-tailed crenellations. :-)

Find that town, and you've found where the VMS is from. :-)

Cheers, .....Nick Pelling.....

* * * * * * *

[1] Obscure reference: many years ago, Richard Boulter (a flat-mate of mine from University) compiled an index (for Melody Maker magazine) of the various items published/created by Factory Records in Manchester (the subject of an upcoming film), which included "FAC 8" - the "Factory Egg Timer", by Linder, dated 1979. Here's someone else's notes on Fac 8:-


        Additional Notes:
        Also referred to as the 'Menstrual Egg-Timer'.
        Only one prototype was made by Linder, singer of 'Ludus', who was
        also known as an early girlfriend of Morrissey (!).

        The egg timer looks like an abacus, and is described in one of the
        early Factory newsletters as 'A four bar abacus, seven beads to
        the row, final five blood soaked lint.'

I'm sure it was bleakly hilarious in 1979. :-)