Black Sea -Treaty of Milan 1b



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


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

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


Preacher fleur partizan

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

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

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


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

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






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

fol 86v minimap castle

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

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


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

‘Imperial’ merlons.

swallowtail from the medieval Genoese port of Caffa

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


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












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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

… continued..



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Black Sea – Treaty of Milan Pt.1a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Not too long now.

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

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

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

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

A note about “theory-wars”

A silly bit of anonymous writing, attempting to use reverse psychology to damn all opinion save that which the anonymous writer ascribes to  “Pelling, Zandbergen and Wikipedia” was recently published by Pelling in a post to ciphermysteries.

I have now received half a dozen emails from correspondents suggesting one or another person as author of that  lumpen satire… so unfunny that Pelling failed to see it for what it was – an invitation to snigger at, and hate, absolutely everyone who cannot agree with him about the nature of content in a fifteenth-century manuscript.

Among the names which correspondents have mentioned – as guessed author of that thing – has been Pelling’s own.  This post is written to state my objection to such an attribution.

It is perfectly obvious to me, having read Pelling’s writings from the early 2000s to now:  in mailing lists, his book of 2006, his blogpost comments and his not-particularly-amiable emails to me, that the person who wrote that ghastly thing absolutely cannot  have been Pelling.

Pelling writes true English; the ‘epistle’ writer writes an English dialect: I’d judge it one of the American dialects of English.

Pelling had what is called – in a particular tone – a  “good education” – which implies education in the critical sciences.  He could certainly not suppose, as the author of that tract does, that on a technical or a philosophical level “scientific” is synonymous with the “good, right, true and unarguable”.

Unlike the author of that lumpen effort, who hoped to use the snigger rather than the rational argument as a means to convince, when Pelling re-published the thing it was I believe because its supposed ‘humour’ was so very far from what he or those of his real-world friends think clever that he took it at face value, and published it as an act of indignation at what we saw (rightly, I think) as a scurrilous bit of defamatory rubbish.

What Pelling did not realise – though others have done – is that the author of that rubbish was not part of any dissident ‘theory-group’ but one of the members of the set with which Pelling has become increasingly often identified.

That, of course, is why someone sent him that email: expecting to strengthen the snigger-bond. And that association is why some believe Pelling capable of having written it.

Pelling has never tried to appeal in his posts to “us and them” divisions. His criticisms, right or wrong, have always been direct and usually name their target.

The snide remark, I’ll admit, is a speciality of Zandbergen’s and in recent times Pelling’s association with Zandbergen has been more evident – something the author of that tract recognises.

I not think  that is reason enough to argue that Pelling would now adopt an entirely different style of writing, nor such a method as a means to attack persons holding a different opinion about Beinecke MS 408.  He has – and certainly had – a saner sense of proportion.

Compare, for example, Pelling’s style when he criticised ‘Chinese Voynich theories’  with the intellectually lazy approach of the epistle-writer, who simply invents a non-existent theory and then ascribes it to one of the faceless and equally non-existent group: the alleged theory that the text is a   “Mongol shamanic songbook.”

There is no such theory. It is a fiction whose only aim is to reinforce the ‘snigger-bond’; to fictionalize and deride scholars or amateurs holding other views by conveying an impression that anyone not conforming to the views of “Zandbergen and Wikipedia” is irrational and to be read or mentioned only at the risk of being sent to Coventry.

Between Pelling and the writer of that email the differences are very clear indeed:   vocabulary, grammar and evident level of education; a mental construct which defines the style and content of critical comment; ideas of what does and doesn’t qualify as humour – even satirical humour.

On a less technical level, it is my own view that had Pelling written such a thing for private circulation, then found it had been made public, his first instinct would have been to ask  the blog-owner to remove it or to have plainly and publicly admitted authorship.

To do otherwise would have been very poor form:  not to take responsibility for one’s actions when inaction is likely to lead to blame being laid at the wrong person’s feet is one of those things that are simply ‘not done’ by ethical people.

Neither can I envisage Pelling’s trying to slide out of it by pretending that ghastly thing was just  ‘a harmless bit of fun, officer’.

Whatever you might believe about the ethics of it, that bit of propaganda had no relevance to this study, and had no purpose but to use denigration in place of reasoned argument and ‘snigger-bonding’ to overcome any tendency to independent thought within the group for whom it was originally written.

A sneer is not an argument; denigration of the scholar does not lessen the value of his evidence; what it does is ‘encourage the others’ not to read, cite or openly accept the scholar’s work. So it’s just one of the standard dirty tricks in an orthodox sort of sabotage. All it does is hinder and delay advance.

Which is yet another point against Pelling’s having created that pseudo-manifesto.

As we saw in months subsequent to Pelling’s meeting with  David Kahn   – dirty tricks  aren’t Pelling’s style, either.


I suppose you could call my defence of Pelling a sort of praising by faintly damning… but it is my honest and considered opinion that Pelling could not possibly have written that thing, and let no-one try to interpret my words to suggest otherwise.

Parrot and Fox



(detail) – Codex Cumanicus f.58

Some readers relish the oblique hint as much as the documented argument. For them, a couple of appetizers before  the promised series begins.

In case you’ve forgotten, that series is to pick up where “Clear Vision” ended, focusing now on the astronomical ‘ladies’,  traders based around the Black Sea during the Mongol period, the culture of Tabriz and the heritage of Greater Khorasan.

So – to mull over, meanwhile:

First …

In 2015 Nick Pelling  observed, almost as an aside, that the ‘ladies’ who are set in tiers around the month-roundels originally had only one breast each. It was an important observation, but as usual one that was greeted  not so much with keen intellectual curiosity as a dull attempt to make it seem unremarkable – a habit which has become so common among the all-European-Christian-author theorists that it is dreadfully predictable.  During the past decade the tactic has been employed ad nauseum: serving to stultify the study and render most new leads a cul-de-sac.

Second ..

It should be easy to find the books from which I took these two quotations. Some might like to hunt up the primary sources, too.

  1. “The majority of Greek, Syriac, Armenian and Latin sources call the mountains “Breasts of the North” (bezzay garbya; Arm: stink’ hiwsisi; Gk: mazoi tou borra; Lat.ubera aquilonis)”

2. “European male audiences liked the image of a woman with a sword or bow, so long as she was far from them”.


Leonard Fox.

Concerning the Cuman language that was spoken around the Black Sea during the ‘Mongol century’ and which was for a time a major common language across the high northern roads, I should say that I intend to credit Leonard Fox with having first mentioned Cuman and Karaite in relation to Beinecke MS 408 though I’d welcome correction if any reader should know better.

(I should stress that this credit isn’t meant to imply an argument that Voynichese is Cuman, or  Karaite or any combination of the two.  The matter relates to the routes and times by which matter now in Beinecke 408 had come to western Europe – most particularly that in the imagery of the ‘ladies’/’nymphs’ folios).

On  6th. November 2004, Fox wrote (among other things) to the first mailing list:

The Codex Cumanicus was reproduced in a beautiful facsimile edition, bound in half-parchment, sometime in the mid-1930s by Munksgaard, the Danish publisher, with an introduction by the great Altaic scholar Kaare Gronbech. .. My old friend and colleague, Peter Golden, has written several essays on the work (one or two reproduced online), and indicates that the Turkic language in the text is quite closely related to Karaim – a language with which I grew up at home, my family having been Karaites from the Crimea … The samples of vocabulary I have seen are, indeed, very reminiscent of Karaim words… There is material on the Coman-Polovtsian connection with Karaim and the Karaites in Simon Szyszman’s book “Le Karaisme: ses doctrines et son histoire,” published by L’Age d’Homme in Paris. There is a German translation available, and my English translation of the book is still in search of a publisher (if anyone knows of a press interested in issuing a book on Karaism and the Karaites, please let me know!). I have heard that a Lithuanian translation was published a couple of years ago, but I have not seen it (there was an important Karaite community in Troki, Lithuania, the remnants of which still live in the area).

Fox is right to describe the Karaites’ dialect as  Karaim but its sounding so like “Karimi” has caused confusion in the past so that today the tendency is rather to describe the community and their language as ‘Karaite’ and to reserve “Karimi” for the somewhat enigmatic “guild’ of eastern traders whose focus was the eastern trade from Egypt, through Aden, southern India and perhaps to as far as southeast Asia.

One might, I suppose, make some argument along the lines that Stokjo’s asserting Voynichese “vowel-less Ukranian”  was the first time that attention had been directed to the north and to a non-European script – one from which vowels might be omitted.

However,  Stokjo’s strong nationalistic sentiments clearly biased his perception of history  (as such sentiments usually do) and he asserted that Voynichese was  “Ukrainian”   – not Cuman nor Karaite/Karaim.

Bibliographic sources:

Fox mentioned a couple of texts:

“For those on the list who read Russian, a short (60 pages) work on the Codex [Cumanicus] by Aleksandr Garkavets was published this year in Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan): “Codex Cumanicus: Kypchako-polovetskie teksty XIII-XIV vekov.” The ISBN is5-7667-3619-3.


A longer study (143 pages) is: “Der Codex Cumanicus: Entstehung und Bedeutung,” by Dagmar Drüll (Stuttgart, 1979).

  • The article  ‘ Codex Cumanicus‘ in The Encyclopaedia Iranica is good, and is linked to others on the Ossetic Language group, starting here.

At voynichimagery,  I began mentioning  Cuman and Karaites rather later, unaware of Fox’  earlier comments.  The earliest mention of Karaites in this blog dates to 2013, a link to the posts  here; Cuman from 2012, a link to those posts here;  to the Karimi (not Karaites) from 2012: link to those posts here.  I’d mentioned them all before that, but in posts now closed to general readers.

Some years later, the Cuman theme (alone) cropped up at  Stephen Bax’ site.


Movement in the field.

Of late there has a sudden stir somewhere in the  “all-Christian-European-author” camp. It seems that a solid stream of evidence, comparative imagery and historical argument which shows how improbable that theory is, and how constantly opposed by the primary evidence has finally pushed the adherents of that older story to seek some way to adjust their fences.

Some are  hustling towards Bar Hebraeus and Aristotle, apparently as a ‘nicer’ option to admitting influence from Theophrastus  and the  non-Latin cultures whose stamp is so plain in the imagery.

Bar Hebraeus was a Syrian, but had been converted to Christianity. His father was a  Jewish physician.  One can see what a neat solution it would be to a number of the most obvious objections to the “all Latin Christian” story.   Bar Hebraeus’ treatment of Aristotle –  to whom Theophrastus’ texts were commonly and wrongly attributed – would offer a way to make the Syrian and Jewish characteristics in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery “really Latin Christian” after all. And, of course, by staring into space while talking about Aristotle, it would be possible to pretend ignorance of the eight years’ research published by me, and in which I’ve repeatedly explained that the system informing construction of the botanical images is compatible with the Theophrastan view rather than the Dioscoridan.

Really – a neat way to patch an increasingly leaky boat: to normalise the manuscript’s very unusual (‘alien’) imagery; to turn Hellenistic Greek into something “really a product of a Latin Christian auteur”, and to have the imagery’s Syrian and Jewish characteristics deemed – in effect – nihil obstat.

But why anticipate  intellectual dishonesty on such a scale?  Decency might intervene. Better to just wait and see, isn’t it?.

The parrot sketch above from the article ‘Codex Cumanicus’ and Wiki commons.




folio 49v – two stanzas?


Given that thousands  can be supposed to have pored over the Voynich script these past 115 105 years, I’m fairly sure that the following points have been noticed before, in general or in particular.  However, my search engine turns up  no precedent for the critical bit, so I’ve decided to post something – partly to interest readers and partly in the hope that if any kind reader knows of a genuine precedent they will direct me to it.

The ‘critical bit’  is reference to the Rondeau with its thirteen-line form, I suppose.[2]

Some Voynich writers have formed an impression from the fact that fol.49v shows a narrow column of  glyphs in parallel to the rest, that this folio is an enumerated text.


As I’ve pointed out before, though, we often see this position for the initial letters of a line when the text is a  poem or some matter very likely to be memorised.   I’ve already shown a few examples where the habit is clearer than in the next detail, but in token of the ‘Greek’ theme, I use this.  It was first included in a couple of posts published in 2015, as I  looked into a few matters related to  the style of Voynich letters. It shows the hand, and poetry, of a Cretan named Marcus Musurus ( 1470- 1517) who lived for a time in fifteenth century Florence.[3] His name hadn’t cropped up in Voynich studies before then.Burney MS 96 f144r detail verses by Musurus Cretan 1490s sml

So – it would not be an unreasonable hypothesis that on f.49v we see two thirteen-line stanzas.

To take the ‘thirteen-lines’ as possibly the result of translating, or even of enciphering, a  Rondeau would not be unreasonable either since the Rondeau was normally formed of ten- or of thirteen lines, though a twelve-line is also known.

Given that it was not uncommon for poetry to be written with the initial letters of each line distanced from the rest,  so one might reasonably hypothesise further that the column of glyphs on folio 49v should be regarded in that way: not as enumeration but as the series of initial letters for these lines.

An hypothesis is not a  “theory” in any meaningful sense, of course.  It’s  just another notion, set in the waiting-room pending clearance.

What is more – and as many of my readers know perfectly well – rigorous testing of the hypothesis by seeking contrary evidence tends to lead to results that are more solid and more enduring than that produced by hunting only items in support.   So often has the second approach been seen in Voynich studies, though, that I’ve come to think of it as a generic: ” c-e Crossbowman fallacy”.

Having come this far now,  the hypothesis must consider five Arabic numerals which appear in the left-hand margin.


By Pelling and others they have sometimes been supposed, together with that column of glyphs, to represent earlier efforts at the text’s decryption.[4]

The ‘Rondeau’ hypothesis does allow a different, but consistent, explanation – viz. that the numerals 1-5 are there to remind a musician or singer that this particular Rondeau (if such it be) is  a Rondeau cinquain.

This is where we should shift from hypothesising to investigation, enquiry and the hunt for weakness in the theory. And in my view, the first person to do that – before floating any hypothesis into the fog –  should always be the same person from whose mind any ‘bright idea’ first comes.  Ideally.

In this case, I’ll just transcribe the next item on the agenda: “Does the pattern of the Rondeau, and of the Rondeau cinquain in particular, accord with the form given the written text on folio 49v?”

The -cinquain rhyme pattern runs “ AABBA–aab–AAB–aabba–AABBA and  thanks to wiki commons, I can illustrate how text and music interact in  forms of Rondeau.


Before getting too deeply entranced by the hypothesis, this is when one has to step back and see how it accords or not from the broader historical background, and the many specific items so far treated in one’s earlier research.

Since most of my own observations and research have followed this pattern of observation, followed by the asking of testing questions, the study of history and the various other subjects ancillary to iconographic analyses, so by now I have a fair bit of matter which might offer objection to the “stanzas” idea.  None does.

I think that I’ve already posted enough to show why I place little value on the ‘central European’ hypothesis, but also why I think that the manuscript and the historical context offer enough to turn attention to the period between the mid-twelfth to late fourteenth century – not as when the manuscript was physically made, but the time when the works from which its sections were copied had taken their present form.

I’ve also shown why we should focus on regions where, at that time,  Occitan and Judeo-Catalan were spoken, and sometimes even written:  northern Spain to northern France, and including regions closely influenced by those regions during that period.  Among them were, for example, Mallorca and the Morea.

Artur Sixto’s case for the month-inscriptions’ language as a Judeo-Catalan dialect seemed always treated with less attention that the content of his argument deserved – or so I thought.  I was also dismayed to see efforts to diminish or wave away the observations made by Don Hoffmann in relation to the orthography of the month-names.  He showed a close correspondence exists to what we find on astronomical instruments (one in particular) attributed to Picardy c.1400.  Ellie Velinska had a “royal court of France” theory as early as c.2o11, but since then she has ceased to work as an independent scholar and become one of a team working to find support for a common theory.

I’ve had reason to discuss the early phase of Opus Francigenum, its glass and style for depicting Sagittarius in that medium.

So how  does all this (and much else) fit with the history of the Rondeau?  Pretty well, it seems.  The American Academy of Poets says:

The rondeau began as a lyric form in thirteenth-century France.

Not bad.

And forgive my smiling at this, but it is not even a week since I debated this  matter of the written text’s date as against  first enunciation of most of the manuscript’s  imagery and gave it as my view that although there is no denying the antiquity of so much of the imagery,  I thought it most likely that the written part was first composed during the Mongol century. The ‘Mongol century’ is dated  1271–1368.

So – no obvious problems with this hypothesis so far –  which doesn’t prove that folio 49v contains two stanzas, or that the form is a Rondeau.  Hypothesis stays in the waiting room, still.

However – and I’ve also been at pains to show, this period is precisely when Calais was part of the realm of England, and when  scholars routinely went from England (including Oxford)  to study in Paris. After 1305, we also see many travelling to the papal court of Avignon with its remarkable library.  Scholars from other parts of Europe did the same, of course.  And about Avignon I think I’ve presented enough to show why I consider papal Avignon relevant to our study.

The late thirteenth-century saw expulsions of Jews from France and England, after which both regions show evidence that the wealth gained by such means included intellectual as well as other forms of capital.

And then, to top all this.  In 1415   – slap in the middle of the date-range for the Voynich manuscript’s vellum (1405-1438) – we have the battle which soon saw ‘France’ still more ‘English’ – the battle of Agincourt.

But all the above notwithstanding the hypothesis about the text on f.49v as a ‘Rondeau’ is still just an hypothesis. More cross-examination is in order.

Accounting for the Refrain

In addition to its verse,  a Rondeau  included a refrain.  Is there any sign of one on f.49v?  In fact, the way that refrain was formed was so very simple and easily worked out that if it were not written, it wouldn’t kill this hypothesis.  The Rondeau’s refrain was made by taking the first two words of the first line and repeating them.  Easy enough to understand if the scribe hadn’t bothered to write it out in full.

Each stanza on f.49v ends with the following ‘vord’,

fol-49v-8aiid– which brings us to another yellow “Caution”

When any person look at that ‘vord’ what they think they see will be determined by the limits of their present knowledge.  So what appears to be a ‘plausible’ rendering, or a ‘plausible’ explanation is less a matter of relative truth in such cross-disciplinary studies as a measure of belief.

Switching from an objective to a personal acceptance of information can occur at a level that by-passes conscious thought.  Falling for a ‘plausible’ argument has thus less to do with an individual’s intelligence, than his nature.

As example –  not only Nick Pelling but many acutely intelligent persons before him had perceived the last part of that “vord” shown above through the lens of their assumption that the posited “plain text” must be Latin or Italian (as indeed it could prove to be).

However, that untested expectation, an hypothesis, led to perception that the second part of that “vord” shown above was a series of ‘small case” Latin alpha-numerics; then that these were to be read as number and finally (given the highly-elaborated theory proposed by Pelling in 2006) that these ‘numerals’ encoded Arabic numerals.

I’m referring to opinions expressed in Pelling’s book (2006) and it is possible that he has since modified his earlier opinions, though for years he held tenaciously to the same ideas that he had published in Curse of the Voynich.

On the other hand, it would appear that Landini saw the final glyph in that ‘vord’ as less resembling the Latin “v” than the Greek “n” – so his EVA transcription renders the end of that ‘vord’ as “aiin”.  All those who adopted Landini’s EVA transcription, including Pelling, now use the same convention.

How much wider they might have cast their net before settling on their several hypotheses is an interesting question, but just because I’ve recently compared some Voynich glyphs to some early Coptic ones, here’s a table from which you can work out how the same ‘vord’ might have been interpreted by a medieval Christian of Egypt.


As a rule, I post the results obtained after researching every one of the questions on the research agenda for a given folio, but on reflection I think I won’t do that this time. (It’s not as if one expects cheers and raised glasses to follow one’s presenting such matter). So the two unanswered questions above may be joined by a third, the last on my list: ” Test the patterns in the text on f.49v against not only the Rondeau but as many other forms of verse or litany etc. in a set 13-lines is attested.”

Specialists in languages, linguistics, medieval literature, comparative literary studies and, of course, cryptology are better equipped to investigate properly these last questions from my list.

Good luck to you.



[1] Since my search engine turns up no earlier comparison to the Rondeau, so  I’ll have to rely again on the kindness of my readers to ensure correct credit given.  The Rondeau was normally of ten- or thirteen- lines, but a twelve-line (as 7+5) is also known.

[2] I can only accept securely-dated items such as mailing-list or forum comments, and published works or fairly securely dated items such as  blog-posts.  Voynicheros websites may be wonderfully elaborate but because their alterations and additions are rarely date-marked, a recent observation may be incorporated into that page, though the page itself bears a date even earlier than the original research was done.  This makes the whole business of citing any Voynichero website so problematic that I no longer do so – except as reference for a biography or the date of an historical event. Even then, of course, one has to cross-reference.

[3] I think readers will be ok citing my posts from 2015 as first mention of this Cretan poet in connection with the Vms.  Musurus lived for some time in Florence.  The references I gave are in this post, and then this.

[4] I first read the ‘enumeration’ and ‘attempted decryption’ hypotheses for these Arabic numerals in the left-hand column as part of an argument in Nick Pelling’s book, though Pelling appears to believe that Brumbaugh first supposed the numerals a ‘translation’ for the initial glyphs. See N.Pelling, The Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.158. At present, I’m spending a huge amount of time hunting correct information for footnotes.  Given the often lamentable quality of apparatus in much online Voynich writing, this is proving harder labour than it would normally be.  I’m still not able to discover the name of the person who first proposed a link between the Vms text and music.  The usual sources often prove to have settled for the name of someone recent, or with whom  given writer happens to have existing personal connections.   But one can tust Pelling’s book (2006), and always trust Philip Neal’s work so these are the two models of correct form that I’d recommend, regardless of the opinions which either may have held in the past, or hold now.

Something cleaner – a “clear slate Conference” proposal

Nick Pelling’s recent post made intriguing reading (, January 7th., 2017)

My first impression on reading it is that he is not so much proposing a conference about Beinecke MS 408 as proposing that we  – no, not ‘we’ – some persons to his taste explore the admittedly-fascinating  intersection of technology and codicology.

But it got me thinking – what do other blog-writers imagine would be a great Voynich conference?   Here’s my ideal, for a start:

“Beinecke MS 408: The Clear Slate Conference” ( three days.. 2017)


By default, anyone who has an existing history of involvement in study of, or in publicly commenting upon, Beinecke MS 408.

(So I’m out, having a fairly solid history of research and publication.  As people who had already come into contact with Voynicheros and their opinions, it would also debar Alain Touwaide and Philip Neal. Pity.)


  1. Contributions will be invited from persons who confirm in writing, after being invited and having read these conditions that they have no prior acquaintance with the manuscript, or with any prior writings or opinions about it.
  2. Each invitee will be sent a copy of Yale scans, and must undertake to consult nothing previously said or written about the manuscript until after their paper is submitted.  (Yes, it is an honour system, but I think  that we can expect 8 0r 9 of any 10 reputable experts to act honourably. It’s the ‘blindfold’ approach which offers such an interesting challenge.)
  3. Papers prepared for the conference are to  focus on the writer’s perceptions of this manuscript from the perspective of their own area of expertise.
  4. Papers should be presented to the standards required by any reputable journal in their field of study.
  5. Those delivering papers maintain copyright over these papers, but must sign a release for an electronic copy to appear online within 30 days’ of the Conference’s ending.
  6. Authors should obtain any necessary permissions over reproduced illustrations, diagrams, citations  before presenting their paper at the Conference.
  7. Papers should focus on the presenter’s professional opinion of some aspect of the manuscript, and be appropriately documented.  The exception is papers offering provenance on the basis of codicological assessments when direct access to the manuscript is impracticable.

Where objective information is sought by the authors – such as whether any radiocarbon dating has been performed on this manuscript – D.N. O’Donovan should be consulted by email and will endeavour to provide the information requested.

  1. In general, papers should attempt to discuss this artefact in the context of their existing specialist knowledge and experience, and should take particular effort to demonstrate their opinion by reference to a range of comparative examples.
  2. Theoretical arguments are not encouraged. Conclusions may include suggestions for further study.
  3. Areas directly relevant to description of any problematic manuscript are relevant.  Care will be taken to avoid bias in the selection of those invited, particularly bias due to the various “theories” proposed since 1912.
  4. It is hoped that that those accepting the invitation will have had professional experience in evaluating problematic manuscripts and artefacts.  It is accepted that valid opinions about the manuscript’s manufacture may differ from valid opinions about the its content, form and organisation.

‘Relevant Expertise’ defined.

  1. ‘Relevant expertise’ can be expected to include some of the following general areas:  comparative palaeography and/or epigraphy; comparative iconology; comparative codicology; comparative religious studies; comparative cultural studies; classical studies – not only of the Mediterranean’s classical period;   ancient, classical and medieval histories; the history and methods of  technologies  indicated either by the manuscript’s manufacture or by imagery contained in it.
  2. Professional valuers of manuscripts are also welcome to contribute.

Intended Outcomes

  1. From all this it is hoped to get a new understanding of the manuscript, one informed by specialists in disciplines having direct relevance to the manuscript-qua-manuscript.  It is hoped that the Conference will result in new, more balanced and more objective assessments of the manuscript’s form, materials, imagery and script, and that the manuscript’s study may thereafter be pursued within the normal parameters accepted for assessments and commentaries of such sort.

We hope, in particular, to receive papers from specialists in areas hitherto overlooked. Specialists in the languages, scripts, art and manuscript traditions of the Islamic, Jewish, Indian, Persian, Coptic, Tamil and Asian traditions will be among those invited.

Phantom tide: more on the ‘Greek’ thing.

Many thanks to J.K. Petersen for mentioning an article which it seems that someone told him had been published in Cryptologia in June 2010.  He was misinformed.  The article in question is evidently,

Robert L. Williams, ‘A note on the Voynich manuscript’, Cryptologia, Volume 23, Issue 4 (1999) pp. 304-309.

What was later published online (Jn 2004) did include an abstract..
A comparison of the initial letter frequency in a Voynich lexicon and of those in a lexicon of old Greek suggests that the manuscript’s author may have been thinking in Greek. This may aid in the manuscript’s decipherment.

I can only suppose Williams’ hopes were not realised. The years 1999-2017  saw no universal cheers or acceptance of a Greek-text idea.


JKP’s comment also mentions some article published in Scientific American, though J.K. himself had no more exact information.  Scientific American‘s online Index shows Voynich matter published in 1921 and then nothing for more than eighty years, until Rugg’s article of 2004.  Rugg does not argue any Hellenistic origin for the text, which he considers meaningless, and he has no informed opinion about the imagery.

You know, if this supposed “ebb and flow” thing is imagined operating any time between 1912 and 2004, there’s no evidence so far.

The Scientific American listings.


  • J. Malcolm Bird, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’, Scientific American 3[sic], (1 June, 1921) pp. 492-496.
    [no author] ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’,  Scientific American 124, (28 May 1921) pp. 432-432.
  • John Anson Ford, ‘Tilting Grain Cars in All Directions to Empty Them, The Roger Bacon Manuscript, and more’,  Scientific American 124, (7 May 1921) pp.361-363.
  • Correspondence, Scientific American 124, (25th June 1921) pp. 509-509


  • Gordon Rugg, ‘The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript’, Scientific American 291, (July 2004) pp. 104-109.
    Letters , Scientific American 291,  (November 2004) 12-14.


JKP’s comment to my previous post offered one potentially exciting item:   “M. & A. Israél used Greek as the underlying language in their proposed translation”.

True?  Sort of. But true as evidence for implying that my identifying the imagery’s Hellenistic foundation is nothing new – just part of a recurring ‘theory-cycle”?


By the time those authors published their book in 2013,  I’d been publishing detailed studies online, and constantly referring to the view which I’d formed during the first eighteenth months of my research (prior to 2010 and Findings).

Before 2013, I’d even published a rare bit of pure speculation that the script might be a sort of “wobbly Greek”.   Correspondents were kind enough to tell me – openly and clearly – that the language of the Voynich text was most certainly not Greek, ‘wobbly’ or otherwise.  😀

In connection with this bit of newly created myth about the  “ebb and flow of a longstanding Greek theory”, I  must say that I don’t for a minute suppose it something which JKP created.  What I suspect is that being an honest and fair-minded sort of chap he didn’t pause to ask whether the person who passed this stuff his way was being entirely accurate, or creating a story.

The whole cause-and-effect thing has now been fairly well obfuscated at too.   From  2010/11 until c.2014 that site included my name and a summary of my work and my opinion.   I noticed in c.2014 that the entry had been deleted, but we can’t discard the possibility that the authors of that “Greek translation” saw it before 2013.

Whatever the case, I can’t see how their late effort justifies the ‘ebb and flow’ story.  Stephen Bax reviewed that “translation” of 2013, saying:

…  I’m very sorry to say that the results are unintelligible, and the authors admit that they have no knowledge of Greek at all..

Stephen Bax, ‘How to Crack the Voynich Code and How Not To’, March 28th., 2016,


Not really holding up, this sensible-sounding meme about some “longstanding ebb and flow of Greek theories” is it?

What have we got?  A claim that  Newbold mentioned a possibility that the written part of the text was Greek (Did he?).

His view was always that line taken by Wilfrid Voynich – that the manuscript was an authorial creation  by Roger Bacon.

So as we gaze out, seeking some sign of a tide, we get 1912… 1921… nothing… 1921-2008… nothing (so far).

Not ‘low tide’ nor any ‘high tide’ nor any cyclical pattern in opinions… no tide at all.

Then we get to 2009, and 2o1o when I began publishing the results of my research, and my opinion, at Findings. (see the previous post)

“An idea of long-standing’ ?   That idea about a longstanding ‘idea’ doesn’t seem to be supported by evidence. So one has to ask how, and why, such fantasies are formed and then disseminated?  Surely not just as a way to pretend that my own work isn’t original?  Surely not.  Voynich studies might attract a bit of a lunatic fringe, but that would be madness on quite a different scale.   Still, it did sound like something that could have been true – if no-one checked.

Looks like  JKP was sold a few little fireworks strapped to a couple of pups. Not his fault; it’s an old technique to take some innocent third party and make them responsible for the silly things.

Do you have some better information about a Voynich ‘Greek theory’?  I don’t mind whether it emerged before, or after I began publishing my own work.

Main thing is to get it straight. Honestly. Matter of ethics, you see.

So in sum:

I’ve neither found nor been shown anything which indicates any longstanding ‘Greek’ theory, nor any “ebb and flow” of such theory.

The rise of the “Greek” in Voynich studies

As late as August 2013, in a comment written to Elmar Vogt’s blog, Ellie Velinska made clear that she knew of no-one save the present writer who ascribed the origin of the Voynich ‘nymphs’ to the Hellenistic period.

Thus, she wrote:
Hi Diane – yes, it [her proposition] is just imagination, but the 16th century European bathing disaster teaches us one thing: when considering scholar’s opinion – always make sure it passes the smell test! Sometimes it is wiser to trust your own nose rather than scholar’s training 🙂
My nose says – Western Europe, your academic training says – Hellenistic something… it is a tough call…

Even re-reading this, I find the metaphor, the absence of  evidence adduced,  and that curious modifier odd.  The intention is plain enough.

The more important point, though, is that until even later than this – until twelve months ago or less  -no effort had been made to use correctly any of the evidence or argument which I’d been providing for other researchers since 2010.    Koen Gheuens is the exception: he not only read a fair bit of the work, but happily acknowledged his source before setting about exploring the same topic in his own way.

Now, suddenly,   a little  “Hellenistic gold rush”  is in progress – apropos of which -JKP- has brought to notice a very nice  example of early medieval Christian hand, in an interlinear text: Greek and Latin.[1]

Of course the Carolingian ‘helios’ diagram to which Rene Zandbergen has often drawn attention is now recalled as gained by the Carolingian west from elsewhere.   In passing, I’d note that “Hellenistic” may be seen used as if it meant something vaguely  “Greek-ish” but strictly it applies to the pre-Christian period, where the 1stC BC sees the end of the Hellenistic period in a political sense, while a distinctively Hellenistic culture  survived in some regions to at least the 3rdC AD.

This sudden emphasis on “Greek” in  Voynich forums  may owe much to  Koen but also something to comments made occasionally by non-Voynicheros.  Seeing the sudden use of the word iatrosophia by Voynicheros in 2015, I  left  a question at Stephen Bax’ site under his post  “My 2012 paper” :

February 6, 2015 – 12:00 pm
I’ve read on Ellie Velinska’s blog that some un-named expert at the Folger library says the work is Greek. They describe it as a dispensatory (the Greek term for the genre is used: iatrosophia). Have you seen anything in the text to suggest that it’s just badly written Greek?

Other comments to that post by Bax are on the theme of “badly written Greek”. Ellie had only named Rene Zandbergen as source: the expert was left anonymous.

The date of Bax’ paper –  2012 – is again rather late, and while only one or two scholars still have access to the blog where I presented first the evidence and comparative matter from which my conclusions had been drawn, it may be of interest now to return to the source: Findings.   For later developments just search voynichimagery – or to get the general level of analysis and explanation see my recent posts here about folio 5v.


These brief extracts are just tid-bits from the longer posts in Findings.

May 3rd., 2010

It appears to me – so far – that the critical period for the compilation of the material in Beinecke ms 408 is that between the later Macedonian period and early centuries of the common era.

The wide geographic range which is implied by the specific motifs present in the ms persuades me that the material was not intended for a particular locality, or even a particular language-group, but rather to serve a profession and caste whose purposes required broader knowledge, and transits over regions formerly the preserve of the Phoenicians, and their associates ..

~ from  D.N. O’Donovan,  “Faces III: fol.67v(i): The whorl – points of Orientation”, Findings (blogger)


May 7, 2010

[concerning scripts attested in the Hellenistic period]

.. Recently, tablets have been found at Tell Fisna written in a form of late cuneiform, though they appear to date from the Hellenistic period. Their use of cuneiform appears to have been meant as a form of code, and the finders were unable to explain neither its use, nor the atypical astronomy apparently recorded on these tablets …

citing Jeremy Black, ‘Hellenistic Cuneiform writing from Assyria: the tablet from Tell Fisna’ Al-Rafidan Vol.XVII (1997) pp.229-238 and plates following.

~ from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Bull and Lotus: comparing Barhut [Madhya] and the Beinecke manuscript’, Findings (blogger)


May 11th., 2010

The content of the Beinecke manuscript appears to be less a compilation from standard academic texts than a corpus of information, collected first in the late Hellenistic or Roman period, and then preserved without alteration* until the time of the crusaders, whose style informs (for example) the architectural details set upon the map, but not the style of its basic plan and ornament.

For similar iconographic style, and details, we must turn to the materials of the artisan, the merchant, and traditional designs. These also make clear the direct lines of connection which formerly existed across the Arabian shield, between east and west.

*by 2011 I was already qualifying this to “without substantial alteration”

That post also includes note that for illustrations from Crusader manuscripts one might consult Hugo Buchthal, Miniature Painting in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Oxford, (1957) pp. 68-87.

~ from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The Mediterranean and India – patterns in Ivory and Stone’, Findings (blogger)


May 12th., 2010

… I am reasonably certain, in any case, that no Christian image existed – certainly not before 1438 – in which an unclothed female figure holds a cross at arm’s length, so I would say with some confidence that the chief figure in this picture does not belong within the traditions of medieval imagery of the Latin sphere.

That means, of course, that I do not believe it represents any conscious distortions or subversions of that tradition, either. Indeed, as far as I can see, the work’s original stratum probably belongs to the classical period, and more likely to the Hellenistic than to the Roman. While it might contain religious matter, that matter – so far as it relates to the imagery – could be expected to refer to some religion appropriate to the period in which the pictures were first composed. This, however, is an hypothesis which is not yet proven, where the date of the manuscript is.

A bibliographic reference was added to that post on  August 29th., 2011, viz. M. C. Miller, “The Parasol: An Oriental Status-Symbol in Late Archaic and Classical Athens”,The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 112, (1992), pp. 91-105. (JSTOR).

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Excursus: “Christian imagery in the Voynich’, Findings (blogger).


also from May 12th., 2010

this a note on a type of simple cylindrical container known in the older Mediterranean and by the Romans called a  ‘capsa’. We find scant evidence of the type there after the 3rdC AD.

An example of the hooped ‘Iberian’ style, dated to the 4th-5thC bce, and discussed further below, moves our record of that type backward by about seven centuries from the previously recorded instances, which are Byzantine c.2ndC ce. A bracelet which, though found in Rome, appears to have originated in the Hellenistic world, shows this ‘Iberian’ type attached to the columns of a building.
That date then enables us to suggest an explanation for an item that is very frequent in the “traders sequence” at Barhut [Madhya] 2ndC bce…

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Updated: Red containers and esparto’, Findings (blogger)


May 14th., 2010

It appears possible, though presently no more than that, [to me] that the ‘botanical’ section at least may belong within an Arabian– Hellenistic tradition..

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Pause for breath: emerging patterns’, Findings (blogger).


May 25th., 2010

I posted this image which I still consider important for Voynich studies by reason of certain motifs which appear here. The detail is from a work of the Hellenistic period (4thC BC) and the Aegean.


from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Plants, Litanies and Mantras – east’, Findings (Blogger).


June 8th., 2010

At least one sun-face of this type suggests its date. That seen in 69v-iii, where the sun-face is set within a vegetative border (again with a palm-branch edging), displays closely waved cropped hair of a type seen in portraits of some Roman women from about the 2ndC bce. More roughly cropped hair for women continues to appear in Roman works until at least the third century when it is seen (for example) in a portrait of a Palmyrean ruler named Zenobia, captured and forced to live in Rome for the rest of her life, just as the Roman emperor Valerian had been confined by Shapur, king of her Sassanian allies.

That this [second example of the] sun is supposed female is evident, by the combined depiction of this hair-style with a type of flat hairband [fol.68r-i] termed a ‘ribbon’ to distinguish it from the ordinary fillet, and which is reserved for priestesses during the time of Hellenistic Egypt and earlier Rome. In Rome itself, a priest wore such band as a matter of custom during rituals, but the blue ribbon was worn only during a specific ceremony: one of pre-Roman origin and which was intended to avert drought.

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The Sun – Part I – (fols 68r-i and 68r-ii; 69v-iii)’, Findings, (blogger).Note that the current Beinecke foliation for these images is “folio 68r” and for the sun with the blue hairband “folio 67v“. The holding library’s foliation should be used.


There are twenty-two more posts to Findings in which I explored and demonstrated Hellenistic origins for the vast majority of images in the Voynich manuscript – all before 2011.

Of importance, too are these:

Theophrastus and Aristotle

To quote from another of those posts, this referring to Theophrastus:

July 13, 2010

Next … a class of root-cutters  centred around the seaboard in the north-east corner of the Mediterranean: Antioch, Cos, and the Carian coast. The only individual about whom we know much, though, is Theophrastus of Eresus (372 bce to 286 bce), who studied first with Plato, and then with Aristotle, and who then succeeded Aristotle as head of the Peripatetic school.

Theophrastus set down his knowledge of Mediterranean and of exotic plants, of medicinal stones and perfumes in written form. The usual order, and structure, for those written works is echoed by the organisation of the VMs’ [sections]…

Theophrastus mentions cinnamon, and two different types of pepper plant, so it is clear that items of eastern materia medica (which include “spices” used in incense and perfumes) were already known to some Greeks at least in the Mediterranean,and no later than the third century bce. Theophrastus’ committing all he knew to writing was considered a little unusual, and among some sectors of the medical fraternity, there seems to have been some resentment felt. Our own times are not so different.

We are told by later commentators that Theophratus included portraits of plants in his text, and that the images were coloured, but not much more than that…

Theophrastus’ knowledge of plants, and his approach to the subject of plants, shows some influence from the Indian works which by this time were at least five hundred years older. (The Ayurvedic corpus was settled by c.800bce. The dates for Siddha medicine are somewhat less sure).

That influence in Theophrastus’ work may be due to the fact that he lived at the same time that Alexander the Great (356bce –323bce), following known roads eastward, reached the Indus, and that region from which we hear that the great medical sage of Siddha medicine, Agastya, had spread medical knowledge in India.

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Theophrastus, Canopus and such’, Findings (blogger).


A post of December 29th. 2011 which was written for students of mine includes a reference to the Tyche’s turreted crowns (Tuche) in relation to f.75.

To analyse the whole section would take about twelve months or more, I think – partly .. the quires are believed to be bound out of order, and partly that the narrative of the journey: the chart or map-like sections are interspersed with others, whose nature, character and reference would need a separate study.

The imagery in the additional folios within this section appears to me to refer to meteorology, or more exactly to astrometeorology, since discussion of times, stars, annual weather and wind-cycles and so on are all integrated in many texts, even the Periplus, which spends time describing harbour entrances and the time of year when the journey may be accomplished..

One might at least hope that the basis for the text in this section were the Meteorologies of Aristotle, or of Theophrastus or at very least of a well known Indian classic, such as that by Varahamihira, known as the Brihat Samhita.

However, if the material in these other folios is drawn from navigational lore, then it may be near impossible to translate.  That its, it might be written with such brevity that even if we could attribute phonemes to the characters, it would make little more sense [without specialist input]

A detailed study of the tyche types in the same section might be worthwhile, but in my opinion would require a couple of years’ work, since it would involve comparing each crown-like head-dress in the manuscript to hundreds of coins, charts, mosaics and written works .. no shoo-in.  I will put up some few tyche-figures soon.

essential textbook:
Kauz, Ralph, Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea (2010) pp.141-2.


So here’s the really big question: what inhibits all but a very few Voynicheros from correctly crediting and adopting work already done on this manuscript, regardless of whether it does, or doesn’t, agree with the older notion of an ‘all Latin Christian author’?  Since I’ve been demonstrating the clear evidence of Hellenistic character and reference in this manuscript – continually- since I began publishing parts of my research online in 2010, and the readership is not small, nor the amount of solid evidence.   Perhaps  the answer is to be found in the comments offered me over the same length of time by such persons as Ellie, Rene, Helmut Winkler or in recent days, Nick Pelling.  I’ll take another look at them.


[1] JKP posting to thread begun by Davidsch, ‘The Grecofile experience’  – forum

Star names: more than textbook Ptolemy or astrology.

An instance in point


translation from the medieval Italian, from The Book of Michael of Rhodes.

page 111a, from which that passage comes, can be seen online (here).  Translation from the same source (Michael of Rhodes’ Project).


As a test for translations of the Voynich star ‘labels’, I’m certain of this one as it appears on  f.68r-1. This is the star taken to mark the northern Pole.  I’ll go a bit further and against my usual practice, hazard a guess ..the inscription means something like  fenice, poineke , phoenix..

folio 68r-1 North Star

(detail) Beinecke MS 408 fol 68r-1 Image ID 1006196

because ..

Constans_Phoenix_on_Globe Paphlagonia

coin made for Paphlagonia under Constans


coin Sinope Paphlagonia

coin of Sinope, Paphlagonia (Black Sea coast)


tyches ill 1 fol 80v detail

(detail) f.80v [the constant guide]

fol 86v detail northwest angel only

(detail) from the Voynich map (folio 86v; Beinecke foliation “fol.85v-and-86r”)


Pietro vesconte Genoa 1321

detail from a maritime chart made in 1321 by Pietro Vesconte of Genoa


For the record ~  my opinion about the detail on f.80v –  associating it with the North Star – was published for the first time in ‘Emblems of Direction: North (Paradise and Guards)’, Voynich Imagery Notes (blogger blog), Sat. January 7th., 2012.


Among numerous posts related to this,  I’d suggest:

‘The north-west roundel: Angel of the Rose’

‘Events of the late thirteenth to late fourteenth century and the evolution of an emblem in ms Beinecke 408 Pt iii-a’

‘fol 70r star-hours & months for the mathematicians’

and discussion of the  emblematic object:

A detail on folio 80v reconsidered Pt-1  and … Pt 2


In a recent pers.comm. Koen Gheuens has drawn attention to the detail on folio 82r (Image ID 1006222) which shows the same ‘constant guide’ star obscured.

He also observes -correctly in my opinion – that this part of the image refers to a southern latitude.



(detail) Beinecke MS 408 f.82r



  • Anyone who’d like recommended hard-copy reading from me can  get in touch though voynichimagery gmail com



In the detail (above, left) from f.79v, the ‘peg’ indicates the home port, possibly Canopus, and south in terms of the Mediterranean. That sense for the ‘peg’ is constant where it appears above the ‘aegis’ or canopy (and see post of Dec.12th., 2012)

Numerals.. or absence thereof

Anyone curious about why the “…Greater Khorasan” series hasn’t resumed yet – the publishers-that-be decided to send me a certain book by sea. I’m  to expect it soon..  how soon? …oh, sometime in  January or perhaps  February… but very soon. 🙂

Meanwhile, some musing and notes about number.

There is a mathematical text in manuscript which nicely connects with a number of our present themes:  Iberia under Muslim rule; manuscripts in Pennsylvania University’s  LJS (Lawrence J. Shoenberg) collection;  the vexed question of numerals and their presence or absence in the Voynich manuscript; the astronomical works of al-Tusi, a native of greater Khorasan; distinction between age and sources for images as against those for accompanying written text – and of course the copying of manuscripts in Baghdad.

The manuscript which does all – or most – of this is LJS 293 –  made in  twelfth century Baghdad, and once owned by THE Naṣīr al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ṭūsī, himself [1] ~ the text having been composed  in the Maghreb or in al-Andalus by one  Abū Bakr al-Ḥaṣṣār. Paul Kunitzsch dates the LJS copy  to 1174; the holding library gives 1194 AD.

“Hindu-Arabic numerals…”

The text is known as  ‘Kitāb al-Bayān wa al-tidhkār fī sanʻat ʻamal al-ghubār‘ and this particular copy  is the earliest of the five copies known to be  extant.  On folio 4r, we see the Hindu-Arabic numerals  shown in both the  western and the eastern Islamic form.

altusi-numerals-eastern-and-western-arabicThe full catalogue entry can be read on the “Penn in hand” website here.

Paul Kunitzsch’s discussion of it was given in a paper  delivered in 2002, subsquently filled out and published in 2003.[2]  His comments focus on the manuscript’s importance given a general paucity of evidence for the numerals’ forms in western Arabic sources earlier than  c.1400.

Not that there can be any doubt that the Hindu-Arabic numerals themselves were known in western Islamic regions as early as the tenth century, for in connection with another work I’ve mentioned here recently,  The Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzira), a tenth-century commentary mentions the Hindu numerals and the fact that the author of the commentary had already written a monograph on the subject.

Just  forty years after (and thus still during the tenth century),  knowledge of the Hindu-Arabic numerals had passed to the Latins (Mozarabs) of al-Andalus,  after which time  it would continue (to use  Kunitzsch’s words)  as  “a rich tradition in Latin works on the abacus”.  In this the Jewish community continued an active presence  and, as  Kunitzsch also notes,  al-Ḥaṣṣār’s mathematical text would be translated into Hebrew in  Al-Andalus in 1271, by Moses ibn Tibbon.

Another Iberian Jewish manuscript, this now in the LJS collection, was made late in the fourteenth century, and reminds us that even when a text may be fairly recent, the images need not.   It is also largely concerned with maths, but the mathematics of astronomy.  It includes an image for Gemini with figures drawn in a very similar style to some of the ‘nymphs’ in the Voynich manuscript.  While the text on that page comes from current calculations for the appropriate latitude,  the imagery derives from a non-Latin tradition derived from the tenth-century astronomer  al-Sufi (903-986 AD).   This manuscript is Sassoon 823,  catalogued at UPenn as  MS LJS 057. [3]

sassoon-gemini-ljs-o57-p-125To make everything neat, or perhaps confuse it utterly, a compilation of texts by authors who are called “al-Maghrebi” and “al-Iraki”, said to be on fourteenth century alchemical works  but itself dated to the 18thC by the holding library, contains Voynich-like glyphs (below, detail A)  So does another, known as the Book of Surprises (detail B).  Are they meant for numerals? No-one knows.



“.. or lack of them..”

If  I am correct in thinking that the content embodied in the Voynich manuscript is not derived from a standard textbook, and is not of  Latin Christian authorship, but is a compilation of practical and technical matter related to the east-to-west trade, then the text’s apparent lack of secretarial hand and of Hindu-Arabic (or Latin) numerals need not cause quite so much concern, for the forms and language of  business documents are a separate class of writing, even in the fourteenth century.  Below, as example, an illustrated invoice made by a fourteenth century Italian who lived for years in Avignon, engaged regularly with the Jews and had business interests in the Maghreb.[4]

Datini detail


To explain why texts related to business might include no  form of numeral, or very few, I’ll refer to Eva Mira Grob’s  work.  She has transcribed, translated and commented on business letters which were written on papyrus,  and which date from the 3rdC – 10thC AD. [5].

In one place, she writes:

Enumerations in the form of lists are not integrated into the text. The common way is to include all … information … as a running text without any special graphical marking and to write numerals in words. Clarity is achieved by repetitive linguistic patterns.

A great deal has been written and said about the Voynich manuscript’s text and its repetitive patterns, but for newcomers who may be especially interested in this,  I’d suggest consulting first a couple of specialist blogs by statisticians and linguists: among them those by Julian Bunn and  Emma May Smith. If  linguistics is your specialty –  not just a casual interest –  then of course you cannot ignore the substantial body of  work done by earlier specialists. In particular, the data compiled by Georg Jorge Stolfi (sorry) should be considered, for he concluded from it that the text must have been written in a non-Indo-European language.

Below is a passage from one letter as transcribed and translated by Grob, illustrating those points about itemised lists and  repetitive linguistic patterns. (you can click on the image to enlarge it further).


so.. what if these ‘vords’ are numbers and markers of dinars?  or dirhams?


or .. quirats?


.. or something of that kind? And what if the repetitions relate directly to standard measures of some sort.  As I said, this post is just notes and some musings.



[1]   … as we learn from an inscription on  folio 1r.

[2] Paul Kunitzsch, A new manuscript of Abu Bakr al-Hassar’s Kitāb al-Bayan’.  The same paper was published in  Suhayl No.3 (2003) pp. 187–192.  Note that Kunitzsch refers to the numerals appearing on  “folio 5” but today the Penn website has it as “folio 4r”.

[3] The point is  important given the close comparison between the ‘Gemini’ image and the style informing the Voynich ‘nymphs’. Thus Langerman writes:

The drawings of the constellations …obviously follow the style of those which accompanied the catalogue of al-Sufi. Thus at first glance they could derive from an Arabic copy of al-Sufi, from an Islamic celestial globe (the figures on such globes usually follow those found in the manuscript tradition of al-Sufi’s work), or from a manuscript belonging to the Sufi latinus corpus.  Now al-Sufi provided in his book two drawings for each constellation, one as seen in the sky, and another as seen on the celestial globe (where the left and right sides are always interchanged against their appearance in the sky). The Sufi latinus corpus consistently chooses only one of these illustrations, the view as seen on the celestial globe for sixteen of the constellations, and the view as seen in the sky for the remaining thirty-two. All but five of the drawings found in Sassoon 823 show the figures as seen in the sky; the five which give the representation as seen on the globe are Ophiuchus, Serpens, Equuleus, Andromeda, and Canis Minor. From these considerations it would seem that the figures found in the Sassoon manuscript cannot have been copied from a manuscript of the Sufi latinus corpus, and equally not from an Islamic celestial globe. The only remaining possibility is that they were selected and copied from an Arabic [Persian or other] manuscript of al-Sufi’s treatise. (pp.277-8)
Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch and Y. Tzvi Langermann. ‘The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS. Sassoon 823’,   The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 78, No. 3/4 (Jan. – Apr., 1988), pp. 253-292.

[4] Francesco di Marco Datini, of whom I’ve spoken  before.

[5] Eva Mira Grob, Documentary Arabic Private and Business Letters on Papyrus: Form and Function, Content and Context.  (2010)

As a further note for the mathematicians –  there is a good short paper which sets al-Hassar’s work in context:

Jeffrey A.Oaks and Haitham M. Alkhateebi, ‘Māl, enunciations, and the prehistory of Arabic algebra’, Historia Mathematica, Volume 32, Issue 4, November 2005, pp. 400–425.  Available online through Science Direct (here).



Mozarabic manuscripts and the Vms – by request

[typo missed in the draft -. Corrected 21/02/2017

]reader writes that she cannot find the post in which I compared the  layout of a Vms ‘bathy-‘ folios and that in an early Mozarabic work, so here’s the reference, though if you search the site using terms ‘Visigoth’ or ‘Mozarabic’ or ‘Beatus’ or ‘Apocalypse’ other examples should turn up.

You might also search “Spain 10thC” for one particular post that I always rather liked.

Here’s the one the reader wants. The illustration is from the Codex Vigilanus.

Starting from scratch #10d – Fold-outs in Europe (afterword)

Now you tell me – Dan Burisch

A comment which Nick Pelling made a couple of months ago, in writing to Ellie Velinska’s blog, got me wondering who this person called “Dan Burisch” might be.

I had a vague notion that he was someone from the time of the first mailing list – before my time anyway – and since his name never turned up as having contributed anything by way of insight into the script or the imagery, I never bothered to ask exactly who he was.

Today I did.   In a post dated April 21st., 2008 (which I think is about four months before I was introduced to this manuscript) Pelling wrote about a passage which the said Burisch claimed to have decrypted. Pelling summarised D.B’s ideas in this way:

Burisch’s claimed decryption reprises, just as you can find countless times in the museum of failed Voynich solutions, a large number of by-now-oh-so-familiar motifs of pathological enigmatology: selective transcription, Roger Bacon, mirror writing, disguised Hebrew, confusing and repetitive text, selective dyslexia, arbitrary anagramming, religious / liturgical / Gnostic plaintexts, arbitrary / optimistic / free-form translations, etc. So far, nothing hugely unexpected, then.

But on June 27th., Pelling quoted someone who, apparently, thinks well of Dr.Dan:

From the website ‘world mysteries’ concerning the Voynich document we read in an except from Dr. Levitov: “There is not a single so-called botanical illustration that does not contain some Cathari symbol or Isis symbol. The astrological drawings are likewise easy to deal with; the innumerable stars are representative of the stars in Isis’ mantle.” The fate of the Cathars resembles that of the Knights Templar, does not the dualism of the former also receive a modicum of redemption in the restoration of the latter?With Dr. Burisch’s background in microbiology, the Voynich ‘botanical illustrations’ were child’s play, and the astrological designations had already been previously noted as corresponding to the Milky Way Galaxy, and by conversion of linear transformations into ‘diagrammatic notation,’ the determinant of the matrix was solved. ‘As above so below’ was not, in this case, a spiritual derivative, it was simply and starkly a ‘spacial’ one.

And this presents a bit of a dilemma – for the present writer, if not for Pelling. I don’t know what “Cathari” symbols are.  Does Isis have a starry mantle anywhere except on a card in a tarot pack of 19thC design?  (Will check).  “The fate of the Cathars resembles that of the Knights Templar”… well, umm, sort of I suppose, but only if you stretch a metaphor.

The next bit is tricky, too.  What exactly is meant by “astrological designations…corresponding to the Milky Way Galaxy?”  The Milky Way is our galaxy, but let that pass.

The Milky Way intersects with the ecliptic, and the ecliptic band contains the constellations used for the usual western astrology.  Is he aiming to correlate stars of the milky way with constellations of the ecliptic, perhaps??!

And what is meant here by “diagrammatic notation”?

And just what did that approving writer mean to convey in saying that “as above, so below was not… a spiritual derivative… [but] a spatial one.” [spelling error in the original corrected].

Without reading the original, I don’t know whether any of this agrees with any of my  own conclusions about this manuscript, or not.

The Milky Way was pictured as a celestial road to the north in some early Latin Christian manuscripts, and had been believed so in various traditions, including the Egyptian.. but how these obvious (or less obvious) facts match that comment is difficult to understand.  Is it the Milky way he means or bulk-standard astrology relating to the ecliptic?

And is  “diagrammatic notation”some term invented by Burisch because he didn’t know the term mnemonic or mnemonic device?  And when Burisch speaks of “as above so below” as  spatial notation, is he talking about a common use of latitude and longitude – and its notation – in both astronomy and  geography?

Or.. what?

(I’m reminded of why I asked the faculty for permission to register an artificial ‘Fail’ against semiotics on my academic record – because I thought it ridiculous to make the language of abreaction a means to discuss art… and without failing I couldn’t switch to  more intelligent unit. … and Remember Whoopie Goldberg’s line: “Speak English, Mick!” ?)

I suppose now I’ll have to  read Burisch’s writing directly, but Pelling’s review of makes the prospect about as attractive as a meal of sawdust.

And then Pelling manages to show just why Voynich studies constantly recalls the  six blind men and the elephant, for now he  says:

Ohhhh dear: if a novelist tried to get away with froth like this, he/she would get taken apart. There is no Milky Way link, there is no microbiology, there is no Cathar link, there is no Templar link, there is no matrix (spatial or otherwise), there is no religion, no gnosis, no dualism.

Ok – seriously.

a priori I do think we can suppose that there will be no microbiology in the Voynich manuscript.  But for the rest of those things I think Pelling is no less guilty of making assertions without evidence as Burisch seems to be.   I think it is a crazy sort of arrogance to consult nothing but one’s own random collection of information and the chimera ‘common sense’ before accepting or rejecting anything.   I want to see the evidence from which these assertions derive.   Otherwise the set of denials is no less irrational than the set of contentions in this case, for the history of the period precludes none.

‘Cathar Link’, says Dan.  ‘No Cathar link’, says Nick.  OK, chaps, Explain how you come to believe that?  Have you – has anyone –  investigated that possibility sanely, and come sanely to a positive (or a negative) conclusion from the evidence?  Anyone? Ever? It’s a Voynich-Schrõdinger cat.

Templar/No Templar link.  OK. How do we know that?  Who has investigated… sanely…and come to the conclusions that this is a contention demonstrably false?  Anyone? Ever?

Matrix/ no matrix, spatial or otherwise?  Pelling’s rejection may be more particular than it seems, but taken as blankly as expressed it would imply, among other things, a blanket rejection of e.g. links to Claudius Ptolemy, whose works include a spatial matrix (i.e Lat.Long. co-ordinates) for placing both the stars and places on earth.  For myself I think that such co-ordinates (not necessarily Ptolemy’s) are quite likely to feature in the Vms text..

Religion/no religion…  What do you mean by “religion” Dan? What do you mean by religion, Nick?  Both of you… when you can’t read the pictorial or the written text, and we know that imagery across the world before the middle of the fifteenth century is strongly affected by religio-cultural mores, the first assumption ought to be that any text and imagery *ought* to contain evidence of religious and cultural attitudes.   And identifying those ought to be rather helpful.

Gnostic/No gnostic..Well, if we include Manichean belief as ‘gnostic’, I’ll have to say I reserve judgement but wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that there is influence from some one or more among the various forms of gnostic belief current between the 1stC AD and 1415 or so.

Dualism/No dualism…  The imagery does include a sort of ‘dualism’ though not obviously of the “devils and angels” type known in Latin Europe.

Pelling fell into his usual habit of letting his assumptions hang a bit too far below his hem.  But to balance this let me say first that he did recognise even as early as 2008 how immensely reliant his “Averlino” story was upon pure imagination.  He writes of his own theory-narrative:

Perhaps I’m no less guilty (with my reconstructed story of Antonio Averlino “Filarete”) as Levitov, or Rugg, or any of the other 20+ Voynich theories out there.

For Pelling, though, ‘religion’ would seem to mean only some official state religion whose symbols he happens to be familiar with, but I doubt if he’d have a clue what a Cathar, gnostic or Manichean symbol looked like, nor a Nair symbol, nor a Jain symbol.. though of course I may do him an injustice.  The point is that he just dumps all those things  he doesn’t feel are likely to true into his general waste-basket and in its way that’s just as careless and imaginative as the positive assertions seem to be.  If you don’t know, you don’t know. Research is about trying to find out.

I did like the quotation that Pelling included in the same post (properly credited, naturally: it’s one of the reasons I first looked up his posts about Burisch)

The peril of science fiction is that it attracts the worst kind of lunatics — those prepared to believe not only their own delusions but each others’. The frenzied construction of delusional architectures of thought is a fascinating talent, and one which reached its pinnacle in the late twentieth century.

For mine,  I can only hope that we see even less of such – I won’t say delusional, but ‘entirely theory-built’ –  structures in 2017 than we did in 2016.  With the arrival of we have enjoyed more respite (and less plain spite) than I ever saw in Voynich studies between 2008 and 2016.

Ciphermysteries excepted, of course.

Voynich script

With all the computing power we see employed to serve study of the Voynich manuscript’s written text,  I have long hoped to see a statistical study made of where and when we find similar glyphs within other scripts, whether alphabetic, abjad or otherwise.

It  seems reasonable to suppose that the creators or the later copyists responsible for our present manuscript might employ forms already familiar to them in some way; the Voynich glyphs present as ‘real’ script,  not a collection of artificial and newly devised signs.  At the same time, we know that the complete set has so far found no  match. So far as we know – but who has troubled to really look into it?

Obviously other factors come into play in considering the present form of this text.   Copyists, for example,  tend to naturalise the shapes of any foreign letters that strike them as  ‘like’ one they are used to writing.  An originally oval form, perceived as like the Latin “o” may be rendered as a circle .. and so forth.  Speaking of “o” shapes – it is obvious that not every Voynich ‘glyph’ is worth including in such a study.  An “o” shape is near ubiquitous and its occurrences unlikely to tell us much. But to find that a glyph of the more unusual sort does occur in a standard script is surely of some interest, and a map showing where and when they occur most often would surely be of interest too – all the more if we find the range sits within definable  geographic and/or temporal limits.

I’m not suggesting that we could announce Voynichese to be this language or that by so simple a method, but we might gain insight into the range of precedents available to the persons who first set down the Voynich script in its present form.

As   illustration of what I mean …

the-glyph(click to enlarge)

script Coptic Galatians marked textThis fragment, being considerably earlier than 1405-1438, and a product of   Christian Egypt, nicely chimes  with the manuscript’s history as  Georg Baresch envisaged (or knew) it to be, outlined in his letter to Athanasius Kircher.  We might also recall that another document from Egypt (this time from a medieval work) includes glyphs closely similar to some of the ‘gallow glyphs’.[1]

Philip Neal published an original transcription of Georg Baresch’s letter; his translation with notes can be read online. [2]

Naturally, I’m not trying to lead readers to infer that the text is Coptic.  Proper investigation of the glyphs’ occurence and range will require input from  specialists in epigraphy, comparative languages, palaeography and statistics.  I’m simply showing that such an investigation might produce very helpful information.

The Coptic fragment above as published on Alin Suciu’s site. It is reproduced with his permission, and was earlier shown in connection with Beinecke MS 408 (here).

If anyone does feel curious about where and when the more unusual Voynich-like forms occur in other scripts, may I suggest a control: the Voynich glyphs include no   “x” form.


[1] often mentioned now, credit for bringing these glyphs to the notice of Voynicheros is owed to Nick Pelling, via his comment on Okasha El Daly’s book. (see here).

[2] I have noticed some confusion in recent secondary writings.  Wilfrid Voynich himself translated the letter to Kircher from Marcus Marci (with the notorious rumour about Rudolf’s  600 ducats) but  Neal’s translations are now the standard for citation.

I am happy to credit other translations that may have been made of one or more documents, but I would ask that people consider the amount of time wasted (including Zandbergen’s time) when they wrongly attribute origins for information found on Zandbergen’s website to Zandbergen himself.  To the best of my knowledge, Zandbergen reads no Latin and has never made an original translation from any Latin text.


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

(added note – 21/12/2016.  One typographical error corrected – a maddening ‘e’ for ‘a’.    Hope to be back to the blog after the solstice festival, give or take a fortnight.

“Twenty-two foundation letters: He placed them in a circle….
He directed them with the twelve constellations.
— Sefer Yetzirah [or Sēpher Yəṣîrâh] (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 then I was only interested in whether the astronomical ‘letters’ might have bearing on the history of the Byblos syllabary.

I must, however, credit  Brian R.Pellar whose work mentioned 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