False and true histories – Europeans as ‘heirs of classical antiquity’.


A constant problem in attempting to explain the utterly non-Latin character of the imagery in Beinecke MS 408 is finding that the general public, and many professional scholars, have a settled belief that Latin Europe was in some sense the centre of the medieval world, and thus that any manuscript found there could only be an account of Latins’ cultural attitudes, fields of interest and preoccupations, including preoccupation with themselves.

When I explain that the manuscript’s imagery generally shows no interest in, or knowledge of  Latin customs, mores, beliefs, social hierarchies… in fact that the Voynich map itself shows more interest in, and knowledge of the Taklamakan desert than of Europe and its cities… the reaction is usually blank disbelief. What?? Not interested in western Europe??!  Inconceivable!

Not inconceivable. True.

The Voynich map either knows nothing or cares nothing for Jerusalem or for Rome and is so little interested in Europe that just one site is marked for it.  In a late addition to the original map, we see Europe denoted by a triangular court and a tower surmounted by what is depicted as flames emerging from the tower.  Whether even so much is literal, or accurate, one cannot be sure.

On the other hand, the dipping and overlapping formation of the Taklamakan’s smaller barchan dunes is quite perfectly rendered, with the wind-lines just so. Only personal experience could get it so right.

There are people for whom the idea of the foreign creates a sort of desperate sense of ‘things out of my control’ and these will immediately begin hypothesising some Latin male to whom the whole can be ‘logically’ entrusted, on the principle (apparently) that a Latin male serves as ‘checker and corrector’ of anything scary and unEuropean.

At the moment, this panick-y thing has led to a hopefully brief ascendancy of the  bizarre idea that European is a human ‘norm’ and one has seen positive efforts made – in exactly the tone used to prevent a child’s giving way to night terrors – to reassure anyone interested in this manuscript that, notwithstanding all its apparent evidence to the contrary, this manuscript is “really” a nice, normal Latin Christian manuscript under a flimsy disguise: dear old Uncle Piotr wearing a Halloween mask.

One forgives amateurs much, but to define the ‘nice’  and the ‘normal’ as ‘European Christian’ is a little rich in 2017.

I see no necessity to indulge in that sort of straw-clutching.  If you can accept that, we have some common ground with each other and with the actual content of this manuscript.

With regard to astronomy, too, whereas the Friedmans as people educated around the cusp of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries could not conceive of any medieval manuscript reflecting other than the Latins’ defined fields of astronomy and astrology, we can see that practical navigational astronomy and the calendar appear to have been the chief interests of the Voynich compiler. He  knew stars unknown to the Latins’ formal astronomy, and depicted them by alluding to ideas quite alien to the Latins. I was able to identify them because as it happens, my ‘big thesis topic’ related to comparative traditions in non-mathematical astronomy ( bit of a misnomer since there is no use of the stars that doesn’t involve counting and calculation, but it excluded Ptolemaic-style astronomy and all forms of predictive and related astrology).

Presuming that every manuscript made anywhere, by anyone, in fifteenth-century Europe must express Latins’ own interests and aspirations is something which runs very deep in Voynich studies. So deep that most treat the idea as scarcely worth a moment’s reflection: as some eternal and fundamental truth.

And the facts are against it.  That any ‘reassurance’ should be offered is one of those facts.  I know of no other Latin manuscript about which anyone has tried to reassure me that it was “really” a nice, normal Latin manuscript – whether about herbs or anything else.

I see the fact that the vast majority of its pictorial content displays such utter ignorance of Latin Europe’s modes and habits; of its hierarchies by which medieval Latins defined and understood the world and all within it, and ignorance of the iconographic conventions which made art intelligible within that culture as all very clear indications that the foundation of this work is genuinely ancient and that its parts were preserved for most of their existence outside the world known to Europe. Because the classical world was just as indifferent to Europe as the Voynich map is.

Only a few particular, late, inclusions, know anything at all of Latin practice and attitudes, mostly a series of diagrams added to the upper part of the map’s reverse.

Throughout the entire work, there is not so much as one example of that staple of medieval Latin art: the crowned and enthroned  male figure.


There is not a single image  – not a single hint – of the Christian saint or the Latin priest, the friar or the nun, and the most Latin of all the images in the manuscript are some few late inclusions – and among them diagrams drawn on the reverse of the map’s upper fold.

Nor is there any image speaking to the Latins’ preoccupation with the sinful and the saved, though that was the chief theme even of herbals and bestiaries. For the Latins, a serpent was always a sign of evil and an object reviled by Gd, even if it looked harmless and had skin that resembled a nice small-print wallpaper fabric and, one suspects, was a celestial rather than an earthly serpent

Latins even called herbs by such names as ‘herb of grace’ and ‘St John’s wort’ and ‘St.Anne’s girdle’.  And so on.

Like the botanical section and meteorological and astronomical sections (there is no ‘medical’ section, nor any ‘balneology’ section, and no ‘astrological’ section), the Voynich map shows more than indifference to Europe; it shows ignorance of where it is, of how an image expressed itself in the visual language of Latins; and also of those  things the Latins presumed essential in interpreting reality and of chief importance in representing their world.

This is not a clock.

I have been at pains to point this out, again and again, over the past several years as I worked through the analysis and the explanation of both positive and negative indicators.  I don’t hypothesise or spin yarns which I then look to illustrate. I write to provide a basis of technical and professional studies of the imagery for the benefit of those few – perhaps no more than four or five persons – whose only interest in the manuscript is an interest in the manuscript:

Just to understand the thing as it was meant to be understood.

And if  the written part of the text is ever to be read, those working on it will have to discard the old expectations sooner or later, for while the manuscript we now have may have been made by Latin hands, it is no expression of Latin medieval culture.  Only in some late, and some few late details do Europe and Europeans create a presence for themselves within it.[1]

I have  decided to try again to get this vital point across – but this time, I’m going to hope that the words of another scholar, an historian speaking of western historiography, may make this clearer than I’ve been able to do. Because the problem isn’t endemic to study of this manuscript; it isn’t a reflection of the people working on this particular manuscript. It’s a problem due to a more general absorption of a mythic tale of Europe’s past.

[1] the same few on which the Eurocentric arguments relentlessly fixate – such as the archer, or the castle.. or the marginalia on f.116v.

A.Y. Reed has put it this way…

“…. By virtue of the European appropriation of the Greek and Roman pasts during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, scholars often take for granted a notion of the history of “the West” as a unilinear narrative—a narrative that begins with ancient Greeks, continues with the Roman Empire and Latin Christendom, and culminates with the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Yet, as we have seen, this idea of “the West” was reified at precisely the same time as modern notions of “the East”: the formative era between the journey of the first European envoy to the Mongol Empire in the late thirteenth century and the consolidation of the Anglo-European tradition of scholarship… in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[This] was also the same era that saw the promotion of now-familiar notions like “Classics” and “Western Civilization.” It was the same era, moreover, that heralded the rise of an historiography which lauded Europe as the rightful heir of ancient Greek philosophy and science, on the one hand, and as the prime focus for world history, on the other. What this narrative effaces is the geographical gap between those ancient Greeks and Romans who wrote about Indians (‘Iνδoí) and Sêres (Σηρες) and those modern Europeans who claimed to be their sole and true heirs—
…. When we set aside the assumption of a unitary “Western Civilization,” the gap becomes obvious: the centers of Greek and Roman cultures were in the eastern Mediterranean, rather than in western Europe. Accordingly, ancient Greek and Roman understandings of the bounds of the civilized world differed dramatically from those of later Europeans.
From our ancient sources, in fact, we might imagine that Greek and Roman elites would be surprised to learn of the modern claimants to their heritage. As noted above, scholars often point to the fanciful accounts of India by Ctesias, Herodotus, and others to posit the long-standing “Western” mystification of “the East.” No less fanciful, however, are ancient Greek reports about the peoples of what is now Europe.

Indians (and, later, Sêres) were readily assimilated to Greek models of wise and ancient “barbarian” nations, as formed on the precedents of Egypt and Babylonia.  By contrast, the areas to the north and west of the Greeks were long unknown—so much so, in fact, that these lands were rumoured to be inhabited by one-eyed peoples and swarms of bees (e.g., Herodotus, Histories 3.115–16; 5.9–10). Northerners were imagined, moreover, to be wild, irrational, and violent by virtue of living too far from the sun.

The known world, as seen by ancient Greeks, was oriented eastward, encompassing the eastern Mediterranean trade routes and colonies of Greek merchants, as well as the multiple peoples conquered and encountered by the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes.

… By contrast, detailed knowledge of northern and western Europe awaited Roman military expeditions into Britain, Gaul, and Germania. And, even then and thereafter, western and northern Europeans were often viewed through the lens of ancient Greek stereotypes about savages and nomads, as perhaps exacerbated by Roman anxieties about marauding tribes from the north.”

Annette Yoshiko Reed, ‘Beyond the Land of Nod: Syriac Images of Asia and the Historiography of “The West”, History of Religions, Vol. 49, No. 1 (August 2009), pp. 48-87.


(detail) Beinecke MS 408,  folio 77r . Depicts a non-western 5-elements system. For possible explanatory text see end of post published on Oct.31st., 2016.

2 Replies to “False and true histories – Europeans as ‘heirs of classical antiquity’.”

  1. Just for fun I checked the images I used in my last post. One is from Egypt, one from Syria, one from Tunis, one from Pompeii. Three are from Latin MSS but I explicitly use them to show how different they are. I guess I’m in the clear 🙂

    I mostly agree about what the MS is not, that’s one thing. In order to really drive that point home though, there is a need for a coherent alternative, presented in a way people understand. This may also be part of the problem. I personally believe that most researchers aren’t driven by a feeling of European superiority. Rather, they grasp for these manuscripts because they don’t know where else to look, and how to approach such research.


    1. Koen you will forgive my turning a jaundiced eye on that comment. Given that I have been showing people “where else to look” for more than eight years, and would like to think that my explanations are not “incoherent” but detailed and provided with plenty of advice on further reading etc., and I speak from not only a formal training in this sort of work, but a professional involvement over several decades, I can only attest from my own experience that the ‘Eurocentric’ and theory-driven style (especially the latter) is the most reasonable explanation for the fact that while I can measure the effect of my work by the various (not always competent) efforts to imitate or emulate, while covering plagiarism with assertions ‘it’s not a new idea’ etc., you will still see people too afraid of the ‘voynich.nu’-educated gang to read, absorb, and take seriously the single largest body of inconographic analyses and commentary available online. In fact, Zandbergen positively eliminated all reference to my work from his website when he found newer and more congenial names to whom the original insights and discoveries could be credited. Not exactly how it’s done – but how it’s done by some Voynicheros.


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