‘Weaving the Voynich’ -reprint by request.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c.2300 words

Introduction: (2022)

In 2012 Julian Bunn did something entirely new; he colour coded pages from the Voynich manuscript to show the position of the ‘gallows’-glyphs.

I had expected that Julian’s blog would appear among those listed in the Voynich ninja ‘Blogosphere’* but today I see that while a number of non-existent blogs are in their list, Julian’s is not. [update – 20th Dec. 2022 – Julian’s blog is now back in the list. 🙂 ]

*The ‘Ninja’ forum’s claim to “track the Voynich blogosphere so you don’t have to!” is a nice example of theorists’ putting higher value on assertion than on fact. 🙂

When Julian’s new approach was first published, his posts met near-complete silence. No buzz, few comments. Recently, though, it has re-surfaced and one would hope that credit is being accurately assigned by the more recent revivalists to the author of that ground-breaking study.

By June of 2021 2012, Julian had presented every page of the manuscript with the gallows glyphs colour-coded, and presently those images remain visible online.(HERE).

He would later publish a full-colour version, giving every glyph its own colour, but the post I’ve been asked to re-print (the request didn’t come from Julian) was written before he found time to make the full-colour version.

I might add that Julian is no crony of mine. He is (or was) an arch-conservative of deepest dye – and as you will see from the list of researchers whose existence he chose to advertise on his personal blog.

When he first published that work in 2012, I was still mulling over something he had written a few months earlier:

I am convinced that it is not as simple as it appears (i.e. that the words are not words at all)

Julian Bunn, ‘How was the Voynich Manuscript text written?‘, computistical attacks (blog), August 23, 2012.

The post from which I’m republishing what you see below contained more than I republish now, and was one of perhaps only four or five I’ve ever published that wasn’t a summary of my own research and its conclusions.

As a rule I consider it a complete waste of time to publish mere “ideas” and as a rule I try not to offer opinions about the written part of the text.

In this post, published almost a decade ago, I set aside both self-imposed rules, one of only four or five times I’ve ever done so.


taken from:

D.N.O’Donovan ‘Weaving the Voynich – seriously’, Voynichimagery (first published December 28th., 2012).

Here is a new set of images, for each of the folios in the VMs, that shows the positions of the various gallows glyphs.

To clarify – these “positions” are not the positions as seen on the image scans of the manuscript itself, they are the positions in terms of glyph position along each line.

The difference between these and the ones in the previous post is that these have Gallows “f” coloured blue, “g” coloured green, and the other gallows coloured red (as before).

Julian Bunn, ‘Page positional gallows Mark II’, computistical attacks (blog) 28th December 2012.

Shortly before publishing this recent post, Julian said in another that “I am convinced that .. the words are not words at all).

to which the natural response is – “well, if not words, what are they?”

I have received Julian’s permission to include some pictures from  Julian’s blogpost.

As he says, the distributions of gallows on those pictures aren’t exact matches with positions on the folios, but I don’t think it matters very much.

You will see that in Julian’ s picture for  f.58v  the left-hand margin shows a vertical series separated from the rest –  separated in Julian’s picture by grey, though the interval is filled with non-gallows glyphs in the manuscript.

One section in that margin resembles one of the simplest  arrangements for thread in a woven fabric. and in this same image you will see (to the right of the margin), a staggered vertical line of blocks echoing another which is typical of some patterns generated in weaving from that first.

How are the two related?

The two most basic forms of weave are linen weave (‘tabby’) and twill.

Tabby is the usual 1×1 over-and-under pattern used for linen. Twill creates a diagonal line, achieved partly by the way the loom is threaded up, and partly by the order in which certain elements are brought up while others are lowered. The first is called the ‘threading pattern’ and the second the ‘treading pattern’. More technical details are included further below.

Distinction between a separate representation a fabric’s threading pattern, and (with a more sophisticated loom) the treading pattern. Today, a weaving pattern will use the margin (left or right) to record the treading pattern, with the basic threading pattern shown across the top of the diagram, as shown in the illustration below.

Patterns represented on graph paper, and modern gridded instructions will present an artificial, theoretically-even thickness and distance for warp and weft.

Julian’s illustrations have an artificial regularity of a different kind. If any were weaving patterns, what you see on a diagram would come closer to a pattern’s intended form but in practice hand-woven fabrics rarely emerge so regular.

As you see from the following example, the illustration (below, right) is  a copy of Julian’s data for  f.103v, but I’ve stretched it to reflect a typical difference between a formal diagram and what one sees in practice.

The second illustration (below, centre) comes from a different inner Asian [Turkmen] rug from that illustrated on the far left, but shows more clearly the ‘gol’ pattern whose equivalent is seen in a number of Julian’s diagrams – that is, facing diagonals which form just two sides of a potential lozenge motif. In other words, I’m suggesting the glyphs could be used to represent (by alpha-numeric?) as many different hues or tones.

To colour opposite sides of a medallion (gul/gol) differently is characteristic of the Turkmen style, sometimes called the Kurdish. The regions native to Kurdish people include southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, and northern Syria.

Glyphs, Number, colour.

This brings up the question of the glyphs’ number and how they might relate to a colour-range. I hadn’t any notion, when I wrote a first brief version of this post some days ago [in 2012] that the ‘weaving’ technique can be equated more-or-less roughly to a ‘bilateral cipher’.

Here is an old post (ciphermysteries of course) referring and crediting Tony Gaffney with making the [bilateral cipher] suggestion. 

Nick himself raised the theme of bilateral ciphers again very recently [26th December 2012] and  shortly after my original short preview- for this ‘weaving’ post went up.

I suggested that if there were seventeen distinct gallows glyphs (an idea I’d picked up at some time), they would offer a natural system for someone to describe a type of colour-wheel, if they were being employed by persons accustomed to describing a circuit of 32 in terms of a basic 17, as occurs among the eastern mariners, who named each Pole by a separate word, but the other thirty by naming 15 around the eastern curve with the epithet ‘rising’, with the same fifteen on the opposite curve as ‘setting’.

Thirty-two is a number well-suited to recording languages. A quick check of Omniglot gives 32 components for:

Islandic; Estonian; modern Persian; Coptic; Tigrinya; Russian; Lithuanian; Perso-Arabic; Belarus; Bulgarian and Kurdish (Kurmanji-).

To use the ’17’ system, you’d need a  couple of  glyphs that were unique, and fifteen having their ‘pairs’ – one supposes, in the present case, as a gallows-and-glyph with each gallows having a different following glyph.

I’m not suggesting that the Voynich text refers to nothing but weaving and colours; I’d assume colour would be one of many sets of associations that could be built on an alpha-numeric series, just as Latins built upon the Roman alphabet and from a foundation in the Psalter or – to take another example, as Ibn Arabi built his set of associations upon the series of  27 lunar mansions.

If there were a correspondence here between the set of colours and the set of  glyphs ( or simply of gallows glyphs), and they were disposed as pairs (and or as darker and lighter tones), that correspondence, if it could be established,  might be a way into identifying the language natural to the maker of the manuscript. A slender hope but a possibility.

Relationship between a ‘letter’ and sound might be direct, but between a letter, its position, and/or a colour the relationship need not be so simple.

I mean that – to give an example – the word for green might start with  ‘g’ but by custom that colour imagined the primary element in a people’s cosmology and so, by that people, accorded the number one or letter ‘A’ position.

A wheel of numbered hues which could be described in terms of the ‘bright’/rising and the ‘dark’/setting curve

OMNIGLOT has a table for colours in many languages. I think it was extremely brave of them to post it!

This isn’t the only suggestion of textiles and textile arts in the manuscript.  In discussing the botanical section last year [i.e. in 2011] I illustrated fairly copiously the way the drawing style in many folios from that  section echoes those of inner Asia ( especially patterns of Suzani work in Uzbekistan) and also types of textiles created near ports of medieval India and south-east Asia.  I wont’ repeat it all, but here are a small number of the illustrations from traditional Suzani work. (However, the picture in the bottom row, a Javanese batik,  was allegedly made in the 10thC AD, and though I haven’t been able to check its provenance, I do wonder if the caption didn’t confuse the Islamic for the Christian system of dating years.

Note (2022) – a few months after I’d shown those examples of Suzani embroidery in the course of discussing stylistics in various folios of the plant-section – the first time textile art had been referenced in Voynich studies, so far as I could find – a woman promoting her theory of the entire manuscript as an expression of a European Baltic and female ritual culture posted images of Baltic embroidery. I’m afraid I’ve since forgotten her name.


[note – some repetition here, but it keeps this section self-contained]

I have never seen any type of weavers’ instructions or recipes from the fifteenth century nor earlier – not from Europe; not from anywhere.

It is often easier to produce a complex pattern by having someone call out the order of operations. I know this was done until recently in workshops producing Persian carpets but as with so many skills, I expect that in the case of traditional weavers most had simply learned their craft at the elbow of their parent or trade master.

Not even Agnes Geijer, whose masterful study of textiles is now sadly out of print, has much to say about how detailed instructions were preserved and transmitted for such complex designs as those on damasks and cut- velvets. From the accuracy with which some western medieval centres such as Venice were able to re-create eastern patterns, we know some sort of textile-analysis must have been possible and this also implies some system for recording and transmitting the information. I’ve never encountered any study which addressed that question for a period earlier than 1450.

The basics of a modern pattern consist of the pattern’s depiction in a grid, with the pattern of threading-up in the margin of one axis, and of treading in the other. Like this. (The section in the upper right corner describes how the heddles, through which the warp threads are strung, are to be linked to one another and the treadles)

The basic threading-up pattern (here the upper margin) has variations created by the treading pattern (in the image above, the right margin). The threading pattern thus provides you, more-or-less, with a profile view of the design, and this will also appear in the selvage.

A modern hand-weaver will find fully graphed patterns in any reference book,  but an experienced weaver wouldn’t trouble to draw up a whole design unless it were extremely complex.

Most modern hand-weavers use numbers for threading and treading order, but if the warp is multicoloured, it’s possible to use colours instead and I have seen it done in some American graphs.

To show how many variations on a basic threading can be produced, here are twelve from a single threading-up.

[2022].  The link to that diagram is broken, though if you care to chase it through ‘Wayback’ etc., just undo the caps below.


Postscript “not words at all”

A most important question which any reader is bound to ask of a Voynich writer is “What first suggested this idea to you?”

If the answer is ‘It just came to me’ or ‘It is a theory’ or they refuse to reply but adopt a pose of hauteur, then you’re entitled to wonder if their argument is actually unjustifiable, whether because it is literally a baseless notion or because it is not a result of the speaker’s own work but merely what they could grasp from work done by someone else.

You can see clearly enough how Julian came to conclude (temporarily or permanently) that Voynich words were ‘not words at all” by following the series of posts he published leading up to that one published on August 23, 2012..

You might also enjoy some posts that bear a more recent date:

Julian Bunn, ‘Nine Cipher Wheels‘, Computational attacks… (August 9th/update August 12th., 2021).

___________, ‘Word-length Distributions‘, Computational attacks (August 12th., 2021)

___________, ‘Fun with Grove Words and Cipher Wheels‘, Computational Attacks.. (August 18th., 2021)

_____________, ‘Grove Word lengths’Computational attacks… (August 19th., 2021)

Why I bang on about wanting the full range of pigments described.

Scientists, statisticians may understand, from this talk, that it’s not just an art-history thing. Note that when Prof. Beeby speaks of ‘indigo’ he means indigotin, the substance, not the plant we call ‘indigo’.

The implication, in the Beinecke essay, that there is no orpiment in the manuscript is important, because its source was in Italy. On the other hand, that pigment lost popularity in European works from about the 15thC to c.1625, after which its use again increased, continually, to the twentieth century – but not invariably, nor everywhere.


The talk proper begins at 4:50, but you might find the introduction interesting too because it describes Prof. Beeby’s qualifications. The end comment brings up the point of pigment-binders.

Quick brief note on pigments in the Vms

d’Imperio reports an account given by Dr. Carter of the manuscript’s inks and pigments

Re-arranged into colour-groups, Carter’s account of them as follows:


Some of the colors appear to be colored ink or water-color, some a kind of crayon, and some an opaque kind of paint like poster paint.


A good, strong brown
… an amber-like ink, like British tan leather goods;
A red ink just like ordinary red ink today,

a bright, not quite brilliant blue ink or water-color,

[pigments.. my numbering]

  1. an opaque aquamarine,

2. a good strong red, carmine rather than scarlet or vermillion;
3. a red that looks like face rouge in color and texture[!];
4. a thick red that makes dots of color that you could scrape with your finger nail.
5. a red that looks like a bloodstain about a week old.

6. a blue that sparkles with tiny fragments (not apparently by design)

7. a dirty yellow (the yellow and browns of the sunflower illustration are like those, only a little faded, of the Van Gogh sunflower picture; the greens are less brilliant):

8. an opaque green;
9. a dirty green,
10. a kind of green crayon[!],

11. and several [!] other greens of various hues, intensity, value. and texture.

(More information on the ‘crayon-like’ pigments would be interesting)

McCrone analysed the inks and just four of the twelve-and-more pigments/shades described by Dr. Carter. McCrone’s results for those four pigments were:

  • a blue – ground azurite with minor amounts of cuprite, a copper oxide.
  • a[the?] clear/White – protenaceous, eggwhite and calcium carbonate is likely.
  • a green – copper and copper chloride, most likely produced as a salted copper corrosion product.
  • a red-brown – red ochre, consisting of hematite, possibly minor amounts of lead sulfide and palmierite.

see   (McCrone letter – pdf).

[link updated 14th Dec. Note that the Beinecke describes this letter as a “detailed chemical analysis of the Voynich manuscript” – which rather overstates things. It is in fact a letter reporting results from chemical analysis of four pigment samples, with a detailed study of the manuscript’s inks. Most unfortunately McCrone’s brief did not allow the specialists to select their samples, and did not include identifying the binding agent – a most important indicator of cultural and temporal context. The samples were not even taken using randomisation to determine which folios would be sampled – a basic requirement in scientific methodology, but again not left to the specialists who were tasked with performing the analyses.]

McCrone refers to just one of the reds, the red-brown that may be Carter’s “red that looks like a bloodstain about a week old.”

In the Yale facsimile edition, the essay by Zyats et.al. entitled ‘Physical Findings’ refers to those same few, but adds mention of a yellow.

Apart from noting it is probably an organic yellow, the essay says nothing much about it, but could be interpreted as saying that the manuscript nowhere uses orphiment or yellow ochre. Zyats names a few European plants which yield a yellow. A recipe for saffron yellow, recorded in a Montpellier manuscript, is referenced by the following scientific report on some Portuguese mss.

  • Maria João Melo, Paula Nabais, Maria Guimarães, Rita Araújo, Rita Castro,
    Maria Conceição Oliveira and Isabella Whitworth, ‘Organic dyes in illuminated manuscripts: a unique cultural and historic record’, Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, Vol. 374, No. 2082, (13th December 2016). Theme issue: Raman spectroscopy in art and archaeology. pp. 1-20. [JSTOR]

Zyats et. al. expand McCrone’s reference to haematite to include both the ‘red and red-brownish passages’ but are unclear about whether this explains all Carter’s reds, or whether their sample shown as representative (from f.67r-2) is the only sample being referenced, and/or the only sample analysed. Uncertainty is expressed in the essay about the presence of mercuric sufide; the authors speculating that it might be synthetic vermillion.

A similar absence of certainty is expressed about the greens.

No attempt is made, in that essay, to place the range of analysed pigments within any broader or comparative context.

I think it a pity that the authors did not keep to reporting their technical analyses and conclusions without wandering into that realm of semi-historical and pseudo-historical narratives. Non-scientific information in that essay appears to be chiefly aimed at defending a traditional theory of fifteenth-century European authorship/creation for the whole of the manuscript and opposing one particular minority theory that the Voynich theory is a late forgery.

As I’ve said before, though, this means the scientific reporting is adulterated with such dubious statements as that the manuscript is “known” to have been in Rudolf’s library (something still no more than an often-repeated rumour and which was not even supported by the person who is believed to have first mentioned that alleged rumour in a letter addressed to Kircher).*

*comments made at the end of the Malta conference (2022) suggested that a paper delivered there has ended in the affirmative this question of Rudolfine ownership, but until the paper is available to be read, doubts remain, especially since it is unclear whether the records distinguish between printed books and manuscripts, and the assertion would appear to be based on mention of ‘a few alchemical books’ – while specialists in the history of European alchemical images have judged those in the Voynich manuscript to have no connection to that particular vocabulary. But one must wait and be fair to the author of that paper.

Otherwise, I found ‘Physical Findings’ the most useful essay in that edition: in fact the only useful essay since all the rest repeat the usual and well-known ideas and attempts at comparison between images in the Vms and some few in some few Latin manuscripts chosen by criteria which are plainly theoretical. (Why consider only herbals? Why only Latin herbals? etc.)

‘Physical Findings’ includes a good overview of analytical techniques for novices – with a caveat in 2022 that it reports those techniques at the time the essay was written.

With regard to pigments, analytical methods have advanced and improved constantly since 2016, to reflect increasing concern to use non-destructive tests and take ever-smaller samples.

Micro-XRF is proving especially valuable within its natural limits.

I think we may fairly agree that our present artefact was produced in the early decades of the fifteenth century and was very possibly – if not certainly – manufactured under Latin auspices in southern Europe. What researchers need to know, however, is not that the Beinecke will defend a theoretical narrative but some clue as to where in the world we should be looking for a key to the manuscript’s content. It is not the points of similarity only, but those points of difference between ‘normal’ medieval Latin manuscripts and the Voynich manuscript – its codicology, palaeography, images and pigments – which will assist in seeing that research-parameters are appropriate as we try to elucidate the written and pictorial texts

For more on organic yellows, see comment below this post.

Postscript: In this case as so often, if I remember to search Nick Pelling’s blog,  something helpful for readers turns up. In this case, his post “Parchminers, scriveners, lymners, bookbinders, stationers…” ciphermysteries, (Jan.21st., 2010)

and finally, Nick’s recent posts (Dec.2022) about pigments and recipe-texts reminds me that there is a similar Islamic treatise mentioned in

David J. Roxburgh, ‘The Study of Painting and the Arts of the Book’, Muqarnas, Vol. 17 (2000), pp. 1-16. [JSTOR]

“Tricks of the trade … were learned and transmitted from teacher to pupil. The success of this transmission was arguably better accomplished by direct access to the teacher and his methods than by the highly mediated use of a text through recipe books or treatises, many of which have come down to us. One treatise, Simi Nishapuri’s Jawhar-i Simi (composed in 1433-34), imparts .. fairly detailed instructions for the production of pigments.” (p.5)

Readers interested to know more about RAMAN micro spectroscopy and how it helps identify pigments, the following table and one paragraph are added below from a scientific paper published, admittedly, in 2018 but still worth including in a bibliography.

* from: G. Marucci, A. Beeby, A. W. Parker and C. E. Nicholson, ‘Raman spectroscopic library of medieval pigments collected with five different wavelengths for investigation of illuminated manuscripts’, Analytical Methods, 2018, 10, 1219. (Published on 20 February 2018). Free access.
*DOI: 10.1039/c8ay00016f

Pigments and inks investigated were both pigments and dyes, chosen in accordance with the literature, most commonly used in manuscripts between Vth–XVIth centuries, supplied by L. Cornelissen & Son (London) and Kremer Pigmente GmbH & Co. KG (Aichstetten, Germany). Iron gall ink, Brazil wood and kermes were made following ancient recipes. Analysis of pure pigments using the 532 nm and 632.8 nm lasers was made by sampling through the wall of a glass vial containing the pigments. Indeed, the use of a confocal microscope allows collecting radiation coming only from the focal plane, so that there is no signal related to the glass. However, using the 785 nm excitation source the spectra presented a large background at around 1400 cm-1 (ref. 75) so pellets of pigments were prepared to obtain Raman spectra without glass contribution.
The measurements performed with 488 nm and 830 nm excitation were also run on pellets. They were prepared by pressing a mixture of the pigment and a 10% w/w of a wax binder, (BM-0002-1CEREOX® Licowax C Micropowder). To ensure the homogeneity of the samples the mixture of wax and pigment was shaken for 3 minutes with a frequency of 25 s-1, and pellets were then formed using a hydraulic press, with 9 tonnes per surface pressure. The spectra collected do not show any signals attributable to the wax.

NOTE – this ‘Brazil wood’ did not come from Brazil. It came into the Mediterranean world from the east, being gained chiefly if not only from Caesalpina sappan.

‘Weaving the Voynich’

To my delight, a person I thought had lost interest in the Voynich manuscript several years ago has just got in touch and for whatever reason asked if I’d reprint a post I wrote about ten years ago. Since the original was posted on December 28th., 2012, I’ll repost on the 28th as a full ten year anniversary moment.

The text had originally been a response to one of Julian Bunn’s posts and I’m very pleased to have the chance to remind new-come researchers of his work.

O’Donovan notes – 7c.2 and 7c.3: Why a crocodile? Why November? Why c.1350?

A double post for your spare moments from now to the New Year. 🙂

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract: This post considers events around the time when Bodleian MS Douce 313 was made (c.1350), why the crocodile might be introduced (or re-introduced) as November’s emblem then, and whether the statements – and a guess of medicinal purpose – expressed in Georg Baresch’s letter of 1639 are compatible with events of the mid-fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries.

I want to be clear that what follows is no attempt to offer a wide historical survey of plague-related images or -history. It is a pin-point-narrow focus on how one image in a fifteenth century manuscript, and one seventeenth-century document, meet in relation to some few historical moments, persons, records, images and attitudes from the period c.1350-c.1438 and includes one eighteenth-century image because that best expresses a particular religious attitude.

It is an extraordinary moment when one realises that, when John de’ Marignolli left that garment of cannal cloth in Florence, he had just passed unscathed through one region after another where Plague was lurking, and had come back to a Europe where it had been raging for almost six years.

In a time when all Christians of Latin Europe were Catholic, there was added to fear of the disease and grief from loss, an additional fear for the souls of those buried without benefit of confession and too suddenly to have (so to speak) cleared their spiritual debts and made peace with their Gd. Even to be buried in unconsecrated ground was a misfortune.

In the Latin liturgical calendar November 2nd was the day when all the departed were remembered in every church, and with prayers reminiscent of the funeral service: at once asking Gd to forgive sin and offering words of comfort to those present. For many, in time of plague, that day must have gained added significance.

November’s being the month of the dead – the antiquity of that connection, and how Roman thought had come to associate it with Egyptian beliefs has already been outlined and images shown from a mosaic calendar from Roman north Africa and from the semi-Christian Chronography of 354AD.

In those cases the guide who saw souls safely across the bourne had been Anubis or Herm-anubis, but in parts of Egypt itself the ‘bearer/guide’ was a [celestial] crocodile.

more likely imagined as the small and tamer C.suchus than the more savage C.niloticus.

(detail) from a copy of the Book of the Fayum. (copy dated 1st century BCE-2nd century CE)

In connection with this drawing (above) I’d like to draw attention to a filler motif also seen in the Voynich calendar’s ‘March’ diagram (right) and in the Voynich map (the latter often called by Voynich writers the “rosettes page”).

On the other hand, that detail from the Roman-era papyrus contains single- and cross-hatching in the strictest sense, neither of which occurs, so far as I’ve seen, in any Voynich drawing.

From the late 1340s, and from a somewhat different angle, Latin Europe would revive that association between death and Egypt, not so much for hope of ancient medicines as for the antiquity and purity of Egypt’s “ancient” Christian tradition.

In the Voynich calendar, November’s beast is not shown simply as a crocodile, as it is in Bodleian Douce 313, but is specifically associated here with death by inclusion of the human skull, given the hat worn by a traveller or hunter, but which here may indicate ‘the messenger’ (angelos) which is death.

To that extent one can say that both Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 mean the crocodile to serve as memento mori. Perhaps I should also point out that the usual astronomical type for death was the constellation of Perseus in Greek, Roman and Islamic traditions. Perseus means ‘the Destroyer’. There is little doubt, however, that the Voynich crocodile is meant for Scorpius or for another nearby constellation (a question considered in earlier posts in this series).

Egypt – source of plague, and source of cure.

We do not know the direction from which the group of ten plague ships first brought the Black Death to the western Mediterranean.

They docked in Messina, in Sicily, in October 1347, observing the usual routine by which the Mediterranean sailing season formally ended in that month, not to begin again until the next March.

It is certain that Plague was present in Alexandria “in the autumn” of 1347. Messina, on becoming aware of what those ten ships had brought, ordered them out and they went on to infect nearby islands and Tunis before, or in the very beginning of, 1438.

Many suppose they came from the north as would some Genoese and Venetian ships in January 1348 when, flying for home through winter storms they brought the Plague to their home ports from the Black Sea.

The contagion (as it was described) now began moving through the continent, the very first lines of transmission providing another clear illustration of the most-used southern links. The map (below) omits the sea-link through Gibraltar to England via Bordeaux, scarcely used in winter.

This was not the first time that pestilence, or ‘plague’ had occurred, nor were the precedents unknown to Latin Europe. The best-known, in every case, had been associated with Egypt, or at least the north African coast.

There were the ten biblical plagues inflicted on Pharaoh, of course. The third century (c.261 AD) had seen ‘the Plague of Cyprian’ so-called, and in the mid-sixth century a wave of Plague had devastated the whole Byzantine empire. This last was indeed caused by Yersinia. pestis* as modern research confirms. In 9thC England, Bede reported another plague sweeping through England, one which – he believed – left southern England depopulated, though ‘decimated’ may be more accurate.

added note – (December 8th). A reader queries the date “c.261 AD”. It’s a rough description – hence the ‘circa’ – and really depends on what part of the Byzantine empire is meant. Overall, most historians are pretty much agreed the date-range for that episode of plague begins in about AD 249 and subsides by about 262 AD.

*would be more accurately called Yersin-Shibasaburia pestis, since the plague bacillus in Hong Kong in 1894: was identified simultaneously by Alexandre Yersin and Kitasato Shibasabur­ō.

  • Wael M. Lotfy, ‘Plague in Egypt: Disease biology, history and contemporary analysis: A minireview’, Cairo University, Journal of Advanced Research, Vol.6 (2015) pp. 549-544. Can be accessed through Elsevier ‘Science Direct’ website.
  • Description of the plague in Ireland in 1348, written by a Franciscan, John Clyn, has been included in a good wiki article, ‘Black Death in Medieval Culture‘.
  • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – responses in the Islamic world. Justin K. Stearns, ‘Plague and Contagion’, muslim heritage (blog) published 24th August 2020. “We possess dozens of [plague treatises] from the fourteenth and subsequent centuries, and they display a wide variety of approaches to plague and contagion… when it came to medical remedies, … these varied but involved dietary proscriptions, bloodletting, and at times ointments of violets”. This is the only medical use for violets I’ve encountered before the mid-fifteenth century and might one day prove an explanation for the curious addition of that ‘ring-in’ image of the violas in Beinecke MS 408.

In fourteenth-century Europe where learned men were, almost by definition, members of the religious and these remained acquainted with the earliest Christian writers, the severely ascetic style of the first Egyptian anchorites and monks seemed to offer the best advice and solace, though no bodily cure existed. Focus would soon shift, in the Latin west, to less problematic figures than those ascetics but the 1350s have a distinctly ‘Egyptian’ focus on what is termed ‘mortification’. An entry in the Catholic encyclopaedia emphasises, however, that “spiritual writers never tire of insisting that the internal mortification of pride and self-love in their various forms are essential.. external penances good only so far as they spring from this internal spirit.”

Egyptian models.

To a modern viewer, unacquainted with that literature and medieval ideas about death, the sculpture of which part is seen in the header might be felt ‘weird’ or ‘creepy’ or given some politico-religious interpretation. But when the whole image is considered, including its being given the wings of an angel and the draped cloth evocative of Michael as carrier of souls, there is obviously some other intention behind it.

What the modern reader must appreciate is that, just as in the service (Mass) for the feast of all souls, the emphasis was less on hellfire than on overcoming the natural animal fear which people feel at the sight of death and when in constant fear of death.

Above the figure (below), a shield shows stars divided between upper and lower by a ‘wall’ and regardless of what family’s crest it might have been, the juxtaposition allows the viewer to see this as a reminder that above the visible stars is that other realm whose limits were impassable by mortals, the defended ramparts of heaven, which limit is sometimes marked by the ‘cloudband’.

Consider the whole figure, then, as if you were hearing a sermon in which Cyprian’s account of Plague in his time, and in Carthage, was being quoted.

From Cyprian’s De Mortalitate.

18thC work by Pierre le Gros the Younger in Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Rome. Tomb of Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini, (d.1610)..

That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity…

Let us show ourselves to be what we believe.. that when the day of our summons shall arrive, we come without delay and without resistance to the Lord when He Himself calls us...[via his messenger]..

Beloved brethren, with a sound mind, with a firm faith, with a robust virtue, let us be prepared for the whole will of God: laying aside the fear of death, let us think on the immortality which follows…

If we believe in Christ, let us have faith in His words and promises; and since we shall not die eternally, let us come with a glad security unto Christ…

So also in the Psalms, the soul that is devoted to its God in spiritual faith hastens to the Lord, saying, “How amiable are thy dwellings, O God of hosts! My soul longeth, and hasteth unto the courts of God”..

Eusebius in his Chronicon makes mention of the occasion on which Cyprian wrote this treatise, saying, “A pestilent disease took possession of many provinces of the whole world, and especially Alexandria and Egypt; as Dionysius writes, and the treatise of Cyprian ‘concerning the Mortality’ bears witness.” a.d. 252. On the 18thC outbreak, which reached the Adriatic, see here.

So the aim of that sculpture made when Plague was still a constant peril in Latin Europe, was not only to provoke a natural, animal terror at the constant presence of death but, without in any way trying to sweeten or to deny the validity of that fact or those feelings, to lessen that fear and remind the people that the angel of Death – for here it is a great Angel – has as its appointed role to carry the soul between the physical world and the waiting Christ in heaven as a midwife might lift the newborn into the light.

How a modern, secular person reacts to such a sculpture, or what their imagination offers as its explanation is hardly to the point. What we must do is to discover how people who produced this, or any image, used it to speak with their near contemporaries about matters, and in forms, which both understood easily. It is well to remember that in that other country of the past, one is a guest.

During the first wave, the most frequently-mentioned reason for re-emergence of Plague in Europe was excessive self-indulgence – greed, laziness, lust, vanity and gluttony, displays of wealth manifest in fine horses, furs and lap-dogs.

In the next painting, a fresco from burial grounds in Pisa, the theme of penitence and return to the ways of the ‘Desert Fathers’ is already a developed theme immediately before the Plague arrived. In the detail below, the characters are confronted by a man with a scroll and three coffins in which the body’s progressive corruption is shown vividly and accurately. This man with the long ‘ancient’ scroll is Macarius, termed ‘the Egyptian’ to distinguish him from another called ‘the Alexandrian’. He lived c. 300 – 391AD..

The reason for including him was, initially, for the content of his Homilies, but when Plague arrived, one passage would have driven home that call to asceticism and mortification embodied in these frescos, for a passage from the Homilies reads:

“Hearken unto me… and no plague shall come nigh thy dwelling”

Macarius had a prophetic vision, and said to the man who served him, whose name was John, ‘ Hearken to me, brother John, and bear with my admonition. Thou art in temptation; and the spirit of covetousness tempts thee. I have seen it; and I know that if thou bearest with me, thou wilt be perfected in this place, and wilt be glorified, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

But if thou shalt neglect to hear me, upon thee shall come the end of Gehazi, with whose disease thou art afflicted.’

Modern scholars identify this ‘disease of Gehazi’ as elephantisis and/or Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) the second producing spots on the skin and caused by a worm – cf. accounts of the ‘cocodril and hydra’ in Latin bestiaries.

Marcarius’ Homilies shouldn’t be supposed obscure. The saint is still commemorated in the Latin liturgical roster and in the Byzantine and Coptic Christian world whose church did not splinter as the western Church was soon to do, Macarius remains an important figure in the east and his Homilies current reading.

Notice that only the crowned figure displays any sign of shame or thoughtfulness, and note too the height of fashion in this part of Italy during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. correction made 6th Dec., with thanks to Martin K. Menzies for noticing the slip.

From whence? Voynichese

*Concerning the ‘census’ of Franciscan houses mentioned below – that list was not compiled in 1350AD, but from several documents for 1350AD.*

It has to be said that the written text in Beineke MS 408 could have come from almost anywhere, other than the New world or sub-Saharan Africa.

Just two years into the plague’s devastations – that is, in 1350 – a list was compiled that is described as a census of Franciscan houses but better considered a simple record of claim because it does not mention the number of inhabitants in each house.

What it does, for us, is illustrate the range and distance over which, to that time, links had been established between some Europeans and the rest of the world.

Roads were not one-way. Information, goods and people could move along those routes in either direction and by the end of the thirteenth century to, or from, as far as China.

The list of 1350 mentions no house in Egypt, but we know that traders and pilgrims regularly crossed the Mediterranean. Otherwise and apart from the great many Franciscan houses established in mainland Europe, there were now no fewer than fifteen around the Black Sea, including Caffa (‘Vicariate of Aquilonis; Tartaria Aquilonaris). In addition, there are a number listed for Tabriz, another in Amalek on the overland route eastwards, one apparently in what is now Afghanistan and four in China proper.7 For others east of Europe, see the full ‘census’, linked above.

7. The first Franciscan sent to China had arrived sixty years before de’ Marignolli – in 1293/4. This was John of Montecorvino. Here again, I note that the current ‘wiki’ article grossly inflates Friar John’s social status while omitting mention of the fact that he travelled as a Franciscan friar, not in the least as a secular diplomat might do by the sixteenth or seventeenth century,.

John was largely dependent for assistance on an Italian merchant who was already by that time established in India and, apparently, in China. Friar John was never permitted to return home and died in China in about 1328. Scholars doubt the authenticity of two letters attributed to him. The very late, and Chinese, image of him which the wiki writer has used is highly imaginative.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 folio 1r

I do not, however, discount the possibility that we might owe to John some, at least, of what is now in Beinecke MS 408. As I pointed out some time ago, the first folio of Beinecke MS 408 displays a motif that appears to me as an effort to copy, using a quill pen, an inscription originally written with the vermillion brush. Other proposals have been made by other writers. By September 12th., 2010 Rich Santacoloma had collected and shared ‘single bird’ images found in western manuscripts. The work was done again with greater or less success by later writers.

Once again, I should say that the historical data is not offered to promote, or even to infer some theory of authorship for the Voynich manuscript.

At present, the aim is to show that Egypt was not some misty, distant place but an ordinary and busy part of the Mediterranean world – and to show too that for some in western Europe, first-hand knowledge of regions lying east of the Mediterranean did not wait on da Gama. Nor did it depend on some Latin having to ‘fetch’ everything. Some things were brought and simply bestowed upon the west. I’ve noticed that many traditionalists struggle with the idea that in contacts between Europe and elsewhere, the active ‘masculine’ role was not inevitably played by the Latin.

Whatever cryptographers and linguists may think about Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analysis of Voynichese, history presents no obvious opposition to his conclusions..

And while my own analyses of the plant-pictures found them not especially concerned with medicine, we must at least ask whether Baresch’s guess that the work was about medicine is reasonable. I think that though he does not say so, his hope was that the manuscript contained a remedy against plague. After all, Plague had driven Rudolf II from Prague and had killed John Dee’s wife in England. In the seventeenth century, it was still a present danger.


Egyptian Medicinal goods – without prejudice.

“There is no man who lives and, seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand.” Psalm 89:48 from the Targum – the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew bible.

That John Tiltman appears to have conducted a pretty thorough survey of the western herbal manuscripts and related literature and then spoken, in highly diplomatic phrasing, of the null result should have been taken as significant by all Voynich researchers thereafter. But that is another important piece of evidence either ignored or for which some ad.hoc. ‘excuse’ has been offered by traditionalists intent on the hunt for evidence to lend the old ‘Latin herbal’ idea more colour.

It is simply for the sake of balance, then, that I’ll touch on this question of physic in terms of links between southern Europe and Egypt during the Plague years of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries.

About forty years after we think the Voynich quires were inscribed, an Italian Jewish traveller, Obadiah da Bertinoro, wrote of his journey to Egypt. He speaks of the crocodile’s scales as ‘spots’ but for us the most interesting part of his account are details he gives about a fellow passenger on the ship carrying them from Italy towards Egypt in 1481.

Da Bertinoro describes R. Meshullam ben R.Menahem of Volterra as a merchant whose brother R. Nathan, a physician, was then the most distinguished man in Rhodes’ Jewish community.

An early fifteenth-century manuscript by a Venetian of Rhodes who is known simply as ‘Michael of Rhodes” can be seen and its contents discussed in pages at the website of the Museo Galileo, Museum and Institute for the History of Science. [HERE] Michael was first introduced to Voynich studies several years ago in posts to Voynichimagery treating analysis of the Voynich map in the context of maritime matters, mathematics, fifteenth-century iconography and cartography.

Rabbi Meshullam also gave an account of that journey. It too has survived. We learn that in Egypt he encountered the Nagid, the most important official in Cairo, and found that the man was one who had come to his father’s house in Florence more than twenty years before. The Nagid, in true Muslim* style, was generous in his turn, had sought out the son of one who had earlier offered him hospitality in Italy, and we are told that among the many honours and benefits be showered on R. Meshullam was one that was very valuable indeed, not least for the Rabbi’s brother. It was

“a list [or catalogue, or inventory] of all the goods which come into Egypt twice a year, which the gentiles take to Christian countries. There are 3,000 different kinds of goods, mostly spices and medicines.”

*I ought to have said ‘Islamic’ because while Cairo’s culture was informed by Muslim attitudes to the stranger, R. Meshullam is vague about whether the Nagid was a Jew (and if so whether Rabbanite or Karaite), or whether by then Muslim. He might even have been a Mamluk. The position of ‘Nagid’ suggests particular responsibility for the Jewish communities. – note added Dec.5th., 2022.

This is no basis for arguing direct connection between R.Meshullam and the Voynich manuscript’s contents. It does illustrate the lines of connection between southern Europe and Egypt during the fifteenth century, and further that such a list, or catalogue, or inventory was part of the city’s administration at that time, and at that time most of what was being bought by Christian traders (chiefly Genoese and Venetian) were ‘mostly spices and medicines’.

The fact that the Nagid presented R. Meshullam with that list, and the Nagid was chief overseer of tax collection is interesting for two reasons: first because it suggests the list/inventory/catalogue was part of Cairo’s administration and not one produced solely by and for those who bought, sold or used the goods.

Taxation is the most obvious reason for the Nagid’s having such a list, or inventory, or catalogue and it would be wrong to imagine that by presenting the list the Nagid was simply trying to obtain another buyer for those goods. We know from other merchants handbooks and records (such as the Zibaldone da Canal), that merchants simply traded direct with other merchants, the authorities’ involvement being linked to taxation and to criminal matters.

That ‘list’ was a gift of value because while, say, a tourist can travel through any foreign market and see what plants are on offer – living, dried or otherwise – he has no words from the local language with to name them and no idea of their virtues without some additional guide. In what languages, or how many languages those 3,000 and more ‘exotic’ items were named in the list given to R. Meshullam; whether the list/inventory/catalogue was illustrated.. and much else one would love to know, the Rabbi simply does not say.

Taxation is certainly the constant theme of the authorities and of the foreign travellers and traders, who never fail to speak of it.

By analogy with known practices elsewhere on the ‘spice routes’ we may raise the possibility that in Cairo too, the text-book for taxation for such goods took as its template some well-known herbal, all goods including those being taxed on entry and on exit.

The Chinese is the best-known example of using a herbal – in this case works of the ‘Bencao’ genre – as a basis for taxation, but this is not the place to revisit my investigation of the ‘tax-list’ possibility and objects described by archaeologists as ‘tax buckets’. I include one among the images shown in those posts and I daresay that somewhere in the filing cabinet of some Voynich ‘completist’ there may exist printed off copies of the whole series of posts. (And no I didn’t conclude that all the artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section were tax-buckets).

Within medieval Latin Europe some pharmacies, we know, did display those herbals and others texts they were expected or obliged to have and use.

In fifteenth-century Cairo, instead, foreigners purchased goods from and some actually maintained the type of warehouse complex called by Arabs and by some Euroeans ‘funduks’. Genoa, Venice and ‘the Franks’ had, according to R. Meshullam, five such fonduks in Cairo: two each for the first two city states and one for all ‘the Franks’. Overall, one has to agree with Georg Baresch that “it is easily conceivable that..

..some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher, 1639 AD (transcription, transliteration and translation by Philip Neal).

He also says, and others who wrote to Kircher attempted to support him in this, that Baresch’s interest was not in money but in medicine, as:

“the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls”.

There’s no suggestion of medicine or of money about the Voynich calendar’s month-emblems and I think it reasonable to conclude that its November emblem speaks more to the soul’s peril as to the body and that in this case the constellation or sign is of secondary interest.

which . if you’ve read this series from the beginning … is pretty much where we began.

next post: Money Matters: Remedies, wealth and secrecy.

A Must-read.

I’m stepping aside, and postponing the next episode of the ‘November-Crocodile’ trail in favour of recommending you read Tim O’Neill’s latest post:


If you have an analytical turn of mind, but chose to concentrate on the pragmatic sciences in school, this is what you need.

Here’s a taste:

“too many … accept bad historical arguments substantially because they cannot see how or why they are bad. This is because they genuinely do not understand how history is done and so cannot tell bad history from good”.