O’Donovan notes #9.1: Plague, Medicine, Money and Secrecy.

c.3700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

minor correction – 4th Feb.2023; minor typos fixed, 6th Feb.; “1635” corrected to 1639.


For newcomers – I cannot pretend that my own researches and their conclusions allow me to support any theory of medical or medico-alchemical (or alchemical) purpose behind the choice of matter copied to form the contents of Beinecke MS 408. However, ideas of that type were very early attached to the manuscript and are now so commonly repeated that they should be cross-examined with care and with constant reference both to the primary document and to scholarship relevant to the time until when the Voynich quires are believed inscribed (apart from a few lines of marginalia) – that is, c.1404-1438.

If the present author has a ‘Voynich theory’ it is that if works created before that date provide adequate explanation for images in the Voynich manuscript, then they rather than later examples should be referred to. Thus, we find a hatted hunter-crossbowman in a fourteenth century French manuscript fully a century before figures so attired occur in any German calendar… and so on… and so on..

During 2021-22, we investigated some among the Voynich manuscript’s star-related diagrams, and other related matter – including where and when a use of the ‘4’ shape for the numeral “four” occurs in Latin Europe – this because the form given the Voynich glyph suggests hands already accustomed to writing the numeral in that way. As so often, maintaining the radiocarbon-14 date-range means withdrawing support from a number of popular Voynich theories including the ‘New world’ theory and the theory of a ‘German/central European’ origin.

Thus, when considering the Voynich calendar, we found that it was again in regions of southern Europe, but not in the north, that examples occur of a ‘November scorpion’ and, too, the earliest example noted so far of a recognisable ‘November crocodile’ – which is what we find also in the Voynich calendar. The closest comparison to noted so far is in a missal made in an Occitan-speaking region of France, and for a community having direct links to northern Italy. That missal was made c.1350 AD.

We also noted that the calendar’s month-names ‘speak’ a southern French (or English-French) dialect, and in the hope that the Voynich pigments may one day be fully studied, we may mention in this context Nick Pelling’s prediction that the month-names’ dialect would be that of the Toulon region, where (in Le Pradet) there occurs a form of azurite containing the rare combination of Baryte and Mixite, the same being found also (but not only) in Turin. On which see:

  • Bryon Deveson, comment 482697 (Jan. 29th., 2023) added below Pelling’s ciphermysteries post, ‘Quire 20 order from chaos part 2’. Deveson references mindat and names other possible mines.

The Voynich manuscript shows signs of haste, and of multiple scribes at work, which again makes relevant the fact that from the mid-fourteenth century to the mid-fifteenth in Latin Europe, amateur bibliophiles directed the movement of Latins’ manuscript production and among them all the most notable save Matthias Corvinus had been residents in French-speaking, Occitan-speaking or Italian-speaking regions. Once more, southern rather than Northern Europe is indicated.

For those reasons – and many others – I’m taking one early plague tract as focus for this post. It proved enormously influential and popular, probably first written in Latin but translated certainly into French and into Hebrew.

Composed in 1365, the copy of interest to us is the translation into French that was made in 1371 and is now in the National Library of France (BNF) as BNF NAF 4516.

The volume contains, with that plague tract, a work known as the ‘Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ which again proved widely popular; even today more than 300 copies survive in manuscript.

The author of both works is believed the same person, known as ‘John of Burgundy’ in connection with the plague tract, and as ‘Sir John Mandeville’ for the Travels.

What is kept hidden is not the content of his plague tract but the author’s true identity, which may never be known beyond doubt. As for money, that motive is also seen indirectly – as an advertisement for the physician ‘John of Burgundy’ by that same ‘Sir John Mandeville’.

So the author of the plague tract introduces himself thus:

“I, John of Burgundy, otherwise called la Barbe, citizen of Liège and professor of the art of medicine, intend, having invoked divine help, to epitomize (enucleare) the preservation and treatment of the epidemic.”

BNF NAF 4516

while, as D.W. Singer reports:

It is told in the “Travels” that Sir John met in Egypt an extraordinarily learned and venerable physician, whom he calls Johannes ad Barbam. It was this bearded John, he assures us, who, by a curious coincidence, saved his life many years afterwards in Liège…

Dorothea Waley Singer, ‘Some Plague Tractates’ (p.161)

Given what we know of the popularity and wide dissemination of both compositions by this ‘John’, one expects that the perhaps-English, perhaps-Burgundian physician resident in Liège might have enjoyed a very comfortable income for the rest of his life.

Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, Department of Manuscripts, NAF 4516

This manuscript is chosen for discussion not because it is illustrated, and not only because it is treated in D.W. Singer’s monograph on Plague tracts, but because of the volume’s date, its circumstances and provenance, each of which presents points consonant with various among our observations and findings about the Voynich manuscript so far.*

*including matter relating to star-related diagrams on folio 67v-1, on f.85r and in the Voynich calendar. Readers new to this blog may need to read some earlier posts to get the best from this one.

I summarise some of these points below, though in brief, knowing that their implications may be clearest only to longer-term readers of this blog and of voynichimagery. Readers are asked to be patient with any repetition of things heard before. The following is for the convenience of newly-arrived readers. We’ll move on to more overtly ‘secret’ medicine in the next post.

1. c.1350 – France.

BNF NAF 4516 contains the French translation (1371) of John’s plague tract composed in 1365,

We have seen already, from fourteenth-century France, the drawing of a hunter-crossbowman which provides him with one form of ‘tailed’ hat and with a longer garment than would be seen until a century later in crossbowman images created further north, particularly in calendars. Again, treating the Voynich calendar’s ‘November-crocodile’ our earliest-noted comparison (first brought to notice by JKPetersen I think) was in a missal made c.1350 in an Occitan-speaking region of France. It was made for use by the order of preachers known as ‘Friars Minor’ or ‘Franciscans’.

Examples cited to suit theories of a northern Voynich calendar have yet to cite one in which either a scorpion or a crocodile is the image for November. At least, so far as I’ve seen offered over the past decade and more.

2. ‘Franciscans and Dominicans’.

Current opinion on authorship of both the plague tract and its accompanying ‘Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ is given by the British Library (HERE), saying that the author’s true identity is impossible to know but “it seems that he had access to a wide array of source material, particularly to the accounts of Dominican and Franciscan missionaries.”

Whether this knowledge was gained during his time in France, or later in Liege, or during his travels or even in England we do not know, but it covers the period when the Papal court was in Avignon (1309 to 1376) and to that court all missionary-travellers were expected to report on their return. Indeed, in his name of John de Mandeville, the same John of Burgundy tells us that “at mine home-coming, I came to Rome[sic!] , and shewed my life to our holy father the pope , and was shriven of all that lay in my conscience.. as men must needs that be in company, dwelling amongst so many a diverse folk of diverse sect and of belief, as I have been. And amongst all I shewed him this treatise .. and besought the holy father, that my book might be examined and corrected by advice of his wise and discreet council. And our holy father, of his special grace, remitted my book to be examined and proved by the advice of his said counsel“. The two great bibliophile popes John XXII (1316-34) and Benedict XII (1334-42) were, of course, Avignon-period popes.

Montpellier was an important centre for medical studies.

3. Provenance (chain of ownership).

3.1 Charles V of France (r.1364 – 1380)

BNF ms NAF 4516 was owned by Charles V, the monarch who, by no later than 1380, also possessed the great work by Abraham Cresques of Majorca that is commonly, if a little inaccurately, called the Catalan Atlas.

Another of the earliest ‘amateur collectors’ who maintained “armies of scribes”, Charles V amassed a library of 1200 volumes in Louvre alone – that collection being later purchased by John of Lancaster who was simultaneously Duke of Bedford and Prince Regent of France in the early 15thC. Clearly, though, the collection bought by John, Duke of Bedford did not include the volume that is now BNF NAF 4516.

However, we have seen the work made for Bedford by a Portuguese physician trained in Paris and known as Roland of Lisbon. (Oxford, Bodleian, St.John’s College MS 18). One may wonder if the bearded figures in its frontispiece, like the the portrait of Bedford showing him semi-bearded aren’t both deliberate homage to that other John “..of Burgundy, also known as John la Barbe’ – but to wonder about it is all we can do.

Again, we have seen in the the work of various fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian and Majorcan cartographers, including Cresques of Majorca, points of correspondence between those cartes marine gridded ‘by the Rose’ and drawings in the Voynich manuscript, notably in its map (often called the ‘rosettes’ page, though it contains no ‘rosettes’ and only three versions of compass Roses as such, three of what I’ve argued had been four in the exemplar.) And in considering where and when the numeral ‘four’ occurs as a ‘4’ by 1375, we found it occurs in Cresques’ work and otherwise only in some few places in southern Europe and the Aegean before 1438.

3.2 Charles VI .. to Guglielmo Libri.

NAF 4516 passed directly from Charles V of France into the possession of Charles VI, and subsequently that of Jean d’Orléans, Comte d’Angoulême (1400-1467), thus to be preserved as part of the French Royal Library until 1792, at which time it was acquired by one Joseph Barrois (1780-1855) whose collaboration with the book-thief Guglielmo Libri is to the discredit of both.

Many works ‘acquired’ by Libri and through him by Barrois would then find their way to England and into the great collection of the Earl of Ashburnham. (For more, see postscript).

The role played by Guglielo Libri is often overlooked when catalogue entries and advertisements of manuscript sales are written up, but the BNF has described in full the chain of ownership for BNF NAF 4516, and so among the former (‘ancien’) possessors are listed:

  • Barrois, Joseph (b. 1780- died 1855).
  • Libri, Guillaume (b. 1803 – d. Fiesole, Italy, Sept. 28th., 1869)
  • Ashburnham, Bertram (b.1797- d.1878).
  • Bibliothèque nationale (France).

There can be no doubt, then, that when the Voynich quires are believed inscribed (c.1405-1438), what are now the contents of NAF 4516 were in France and nominally in the possession of Jean d’Orléans, Comte d’Angoulême.

I say ‘nominally’ because from 1412-1444, Jean was held hostage by the English, in accordance with terms in the Treaty of Buzançais. Jean’s close relations, Louis Duke of Orléans (1371-1401) and his son Charles of Orléans (d. 1467), are two more among those notable collectors and commissioners of manuscript copies in the fourteenth and fifteenth-century – but this is simply a statement of fact. I do not mean to imply, nor would I support, any theory that the Voynich quires as we have them could be regarded as acceptable product of any noble-, papal-, or royal atelier during or after the fourteenth century.

And here we may say, yet again, that neither Marcus Marci nor any other reliable witness ever said that the Voynich manuscript was owned by Rudolf II. That tale, as already a rumour, can be ascribed to no-one but Rafael Mnishovsky who (as Philip Neal pointed out years ago) cannot possibly have witnessed the purchase that he claims occurred and despite Stefan Guzy’s best efforts, the rumour is still without any evidence to support it, documentary or otherwise.

4. Egypt … and Plague

It is evident that an association with Egypt and its ‘ancient medicine’ enhanced the reputation of a text and a physician, and that in much the way that it was believed that self-denial and the religious asceticism of earlier Egyptian Christianity were a spiritual defence against illness and death and ‘Egyptian medicine’ was in some way most effective against Plague. These things reflected, in the present instance, in John’s having ‘Sir John de Mandeville’ say he met the physician ‘John of Burgundy/John a Barbe’ in Egypt.

It is true that during the Plague’s earlier years (from c.1438 1348-c.1448), physicians constantly advised a regimen of self-restraint and avoidance of luxury. John of Burgundy’s widely influential tract begins in just that way:

First, you should avoid over-indulgence in food and drink, and also avoid baths and everything which might rarefy the body and open the pores, for the pores are the doorways through which poisonous air can enter, piercing the heart and corrupting the life force. Above all sexual intercourse should be avoided.

Most readers will have encountered in Voynich studies a theory that the unclothed figures in certain sections of the manuscript should be supposed literal and associated, variously, with Latin works about bathing, womens’ herbal medicine or gynaecology. I won’t digress to explain why such theories are unsatisfactory in terms of iconological analysis and the history of western Europe’s Latin art, but in terms of medicine one sees that the balneological theory is inconsistent with the themes which dominate medicine during that first century of Europe’s Plague years – that is, between 1438 1348 and 1448. Bathing is typically treated as contra-indicated while fumigation was a constant recommendation and, given what we now know, a fairly sensible one. Unfortunately, ingredients which are recommended as fumigants don’t include any recognised as flea-repellents today.

As late as 1635 1639, the first certain possessor of the manuscript, George Baresch still held to that old idea that Egypt’s medical knowledge must be superior to the common man’s medicine.

There was some reason for that popular impression, as is so often true. From at least so early as the ninth century, Europe’s most expensive, rarest and thus most highly valued materia medica had come from – or more accurately, though – Egypt.

In earlier research, the present author presented an analysis of various Voynich plant-drawings, noting that they show direct knowledge of plants whose form was to remain unknown to European botanists to as late as the seventeenth century. We spoke in particular of the myrobalans and of ‘true balsam’, but also of the banana-plants and others in this context. As with the cerastes, Latins might know the name but without travelling to foreign parts were unable to give any clear image of the creature, or plant. This is also true of the Egyptian (or Indian) crocodile, called ‘cocodrille’ in the earlier Latin works and usually drawn more like an heraldic dragon. In that mid-fourteenth century missal, as in the Voynich calendar, that creature is well-depicted and is associated with November and its commemoration of the dead.

It is tempting to suppose the French translator of John’s plague tract had mistaken his grammar, when we find that in speaking of fumigation, he lists exotic goods which had their origin in south-east Asia ‘for the poor’ while among those ‘for the rich’ is the Mediterranean’s rosemary. Still, here’s how the text reads:

In cold or rainy weather you should light fires in your chamber and in foggy or windy weather you should inhale aromatics every morning before leaving home: ambergris, musk, rosemary and similar things if you are rich; zedoary, cloves, nutmeg, mace and similar things if you are poor.(!)

John of Burgundy, ‘De epidemia’.

Readers interested in exotic plant products imported into Europe might begin with John Riddle’s seminal study and others of his papers that shed more light on this issue. A list of imported ‘spices’ (as luxury-goods were called) can be found for the fifteenth century in the Venetian work, the Zibaldone da Canal, though by then Venice was receiving such goods through Tunis. For more recent studies of medieval trade in such products, including the materia medica used in receipts by Jews and Arabs in medieval Cairo, see studies by Gerrit Bos, Efraim Lev and works cited in their bibliographies.

5. Materia medica.

It is a notable characteristic of the Voynich drawings, one which generally weighs against arguments for the text’s being about medicine that they so rarely include reference to animals and still more rarely to any of those inorganic ingredients which are such a regular feature of the medieval Latin medical tradition, not to mention that of alchemy.

As Lev and others have shown, however, a similar preference for purely plant-based remedies is seen in the Jewish pharmacopoeia. I don’t want to over-emphasise this matter, or spend time on it here, but would again refer interested readers to papers either authored by or co-authored by Lev or Bos. Many offered in English are now available through academia.edu.

Perhaps I should add that in the opinion of the present writer, the plant on folio 1r is the Clove and is one of the very few Voynich plant-pictures which show a single plant rather than a plant group. Among others first identified by the present author are those included the group ‘Myrobalans’.. but since this blog is meant to assist the investigations of others, and not showcase my own, I add no more.

Nonetheless, and despite my opinion being, on balance, that the manuscript’s plants are not primarily medicinal ones, I might agree that many could be termed ‘spices’ in that vague and very general way the word was applied in medieval texts.

Once again, then, I’ll be clear that while I speak of the ‘medical Voynich’ theory, I neither support nor endorse it – pretty much as Marcus Marci would neither support nor endorse Mnishovsky’s story of Rudolfine ownership, though he mentions it for form’s sake.

More generally…

Voynich text

If, by any chance, the ‘noble soul’ whom Baresch believed travelled east in search of superior eastern and ‘Egyptian’ medicine had been the physician of Liège known to us as John a la Barbe or John of Burgundy, and if (as I suspect) Baresch hoped the Voynich manuscript contained some remedy for Plague, John of Burgundy’s De epidemia would certainly be a candidate for testing against the Voynich text.

An easily-accessible English translation is presently offered (HERE) in a post by ‘stonelund’.

By the holding library, BNF NAF 4516 is described as:

Préservation de Epidémie , traduction française du De morbo epidemiae de Jean de Bourgogne Jean de Bourgoigne), John de Mandeville etc.

If you have difficulty accessing its digitised copy, try clearing your browser. The BNF site is extremely sensitive and you may need to try both the following addresses to gain access, but I hope one of them will work for you.


1. Dorothea Waley Singer

Dorothea Waley Singer (left) Charles Singer (right).

It is a pity that d’Imperio reports comments made by Charles Singer but none by Dorothea Waley Singer, a scholar of international standing, a palaeographer and bibliographer with links to the Medieval Academy of America.

D.W. Singer’ ‘s monograph entitled, Some Plague Tractates (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries) was published in the Royal Society Journal in 1916 and treats in detail BNF NAF 4516.

D.W. Singer worked on compiling a great catalogue of pre-renaissance scientific and alchemical manuscripts and it is to her work that Lynn Thorndike refers in his letter to Scientific American in 1925, and in connection with the Voynich manuscript.

Had Dorothea Waley Singer lived longer – she died in 1964 – or had Kraus donated the manuscript earlier to Yale as a lost leader, then the Beinecke catalogue entry might have been written up rather differently to what it was.

D.W. Singer’s obituary was published by the Royal Society’s Journal for the History of Medicine and includes the following information:

“She served for many years on the council of the History Section of the Royal Society of Medicine; and in the British Society for the History of Science she was a vice-president from its foundation in 1947 until 1950. She was also an executive member of the Academie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences, and a vice-president of the Union International d’Histoire des Sciences, of which body she was for long .. the chairman of its Bibliographical Commission. She was also a Corresponding Member of the Medieval Academy of America” – where she became well known as a specialist in Latin palaeography.

The full text of that biography and obituary can be downloaded as a pdf. (HERE).

  • Dorothea Waley Singer, ‘Some Plague Tractates (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries)’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 9, Number (March 1916) – Section of the History of Medicine. [This article is presently available as a free-access pdf on the Journal’s site.


2. Joseph Barrois and Gugliemo Libri.

Guglielmo Libri

Muskinsky’s offers a helpful account of Barrois and his relations with Libri (HERE). For more see entry at Arlima [HERE].

In case the Muskinsky page is taken down, I add a couple of paragraphs from it:

Joseph Barrois was an erudite but eccentric and indeed crooked bibliophile who became fatally involved with the notorious and unpunished book thief Guglielmo Libri, who, in his capacity of inspector of public instruction, traveled throughout France [and Italy] surveying libraries and pillaging them.

[Napoleon had ordered the pillaging and removal to France, or to deposits in Italy, of aristocratic and religious libraries in territories he had conquered. Libri lobbied for, and obtained, authority over all these in a role which was effectively that of libraries’ inspector-general. – D.]

Barrois is known have taken in “Libri’s” manuscripts and had them rendered unrecognizable through rearrangement of quires, rebinding, mutilation, etc. The unsigned binding [of Barrois’ ‘Dactylogie’] was confidently attributed by Bernard Breslauer to the Parisian binder Thompson, who assisted Barrois in these fraudulent activities.

Barrois also compiled his own valuable manuscript collection, about ten percent of which stemmed from compromised sources. Foreseeing Libri’s conviction, he had the collection discreetly shipped to England in 1849 and sold to the Earl of Ashburnham (cf. Delisle, pp. xl-xlii; most but not all were eventually repurchased by the French government). Convicted in 1850, Libri himself remained comfortably in England, where he was wined and dined by the likes of Panizzi, Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum.

In Dactylologie et langage primitif restitués d’après les monuments – 1850, published the year of Libri’s conviction, Barrois explores the origins of language in gesture and phonetics, postulating an original universal (Indo-European) language shared by Assyria, India, and China. He traces its roots through cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and classical Greek, and declares the Phoenician digital or finger-alphabet to have been the source of many other writing systems, including Lap, Sanskrit, Chinese, Aztec and other Amerindian languages.

[So the age of Kircher was not quite dead, even then.]

Short note – About crossbowmen post 1440.

The next post, on the theme of Plague, Medicine, Money and Secrecy, will refer again to France and to Burgundy, so this seems a suitable moment to publish matter originally written as postscript to my post of September 11th., 2022, in which Dukes of Burgundy are listed as notable early book-collectors and bibliophiles.

Here are the paragraphs to which the information was initially linked, as postscript, in that post.

At this juncture kings and princes began to develop a taste for books and to form libraries; that of St. Louis* was one of the earliest. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these amateurs had in their pay veritable armies of copyists. Thenceforth it was they who directed the movement of the production of manuscripts.

*Louis IX of France, reigned 1226 to 1270 AD.

The most famous were Popes John XXII (1316-34), Benedict XII (1334-42); the poet Petrarch (1304-74), who was not satisfied with purchasing the manuscripts in convents but himself formed a school of copyists in order to have accurate texts, the King of France, Charles V (1364-1380), who collected in the Louvre a library of twelve hundred volumes [subsequently purchased in 1424 by John of Lancaster as Duke of Bedford and Prince Regent of France – D], the French princes Jean, Duke of Berry, a forerunner of modern bibliophiles (1340-1416), Louis Duke of Orléans (1371-1401) and his son Charles of Orléans (d. 1467), the dukes of Burgundy, the kings of Naples, and Matthias Corvinus. Also worthy of mention are Richard of Bury, Chancellor of England, Louis of Bruges (d. 1492), and Cardinal Georges d’Amboise (1460-1510)

from from: ‘O’Donovan notes: Calendar emblems “July” – The making of manuscripts’ voynichrevisionist, September 11th., 2022. Source cited in the earlier post.

Deciding to cut it from that post, I later added it – again as postscript – to the post of December 19th., 2022 but once more it was cut as a bit tangential.

So now here it is at last, and upgraded from incidental postscript to a post of its own. 🙂

Images of Crossbowmen in German calendars after 1440.

The mid-fifteenth century was still a time when German-speaking regions were looking to France and to Italy for their fashions – in clothing, in literature, and in styles for manuscript-illuminations. I’d suggest it worth considering, as one reason for the proliferation of crossbowmen in German works made after 1440, that it had been in that same year of 1440 that Philip the Good of Burgundy had taken part, as a competitor, in a crossbow-shooting competition in Ghent, this competition being part of a festival that lasted for weeks and officially eliminated the last trace of impropriety which had earlier attached to use of that weapon.

As Crombie reports, it was on 13th March, 1440, that the Ghent crossbow guild invited to a great crossbow competition ‘kings, lords, provosts, deans, wardens… and other honourable men and communities of crossbowmen ‘in privileged and free towns’ to what it described as “the honourable, right and proper” pastime of crossbow shooting. The word ‘game’ still described the exercise of learned skills as a form of pleasure. The sense in which we mean ‘game’ as a trivial, or at least non-serious activity, was still rare.

For the benefit of American and other modern, non-European readers who may not realise the extraordinary deference, amounting to what non-Europeans would see as near-worship, which northern Europeans paid to members of the nobility in those days, I should add that this deference went .far beyond simple snobbery or social ambition and might see a member of the nobility treated as almost more than human.

In the case of Philip and the impact of his decision to compete in that crossbow competition, it has to be kept in mind that he was not only Duke of Burgundy but part of the genealogical tree which included the Valois Kings of France during the fifteenth century. So when John took up that crossbow in so public a place at a time of political tensions, that act created more than just a local ‘stir’. It was quite enough to remove finally the stigma which had earlier attached to the weapon but more importantly for that time, served as an act of international diplomacy.

On those political tensions between Burgundy and more northern regions, any good history of the period will provide details.

German crossbow guilds/fraternities were, I believe, established from that year but am open to correction on the point.*

*I have read a paper on the subject of the German crossbow guilds but it was a few years ago and I cannot for the life of me now recall its details. It was well illustrated, as I recall.

  • Laura Crombie, ‘Shooting for prizes and honour’, Medieval Warfare , JUL / AUG 2017, Vol. 7, No. 3. pp. 40-45
  • Laura Crombie, Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders, 1300-1500, Boydell Press (2016). A number of the chapters were released separately as essays.

Having already analysed the Voynich ‘December’ emblem in detail elsewhere, I’ll summarise by saying that with all due respect to the conscientious effort made by Jens Sensfelder in 2003, his reservations and doubts – so honestly expressed – were well-founded. The bow cannot be asserted uniquely German or uniquely fifteenth-century.

Addendum to ‘Notice to Katie Tucker’

Part of a comment which Wayne Tucker recently posted at the Voynich.ninja forum reads as follows:

,,,Much of my work since 1983, has been published through the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon, my geodesy field work, and associated cartographic maps, can be found in numerous occasional papers published by the Natural History Museum of the U of O.

I began studying the VM in 1987 and was, at this time, employed as the Assistant Director of the U of O Map Library.

As the AD it was my job to know all of these early works.

By 1985 I was already familiar with the Catalan Map.

That “mapa munde” was the first to employ the rose compass image.

As the AD it also fell on my shoulders to peer review the work of other professional cartographers.

What Wayne Tucker has failed to say – and those who should say have also failed to say – is that the first detailed analytical study of the Voynich map (often termed the ‘rosettes’ page) was provided by the present author following publication of a post by Nick Pelling entitled ‘A Hurricane of Oddness’ .

The present author’s research was undertaken with the aim of clarifying a drawing which had previously received nothing but occasional bits of cloud-gazing and one of two brief comments that proved to be well-founded: one noting the two suns and another the inclusion of what the writer thought might be a path or road.

The present author undertook that research between 2011-2013, with summaries published as blogposts first in a blogger blog ‘Findings’ and then, switching to wordpress, at Voynichimagery. Occasional additional notes were posted as addenda to that research until at least 2015 and all that material remained freely accessible to the public until the level of plagiarism became impossible and the material was closed to the public in 2017.

It was in those research-summaries mention was first made, in Voynich studies, of various cartes marine, including but not limited to the world-map of Abraham Cresques (part of what is sometimes termed the Atlas Catala or Catalan Atlas).

In those posts, too, the present author explained in detail the phases of evolution evident in the Voynich map and why the detail now in the map’s north-west roundel is to be equated with Cresques’ “Angel of the Rose” as I chose to call it.

For people well acquainted with the medieval cartographic traditions, it will be evident that maps gridded by the Rose are not so easily classified as is generally supposed – they do not fit well with the old and persistent argument about development from portolans and are not ‘mappa mundi’.

Some others may understand better than I do what Wayne Tucker might mean, therefore, when he writes:

“The Atlas Catalan is not the Mapa Munde. That map was found in the Hereford Cathedral school.”

I do not consider Cresques’ worldmap a ‘Mappa mundi’ (note correct spelling) but related rather rose-gridded (some say rhumb-gridded or loxodromic) charts whose first examples occur in north Africa and among the Basque but whose flowering occurs in fourteenth-century Genoa and Majorca.

Regardless of how long Wayne Tucker has been interested in maps, and in the Voynich manuscript, it seems he is now attempting an argument that he is entitled to claim precedence, or originality within the field of Voynich studies, for such things as allusion to Cresques’ worldmap and its ‘rose’.

It is not merely a quarrel about precedence, but of Wayne Tucker’s implying or asserting a precedence to which he is not entitled, and thereby implying that any other reference to such matter either imitates or plagiarises some previously unknown insight about the manuscript’s content.

He attempts to assert, in effect, that there had never before been any reference made to points in common between the Voynich drawing and certain medieval charts (including Cresques’), nor any parallel argued or noted before between Cresques’ Rose and the figure I termed the Voynich map’s ‘Angel of the Rose’.

The fact is that all those matters were contributed to the study over a period of years, in the form of research-summaries published by the present writer from 2011 onwards and freely available online to students of the manuscript… until 2017. Every post received readers, and from 2011-2017, Voynichimagery received so many readers, some few of whom continue to offer as ‘inspirational ideas’ snippets lifted from one or another of those (or others’) contributions – and without the scholar’s routine acknowledgement of their sources.

This is why it becomes necessary – simply to maintain one’s own rights over one’s own original work – to make the facts clear whenever persons such as Katie Tucker, or Wayne Tucker or others attempt to claim to be the first to have mentioned (in the present case) the Catalan Atlas or its worldmap in Voynich studies.

The present author could claim to have been interested in maps and cartography for half a century; to have been studying indigenous and non-mathematical astronomies since the 1970s, and to have applied that knowledge to the exposition of medieval pictures since the 1980s.

But the fact is that within the field of Voynich studies, the present author applied that interest and knowledge in written contributions to the study of Beinecke MS 408 only from 2008 onwards, and in the same way Wayne Tucker’s first reference to the Atlas Catala, the ‘Rose’ and so forth comes only very recently.

I have never suggested there is any link between the Voynich manuscript and an ‘ancient machine’ so unless some earlier Voynichero cares to dispute Wayne and Katie’s claim on that score, it’s all his.

I will continue to use, or re-publish my own original research and contributions to Voynich studies as I please, and if readers are misled into thinking the original imitates an imitator, they must blame for their confusion that first Voynichero who insisted that “in Voynich studies it is unnecessary to cite precedents”. The ignorance which informed that idea has created error and confusion exponentially since the slogan was first promoted by one or two prominent voices from about 2010.

Perhaps some old-boy Voynichero might decide do the decent thing and help Wayne and Katie with their footnotes and bibliography.

O’Donovan Notes – #8.3 Angles of approach – Medicine, Newbold and ‘astral spirits’ in the VMS (Pt 2)

c.2800 words.

[update – 10th January. Persistent format error finally fixed, a caption added, couple of minor typos corrected.]

The author’s rights are asserted.

Sections – Neoplatonic stars and biology – Whose idea? Neoplatonist anatomy??; de duodecim portis; Cotton MS Galba E IV; comparing styles; Newbold’s contribution.

It is a nice question whether Newbold gained his ideas of neoplatonic influence from his own imagination, or whether that idea too had come from Wilfrid along with the ‘Roger Bacon autograph’ theory.

Wilfrid had lived in England for a quarter of a century before moving to New York, having arrived in London in the autumn of 1890. He had been granted British citizenship in 1906 when his sponsors included Richard Garnett,* Keeper of Printed Books in the British Museum and who, under the pseudonym ‘G.R.Kent’, had published in the early 1890s a monograph entitled The Soul and the Stars.

  • Colin MacKinnon, ‘The Naturalization Papers of Wilfrid Michael Voynich’ (2013).
Richard Garnett

Richard died before Wilfrid acquired the manuscript, but Richard’s son Robert succeeded to the post and since at this time the Museum’s collection of medieval manuscripts had not been re-housed in the British Library, it does not seem unreasonable to think that Wilfrid would know Richard’s monograph, and even the manuscript Cotton MS Galba E IV which we’ll mention later, and which was then still in the Museum’s library.

Some further reason to believe this association of the manuscript’s figures with ‘souls’ predates Wilfrid’s first contact with Newbold is offered by what Kahn reports of Wilfrid’s approaching various persons in England during the period between 1912 and 1916. Kahn says these included a vice president of the Royal astronomical society and Andrew George Little, a medieval history professor whose special interest was the Franciscan religious order. Little had been until 1901 Professor of History at the University College of South Wales, but by the time Wilfrid acquired the manuscript was serving as professor of palaeography at Manchester.

After Wilfrid moved to New York, he at some time contacted the very wealthy and somewhat eccentric businessman George Fabyan, among whose funded projects was the Riverbank Laboratories (so termed) where William Friedman and his future wife Elizebeth first met. Three years before Wilfrid would settle in New York, Fabyan directed his Riverbank establishment to build an acoustical levitation machine, using specifications allegedly gained by decoding some of Francis Bacon’s writings and with technical assistance from Wallace Clement Sabine. On the surface of it, Fabyan must have seemed a perfect potential buyer for the manuscript – but neither he or anyone else would buy it.

But for all these reasons and others, it appears that Newbold had met Wilfrid early – perhaps as early as 1916 – and from that time onwards Newbold worked on the assumption that he was researching a ‘Bacon scientific autograph’. Wilfrid’s persuasive character clearly had its effect on Newbold’s more pliant one, to the point where by 1921 Newbold had so lost his sense of proportion that he not only brought to the scheduled lecture for the College of Physicians a person who was not a member, had no relevant qualifications or experience in medicine, and who was plainly a bookseller hunting a rich client but he permitted Voynich to address the assembled scientists and take up a third of the allotted time.

About a month later, Scientific American published an editorial based on the content in that lecture. It shows that even with the best will – even conceding such impossibilities as the manuscript’s including a drawing of a spiral galaxy – the meeting’s atmosphere had not remained solemn.

This is all there is to the still-persistent notion of a ‘biological Voynich’ story and it must have gone hard for Newbold because by then he had come to believe his own imagination, and Wilfrid’s, and was particularly sensitive to ridicule – as remarks made even in that lecture make clear.

In 1921, there was no protective bubble or ‘Voynich-R-us’ community that might insulate him from opinions voiced by the public at large or by more objective academic or scientific specialists. Below (right) is how the New Scientist editorial closed.

NOTE – when sections of text are reproduced as images in these posts, it is not only to save my time.

Sometimes it is important that readers see for themselves that a passage is represented precisely as published, free of any editorialising and in some cases too – as in this case – it avoids excessive attention from bots.

This effort to describe a Neoplatonic biology formed the medical part of Newbold’s lecture. Here are his comments on the drawing he labelled Plate IV. And before anyone laughs, just think how many other writers, since 1921, have relied on exactly the same flawed method, imposing on the drawings in just this same way the fruits of sheer imagination and without the slightest effort made to demonstrate that at any time, in any place or by any group of people, drawings of such a kind were ever made to convey the posited meaning.

Neoplatonist anatomy?!?

For people of Newbold’s time, an obvious objection was that neoplatonic philosophies were regarded as in every way antithetical to a focus on the material, especially when it came to the human body. A ‘neoplatonic physician’ seemed a contradiction in terms; and so a manuscript of neoplatonic biology would seem immediately ridiculous.

In preparing to oppose that long-held view of neoplatonism, James Wilberding recently described it well:

The true object of care for a Neoplatonist is one’s soul; one’s body is at best an object of indifference and at worst an obstacle to one’s philosophical ascent. Why, then, should a Neoplatonist engage with a field whose goal is the health and preservation of the body?

In 1921, Newbold was likely to find that most historians – whether of science or of religion – would object to the idea that a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar would produce a work combining reference to ‘astral spirits’, the rebirth of souls (a non-Christian belief) and explicit description of human generation.

But in fact, and in fairness to Newbold, there had been a philosophical-medical treatise on sperm circulating in England by, and indeed before, the thirteenth century.

de duodecim portis

For general background on that text, here’s Merisalo:

Along with Galen’s authentic texts revolutionizing Western medicine, less well-known ones gain popularity in the thirteenth century, not least thanks to being attributed to the [some?] great authority on Ancient medicine. One of these texts is a Latin treatise variously titled ‘Liber spermatis/De spermate/Microtegni/de duodecim portis’ etc., consisting of an embryological and an astrological part.

It starts circulating in the middle of the twelfth century in England and Southern France together with late Antique and early Mediaeval texts of philosophical, scientific and medical content. It appears at the end of the twelfth century in Bavaria, attributed to Galen as author and Constantine the African as translator.

The attribution to Galen, however, ensured the success of the treatise in its [most extended] form as a recurrent element in the Northern French Galenic omnibus volumes, with variable sets of texts, such as nos. 7-10 and 12. Apart from no. 7, which shows affinities both to the “Bavarian” and the Northern French texts, these volumes transmit a remarkably unified Galba + Berlin version.
It is, however, quite obvious that as late as the end of the thirteenth century, the
[most extended] text circulated in more than one version in Northern France, and that shorter extracts would be copied as well.

from: Outi Merisalo, ‘The Early Tradition of the Pseudo-Galenic De spermate (Twelfth-Thirteenth Centuries’, Scripta, Vol 5 (2012) pp. 99-109. [now accessible through JSTOR]

That reference to ‘Galba’ is to a manuscript once owned by John Dee, who wrote for it a table of Contents which allows us to see exactly which extracts were later removed.

British Library, Cotton MS Galba E IV.

This manuscript was already in the British Museum’s collection when Richard Garnett was there, and thus throughout the time Wilfrid lived in London – Cotton MS Galba E IV is now held in the British Library.

The contents range in date from 1175-1350 AD, and the volume is described by the Library as “a composite manuscript made up of two parts” the second part “produced in South-East England in the last quarter of the 12th century. It contains a collection of scientific texts” – which I’ll list in tabular form:

  • An anonymous text on natural philosophy, beginning:‘Sciendum est quid sit philosophia’.
  • Marius (fl. 1160), De Elementis (On the Elements), beginning: ‘[Natura] aque que est’.
  • Nemesius of Emesa (fl. 390), De Natura Hominis; the chapter De Elementis (On the Elements)
  • Hippocrates (b. c. 460 BC, d. c. 380 BC), De Aere, Aqua et Regionibus (The Book on Water, Air and the Regions).
  • Nemesius of Emesa, De Natura Hominis (On the Nature of Man), translated by Alfanus of Salerno (d. 1085).
  • Adelard of Bath (fl. 12th century), Questiones Naturales (Questions on Nature).ff. 228r-233v:
  • Pseudo-Aristotle (fl. 4th century BC), De Phisionomia (About Physiognomy).ff. 233v-238v:
  • Pseudo-Galen, De Spermate (On Sperm).
  • Soranus of Ephesus (fl. early 2nd century), Questiones Medicinales (Medical Questions)

In John Dee’s list; not in the present manuscript.

I owe the following to Thomson and include his apparatus:

  • De phisionomia; extracts from “Aristotle,” “Loxus,” “Palemon.” (TKI 538; several MSS, one of the eleventh century.) and, among various other extracts,
  • A commentary on part of Hippocrates’ Epidimiarum, entitled ‘Expositio quintae incisionis epidemiarum Hippocratis’
  • Dioscorides, De herbis femineis. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 59, without incipit and explicit. As he mentions illustrations, his source might well have been Bodl. MS 130, made at Bury, eleventh-twelfth century. TKI 182 etc.)
  • Oribasius, De herbarum virtutibus. (TKI 6 etc.)
  • Odo de Meung, Versus de virtutibus herbarum, or Macer. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 107, as Macer, De viribus herbarum; inc. as in TKI 610.)
  • Palladius, De agricultura. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 113; incipit
    as in TKI 1026, and also explicit of complete work.)
  • Liber de simplici medicina’; Platearius?

For readers without Latin I should add that “De herbis femineis” does not mean ‘herbs for women’ but describes plants having characteristics associated with feminine character: such as roundness or softness of leaf and so on. If ‘feminine’ bothers you, think of it as ‘Yin’.

Had Newbold known of this manuscript, and it is evident that he dug into the question of what books had once been owned by Dee since this was another element in Wilfrid’s spell-binding but unsupported tale of genius science, misunderstood magician and pinnacle of European social aspiration, so it is possible that Newbold came to know something of Cotton MS Galba E IV and its earlier contents having included works on herbs and epidemics etc., I say it’s possible, but I’ve seen no evidence that he did know it.*

*Cotton MS Galba E IV is referenced in Burkhardt (1891-1902) and again in (1917); its contents would be described briefly by Haskins in 1927. For details of these publications see British Library Catalogue and Richard C. Dales, ‘Anonymi De elementis: From a Twelfth-Century Collection Scientific Works in British Museum MS Cotton Galba E. IV’, Isis, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Summer, 1965), pp. 174-189 (JSTOR)

Hague MMW A 10 11, Oxford, St.John’s MS 18, Beinecke MS 408 – How similar?

Though the format for those two fifteenth-century images was comparable, the context of each was very different: the Hague manuscript being a copy of a theological text by Augustine, and the St.John’s a text which moderns would call pseudo-science – a treatise on physiognomy.

But in what are the contents of Cotton MS Galba E IV, and what were, one does see adjacent texts from ancient and from more recent authors, from Christian and pre- or non-Christian writers, from treatises on generation to works about plants, and meteorology – all found together in this one English manuscript apparently complete half a century before the Voynich quires were inscribed.

What Newbold saw in the Voynich drawings may have been – and I think was – very largely a product of his following up a single good observation that the star-holders are meant for disembodied characters. One may call them souls, or pre-Christian daimons or deities but ‘demons’ seems inapt. Newbold was also reasonable in expecting that what would be so about the type in one section would be true in all.

His fundamental error was to adopt another person’s theory without careful scrutiny.

But then, after identifying the figures as disembodied characters, not to then turn and seek to discover where, when and in what context such forms are actually attested in any medieval art.

Instead, possessed of unreasonable certainty, he turned his eyes inward (as it were) and began to impose on the drawings whatever appeared consistent with that theory – one whose foundations were (and are) dubious in the extreme.

A scholar is expected to scrutinise carefully the foundation on which he/she intends to build. This is one reason that precedents are cited for any assertion made about a medieval manuscript.

However, from there he began seeking one, and then another detail he could be interpreted as consonant with that theory, in the back-to-front process still endemic in Voynich studies and which is known as allegoresis,

Consider his comments on folio 75. Questions of stylistics, of layout, of proportions in the figures, and all else – and whether or not these characteristics accord with his posited thirteenth-century English context are questions he never pauses to ask.

Why his heavens (it is ‘the heavens’ not Heaven which the bible describes as spread out lie a tent) should have sections carved from its boundary Newbold does not explain, nor why a birth canal should be coloured green; though the joy of allegoresis is that the perpetrator can always pull up some explanation for anything and everything, being freed of the normal constraints imposed by history, art history, manuscript studies and the general standards of proof.

I do think Newbold’s first insight was reasonable, and though I’ve described the anthropoform figures, myself, as ‘hours’ and ‘tyches’ I see no reason to believe that the first enunciator mightn’t have called them daimons – or even ‘demons’ as Augustine did.

Two images and human forms in the Vms.

Clearly by the time that the images in Oxford, St.John’s MS 18 and Hague MMW 10 A 11 – Augustine’s City of God were painted, ideas so strongly opposed by Augustine met less objection from John of Bedford or contemporary painters in France and England.

One scholar argues the frontispiece for Roland’s text is taken directly from Bedford’s presentation copy (now Lisbon, Biblioteca d’Ajuda MS 52,XII,18), and another attributes it to the London illuminator (“lymnour”) William Arbell. For more on that, see the Bodleian’s catalogue entry.

The point is that with such patterns of circulation and exchange, one can say no more yet than that both belong to that ‘southern’ region of western Europe earlier defined.

There are differences between those two paintings, and still more points of difference between the way these bodies appear, and the form given the Voynich manuscript’s anthropoform figures. What the first two allow us to say is that during the fifteenth century, in southern Europe, unclothed bodies pictured in ranks along an horizon, or walking elevated paths, can refer to stars or daimons and their supposed influence..

Notice how, in both those manuscripts, the males are given the same ‘pudding-bowl’ haircut as we see on John of Bedford himself in the Bedford Hours. All the Hague manuscript’s elevated, unclothed figures are clean shaven; the figures placed on earth in the Roland frontispiece include one (second from left) that is bearded and another (second from right) which, like John, has a kind of five-o-clock shadow.

Otherwise, though these two images may resemble each other in some ways, they have not very much in common with the Voynich drawings as drawings.

(detail at right) shows “The text prefaced with a painted frontispiece on four levels: the signs of the zodiac, twelve men exhibiting the influence of these constellations, the stars (or planets generally), and seven men with rays shining on them exhibiting the appropriate influence.” Bodleian Catalogue of manuscripts in Oxford.

True, St.Johns’ manuscript shows a similar inclination to draw over-large heads, but we saw the same in an earlier post, in some illustrations from an Italian copy of Dante’s Cantos.

(detail) Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Holkham misc. 48 p.4. Italy (Genoa?) c 1350–1375

In sum

Despite Newbold’s efforts, and despite his range of reading and honest intentions, his solid contribution to the manuscript’s study comes down to a simple recognition that the Voynich figures should not be presumed literal. To that we may add that in a few known fifteenth-century works, elevated and unclothed figures are intended for what we may call, until we know better, ‘daimons’.

The original sense of that term:

Daimon: ” a lesser deity or guiding spirit such as the daimons of ancient Greek religion and mythology, and of later Hellenistic religion and philosophy.”

I can’t be sure, but it does not seem that this male from the Voynich calendar has a pudding-bowl haircut under his magnificent cap – the type of headwear I’ve called a tailed beanie.

Nice ‘tailed beanie’.

Here are some more examples, from 6thC Toledo, through the fifteenth century and sixteenth century until today. This type of headwear is still around. The most recent version nicely illustrates why one might have an end that looked pointed or more-or-less squared off. It depends on the type of fabric and, in examples formed by hook or needles, how the maker chooses to shape it and end it off.

Some recommended sources:

Simon Trépanier, ‘From Hades to the Stars’, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 36, No. 1 (April 2017), pp. 130-182. [JSTOR].

Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies) . Essential reading. If you decide to buy a copy, I suggest getting the hardcopy first edition.

Rodney M. Thomson, ‘ “Liber Marii de Elementis”; the work of a hitherto unknown Saliternian Master?‘, Viator, Vol. 3 (1972) pp.179-189. [pdf]

For the very keen:

Merisalo, O., & Pahta, P. (2008). ‘Tracing the trail of transmission: The pseudo-Galenic De spermate in Latin’. In M. Goyens, P. de Leemans, & A. Smets (Eds.), Science Translated: Latin and Vernacular Translations of Scientific Treatises in Medieval Europe (pp. 91-104). (Medievalia Lovaniensia). Leuven University Press.


D’Imperio reported that “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.’” but I’m yet to see any evidence he relied on other than imagination and guesswork, his knowledge of Newbold’s views, and his own inclination to civilly accommodate the opinions of others. Lynn Thorndike he wasn’t. I think the more telling fact is that although his area of specialisation was medieval technology – including mechanics, plumbing and hydraulics etc., he suggests those ‘tubes and pipes’ might be someone else’s problem: organs of the body. One more item for the ‘Not One of Mine’ set.

O’Donovan Notes – #8.3 Angles of approach – Medicine, Newbold and ‘astral spirits’ in the VMS (Pt 1)

Ways of belief, of expectation, of judgment … are not easily modified after they have once taken shape. – John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct.

c.1280 words. The author’s rights are asserted.


The previous post was little more than a bridge which would allow us to connect the same themes across the period from the early centuries AD, to the fifteenth. That is, from the period to which the same assignments of month-to-sign is attested as in the Voynich calendar, to dates appropriate for the Voynich manuscript’s vellum. While doing so, we may introduce a hint of that theme we’ll consider later – an idea of secret medicine.

Let me say again here that I have seen nothing to justify the now deeply-entrenched idea that the Voynich manuscript is focused on medicine, nor that the calendar was intended to serve astrology, nor that the ‘leaf-and-root’ section is about medicinal pharmacy.

Many newer-come Voynicheros will not realise that was passes for “what everyone knows” are very largely products of Wilfrid Voynich’s imagination or that of William Romaine Newbold. It is unfortunate that so many of their unfounded notions came to be embedded in the traditionalist narrative and even – during the late 1960s and 70s – incorporated into what was written up as the Beinecke library’s catalogue entry.

That is why, for example, you’ll see a pre-set slate of options for understanding the work – those being ‘science, medicine or magic’.

We owe to Newbold not only his subjective description of the manuscript in terms of thematic sections, but also the first effort to understand the manuscript’s anthropoform figures and an intimation that they are not necessarily meant literally.

Unlike Wilfrid, who may have had some Latin but seems ignorant of Greek, of ancient and of medieval history, Newbold certainly studied both those languages and related literature, both secular and religious. (The Upenn site’s biography is excellent; that in the wiki article worse than merely bad).

Newbold’s great mistake had been to accept on faith various assertions made with enormous self-confidence by Wilfrid Voynich.

If – as I think – Wilfrid himself was early convinced by his own imaginative tale, until he could not distinguish between the offerings of his imagination and those of evidence and reason, so we may regard him as the first modern Voynich theorist, and Newbold the first of those whose aim was nothing more than to hunt for items that might support to another’s theory after the fact.

Even so, it wasn’t Wilfrid, but Newbold who first offered a classification of the manuscript’s sections, and described the anthropoform figures as meant for disembodied souls or spirits – daimones.

Given what we’ve seen in Hague, MMW 10 A 11 and what is to be seen in another, slightly earlier French manuscript, (Oxford, Bodleian, St. John’s College MS 18) we should not dismiss Newbold’s views without some consideration, at least.

(detail) Oxford, Bodleian, St.John’s College MS 18 f. 1r. Roland of Lisbon’s Reductorium physiognomie.. Second quarter of the fifteenth century. Image copyright, Bodleian Library. Reproduced here by express permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College Oxford..

Newbold’s opinions about the Voynich figures were already set by 1921, being included in his lecture given in April of that year, and as part of his description of the manuscript’s sections:

I’ve underlined one sentence in red because it shows that by 1921 Newbold had already placed greater faith in Wilfrid’s theoretical narrative than in the historical evidence.

Newbold knows there is no evidence in any of Bacon’s extant writings suggestive of any particular interest in the idea of transmigration of souls – which idea is contrary to Bacon’s religious allegiance – but Newbold is already so dedicated to Wilfrid’s theory of Baconian authorship (for which there was no evidence, either, save a scrap of unsupported rumour) that Newbold now imagines that proof must exist somewhere; that the theory cannot be wrong.

The underlined sentence implies, I think, that he imagined the missing ‘somewhere’ to be in Wilfrid Voynich’s ugly ducking manuscript.

Three months after he had delivered that lecture, Newbold wrote to ask assistance in hunting the imagined evidence that might support his own theory.

Dated July 21st., that letter was published in the Catholic Review in October of that year, and separated by several pages from its illustration.

NOTE: Looking again at this folio (75r) I realise that it contains what is near-enough to single hatching ‘in the strict sense’ – in which it is exceptional but because of which I owe my regular readers an apology.

The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Oct., 1921), p.407.

Whether Newbold received any response to that letter I do not know, but once again and as with his choice of topic for the lecture he had delivered in April to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia*, Newbold seems to have been oblivious to the expectations, interests or sensibilities of his audience.

*Mary Scott Newbold lectures were intended to present to the College recent technical advances in the practice of scientific medicine. See Lectures 4 and 6 published in the same volume of the Transactions.


What led Newbold to think the figures were souls or ‘astral spirits’?

As so often, one must ask about a Voynich theory what evidence could have led the creator to suggest it. Few deign to reply to such a question, but in Newbold’s case it might just possibly be answered, even now, ninety years and more after his death.

We know that he had studied both Latin and Greek. The authors who are named in his April lecture provide some idea of his range of reading. And I daresay we may take it that his use of such terms as ‘souls’ and ‘astral souls’ approximate to the Greek daimones or daemones.

Trepanier’s recent paper, in which he attempts to reconstruct Empedocles’ views, has a comment on this point:

“Part one [of Trepanier’s paper] reviews Empedocles on soul and argues that the identification of the transmigrating daimon of [fragment] B115 with the soul found in our Platonist sources is correct enough, pending some important qualifications” (p.131).

Further, and still in regard to Fragment B115, he says, “This insistence on longevity but not everlastingness for both daimones and gods [in B115] is notable precisely because it goes against, respectively, for souls, the Platonic doctrine of the immortal soul, and, for gods, the traditional Homeric notion of “gods who are forever,” θεοὶ αἰὲν ἐόντες” –

which last comment accords well with Augustine’s position, as we saw it expressed in Civitate dei.

As I’ve said, I cannot agree that anything in the manuscript’s drawings justifies assuming medical purpose, but I may be mistaken. Newbold’s undoubted erudition means that we should not dismiss his comments on the older and neoplatonic works without the courtesy of consideration.

We also note that despite the uncharacteristically satirical, impatient and even contemptuous tone and “code-purple-prose” of Panofsky’s responses to Friedman’s list of simple-minded questions, Panofsky does seem to reference in his answer to Q.5 the earlier views expressed by Newbold’s views, as when Panofsky writes of “a general cosmological philosophy … celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those “spirits”…. (For the full text, see HERE).

If we place side by side, in chronological order, images dating from the days of Ausonius through those of Augustine, to the two fifteenth-century manuscripts cited above (Hague 10 11 and St.John’s 18), then I rather think we may be able to suggest some specific texts – even a specific manuscript – of which Newbold might, possibly, have been thinking.

to be continued..


  1. Professor Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. Section occurs pp.456ff.
  2. Oxford, Bodleian St.John’s College 18 was made by the Portuguese, Paris-trained physician Roland of Lisbon for John of Lancaster, while John was Prince Regent of France and England’s Duke of Bedford and shortly before or just after John purchased the entire French royal library at Louvre, as he did in 1424 following the death of Charles V.

O’Donovan notes #8.2 Angles of approach: physic and psyche.

c.2300 words including some optional sections

[Jan 2nd 2023 – passage from Lactantius added; minor edits made]

Header shows Hippocrates (seated), Asclepius (disembarking) and a very Roman Hermes greeting the latter with an arcane hand-gesture, to which Hippocrates unnoticed responds.. Mosaic, Roman, 2nd-3rdC AD, Image courtesy theoi.com

Et in Arcadia…

The author’s rights are asserted.

So here are two gods whom [Tresmegistus] affirms to have been men, Æsculapius and Mercury. Now concerning Æsculapius, both the Greeks and the Latins think the same about that; but as to Mercury, there are many who do not think that he was formerly a mortal, though Hermes [Tresmegistus] testifies that he was his grandsire. … It is sufficient to know that this Mercury of whom Hermes speaks is, as well as Æsculapius, a god who once was a man, according, to the testimony of this same Tresmegistus, esteemed so great by his countrymen, and Mercury’s own grandson.

Augustine, City of God. Bk 8, Ch.10

The French manuscript cited by Ellie Velinska (see previous post) was made several decades too late for its images to have influenced those in the Voynich manuscript, but it still has something to tell us.

Another of its illustrations (below) emphasises for the viewer that Hermes Tresmegistos was a character well known and quite well thought of by Augustine – that thinker and theologian who had lived in the 5thC and defined the future theological character of western Christian Europe. It is was from a fifteenth century French version of Augustine’s ‘Civitate Dei” that Ellie had that detail.

Below, another detail from that same manuscript shows Tresmegistus* wearing red hat used in Latin works to denote an elite easterner. He is putting Asclepius right on the subject of pagan deities. Asclepius is here imagined by the painter entirely Greek, but that’s not what Augustine says – and this isn’t the only time when the fifteenth-century Parisian illuminator tactfully avoided suggesting that any figure admired by the Greeks is even partly ‘Asiatic’.

*as it is spelled in Latin.

detail of folio 390r – The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11. manuscript made in Paris, illuminated there by Maïtre François who completed it c. 1475. The work was begun for Jacques d’Armagnac, duke of Nemours (1433-1477) and after his capture continued for Philippe de Commines (1447-1511), lord of Argenton..

The same impression is conveyed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica which says, “There are frequent allusions to Hermes Trismegistus in late medieval and Renaissance literature” but implies that it came only after the seventh century and from works transmitted in Arabic. This just isn’t so.

For any western student of theology, as for an educated layman, comments made in Augustine’s work told them otherwise. By the early fifteenth century, Civitate Dei (City of God) with its comments attributing medicine’s origin to Egypt would, whether true or not, have been considered general knowledge among the educated.

True, Augustine seems only to have known the Asclepius dialogue, but for our present question it’s enough – and another test for the value of Georg Baresch’s description of the Voynich manuscript.

Concerning Georg Baresch – for newcomers.

Georg Baresch is the first person whose possession of the manuscript is undisputed (save by those who argue the manuscript a modern fake). In his letter to Kircher, Baresch says (in 1635 1639) that German specialists in botany (these being the best in Europe at that time) do not know the Voynich plants’ identities, adding that the plants are exotics – i.e. not native to Europe. That Baresch himself insists (not ‘hypothesises’) that the material in the manuscript was gained in “oriental parts” is what we keep testing against the evidence offered by the Voynich drawings and diagrams, although on the point of medicinal purpose, Baresch himself says that’s only his “guess”. His having paid for copies of sections to be made, and then having them sent to Kircher because the latter had appealed for materials to assist decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics (hieratic) indicates, I think, that Baresch did honestly believe the content was in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’. So as we go, we test his views. So far, he’s looking good, but that only means his belief was not unreasonable or a-historical – not that it is certainly true.

What the text of Augustine’s Civitate Dei makes clear is that for a well educated person, it might seem logical to seek superior or ancient “pristine medicine” in Egypt.

In Book 8, Augustine writes,

Your grandsire, O Æsculapius,[was] the first discoverer of medicine, to whom a temple was consecrated in a mountain of Libya, near to the shore of the crocodiles. In that temple in which his body lies – his earthly man – … he affords to the infirm even now by his divinity those aids he used to afford them formerly by the art of medicine”. (Augustine, Civiate Dei. Bk VIII Ch. 26).

Augustine also knew, in fifth-century North Africa, what few medieval or Renaissance European artists appear to have known – namely that this Asclepius was not Greek, but half Hellenistic Greek and half Egyptian.* The story we see in the images made for Hague, MMW 10 A II, suggest rather that the Greek ancestor ‘Mercury’ is the patron of healing, though that’s not what Augustine knew, and he was quoting the original text.

*I stand corrected. Some Greek presence in Egypt dates to before Alexander’s conquest, leaving open the possibility that the Egyptian temple may have been frequented by Greeks, and by them associated with Asclepius, even before Alexander’s time.

“…by the shore of the crocodiles”

Augustine means lake-shores near that cult-centre called by the Greeks Krokodilopolis or Arsinoë, and by the Romans Arsinoë or, sometimes, Arcadia.

*autocorrect’s Antinoe un-corrected to Arsinoë, which is correct.

In traditional style, Augustine’s ‘Libya’ includes all land west of the Nile, save only the delta, and in fact, remnants survive today of a temple on the hills overlooking that shore.

Its nearest village was known in Ptolemaic times as Dionysias and so in modern accounts that temple is sometimes described as ‘The Temple of Stones’ or else the temple near Dionysias. It is now so reduced as to be all but devoid of interest, resembling an empty warehouse.

You can see both those places on the map (below). Dionysias is seen to the upper left [look for 184]. Crocodilopolis/Arsinoe/Arcadia near the centre [1935]. The numbers refer to the number of papyri found in a given site. [Other places called Arsinoe HERE]

Another site, rich in finds of papyri as the other two combined lies near the map’s top-right. It Karanis [2,474] and this isn’t the first time that Karanis and the Faiyum have cropped up while researching this manuscript’s drawings. Last year, treating the calendar’s ‘November’ emblem, I showed a detail from a Roman-era papyrus. That work is known as the ‘Book of the Fayum’ but Karanis in particular was noted some time ago when the present writer investigated some artefacts seen in the Voynich ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

Here’s a brief recap from that earlier work. This is less than a twentieth of it, but will do here. 🙂

Faiyum, glass and the Voynich ‘leaf and root’ section.

Karanis (sometimes Karanais) cropped up while considering artefacts seen in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

notice the vestigial ‘wreath’ ring around the neck. The brownish discolouration is a natural effect post-production. This image courtesy collection of John and Carole Alaire.

Some appear meant to represent glassware.

Some of those include a feature made by trailing an extra rod of glass to form what you may think of a ‘wreath’-ring.

In combination with that feature, you see what is evidently meant to dnote glass that is white or clear,

As I explained at length and with many illustrations at a time when any suggestion of ‘Asiatic’ influence caused severe allergic reaction among hard-core Voynich traditionalists – not so often these days – to find this combination is not very common. The ‘wreath’ ring indicates the eastern Roman empire in c.1st-2ndC or so, and clear or white glass with that indicates Egypt over Syria at that time.

Karanis was a major centre of glassmaking. Glassmaking tended to maintain similar forms and techniques until the craft-families were lost to illness or war who had kept those secrets. Enamelled and gilded glass, attested in finds from Begram (1st-2ndC AD), returned to Syria only with the Mongol’s eruption and consequent population movement. From there, Venice would acquire workers who were imprisoned on the city’s islands and whose techniques continue to echo those used in the eastern Mediterranean a thousand years earlier.

As for the earlier glass of Karanis and Syria – though called ‘Roman’ glass, Romans as such are unlikely to have had much to do with the process of manufacture. Other details suggest a context beyond Roman rule for some artefacts in this section, but we know that Hellenistic-Persian communities in what is now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan were making or importing glass of fine quality to as late as the 2ndC AD.

IF anyone had been intending to seek ‘ancient’ pristine medicine in what Baresch calls “oriental parts”, then if they had read Augustine’s ‘Asclepius’ dialogue, the Faiyum is surely one region they’d have on their itinerary, though Cairo’s fonduks are another, and perhaps also what remained of the temple to the other god-man, Hermes whom the Romans and Latins called ‘Mercury’. A temple to him lay further upriver than the Faiyum, at Hermopolis‘. Thus Augustine – “For this elder Hermes…who, he says, was his grandsire, is said to be buried in Hermopolis…”and

…[Tresmegistus says] Does not Hermes, who was my grandsire, and whose name I bear, abiding in the country which is called by his name, help and preserve all mortals who come to him from every quarter?

Thoth was also known through patristic writings, including those of Lactantius,whose life overlapped Ausonius’ and who served as advisor to Contantine I, the emperor to whose youngest son Ausonius’ uncle had been tutor.

Lactantius’ classical education allows him to refer easily to the works of Homer and to the many deities and philosophies of the empire that was still, to his time, ‘Roman’ in every sense. Nonetheless, he knew less than he believed he did. Literati of the Italian Renaissance spoke of Lactantius as the ‘Christian Ciceero’, his Institutiones Divinae offering a venerable authority for melding Christian and pre-Christian allusions.

In Bk I, Ch.6, a passage shows what he understood of Tresmegistus – and that he believed Egypt had first gained writing and laws from an outlawed Greek(!). It is an oddly European arrogance: The Greek Herodotus writing in the 5thC BC had known better and so would Augustine. But here is Lactantius – who says among other things that who is buried in Hermopolis is not Hermes, but Tresmegistus(!):

According to Cicero, Caius Cotta the pontiff, while disputing against the Stoics … says that there were five Mercuries; and having enumerated four in order, says that the fifth was he by whom Argus was slain, and that on this account he fled into Egypt, and gave laws and letters to the Egyptians. The Egyptians call him Thoth; and from him the first month of their year, that is, September, received its name among them. He also built a town, which is even now called in Greek Hermopolis (the town of Mercury), and the inhabitants of Phenæ honour him with religious worship. And although he was a man, yet he was of great antiquity, and most fully imbued with every kind of learning, so that the knowledge of many subjects and arts acquired for him the name of Trismegistus. He wrote books, and those in great numbers, relating to the knowledge of divine things, in which be asserts the majesty of the supreme and only God, and makes mention of Him by the same names which we use — God and Father. And that no one might inquire His name, he said that He was without name, and that on account of His very unity He does not require the peculiarity of a name. These are his own words: God is one, but He who is one only does not need a name; for He who is self-existent is without a name. God, therefore, has no name, because He is alone; nor is there any need of a proper name, except in cases where a multitude of persons requires a distinguishing mark, so that you may designate each person by his own mark and appellation. But God, because He is always one, has no peculiar name.

Healing from the spirit; attending to the body.

Healing in the style of ‘Asclepian’ medicine paid more attention to healing as a benefit of both physical and spiritual healing. That of Hippocrates had a more pragmatic concentration on the body as such.

The following is slightly edited from a Polish article, but this is standard information which you should find in any reliable history of the Greek tradition.

Ancient Greece had two types of medicine: one priestly-religious and associated with temple treatment and the divine Asclepios; the other Hippocratic and rational. Both types of medicine co-existed, representing two non-antagonistic alternatives in treatment. In spite of apparent differences in their approach, we have no evidence of either collaboration between Asclepian priests and Hippocratic physicians, nor of any mutual misunderstanding or hostility between them. Followers of Asclepios respected tradition, believed in a divine descent for their profession, but remained loyal to the Hippocratic Oath. The fact that when the rational type of medicine did not help a patient, the patient might seek then healing through religion and other alternatives is not rare even today.[i.e. it implies no exclusive attachment to either remedy].

see Marketos SG, Poulakou-Rebelakou E. Tradycyjna medycyna w starozytnej Grecji (współistnienie sztuki asklepiejskiej i medycyny hipokratejskiej) [Traditional medicine in ancient Greece (coexistence of Asclepian art and Hippocratic medicine)]. Przegl Lek. 1995;52(12):612-4. Polish. PMID: 8834663.

What that summary implies, and what we find in Latin Europe, is a deliberate ‘wiping’ of the older and once well-understood seminal contribution made by Egypt.

this is very clear in the fifteenth-century illustrations for the Hague copy of Augustine’s work, but is far more widespread within medieval and early Renaissance Latin Europe. I should add that Augustine has played a bit fast and loose with his terminology, choosing to use ‘demon’ rather than, as he should, daimon or daemon. Many in Augustine’s time still held the ancient belief that the stars were ensouled, and Augustine’s detestation of such figures may be a hangover from his Manichaean period. Here’s the text for which Ellie’s example is the illustration:

Chapter 10 – Concerning Theurgy, Which Promises a Delusive Purification of the Soul by invocation of demons.

These are the delusive appearances of that spirit who longs to entangle wretched souls in the deceptive worship of many and false gods, and to turn them aside from the true worship of the [one] true God, by whom alone they are cleansed and healed, and who, as was said of Proteus, turns himself into all shapes, equally harmful, whether he assaults us as an enemy, or assumes the disguise of a friend.

As to those who… see… certain wonderfully lovely appearances of angels or gods, this is what the apostle refers to when he speaks of Satan transforming himself into an angel of light – (referring to 2 Corinthians 11:14).


Despite the reverence in which Augustine was held, some parts of his ‘Cite de Dieu’ are tactfully passed over in medieval images. Augustine identifies Asclepius’ Egyptian grandfather as inventor of medicine healing, but the Latins uniformly accord that role, instead, to Asclepius himself or others such as Chiron etc. (badly scrambled sentence, sorry – corrected 6th Jan).

Another remarkable fact is that although we see Hermes’ staff correctly represented in North Africa in the period of Roman occupation, a sophisticated fifteenth-century French illuminator has no idea what it should look like.

Hermes. drawing from a classical Greek Attic vase.

North Africa c.2ndC BC – 1stC AD. Herm-Anubis with daemones.

The belief against which Augustine rails in Chapter 10 of Civitate dei – of a soul’s being carried up by daemones is seen vividly in a near contemporary ivory. Their ‘Mercurial’ nature is indicated only by the bird-wings of their hair.

British Museum Object No.1857,1013.1, dated 402 AD. T

The coin on the left still has the staff fairly correct, and helps us understand the strange saw-toothed weapon given ‘Mercury’ in Hague, MMW 10 A 11 folio 197r,

Roman Egypt. mid-2nd and early 3rdC AD.

Mercury, patron of traders and travellers with insignia in Hague MMW 10 A 11.

(detail) Hague, MMW 10 A 11 folio 197r

That this isn’t a unique error is evident from other Latin examples, of which there are many, even from about the same time:

provenance unspecified.

I differ on some statements in the British Museum’s description of the next image, but reproduce it in full.

British Museum. Object 1845,0825.347. Late 15thC. Italy possibly Ferrara

Mercurio (Ferrara, c.1470-1480) Mercury; facing right, wearing winged helmet and sandals (boots), he holds the caduceus with entwined serpents and plays a flute; the decapitated head of Argus full of eyes and a cock at his feet; inscribed at lower left: ‘A’, at lower centre: ‘MERCVRIO XXXXII’ and at lower right: ‘4Z’; encircled by a frame of diamonds.

I hope that by now you are asking, ‘What have these late fifteenth-century French and Italian images got to do with the Voynich drawings?

I do hope it’s what you’re thinking, because the answer is – not very much.

Those drawings bear no resemblance to anythin in the Voynich manuscript. Not in the arrangement of the page, not in the border ornament, not in their style of drawing, not in their subject matter, the degree of immediate legibility, not in any associated script nor their attitude to human society – not even in their ideas about who should and should not be hatted and booted.

And that IS the point.

All those images in the Hague manuscript, and the other medieval western European images I’ve mentioned in this post are “new wine in new skins” – nothing about the pictures suggests origins in some earlier copy of Augustine’s text.


The Hague site is not the easiest to navigate. To see more of Hague, MMW 10 A 11 best go directly to:


To be fair, one image said to be of Anubis (friend of Mercury), lets us add a few grains’ weight on the positive side for that ‘St.Theodore’ in Venice.