O’Donovan notes – 7c.i – Calendar. Bodleian Douce 313.

c.4700 words (including references. longish footnotes and a Notice to Readers.)

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract – A crocodile as emblem for November has been noted in these posts, so far, only in Beinecke MS 408 and in a Franciscan missal (Bodleian, Douce 313), both being pocket-sized manuscripts, noted for the extraordinary number of their drawings and, in different senses, for the simplicity of those drawings.

This post considers other possible points in common, because if the ‘Marci’ letter of 1665/6 should be genuine, an idea of connection between Beinecke MS 408 and the Franciscans has been around, now, for three and a half centuries, yet remains largely unexplored. We also consider the different attitudes towards making books and images between the early Franciscans and that other preaching order, the Dominicans – and certain interests common to both.

Prefatory remarks:

The opinion I hold, after more than a decade’s working through the sections of Beinecke MS 408, is that a majority of its drawings entered Latin1 horizons only c.1350 AD and that the style of that majority fall into two groups, of which one derives ultimately from works of Hellenistic origin (c.3rdC BC – 5thC AD)2 and the other from a Roman cultural context c.1st-3rdC AD. All which fall into one or other of those groups demonstrate evidence of non-classical and non-Latin affect over the intervening period, that is, to c.1350 AD. Though relatively few drawings in Beinecke MS 408 are expressed in the way of art in the medieval Mediterranean and Latin west, the calendar’s central emblems are among those few.

1. By ‘Latin’ Europe is meant here, and throughout posts to this blog, that part of western Europe whose shared culture had been formed by use of Latin for its language of liturgy, scholarship and diplomacy – the counterparts elsewhere in the Mediterranean world being Arabic and Greek.

2.in certain regions not invaded by Rome, Hellenistic culture survived much longer than it did in the Mediterranean.

It is also my opinion – though the informing research was never shared online beyond one a vague hint – that the manuscript is likely to have been among those improperly acquired by Guglielmo Libri, the manuscript being entrusted (or returned) to a member of the Jesuit order after Libri’s death in Fiesole as an effort at restitution and so reaching Fr. Beckx, in whose trunk Voynich says he first saw it in about 1911. Beckx was head of the Jesuit order when he resided in Fiesole from 1873-1883/4, a time when his order was suppressed in Rome.3

3. for more detail about Fr Beckx life, and relevance for Voynich studies, see separate page in the top bar (HERE). Catholics believe not only that they should acknowledge sins of commission and omission in confession, but that sins are not forgiven unless and until some effort is made to restore, or make other restitution, for harm done.

Libri had died four years before Beckx arrived, the doubtful honour of becoming Libri’s chief executor falling to Count Giacomo Manzonia, resident of the same same town, and by all reports noble in character and not merely in name.

  • Jeremy M. Norman, Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel: A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri. (2013)
  • Andrea Del Centina, ‘The manuscript of Abel’s Parisian memoir found in its entirety’, Historia Mathematica Vol. 29 (2002) pp. 65-69.
  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘A True and Faithful Relation of the Death of Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carucci dalla Sommaia’, voynichimagery, (March 23rd., 2015) – that post was published and I’ll provide a copy to any wanting it. email: voynichimagery AT gmail com.

As I say, that research was never shared online other than a couple of faint hints, so I was interested to see that quite soon afterwards a member of one voynich forum asked in that place – though had not asked me, nor named me – what lay behind reference to Libri. Not unpredictably, another asserted with quite magnificent self-assurance (given that he knew no more than did the questioner) that it was “100% hypothetical”.

That bit of trivia is now called to mind because to illustrate Dominican attitudes to painting in that part of Italy about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ve chosen a praedella painted for a church in Fiesole by a native of the region, the Dominican friar popularly known as ‘Fra Angelico’. (Part of the praedella serves as our heading).

Rupecanina is a small hamlet in the mountains about 27 km (17.3 miles) north of Florence.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in about 1395 – some say in Rupercanina and others in nearby Vicchio. Because friars took a new name on entry to their religious order, with a surname from the place they joined it, so Guido became the Dominican friar, Fra John of Fiesole. His brother Benedetto also joined the Dominicans. Both are believed trained as illuminators of manuscripts before entering the order – Fra John perhaps in 1407 or perhaps in 1417. Sources differ, but this bracket of 1407-1437 is nicely convenient for us and the palette used by Fra Angelico a potentially useful comparison for that in Beinecke MS 408. N.B. I’m not suggesting that Fra Angelico or his brother made the Voynich drawings!

Both brothers produced works for the Dominican convent of S. Marco in Florence; Benedetto illuminated choral books for San Marco and for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole and is thought to have assisted Fra John in creating his frescos in Florence and possibly also assisted with that praedella.

  • Graves, Robert Edmund (ed.). Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (A–K). Vol. I (3rd ed.) .p.494.

The Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and the order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) were established as mendicant orders with a charter to preach without being tied to any parish, but the Dominicans began by studying rhetoric, logic, theology and languages, from a theory that they could overwhelm others and convert them by force of logical argument. (That their logical arguments might be built on arguable premises did not occur to them.) That they made so few converts in that way would eventually cause a number of Dominicans to become enraged beyond reason and and simultaneously incur the wrath – sometimes fatal – of non-European communities whose sensibilities their style of missionary preaching offended.

Franciscans believed, on the other hand – in the earlier years at least – that by simply living as Christ had done, in poverty and as an itinerant who relied on the local community for daily sustenance and to whom they should speak very simply, would not only bring others to Christianity but encourage Christians to a more authentic Christian life. This philosophy was so obviously in contrast to the way of life practiced by ‘princes of the church’ and other religious orders that the founder, Francis of Assisi, came within a hairsbreadth of being executed for heresy but led, equally, to an enormous popularity among the ordinary people.

Both orders required that members to take a vow of poverty but here again their practices differed before the mid-fourteenth century. Dominicans defined that poverty merely as a nominal personal poverty and had no objection to the priory being wealthy in lands, money or goods, or in using lavish pigments and gilding for their manuscripts and churches. The early Franciscans, in Italy, had refused gifts of land or money for their community, and while their attitudes would change over time, and fourteenth-century France is often mentioned as part of the reason for that change, we see that difference of opinion expressed in illustrations made for a mid-thirteenth century Dominican bible known as the ‘Abbey’ bible. In the detail (below) the sub-text is that Christ loves Dominicans; that Franciscans’ manuscripts are mean and amateurish; that none can read music; that they are poorly dressed, wear sandals over dirty feet and are ‘dumb’ in more than one sense of the word.

image from Elizabeth Morrison, ‘Far from Marginal’, Getty Museum Blog (Sept. 7th., 2011). Morrison’s comment in more diplomatic.

Many early Franciscans had been unlettered men, but not all – and by the 1400s many were being formally trained in theology and ordained as priests. However, the thirteenth-century work shows that there may have been more than just gut-feeling, or the rumour allegedly mentioned by Marci, behind Wilfrid’s asserting that his small, pocket-sized ‘ugly ducking’ manuscript was a thirteenth-century Franciscan product, despite its being unlike texts produced in centres such as Oxford or Paris even by a Franciscan as Roger Bacon was.

Franciscan simplicity – and a crocodile.

In marked contrast to Dominican ornament – whether in the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries – we have the style of Bodleian, MS Douce 313. It presents as simple and of an almost penitential restraint, but the drawings are fine, fairly sophisticated and in a currently-fashionable form, known as grisaille. Below, its emblem for November, which we’ll compare later with that in Beinecke 408.

The example of Douce 313 provides some helpful information – first, that the Voynich November crocodile is not the result of individual whim. Secondly, that the crocodile was regarded in at least one place in Europe, among certain Franciscans at least, as an acceptable form for Scorpio – its presence in Beinecke MS 408 is not a mistake or the result of the maker’s being ignorant.

Thirdly, that because the drawing in Douce 313 is part of a ‘labours and months’ series of which the remainder is entirely conventional – one might even say ‘classical’ – it suggests the existence of some model regarded as equally conventional in which also a crocodile was drawn for November, despite this being the earliest noted so far in medieval Latin art. Prior to this, we’ve seen November associated with Egypt only in much older works – a Roman-era mosaic calendar from north Africa and the Chronology of 354.

Otherwise, the series of month-emblems in Douce 313 is unlike that of Beiencke MS 408. For Sagittarius it has the Centaur-with-bow, not the fully-human archer seen in the Voynich calendar and first attested among eastern Jews. The emblem for July is a simple Crab, not the ‘locusta’ which, paired, serve as the Voynich calendar’s emblem for July.

While medieval Latin manuscripts often show confusion about the proper form for Scorpius, sometimes drawing it as a crustacean; as an insect; in various lizard-like forms and like forms of dragon similar to those labelled ‘crocodrill’ in the bestiaries, what we have in Douce 313 is recognisably a crocodile, and a beast associated in the medieval imagination with Egypt and more specifically with the Nile.

Thus, Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 are certainly not ‘sister’ manuscripts, but this fairly literal image of a crocodile as November’s emblem makes the context which produced Bodleian, Douce 313 worth looking at more closely.

Where and when?

The writer JK Petersen included the crocodile from Douce 313 in a montage, describing it as difficult to explain. Acknowledging no precedent, he implies originality, so we credit him with first introducing Douce 313 to Voynich studies.

Mr. Petersen did not explain why he supposed the manuscript made in Paris. The holding library speaks of van Dijk having linked it, albeit tentatively, to the Franciscan priory in Brive (since 1919 Brieve-la-Gaillarde), Corrèze – several hundred kilometers4 south of the capital, in a region where dialects of Occitan were spoken in medieval times. (see map HERE).

4. The French wiki article gives distance to Paris by road as 483  km. or 300 miles. St. Anthony of Padua founded a monastery there in 1226.

If, as many have argued (first, if I recall, Jorge Stolfi), the Voynich month-names reflect the form of an Occitan dialect, then we might say that link to an ‘Occitan-speaking region’ is another point in common between Beinecke 408 and Douce 313. [for more information see further below]

In Brieve, in 1226, one of the first generation of Franciscans, a Portuguese called Anthony of Padua had founded a monastery. Because – as said above – a Franciscan was named for the house in which he joined the order, (e.g. John of Fiesole) or, if he had led an itinerant life as Anthony did, where he died, so Anthony is called ‘of Padua’ by reason of having died there in 1231, at the age of just 36 years and, incidentally, while both Roger Bacon and Michael Scot both still lived.

In the calendar of Douce 313, Anthony is commemorated on 13th. June.*

*”the feast of St. Anthony of Padua (13 June) has no octave but is entered as: S. pastris nosti Antonii conf.” – Bodleian catalogue description.

As I’ve attempted before to explain for Voynich researchers, it makes more sense to consider the physical and community networks along which people, goods, ideas, and fashions travelled than to define a subject in terms of modern notions of nationality or national character. Together with topography, it permits us to include in ‘southern’ Europe not only Italy and Spain, but France, and England.

The matter is easily demonstrated by considering that technique of ‘greyscale’ drawing (grisaille) though it is not employed anywhere in Beinecke MS 408. Some scholars also distinguish ‘brown-scale’ (bruneille). Modern English scholars tend, instead, to describe the technique as ‘tinted line drawing’.


NOTE – re Occitan for the month-names – this not the only language or dialect proposed for the Voynich calendar’s month-names. Panofsky spoke of ‘regional French’. Others have suggested Judeo-Catalan, or Norman French (of England), Picard and (so I’ve heard as rumour) even one of the ‘Allemannic’ dialects, the author of the last idea evidently not yet having published his argument (?) – (if you know better, or know the person’s name, do leave a comment).

However, as Nick Pelling earlier noted and Don of Talahassee discovered and explained in detail, quite independently, posting to his own site and in communications to voynich ninja (the last largely ignored as he said), the Voynich month-names’ orthography is close to that found on an astronomical instrument believed made in Picardy. (for more, see references below)

  • The Picard instrument is illustrated as Plate 6 in D.A. King, ‘A medieval astrolabe from Picardy’, book chapter available separately as a pdf though academia.edu.
  • Nick Pelling, crediting Joge Stolfi, had earlier formed an idea that the month names were “probably written in an Occitan dialect close to the Provencal spoken in Toulon, a busy medieval port near Marseilles.” (Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.23. He refers again, rather later, to those early and repeated hints of links to the Franciscan order in ‘The Franciscan Voynich hypothesis – Roger Bacon Redux!ciphermysteries (blog) April 12th., 2012.
  • Don of Talahassee also briefly outlined his findings later in a comment to ciphermysteries ( June 9th, 2015), though I’m unable to find any geared astrolabe whose manufacture is credited to Picardy. This may be due to my failure to find it rather than any error by Don.
  • David A. King (2001), The Ciphers of the Monks: A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages.

Yet another line of connection between England, France and Italy is presented by the grisaille.

England – Paris – Italy. Grisaille. (13thC – mid-14thC).

The technique had been common in England from Anglo-Saxon times, and the first person to make it a special feature of his own work and so inspire in its dissemination in the Continent was an Englishman known as ‘Matthew [of] Paris’ (c. 1200 – 1259).

Fifty years later, in c.1304, it is employed by Giotto in Padua, in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Very shortly after we find it adopted in Paris by a near contemporary, Jean Pucelle, who flourished c. 1320–1350.

And in c.1350, as we know, it is employed in a southern French Franciscan missal – Bodleian Douce 313.

(Northern Europe would take it up rather later, and it would not become really popular in that region until the later sixteenth- through to the seventeenth centuries).

Sculptural and literal. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artists use the technique, quite specifically, to imitate sculpture, and by this time Latin art in Italy and France was moving towards a revival of classical-era literalism. In Douce 313, the ‘labours and months’ drawings don’t quite give the sense of depth seen in other cases, nor do they attempt any trompe l’oeil, but they do allow a possibility that the series copies one of those found carved in reflief on the exterior of medieval churches and cathedrals, from the twelfth century onwards. The example shown below was carved in Amiens, capital of Picardy, in 1220-1270 AD. close to when the monastery in Brieve was founded by Antony. These constellations and labours, however, use forms consistent with what we find in Latin manuscripts from as early as the 8th and 9th centuries.

Amiens Cathedral. 13thC. Amiens the administrative capital of Picardy

It is possible that the calendar series in Douce 313 copies one since lost which has passed unremarked. What we can say is that by 1350 AD, some Franciscans in southern France (at least) found no objection to having a crocodile for November’s emblem, and had by then acquired that style of drawing gained from older England and currently popular among some painters in Italy and in France.

The Voynich drawings appear to have been at first simple line and wash before some heavier hand added heavier pigments to some. The line work does not approach the sophistication of Douce 313 and the two use very different methods to indicate curves and volume. That contrast between the ‘line and wash’ and additions by the heavy painter* is especially noticeable in the Voynich calendar.

*’heavy painter’ – first recognised and the term first coined, I believe, by Nick Pelling.

St. Anthony of Padua – by Giotto

Lines of connection – Giotto.

In the same way that we associate Fra Angelico’s paintings with a Dominican context, so in a more general way Giotto is associated with the Franciscans. He is another of those important thirteenth-century figures, having been born in 1267 AD or 1277 AD.

Before being commissioned for work in Padua’s Scrovegni chapel in c.1305 he had already worked on the Basilica built in Padua for St. Anthony (yes, the Portuguese one), and before that for the Franciscan friars of Assisi and of Rimini.

In Douce 313 bishop Gaudentius of Rimini is commemorated – an inclusion difficult to explain in terms of the usual French liturgical roster but easily understood in terms of the Franciscan network.

Gaudentius had come to Rimini from Asia minor about the time the Chronography of 354 was made with its ‘Egyptian’ November and while memory was still fresh of what is called ‘The Plague of Cyprian’ (c.251–270 AD).

Other Times and other Places – define ‘Egyptian’.

One thing which Europe in general, and the preaching orders and the Italian mercantile cities in particular, did have in common was a keen interest in regions lying to the east of Europe.

Christian Europe was well aware that it had been from the east that their religion had come. In the east, too, lay the holy land, the chief point of orientation for Latins’ mappamundi.

Models of monasticism were presented in the form of early Egyptian ascetics, such as Antony of the desert – whose relics arrived in France after being carried first from Alexandria to Constantinople, and rather later from Constantinople to France, at times when theach of the first two cities was in peril.

Eventually (in 1297) the saint’s relics were given a church which soon became a centre of pilgrimage: Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye.

The Life of Antony, translated into Latin as early as the 4thC, was “one of the best known works of literature in the Christian world, a status it would hold through the Middle Ages”.

Fra Angelico pictured that early ascetic in a rather curious garment. The usual reading of the ‘Life’ says Antony had only a couple of rough skin robes – of the sort which Latin Europe gave John the Baptist or Mary Magdalen. One possible explanation is that, living only six kilometers from Florence, Fra Angelico had heard tell of a certain ‘primordial’ robe left there by a Franciscan friar named John de’Marignolli in 1353. de’Marignolli was not the first Franciscan to go to China. He also believed that along the maritime route he had seen the original Paradise and for reasons I won’t go into here, he may have been right.

Before being sent east, however, de’Marignolli had taught theology at the University of Bologna, and we about that ‘primordial’ robe he brought back because years later, in Prague and being given the rather dreary task of re-writing the Annals of Bohemia, he interspersed that narrative with occasional reminiscence.

In one passage he wrote, first quoting Genesis 3:21:

“And the Lord made for Adam and his wife coats of skins or fur, and clothed them therewith. …” [Gen. 3:21]. Now then I say, without however meaning to dogmatize, that for coats of fur we should read coats of fibre. For among the fronds of the Nargil, of which I have spoken above, there grows a sort of fibrous web forming an open network of coarse dry filaments. … A garment such as I mean, of this cannall cloth (and not camel cloth), I wore till I got to Florence, and I left it in the sacristy of the Minor Friars there. No doubt the raiment of John Baptist was of this kind.

from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China VOL. II. pp. 240-242 ‘ The Travels of John de Marignolli 1339-1353’.

This is repeated in another passage, with the Latin terms included the Yule translation reading: “And he made them coats of skins: so at least we com­monly have it, pelliceas,”of fur,” but we should do better to read filiceas,”of fibre”; because they were no doubt of a certain fibrous substance which grows like net-work between the shoots of the coco-palm; I wore one of these myself till I got to Florence, where I left it. ibid. p.227.

John the Baptist was certainly another desert ascetic like Antony, but te conventions of western Christian art meant that the Baptist could not be dressed so unconventionally, so instead – as it seems to me – Fra Angelico has put the ‘paradiscal’ ascetic robe on Antony. He has had to use his imagination or some other eastern souvenir as his model, though, because the natural fibre de’Marigolli meant was coir, and what Fra Angelico painted is more like Asian basketry, rush-matting or a type of woven cape known from parts of India.

Whether there exists, or ever existed, an earlier written account of de’Marignolli’s journey, we know that on his return he had to report to his superiors, and make a formal report to the papal court in Avignon. We may reasonably suppose that he would also have had to answer the usual raft of questions from his fellows, explaining the curious garment left in Florence and speaking about those far-off ‘pagans’ who members hoped one day to convert.

In the European imagination, all eastern peoples were of Egyptian origin and this was so even so late as 1636, when Athanasius Kircher used that to argue that Chinese characters descended from Egyptian hieroglyphic (hieratic) writing. The belief was gained from the Bible, which said that after the Flood, the world had been repopulated by Noah’s sons, one seeing to Africa exclusive of Egypt, another given Europe and the third ‘Asia’, ‘Asia’ defined as beginning from Egypt and the Bosphorus. Because this belief was still current belief among even learned European Christians so lateas the 1630s, we describe the comments made to Kircher by Baresch as meaning that he thought manuscript’s content in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’ – though in my own opinion, when he says the plants are exotics, we may believe him.

  • Kircher argued, initially, that Chinese characters evolved from Egypt’s hieroglyphic (hieratic) script, but would later believe the Chinese to be ‘Adamites’. cf. Wang Haili, ‘Chinese Approaches to Egyptian Hieroglyphs: liushu and bushou’, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 165, No. 2 (2015), pp. 279-302.

Other forms of book (and other crocodiles).

Another detail from praedella shows the interest felt in early fifteenth century Italy in distant peoples and places. Below, a Dominican friar is included in a group which otherwise consists of St. Thomas, best known as Christ’s apostle to India, and two foreign-looking men who wear pink, with no hint of that censure we saw in Bonaiuti’s depiction of Michael Scot.

St. Thomas was one of Christ’s apostles, best known as the apostle to India. There, a community known as the ‘Community of Thomas’ attribute their founding to that apostle and say they were founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD.

St. Thomas didn’t dress as he’s represented here, of course, but his bones had eventually been moved from southern India to Syria and (so it is said) later to Chios, from which another Florentine, a member of the Acciaiuoli family, carried them in 1258 to Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they remain.

That detail in the praedella is not entirely clear, but among the easterners associated with Thomas, one holds what I believe is a set of inscribed palm-leaf books, palm-leaves having once been a common medium used from north Africa through Arabia and the east. The quill which Fra Angelico gives that figure signifies, in the visual language of Latin Europe, a scribe.

We may again cite de’Marignolli though a good number of westerners had seen these things before him and he himself had a guide from India, a friar named Peter. But he says, of people in Sri Lanka [Seyllan] “they teach boys to form their letters, first by writing with the finger on sand, and afterwards with an iron style upon leaves of paper, or rather I should say upon leaves of a certain tree”.

And there, for the moment, we pause.

Additional note –

As antidote to the wiki article on de’ Marignolli (which attempts to make him a person of high social consequence, ties him chiefly to Prague, and quite omits to mention that he was an Italian Franciscan, I provide the following – from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

“John de’ Marignolli. Born at Florence about 1290; place and date of death unknown. When quite a youth he received the Franciscan habit at the convent of Santa Croce, Florence; later on, as he himself tells us, he held the chair of theology at the University of Bologna. Nothing more is known of his religious life until Benedict XII sent him with other Franciscans on a mission to the Emperor of China”… etc. It is evident to anyone who has actually read the Franciscans’ accounts of their own travels that wiki writers err who attempt to make of those friars personages of high social status travelling with pomp and circumstance. They carried letters and messages but were not ‘diplomats’ in the modern sense.


NOTICE TO READERS: I regret that, in order to refer in these posts to my own work, while avoiding readers’ wondering if they’ve not seen something similar elsewhere in Voyich-land, I must be clear that no precedent existed when I contributed the following texts and topics (among numerous others) to Voynich studies:

Italian mercantile handbooks other than Milanese cipher-books; the history of imported goods; the history of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries and accounts of their journeys; the astronomical studies conducted in Constantinople, Trebizond, as in Maragha and Tabriz under under Mongol rule; detailed historical studies of the overland ‘silk’ routes and maritime ‘spice routes’; the Armenians in the east and in Europe; the question of perfumes and incense ingredients; accounts of and by secular travellers (other than vague allusions made earlier, by some, to Marco Polo); I introduced matters relating to cartography and cartographers of the period from the early 14thC to mid-fifteenth century, (including Abraham Creques’ Catalan Atlas and Genoese and Venetian chartmakers of the period); celestial navigation and its calculations; compass-roses named by winds, stars, or both; handbooks of navigation; the type of notebooks and guides which emerged from Genoa, from Venice and from the House of Datini (in Prato and in Avignon); other travellers whose accounts of the world beyond western Christian Europe relate to the period before the 1450s, the idea of mnemonic devices and their relevance – for the pre-Renaissance period and introducing in that context the works of Mary Carruthers. Note and comment on Greek and ‘a form of Jewish’ influence noted in certain drawings. Other than Jorge Stolfi I know of no earlier Voynich research which investigated eastern routes or artefacts, or indeed considered any non-Latin-European origin for anything in BeineckeMS 408. Those matters and texts are just some of the material first introduced to Voynich studies by the present writer in the course of sharing research explaining my analytical studies and their conclusions about one and then another, section of Beinecke MS 408 – from 2008 to the present. The habit of some Voynich writers in re-using research, and even attempting to publish it or copyright it to themselves, while neglecting to name the source – and some quite deliberately and systematically re-assigning such credits and thus misdirecting other researchers – would finally lead to my closing Voynichimagery from the public in 2017. That these things are all simple statements of fact is something that the few other Voynich “old boys” know well enough.

India too has its crocodiles, of course.

‘Mugger’ crocodile – India

The following image relates to the Comment I’ve left below.

Fake emails

A reader just checked with me (very sensibly) to ask if an email supposedly from me was in fact from me. It wasn’t.

If you do get an email supposedly from me, please check with me – leave a comment here – before opening it. I dropped F/bk and Titter years ago, but that doesn’t mean the info can’t be misused.

Pre-Conference offering: “On the cryptographers’ conundrum & Rudolfine art”.

c.3400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

In the post before last, I quoted one scientific writer as saying that the manuscript’s vellum “is coarse for the thirteenth century, but not impossible…. “1 That writer was Robert Steele, whose area was the history of medieval science, and whose specialisation was the work of Roger Bacon, that thirteenth-century Franciscan to whom Wilfrid had assigned ‘authorship’ of everything in the manuscript. And as ‘the Roger Bacon cipher manuscript’ the manuscript was described throughout the twentieth century.2

1 Robert Steele, ‘Science in Medieval Cipher’, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928)

2 Jim Reeds’ Bibliography in my list of Constant References.

I don’t dispute the results of the radiocarbon-14 dating, but it is interesting to see how few had earlier protested the thirteenth-century date until pressured by such things as O’Neill’s over-confident ‘Note’ of 1944, or the Friedmans’ inability to find in European works any examples of complex ciphers before the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

The Friedmans were as inflexible in their expectation of the text as a ciphertext as in their presumption that the whole content of this manuscript must be the product of a single European ‘author’.

Erwin Panofsky, a specialist in art of Europe’s medieval and Renaissance periods and the only specialist in art analysis to comment on this manuscript between 1912 and the early 2000s, would emphasise, repeatedly and correctly, that the Voynich drawings lack Renaissance influence, and continue saying so despite declining to openly oppose O’Neill – whose assertions implied a date post 1492. It should be understood that for most of the twentieth century, ‘Renaissance art’ was defined in terms of certain prominent individual artists – chiefly those of Florence and with focus on the period of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci who flourished after 1470.

FIG. 1. Ewin Panofsky

That is why Panofsky said that, were it not for O’Neill’s ‘sunflower’, his opinion would be that the manuscript should be dated no later than c.1470 because it contained no evidence of Renaissance style.

Today it is more usual to define the ‘renaissance’ in terms of an intellectual movement and to begin from a somewhat earlier period, but Panofsky’s point remains valid.

Other individuals, less qualified and less able, would obligingly offer the Friedmans later dates and since neither of the Friedmans, nor d’Imperio, was in a position to make informed qualitative judgements between one opinion-statement and another, so d’Imperio simply grouped them by proposed century in her Elegant Enigma.

Despite these areas of ignorance and cryptographers’ understandable inclination to form theories as a preliminary to research rather than as its conclusion, the twentieth-century sources reveal a dawning recognition that the overwhelming majority of drawings in this manuscript do not conform to the customs of Latin medieval art OR of western ‘Renaissance’ art’ as then defined.

At the same time, the general inability to imagine that one might look beyond the boundaries of Latin Europe to find the origini of the manuscript’s content – as distinct from the present manuscript’s manufacture – meant that instead of looking about them to discover when and where people DID employ similar conventions in art, people with ‘author’ theories tried to push the manuscript’s dating ever further towards their own time in the hope of finding some niche for the manuscript’s images in the history of western European art.

Pushing aside date-line barriers.


Cryptographers, of course, were doing the same. Instead of questioning whether their initial assumptions were valid – such as that the written text must be plain prose or poetry and enciphered – their frustration at being unable to ‘break’ what they supposed a ciphertext by a single author led them also to push the proposed dating to far beyond what any informed codicologist or palaeographer would have agreed to. Not that many cryptographers have ever allowed scholarship from the history of art or of medieval manuscripts to limit their cryptographic speculations.

That it might not be a ciphertext at all was simply unthinkable for the Friedmans, and with no European cipher-method having been very complex before the time of Trithemius and Vigenère, they simply ignored the manuscript’s likely dating and began pushing for an ever-later date to suit that theory., moving unhesitatingly into the sixteenth and even into the seventeenth century and without, it seems, a moment’s pause.

CIPHERS – For those curious about how cryptographic methods evolved in western Christian culture, Thony Christie has recently provided a short, standard account of it (HERE). For cipher-methods known to Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, I’ve quoted his Bacon’s own words in a separate page (HERE) with annotations from the translator, Tenney L. Davis and from me. Christie does not mention a number of other known cipher-systems, including that recorded by Abraham Colorni. I had hoped by approaching Cryptologia, to enlist the aid of a cryptographer to test Colorni’s methods against the Voynich text, a task which Nick Pelling then offered to undertake, though so to date the question of its relevance remains in limbo. Pelling supposed, wrongly, I’d just ‘fallen over’ Colorni, but he turned up as part of a specific line of investigation I was following and which, unfortunately, was thus brought to a halt – temporarily, I hope.

And in that way Voynich studies came to have its most peculiar feature – a habit of beginning not with historical questions, but with pre-emptive answers presented as logical constructions the foundations of which were, to put it mildly, untested against those wider fields of scholarship relevant to the study of medieval manuscripts.

I’ve tried, often, over the past ten years and more to ask Voynich writers the simplest of research questions, viz. ‘What first led you to form that idea?’ or ‘How did this possibility emerge?’.

I’ve found it quite rare that any, from 1912 – 2022, has provided an answer. Far more usual, in my experience, is that the person has been so rapt in the story presented by their own imagination that such a question has seemed to them ill-motivated, or senseless or its answer quite self-evident. In any case, not a question to answer.

Yet there are exceptions. Tiltman is usually quite clear about how his opinions emerged from his efforts to investigate specific questions and from information he gained from external specialists, or at least tried to gain from external specialists (his experience with the eminent T.A. Sprague appears to have had quite a profound effect).3

3.the incident and a note on Sprague’s qualifications – see section in post ‘Not One of Mine‘.

Panofsky and Steele are two more who are very clear on how they reached a particular opinion. O’Neill stands at the very opposite limit of the spectrum, refusing to explain anything of his thought-processes, or any sources consulted and so forth.

Ensuring that the research path from question to conclusion is clearly outlined is, of course, the way solid investigative research proceeds. It does not ensure a conclusion is correct; what it does is make easier the work of those who will follow and who, one hopes, be even better able to see where a given path in research went out of true.

The Voynich text-image ‘Paradox’.

The opposite approach meant that the manuscript came to seem as if it embodied a paradox: that is, that the drawings reflected no influence from the Renaissance, yet the written text was imagined a ciphertext far too difficult to have been invented earlier than the late Renaissance.

The paradox was not, in fact, a product of the manuscript but a product of the unthinking adoption of a chain of untested and even unexamined assumptions – viz. that the whole content sprang from the mind of a single ‘author’; that first enunciation of the content occurred in the same time and place the manuscript was made; that the ‘author’ could be none but a western ‘Latin’; that the written text must cover plaintext prose or poetry, that the letter referring to Rudolf had been written by Marcus Marci rather than (perhaps) on his behalf by an unknown person.

Rather than re-examining those assumptions singly and as a chain, and giving greatest weight to the primary evidence – the manuscript’s codicology, palaeography and drawings – theories took the foreground and most of them were theories about cipher-methods or theories about historical personages. The usual deep attachment of a theorist for his/her theory was another inhibiting factor.

Description of the manuscript’s sections hardened, though a result of nothing but to guesswork, including Newbold’s subjective impressions. Chronology went out the window. Various ingenious workarounds were thought up to cope with perception of that paradox – but those too were (and still usually are) overwhelmingly of the theory-first variety, without any firm roots in the corpus of historical studies, manuscript studies or iconological studies existing in the world beyond the Voynich ‘bubble’. The Freidman’s worked in a secrecy bubble of their own making, but in more recent time I have actually seen a couple of self-promoting ‘Voynich experts’ assert that all one needs to know in Voynich research can, and should, be gained only from members of the ‘Voynich community’!

There’s no doubt at all that some cryptographers read – Nick Pelling, for one. But on the other hand, I must say that the least-often consulted of the pages and posts I’ve published through voynichrevisionist is the one I designed it around – the Bibliography page.

Robert Steele expresses clearly that sense of paradox when he writes – still assuming an all-Latin European origin for both composition and manufacture –

“the usual methods for dating a manuscript fail us; the writing cannot be placed; the vellum is coarse for the thirteenth century but not impossible; the ink is good. Only the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased. It is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influence.”

The drawings are not, in fact, devoid of discernable style(s) as I’ve spent some years in explaining and demonstrating for other researchers.

What is true is that the overwhelming majority do not use the styles – or as I’ve put it the iconographic languages – of western art. Nonetheless some few are intelligible in when read in those terms, and among them (as we’ve seen) are many of the emblems used to fill the Voynich calendar’s diagrams.


Forms and the changing tone of visual ‘languages’ can be placed and dated. They are not endlessly mutuable mutable, though this is a fact which has evidently eluded a great many Voynicheros since 1912, including the Friedmans, d’Imperio and others who would urge a Renaissance, or an Early Modern date for the whole manuscript.

Such theories constantly overlook is the fact (and it is an historical fact) that once the styles and customs of classical Greek and Roman art had been taken up by artists in late medieval Latin Europe – during the Italian ‘renaissance’ – that tide did not turn until the second half of the nineteenth century.

In other words, no hallmarks of Renaissance art in the Voynich drawings means you will not find valid comparisons in European art of the post-Renaissance period … Some of the most obvious markers are:

Literalism (or ‘illusionism’) – became a standard part of the western artistic vocabulary, and was widely applied, including (e.g.) to the way plants were to be drawn. We have already seen, in speaking of the ‘sunflower’ myth, how well developed that type of literalism was by the early 1500s, and it did not regress thereafter. It is altogether absent from the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures and indeed from most of its other drawings.

Use of vanishing-point perspective is another constant of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance style in Latin Europe. An argument might be made that a bench drawn near the top of f.77v is an effort at perspective drawing, but it is not ‘vanishing point’ perspective; just a typical instance of providing a view which avoids the table, chair or bench appearing to have only two legs. Here is an example of vanishing-point perspective (see how the line of columns on the right hand side grow smaller the further they are from the viewer).


A modern lay person might presume that “an artist can draw any way he/she likes” and so long as you are speaking of some modern artists that is fairly true, but it is not true for artists in the pre-modern era.

It is also true that a good deal of informal art can exist – if we include such things as personal notebooks, patterns for embroidery and tapestry, or books4 produced by persons who had been relegated to the fringes of Europe’s social hierarchies, but it is a mistake to imagine that fashions in ‘high’ art did not become pervasive. People who draw, try to draw ‘well’. This point will come up again in connection with Bodleian Douce 313 with its November-Crocodile.

4.in the most general sense.

Before turning to Bodleian Douce 313 though, I owe readers a better idea of why I have protested so vehemently the continual efforts made to attribute everything in the manuscript to so late a period as that of the Rudolfine court.

Rudolf II.

Rudolf II was indisputably a great patron of the arts – objets d’art and paintings were one of the few things for which he might outlay money, apart from books and instruments for the latest science and the prosecution of his ‘new crusade’ against the Turks.

During the period when he held court, we see emerge in western art and in Rudolf’s circle, the style we call Mannerism, with some pieces made for Rudolf arguably verging on the Baroque.5 They maintain, of course, the Italian re-classicised human body, use of literalism, use of perspective and all the rest which marks art of the Italian ‘Renaissance’.

5.if these terms are new to you, a brief overview here.

Three artists employed at different times by Rudolf can be said represent perfectly each of those strands in late sixteenth and seventeenth century European art.

FIG 4. Ottavio Miseroni – Cameo. Cleopatra.

From Italy, we have the Milanese lapidary artist, Ottavio Miseroni (1567-1624) – to whom, as d’Imperio reported, Marcus Marci is said to have been related. He also made the inlaid chest from which a detail was illustrated above (FIG 3).

FIG. 5. Dürer – Martagon lily.

From Germany came that master of literalism, Albrecht Dürer, whose reputation rests largely on his having studied in Italy and brought the ideas and techniques of the Italian Renaissance into the north.

A deeply moral person, Dürer produced only one picture which might be termed ‘Rudolfine’ – the Suicide of Lucretia, but even then he avoided making the nude figure’s face inviting by sixteenth-century standards.

(Rudolf also liked an Italian altarpiece which Dürer had painted in Venice on commission from the town’s German merchants. Rudolf liked that altarpiece so much he commandeered it or, to put it more politely, ‘acquired it’ and had it carried to Prague.)

FIG 6. (detail) female head – by Bartolomaus Spranger

And finally from Flanders came the Mannerist, Bartolomaus Spranger, who is today most closely identified with the development of what is called ‘Rudolfine Mannerism’ – an example of which is seen at left.

In Rudolfine art, one typically finds that women – even when fully clothed – convey an atmosphere very far from that conveyed by female figures in the Voynich manuscript, clothed or unclothed.

Images of Athena made for the Rudolfine court, and subsequently imitated by others, would have created public outrage in classical Athens in precisely the way that painting Christ’s mother in the way Mary Magdalen should appear could be predicted to outrage the whole of Christian Europe.

To quote the article by the Holy Roman Empire Association:

Many artworks commissioned by Rudolf are unusually erotic“.


‘Shapely’ is how Panofsky described some of the Voynich figures but they are scarcely designed to excite with their overlarge heads, ‘boneless’ arms, flat feet and marred faces.

To distinguish between an unclothed figure, a naked woman and a ‘nude’ is not mere semantics. The Voynich figures that unclothed are just that. They cannot be simply supposed literal: the question of literal versus abstract, or metaphorical has to be formally addressed before one may speak of them as women, let alone as naked women or as nudes. Naked women are what you see in copies of the Balneis Puteolanis and in many copies the illustrations were, by the standards of their time, prurient images as, I would argue, none of the Voynich drawings are.

Equally to the point is that perspective and emphasis on symmetry are absent from the Voynich drawings but are inseparable from the way in which technical information and instruments were represented after the mid-fifteenth century in Europe. This is a constantly-overlooked but important objection to theories about the whole manuscript as a modern fake, or identification of roughly-cylindrical objects (which I have described as forms of container) in the manuscript’s leaf-and-root section.

Falsity and Fakery.

When Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) invented his microscope, European art was already in its Early Modern period and technical instruments were being represented by technical drawings (Fig.8) and quite literally in other contexts (Fig. 10. further below).

FIG 8.

Even Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, had been no stranger to technical diagrams or Euclidian geometry.

FIG 9. (detail) Brit.Lib. Royal MS 7 F VIII f.25r. Last quarter of the 13tC.

Iin short – neither Wilfrid’s theory of Baconian authorship, nor Santacoloma’s theory of a faked ‘Baconian’ manuscript explains why the artefacts seen in the ‘leaf and root’ section have the form they actually have.

‘Fixing’ their form by substituting ruled lines for ones which are neither straight nor precisely parallel, and altering the lack of perspective to add a greater sense of depth than the original displays, may be a way to add a greater air of probability to a theory, but is not best practice, and certainly not how reputable museums normally behave.

We don’t correct ancient paintings to look more like modern paintings, or ‘adjust’ medieval paintings to look more nearly like one produced during the seventeenth century.

Except, it seems, in Voynichland where the manuscript is treated with scant respect..

So long as we accept that the manuscript once belonged to Jakub Hořčický, we can accept the proposition that the content of our manuscript was probably present in Prague during Rudolf’s time.

If, however, the signature in the manuscript is proven fake or of very much more recent date, then we cannot assert the manuscript was in Prague much before the time when Baresh sent careful copies of some section or sections to Athanasius Kircher, believing that the matter was in some sense ‘ancient’ and in some sense ‘Egyptian’.

More – if we accept the same doubts which were expressed about the authenticity of the ‘Marci’ letter by the same researchers, then we may be able to simply dump the whole theory of connection to Rudolf, for which no other evidence has yet been produced.

Folium Blue? Pigments can settle some questions.

In the continuing absence of any specific evidence to the contrary, we shall maintain the normal practice of treating as largely irrelevant the interval between the making of a manuscript’s parchment or vellum and the material’s inscription – say five years or less. We can continue to accept as our working range, the radiocarbon-14 range of 1404/5-1438.

That standard assumption would have to be altered if, for example, the manuscript’s pigments included a pink and this was found gained from logwood and not from sappanwood (the original meaning of ‘brazilwood’ in medieval Europe).

On the other hand, if its palette should include among its blues that described as ‘folium’ blue, we could discard immediately any theory of a twentieth-century fake for those folios at least, because the method for extracting that particular hue from Chrozophora tinctoria was forgotten in the nineteenth century and its re-discovery announced only recently – in April 2020.

It has long been my hope that another and more thorough analytical study might be made of the manuscript’s pigments, with the advice of well-qualified and experienced conservators or, if advisable, by commissioning a full analysis of the palette from some professional scientific group such as the McCrone Group.

  • P. Nabais et.al., ‘ … molecular structure for the medieval blue from Chrozophora tinctoria, also known as folium’, Science Advances, Vol. 6, Issue 16 (online 17 Apr 2020).

Postscript – the header shows a detail from the following image, from a book published in 1624:

and now I really must stop spending work-time on Voynich things – for the next few weeks at least.

FIG. 10

Postscript – I should have included here that in a late paper, recording a talk he had given, John Tiltman wrote,

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10.

It seems to me this is no argument for the manuscript’s content having so late an origin; quite the contrary. I would suggest that the Keeper of Manuscripts at Cambridge had noted the discrepancy (only recently noticed again) between (a) the evident age of most of the content as such (b) the materials on which that content is now set (including pigments, vellum etc.) and (c) the binding. It is not at all unusual for quires to have remained unbound for years – even, sometimes, for centuries.

Rudolfine… signatures and cherry-picking.

A reader [Janine] has quite properly pulled me up with a ‘where-and-when’ question about earlier investigations/assertions concerning Jakub’s signature.

Time doesn’t permit me to search the earlier communications to Jim Reeds’ mailing list, but the old ‘Journal of Voynich Studies’ has an easier database, so for the meantime I’ll quote from that. [Volume 1 No 7], this communication is not twenty years old; only 15 going on 16.

And you’ll notice that the same writer who speaks about Jakub’s signature also speaks of what he evidently takes as a fact established, namely that Marci isn’t the person who wrote that letter containing the Rudolf rumour! Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, either.

On Wed, 28 Feb 2007, in the context of doubts and discussions about Marci’s signature, Jan Hurych wrote, citing finds by Rafal Prinke and Peter Kazil:

The doubts I mentioned are now supported by two finds: the letter [of 1665-6] was not written in Marci’s hand and after the recent discovery of Horczicky’s signature in Prague, by joint efforts of Rafal Prinke and Peter Kazil ( supported by another sample of the signature found in Melnik archive) lead to investigation of the one in teh VM. We are now almost certain that the name of Horczicky, hidden in the VM, was not written in Horcizcky’s hand.

There may be some acceptable explanations for both cases but again, they are only indirectly supported and questionable as well. The name of Tepenec could have been written there by anybody, say the archiver (or even by Kircher). However, we know that Horczicky had a habit to exlibris his books in his own hand (Prague signature is actually his exlibris and Melnik signature is his official signature). The doubts are also supported by the fact hat the signature was found already erased – or to look like it was erased. The research in this problem might follow, thanks to excellent scans of the VM by Beinecke library (the scans are on the Net), but until more facts are found, we seem to be at standstill.

The only opened avenue is of course Marci’s letter and again, it is not written in his hand. The explanation may be that – according to Czech sources – Marci was losing his eyesight and eventually went completely blind. That would explain while the letter was written by somebody else, apparently his scribe. But again, it might have been written by anybody, even after Marci’s death. So only verifiable detail there is Marci’s signature, which Marci always used to confirm by his “sine” next to his name. To make things more complicated, that particular letter has no “sine”.

[This was not the end of discussion about Marci’s signature, or Horczicky’s]

Thanks to Janine for the question. Delay in response due to work-pressures, which allows me only occasional moments to check the comments here.

My stance on the rumour of Rudolfine ownership.

If, tomorrow, some document – such as a ledger or catalogue book should turn up which proved that someone had given or sold the manuscript to Rudolf, I’d be perfectly content to accept it after the usual checks for authenticity.

The reason I object to the emphasis which has been placed on what is no more than a single alleged allegation by Mnishovsky is that the study of this manuscript has been badly skewed by an obsession with that rumour of connection to him.

I say ‘obsession’ because it has led to the publication of statements that are simply not true – even in publications from the Beinecke library. It is simply untrue that “‘the manuscript is known to have been in Rudolf’s library” or that “Rudolf is the first known owner of the manuscript.”

Determination to maintain ideas unsupported by evidence, whether documentary or contemporary, creates an unbalanced attitude in historiography and in the study of this manuscript. We have seen the ‘rudolfine’ obsession lead to a continual skewing of both research and of assertions and lines of investigation. The lack of objectivity and failure to consider fairly the primary evidence and the balance of historical evidence can only take us ever-further from those avenues of research which might prove fruitful, but on the contrary insist on ideas derived partly from historical theorising but chiefly from pure imagination and romantic ideas about the aristocracy and medieval emperors of Europe.

So we have a situation in which that rumour – about some unnamed messenger bringing the manuscript to Rudolf – becomes the line between information that adherents will, and will not absorb and accept, artificially distorting the direction of research and what is reported as the balance of evidence.

The ‘rudolfine-and-nobility’ fantasy (or, to be kind, ‘theory’) automatically excludes all things which adherents are unable to view as suitably imperial and noble.

The manuscript might be, for all we know, a Jews’ textbook on dyes and fabric patterns with Quire 20 quire listing ..for all we know … regular clients and their preferred colours.

This is among the innumerable historical possibilities which those dedicated to the ‘Rudolf-and-nobles’ [aka central European] theory cannot possibly countenance. What – Rudolf pay for a Jewish mercantile handbook- impossible!!’ – ergo (from their point of view) a possibility to be ignored and certainly never investigated or, if investigated by others, to be ignored.

The manuscript entirely a product of England, France or Italy? Impossible!! Why? Because the ‘Rudolfine’ theory is all about the manuscript as expression of an imagined central European and high society culture.

I call fanatics those who pre-empt the process of historical research and discovery by demanding in advance that any conclusions must be compatible with their vision of the mad emperor as a paragon of science, the era of Enlightenment in central Europe and so on.

In terms of historiography and intellectual discourse the ‘Rudolfine’ position is unbalanced.

It shows, in what is produced for its support, an ingrained habit of airily dismissing, of actively suppressing, of deliberately ignoring and distorting all evidence and all research which denies it. It is rare indeed that the most vocal adherents will engage in debate or will permit their habitual bald assertion to be questioned, or will even admit that these are mere speculations and assertions without any basis in fact.

Instead, one encounters a habit among them of crying to their own audience ‘pay no attention to x’ and ‘y is only dissenting because their character is bad’ or arguments along those lines. More than once a ridiculous argument is produced whereby that theory is deemed to be superior either by the imagined ‘nobility’ of proponents, or by some fantastic assertion that the theory holds some moral highground which removes any obligation to demonstrate the truth of what it asserts.

Once you reach a point where debate is effectively prohibited, and no argument is offered save comments ad.hominem you know you’re in the realm of propaganda, not investigative scholarship.

So another reason I oppose the continual over-emphasis on Mnishovsky’s alleged Rudolf rumour is that it has not only skewed the nature of Voynich research, but has fostered a style of discourse unresponsive to fact and increasingly opposed to research, balance of evidence and evidence as such.

We have seen the most dedicated ‘Rudolfine’ theorists simply refuse to accept the opinions of earlier specialists in codicology and palaeography; refuse to accept the radiocarbon-14 range; refuse to accept the consensus of statistical analyses of the written text and of persistently ‘blanking’ or attempting to minimise contributions made by scholars qualified and experienced if their opinions do not suit that theory.

Over-emphasis on that mere rumour has led to such extreme bias, so often, that I consider the ‘Rudolfine’ rumour to have been greatest single hindrance to meaningful advance in the manuscript’s study since 1912.

Time and energy that might be spent on discovering where the first known owner obtained this material is spent instead on attempting to weave circumstantial narratives aimed at persuading us that there is some good reason to believe Rudolf had once owned it.

The first known owner was long agreed to have been Jakub Hořčický, a pharmacist-physician. A great deal was made of this by the ‘Rudolfine’ theorists until it was made clear to them that Hořčický, though ennobled by Rudolf, had been a ward of the local Jesuit community and possibly one orphaned as a result of a then-recent pogrom. In other words, he was not one of Rudolf’s employees, nor a courtier, nor a member of the nobility by birth – and may possibly have been of Jewish descent.

Since that became clear, we have seen retrospective minimisation of his importance by the loudest voices online and as writers of ‘wiki’ style articles, and to replace it a revival of the formerly discounted/ignored theory that the inscription of Hořčický’s name on the manuscript was faked.

For this, however, there is no evidence offered either, and even if his name (as  “Jacobj z Tepence” had been inscribed by another person, no evidence is offered about when this is imagined to have been done, only vague insinuations of bad intent on the part of persons unspecified.

The whole of the ‘central European Rudolfine’ narrative is like that. Ask the “where-and-when-this-happened” sort of question about some confidently asserted/insinuated item, and it evaporates like the Fata Morgana.

IN any case, even if it the inscription had been by another seventeenth-century hand (for example) that cannot be presumed proof of dishonest intention.

If (for example) the next person known to have had it – Georg Baresch – had written the name in it after Hořčický’s sudden death, or if the manuscript had been loaned to Baresch by the Jesuit community to whom Hořčický bequeathed all his possessions, such an inscription might be taken as evidence of the community’s normal practice, perhaps, or of Bresch’s integrity and the fact is that neither he nor any other person of whom we know even once suggested it was his own by right.

Marci’s oddly apologetic letter of gift to Kircher (in 1665-6) says that the previous possessor had been working on understanding the manuscript to the day of his death. Within the Jesuit community (of whom Kircher was one) that was sufficient reason for any scholar to continue using a book.

Such possibilities, however, are also just possibilities.

The point is that because they do not suit the ‘Rudolfine-nobility’ atmosphere, they are arbitrarily and/or deliberately omitted from the narrative being built on foundations consistently imaginative and speculative. There is no evidence to justify the assertions, and strings of assertions created to give Mnishovsky’s alleged rumour the appearance of historical validity.

Unless the date of that inscription can be proven, and proven a product of the twentieth century rather than the seventeenth, the invention by such theorists of another slander – that Wilfrid Voynich faked the signature – are just another example of how ‘Rudolfine’ theorists employ the methods of propaganda and vilification, rather than any balance of physical and historical evidence, to persuade others to believe. Far too little which informs the narrative is the end-result of investigation, and far too much the result on which the theorists were already determined. That pattern has been evident since the ‘Prinke-Zandbergen’ theory (aka central European theory) first emerged two decades ago.

Balance of Evidence.

The fact is that the manuscript first appears in the early 1600s on the shelves of a pharmacist-chemist (termed in those days an ‘alchemist’) named Georg Baresch who never claimed to own it but who had had it lying (as he said) on his library shelves. By the time he wrote to Kircher in about 1637, he had already approached specialists in the history of European herbals and botany, and found from them that the plant-pictures were unidentifiable. He says, in writing to Kircher in 1639 that they were ‘exotic’ plants.

From this we learn that Baresch had not attempted to conceal his possession of the manuscript, and that his having it was known to the same Jesuit community in which Hořčický had been fostered and had studied.

Moreover, Kircher’s correspondent, Marcus Marci was also a member of that community and (as we learn from his letter to Kircher in 1641, before Marci had lost his memory) Marci himself was in a position to write to, and receive a reply from, the Emperor – who was at that time Ferdinand III, a monarch whose knowledge of the Bohemian court and language had been so poor when he became king of Bohemia in 1627 that he had been obliged to hire tutors to teach him the language. Mnishovsky had been one of those tutors.

By 1627, however, Hořčický was already five years dead, and his possessions bequeathed to the Jesuit community or in the keeping of such persons as he might have earlier lent or given them to.

Since Mnishvosky comes into the picture only as a one-time tutor to Ferdinand, you can see how wobbly the older version of the ‘Rudolf owned it’ rumour becomes.

The solution resorted to my the Rudolfine theorists has been to invent another ‘theory-patch’ by wiping or diminishing Hořčický from the story, and simply asserting the signature is fake by picking up a single opinion offered twenty years ago by just one Voynich writer and which the same theorists had determinedly minimised or treated as ridiculous for almost twenty years.

Evidence? – one person’s perception that the signature doesn’t look, to him, like other examples of Hořčický’s signature as “Jacobj z Tepenec”. That’s it. There’s no range of opinion, no particular specialist consulted, no debate permitted. The core makers of the Rudolfine (central European) theory didn’t like that opinion, so they ignored it. Now they like it, so they adopt it. Evidence – none; balance of informed opinion – none.

It’s not historical research in the usual sense of the word.

Others among Kircher’s correspondents were part of the same community in Prague, though some spent a greater or a lesser time in Rome.

They include, importantly, Aloysius Kinner, who on 5 January 1667 (the year after Marci spoke of Mnishovky’s rumour), reports that:

” Dominus Marcus has lost his memory of nearly everything but still remembers you. He … wishes to know through me whether you have yet proved an Oedipus in solving that book which he sent via the Father Provincial last year and what mysteries you think it may contain. It will be a great solace to him if you are able to satisfy his curiosity on this point.”

All evidence – I mean hard, documentary evidence – indicates that the book sent via the Provincial in 1666 was the one we call the Voynich manuscript.

Now, by this time Baresch was dead, and of course Hořčický was dead, but not all were dead who were in a position to know whether the manuscript had ever been owned by Rudolf.

The ‘Rudolfine’ theory, however, does not so much demand we accept so much as merely assume that all these men, with their religious principles, their close connections to the court, to Hořčický and Baresch, and to Kircher had either remained entirely ignorant of any link between the manuscript and the imperial court, or that they did know of it and over a period of more than forty years had either forgot the fact, or concealed it.

For those insinuations which infuse the narrative, not the faintest scent of historical evidence is to be found. It appears to rely chiefly on a vague notion that all Jesuits are bad people, just as all scholars whose research comes to conclusions inconvenient for the ‘central European’ theory are bad people, best ignored.

One has to ask why those men would behave so? Of what benefit could it be to Kinner, Moretus or Marci to hide some link to Rudolf?

None of them wanted the book for themselves (or the quires that would become the book); none had any investment in its being deciphered or left to gathered dust, except that they agreed to help their friends, among whom were both Kircher and Baresch.

Consider too that far from attempting to conceal the book’s existence, everyone concerned of whom we know advertised its existence – as Baresch himself did and as, later, on behalf of Baresch (and later Kinner on behalf of Marci) would do.

They knew perfectly well that Kircher was also in a position to enquire into the book’s origins, and to correspond with members of the nobility, active scientists, and other Jesuits in Prague and elsewhere. Including (after 1665-6) persons charged with maintaining and checking records of Rudolf’s library. Whether Kircher attempted to do any of this we don’t know. It would be worth the effort of looking more closely at all Kircher’s letters to persons in Prague between the late 1630s and the late 1660s.

An early part of the Prinke-Zandbergen narrative had it that Jesuits ‘stole’ the manuscript from Rudolf’s library, but time and wisdom seem to have eroded that particular flight of fancy somewhat and if the idea hasn’t been completely abandoned, it is at least dormant or asserted ‘between the lines’ rather than openly as it formerly was. Another constant of that theory is that all who seem to prevent its triumph are bad, ignoble and inferior persons – so be aware of that quirk in some of the theory’s proponents who constantly speak of personalities rather than bodies of evidence or of research.

There is another factor which is too rarely considered in this matter of alleged connection to Rudolf, and that is Kircher’s position and attitudes. In all his correspondence, both received and written, one sees that he expects to receive as well as to confer, flattering remarks and that he is an out and out snob for whom social standing is of enormous importance. One cannot see why, if any hint of imperial connection we known, those commending the manuscript to Kircher would not have mentioned it. Imperial associations could be calculated to increase rather than lessen any interest Kircher might feel.

Why then, one might ask, did Baresch or Kinner not refer to any such imperial glamour in the 1630s? It was no skin off their nose if (say) Hořčický had been given it by Rudolf or even if he had taken it. It was no problem for them if, instead, the text had been lent to Baresch or to whoever occupied that house and library before him. If it had been among those bequeathed to the Jesuits by Baresch, or had been left in Baresch’s keeping by Hořčický before the latter’s death or loaned to Baresch by one of the Jesuits (as a book bequeathed to them by Hořčický) – it made no difference to whether or not Kinner, or Marci or Baresch used that association as lure to attract Kircher’s interest. None did.

The bottom line is that no matter how it came to turn up in Baresch’s house, there was no effort made by him or anyone else to conceal it. Kinner appears to know of no imperial connection for the material in 1637-9, which is only 15 years after Hořčický’s death and the following bequests to the Jesuits of Prague.

There is also the fact that when, in 1665-6, Marci recalled Mnishovky’s relation of that rumour of the fabulous sum supposedly paid (600 ducats) and a nameless courier or messenger to Rudolf etc., no member of the Jesuits’ communities in Prague seems to have heard a word of it.

Mnishovsky is said to have said this less than twenty years after Hořčický’s death. Given the close interaction of Jesuit communities in the city, I find it very difficult to believe that the transfer of a book with such a legend attached to it to one of the community’s orphans would not have been long remembered and celebrated: ‘one of our own made good’ . It would be enough that had Hořčický had occasionally attended the emperor; but he was also ennobled and then received an imperial gift of supposedly staggering price.

All good selling points if one is trying to get Kircher sold on the idea of helping Baresch. But none seems to know anything about a link to Rudolf. Is it probable that Marci wouldn’t, after hearing Mnishovsky spin is yarn, go the Jesuits and ask if any knew about an alleged link between the manuscript and Rudolf (presumably via Hořčický)?

What do the ‘Rudolfine’ theorists do? Simple – they just wipe or minimise these factors. If the price is difficult to justify, they drop that bit of the Mnishovsky tale; if the anonymous bearer is a bit awkward to explain – for one thing, no indication is given of the direction from which he is imagined to come – he is also dropped Mnishovsky’s alleged rumour. And Mnishovsky’s having allegedly said he thought it the work of Roger Bacon is dropped too, because the whole point of the Rudolfine theory is to argue the entire work an expression of the imagined ‘Rudolfine-Prague-imperial’ cultural atmosphere. In other words, to argue that a shoddy-looking set of quires on early fifteenth-century vellum which informed assessments attribute to a period between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and to England, Italy or ‘somewhere southern’ is to be imagined a product of Rudolf’s imperial court and its library.

And in this jaw-dropping manipulation of evidence and logic, the Beinecke catalogue has sadly played a part – not to mention the editorialising hand which interfered with the technical ‘Materials’ essay in the Yale facsimile edition. Shameful, that.

But wait, there’s still more on the other side of the scales.

We have the equally awkward fact that the letter in which Marci noted but refused to endorse what he thought he recalled had been told him decades earlier by Mnishovsky, was a letter written about eighteen months before the letter in which Kinner reports that Marci has now “lost his memory of nearly everything’.

So we cannot reasonably treat Marci’s recollections of what Mnishovsky may have said decades earleir – or whether indeed it had been Mnishovsky who said them. This isn’t a theory that his account is wrong, only reason to exercise still greater caution in what weight should be given that alleged allegation.

On the positive side, the ‘Rudolf-owned-it’ theory has nothing but the unsupported rumour reported by a man in the last stages of a condition which affected his memory.

On the negative side, as I hope I’ve outlined fairly, we have more evidence. Most of it, I agree, is argument from silence, but when that silence could have no benefit for any of those concerned, and none for their mutual desire to have Kircher work on reading the manuscript, it is a silence which argues against the value we should give the ‘Mnishovsky-Rudolf’ rumour.

I would also note, in passing, that Newbold’s greater experience led him to suppose not that the manuscript had been sold to Rudolf, but that it had been taken to Rudolf’s court and there given as a gift to Rudolf’s gardener. Given the manuscript’s unprepossessing appearance, and the outrageous idea of demanding payment from an emperor in person, Newbold’s take was, at least, better in keeping with the way monarchs were wont to behave, and to expect others to behave towards them. There are volumes of primary documents describing what happened in one, and another, royal court when visitors or ambassadors or menial couriers fronted up. Mad as Rudolf was, he was still an emperor.

Add to this that though Rudolf certainly did collect curiosities, including curious foreign writings and artefacts, so did a great many other persons who had ‘cabinets’ of that kind – from Aldrovandi to Kircher. It was all the fashion. One would like to have seen some serious historical study of the primary documents to give a clear idea of the way Rudolf’s libraries and collections were organised and administered, including the system for registering acquisition. That might have been one useful thing to come from the Rudolfine corner.

It now suits makers of the ‘Rudolfine-Voynich’ narrative to wipe so much from their account of the historical evidence that they wish to ‘wipe’ or minimise the relevance of the carbon-14 dating, wipe the relevance of Hořčický’s name inscribed on the volume, and assert once more that the whole manuscript was first created in Rudolf’s court. For this there is no evidence whatsoever. Not … a … skerric.

And – pace the unknown editor of the Beinecke’s ‘Material Science’ essay – it is simply an untrue statement to assert, as that person did, that Rudolf is the ‘first known owner’ of the the manuscript now at Yale as Beinecke MS 408 “is known [sic] to have been in Rudolf’s library”. It is simply not true. Not ‘fairly true’ or even ‘very possibly true’. It is simply UNtrue.

It is not any conclusion from primary evidence or from scholarship and, as I said earlier, the whole Rudolfine tale has proven a ball and chain on this manuscript’s study since 1912.

The balance of evidence is what counts, and when you ask questions of the ‘exactly-where-and-when’ kind about any, or all, of that theory’s chained assertions, you find that each relies on the next, and all evaporate on closer inspection. Like the Fata Morgana, indeed.

As I said at the outset, if we turn up some documentary evidence which supports the Mnishovsky rumour – all of it – then well and good, we may say that Rudolf once paid 600 ducats to a certain carrier who brought it to him – possibly from England. It would be good to know how it was described in any catalogue (including any held by Jesuit library).

But at present the weight of evidence and probability is against the Rudolf rumour, and those who continually advocate it are to be criticised for the means being taken to promote what remains a theory based on nothing more than a highly dubious rumour.

Manipulating the historical record, suppressing and demeaning researchers who cannot accept it, and ‘wiping’ evidence while replacing it with invention, cherry-picked opinion, and attacks on the personality of any and all who stand in its way is unconscionable. I find no excuse for suggestions that Wilfrid Voynich inscribed ‘Jacob z Tepenec’ in the manuscript, and the fact that even those circulating that calumny cannot even own to their inventing that speculation is proof enough that what we are seeing is not the conclusion of genuine efforts to understand this manuscript, or its history before 1637.

My core objection to those obsessed by the rumoured ‘Rudolfine’ link is that they constantly forget that the aim of researchiing Beinecke MS 408 is not to gain wide credence for their theory but to study a manuscript which all evidence indicates was inscribed no later than the mid-fifteenth century and which both evidence and opinion indicate contains matter of considerably earlier origins.

Until Wilfrid Voynich made the ‘Rudolf rumour’ his chief selling point in 1912, there is no evidence that anyone connected with the manuscript or those who knew of the manuscript during the seventeenth century had ever heard such a rumour, save Marci, who refused to endorse it and seems to have added it only as an afterthought though he had known of the manuscript, and known Kircher for thirty years and more. He simply reports something he recalls Mnishovsky having once said.

And that’s still all there is to the whole ‘Rudolf owned it’ story.

Voynich Conference- Uni of Malta program

from the University’s website:

Conference Programme

DAY ONE – Wednesday 30th November

13:00 Conference Opening – Colin Layfield – University of Malta

13:05 A Few Words about the Voynich – Ray Clemens – Beinecke Library – Yale University

13:30 Keynote Speech – René Zandbergen

Session One – Moderated by John Abela

14:15-14:45 Alexander Boxer:

Fingerprinting Gibberish: A Quantitative Comparison of the Voynich and Sloane MS 3188.

14:45-15:15 Koen Gheuens and Cary Rapaport:

Above and Beyond Voynich Canopies: Tents as a Recurring Motif in Beinecke MS 408.

15:15-15:45 Keagan Brewer

‘I beg your grace to suppress this chapter or else to have it written in secret letters’: The emotions of encipherment in late-medieval gynaecology.

15:45-16:15 Daniel Gaskell and Claire Bowern

Gibberish after all? Voynichese is statistically similar to human-produced samples of meaningless text.


Session Two – Moderated by Michael Rosner

16:15-16:45 Kevin Farrugia, Colin Layfield and Lonneke van der Plas:

Demystifying the scribes behind the Voynich Manuscript using Computational Linguistic Techniques.

16:45-17:15 Claire Bowern and Daniel Gaskell:

Enciphered after all? Word-level text metrics are compatible with some types of encipherment.

1715-1745 Jürgen Hermes:

Polygraphia III: The cipher that pretends to be an artificial language.

17:45-18:15 Andrew Caruana, Colin Layfield and John Abela

An Analysis of the Relationship between Words within the Voynich Manuscript.

DAY TWO – Thursday 1st December

Session Three – Moderated by Lonneke van der Plas

13:00-13:30 Luke Lindemann

Crux of the MATTR: Voynichese Morphological Complexity.

13:30-14:00 Massimiliano Zattera

A new transliteration alphabet brings new evidence of word structure and multiple “languages” in the Voynich manuscript.

14:00-14:30 Katie Painter and Claire Bowern:

Examining the history of Voynich glyphs using phylogenetic methods.

14:30-15:00 Patrick Feaster

Rightward and Downward Grapheme Distributions in the Voynich Manuscript.

Session Four – Moderated by Claire Bowern

15:00-15:30 Tavi Stafford

Seven Habits of Highly Eccentric Paragraphs.

15:30-16:00 Farley Katz

From Voynich to the Beinecke, the Trail of Ownership.

16:00-16:30 Klaus Schmeh and Elonka Dunin

The Voynich Manuscript Compared with Other Encrypted Books.

16:30-17:00 Stefan Guzy

Book transactions of Emperor Rudolf II 1576-1612. New findings on the earliest ownership of the Voynich manuscript.

17:00-17:50 Keynote Speech – Lisa Fagin Davis – Medieval Academy of America

17:50 Closing Remarks – Colin Layfield – Conference Chair


• Conference starts at 1300 CET November 30 (Central European Time – UTC + 1) https://time.is/1300_30_November_2022_in_Valletta

• Conference ends at 1800 CET

• The video recordings of all the talks will be made available to all attendees after the conference.

• The Zoom link for the sessions will be sent to all attendees by email.

All times are CET (Central European Time)

My comment

Looks to me as if the rumoured ‘Rudolfine’ connection is still a near-obsession for some and as if the habit of presuming all anthropoform figures were intended literally… but otherwise the talks continue the decades’-long debate about whether the written text is, or isn’t enciphered.

I intend tuning in Lisa Fagin-Davis’ talk in the hope she will speak to issues of codicology and palaeography. Also, the paper by Bowern and Painter seems as if it may at last provide some historical perspective and comparative discussion of the Voynich glyphs as glyphs.

If I’d known earlier what the topic was that Koen and Cary intended to treat, I’d have reprinted for my readers the matter from the five-part series in which I treated the ‘canopy’ motif. The series was entitled ‘Pegs, Poles and Parasols’ and I’m sure that neither of those authors will have read the original, since they came to the study some years after I’d closed that first (blogger) research blog and moved to word-press. Later, in treating the Voynich map, I wrote again about that ‘canopy’-looking form, describing incidence in the map in terms of wind/star ‘roses’. At the time I treated the motif, it had not been treated at all, and we have seen no original work on the subject since then. It is because neither Koen or Cary is likely to have read that earlier work that it may provide an interesting double-blind comparison for my readers. Later..