In the seas – wind diagrams

The ‘Norway’ post I mentioned is still in draft. It was to follow that about Matthew Paris’ green ocean but it can wait a bit longer. At present there is more interest in the Voynich wind diagrams, and  with Obrist’s article* being often cited and excerpted I thought it worthwhile to point out that the same article incidentally demonstrates the considerable number of differences between what we find in MS Beinecke 408 and the sort of thinking which informed medieval Latin wind diagrams.

*Barbara Obrist, ‘Wind Diagrams and Medieval Cosmology’, Speculum, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 33-84.

For example, and as Obrist  plainly says:

In the [European] Middle Ages the [Latins’] twelve-wind scheme was so generally accepted that when Einhard mentioned Charlemagne’s reform of the old Germanic system of four winds, he took it for granted that their number was to be extended to twelve.

The original draughtsman of the diagram on folio 68v-i of the Voynich manuscript has included only eight winds – if it is agreed that the spiral arms are intended for winds.  What is more, none of the principal four touch the cardinal points of the ‘T-O’ style centre.  Once more, this is contrary to the Latin European habit, even as early as the ninth or tenth century.

Rhumb section fol 68v

fol 68v-i


Obrist emphasises that the Latin world was focused on the cardinal points and -winds, conceiving them as moral and conceptual ‘pillars’ whose role was not least to curb the troublesome and ‘quarrelsome’ characters of their adherents to left and right.  This idea is vividly expressed in another of the early wind diagrams included in her article. This from an eleventh century manuscript:

Vatican City BAV MS Reg. lat. 1263 fol 78r

Despite this being clearly the common Latin habit and emphasis, folio 68v-i  is evidently indifferent to cardinal winds.

From this we might propose a few possible reasons for that divergence from Latin thought and practice.

First, that the diagram did not originate in Europe’s medieval Latin culture.

Second, that the diagram is not one intended for the bookman or schoolroom but for the practical mariner, who knew that the cardinal winds were weaker than those on which mariners rely.  On that subject, I have  elsewhere cited Majid already, but here again is the passage:

The four cardinal winds are light winds. The remaining ones have technically-formed names  (given in the following poem)

The wind from al-Saba comes from the rising of the Sun/But a little towards the Pole, while Shama slightly to the west of it (i.e the Pole)/ Between Canopus’ setting and the west comes Dabur/Canopus’ rising shows the place of al-Janub.

(Tibbetts, Arab Navigation…. p.142)

Majid correlates winds, places and astronomical markers here, raising the interesting possibility that this general topic also informs the remainder of folio 68v (i.e.  f.68v-ii and f.68v-iii).

Third, that the intention of the diagram is different from both the standard works and the mariners’.   By reference to Georg Barsch’s saying that the manuscript’s disparate content was gathered widely by a certain person seeking medicine better than the “common man’s medicine” of his time, we might suggest that the medicine he sought was intended to combat Plague – which by the seventeenth century had been ravaging Europe for three centuries with scarcely five years free of an outbreak in one region or another.

Since it is the harm inherent in the subsidiary winds which, according to those Latin works, required control by the cardinals, then perhaps their weakness or omission in the diagram is an indication that the diagram relates to health.


Not every western region believed subsidiary winds were difficult and cardinal winds virtuous.  The old Norwegian work known in English as the King’s mirror, speaks of them all in equivalent terms; they become pleasant or otherwise according to whether the sun is present or distant.

L.M. Larson, The king’s mirror (Speculum regale-Konungs skuggsjá) translated from the old Norwegian by Laurence Marcellus Larson (1917). pp. 86-90

The same work contains a lengthy passage on winds and navigation. (ibid. pp. 156-162).


Obrist’s article is also helpful in illuminating other matters touched on previously in my posts.


Among her illustrations is one whose centre is occupied by the the typical ‘Gallo-Celtic’ sun and moon, quite comparable to what we’ve seen in the Tabulae from Grand (illustrated in my post here). Note too, that this image lacks the divisions of the circle that are a prominent part of most Latin wind diagrams, and increasingly so as we move from the earlier centuries towards the fourteenth.

wubds winged eleventh century computistical miscellany Obrist

While on the subject of that eleventh century image – it offers a good example of the transition between more ancient imagery of the Persian ‘angel-messenger’ and his winged hat or -hair, and sort of ‘cherub’ represented only by a childlike head and wings. The Renaissance versions of the ‘cherub’ are consciously classicising, often providing the cherub with a naked childlike body and identifying it with the classical child of Venus, Eros.

Much closer in spirit to the eleventh century image above is one found in a sixteenth-century ‘Introduction to Kabbalah’ (Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 167, completely digitised here. It was dedicated to King Francis I.

The composite below was made for my ‘voynichretro’ posts. The detail on the upper right left is from the sixteenth century manuscript; that on the upper right is the same image reversed to show certain details more clearly.


There’s more I’d like to add on the insights offered by Obrist’s paper, but it’s almost New Year, so there’s no rush is there?



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