O’Donovan Notes #13b – an illustration.

Someone who read the previous post commented (at a different blog-site) that he couldn’t understand how I got the idea that any drawings in the Voynich manuscript were of non-western Christian origin. So I thought I’d provide an example of analytical method and show why, in the case of a diagram on folio 77r, the primary document itself obliged me to turn away from the traditionalist ‘all Latin Christian narrative’ – not because I had any theory, but because the testimony of the primary document has highest priority.

The analytical method requires constant reference to texts, and so a few of those I consulted are referenced here.

I have never felt a need to invent any theoretical narrative to explain the manuscript. Such tales have always – ever since 1921 – been advanced before any verifiable evidence, maintained in defiance of clear opposition from the primary document, and vastly exceeded the verifiable evidence when urged upon the wider public. In view of what follows I might say that I do not have a nice, simple ‘Manichean’ story for you, either.

For what follows, the core is the basic analysis published in October 2012.

When I first shared my study of that diagram, in 2011, and identified the drawing’s subject as a 5-element system, I was unaware that Richard Santacoloma had already said he thought the drawing showed a system describing the elements.

Though perceptive readers will soon realise that my work can owe nothing to his, not in methodology, nor sources, nor conclusions reached, I’m happy to say that his perception of the diagram as referring to elements was good.

It is always good to have two workers come independently to comparable conclusions about a problematic item.

To that core – my post of Oct 25, 2012 at 6:00 PM, I have added other notes and comments that were published later in posts or additional comments at Voynichimagery, the ongoing research further refining, and with regard to one detail correcting the basic analysis.

To compensate for the original post having been issued within an unfolding study, I’ve re-written one sentence, and a couple of clauses which became unclear without the post that preceded or was to follow.

I hope readers won’t find it too confusing that I now shift back and forward between that basic analytical commentary of 2012 and the subsequent amplifications.


The short story [October, 2012]

In my opinion, this represents a 5-element system, but not one that includes ether as a separate element.


Note added to the 2012 post. re Richard SantaColoma and his ‘New Atlantis’ blog. (March 30th 2013)

  I first wrote a post about f.77r in 2011. Later in that year – in May 2011 – I heard that Rich Santacoloma had earlier suggested the diagram was a reference to the elements, though he supposed then, and still does, that the system will be the European one.  I left a note on the original post about that difference between our opinions and mentioned his views, but I did not, and do not .agree with his idea that the manuscript shows the western system – for reasons that should be clear from what follows.

Today Rich added a few comments here [i.e. at Voynichimagery] expressing a desire to have my post link not just to his web-page as  I had done, and still prefer to do,  but to his blog. [note added 2023 – the website raised a warning notice today], Since I’m well-known for adding ‘update’ notes to my own blogposts, I’m happy to do as Mr. Santacoloma asks, so here is the link he prefers. It is dated February 10th., 2010.

From the content of my own analytical study (below) I hope readers will be able to see that it owes nothing to Mr. Santacoloma’s writing, but is a product of the present writer’s experience and reference to non-Voynich-centred scholarship. .

On the matter of ‘5 elements’

Many other [i.e. Non-European] systems are five-element ones, including the Chinese ‘5 agencies’, the Hindu, the Turkish, and more. These are no less deserving of consideration among the range of comparisons to be considered, given the various other items of evidence we’ve seen so far that have indicated a non-European origin for a given drawing’s first enunciation.

Once more in this diagram there appears to be influence from the Hellenistic period reflected in their style.

For the Greek terms and for the clear distinction between the system shown in folio 77r and that which applied in the Latin west, I’ve decided to start by referring to Isidore’s text* – chiefly for its parallel use of the Latin with the Greek terms but also to avoid alarming readers who may feel thei comfort-zone ends with medieval western Christian Europe.

*Isidore of Seville, with whose Etymologiae my readers had become familiar by 2012.

On the interaction between Hellenism, Dualism and regions beyond Europe after the 3rdC AD, readers must wait for a subsequent post.

My first post about this drawing on f.77 [in 2011] included much comparative vocabulary that I omit here [i.e. in October 2012].

Ether one of the elements? – no.

Isidore recognised ether as a rarefied form of fire, but is specific about its position and that it does not contribute to the world below. To that extent it was not regarded to that time, in the Latins’ tradition, as one of the ‘elements’:

The ether is the place where the stars are and signifies that fire which is separated high above from the entire world.”

‘The most potent elements’

details from fol 77r (textual portion omitted).

Isidore then turns to the natural world and begins with the two ‘potent’ elements.

The most potent pair of elements for human life are fire and water, whence those to whom fire and water are forbidden are gravely punished.

Etym. XIII.xii.2

That pair, I think, is probably the reason why we see the diagram proper flanked on f.77r by a female and what appears to be a non-gendered male. (which could be our first indication of religious influence, supposing it alluded to Isaiah 53:8  Who shall declare his generation?” and see Naasseni, in Hippolytus Bk.V

Forms given those two figures’ containers agree, too, with Isidore’s assignments: that on the left appears to be modelled on the wall-sconce or  on glass beakers of a type filled with oil and used in that way – fire.

On the right, the container is formed as a bucket or basket from which falls a mixture of water and potent earth (i.e. life-producing water, like the seed-filled and fertile soil brought by flood. The mechanism of reproduction through seed was not entirely understood in earlier times.) But hence ‘water’.


To further clarify the nature of this pair, I was to add the following quotation with its allusion to the Anabibazontes to a later post, published in October 2016 and entitled ‘On the doorstep [Mongols] and things Manichaean’, voynichimagery.wordpress.com (October 31st., 2016).

A Coptic summary of Manichaean doctrine, the Kephalaia, quotes Mani’s teachings on this point. Mani assigns each of the zodiac ’12’ – whether as constellations or the more abstract ‘signs’ of astrology is not clear – to  five ‘worlds’: of ~Smoke, ~Fire, ~Wind, ~Water, and ~Darkness and rather interestingly given that he lived in the 3rdC AD, he also accepts the Roman constellation of the ‘Scales’.

This.. is how it should be understood. They [the twelve zodiacal figures and five planets] are drawn from the Five Worlds of Darkness, are bound in the Sphere, and are taken for each world. The Twins and the Archer belong to the world of Smoke, which is the Mind; Also, the Ram and the Lion belong to the World of Fire. The Bull, the Water-bearer, and he Scales belong to the World of Wind,  The Crab and the Virgin and the Fish belong to the world of Water; the Goat-horn and the Scorpion belong to the World of Darkness. These are the twelve archons of wickedness, for it is they who commit every evil in the world, either in the tree [ule?] or in the flesh.  Hermes belongs to the world of Water, while Kronos belongs to the World of Darkness.  The two Ascendants [anabibazontes][9] belong to fire and lust, which are dryness and moisture, they are the father and mother of all these things. .. [for my reference see the ‘Comment’ posted below this 2023 post]

adding a further comment on November 1st 2016):

Postscript: I may have mis-read the first element motif of ‘wavy lines with scattered dots’. It might – possibly – be meant for Smoke ~ as rising air mixed with burned particles..


returning to the research as published in 2012:

While Isidore’s description of those older Greek ideas is compatible with the diagram as we’ve analysed it so far, overall the maker of the drawing does not appear to have had a conception of the elements identical to the western, and thus like Isidore’s. 

I don’t think the diagram on f.77 is an illustration of the Etymologies  so much as an illustration of some accepted and local ‘5-elements’ system that is being assumed within an education system no less infused by respect for the same classical and Greek sources. Some possibilities will be listed further below.

 Isidore’s regularly referring to both Greek and the  Latin vocabulary, and explaining both, means that the Latin tradition maintained some knowledge of Greek from that time. The Etymologies was so widely used and copied that it is often compared with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and its information being disseminated as standard opinion, it filtered through scholars and clerics to the lay population.

The diagram proper – Primary matter: ‘the wood’

Where we speak of the  ‘basic fabric’ or the ‘building blocks’ of the material world, the Greek term for the raw material of all things was  ΰλη, which – like this diagram – evokes the idea of a tree’s body, unshaped, but from which those elements [Lat. elementum] emerge.  The Greek term was not elementum, but  stoikeia.

(April 3rd 2012- cf. architectural and philosophical associations for terms stoa; stoic)

Isidore says:

The Greeks call a certain primary material of things ΰλη (‘matter’ also ‘wood’) which is not formed in any way.

and he goes on:

 From this ΰλη the visible elements (Lat: elementum) are formed, whence they took their name, [Gk stoikeia: elements] for they agree with [Gk: stoikein] each other in a certain accord and communion of association.

In conception, then, this diagram does seem to reflect an influence from those Greek philosophical terms, though not from the Latin.

At the same time, it includes five elements, not four, and shows fire second from highest which, to judge from al-Biruni’s comments (see below) agrees with the situation in tenth-century Baghdad.

[note added April 7th., 2023. For further information and insights into this issue, I recommend the work of a remarkable scholar whose videos on youtube include ones discussing Baghdad before the Mongols’ destruction of the city late in the thirteenth century. The videos can be found under the site ‘Let’s Talk Religion’. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Here I might say that earlier this year (2023) I have found reason to consider the period of al Ma’mun worth closer attention; not so much for a cartographic project he sponsored, but for a particular system of measures employed.]

I think, then, that this diagram on folio 77r is not designed to illustrate Isidore’s text, nor probably any system used in Roman times.

Some points of distinction between the diagram’s form and Isidore’s understanding of the Greek elements system:

Where Isidore explains the Greek stoichaea with an almost anthropomorphic sense of the four elements’ interactions and harmonious relationship, the Voynich diagram takes the term to mean rather that five elements have emerged from that formless ‘wood’  not as living things might, in amity, but as non-living things  equal simply in terms of time and distance: the time of emergence for all being contemporary indicated, I think, by the equal length of these short branchings.

Nor does the relationship of the five match Isidore’s understanding of that amity. Because Isidore’s understanding is that aether has no place in the world inhabited by mankind, it plays no part in his explanation of earthly substances, all of which are formed from the four.

 “Indeed [they] are said to be connected thus among themselves with a certain natural logic, now returning to their origin, from fire to earth, now from earth to fire: since fire ends in air, and air is condensed into water, and water thickens into earth and [then], in turn, earth is loosened into water, water rarefied into air, and air thinned out into fire”.

Etymologiae XIII.iii.1-6

Now try as I might –  and though I feel fairly certain that the second element from the right is fire and, further, that the elements in the centre of the ‘wood’ and that nearest the fiery principal (not principle) might [at a pinch] between them be interpreted as air and ether, yet no correspondence exists in the drawing to the way in which Isidore himself explains the four elements’ relationship. The diagram speaks to a different scheme, order and relations.

Even if one were to imagine – as Isidore and the western world normally did not – that ether and its radiance (aether) contributed to the composition of the natural world, still the order and relationships shown by the diagram do not co-incide with his.*

*para edited for clarity.

[so now we turn to investigating various 5-elements systems, to see which may be relevant to the Voynich drawings..]

Some 5-elements systems in the east. [This section was much shortened for the 2012 post]

1. Chinese

2. Indian (Hindu)

 3. Islamic

          Al Biruni brought knowledge of India’s  Hindu elements, which he described as being:

 Heaven; Wind; Fire; Water; Earth,

and he says, quite specifically, that none of the Hindu elements equates to the Greeks’ “aether”. The point is relevant point, since in more recent times there has been a tendency to refer to aether in interpreting the term Akasha.

 Writing in the tenth century, he explains in his India:

 “Heaven, Wind, Fire, Water and Earth are the Hindu’s five elements. They are called the mahabuta i.e. having great natures. The Hindus do not think, as other people do, that the fire is a hot, dry body near the bottom of the ether. They understand by fire the common fire on earth which comes from an inflammation of smoke.

The Vayu Purana says, ‘In the beginning were earth, water, wind and heaven. Brahman, on seeing sparks under the earth, brought them forward, and divided them into three parts: the first, Parthiva, is the common fire, which requires wood and is extinguished by water; the second is divya i.e. the sun; the third vidyut i.e. the lightning. The sun attracts the water..”

Sachau, Al Biruni’s ‘India’, Chapter III (v-ix).

4. Manichaean.

Five is a number of fundamental importance to Manichaean systems, including cosmology. A great deal of information about Manichaean thought is available online, (e.g. this site) but for its style of script, I add links to the very important  Cologne Mani Codex, found at Lycopolis in Egypt and a comparative example of cursive script in an early Christian codex [link dead in 2023] from  Oxyrhinchus.[Link dead in 2023]

5. Buddhist

6. Turk

.. and others.


Not mentioned was an important reference which contains a a useful table (p.64).

  • Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, Medieval Manichaean Book Art: A Codicological Study of. Iranian and Turkic Illuminated Book Fragments from 8th–11th Century East. Central Asia, (Nag Hammadi & Manichaean Studies), Stephen Emmel, Johannes van Oort (Eds.), volume 57, Leiden-Boston: “Brill Academic Publishers” (2005).
  • Another I’d recommend for those interested in central European Asian sects and beliefs is Gnosis on the Silk Road.
  • The links between earlier medieval dualism outside Europe and ‘Manicheans’ in later medieval Europe are discussed in a great number of books and papers. For those to whom the whole subject is new, two books in English that are not new but easily found and still respected:
  • Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee
  • Yuri Stoyanov, The Hidden Tradition in Europe: the secret history of medieval Christian heresy.

O’Donovan Notes #13.1a: Opening the Iris

The medieval world of Voynich writers – Introduction.

The author’s rights are asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Drawings.

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

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

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

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

Take this image, for example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another key is an image’s attitude to people.

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

To return to our example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A statistical study?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

O’Donovan notes #13.1 Opening the Iris.

The medieval world of Voynich writers: Part 1: The Reality

(I’m actually still away on hols. so any comments will go unanswered until I return in two weeks’ time)

This series will consider the curious discrepancy between the reality of the ‘medieval world’ known to medieval people – even to some in Latin Europe – and the conception of the ‘medieval world’ found in Voynich writings from 1912 to the present day.

Within the extraordinarily narrow vision presumed by Voynich traditionalists, theorists continue to try gathering sufficient evidence to explain everything about the Voynich manuscript, from its materials to its images and written text.

In too many cases, theorists focused on finding support for their theory have ignored not only the testimony of the primary document but have determinedly ignored, dismissed or attacked anything which indicates that the theory may have horizons too narrow to explain the manuscript’s contents. How could such a curious situation occur? Perhaps more to the point, how could it have managed to survive into 2023?

First, then, the reality.

The following series of maps show the range (north-south; east-west limits) that I found referenced by drawings in the Voynich manuscript, including the few that ‘speak European’.

This is also the range over which matter and language(s) could have come to western Europe before the Voynich manuscript was made.

The first map (below) is blurred. The licensed high-res copy was lost to fire in 2013. (This is not the range covered by the Voynich map but by the drawings overall. The Voynich map refers not at all to mainland western Europe, nor to Rome, nor to Jerusalem).

The medieval world – range reflected in the Voynich manuscript’s drawings. From research published by D.N.O’Donovan

Much, but not all of that range is in this Latin-made map of c.1351. Note the convention used to signal an imperial border.

The whole of the Voynich drawings’ range lies within this the limits of this recreated version of al-Idrisi’s worldmap. The north African traveller and scholar al-Idrisi created his great work in Islamic-Norman Sicily during the mid-12thC AD):

and earlier still…

the world to as far as China is seen in a late copy made of a Roman-era route map, or courier’s map. The copy is known as the Tabula Peutingeriana. Too large to show you here, its segments can be seen on a dedicated website HERE.

Segment XII shows India and continues .. almost.. to China.

What you see are segments of the scroll in which the older route-map was copied after the 3rdC AD (the scroll has ‘Constantinople’ not ‘Byzantium’).

Late in the fifteenth century that scroll was stolen by the German diplomat and amateur archaeologist Konrad Peutinger (1465 – 1547).

Peutinger passed it on to a friend, whose death saw lost to us any chance of knowing precisely the scroll’s origins and provenance.

For an illuminating account of the medieval world from c.1300-1350 AD, I recommend the Travels of Ibn Battuta or, if you prefer, the youtube documentary version HERE. That documentary, both its text and its images, make it worth the effort of adjusting to the narrator’s Australian English and his intermittent colloquialisms.

The remaining posts in this series compare the extent of the world in those medieval maps to the ‘iris shot’ vision that has limited Voynich research since 1912.

O’Donovan notes #12.4: Rukh, Rocco, Rocca (bird-Merlons).

The author’s rights are asserted.

I’ve decided to post this before, rather than after, taking the month off and to combine what were two 1500-word posts. (Lucky you 😀 ).

Header – added 17th March -all but the lower right detail first introduced to Voynich studies by the present author. That detail, from a small fortress-tower on Euboea introduced by Peter M.

Introduction and Aims

Intrigued by the problem of whether there was some link between the ‘swallowtails’ in western defensive architecture and the form used for the fortress/tower/rook chesspiece, I began from the period of the Piacenza mosaic (11th or early 12thC) and set a limit of about c.1350 AD. Other work had already convinced me that our fifteenth century manuscript’s contents, while they may have contained material first created much earlier, had received their next-to-final version no later.

I began by looking for a linguistic connection between the chesspieces and the ‘swallowtailed’ fortress in other contexts. The key to much pre-modern imagery is not prior drawings, but informing word.

I wanted mainly to test the validity of certain traditionalist habits in Voynich studies.

Knowing that any results from this one, very minor, question and map-detail could not offer definitive answers about when, where or by whom the Voynich map was first created, nor when or where its final recension was made, still I felt that this bit of digging might add clarity to questions about the sense intended for the detail, and perhaps also the range over which it would be reasonable to seek precedents for the Voynich glyphs and what range of scripts and languages might inform a text reaching Latins by c.1350.

For all that, it was a minor matter and I gave it no more than a bare mention in the research-summaries published through Voynichimagery.

Bringing more of the research forward now, I hope it may interest people who like chess and/or who like Beinecke MS 408. I hope too that it may serve to balance, a little, some among the constantly repeated assertions and assumptions made about the contents in the Voynich manuscript.


To begin: linguistic links between bird and fortress.

Here’s one commonly held opinion about chess ..

When the Arabs learned Chess from the Persians, they kept the name rukh, which sounded like the Arabic word for a giant mythical bird… .. When the Italians got the game from the Arabs, the name of rukh was italianized to rocco, which sounded like rocca, the Italian word for fortress.

https //www.chessvariants org/piececlopedia.dir/rook.html

Another way to put this is that when Persian chess-players adopted Arabic, they found no need to change the word ‘rukh’ because it could now be explained using an Arabic etymology. Much the same happened for speakers of Italian, and eventually of English, where rukh became ‘rook’.

The Charlemagne set’s merlons

History often consists of a high, middle and low story, and the same is true for stories how chess came to western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.

The high story has chess brought directly to the court of Charlemagne by an embassy from Constantinople or from Baghdad. The middle story has it come with unnamed but courtly speakers of Arabic. The low story is that one or more forms of chess were so well known in regions where Christians and Muslims interacted, that knowledge of chess crossed from one to the other by what you might call osmosis.

In this case the high and the middle stories are most likely for early medieval Europe. Most accounts of the dissemination of chess say so, too, and may be summarised as:

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, after chess had spread to the Levant, North Africa and the Byzantine Empire via the Islamic conquests, chess was played only in noble and royal circles, and so the sets were often made from luxury materials such as ivory and rock crystal. The game is mentioned in writings from the period, notably by Firdausi (934-1020). During the Abbasid period it had been the most popular indoor game played in Baghdad.

The game’s reputation as a game for kings is as old as the legend of its invention by an equally legendary king of India, Shahram.

In the Bibliotheque Nationale de France are what remains of the so-called ‘Charlemagne’ chess set, though it is certainly two centuries later than Charlemagne’s day, and the pieces are generally thought to have been made in Salerno. Despite this, I’m inclined to accept that the embassy from Baghdad whose travails are described by Notker the Stammerer had indeed brought a chess-set if not the one in the BNF, when they came bearing gifts from the Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

The pieces in the BNF are of ivory and so large and heavy (the king weighs 2Kgs) that it has been suggested they served as models in an ivory-carving workshop.

On one we see merlons that are neither square nor swallowtail, but which are attested in Sicily. The same ‘gap-tooth’ design is visible in old photographs of Gibellina, where they adorn a tower but since the photos blur when enlarged, I’ve added another example (a rebuild) from what was a Franciscan friary in nearby Erice. (note that pigeons prefer a lower perch).


Another ivory in the same, Byzantine-influenced, style is attributed again by some to Salerno but by others to Amalfi. This is dated to late in the eleventh century, and shows that merlons of this type are still taken as standard, even while the chesspiece is a ‘swallowtail’ for the makers of that mosaic in Piacenza. We’ll soon see that the ‘swallowtail’ rook/fortress of chess is attested at least as early as the tenth century in Nishapur, and was normal along other parts of the east-west ‘silk’ roads.


The first point to notice. so far, is that the usual practice of calling the detail from the Voynich map a ‘castle’ is perhaps less accurate than to describe it as a fortress or fortified area (It. rocca). True, the chess-rook is today also called, in English, a castle, but the different connotations are important for how the drawing is perceived in the Voynich map.

We have already seen an Italian and a Byzantine ‘winged’ form for the rook, the Italian example a mosaic in Piacenza dated 11th-12thC and the Byzantine piece in ivory to the 12thC. But for newcomers, here they are again.


Having thus passed, with a nod towards Baghdad and Aachen, from Italy, to Byzantium, we’ll now track further along a northern path, widening our temporal and geographic range to do so.

We find, now, that the curious forms given some other pieces in the Piacenza mosaic become easier to understand by reference to a rare set surviving from Persia – from Nishapur – and dated to the 10th-11thC “or earlier”.

FIG 4. sold by Southeby’s from the collection of the late Lothar Schmidt (1928-2013)

Nishapur lies on one of the chief ‘silk roads’ between the Black Sea and China. It is interesting for Voynich research, and for historians of chess, because the city was founded by Shapur 1, the Sasanian-Persian king who kept a Roman emperor a prisoner for life, and to whose court chess is said to have been first introduced from India. Shapur ruled from 240-270 AD.

FIG 5 In the July diagram, the crown in drawn in darker ink, suggesting it a later addition or a later over-drawing to clarify the original.

In representing that moment when chess first came to Persia, a copy of the Shanameh dated 1300-1330 AD shows the rook still has the same ‘swallowtail’ form as in that set and in Piacenza, though the rest of the scene has been re-envisioned to reflect current political reality: Persia under Mongol rule.

FIG 6 https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shnm/hd_shnm.htm

(Fig. 6 above) “Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess”. Made in Iran or Iraq c.1300-1330. Folio from the First Small Shahnama (Book of Kings) composed by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (Iranian, born Paj ca. 940/41 d. c.1020 Tus). New York Metropolitan Museum, Accession No 57.51.32

Other physical examples fill the interval between the tenth and twelfth centuries AD. The British Museum holds a twelfth-century set from Nishapur and here, incidentally, one can appreciate why the line of ‘gap-tooth’ merlons might suggest the evenly-spaced ‘little stones’ (It. Gibellina) of a chessboard.

FIG 7 from 12th century. Iran, Nishapur. Stonepaste; molded and glazed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Pfeiffer Fund, 1971 (1971.193a–ff) https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/the-game-of-kings-medieval-ivory-chessmen-from-the-isle-of-lewis/exhibition-blog/game-of-kings/blog/carving-out-a-collection

So far as I can discover, no chess-sets survive from Sicily of the 11th- or 12th- centuries, or even from, 13th- or 14th- centuries, but one can hardly doubt that in an area so heavily influenced Byzantine cultural, artistic and religious traditions, together with the centuries of Arab rule, and the noted acceptance of both Muslims and Jews in the courts of Roger and Frederick had seen the game of chess become well-known.

More important for understanding the sense of the detail in the Voynich map is that Rooks of the ‘swallowtail’ sort were known across those roads between Persia and Byzantium. In this summary I won’t repeat the matter I gained initially from fairly obscure sources. Instead, I can refer you to an article I found just a couple of days ago, but which was written in 2013. The next two images I have from that blogpost.


A find from Novgorod – again dated 14thC


It is not difficult to explain why the chesspiece should be associated with that mythical bird the rukh/roc by speakers of Arabic. Ancient sets had an elephant piece where we now have a bishop* and the roc’s chief character in legend is that it is stronger than elephants. In modern chess, a rook/rukh is worth 5 points where a bishop/elephant is worth only 3 – the rook being the stronger just as the rukh/roc was best known as the destroyer of elephants. 😀

*not, as is so often said, in place of the rook.

In western Europe, merlons – even the ‘swallowtail’ type – took various forms, but there can be little doubt that in the west the type consciously associates defensive military architecture with the character of game’s fortress-tower. The piece in the ‘kings game’ bore that significance long before we see the architectural version appear in Italy, associated with the Sicilian-Norman rulers as ‘Gibbeline/Ghibbeline’.

It would be pedantic to begin speaking of them as rukh-merli rather than ‘swallowtail’ or ‘fishtail merlons’ but it would probably be more historically accurate.

For our reading of the Voynich map, the point is that anyone who knew chess-pieces of that form, including non-Europeans, would easily take the form, and merlons in that form, to mean a fortress or fortified structure.

It would be common knowledge among those who travelled or spoke to travellers that some Latins preferred ‘rukh-merlons’ while others, like the Byzantines, used square merlons. And of course if one spoke an Italian dialect, there would be a reflexive association between rocco and rocca. It bears repeating that the fortress-drawing in the Voynich map includes merlons of both kinds.

Within Latin Europe itself, use of the ‘swallowtail’ in drawing could be literal, or might be purely decorative, but one hadn’t to go further west than the Black Sea to know that the Byzantines preferred the one, and the Latins the other, or that in Constantinople (among other places) the defenses in terms of manpower inclued of both Latins and Byzantines.

The history of the rukh-merli is a fascinating sidelight on the way motifs translate between various media and various regions and tongues, but that tiny detail in one roundel in one drawing, cannot tell us where even that detail was first drawn, let alone when or by whom or where our present manuscript was manufactured.

All we can say from the inclusion of those merlons is that the place being indicated was considered heavily fortified. And since my own conclusion after working through the whole map (a task which took an unexpectedly long time) is that the fortress is meant for Constantinople-Pera, it’s fair to mention that the walls of Byzantium were renowned for just that reason.

Postscript to Part 1 (added 17th March). I meant to include the following when speaking of sets associated with Charlemagne; I add illustrations and text as a jpeg to preserve the text.

The roads of chess and of merchants.

Our period of most interest is that century from the early fourteenth to the early fifteenth. The Voynich manuscript was dated to the early fifteenth century by an informed (if anonymous) consensus by Kraus et.al., and this confirmed by a radiocarbon-14 dating of some samples of the vellu which returned an adjusted range of 1405-1438 AD. For reasons explained above, though, our focus is on the century to c.1350 AD.

It may be difficult to accept, but throughout that century, western Christian Europe was no more than a remote marginal area lying at the western limit of the known world. It had almost no importance in the geopolitical scene, even in the Mediterranean where the major powers were the Mongol empire and the Mamluks of Egypt. Constantinople served as middleman in their negotiations and the western trader-states, chiefly Italian, were alternately encouraged or discouraged by the one or the other of the two major powers.

Europe had simply nothing much to offer, apart from its ships and some mercenaries. It is telling that Pegolotti’s guide to the overland route speaks of taking gold and silver coin, but when it comes to trading goods mentions nothing but linens and refers to only one place the trader was likely to find buyers,

Anyone from Genoa or from Venice, wishing to go to [these] places … and to make the journey to Cathay, should carry linens with him, and if he visit Organci he will dispose of these well.

The benefits gained by permitting westerners to pass along those roads was chiefly the benefit of taxation on what they brought, and what they returned with. The Mongol treasury also benefitted by acquiring western silver in the form of coinage, for as that guide says,

Whatever silver the merchants may carry with them as far as Cathay the lord of Cathay will take from them and put into his treasury. And to merchants who thus bring silver they give that paper money of theirs in exchange. This is of yellow paper, stamped with the seal of the lord aforesaid. And this money is called balishi; and with this money you can readily buy silk and all other merchandize that you have a desire to buy.

Nishapur, the old city founded by Shapur I, and where numerous chess-sets from the medieval centuries have been found, was a main hub of those overland routes travelled in both directions by many peoples under the Pax Mongolica and now, for the first time, including some from the Lain west as well as some enthusiastic religious. Though the Genoese and Franciscans appear most often in the historical record, there were some Venetians, and Sienese, and others.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Franciscans’ Rule included a twelfth chapter treating of missions “among the Saracens and other infidels” and assigning their oversight to the order’s Societas Fratrum Peregrinantium propter Christum inter gentes.

We know that before 1350, some Latins had already come to know Amaliq, and that news travelled fairly rapidly from so far to parts of Europe. Frescos made in Siena before 1350 memorialise the execution in 1339, in Amaliq and by the Mongol ruler Jehan Ali, of six resident Franciscans together with a visiting a bishop, an Indian interpreter and a Genoese merchant, the last of whom may have been using their friary as his hostel.

On those Sienese paintings see:

  • S. Maureen Burke, ‘ The “Martyrdom of the Franciscans” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 65. Bd., H. 4 (2002), pp. 460-492. Lorenzetti was active c.1317 to 1348 AD.

I mention Amaliq in particular for a detail seen in a drawing now found on the reverse of the Voynich map and a coin that was circulating in that part of the world from the end of the thirteenth century. This isn’t new information for longer-term readers; it was published at Voynichimagery*, but for those who have come to this blog more recently.

FIG 10

Opinions (as you see) differ on its minting but the point for us is that it circulated before 1350 and is unusual in having the tamgar drawn in a graceful form likely to evoke for a modern, western viewer the French fleur-de-lys.

That coin and comparison to a detail in Beinecke MS 408 was introduced by the present author in January of 2015.

Steve Album attributes that coin’s design to the Taras mint and a date between 1270-1302; Kolbas appaently associates its use with Fars and identifies the tamgar as an unusual form of the imperial tamgar. For reasons explained in my original post, but not repeated here, this coin does not appear to have been used in Fars, even if produced there. However, here is what Kolbas writes:

“”Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …..from mid-665H” [= 1247 AD].

Judith Kolbas, The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu (1220–1309) pp.149-50.

Nishapur, Fars, Amaligh and other places named so far in these posts lie along the overland ‘silk’ roads, Fars (mod. Fasa) on the road linking the high overland route to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

The following map shows the round-journey between the Mediterranean and China, but after 1291, access though the Levant was heavily restricted for Latins. Some of these roads had been travelled by Alexander the Great when he advanced through Persia to the borders of India.

FIG 11

Below – places which have cropped up so far in this blog, in the course of analysing one drawing or another from Beinecke MS 408.

FIG 12 map based on the ‘Silk Roads’ map offered as a pdf by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the extreme right of the map above lay Amaliq, where one might have heard Italian spoken early in the fourteenth century.

FIG 13 – courtesy google maps and wiki ‘Amaliq’ article.

Rather than quote from my research sources for the next paragraph, I’ll paraphrase:

Before the mid fourteenth century, Amaligh was a multi-cultural and multi-lingual city. During the so-called Pax Mongolica, Europeans making the journey towards China would stop here. Inscriptions prove that among the various cultural and religious groups found in Amaligh to that time were Nestorian Christians, attested even so late as the third quarter of the fourteenth century.

Giovanni de’ Marignolli speaks of it as ‘Armalec’ and similar forms are found in other Latin works, but as with all place-names, would-be translators have an unenviable task.

When Tughluq Temur became Khan of Moghulistan ( c. 1351) the city became less diverse. Plague soon followed, and when to those factors were added the weakening of the western Mongol-Tatar dynasty, the high overland routes became effectively closed to peoples from the far western edge of the known world.


Who, by the mid-fourteenth century, might be in position to represent defensive walls by merlons of the square and the ‘swallowtail’ type?

Answer: just about anyone with access to the Black Sea or the Mediterraean.

Easterners need have gone no further than the Black Sea (Caffa) to know the Latin ‘Ghibelline’ type resembled the chess rook and no further than Trabizond or Constantinople to know the Byzantine-, square, or ‘Guelf’ type. Both Latins and Byzantines were resident in greater Constantinople and some Latins had interacted with others across the trade routes to as far as China.

A far more telling detail is that sparkling spiral by which the fortress is placed, but that’s another detail, another part of the research into this drawing and so a matter for some other time, perhaps.

To end.. Yet another variety of ‘swallowtail’ merlon.

FIG 14

O’Donovan notes #12.3 the merlon thing. The mapping exercise.

c.2700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Update, .

Koen has been in touch, and explained that the project was open collaboration, any forum-members who cared to do so contributing information and pictures they found and these, naturally enough, depended on each member’s decisions about where to look for examples. The map which results is thus a map of those contributions, and indirectly a reflection of members’ areas of interest. At the same time, my impression is that Koen would still welcome a broader data-base. If you care to contribute, but disinclined to have to join an online forum to do it, you might leave a comment under Koen’s blogpost of 2021. [here].

16th March 2023.


Researchers whose attention is focused on the written text in Beinecke MS 408 are looking for single finite answer to what is commonly assumed a ciphertext. I hope I do them no injustice in saying that for most, scientific method is closely associated with statistical analysis, and in recent years we have seen images mapped as data points in an effort to apply forms of frequency analysis.

“Scientific” statistics.

Where in earlier years, the habit among those without specific training in reading pre-modern images was to claim it needed nothing but subjective interpretation and commonsense, or that historical arguments could be made by doing no more than presenting paired images as ‘matches’.

More recently, we have seen some effort made to reduce the treatment of drawings to a kind of statistical analysis which, though not particularly appropriate as methodology seems to be regarded as more efficient than studying the history of art and its methodologies, as if mapping ‘data points’ is by definition more scientific.

Few of us now leave school without learning that any science experiment begins by clearly stating the aim of that experiment. Then by itemising the specimens or samples to be tested. In labs one then describes the method, or at least details of the ISO and Standard Method(s) being applied.

Science students soon learn that if sample-collection is biased; if the methods employed are inappropriate; even if one or more samples are wrongly identified or if the technician is careless in applying standard methods, they still end up with a statistical result but the question posed will not have been answered nor any hypothesis rightly tested.

J.K. Petersen

So far as I’m aware, the first person to try creating distribution-maps for images from Beinecke MS 408 was the Voynichero known only as ‘JK Petersen’. His efforts were hampered by his having evidently little background in medieval history, codicology, or palaeography and none in the history of art or the analytical methods best suited to addressing problematic drawings. His dedication to the ‘all-western-Christian-Germanic-central European’ vision was undisguised and was reflected in his research parameters and thus in his range of processed data.

On the other hand, even within his narrow research-parameters, his work turned up images that certainly assisted others, simply because he introduced so many. I believe he was the first to refer to that French Franciscan manual’s ‘November crocodile’ which assisted our own investigation of the Voynich calendar. What they didn’t and couldn’t do was to prove the manuscript a German product.

Koen and the Lobsters.

Koen Gheuns applied a more nuanced version of that method to clarify one path of dissemination for the ‘lobsters’ in the Voynich calendar, although (perhaps depending on the Warburg database?), he believed the type originated with Michael Scot’s work in twelfth-century Italy and Sicily.

From that point Koen moved forward through northern France to Alsace and to examples seen in images produced from Diebold Lauber’s workshop.

Our subsequent study here complemented Koen’s work by enquiring what precedent works might have influenced Scot’s conception of the Cancer lobsters. We focused on England where Scot received his early education, and France where he received his higher education, as well as southern Spain where he worked for some time and Sicily-southern-Italy where Scot worked in the Sicilian court and where the core copies of his texts were made and first preserved.

Once again, the presence of an effort at data-mapping proved a useful resource, even if it did not prove what the makers believed their statistical-geographic maps proved.

Koen et al. and swallowtails.

Koen Gheuens next approached the topic of ‘swallowtail’ merlons but it is characteristic of Koen’s thoughtful approach that, unlike ‘JKP’ , he began by stating clearly the aim of his latest experiment. His question was “Where were images of swallowtail merlons produced before 1450?”. This was limited by his further aim to more clearly define what is implied when sources speak of ‘swallowtail’ merlons as characteristic of northern Italy. He wanted more clarity on ‘northern Italy’.

The end result was that his research-parameters reduced in practice to “Where, within western Europe, do we find drawings or paintings showing buildings with swallowtail battlements?”

His tacit argument seems to be that wherever we find the most extant instances of such drawings or paintings, that is the most likely place to have seen the origin of this detail in one roundel of the Voynich map (often described as the ‘rosettes page’).

Whether the experiment did – or even could – point to where the Voynich manuscript was made is the question we consider in this post.

As Koen said, in his post of 2021, he had intended to limit the experiment to images in manuscripts and other forms of art. It was a sensible and well-informed decision, but in the event because working with a group he agreed to add a layer marking extant buildings on which ‘swallowtails’ of any type can be seen today.

As a result, the number of data points was greatly increased; the architectural (red) dots largely obscured the iconographic results, and the overall weighting shifted. (see maps further below)

I have tried to contact Koen, first to ask his permission to reproduce his map, and then to ask if he could send a comparison from which the red dots were absent, but so far I’ve been unable to reach him.

Koen assumes that a representation of ‘swallowtail’ merlons will serve as a cultural marker and thus narrow the range in which we might suppose the Voynich manuscript was made. His post of 2021 does not appear to distinguish provenance for the manuscript’s manufacture from provenancing contents.

If it could be shown that, prior to 1440, none but northern Italian draughtsmen created drawings that included swallowtail merlons, or rendered them in wood-carving, relief carvings, mosaics and so on, the chances would be good that the draughtsman who put them on the structure drawn in the map’s north roundel had been a native of northern Italy, or had gained his training there.

But even then, it would be just a fair chance. At the very least one would have to show that all the stylistic details in the map – or in that one roundel – find counterparts in works first created in northern Italy.

And even if the draughtsman had been native to northern Italy, it would not alone tell us where he was when the drawing was first given its form, or when that happened.

Numerous non-Latins travelled in Europe and members of various Italian city-states travelled abroad. Before 1440, we know, some were to be found resident around the Black Sea, in Egypt, central Asia, southern Iraq, Iran and southern China.

I’ll say again – provenancing the manuscript-as-object is work proper to codicologists and palaeographers. Provenancing content is a separate matter – and more exactly, a range of separate matters.

Koen’s range of samples accords with his stated aim of clarifying ‘northern Italian’ in connection with drawings of swallowtail merlons, but the finished map could suggest a certain bias in the sampling. Could – not necessarily does. The reason is poor documentation.

The reader is left uncertain whether the absence of examples from England, France, most of Spain, and the Adriatic (apart from Venice) means that efforts to find examples in those regions returned a null result, or whether the research parameters were so narrowly defined from the outset that those regions were ignored? If the study intended to clarify ‘northern Italian’ it’s understandable, but in that case why include manuscripts from Barcelona and Naples? Was the research heavily dependent, perhaps, on libraries having a large number of their manuscripts digitised?

Koen explained clearly the difficulties involved in adding architectural structures to the data, and in my opinion his initial plan to omit structures was wise, but working as part of a team means compromise. The red dots now swamp the map, and in some cases (such as Genoa), the structures included do not have pre-1440 merlons no matter how energetically civic pride might insist the nineteenth-century reconstructions were historically accurate.

Further difficulties arise because the specimens/data are not labelled, or not labelled accurately in the legend, so that readers are left without any idea of whether the cluster over Milan is the result of a single atelier’s work over, say, 1440-1450, or whether they represent manuscripts made there between 1200-1450. Those placed on Venice may, for all we know, contain a text closely related to that of Naples or Barcelona. Specimen-labelling is basic to any scientific experiment.

Below is a close-up of northern Italy. The whole of Koen’s map can be seen through the link (HERE) which he, and later Peter M., provided.

While this post was in draft, Peter M. directed me to the latest version but it seems little has changed since 2021.

So what does the map tell us?

Not very much. For non-manuscript paintings (the blue dots) none but location details are provided and for the manuscripts (black dots) all the usual information is omitted.

It is impossible, therefore, to determine whether – for example – what we see as blue dots through central Italy is the result of a single painter’s wanderings, or whether due to dissemination of a particular text, or text-type, or the motif’s popularity and transmission within a certain sector of society, such as the intermarrying nobility or a particular religious order.

We cannot follow the chronology for dissemination in manuscripts, since none is identifiable: date, title, holding library and shelf-number are all omitted.

Red Dots.

Koen was perfectly right to urge caution about the overlay of those red dots. Even specialists in military architecture, and archaeologists working in the field are cautious when it comes to assertions about present-day examples of swallowtail merlons.

Even specialists in the history of these forms may have difficulty determining whether some are, or are not authentic reconstructions. I may be mistaken but to the best of my knowledge no original swallowtail merlons are extant in Genoa despite the protests of civic pride that the nineteenth-century rebuilds are authentic reconstructions.

It is true, as in the case of these Genoese merlons (above) that some closely reproduce an early form of such merlons. it is evident from the merlon’s height – able to cover a standing archer – and from the inclusion of slits through which the enemy might be observed and an arrow fired. Nonetheless, the merlons we see today date to the nineteenth-century.

Thanks to a Peter M., who quotes a source he describes as Castle Association and Architecture in the Middle Ages, I can say that before 1450 AD

*The swallowtail pinnacle (merlon) is unknown in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

*North of the Alps, there are none [no structures with swallowtail merlons?] before 1500.

*From about 1540, castles [north of the Alps??] began to use the dovetailed battlements as a fashionable design. In most cases, even the architect is known.

Context and Significance.

It is understandable that for Voynicheros whose background is in the pragmatic sciences mapping ‘data-points’ might seem a logical way to produce or support any statistical argument, but that expectation is misapplied when it comes to reading and understanding the intention behind a pre-modern picture.

In the same way, people more accustomed to subjects using binary logic have a habit of assuming a division of all images into the literal versus the ‘decorative’, or the meaningful versus the non-meaningful and the same ideas are seen in descriptions of where and why swallowtails were used.

In the critical sciences, data mapping has to involve informed qualitative judgements and more than superficial knowledge of historical periods, documents and cultural attitudes.

Just as counting the number of jars in a medical store-cupboard, and mapping where each stands will not make a doctor of you, so simple data-point maps cannot alone explain he origin, date or intention of any among the Voynich manuscript’s drawings.

The factor most often overlooked is that of perceived significance: in this case what significance the various types of swallowtail merlons had for persons who commissioned, made, copied or regarded a given image in a given social environment and historical moment.

We know that, for a time, one or more types of swallowtail signified ‘the imperial party’. Were the mapped examples found chiefly in cities granted independent status by, say Frederick II, or are they perhaps more often seen in lands that were under the direct control of a western emperor when an image was made? Is the usage dependent a given city’s current political alignment or, perhaps, the leanings of a specific patron? Was a given instance intended to elicit negative or positive response?

Koen’s enthusiasm in 2021 led him to overstatement in his summary, for he wrote:

“The neat thing about this map is that we know for sure that the VM belongs on it as a data point among the blue markers”.

Why should we suppose that for the original maker, those merlons were any more definitive than the square-topped merlons, or more important than the starry spiral, or the various topographic elements? And those are all just in the map’s north roundel. Are any attested in the mapped manuscripts or paintings and if so which?

What lends Koen’s results more weight is that a number of quite independent researchers came to similar conclusions about a focus on the region around, or otherwise connected to Milan, where Koen’s map records the greatest number of manuscripts containing images with swallowtail merlons.

Milan is where Pelling’s historical research, combined with his studies of ciphers, codicology and palaeography, finally led him by 2005-6.

I’ve also concluded, in regard to the Voynich map, that we are most likely to owe its present form to a collaboration of Jews and Genoese, attested not only in Genoa but in Constantinople, Caffa and the Balearics.

Where to from here?

That work done by Koen Gheuens and his friends is not wasted. It should prove very helpful to anyone investigating questions of textual and iconographic transmission in those parts of medieval Latin Europe.

What the map cannot do is tell us where and when Beinecke MS 408 was produced. Establishing a manuscript’s date and place of manufacture is the work of palaeographers and codicologists.

Provenancing content is something else again.

Other questions: Merli, Rook, Rukh.

Etymologies should be taken with a little salt on the side of your plate, to be taken as needed.

For the term ‘merlon’ an etymological dictionary has:

The term merlon comes from the French language, adapted from the Italian merlone, possibly a shortened form of mergola, connected to Latin mergae (pitchfork), or from a diminutive moerulus, from murus or moerus (a wall). An alternative etymology suggests that the medieval Latin merulus (mentioned from the end of the 10th century) functioned as a diminutive of Latin merle, “blackbird”, expressing an image of this bird sitting on a wall.

Let’s start with that tenth century usage, which saw the walls ‘merli’ as blackbirds. Later, in English, the tower-birds, and the chesspiece both became ‘rooks’.

The nineteenth-century etymologists’ well-known disdain for languages other than Latin, Greek and the Germanic group often leaves them blank- when faced with terms gained from Celtic, Hebrew, Egyptian or Berber. In this case the word they cannot see is well known in Hebrew as in Persian – as ruach in Hebrew (esp. Genesis 1:2) and as rukh in Persian.

When working through the Voynich map, section by section and detail by detail, hunting out examples in art and architecture and commentaries in older sources, one chicken-and-egg problem nagged at me.

‘Did the chess-piece inspire the merlons, or did such merlons inspire the form given that chesspiece?’

I scarcely mentioned that part of the research in the summaries published through Voynichimagery, but I’ve decided to write up a little more now for any readers who feel impelled to follow a thread to the heart of an historical maze. That will be in the next post in a couple of weeks’ time.

Until then, here is one detail from a mid-fourteenth manuscript to think about.

The manuscript was made in Persia very shortly before the Plague arose and thus only a very few years before, in France, the ‘November crocodile’ was drawn in grisaille in that Franciscan missal.

As you see, here the rook (Persian rukh) maintains the same form it had in the eleventh century when the chess-players mosaic was made in Piacenza.

Notice in this illustration the hats with stiff, back-turned brims, too, and the garment fastened under the right arm.

Also, from a drawing placed on the back of the Voynich map

a high-collared version..

O’Donovan notes #12.2 – The merlons thing (cont.) Provenancing.

c.1700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Part 1 in the current series includes a link to one of Koen Gheuens’ blogposts. If you followed that link you’ll appreciate Koen’s generosity in sharing the work that he and some other members of a Voynich forum were doing.

I meant this post to be about that work and why its approach is exceptional, but because an important point is how their approach differs from most, I think it may be useful to introduce it by considering the problem of provenance-research.

Ever since 1912, Voynich writers have continually confused one kind of provenancing for another, apparently because they did not pause to think through their aims in those terms.

Provenance just means “Where it came from”; the problem arises because of how “it” is assumed defined.

Provenance-research can be divided into three kinds, the first being research into how a finished, or nearly finished object has travelled from where and when it was made to where it is now.

This can be described as ‘chain-of-ownership’ provenance, or – because is primarily associated with descriptions provided by librarians, curators and sellers of artefacts – as ‘Catalogue’ provenance.

That sort of research starts from the time the artefact was manufactured, and ends with the latest acquisition. So in a sense its terminus a quo is finite, but its terminus ad quem indefinite.

Catalogue-style provenance.

The quality of that kind of provenance research can be judged by how severely factual the description is.

To illustrate a near-perfect example of Catalogue Provenance, I’ve chosen that written for a manuscript whose text is written entirely in Tironian shorthand. You will notice that the following description meticulously quotes and dates on palaeographic grounds every post-production inscription (marginalia).

Page from a ninth-century Psalter.

Provenance: [1] A scriptorium in Northeastern France: suggested by the script (according to Bischoff, Katalog (2004), p. 93 (no. 2356)). [2] The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Remi at Rheims: its ownership inscription and book curse added to f. 1r in a 10th- or 11th-century script: ‘Liber Sancti Remigii qui eum abstulerit anatema sit’; its ownership inscription added to f. 1v and f. 33v in a 13th- or 14th-century script: ‘Liber Sancti Remigii Remensis vol VIIxx et V’; the manuscript is listed as no. ‘CXLV’ in an early 13th-century manuscript catalogue from its library (see Dolbeau, ‘Un catalogue fragmentaire’ (1988), p. 215). [3] An unknown 19th-century French owner: added a description of the manuscript in French on f. 101 recto. [4] Thomas Thorpe (b. 1791, d. 1851), London bookseller: [5] purchased from him by the British Museum in August 1832 (see note on f. [iv] verso).

*numerals in square brackets by the present author.

It would obviously be an error to try provenancing the original manuscript by its marginalia, yet in Voynich studies we regularly see efforts made to create a story for the whole manuscript’s content, and for its place and date of manufacture, from no more than a couple of lines of undated marginalia. That’s one of the things which makes Voynich writings seem so very odd to the wider world of manuscript studies. It’s just a wrong way to go about things.

One reason Voynich studies sees such curious habits as attempting to use marginalia to provenance both ownership and subject-matter, is that when interest in the manuscript was revived in the 1990s, the little book written by Mary d’Imperio was adopted as an easy-to-read ‘bible’ by a number of amateurs, many of whom had no prior acquaintance with medieval studies, historical studies, palaeography, codicology or the technical aspects of art history. The same had been true of William Friedman.

Even before Jim Reeds’ ceased managing the first Voynich mailing list, an idea was gaining ground that provenancing the manuscript was a matter of getting an ‘idea’ and then attempting find ways to persuade others to believe that idea plausible. When a television program was made focussing on legends and various theories, the habit of story-telling was reinforced. The people interviewed were not codiocologists or palaeographers, or specialists in medieval history, but persons who had read d’Imperio and who had a novel theory of their own.

You may read a dozens of equally inventive theoretical Voynich narratives today, but it is rare to find any which do not conflate Catalogue provenance with one form or another of Contents provenance.

On the one hand, Catalogue provenance begins with the object’s manufacture and moves forward in time, tracing the hand-to-hand passage of the object from when it was made until now. On the other hand, Contents provenance involves tracking back from the time of manufacture to discover how the text(s), images and materials came to be at last in the place where they came together to make the object/manuscript in question.

So Contents provenance ends at the point where Catalogue provenance begins.

Wilfrid Voynich was the first to conflate the two when he guessed the manuscript made in thirteenth century England, and then relied on nothing but his imagination to assert the whole content of the manuscript created in thirteenth century England, and then interpreted all the contents in terms of what he imagined that thirteenth-century Englishman, Roger Bacon, would write about.

Provenancing Contents

Provenance of this sort rightly asks, “How did these materials and contents come to be employed in the making of this artefact?

Research of this sort, if you think about it, must require require research-parameters and informing sources rather different from those of catalogue-provenance research.

Consider the range, geographic and temporal, needed to get the right answer to such questions as ‘Who composed the Psalter?’ or ‘Who is the King David alleged to have composed some, or all of the Psalter’s contents?’ or ‘What is the origin of the script used in this ninth-century Psalter?’

Provenance research has not been widely understood by Voynich writers since 1912, but chiefly because few stopped to think through their aims in those terms.

Point of View – the drawings

It really doesn’t matter what the modern-day viewer finds easy to understand about pre-modern art. What matters is how the first person to give that image form, and the person who put it in the present manuscript thought, and how they expected their drawing would be understood by their contemporary audience.

For that, it is nonsense to imagine that the modern viewer can pick and choose ad.lib. which images or details they will consider important. If it were true, as it is not, that you can identify the ‘important’ details because (to quote a real Voynich meme) they will be “the most specific and unambiguous” then you’d say the most important detail in this image of King David was his fleur-de-lys crown! But the crown is not unambiguous – you certainly cannot take it to signify that there was ever a King David on the throne of France, or that a French, or indeed an English, king wrote the Psalms.

and so again to the Merlons.

King David. Castile 15th.C

Just as King David lived in c.1000 BC on the other side of the Mediterranean but might be pictured in late medieval western Christian art with a crown as sign of ‘royalty’, and the crown appear variously as one of French-, English-, German-, Persian-, Byzantine- or Spanish type, or with the maker’s idea of a ‘foreign-looking’ crown, so too a structure whose walls had no merlons, or had merlons of some other kind, might still be drawn with those which Voynich writers call ‘swallowtails” and others describe as the Sicilian-Valle d’Aosta type,

Another common error has been to imagine that every drawing is a drawing from life. Yet another has been to imagine that if we find a motif in a manuscript, it is necessarily something copied from some other manuscript.

If we were attempting to research the ‘swallowtail’ motif(s) lineage in art as it might relate to the Voynich map’s examples, we should have to begin from the manuscript’s early fifteenth century date and follow the motif back in time, across a much broader geographic range than is needed to describe the chain-of-ownership and the range of sources and media would have to be broader than Voynich-related writings or only medieval manuscripts.

What Koen Gheuens and his friends did was to carefully frame their question in terms of a specific aim: as he puts it, to discover where, within the Latin west, examples survive of drawings in which merlons are drawn as ‘swallowtails’.

It’s a perfectly reasonable aspect of Content research.

Were the question a broader one, examples would have to be sought in manuscripts and in various other media from the time the first instance of the flat sort of ‘swallowtail’ merlons are attested – round about the eleventh century – until the Voynich manuscript’s date (c.1405-1438).

In that case, the examples would certainly include the next image, though found in mosaic. Dated to the eleventh century, it comes from Piacenza, a town that has cropped up several times in relation to Beinecke MS 408, and first in Reeds’ comments on the Voynich ‘gallows glyphs’ (so called). In this blog, we’ve referred to Piacenza in discussing the assignment of month-to-emblem in the Voynich calendar.

A black ‘swallowtail’ rook is seen in the lower-left hand corner.

Piacenza lies in a region that by now will be fairly familiar to regular readers.

Koen’s post carefully explains too that (a) he had not intended to include extant buildings and (b) swallowtail merlons seen on castles today were not necessarily present, or present in that form, during the fifteenth century.

He was wise to make that point.

The nineteenth century’s ‘Gothic’ revival saw various forms of merlon added to older and to contemporary structures but even examples asserted accurate reconstructions can be problematic.

Take Piacenza’s Palazzi Communale, popularly known as the Palazzo Gotico. The building, or a good part of it, was certainly standing in the thirteenth century, but like most medieval buildings, its architectural history is complex. The Italian wiki [HERE] should provide food for thought.


The subject of Tironian notes has been raised often in Voynich studies. See for example d’Imperio’s The Voynich Manuscript: an Elegant Enigma, and entries to the first (Reeds’) mailing list, Pelling’s book of 2006 or his blog ciphermysteries… for a start.