O’Donovan Notes #13.1a: Opening the Iris

The medieval world of Voynich writers – Introduction.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Let’s short-circuit the usual cycle of theory and counter-theory, and imagine that there’s going to be a public debate on the topic ‘How European is the Voynich manuscript’?

We shall have to discriminate between arguments about the written text and drawings as such, and the content expressed by the written- and the pictorial texts, as well as between the manuscript’s outermost binding; the technique used to stitch the quires together; the vellum’s quality and finish with its inks and pigments.

On the codicological issues, though, a debater could now get advice from one of the several external specialists in codicology who are now on board.

The strongest argument for a western Christian (‘Latin’) manufacture, or manufacture under Latin auspices is that so far the Beinecke Library has never suggested other than a Latin character for the cover and binding. The presence of sewing supports indicates, at the very least, that the current binding is in Latin or Armenian style.

Against this, it could be argued that the pages are not prepared in Latin style – there is the matter of ruling out, the inclusion of long fold-ins and so on.

Taking it, then, that the balance of evidence is in favour of manufacture in Latin Europe or under Latin auspices – that implies the use of scribes working in that Latin, or Latin-influenced environment.

The recent palaeographic analysis by Bowern and Painter found that among the examples they examined, those in the uncial and Beneventan hands came closest to forms used by the Voynich scribes, while Fagin Davis identified 5 different scribal hands in another paper delivered to the same zoom conference. (These talks are all now to be heard at youtube).

Page-layout offers arguments for and against a Latin (western Christian) origin for the matter contained. It is not usual – but not entirely unknown – for a Latin manuscript to have images set down before the written text, as we find in the manuscript. Nor is it usual for fourteenth-to-fifteenth century manuscripts to have drawings fill both the inner- and the outer margins of a page, as we see in some of the ‘ladies’ pages. We do see such practice elsewhere, and earlier – notably in some early medieval Spanish manuscripts.


You yourself may feel quite convinced that the manuscript’s contents are, or are not, entirely of medieval western Christian (‘Latin’) origin in both their form and their content, but it’s good exercise to lay your theory aside for a time, and consider what evidence there is in support of an opposite view.

It will mean asking such questions as ‘Where and when was it the norm to set down drawings before written text?’ and ‘Where and when do we find long fold-ins before 1440? and so on. The aim of such experiment is to shift focus from researching and promoting a theory to investigating more carefully the implications of the primary evidence.

Here I might repeat the theme-song for this blog: Feynman’s comment on scientific method.

It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

and after all, experiment has recently obliged us to abandon the Big Bang theory, so there’s nothing unscientific about changing your mind in the light of better evidence.

The Drawings.

If the use of sewing supports is a strong argument in favour of manufacture under Latin or Armenian auspices, evidence against any Latin origin for most of the contents is clearest from the pictorial text.

It is relevant and telling that the sense intended for the drawings has usually been guessed or asserted, most often to support a theory and by doing no more than announcing that two images are ‘alike’.

If all the Voynich drawings really did ‘speak European’ they could be read without resort to such guesses and arguments and could be read easily enough – and without much assistance – by anyone living today in a westernised environment.

Every tradition in pre-modern art constructs its images using a vocabulary of known, and distinctive conventions which are as evident to specialists as any fingerprint might be.

Take this image, for example:

Here is a king upon his throne, with a person of inferior rank (dressed in a scholar’s gown) presenting a book to that king.

The picture’s sense will be immediately obvious to you, if you live in a modern, westernised environment, but precisely because it will be so easily read, the reason you take the message may pass beneath conscious notice and analytical method demands we be specific.

You recognise the seated figure as a human king, not king of heaven, because there is no halo about his head, and that he is a king because he is richly dressed, holds a sceptre, sits when everyone else stands or kneels and is shown wearing a crown. That such tokens seem self-evident to you is the whole point. Medieval images expressing a western Christian worldview, and employing the conventions of medieval European art will be found easily intelligible by descendants of that tradition -at least to the level of basic narrative.

You mightn’t have picked up the finer nuances immediately, but you will have been able to ‘read’ the storyline instantly and identified – almost without thinking – the relative social ranking of the persons included in that picture. To work out that the narrative says ” social inferior offers book to social superior” wouldn’t have taken a century’s speculation, theorising and debate.

That the work of interpreting the intention of the Voynich drawings should have been so difficult, and so filled with argument, speculation, and fantasy is one pointer to non-European origin.

Specialists and more experienced persons will take more from that drawing. For example:

The book’s subject is epitomised by the adjacent diagram in which the world’s three natural sectors – air, sea and earth – are seen surrounded by the starry sky.

Use of a diapered repeat pattern for the floor, and the fleur-de-lys motif on the hangings tell us the work comes from an atelier in late medieval France, while the emphasis on patterning, and the diagram’s ‘cloudband’ boundary (among other details) tell us that we are looking at an image made in France of the late-fourteenth or early fifteenth century.

Another key is an image’s attitude to people.

It is a hallmark of medieval western Christian art that it displays a fixation – some might say obsession – with ranking all things from heaven to hell, including human beings, in terms of a social-spiritual hierarchy cross-referenced by whether the individuals were or weren’t acceptable to the western Christian religious faith. Those markers are also absent from all but a very few of the Voynich drawings.

To return to our example.

Behind the king stand three advisors. Their high social status as advisors is indicated by their standing close to, but behind the king. Their foreign-ness is indicated by giving each a stereotyped headwear as token of that non-Latin cultural tradition that each represents.

The seated person is highest in rank. The advisors next in social rank. The person who kneels to present the book is lowest in social rank but (because not marked as a foreigner) to be assumed higher in terms of religious ranking.

In medieval Latin art, not only must foreigners be given a device to mark their foreign-ness; the relative status/position of the saint must never be allowed to be confused with that of the serf, nor the courtier with the slave. A member of the nobility or aristocracy must appear elegant and fine-looking and wear the richest of fabrics, unless the scene is one of battle or execution.

Narratives in Latin manuscripts are rarely about physical delights and pleasures (as Persian art, for instance, could be), but always overtly or tacitly about some struggle or war – between saints and devils, between kings, between foreigners and Latins. The struggle for social-spiritual placement – status mundi – could serve as the title for a history of western Christian art before 1440.

But where is that ever-constant theme in the Voynich drawings?

In our example, the ‘battle’ is for the mind and soul of the seated king, who is shown overly-interested in foreign opinions.

Now, even if one’s reading of an image seems, subjectively, obvious and commonsense, it is not enough. Evidence in proof and/or reference to reliable external scholarship is always necessary when treating the Voynich manuscript.

In this case, we know our example comes from a copy of Nicholas Oresme’s Livre de Divinacions, so we turn first to that text. Oresme begins by citing every authority from the Biblical to contemporary who has upheld the tenets of astrology and practices of divination.. but who then says (Ch.8).

Notwithstanding all the above arguments … I say that princes and others who have set themselves to such matters have come to a bad end and have had evil fortune in this world.

And it is that battle = between important supporters of astrology, and the position of the scholar-cleric Oresme which is the crux and sub-text of the image, very neatly conveyed by the draughtsman in the poses, relative placement and details of each human figure.

The point I want to emphasise is that you, yourself, can easily ‘read’ the basic sense of the story in most – and I mean the vast majority – of images constructed using the conventions of medieval western Christian art.

Your reading can be tested against relevant documentary evidence and external scholarship. There is no need to rely on impressions, casual ‘pairings’, imaginative guesses or theoretical narratives. If all the Voynich drawings were formed by the conventions governing medieval Latin art, it wouldn’t have taken a century discussion about, say, the ‘ladies’ pages. (Those have been variously imagined as describing plumbing, or vegetable- or human anatomy or, most recently, treatises on bathing. (As it happens, I’m don’t support any of those theories).

But let’s futher suppose the text of Oresme’s book lost, corrupted, enciphered or otherwise made unreadable, and that persons without much earlier background in medieval manuscripts resorted to impressions and guesses about what our picture was meant to convey.

Suppose you like a theory that the image is .. what… a Byzantine Greek picture of Ptolemy offering his Geographia to a Roman emperor. The theorist you support has shown the detail ‘paired’ with various images of books being presented to a Byzantine emperor and has explained the medieval habit of re-costuming historical figures. It all seems plausible enough.

In fact, a specialist’s first reaction might be to tear their hair and say, as mildly as they could, ‘Byzantine Greeks just didn’t draw like that‘ – in other words that the conventions of Byzantine Greek art do not inform this picture, but our dedicated theorist is now devoted to his/her idea and isn’t so interested in remarks which seem critical. So s/he not only ignores the specialist’s comment, but ignores the whole corpus of non-Voynich scholarship considering such soft science irrelevant – and pushes on.

Experience suggests that in a closed and supportive group, the theorist’s ‘Byzantine-Ptolemy’ theory may well survive; it may be deemed plausible by fellow-theorists on the basis of ‘two eyes and commonsense’ and even gain followers en masse through social media and personal contacts.

But the minute that the theorist moves beyond that comfort zone and asks the opinion of a disinterested specialist or three (and three is a good number for independent reviewers), that’s the end of the ‘Byzantine-image-of-Ptolemy’ idea. Because it’s wrong. Objectively, demonstrably wrong.

There are objective standards that apply when offering opinions about a pictorial text, just as there are about historical or linguistic theories. The interesting question is why so few Voynich theorists asked about, or set out to learn, what those standards might be.

The same has been true for any number of Voynich theories which have used images in the Vms to illustrate their theories, and since virtually all of began by presuming an all-Latin origin for the manuscript’s content and determinedly avoided asking critical assessent from external specialists, even some easily-disproven theories continue to be promoted and believed.

*For more, see post ‘Expert Opinions: Not One of Minevoynichrevisionist, Feb.25th., 2019. [click the black arrows in that post to expand the text]


The 2022 zoom conference has stimulated a taste for statistics and the current Voynich buzz-word is ‘scientific’ so some sort of statistical study would surely do well in any debate about ‘How European..’ are the drawings.

A statistical study?

Here’s one possible experiment. How many fifteenth-century European manuscripts do you think you could produce which contain a few hundred human forms, but not one of which shown seated upon a covered rostrum, or a chair or a chair-like throne plus not a single figure mounted on a horse plus not a single figure presented as a saint, or a cleric, or a scholar, or a monk, or an armoured soldier, or a field-worker or a flying angel or devil?

In other words, where is that basic and constant reference to social and spiritual hierarchy? (technical treatises aside).

Only three figures in the Voynich manuscript, as we have it, bear crowns. All are unclothed female figures whose forms are not made especially attractive.

So again – How many medieval European manuscripts of the thirteenth-to-fifteenth centuries do you think you could find in which a crowned female is drawn unclothed, not slender and not fine of face?

A non-European origin for the majority of Voynich images is strong.

That it has missed notice by most Voynich writers is due chiefly to the fact that few are aware of what details are significant and which are not.

Take, for example the matter of shoes which may seem a trivial issue but in terms of the conventions of medieval Latin and Byzantine art is most certainly not.

On folio 80r is a small vignette which shows a male figure who, it seems, we are to consider shod. Together with the calendar’s archer, who also wears a skirt, this figure is one of the very few in the manuscript who isn’t barefoot. Whether that figure or any other among the Voynich manuscript’s anthropoform figures was intended to be read literally is not widely agreed.

One would consider not only how few figures in the Voynich manuscript are shown wearing boots or shoes, but how many are seen barefoot in any medieval images from the Latin, Byzantine and Islamic manuscript traditions to 1400. And more to the point – what does it signify in those works?

The Voynich figures’ being barefoot is deliberate is quite clear. Apart from anything else, it’s easier to draw a boot or shoe than to draw a foot, especially to the scale these figures are drawn, and in pre-modern art whether eastern or western, deliberate = meaningful.

It is certainly not enough and hardly scientific to resort to imagination and assert that the figures are bathing women or gynecological patients, or slaves, or something of that sort, nor to assert that the fruit of pure imagination deserves description as a ‘theory’.

Details speak to meaning, and meaning expressed according to some existing artistic tradition.

It’s not difficult for an informed commentator to make a clear case against a medieval Latin origin for the great majority of the Voynich manuscript’s drawings.


Much as I would like to hear a formal debate on ‘How European is the Voynich Manuscript?’ I expect that traditionalists would be outraged, perhaps to the point of lobbying to prevent the discussion in some Voynich forum.

It is a peculiarity of Voynich studies that while linguists and codicologists embrace the latest methods and understandings with enthusiasm, composers of the quasi-historical and theoretical narratives so regularly ignore (and attempt to persuade others to ignore) any better information about methodologies or newer evidence.

Why this should be so is inextricable from the curious history of this manuscript’s study, and the reasons that its ‘iris-shot’ vision of the medieval world persists in maintaining ideas widely believed a hundred years ago but long superseded in research from such disciplines as medieval history, comparative cultural studies, economic history, manuscript studies, archaeology, conservation and, of course, art-historical studies.

The rest of this series considers the reasons behind Voynich narratives and theories failing to keep step with external scholarship. We shall attempt to open the iris.

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