Consider this.. (cont.) Doing the math.

This post/essay is more than 3,600 words.

THIS SERIES of essay-length posts is prompted by questions about the form of one sharp, angular glyph resembling the modern short-stemmed ‘4’. Our paradigmatic example being:

This post outlines the communities and inter-connections between them over time which would finally see emerge the same ‘4’ shape numeral and other matter whose reflection is found in our present, fifteenth-century manuscript with its many unusual features.

In the instance seen above, the long bar above it makes it easy to interpret the glyph as alphabetic, and so take this pair as abbreviating some such word as q[u]o – yet the glyph’s form is not written as a Latin ‘q’ of the early fifteenth-century and allows us to suggest that even if, here, the ‘4’ glyph wasn’t intended for the numeral ‘4’, it has been written by a hand accustomed to writing the numeral in that way.

Before 1440 ‘four’ represented by this shape was still uncommon – unattested (to date) in Germany before the Voynich manuscript was made (1400-c.1440), and rare;y in England. Thus, so far, we must attribute it to the south-western Mediterranean and to the communities having attested ties to Majorca at the time our earliest clear example of the ‘4’ numeral occurs there (1375 AD).

The following passage, appended as a comment to the previous post, deserves greater prominence.

“James I appears to have chosen Majorca as his first target because of the island’s geographical importance and its closeness to the Spanish coast. Almost equidistant from Catalonia, the north of Africa, and Sardinia, the island’s ports dominated the trade routes of the western Mediterranean. James’s army included … large numbers of townspeople from the main trading cities of Catalonia and southern France, especially Barcelona, Marseilles, and Montpellier. Unlike the barons …many townspeople actually settled in Majorca and contributed to its prosperity. Some of the settlers came from further afield. While Catalans were the most numerous, there were also Aragonese, Navarrese, men from southern France, Italians (from Naples, Sicily, Genoa, and Pisa), Castilians, and Portuguese. In addition to the conquered Muslims, there was also an important Jewish community in Majorca from very shortly after the Christian conquest of 1229. This community had ties not only to Catalonia and southern France, from which many of its members had come, but also to north Africa, and Italy.” (p.335)

  • passage from J.N. Hilgarth, ‘Sources for the History of the Jews of Majorca’, Traditio, Vol. 50 (1995) pp.334-341, though other recent sources will include the same information.

To do a reality-check here – to ensure we’re not straying too far from evidence and veering from historical research into merely hunting support for a theory – we now test our present emphasis on the south-western Mediterranean against earlier informed opinion about Beinecke MS 408.

The set of connections exemplified by the Majorcan population accords with Erwin Panofsky’s attributing the manuscript -or perhaps something about its vellum and style of drawing – to ‘Spain or somewhere southern, with Arab and Jewish influence’ and shows there need be no opposition supposed with the consensus opinion of specialists in manuscript studies who were known to H.P. Kraus and his assistant Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt in the 1960s – their focus having been clearly on Italians.* Again, the month-names’ orthography has been variously described as Occitan (also spoken in Genoa), and as Judeo-Catalan, and so forth. (These things have been treated as separate issues in earlier posts. For a list, with links, see Table of Contents page in the top bar.)

*The views relayed to John Tiltman by Lehmann-Haupt, research assistant to the bookseller H.P. Kraus, are recorded by Mary d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma p.7 and 8).

Checking, again, if the class of text early using ‘4’ numerals is appropriately described as practical, navigational and/or commercial, those parameters easily present us with another instance prior to 1440.

That detail comes from manuscript known as the ‘Handbook of Michael of Rhodes’. It is in private hands but has been studied and summaries of the study are online.

  • Michael of Rhodes’ book website (here).

Michael’s education was gained as a mariner, his education by apprenticeship and in keeping with ‘tradesmans’ mathematics taught by schools of the kind known to the Italians as ‘abaco’ or ‘calculation’ schools. He began writing an account of his life and nautical-commercial calculations in 1434, his year of death being 1445. (see pages at the Galileo Institute site). As one might predict, he served one of the Italian maritime city-states – Venice.

Appropriately enough, his example for that calculation (partly illustrated above), is about the purchase of pepper – obtained by Venetians of his time from Alexandria or Tunis, but which had been traded since Roman times (at least) into the Mediterranean via Egypt from commercial pepper plantations in southern India. Alexandria remained a principal centre of that trade in Michael’s time, with Tunis, though in the earlier medieval period, the carriage of eastern products to Christian Europe had been principally in the hands of Jews and others classed and taxed as Jews in areas under Muslim governance.

Such links with Egypt and exotic goods naturally again reminds us that Georg Baresch believed the manuscript’s content had been gained ‘in the east’ and contained matter that was – in some sense unspecified – both Egyptian and ‘ancient’. He also said that the plant-pictures referred to ‘exotics’ whose forms were still unknown to German botanists in his time, when Germans led all Europe in that field.

My study of Beinecke MS 408 also found much to support Baresch’s opinion about the plant-pictures.. but presently we are not concerned with meaning so much as with forms – the form of the written text, of the pictorial text and the manuscript’s presentation.

On that basis, we may lay aside (pending possibly better information) such Voynich theories as the ‘Norwegian’ or the ‘central European’ or the ‘New World’ theories, which offer no comparison for the ‘4’ shaped glyph, or for the apparently anomalous ‘gallows glyphs’ with their elongated ascenders (if that’s what they are), nor comparable styles of script, drawing, page-layout or -disposition, nor the presence in any such manuscript noted so far of quires both quinion and septenion as we do see in the Voynich manuscript and have also found in Italy and in Hebrew manuscripts from the south-western Mediterranean – on paper, on membrane and in a combination of both (see earlier posts).

Even within Italy, it seems at present that perhaps we should discount the higher levels of education and of society, since the only instance of a ‘4’ shape which might be associated with nobility or bureaucracy known so far, is in one cipher-ledger from Urbino dated to 1440, brought to notice by Nick Pelling in 2006. But 1440 is sixty-five years (nearly three generations) after our earliest clear instance of that ‘4’ in Abraham Cresques’ Majorcan ‘Atlas’ of 1375 and almost a century and a half after one brief appearance in Florence, in a copy of the Liber abaci.*

*The bankers of Florence were strongly opposed to use of the Hindu-Arabic numerals, attempting and succeeding for a time in blocking their use.  I don’t have an English-language source for this, but see  Anna Maria Busse Berger,Lada Hordynsky-Caillat and Odile Redon, ‘Notation Mensuraliste et Autres Systèmes de Mesure au XIVe Siècle, Médiévales, No. 32 (Spring, 1977), pp. 31-46 and particularly p. 34. [JSTOR]

On the other hand, while the written text’s inclusion of that ‘4’ glyph in Beinecke MS 408 directs our attention to the commercial and maritime interests of communities whose people are found settled in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Majorca, including those maintaining ties with Italian cities, it is Panofsky’s “Spain or somewhere southern” which is given clearest support by content in our fifteenth-century document.

When I cited the Codex Vigilanus among examples explaining the Voynich pages’ page layout and dispositions, I found no previous allusion to it in any ‘Voynich’ writing though I should not be surprised to find it mentioned elsewhere today.

It crops up again now because the same manuscript is referenced in Hill’s Tables and in the review of Hill’s work by Louis C. Karpinski, who was at that time (1915) the foremost scholar interested in the history of European forms for the numerals.

As introduction and context for quoting from Karpinski’s review, I’ll reproduce a paragraph from one earlier post from voynichimagery. In it, I was making the point that the Voynich page design, especially but not only in the ‘bathy-‘ section, differs markedly from the consciously ‘Greek and antique’ simplicity of Italian ‘humanist’ manuscripts, yet it finds echoes in other times and places, including tenth-century Spain.


excerpt from: D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Fold-outs in Europe – Afterword’, voynichimagery 20th June 2015.

(detail) Codex Vigilano [~Vigilanus] Albeldense fol.59. Spain. Mozarabic. Compilation 9th and 10thC

.. another example. This from Spain, in a volume containing material of the the 9th-10th centuries. Notice how these illuminations fill the sides of the page, and how the text seems to be fitted around the central figure, a little irregularly, as if the imagery had been set first, and the text written later – the very opposite method from that used in manuscripts from most of Latin Europe, but this was in Spain, under Muslim rule – though the degree of influence from Baghdad as against that of the Berbers from North Africa is debated along sectarian lines. However, that non-Latin character in contemporary Spain may explain the way these pages are planned, uncharacteristic of Latin texts per se, despite the language in which it is written. … these pages’ design offers points of comparison with MS Beinecke 408. Most particularly, in my opinion, with the ‘bathy-‘ section, which [because of anthropoform ‘ladies’] implies again connection with the [month diagram] foldouts … Note here, once again, that same convention [seen in Yale, Beinecke MS 408] of using roughly-parallel curved lines to denote curve and volume. … [and the makers’ familiarity with the ‘false-bearded’ face and the concept of a bicorporate form, all of which occur in Beinecke MS 408 –  D.]

Unitalicised text in the passage above  added  8th/9th December 2021.

excerpt from: D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Fold-outs in Europe – Afterword’, voynichimagery 20th June 2015.


Having previously cited that codex, it was pleasant to find it referenced by Hill and commented on by Karpinski, who said,

The earliest European forms are doubtless found in the Codex Vigilanus, written in 976 AD in the monastery of Albelda near Logrono in Spain. A second Spanish manuscript of about the same date, not described by Mr. Hill, also contains similar forms, and facsimiles. Both are to appear in the next issue of Professor John M. Burnam’s Palaeographia iberica.

from: ‘The Development of the Arabic Numerals in Europe Exhibited in Sixty-four Tables. by G. F. Hill. Reviewed by  Louis C. Karpinski’ for The American Mathematical Monthly,  Vol. 22, No. 10 (Dec., 1915), pp. 336-337.

Hill’s reference to the Codex Vigilanus was a note to his Table 1: 

1. 976. Escorial d I 2. Codex Vigilanus, written in the year 976 in the monastery of Albelda near Logrotio. See P. Ewald, Neues Arcbiv der Gesellsch. /. alt. deutsche Geschichtskunde, viii (1883), p. 357. Cp. Smith and Karpinski, p. 138. The forms are described as the Indian figures, quibus designant unumquemque gradum cuiuslibet gradus. Quarum hec sunt t”orm(e): 987654331. Ewald connects the form for 5 with the Roman V. Since he does not say that the year 976 is that of the Spanish era, we must assume that it is of the usual Christian era.

I have not sighted Burnam’s Palaeographica iberica.

Already, by the tenth century, mathematical studies were advancing within Spain as in North Africa. While few scholars consider any matter in terms of Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholarship altogether, the separate studies of western numerals and mathematics have, independently, commented on the situation in tenth-century Spain. It was from there that – for example – Gebert d’Aurillac was said to have learned his calculating ‘arts’* though I suspect that his original ‘abacus’ with its significant factors – 9 and 27**– is less related to that form later given his name than to something he first encountered during the period when Barbary pirates had him.

*D.E. Smith. A History of Mathematics (Vol.2, p.75) says ‘there is good reason for thinking Gebert’s knowledge of the numerals was gained in Ripol, at the convent of Santa Maria de Ripol.

**the ‘9 and 27’ are rarely mentioned in secondary accounts today. I have no English-language reference for it to hand, but see the review of O. Chasles, ‘Histoire de l’arithmétique. Explication des traités de l’Abacus, et particulièrement du traité de Gerbert; Extrait des comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des sciences’, Reviewed by H.G. in Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes, Vol. 4 (1842-1843), pp. 382-386.

But that’s by the way.

With regard to the Maghrib, I quote from Ahmad Djebbar’s studies, which do show that we do better to focus on lines of connection over time and distance, than defining matters in terms of a static parochial ‘nationality’.

Abū ‘l-Qāsim al-Qurashī … was a native of Seville, in Spain, spent a period of his life in Bougie (Béjaïa) where he died in 1184. The biographers who evoked him consider him a specialist in Algebra … [in which subject] al-Qurashī is known for his commentary on the book of the great Egyptian mathematician Abū Kāmil (d. 930). This commentary has not yet been recovered but its importance is confirmed by the historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) who considered it one of the best treati[s]es written on the book of Abū Kāmil.

Djebbar does not consider the works of Christian or of Jewish scholars relevant to his study, yet traces the evolution of mathematical studies in the Maghrib to Kairouan, which had been a community of unusually ascetic Jews until mention of them and of Kairouan in a narrative known as the ‘Night Journey’ linked Kairouan directly to the Prophet of Islam, reverence for whom saw the town declared a holy place and the original inhabitants expelled.*

*In this connection, I’d mention that D.E. Smith (op.cit., loc.cit.) says the names given the Ghobar numerals in the earliest Latin texts are: igin, andras, ormis, arbas, quimas, calctis, zenis, temenias, celentis and sipos, which Smith says appear to be Semitic. 

By the tenth century there were remarkable Jewish scholars working from the region presently of interest to us, but before considering one Jewish mathematician of the fourteenth century – that is, one who lived at the time we see the early emergence of that ‘4’ shape, it will be as well to pause again to check our bearings.

So far, it appears that what we have as the content in Beinecke MS 408 may be – again to quote Panofsky – “considerably earlier” matter within the material which was copied to provide the quires of our present fifteenth-century manuscript, and if the copies were not inscribed within Italy itself (as is possible), I think that by considering other matter in the manuscript we may posit with some confidence that the material as we now have it was copied for an Italian sponsor – whether Christian or Jew – during the period 1400-c.1440.

It is also possible that the manuscript’s written part, being added to the page after the pictorial text in a custom contrary to that of mainstream Latins’ work, may have taken its form as ‘Voynichese’ not much earlier than our present copy and thus to require study within parameters different from most of the imagery in which so few details express the Latins’ worldview iand so much speaks to earlier and other customs.

A relatively late creation of the ‘Voynichese’ script offers us one reasonable explanation for the apparent discrepancy between (i) disposition of image and text, and primacy given image over text, against (ii) the scribes’ evident familiarity with a straight and short-stemmed ‘4’ form characteristic of western works from the fourteenth century and later, whether that form is used here as alphabetic or numeric. Of course, that is not the only possible explanation we could call reasonable. We have yet to consider scripts from other parts of the greater Mediterranean (let alone the world) in which a ‘4’ form occurs.

Yet Spain and the example of the Codex Vigilanus allows us at least to suggest that the earlier models might date from as early as the time when ‘elongated ascenders’ still appear in such documents as the Papal charter establishing the convent of Ripol.

The fact is that we can’t be certain, at this stage of investigation, that the Voynich ‘gallows glyphs’ do have their form such ‘elongated ascenders’.

They might – for example – imitate scribal conventions from some other language altogether. I expect that there were some readers who sat up on seeing one not-quite-match between the form of a Voynich ‘gallows glyph’ and a Greek form in that detail from Codex Vatopedinus 655 which is in the previous post.


A letter whose chief theme was the lamentable decline of mathematical studies among the Jesuit scholars of Prague was sent to Athanasius Kircher in 1667 from Aloysius Kinner, about six months after the Voynich manuscript had been sent from Prague to Kircher in Rome.

Kinner refers to the manuscript and to Marcus Marci, on whose behalf the manuscript had been sent.

Marci had included with it a covering letter whose final paragraph reported, but declined to endorse, a rumour that – as Marci recalled it – was told to him several decades before, and – as he remembered it – by Rafel Mnishovsky. Evidently sent in 1666 (though dated August 1665) that paragraph in Marci’s letter remains the sole basis for any alleged connection between the manuscript and Rudolf II.

In January of 1667, then, Kinner writes in connection with mathematics:

Our own Marcus, so widely known for his writings in mathematics and other studies has now fallen into the second infancy of old age. He barely understands everyday necessities, as I note with much sadness and distress whenever I happen to visit him…. Now these men are gone scarcely any are left who could be called mathematicians and those few are totally occupied with other studies and are obliged to sneak their glances at mathematics….There is a deep silence, not to say ban, on Euclid and Appollonius in this university so that we are now not even supposed to know the names let alone the thing….And now for other matters. Dominus Marcus has lost his memory of nearly everything but still remembers you. He very officially bids me salute you in his name and he wishes to know through me whether you have yet proved an Oedipus in solving that book which he sent via the Father Provincial last year and what mysteries you think it may contain. It will be a great solace to him if you are able to satisfy his curiosity on this point….I do not know whether you are interested in having your Organum Mathematicum which you once prepared for our Archduke Carolus…

It only remains, now, to compensate a little for the habit of historians of ‘parochializing’ specific studies. I’ll mention just one medieval Jewish mathematician – Immanuel ben Jacob Bonfils (c. 1300 – 1377).

In 1936 an optimistic George Sarton wrote,

It is extremely interesting that the streams of thought which led eventually to decimal calculations on the one hand and to exponential calculations and logarithms on the other, had apparently two main sources, a Christian one and a Jewish one – both being ultimately derived from the same Greco-Arabic fountain head.. Gandz and I have now placed him [Bonfils] – and forever- among the great mathematicians of the fourteenth century, in the company of Oresme and John of Meurs. Henceforth the city of Tarascon should not remind us only of the famous Tartarin but also of one of the great mathematicians of the Middle Ages, the Provencal Jew, Immanuel ben Jacob Bonfils.

The remarks speak of Sarton’s acquiring a photostat copy of BNF Hebrew Ms IO54.6 and Gandz’ translation of the text (‘Derek (i) hilluq’). Gandz’ prefatory remarks, outlining earlier errors of the text’s description and interpretation incidentally offer another good example of that complex mix of forward and backward movement by which an historical study so often proceeds.

On the mathematical text, Gandz writes:

The invention of Bonfils introduces two new elements: the decimal fractions and the exponential calculus. In the latter case he substitutes the addition and subtraction of the exponents, or of the denominators of the degrees, as Bonfils calls them, for the multiplication and the division of the decimal powers. Our impression is that Bonfils is primarily interested in the demonstration of this method of the exponential calculus.

As you’ll see by consulting wiki articles about Algebra or Calculus, Sarton’s confidence was misplaced. We are yet to see Bonfil’s role properly acknowledged in mainstream narratives.

Quotations from Sarton and from Gandz from

  • George Sarton and Solomon Gandz, ‘The Invention of the Decimal Fractions and the Application of the Exponential Calculus by Immanuel Bonfils of Tarascon (c. 1350)’, Isis , Vol. 25, No. 1 (May, 1936), pp. 16-45.

I haven’t yet spoken about that illuminating recent article (mentioned in last week’s post) but it will have to wait.

More recommended readings.

  • Yakir Paz and Tzahi Weiss, ‘From Encoding to Decoding: The AṬBḤ of R. Hiyya in Light of a Syriac, Greek and Coptic Cipher’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies , Vol. 74, No. 1 (April 2015), pp. 45-65. A recent study of medieval Jewish atbash [JSTOR]
  • Tony Lévy and Charles Burnett, ‘”Sefer ha-Middot”: A Mid-Twelfth-Century Text on Arithmetic and Geometry Attributed to Abraham Ibn Ezra’, Aleph, 2006, No. 6 (2006), pp. 57-238. with regard to the practical mathematics involved in cartography. [JSTOR]
  • Ptolemy’s Table of Chords‘ – wiki article.
  • Pamela O. Long, David McGee and Alan M. Stahl (eds.) of The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript. (2009).
  • Frederick M. Hocker & John M. McManamon, ‘Mediaeval Shipbuilding in the Mediterranean and Written Culture at Venice’, Mediterranean Historical Review, Volume 21, 2006 – published online in Issue 1, 24 Jan 2007.

Anomalies – consider this…

This post – call it an essay – is a little over 3,000 words long.

In the later years of my studying Beinecke MS 408, I found that most of the digging was about reconciling and explaining apparent contradictions and anomalies in the primary evidence or secondary Voynich narratives. Sometimes the problem proved to be a consequence of old ‘Voynich doctrines’, theories accepted without scrutiny and so on. At other times the problem evaporated as I learned more. The ‘Mark Twain’ situation.

At the moment, I’m interested in another such knot -part palaeographic, part historical, and part contextual. I could stop blogging while I try to sort it out, but most of it isn’t in my field and I’m not sure I will be able to sort this one. But perhaps you may.

So welcome (I suppose) to my current ‘anomaly’.

The problem.

The ‘4’ shape, whether as numeral or as cipher-form is not attested, in the western side of the Mediterranean or in western Christian Europe (i.e. ‘Latin’ Europe) earlier than about the mid-fourteenth century, with just one exception known to me so far.

However, that closed, upright ‘4’ shape – whether or not as numeral – is present in the Voynich manuscript and (this is the issue) with glyphs having what I described in a voynichimagery post of 2015 as ‘elongated ascenders’ -observing the trend towards plain English.

(detail) Yale University, Beinecke Library MS 408 f.5r

Here’s what I mean by glyphs with elongated ascenders. As you see, they occur in the Voynich script in positions apparently other than the initial, and they occur in close proximity to glyphs of that upright ‘4’ shape – and others very similar but having the left side of the ‘eye’ a little more curved. (I don’t mean the ‘9’ shape).

The term ‘gallows’ by which the ascender glyphs are known today in Voynich studies is a complete misnomer. The true “gallows sign” describes a motif used in letters from Tudor England, urging the recipient to reply on the instant. It doesn’t look much like these.

In passing, I’d like to draw attention to the mark (diacritic or vocalisation?) over the glyph you see as the second of the second paragraph in the clip above from folio 5r, and then as the first glyph of the following line. A mark similar to that in the second instance appears among the central inscriptions in the month-folios.

The easiest way for me to explain why I regard a ‘4’ shape in proximity to elongated ascenders as a problem, is to first indicate the date-range for ‘4’ shaped numerals, then refer to Hill on the history of Arabic numerals in parts of Europe, and then return to the issue of elongated ascenders – as well as I can from my own research into their history within Europe.

I’m fairly sure that anyone competent in comparative studies in palaeography might dispose of the whole problem in a sentence or two, but none were publicly involved in the study in 2015, and I have no introduction to any now.

The earlier post that I’ll quote from, further below, was entitled ‘Who wrote the gallows?’, and was published in October 2015 through the voynichimagery blog.

I’ve had little difficulty in finding examples of a ‘4’ shape compatible with even the earliest date returned by the Vms’ vellum samples, one of which returned a raw date of 1400 AD. I’ve shown two of these early instances already, but to save scrolling back, here they are again:

detail from: Abraham Cresques’ pictorial compendium, made in Minorca for the court of France. completed 1375. Known as the ‘Catalan Atlas’.

I also consulted Smith’s History of Mathematics (2 vols), but now must express my intense gratitude to the friend and master printer who has sent me a copy of a rare monograph:

  • G.F. Hill, The Development of Arabic numerals in Europe (Oxford: Clarendon, 1915).

Hill’s work, like most products of the nineteenth-century Anglo-German school of thought, has definite benefits for this study, but certain deficits too of which readers should be aware.

On the positive side: In 1915 an English scholar might still take his time to amass information for a projected monograph or book, taking ten, twenty or even forty years to finally produce as complete a study as possible, one to be of value for decades to come. As a result, one may still find that a book written last century contains information of greater detail, depth and range than one published last week when it comes to technical and historical studies.

Hill also had the advantage of living in Europe before European countries adopted the Mongols’ ‘total war’ approach, so he was able to consult scholars, manuscripts, libraries and collections which, by the end of the second world war, would exist no longer.

On the negative side, Hill’s study suffers from the same presumptions as those affecting his contemporaries Wilfrid Voynich, William Newbold and William Friedman, all of whom were born in the nineteenth century and reached maturity before the beginning of the twentieth.

Like them, Hill defines ‘Europe’ as England, Germany and Italy, with a just glance towards France and no reference made to the Iberian Peninsula, the Balkans, or elsewhere unless an Englishman, Italian or German was involved. Italy was included by virtue of the Renaissance and ancient Rome, and Ramon Llull was acceptable to the older Voynich theorists only because the Voynich text was presumed encoded or enciphered and his was the only name that came to mind in relation to Panofsky’s saying (in 1932) that he attributed the manuscript to ‘Spain or somewhere southern’. Llull’s name has been floated, intermittently, since the 1920s and is risen to the surface again recently – who knows why – but I doubt if one in a couple of hundred Voynich writers has bothered to read anything of Lull’s writings. There is absolutely nothing of his worldview in the Voynich images, and his system for memorising texts has about as much connection to the Voynich plant-pictures as a greeting card to the Boboli gardens.

Spaniards and even the French were simply not considered in weaving a Voynich narrative and that remained so from 1912 almost to the present day. As for writings of non-Europeans, or even of European Jews, they are not included in Hill’s work, any more than in the Friedman’s idea of medieval Europe, or the names considered as the Voynich manuscript’s possible ‘authors’. d’Imperio’s including medieval Jews assumes their work relevant only to religious/magical/superstitious matter and even then envisages it having been filtered and ‘translated’ by some Christian intermediary. What is embarrassing to us, these days, is her being evidently oblivious of the Jews’ scientific literature and their role as scholars and not merely as hired translators.

However, one simply has to strive to correct such old and sadly persistent blind spots in relation to Voynich studies, while observing a solemn silence over the still more embarrassing and ill-informed, if mercifully few, pseudo-Jewish ‘Voynich’ theories.

It was precisely because I’d come to know where the older writers’ blind spots were that I went to those areas first – the Iberian peninsula, the Balearics, the artisans and masters of crafts, the Jews and the mariners, the traders and cartographers, .. and found those two early examples immediately, though admittedly both are sources I know well and to which I’ve had reason to refer before in explaining drawings from the Voynich manuscript. There are surely more fourteenth-century example to be found, but those two suffice for now.

Within Hill’s predictable limits, his study remains very valuable indeed. Here’s a clip from his annotated Tables – which I’ve also sent to Nick Pelling in case the cryptographers would like more information from it.


My own research into the manuscript concluded with a date for the final recension of the imagery, save a few peripheral additions and marginalia, around 1350 (it had been 1330 but the form of the ‘tower’ in the north roundel, which is not the North emblem, adds 2 decades to that date. The tower, which I identify as the Galata, gained its form in three stories in 1348/9 and ceased to have that quite that form after 1445. As it happens the latter date is useful marker too, as we’ll see. I accept, of course, the radiocarbon-14 range for our present manuscript.

Evidence from Hill.

It has become my habit, when quoting matter likely to upset adherents of a theoretical ‘Voynich’ narrative, to reproduce the passage rather than transcribing it.

So here’s Hill on the ‘4’ shape as numeral in England, Italy and Germany.

Although Hill tried, as he says elsewhere in that introduction, to ‘sweep into his net all examples to 1500’ he, like Friedman, was oriented to think of history as determined by official and ‘high’ works, rather than the works of artisans or commerce. Breviaries rather than invoices. So earlier examples may still turn up if anyone cares to investigate German documents.

Here’s Hill’s entry for that early 14thC manuscript from Florence.

*NOTE – Hill has a number of thirteenth-century examples which verge on becoming a similar form but which represent ‘five’)

Without pausing to explain why the following might excite old die-hards like me, here’s another set of numerals together with Hill’s note.

The more traditional form for the numeral ‘four’ resembles another Voynich glyph.

In the version above (from a digitised ‘Voynich alphabet’) the thickened stroke should be ignored. It doesn’t appear for the old ‘four’ as a rule, nor for the Vms glyph.

The range over which Hill collected his examples included copies of textbooks, religious handbooks such as breviaries, texts on mathematics including compotus, and coins, monumental work and church-bells. But no informal notebooks, no financial documents, nothing from the trades or commerce. Of artisans, only painters as ‘artists’ were included, and these chiefly from Italy. The nineteenth-century Anglo-German idea of ‘Europe’s intellectual history’ – yet again.

While it might well be said that cryptographers need skill in mathematics, I do wonder now whether the Urbino ledger of 1440 was rendering ‘4’ as a cipher, or simply translating a form for ‘quo’ unfamiliar at that time to Italians and in a time when the ‘qo’ might yet be mistaken for ’98’ or ’96’ or ’48’ or ’46” or even ’58’ or ’56’. This clip illustrates forms in a fifteenth-century English manuscript. Regular readers will have seen the illustration before, but it will do.

Untidy-ing the theory.

If we suppose any relationship exists between the ‘4’-shaped Voynich glyph and the similar form for the numeral ‘4’, whether direct, or employed as cipher, or anything else, then the seemingly obvious conclusion is that the text ought to have gained its present form in the fourteenth or earlier fifteenth century, up until 1438, in which case it is most unlikely to be of German Christian origin, only a little less unlikely to be of English origin and even if Italian not yet likely to be in any cipher-ledger known so far in Voynich studies. One must have some doubt about the relevance of the Urbino ledger, and it is too early for the Milanese ciphers noted by Pelling in 2006. Of course here too, it may simply be that no-one has yet investigated, or if investigated, not yet published other records.

We may say, at least, that the form is most likely to belong within the same general area in which we’ve noted instances of western MSS containing, as does the VMS, quires both septenion and quinion.*

*for details, see earlier post, ‘What magic? Where Magic? 4: Whose magic?’ (July 5th., 2021) 

We might describe that region in the most general terms as south-western Mediterranean, but with an accent on places linked directly to the maritime trading routes initially dominated by Genoa and Venice and their entanglements both by sea and within Italy.

In order of date, we have the ‘4’ shape in a Florentine MS of the early fourteenth century, the Venetian mercantile handbook MS Beinecke 327 in the mid-fourteenth century, and the Jewish cartographer of Minorca in 1375, then a similar form, certainly, in a cipher-ledger of Urbino in 1440 and somewhat later, in ciphers used in Milan, though the last post-date manufacture of our manuscript.

It is almost neat. Except.

Except for those glyphs with elongated ascenders.

In 2015 my aim was to only to track the history and context in which such forms occur in the west.

The first historical example came to notice in Voynich studies thanks to Jim Reeds who provided it and, at the same time, re-introduced* Cappelli’s Dictionary to Voynich studies, Yet someone had already described these as ‘gallows’ letters or glyphs, for it was as ‘gallows’ he described them.

*Aficionados may recall Erwin Panofsky’s acidic response to Question 13 of Friedman’s preposterous ‘Questionnaire”.

The following, in blue, from that post of 2015:

That first example (above) comes from an official charter, now in Parma but from the monastery of San Savino, in Piacenza. When this example was introduced to the Voynich world by Jim Reeds, via the old mailing list, he added this:

But I can refer to one of the few photographic facsimilies in … Cappelli’s Dizionario (the 1967 reprint of what appears to be the 1929 edition), namely “Tavola IV”, which shows a letter [of] 1172 [AD], Giugno 13 — Savino abbate del monastero di S. Savino in Piacenza investe il mugnaio Gerardo Albarola per se e suoi eredi maschi in perpetuo, di un mulio di ragione del detto moasstero — Scritura carolina. — Pergamena origen., conservata nell’Archivio di Stato di Parma, monastero di S. Savino.”

So it’s not just a letter, but a charter.  And the script is described as Caroline, despite being late 12thC.

Pelling, whom experience has shown invariably accurate in crediting original sources of information, even if they oppose his theories and opinions, mentioned that Barbara Barrett argued for the Voynich script’s being derived from a Caroline hand and not – as Pelling has long held – that the Voynich script was written by a scribe influenced by the humanist style.

I’ve not yet seen Barrett’s articles (I’m now trying again to see if the Fortean Times can supply a copy), but I note that neither Barrett, nor Pelling, considered any other form of script save a Latin script as informing the manuscript’s written text as we now have it.

I should like to see the opinion of someone expert in comparative palaeography, and one day perhaps we shall see a detailed palaeographic study of the Voynich script in print.

Such elongated ascenders don’t occur in the body of a humanist text. The time-frame is wrong. By the early fifteenth-century, only the faintest trace remains of the style informing that charter from Piacenza and even in that twelfth-century charter, such forms were used only for the headers and not within the body of a text.

The Caroline hand is certainly earlier – the standard limits for it that you’ll find in the text-books, wiki articles and so on is “8thC-11thC inclusive“.

At this point a theorist might be inclined to invent a theory-patch by saying something like, ‘OK, so a fifteenth-century Italian scribe copied/enciphered a tenth-century text’ – but such anodynes won’t do.

Our maxim as revisionists remains, “No evidence, no exposition – no case”

On the other hand that ‘patch’ might be expressed as a question, or rather a group of questions, and so begin a potentially useful line of enquiry.

As I hunted other examples of similarly formed letters, ignoring the distraction of an over-elaborate variation adopted by the chancery of the Holy Roman emperors, I found that they were all (that is, all that I could find, not all there may be), issued from the papal chancery or scribes of papal delegates and all but one – which I’ll mention later – were of similar type, not letters but charters.

To find another text from the Latin domains in which elongated ascenders of any kind occcur within the body of a text, I had to go to an ever-earlier period and it was thanks to Jonathan Barrett and his blog, ‘A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe: Early medievalist’s thoughts and ponderings” that I had the following – again a charter, and again from a Papal delegate. It’s the authority to establish a Spanish convent, in Ripol (mod. Ripoli) in the province of Girona (medieval Gerona). It is dated to the tenth century.

I’m fairly sure that here again a professional palaeographer might have done better, and quicker, but from the 1990s until very recently, we had none who were publicly engaging with Voynich research, so one did what one could.

Papal establishment charters continued evoking the style of elongated headers to as late as August 1412, but this late example shows only a faint echo of the twelfth-century one noticed by Jim Reeds. It is among a set of documents sent to Scotland after a local bishop had, somewhat presumptuously for the time, already granted a charter for the establishment of the University of St.Andrews. The papal documents therefore just confirmed that charter and added to it, including the official ‘Blessing’ in which the vestigal form appears. A somewhat blurry photo of it be seen here.

Against this, a Papal letter ( bull) of 1216, though addressing the rights to which the Order of St.John Hospitaller were entitled, contains no ascenders save the ordinary ‘f’ and old form of ‘s’.

So that’s the problem. What appears to be a ‘4’ form which we should date to not earlier than the beginning of the fourteenth century, combined with glyphs having elongated ascenders that appear within the body of the text, like something written in the tenth century.

An anomaly if we suppose the written text first composed by a Latin in western Europe. And what Latin, in tenth-century Europe, or even early fourteenth century Europe, could have produced the drawing on folio 13r?

Other restrictions.

I’m hoping now to get access to material in the Fondo Datini to see how commercial documents were being written in fourteenth century France and in his hometown of Prato, as well as hoping there might be some way to see examples of commercial and financial ledgers from the papal court in Avignon, whether under the accepted Popes or their successors in the region after 1376, the so-called ‘antiPopes’. I’d also be interested in seeing any form of ’emissary letter’ which might exist from before 1450.

While I’m strongly inclined to agree with Panosky’s initial assessment of the manuscript, when he classed it as a product of ‘Spain or somewhere southern’,* it is with the caveat that I do not think the whole content created by any single person, nor originating from that region. I consider ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ an important. late, halt in the route of transmission, though distance and through time.

*by which, as I read his comments, he meant the appearance of the contents.  Whether or not he was considering the vellum’s relatively rough finish (as another early commentator remarked) and its binding, I think at present the weight of evidence for the current work’s manufacture lies with Italy, or a region with strong influence from one or more of the Italian city states.  Again, the judgement of professionals in comparative codicology, and those with years of practical experience analysing the structure and materials of medieval manuscripts, are best able to judge that.  – Note added 29th Nov. 2021.

It may be written text in Beinecke MS 408 was composed between 1350 and when our current manuscript was put together, but I cannot think so while this apparent anomaly remains unexplained.

Feel free to leave a comment here, or a link to your own work if the problem interests you.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.4v

Pharma? Red Cylinders. Bases.

This series of posts places under scrutiny the Voynich ‘doctrine’ that the leaf-and- root* section is “pharmaceutical”.

* (as we’ll call it, following Gheueuns

The problem is not that it might not be about plants’ use in medicine, but that there never was any foundation for that idea, and medicine was just one among many purposes for which plants, and images of plants, might be wanted.

Among those others appropriate to a period before 1440AD were culinary uses, leatherwork, carpentry and glass-making, textiles and painting, the making of inks and dyes, of perfumes and incense.

Images of plants, realistic or otherwise, might also serve as patterns for weaving, tapestry, stone- and wood- carving, murals, frescoes, mosaic designs and embroidery. And, as we’ve seen, to illustrate commercial lists.

In short – the Voynich ‘pharma-‘ doctrine was never reached by elimination of other reasonable options, nor was it ever a conclusion from evidence. It was nothing but one man’s guess, offered in 1921 and thereafter repeated, untested and unproven, for a century.

Recap of the series so far.

Newbold’s “pharmaceutical” idea gained an impression of weight  because repeated for so long, by so many, including  by  Mary d’Imperio and by the Beinecke Library’s catalogue entry.
Yet it is demonstrably true that no western European (i.e. ‘Latin’) pharmacy ever held a similar range of artefacts as those seen in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section – at least not until after 1440 AD, our terminus ad.quem.
Newbold, d’Imperio and the Beinecke, like all others interested in the manuscript before 2000, were  unaware that a letter existed which had been written in 1637 by Georg Baresch, a man who had the manuscript for decades and who insisted in that letter  (some say ‘speculated’) that all the matter in the manuscript had been brought ‘from eastern parts’. He also said he guessed the purpose had been to serve medicine.
So far, the posts in this series have tested if it were physically possible before 1440 for someone to have gathered information ‘in the orient’. We found no objection offered by the historical record.  Writing not less than two hundred years later than our manuscript was made, however, Baresch’s understanding of such terms as ‘the orient’ or ‘Egyptian’ may, or may not, have been what we’d  assume they mean today.  
Seventeenth-century definitions of ‘oriental’ might include Armenia, or north Africa as easily as China or southeast Asia.  Even European Jews were sometimes described as ‘orientals’. 
Similarly with the idea of ‘Egyptian’ – Athanasius Kircher asserts in one of his earlier books that, after the Biblical Flood, the whole of the Asian continent had been repopulated from Egypt by Noah’s son Shem and that Chinese written characters are descended from Egyptian hieroglyphs!
So by ‘Egyptian’ knowledge, Baresch might have believed the matter obtained from Alexandria, or from India, or from the foreigners’ ports of China and south-east Asia, from all of which  regions, native plants as ‘spices’ had been carried further west, some far-eastern plants having been known to Latin (i.e. western Christian-) Europe as early as the ninth century. 
So now – what of the artefacts represented in this section?


JUST AS Newbold’s speculation should have been tested, so Baresch’s opinion must be tested.

Theorists’ can confine their investigations to limits set by their theory, but the revisionist’s search is limited only by the manuscript’s internal evidence, by the terminus ad quem of 1440, and by a requirement that arguments about e.g. lines of transmission, or artefacts, must emerge from evidence and not be imposed on it. Nor may we employ the quasi-historical narrative-style that relies on chaining speculation on speculation, Wilfrid-style.

Illustrations can use recent examples of long-traditional forms, for wood rots; iron rusts, ceramics are shattered. One cannot hope that museums will hold preserved examples precisely matching every item represented in a six-hundred year old manuscript.

Unfortunately, neither can these Voynich drawings be treated as ‘photographic’ images or as physical artefacts. Apart from other considerations, the Voynich drawings display evidence that at some stage in the material’s preservation and transmission, it was affected by certain cultural and/or religious constraints* on how natural phenomena and living things might be represented.

*In the leaf and root section, as throughout the manuscript, certain avoidances are evident – against the realistic/natural depiction of any living creature; against representing closed, rectangular ‘boxes’; against ‘crossed-over’ forms such as interlace; avoidance of dead-straight lines, including ruled lines. Where exceptions occur, as for example in a couple of drawings in the ‘bathy-‘ section, or in folio 57v, they are a brief departure from this constant norm and in the ‘bathy-‘ section, that departure is clearly due to a European copyist’s over-confidence, attempting to improve what he had been set to copy.  That this hand vanishes after one or two pages is evidence enough that accurate reproduction of the exemplars, not ‘improvement’ to suit Latin custom, was required.

What we are left with as our first points of access are a combination of structural details and the range of represented forms. Addressing these in relation to the artefacts represented, the question of ‘who’ first enunciated drawings in this section is less important than “where-and-when” it happened.


The simplest form is the cylinder represented either as open at the top or as having its lid upturned. (see left).

Of this type, the majority are coloured red or blue and if the red colouring maintains that of the original drawing, parallels may be found for it in both the Mediterranean and in the east, chiefly in southeast Asia. The blue is more problematic.*

*as noted earlier, the palette includes nothing in the range pink-purple-black, which brings up questions of substitution where those were natural to the item.

Such cylindrical containers, flat-topped and coloured red with mineral cinnabar, were produced in the Mediterranean to as late as the 1stC AD, and from about that time to the present are characteristic of the orient and most particularly of south-east Asia.

The difference is that in the Mediterranean world, the cinnabar was used as a coating and sealed, whereas in the oriental tradition, the cinnabar was – and still is – incorporated into a vegetable or insect-derived lacquer, which itself is the sealant.

In the Mediterranean, the secret of the separate sealant was lost with the Phoenician genocide and so Vitruvius notes (1stC AD) that since Romans had now lost the secret of that ‘Phoenician wax’, surfaces painted with cinnabar rapidly turned from red to black.

capsa. Pompeii 1stC AD

Images of the old red, flat-topped, cylindrical containers, in fibre or in metal (left) continue to occur in the west to as late as the fifth century, but only as the scroll-holding capsa.

The example shown (below) is from a fifth-century mosaic in Tunis.

Capsa and scrolls. Mosaic. 5thC AD.Tunis.

An image of Vergil in a fifth-century manuscript shows him seated beside another red capsa but evidently relies on some earlier mosaic or monument. Vergil died in 19 BC. (Cod. vat. lat. 3867 f.14r).

In Pompeii, again from the 1stC, wall paintings depict some capsa as red, but others are already coloured black.

So, if the red colouring for such containers in the ‘leaf and root’ section remains true to the drawings’ first enunciation, then that first enunciation is to be dated no later than the 5thC AD, and more probably to the 1stC AD or earlier if originating in the Mediterranean.

I have found no other evidence of red-coated cylinders of any sort, and not of this simple sort, having been a tradition within mainland Europe to 1440 but remain open to evidence for it.

Though such cinnabar-coated containers ceased in the Roman world from about the 1stC AD, Italian dialects retained the idea of the ‘roll’ as a secure container.

By the fifteenth century, a rotula or, in the Venetian dialect rotoli, meant a ‘chest’, and named a measure equal to about 1.2 Kg or about two and a half pounds’ weight.

Linguists and cryptographers may want to know more, so here’s a passage from the Zibaldone da Canal as example of that usage. (Zibaldone da Canal c.1422, Venice. Yale, Beinecke library).

Know that pepper is sold in Alexandria by the carica, that is 5 cantars forfiori. This carica yields 715 light pounds in Venice, and all goods that are drawn from outside Alexandria are sold by this cantar forfiori, and this cantar is 100 rotoli, and a rotoli is 12 occhie, so that the cantar comes to be 143 to 144 light pounds in Venice…

You ought to know that ginger, and indigo, aloe, incense and incense powder, and indigo powder, and lac, and elephant tusks, gum arabic, naibet sugar, encone, tamarinds, white and red sandalwood, citrine myrobalans, tragacanth, all these things are sold in Alexandria by the cantar forfiori… [= 100-rotoli]

Ginger came from south-east Asia as did ‘lac’, other products such as tamarinds and sandalwood from India.

It is a fact that Romans had traded directly with some few ports in India during the early centuries AD.

Greco-Indian products and cultural markers dating from the Roman era have been recovered in Thailand; Sasanian products in Vietnam.

… we can refer to the archaeological details highlighted by Lamb, namely the wealth of small objects of Sassanian origin dug up in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam at the important site of Óc-eo, and the Greco-Roman objects (possibly from Sassanian-controlled regions) found in the Kingdom of Dvaravati in central Siam [mod. Thailand]… 

  • Brian E. Colless, ‘Persian Merchants And Missionaries In Medieval Malaya’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 42, No. 2 (216) (December, 1969), pp. 10-47.
  • Paul Wheatley, ‘Geographical Notes on some Commodities involved in Sung Maritime Trade’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society , Vol. 32, No. 2 (186), (1959), pp. 3, 5-41, 43-139.

When we turn to east Asia, source of ‘spices’ brought as far as Corbie by the ninth century, we find that simple, cylindrical containers coated in red or black lacquer are among the traditional forms for carrying lighter goods in bulk. It is certainly possible – though whether it was done is not known – that goods might have been carried by sea in containers of such a kind even during the fifteenth century.

Here are some examples of the traditional forms, these from Burma and northern Thailand.

As you see from the removeable straps on the examples above, these are meant to be carried on a person’s back. Whether their volume is – or ever was – equal to 100 rotoli I’m unable to discover.

Here are some smaller modern-made examples which are again of a long-traditional type.

Burmese lacquer is not gained from a tree, as the others are, but uses the secretions of Laccifer lacca, one of a group of similar insects whose secretions are also used in India’s traditional medicine, Kerria lacca being the most often mentioned. That secretion is the ‘lac’ mentioned in the Zibaldone da Canal

Smaller containers would contain more precious material, including the type of fat- and oil- based perfumes made in India and imported into medieval Cairo and Alexandria. In western images, as token for the eastern spices said to have been prepared by the ‘three Marys’ and carried to Jesus’ tomb (Luke 24:1) containers of this ‘exotic’ form are often seen. They need not have been coated or coloured.

For readers who like technicalities, some notes on eastern lacquer:

East Asian lacquer is a resin made from the highly toxic sap of Toxicodendron vernicifluum, which is native to [east-]Asia and a close relative of poison ivy.
The tree Toxicodendron vernicifluum (formerly Rhus verniciflua -x-Rhus vernicifera), which is indigenous to China and Korea and has certainly been cultivated in Japan at least since the 6th century CE, is tapped when it is about 10 years old. Lateral incisions are made in the bark, and the running sap is collected during the months of June to September. Branches of a diameter of 1 inch (about 3 cm) or more are also tapped, the bark having first been removed. Smaller branches are cut off and soaked in water for 10 days, and the sap is collected, producing a lacquer (seshime) of particular quality, used for special purposes. These processes kill the tree, but the wood, when of sufficient size, is of some use for carpentry. From the roots five or six shoots spring up, which become available for the production of lacquer after about six years, and the operation can be thus continued for a considerable length of time before the growth is exhausted. –
  • Stephen Sheasby, ‘The conservation of Oriental lacquer’, Victoria and Albert Museum Conservation Journal October 1991 Issue 01.  (The V&A understands the tech-obsessed). 
  • NOTE – many online sources confuse the lacquer tree with Sumac or with others classed as Toxicodendron or as Rhus. 
In essence, lacquer is a natural plastic; it is remarkably resistant to water, acid, and, to a certain extent, heat. Raw lacquer is collected annually by extracting the viscous sap through notches cut into the trees. It is gently heated to remove excess moisture and impurities. Purified lacquer can then be applied to the surface of nearly any object…. The earliest lacquered objects were colored black or red with the addition of charcoal or cinnabar to the refined sap. Because lacquer is such a volatile substance, only a few additional coloring agents will combine with it….
 Lacquer was an important artistic medium [for the Chinese] from the sixth century B.C. to the second century A.D. and was often colored with minerals such as carbon (black), orpiment (yellow), and cinnabar (red) and used to paint the surfaces of sculptures and vessels. There is little evidence for the use of lacquer in China from the second to the eighth century AD: eighth- to tenth-century examples are often beautifully constructed but with simple shapes and little or no decoration. In early examples, [of carved lacquerware] layers of yellow and green lacquer are interspersed among the predominant red to give a subtle depth to the overall design that is set against a plain background.

The Met. collection concentrates on objects of ‘high art’ but the basic techniques were, as ever, discovered by rural workers and many ordinary objects were lacquered simply to protect the contents from air and humidity.


America still uses the name ‘Burma’, but to its own people, the country is ‘Myanmar’.

BASES – details

All these have the object front-facing. All but one may be read as having just three feet. Should we assume a fourth resting-point?

The difficulty here for any ‘all-Latin’ theory is that western convention in drawing turned any legged artefact to show it in profile, or turned it (or just its feet) to whatever angle might show at least three of the westerner’s usual four resting-points. Milking stools and trivets or tripods might have three legs but otherwise Europeans were ‘four-point’ all the way.

Some examples of western representations:

Europeans habitually used dead-straight, ruled lines, too.

But Asia, and especially eastern Asia, placed fewer limits on design. An object might have three, four, five or more legs and since the artefacts in the ‘leaf and root’ section are shown front-on, we can assume neither a European origin nor that four legs may be supposed ‘normal’.

Further – a close look at two versions for the simplest type appears to me to show that the legged bases here show a separate stand, on which the containers are stacked, though evidently the stand’s inclusion was optional.

Once again, Europe might occasionally use a legged stand, chiefly to prevent heated items from damaging a surface, but before 1440, it didn’t make legged stands of this form, even granted that the drawings seem a little confused in places.

There are just four types for these legged bases in the ‘leaf and root’ section. To avoid jargon, I’ve described the four as: ‘the strongly outcurved’; the ‘knife-blade’, the ‘paw’ footed, and the ‘leafy’. Some items include more than one type.

I’ve seen nothing, so far, which compares with the ‘leafy’ type – neither within the Mediterranean nor in Asia before 1440, but other revisionists may do better.

Otherwise, all these forms occur separately and/or in combination in the east and some are so commonly used in traditional Asia that anyone who has travelled there will surely recognise them.

Because many are part of a long and continuous tradition, it is easy to find examples, but the same fact makes more difficult the task of narrowing the date-range.

What they do is reassure us that the artefacts represented in this section, and so probably the plants associated with them, relate to the eastern world and that the drawings were perhaps – but not necessarily – always intended to refer to international trade.

Below is an example in which are combined red and black laquers in a three-legged object.

Three legged, lacquered red and black. Western Han dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD) From the first
tomb of Mawangdui. Hunan
Provincial Museum.

The next set of illustrations shows the wide variety in possible number of resting points – here showing items with three-, four-, five- and more. Some also show the ‘simplified paw’.

IN the following composite, another view is shown of an object seen above (upper right) to show its five legs more clearly. Separate stands are present in both the upper, and the lower composites.

As anyone will be aware who has travelled to Asia or is familiar with eastern artefacts, to place objects from small to very large on a separate stand was the norm in eastern Asia and even more routinely done in earlier times than today.

The virtue of a stand with three resting points is that it is less likely to tip over – the same reason that western milking stools traditionally had three legs.

One design seen in the ‘leaf and root’ section is not one that was a long tradition and for this reason is more helpful for our effort to date these drawings’ first enunciation.

This is the type I’ve described as the ‘knife-blade’ though often described in China as the [‘tiger- ] ‘claw’. Surviving examples are usually of metal, the legs formed by bending a triangular piece of metal along the perpendicular line. The style is not only rare in Europe before 1440 (I’ve yet to see an example made before that date), but it is relatively rare in Asia.

Tang dynasty

The oldest known examples occur in Shang China ( 1600 BC – 1046 BC) after which the style evidently fell into disuse, then to be revived during the time of the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD) – regarded as a ‘golden age’ of Chinese culture.

Tang rulers were unusually welcoming to foreigners and very open to new ideas. Under the Tang, the foreigner’s port of Guangzhou was established in the south, and in the north, the capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) accepted Buddhists, Nestorian Christians, and Manichaeans among others.

There is record of a Byzantine embassy coming to Emperor Taizong in 643 AD, and by 878-879AD the foreigner’s port-city, Guangzhou, is said to have contained no fewer than 120,00 occupants, these classed as Muslim Arabs, Muslim Persians, Zoroastrian Persians, Christians (Syrian and Nestorian Christians are most likely), and Jews.

It was thus – ultimately – to the power and influence of the Tang rulers that European towns like Corbie owed its access to south-east Asian ‘spices’ in the ninth century, such spices coming chiefly by sea and via Alexandria or Damascus in the pre-Mongol period.

We know the approximate number and demographics of Guangzhou’s population in 878-9 because in that year the city’s population was massacred, the number of dead and their ‘nations’ reported in a single Arab source. The port was closed for the following half-century.

Late in the thirteenth century, the city was evidently thriving again, for one Italian merchant established in China – Peter of Lucolongo – assisted the first Franciscan ‘ambassador’ to China, the Sicilian John of Montecorvino – a fomer secular advisor to Frederick II who was sent to China at the same time that the Genoese mariners went to assist the il-Khan in Baghdad and Mosul. By that time the Mongols ruled China.

(top) detail from folio ; (centre) Shang dynasty burner; (bottom register) 17thC revival.

It is clear from the Voynich drawings that the copyists are confused by the ‘knife-blade’ form and that they worked from a less than perfect model. In some drawings, one leg is rightly represented, as with the left- and right-hand legs here (top register -and see examples underlined in yellow, above) – but others seem confused. I’d suggest that the copyists may have been working from a less-than-perfect printed exemplar and that the confusion pre-dates our fifteenth-century copy.

After again falling from use in the tenth century, the ‘knife-blade’ leg would not be fashionable again until the seventeenth century. (right – bottom register).

The Met. site has a short essay on the Tang dynasty and era, in which one paragraph reads:

Trade routes, such as the network now known as the Silk Road, provided a thoroughfare for goods and ideas between China, Central Asia, India, and Persia. A web of maritime routes connected Chinese seaports (like Guangzhou in the south)  to India, the Persian Gulf, and from there to the east coast of Africa. The direct exchange of goods, such as textiles, metalware, and ceramics, inspired Tang craftsmen. …international trade whetted a taste for striking and sumptuous fashions among the Tang elite. Leopard-skin hats and close-fitting sleeves, imitating the clothing of Central Asians and Persians to the west, were popular in the mid-eighth century.

Kotanese nephrite jade as lamp or inkstone. Note the ‘leopard-skin hat’ – which includes the animal’s paws.

The same era saw the introduction from inner Asia of the three-coloured glaze, called ‘Sancai’. It was always considered a ‘foreign’ style and details often direct attention westward towards the region of Greco-Indian culture about Gandhara and Ai Khanoum. This region was a major crossroads in the ‘silk-and-spice’ routes and had been traversed by at least a couple of Europeans before 1440 among the tens of thousands of non-Europeans who traded and travelled them.

I include the following dish from that region, made before the tenth century it shows Delphic Apollo. I include it mainly to illustrate the ‘leafy’ form taken by the acanthus-motif in that environment.

schist. Greco-Hellenistic style in Gandhara – Parthian period.

A piece of Tang-era sankai ware models a foreigner’s Bactrian camel and saddlebags. The bags show a typically Greco-Indian motif of Dionysos, but here haloed and being supported by an Indian woman who wears the characteristic torque and anklet. Greco-Indian culture is usually said to have given way to the Bactrian by the 3rdC AD, but such relics allow us to suppose the cultural influence survived much longer.

A little later, female figures wearing such torque and anklet – though without any haloed Dionysos – would appear in illustrations made for copies of the Book of the Fixed Stars, composed by al-Sufi, a native of Rey in Iran (903 AD – 986 AD).

Regular readers may also recognise the sense of this image from another piece of Tang-era sankai ware.

Here, in Dionysian style, the ‘Persian Death’ rides a tiger, not the Arabs’ horse.

In summary:

Artefacts in the ‘leaf and root’ section, though not obviously drawn in Chinese style, incorporate typically Asian forms and – so far – details indicate the Tang dynasty period as most likely for first enunciation of the red-coloured cylindrical containers and their bases as represented in this section.

In Guangzhou, the point furthest east where the overland and maritime ‘silk and spice’ routes met, there was a large multicultural community of foreign traders – not including Europeans – resident before 878-879 AD and again from some period after 930 AD. Western Europeans are noted resident, mostly as traders, in Guangzhou as in Baghdad and India from the last decades of the thirteenth century, and most (perhaps all) being from Italy (Bologna, Venice and Genoa) or from Sicily.

‘Pharma’ – the routes

two prior:

AT PRESENT we’re considering the range over which information might have been gathered and brought to western Europe before 1400-1440, so to inform the pictorial text in Beinecke MS 408.

The reason for doing this is partly that the range and style of artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section (which Newbold imagined dealt with pharmaceuticals) find no comparison in Europe before our present manuscript was made, and partly that Georg Baresch who had the manuscript for about thirty years and who tried repeatedly to get better information about it, thought that the Voynich plants were not native to Europe, and that a person had gathered ‘from eastern parts’ the information now informing the text.

The previous post looked at the six-hundred year long connection between Europe and the territories once part of the Sasanian Persian empire, though which the overland ‘silk and spice’ routes passed.

This post considers the sea- and land routes whose use is attested during the relevant period by the travels of two men, each of whom began their voyages in the western Mediterranean, travelled east, and returned before the mid-1350s.

The first left Venice in 1271, returning in 1295. The other left from Tangier, Morocco in 1325, his final return occurring in 1354, after which he settled in Grenada for a time where his travels were narrated. The name of the first was Marco Polo; of the second, Ibn Battuta.

What we know of Marco Polo’s journey is owed to what might be called ‘the popular press’, a writer having heard of Polo who was then in prison. Polo’s story was constructed by that writer from what Polo told him from the prison cell. Ibn Battuta was received home with honour and his account of his travels recorded by his students for – unlike Latin Europe – the Islamic world had an active tradition of first-hand geographic writing and its study of geography did not await reception of a copy of Claudius’ Ptolemy’s thousand year old text.

Maximus Planudes (1260 – c. 1305 AD). Some scholars associate Planudes with Codex Vatopedinus 65 (early 14thC)

(However, for an overview of Ptolemy’s Geographia in Renaissance Europe, I warmly recommend Thony Christie’s recent post).

Routes indicated by the narrative of Maro Polo’s journeys. For an interactive version, see the website

As you see, the routes agree pretty well, so we may rely upon it that these are the likely routes along which such information might have been gathered by any trader-traveller before 1400, regardless of his birthplace, native language or religion.

So – in theory at least, the drawings of plants and artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section might represent products from anywhere along those much-travelled routes, whether overland or by sea. If the possibilities are many, they are also daunting.

In those days, almost any traveller was perforce a trader, for there was no other way to support the costs of travel except by trading as one went. Some few might be sponsored by kings. Others might find that on reaching a given region the local ruler was willing to provide the necessities of life. But the majority had to trade in order to travel and the hardships and perils of travel meant that most travelled for no other reason. All found that while death might with good luck be avoided, taxes could not.

There have been a few earlier suggestions, by Voynich writers, that the manuscript evinces an ‘eastern’ character in some sense.

While the majority have maintained various versions of Wilfrid Voynich’s basic ‘all-European’ theory, in 2002 Jorge Stolfi concluded from his computer-analysis of the written text that ‘Voynichese’ might be an Asian language and suggested Jurchen as one possibility. His investigation began after a mock-theory had been presented by Jacques Guy, but Guy himself later went into print to make clear that while he had been joking about his ‘Chinese theory’, Stolfi’s method and results should not be regarded other than seriously and saying, further, that he had found no fault with either.

I do not recommend the ‘Voynich wiki’ article on this subject. Its anonymous author has improperly taken, without mention of the source, original contributions to the study made by P.Han, by the present author and doubtless by others,  all represented as if they were original work of that wiki writer. It is not honestly done.

Some years later, two botanists named Wiart and Mazars offered a couple of botanical identifications which named plants from the eastern world. Among the botanical identifications initially offered by Edith Sherwood were some whose form was unknown to formal western botany until after 1450, but well-known along those several of the eastern routes, the luffa and ‘banana'[f.13r] among them. Plants having similar appearance and fruit – thus of the same general ‘banana’ type – exist in a wide variety and are found from Africa to the Himalayas and South-east Asia. (italicised phrase added 27/08/2021)

For some years, those botanical identifications were little regarded and the very short contribution by Wiart and Mazars might have been ignored into oblivion had not Nick Pelling, despite his own clearly sceptical reaction, not noted and commented on their views in 2010, writing:

Guy Mazars and Christophe Wiart in Actualites en Phytotherapie … propose that many of the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious plants may in fact be East Asian plants (for example, that f6v depicts Ricinus communis) or Indian plants (they think that many of the plants shown are types of Asteraceae, with f27r representing Centella Asiatica).

  • Nick Pelling, ‘Chinese Voynich Theories…’ ciphermysteries, 14th May, 2010.
Yale, Beinecke MS 408 fol.13r

I too identified the subject of the drawing on folio 13r as representing plants of the ‘banana’ type, publishing a detailed analysis of the drawing itself and notes on historical context, pointing out that the fairly literal representation, in this case, showed personal knowledge of such plants and thus stood in opposition to the fact that the physical appearance of these ‘banana’ plants had remained unknown to European botany until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The inference then seemed fairly obvious, viz, that the plant-pictures could not be derived from any western botanical or herbal text, a conclusion which agrees in general terms with what John Tiltman had concluded after witnessing the failures of the Friedman groups’ over thirty years. He said, in 1968:

to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed. (p.11)

  • John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World” (1968) NSA DOCID: 631091, released under Freedom of Information Act, Case #19159, 23-Apr-2002.

 I included in my definition of the ‘banana group’ species so grouped by peoples in lands where the plants grow. Of these, some were and others were not later classed by Linnaeus as Musaceae. But Linneus was not the first person to observe and describe plants in ‘groupings’ and botanical observation and classification did not begin in Europe.

The sort of response which my historical commentary met then, and later,  is nicely illustrated by a very late comment (2018) made after I had closed off the research from the public.  The following was made by a pen-named contributor to one Voynich forum, and reads in part: 
[O’Donovan] .. was not the first to correlate (sic!)  banana and f13r, and credits Edith Sherwood with coming up with the banana ID. … while Sherwood (and many others) see 13r as a banana, [O’Donovan’s] idea(sic!) is that this folio depicts the whole Musa “group”, however anachronistic that may seem (obviously the notion of a Musaceae family is a Linnean one, so I really don’t know what kind of “group” she thinks this depicts).
That writer (known as ‘Vviews’) overlooked the critical point –  that such detailed knowledge of the plants’ appearance had remained unknown to western botanical and herbal texts until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The curious assumption that the fact ‘many others’ later accepted the opinion reached independently by Sherwood, and by the present author, constitutes some form of criticism of those authors is more difficult to explain.  Sherwood had been the first since 1912 to offer the identification. 
glass. recovered Begram. Alexandrian influence 1stC BC-1stC AD.

Baresch also said the content represented ‘Egyptian’ knowledge. About seventeenth-century Europeans’ notions of how far ‘Egyptian’ learning and culture had anciently spread, I’ll speak some other time. For now I’ll mention only that between Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli mines and Egypt, connection is attested from about 3,000 years before the Roman era, initially via Mesopotamia, but directly from well before the time of Roman ascendancy in the Mediterranean. We see evidence of this, in the 1stC AD, in the mixed Hellenistic, Egyptian and Roman cultural influence evinced by artefacts recovered from Begram. One example is shown (right).

The routes taken separately by Marco Polo and by Ibn Battuta co-incide in that same region, one that may seem distant and inaccessible from a European point of view but which was quite literally a centre of the world. In medieval times it was a crossroads of the ‘silk and spice’ routes, and a centre for the ancient trade in medicinal plants from the Himalayas east, west and to as far south as southern India.

The four main medical-pharmaceutical traditions of the older world were (in chronological order) the Egyptian, India’s Ayurveda, the Chinese and the Hellenistic. Trade in scented plants for incense, perfumes and items made of scented woods was also well developed by medieval times and those raw materials were traded across both the overland and the maritime routes when Polo and Ibn Battuta were there.

From here – the eastern side of what had been the old Achaemenid Persian empire, and later the limit of Alexander’s conquests, Buddhism was disseminated, and the oldest extant printed book has been recovered – the copy of a Buddhist text dated to the ninth century AD. From here, too, the region’s astronomical tradition – maintained quite possibly in an unbroken line from the period of Hellenistic-Indian interaction – was taken westward as refugees fled under the pressure of the Mongol invasion, their knowledge eventually informing the work done in Tabriz. Syria and Egypt regained, at that same time and evidently from the same cause, the previously ‘lost’ art of enamelling and gilding glass.

Considered in its historical context, the thirteenth-century Syrian glass is a poignant testimony to the fate of Nishapur in 1221 AD. Among the tens of thousands slaughtered was a poet named Attar and I believe the ornament on this glass is intended as a testimony to the city, its images a reference to Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’, the author having been among the thousands massacred when his city of Nishapur was depopulated and systematically destroyed, as so many others in the region were by the Mongols. Attar’s poem, however, survived and is still in print and much loved. It is a superb moral and spiritual allegory. In the view (right) the Simurgh and Hoopoe are both visible.

Between the time when Marco Polo had set off for the east in 1271 and when Ibn Battuta did so in 1325, major changes had occurred in the Mediterranean.

In 1290, the Mamluks of Egypt finally removed the last of the foreign-occupied centres in the Holy Land. Thus, while Marco Polo had been able to enter through Acco (Acre) and then use the Mesopotamian corridor to reach the sea in 1271, but on his return in 1295 that way was barred to European Christians and he had to go north and reach the Mediterranean by way of the Black Sea.

In the meantime, and as I first described when explaining the drawing on folio 5v, a large group of Genoese shipwrights and mercenaries had left for Mesopotamia in 1290, responding to an embassy sent two years earlier to the west by the Mongol il-Khan Arghun, who was planning a war against the Mamluks of Egypt.

Seven hundred of those Genoese went directly to Baghdad, but two hundred stopped at Mosul (ancient Nineveh), where they spent the winter building two sea-going ships. Mosul has no natural supply of ship-building timber but its reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world, and a hull painted with bitumen deterred attacks from the teredo or ‘shipworm’ which was the scourge of shipping in the eastern seas. Mosul was also a major supplier of astronomical instruments through the earlier medieval centuries and here too a version of the Dioscoridan herbal was made in which several elements find their counterpart in plant-pictures from the Voynich manuscript. That herbal was sent to Mashhad.

In posts to voynichimagery, I spoke in greater detail of the matters touched on in the paragraph above.  About the Genoese in Mesopotamia, I spoke initially when explaining the drawing on folio 5v. (Marancini’s ‘bitumen’ essay was published a few years later).  I’ll here add part of a footnote from a late post to voynichimagery  (October 21st., 2016).      ‘Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…’ Using pitch, tar/bitumen to waterproof a hull is as old as the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in Jewish law: Noah is told “Make for yourself an ark ..  make compartments in the ark and cover it with tar [=pitch] inside and outside”.  Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and  from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians would have known the deposits of Mosul (ancient Nineveh).  Herodotus (Bk.1, 179) describes a fountain of pitch in Babylon in lower Mesopotamia and, later, Eratosthenes (as reported by Plutarch Alexander, 35) did the same.   It occurs  in Mosul in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur. On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19.

Using their existing leverage with Constantinople and now with Baghdad, the Genoese were soon (from 1291) able to gain trading privileges amounting at first to near-monopoly in the Black Sea and similar rights of access to the eastern goods which were now being re-routed, from the older direct way via Damascus to that northern route, the same route which linked to the Persian gulf and which Marco Polo had been obliged to follow when returning west. The same route would been taken to Tabriz by ibn Battura in c.1326. All the gems and spices, all the practical and medicinal products, as well as materials used for pigments and dyes, now came west through that route or – with various limits and prohibitions and less reliably – via Cairo, Armenia and Tunis.

In sum:

Having shown that it is theoretically possible for ‘eastern parts’ to have contributed matter later copied to make Beinecke MS 408, the next post will consider details in the drawings from the ‘leaf and root’ section, to see if any offer evidence of such origins.

For anyone to have troubled to copy and to carry to Europe, and there to have copyied again with care any such information would imply (a) that the graphic conventions need not be those of western Europe or indeed of the Mediterranean, and (b) that the persons concerned in such a transmission are unlikely to have been members of those higher social groups who have traditionally peopled Europe’s ‘intellectual history’. More likely by far is that such persons would be practical otherwise unknown individuals, ones motivated chiefly by profit over any literary value though perhaps believing, as most medieval people did, that the oldest sources were the purest. Apart from western missionaries, those who moved between the eastern and western limits of the known world before 1440 were almost all traveller-traders, even if (like the Bolognese doctor mentioned in one letter attributed to the Sicilian missionary John de Montecorvino), their ‘trade’ was medicine.

Glass and the pearl band

two prior:

FOR AN ARCHAEOLOGIST, or anyone specialising in a some specific field of technology or art, one’s first instinct when presented with a problematic artefact is to seek that point, within the axes of time and of geography, that it rightly belongs. In the present case, though, another preliminary step must intervene, because since 1912 Beineke MS 408 has been seen through an old and narrowly-defined Eurocentric lens.

That narrative is still substantially that which Wilfrid Voynich created, which was early adopted and maintained by William Romaine Newbold, and later fixed in the public imagination by its repetition in prestigious sources such as d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and the holding library’s catalogue entry.

Pressures of repetition, and earnest efforts to justify one or more aspects of Wilfrid’s narrative after the fact (while still altering it the better to support some variant) have fixed an impression among most people that among the few items we can say ‘we know’ is that the whole content of the manuscript should exhibit an exclusively western Latin Christian character.

Given the consistency with which those assumptions have been maintained despite (or perhaps because of) never being investigated with a critical eye, it is perfectly understandable that any suggestion about the content’s perhaps including unmediated foreign matter would cause disquiet.

So in this post, rather than risk being thought to have dispensed arbitrarily with a Eurocentric focus, I’ll do what I can to re-define what might be called the medieval ‘European horizon’.

In the map below, the darker coloured area had been, over the centuries, part of the Persian empire, then of Alexander’s empire, and next of the Median-Persian and Sasanian empire. It then became part of the Islamic empire until, during the thirteenth century AD, much of it fell to the Mongols, whose policy during the first wave of conquests was to wipe from the map any city offering active resistance.

Some sites named in that map (above) were household names in medieval Europe because they find mention in the Bible. Nineveh is mentioned repeatedly and not only in the Jewish religious books incorporated into the Christian bible but in the Christian testament itself (e.g. Luke 11:32).

Babylon was another proverbial name, so well known that when the western pope took his court to Avignon and it remained there almost seventy years (1309 to 1376), the period was commonly called its  ‘Babylonian captivity’.

Tabriz I’ve had reason to mention* as the city where Claudius’ Ptolemy’s astronomical co-ordinates were updated and that new data acquired  by the Byzantine scholar Gregory Chioniades between 1295-96. He called it the ‘Persian syntaxis’.

*see post of July 11th., 2021

Across the whole width of that territory and to as far as China, western Christian missionaries, diplomats and traders were already passing before the end of the thirteenth century.

By 1350 – about half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made – a census of Franciscan houses lists twenty-two on the route from Constantinople through the Black Sea and overland to as far as China, with four houses established by then in China itself – two in Peking at the terminus of the overland routes, and two in the southern, foreigners’ port known as ‘Zayton’ (Guangzhou) where the Genoese or Venetian Katarina Vilioni had died in 1342.

For a time, early in the seventh century, the Sasanian Empire had included the whole of present-day Iran and Iraq and also much of the eastern Mediterranean (including Anatolia and Egypt.

The Byzantines had reason to remember the Sassanians, whose army had alone succeeded in resisting Rome, and it was never forgotten that in c.260AD King Shapur had captured the Roman Emperor Valerian and him kept in captivity for the rest of his life.

(Those familiar with the Voynich manuscript may recognise in Shapur’s stepped-turreted crown a form similar to that given a female figure appearing twice in the Voynich calendar. In both cases (see diagrams for July and August); the figure holds a large 9-pointed ‘aster’ and is set on the innermost tier at 90 degrees right from the vertical. The inset in the picture (below) shows the example from July, where the crown and certain other details are evidently late additions to the original.

In 532 AD and following several major losses to the Persians, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I agreed to pay 440,000 gold pieces in return for an ‘eternal peace’.

Justinian evidently treated this final defeat as a triumph of diplomacy, and it is memorialised in a mosaic made for the basilica S.Vitali in Ravenna, the work begun in 526 and completed in 547.

Sassanian seal-ring set with a carnelian ‘sardion’.

The mosaic shows Justinian wearing as his ‘badge of honour’ a gem then called a ‘Sardion’ after the city of Sardis, stones of this type often used as a seal-stone by the Sasanians (see example at right).

Worn as Justinian’s badge of honour, the stone is shown surrounded by ‘ring of dots’ as pearls – another typically Sasanian-Persian motif in textiles, ceramics and glass but one equally characteristic of Byzantine art.

The bowl which Justinian carries is also patterned in Sasanian style, though the glass appears richly gilded.

(detail) Justinian I. 6thC mosaic, Ravenna. Basilica San Vitale.

Chan mentions that within each of the hexagons that form that bowl’s basic honeycomb pattern is set another and smaller one. In the upper left of the photograph (above) one of them can be seen fairly clearly – it appears as a ‘dot’.

However, the Sasanian emperor almost immediately broke that first ‘eternal peace’ and another mosaic portrait of Justinian, made for Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, shows Justinian now without his ‘sard’ and wearing a different expression.

This mosaic is believed made in 561 AD or shortly before, when work on Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was completed. A second ‘eternal peace’ would finally be achieved in 562, after six hundred years’ war between the Romans and Sasanian Persia.

The point I want to make is that even if we ignore the probable significance for the Sasanians of that ‘circle of pearls/dots’ it was an established motif in Byzantine art, and for those who made glass, and fabric, and mosaics.

Tesserae of both stone and glass were employed for mosaics, and such motifs as the ‘pearl band’ remained as a constantly present model for the ‘finishing’ or ‘crowning’ touch, even when the subject was not a member of the Byzantine court.

Ravenna is a little more than a hundred miles down the Adriatic coast from Venice, and its magnificent basilicas remained a model of what could be achieved, if only one had the technical means and skilled artisans. Thus, we know (although not every Venetian site will say so) that when Venice decided to remodel the Basilica of S.Marco during the thirteenth century, it imported both eastern materials, and workers. A nicely condensed account of this basilica’s complicated history is offered by the author of a wiki article, who writes:

The earliest surviving [mosaic] work, in the main porch, perhaps dates to as early as 1070, and was probably by a workshop that had left Constantinople in the mid-11th century and worked at Torcello Cathedral.* They are in “a fairly pure Byzantine style” but in succeeding phases of work Byzantine influence … was reduced by stages, disappearing altogether by about the 1130s, after which the style was Italian in essentials, reflecting “a change from a colonial to a local art”. The main period of decoration was the 12th century, a period of deteriorating relations between Venice and Byzantium, but very little is known about the process .. The main work on the interior mosaics was apparently complete by the 1270s, with work on the atrium continuing into the 1290s.

*we have already noted, in the post previous to this, that at Torcello  the glass objects were made ” using cullet (glass refuse) or glass cakes imported from the eastern Mediterranean’.

The basic drawings may have been ‘local art’ but the artisans were apparently not from any local tradition of mosaic-making, for..

After [the 1279s-90s]the St Marks workshop seems to have been disbanded, so that when a fire in 1419 caused serious damage, the only Venetian capable of the work had just died and the Signoria of Florence had to be asked for help; they sent Paolo Uccello.

San Marco never made the transition to fresco wall paintings … probably partly due to Venetian conservatism and also to a wish to support the local Murano glass industry, which supplied the tesserae. The point is that from 1290 – 1419 (at least) no mosaics were added.

Who then is the ‘old master’ among the 13thC images of Venetian trades? His ‘Sasanian’ cap is enough to point us in the right direction, even without the visual pun of his ‘Mosaic’ beard.

It cannot be Master Aldrevandin, but is perhaps his teacher.

Work on S. Marco’s mosaics finished officially in the 1290s – during which time glassmakers were first confined to Muran and then prohibited from leaving the city. Master Aldrevandin, as we know, then made beakers which introduced the the long-traditional ‘pearl band’ of Sasanian and Byzantine work into the traditions of Muran. They served initially in western Europe as his own hallmark and then became a standard motif on Murano glass. Sasanian ‘crystal’ glass had been known to as far as China by the 3rdC AD.

Sasanian clear glass beaker
coins Sasanian headwear
photos: (above) two versions of Sasanian headwear.

Ge Hong (283-343), a well-known .. Daoist philosopher with an expertise in alchemy left an important information in his work ‘Baopuzi’ that ‘the crystal bowls made in foreign countries, are in fact prepared by compounding five sorts of (mineral) ashes. Today this method is being commonly practiced in Jiao and Guang (that is, Annan and Guangdong). Now if one tells this to ordinary people, they will certainly not believe it, saying that crystal is a natural product belonging to the class of rock crystal.’

  • Mei-Ling Chen, ‘The Importation of Byzantine and Sasanian Glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries,” in Harris, Incipient Globalization?, 47-52 [pdf].

One of the curious details relayed to Nick Pelling by the curators of the Murano glass museum was the secret by which Angelo Barovier produced his hard, clear glass in 1450, was allegedly  “a special flux, made of a sort of alum obtained from eastern plants.” (Curse p.). 

Plant-ash sodas are not a form of alum, but that type of plant-ash alkali was regularly preferred in Muran, even when other Italian glassmakers used natron, and was known popularly as alluma catana, literally ‘basin alum’.  Of itself, however, it couldn’t harden or clarify glass and in theory the ashes from sola kali would not produce a different result, whether burned in Spain, in ‘the east’ or in Italy. The important question, of course, is “how could Barovier know?” If the seller told him the virtues of a new type of plant-ash, it was not Barovier’s invention. If not, where and how would a man restricted to his island and prohibited from discussing his craft, even think to look for and then to find and import the right sort of ‘plant-ash’? Is it more likely that some Venetian trader brought back both the material and an understanding of those ‘five mineral ashes’?

I suspect the ‘eastern plant ash’ was another of those memories passed down in Murano from the time of Master Aldrevandin, but Barovier’s method for clarifying and hardening glass is still not easy to discover.  The answer may lie in one of the following references. I’ve been unable to sight either during the past few months.

  • Cesare Moretti and Tullio Toninato (eds.) and David C. Watts and Cesare Moretti (ed. and trans.),Glass Recipes of the Renaissance: Transcription of an Anonymous Venetian Manuscript. (2011).
  • Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria = The Art of Glass, translated and annotated by Paul Engle, 3 vols., (2003–2007).

for those references, I am indebted to the author of

Ravenna mosaic three wise men and artefacts. Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

(above) The three wise men from the east. Artefacts display characteristically Sasanian techniques in metalwork (and glass?). detail of a mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.


POSTSCRIPT – regarding the figure who holds a nine-point ‘aster’ in the Voynich calendar’s months of July and August:

Persia’s star was ever Perseus ‘the destroyer’ envisaged as a horse mounted by a skeleton or phantom rider. The equation was known to Herodotus in the 5thC BC and still in the fifteenth century AD – at least to some. Herodotus therefore has Perseus as the progenitor of the Persian people. Ibn Majid, writing in the fifteenth century, names this horse (as the constellation was earlier envisaged) ‘Al Kumait’ – the unbridled. The image on the card below, showing the rider ‘backward-turned’ is the older and more authentic form.  See also Alamy image (WP338D) which I cannot include here.

The pictures in this set of 17 cards show a markedly different origin and intellectual level from all others known in Europe. Unlike most who comment on such game-cards, I’m of the opinion that these represent an original type and I’m quite prepared to believe such cards as these might have served as tutorial aids in fourteenth century France.

Perseus and Perseids





Sasanian head band

Sasanian hunt backward turning

If that ‘aster’-holding figure is meant for the Persians’ star, it is most likely to refer to Algol, properly named Al-ghul in the Arabic, though I don’t know the old Persian term for it.  The star was envisaged as a blaze, or trophy (see above, and below) on the horse’s hip, though at other times represented as a trophy-head -or even as a wine or water-skin.  (see further below).

Sasanian hunt with trophy.

…as a wine-skin or water-skin. 

Sasanian hunt as stellar triumph oveer zodiac

Due to precession, Perseus’ ‘rain of arrows’ (the Perseid meteor showers) now  peaks in August.  For more on this see: here. The floating scarves parallel the wisps of the Milky Way.

On retention of pre-Islamic elements in later Iranian art, including the ‘flying gallop’ and the scarves, see ‘ART IN IRAN xii. Iranian pre-Islamic Elements in Islamic Art’, Encyclopaedia Iranica. (online).

image courtesy Encyclopaedia Iranica.

In the Greek astronomy, Perseus is a human figure and the ‘ghul’ the trophy as Medusa’s head.

PPS – apologies to readers for the numerous ‘updates’ – mainly typos, grammatical errors and other small annoyances. Just had my second inoculation and the brain isn’t working properly.

Dec. 29th., 2021.

Happening to re-read this today, I see I should have been more specific AND should have included the ‘petal’ held by the figures. ‘Nine-petals’ is probably more accurate. Here are the details I mean. My one reservation is that Perseus’ temporary victory into the North occurs now, yet these figures appear at ninety degrees to the vertical. The distinction, I expect, is more apparent that real. More – this example again seems to me to indicate that the inner circuit refers to the polar and circumpolar stars and the outer to those on or near the horizon. I admit to having devoted less time to this question than it deserves. Here are the details I mean. from July and August in the Voynich calendar.