The author’s rights are asserted.
Much that has turned up in this ‘Notes’ series has directed us towards the south-western Mediterranean for our present manuscript’s exemplars, but this ‘November’ emblem from the Voynich calendar presents an objection to any easy assumption that the ‘calendar’s’ central emblems originated there.
For one thing, no-one living within a couple of days’ walk of the Mediterranean, south of Constantinople, is likely to have been ignorant of a scorpion’s form.
The zone in which scorpions are still found today.
(Above) – adapted from a modern distribution map showing incidence of scorpion envenomation. I have removed regions unknown to Mediterranean peoples before 1440 AD.
As for to the coast’s Occitan-Catalan speaking regions – that’s just where scorpions are still most numerous.
Italy’s scorpion species are divided into Adriatic and Mediterranean species by the Apennines, which form the peninsula’s spine.
The most deadly Mediterranean species, however, is ‘the scourge of Egypt’, the golden or ‘five-barred’ scorpion (Leiurus quinquestriatus)* which alone is regarded as likely to cause death. It occurs in the eastern Mediterranean.
*Link – VAPA guide, giving details of the species with illustrations and modern distribution map.
So, should we suppose that the ‘November’ emblem wasn’t first made in the south-western part of the greater Mediterranean?* Should we suppose that it might still have originated in that region, but that whoever included this emblem for ‘November’ had a different aim in mind? If the last, what sort of associations had Scorpius, scorpions and/or the month of November for persons living earlier than 1350 AD? Research is the only way to clarify such questions. Theorising just won’t do.
*’greater Mediterranean‘ – all the waters from the Black Sea to the straits of Gibraltar, inclusive.
Our research parameters (see previous post) let us begin from the first half of the fourteenth century.
And our first comparison, from the Occitan context is a ‘no-match’.
In the Occitan manuscript noted earlier, thought to have been made in Toulouse – beyond the ‘scorpion zone’ – the tail is really quite well drawn, and the image includes a feature seen in most Latin images of this constellation – a line of dots along the spine or tail. Yet its head is drawn quite unlike the scorpion’s and the whole doesn’t resemble the emblem given the Voynich ‘November’ diagram.
Not only Toulouse but other major centres of earlier medieval monasticism and manuscript production in France were outside the scorpion zone – such as Cluny, Cîteaux, and Vézelay – but it wasn’t necessarily lack of first-hand knowledge which made literalism* a lower priority in earlier medieval art.
*sometimes described as ‘illusionism’.
- A useful map of medieval Burgundy, with important towns and monastic centres.
By the time the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was inscribed (c.1405-1438), there was little excuse for ignorance about the constellations’ forms – not of those forming the zodiac- for that series was being presented in public spaces as early as the period of Romaneque art and architecture (6th-12thC AD), or at least its latter half.
The aim in placing the twelve constellations in churches and cathedrals was to show the whole community how the familiar sequence of activities on the land was in accord with the signs which Gd had provided in the heavens, passing over month-by-month, and which were easily seen at night in a time before external lighting. The series also served to recall to the viewer’s mind, while at their chores, a moralised astronomy explained from the pulpit or the school. It was food for thought and gave the daily round of agricultural work a greater sense of cosmic position, just as monasteries of the communal type were supposed to balance religious observance and meditation with physical work. As the oft-repeated passage runs:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands,Ps.19:1 (NIV)
Such series are called ‘Labours of the Months’ and most of the twelve astronomical signs are shown in forms much the same as those we use today.
Here, for example, is Libra from a late Romanesque (12thC) basilica, in Vézelay. ..
Yet, in that same basilica, this is the figure for Scorpius.
It is tempting to shrug off differences from familiar forms by asserting the problem isn’t our own ignorance but that of some imagined ‘artist’ or ‘author’.
But if we say differences are due to whether or not a person lived in the ‘Scorpion zone’ how does one explain the appearance, at much the same time, of a curl-tailed beast in the ‘Labours’ series in Otranto, which lies in the southern heel of Italy and well within that ‘scorpion zone’? This example is important for us, because unlike so many others, this series assigns Scorpius to November as, it would seem, the Voynich calendar does.
It is clear that the Latin world had received more than one model for depicting the constellations.
They need not have come from manuscript illuminations. Images of the 12 constellations were to be seen in textiles, carved wood and stone, even game-pieces – especially from the mid-12thC. They might be copied from antique works in many media, including coins, and the researcher as iconographic analyst must consider the widest range attested within a given historical context.
So, for example, the illustration (right) shows a mid-12thC game piece. It is made of walrus ivory, the carving ascribed to northern France. The Met. catalogue says “Cancer or Scorpio”.
From wherever the models came, one strand reflects a long-enduring vision of the heavens as ‘waters’ above the earth, over which stars sailed and the beasts of the zodiac swam. Many eastern Mediterranean sources (including Homer and the Book of Genesis*) envisage the night sky that way, from millennia before the rise of Rome until long after its empire was gone. In the fifteenth century, for example, one poem by the Persian poet Hafiz begins, ‘The green seas of heaven; the hull of the new moon...’
Kendall and Wallis describe the Genesis 1:7’s ‘waters above the firmament’ as “one of the most vexatious questions of Christian cosmology” and which Bede’s commentary on Genesis explained, following Augustine and Ambrose, by saying those waters were actually solid and crystalline.
- Calvin B. Kendall and Faith Wallis (ed. and trans.), Bede On the Nature of Things and On Times, (Translated Texts for Historians Series), Vol. 56. (p.140).
Augustine, Ambrose and Bede notwithstanding, the older idea of the heavens found expression in an eleventh-century mosaic created for San Savino in Piacenza, the twelfth-century charter for whose monastery was introduced to Voynich studies by Reeds as comparison for those Voynich glyphs mis-called ‘gallows’. Here’s the example Reeds cited.
The Piacenza mosaic has lost its Scorpius, but its ‘Cancer’ remains (below). Use of the zig-zag* rather than the wave to denote waters, as we see done here, is quite unusual in Latin Europe but was always conventional in Egypt’s visual language.*
*the same convention is used in other sections of Beinecke MS 408.
- Charles E. Nicklies, ‘Cosmology and the Labors of the Months at Piacenza: The Crypt Mosaic at San Savino’, Gesta, Vol. 34, No. 2 (1995), pp. 108-125.
It is often forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion; that the model for communal (cenobitic) monasticism was Egyptian, or that the three great centres of Christianity in the earlier medieval period were Antioch, Alexandria and Rome. But I’ll comment on that in a later segment.
Today, we might see Capricorn drawn a ‘goat-fish’ and know that Cancer is a ‘watery’ creature but, as the following zodiac in Byzantine style shows, there existed versions where more beasts were given looping ‘swimming’ tails – including Aries, Taurus, Sagittarius and even Leo. The twins are enthroned on a kind of raft and Virgo is a Mermaid. But it wasn’t whimsy; it was a tradition of non-Roman origin.
The same ceiling shows an innermost band formed at once as foundation-stones and as a scroll folded concertina-style. I won’t digress into the subject of ‘the scroll of heaven’ in western Christian thought, but it is worth mentioning at least that the oldest and distinctively Christian texts were made in that way; by making the scroll into a codex.
- Anna O. Funk, ‘From Scroll to Codex: New Technology and New Opportunities’ [pdf] Chapter 2 from her History of the Book: Disrupting Society from Tablet to Tablet. While I think Funk’s approach is a little anachronistic in its pragmatism and the theory’s largely mechanistic-economic vision – by reducing history to a form of ‘business management’ and consequent lack of attention to things that mattered to peoples in the pre-industrial era such as ideology, cultural identification and authority, and while I also regret her over-emphasis on Rome, still her basic historical data is good and has the advantage of being online in chapter-length pdfs.
Two manuscripts made in twelfth-century England, nearly contemporary with the Otranto mosaic and Michael Scot’s lifetime, show an effort made to reconcile the ‘dragon-like’ with the ‘insect-like’ images of Scorpius, while typically retaining Scorpius’ distinctive marker, the line or line of dots marking its spine. In old English ‘wyrm‘ applied to many creatures, from one as small as a mite, through insects, snakes and to something as large as a dragon.
So now, is the ‘November beast’ in the Voynich manuscript no more than a ‘watery’ Scorpius, still with a looping tail, but minus wings? Are we seeing, in this emblem, another effort to reconcile celestial with terrestrial versions for the scorpion?
At this point, of course, one checks developing ideas against the primary evidence – the source whose opinion matters above all others – to see if we have yet understood the intention of this drawing.
And I don’t think we have, yet – chiefly because behind the Voynich beast’s head is a human skull wearing what appears to be a hat of the kind that a huntsman or traveller might wear.*
*rather than a military helmet
If the skull has been commented on by any previous Voynich writer, please leave a comment below providing details that can be credited. If not, and you repeat the information, don’t neglect to inform your own readers how and where you obtained it.
Clearly, we haven’t yet understood the first maker’s intention, and since the analyst’s task is not to invent a plausible storyline about the manuscript, but to correctly read the images which are here before us, on the page, the process of research must continue.
Part 3 to be published next week.
Postscript – the hat
– not exactly like the Lappavatten hat, but the latter’s date-range is interesting (1310-1440 AD) and that archaeological find, with images showing others of comparable form – and most of which were meant to be worn out of doors – are dicussed and illustrated…
- (HERE) well into in a post by johan Käll in ‘The Medieval Hunt‘ blog’, (February 1, 2020). Regrettably, few of the comparative images that Käll offers have been labelled with date and source, so their value is not what it might be for other researchers.