The skies above

I was to pick up again after the ‘Weed seeds’ post, but have seen a comment to Koen Gheuens blog, in which four items are described as ‘indisputable facts’ though not one is a fact, and the only sense in which they are ‘indisputable’ is that to dispute them is rarely encouraged.

Among the four is the idea, repeated since 1932, that diagrams on folios 70v (part)* to 73v inclusive are ‘astrological’.

Now plainly an item of ‘Voynich doctrine’ it surely another among those deserving reevaluation in the light of current external scholarship.

N.B. Foliations: re “folio x (part)”

Before the Beinecke’s repagination of the manuscript a few years ago,  scholars used the foliation (page numbering) appearing on the folios themselves. Members of the first mailing list perforce developed their own system of reference before the manuscript was available online or in facsimile.  Still others were employed during the early 2000s, including that offered by the   ‘Voynich Gallery’ site on bibliotecaplayades.  Any revisionist surveying the history of this study is well advised to make and keep by them a comparative table of foliations.



Whether or not it is ever proven true that these diagrams were intended to serve astrology, the perception of them as ‘astrological’ owes less to their structure, or to their inscriptions’ being understood as they are not yet, nor to any learned opinion so much as to certain attitudes pervasive in England and central Europe during the nineteenth- and earlier twentieth centuries.

Without suggesting for a moment that any present-day Voynichero subscribes to those attitudes, certain methods and angles of approach have been inherited from that earlier period –  embedded , so to speak, in the territory – and these have frozen the limits within which (as any newcomer soon learns) posited comparisons are expected to be sought, treated and classified.

To the newcomer having prior  training in medieval studies, techniques of iconological analysis, or in the history of comparative astronomies and so forth it may seem curious – even quaint – that long superseded methods and habits are maintained in Voynich writings.  As, for example, that any and all reference to the stars in this manuscript continues to be presumed either ‘science’ or  ‘superstition;’ the one overtly or tacitly identified with Europe’s mathematical astronomy and the other with magic or astrology  in a simple binary scheme more characteristic of nineteenth-century popular history than twenty-first century scholarship.

I do not mean to imply that all Voynich writers are ignorant or unlearned; the opposite is manifestly true of many.  Rather, that on entering the Voynich portal, the wider world and its current standards of scholarship is expected to be set aside, or at least only referred to within the frame of a conservative ‘Voynich’ model.

That outmoded habits and methods are perceived within this study as ‘standard’ or ‘commonsense’ is most reasonably attributed, in the first instance, to their having been inherited along with the conservative model in general, by emulating d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, or e.g. Professor Brumbaugh’s writings of the 1960s and ’70s.

Some of those ‘old-fashioned’ methods and attitudes are described below for newcomers. Others may not need the information. Perhaps I should also make clear that not every Voynich writer currently engaged in this study is a conservative, let alone one of the deepest dye.


The methodological legacy.


1. ‘Scientific or Magical’. (540 wds)

Though many self-professed amateur Voynicheros know perfectly well that medieval writers did not observe so clear a distinction as we do now between astronomy and astrology, the habit persists of supposing that binary classification will do: “scientific or magical”,  to quote the Beinecke catalogue record.  Historically, the idea was – with regard to the heavens –  that  ‘science’ was defined as Europe’s mathematical astronomy while ‘superstition (magic or astrology) in terms of a foreign intrusion from ‘oriental’ minds, with the most relaxed sort of histories from before WWII not rarely mentioning warmer climate along with  imagined ‘racial predisposition’ as chief causes of ‘superstition’ .  The Greeks’ contribution to astrology was accepted, but granted the status of a quasi-science. No such latitude was granted others as, for example, the Jews. Arab ‘science’ was (as it were) granted a European visa, but Arab ‘magic’ not so much. Christian religious imagery was by tacit consent left unclassified in those terms.

Why  writings of the last century should adopt a simple ‘either-or’ –  “science or superstition”  is well understood.   Persistence of the same simple classification in Voynich writings, is, as I’ve said, better supposed due to the conservatives’ taking as their model for research a few secondary studies  written half a century ago.

Unfortunately, their emulating earlier methods and taking as first premises the speculations and assumptions of those earlier works has been to the disadvantage of more recent researchers, as the conservative grip on the study has increased and the  gulf has widened between the older and more recent understanding of relevant subjects, apart from studies directly concerned with linguistics and statistical analysis of the written text.

In the present case, for example, one sees a complete absence of any reference to various other forms of astronomical learning or its  art which are not to be classed as either  ‘science’ or ‘superstition’ (without india-rubber re-definition) and yet which have received a great deal of scholarly attention  since the 1930s  – and particularly since the 1960s – and are thus now well within the usual parameters of provenance-aimed research into ‘star-littered’ imagery.

Here we might mention images, both conceptual and realised in word or line,  which relate to navigational astronomy,  astronomical moralia,  poetry, memorised agricultural calendars of Mediterranean and of non-Mediterranean origin,  the stars as perceived in the monastic hours and  annual liturgical rosters (not only the Latins’),  not to mention literary metaphor,  proverb,  and so forth.   I add one illustration by way of example and without implying any theory.  This shows a star-clock for the month of March.  This physical diagram post-dates the Voynich manuscript and comes from a Latin author; the conceptual model and informing knowledge pre-dates the Voynich manuscript and was not exclusively Latin.  I cited these diagrams first a  few years ago at voynichimagery.

Reaction to any  introduction of such hitherto unconsidered material – even the odd recommendation of some article – can bring an immediate and passionately adverse reaction from certain individuals in the  ‘conservative’ camp, who appear to consider such things red herrings, introduced from ignoble motives by lesser minds, and it is not unknown for one or more to announce loudly that the heretic’s ‘nonsense’ is to be paid no heed.

Past generations cannot be held entirely responsible for the persistence of limited horizons and poor methods in Voynich writings.


2. ‘Match the picture’ (1750 wds)

From an inherited, and now fixed assumption in the conservative tradition,  the manuscript is supposed to be ‘underneath it all’ just an aberrant form of ‘ordinary’ Latin Christian work, and though the earlier assumption has faded that it is entirely the creation of a single author (imagined a Latin and, usually,  male) the habit of seeking to ‘match the picture’ from details in ordinary Latin (i.e. western Christian) works remains.

Where ‘foreign’ material is considered, as for example astrology or magic, the habit was earlier – and thus remains in Voynich studies – to imagine it entered a ‘white walled’ Europe by some specific and authoritative Latin Christian male – so that, once more, only the Latin works were thought necessary to consult.

In addition, everything in this manuscript was, from the first (i.e from 1912), presumed to exist in some other Latin manuscript (as well it could) but the Friedmans therefore considered no other medium but Latin manuscript art in hunting ‘matches’ for the manuscript’s and that  remains largely so, even now. The whole science of iconology, let alone the anthropology of  iconology, has passed unobserved.

There is no body of investigation into the Byzantine, Syrian, North African, Coptic or Islamic corpus which would allow us to judge whether the manuscript as a whole is, or isn’t, more like Latin works than any other. If this particular series of diagrams were characteristic of Byzantine Jews, the current parameters for research would prevent the precedent’s being discovered.  If, by luck or independence of thought, a researcher were to discover such a fact, one could certainly not guarantee that any cognisance would be taken of it, nor that others would not be actively deterred from ‘paying attention’..

The range in which ‘matches’ were sought had so narrowed by 2010 that apart from RIch Santacoloma’s theory that the whole was a fake, and Dana Scott’s quiet investigation into English sources, there was only Pelling’s ‘Italian’ theory – which certainly had merit – and the then wholly speculative theory of a ‘Germanic character’.

What has seen the last become most dominant is not any superior level of proof or argument but determined refusal to acknowledge, and sometimes persistent efforts to ‘shut down’ alternatives. One may be invited to be more flexible and join the majority; one may find oneself hounded out of forums. But the easiest means is simpler. New information is judged simply by whether or not it suits the theory espoused.

So – Alain Touwaide once said the manuscript recalled the form of Byzantine manuals of medicine-and-magic, iatrosophia.  Apart from picking up and repeating that word a little, the conservatives effectively ignored that lead. It couldn’t be connected with a Latin-centred theory.  That it might be directly connected to the manuscript’s history scarcely mattered to a majority; that lead was apparently dropped just as so many others have been.  Such as those offered by Panofsky in 1932.

We would never find employed elsewhere, today, assumptions and methods as simplistic as those habitual to the conservatives in Voynich studies,  if the study were aimed at discovering where, and when,  imagery was first enunciated – in the hope of identifying the origins of unread accompanying text.

It is a given community’s ways of seeing, and creating mental concepts which informs  expression of those concepts, whether in the drawn line or the written.  Again, this is an understanding of which one finds scant trace in Voynich writings and to be fair, the aim of most, today, is less to investigate the primary document than to assist in the erection of ever more elaborate theoretical superstructure on a foundation no more solid than it was in the 1930s. And from a distance, or seen from their own perspective, the result is most impressive.  That it has failed to shed light on a single phrase of the original text seems almost irrelevant to those involved. The possibility of fundamental errors in the foundation is considered, by the conservatives, a ludicrous notion.

And since ‘match the picture’ was the only approach which occurred to the Friedmans, so it descended via d’Imperio, into the most conservative Voynich tradition after about 2004, when theory-promotion came to be perceived as having higher priority than open investigation of the primary artefact. In other words, the attitude shifted from an aim to learn, to an aim to convince. And the theories to which their support was lent were variants of the ‘Latin product’ theory.

Neither Wilfrid Voynich, nor William Friedman ever imagined otherwise.  Each presumed it also the original product of some individual Latin author.  Their doing so is quite directly connected to what we should now describe as ‘social Darwinism’ but  for them it was no ideology espoused, but an expression of then ubiquitous attitudes believed given scientific validation by academic works of the Anglo-German school.  It was not ‘racialism’ in the political sense but a sort of social snobbery which expressed itself in an absolute certainty that the Anglo-German represented the highest pinnacle of any intellectual history,as the Renaissance Italian and the classical tradition occupied that of any history of art.

Social snobbery.

I touched on this matter in an earlier post, with regard to an academic board’s reasons for rejecting William Friedman’s application for funding.  From those comments. and from the angry responses of d’Imperio and Elizebeth Friedman,  two things became clear: first, that the Friedmans had no aim of understanding why the manuscript in format, script, images and text does not conform to the Latin norm, but began rather by assuming it did; that was “underneath it all” an ordinary product of the Latin tradition and so dismissing all the obvious evidence of divergence from Latin norms  by the simple expedient of attributing them to the incompetence or intentional deceit  of some individual (and imaginary) Latin Christian ‘author’ and/or ‘artist’.  Later writers would add to this imaginary character such additional flaws and motives as  sexual obsession, insanity, or ‘artistic creativity’. to explain why he didn’t draw like a “proper European”.

Thus the hunt continued only within the parameters of Latin manuscripts – just the one medium – for ‘matches’, and the later conservative camp has further limited their hunt for ‘matches’ to regions of a (fluidly defined)  ‘German-influenced culture’ –  though occasionally referencing sculpture and (less often) other media. Among the very few images congenial to a Latin theory (more-or-less) are the series of emblems filling the centres of these supposedly  ‘astrological’ diagrams. Isolated form their context, and together covering less than the area of a single folio, they have been constantly – almost obsessively – asserted ‘matched’ by items selected to support the ‘Germanic’ theory.

I mean it quite literally when I say that it was impossible for either Wilfrid Voynich or William Friedman to contemplate the work’s content as expressing other than  Latin (western Christian) culture – despite its anomalous structure, page-layout, incomprehensible written text and unintelligible images .

Nor could they conceive the possibility that it might embody work of a group of persons whose names were never recorded.

Each man, for his own reason, had to suppose the content  ‘important’ and in terms of his own time and environment that meant European and preferably Anglo-German, and scientific – which implied an ‘author’. Both opted for the English.  My point is not so much that they were wrong; but that if they were wrong, their own first premises and methods adopted surely prevented their ever discovering the fact.

Wilfrid Voynich was born in 1865 in Poland, and William Friedman in Moldava in 1891. Both had Jewish heritage. But their attitudes were chiefly formed by values and attitudes pervasive in English and American society of their time. Wilfrid came to England as an adult; Friedman to America as an infant.

In Wilfrid’s case, to think the work other than by a Latin (western Christian) author would have meant he could expect very few potential buyers and no great price for it.

In William’s case, to suppose any non-Latin origin and content would be to render his interest in the manuscript devoid of all merit and incur ridicule.   On the ‘Latin author’ theory depended his idea of a herculean struggle, a battle of superior minds, where the author of the ‘ciphertext’ would ultimately yield to Friedman’s superior intellect and scientific cryptological techniques. The same provided his grounds for  using the powers of the NSA to obtain various private documents and earlier-denied interviews. Importance was then defined by ethnicity,  social position and by ‘scientific’ character. Today, we are free to think – for example – that it could be the notebook of an anonymous North African trader.  In England or in America, during the first half of the twentieth century, even to consider that idea was impossible without losing face.

Wilfrid provided glittering names to adorn his sales’ pitch:  Roger Bacon represented European Science; John Dee, ‘sanitised’ European Magic; and of course Rudolf II, the mad emperor, Science, Magic and social status.

The only method which occurred to the Friedmans, in regard to the manuscript’s images, was therefore to hunt Latin manuscripts for ‘matches’ and as late as the 1920s (by which time Wilfrid was 55 and William almost 30), and given their social and intellectual environment and assumptions made, the method would have appeared an obvious and sensible approach to amateurs. It continued be the only method used by the Friedman groups,  and in that way was inherited and is still maintained by today’s conservatives.

As was the case half a century ago, the malleable figure of some individual  ‘author/artist’ continues to see dismissed even the most obvious discrepancies between a proposed ‘match’ and the original.   Points of perceived similarity are all the commentary; disparities are dismissed as due to individual whim, incompetence, or intention to deceive – whichever happens to sound most plausible. In fact, objection is rarely raised; newcomers soon learn that negative comments are to be directed only to those who fail to support the ‘German cultural product’ theory; those supporting it are tender and well-meaning souls working for the common good.

So – by imposing the known intention of a Latin image upon a detail from the Voynich manuscript and on no better basis than ‘like-ness’ asserted, the reader was instructed how to interpret the latter, whose intended meaning was (and usually remained) unknown. Conservatives’ commentary might elaborate upon the Latin image, its history and meaning and so forth  while the other was ignored beyond the assertion it was ‘matched’.

Though today employment of such simplistic method may seem astounding to many scholars it remains, by and large,  routine in Voynich writings.

Nor do any of the present conservatives seem aware of the anachronism implied by supposing  a medieval draughtsman might have – in effect – invented abstractionism and expressionism.   Nor of the  anachronism presented by tacitly assuming the aim of the ‘artist’ was a level of realism we first see emerge in some parts of Europe (and first in  Flemish works) from about the 1440s.*  That those trained primarily in botanical science should expect all drawings to strive for scientific ‘realism’ is understandable, more or less, and that expectation has regularly prevented the botanists from making valid contributions to the study.  They do not so much ask ‘what mental contstruct is here given form, and how do the stylistic features support a given reading’, but simply adopt the old ‘would-have-if-he-could-have’ idea found in  earlier works such as O’Neill’s.

*though an important paper of 1932 recognised a prefiguring in Gothic art (so called). See  D. Jalabert, “La flore gothique: ses origines, son evolution du xiie au xve siecle,” Bulletin monumental, XCI (1932), I81-246.

I won’t cite any contemporary Voynich writer in illustrating this  ‘match the picture’ habit.  The reader will find little else online. Instead, I offer an analogy to illustrate the added distortion caused by imagining that all research must aim at supporting some theory.

Let us suppose I have a theory of Turkish origin for the content, but follow the conservative Voynich writers’ practice.  I would then first define the picture by some object which I imagine present -thus defining the subject by one object, in a way anathema to modern iconological studies.

The reader is then presented with a composite image of the following sort, perhaps with – but usually without –  commentary proving both images reflect comparable historical and cultural environment and thus stylistics.  As you see, I’ve here ignored stylistics completely:

A Voynichero would then assert this ‘match’ proves the plant on folio 10r  meant for a rose, and that it supports a theory of Turkish origin.

If the newcomer is inclined to think I exaggerate; that no method so ludicrous could survive in the twenty-first century, I’ll say again… it is easy enough to find precisely the same method in the majority of present-day Voynich writings.


3. Simple assertion. (800 wds)

To find  assertions made about the content in this manuscript and presented with no supporting evidence or documentation except perhaps a ‘match the picture’ exercise, is not in the least unusual.  What is extraordinary is that such practice is still considered both normal and ‘commonsense’ by so many: it is another Voynich tradition.

Just so, Wilfrid Voynich asserted his ‘author’ an  English franciscan friar and all the content ‘science’.  In the 1940s O’Neill felt it enough to assert that an image in the manuscript depicted (albeit ‘badly’) the American sunflower.  In the 1970s Professor Brumbaugh’s curiously naive commentaries constantly resort to bald assertions and adopt others’ unexamined. In a paper published by the Courtauld Institute in 1976, for example, Brumbaugh wrote:

“From an alphabet including J, to a fifteenth-century style of two-handed clock, one detail after points to a later date.  What is most conclusive, however, is Hugh O’Neill’s identification in two illustrations of plants first brought to Europe by Columbus in I492.  (I have subsequently identified two more brought by Columbus in 1493). The [manuscript’s] date is therefore about 1500 at the earliest.”

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150.

Despite re-locating the theoretical subject of some plant-pictures to the new world, the presumption of western Christian (i.e.) Latin origin and/or mediation remained unexamined, and the simplistic practice of ‘match the picture’ informs Brumbaugh’s work, having by then been normalised in this study by the previous decades’ example.

It is important to note that none of Brumbaugh’s assertions above references an independent or scholarly source in justification.  He is not trying to demonstrate that his conclusions are valid; we are expected to believe, not to cross-examine.   This habit of treating study of the Voynich manuscript as something rightly isolated from any borader comparative studies – whether of manuscripts, art, cultures, sciences, or technologies  further aided retention of poor method.  The footnotes in that quoted passage (notes 4-6 in the original) read:

  1. The Beinecke Catalogue suggests a 15th- century date. The costume of the medallion of the Sagittarius map; the two-handed clock on fol. 85; the style of Arabic numerals, for example in the margin of fol. 49r; a cipher box using distinct J, V, and W; all indicate that the date is at least that late.
  2. O’Neill, 1944
  3. If I am right in reading the labels of two giant, exotic roots as ‘Cassava’. [Note: I have been unable to confirm Brumbaugh’s belief that Columbus returned to Europe with Cassava plants.  Columbus certainly ate cassava bread in the region of Hispaniola. –D)

It is regrettable that the urge to ‘normalise’ the matter within Beinecke MS 408 has not only maintained the old assumptions and methodologies, with the latter a positive drag on research, but that the post 2004 productions of  conservative writers have striven to persuade the public that this distinctly unsettling artefact may be regarded as just a ‘funny old herbal’ and other ‘funny-looking’ but really just comfortable ‘normal’ images, with ‘normal’ still defined as mainstream medieval Christian;  that images which include star-shapes shall be deemed just slightly eccentric versions of ‘science or superstition’  and that the various unclothed female figures are just a slightly unusual depictions of  Christian saints(!!).

A Biedermeier Voynich, so to speak.

We are reassurred, like some customer in a curiosity shop, that an unsettling and unidentifiable object is really just a bit old, but otherwise not at all unusual when you came down to it.

Of course, the original manuscript remains very unsettling indeed,  very far from ordinary and not at all the sort of thing  customers have ever found comfortable.

Not even the best informed specialists and connoisseurs claimed to understand it or bought it from Wilfrid; not the manuscript nor (one suspects) his story.     Wilfrid believed it not just ‘ordinary Latin’ but an extraordinarily important work of European scientific history, creating for it the sort of history normally attractive to contemporary collectors, but from 1912 to his death in 1930 he never found a buyer.

None wanted it after 1930, either, and it was more than thirty years later still that a well-connected dealer in manuscripts purchased it from Wildrid’s heirs.   He then tried, also without success, to sell it on.  After eight years’ failure, he gave it gratis to Yale in 1969.  And there it remains, in the Beinecke library.

Its fame today is chiefly due to the internet and a television documentary.

Erwin Panofsky didn’t try to fudge, in 1932.  He said plainly that apart from one of those diagrams – which he associated with one in a Spanish manuscript – the Voynich manuscript was unlike any known to him.

He was able to offer a general provenance some of the imagery by its stylistics, identify the month-names as in a southern French dialect, and to date correctly the period during which the present manuscript was manufactured, but  he never claimed to read the meaning in any of it.

Think about it. Erwin Panofsky could not read the images.


4. ‘Normalising’ the exceptional. (900 wds)

That the Friedmans should imagine the series of diagrams astrological is understandable. And the idea may, one day, be proven true.

But neither did the Freidmans bend their backs (and the primary evidence) to  ‘normalise’ the content in terms of Latin manuscript art.  They simply presumed it was ‘underneath it all’ a version of  some ‘normal’ manuscript and for them, of course,  ‘the norm’ was western Christian European.

Such presumption is not unknown even today.  A book may appear with some  title as ‘A history of the medieval wool trade’ though it considers none but the trade between Norwich and Flanders; or a ‘History of navigation’ which begins from the European adoption of the sextant,ignoring the previous 40,000 years or so.  It is less usual today than twenty years ago to find a work entitled ‘Medieval Art’ in which none but Latin (western Christian) images are treated, but it does still happen.

Scholars tend today to consider the whole of the medieval Mediterranean a single pool of cross-cultural and economic interaction.  The nineteenth century notion of a ‘white walled Europe’ is still assumed today in Voynich studies, with the work of individual writers effectively invigilated lest any begin looking too far beyond, or do so without allegiance to the conservative assumptions – such as that the central emblems in these diagrams constitute ‘a zodiac’ (by which the conservative means the astrologer’s tropical zodiac). The series of central emblems does not form a ‘zodiac’ but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that they might have been used  as if they did.  It is another question effectively unexplored – though I expect my saying so might cause annoyance in some quarters.

We have already noted that d’Imperio’s chapters, their titles and organisation evince ideas no longer considered valid and which are certainly behind the times in terms of modern scholarship.  They define ‘science’ in terms of the Latin European and associate ‘superstition’ with the non-Latin.  They also presume the ‘monitor at the gate’, the  authoritative Latin figure – again usually male – who, by the mere act of taking ‘foreign’ matter is deemed as it were to have sanitised it.  (Nor is it unknown for certain plagiarists to perceive their actions in a similar way).

That the formal scholarship of medieval Europe did expect alien matter to be vetted for heretical content accounts only for a small proportion of what passed easily back and forth through the Mediterranean.  Just as one example: the Indic water buffalo is reported numerous and valued in the Roman campania by 1154 and in that year Lawrence, a Cistercian of Clairvaux took ten of them home with him.  Writing towards 1306, Piero dei Crescenzi of Bologna commented “One kind of cattle, called buffaloes, are black, big, strong, and a bit unruly. They are not good for carts and plows, but when skillfully harnessed with chains of a certain sort they are used for pulling great loads overland. They love to loll in water.” No one stood at the gate of any ‘white wall’ to admit or prevent their entry, and where something the size of a buffalo may pass without formal mediation, so may information.

No earlier twentieth century account of how ‘Arab’ learning entered Latins’ horizons imagined it other  than  entering with official permission and that brought by the Jews is barely recognised in schemes of the European’s intellectual ‘ascent’.   Thus the usual role call:  Gerard of Cremona or, Constantine the African (after his conversion to Christianity) and so forth.

The truth is far less tidy, and far less bound to the Latin literature and literati.  Thanks to developments in cross-cultural and other studies, we are no longer much disturbed to learn that  knowledge of Indo-Arabic numerals and mathematics as likely entered first by the tradesman’s gate, perhaps  through a chain of Muslim-Jewish-European merchant-seamen rather than by any ‘official’ person or text, such as  Leonado of Pisa’s  Liber Abacus. We are also more open to the probability that knowledge of Islamic medicine was transmitted by multilingual Jewish physicians instructing apprenticed Latins, though it is only relatively recently that it has begun to dawn on us that Saliternan works, produced in Latin versions under the short line of Norman-Sicilian kings, may be no more than translations of an existing Arab-Byzantine-Jewish corpus prepared for the new Latin-speaking rulers and their Latin clerics.   Such changes in our thinking may not disturb the wider scholarly community, but one suspects they would cause distinct unease among the conservative Voynich writers.

The point is, of course, that in seeking to read the Voynich manuscript’s images and diagrams, one does well to ignore the traditional limits to research until solid investigation  – and not inherited presumption – provides a clearer understanding of what we’re dealing with.

After all, the aim of explaining the cultural and other indications offered by the images themselves should aim – surely – to help those trying to read the written text.

Statistical analyses of the written text are also invaluable because we have no certainty that the written text is not a translation in which the earlier imagery was closely copied.  To propose the opposite – that the original language was retained but the imagery invented late comes up against a long list of technical and cultural objections.  But that is for some other time.

Information about the Indic buffalo in medieval Europe from Lynn White Jr., ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221.


Today, in Voynich studies,  the phantom figure of an ‘author’ is much faded, but had remained the chief focus of study until at least 2011, as the present author can attest, having been obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ on producing her evidence and reasoning for the work’s being  a compilation from diverse sources, and explaining the internal  evidence of alteration and additions to the material at several periods before the fifteenth-century copying -and pointing out that the series of emblems deemed a ‘zodiac’ did not constitute a zodiac series but were among the latest additions before copying, and among the handful expressed in terms commensurate with Latin conventions or, to put it another way, ‘in that visual language’.

She was obliged, also, to explain (with similar reaction) that the term ‘florilegium’ in medieval terms means a compilation of extracts, not an herbarium, and that mention of the European-Egyptian trade in a medieval context was not equivalent to having suggested that either Pharaohs or flying saucers had descended upon  Christian Europe.

Such news was not well received at the time, though some was later absorbed, as present writer can attest from both her earlier scars and later notes of efforts to re-use or re-create the results of her research.  🙂

[Aug. 17th 1:09pm] Two sentences deleted.  A reader wrongly imagined they referred to him, and since others might make the same mistake, I’ve removed them.



So now, with the past and present context sketched, I’ll next explain the case supporting that opinion of 1932, in terms of  structure and details, though passing over the obvious stylistic differences because the original opinion did.

The post following that will offer a  bibliography tracking this theme after 1932. I won’t claim it includes every mention of these diagrams, but since perception of them has not altered in any substantial since 1932, or alternatively since the 1970s, there isn’t much to be listed.

And finally, a summary of outstanding questions and issues in connection with these diagrams.

Retrospective justifications

Lawyers may have ‘learned friends’; scholars only colleagues.

I’m going to be away for some weeks, so here’s an extra-extra-long post (originally designed as five separate posts) to serve as holiday reading while I’m gone. 🙂

NB. To skip the preliminaries, start from the heading: ‘Living Ivy’.

Abstract:  The Yale facsimile edition includes an essay predicated on the theory that the plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript are related to the European ‘herbals’.  In that essay a comparison is offered which, if it were it valid – might constitute the long-sought (but  never found) proof for that theory, and further indicate that a niche exists for the Voynich plants within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis type.  Credit for a comparison or  ‘pairing’ of folio 35v with  ‘oak and ivy’ from the ‘Manfredus’ herbal  is claimed by Rene Zandbergen, whose influence on the study has been constant since the early 2000s.  The following considers that experience, weighing the probability and evidence for and against such an interpretation of the image on f.35v.


WHEN later generations  consider Rene Zandbergen’s contributions to Voynich studies, rating high on the list will surely be his constant presence.

For at least two decades Zandbergen has been constant in reading and collecting work and ideas related to this study, incorporating his selections from such matter into his website (since 2010), and  sharing  information more widely in comments to group discussions and in private communications. Voynich studies needs people with long memories;  given the high turn-over in  researchers and degrading standards for credits and documentation of precedents, for any true history of this study we must depend increasingly on the memories of a few among the old guard and the energetic efforts of even fewer among the new. Attempting to discover whether precedents exist before embarking on a line of investigation can be very hard work indeed, and whether one of the ‘old guard’ will trouble to consult their own memories can be a bit touch-and-go.  After all, the study has devolved into a permanent ‘groundhog day’ since the early 2000s to the point where now any genuinely new insights are soon swallowed up in the mist, grabbed and repeated without mention of the source and then endlessly re-used and  ‘re-discovered’ by amateurs – many of whom confuse original contribution with ‘unprecedented invention’ and fear to admit their debts lest it cost them glory.Trying to work against that tide, to disentangle genuine from spurious claims of ‘discovery’ would require an entire team of fiercely determined and rigidly ethical members of an  ‘old guard’. And what Voynichero would care to spend more time on seeing justice done than on following his own area of interest?  But, as and when they choose, ‘old-timers’ such as  Pelling and Zandbergen are our best hope.How many hours Zandbergen has devoted to building his  website one cannot imagine. It has now become the ‘go to’ site for newcomers, journalists and others who want a quick key, to check details of dates or of  biographies.  It has also provided Zandbergen himself with a ready reference from which he, no less than journalists or newomers, can draw in writing essays.Despite this time-consuming project, Zandbergen  has still found enough time (almost every day)  to be present in most often-visited public arenas and there to take account of the discussions and contribute to them from the mass of material at his fingertips.His early achievements include his  translation into machine code of Gabriel Landini’s transcription of Voynichese – giving us EVA.  Another was his liaison with an Austrian television company which commissioned certain scientific tests.For all this – as Zandbergen reminded members of a forum just today – his qualifications are not in any field relevant to medieval manuscript studies, history or art and he should be regarded as an amateur.Few amateurs having twenty years’ interest in anything could resist the temptation to “puff” rather more.Also of value have been Zandbergen’s computing skills which produced the graphs and diagrams used to illustrate the information collected into his website.

As constant as that work has been, and his presence in most public conversations about the Voynich manuscript, so too he has shown unwavering fidelity to a theory which he and his co-author, Rafel Prinke, espoused early – perhaps as early as 2000.

At the time it was a ‘fringe’ theory, asserting that the manuscript had been made in German-speaking regions and was in some sense an expression of central European culture, and more specifically with content congenial to the interests of Rudolf II and other members of the central European nobility.While the evidence for this variation on d’Imperio’s version of the Wilfrid-Friedman theory is no more than it was two decades ago, the intervening period has seen constant efforts at its retrospective justification: German calendars have been hunted for images of Saggitarius with a crossbow and other German-language or German-made works hunted for costume which could be argued similar to costumes seen on figures in the Vms. An enormous amount of time and talk has been expended on a couple of lines of marginalia which are claimed German.    For lack of other researchers as constant and equally consistent in enthusing others to collaborate,   material accumulated today not only leans heavily to that side of the scales but almost entirely on it.  Today the ‘central European’ idea has achieved the status of what Santacoloma might call canonised myth, but which is better described, I think, as the process  by which ‘I feel’ becomes ‘it might have been’ and gradually via ‘it could have been’ is taken for ‘it must be’. The process has taken twenty years and the labour of a great many co-operating ‘ants’ as Ellie Velinska once called that group.Without being strident, Zandbergen has also quietly and unwaveringly introduced an idea that not only Rudolf, but Rudolf’s brother Matthias (Corvinus) owned the manuscript.Whether the notion that the manuscript was stolen by Jesuits originated with the Prinke-Zandbergen theory or not is another point difficult to determine but as yet there is no evidence offered by the manuscript or by any document of which I’m aware to justify either the the ‘Corvinus’ idea or that one.   On the face of it, the Jesuits’ acquisition of the work is perfectly transparent: it became a Jesuit possession when gifted to Athanasius Kircher by Marcus Marci – and we have the letter of gift to prove it.Otherwise, the Prinke-Zandbergen narrative appears to maintain the standard ideas in, or extrapolated from, Wilfrid’s tale of 1921 – such as that the manuscript is obscure only because meant for a social and intellectual elite, and that it is at base a manuscript composed of ‘ordinary’ European material including occult and/or scientific matter such as alchemy, magic, astrology and medicine in which Rudolf II (1552-1612) and his aristocratic circle were most interested.Here, however, we must be grateful for the radiocarbon dating which permits us (if we wish) to limit the range of Voynich research to the terminus ad. quem of 1438.I say this because it is easy to imagine where the ‘Corvinus’ idea might lead theorists less self-controlled than Zandbergen.   Matthias was initially given control over Hungary at a time when a large part of it was owned by Rudolf’s close contemporary Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) and within modern Hungary there is a popular movement re-inventing her image to have Bathory a nice aristocratic woman interested in women’s medicine. It takes little imagination to see how such an idea could be imposed on the manuscript’s content.But, as I say, we can halt if we choose at 1438 and maintain a proper level of skepticism not only about the ‘Corvinus’ idea but about the third-hand rumour of Rudolf’s supposed ownership.My own position is best expressed by quoting Patrick Lockerby, one of the very few left standing when the vellum’s radiocarbon date-range was published.  Well before the test was run he had said:

My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.

~ Patrick Lockerby.


Zandbergen has proven no less constant in maintaining his opinion of the plant-pictures, assuming (as had almost all before him) that these must constitute a variant form of Latin herbal: that is, a catalogue of medicinal plants employed in Latin (western Christian) Europe.

During the nineteen-twenties or -thirties when the manuscript was generally believed personally written by Roger Bacon, the limited horizons* of Wilfrid’s narrative and of any dependent on it permitted few alternatives.

*for those limited horizons and  reasons for them see ‘Fear of the Unknown and Raft Elegant‘.

However, one might have supposed that by 2000, with nine decades’ of failed attempts to discover in the Latins’ herbals any matching images – that is, matching in sequence and in style of drawing –  and with Tiltman’s negative judgement on that score expressed in the late 1960s, that researchers might have begun casting about more widely: extending the research laterally (to include other regions and peoples) or vertically to consider plant-imagery made to other purposes and/or in other media.

It didn’t happen –  not even when Tiltman’s paper was released by  NSA in 2002, under the Freedom of Information Act, or when qualified persons differed from the conservatives.  Those who were not ignored (as Mazars and Wiart were for years), were met with the usual methods by which the most conservative element avoids discussion of evidence and argument.   On a personal note, I gained most amusement from Pelling’s suggesting that in explaining the botanical imagery and the role of mnemonics  that I suffered from pareidolia.  The role of mnemonics in imagery had been unexplored by the Voynicheros before then, but the term is now constantly used, even if rarely informed by knowledge of the scholarship or of any work later than Yates – Yates being mentioned by d’Imperio.  Carruthers’ revolutionary studies have been often recommended by the present author, but no evidence of them appears in other Voynich writings to date.

Part of Tiltman’s verdict was quoted earlier,  but here it is in more detail:

if the plain text of the Voynich manuscript belongs to the illustrations on the same pages, as we have a right to expect in the complete absence of evidence to the contrary, then much the greater part of that text is related to plants. However, I have to admit that to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed.

  • [pdf] John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript: ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’ [released by NSA under the Freedom of Information Act, 23-Apr-2002  (Case #19159)

Tiltman was not a man to accept hearsay and I think we may take it that he spoke from personal knowledge of the Friedman groups’ range of research.  It is possible that some combined list of works they consulted might one day be found among documents still at the NSA, or in the George C. Marshall Foundation.


[Part 2] What was it which prevented Tiltman’s pronouncement’s being taken seriously, and the lesson taken from the failures of the preceding decades?

It is an interesting question and deserves more than the briefest answer, but in the space of this post the short answer will have to do, and it is this:  that by the time the first mailing list closed there was a small but growing and determined ‘conservative’ element which adopted d’Imperio’s version of Wilfrid’s narrative with others of the Friedmans’ ideas as constituting a final word on the manuscript’s history and character, and perceived its own task less as work of investigation than of retrospective justification for that matter.

Before the 1960s, none had looked further than Europe because they supposed the manuscript’s composition coeval with its manufacture and they supposed all due to a single author imagined European.

After the early 2000s, any who began to consider any but a Latin European as determining the manuscript’s content was  discouraged from doing so by the ‘mass’ online – and often as much by personal ridicule  as by reasoned argument.  Of this unpleasant tactic – playing the man, not the ball – a precedent was also provided by reports of the Friedmans’ mockery of others, including of Professor Romaine Newbold.   Jorge Stolfi was among the first of the more recent ‘scalps’ taken by such means.

A hardening ‘conservative’ position presented itself as the  ‘common sense’ position, and for the new wave of Voynicheros who appeared in public conversations after c.2004 or so, these now-entrenched ideas were accepted as if they had been established from solid evidence: they served as premises rather than as speculations to be tested – and most obviously with the ‘softer’ narratives about theoretical histories for the manuscript or notions about its imagery.

Efforts to describe,  explain, decipher or translate Voynichese remained generally subject to more rigor and overall remained focused on the researcher’s work not his character. Critics were expected to explain their criticisms in detail; and (unlike other areas) no  vague assertion that the researcher was ‘talking nonsense’ was enough. Witness the technical and well informed criticisms of even so patently nonsensical a paper as Cheshire’s.

But with that difference between standards for discussing ‘Voynichese’ theories versus historical or iconographic matters, there began the dichotomy which exists today.  Opinions about the written part of the text usually weigh the statistical and linguistic evidence, but those focused on the pictorial content or historico-social environment regularly witness the personality-centred sort of attack as theory-defence.  It is a pity that this dividing fence has been flattened recently – again with criticisms of Cheshire as example.

Any Voynich researcher or writer soon becomes aware that ad.hominem regularly meets dissent from the ‘conservative’position in certain areas and almost invariably follows criticism of any opinions or theories particularly associated with a few of the best known ‘Voynicheros’.

Here, Nick Pelling has a well-earned reputation for directing fluent streams of vitriol against any who are less than approving of his friends’ theories and methods and, to a lesser extent of his own.  In general, however, he has an equally well-earned reputation for permitting free expression in comments to his blog, sometimes extraordinary patience with the most ‘out there’ theorists, and his academic standards in keeping clear the difference between his own work and others’ remains impeccable.

In one way, there can be no criticism made of any blogger’s choice of opinion, or of response to comments to their blog,  but given Pelling’s large following, high profile and standing as one of the ‘old guard’, the old problem of influence and responsibility must arise.   Knowing that any who would subject Pelling’s “machine-plants” idea to detailed criticism and dismissal, or dispute Zandbergen’s ‘oak-ivy’ comparisons as I’m about to do may incur public denigration of their intelligence, competence, motives and personal character is certainly a deterrent to putting higher value on the manuscript’s accurate evaluation than on the ‘Voynich community’s bonhomie.  The revisionist might hope for both, but I should think not in this generation.


Since my own is the only name I feel entitled to mention, I’ll say that during the near-decade in which I offered historical notes and analytical-critical commentary on the Voynich manuscript’s imagery the work received only two types of response from the ‘conservatives’:  results gained from that original research were taken and re-presented without acknowledgements, and/or were met by ‘criticisms’ of the ad.hominem sort.

There was just one informed criticism made over the entire period:  a correction to my description of the religious order to which Hugh of St. Victor belonged.

No qualified person in my field had been involved in the study, as far as I could discover, since the 1930s and that might explain the resort to personal criticisms by persons lacking the wherewithall to make comments of any other type.   Recently, the well-qualified   Alexandra Marracini  has produced a paper which reminds me of my very first essays on the subject of this manuscript, when I still thought I’d be dealing with nothing more  unusual than the home-made book of some amateur western Christian author.

It was from about 2010, once I began sharing online and it became clear that this material could not be made to fit a ‘central European’ or ‘Latin cultural expression’ theory that the nasty response began.   From the first it was of the ‘no-holds-barred’ type and was disseminated as brainless and information-zero ‘memes’, inventing which seems to be the one real skill that a couple of ‘Voynicheros’ may claim.

My persistence in seeking to read, and then to acknowledge precedents – if any – for my views was re-interpreted by ‘meme’ as an effort to claim credit: ‘to make a name’ as that meme had it.  Another meme that I recall said that some students of mine were not real people (the reason being, apparently, that we decided their only access to the ‘Voynich-Colosseum’ should be through my own email address).  The result of that little ‘meme’ was abuse which the students, their parents and the school found as irrational as it was unmerited, and the ‘Voynich’ option was terminated.   You may be pleased to hear the credits were made transferrable since cyber-bullying should not cost credit-points.   Another slander-meme impugned by qualifications;  the least principled did not think it too grubby for them to start memes calling me a liar, or when that one didn’t quite catch on, upgrading it to mental derangement.    Of late, it seems, the one or two core bullies have been toning it down a bit: perhaps someone explained to them in one-syllable words the meaning of ‘fact’ ‘fiction’ ‘slander’ and ‘libel’.

The meme of the month  – towards me; but I’m not the only  troublemaker – is ‘nonsense’.  Not exactly the quality of a Times Higher Education review for the amount of research it tries to cover, is it?

It wasn’t the memes, or even the fools who are unable to find better ways to defend their theory which bothered me most; it’s the number of sheep who, when the water-cooler guy says ‘Bah! duly say  ‘Baaah’.

I had supposed that with a manuscript which presents so many non-trivial problems, the sort of person who’d stick around would be one having the type of critical intelligence which likes difficult problems.

But of course, anyone with that sort of intelligence can’t be hypnotised into saying ‘baaa’ just because the chap next to them got it from someone who was told it by someone else.

They say instead – ‘where did you get that idea?’ and ‘Show me your evidence’ and.. in this particular case ‘And exactly what does this tell me that might help me better understand Beinecke MS 408’?


And so back to that more interesting matter…

The ‘Oak and Ivy’ comparison in the Yale facsimile essay.

In its premises and its approach the ‘herbal’ essay in the Yale facsimile edition has much in common with the book by Tucker and Janick, in that it aims only to illustrate and thus to convince readers of its premises and its premises are its (foregone) conclusions.  It is an engaging history of the medieval herbal manuscript, but one illustrated by ‘pairings’ from the Voynich manuscript – pairings whose validity is treated as self-evident.

Among them is one which – were it valid – would be of enormous importance for this study for it would offer the long-sought proof for that ‘variant herbal’ speculation, and indicate that within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis  mss exists some niche for the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.

Because it could be of such great importance, it has to be treated seriously and seriously evaluated.   One might wish it were not a ‘pairing’ for which the credit falls to a member of the ‘old guard’ but the credit is claimed by Rene Zandbergen.

He presented his ‘match’ some years ago in a power-point presentation, later passing it to others to re-present (with credit accorded him)  as e.g. to Ellie Velinska.  Still later, it was used in forum discussions where again the thanks and credit were received by Zandbergen.  Finally, with acceptance already general among the ‘online community’ the same pairing was included in the Yale essay.

On occasion Zandbergen has mentioned that Edith Sherwood had ( I am told ‘earlier’) compared  folio 35v with one in a medieval manuscript.  Zandbergen’s comment takes the following form in one forum exchange:

EllieV – 11-02-2016 The most popular example is the oak/ivy combination found by Rene in other old herbals

ReneZ – 11-02-2016 Edith Sherwood independently noticed the similarity, in her case with the Sloane MS, while I saw it in the Paris BN manuscript.

The British library’s Sloane collection includes more than one herbal, as does the collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France but I note that where Sherwood’s habit was always to pair a picture from the Voynich manuscript to some later botanical illustration or to a modern photograph of her preferred ‘i.d.’, some images are now included from medieval manuscripts and now she pairs folio 35v with  an image of oak-and-ivy from  Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 (folio 38v) –  to which I’ll return further below,

About  Zandbergen’s alleged ‘match’  only one point need be addressed and I’ll treat the vine-like element.  To discuss the pairing in full detail (as I’ve done elsewhere) would quadruple the length of this post.



Zandbergen’s Resources:

Zandbergen’s discussion of the plant-pictures, from 2000 until the Yale essay was published has relied in one sense on generations of the ‘Voynich herbal’ idea but more particularly on  Minta Collins’ book to which Zandbergen has constantly referred, and just as constantly referred others.

Published in that year (2000), Collins’ Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition became available two years before the NSA released Tiltman’s paper of 1967/8.   It would be two years later still before we had Touwaide’s critical review of Collins’ book in 2004, but that appears to have escaped general notice for the following decade and more, until the present author brought it to the attention of Voynich ninja members.

  • Minta Collins, Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition.(2000)
  • the above, reviewed by Alain Touwaide – Isis,  Vol. 95, No.4 (2004) pp. 695-697.

Meanwhile, constant mention and recommendations of Collins’ book within the ‘Voynich community’ had seen it elevated to a status almost equal to that accorded d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – whose quotation some suppose a final word.    This same period saw escalate a trick of equating conservative ideas with the ‘good and sensible’ to the point where those engaging in original lines of research were discouraged –  and if not easily by ‘blanking’ or by citations from the two ‘bibles’ or items extracted from German medieval works, then next by comments suggesting that  only a ‘bad or irrational’ person would oppose the ‘central European cultural expression’  theory.

By about 2013-14,  assertions of ‘likeness’ met positive comment only if the comparison came from a Latin herbal or from central European manuscripts and books made between the thirteenth-mid sixteenth centuries – unless it were to ‘prove’ the work a Latin product.  Velinska’s ‘Duc de Berry’ theory was exempt.   The temporal range narrowed somewhat after 2013, as challenges to the radiocarbon dating of 2011 fell silent.  The conservatives’ geographic bounderies are widening a little further today but speculations about alchemical content, inherently anachronistic, remain current and so widely believed that to so much as doubt them has recently evoked an ‘eye-rolling’ from Pelling.  It would seem that another myth has achieved canonisation.

Zandbergen has displayed the same constancy in maintaining  the Voynich plant pictures a ‘herbal’ as he has shown in all else,  discouraged neither by Tiltman’s negative judgement nor by a century’s failure to find any place for them in that tradition. It is not an idea of Zandbergen’s invention, merely maintaining the speculations and assumptions of Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 and by the Friedman groups from 1944 onwards.


[Part 3] The ‘Manfredus herbal’

Against this pairing by Zandbergen of an image from the Voynich manuscript with one from the ‘Manfredus’* herbal we have the general objection that the ‘herbal’ idea remains a speculation and that were it well-founded there is a low probability that the same alleged ‘match’ would have passed all earlier notice. Believing the labels might offer a key to Voynichese, the Voynich plant-pictures and accompanying text have always been a focus of  study.

*properly:  Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823, but very often seen as ‘Manfredus de Monte Imperiali’

The Manfredus ‘herbal’ has been among the best- and most widely known of all medieval Latin copies of  the  ‘tracts on herbs’ and was so before Wilfrid had ever seen his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript.  By then the ‘Manfredus’ was already in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and detailed knowledge of it had spread across the Atlantic, in proof of which I’ll cite the book-length monograph by Edward Sanford Burgess, published in 1902.

Burgess was then a resident of New York and was still so  when Wilfrid migrated to that city from London, bringing his widely-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ – most of it filled with plant-pictures.

Burgess’ book-length monograph had been published by the Torrey Botanical Club journal (which is still in publication).  As handy guide to the text, Burgess included a ‘Tabular view of Plant-writers before 1600’ and as you see from the clip below (from p.98) the ‘Manfredus’ manuscript is included, dated it to c.1400.


  • Edward Sandford Burgess, ‘Studies in the History and Variations of Asters: Part 1: History of PreClusian Botany in its relation to Aster, Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol.10  (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.r

Within his monograph, in speaking of Dianthus, Burgess says, “… I have seen the plant pictured in a book which is written by Manfrēdus de Monte Imperiali.” (” Librum de simplicibus , qui in bibl. Parisina latet,”said Sprengel of Manfred’s work, in 1797 ; Fabricius knew of a copy in Paris about 1750..” (p.380)

Today, the date offered for Manfredus manuscript – that is, the digitised copy – at Gallica is again circa 1400, but the  Bibliothèque nationale de France has  1330-1340, leaving place of manufacture unspecified.  A website called ‘Manuscript Miniatures’ ascribes it to Pisa without explanation. And to Lillian Armstrong it was ‘Lombard’.

  • Lillian Armstrong, ‘The Illustration of Pliny’s Historia naturalis: Manuscripts before 1430′, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes  Vol. 46 (1983), pp. 19-39.

Some of those earlier attributions to place may owe less to consideration of the drawings or palette than to interpretations of the description ‘… Monte Imperiali’ –  on which subject the present writer’s opinion as offered  after looking into the question in 2016.   Taking it that the  ‘di’ here signifies “sent out from” rather than “born in” I concluded the post by saying:-

I see no reason why the “Manfredi di maestro Berardo da Montepeloso medicus” listed by Calvanico [on whom see Collins n.119] should not be the same person as that associated with BNF Lat 6823…Nor is it difficult to suggest why a clerk sent ‘abroad’ on behalf of Maestro Berardo might choose to describe himself in that way rather than as from Montepeloso.  A mere clerk, coming to an urban centre from the remote south of Italy – and from a place called “Mount Hairy” – would surely be sensitive to the sort of ridicule which urban lads would delight in heaping on a lowly  ‘rustic’.  Nor would that description  be a lie, for  Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) and its castle were imperial possessions until Frederick II gave them to the then newly-sanctioned Francsican order of preaching friars.  Perhaps the local community itself had been used to speaking of the mount and its castle as ‘imperial’, but to determine the last point either way would require research of a depth it scarcely warrants.

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A note on Manfredus di Monte…’ voynichimagery, (July 10th., 2016)

At the time none of the items in that paragraph, save Collins’ reference to Calvanico, was to be found in any of the usual Voynich writers, though (as so often) the situation may have changed without notice.

Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) today. Image published earlier in post to voynichimagery ((July 10, 2016)

A more recent scholarly source is the following volume, with Givens’ valuable essay on the Tractatus de herbis:

  •  Jean A. Givens, ‘Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis, 1280-1526′ in Givens, Reeds and Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550  (2006). pp.115-156.


In c.2010, the idea was prevalent in Voynich forums that  ‘Manfredus di Monte Imperiali’ was son to Frederick II.  This is not so, though he may have been a namesake and the same idea is found in other and older writings. It is not inexplicable if we suppose it due to a misinterpretation of the dedication which the noble Manfredus included in a thirteenth-century copy of Pseudo-Aristotle’s ‘De pomo’.  That dedication is quoted in

  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle and Medieval Occult Science’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1922), pp. 229-258.  (n.39   p.237).

[Part 4] So, to return to Burgess.  A botanist with a particular interest in the history of plant-pictures and -texts made within the Greco-Latin world and to the 17th century lives in a city to which there comes a much-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ filled with what are thought to be herbal pictures.   His particular focus is on antique and later mentions of the ‘aster’ family.  Does it seem likely that he could resist trying to discover what members of that family were recorded by Roger Bacon, an idol of the time?

And if he were to go to Wilfrid’s bookshop to express interest in the manuscript, would Wilfrid deny a potential buyer?  And seeing those images, is it likely that Burgess (among the many others, including Fr. Petersen or members of the Friedman groups) would consistently fail to notice that folio 35v was ‘identical’ or even a ‘close match’ for an image in the well-known  ‘Manfredus’ manuscript?

I do not know if Burgess ever saw the Voynich manuscript, though I suspect Tiltman saw Burgess’  ‘Tabular view’ and that it is among the reasons he can speak with such certainty of the “very limited range” of  “writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries”.

But Burgess’ example illustrates my point that the Manfredus ‘herbal’ was well and widely known to specialists on both sides of the Atlantic even before Wilfrid bought the ‘ugly ducking’.  Seeking precedents those as interested and well informed as Petersen was and as dedicated as the Friedman groups were could hardly have failed to hunt it for something ‘like’, whether or not they heeded the vital point already made by RIchard Salomon in 1936, that locating precedents or antecedents means matching style of drawing and comparable sequences.  I’ve already quoted that letter to Anne Nill in full, but here’s the critical sentence:

“… I am convinced that the only possibility of deciphering would be given by finding an older series of plant pictures corresponding in its sequence to the arrangement of pictures in the Voynich manuscript.”

Richard Salomon to Anne Nill (July 9th., 1936 ),

Altogether the circumstances offer an a priori  argument against Zandbergen’s ‘match’ being valid –  at least within the historical and social context he presumes – but here it will be enough to address just one of the many points at which the ‘match’ fails –  the vine-like plant which Zandbergen claims equates to the Manfredus’ image for ivy.

Living Ivy.

Unless employed for purely decorative effect (e.g. ivy-rinceaux), or as crown for Dionysos or something of that kind,  the depiction of ivy in medieval Latin graphic art identifies a living plant by two elements, only one of which is invariable.

The leaf was drawn (European ivy is evergreen) and if any form of support was shown, the image emphasises the ivy’s clinging character.  That second is the invariable element .   It is clear, too, that to the medieval draughtsman, ivy’s clinging was tp be depicted as ‘twining’ – akin to that of the bean or of the Convolvulus.

Sherwood’s current comparison for f.35v, as I mentioned before, is Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 folio 38v.  This certainly does show ivy (accuracy in a manuscript’s labels are not to be presumed), and it is equally clear that this draughtsman expresses himself through the usual conventions of Latins’ art; his ivy is denoted by its twining habit.  He has also included the umbels of black berries.  His leaves are given five lobes.  Neither of the last two features is invariable.  The ‘clinging’ character is.

Climbing ivy has leaves of varying form, with those of a non-flowering stem having 3–5 triangular-shaped lobes and those of flowering shoots being oval to eliptical. There is also a ‘ground ivy’ depicted in some herbals, but the point is that when shown with any supporting object or plant, the medieval image tells the reader it is an ivy plant by means of that character of ‘clinging’ which is depicted as a twining about the support.    Not what we see in folio 35v of Beinecke MS 408, where the vine-like plant is not only shown to be unable to cling, but lacks any leaf.  If the latter was intended to signify the plant a deciduous one, then it cannot be European ivy.  Again, though perhaps less significant, is the fact that the berries are not depicted using the convention of that ‘fan-shaped’ umbel.  Whether the supporting plant is meant for an oak is a separate question, but the fact remains that if the vine was not intended to be read as ivy, Zandbergen’s comparison and claimed ‘match’ is invalid and once more we have no reasonable evidence, documentary or otherwise, retrospective or otherwise, in support of the constant assertion that the Voynich plant-pictures should belong in the Latins’ ‘herbals’ tradition.

Another ‘Sloane manuscript’  Sherwood had noted,  inspiring  Zandbergen to find more, was Sloane MS 56 (f.81r).  Once again, the ‘twining’ habit and a leaf.

The next example (below, right) comes from another of the best-known Latin (western Christian) herbals, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 747, and yet again we see that to define ivy it was not the flower or any set form for the leaf which was employed, but that close-clinging habit envisaged as twining.  The suckers which we now suppose essential to the ivy are not depicted.

But here’s the interesting thing; that other Sloane manuscript (MS 56) noted by Sherwood is not a herbal. It’s an early fifteenth-century copy of John of  Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis.

[Part 5] John of Arderne’s glossary and its images

In a passing comment to Pelling’s blog, in 2009, Zandbergen mentioned a different copy of it, though also from the Sloane collection (Brit.Lib. Sloane 335), saying under Pelling’s post, ‘Pre-1450 German possibility’- Dec.21st., 2009) :

“ To add to the confusion…  I just found a very nice illustration from a pre-1450 manuscript which is more Voynich Herbal-like than anything I can remember, yet is neither from Italy nor from Germany:. ”

He omitted there to mention that it was English or to give any details or date, but in the British Library catalogue Sloane MS 335 is dated to the ” last quarter of the 14th  or 1st quarter of the 15th century”.

I find no evidence that Zandbergen explored the perceived similarities – nor did he specify any – but I agree that there are valid points of comparison to be found in some drawings from that manuscript and some few of the Voynich plant-pictures.

Still other copies remain of Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis and I think readers will be most interested in the catalogue record provided with another copy (made c.1475-1500) and now in Glasgow University’s Special Collections as  MS Hunter 251 (U.4.9). Part of that record reads:

Arderne’s style of Latin is rather colloquial; indeed, his texts may almost be described as polyglot as his use of Latin is somewhat inconsistent. As well as providing glosses in English and Anglo-Norman, the text occasionally lapses in to sections written in English for no apparent reason. Although it is impossible to say whether this was how Arderne himself originally composed his work, or whether such anomalies crept in as his texts were copied from manuscript to manuscript, it nevertheless demonstrates the multilingual nature of literate medieval English society.

From the university’s website – Glasgow University  (Special Collections  .

More, the pictures of interest in Sloane 335 follow after Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ of the ‘French’ plant-names used in Paris in his day.  This raises the interesting question of whether the pictures in the earlier copy (Sloane MS 335) may derive from a source which Arderne had copied in Paris during the first half of the fourteenth century.  (He is mentioned as serving at the Battle of Crecy). Here, some of the pictures

image above from the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts site. (Not  yet on its  ‘Digitised Manuscripts’ site).

.. and below Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ courtesy of the University of Glasgow and the internet archive, reproduced from a paper which  D’arcy Power delivered in 1913 to the 17th. International Congress of Medicine in London.  (Note: Power used the letter i in isolation to signify (that is…) which we normally render as ‘i.e.’.

Stylistic tricks in common.

The drawings do share certain stylistic tricks in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, but the comparison offers no easy key to the Voynich drawings; it is important to distinguish between the graphic techniques employed by draughtsmen and the objects of their attention.

Buds or fruit are shown emerging from the calyx in similar ways, in two cases in Sloane 335 and as comparison the image from folio 1r.

(left) detail from Brit.Lib. MS Sloane 335 folio 82r.   (right) detail from Beinecke MS 408 fol. 1r.

More interesting is the placement of just one black dot on each of a plant’s leaves.

The Sloane drawing appears to me (correct me if you know better) to use the dots to mean ‘burres’ or burrs.  It may – but need not – carry the same sense in the Voynich image, though we note the leaves there are are also given spines, or bristles, along the leaf-margins

I would agree then with Rene’s observation, quoted above, that the drawings made in England about the same time as the Vms – but possibly from a French exemplar – display points in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, and that they look  “more  ‘Voynich like'”  than anything I’ve seen so far cited by a Voynich writer – certainly more ‘Voynichlike’ than any image cited from a Latin herbal including the Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, (Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823).


  • When commenting earlier on these drawings from Sloane 335 (in a postscript to ‘The Matter of “alchemical herbals”‘, voynichimagery, (April 8th., 2013), I added mention of a Peter of Arderne, referring to:   Stewart C. Easton, Roger Bacon And His Search For A Universal Science (1952) pp.120-121.

Among other pointers to an Anglo-French environment for manufacture of the Voynich manuscript and its early use are that the month-names are closely similar to the Anglo-French forms; that (as I first pointed out), the linguistic link between a crossbowman and Sagittarius is offered by entries into the English military rolls where ‘Sagittario’ (and variants) are found used for crossbowmen hired for service in Calais, and again  (this being now much re-used without mention of the present author), similarity in form between the type of  ‘cloudband’ seen in some manuscripts of John Gower’s  Vox Clamantis and (in those same), use of the ‘orb’ in three divisions to represent the world –  replacing the older ‘T-O’ form.  That ‘orb’ form is seen used for the same purpose in works by Roger Bacon and has been attributed to him.  I won’t elaborate now, having already published several posts on these matters at voynichimagery.

Noting that in  2014 Ellie Velinska had described an incidence of this form as an ‘inverted T-O’, the present author provided in August-October 2017 its history in brief, explaining its evolution within Christian imagery, and this ‘orb’s replacing the the earlier ‘book of the world’ emblem, first in English works. detail from Brit.Lib. Arundel 83 f.130 (c.1310-1320). See also Pelling’s comments on Ellie’s post (ciphermysteries. Oct.18th., 2017).
detail from Bodleian MS Laud Misc. 719 f.21r (1425-1450). Introduced in ‘The Orb, the Book and Equivalence Part 2’  voynichimagery (Mon. November 20th, 2017) and a detail (below) illustrating its style of ‘cloudband’ – this item from the author’s research having been shared with  members of the forum at that time.














In closing, readers please note that by c.2010, Dana Scott was alone convinced of an English provenance for the Voynich manuscript and he continued actively engaged in investigating English sources when I last saw his comments to the second mailing list.  Any researcher finding him/herself moving towards a similar position should not neglect to consult the work Dana has done over so many years, nor to credit him by name when taking any of it… up.  The second mailing list is still running, thanks to the generosity of Rich Santacoloma and I believe Dana remains a member.


typo corrected (thanks, Michael).25th May 2019; abstract added May 27th., 2019 and clarifications for the sense in which ‘Tractatus de herbis’ is used in this paper.

June 1st – Gower images added at Dr.O’Donovan’s instruction. June 3rd, detail from Brit.Lib. Arundel MS 83 f.130. L.S.