The skies above Pt.2 ‘asteriskos’

In a media-savvy age, many readers will know that meaning is context-dependent.

“Everything’s fine. Just realised an ancient Egyptian deity was really  Macedonian. Me, in fact.”

This doesn’t mean we may haul the manuscript and its content into whatever context we find comfortable and then assert its meaning is whatever we, and ‘people like us’ find most agreeable.    My saying so may seem trite.. but don’t be fooled.

Hauling the past into a present social environment, to make easier the task of co-opting and re-interpreting it to suit self-and-friends has been a perennial activity, probably since human society began, and even more with images than with words.

Lewis Carroll’s  Humpty Dumpty offers an apt example:

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

I begin with the diagrams entire though the usual habit has been to discuss the central emblems without reference to the rest.

Structure: format

There are present eleven diagrams of similar design in Quires 10-12.  Each diagram of the eleven occupies the equivalent of one page. By ‘page’ here I mean one face of the four in a standard bifolio of this manuscript.

All are accommodated within the range “folio 70v(part) to 73v” because Quires 10 and 11 are on lengths of vellum folded to suit the ordinary bifolios’ dimensions, and having a width equal to the ordinary bifolio’s length.

There is no indication of subsequent trimming for re-binding, and no record appears to exist of any ruling out or pricking for these or for the normal bifolios. Nor have I seen any reference to pressure-marks of the sort which might indicate use of frame and wire.

It takes little acquaintance with medieval manuscripts and their techniques of construction to realise that this absence of ruling out, or evidence of its erasure, is either an anomaly or (rather strangely) an omission from the Beinecke catalogue and from all other descriptions.

In addition, the corpus of Latin Christian manuscripts appears to contain nothing comparable to these ‘fold-outs’ – neither in their design or in the way the pages are folded..  Quire 11, in particular, uses a form of concertina fold, a type characteristic of small  sleeve calendars in Latin Europe and otherwise chiefly characteristic of Asian books in direct descent from palm-leaf books and Buddhist works on paper.

All eleven diagrams follow the same general scheme, viz:

(detail) f.70v (part).

A number of concentric circles presenting as wider and narrower bands, with the narrower occupied by script and the wider inhabited by discrete anthropoform figures, chiefly female, the majority on the ‘March’ folio being provided with a roughly cylindrical container and an element that immediately strikes the modern viewer as resembling a star held by a flexible cord, or a flower on a lax stem… or both at once. (I’ll come back to this).

Each diagram’s centre contains an emblem, none of which appears in any other diagram.  At some later time a different hand added to the centres the name of a month, some repeated but not exactly: they are not ‘replicated’.

I’d like to comment on this fact, for throughout the manuscript, and most unexpectedly with regard to great number of such anthropoform figures, which occur not only in these diagrams –  care has evidently been taken to distinguish each from all others, and this has been done with a degree of subtlety (or perhaps delicacy) which argues against the usual idea that the figures are just badly drawn.

(detail) folio 72r-ii

We do see one two emblems in which the creature has its ‘pair’,  but even there it is not exact: not a   ‘mirror image’and the painter (see the example shown right) has also emphasised that they cannot be confused for one another, or supposed to ‘replicate’ the other.

I consider this another item indicative of cultural mores mutual between the persons who first enunciated the ‘ladies’ folios, and the person who later added the month-names.  Of those month-names, some appear twice, yet each  is again distinguished by some small detail not jarring to the viewer, but again avoiding ‘replication’.

I’ll include bibliography for the ‘replication’ issue, in early medieval Cairo and in medieval Byzantium at the end of this series.  Anyone wanting the references sooner is welcome to email)


Structure (cont.)

Concentric circles are a near-universal convention for depicting the heavens and that technique informs many different systems employed for doing so, but diagrams of such structure have many other applications and need have no necessary reference to the heavens.  The eleven diagrams’ taking such form may, however, cause a modern viewer to feel an immediate (‘gut’) feeling the diagrams allude to stars, or astronomy or astrology and so over-ride consciousness of the gulf between subjective and objective certainty.

‘Asteriskos’ – questions unasked.

(detail) f.108r

The ‘flower-like’ stars, or ‘star-like’ flowers given most of the tiered figures has been another trigger for that reflexive reading, unchanged since the 1920s.

Appearance of a similar motif in the margins of Quire 20  naturally then raises questions of common subject-matter and  whether some direct connection was intended between the diagrams and this later section.  That is, whether the motif was intended to carry similar significance.

Quire 20 itself is not formed in the usual way of quires in Latin  European manuscripts. It is, or was, a septenion.

A quire of seven bifolios is rare in Europe but was fairly standard in the Arabic-speaking world a.  It was also seen in Irish manuscripts.

I made these points earlier:

  • D.N. O’Donovan,  ‘Expert Opinion: Myth vs Materials Science Pt3’, Voynichrevisionist, April 26th., 2019.


Again, certain Arabic texts are found in which a form of  flower-like “asterisk”  separates sentences.  I hope readers won’t mind that the illustrations come from the same 12thC treatise on theriac which I mentioned earlier in posts to Voynich Imagery (in a series entitled,  ‘Theriac:  rosetta stone?’)

The header (above) and the detail (below, left) are taken from that manuscript: .

As text-mark, the ‘asteriskos’ is attested from Hellenistic times, though we have no example of the earlier form.  In 3rdC AD Egypt, the works of the Christian philosopher, Origen, see him use and possibly invent the form for it which then passed in the context of authoritative Christian manuscripts to 6th-7thC Spain, and saw Origen’s version maintained within the Latin manuscript tradition where it appears as a vertical or a diagonal cross having dots set in the interstices.

The Latins’ ‘astericus’ did not have the form of a flower; nor what we might call  a ‘star-shape’. In short, it was never formed as are these motifs in the Voynich manuscript


Below is illustrated a detail from a 12thC  copy of Isidore’s Etymologies.  However, where he had included the Greek term in Greek letters, this copy romanised and then translates the Greek as ‘stella’ just as numerous other and later copies do, even while  keeping Origen’s and Isidore’s form for it all but unchanged.  In other cases (as the detail upper left), the motif served as virtual ornament and filler, while still expressing the asterisk’s significance, by showing that the half-filled line was not blank unintentionally; i.e. an intentional ‘omission’ of written text.

Significance in the Hellenistic and in the Latin traditions.

The oldest references to use of the ‘asteriskos’ are Hellenistic and show it marked places in a text where some item or passage had been duplicated. No examples remain.

Origen used the ‘asteriskos’  to mark points where he  re-inserted a passage from the Hebrew left untranslated by the Septuagint.  He did not replace the earlier text with his own revised version, but added his own below, marking both with his cross-shaped asterisk. In that way, the sign still signified ‘duplication’ but now, equally,  ‘omission’ – and the latter sense became the default in medieval Christian Europe.

There is another and deeper level of significance for the ‘asteriskos’ in Christian traditions. It is touched upon. lightly, by Isidore whose comment runs (in English translation):

“The asterisk is placed next to omissions, so that things which appear to be missing may be clarified through this mark, for star is called in Greek, ἀστήρ and the lLatin] term asteriscus is derived from this. ” 

  • Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae Bk I xxi.2  ‘De notis sententiarum’ (De Critical signs)

What Isidore  touched upon lightly, a later Christian authority, Jerome, would expand upon – and  “F.M.P”  has rightly drawn attention to the fact:

  • Anthony Grafton, Glenn W Most, Salvatore Settis, The Classical Tradition (2010).

The asterisk as  illuminating’ what was absent – light into the darkness – impressed the medieval mind. It will offer another and natural link to associations of ‘stella maris’.

But while I’m quite prepared to accept that the Voynich ‘star-flower’ (as signe de renvoi) might have been intended as  link-and-key to text in Quire 20, and even evoke intentionally that sense of   ‘lights in the darkness’ I cannot accept that the sort of men who knew how to employ their version of the ‘asteriskos’ in Christian texts – clerics by definition during most of the medieval period – would have ever created such figures as those ‘ladies’ set around the diagrams.

And of course, the Latin form for the asteriskos, though it had variations was always the dotted cross or X.  It came, in the Latin west, to serve as signe de renvoi, indicating a link between marginal text and main text, but adjacent, not separated by a number of quires.  A comparable practice is (so far as I’m aware) unattested before the introduction of printing, and even then not immediately.

On this see e.g.

for which example and other details I’m indebted to

  • Yin, ‘Asterisks in the Middle Ages’, medieval codes (August 5th., 2014)

I have found only one source where there is so much as a hint that any type of ‘flower’ form was used in any comparable way in a medieval text.

I owe that hint to:

  • Lori J. Walters, ‘The Rose as Sign: Diacritical Marks in the Tournai Rose [TOU]’. In: Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, tome 83, fasc. 3, 2005. Langues et littératures modernes – Moderne taal en litterkunde. pp. 887-912;  doi :

The manuscript discussed by Walters dates to the 13thC, and is a revised version of the ‘Romance of the Rose’ devised by Gui de Mori in 1290AD.  It may be available to view if you’re in Tournai:

If anyone sees that manuscript, and whether its ‘rose’ mark has similar form to the Vms’, or similar purpose as the Latins’ asteriskos, I hope you’ll let me know.

  • Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies)

Tentative conclusion (A)

Apart from that possible exception in TOU, the Latins did not have the linguistic frame [aster-asteriskos], nor did they have the requisite habits in marking texts,  to have invented such a form as the Voynich ‘flower-stars’ to serve in place of the traditional ‘asteriscus’.  Nor does there appear to exist any comparable use of their cross-shaped ‘astericus’ to link diagrams in one section of a manuscript with text separated from it, as is now the case in the VMS,  by several quires of other images and text, amounting to tens of pages.

The Latins’ habits in making manuscripts does not encourage the idea that,  if the diagrams’ star-flowers were meant as cue to Quire 20, that the materials’ first enunciation occurs in medieval western Christian Europe. The one possible clue to any exception is yet to be sighted.

Islamic works of the thirteenth century use a ‘flower’ form but it resembles a rose and not the Voynich manuscript’s spiky ‘aster-‘ whose drawing is consistent in the diagrams and  Quire 20, arguing a set habit.   However, the fact that the Voynich motifs have the same form in both sections doesn’t itself prove shared reference or common significance, here or in any posited  exemplars.

Something that I’m inclined to think might prove relevant, should anyone wish to take up the question for research, is that the motif in Quire 20 sees a conscious alteration of the centres, and this seems to me a possible echo of the way (as in the same 12thC ms cited earlier), ‘marginal’ passages of text were differentiated in Islamic manuscripts. I suggests consonant habits of mind.

What does not accord with the idea of origin for the Vms’ diagrams in works of the Islamic corpus is first, the ease with which the Voynich drawings equate flower-form, star-form and that hint of ‘light in the darkness’. It seems to me to imply familiarity with the Greek, and specifically if indirectly with the author of a ‘Theriac’ text, the Hellenistic poet Nicander who lived at just the time we first hear of Hellenistic use of the   ἀστερίσκος (‘little star’), whose form is unknown but which is attested in use, to mark duplication, by the 2ndC BC – precisely when Nicander lived.

It is also my opinion that much in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery points to first enunciation in the Hellenistic period, but I won’t elaborate on that except to refer to the form of the diagram’s unclothed female figures.


In his exhaustive paper on the history ot the Aster. Burgess quotes a fragment from Nicander, author of  ‘Theriaca’,

  • Edward Sandford Burgess, Studies in the History and Variations of Asters —Part I (etc.),  Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 10  (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.
When the flood waters receded, all that was left around the two mortals was mud and slime. Astraea felt so sorry for them she wept, her tears. upon hitting the earth, turned to star-flowers (asteriskos). Sea=aster.

The ‘aster’ which Burgess, and all subsequent commentaries on this fragment of Nicander’s poetry have assumed meant is the purple-flowered Atticus, but I feel some doubt on this score, for Nicander calls it ‘luminous’ and there is a white, spiky-petalled ‘star-flower’ whose centres alternate in colour.  It is has been known over time as Aster pannonicus and  Aster tripolium, and its present description is  Tripolium pannonicum.  The oldest remaining version of the Greek legend of Astraea seems consciously to conflate the high- and the low dwelling types (see picture and caption, left).

Note: The plant we now call ‘Hellenium’  is arelated to the sunflower and native to the Americas.  The ancient ‘Helenium’ was Elecampagne, something known to European writers  by the early 17thC. as e.g. The General Practise of Physicke … Translated and Augmented by J. Mosan. B.L. (1605) p.817.


Nicander of Colophon, Aratus of Soli. Theriac, medicine and Stars.

coin of Soli in Cilicia.

Nicander was born in Claros, near Colophon on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor in 197 BC.  Though he may have known Aratus’ work well, or the material from which Aratus drew, Nicander’s  ‘Theriaca’ mentions stars only as markers of time; warning that this or that season was when a noxious creature was most numerous, most active or most highly venomous.  He died in young, in 170 BC.

Aratus had been born and died long before, being born in Soli in 325 BC and having died in Pella, of Greece in 240 BC.

Despite these disparities the two came to be often mentioned together, due to a witticism which commented on the fact that Aratus wrote about the stars but had no (practical) knowledge of them, while Nicander wrote on medicine and had no knowledge of pharmacy.

Cicero (de Oratore i.69) repeats the usual parallel but tries to a put a good spin on it – along the lines of ‘why shoudn’t someone learn only as much as they need for a present occasion?’

And as a last thought – the material copied to make the Voynich manuscript had to be copied because useful to someone; since the quires appear to have been bound by, or for a Latin, so presumably the information was perceived as useful to them.  It occurs to me that by translation from ‘aster” to ‘stella’ the sea-aster offered a natural association of ideas with the ‘stella maris’ which of course might mean the Pole star (which medieval Latins continued to associate as often with Cynosura as with Polaris), but it might also refer to the magnetised needle and surrounding compass (card).

Just a thought.


Status of the problem so far ….

The seemingly natural connection made by the first enunciator f these diagrams: ‘flower-star-textual asterisk’ implies, if intentional,  close familiarity with Greek.  .

The medieval Christian works, the ‘asterisks’ don’t take this form – certainly not before the 13thC  and even then there appears to be only one comparison known – the TOU.

On the other and each in their several ways suggest the aster- motif in both the diagrams and Quire 20 are likely to relate to the sea-aster whose range today is believed much reduced from what it was in the centuries BC, but still inhabits salt-marsh environments.

At the moment the three avenues offering strongest possibilities of responding to investigation are, in order of chronology  (1) Asia Minor, Hellenistic Greek. (2)  Arab-Persian c.12thC AD or (3) 13thC French culture ‘[TOU}.

If common significance could be proven between Quire 20 and the diagrams, the contextual range would be more limited – which is all to the good.

The first printed edition of NIcander’s medical work issued from the Aldine Press in 1499.  (In Greek). You can see a copy of that edition here,

.. but that’s how we begin.

Note – August 20th. I have corrected minor typos and improved the grammar of half a dozen sentences. The reader is asked either to excuse mis-typings which remain, or leave a comment below.

The skies above

I was to pick up again after the ‘Weed seeds’ post, but have seen a comment to Koen Gheuens blog, in which four items are described as ‘indisputable facts’ though not one is a fact, and the only sense in which they are ‘indisputable’ is that to dispute them is rarely encouraged.

Among the four is the idea, repeated since 1932, that diagrams on folios 70v (part)* to 73v inclusive are ‘astrological’.

Now plainly an item of ‘Voynich doctrine’ it surely another among those deserving reevaluation in the light of current external scholarship.

N.B. Foliations: re “folio x (part)”

Before the Beinecke’s repagination of the manuscript a few years ago,  scholars used the foliation (page numbering) appearing on the folios themselves. Members of the first mailing list perforce developed their own system of reference before the manuscript was available online or in facsimile.  Still others were employed during the early 2000s, including that offered by the   ‘Voynich Gallery’ site on bibliotecaplayades.  Any revisionist surveying the history of this study is well advised to make and keep by them a comparative table of foliations.



Whether or not it is ever proven true that these diagrams were intended to serve astrology, the perception of them as ‘astrological’ owes less to their structure, or to their inscriptions’ being understood as they are not yet, nor to any learned opinion so much as to certain attitudes pervasive in England and central Europe during the nineteenth- and earlier twentieth centuries.

Without suggesting for a moment that any present-day Voynichero subscribes to those attitudes, certain methods and angles of approach have been inherited from that earlier period –  embedded , so to speak, in the territory – and these have frozen the limits within which (as any newcomer soon learns) posited comparisons are expected to be sought, treated and classified.

To the newcomer having prior  training in medieval studies, techniques of iconological analysis, or in the history of comparative astronomies and so forth it may seem curious – even quaint – that long superseded methods and habits are maintained in Voynich writings.  As, for example, that any and all reference to the stars in this manuscript continues to be presumed either ‘science’ or  ‘superstition;’ the one overtly or tacitly identified with Europe’s mathematical astronomy and the other with magic or astrology  in a simple binary scheme more characteristic of nineteenth-century popular history than twenty-first century scholarship.

I do not mean to imply that all Voynich writers are ignorant or unlearned; the opposite is manifestly true of many.  Rather, that on entering the Voynich portal, the wider world and its current standards of scholarship is expected to be set aside, or at least only referred to within the frame of a conservative ‘Voynich’ model.

That outmoded habits and methods are perceived within this study as ‘standard’ or ‘commonsense’ is most reasonably attributed, in the first instance, to their having been inherited along with the conservative model in general, by emulating d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, or e.g. Professor Brumbaugh’s writings of the 1960s and ’70s.

Some of those ‘old-fashioned’ methods and attitudes are described below for newcomers. Others may not need the information. Perhaps I should also make clear that not every Voynich writer currently engaged in this study is a conservative, let alone one of the deepest dye.


The methodological legacy.


1. ‘Scientific or Magical’. (540 wds)

Though many self-professed amateur Voynicheros know perfectly well that medieval writers did not observe so clear a distinction as we do now between astronomy and astrology, the habit persists of supposing that binary classification will do: “scientific or magical”,  to quote the Beinecke catalogue record.  Historically, the idea was – with regard to the heavens –  that  ‘science’ was defined as Europe’s mathematical astronomy while ‘superstition (magic or astrology) in terms of a foreign intrusion from ‘oriental’ minds, with the most relaxed sort of histories from before WWII not rarely mentioning warmer climate along with  imagined ‘racial predisposition’ as chief causes of ‘superstition’ .  The Greeks’ contribution to astrology was accepted, but granted the status of a quasi-science. No such latitude was granted others as, for example, the Jews. Arab ‘science’ was (as it were) granted a European visa, but Arab ‘magic’ not so much. Christian religious imagery was by tacit consent left unclassified in those terms.

Why  writings of the last century should adopt a simple ‘either-or’ –  “science or superstition”  is well understood.   Persistence of the same simple classification in Voynich writings, is, as I’ve said, better supposed due to the conservatives’ taking as their model for research a few secondary studies  written half a century ago.

Unfortunately, their emulating earlier methods and taking as first premises the speculations and assumptions of those earlier works has been to the disadvantage of more recent researchers, as the conservative grip on the study has increased and the  gulf has widened between the older and more recent understanding of relevant subjects, apart from studies directly concerned with linguistics and statistical analysis of the written text.

In the present case, for example, one sees a complete absence of any reference to various other forms of astronomical learning or its  art which are not to be classed as either  ‘science’ or ‘superstition’ (without india-rubber re-definition) and yet which have received a great deal of scholarly attention  since the 1930s  – and particularly since the 1960s – and are thus now well within the usual parameters of provenance-aimed research into ‘star-littered’ imagery.

Here we might mention images, both conceptual and realised in word or line,  which relate to navigational astronomy,  astronomical moralia,  poetry, memorised agricultural calendars of Mediterranean and of non-Mediterranean origin,  the stars as perceived in the monastic hours and  annual liturgical rosters (not only the Latins’),  not to mention literary metaphor,  proverb,  and so forth.   I add one illustration by way of example and without implying any theory.  This shows a star-clock for the month of March.  This physical diagram post-dates the Voynich manuscript and comes from a Latin author; the conceptual model and informing knowledge pre-dates the Voynich manuscript and was not exclusively Latin.  I cited these diagrams first a  few years ago at voynichimagery.

Reaction to any  introduction of such hitherto unconsidered material – even the odd recommendation of some article – can bring an immediate and passionately adverse reaction from certain individuals in the  ‘conservative’ camp, who appear to consider such things red herrings, introduced from ignoble motives by lesser minds, and it is not unknown for one or more to announce loudly that the heretic’s ‘nonsense’ is to be paid no heed.

Past generations cannot be held entirely responsible for the persistence of limited horizons and poor methods in Voynich writings.


2. ‘Match the picture’ (1750 wds)

From an inherited, and now fixed assumption in the conservative tradition,  the manuscript is supposed to be ‘underneath it all’ just an aberrant form of ‘ordinary’ Latin Christian work, and though the earlier assumption has faded that it is entirely the creation of a single author (imagined a Latin and, usually,  male) the habit of seeking to ‘match the picture’ from details in ordinary Latin (i.e. western Christian) works remains.

Where ‘foreign’ material is considered, as for example astrology or magic, the habit was earlier – and thus remains in Voynich studies – to imagine it entered a ‘white walled’ Europe by some specific and authoritative Latin Christian male – so that, once more, only the Latin works were thought necessary to consult.

In addition, everything in this manuscript was, from the first (i.e from 1912), presumed to exist in some other Latin manuscript (as well it could) but the Friedmans therefore considered no other medium but Latin manuscript art in hunting ‘matches’ for the manuscript’s and that  remains largely so, even now. The whole science of iconology, let alone the anthropology of  iconology, has passed unobserved.

There is no body of investigation into the Byzantine, Syrian, North African, Coptic or Islamic corpus which would allow us to judge whether the manuscript as a whole is, or isn’t, more like Latin works than any other. If this particular series of diagrams were characteristic of Byzantine Jews, the current parameters for research would prevent the precedent’s being discovered.  If, by luck or independence of thought, a researcher were to discover such a fact, one could certainly not guarantee that any cognisance would be taken of it, nor that others would not be actively deterred from ‘paying attention’..

The range in which ‘matches’ were sought had so narrowed by 2010 that apart from RIch Santacoloma’s theory that the whole was a fake, and Dana Scott’s quiet investigation into English sources, there was only Pelling’s ‘Italian’ theory – which certainly had merit – and the then wholly speculative theory of a ‘Germanic character’.

What has seen the last become most dominant is not any superior level of proof or argument but determined refusal to acknowledge, and sometimes persistent efforts to ‘shut down’ alternatives. One may be invited to be more flexible and join the majority; one may find oneself hounded out of forums. But the easiest means is simpler. New information is judged simply by whether or not it suits the theory espoused.

So – Alain Touwaide once said the manuscript recalled the form of Byzantine manuals of medicine-and-magic, iatrosophia.  Apart from picking up and repeating that word a little, the conservatives effectively ignored that lead. It couldn’t be connected with a Latin-centred theory.  That it might be directly connected to the manuscript’s history scarcely mattered to a majority; that lead was apparently dropped just as so many others have been.  Such as those offered by Panofsky in 1932.

We would never find employed elsewhere, today, assumptions and methods as simplistic as those habitual to the conservatives in Voynich studies,  if the study were aimed at discovering where, and when,  imagery was first enunciated – in the hope of identifying the origins of unread accompanying text.

It is a given community’s ways of seeing, and creating mental concepts which informs  expression of those concepts, whether in the drawn line or the written.  Again, this is an understanding of which one finds scant trace in Voynich writings and to be fair, the aim of most, today, is less to investigate the primary document than to assist in the erection of ever more elaborate theoretical superstructure on a foundation no more solid than it was in the 1930s. And from a distance, or seen from their own perspective, the result is most impressive.  That it has failed to shed light on a single phrase of the original text seems almost irrelevant to those involved. The possibility of fundamental errors in the foundation is considered, by the conservatives, a ludicrous notion.

And since ‘match the picture’ was the only approach which occurred to the Friedmans, so it descended via d’Imperio, into the most conservative Voynich tradition after about 2004, when theory-promotion came to be perceived as having higher priority than open investigation of the primary artefact. In other words, the attitude shifted from an aim to learn, to an aim to convince. And the theories to which their support was lent were variants of the ‘Latin product’ theory.

Neither Wilfrid Voynich, nor William Friedman ever imagined otherwise.  Each presumed it also the original product of some individual Latin author.  Their doing so is quite directly connected to what we should now describe as ‘social Darwinism’ but  for them it was no ideology espoused, but an expression of then ubiquitous attitudes believed given scientific validation by academic works of the Anglo-German school.  It was not ‘racialism’ in the political sense but a sort of social snobbery which expressed itself in an absolute certainty that the Anglo-German represented the highest pinnacle of any intellectual history,as the Renaissance Italian and the classical tradition occupied that of any history of art.

Social snobbery.

I touched on this matter in an earlier post, with regard to an academic board’s reasons for rejecting William Friedman’s application for funding.  From those comments. and from the angry responses of d’Imperio and Elizebeth Friedman,  two things became clear: first, that the Friedmans had no aim of understanding why the manuscript in format, script, images and text does not conform to the Latin norm, but began rather by assuming it did; that was “underneath it all” an ordinary product of the Latin tradition and so dismissing all the obvious evidence of divergence from Latin norms  by the simple expedient of attributing them to the incompetence or intentional deceit  of some individual (and imaginary) Latin Christian ‘author’ and/or ‘artist’.  Later writers would add to this imaginary character such additional flaws and motives as  sexual obsession, insanity, or ‘artistic creativity’. to explain why he didn’t draw like a “proper European”.

Thus the hunt continued only within the parameters of Latin manuscripts – just the one medium – for ‘matches’, and the later conservative camp has further limited their hunt for ‘matches’ to regions of a (fluidly defined)  ‘German-influenced culture’ –  though occasionally referencing sculpture and (less often) other media. Among the very few images congenial to a Latin theory (more-or-less) are the series of emblems filling the centres of these supposedly  ‘astrological’ diagrams. Isolated form their context, and together covering less than the area of a single folio, they have been constantly – almost obsessively – asserted ‘matched’ by items selected to support the ‘Germanic’ theory.

I mean it quite literally when I say that it was impossible for either Wilfrid Voynich or William Friedman to contemplate the work’s content as expressing other than  Latin (western Christian) culture – despite its anomalous structure, page-layout, incomprehensible written text and unintelligible images .

Nor could they conceive the possibility that it might embody work of a group of persons whose names were never recorded.

Each man, for his own reason, had to suppose the content  ‘important’ and in terms of his own time and environment that meant European and preferably Anglo-German, and scientific – which implied an ‘author’. Both opted for the English.  My point is not so much that they were wrong; but that if they were wrong, their own first premises and methods adopted surely prevented their ever discovering the fact.

Wilfrid Voynich was born in 1865 in Poland, and William Friedman in Moldava in 1891. Both had Jewish heritage. But their attitudes were chiefly formed by values and attitudes pervasive in English and American society of their time. Wilfrid came to England as an adult; Friedman to America as an infant.

In Wilfrid’s case, to think the work other than by a Latin (western Christian) author would have meant he could expect very few potential buyers and no great price for it.

In William’s case, to suppose any non-Latin origin and content would be to render his interest in the manuscript devoid of all merit and incur ridicule.   On the ‘Latin author’ theory depended his idea of a herculean struggle, a battle of superior minds, where the author of the ‘ciphertext’ would ultimately yield to Friedman’s superior intellect and scientific cryptological techniques. The same provided his grounds for  using the powers of the NSA to obtain various private documents and earlier-denied interviews. Importance was then defined by ethnicity,  social position and by ‘scientific’ character. Today, we are free to think – for example – that it could be the notebook of an anonymous North African trader.  In England or in America, during the first half of the twentieth century, even to consider that idea was impossible without losing face.

Wilfrid provided glittering names to adorn his sales’ pitch:  Roger Bacon represented European Science; John Dee, ‘sanitised’ European Magic; and of course Rudolf II, the mad emperor, Science, Magic and social status.

The only method which occurred to the Friedmans, in regard to the manuscript’s images, was therefore to hunt Latin manuscripts for ‘matches’ and as late as the 1920s (by which time Wilfrid was 55 and William almost 30), and given their social and intellectual environment and assumptions made, the method would have appeared an obvious and sensible approach to amateurs. It continued be the only method used by the Friedman groups,  and in that way was inherited and is still maintained by today’s conservatives.

As was the case half a century ago, the malleable figure of some individual  ‘author/artist’ continues to see dismissed even the most obvious discrepancies between a proposed ‘match’ and the original.   Points of perceived similarity are all the commentary; disparities are dismissed as due to individual whim, incompetence, or intention to deceive – whichever happens to sound most plausible. In fact, objection is rarely raised; newcomers soon learn that negative comments are to be directed only to those who fail to support the ‘German cultural product’ theory; those supporting it are tender and well-meaning souls working for the common good.

So – by imposing the known intention of a Latin image upon a detail from the Voynich manuscript and on no better basis than ‘like-ness’ asserted, the reader was instructed how to interpret the latter, whose intended meaning was (and usually remained) unknown. Conservatives’ commentary might elaborate upon the Latin image, its history and meaning and so forth  while the other was ignored beyond the assertion it was ‘matched’.

Though today employment of such simplistic method may seem astounding to many scholars it remains, by and large,  routine in Voynich writings.

Nor do any of the present conservatives seem aware of the anachronism implied by supposing  a medieval draughtsman might have – in effect – invented abstractionism and expressionism.   Nor of the  anachronism presented by tacitly assuming the aim of the ‘artist’ was a level of realism we first see emerge in some parts of Europe (and first in  Flemish works) from about the 1440s.*  That those trained primarily in botanical science should expect all drawings to strive for scientific ‘realism’ is understandable, more or less, and that expectation has regularly prevented the botanists from making valid contributions to the study.  They do not so much ask ‘what mental contstruct is here given form, and how do the stylistic features support a given reading’, but simply adopt the old ‘would-have-if-he-could-have’ idea found in  earlier works such as O’Neill’s.

*though an important paper of 1932 recognised a prefiguring in Gothic art (so called). See  D. Jalabert, “La flore gothique: ses origines, son evolution du xiie au xve siecle,” Bulletin monumental, XCI (1932), I81-246.

I won’t cite any contemporary Voynich writer in illustrating this  ‘match the picture’ habit.  The reader will find little else online. Instead, I offer an analogy to illustrate the added distortion caused by imagining that all research must aim at supporting some theory.

Let us suppose I have a theory of Turkish origin for the content, but follow the conservative Voynich writers’ practice.  I would then first define the picture by some object which I imagine present -thus defining the subject by one object, in a way anathema to modern iconological studies.

The reader is then presented with a composite image of the following sort, perhaps with – but usually without –  commentary proving both images reflect comparable historical and cultural environment and thus stylistics.  As you see, I’ve here ignored stylistics completely:

A Voynichero would then assert this ‘match’ proves the plant on folio 10r  meant for a rose, and that it supports a theory of Turkish origin.

If the newcomer is inclined to think I exaggerate; that no method so ludicrous could survive in the twenty-first century, I’ll say again… it is easy enough to find precisely the same method in the majority of present-day Voynich writings.


3. Simple assertion. (800 wds)

To find  assertions made about the content in this manuscript and presented with no supporting evidence or documentation except perhaps a ‘match the picture’ exercise, is not in the least unusual.  What is extraordinary is that such practice is still considered both normal and ‘commonsense’ by so many: it is another Voynich tradition.

Just so, Wilfrid Voynich asserted his ‘author’ an  English franciscan friar and all the content ‘science’.  In the 1940s O’Neill felt it enough to assert that an image in the manuscript depicted (albeit ‘badly’) the American sunflower.  In the 1970s Professor Brumbaugh’s curiously naive commentaries constantly resort to bald assertions and adopt others’ unexamined. In a paper published by the Courtauld Institute in 1976, for example, Brumbaugh wrote:

“From an alphabet including J, to a fifteenth-century style of two-handed clock, one detail after points to a later date.  What is most conclusive, however, is Hugh O’Neill’s identification in two illustrations of plants first brought to Europe by Columbus in I492.  (I have subsequently identified two more brought by Columbus in 1493). The [manuscript’s] date is therefore about 1500 at the earliest.”

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150.

Despite re-locating the theoretical subject of some plant-pictures to the new world, the presumption of western Christian (i.e.) Latin origin and/or mediation remained unexamined, and the simplistic practice of ‘match the picture’ informs Brumbaugh’s work, having by then been normalised in this study by the previous decades’ example.

It is important to note that none of Brumbaugh’s assertions above references an independent or scholarly source in justification.  He is not trying to demonstrate that his conclusions are valid; we are expected to believe, not to cross-examine.   This habit of treating study of the Voynich manuscript as something rightly isolated from any borader comparative studies – whether of manuscripts, art, cultures, sciences, or technologies  further aided retention of poor method.  The footnotes in that quoted passage (notes 4-6 in the original) read:

  1. The Beinecke Catalogue suggests a 15th- century date. The costume of the medallion of the Sagittarius map; the two-handed clock on fol. 85; the style of Arabic numerals, for example in the margin of fol. 49r; a cipher box using distinct J, V, and W; all indicate that the date is at least that late.
  2. O’Neill, 1944
  3. If I am right in reading the labels of two giant, exotic roots as ‘Cassava’. [Note: I have been unable to confirm Brumbaugh’s belief that Columbus returned to Europe with Cassava plants.  Columbus certainly ate cassava bread in the region of Hispaniola. –D)

It is regrettable that the urge to ‘normalise’ the matter within Beinecke MS 408 has not only maintained the old assumptions and methodologies, with the latter a positive drag on research, but that the post 2004 productions of  conservative writers have striven to persuade the public that this distinctly unsettling artefact may be regarded as just a ‘funny old herbal’ and other ‘funny-looking’ but really just comfortable ‘normal’ images, with ‘normal’ still defined as mainstream medieval Christian;  that images which include star-shapes shall be deemed just slightly eccentric versions of ‘science or superstition’  and that the various unclothed female figures are just a slightly unusual depictions of  Christian saints(!!).

A Biedermeier Voynich, so to speak.

We are reassurred, like some customer in a curiosity shop, that an unsettling and unidentifiable object is really just a bit old, but otherwise not at all unusual when you came down to it.

Of course, the original manuscript remains very unsettling indeed,  very far from ordinary and not at all the sort of thing  customers have ever found comfortable.

Not even the best informed specialists and connoisseurs claimed to understand it or bought it from Wilfrid; not the manuscript nor (one suspects) his story.     Wilfrid believed it not just ‘ordinary Latin’ but an extraordinarily important work of European scientific history, creating for it the sort of history normally attractive to contemporary collectors, but from 1912 to his death in 1930 he never found a buyer.

None wanted it after 1930, either, and it was more than thirty years later still that a well-connected dealer in manuscripts purchased it from Wildrid’s heirs.   He then tried, also without success, to sell it on.  After eight years’ failure, he gave it gratis to Yale in 1969.  And there it remains, in the Beinecke library.

Its fame today is chiefly due to the internet and a television documentary.

Erwin Panofsky didn’t try to fudge, in 1932.  He said plainly that apart from one of those diagrams – which he associated with one in a Spanish manuscript – the Voynich manuscript was unlike any known to him.

He was able to offer a general provenance some of the imagery by its stylistics, identify the month-names as in a southern French dialect, and to date correctly the period during which the present manuscript was manufactured, but  he never claimed to read the meaning in any of it.

Think about it. Erwin Panofsky could not read the images.


4. ‘Normalising’ the exceptional. (900 wds)

That the Friedmans should imagine the series of diagrams astrological is understandable. And the idea may, one day, be proven true.

But neither did the Freidmans bend their backs (and the primary evidence) to  ‘normalise’ the content in terms of Latin manuscript art.  They simply presumed it was ‘underneath it all’ a version of  some ‘normal’ manuscript and for them, of course,  ‘the norm’ was western Christian European.

Such presumption is not unknown even today.  A book may appear with some  title as ‘A history of the medieval wool trade’ though it considers none but the trade between Norwich and Flanders; or a ‘History of navigation’ which begins from the European adoption of the sextant,ignoring the previous 40,000 years or so.  It is less usual today than twenty years ago to find a work entitled ‘Medieval Art’ in which none but Latin (western Christian) images are treated, but it does still happen.

Scholars tend today to consider the whole of the medieval Mediterranean a single pool of cross-cultural and economic interaction.  The nineteenth century notion of a ‘white walled Europe’ is still assumed today in Voynich studies, with the work of individual writers effectively invigilated lest any begin looking too far beyond, or do so without allegiance to the conservative assumptions – such as that the central emblems in these diagrams constitute ‘a zodiac’ (by which the conservative means the astrologer’s tropical zodiac). The series of central emblems does not form a ‘zodiac’ but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that they might have been used  as if they did.  It is another question effectively unexplored – though I expect my saying so might cause annoyance in some quarters.

We have already noted that d’Imperio’s chapters, their titles and organisation evince ideas no longer considered valid and which are certainly behind the times in terms of modern scholarship.  They define ‘science’ in terms of the Latin European and associate ‘superstition’ with the non-Latin.  They also presume the ‘monitor at the gate’, the  authoritative Latin figure – again usually male – who, by the mere act of taking ‘foreign’ matter is deemed as it were to have sanitised it.  (Nor is it unknown for certain plagiarists to perceive their actions in a similar way).

That the formal scholarship of medieval Europe did expect alien matter to be vetted for heretical content accounts only for a small proportion of what passed easily back and forth through the Mediterranean.  Just as one example: the Indic water buffalo is reported numerous and valued in the Roman campania by 1154 and in that year Lawrence, a Cistercian of Clairvaux took ten of them home with him.  Writing towards 1306, Piero dei Crescenzi of Bologna commented “One kind of cattle, called buffaloes, are black, big, strong, and a bit unruly. They are not good for carts and plows, but when skillfully harnessed with chains of a certain sort they are used for pulling great loads overland. They love to loll in water.” No one stood at the gate of any ‘white wall’ to admit or prevent their entry, and where something the size of a buffalo may pass without formal mediation, so may information.

No earlier twentieth century account of how ‘Arab’ learning entered Latins’ horizons imagined it other  than  entering with official permission and that brought by the Jews is barely recognised in schemes of the European’s intellectual ‘ascent’.   Thus the usual role call:  Gerard of Cremona or, Constantine the African (after his conversion to Christianity) and so forth.

The truth is far less tidy, and far less bound to the Latin literature and literati.  Thanks to developments in cross-cultural and other studies, we are no longer much disturbed to learn that  knowledge of Indo-Arabic numerals and mathematics as likely entered first by the tradesman’s gate, perhaps  through a chain of Muslim-Jewish-European merchant-seamen rather than by any ‘official’ person or text, such as  Leonado of Pisa’s  Liber Abacus. We are also more open to the probability that knowledge of Islamic medicine was transmitted by multilingual Jewish physicians instructing apprenticed Latins, though it is only relatively recently that it has begun to dawn on us that Saliternan works, produced in Latin versions under the short line of Norman-Sicilian kings, may be no more than translations of an existing Arab-Byzantine-Jewish corpus prepared for the new Latin-speaking rulers and their Latin clerics.   Such changes in our thinking may not disturb the wider scholarly community, but one suspects they would cause distinct unease among the conservative Voynich writers.

The point is, of course, that in seeking to read the Voynich manuscript’s images and diagrams, one does well to ignore the traditional limits to research until solid investigation  – and not inherited presumption – provides a clearer understanding of what we’re dealing with.

After all, the aim of explaining the cultural and other indications offered by the images themselves should aim – surely – to help those trying to read the written text.

Statistical analyses of the written text are also invaluable because we have no certainty that the written text is not a translation in which the earlier imagery was closely copied.  To propose the opposite – that the original language was retained but the imagery invented late comes up against a long list of technical and cultural objections.  But that is for some other time.

Information about the Indic buffalo in medieval Europe from Lynn White Jr., ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221.


Today, in Voynich studies,  the phantom figure of an ‘author’ is much faded, but had remained the chief focus of study until at least 2011, as the present author can attest, having been obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ on producing her evidence and reasoning for the work’s being  a compilation from diverse sources, and explaining the internal  evidence of alteration and additions to the material at several periods before the fifteenth-century copying -and pointing out that the series of emblems deemed a ‘zodiac’ did not constitute a zodiac series but were among the latest additions before copying, and among the handful expressed in terms commensurate with Latin conventions or, to put it another way, ‘in that visual language’.

She was obliged, also, to explain (with similar reaction) that the term ‘florilegium’ in medieval terms means a compilation of extracts, not an herbarium, and that mention of the European-Egyptian trade in a medieval context was not equivalent to having suggested that either Pharaohs or flying saucers had descended upon  Christian Europe.

Such news was not well received at the time, though some was later absorbed, as present writer can attest from both her earlier scars and later notes of efforts to re-use or re-create the results of her research.  🙂

[Aug. 17th 1:09pm] Two sentences deleted.  A reader wrongly imagined they referred to him, and since others might make the same mistake, I’ve removed them.



So now, with the past and present context sketched, I’ll next explain the case supporting that opinion of 1932, in terms of  structure and details, though passing over the obvious stylistic differences because the original opinion did.

The post following that will offer a  bibliography tracking this theme after 1932. I won’t claim it includes every mention of these diagrams, but since perception of them has not altered in any substantial since 1932, or alternatively since the 1970s, there isn’t much to be listed.

And finally, a summary of outstanding questions and issues in connection with these diagrams.