“no one pours new wine into old wineskins”

.. but the reciprocal is often true.

c.1000 words. The author’s rights are asserted.

IN 2023 –

Our first research question will be whether or not European manuscripts of the pre-Renaissance period always gave ‘antique’ texts contemporary illustrations. And if not, how can you tell?

To begin exploring this question of ‘old wine, new skins?’ I’ll begin with detail from a late fifteenth century manuscript, despite its late date. Ellie Velinska introduced the detail in 2013, while hunting for comparisons for the way the human body is represented in Beinecke MS 408.

Ellie’s blog has been closed since, but I want to refer to that detail because it comes from copy of Augustine’s De civitate Dei made almost exactly a thousand years after the text was first composed.

Augustine’s text, in turn, as written about a century later than Ausonius composed those verses which, as we’ve seen, provided Bede with the same system of correspondence between sign-and-month which informs the Voynich calendar: Fishes as sign for March; Crab for July; Archer for December and so on.

It’s worth taking a minute to think about it: by the time the Voynich calendar was set down on its vellum, the custom had been at least a thousand years old, and no longer generally employed by makers of fine manuscripts in Europe. Nonetheless it is preserved as late as c.1350 in Bodleian, Douce 313, and to at least the early fifteenth century in Beinecke MS 408.

For those who didn’t follow last year’s enquiry, here are Ausonius’ verses.

The tropic star of Capricorn prescribes the opening of Janus’s reign.

In the midst of Numa’s month stands the sign of stout Aquarius.

The Fishes twain come forth in days of March.

Thou, Ram of Phrixus, lookst back on April’s calends,

May marvels at the horn of Agenor’s Bull.

June sees the Spartan twins march in the heavens.

July brings the star of the Crab which blazes at the solstice.

The raging Lion scorches the month of August with his fires.

Beneath the star, O Virgin, September loads the vines.

October’s seed-time balances the Scales.

The wintry Scorpion bids November go headlong.

The Archer ends his shining in mid-December.

-translation by Hugh White.

Ausonius’ verses (or perhaps Bede’s summary of them in De temporum ratione) inform two twelfth-century mosaic calendars though these are in towns 900 kilometers apart – one being in the far south in Otranto and the other in San Savino in Piacenza.

(detail) mosaic calendar ‘months and labors’ Otranto.

I have found no scholarly discussion of the Otranto mosaic’s unusual script.

Piacenza’s ‘July’ shows a nice lobster with a three-point head (and, unlike the Vms’ lobsters, with its legs in the right place)

The name ‘Piacenza’ may ring a bell for some readers.

San Savino’s charter provided an example of elongated letter-forms which was introduced to Voynich studies by Jim Reeds, and (too often without a nod to him) has been much repeated since. In fact, reading his posts to the first mailing list was what led me to wonder if Piacenza might have still more relevant matter.

Reeds cited Cappelli’s Dizionario Di Abbreviature. Panofsky had recommended that William Friedman read it (1952). The 1929 edition is presently at the internet archive HERE.

Voynich researchers seem not to have found that old system of correlations so far in any northern, Germanic or ‘central European’ manuscript. It’s tempting to think, then, that it was some unknown supporter of that theory who first made the overconfident statement recently repeated by a relative newcomer, viz:

“In the calendars of the time [which time?], January was Aquarius and Pisces was February.

Merely speculation to that point.. the rest is flummery:

” The names of the months in the VM must have[sic!] been written much later, perhaps in the 17th century. ..”

Theorists often use their imagination; what makes imaginative assertions counterproductive is when they are presented as if statements of undeniable fact – and newcomers led to repeat them.

To paraphrase a certain non-Voynich author,

the grave danger is … an incapacity to recognise the fictitious character of ‘common sense’

see Meinrad Calleja, ‘The Madness of Certainty’, Malta Humanist Association Newsletter, Jan 11th., 2015, where Calleja quotes and references the original.

Here’s a nice example of why neither ‘commonsense’ nor common opinion is enough.

This (below) is a group that almost anyone in Venice will tell you is a statue of St.Theodore, the original patron saint of the city. Sounds plausible. Everyone says the same.

St. Theodore, Venice. The halo, shield and sword are all late additions. The beast seems to have been an entirely separate sculpture before it came to Venice.

And in a sense it’s true. Since the figure was erected, it has been a statue of St.Theodore.

If you go a bit deeper though, the facts are more interesting. Its various component parts arrived separately in medieval Venice, having been looted from Constantinople. It was only then that the sword, shield and halo – and possibly also the spear – were made. The chief figure is actually a late Roman sculpture of a Roman soldier, and the body of the ‘dragon’ closely resembles the form of a mummified crocodile when seen close to – especially the hind-part. What purpose or relationship (if any) the separate parts had before they came to Venice we simply do not know. That’s a fine example of old wine given a new skin.

One thought on ““no one pours new wine into old wineskins”

  1. Well-researched posts about medieval saints, their relics, and their representations in a blog called Reliquarian. The Venetian statue of ‘Theodore’ is treated there too – March 23rd., 2013.


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