Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series.

*header image. (left) modern reproduction of a tide-calculation calendar in brass. (right) schematic drawing of a nocturnal, illustration from Leonard Honey, ‘The Nocturnal and other Instruments’, Horological Journal, Dec. 2006 p.458.
Numerous Voynich researchers since 1912 have speculated that the month-diagrams (and other diagrams) might relate to one or another type of astronomical and/or time-keeping instrument. None appears to have researched the possibility in any depth, but for the history of this idea in Voynich studies see standard sources given in my ‘Cumulative Index’ Page – Jim Reeds’ Bibliography, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, conversations in Jim Reeds’ (first- mailing list files), Philip Neal’s pages and Nick Pelling’s blog. These sources are the most reliable when you want to accurately identify the sources and courses of an ‘idea’ about the manuscript.  I am not arguing that the month-diagrams show a nocturnal, merely demonstrating that the stars served many non-astrological purposes, even in Latin Europe. 

Having spent a couple of weeks thinking it over, I’ve decided to terminate the ‘Skies above/Certain measures” series.

Originally, my intention was to take readers through the process of research, stage by stage, to make clear the range of information and chain of investigations that led me to form the conclusions I did, and the further process by which I subjected those conclusions to hostile examination. I think that we must always try to act as our own best-informed and most determined cross-examiner. Enthusiasm, like ill-informed critiques, may be left to others. 🙂

We’ve lost almost eighteen months to covid, and I daresay that has also broken reader’s concentration on the progressions of evidence and argument which halted with the epidemic’s arrival. I think it may be best, now, to return to the original format, which offered readings and brief notes on various of the traditional and fiercely maintained, but often unfounded ‘Voynich doctrines’.

To finish the series I list here a few notes and pointers, and anyone keen to go further into this section of the manuscript is welcome to write if they want e.g. recommended readings. I should say that most of my work relies on academic studies, and it will be helpful if you have access to a good library, or pots of money to hand over to academic presses.

write to voynichimagery AT gmail dot com

BASICS.

If the month folios were astrological diagrams produced by medieval Latin Europe, that purpose would have been accurately assessed at least a century ago.

As the two independent specialists said recently,* and as the silence of so many other specialists from 1912 onwards indicate, astrological diagrams present in a set number and range of forms, each according to its purpose – natal diagrams and so forth.

*see post of Feb.9th., 2020.

No-one has discovered anything having the structure and particular characteristics of the Voynich diagrams in any astrological text, whether medieval Latin, or not – and the specialists have studied their subject back to as far as Egyptian times.

In recent years, the practice adopted by persons determined on some (usually ‘Latin European’) theory has been to extract the late-added central emblems from the diagrams, to assert that these form a zodiac, and then to assert or imply that any ‘zodiac’ is astrological. The last two assertions are demonstrably false both within and beyond Latin Europe and would be false even if the Voynich central emblems had formed a zodiac, or a continuous section from a zodiac.. which they do not.

What few substantial insights have been offered on the central emblems themselves is increasingly difficult to determine given that ever-more of the ‘online community’ imagines that the aim of research is to gain personal ‘credits’ and to that end, many deliberately omit, or dissemble about, the sources from which they have what they term an ‘idea’. Creating a wiki article so you can cite that as a way to avoid due acknowledgement of your sources is unkind, unfair and… dirty pool.

The most dishonest may just blame co-incidence or serendipity for their suddenly developing an ‘idea’ recently set out as part of another researcher’s detailed work but never argued before that time.

Let me make this point once more. (and don’t worry, I’m sighing with you).

Everyone who comes to this study is entitled to expect transparency. ‘An idea’ is not a fact. A reader is entitled to be given a clear path back to that idea’s origin, so that they can see how it was first, as well as most recently, presented, argued and supported (or not) by evidence – evidence which the reader is also entitled to check for themselves and which scholars generally feel a duty to check before adopting any assertion. (on contacting me for details of my own work and published sources, see above).

The origin of the ‘astrological’ description for the month folios lies with Wilfrid Voynich and Professor Newbold, whose talks of 1921 show clearly that it was based on nothing more than subjective impressions expressed by persons whose range of information was limited, and who never formally argued or proved their impressions valid.

The truly astonishing fact is that, from 1912 to the present day, no-one seems to be credited with having asked, and investigated that simplest of questions, which can be expressed as:

‘Wilfrid and Newbold had a feeling that the month-diagrams served some type of astrological calculation – were they right, or wrong?’

From which it follows that no-one checked the evidence adduced by either man, so noted that there was no evidence, and apparently none began to test the worth of that idea.

It would appear – do correct me if you know better – that no-one so much as asked, ‘Is that so?” before I did in 2010, and its most authoritative assessment and rejection was not published until 2020.

Given the deliberate and systematic erasure of researchers and research that do not lend credence to a currently-popular story (such as the ‘Roger Bacon’ idea until c.2000, and since c.2004 the ‘New World’ theory initiated by O’Neill and promoted by Tucker and Janick, or the ‘Germanic-central European’ proposition initiated by Prinke and Zandbergen), researchers are now greatly hindered in efforts to discover what, if any, research has denied the ‘astrological’ notion which those storylines all treat as a ‘given’. It is arguably (apart from the ‘Rudolf owned it’ story), the most pervasive and determinedly maintained of the unfounded ‘doctrines’ in Voynich studies.

So – it seems – that most basic question had remained un-asked for a century and my conclusion in the negative was not independently confirmed still later still.

The month-diagrams are NOT astrological diagrams. It follows that they are not ‘horoscopic charts’.

So what did the original maker, and the subsequent transmitters of these diagrams (up until our manuscript was made) see as being their purpose?

That’s a research question.

Any conclusions of research into that question should be able to provide and document a coherent analytical and historical commentary for the form of those diagrams, for the fact that the series is labelled with the names of only ten months, that there are ‘doubled’ or ‘split’ months.. and much more. Such as – why does the series begin with March? Why are the ‘barrels’ concentrated in the March diagram? Why are the ‘ladies’ bodies drawn in neither the attenuated style of earlier Latin art, nor the voluptuous ‘shapely’ form of later Latin art? Why are the faces marred, and the upper limbs ‘broken’ in a way opposing Christian ideas of the human as made in the image of God?

You might even ask whether Panofsky was right in believing, from the full range of his experience and scholarship, that Latin Christian art didn’t depict unclothed ‘shapely’ females with rounded bellies until the 15thC.

=================

Thus, the internal evidence shows that the month folios’ diagrams are not astrological diagrams and the drawings not a product of Latin Europe’s customs when the Voynich manuscript was made.

Contrary to what is repeated ad.infinitum (and even taken by Fagin Davis to be ‘what we know’), what we actually have filling the centres does not constitute ‘a zodiac’ nor a straight segment of any standard Roman zodiac. That’s the fact.

Here are some details as markers from my own investigations, but that’s as much more as I’ll provide here from my own work on the section.

I would like to acknowledge that some studies of the central emblems have been genuinely original and solid contributions to the study, among them Koen Gheuens investigation of the curious ‘lobster’ form’s later dissemination through France and Alsace.

*Koen’s wordpress blog is found by searching ‘herculeaf’

So: –

The ‘castle’ in the map represents Constantinople. This was the conclusion reached by analysis of the fold-out map.

Neither Greeks nor Latins had a custom of deliberately distorting faces, or ‘breaking the bones’ of human figures. Christianity held that the human body was made in the image of the deity.

The motifs of bull, goat etc. simply denoted the constellations visible in the sky in a given month. That is why these emblems appear everywhere in manuscripts, on public buildings, as religious allegory and moralia within (and beyond) Latin Europe. They are primarily calendar emblems – ‘shorthand’ forms – though in some manuscripts and calendars, their assignment to the months is not literal like a calendar’s, but schematic or astrological assignments.

Comparative study of calendars can be fascinating but study of calendar systems is definitely non-trivial. Just as a first taste, here’s a wiki article surveying some varieties of ancient Greek calendar.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_calendars

Again, considering a calendar’s relationship to work, you find that in practical terms a ‘ten month year’ of active work, such as agriculture or seamanship, is characteristic of northern latitudes, but also necessarily affected the Mediterranean traveller’s year (especially for anyone who needed to travel by sea.)

Still on the sub-set of maritime ‘years’ – Officially the Mediterranean sailing year ended in November with the rising of Saggitarius’ bow. In classical times it had ended with the rising of Orion, before Orion was dropped in favour of the Romans’ Libra, this being the first non-living figure imagined on the road of sun-and-moon.

Documents from the medieval western Mediterranean show that, in practice, accomplished seaman might sail set distances (as from the French-Spanish border to Rome) to as late as December.

Body-types (discussed in a little more detail in earlier posts) are valuable pointers to cultural origin for an image.

Panofsky was quite right when he said, in 1932, that in Latins’ art, the custom of drawing ‘shapely females’ like those in the month folios did not occur so early as he believed the style of drawings suggested overall.

That’s still a valid observation given the information available to him then.

Before it became a fashion (or fad) which spread (apparently but not certainly via works produced in Paris), it hadn’t been a Latin custom to show women with swollen bellies as a stylistic, and even there, most Latins initially drew the belly on a body attenuated, accenting still the bones rather than the flesh, this a continuation of earlier Latin practice. (Here see, for example, a ‘city of God’ illustration first brought to notice for ‘Voynicheros’ by Ellie Velinska).

What Panofsky did not know, in 1932, was that earlier examples of the swollen belly do exist, but in Jewish manuscripts. Both the examples below were introduced to the study of Beinecke MS 408 by the present author. The first is from a manuscript originally part of the Sassoon collection, but now in the University of Pennsylvania. It is often regretted by historians and scholars that the British Library found itself unable to purchase the collection entire, and it is now widely scattered. In my opinion, this is the image most like the style of drawing in the month-folios. I notice not only the emphasis on the hands, but other details including the way the feet and ankles are drawn.

Nor did Panofsky know the next example.

Dated to 1322, the ms is believed to have been made near Lake Geneva, in the region of Constance. What it shows is NOT (as the ‘Germanic’ theorists will surely opine) that this body-shape, or use of yellow, or gold, for a figure’s hair proves this work ‘Germanic’. Nor does braided hair, as some have asserted.

It is another Jewish work, and as far as I’ve been able to discover, was also first introduced to study of Beinecke MS 408 by the present author. Do correct me if you know better.

The point, in this case, is that as early as 1322 and 1361, Jewish works were already portraying human figures with rounded bellies and over-large hands but without attempting to make them ‘beautiful’.

What we do not find in the medieval Jewish works, even when depicting unclothed bodies, is any suggestion that the unclothed body might evoke carnal or sexual response in the viewer. The 1322 AD figure is shown very heavy, even ungainly, and is fully clothed. If we imagine it at the drawing stage, before the pigments were laid on – well, I won’t try dictating the rest of that sentence. You must form your own opinions.

In earlier posts, I gave a thumb-nail history of how the human body’s depiction changed in Mediterranean cultures from the early (pre-Roman) through to the late medieval period in the west.

We found that naked female forms occur relatively late in the history of Greek art, and that even then the custom had been to paint statuary. ‘The nude’ as we now define it occurs for only a relatively short time, and is decidedly sensual in Roman art until it falls out of favour again as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. It doesn’t re-appear as ‘shapely ladies’ in western Christian (‘Latin’) art until after our manuscript was made.

So there are two immediate possibilities to investigate – one being that the form of the month diagrams preserves but distorts (possibly for cultural and/or religious and/or ideological reasons on the part of the transmitters) what had once been a classical (i.e. pre-Christian) calendar. Some few ancient and classical calendars were long preserved in various media including mosaic and stone, but the Voynich diagrams have not given any indication (to me at least) of the medium from which the style of the Voynich month-diagrams and details (excluding central emblems) might first have come.

note – An interesting and consciously-Christianised diagram is found in a particular tenth ninth-century Byzantine manuscript often mentioned by Rene Zandbergen. That diagram includes a section for what had been ‘the 12 hours’, but describes those figures as ’12 holy virgins’. The adaptation appears to me to have included replacing an earlier Apollo or (more likely in my view) a Queen of Heaven in her chariot (Ursa Major). The Christian version would become known as a ‘helios’. Apart from the Christ invictus type, the adaptation to Christianity was not successful and such ‘ladies’ don’t appear in later works.

Zandbergen’s site treats that Byzantine diagram in detail, but gives no indication of when or by whom it was first introduced or discussed within Voynich studies. None of the non-Voynich commentaries I’ve seen attempt to identify the source from which the pattern had been adopted, but its ‘ladies’ suggest that the donor had been a tradition opposed to accurate depiction of a living creature. That ethos pervades most of the Voynich drawings, and while Vat.gr.1291 – that is, the manuscript as a whole – is dated to the period of iconoclasm in Greek Christianity (ms is dated AD 813-820), hostility to the making of ‘life-like’ images was endemic and ancient in the near east, informing not only Jewish thought, or later Islamic views, but other and early cultures of the region. It passed away from Byzantine Christianity by the early 9thC AD. It remained a cultural norm elsewhere.

The wiki article on ‘iconoclasm’ lacks depth.

——

I’ll skip the many following sections in my logs which treat subsequent phases of the digging – and move to notes about a last phase of question-and-investigation. This asked whether the material so far accumulated could explain why the ‘March’ diagram contains the majority of ‘barrels’. My brief note, now, will surely seem arbitrary but that can’t be helped.

The barrels represent gifts to heaven (i.e. to one or more of its denizens) – a formally defined gift which was specifically ‘for the preservation of the city’. This was an ancient ritual which preceded Alexander in the Greek-speaking world and which survived in spirit and in its name, not only the end of his empire, but the end of Rome’s empire, and to as late as the fourteenth century (at least so late; I didn’t follow it further).

As each cultural and political phase gave way to the next, the Greek word for this ‘gift’ as a tax on the population remained, its purpose also the same in essence but differently presented – becoming material goods to be given in that month by the local population to maintain local officials, and then church officials, and by our time of interest, as taxes to be paid by all who used the Byzantine ports (Or more exactly, Constantinople’s. It may have applied more generally, but I didn’t follow the matter further.) The ‘protection of the city’ theme also survived and it was demanded by Constantinople – being imposed for example on Genoa – that any city granted rights to use the port(s) must provide ships to aid the city if called upon to do so.

Perhaps now some readers will see why I spent so much time, earlier in the series, talking about Pera.

Oh – and if you try picking up the threads (to be fair I should say they don’t end with Constantinople) you should not be surprised if you are told soon by someone that Constantinople is ‘Germanic’ by reason of a temporary Frankish (i.e. Latin European) usurpation of the throne which the Greeks themselves decided to ratify as the most sensible way to normalise that situation.

Constantinople occupies a very small proportion of the Voynich map, and so too it occupies only part of the story told by the Voynich map, its calendar and its ladies.

One reason that the Prinke-Zandbergen Voynich ‘theory’ has produced so little new insight into the manuscript is that its adherents’ every line of study aims to end with the cry, ‘It’s Germanic-central European Christian’. But just as a passport is not a person, so this conception of ‘nationality’ explains nothing about the form, or content, or purpose for which the manuscript and its content was produced.

One must take notice of the fact that there is nothing distinctively ‘Germanic’ or ‘central European’ about the vellum’s finish, the layout of the pages, the structure of the quires or the stitching. The Prinke-Zandbergen theory offers no explanation for absence of ruling-out, nor the palette, nor the style of script, nor the structure and meaning of the month-folio diagrams.

Indeed, many of the things which speak to a manuscript’s content and purpose positively oppose that particular, fairly-recent (if presently popular) proposition.

Additional note. Novices may not see why I should place such emphasis on the palette and our lack of a full analysis of the pigments. The fact is that even an isolated initial, cut out from its original manuscript, can be dated by experts and correctly assigned its place of production, not least by its palette. It was only on the basis of ‘shapely ladies’ and the heavier paints palette, and O’Neill’s spurious identification of a ‘sunflower’ in the manuscript, that Professor Panofsky changed his opinion of what he’d been told was an autograph, from the thirteenth or fourteenth century to ‘within 20 years of 1500’. (for the full background to that later dating, see my post of January 15th., 2019).

2 thoughts on “Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series.

  1. Errata:
    for “No-one has discovered anything having the structure and particular characteristics of the Voynich diagrams in any astrological text.”
    read

    “No-one has discovered anything having the structure and particular characteristics of the Voynich month-diagrams in any astrological text.”

    for
    “What Panofsky did not know, in 1932, was that earlier examples of the swollen belly do exist, but in Jewish manuscripts,”
    read
    “What Panofsky did not know, in 1932, was that earlier examples of the swollen belly do exist from medieval Europe, but in Jewish manuscripts.”

    Like

  2. Also, re-reading this I’m not sure I’ve played quite fair. A ‘calendar’ is simply a record of months and markers of the days. It can take various forms and serve additional purposes. I haven’t yet identified all the ‘star-ladies’ and there’s no guarantee that any labels with them are going to simply give a known form for their star-names. It is not always understood that many of what are called ‘Arab’ star-names are translations into Arabic of the Greek and Roman descriptive names, and that in some cases we know that the Arabs adopted one of the previously used Syriac words. To make the research still more interesting, the Arabs did have their own native star-sciences (I dislike the term ‘lore’), but those evoked the star-worship of the pre-Islamic period and were consciously changed to the more neutral terms of classical Greek and Roman (usually Greek) tradition. However, a long and ancient indigenous culture tends to adapt rather than be dispensed with, so we do have some record of the older traditions of the eastern seamen, and their star-names. Again, the Yemeni agricultural ‘calendars’ which are like a permanent roster of works and phenomena also provide some star-names. But one may research all these, as i can attest, and still have no way to know whether the labels in the Voynich diagrams are simply star-names or references to some deity-of-the day (as precursor of the Christianised liturgical calendar as ‘calendar of saints’ or whether it mightn’t be something as silly as ‘on this day…. such a person was born’. But then, as I keep saying, if this manuscript were just a funny variation on the ‘normal’ western Christian herbals and astrological drawings, we’d have known that a century ago. Trying to believe it is, and then prove the belief justified is – in my opinion – a waste of time now, and likely to incur ridicule in the future, if specialists in comparative astronomies or comparative codicology ever descend to work on this manuscript in earnest. Few are ‘team players’. Their consensus is that of independent peers.

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