The marvelous food depicted in these two panels of Late Gothic German stained glass may have been of vegetable origin. Left: Gathering Manna. Moses, holding the staff received from God on Mount Sinai, presides over the gathering of a miraculous fall of quail and manna from heaven. Right: Storing up Manna. Two men bear a large wooden tub of manna into a tent; a third man carries a great basketful in his arms.
The identification of Biblical plants has occupied investigators for centuries; the identity of manna is one of the most intriguing and most debated of ethnobotanical mysteries, although some interpreters have suggested that the substance is of insect rather than vegetable origin.
Several trees, including a species of ash and a species of tamarisk (Tamarix mannifera), have been proposed as the source of the manna from heaven described in Exodus 16:4 and 13–35, and mentioned by name in a number of other books of the Bible. A desert lichen (Lecanora esculenta; see image), a fungus, and even an algae (Nostoc commune; see image) have also been put forward. The lichen, which can blow through the air when detached by strong winds, has been known to rain down on desert settlements, and is used by Syrian Bedouins to make a bread.
Several substances entered the medieval pharmacopeia under the name of manna, including an exudation from the so-called manna ash (Fraxinus ornus). According to Jerry Stannard, an authority on medieval medical botany, Albertus Magnus’ account of the sweet-tasting manna, which follows his discussion of sugar, is derived from Avicenna and the Circa Instans of Platearius. (Platearius concerns himself with the adulteration of drugs, and mentions a counterfeit preparation of manna). Albertus seems to conflate the secretion of the manna ash with another substance exuded by insects.
A white, sweet honey-like stuff known in Arabic as mann is still gathered from Tamarix mannifera in northern Iraq. This manna is produced when the bark is punctured by a species of insect, Coccus manniparus. The sweet liquid exuded from the tree quickly congeals when exposed to air.
Frank Anderson identifies the medicinal manna mentioned in the fifteenth-century Hortus sanitatis as tamarisk manna. Described as warm in the first degree, and between moist and dry, it is said to fall from heaven like dew; it is of a clear, whitish color tinged with red, and has a sweetish taste. Recommended for coughs, roughness of the chest, catarrh, and opening the sinuses, manna is also said to have the property of strengthening other medicines.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Moldenke, Harold N. and Alma L. Moldenke. Plants of the Bible. Waltham, MA: 1952. Reprinted. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.
Stannard, Jerry. Pristina Medicamenta: Ancient and Medieval Medical Botany. Ed. Katherine Stannard and Richard Kay. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.
Tags: Albertus Magnus, algae, Avicenna, Bible, Circa Instans, Coccus manniparus, Exodus, Fraxinus ornus, Hortus Sanitatis, Lecanora esculenta, lichen, manna, Nostoc commune, Platearius, tamarisk, Tamarix mannifera