O’Donovan notes #6i (cont.) understanding the woman.

c.2800 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

This is the second installment of a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

If you found time to do that first but most vital work – the slow, methodical memorisation of the image to be researched – presently the diagram on folio 85r (part) – you might have wondered why I put the female figure first when she appears at the bottom of that diagram.

If you then also found time to think about the costumes given each of the four figures, you might have noticed, among other things, the care taken by whoever added the heavy blue paint and who is normally pretty careless, to avoid painting over two round, white areas seen near the woman’s collar bones – and despite their minute size.

(detail) folio 85r (part) female figure.

Under extremely high magnification, they don’t appear as circles, but at normal distance, that’s the impression given. They are not oval.

from Scandanavian Museum

Here (right) is the classic (if now debated) reconstruction of Scandinavian women’s dress during the viking era. This type of over-garment is called a strap-dress or (less often today) an apron-dress. I’m sure you will see its similarity to the upper part of the Voynich figure’s clothing.

It makes sense that Scandinavian dress should be identified in a general way with North, but given the Voynich manuscript’s date, some questions arise immediately. Resort to guesswork and imagination is easy and fun; serious interest means serious work.

As so often our questions are of the when-and-where? and why?sort, such as:

  1. Over what period and range did women’s garments bear a pair of round brooches near the collar bone? and
  2. Why is there no sign, in the Voynich figure, of beads or chains looped between those two brooches when they were a constant in native Scandinavian dress?

As we now have it, the drawing (and so this detail) can be no older than the manuscript’s vellum (1404-1438 AD), yet ‘the viking era’ is normally said to have ended around 1100 AD.

There’s uncertainty about how the ensuing changes affected customs in dress within Scandinavia between the 12th-15th centuries, but more is known of regions where there had been earlier Scandinavian influence.

If you now look again at the Voynich figure, you should be able to list points at which her costume differs from that classic reconstruction of what viking-era costume looked like in its homeland.

Differences matter.

The Voynich figure’s over-dress is shown with a fuller skirt, and with side openings that evidently extend only from about the hip to the hem, though the top is comparable to the viking-era’s over-dress.

The brooches appear more circular than oval and less heavy than those in the Museum’s reconstruction.

A serious researcher must now set out to discover whether there exists evidence of smaller, lighter and nearly round brooches used with Scandinavian dress, and/or Scandinavian-influenced dress. Differences matter because they embody telling evidence. And it’s not enough, either, to settle for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The date and range over which such brooches might occur provide parameters in which the Voynich image might, reasonably, have been first enunciated. Earlier posts in this series have emphasised the distinction to be made between when an image was inscribed on the current medium and when (and where) it was first given form.


At the moment, archaeological reports are a sensible place to start seeking answers for this first set of questions.

They are better indexed than most medieval manuscripts, and include the sort of technical detail omitted from more general histories of the medieval world.

I’ll mention only two among the sources I used when investigating this image some while ago, because now I’m concerned to counter a habit prevalent in Voynich studies, by which a single source or ‘expert’ is treated as enough evidence for some point or other.

An iconological analyst must read enough to have a pretty well balanced understanding of the current state of study in whatever topic is being considered.

Balance of Evidence – example: Scandinavian dress of England?

Reviewing, in 2005, the newly published and expanded second edition of Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, David A. Hinton, from the University of Southampton, said in his concluding paragraphs:

Women in the Anglo-Scandinavian zone may have looked different from those further south in England because of their hairstyles and caps, but they did not wear Scandinavian dress.

Sounds pretty definitive, doesn’t it?

The example of Anglo-Scandinavian dress is relevant because one should not forget that from 1912 to the 1960s, few doubted Wilfrid Voynich’s assertion that in some unspecified ways – presumably the format, ink and vellum – the manuscript looked overall like some work produced in thirteenth-century England.

Among those who saw the manuscript, and did not appear to dispute this, were keepers of medieval manuscripts such as Richard Garnett and specialists in the history of thirteenth-century English writings, including Robert Steele. The Marci letter with its bit of third-hand gossip mentioning Roger Bacon wouldn’t have impressed them to the point where they’d ignore the physical evidence.

I was both pleased and surprised to find that in offering my opinion that the content in our present fifteenth-century manuscript was copied from earlier exemplars, I had a couple of precedents to cite, though none for my conclusion that most of the matter, by far, had not not entered Latin horizons much before 1350 AD*.

*a conclusion reached by investigating, one after another, about 60 pages of the manuscript’s drawings, over the initial period of nine years (2008-2017). Since 2014 or thereabouts, an increasing number of Voynicheros have come to accept that the manuscript is a compilation, and recent codicological studies appear to confirm it. This is a boon to the manuscript’s study, promising to end at last the century-long fixation on “naming the author”.

The diagram on folio 85r (part) is one among the minority of images in this manuscript that do seem to speak ‘European’ – which is why I’m taking that diagram as our first example, easing readers into one style of analytical-critical method.

Just four years after Hinton made that categorical statement, a new study was published:

  • Jane F. Kershaw, ‘Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, Vol. 5 (2009), pp. 295-325.

It shows, from extant examples, not only that circular Scandinavian-style brooches occur, both in Scandinavia and in England, before 1100 AD, but in Table 1 names the styles, their typology in archaeological terms and (of course) cites her precedents and sources.

(detail) taken from Table 1, Kershaw, ‘Culture and Gender…’ (2009)

At the same time, it is clear that the Voynich manuscript’s drawings are no product of Viking art nor of native Celtic art of the time – there’s not a hint of interlace anywhere in it.

Kershaw clarifies another point for us and helps narrow the likely time-frame for this drawing, one of the handful in the Voynich manuscript which use the conventions of western Mediterranean art.

With regard to the absence of any strings of beads or chains slung between the two shoulder-brooches, in the Voynich figure, we may quote Kershaw’s saying:

In the Viking period, brooches with suspended chains with attached tools in the style of chatelaine brooches represent a uniquely Scandinavian and Baltic fashion. They were not part of contemporary Anglo-Saxon female dress, as evidenced by the fact that native late Anglo-Saxon brooches lack suspension loops or equivalent features.

ibid., p.300.

Since England’s Anglo-Saxon era formally ends with Harold’s victory in 1066, and the era of the Scandinavian vikings or raidings ends about 1100 AD, we’d expect that within England, Scandinavian forms in English dress would give way, within a century or so, to those showing allegiance to the conqueror. Historical and iconological sources show this so.

The incoming style is exemplified by dress given the Bayeux tapestry’s three (yes, only three) female figures. That shown here (below) is on a figure which most commentators think represents Harold’s sister, Edith (c.1025-1075), who had married Edward the Confessor.

The Bayeux tapestry records events of Harold’s invasion of England.

By the time the Queen Mary Psalter was made (1310-20) in the region adjacent to what is still called the ‘Danelaw’, a sleeveless, open-sided garment appears by now only as something to be worn by the dispossessed, forced to work now as labourers because (so the embedded, silent message reads) they’d offended the deity.

Once the pair accept demotion to the status of crofters, with Adam now at his delving and Eve at her spinning, they are clothed in dress appropriate to their status within the new order of things.

Since I date the last alterations made to the Voynich map to about 1350 AD* and as we have it now, the diagram of interest has been drawn on the map’s reverse and is on vellum dated to the early fifteenth century, we are looking at a gap of between two and four hundred years between when one might have seen Anglo-Scandinavian dress worn in England and when our present diagram was inscribed on folio 85r (part).

*again, this a conclusion of my own research into the images in Beinecke MS 408.

How could a fifteenth-century draughtsman know so much about what women had worn in the tenth and eleventh centuries?

One immediate possibility is that the diagram was copied from an older work, but since the woman’s dress differs from that of the classic Scandinavian type, another region influenced by that style is more likely to have produced the form we see now.

Even so late as the Queen Mary Psalter, we see an occasional reference to the old Anglo-Scandinavian ways but now always associated with the lower social classes. The cap and bound hair seen on this servant-figure (below) is meant to signify both foreignness and servant-class. It represents a servant of Pharaoh’s daughter in the act of committing Moses to the waters.

On another page, two women are shown jousting. It’s a satirical image [a horse-laugh] and while both wear a sleeveless top dress, neither has the underskirt visible – as it is in the Voynich figure.

A different fourteenth-century manuscript – another made in London, does show the underskirt. This, again, is the dress given a servant, but it is still not like the dress given the Voynich figure, since the sleeves are a version of those we saw Edith wearing almost three centuries before.

For the present problem of how a fifteenth-century manuscript can show, apparently accurately, a form of dress scarcely attested after 1066, one answer is that it copies from an older monument, manuscript or sculpture etc., Another is that the fifteenth-century maker might have travelled north. We don’t know how women dressed in fifteenth-century Scandinavia and, in any case, archaeological finds tell us that the era of those disc-brooches was long in the past.

On reaching an impasse of this sort, when neither political history nor archaeology (to date) can provide answers, it’s often helpful to consider another angle of approach.

In this case, we also notice that the figure on folio 85r (part) is shown as a servant, with hair tightly covered, and that she labours at what I take to be work connected with the production of textiles.

I’ll explain (further below) why I read those interlocked loops as fibres or fabric.

A different angle of approach also changes the form for our question – “How would a fifteenth-century scribe encounter a drawing that associates Scandinavian-derived dress specifically with the less-than-genteel aspects of textile production?”

A recent study of Scandinavian techniques and trade in textiles adds nuance to our view of relations between Scandinavia, the British Isles and Ireland before the end of the viking-era.

Smith writes,

The similarity in spin between the British Isles and Iceland, suggest[s] strong cultural ties between these two regions.

Michèle Hayeur Smith,(2014) ‘Dress, Cloth, and the Farmer’s Wife’, Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 6: In the Footsteps of Vebæk Vatnahverfi 2005–2011, pp. 64-81
from Michèle Hayeur Smith, op.cit.

What the Voynich figure is busy doing, as I read it, is pegging out chains of wet, wrung-out cloths, or hanks of spun fibre (wool or linen would be expected). It may be meant for a very loosely chained warp.* The point is that she’s engaged in work associated with textiles and that in some regions, evidently, the immediate association made with such lowly work was that of ‘a northern woman’ – one who dressed in a variant form of Scandinavian costume, one similar to what we know of the Anglo-Scandinavian style.

*chaining the warp describes a phase in weaving between winding out the warp threads and threading that warp onto the loom. In some traditions, the warp is dyed at this stage.

Smith speaks of such an association, especially, in relation to Iceland’s textile production during the viking era, connections not only cultural, but technical and specifically related to textile production, trade and technology-transfer. People living in Ireland and in the isles were spinning their yarn z-z.

For illustrations of what is meant by an ‘S’ or a ‘Z’ twist, see e.g. here. Twist-direction is also relevant to codicology. Again, though, I’d stress that such online articles are best used as a first ‘sketch’, not a first-and-final source.

Smith writes,

Textile production was one of the more important household activities of Icelanders in the 10th century. Produced entirely by women, textiles rapidly gained importance, becoming a significant trade commodity exported to Norway in the early medieval period, with growing markets expanding first to the British Isles and then to Northern Europe. Within Iceland, cloth became the basis of the economic system, used as currency to pay taxes, tithes, debts, and fines. Medieval literary sources suggest strict legal guidelines that were implemented regulating the size, length, and quality of this currency. (Ibid., p.64)

If, for argument’s sake, we suppose that the drawing now on the reverse of the Voynich map had been copied from an older work – one dated, say, mid-late 12thC when memory of the older Scandinavian influence was still fresh in the British Isles and/or Ireland, so it might explain this easy association we find made with Anglo- [or Irish-?] Scandinavian dress, and why a figure of that kind would be taken for the quintessential figure for the pegger-out of chained ‘clouts‘.

As I first did when publishing my own research, I’ll quote here the Online Etymological Dictionary, while keeping in mind that etymological dictionaries of the modern kind did not exist even by 1438 …

clout: Etym. before 900 AD.

Middle English; Old English clūtpiece of cloth or metal, c. Middle Dutch, Middle Low German klūte, Old Norse klūtr. cloud (n.). meaning “of the nature of clouds” recorded from c.1300;

meaning “full of clouds” is late 14c.; … Figurative sense of “gloomy” is late 14thc.

To someone who had memorised his Latin texts – a monk or cleric almost by definition even so late as1300 AD – the informing phrase for such an image would come from some earlier authoritative source, such as the works of Isidore or of Bede, which latter had [already] transformed England’s religious and ecclesiastical culture during the viking period.

clarification (10th June 2022) – the last clause is badly expressed. I mean that the church in England, as it was during the viking era, was one already unified and transformed by Bede, whose importance in England’s history meant his writings were more revered and more often referred to there.

A late 12thC century compendium of Bede’s work and matter from Isidore’s Etymologiae etc., is Walters manuscript W.73, in which we find a large drawing which shows the circuit of winds that breathe upon the world, and one – situated slightly east of North – is there named ‘Aquilo vel Boreas’. It speaks its character: “Constringo nubes“.

from Walters MC 37. The North wind is seen at the bottom of this detail, with Aquilo vel Boreas next above it. Details of this manuscript

And if the original enunciator of the Voynich drawing was thinking both of cloth and of clouds, and understood the sense of Constringo nubes (“binding clouds together”), I have a suspicion he was also thinking of the word ‘nubile’ when he gave the woman’s hip its provocative turn.

and see Isidore Etymologiae XIII.7.2 “Clouds (nubes) are named from ‘veiling’ (obnubere). that is, covering the sky; whence also brides (nupta)..”; X.N.184, “Nubile (nubilis), “marriageable” (ad nubendum habilis); and I.xxxvi.12 “Nubila, nix, grando, procellae, fulmina, venti” (Clouds, snow, hail, tempests, lightning, winds).” trans. and ed. Barney, Lewis, Beach, Berghof (2006).

Constringo nubes
[plus mulier catenata? cf. linked rings in Basel, Universitätsbibliothek AN IV 18 f.25r Fulda. 9thC]

Drawings of the pre-modern period are invariably formed by the original maker’s thought – and thought in words – so I’m never quite satisfied with any analysis from which the informing words do not emerge

In this case, I am satisfied. The reader is free to differ.

And so now, in that detail from folio 85r (part) we have a fairly nubile chainer of clouts who stands a little to one side of the peg near a ‘Pole’, and who is drawn in a way that allows a possibility that this diagram was first enunciated by someone from the British Isles or, perhaps, from Ireland, and for whom the near-north ‘chainer of clouds’ brought to mind a female dressed in a version of Scandinavian dress, unlike that worn in Scandinavia itself, but associated with the Anglo-Saxons.

At the very least we can fairly conclude, I think, that the answer to our question about how to orient the four figures is partly answered. The woman is of the North. This tells us (by the way the sun-face is drawn) that the diagram as a whole is south-oriented.

We know, too, that the diagram may be meant to speak to directions named by winds in Mediterranean style and that the drawing we now have came from some earlier work, but while I would agree that this particular detail presents as if first enunciated by an educated Latin (that is, a western European Christian), it was not the Latins’ custom* to make South the primary point of orientation.

*If this is news to you, then for a short basic overview you might start here.

By the way

Recalling that Baresch believed the manuscript’s content was, in some sense, Egyptian – that is why he sent copies of some pages to Kircher – I might mention two men who certainly travelled so far as Egypt, among the thousands of others who did, not least because it was a regular point of disemarkation for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. These two were the English Hugo the Illuminator (Master Hugo) and the Irishman Symon Semeonis. Hugo died in Egypt.

When I introduced their names to Voynich studies, I had not seen Edel Mulcahy’s blogpost about Symon, but it’s still available, good, and is not too long:

Elly Dekker, Illustrating the Phaenomena (2013).

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