This is a temporary afterword, as it were.

While the second part is prepared, the research posts will not be public, but incidental ones will to save interrupting the page-by-page section which should be ready by early next year.

In the meantime, I’d like to add a caution to newcomers concerning what I see as currently the two most common pitfalls in this area of research.

First is an assumption very widespread: namely that a medieval book is like a modern book in having an author who uses the medium to express himself.  First, the new idea is developed, then transferred to the medium of writing or drawing, and finally ~ if ever ~ sent out into the world.

Books were differently considered before printers were common.

Earlier – to about the late fifteenth century ~ the great majority of books were made by a master on subjects that he himself first studied from inherited texts and then taught with his commentary.

Later in life, if his renown was sufficiently great ~ and then only with proper reluctance and protestations ~ would he be persuaded by peers, students or colleagues to dictate his knowledge to attending clerks and so finally a fair copy might be produced.

Its illustrations, especially in the western world, were almost always faithful to earlier forms and custom. No wild flights yet of the individual imagination as we find in the Baroque.

Otherwise, a book was made and meant to remain somewhere in the range between private and secret.

The private or personally-made book was often a compilation from older texts: the sort of book called a commonplace book or a ‘florilegium’. Most of our extant florilegia [in that sense] are clerical compendia; far fewer are technical handbooks of one kind or another, these meant as a way for a master to pass on his years of experience to his own apprentices and family circle. The Mappae Clavicula is one of those.

The portolans made before the middle of of the fifteenth century are of that type too; but from them the early portolan charts are believed to have developed.

This, again, before printing became the norm and while ‘trade secrets’ were the key to family fortunes among the mercantile and technical classes.

Other works, including the medieval herbals, fall into the range of text-books, like copies of mathematical or other standard texts. Historians still argue about just how they were used, and who mostly used them. It seems possible that they were just as often – if not more – meant as pattern-books for imagery and embroidery as they were ‘herbals’ in the modern sense, and again other examples may have been used in the way that lapidaries and bestiaries were, as a key to moralisatin.

What I have found, in the content of the Voynich manuscript’s imagery, suggests a book of the purely technical kind:  formed of extracts gathered from different sources, united chiefly in apparent purpose (eastern trade) and suggestion that they come originally from Hellenistic originals. Additional details then suggesting that at some time around the twelfth century, the earlier material had come to the notice of some group in the Mediterranean as the chartmakers, western mariners or traders whose intersecting interests the final compilation appears to address.

Genoese and Venetians are among the most logical possibilities for the second phase and with them, indeed, the key to the written text may lie.

But what seem  ‘likely’ to be so  from the point of a present state of knowledge has less bearing on a history than one might expect; histories are told as a narrative but ‘history’ doesn’t come from the word for story, but for ‘investigations’.

And while a history may be neatly begun and halted, history itself has no beginning, middle and end; the protagonists we make eminent are, at the same time (as we know) people who had less impact in their own time than others who have passed unremembered.

The Mongol khan is a prominent figure; but which of his men three the plague-ridden corpses into Caffa, and who was the  sea-captain who brought the fleeing Venetians – and the plague – by ship thence to Marseilles? Which of these men more greatly affected the history of northern France?

And so to the second common pitfall in Voynich studies:

2. One cannot ‘logic out’ an historical narrative in the absence of solid evidence.

I know it has been frustrating for some readers that I do not nominate a specific area or people or language as the source of the whole manuscript’s imagery (as distinct from the production of the current written text, which is attributed to scribes trained in European style).

The imagery does not permit  a single definitive description of that kind, nor can it tell us except by a decipherment of its text, or by documentary evidence, the sort of information that would make a tidy story.  The imagery speaks to its heterogeneous sources, and indicates original source works made during those dates I’ve specified ( 4th-3rdC BC to 3rdC AD), with additional details added considerably later. I suggest a time about the twelfth century for the earliest additions.

Hellenistic works were more widely known than one might expect, and turn up in manuscripts dating to the tenth century as far distant as southeast Asia, where in some cases their relics are retained today. Some but not all came there in Arabic translations.

Within the Voynich manuscript, the botanical section and the ‘pharma’ section suggest the purpose of this part of the compilation (and of the bathy-section at least) was intended to assist in the eastern maritime trade, the botanical and pharma sections especially showing evidence of affect from what called in the broadest sense an ‘asian’ style, although in that broad sense it includes southern India.

By contrast, many among the diagrams, and especially the twelve ‘month’ diagrams show no obvious Asian ‘overlay’ but rather influence from Persian and Armenian style. I should be inclined to place their origins in the North Aegean and  Black Sea.

A great deal more could be known if we had more technical data. For example, the month-folios’ pigment contain tin and titanium. But the proportions are crucial in such data, and also whether they come in organic or inorganic form. Titanium, for example, is relatively rare, but accumulates in certain types of plant, most notably in nettles. Similarly, tin is relatively rare, but if present in trace amounts may be simply due to .. for example.. the use of a bronze stylus or inkwell.  We cannot know enough at present to use such data to narrow the geographic range further.

The point here is not to criticise the data we have, or the research which is already done, and being done still. It is to show that documentation is there not only to form an opinion oneself, but to allow others to see if the opinion is sufficiently justified by the facts.

Facts, and not logic, are the point in historical research.

And so histories are fine things but all too often made of lacework rather than linen.

What was the name of the person who brought the manuscript to Rudolf’s court? Whence had he come? What was his natural language? Was he commissioned to fetch the book, or was it one he had been in the habit of hanging from his belt? What clarity we might gain from answers; what a tale might be made from conjecturing them. But the facts are not there for a history, and however logically built it could be a story, and no more.

One cannot predict; one cannot suppose or reason out events of which there is no record.

History is about what would appear to have happened in fact, as best we can judge, and to the extent that we can trust documents and artefacts, and our own ability to rightly interpret them.

That’s why scholarly papers are so laden with footnotes, and citations: not to support the author’s account, but to show it is an account informed at every step by data which is, or which is taken by most people, to be true.

Without the usual apparatus, posts are less off-putting, I agree. No friendly casual reader is pleased by an impression that they are being set some homework. And that is not the reason that next year’s analytical posts will have these things from now on. I’m not comfortable without them,  is all. Call it habit.


9 Replies to “AFTERWORD”

  1. Let’s test the comments again 🙂

    Somehow I hadn’t read this page yet. I have a question or rather a remark about the concept of authorship. It’s a bit arguing about semantics so my apologies in advance 🙂

    First of all, I agree that the manuscript is composite and that the mere notion of one author is silly. I think what annoys me the most in Voynich studies is when people talk about “the author”- I just can’t think about it in that way anymore.

    I also take your point about authorship in medieval Europe. However, wasn’t this different in the Greco-Roman period? To take a clear example, the poet Horatius (Horace) was certainly a creator and even had a shockingly modern idea about what it meant to be an author.

    An in between example is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Most of it is taken from Hellenistic traditions, but still one cannot deny that Ovid had a creative hand in some of the stories and especially in the frame story that ties everything together (rather awkwardly). Just to say, even when the matter is from tradition, the hand of the writer can be seen. Ovid is not the author of the myths he tells, but he is still the author of the Metamorphoses.

    I lean towards the idea that one or more persons have creatively edited certain sections of the manuscript, forming what would become the Hellenistic base layer. Among their sources were of course several traditions without an author. But the result may have been a unique creative product. Though the word ‘author’ may sound a bit anachronistic, I would not find it completely inappropriate for one who presents existing traditions in a new way.


    1. Koen,
      In general, of course there were authors as such in the classical and later world. My point begins from the previous paragraph:
      “…an assumption very widespread: namely that a medieval book is like a modern book in having an author who uses the medium to express himself….”

      It is that once-ubiquitous assumption that everything in the Vms was the product of a single Latin Christian author which I think that I (apart perhaps from Stolfi) was the first ever to question. The first time I even referred to the manuscript as a compendium of extracts, there was an extremely hostile reaction all round. Six years later, my argument is widely taken as commonplace – not least because of the “policy” early adopted and inflexibly maintained by Zandbergen-and-mates, of adopting the conclusions of my work without admitting the existence of this author, or acknowledging the work and evidence from which that conclusion was drawn.

      I’m afraid that the idea of “creativity” is a current buzz-word. Apparently my suggesting that what we have was copied from earlier exemplars (which my research suggests were fourteenth-century in date) and that those, in turn, came from sources considerably earlier still, and not European Christian has been a cause of personal offense to some, whose latest meaningless “meme” is that I deny ‘creativity’ to Latin scribes.

      For all I know, the written part of the text may have been the original and authorial invention of a fifteenth century auteur. One has no way to tell.

      However, nothing in the imagery suggests such a history for its formation. People in fifteenth century Europe had no cultural or iconographic equivalent for certain imagery in the Vms, which means that to the Latin European such imagery would have “made no sense”, just as for a majority of those skimmers who do no original research, and write nothing, the imagery is meaningless, and is ‘treated’ at the level of a pre-school “pick-the-similarity’ picture book.

      I am rather tired of taking the time and effort to explain this imagery for the few whose focus is on the fifteenth century manuscript, and having to then cope with the stupid responses from the career-Voynicheros who cannot think of anything useful to say except another of those ridiculous, meaningless efforts to imply that by not agreeing with the ‘central European hypothesis’ i must be mad, bad, or (another current meme) “unable to read”.

      When one of that group manages to keep their eyes and mind on the book, and off my person, character and good name, perhaps they will also manage to say something useful.

      Your own opinions are not so formed, and are ones to which you are entitled. Because you do, actually, engage in original research, the process is transparent. I understand that a number of others now feel that you have a reasonable case. Best of luck.


      1. Koen.
        I expect that you may think my response misses the point of your post, so let me respond to the point about the compilation being one formed by one or two redactors – you seem to imply some environment appropriate to the leisured class of the Italian literati (is that right?).

        Over past years, before you came to this study, I looked into various possibilities of that sort, investigating the possibility that Poggio Bracciolini’s position and various interests (including his interest in finding, copying and outright stealing and selling items ‘lifted’ from monastic libraries) may have led to something like this manuscript being formed. I looked especially at his having interviewed Ethiopian pilgrims, the report of the summons of a Nestorian bishop to Rome who was supposed to be on the way to southern India, and the Pope’s requiring another person, resident for decades in the east, to ‘render his account’ of his travels to Bracciolini as penance for having been forced on pain of death to convert to Islam. In every case, I found elements in the manuscript and sometimes within the one section of the manuscript, which denied that possibility, or made it seem unlikely.

        Since then, and although Bracciolini’s life (1380 – 30 October 1459) might permit it in theory, and he is credited with inventing the humanist hand, I have come to differ from Pelling about the hand’s being a humanist one. I find absolutely nothing in the manuscript – and here I agree with the independent appraisers of the pre-Friedman period – to suggest it belongs within the corpus of Latin Christian renaissance art.
        Further, from having looked in depth at every section of the manuscript, my conclusion was -and remains – that their common inclusion in this manuscript refers to the practical purpose evinced by the content: that is, not astrology but navigational astronomy; a map which includes regions into which no Latin European is recorded being permitted to enter before the manuscript was made and to travel the full length of which was done by very few sorts of people – none the leisured, urbane, upper class literary sort. It is difficult to summarise here the many items, and their analysis and the conclusions made, but in short, the environment you posit, and the sort of enclosed bookish atmosphere seems to me quite contrary to the evidence as I understand it. I take it to be a handbook designed to assist the practical daily work of a peripatetic profession, an open-air sort of person, who would rather know the conversion rate for rotuli of cotton cloth between his home town and Tunis (or anywhere else) than whether Cerebus had three heads or five. But all we can do, you and I, is show how we reach our own conclusions, and cite our sources and evidence honestly. Time may one day bring to this study enough persons appropriately educated and qualified to make an informed judgement of our arguments.


      2. I must of course add that I only gained the liberating insight that the 15thC object is a copy of a compendium from reading your blog. Before that, I was clueless – but higly dissatisfied with what I had read before.

        I just mean in my previous comment that I see some “ancient creativity, or maybe better ingenuity, in certain parts of the MS. I oppose the “auteur” hypothesis as much as you do – it’s simply not possible.


  2. Diane,

    I only now see your additional comment. No, I don’t see any Italian influence. I have even retracted my statements about Ovid. Roman writers like he and Hyginus are only relevant to me because they passed on Hellenistic material.

    I think large parts of the manuscript have been composed first in Greco-Roman Egypt, likely in Alexandria, or by people very familiar with that environment and the cultures found there. I see no later influences, apart from the ones you have analyzed.

    Where I disagree with your views is two things:
    – I do see the presence of the matter a learned Greek would know, i.e. Aratus and the three heads of Cerberos.
    – I think post-Hellenistic edits to both the small plants and the bathing section are only to style, not to contents.


    1. Sorry – when I say “Latin European” I mean it as shorthand for the Christian population whose official language in common was Latin; as we speak of the “Greeks” under Byzantium, or of “Arabic” people – who could be Syrian, Egyptian, Persian, North African or indeed from Arabia. If I mean classical Romans, I use ‘Roman’. But some term of the sort is needed to reflect the lack of ‘national’ ideas in medieval Europe, but which are now so deeply ingrained in modern people that some other term is needed as reminder that you could travel anywhere in Europe and still speak a common language.


    2. I also think much of it derives from a Hellenistic basis, but that’s news to no-one, is it? 🙂

      I don’t see that a person of Hellenistic times, or even roman times would have to be learned to know the religious beliefs of his own time and culture. You can say ‘Hercules’ to just about anyone in Europe, or anyone in America (I suppose) or in Australia… and so on, and they’ll know perfectly well in a general way that it means a hugely strong person who was a hero. Common currency. In my opinion, though, you are probably the first person to have recognised any Greek mythological cycle in the ‘roots and leaves’ section since the fifteenth century. I really don’t believe that anyone in medieval Europe would have been able to see that or, if they did, have refrained from ‘fixing’ the imagery so that snakes looked like snakes, and a big dog like a big dog. Just IMO


  3. For any readers who get this far..

    Given that I find the imagery in this manuscript to derive from Hellenistic works, but to show a clear difference in later influences evident between the ‘ladies’ folios on the one hand and the botanical section(s) on the other, and that preservation of this matter over that implied period (almost two millennia) makes almost impossible the task of suggesting any particular language for the text’s written part I will say that if there were a “Voynich language sweepstakes” I shouldn’t mind drawing a Phoenician dialect, or one of those now extinct from southern Arabia and the eastern sea. I’ve often likened the Voynich script to Sabaic, used for a dialect whose nearest living relative is the endangered ‘Mahri” or “Mehri” of Soqotra.

    I say “I shouldn’t mind” drawing these in a sweepstakes, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to lay any bets.


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