O’Donovan notes. Calendar 6.4b – Who needs a zodiac? (conc.)

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

Edit (9th Oct ) – to add link for MS Vatican, BAV, Reg. lat. 1324.

It’s no secret, I think, that I’m fiercely opposed to theory-first approaches to this or any other manuscript. To form a theory without a solid preliminary grounding is to use nothing but your imagination, and who knows if your imagination contains enough?

We’ve seen how ideas which were initially no more than a subjective impression from one person could create a lasting and negative effect in this manuscript’s study – as Newbold’s impressionistic description of its sections continues to do, and as did O’Neill’s baseless assertion that among the plant-pictures was a specimen-drawing of an American sunflower, and his fantasy that sunflowers been brought from north America by Columbus.

We’ve also seen* how, to suit no more than a theory about the calendar and its emblems, the primary evidence has been altered, tweaked and redefined to cover up those elements which present objection to the traditionalist, zodiac-focused, expectation.

*for details see page HERE.

No intention to deceive informs that distortion of the evidence, but perhaps an unreasonable confidence that this calendar ought to conform more nearly to present-day expectations and to Wilfrid’s theory of all-Latin origin and character for everything in the manuscript.

Over-confidence in such theoretical norms leads to a curious reversal of priorities: what comes to be researched is not the manuscript, but the theory. We are urged to believe that the doubled months are irrelevant; that the crocodile is irrelevant; that the assignment of image-to month, and the language of the month-names are ALL irrelevant, and the maker someone at fault, a person to be blamed or excused because the Voynich calendar does not, in fact, present the zodiac series, does contain doubled months.. and so on.

Our position is that the manuscript is as it is, and our task is to establish the reason it is as it is. If it diverges from someone’s theoretical norm, then what needs to be changed is their theory.

So if we set aside, for the time being, that old habit of expecting to see a zodiac, what the manuscript presents in fact is fairly clear evidence that while the month-names speak of a calendar of some kind, this isn’t formed in just twelve sections according to the sequence of zodiac signs-constellations.

And there is absolutely no reason it should be. It is entirely possible to describe the annual cycle without making any reference to the zodiac band of 12.

Another traditional assumption which I think we may fairly doubt is a theory that the quires were inscribed in much the same time and place as the manuscript’s content was first expressed.

That tacit assumption is a false analogy with book-publication, or newspapers. That newly produced works contain only locally produced and current ‘news’. It was an idea which once led to a Voynich memer – evidently a supporter of the Prinke-Zandbergen theory – announcing to all within range that to consider any but fifteenth-century German manuscripts was “unnecessary” and a waste of time.

Complete nonsense though it was, that meme is a good example of how badly unreasonable faith in a theory can distort a person’s historical perspective and sense of balance.

We have seen evidence which indicates that c.1350 AD may be a likely date for first expression of the manuscript’s content in western Europe, but there is enough evidence too of copying from earlier precedents or exemplars to leave open the question of where and when most of the matter was first enunciated.

Recognising that distinction means that we can to a large extent uncouple the contained matter from the medium in which it is presently contained, and instead of hunting ways to justify the old assumptions, focus on researching the content as it is – and in our case these drawings. We are now able to make our chief aim, to understand what the original maker intended in this section with its doubled months, its figures in baskets and crocodile for November. What ties us to western shores are the month-names and the lobsters and – less certainly – the form given the Archer. The form given the Scales presents a strong objection to positing first composition in medieval Latin Europe. But that’s a matter for another time..

A calendar needs no zodiac

Hesiod. Mosaic from a Roman domus in Augusta Treveriorum (Trier). image Encyc.Britannica.

To illustrate this point Hesiod’s Works and Days will do. It is a poem as old as Homer and much older than Eudoxus’ work; it remained just as well known to the Greek-speaking world into the fifteenth century.

It was known to Greek-speaking Romans such as Cicero – the Roman whose oratory was beloved by Renaissance-era Italians and from whose translation of Aratus, as we saw, the term ‘Arcitenens’ came as epithet or name for the Archer constellation.

Cicero had known Hesiod’s work in the original Greek and from the easy way he alludes to one of Hesiod’s maxims in offering a friend advice, it seems that the text might have been a standard school-boy’s text in his time. Cicero does no more than write the maxim’s first couple of words – in the Greek – when suggesting his friend should have his boy learn that maxim by heart.*

*Gianpiero Rosati, ‘The Latin Reception of Hesiod’ (academia.edu) cites that letter

After the imperial capital became Byzantium, and the city of Milan was designated administrative capital for the emperor’s western domains, Hesiod’s description of the year continued to be part of the Byzantine heritage and his Works and Days seems to have been treated as standard text on the management of an estate, or farm, because Byzantine copies are often illustrated with what may be the full inventory of a property’s agricultural tools and implements. .

Hesiod’s year begins with harvest. I paraphrase to emphasise his markers of the months and seasons. Readers will recognise some of the seasonal vignettes as ones that became standard in western ‘Labours of the Months’.

He says, first, that the rising of the Pleiades begins, and their setting ends, the cycle between harvesting one crop and ploughing in preparation for the next.

Autumn is the time for wood-cutting, and is marked by Sirius’ passing overhead for a shorter time and for a longer period at night.

Pass by the smithy and its crowded lounge in winter time when the cold keeps men from field work, lest bitter winter [next year] catch you helpless and poor, and you chafe a swollen foot with a shrunk hand.

Sixty wintry days after the solstice, there rises at dusk the brilliant star Arcturus. After him … the swallow appears when spring is just beginning., Before the swallow comes, the vines should be pruned.

Then, when snails appear climbing up plants from the earth, it is no longer the season for digging vineyards, but time to whet your [hand-] sickles .. During the harvest season, avoid shady seats and sleeping even as late as dawn … Be busy and bring home your fruits.

In the time of wearisome heat, while slaves or servants harvest the grain, when the artichoke flowers and when the chirping grass-hopper sits in a tree pouring down his song, it is time to relax a little and enjoy the fresh Zephyr …but you should thrice pour an offering of water, and a fourth libation of wine.

Winnowing time is known by the first appearance of Orion, and then even the dog with jagged teeth should be fed well, lest the Day-sleeper [robber/thief] take your goods. 

The sign for the time of harvesting grapes is that Orion and Sirius come into the midheaven, and dawn sees Arcturus (as previously said) … But when the Pleiades and Hyades and strong Orion all begin to set, that is the time again to plough the land in season: “and so the completed year will fitly pass beneath the earth”

You see the point – It is perfectly possible to illustrate the sequence of months and their labours without any reference to the zodiac. In fact, a correspondence between agricultural periods and other natural phenomena – dominant winds, migratory birds and animal behaviours – is more reliable than linking them to the stars, for the stars are affected by precession. Sirius does not rise in the same month now that it did in the 8thC BC.

  • M. L. West, ‘The Medieval Manuscripts of the Works and Days’, The Classical Quarterly, DVol. 24, No. 2 (Dec., 1974), pp. 161-185.
  • Anthony Bryer, ‘Byzantine Agricultural Implements: The Evidence of Medieval Illustrations of Hesiod’s “Works and Days”, The Annual of the British School at Athens , Vol. 81 (1986), pp. 45-80. one copy, in the Greek, is in the same library as Beinecke MS 408 (Yale, Beinecke Library MS. 254 = Phillipps 3875.


Romans used wall-calendars in the most literal sense.

The example below was found in the remains of a Roman domus, beneath Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The finders describe it as a panel from one such wall-calendar, though whether it is designed to show the uncertain life of seamen, or to reinforce Hesiod’s disapproval of farmers who venture in trade I don’t know. Despite his disapproval, Hesiod offers practical advice about boats, too:

“when the Pleiades plunge into the misty sea to escape Orion’s rude strength .. gales of all kinds rage … Haul up your ship upon the land and pack it closely with stones … draw out the bilge-plug put away all the tackle and fittings in your house, stow the wings of the sea-going ship neatly, and hang up the well-shaped rudder over the smoke.

The Christian Calendar.

The time of harvest is around September, and many older calendars began the year then, including the Christian calendar from which the western Church would deviate.

The first Christian Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD, decreed that the Church’s year should begin on September 1st, citing as its Biblical precedent the Jews’ civil year (as given in Exodus 12:12) and for its Christian reference Constantine’s victory of Mazentius in 312 AD,* following which Constantine had recognised Christianity as a religion acceptable to the Roman empire.*

*Modern scholars date that battle 28 October.

I’ll admit that comparative calendars isn’t one of my favourite areas of study, but since we’re dealing with a calendar of unknown origin and date, copied to appear now within our fifteenth-century artefact, and since all the skills associated with calculation and computing were introduced and fostered in older Europe in the context of calendar calculations, the subject is unavoidable.

By the time of that Council, there had already been some strife about the date on which Christ’s resurrection should be honoured, and now there was a split developing between those who did, and those who did not, identify that date with the date of the Jewish celebration of Passover, commemorating the Egyptian Jews’ crossing over the Red Sea and passing from slavery into relative freedom.

Although it had been the Romans who ordered Christ’s death, it was hardly practical for early Christians to blame the Romans and they blamed the Jews instead, this making observance of the Jewish Passover – as the date of Easter – somewhat fraught.

The Jews, it was correctly understood, observed their holy day on fourteenth day of Nisan, which might occur on any day of the week. Those who kept Easter with the Jews had soon been limited to a few churches of Asia minor, but now the concern was how to scrutinise and try to make uniform the date for Easter throughout the Christian-Roman empire. Constantine himself attended the council and it was he who made the decision in favour of Alexandria’s system, though diplomatically suggesting it was

…in the hope that your Wisdoms will gladly admit that practice which is observed at once in the city of Rome and in Africa, throughout Italy and in Egypt. . .


In short, the eastern churches of Syria and Mesopotamia were at odds with the Roman-as-Roman world, which included north Africa and Alexandria. Those eastern churches, and the important church of Antioch, were relying on the Jewish calendar, against Alexandria and territories longer under imperial Roman rule which were now calculating Easter’s date for themselves.

Some Christians claimed that differences between Alexandria and Antioch were due to nothing but the latter’s relying on the Jews’ method of calculation, to which charge Rome and Alexandria joined in asserting that the Jews ” had become neglectful of the law that the fourteenth of Nisan must never precede the equinox” and Constantine makes suitable noises indicating shock and astonishment in his letter of response, having been informed that the Jews sometimes kept two Paschs in one year, meaning that two Paschs sometimes fell between one equinox and the next.

Could that be why the Voynich calendar has doubled months for April and for May?

Deciding that question is a task for people who relish working with problematic numbers – but it would certainly be interesting to learn in which years that might have happened, between (say) 325 AD and 1350 AD. (it will involve understanding embolismic months).

Antioch is obviously of interest, too, for as I pointed out (longer ago than I care to remember), the Voynich calendar’s beardless goats are drawn with swollen cheeks in a way closely similar to those which served as Antioch’s own motif. I regret that I no longer have the image I used as illustration, and which was of a mosaic from that city.

But here is part of another mosaic, this from Ravenna in Byzantine Italy (6thC AD). It shows the apostle Paul, given a blue halo and shown sinking down from a tower in Antioch – lowered in a basket.

Before breaking, a few points should be made clear.

  1. That a specifically Christian calendar only emerged after the mid-fourth century AD, an thereafter evolved over time – over a surprising length of time – and not without debates, disputes and divisions in which each party termed all others heretical.
  2. That the basis for western Europe’s Christian calendar, for its Christian doctrine, and for its Christian monasticism were all from the eastern Mediterranean, something the western church remained keenly aware of.
  3. That the western church had a recurring problem with movements urging a return to an older, more ascetic and ‘pristine’ Christianity, an idea which even to as late as the 1440s was typically identified with early Christian Egypt. By that time, the western Church did not much appreciate the idea, having in the meantime declared all other forms of Christian observance heretical, schismatic and so forth.
  4. And finally that the manuscript overall shows so very little evidence of Christian beliefs and (more importantly) of those stylistic customs which define the art of late medieval Latin Europe, that while exploring the possibility of Christian origin for the Calendar’s emblems, we should not presume the Calendar itself any expression of western Christian culture.

In the next post, I’ll look at one very early semi-Christian calendar, and then at a manuscript first brought to notice in Voynich studies, as I understand, by Mr. J.K. Petersen (Oxford Bodleian MS Douce 313) . It contains these drawings:

(details) from Oxford, Bodleian MS Douce 313. French. mid-14thC.

Postscript – Cicero’s translation of Aratus – mss.

According to Dobcheva, (on the Aratea Digital site), there are only a few manuscript copies of Cicero’s translation remaining, viz:

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