O’Donovan notes #8.2. Compare and contrast f.67v-1 and f.85r (part).

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

Because the drawing on folio 67v-1 is a diagram, we may expect that its structure will speak to the type of information it was designed to convey.

Like the diagram on folio 85r, it is organised by two fourfold divisions.

We’ll consider now what is inside its larger circle, leaving aside for the present the four peripheral emblems (below).


The centre of folio 85r (part) shows a ‘leonine’ sun in a field that isn’t simply coloured, but formed as swirling lines. As we now have the drawing, those lines are coloured blue, but since we don’t yet know when the ‘heavy painter’ added that pigment, we focus on the basic line drawing.

These two central emblems tell us two important things: first, that the person(s) who first gave each drawing its form did not think of the heavens as a smooth dome, solid or crystalline, nor as as a tent, but chiefly in terms of this swirling movement or perhaps by comparison with some other form composed of a circuit of repeating lines/curves.

If we were considering the history of Mediterranean art, we might liken the centre in folio 67v-1 to a form of omphalos motif, but more about the drawing must be taken into account before trying to explain it.

Since we know the winds were a principal reference in the first diagram (folio 85r) and that the usual way to describe the circuit of direction during daylight hours was by naming the wind from that direction, the fact that the centre of 67v-1 shows a comparable swirling pattern but now has a six-point star at its centre, makes it reasonable to test as one possibility that it might describe how the directions were determined at night.

It’s just a possibility, one worth exploring but – as regular readers will know – our aim is not to come up with some novel or merely plausible theoretical explanation , but to correctly understand and explain what the original maker had intended.

Another axiom which applies here is that when there is an easier way to do something, but the first maker of an image chose a less convenient way, there’s usually some good reason for it – it’s usually meaningful. And, as you’ll probably tire of hearing before too long…

Differences really matter!

In this case, when a circle or a square is to be divided by two four-fold divisions, the easy way to do it, and the way one would expect it done in the symmetry-loving art of western Europe, would be like this:

In that case, if you wanted to associate wind-names with the points of sunrise and sunset, as they change through the year, your schematic diagram would look rather like this (below) whether the names were in Greek, in Latin or in some European vernacular:

adapted from ‘the Aristotelian winds’ illustration in an excellent wiki article ‘Classical Compass Winds‘.

But that isn’t how these two diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 were designed.

(detail) 85r (part)

In both diagrams, the main four-fold division has its lines offset. That is, the lines might ‘box’ the centre, but they aren’t made as two lines that intersect at the centre. Euclidian, it isn’t.

If this had occurred in just one of the two diagrams, we might shrug it off, but the same is done in both. So it’s purposeful.

(detail f.67v-1)

Details of this kind are what a novice instinctively turns their eye and mind away from, or tries immediately to invent some excuse for as they struggle to maintain our natural and deep-seated belief that “our ways are the right and normal”.

Throughout the history of this manuscript’s study, that habit of shying away and trying to ignore uncomfortable differences from Latin norms (or, still more narrowly from one’s pet theory) has resulted in unjustified assertions that the fifteenth-century copyists or the original draughtsmen were incompetent or devious. We don’t need to resort to such excuses because our ‘norm’ must be whatever was customary for those people by whom, and for whom, a drawing was first given form.

Our task is to understand the drawings, not to decide what habits and ideas ‘ought’ to have informed them.

And from such indications of how the original maker thought and what was normal in his/her time and place, we may identify where and when a given drawing was first formed.

It may seem strange at first to have no preliminary theory, but it does allow the researcher a much more impartial approach and a more relaxed response to unexpected phenomena, such as these offset lines of division.



I think it is now generally accepted, as it was not a few years ago, that what we have in Beinecke MS 408 is a compilation, not a single homogenous work.

That means we can’t just assume that the time and place in which one drawing was formed will be the same for all, or for any other unless expressing similar forms, stylistics and what we might call cultural attitudes.

In both these diagrams, for example, we find a form for the sun which has it flame-haired rather than – as it might be – surrounded by spiked rays.

A diagram adjacent to our second example adds the remarkable information (folio 67v-2) that the ‘flaming’ corona is not simply a stylistic but is meaningful; that we are to consider those flaming locks artificial, with the beard (at least) tied about the face and perhaps also the head’s wild-looking curls.

(detail) folio 67v-2

That it is meant for the sun, not any such figure as Medusa or an alchemical character is evidenced by the fact that we find the same flame-haired form for the sun used throughout the manuscript’s diagrams and with it a repeated view that the sun’s daily emergence is associated with a flower.

In the Voynich map, that flower is included in the emblem marking the map’s ‘west’; the sun falls into a surface very economically shown as under water; from the water-marked mud there emerges the flower through which the sun will re-emerge next morning in the east.

Note – The Voynich map is drawn on one side of a single sheet of vellum. It was originally numbered ‘folio 86v‘ although it is certainly the first drawing placed on that sheet. The Beinecke’s subsequent re-foliation splits the map’s description in a way that reads as if it half the map had been drawn of the back of one bifolio and half on the front of another – but in is a single drawing, on one side of a single sheet.

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

This detail is now so faint that I’ve had to use a data-rich image. Hope it doesn’t crash anyone’s phone. Even so, it is so very faded that it’s extremely difficult to read – though an XRF scan for iron (in the iron-gall ink) might one day make the form clear.

The same concept, though very differently drawn, informs these emblems in folio 67v-1, and that marked difference in stylistic habits as well as the existence of different attitudes to defining the directions mean that here we cannot assume assignment to sunrise or to sunset. My reason for saying so should be explained.

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

The question we must ask now is whether we can assume for folio 67v-1 that the ‘sun+flower’ means West there, simply because the map includes the flower in its west emblem.

I expect most readers habitually take ‘north-up’ as their default, and will assume without much pause for thought that if you stand facing North, East must lie on your right.

But “North orientation means east-right” is a convention, not a fact however much a modern person of European heritage might suppose it commonsensical.

Think of it this way:

Instead of imagining that you stand looking north, imagine yourself lying on the ground with your head towards the North.

Now, if you lie face-down, East will be on your right hand, but if you roll to lie on your back, looking up into the sky then East will be to your left-hand side.

Suppose now you’re able to do the same things, but hovering several feet or metres above ground. By daylight your bird’s eye view, looking down, would produce a map of the land which had East to your right, but when you rolled over to map the night sky, East will be on the left.

The point is that you can have an ‘east-left’ even if your primary direction is to the North. It can depend on whether you’re actually or conceptually defining directions by where you are, and then whether you’re turning towards the earth, or the sky.

Latin Europe only accepted this ‘east-left’ idea within the limited topic of representing the constellations (and then only occasionally) and for some instruments like our planispheres.

Since we already suspect a non-Latin origin for the diagram on folio 67v-1, thanks to those offset lines and adjacency to the curious sun on folio 67v-2, we can’t presume the same norms or limits will apply to this drawing as would if a drawing spoke the graphic language of medieval Latin Europe.

There’s a possibility, therefore, that though when turned North-up, the diagram on folio 85r had its East on the diagram’s right side, this may not. The diagram on folio 85r has the sun as its central emblem, and in daylight the directions were commonly named by winds, but this diagram has a star in its centre and so may be referring to divisions of the night-sky. Which means that whether or not originally designed North-up, it might have its East on the left. (With me so far?)

I understand that it’s tempting for some students of this manuscript, as they begin feeling confused or bewildered by its drawings, to brush aside both the ‘oddities’ and their investigation, resorting instead to adopting impatience as excuse for returning to an easier and more familiar cultural context. But it won’t do. The sun’s being reborn from a flower each day is no expression of medieval western Christian culture, whose nearest approach was the rite of baptism, once the font had replaced the river.

And, if this weren’t enough to cope with, the Voynich map’s east-west placements are the reverse of a European norm yet it is clearly a map showing part of the physical world and not the night sky.

Lotus and rebirth.

Some readers may know how widely the lotus was (and is) identified with re-birth, but might associate the source of that idea only Buddhism, with Hinduism, with ancient Egypt or with some other body of knowledge according to their own background.

So far as I can discover, none but the Egyptians ever actually believed that the sun was re-born daily from a lotus, or believed as if it had been true, that every lotus sinks into the mud at night yet rises fresh and clean each morning.

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

It was believed that a giant lotus blossom came out of the primeval waters of Nun, and out of which the sun-god emerged. The Egyptian text whose transliterated name (rw nw prt m hrw), is translated as ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ or as ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’ has come to be mis-named ‘Book of the Dead’ in English. It includes a spell to transform the deceased into a lotus, ensuring rebirth during the day for the deceased.

CAUTION: religious and cultural beliefs naturally influence how images are formed by a given community, but it is a mistake to imagine that every reflection of such ideas means that either the image or its accompanying text must be all about religion.

So when we find, in Persepolis, an image of the lotus with two buds, we need not suppose the figure holding them was a convert to the religion of Egypt.

An idea which one people regards as speaking to immortality can easily be translated, there or elsewhere, into a promise of never-ending power – ‘horizon to horizon’ – and this latter I take to be the sense of the lotus image (illustrated below) from Achaemenid Persepolis.

Buddhism took another message from the lotus, one not greatly different from the idea of emerging bright and unscathed despite immersion in mud and water – but now that idea of re-emergence was expressed in terms of the person’s soul and not their physical body. To quote a label written by the Art Institute of Chicago for an artefact made in China between 618 CE–906 AD:

From the time Buddhism came to China, the lotus—which emerges unstained from muddy water and therefore carries associations of purity and non-attachment to worldly concerns—had become a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art.

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

It is usual for those three major traditions of the pre- and non-Roman world: the Egyptian, the Buddhist and the Hindu – to be discussed as if each was wholly independent of the other two, but there was a time when all three ways flourished in close proximity.

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

In the region about Gandhara, where Buddhism would first flourish, lay the easternmost borderlands of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

The Persians evidently had a custom (also seen in pre-Roman Egypt) where dangerous border-lands were peopled with foreign communities who were brought, or who came voluntarily, from elsewhere.

The Persians had populated this borderland with, among others, communities taken from Asia minor and from Greek-speakers in Egypt, both Carians and Phoenicians and peoples who had earlier been settled by Egypt along its own southern and western borders.

When Alexander of Macedon conquered and took the Persian empire, the same eastern border region which had marked the limit of that empire now became the eastern limit of his own, and after his death, remained as the eastern border of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom.

It is an amusing side-light to Voynich studies, that a mention of the Hellenistic kingdoms elicits snorts of derision from hard-core Voynich traditionalists, though the same persons will happily refer to Aristotle, who lived even earlier and was one of Alexander’s tutors. 🙂

it was during the period of closest interaction between the eastern ‘Greeks’ and India that the early Buddhist art of Gandhara developed and Buddhism came into its own. Taking with them the skill of paper-making, Buddhist teachers then carried their message throughout India and to as far as the east China sea, their own vision of the lotus with it.


With literally half the world aware of the lotus as a symbol of re-emergence, how can one decide whether our debt is to one, or some combination of those traditions or (as Isidore is indebted to classical Roman poets) whether we’re looking at some later maintenance of the conceptual image quite divorced from the society which first expressed that image?

Consider that stylistic difference:

In the Voynich map, the flower is formed in a way that agrees with one among the long-enduring conventions found in Egyptian art. The following example is from a tomb-painting but other instances would have appeared in classical and in medieval times as carvings and paintings in publicly accessible areas. Here the lotus is drawn fan-like, the petals topped with dots as (or with) a narrow band. Notice also that the open flower is flanked by two others, not yet opened.

Here is how the lotus is drawn on the Voynich map – again with its petals topped by dots to form an upper boundary.

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

Before anyone becomes heated with some Egyptian theory, I must point out that an artefact made in China during the Northern Song period (618-907 AD) also shows this way of depicting the lotus. The object was, admittedly, probably for export and was made during a period when there were diplomatic and trading ties between Persia, Baghdad, India and China.

detail from a vessel made during the time of the Northern Song. This image and associated research summary first published through Voynichimagery in, ‘Emblems of Direction – ‘West’ (July 29th., 2012).

Also found in common between ancient Egyptian, Achaemenid and later Asian representations is a type which does not show literally the flower’s physical appearance, but makes it resemble a cup.

Below, in the left column, one example from ancient Egypt and one from Achaemenid Persepolis. On the right side, illustrations to show that the cup-like form for ‘sunrise’/rebirth on folio 67v-1 has been drawn in a way that permits comparison with Chinese artefacts from (a) the 12th-13thC Yuan period and even much earlier (see further below) – from the 3rdC AD Jun [Jin] period.

The Jun period had seen the height of Indo-Greek fusion, with the flourishing of Buddhist culture in India.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), relations between the Islamic world and China had been developing well. Baghdad was the Abbasid capital, and Siraf in the Persian Gulf was the chief terminus for the east-west trade.

Two separate incidents, costing the lives of resident foreign traders saw formal relations wither andfor some long time, trade was chiefly conducted by land.

incidents…’ massacres in Yangzhou in 760 AD, when a thousand ‘Arabs and Persians’ are said to have been massacred; Guangzhou in 878–879 AD when tens of thousands are reported massacred – including Arabs, Persians and Christians, the last presumably members of the Church of the East (Nestorians). No reference is made to Manichaeans though perhaps the historian classed them as Persian.

  • Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery, Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān, (NYU: 2014)

We know that by the end of the twelfth century, relations had been restored – because when John of Montecorvino travelled east as Europe’s first ambassador-missionary, he found Italians already resident and established there as trading families.

From all the above, we may fairly conclude that the drawing on folio 67v-1 was not first formed as any expression of western Christian culture and that the face emerging from that type of cup-shaped flower – or flower-shaped cup if you like – must signify East.

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

Though the emerging face here is turned to one side, where on the map it emerges full-face, does not appear to have been considered a significant change.

But between this image and that on the Voynich map, the style of drawing is very different and in my opinion the diagram on folio 67v-1 had a much later origin.

It is not impossible that as lines from Isidore’s Etymologies informed the final appearance of the drawing on folio 85r, so the final form for this drawing may be informed by lines from Hafiz who flourished at just the time of most interest to us – the mid-fourteenth century. (1325–1390):

Cupbearer, it is morning, fill my cup with wine.
Make haste, the heavenly sphere knows no delay.

The sun of the wine dawns in the east of the goblet.

Hafez (also seen as ‘Hafiz’ lived 1325-1390). translation by Bernard Lewis. For the spiritual interpretation of Hafiz’ work as a Sufi poem see e.g. commentary (here) by Ivan M. Granger.

So far, surveying the sun-born-from-flower idea, as religious belief, as metaphor, as reflected in artefacts and in purely poetic images, we have defined the range of our subject in terms of time and geography. The sun-emerging-from-lotus might occur as a physical and/or conceptual image from ancient Egypt to fourteenth-century China, not excluding Persia, India and much of south-east Asia. 😀

But our being able to gaining so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 augers well. This drawing looks as if it won’t be too difficult to understand.

(below) – Underside of a lotus bowl, Yuan period. The overlapping petals result in a ‘swirl’ of the type we’re looking for.

The list of works consulted during my research into this diagram is very long and far too long to be listed here even if any Voynicheros could find the time or interest to read them.

For references for any particular point, do email me.

For this post, I replaced an older image of the ‘Egyptian marshes’ detail with the brighter version in a delightful blog which I sincerely recommend to my readers:

  • Monica Bowen (ed.), ‘Marshes in Ancient Egyptian Art’, Alberti’s Window (blog), (Tuesday, March 11th, 2014). The blog has been running since 2007 and is still posting.

Concerning the lotus motif in Gandharan art, one paper I had not seen until recently deserves mention, despite its author’s being apparently unaware of Egyptian influence on Mediterranean thought, including upon the Greeks’, and failing to mention of the Ashokan embassy which sparked the medical traditions of Cos and possible also its silk-making:

  • Kiran Shahid Siddiqui, ‘Significance of Lotus’ Depiction in Gandhara Art’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society (2012), unpaginated. Illustrations. available through academia.edu

O’Donovan notes #8: Knife & …

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

“Knife and ….”

If you automatically added ‘fork’ to complete that phrase, you’ve just given an example of why we can’t rely on what seems obvious today when trying to read images in this manuscript.

A capacity for logic and clear thinking are helpful, but can operate only on what a person already knows, or at least what a person believes they know.

To understand problematic drawings made not less than six centuries ago means not only ‘learning so much stuff’ (as one of my student-apprentices once complained) but unlearning things.

You’d have to ‘unlearn’ that automatic association between knives and forks for example. Here’s why:

The moment that provided initial spark of fork’s popularity in central Europe happened with the marriage of French King Henry II and Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici [in 1547] .. the majority of Europe embraced the fork only by 18th century and the United States only after the end of American Revolution and early 19th century. (edited from web article ‘History of Forks‘)

There are many things you’ll find assumed about the medieval world in past and present-day Voynich narratives which seem plausible only because the reader shares a writer’s own time and environment. Many have to be un-learned, or at least deliberately set aside while working on this manuscript’s drawings.

One false impression which must be set aside, though it is deep-rooted in the history of this manuscript’s study, is that when the material in the manuscript was brought together, medieval western Europe was a centre of learning and civilization, high on the global scale, and an important actor in world-politics.

It isn’t so. In geographic and in intellectual terms, the centre of the world during the 10th-15th centuries was hither Asia, initially the region around Khorasan, with Baghdad a close second in its heyday.

Throughout those centuries, western Europe was considered – and was by comparison with the eastern centres – a ‘barbarian’ region on the extreme western margins of the world, far behind the civilized world in its manners, mentality, and scientific learning.

Nor did the world east of the Arabian shield sit passively waiting to be ‘discovered’ by Portuguese as western histories used to imply.

That region was a vibrant and active world with well-developed lines of cultural and commercial interactions, some of which had developed and been maintained for as much as four millennia* before the first European ships arrived.

*I’m thinking here of the trade in lapis lazuli from Badakhshan to Mesopotamia and then to Egypt.

What had reached medieval Europe from those eastern regions before the end of the fifteenth century was an almost negligible part of such exchange, whether one considers intellectual or material treasures.

I’m not repeating these things to offend any European or to diminish their pride in their own country’s history and accomplishments but to point out that ideas which permeated nineteenth-century histories of Europe and which define the way the Voynich manuscript’s contents were imagined by Wilfrid, by the Friedmans and thus also by d’Imperio are out of step with what is known of the period now, yet the traditionalists’ attitudes and the narratives constructed in that mould still maintain ideas no longer accepted in history or other disciplines today.

I’m saying that to rightly understand the drawings which have been preserved for us in Beinecke MS 408, a wider, more up to date, and more objective perspective is needed.

Since our next example from the manuscript will refer to astronomical matter, let me illustrate the discrepancy between past and present ideas by quoting a little from a paper by David A. King. a scholar at the University of Frankfurt and an eminent specialist in the history of astronomy in the Arabic-speaking medieval world and on the impact of that astronomical learning on other regions.

The problem that specialists in the history of Islamic astronomy confront is that the modern Western world is under the impression that Islamic astronomy is somehow represented by the 5% of it that became known in medieval Europe… *

David A.King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation: From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (pre-print, 2018 version).

*emphasis – present author

Five percent.

Just think about that for a minute.

Ninety-five percent of what was available to astronomers in the Arabic-speaking world never so much as entered the horizons of Latins’ formal scholarship.


In treating the diagram from folio 85r, we were dealing with what is arguably the most legible of the Voynich drawings in terms of Latin European conventions in art, yet even there we saw some evidence of affect from non-Latin matter: in the costume given the figure for East; in the four banners, and in the drawing’s being presented ‘south-up’.

The diagram on folio 67v-1 also shows us two layers to its content, one more and one less intelligible in terms of medieval Latins’ graphic language. As we’ll see in the next post, the two elements are not so neatly fused in that drawing as they are in our first example but one set of information has been added to (or if you like, imposed on) the other,* and for much of the astronomical information it conveys, I must cite non-Latin sources, finding no full explanation for it in any western manuscript made before 1440 AD.

*I think this probably occurred before the fifteenth-century copy was made, but allow for the possibility that further tests on the manuscript may one day prove that layer a late addition.

Here, of course, we must allow for the relatively small proportion of manuscripts which have survived and the fact that while manuscripts are records of what was known, not all forms of knowledge were recorded in that way. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the drawing’s explanation must refer other sources, though I’ll illustrate the discussion using images more easily understood by my readers.

The analysis will begin with a ‘compare-and-contrast’ study of the two diagrams: i.e. that on folio 85r, and on folio 67v-1.

Another paragraph from King’s paper allows us to hope that some manuscript might exist still whose drawings are akin to some in Beinecke MS 408.

… the sources which offer the most challenge to future historians are housed in the rich libraries of Turkey and Iran, mainly catalogued only recently. Yet even in various Western libraries where the astronomical manuscripts are properly catalogued, briefly listed in out-dated catalogues, or not catalogued at all, important discoveries can still be made. Witness the materials in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish mentioned later in this paper..

So, it is still possible that among such still-unstudied manuscripts we may one day discover closer comparisons for the Voynich drawings than have been found to date. In the meantime, however, while we can still analyse the drawings from textual sources we cannot yet offer any close comparison from Latin sources for the drawings themselves – just as we still have no close comparison for the set of Voynich glyphs.

It is particularly regrettable that the study of Beinecke MS 408 continues to be hampered by a maintenance, in traditionalist narratives and the many imaginative Voynich-related narratives sprung from them, of a type of Eurocentric bias* so narrow that it occurs in little modern scholarship today. It persists because it ran deep in this study’s founding fathers – Wilfrid Voynich, Professor Newbold, and the Friedmans- and from their ideas the traditionalist narrative still depends.

*in fact a bias so extreme that it constantly defined medieval ‘Europe’ as if comprised of England, Germany and France, with a mere nod to Italy before Giotto.

It is another habit to be un-learned if the study of Beinecke MS 408’s drawings is to see meaningful progress.

Even if one thinks (as I do) that the quires were probably inscribed in western (‘Latin’-) Europe or under such auspices, the fact is that by the mid-fourteenth century, the matter now in this manuscript could have come into the west from almost anywhere yet still never have been known to those who created the formal texts by which Europe’s intellectual history is typically mapped.

The old idea was that no foreign matter came into Europe except it was fetched by some single European (usually imagined male) whose name was known to history; that the matter in the Voynich manuscript must have a single European ‘author’ (again usually imagined male). Though these ideas combined constituted an idée fixe for most of the period after 1912, they too must be un-learned, along with other persistent if tacit assumptions – such as that none save a European could read Latin; that Jews spoke no language but Hebrew and that in tracing “Europe’s intellectual history” (a phrase d’Imperio uses) none save Germans, French, English and Italians need be considered.

How antiquated these ideas are – consciously held or not – is neatly illustrated by another passage from the same paper. King here refers to astronomer who lived in the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth century – too late to have contributed to the matter in Beinecke MS 408 – but the example is still illuminating as a myth-buster:

Mūsà Jālīnūs [was] a remarkable Jewish medic and astronomer with access to the court of Sultan Bāyazīt II (reg. 1481-1512) in the recently established Ottoman capital of Istanbul. He also had a connection to the military.

Mūsà’s principal written works have only been investigated during the past 10 years.

He is now known as the author of various sophisticated treatises on astronomy and medicine, as well as philosophy. He was a gifted linguist, writing in Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, and translating from Latin into Arabic and from Arabic into Hebrew. His interest in practical devices was not limited to astronomical instruments for it extended to mechanical devices and even robotics. He visited Venice and Padua between 1497 and 1502 and must be considered as a possible vehicle in the transmission of certain innovative ideas in Islamic theoretical astronomy to Renaissance Europe.

Compare that with the view of the Jews implicit in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and a continuing notion that to invoke ideas about Kabbalah one must imagine that some Latin male named in the historical record as mediator and cleanser of ‘foreign’ knowledge for a Latin audience. In this case, the role is typically imagined filled by poor Ramon Llull.

That passage just quoted shows clearly enough, I think, that such assumptions of a ‘white-walled Europe’ in which only western Christians could read books written in Latin, and no external knowledge entered Europe except some individual Latin had been to fetch it or, alternatively, had served as ‘gate-keeper’ are ideas which, though commonplace in Friedmans’ day, are no longer maintained in serious historical studies – though still habitual in Voynich writings of the traditionalist type.

The reality of the wider medieval world, and even just of the Mediterranean world, is of multi-lingual and multi-disciplinary learning able to pass fairly easily along land and sea-routes, and sometimes even to the uttermost fringes of the world – as Europe then was. It needed no Latin’s coming to fetch the matter, nor any Latin ‘gatekeeper’ to permit or deny its entry. What was needed was a lessening of that morbid superstition, rife in Europe, that association with ‘foreigners’ brought some sort of contamination – an idea which there long-predated the advent of plague.

Like everyone else, I began by supposing that the constantly-repeated scheme of the traditional ‘Voynich story’ must have developed in the way scholarship normally does, from a basis of some solid foundational studies. By the time I’d looked into twenty of the manuscript’s drawings, I could not avoid acknowledging the wide disparity between the evidence of the primary document and that traditional narrative. Seeking out those ‘foundational studies’ I then found them without substance – an undocumented sales pitch by Wilfrid Voynich; a scrap of third-hand rumour (still without any substance to it), and the efforts of cryptographers guided by the Friedmans, whose inclinations and biases have been considered by previous posts to this blog.

*Posts Nos. 6-27.

Today I think that the Voynich manuscript is a more valuable historical document than those early theorists could have appreciated, and more valuable than can be imagined even tofay by a person basing their theoretical schemes on the same old Eurocentric and class-obsessed scheme.

The drawings in Beinecke MS408 embody information which was rare in Europe, some of it very rare even in the seventeenth century as I’ll demonstrate in a later post.

The question of how the material did reach Europe to be copied (as we currently think) in the early fifteenth century is an altogether different question.

When, where and how its written text was added is also, thankfully, not within our remit.

That the manuscript, overall, is no reflection of what was being taught in medieval western universities is evident – at the very least by a century’s failure to find valid parallels for it – but against this, the few drawings which do exhibit a Latin character have found occasional echoes – as for example the form given Constantinople-Pera in the Voynich map, or those ‘deformed lobsters’ earlier mentioned ( see last quarter of Note #7 Pt 1).

When both style of drawing and the information conveyed find no parallel in any extant western work, I think it is surely better to admit that fact, than to create and elaborate still more baseless storylines from the old Eurocentric vision.

Better to admit that the drawings are ‘strange, even foreign-looking’ as d’Imperio almost did, than to opt for guesswork and speculation or, by imposing facile and fairly arbitrary ‘matches’ on the drawings, to try adding support to that old narrative. In the end, surely, it must the material evidence and the testimony of the primary document which decides our opinions.

So let’s pay careful attention to what it has to say.

First – the slow, careful scan, setting the image firmly in memory and missing nothing. An analytical study should include every detail. It’s enough to notice exactly what’s there on the page – no need to have a mind busy imagining, speculating or leaping onto some particular detail. Just memorise.

Folio 67v-1

folio 67v-1

all images from the manuscript are from the Beinecke Library website copyright Yale University.

O’Donovan notes #6i (cont.2) Refining the date-range.

c.3200 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

Continuing a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

At the end of post #6h, we asked how the drawing might be oriented.

In post #6i Part 1, details given one of the four figures led to assigning that figure the northern quadrant, considering the fourfold divisions in terms of the Mediterranean custom which named directions by the winds from each quarter.

At the same time, the sun in the diagram’s centre informs us that either this first identification is mistaken, or that the diagram was actually designed to face South – which was certainly not the practice in Latin Europe.

That first detail, together with reference to the wind-rose in Walters MS 73 has led to tentative dating for first enunciation of this diagram to about the last quarter of the 12thC.

So now, turning the diagram so that this northern quadrant is upright – a little east of North as Walters MS 73 has for the wind ‘Apeliotes vel Boreas’ we now consider the figure which lies to our right.

Apeliotes – Ἀπηλιώτης (Apēliṓtēs) – named the South-east wind in the Greek tradition. In the Walters diagram it names the wind for due East, with Apeliotes vel Boreas ‘Nor-nor-East’.

It might seem natural to say, ‘Given that the female figure is for the North, so this is represents the Eastern quadrant’, but it is far too early to presume that our interpretation of the first detail is right. By ‘right’ I mean the way the first enunciator expected it to be read.

In this sort of work, to be too sure, too soon, is very often to fall very short of the mark.

I’ll be as brief as I can.

This figure wears Chinese costume; other details suggesting the Mongol era. It also appears to reflect ideas about the Mongols that circulated in Europe, and elsewhere, as early as the last quarter of the twelfth century, though I concluded, overall, that this detail is unlikely to have been given its present form until 1270-1301 AD.

The telling detail is the slightly uneven line, paralleled by a pale band, which runs diagonally (on the figure’ right side) from a narrow neck-band or -collar to below the armpit.

The following illustration is undated, but the colour contrasts make the purpose of that line and its parallel, pale band, very clear.

The Mongol horsemen wore the deel, a robe which wrapped around to fasten at the wearer’s right side, near the waist. Its sleeves might be longer or shorter – but this ordinary form is not quite what we see in the Voynich drawing.

Court robes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries show the development of a wider neck-band over time, but not quite a fastening which begins so high on the neck as we have drawn in folio 85r (part).

To find a garment of the Mongol era where the overlap-fastening begins on the left-hand side of the collar band, we must move into a period after 1270-71, when the Mongols’ conquest of China saw Kublai Khan found a new dynasty, called the Yuan dynasty. Below is how court robes changed their design, although such ‘Yuan’ robes were still to be seen as court robes worn so late as the early twentieth century.

The Voynich figure’s dress, in reflecting that more courtly style, makes it still more interesting, because while untold thousands and tens of thousands in the near east and in parts of Europe had seen the deem deel at first hand before 1404-1438, far fewer saw such court-dress and still fewer were Europeans.

To imagine that the first maker of the diagram on folio 85r might have been a European is one thing; even to imagine his or her name may be found in what remains to us from Latin sources is an exercise in extreme optimism, not to say outright folly. We simply don’t need to play ‘name the author’ game at all. It is an old habit inherited by the Voynich traditionalists, but one which can, and which I think should be avoided by those trying to do these drawings justice.

The Latin west was certainly aware of the Mongols’ existence by the last quarter of the twelfth century, as reports flooded in from Latins in the eastern Mediterranean, and from Byzantium. The pleas for military assistance were desperate and blood-curdling stories were plainly widespread- some more accurate than others.

The earliest effort to make direct contact was between the western Pope and a leader of certain Christians of Asia, whose contemporary head was known as The Elder, John, or as ‘Prester John’.

There is so much confusion in today’s tertiary sources, about the history of western contact that I’ll quote here from the official Lives of the Popes, compiled by Mann who had access to the papal archives in addition to other sources.

As may be gathered from a letter of Alexander III, among those Westerns who now began to penetrate into the Far East, was the Pope’s own physician, Philip. On his return he assured the Pope that he had conversed with the chief men of “John, the magnificent king of the Indians, and most holy of priests,” and that they had assured him that it was their ruler’s wish “to be instructed in the Catholic and Apostolic doctrines, and that it was his fervent desire that he and the realms entrusted to him should never hold any doctrine at variance with those of the Apostolic See.” Alexander, accordingly, wrote to the aforesaid “illustrious John,” and .. assured him that he had heard … from his own physician [Philip] of his desire for instruction in the Catholic faith, and for a place at Jerusalem in which good men from his kingdom might be fully taught the true faith. Despite, therefore, “the far distant and unknown countries” in which he lived, he had decided, he continued, to send him the said Philip, who might instruct him in those articles in which he was not in unison with the Christian and Catholic faith… But to this letter, ” given at Venice on the Rialto,” no answer ever came. (Horace K. Mann, Lives of the Popes… Vol.10 p.230)

Horace K. Mann, Lives of the Popes… Vol.10 (p.230)

Whether the physician Philip himself returned, history does not relate. That there could be any communication, verbal or written, between that eastern Christian elder and the papal court would require the presence of competent interpreters and/or translators who knew John’s language and Latin.

The period when Philip was sent east must have been between 1159-1181, and though Grousset is often credited with suggesting that the ‘Prester (Christian elder) John’ was a Kerait, the information that John was head of a [Nestorian] Christian Mongol community in the far east comes from two early sources, Benjamin of Tudela and Bar Hebraeus, the latter certainly having been in a position to know.

I should mention here that the language of the Keraits’ [also as ‘Kereits’ and ‘Keraites’] was Jurchen, the language which Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analyses of the Voynich texts led him to propose as the language of Voynichese.

In 1165, Benjamin of Tudela left from the north-east of the Iberian peninsula, returning in 1173 and though his information about the Mongols was gained partly, at least, from hearsay, it was included in the book of his Travels. I think it noteworthy that from Jewish communities he also learned of ‘Prester John’ as an elder or a priest-king among certain Mongols.

So by the last quarter of the twelfth century, when the Walters manuscript was made, it is possible that someone in Europe might have known the style of formal eastern dress, as well as that earlier taken by viking-style costume. But if so, no other evidence of such knowledge is to be seen in European sources extant from that time, or even by the mid-thirteenth century when Matthew of Paris has no idea of what Mongols wore, despite his own constant references to them – or rather what was being said and written about them.

In his Chronica Major, for the year 1242, Matthew includes a letter written by Ivo, Bishop of Narbonne.

Ivor’s focus was chiefly on defending himself against charges of associating with groups of western Christians of whom the Latin church disapproved, but he does speak about the Mongols’ invading the Duchy of Austria in 1242, of the horrors perpetrated, the Mongols’ physical stature and habits, and – speaking of interpreters – of a very interesting Englishman.

At the approach of a large Christian army, the Tatars suddenly retreat back into Hungary. Several of the former besiegers are captured, including a multi-lingual English outlaw, who had served the Tatars as an interpreter and envoy, since they needed such talents in order to attain their goal of conquering the world.

But even though Ivo’s letter reports, thanks to that nameless Englishman, the Tatars’ physique and character, and even includes drawings, nothing is said about their dress and the drawings are clearly more reliant on imagination than one might have expected.

All of which makes the accuracy of the Voynich figure’s dress the more fascinating – and all the less likely to have been enunciated first by a sedentary European.

It is not the costume, however, which leads me to think that whoever first formed this drawing was probably of the Abrahamic faiths but rather the form given the right hand.

Unless its being given six fingers is due to no more than some some slip of the pen, it would remind those who knew their bible – Jews, Muslims and Christians of every stripe – of a passage from the second book of Samuel:

”And there was yet a battle in Gath, where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number; and he also was born to the giant.”

Add to this the passage from Ezechiel (Ez. 38:15, 38:12) which seems to prophecy the coming of the Mongols, and promises that God’s people will be saved in Israel, and one sees what impact it would have had when the Mongol’s devastations in Syria and Palestine were halted by a Mamluk army in 1260 wo defeated them at ‘Goliath’s well’.

All of which leads me to think that the figure’s hand has been given six fingers less as part of any portrait than to recall those passages from biblical text, and a widespread idea the Mongols were sons of ‘the giants’ whom legend had it Alexander walled up behind the ‘Caspian Gates‘.

for notes and references, see following post.

In England, as elsewhere, the thing everyone knew about giants, apart from their size, was that they ate people and were descended from tribes of Gog and Magog. Those ideas (save giant stature) also pervade the panic-stricken letters sent to Europe from Syria and the Holy Land before the second Council of Lyons.

Papal mission to the Mongols (1245–1247)
Given the prevalence of such ideas among Byzantines and Latins prior to 1260, one can only admire the courage of André of Longjumeau, assigned as leader to one of four missions to the Mongols sent by Pope Innocent IV. Longjumeau left Lyon for the Levant in the spring of 1245, vising Muslim centres in Syria and representatives of the Nestorian and of the Jacobite churches in Persia, before finally delivering the papal correspondence to a Mongol general near Tabriz.

While in that large and multi-cultural city, a hive of traders and of scholars, he met a monk from the far east named Simeon Rabban Ata, to whom the Khan had given responsibility for supervising, protecting and overseeing Christians in the recently-conquered nearer east.

We owe our knowledge of Rabban Simeon chiefly to Vincent of Beauvais. (Speculum historiale XXX, 70) though Vincent also had access to matter from John of Plano Carpini and from a book written by one Simon of Saint-Quentin, now lost.

Saint-Quentin is not an uncommon place-name in France, though in the present context, that in Aisne is obviously an attractive possibility.

Named by the Romans Augusta Viromanduorum, by the 12th and 13th centuries Saint-Quentin in Aisne was noted for three things: its great Abbey which was a pilgrimage centre, its prosperity thanks to the production and trade in woolen textiles, and its high vulnerability in times of war. The Abbey was ruined and presumably most of its ancient library lost during the first World War.

What turns our attention towards that northern and overland route from the Black sea that was taken by Simon of Saint-Quentin and others, is not simply the garment given the Voynich figure, or what little is recorded of the official journeys, but the final part of this detail from the diagram: the flower-like form shown just above the figure’s upraised right hand. It also offers a narrower dating for the diagram’s first enunciation.

Emblematic detail

One possibility which has often sprung to the minds of modern readers is that this is the ‘Lily’ of Sicily’s Lilibe or Lilybaeum embodied by the Anglo-French and Sicilian ‘fleur-de-lys’. Another is that it is some flower more closely associated with the East and with the Mongols.

By way of one argument that the fleur-de-lys represents an Iris flower (for the Greek Iris was goddess of dawn), the ‘fleur-de-lys’ idea has some merit.

The difficulty, however, is that the form given this item isn’t that of the western, or indeed the of eastern “fleur de lys”.

In Europe, as elsewhere influenced by the Latins, the fleur-de-lys is formed with a bar across it and with its centre given a sharp, blade-like tip. Here is how it appears even in the south-eastern Mediterranean during the fourteenth century.

If one thinks the Voynich detail an allusion to Sicily’s Lilybaeum, known to the Greeks as Lilibaion but called ‘Lilybe’ in some medieval works, one then might imagine this figure, in its Mongol dress and in the pose of a preacher or orator, as meant for some known person such as the Sicilian John of Montecorvino – but there is little evidence that any of the four human figures in this diagram is meant to be a portrait, and one is left then with the simple fact that the detail is not drawn like the western fleur-de-lys and that the diagram is not European either in its being is oriented to the south, rather than to the east or north as the Latins’ habit was.

I note that an article ‘John of Montecorvino’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia says that John started on his journey in 1289, having been provided with letters to Arg[h]un, and to the great Emperor Kublai Khan, to Kaidu, Prince of the Tatars, to the King of Armenia and to the Patriarch of the Jacobites…From Persia John went by sea to India, in 1291, where he preached for thirteen months …. Travelling by sea from Meliapur, he reached China in 1294. That much of is supported by reliable evidence, but much else in that article relies on just two letters, said to have come from John, but whose authenticity is doubted. John of Plano Carpini travelled to Mongolia (1142-47 AD) though not to preach, so much as to serve as papal representative and courier.

My own view is that the object says “yuan“, which named the Mongol dynasty and which means literally ‘circle’ or ‘coin’. The character ‘yuan’ (元) appears on Chinese coins from well before before the Mongol century or the establishment of the Yuan dynasty (). On the earlier, T’ang dynasty coin illustrated (below, left) the character ‘Yuan’ is seen lowest of the four.

When considering the diagram’s female figure, we noted that fabrics might serve a form of currency, and so now the possibility arises (and must be tested) that all four figures may include mention of the means by which tribute was to be given. It is not unusual to find multiple layers of meaning in drawings from the pre-modern world. People today ask ‘Is it about geography OR about astronomy OR about religion OR…’ though an image can refer to a number of such things at once.

Once again, I’d urge anyone interested in the drawings in Beinecke MS 408 but who suppose medieval people had unsophisticated minds, to buy and read cover-to-cover these two books as their basic introduction to our subject:

  • Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory
  • Veronica Sekules, Medieval Art (Oxford History of Art series)

The following information is not offered casually, and was not casually obtained. If it seems a bit ‘Hey-presto’, I hope readers will understand that I’m trying to keep the post as short as I can.

In another of the sources consulted, I found the following paragraph:

Almaligh produced money in 650H and 651H [1253/4], and Bukhara and Samarqand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …

Judith Kolbas (2013), The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu 1220–1309.

I was unable to find any image of such a coin minted for Fars in 1253/4, but found a later example (below) – not minted in Fars, though it may have been circulating in Amaligh.*

It was Qaidu II who ruled from 1272 to 1301 AD

So – what do you think? Near enough to what one might remember of such an emblem?

Having previously offered a date for first enunciation of the diagram on folio 85r (part) in the latter part of the twelfth century, we must now extend it to between 1270-1301 AD, a period when Latins were not only visiting regions under Mongol rule, but had established residence there. In this the most prominent by far were Italians – chiefly from Siena, Pisa and above all from Genoa but as the northern Mongol rulers,* converted to Islam, attempted to establish friendly diplomatic relations with Mamluk Egypt, Venice came to enjoy their favour.

*that is ‘northern’ in terms of the greater Mediterranean. See the wiki article Golden Hordefor quick overview. The critical period was during the rule of Uzbeg Khan (1312–1341), who adopted Islam.

It remains now only to see whether this figure agrees, once more, with utterances given the winds in Walters MS 37 73.


For winds in the eastern quadrant, we have:

  1. Subsolanus vel Apeliotes: [EAST] “Subte phebe tono,” “I thunder from beneath the [rising] Sun.”
  2. Eurus vel ?? [SSE] “Flatus nubes gigno,” or “I cause the clouds to blow.”
  3. Euroauster [SE] “Tellus denique calescit,” or “The Earth finally becomes warm.”
  4. Austro vel [S*] “Pluuias cum fulmine initio,” or “I begin rain and lightning.”

* for ‘Austroafricus

‘I thunder from beneath the rising sun’ – EAST – seems appropriate enough: not only for the thundering of Mongol horsemen, but for this figure’s stance as orator/preacher.

Subsolanus vel Apeliotes – Subte phebe tono
“I thunder from beneath the [rising] Sun.”

NOTE – Anyone chiefly interested in Voynichese should be aware that there is a wide diversity between manuscripts in their assignment of compass-directions and wind-names. Between one manuscript and another, between one linguistic or regional tradition and another, such assignments and the wind-names may (and usually will) differ widely. Variations of that sort continue well into the early modern period.

Material used for this post derives from research, summaries from which were published by the present writer through voynichimagery, including – but not limited to, the following articles –

  • D.N. O’Donovan ‘Thundering jackets and ‘fleur-de-lys’
  • __________________, ‘Response… re f.85v-1’ (a series of four articles, written before the Beinecke page repaginated the manuscript)
  • __________________, ‘Response to Nick Pelling’s recent post’ (in two parts).
  • __________________, ‘Winds and Wings’
  • __________________ ‘Some events of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries…’ (a series related to part of the map’s analysis).


The footnotes, references, quoted passages and additional notes specifically relevant to study of Beinecke MS 408, adding more than 3,000 words to this post, have been removed and will be posted separately.

Consider this – ‘4’ as numeral (concluded).

I’ve spent the past three weeks looking into occurrences of the ‘4’ shape as an alphabetic (and alphanumeric), attested before 1440. The research wasn’t difficult, though it was tedious and necessarily included scripts for which I found no sure identification, but overall it was not so difficult that it needs a whole blogpost here. The most time-consuming part is not collecting formal versions of scripts, but testing the homogenised ‘official’ version against historical examples. Omniglot is a convenient place to begin, if you are interested to follow that question.

Here are two illustrations showing unidentifed script, and both – if they are different scripts – have been mentioned by Voynich writers.


I wouldn’t say that my investigation of the ‘4’-shape as numeral is complete. There are examples from Armenian, Syrian and Byzantine mss which I haven’t addressed but it was gratifying to find, after back-checking and cross-checking what I had done that my findings accord with the best-qualified commentators’ opinions on the manuscript before imagination and speculation came finally to supplant informed opinion as preferred basis for ‘Voynich’ narratives.

Specifically: the results accord with the views of Georg Baresch who had the longest certain familiarity with the manuscript and who said its contents had not originated in the culture of western Europe. In his time, of course, and even to as late as the twentieth century – as witness works catalogued by British and French libraries – Jewish works were classed as ‘oriental’.

Again, the findings accord with the view of Erwin Panofsky, as it was given in 1932, that the manuscript was from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and displayed characteristics both Arabic and Jewish with (perhaps) something of Kabbalah in it.

And finally, they accord with the opinion relayed by H.P. Kraus’ assistant in the early 1960s, and which said that specialists had agreed on a date of manufacture “about 1400” and focused on Italy as most likely place of manufacture.

The early occurrence for that ‘4’ shape as numeral; the pattern of its subsequent dissemination, and the lines of diaspora from the south-western Mediterranean during the last decades of the fourteenth century, allow us to see how those those separate evaluations need not be supposed incompatible with the manuscript’s internal evidence, given the historical events, lines of regular travel and population movement over the period from c.1350-c.1430 AD. I have supposed, and may be proven mistaken in supposing, that whoever wrote the Voynich glyph had a hand accustomed to writing the numeral so.

The same events promise to shed light on the manuscript’s codicology, but I won’t elaborate on that point.

In the next post, I’ll resume the series ‘How to Voynich’ which was broken off to look more closely at the ‘4o’ after noting* Rainer Hanig’s passing comment that “it “seemed obvious” the Voynichese ‘4’ was meant for the letter ‘q’.

*passage was reproduced in earlier post.

I had intended to pursue the question of the ‘gallows’ glyphs, but as you’ll see from those two ‘unknown’ scripts illustrated above, the solution to that question may be better left to specialists in palaeography.

Since my survey considered only some of the areas in which we see Italian-and-Jewish interaction, and omitted other important centres where use of the ‘Arabic’ numerals occurs during the century from 1350-1450 AD, I can only offer a conditional conclusion about the ‘4’-shape as numeral and as Voynich glyph: I’d suggest those who are chiefly interested in Voynichese should be wary of assuming that the ‘4’ shape denotes the letter ‘q’ in any instance let alone in all; and also be very careful about supposing that the usual transcription into Roman letters is ‘as good as’ reproducing the original. As one example of why I reached that conclusion – the illustration below shows forms for ‘8’ and ‘9’ as they are found on a single folio of a manuscript cited by Hill. Just one example, I know, but enough to make the point. In EVA transcription, its use of ‘q’ might obscure distinction in the original between (say) the letter ‘q’, the numeral ‘4’ and even the numeral ‘8’ – just for a start. Some alphabets include two or more letters whose forms, to an untrained eye, appear similar to each other, to this ‘8’ and to the Voynich ‘4’ shape(s).


Just by the way – here’s a cipher alphabet from the eastern Mediterranean. Early 14thC.

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