In passing: astronomy, Book of Creation and folio 57v

(added note – 30/11/2011.  A recent comment from Koen Gheuens reminds me to add another romanisation: Sēpher Yəṣîrâh)

“Twenty-two foundation letters: He placed them in a circle….
He directed them with the twelve constellations.
— Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation)

Nairos 57v
detail from folio 57v, Beinecke MS 408. Line of the “beginning and end” marker shown in red.


Bacon portrait detail blog





Earlier efforts to equate the diagram on folio 57v with various astronomical instruments etc. are surely many.  My readers may prefer to begin with posts to the present blog, where I’ve including mention of certain other Voynich writers, including Richard Santacoloma.   As ever, if any reader knows of an earlier researcher’s having quoted from Sefer Yetzirah in connection with folio 57v or the Roger Bacon portrait, I should be most grateful to hear about it, so that I can do the honourable thing.

Some posts about folio 57v which I’ve published here:-


I have often mentioned having strong  reservations about the date for first inclusion of the diagram on folio 57v, not least because it was drawn using instruments and because its figures are not drawn  differently to the Latin habit, but are genuinely and truly awful drawing.  And as I pointed out  years ago, they are are bad in precisely the same way that a drawing is badly drawn in Kircher’s China Illustrata.

I shouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that the diagram on f.57v is a late addition, drawn on a  blank section in the fifteenth-century manuscript, nor should I be surprised to learn it was Kircher’s own bad drawing.

(Note the way the arms are drawn in the image from China Illustrata and cf. f.57v)  And yes, I do think the Voynich fish-‘lady’ is likely to refer to Matsuya. I said so in 2011 or so in the research blog and reprised it for voynichimagery,  but with regard to f.57v see the post  from April 17th., 2013),  where I laid Kircher’s drawing beside one from  Baldeus’  book (in which Baldeus quotes in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Sanskrit) wand which was published in 1665 – close indeed to when  Kircher is believed to have received the Voynich manuscript from Marcus Marci.  (as far as I’m aware I owe no acknowledgements for the comparison, though amateur Voynicheros habitually adopt matter from this blog, so you may find it in other sites now.)

machauter kircher chna illustrata

from Baldeus
from Baldeus


More about correlations between asterisms and alphabets in a mixed sort of paper by Hugh Moran.  The Egyptian-Phoenician side of it isn’t too bad, but Moran’s effort to make a direct link between the Phoenician alphabet and the Chinese seems forced to me. While the first part of Moran’s paper is still read and cited, today the second is less so. In 1985 when I first read David Kelley’s contribution I must say it impressed me less, but at the time I was interested in the Byblos syllabery.  I must however credit a paper written by Brian R.Pellar for having reminded me of that passage from Sefer Yetzirah.

At present I am producing an evaluation of the way  Pellar has interpreted various artefacts and images.  I cannot say more here, but readers may note that it is not included below.

Recommended reading:

Moran, Hugh A. The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs.(1953). In 1969 Moran’s essay was re-published with the additional essay by David Kelley.

Astronomical figures and greater Khorasan -introduction

That elegance and self-sufficiency characteristic of the botanical images is not found in those which include  anthropoform figures – often called “nymphs’ in the secondary literature. [1]

A further distinction between these two major divisions (the third being the map) is that while both appear to have originated in the Hellenistic environment, first enunciation of the botanical imagery is, for the most part, best attributed to the 2ndC BC,  whereas the style of the  ‘nymphs’ folios’ accords better with the period from the 1st-3rdC AD.

Again, the botanical folios – as I’ve demonstrated – have content which refers consistently to the southern,  maritime, routes across the Great Sea and in their later phases of addition (chiefly pertaining to the stylised roots), show affect from Indian and southeast Asian custom, [2]

but for the ‘nymphs’ imagery, the nearest comparable forms are found chiefly along the old “lapis lazuli” route by which Egypt and Mesopotamia had been linked to what is now northern Afghanistan since the 4th-3rd millennium BC, it connecting to the overland ‘silk road’ that was in operation before the time of Alexander.  By one or other of those ways, lapis lazuli was being brought into the western Mediterranean, and reaching England, by the ninth century AD, a time when we know that “trader-envoys of Khorasan” travelled to as far south as Cordoba – about which more in a later post.

These overland and maritime routes of the east are included in the Voynich map (Yale f.86v; Beinecke foliation 85v-and-86r), but it is worth emphasising that the map did not originally include any reference to the Mediterranean Sea, nor to Jerusalem, nor to to any place in mainland Europe before a substantial revision was made which I date, again, to the Mongol century and most probably to the time of the Avignon papacy.

At that time, the content which had first occupied the North roundel was moved to the North-west, at the cost of symmetry and loss of one directional ‘rose’ or ‘wheel’.  In its place, and in a rather different style of drawing, a small vignette was set, describing a route from the eastern coast of the Black Sea, through the ‘chimneys’ of Cappadocia and past a site which I believe meant for Ayas (Laiazzo), towards Alexandria and Cairo.  Again, Jerusalem is not included, but the site of Laiazzo is marked by a building ornamented with crenellations of the sort which denote ‘imperial’ and which –  for Italians at home – signified more particularly their imperial or ‘Ghibbeline’ party. 

The only site marked on the continent of Europe, even then, is indicated by triangular courtyard with an attached tower. I have proposed its identification as Avignon, or (possibly) Peñiscola.

Avignon-or-Peniscola and Laiazzo

In the illustration below, I show the routes of the Voynich map laid upon another fifteenth-century production, though this being by a Venetian cartographer it conforms to the Latin convention and so it will be more easily read by most of those following the blog. ( added 12/11/2016 –  To the same end, I have put geographical east to the viewer’s right, though the map has East to the left, and west to the right, north ‘up’ and south ‘down’).

The blue routes are the matter found in the main part of the Voynich map, with the rectangles marking the ‘corners’ the topmost is the East; The content of the present North roundel (the minimap) is shown by the green route and that single site in mainland Europe.  I have also added (in dark red) an indication of where scripts occur which include the “ornate P-form” gained from the Aramaic family, but also found among the Voynich glyphs. And finally in orange, the range proper to the plants I’ve identified in the botanical folios.  The composite below was made after, and as a result of, analysis of individual folios across the range of the manuscript and from each sub-section of the manuscript, in addition to very detailed exposition of the Voynich map.  That the conclusions from these various studies should lock together so well is not due to my having had any prior  ‘theory’ but simply a result – I should hope – of having correctly understood the intention of those folios and sections.

 (Imagery of these Voynich glyphs courtesy of Nick Pelling)


Unlike the de Virga map, on which I’ve laid these things,  the Voynich map does not accord with the custom of any Latin work: not in conception, nor  design, nor range, nor  priorities nor arrangement of the cardinal points.  Contrary to popular belief, it contains no “T-O” diagram, and does not in the least accord with the tradition of the Latin mappamundi.  It does show certain details in common with early (14thC) examples of the western  ‘rhumb-gridded’ cartes marine  –  sometimes termed ‘portolan’ charts. 

I consider especially significant that the Voynich map, while having its North as “up” has the  East to the viewer’s left.  This  practice is not known to me from any western tradition in making ordinary maps, though the concept is not wholly unprecedented.  East-left was usual in earlier Egypt and occurs in astronomical imagery – both the original  Persian-Indian imagery, and in derivative imagery within Latin Europe.  In relation to depiction of the constellations, it occurs in some sky-maps even as far as Japan, and simply to break the monotony – since this post is no more than an overview of matter already treated in detail in earlier posts, here is the proof of that custom in earlier Japan –   please don’t infer any argument that Voynichese is Japanese.🙂

Star-ceiling from a tomb in Nara. 6th-8thC AD.


[1] nymphs were spirits of earth, places and rivers and (pace not embodiments of astronomical figures although some nymphs, like some animals and humans or demi-gods were imagined elevated to the stars.  To equate the figures in the Voynich manuscript with both stars and classical ‘nymphs’ one would need, at the very least, some intermediate reference to geography.

[2]I had intended, throughout this post, to add links to the earlier posts in which these things were treated in detail to add evidence and context to what is here offered as assertion.  Unfortunately, my time is short – I’ve been called away to attend to other matters – so rather than leave the post to wait indefinitely, I offer it with apologies for that missing apparatus.  Those with sufficient patience and interest, I hope,  will find the more detailed work through key-word search or through the Index pages that are in the header.

Clear vision – 6

Mosul, where those Genoese halted in 1290 to build their ships, had a tradition of mathematical astronomy and of making fine astronomical instruments – astrolabes and star-globes among them, though a more unusual instrument, dated to the thirteenth century and credited to Mosuli workmanship, was evidently designed to calculate astronomical and geomantic correspondences. It was found in North Africa.[1]

divinatory device workings
Plate 2 in Emilie Savage-Smith and M.B. Smith , A Thirteenth Century Divinatory device.

It was in Mosul that al-Tusi, a native of Khorasan, came to study astronomy in 1242. Whether the astronomers and instrument makers of Mosul were still active in 1290 when the Genoese arrived we don’t know, though we may suppose that lower Mesopotamia and the banks of the Tigris now presented a bleak prospect, and Baghdad itself had not yet recovered from the aftermath of the Mongols’ invasion.

The siege of Baghdad in1258 had been followed by decimation of the city’s population,  the Mongols’ murder of its ruling classes and their near-obliteration of its intellectual heritage. al-Tusi himself worked in Baghdad under the Mongols, hoping to salvage some of it and notably to save the observatory at Maragha. It was he who revised Ptolemy’s Tables at that observatory.

A fourteenth century Persian painting; Hulugu’s army besiege Baghdad. The maker’s interest in pattern, and the style he employs to depict the royal city’s ‘rippling boundary’ find parallels in imagery within Beinecke MS 408.

A contemporary (whom Harris quotes but does not  name) said that so many books had been thrown into the Tigris by the Mongol invaders that “they formed a bridge which could support a man on horseback” [2] and a proverb arose that is repeated to this day: that for six months the Tigris ran black with the ink of books and red with the blood of scholars and the wise.[3]

One community had Hulugai’s protection, for his wife Dokuz Khatun was a Nestorian Christian who asked that her co-religionists be spared.  Hulugai is said to have ordered a cathedral built for the Nestorian Catholicos, Mar Makikha.[4]

Baghdad’s once extraordinary collection of ancient Greek texts had begun to be amassed from before the time the Islamic city was built in the eighth century. A philhellene Caliph, al-Mansur (754 AD – 775 AD) began the work of collection and of translation, and it was also he who had the ‘circular city’ built to an auspicious design with advice from astronomer-astrologers from Harran – to that time the capital of the Abbasid caliphate –  and assisted too by a formerly Zoroastrian family from Ahvaz near Gundeshapur.

al-Mansur was fortunate that knowledge of paper-making had recently come to the Islamic world;  first at Samarkand and then at Baghdad where Chinese prisoners taught the technique, which was then very rapidly and widely introduced. [5]  In my opinion, paper-making plants are depicted on f.2r   of Beineke MS 408 [6]

A number of researchers, including the present writer, have raised the possibility that what we now see on vellum in Beinecke MS 408 might have been copied from sources written on paper.  Among the reasons for this suggestion are  lack of ruling out (paper’s laid lines were used to keep lines of script more or less straight), and the Voynich manuscript’s fairly unusual dimensions.

In any case, the Greek texts had not been translated directly into Arabic. An initial stage – as Dimitri Gutas has emphasised – saw them first translated into Syriac and/or Persian, Arabic translations being made from those.  Gutas also notes the paucity of evidence for any translations having been made from Greek into Syriac during the pre-Islamic period,[7] but this may be due to a continuing use of Greek as a lingua franca until Byzantine rule was supplanted by Islamic. The Byzantines themselves were intensely proud of their pre-Christian heritage and their education system retained study of Homer and other classics in the higher school curriculum as long as the Byzantine empire survived.[8]

In early Baghdad, gathering and translating the “wisdom of the Greeks” required no access to Byzantium, for Greek learning had infused the eastern Mediterranean and passed to as far as India.  During the rule of al-Ma’mun (caliph in 813) the work begun by al-Mansur accelerated, as  demand increased for theoretical and applied scientific knowledge. As if to underline the fact that the acquisition of learning was essential to the growth of Islam, and in keeping with the Prophet’s injunction that in seeking wisdom one should go even as far as China,  al-Ma’mun’s administration gave physicians and ‘astrologers’ (i.e. including astronomers and mathematicians) the same rank as that of secretaries of state. [9]

In medicine, in classical literature and pharmaceutical knowledge, Nestorians were then universally accepted masters at that time, and the former ‘star-worshippers’ of Harran,  now called Sabeans, were acknowledged throughout the east at that time as masters of mathematics and astronomy. al-Ma’mun’s granting these professions a rank equal to that of secretaries of state showed respect for learning as a good and served as a public assertion of its importance to Islamic society.  Naturally, a far higher rank was accorded scholars of Islamic jurisprudence.

Subsequent generations  built on that initial legacy, and although Baghdad’s first glory as the fabulously wealthy seat of the Abbasid caliphate was already fading by the tenth century, Baghdad still held one of the largest  collections of classical and Hellenistic Greek works in the medieval world, second to that in Constantinople, perhaps, until 1204, and thereafter surpassed by none – until the libraries were devastated by the Mongols in 1258.

The question of whether any books were printed is a contentious one. Bulliet argues that printing may have been practiced in Egypt by the tenth century and continued there to as late as the Mongol period but no evidence links its use to Baghdad.[10] As it happens, Genoa also saw the  brief emergence of printing during the late fourteenth century  (1384-6), but that is usually supposed due to influence from north Africa or Spain.[11]

The point of this for Voynich studies is that the means certainly existed as early as the thirteenth century, for older Greek works to have been brought into the west in languages other than Arabic and even in the war-ravaged Baghdad of the 1290s, the same is true.  In a sense, it was a parallel situation which brought the Voynich manuscript to public view, and saw it taken first to England and then to America: that is, that in the aftermath of war and despoilation, the desperation of an impoverished community saw remnants of  ruined libraries and private collections offered to persons from an entirely different region and native language.  This is a constantly-recurring pattern in history, and we have evidence from as late as the nineteenth century which is relevant to our present theme.

A British administrator in Sri Lanka, early in the nineteenth century, was able to gather a large number of manuscripts on the subject of medicine and the majority, as he was informed by their current owners, had come from Baghdad as a gift of the Caliph or had been purchased in Baghdad  by one of their own ancestors. [12]

An active policy of dissemination had seen earlier Baghdad noted for its bookstalls and book-sellers as well as for its public and private collections.  Charlemagne also benefited from the Caliph’s generosity.  That copies of Greek classical works passed to the Great Sea is beyond doubt.  Thus what we see in the Voynich imagery but here  particularly in the botanical folios –  a basis in Hellenistic custom and thought together with evidence of Asian style in art, and what I take as a final layer appropriate to a mid-twelfth century date and Arabian-Mesopotamian locus –  is not at all incompatible with the history of classical texts’ dissemination.

While I do not not think there can be much point in trying to identify any one person as “bearer” – no more than in attempting to identify a single “author” – it is important to show that a text might acquire just that pattern of “layering” during the centuries between the time of the Greeks and the time Beinecke MS 408.  I would also note that Theophrastus’ work on plants was constantly mistaken for Aristotle’s, in both the east and the west.

I won’t try to argue that Genoese brought matter in Beinecke MS 408 to Latin Europe –  I do not believe. myself, that they did – but it is true that the nature of the content, concerned as it is with valuable products gained from the east and practical matters of maintenance and navigation – would have co-incided with Genoese interests and the reason for their oft-mentioned presence in the east before 1400. In fact the ‘900’ Genoese are said to have died to the last man in Mesopotamia, so we can’t blame them!

Beyond the devastation in Baghdad, however, any others who reached the sea had to pass the ancient site of Teredon/Dioditis. Exactly where it lay is now uncertain. [13] Rawlinson thought it may have been the site of Ubulla[14] and if that were so, it had served as the place of embarkation for India and the far east for  millennium and a half, and indeed in the tenth century al-Mas’ūdi (c. 896–956) spoke of  al-Ubulla in connection with the Radhanites, saying too that

“in earlier days, the ships of China used to come.. to al-Ubulla and the coast of Basra.”

At the height of Baghdad’s glory, then, books were plentiful, works of the older Greeks were being translated into various languages and scripts, and disseminated from Baghdad to as far as mainland Europe or north Africa to the west and initially at least as far as India to the east, and a direct link by sea joined the Persian Gulf to south east Asia and perhaps to southern China, yet at that time the only persons recorded as traversing the full extent of that route are said to have been the Radhanites.

In the mid-ninth century, again, we find that al-Ulbulla is mentioned, and again in speaking of the Rhadanites, whose languages included Greek. The Persian master of roads and posts, Ibn Khurradādhbih (820 – 912 AD) describes says of the Mesopotamian route that “they come overland  to al-Jabiya on the Euphrates…  sail down the Euphrates to Baghdad, then down the Tigris to al-Ubulla, from where they sail  the Arabian Gulf to Oman, Sindh, India and China.”[15]

The  century after the disastrous journey of the 900 Genoese – all of whom are said to have died in a factional dispute – saw Genoa establish a short-lived factory at Dioskurias  (their despatches naming it in the Byzantine style, ‘Sebastopolis’).  It would prove another unfortunate venture, and lead directly to the expulsion of all Genoese from the Black Sea –  to the benefit of their Venetian rivals.



published separately.


Clear vision 6 – notes

[1] I have had reason before to mention this instrument and the matter of geomancy.  In reverse order: (i)  my public apology for having apparently begun a Voynich-related ‘craze’:   ‘Heaven to earth: dots and dust – brief note‘ (April 13th., 2016); (ii)  Green Ocean – Paris’ world, dates‘ (December 26, 2014) refers to geomancy in connection with an illustration from Michael Scot’s work in Sicily  (MS Bodley 266 folio 115v); and (iii)  Voynich-like script/s Persia, Egypt and Lyons‘, (December 19, 2014), because some Voynich-like glyphs occur in a text which includes geomantic matter.  I see that  geomancy has recently arisen again as a topic at

[2] Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World, 4th ed (1999) p. 85

[3] Bokhara, Samarkhand and Merv had received the same treatment, first between 1218-1220, and later from 1258 under Halagu Khan. (Harris, loc cit.) Following the sack of Byzantium in 1204, we may suppose  lost forever a great number of  classical Greek works whose titles are known now through later mentions.

[4] Sources usually cited here are Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes p.243; Steven Runciman, A history of the Crusades p. 306; Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century  p.123.

[5]  Thus:  “Mas’ūdi ( 895-957  AD)  ..lived at a time when books were readily available and relatively cheap…The introduction of paper coincided with the coming to power of the Abbasid dynasty, and there is no doubt that the availability of cheap writing material contributed to the growth of the Abbasid bureaucracy, postal system and lively intellectual life. ..  Aside from large public libraries in major towns like Baghdad, many individuals, like Mas‘udi’s friend al-Suli, had private libraries, often containing thousands of volumes. The prevalence of books and their low price was the result of the introduction of paper to the Islamic world by Chinese papermakers captured at the Battle of Talas in 751 AD. Very soon afterwards there were paper mills in most large towns and cities”.  from the ‘Introduction’ – Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone (trans.), Mas‘udi. The Meadows of Gold, The Abbasids Vol. 1 (1989/2013), p.14.

[6] Analysis of  folio 2r was first published Jan 22nd. 2012, a shorter version published through ‘Voynich Imagery’ on November 5th., 2012. It can be read here. The group includes a flower that I take to be Centaurea moschata, which served as both insect-repellent and scent. With regard to Baghdad, though not elsewhere, this may imply a terminus ad quem, since scenting tribute lists for the Sassanian rulers had been customary, and one early Caliph also received them scented but, being appalled by what he considered an effete practice, had the practice discontinued in that context.

[7]  Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries) (1998).

[8] ““reading classical Greek and even composing in the same style were an integral part of Byzantine higher education. .. those who took their education beyond the age of fourteen would be instructed in the works of the ancient Greek poets, historians, dramatists and philosophers. Thus any educated Byzantine in the imperial service would have had a knowledge of these [ancient and classical] works which would have been the envy of many educated Italians.”Jonathan Harris,  “Byzantines in Renaissance Italy.”  (pdf)

[9] [they] “held the same high rank within the state hierarchy, entering the highest posts of the Abbasid administration and being provided with institutional and with financial support.” Gutas, op.cit.

[10] Bulliet cites finds from Egypt in levels dating to the tenth and eleventh century, saying  “Arabic printing must have begun in the eighth or ninth century. It persisted into, but possibly not beyond the fourteenth century” and in a note attributes  introduction of paper into Islamic regions to the capture of Chinese at Samarkand in 704 AD.  Richard R. Bulliet,’Medieval Arabic tarsh, a forgotten chapter in the history of printing’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.107, No.3 (1987) pp.427-438 and p.427, n.1.   A contrary view is expressed by e.g.  Walid Nasr: “Print did not become established in the Islamic world until the 19thC, four centuries after it became… established in Christendom”, Walid Ghali Nasr, ‘The reasons behind the delay in adopting the early printing technologies in Muslim countries: brief thoughts’ (paper, 2012) available through

[11] Block printing was used in Latin Europe for books and for playing cards before the time of Gutenberg’s moveable type. Proctor dated the introduction of printing in Genoa to c.1474,  but the (somewhat difficult) website site ‘memory of paper’ includes a Genoese watermark dated to the 1350s, and formed appropriately enough as a bow.   For the older opinion, still found repeated in various works,  see Robert Proctor (1898). “Books Printed From Types: Italy: Genova” in the Index to the Early Printed Books in the British Museum,


[12“One of the principal Arabic works on medicine which [the Muslim residents] introduced into Ceylon was the work of Avicenna; they also introduced Arabic translations of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Galen and Ptolemy, extracts of which were frequently brought to me while I was in Ceylon by the Mohammedan priests and merchants, who stated that the works themselves had originally been procured from Baghdad by their ancestors, and they had remained for some hundreds of years in their respective families in Ceylon, but had subsequently been sold by them, when in distress, for considerable sums of money, to some merchants who traded between Ceylon and the eastern islands.

Three very large volumes of extracts from the works which I have alluded were presented to me by a Mohammedan priest of great celebrity in Asia, who died about twenty years ago on the island of Ceylon.

These three volumes, together with between five and six hundred books in the Cingalese, Pali, Tamil, and Sanskrit languages, relating to the history, religion, manners, and literature of the Cingalese, Hindu, and Mohammedan inhabitants of Ceylon, which I had collected at a considerable expense were lost in 1809, in the “Lady Jane Dundas” East-Indiaman on board of which ship I had taken my passage for England.”

– excerpt from a letter addressed by Alexander Johnston (Justice and President of His majesty’s Council in Ceylon) to the Secretary of The Royal Asiatic Society.  Note (D.) I have checked this information against  Admiralty records; a ship of that name foundered, not far off the coast of Ceylon, in 1809. Johnston’s letter was first mentioned in connection with Beinecke MS 408 in a post entitled ‘Pictured plants: the ‘Herbal’ tradition ~ Continuity and transmission, Findings, (Monday, May 17, 2010); this being repeated in ‘A Good Man and a Traveller’, Findings, (September 26, 2011). I consider Johnston’s letter important for its offering clear evidence that Greek classical works were known at sites along the eastern sea-routes, and the same is implied by the form and content of the Voynich botanical and ‘leaves and roots’ sections.   Theophrastus’ treatises on plants were constantly mis-attributed to Aristotle in Latin Europe as within Islam.

[13] “The city [Teredon] is impossible to locate precisely today because of vast changes in the topography of lower Mesopotamia: in Hellenistic times the coastline was perhaps 200 km further inland than it is today” according to Roller who cites ‘many anonymous itineraries’. Duane W. Roller, Eratosthenes’ ‘Geography’. (2010), p.187. Smith and others identified its site with Jebel Sanám, “a gigantic mound near the Pallacopas branch of the Euphrates, considerably to the north of the embouchure of the present Euphrates”, Smith calculating that the alluvium had extended “.. about fifty miles since Nearchus landed at Teredon”. But that ‘gigantic mound’ is now known to be – not to be the result of long occupation – but a great salt-plug, perhaps the same  mined by the Gerrheans for the salt block of which their houses were famously built.

[14] “there is no absolute proof that the famous emporium built by Nebuchadrezzar and known to classical geographies as Teredon or Diridotis is the same as.. the Obillah of the Arabs, but everything points that way”. ‘Rawlinson’s Notes on The Ancient Geography’, Journal of the Royal Geographic Society, Vol. 27 (1857) p.186-7. Donald Hawley, The Trucial States (1970) renders the name as both Toredon and as Teredon, a note repeating the older suggestion that Teredon occupied the site of old Basra before the invading Arabs built the new town and re-named it. (pp.39-40). A more recent, if undated, paper by A.Hausleiter et. al. (c.1990) declines to offer any modern location, saying only that it was “probably on the gulf”, ‘Map 93 Mesene’ (pdf). Given the value of that trade, I do not think it impossible that, as the old site was gradually distanced from the sea that the population moved closer to the sea. In the last analysis, we simply do not know.

[15]  Ibn Khurradādhbih (sometimes romanised as Khurdādhbih, or  Khordadbeh), Kitāb al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik.  Full transcriptions or translations of the text are difficult to find, but both these early accounts of the Radhanites routes are  transcribed online in a blogpost dated January 17, 2015. See:  ‘Reports of the Slavs From Muslim Lands Part II – Radhanites, Eunuchs and the Rus‘.  Hourani, after citing the same passage from Kitāb al-Masālik.. adds,  “Old Basra on its canal was the Manchester of lower Mesopotamia, but al-Ubulla was its Liverpool.” George F.Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times, (expanded edition), PUP 1951/1995. (pp.75-77).

Short note: Koen Gheuens’ latest post

At present this manuscript’s imagery is being approached in two distinctly different ways. The first method is the more often seen – a hunt through medieval manuscripts for something which the researcher perceives as ‘looking like’ a detail in the manuscript.

The other is less common – but is essentially a hunt for the time and place which will offer an explanation for the imagery’s form and intended significance – potentially of greater help to those working on the text’s written part.

The first method, presuming so much in its initial hypotheses, allows a researcher to  set themselves very narrow limits and makes their work-load much lighter.

The second, seeking to answer the question of just where and when the imagery was composed (rather than when it was incorporated into the present manuscript), requires much more of the researcher,  and in the early stages can seem a bit  ‘scatter-gun’ as they begin to survey  a wider geographic and historical span, hunting for that point in time and place where not only similar objects are depicted, but a similar style in presentation and a definable significance will  occur together.

Stylistics are  generally ignored or rationalised by the first method, very often waved away by imagining them all due to quirks in some imagined ‘author’ .

But no matter which method is adopted, those willing to work at improving their perceptions, and to study the historical matter and specific techniques of analysis tend to show improvement in  fairly short space of time (say, 1-2 years).

Every now and then one does meet someone with a natural gift for this sort of work and – more importantly – an  ability to avoid over-identifying with any initial hypothesis.

Ellie Velinska works from an assumption that the Latin European Christian manuscript tradition defines the limits of investigation and takes her comparative imagery chiefly from German or  French manuscripts, but the quality of her interpretations has noticeably improved over time, and some while ago  Ellie herself said that some of her earlier writings now just embarrass her.  That’s nothing to be ashamed of, since she came to this problematic manuscript without any prior  training or experience in such work.

Sam G. seems to have a natural gift for uncoloured observation, but his greater interest appears (at present) to be in the written, rather than the pictorial text – a pity from my point of view, though one looks forward to his contributions overall.

Koen Gheuens is another whose work is worth watching.  Like Sam, he inspires confidence by his meticulous distinctions between his own observations and matter taken up from earlier researchers.  Fastidiousness in such things is one clear mark of the trained scholar, and was once the norm in Voynich studies, though until recently the higher standards of the old mailing list had been gradually eroded, and even actively opposed by some.

The standards to be observed are those which one sees, for example in Philip Neal’s pages, or in Nick Pelling’s posts.  Regardless of the writer’s preferred hypothesis or any personal ideas of such trivia as perceived nationality, gender or imagined social rank, such scholars  leave the reader in no doubt about what is original in their work, what is adopted from others’, what is mere speculation and what is based on solid evidence.

In making those distinctions, they recognise your right to see for yourself whether an idea they espouse is justified by the evidence adduced, and what other views should be considered.  An appropriate level of dispassion and a proper sense of proportion about each person’s role in the study also suggests an equal sense of proportion and dispassion in the work presented.  It inspires confidence – regardless of whether one finds oneself in agreement or not.

Koen’s earlier posts, I admit, I find a little problematic.  Even his latest  – which I recommend your seeing – has a title a little more eye-catching than my conservative training finds comfortable.

But his latest post shows just how rapidly a newcomer may refine his critical (and self-critical) ability and thereby his skill in objective observation.

Some of the comparisons offered by his recent post are impressive – not just as a  ‘match’  but  their selection from the range which he might used itself implies a type of restraint and discrimination which is only gained by concerted study of historical, textual and other technical matters,  essential to the formal practice of iconographic analysis.

I do agree with him that a great deal of the imagery in Beinecke MS 408 shows evidence of  first enunciation between the 3rdC BC and 3rdC AD, and in some sections remarkably little alteration from that time .  Longer-term ‘Voynicheros’ will know this, since I’ve been saying it for seven years.

But that agreement is not why I’m recommending Koen’s work, and  we hold different views on many points: theoretical, historical, and technical.  I’m recommending it as an example of how the second, analytical, method produces results.

A link to Koen’s post:

‘On Persian Crowns and the Nudity Bonus’, (28th. October, 2016)



On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean

letterguyugto-innocent-persianStudents of languages will know that by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, one didn’t have to leave the west to hear Arabic spoken in daily life.  In Iberia and the Balearic islands it was in common use.

Nor did one have to go far to encounter eastern languages. Jewish scholars read and wrote Aramaic.  In 1241 Mongolian and the now-lost language of Cuman was to be heard less than 150 miles from peninsula Italy,  as Mongols and Cumans stood in Split, separated from Pescara by no more than the width of the Adriatic.

When Pope Innocent IV wrote to Guyuk Khan from Lyons in 1245, he wrote in Latin.  The reply which came the next year was written in Persian.[1]  International correspondence required a court to have resident translators.

At that time Mongolian was still written in a script derived from the form of Aramaic used in writing Syriac.

udhr_mongolian-traditionalTwenty years later, a new script known as Phagspa had been created and was rapidly employed throughout the Mongol territories, though the older type remained in use in less formal contexts.

Before the end of that century, paintings for the Franciscan church in Assisi see the painter attempting to write Phagspa as the script of  a book placed in the hands of St.Jerome, a tribute to the Franciscans’ having travelled as far as China.  This image (below) is not the only example of efforts to write Phagspa, others illustrated in an earlier post.  The book or at least the script has been turned at right angles here. Perhaps the painter was unaware that the script was written vertically; perhaps he felt it would look ‘wrong’ to the average viewer, or perhaps the Franciscans themselves had developed a practice in writing that script which they found more congenial to the style of the western manuscript.  Whatever the case, when the painting was made (c.1296-1300), the Genoese who had gone to Baghdad had died there and Montecorvino had been in Beijing for several years.

St.Jerome, Church of St.Francis, Assisi (painted 1296-1300)

Just for interest, here’s how the older Mongolian script would look if turned in the same way. udhr_mongolian-traditional-horizonal

Things Manichean.

Speaking of  Franciscans who reached China, another note about the tombstone supposedly erected for Andrew of Perugia.

The inscription’s beginning with a cross has been assumed proof of Christian character, but is not, in fact,  sufficient proof of it, for the ‘cross of Light’ was a current Manichean emblem, too.


When Willem van Ruysbroeck (William of Rubruck) was sent as emissary to the Mongol court at Karakorum, he met in Cailac an ‘idolator’ who, being asked if he were a Christian, had said that he was. The man had a ‘small cross on his hand’, perhaps as a tattoo.   Although most commentators suppose Rubruck was addressing a Buddhist, as later he did, there is a distinct possibility that the man with the cross on his hand was a Manichaean of the eastern type.   Mani had also called himself Christian.[2

What the Manichaeans were not, however, were monotheists of the Abrahamic tradition, and whether they are described by the Muslims or the Chinese, this group of ‘Christians’ is described as being ‘idolators’ – that is, apparent polytheists.  Given the universalist style of Manichean theology and teaching, and their practice of absorbing Buddhist terms and practices,[3] confusion is understandable.  Here’s how Rubruck describes the meeting:

In the said city of Cailac they had three idol temples… In the first one I found a person who had a little cross in ink on his hand, whence I concluded he was a Christian, and to all that I asked him he replied that he was a Christian. So I asked him: “Why have you not here the Cross and the figure of Jesus Christ?” And he replied: “It is not our custom.” … I noticed there behind a chest which served in the place of altar and on which they put lamps and offerings, a winged image like Saint Michel, and other images like bishops holding their fingers as if blessing. That evening I could find out nothing more, for the Saracens shun these (idolaters) so much that they will not even speak of them, and when I asked Saracens concerning the rites of these people, they were scandalized.[4]

In other words, the Saracens didn’t recognise them as Christians, either.

Now again in southern China, and according to il Milione, the Polos were informed by a ‘wise Saracen’ about a sect ..

.. whose religion nobody seemed to be able to identify. They neither worshipped fire nor Christ nor Buddha nor Muhammed. …the Venetian visitors were not deterred .. [but]…they were eager to impress upon them the Khan’s toleration in matters of religion. ..The barriers were soon lifted and the Polos were even allowed to inspect their wall-decorations and their holy books. With the help of a translator, visitors were able identify a Psalter. From this they concluded that the members of this unknown sect were Christians and they should send a delegation to the Khan to procure for themselves the privileges which were granted Christians. Two members of this so-called Christian sect duly arrived at the court of the Khan and made themselves known to the head of the Nestorian church. He took their case to the Khan and requested that these people should be granted the privileges which were due to the Christians. However, the head of the Buddhists argued that this sect should not be placed under the rule of the Christians as they were idolators and had always known to be idolators…. Bored by the arguments put forward by the religious leaders of both sides, Kublai Khan [1215 – 1294] summoned the delegation to his presence and asked them whether they would like to live under the law of the Christians or the law of the Buddhists. They replied that if it should please the Khan … they wished to be classed as Christians as their ancestors had been. Their wish was duly granted and Kublai Khan ordered that they should be addressed as Christians and allowed to keep the law of the Christians. Most scholars are agreed that the Polos had stumbled across a secretive group of Manichaeans. [5]

The tombstone supposed that for Andrew of Perugia was erected about forty or fifty years later. And if the cross on that tombstone whose inscription and script remain uncertain is no certain proof of Latin Christian belief, another detail offers positive suggestion of Manichaean custom – at least in imagery.

Above the inscription is the image of two angels and lotus, with a great figure who does not hold a child, but the small figure of a mature, wizened old man held as if he had been an infant and wearing a type of skull-cap also seen in Manichaean art.  It is, however, the headdress worn by the larger figure which argues against a western Christian tradition, and for the Manichaean.  We see the general type in an earlier Manichaean wall-painting, the detail included in the composite shown below.  Note how, within the crown carved in the stone, there is a detail formed like a toothed wheel or possibly a great star.(click to enlarge).


I’d suggest, in fact, that this soul-bearing figure is the same great angel which the west knew as  ‘Michael’ and that this similarity is why Rubruck also saw the figure in Cailac as “Michael” in 1252 or -3. In Manichean belief, this may have been known as  the “Twin”[6]

An image of a ‘Daquin’ [ = Daqin] or Christian  [7] from southern China [8] appears in a sixteenth century text and shows now a form of tiara that had been conventional in Mesopotamia from at least the time of Nabonidus (556–539 BC), being adopted by eastern Christianity as the bishop’s mitre.  Unlike that ordinary ‘tiara-mitre’, and unlike any other  Christian regalia of which I  find record – this once more shows that toothed wheel or ‘star’.


I’d suggest that after the time of Kublai Khan, Manichaeans in China had adopted Nestorian headwear, but maintained this emblem as sign of their being a distinct ‘Christian’ sect.

Connection to matter in Beinecke MS 408 is not only the eastern regions, nor the eastern Hellenistic environment current in the 3rdC AD when Mani lived, but the  five-element system depicted on folio 77r is an eastern system, and one present in Manichaean belief.  The image on f.77r was discussed in an earlier post. Influence from Manichaean practice is also one of several possible explanations for that deliberate and consistent distortion of the  figures commonly described as “nymphs” by Voynich writers, but which in the opinion of the present writer consistently refer to astronomical matters.

Manichaean beliefs about the stars were those older Mesopotamia, despite its being a ‘religion of light’.  That is, they did not regard the stars as  natural phenomena in the Greek way, nor as benevolent overseers as they were seen by the Egyptians regarded them, but as demons.

A Coptic summary of Manichaean doctrine, the Kephalaia, quotes Mani’s teachings on this point. Mani assigns each of the zodiac ’12’ – whether as constellations or the more abstract ‘signs’ of astrology is not clear – to  five ‘worlds’: of ~Smoke, ~Fire, ~Wind, ~Water, and ~Darkness and rather interestingly given that he lived in the 3rdC AD, he also accepts the Roman constellation of the ‘Scales’.

This.. is how it should be understood. They [the twelve zodiacal figures and five planets] are drawn from the Five Worlds of Darkness, are bound in the Sphere, and are taken for each world. The Twins and the Archer belong to the world of Smoke, which is the Mind; Also, the Ram and the Lion belong to the World of Fire. The Bull, the Water-bearer, and he Scales belong to the World of Wind,  The Crab and the Virgin and the Fish belong to the world of Water; the Goat-horn and the Scorpion belong to the World of Darkness. These are the twelve archons of wickedness, for it is they who commit every evil in the world, either in the tree [ule?] or in the flesh.  Hermes belongs to the world of Water, while Kronos belongs to the World of Darkness.  The two Ascendants [anabibazontes][9] belong to fire and lust, which are dryness and moisture, they are the father and mother of all these things. ..

(detail) folio 77r – modified.


[note – 1/11/2016 –  researchers should be aware that Pin Yin romanisation was made the international standard in 1982, but that earlier research in English generally used the Wade-Giles romanisation e.g.  ‘Da Quin’ or ‘Daquin’; Pin Yin form is “Daqin”]



[1] Letter of Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk Khan, Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City, Inv. no. Reg. Vat., 21, ff. 107 v. – 108 r.

[2] “Of the Iranian people in Central Asia, it was especially the Parthians and Sogdians who were open both to Christianity in its Nestorian form and to its Gnostic Manichaean offshoot. Though regarded as a heresy by Christians, it [i.e. Manichaeism] understood itself as a fulfillment of the Christian message”. Hans-J. Klimkeit, ‘Christians, Buddhists and Manichaeans in Medieval Central Asia’, Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 1 (1981), pp. 46-50.

[3] “Superficially Buddhist modes of spiritual practice were all right, as long as they were conducted within the official safeguards and correct interpretation of Mani and his later hierarchical successors”. David A. Scott, ‘Manichaean Views of Buddhism’, History of Religions, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Nov., 1985), pp. 99-115.  Thus in the ‘Great Hymn to Mani’ we find: “We, the miserable sentient beings . . came to see the Buddha-like Sun- God [i.e.,Jesus], equal to thee. Bound in fetters, enduring pain, we remain in this samsara..” ibid. p.49.

[4] from: William Woodville Rockhill (ed. and trans.), The journey of William of Rubruck to the eastern parts of the world, 1253-55, as narrated by himself, with two accounts of the earlier journey of John of Pian de Carpine, London: Hakluyt Society, 1900. Chapter XIII. (available online through the Silk Road Seattle site.)

[5] ‘as their ancestors had been’ – emphasis by the present writer.  passage quoted from Samuel N. C. Lieu, ‘Nestorians and Manichaeans on the South China Coast’, Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 71-88.

[6] Aramaic Tauma (תאומא), from which is also derived the name of the apostle Thomas.

[7] ‘as Forte is at pains to demonstrate, before 745 Christianity was always known as ‘Bose jiao’, “the Persian teaching”  but thereafter it became ‘Da Quin Jiao’, adopting a geographical term already centuries old used to label our classical world of Greece and Rome as it appeared to Chinese eyes‘. T. H. Barrett, ‘Buddhism, Taoism and the Eighth-Century Chinese Term for Christianity: A Response to Recent Work by A. Forte and Others’,  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, [BSOAS] University of London, Vol.65, No. 3 (2002), pp. 555-560. (p.556)

[8] detail from an image from the Ming Dynasty encyclopedia Sancai Tuhui (The caption reads: The Country of Da Qin, is where western businessmen are gathering. The king wraps his head by cloth in pyramid shape. This land produces coral, gold, brocade with pattern, silk cloth (without pattern), pearls, etc.  The description appears to rely on earlier accounts describing Persia and Parthia, as the wiki author notes in the article ‘Daqin‘, from which I have the copy.

[9] “The anabibazontes are actually quite sober astronomical constructs which have become demonized. Anabibazon is the technical term for the ascending
node of the moon’s orbit. Its complementary twin, as it were, is the descending node, katabibazon. In fashioning their additional celestial evil-doers, the Manichees took the first of the pair and duplicated it. Thus we find two “uppers” and no “downer”. Roger Beck, ‘The Anabibazontes in the Manichaean Kephalaia’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 69 (1987), pp. 193-196. (p.

map Manichaean phases marked 3rd-17thC

Europeans east of Jerusalem

This seems a good place for a glimpse of  Europeans presence in the east before and during the period of Mongol rule (Yuan dynasty).  I derive much of the information from Jean Richard’s essay, from the Silk Road Seattle site and from the magnificent Cathay and the way thither.. by Henry Yule and Heni Cordier (eds). Volume 1; Volume 2; Volume 3; Volume 4.


According to just one source – the Sirafi, Abu Zayd –  there was a large and well-established foreign community in Guangzhou ‘Zaiton’/’Zayton’) by the 9thC, numbering according to him 300,000 and by modern writers as more than a hundred thousand. Their number included Jews, Christians, Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs, Muslim and Zoroastrian Persians. The entire community was massacred in 879 AD.

Also in the 9thC, Alfred the Great of England is recorded as having sent an emissary to the tomb of St. Thomas in India, though more recent scholars dispute that the emissary travelled so far.   It is true that the bones of St.Thomas (or most of them) had earlier been taken from southern India to Mesopotamia, and then to Syria and (allegedly) even to the island of Chios, so fetching the relic may have required a shorter journey.  Definitions of ‘India’ were more flexible in earlier times, and even speakers of Arabic spoke of lower Mesopotamia as “nearer India”.

Next, we have a legend that one “Bernard the Penitent” of Languedoc (d. 1182) had visited St.Thomas’ tomb in India, but the  circumstances of his life, character and the reason for this travels, together with an absence of solid evidence permit doubt.

13thC (Yuan/Mongol period)

By the early thirteenth century we are on surer ground.

Before 1217, Henry of Morungen had been to India (almost certainly our ‘India’) returning with a relic of St.Thomas  which he presented to a newly established monastery-school in Leipzig before entering the same school as a monk. He died five years later.   His character accords well with Baresch’s description of the “virum bonem”, for  Henry had been a career solider and was awarded a small pension by the  Margrave of Meissen “alta suae vitae merita.” He gave the money to the same school.

A  pontifical letter of 1267 mentions a Dominican Vasinpace as having  travelled “to the lands of the Indians and the Ethiopians”.

The evidence improves from the last quarter of the thirteenth century,  though the writers were less high-minded: mercenaries, crusaders of the worst type and  merchants make most of their number. The  Catalan, Jourdain of Séverac  (1280 ca.- after 1330) travelled to the east but there his aim was less to serve as a humble friar than a new Genghis Khan, a would-be strategist and military general  launching a war of extermination.  He does at least tell us there were numerous Latin merchants in the Persian Gulf by that time:   multi mercatores latini venerunt, dicentes se fuisse presentes and he names one  Genoese, a certain Jacopo, who agreed to carry a letter to Tabriz.

Three more writers from that mould, Guillaume Adam, Raymond Etienne and Renaud  (Reynald) of Châtillon display religious fanaticism with relish for murder, though the last enjoyed bloodshed and rapine to a degree that overrode religious ideas.  His inclinations  were indulged first in Cyprus, then in Mesopotamia and finally in the lands bounding the Red Sea.  ‘Nobles’ in the technical sense, and certainly literate, none of these is easily imagined  taking an intelligent interest in the astronomical or botanical knowledge of foreign peoples.  Still, it’s not entirely impossible that someone associated with them brought the content now in Beienecke 408 to wherever it was copied in the early fifteenth century.

Adam had commended  Genoese already resident in the east to the Pope as potential pirate-crusaders, describing them as “the best sailors and most avaricious in the pursuit of gain.”  Nor was he mistaken – exactly – but he underestimated their practicality.  One Antonio Reccana, being provided a couple of galleys and told to go and attack the ‘Saracen’ soon found that sword-waving and looting were not the easiest way to turn a profit.  He turned the galleys into his private fleet of merchantmen and continued, as before, to profit by maintaining good relations with suppliers and other traders in that region.

John of Montecorvino stands out as a person of exceptional quality. A former member of the Sicilian court, he was well received in China though was left very isolated and without regular contact with Europe.  Were the content of the Voynich manuscript something sent to the west by him, or by some other traveller,  one could imagine that the script might well present as a hybrid of Latin alphabet and glyphs as simpler versions of what were termed Chinese ‘hieroglyphs’ . In the same way, one might imagine Odoric of Pordenone, or John of Marignoli bringing back useful information  – but please don’t confuse this  for a ‘Voynich theory’.

I’ve already noted, some years ago, that the red characters on folio 1r look to me as if they attempt to copy forms originally written with a brush –  and perhaps a vermillion brush, and that one would even work as a rebus for “Montecorvino” – as name-seals do in Asia.    As far as I can discover, no previous Voynich writer had suggested these things, and none took up the same line of investigation for some years after – again so far as I know. At one stage, on mentioning the eastern missionaries again, I was accused of ‘trying to get on a bandwagon’ so it appears that the point had arisen again though nothing much followed my reposting my earlier survey.

Today I see that Rene’s Zandbergen’s site ( dated “2004-2016”) includes  an assertion that the red characters look like a Chinese “book title” and that some person (unnamed and uncredited) has a “theory” that the Voynich manuscript’s “author” is an (unspecified) missionary  to China. I should have liked a little more detail , but Zandbergen gives no reference or credit for it, and the site permits no comment or query, so all I can say is that whoever that unnamed ‘theory’ holder is, it isn’t me.  I find that theories about any imagined  “author” waste everyone’s time, including the proponent’s, and have never yet helped explain a single image in the manuscript.

red letters folio 1r

coin Kentoripai Sicily 4thC BC
coin of Kentauripe, Sicily, 4thC BC


Finally, two tombstones, both of Italians who died in China before 1438.  One is dedicated to an Italian girl named Katherine   Katarina Vilioni (d.1342); the other has been said the tombstone of a Franciscan, Andrew of Perugia. (d.1332). Both are illustrated in the Babelstone blog, “Christian Tombstones of Zayton”(look it up online – the hotlink failed) Post is dated 25th November 2006.  The second stone contains a mysterious script, raising the interesting possibility that foreigners in China used a script which had been invented – and without any link to those of the different religious traditions, as would  be the case for use of Latin script, or Hebrew, or Arabic, Syriac, Greek or Avestan.

details and commentary see the ‘Babelstone’ blogpost (linked above)

Clear vision (and folio 5v, cont.5)

folio 5v all

[shortened – 21/10/2016]

I thought readers might be curious to know how, since I date to about the 2ndC BC the first enunciation of most botanical images in Beinecke 408, and they have bewildered everyone since 1912,  I can suppose they were understood in medieval Latin Europe when our manuscript was made. They were not understood in the seventeenth century [1] and are not now – so why should any fifteenth-century Latin have understood them better, or valued them enough to bother copying them onto vellum; why would he not use as his exemplar some Latin work whose pictures were more intelligible.

First, I do not think there are any Latin plant-books with this manuscript’s range or series, nor any that use the style of construction used here, and there is no indication that the Voynich botanical imagery’s content, any more than its style, derives from the Latin herbals.  So rarity alone might explain its being copied. If memory remained of when the pictures were first formed, reverence for the antique might also explain it. [2]

I would expect that  so long as someone had first explained the imagery to a medieval Latin the very practical purpose of these pictures would assure ready apprehension by any whose  lives and occupations made them familiar with the same practical and technical matter.  The barrier to understanding  is less the pictures’ subject matter than their having been first formed in a very different culture, and while a different set of practices governed the way information was expressed in graphic form: what we call generically, “stylistics”.

To illustrate  how the gulf might be bridged, and the manuscript’s content valued thereafter, I will  suppose that the picture on folio 5v – whose theme is “protection for the ship” – was known to a particular  group of thirteenth-century Genoese and explained to them.

These were  not  scholars nor scribes nor missionaries nor aristocrats, but shipwrights and mercenaries invited to Baghdad in 1290 AD, to assist the Il-Khan Arghun in his projected war against the Mamluks of Egypt. Below, an example of the coin in which they may have been paid.[3]

coin. Dirham minted in Tabriz for Arghun. 1284-1291.

Seven hundred of those Genoese went directly to Baghdad, but two hundred stopped at Mosul, where they spent the winter building two sea-going ships. If any Latins were in a position to appreciate folio 5v, then, it would be they. “Protection of the ship” was something they understood at many levels.

Noah the timber-getter. From Vézelay. 11th-12thC.

That isn’t the only reason I take these Genoese as example.  There, in Mesopotamia, and just a century before,  a Yemeni artist had produced botanical images using conventions for some of the plants’ roots that are closely akin to those employed for some stylized roots in the Voynich manuscript.  As I’ve constantly said, the Voynich root-mnemonics (or ‘pictorial annotations’) appear to have been mostly added during the third chronological phase (i.e.  c.1150 -).

Mashad and fol 46r


I’ve treated the point in earlier posts, but above are shown again two of the comparative illustrations. If readers notice any other Voynich sites repeating the same,  and referring to the Mashad Dioscorides in this context,[4]  I’d be obliged for the information; some are evidently vague about the line between plagiarism and fair use.

And, finally, I’ve chosen the Genoese shipwrights because they served a Mongol ruler, and the ‘Mongol century’ sees the  last substantial additions made to the matter now in Beinecke MS 408. (I am in all this excluding the text’s written part, since we do not know when it was first composed).

Below, a detail from the manuscript shows a figure dressed in a Mongol costume – as earlier explained and illustrated: here and with historical context here.  (Again, I am obliged to mention that this original observation and discussion may be found on other sites, without proper acknowledgement of the source). [5]

(detail)  Yale folation: folio 85v-1; new Beinecke foliation: “85r (part) 86v (part) (part of 85-86).”

As we’ve said, the single theme informing folio 5v  may be expressed as “protection of the ship”, but the cue to that theme, the Dioscuri as pictured here, would have been an emblem as obscure to those Genoese as to any who’ve seen the folio since 1912.  Hellenistic ideas about the Dioskuri were not transmitted through medieval Latin culture and a majority of those currently attempting to explain the imagery look no further.

They might have known the legend of Dioskurias’ founding, however,  thanks to Isidore, and some may even have known the place.  It was thirty years since the Treaty of Nymphaeum gave Genoa leave to establish trading ‘colonies’ in the Black Sea, and if the local name for Dioskuras was then, as it is now, Sokhumi: “Yoke Elm“,  that link between the town, the tree and the Dioscuri would have been intelligible – had the elements informing the image been explained to them.[6]

Already the Genoese  had a presence in Trebizond, next to the Colchian lowland where the Sokhumi or ‘Yoke Elm’ is naturally abundant and occurs together with the Field Elm (Ulmus minor), [7] both woods being familiar and much sought after by shipwrights of the Mediterranean and, in my opinion, the chief reference of the botanical image on folio 5v.[8]

Modern taxonomic description has the Yoke Elm (Carpinus betulus) a member of  the beech family, but in earlier times it was perceived as an elm, and since this older perception informs folio 5v,  I’ll use the older term. [9]

Its open habit and its low-growing and slender limbs are here taken to define the group:

folio 5v all


The original enunciator, as is usual,  paid closest attention to the plant’s habit, and then to its leaves and petioles, and notes accurately as ever whether these occur  alternate, opposite, or both.  His familiarity with the tree is clear; one detail even captures nicely the way new leaves of the Yoke elm can appear like drooping wings.  The serrated leaves are right, as you’d expect, and are a characteristic in common with the Field Elm (Ulmus minor).


Quite unlike the  habit of Latins, medieval or modern, and unlike herbals derived from  the Dioscoridan lineage, imagery  in the Voynich botanical folios consists of a group of plants related by proximity in habitat, having comparable and complementary uses, and does not regard the flower as definitive (save for the anomalous folio 9v).

The flower may be omitted, or represented by some regional, conventional, stylized form. [10] It was enough for the first enunciator that those of his own time and community could recognise the reference – one cannot suppose he expected it to be read more than two millennia later, and half a world away. The flowers, in this case, are presented almost poetically, and both may indeed be fairly described as “starry”.[11]


For most carpenters and woodworkers, the timber of the Yoke Elm is near-useless, intensely hard and difficult to work.[12] For the shipwright, though, its  short dowel and  straight pegs were invaluable.[13]

The iron-hard wood made fire-sticks from which new fire could be  produced by friction after period of rough weather –  when all flamfol 5v detail fire stickses were  extinguished. A similar use, as we’ve seen, made the elm valuable.[14]  Yoke-elm  pegs served to fix the planks of a deck.[15]  Metal nails will shrink  expand and rust and loosen, but these were hard as iron and very stable.  For rowlock pins,  pegs to hold rigging tight and even for gear-pins, there were was nothing better. [16] And idle shipmen might carve them into chess-pieces in lieu of ivory.[17]

The Field Elm (Ulmus minor) was another hard wood too, but one having other qualities. Where the other was notoriously rigid, this was pliable. Its  resistance to water decay is exceptional and sees it still used today, as anciently,  for underwater piles, water-pipes and barrels.[18] It is a timber which positively likes to be kept wet and (I’ve checked) it doesn’t mind salt in the water.

Timber from U.minor was recommended for exactly the sort of tools needed by those Genoese workmen in thirteenth century Mosul. It was recommended for levers and for mallets, and to make the handles of tools constantly in use.[19]  Unlike timber from C. betulus, it could be turned on the lathe and in addition it served for the bows – and the stocks of those crossbows for which the Genoese were already famous,[20] not only as wielders but as manufacturers.[21]

Bows and crossbows have an immemorial association with the ship and were its quintessential ‘protection’, not only against human beings but because birds which perched on the deck or rigging could be brought down and used to provide fresh meat.

This connection between the bowman, the ship, its crew and cargo, would have seemed “common sense” and inevitable to the Genoese and was a near-symbiotic relationship that survived no less than six millennia in the Mediterranean world. The two elms – the rigid and the bending – were part of that tradition for millennia.

The Voynich manuscript includes one rare illustration of that relationship.

The type of crossbow given the Voynich archer is evidently one designed specifically for use at sea; it included a roll-lock  inserted into the top of the stock, and is a type of bow so rarely attested that at present archaeology has produced only two late examples.  There may be other representations in medieval manuscripts, but they have passed unnoticed, as this in Beinecke MS 408 had been until recently, memory of the type having been all but lost to history.


Before the Padre Island finds, [22] we had no reason to suspect the existence of such a type, and before I wrote on the subject,[23] it had not been brought to the attention of Voynich studies.  I regret that the person who did first notice the point of the archer’s hands is determined to remain anonymous [24] and I am obliged to have others credit my published work rather than his observation.  Whether any other manuscripts made in Europe contain more images of such bows must wait on some researcher’s willingness to investigate. At present its earliest use is unknown.

Nor do we know what timbers the Genoese used in Mosul, but had the image on folio 5v been shown and then explained to them, including the significance of each ‘pictorial annotation’, they would surely have understood the parts and the reasoning of the whole.

In the region around Mosul no suitable timber is found for ship-building, something that led  Richard to speculate [25] that the Genoese brought the timber with them from further west – in which case they would have had cedar and fir.  But that abundant source for the two elm(s) lay no further  north than did the Mediterranean coast to the west, and since the Colchian lowland was already under Mongol control,  Arghun could have had delivered to Mosul whatever timber the Genoese preferred.  From the north a road began in Tanais,  passed through Dioskurias by the Colchian lowlands,  and thence south towards Mosul.  So in either case, cartage was possible.

The obvious question, though, is:   “If Mosul offered no natural supply of ship-building timbers, and was  further from the sea than Baghdad, why did the Genoese stop there to build their ships?”  To which the answer is, once more,   …. “protection of the ship”.

Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…  and a hull painted with bitumen deterred the teredo.[26]

fol 5v foot detail


NOTES: see following post.


Clear vision cont 5 – notes

note to second ‘update’ – The local internet (wifi) has been dropping out each 20 seconds for the past week..yes, it could have led to a revolution, but fortunately we have DVDs.  The effect on this post was to have some key-strokes register, and not others, to mash formatting and my desktop .. you can imagine.  The men who came carrying cable say it will solve the problem.🙂

[1] ‘They were not understood in the seventeenth century…’  Thus Baresch, enlisting Kircher’s help to identify the script, “the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany”(Letter dated 27th of April, 1639. PUG 557 f. 353rv).  Transcription, translation  by Philip Neal).  Edith Sherwood sums up the impressions of most since 1912 and how the images seem so very alien:  ” to have fantastic and eccentric characteristics”.  If they had been invented by any fifteenth century Latin in Europe, the one might say that Dali was twice-born. But it is only the expectation that they will be of  medieval European origin, and Dioscoridan in style which creates that impression. Edith Sherwood’s treatment of folio 5v is  here.

[2] ‘reverence for the antique might also explain it‘.   I think that in fact the content in Beinecke MS 408 was valued because the information it contains was valuable – valuable enough for it not to be widely shared.   Entire nations made their wealth by having access to the routes and goods, produced east of the Caspian, or of Suez, and such (with a map and technical information pertaining to navigation and to provisions and maintenance of ship or caravan) appears to me to form the whole subject of its various sections.

[3] ‘the coin in which they may have been paid‘. Dirham Tabriz mint.  Genose had a place assigned them in Tabriz by this time.  After 1335, relations with the Ilkhanate broke down, altering the eastern routes to which Europeans had access.  see Patrick Wing, ‘Rich in Goods and Abounding in Wealth’ in Judith Pfeiffer (ed.), Politics, Patronage and the Transmission of Knowledge in 13th – 15th Century Tabriz, Brill, 2013 ( pp.300-320). For the Genoese in Mosul and Baghdad: Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Syriacum. In the  edition by  Bruns and Kirsch, vol. I, p. 620. John of Winterthur, ‘Chronicon..’, in Archiv fiir schweizerische Geschichte XI, p. 52: ” Dum multi Christicole in Baldach civitate maritima… etc.”  Perhaps Montecorvino had travelled to Baghdad in their convoy, since he writes of departing the following year – with the opening of the sailing season –  from Persia, bound for India.

[4] ‘referring to the Mashad Diocorides in this context..’  I refer to ‘Botanical: Habit and Habitat – waterplants and (19th. December, 2013), which isn’t the first but perhaps the most useful instance.  Shortly after the Mashad Dioscorides was made Ibn Jubayr passed (May 14th – June 11th., 1184)  through Mosul. He describes its oil and bitumen .. and pomegranates.  The passage not easily found in English translation, but is in Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes Vol 1. (2012).  The Arabic text, with Wright’s commentary and Introduction, and Goeje’s revisions, is at the internet archive here.  Broadhurst’s translation, first published in the 1950s, is still cited.

[5] ‘ figure dressed in Mongol costume..  source’.   ‘Thundering jackets and fleur de lys‘, (Jan. 15th., 2015) – first mention of this in Voynich studies to my knowledge, though do leave a comment if you know an earlier..

[6] Sokhumi: “Yoke Elm“..   Caprinus betulus is also called  Hornbeam or  “Ironwood”. Some sources translate Sokhumi vas ‘Beech’. For the older ‘Yoke elm” see e.g. Encyclopaedia Perthensis; Or Universal Dictionary of the Arts …, (1816), Volume 23, p.364.

[7] ‘ Yoke Elm (C. betulus) with U. Minor abundant ..’   These maps show the present range, believed wider in classical times.


maps (upper) from G. Caudullo, D. de Rigo, ‘Ulmus – elms in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats’ in European Atlas of Forest Tree Species.
(lower) from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

In case the folio 5v’s written text refers to sources for the plants, I might add that tthe Colchian lowlands is an important backdrop to actions of the Dioscuri in Homer’s Odyssey and references by Roman writers.  The lowlands are watered by two rivers, one the Phasis (mod. Rioni) and the other the Akampsis (mod. Chorokhi. Classical Athens relied heavily on Amphipolis (Thucydides,  Histories 4:108).

[8] ‘ both woods familiar to  shipwrights of the Mediterranean‘.  Mediterranean shipbuilders preferred to use elm for the shearwater  – and  see other notes here.  Current uses include ship blocks and strop blocks.  It was a tradition through the Italian peninsula, and perhaps in Greece, to grow grape vines over U.minor – which would have added depth to that identification (in the Samothracian cult) of Polydeuces with Liber, for Liber is normally taken as a type for Dionysos.

[9] ‘..but in earlier times it was perceived as an elm‘.   I might also mention here the ‘Hop Hornbeam’ (Ostrya carpinifolia Scop. ) which might be mentioned by the text on folio 5v.  Two Roman wrecks have shown that this other hornbeam was used for cabin door-frame.   See: Laura Sadori,   ‘Archaeobotany in Italian ancient Roman harbours’, [in press] to appear in the Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology.  In the Mediterraenan, fir and silver fir were generally preferred for hulls.  The classical texts are gathered in  Lukas Thommen, An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome, CUP (2012) p.39-40. in Mediterranean, by Greeks and Romans. Leo Weiner refers to it in connection with medieval European laws. See Leo Weiner, Commentary to the Germanic Laws and Medieval Documents, pp.109-10.   (the ‘Hop Hornbeam’) it was very likely referenced by the image, and may be by the accompanying text.  Two Roman wrecks show O.carpinifolia was used for cabin door-frames.  In the 5thC BC,  speaks of Amphipolis as a chief source for the Athenians’ timber, and of the alarm felt in Athens when Sparta took that Thracian harbour town. Fir and Silver fir were chiefly used for hulls where they could be obtained.  For the classical texts see

[10] ‘The flower may be omitted, or represented by some regional, conventional, stylized form‘.  Failure to realise this has led to a number of false steps in Voynich studies. Hugh O’Neill’s imagining sunflowers the subject  of f.33v 93r has had lasting repercussions. (for the opportunity to correct this point, and avoid causing others further false steps, I am very much indebted to “L” who, in his own words, ‘came for a giggle but stayed to follow”.

[11] The flowers… “starry”.  The catkins of C. betulus are pendulent; I have turned them upright to explain a perceived similarity to the flowers of U. minor; flowers in the Voynich botanical folios are regularly upturned, so I do not great violence to the original enunciator’s habit. I’ve used the layman’s description of the leaves as ‘serrated’;  formal description would say they have itoothed margins.

[12] ‘..timber of the Yoke Elm is near-useless, intensely hard and difficult to work‘. Modern techniques reduce this difficulty, but historical sources all say the same, the Wood Database saying that “overall, Hornbeam is considered difficult to work on account of its density and toughness” and “.. rated as non-durable to perishable in regards to decay resistance, and is also susceptible to insect attack.. but has excellent resistance to wear and abrasion“. It can be turned on a modern lathe.

[13] “For the shipwright, though, its  short dowel and  straight pegs were invaluable”... these short dowels or pegs being called ‘treenails’ though not only used in that way.

[14] ‘Fire sticks made the elm valuable‘. See note to previous post.

[15] ‘... pegs served to fix the planks of a deck‘.  See Frederick M. Hocker and Cheryl A. Ward (eds.), The Philosophy of Shipbuilding: Conceptual Approaches to the Study of Wooden Ships (2004).  Also Christer Westerdahl, “Treenails and History: A maritime archaeological hypothesis”,  Archaeology and Environment, No. 4 (1985) pp.395-414 (Dept. of Archaeology, Umeå university). Writing in 1939, Moreland thought treenails a typically European custom. More recently, Westerdahl sees treenails between planking as distinctly Slavonic. W. H. Moreland,  ‘The Ships of the Arabian Sea about A.D. 1500’ The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (Apr., 1939), pp 79  and pp173-192.   I am not sure that we are intended to see an awl or chisel and some wooden nails within the image of Polydeuces’ hand but just in case, here’s the general idea.


[16] ‘For rowlock pins,  pegs to hold rigging tight and even for gear-pins ...’  See ‘Mittelzeit’, a blogger blog, ”Hornbeams’ (January 20th., 2009). Other woods were used, of couse.  A wide range of timbers has been identified in the galleys in the old Theodosian harbour at Byzantium/Istanbul (the harbour’s name is now Yenikapi; Ottoman period Vlanga).  The galleys date from the third quarter of the 4thC AD.  pdf  (here).   Ünal Akkemik, and  Ufuk Kocabaş, ‘Woods of the Old Galleys of Yenikapi, Istanbul’, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 13, No 2 (2013), pp. 31-41. The authors conclude that.. the [Byzantine] trade ships were built by using mainly oak and chestnut trees.”The authors use the older description for the Field Elm – Ulmus campestris – but U.minor is now usual.

[17] And idle shipmen might carve them into chess-pieces in lieu of ivory… sorry, I’ve misplaced my  note about this point. When it turns up, I’ll add a note in the ‘comments’.

[18] ‘..resistance to water decay is exceptional and … used .. for underwater piles, water-pipes and barrels’. G. Caudullo, D. de Rigo, Ulmus – elms in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats; the footnotes citing P. S. Savill, The silviculture of trees used in British forestry (CABI, 2013) and  A. Praciak, et al., The CABI encyclopedia of forest trees (CABI, 2013) but the fact is everywhere noted. Somewhat surprising is the elm keel of an eleventh-century ship, one of the earliest frame-built ships.  It is known as the Serçe Limani wreck, its resting dated to 1025 AD.  Treenails and   iron nails were used in its construction. See Hockey and Ward., op.cit. p.124.

[19] ‘recommended for levers and for mallets, and to make the handles of tools…’.

[20] ‘in addition it served for the bows – and the stocks of those crossbows ..‘  Elm for ordinary bows is well known. As that preferred for the crossbow-stock see  Hunt Janin, Ursula Carlson, Mercenaries in Medieval and Renaissance Europe,(2013)  p.37.  15,000 Genoese crossbowmen were on the field at Agincourt in 1415 within the radiocarbon range for the Voynich manuscript.  They were a well-known sight at the time. Most other naval crossbows preferred yew.  See ‘Iberia etc‘, (December 6th., 2015).

[21] “..qualities of the elm..”  Caudullo and de Rigo op.cit. “a source of good-quality wood, easy to work and used for furniture ,flooring and as firewood.. except U.laevis.”

[22] ‘.. Before the Padre Island finds ..’  The bow’s mechanism well illustrated in  J. Barto Arnold, III, David R. Watson and Donald H. Keith, ‘ The Padre Island Crossbows’, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1995), pp. 4-19 and bibliography.

[23] ‘before I wrote on the subject ..‘. While hunting the first recorded instance of a crossbowman’s being called  ‘Sagitario/Sagittario’ –  ‘Ballisterios’ (and variations) having been the usual form, a former colleague got in touch and offered the first coherent explanation for the crossbow’s form, wooden stock, and otherwise inexplicable position of archer’s right hand, none of which Jens Sensfelder or anyone else had an explanation for.  I posted the information then in D.N. O’Donovan,  ‘f.73v: The word thank you Sancho Panza’, (August 1st., 2015).

[24] ‘…  determined to remain anonymous ..’  I hope this may change, one day.

[25] ‘No suitable timber in Mosul.. led Richard to speculate..’  Jean Richard, ‘European Voyages in the Indian Ocean and Caspian Sea (12th-15th Centuries)’, Iran, Vol. 6 (1968), pp. 45-52.   I am much indebted to Richard’s seminal paper on this subject.

[26] ‘ Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…‘ Using pitch, tar/bitumen to waterproof a hull is as old as the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in Jewish law: Noah is told “Make for yourself an ark ..  make compartments in the ark and cover it with tar [=pitch] inside and outside”.  Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and  from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians would have known the deposits of Mosul (ancient Nineveh).  Herodotus (Bk.1, 179) describes a fountain of pitch in Babylon in lower Mesopotamia and, later, Eratosthenes (as reported by Plutarch Alexander, 35) did the same.   It occurs  in Mosul in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur. On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19.

The British Museum in 2010 reported a project underway to research  tars and pitches used in medieval European boats and ships and noted of one ship which came to rest in Newport in Wales during the second half of the fifteenth century had “associated finds suggest[-ing] contacts with the Iberian peninsula”.

On other materials used with pitch, and on vegetable pitch (for which beech was one preferred wood) see Andrew N. Sherwood, Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook: Annotated Translations of Greek …  p.341, and H. Michell, The Economics of Ancient Greece (2014) p.201.  For the staggering quantities of trees and timber needed to maintain the Greek fleet, see  statistics  in Eugene N. Borza, ‘Timber and Politics in the Ancient World: Macedon and the Greeks’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 131, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 32-52.

Header picture: detail from an Attic vase (800-725BC.)



This post will go up under date of completion, not of publication.

Clear vision (cont.-4)

[dropped text re-inserted 16/10/2106]

Between treating knowledge of the Dioscuri in the Persian Gulf, early in the early Hellenistic period, and the presence of Latins in Dioskurias and the Gulf during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, I must pause to make it clear that  the image on folio 5v cannot have been the invention of a medieval Latin author.

Some readers I know will wonder why  a point so obvious should need a post to itself, but in Voynich studies one finds a curious divide between the way the written part of the text is approached, as against the pictorial.  Statements made about the one are typically  analytical, careful and the processes and conclusions both transparent and appropriately documented; about the latter, not.   Glance over bibliographies and footnotes and the omissions one finds in studies of the imagery, and in efforts to construct a  ‘history’ for the manuscript are obvious enough.

Perhaps the explanation is that many on both sides of the divide share a popular misconception that commentary on an image is largely drawn from gut-reaction. In fact, in the wider world,  it comes  from thought, from reading monographs, ancillary technical studies, fundamental texts and specialist papers, from conferences, formal training and quite a lot of practical experience. Whether the line of history is drawn as letters or as an image, it is a means of communication from a time that is not our time, expressed in forms that are not those of the 21stC.  The intentions of the original cannot be intuited nor understood by using nothing but eyesight and ‘common sense’.

The next post shows how each detail in folio 5v relates to the plants, their uses, and that unifying theme of the ship’s protection.

Then, at last,  to the Genoese  in the Persian Gulf during the thirteenth century AD and in Dioskurias by the fourteenth.  As preview – the arms of the city now on the site of old Dioskurias.



folio 5v allThe Dioscuri are represented in folio 5v in a way which informs us that the image it is not the brain-child of any medieval Latin.  Nor is its form here so likely to have been an expression of  the Roman world.  With the end of the Seleucid kingdom and the dominance of Rome in the Mediterranean, the Dioscuri ceased to be envisaged as patrons of the merchant-trader [1] and the shipman, and became primarily patrons of the horsemen.

Fresco. ‘House of the Dioscuri‘ Pompei (before 79 AD).

The Romans emphasised that character, generally adopting the iconography of  cult-centres in southern Italy, Sicily and Sparta, while chiefly referring to the pair as patrons of the Roman circus’ chariot-races. Castor, the revivified human brother, eclipsed Polydeuces who had been divine to the Greeks, though Polydeuces’ being the ‘bending one’ is occasionally reflected in the imagery.

(detail) sculpture attributed to Roman workmanship 1stC BC

Isidore of Seville inherited the Romans’ view and even knew a version of Dioskurias’ founding myth –  which meant it was known to a great many of the literate in  medieval Europe:

“Amphitus and Cercius, the charioteers of Castor and Pollux, constructed Dioscoria, the city of the Colchians, naming it after their name, for Castor and Pollux in Greek are called the Dioskouri” – and he wrote that word in Greek: Διóσκουρι.

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae XV.i. 40

Medieval Europe maintained the astronomical image; they knew no other.  Of its character little was recorded.  Thus Isidore:

[The pagans] also set Castor and Pollux after their death among the most noteworthy constellations; they call this sign ‘Gemini’. Etymologiae, III.lxxi.25

and Aratus says little except that the Twins bring up the Charioteer and ..

“Beneath the head of Helice are the Twins”.

Aratus, Phaenomena §147

Latin physicians were generally antipathetic to the idea of twin births regarding them as a sign of  disease or deformity in the mother, and there is no general Christianised version of the Dioskuri.  Fortunately, the liturgical calendar included  some few – thus ensuring that twin births did not automatically result in the death of one, as happened in other parts of the world.

In folio 5v their form accords with Hellenistic style and attitude,  Polydeuces (on the left) remaining the more prominent of the two; both are given the strange, jagged hair-cut which we see on a coin of the Seleucid, Antiochus IV (r. 175 BC-164 BC) and their travellers’ hats are closer to that form than to the later Roman style.


The same,  characteristically Greek, forms appear in Sicily while its population was partly Greek and partly Phoenician.

Sicily Soloi AE 20 (3rdC BC).

By contrast, those caps, in Roman imagery, are shown in a Syrian style  often, if mistakenly, described as ‘Phrygian’.

Another interesting aspect of the image on folio 5v – one again mitigating against any Roman attribution –  is that the constellation was evidently envisaged a little differently from that in the Roman astronomical tradition which informs our own. See the second version of the composite below. (click to enlarge)


The lower star/flower [Gk: aster/asterion] which is directly below Castor’s head is then evidently meant for γ Geminorum, which star was later recalled by some writers in Arabic as having once had some character as a Bow.  [2]

In my opinion, then, the 3rd- 2ndC BC is most probable date for the earliest stratum in the manuscript’s imagery, as I said first  in 2010, and subsequent investigation of the various sections and folios has continually returned the same result. There is, of course, evidence of later phases of addition but the Hellenistic basis remains clear, and explains why we find a complete absence of Christian or of Muslim culture expressed by the forms or by the content of this imagery other than a very few, very late, and fairly superficial alterations to the original.

For a date around the 2ndC BC we may also mention that layout atypical for Latin European manuscripts but used even more often in the Voynich botanical folios than in the Anicia Juliana codex, a manuscript dating to the early 6thC AD, but whose content comes from eastern Greek sources composed between the 2ndC BC and 2ndC AD. The image being  first set down, and the text moulded around it, cannot be ascribed in these cases to any conflict between scribe and draughtsman, nor to the scribe’s being left too little room.  The page design is evidently original and just as plainly one that had been more common in the earlier centuries –  a very practical way to ensure that image and text were not wrongly matched.

Juliana Anicia Codex kentaureionfolio-8v







To argue a date before the 2ndC BC is possible, by reference to various details in other sections.  Most of these have already been mentioned but some among them are  (i)  the inclusion of an unmistakeably Egypto-Phoenician ‘bearded sun’ on folio 67v-2 ; (ii)  similarity between the Voynich ‘angel with the wand’ and  Nearchus’ medal and (iii) the form given the calendar’s feline, though the last is the least unequivocal.

For  a date later than the 2ndC BC as the earliest informing the imagery I can find little support in the internal evidence.  One might refer to Paul of Tarsus’ recording, in the 1stC AD, that a ship in which he sailed bore the ‘sign’ or figurehead of the Twin Brothers. (Acts, 28:11) – which indicates that among mariners the Twins’  older character was still remembered.   A papyrus codex from the following century, made in Alexandria, has extrapolated dimensions (the lower edge being damaged) of 280mm and 160mm, the latter exactly that of standard folios in Beinecke MS 408: [3

280-285 mm is one of the standard measures for the height of papyrus produced before the eleventh century in Egypt.  Again from the Cairo geniza a fragment of paper is said to have dimensions close to those of the ordinary folios of Beinecke MS 408.[4]

While I’ve seen no detailed study done of whether the old sizes of papyrus became those of papers produced after the eleventh century (when papyrus ceased to be produced) it may have come first with other exotics brought from Cairo, to Sicily and southern Italy:

Paper began to be used in Italy at the very end of the 11th century, first in Sicily, where the Normans followed Arab custom, and then in the northern trading cities. In the first half of the 13th century some paper was briefly made near Genoa, probably following Spanish techniques, but the major center of Italian paper manufacture developed after 1276 at Fabriano, in central Italy.[5]

Thereafter,  280mm becomes a standard dimension of Jewish manuscripts, and the Jews are noted as being among the earliest makers of paper elsewhere in Latin Europe. [6]

I do not think it unreasonable to consider the possibility – even the probability – that the matter now in Beinecke MS 408 came from exemplars that had been on paper or on papyrus before the present version was made on coarse vellum in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.

But given that the  older Hellenistic forms for, and conceptions of, the Dioscuri find scarcely[7] any echo in Christian Europe, and certainly I’ve seen no evidence for those jagged haircuts or for ‘bowed’  Polydeuces in Latin lore, so to maintain a theory of the work as a product of some medieval Christian ‘author’ must depend more on the proponent’s determination than the evidence provided by the primary document and its imagery.[8]




[1] The poet Simonides who was not properly recompensed by his patron, and who was then rescued by the Dioscuri from the building’s collapse which killed that patron, is usually said to have been rescued because his poem praised them.  It is equally likely that part of their role as patrons of the trader and traveller was to punish those attempting to default on payments promised. On Simonides see e.g.  J. H. Molyneux, ‘Simonides and the Dioscuri, Phoenix, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Autumn, 1971), pp. 197-205.
[2] Details are in Richard Hinkley Allen, Star Names, their Lore and Meaning, p.234.
[3] Papyrus 46.  The descriptions do not make clear whether they have extrapolated the dimensions and give the full folio size before losses, or whether this is the average of the folios as we have them, but the former would be expected.
Folio size is approximately 28 × 16 cm with a single column of text averaging 11.5 cm. There are between 26 and 32 lines (rows) of text per page, although both the width of the rows and the number of rows per page increase progressively. Rows of text at the bottom of each page are damaged (lacunose), with between 1–2 lines lacunose in the first quarter of the MS, 2–3 lines lacunose in the central half, and up to seven lines lacunose in the final quarter.
Compare – for its date –  a Greek papyrus of the late seventh/early eighth century AD (P.Vindobonensis G31535) which has dimensions of 285mm x 220mm.  On the latter and on contemporary technical terms relating to administration and geography see K.A. Worp, ‘Town Quarters in Greek, Roman, Byzantine and early Roman Egypt’ in Petra A. Sijpesteijn, Lennart Sundelin (eds.),  Papyrology And The History Of Early Islamic Egypt, (2004)  pp.227-271.
[4] First mentioned in the context of Voynich studies by the present writer.  For convenience, I quote from the post ‘Dimensions 160mm x 225 mm’ published here on March 6th., 2015.
… an alchemical text on rag paper from the Cairo geniza (typically 11th-13thC). The curator of the holding museum notes that its original dimensions were probably closer to the Vms’ than they are at present, the leaves having since been damaged. At present one leaf would fold to approx. 160mm, and has a width of  222 mm rather than the  225 mm which had been cited in the secondary source I cited originally.  Details of the work, including the type of hand, and translation of an alchemical recipe for silver, are included in  ‘Weights and Measures‘,  (23/07/2013).
[5] An excellent short history is offered by an article by Jonathan M. Bloom, ‘Revolution by the Ream:A History of Paper’, Saudi Aramco World, Vol.50, No. 3 (May/June 1999) pp.26-39.   The unillustrated text can be read online here.  In 1221 Frederick II decreed that any official documents put on paper would be deemed invalid.
[6] I regret having been unable to find time to locate this reference.  A cleric commented adversely on paper, which he had recently seen for the first time, and as a new material made by Jews.  His reaction was horror that one would write upon a vegetable material mixed with what he describes as old underwear.
[7] A couple of local shrines to a Christianised cult of the Dioscuri are known, but these focus, in the Roman way, on Castor the human ‘twin’ rather than on the divine Polydeuces/Pollux.  See e.g. Licia Luschi, ‘Antenati e dei Ospitali Sulle Rive del Fucino; Il Santuario di Giove e Dei Dioscuri in Località ‘S.Manno’ (Ortucchio): Note Sulle Divinità e la Continuità di Culto dalla Preistoria al Medioevo’,  Studi Classici e Orientali, Vol. 53 (2007), pp. 181-274.
[8] For the wholly Roman version of the Dioscuri being allegorised in Renaissance Italy see note to ‘The Ragged Brothers’ in  Donald Beecher, Renaissance Comedy: The Italian Masters, Volume 1 (2008)  p.275 n.2.

Clear vision (cont.3)


.. A Place called Teredon


Teredon was probably somewhere in the vicinity of modern Basra, and was an important seaport in Alexander’s day .. and the starting point for much of the exploration of the Persian Gulf region, especially that by Androsthenes in 325-323 BC.. a source with which Eratosthenes was familiar .

Duane Roller, Eratosthenes’ ‘Geography’ (p.187)

Its name surely sounded ill-omened to the first of Alexander’s men.  They had come by sea under Nearchus, a Cretan possibly of Hittite descent, –  the same Nearchus whose commemorative medallion finds so close a reflection in one of the Voynich calendar’s central emblems. [3]

(Longer term readers will be patient with this repetition; newer readers will not know it).

medallion Hellenistic celeb Nearchus voyagefol 72r-ii centre blog fairy







The effects of time and copying having left so light a mark, in this case, that even the little hillock and plant are set at the right distance from, and in the right proportion to, the main figure.  The fifteenth-century draughtsman has turned the distant palm into a little flower, but manages to convey something of the ‘biretta”s angularity, while mistaking the ridges of the lower wings for part of the garment.  What has been consciously translated is the shield of the world (imago mundi) as Achilles’ shield[4].

Its  being made a star implies  influence from a Semitic language in which the words for ‘star’ and for ‘shield’ may be rendered by the same: ‘magen’.[5]

To the residents of the land, Teredon meant only  “gift of [the god] Tir” but since it happened to be homophonous with the Greeks’ word for the ‘calamity of the sea’ the salt-water ship-worm, so the town’s name must have struck the company as  ill-omened.

fol 5v foot detail
(detail) folio 5v: the termite-worm,Gk: teredon.

For that reason, perhaps, the Greeks did not initially use it, but a direct translation of the word’s sense, thus: ‘Diridotis’.  As Alexander later began sending out parties of men to map the known world – or at least that part of it he claimed – Teredon served as an marker-point, a corner for one of  Eratosthenes “seal stones”.

Nearchus had managed a near-impossible task in taking a ship and crew into unknown waters, and unfathomed sea-bottom, under strange stars and -winds, through hostile shores and natives whose language they could not speak, to reach this place whose position the Greeks had not known save by name. But he succeeded:

“they .. anchored in the mouth of the Euphrates near a village of Babylonia, called Didotis [Teredon]; here the merchants gather together frankincense from the neighbouring country and all other sweet-smelling spices which Arabia produces.”[6]

As corner of one of the “seal stones” Teredon is noticed by the later Stabo, Plutarch, Ptolemy and Pliny etc. but Isidore does not know it, nor even the shipworm: he knows of the teredon only as an ordinary sort of woodworm, devoid of those telling ‘horns’.[7]

Pliny (2– 79AD) writes of the site in the Gulf  two generations before Claudius Ptolemy’s birth:

After Petra the country as far as Charax was inhabited by the Omani … but now it is a desert. Then there is a town on the bank of the Pasitigris named Forat, subject to the king of the Characeni ; this is resorted to by people from Petra, who make the journey from there to Charax, a distance of 12 miles by water, using the tide. But those traveling by water from the kingdom of Parthia come to the village of Teredon below the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris. The left bank is occupied by the Chaldaeans, the right bank by the Scenitae tribe of nomads. (Nat. Hist. Bk VI: xxxiii 145-6)  (pp. 447-449) [8] 

His speaking of the Omani, at this early time, reminds us that the Oman pilots and among them members of the Arabian tribe of the Azd, were to become the most famous  navigators and merchants in the eastern sea.

Such was their renown that it has been widely assumed by the Arabic-speaking scholars that Ibn Majid, an Omani “master of stars”, was another member of the Azdi, so often becoming luminaries in whatever field they engaged – though the wiki writer dates their presence to c.180–242 AD.

They [the Azdi] were the chief merchant group of Oman and Al-Ubulla, who organized a trading diaspora with settlements of Persianized Arabs on the coasts of Kirman and Makran, extending into Sindh “since the days of Ardashir”  – wiki article ‘Azd’.

From the Azdi clan came two Roman emperors Philip (204 – 249 AD) and Leo III (685 – 18 June 741) , and  (as legend has it) the last Muslim dynasty in Iberia.

A coin which was made for Philip ‘the Arab’ shows a container somewhat like the simplest of those in the Voynich manuscript’s “root and leaves” section; the similarity may be mere co-incidence.  Containers of the drum- type are immensely practical, and are still made to this day.  Philip’s was made of metal and used to collect Roman taxes, but one doubts that it was coloured red or blue.  Asian containers of such a form have been traditionally lacquered in red or black – though the Voynich manuscript avoids the pink-purple-black range of colour and habitually replaces black with blue.  The same may be the case here.  After the 3rdC AD, containers of this type with smooth straight sides and tightly-sunk lids become much rarer in the west, and even those red-coated ‘capsae’ used for carrying papyrus and scrolls are not seen in quite that form after the 1stC-2ndC AD.


containers rolled rims2What makes it unlikely that the containers shown in the Voynich manuscript’s “root-and-leaf” section  are meant for ones made in the Roman period or in the Mediterranean  –  even in Philip’s time –  is the depiction in other details of such containers set upon “knife-blade” legs.  Legs of that type are  entirely characteristic of Asia and the silk road –  along which, by the way, Seleucid coins had been ” well renowned” [9] that I have never seen an example of them outside the eastern sphere before the sixteenth century.  Within China, on the other hand, they are attested as early as the 15thC BC.  I am not suggesting that the stands pictured in the Voynich manuscript date from that time, but that where the style is unknown to the Mediterranean or Europe, it was a very longstanding habit in Asia – as was (and is) the custom of setting containers of almost any sort upon a separate, legged, base.  These things are distinctively eastern, and most of the containers pictured in that section are uniquely so.  (More illustrations in the post linked in the caption).

container blade feet
first published in post ‘In the Vicinity Pt.2‘ (8th. December 2013).

I won’t go into the history of Chinese and other Asian regions’ links to the Persian Gulf – anyone interested in the subject can find the information easily enough, the point for us being that they began before the birth of Alexander.

Alexander’s successors brought worship of the Dioscuri among their other gifts to the region. As patrons of the traveller and merchant they were literally ‘common coin’ here by the mid-second century BC.  The example below was made for the Seleucid Demetrios I (162-150BC),  minted in Ecbatana and used throughout the region.[10]


By the end of the second century BC (BC 120’s) a change was occurring as the Parthians rose in power.  Salles believed that the Greek-Macedonian presence in the region about the Gulf had been entirely superseded:

… The Seleucid authority over Babylonia and the Gulf was challenged then ousted by the Parthians who progressively took over the area, more precisely the northern end of the Gulf maritime lane: the  Characenian kingdom, whatever might have been its fluctuating relations with its Parthian suzerains, became the new owner of the east-orientated and ancient emporion of the Shatt al- Arab  known as Spasinou Charax, and kept it at least up to the end of the 2ndC AD. [11]

Recent discoveries have altered that perception.  They include an inscription and a naos t0 the Dioscuri at Tylos in Bahrain, the editors of the inscription concluding:

‘.. Characene sovereignty on Bahrain and other islands of the Gulf was simply a continuation of the Seleucid domination of these same regions’.[12]
 Within this area others again had a presence.  A settlement had existed in Bahrain from at least the 1stC BC, but probably from the 2ndC BC, occupied by a ‘colony’ from Ḥaḑramawt, from whence we also have examples of the traditional star-calendars which were recorded by Serjeant and others.   The Hadramawti are another group of pilots who are later recorded as chanting their route by the star-paths, and including allusions to legends of the stars and winds and places on the route.  The site of the former Hadramawt settlement  in Bahrain is now [13] called Khor Rorī. Ar: خور روري).
Akkadian, Aramaic and Syriac are said to influence the sedentary dialects of eastern Arabia, including Bahrani Arabic.[14]
Nearchus had called Bahrain, altogether,  “Tylos”.  Some Hellenistic Greeks called it ‘Gerrha’.
Of interest to us is that Nearchus spoke of its great number of cotton trees[15]  and (if I might again mention study of another folio),  I have identified the Arabian cotton plant (Gossypium herbaceum) as a likely component in folio 52r – this was published originally in a post to  Findings (Sunday, May 22, 2011) [16]

Below (right) is a detail from that folio showing the ‘pictorial annotation’ or mnemonic, and comparing it with an eastern Christian emblem (below, left) where the flame-shaped head and a thread of red cotton each have symbolic importance.  flame-head-and-52r

We also have a funerary stele from Hellenistic Bahrain where a master pilot is honoured, being described as kubernetes.  His name was Abidistaras (‘servant of Ištar’) [17]

Considering these regions eastward of the Mediterranean, and seeing the reality of Hellenistic and eastern interactions also  allows the question to be asked – are apparent similarities between the Voynich script and those of older Arabia or in the Greco-Bactrian region merely co-incidental, or are they pertinent?

In the second example of zabur script shown, you may notice not only the “ornate P” form we see in the Voynich script, but another character rather like one of the Voynich glyphs described as a “bench- or crossed- gallow glyph”.

script Sabaic minuscule detail drawing
Sabaic minuscule – inscription on palm leaves. Popularly known as “zabur” or “psalm script” – possibly an allusion to the chanted poems of the Yemeni/Omani pilots.



script Sabaic miniscule palm inscription
coin Bactria Menander aegis border blog
coin of Menander. Greco-Bactria.  2ndC BC

Next post… Europeans in the east before 1438AD.


NOTES – published separately


Clear vision (cont.3) NOTES


[3] Yale foliation for the figure from the Voynich manuscript is fol.72r-2  and the Beinecke is “72v-part”.
[4] Achilles’ shield … Homer’s description of the shield speaks of the stars by which orientation and time-keeping were marked: “the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also at her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of heaven- the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain and which turns round ever in one place, facing Orion, and alone never dips into the stream of Oceanus.”  There not a single zodiac constellation mentioned and Homer never knew the Romans’ 12-figure zodiac, which nineteenth-century efforts to depict the Shield constantly presumed should be included – another example of what Needham called “the ecliptic pre-conceptions of the west” and which seems near-obsessive to the wider world, and in the wider history of native astronomies.  In this case “signs”  means marker-asterisms and constellations, indicators of  changes in time and position.
[5] .. star/shield.. as an aside: this is one of a few among these central emblems in Beinecke MS 408 which present in a way reminiscent of the earliest images on western playing cards and again in details of Abraham Cresques’ worldmap, where parallel astronomical and geographic reference is embedded in the forms.  Such cards are described at first in medieval Europe (c.1377) as the chartmakers game, and said to represent the relative position of all things in the world “status mundi”.  Among the Egyptian Arabs, however (as  Burton reports in relating the story from the Alf Layla wa Layla of a slave woman who used sets of cards as aids to memory) they were termed tars Daylani: Median shields. The language of the Medes is believed by some scholars to be preserved in “the modern [Iranian] languages of Azarbaijan and Central Iran” though the few examples of its script remain undeciphered. The former Elamite capital of Susa occupied a site close to where the Nestorians patriarchal seat lay in later times, and also where the great cross-cultural medical school was established at Jundishapur, though some believe it had been a centre of that sort before the Sassanid era. The wiki article ‘Median language’ offers some references. The slave woman appears to have been envisaged in the story as a former Christian, possibly Nestorian. A seventeenth-century Swiss pastor, who looked into the history of the oldest images on card concluded (rightly or wrongly) that they had come from a ‘little Phoenician book’ and that they described the Ages of Man. We do find such a legend among fragments  recorded from  Philo of Biblos’ Phoenician History but judgement is left to the reader.
[6]  The reference in E.J Chinnock’s translation of the Anabasis (1893) has it Book 8b § xli. Note that Smith and later authors speak rather of “Diridotes’ [Diridotis] all giving the reference as Arrian, Indike xii.
[7] The Greeks call wood vermin teredo (i.e. τερηδϖν)* because they ‘eat by grinding’ (terendo edere). We call them wood-worms (termes, i.e. tarmes). XII.v.10.
[8] Pliny’s Natural History, trans. by W. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library (Vol. 2).  The Loeb edition is a parallel translation, available through the internet archive.
[9Jens Jakobsson, ‘Seleucid Empire 306-c.150BC‘, History of Iran, Iran Chamber Society (2004)
[10] the source for the image is MUSA numismatic art, where the obverse is mistakenly described as representing “Apollo seated left on omphalos, holding arrow and bow set on ground.”
[11] Jean-Francois Salles, ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and the Arab-Persian Gulf’, Topoi, Vol. 3 No.4 (1993) pp. 493-523. (pp.494-5)
[12] On Characene and the naos to the Dioscuri at Tylos.  See Paul Kosmin, ‘Rethinking the Hellenistic Gulf: the New Greek Inscription from Bahrain’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 133 (2013), pp. 61–79.
[13] Jean-Francois Salles, ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and the Arab-Persian Gulf’, Topoi, Vol. 3 No.4 (1993) pp. 493-523. (pp.494-5)
[14] Clive Holes is the authority usually cited here.  See his Dialect, Culture, and Society in Eastern Arabia: Glossary‘(2001)  and his ‘Non-Arabic Semitic elements in the Arabic dialects of eastern Arabia’ in Otto Jastrow (eds.), “Sprich doch mit deinen Knechten aramäisch, wir verstehen es!”: 60 Beiträge zur Semitistik : Festschrift für Otto Jastrow zum 60. Geburtstag (2002) pp.270-279.
[15] Nearchus is reported as saying that “in the island of Tylos, situated in the Persian Gulf, are large plantations of cotton trees, from which are manufactured clothes called sindones, a very different degrees of value, some being costly, others less expensive. The use of these is not confined to India, but extends to Arabia.”  see e.g. Harriet Crawford, Michael Rice, Traces of Paradise: The Archaeology of Bahrain, 2500 BC to 300 AD (2005) p.132.
[16] “Cotton.. folio 52r”.  The content was reprised in a later post to Voynichimagery,  ‘Mnemonics, devices and pictorial annotations‘ (August 21 st., 2016).
[17]Jean Francois Salles, ‘Achaemenid and Hellenistic Trade in the Indian Ocean’ in Julian Reade (ed.), The Indian Ocean in Antiquity (1996) pp.251-268.


Clear vision (cont-2)

folio 5v flowers

If the Dioscuri at the head of the image on f.5v were the seamens’ Saviour deities, the creature at the base was their bane.  Linnaeus called it “calamitas navium” and the  Greeks, teredon.  It is also called the ‘termite-worm’ and that is exactly how it is depicted here: half worm and half blind ant,  gripping the wood with that white ‘collar’ that is actually a pair of hard, white, thin shell “lips”.

fol 5v foot detail
the termite-worm: Gk. teredon (ship-worm)

An earlier post explained how I came to identify it, and here are two of the illustrations from that post. The creature turns brown only after exposure to the air; while alive it is soft and grey-ish.  In effect the picture on folio 5v ‘kills it’ and I daresay the Dioscuri were often urged to do the same; the teredon’s boring can render a ship’s hull below the waterline as porous as sponge, and infested ships might founder with all hands, unexpectedly, in the finest weather.  [1]

Teredo navalis

And here we come to an interesting point; another indication of the first enunciator’s environment and cast of mind.

It is evident that he knew the culture of the sea as a mariner did, and not as an urban mythographer would, for the scholars on land supposed the mariner’s greatest peril an enormous monster of some sort: a great whale,  fearful dragon, a snarling long-toothed Leviathan or a sea-serpent so enormous it could overtake a ship and pick off the crew from the open deck.


Mariners might also believe such fabulae existed, but they knew that that their greatest fear apart from storm and tempest, or being becalmed was the ‘termite-worm’ teredo navalis  which grows to no more than quarter- to a half an inch in diameter and from five to ten inches in length –  and that it does not devour the crew one at a time, but the ship itself, so that all are lost at once.  And it is the teredo which the maker pictured  ‘gnawing at the root’.

Secondly, he must have lived at a time and in a cultural environment where the Dioscuri, and not any Christian saint or single deity was invoked to protect the ship, its crew and cargo and it is difficult to imagine that being so after the 3rdC AD.  By contrast, the Dioscuri appear as the patron gods of the Seleucid  Hellenistic kingdom, whose successive members include the Dioscuri on their coins, from the first.

coin Antiochus I Dioscuri
coin Antiochus I ‘Soter’ (Seleucid). ὁ Σωτήρ “Saviour”. c. 324/3 – 261 BC; Dioscuri
Antiochos VII (138–129 BC) with_Dioscuri

Thirdly, the first enunciator  effortlessly alludes to correspondences across botanical, astronomical and cultural matter in folio 5v; but in his astronomical matter includes only practical uses for the stars; there is no hint of zodiac-and-planet focus which marks the style of astrology.

Those asterisms in Gemini called the ‘turned about’ and ‘the ell’ are astronomical, and while in medieval Europe knowledge of the lunar mansions was considered not merely arcane, but positively occult, they had been common reference even in pre-Islamic Arabia and served as the horizontal axis for the mariners navigational grid as well as naming the months of the Islamic religious year and of the old agricultural roster. [2] Only the north African mariners, whom Ibn Majid calls his brethren, offer an exception to the rule that the navigational star grid – and knowledge of how to use it – was unknown to Mediterranean mariners.  In Hellenistic times, the Phoenician or Cretan mariners might have shared that knowledge; some suggestion of it is made by the story of  Pompey’s flight, but I’ll omit details as this post will be long enough without them.

Overall, then, the indications are that the person who first enunciated the image on f.5v belonged within a distinctly Hellenistic and Greek-influenced culture, but had first-hand knowledge of the seas, and probably of the eastern seas, for a majority of the plants in the manuscript are (in my opinion) ones proper to that world.

Another level of natural ‘complement-and-opposition’ which he might have associated with the Dioscuri and  teredon was a geographic one.

In the world known to the Greeks, and even before Alexander reached the Indus, there existed  in the far north on the eastern side of the Black Sea a town reputedly founded by the Twins themselves, and so named Dioskurias.  And to the southern limit of the Seleucid kingdom, on the shore of the Great Sea,  was a market town founded first by Nebuchadrezzar and which the Greeks knew as Teredon.


Quite apart from whether the first enunciator had that geographic pair in mind, each is of interest to us: Teredon as an early market for eastern goods and as the point of embarkation for India and the far east to about the tenth century AD,  while Dioskurias not least because the Genoese had a factory there in the fourteenth century.




[1] There is a giant teredon found near Sumatra; it doesn’t live in wood as t.navalis does, but in the muddy bottom, though one doubts if foreign seamen would have trusted to that difference, even if they knew it.  For those who enjoy biology, there’s an ongoing scientific study of the teredo and the site has nice photos and diagrams. (here)

[2] According to the Yemeni/Soqotran calendar reported by Serjeant, al Han’ah marks the lunar month beginning on January 4th, save in Hadramawt, where the month begins on January 1st. The Soqotri name, he gives as Ma’ōdīf.  al-Dira’ is called in Soqotri Franzak, and begins on 17th. January.  Note that the advent of Islam saw the older lunar calendar ‘frozen’ and we may not presume to apply the same dates after c. 8th-10thC AD as were in affect before that time, when irregular intercalations were permitted.   R.B. Serjeant, ‘A Socotran star calendar’, Irvine (eds.), A Miscellany of Middle Eastern Articles.. (1988) pp. 94-100. Reproduced as Paper IV in R.B. Serjeant, Farmers and Fishermen in Arabia: studies in customary law and practice  edited by G. Rex Smith (Variorum)  (p.96)


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Clear Vision (continued)

folio 5v allI wish it were possible to explain as elegantly as the original presents it, the ground-plan with each of its details nested in it, and that  lucidity with which every part relates to every other, from that initial  ‘flash’ I’ve expressed as: “Protectors of the ship.”

We must a slower way, de cap à pied; and this post being meant to illustrate that quality of mind which is our subject, most of the original discussion of the folio is omitted, having been (as it were) exegetical.  Almost half this post is footnotes.


fol 5v detail dancerSwaying with a delicate balance on the height is a hatted figure with  lower limbs  ‘bent around’ – it is one of the Twins: the Dioscuri or Tindaridai [1] as the Greeks called them, but here the first and immortal brother Polydeuces is associated with Liber, as was done by the mysteries of Samothrace. [2] The form given the lower limbs alludes, simultaneously, to virtu in the elm, to the egg from which they were born, and to the lower of two lunar asterisms in Gemini,  which constellation is everywhere associated with these Twins. By the Arabs the same asterism is called “the bent, or turned around” as Ib Majid explains in the fifteenth century. [3]

Here too we have the first clue to the plants’ identities, for as the figure appears bow-legged [4] and as Liber “clings to the high elm” [5] so elm-wood’s being famously pliant had it sought-after by bowyers. The archer was a ship’s chief defence, and so bow and arrow another attribute of the Dioscuri.[6]  This figure’s balancing as if in a high wind,  seeming to hold fire in its hands reminds us too that Liber’s harmless ‘lightning'[7] – was ever a good omen for the storm-tossed ship, when all other lights were extinguished:

Leaping on the peaks of their well-benched ships,
brilliant from afar as you run up the fore-stays,
bringing light to the black ship
in the night of trouble.
from: Alcaeus’ Hymn to the Dioscuri, trans. Alexander Nikolaev.


Just so this flameless light is sometimes called “harbour fire” still, though we call it St.Elmo’s fire, he the patron of Formio, named Hormiae (good harbour) by the Greeks.

Another form of ‘fol 5v detail fire sticksneed fire’ comes again from the elm; made by its wood as fire-drill[8] often miscalled a ‘dowel'[9].  The figure’s hands are formed as if twirling small fire-sticks  and (though this last may be co-incidental)  are drawn overall in a way suggesting the pomegranate flower, the Phoenicians’ emblematic ‘lily’.

On folio 5v, the pair are correctly provided with their star-topped caps [10] telling us that the maker was naturally familiar with the older forms of image.  The two examples shown below are from the last phase of Hellenistic rule in the Mediterranean.

folio 5v flowers
(detail) Beinecke MS 408 fol.5v
coin of Dioskourias, Colchis c.105- 90BC.
from image uploaded by 'Uploadalt'
coin  Antiochus IV (175 BC- 164 BC)

This second century BC is also when the earliest of the eastern Greek works were written from which passages were taken and included in the  Anicia Juliana codex, where we also find a ‘template’ layout very common among botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408. (The point was discussed here.)

Distance between Gemini’s two head stars (α and β Geminorum), was taken as a standard measure by navigators of land or sea, and was reckoned an ell’s length –  that is, the length of an average clothyard shaft or a weaver’s beam: about 28 inches.   In modern terms the distance is measured as 4½ °.

Dioscuri as defenders of the ship and its cargo. (Antiochus I (324/3-261 BC)

An earlier Hellenistic coin (above) shows the Dioscuri with the arrow-shaft; its length  being approx. 30 inches, that of the Greek ‘step’, the  haploun bēma (ἁπλοῦν βῆμα), and two made the  pace.  The Arabs also called the asterism formed of α and β Geminorumal Dhira’: “the ell-length”.

In folio 5v, the relative distance between these two, and the slight difference in elevation reveals the first enunciator’s entire ease with these matters: the Greek context; Hellenistic forms; the parallel botanical, cultural and astronomical matter.   While I daresay those determined on a theory of all-Latin medieval or ~renaissance origin for these images might attempt an argument about it as an  allegorical or mnemonic construct of medieval European type, I could not begin to agree. It comes down to that ‘cast of mind’.  This image is so easily and effortlessly done. More to the point, it is so effortlessly conceived and its purpose (as we’ll see) is not literary, nor is it allegory, but absolutely and utterly practical. As a whole, the image is a sort of shopping list of products gained from the plants in this group – it’s not about the Dioscuri, but about the economic and practical worth of plants and matter associated with them. It simply happens that, for the first enunciator, the Dioscuri were the ‘second nature’ association for this diverse but related set of items, whose single theme (as we’ll see later in more detail) are materials serving to ‘protect the ship’. But it is significant that he supposed these hats as high-crowned and star-topped in a way characteristically eastern Mediterranean and Hellenistic.

folio 5v flowers

All the compositional elements I’ve mentioned  so far were part of that “ground-plan perceived in a flash” – to use Kitto’s words again. There’s nothing heavy, nothing forced or laboured in the enunciation even if, necessarily, in the present exposition. For all its complexity, the image remains simple; its design perfectly lucid. We can only be grateful that the 15thC copyists (and all before them) were so faithful to the original.

The Dioscuri were, of course, the quintessential “Protectors of the ship” having been conferred power over wind and waves:

sailors when caught in storms always direct their prayers to the deities of Samothrake (Samothrace) and attribute the appearance of the two stars [α, β Geminorum] to the epiphany of the Dioscuri.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, Book 4.43.2


… continued ….



[1] The English word ‘tinder’ may be suggested by the image so I thought I might mention that etymology evolves, like any other science. The habit of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century etymologists was to derive almost everything in English from Latin or German, but in this case the latest view is:  “Old English tynder, related to tendan “to kindle”, from Proto-Germanic *tund- “ignite, kindle.”  In other words that the German, like Dutch, Swedish or  Norse terms are related but less directly than formerly thought.

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6. 78 (trans. Rackham) : “Most people assign to India the city of Nisa and Mount Merus which his sacred to father Liber [Dionysos], this being the place from which originated the myth of the birth of Liber [Dionysos] from the thigh of Jove [Zeus].” But the Homeric hymns and other older sources show this an error. The original Liber, the first Dionysius, was Egypto-Phoenician. The first Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, dated 7th-4thC BC has:  “[Zeus] gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoinike, near the streams of Aigyptos…” Homeric Hymn 1 to Dionysus (trans. Evelyn-White). The ‘first Dionysos’ was Sabazios, or Zagreus. A good online site for the myths and sources are an excellent pair of blogposts at Spacezilotes, a wordpress blog:  “Metis Menis of Dion Ysus (A)  (15th. Feb. 2013) and  … (B), (1st. May 2014).

[3.]  ‘al-Han’a. This rises at dawn after the 221st day of the [Persian] year and it is a windy and good-omened group. It consists of stars formed like the letter n ( ن ) and it is given this name because it is bent round, i.e. its ends come together as the Arabs say hana’at, i.e. some such thing is bent or turned around, meaning that part of it is turned round towards another part. There are no well-known stars in it except one which is called al-Maisān of the third magnitude..’  Kitāb al Fawā’id.. (Tibbetts’ translation pp.88-89). In Ibn Majid’s system, according to Tibbetts,  al-Han’a consists of ε,γ,ζ,λ,δ Geminorum. (op.cit., p. 552).

[4] The term used by the Greeks of pre-Roman times is uncertain. The Roman term blaesus means “curved legs” and while its etymology derives it from the Greek βλαιiσóς, Simon and Steger ( Sudhoffs Arch. [2011] Vol. 95, No.2, pp. 209-221) point out that the Greek does not mean quite the same.

[5] “Liber…”  A visual/verbal pun –  deliberate, I think. So, Isidore quotes Virgil concerning the elm’s bast fibre, writing Liber is the inner membrane of bark, which clings to the wood. With regard to this, Virgil thus: The bark (liber) clings to the high elm.  I cannot think the medicinal Slippery Elm meant; Ulmus rubra is an American species.  Perhaps Timperly is correct, connecting the word to the Latin word for a book –  initially a type was made of the inner bark (bast fibre) –  though he refers to Europe’s use of the lime tree not the elm, while referring to the Egyptians having used the elm among other trees for the same purpose. I regret being unable to spare time to consult more recent sources on this last point.  (Timperly, The Dictionary of Printer and Printing (1839) p.22.

[6] The elm’s wood bends well … making it quite pliant. …Elm is also prized by bowyers; of the ancient bows found in Europe, a large portion of them are elm. During the Middle Ages elm was also used to make longbows if yew was unavailable. The … trunks were favoured as a source of timber for keels in ship construction (in medieval Europe). – from a wiki article ‘Elm’.

I  omitted other allusions here  though they were probably known to the first enunciator and could be relevant  e.g.,  an inference might taken that the mariner’s entry into the Erythrean Sea was equated at that time with descent into the underworld.  Homer tells us that elms were planted by nymphs over the underground tomb of Eetion, king of Trojan Thebes slain by Achilles; the Metamorphoses tells of the nymph Erytheia becoming an elm (Ptelea); and the Roman Virgil has the spirits of dreams (Oneiroi) perch in an elm at the entrance of Hades.

[7] Liber [Zagreus] was identified with Polydeuces. Debate continues among scholars over the origin of this ‘first’ Dionysius, but opinion tends towards a Phoenician origin and identification in the first instance with Zabazios. The issue need not concern us. The point is that Zagreus, another son of Zeus, was famously permitted to play childishly -i.e. harmlessly – with his father’s lightning.

[8] Richen says that “It was probably the toughness of wood which led to the elm being used for production of fire by drilling [in many parts of the older world]” and that the ancient practice survived to recent times in Europe ” as a ritual performance, for the generation of need-fire”. R.H. Richens, Elm, C.U.P 1983   (pp.109-9).

[9] As it is often used, but invariably described in archaeological reports.  The University College, London (here) notes it found in “wide use in ancient Egypt, most often smaller objects such as dowels” with an additional note that it is “tough and durable when permanently wet”. Whether it like salt-water spray as much, I’ve not determined.

[10] “During the voyage of the Argonauts .. when the heroes were detained by a vehement storm, and Orpheus prayed to the Samothracian gods, the storm suddenly subsided and stars appeared on the heads of the Dioscuri” For the source texts see Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Vol. 1, p.1053. online.

For Anton, Ellie and About fols.70r et. sqq.

Thanks to some recent comments in a thread begun by Ellie Velinska, I’ve returned to a post published in 2011, where I was comparing the patterns used on the map, with those used in other sections.  The aim was to see whether there was any constant significance discernible.  (Koen Gheuens has recently made some excellent finds, showing comparisons for this palette of  patterns, just btw.)

Some recent work which is being done by Anton Alipov, together with my long-standing view that each of the anthropoform figures has its star – not just in the calendar section, but wherever they occur – makes me think this item worth revisiting.

Because it’s easier than re-typing,  I’ll  start by adding the first part from my earlier post, though I add only the mosaic from Siena to illustrate one point.


Given that we have the inclusion of a star-flower around the circuit of figures in the month-roundels, and a possibility that the patterns might relate to a particular type of stone or goods of a specific type, then the link could refer to the responsibility accorded the stars, by their conferring a specific virtue (quality or ‘goodness’ on natural products and produce. So the patterns may serve as system of classification, related to days, months or the nature of the contents.

East of the Mediterranean, the agricultural sequence of days and produce was tied to the stars of the lunar path, where Europe’s calendar referred to the ’12’ of the sun’s way.

Nor do I assume the central emblems in fols 70r – 74v were first intended as reference to the zodiac ’12’ – they plainly don’t show the Roman zodiac sequence.  It is equally likely they were meant to refer to a series of ports or cities, in a line of regular commerce.

[That such systems were used is well known; here’s a simple one from medieval Italy.- added note 16/09/2016]

mosaic opus sectile Diena Lucca leopard Duomo Siena

Around the innermost ring of fol.70r (Beinecke numbering) the barrels are all marked with an identical pattern …though one uses an inset pattern of the same type used for the  ‘scintillations’ of water – which custom is seen in some fifteenth-century works just as it had been in Egyptian works as early as the pre-dynastic period.  I have turned the detail ‘right way up’ …


The basic pattern of those inner barrels occurs again in fol. 78r, showing what seem like pipes through which fluids run. We might then suggest that pattern of parallel lines of dots or short dashes indicates a material which is associated with water and evidently impervious to it, though one should never suppose that any literal intention precludes parallel reference to other, metaphorical significance.)


Terracotta is one obvious possibility since it is a common medium for water-pipes, which were certainly in use by Hellenistic times, some having been recovered in Ephesus (in Asia Minor), beneath the temple of Ephesian Artemis. Roman pipes were often of lead; some of Etruscan origin are made of a natural concrete, known as “Roman concrete” but I think this pattern can be taken to refer more generally to impervious earths. (A similar, if not identical sense is probably intended when this motif is used for such things as the impervious elephant hide).


One among  those barrels is marked with a  ‘plimsol’ line formed as we see the  ‘closed waters’ referenced in Egypt  ~ so altogether that having the ‘plimsol line’ might allude to amber, since it is the only stone (according to Aristotle Mete., 388b21) which is said formed by being chilled in water:  ‘refrigeration’.  If we refer to the star, though, the reference could be to Sirius or  the ‘water-bringer’ star, or again – if we suppose influence from the Arab star-names – that star could be Thurayya (Pleiades) as “water in the ground.”

…. reprised  from: ‘fol 86v: Stones retrospective 3: Stones and barrels’, Findings, (Sunday, July 24, 2011)


I had also considered a detail from folio 78r(below)  noting recurrence of the “Peg” and “Pole” motif.  The two motifs of ‘Peg and Pole’  refer respectively, as I understand them, to South/Homeward/Port side  and  North/Outward/Starboard side, respectively.


In one of the most telling images (folio 79r) the “home/port” is directly connected to a centre in Egypt, though whether it is meant for Alexandria, Canopus or Fustat (or even Herakleion) I cannot say.

The sequence of ‘water-barrels’ on folio 78r, however, I suggested at that time might refer to stages of a journey, and further that given the care with which the draughtsman distinguishes between the sort of lines which emerge from the one, and from the other, I posited a reference to the trade in oil and in wine. I also noted how the south-mark (‘Peg’) has the area below its ‘aegis’ filled with dots, as if they might represent seed, but the north has none.

That use of the Pole shown on the left in folio 78r (detail, above) to represent North, and the ‘Peg’ shown to the right (detail, above) is consistent through the manuscript.

In western custom, including cartography and the compass-diagram, the ‘Pole’/North was to become a fleur-de-lys and a custom in itself.

One notes, though, that the earliest example we have of a  compass diagram’s being includd on any western map or chart is in the work of a Jewish chart-maker from the Mallorcan chart-makers school (c.1375). Abraham Cresques was commissioned – probably by the King of France – to prepare a great illustrated version of an Islamic style of almanac.  We may suppose the work had taken a couple of years, to  judge by the amount of work needed to make and illuminate the map, charts and other matter in it, and further in reading and excerpting short passages from the numerous texts which inform the map’s labels.  By the time it was all finished, however, Mallorca now lay under direct Spanish control, the new ruler (not the maker) delivering so-called “Catalan Atlas” in person to the court of France.  This item is but one of a  substantial number which indicate that Beinecke MS 408 derives from precedents which had come from  southern, Jewish (Sephardi) owners or makers.  This compass-diagram has been mentioned here before, in relation to an early Genoese cartographer and to a figure which is placed in the equivalent position on the Voynich map that the compass is set on Cresques’ worldmap.[1]

Cresques compass rose

In any case, use in the Voynich manuscript of the Pole (left side in the detail from f.78r) and the Peg (right), appears to be quite consistent in the ‘bathy-‘ section of the manuscript.  For that reason, I suggested the reference of the detail from f.78r might be the northern and southern ends of a route.

I note that the draughtsman distinguishes carefully between the steams which emerge from the one, and from the other.  A further mark of difference is seen in the way that the area below the southern ‘aegis’ here has each small segment provided with a dot, where the northern has none.

Initially I posited that the two might refer to  oil and wine;  it also seemed possible that the reason for the ‘barrels’ being included along that stream might relate to the kombologion, by which time and distance was measured.  The kombologion was a string of beads given to the Egyptian monks and the ancestor of the western rosary – except that the number of its beads (108) was the same number as that of the stars which, in the earliest period, were sung to ‘affix’ them to the heavens, and these were then the number of the liturgi – the term from which descends our ‘liturgy’.[2]

Today, reading over those posts from Ellie Velinska’s thread, and from Anton, a further thought occurs to me.

The two “passages” which I had taken for passages of water, divided into stages by those bead-like ‘barels’ might in fact be meant for those of the ‘sea of heaven’.  I mean, that the ‘barels’ may maintain the same reference here as they do around the tiers of the month-roundels and represent the stars’ passage across the skies – the northern and/or the southern.  Naturally enough, orienting by the stars on a journey from the north is not the same as on the reverse line of transit.

And if they so mark a sequence of guiding stars (star-days?) – perhaps again as in the ‘bathy-‘ folios equated with the place over which each star nominally stands, so we might have a reasonable explanation for those impervious ‘barels’ having been laid so unequally along their respective lines.

From the manuscript as a whole, the impression I’ve gained is that the standard, literary dictionaries and literary prose probably need to be supplemented by more technical glossaries, and some notice taken of more than the forms for the ‘Arabic’ stars known to medieval Europe… or indeed, those adopted as the Greco-Roman standard by medieval writers in Arabic.


[1] see posts entitled ‘Angel of the Rose’ here and at

[2] Jim Tester, in his History of Western Astrology (p.116-118), had his “astrological” cap on too firmly. He failed to realise that –  the basis of astrology being astronomy – the answer to the “108” conundrum might like in pure astronomy, and not in the zodiac-obsessed astrology whose history he was writing. The factors of 108 are 27  and 4.  Twenty-seven is the number to which the circuit of lunar mansion asterisms was formally reduced for purposes of astronomical calculations, even after the introduction of the Islamic calendar’s “28”.  We see the ’27’ used, for example, by Ibn Arabi in Spain, and the Tamils who were the masters of such calculations in the estimation of early Baghdad, used it as the basis from which they performed calculations which were ‘astronomical’ in the literal and metaphorical sense.  We see the factors of 27 x 9 used for a calculating table made for the future Pope Sylvester I, while he was still Gerbert d’Aurillac: the best description one of his students could give was that it was an ‘abacus’ but the factors used and the richness of the making speak, rather to the fields of heaven and earth.  Those same factors, and a board, are recorded used to predict agricultural yields.. But I digress.  The ‘108’ are found by taking 27 for the horizontal line and adding others between the visible Pole and the horizon.

That a similar grid served to map the world (and thus suggest that the rhumb gridded chart revived pre-Roman custom) is indicated by Manilius.  I may come back to that last point another time.

For all typos and other errors, dear readers forgive us.  This is being typed at the last second before leaving for a while..

Clear vision

There are some things we don’t talk about when provenancing an object, especially a picture.  In explaining why one painting is by a master and another by a minor painter, or why one work is genuine and another isn’t, we may talk to the client about canvas and threads per inch, about scientific analyses, about brush-strokes and documentation.

What we don’t talk about very often, because the matter  is not transferable, is something easily mistaken for “instinct’ – though it isn’t.  It’s a level of perception not learned, but a faculty that some people have and others happen not to have, and which is not quantifiable in the way that clients and ‘the man on the street’ expect information to be. So we don’t talk about it often, and when we do it is usually dressed in the less unnerving clothing of details.  We may talk about the Voynich feline’s having rounded ears, and crossed eyes.  Put that differently – though it is apparent to me that while the image of the Voynich feline could have been in mainland Europe (perhaps even in a manuscript) as early as the tenth century, it still radiates a Greek-and-Semitic cast of mind.  In looking at it there is first that instant sense of recognition, followed by what I suppose I could describe as a fast-motion ‘film’ of as few as a dozen or as many as a couple of hundred concordant examples.  I don’t say “matches” but ‘concordances’ because what is being ‘matched’ isn’t the two-dimensional form or any particular set of details, so much as this item with a myriad other enunciations of the same attitude or cast of mind.  (See I what I mean? That’s why we don’t talk about it).

If you’re musical, you might understand what I mean; if an unknown piece of music was discovered and played to a maestro, then he might say, “It’s Mozart!” or “It’s French Baroque!” even though it is not exactly like any other known piece from Mozart or the Baroque corpus.  Just as he might identify it purely by sound, so here, by that aptitude for perception.  What is recognised, I can only describe as something like the informing  ‘cast of mind’ or ‘worldview’; you simply know where it fits.  Then, of course, the task is to explain that to a person who may, or may not, be able to connect with what you’re saying.  Some people are – as it were ‘tone deaf’.  They simply can’t see why all pictures of a black cat aren’t equivalent images.  And explanation doesn’t help.  Sometimes it’s a case of “you see it or you don’t” – though again the usual practice is to talk details.

In recent days and by different routes, several researchers have come by discernible and clearly independent routes to a similar opinion about the Voynich feline as I did; one by the very simple means of going to the Getty and asking the curator if the style reminded her of anything.  She directed him to a Syrian mosaic, made during the period of Byzantine rule.

Another who in my opinion has a real talent for this sort of work found for themselves an example in a north African mosaic – again one made during the period of Byzantine rule.

Through the Aegean, the line between North Africa and Syria is one with an extensive and continuous history of cultural connections and it is along the same line that my preferred comparisons have come.  That below is from Delos, and again a mosaic.

beast leopard Dionysus Delos small mosaic Hellenistic

National borders and the strange in-house custom of limiting the search for comparative images to medieval European manuscript art, added to a habit of less seeking to find the imagery’s antecedents than to find an instance supportive of a preferred theory have badly skewed this type of discussion in Voynich studies.  It is less a matter of seeking “more black cats” than of seeking evidence of what I can only call ‘cast of mind’.

Once or twice before, I have tried to convey this but not, I think, with any great success.   Only today I think I’ve found a way to do it: using the words of a classical historian, H.D.F Kitto.

Speaking of Greek art,  he once wrote of it as expressing the same qualities that mark the structure and form of the Greeks’ language, and how language relates, in turn, to that quality of mind which informs a people’s way of seeing the world.  Though, of course, I use his words as analogy they very well express that character in the Voynich manuscript’s botanical imagery which – as it strikes me – puts it in a class apart from the imagery in the Latin herbals.

He says:

.. in the Greek language – in its very structure – are to be found that clarity and control, that command of structure… it is the nature of Greek to express with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning.  .. Both Greek and Latin have an architectural quality. But there is a significant difference between them. …  Greek  is well stocked with little words, conjunctions that hunt in couples or in packs, whose sole function is to make the structure clear. They act, as it were, as signposts… we always have a perfectly limpid and unambiguous ordering of the sentence, as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words. It is the nature of the Greek language to be exact, subtle and clear. The imprecision and the lack of immediate perspicuity in which English occasionally deviates and from which German occasionally emerges, is quite foreign to Greek..

-and that’s it, you see. That ‘first flash’ and the same exactitude, subtlety and clarity.  It is something quite different from fussiness or detail or simple ‘realism’ in imagery.

Let me contrast those qualities, that ‘cast of mind’ with that in the sort of imagery usually compared with figures in the botanical section.  I hope you will see that the Latin herbal imagery comes… how shall I say … as it if were heavy with baggage. A little overladen with the weight of earlier models; with a focus on form rather than on being.  The great majority of it is lumpen as the Voynich images are not.

Take, for example, the following composite made by Marco Ponzi and which he knows I’ve been obliged to use taking his consent from the principle qui tacet consentur.

Can you see how much heavier the  images are which here  flank the detail from folio 43v?  You can feel the Latin scribe’s  “being a painter” –  a sense of labouring; of physical effort.  It is as if you feel how the the painter toils and the picture grows heavy from it.  The Voynich image by contrast lifts itself with a lightness due to something other than  lighter pigments; there’s an effortlessness of apprehension there – and yet one combined with greater precision despite the seeming indifference to literalism.

snakey-roots The root coils in a way  less immediately reminiscent of some dead creature’s intestine than the energetic coiling of some strangely hairy viper, about to defend itself.  And, of course, the Voynich picture was painted rather earlier, uses pigment differently and depicts a plant having a different leaf, a different habit and different flower/fruit from either of the other two.  But that’s about the subject of the image, not this quality of mind I’m trying to explain.  In any case, I expect Marco was focusing their all having more or less S-shaped roots.

Folio 5v is one which I’ve mentioned again recently, and it may still be fairly fresh in reader’s minds, so  I’ll use that again to demonstrate how well  Kitto’s description works by analogy, the  “…clarity and control … with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning…. as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words“.

That first flash which gives the ground-plan can be expressed as “... Protectors of the ship” and to that first ‘sentence’  every element relates with clarity, control, accuracy and shades of meaning.  Details in the next part.

folio 5v all

I must add that while the characteristic quality of mind might be immediately evident, reading that ‘sentence’ isn’t instantaneous.  In fact, like a primary school child struggling through a passage in another language, the process was slow, step-by-step parsing of each separate part – until finally the ‘sentence’ was translated.   Luckily, these images appear to be largely independent of any one language – quite unlike mnemonic elements in the Latin herbals.



A “Book of Life” – coincidences

  • It’s easy to forget that the published radiocarbon range for the Voynich manuscript (1404-1438) co-incides with an  event which had massive repercussions for the history of England and of France.   Friday, 25 October 1415 was the Battle of Agincourt, and a manuscript finished on or near 1 June included a verse from the scribe:

Et estoit apesee la guerre
Fors au faulx anglois dangleterre
Verse moy du vin en ce verre
Si nen ya si en va querre

And so oppressive war must be
Thanks to English treachery
Pour some wine in this my glass
If there is none then go and ask.

(Wellcome MS. 790)  The manuscript is interesting for other reasons – here’s one of the diagrams.

detail Wellcome MS 790 f.29r


  • Another co-incidence ~ remember Paul of Taranto, about whom I wrote  recently (here) – the Franciscan who ascribed his book about alchemy to Geber?


Late in the fifteenth century, in France, part of Paul’s text was included with other bits and pieces, the compilation entitled “Ymage de Vie” – the Book of Life, but it is not the work by Raymon Llull or by pseudo-Llull.   For those who missed Pelling’s recent post:   a Czech woman claims to have translated the Voynich text,  and says it is “The Book of Life” (sorry the linked article is in Czech).

Mulling over,  since then, what texts I know with similar titles, Marsilio Ficino’s “Book of Life” otherwise entitled “Via triplicitas” I’ve mentioned often enough before.

There’s the Theban recension of the Book of the Dead, also known as the Book of Gates (no, don’t get too excited; Koen and I have had this conversation, so he is way ahead of you, “many gates” and all).

Now, today, I came across this other-  Ymage de Vis with some of Paul’s alchemical text in it –  Wellcome MS 446

“The text has traditionally been held to be a Middle French translation of a Latin Pseudo-Ramon Llull treatise entitled ‘Imago vitae’, but a close examination of the text and its sources reveals that this is not in fact the case. The structure of the text does not match any known Latin versions of the ‘Imago vitae’. Rather, the text seems to be a patchwork of several sources in Latin and Middle French, including the ‘Testamentum’ of Pseudo-Llull, ‘Le Rosaire’ (a Middle French rendition of Pseudo-Arnau de Vilanova), the ‘Summa perfectionis’ of Pseudo-Gerber and, finally, a Pseudo-Pope John XXII treatise known as ‘L’élixir des philosophes’. The compiler of the text selected theoretical parts and pieces that fitted his own process of experimentation, so the compilation does seem to be the work of an actual practitioner of alchemy.”

And here’s one not called ‘Book of Life’ but I like it best of this group:


The Library’s comment on its own collection, and the curious lack of medical books referring to the Plague, or recipes for medicine against it adds considerable historical weight to Baresch’s  having believed (or supposed) that some noble person had been obliged to travel east to collect useful receipts – presumably against the plague:

“.. How can it be that some 300 mainly medical books, many of which were written and read by individuals who must have lived through the most searing epidemic in recorded history, remain stubbornly silent witnesses?

There are probably several answers to this apparent conundrum, which mostly boil down to one overriding explanation: to expect our manuscripts to speak to us directly about contemporary events is to make a sort of category error. Our medieval manuscripts are overwhelmingly ‘literary’ productions rather than documents; their purpose was to transmit knowledge, often very ancient knowledge, from the past to the future. To that extent contemporary events, even ones of the enormity of the Black Death, were irrelevant.”

 Wellcome MS 335 is an exception. And it’s a pocket-book (almost).

Its recipes  include some against plague; its plant-pictures are very nice (and yes,  they are a ‘herbal’)… and the whole is well worth a look.  ‘Plants-prayers-and-plague-wellcome-ms-335′, (July 2015)

All the posts linked have slider-viewers inset.

[a couple of typos corrected – 15/09/2016]

Evidence, evidence, evidence.

We’ve recently seen a rash of Polls at, the aim of which is to reach ‘consensus’ about the sort of things “we all agree on” – and which of course will thereafter been deemed indisputable.

First this one:

The manuscript does not contain standard religious iconography from any of the three main Abrahamic religions known to 15th century Europe….With the single exception of one nymph holding a cross ( f79v ), there are no examples of 15th century Catholic, Jewish or Islamic religious imagery within the manuscript.

Is the “one exception” actually an exception – is what she holds intended to be a cross of the religious sort or is it an instinctive interpretation by a person of Christian antecedents? How do you define “religious: imagery?  Is the lulav a religious image?   Is  avoidance of natural forms expressive of religious culture?

What on earth is the aim of asking such a question?  More importantly what are the likely consequences of taking a ‘vote’ without any links to evidence or argument for any of these propositions?

Will it now be deemed “irrelevant” to refer to the evidence of Jewish and Christian culture within the manuscript?

Why should “we” all agree about something which a majority have never considered in any depth?

Now this one:  “wrong” in every conceivable way, again including implications for later parameters permitted in discussion”

  • The leaves of the manuscript are parchment made of calfskin.
  • The quality of the parchment is of average quality, neither being fine nor course.

I arrived to find that every person before me had voted that “we can all agree on both propositions”.

The first proposition is plain wrong.  The animal from which the membrane came may well have been a calf, but to agree to call the membrane ‘calfskin’ is just wrong.  Not one of the previous voters knew enough to recognise that, yet voted anyway.  Evidence-based opinions are not all that strong outside discussions of the written text.

“The quality of the parchment is of average quality, neither being fine nor course”

Everyone voted for that too, although the constant description of the membrane (bar errors) is that it is not parchment, but vellum.

Specialists may quibble – after all, that’s why we normally opt for ‘membrane’ but since 1912 every qualified person evaluating the manuscript described the material as ‘vellum’

But if everyone votes ‘yes’ then what is not calfskin will be ‘deemed agreed’ to be calfskin, and the vellum “agreed” not to be vellum.

No evidence, documentary or otherwise seems to have been consulted here. ~ except perhaps something written in the wiki or on (?)

So now we come to the third point:

“of average quality, neither being fine nor course” (read: coarse).

here again, as with the parchment or vellum thing, experts can and will quibble.  But basically the important issue is how well equalised the membrane is – because it’s an important clue to where the thing was made.  Spanish and southern Italian manuscripts have notably poorer finish – more visible hair-follicles, especially in the corners, and that sort of thing – where German parchment and vellum was really beautifully equalised by the fourteenth century.  You can scarcely tell the hair-side from the flesh-side (that’s what ‘equalised’ means).


Robert Steele, who was well-qualified and experienced as a professional evaluator of medieval manuscripts remarked on the vellum before the manuscript moved into a library and said:

“The vellum is coarse, even for the thirteenth century” – Robert Steele

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

Dana Scott, spent a full week visiting the Beinecke daily in 2006 and wrote:

At least one (probably 2) of the folios have a very fine peach fuzz feel to the touch. Folios where there had been prior stitching were interesting because the skin is tough and the holes are just fine the way they are now without the prior stitching. If one looks very closely at the VMs folios, you may find tiny “black” dots scattered around a number of the folios. These are actually hair follicle holes in that remained after the hair was removed.
I spent a week visiting the VMs. …  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Beinecke Library in September 2006….

On the other hand, in that same year Nick Pelling’s book includes the comment that”:

“… it is very hard to distinguish between its hair and flesh sides…”

Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.53

The overall impression given by these accounts ( I do not know whether Pelling had actually seen the manuscript)  is not of a first-grade, book-quality vellum which has been equalised to the highest – i.e. German – standard but perhaps appropriate to southern France or Italy or (as most people had agreed before 1931) England – where follicles and ‘peach fuzz’ were typically still in evidence.

NOW – today, and referring to some documents unpublished, Rene Zandbergen says he has information direct from the Beinecke librarians that the persons who worked on the vellum “tried very hard” to smooth it.

This seems to mean that no, it isn’t perfectly equalised (which is of considerable importance for codicological assessments and provenancing) but that the vellum itself has a fairly good writing surface even if as some have said, it is coarse “even for the thirteenth century”.

So what do you think?  Do you feel you know enough to form any useful opinion?

But I hope you’ll see now why I object to the idea that voting for “what we can all agree on” serves any useful purpose in the absence of preliminary research.

Not just a quick consult with the wiki, or with Rene’s own website – real digging.

This sort of polling, in my view, only creates an artificial pressure within the group to forever after conform to ideas initially  promoted and presented for whatever reason, for approval by a group whose individual members may have nothing to go on but gut-feeling.

That’s not likely to produce anything but “group-think” in which investigation and consideration of evidence, or the raising of valid questions is discouraged.  “we” can be a very dangerous state of mind when intellectual enquiry is the aim.

And imagine if “we all agree” to deem the manuscript’s leaves calfskin?!

We’d be the laughing stock of every serious scholar, every codicologist, librarian and appraiser.

But guess what – it may be “what we all agree on”.

In the absence of evidence…

POSTSCRIPT – Misled by referring to too few, or wrong earlier researchers, my own earlier post also called the vellum “parchment”. 🙂

A revisionist revisits…. Canterbury Pt. 4-iii

Because the last three posts have been long ones, this one is pretty short.

Moving northwards from Oria and Tarento, along the via Francigena, we are in country testifying to the enduring power of tradition, in imagery and customs re-interpreted to survive the  effects of war, time, conquest, and religions introduced or imposed.  Imagery can do this; it can retain faithfully the forms and original character of things long after memory of their formal codes of belief are quite lost.

Here, it seems hardly surprising that a fifteenth-century manuscript should still evince a Hellenistic origin and character; the following is but one instance of many within this manuscript. You either see it, or you don’t. The medallion celebrates Alexander’s admiral, Nearchus.

medallion Hellenistic celeb Nearchus voyagefol 72r-ii centre blog fairy







I am no great enthusiast for using genetic patterns to explain cultural products: one’s Y haploid group does not determine what languages one learns, what books one reads or whether or not one has  intellectual capacity and curiosity.  But such maps do illustrate one thing well: the oldest and most natural lines of movement across a region.  That shown below shows why southern Italy was more open to influence from Syria and north Africa than from the north, and there existed a similar connection between Greece and north Africa.  The sea-lanes were travelled regularly, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, before the end of the second millennium BC.,  Sicily serving as a form of half-barrier which effectively directed that movement from its eastern side to the coast of North Africa.  Within the southern end of the peninsula, as in Sicily, Hellenistic workshops produced artefacts in Egyptian style before the rise of Rome. [1]


The Great Angel.

To Christianity, Michael is the name of that great Angel whose role is that of defender and deliverer, and the church still says that Michael’s shrines on the hilltops were first made in the fifth century AD.  But that same character, under a name now forgotten, had been  revered  in this part of the world from the time the  first urban settlements occur, in the seventh or sixth centuries BC.

Originally manifesting attributes of both male and female, it must have once been widely known. In the eastern Mediterranean, the earliest strand of Jewish religious thought carries a trace of some similar character [2] and by Strabo’s time it must have been known to the peoples who lived in the south in his time:Samnites, Brutians and  Lucanians.

When the first Roman emperor in Byzantium promoted Christianity as the preferred religion, Michael changed his religion too.

Basilicata Melfi hermafroditos
Basilicata – Melfi
Basilicata Melfi bronze Michael female
Basilicata – Mefi


Michael Monastery of Sinai
Monastery of Sinai.


Michael Shaftesbury Psalter
Shaftesbury Psalter

St.Michael bronzein Italy from Constantinople

flower servant aegis angel
4thC BC


Michael Gravina and Gargano late 16thC
late 16thC Gravina/Gargano southern Italy
Abbey of Mont “Saint-Michel au péril de la mer” off the west coast of France


Norman French Mont St Michel
detail of a manuscript written in Norman French. Mont Saint Michel, Normandy coast.

He became the first winged figure in western and Byzantine Christian art, but does does not appear so in Christian iconography until the middle of the 1st millennium AD, unless this Coptic figure said to date to the 1stC AD, is an exception.

Michael Coptic allegedly 1stC AD
Michael Coptic allegedly 1stC AD

When Theodore passed through (if he did) the populace paid their taxes to a Langobard king, but  century later the Langobard’s hold which was always tenuous, was gone and the kingdom dissolved. They left little trace in the south, no more than a few buildings and those mainly ecclesiastical.  On the other hand, Michael certainly impressed them.  Remnants of the Langobard population congregated in Benevento and  around Naples, and since the road from Benevento to the Adriatic touches the sea near a cave-shrine to Michael at Gargano, it became their most revered shrine too.  That road became known as the ‘Langobard Way’ – an important pilgrimage route in medieval times.

Via_Appia_map Rome to Brindisi
The via Appia through Benevento. The cave at Gargano is by Manfredonia, known in Roman times as Sipontum.



[1] see László Török, Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas from Egypt (1995) refers to Besques (1963) and (1992) as authority in this connection.

Simone Mollard-Besques, Catalogue raisonné des figurines et reliefs en terre-cuite grecs, étrusques et romains [Musée du Louvre. Département des antiquités grecques et romaines, Paris : Editions des Musées nationaux. (1954 and 1992)

[2] The older figure may represent the original ‘Adam’, made in the image of the creator-deity. In the works of the Jewish law, the earliest idea of Adam has him also, in one version of the creation story, both male and female, for the text reads literally: “male and female He created him” – not ‘them’ as the translations have it.  Michael’s name is translated as if it meant “Who is as Gd?” which is the import of the name, though in the original was expressed as  [the being who] “is as Gd” – that is, made as the image of the deity.

Apulia mirror world detail blog
vase – Apulia. 6thC BC

Jewish religious thinking had very early moved away from that idea of the male-and-female being, the story of Adam’s rib showing the moment of  distinction between the sexes as one held to be natural and intended by Gd.  Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: a study of Israel’s second God, SPCK (1992) remains the principal study of the ‘Great Angel’ in Jewish thought available in English.



A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 4-ii

Palermo and Salerno: Jewish-Greek learning.

This is a reference-post:  to be read if and when it may be helpful.

(detail) Cairo Geniza fragment of a 12thC copy of Donolo’s text, first composed in southern Italy in the 10thC AD.

When the Norman free-booter found himself king of Sicily, his newly acquired territory contained two well-established medical schools, one in Palermo and the other on the mainland at Salerno.  The origins of that in Palermo are obscure; it may have been founded before the Roman era, but that in Salerno was established by Jewish scholars and physicians in c.800 AD, and we may suppose that by the last quarter of the eleventh century its texts included at least a copy of the ‘Book of Asaf’; of Shabbatai Donolo’s ‘Book of Treasures’ and one or more of those written by Isaac Israeli (whom the Latins would mis-call Isaac Judaeus).

Since the Book of Asaf and Donolo’s works rely chiefly on Greek traditions, and Isaac al-Israeli was an Egyptian Jew who wrote in Arabic, we could say that, already, three and perhaps all four of those medical traditions were present which legend  maintained had formed the foundations of  ‘Salernitan’ medicine.

The Book of Asaf

The ‘Book of Asaf’ is an antidotary described by Lieber as  “.. a Hebrew encyclopaedia of Greek and Jewish medicine, possibly compiled in Byzantium after an Indian model.” [1] I regret having been been unable to consult the only source cited by Lieber (or by anyone else) for its materia medica. [2]

The Book of Mixtures: Shabbatai Donolo.

Shabbatai Donolo’s “Book of Mixtures” or “~Remedies” ( Sefer HaMirkachot)  contains medical receipts too, but more of theory.  Donolo also wrote a treatise on religious cosmology (Sefer Hakhmoni) which has been overshadowed by the ‘Mixtures’, but could have been meant as companion to it.  The importance of his phamaceutical work (‘HaMirakachot) was such that part of a twelfth-century copy would be among the items recovered from the geniza in Cairo. [3]

Oria Apulia Asaf

Donolo was born in 913 AD in Oria, another of Puglia’s ancient hill-top settlements on the Via Appia, mid-way between Tarento and Brindisi. [4]

When Shabbatai was twelve years of age, a Saracen invasion left the town ruined, and all Donolo’s close family killed or enslaved.  Only he was able to be ransomed by more distant relatives.  It may explain why works composed or transmitted in Arabic are not mentioned in his own book,  although he studied  the medical traditions of the Greeks, Arabs, Babylonians, and Indians.

It may also explain why he chose to write his work in Hebrew, at a time when the revival of Hebrew as a language in daily use was only just beginning, the usual lingua franca of Mediterranean Jews having been Greek.  In addition to Italian, Greek and Hebrew, Donolo also knew Aramaic – which later becomes the language of the Zohar – and so he might have been able to read medical works written in Syriac, a western Aramaic dialect.  Once the common language of  Rome’s eastern empire it was maintained as the liturgical language of the Church of the East, the so-called ‘Nestorians’, whose interest in medicine was central to their religious views and made them renowned as masters of natural medicines.  Theodore’s interest in the subject led to speculation that he, too, had been a Nestorian before being appointed head of the Anglo-Saxon church.   He certainly knew Syriac, whether or not he taught it in Cantebury, three centuries before Donolo lived. Shown are three forms of Syriac script, which is read right to left.syriac-scriptsIsaac Israeli

One of the most widely known of the early Jewish physicians, Isaac Israeli ( 832 – c. 932 AD) spent the first half of his life – possibly fifty years – in Egypt, before travelling – or being appointed to – Kairouan at some time between 905–907. There he served as physician to the first Fatimid ruler in North Africa. [5] al-Israeli (sometimes ‘al-Israīli’) had gained such renown by the second half of the eleventh century that we may fairly assume that his work, too, was in the Salerno medical school. Israeli  (Latinised as ‘Isaac Judaeus’) is everywhere described as the  ‘father of Jewish neo-Platonism’. For the local inhabitants of Sicily and Salerno, Isaac’s works having been written in Arabic would pose no difficulty. Arabic was Sicily’s official language for two centuries before the Normans, and the fact that Latin then became the language of administration, diplomacy and formal education did not prevent the people’s continuing to use Hebrew, Greek or Arabic as in fact we know they did. Arabic and Hebrew would later be ‘first languages’ of the future Frederick II, King of Sicily, learned from the community which welcomed him into their homes, when he roamed the town as a young boy.

Altogether, and although historians of Latin medicine imagine that Constantine the African brought all this ‘new’ learning to the Latin-speaking world from North Africa, it is  equally possible that he worked in this case from copies of texts in the Salerno school – where he spent some time (perhaps two years) in study,  between arriving in Sicily and his later settling in Monte Cassino.

Constantine the African

Constantine is another of the many multilingual people we meet outside the Latins’ world.   He learned Latin rather late, but his earlier life as a trader had meant extensive travel in Syria, India, Ethiopia, Egypt and Persia and gave him proficiency in  Greek, Arabic, and “several Oriental languages” – though I regret my source does not specify which ones.  I use this allusion to Ethiopia – which medieval Latin Europe believed the source of all plagues – as an excuse to add an image from an Ethiopian Healing Scroll.

detail-ethiopian-healing-scrollmateria medica

Since – as we’ve seen – there was also trade in eastern materia medica into both Palermo and Salerno before the Normans, linking Jewish connections at each end of that line (which does not preclude any other), so it does not seem too much to posit that what occurred in Palermo and Salerno with the advent of Norman rule was less any explosion of  new medical learning as a translation into Latin, within their Sicilian kingdom, of matter already established there – the translation occurring in parallel to Constantine’s work in Montpellier and Montecassino.  Unlike Green and Walker-Meikle, I do not attribute to Constantine the first presence in Europe of all the matter in the Great Antidotary, generally agreed to have originated in the south, and in general terms attributed to the ‘Salernitan’ school.

The Great Antidotary.

Close upon the heels of Latin rule in Sicily and Salerno, came a great compendium of medical recipes written in Latin and called Antidotarium Magnum, from which, as Walker Meikle says, the Latins gained knowledge of far eastern materia medica. With the arrival of Norman rule, the language of administration, education and diplomacy became Latin by default, since it was then usual for any new ruler replace the language of a region with that of his own liturgy.  From that time Sicily becomes part of medieval Latin Europe. A page from a twelfth century copy of the Great Antidotary is shown further belowAt present, Monica H. Green and Kathleen Walker-Meikle are working on a critical edition of  Antidorarium Magnum. Walker-Miekle  mentions (In her blog) a digital edition being developed online through T-Pen .  It is twelve months since Meikle announced that.

Kathleen Walker-Meikle,Antimony and Ambergris: ‘New’ Ingredients in the Antidotarium magnum’, The Recipes Project, (October 22nd., 2015).

Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. (12thC). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. (12thC). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Eastern materia medica

(detail) Bl MS Egerton 747 fol.9. Bitumen

Walker-Meikle says of the Antidotarium Magnum that it first brought to Latins eastern materia medica such as ” zedoary, musk, and camphor,…bitumen of Judea, myrrh, musk, and dragon’s blood (a plant resin).. Ground-up burnt elephant bones (spodium), musk, sumac, white sandalwood, ginger, mace, musk, cinnamon, roses, camphor, cardamom, galangal, nutmeg …”

A majority of those,  including bitumen,  are represented among the botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408 –  in my opinion. As examples:

  • Rose and Bitumen in MS Beinecke 408 (folios 5v and 19v)

Bitumen I found was referenced in Folio 5v.

Originally published in ‘Findings‘, my original discussion of this folio  was republished with additions at voynichimagery as the first of three posts (i) the primary analysis and discussion; to which I added (ii)  explanation of a pictorial annotation (as mnemonic) and (iii) recap and textual evidence.

fol 5v detail fire sticks

The Rose-tree(s) folio 19v. Here I follow Dana Scott who first made the identification



  1. The persons who first made use of the “Rose”(s) image apparently – and unusually – had no interest in the flower or -petals, but in the rosehip; the image indicates removal of the bark for some purpose, though whether  the bark was used, or  the softer wood below it [7] the image does not say.  Not unexpectedly,  the circumscription mark is present – the plant(s) were known in cultivation, not gathered in the wild.


fol 86 mummia small
(detail) map from folio 86v (Beinecke foliation “85v-and-86r”). See my original   commentary to this section of the map (August 11th., 2012)


2. Terms for bitumen, and for mumia are used interchangeably in some medieval sources, but both may be referenced in Beinecke MS 408; bitumen proper I feel reasonably sure is referenced by f.5v, and on the map on folio 86v (Beinecke foliation  “folio 85v-and-86r”) includes  form which, by reference to contemporary beliefs and popular etymology (cf. ‘pyramid’ in Isidore’s Etymologiae) I read as referring to a pyramid. Its being formed as a headless ‘mummy’, though patterned like rubble and with a vapour emerging from it, may be an allusion to the pyramid as source of mumia and other items of value.

I’d emphasise (yet again) that the botanical identifications were gained by analysis of the imagery and references limited to secondary academic sources about art history, economic and historical botany, and the history of trade – all of which related to the themes evinced by the style and form of these pictures.  My initial approach had been informed by the fact that I was approached and asked to comment on some items of the manuscript’s imagery; initially I saw my role only as advisory  so that from 2009- 2012 I offered comments in detail, added full bibliographies and extensive marginal notes – whatever I thought most likely to be helpful as those  working on the text came to a particular folio.

The reactions I received were limited to overt hostility, or ‘active indifference’, with one or two of the more political characters beginning and maintaining an ad.hominem campaign whose aim was evidently a form of  ‘boycott’.  I was certainly not the only non-conforming researcher to be subjected to negative “lobbying” practices by one persuasive individual; I saw a number of interesting new minds forced from the old mailing list by the same small group.  However, none was  pursued with quite so much vigour or malice – which extended to the public abuse of my students, and to approaches being made to owners of public forums and prominent blogs, indicating that dissenters from the ‘standard opinion’,  should be prevented from speaking in public discussions of the manuscript and “post their views only on their personal blog”.

Exactly the same tactics and lobbying has recently infected a new Voynich forum, but the present moderators appear to be of admirable independence in mind and character and have censored equally the perpetrator and the victim, which in the circumstances seems exactly the right approach to take.   This promising sign has been met with others in my case.  Some of the new arrivals have found no difficulty citing matter from this blog, and acknowledging the source in the normal way.

The older practice had been to take the research, without acknowledgement, and re-work it so that the result appeared to support, rather than obviously contradict an “all Latin European” and central European storyline.

Such habits have seen many promising researchers driven out, or led to give up in disgust during the past decade and more.  One cannot pretend that the routine of combining refusal to acknowledge or engage, with a parallel ad.hominem campaign conducted without reasonable limits, is not effective in reducing all opinions to just one.  Except occasionally.



[1] E. Lieber, ‘Asaf’s Book of Medicines: a Hebrew encyclopaedia of Greek and Jewish medicine, possibly compiled in Byzantium after an Indian model’,  in John Scarborough (ed.), Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 38, Symposium on Byzantine Medicine (1984), pp. 233-249.  Lieber notes elsewhere that 18 manuscripts of the Book of Asaf were known at the time of writing, from various European libraries and that they contain greater or lesser parts of the Book, the longest continuous section being of 250 folios.  “On palaeographic evidence, however, the dates of the manuscripts range from the 12th to the 15th or 16th centuries, and all are apparently of European origin, mainly from Italy. However, there is some reason to think that part, at least, of the content may derive from Jews of Hellenistic or Byzantine Alexandria .. from the 3rd century B.C. or earlier…. It is thus almost impossible to determine the actual extent of the work.. It almost certainly grew by accretion over the years — or even the centuries — and appeared in a number of different versions”.

[2] i.e.  L. Venetianer, Asaf Judaeus, der aelteste medizinische Scritftsteller in hebraeischer Sprache, 3 pts., Budapest, 1915-17.  Another which might prove helpful is another I have not sighted: Meir Bar-Ilan (מאיר בר-אילן), ‘Medicine in Eretz Israel during the First Centuries CE / הרפואה בארץ-ישראל במאות ‘, הראשונות לספירה, Cathedra: Vol. 91 (1999), pp. 31-78.

The eastern influence in the ‘Book of Asaf’  may be less due to Byzantium than  centres in the east, formerly Hellenistic, in which some communities had settled before the loss of Jerusalem.  Their return to the west finds them – and particularly those of India – distinguished as  ‘al-Israeli’ or ‘al-Israili’, a name often associated with physicians and pharmacy in the medieval Mediterranean.  Isaac Israeli ( 832 – c. 932 AD) is one of the earliest and best known, but not the only one.

[3] The Cairo geniza fragment contains part of Donolo’s commentary and had been bound with a fragment of Kabbalistic text.  ( Bodleian Library, MS. Heb. e. 26 Cowley Catalogue 2762).

[4] The JVL comments that  Shabbetai Donnolo was born in 913 in Oria spent the rest of his life in southern Italy and that “It appears that Donnolo was the first person to write about medicine in Christian Europe. His Sefer HaMirkachot, “the Book of Remedies” is a summary of his forty years of medical experience. …As pharmacy and medicine in the tenth century were inextricably interwoven with astrology and cosmology Donnolo sets out his idea of a divinely created universe, with man in the image of God, based on a synthesis of contemporary thought, but his medical reputation has overshadowed his cosmological writings, the most important of which is his Sefer Hakhmoni, a title implying Wisdom.  Donnolo wrote in Hebrew, which was very unusual for his time. He died in 982″.

[5] The only reference which I find to the bark of the tree or its soft inner wood being used in medicine is in this source online which says: “Rose leaves, flowers, bark and roots are generally considered to be cooling in Western herbalism, with authors as varied as Avicenna, Dioscorides, Bauhin and Hildegarde specifically mentioning plant’s place on the colder end of the thermal spectrum although Galen seemed to feel that it had some warming properties. The fruits are closer to neutral in temperature”. Specialists may care to comment.


A revisionist revisits.. Canterbury Pt 4-i

Since the previous post ended with a picture of a commercial list recovered from the Cairo Geniza, and we are in the south where that less-than-formal Greek script was being used as late as the end of the fourteenth century, I’d like to spend this post talking of alchemical-pharmacy and other forms of ‘trivial’ text- structures – together. So it’s a long post. (With regard to Greek influence, too, I might mention a recent post by Ruby Novacna where she interprets some star-names as Greek).

So – to continue our triple themes of the Via Appia, the Greek-saturated south, and ‘trivial’ texts,  I must mention two more places before leaving this region from which that ‘explosion of new medical learning’ emerged in the Norman period.  The two places are Taranto and Lecce.

Taranto, by reference to a certain Franciscan named Paul who lived there in the late thirteenth century;  Lecce because Marsilio Ficino requested assignment there to study an ‘ancient Greek’ dialect spoken by the local people – within a wider south which had been the original home of neo-Platonism. Ficino’s book on health and medicine is an unusual one, and some of its recipes are identical to those in the [Nestorian] Syriac Book of Medicines which I’ve mentioned before.

Lecce Carpignano


Paul of Taranto has been identified as the author of an alchemical work entitled Summa Perfectionis.  Opinion was divided as to whether Paul’s focus was primarily on  gold, or on medicine but William Newman who identified Paul as its author concluded that its most practical use was as an aid to pharmacy.

“The Summa is above all useful as a text-book for carrying out preparatory cleansings and purifications of pharmaceuticals … the Summa appears as part of the [later]  Medicina practica of William Salmon, who like Russell was an iatrochemical physician”.

While I do not pretend to think the imagery in the Voynich manuscript is primarily concerned with medicine, alchemy, or ‘alchemical medicine’, this doesn’t prevent due consideration of evidence, historical or internal, which might be adduced in favour.  Over the past century, study of the Voynich manuscript has advanced little,  not least because so many of its more prominent figures have held adamantly to opinions owing more to the proponents’ self-confidence and refusal to consider alternatives than to a desire to understand the manuscript’s intentions, though among the exceptions John Tiltman deserves our continued attention for his observations.*

The case in favour of medicine and alchemy is, first, that these combined subjects were of interest to Georg Baresch –  the person first certainly aware of this manuscript ;  Jakub Horcicky whose name was inscribed on it; Roger Bacon and other thirteenth century Franciscans ; and persons who knew both Baresch and Athanasius Kircher appear to have believed that alchemy formed part of the manuscript’s matter.

Alchemy of the “iatrochemical physician’s” type, which is what we should call basic chemistry,  is intended to assist pharmacy and is precisely the type of ‘alchemy’ which was urged by Roger Bacon in his Errors of the Doctors. He also recommended the Synonyma of Simon of Genoa (not of Nicolaus). Throughout the medieval and renaissance centuries, Paul’s Summa was attributed to Geber, as he intended, but later scholars realised the ascription false and spoke instead of pseudo-Geber until William Newman’s Doctoral thesis  showed convincing evidence and argument for the Summa’s author as Paulus de Taranto,  and its date of composition 1270 – c.1310AD.[1]

So Paul was a younger contemporary of Roger Bacon, and of Thomas of Cantimpré,  and  lived through the time of the Jews’ expulsion from England.

The Summa Perfectionis was known to Peter of Abano (1257 – 1316), a darling of the early Renaissance, and who is credited with information about the Egyptian decans painted in the Shiffanoia at Ferrara.  Abano refers several times to the Summa in his own Consiliator, referring to its author as “Ieber”.

I haven’t looked into the earliest extant manuscripts of the Summa, or its first mention in France or England,  but it received a translation from Latin to English in 1678 by Richard Russell, a London physician. Nine years later another Englishman, William Salmon, included it in his Medicina Practica (1678).

So, altogether:

The Summa Perfectionis was  composed in Taranto, a city with a long and ancient history of non-Latin influence and direct connections to the sea-trade from Cairo, chief source of  eastern materia medica.  One might reasonably suppose that the work of a Franciscan might pass through the order’s lines of communication, even to as far as England, within a fairly short time.  As an alchemical work, too, it could be argued to explain the vague similarity between plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript and those other “Plants of the Alchemists” books.  It would be less a parent-daughter relationship, but more like cousins once- or twice- removed.

As a gift to a chemist-physician in Prague, or even as a copy on offer to him, a work of that type might well be acceptable, and it must be remembered that Jakub was the local physician-chemist and had a flourishing practice.  Rudolf was  one of his patients, but from what we know it would appear that Jakub did not live as a member of the court, and apart from the ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ there is no reason to suppose Rudolf ever saw the manuscript.  There is no evidence or reason to suppose, either, that  Jakub was given it by Rudolf.  No extant document – other than the Voynich manuscript – ever refers to  Jakub in this connection.

That sort of alchemy seems also to have been the type in which Georg Baresh was interested. He emphasises that his interest in the manuscript is “not for money, but for the medicine”.  I rather think he believed it might hold a remedy against the plague (which, by the way, carried off both those English physicians mentioned above).

Again, a historical note from d’Imperio, who tells us that  Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt,  who is described as bibliographical consultant to H. P. Kraus, owner of the Voynich manuscript from 1962 and 1969,  wrote to John Tiltman in a letter dated I November, 1963 saying   that Italy was a likely country of origin and that:

“while both paleographically and historically speaking, Italy is as likely a place of origin as any other country of Europe, there is no evidence that the manuscript must have been made in Venice, or elsewhere in Northern Italy. The possibility that it comes from Central or Southern Italy is still open, and this could very well mean exposure [sic.] to the Arab world”.

I confess that I hadn’t read that paragraph until today, or if I’d ever read it before, it had slipped my mind. I’ve come by a different route to the opinion that the manuscript we have is likely to have been made in the Padua-Veneto region, but Lehmann-Haupt was writing from information available half a century ago. It is nice, though, to know the same proposal had already been made by that time.

However,  ‘exposure to the Arab world’ hardly gives an accurate impression of the far south, whose range and depth of non-‘Italian’ character is so very pronounced.

Greek, ‘Saracen’ and Semite had moulded its history, languages and cultural character and medieval Jews were also an important group in the southern part of the peninsula and Sicily, so early known for medicine and for active connections with the Arabic-speaking world.

Basilicata Tricarico

So, for example, the mountain peak which rises directly behind Montepeloso holds another walled town first established centuries before the birth of Alexander.  It is now called Tricarico and is famous for its terrace-gardens carved out by the ‘Saracens’ of the earlier medieval period;  it was home to a large and flourishing Jewish population whose number greatly increased after the Spanish occupation of Sardinia and Sicily –  and then again in the 1490s.

So while one is inclined to agree with some of Lehmann-Haupt’s views, and wonder how it was that opinions later became so very narrow about where the manuscript might have been made, Lehmann-Haupt’s choice of words might be a little misleading if one did not know better.  [2]

Structures of the written text.

An argument for the Voynich manuscript’s text consisting partly or largely of alchemical and/or pharmaceutical instructions could also be made.   John Tiltman was able to demonstrate what d’Imperio describes as

“a ‘precedence’ structure of symbols within words and the orderly behavior of characters as “beginners”, middles” and “enders’ of words, [which] has remained one of the most solid and useful findings gleaned by students of the manuscript during many years of study”

– which I think a rather sad comment, given that the Friedmans had already been interested in the manuscript for more than two decades before 1951 when John Tiltman was asked to lend a hand, and that so many others before and after failed to achieve so much.

Having made that observation, though, Tiltman was diverted into a hunt for a “book-text” which might agree with those structures, and in particular to investigate possible candidates for what Friedman thought could be an artificial language.  Another avenue which led no-where.

As we’ve seen, a trivial writing of the commercial kind could – with certain abbreviations – yield just such patterns and conform to that opinion of the text which was voiced by both Tiltman and William Friedman, namely that the Voynich text consists of “… categories or classes of words with coded endings or other affixes…”

Technical instructions as a class of trivial writing don’t seem to have been considered at all by Voynich or the Friedmans, but that is understandable given the bias of their time, which considered ‘techne’ an inferior theme for the historian.  I’ve seen no example of anyone’s having explored the possibility in regard to the written text before Don Hoffmann did,  although my own opinion of the whole as a  technical ‘non-book’ was firming by 2010.  What Hoffman did was address the written part of the text, and in general his model structure seems to fit the Voynich text easily and naturallly. I say his model, because I do not think there is enough historical or documentary evidence offered to support the specifics of his explanation – the particular connections he makes between a glyph and a given plant, or a particular unit of measure.  He reads it all as pharmaceutical recipes (see  here).

I do agree – for what my opinion on the script is worth – that as a sort of template or model of  “technical instruction” forms, his model works very well.

To test whether it also applied – as a general model – to other types of technical instructions/recipes, I took texts from a variety of practical subjects:  from navigational instructions to culinary recipes, to documents of lading and tax lists, and instructions for fabric-production. In each case the model seemed to suit the text, just as easily and naturally, and I was especially impressed by its power to explain certain differences recognised between ordinary prose and poetry and the form of the Voynich text.  By omitting spaces between a quantity and a good, or something equally minor sort, there was no need to alter the original texts which I tested Hoffmann’s model with.  Below is a ‘postcard’ I made to illustrate this, and those who happen to understand how knitted fabrics are constructed will know that such patterns cannot be arbitrary or random.  They must balance.  Apparent absence from the text of articles, definite or indefinite, might be another item in favour of Hoffmann’s model.


The great problem, as readers doubtless realise, is that with any writing so very heavily abbreviated, it becomes almost impossible to be sure without knowing the language, subject and some comparative example, whether any posited expansion is valid.  Finding “sp” doesn’t tell us whether the writer was referring to a spelling error, or to a spoonful of some substance.

Marsilio Ficino’s book, the Liber Triplicitas has been translated into a number of modern languages,  English among them, so I won’t expand on it here.


[1.] d’Imperio p.7.  d’Imperio also records (p. 8) that Lehmann-Haupt said in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November, 1963 that “there is a near agreement on the date of the CIPHER manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400.”  Experts then were just as expert as experts now, and all the more to be admired for having fewer laboratory methods and data-sets available to them.

[2] William Royall Newman, ‘The Summa Perfectionis and late medieval alchemy: A study of medieval chemical traditions, techniques and theory in thirteenth century Italy’, Harvard Dissertation (PhD), 1986.  I have those details from Adam McClean’s website  where you can read the thesis’ abstract. I also have access to a paper by Newman entitled, ‘Arabo-Latin forgeries: the case of the Summa Perfectionis…’  Unfortunately the copy does not include publication details.  What I have said above about Paul of Taranto and the seventeenth century English physicians comes from these two works by Newman.

*Postscript note: This post was already written and in queue when I received a note to the previous one, Nick Pelling suggesting my opinion of d’Imperio’s book needs balancing. Ironically, the reason I wrote what I did was to provide a more balanced view of its content, which does not still deserve the reputation accorded it. 🙂

Palaeography and orthography – nat eveyon wret wol. Pt1

I wonder whether the written text in the Voynich manuscript hasn’t defied efforts to understand it for much the same reason that the imagery is so easily misinterpreted: not because it is the product of a devious or secretive mind but because the past century’s accumulated assumptions and presumptions include some small error overlooked. In the case of the Voynich botanical images, for example, the basic error was a failure to examine the older idea that the pictures were the product of some European ‘artist’ and formed a medical type of Latin herbal. Unexamined premises are a constant source of error, because the researcher is so easily misled into thinking that a logical structure is sufficient to justify, retrospectively, whatever premise it was built on.

The picture which forms the current header and is shown again below demonstrates a form of Greek which was in use in Carpignano, in the toe of the Italian peninsula, during the late fourteenth century. Use of Greek in the peninsula did not begin with Bessarion’s arrival.

script Safran Sth Italy Gk

About the Voynich manuscript’s written text, one assumption  is near-universal: that if it conceals a plain text, that plain text will conform to “book-standards”:  with its language-use, grammar and orthography (spelling) clear, consistent and so on.

A cryptanalyst can assume nothing else, of course.  The whole science of cryptanalysis depends on assuming that an underlying plain text will convey, without ambiguity, one particular message or set of messages.  For this to occur, it must be formed as a “book” text.

Unfortunately, and despite its valuable substrate of vellum, its competent hands and a few expensive pigments, the Voynich manuscript is manifestly more likely to be a “non-book”- that is, of that other class of writings called ‘trivial’.

Forms of ‘trivial’ writing include rough copies made from older works, personal letters, shopping lists, lists of materia medica, theological notes, commercial documents and so forth.   They may, or may not be bound, but they are distinguished from  ‘second-grade books’  because book-standards of grammar, spelling and so forth may not be observed by the writer.  And their being ‘trivial’ in that sense does not preclude their having great historical importance.  Here’s an example of a most important ‘trivial’ writing: a page from the Bobbio Missal  (Paris, BNF lat. 13246).

Bobbio Missal page cropped

Inscribed in the seventh century,  probably in a town on the Rhône a little south from Lyons, the Missal was described thus by Burkett in 1925:

Nearly thirteen hundred years ago, in an obscure village .. in a district where French was the spoken language, near a convent of nuns, an old cleric once copied a Service-book. His hand was not very steady, but he wrote with a will…. The old scribe was trying to follow his original page for page. When he came to passages he knew by heart … he often cast a mere glance at his copy, and trusted his memory for the rest. He was …no purist in spelling or grammar. He wrote as he spoke, with ci for ti, soft g for j, and vice versa; and he had small regard for case or verb endings. …”

from F.C. Burkett, ‘The Bobbio Missal’, The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 26, No. 102 (January, 1925), pp. 177-179.

Compare that example with the Bobbio Orosius, written at much the same time, but which even at first glance presents as a ‘book’ and which closer inspection shows to be indeed a product worthy of that term. I apologise for the poor quality of the picture. 7thC insular Bobbio

A trivial work.

Quality in appearance, of course, does not necessarily imply quality of the content, but a trivial writing – a ‘non-book’ –  is so often no more than a rough copy of some standard text, or some ephemeral matter, that to dismiss a “non-book” is not uncommon now, and was routine in the last century when Wilfrid Voynich and then the Friedmans became preoccupied with the Voynich manuscript.

It was an unfortunate time as far as open-minded initial reception for the ‘ugly ducking’ was concerned.  The current idea of history had it a subject which should treat of  important themes, defined by important events and the actions of important persons: what we tend to call now “Kings and Things” history.

When Wilfrid Voynich discovered the manuscript, and recognised the contents as atypical, he first presumed it a product of Latin European culture and then from that assumption formed another: that the contents’ non-European appearance was the result of an effort to conceal content of enormous importance; importance being defined by reference to persons and subjects important in his time –  when Roger Bacon and big-S science were hot topics.  I believe he rightly recognised the object’s manufacture as compatible with Franciscan products of the late thirteenth century but otherwise his ‘history’ for the manuscript was a form of story-telling ~ so far as anyone has been able to determine.

William and Elizebeth Friedman saw history the same way as most of their generation.  William was born in 1891 and his future wife Elizebeth in 1892.  Like Wilfrid, they thought it self-evident that any manuscript worthy of attention must be linked in some way to themes, persons and events of importance to Europe’s idea of its history, and that history scarcely referred to any place below the 32nd parallel of latitude, unless it were the site of a battle.  Such presumptions only served to further inflate the already excessive emphasis which Wilfrid had given the  ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ – a  perfunctory last note in a letter which Marcus Marci had written to Athanasius Kircher.

Less elevated historical themes were scarcely treated before the second world war;  economic history was emerging but still openly derided by the older scholars;  social history (initially dismissed as “laundry list history”) effectively arrived with Braudel. Womens’ history was unheard of and would not appear until the 1970s.  “Kings and Things’ was pretty much it, save for Lynn Thorndike’s magnificent study, one that left him an islolated figure for decades.

William Friedman’s request for financial support to continue his efforts to ‘break’ the Voynich text might then have been predicted to be rejected by the academic board in question, but on learning that the grounds were that the content was ‘probably trivial’, outrage rather than understanding followed.

Mary d’Imperio was later given the task of recording the Friedman group’s unsuccessful  efforts to interpret the text and imagery, so let her tell the story:

Some students of the manuscript, and others … have advanced the view that its content can have no value for science or for the study of human thought. Tiltman… says, “I do not in any case imagine there is anything historically or scientifically important contained in the manuscript” ( 1951, p. I)… Elizebeth Friedman [apparently said] “It appears to be gibberish to many serious-minded academics, who are apt to scoff at the idea that its solution would be of any value to science or learning, as did a great foundation to which [William] Friedman once applied for a grant for the detailed study of the manuscript. In the opinion of the board, a solution would not advance human knowledge. The manuscript probably contains only trivia, the board said.” (1962)

(I’ve added  red asterisks to  outmoded, ill-founded, unfounded, hypothetical, erroneous, presumptive, disproven or entirely hypothetical assertions in the next paragraph):

I must confess that I can see little justice in the reasoning of those “academics”* who dismiss the Voynich manuscript out of hand, after what can only be* the most superficial attention. Even if it is, in fact, a fabrication* associated with the court of Rudolph II,* an understanding of who wrote* it, its passage from one to another of Rudolph’s* familiars, and the part it played* in the remarkable congeries of religious and political activities at Prague in those* times could prove to be of great interest. .. If the manuscript is a compilation, however “deranged”* or idiosyncratic,* drawn from earlier magical,* alchemical, or medical* works, it has at least as much intrinsic interest and “scientific’ import for the history of Western* thought as do other similar* manuscripts which are readable, and concern only one topic (i.e.. they are either astrological* or alchemical* or medical*). Reputable scholars apparently see no waste of time in studying “plaintext” manuscripts of this* type, and may spend much of their lives so occupied”.

Cryptologists tend to revere William Friedman, not as an historian but for his having broken a Japanese military cipher during the second world war.  Transferring that admiration to his interest in the Voynich manuscripts has proven, overall, a hindrance to this study. d’Imperio’s fifty-year old book, filled as it is with wrong perceptions and assumptions has been raised to a status more appropriate to a work of holy writ.  The Table of Contents, alone, testifies to the Friedmans’ limited vision of history, and biases characteristic of early twentieth century. One cannot imagine that it would occur to either of the Friedmans that the content in the Voynich manuscript might have been first compiled by an anonymous dyer working in Venice; or by an  Alexandrian shop-keeper;  a north African mariner; a Turkish map-maker;  a member of the Karimi in Yemen; a Christian in India; an anonymous clerk in Naples or even –  if it were first composed in Europe – that any scientific content might come from a sober Jewish lineage, uninfluenced by any form of magic.  One finds little  evidence of any informed study of the imagery by any member of the group.

More examples of ‘trivial’ writings in the next post a little while. The next post returns to our pilgrimage, but meanwhile  here’s another fragment recovered from the Cairo geniza: it’s a list of goods prepared for shipment from Tunis.

script Geniza inventory Tunis
Cf “… categories or classes of words with coded endings or other affixes…” Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma p.42.  🙂





A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 3b-iii

Non-Mediterranean Plants in MS Beinecke 408, in medieval Cairo, and in Sicily before 1065 AD … continued.

Here’s the rest of the previous post; I thought you might like a few days to cope with the first part. Time is so short and the entries for these plants so short in Lev and ‘Amar that I’m hoping Brill won’t object to my reproducing them here (less than 1%) . If they do, I’ll come back and transcribe.


For the plant-group on folio 52r, (sometimes as:  fol. 52r-1), I’ve described one element as referring to G.herbaceum. To find information about cotton fabrics and their trade is easy enough, but medical uses not so much, so here’s the entry:

VM 52r-i
fol. 52r-1

Cotton geniza______________

fol 96v
fol 96v

Among those I’ve suggested for the group referenced by folio 96v is Cubeb pepper (P.cubeba), see here together with ‘long pepper’ (P. longam).

P. cubeba
P. cubeba








It was not as firm an identification as the others were: I still think the image could refer to what I have described as  ‘Spinach-leaf [-ed] berry vines’, and Ellie Velinska has  also seen Chenopodium here, as I mentioned in the post of Feb. 28th., 2013. Sorry if my opinion sounds dilatory or ambivalent, but the image doesn’t include enough information to allow me to express greater certainty. If fact, given that Cubeb pepper- and the spinach-vine plants I mention all have a similar habit,  leaf and form, and all were dietary staples, so it is quite possible in my opinion that the person who first constructed the image regarded them all as having a common nature and intended reference to all, as one group.

Cubeb pepper Geniza


Folio 25r: D. cinnabari (formerly D. draco)’

de Conti 7 VM fol 25vdetail beast
fol. 25r

I  finish with the first image for which I published an explanation, optimistic (in 2009) that it would be of immediate assistance to, and happily received by, those  interested in understanding the manuscript. What I received by response over the following seven years modified  that initial optimism.  Until early this year, the process of sharing the research and its conclusions online was met with an atmosphere which leads one to agree with Pelling that the online environment, and study of this manuscript, has become “a bad place” for a scholar to be. Though I have published online the equivalent of two full volumes of original investigations and conclusions, they are chiefly mined for new “ideas” and the recurring pattern suggests that such an “idea” only inspires an adherent of the all European theory once the body of evidence and argument presented here reaches a certain critical mass. At that point, however, the evidence and argument are not so much addressed, or adopted, as an attempt is made to create some ‘alternative’ version which will permit the ‘all-European-authorship’ theory to settle down again. To differ from a seminal study is not unusual. To pretend it does not exist, or to avoid addressing the detailed evidence and argument in order to convey an impression that no such study exists, is a phenomenon peculiar to Voynich studies. Protest on behalf of the scholar, or of readers who will be mislead, usually leads to some response along the lines that the decision to pretend the earlier work does not exist is a matter of ‘principle’.  Go figure.

Note: The passage below, from ‘Amar and Lev, has a couple of errors. The Soqotran dracaena tree (D. cinnabari) was endemic to that island and its resin is generally known as the ‘dragonsblood’. I have not discovered evidence of the tree’s growing naturally in Sumatra, though I am of the opinion that the Sumatran and Javanese type of Dracaena form the subject of folio 3r (see below).  Taxonomic descriptions have also altered over time, on which see comment following.

Dracaena Geniza“Taxonomic description …”

D. draco was long the term by which the Soqotran tree was described, and as late as 2009 when I published (a year after the publication of the book by ‘Amar and Lev), most of the sources available to me still used that description. However, at some stage the taxonomists had decided to change things about, and now D. draco refers to the Mediterranean ‘dragonsblood’ palm which grows in the south-western Mediterranean.   In the passage reproduced above, there is mention of a merchant’s letter which was sent to Cairo and preserved there, and which refers to dragonsblood among things needed in Palermo.  Now, had the species in question been that from northwest Africa and Iberia there would have been no need to write to Cairo; that the letter went there indicates that the substance was the imported variety. As late as the nineteenth century, Mrs. Grieves still treats the Soqotran tree’s resin as “the” dragonsblood, and the only one suitable for pharmaceutical use.  In practice, of course, the variegated Sumatran and Javanese dracaenas may have been used just as often, and the presence of both plants in Beinecke MS 408 would certainly suggest that they were.

folio 3v comparisons
Analysis of this folio as the group defined by the “Javanese dracaena” was published on ‘Findings’ – now closed to the public. I described the group by reference to Java, rather than to Sumatra as ‘Amar and Lev do but as any glance at a map will tell you, these places are adjacent.

More examples from the botanical ids which I’ve offered could be added to the list, but these should establish my point well enough – that there is no reason to suppose Beinecke MS 408’s botanical section inconsistent with the trade (in regard to exotic species) which existed between Egypt and  Sicily before the Norman period.

In citing documents from the Cairo geniza, I repeat, I’m not trying prove these identifications correct, but that the inclusion of the exotics which I identify in MS Beinecke 408 is not incompatible with evidence of the trade in exotics into Egypt and thence to Sicily  before the texts were composed which we now associate with the  ‘Salernitan’ school.  I can find no evidence that the imagery now in this section of the manuscript had come to Latin notice or possession any earlier than the mid- to late- thirteenth century,* for the habit of Latin scribes had been immediately to reform  ‘foreign’  imagery to accord with their own theology and traditions in art. Had it come earlier, it would not have its present form. By the early fourteenth century, however, interest was growing among the few in both the content and the form of  ‘antique’ documents.

* the central emblems within the calendar section offer a possible exception, but the external tiers do not.

I do not believe that the botanical imagery in this manuscript is a ‘herbal’.  Its plants are not only, or even primarily, ones which relate to pharmacy.  They include plants of use only as  provisions, or for materials needed to maintain the ship and caravan, and goods such as paper and ink are referenced.  In addition, other folios depict maritime routes, or charts that – in my opinion – relate to calculations of time, tide, and the stars and winds of navigation.

The Karimi merchants, and before them the Radhanites,  are the most likely groups to have earlier access to matter now in the manuscript.

From this part of the Via Francigena, en route to Canterbury, our postcard.  It is one made in 2013, in the hope that where evidence and argument had failed, a simpler image might. 🙂



A revisionist revisits… Canterbury 3b-ii

The aim of this post (or paper, since it is over 2,500 words) is to establish whether the content in folio 22r, and in other sections as I’ve explained them, is consistent with the historical records, and to show that this image being included limits possibilities about the ways, and period, within which the botanical section is likely to have come to the view of Latin Europeans. I regret that a near-complete absence of reference to my work on “Voynich”-specific sites means that I must also include more reference to my own earlier work than I or the reader might wish.[1]

Since we are still in the south, in what was once ‘Magna Graecia’, I should have liked to spend some time explaining the demographics of the southern Italian peninsula and Sicily, not least to counter the myth that the population and culture was in any meaningful sense “Langobardic” by the twelfth century, but while the matter is crucial to understanding the environment from which this older and eastern medicine (and materia medica) ‘exploded’ into the Latins’ corpus, I doubt that many researchers into the Voynich manuscript care to be provided with quite so much background.🙂

And since most are well acquainted with the fact that many medical texts came in Arabic and were translated into Latin in Italy by Constantine the African, or in Iberia  (usually by bilingual or multilingual Jews, though the works emerged under formal attribution to Gerard of Cremona), I do not think it important to review that matter, either.

The less often mentioned element in the new matter emerging from the Sicilian kingdom, and described as ‘Salernitan’  is the role of the Jews in southern Italy and Sicily.  Despite the clear evidence of the historical record both in Islam and in Latin Europe that Jewish physicians were numerous and very highly regarded for most of the medieval period, and that the traditions of the Salerno school include among the four ‘founders’ of its tradition not only those of the Greeks, Latins and Arabs but of the Jews, histories of western medical practice and pharmacy still constantly overlook the fourth. Hence my focus on it in this and subsequent posts.

Being neither an expert on the history of medicine nor of Jewish medical texts, and without access to Monica Green’s coming study of the Great Antidotary, I’ve decided to document the trade in eastern materia medica by reference to the traders’ letters which were preserved in the Cairo geniza, as edited and translated by Efraim Lev and Zohar Amar,  Practical Materia Medica of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean According to the Cairo Genizah (Brill, 2008) [2]

I will begin by emphasising that my opinions about the manuscript’s imagery – throughout – began by a concerted analysis of the images, with the aim merely of finding the historical, geographical and cultural context within which they sat naturally.  The idea that they are “bizarre” is simply a by-product of a viewer’s having nothing similar in their existing range of knowledge; the aim of iconographic analysis is to correct that impression by reference to internal analysis and contextual information.

Having done this initial work, the next step was to disentangle the various indications of chronology and establish a chronological stratification,  the diverse elements and influences then set in order according to their period – cross-referencing with the cultural and regional sets into which they fitted most naturally.

This was followed by a more intense stage of analytical treatment of, and commentary upon, particular folios.

Into this stage (reached by the end of 2010) belong my analyses of the map (folio 86v/85v-and-86r) and of the botanical folios.

Having thus come to the point where I felt the material could be explained in terms of its origin, evolution and (finally) its transmission into Latin Europe, I began writing more about the historical background per se.

Thus, my identifying the subject of 22r as the ‘Myrobalans’ group* was not due to any intention to find support for any preferred theory about the manuscript, its ‘author’ or nationality or any other among the factors which inform the great majority of ideas and writings promoted in connection with this manuscript.  It was solely a product of learning the visual ‘language’ informing these images, and then – in effect – translating them.  I have no vested interest in hunting support for any personal hunch-as-‘theory’: what opinions I have are opinions gained as a conclusion after  close study of the imagery, and by constantly consulting the history of art, of cultures, anthropology, social and economic histories and other pertinent matter. Thus, my conclusions are limited to opinions about the imagery.  If it were proven tomorrow that the written part of the text is sixteenth century Italian, it would neither disturb me nor affect my conclusions. A full translation, however, can be expected to highlight flaws in either.🙂

FOLIO 22r: Myrobalans group.

* analysis and commentary on this folio was published elsewhere, but repeated in the present blog here (Pt 1) and  here (Pt 2).

The identififol.22r-i Myrobalans croppedcation came from the structure and form of the image on folio 22r.  I have only just now begun reading the text by Lev and Amar from which I will quote, but to investigate the history of Myrobalans’ use, and the question of whether that history is compatible with what has been said so far, I  refer to their translation and discussion of texts found in the Cairo geniza, whose documents cover a period from the ninth to the nineteenth century, and include matter related to every aspect of life, cultures, people, trades and events not only within medieval Cairo, or only among the Jews of Cairo, but of all within the regions linked to medieval Cairo and its peoples.

Within their book, Lev and  Amar begin (p.84) by saying that contrary to saffron, which was traded mainly in its region of origin in the Mediterranean, most myrobalan species were imported from tropical Asia and Africa where they were cultivated (India, Burma, Madagascar), coming first into eastern Mediterranean and from there exported westwards, to Europe. The Kabuli species was exported from Kabul in Afghanistan. In medieval medical literature, several species of Myrobalans are mentioned: ‘Yellow-‘ as the ripe fruit of  Terminalia citrina, and ‘Black-‘ as its unripe fruit;  Indian myrobalan (Terminalia arjuana); Beleric myrobalan (Terminalia bellerica); Emblica myrobalan (Terminalia emblica); Cherbulic myrobalan (Terminalia chebula). The authors add the Arabic and occasionally the Hebrew terms.

This agrees with my findings about folio 22r.

The authors also note (on which see my earlier discussion of the ‘pictorial annotation’ at the roots’ position in f.22r) a number of other purposes for myrobalans, and it is clear these too were well known by the eleventh century –  and thus no doubt added to the reasons for purchase and recommendations of the good by the seller to his prospective client.

The authors make the important point that Myrobalans were unknown to the classical Greek physicians, and were introduced to the Mediterranean during the ninth and tenth centuries, becoming a ‘hit’  in the Arabic speaking world, and that myrobalan is the most commonly specified ingredient in the many pharmaceutical remedies, lists, glossaries and texts which have been recovered from the geniza.

On p.84-5 it is noted that Myrobalan was imported to Egypt through the trading routes of the Indian Ocean. From Aden (Yemen) it was transported to Egypt through the port of Ghadhab [apparently a romanisation of ‘Aydhab. – D]. [3]

Many Genizah fragments such as letters between merchants based in Fustat and Alexandria, deal with the trade in myrobalan. From Egypt, cargoes of Indian and yellow myrobalan were exported to Quayrawan and Sicily through Madhdiyya. Cargoes were also sent from Egypt to the Levant: to the ports of Ascalon, Tyre and Tripoli, and thence over land to the interior. According to the Geniza documents, myrobalan of Egyptian origin was sold in Jerusalem although the precise route is not clear. .. Sometimes the order to sell to a merchant in the west was sent from Fustat through Alexandria to a merchant in the west… A merchant in Alexandria writes a letter (1062 AD), “Chebulic myrobalan has no market…” A year later, the market was rising [Lev quotes the prices]. By 1065, the price had doubled, with the fine … In 1065 ten mann [weight of fine chebulic myrobalans] were sold to a middleman in Sicily for 3.3 dinars“.[emphasis mine -D]

Further notes in a later section of the book include (p.218) the fact that although the Myrobalan fruits’ use as a medical remedy had been well-known in India and in China from ‘early times’, the species find no mention in the Greek and Roman medical treatises, and that most of the species used came from India and from Madagascar.

This range of the species imported agrees well with my own conclusions about folio 22r,  drawn from consideration of the style in which the imagery is composed in the botanical section, the apparent range over which the plants depicted naturally occur,  stylistic characteristics in the present botanical images and the fact that the range and reference appears almost entirely limited to places and goods across the southern, maritime, route that extends from southeast Asia in the east to the head of the Red Sea (and/or Persian Gulf) at the western end.

The relevant section of the Voynich manuscript’s ‘world’ map,[4] and indeed the form and style in which the map is composed, and the fact that its main body omits reference to any site in mainland Europe, together with its lacking any reference to Jerusalem or to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, also accords with the information about the entrepots from which myrobalans were distributed, and thus inclines me to see an original connection between the source from which the map was obtained by Latins, and that which brought the botanical information.

While I’m inclined to believe the botanical folios passed from Syria to the Latin world, their having been obtained from a “thesauros artis medicae aegyptiacos”  in Cairo or even in Alexandria –  as Baresch believed-  is not impossible in the least, though could not have occurred earlier than about the middle of the eleventh century, and I should date the transmission of the botanical folios to the west – as I’ve said before and often – to not earlier than the middle of the twelfth century.

Readers are referred to the book by Lev and  Amar, where the Arabic and/or Hebrew terms are given, with footnotes following almost every sentence, and which refer to a specific Geniza document, to other comparative material, to specifics of palaeography, prices for particular goods at a given time, to the various forms of script and which were used for a particular purpose etc.etc.  One hopes this may aid those labouring over the text’s written part.

In sum: Myrobalans of the type identified in folio 22r were indeed being brought into Sicily by the mid-eleventh century, and to some within the island  were already so well known that they were specified by type and grade,  the finest was being ordered directly from Jewish contacts in Cairo by 1065, by which time Normans efforts to control the island had begun, but were not to succeed until another six years had passed.

By that time, however, Jewish Sicilians already had a long history in the island and on the mainland in Salerno.  Because time is short, I will quote the wiki article on the last point, but readers are welcome to challenge and investigate the information, of course. I correct a couple of typographical errors in the original:

“An inscription on a tombstone testifies to a Jewish settlement in Salerno, possibly as early as the 3rd or 4th century. By the Middle Ages, the town was known for a medical school founded by Jews around the year 800. Jews are mentioned in town records in 872. The Jewish quarter of Salerno is also mentioned in 1005. When Benjamin of Tudela visited Salerno in 1159, he found 600 Jews living in the area. Because of the persecutions in southern Italy around 1290–94, many Jewish families were forcibly baptized.



[1] The codicological discussion of Beinecke MS 408 identifies two distinct sections or phases in the botanical section. I am not entirely convinced that the argument applies to the section, rather than to the script.   I have yet to discuss the Myrobalans’ inclusion in the Nestorian “Syriac Book of Medicine” which was copied and then translated by Wallis Budge.  The index entries can be seen here.  Wallis Budge’s introductory essay appears in Volume 1, together with the Syriac transcription. (here), but apart from noting that the dimensions of the book are “thirteen and a half inches by nine and a half inches” and that the original was in a fine Syriac hand, Budge offers no comment on the artefact, nor hazards a guess about its date. Internal references show influences from India (especially the content of the Brht Samhita), from Greek and from older Egyptian sources among others.

[2]  I would draw readers’ attention to an important publication later than that by Lev and Amar,  and which treats a multilingual Synonym lists composed by a Provençal writer of the eleventh thirteenth century.  Myrobalans are also mentioned there.  Shem Tov ben Isaak (of Tortosa) (author), and Gerrit Bos and Martina Hussein (eds.), Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov Ben Isaac of Tortosa: ‘Sefer Ha-Shimmush’. Book 29: Part1: Edition and Commentary of List 1 (Hebrew – Arabic – Romance/Latin). Chebulic and ‘yellow’ myrobalans on pp.184-185.  The Book of Asaf, which I had reason to mention briefly (here), is also discussed in the Introduction to the translation of Ben Isaac’s work, with further references given (p.31) In 2012  Ephraim Lev delivered a lecture to the Royal Asiatic Society on the history of the Geniza discoveries  which can be heard and/or downloaded here. He reaches the pharmaceutical matter near -22m. and makes the interesting point that while the main texts are in Arabic, Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, numbers are not rarely written in Coptic. He translates one recipe word by word in the broadcast, nothing that it blends Hebrew and Arabic ‘in a beautiful way’ though if the text of the Voynich manuscript is of a similar kind, I doubt that reactions will be so positive.

[3] I have also had reason to spend some time on the subject of the originally Ptolemaic port, and the landscape pictured on f.72v.  Readers interested in that information should search the name of the port or the folio number for related posts.

[4] I refer here to my original identification of the folio as a map, and detailed analysis of it, which was published through “voynichimagery” piecemeal from 2011.  I find myself unable to recommend, either in general or in any particular, some subsequent efforts made to re-work conclusions mis-interpreted as “an idea” of mine.  The effort to offer an alternative, one which limited the informing matter to the region and culture of Christians in Europe was done badly, for example, by Marco Ponzi in posts to Stephen Bax’ blog, and the later (and still worse) paper by  J Wastl & D.Feger whose writings suggest to me that neither has much background in any relevant field.