The skies above Pt.5: bodies in baskets

Two previous:

Header: detail from f.179 in Brit.Lib.  MS Harley 4375/3, a translation of  Valerius MaximusFacta et Dicta Memorabilia (Memorable Doings and Sayings..); (inset) detail from a mosaic made in the region of Carthage 1st-2ndC AD, (a century or two after Sergius Orata lived).   British Museum.


MINUS THE INSET, the image shown in the header illustrates one sentence from Book 9 of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta, viz:

C. Sergius Orata pensilia balinea primus facere instituit. quae inpensa a levibus initiis coepta ad suspensa caldae aquae tantum non aequora penetravit.(9.1.1)

As first published in English, from the translation by Samuel Speed. that paragraph and the next together read:

There are more recent translations, but Speed’s was the first to be published in English, and appeared four years after Athanasius Kircher’s death.

Excerpts from Valerius Maximus occur  as early as the tenth century in the Latin west,  and it is possible that the fifteenth-century conception of Orata’s ‘hanging baths’  pre-dates Nicolas de Gonesse‘s translation of Book 9.  I’ve not looked at the earlier manuscripts.  Any wanting to doing so might begin with:

  • Dorothy M. Schullian, ‘A Revised List of Manuscripts of Valerius Maximus’, Miscellanea Augusto Campana. Medioevo e Umanesimo 45 (1981), 695-728 (p. 708).

In brief – nothing.  At least nothing directly, but it has become the norm that imagery in this manuscript is compared with items from Latin European works which are prettier, easier to understand and much more luxurious than the Voynich manuscript itself, so I thought this would be an easy way to introduce the month-diagrams’ ‘ladies’ without causing sudden shock and the sort of unthinking remarks which shocked persons tend to make.

More to the point, it lets me establish three points from the outset:

  1. that the image from the Harley manuscript cannot be argued any explanation for the month-diagrams, as I expect some might be eager to do, seeing it fitting neatly with certain other Voynich theories about ladies, baths, magic, plumbing and ‘central Europe’.  But it won’t do, and explaining the fact may prevent researchers’ wasting their own time or adding to that confusion with which the study is already so beset.
  2.  that the fifteenth-century translators and illustrator should not be underestimated.  Valerius speaks of Orata as a fish farmer, Pliny of Orata’s growing oysters. Despite the fifteenth-century translator and painter having put human figures in these baskets, it makes perfect sense in the “Orataean” context that they should have made them baskets, and not the stave-built barrel we see when medieval people are shown taking a modest bath.    The painter has shown containers able to drain very readily rather than anything able to hold water for long enough to take a bath in the Latin style (Greek baths differed).    I think  Fagan has the right of it, and is largely in harmony with the thinking of those medieval translators and painter, for he says that Orata’s invention (pensilia balinea) had nothing to do with humans’ bathing.   We do better to envisage Orata’s ‘suspended baths’ as a variant form of  lift-net fishing [see image, below, left] and/or as being related to that practice, still-usual, by which shellfish are maintained alive after harvesting,  immersed in fresh sea-water until fully grown and so purged of any contaminates before being cooked or sent to market.   I suppose it is even possible the basket-full might have been dropped directly into heated water but in in any case, a light, rapidly-draining container –  of netting or of woven sea-grass  – would be entirely practical. The image below (right)  proves it was. And where Valerius speaks chiefly of Orata’s fish-farming, Pliny dilates on his unfortunate interest in shellfish.
    detail from a mosaic made in Carthage c.2ndC AD. Now in the British Museum
    known today on the Atlantic coat of France as carrelets; in Italy (chiefly around the head of the Adriatic) as trabucco; in India as Cheena vala.

    (The Harley painting is too early and insufficiently northern to be about ducking witches.)

  3. That the landscaping efforts by Orata and his fellows in Campania must be seen in the context of the reputation which, at that time, adhered to the harbour of Byzantion and the Horn, just as it had for millennia before and to as late as the fifteenth century.   The astonishing abundance of those waters was viewed as a wonder in the ancient and classical world and the same classical authors in whom fifteenth-century Latin Europe was so interested dilate on the subject.  I quote from a couple of those sources later in this post.  In a way scarcely conceivable now when our food supply is constant and arrives indifferent to seasons and without our labour, Byzantion’s bountiful supply of food from the sea was regarded with awe,   the city’s commercial production of salted and pickled fish provided a large part of the city’s wealth, even in medieval times.  Salt-dried and -pickled fish, but particularly the dried  had been the mainstay of  Roman armies and remained the principal food for those travelling by sea. A fish sauce called garum is believed the invention of  Phoenicians or of Greeks, and although a late imperial Roman tax on salt saw garum production sink rapidly in those times, a century after the Voynich manuscript was made,  Pierre Belon found “scarcely a shop without it” in Constantinople (formerly Byzantion and later Istanbul).  Belon adds that it was all made in Pera (“Pere”) (p.78)

It made perfectly good sense, and good economic sense for Orata and his fellows to attempt to re-create that environment in the Bay of Naples.

  • Pierre Belon, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrs (Paris, 1553). Published first in French and English, the Latin edition appeared in 1589. The reference is on p.8 of the 1553 edition. Belon visited Istanbul in c.1547-8.
  • a quick basic overview of trade, goods and taxes in medieval Constantinople is in Mark Cartwright’s article for the Ancient History Encyclopaedia. here.

I’m not suggesting that the tiered  ladies of the Voynich month-diagrams are sea-food in disguise…  but puzzling over the Harley image and its odd features  led me to enquire further and, one thing leading to another as it tends to do, I was brought, eventually, to the point where I could conclude that the Voynich month diagrams had originally ‘spoken Greek’ and to identify the set of terms, and ideas, most relevant to the way the ‘bodies in barrels’ are depicted in folio 70v-i.

I  exempt from this description of ‘Greek-speaking’ the diagrams’ central emblems.  Not because it is impossible they also originated in a Greek-speaking environment but because they appear to be late additions to the material (after c.1330 but before 1438) by which time – as I was also able to conclude from other studies and enquiries of this manuscript – the greater proportion of material now in the Voynich manuscript had entered the Latins’ domain.  This makes it more likely – if not certain- that the central emblems were taken from a source in some language familiar in those regions at the time;  perhaps a Latin work, or one written in a western European vernacular, in Occitan, French, Anglo-Norman, Hebrew or a dialect of it.. or even Aramaic etcetera.  More likely; not certainly but in 2011, I expressed the opinion that the central emblems may have been copied from a work then in Fleury but dating to c.10thC AD. (This was before mention of France became acceptable to the ‘central European’ theory-holders, for which change we must thank Ellie Velinska’s longstanding fascination with the Duc de Berry more than any body of objective evidence.)

What is certain is that when  ‘matches’ are claimed for the month- diagrams by writers adducing some detail from a Latin manuscript,  all but the sequence of central emblems is omitted from their efforts, and even when treating those, the more optimistic sort of Voynichero swans past indifferent, or oblivious,  to points at which the proposed ‘match’ fails – historically, iconographically or technically.  Here, once again, I must mention Koen Gheuens‘ work as exceptional because he has paid attention to (e.g.) the fact that the Voynich ‘scales’ are of a type quite unlike those pictured in the medieval Latin manuscripts or adduced by other Voynicheros.

The critical detail is a second and thinner crossbar threaded through the wider. It is very clear in the Voynich emblem, and although the example cited by Gheuens is not unambiguous – that is, one might argue that its knob and hook were fixed into the end of a solid bar rather than being the termini of a thinner rod threaded through the larger – nonetheless it is a creditable potential match and he deserves credit for accepting rather than waving away that problem of very different construction.  The diagram you see below the scales in that pocket calendar records the hours of darkness and of daylight for the month of September.  I’ll come back to to the curiously nomadic history of such calendars later in the series, but the fact is they hop about – between England and the Scandinavian countries at first, and then make their way inland after some time.

To my knowledge no-one has ever found  a comparison for any of the  Voynich month- diagrams.   No-one  had done so before Panofsky, and he could find none closer than those in the Libros…  No  closer comparison seems to have been found since.  Nor have I offered one.

What I’ve done is draw conclusions about first enunciation and, thereby, intended significance.  And this because,  just as you can’t read a book by just looking at it you can’t read the   ‘thousand words’ by just looking at a picture.

I think it quite possible, after doing that work, that the ‘labels’ for figures in the Voynich month diagrams may be place-names.  And while it may be a natural assumption  that, were this the case,  the system invoked would be the generalised type of chorographic astrology, it should not be forgotten that between a star’s position on the celestial globe and that of a specific place on the terrestrial globe, correspondence can be literal, and very literal, practical types have known so from before Babylon’s first brick was laid. Every ancient literature in the world presumes the stars were made for nomads, farmers, herders and mariners. Not one supposed them made for astrologers.

Several of my readers have commented on the curious fact that,  after I introduce some new item or conclusion such as that the labels might be place-names, the same proposal appears without mention of the source not long afterwards in one or another ‘Voynich’ venue, where it tends to be lightly tossed about as some random ‘idea’ which had  just occurred to the participant regardless of the fact that several others know quite well where this ‘idea’ came from.

I’m afraid that a decade’s unremitting efforts on the part of one or two theorists has had its effect;  to admit that you are among the hundred or so people who read each post, and one of the ninety or so who don’t mis-use the material has become a bit risky if you appreciate being among the peaceable.   It is now ok to help yourself, but in public arenas  ‘not done’ to do be honest and open about it.  If you do, it is a dead cert. that someone will soon appear on the lists and try to show you the error of your ways.


But, as I say, to help yourself is perfectly acceptable – to those omnipresent few theory-touts, and to me.  Where we differ is that I consider my research and its original observations and conclusions should be re-used with mention of my name, and they don’t.  One understands their situation; it just messes things up if you’re getting everyone on board with your theory, to admit that half the new ‘ideas’ you use to inspire the crew have been lifted from work you don’t quite understand, other than it seems to undermine the theory.  Getting fellow believers to work it up in new form. one consistent with your theory and so re-assign  credits to fellow-believers surely does keeps everything nice, neat, homogeneous and attractive to visitors. But it cannot be called honest, or helpful to those more interested in the fifteenth-century manuscript than in stories woven about it.

Which is another of the reasons why, now that I’ve decided to put a little more online in treating these diagrams, I won’t providing just an illustrated precis and a short reading list as I did in posts to Voynichimagery.  This time, I’m setting out, step by step, the process by which I finally gained the conclusions I did (though I’ll ‘telescope’ a little).  I expect most will find it fairly hard-going – because it was – and I shouldn’t be  surprised to lose a few theorists in the maze.  🙂

So – to the fifteenth-century depiction of C. Sergius Orata and ‘bodies in baskets’.

“Bodies in Baskets” – Part A

C. Sergius Orata

Modern scholarship has tended to look more to Pliny’s account of Orata but for our purpose,  Valerius’ is the more valuable.   Pliny wrote later, and was a military gent and a friend of the Emperor Vespasian, highly conservative in the Roman fashion and inclined to think Orata ‘orientally’ sensual and venal: “not quite one of us”. This bias is vented by speaking of little but Orata’s  cultivating oysters (a little too close to the murex, perhaps?), and scarcely mentioning Orata’s fish-farming, on which Valerius concentrated. Nor does Valerius suggest a commercial motive as Pliny would do later.

Despite his name, Orata might indeed not have been quite ‘Roman’.  At the time when he was most active in Campania (the region of Capua and the Bay of Naples) it was still chiefly Greek and Samite.  Even a century later Strabo names  Naples among the few remaining bastions of civilisation in the peninsula, the rest having succumbed in one way or another to – as Strabo puts it – the barbarian Romans.

  • Strabo, Geographia  VI, 253 = VI.1.2)

The painter dresses Orata by combining conventions for an ‘oriental’  with faintly Byzantine overtones, but I do not think it due to his consulting any  eastern ‘Byzantine’ – nor relying on artistic imagination.

On Byzantine ‘Greeks’ in medieval western Europe, a good brief overview:

It seems to me that, the painter being provided with Pliny’s comments in addition to those of Valerius, misconstrued Pliny’s second-to-last sentence, having failed to notice that Orata was no longer the subject.  After a long passage about Orata, Pliny at the end shifts suddenly and swiftly from Orata,  by way of Licinus, Philip and Hortensius, to Lucullus – another fish-fancier of Naples, though omitting that name in his second-to-last sentence, which translates as:

 At which,  Pompey the Great called him “Roman Xerxes” in his long robe. 

Orata’s upper dress appears as if of shot silk,* and the ‘long robe’ is given by the painter to other eastern figures, including ‘Sardanapalus‘.  Thus the ‘Persian’ of Naples, Lucullus, becomes the ‘oriental’ and not-quite-Roman, Orata.  Yet the elegance with which the painter conveys by these means Orata’s social rank, ‘oriental’ tendency to luxury, and even a suggestion of the effete (the inclusion of a luxurious version of the Roman feminalia) is supremely elegant.  The reader expecting a literal and historically-correct ‘portrait’ will be disappointed, but those who are aware of the degree to which medieval imagery is less illustration of a text than its reiteration will see how easily the image committed to memory might then be ‘re-read’ – its several devices allowing cultured, impromptu remarks on the subjects of fish, baths, and Sergius Orata according to Valentius and to Pliny.

*as samite? By the late medieval period, samite had come to be “applied to any rich, heavy silk material which had a satin-like gloss”.

The sentences where Pliny shifts from discussing Orata also explain his concentrating on Orata’s oysters:  Pliny knew of Roman nobles who weren’t to be supposed ‘oriental’ or effete, and they (sadly misled) had also raised fish.

In those same days, but somewhat before Orata, Licinius Murena devised pools and stewes to keep and feed other types of fish, and his example being followed by certain noblemen , they did likewise – namely Philip and Hortensius.  Lucullus cut through a mountain near Naples for this purpose – that is, to bring an arm of the sea into his fish-pools, the cost of doing more than the house he had built.  At which,  Pompey the Great called him ” Roman Xerxes” in his long robe….

-which shows that Pompey knew his Herodotus. And that Pliny was thinking of the Bosporus in connection with this behaviour.

It is true that by conventions of Byzantine art, red boots were a mark of any eminent personage, including kings of whom nothing more was known than references in the Biblical narratives.

Red boots – Medes, Persians, Romans and Byzantines

A good, brief up-to-date account of Byzantine Greeks in early fifteenth-century Italy:

On the significance and history of red boots, which subject specialists in Roman history still debate with surprising warmth:

  • ***Maria G. Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography 11th-15th Centuries (Brill: 2003)***

Specifically for the controversy over red calceus mulleus, see Ryan’s notes:

  • Francis X. Ryan, Rank and Participation in the Republican Senate (1998) pp.55-6 and notes.
  • Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2  (1995) passim esp. pp. 161-168.

The boots given Orata may, or may not, be ‘Byzantine’ but his hat was never worn in Constantinople – or if ever, not after the 3rdC AD. It is another of those ‘speaking devices’, a conventional bit of visual shorthand, of a type widely used in medieval imagery.

Headwear of such a sort appears with variations in medieval art as token for the ‘easterner’ and, in this form, chiefly as sign of the eastern Egyptian or Jew.  The version shown (left) has its crown-like brim less strongly indented than Orata’s is, but this mounted figure is meant for a younger Moses, as prince of Egypt and overseer of Jews’ labour.  (Note that the roughly parallel lines used for the horses’ manes is not the technique we call ‘parallel hatching’).


discarding bad habits:Wrecking-rocks of literalism and the whirlpool of pareidolia.(900 wds)

In terms of iconography there is a major difference between the Voynich ‘ladies in barrels’ and the detail from that fifteenth century manuscript picturing Orata and the ‘bodies in baskets’.

A modern, western reader who has no Latin may well consider Orata’s hat and costume odd and the elevated tubs odder still, but it would not require group effort, for more than a century, to make sense of the image overall.  It is immediately plain  to us that we are to interpret those figures of men and women literally; that the tubs are to be read as bath-tubs, and whatever bewilderment might be felt about the purpose of that image, the image itself is comprehensible.  We do not speculate about whether, perhaps, Orata is sitting in a tent watching clouds pass and imagining them baskets.  We are not so bewildered by our inability to read its intended meaning that we resort to asserting it the work of a sex-crazed, foolish, immature, or deliberately deceitful person attempting wantonly to conceal from us the information to which we have no key within our existing range of knowledge and experience.

That so many, on realising their inability to read imagery in the Voynich manuscript, have resorted to such means to avoid admitting  nothing comes to mind which lets them make sense of a drawing or a diagram, and leads them to invent off-the-cuff excuses and rationalisations (even to the point of delusion in asserting that what is so plainly not an ordinary expression of medieval western culture IS an ordinary expression of Latin culture) simply expresses the normal range of human reactions when presented with something entirely unlike anything in the individual’s existing experience and mental repertoire. That Panofsky could not only recognise his own lack of comparisons but openly say so, is a remarkable thing; for a human being in general but for an eminent specialist in the field of medieval Latin art even more so.  He was not prevented from seeing accurately by any fear of losing face. That’s very rare.

As humans it is an innate and universal habit when confronted with a new thing, word or person to immediately hunt our range of knowledge for some comparison for it: this is how we learn language, identify faces in crowds and so on. It is how we learn a second language – by finding parallels from the one already known.  It is how we change a stranger’s status to that of friend: we liken their face, character or habits to ones familiar to us.   But when our existing repertoire returns a ‘null result’ to that instant and instinctive search, natural  responses veer  between panic, dislike, suspicion, self-deception or a feeling experienced as boredom-distaste, to (by far the rarest) an intelligent curiosity: a desire to widen our own repertoire to a point where the hitherto unparalleled phenomenon is contextualised and in that way becomes among things ‘familiar’ to us.  Consider how people react to a piece of abstract expressionism and you’ll get the idea.

Or perhaps a better illustration is the  way European scientists reacted on receiving the first specimen of an Australian platypus.  There was no one creature known to European science with which the creature could be compared, no genera or species to provide its context.   So the scientists (naturally) compared it, as best they could, with what they did feel comfortable with:  they saw the bill as a ‘duck’s bill’, the tail as ‘like a beaver’, the feet as ‘like an otter’… and concluded the specimen a fake, made by stitching together bits of a duck, a beaver and an otter. Naturally. Just so, those only comfortable with some aspect of European history and culture form their ‘Voynich theories’ within those same parameters, and then hunt only within their comfort zone (sometimes as limited as one medium and one small locality) for items which they might ‘match’ to some detail in the manuscript.

The aim in such cases is not to elucidate the original, but to claim it ‘not really unfamiliar’; stylistics are ignored; context; no effort made to explain (for example) a whole theme or even a whole diagram, detail by detail or to test theories or alleged matches against what is known about history or art or codicology or palaeography or …  anything else.  Classic example: the [so-called apothecary jar] container from the Vms supposedly ‘compared’ with the printed image of a German Christian ritual vessel. This is pareidolia. And over-literalism, too. It serves just one purpose, to offer a subliminal advertisement for a ‘Latin-German Christian’ theory. Which is not to say that whoever devised the ‘pairing’ did not believe it themselves. Comfort-zone.

Once the European scientists’ own horizons widened, once they set about to learn more, their personal, innate, instinctive, panic-responses ceased. They no longer needed to insist the thing was ‘really’ familiar, because they had worked to become familiar with the context in which it belonged in fact.  Since this understanding cured the ‘null’ reaction, the natural and essentially defensive responses were no longer needed. They could see the thing as it was without stress and without the equally instinctive urge to express hostility to the provider of that first disturbing specimen.  They stopped attacking his motives and character.  Such attacks, like inane ‘scoffing’ are common means to express hostility of such a kind, though one must admit that not a few Voynich narratives are amusing.

The way to pass safely between the Scylla of plodding literalism and the Charybdis of pareidolia is, simply,  to know more. Ask questions. Do the hard yards. Cross-examine yourself  at every step. Make yourself your best-informed and sternest critic.  Doesn’t matter if others think your ideas plausible. As Feynman says:

“It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are …[It doesn’t matter how many are willing to believe, either.]  If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”


What is not  explained about the image of Orata, by the words of Valerius nor of Pliny is why Orata’s “pensilia balinea” are here given the form of a basket woven from straw, or from  sea-grass or something of that sort. The detail shown (below, left) tells us that in medieval Latin Europe baskets of this type were known, but whether ever made so large as that in the Harley manuscript image we may never know; such objects rarely survive the centuries.

  • Terms for baskets in Latin and Old English are on a page at Wyrtg’s site.


“Pensilia balinea”

Most modern commentaries cross-reference Valerius’ pensilia balinea  with  Vitruvius‘ description of Roman baths, and take it that Orata’s invention was not “suspended baths”of the sort envisaged by the Harley image, but those piers (suspensura), sometimes of stacked blocks called suspensera, by which the floor of a Roman baths was ‘suspended’.

While I cannot follow Fagan in some of his enthusiasms, I think he has the right of it, and is in harmony with the fifteenth-century translator and illustrator, to the extent he says:

I believe that Orata’s … invention was used in connection with fish-raising rather than with human bathing. Orata was widely known as a fish-farmer, and may even have derived his cognomen from the practice. Tellingly, all the sources mentioning Orata [and] his pensiles balineae together strongly imply a connection between the device  and Orata’s fish-farming business; in fact, Orata and his pensiles balineae are never explicitly linked to baths for human use. Furthermore, Pliny’s notice appears in the general context of a section on men who invented fishponds….(p.59)

  • Garrett G. Fagan, Sergius Orata: Inventor of the Hypocaust?, Phoenix, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 56-66.
Short bibliography:
  • On Roman plumbing and suspensura see e.g.
    • Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Volume 4.
    • Vitruvius, di Architectura, Bk 5  10.2)

    Readers may also enjoy:

  • Janet DeLaine, ‘Some Observations on the Transition from Greek to Roman Baths in Hellenistic Italy’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 2 (1989), pp.111-125.
  • John Wilkes (ed.), Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 7 (1810)  is – of all places – the best for detailed description of traditional fishing methods.  on Tunny fishing  see p. 415

To the foregoing, I should like to add the suggestion that Valerius seems to have understood more clearly that Pliny ever did the implications of those efforts made by Lucullus and Orata; that around the Bay of Naples, infused as it was still with Greek heritage and culture, those  fish-breeders had as their model the landscape about Byzantion of Thrace (as it then was), whose natural abundance of fish is constantly discussed and marvelled over, described in extraordinary detail by several classical and late classical authors, including Strabo.   The other centre of the fish-trade –  apart from Campania – was Gades in Iberia, an old Phoenician stronghold. The coins of those cities, from centuries before Orata lived, to as late as the 3rdC AD, show the city’s character throughout the greater Mediterranean world by that means.  I might have taken a broader range of examples, but concentrate here on the period from the days of Orata (early 1stC BC) to that of Strabo  (64/63 BC – c. 24 AD), Pliny ( AD 23–79) and Dionysius of Byzantion (2ndC AD).

Strabo may be said to dilate on the theme of Byzantion’s abundance from the sea, but fish and gods are the whole tenor of Dionysius’  Anaplous of the Bosporus. Classed as a ‘geography’ it reads more like a manual and sailing guide for the god-fearing fisherman,  and since it will be important to understand how the region’s character was perceived in the general imagination, when Lucullus and Orata lived, as when Valerius, Pliny and Strabo wrote, I’ll quote a little from those two authors:  first from Dionysius and then from Strabo:

from Dionysius of Byzantion

§ 5 With the current breaking sharply near here, the largest part pushes on toward Propontis, but the gentle part conducive to fishing is received in the so-called Horn. This is the gulf beneath Bosporion headland, quite deep, more so than an anchorage, for it stretches for 60 stades, and safe as any harbor, with mountains and hills encircling it to block the winds, and further in with rivers that bring down deep, soft silt, at the mouth under the headland on which lies the City .[proving that Byzantion was a walled city before Constantine translated the capital of the Roman empire thence and renamed Byzantion ‘Constantinople’).

§ 6  The city has sea all around it except for the isthmus connecting it to the mainland….. That sea is deep close inshore, and with strong currents driven by the Pontic sea and the narrowness of the passage and the impact and refluxes that strike the city in a mass. It divides around the Bosporion headland, part of it flowing into the deep, fish-laden gulf and ends in slight, shallow landings. It is called Horn from the similarity of the shape. It surpasses a gulf in depth, as I said, and a harbour in convenience. For big mountains surround it protecting it from the violence of the winds ….

§ 36Bolos, with a rich winter fishery, on which is a precinct of Artemis Phosphoros (lightbearer) and Aphrodite Praeia (mild), to whom the the Byzantines* customarily sacrifice. For she is believed to store up the favorability of the wind, calming and suppressing the excessive disturbance they cause.

* ‘Byzantines’ here means people under the rule of Thracian Byzantion.

§ 37 The next place, Ostreodes (oystery), is named from the occurrence. For an underwater reef is formed at sea, whitened by the multitude of oysters, and the bottom is visible, especially in calm weather. The place grows back what is consumed, so the use is so to say profligate, and oyster beds rival the fishery in value.

§92 After Chelai is the place called Hieron, which was built by Phrixus, son of Nephele and Athamas, when he sailed to Colchis, a place indeed owned by the Byzantines, but a common haven to all who sail. ….

and this next item, more than oysters, could be why C. Sergius received the cognomen ‘Orata’:

§ 93.  In the sanctuary is a bronze statue of ancient work, a young man stretching out his hands in front of him.

Many explanations are given for why this statue is composed this way; some say it is a sign of the boldness of sailors, deterring reckless navigation into danger and showing the happiness and reverence of those who return safely. For neither is without its terror. Others say that a boy wandering on shore returned shortly after his ship had left the port, and, overcome by despair for his safety, stretched his hands up to heaven, but that the god heard the prayers of the boy and returned the ship to port. Others say that on the occasion of a great calmness of the sea, while every wind was still and a ship was long delayed, its sailors were struggling under the scarcity of the port’s supplies. Whereupon a vision appeared to the captain, ordering the captain to sacrifice his own son, since by no other means could the voyage and the winds resume. But at the moment when the captain, being compelled by necessity, was ready to sacrifice the boy, it is said that the boy stretched out his hands, and that the god, moved by pity at the senseless punishment of the boy or by the boy’s youth, took up the boy and sent a favourable wind. Let each judge as he likes whether these or the contrary are credible.

  • from the translation by Brady Kiesling from the Greek/Latin edition of Carolus Wechser, Anaplous Bosporou. Dionysii Byzantii De Bospori navigatione quae supersunt (1874).  The English translation is online [TOPOS]. Wechser’s Greek/Latin edition digitised at


And so one sees the inference in Pliny’s treatment of Lucullus’ changing the landscape near Naples creating as it were a new ‘Hellespont’ that cost  more than his palace, and created another ‘golden horn’ as sheltered arm of the sea.  Similarly, by knowing Strabo’s text, the parallel is clear for Valerius’ description of Otata’s engineered landscape: “He separated shoals of  diverse sorts of fish within the large circuits of vast Moles..[and] burdened the hitherto unpopulated banks of Lake Lucrinus with stately high structures, so he might keep his shell-fish fresh..”  A Byzantium in miniature.

from Strabo

Now the distance from the headland that makes the strait only five stadia wide to the harbour which is called “Under the Fig-tree” (medieval Pera, now Galata)  is thirty-five stadia; ….  The Horn, which is close to the wall of the Byzantines, is a gulf that … is split into numerous gulfs — branches, as it were.The  pelamydes  [‘tunny’] rush into these gulfs and are easily caught — because of their numbers, the force of the current that drives them together, and the narrowness of the gulfs; in fact, because of the narrowness of the area, they are even caught by hand.
Now these fish are hatched in the marshes of Lake Maeotis, …and move along the Asian shore as far as Trapezus and Pharnacia. It is here that the catching of the fish first takes place, though the catch is not considerable.. .But when they reach Sinope, they are mature enough for catching and salting.Yet when once they touch the Cyaneae and pass by these, the creatures take such fright at a certain white rock which projects from the Chalcedonian shore that they forthwith turn to the opposite shore.  There they are caught by the current, and since at the same time the region is so formed by nature as to turn the current of the sea there to Byzantium and the Horn at Byzantium, they naturally are driven together thither and thus afford the Byzantines and the Roman people considerable revenue.     

Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter 6.


At this point in the log is a note that questions of continuity between the Roman and the medieval trade have already been treated..

Short bibliography
  • Robert I Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (Brill: 1991)

If any reader shares my fascination for technicalities, they might also enjoy:

  • James Arnold Higginbotham,  Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (University of North Carolina Press: 1997) though I should add that it hasn’t any relevance to study of Beinecke Ms 408.


That the texts of Strabo, and of Dionysius of Byzantion were still known and copied in Constantinople during the early fourteenth century  is proven by the deservedly famous Vatopedi manuscript,  a complation of texts from major and minor classical authors describing the sea-routes of the Black Sea, Red Sea and to as far as England.  It is difficult to think other than the compilation was made for contemporary needs, and these may have included the needs of foreigners resident in the enclaves of Pera and within Constantinople, wanting to know those routes. Diller’s study of the Vatopedi remains a standard reference.

  • Aubrey Diller, ‘The Vatopedi Manuscript of Ptolemy and Strabo’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1937), pp. 174-184.
  • Codex Vaticanus 2061. – includes text from Strabo, Geographia  on leaves 235, 237, 240, 243, 244, 246-249, 251-253, 310-315. 20.5 by 20.3. Taken to the Vatican library in the 17thC from the monastery of St. Mary of Patirium, a suburb of Rossano in Calabria.

Postscript: The two masters of theology who translated Valerius’ Facta et Dicta held degrees at the highest level offered at that time in western Europe.  It can be presumed, then, that they were well aware of post-classical and Christian associations for bathing.  For the medieval Christian these would certainty include association with baptism and with marriage. For a brief explanation see  Isidore of Seville,  Etymologiae VI.xix.41; IX.vii.8.


detail from a map originally part of the Vatopedi manuscript. Now in the British Library.


2 minor typos corrected – 17th Sept. 2019.


Skies above Pt 4: Past studies

Two previous:

Header image : Composite (left) Seal of KIng Sancho IV (1230 AD); (centre) Medieval gateway to the Jews’ quarter in Burgos – detail of a photo by Mikel Bilbao Gorostiaga; (right) detail from folio di Biblioteca Vaticana Apostolica (BAV)


THIS series about the month-diagrams will keep the usual format so readers can skim, or skip or read as suits them.  The order in which the themes are treated will be that of  my research-logs and summaries, written up between 2008-2017.

Present state of study

Today, theories focused on ‘naming the author’ are less prevalent than they were, but discussion of the month-diagrams continues to circle the narrow circuit it did  half a century ago, and whose furlong posts (one cannot call them milestones) are summarised below.  Failure to move forward is not  due to those fifty-year old ideas and impressions having proven true from a balance of evidence, but because tradition and repetition lends them greater credence than is deserved by any evidence adduced then or since.

Rather embarrassingly one still finds even today that assumptions infusing d’Imperio’s book of half a century ago remain unquestioned – ‘givens’ – within the study.  Among these tacitly accepted notions is that any non-Latin (western Christian) matter could occur in this manuscript only because selected by some Latin ‘gatekeeper’;  that the astronomical learning of Jews or of others save those who wrote in Arabic can be relevant only in the context of magic, astrology and other non-objective systems – and even then as imagined subject to Latin mediation.  Thus, for example, Panofsky’s reference to Kabbalah is transformed into an assumption of magical and not philosophical thought and only discussed through the prism of post-1492 works of Latin magic and  ‘Christian Cabala’.

Similarly, though the Arabs’ “lunar mansions” system has been mentioned now and then, the usual habit has been to limit discussion to what appears of it in Latin works, and to again consider it chiefly in terms of works directly related to Latin interest in astrology and magic.

There may be more serious efforts underway to investigate other possibilities apart from the theory of fifteenth-century Latin authorship and mediation, but if so they have had little effect on the culture of the ‘Voynich community’ in public.   I might say here that after having shared some of the research conducted over almost a decade, and with the kind advice and guidance of specialists in a number of areas, including Jewish scholarship,  publication of a certain work whose authors were two well-known Voynicheros, and another less well known,  and in which was included a so-called ‘Jewish theory’ which I can only describe as a parody or travesty in its abysmal ignorance of its supposed subject, and such utter indifference to fact and to cultural sensitivities that it was one of the reasons which led me to  close Voynichimagery to the public, deciding to share no more original work online except as a formal paper.

Koen Gheuens’ investigation of the  Voynich-style “lobster” in Latin works is a fine exception to the usual pre-emptive approach and offers the best evidence I know for arguing the diagrams’ central emblems relate to a tropical zodiac.

I should add that Muslim theology does consider the manazil [-al Qamar] primarily astrological in character, which view is widely found online  ( e.g. here). In English-language scholarship, it informs the works of Daniel Varisco as e.g.

  • Daniel Varisco, ‘The Origin of the anwā’ in Arab Tradition’, Studia Islamica, No. 74 (1991), pp. 5-28.

Marco Ponzi has more recently, and the present author had earlier, mentioned Pingree’s important paper in an effort to widen horizons a little.

  •  David Pingree. ‘The Indian Iconography of the Decans and Horâs’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (1963), pp. 223-254


Following the summary below,  I’ll take folio 70v as paradigm when considering the ‘barrels’.  Folio 70v  provides one ‘barrel’ for each of the anthropoform figures, and shows least evidence of later alteration, addition, editing or ‘modernisation’.

The Diagrams’ Structure

In 1932, though unknown to the majority of those interested in the ‘Bacon cipher manuscript” as it was still known, there was a moment when the fog of  speculation and over-confident assertions lifted for a moment and, for the first time, a specific comparison was made between an image in the Voynich manuscript and one in another text.  Readers may recall  Anne Nill‘s saying, of Panofsky: “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript, [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”

1932: Analogies. .

Wilfrid Voynich’s: #ff0000;”>Roger Bacon.  Lynn Thorndike objected to that assertion of Baconian authorship,  but never opposed the dating.  Today it remains a reasonable opinion that the manuscript we have is a fifteenth-century copy whose nearest exemplar/s might have been thirteenth-century.WIlfrid’s idea that the text is in cipher still has its advocates, but the point is that until the period post WWII, the usual view was that the manuscript’s content was about ‘Science’.   Newbold appears to have believed that some of the material, at least, might relate to Neo-Platonic ideas, but no researcher seems to have followed him in that opinion, or even examined the evidence for and against it.In this way, the earlier habit was to suppose the month-diagrams concerned scientific astronomy or ‘scientific’ (i.e. medical) astrology, the astrology-or-astrology option being standard then. Those ideas brought with them, as natural corollaries, the Greco-Roman system of divisions, and assumption of the tropical zodiac as default (whether in terms of the constellations or the ‘signs’).  Before the post-WWII period, few authors considered, or appear to have been aware of any alternatives.  Panofsky’s opinion may be interpreted in the same way,  but it carried other implications.
“Alfonso’s manuscript”

By “Alfonso’s manuscript” it is usually supposed Panofsky meant either Libros del saber de astronomía (Books of Wisdom of Astronomy) or  Libro de los juicios de las estrellas (Book of Judgements of Astrology), with the former the more probable.The question then is which copy he meant by ‘Alfonso’s manuscript.’King Alfonso X of Castile did not compose the Libros… (though his name serves, still, for  ‘gate-keeper’).  As the  modern title suggests,the Libros del saber… is a compilation, and we now know it was made in Burgos at the king’s command, and by Jewish scholars who translated works from their languages of Aramaic and Arabic.  Aramaic remained in use among Jews as a language of religious advice and commentary. In the eastern Mediterranean, Aramaic had been widely spoken but with the Muslim conquests was gradually supplanted by Arabic as the language of everyday life.Cross-Mediterranean trade, however, long maintained Greek as  lingua franca, and this was so too among Mediterranean Jews before the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language – c.10thC. On the matter of Aramaic, see for example:

In Arabic-speaking lands, “It is known that at an early age Jewish boys had to memorize the Aramaic translation of the weekly reading from the Hebrew Bible, and in order to understand the Hebrew original as well as its Aramaic translation, they had to memorize the Arabic translation verse by verse…. This popular background was obviously shared by Karaites and Rabbanites alike.

  • Meira Polliack, ‘The Medieval Karaite Tradition of Translating the Hebrew Bible into Arabic: Its Sources, Characteristics and Historical Background’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Jul., 1996), pp. 189-196. (quoted from p.193).

I am not concerned with linguistics. If any reader’s interest is piqued by mention of Aramaic,  Michael Sokoloff‘s work is perhaps the best place to start, but readers may want to  consider Koen Gheuens’ recent work on ‘type to token’ ratios first.  The following papers are listed, not as key texts in linguistics but because each proved either fascinating, or useful, or both.  For an instant widening of horizons, the first paper is warmly recommend to all readers.

Bibliography – Aramaic-related.

  • *Alexander Kulik, ‘Jews from Rus in Medieval England’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 102, No. 3 (Summer 2012) 371-403.*
  • Peter T. Daniels, ‘A Calligraphic Approach to Aramaic Paleography’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 55-68. In the best scholarly tradition, Daniel begins by giving the reader an outline of, and references to, previous studies on the subject.
  • David M. Bunis, Judezmo: The Jewish Language of the Ottoman Sephardim:  European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 44, No. 1, The State of Ladino Studies II (Spring 2011), pp. 22-35.
  •  Charlotte Hallavant and Marie-Pierre Ruas, ‘The first archaeobotanical evidence of Spinacia oleracea L. (spinach) in late 12th—mid 13th century A.D. France; Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, Vol. 23, No. 2 (March 2014), pp. 153-165. [A history of the dissemination of spinach. My only excuse for including this item from concurrent research into the plant-pictures, and apart from intrinsic interest is that before reaching France, spinach had come first to Iberia, and apparently straight from Mesopotamia, where in the 4thC a work written in Aramaic mentions the plant. – D.]
  • Kottsieper and Peter Stein, ‘Sabaic and Aramaic — a common origin?’,  Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Vol. 44, Supplement: Language of
    Southern Arabia: Papers from the Special Session of the Seminar for Arabian Studies held on 27 July 2013 (2014), pp. 81-87.
  • John C. Reeves, ‘Manichaica Aramaica? Adam and the Magical Deliverance of Seth’. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1999), pp.432-439.
  • Avihai Shivtiel, ‘Judaeo- Romance and Judaeo-Arabic Word-list from the Genizah’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, April 2007  34(1), 63-74.
  • Maud Kozodoy, ‘Medieval Hebrew Medical Poetry: Uses and Contexts’, Aleph , Vol. 11, No. 2 (2011), pp. 213-288. Considers 12th-14thC works from Latin (Christian) Iberia.
  • Michael Sokoloff and Joseph Yahalom, ‘Aramaic Piyyuṭim [liturgical poems] from the Byzantine Period’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jan., 1985), pp. 309-321. [More interesting than the title might suggest].
  • Geoffrey Khan, ‘The Neo-Aramaic Dialect Spoken by Jews from the Region of Arbel (Iraqi Kurdistan)  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1999), pp. 213-225.


Los Libros.. was made in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The original manuscript is lost and the earliest copy remaining is in the library of the Complutense University in Madrid. (note – 2019 – I had earlier thought this the copy Panofsky meant by ‘Alfonso’s manuscript’ but now think the Vatican copy the more likely).

Textual and iconological precedents and/or exemplars for the Libros has been treated by numerous scholars, but chiefly in the context of Alfonso’s reign and other works produced for him.   Of course, as  Panofsky surely knew the text’s origins lay elsewhere.

Manuscript copies of the Libros

The original is lost.  The  copy of Libros del saber de astronomia  in the Complutense University collection is early, dated 1278 AD, It was made in Burgos.

Others held in Spain:

  • Madrid, National Library of Spain Mss 1197  Tratados de Alfonso X sobre astrología y sobre las propiedades de las piedras  (1501 to 1600?).  (ascription ‘Alfonso X’)
  • Madrid, National Library of Spain, Mss  3306  Colección de libros relativos a astrología y astronomía, (1401 to 1600).  (digitised, Biblioteca Nacional de España , Biblioteca Digital Hispánica). Title on the binding ‘Astrologia de los Arabes’. Explanatory technical diagrams executed in monochrome, those in the later section very fine.


N.B. Access. Warburg and Panofsky.

An important check to all speculations is the practical matter of access.

With regard to the Libros… Laura Fernandez Fernandez says it well:

The Book of Wisdom of Astrology was copied for centuries. However, because it was not printed until the 19th century, its dissemination was markedly scarce, available only
to those who had access to the original or any of its copies. Thanks to the edition by Manuel Rico y Sinobas (1876) the work was ultimately made known, adapted to the intellectual scene of the 19th century, under the title Libros del Saber de Astronomía (Books of Wisdom of Astronomy).

  • L. Fernandez Fernandez, ‘ Libro del saber de astrología’,  Masterworks: Science and Art in the Museums and Libraries of Madrid, (2013). Parallel Spanish and English text.

Fernandez Fernandez is not implying that hundreds of copies were made through hundreds of years, but that  such copies as were made were made over a long period of time.

There are not many extant. Most are still in Spain,where the oldest known copy is in the library of the Complutense University.

Panofsky did not specify which manuscript he meant, and  various writers (including, earlier, the present writer) supposed he must mean the Complutense manuscript, but there is more reason to think he had seen reproductions from the Vatican (BAV) copy to which Aby Warburg was introduced in 1911.  Aviles’ paper of 1996 is helpful here.


Vatican copy (introduced to Aby Warburg in 1911)

Among secondary references listed in the BAV I would recommend:.

Four years afterwards and in Hamburg, Warburg mould meet the newly-graduated Erwin Panofsky.  Their association, and the disruptions of war, make it probable that Panofsky’s knowledge of the Libros was due to Warburg.   The influence of the one scholar on the other has been much discussed in the literature but was neatly surveyed and commented on by Elizabeth Seer‘s lecture, now uploaded at

As with other works whose origin lay in the eastern Mediterranean, those translated at Alfonso’s command had  entered Europe quite easily.  Among others which had influenced Latin thought but had their origins beyond mainland Europe and without the confines of Christian culture,  Aratus’ Phaenomena, the matter in Manilius’ Astronomica and Theophrastus’ works on plants were among the best known, even if Theophrastus’ work was regularly mis-attributed.

Dead-ends: Libro de las formas… and Picatrix

Among the lines investigated but found to be ‘dead ends’ were  Libro de las formas et de las ymagenes, and the woefully confused images in extant Latin copies of the Picatrix.*  I expect some readers will have suspected the same after my reference to the Jagelonian Picatrix in the previous post.  I confess I’m at a loss to understand why the Picatrix should so often crop up in Voynich writings and can only suggest it may be due to d’Imperio’s having mentioned it and that a copy (now in Darmstadt) was once in Rudolf II’s library – as Pingree notes in his critical edition of the Latin text.


The Libros – Excised and Modified; re-creating the central emblems …

Diagrams  in copies of the Libros differ from copy to copy, as one might expect, but the difference is so strongly pronounced with regard to the central emblems used for diagrams (see examples further below), that one has the impression each copyist was obliged to find exemplars for himself. 

One might posit that changing fashions in art are responsible, but since the oldest known copy, the Complutense, at some time had the majority of its central emblems excised, its having been the chief exemplar would seem more likely.Copyists would then have to find sources from which to complete each diagram, and the remaining copies show an effort made to use ‘antique’ emblems.The copy now in the BAV omits several of the diagrams altogether.  Among the few surviving in the  Complutense is that for the ‘two fishes’, yet the Pisces roundel is among those omitted in the BAV manuscript.In another copy (below right) the emblem owes most to Islamic style of centuries earlier, so again combining an ‘antique’ image with the modernisation evident from the background.N.B. This combination of ‘antique-ing’ and modernisation is echoed by the Voynich month-diagrams, though not equally throughout the series.  This is no evidence that those in the Vms were derived from the Complense or any other copy of the Libros but does permit the more general suggestion that, in these cases, censorship might be responsible.We have comments and drawings found in manuscripts of various sorts – including medicinal herbals –  which express disapproval for ‘heretical’ sources, some speaking explicitly of obedience in censoring specific matter – but the subject is to large to embark on its details here.
comparison of figures for Pisces in earlier and later versions
details (cont.)

IN 2010 the present writer gave it as her opinion – not as hypothesis but as the conclusion of research – that the central emblems in the Voynich diagrams represent a late phase in the text’s development, and that while most of the content appears to have arrived in the Latin domain by about 1330 AD, these emblems are among those added later ,closer to when the present manuscript was produced, and by re-employing images from a Latin source which she estimated as c.10thC in date, and possibly from Fleury.

If we could be certain about why the centres were excised from the Complutense ms, it would surely  shed more light on the nature of the emblems in the (now lost) original.  The excisions here may be due to reasons as simple as that an old manuscript was cannibalised for models to be used in the scriptorium, or stolen by someone who liked the look of them (not unknown), but given that  Panofsky also thought the Voynich imagery contained ‘something of Cabala’ one must also consider the possibility that the original emblems were removed because they showed evidence of similar esoteric Jewish themes.

Historically, the idea is consistent with what we know occurred in late medieval Iberia. A situation of that sort offers one possible explanation for the disparity between the Voyinch diagrams and their emblems, the result of which has been a disparity in their legibility for a modern western audience; the emblem is formed according to  conventions of western Europe’s visual language and more generally that of the Mediterranean world; as a result it seems easily legible while the rest of the diagram does not.  A modern reader of European heritage (direct or otherwise) interprets at first glance the image of a balance, yet is bemused by an oddly-shaped female figure in a container which could as easily be meant for a tower as a basket or tub.  This is not a draughtsman’s idiosyncratic drawing; it is a drawing whose meaning depends on a set of ideas and associations (a ‘visual language’) not our own.


Kabbalah – spelling for the word. Angelic hierarchies. Burgos and Girona.

Any researcher soon becomes aware of wide variation in the way ‘Kabbalah’ is spelled.  The writer is grateful to  Yerachmiel Tilles for posting on the subject:

If Panofsky was thinking of the culture among thirteenth century Jews in Iberia, he may have been inclined to suppose the diagrams in Los Libros…  explained the basic plan for the Voynich month-diagrams, but that its tiered figures were owed to a different Iberian-Jewish source. Even so, the ‘ladies’ in this section are not drawn in the way Jewish figures were – not even when Adam and Eve, or bathing figures, were the subject.  The Jewish works show conscious and consistent avoidance of imagery which might distract a reader into regarding human forms chiefly in terms of their sex: to put it another way they are consistently modest, as a person might remain modest in depicting children. It was this aspect of the ‘ladies’, I think, which also bothered Panofsky, who describes them as ‘shapely’ and who, for that reason, assigned them to the fifteenth-century. Panofsky, too, was a man of his time;  he too thought in terms of an ‘author’ and was inclined to date the content, as if it were an autograph, by the latest characteristics observed.

Studies in Kabbalah in thirteenth century Iberia are primarily associated with medieval Gerona (mod. Girona) but  Kabbalah was also influential in Burgos, whose Jewish scholars translated so much of the Libros .

For Kabbalists of Gerona and Burgos at that time, see:

And as the complex vision of the celestial hierarchy entered western Christendom from a non-canonical source (Pseudo-Dionysos), so too its suffusion through Jewish medieval thought was owed to the non-canonical Jewish works of Kabbalah.

It was also contrary to Jewish custom to depict angels winged, or figures which were half-human and half animal.  It is to Jews of the eastern Mediterranean that the west owes its depiction of Sagittarius as a fully human, striding or standing bowman. In the opinion of the present writer, the most probable means by which it came west to be represented in glass within early works of the then-new Opus Francigenum is that it came along with the red glass tesserae and perhaps also with workmen from the region of Lake Tiberius and from Tyre.

Though the present author’s citing, in that context ,the zodiac from Beth Alpha was met with indifference or assertions of its irrelevance at the time, one now sees the same mosaic (minus any of the accompanying historical and cultural notes, or the point in citing it) reproduced in various Voynich writers’ contributions to the study.

But to return to the question of possible influence from Kabbalah – this cannot explain the style in which the ‘ladies’ are drawn, and offers no immediate explanation for their ‘barrels’ either.  Reference to Jewish custom, more generally, might bear an argument that the tiered ‘ladies’ were meant for angels but since they are not winged, they can scarcely be other than Jewish angels or pre-Christian equivalents.  On the other hand, we have examples of the term ‘angel’ being used in other senses, as a bishop’s being described as the angel of the region under his guidance.  If we were to suppose such a case for the tiered ‘ladies’ however, we could only suppose them to represent locations; it is inconceivable that early Christian practice could be to signify a bishop by means of a naked female form.

Any later argument that the ‘ladies’ are tiered Christian angels must refer to a diagram which survives only in a late copy of a text not composed until a century after the Voynich manuscript was made.


First phases of a ‘Christian Cabala’: Thenaud and François I.


Two generations after the Voynich manuscript was made, a certain Jean Thenaud was born in Pitou.

Joining the Franciscan order of friars in adulthood, he travelled widely, and composed works for the edification of princes. At the command of François I he wrote an Introductory Treatise to Cabala, dedicating this to Francis in 1516.

The image of tiered angels (detail, above) if not known in any copy earlier than that made twenty years later (1536) – that is, a century after the Voynich manuscript was made.  As a Christian work, it provides angels with wings, of course, and one suspects their being enveloped in a red mist may be due to the Christian users’ feeling a needed to distinguish ‘Jewish Angels’ from the celestial hierarchy of a Christian blue heaven.  Despite this image’s late date, the context allows a possibility that it relates to some precedent from within genuine works of Kabbalah.  If it should be so – and for reasons I won’t enlarge on here – it may (as the Geneva image does) clarify  the degree to which Kabbalah was influential in fourteenth-century Majorca and its Jewish cartographic school, from which came a number of works made for, or intended for Charles V of France. 

Whether  Panofsky ever saw the Geneva copy of Thenaud’s treatise, I don’t know. I should add that when I first noted the image above and spoke of it,  I had found no earlier reference to it in Voynich writings to that time.  Though the ‘find’ met no overt response, I expect some readers did take note of it, and perhaps took copies for their file too.  It is a pity that none thought to ask why exactly I found it worth our attention.


Other ‘Spanish’ suggestions – Manley and Llull.

Nill said, in the same letter quoted above, that  John Manly had already suggested Spanish (- more exactly Catalanic -)  ” that might be something Lullian in it” …

Llull’s organisation of knowledge, and so of logic, is widely known.  Readers might enjoy:

  • Umberto Eco, ‘On Llull Pico and Llullism’ in his  From the Tree to the Labyrinth (2014)

For the idea that Lull was influenced by (or even knew of) Kabbalah, readers should need no more than the wiki article’s paragraph.


Technicalities: Stylistics + Language

A point regularly overlooked is that, while attempts to argue by ‘matching the picture’ may be valid when stylistics are taken into account, they are invalid if an image is defined only by some object perceived in it.

That becomes obvious if considered in any real-world and non-Voynich context.

No-one would claim that a fresco in which the Virgin Mary was shown, seated, must be Spanish for no better reason than that a Spanish icon was set beside it and that too showed the Virgin seated.

Style of drawing and the contexts matter.

Informing language is also important.  Most of us retain concepts  by means of words, and links between concepts are also, for most of us, conveyed in words.It is very difficult for anyone who has acquired language to set about drawing say, a cat, without first thinking the word ‘cat’. A cartoon punning on the (late) Shah of Iran by making the figure half feline would immediately suggest to us (quite apart from context and drawing style) that the first maker may have spoken French and intended the image as a visual pun addressed to Francophone audience.

Such an impression may then guide research, and may prove the key indicator of origin, but until deeper enquiry confirms or denies, it remains just a ‘guess’.The search must be aimed at finding  stylistic customs and linguistic disposition occurring together, and in a way that accords with the problematic image.

I do not think that the Libros images do this.  It may have been Panofsky’s opinion that they do but if so, he did not express himself so strongly. Again, I do not think the celestial hierarchy image in the later copy of Thenaud’s Introductory Treatise can be argued, retrospectively, an explanation for the Voynich month-diagrams.  Others, maintaining a strictly ‘Latin European’ theme, and following d’Imperio’s focus on seventeenth-century ‘Christian Kabbalah’ may be inclined to differ.


It was at about this point in my own research that I turned again to that hint, earlier mentioned, that the first enunciator of the month-diagrams was comfortable thinking in Greek.

To be fair to any prospective revisionist, I feel that I must include something of my own findings about the ‘barrels’ because it opened the way to matters which had not been earlier considered and which I had closed Voynichimagery before mentioning.

The initial problem – research question- here was whether there might exist some chain of connection between one or more of the following: the ‘little stars’ in a Greek thought (aster-asteriskos), the older (Hellenistic) period as e.g. Nicander’s allusion to the star-flower with its hint of association with deities and the dead and so on.  Might the tiered figures in these folios have originally ‘spoken in Greek’?

To that line of enquiry, added to from time to time, I would be brought eventually to the period of closest contact between Byzantine and Latin; from grants of trader’s quarters around the Golden Horn and Pera, and around Trebizond, to the much closer connection established as (literally) thousands of Greek-speaking inhabitants from the eastern Mediterranean sought refuge in the west, and chiefly if not only around Venice and the Veneto.

The Voynich map’s “castle”, by the way, represents Constantinople/ Pera as approached by sea, a conclusion aided not only by detailed analysis of that folio but by the ancillary research into the month-diagrams and other elements in the manuscript.

Figures in “barrels” – Introduction

In 1375, a certain Simon de Hesdin, a Knight Hospitaller of Jerusalem and Master of Theology, began work on a translation of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta for Charles V of France, but Charles died with the work unfinished and Simon followed him only three years’ later, by which stage the translation had been completed only as far as the end of Book 7, Chapter 4.

It seems then to have been put aside for some time, but in 1400-1401, another Master of Theology (and of Arts),  Nicolas de Gonesse completed the translation and in the custom of the time doubtless oversaw the painter’s efforts.  With its few illustrations added, the whole was then presented to the Duc de Berry who had its use until his own death in c.1416.  The manuscript [from which the detail comes is a later fifteenth-century copy] now in the British Library as  MS Harley 4375/3. [edit to replace dropped text – 6th. Sept. 2019]

( As far as I could discover, when posting this image in 2017, it had never before come to notice among Voynich writers.  I daresay that situation may have changed now).  I closed Voynichimagery soon after, before explaining the reasons I thought this picture worth notice.

Harley MS 4375/3 (1473 AD -c. 1480 AD) Valerius Maximus, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, 

The paintings have been attributed to  ‘Maître François’ though – elsewhere –  Maître François has been tentatively identified with François le Barbier [or François Le Barbier] pè̀re [father], active 1455-ca. 1480 , which would discount an earlier date for the painting shown above.

Past experience warns me against publishing online only a summary of evidence and my conclusions from original research, so what I shall do for  the rest of this series, dear reader, is to have you look on, as it were, while I turn from one section to another in my logs and summaries.  The order of presentation should give you a clearer and straighter road than in fact I travelled, but that’s only fair: not everyone enjoys the process so much as the result.