Of Pepper and serpents

Ibi nascitur multitudo piperis, quod idem serpentes custodiunt...

By the time of Herodotus, the Mediterranean  world had heard of various aromatic tropical plants’ being guarded by snakes and by the time of Alexander, or at least of Hadrian, the Pepper vine was among them.   Difficulties attending the harvesting of pepper would continue to be mentioned in western works until the fifteenth century –  so for about two thousand years altogether.

The version of ‘pepper and its guardian serpents’ story in Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.48 (fol. 93r) seems close to the entry in Isidore’s Etymologies (Bk. XVII, viii.8) which I quote below, but with others involved in translating parts of the TCC manuscript,  I’ll leave its discussion aside for now.

Pliny’s invention of  devious and dishonest ‘natives’ to explain what he (in his ignorance of India) thought unlikely is an early example of a now not-uncommon phenomenon: a  self-confidence which resorts to imaginative hypotheses rather than historical enquiry to manage what it cannot explain.

Pliny didn’t like his compatriots’ using foreign spices and wasn’t keen on the sort of traders who, at that time, brought eastern produce and products to Rome. So Pliny created a version of the  legend of ‘pepper-guarding snakes’ that bolstered his self-image as rational and clear-minded, while simultaneously suggesting that pepper selling ‘natives’ were mercenary liars and those who paid a high price for pepper were fools.

A modern writer who like most western writers reports this “scepticism” with approval sees nothing odd in Pliny’s bias:

Venerable though it was, the idea that serpents surround and therefore impede the harvest of fragrant plants was not universally accepted. Pliny .. ridiculed Herodotus’s accounts of the dangers of gathering cinnamon and cassia – as deliberate fabrications put forth by natives of the regions where the spices grow in order to elevate prices. Pliny’s comment offers the first intimation of a commercial motive for such alleged marvels. Theophrastus in his authoritative botanical treatise also dismissed these stories as fables. [emphasis above, present author].

So what happened to that basic question: Is it true?

Is it true that ‘natives’ were able to raise prices by telling marvellous tales? No, as it happens. Pepper sales to foreigners were a monopoly in Kerala, and prices were set by quality and availability, and presumably further by competition between foreign buyers when resources were relative scarce.

The fact that pepper – unlike incense or balsam – was openly grown near the port where it was sold; that there were enclaves of foreign merchants resident there, and that any transient merchant who missed the west-bearing monsoons had to live in the port for months on end meant, altogether that  literally thousands of potential debunkers existed, over the two millennia while accounts continued to be given of the pepper-guarding serpents.

The ‘debunking’ never occurs among first-hand witnesses during the earlier centuries, to judge from the Latin texts. Quite the opposite, and as the same writer notes, in passing:

The difficulties of harvesting pepper are mentioned frequently in texts from the ninth to fifteenth centuries.”

Why?  The interesting historical question is not so much why the legend arose, than why it  continued to be maintained from the time of Alexander, or at least of Hadrian[1] to the fifteenth century.

So to Isidore,  writing in Spain in the seventh century.  The  English translation by Barney, Lewis, Beach and Berghof reads.

The pepper tree (piper) grows in India, on the side of the Caucasian range that faces the sun. Its leaves are like the juniper’s. Serpents protect the pepper groves, but the inhabitants of that region, when the peppers ripen, burn them, and the serpents are put to flight by the fire–and from this flame the pepper, which is naturally white, is made black. In fact there are several kinds of pepper fruits. The unripe kind is called ‘long pepper’; that unaffected by fire, ‘white pepper’; but that which has a wrinkled and bristly skin takes both its color (i.e. ‘black’) and its name (cf. !N, “fire”) from the heat of the fire. If a pepper is light in weight it is old; if heavy, it is fresh. But the fraud of the merchants should be guarded against, for they are wont to sprinkle litharge or lead over very old, moistened pepper to make it heavy.

Etymologies Bk XVII.viii.8

The Latin:

Piperis arbor nascitur in India, in latere montis Caucasi, quod soli obversum est, folia iuniperi similitudine. Cuius silvas serpentes custodiunt, sed incolae regionis illius, quum maturae fuerint, incendunt, et serpentes igni fugantur; et inde ex flamma nigrum piper efficitur. Nam natura piperis alba est, cuius quidem diversus est fructus. Nam quod inmaturum est, piper longum vocatur, quod incorruptum ab igni, piper album; quod vero cute rugosa et horrida fuerit, ex calore ignis trahit et colorem et nomen. Piper si leve est, vetustum est; si grave, novellum. Vitanda est autem mercatorum fraus; solent enim vetustissimo piperi humecto argenti spumam aut plumbum aspargere ut ponderosum fiat.

Etymologiae Bk 17. 8.8.

The practical details are pretty right, overall.  All the varieties of colour do come from the same plant;  the heavier, rather than the lighter, pepper is the fresher; complaints of adulteration at the European end of the trade-route are so common  that we accept those too. But the supposedly ‘deceitful natives’ are created from pure imagination by Pliny; the basic information is that snakes prevented free access to certain tropical aromatics.

Whether fire was once used to disperse reptiles before gathering pepper I cannot discover, but heat (now from the sun) is certainly part of the processing before sale.

The same modern scholar whom I’ve quoted above only wishes Pliny and other western writers had been more consistent in disbelief:

… Pliny and Theophrastus are not consistent in their scepticism, for elsewhere they describe other aromatic plants [cassia and cinnamon among them]  being infested with very small, very poisonous serpents. On one level the snakes and the burning pepper trees form another enduring bit of classical and medieval lore about the Orient as a place of luxuries and wonders…

Cinnamon and Cassia.

It is indisputable that snakes do infest the tropics where cinnamon and cassia were and are grown.  In Kerala, from which pepper was sold to the eastern and western markets, one find every venomous snake of India,  and indeed, as classical authors say, some are quite small and are deadly.

Consider cinnamon country – (the next quote slightly edited; the original is here).

Cinnamomum zeylanicum [occurs among] species which range from other rare and valuable trees and shrubs to an incredibly rich and diverse collection of animals..  Some of the common .. include … venomous snakes (Merrem’s Hump-Nosed Viper or Russell’s Viper the most common).

Full grown, the average length of the Hump-nosed pitviper is  half a meter. (see Hypnale hypnale.)

So harvesting cinnamon and its neighbour cassia was, in fact, as people kept telling  inhabitants of the western Mediterrnean, hampered by the proximity of ‘small, poisonous snakes’.

The case is still more definite, clear and positive with regard to pepper, which is an evergreen perennial vine that flourishes in clearings within the dense tropical forests of Kerala and the western Ghats.

Within Kerala are to be found no fewer than twenty different snakes and of them I illustrate some which have a positive preference  for living in vines and trees. That shown to the lower right (below) has evolved its camouflage from the vines and  Ahaetulla nasutais also one of those rare snakes which gives birth to live young. (To see 20 serpents native to Kerala and the western Ghats – here).

Another modern author [2] speaks of the vine’s growing easily in more accessible places, too:

While growing up in Kerala, black pepper was just another spice for me. The perennial pepper creepers grew in people’s backyards on areca and coconut palms, mango trees and jackfruit trees.[3]

(below) Pepper mixed with coconuts – carried by the seventeenth-century ‘Pepper wreck’ to Portugal.

Before swelling foreign demand had led to the creation of pepper ‘farms’ laid out like vineyards, the pepper was gathered where it naturally grew –  in those forest clearings described above and illustrated below.

Here too, even today, these glades contain relics of once numerous serpent-shrines and temples. The pepper vines had serpent guardians in more sense than one.

One of the most ancient of these forest-glade temples or shrines is Mannarasala which is active to this day and is deemed one of India’s ‘seven wonders’.

It sits squarely on the route up the eastern coast from the pepper country and early foreigners’ port of Muziris (near modern Kollam) in the south, and that northern port known to classical and medieval Latins as Barygaza or Broach.

With the pepper-trade located in the south, and its monopoly formally granted to the Community of Thomas (some say from the 1stC AD, but certainly in the 13thC) one might expect some effort made to  ensure that traders trying to take pepper north and avoid the monopoly might find some barrier to passage along the route. Whether this occurred at Mannarasala with its 30,000 serpents in stone, history has not revealed (so far), but in one sense or another it marked the gateway and the barrier to the pepper .

Mannarasala  is unique in many ways, not its antiquity but also for  its being maintained by a line of priestesses.  Its promise is of  health and life,  as Asclepius’ cult was in the Mediterranean. One online site says that it is part of the temple’s religious protocol that noting – not even a leaf- may be taken from the forest.

(left) a smaller shrine within Mannarasala; (right) one of the 30,000.

Today Mannarasala  is visited chiefly by women hoping for a full-term pregnancy but a ritual saying of the priestesses there suggests prosperity and  general good health were promises made as part of the founding legend:

“Those who worship me with faith and devotion will have everything and be free from diseases.” 

Those who worship me with devotion will have children, will be cured of diseases, will have long life and health and wealth; the men of the family will have the title of ‘Vasukisridevi”. He reminded that the rituals and customs suggested by Parasurama are inviolable. (quote from Mannarasala.org).

In any case, and whether in the literal, spiritual or geographic sense, pepper vines were certainly guarded by serpents.

Cuius silvas serpentes custodiunt…

Pool and vines.. Mannarasala


[1] from Paul Freedman, ‘Spices and Late-Medieval European Ideas of Scarcity and Value’, Speculum, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Oct., 2005), pp. 1209-1227 (n.2 p.1209)

Edmond Faral, “Une source latine de l’histoire d’Alexandre: La lettre sur les merveilles de l’Inde,” Romania 43 (1914), 119-215 and 353-70, at p. 205 (version A): “Ibi nascitur multitudo piperis, quod idem serpentes custodiunt; homines vero per industriam suam sic colligunt: cum maturum fuerit, incendunt eadem loca, et serpentes sentientes ignem fugiunt et sub terra se mittunt m?rito propter flammam: piper ipsum nigrum efficiet et sic eligitur, verumtamen natura piperis alba est.” On the relation between this text and Isidore of Seville, see pp. 354 and 358-59. On the complex history of the letter, see Ann Knock, “Wonders of the East: A Synoptic Edition of the Letter of Pharasmanes and the Old English and Old Picard Translations” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of London, 1982).

[2] Ammini Ramachandran’s story is particularly interesting because, though her early life was spent in Kerala -and she surely knows its snakes and their habitat – she repeats the ‘official’ fantasy by Pliny, adapting it to the fourteenth century and so now making those duplicitous ‘natives’ into Arab merchants, elaborating the tale as has been so often done:

In order to protect their market and to enhance the price of the spices and also to discourage competitors, Arab traders artfully withheld the true sources of the spices they transported from Kerala. According to a 14th century book, The Nature of Things, pepper is the seed or fruit from a tree that grows in the lush forests on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains in the hottest sunshine. The pepper forests are full of snakes that guard the trees. When fruits are ripe, people set fire to the forest, the snakes flee, and the thick flames blacken the pepper fruits and make them sharper

It isn’t a fourteenth-century story: it’s very much older.

[3] ‘Jackfruit’ (Artocarpus heterophyllus),a species of tree in the fig, mulberry, and breadfruit family (Moraceae).  I read folio 3v as reference to the Artocarpus group and the image in Beinecke MS 408 shows the makers’ reognition of its ‘fig-like’ characteristics. The post is entitled ‘fol 3v: Figs and festivals’ (July 14th., 2012).

More pictures of Mannarasala  here.

War between science and religion: The Draper-White thesis and ideas about the Voynich manuscript

An ill-founded thesis by Draper and White gained popular appeal from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It so excited the popular imagination, and so deeply infected popular notions about medieval Europe that its reflection is clearly seen in the attitudes and assumptions which Wilfrid Voynich and William Friedman brought to their study of the Voynich manuscript.

Nor did such attitudes fade after the second world war.  They are still endemic today among a certain set of self-proclaimed ‘skeptic-rationalists’.

As antidote I recommend Thony Christie’s recent post:

‘Perpetuating the myths’,thonyc.wordpress.com (May 17th., 2017)

-a taste of his style:

Throughout the twentieth century historians of science have striven to undo the damage done by the Draper-White thesis and return the history of the relationship between science and religion to the complex and multifaceted reality … They were not helped in recent decades by the emergence of the so-called New Atheists and the ill considered and unfortunately often historically ignorant anti-religious polemics spewed out by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, supposedly in the name of freedom of thought. I have, although a life-long atheist myself, on more than one occasion taken up arms..

Thony’s ‘Renaissance Mathematicus’ blog is as well-regarded as widely liked. And at the time of writing Thony has 5,402 followers.

His post includes a recommendation:

‘The Great Myths 3: Giordano Bruno was a Martyr for Science’ .

a post by Tim O’Neill, (who is not the Voyichero T.O’N.).

Speaking of Bruno, this other Tim writes:

Despite the fact that he can’t be called a scientist and nothing he did was remotely like science (even by sixteenth century standards), New Atheist pseudo history desperately needs Bruno to be a martyr for science, because without him the whole “Christianity suppressed science” dogma has no martyrs at all.


Header credits.

The (fantasy) image of Roger Bacon with telescope from 1936 while the Wilfrid story was still the only story.  Edward Lutz, Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge,  Franciscan Studies No. 17.

The (cartoon) image of Galileo and telescope from a sure-to-be-profitable graphic novel by Steven and Ben Nadler, Heretics!  


Ring o’Roses: minimap as itinerary Pt 1

[correction made – 18/05/2017. ]

The ‘mini-map’ contains just one structure (right) representing the Latin west, the only reference to western Europe anywhere in the map though so vaguely defined (as: ‘between the inner and outer seas’) that it seems to betray an indifference as great as we find in the rest of the manuscript.  If this roof is meant as a roof, Avignon or Peñiscola are reasonable possibilities; if as a flame, it could be any western beacon existing during the early twelfth to fifteenth centuries, or which was remembered to have once existed.  Porto Pí in Mallorca or La Lanterna for Genoa are two possibilities.

The Voynich map

Overall, the Voynich map (left) is fairly called a map, but what

The ‘minimap’ occupying the map’s Northern roundel – (not to be confused with the emblem for North)

now fills its northern roundel – the “minimap” (right) – is concerned with just one route through the eastern Mediterranean: from the Black Sea via Constantinople to Egypt.


It is not so much a ‘map’ as an itinerary: that is,  a nicer-looking version of that type of ‘back-of-an-envelope’ sketch you’re given by someone familiar with a particular road or journey.

The difference between ‘map as map’ and map as graphic itinerary is explained later; the chief point now is that they were not then, and are not now, ‘pure’ forms.

Keeping in mind that the map as now bound has east to the viewer’s upper left, it is evident that the three centres emphasised belong to the north, south and eastern side of the starry sea; their regions coinciding with those of the alliance which Ciocîltan calls the ‘Serai-Constantinople-Cairo axis’.

To the north, the Mongol Khans who controlled the Black Sea had capitals at Tana and at Serai. To the south, the Mamluk capital was Cairo. Between them lay Constantinople, serving as halfway house and diplomatic intermediary, its interest being not only revenue from the eastern trade but safety from the military ambitions of each principal.

Genoa and Venice were not important to the principals in political terms, but their citizens were essential cogs in the commercial machine: these Latins had the means and know-how to maintain commercial traffic, generate vital state revenues and provide military or naval assistance as wanted.

It was an alliance which certainly had a profound  effect on Europe’s history from the latter part of the thirteenth century to the end of the fourteenth, and provides the wider stage in which the Latin cities fought for preferential status from Serai and/or from Cairo. It also created the political and economic environment which permitted a Genoese ship to carry an eastern disease – the Black Death –  from the Crimea to infect Marseilles, Paris, Rome, London and central Europe. For these and other reasons, I have treated this section in terms of that alliance and its time.

Emblem for North – description

It has been clear for some  time that the emblem used to denote the map’s North is a geographical one: a site-plan, and that this place is beyond the Black Sea.  By 2012 I was considering Mtsketa; somewhat later, Tabriz.

The site appears as follows: roughly circular though flatted along the perimeter from East to South; partly protected by two arcs of palisade – one from approx due north to East; the other from NNW approx. though SSW approx.

Divided by two lines, coloured blue, the longer dissecting the space approx. NNW to SSE, and  the shorter  connecting the centre to a point on the perimeter SW. (I am speaking of the lines’ direction not  direction of flow).

Two ways connect it to the wider world, a smaller path southwards drawn reminiscent of a rutted cart-track, and what is fairly termed a highway or king’s road leading east. This is made broad, smooth, with even sides and edges –  and supported by an embankment.

Despite those palisades and roads, the drawing is constantly misread by newcomers as a ‘T-O’ diagram  –  so commonly that we must once again digress.

A T-O diagram shows a circular world entirely surrounded by the wide band of an external Ocean.  As a general rule, a T-O diagram is oriented towards the east (that is, drawn with east up) so its longer line of division runs directly north-south, separating Asia from the two smaller regions below:  Europe on the northern side and Africa on the southern side. This idea of the world – all of the world – required an absolute boundary, which was envisaged as that encircling Ocean.

No highways or cart-tracks ever were, or ever could be drawn leading out from the  T-O diagram. There was no-where for them to go: it represented the whole earth.

So while one might offer a metaphysical or a metaphorical explanation for the  roads and palisades, by default the emblem must be read  as a real place having just one minor point in common with a T-O diagram: the space is divided into three parts, one occupying half the space, and the other two equal to each other in size. We can’t even say with certainty that the lines now coloured blue were intended as water or whether, for example,  the Voynich manuscript’s painter just supposed they should be.

 (emblem for North) … Serai..Tana

That I have since concluded that the North emblem is probably a token for Tana or Serai is not due to theory, but now having more and better data  from the primary source’s internal evidence and from more recent historical and archaeological sources than were available five years ago.

I incline more to Tana than to Serai,  in part because medieval Tana (modern Azov) was near ancient Tanais (see composite illustration above), and partly because Tana is the more likely to have been the northern-most point of interest for those who made our present manuscript in the fifteenth century.

During the 1430s for instance, Pegolotti assumes Tana well known, adding no explanatory details when he writes …

“The road you travel from Tana to Cathay is perfectly safe, whether by day or by night, according to what the merchants say who have used it.”

and he offers detailed advice for the (apparently numerous) Latins setting out overland for China:

(detail) Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.48, folio 255r.    During the Middle Ages the word dragoman entered European languages: in Middle English as dragman, in Old French as drugeman, in Middle Latin as dragumannus, and in Middle Greek δραγομάνος.” – wiki

“In the first place, you must let your beard grow long and not shave. And at Tana you should furnish yourself with a dragoman. And you must not try to save money in the matter of dragomen by taking a bad one instead of a good one. For the additional wages of the good one will not cost you so much as you will save by having him. And besides the dragoman it will be well to take at least two good menservants, who are acquainted with the Cumanian tongue...”


I’d like to write more about the archaeological evidence in favour of each site, but for those researching the Voynich manuscript, I think the effort of absorbing that opinion will be quite as much as they need at present. 🙂

One might argue over whether the arcs of palisade are intended as natural or as man-made features but the  high road is certainly man-made.

It is the other path which takes one southwards to the minimap and its itinerary.

The North emblem and lead-in to the minimap.

Itinerary and/or map?

The difference in definition depends chiefly what the recipient expects. In theory, a map should use proportional distance between points, but in an itinerary, and though distances may be known, they need not be represented accurately, even in theory. Whereas the greater part of the Voynich map is meant for a map, this late addition is simply a graphic itinerary. The illustration (below, right) still has northwards to the upper right and eastwards to the viewer’s left).

Such an itinerary sets out, in order, the places relevant to your needs, omitting others which would be included in a map, or if you were a different traveller. As well as providing  basics, the itinerary’s drawings may be adorned with a few memory-jogging ornaments (literal or not). This is because having to memorise in advance a heap of place-specific instructions that won’t be used for some time  isn’t always efficient. Anyone who doodles will probably understand how mnemonics work.

I’m not sure whether I’m more embarrassed about how long it took before I realised that this section isn’t ‘map-like’, or more pleased to have finally recognised this distinction between the broader and older frame of the map and this late-added detail.  It explains why the ‘castle’ isn’t where I thought it should be.

In terms of the a ‘map as map’, the fortified  ‘castle’ (so called)  should have been at some place on the eastern Mediterranean coast: Aleppo, Tyre, Antioch, Ayas/Laiazzo or some such.  Realising, finally, that it was a token for  Constantinople came as a surprise.  But it was another of those errors resulting from unexamined premises. I had assumed the same principles informing the rest of the map also applied to this, despite its being a late addition, drawn in different style.

The reason that ‘castle’  (or more exactly one of its steep-descending flanks) occupies the itinerary’s mid-point is simple: Constantinople was the ‘half-way point’ in practical as in conceptual terms, and in terms of  contemporary politics, diplomacy, commerce and logistics. It may not be the geographic mid-point, but calculated as days at sea, and with the notoriously fickle conditions in the Black Sea, the difference in time might not have been great.

In any case here is the minimap, now adjusted so that North is up and east to the viewer’s right. (N.B. this required ‘flipping’ the map, and so reversing the script.)

I’ll use the rest of this post to consider the ‘castle’ in more depth, then turn briefly to the southern terminus (or beginning) of the itinerary.

In next post I’ll return to that featureless section  between the itinerary’s north and the chimneys of Cappadocia.

Galata and Constantinople

There’s really no way to explain briefly how this image works, so I’ll be content to demonstrate that even a modern ‘map-as-map’ commonly contains a mixture of literal and non-literal elements.  The latter are still more common in works of the medieval period.

Map and itinerary styles combined.

In the following tourist map of modern Istanbul, the literal elements need no comment, but were you to hunt the actual city for a long road whose surface was painted a uniform bright red, I doubt you’d find one. Nor a rowing boat half the size of a house.  Classing one detail as literal and another as not literal and/or not intended to be read to scale is fairly easy for us when we look at sources such as this.  Yet the habit  of most Voynich researchers has been to assume greater  (rather than less) literal intention on the part of the Voynich map’s maker and there has been a positive resistance to information equivalent to: “the blue road may not be intended to be read as literally blue” or “the rowing boat may be no more than an ornament for the picture” or “it is unlikely that the numbered ‘signposts’ were actually as large as one of Hagia Sophia’s smaller domes”.

As it happens, the most literal elements in both the Voynich map as a whole, and in its ‘minimap’ are topographic. The next most reliable in those terms are minor architectural  details of the sort which mark a structure as indigenous to one region or another.

As example, the map contains, in its section of road between North-to-NorthEast, a perfectly accurate juxtaposition of  massive crescentic dunes with the dominant architectural styles which one encountered in travelling east towards the Himalayas. (This section was covered in the map’s original analysis, published between 2011-12 and I use the same comparative images used then).

Photo of the Taklamakan/Taklimakan dunes courtesy of Brian McDairmant,  included in ‘Eastern Quadrant: the Taklamakan – and implications’, voynichimagery.blogspot (Monday, October 10, 2011); ruins of Khorasan by Steinmetz; curved roofs of Bhimilkali see ‘folv 86v Ways to the East – the desert road’ voynichimagery.wordpress.com (August 25th., 2012).

“The largest crescentic dunes on Earth, with mean crest-to-crest widths of more than 3 kilometers, are in China’s Taklimakan Desert.” US.Gov. Publications Service Centre.

Items that I read as being intended literally in the ‘castle’ image include that great tower at the rear; the square tower-like structures attached to the rear wall; the fortifications’ presence on all sides, and the fortified walls’ having openings very close to the salt-waters’ edge.

The steep-descending flanks, however, I believe to be like the tower in alluding to the “galata” though what we now call the Galata tower was then formally Turris Christi and the area in which it stood, Pera.  Below is a late fifteenth century Turkish image of Galata and its tower. For readers’ interest I compare it to the modern tourist map.

An earlier fifteenth-century image (1422) by the Florentine cartographer, Christoforo Buondelmonte, clarifies an interesting point: that where we’d be inclined to think of Constantinople as separate from Galata/Pera, contemporaries might see the two as parts of a single whole, separated merely by a  wider-than-usual inlet or harbour.

It is interesting to note the different form which the Turkish and the Latin painter give the great tower.

It is also possible that in the Voynich vignette the tower we see is not meant for the Galata but some earlier and other tower, though I think it more likely that the Voynich ‘castle’ is the result of adjusting some customary token for Constantinople to take account of current conditions and specifically of the movement of the commercial centre, and many of the Genoese, from the northern side of Constantinople to the market-site, Galata.

The two maps shown below illustrate this matter and the following quotation from Mango’s valuable paper may also prove helpful.

The maps show the foreign quarters, city by city, outside the walls.  They also demonstrate the fact that every street leading to the sea ended in a ‘sea-gate’ through the fortified walls. We’ve already noted (in this post) that the ‘castle’ appears to have faced the Horn rather than the Sea of  Marmara.

from the superb interactive map offered online by Nicolescu and Saffran.

The date of the Galata’s completion –  1348 – allows us to narrow the dates posited for the Voynich map’s last recension to  c.1348 – 1438, the first  being the date of the Galata tower’s completion and the other the lower end of the Voynich manuscript’s date-range according to the radiocarbon dating carried out at the University of Arizona.

Now here’s where I expect things may get a bit awkward, given that there are more computer science chaps in Voynich studies than persons with a background in  medieval history, palaeography, medieval literature or writings; art-history or iconographic analysis.  But anyway, here goes ..

Those steeply descending flanking walls or cliffs to either side of the ‘castle’ cannot be meant as literally as they appear. As I pointed out some time ago, it would be more than merely foolish to build a castle blocking the mouth of such a valley, and this is so in terms of hydraulics as in military terms.

In appearance they recall the bastions of Antioch and, again, the frozen cascades of Hierapolis, comparisons which might have been made intentionally, as ‘memory-joggers’.

The form and relationship of parts for Constantinople-with-Galata do compare with those of Antioch (below left) and both cities’ steep descents carried fortifications – those of Antioch also serving to carry water.

ramparts of Antioch – medieval








‘Milky’ Hierapolis.

Etymologies offered for ‘galata‘ have included the Italian calata (steep descent) and the Greek ‘milky’  γάλακτος (cf. amelgein). 

The first hardly needs justification; but the second could explain why an allusion to Hierapolis’ ‘milky’ but solid cascading tiers would serve as memory-aid. I have encountered a suggestion that medieval Greek used ‘milky’ to describe a shyster or slippery character… and while such questions are for the specialists, it isn’t difficult to imagine some proverb being coined about getting milked in Galata. It was the Genoese commercial centre.

Further, the fact that the exact centre of the itinerary is not filled by the ‘castle’ but but by the northern side’s ‘steep descent’  might imply that the person for whom the itinerary was made wished to land – not at Constantinople proper – but at Galata; the same may be implied by the prominence given the Latins ‘swallowtails’.  But altogether this detail offers an interesting suggestion that  Pera was known as calata and/or γάλακτος long before  official adoption of that name.

To end, an excerpt from Mango’s valuable paper:

“We begin with the Strategion region. Constantinople’s north shore continued to thrive thanks to alterations in trading patterns within the city that developed after the days when the Book of the Prefect was written. The growing role of Latin merchants in Constantinople accelerated a demographic shift in the city’s population, which had begun before the Fourth Crusade … and increased in the Palaiologan period. This resulted in a greater concentration of commerce on the Golden Horn, where the Pisans, Genoese, and Venetians chose to settle. [but] Commerce also moved over to Galata. In this late period, the Prosphorion was apparently no longer an enclosed harbour. Rather, Crusaders and others make repeated references to the Golden Horn itself as a harbour, served by skalai. There, in the late fourteenth century, the anonymous Russian pilgrim refers to “the large Basilike market near the wharves and ferry crossing to Galata.”(p.205)

and still with regard to the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries:

Myrepsoi, who dealt in spices and unguents, were located in the Portico of Achilles between the Milion and Chalke, silversmiths were still on the Mese, and textiles were sold in the forum of Constantine.”(p.207).

Maria Mundell Mango, ‘The Commercial Map of Constantinople’ from Dumbarton Oaks Papers, No. 54. pp.189-207.

Note: I am not in which sense ‘scalai’ is meant here, but in Greek nautical usage today, we have

Skala   Σκάλα
The port that is associated with the (highest) Chora. From the Italian word “scala” (stairs), as can be found on Santorini, Patmos, Astypalea and Sikinos. Skala is also used to indicate a quay on nautical charts.

.. this is long enough. Egypt can wait.

The world in Padua’s botanical garden

correction – (8th. May 2017). A correspondent informs me that ‘St.Justin’ is an error in the English-language website linked in my post.  I have added details to the footnote, with thanks.]

In previous posts I’ve spoken generally about my opinion that the Voynich manuscript was made in ‘the Veneto’. Having now said plainly (at voynich.ninja) that I think it likely taken from materials then in the University of Padua, I’ve decided to add a note here about the University, its history and its botanical garden.

Though I  add a couple of illustrations from the Voynich manuscript, the post is not about my opinion, nor specific evidence and reasons for it. Nor is it, I regret to say, an account of the University’s historical records. It’s not particularly short but like most of these posts intended as convenient background notes for those working on the text.

Padua’s university began as a centre for the study of civil and of canon law, established in 1222 by a group of rebel scholars and teachers from the University of Bologna. It is thus the second oldest university in the Italian peninsula. Among its early distinguished graduates was Peter of Abano (Pietro d’Abano) credited with knowledge of the Egyptian decanal stars.[1]

At that time, a script was used in legal documents set down by clerics and by scribes in papal service (chancery hand) which used elongated ascenders that have been compared with some Voynich glyphs. Jim Reeds first drew attention to this example (below) in a charter from twelfth-century Piacenza, finding it illustrated in Cappelli’s Dizionario di Abbreviature Latini ed Italiani (1912).  [2]

illustration from Capelli’s Dizionario. A 12thC charter from a monastery in Piacenza. For more, see ‘Who wrote the “gallows”?‘, (Oct.7th., 2015)

a few of the Voynich ‘gallow’ glyphs. – image courtesy Nick Pelling, ciphermysteries. com (9th. March, 2009)

In 1350, study of medicine was introduced to the curriculum, the courses then being divided a few decades later (1399 AD) into two separate faculties (as it were).

The Universitas Aristarum  offered the standard ladder of medieval education: from grammar, through rhetoric, dialectics, philosophy and astronomy, to a choice between the two highest qualifications in Latin  learning: the degree in medicine or in theology, the latter being considered the more eminent. No physician in Latin Europe might be a theologian and no cleric a physician, and it was for his attempting to maintain both roles after ordination as a priest that Marsilio Ficino was twice indicted for heresy, and executed in 1499.

The other ‘faculty’ was the Universitas Iuristarum, which remained wholly a study of law:  civil- and canon.

Padua’s Botanical Garden.

botanical garden at Padua. A surprised Greek philosopher in Eden.

We presume, then, that it was after 1350, and with permission of the monks,[3] that the students at Padua began using the herbal garden in a nearby monastery to aid their studies.  Such collections of medicinal and culinary plants were commonly found within monastery gardens  known as horti simplicium.

But in 1545 –  that is, a century or more after the Voynich manuscript was made –  the then incumbent of the University’s Chair of  ‘simple medicines’ (Lectura Simplicium) ordered the garden’s renovation or re-construction together with construction of an herbarium.

His name was Francesco Bonafede and his aim, as he said, was the  better to study the ‘relationship between nature and science’.  We should suppose his ‘science’ (scientia) implied ‘higher wisdom’ rather  than science in its modern sense. Bonafede also applied the term  ‘Orto botanico’ and clearly intended (as Datini had earlier done) for his garden to become a miniature Eden in the variety of its rare and exotic plants.

One lesson in mundane wisdom was soon brought home to the keepers of the garden: that  rare and exotic plants are valuable for more than academic or medical reasons. A  surrounding brick wall was replaced by higher ones, fitted with gates, around the little world’s encircling ‘Ocean’.[4]


The garden’s fascinating design.


It could be, as most suppose, a design conceived by Bonafede or by Barbaro, but whether or not, it pays homage to the Benedictines, for such a conception of the world had been offered and described during the ninth century by another Benedictine, a former tutor to Charlemagne, Rhaban Maur. In his important and much read text, de Universo, Maur speaks of a means to reconcile the divine word with practical observation, the one speaking of the world’s ‘four quarters’ yet the other seeing a circular horizon.  Maur resolves it by construction of a figure as model of the world and ends his exposition saying:

“.. [and thus]  you make a square of earth within the aforesaid circle. How this aforesaid square (demonstrativus quadrus) ought to be inscribed within the circle, Euclid clearly shows in the Fourth Book of the Elements.[5]

So whether Bonafede and or Barbaro [6] thought up the design, or merely re-created the Benedictines’ meditative figure on a grander scale, the result is a conscious model of the world, its abstraction soon given depth by introduction of plants really obtained ‘from all quarters’.

Though the garden in Padua isn’t really ‘the oldest botanical garden in the world’ as it is so often described, its form may pre-date 1454 and it is truly described as being “the oldest existing [un-relocated] university botanical garden in the world.”[7]

..  as it is today,  with modern additions.

image reproduced from the listing in  UNESCO world heritage http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/824

Padua deserves its listing among the UNESCO World Heritage sites for reasons other than its age and its garden.

Until the seventeenth century it was, alone, a scholarly community which did not require membership in a church of the western (Latin) Christian rite. It admitted Jews. Most came to study medicine.

We have an earlier link to medicine and Jews of Padua, a Jewish physician of that city having translated Ibn Rushd’s Colliget in 1289. The translator’s  name was Jacob Bonacosta; the Latins knew Ibn Rushd as Averroes.

Even earlier, Paduan documents of 1134 and 1182 list persons named ‘Judeaus’ though some debate is seen over whether these were in fact Jews..

However such records as we have after the University’s inclusion of medical studies in the curriculum, shows a majority of Jewish graduates took their degree in medicine.  Our records are chiefly those of the Venetian archives and the earliest mention dates to  1409, just four years after the city’s control had passed from the Carrara family to the Venetian republic.  It may be that the University’s policy of acceptance had been in place earlier, since the requirements for medicine involved ten or twelve years of both theory and practice before a degree could be sought.

On the other hand it is also true that,

… medical education in Europe in the Middle Ages consisted mainly of training through apprenticeship, under the guidance of an established master. The teaching experience could be completed by the conferring of a license to practice. Besides physicians, surgeons, and barbers, the medieval patient might also consult herbalists, pharmacists, and a wide variety of female healers.. While the general licenses issued to Jewish physicians entitled them to treat only Jewish patients, this condition was not always observed.[8]

There were certain additional difficulties for Jews working towards a degree at Padua, including the statutory requirement that all teaching and all work submitted should be in Latin. This would have included the presentation, and defence, of the scholar’s final thesis which was done in those days viva voce.

Petty expressions of prejudice were doubtless everyday occurrences but in terms of formal requirements they included imposition of higher fees and additional imposts such as the ‘confetti’ payment and so on.

Nonetheless, Padua offered an opportunity that existed nowhere else in Christian Europe until the end of the seventeenth century [9] and Venetian rule during the earlier part of the fifteenth century meant relatively safe conditions for students to travel to and from Padua during the scholastic term.

The number of Jews enrolled in the University was never great and its graduates do not offer a proportional model for the number of Jewish to Christian physicians and pharmacists in medieval Europe.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would see increasing numbers of Jews taking refuge in Padua, as the rise of nationalism released deeper hostilities between neighbours and fragmentation of the Latin church from the late fourteenth saw tensions erupt against non-Christians.  Jews now came to Padua from southern Italy, from Iberia and from central Europe. It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that those interested in medicine brought texts and practical knowledge  from those regions.

During the 1360s, families had come to Padua by permission of Venice to serve as bankers;  they came from Pisa, Rome, Bologna, and Ancona among other places, but it was during the 1380s and 1390s that their number was added to by Ashkenazi Jewish refugees escaping from Germany and Sephardis from Spain.[10]

Even the formerly accepting people of Padua began to be affected by the hysteria sweeping Europe, and “internal difficulties within the Venetian republic” forced it to enact new  discriminatory measures in Padua, both legal and economic. Sadly, two of the most prominent fomenters of such hostility were Franciscan preachers, with incitement to violence towards Jews coming to Padua chiefly from central Europe.

Twice in 1509 the city also suffered the ravages of rampaging troops. First, the Lansquenets descended on Italy under Maximilian I of Hapsburg, his Austrians singling out the Jews for property destruction.

But when the tide of war turned, as it soon did, the returning Venetian troops acted no differently. The city itself recovered slowly, but the Jewish community did not, even if – as the JVL entry says –

.. Padua remained an important center for Hebrew studies by virtue of its rabbinical academies and the fact that Jews were drawn there from all over Europe to study in its university.

In  1616 – perhaps the time the Voynich manuscript arrived in Prague,

.. the Jewish population of Padua numbered 665, chiefly engaged in the silk industry.

and in 1630-31

The community suffered gravely from a plague, 421 of the 721 Jews dying [in those years].

By 1637, Georg Baresch had been in possession of the Voynich manuscript for some time, writing in that year to Athanasius Kircher to remind him of an item sent eighteen months’ earlier via Fr.Kinner and again saying he hoped Kircher might  identify the script.  Interestingly, he did not hope, or ask, for any translation, nor for the language to be identified: just the script.

It is generally accepted that the ‘item’ he had sent was a transcription of some section or sections from the Voynich manuscript. Baresch felt it might contain ‘ancient Egyptian’ medicine.  Philip Neal’s transcription and translation of Baresch’s letter can be read here.



[1] Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods (1953) p.74 n. 119

[2] ‘first brought to notice by Jim Reeds’… For more detail see link in the caption.

[3] The Benedictine monks of St.Justin. See  Orto Botanico Università de Padova, website.

Addendum to n.3 (8th. May 2017).  The name should be Anglicised as “St. Justina”.  The Abbey is one of the oldest in Europe, its Benedictine community rule  reformed in the early fourteenth century under the guidance of Ludovico Barbo, O.S.B. (1381–1443) He  also referred to as Luigi Barbo.   Barbo has a direct and very interesting link to a group of monks I’ve considered in these posts, and who occupied the monastery of St. George in the lagoon of Venice. (see his wiki biography here).  With three canons from that monastery, Barbo went to Padua in 1408 after being appointed abbot over the Abbey of Santa Giustina in Padua, founded c.1000AD. A thesis was written on the history of the congregation. I haven’t sighted it but it has an entry in the Open Library (here):  Barry Collett, The Benedictine monks of the congregation of Santa Giustina, Padua, c.1480-c. 1568.  (published by Oxford in 1982).  There is another Santa Giustina, too, about 80 kilometres northwest of Venice and about 15 km southwest of Belluno, not an abbey but a communie of the Veneto, in the province of Belluno. very neat.  🙂

[4] World Heritage listing (824-ICOMOS-973) has,  “In 1533 Francesco Bonafede (1474-1558) was appointed to the Chair of Lectura Simplicium at the University by the Most Serene Republic of Venice. In 1543 he petitioned for the creation of a model herbarium and botanical garden, which was established by decree ..on 29 June 1545.
Work began immediately on a plot belonging to the Benedictine Order, whose monks were probably already raising medicinal plants there. Implementation of the project was assigned to Daniele Barbaro, translator of the De architectura of Vitruvius.” and .. “Barbaro’s intention was to lay the … irregularly shaped area out in the form of a tiny paradisal world surrounded by a ring of water (the Alicomo Canal) to represent the ocean. Within he planned a circular Hortus Conclusus .. which in tum enclosed a 41m square plot. The entire garden was divided into four quadrants by pathways at right-angles to one another, running to the four cardinal points. Early documents show that the Botanical Garden was enclosed by a high brick wall, whilst the four smaller squares created by the two pathways cutting the central square were embellished with geometric flower beds, bordered with stone, in each of which a single plant species was grown. This basic layout survives to the present day, though with many later additions.” On the mythic tale of Vitruvius’ “rediscovery” by Poggio Bracciolini etc. see e.g. Tessa Morrison,’Architectural planning in the early medieval era’, Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, 5 pp. 147-163 (2009). The paper can be downloaded free through Researchgate.

[5] a reference which escaped the notice of many recent scholars treating transmission of Euclid’s texts in Latin Europe. see e.g. Menso Folkerts, ‘Euclid in Medieval Europe’, Questio II: de rerum natura (1989). html  pdf.

[6] see note 4, above.

[7] Atlas Obscura, ‘Botanical Garden of Padua – Orto botanico di Padova
The oldest botanical garden in the world that technically isn’t the oldest.’ website. And see also accounts of Datini’s botanical garden.

[8] wiki ‘Medieval Universities’ citing O. Pedersen, The First Universities – Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[9] Cecil Roth’s studies on this topic remain valuable.  See ‘The Jews in the English Universities’, Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England), Vol. 4 (1942), pp. 102-115   and a later paper ‘The Qualification of Jewish Physicians in the Middle Ages’,  Speculum, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 834-843,  in which he speaks of “.. one or two individuals who filled minor university positions in Renaissance Italy… [but there is no solid evidence regarding] admission of Jewish students to the universities before this period. In 1390 David Bonet Bonjorn, a Jew of Gerona, was allowed to present himself for the medical examination at the University of Perpignan, where presumably he had studied; and for the moment I can find no earlier specific instance. University training for Jewish physicians began to be a regular thing in Italy from the beginning of the fifteenth century, being formally authorized by the popes though temporarily forbidden by the Council of Basel in 1434. Later on – especially after the Counter-Reformation – the great center of medical study for Jews was the University of Padua, but the first instance of the graduation of a Jew here is recorded in 1409. In 1416, Moses Medici of Messina, son of the royal physician, went there from Sicily to perfect his medical knowledge, bringing with him a contemptuous letter of recommendation from the Infant Giovanni. Generally, however, we cannot take a university training into account in considering the intellectual background of Jewish physicians of the Middle Ages. Where, then, did they obtain their schooling?” (p.835)

[10] On this point and more generally, see Kenneth Collins, ‘Jewish Medical Students and Graduates at the Universities of Padua and Leiden: 1617–1740’, Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal, Volume 4, Issue 1 ( January 2013) pp. 1-8.  Available online as a pdf.


Additional Sources:

‘Padua’ Encyclopaedia Judaica.

Annette Freeman, ‘The First Botanical Garden’, La vie boheme 2010, blogpost.com
(Thursday, October 17, 2013). link. The current is a detail from one of Freeman’s photographs.

A paean to Padua, written as a nicely short history. here.

‘Tatar’ plant-names in the Trinity College Herbal – brief note

Those researchers such as Koen Gheuens interested in the Trinity College manuscript’s text may like to know that – at just about the time that Athanasius Kircher became interested in the Voynich manuscript –  there was in Berlin a court physician at work on a massive multilingual glossary of plant-names, the published title of which translates as,

A Universal Index of the Names of Plants, A Multilingual Index of the Names of Plants, and (in Greek script) a Polyglot Botanical Pinax.

To quote from a paper available online as a pdf (reference and link below)

“It had its origins, as did so many early modern European works, in a pedagogical exercise. Christian Mentzel (1622-1701), personal physician to Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and his companion on numerous difficult journeys abroad, had finally returned to Berlin. Here he took up the post of librarian in charge of the Great Elector’s striking collection of Chinese-language books, launched a correspondence with several German travellers in the service of the Dutch East India Company,  and tried to resign himself to the fact that his sons had no apparent desire for higher education. .. [but eventually his son, Johann Christian was assigned] “a useful exercise: reading all the botanical works he could get his hands on, from ancient texts to recent reports he had received from the Indies, and compiling an alphabetical list of every name every plant had ever had—in every language. The exercise proved far too much for one person, and father and son ended up working together to complete and then publish it.  When finally ready in 1682, the massive folio volume … so its title page proclaimed, contained the names of plants in dozens of languages and dialects, ranging from Latin and Greek at their head, through the full array of contemporary European languages, into the exotic realms of “Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, Tartar, Persian, Malabaric, Brahman … and Chinese” in Asia, “Egyptian, Ethiopian, Mauritanian … Canarian and Madagascarian” in Africa, and “Brazilian, Virginian, and Mexican” in the Americas.. [etc].

It seems to me that although retrospective by three centuries or so, reference to the Mentzels’ Index may be helpful for those working on the Trinity College text, allowing always for vagaries of transmission and orthography.

It also occurs to me that the Mentzels may in the earlier years have been directly in contact with Athanasius Kircher, who was one of the few among their contemporaries willing to claim acquaintance with Egyptian, Hebrew and Chaldean – for it is unlikely that Mentzel as court physician would have deigned to consult anyone of greatly lower position than himself, as physician to the Elector.

One would have to read the introductory remarks in the Index to be sure of this, and perhaps check the Kircher archives (online), though the habit of those times was not to write footnotes or to credit sources simply for honesty’s sake, but rather to share as closely as a writer could in the glamour surrounding that eminent patron to whom a work was dedicated.

See Alix Cooper, ‘Latin Words, Vernacular Worlds: Language, Nature, and the ‘Indigenous’ in Early Modern Europe’, EASTM 26 (2007): 17-39. (pdf)

EASTM –  East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine [journal] has a webpage here.

Cooper’s book Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe was published by C.U.P (2007) and is reviewed here.

Ringer : Trinity College herbal and bestiary /1

[minor corrections only. 9th May 2017]

I have been surprised by the level of  interest in these – fairly snarky and quite long – posts explaining analytical-critical method.

Readers having difficulty with the ‘comments’ – a chronic problem here – often email me instead, and some now ask for more of the same; for explanation of what I mean by ‘visual language’; how I can be so firm that the imagery didn’t originate with a western European (Latin) Christian author, and what I think so wrong about matching botanical images from the Voynich manuscript to ones in Latin herbals.

I expect few readers will be comfortable with the discipline’s jargon, so I’ve avoided using it  – and before I begin I must thank Rene Zandbergen for telling voynich.ninja of his recent find, the Trinity College manuscript stimulating much conversation and several other blogposts already.

Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.48 is described in the library’s catalogue as fourteenth-century, but on the Trinity College library blog as late fourteenth century. (Catalogue entry here. Manuscript digitised here).

Like  the Voynich manuscript, it is  a small volume, with its present external dimensions being – coincidentally –  exactly those of the Voynich manuscript’s standard folios: 225mm x 160 mm.

Curious about whether the Voynich manuscript’s folios were unusual and if so whether they might tell us something about its provenance, I enquired a while ago whether they had been trimmed,  as often happens when a manuscript is bound or re-bound. Being informed by Rene they were not trimmed, I ran a quick survey of the British Library’s manuscript catalogues, finding very few comparisons, and those offering some interesting common features.  (those posts  here and here).  I suggested then (here) that saving the ‘overseer’s’ corrections and later marginalia, what is now in Beinecke MS 408 may have been gained from earlier works on paper: the point in this now being that the Trinity College manuscript is, in fact, on paper.  And filled with drawings –  a thousand according to the catalogue, a large proportion being of plants.

So the Trinity College manuscript promised, altogether, a likely  close and earlier version of what is in the Voynich manuscript.

Just a look at its page layout, style of presentation, cultural attitudes expressed and so forth make clear that the Trinity College manuscript speaks to a very different audience.  Two bright spots were (a) is that it does contain faint echoes, suggesting a  remote connection to the Vms  and (b) it is an excellent example to use in explaining how we distinguish between expressions of one, and of another, visual language.

Some typical pages from Trinity College MS O.2.48:

Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.48 fols. 14v-15r

Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.48 fols.64v-65r

Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.48 fols.262v-263r

Forum members soon noticed a detail here and there among the thousand pictures which they thought resembled something in the Voynich manuscript.  This comparison (below) caused a stir.

(left) detail of Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.48, f.94v; (right) Yale, Beinecke MS 408, f.3v.

It is not any criticism of members but simply a habit whose origins lie in the approach of Wilfrid Voynich and then of William Friedman, that a positive hunt for support of an expectation should be neither preceded  by nor accompanied by any wider evaluation of context. Opinions are not ‘on balance’ or ‘on the whole’ but sharply focused on positive support for an existing belief or theory.

The Trinity College manuscript is believed made in Germany fifty or sixty years or more before the Vms, but relative date of manufacture is no argument for direct connection between manuscripts; as those tracing stemmae are  constantly aware. The critical issue is whether or not  a work’s immediate exemplars are closer or more distant from posited originals.

The example given above shows well that the images in the Trinity College manuscript, if related to the Vms at all, are more likely debased versions from an earlier original than that the Voynich manuscript is an ‘improved’ version of the Trinity herbal.

Consider the roots again, the detail, lucidity and precision of the Voynich image, though remembering this detail from Beinecke MS 408 is 10 cm across where that from the Trinity College MS is less than 4cm.

It is not just better or worse skill in drawing; the Trinity manuscript’s rubrication, its easy use of the pink-purple range of colour, and its attitude towards depiction of living creatures set it firmly apart from the Vms, and just as plainly in the  western Christian environment, affected by a tradition gained from regions previously Byzantine. We have here the ubiquitous ‘important man on a chair’ as sign of authority and rank, though the ‘chair’ in this case is usually a cushioned bench.

In noticing  the vague, if suggestive similarities such those roots mentioned above, it is possible we are seeing the result of  adapting, adopting or ‘translating’ matter in foreign sources to suit the Latin environment. In pharmacy the substitution of one plant or ingredient for another locally available was known as quid pro quo or de succedaneis and as the Latin universities sought to bring pharmacists under their control, such substitution was specifically prohibited them – not altogether successfully.[1]

[1] On this see  Alain Touwaide,  ‘Quid pro Quo: Revisiting the Practice of Substitution in Ancient Pharmacy’, in Anne Van Arsdall and Timothy Graham (eds.), Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West (2012) pp. 19-61.

From the drawings alone it is evident that the Trinity College manuscript is more likely to reflect a debased version of an ur-text than the Voynich is to be an improved version of the Trinity College model.  Where the latter is by any measure poorly drawn and shows no evidence of those avoidances constant in Beincke MS 408, while plainly concerned with the western botanical corpus, the Voynich botanical imagery is extraordinary in its lucidity and detail and its plant-pictures are not those of the medieval Latin herbals – as John Tiltman rightly concluded.

Readers’ questions addressed in part 2 (here).

Ringer: Trinity College herbal and bestiary /2

Answering Questions.

As I’ve said before, the single most important key to reading and provenancing problematic imagery of the pre-modern era is the language and social culture the maker assumed common to himself and his intended readers.

In the Trinity manuscript that language, both visual and written, is Latin and the culture plainly Christian. While the imagery is not well drawn, no one is left so puzzled by it that they debate the status intended for one figure over another, nor whether the intention was to communicate literal, metaphorical or allegorical meaning for those figures, plants and animal pictures – as almost every drawing in the Voynich manuscript does. The Trinity College ms. speaks the Latin visual language plainly enough, even if we are unacquainted with this or that ‘word’ in it.

How does one define a visual language?  It comes down to the fact that every society, community and era holds certain beliefs as self-evident truths about the world and the hierarchy of all it contains. This attitude is usually so deeply embedded that it operates at an unconscious level, even while providing the frame or ‘grammar’ of its imagery, and within which a given item is particularly located by reference to two axes: (a)   rank in that ‘social’ hierarchy and (b) grade on a scale from ‘approved/good to ‘rejected/bad’.

In Latin art, the fundamental ‘grammar’  is a strong expression of belief that the world and all its natural appointments were handed to mankind by Gd, with permission to  subdue, exploit and transform anything in it, the better to serve man himself. Subjugation is thus one of the strongest, most frequent and constant themes of Latin art, operating both on perception of social hierarchies and on the moral/religious scale. Medieval Latin art assumes that any form of opposition – practical, ideological, cultural, or philosophical – is the definition of evil, and its destruction not only an appropriate response but an inherently virtuous act.

Early in the thirteenth century, when St Francis of Assisi granted fraternal status to animals, it was considered by many a proof of madness and heresy; he was very nearly condemned to death as a result, but his personal character and obvious non-violence so recommended itself to the Pope of the time that Francis was, in effect, excused as a ‘holy madman’. Nor did his religious views fundamentally alter the character of the Latin worldview or its art.

Presence of the Latin frame and positioning axes is why that image of St.Geoge and all its details are immediately legible; the Latin medieval tradition and visual language is ours by inheritance.  The absence of that frame and axes from the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is why all but a few details defied – and continue to defy – efforts to interpret them by those expecting (or firmly asserting) that it is a product of Latin culture.  There is no such difficulty when it comes to reading imagery in the Trinity manuscript; not because it is better drawn for it is not, but because does ‘speak’ the visual language of medieval Europe.  In seeking similarities for details in the Voynich manuscript, researchers constantly fail to account for context.  Here, for example is the context for that root likened to the one on f.3v.

In the Voynich manuscript are no such markers: no haloes, no saints, no important men seated, and no peasants.

It displays no hands raised in the authority of Christian blessing, Latin or Byzantine, pope or anti-pope.

It depicts no mounted men in armour; no roped bands of subjected armies; no executions; no gracious monarchs or long-gowned ladies exhibiting the admired qualities of grace, virtuous sensibility and incapacity for aggression. I do not know of any Latin medieval manuscript, bar a few technical mathematical texts from which these markers are absent. All of them are absent from the imagery in Beinecke MS 4o8.

(detail) Brit. Lib. Harley MS 4389 fol. 59v. Genoa, 1275-1325.

It contains no images expressing that deep-seated belief that subjection of the world, its lands, animals and other persons is the normal, right and proper activity for man.

The Trinity manuscript is replete with markers of this sort, and shows an especially strong emphasis on social-moral location: of authoritative noble and obedient peasant, of ‘good’ physician and subservient pharmacist versus ‘bad’ medicine of the unofficial Jew or Saracen. Of clerics in authority over good women.

Sarkel castle in Sicily, the oldest extant example of  ‘swallowtail’ battlements, and possibly the reason they were made, within Latin Europe, the symbol of Imperial over Papal claims to ultimate authority.

(detail) fol 99v

(detail) fol 54v

(detail) fol.95v

(detail) fol. 101v

There is nothing in the Voynich manuscript expressing such ideas of social hierarchy save the few late details I’ve mentioned in posts here. (the ‘Asian emperor’ etc.). The imagery shows no apparent knowledge of the basic frame, nor of the scales characteristic of Latins’ worldview and which enable us to read other medieval pictorial narratives easily. Those indicators are also plainly present in every Latin herbal with which I am acquainted and certainly here, in the Trinity College manuscript.

It is not simply that such matters are not emphasised by the imagery in the Voynich manuscript but that the very frame, and both locational scales are absolutely absent from all but its latest stratum.  And this is why, quite unconsciously, generations of researchers have paid  such an inordinate amount of attention to just a very  few details, all the rest perceived as a wasteland or ‘mirror maze’ from which those few alone seem to offer any relief.

One example are the handful of centres (only) in the calendar roundels. Another and  prime example is the so-called ‘castle’ from the map’s smaller inset ‘minimap’.

Though other structures on the same folio, and even within the same vignette  could be imagined ‘castles’, it is this which has seen repeatedly an enormous, disproportionate amount of time and energy, ink and reading devoted to it, and to seeking and claiming some ‘match’ for it.  And not so much a ‘match’ in Latin manuscript imagery as in some castle still extant in Europe! Literalism is simply presumed by most, without reflection, to have been the intention of the original draughtsman, though the context of the primary document and even of other fourteenth and fifteenth-century Latin works should have urged caution on that point.

What leads to such incaution is, again,  reflexive reference to those set axes of the Latins’ social- and moral-religious scales, by which one  ‘makes sense’ of Latin medieval art. Defining the structure as a castle – which it need not necessarily be – means that one is able define it by the grades of social ranking, while presence of  ‘swallowtail’ permits the modern reader to place it again, on the ‘approval/good to rejection/bad’ scale.   Most present day researchers are inclined to approve the Gibelline-imperial position (ultimate authority invested in ruler by inheritance) over the Guelf position (ultimate authority in an elected religious authority), so  this small image feels immediately not only familiar and reader-friendly, but attractive to a modern reader as apparently having a  high position on the social- and on the ‘good-to-bad’ axes.

Such subjective feelings of approval, familiarity and accessibility together tend to blind a viewer to knowledge of its being a subjective reaction, and equally impatient of any internal or external objection to that reading.  In point of fact, the drawing shows both forms of battlement, not just the swallowtail type, and although it has been said, and demonstrated, that ‘swallowtails’ were used outside mainland Europe, from Syria through the Aegean and to the Black Sea; that they did not carry the same exclusively ‘Ghibelline’ connotations in regions beyond mainland Europe, and that the map itself shows this supposed ‘castle’ on the eastern side of the almost encircled sea…  such information seems of little weight against a deep feeling that the other reading ‘makes sense’ – and so instinct and relief at finding some familiar marker overrode reflection – not just the once but again and again as one and then another newcomer latched onto it.

Whether the draughtsman himself placed any greater moral weight on the square than on the swallowtail sort of battlement we don’t know, though at least we  may take their inclusion as signal of Latin presence at that site before or during his time.

Save for the Asian face on f.67v-1 and (possibly) the orator in a diagram on the map’s reverse, no portrait-style image of any person is seen in the Voynich manuscript. And for at least a century, from 1912-2012, it would appear that no-one had noticed that the orator’s dress is Mongol costume. The ‘orator’ is a familiar figure in Latin art, and one whose social ranking is usually middling-to good, and whose stance – indicative of fervour – places him near to one or other extreme in the approval/disapproval scale.  He seems familiar; no-one noticed that his clothing was not.

The Voynich manuscript includes no horned devils nor demons as we find in the Lombardy herbal; it shows no armies surrounding castle or city; no elegant literati in conversation; no effort at Renaissance perspective…

No wonder that so many gravitated to the tiny picture of that fortified structure, a detail just 9 sq. mm  in size, nor that some have treated it as a kind  of lodestone by which all else may be defined, with one or two even supposing one might provenance the entire manuscript from that one item. The way it has been approached and interpreted may serve as paradigm for the errors of approach established in the first part of the twentieth century, and also explains the psychology which prevented due attention being given a number of accurate observations made by experts.  Information has been regularly ignored if  it  fails to support some variation of the Wilfrid-Friedman theory, the theory which moulded the manuscript’s study from  1912.

Though it was obvious from the first that the pictures in Beinecke MS 408 were no easier to read than its written text, the assumption was made and insisted upon that it was a Latin European cultural product.  Tiltman tried to explain that it was unlikely any Latin herbal would be found similar to the Vms, but perhaps the most telling comment of all was made as early as 1928, by Robert Steele.  Steele was a specialist in medieval texts and editor of Roger Bacon’s works.  Because his usual form of expression was so mild, few then or later pondered the implications of such an assessment by such an expert.  He said:

“The usual methods of dating a MS. fail us: the writing cannot be placed, the vellum is coarse for the thirteenth century, but not impossible, the ink is good. Only the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased; it is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences”.

Abstract to Robert Steele, ‘Science in Medieval Cipher’, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928).

From the vaults – Gypsies for Pete

Warning – this consists of re-printed sections from posts that were published in my research-and-exploration blog ‘Findings’ and are reprinted for Pete Bowes, who has again raised the topic of Gypsies.  This material was published in 2010, and the subject cropped up again some years later, gaining much linguistic detail in conversations at Stephen Bax’ blog.  So for Pete’s reference I reprint the selected extracts, and for his convenience reprint them as a single post, easily printed off.

My interest was in the various itinerant persons and groups who travelled between the eastern sea to far as Europe before the middle of the fourteenth century. The gypsies being of special interest because eight years ago I rather thought that the centre of the map showed the dam of Mar’ib and Raidan, where today I’m much more inclined to think it a symbolic Arin.

from ‘Focus on Pyramus/Ceyhan’, Findings, (Wednesday September 15th., 2010)

Gypsies in Cilicia and Armenia
Because this information is not easily found, I reproduce Kenrick’s short discussion of it.
“… we find fewer than ten words of Arabic origin in European Romani. We have to discount Arabic words borrowed later via Turkish by eastern European dialects. The only two words that are definitely from Arabic are kis (purse) and bark (breast) – probably first used as a slang word by men only. Other words which authors have suggested may have come from Arabic are more likely to have been borrowed from Armenian or Greek (because the forms are more similar to those languages). Some of the proposed derivations are unlikely, such as that suggested for the Romani word for “yawn”.
The lack of Arabic loan words indicates that the Romanies who led the move to Europe did not stay long under Arab rule before moving further west or north-west into Armenian-speaking lands. The departure of the Zott, who had been resettled in Khaneikin could have been soon after 850 [ce].
It has been mentioned several times by earlier writers that the Romanies of Europe must have travelled through Armenia or, possibly, through the Armenian colony of Cilicia. This is based on an analysis of the language.
To begin with, there are quite a large number of Armenian words in European Romani, though not as many as Persian words. This suggests at least a short period in contact with speakers of the Armenian language. Contacts with Armenian merchants in the markets of the middle east could explain the borrowing of words, but the Armenian language also affected the pronunciation of Romani, which suggests a longer and closer connection.
We find today that where the Romanies have been living for a long time among the speakers of another language, the sounds of Romani are influenced by the majority language, the one that has to be used for buying and selling with the surrounding people. In Finland, for example, we find that the letter “b” at the beginning of Romani words is changing its pronunciation to “p” since there is no “b” in Finnish.
The main effect of contact with Armenian was to change sounds like “bh” to “p-h” (“p” with a puff of breath after it.). The technical term is “devoicing the aspirated voiced consonants”. The Romani language also acquired of specialist words connected with trade and manufacture. Examples are archich (lead) and kotor (piece).
If we accept that the route of the majority of Romanies from Persia to Europe was through Armenia, then we need not wonder why there is no record of their crossing from Armenia to Greece. The Greeks conquered the western part of Armenia, and any Romanies there would have found themselves in the Greek empire without any need for crossing such frontiers as there were in those days.

from Kenrick, Donald, Gypsies: from the Ganges to the Thames, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004 pp. 30-31.

(whole post) ‘Itinerants: 1. “Thomas of Saba”‘, Findings, Thursday, November 18th., 2010.

In considering the imagery of Beinecke ms 408, I have returned more than a few times to the history of itinerant clans and professions.

Although I am convinced that an understanding of the peripatetic clans will prove important in tracing the history of  Beinecke ms 408 – or rather of the original matter from which it was copied – there is a paucity of information about the majority of those groups. Among them we may count the  profession of the itinerant physician,  the mendicant; the ships’ doctor; the peripatetic scribe; seasonal herders and pilgrims, and of course the better known clans of the  Radhanites and Gypsies.
Arguably, the best studied to date are the Buddhist mendicants, physicians and traders, thanks to the researches of Himanshu Ray. His work is of particular interest for its focus on the period to which I believe the majority of  the imagery relates: the 3rdCbce – 3rdC ce.

Kenrick has done much to clarify our knowledge of the Romani clans, another group attributed Indian origins.
In this post, I discuss one reference which occurs in Kenrick’s Gypsies: from the Ganges to the Thames (2004).

I think it suggests a context within which several of the themes alluded to in earlier posts could have been maintained, and synthesised in the way they occur within the imagery of Beinecke 408.

Kenrick refers to the fact that:
When the first ‘outrider’ for the Gypsies arrived in Spain in 1415, he gave his title as ‘Count Thomas of Saba in India.
Donald Kenrick (2004). p.4

The combination of this Christian name, and attributed origin is extremely interesting, given that we have already noted a congruence between the iconography of earlier Sabean works, and motifs in the Voynich.

Only sixty years before Thomas of Saba-in-India arrived in Spain, John de Marignolli, an ambassador to the Mongol court, had mentioned a contemporary kingdom of Saba – not in Arabia, but apparently within Southern India.
John’s written account of his journey is available online, but the references to Saba are quoted here for the sake of convenience:
[image omitted from reprint – Piper nigrum]
“And sailing on the feast of St. Stephen, we navigated the Indian Sea until Palm Sunday, and then arrived-at a very noble city of India called COLUMBUM, where the whole world’s pepper is produced. Now this pepper grows on a kind of vines, which are planted just like in our vine-yards. These vines produce clusters which are at first like those of the wild vine, of a green colour, and afterwards are almost like bunches of our grapes, and they have a red wine in them which I have squeezed out on my plate as a condiment. When they have ripened, they are left to dry upon the tree, and when shrivelled by the excessive heat the dry clusters are knocked off with a stick and caught upon linen cloths, and so the harvest is gathered.

These are things that I have seen with mine eyes and handled with my hands during the fourteen months that I stayed there. And there is no roasting of the pepper, as authors have falsely asserted, nor does it grow in forests, but in regular gardens; nor are the Saracens the proprietors but the Christians of St. Thomas.

And these latter are the masters of the public steel-yard….

There is a church of St. George there, of the Latin communion, at which I dwelt. And I adorned it with fine paintings, and taught there the holy Law. And after I had been there some time I went beyond the glory of Alexander the Great, when he set up his column (in India). For I erected a stone as my landmark and memorial, in the corner of the world over against Paradise, and anointed it with oil. In sooth it was a marble pillar with a stone cross upon it, intended to last till the world’s end. And it had the Pope’s arms and my own engraved upon it, with inscriptions both in Indian and Latin characters. I con­secrated and blessed it in the presence of an infinite multitude of people, and I was carried on the shoulders of the chiefs in a litter or palankin like Solomon’s. [p. 219]
So after a year and four months I took leave of the brethren, and … [p. 220] I went to see the famous Queen of SABA.

By her I was honourably treated, and after some harvest of souls (for there are a few Christians there) I proceeded by sea to SEYLLAN, a glorious mountain opposite to Paradise. And from Seyllan to Paradise, according to what the natives say after the tradition of their fathers, is a distance of forty Italian miles; so that, ’tis said, the sound of the waters falling from the fountain of Paradise is heard there….

But it is asserted both by the Hebrews and the Sab Bans, i.e., the people of the kingdom of the Queen of Saba, that he had his place of abode in a very lofty mountain of that land which is called Mount Gybeit, meaning the Blessed Mountain. ….

The people of Saba say also that [the prophet Elias] still sometimes shows himself there. And there is a spring at the foot of that mountain where they say he used to drink, and I have drunk from that spring myself. But I was unable to ascend that Blessed Mountain, being weighed down with infirmities, the result of a very powerful poison that I had [p. 268] swallowed in Columbum, administered by those who wished to plunder my property.

Although I was passing pieces of flesh from my intestines with a vast amount of blood, and suffered from an incurable dysentery of the third species for something like eleven months, a disease such as they say no one ever escaped from with life, yet God had compassion on me and spared me to relate what I had seen. For I did recover, by the aid of a certain female physician of that Queen’s, who cured me simply by certain juices of herbs and an abstinent diet.

I frequently saw the Queen, and gave her my solemn benediction. I rode also upon her elephant, and was present at a magnificent banquet of hers. And whilst I was seated on a chair of state in presence of the whole city she honoured me with splendid presents. For she bestowed on me a golden girdle, such as she was ac­customed to confer upon those who were created princes or chiefs. This was afterwards stolen from me by those brigands in Seyllan.

She also bestowed raiment upon me, that is to say one hundred and- fifty whole pieces of very delicate and costly stuff. Of these I took nine for our lord the Pope, five for myself, gave three apiece to each of the chief among my companions, with two apiece to the subordinates, and all the rest I distributed in the Queen’s own presence among her servants who stood around; that so they might perceive I was not greedy.

(Marignolli is mistaken about the vines not growing in forests). See e.g.

Which of the medical traditions known in the east had provided the recipe used by the Queen’s physicians is uncertain but John’s surprise that it should consist of nothing more than “certain juices of herbs and an abstinent diet” suggests a style of medicine unlike that used in his day within Europe. It may have been a remedy from the Indian traditions: Siddha or Ayurvedic, or even a remedy retained within Saba from the heyday of Ionian medicine. All three had been well established by the 3rdC ce, when the original Sabean kingdom was eclipsed (275ce).
[image omitted from reprint – coin of Saba 3rdC bce]

The direct testimony of John de Marignolli, and the indirect testimony of the “Gypsy” Thomas, suggests that the destruction of Saba in the 3rdC had been followed by a Sabean diaspora, in which one group at least, had founded a new kingdom within southern India. In addition, it has been argued that the Radhanites too had originated in Radhan (Raidan), the old Sabean capital and indeed the maintenance of Sabean connections (and not merely those of the Jewish diaspora) may provide us with a raison d’etre for their routes.

[image omitted from reprint – map of Indian Ocean routes from Roman sources]
As the map shows, from Arabia in the 3rdC it was possible to follow a direct sailing to southern India. In the eighth century, the Muslim geographers insist that the Radhanites travelled these routes, and even beyond India to China.

These sailing routes from Cane had been established well before the 3rdC ce. One route ran directly to the southern Indian ports – the region described by John de Marignolli. Others include a very ancient route to Broach and the Indus valley, the trade of which has been well discussed by Himanshu Ray; and yet another route went to the renowned entrepot of Gerrha, thence to the Persian Gulf and Hormuz, which lies within ancient Elam.
Thus, John’s description of this other Saba, in India, lying somewhere between the Malabari community of St. Thomas in ‘Columbum’ and an island known as Seyllan (perhaps our Sri Lanka, but just as easily an island of the Maldives) is within reason.

Moreover, we have the testimony of early Islamic sources, including the Qur’an, that as many as 50,000 people fled from the Yemen in much the same way in the 5thC ce, upon the destruction of the great dam of Marib.

Evidence from the region of early Saba (in Arabia) already suggests a considerable presence of  Indians, although whether the majority were itinerant traders, temporary residents or permanent citizens we cannot be sure. The presence of a female goddess equatable with the Greeks’ Athena is also indisputable. The reverse of the coin whose obverse is shown above shows the owl, but we should not too rapidly assume that the goddess was perceived as the Greeks’ Athena.

So, to return to our “Gypsy” outrider –  to claim origins in ‘Saba in India’ was reasonable enough, and it is also a region within which a noble, baptised into the Roman rite, might well have been given the name of Thomas, for this was taken to be the name of the Apostle who founded the earliest Christian community, in Malabar.

I would like to refer in passing to a further congruity between this region of India (including Indian citerior), and content within the Voynich manuscript. The “Voynich script” itself has a number of interesting points in common with those  used in these regions.

“India citerior” – hither India, within which some classical and early Christian authors included lands in the Indian Ocean, and along much its western seaboard, to as far south as east Africa.
I must emphasise again, though, that I have no expertise in the decipherment of codes, or of unknown scripts or languages.

It does seem to me, though, that the table demonstrates similarities between the Voynich script and, one the one hand, cursive forms of South Arabian script (including Saba’s) while on the other the table of Voynich letters allows a suggestion that it follows the style of the Indian group in modifying the body of consonantal letters to indicate vowels. The Indian scripts (as I noted in earlier posts) is attested as far as Berenike and Egypt.

For those better able to judge these matters, the comparative table may be helpful.

[image omitted from reprint – comparative table]
On the old language of Saba’ see
Alan S. Kaye, Peter T. Daniels, Phonologies of Asia and Africa: (including the Caucasus) (1997) Vol.1.
On the early history of the Arabian and Indian ocean routes see:
Nicole Boivin and Dorian Q. Fuller, “Shell Middens, Ships and Seeds: Exploring Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade and the Dispersal of Domesticates in and Around the Ancient Arabian Peninsula.” Journal of World Prehistory, (2009) 22:113–180 ( a map is given on p.119)

On the destruction of the great dam of Mar’ib (an event usually dated to 570ce), and migration of 50,000 people see:

Earlier posts have mentioned the relevant medical works of India and the Yemeni and Greek traditions, as well as the medical anthologies disseminated later from Baghdad.

On the ‘Community of St. Thomas” – or one version of its history, see

But all in all, there is nothing which requires us to presume that Thomas of Saba-in-India described himself and his homelands dishonestly and, after all, he might have come directly from southern India, since pepper itself travelled across the same routes from southern India to the great markets of North Africa, or Southern France, and Spain.

Those eastern routes by which Ayurvedic herbs made their way from the Himalayas throughout India have already been mentioned, and it is from the more northerly section of that route that many believe that the people, and the Romani language, had initially derived.

Himanshu Ray, in his discussion of Buddhist influence on trade during the 3rd-6th centuries, has shown that trade links with southern India predate our terminus a quo of the 3rdC ce, and thus allow us to suggest that the content of Beinecke ms 408 may have been preserved (as a medical work) by some such group such as the Indian Sabaeans, for whom cultural and artistic influence from either Christianity or Islam was minimal before the mid-fourteenth century. Absence of any reference to those two monotheistic faiths in Beinecke 408 is a telling indicator of non-European origins.

It is not impossible, of course, that the original manuscript (of which Beinecke ms. 408 is a copy) had travelled first into western Europe long before, with one of the older Indian communities. Equally possible that it was the treasured possession of some other peripatetic, descended perhaps from the “baitar”physicians sent out by Asoka, or Europe’s medieval “Gypsies”, who were especially concerned with the health and care of domesticated animals.
The voyage from Rajasthan, home of the Romani language, to the Persian Gulf near ancient Susa was made known to the western world by the sailings of Alexander’s Cretan admiral, Nearchus.
(see map at)

Our fifteenth-century Thomas of Saba-in-India, or perhaps the scribe who recorded his arrival, apparently knew that there was another Saba, which was to be distinguished from the contemporary Saba, and thus added the term ‘of India’. He may have learned of the older Saba, too, as lying within the region of ‘hither India’ – India citerior – within which some classical and early Christian scholars included the western regions of Arabia.

On the name “Thomas.”
It is not surprising, that the Romani count who arrived in fifteenth-century Spain did not have an Arabic name, or patronymic. India was not widely Islamised until the 10th century, and Romani dialects (derived, ultimately, from languages still spoken in India’s north) notably lack the modifications which gradually occurred from that time onward.

John himself notes that he made some Sabean converts to the Latin rite, and the term “Romani” itself may  refer not to Rome as such, but to the claim of the Romanis to allegiance with the Latin, rather than the eastern Assyrian (Nestorian) rite.

It is clear from other sources, though, that John is correct in reporting that the majority of Christians in the eastern sphere were still, in his time, allied with the eastern Syrian church, to which the ancient “Community of Thomas” was directly linked, and from which its bishops continued to be appointed until after the arrival of the Portuguese, and the Jesuits.

John’s remarks depict the eastern (Nestorian) Christians as long, and well, established which accords with our accounts from both the Community itself and from Nestorian sources, which suggest it had been founded during Christ’s lifetime by Thomas, Christ’s brother.
(The tradition is recorded in early Coptic gospels, ultimately rejected by Rome).

By the fourteenth century, the Community is shown both sanctioned by the authorities, and actively supported by the granted monopoly over pepper and steel – industries which are attested in that region from Roman times.

Altogether, when we hear of a Romani named Thomas claiming lands and ancestry within “Saba in India” there nothing to cause objection, and indeed if he had come directly west as a representative of his fellows, Spain would have been a reasonable terminus for his journey – along the pepper route of his own time, and its great entrepots.

[In this connection, it is noteworthy that the Zibaldone da Canal,written in the mid-fourteenth century, assumes a market in pepper from Venice to Tunis, and not the reverse.
“Know that it takes 166 pounds [weight] of pepper and of all merchandise that one buys at Venice by light weight to make 1 cantar in Tunis. So that one needs 1 pound [lb], 7 ounces, 5 and a half saggi to make 1 rotolo, and that much exchanges light weight with the cantar”.

Dotson, John E., (trans.), Merchant Culture in Fourteenth Century Venice (1994) p.87]

In sum: There could hardly be a more appropriate name than for a “Romani” claiming ancestry and lands from “Saba in India” than the Christian name of ‘Thomas’, and a more appropriate origin for a Romani of this time than the routes linking the west to India via the ancient routes of the pepper trade whose use is traced to before the days of Rome.  In this same context, we might recall the remark attributed to Rudolf II, explaining that a manuscript (supposed to be Beinecke ms 408) was “brought to him by a [T]traveller.”  It is interesting to speculate whether that term may not have been meant far more exactly than we have hitherto supposed.

India citerior

Associations for the lands included within the general region of “India citerior” do vary according to which older author is being read, as to the credits for bringing Christianity to a given region.

Particularly interesting here is a note which is relatively late among such references (last quarter of the 4thC ce). A Christian priest of Aquileia, named Rufinus added a note to his translation from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, within a contemporary history of the western Church.  He wrote: ‘In the division of the world made by drawing lots among the Apostles in order to preach of the word of God, [these] different provinces fell to [the] different Apostles: Parthia to Thomas (!), to Matthew Ethiopia, and the adjacent India on this side (citerior) is said to have been assigned to Bartholomew.’

The ancients evidently regarded the coastline from Broach to the Red sea – and sometimes a little beyond – as a continuation of the “Indian” shore, less as the territory of India than the litoral of their Indian ocean. This it appears on maps reconstructed from descriptions made in the classical period, and indeed on European maps as late as the Majorcan Almanac (the ‘Atlas Catala’).  Some of these maps being difficult for the modern reader to read, I include a reconstruction of the world according to Dionysius Periegetes.

The reconstruction shows the Indus running roughly north-south, as it does. In the majority of earlier medieval maps, however, it is almost invariably shown as flowing along an east-west line.

[image omitted from reprint: map of the world according to Dionysius Periegetes]

The passage from Eusebius to which the monk Rufinus added his note was (Hist. Eccl., 1.c.9, col.478, Migne, P.L., tom. xxi)
and in regard to works and scholia relating to Periegetes, an article by Diller includes reasons for the caution to be exercised by any scholar dealing with manuscripts of the sixteenth century.
Diller, A.,“Two Greek Forgeries of the Sixteenth Century”, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 57, No. 2 (1936), pp. 124-129.

John de Marignolli.

A Florentine by birth and a member of the Franciscan religious order by vocation, John de Marignolli visited India, Saba and Sri Lanka during his return voyage from the Mongol court. Having made his outward journey overland by the upper routes, he was returned by sea and thus reached India.

There were more posts, but this is surely long enough. 🙂

Kenrick remains the standard reference.

Summing up the lines explored and published in the blog’s first year, I wrote (Friday, November 19th., 2010)

There remain some odds-and-ends which I should have treated in deeper detail:

– European Gypsies’ connections to Bohemia and (pace Kenrick) a discussion of the vardo’s its Thracian origins.
– the  role played by Antioch as a staging post for those trading into the west, during the 13th century.
– the much earlier connection between Hellenistic Egypt and the shores of what is now Turkey.
– links attested between the “yavanas” of Ionia and India during the early Buddhist period

But I began this blog with only one intention: to see whether, when considered altogether, imagery in Beinecke ms 408 could tell us…First: whether or not the work as a whole was an anthology and Secondly, whether it indicated a period for the first compilation of the matter or sections included.

Having gained an answer to those simple questions, (at least to my own satisfaction), the really hard work needed to identify … decipher/translate the script etc. I unashamedly return to those best able to address them


Ivy and so forth. The much-mentioned comparison

It’s no pleasure to write posts about a particular instance without first being able to  assure whoever [1]  offered it that the aim is to understand the manuscript better, not to disturb them.

The  comparison so often mentioned is between folio 35v of Beinecke MS 408 and folio 60r of BNF MS  Lat 6823, the second manuscript being the often-mentioned ‘Manfredus’  about which I’ve written before. (search ‘Montepeloso’).

[1]  On the problem of correct credits in this case see also ‘Postscript: the Juliana Anicia Codex (concluded)

Basic questions:

  1. Are the two pictures alike? If so – ‘like’ in substance, in form, in circumstances of production, or can one say demonstrate similar intention in each case?
  2. Was either image meant be read as the literal ‘portrait’ of the plants?

Next, the more detailed ‘inventory’ – forensic description of exactly and only what is set on the page.  I find it surprising that one so rarely sees evidence of its being done.

Of the two images compared, the detail from the ‘Manfredus’ will easier to treat – it is easily legible to a modern western reader.

Curiously,  I have never yet seen online any Voynich writer comment on the fact that even though a Latin text is as unintelligible to them as Voynichese, accompanying Latin imagery presents little difficulty.  Inability to read a written text does not alone prevent fairly accurate reading so long as the maker expresses himself through familiar forms and habits in art.

1. What is on the page – the right-hand detail.

A single, larger, central stem, or – stalk or – trunk, has its top (‘crown’ if a tree) provided with lobate leaves whose prominent veins are painted in a much darker green, like the leaves’ borders.  I needn’t labour the point: most readers know that the plant is meant for an oak tree and that its leaves are drawn with an aim of showing a portrait-like image of those leaves.

Just below the crown, higher branches are shown closely wound about by a second plant’s thin stems or tendrils.

That it is meant to represent  a plant different from the first is made is clear by  leaves of distinctly different shape, though if no-one had  explained the Latin text here, we might wonder which climbing plant was meant.  As it is, we know it’s meant for ivy, and can appreciate how well the painter rendered those leaves too in a ‘realistic’ way.

With pictures of this sort we can say fairly, “It is about x because it looks like x” .  The same is not always and everywhere true, but that expectation is deeply embedded in our own western tradition and, as a result,  constantly impacts on the way imagery in this manuscript is perceived and treated.

The photograph is not meant to imply a simple ‘match’ for either detail. It illustrates the text of a scientific description.  It is  preferable to compare images by separately comparing each to a set of objective criteria; it helps lessen over-reliance on personal impressions.

I’ve bolded the characteristics which were chosen to represent the ivy in the Manfredus manuscript.

Leaves: alternate, dark green, waxy, somewhat leathery; extremely variable leaf forms, from unlobed to 3-5 lobed; typically green with whitish veins.

Flowers, fruits and seeds: flowering occurs in late summer to early autumn… flowers are small, greenish-yellow and occur in globular starburst type inflorescences at tips of flowering stems; fruits are black with a fleshy outer layer and stone-like seeds.


That should clarify the intention in the ‘Manfredus’ picture:  to provide a portrait-style image.  Was it the intention of the other?

Here the small round berries, or berry-like fruits appear on a stem (or cane) devoid of leaves. If  that omission were meant to be taken literally, the plant’s being deciduous or bearing its berries on bare canes prohibits identification as the ivy.

If, instead, one argued that the maker never meant to make a portrait-like picture, omission of the leaves need not alter the identification – and in this case it is true that other plants are pictured in the Voynich botanical section without their leaves. So it is possible but not certain yet either way.

Comparing the number and density of seeds on a living ivy-fruit with the details each, the Manfredus’ comes closer  to both the  ivy’s form and formal description than does the Voynich image.  Was the Manfredus’ draughtsman just better at his work?

When such questions emerge, they can’t rightly be answered by guesswork or imagination to which ‘probably’ is added. Still less should they be ignored or rationalised, if the aim is to correctly understand the intention of the original. So now we must ask

Are these differences substantial or superficial?

Again –  the best method is to compare each to the set of objective criteria.

This time the bold type highlights obvious DIFFERENCES between the way each vine is represented.

ivy … evergreen perennial climbing vine that attaches to bark of trees, brickwork and other surfaces by root-like structures that exude a glue-like substance to aid in adherence.

Item by item:

evergreen, perennial – true for the Manfredi vine; not for the Voynich.  .

vine that attaches.. by root-like structures that… aid in adherence.

And there you have a key detail – a ‘telling’ detail.

Medieval Latin art, in presenting an image of the ivy plant (as distinct from ivy-motifs as decorative element) doesn’t  inevitably rely on accurate forms for the leaf, but always refers to an assumed common knowledge that  ivy clings close upon its support.

At this point some illustration of the medieval Latin imagery was obviously in order, but since the pairing has been a subject of talk for quite a while, I checked online to see what had already offered and found a post written about four years ago, by J.K. Petersen (not to be confused with Theodore C. Petersen). The post includes most of the examples I would have chosen, too.  See: J.K. Petersen, ‘Voynich Large Plants, folio 35v’ voynichportal.com (21st July, 2013). here.

I’ll  add just one more illustration – from the University of Glasgow, Sp Coll. MS Hunter 251 (U.4.9).

With regard to points I’m about to make, I’ve found no precedent so far, but do let me know if you do.

In a late-fifteenth century copy of an earlier English work we see an ivy pictured  without any but one sign of its identity. There is no obvious effort at literal depiction for the leaf; flower, fruit and so on are omitted. All we are shown is that definitive ‘clinging’ character.

What this shows is that even so late as the last quarter of the fifteenth century, Latin art could still express “ivy-ness” by nothing more.  But the Voynich plant does not cling.  More than that, it is shown to be a plant which has no means at all by which to attach itself to any host or other object.

Realising that fact allows us to free ourselves from expecting the proffered comparison valid, and instead to concentrate on what the Voynich image says of itself.

Boxes added (below) isolate the first, and the second, details now treated briefly. (click to enlarge).

First:  The long, gangly looking shoots or limbs are drawn laid one upon one another –  so arranged that they hold each other in place, a practice natural to the gardener or farmer in keeping paths clear of lax shoots, and when ensuring that fruit will not rot or spoil before it ripens fully – as it will do in contact with the soil.

Second: This is surely the most intriguing and potentially informative detail on f.35v


We are shown the supporting  plant pierced, as if the better to support the lax vine as it grows.

However one identifies the  support, the vine is not ivy.

At such a point, I’d usually turn  from the primary source to find an explanation for this detail in one (and usually more than one) historical source.

I’m not inclined to donate so much time and effort now as I’ve done the past several years, so just a couple of notes and pointers:

I have said that the central element of the root-mnemonic is a saddle-tree.

I’d suggest anyone interested in f.35v take a close look at how a saddle is finished but then if they are keen to take on the more demanding approach to this manuscript which I’ve preferred, then the next task is to find (if possible) evidence of where and when  any form of vine is known to have been grown threaded through a supporting tree’s pierced trunk or bark. If the information can be found, it will be another helpful indicator of provenance, and another detail in the original explained by reference to relevant sources over guesswork, invention, assumption and sheer exuberant imagination.

Literal and metaphorical reference operate in parallel and in tandem constantly within the botanical folios.   During these past years of research and publication to share the results, I’ve also found that the key to understanding this imagery at both levels has most often lain in the most practical and pragmatic sources relating to the east-west trade – its history, goods, routes, materials and the sort of astronomical, meteorological and navigational information essential to the practical men  engaged with it.  There is no zodiac, or even a full calendar in the manuscript – nor is there any reason that their should be, apart from the very simplest observations of important dates, and such things as ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ dates.

As regards the two compared images, though: perhaps the tree in folio 35v will prove an oak, but the vine is no ivy.



Note for those who like ciphers and such

The blog’s header image is from a bas relief found at Porta Romana (actually my notes read ‘Porto Romana’), presumably that near Milan.

However, I chose it both for its points of similarity to Voynich script and points of similarity to scripts attested in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from the far south of the peninsula, a region deeply influenced by Greek-Byzantine culture and by its own acceptance of cultural and ethnic diversity before the mid-fifteenth century.

The Porta Romana inscription is dated to 1197 AD.

The next, dated 1378/9, is from the Salento.  I used this too as a header for some time, thanks to Linda Safran who gave permission, under the usual conditions.

Full details of that article:

Linda Safran, ‘Greek in the Salento: Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Texts’, in Andreas Rhoby (ed.), Inscriptions in Byzantium and Beyond. Methods – Projects – Case Studies (2015) pp. 247-240.

I mention that paper again because I see now that Safran, and Rhoby, had earlier written papers about Byzantine cryptograms and secret writing.

  • Linda Safran, ‘Greek Cryptograms in Southern Italy (and Beyond)’.. a paper delivered at 48th International Congress of Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 2013.

online at   http://09.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/art-hist/index.php?id=73

  • Andreas Rhoby: ‘Secret Messages? Byzantine Greek Tetragrams and Their Display’.

online at   http://09.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/art-hist/index.php?id=72

Philip Neal occasionally  mentioned thinking that the Voynich text seems to act rather like Latin.

I’ve always thought it interesting how easily individual words, and even the glyphs, can be read as a form of non-standard and slightly wonky Greek.  Neal’s observations are those of a classical Latin scholar; mine no more than observations about the shapes and context in which the occasional label occurs.













Newbold and Alchemy – a query

[dropped text re-inserted]

Back in May of 2015, I was talking about the weird stop-and-start pattern to publications about the Voynich manuscript, seen from 1912 onwards, and how very unlike it is to the normal pattern of scholarship after a new object or theme comes to view.

I compared it in passing to the publications that appeared after Aurel Stein’s discovery of hitherto unknown texts and scripts around the same time that Wilfrid obtained the manuscript. In that case you find, first, a few specialists’ comments, these inspiring a stronger tide of contributions, whose varying quality leads to a period of to-and-fro discussion until finally the topic subsides into a steady state. It’s all very formal, evidence-based, and utterly transparent.  That’s how it went with Stein’s finds.

So very unlike the mood and processes by which the Voynich legends rise and fall, including Wilfrid’s own wonderous tale of scientists and chaps with titles.

These endless fantasies about the manuscript’s supposedly being a sacred relic of this or than notable leave me feeling as if I were in a medieval market, interested in a cloth that had a fascinating weave, while the wild-eyed salesman rants about it being a bit of Our Lady’s veil and a passing skeptic drops in the equally imaginative story of how the salesman’s ‘probably’ nicked it from some poor old woman.

If you want the modern equivalent, it’s an ebay legend selling the cloth as formerly (really and truly) owned by Ivana Trump.

But I digress..

Jim Reeds’ bibliography provided a helpful structure for those posts. For 1937 there were just two publications listed, one of them so obscure that Jim had added a question-mark.

  • ? Sebastian Wencelas , ‘The Voynich manuscript; its history and cipher’,  Nos Cahiers, Montreal, 2 (1937), pp.47-69.

A little preliminary digging let me note in my post that: ” … I have given the surname as spelled in Jim Reeds’ bibliography, but .. a Sebastian Wenceslas was a Franciscan writing in French and in English on various religious topics, one publication dated to the 1950s.”

The Vatican Bibliography of religious authors and their articles then brought up a (forename) Wenceslas  (surname) Sebastian  –  but none of the few listed articles were Voynich-related.

That sort of thing intrigues… a flurry of notes and introductions and emails and that sort of thing followed, and by a dint of various persons’ using appropriate degrees of diligence, chivvying, patience, impatience, and good-will, it looked as if something might turn up.  Then I received a courteous but final-sounding response: that the journal was long defunct; it never had a wide circulation and no copies of the article were to be found anywhere.

Ah well, it was a small article in a small journal, published almost eighty years ago.

But then – a fortnight or so later, and without warning or trumpets sounding… there lay a copy of the article, dropped onto my virtual desk. It came with permission to share and use the content as I wished.

(Researchers will understand this unique sort of pleasure.  Nothing quite like it and nothing to do with the quality of the item, either).

Point now is that re-reading Sebastian’s article today, I have a small question which I’d appreciate your help in answering.

On what folio of the Voynich manuscript is the text which Newbold interpreted as Bacon’s alchemical recipe?  I don’t have Kent’s book [1], so I’ve copied the passage from Sebastian’s article:

[1] Roland Grubb Kent, (ed., forward and notes), [The work of] William Romaine Newbold, The Cipher of Roger Bacon,  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; London, Oxford University Press, 1928.

Postscript: Anyone interested in that weird pattern in Voynich publications my posts include:

(after which, for nearly two months, I turned to matters which relate to Fiesole, Guglielmo Libri, Fr. Beckx and the origin of the ‘Voynich legend’ … but then at last …)

Just to keep this post sort-of linked to our present map-related theme, here’s an illustration I used in the second … 🙂


The ring o’ roses (Voynich map) Pt 2-ii of 2.

detail from one of the ‘ladies’ folios

My point in the foregoing post is that the map is likely to combine terrestrial and celestial loci in parallel.  Such is also the habit which, in my opinion, informs the ‘ladies’ folios, for a tyche was originally the guiding spirit and ¬light of a specific place, dedicated to it (like a star) from the time of foundation.

coin of Sidon 1stC BC

The Romans, who arrived a couple of thousand years after the eastern Mediterranean became urbanised and to that extent civilized seem to have been oblivious of most ideas held by those subject to Roman rule.  Roman references to the tyche as ‘genius’ evince no knowledge of that older nature, and even in Hellenistic times, the rarer winged Nike’ had come to serve something of the older tyche’s role.

Again, we find a combined astronomical and geographic reference informs imagery of early cartes marine produced from Majorca – not just through accompanying tables but more subtly in the maps themselves. ‘Tyches’ have no presence there, of course, though some cities have their personification. What is intriguing is the keen awareness in some Majorcan charts of stock characters from the eastern Mediterranean world’s astronomical narratives –  scarcely known at all in the west, which had only the basic Greek and Roman constellation-legends.  I won’t enlarge on that here.

Another ‘fourfold’ world serves as emblem for north in folio.67v-1. 

(detail) f.67v-1

The diagram’s including an Asian face is not itself surprising, given what has said about the prevalence of influence from eastern custom in this manuscript.

What is surprising is the literal style in which it was drawn. Portrait-like depictions of body, face and dress are so rare in this manuscript that I have taken the avoidance as sign of some  religio-cultural tabu among those who had maintained the more ancient matter before about the mid-13thC AD.

There is a further distinction here: between the hand which drew that face and that which produced the three disc-like star faces about it.

I am not inclined to attribute that difference to the (generically-described) ‘overseer’, but do attribute to him/them a decision to overlay the fourfold emblem with pigment in a way which confers on it a superficial resemblance to the Latins’ ‘T-O’ diagram.  That it should have been thought necessary to turn an astronomical emblem into a geographic one, and to make the quadripartite form seem tripartite deserves  our attention.

folio from the ‘Poems of Caedmon’, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Junius XI. (10thC)

No later than the time of Egypt’s early dynasties, the northern circumpolar ‘island’ was being imagined a place of endless ease and a home in the afterlife.  There the  early Egyptian kings expected to ascend after discarding their physical body, and at first no others were imagined with them save obedient servants and subjected gods or foes.

Over time, the same idea of an afterlife in the north of the sky spread to associated peoples and by the time of early Christianity, was widely believed by certain Mediterranean peoples.

By the fifth century AD, the Phoenican by birth and former Manichaean, Augustine, imagines it as ‘city of God’;  others evidently retained memory of Ursa major’s  having been seen as a ship and adopted other metaphors for the ecclesia and heaven’s ship of souls:  they saw the arca as that of Noah, or as Michael’s shield of re-birth, or as Peter’s barque and so on.

One might say more about this, but the vital point is that the north of the sky held strong religious and cultural associations for Latin Europe, and it must surely have disconcerted the ‘overseer’ to find imagery of the northern circumpolar regions as a  ‘little world’ over which the ruler was depicted not as Gd, but a foreign king.

The fact of it is that other peoples had comparable ideas, and what we see on f.67v-1 is an expression of .. some other’s.

Astronomical Identification:

As I said, when first explaining this North emblem … seems so very long ago now, but perhaps that impression is magnified by the ensuing silence … the reference is to  Ursa minor, whose β and γ stars  were widely known by terms such  as the ‘Guards’, or ‘faithful ones’, for their continually patrolling the perimeter of the north, circling about the  Pole and serving as a reliable means to mark the watches of the night, guide the traveller, and allow  determination of the Pole star’s position when it is obscured.[1]

[1] all the above in more detail in earlier posts.  See e.g. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘fol 67v-i ~ chronological strata’,  (first published April 6th 2012; re-printed with minor edits through voynichimagery.wordpress.com October 18th., 2012).The last five years’ work has refined my reading of imagery in various folios, but I find no reason to alter my reading of that emblem. I no longer think that we need invoke the Armenians as middle-men. 🙂

In  the earlier commentary, however, I did cite Hinkley Allen as reference for the  β star’s being known to the Chinese as ‘the emperor’ and the larger  (γ1) of the doubled stars ‘the crown prince’. On both counts, now, the paper by Y. Maeyama must be preferred with regard to those terms, though no alteration of my identification is involved: i.e. that the ‘four stars’ are in Ursa minor; do not include the Pole star,  and the Asiatic face is a personification for β Ursa minoris.

What Maeyama concluded from study of Chinese sources and the Dunhuang star-maps is that the term Thien-i (Celestial unique) was always applied to the Pole star for any given epoch, but Thai-i  refers to  “the unified celestial symbol of the Pole star and the terrestrial emperor, designated to a star adjacent to the Pole star”. [emphasis, present author].

In terms of modern astronomy, Polaris (α Ursa minoris) moved to occupy the point of North during the 5thC AD, but the testimony of classical writers is unequivocal:  no later than the 1stC AD, Phoenician mariners were habitually taking Polaris as Pole star; a practice the Romans saw as a peculiar and quasi-religious quirk of Phoenician mariners alone, and which they saw no reason to adopt.

β  Ursa minoris is not ‘adjacent’ to the Pole but directly ‘below’ it, so of all the variant sources cited by Maeyama, the nearest to what we see informing the drawing in f.67v-1 is the dictum of one of the older, most respected, and thus constantly repeated sources: Shih Shen (5thC BC).  I reproduce the passage from Maeyama’s paper directly:

South of (below, beneath, under) the Pole star… Polaris and β Ursa Minoris.

Being apparently without authority – at first – to prevent near-facsimile reproduction of drawings so constantly antithetical to the Latins’ world view, its academic traditions and religious belief, the fifteenth-century overseer had to be content with having this little drawing overpainted – an act of ‘translation’ that allows a suggestion that while such an Asian king might rule in the physical world, it could never be so in that higher ‘world’ of the heavens.

For the Latins of that time, the ‘T-O’ diagram was far more than a schematic diagram of ‘three continents’: it was by now part of closely-woven mesh of theological, geographic and quasi-historical ideas. It wasn’t the sort of diagram which might be discarded simply because better geographic knowledge came along and I find no evidence to suggest that a four continent world was known to, or accepted by,  the Latins before 1438.

Some readers having no  time or no inclination to search out medieval school books and sermons might yet feel interested in such associations, so I’ll mention a few.

Bread used in the western religious service (the mass) was made as circular, very white, unleavened discs, provided in a smaller size (‘wafers’) for the congregation but a larger,  known as the ‘host’, provided the priest. (Image). After the bread’s consecration, and within the formal service, the larger was  broken into one larger and two smaller pieces, analogous to the divisions of the ‘T-O’ diagram and as this was done the act was consciously equated with the world’s division – as body of Christ – into those three ‘races’ believed descended from Noah’s three sons, whose re-unification was believed  intended by Gd under the auspices of a single universal Christian church: (universal = catholicos). A further conscious parallel was drawn to the core Christian belief in a triune deity, and again to the throng of heaven’s ‘host’  – the same term applied to that celestial ‘host’ as to the holy bread.

Noachian and Christian associations for the ‘T-O’ form ran very deep. Nor were these ideas regarded as human intellectual constructs, but as  insights into the divinely ordained disposition of the world, past and present. The ‘T-O’ diagram thus served to express deeply-held ideas about  cosmic and religious order, and to replace the three-fold with the four-fold ‘world’ required a good deal more incentive than a changing knowledge of geography.  The mappaemundi used a different shape for the world, but were informed by precisely the same habits of mind and disposed in just the same way, by reference to a three-continent world. There is no sign that European scholars had abandoned those habits by 1438.  The ‘rhumb-gridded’ carte marine emerges from an altogether different, and still mysterious source. The Voynich map is no Latin mappamundi.

And even the ‘three continents’ idea is purely notional; Asia and Europe are part of the same landmass, linked to Africa. As traders and armies knew – or learned by practical experience – one may trek overland between western north Africa, or Spain, and the eastern shore of China.. or the reverse.

On this same point of overland routes –  it will be relevant for some coming matter that the period from the 7th to the 10thC AD saw a strong Manichaean presence around the Black Sea and through greater Khorasan.

Last part of this post (2-iii of 2) includes some of my more recent work.


The ring o’roses (Voynich map): notes in brief (2-i of 2)

[a short post, for a change. With a maths problem. Additional illustration added 17th April 2017; further illustration added 18/04/20177]


To say that the Voynich map represents  ‘four continents’ is inaccurate: what we see is a custom by which the maker’s world was envisaged as square and for that reason envisaged fourfold. The custom was not European but was – as we’ve seen – conventional among the Chinese.

As now bound, the map has its  north almost ‘up’ (upper right) though East still lies to the  viewer’s upper-left in another custom not the Latins’ but attested in the east, particularly when making maps of the heavens.

I add another illustration of that custom (click to enlarge):

from Y. Maeyama, ‘The Two Supreme Stars, Thien-i and Thai-i, and the Foundation of the Purple Palace’ in S.M.R. Ansari (ed.), History of Oriental Astronomy. courtesy publisher.


This blog is hardly the place for a disquisition on that close historical connection we know to exist between the custom of making maps and of representing cosmology, so I’ll content myself with reminding readers that the imposition of a celestial grid on the surface of sea or land is the essence of traditional navigation among nomads and eastern mariners, across the wastes of sand or of sea.  (Subjective experience leads often to describing the process inversely, as the tracing of a ‘sky-road’ which then, moving overhead, carries one towards the unseen destination).

Precisely the same principle informs our own sidereal surveying, still essential in the curriculum of any would be engineer-surveyor (B.Sc. Eng) until the middle of last century.  With the help of various instruments, sets of tables, pen-and-paper calculations and a copy of the Nautical Almanac, he set about solving problems such as that below, which I add just to break the monotony. Answer is published as a ‘comment’ below this post. The problem comes from a text published in 1955:

For observations in southern England, draw a rough sketch of the celestial sphere, marking on it the zenith Z. Show the celestial poles PP and the equator, and mark the approximate position S of a star of declination roughly 30º N. about four hours before its upper transit. Sketch in the declination circle and vertical circle of the star, and show how the solution of the spherical triangle PZS can be used to determine the azimuth of the point of observation.

From a station in latitude 50° 40′ 40″ N. the bearing of a star from a referring object R was 86° 42′ 00″. The mean altitude measured at the same time, corrected for refraction, was 52° 16′ 00″. The declination was 29° 42′ 08″. Determine the azimuth of the object R. The star was in the west at the time.

Its not only about location, but about relative positioning.

And so to resume..

The Voynich map’s having North to the top and East to the left would not be surprising, nor need excuses created for it, if one accepts that the map may reflect not only eastern customs in representing the form of the square world, but more generally an eastern-influenced cosmography.

Its  containing a ‘navel of the world’ need not disturb us, either.  It is worth remembering that even among Latins of the far west, some knowledge of ancient Ujjain as a semi-mythical ‘Arin’ had penetrated by the early twelfth century.

detail –  showing the area that is set as centre within the Voynich map’s south roundel –  whose subject overall  I identified in 2011 as the ‘Great Sea’ .   It is possible the detail is meant again for Arin, since Columbus was one of those who believed it to lie in the Great Sea, and more exactly in Columbs’ mind ‘between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Persia’. Note here again the  starry pattern used to represent enclosed waters; this is a constant in the Voynich map,  seen in the central roundel, and within the mini-map that now occupies the north roundel.

Peter Alphonsi knows it, a mid-life convert from Judaism who brought much of his astronomical learning to the Latins after his conversion in 1106.  So then Michael Scot, who knew of ‘the tables of Arin’ but made use of the Toledan.  Roger Bacon also and others after him accepted that the semi-mythical Arin, not Jerusalem, stood at the physical centre of the world.. and so it continues.. until in 1498, Columbus says in writing to the king and queen during his third voyage that,  “Ptolemy and the other philosophers who have written on the globe thought that it was spherical, believing that this [1] hemisphere was round, as well as that in which they themselves dwelt, the centre of which was the island of Arin, which is under the equinoctial line, between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Persia.”  Interestingly, the centre of the Voynich map shows a great lake in that island; ancient Ujaiin had indeed stood by a a lake which can be seen on early maps such as the Tabula Peutingeriana, but which apparently breached at the time of the great disaster which destroyed Muziris. The ‘cupola(s)’ of Arin were also proverbial.[2]

In my opinion, if it is not Arin, it is meant for Raidan – but explaining that isn’t something I want to do through voynichimagery, sorry.

[1] To the day he died, Columbus insisted that he had not discovered a ‘new world’ but, as he intended, reached India.

[2] Hobson-Jobson, ‘Oojyne’ proved delightfully well informed on Arin/Ujjain, and I cite it here chiefly for the pleasure of having that opportunity.


The conclusion of this series (Pt 2-ii) isn’t so short. 🙂

The ring o’ roses (Voynich map): notes in brief Pt.1 of 2

‘Rose’ – set between the East and the South roundels. One of these ‘roses’ appears to have been deleted from the Voynich map at the time that the content which had filled the North roundel  was shifted to North-West [see posts: ‘Angel of the Rose’]. This was evidently done in order to allow addition of what I’ve called the ‘inset mini-map’ or ‘the vignette’ – now filling the North roundel. I date this last substantial revision of the folio from  the last quarter of the 13thC to thed early decades of the 14thC. AD, and include in this stratum addition of most of  rectangular ‘architectural’ structures.   In my opinion, the map’s foundation is Hellenistic but – as is the case for  so much else in this manuscript- overlaid with evidence of long retention in regions east of the Mediterranean.   One should not assume that none but Christian and Muslim inherited Hellenistic traditions and texts.

 In keeping with other indications that the Voynich map gained its final form after 1204 but more exactly within the Mongol century, and between 1260-1330, and given also those details I’ve noted which find  parallels in certain of the ‘rhumb’-gridded cartes marine emerging from Majorca and Genoa in the early fourteenth century,[1] I’d suggest  researchers hoping to read the inscriptions  associated with the map’s three remaining  roses[2]  consider a wider range of systems than has been usually been taken into account. Below are a list of six among the better attested ways in  which positions ‘around the compasso‘ were named. A seventh is added for general  interest. [3]


[1] explained in detail in earlier posts – search ‘Vesconte’; ‘Cresques’; ‘cartes marine’; ‘Angel of the Rose’; ‘Soler’, ‘Soller’ etc. etc.

[2] of an original four. see caption to detail illustrated (right),

[3] I have already provided bibliographic references for English translations of the essential texts.


Points about the circuit  (as ‘compasso’)

  1. Within the Mediterranean, and until the 12thC (and still thereafter) Latins named the points by wind-names and combinations of wind-names. Present-day lists in secondary sources tend to adopt a standardised series but variants and differences in dialect and orthography were many. I recommend consulting primary sources and such scholarly studies as those by Patrick Gautier Dalché, Evelyn Edson, Barbara Obrist and Emilie Savage-Smith.
  2. Also within the Mediterranean,  non-Latins (chiefly mariners) used a combination of wind- and star-names. This system is described as ‘Egyptian’ by Ibn Majid in the fifteenth century. I have already quoted the passage about these ‘Egyptian’ rhumbs’ from Tibbet’s translation of Ibn Majid’s work, and most recently as a ‘by-the-way’ end note to a post on the Lombardy Herbal. See (and if re-deploying the information please cite) D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The ‘beastly’ Lombardy Herbal Pt2′, voynichimagery. wordpress.com (July 22nd., 2013).
  3. Within the Mediterranean, the ‘rhumb-gridded’ cartes marine form their gridding ‘roses’ from topographic and geographic ‘trig’-points – not from simple imposition of the compass. On difficulties likely to be encountered by the researcher in this case, I’ll repeat the details of two articles brought to notice in earlier posts (e.g. here).   Thomas E. Marston, ‘An aid to Medieval Portolan-chart making?’, The Yale University Library Gazette , Vol. 46, No. 4 (April 1972), pp. 244-246; E. P. Goldschmidt and G. R. Crone, ‘The Lesina Portolan Chart of the Caspian Sea’, The Geographical Journal , Vol. 103, No. 6 (Jun., 1944), pp. 272-278. Both Marston and Goldschmidt are linked to the history of the Voynich manuscript -one for his association with Yale University and the other as an expert in medieval manuscripts.
  4. In the Great Sea, points of the compass were named for stars. This is true from the Hawaiian islands to Oman and a number of the various forms of  ‘star-compass’ system are documented. (see principally Ibn Majid’s Kitab al-Fawa’id fi Usul ‘Ilm al-Bahr wa ’l-Qawa’id and – for the older star-compasses – the University of Hawaii site).  For the Chinese magnetic compass directions, see below. Information about non-Islamic India has proven difficult for the present writer to obtain. With regard to other evidence of the ‘square world’ – see Pt 2, following – Ibn Majid notes that the Gujeratis, like the Cholas of South India had their own ways of determining latitudes.  Samira Sheikh, who appears not to have read Majid’s work and to have little appreciation of what sidereal navigation entailed, or why it was a lifetime’s study,  asserts that “that the practice of observing the altitude of the Pole Star at its maximum elevation, as it crossed the meridian, was an Arab tradition adapted by seafarers on the west coast of India for latitude determination.” This is hardly so; we find the same practice known to seamen in most parts of the world, and certainly to medieval European mariners. During the fifteenth century, Nicolo de’ Conti lived for decades as a trader in India and southeast Asia, and yet did not seem to grasp the fact that it was not ignorance of the magnetic compass but disdain for it which saw the expert navigators refuse to have it or – if obliged to have one – refuse to use it. Sheikh quotes De’ Conti on Indian sailors’ “being unacquainted with  use of the compass, but [they] measure their courses and the distances of places by the elevation and depression of the pole. They find out where they are by this mode of measurement”, again adding that once a vessel had reached the latitude of the destination port, it could ‘run down the latitude’ due east or west until the destination was reached. She makes the valid observation that this approach was particularly suited to long north-south coastlines such as those of India or East Africa, but in saying that  “navigation was further aided by compass cards, that is, diagrams that combined directional information derived from constellations, the winds and the sun”, she misses the point.  The card itself was no aid to navigation; the information about winds, stars, and other phenomena were maintained in the navigator’s inherited lore and constant study. Majid says himself that he had no need of a magnetic compass and the same is certainly attested to as late as the 1970s by scholars studying the traditional practice of Carolinian and Polynesian mariners. To ask such kanakas (as Majid also calls himself), to mechanically follow the dictates of such a mass-produced object was insulting – in much the way a chef might be insulted if told to serve nothing but regular, scientifically measured, microwaved hamburgers . But see: Samira Sheikh, ‘A Gujarati Map and Pilot Book of the Indian Ocean, c.1750’, Imago Mundi, Vol. 61, No. 1 (2009), pp. 67-83.
  5. The qibla system (also Romanised as Qiblah, Qibleh, Kiblah, Kıble or Kibla), named the points by places standing about the compass, though at variable distances, from a central point. David King has written important studies on the subject. I recommend particularly, D.A. King, ‘On the astronomical orientation of the Kaaba’ (with Gerald S. Haw­kins), Journal for the History of Astronomy 13 (1982), pp. 102-109. A list of his publications can be accessed online.
  6. The Chinese had developed gridded maps by the time of the Han dynasty, and an order issued during the 3rdC AD informs us of a deliberate replacement, at that time, of an older meridian and latitude system with an imposed rectangular grid. I cite from the valuable paper by H.B Sarkar:  “during the ministry of P’ai-Hsiu in A.D. 267 instructions were issued requiring that maps be correctly oriented and divided by a net, not of meridians and parallels, but of lines intersecting at equal intervals to form squares which were intended to facilitate the measurement of distance (in li) …” H.B. Sarkar, ‘A Cartographical Introduction to South-East Asia: the Indian Perspective’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, Deel 138, 1ste Afl.,ANTHROPOLOGICA XXIV (1982), pp. 54-63.   It was during the Sung dynasty (1000 CE) that in China “The [magnetic compass’] plate was converted to a bowl, and retained the markings of the heaven’s plate around its circumference, in a simplified form. The inner circle had the eight trigrams and the outer circle the 24 directions (based on azimuth points)”.  Joseph Needham’s essay, included in the 1971 edition of E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven Finding Art, is essential for details here if one has no access to the more detailed treatment in Science and Civilization in China.  Because the Chinese also held that the surface of the earth was square, (which belief they maintained to the eighteenth century, as I’ve already mentioned in this context), the most reasonable explanation for the form of the Voynich map’s ‘square world’ is influence from Asia upon more ancient matter, presumably retained east of the Bosphorous for most of its history.  My chief reason for believing the map’s foundations are Hellenistic are the extraordinary detail in which the structure is drawn the west roundel and the nature and history of that figure which originally occupied the North roundel, but was so much later shifted to the its present position: North-west.  On the ‘square world’ of the Chinese in relation to the Voynich map see, D.N. O’Donovan, ‘folio 86v The Square World’, published through voynichimagery.wordpress.com (3rd. September 2012) (here). I expect that few readers will have the opportunity to research the Chinese system, so I have quoted part of Batchelor’s article below.

What is known as the Selden map is a 17thC Chinese map now in the Bodleian Library (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Selden Supra 105). That map is illustrated (with inset compass drawn) in Robert Batchelor, ‘ The Selden Map Rediscovered: A Chinese Map of East Asian Shipping Routes, c.1619’, Imago Mundi (The International Journal for the History of Cartography), Volume 65, 2013 – Issue 1. That article can be read online.

In relation to its compass diagram, Batchelor writes, The compass rose is composed of an outer and an inner circle. Twenty-four rays, each marked with one of the twenty-four cardinal directions along with eight major compass directions, surround a small circle reading luojing (羅經, compass). Below the compass is a scale bar divided into ten sections, each marked with an ‘x’, and each subdivided into ten sections with a longer line for the half mark. The scale bar is perpendicular to the due south (牛, wu / 正南, zhengnan) line of the compass itself. Both appear to indicate a declination of approximately six degrees.  Declination is notoriously difficult to determine in this period. …. Joseph Needham could only find two ‘Chinese’ measurements of declination in the early seventeenth century, both for Beijing, from Xu Guangxi (confusingly 5˚40′ʹ east) and Mei Wending scoffing at Adam Schall’s claim to have found over 7˚ of western declination by sundial measurement. [Batchelor adds bibliographic references]. .. The new calculations of A. Jackson, A.R.T. Jonkers and M. Walker, ‘Four centuries of geomagnetic secular variation from historical records’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, ser. A, 358 (2000): 957–90, suggest a figure closer to −5˚ on a line running west of Beijing down through Malacca on the western Malay Peninsula and across central Sumatra. View all notes This southward orientation corresponds to the famous ‘south pointing needle’ (指南針 zhi nan zhen) mentioned in texts from the Song Dyansty (960–1279) into the late Ming. See Zhang Xie, Dongxi yangkao (东西洋考; 1617–1618), 9:1; translated in Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (note 19), 4:1: 291–92.  The two directional rays ding (丁) and bing (丙), one each on either side of due south, are extended in black-ink lines down to the scale bar.The small empty box seems to be, as Davies has suggested, a miniature version of the map itself, defining the declination of both compass and scale bar in relation to the basic frame of the map.

7. Ancient Greek zodiac ‘compass’ – theoretical. Jean Richer’s studies led him to conclude that there existed a system by which a given location was defined as the centre of a ‘compass’ about which other locations were identified by the circuit of zodiac constellations, as symbol or as image. Richter’s study still holds considerable interest, but his thesis is  flawed by an assumption – inaccurate – that archaic and classical Greeks knew the same equal divisions and 12 constellations as those of the Roman zodiac, introduced to Roman dominions during  the early centuries AD.  The equal divisions were achieved by reducing the size of the Scorpion and making Scales of its claws, an idea unattested in the older Mediterranean. However, for general interest:

Jean Richer, Sacred Geography of the Ancient Greeks: Astrological Symbolism in Art, Architecture, and Landscape, (translated by Christine Rhone),  SUNY series in Western Esoteric Traditions, (1994).

A somewhat unexpectedly impressive study of sacred directions was made by Nigel Pennick, in his Games of the Gods. Unhappily, his publisher did not see fit to produce the study with the academic apparatus it deserved, reducing its value for subsequent researchers since one cannot follow his information back to the primary sources.  In those cases where the present reader had some prior knowledge of an item, the implied depth of reading for Pennick’s study was impressive..


Getting it right – the first formal analysis of the Voynich map

For those who like to track the history of ideas, and are frustrated by the obstacles to doing so in this area of interest – you have my sympathy.

Apart from anything else, it is hugely embarassing to conclude from some such source as voynich.nu that nothing has yet been done or written in an area you wish to explore, only to find out that quite a bit has been done, but those of whom you enquire prefer not to have you know about it.

In the interests of conservative scholarly standards, then, I thought I’d re-publish a list of the earliest posts in the seminal study of the folio which is rightly described as the Voynich map – and which covers the whole of  folio 86v (now foliated in the Beinecke’s new scans as ‘folio 85v-and-86r’)

Efforts to understand that folio, prior to my analysis of it, consisted of  the occasional speculation, bit of mailing-list kite-flying comment, observation about one or two details and was otherwise hypothesis-consistent imagination. For a clear sense of how things stood see one of Nick Pelling’s posts,  ‘A Miscellany of Nine-Rosette Links ciphermysteries, 29th May 2010.

After my work had been published –  three or four of years afterwards, I think –  Rene Zandbergen directed his readers to what he called a ‘silly comment’ offered fifteen years before on a mailing list, in which he had day-dreamed that something on the folio might be Mecca.

I did not think this sufficient reason to grant him  credit for precedence – as he apparently expected I would.  Zandbergen has always displayed a certain difficulty when it comes to understanding the difference between the conclusions drawn from one’s own detailed, published research, and what may be termed a free-range ‘idea’.

Those who later strove to create ‘alternatives’ – invariably more congenial to a Eurocentric thesis – did so either in response to a ‘suggestion’ whose motivation they may not have understood, or  because genuinely misled by that determined censorship of the present writer’s work by the owner of voynich.nu.  The omission is substantial when one considers that voynichimagery constitutes the single largest body of analytical studies ever provided for the manuscript’s imagery. (Of course, since changes to that site occur without date-stamping, the situation might change overnight).

Concerning the map, omission of reference to the seminal study can only serve to distort perceptions of how – and why – the study of this folio suddenly gained a prominence after 2012 which it had not had not enjoyed between 1912 and 2010.   The critical factor was that my detailed analysis showed clearly that the map is a map, and that it is not a product of the Latin European cartographic tradition, even if there are indications that it came to influence some of the early cartes marine produced from Genoa and Majorca – another original and documented conclusion of my own research. It also demonstrated the extreme improbability of Latin Christian – or any ‘central European’ having had access to some of those routes before the Voynich manuscript was made.

This, I’d suggest, was the sort of thing which led to ‘suggestions’ that others create some more congenial interpretation of the map.. not to further our understanding of the manuscript, but to preserve the narrative of a wholly Latin cultural content – which notion is clearly untrue to the primary evidence, but compatible with one or another Euro-centric storyline.

Since 2011, the determination by some to pretend the original study did not exist has to date caused at least four scholars unnecessary embarrassment: first, a specialist in cartes marine, who had been approached with an ‘idea’ that the map  might relate to that subject.  He himself, knowing my professional work and my interest in this manuscript, realised that the ‘idea’ was actually one of the original conclusions of my research, and declined to become involved.  My work on the map, to be included in a two volume set of essays, was already with the publisher in 2014, when Juergen Wastl and his co-author announced excitement over the ‘possibility’ [sic!] that the folio ‘might be’ map.

One hears that Wastl and Feger had been misled by relying on voynich.nu, whose account of the map’s study is… well, of an enthusiastic amateur rather than a scholarly standard in both selection of content and in apparatus.

Whether or not  Wastl’s ideas about the folio are compatible with mine, either in the general or in the particular, as professional scholars Wastl and Feger would  read, note, and acknowledge any such seminal study as matter of scholarly routine.  It is a pity the information was lacking in the sources they thought to consult, resulting not only in embarrassment but in my publisher’s inconvenience.

(See the comments to ciphermysteries dated  February 11, 2014 at 6:21 pm;   ( February 12, 2014 at 8:50 am) and ( February 15, 2014 at 5:26 pm ).


To make the issue clear, then, here are the very earliest posts in what became a very detailed historical and technical analysis, a part of which I shared online:

THE VOYNICH WORLD – first analysis of the Voynich map:

Posts published at  ‘Voynichimagery Notes’ (Blogger) posts:-

‘Orientation marks: North and North-West’   September 29th., 2011.
The Western Quadrant‘,     October 2nd., 2011
Eastern Quadrant..’ October 9th., 2011
South (and far East) Quadrant’    October 23rd., 2011

North Quadrant:
The summary ‘mimimap’ [inset] in fol.86v – northern quadrant, which included several posts, the first on  May 4th., 2012 with some additional notes   October 22nd., 2011.  Much shortened and corrected identification for the merloned ‘castle’ – reflecting more recent research – 10/04/2017.

Link to the ‘Etymologies-Computus’ map (8thC AD)  May 8th., 2012

.Concluding remarks March 17th., 2012.


Published through Voynichimagery.wordpress.com

Map: Mediterranean to China (made in 12thC Sicily)              2012/07/16

fol.86v: Introduction to a map ~ geog.                                        2012/07/22

fol. 86v: emblems of direction Pty 1                                               2012/07/26

fol 86v: Emblems of direction Pt 2 ‘west’ (shortened)              2012/07/29

fol 86v: A Curious orientation ~ principles                                 2012/07/31

fol.86v Emblems of direction: South and East ~ principles      2012/08/02

[The north roundel, an inset ‘minimap’}

fol 86v: the inset ‘minimap’ Pt1: from the Black Sea ~ geog    2012/08/05

Hierapolis ~ incidental post  superseded                                             2012/08/09

fol 86v The inset ‘minimap’ Pt2: the Egyptian shore                2012/08/11

fol 86v minimap ~ some footnotes ~ comment                          2012/08/13

fol 86v Patterns and points ~ comment                                      2012/08/14

fol.86v: of Portolan charts and Trabizond ~ historical background     2012/08/15

The north-west roundel – Angel of the Rose                              2012/08/19

More on Trebizond ~ historical background                                2012/08/21

[between north and east]

fol.86v Ways to the east: the river roads – Revised post             2012/08/22

fol 86v Ways to the east: the desert road                                         2012/08/25

fol.86v Roads east: Beacons ~ stylistics                                            2012/08/28

Across the North – intro: fol.86v and prototypes for the Month-emblems  2012/11/21

A matter of scale – methodology note                                               2012/08/29

Who knew? ~ comment                                                                       2012/09/02

fol.86v The Square world ~ stylistics                                               2012/09/03

[East roundel]

Fol 86v East roundel: Lotus and Paeony ~ geog; stylistics            2012/09/08

Select fol 86v: from East to the South ~ incidental post                 2012/09/12

[South roundel]

fol.86v The great sea ~ Pt1                                                      2012/09/17

fol 86v: The great sea: Part 2                                                   2012/09/19

Trade routes and scripts ~ historical background                 2012/09/20

Afterword to ‘Routes and Scripts’                                           2012/11/16

fol 86v: South toward West: stage 1 The Sahel                     2012/09/24

fol 86v: South towards West Pt 2 ~ geog.                               2012/09/26

fol 86v West roundel – Password protected                            2012/10/02

NMB – script. ~ speculation                                                       2012/09/29.


Further work has been done since then by the present author, the matter adding to and refining the original commentary. I’d emphasise that what was offered online were  selections from the full study, and were edited and tailored to suit the needs of those whose interest is chiefly in the written part of the text.  That, indeed, was the aim in writing posts to voynichimagery – to provide informed commentary which might aid identification of the script, language or cipher.  For later references to the map,  search ‘folio 86v’  or ‘fol.85v-and-86r’.


Note – I recollect, some time ago, that another writer  identified the map’s ‘merloned castle’ as Constantinople.  If any reader knows where I can find that reference, I’d be most grateful for the opportunity to acknowledge the precedent.

Image without text – in the real world. Pt2. Practice

“… Find[ing] a telling detail.”

‘Telling’ … compared to what?  If you don’t know much about the subject how do identify a ‘telling’ from a ‘non-telling’ detail?

The problem, again, is not the manuscript’s imagery. It’s the attitude.

The  first stage, in the real world, is the long years of study –  six or seven years just to be competent enough in one specialist area such as French medieval manuscript art. It takes rather more before one can claim to be a specialist in comparative iconography.

So preparing to address, and  evaluate imagery as problematic as that in the Voynich manuscript begins in fact at the second level – after those years of equipping yourself to recognise the various hallmarks of times, places and culture.

In considering the work at hand, one helpful practice is to survey the thing (or set of images) taking careful stock of how the maker relates to his own social and physical environment – normally also those of the  intended audience.

What elements does the imagery show essential to their discourse, and what elements are absent that are essential in one or another of those visual languages familiar to you? Positive and negative indicators are equally important.

Such things are expressed in style of drawing and in disposition of items  across the space, as much as by what a specific item or picture contains. One very ‘telling’ element – at this early stage – is the attitude shown to the living body.

How persons of a particular time and place perceive their bodies, and how they may adapt that form to denote higher or lesser status (actual or spiritual), is potent sign of where and when an image is likely to have been first enunciated and/or subsequently maintained.  It isn’t necessarily the same time or place as the present medium; you can buy a modern plastic plate carrying an image of the Mona Lisa.

But consider how bodies appear in the  illustrations below, and which do – or don’t –  assume that perfection of physical form is an external expression of the naturally good, or the great.

(detail) fol. 76v

Do any of those pictures include a ‘telling detail’ – reminiscent of a detail in the Voynich manuscript? (the correct answer  is… sort of.. The ornate cover as headwear or canopy)

How about the Voynich figure’s flower? Should we suppose its having three buds was intended to convey any particular significance?

… at this early stage the only correct answer is … possibly.

Then, by reference to the range of headwear on the adjacent figures, we find that in addition to this possible allusion to Asian, and specifically Buddhist or Hindu customs in art,  we have here allusion to the Hellenistic and Roman ‘tyche’ – something  I first pointed out in 2011, when  writing for some students. It is an idea since taken up by Koen Gheuens, though not quite in the same way, or drawing the same conclusions as I do.

About this time, one must pause and act as one’s own severest critic. Is there any evidence at all to that there ever existed a context or community in which the visual language combined such a fusion of  Asian stylistics and Hellenistic ‘tyche’?  It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘plausible’; it has to be demonstrably, and historically, factual. The imagery has to be read accurately if provenance is to be accurate.

So now – as ever – one turns to the great mass of primary and secondary studies: history, archaeology, coins and – of course – textual sources.

First,  iconographic evidence.  Yes, it does support the contention that a Hellenistic tyche might hold a three-bud flower.

So what about the eastern ‘meld’ apparently informing the Voynich figure’s expression? Any evidence that such a meld of visual elements existed?

Is one just spinning another of those semi-hypothetical, semi-imaginary ‘histories’?

Specifics – where and when is such fusion attested? It’s not about being believed; it’s about getting things right. Evidence, not argument.

Continually cross-examining  one’s own reading of an image, and constantly  cross-checking the objective comparative materials, keeps one from floating off into fantasy land, but even more  it ensures honest representation of the object to a private client or the public.

In this case, the  external evidence supports the internal. Among artefacts dated to time of Roman rule in the Mediterranean, there are found in the east one showing particular interest in the ‘Tyche’ and that later example (shown above, right) of the ‘Servant of the flower’.

Thus Himanshu Ray speaks of finds that include..

“… intaglios cut in stone such as carnelian and garnet.. the common motifs are Tyche, Heracles, Pallas helmeted and Apollo standing. The Tyche motif is especially widespread, and in addition to sites in Bengal and Andhra it has also been found at coastal sites in southern Thailand”.

Himanshu P. Ray, The Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia. OUP (1994; 1998; 2000) p.74.

And the particular form of ornate ‘canopy’ shown above the Voynich figure also occurs in Buddhist Thailand –  I’m sorry I have no example to show you here.

So now, it is clear that we are not inventing history in recognising this visual langage as one informed by both the older traditions: of the Hellenistic Tyche and an Asian style which may be more aptly associated with the Buddhist rather than the Hindu of India. And so we may also posit a period between the 3rdC BC and 3rdC Ad for for first enunciation of the matter, with greater probability of the 1st-3rdC AD. And we are looking for the relevant community  where the inheritance was both Hellenistic and Asian during that time.

But there are more questions to be addressed and, hopefully, answered.

For example,

Why has the Voynich figure a body so very unlike those derived from the Hellensitic, Hindu or Buddhist traditions, in which physical beauty was important?

Why these flat feet, un-drawn ankles and overlarge head? It is a reflection of cultural decay over time, or does it reflect the ideas of the inheriting community which – though accustomed to use a visual vocabulary gained from Hellenistic and eastern custom – had some cultural or religious ideology which opposed idealisation of physical beauty? Or is it just bad drawing?  More – why is it that the nearest comparison for bodies drawn in such a way occurs in astronomical imagery from an Iberian Jewish text whose pictures are derive from a non-Latin corpus of  al-Sufi, a Persian born in Rey?

Is the presence of classical and Buddhist/Asian vocabulary, in combination with an absence of similar ways of representing the body, a result of  the work’s being copied in later Iberia perhaps, or might it be rather the effect of some practice current in  ninth- or tenth-century Persia, or should we attribute it to eastern Jews from the old Buddhist-Greek influenced regions, who later came to settle in the west, among the Sephardim?  Such arrivals are attested: the persons are usually not called Jews but given the surname ‘al Isra’ili’ in medieval document.

More questions; more research … avoiding premature conclusions… and constant, relentless cross-checking.

Apart from that canopy, is there any other reason to think that this particular figure reflects a visual language influenced by Asian custom?  Is  possible to know whether that flower, and its ‘three buds’ were intended to carry some particular significance known to both the original and later makers?

.. once more, at this early stage, the proper answer is ‘ Possibly’.

We see that the figure is given an awkward, back-turned right hand, the left holding that three-bud flower.

And the same combination – three buds with one hand back-turned and pointing downwards, is a standard trope for the ‘healer’ figures in Buddhist art.  In that that position, the hand means ‘mercy’ and is very commonly seen on healing figures. The first comparative example shown below is a detail from a purely Indian Buddhist figure; the next a recent image of the Tibetan ‘Green Tara’-  patron of medicines. The three-bud sprig held by the first is myrobalans.

Must we read the back-turned hand as addressing conventions of Buddhist visual language?  What significance might it have, instead, in the Jewish or the Latin traditions?

More work, more reading, more searching relevant comparative imagery.

Next question..

Are there any other places in the manuscript where some allusion is made to the myrobalans as ‘three bud’? – Well, yes.

While working out the classification system underlying construction of the Voynich botanical images,  I’d identified a fair number and among them, the  myrobalans as the subject of folio 22r ( basic information had been given in this post; more technical matter here).

Any other items of relevance?  Anything that might suggest confirmation of this possibility that the makers were accustomed to use conventions of Asian or Indian  visual languages – particularly the Buddhist – in addition to being acquainted with the older Hellenistic matter?

Again – yes.

The manuscript includes quite a number of such details.  Perhaps the least unequivocal for those unused to non-Latin imagery is this use of the ‘lotus-like’ motif on f.33v.

This is the sort of thing one can tell a client and know the information will be received with interest, but informing those highly self-confident, Euro-centred and theory-driven Voynicheros is only done after taking some time to prepare for the inevitable multi-gun onslaught:- assertions that one doesn’t know what one is taking about; that the insight is not original; that the insight is wrong, mad, pareidolic or hallucinatory.  It will be decided by the most fanatical that to prevent anyone ‘being distracted’ by such information, one’s name is ‘never to be mentioned’ and any reference to one as source of information is to be erased.

No, I’m sorry to say that I’m not inventing or exaggerating this utterly crazy behaviour among the worse of the worst.  Luckily, not everyone has yet been drawn into that ‘fellowship’.

I would not say that anything so far noted about that detail from f.79 76v was enough to offer any firm opinion about that folio, let alone the whole manuscript. It’s just one small set of notes, which was added to the log, and whose final weight was given only after  equally detailed study of all the rest.

The process of inspection, analysis, observation, research, cross-reference, more research, and constant ‘reality checking’ continues – for every folio – before any opinion can be honestly given.. ‘Eyeballing’ just doesn’t figure. It has to be true.

But in the end, we still have to cope with hypothetical narratives as advertised ‘histories’ for the manuscript, and the usual ‘Aldrovandi’s phoenix bowl’ phenomenon.

Those who want to insist it’s all about lovely herbal baths and kings and things are still going to do it.  Responsiveness requires an interest in the manuscript greater than attachment to self-image or hypothesis. So though one might know better, one hardly expects to be heard.  One knows that we will still see the tyche called a ‘nymph’ and stories about among ‘balneology’ and herbals.  One just has to publish and hope for better times.

Buit when Pelling asks rhetorically whether the study has failed..

.. because everyone who has ever looked at the Voynich Manuscript has been stupid, or inexperienced, or foolish, or delusional, or crazy, or marginal, or naive? ..

the answer is neither yes nor no. No, it hasn’t failed; and yes most of those who just ‘look at’ the imagery, expecting it to be legible in their own visual language are naive and insufficiently inexperienced.

But in the end, Pelling descends to the just-plain-untrue:

Even though the Voynich’s imagery has been seen and ‘closely read’ for over a century by all manner of people, to date this has – in terms of finding the single telling detail that can place even part of it within an illustrative or semantic tradition – achieved nothing, zilch, nada

Image without text – in the real world. Part 1-Theory

In a recent post, Nick Pelling wrote,

Whether we like it or not, history as practised nowadays is a tower built upon textuality, upon the implicit evidentiality striped within and through texts. Even archaeology .. and Art History rely heavily on texts for their reconstructions.

Pelling seems to be saying, thoughout that post, that the key to the Voynich manuscript’s content will be found by first creating a textual ‘history’  – yet one so detached from verifiable information that it will exist independent of the internal evidence offered by the primary source itself. Seriously? Surely not.

A majority of artefacts requiring provenance arrive without any creative ‘history’. They don’t come with manuals or neat descriptions.  But they are daily and quite routinely  .. I’ll emphasise that – routinely – accorded correct provenance.  Why hasn’t this happened with the content of the Voynich manuscript? Well, not least because it simply hadn’t occurred to anyone to consider that the date of the manuscript’s manufacture might not be the date for first composition of the content. From 1912 until about 2011, when I made that obvious point, the field had been hypnotised by an effort to ‘name the author’.. Jorge Stolfi being perhaps the sole exception. And believe me, in 2011 the idea of the manuscript as a compilation of older matter, by persons unknown, was not at all well received. I had to explain the word ‘florilegium’ for a start. Luckily a couple of others liked the sound of the word and these days it’s so common to suppose the manuscript a compilation that some Voynicheros will think one has a hell of a cheek in trying to taking the blame!.

To provenance an object, or imagery and ornament, it is enough if the appraiser can recognise the materials and the forms employed. No-one greets the sight of a sherd or drawing by throwing up their hands in existential despair that the thing doesn’t come with attached explanatory text.  Nor do appraisers generally resort to ignoring the artefact in favour of creating some fictional narrative deemed an ‘intellectual history’.

I’d make the point clear that even without scientific analysis of the materials, form and ornament/imagery can be enough to rightly assign an object to its correct time, place and (thus) cultural origin. It depends – quite simply – on the would-be provenancer’s having a suitably broad knowledge. You have to know your stuff.

And if you don’t – it’s not the object’s fault that you feel only a blank incomprehension.


There’s something about the  generation of Voynicheros which gave us Zandbergen and Pelling: they have the idea that one should first creates a fictional tale – as ‘hypothesis’ –  then set about hunting whatever might be (however fancifully) deemed evidence in support. This style of manufacturing history pays remarkably little attention to the object or its content.

Pelling actually asserts that:

Alternative, explicitly visual approaches to history have lost the battle to control the locus of meaning. The mid-twentieth century Warburg/Saxl/Panofsky dream that highly evolved iconography/iconology might be able to surgically extract the inner semantic life of symbols from their drab syntatical carapaces now seems hopelessly over-optimistic, fit only for the Hollywood cartoons of Dan Brown novels. Sorry, but Text won.

Fine-sounding polemic, but completely airs-above-the ground.

Irwin Panofsky was not a symbolist, nor one of those mindless mis-users of Frazer’s anthropological anthology, ‘The Golden Bough’ (yes, Campbell and de Santillana, I’m looking at you). Panofsky read – he read deeply, widely and intelligently in several languages, including those relevant to his particular studies of medieval European Christian art and art of the Renaissance (how many Voyncheros today even read Latin?).

Panofsky’s approach to pictures was always and invariably informed by that deep appreciation of texts.  Naturally enough – because what is expressed through an image is a product of a specific environment which permits a common visual dialogue between the maker of images and his intended readers.  I use the word ‘readers’ deliberately, for people did not just  ‘eyeball’ a picture and come up with a meaningless list of components: cow, bucket, stool, woman. They ‘read’ the image much as one reads a series of words – forming the ‘sentence’:  here is a woman who is milking a cow.

The almost intractable problem in attitudes that have developed towards the content in Beinecke MS 408 is not least a result of the fact that between 1912 and about 2010 (with the possible exception of Stolfi) everyone took as their first assumption that the manuscript’s content was the original invention of some imagined ‘author’ – imagined as a European Christian, and usually male.  This fantasy-creature was moulded in any way needed to excuse inability to understand the manuscript’s imagery, which bears very little connection to Latin European culture and practice. The great bulk just ‘doesn’t make sense’ when the only way in which the viewer knows how to read imagery is by derivation from the classical and medieval languages of Europe or, less often, of Islam.

Even so logical a step as then looking beyond Latin European culture for comparable customs in image-making was, in practice, impossible.

It is no exaggeration to say that for some of the more public faces in Voynich studies, the reaction was close to hysteria if one noticed aspects of the imagery plainly incompatible with the ‘Latin Christian author’ hypothesis. Researchers were personally maligned; efforts made to prevent or distort research; and finally (and currently) a practice of adamantly refusing to admit the existence of any research whose conclusions fail to support the presently dominant hypothetical ‘history’.  One is, for example, accused of being ‘disrespectful’ to a long-dead member of Europe’s minor nobility if one questions whether too much weight has not been placed on a report of a distant event in which a second-hand rumour was allegedly repeated by Mnishovsky.  Yet the same persons who are incensed that one should cast aspersions on the (minorly noble) Mnishovsky seem not to feel the the slightest qualm about maligning Jesuits en masse or, indeed, defaming living members of the so-called ‘Voynich community’ who refuse to conform to the hole-y Roman Emperor theory.

Really determined theory-pushers are beyond scholarly debate, and impervious to evidence other than items that can be deployed in service to some heavily-crafted hypothetical (or, as Pelling would prefer  ‘intellectual-‘) history for the manuscript..

Abandonment of the primary evidence, in favor of more elaborate fictional histories, is not the way to break the dilemma.  The solution is, quite simply, a return to independent research and lots of it.

Pelling offers his existential lament about text-less images:

What, then, are contemporary historians to make of the Voynich Manuscript, a barque adrift in a wine-dark sea of textlessness? In VoynichLand, we have letters, letters everywhere, and not a jot for them to read: and without close reading’s robotic exoskeleton to work with, where could such a text-centric generation of scholars begin?

Well,  ‘contemporary historians’ are not exactly what we need.  Their job starts once we have established reliable provenance for (severally) the object; its written text; and its imagery.

Lamenting the lack of any  written ‘manual’ isn’t usually accepted as excuse for inability to provenance things. Instead, the usual form of interview for work of that sort begins by inviting the  candidate to view a range of heterogeneous artefacts –  nicely arranged on the side table, and not rarely under the watchful eye of a chap one whom one suspects may be carrying a gun.

The  candidate is then asked their opinion on each thing – proposed date, place of origin, and any additional information they feel able to add.  Crying ‘Woe is me; it has no manual and I’m an intellectual historian’ is unlikely to impress.  In the real world.

If you can’t  recognise distinctions conveyed by stylistics, range of media, and  attitudes to depiction of e.g.  persons, trees or rocks … well… Next!

So as I see it, the basic problem in provenancing the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is not that it can’t be read; it is that so very few people are able to take it seriously enough to study it , and fewer still have the preliminary range of prior studies and experience to recognise the significance of non-Latin elements in what they look at.

In a way that is also Marraccini’s difficulty; for she knows a great deal about certain Latin manuscripts and their informing texts – but hasn’t the range needed to first assess the position of this imagery in the wider perspective.  Comparative iconography is a whole other specialty.

Pelling has an attitude to imagery and iconographic method so frivolous that he hasn’t bothered to learn how imagery is approached in the real world. It’s a little depressing to  read his characterisation of it as

.. the Voynich’s beguiling, misleading, and crisply non-religious images.

Nice, though, to see the ‘non-religious’ notion finally accepted.  It was only three years ago that I last received the usual insult or two for informing the Voynicheros that no Christian religious imagery was evident in this manuscript.  Not that there’s nothing in it qualifying as ‘religious imagery’.

Is it true that the Voynich imagery is ‘beguiling and misleading’?

Not in my opinion.  I see statements like that as a form of self-justification easier than doing the work. Shifting responsibility for inability to read imagery, by laying it all on some imaginary ‘author’ is as unnecessary as it is common..

Pelling just dismisses what is beyond his own competence, asserting that  “These contain plants that are real, distorted, imaginary, and/or impossible; strange circular diagrams; oddly-posed nymphs arranged in tubes and pools; and curious map-like diagrams. They famously lead everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, like a bad mirror-room fight-scene in 1960s Avengers TV episodes.”

Any of that true?  No – just a string of vague, largely subjective impressions uttered from a depth of practical ignorance.

Doing the equivalent of sweeping the chessboard clear in a fit of petulance, Pelling asks us to join him in a bit of communal sympathising.

“We [sic] can’t tell whether a given picture happens to parallel one of the plants in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s famous (so-called) “alchemical herbals” … or whether we’re just imagining that it echoes a specific plant in this week’s interesting Arabic book of wonders; or whether its roots were drawn from a dried sample but its body was imagined; or whether a different one of the remaining three hundred and eighty post-rationalizations that have been made for that page happens to hold true.

Well, obviously it’s not just Pelling’s problem, but one shared by unspecified  mates, but the solution to bewilderment is better information, and usually for an adult that requires research. Impressive fictions, represented as ‘intellectual history’ won’t get the study any further forward.

Pelling is also wrong in the way he imagines we start the process of provenancing problematic imagery:

“… Find[ing] a telling detail.”

If you don’t know and won’t study, how to you know which detail is ‘telling’ and what isn’t?

Again –  not the manuscript’s problem. Just the eyeballer’s.



Aldrovandi’s bowl – Voynichero style.

Musaeum Metallicum Pl.26

IN writing an earlier post, ‘The Great Aldrovandi.. had a Ming bowl’, I’d hoped to get a point across without too much fuss: namely, that there is a difference between the sort of provenancing which traces chains of ownership, and that concerned only with assigning an artefact or image to its time and place.  Personalities have no necessary role in the latter;  what matters is not that Aldrovandi once owned the bowl, only that it is a Chinese ceramic of the Ming dynasty period.

That’s the type of provenancing which I consider appropriate for a work such as the Voynich manuscript, about whose imagery so much as been presumed, but which has been more often the subject of speculation than of focussed study.

I don’t know why so few Voynich writers have difficulty appreciating the difference in approaches. I am constantly asked, or told, I have some ‘theory’ but all I have are opinions for which I can cite the informing evidence. I cannot see the task as one of creating a ‘history’ for the manuscript, only of correctly provenancing the content.

In fact, I’ve become fairly anti-theory since it seems to me that this field of study has been losing its earlier tone of dispassionate enquiry in direct proportion to the rise of theory-driven narratives after the demise of the first mailing-list.

At that time  the three most prominent theories were  Pelling’s ‘Averlino story’; Zandbergen’s ‘Germanic-Holy-Roman-Imperial-the-Jesuits-probably-stole-it’ story; and  Santacoloma’s “Wilfrid’s fake manuscript” story.

Within less than fifteen years, what had been a topic of civil discussion and enquiry devolved into what the chief theorists call without blush: a ‘theory-war’.  Prosecuting the ‘theory-war’ has apparently justified another unhappily anti-intellectual practice: that of attempting to force ‘victory’ by mere elimination of dissent – or more exactly, deliberate marginalisation and efforts to discourage those holding a different point of view from the favoured theory.

If the mere elimination of dissenters guaranteed historical validity, then medieval studies would be no more than a form of nationalistic propaganda or commercial advertising.  Some modern historians might even argue such a case, but there is one important difference: where propaganda and advertising employ  logic as an instrument to inculcate belief –  scholarship has traditionally aimed at offering a balanced assessment of the available information – information verifiable and thus falsifiable – and accords readers sufficient respect to allow them to weigh evidence for and against.

At the moment we are seeing the apogee of a very peculiar form of anti-intellectualism in service to theory-promotion: a practice of responding to information opposing a given theory by first asserting the dissenting scholar is an ‘inferior’, and then pretending ignorance of them – or more exactly of the body of evidence which they have presented from their own study of the subject.

But an historian must incline to the longer view, and in the longer  term an opinion suppressed – when it is the better opinion – may survive to  re-emerge in better weather.

E pur si muove

For my loyal readers’ amusement, then, and as caution for newcomers, I thought I’d explain what it’s like to be a non-theorist  stranded in the middle of a ‘theory-war’.  It’s not fun to be in that position –  exactly –  but taking Aldrovandi’s bowl as metaphor, it goes something like this..

Imagine…  that on coming to consider Aldrovandi’s bowl, I find a ‘theory’ being promoted that the bowl was made by Aldrovandi himself; that he intended it as a present for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, but that Aldrovandi’s trial for heresy, shortly before Charles’ death, prevented its  delivery.

I say, ‘That’s certainly a finely crafted story, held together with little golden pins of ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’.  I can even agree that the bowl was found in mainland Europe and belonged to Aldrovandi, but I have to tell you that the bowl itself, and the imagery on it are clearly of Asian origin, and no invention by an Italian naturalist’.

Do we then hear .. ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Thanks’ ?

In the real world, yes.  In Voynich-theory-war-land… No, we certainly do not.

We get first a stunned silence, a riffling sound as proponents of the ‘history’ try to work out whether this information might still fit their story and personal biases, and next some devotee of – say – the ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ story  will announce to all about them  that no attention should be paid this information. Why? ” She’s just trying to make a name for herself”. (note that the effort is only partly to offend and discourage the researcher: the primary aim is to prevent attention wandering, or belief lessening in the theory promoted). Belief is everything. But the fact is that the chief proponent of the ‘Holy-Roman-Imperial-the-Jesuits-probably-stole-it’ story has NEVER presented his argument formally, or permitted its discussion and debate, nor permitted serious critical questions to be asked about it.   Only now, almost twenty years after the ‘theory’ was first urged upon us, are attempts are being made (by supporters of the idea) to discover some solid evidence in support.  It is a nonsense which has succeeded almost entirely by personal networks, constant positive promotion and determined efforts to suppress alternative views.

But since not even advice that one should ‘pay no attention’ can guarantee continuing loyalty to a wholly hypothetical tale, so now some member of the faithful will appear in his sensible bovver-boots and beanie and make a very public appeal to ‘commonsense’ along the lines of  … ” You don’t know what you’re talking about. Aldrovandi was Italian and never even went to Asia. Asian! pfft.  Read your history books!”

Now, in the normal world (non-Voynich-online) this is the point at which a certain question would normally arise: Is it true?

Is it true that Aldrovandi would have had to go to Asia to obtain an Asian artefact? Is it true that the ceramic and/or its ornament is of Asian origin and character?  Not all that hard to check – you’d think.

But this is another of those curious phenomena in Voynich studies (online).  That most fundamental question of scholarship, the well-spring of any historical study:  “Is it true?” – is one resoundingly absent from online discussions of this manuscript.

What tends to happen, instead,  is that an assertion is made, or some ‘like-ness’ insinuated, to which responses are most often quasi-religious: belief or disbelief, often based on nothing more than that the reader knows too little to form any opinion, and effectively votes along the lines of  ‘seems ok to me’.

True. Pelling’s assertion that the manuscript’s imagery can be ‘dated’ by what he termed Renaissance style hatching did not pass unchallenged but he ignored such comments, without or without adding remarks personally insulting to the would-be helper. Zandbergen’s adducing various inappropriate details as ‘proof’ of Germanic character had  almost passed into ‘Voynich gospel’ though all were patently wrong: the archer isn’t a German hunter; the cloud-band pattern isn’t a German motif; plaited hair isn’t unique to medieval central Europe… and so on.

Corrections of error, in relation to assertions aimed at supporting a theory, are not well or gratefully received, I assure you.

So back to our metaphor, provenancing Aldrovandi’s bowl.

Realising that even so obvious an observation as that the bowl is Asian must be ignored by the theorists because it runs counter to the dominant theory, I now produce other examples of the same figure as that drawn on the bowl, and explain in more detail, with historical and other contextual matter, explaining that no, it is not an Italian rooster but an Asian ‘Phoenix’ and further that Aldrovandi certainly didn’t invent the image from his ‘creative imagination’.

I admit that we also find it in Persian art, but stress that on Aldrovandi’s bowl the form is pure Chinese. I even explain that because it is part of the Asian cultural heritage, the same creature continues to be depicted in Asian art to this day.

Enough to get the point across?

Yes in the real world; No in Voynich theory-land.. not just ‘no’ but ‘not on your life’ sort of ‘No’.


Well, at the moment, as those  attached to a narrative which they may have been stitching together for decades feel they are on the brink of having that theoretical narrative reified as  ‘official history’,  information casting the theory in doubt is not reacted to positively – as better insight into the manuscript itself –  but more as if it were a ‘threat’ against the theory and all who sail in it.

Threats must then be countered or neutralised in what has come, so bizarrely, to be called a ‘theory-war’, and so what we see among the inner circle of adherents is a fairly frantic hunt through theory-compatible sources (only), for something that can be represented as  better-informed.  The aim, as ever, is to reduce the risk of waning devotion in the audience.

And since the major theories fail to explain what is in the imagery, or in the written text, we are now seeing an  ultimate absurdity: an assertion that there is nothing wrong with the theory, and the reason it explains nothing in the manuscript, is that the manuscript contains nothing to be understood! (I’m not kidding – that’s the latest version of one of the less well-founded ‘theories’).

So now, in terms of our ‘Aldrovandi’s bowl’ metaphor, it becomes necessary for the theorists to maintain their ideas by eradicating this unacceptable suggestion of ‘Asian’ character.

Yet another believer steps up, dips his lid towards the chief proponent of the  ‘Aldrovandi-made-it-for-the-emperor’ tale, and happily expectant of a pat on the head,  produces the following image from Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum Historia...  Aldrovandi labelled this an ‘Indian chicken’.

Aldrovandi’s “Indian chicken” (1641)

IN a masterful exercise of logic sans reasoning, the devotee will then assert with immense self-confidence that since there is no such creature as  ‘Indian chicken’ known to science, so the similar image on Aldrovandi’s bowl must be the original invention of Aldrovandi himself – as supposely a ‘creative artist’.  This notion being taken as proof that Aldrovandi invented the type, so then we are told it was ‘probably painted on his bowl to impress the emperor with his scientific knowledge and artistic skill’.

As you may have sensed, the aim isn’t to correctly provenance the bowl or its image: it’s to push a ‘kings and things’ storyline, and because the storylines really haven’t much basis in fact, the word you will most often see used in the mythico-theoretical histories is ‘probably‘.. Actually in 2017, I should say  ‘mythical history’ in the singular since  no other opinion or narrative has been permitted to survive save one.

At this stage, and as you might imagine,  the  present writer is at one with Alice: feeling the same mix of incredulity, bemusement, amusement and frustration as Alice  did in that closed, almost claustrophobic world beyond the glass. Because, you see, it is a Ming bowl and the image is of an Asian Phoenix and anyone with the slightest background in Asian art could tell you so in a moment. In the world ‘out there’.

But theorists don’t ask; they don’t really hope to understand the manuscript or the bowl.  What they’re doing is trying to build an affirmative case so that they can be on the winning side in this senseless ‘theory-war’.

Unlike Galileo one does not recant under such pressures, but when the times are wrong, one may also be reduced to saying simply:

E pur si muove .

One explains the image, element by element. One explains stylistics. One adduces the historical, archaeological and comparative evidence. One hopes that reason and the individual mind of a scholar will respond; that evidence and reason will override inclinations to ‘team-loyalty’ and puffery. Perhaps not today, but some time.

Reason, explanation and evidence….  enough to persuade a theory-believer to set aside the ‘Aldrovandi-Emperor’ romance?  Nope, not in Voynich land.

Efforts to bolster the fantasy-tale are more usual.   An almost allergic reaction to any suggestion of ‘Asiatic’ influence is quite noticeable. So now it isn’t enough to suggest that Aldrovandi, an Italian, invented the creature.  Now it must be argued a uniquely ‘central European’ image.

Some flicker-through-medieval-manuscripts makes the assertion, adducing (so predictably) a German manuscript as supposed proof that the creature is uniquely Germanic.

(detail) Brit. Lib., MS Egerton 1146  f. 233. Manuscript made in southern Germany between 1475 and 1485 AD.

It’s a very neat story, now.  A ‘uniquely Germanic’ bird, painted in a German manuscript a century before, and so imagined painted upon a bowl by the Italian naturalist as compliment and gift for the the Holy Roman emperor before being pictured again – now as a supposed Indian fowl – in Aldrovandi’s own book.

So very textual; so perfectly ‘plausible’; such a neat (if confused) account of cause and effect.  And it agrees entirely with the Imperial theory… So easy. How dare any doubt it? It all ties together… doesn’t it?

So here, for now, the story ends: with  a triumphant reversion to the original theory-narrative; popular acclaim for the ‘Aldrovandi-made-it’ fantasy; the systematic discomfiture of any dissenting scholar; and the semblance presented in public of a single ‘authoriative’ version of the ‘Aldrovandi bowl’ story.  Belief; it is all about belief.

So then, voted ‘true’ by the blank absence of acknowledged alternatives, the hypothetical history as ‘theory’ passes into pop.history, is parotted in a wiki article and endlessly recycled in articles by people too busy to look at the original artefact.

Despite all this …  the bowl really is a Ming bowl; the creature really is the Asian phoenix, and the bowl was made, and painted, by anonymous Chinese artisans. It has no ‘author’; no connection to any emperor. It’s just a bowl which Aldrovandi happened to acquire.

Technical assessments.

Those disinclined to learn about formal techniques in iconographic analysis, art history, or the provenancing of artefacts, often claim to rely on ‘scientific facts’.

But here again, there is a basic flaw in the informing logic, for no image can have its origin or cultural significance explained by such method: any more than you can determine a man’s preferred language by giving him a chest X-ray.

It is true that submitting Aldrovandi’s bowl to scientific texts would prove the artefact made in China, but that alone provides no proof of origins for its ornament, any more than the  Voynich manuscript’s being proven made in Europe (something which has not yet happened), could prove its imagery expressive of medieval Latin ideas and practice.

As example of the reverse: here’s a plate made in China, of Chinese materials, but whose imagery is only rightly understood when its European origins are recognised.

Theoretical narratives about the Voynich manuscript are just that: theoretical. At present the theory most widely advertised is a ‘history’ constructed from a severely limited range of sources and ideas, limited with the aim of representing a flawed theory as beyond reasonable doubt.

In pursuit of that aim, balance, reason, dispassion and fair-dealing have all fallen by the way over recent years, together a notable lessening of basic scholarly standards and integrity.

Such things do happen from time to time  in academe, and the result is always to  temporarily stultify or ‘poison’ a field of study, until the oppressive influence or era finally passes.   It was impossible, for example, to say much about the Phoenicians between the nineteenth century and the late twentieth.  But  there is surely something badly wrong in current studies when a theoretical narrative can only be maintained by acts of active bias, rampant plagiarism, and  by playing  ‘no see, no speak’ about alternative opinions while pretending that fairly substantial bodies of research exist only to be plundered for ‘ideas’.

Whatever a ‘theory war’ is supposed to be, it isn’t scholarship worth the name.

Lamentable days

‘Ladies’ from an Egyptian calendar on papyrus. introduced to discussion of Beinecke MS 408 by an article  ‘… and these are hours with no zodiac Pt.1’, published through Voynichimagery, wordpress, (February 14th., 2016).

In  my opinion one of the most original, and potentially revolutionary observations made in recent years – by the conservative faction, at least – was made by Nick Pelling, in a post published on June 29th., 2015.

I doubt if he quite realised the implications of his own insight, because it is offered almost as a side comment – but it is an original observation, and it is his. It is also important.

Pelling wrote:

“Not only were they [the calendar ‘nymphs’] originally all drawn with a single breast …but many specific details – most notably things such as these three crowns and the tressed head-dresses [1]– were apparently added to the original drawing in a later ‘phase’ or composition pass”.

Over the years, Nick has displayed a constant habit (frustrating for his well-wishers) of making fine, original observations which he then hurries to fit to an  auteur hypothesis neither necessary nor convincing..

In this case, having rightly observed that certain types of detail were added after the first phase of the drawing, he fails to pause long enough to ponder the  implications of those distinguishable  phases which he has noticed: Pelling assumes them “compositional” rather than editorial or redactive and so the most interesting implication of his own observation seems to slide beneath his notice..

But if one sets aside his idea of an ‘auteur’ and sets that observation in the context of other signs of alterations to the calendar and other ‘nymph’ folios, it becomes evident that this implied disparity or  conflict between the content as it was rendered immediately before (i.e. to the end of the first ‘pass’) and as it was transformed now (by the second ‘pass’) marks a  critical moment: it is that ‘rock-face’ moment when matter copied with care was  subjected to the scrutiny of a figure we’ll call – simply for want of any better description – the overseer – and it was found wanting. That person  then made his corrections, ‘fixing’ the pictures using his darker ink.

Why? – I’d suggest that while the copying (the ‘first phase’) had been perfectly faithful to the exemplars, the result failed to look quite right to a Latin European eye, and that the overseer’s job was specifically to ensure that nothing ‘not quite Latin’ was allowed  to passed uncorrected.

We see the same effect in other folios, such as 70r, where – as I described in detail some years ago  – the copyist had to make ‘corrections’ several times before the overseer stepped in and made the decision with a dash of pigment.[2]  The same thing happens in other ‘nymph’  folios, but it is enough here to make the general point; I don’t want to go too far from Pelling’s original observation.

The thing to keep in mind is that the ‘corrector’ shows himself to be a little self-important, too self-confident, and too narrow in his range of understanding – he defines what he doesn’t find a way to rationalise as wrong, and corrects it to the form most familiar to him from the corpus of Latin works. It is also evident that he had greatest difficulty with the ‘nymphs’ folios.  Yet what he added to the ‘nymphs’ in the calendar tiers is very telling of how he understood them – presumably at the time our manuscript was put together. He didn’t come to this manuscript as entirely ignorant of it as we do.

Again, what Nick observed ..

“[they are]… all drawn with a single breast..[and] many details … added later”.

Dies Aegyptiaci

Considering the strongly conservative Latin character evinced by most corrections of the ‘second pass’ type, it may seem curious that among the ‘corrections’ made are the addition of menstrual flow from some tyche/’nymph’ forms.  The example below comes from the roundel inscribed ‘Setembre’, and while the figure to our left has that among its details now  added in the darker ink, the figure to our right has only the breasts corrected.  Poor thing – given arms so bone-thin that she appears to be on the brink of starvation.


Why  would the  ‘overseeing eye’ – who corrects the way the fishes appear in the ‘Mars’ roundel; who apparently tries to make the non-‘cross’ more nearly resemble a Christian emblem on folio 79v; and who seems generally to be there to maintain Latin orthodoxy (academic as well as religious) feel  obliged to add such an off-putting detail?

Egyptian Days (Dies aegri , atri , mali , maledicti, ominosi , infortunati , tenebrosi … and dies aegyptiaci)

I think Georg Baresch told us or rather, told Athanasius Kircher. He said that that the material now in the manuscript was gathered in the ‘east’ and was related to things Egyptian: he guessed the chief subject must be medicine.

Which is why things get suddenly much more interesting.

The  ‘later compositional pass’ (to use Pelling’s term) is showing us the moment when the older, non-Latin, content is confronted with a determinedly Latin worldview.  For some reason, the ‘overseer’ couldn’t order all the heterodox matter replaced, although that is what seems to have occurred eventually with the later month-folios (that is, their tiered figures), but first he had to try and ‘sort it’ – as he did.

I’d argue that, just as Baresch did later, the fifteenth-century ‘corrector’ knew that the content had some sort of connection to Egypt, and not Islamic Egypt, but an older Egypt: that the calendar was in some sense a roster of ‘Egyptian days’.

But for a Latin cleric, a scholar who was a little ‘high’, a little too-confident, it would seem obvious that the only correct sense in which ‘Egyptian days’ (‘dies Aegyptiaci’) applied was in calculating the days of ill-omen: those poisonous and corrosive influences associated also with women’s ‘menses’ in medieval thought.  They were believed to have …

“the power to turn new wine sour, make fruit fall from trees, kill bee hives, give dogs rabies and make crops turn barren. A child in a cradle could be poisoned by the gaze of an old, pre-menopausal woman, whose accumulation of blood would lead to poisonous vapours being given off by her eyes!”[3]

At the end of this post, I’ll add bibliographic references for the Latins’  Dies Aegyptiaci, selecting studies by scholars who also knew something about the Voynich manuscript before the Friedmans made it their baby.

Colonel William Friedman himself had a bustling,  over-forceful sort of attitude to scholars in disciplines of which he himself was ignorant: basically all save English literature and cipher-breaking.  Towards other and earlier opinions about the manuscript – and sadly especially that of Fr. Theodore C. Petersen – his tone seems to have been dismissive: as if to say  ‘We needn’t pay attention to that vague and unscientific stuff; not now that the real professionals and higher minds have arrived’.  Friedman’s ridiculing Newbold was classic hubris and it is rather more sobering than ironic to realise that Friedman’s mind also broke in later life.

To more positive things: Marraccini’s recent draft paper  recognises the ‘corrosive’ theme in a general way, but misses that critical point which Pelling had already noticed, namely that the  ‘menses’ details are a late (15thC)  addition to the imagery and not helpful as a means to explain what the imagery originally meant: only how it was interpreted and then ‘translated’ by means of that ‘second pass’ in the early fifteenth century.

‘Egyptian days’ as  days of ill-omen;  the corrosive effect of women’s menses… these are Latin ideas routinely found in the Latin manuscript tradition and not at all limited to alchemical texts. The interesting fact, as far as we’re concerned, is that such an imposition of Latin ideas upon the original appears to have occurred first when the ‘overseer’ became involved in the manufacture of the fifteenth century manuscript.  Until that point the tiered nymphs do not appear to have been ‘Latin’ in character at all.

Marraccini missed that point – possibly because she has always supposed the manuscript a curious variant of some standard Latin genre, or because mislead into believing that most Voynich writers and thinkers are wild-eyed lunatics. (In fact most are university educated, with the older guard living quiet professional lives, and the younger keen to impress their peers.. so what’s new?)


To make that “translation” of the material so that it would accord with Latin customs,  the overseer had to have been given some reason to believe that the calendar is about the ‘Egyptian days’ – and the implication of Latin allusions to those ill-omened days is that they are connected indeed with the Sirius [Sothis] cycle and its  ‘dog-days’.

So this series of additions as ‘translation’ cannot be dismissed as a result of ignorance of the simple kind – but rather of the more offensive sort to which history has accustomed us: the ignorance of supposing that Latin Europe serves as arbiter of rationality and ‘correctness’. This is the sub-text to the ‘overseer’s’ corrections, and it is informed by book-based studies of the Latin sort, in which we find the ‘Egyptian days’ as fearful from as early as the tenth century, but more constantly after the advent of the Normans in England, France and Sicily.  (On which see recommended reading  in the previous post (below).

The Voynich ‘ladies’ themselves deny the probability that the ‘Egyptian’ calendar of the  Hijra’ is their subject, even though that calendar remained in daily use in Egypt until late in the nineteenth century.[4]  These figures around the tiers still speak clearly of their Hellenistic – and possibly Alexandrian – origins[5] and bear some evident connection to the papyrus of which a little serves as as header to this post. Not so the Voynich calendar’s central emblems, but I’ve said enough about them too, in other places.


[1] ‘Tressed hair/headdress’.  Pelling gave too much notice to this matter. At the time he wrote the post, the ‘buzz-word’ was current among the central European theorists who gained an idea that plaited or  braided (“tressed”)  hair could be cited as  ‘proof’ of Germanic culture. Nonsense, but when such nonsense is allowed to pass, it soon comes to be credited as fact.  In this case, though it was before anyone followed me in speaking of [Hellenistic] Greek influence in the imagery, I contented myself with just one Hellenistic image. It was deemed irrelevant by some.

[2] See ‘fol. 70r ¬ Of Fishes and Fleury’, voynichimagery. wordpress, (October 27, 2012). One of the ’emulators’ who constantly neglects to cite his precedents recently announced this as if struck by direct inspiration – or perhaps by ‘suggestions’ from another Voynchero of that sort.  One tires of trying to correct a notion common to that little band that their belief in their own self-importance is insufficient excuse for dishonesty.

[3] Amy Licence, ‘To Bring on the Flowers: Medieval Women Menstruating’,Blogger, (Tuesday, 11 December 2012).

[4] see On Barak, ‘Outdating the time of culture in colonial Egypt’, GreyRoom, [53/9] available online.  The following from that article:

[5] as I’ve been informing readers since 2010. See also ‘The Rise of the ‘Greek’ in Voynich Studies’, Voynichimagery.wordpress, (January 7th., 2017).


errata corrected 5/04/2017.  My typist has much to endure.


Lamentable days – recommended reading

Recommended reading – ‘Egyptian Days’

(Connects to versified instructional texts).

Robert Steele noted that Voynich manuscript’s vellum was ‘unusually coarse, even for the thirteenth century’.  Lynn Thorndike constantly expressed his opinion, as an expert on medieval manuscripts of scientific, pseudo-scientific and alchemical matter, that the Voynich manuscript contained nothing of use to our study of those subjects. He was as openly contemptuous of Mnishovsky’s attribution of the work to Roger Bacon, of Wilfrid Voynich and of the manuscript itself.

Robert Steele, Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi, Fasc. VI, Compotus Fratris Rogeri … (Oxford, 1926).  cited by Thorndike (infra, ‘Computus’ p.224.)

Lynn Thorndike, ‘Computus’, Speculum, Vol. 29, No. 2, Part 1 (Apr., 1954), pp. 223-238.

_________ , ‘Unde Versus’, Traditio, Vol. 11 (1955), pp. 163-193.

_________ , ‘Notes upon Some Medieval Astronomical, Astrological and Mathematical Manuscripts at Florence, Milan, Bologna and Venice’, Isis, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Mar., 1959), pp. 33-50.

and also:

John Hennig, ‘Versus de Mensibus’, Traditio, Vol. 11 (1955), pp. 65-90.

Don C. Skemer, ‘ “Armis Gunfe”: remembering Egyptian Days’, Traditio, Vol. 65 (2010), pp. 75-106.

If the rhymed instructional works appeal, you might look into the subject of a tenth-century monk called Hucbald (aka Hugbaldus, Ubaldu, Uchubaldus).  Try..

William J. Diebold, ‘Changing Perceptions of the Visual in the Middle Ages: Hucbald of St. Amand’s Carolingian Rewriting of Prudentius’, in Reading Images and Texts: Medieval Images and Texts as Forms of Communication. Papers from the Third Utrecht Symposium on Medieval Literacy, Utrecht, 7-9 December 2000. pp. 161-175.


Julia M. H. Smith, ‘ A Hagiographer at work: Hucbald and the library at Saint-Amand’, Revue Bénédictine, Vol.106 ( 2017) Issue 1-2, pp. 151-171.

– or you could just read the entry for Hucbald in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.


False and true histories – Europeans as ‘heirs of classical antiquity’.


A constant problem in attempting to explain the utterly non-Latin character of the imagery in Beinecke MS 408 is finding that the general public, and many professional scholars, have a settled belief that Latin Europe was in some sense the centre of the medieval world, and thus that any manuscript found there could only be an account of Latins’ cultural attitudes, fields of interest and preoccupations, including preoccupation with themselves.

When I explain that the manuscript’s imagery generally shows no interest in, or knowledge of  Latin customs, mores, beliefs, social hierarchies… in fact that the Voynich map itself shows more interest in, and knowledge of the Taklamakan desert than of Europe and its cities… the reaction is usually blank disbelief. What?? Not interested in western Europe??!  Inconceivable!

Not inconceivable. True.

The Voynich map either knows nothing or cares nothing for Jerusalem or for Rome and is so little interested in Europe that just one site is marked for it.  In a late addition to the original map, we see Europe denoted by a triangular court and a tower surmounted by what is depicted as flames emerging from the tower.  Whether even so much is literal, or accurate, one cannot be sure.

On the other hand, the dipping and overlapping formation of the Taklamakan’s smaller barchan dunes is quite perfectly rendered, with the wind-lines just so. Only personal experience could get it so right.

There are people for whom the idea of the foreign creates a sort of desperate sense of ‘things out of my control’ and these will immediately begin hypothesising some Latin male to whom the whole can be ‘logically’ entrusted, on the principle (apparently) that a Latin male serves as ‘checker and corrector’ of anything scary and unEuropean.

At the moment, this panick-y thing has led to a hopefully brief ascendancy of the  bizarre idea that European is a human ‘norm’ and one has seen positive efforts made – in exactly the tone used to prevent a child’s giving way to night terrors – to reassure anyone interested in this manuscript that, notwithstanding all its apparent evidence to the contrary, this manuscript is “really” a nice, normal Latin Christian manuscript under a flimsy disguise: dear old Uncle Piotr wearing a Halloween mask.

One forgives amateurs much, but to define the ‘nice’  and the ‘normal’ as ‘European Christian’ is a little rich in 2017.

I see no necessity to indulge in that sort of straw-clutching.  If you can accept that, we have some common ground with each other and with the actual content of this manuscript.

With regard to astronomy, too, whereas the Friedmans as people educated around the cusp of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries could not conceive of any medieval manuscript reflecting other than the Latins’ defined fields of astronomy and astrology, we can see that practical navigational astronomy and the calendar appear to have been the chief interests of the Voynich compiler. He  knew stars unknown to the Latins’ formal astronomy, and depicted them by alluding to ideas quite alien to the Latins. I was able to identify them because as it happens, my ‘big thesis topic’ related to comparative traditions in non-mathematical astronomy ( bit of a misnomer since there is no use of the stars that doesn’t involve counting and calculation, but it excluded Ptolemaic-style astronomy and all forms of predictive and related astrology).

Presuming that every manuscript made anywhere, by anyone, in fifteenth-century Europe must express Latins’ own interests and aspirations is something which runs very deep in Voynich studies. So deep that most treat the idea as scarcely worth a moment’s reflection: as some eternal and fundamental truth.

And the facts are against it.  That any ‘reassurance’ should be offered is one of those facts.  I know of no other Latin manuscript about which anyone has tried to reassure me that it was “really” a nice, normal Latin manuscript – whether about herbs or anything else.

I see the fact that the vast majority of its pictorial content displays such utter ignorance of Latin Europe’s modes and habits; of its hierarchies by which medieval Latins defined and understood the world and all within it, and ignorance of the iconographic conventions which made art intelligible within that culture as all very clear indications that the foundation of this work is genuinely ancient and that its parts were preserved for most of their existence outside the world known to Europe. Because the classical world was just as indifferent to Europe as the Voynich map is.

Only a few particular, late, inclusions, know anything at all of Latin practice and attitudes, mostly a series of diagrams added to the upper part of the map’s reverse.

Throughout the entire work, there is not so much as one example of that staple of medieval Latin art: the crowned and enthroned  male figure.


There is not a single image  – not a single hint – of the Christian saint or the Latin priest, the friar or the nun, and the most Latin of all the images in the manuscript are some few late inclusions – and among them diagrams drawn on the reverse of the map’s upper fold.

Nor is there any image speaking to the Latins’ preoccupation with the sinful and the saved, though that was the chief theme even of herbals and bestiaries. For the Latins, a serpent was always a sign of evil and an object reviled by Gd, even if it looked harmless and had skin that resembled a nice small-print wallpaper fabric and, one suspects, was a celestial rather than an earthly serpent

Latins even called herbs by such names as ‘herb of grace’ and ‘St John’s wort’ and ‘St.Anne’s girdle’.  And so on.

Like the botanical section and meteorological and astronomical sections (there is no ‘medical’ section, nor any ‘balneology’ section, and no ‘astrological’ section), the Voynich map shows more than indifference to Europe; it shows ignorance of where it is, of how an image expressed itself in the visual language of Latins; and also of those  things the Latins presumed essential in interpreting reality and of chief importance in representing their world.

This is not a clock.

I have been at pains to point this out, again and again, over the past several years as I worked through the analysis and the explanation of both positive and negative indicators.  I don’t hypothesise or spin yarns which I then look to illustrate. I write to provide a basis of technical and professional studies of the imagery for the benefit of those few – perhaps no more than four or five persons – whose only interest in the manuscript is an interest in the manuscript:

Just to understand the thing as it was meant to be understood.

And if  the written part of the text is ever to be read, those working on it will have to discard the old expectations sooner or later, for while the manuscript we now have may have been made by Latin hands, it is no expression of Latin medieval culture.  Only in some late, and some few late details do Europe and Europeans create a presence for themselves within it.[1]

I have  decided to try again to get this vital point across – but this time, I’m going to hope that the words of another scholar, an historian speaking of western historiography, may make this clearer than I’ve been able to do. Because the problem isn’t endemic to study of this manuscript; it isn’t a reflection of the people working on this particular manuscript. It’s a problem due to a more general absorption of a mythic tale of Europe’s past.

[1] the same few on which the Eurocentric arguments relentlessly fixate – such as the archer, or the castle.. or the marginalia on f.116v.

A.Y. Reed has put it this way…

“…. By virtue of the European appropriation of the Greek and Roman pasts during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, scholars often take for granted a notion of the history of “the West” as a unilinear narrative—a narrative that begins with ancient Greeks, continues with the Roman Empire and Latin Christendom, and culminates with the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Yet, as we have seen, this idea of “the West” was reified at precisely the same time as modern notions of “the East”: the formative era between the journey of the first European envoy to the Mongol Empire in the late thirteenth century and the consolidation of the Anglo-European tradition of scholarship… in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[This] was also the same era that saw the promotion of now-familiar notions like “Classics” and “Western Civilization.” It was the same era, moreover, that heralded the rise of an historiography which lauded Europe as the rightful heir of ancient Greek philosophy and science, on the one hand, and as the prime focus for world history, on the other. What this narrative effaces is the geographical gap between those ancient Greeks and Romans who wrote about Indians (‘Iνδoí) and Sêres (Σηρες) and those modern Europeans who claimed to be their sole and true heirs—
…. When we set aside the assumption of a unitary “Western Civilization,” the gap becomes obvious: the centers of Greek and Roman cultures were in the eastern Mediterranean, rather than in western Europe. Accordingly, ancient Greek and Roman understandings of the bounds of the civilized world differed dramatically from those of later Europeans.
From our ancient sources, in fact, we might imagine that Greek and Roman elites would be surprised to learn of the modern claimants to their heritage. As noted above, scholars often point to the fanciful accounts of India by Ctesias, Herodotus, and others to posit the long-standing “Western” mystification of “the East.” No less fanciful, however, are ancient Greek reports about the peoples of what is now Europe.

Indians (and, later, Sêres) were readily assimilated to Greek models of wise and ancient “barbarian” nations, as formed on the precedents of Egypt and Babylonia.  By contrast, the areas to the north and west of the Greeks were long unknown—so much so, in fact, that these lands were rumoured to be inhabited by one-eyed peoples and swarms of bees (e.g., Herodotus, Histories 3.115–16; 5.9–10). Northerners were imagined, moreover, to be wild, irrational, and violent by virtue of living too far from the sun.

The known world, as seen by ancient Greeks, was oriented eastward, encompassing the eastern Mediterranean trade routes and colonies of Greek merchants, as well as the multiple peoples conquered and encountered by the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes.

… By contrast, detailed knowledge of northern and western Europe awaited Roman military expeditions into Britain, Gaul, and Germania. And, even then and thereafter, western and northern Europeans were often viewed through the lens of ancient Greek stereotypes about savages and nomads, as perhaps exacerbated by Roman anxieties about marauding tribes from the north.”

Annette Yoshiko Reed, ‘Beyond the Land of Nod: Syriac Images of Asia and the Historiography of “The West”, History of Religions, Vol. 49, No. 1 (August 2009), pp. 48-87.


(detail) Beinecke MS 408,  folio 77r . Depicts a non-western 5-elements system. For possible explanatory text see end of post published on Oct.31st., 2016.

False and true histories – Alexandra Marraccini and MS Digby 64

Beinecke MS 408, fol. 3v

Alexandra Marraccini is an intelligent and interested newcomer, one who deserves the thanks of those dedicated to promoting an image of the Voynich manuscript as a wholly Latin Christian cultural product.

She is the latest among those trained in medieval Latin history, art and manuscripts to have done their best to  provide the manuscript with a respectable lineage in those terms: that is, to find  support for the now-longstanding habit of supposing it’s all a normal Latin Christian book, really.   Not that the manuscript offers much help for such efforts: it actually opposes them at every turn, though here and there you get a couple of  late additions and ‘ring-ins’. For the botanical folios, for example, folio 9v is one oddity and folio 47 (especially 47v) presents in so leaden a fashion that it no one would blink to find it bound into a Latin herbal.

(detail) folio 9v








Marraccini’s recent paper (in draft) includes little effort to explain the manuscript’s content- overall or on any given folio.  .  What she does is attempt to provide some more solid footing for the usual, habitual, Eurocentric assumptions that are now a century ingrained. But that’s what pretty much everyone does, and has done since .. say, 1912… because there’s a certain issue affecting perceptions of Europe’s role and relative importance, and these impact on the study of a great many artefacts, including Beinecke MS 408. But I’ll come back to that in the next post.

Like so many before her, in the usual way, Marraccini did not begin by scrutinising the foundation on which earlier ideas were built, but by accepting them as ‘given’.  Using her own wide knowledge of Latin manuscripts, she then set about finding ways to excuse the evident disparity between the Voynich manuscript-as-is and what it ‘ought to be’.

She appears to have relied fairly heavily on the Zandbergen-Clemens platform – to the extent that she remained unaware that any professional scholars had been involved with this study since 2000!

Nor is that to be wondered at: a professional scholar is taught to ensure they do not only present sources supportive of their own views but give a fair summary and survey of the current state of the study.   It is not a principle with which voynich.nu appears to be acquainted, and only Nick Pelling has ever managed to get a blog to work as both a medium to communicate one’s own work AND a place in which to keep abreast of new work and thinking.  Even Pelling gave up trying to maintain his early and brilliant role as researcher, ‘hub’ and reviewer, but then he had a theory already and never represented himself as ‘authoritative’.

MS Digby 64

It is a measure of the usual desperation which comes over specialists in Latin European works that they fairly soon begin scouring the periphery of Europe for ‘like’ imagery: Spain, the Greek islands, or England.

Marraccini says, for example, that the  ‘iconography of MS Digby 46 is ‘strikingly similar’ to that in the Voynich manuscript –  but she omits to distinguish between style of drawing (flattened faces etc.) and those telling internal evidences of European intellectual constructs or of their absence.

Iconographic analysis is normally expected to account for such factors, because intellectual constructs are what inform any person’s idea about what is considered worth drawing and which determine the way image-making itself is defined in a given time and place. In other words it is at the heart of provenancing, even within Latin European works.

The Digby manuscript is similar enough in style of drawing to shed light on that early and consistent attribution of the work to England by independent specialists in Latin manuscripts.

But when both form and content, positive and the negative indicators are all considered and balanced, we find insufficient evidence to support assertions that Beinecke MS 408 is  – as MS Digby 46 certainly is –  a work whose images reflect the intellectual attitudes of Christian European art.  Here are some obvious differences:

MS Digby 46 defines importance as the  result of activities engaged by ‘important’ male figures who, if human, sit in attitudes conveying their higher social status through the token form: ‘great man enthroned’.

The example shown (right) uses the sub-set of that type, one defining the authoritative teacher and his text. So here Pythagoras is shown as he were another Gregory or Christian evangelist. It is a visual trope for the master’s text that is as old as western monastic art, and does not only occur in Latin works but also for example in Jewish ones.  The image would ‘make sense’ to a medieval Latin eye. The correct message would be read from it instantly. But nothing similar is, or could be, in the Voynich manuscript. It comes from a place and time where such western tropes were unknown.

detail MS Digby 46 f.78v. Cf. Sawley map.

In western Latin art, when the figure is not a human one, it usually connects to the religious priorities and orthodoxy of Latin Christianity.  To signal the figure’s nature and position, it will be given to carry some among its particular –  and formally assigned- emblematic objects.  Whether the Digby figure (left) was originally meant for a Christian angel one may be inclined to doubt, but in its current form it surely is.  I should be less inclined to consider it Raphael rather than Michael if I did not feel that its roots might prove Jewish.

detail MS Digby 46 f.78v

Again, in drawing animals, the maker(s) of Digby 46 strove towards ‘realism’ and portraiture, as the Voynich imagery does not only not do but which it shows no knowledge of being ‘supposed to’ do. I agree that an argument could be made for the little horned skink and for the animals in the calendar section.  But consider folio 34v(below) which employs forms and practice entirely alien to the traditions of Latin Christian art.

Point is: you won’t find Latin angels with animals from the barnyard, or noble men pontificating from high chairs in the Voynich manuscript. On the other hand, you will scarcely find an older Latin manuscript without them. Even the well known ‘Manfredus Herbal’ carries such a traditional introduction. And where you may see no teachers, you’re fairly sure of finding the odd bishop, apostle, king or noble. ‘the great man on his chair’ is another staple and hallmark of the Abrahamic traditions.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 6823 f.2r

Were things otherwise, specialists in Latin medieval manuscripts could just open the Voynich manuscript and ‘read’ its imagery to us. But they flounder too, hunting for something that reminds them of some detail in some Latin work and also working from a general assumption that the content ‘must’ belong somewhere within the Latin stemmae… it just doesn’t.

The Voynich manuscript’s imagery isn’t informed by the same conventions; it hasn’t the same mindset; save for a very few late additions it doesn’t speak to its readers in any visual language and tone compatible with the Latins’ visual language.  Most of the manuscripts in which ‘something similar’ turns up are in fact later than the Voynich manuscript.  MS Digby 64 is thus one of the least inappropriate ‘matches’ for the Voynich manuscript’s imagery I’ve ever seen offered. But even MS Digby 64 isn’t of closely similar nature, or similar worldview, or informed by similar expectations of how and what art should communicate.

By actually asking those basic questions so habitually begged  we might reach a truer understanding of just who the people were for whom the content now in the Voynich manuscript  was actually intended.  They certainly weren’t us; and they weren’t medieval Latins, though that is the group among whom it ended up.

As I said, this problem of European presumptions isn’t endemic to study of this one manuscript.  It is part of a broader historiographical and perceptual issue. So that’s the level at which I’ll try again to address it in the next post.

And I’ll use the words of a scholar whose probably never heard of Beinecke MS 408.  That might help take any edge from the conversation.

Alexandra Marraccini, ‘Asphalt and Bitumen, Sodom and Gomorrah: Placing Yale’s Voynich Manuscript on the Herbal Timeline’ – talk presented at the Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference, April 1st., 2017


I don’t envy the Archaeology News network blog’s having … (eat your heart out O Voynicho) ..   10,570,824 readers since 2010 …

I do envy the people on leave or on Sabbatical who are heading to the Black Sea .

In case you haven’t heard this before, the waters of the   Black Sea have a very deep anaerobic layer – Very deep.

Things just don’t age or decay in that layer because no agent of decay can survive in it (no teredo, for a start).

So we’re finding artefacts.. delicate things like the cord of ships’ rigging have been preserved – no, perfectly preserved… just as when a thing went under,  whether fifty years ago or five hundred or more – if it isn’t soluble in water it should survive. *sigh*.

I’d so much rather be talking over the survival and transmission of Hellenistic imagery there – rather than here.

I’m trusting that you’ll understand.  Talking shop to air is ok, but real people .. with real people you get sody-pop. (that’s a bit of an in-joke.)

Below, one recent and apparently pertinent find from the Crimea. Courtesy of the A.N.b and TASS.

(wouldn’t mind seeing more of those figurines, either).


Postscript – initial enthusiasm has now yielded to more careful inspection of the piece, or more exactly of what we see in the photo.  A few puzzling features – proportion of eyes to face; form given the ears; ‘combing’ texture into the beard. .. I’ll be interested to see what people on the ground conclude.