Header image – detail from Pietro Vesconti’s chart of 1321 with (inset) ‘swallowtail’ crenellations on a castle in Almeria.

In treating the large, square, foldout drawing d’Imperio mentions this ‘swallowtail’ motif, initially describing one detail so adorned as being ‘like a castle’. The passage occurs on p.21 of Elegant Enigma. I’ll quote what isn’t speculation.

… a structure like a castle .. [with] a high crenelated wall and a tall central tower.”

Even in that passage, there is an implicit assumption that the detail will be a ‘portrait’ having a physical counterpart somewhere – but let that go for the moment.

We may date the beginning of modern conversations to about 1996, when Guy Thibault was wrestling with the whole drawing and working from an idea that it represented a map and a presumption that everything in the drawing, and in the manuscript altogether, would be a product of, and would refer to, nothing but western Europe’s ‘Latin’ (i.e. western Christian) culture.

He had reached a point where he was homing in on some such region as Venice, or Avignon, when Rene Zandbergen mailed a note to the list. It was not addressed to Thibault and did not engage with anything Thibault had shared from his own work, but was addressed instead to the ‘audience’ at large. Since the drawing was Thibault’s current project, others on the list (quite properly) did not reply and left responses to Guy.

Rene Zandbergen had written:

Tue Jun 18 11:02

Dear all,

I think that it is reasonable to assume that the little castle on f85/86, near the upper right rosette on the mega-foldout is a ‘fantasy’ castle, not intended to represent an existing one…. What I have been trying to find out (so far unsuccessfully) is whether the style of the crenellations of the square and circular buildings give any indication of age and origin of the VMs. These crenellations are .. of the ‘swallow’s tail’ type. ..

So far I have only seen this on medieval buildings in Northern Italy. If this style was already ‘en vogue’ in the earlier middle ages (up to, say, 1200), then, even if it is confined to N.Italy, it does not help us much. Anybody could have seen these or known about them; even Roger B[acon]. If the style is from a later period, it might tell us something, especially if it is regionally confined.

Anybody have any ideas?

Note – what I find surprising is that Zandbergen’s problem was easily resolved. Any good history of medieval architecture in general, or military architecture in particular could have provided the information that such crenellations are not used in Latin Europe before c.1100 AD. Since some examples are extant today, it is clearly impossible to date or place all the matter in the manuscript by reference to that one detail. It might be argued to offer a provisional terminus a quo of 1100AD with the radiocarbon dating providing the terminus ad quem of c.1438 AD. But if the rest of the drawing pre-dates the inclusion of the ‘swallowtails’ by any greater period of time, only the terminus ad quem might stand.

There is nothing about the way the crenellations are drawn in the manuscript which can tell us, of themselves, where, when or by whom the ‘swallowtail’ details were included. Considered in isolation, the ‘castle-like’ form cannot be asserted to have been a ‘portrait-style’ image. I’m not sure what genre of medieval imagery might be described as ‘fantasy’. The map has nothing in common with the drolleries, nor with the religious-visionary imaginings of persons such as Opicinus or Hildegard of Bingen.

In response to Rene Zandbergen’s introducing this note of fantasy, Thibault had replied, evidently a little disconcerted:

18 Jun 1996 11:19:03

I don’t recall if I have even commented on this castle, so please excuse me if I re-state these ideas… Suppose the connection between circles are indeed bridges, is there any way to find out [i.e. identify] ALL the medieval towns with nine (or more) bridges? I guess Venice and Avignon would fit, are there more ? If we find a point linked with those bridges in the same way as depicted in the “map” maybe we could progress a bit…

Did you notice the writings on the right side of the fold out seems to be upside down as if the scribe did not notice/know the full pattern of the circles when he was writing…

Note – I’ve corrected a few typos in the original. I do not think that English was Guy’s first language. 
As full disclosure, I should say that my own analysis of the larger drawing –  engaged after reading Nick Pelling’s post of May 29th., 2010 –  led finally to a conclusion that the whole of the large drawing is a map, one in which western Europe does not feature, save for Sicily, and that altogether it is no product of the western or the Arabic cartographic traditions, though some elements occur in common with the earliest Genoese and Venetian cartes marine
The ‘castle’ is no literal portrait, but it is certainly no fantasy. In much the way images of Egyptian deities or Christian saints’ images were constructed, the so-called ‘castle’ detail combines a reasonable idea of its subject, before adding the ‘swallowtail’ motif for the cultural significance it bore.
The ‘swallowtails’ thus serve to add practical and informative detail for anyone able to read the whole map. The spiral of ‘stars’ is a version of the motif (also seen in slightly different form, later, in the charts of Piri Reis), indicating a body of water mostly enclosed and relatively shallow. Almost all of the map’s research which I decided share online was published between 2011- 2013.
For people who have difficulty understanding why someone might use star-motifs to signify  seawater, may I recommend  … this.  It may also help explain why Hammond felt comfortable translating Homer’s οἶνοψ πόντος not, as was customary, by “wine-dark sea” but by “sparkling sea”. On which see D.M. Goldstein’s review, for the Bryn Mawr Classical Gazette,  of Mark Hammond, The Odyssey (2000).


During the five years from 1996-2001, Zandbergen’s invitation does not seem to have moved his own efforts much further forward. By the end of that time, it was no longer Guy Thibault but John Grove who was actively working on the large drawing which, in honesty, I can only describe as the Voynich map.

Much of what Grove says in the following passage is anachronistic. His understanding of the Guelf-Ghibelline split is inaccurate if, as it sounds, he perceived it in terms of national identities, but so far as I can discover it was he who first informed the ‘Voynich community’ of the swallowtails’ political connotations in medieval Italy. He presumes the ‘stars’ must refer to the heavens and also imagines that images cannot be read without written text to explain them..


Grove wrote:

I’ve been having fun reading about the two types of battlements that seem to have evolved directly from the dispute between the two opposing factions in Italian/German history. The Guelph used the square battlements, while the Ghibelline supporters flaunted their support in their architecture with the ‘fishtail’ battlements. I believe from what I’ve been able to locate on the web that these Ghibelline designs on castle battlements are indeed limited to castles in Northern Italy and Germany that were built in the period 1100-1300. Since the factions were not so big a deal in the 15th and 16th century, the castle design in the VMS only leads to (once again) presenting us with a rough geographical region – the same as has been discussed for quite some time (!).

Why a Ghibelline Castle is present in the large foldout and not a Guelph style may be meaningless to the author except that he lived near one and drew what he knew. The wall extending from the castle around the spiral of stars may be indicative that the castle and wall are only a symbolic representation of a formidable enclosure protecting the ‘heavens’. I don’t know if this sort of speculation has any place in discussions because one could never really prove any number of suppositions until we can actually read the text.


Again to be fair to my readers, I should say that my own survey of the ‘swallowtail’ motif’s occurrence in Europe to1438 (including in manuscript illustrations, charts and other artefacts,chess-rook-ivory-persian-style-12th-c.-constantinople-bargello-mus such as mosaics and early chess-pieces) led me to conclude that, during that period, the ‘swallowtail’ motif as such signified the limit of an area whose people were subject to an emperor, and examples show that in drawing it could refer not only to areas connected to the western emperor but, also, to the eastern Christian emperor, or the Mongol-Chinese emperor. It signified an ‘imperial boundary’.
Image (right)’ Castle’ – rook – chess piece in Persian style. 12thC. from Constantinople. now in the Bargello Museum. First published though voynichimagery, 31st. October 2012. A Persian embassy came to Charlemagne’s court, and a mosaic in Bobbio (c.10thC) shows chessplayers adjacent to Persian-Parthian motifs. 
A comparable – not identical – form has the same significance as early as the Roman Tabula Peutingeriana. Because instances of the ‘swallowtails’ still survive on buildings in and beyond Europe, it is evident that their significance in architecture, generally expressed, is also as marking the boundary of territory regarded – in something of the way a modern embassy is – as one whose residents declare in this way a level of independence from other duties and laws, owing allegiance to their own emperor and being entitled (at least nominally) to imperial protection.
A prime example of expatriate/colonial use is found in what was once a Genoese enclave at Caffa, in the Black Sea.

Back in 2001, John Grove had begun another mailing list topic entitled ‘Dovetail battlements in Rome?’ where he mentioned a drawing he had noticed. 

In response, Jorge Stolfi commented (14th Jan. 2001), nipping in the bud any suggestion that ‘swallowtails’  adorned the walls of ancient Rome, and incidentally proving a model for how such research should be organised.  He first shows that he has considered, and checked, Grove’s reference (the precedent), then provides full details of his own sources, and adds his own comments.  

> [John Grove:] While scanning the online Vatican Library images I found this 1498 sketch of Rome…
> http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/vatican.exhibit/exhibit/b-archeology/images/arch25.jpg

Jorge Stolfi:

The caption to that figure is

J. Annius, Antiquitates
Rome, 1498


This image of the earliest stage in the development of Rome is much cruder than Pietro del Massaio’s. Though the unknown artist tried to represent the small compass and exact contours of the early city, and labeled the Forum and other places of note, the crenelated walls and towers reveal the limits of his imagination. Unfortunately the text he illustrated was even less accurate; it was a forgery by the papal theologian Giovanni Nanni of Viterbo.

Inc. II 274 fol. M verso arch25 TG.15

… Jorge Stolfi.

Rene Zandbergen  had replied by posting link to his website where two images of a castle in Friuli could be seen.

Dana Scott had replied to Grove:

6th. January 2001

Then again, just maybe the author of the VMS (whom I think may have been Andrea Cesalpino) supported the Ghibellines of Arezzo (Andrea was born in Arezzo) and Pisa (where he was educated and taught) and the fact that Dante ended up switching his support from the Guelphs to the Ghibellines. Perhaps.

Dana Scott

Which – for all that I admire Scott’s work on the plant-pictures – is another example of chaining speculation to speculation, on premises insubstantial.

But Dana’s response shows that even so early as 2001 the study was moving away from efforts to discover the sense of the manuscript’s drawings, to using bits and pieces from the drawings to serve as springboard for a preferred theory.

Dana’s ‘givens’ – as untested assumptions – are clear enough: that the ‘castle’ is a literal representation of some Italian building, that the significance to be attached to the ‘swallowtail’ or ‘fishtail’ crenellations is limited to Italian politics; that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript is the work of a single author, and that this imagined ‘author’ was a person of such importance in Europe’s intellectual history that his name was recorded in contemporary documents – and so on, and so forth.

Unrecognised by most members in 2001, what Nick Pelling would later describe as the ‘theory-wars’ had already begun.

A majority still held to the opinion, expressed by Kraus and reported by d’Imperio, that the manuscript had been made in Italy.

A couple accepted the opinion offered by Panofsky in 1932 that it was ‘from Spain or somewhere southern’. In fact, the entanglements between regions in the south-western Mediterranean make the ‘Italian/southern’ positions less oppositional than complementary.

The Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic central Europe’ theory was still that of a small minority in 2001, for the simple reason that it found no support in the primary document (exclusive of some marginalia) and no competent specialist had ever suggested that the vellum or binding indicated origins in a German-speaking region.

So long as research remained focused on the manuscript itself, this would remain the case. As attention shifted to ‘theory-wars’, and standards dropped, so too did the process of interaction and the tactics employed by adherents of that novel theory.

It is a curious thing, but true, that neither of that theory’s chief proponents has ever, in twenty years, presented it formally with evidence, argument and the usual documentation. Attempting to find out just what the believers believe has proven very difficult indeed. The two key words appear to be ‘Germanic’ and ‘Rudolf’ but there’s surely more to it.

In 2006, Pelling would publish his Curse of the Voynich, which remained in print for about a decade. Pelling’s research, and opinions having evidently moved on by the end of that period, he withdrew Curse from publication. To me it seemed a pity, because the book contained more than its theoretical history for the manuscript; it included numerous original contributions to other aspects of the study, including codicology, palaeography and ‘Voynichese’ which – whether Pelling’s opinions were the ‘right’ answers or not – were a stimulus to further enquiry and discussion.

Who drew the ‘swallowtails’?

The simple fact is that by 1438, even if the so-called ‘castle’ had been a portrait of some structure then existing, the drawing could have been made by an Englishman, an Ethiopian, an Armenian or a Syrian, a Persian or a Nestorian Chinese, a Jew from Majorca or from Venice.. The greater Mediterranean was a very busy international thoroughfare and to the papal court of Avignon or Rome, as to the Sicilian court, came ambassadors and pilgrims, traders and travellers. Within Rome itself, hospices were built to house foreign pilgrims, so numerous were they, and one ws was built solely for the Ethiopians’ use. Anyone who saw any instance of the Latins’ usage would know what the ‘swallowtail’ signified. Anyone might have used it to signify ‘imperial boundary’.

Of itself, as one small detail in a large and complex drawing, the ‘swallowtail crenellations’ motif tells us only that this particular detail’s first enunciation is most likely to have occurred at some time between 1100AD and 1438.

One might then ask, a more ordinary research environment, what aim Koen’s group has in mind as they try to ‘map’ such physical examples as survive in 2021. We must just wait and see.

I chose a Spanish example of ‘swallowtail crenelations’ for the header. I might as easily have shown one from Caffa in the Black Sea, or another and important example from Sicily, but since most Voynich theorists are focused on Italy or on Germany, I thought to widen the lens a little.

10 thoughts on “‘Swallowtails’

  1. Diane

    There is no further aim, just making a map 🙂 If we see a certain form of crenellation in the VM, it might be informative to collect examples of that form that existed around the time the VM was made.

    To me, the blue dots on the map are more important though. They are places where people *depicted* swallowtail merlons before 1450. Manuscripts, frescos, carvings… Say what you will about the VM, most people will probably agree that the person who drew the “castle” drew it with swallowtail merlons. (I keep writing “castle” in quotation marks because I don’t know what it actually is).

    The VM, made in location x, depicts swallowtail merlons during the first half of the 15th century. All de blue dots on the Google map depict swallowtail merlons during or before the first half of the 15th century. For all I know, the VM’s dot *still* belongs in China or whatever. But the data seems to point a certain way. Again, about the *area* of production, not about the cultural background of the makers.

    I would still like to see an example of swallowtail merlons at Caffa, since you keep mentioning it but I can’t seem to find the right picture.

    PS: I don’t really have a “group”, this sounds as if I work with a selected number of people. Anyone can send in additions. I like to do things this way to prevent any kind of bias on my part. There are just a few criteria: depictions must be made before 1450 and include a known place of manufacture. Surviving crenellations must have existed before 1450 and show no signs of having been a later addition. (As you may know, crenellations were often renovated and embellished, so despite our best efforts, the purplish dots on the map may still not be entirely reliable).


    1. Koen, I’ll email you a photo of what remains at Caffa, and will (if you like) also email you what I said about those ‘blue dots’ including if I can, the map on which I first noticed that usage. I’m afraid I don’t quite follow your logic. You say ‘depictions must be made before 1450 and show no signs of later addition’.. But the map itself shows evidence of ‘evolution’ and the roundel containing the ‘castle’ – which is a token for Constantinople-Pera just btw – is itself from the last chronological stratum,. – i.e. added in the final recension, so In sense it *is* an ‘addition’ itself. I gather you’re trying to decide exactly where the manuscript was made? And hope to do it by following the road of ‘blue dots’? Maybe I should also send you my commentary on the East roundel too in that case. But let me know what you’d like sent.


      1. Well yes, it is mostly about where the manuscript is made. And I set it up in such a way that discussion about what exactly is depicted is unnecessary. Did they depict swallowtail merlons? Good, the VM did too, those are facts to be treasured in this study where generally there is little agreement about what exactly is intended.

        I don’t think any path will lead to an exact location though, that seems impossible by focusing on one detail. But this particular detail does appear to point to a certain area. Of course this information is not new, but my intention is to gather it (with reference to sources, if applicable) and especially to present it in an accessible way.

        I see it as a method to control the chaos. For example, people would point to the walls of the Kremlin and its swallowtail merlons, but relatively late constructions like those are completely irrelevant for the VM so they muddy the waters. With the Google map, we get a feeling for the spread of the form in a glance. Of course there are still important omissions, which is why it is an open work in progress.


      2. How wide a range of media are you considering? How wide a geographic and temporal range? I mean – there are swallowtail merlons used to illustrate arithmetical problems in the Zibaldone da Canal and apart from the fact that the author was a Venetian, there’s no way to be sure what significance the author attached to them. Maybe he was inclined to the Ghibelline cause; maybe he just used the motif as ornament. But as a Latin who traded with Tunis and Alexandria, perhaps he was used to that symbol as his foreign passport (so to speak). – but if that were the implied meaning, it might have applied for Venetians or other Latins resident in Alexandria and Tunis too. (Both Alexandria and somewhere-around-Tunis are on the Voynich map, too. I’m happy to help if I can, but I think it might be a good idea to spend a bit of time formulating a clear research question so you don’t go down into the bottomless well that I’m sure you’ve seen – as everyone does who has had to produce a thesis. 🙂


      3. The research question is: where were swallowtail merlons depicted before 1450? (Initially, I wanted to do only those, but some people on the forum wanted to include surviving buildings as well so I added those in a different color).

        There won’t be countless examples, so I see no objection to going as broad as possible.The underlying thought is that in order to depict swallowtail merlons, someone must:
        1) know the form
        2) have a reason to depict it. This reason may be as complex as political affiliations, or as simple as decoration. But since my question is simply.

        My hypothesis is that if we focus on the area of production rather than the “depicted area”, the results will be less scattered. This will be objectively informative, separate from anyone’s views on the MS and the rosettes foldout in particular.

        Another reason for casting a wide net is that people can always make their own selection later depending on their needs. In that sense the Google map is meant more as a tool and not as a statement in and of itself.


      4. I understand, but I although the number of examples won’t be ‘countless’ there’ll never be a way to know what proportion of the extant examples you’ve found, let alone whether those you find are representative of what existed before 1450. I’m also troubled by the way ‘opinions’ about this manuscript are always assumed subjective interpretations rated chiefly by popularity. If commentary on the pictures is supposed to assist those working on the written part of this text, uninformed opinions would seem to be worse than no opinions at all. However – I expect my opinion on that score isn’t likely to carry any weight with the Voynicheros. 😀


      5. If data is collected by a group of people, this doesn’t mean that the result is a majority opinion. The result is simply data 🙂 Not everything I do is meant to push an agenda or promote a majority opinion, if such a thing already exists in Voynich research in the first place. Well, probably “manufactured in Europe” is the majority opinion, but if I recall correctly, even you think this is the case so I see no issue there.


      6. Errm. I have to say that I think the task of determining where a manuscript was made is really something for the codicologists and more particularly specialists in comparative codicology. It is about techniques of stitching, number and spacing of stations, whether thread is S- or Z- twist, relative quality of the vellum and its equalisation. The specialists have at their fingertips such a range of comparative material, you see, and at the moment one of my ‘dreams’ over the past 13 years is happening. Specialists from one of the great ‘comparative’ libraries are being consulted about the Vms. But of course you must do as you like. On s’amuse.


  2. For people interested in the science of a ‘starry sea’ –

    (introductory article)

    A modern article speaks of the seasonal ‘tides’ of bioluminescence, which are still relevant, though modern levels are affected, negatively, by pollution.
    Yu N. Tokarev, ‘The Bioluminescence Field as an Indicator of the Spatial Structure and Physiological State of the Planktonic Community at the Mediterranean Sea Basin’ In: Malanotte-Rizzoli P., Eremeev V.N. (eds) The Eastern Mediterranean as a Laboratory Basin for the Assessment of Contrasting Ecosystems. NATO Science Series (Series 2: Environmental Security), vol 51. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-011-4796-5_26. The paper is accessible through Springer Link, but general readers should have no difficulty finding less technical and less expensive accounts of bioluminescence in the greater Mediterranean and Aegean seas.


  3. Note to readers – If the conversation above between Koen and me seems a little confusing, it’s probably because for a while speaking at cross-purposes.

    In speaking of ‘the map’, Koen meant the map he’s building, and by ‘dots’ he meant the Google ‘drop’ marks which locate a spot on one of Google’s maps.

    I assumed by ‘map’ was meant the Voynich map, and by ‘dots’ he was speaking about the presence of certain blue dots used to indicate the travellers’ pathway. For this practice I did find other examples.

    I should say that formal qualifications and decades of practice notwithstanding, the research time and amount of effort needed to understand this drawing was equal to the amount needed, in the normal way, to research and write a thesis by research only. This isn’t hyperbole; I’ve checked the number of pages in my print-outs.

    So, in the comments above Koen’s ‘blue dots’ and ‘map’ are Google dots and map. Mine are the Voynich map and its ‘blue dot’ signs for a path.

    I suppose I can also add as a comment here that the ‘castle’ isn’t a single structure – it’s a token for Constantinople-Pera and since the great tower represents the Galata, the map’s final recension – before our present copy was made – cannot have occurred earlier than 1348.

    Those conclusions were not easily won, and cost more than time. As the sense of the drawing – i.e. the Voynich map – opened out further, some rash early opinions had to be publicly withdrawn. Deciding which elements are to be read literally, which symbolically and which may be allusions to local lore or traditional sayings/songs/ scholarship isn’t all that simple.

    However, since I’ve said so much I will addthat I consider the Voynich map the most important page of the whole manuscript; it is a key to much else the manuscript contains and – in my opinion because the evidence to date does not permit certainty – the interactions of Genoese-Jewish- and- Majorcan brought most of the Voynich manuscript’s material within Latin horizons.

    I should also perhaps note that a couple of writers associated with the Central European University of Prague, appear to be engaged in a curious effort to re-write the history of medieval chart-making, one even going so far as to assert (without any effort to provide evidence, and contrary to all earlier and non-Voynich-related scholarship), that Abraham Cresques’ great worldmap, made for the court of France, relied on nothing but a couple of Latin missionaries’ reports of their travels. No reason or reasoning is provided for this extraordinary assertion, and it is not the only recent instance, from persons associated with that university, of what might easily be interpreted as an effort to ‘white wash’ European history.


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