O’Donovan notes. Calendar 7b – Old Ideas and Good Ideas.

2500 words.

The author’s rights are asserted

Introduction: I have already written that promised post about a certain calendar and Oxford, Bodleian Douce 313), but the amount of background information which that discussion needed made the post impossibly long, so here are sections pulled from it and which provide a little of the historical context needed to make sense of what will now follow in the next post.

Some of the material concerns attitudes to new knowledge in Europe during the time of Michael Scot and Roger Bacon. Some concerns the back-story for ideas first offered about the Voynich calendar in Jim Reeds’ mailing list but which have never yet been formally presented or tested by the people who raised them there.

If what follows has a common theme, it is how people react to new information, especially to the arrival of new and better information from a community whose ways of thought differ from those most familiar and comfortable for the recipients.

The new math

Little more than a century after Michael Scot’s death, we find him depicted in Italy as the archetypal negromancer and heretic. We are shown a figure dark of visage, dressed in what looks like a woman’s pink dress, with dark curly locks and long nose. He is shown ripping pages from some book, indifferent to Dominic’s exposition of the Truth – towards which almost all others, including foreigners, display awe and deference.

What this tells us is that Scot was already, so early, identified as a practitioner of the black arts – making it all the more remarkable that the ‘lobster’ type for Cancer, a type widely used at that time, should have come to be attributed by recent scholars to Michael Scot’s writings in particular, rather than just to England and France where he had gained his education.

Nothaft refers to one monk, a contemporary of Roger Bacon Michael Scot (1175-1232), and who had clearly mastered the new ‘Arab’ learning as it related to computus. His name was Cunestabulus, and being instructed to give an account of that foreign matter, cries aloud and most emphatically that he only records such matter in obedience to his superior… and even then feels obliged to add a rant against:

novelty-hunters and shameless scorners of antiquity … [who] arrogantly reject the position sanctioned by authority, as if it were not sophisticated enough, and who, in relying on their own wit, wish to think otherwise …as if they were the only ones in the know.

quoted in C. Philipp E. Nothaft, ‘Reluctant Innovator: Graeco-Arabic Astronomy in the “Computes” of Magister Cunestabulus (1175)’, Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2017), pp. 24-54.

This was written a hundred and fifteen years* before the king of England ordered all his Jewish subjects expelled as a way to avoid honouring his financial debts. Just so does Cunestabulus refuse to acknowledge his sources and, thus, defaults on his intellectual debts.

*corrected (18th Oct.) ’15’ should have read 115.

One does not need to be very old, or very wise, before one realises than in order to remain embraced by any community, monastic or social, certain words, names, ideas and beliefs must be treated as ‘not to be spoken’. No monk in Bacon’s time could say openly that ‘The knowledge of the Arabs and Jews’ is right” if it seemed to contradict the Book of Genesis. The fact that Genesis was a Jewish book was another thing that was not to be said too plainly.

In the earlier twentieth century, in England and in America, there were lso certain statements which could not be made, however true, and certain ideas which could not be offered honestly without negative responses from the academic community and from the general populace. Among them was that Europe had been the passive beneficiary of superior Asian learning or practice.

Lyn Thorndike battled without success to explain that Roger Bacon did not invent gunpowder. Lynn White would struggle to have the Anglophone and German world accept the reality of Asian presence in the west, and its effect in medieval and Renaissance Europe before 1490.

More recently, and to give an example to which I can attest, general readers may be forgiven for having no idea at all that for at least ten years, promoters of Eurocentric theories have been aware that the cloudband motif – often mis-called ‘wolkenband’ – came into the art of western Europe from Asia during the Mongol century.

The word’s being rendered in German may convey an idea that there’s something peculiarly German-central-European about the presence of that motif in the Voynich manuscript but such an impression is false. Because this matter will be relevant for the next post, I’ll repeat a few of the illustrations presented in my earlier essay on the subject. The first example is from fourteenth-century Padua.

That detail is taken from a painting by Guariento di Arpo (1310 -1370 AD), part of a fresco he painted for the church of the Eremitani. This shows the cloudband in its original, free-flowing form, while other details (such as the red-winged angels) suggests mediation through Byzantine forms and/or works produced earlier in the south-western Mediterranean.

This next example is from a fourteenth-century Persian miniature depicting Genghis Khan’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258.

(detail)  from Rashid-ad-Din’s Gami’ at-tawarih. Tabriz (?), 1st quarter of 14th century.

The miniature is believed painted in the city of Tabriz, in the region where the Azerbaijani is widely spoken and which was an early centre of the Yemeni Azdi. Under Mongol rule, Tabriz served as a major multinational centre of learning and of trade until it became the capital of the Turkic Qara Qoyunlu in 1375. The detail shows how that convention could also be also used for the flowing, and amorphous waters below. Christians of the Byzantine, Latin and Syrian churches, as well as Muslims, passed through Tabriz during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and have left accounts of the city’s magnificence and activity. It was there, and at the observatory of  Maragheh, that Gregory Chioniades learned Persian and studied the most recent developments in astronomical studies, specifically the updated tables of Claudius Ptolemy. 

In general, however, Europeans weren’t so comfortable with a line so irregular and chaotic, and there we soon find the motif made more nearly regular and treated more like a repeat-motif. The following example is taken from a later (c.1425-50) copy of Vox Clamantis, composed by the English poet John Gower between 1330 – October 1408.

It is certainly true that this motif is relevant to study of numerous drawings in the Voynich manuscript. It is also true that forms of ‘cloudband’ pattern were to prove popular in German-speaking regions, and especially among printers, but it is misleading to say – or even to to imply – that the presence of this motif is in itself proof that those drawings express any uniquely Germanic-central-European character. To use the term ‘wolkenband’ is of course quite correct when writing in German, but to use the German term if writing in English today is inappropriate.

Refusal to acknowledge accurately one’s sources of information, or to misrepresent the historical context by omitting any but theory-supporting material is one reason we see Voynich theories advance, while Voynich studies, as such, does not. Instead one sees the same ideas raised, supported, or let fall below the horizon, until some later person re-presents, re-discovers or re-invents them. The phenomenon Pelling once termed the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’.

Failure to do any more than raise ideas or repeat ideas without troubling to investigate and test them is another factor which prevents the study’s advance.

I am grateful to a former Voynichero* for bringing to my notice a series of communications made to Jim Reeds’ Voynich research mailing list in 1998. Among them are some which raise or make points I’ve made again recently in all ignorance. For example, I did not know that Jorge Stolfi had spoken of the “zodiac” – in quotation marks – in one of those communications. Another contributor in that year raised, apparently for the first time, the interesting possibility raised several times since then, but never actually researched, that Voynichese may use a script invented to record foreign languages.

*who is quite determined to remain anonymous, I’m sorry to say.

We also see, in that year, a communication from Rene Zandbergen in which he sketches roughly a theoretical link made between some drawings in the manuscript, certain ideas about astrology and about women’s medicine. Since 1998 many of those items, separately or together, have hardened into things ‘everyone knows’ though to my knowledge neither Zandbergen nor anyone else has actually presented a formal paper arguing that such matters are found united in any particular time and place. Any who might care to present such an argument should not neglect to mention Zandbergen, should he have been the first to raise that possibility.

Jorge Stolfi was contributing an account of the Chinese calendar, and from that information we learn that it was not only the Jews whose calendar considered a 19-yr cycle. He also provides another possible explanation for what we’d regard as months of 30 or 29 days, and refers to notional ‘agricultural seasons’ of 15 days or half-months. To my knowledge, no-one but P.Han ever attempted to argue the Voynich calendar a Chinese calendar.

Stolfi wrote,

“I wonder if there is any resemblance between it [the Chinese calendar] and Vms “zodiac” charts. I am not holding my breath, but still…

The classical Chinese calendar, in use for over 3000 years, was the “yin-yang li” or “lunar-solar calendar”. A “vanilla” year had 354 days, divided into 12 months, alternately 30 and 29 days, adding to 6 x 59 = 354. To keep the calendar in sync with the solar year (~365.25 days) and lunar month (~29.59 days), an extra would be inserted in some “leap years”. (An early scheme inserted 7 extra months in a fixed pattern over a period of 19 years).

The agricultural seasons: Independently of this lunar-solar system, the solar year was also divided into “agricultural seasons” by 24 seasonal points, spaced exactly 15 degrees apart on the zodiac. Therefore, a season lasted usually 15 but sometimes 16 days.

There’s a lot more in that communication, but my point is that almost a quarter-century ago, Voynich research had already reached a point where the “zodiac” idea was doubted; where researchers knew that a 19-yr cycle was not found only in Jewish calendar-calculations, that a time-marking system existed which could described the year in terms of 15 (or 16)-day periods and/or in terms of nominal “agricultural seasons” providing 24 periods of 15 degrees each.

In 1998, no-one looked more deeply into that question of Asian influence, perhaps because the study was still deeply reliant on Mary d’Imperio’s little book, and affected by the fact that the twentieth century’s attitudes had been unrelievedly Eurocentric.

Annette Stroud asked (April 15th., 1998) whether the Voynich script mightn’t be “a sort of shorthand capturing the graphic elements of an unfamiliar script.” She mentioned Arabic in particular.

Another member immediately blocked any conversation developing about that possibility, chiming in to state with apparent authority that:

“The totally European (Italian) character of the Ms has been used as an argument against an Arabic origin”.

To the best of my knowledge no-one has yet investigated the question of how foreign languages might have been represented by foreigners who went to foreign lands to trade, to preach or to reside and who learned to speak but not to write the local languages. We know, of course, that Jews would often write Arabic in Hebrew letters, and one sometimes sees other cases of mingled scripts Here, for example, are Egyptian (‘Coptic’) numerals combined with Syriac letters, though perhaps numerals are not relevant.

The next communication of April 15th., 1998 came from Zandbergen.

He does not react to Stolfi’s writing “zodiac” in quotes, but says:

the birthplace of Peter of Abano, whom I once tentatively connected with the zodiac section [sic], was a famous thermal spa in Roman and medieval times, known for treatment of (a.o.) women’s diseases. Abano translated a Persian work about the astrological significance of each of the thirty degrees of each zodiac sign (by Abu Ma’shar, a.k.a. Albumasar, also quite famous).

I’m not saying Abano wrote the VMs. He’s about as likely a source as Roger Bacon.

And on that inconclusive note, discussion of the Calendar ended for the time.

In concert with other Voynicheros, notably Toresella, Edith Sherwood, and ‘Steve D’, Zandbergen would attempt more than a decade later to create an official ‘Voynich herbal’ as adjunct to an extraordinary theory involving women’s baths, women’s medicine and an apparently fictional ‘Voynich villa’ located somewhere in Italy – though the narrative drew in some of Dana Scott’s identification of English plants, and some of my own plant-identifications (re-assigned to other folios at random to avoid due acknowledgements).

No solid evidence from archeology, historical or ethnobotany, or any informed analysis of the drawings was ever offered as support for that quasi-historical scenario or the rather dubious effort to own the plant-drawings. Whether the material was ever inflicted on the public in print I do not know. It can hardly have improved scholarly opinion of Voynich studies.

Another oddly arbitrary attitude to provenancing our present manuscript occurred in 2011. As soon as the radiocarbon range was published, it was asserted that since Roger Bacon cannot have hand-written the Voynich text, so the entire matter of an English provenance could be abandoned, along with the question of an Italian provenance, and both could be replaced by the ‘German-central European’ theory which had been waiting impatiently in the wings,

The difference was that the two previous opinions had come from persons experienced in evaluating a manuscript’s palaeography, codicology and general appearance, where the novel theory was not.

Persons trained and experienced in evaluating manuscripts had offered only two possibilities between 1912 and 2011 – England, or Italy.

Fixation on some ‘single author’ theory had blinded most to the fact that the one consensus was not necessarily incompatible with the other. One might well describe he origin (and hence the appearance) of the content, and the other the present quires’ place of manufacture during the early fifteenth century… as we shall see.

5 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes. Calendar 7b – Old Ideas and Good Ideas.

  1. In the sentence, “The difference was that the two previous opinions had come from persons experienced in evaluating a manuscript’s palaeography, codicology and general appearance, where the novel theory was not.” I am referring to professionals in that field. Panofsky’s opinion “somewhere southern… Jewish.. Arab influence” is worthy of respect, generally speaking, but it was a private opinion and he was neither a bibliophile as such, nor a professional evaluator of manuscripts.


  2. “Notice received “Someone in the department of Directorate of Operations at European Space Agency read your paper”.
    Funny thing is – it is not a paper, just a brief statement. 🙂


    1. Ruby, I’m providing a resource for people seriously interested in studying a fifteenth-century manuscript. That means providing an insight into appropriate methods, some historical and critical background, textual references for further reading and where absolutely unavoidable even including some material from my own research. At present, I’m writing for people who are interested in how to approach the drawings in the calendar section. I don’t see how a 5-7 line ‘summary’ would be a useful resource.
      All I could say would be ‘Do in-depth historical research. Pay attention to codicology. Learn appropriate methods for approaching and reading problematic pictures. Don’t limit your reading to Voynich-specific writings. Begin with a specific question, and research that. Avoid theoretical narratives. Think for yourself, write for others.’



  3. re TABRIZ.

    Given the importance of Tabriz during the thirteenth and earlier fourteenth century, I was remiss in not including some readings.

    Most papers written in English have a habit of focusing on the very few western European travellers and can give one the impression of looking through the wrong end of a telescope unless read against the broader world of that time. For a balanced overview, you might begin with the Introductory paper by Judith Pfeiffer in
    Judith Pfeiffer (ed.), Politics, Patronage and the Transmission of Knowledge in 13th–15th Century Tabriz. (2014)

    It’s a Brill publication, which tells you that it’s (a) peer-reviewed by the most eminent specialists across the field (b) tending towards the conservative rather than its opposite (c) quite expensive and (d) worth the price.
    If you read nothing else in it, get hold of Pfeiffer’s introductory paper

    Judith Pfeiffer, ‘Introduction. From Baghdad to Marāgha, Tabriz, and Beyond: and the Multi-Cephalous Cultural, Religious, and Intellectual Landscape of the 13th to 15th Century Nile-to-Oxus Region (pp. 1-14).

    I expect it may be a shock for some Voynicheros to realise that before the mid-fifteenth century, Latins were of little importance in that SINGLE world which was commerce, learning and politics. To reduce the shock, it may be easiest to begin with the matter of commercial contacts, such as
    Sheila S. Blair, ‘Tabriz: International Entrepôt under the Mongols’ ( pp.321-356)

    .. and for those shocked to see Europe not the whole focus of study, you may find most omfortable – and still valuable:
    Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, ‘Civitas Thauris’: the significance of Tabriz in the Spatial Frameworks of Christian Merchants and Ecclesiastics in the 13th and 14th centuries’. (pp.251-300),.

    A couple of papers related to astronomical studies are included too, though these add to and do not replace the research done by specialists in the history of formal and informal astronomies.

    Nourane Ben Azzouna, ‘Rashīd al-Dīn Faḍl Allāh al-Hamadhānī’s Manuscript Production Project in Tabriz Reconsidered’ (pp. 187-200)

    Robert Morrison, ‘ What Was the Purpose of Astronomy in Ījī’s Kitāb al-Mawāqif fī ʿilm al-kalām?’ (pp.201-230)

    I must say again to readers that I still consider essential reading the landmark study by Virgil Ciocîltan.
    I don’t actually recommend that you steal it, but since Christmas is coming you might consider borrowing or begging a copy if the book’s beyond you at present at 176 Euros.

    **Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (Vol. 20 of Brill’s series: East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450). Separately published in 2012.


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