Renzong. PD image. Source: Wikimedia.



Emperor Renzong (宋仁宗)  lived May 30, 1010 – April 30, 1063 and ruled the Northern Song empire for over 40 years, including the era of  SN 1054.  He reigned at the height of the Song empire and was blamed for its later disintegration by following a policy of pacifism in foreign affairs, while allowing the army to lose its strength and encouraging bureaucracy to grow, but what is not so widely mentioned is his reformation of Chinese medicine and the reasons behind it.

In the past omens in the sky such as comets, new stars, eclipses, conjunctions or massing of the planets were thought not only to be indicators of the fates of people and nations but to bring disease from the sky.   Different nations saw these signs different ways, sometimes they foretold great things but more often they were harbingers of doom.  In the Song dynasty as in the time of Tycho the celestial bodies were blamed for all manner of misfortune, war, famines and pestilence.  Below are examples of illustrations of comets showing them as portenders of doom:

Woodcut showing destructive influence of a fourth century comet from Stanilaus Lubienietski's Theatrum Cometicum (Amsterdam, 1668). Image credit: NASA/JPL The illustration shows a view of Augsburg, Germany with the comets of 1680, 1682, and 1683 in the sky.  Image credit: NASA/JPL


Image ID: libr0021, Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection
Photographer: Archival Photograph by Mr. Sean Linehan, NOS, NGS
Tapestry of Bayeux (Normandy) with Halley's comet. PD image. Source: Wikimedia Commons/user Urban.


The image below shows the portrayal of the comet as bringer of sickness and even deformity in the Lucerne chronicle.


Luzerner Schilling 61v. 1513 AD.  Source Wikimedia Commons. PD image.


Image of a comet from 1521 AD:


Nowhere was this burden of the skies greater than in China where the Emperor was charged with maintaining the stability of heaven, any change was seen as certain disaster and none more so than a star that appeared where it should not, portending doom to the nation.  The significance of SN 1054 as an omen for the Emperor was so great that it may have been hidden from him until later or ordered by him to be left off the records.  The Song dynasty does not have contemporary records of any appearance of SN 1054 earlier than July 4th, but the Liao dynasty records this star in connection with the eclipse of May and it is later recorded in the “Sung-shih hsin-pien”, a 15th century manuscript.  The interpretation of astronomical events such as eclipses and comets could be used to oust an unpopular emperor and the fact that bad news of this type appears to have been covered up leads one to think that either the astronomers feared Renzong too much to deliver such a bad omen, or else this Emperor enjoyed great support and had something worthwhile to offer the nation (or at least the government officials).  At the time of Tycho and even Kepler the heavens in Europe were still considered immutable, it was in many places heresy to claim or even worse try to prove otherwise.  Some astronomers were imprisoned by church authorities for such words, and some even put to death for example for suggesting an heliocentric universe.  On both sides of the world and in both eras, the heavens were required to be unchangeable and nothing could put the cat among the pigeons more than the creation of a new star in the heavenly sphere of unchangeable stars.  Celestial bodies as omens, epidemics and misfortune from the stars, the official requirement for an immutable heaven, a time of renaissance in art, technology, philosophy and medicine, unite 11th century China and 16th/17th century Europe.   It is in this backdrop of the celestial bodies and disease that I turn to to attempt to connect the seemingly unconnected contents of the botanical and non-botanical sections of the Voynich Manuscript under this canopy.

Astronomy and medicine in particular were long related in the form of medical astrology, plants, herbs and body parts coming under the influence of zodiac signs and their ruling planets.  Medicines were being prescribed according to which planet ruled the part of the body affected and herbs gathered at certain times of the month or year when these influences were strongest.  This subject matter seemingly diverts one off into the realm of superstition and quackery, but astrology and astronomy were once the same subject and only later did they separate into separate disciplines.  Astronomers of Tycho’s era and the Song dynasty were rarely purely astronomers, it was part of the pursuit to understand the universe and other subjects were also studied, often alongside medicine and astrology (medicine though was a recent pastime of the educated elite in China).   Tycho himself pursued many subjects apart from astronomy, including medicine, although he is most famous for his astronomical successes, as a physician he was not so successful (which leads to the conclusion that the later "botanical" sections if herbal do not relate to him on any scale) but still it was an area he dedicated himself to, and his sister Sophie even more so.  Emperor Renzong was personally interested in acupuncture and chemical medicine but was one of the main reformers of Chinese medicine through necessity.  He was a most unfortunate Emperor, many epidemics occurred during his reign, far more than for any other emperor (10 occurring from 1045-1060 alone).  He recognised the problems the epidemics caused and early in his reign Renzong said that there were no excellent physicians and that is why so many people were dying before their time, this weighed heavily on him as a compassionate leader and he determined the  people should not be left to their fate.

Like the renaissance in Europe, the Song dynasty in China saw a huge leap forward in technology (such as moveable print and gunpowder), understanding and thought and for the first time nobles became seriously involved in the study of medicine, even emperors, which was thought beneath them in former times. The rule of Renzong was more one of pacification than war, scholarly learning (based mainly on Confucianism) and the governmental system became more important than maintaining a large army, study was more and more open to those even from low station who passed the official exams and became scholar-officials.  Medicine became a matter of scholarly interest and governmental obligation and classical texts lost to the past were brought into the hands of physicians, whereas previously medicine had been passed down through families or from master to disciple.  Like Tycho, some were true Renaissance men, Shen Gua for example was an astronomer, mathematician, naturalist and medic and the famous astronomers Su Song and Shen Kuo were experts in many fields.  In some areas China was way ahead of Europe in medicine, the ability to vaccinate against smallpox had been practiced since the 10th century using infected material placed into the nasal cavity and unlike Europe the use of metals and minerals was also employed much sooner in medicine both by alchemists and physicians, along with acupuncture, though issues of toxicity led to plant based medicines gaining ground.  Under Renzong a government sponsored revision of older pharmacopeia took place, gathering and reinterpreting the information to be most effective in an effort to ease the burden of the epidemics on the population.  Renzong was proficient in acupuncture and drug therapy and even oversaw the production of some medicines donating valuable objects such as precious Rhinoceros horn for their use, believing the population should not be left to suffer. Cold damage disorders (illnesses that had a sudden onset with fever and were often fatal), became a prominent feature of the literature and encompassed many of the types of illnesses classed as plagues and epidemics.

In a previous attempt at translation I suggested that the female figure on f66r was the "wife of an Emperor" (one of many wives) and that it recorded a death (of the infant and/or wife), although this was only one possible interpretation it fits very well into my hypothesis.   This folio occurs (in present foliation order) after f57v which I suggested shows the eclipse of 1054 AD in central China and a sighting of SN 1054, and before the general astronomical section (f67r onwards) and the zodiac folios.  f66r is in the midst of botanical folios, including f65r which in an attempted translation in 2008 I suggested was labelled, "comes forth bitterness" (produces soda (alkali)) and referred to Wormwood (leaves), possibly shown as a plant amalgamated with wild Quinine flowers or other plants.  The "text" on f65r is unique on the botanical pages being extremely short and may have a different purpose to the other botanical folios, metaphorically, descriptions of bitterness, e.g., "Wormwood" are found to be associated with celestial bodies that bring destruction and suffering.

Woman.  f66r, cropped. Voynich Manuscript. Credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

This raises a question though, if this is a noble Chinese woman, why are her feet not shown covered or bound?   The origins of foot binding have a number of legends but non substantiated, the oldest actual recorded findings of lotus shoes are in a tomb from 1243.  Su Shih (1036-1101) of the Song dynasty wrote a song of a dancer wanting to try foot binding.  This may be the real truth of the origin of foot binding that it was originally used to temporarily hold the foot upright and in the shape of a crescent Moon much like the modern ballet shoes, and its progress to the well known extreme form was a result of social and gender pressures that came about  in the Song dynasty for women.  In the early 12th century the scholar Chang Pang-Chi claims they were a recent phenomenon and The Yuan dynasty writer T'ao Tsung-i (1366 AD) states that the practice was not generally observed before the reign of Song emperor Shenzong, 1068-1085 AD.  By the end of the Song dynasty foot binding was the norm and lasted until the Manchurian Qing dynasty when it was attempted to outlaw it, abhorring any trace of traditional Chinese culture, but this did not last long and foot binding lasted into modern times.  Many palace portraits of empresses do not show the feet but in the Song dynasty those that do up to 1194 at least show the empresses sporting curled toe shoes that hook the long skirts rather than the tiny straight lotus shoe of the bound foot.  If this is indeed an early Song dynasty noble lady then she may not yet have been  exposed to foot binding.  Coincidentally, the end of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of the Manchurian Qing dynasty coincided with the time Adam Schall von Bell introduced the work of Tycho (Di-gu) to China in a treatise on Western astronomy written in Chinese and Jesuits are given an official role at court.  Early Jesuits such as Ricci (Ming dynasty) though did not object to the practice of foot binding, but during the time of the Qing dynasty when foot binding was not supported by the palace it is unlikely that Jesuits in China would have supported it still.  If the Voynich Manuscript was written during the time of the Qing dynasty, with reference to manuscripts from or about the pre-foot binding Song dynasty, then the woman on f66r I describe as a wife of the emperor, being shown without bound feet is appropriate to the practice of these eras "compared to any other eras since the Tang dynasty up to modern times".  Alternatively of course, the author may not have known about the practice or the presence of cultural clothing or adornment would too easily give away what was meant to remain hidden.

This folio also displays Chinese writing style characteristics in that there is an obvious vertical line of words and one of glyphs on the left hand side of the folio.

Vertical writing.  f66r, cropped. Voynich Manuscript. Credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Emperor Renzong, as mentioned above, presided over one of the most unfortunate reigns in terms of the threat of sickness to the nation and much of the progress made in his reign was with the objective of solving, managing and treating better the many epidemics.  He had 17 wives (Empresses and consorts with high ranking titles) and many palace women (from 1056-1063 there were more than 10,000 palace women of all ranks), although an Emperor could only have one official wife (the Empress) it was common for women to die in childbirth and this partly accounted for the many wives and concubines taken over the lifetime of an Emperor in a bid to produce a surviving male heir.   The Emperor himself is recorded to have lost a number of infants, 3 of his 16 children were boys who died in infancy leaving him with no blood heir, also some of  the 13 girls died (the concubine Zhang (2) bore at least three children, all girls who died in childhood).

His official wife was the Empress Gao, she was chosen for Renzong by the Empress Dowager Liu when he ascended the throne as a minor.  He however was enamoured with another, Zhang (1) (whom he named "Beautiful one" after her death and later bestowed her the title of empress) and the Empress was not only unloved but proved to be barren, so when the Empress dowager Liu died he took the opportunity of her fight with two of his favourite consorts to have her deposed - although she had stuck him such a move was unprecedented.  The other consort who fought with Empress Liu was Yang-Shih (2) being a favourite she was also posthumously given the title "empress" and such honour was sometimes a matter of the heart and favouritism.  Palace women were often promoted to imperial Consorts after giving birth to children, Yu-Shih was one promoted after producing a girl and a boy, other women were promoted through worthy service or family connection, being mother of the regent or again just favouritism, and in the same way to offend the emperor could lead to demotion of position or worse.  Thus the roles and status of the Palace women was complex and one stands out among all of the consorts of Renzong, this was Zhang (2) she entered the palace as a minor and became the enduring love of his life, he gave her the title "Precious Consort" in a ceremony (reportedly because she had saved him from a plot against his life and later with the title "Noble Consort").  Ceremonies however were normally reserved only for empresses, concubines were a cross between wife and maid and acquired or they acted as servants to the Empress and bore children for the Emperor who they addressed as "master".  Secondary consorts (just below the empress) were not however of low status and were often women of high rank and noble family background.   The Emperor showered gifts and favours on Zhang (2) and her family openly and much to the distress of his advisors.  After her death Zhang (2) was given the title of "empress" also but from his behaviour towards her and favouritism bestowed on her wider family it is clear that she held a special place in his affection above all others.  Zhang (2) died in 1054 or 1055 and what is interesting is that her death coincided with the appearance of the new star. 


I suggest that the woman on the bottom of  f66r is most likely to be Zhang (2) and shows the death of this important woman, and possibly her infant also.   Her death not only coincided with the appearance of the star but also may have been due to one of the many epidemics that plagued his reign.  The epidemics may have been considered to have been exacerbated by the presence of the "guest star", and not even the Emperor and his palace escaped their effects.  Epidemics certainly occurred more than once in 1054 AD and the epidemic which occurred in Kaifeng was described as "大疫" which means "great plague",  SN 1054 and the eclipse must have been seen as a curse by the Emperor.  In conclusion, I suggest that the contents of the first part of the manuscript may consist of the star's appearance at the eclipse (which meant death to the Emperor or at least danger to him and loss of heavenly support), the death of his most beloved concubine (and possibly infant), the passage of the star over its life and a pharmacopeia of remedies that could be used on the epidemics (that had long been around but the evil star may have been blamed for any increase in number or severity of  epidemics).  Interestingly, the Liao dynasty of Mongolia squarely blamed the star for the death of their Emperor, Hsing Tsung.  Records of SN 1054 exist from the Song and Liao dynasties and although its presence before July may only have been noticed by the Liao, although this seems unlikely.  Another point of interest is that the 至和  (Zhihe era,1054 - 1056) of Renzong's reign covered the life of SN 1054 and speaks of unsettled times, the next era  嘉祐 (Jaiyou era,1056-1063) may have marked the disappearance of the threat from SN 1054 and speaks of excellent protection.  Although it was not the end of the epidemics and in 1058 there is a record of a memorial made at court by top officials, that heaven blesses the people by stopping the plague.


Epidemics were also common place in Europe, and from the 14th to 17th centuries there was plague somewhere in Europe almost every year without exception.  Tycho is noted to have avoided a visit to Wittenberg because of plague in 1566, he left Copenhagen in 1592 because of plague which even reached his island of Ven and in 1597 he left Rostock for the same reason.  Czech countries suffered three main plague epidemics between 1597 and 1680 (1597, 1613 and 1680), the plague of 1597-1599 was the culmination of many localised outbreaks over the 16th century and was referred to as the "great plague".  In 1599 this epidemic along with dysentery forced Rudolph II himself to abandon Prague temporarily and advise Tycho to avoid Prague, Tycho was charged with supplying the  Holy Roman Emperor with a secret elixir.

"In the official Danish Pharmacoposa
of 1658 several of Tycho's elixirs are given, and in 1599 he
provided the Emperor Rudolph with one against epidemic
diseases, of which the principal ingredient was theriaca
Andromachi, or Venice treacle, mixed with spirits of wine,
and submitted to a variety of chemical operations and ad-
mixtures with sulphur, aloes, myrrh, saffron, &c. This
medicine he considered more valuable than gold, and if the
Emperor should wish to improve it still more, he might add
a single scruple of either tincture of coral or of sapphire, of
garnet, or of dissolved pearls, or of liquid gold if free from
corrosive matter. If combined with antimony, this elixir
would cure all diseases which can be cured by perspiration,
and which form a third part of those which aflict the human
body. This prescription Tycho begged the Emperor to
keep as a great secret,"

from Tycho Brahe; a picture of scientific life and work in the sixteenth century (1890)- Dreyer, J. L. E. (John Louis Emil), 1852-1926

Prague was decimated by these plagues, 30,000 died in the 1597 plague,  1613-1614 and in 1680 83,000 were said to have died in Prague, and so Kepler was also no stranger to these epidemics either.  In 1602, in his book "Concerning The More Certain Fundamentals of Astrology" Kepler attributed illnesses including plague to unsettled weather, conjunctions, eclipses and configurations of the Moon, Sun and the five planets.  He also ascribed events, generally of misfortune, war and even earthquakes to certain conjunctions,  for example, Saturn and Mars conjuncting in Scorpio he ascribed to the St. Bartholomew massacre.  He also talks about the observation that the waxing and waning of the Moon affects moisture in biological systems.   Kepler suffered directly from these many epidemics losing his wife to an infectious fever having previously survived Hungarian fever, epilepsy and phrenitis.  His children contracted smallpox and one died as a result. 


Although mostly considered to be the realm of superstition there are from time to time modern day studies into the effects of the Moon on biological systems, epileptic seizures, bleeding ulcers, post operative bleeding and the intensification of psychiatric disorders in relation to lunar phase, with variable outcomes.   The Moon influences the tides and given natural light conditions the female fertility cycle runs closest to its orbit, and it has been tentatively linked to post operative bleeding.  Some countries time the tree harvest to the new moon as the full and waxing moon causes sap to rise and attracts pests that destroy crops.  As recently as 2001 an article was published suggesting vets had noticed that illnesses increased during the full Moon.  Other modern day studies into the effect of celestial bodies on biological systems include studies into the correlation of peak Sun activity and the inferior conjunctions of Venus on epidemics and some links on this subject area are given at the end of the page. 

The understanding of celestial bodies not only scientifically but in relation to the state of the nation, important persons, general calamities and diseases (their origin, course and how to treat them) was important to Tycho, Kepler and Emperor Renzong.  The emperor no doubt also suffered personal loss like Tycho and Kepler as a result of epidemics and turned to his astronomers for meaning and advice. 



Emperor Renzong:





The rise and regency of empress liu (969–1033) by John Chaffee, Binghamton university. http://www.humanities.uci.edu/eastasian/SungYuan/JSYS/Archive/31/JSYS31_Chaffee.pdf

Women and the family in Chinese history by Patricia Buckley Ebrey.



SN 1054:

V. F. Polcaro and A. Martocchia (2005). Supernovae astrophysics from Middle Age documents.

Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, 1 , pp 264-268


Medicine in the Song Dynasty:

The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Northern Song Dynasty, 960-1127 By Asaf Moshe Goldschmidt.


The Song Dynasty:










Images of life in Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song Dynasty:


The celestial bodies and calamity:





Yeung, J. W. K. (2006)
A hypothesis: sunspot cycles may detect pandemic influenza A in 1700-2000 AD.  - No link


On those heavenly pathogens:

f65r plant:





http://www.purplesage.org.uk/images/photos/Wormwood Koehler-Schoepke.jpg


Wild Quinine:



Priclky Saltwort




Copyright © 2010 P. Han