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.

Analysing – three examples – triptych

The triptych


Constructed in three panels (a triptych, so to speak) the maker selected details from the ‘leaf and root’ section of Beinecke MS 408 for the left and centre panels. For the third panel, he chose a detail from one of Pisanello’s drawings, preserved in the Codex Vallardi.

Transmission: A small, circular, grey area, with inset white question mark, does not appear in the original manuscript. Its addition, or more exactly its retention, may have been deliberate. An external boundary line was added to the triptych by the present author.

Observation and notes

Between the content of the first two panels and the third,  there are marked and significant differences, some among these being:   ¬relative value placed on precise symmetry; ¬  conception of ‘realism’ and concomitant literal form; ¬attitude towards representation of three- dimensional form on two-dimensional medium.  These differences (with others not specified) are substantive and not attributable to relative technical ability.  The maker’s setting the three details in juxtaposition, and in  selecting Pisanello’s work, is not something formally argued or explained by the maker, but must be explained by us through contemporary works on the same subject that are found in association with it. The imprint of attitudes and ideas assists accurate assignment of a piece:  time, place, intellectual and social context and informing languages.

Questions arising –

The triptych’s content has been excerpted from other, original, sources (viz.  the Voynich manuscript and Pisanello’s oeuvre) presented with neither explanation nor accompanying argument concerning either. The maker’s attitudes are expressed by his decisions about what to take from the original and the calculated re-use here. His omission of any  explanation or formal argument also sheds light on first enuncation of this composite work.


If the maker were aware of the disparities noted above, construction of the triptych would constitute implicit rejection of narratives attributing the Voynich manuscript’s content to an author or artist (etc.) of the Italian Renaissance. If, however, he were oblivious of, or indifferent to, the significance of such differences, then his intention would be presumably to provide his tacit approval for such narratives.

Clarifying intended message: Context. 

The triptych was published in a page titled ‘Analysis of the illustrations’.  The same page refers the reader to selected sites, on all of which we found certain consistent habits and attitudes. Though these need not be itemised here, we are able to conclude from the views, method and assumptions they exhibit in common, that the maker’s intent was – as in those others – to attract the viewer’s  assent to a specific non-rational argument: i.e. that a number of images, selected from within a pre-determined range and asserted ‘like’ a detail from the Voynich manuscript, constitute an acceptable substitute for formal exposition, and further that to grant such assent implies assent to the same theoretical narrative which determined the range within which the images had been sought.

In relation to assertions about the Voynich manuscript, and the resources used to collect pictures of that sort, we should add that such methodology distorts the purpose for which the relevant picture catalogues and description-systems were designed.

Errors found in the sources so closely associated with the triptych are chiefly, but consistently, errors of omission.

external similarity of form,  pose, or attributes is not enough to argue causal connection.

For our present purpose, it is enough to know that the ethos informing the selection of sources recommended  under the head ‘Analysis of the illustrations’ permits us to conclude that, in this case too, the mere juxtaposition of items from the Voynich manuscript with others, was  intended to manufacture consent for a proposition of ‘like’-ness which the maker invites readers to explain for themselves.


Manufacturing consent is not new idea. Nor is it an ineffectual method for having an idea gain widespread acceptance, regardless of any inherent error or irrationality. By declining to provide any formal exposition, the proponent leads the reader to both invent that argument on his behalf and thereafter to promote it, for as both Augustine and  Tertullian observed, we are never so inflexible as when we first believe and then later rationalise.

The triptych expresses a particular combination of attitudes – to the original works in question; to the notion of popular assertion as proof of validity; argument by suggestion; inculcation of belief (and loyalty as collateral ); definition of the image as ‘illustration’; abrogation of responsibility to the viewer.. and other notions not itemised. These altogether  signal the maker’s way of thought as one descending from post-1990s developments from a nineteenth-century Anglo-German ‘rationalist’ school, ancillary variants occurring chiefly in English-speaking groups of north America.

American or Anglo-German enunciation?

What leads me to think that the triptych unlikely to have been constructed by an American ‘Voynichero’ is that where the triptych expresses towards the enunciation of the Voynich imagery a severely critical attitude,  that found in American writings since the 1970s is consistently and somewhat surprisingly, tolerant.

Thus, the work of Edith Sherwood – another  Voynich writer recommended by that site –  displays the usual set of characteristics: assertion by juxtaposition; failure to present informing argument and reasoning; absence of evidence etc.. yet her approach to the imagery itself is more than tolerant; it seems to ask the reader’s indulgence for the fact that the imagery does not use the visual language of modern botany, whether photographic-literalistic, or scientific-synthetic. Like a kindly adult excusing a child’s not drawing ‘right’, Sherwood seems to say, “ it’s all right, really ..I understand what he meant to draw.. ”







The triptych has not that air  but one more self-assertive and critical, whether against or (as is the case) for similarity to Pisanello’s drawing.  Now we know the maker’s intention, the content and tone of the piece may be expressed as:  ” Voynich drawings are inferior drawings. Nothing more. Had the person drawn these things correctly, they would better resemble  Pisanello’s .. One need only perform corrections. It is not difficult.”

[section omitted to shorten]

We then provenance the triptych:

Modern, post-1990s, using a form of visual language which is non-academic, affected by modern sub-texts aimed at  manufacturing consent; within the  parameters of Voynich studies, the triptych is attributed to an older member of the ‘Germanic-rationalist’ school.

Not a remarkable conclusion, of course.  And in the same connection, I’d  add that the younger generation have not the same attachment to the Renaissance-classical ideal of how drawing ‘should be’. The renaissance-classical ideal in art is harder to maintain when peers show an active  appreciation for non-Renaissance forms: Celtic ink on skin;  anime on the tablet.. you know, that sort of thing.

Part 2… Further and more interesting questions.

Further questions:

The triptych presents another, less obvious, but even more  curious problem, if  one declines the invitation to believe and find ‘likeness’ but instead asks questions which should have been obvious – and which should have been answered by the maker.

  1.  Why Pisanello?
  2. Why that particular drawing by Pisanello?
  3. Why that particular detail from that drawing?

Had the aim of the tiptych’s maker been to find an object so like the Voynich containers as to elucidate a point of provenance, then the usual spectrum of sources might have allowed it: art-history,  histories of technology, numismatics, archaeology, ethnology and much more. But all that wealth of documentation and pictorial material the maker ignored.

He also chose to pass over a century’s evaluations, research and opinion about the Voynich manuscript in particular.

What is still more intriguing is that even supposing a fixation with Pisanello, or with that particular drawing by Pisanello, the detail he chose to select from it is the least apt of the three.  On the face of it, the selection of matter for his third panel is inexplicable – if the aim had been to explain anything in the manuscript.

None of the Voynich containers carry pictorial ornament so at the very least, the obvious selection is the plainest of Pisanello’s objects: that on the far right.

So the maker not only put an inapt comparison up but the most inapt within its range. Again .. Why? We have only the drawing itself to provide the explanation.

The first of its pictorial registers shows  the arms of Aragon, which were also those of Catalonia in Pisanello’s time.  Another of Pisanello’s objects shows them too, but with angelic supporters. This apparently pleased the triptych- maker less.

Background – Voynich-related: Catalonia.

Possible links to Catalonia were noted by two German-born students of art even before the Friedman period.  One was a Paulist priest named Fr. Theodore Petersen C.S.P. and the other the  eminent art-historian and art analyst, Irwin Panofsky.

Both were deeply versed in  medieval Christian art, with the German corpus their principal study before  the second world war.

It was his studying the Christian art of medieval Germany that led Theodore Petersen to a decision to join the priesthood rather than – as he had intended – becoming a pastor in the Lutheran church.[1]  Neither he, nor Panofsky, considered the Voynich manuscript to resemble a product of the medieval German Christian environment, whose art they knew so well.

At different times, both men considered Catalonia and its sphere of influence likely, with Petersen looking into the matter of Ramon Llull, and Panofsky initially noting that the work presented as a thirteenth- or fourteenth century work while describing it as made in ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and noting an influence from Kabbalah. In the thirteenth and fourteenth  centuries, Kabbalah flourished in Gerona,a town in Catalonia near the border of France. At that time, Kabbalah scarcely known outside the Jewish communities.

So – back to the triptych. Might the selection of this object from Pisanello’s drawing have been chosen for with its royal shield, the arms of Aragon-Castile-Catalonia with supporters? If so, was it intended to imply a greater willingness than formerly on the maker’s part,  to accept a provenance for the Voynich manuscript which (unlike the line taken by that site and most sources recommended by it) neither Germanic nor linked with the line of Holy Roman Emperors?  It’s possible, but could represent a substantial shift in position.

From the Constitutions of 1492

In 2015, investigating the question of Catalonia, Avignon and Kabbalah,[2] I noted that  last of the Avignon ‘anti’-popes died in  Peñiscola in 1423, the Voynich manuscript’s date range being 1405-1438. Confiscation of all books owned by Jews in Gerona, under order from that pope, is one means by which the transfer of Jewish and Kabbalist texts to Latin hands occurred before the expulsion of 1492. Whether, in fact, there is Kabbalistic matter in the Voynich manuscript I am unable to say.

Pisanello’s drawing was probably made (for reasons explained below) in 1448, shortly before his death in 1450. Since Pisanello was born at some time between 1380 and 1395, the dates themselves are appropriate enough for comparison to the Vms – though to nothing else, as far as I’ve had time to determine.

Below the shield and its supporters, the two next registers are filled with motifs alluding to the Roman imperial era and Christianity, respectively.  So the three themes of this object are: a Spanish ‘nationalism’; Christianity; and the militaristic  character of imperial Rome (probably during the Carthaginian wars, though the detail is too small to be certain). The gorgon was a frequent imperial motif.

In the lowest register is a bird, so formed as to unite the upper registers’ themes.  It can read as another imperial Roman symbol, but Pisanello gives it a pose evoking the Latin bestiaries’ Pelican and Phoenix, symbolic respectively of pietas and of rebirth.   In that natural-looking representation, Pisanello  effortlessly unites ‘nationalism’ with imperialism and the characteristic sentimentality of contemporary Spanish religious sensibility.

‘ALFONSINA’ reads the inscription on the uppermost band, permitting that drawing to be to dated to the late 1440s (c.1448), when Pisanello also made his portrait of Alfonso V of Aragon.

An image may have more than one level of communication, to the larger, and to a smaller group of people. Renaissance art constantly formed public imagery to operate at the exoteric and esoteric levels.

Provenance and purpose – concluded.

We conclude that the triptych was not constructed to elucidate any item represented in the Voynich manuscript.


Postscript:  Alfonso X had been elected King of the Romans by a dissident faction in 1257. Alfonzo didn’t want the title, but  did not formally renounce the claim until 1274 AD.  On November 15th. and 16th., 2015, I brought to notice an alchemical poem by Alfonso via its English translation.  To the best of my knowledge it had not been mentioned before.


[1] Obituary notice.  Boston College, The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 54, Number 8  (7th. August, 1915) p.114 col.3. – I’m not sure that this has been noticed before.

[2] see among other posts, ‘Scriptorium…Bottega…Avignon…Spain Pt.1, voynichimagery.wordpress.com (December 15th., 2015).

Analysing – three examples. Some terms

following from ‘ “Like”-ness as criterion….

J.K.Petersen and Koen Gheuens have kindly left comments below the previous post. Both commented on Edith Sherwood’s pairings (left, top and centre), with Koen briefly mentioning the last illustration.

To keep the balance, I’ll take the third.

The aim is to show why analytical iconographic method (or more technically,  analytical comparative iconography) is so effective as an aid to provenancing problematic artefacts and images.

The example  I’ll be using (below, left) comes from a Voynich-related website, which makes things more delicate and in any case it’s hardly the sort of picture which needs this sort of analysis before it can be read.

Its date is not being queried, nor is its visual language so opaque. But since the image (as virtual triptych) comes with no comment, explanation or justification for the juxtaposition of elements it does  at least offer an opportunity to explain how imagery can be read.


So, until tomorrow, some terms which might be unfamiliar.

The  ‘enunciator is the person – usually unidentifiable –  who first translated  a mental image into the form we now see it.  Earlier and non-European imagery was, and remains, considered a form of language shared by those who make an image and those of his close community.  This was also true of Europe for much of the medieval period, but from soon after the Voynich manuscript was made (1405-1438), various factors such as rising levels of literacy and mass-production of printed books, population disruption and dispersal,  the loss of a common religious culture and replacement of a universalist ideal with that of localised proto-national identities all combined to reduce imagery to the form of superficial ‘illustration’.  The role – and thus the nature – of image-making changed. Not all at once, and not everywhere, but in time the idea became very general that most imagery was no more than ‘illustration’ for which reference to accompanying text was essential and presumed possible for a majority.   Given the date range for manufacture of Beinecke MS 408, it is not appropriate to impose such an expectation upon its imagery and indeed its absence of literalism suggests quite the opposite – even if one were one to imagine that the first enunciators were all Latin Christians.

‘chronological stratification’  – if the internal or external evidence suggests  that phases of transmission have occurred between first enunciation and present expression, it is usual to define each of the strata perceived and provide information about their distinction -not least because transmission-phases are when an original work or image is most likely to have had its content  emended or altered, to have been censored or translated from the language (visual or textual) of one community to another. This is not identical to mapping stemmae but often intersects with it.

‘Maker’Unless an item is certainly a post-Renaissance autograph, or has secure attribution to one individual, I do not use the terms  ‘author’ or ‘artist’ but the ‘maker’ or the draughtsman. It bears emphasising that an image is a constructed thing whose materials, formulation, details and presentation reflect its origin and informing languages, both visual and linguistic.

‘Image’:  In daily life, we may speak of a picture but here of an ‘image’ because an image may be no more than a ring of dots and dashes around a bowl, or a particular pattern woven into a garment.  An image may be defined – regardless of its medium, time of construction, or any other consideration – as  “a product of artifice, created with an intention to communicate”. And yes, it can also apply to writing, as calligraphers (and hieroglyphs) constantly demonstrate.

‘Realism’ and ‘Literalism’ – I won’t be technical, but a point to note is that while Renaissance artists placed new emphasis on the superficial appearance of  objects and structures, it was not so much a break with the medieval idea of the ‘picture about’ than the addition of this greater emphasis on appearance. Earlier Renaissance art, particularly in Italy, though notably less so in Germany, is at once  a ‘picture of’ and still ‘a picture about’ its subject.

Elaborate systems of semi-private symbolism, allegory and the self-conscious reprising of classical themes only emphasised divisions between elites and the general population from the later medieval period.  Privately commissioned pictures became ‘art’ while, increasingly, all else was deemed lesser.. vernacular… folk.. and ‘illustration’ – but the last would keep engravers and commercial graphic artists employed in the cities, feeding the popular press, until the second world war.

More recently we have seen psychological techniques applied to the construction of imagery – in service to commerce (advertising) and politics (propaganda).Together with other social and historical factors that I won’t expand on,  we now live with another sort of ‘universalism’, in an environment where it is not only again possible to ‘read’ the content in pictures before ingestion, but often desirable to do so.



Republishing posts..

As some may have noticed, applying the new theme caused some formatting problems for the pictures and illustrations.

I don’t know how to fix this except to open the post, re-align the pictures and republish and with more than 600 posts published and perhaps half affected, people getting notifications by post should know that we’ll be  fashionably retro till – I’d guess – at least the end of the month.

‘Like’-ness as criterion – a rarely-considered problem in Voynich studies.

I’d  written and have now scrapped, under the above title, a fairly standard academic paper on a fairly ordinary subject: the notion of ‘like’-ness as the proper purpose of the image.

Anachronistic and inapplicable assumptions in regard to ‘realism’ are pervasive in Voynich studies, result in false comparisons being proffered and affect attribution, description and interpretation – so I treated the notion’s emergence in Latin Europe and explained that pre-Renaissance art, and non-western art has different self-definitions and different expectations of ‘like-’ness .

I also spoke about advances in art history and analytical method since the end of the second World War – technologies, attitudes and specific techniques.

There were a few caustic asides about facile side-by-side pictures, presented without the formal commentary which justifies any implied or overt assertions of ‘like’-ness.

I’ve scrapped that essay because it occurs to me it is more useful to demonstrate than explain the value of analytical method, and because there is currently a notion circulating online that there is only one approach that is “right, true and scientific”.

Frankly, such ignorance is abysmal in 2017 so I’m going to stop writing for a couple of weeks (maybe) and hope some readers’ interest is serious enough to result in book-buying and -reading. Though it only deals with medieval art, and chiefly Latin Christian art, this is a good start as introduction to methods – plural – which may inform our approach at a professional level.

Colum Hourihane (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Medieval Iconography,(2017)

As direct connection to the Vms, perhaps you’d like to read one of my earlier posts, ‘Voynich as Provenancer’ (March 11, 2015).

If you’re interested in applied as well as theoretical exercises, here are three sets of images to be seen on well-known and oft-cited Voynich-related websites. None come with any explanation, commentary or other matter so they’re like the Voynich ms in that way. 🙂

from Edith Sherwood’s site ‘Voynich Botanical Plants’

from Edith Sherwood’s site, ‘Voynich Botanical Plants’

from Rene Zandbergen’s site, voynich.nu (Page entitled ‘Analysis of the illustrations’

It would be brilliant to be able to come back with ‘blindfold’ analytical treatments by one or two other Voynich-writers who have some prior training in this sort of work.  I’d really like to see, for example, what Darren Worley wrote.

Not so likely given the current climate .. but you never know.

Anyone piqued by the idea and who might like to write an evaluation of one or more of the image-sets above – it’s exam conditions of course.  You can email me at voynichimagery gmail com

So now… wait and see.

Notes on an Aegean connection: Ladies – archer -Despotiko- Constantinople.

– a long post but the summary may prove helpful-


I’m reasonably sure – because I was obliged to run the usual gauntlet at the time – that none had previously noticed allusions to the Aegean in this manuscript until the point cropped up, as I recall, in connection with the alum trade,  linked by reasons of trade and technology with certain dye-plants that I had just identified in the botanical section and some of which were among those imported into the medieval Mediterranean.

Bdid1dr soon took up the Aegean theme, looking in depth at Chios [Kios].

I’ve returned to it in treating various details – such as the fat-tailed sheep depicted on f.116v, or the astronomical imagery with its ‘nymphs’ who, in my opinion, are astronomical and meteorological personifications wherever they occur and  the most having, in addition to overt or tacit reference to a star, allusion to time and locus – in my opinion. I formed this view from research done before voynichimagery was begun and have said so ever since – without co-operative response for the first six years or so. Koen Gheuens’ is the first fair use of the material of which I’m aware.

It always seemed obvious to the point of banality that first enunciation of the ‘ladies’ must have occurred in the Hellenistic world, at which time their proportions would have been more Greek – but regardless of argument or evidence adduced, the information met uniform indifference until (as they do) the winds of change arrived in their appointed season.

Koen Gheuens’ latest post sensibly addresses the detail of the nymphs’ standing contrappostocharacteristic of Greek and Hellenistic works, and  imitated by artisans of Rome and of Renaissance Europe.

By the present author, and in the same context, reference to the Aegean was also made when re-considering Panofsky’s first appraisal of the manuscript in 1931. He had immediately seen it as a Jewish product [1]  from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’, dating  it (or more exactly the present appearance of the volume and its imagery) to the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

I was able to show that his then hesitating was due partly to his noting a difference between content and manufacture – that is, that certain pigments are fifteenth-century ones – but partly to his having no precedent to cite for ‘shapely ladies’ in European works before the fifteenth century.  I was able to show the second negated by images in a fourteenth-century Spanish Jewish work – an astronomical compendium formerly part of the Sassoon collection (as Sasson MS 823).  Sassoon MS 823 was unknown in 1931.

I did not differ, of course, from the opinion of those eminent scholars [2] who first studied that manuscript, observing that the imagery owes nothing to the alSufi corpus latinus – but I have added as my own opinion that the line by which it had reached the Jewish community in southern Europe was via the Aegean from the Black Sea and ultimately from the Indo-Persian tradition on which al-Sufi relied.

[1]  In a thirteenth- to fifteenth-century context, Kabbalah must be regarded as Jewish by definition; its flourishing in Iberia is generally agreed to have occurred with the publication of the Zohar in the  thirteenth century.  That a manuscript or its exemplars, taken from Iberian precedents, should also contain some evidence of Islamic modes in image-making is scarcely to be wondered at, but is no justification for misrepresenting Panofsky’s opinion as some have done and continue to do.

[2] Karl Adolf Franz Fischer; Paul Kunitzsch; Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann.

2. LATINS IN THE AEGEAN – Despot and Despotikó.

Treating the Voynich archer added to the evidence for an Aegean connection, by reference to the historical context, analysis of the archer’s costume and so forth.  The whole of that dissection and commentary – in brief but still in excruciating detail – can be read by those inclined: it appears here as a separate page. In summary:

Visually (in f.73v and in an Occitan manuscript); in archaeological finds (I cite a type known from  coins of older Tyre and an item explaining the archer’s unusual crossbow); in literature (citing Aratus and Manilius) and by proverbial connection (vide the later Cervantes) – one is guided towards a recognition of the maker’s intention: to allude to the embodiment of a once-proverbial archetype – a  despotic maritime ‘Sagittarios’, ruling amid the waters.

First citing older astronomical texts, and having also earlier traced the history and transmission of Sagittarius as a standing human figure, I found that the key concept is perfectly expressed by the simile employed in a work from sixteenth-century Spain, where the type evidently remained proverbial:

” … up until yesterday I governed [the island] at my pleasure, like a saggitarius, but … it seemed to me a dangerous trade, that of governor… ” 

Cervantes, Don Quixote (Chapter LIV)

The implied pun here relies on the etymology of  ‘governor’ and perception of parallel between the master of the ship and of the ‘ship of state’ but for our purpose the more important point is that Cervantes was almost certainly associating this type with the Aegean, and more exactly the well-known Latin Duchy of the Archipelago which was centred on Naxos, and included the island of Despotikó, seen in the map below (click to enlarge). The present form of the archer (as I have constantly said) belongs to the latest stratum of the imagery’s evolution, occasional adaptation and rare instances of re-working. Save for uncertainties about this bow’s first use, I’d ascribe the imagery in its present form to between c.1240 and 1340.

Despotikó sits not only in the ‘midst of the sea’ –  but in the exact centre of the Cyclades.

Kouros from the temple at Despotikó

This next paragraph now has a version added as comment to Koen’s ‘contrappunto’ blogpost.

The key to understanding the ‘nymphs’ is – as with all imagery – ultimately a matter of recognising the language in which the maker thought and of remaining aware that it is sound, and not orthography, which informs perception of the similar and the synonymous. In this case the chain (as I interpret it, anyway) runs Horae/[Huri]/Hora/Chora.

and so again…

Note that sites here labelled ‘Hora’ are otherwise written as ‘Chora’

A paragraph from the wiki article  ‘Despotikó’ is worth quoting:

“Currently, excavations are taking place in the northwest part of the island ..The excavations proved the existence of an important late Archaic sanctuary with abundant objects indicating links to mainland Greece, the Eastern Mediterranean and even to Northern Africa, as well as the continued use of this area in the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Frankish periods.”


‘The Empress of Constantinople’ in a manuscript from central France made in the 2nd quarter of the fourteenth century. The picture shows certain stylistics also found in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical section and one detail which appears (perhaps co-incidentally) in imagery of the ‘nymphs’.  see following reference in the ‘Comments’ to this post.

Most recently – just a couple of days ago –  it became  apparent to me that the map’s ‘castle’ is a token for Constantinople,  not for Laiazzo as I’d previously held.

Apart from what was included by the present author in an analytical dissection of folio 86v (Beinecke foliation ’85v-and-86r’),  connection with Constantinople came down finally to the context of this detail – not only in relation to others on the same folio, but the historical context indicated for this recension and the fact that the structure’s walls to  front and back  are  ornamented with what are popularly known as ‘swallow tail merlons’.

The  laborious process of investigation and discussion for the full map is, once again, published as separate Page. (I regret that certain claims made years later by Juergen Wastl and Danielle Feger have led to an impression – aided by avoidance on the part of those promoting the ‘Germanic’ storyline – that the map had not earlier been treated in any depth.  If you need clarity about  order of exposition, then the first part of that Page should clarify; otherwise, jump to about half-way down where a good many of the posts containing the map’s analysis, commentary and historical context are listed).

Outside western Europe, ‘swallowtails’ announce the boundary of an area administered by Latins but they imply neither political obedience to the Emperor of the west nor affiliation with the European ‘Ghibbelines’; the opposite is true if they appear on structures erected within  Europe. There , and particularly in the Italian peninsula,  they signal the builder’s preference for the Ghibbeline position  over the Guelf.

Failure to consider the possibility that the manuscript’s content was formed elsewhere than in the mind of some posited Latin Christian male ‘author’ or ‘artist’  – and in many cases failure to consider  Latin European matter other than what might make a narrative fiction (‘hypothesis’) appear more plausible – has been a recurring block to this study’s advance, but when combined with deliberate dereliction in matters of scholarly apparatus – as happened increasingly in the two decades to  2015, and was positively insisted upon by  certain Voynicheros after the death of the first mailing list – the study  began an endless and retrograde circling – which in a flash of inspiration Nick Pelling once likened to the ‘Ground-hog Day’ phenomenon.

The error was for some years compounded by scant regard – and sometimes assertive disregard – for formal study, whether of technical studies, of method in analysis, or general histories of medieval art of basic history itself beyond wiki-level. I have seen it asserted with some emphasis that the only qualification needed to assess the problematic imagery in this problematic manuscript are “two eyes and common sense”.  One doubts that any reputable keeper of manuscripts would agree.  The results of such confidence have been predictable, affected particularly by two principal errors:  an ignorance of the role which is played by stylistics and an unexamined assumption that ‘realism’ was the  aim of all image-making.

Concentration on hypotheses and a hunt post-facto for the evidence which should have been known to exist before any hypothesis was presented, led for years to nothing but reducing concentration on the prinary source.  Just as one example: there is only one other person recorded as having noticed since 1912 that the map (as a whole) has its east to the viewer’s up-left.

None attempted to identify  emblems for the cardinal points. Nor is the map’s ‘east-left’  a result of having bound a south-facing map so that it is (more or less) ‘north- up’.  The internal evidence shows an east-left and north-up orientation was accepted by the original makers, or more precisely by those, at least, who prepared the final recension. I won’t enlarge.

swallowtail from the medieval Genoese port of Caffa in Crimea ( set in the Black Sea).

So – having finally recognised that the draughtsman meant the ‘castle’ to evoke Constantinople, it was clear that the ‘swallowtails’ set an upper limit for of 1204 for this addition, that being the years in which a Latin was crowned emperor of Byzantium.

That Latin dynasty was short-lived, an initial welcome turned to determined hostility within little more than fifty years, because the Latins behaved exactly as they had done in the Levant and Syria.  Rapacious, ill-mannered, lacking in administrative or diplomatic capacity,  they proved incapable of maintaining that delicate balance which had for a thousand years enabled Byzantium to survive amid a sea of hostile peoples.

The Latin dynasty terminated in 1261 after which the throne returned to a Byzantine line. So a terminal date for those ‘swallow-tails’ could be argued 1261, although cartographers are notably and happily conservative.

It was in reaction to the Latin interlude that the Byzantines now began to identify themselves as ‘Greeks’ where before they had perceived themselves, in a general sense, ‘Romans’.


Medieval Islamic and Greek works use ‘Frank’ to mean any Christian from western Europe. It is much as if they said ‘foreigner’ or (as the Latins called others) ‘Saracen’ – a generalisation expressing at once ignorance of and indifference to the persons in question.

Thus, the ‘massacre of the Latins’ (Gk. Σφαγή των Λατίνων) in 1182 affected such Europeans as were the city. As it happened, a majority were Genoese and Pisans, the Venetians having been  expelled not long before and few as yet returned to the city. Nor was the igniting spark sectarian differences between the Byzantine and Latin church, but the perception that Latins resident in Constantinople were enemies of the invading usurper Andronicus. They were killed as he entered with other foreign troops  intent on a (successful) coup d’état.[3]

An image alleged to show the massacre of the Latins in 1182. I have not located the original picture. I am rather inclined to doubt the description –  the banner which hangs before the king might – if one could look into the lions’ mouths, be described as “Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale or armed and langued azure”. 😀

Byzantium was never subsumed into the Holy Roman Empire, and in searching for any specifically Germanic element in Constantinople I find not  even a mention of the Teutonic knights in Johnathan Harris’ recent history of the city.  A highly laudatory account of the knights authored by  F.C. Woodhouse for a popular history-based website used by school-students is the most positive I can find, and even then it says little except that except that after Baldwin’s coronation, as payment for their earlier military actions while in the Levant, the order received some land on which they themselves then built:

The Teutonic Knights received considerable possessions… a preceptory was founded in Achaia. Some time afterward another was established in Armenia, where also the order had obtained property and territory in return for service rendered in the field.  The order also received the distinction of adding to their bearings the Cross of Jerusalem.

  • Woodhouse, F.C. ‘Teutonic Knights: Their Organization And History’ (web article), International World History Project. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
  • About that  website  ‘History World’, some information is offered here. Initiative and direction ascribed to  Robert A. Guisepi in whose biography it is prominent: “his history related [sic] website receives one million hits per month and is considered a major resource for students all over the world.”

[3] Earlier historians, including an early Byzantine author, suspected Venice of using  this means to take revenge for the recent expulsion. Others argue that Dandolo, Doge of Venice, sought by destroying Byzantium to secure Venetian control of the eastern trade. On these matters see e.g. Madden, who writes (p.730) “The massacre of Pisans and Genoese was a stroke of good fortune for Venice, as it obliged Andronicus I (1183-5) to turn to Venice during his short reign for military support against the Normans, Genoese, and Pisans.” Thomas F. Madden, ‘Outside and Inside the Fourth Crusade’, The International History Review, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Nov., 1995), pp. 726-743.  This feud affects the pattern of dissemination for certain forms and motifs appearing in Latin Europe during the period from c.1250-1400 and subsequently in Beinecke MS 408..

See also posts entitled  ‘The rise of the Greek in Voynich Studies’.


Brief note – the four flames

[text reduced – 11th March 2017]

I’ve just noticed something which might be of interest to the linguists – and which by the way obliges me to revise an earlier opinion.

Whoever added that  ‘minimap’ which now occupies the north roundel in the Voynich map* was someone  who was thinking in a language whose terms for a chimney, a flame, a lighthouse, a light and perhaps a pyre were cognate. They also described by such a term those natural formations in Cappadocia that we ourselves call ‘chimneys’.

The thing which just struck me, you see, is that this ‘minimap’ (or vignette) has marked the cardinal points again, but now by referring to four ‘leading lights’, that description  being metaphorical certainly in one case (north) and possibly in two (west).

(click to enlarge)

concerning the ‘light of the east’…

excerpted from an illustration in Alexei Lidov, ‘A Byzantine Jerusalem. The Imperial Pharos Chapel as the Holy Sepulchre’, published in Annette Hoffmann et.al. (eds.), Jerusalem as Narrative Space ( 2012), S. 63-103 (Visualising the Middle Ages 6)

The maker’s having so much interest in navigational points and lights that he would denote the four quarters by four ‘flames’ agrees well enough with what I’ve already found in connection with the Voynich archer-figure and with the various diagrams from the astro-meteorological section treated as early as 2010-2011, so no conflict there.

Readers who haven’t been about that long might like to hear that those diagrams include a tidal chart, diagrams of navigational winds and stars and so forth – all of relevance to navigators and those involved in the carriage of goods by sea.

In that connection too, I’ve noted that the Voynich calendar is now limited to those months when it was possible to sail in the Mediterranean and those when one might sail east under the monsoon.  These could be co-incidences, but I don’t think they are.

Historical documents adduced … time is short and pilfering  common so I’ll just give the gist with a quote from the  Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“The decline of commerce in the Dark Ages halted lighthouse construction until the revival of trade in Europe about 1100 ce. The lead in establishing new lighthouses was taken by Italy and France. By 1500, references to lighthouses became a regular feature of books of travel and charts”.

I’m fairly sure too, that the ornate glyph above the Pharos of Alexandria is meant to sound ‘p’ or ‘f’ or so..

Identity of the eastern [Mediterranean] marker-‘flame’ was what I had to re-consider. The  probability now seems quite high that the maker meant to evoke Constantinople as it was at some time between  1204 and 1480 AD.  More detail another time.

square tower attached to the sea-wall of Constantinople. Said to have been a light-house tower.


  • __________


*(Beinecke “folio 85v-and-86r”).

The map’s East-to-west reversal was explained in a post here called ‘A curious orientation’ – among the earliest posts in a long and careful discussion of the map, the first analytical treatment of that folio, with posts issued from 2011 onwards. An undated paper widely advertised by its authors – Juergen and Wastl – was submitted in first draft to the voynich.ninja forum five years or more later but has proven disappointing.  The title, for example, begins “VMS 408…”

I had already looked into the possibility of the Voynich map’s being related to Latin mappaemundi, and given a complete absence from it of any of the customs by which the Latins’ mappamundi is defined, it was not difficult to reach a negative conclusion on that point.

I found, rather, that there is a degree of connection with fourteenth century cartes marine.

Carthamus tinctorius (Safflower) – a pleasant concurrence

Pleasant news: a comment at voynich.ninja suggests that another person has identified a plant in the manuscript as  C. tinctorius, this agreeing with a post I wrote about f.54r back in 2011.


Beinecke MS 408 f.54r

Before  closing the old research blog ‘Findings’ and another called ‘voynich.retro’ I thought it proper to have at least two scholars maintain their access to serve as safeguard against my mis-quoting the old posts or their date of publication – so you may feel comfortable that the publication details shown below are accurate.

Note This post came out of a question I was currently investigating, namely whether  the makers distinguished between oil-producing plants and dye-producing plants in this imagery, and if so how.  For that, I needed only to mention one of the plants in f.54r and I chose C.tinctorius chiefly because I thought the drawing so clear that even casual readers with no prior study of comparative history or art would ‘get it’.

The post received no comment and as far as I’ve had news, it wasn’t reference correctly by anyone writing later.  Given how constantly people were turned off this study between 2008 and c.2015, I don’t expect many now involved will remember this post. But who knows? Maybe there’s a download  somewhere in the files of some hoary Voynichero inclined to dispense suggestions.  🙂


from ‘Findings‘ blogger blog (now closed)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

fol.54r – SAFFLOWER Carthamus tinctorius L


Carthamus tinctoria

safflower-pic-1-54rPopular names:safflower-carthamus_tinctorius-pic-2

Dyer’s saffron

Fake saffron


Bastard Saffron


Names in numerous other languages, courtesy of Gernot Katzer..see list at end of page.


“extensively cultivated in India, China and other parts of Asia, also in Egypt and southern Europe.

It grows to about 2 or 3 feet high (approx 1 meter) with a stiff, upright,whitish stem, branching near the top; and has oval, spiny, sharp-pointed leaves, their bases half-clasping the stem. Its fruits are about the size of barley-corns,somewhat four-sided, white and shining,like little shells.

… chiefly used for dyeing silk …

The seeds  yield an oil much used in India for cooking and burning and for culinary purposes.”

Grieves, A Modern Herbal p.698


Safflower Carthamus tinctorius L. is one of humanity’s oldest crops. Chemical analysis of ancient Egyptian textiles dated to the Twelfth dynasty identified dyes made from safflower, and garlands made from safflowers were found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen.

John Chadwick reports that the Greek name for safflower occurs many times in Linear B tablets, distinguished into two kinds: a white safflower, which is measured, and red which is weighed.

“The explanation is that there are two parts of the plant which can be used; the pale seeds and the red florets.”

Carthamus tinctorius is a highly branched, herbaceous, thistle-like annual, usually with many long sharp spines on the leaves. Plants are 30 to 150 cm tall with globular flower heads (capitula) and commonly, brilliant yellow, orange or red flowers. …. Safflower has a strong taproot which enables it to thrive in dry climates, but the plant is very susceptible to frost injury from stem elongation to maturity….

en.wiki.org/wiki/Safflower (which see further for information about the plant’s parts and uses)


… probably native to Africa, and grown in southern Europe, India, China,North Africa and most hot, dry areas of the [older] world.Safflower has numerous roots and an erect, ridged stem that branches near the top and reaches a height of 60-100cm(24-40 inches).The yellow or orange flower heads bloom from August to October,and the shiny white fruits look like little shells… An infusion made from the flowers .. acts as a mild purgative and promotes perspiration.In the past, this was given to children suffering from measles and fevers. [Western pharmacopoeia]

Martyn and Rix, Herbs (1990) pp.88-89.


The following list depends almost entirely on matter in Gernot Katzer’s extraordinarily helpful website.  I have presumed on his good nature by reproducing it here before having his permission,but such is Gernot’s ability to infuse his work with sheer good will, that one dares…




Botanical         Carthamus tinctorius Linn.

pharmaceutical  Flores Carthami

Arabic       عصفر عُصْفُر   Asfour, Asfur, Usfur **mod. Arabic        qurtum
Assamese   কুসুম ফুল Kusumphul;
Azeri           Şafran; more rarely also Zəfəran; Шафран, Зәфәран
Belarusian    Сафлор; Saflor
Bengali কুসুম ফুল Kusum-phul
Bulgarian          Сафлор Saflor
Chinese (Cantonese) 大紅花 [daaih hùhng fāa], 紅蘭花 [hùhng làahn fāa]                                   Daaih huhng faa,     Huhng laahn faa
Chinese (Mandarin) 大紅花 [dà hóng huā], 紅蘭花 [hóng lán huā]                                 Da hong hua,                Hong lan hua
Catalan          Flors de càrtam
Croatian        Šafranika, Bojadisarski bodalj
Czech           Světlice barvířská, Azafrán
Danish          Farvetidsel, Safflor
Dutch           Saffloer
**Egyptian, ancient kt3h; Dioscorides says they called it khino **
English         Safflower, Safflor, Bastard saffron
Esperanto     Tinktura kartamo
Estonian        Värvisafloor, Värvisafloori õied
Farsi              گل رنگ   Gul rang
Finnish           Värisaflori, Saflori
French            Carthame, Safran bâtard
Georgian ალისარჩული, შაფრანი; ყვითელი ყვავილი (?), ზაფრანა (?)                      Alisarchuli,    Shaprani; Q’vit’eli-q’vavili (?), Qviteli-qvavili, Kviteli-kvavili (?), Zaprana (?)
German Saflor, Färbersaflor, Färberdistel
Greek Κνίκος Knikos **Greek Hemeros
Greek (Old) Κνῆκος, Κνίκιον, Κνίκος                      Knekos, Knikion, Knikos
Gujarati કુસુમ્બો Kusumbo
Hebrew קרטם, קורטם   קֻרְטָם, קוּרְטָם             Kurtam, Qurtam
Hindi कुसुम Kusum
Hungarian Pórsáfrány, Sáfrányos szeklice, Szeklice, Szaflór, Olajözön, Magyar pirosító
Icelandic   Litunarkollur
Irish          Chróch bréige
Italian       Cartamo, Falso zafferano
Japanese    紅花 べにばな ベニバナ Benibana
Kannada    ಕುಸುಂಬೆ Kusumbe
Korean    홍화, 홍화씨, 싸플라워                Honghwa, Honggwassi, Sapullaweo
Kazakh Мақсары Maqsarı
Laotian Kham nhong
Latin Cnecos
Lithuanian Dažinis dygminas
Macedonian Шафраника                     Šafranika
Malayalam കുസുംഭം Kusumbham, Shinduram
Marathi करडई Kardai
Nepali कुसुम Kusum Newari
(Nepalbhasa) कुसुम फुल Kusum phul
Norwegian       Saflor
Oriya          Kusuma
Pahlavi         Zardak
Polish           Krokosz barwierski
Portuguese Cártamo, Açafroa, Açafrão-bastardo, Falso-açafrão
Punjabi ਕੁਸਮ   Kusam
Romanian Șofrănaș (Şofrănaş), Șofrănel (Şofrănel), Șofran sălbatic (Şofran sălbatic), Uruian†, Pintenoagă†
Russian     Сафлор              Saflor
Sanskrit    Kusumbha
Serbian      Бодаљ, Дивљи шафран, Шафраника, Шафрањика                          Bodalj, Divlji šafran, Šafranika, Šafranjika
Slovak    Požlt farbiarska, Azafrán
Slovenian Žafranika, Barvilni žafran, Barvilni rumenik
Spanish Cártamo, Alazor
Swedish Safflor, Färgtistel
Tamil குசும்பா Kusumba
Telugu కుసుంబా పుష్పము            Agnisikha, Kusumba pushpamu
Thai คำฝอย Kham nhong, Khamfoi
Tibetan (see http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Cart_tin.html) Gur-gum, Kusuma
Turkish       Aspir çiçeği, Aspur, Yalancı safran, Papağanyemi, Yerli safran, Safran yalancı, Asfur, Hasbir, Kırsafranı, Kartam†, Kuş yemi†, Kurtum† Esfur†
Urdu کسنب, زعفران کاذب  Kusumba, Zafran kadhab
Vietnamese Cây rum, Hồng ho,  Cay rum, Hong hoa
Yiddish זײפֿבלום, װילדער זאַפֿרען           Zeyfblum, Vilder Zafren


** from: Manniche, Lise, An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. Manniche also gives the Coptic, and the Egyptian hieratic [hieroglyphic] forms, but alas, I cannot reproduce them here.
Her book is available to view online. See through Google Books p.83


Black Sea -Treaty of Milan 1b



(detail) Beinecke MS 408, f.73v. Crossbowman as central emblem in one of the calendar roundels.


The aim of this introductory post is to demonstrate consonance between the later elements in the manuscript’s imagery and events from 1285 to the 1330s. Details shown from Beinecke MS 408 have had detailed discussion in earlier posts.

The ‘Clear vision’ series ended at 1290 AD, with the abrupt termination of Genoese involvement in a projected naval attack via Aden against Mamluk Egypt. The  plan had been initiated, and Latins’ involvement sought, by the Mongol ruler of Baghdad, the ilkhan Arghun, and had seen a thousand or more Genoese [1]  enter Mesopotamia the previous year.  Certain details of the Voynich botanical folios show close similarity to a style recorded in upper Mesopotamia during the previous, twelfth, century.


Preacher fleur partizan

(detail) from a diagram occupying the first of a series of three panels on the back of the Voynich map’s upper half..   The figure is depicted in the stance conventional for the type of an orator-preacher, and wears precisely-drawn Mongol costume, including the otherwise unusual ‘horn’ headband. To use a  ‘lily’ as emblem for East  is a custom seen in Jewish art as early as the 6thC AD, but foreign to Latin practice.  In this case the ‘lily’  has its form by reference to an ornate version of a Mongol tamgha,(see right).       NOTE: the diagram containing this figure, with the two adjacent  panels were previously numbered  ’85v-1, 85v-2′ and ’85v-3′, but the Beinecke now describes the first as ‘folio 85v (part)’, the second as, ’86v (part)’ and the third as  ‘part of 85-86 foldout’.  Readers hoping to research the history of this manuscript’s study are advised to have handy a comparative list of foliations.

As merchants and as mariners, navigators and crossbowmen, the Genoese were renowned even in the near east, and had been from the time of the first Crusade.

GENOA’s enthusiastic response to Arghun’s invitation is explained partly by the impact of Mar Sawma’s embassy of 1287-8 [2] but more (as one might expect)  by Genoa’s own interests. For those Genoese, war against Cairo as a ‘Crusade’ was attractive, but the prospect of unhindered access to the Indian Ocean and, through Tabriz, to the road called ‘the spine of Eurasian trade’ counted heavily, as did a love for their city, as was soon made clear.


"In Pars,[i.e. Fars] the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys" .."..from mid-665H" [= 1247 AD].  Judith Kolbas, The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu (1220–1309) pp.149-50.

“In Pars,[i.e. Fars] the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys” ..”..from mid-665H” [= from 1247 AD].  Judith Kolbas, The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu (1220–1309) pp.149-50.






The pepper trade from southern India had been the foundation of Genoa’s prosperity and together with trade in other eastern goods was still its economic lifeblood. In 1285 it had several active markets in termini of  the ‘silk- and ‘spice’-‘ routes:   in Egypt, Cairo and/or Alexandria; in the Levant, Acre and Levantine Tripoli (the most Genoese of all the Crusader towns) and finally the port of Laiazzo in the south-east corner of Asia Minor. Latins called it ‘Ayas’.

fol 86v minimap castle

A small vignette of the Mediterranean, added to the manuscript’s map in at some time before the current fifteenth-century copy was made. Concerning the map’s correct alignment see post entitled ‘A curious orientation’.  I identify the ‘castle’ with Ayas/Laiazzo, but an argument could be made for Pera and with Constantinople – supposing the great tower the Galata, and those responsible for the addition more flexible about placement relative to the cardinal points.

Genoa lost its vital ‘terminus’ markets suddenly, one after another, in the space of six disastrous years:  1285 – 1291, leaving them only one: a small unprotected settlement in the Black Sea, at a site they called ‘Caffa’. In  1285 it saw so little transit trade from the east that the profits barely supported its few resident traders.


Caffa would remain without defensive walls until the fourteenth century, but when built they were topped by ‘imperial’ merlons which signified – beyond Europe – a Latin enclave of civil and/or military foundation, theoretically entitled to western diplomatic and military protection – not necessarily the protection of the current Holy Roman emperor.

‘Imperial’ merlons.

swallowtail from the medieval Genoese port of Caffa

Caffa’s  ‘imperial’ or  ‘swallowtail’ battlements. Some have argued the fourteenth-century  walls Venetian work, but the plan compares closely to that of Galata/Pera,  Genoa’s ‘quarter’ or trading ghetto in Constantinople.  [3]


Fortifications of Pera/Galata in Constantinople, in a sixteenth-century woodcut panorama.












The Genoese had been expelled from Acre in 1285 at the instigation of Venice and its allies. Friction with Egypt and an attempt by Genoa to blockade Egypt by sea is presumed to have prevented access to Alexandria and Cairo.  Thus, Arghun’s patronage was potentially a way to regain direct access to the eastern sea trade and also to Tabriz on the ‘silk highway’, it being the Mongol capital in Persia and a city whose wealth and markets astonished contemporary writers, both Islamic and Latin.


attitudes to depicting the human face. (top register) from a 14thC manuscript made in Mongol Persia (posited Tabriz). (centre and lower registers) details from Beinecke MS 408.

Levantine Tripoli fell to the Mamluks in 1289, while those thousand Genoese ship-builders, marines and navigators were yet at work in Mesopotamia. A contemporary Latin image shows ships carrying the Genoese flag active in the battle.


seige of Tripoli (1289) Brit.Lib. MS Add.27695, f.5.

Perhaps it was this event, however, which prompted the consuls of Genoa to  reverse their policy towards Cairo and to Baghdad virtually overnight. Representatives of the city went to Cairo to beg the Mamluk Sultan for peace, and they went under the aegis of the Volga Khans who were, themselves, at odds with Arghun.

The conditions imposed stipulated that no Genoese interfere further with the activities of the Sultan –  including military activity in Syria. That Genoa agreed shows the measure of its desperation and one can imagine what a furore ensued in Mosul and Baghdad when news of that pact, and orders to desist, were delivered to them.  If, as we are told, all thousand of them died to the last man in a Guelf-Ghibelline dispute, it is not difficult to understand. The Pope still supported crusade against Egypt, but the Republic demanded otherwise.

The Republic proved the stronger.  Almost immediately, the  Mamluk Sultan attacked Acre (1291). Genoese took no part in its defence, neither bringing relief to the besieged nor assisting their defence. Genoa also refused to ratify an agreement negotiated earlier with Henry II of England, by which he should have had use of Cyprus as staging post for actions in the Levant.  The same treaty may even explain why, three decades later, no help was provided the Christian king of Cilician Armenia when the Mamluks again invaded that country and this time not only took, but kept Laizzo.

In a sense, Laiazzo then counted by then as a ‘Frankish’ port, for  the king (Leo IV) had married the daughter of Eleanor of Anjou and Frederick III of Sicily [4]  So strongly pro-Latin were Leo’s policies that he had proposed another union: between the Armenian and Latin churches, but none of it availed him, neither bonds of blood, nor marriage, nor religion and he died in prison at the hands of his barons while still waiting on that Latin help which never came. Ayas was now closed to western traders for once and all. [5]

… continued..



[1] sources differ, but most number them between 900 and 1200.

[2] I can find no mention of Rabban Mar Sawma in connection with Beinecke MS 408 before my own comment to Nick Pelling’s blog. Since then I’ve had reason to mention it several times, usually referring too to Wallis Budge’s translation from the Syriac. The first mention at voynichimagery is dated September 2012, in a post entitled ‘Trade Routes and Scripts’ which proved so popular I have made it a separate Page (see side-bar for list of Pages).

[3] on debate over whether Venetians or Genoese fortified Caffa,  Ciocîltan cites archaeology and earlier studies in support of his view that Caffa’s fortifications (in place by 1347 and which survived to the nineteenth century)  “were strikingly similar to those of Pera, completed no longer ago than [not later than] 1303.”

‘Pera’ is Galata, from the ancient Greek Peran en Sykais. It was granted to the Genoese in 1267 by Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus. The exact boundaries were stipulated in 1303 and the Genoese were specifically prohibited from fortifying the quarter, but they not only did so; they appropriated more land as they wished and modified the walls to suit.

See Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Brill (2012).

To represent the opposite view, Josanu may stand for all, “.. during the first decades of the 14th century, … the Republic of Saint Mark initiated an extensive project for strengthening the colonies in the Black Sea area. The first walls were built around Caffa, which was followed, one by one, by the rest of the communities, so that in 1347 they were capable of defying the fury of Janybek Khan.” Vitalie Josanu, ‘A Monument of Romanian Medieval Civilization by the Great Sea*: Cetatea Alba – Moncastro’ (Ph.D. dissertation, National University of Bucharest (2013) p.11.

*By the present author, the term ‘ great sea’ is used for all the ocean to the east of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and as far as China, which usage was evidently common during the medieval period, and is so employed by a fifteenth-century mariner named Ibn Majid.

[4]  “Frederick III… ” An incident in the reign of Frederick III of Sicily shows Occitan might be used at that time in delicate diplomatic situations, where we might now expect cipher.

The incident is often mentioned, but here as quoted in a wiki article ‘Frederick III of Sicily’ from Martín de Riquer, Los trovadores: historia literaria y textos. 3 vol. Barcelona: Planeta, 1975:

“When Frederick heard that James was preparing to go to war with him, he sent a messenger, Mountainer Pérez de Sosa, to Catalonia in an effort to stir up the barons and cities against James in 1298.  Mountainer carried with him an Occitan poem, Ges per guerra no.m chal aver consir, intended as a communication with his supporters in Catalonia. ..  This poetic transaction is usually dated to January–March, Spring, or August 1296, but Gerónimo Zurita in the seventeenth century specifically dated the embassy of Mountainer to 1298.”

Leo IV’s marriage to Constance was his second, contracted on December 29th., 1331.  Unfortunately, in trying by this and other means to assure the Latins of his allegiance and to secure  his kingdom, Leo alienated his own barons and roused general antipathy so great it affected Latins residing in his kingdom. Leo came to his unhappy end imprisoned, and still hoping for Latin support which never came.

[5] Ayas was taken and re-taken so often – by Mongol, Seljuk and Mamluk – that to determine whether it was, or wasn’t available to Latins in a given year (and if so, which Latins) is a matter for specialists more deeply versed in the fragmentary source material. I have relied chiefly on Virgil Ciocîltan’s masterly study.

Note – I have concluded that the ‘castle’ is certainly meant for Constantinople/Galata.  I believe this result may concur with the opinion of an earlier researcher, and I should be glad if any reader could help me find and name the earlier source. 10/04/2017

The Black Sea – Treaty of Milan Pt.1a

This series sits between the ‘Clear Vision’ posts and those scheduled to appear  as ‘Greater Khorasan..’

‘Clear vision’ treated folio 5v in some (but not complete) depth as a relatively accessible example of the manuscript’s approach to mnemonic imagery, and also with an aim of offering  detailed comment on one detail of the many  which, by 2011, had led me to conclude that most of this botanical imagery saw its first enunciation in the Hellenistic period and in a specifically Hellenistic environment – albeit  one influenced by Egypt.[1]

Folio 5v also allowed me to raise two questions I consider important but which were previously unexamined: first, why anyone  native to medieval Europe should have found such curious images of interest and, secondly, why they should have been of such interest that no effort was made to render the information they convey into such forms and conventions as would have made it  intelligible to a western audience; that is, employing the pictorial language and -grammar of the western tradition.

That the imagery was not ‘translated’ into Latin terms certainly made easier the present task of identifying its original character and subsequent stages of alteration (chronological stratigraphy). But it also meant that Latins of the  medieval period would have found most of the botanical imagery as incomprehensible as did Europeans of the seventeenth-, nineteenth-, twentieth- and earlier twenty-first centuries, for reasons and in ways analogous to those which render the written text unintelligible.

One must suppose, then, that for some time the manuscript was being passed down in conjunction with its explanation, and that it became useless only when that direct line of transmission-and-explanation was broken.  For want of certain knowledge, I have merely supposed that that this break occurred in the late sixteenth- or in the early seventeenth century, possibly with the expulsion of the Jews from Prague in 1561, or with Jacub Hořčický’s sudden remove from Prague, subsequent imprisonment (1620) and a period of exile so soon followed by his unexpected death in in Mělník,  fifty kilometres from Prague, in 1622.

Whether  Jacub or some other person inscribed his name on it (scholars argue over whether the form is the Czech ‘z’ or not), and how Jacub had come by the manuscript (if he had) is still unknown.[2] Nor do we know how or when it was given into the keeping of Georg Baresch – though by 1640 he had been labouring over it for some time.[3]

These current posts, intermediate between the ‘Clear Vision’ series with its emphasis on the botanical imagery and the ‘Great Khorasan’ series which will focus on folios containing those figures termed ‘nymphs’ will explain why I assign to the second half of the thirteenth century or early years of the fourteenth century the transmission of both sections – from regions east of the Bosphorus to the western Mediterranean.

Our present manuscript, exclusive of marginalia, is thus argued to have been derived from exemplars to which it is remarkably faithful.

We are also interested in what the manuscript’s internal evidence, and the historical sources, suggest as the most likely group or groups to have served as agents of transmission, and whether it is possible to identify the region of the western Mediterranean into which the matter was first brought.



[1] Recent Voynicheros may associate a Greek- or a Hellenistic theory with Koen Gheuens, who has taken it up with some enthusiasm, but as my more enduring readers will know, I reached that conclusion about the botanical section in the early stages of my research, publishing both evidence and the conclusion in my research blog ‘Findings’ before 2011. I have found nothing in subsequent investigation of other sections to contradict that conclusion, but much to support it and so have continued to assert the same ever since. Some of the Hellenistic-Egyptian imagery in the manuscript has roots older still, but one doesn’t wish to cause alarm and so I have forborne from explaining much of that. 🙂

[2] I consider the ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ near-worthless as historical testimony; because Mnishovsky could not have witnessed the alleged event; because the person repeating Mnishovsky’s alleged comments (themselves hearsay) would within eighteen months have ‘lost his memory of almost everything’ as an old friend writes to Kircher; and because if one accepts at face value the late account of some long-ago bit of hearsay, then there can be no reason to reject the attribution to Roger Bacon as author, and the bit about Rudolf’s paying some anonymous traveller/carrier  600 ducats (enough to pay for a scribe to make a 100 copies), yet accept the notion that ‘Rudolf once owned it’.  The three items of this questionable hearsay are all of a piece, and no one item can be rejected without rejecting the rest so long as none of it has found any independent or objective historical support. Even Marci cannot have believed it, for although he had known  Baresch, and Kircher and of the manuscript, for more than thirty years, he had evidently never thought it worth passing on before!

[3] An interesting version of the signature can be seen on one of the early, investigative posts at ciphermysteries (Jan.7th., 2009 ).  The way the initial letter ‘J’ is rendered – in Pelling’s processed image – is reminiscent of the Voynich script’s “ornate P” – just btw.

Baresch evidently knew that the botanical folios depicted exotic plants, not ones native to the Mediterranean. He says so in his letter to Athanasius Kircher. “.. the volume contains pictures of exotic plants [NB not: ‘herbs’] which have escaped observation here in Germany.”  (PUG 557 f. 353rv ). See the transcription and translation by Philip Neal.


Not too long now.

For those mildly interested in a book so important that everything had to wait on its arrival, it is

Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Brill (2012).

It has arrived here at last, and though I’m not responsible for the fact, I feel oddly chuffed to learn that I have the only tangible [hard-back] copy of it in the southern hemisphere.

Yep. Libraries are starved of funds, besotted with virtual books over things on shelves, and … well, it is a Brill.