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

Please note that the folio is referred to in this article by the original foliation published on Yale University’s bibliotecapleyades site.  The same diagram is  referred to on the Beinecke Library site as  “folio 85v and 86r” Image scan 1006231. – note added 24/02/2016.



On folio 86v the map refers to a northern route, ancient as a path of migration, trade and invasion. It passed, in fact as far as England and Scandinavia, though the western limits are unclear in f.86v),  that is referred to in the map on fol 86v.


The archaeological record shows that it was followed pretty freely from pre-historic times until the imposition of national borders, and it is to customs observed by peoples along that route that, I believe, we owe the form given the Voynich manuscripts month-emblems, and some others among the diagrams.

map Byz finds and 5-stones blog


As example from one of the other diagrams in MS Beinecke 408, we might consider this detail from folio 67v – ii.

VM sun flame hair detail

f. 67v-ii (detail)


comparing it with a Greco-Bactrian figure recovered in the region of modern Afghanistan.

Despite what you may hear, this picture is not a picture of Satan, and it is doubtful in the extreme if the people who made it had ever head of the ‘satan’ we encounter in Christian thought.  Medieval Europe may have equated a horned face with Satan’s but we know certainly that they might also depict the revered Biblical law-giver, Moses, with radiant face and horns.  See for instance the figure by  Michelangelo, or the less well known but fascinating vision of Moses the water-bringer created by Prospero Bresciani. (see closeup with radiant background among other photos here.)

I think it possible that whoever made the Greco-Bactrian dish had been thinking of Alexander the Great, given the epithet the ‘two-horned’ (…maybe because he rushed through life ‘like a bull at a gate’.) 🙂

So – it isn’t a picture of Satan, and it is from a region where we find both style and examples of older imagery constantly intersect with the Voynich manuscript’s.

See in the plate above, for example, a use of  ‘parallel hatching’ though it is a technique perfectly common in many artefacts employing monochrome media – wood, metal, ivory and even pottery.  Here too we see less common features, such a a conscious asymmetry and the ‘cross-eyed’ [sun-] face  – these being features notably incompatible with western Christian (Latin) art, but present in the Voynich manuscript’s astro-meteorological diagrams. Folio 67v -ii is a useful example of those characteristics because it also depicts a  ‘horn-like’ lock of hair (cf. f.67v-ii). It is interesting to note that, like the older Egyptian art, this Graeco-Bactrian figure indicates ‘willingness to listen’ by the convention of enlarging or elongating one ear.

Montecorvino’s  Cuman Route:

The northern route as a whole, appears to me the one sometimes known as the ‘Cuman’ route, or as that meant by Montecorvino  who speaks of the “aquilonarium Tartarorum” [Tartarorum = ‘of the Mongols or Tatars’]. One need hardly argue over the point that the road carried far more than art and trade-goods, yet in further illustration I’ve added some clear examples.

Above, the first map shows a distribution pattern of finds dated from the 4thC AD to the 12thC AD, these being Byzantine wares and objects.

Below it (above) distribution for knowledge of a game generally now played by children and known as  ‘five stones’ (otherwise as ‘Jacks’ or ‘Knucklebones’). Being a children’s game, and moreover one whose play was very often restricted to girls, this line of distribution indicates not only movement of armies or trade caravans, but of communities as such.

It is especially notable, too, that in neither case do these maps demonstrate a focus for the movement of population as Byzantium or in Rome: the Voynich map (f.86v) emphasises neither of those great cities, either.   Also, in both those distribution maps, we see the Carpathian mountains an important nexus of population, so I’ll now added an enlargement of the western region.

map Europe knucklebones 3


There is another curious agreement between the two distribution maps, above.  It is that apparent ‘jump’ from the higher northern latitude (i.e the critical region between the Caspian and Afghanistan) to resume to the far southern coast of India.. thence to southeast Asia.

We see this same pattern of distribution is repeated, from the eastern side of the Mediterranean at least, for establishments of the Eastern Christian church in the east. The Church of the East is otherwise described as the Nestorian church.

map Nestorian world Church of the East middle AgesAs you see, the line leaps from the north to the southern coast of India. Less obvious is that it moves thence eastward, through to southeast Asia, and this is a journeying pattern which is exactly paralleled by the Voynich manuscript’s sections ~  not simply in what we see in folio 86v, but the plants and goods included in the manuscript’s botanical and “pharma” sections. I am only sorry that the map of the Nestorian churches omits mod. Nusantara.

Centres shown on these maps do not (unlike the Voynich map on f.86v)  include that region between the Oxus and the Indus. As we know, that region had been noted for its Manichaean communities with whom the Nestorian communities appear to have been unable to co-exist.  Otherwise, we do have mention, in the early fifteenth century, of Poggio Bracciolini’s interviewing “a Nestorian from ‘northern India’ “. (I’ve written about that interview, and others. Just use the search bar to find those posts).


The Nestorian centres  are just one among the many I might have used to illustrate the importance of the northern roads; I chose it because there is a hint in the seventeenth-century allusions to the manuscript that it had been linked to thirteenth century England before it came to Prague.  Now, late in that century,   contact clearly did occur between Nestorian Uyghurs from inner Asia and the English king. The date given is  1288 AD, during the lifetime of Roger Bacon, with whom Missowsky believed the manuscript was connected. Bacon’s life (and the Uyghurs’ visit) occurs about a century and a half before our present manuscript’s parchment was made… as far as we know from the radiocarbon dates.

al-Idrisi of course had known this northern route; it is included in his world-map.

A Chinese ‘cartoon’ shows the ridiculous and ugly appearance of foreigners along the same road in a painting tentatively dated to the 9thC AD. (see detail below).

Travellers on the northern road – 9thC(?) painting

After passing eastward from the Black Sea and then reaching the region about Tarim or Afghanistan, the overland route continued directly east over land, or it turned south to take the very ancient “lapis lazuli route” towards India, Arabia and the Great Sea.

That section known as the  ‘lapis lazuli road’ had carried the rare stone from its only known source in Afghanistan to as far as Mesopotamia, and Egypt, certainly from not later than the third millennium BC, and some believe from the fourth.

A reciprocal movement of influence north and east is evidenced by historical accounts and by artefacts from the Black Sea and from the old Greco-Bactrian regions and modern Afghanistan, the latter especially in artefacts dated before and until the early centuries AD.

However, as a way to place the month-emblems in their proper stylistic context, I will concentrate on their appearance as city-emblems, where they appear on objects from older settlements about the Black Sea (3rdC BC and earlier to 3rdC AD).   With the coming of a western Christian empire, we find descriptors for these artefacts become  ‘Byzantine’ as against ‘Hellenistic’ or ‘Roman’ despite the various cities’ loyalties to their ancient emblem.

European emissaries began travelling east during the high- to late middle ages and, naturally enough, they took the same roads across the north whether they journeyed to represent the Emperor, the Pope or their own missionary order.  This would suggest that the set off with very similar knowledge of the world eastward, or a similarly worded set of instructions for their first stages. Franciscans of Roger Bacon’s day were the international ambassadors of the western Christian (‘Latin’) world.

stars Franciscan diagram 1392





One thought on “Across the North – intro: fol.86v and prototypes for the Month-emblems

  1. Oh, all right: “with whom Missowsky is said to have ALLEDGED that the manuscript was connected”. In fact, my own research led me to realise, increasingly, that the “evidence” of Mnishovsky was not only poorly documented, but scarcely supported by Marci, who is our only source for it. I hadn’t realised that when I first wrote this post. (My own understanding of the manuscript did evolve, in concert with my investigation of it – these posts are not a setting-out of some pre-existing theory, but a detailed commentary, from concurrent research, on the manuscript’s imagery. My later realising the fragility of Mnishovsky’s supposed history for the ms, does not (of course) prevent our crediting the later dating by Wilfrid Voynich from the manuscript’s appearance – its vellum, inks and pigments, a dating with which other specialists saw no particular difficulty, even if more cautious. Mnishovsky isn’t necessarily to be discounted (though he was a lawyer). The absence of documentary support, however, means that any of his supposed/alleged comments, reported by a man who didn’t credit them, and who was in any case in an advanced stage of senile dementia, must be set to one side.


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