Skies above Pt 3: to tail or not to tail? (August 27, 2019)
The skies above Pt.2 ‘asteriskos’ (August 18, 2019)
Header image : Composite (left) Seal of KIng Sancho IV (1230 AD); (centre) Medieval gateway to the Jews’ quarter in Burgos – detail of a photo by Mikel Bilbao Gorostiaga; (right) detail from folio di Biblioteca Vaticana Apostolica (BAV) Reg.lat.1283.
THIS series about the month-diagrams will keep the usual format so readers can skim, or skip or read as suits them. The order in which the themes are treated will be that of my research-logs and summaries, written up between 2008-2017.
Present state of study
Today, theories focused on ‘naming the author’ are less prevalent than they were, but discussion of the month-diagrams continues to circle the narrow circuit it did half a century ago, and whose furlong posts (one cannot call them milestones) are summarised below. Failure to move forward is not due to those fifty-year old ideas and impressions having proven true from a balance of evidence, but because tradition and repetition lends them greater credence than is deserved by any evidence adduced then or since.
Rather embarrassingly one still finds even today that assumptions infusing d’Imperio’s book of half a century ago remain unquestioned – ‘givens’ – within the study. Among these tacitly accepted notions is that any non-Latin (western Christian) matter could occur in this manuscript only because selected by some Latin ‘gatekeeper’; that the astronomical learning of Jews or of others save those who wrote in Arabic can be relevant only in the context of magic, astrology and other non-objective systems – and even then as imagined subject to Latin mediation. Thus, for example, Panofsky’s reference to Kabbalah is transformed into an assumption of magical and not philosophical thought and only discussed through the prism of post-1492 works of Latin magic and ‘Christian Cabala’.
Similarly, though the Arabs’ “lunar mansions” system has been mentioned now and then, the usual habit has been to limit discussion to what appears of it in Latin works, and to again consider it chiefly in terms of works directly related to Latin interest in astrology and magic.
There may be more serious efforts underway to investigate other possibilities apart from the theory of fifteenth-century Latin authorship and mediation, but if so they have had little effect on the culture of the ‘Voynich community’ in public. I might say here that after having shared some of the research conducted over almost a decade, and with the kind advice and guidance of specialists in a number of areas, including Jewish scholarship, publication of a certain work whose authors were two well-known Voynicheros, and another less well known, and in which was included a so-called ‘Jewish theory’ which I can only describe as a parody or travesty in its abysmal ignorance of its supposed subject, and such utter indifference to fact and to cultural sensitivities that it was one of the reasons which led me to close Voynichimagery to the public, deciding to share no more original work online except as a formal paper.
Koen Gheuens’ investigation of the Voynich-style “lobster” in Latin works is a fine exception to the usual pre-emptive approach and offers the best evidence I know for arguing the diagrams’ central emblems relate to a tropical zodiac.
I should add that Muslim theology does consider the manazil [-al Qamar] primarily astrological in character, which view is widely found online ( e.g. here). In English-language scholarship, it informs the works of Daniel Varisco as e.g.
- Daniel Varisco, ‘The Origin of the anwā’ in Arab Tradition’, Studia Islamica, No. 74 (1991), pp. 5-28.
Marco Ponzi has more recently, and the present author had earlier, mentioned Pingree’s important paper in an effort to widen horizons a little.
- David Pingree. ‘The Indian Iconography of the Decans and Horâs’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (1963), pp. 223-254
Following the summary below, I’ll take folio 70v as paradigm when considering the ‘barrels’. Folio 70v provides one ‘barrel’ for each of the anthropoform figures, and shows least evidence of later alteration, addition, editing or ‘modernisation’.
The Diagrams’ Structure
In 1932, though unknown to the majority of those interested in the ‘Bacon cipher manuscript” as it was still known, there was a moment when the fog of speculation and over-confident assertions lifted for a moment and, for the first time, a specific comparison was made between an image in the Voynich manuscript and one in another text. Readers may recall Anne Nill‘s saying, of Panofsky: “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript, [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”
1932: Analogies. .
By “Alfonso’s manuscript” it is usually supposed Panofsky meant either Libros del saber de astronomía (Books of Wisdom of Astronomy) or Libro de los juicios de las estrellas (Book of Judgements of Astrology), with the former the more probable.The question then is which copy he meant by ‘Alfonso’s manuscript.’King Alfonso X of Castile did not compose the Libros… (though his name serves, still, for ‘gate-keeper’). As the modern title suggests,the Libros del saber… is a compilation, and we now know it was made in Burgos at the king’s command, and by Jewish scholars who translated works from their languages of Aramaic and Arabic. Aramaic remained in use among Jews as a language of religious advice and commentary. In the eastern Mediterranean, Aramaic had been widely spoken but with the Muslim conquests was gradually supplanted by Arabic as the language of everyday life.Cross-Mediterranean trade, however, long maintained Greek as lingua franca, and this was so too among Mediterranean Jews before the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language – c.10thC. On the matter of Aramaic, see for example:
In Arabic-speaking lands, “It is known that at an early age Jewish boys had to memorize the Aramaic translation of the weekly reading from the Hebrew Bible, and in order to understand the Hebrew original as well as its Aramaic translation, they had to memorize the Arabic translation verse by verse…. This popular background was obviously shared by Karaites and Rabbanites alike.
- Meira Polliack, ‘The Medieval Karaite Tradition of Translating the Hebrew Bible into Arabic: Its Sources, Characteristics and Historical Background’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Jul., 1996), pp. 189-196. (quoted from p.193).
I am not concerned with linguistics. If any reader’s interest is piqued by mention of Aramaic, Michael Sokoloff‘s work is perhaps the best place to start, but readers may want to consider Koen Gheuens’ recent work on ‘type to token’ ratios first. The following papers are listed, not as key texts in linguistics but because each proved either fascinating, or useful, or both. For an instant widening of horizons, the first paper is warmly recommend to all readers.
Bibliography – Aramaic-related.
- *Alexander Kulik, ‘Jews from Rus in Medieval England’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 102, No. 3 (Summer 2012) 371-403.*
- Peter T. Daniels, ‘A Calligraphic Approach to Aramaic Paleography’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 55-68. In the best scholarly tradition, Daniel begins by giving the reader an outline of, and references to, previous studies on the subject.
- David M. Bunis, Judezmo: The Jewish Language of the Ottoman Sephardim: European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 44, No. 1, The State of Ladino Studies II (Spring 2011), pp. 22-35.
- Charlotte Hallavant and Marie-Pierre Ruas, ‘The first archaeobotanical evidence of Spinacia oleracea L. (spinach) in late 12th—mid 13th century A.D. France; Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, Vol. 23, No. 2 (March 2014), pp. 153-165. [A history of the dissemination of spinach. My only excuse for including this item from concurrent research into the plant-pictures, and apart from intrinsic interest is that before reaching France, spinach had come first to Iberia, and apparently straight from Mesopotamia, where in the 4thC a work written in Aramaic mentions the plant. – D.]
- Kottsieper and Peter Stein, ‘Sabaic and Aramaic — a common origin?’, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Vol. 44, Supplement: Language of
Southern Arabia: Papers from the Special Session of the Seminar for Arabian Studies held on 27 July 2013 (2014), pp. 81-87.
- John C. Reeves, ‘Manichaica Aramaica? Adam and the Magical Deliverance of Seth’. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1999), pp.432-439.
- Avihai Shivtiel, ‘Judaeo- Romance and Judaeo-Arabic Word-list from the Genizah’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, April 2007 34(1), 63-74.
- Maud Kozodoy, ‘Medieval Hebrew Medical Poetry: Uses and Contexts’, Aleph , Vol. 11, No. 2 (2011), pp. 213-288. Considers 12th-14thC works from Latin (Christian) Iberia.
- Michael Sokoloff and Joseph Yahalom, ‘Aramaic Piyyuṭim [liturgical poems] from the Byzantine Period’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jan., 1985), pp. 309-321. [More interesting than the title might suggest].
- Geoffrey Khan, ‘The Neo-Aramaic Dialect Spoken by Jews from the Region of Arbel (Iraqi Kurdistan) Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1999), pp. 213-225.
Los Libros.. was made in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The original manuscript is lost and the earliest copy remaining is in the library of the Complutense University in Madrid. (note – 2019 – I had earlier thought this the copy Panofsky meant by ‘Alfonso’s manuscript’ but now think the Vatican copy the more likely).
Textual and iconological precedents and/or exemplars for the Libros has been treated by numerous scholars, but chiefly in the context of Alfonso’s reign and other works produced for him. Of course, as Panofsky surely knew the text’s origins lay elsewhere.
Manuscript copies of the Libros
The original is lost. The copy of Libros del saber de astronomia in the Complutense University collection is early, dated 1278 AD, It was made in Burgos.
- Madrid, Biblioteca Histórica Marqués de Valdecilla, Universidad Complutense de Madrid (BHl BH Mss. 156) Libros del saber de astronomia.(1276-79) (digitised, world catalogue library, Item 15401).
Others held in Spain:
- Madrid, National Library of Spain Mss 1197 Tratados de Alfonso X sobre astrología y sobre las propiedades de las piedras (1501 to 1600?). (ascription ‘Alfonso X’)
- Madrid, National Library of Spain, Mss 3306 Colección de libros relativos a astrología y astronomía, (1401 to 1600). (digitised, Biblioteca Nacional de España , Biblioteca Digital Hispánica). Title on the binding ‘Astrologia de los Arabes’. Explanatory technical diagrams executed in monochrome, those in the later section very fine.
N.B. Access. Warburg and Panofsky.
An important check to all speculations is the practical matter of access.
With regard to the Libros… Laura Fernandez Fernandez says it well:
The Book of Wisdom of Astrology was copied for centuries. However, because it was not printed until the 19th century, its dissemination was markedly scarce, available only
to those who had access to the original or any of its copies. Thanks to the edition by Manuel Rico y Sinobas (1876) the work was ultimately made known, adapted to the intellectual scene of the 19th century, under the title Libros del Saber de Astronomía (Books of Wisdom of Astronomy).
- L. Fernandez Fernandez, ‘ Libro del saber de astrología’, Masterworks: Science and Art in the Museums and Libraries of Madrid, (2013). Parallel Spanish and English text.
Fernandez Fernandez is not implying that hundreds of copies were made through hundreds of years, but that such copies as were made were made over a long period of time.
There are not many extant. Most are still in Spain,where the oldest known copy is in the library of the Complutense University.
Panofsky did not specify which manuscript he meant, and various writers (including, earlier, the present writer) supposed he must mean the Complutense manuscript, but there is more reason to think he had seen reproductions from the Vatican (BAV) copy to which Aby Warburg was introduced in 1911. Aviles’ paper of 1996 is helpful here.
Vatican copy (introduced to Aby Warburg in 1911)
- Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) Reg.lat.1283. Title as “Tratado de astrología y magia” de Alfonso X El Sabio”. Digitised in three parts, the relevant section in Part A.
- Alejandro Garcia Aviles, ‘Two Astromagical Manuscripts of Alfonso X’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 59 (1996) No.19.
Among secondary references listed in the BAV I would recommend:.
- Maria Teresa Cacho, ‘Manuscritos hispánicos de los siglos XV y XVI en bibliotecas italianas’, in Nápoles-Roma 1504. Culture y literatura española y portuguesa en Italia in the fifth centenary of la muerte de Isabel la Católica, edición al cuidado de Javier Gómez-Montero & Folke Gernert, (2005),
- Alejandro Garcia Aviles, El tiempo y los astros: Arte, ciencia y religio6n Edad Media. (Eitum: 2001). The title translates as Time and stars : art, science and religion in the High Middle Ages. The volume is offered as a free-to-download pdf online, but on a site which demands personal information.
Four years afterwards and in Hamburg, Warburg mould meet the newly-graduated Erwin Panofsky. Their association, and the disruptions of war, make it probable that Panofsky’s knowledge of the Libros was due to Warburg. The influence of the one scholar on the other has been much discussed in the literature but was neatly surveyed and commented on by Elizabeth Seer‘s lecture, now uploaded at you.tube:
- Elizabeth Seer, ‘First Contact: Panofsky meets Warburg‘.
As with other works whose origin lay in the eastern Mediterranean, those translated at Alfonso’s command had entered Europe quite easily. Among others which had influenced Latin thought but had their origins beyond mainland Europe and without the confines of Christian culture, Aratus’ Phaenomena, the matter in Manilius’ Astronomica and Theophrastus’ works on plants were among the best known, even if Theophrastus’ work was regularly mis-attributed.
Dead-ends: Libro de las formas… and Picatrix
Among the lines investigated but found to be ‘dead ends’ were Libro de las formas et de las ymagenes, and the woefully confused images in extant Latin copies of the Picatrix.* I expect some readers will have suspected the same after my reference to the Jagelonian Picatrix in the previous post. I confess I’m at a loss to understand why the Picatrix should so often crop up in Voynich writings and can only suggest it may be due to d’Imperio’s having mentioned it and that a copy (now in Darmstadt) was once in Rudolf II’s library – as Pingree notes in his critical edition of the Latin text.
The Libros – Excised and Modified; re-creating the central emblems …
Diagrams in copies of the Libros differ from copy to copy, as one might expect, but the difference is so strongly pronounced with regard to the central emblems used for diagrams (see examples further below), that one has the impression each copyist was obliged to find exemplars for himself.
IN 2010 the present writer gave it as her opinion – not as hypothesis but as the conclusion of research – that the central emblems in the Voynich diagrams represent a late phase in the text’s development, and that while most of the content appears to have arrived in the Latin domain by about 1330 AD, these emblems are among those added later ,closer to when the present manuscript was produced, and by re-employing images from a Latin source which she estimated as c.10thC in date, and possibly from Fleury.
If we could be certain about why the centres were excised from the Complutense ms, it would surely shed more light on the nature of the emblems in the (now lost) original. The excisions here may be due to reasons as simple as that an old manuscript was cannibalised for models to be used in the scriptorium, or stolen by someone who liked the look of them (not unknown), but given that Panofsky also thought the Voynich imagery contained ‘something of Cabala’ one must also consider the possibility that the original emblems were removed because they showed evidence of similar esoteric Jewish themes.
Historically, the idea is consistent with what we know occurred in late medieval Iberia. A situation of that sort offers one possible explanation for the disparity between the Voyinch diagrams and their emblems, the result of which has been a disparity in their legibility for a modern western audience; the emblem is formed according to conventions of western Europe’s visual language and more generally that of the Mediterranean world; as a result it seems easily legible while the rest of the diagram does not. A modern reader of European heritage (direct or otherwise) interprets at first glance the image of a balance, yet is bemused by an oddly-shaped female figure in a container which could as easily be meant for a tower as a basket or tub. This is not a draughtsman’s idiosyncratic drawing; it is a drawing whose meaning depends on a set of ideas and associations (a ‘visual language’) not our own.
Kabbalah – spelling for the word. Angelic hierarchies. Burgos and Girona.
Any researcher soon becomes aware of wide variation in the way ‘Kabbalah’ is spelled. The writer is grateful to Yerachmiel Tilles for posting on the subject:
- Yerachmiel Tilles, How do you spell it?
Studies in Kabbalah in thirteenth century Iberia are primarily associated with medieval Gerona (mod. Girona) but Kabbalah was also influential in Burgos, whose Jewish scholars translated so much of the Libros .
And as the complex vision of the celestial hierarchy entered western Christendom from a non-canonical source (Pseudo-Dionysos), so too its suffusion through Jewish medieval thought was owed to the non-canonical Jewish works of Kabbalah.
It was also contrary to Jewish custom to depict angels winged, or figures which were half-human and half animal. It is to Jews of the eastern Mediterranean that the west owes its depiction of Sagittarius as a fully human, striding or standing bowman. In the opinion of the present writer, the most probable means by which it came west to be represented in glass within early works of the then-new Opus Francigenum is that it came along with the red glass tesserae and perhaps also with workmen from the region of Lake Tiberius and from Tyre.
Though the present author’s citing, in that context ,the zodiac from Beth Alpha was met with indifference or assertions of its irrelevance at the time, one now sees the same mosaic (minus any of the accompanying historical and cultural notes, or the point in citing it) reproduced in various Voynich writers’ contributions to the study.
But to return to the question of possible influence from Kabbalah – this cannot explain the style in which the ‘ladies’ are drawn, and offers no immediate explanation for their ‘barrels’ either. Reference to Jewish custom, more generally, might bear an argument that the tiered ‘ladies’ were meant for angels but since they are not winged, they can scarcely be other than Jewish angels or pre-Christian equivalents. On the other hand, we have examples of the term ‘angel’ being used in other senses, as a bishop’s being described as the angel of the region under his guidance. If we were to suppose such a case for the tiered ‘ladies’ however, we could only suppose them to represent locations; it is inconceivable that early Christian practice could be to signify a bishop by means of a naked female form.
Any later argument that the ‘ladies’ are tiered Christian angels must refer to a diagram which survives only in a late copy of a text not composed until a century after the Voynich manuscript was made.
First phases of a ‘Christian Cabala’: Thenaud and François I.
Two generations after the Voynich manuscript was made, a certain Jean Thenaud was born in Pitou.
Joining the Franciscan order of friars in adulthood, he travelled widely, and composed works for the edification of princes. At the command of François I he wrote an Introductory Treatise to Cabala, dedicating this to Francis in 1516.
- Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 167 ‘Traité de la cabale’ by Jean Thenaud ( c 1480 1542). Dedicated to François I.
Whether Panofsky ever saw the Geneva copy of Thenaud’s treatise, I don’t know. I should add that when I first noted the image above and spoke of it, I had found no earlier reference to it in Voynich writings to that time. Though the ‘find’ met no overt response, I expect some readers did take note of it, and perhaps took copies for their file too. It is a pity that none thought to ask why exactly I found it worth our attention.
Other ‘Spanish’ suggestions – Manley and Llull.
Nill said, in the same letter quoted above, that John Manly had already suggested Spanish (- more exactly Catalanic -) ” that might be something Lullian in it” …
Llull’s organisation of knowledge, and so of logic, is widely known. Readers might enjoy:
- Umberto Eco, ‘On Llull Pico and Llullism’ in his From the Tree to the Labyrinth (2014)
For the idea that Lull was influenced by (or even knew of) Kabbalah, readers should need no more than the wiki article’s paragraph.
Technicalities: Stylistics + Language
A point regularly overlooked is that, while attempts to argue by ‘matching the picture’ may be valid when stylistics are taken into account, they are invalid if an image is defined only by some object perceived in it.
That becomes obvious if considered in any real-world and non-Voynich context.
No-one would claim that a fresco in which the Virgin Mary was shown, seated, must be Spanish for no better reason than that a Spanish icon was set beside it and that too showed the Virgin seated.
Style of drawing and the contexts matter.
Informing language is also important. Most of us retain concepts by means of words, and links between concepts are also, for most of us, conveyed in words.It is very difficult for anyone who has acquired language to set about drawing say, a cat, without first thinking the word ‘cat’. A cartoon punning on the (late) Shah of Iran by making the figure half feline would immediately suggest to us (quite apart from context and drawing style) that the first maker may have spoken French and intended the image as a visual pun addressed to Francophone audience.
Such an impression may then guide research, and may prove the key indicator of origin, but until deeper enquiry confirms or denies, it remains just a ‘guess’.The search must be aimed at finding stylistic customs and linguistic disposition occurring together, and in a way that accords with the problematic image.
I do not think that the Libros images do this. It may have been Panofsky’s opinion that they do but if so, he did not express himself so strongly. Again, I do not think the celestial hierarchy image in the later copy of Thenaud’s Introductory Treatise can be argued, retrospectively, an explanation for the Voynich month-diagrams. Others, maintaining a strictly ‘Latin European’ theme, and following d’Imperio’s focus on seventeenth-century ‘Christian Kabbalah’ may be inclined to differ.
It was at about this point in my own research that I turned again to that hint, earlier mentioned, that the first enunciator of the month-diagrams was comfortable thinking in Greek.
To be fair to any prospective revisionist, I feel that I must include something of my own findings about the ‘barrels’ because it opened the way to matters which had not been earlier considered and which I had closed Voynichimagery before mentioning.
The initial problem – research question- here was whether there might exist some chain of connection between one or more of the following: the ‘little stars’ in a Greek thought (aster-asteriskos), the older (Hellenistic) period as e.g. Nicander’s allusion to the star-flower with its hint of association with deities and the dead and so on. Might the tiered figures in these folios have originally ‘spoken in Greek’?
To that line of enquiry, added to from time to time, I would be brought eventually to the period of closest contact between Byzantine and Latin; from grants of trader’s quarters around the Golden Horn and Pera, and around Trebizond, to the much closer connection established as (literally) thousands of Greek-speaking inhabitants from the eastern Mediterranean sought refuge in the west, and chiefly if not only around Venice and the Veneto.
The Voynich map’s “castle”, by the way, represents Constantinople/ Pera as approached by sea, a conclusion aided not only by detailed analysis of that folio but by the ancillary research into the month-diagrams and other elements in the manuscript.
Figures in “barrels” – Introduction
In 1375, a certain Simon de Hesdin, a Knight Hospitaller of Jerusalem and Master of Theology, began work on a translation of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta for Charles V of France, but Charles died with the work unfinished and Simon followed him only three years’ later, by which stage the translation had been completed only as far as the end of Book 7, Chapter 4.
It seems then to have been put aside for some time, but in 1400-1401, another Master of Theology (and of Arts), Nicolas de Gonesse completed the translation and in the custom of the time doubtless oversaw the painter’s efforts. With its few illustrations added, the whole was then presented to the Duc de Berry who had its use until his own death in c.1416. The manuscript [from which the detail comes is a later fifteenth-century copy] now in the British Library as MS Harley 4375/3. [edit to replace dropped text – 6th. Sept. 2019]
( As far as I could discover, when posting this image in 2017, it had never before come to notice among Voynich writers. I daresay that situation may have changed now). I closed Voynichimagery soon after, before explaining the reasons I thought this picture worth notice.
The paintings have been attributed to ‘Maître François’ though – elsewhere – Maître François has been tentatively identified with François le Barbier [or François Le Barbier] pè̀re [father], active 1455-ca. 1480 , which would discount an earlier date for the painting shown above.
Past experience warns me against publishing online only a summary of evidence and my conclusions from original research, so what I shall do for the rest of this series, dear reader, is to have you look on, as it were, while I turn from one section to another in my logs and summaries. The order of presentation should give you a clearer and straighter road than in fact I travelled, but that’s only fair: not everyone enjoys the process so much as the result.