Ten pitfalls

I found this draft in one of the closed blogs – written 29th. May 2012.

It may not represent my present views – after all, I’ve another four years’ research done, which is equivalent to that needed for a Doctorate in .. whatever.

But it looks ok, and may assist someone just starting out. I’m short of time at the moment, so I’ve done a straight copy and paste.  If the format doesn’t translate, I’ll come when I can and mend it.


Ten pitfalls for newcomers to Voynich research.

1.The hunt for an ‘author’

More time has been wasted upon the probably-pointless effort to imagine and identify an ‘auteur‘ than upon any other aspect of Voynich research. The idea that such a single auteur is even to be found is one which, itself, depends on an unfounded assumption – namely that the manuscript’s content is coeval with its manufacture. It is in my opinion, however, not impossible that one such posited auteur – Roger Bacon – could have owned one or more sources from which the matter in the Voynich was copied.

2. Chronology. 

The fact that the object of the manuscript has been dated to the early fifteenth century of itself tells us nothing whatever about the date(s) when its content was first set forth, nor first transcribed into the medium of a written and/or illustrated text. Supposing the content coeval with the manufacture of Beinecke ms 408 has been a second great cause of  researchers’ wasted time.  The assumption of contemporary creation and inscription for the Voynich manuscript is no more necessarily true than to suppose of an English copy of the bible that its author’s name must appear in an English telephone book simply because the bible in question was printed in the twenty-first century.  The formation of content is not identical to the manufacture of the container, and in this case it is necessary to research the manuscript’s chronology and materials separately from research into the matter which informs the manuscript’s content, script, language and imagery. Imagine, if you like, the kind of research necessary to determine the history of an eighteenth-century German-language copy of Shakespeare’s plays, if they had copied their illustrations from a seventeenth century edition made in France, and in French. It is quite possible that our manuscript represents evolution over time, and through the passage of different regions.

3. Script determines language determines code? – not necessarily.

Focus on the written script, and the assumption of coeval manufacture and ‘authorship’ for Beinecke ms 408 has led to the further – and probably fallacious – assumption that the script must encode a language still spoken in the early fifteenth century and (even more problematically) one spoken in Europe.

For this chain of ideas there is no proof whatever. Nor is it a reasonable assumption – even if one had absolute proof that Beinecke ms 408 had been manufactured within Europe – that the persons who inscribed the manuscript could interpret this script – one otherwise unattested for any period of Europe’s history.  Apart from the quire-numbers, which do imply the Latin-educated habit, this manuscript offers only a few exceptions to the general state of affairs, two being: (i) the inscriptions on the central emblems in the ‘astrological’ roundels which may possibly be Occitan and thus intelligible to some in fifteenth-century Europe; (ii) the inscription on fol.116v which may possibly be in Latin, Greek, or some language used in the classical and/or medieval Mediterranean. (For other marginalia etc. various online Voynich blogs may be consulted).

For people with a general interest in codes, ciphers and systems, I would really recommend certain chapters in Nick Pelling’s book, The Curse of the Voynich. where he summarises the history various methods used up to about the end of the fifteenth century. A good, clear introduction to the subject – and immensely readable.

Otherwise, it is as reasonable to argue that the written text may as easily as not have been copied by persons unable to understand the text. And further; just as it is possible to ‘encode’ a language simply by transliteration into another script, so it is equally possible that in this case too, the language and script derive from different origins. Think of the Roman script as it is used to transliterate Russian, or French, or even Arabic or Chinese today. Script does not determine language, and it follows from this that the range of means used to encode the written text (if indeed it is encoded) will be equivalent to the range of cultures whose scripts might be employed in transliteration. In other words, if the text were in a Yemeni script (for argument’s sake), then both its language and any means for encoding could be any among those known to a given Yemeni community at any given period – I say ‘any’ period to emphasise that the written text is not necessarily fifteenth-century, nor indeed necessarily coeval with the first setting down of the imagery now  in our manuscript.

4. The assumption that the imagery is ‘ornamental’.

Up until the fifteenth century, the normal habit was to produce imagery as a kind of parallel narrative text, which could be – and normally was – able to be read whether or not the ‘reader’ was able to interpret a written text. (people for whom this is a new idea might like to read Ivan Illich, The vineyard of the text  for the European context, or to consider ( for example), the role of the teaching scrolls in India or inner Asia). The default assumption – until the opposite is proven – should be, therefore, that the imagery is more likely than not to offer researchers an alternative and more accessible entre to the content of those source work/s, whose matter is incorporated into the folios of the fifteenth-century object. It need not, however, offer a direct entry to the script or the language. This is as true of the botanical and pharma sections as of any other. A picture of the sun might be labelled as ‘god’ or as ‘the evil one’ or as ‘sol invictus’ or as ‘Adithya’ – regardless of the nature of the script and its own culture. If the writer/s of the original script maintained the belief expressed by the imagery that the sun is female, then luckily our parameters are more limited.

5. Confusion between superficial and actual ‘likeness’.

Post-facto efforts to find ‘appropriate’ imagery has presented to innocent bystanders at the parade of Voynich theories, a pleasant and not rarely amusing cavalcade. Typically, a novice researcher begins by positing an ‘auteur’ and thus a language and nationality for the written text (as distinct from a provenance for the manuscript-as-object), and within those presumptive parameters then starts to hunt for ‘like’ imagery.

But every assumption informing an initial position necessarily acts as a smoky lens through which the manuscript’s imagery is increasingly poorly seen, and so poorly defined. It has led inevitably to multiple, and equally false ‘likenesses’ being posited: such as arguing that the three-dot emblem on folio 86v is actually a representation of a clock, or conversely arguing that it refers to the three interlocking diamond rings which were one of the Sforza family’s heraldic emblems.. and so forth and so on. In fact the emblem shows three dots formed to a right-angle, and set in a circle, but if it were a clock, it could not time the hours – jamming on the border at the first turn, nor could its equal arms be conveniently distinguished.And this motif hasn’t the least resemblance to three interlocking diamond rings.

6. Reverse definition. 

Our benighted and unnamed novice Voynich-researcher, having begun by nominating some chosen auteur, an thus a period and place, and then found some imagery which might ‘fit’  will now set about the task of explaining the imagery by reverse orientation: and this is inevitable if one approaches the imagery not with the aim of asking questions of it, but of ‘telling’ the imagery what it should really be. One of the surest indications that an image is being wrongly read is an attribution to it of details or qualities which are, in fact, not there.

As an example .. for citing which I do hope  I’ll eventually be forgiven by Nick Pelling and the producers of the ‘Sodom and Gomorra’ television programme  … we might mention how in that program, the screen was filled for a moment with a line of plant-parts from the ‘pharma’ section (so called), while the voice-overs told us that the image constituted a recipe, and – amazingly – a recipe for poison!

This is sheer fantasy, or to be nicer: pure speculation. Since none of the plants in that line was identified, and there is no indication offered from the manuscript’s text to prove those plant-parts constitute a ‘recipe’, so what informs this reverse definition (from belief to interpretation, rather than identification to conclusion) is again that basic error of assuming  co-eval manufacture of the physical object with  ‘authorship’ for its content.

The line of plant-parts alone can be described as nothing else until the plants are identified (rightly or not).

What purpose they served, singly or collectively, cannot be conjectured without first identifying them, and secondly identifying the historical and social context in which they originally belonged.

There are innumerable reasons why a line of plant-parts might be drawn: a pharmaceutical recipe is indeed one possibility. Others are, for example: as an inventory of stores or items ordered on consignment; as items in a tax: list. Even if they did constitute a ‘recipe’ that recipe might be for inks, perfumes, dyes, compounded drinks, hair oil or temple/church incense mixtures. Just for example.

But to date, if any researcher him/herself cannot identify the plants, all that can be said is that the image shows a line of plant-parts from an unknown source, of unknown date pictured to some unknown purpose. No more. The date of manufacture for Beinecke ms 408 cannot be presumed the date at which the content was first formulated or composed. The rest follows.

7. Ignoring absence.

If you survey the history of fifteenth-century European manuscripts, not only their content but their method of manufacture, you will see that manuscripts initially produced in Europe, from European sources, will show certain types of layout, certain styles of binding, and that most will include among their illustrations a great proportion concerned with the human being, the religious dimension of Christian life, and the relationship of a man to the world about him according to the hierarchy assumed by Christian doctrine and its scriptures.

Christian Europe never doubted that all things on earth were inferior by nature an divine intent to the human being, and their drawings reflect, embody and assume that structure for the natural world. Even when some (of a very few) medieval European manuscripts include details which seem to echo one or another form in the Voynich manuscript, the whole bears no resemblance to what we see in Beinecke ms 408. I should have liked to spend a post or two discussing this matter of occasional echoes, including a small group of manuscripts from Augsburg and Regensberg, but I doubt that time will permit.

If you survey the corpus of formal Islamic manuscripts, including the herbal manuscripts you will notice that they, too, have certain regional conventions, not only in layout and imagery but in the method of construction. And so too for manuscripts of the Irish, Coptic or Armenian traditions. The Irish and Coptic manuscripts invariably include interlace motifs in their imagery, as do the Syrian. The Armenian manuscripts commonly (and especially in the earlier Christian centuries) refer to architectural structures, and consistently use an asymmetrical detail juxtaposed with a balanced composition.

Our manuscript contains no interlace, no angels, no initial formula, few (if any) ‘naturalistic’ animals and no portrait-like imagery except (one might argue) for the animals which provide the central motifs for the ‘astrological’ roundels.

It is a mistake to ignore the absences, from the Voynich manuscript, of such reflexive conventions (whether Islamic or European). These absences, even more than what is portrayed, speak to different origins and/or external and enduring affect upon those prior sources from which the matter in Beinecke ms 408 has come.

8. Failing to attend to details. 

A common habit is to assume that the imagery is ‘really’ European imagery, and that therefore one need look no further than that, and may  ignore differences from European styles of presentation and stylistics, and also ignore the presence or absence of details contra-indicative. . The result of such neglect is a consistent failure in discussions as in the written literature to notice and to account for some very obviously non-European elements in the Voynich imagery. One might mention the systematic ‘marring’ of anthropomorphic facial features, and the inclusion of specific details in the ‘pharma’ vessels so called, as well as very obvious signs of non-Latin origin, such as the setting of these vessels on stands – some with the knife-blade legs so well known to archaeology and historians of central, southern and far east Asia.  Items just as obvious occur in every section of the Voynich manuscript, and their being ignored is only partly due to the blindness caused by devotion to a theory: it is a fact that some people are effectively  blind to what is unfamiliar, and others are more generally ‘tone deaf’ as it were when confronted with pictures. They genuinely cannot see the points which distinguish, say, a Madonna by Leonardo from one by Ghirlandaio, and some cannot distinguish between an Italian and a Chinese madonna: what they see is just a picture of a thing, and when it is the same ‘thing’ pictured, they consider the two the same.

Trying to convince someone unable to ‘see’ the imagery in the Voynich manuscript that their comparative images have very little in common, and many indications of different origin is a waste of time: as I can attest having struggled to do so for a number of years.

A very common example – one especially worth noting –  is the evidently widespread notion that any circle divided into three must refer to a “T-O” map, and thus that the emblem at the uppermost right hand corner of folio 86v (Beinecke foliation fol.85v and 86r) – illustrated left – is in itself a map of the world!

It has nothing in common with Europe’s T-O maps; outlying arcs formed of small circles [which I take to signify boundary-stones] are shown on two sides. From it emerge lthree paths, one dual, or divided, which is an impossibility if the thing were meant for a ‘T-O’ diagram.  All these indications are ignored by those relying less on observation of what is in the manuscript than efforts to match something – often anything at all – to something which they already know and feel at home with.

9. Avoiding study

Many Voynicheros do not enjoy research; what many enjoy is an opportunity to chat online, join a sort of internet ‘club’ and impress other chaps by their debating skills and personal charisma.  Add a reading list to your own blog-posts and you’ll see what I mean.

Approaching any manuscript, or even one image, with a determination to (as it were) tell the image what it represents, rather than asking what it might represent is a habit which cannot help but lead the researcher into error. Imagine a reciprocal situation.

Suppose… well, suppose that one of John of Montecorvino’s Chinese breviaries, illustrated with Christian imagery, had been copied again in China during the fifteenth century, and that copy was only rediscovered in the twentieth.

It would be on Chinese paper, presumably copied by a Chinese hand, bound in Chinese style. But if the Chinese had for those reasons alone decided that the entire work and all its imagery could be, and must be, explained only by reference to Chinese history and native culture, and that no parallels would be permitted save to fifteenth century Chinese cultural artefacts, and then further presumed that the putative ‘author’ must be a member of the Chinese imperial family… one would expect a long time to elapse before the nature, history and significance of the imagery was rightly understood. In such a case, the limits set on ‘acceptable’ comparative imagery would seem irrational, and one can imagine what would happen if someone pointed out that the imagery was not of Chinese origin, but Latin European.  Voynich studies also has its mandarins.

As another example, safely distant – : imagine how it might were this tombstone, made and discovered in southern China,  been supposed for no other reason to be only interpretable in terms of traditional Chinese culture. The fact is that it is the tombstone of an Italian girl who died in southern China in the thirteenth century, and the imagery is Asian only in style: in content it is Christian.  We have an equivalent disparity in the imagery from the Voynich manuscript – probably manufactured in early fifteenth century northern Italy, but in content not part of that environment and culture.

Persons set upon a theory, and especially those attached to a smaller ‘national’ idea, are determined to have  it deemed true.  In the same way, if we imagined that those confronted with this tombstone were determined it must express Chinese culture, the imagery could, and would be interpreted to suit that theory, rather than assessed on its own terms: The Christian angels might then be defined as avatāras (Chinese flying ‘angels’), the figure between its two wheels could be defined as Guei-shen, one of the Chinese demons  rather than the St.Katherine of Alexandria for whom the girl had been named.   Support might be adduced from the fact that the way the soldier is drawn who is beheading the kneeling martyr shows him in Chinese garb – but clothing tells us where a painting was made, not what the painting is about, or where its informing thought originated.

Ref: On the orientalising fashion in European costume, see e.g. Joyce Kubiski, ‘Orientalizing Costume in Early Fifteenth-Century French Manuscript Painting (Cité des Dames Master, Limbourg Brothers, Boucicaut Master, and Bedford Master), Gesta, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2001), pp. 161-180.JSTOR

Details matter. When approaching any object or artefact of uncertain origins and provenance don’t look first at the prominent details. Look instead for the habitual, the reflexive, the unthinking usages and details which will tell you what things seemed to the maker so obvious, so ‘normal’ that they never imagined an alternative.

This is so whether provenancing a pot, or detecting a forgery, or considering a puzzling work such as the Voynich manuscript. Where a variety of influences appear, if the object appears to be genuine, then you must seek a time and place, or a chronological sequence in which similar convergence, and/or stratification  has already been recorded, documented and confirmed.

To give an example of the stratification of imagery in the Voynich manuscript, one might consider almost any page, but since this is but one post, one item from the pharma section will have to do.

To lay on a separate ring about the neck or base of an artefact is not a common habit overall. It does occur in glass found at Karanis in Egypt, attributed to the period of Roma dominance, in some Syrian glass of the pre-Islamic era, and here on this Ummayad period glass ewer (right) for example.

However, we assign the imagery in the Voynich manuscript to origins other than Ummayid Persia, not only because none of the vessels in the manuscript have handles or other typical details, but because they do include details which speak to Asian influence. One of these (also seen in some Kushan works) is the provision of only three feet, and those of the ‘knife-blade’ type.

Another such is the depiction of dots about the top and bottom of many sections of these vessels. That is a reflexive habit in much of the eastern world that was influenced from China. The example shown below happens to be from the Ming dynasty, but I have included it because it also shows the use of pierced metalwork and I happen to have it handy. Many other, and earlier examples, not only from China proper but from much of southeast Asia can be discovered easily enough.

10a. Positive Enthusiasms:

When the novice researcher has hit one blank wall after another in the Voynich maze, the temptation is to simply adopt, enthusiastically, some idea which seems not-unlikely and hope it may eventually prove to be so. At this point, one ceases to be a researcher and becomes an adherent: not a bad thing in itself. Where would we be if no-one had become an adherent of Newton’s theory? Most of us are, these days.

10b. Negative enthusiasms.

It is, however, worth taking time before adopting any existing point of view to see how often its promoter’s name appears in the Voynich mailing lists, in other Voynich blogs, or as a footnote in the acknowledgements offered in printed papers. Beware of adopting ideas which have left most other long-term scholars and researchers unmoved, and of those which have gained currency more by reason of personal ‘lobbying’ and mateship or charm than by reason the proposer’s offering a comprehensive and range of evidence, including comparative evidence and careful consideration of contrary arguments. “It is so because I say so and my mates agree” is not an intellectual argument, it’s social propaganda.

Into the category of work which is scarcely referenced in mailing lists, other blogs, or which is acknowledged by a footnote when used, I must say the results of my own research must be set.


I do not have much opinion about the script, or language, or whether or not the written text is encoded. I have come – after four years’ study of this manuscript – to the view that its foundation was in Hellenistic works, that its content was maintained in the eastern sphere over several centuries, and perhaps as much as a millennium, that its chief subject is the trade between east and west, chiefly in luxury goods, but that the botanical section also refers to the sort of materials needed to maintain the ship and/or caravan. The range of affect evidenced by details of the imagery suggest not only that long existence outside the Mediterranean world, but that the work itself travelled over time. I think it may well prove a treasure of the Yemeni disaporas, before the advent of Islam and that thereafter it informed the wide ranging trade of those children of ‘Homeric India’ or ‘Innermost India’ as it Arabia seems to have been known in earlier times.It, as a whole collection or as some separate sections, may have re-entered Europe as early as the ninth century, but that is a story I have been unable to tell here. And finally, with Marignolli and de Montecorvino in mind, I shall quote a little from a paper by Mayerson.

From whatever source Cosmas received his information, and to whatever extent his geography is interlarded with theological and cosmological speculation, the India he describes is a large region that includes India proper, Ceylon, and parts of China…. Two fourth-century texts…The Expositio mundi et gentium and the Itinerary from the Paradise of Eden to the Country of the Romans outline a journey from a pagan paradise, or its Christian equivalent, to known and unknown places in the physical world..Great India ..is reached in 219 stages and 21 months (or a total of 349 stages)…One needs an additional 7 months (210 stages) to reach Axum and another 7 to arrive at Little India…we can only surmise that Great India is India

proper and that Little India is south Arabia..[and] it is more than likely that Rufinus’ Nearer India and the India that Pantaenus was reputed to have visited was south Arabia.

from Philip Mayerson, ‘A Confusion of Indias: Asian India and African India in the Byzantine Sources’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 113, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1993), pp. 169-174.

There is more that one might say about the matter preserved within the Voynich manuscript, but I expect this will suffice.


For those who have found this blog of interest, I append a short list of some papers which I found alittle out-of-the-way. Each was helpful in clarifying some knotty issue or another, but I do not say that I agree with every point made by each the authors.

M. Ismail Marcinkowski, ‘The Iranian-Siamese Connection: An Iranian Community in the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya, Iranian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1/3 (Winter – Summer, 2002), pp. 23-46

Axelle Rougeulle and Anne Benoist, ‘Notes on pre- and early Islamic harbours of Ḥaḍramawt (Yemen), Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Vol. 31, Papers from the thirty-fourth meeting of the Seminar for Arabian Studies held in London, 20-22 July 2000 (2001),pp. 203-214.

Claude Cahen and R. B. Serjeant, ‘Fiscal Survey of the Medieval Yemen Notes Preparatory to a Critical Edition of the mulaḫḫaṣ al-fitan of al-ḥasan B. ʿalī al-šarīf al-ḥusaynī, Arabica, T. 4, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 1957), pp. 23-33.(the manuscript is – or was discovered – in Milan)

Roderich Ptak, ‘China and the Trade in Cloves, Circa 960-1435’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 113, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1993), pp. 1-13.

Lyn White, ‘Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 141-159. (still worth reading, despite its date. Includes discussion of the crossbow).

Anne E. Wardwell, ‘Flight of the Phoenix: Crosscurrents in Late Thirteenth- to Fourteenth-Century Silk Patterns, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 74, No. 1 (Jan.,1987), pp. 2-35. (also relevant to crossbowmen figures).

David Pingree, ‘Astronomy and Astrology in India and Iran’, Isis, Vol.54 Pt.2, No.176 (1963) pp.229-246. (Essential reading for the Voynich manuscript’s astronomical imagery.. in my opinion).

Dennis Deletant, ‘Genoese, Tatars and Rumanians at the Mouth of the Danube in the Fourteenth Century’, The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Oct., 1984), pp. 511-530.

Ranabir Chakravarti, ‘Nakhudas and Nauvittakas: Ship-Owning Merchants in the West Coast of India (C. AD 1000-1500), Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2000), pp.34-64.

Jean Richard, ‘European Voyages in the Indian Ocean and Caspian Sea (12th-15th Centuries)’, Iran, Vol. 6 (1968), pp. 45-52.

James D. Ryan, ‘European Travelers before Columbus: The Fourteenth Century’s Discovery of India’, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Oct., 1993), pp. 648-670. ( concerning Malabari Christians and early Franciscan missionaries).

Jan Wisseman Christie, ‘Javanese Markets and the Asian Sea Trade Boom of the Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries A.D.’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1998), pp.344-381.

Michael Loewe, ‘Aspects of World Trade in the First Seven Centuries of the Christian Era’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (1971), pp.166-179.

O. Neugebauer, ‘Studies in Byzantine Astronomical Terminology’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 50, No. 2 (1960), pp. 1-45.

Steven E. G. Kemper, ‘Sinhalese Astrology, South Asian Caste Systems, and the Notion of Individuality’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3 (May, 1979), pp. 477-497.

Peter Brown, ‘The Diffusion of Manichaeism in the Roman Empire’, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 59, No. 1/2 (1969), pp. 92-103.

Gautier de Châtillon and Marcel Destombes, ‘The Mappamundi of the Poem “Alexandreidos” by Gautier de Châtillon (ca. A. D. 1180)’, Imago Mundi, Vol. 19 (1965), pp. 10-12.

Stephen Moorhouse et.al., ‘Medieval Distilling-Apparatus of Glass and Pottery’, Medieval Archaeology 16, 79-121 (covers the 14th-16thC with focus on England and on the archaeology of industry).

A.C. Moule, ‘A Life of Odoric of Pordenone, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 20, No. 3/4 (Aug., 1920 – Aug., 1921), pp. 275-290.

Henry J. Bruman, ‘The Bulgarian Rose Industry’, Economic Geography, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Jul., 1936), pp. 273-278.

John N. Miksic, C. T. Yap, Hua Younan, ‘Archaeology and Early Chinese Glass Trade in Southeast Asia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 31-46.

Louisa C. Matthew, ‘Vendecolori a Venezia’: The Reconstruction of a Profession’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 144, No. 1196 (Nov., 2002), pp. 680-686.

Peter Lautner, ‘Theophrastus in Bessarion’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 155-160.

Reed Benhamou, ‘Verdigris and the Entrepreneuse’, Technology and Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 171-181. (relevant to the manuscript’s pigments).

Arun Kumar Biswas, ‘The Primacy of India in ancient brass and zinc metallurgy, Indian Journal of history of Science, Vol.28 (4), 1993 pp.309-330

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