In a media-savvy age, many readers will know that meaning is context-dependent.
This doesn’t mean we may haul the manuscript and its content into whatever context we find comfortable and then assert its meaning is whatever we, and ‘people like us’ find most agreeable. My saying so may seem trite.. but don’t be fooled.
Hauling the past into a present social environment, to make easier the task of co-opting and re-interpreting it to suit self-and-friends has been a perennial activity, probably since human society began, and even more with images than with words.
Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty offers an apt example:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
I begin with the diagrams entire though the usual habit has been to discuss the central emblems without reference to the rest.
There are present eleven diagrams of similar design in Quires 10-12. Each diagram of the eleven occupies the equivalent of one page. By ‘page’ here I mean one face of the four in a standard bifolio of this manuscript.
All are accommodated within the range “folio 70v(part) to 73v” because Quires 10 and 11 are on lengths of vellum folded to suit the ordinary bifolios’ dimensions, and having a width equal to the ordinary bifolio’s length.
There is no indication of subsequent trimming for re-binding, and no record appears to exist of any ruling out or pricking for these or for the normal bifolios. Nor have I seen any reference to pressure-marks of the sort which might indicate use of frame and wire.
It takes little acquaintance with medieval manuscripts and their techniques of construction to realise that this absence of ruling out, or evidence of its erasure, is either an anomaly or (rather strangely) an omission from the Beinecke catalogue and from all other descriptions.
In addition, the corpus of Latin Christian manuscripts appears to contain nothing comparable to these ‘fold-outs’ – neither in their design or in the way the pages are folded.. Quire 11, in particular, uses a form of concertina fold, a type characteristic of small sleeve calendars in Latin Europe and otherwise chiefly characteristic of Asian books in direct descent from palm-leaf books and Buddhist works on paper.
All eleven diagrams follow the same general scheme, viz:
A number of concentric circles presenting as wider and narrower bands, with the narrower occupied by script and the wider inhabited by discrete anthropoform figures, chiefly female, the majority on the ‘March’ folio being provided with a roughly cylindrical container and an element that immediately strikes the modern viewer as resembling a star held by a flexible cord, or a flower on a lax stem… or both at once. (I’ll come back to this).
Each diagram’s centre contains an emblem, none of which appears in any other diagram. At some later time a different hand added to the centres the name of a month, some repeated but not exactly: they are not ‘replicated’.
I’d like to comment on this fact, for throughout the manuscript, and most unexpectedly with regard to great number of such anthropoform figures, which occur not only in these diagrams – care has evidently been taken to distinguish each from all others, and this has been done with a degree of subtlety (or perhaps delicacy) which argues against the usual idea that the figures are just badly drawn.
We do see
one two emblems in which the creature has its ‘pair’, but even there it is not exact: not a ‘mirror image’and the painter (see the example shown right) has also emphasised that they cannot be confused for one another, or supposed to ‘replicate’ the other.
I consider this another item indicative of cultural mores mutual between the persons who first enunciated the ‘ladies’ folios, and the person who later added the month-names. Of those month-names, some appear twice, yet each is again distinguished by some small detail not jarring to the viewer, but again avoiding ‘replication’.
I’ll include bibliography for the ‘replication’ issue, in early medieval Cairo and in medieval Byzantium at the end of this series. Anyone wanting the references sooner is welcome to email)
Concentric circles are a near-universal convention for depicting the heavens and that technique informs many different systems employed for doing so, but diagrams of such structure have many other applications and need have no necessary reference to the heavens. The eleven diagrams’ taking such form may, however, cause a modern viewer to feel an immediate (‘gut’) feeling the diagrams allude to stars, or astronomy or astrology and so over-ride consciousness of the gulf between subjective and objective certainty.
‘Asteriskos’ – questions unasked.
The ‘flower-like’ stars, or ‘star-like’ flowers given most of the tiered figures has been another trigger for that reflexive reading, unchanged since the 1920s.
Appearance of a similar motif in the margins of Quire 20 naturally then raises questions of common subject-matter and whether some direct connection was intended between the diagrams and this later section. That is, whether the motif was intended to carry similar significance.
Quire 20 itself is not formed in the usual way of quires in Latin European manuscripts. It is, or was, a septenion.
A quire of seven bifolios is rare in Europe but was fairly standard in the Arabic-speaking world a. It was also seen in Irish manuscripts.
Update – 22 June 2021. I should add that a septenion is not unknown in European works and I’ve noted one from the first half of the fifteenth century and which includes a letter to Poggio Bracciolini is in a manuscript that is (or was in 1905) at Harvard. For an intense codicological analysis of that ms and its classical texts see
E. K. Rand, ‘A Harvard Manuscript of Ovid, Palladius and Tacitus’, The American Journal of Philology , Vol. 26, No. 3 (1905), pp. 291-329.
I made these points earlier:
- D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Expert Opinion: Myth vs Materials Science Pt3’, Voynichrevisionist, April 26th., 2019.
- Paul Hepworth and Karin Sheper, ‘Terminolology for the Conservation and Description of Islamic Manuscripts‘.
Again, certain Arabic texts are found in which a form of flower-like “asterisk” separates sentences. I hope readers won’t mind that the illustrations come from the same 12thC treatise on theriac which I mentioned earlier in posts to Voynich Imagery (in a series entitled, ‘Theriac: rosetta stone?’)
- Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Arabe 2964, ,Kitāb al-Diryāq كتاب الدرياق. .(c.1290AD)
The header (above) and the detail (below, left) are taken from that manuscript: .
As text-mark, the ‘asteriskos’ is attested from Hellenistic times, though we have no example of the earlier form. In 3rdC AD Egypt, the works of the Christian philosopher, Origen, see him use and possibly invent the form for it which then passed in the context of authoritative Christian manuscripts to 6th-7thC Spain, and saw Origen’s version maintained within the Latin manuscript tradition where it appears as a vertical or a diagonal cross having dots set in the interstices.
The Latins’ ‘astericus’ did not have the form of a flower; nor what we might call a ‘star-shape’. In short, it was never formed as are these motifs in the Voynich manuscript
Below is illustrated a detail from a 12thC copy of Isidore’s Etymologies. However, where he had included the Greek term in Greek letters, this copy romanised and then translates the Greek as ‘stella’ just as numerous other and later copies do, even while keeping Origen’s and Isidore’s form for it all but unchanged. In other cases (as the detail upper left), the motif served as virtual ornament and filler, while still expressing the asterisk’s significance, by showing that the half-filled line was not blank unintentionally; i.e. an intentional ‘omission’ of written text.
Significance in the Hellenistic and in the Latin traditions.
The oldest references to use of the ‘asteriskos’ are Hellenistic and show it marked places in a text where some item or passage had been duplicated. No examples remain.
Origen used the ‘asteriskos’ to mark points where he re-inserted a passage from the Hebrew left untranslated by the Septuagint. He did not replace the earlier text with his own revised version, but added his own below, marking both with his cross-shaped asterisk. In that way, the sign still signified ‘duplication’ but now, equally, ‘omission’ – and the latter sense became the default in medieval Christian Europe.
There is another and deeper level of significance for the ‘asteriskos’ in Christian traditions. It is touched upon. lightly, by Isidore whose comment runs (in English translation):
“The asterisk is placed next to omissions, so that things which appear to be missing may be clarified through this mark, for star is called in Greek, ἀστήρ and the lLatin] term asteriscus is derived from this. ”
- Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae Bk I xxi.2 ‘De notis sententiarum’ (De Critical signs)
What Isidore touched upon lightly, a later Christian authority, Jerome, would expand upon – and “F.M.P” has rightly drawn attention to the fact:
- Anthony Grafton, Glenn W Most, Salvatore Settis, The Classical Tradition (2010).
The asterisk as illuminating’ what was absent – light into the darkness – impressed the medieval mind. It will offer another and natural link to associations of ‘stella maris’.
But while I’m quite prepared to accept that the Voynich ‘star-flower’ (as signe de renvoi) might have been intended as link-and-key to text in Quire 20, and even evoke intentionally that sense of ‘lights in the darkness’ I cannot accept that the sort of men who knew how to employ their version of the ‘asteriskos’ in Christian texts – clerics by definition during most of the medieval period – would have ever created such figures as those ‘ladies’ set around the diagrams.
And of course, the Latin form for the asteriskos, though it had variations was always the dotted cross or X. It came, in the Latin west, to serve as signe de renvoi, indicating a link between marginal text and main text, but adjacent, not separated by a number of quires. A comparable practice is (so far as I’m aware) unattested before the introduction of printing, and even then not immediately.
On this see e.g.
for which example and other details I’m indebted to
- Yin, ‘Asterisks in the Middle Ages’, medieval codes (August 5th., 2014)
I have found only one source where there is so much as a hint that any type of ‘flower’ form was used in any comparable way in a medieval text.
I owe that hint to:
- Lori J. Walters, ‘The Rose as Sign: Diacritical Marks in the Tournai Rose [TOU]’. In: Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, tome 83, fasc. 3, 2005. Langues et littératures modernes – Moderne taal en litterkunde. pp. 887-912; doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/rbph.2005.4948 https://www.persee.fr/doc/rbph_0035-0818_2005_num_83_3_4948
The manuscript discussed by Walters dates to the 13thC, and is a revised version of the ‘Romance of the Rose’ devised by Gui de Mori in 1290AD. It may be available to view if you’re in Tournai:
- Tournai, Bibliothèque de la Ville, [ms] 101 (Tou)
- Bibliography – list of mss. [ARLIMA} REMANIEMENT DU ROMAN DE LA ROSE: Livre de la Rose, qui désigne tout le Roman de la Rose avec les interpolations de G. de M.
- eidited to add link – 20thAug.2019
If anyone sees that manuscript, and whether its ‘rose’ mark has similar form to the Vms’, or similar purpose as the Latins’ asteriskos, I hope you’ll let me know.
- Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies)
Tentative conclusion (A)
Apart from that possible exception in TOU, the Latins did not have the linguistic frame [aster-asteriskos], nor did they have the requisite habits in marking texts, to have invented such a form as the Voynich ‘flower-stars’ to serve in place of the traditional ‘asteriscus’. Nor does there appear to exist any comparable use of their cross-shaped ‘astericus’ to link diagrams in one section of a manuscript with text separated from it, as is now the case in the VMS, by several quires of other images and text, amounting to tens of pages.
The Latins’ habits in making manuscripts does not encourage the idea that, if the diagrams’ star-flowers were meant as cue to Quire 20, that the materials’ first enunciation occurs in medieval western Christian Europe. The one possible clue to any exception is yet to be sighted.
Islamic works of the thirteenth century use a ‘flower’ form but it resembles a rose and not the Voynich manuscript’s spiky ‘aster-‘ whose drawing is consistent in the diagrams and Quire 20, arguing a set habit. However, the fact that the Voynich motifs have the same form in both sections doesn’t itself prove shared reference or common significance, here or in any posited exemplars.
Something that I’m inclined to think might prove relevant, should anyone wish to take up the question for research, is that the motif in Quire 20 sees a conscious alteration of the centres, and this seems to me a possible echo of the way (as in the same 12thC ms cited earlier), ‘marginal’ passages of text were differentiated in Islamic manuscripts. I suggests consonant habits of mind.
What does not accord with the idea of origin for the Vms’ diagrams in works of the Islamic corpus is first, the ease with which the Voynich drawings equate flower-form, star-form and that hint of ‘light in the darkness’. It seems to me to imply familiarity with the Greek, and specifically if indirectly with the author of a ‘Theriac’ text, the Hellenistic poet Nicander who lived at just the time we first hear of Hellenistic use of the ἀστερίσκος (‘little star’), whose form is unknown but which is attested in use, to mark duplication, by the 2ndC BC – precisely when Nicander lived.
It is also my opinion that much in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery points to first enunciation in the Hellenistic period, but I won’t elaborate on that except to refer to the form of the diagram’s unclothed female figures.
In his exhaustive paper on the history ot the Aster. Burgess quotes a fragment from Nicander, author of ‘Theriaca’,
- Edward Sandford Burgess, Studies in the History and Variations of Asters —Part I (etc.), Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 10 (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.
The ‘aster’ which Burgess, and all subsequent commentaries on this fragment of Nicander’s poetry have assumed meant is the purple-flowered Atticus, but I feel some doubt on this score, for Nicander calls it ‘luminous’ and there is a white, spiky-petalled ‘star-flower’ whose centres alternate in colour. It is has been known over time as Aster pannonicus and Aster tripolium, and its present description is Tripolium pannonicum. The oldest remaining version of the Greek legend of Astraea seems consciously to conflate the high- and the low dwelling types (see picture and caption, left).
Note: The plant we now call ‘Hellenium’ is arelated to the sunflower and native to the Americas. The ancient ‘Helenium’ was Elecampagne, something known to European writers by the early 17thC. as e.g. The General Practise of Physicke … Translated and Augmented by J. Mosan. B.L. (1605) p.817.
Nicander of Colophon, Aratus of Soli. Theriac, medicine and Stars.
Nicander was born in Claros, near Colophon on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor in 197 BC. Though he may have known Aratus’ work well, or the material from which Aratus drew, Nicander’s ‘Theriaca’ mentions stars only as markers of time; warning that this or that season was when a noxious creature was most numerous, most active or most highly venomous. He died in young, in 170 BC.
Aratus had been born and died long before, being born in Soli in 325 BC and having died in Pella, of Greece in 240 BC.
Cicero (de Oratore i.69) repeats the usual parallel but tries to a put a good spin on it – along the lines of ‘why shoudn’t someone learn only as much as they need for a present occasion?’
- Alan Cameron, Callimachus and His Critics (2017)
- Floris Overduin, Nicander of Colophon’s Theriaca (Brill) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004283602_002
And as a last thought – the material copied to make the Voynich manuscript had to be copied because useful to someone; since the quires appear to have been bound by, or for a Latin, so presumably the information was perceived as useful to them. It occurs to me that by translation from ‘aster” to ‘stella’ the sea-aster offered a natural association of ideas with the ‘stella maris’ which of course might mean the Pole star (which medieval Latins continued to associate as often with Cynosura as with Polaris), but it might also refer to the magnetised needle and surrounding compass (card).
Just a thought.
Status of the problem so far ….
The seemingly natural connection made by the first enunciator f these diagrams: ‘flower-star-textual asterisk’ implies, if intentional, close familiarity with Greek. .
The medieval Christian works, the ‘asterisks’ don’t take this form – certainly not before the 13thC and even then there appears to be only one comparison known – the TOU.
On the other and each in their several ways suggest the aster- motif in both the diagrams and Quire 20 are likely to relate to the sea-aster whose range today is believed much reduced from what it was in the centuries BC, but still inhabits salt-marsh environments.
At the moment the three avenues offering strongest possibilities of responding to investigation are, in order of chronology (1) Asia Minor, Hellenistic Greek. (2) Arab-Persian c.12thC AD or (3) 13thC French culture ‘[TOU}.
If common significance could be proven between Quire 20 and the diagrams, the contextual range would be more limited – which is all to the good.
The first printed edition of NIcander’s medical work issued from the Aldine Press in 1499. (In Greek). You can see a copy of that edition here,
- Other holdings of the first edition thanks to ‘Short Title Incunabula’ site: https://data.cerl.org/istc/id00260000
- and Aldine at the Edward Worth Library.
.. but that’s how we begin.
Note – August 20th. I have corrected minor typos and improved the grammar of half a dozen sentences. The reader is asked either to excuse mis-typings which remain, or leave a comment below.
2 thoughts on “The skies above Pt.2 ‘asteriskos’”
Erratum (dropped text):
“..The Pole star (which medieval Latins continued to associate as often with Cynosura as with Polaris), ”
“The Pole star (which medieval Latins continued to associate as often with Helice as with the Cynosura as constellation and/or as our Polaris)…