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) 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.

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.

O’Donovan notes – 7c.i – Calendar. Bodleian Douce 313.

c.4700 words (including references. longish footnotes and a Notice to Readers.)

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract – A crocodile as emblem for November has been noted in these posts, so far, only in Beinecke MS 408 and in a Franciscan missal (Bodleian, Douce 313), both being pocket-sized manuscripts, noted for the extraordinary number of their drawings and, in different senses, for the simplicity of those drawings.

This post considers other possible points in common, because if the ‘Marci’ letter of 1665/6 should be genuine, an idea of connection between Beinecke MS 408 and the Franciscans has been around, now, for three and a half centuries, yet remains largely unexplored. We also consider the different attitudes towards making books and images between the early Franciscans and that other preaching order, the Dominicans – and certain interests common to both.

Prefatory remarks:

The opinion I hold, after more than a decade’s working through the sections of Beinecke MS 408, is that a majority of its drawings entered Latin1 horizons only c.1350 AD and that the style of that majority fall into two groups, of which one derives ultimately from works of Hellenistic origin (c.3rdC BC – 5thC AD)2 and the other from a Roman cultural context c.1st-3rdC AD. All which fall into one or other of those groups demonstrate evidence of non-classical and non-Latin affect over the intervening period, that is, to c.1350 AD. Though relatively few drawings in Beinecke MS 408 are expressed in the way of art in the medieval Mediterranean and Latin west, the calendar’s central emblems are among those few.

1. By ‘Latin’ Europe is meant here, and throughout posts to this blog, that part of western Europe whose shared culture had been formed by use of Latin for its language of liturgy, scholarship and diplomacy – the counterparts elsewhere in the Mediterranean world being Arabic and Greek.

2.in certain regions not invaded by Rome, Hellenistic culture survived much longer than it did in the Mediterranean.

It is also my opinion – though the informing research was never shared online beyond one a vague hint – that the manuscript is likely to have been among those improperly acquired by Guglielmo Libri, the manuscript being entrusted (or returned) to a member of the Jesuit order after Libri’s death in Fiesole as an effort at restitution and so reaching Fr. Beckx, in whose trunk Voynich says he first saw it in about 1911. Beckx was head of the Jesuit order when he resided in Fiesole from 1873-1883/4, a time when his order was suppressed in Rome.3

3. for more detail about Fr Beckx life, and relevance for Voynich studies, see separate page in the top bar (HERE). Catholics believe not only that they should acknowledge sins of commission and omission in confession, but that sins are not forgiven unless and until some effort is made to restore, or make other restitution, for harm done.

Libri had died four years before Beckx arrived, the doubtful honour of becoming Libri’s chief executor falling to Count Giacomo Manzonia, resident of the same same town, and by all reports noble in character and not merely in name.

  • Jeremy M. Norman, Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel: A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri. (2013)
  • Andrea Del Centina, ‘The manuscript of Abel’s Parisian memoir found in its entirety’, Historia Mathematica Vol. 29 (2002) pp. 65-69.
  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘A True and Faithful Relation of the Death of Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carucci dalla Sommaia’, voynichimagery, (March 23rd., 2015) – that post was published and I’ll provide a copy to any wanting it. email: voynichimagery AT gmail com.

As I say, that research was never shared online other than a couple of faint hints, so I was interested to see that quite soon afterwards a member of one voynich forum asked in that place – though had not asked me, nor named me – what lay behind reference to Libri. Not unpredictably, another asserted with quite magnificent self-assurance (given that he knew no more than did the questioner) that it was “100% hypothetical”.

That bit of trivia is now called to mind because to illustrate Dominican attitudes to painting in that part of Italy about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ve chosen a praedella painted for a church in Fiesole by a native of the region, the Dominican friar popularly known as ‘Fra Angelico’. (Part of the praedella serves as our heading).

Rupecanina is a small hamlet in the mountains about 27 km (17.3 miles) north of Florence.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in about 1395 – some say in Rupercanina and others in nearby Vicchio. Because friars took a new name on entry to their religious order, with a surname from the place they joined it, so Guido became the Dominican friar, Fra John of Fiesole. His brother Benedetto also joined the Dominicans. Both are believed trained as illuminators of manuscripts before entering the order – Fra John perhaps in 1407 or perhaps in 1417. Sources differ, but this bracket of 1407-1437 is nicely convenient for us and the palette used by Fra Angelico a potentially useful comparison for that in Beinecke MS 408. N.B. I’m not suggesting that Fra Angelico or his brother made the Voynich drawings!

Both brothers produced works for the Dominican convent of S. Marco in Florence; Benedetto illuminated choral books for San Marco and for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole and is thought to have assisted Fra John in creating his frescos in Florence and possibly also assisted with that praedella.

  • Graves, Robert Edmund (ed.). Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (A–K). Vol. I (3rd ed.) .p.494.

The Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and the order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) were established as mendicant orders with a charter to preach without being tied to any parish, but the Dominicans began by studying rhetoric, logic, theology and languages, from a theory that they could overwhelm others and convert them by force of logical argument. (That their logical arguments might be built on arguable premises did not occur to them.) That they made so few converts in that way would eventually cause a number of Dominicans to become enraged beyond reason and and simultaneously incur the wrath – sometimes fatal – of non-European communities whose sensibilities their style of missionary preaching offended.

Franciscans believed, on the other hand – in the earlier years at least – that by simply living as Christ had done, in poverty and as an itinerant who relied on the local community for daily sustenance and to whom they should speak very simply, would not only bring others to Christianity but encourage Christians to a more authentic Christian life. This philosophy was so obviously in contrast to the way of life practiced by ‘princes of the church’ and other religious orders that the founder, Francis of Assisi, came within a hairsbreadth of being executed for heresy but led, equally, to an enormous popularity among the ordinary people.

Both orders required that members to take a vow of poverty but here again their practices differed before the mid-fourteenth century. Dominicans defined that poverty merely as a nominal personal poverty and had no objection to the priory being wealthy in lands, money or goods, or in using lavish pigments and gilding for their manuscripts and churches. The early Franciscans, in Italy, had refused gifts of land or money for their community, and while their attitudes would change over time, and fourteenth-century France is often mentioned as part of the reason for that change, we see that difference of opinion expressed in illustrations made for a mid-thirteenth century Dominican bible known as the ‘Abbey’ bible. In the detail (below) the sub-text is that Christ loves Dominicans; that Franciscans’ manuscripts are mean and amateurish; that none can read music; that they are poorly dressed, wear sandals over dirty feet and are ‘dumb’ in more than one sense of the word.

image from Elizabeth Morrison, ‘Far from Marginal’, Getty Museum Blog (Sept. 7th., 2011). Morrison’s comment in more diplomatic.

Many early Franciscans had been unlettered men, but not all – and by the 1400s many were being formally trained in theology and ordained as priests. However, the thirteenth-century work shows that there may have been more than just gut-feeling, or the rumour allegedly mentioned by Marci, behind Wilfrid’s asserting that his small, pocket-sized ‘ugly ducking’ manuscript was a thirteenth-century Franciscan product, despite its being unlike texts produced in centres such as Oxford or Paris even by a Franciscan as Roger Bacon was.

Franciscan simplicity – and a crocodile.

In marked contrast to Dominican ornament – whether in the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries – we have the style of Bodleian, MS Douce 313. It presents as simple and of an almost penitential restraint, but the drawings are fine, fairly sophisticated and in a currently-fashionable form, known as grisaille. Below, its emblem for November, which we’ll compare later with that in Beinecke 408.

The example of Douce 313 provides some helpful information – first, that the Voynich November crocodile is not the result of individual whim. Secondly, that the crocodile was regarded in at least one place in Europe, among certain Franciscans at least, as an acceptable form for Scorpio – its presence in Beinecke MS 408 is not a mistake or the result of the maker’s being ignorant.

Thirdly, that because the drawing in Douce 313 is part of a ‘labours and months’ series of which the remainder is entirely conventional – one might even say ‘classical’ – it suggests the existence of some model regarded as equally conventional in which also a crocodile was drawn for November, despite this being the earliest noted so far in medieval Latin art. Prior to this, we’ve seen November associated with Egypt only in much older works – a Roman-era mosaic calendar from north Africa and the Chronology of 354.

Otherwise, the series of month-emblems in Douce 313 is unlike that of Beiencke MS 408. For Sagittarius it has the Centaur-with-bow, not the fully-human archer seen in the Voynich calendar and first attested among eastern Jews. The emblem for July is a simple Crab, not the ‘locusta’ which, paired, serve as the Voynich calendar’s emblem for July.

While medieval Latin manuscripts often show confusion about the proper form for Scorpius, sometimes drawing it as a crustacean; as an insect; in various lizard-like forms and like forms of dragon similar to those labelled ‘crocodrill’ in the bestiaries, what we have in Douce 313 is recognisably a crocodile, and a beast associated in the medieval imagination with Egypt and more specifically with the Nile.

Thus, Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 are certainly not ‘sister’ manuscripts, but this fairly literal image of a crocodile as November’s emblem makes the context which produced Bodleian, Douce 313 worth looking at more closely.

Where and when?

The writer JK Petersen included the crocodile from Douce 313 in a montage, describing it as difficult to explain. Acknowledging no precedent, he implies originality, so we credit him with first introducing Douce 313 to Voynich studies.

Mr. Petersen did not explain why he supposed the manuscript made in Paris. The holding library speaks of van Dijk having linked it, albeit tentatively, to the Franciscan priory in Brive (since 1919 Brieve-la-Gaillarde), Corrèze – several hundred kilometers4 south of the capital, in a region where dialects of Occitan were spoken in medieval times. (see map HERE).

4. The French wiki article gives distance to Paris by road as 483  km. or 300 miles. St. Anthony of Padua founded a monastery there in 1226.

If, as many have argued (first, if I recall, Jorge Stolfi), the Voynich month-names reflect the form of an Occitan dialect, then we might say that link to an ‘Occitan-speaking region’ is another point in common between Beinecke 408 and Douce 313. [for more information see further below]

In Brieve, in 1226, one of the first generation of Franciscans, a Portuguese called Anthony of Padua had founded a monastery. Because – as said above – a Franciscan was named for the house in which he joined the order, (e.g. John of Fiesole) or, if he had led an itinerant life as Anthony did, where he died, so Anthony is called ‘of Padua’ by reason of having died there in 1231, at the age of just 36 years and, incidentally, while both Roger Bacon and Michael Scot both still lived.

In the calendar of Douce 313, Anthony is commemorated on 13th. June.*

*”the feast of St. Anthony of Padua (13 June) has no octave but is entered as: S. pastris nosti Antonii conf.” – Bodleian catalogue description.

As I’ve attempted before to explain for Voynich researchers, it makes more sense to consider the physical and community networks along which people, goods, ideas, and fashions travelled than to define a subject in terms of modern notions of nationality or national character. Together with topography, it permits us to include in ‘southern’ Europe not only Italy and Spain, but France, and England.

The matter is easily demonstrated by considering that technique of ‘greyscale’ drawing (grisaille) though it is not employed anywhere in Beinecke MS 408. Some scholars also distinguish ‘brown-scale’ (bruneille). Modern English scholars tend, instead, to describe the technique as ‘tinted line drawing’.


NOTE – re Occitan for the month-names – this not the only language or dialect proposed for the Voynich calendar’s month-names. Panofsky spoke of ‘regional French’. Others have suggested Judeo-Catalan, or Norman French (of England), Picard and (so I’ve heard as rumour) even one of the ‘Allemannic’ dialects, the author of the last idea evidently not yet having published his argument (?) – (if you know better, or know the person’s name, do leave a comment).

However, as Nick Pelling earlier noted and Don of Talahassee discovered and explained in detail, quite independently, posting to his own site and in communications to voynich ninja (the last largely ignored as he said), the Voynich month-names’ orthography is close to that found on an astronomical instrument believed made in Picardy. (for more, see references below)

  • The Picard instrument is illustrated as Plate 6 in D.A. King, ‘A medieval astrolabe from Picardy’, book chapter available separately as a pdf though academia.edu.
  • Nick Pelling, crediting Joge Stolfi, had earlier formed an idea that the month names were “probably written in an Occitan dialect close to the Provencal spoken in Toulon, a busy medieval port near Marseilles.” (Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.23. He refers again, rather later, to those early and repeated hints of links to the Franciscan order in ‘The Franciscan Voynich hypothesis – Roger Bacon Redux!ciphermysteries (blog) April 12th., 2012.
  • Don of Talahassee also briefly outlined his findings later in a comment to ciphermysteries ( June 9th, 2015), though I’m unable to find any geared astrolabe whose manufacture is credited to Picardy. This may be due to my failure to find it rather than any error by Don.
  • David A. King (2001), The Ciphers of the Monks: A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages.

Yet another line of connection between England, France and Italy is presented by the grisaille.

England – Paris – Italy. Grisaille. (13thC – mid-14thC).

The technique had been common in England from Anglo-Saxon times, and the first person to make it a special feature of his own work and so inspire in its dissemination in the Continent was an Englishman known as ‘Matthew [of] Paris’ (c. 1200 – 1259).

Fifty years later, in c.1304, it is employed by Giotto in Padua, in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Very shortly after we find it adopted in Paris by a near contemporary, Jean Pucelle, who flourished c. 1320–1350.

And in c.1350, as we know, it is employed in a southern French Franciscan missal – Bodleian Douce 313.

(Northern Europe would take it up rather later, and it would not become really popular in that region until the later sixteenth- through to the seventeenth centuries).

Sculptural and literal. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artists use the technique, quite specifically, to imitate sculpture, and by this time Latin art in Italy and France was moving towards a revival of classical-era literalism. In Douce 313, the ‘labours and months’ drawings don’t quite give the sense of depth seen in other cases, nor do they attempt any trompe l’oeil, but they do allow a possibility that the series copies one of those found carved in reflief on the exterior of medieval churches and cathedrals, from the twelfth century onwards. The example shown below was carved in Amiens, capital of Picardy, in 1220-1270 AD. close to when the monastery in Brieve was founded by Antony. These constellations and labours, however, use forms consistent with what we find in Latin manuscripts from as early as the 8th and 9th centuries.

Amiens Cathedral. 13thC. Amiens the administrative capital of Picardy

It is possible that the calendar series in Douce 313 copies one since lost which has passed unremarked. What we can say is that by 1350 AD, some Franciscans in southern France (at least) found no objection to having a crocodile for November’s emblem, and had by then acquired that style of drawing gained from older England and currently popular among some painters in Italy and in France.

The Voynich drawings appear to have been at first simple line and wash before some heavier hand added heavier pigments to some. The line work does not approach the sophistication of Douce 313 and the two use very different methods to indicate curves and volume. That contrast between the ‘line and wash’ and additions by the heavy painter* is especially noticeable in the Voynich calendar.

*’heavy painter’ – first recognised and the term first coined, I believe, by Nick Pelling. *Note added 17th.December 2022 – although I first saw the term in one of Pelling’s posts, he had earlier credited Stolfi, writing, “Jorge Stolfi pointed out the disparity between the Voynich’s various paints (in terms both of the range of painting materials used, and of the degree of skill employed) and suggested that a “heavy painter” may have added his/her paint much later (say, a century or more), there has been significant doubt about how much paint the manuscript originally had – really, which paints were (deliberately) original, and which were (speculatively) added later?” [note by D.N. O’D – I would agree that the heavy painter came into the history of the drawings quite late, but not necessarily later than the last pre-binding stage of the present manuscript’s evolution. The aim of the heavy painter seems to have been, not least, to make the unclothed figures more ‘decent’ according to a fairly strict western standard, and he appears to me to have also served as overseer and monitor of the work in its last stage, because the majority of drawings are still quite remarkably clear in revealing their earlier roots and the non-Latin environment. For imported images not to have been ‘translated’ into Latin forms is most unusual. I attribute this exactness, which I’ve described as ‘near facsimile’ exactness, to an original direction by the person commissioning the work that the images should be simply copied, not made more compatible with Latin conventions – as done routinely when foreign matter entered Latin horizons. One might consider the way images in the ‘Tacuinum Sanitatis’ are changed, copy by copy. The ‘heavy painter’s agenda was not that of the person who first engaged the copyists].

The passage just quoted above – in italics – is taken from N.Pelling, ‘ Voynich Colour Inference. A Sure Path to Madness…’, ciphermysteries, December 20th., 2011.

St. Anthony of Padua – by Giotto

Lines of connection – Giotto.

In the same way that we associate Fra Angelico’s paintings with a Dominican context, so in a more general way Giotto is associated with the Franciscans. He is another of those important thirteenth-century figures, having been born in 1267 AD or 1277 AD.

Before being commissioned for work in Padua’s Scrovegni chapel in c.1305 he had already worked on the Basilica built in Padua for St. Anthony (yes, the Portuguese one), and before that for the Franciscan friars of Assisi and of Rimini.

In Douce 313 bishop Gaudentius of Rimini is commemorated – an inclusion difficult to explain in terms of the usual French liturgical roster but easily understood in terms of the Franciscan network.

Gaudentius had come to Rimini from Asia minor about the time the Chronography of 354 was made with its ‘Egyptian’ November and while memory was still fresh of what is called ‘The Plague of Cyprian’ (c.251–270 AD).

Other Times and other Places – define ‘Egyptian’.

One thing which Europe in general, and the preaching orders and the Italian mercantile cities in particular, did have in common was a keen interest in regions lying to the east of Europe.

Christian Europe was well aware that it had been from the east that their religion had come. In the east, too, lay the holy land, the chief point of orientation for Latins’ mappamundi.

Models of monasticism were presented in the form of early Egyptian ascetics, such as Antony of the desert – whose relics arrived in France after being carried first from Alexandria to Constantinople, and rather later from Constantinople to France, at times when theach of the first two cities was in peril.

Eventually (in 1297) the saint’s relics were given a church which soon became a centre of pilgrimage: Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye.

The Life of Antony, translated into Latin as early as the 4thC, was “one of the best known works of literature in the Christian world, a status it would hold through the Middle Ages”.

Fra Angelico pictured that early ascetic in a rather curious garment. The usual reading of the ‘Life’ says Antony had only a couple of rough skin robes – of the sort which Latin Europe gave John the Baptist or Mary Magdalen. One possible explanation is that, living only six kilometers from Florence, Fra Angelico had heard tell of a certain ‘primordial’ robe left there by a Franciscan friar named John de’Marignolli in 1353. de’Marignolli was not the first Franciscan to go to China. He also believed that along the maritime route he had seen the original Paradise and for reasons I won’t go into here, he may have been right.

Before being sent east, however, de’Marignolli had taught theology at the University of Bologna, and we about that ‘primordial’ robe he brought back because years later, in Prague and being given the rather dreary task of re-writing the Annals of Bohemia, he interspersed that narrative with occasional reminiscence.

In one passage he wrote, first quoting Genesis 3:21:

“And the Lord made for Adam and his wife coats of skins or fur, and clothed them therewith. …” [Gen. 3:21]. Now then I say, without however meaning to dogmatize, that for coats of fur we should read coats of fibre. For among the fronds of the Nargil, of which I have spoken above, there grows a sort of fibrous web forming an open network of coarse dry filaments. … A garment such as I mean, of this cannall cloth (and not camel cloth), I wore till I got to Florence, and I left it in the sacristy of the Minor Friars there. No doubt the raiment of John Baptist was of this kind.

from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China VOL. II. pp. 240-242 ‘ The Travels of John de Marignolli 1339-1353’.

This is repeated in another passage, with the Latin terms included the Yule translation reading: “And he made them coats of skins: so at least we com­monly have it, pelliceas,”of fur,” but we should do better to read filiceas,”of fibre”; because they were no doubt of a certain fibrous substance which grows like net-work between the shoots of the coco-palm; I wore one of these myself till I got to Florence, where I left it. ibid. p.227.

John the Baptist was certainly another desert ascetic like Antony, but te conventions of western Christian art meant that the Baptist could not be dressed so unconventionally, so instead – as it seems to me – Fra Angelico has put the ‘paradiscal’ ascetic robe on Antony. He has had to use his imagination or some other eastern souvenir as his model, though, because the natural fibre de’Marigolli meant was coir, and what Fra Angelico painted is more like Asian basketry, rush-matting or a type of woven cape known from parts of India.

Whether there exists, or ever existed, an earlier written account of de’Marignolli’s journey, we know that on his return he had to report to his superiors, and make a formal report to the papal court in Avignon. We may reasonably suppose that he would also have had to answer the usual raft of questions from his fellows, explaining the curious garment left in Florence and speaking about those far-off ‘pagans’ who members hoped one day to convert.

In the European imagination, all eastern peoples were of Egyptian origin and this was so even so late as 1636, when Athanasius Kircher used that to argue that Chinese characters descended from Egyptian hieroglyphic (hieratic) writing. The belief was gained from the Bible, which said that after the Flood, the world had been repopulated by Noah’s sons, one seeing to Africa exclusive of Egypt, another given Europe and the third ‘Asia’, ‘Asia’ defined as beginning from Egypt and the Bosphorus. Because this belief was still current belief among even learned European Christians so lateas the 1630s, we describe the comments made to Kircher by Baresch as meaning that he thought manuscript’s content in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’ – though in my own opinion, when he says the plants are exotics, we may believe him.

  • Kircher argued, initially, that Chinese characters evolved from Egypt’s hieroglyphic (hieratic) script, but would later believe the Chinese to be ‘Adamites’. cf. Wang Haili, ‘Chinese Approaches to Egyptian Hieroglyphs: liushu and bushou’, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 165, No. 2 (2015), pp. 279-302.

Other forms of book (and other crocodiles).

Another detail from praedella shows the interest felt in early fifteenth century Italy in distant peoples and places. Below, a Dominican friar is included in a group which otherwise consists of St. Thomas, best known as Christ’s apostle to India, and two foreign-looking men who wear pink, with no hint of that censure we saw in Bonaiuti’s depiction of Michael Scot.

St. Thomas was one of Christ’s apostles, best known as the apostle to India. There, a community known as the ‘Community of Thomas’ attribute their founding to that apostle and say they were founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD.

St. Thomas didn’t dress as he’s represented here, of course, but his bones had eventually been moved from southern India to Syria and (so it is said) later to Chios, from which another Florentine, a member of the Acciaiuoli family, carried them in 1258 to Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they remain.

That detail in the praedella is not entirely clear, but among the easterners associated with Thomas, one holds what I believe is a set of inscribed palm-leaf books, palm-leaves having once been a common medium used from north Africa through Arabia and the east. The quill which Fra Angelico gives that figure signifies, in the visual language of Latin Europe, a scribe.

We may again cite de’Marignolli though a good number of westerners had seen these things before him and he himself had a guide from India, a friar named Peter. But he says, of people in Sri Lanka [Seyllan] “they teach boys to form their letters, first by writing with the finger on sand, and afterwards with an iron style upon leaves of paper, or rather I should say upon leaves of a certain tree”.

And there, for the moment, we pause.

Additional note –

As antidote to the wiki article on de’ Marignolli (which attempts to make him a person of high social consequence, ties him chiefly to Prague, and quite omits to mention that he was an Italian Franciscan, I provide the following – from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

“John de’ Marignolli. Born at Florence about 1290; place and date of death unknown. When quite a youth he received the Franciscan habit at the convent of Santa Croce, Florence; later on, as he himself tells us, he held the chair of theology at the University of Bologna. Nothing more is known of his religious life until Benedict XII sent him with other Franciscans on a mission to the Emperor of China”… etc. It is evident to anyone who has actually read the Franciscans’ accounts of their own travels that wiki writers err who attempt to make of those friars personages of high social status travelling with pomp and circumstance. They carried letters and messages but were not ‘diplomats’ in the modern sense.


NOTICE TO READERS: I regret that, in order to refer in these posts to my own work, while avoiding readers’ wondering if they’ve not seen something similar elsewhere in Voyich-land, I must be clear that no precedent existed when I contributed the following texts and topics (among numerous others) to Voynich studies:

Italian mercantile handbooks other than Milanese cipher-books; the history of imported goods; the history of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries and accounts of their journeys; the astronomical studies conducted in Constantinople, Trebizond, as in Maragha and Tabriz under under Mongol rule; detailed historical studies of the overland ‘silk’ routes and maritime ‘spice routes’; the Armenians in the east and in Europe; the question of perfumes and incense ingredients; accounts of and by secular travellers (other than vague allusions made earlier, by some, to Marco Polo); I introduced matters relating to cartography and cartographers of the period from the early 14thC to mid-fifteenth century, (including Abraham Creques’ Catalan Atlas and Genoese and Venetian chartmakers of the period); celestial navigation and its calculations; compass-roses named by winds, stars, or both; handbooks of navigation; the type of notebooks and guides which emerged from Genoa, from Venice and from the House of Datini (in Prato and in Avignon); other travellers whose accounts of the world beyond western Christian Europe relate to the period before the 1450s, the idea of mnemonic devices and their relevance – for the pre-Renaissance period and introducing in that context the works of Mary Carruthers. Note and comment on Greek and ‘a form of Jewish’ influence noted in certain drawings. Other than Jorge Stolfi I know of no earlier Voynich research which investigated eastern routes or artefacts, or indeed considered any non-Latin-European origin for anything in BeineckeMS 408. Those matters and texts are just some of the material first introduced to Voynich studies by the present writer in the course of sharing research explaining my analytical studies and their conclusions about one and then another, section of Beinecke MS 408 – from 2008 to the present. The habit of some Voynich writers in re-using research, and even attempting to publish it or copyright it to themselves, while neglecting to name the source – and some quite deliberately and systematically re-assigning such credits and thus misdirecting other researchers – would finally lead to my closing Voynichimagery from the public in 2017. That these things are all simple statements of fact is something that the few other Voynich “old boys” know well enough.

India too has its crocodiles, of course.

‘Mugger’ crocodile – India

The following image relates to the Comment I’ve left below.

To be clear – “astrology”

c.1050 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

[update – see STOP PRESS at end]

Recorded usages in English. .. matter from Oxford Reference:


(definition) – The study of movements and relative positions of celestial bodies interpreted as having an influence on human affairs and the natural world.

Ancient observers of the heavens developed elaborate systems of explanation based on the movements of the sun, moon, and planets through the constellations of the zodiac, for predicting events and for casting horoscopes.

The word is recorded from late Middle English, and comes ultimately (via Old French and Latin) from Greek astron ‘star’.

The commonest sense born by the term today (in full: judicial astrology, relating to human affairs) occurs in English from the mid 16th century.

By 1700 astrology had lost intellectual credibility in the West, but continued to have popular appeal. Modern astrology is based on that of the Greeks, but other systems are extant, e.g. that of China.

Natural astrology originally denoted the practical uses of astronomy, applied in the measurement of time and the prediction of natural phenomena.


As you see, the mid-sixteenth century usage is what informs modern perceptions of the difference between astrology and astronomy, and today’s general reader may be excused for expecting that any use of the word ‘astrology’ in medieval works must imply reference to planets, to horoscopes and to the zodiac.

To avoid confusion and false assumptions, those practical uses that medieval people called ‘natural astrology’ we will class as a sub-set of astronomy. Other terms used by modern scholars to avoid confusion include natural astronomy, archaeoastronomy, indigenous astronomy and folk-astronomy and may include moralised astronomy and a union of religious thought with astronomical knowledge, such as identifying Christ with the Sun.

Practical observation of the stars for practical purposes – chiefly to establish times, seasons and directions – has a history descending from times so remote that astronomy can be fairly described as the oldest of human sciences – if science is defined as the accumulation of data by close observation, the systematisation of that data, its practical testing by experiment, its repeatability and its practical aims. The use of navigational astronomy across lands is asserted or inferred as existing from a very early period, and across seas using evidence related to the Australian migrations,* while the Austronesian routes and migrations (which incidentally established the eastern maritime ‘spice routes’) date from c.2000 BC. Trade in lapis lazuli from Afghanistan into Egypt began from the 3rd millennium BC, but scholars differ about when it became a direct, sea-borne trade from the Indus through the Red Sea.

*as e.g. by Alan William, “A new population curve for prehistoric Australia”, Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Proceedings, Vol 280 (#1761), (online through Pub.Med. April 2013).

By comparison, the Babylonian empire’s rise* seems quite recent, being closer in time to the Roman occupation of Judaea than we are now.

 *c.1894 BC

In Egypt, astronomy’s origins are older than the rise of Babylonia and by the 3rd millennium BCE, Egypt’s 365-day calendar was already in use, and the Nile’s annual rise predicted by the rising of stars. One must assume, but we cannot prove, that before Babylonia’s cities were built some Mesopotamian peoples had a developed natural astronomy.

From c1479–1458 BCE we have evidence of a highly-developed astronomical, calendrical, religious and possibly astrological system in Egypt, recorded on the walls and ceiling of a tomb* from that time.

*Senenmut’s tomb, in Thebes.

Having survived intact for about three thousand years, the contents of that tomb and its star-ceiling were rifled, dispersed and/or defaced once it was opened by Europeans in 1925-27. A replica of the ceiling is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a few watercolour paintings record remnants of the decoration. What the replica tells us, at least, is that some of the constellations represented within the Roman-era ceiling at Dendera were from Egypt’s native tradition, while Faulkner’s study of the Pyramid Texts confirms the antiquity of Egyptian emphasis on the circumpolar stars, Orion, Sirius and certain other markers.

Had Senenmut’s tomb survived to be studied now, it might have provided more insight into the evolution of the Coptic calendar, its calculation, and its roster of saints.

  • R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.

*without prejudice, I note that the Egyptian constellations identified by Belmonte and Llull include none from the Roman zodiac save Leo. Belmonte is a former editor of the journal Archaeoastronomy which began well in the 1980s but lost readership and impetus as its focus became increasingly, and by the end solely, on the Americas. But see paper by Juan Antonio Belmonte and Jose Lull as Chapter 6 in:

  • J.A. Belmonte et.al., Ancient Astronomy: India, Egypt, China, Maya, Inca, Aztec, Greece, Rome, Genesis, Hebrews, Christians, the Neolithic and Paleolithic

In these posts it will be convenient to take any diagram’s structure as definition of intended purpose for the medieval west to c.1438 AD.

Astrology is indicated, among other things, by a medical text’s including diagonally-ruled tables for the phases of the moon. The ‘zodiac man’ (whose use the early Christian writers had specifically prohibited) is also astrological.

Evidence of applying mathematical calculations to determine the precise position of planets is taken as evidence of astrological purpose.

Constellations on the ecliptic, including the 12 which form the Roman zodiac, are of themselves not evidence of one or other intention. Since these constellations are constellations, not only astrological signs, and our interest is in the purpose for which such forms were made by the first maker(s) and whoever commissioned the sections now forming Beinecke MS 408, we cannot presume predictive-astrological purpose without the presence of other markers (see above). The default is thus – precession notwithstanding – ‘astronomical’.

I expect some readers will protest this decision, but the question we must address is whether the maker – if it were possible to ask him/her – would concur that by picturing the zodiac constellations or signs in e.g. a religious breviary, s/he demonstrated an intention to practice astrology or believed the intended recipient intended to practice astrology in our modern sense of the word. If the western Church had not insisted always that mankind had free will, opposition to astrology would perhaps have been less persistent and less complicated; contact with the Palaiologan court made magic and astrology fashionable among some humanists and Luther’s promoting belief in predestination saw popular interest in all forms of anticipatory lot-casting, fortune-telling and astrology explode, assisted by publication of books of the ‘Shepherds Calendar’ type in which such matter was now included.

Many Voynich writers have assumed or simply announced astrological purpose in the Voynich calendar. A few have attempted to argue a case from evidence, but none has yet proven it and two specialists in the subject have stated, independently of each other, of me and at that time of interference from any Voynichero that the calendar diagrams are not astrological charts.

Allons de l’avant ..


A notice from academia.edu has just dropped into my mail box telling me that Professor Elly Dekker has uploaded to academia.edu his her review of a book which I admit I let pass in 2007, given its price of 99 Euros and having at that time no interest in computus and working on very different questions. Come to think of it, back then I’d never heard of the Voynich manuscript. (sigh).

… having now read Dekker’s review, I’ll have to add Eastwood’s book to the library

  • Bruce E. Eastwood, Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  • Elly Dekker’s review is in Early Science and Medicine Vol.13 (2008) 509-530. And of course on Dekker’s site at academia.edu.