Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 5

… as Newbold’s example has shown, not everyone is equipped to rightly interpret imagery…

shapely ladies

details from the manuscript whose radiocarbon dates are 1404-1438


Error #4. Ignoring independent assessment.

Panofsky would notice immediately that the manuscript contained ‘shapely ladies’ of a type which didn’t occur in Latin manuscripts in Roger Bacon’s time, and not to his knowledge before the fifteenth century. He told Anne Nill so in 1931. (The excerpt below from a transcript made and kindly shared on his blog by Richard Santacoloma, in a post entitled, ‘Anne Nill Speaks’ (16th Jan. 2013).

[Panofsky’s]  first impression was that it was early, but as he came to the female figures (in conjunction with the colors used in the manuscript) he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century! The more I think of it (always making allowance for my slender knowledge of art) the more I think that his contention is sound. I cannot think of a single early MS. or painting which contains such “shapely” female figures as those in the MS. Furthermore he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!! Well, all that would make it interesting, anyway. You know both Professor Thompson and Professor Manly have been suggesting Spanish for some time… (Letter from Anne Nill to Herbert Garland n/d given)

Although Panofsky did not know the manuscript from which the following illustration comes, it proves his opinion justified even with regard to the ‘shapely’ figures  (leaving aside for the moment the question of pigments). It demonstrates his competence and argues that he was the person needed to help elucidate the manuscript’s proper provenance.  Here we have evidence that although Latin manuscripts do not include ‘shapely ladies’ before the fifteenth century, they do occur earlier in manuscripts of Spanish Jewish-Islamic descent.  This example, with hands so casually drawn, with bellies of exactly the same form as those in our manuscript and showing females with similar hair-styles, occurs in a Jewish manuscript attributed to Spain (and more exactly to Catalonia) just after the mid-fourteenth century  –  precisely the environment he first anticipated. Panofsky’s initial impression was not only valid, it was more exact even than he knew.

As I have noted elsewhere in speaking of MS Sassoon 823 [now UPenn MS LJS57] from which comes the illustration below, Langerman et.al. write

“The drawings of the constellations obviously follow the style of those which accompanied the catalogue of al-Sufi but [for reasons explained in their article] it would appear that the drawings cannot have been copied from the [al-] Sufi latinus corpus.

~ later noting that the hand is Spanish in MS Sassoon 823 but that one ought to consider the possibility of Spanish influence on some Jewish manuscripts executed at Prague after the first decades of the thirteenth century.

So where were the other art historians and art-analysts in 1921? Or for that matter between 1921 and 2010?

astron Sassoon 823 detail brightened

detail from MS Sassoon 823. Upenn describes it as “a compendium of astronomical matter. Catalonia c.1361”.  Langerman et.al. add that “The drawings of the constellations obviously follow the style of those which accompany the catalogue of al-Sufi, or from an Islamicate celestial globe”

That Panofsky’s assessment was not more widely broadcast is understandable; it was given in a conversation with Anne Nill and Panofsky never published on the subject.  No other iconographic analyst would become involved for many decades to come.

Manly’s suggesting a Spanish origin was adduced from the form for the month-names in the calendar section, not by any analysis of imagery. Why Professor [James Westfall] Thompson suggested a Spanish origin I cannot discover.  Both men were in a position, nonetheless, to provide some public balance for Wilfrid’s narrative, though neither did: Manly became distracted by the theme of the auteur, proposing Ramon Llull, and in efforts to break the assumed cipher.  Although Thompson held prominent positions as Professor of medieval history, he appears to have held aloof.

Wilfrid’s over-attenuated provenancing remained the standard view.

The history of Voynich studies to that time shows one thing clearly: that in pursuit of the imagined author, of a pet theory, or of the glamorous environment in which the manuscript might be imagined, facts and opinions at odds with Wilfrid’s narrative were disregarded by the general public, no matter how much weight would normally be accorded them in other contexts. 


Also in regard to Spain, and Jews of Catalonia, I might  mention here that Artur Sixto wrote in comment to a post at ciphermysteries in 2011 saying that to him, the language of the month-roundels’ central inscriptions seemed “to correspond slightly better to Catalan than Occitan. June for instance, spelled with “ou” corresponds to Catalan pronunciation, in French writing. “ny” would be Catalan relative to Occitan “nh” or French/Italian “gn”. So the person might have ties with the North of Catalonia (and could have a French influence.  ….  Interestingly, many Jews in Catalonia spoke Catalanic, a Catalan dialect close to Shuadit, i.e. Judaeo-Provençal (i.e. Judaeo-Occitan)”.

– comment to ciphermysteries blog (February 17, 2011 1:03 pm)

~ to which Sergi Ridaura wrote soon after, expressing his entire agreement, though adding that there was yet a possibility that the text wasn’t actually written within Catalonia – and noting the presence of a word more characteristic of Italian Occitan. ibid., (February 17, 2011 2:37 pm).

More recently, Marco Ponzi has referred to astronomical imagery from Catalonia, while I have constantly referred* to the work of originally-Catalonian Jewish makers of maritime charts, and in particular to Abraham Cresques’ creation (completed 1375) of the so-called Catalan Atlas for Charles V of France.

* chiefly in relation to the astronomical (not the month- ) roundels, and the north roundel in folio 86v, q.v.  but see also posts in response to Marco’s original comments on Stephen Bax’ site; (voynichimagery  14/12/2015  and 16/02/2015).

In the usual way, when we find a convergence in opinion from a number of independent studies, more weight is given the opinion.


Error #5. Fact dismissed to maintain ‘theory’.

Making allowance for Newbold’s manifest lack of natural talent for reading imagery – even western medieval Latin imagery – his strange ideas about the manuscript’s content owed less to that inability than to his having adopted beforehand the set opinions of one other person.  Setting out to prove, after the fact, a set of ideas which the researcher has not developed independently, and which he or she affirms without comparative study is a most unfortunate practice, though still common.

Once a ‘theory’ is espoused, many researchers seem to lose interest in study of the manuscript and begin researching only those ideas, their focus then less on the object’s elucidation than on validating an instinctive reaction to it.

Newbold saw ‘biology’ because convinced in advance that he would be deciphering Roger Bacon’s scientific discoveries.   As it happens, there could still be some grain of truth in association with Bacon, or at least with England as place of manufacture for the manuscript –  because that astronomical imagery from MS Sassoon 823 also shows connection to the later work of al-Tusi, composed during Roger’s lifetime,  before the English king repudiated obligations to his Jewish subjects. It is certain that Jewish translations were made so early of works originally written in Persian or Arabic, and that the history of western copies of al-Tusi’s works is poorly known. [1]

The most obvious objection to Wilfrid’s imaginative history for this manuscript lay disregarded in the artefact itself: its vellum, its bindings, and the stylistics manifest by its imagery – none of which was paid sufficient attention. Public perceptions, though obtained from varied avenues. all returned at this time, to the tales spun by Wilfrid Voynich.

1. This is not to argue that the written text is in Hebrew, or that this section of MS Beinecke 408 will prove to reproduce either the text of al-Sufi or that of Al-Tusi’s text, but to acknowledge the strongly similar style and form for the Voynich “ladies” to what we find in MS Sassoon 823. Some common environment must be assumed. Spain is quite possible.

The usual assertion is that Latin Europe gained its knowledge of al-Tusi from Byzantine Greeks.  see e.g. wiki article, ‘Al Tusi couple‘.

al-Sufi lived in tenth-century Iran; al-Tusi was born in 1201AD in Ṭūs, Khorasan and died in 1274 AD. Roger Bacon (by the way) was born c. 1220 and died ?1292. 



.continued ….






9 thoughts on “Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 5

  1. Well, I hope you are finding Cresques Abraham’s Catalan Atlas as fascinating as some of Fray Sahagun’s efforts at educating his ‘flock’ (the Florentine Manuscript). I still haven’t been able to find the botanical item/illustration for what should have been a significant feature: the dandelion. Fray Sahagun was born and raised in Leon province of Spain. His home town (of Sahagun) surely must have had ‘dent de lion” (dandelion) growing everywhere, and especially along the roadside. The road was a major path for pilgrims headed for Compostela. (Fray Sahagun received his higher education at the University in Compostela). I’m hoping you may find some manuscriptorial discussions/illustrations of dandelions (within the time-frame of the “V-mnscrpt).


    • Dear Bobette,
      I haven’t needed to look again at the Catalan Atlas recently. I studied it in some depth during the late 1980s and 1990s, having access to the facsimile edition, though not to the original. I’ve referred to it so often here that I wondered if people mightn’t think it a bee in the bonnet, but it appears to me to demonstrate so many points relevant to the MS, and to the time and environment from which I think we have the current version, MS Beinecke 408. The date, too (1375) gives it more relevance than appearance in other MSS made after 1440, especially as demonstration of customs from Jewish art being taken up into western works of the Latin tradition. The French king’s marvellous “Atlas” (more visual encyclopaedia) would have made every noble who saw it want something of the same, I expect.
      I don’t know about finding dandelions in the VMS; why do you think it important?


  2. Because dandelions were folk remedy for the effects of malnutrition – both roots and leaves. Also, they grew alongside of paths and roads just about everywhere in China and Europe. I’m trying to recall where I have seen a medieval shield/medallion which portrays the dandelion (French, I think) dent d’leon.
    I am returning to both B-408 and the Florentine Codex (herbal section) to see if I can spot the dandelion.


    • Bobette, I expect you know that Doedens’ is the earliest depiction of the sunflower known in Europe. I don’t really think it will be news to you, either, that the supposed “sunflower”s head is like any of the Asters’ including the dandelion family. The problem isn’t the head, is it? It’s the leaves.


  3. That’s it — the leaves! Teeth of the lion. One doesn’t find the lion’s teeth in the blossom. By identifying the particular plant by the shape of its leaves, one could be fairly certain they weren’t picking and eating a poisonous look-alike. Pilgrims on their way to Compostela would probably have picked them, so as to supplement the tedious and sparse foodstuffs they carried with them. Dodoens may never have had an inkling of the dandelion’s edibility and nutritious value.


  4. Rembert Dodoens apparently was a correspondent of Carolus Clusius. Much too much ‘ground’ to cover herein; but both gentlemen corresponded (or had the same schooling at the University of Leyden (Louvain?)


  5. Bobette,
    You may be interested to read Norman Fiering, The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West, 1450 to 1800.
    It speaks about why Columbus thought India was just the other side of the Azores. Same ideas nicely represented, too, on Benhaim’s globe.


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