events of the late thirteenth to late fourteenth century and the evolution of an emblem in MS Beinecke 408 III-a

The first two posts in this series have offered a pretty easy cruise, but now things do get a bit more technical and require my outlining developments within the Mediterranean over a longer time-span.  I’ve spent some  days trying to present it in a more accessible way, knowing that for many readers the manuscript holds interest only for problems posed by its script and written text, detailed treatments of iconological issues (such as constant significance through a series of expressive forms) are matter which many suppose incidental.

The question underlying this post is whether  – and if so where and when – the pictorial text(s) now included in the manuscript first became known in Europe. Pace Beinecke, our end-date will be taken as c.1427 AD, when we must suppose for want of newer data that the present manuscript was made.   If the matter now within the manuscript were newly-arrived, then whence had it come and what can be discerned about its origins from the imagery?  The enquiry may, necessarily, affect perceptions of the text’s written part, though that of itself has so far proven uninformative. At the time of writing this, we still do not know if the manuscript was made in Europe, or by whom or for whom, nor whether the written part of the text is ancient or no older than the fifteenth century manuscript we have.

By the end of this series,though, I hope it will be clear why I  concluded that the Voynich ‘angel of the Rose’ refers to a type (form, character and significance) best known before the Roman imperial centuries; that the present example is unlikely to have been first enunciated earlier than the 4thC BC, but even more unlikely to have been first given its form very late – even so late even as the 7thC AD.   It should also be clear why I think its most probable place of first enunciation was a city called Sinope on the Black Sea, an ancient city which, in the thirteenth century, lay adjacent to the Byzantine ’empire of Trebizond’. There, at that time, as many will know, Gregory Chioniades dedicated himself to the study of astronomy, sought and finally gained permission to travel and study in Persia, and with some difficulty managed also to bring back to Trebizond a number of  handbooks (zijs) in which were contained the data needed to update Ptolemy’s co-ordinates.  That is a matter for a separate post, but you’ll see what possibilities this opens, including the possibility first raised by Brumbaugh in his efforts at decryption, that the astronomical folios’ labels consist only of numbers.[1]

The final post in this series will offer a selection of those items which led me to these conclusions, and though the number I can illustrate here is relatively small, they should map the evolution and subsequent devolution of what I concluded was the informing figure.  That the Voynich imagery is (fairly obviously) not affected greatly by translation into the customs of western Latin art may have been a source of frustration for many over the past century, but in a way it is the most desirable state of affairs when one must try to provenance a manuscript whose written text cannot be read.

I begin from the mid-thirteenth century AD, to illustrate the difference between works having similar form, and those having similar intent.  In the Bibles Moralisée we find a few instances of similar forms, but the intent is very clearly antithetical to the style of practical (and in a very general sense, scientific)  matter informing MS Beinecke 408.


The emblems used by Guillem Soler on his late fourteenth century chart – the eight-pointed star, the spiral-armed sun and the hooded moon –  were not first used by him, nor exclusive to the chart-makers.  They are seen in relation to a depiction of the ‘world of the flesh’ in the so-called “moralised bibles” (Bibles Moralisée),  of which our earliest example is written in Old French, and is dated  c.1240 AD: at which time the Jews were yet in England and Roger Bacon was only twenty years of age.ible Moralisée Vienna, Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. Vind. 2554


That much-reproduced frontispiece shows the divine ‘measurer’ but is no glorification of a science, whether geography, geometry, mathematics or astronomy; it is a first announcement of such Bibles’ principal theme: that to pry too deeply into the god-made world leads to a general reduction in morality and religious standards: to attention being sought by and granted to the disputatious, the Saracen, the Jew, and secular teachers – astronomers and philosophers – all at the expense of more elevated matters.. and persons such as those wealthy religious leaders who commissioned works of this type for presentation to their kings.[2] The idea that Roger Bacon worked against an atmosphere of religious opposition is not entirely without foundation.

But that is why this world is not a shown in these Bibles as any mappamundi or T-O diagram, but formed to suggest ‘the flesh’ and perhaps the organ of the heart. The latter idea is more obvious in the Toledo Bible Moralisée, also made in c.1240 AD and in which a northern Christian (Byzantine or Russian) character is still more pronounced. The ‘ways of the world’ are “venous” – as venal.

To emphasise the wanted moral, the French painter set a drop of red on the surface of the world where the compass point pierces it, implying a parallel to the lance which pierced Christ’s side, and the ‘wounded heart’ occasioned by secular dissections and investigations.  Perhaps it puns on the ‘auge’ as if it were related to augury – one cannot say.[3]

The points of comparison in the image, nevertheless, are enough to make us wish we might see exactly the model being subverted by these thirteenth-century works, for their underlying pictorial sources are already quite ‘translated’ to suit a Latin eye.  One can see only how, if represented less literally, the Voynich roundel’s boundary might be made a generic ‘cloud band’.  Both have a central ‘piercing’ and both place the sun so that the viewer sees it to the left –  as it rises in the Voynich map as presently bound.  But in the end, these similarities of themselves are no more than evocative, suggesting that the matter in MS Beinecke 408 may have arrived in Europe by the middle of the thirteenth century, while making it clearer than ever that the Voynich figure is not a product of that milieu – the measuring eye of the Voynich ‘angel’ is of another sort.

north west roundel and Bible Moralisee compass detail

The indications are much clearer that no later than the early decades of the fourteenth, the same matter as we find in folio 86v (Beinecke 85v and 86r) had come within the horizons of the chartmakers.  The fourteenth century, of course, sees that overlapping of the ‘Avignon-‘ and ‘Mongol-‘ century.  Earlier and more distant artefacts will prove far more helpful in understanding the ‘Angel’ itself, but for readers whose interests may not have been ancient or medieval history before, I’ll first treat this fourteenth-century matter and later follow the image of the “Angel of the rose'” back to the time and place to which I assign both this figure and the first form of the Voynich map.

1321-1375angel of the rose detail top

Pietro vesconte Genoa 1321

I have already remarked elsewhere on the similar head (and hat) given the Voynich figure and those on another, set by Pietro Vesconte in a corner of one of his cartes marine. Some believe it his self-portrait.  The radii extending from beside the Vesconte figure are, I think, part of the same private allusion – to himself as pre-eminent ‘surveyor of the world’; they  represent certainly the ‘wings of the wind’ but I suspect too an allusion to the radii stellarum, whereas those on the Voynich figure relate more exactly (as we’ll see later) to the palm-branch as sign of measurer and recorder, a trope as old as dynastic Egyptian art and which is understood even today in those parts of the world which still use palm-leaf books.

Vesconte’s cartes marine were made in the earlier part of the fourteenth century, first in Genoa and then in Venice. The ‘self-portrait’ map is dated 1321.  From later in that century, a Mallorcan chart by a Jewish map-maker would include the first known example, anywhere, of a “compass rose” included on a map or chart. Like the present position of the Voynich angel on its own ‘rosa mundi’, that which Cresques apparently invented lies in its map’s north-west.  (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. Esp. 30.)

Cresques compass roseCresques’ pictorial Almanac was made in Mallorca for the court of France and presented in 1375.  It contains other and important details in common with MS Beinecke 408, if I have rightly interpreted folio 67r-2 as a tidal diagram to aid the ‘establishment of the port’.  Cresques’ tidal chart is also circular and is again considered the first of its type to appear anywhere in Latin Europe. It be be seen as the top diagram here. One of the references given in the footnote translates the Castilian text, including a detailed explanation of the method.[4] I do not expect that the place-names are likely identical but the form may assist those working on the Voynich text.

Cresques was not the first to surround a diagram with a circuit of wind-names; the oldest extant example of that custom (as far as we know) is one which originated in the Greek-speaking community in Egypt, an astrologer’s map of which numerous Latin copies remain, in astrological and in practical texts.  It has been treated in a paper by Edson and Savage-Smith.[5]

One might hypothesise, from this, that Pietro Vesconte (c.1320s) or Abraham Cresques (c.1360) first drew the map on folio 86v (Beinecke 85v and 86r), but while I should be inclined to agree that Cresques had access to very closely similar matter, and possibly the very exemplars of our manuscript, I would only hazard of Vesconte that he had seen this ‘Angel of the Rose’ or something like it and understanding its significance, created a comparable form, less likely to disturb Latin sensibilities. The matter which is now in MS Beinecke 408 would surely be of value to chart-makers, though more I should think to those whose livelihood came from the trade in the goods represented, along the routes indicated by the Voynich map.

The most important point here might easily be overlooked: that if Cresques almost certainly, and Vesconte quite possibly, had been able to ‘translate’ this imagery into an equivalent form, for a Latin audience, then it follows that they could read it – that is, rightly understand the original, its form and above all its significance – and presumably too something of any text which accompanied it.

For any technical chart, or even for a single figure such as this  ‘angel of the rose’, to be correctly translated into a new form, while retaining its original significance and appropriate use, then the use and significance, both, which are embodied in the original must be understood very well. In the case of technical matter, one might say ‘perfectly understood’.  This is also true for the tidal chart in Cresques’ work, which, it bears emphasising, is the first diagram of this form to be found in the western corpus.  An earlier comparison is offered in a small diagram made centuries earlier and which is inscribed in Coptic and in Latin.  Bound into an old compendium in a distant library, one has difficulty imagining how it might have been known to a Jewish chartmaker in Mallorca, and in any case it contains nothing like the necessary detail, nor does it so well resemble that I have identified in this way in the Voynich manuscript. I might make a point here that the identification was done solely on the basis of my analysis of that diagram, not by any intent to create support for a ‘portolan theory’.

Like Soler’s map, Cresques’ tidal chart uses  a star for North, and a half-moon for South – a similar usage seen (as previously mentioned)  in MS Beinecke 408, on a sheet whose raw radiocarbon date is c.1400.

These things, in my opinion, argue strongly for the matter in our manuscript’s having been available to Genoese and/or Mallorcan cartographers by not later than the second or third quarter of the fourteenth century, and possibly though not demonstrably, to manuscript artists working in the first class of clerical scribes, by c.1240.

If I might suggest  – the transcription and translation of Cresques’ text which is specified in the note may prove helpful in treating folio 67r-2.

[minor typos corrected – 12/03/2016]

.. continued..




[1] as Brumbaugh asserted in his short article for the newsletter of the Yale University Library in 1987, though he fails to specify the precedent(s) he mentions.

“As regards the cipher, in the margin of fol. 66r, the scribe had indulged his fancy by writing groups of character patterns in what looked like equations: a horizontal set to state the problem, a vertical one for the result. Substituting numbers, I found this worked fifteen times out of sixteen. The characters of the cipher were thus [numbers], as had been earlier suggested [ by whom? any reader know who he means, in particular? – D] ..

There were, however, two or three alternative designs for the same numerals in the marginal exercise – which is why the total number of characters had seemed to be about nineteen, rather than ten or twenty-five.What confirmed this was that my cipher box read the names in the second section of the manuscript, which consists of twelve maps of stars: these had no text, but only the star maps. I published an article on the pepper label and one on the first three star maps, with decipherments of the latter”.

One of Brumbaugh’s articles was published as ‘The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’ in  the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150. It is available through JSTOR.

Brumbaugh’s decryption of the ‘star-names’ has them all proper names, of ancient historical and mythical characters.  His study is marred by his belief that some of the plants are from the Americas and, otherwise, his vision’s being entirely and only informed by contemporary schemes of the Latins’ cultural history. With reference to the ‘decipherment’ Pelling’s comment was terse but to the point:

“Brumbaugh .. converted Voynichese to digits … and tried to salvage text from the resulting digit stream, though ultimately accepting somewhat grudgingly that the digit stream was not meaningful. ..In my opinion,.. Brumbaugh’s … digit stream theories explained nothing whatsoever about the nature and structure of Voynichese, and so have nothing to commend them.”

N. Pelling, ‘First Voynich theory of 2012’, ciphermysteries (wordpress blog), January 28th., 2012.

I might add that at that time Pelling thought little of theories about the text as being, or being influenced by, Hebrew – or any eastern source – and says so in the same article. He mentions elsewhere (ibid. January 12th., 2013) that the ‘sunflower’ idea had been treated to “compelling counter-arguments raised by Jorge Stolfi”. I also discuss that second matter in the context of the map’s east roundel. I have not seen Stolfi’s arguments yet.

[2] see e.g. Katharine H. Tachau, ‘God’s Compass and Vana Curiositas: scientific study in the Old French Bible Moralisee, The Art Bulletin, Vol.80, No.1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 7-33.

[3] “If a line was drawn through the earth’s centre and the centre of a planet’s orbit, and then extended to the circumference at its most distant point, this point was called the point of auge” E.G.R. Taylor (ed.), A Regiment for the Sea and other writings on navigation by William Bourne‘, Haklyut Society, CUP (1963),  p.120.

[4] For details and image of Cresques’ tidal calculation chart see H. Derek Howse, Some Early Tidal Diagrams, UC Biblioteca Geral 1, (1985)  pp.366ff. For the diagram’s Catalan text, transcribed and translated into English (by Mary Black) see the paper by Vicenç M. Rosselló i Verger,  ‘Tides and the Catalan Atlas’, Catalan Social Sciences Review, 5: 87-106 (2015). available online as a pdf.  For those interested in the language and abbreviated forms used in describing the ‘establishment of the port’ in English, see E.G.R. Taylor(ed.), A Regiment for the Sea and other writings on navigation by William Bourne, Hakluyt Society (1963). I refer to the copy I have. Other editions may be available.

[5] Evelyn Edson and Emilie Savage-Smith, An Astrologer’s Map: A Relic of Late Antiquity, Imago Mundi, Vol. 52 (2000), pp. 7-29.



One thought on “events of the late thirteenth to late fourteenth century and the evolution of an emblem in MS Beinecke 408 III-a

  1. For those interested in the history and maths of tidal calculation, the following should satisfy even the most curious.
    David Edgar Cartwright, Tides: A Scientific History, CUP (1998/9).
    see esp. note pp.16ff.

    Those wanting less, see a review of the Cartwright (and a little more) by James Case – that is now available for download online here:
    ‘Understanding Tides—From Ancient Beliefs to Present-day Solutions to the Laplace Equations…’ from SIAM News, Volume 33, Number 2. pp.1-4.


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