O’Donovan notes #7.2 If this is your answer, tell me again – what was the question?

c.1850 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

additional image added 27/06/2022

Having cross-examined the historical worth of an initial impression – in the present case that the diagram in folio 85r(part) shows a woman in Scandinavian-influenced dress and a male in Chinese-Mongol dress- we now draw back and pause to review the information gathered in the course of the research, setting aside anything which cannot be said with reasonable certainty to faithfully translate the intentions of the first enunciator. A true understanding of that person’s ideas, not our own, makes one’s research of use to future scholars, and this is also why one cites sources and precedents.

On balance, I think we can say no more than that the female figure does wear a type of overdress/apron attested in northern and western Europe, and that the male orator does wear a form of garment commonly worn in northern- and eastern Asia. There is much more one might say, but whatever falls short of being demonstrably true as answer for each research question is material which must be left aside – temporarily or permanently.

In this case the question to be answered was – if you recall – “How is the drawing meant to be aligned or oriented?” And to that question, the answer consonant with the historical and art-historical evidence is that the drawing as we have it is ‘south-up’ and the figures are intended, by their dress and posture, to represent the world’s quarters.

How rarely this manuscript’s drawings have been approached in a way that drawings normally are can be understood by realising that not a single person,* though the century from 1912 – 2012 had noticed the figures’ dress or the first enunciator’s intention to localise them by that means.

not a single person – to the best of my knowledge. For reasons I won’t try to explain, various arch-traditionalists have expressed intense personal hostility towards very idea of finding and properly crediting precedents. The usual habit, with the rise of theoretical narratives since 2010, has been to block efforts to establish what precedents ought to be mentioned, to ignore the original contributor of repeated information and/or to cite some later but more congenial individual’s writings, original or not. If it causes Nick Pelling embarrassment to be singled out as one of few exceptions, that can’t be helped.

When I first explained that the female figure wore Scandinavian-derived costume, some people expressed extreme pleasure, only to express equally keen indignation on being told that another wore Asian dress, pretty accurately represented.

I do think this drawing has been strongly influenced by knowledge of Isidore’s Etymologies but see no reason why any medieval person able to make translations from Arabic into Hebrew or into Latin could not translate between any other of those two languages. Every slave learned at least the language of his captors. Travellers and courts needed interpreters. One medieval traveller mentions meeting in Egypt a resident Spanish Jew who could speak and read in seven languages. We’ve noted an Englishman translating for the Mongols and a German slave* who surely knew that language too.

But having now demonstrated clearly enough, I hope, that an understanding of these drawings needs a good deal more than “two eyes and commonsense plus an active imagination”, but can require information only gained from archaeology, medieval history, art history, the history of costume, economic history, surviving artefacts, not to mention literary- and religious texts etc.,, readers will have taken the point about analytical-critical method and won’t need that point laboured by repeating here the work done on all four figures.

Summary for the last two:

The character for West again agrees the wind’s utterance in Walters MS 73, derived in turn from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.


Zephirus vel FavoniusTellurem floribus orno,” or “I adorn the Earth with flowers.”

I hope readers will forgive, but for most of what follows I’ll just quote passages from the detailed analysis summarised in posts to voynichimagery in January 2015. I’ve seen no reason since then to alter my conclusions but only matter which has served to confirm them.

In what follows you will see, I hope, that Matthias Wille’s recent suggestion of “a physician” is one with which I can nearly agree, though whereas he associates this stoppered bottle with urine bottles, I found that bottles of this type are attested only in other uses relating to pharmacy (and in that way to medicine). Note also the figure’s headband, the character written on its breast, and use of the one-covered-shoulder motif which in medieval Latin iconography signifies the wanderer, the pilgrim, or the traveller to/from distant lands.. Here’s some of what I published in January 2015.

WESTZephirus vel FavoniusTellurem floribus orno,” or “I adorn the Earth with flowers.”

It may be tempting to assign this quarter to the chap with the lily, but instead we have here again a deliberate pun, and an Isidorean attitude to etymology.

The word ‘tellurem’ in the [Walters MS] wind-wheel’s caption to Zephyrus is quite rightly translated as ‘Earth’, but the term comes from a root which also provides words having to do with things borne, or carried.  What the Zephyr brought were gentle breezes, scented with flowers and originating (as Dionysius Periegetes tells us) from the sea of that proverbially perfumed land, Arabia.

“each sea has its allotted wind… the Arabian [sea has] the zephyr..” (v. 929–930)

The bottle which the Voynich figure holds is rightly seen as holding medicine, or more exactly the scents-as-medicine originating in distant Arabia. If you consider the Sawley map you find the Angel of that [Zephyrus’] quarter is again identified with the angel of medicine, Raphael, who holds the box which served as emblem for the healer in iconography of the older, eastern Christian Mediterranean.

It is also appropriate that in the Sawley map, Raphael is located over the region from which that new medicine had come into Latin Europe, viz. North Africa and Sicily, and so into France, ]and Norman England] and Spain.

If associating Zephyr with Arabia and with Sicily seems paradoxical to a modern reader, it was acceptable to older peoples, for which again Pareigetes may be our witness:

Each sea has been allotted a wind, the Sicilian Sea the western wind, which they also call Zephyr… (v. 401–402);

edited from research summary oublished by D.N. O’Donovan, as ‘A Reply.. Pt 2’ voynichimagery, Jan. 5th., 2015.
  • English translation of Dionysius Periegetes’ text by Ekaterina Ilyushechkina, in ‘Spatial Orientation in the Didactic Poem of Dionysius Periegetes’,  Chapter 9 in Klaus Geus, Martin Thiering (eds.), Common Sense Geography and Mental Modelling,  Max Planck Institute for the History of Science [preprint 426] 2012. (pp.131-139)


In this case, in my opinion, the maker has known the South wind as Notus rather than as Auster and taken the sense of it – though again referring to the Etymologiae – from the contemporary type of the Notary whose seal (ring) makes a document binding. For that occupation, Isidore had not used the word ‘Notary’, but says in Book Five:

“And to seal a testament is ‘to put a distinguishing mark’ (notare) on it so that what is written may be recognized (noscere, ppl. notus)” (V.xxiv.6)

The date and regions that saw the modern sense of ‘notary’ emerge are relevant to our study:

c. 1300, (English) notarie, “a clerk, a personal secretary; person whose vocation was making notes or memoranda of the acts of others who wished to preserve them, and writing up deeds and contracts,” from Old French notarie “scribe, clerk, secretary” (12th C.) and directly from Latin notarius “shorthand writer, clerk, secretary,” from notare, “to note,” from nota “shorthand character, letter, note”. Meaning “person authorized to draw up and authenticate contracts and other legal instruments” is from mid-14C.

Isidore prefers to name the wind from the south Auster, but then says of it:

“It is called νότος [notos] in Greek, because it sometimes corrupts the air (cf. νοθευέiν “corrupt, adulterate”), for when Auster blows, it brings to other regions pestilence, which arises from corrupted air. ……” )


It is possible that in the Voynich figure here occupying the South quadrant the reader was intended to see an allusion to Egypt’s Mamluk rulers (1250–1382;1382–1517) since Isidore elsewhere defines nothus [with theta] as ‘One ..who is born from a noble father and from an ignoble mother, for instance a concubine. Moreover, this term is Greek (i.e. νόθήος) and is lacking in Latin.”

Franks (Latins), Mongols, Mamluks and Arabs would represent the four governors known to Mediterranean world during the Mongol century.

Place and Time – the constant questions.

Thus, while few among the drawings in the Voynich manuscript reflect the customs, graphic conventions and languages which inform drawings first enunciated in medieval Latin Europe, this drawing comes close to doing so. However the elements in the drawing we’re considering which are not consonant with an all-Latin origin are significant elements, especially the south-up orientation and use of what I agree (adopting the suggestion made by L.L. on June 3, 2022 ) is akin to the ‘fly-whisk’ as emblem of ownership and governance – these being, across much of the world outside Europe, equivalent to those flags and standards by which Europeans signalled possession and rule of lands. So – to give just one two instances.

Here is signifies the unstoppable rider ‘on the wind’ this shorter version signifying a trophy or victory. Except that here the reference is only to conquest of lands, it is not unlike the Romans’ symbolic use of an aplustre.

13thC image of a Mongol ruler as Perseus, whose name means ‘the slayer’.


“Chinggis Khan now held all Mongolia, having subjugated all the tribes of the Mongolian steppe. To guarantee his right to rule over the entire country … he ‘set up a white standard with nine tails.’

UNESCO, History of civilizations of Central Asia, Vol 4 (p.255)

As with the final changes made to the Voynich map, here again Latin influence indicates a period during the Mongol century for first entry into the horizons of Latin Europe of most matter now in the Voynich manuscript and indicates a mediation and effort to translate the original works.

I will add, though I won’t elaborate on it in this series of posts, that each of the four figures in the diagram from folio 85r(part) has a non-zodiacal astronomical association too. It is the documented history of that other system’s sudden emergence in fourteenth-century Europe which adds to our reasons for offering the Mongol century as the date at which most of the manuscript’s matter – at least its drawn matter – first entered the Latins’ horizon.

As an amusing detail – the position of the Notary’s hand is that used for the ‘manicule’ in medieval manuscripts, its meaning: ‘take note’. The earliest attested manicules appeared in the Domesday Book, the exhaustive survey of England carried out for William I in 1086.

Geoffrey Ashall Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book alleges that it was “found in early twelfth century (Spanish) manuscripts.” The revival of classical learning in Europe saw the manicule become popular again too. Given that this diagram’s East figure is given a thumb and five fingers, it is interesting that Petrarch’s manicules did the same.

Over the following three hundred years, scholars aiming at an oratorical career read Cicero and law manuals, populating their text’s margins with such ‘Take note’ hands, usually drawn just as a fist with index finger, as is the hand for Notus in this diagram.

4 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes #7.2 If this is your answer, tell me again – what was the question?

  1. I add this as a Comment not part of the main text, because it cannot be proven to be what the drawing’s first maker intended and must be described as personal speculation.

    About the ‘West/Zephryrus’ figure,
    Investigating the character drawn on the figure’s chest I found several possibilities – one being that it is a debased form for the Chinese character ‘Yuan’ (used of the coin and in the name of the Mongol Yuan dynasty); another that is an effort to write the Hebrew character ‘Hhai’ as first letter of the word ‘Life’; another that it is a form found in various scripts descending from the classical Aramaic script, in which case it would have a sound similar to the last, as ‘K’. [ on the Hebrew character and association with ‘life’ see here

    If the last were correct, then the figure might be meant for Constantine the African, or for some other person whose name may or may not survive in the historical records, but who brought medicine from afar and produced a text of ‘distilled wisdom of eastern medicine’, such as Constantine’s book entitled ‘Viaticum’. The following note from Maaike van der Lugt may clarify this for readers:

    Avicenna’s Canon (I.3.5.2–8, Venice, 1507, reprint, fols. 66r–67v) contains several special regimens for travelers, according to the climate of the region of transit or destination. Urso’s work does not betray knowledge of the Canon, but ideas about travel hygiene may well be contained in sources available at Salerno, even though I have not found travel regimens in either the ‘Pantegni’ or the ‘Viaticum‘ (Constantine’s adaptation of a small medical handbook by the tenth-century Arabic physician Ibn al-Jazzar and paradoxically intended as a self-help book for travelers without access to medical care). [p.316 n.23

    from: Maaike van der Lugt, ‘The Learned Physician as a Charismatic Healer: Urso of Salerno…’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine , Vol. 87, No. 3 (Fall 2013), pp. 307-346.

    Constantine’s title reflects that of Ibn al-Jazzar’s Zād al-musāfir wa-qūt al-ḥāḍir (which means “Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary”), a title suggesting that it was meant to serve as a portable medical reference for travelers or, more probably, for those charged with guiding and caring for travellers.
    postscript – among other, but less justifiable, ideas I considered was that the figure might be meant for Miriam, the semi- legendary Jewish founder of western alchemy. but there was no more to that notion than the presence of that short-necked stoppered flask and its curiously hat-like stopper, with what might be an entirely accidental curve drawn high on the figure’s torso by the right armpit. I cannot see how the character on the breast could be read as an ‘M’ or as an ‘A’ or any other relevant letter/glyph. But even if just a bit of cloud-gazing, impossible of proof, the curve is there and the form for the stopper’s hat is interesting though I did not try to explain it.


  2. Perhaps I should have mentioned Keith Houston, whose books on the history of punctuation, Shady Characters, and of the book as vehicle, The Book, reflect that ability to simultaneously enlighten and entertain which had his blog ‘Shady Characters’ such a phenomenal success. For details of all, see:


  3. To see how many European languages used some form akin to ‘notary’ by the mid-fourteenth century shouldn’t be too difficult, though in some cases, confusion is evident.

    An online etymology of German (see link written below) is less specific than the English etymological dictionary that I quoted, but has ‘Notarin’ as a word of Late middle high German origin, and since the range for middle high German per se is described variously as 1050 -1350 AD, or (as in the wiki article and Glosbe dictionary) ca. 1050-1500, so presumably ‘Late high middle German’ occurs toward the end of whichever range you accept. Voynicheros fixed on a ‘German’ theory will have to sort it out by finding evidence in primary sources, I suppose.

    Richard K. Seymour, ‘Late Middle High German Schalawag’, Studies in Philology, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Jan., 1967) pp.17-24 shows Late middle high german was in use and still understood in the middle of the fifteenth century. article through JSTOR. I haven’t looked into Flemish or the Italian dialects etc.


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