O’Donovan notes #8.2. Compare and contrast f.67v-1 and f.85r (part).

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

Because the drawing on folio 67v-1 is a diagram, we may expect that its structure will speak to the type of information it was designed to convey.

Like the diagram on folio 85r, it is organised by two fourfold divisions.

We’ll consider now what is inside its larger circle, leaving aside for the present the four peripheral emblems (below).


The centre of folio 85r (part) shows a ‘leonine’ sun in a field that isn’t simply coloured, but formed as swirling lines. As we now have the drawing, those lines are coloured blue, but since we don’t yet know when the ‘heavy painter’ added that pigment, we focus on the basic line drawing.

These two central emblems tell us two important things: first, that the person(s) who first gave each drawing its form did not think of the heavens as a smooth dome, solid or crystalline, nor as as a tent, but chiefly in terms of this swirling movement or perhaps by comparison with some other form composed of a circuit of repeating lines/curves.

If we were considering the history of Mediterranean art, we might liken the centre in folio 67v-1 to a form of omphalos motif, but more about the drawing must be taken into account before trying to explain it.

Since we know the winds were a principal reference in the first diagram (folio 85r) and that the usual way to describe the circuit of direction during daylight hours was by naming the wind from that direction, the fact that the centre of 67v-1 shows a comparable swirling pattern but now has a six-point star at its centre, makes it reasonable to test as one possibility that it might describe how the directions were determined at night.

It’s just a possibility, one worth exploring but – as regular readers will know – our aim is not to come up with some novel or merely plausible theoretical explanation , but to correctly understand and explain what the original maker had intended.

Another axiom which applies here is that when there is an easier way to do something, but the first maker of an image chose a less convenient way, there’s usually some good reason for it – it’s usually meaningful. And, as you’ll probably tire of hearing before too long…

Differences really matter!

In this case, when a circle or a square is to be divided by two four-fold divisions, the easy way to do it, and the way one would expect it done in the symmetry-loving art of western Europe, would be like this:

In that case, if you wanted to associate wind-names with the points of sunrise and sunset, as they change through the year, your schematic diagram would look rather like this (below) whether the names were in Greek, in Latin or in some European vernacular:

adapted from ‘the Aristotelian winds’ illustration in an excellent wiki article ‘Classical Compass Winds‘.

But that isn’t how these two diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 were designed.

(detail) 85r (part)

In both diagrams, the main four-fold division has its lines offset. That is, the lines might ‘box’ the centre, but they aren’t made as two lines that intersect at the centre. Euclidian, it isn’t.

If this had occurred in just one of the two diagrams, we might shrug it off, but the same is done in both. So it’s purposeful.

(detail f.67v-1)

Details of this kind are what a novice instinctively turns their eye and mind away from, or tries immediately to invent some excuse for as they struggle to maintain our natural and deep-seated belief that “our ways are the right and normal”.

Throughout the history of this manuscript’s study, that habit of shying away and trying to ignore uncomfortable differences from Latin norms (or, still more narrowly from one’s pet theory) has resulted in unjustified assertions that the fifteenth-century copyists or the original draughtsmen were incompetent or devious. We don’t need to resort to such excuses because our ‘norm’ must be whatever was customary for those people by whom, and for whom, a drawing was first given form.

Our task is to understand the drawings, not to decide what habits and ideas ‘ought’ to have informed them.

And from such indications of how the original maker thought and what was normal in his/her time and place, we may identify where and when a given drawing was first formed.

It may seem strange at first to have no preliminary theory, but it does allow the researcher a much more impartial approach and a more relaxed response to unexpected phenomena, such as these offset lines of division.



I think it is now generally accepted, as it was not a few years ago, that what we have in Beinecke MS 408 is a compilation, not a single homogenous work.

That means we can’t just assume that the time and place in which one drawing was formed will be the same for all, or for any other unless expressing similar forms, stylistics and what we might call cultural attitudes.

In both these diagrams, for example, we find a form for the sun which has it flame-haired rather than – as it might be – surrounded by spiked rays.

A diagram adjacent to our second example adds the remarkable information (folio 67v-2) that the ‘flaming’ corona is not simply a stylistic but is meaningful; that we are to consider those flaming locks artificial, with the beard (at least) tied about the face and perhaps also the head’s wild-looking curls.

(detail) folio 67v-2

That it is meant for the sun, not any such figure as Medusa or an alchemical character is evidenced by the fact that we find the same flame-haired form for the sun used throughout the manuscript’s diagrams and with it a repeated view that the sun’s daily emergence is associated with a flower.

In the Voynich map, that flower is included in the emblem marking the map’s ‘west’; the sun falls into a surface very economically shown as under water; from the water-marked mud there emerges the flower through which the sun will re-emerge next morning in the east.

Note – The Voynich map is drawn on one side of a single sheet of vellum. It was originally numbered ‘folio 86v‘ although it is certainly the first drawing placed on that sheet. The Beinecke’s subsequent re-foliation splits the map’s description in a way that reads as if it half the map had been drawn of the back of one bifolio and half on the front of another – but in is a single drawing, on one side of a single sheet.

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

This detail is now so faint that I’ve had to use a data-rich image. Hope it doesn’t crash anyone’s phone. Even so, it is so very faded that it’s extremely difficult to read – though an XRF scan for iron (in the iron-gall ink) might one day make the form clear.

The same concept, though very differently drawn, informs these emblems in folio 67v-1, and that marked difference in stylistic habits as well as the existence of different attitudes to defining the directions mean that here we cannot assume assignment to sunrise or to sunset. My reason for saying so should be explained.

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

The question we must ask now is whether we can assume for folio 67v-1 that the ‘sun+flower’ means West there, simply because the map includes the flower in its west emblem.

I expect most readers habitually take ‘north-up’ as their default, and will assume without much pause for thought that if you stand facing North, East must lie on your right.

But “North orientation means east-right” is a convention, not a fact however much a modern person of European heritage might suppose it commonsensical.

Think of it this way:

Instead of imagining that you stand looking north, imagine yourself lying on the ground with your head towards the North.

Now, if you lie face-down, East will be on your right hand, but if you roll to lie on your back, looking up into the sky then East will be to your left-hand side.

Suppose now you’re able to do the same things, but hovering several feet or metres above ground. By daylight your bird’s eye view, looking down, would produce a map of the land which had East to your right, but when you rolled over to map the night sky, East will be on the left.

The point is that you can have an ‘east-left’ even if your primary direction is to the North. It can depend on whether you’re actually or conceptually defining directions by where you are, and then whether you’re turning towards the earth, or the sky.

Latin Europe only accepted this ‘east-left’ idea within the limited topic of representing the constellations (and then only occasionally) and for some instruments like our planispheres.

Since we already suspect a non-Latin origin for the diagram on folio 67v-1, thanks to those offset lines and adjacency to the curious sun on folio 67v-2, we can’t presume the same norms or limits will apply to this drawing as would if a drawing spoke the graphic language of medieval Latin Europe.

There’s a possibility, therefore, that though when turned North-up, the diagram on folio 85r had its East on the diagram’s right side, this may not. The diagram on folio 85r has the sun as its central emblem, and in daylight the directions were commonly named by winds, but this diagram has a star in its centre and so may be referring to divisions of the night-sky. Which means that whether or not originally designed North-up, it might have its East on the left. (With me so far?)

I understand that it’s tempting for some students of this manuscript, as they begin feeling confused or bewildered by its drawings, to brush aside both the ‘oddities’ and their investigation, resorting instead to adopting impatience as excuse for returning to an easier and more familiar cultural context. But it won’t do. The sun’s being reborn from a flower each day is no expression of medieval western Christian culture, whose nearest approach was the rite of baptism, once the font had replaced the river.

And, if this weren’t enough to cope with, the Voynich map’s east-west placements are the reverse of a European norm yet it is clearly a map showing part of the physical world and not the night sky.

Lotus and rebirth.

Some readers may know how widely the lotus was (and is) identified with re-birth, but might associate the source of that idea only Buddhism, with Hinduism, with ancient Egypt or with some other body of knowledge according to their own background.

So far as I can discover, none but the Egyptians ever actually believed that the sun was re-born daily from a lotus, or believed as if it had been true, that every lotus sinks into the mud at night yet rises fresh and clean each morning.

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

It was believed that a giant lotus blossom came out of the primeval waters of Nun, and out of which the sun-god emerged. The Egyptian text whose transliterated name (rw nw prt m hrw), is translated as ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ or as ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’ has come to be mis-named ‘Book of the Dead’ in English. It includes a spell to transform the deceased into a lotus, ensuring rebirth during the day for the deceased.

CAUTION: religious and cultural beliefs naturally influence how images are formed by a given community, but it is a mistake to imagine that every reflection of such ideas means that either the image or its accompanying text must be all about religion.

So when we find, in Persepolis, an image of the lotus with two buds, we need not suppose the figure holding them was a convert to the religion of Egypt.

An idea which one people regards as speaking to immortality can easily be translated, there or elsewhere, into a promise of never-ending power – ‘horizon to horizon’ – and this latter I take to be the sense of the lotus image (illustrated below) from Achaemenid Persepolis.

Buddhism took another message from the lotus, one not greatly different from the idea of emerging bright and unscathed despite immersion in mud and water – but now that idea of re-emergence was expressed in terms of the person’s soul and not their physical body. To quote a label written by the Art Institute of Chicago for an artefact made in China between 618 CE–906 AD:

From the time Buddhism came to China, the lotus—which emerges unstained from muddy water and therefore carries associations of purity and non-attachment to worldly concerns—had become a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art.

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

It is usual for those three major traditions of the pre- and non-Roman world: the Egyptian, the Buddhist and the Hindu – to be discussed as if each was wholly independent of the other two, but there was a time when all three ways flourished in close proximity.

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

In the region about Gandhara, where Buddhism would first flourish, lay the easternmost borderlands of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

The Persians evidently had a custom (also seen in pre-Roman Egypt) where dangerous border-lands were peopled with foreign communities who were brought, or who came voluntarily, from elsewhere.

The Persians had populated this borderland with, among others, communities taken from Asia minor and from Greek-speakers in Egypt, both Carians and Phoenicians and peoples who had earlier been settled by Egypt along its own southern and western borders.

When Alexander of Macedon conquered and took the Persian empire, the same eastern border region which had marked the limit of that empire now became the eastern limit of his own, and after his death, remained as the eastern border of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom.

It is an amusing side-light to Voynich studies, that a mention of the Hellenistic kingdoms elicits snorts of derision from hard-core Voynich traditionalists, though the same persons will happily refer to Aristotle, who lived even earlier and was one of Alexander’s tutors. 🙂

it was during the period of closest interaction between the eastern ‘Greeks’ and India that the early Buddhist art of Gandhara developed and Buddhism came into its own. Taking with them the skill of paper-making, Buddhist teachers then carried their message throughout India and to as far as the east China sea, their own vision of the lotus with it.


With literally half the world aware of the lotus as a symbol of re-emergence, how can one decide whether our debt is to one, or some combination of those traditions or (as Isidore is indebted to classical Roman poets) whether we’re looking at some later maintenance of the conceptual image quite divorced from the society which first expressed that image?

Consider that stylistic difference:

In the Voynich map, the flower is formed in a way that agrees with one among the long-enduring conventions found in Egyptian art. The following example is from a tomb-painting but other instances would have appeared in classical and in medieval times as carvings and paintings in publicly accessible areas. Here the lotus is drawn fan-like, the petals topped with dots as (or with) a narrow band. Notice also that the open flower is flanked by two others, not yet opened.

Here is how the lotus is drawn on the Voynich map – again with its petals topped by dots to form an upper boundary.

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

Before anyone becomes heated with some Egyptian theory, I must point out that an artefact made in China during the Northern Song period (618-907 AD) also shows this way of depicting the lotus. The object was, admittedly, probably for export and was made during a period when there were diplomatic and trading ties between Persia, Baghdad, India and China.

detail from a vessel made during the time of the Northern Song. This image and associated research summary first published through Voynichimagery in, ‘Emblems of Direction – ‘West’ (July 29th., 2012).

Also found in common between ancient Egyptian, Achaemenid and later Asian representations is a type which does not show literally the flower’s physical appearance, but makes it resemble a cup.

Below, in the left column, one example from ancient Egypt and one from Achaemenid Persepolis. On the right side, illustrations to show that the cup-like form for ‘sunrise’/rebirth on folio 67v-1 has been drawn in a way that permits comparison with Chinese artefacts from (a) the 12th-13thC Yuan period and even much earlier (see further below) – from the 3rdC AD Jun [Jin] period.

The Jun period had seen the height of Indo-Greek fusion, with the flourishing of Buddhist culture in India.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), relations between the Islamic world and China had been developing well. Baghdad was the Abbasid capital, and Siraf in the Persian Gulf was the chief terminus for the east-west trade.

Two separate incidents, costing the lives of resident foreign traders saw formal relations wither andfor some long time, trade was chiefly conducted by land.

incidents…’ massacres in Yangzhou in 760 AD, when a thousand ‘Arabs and Persians’ are said to have been massacred; Guangzhou in 878–879 AD when tens of thousands are reported massacred – including Arabs, Persians and Christians, the last presumably members of the Church of the East (Nestorians). No reference is made to Manichaeans though perhaps the historian classed them as Persian.

  • Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery, Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān, (NYU: 2014)

We know that by the end of the twelfth century, relations had been restored – because when John of Montecorvino travelled east as Europe’s first ambassador-missionary, he found Italians already resident and established there as trading families.

From all the above, we may fairly conclude that the drawing on folio 67v-1 was not first formed as any expression of western Christian culture and that the face emerging from that type of cup-shaped flower – or flower-shaped cup if you like – must signify East.

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

Though the emerging face here is turned to one side, where on the map it emerges full-face, does not appear to have been considered a significant change.

But between this image and that on the Voynich map, the style of drawing is very different and in my opinion the diagram on folio 67v-1 had a much later origin.

It is not impossible that as lines from Isidore’s Etymologies informed the final appearance of the drawing on folio 85r, so the final form for this drawing may be informed by lines from Hafiz who flourished at just the time of most interest to us – the mid-fourteenth century. (1325–1390):

Cupbearer, it is morning, fill my cup with wine.
Make haste, the heavenly sphere knows no delay.

The sun of the wine dawns in the east of the goblet.

Hafez (also seen as ‘Hafiz’ lived 1325-1390). translation by Bernard Lewis. For the spiritual interpretation of Hafiz’ work as a Sufi poem see e.g. commentary (here) by Ivan M. Granger.

So far, surveying the sun-born-from-flower idea, as religious belief, as metaphor, as reflected in artefacts and in purely poetic images, we have defined the range of our subject in terms of time and geography. The sun-emerging-from-lotus might occur as a physical and/or conceptual image from ancient Egypt to fourteenth-century China, not excluding Persia, India and much of south-east Asia. 😀

But our being able to gaining so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 augers well. This drawing looks as if it won’t be too difficult to understand.

(below) – Underside of a lotus bowl, Yuan period. The overlapping petals result in a ‘swirl’ of the type we’re looking for.

The list of works consulted during my research into this diagram is very long and far too long to be listed here even if any Voynicheros could find the time or interest to read them.

For references for any particular point, do email me.

For this post, I replaced an older image of the ‘Egyptian marshes’ detail with the brighter version in a delightful blog which I sincerely recommend to my readers:

  • Monica Bowen (ed.), ‘Marshes in Ancient Egyptian Art’, Alberti’s Window (blog), (Tuesday, March 11th, 2014). The blog has been running since 2007 and is still posting.

Concerning the lotus motif in Gandharan art, one paper I had not seen until recently deserves mention, despite its author’s being apparently unaware of Egyptian influence on Mediterranean thought, including upon the Greeks’, and failing to mention of the Ashokan embassy which sparked the medical traditions of Cos and possible also its silk-making:

  • Kiran Shahid Siddiqui, ‘Significance of Lotus’ Depiction in Gandhara Art’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society (2012), unpaginated. Illustrations. available through academia.edu

O’Donovan notes #8: Knife & …

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

“Knife and ….”

If you automatically added ‘fork’ to complete that phrase, you’ve just given an example of why we can’t rely on what seems obvious today when trying to read images in this manuscript.

A capacity for logic and clear thinking are helpful, but can operate only on what a person already knows, or at least what a person believes they know.

To understand problematic drawings made not less than six centuries ago means not only ‘learning so much stuff’ (as one of my student-apprentices once complained) but unlearning things.

You’d have to ‘unlearn’ that automatic association between knives and forks for example. Here’s why:

The moment that provided initial spark of fork’s popularity in central Europe happened with the marriage of French King Henry II and Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici [in 1547] .. the majority of Europe embraced the fork only by 18th century and the United States only after the end of American Revolution and early 19th century. (edited from web article ‘History of Forks‘)

There are many things you’ll find assumed about the medieval world in past and present-day Voynich narratives which seem plausible only because the reader shares a writer’s own time and environment. Many have to be un-learned, or at least deliberately set aside while working on this manuscript’s drawings.

One false impression which must be set aside, though it is deep-rooted in the history of this manuscript’s study, is that when the material in the manuscript was brought together, medieval western Europe was a centre of learning and civilization, high on the global scale, and an important actor in world-politics.

It isn’t so. In geographic and in intellectual terms, the centre of the world during the 10th-15th centuries was hither Asia, initially the region around Khorasan, with Baghdad a close second in its heyday.

Throughout those centuries, western Europe was considered – and was by comparison with the eastern centres – a ‘barbarian’ region on the extreme western margins of the world, far behind the civilized world in its manners, mentality, and scientific learning.

Nor did the world east of the Arabian shield sit passively waiting to be ‘discovered’ by Portuguese as western histories used to imply.

That region was a vibrant and active world with well-developed lines of cultural and commercial interactions, some of which had developed and been maintained for as much as four millennia* before the first European ships arrived.

*I’m thinking here of the trade in lapis lazuli from Badakhshan to Mesopotamia and then to Egypt.

What had reached medieval Europe from those eastern regions before the end of the fifteenth century was an almost negligible part of such exchange, whether one considers intellectual or material treasures.

I’m not repeating these things to offend any European or to diminish their pride in their own country’s history and accomplishments but to point out that ideas which permeated nineteenth-century histories of Europe and which define the way the Voynich manuscript’s contents were imagined by Wilfrid, by the Friedmans and thus also by d’Imperio are out of step with what is known of the period now, yet the traditionalists’ attitudes and the narratives constructed in that mould still maintain ideas no longer accepted in history or other disciplines today.

I’m saying that to rightly understand the drawings which have been preserved for us in Beinecke MS 408, a wider, more up to date, and more objective perspective is needed.

Since our next example from the manuscript will refer to astronomical matter, let me illustrate the discrepancy between past and present ideas by quoting a little from a paper by David A. King. a scholar at the University of Frankfurt and an eminent specialist in the history of astronomy in the Arabic-speaking medieval world and on the impact of that astronomical learning on other regions.

The problem that specialists in the history of Islamic astronomy confront is that the modern Western world is under the impression that Islamic astronomy is somehow represented by the 5% of it that became known in medieval Europe… *

David A.King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation: From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (pre-print, 2018 version).

*emphasis – present author

Five percent.

Just think about that for a minute.

Ninety-five percent of what was available to astronomers in the Arabic-speaking world never so much as entered the horizons of Latins’ formal scholarship.


In treating the diagram from folio 85r, we were dealing with what is arguably the most legible of the Voynich drawings in terms of Latin European conventions in art, yet even there we saw some evidence of affect from non-Latin matter: in the costume given the figure for East; in the four banners, and in the drawing’s being presented ‘south-up’.

The diagram on folio 67v-1 also shows us two layers to its content, one more and one less intelligible in terms of medieval Latins’ graphic language. As we’ll see in the next post, the two elements are not so neatly fused in that drawing as they are in our first example but one set of information has been added to (or if you like, imposed on) the other,* and for much of the astronomical information it conveys, I must cite non-Latin sources, finding no full explanation for it in any western manuscript made before 1440 AD.

*I think this probably occurred before the fifteenth-century copy was made, but allow for the possibility that further tests on the manuscript may one day prove that layer a late addition.

Here, of course, we must allow for the relatively small proportion of manuscripts which have survived and the fact that while manuscripts are records of what was known, not all forms of knowledge were recorded in that way. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the drawing’s explanation must refer other sources, though I’ll illustrate the discussion using images more easily understood by my readers.

The analysis will begin with a ‘compare-and-contrast’ study of the two diagrams: i.e. that on folio 85r, and on folio 67v-1.

Another paragraph from King’s paper allows us to hope that some manuscript might exist still whose drawings are akin to some in Beinecke MS 408.

… the sources which offer the most challenge to future historians are housed in the rich libraries of Turkey and Iran, mainly catalogued only recently. Yet even in various Western libraries where the astronomical manuscripts are properly catalogued, briefly listed in out-dated catalogues, or not catalogued at all, important discoveries can still be made. Witness the materials in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish mentioned later in this paper..

So, it is still possible that among such still-unstudied manuscripts we may one day discover closer comparisons for the Voynich drawings than have been found to date. In the meantime, however, while we can still analyse the drawings from textual sources we cannot yet offer any close comparison from Latin sources for the drawings themselves – just as we still have no close comparison for the set of Voynich glyphs.

It is particularly regrettable that the study of Beinecke MS 408 continues to be hampered by a maintenance, in traditionalist narratives and the many imaginative Voynich-related narratives sprung from them, of a type of Eurocentric bias* so narrow that it occurs in little modern scholarship today. It persists because it ran deep in this study’s founding fathers – Wilfrid Voynich, Professor Newbold, and the Friedmans- and from their ideas the traditionalist narrative still depends.

*in fact a bias so extreme that it constantly defined medieval ‘Europe’ as if comprised of England, Germany and France, with a mere nod to Italy before Giotto.

It is another habit to be un-learned if the study of Beinecke MS 408’s drawings is to see meaningful progress.

Even if one thinks (as I do) that the quires were probably inscribed in western (‘Latin’-) Europe or under such auspices, the fact is that by the mid-fourteenth century, the matter now in this manuscript could have come into the west from almost anywhere yet still never have been known to those who created the formal texts by which Europe’s intellectual history is typically mapped.

The old idea was that no foreign matter came into Europe except it was fetched by some single European (usually imagined male) whose name was known to history; that the matter in the Voynich manuscript must have a single European ‘author’ (again usually imagined male). Though these ideas combined constituted an idée fixe for most of the period after 1912, they too must be un-learned, along with other persistent if tacit assumptions – such as that none save a European could read Latin; that Jews spoke no language but Hebrew and that in tracing “Europe’s intellectual history” (a phrase d’Imperio uses) none save Germans, French, English and Italians need be considered.

How antiquated these ideas are – consciously held or not – is neatly illustrated by another passage from the same paper. King here refers to astronomer who lived in the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth century – too late to have contributed to the matter in Beinecke MS 408 – but the example is still illuminating as a myth-buster:

Mūsà Jālīnūs [was] a remarkable Jewish medic and astronomer with access to the court of Sultan Bāyazīt II (reg. 1481-1512) in the recently established Ottoman capital of Istanbul. He also had a connection to the military.

Mūsà’s principal written works have only been investigated during the past 10 years.

He is now known as the author of various sophisticated treatises on astronomy and medicine, as well as philosophy. He was a gifted linguist, writing in Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, and translating from Latin into Arabic and from Arabic into Hebrew. His interest in practical devices was not limited to astronomical instruments for it extended to mechanical devices and even robotics. He visited Venice and Padua between 1497 and 1502 and must be considered as a possible vehicle in the transmission of certain innovative ideas in Islamic theoretical astronomy to Renaissance Europe.

Compare that with the view of the Jews implicit in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and a continuing notion that to invoke ideas about Kabbalah one must imagine that some Latin male named in the historical record as mediator and cleanser of ‘foreign’ knowledge for a Latin audience. In this case, the role is typically imagined filled by poor Ramon Llull.

That passage just quoted shows clearly enough, I think, that such assumptions of a ‘white-walled Europe’ in which only western Christians could read books written in Latin, and no external knowledge entered Europe except some individual Latin had been to fetch it or, alternatively, had served as ‘gate-keeper’ are ideas which, though commonplace in Friedmans’ day, are no longer maintained in serious historical studies – though still habitual in Voynich writings of the traditionalist type.

The reality of the wider medieval world, and even just of the Mediterranean world, is of multi-lingual and multi-disciplinary learning able to pass fairly easily along land and sea-routes, and sometimes even to the uttermost fringes of the world – as Europe then was. It needed no Latin’s coming to fetch the matter, nor any Latin ‘gatekeeper’ to permit or deny its entry. What was needed was a lessening of that morbid superstition, rife in Europe, that association with ‘foreigners’ brought some sort of contamination – an idea which there long-predated the advent of plague.

Like everyone else, I began by supposing that the constantly-repeated scheme of the traditional ‘Voynich story’ must have developed in the way scholarship normally does, from a basis of some solid foundational studies. By the time I’d looked into twenty of the manuscript’s drawings, I could not avoid acknowledging the wide disparity between the evidence of the primary document and that traditional narrative. Seeking out those ‘foundational studies’ I then found them without substance – an undocumented sales pitch by Wilfrid Voynich; a scrap of third-hand rumour (still without any substance to it), and the efforts of cryptographers guided by the Friedmans, whose inclinations and biases have been considered by previous posts to this blog.

*Posts Nos. 6-27.

Today I think that the Voynich manuscript is a more valuable historical document than those early theorists could have appreciated, and more valuable than can be imagined even tofay by a person basing their theoretical schemes on the same old Eurocentric and class-obsessed scheme.

The drawings in Beinecke MS408 embody information which was rare in Europe, some of it very rare even in the seventeenth century as I’ll demonstrate in a later post.

The question of how the material did reach Europe to be copied (as we currently think) in the early fifteenth century is an altogether different question.

When, where and how its written text was added is also, thankfully, not within our remit.

That the manuscript, overall, is no reflection of what was being taught in medieval western universities is evident – at the very least by a century’s failure to find valid parallels for it – but against this, the few drawings which do exhibit a Latin character have found occasional echoes – as for example the form given Constantinople-Pera in the Voynich map, or those ‘deformed lobsters’ earlier mentioned ( see last quarter of Note #7 Pt 1).

When both style of drawing and the information conveyed find no parallel in any extant western work, I think it is surely better to admit that fact, than to create and elaborate still more baseless storylines from the old Eurocentric vision.

Better to admit that the drawings are ‘strange, even foreign-looking’ as d’Imperio almost did, than to opt for guesswork and speculation or, by imposing facile and fairly arbitrary ‘matches’ on the drawings, to try adding support to that old narrative. In the end, surely, it must the material evidence and the testimony of the primary document which decides our opinions.

So let’s pay careful attention to what it has to say.

First – the slow, careful scan, setting the image firmly in memory and missing nothing. An analytical study should include every detail. It’s enough to notice exactly what’s there on the page – no need to have a mind busy imagining, speculating or leaping onto some particular detail. Just memorise.

Folio 67v-1

folio 67v-1

all images from the manuscript are from the Beinecke Library website copyright Yale University.

O’Donovan notes #7.2 If this is your answer, tell me again – what was the question?

c.1850 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

additional image added 27/06/2022

Having cross-examined the historical worth of an initial impression – in the present case that the diagram in folio 85r(part) shows a woman in Scandinavian-influenced dress and a male in Chinese-Mongol dress- we now draw back and pause to review the information gathered in the course of the research, setting aside anything which cannot be said with reasonable certainty to faithfully translate the intentions of the first enunciator. A true understanding of that person’s ideas, not our own, makes one’s research of use to future scholars, and this is also why one cites sources and precedents.

On balance, I think we can say no more than that the female figure does wear a type of overdress/apron attested in northern and western Europe, and that the male orator does wear a form of garment commonly worn in northern- and eastern Asia. There is much more one might say, but whatever falls short of being demonstrably true as answer for each research question is material which must be left aside – temporarily or permanently.

In this case the question to be answered was – if you recall – “How is the drawing meant to be aligned or oriented?” And to that question, the answer consonant with the historical and art-historical evidence is that the drawing as we have it is ‘south-up’ and the figures are intended, by their dress and posture, to represent the world’s quarters.

How rarely this manuscript’s drawings have been approached in a way that drawings normally are can be understood by realising that not a single person,* though the century from 1912 – 2012 had noticed the figures’ dress or the first enunciator’s intention to localise them by that means.

not a single person – to the best of my knowledge. For reasons I won’t try to explain, various arch-traditionalists have expressed intense personal hostility towards very idea of finding and properly crediting precedents. The usual habit, with the rise of theoretical narratives since 2010, has been to block efforts to establish what precedents ought to be mentioned, to ignore the original contributor of repeated information and/or to cite some later but more congenial individual’s writings, original or not. If it causes Nick Pelling embarrassment to be singled out as one of few exceptions, that can’t be helped.

When I first explained that the female figure wore Scandinavian-derived costume, some people expressed extreme pleasure, only to express equally keen indignation on being told that another wore Asian dress, pretty accurately represented.

I do think this drawing has been strongly influenced by knowledge of Isidore’s Etymologies but see no reason why any medieval person able to make translations from Arabic into Hebrew or into Latin could not translate between any other of those two languages. Every slave learned at least the language of his captors. Travellers and courts needed interpreters. One medieval traveller mentions meeting in Egypt a resident Spanish Jew who could speak and read in seven languages. We’ve noted an Englishman translating for the Mongols and a German slave* who surely knew that language too.

But having now demonstrated clearly enough, I hope, that an understanding of these drawings needs a good deal more than “two eyes and commonsense plus an active imagination”, but can require information only gained from archaeology, medieval history, art history, the history of costume, economic history, surviving artefacts, not to mention literary- and religious texts etc.,, readers will have taken the point about analytical-critical method and won’t need that point laboured by repeating here the work done on all four figures.

Summary for the last two:

The character for West again agrees the wind’s utterance in Walters MS 73, derived in turn from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.


Zephirus vel FavoniusTellurem floribus orno,” or “I adorn the Earth with flowers.”

I hope readers will forgive, but for most of what follows I’ll just quote passages from the detailed analysis summarised in posts to voynichimagery in January 2015. I’ve seen no reason since then to alter my conclusions but only matter which has served to confirm them.

In what follows you will see, I hope, that Matthias Wille’s recent suggestion of “a physician” is one with which I can nearly agree, though whereas he associates this stoppered bottle with urine bottles, I found that bottles of this type are attested only in other uses relating to pharmacy (and in that way to medicine). Note also the figure’s headband, the character written on its breast, and use of the one-covered-shoulder motif which in medieval Latin iconography signifies the wanderer, the pilgrim, or the traveller to/from distant lands.. Here’s some of what I published in January 2015.

WESTZephirus vel FavoniusTellurem floribus orno,” or “I adorn the Earth with flowers.”

It may be tempting to assign this quarter to the chap with the lily, but instead we have here again a deliberate pun, and an Isidorean attitude to etymology.

The word ‘tellurem’ in the [Walters MS] wind-wheel’s caption to Zephyrus is quite rightly translated as ‘Earth’, but the term comes from a root which also provides words having to do with things borne, or carried.  What the Zephyr brought were gentle breezes, scented with flowers and originating (as Dionysius Periegetes tells us) from the sea of that proverbially perfumed land, Arabia.

“each sea has its allotted wind… the Arabian [sea has] the zephyr..” (v. 929–930)

The bottle which the Voynich figure holds is rightly seen as holding medicine, or more exactly the scents-as-medicine originating in distant Arabia. If you consider the Sawley map you find the Angel of that [Zephyrus’] quarter is again identified with the angel of medicine, Raphael, who holds the box which served as emblem for the healer in iconography of the older, eastern Christian Mediterranean.

It is also appropriate that in the Sawley map, Raphael is located over the region from which that new medicine had come into Latin Europe, viz. North Africa and Sicily, and so into France, ]and Norman England] and Spain.

If associating Zephyr with Arabia and with Sicily seems paradoxical to a modern reader, it was acceptable to older peoples, for which again Pareigetes may be our witness:

Each sea has been allotted a wind, the Sicilian Sea the western wind, which they also call Zephyr… (v. 401–402);

edited from research summary oublished by D.N. O’Donovan, as ‘A Reply.. Pt 2’ voynichimagery, Jan. 5th., 2015.
  • English translation of Dionysius Periegetes’ text by Ekaterina Ilyushechkina, in ‘Spatial Orientation in the Didactic Poem of Dionysius Periegetes’,  Chapter 9 in Klaus Geus, Martin Thiering (eds.), Common Sense Geography and Mental Modelling,  Max Planck Institute for the History of Science [preprint 426] 2012. (pp.131-139)


In this case, in my opinion, the maker has known the South wind as Notus rather than as Auster and taken the sense of it – though again referring to the Etymologiae – from the contemporary type of the Notary whose seal (ring) makes a document binding. For that occupation, Isidore had not used the word ‘Notary’, but says in Book Five:

“And to seal a testament is ‘to put a distinguishing mark’ (notare) on it so that what is written may be recognized (noscere, ppl. notus)” (V.xxiv.6)

The date and regions that saw the modern sense of ‘notary’ emerge are relevant to our study:

c. 1300, (English) notarie, “a clerk, a personal secretary; person whose vocation was making notes or memoranda of the acts of others who wished to preserve them, and writing up deeds and contracts,” from Old French notarie “scribe, clerk, secretary” (12th C.) and directly from Latin notarius “shorthand writer, clerk, secretary,” from notare, “to note,” from nota “shorthand character, letter, note”. Meaning “person authorized to draw up and authenticate contracts and other legal instruments” is from mid-14C.

Isidore prefers to name the wind from the south Auster, but then says of it:

“It is called νότος [notos] in Greek, because it sometimes corrupts the air (cf. νοθευέiν “corrupt, adulterate”), for when Auster blows, it brings to other regions pestilence, which arises from corrupted air. ……” )


It is possible that in the Voynich figure here occupying the South quadrant the reader was intended to see an allusion to Egypt’s Mamluk rulers (1250–1382;1382–1517) since Isidore elsewhere defines nothus [with theta] as ‘One ..who is born from a noble father and from an ignoble mother, for instance a concubine. Moreover, this term is Greek (i.e. νόθήος) and is lacking in Latin.”

Franks (Latins), Mongols, Mamluks and Arabs would represent the four governors known to Mediterranean world during the Mongol century.

Place and Time – the constant questions.

Thus, while few among the drawings in the Voynich manuscript reflect the customs, graphic conventions and languages which inform drawings first enunciated in medieval Latin Europe, this drawing comes close to doing so. However the elements in the drawing we’re considering which are not consonant with an all-Latin origin are significant elements, especially the south-up orientation and use of what I agree (adopting the suggestion made by L.L. on June 3, 2022 ) is akin to the ‘fly-whisk’ as emblem of ownership and governance – these being, across much of the world outside Europe, equivalent to those flags and standards by which Europeans signalled possession and rule of lands. So – to give just one two instances.

Here is signifies the unstoppable rider ‘on the wind’ this shorter version signifying a trophy or victory. Except that here the reference is only to conquest of lands, it is not unlike the Romans’ symbolic use of an aplustre.

13thC image of a Mongol ruler as Perseus, whose name means ‘the slayer’.


“Chinggis Khan now held all Mongolia, having subjugated all the tribes of the Mongolian steppe. To guarantee his right to rule over the entire country … he ‘set up a white standard with nine tails.’

UNESCO, History of civilizations of Central Asia, Vol 4 (p.255)

As with the final changes made to the Voynich map, here again Latin influence indicates a period during the Mongol century for first entry into the horizons of Latin Europe of most matter now in the Voynich manuscript and indicates a mediation and effort to translate the original works.

I will add, though I won’t elaborate on it in this series of posts, that each of the four figures in the diagram from folio 85r(part) has a non-zodiacal astronomical association too. It is the documented history of that other system’s sudden emergence in fourteenth-century Europe which adds to our reasons for offering the Mongol century as the date at which most of the manuscript’s matter – at least its drawn matter – first entered the Latins’ horizon.

As an amusing detail – the position of the Notary’s hand is that used for the ‘manicule’ in medieval manuscripts, its meaning: ‘take note’. The earliest attested manicules appeared in the Domesday Book, the exhaustive survey of England carried out for William I in 1086.

Geoffrey Ashall Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book alleges that it was “found in early twelfth century (Spanish) manuscripts.” The revival of classical learning in Europe saw the manicule become popular again too. Given that this diagram’s East figure is given a thumb and five fingers, it is interesting that Petrarch’s manicules did the same.

Over the following three hundred years, scholars aiming at an oratorical career read Cicero and law manuals, populating their text’s margins with such ‘Take note’ hands, usually drawn just as a fist with index finger, as is the hand for Notus in this diagram.

Notice to the authors…

My publisher has asked me to provide certain information to the authors of another blog, and to my own readers.

Sorry about this. In a week or so I’ll make the notice into a separate page. The point is that I want to be able to continue using the results of my own work without the nuisance of being accused of plagiarising matter closely-imitating mine. My publisher has already been put to some trouble as first one and then another effort has been made to create ‘alternative versions’ for the original matter I shared online between 2009-2017. Whatever I shared in blogposts is also copyright and is also considered ‘published research’. If you didn’t know, now you know.

Comment left (June 23rd., 2022) at the blogpost whose author gives the name Katie Tucker.

Katie- Just as information you may need to know in future.
My publisher wishes me to let you know the following:

that since my work explaining the Voynich map was published before 2012, and my connecting it with Abraham Cresques’ Majorcan Atlas (also known as the Atlas Catala) was published, with illustrations and explanations over the period from 2012-2015 and. further, that my identification of the plants in the Voynich botanical section as native to the eastern maritime routes dates back as far as 2008 and – in addition – that my associating these routes with the Genoese (and thus with the Genoese ‘eye map’) was documented as it developed and was published online between 2009-2017, there is a high probability that your claim of copyright and implied moral rights from claimed originality will not stand.

About your reading of the manuscript’s written text, I have no dispute.

In my work, I’ve cited and quoted from numerous works on navigation, but have never claimed to have the necessary competencies to address the written part of the text in Beinecke MS 408.

Efforts to duplicate/replicate and create more Eurocentric ‘alternatives’ for my work began as early as 2013, when a colleague in Spain let me know that a certain ‘Voynichero’ had presented him with the conclusions of my own work, but pretended they were just an ‘idea’ which the colleague was invited to ‘explore’. That colleague, knowing my own work on the history of navigation, charts and navigational astronomy had been reading my contributions to Voynich studies and got in touch with me. Efforts at duplication and ‘re-invention’ have scarcely ceased since that time.

Tell me, is your father the same Tucker who co-authored ‘The Voynich Codex’?

I’ve been asked to notify my own readers of these things too, so a copy of this will appear at ‘Voynich revisionist’ – the blog I began after 2017, when the level of plagiarism convinced me to close ‘Voynichimagery’.

O’Donovan notes #7 – Range is Balance (Pt 1).

c.4000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Voynich studies has seen a continual stream of imaginative quasi-historical storylines invented for the manuscript since 1912 when Wilfrid began trying to re-sell it.

Though each of those narratives was contradicted by the next, by historical fact, and by the primary document itself, nearly all have been thought plausible by a larger or smaller band of believers.

To show how this curious situation, which continues to this day, is due to a now-habitual “Voynich method”, I built that same method into the studies of two figures from folio 85r.

What I wanted to demonstrate was that any theorist feeling enthused about some idea, and adopting that idea in advance of any actual investigation will be biased from the outset, re-defining ‘good’ information to mean information they think lends their idea greater credibility and ‘bad’ research as work whose conclusions oppose their theory.

Selecting the former while constantly blanking the latter inevitably results, of course, in that writer reaching a conclusion consistent with their expectations but built on so narrow and biased a range of data that it cannot do other than misrepresent the content in this manuscript.

Far from being the first to look critically at their own ideas, promoters of Voynich storylines have proven, from 1912 to 2022, the most easily misled believer in their audience. It’s not due to personality; the pattern shows the problem a flawed ‘Voynich method’ so doggedly maintained that against it even the primary document protests in vain.

So now, to specifics.

In treating the female figure I adopted the traditionalists’ habit of beginning as if I just *knew* what the conclusion of research would be before starting to do that research. In effect, I was attempting to give an air of credibility to an idea, where the analyst aims at making a balanced assessment of the drawing and the available evidence.

By the end of that post, therefore, I had adorned that first ‘idea’ with official-looking quotes which – without actually presenting any case – suggested to readers that this drawing could only be a product of my arbitrarily-selected region, nationality and period. That is, late twelfth-century England

If you re-read the post Note #6i (cont.) with a properly critical eye, I hope you’ll notice how fairly obvious questions were slid-over or waved aside. Such as:

  • What do you mean by ‘England’? Define ‘England’ in terms of geography and of time.
  • Apart from England, where do we find evidence of Scandinavian-influenced dress surviving, and over what sort of temporal range?

As I’ve mentioned before, most questions aiming at an analytical-critical study of images are of the ‘where-and-when’ as well as the ‘why’ kind.

The habit of imagining that what is attested in one time and place can exist at no other time or place is absolutely characteristic of Voynich theory-narratives and another habit persisting throughout the study ever since 1912. The more traditionalist the theorist, the more you can expect their narrative riddled with that notion. It is the whole foundation for some of the most publicised Voynich narratives today.

What should have been done, in the first of my two studies, was not to chase evidence likely to persuade others to believe a ‘London’ theory, but to ask questions framed in terms of range e.g:

  • Over what range – in terms of culture, and time and geographic regions – do we find evidence of women wearing clothing of such a kind?

And the researcher must be prepared for disappointment as well as satisfaction; the results of research may be unexpected; they may show that the sought-for information has not survived the passage of time.

Restoring the Balance.

Not all the omissions and errors produced by that ‘Voynich method’ can be balanced out by this one post, but I’ll do what I can as briefly as I can.

Questions of influence.

Linguistic, political and cultural influences are three distinct factors in historical studies as in the study of artefacts.

Creators of Voynich storylines habitually treat the three as synonymous, though it takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that .a speaker of English may wear French fashions; that you may learn to speak one language and later speak one or more others; that territory now part of France (for example) may have been dominated, at different times, by the mores of Scandinavia, of England, of Spain, and/or of the Papacy. Linguistic, cultural and political influences are not one and the same.

It will be convenient to use a few maps and quoted passages to illustrate the changing patterns of influence in the far west from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. Unless otherwise stated, the maps are from wiki media.


In 911 AD.. the French King, Charles the Simple, offered land to Rollo in exchange for his loyalty to the king of West Francia…

That Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte granted Rollo and his soldiers all the land between the river Epte and the sea “in freehold and good money”. It also granted him Brittany “for his livelihood.”

That was the origin of the Duchy of Normandy. of which Rollo was the first Duke.

The initial grant was extended by further grants and Rollo’s descendants created the area as coherent political entity during the course of the 10th century.

As late as the early 11th century Normandy still retained political and economic connections with Scandinavia and Scandinavian settlers in Britain and Ireland.

edited from an entry on the ‘Viking Archaeology’ website.

By late in the 10th century, before William’s conquest of England, the situation was as shown below, with the French king’s domain here coloured blue, and Normandy (Normandie) and Brittany (Bretagne) having strong historical links to Scandinavia. At this time Calais belonged to Flanders.


The lands granted Rollo are now within the rights of William, conqueror of England.

Territories of William I of England, including dependency of Brittany

Replying to “What language did the Duke of Normandy speak in 1066? ..” Stephen Tempest replied to another member of Quora:

Norman French. This was a dialect of French that was similar to, but not identical with, the French spoken in Paris.

A notable difference is that Norman French had several words beginning with W- which in standard French start with Gu- instead.

The obvious example is the name of the Duke of Normandy himself: in Parisian French it would be Guillaume, but he used the name Willaume, Another example: the word ‘guerre’ in standard French was ‘werre’ in Norman French, and became ‘war’ in English.

Norman French also had several loan-words from Norse, which were not found in standard French. These included the dialect words for ‘sand-dune’ (mielle in Norman, dune in French) and ‘small island’ (hommet in Norman, îlot in French).

To this evidence of Scandinavian viking influence in the west we must add place-names. I’ll take Normandy as the sample:

A common place name ending in parts of Normandy is –tot, from the Norse word tóft, meaning the place of a farm. In modern Icelandic we have the word tóft, which is used for the visible ruins of a farm structure, but is also known as a homestead name. There are at least 589 places in Normandy which end with suffix tot. Another particularly common is the suffix -londe with 269 places ending with the -londe or -lont suffix from the Norse word lund, which translates as clearing. There are several places with the lundur ending in Iceland, including Bjarkarlundur in the South Westfjords.

Place names with Norse roots are most common near the coast and along the river Seine.

Other common Norman place names of Scandinavian origin are –hogue from the Norse haug, meaning hill or mound (more than 100 examples) and –dalle from dal, meaning valley (over 70 examples).

from an article in Iceland magazine (Nov. 19th., 2015)

So, altogether, Normandy is one region where we might expect some lingering influence from earlier Scandinavian populations.

Movements of people, and areas where multiculturalism is attested are also relevant and since we’re now looking at both sides of the Channel, it’s important to take note of lands that were not subject to the French king, especially ecclesiastical domains, because they attracted displaced persons. For example, when Edward I of England expelled all Jews in 1290, some sought protection there.

LATE 12th – early 13th CENTURIES

The map above is not quite accurate. By 1204, Montpellier – for example – had become part of the kingdom of Aragon.

From even so much information, it becomes clear that the geographic range in which we might find that combination of influences earlier described is not limited to Scandinavia, London and the Danelaw – or even Ireland and the western Isles – but should also consider the Channel’s southern shore – at the very least along the coast between Flanders and Cap de la Hague.

It is also within the period between the 11th-13th centuries that we must place the flourishing of Flanders cloth industry. A good basic outline here. Take note of the role played by both Genoa and Venice.

Within that coast, matters connected to the Voynich calendar make England’s possession of Calais, in Picard* country, important.

The term “Picardy” was first used in the early 13th century, during which time the name applied to all lands where the Picard language was spoken including territories from Paris to the Netherlands. In the Latin Quarter of Paris, people identified a “Picard Nation” (Nation Picarde) of students at Sorbonne University, most of whom actually came from Flanders.

‘Picardy’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

For two hundred years – that is from a hundred years before until more than a hundred years after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was made, Calais was not under English occupation, but was an English possession such as Gibraltar is today – as the city’s local historian, Philippe Cassez, reminded Nicholas Montard.

Within the region we may describe as Picard country, Calais was English territory from 1346 until 1558.

The city was made ‘English’ in the strictest sense in 1346 by the expulsion of its inhabitants, a matter of some sensitivity today, and a good example of why using just a single source or single utterance from an ‘expert’ is very poor practice.

The wiki article ‘Pas-de-Calais’ in English is no more than a translation of the French article, the latter written by someone evidently so patriotic that their account of the region’s history ‘blanks’ those two centuries of English possession.

Another scholar, attempting to minimise the awkward facts of Edward’s behaviour on taking Calais, writes this:

… some of the French were expelled and English settlement was deliberately encouraged. Thenceforward, the town’s officials, garrison, and merchants were almost exclusively drawn from the [English] homeland. Its strategic significance was as both an outer defence for England and a base for campaigns into France… It was heavily defended, often housing 1,000 troops alongside a civilian population of c.5,000. It also played a key role as the staple through which all exported wool had to be directed. As a result, its company of merchants became increasingly powerful in the government and financing of the town.

Ann Curry, in The Oxford Companion to British History.

I’m focusing on regions where we can posit a lingering Scandinavian influence together with English influence and a textile-industry because I maintain that the informing words for the female figure on folio 85r are reflected in the utterance given the NNE wind in Walters 73 and that the figure is designed to convey an habitual association of ‘clout’ with ‘cloud’. My post ‘Understanding the Woman’ was intended to illustrate the limits and bias of the conclusion-before-research method now habitual for Voynich writings and objectively so odd. My aim was not to invent information or misinterpret the figure’s meaning.

A third site shows less restraint in speaking of Edward and fails to appreciate that medieval attitudes won’t be those of a modern person, but does mention that in medieval Calais more than one language was spoken.

We may suggest that as well as English and Flemish Picard and Chtimi might have been heard in its streets:

Although he had spared the citizens’ lives, Edward evacuated [sic] the city and populated it with English people. Calais was used as a ‘staple’ that is a warehousing town for the distribution of wool exports and a means of collecting taxes levied on wool. Calais was thought of [sic] as part of England and even [sic] sent representatives to the House of Commons. …

Historically part of Flanders, the Pale was bilingual: English and Flemish were commonly spoken

Ward’s Book of Days. The author’s contact address begins ‘engliteessays’. 🙂

Now, while one ‘evacuates’ a population from care for its welfare, the fact is that the French were not ‘evacuated’ but expelled and there is no evidence at all that Edward felt any concern for their welfare. Nor (as we’ve seen) was Calais ‘thought of’ as part of England; it was part of the English domains. The author seems to imagine there was something unusually gracious about the fact that in English Calais, the English were entitled to representation in the house of commons.

These things are why I would not use any one of those three sources as an only source: range is balance.

Another glance at the linguistic divisions. This map per Andrew Oh-Willeke‘s blogpost (July 25th., 2019) where details of the original source are as given.


England with Burgundy – 1339-1415

1339-1415 AD

1426 AD

1426 AD

So – that was the situation for people across this region before and during the time when the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was being made, and probably inscribed- though where that happened is still unknown.

Since the diagram on folio 85r (part) uses graphic conventions which are very nearly – if not entirely- consistent with those of Latin Europe, it seems reasonable to begin re-considering the woman’s dress within those areas on both sides of the English channel where Scandinavian settlements co-incide with the later Norman and Norman-French, not least because aspects of the Voynich calendar also direct us to that region. I’ll touch on those calendar matters later in this post.

Traditional labourer’s costume.

Here we meet a problem. The sort of people who commissioned illuminated manuscripts in medieval Europe weren’t interested in what labourers wore at work, and not for centuries later would it become fashionable to romanticise and ethnograph-ise rural ways and clothing.

The illustration (left) shows a reaper in a version of court costume, with a foreign-looking hat. Even exceptions to the rule, such as the representation of labourers in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, generally show peasants well fed, shod, and dressed with not an apron in sight before Colomb’s contribution (e.g. to the calendar’s ‘September’).

It is therefore unrealistic to expect (though one may hope) that any grand manuscript produced around the time the Voynich quires were inscribed will include a reliable portrait of the costume worn by members of the labouring class.

Sadly, we can’t rely either on what is now classified as a region’s traditional costume. The later romanticism which created the hideous Gothic Revival style in architecture, and saw the invention of hundreds of allegedly Scottish tartans by the woolen mills of Bradford also informs the choices made when a regional folk-costume was being defined.

From the late eighteenth century, but especially during the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, urbanites armed with sketch-pads – and then with cameras – began travelling through western Europe recording what they imagined was regional and national dress. Some were doing this to assist fashion-houses get new ideas; others looking for quaint images to issue as post-cards. Others again, infected with post-Napoleonic national pride, formed clubs dedicated to preserving their ‘ancient’ rural traditions. Mayors and town worthies, on seeing the books and pictures, promoted one form of local costume as definitive for their region.

What such collectors and officials often failed to notice was that, faced with having their portraits made, the country people hadn’t worn their everyday clothes but their best ‘Sunday-go-to-meeting’ wear and finery of a kind never worn but at weddings, funerals and days of high holiday.

Most costumes today described as regional or national dress are of that kind. In Germany, the opposite happened. Leather shorts once widely worn in medieval Europe as hard-wearing workday clothes came to be imagined, in societies formed in Munich and other cities, a ‘festival’ costume unique to Bavaria.

All of which means, for us, that attempting to discover where, and over what area, some form of traditional Scandinavian costume survived to inform the Voynich drawing is very difficult indeed. But one can try.

If this project were one undertaken professionally, I’d begin by making an appointment with conservators in a Museum having a section dedicated to the history of costume. But experience shows that even the opinion of someone from the Getty will be howled down and decreed ‘off-topic’ in Voynich arenas if it opposes a currently-popular traditionalist narrative.


Since we know that Scandinavian, Norman- English and French influence affected the southern coast of the English channel from Flanders to the Cap de la Hague, we might begin there.

Picardy (political region).

Described as Picard dress, that on the right is associated specifically with Calais in works produced after 1850. Evidently the wearer might choose the long apron or the short, the elaborate headdress or the worker’s cap. Neither wears brooches.


At some time before the seventeenth century, Normandy’s women adopted the shawl, and even the poorest now wore some version of it with working costume, as with more formal dress. What they wore in medieval times is uncertain.


Gaugin painted these Breton girls in 1888.

And from no-where near the Channel, but from Bresse in Burgundy, we have these two spinning women photographed for a postcard printed in the early decades of the twentieth century, possibly after the first World War..

for the whole image see http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr/fr/contenu.php?idcontenu=48http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr/fr/contenu.php?idcontenu=48

The costume on the right evokes the style of Scandinavian dress in the viking age, but is not closely similar to the drawing we’re investigating. The spinning woman to the right isn’t wearing a full apron, but a bodice and waist-apron. Our drawing doesn’t include the typically Scandinavian strings of beads or chain, where the later costume does. And while the older spinning woman certainly wears a round brooch, the younger is wearing a cameo or photograph hanging from a black ribbon.

What the photograph does indicate is that it was possible to find surviving over more than nineteen hundred years and a distance of more than a thousand kilometers, remnants of the old Scandinavian customs. That they should survive in Burgundy is not unreasonable. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

“The Burgundians were a Scandinavian people whose original homeland lay on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, where the island of Bornholm (Burgundarholm in the Middle Ages) still bears their name. About the 1st century CE they moved into the lower valley of the Vistula River, but, unable to defend themselves there against the Gepidae, they migrated westward to the borders of the Roman Empire.

Even so, we don’t actually know anything about that the woman on the right. For all we know, she might be the older woman’s Scandinavian daughter-in-law, or a seasonal worker brought in from Picardy, or a descendant of some family of textile workers brought south from the Low Countries late in the fifteenth century, after Dukes of Burgundy took possession of them. She may be a person displaced from one of those towns which had been all-but-destroyed during World War I. The only reason we have for believing her dress traditional in Bresse is that the photographer apparently believed it was.

That photo is evidence, but not evidence of what was worn by a spinner or weaver in medieval Burgundy. What turns us back towards the Channel is information from earlier Voynich research.

Jacques Guy and Jorge Stolfi first suggested that the month-names in the Voynich calendar might be Occitan. Artur Sixto urged Judeo-Catalan, and more recently a writer whose name I cannot discover insisted they reflect a dialect spoken in the region of Belgium and the Low Countries.

Nick Pelling first noticed that a closely similar orthography occurs on an astronomical instrument made in Picardy for England. The same fact and same source was later noticed by Don of Tallahassee. These things have since been repeated, sans attribution, by numerous theorists who prefer their readers to imagine those contributions original to themselves. This habit has come to be a hall-mark of team-spirit among some theory-groups, and most prominently of the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory group, a few of whom treat published research as street-urchins might treat a market-stall.

Here are the month-names in the Picard dialect as written today: ginvié January; févérié February; marche March; avri April; mai, maï May; join June; juillé July; aout August; siétimbe, sétimbe September; octobe October; novimbe November; déchimbe December.

Here I must add that in considering the old military rolls of Calais I found the first known instance of a crossbowman’s being called ‘Sagittario’.

UPDATE (June 24th., 2022) – Koen Gheuens, who has studied formally the subject of historical linguistics, has very kindly given me permission to add the following:

I would be cautious with those month names. People claim with equal confidence that they are southern French or northern French, and there seems to be a lot of confusion. I am yet to see convincing evidence for either region. When I asked a professor of French linguistics about this some years ago, he said that the material was simply not sufficient to determine a region. I do think determining a region should be possible, but so far the evidence is minimal. It should be possible for someone who is at home in historical French texts, regional evolutions in French dialects, and has a lot of spare time though.

Koen Gheuens, pers. com.

Most recently, Koen Gheuen has tracked the Voynich-style eight-legged ‘lobster’ from Norman Sicily through northern France (near the Belgian border), and even further – to as far as Alsace.

  • Koen Gheuens, ‘Homard à l’Alsacienne’, The Voynich Temple herculeaf.wordpress.com (November 11th., 2018)
  • Koen Gheuens, ‘ A network of faulty lobsters: Scotus, Cantimpré, Megenberg and the Voynich Manuscript’. (December 11th., 2018)

Though sheer serendipity, I happened on another example of the ‘faulty lobster’ a couple of days ago. An infra-red map of a detail in a painting dated probably c.1263-4, and made by Margarito d’Arezzo, shows a lobster with eight legs and two claws. The image is part of a video discussing the National Gallery’s restoration of the oldest painting in its collection. Here’s the detail. For close-up, open the image in a new tab.

screenshot from ‘How we uncovered the secrets of the Gallery’s oldest painting’ – video by London’s National Gallery. The infra-red image is seen at 5:53. This faulty lobster has 8 legs *and* two front claws.

Notice of bias – I’m strongly biased in favour of conservators and other such tech’y Museum types. If I have to choose between getting the opinion of a librarian, an historian or a conservator – I’m sorry to say that my innate bias will incline me towards the last.

Margarito d’Arezzo made that painting during the lifetime of Thomas of Cantimpré, and only twenty years after the latter’s most famous work, “Opus de natura rerum” had been completed – 1244 AD, So there’s no chronological problem about positing connection to Cantimpré’s ‘faulty lobsters’, nor even to Michael Scot’s.

Thomas of Cantimpré was initially a member of the religious order of Canons regular and was later ordained a priest. He studied and lived in Liege, in Cologne, in Louvain and in Paris. In 1240 he was made a Professor of Philosophy at the university of Louvain. “Opus de natura rerum” is his best-known, but not his only composition.

In the centre of the larger work, d’Arezzo placed the Virgin and gave her a crown in which German and Byzantine elements are combined, intending (in my opinion) allusion to the rulers of Sicily and thus to the emperor’s cause (the Ghibelline cause), to which his city remained always constant.

What allows us to harmonise the findings of those several Voynich writers’ earlier-named is not insistence on a particular nationality or first language. The fact that is that all Europe had a single language in common – Latin – and it was in Latin language that knowledge was disseminated across all of western Europe. Chief among the centres of learning when the Voynich manuscript’s quires were formed were the Universities of Paris, Bologna, Padua and – as we’ve seen) Toledo.

For people living at a distance from Europe, I add a few more maps to finish this post.


I wanted to include a revision of the ‘East’ figure from folio 85r, but with this post so long already I’ll refer to just one point: in one of the few remaining written accounts of the Mongols, a Latin writer describes how their garments are tied and remarks that they have a collar and ‘fasten on the [wearer’s] right’. The person who first made the drawing, if living in Europe might – quite simply – have misunderstood.

O’Donovan notes – interim caution.

Because this series of posts is a demonstration of an analytical-critical approach, not an exposition of my own research, I’ve built into the two examples treated so far two very common errors found in Voynich writings since 1912 and just as prevalent now as then.

1st – the habit of thinking in terms of a parochial ‘nationality’, which carries with it a fixed idea that whatever happens in one region must be somehow native to that area and occur no-where else.

2nd – a failure to test, re-test and test again information gained at second hand.

Pausing to check, to correct, and to re-appraise a developing analysis is a vital stage of an analytical-critical approach.

I thought I’d post this caution now, in case any reader became too enthusiastic about the previous two posts and started disseminating the material in them.

I didn’t make the errors huge ones. I wasn’t aiming to mislead, but to explain that it isn’t just about making a ‘plausible’ explanation; its about working to understand the mentality and intentions of someone who lived more than half a millennium ago, in some place and some cultural environment yet to be determined.

I’ll come back next week and show how, after a first phase of research, we move to that utterly vital stage of checking, doubting, cross-examining and testing our initial assessments.