Expert Opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.2

, Two previous:
Header Illustration: composite (far left) detail from Beinecke MS 408 f. 80v;( far right) detail from Brit Lib., MS Add 25724, folio 50a  – an 18thC ms copy of a 13thC text; Background – external and internal views of the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts LIbrary, Yale University.  Portraits (upper) Roger Bacon; (lower) R.S. Brumbaugh.

The Beinecke Library page.

Introduction (website)

Removing the speculative and the ‘canonised myth’ from the Beinecke Library’s description of the manuscript in its online Introduction will leave you with the following sentence:

Nearly every page contains drawings drawn in ink with … various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue and red… and continuous pages of text  with star-like flowers… in the margins.

Written in central Europe during the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries…… a magical or scientific text, nearly every page contains botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings of a provincial but lively character drawn in ink  vibrant washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red. (Note – some pigments are thicker than a wash and one, at least, is said by Carter to resemble wax crayon – D).Based on the subject matter of the drawings, the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections: 1) botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species; 2) astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such as fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius), nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys, and courtly figures; 3) a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules; 4) an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms; 5) pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green, and 6) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.The reason for rejecting so much is explained in brief:

  1.  …  “Written” is a hangover from the  earlier period when the work was believed an autograph, and thus written at the time it was made, more or less.  To conflate composition of the text(s) with manufacture of the object is a basic error, avoidance of which is drummed into the novice in ‘manuscript studies 101’.  ‘Made’ or ‘compiled’ would be appropriate.
  2. during the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.  The Beinecke library must have some reason other than credulity, reliance on amateur preferences, or deference to past members of staff to justify its including this apparent error. If so, I haven’t seen that explanation  The radiocarbon dating of 1404-1438,  which agrees with Panofsky’s opinion in 1932, and with the ‘expert consensus’ of which Lehmann-Haupt spoke in 1963,  would all seem to demand that to add a century to that range should not be done arbitrarily but from the basis of concrete information – from codicology or materials science. (Lehmann-Haupt’s comment is reported by d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8
    *’central Europe‘. The phrase is uselessly vague and there has been no technical or historical study which proved the manuscript to have been “written in central Europe”.  The ‘central Europe’ theory was always an anchronism, and was initially focused on the German-speaking centre of Europe and on Rudolf’s court.  When the radiocarbon dating established the work as early fifteenth century, there was not a man of the ‘central European’ theorists left standing.  (As a matter of interest, those who were left standing were Patrick Lockerby, Nick Pelling, Philip Neal, and the present writer’.
    Some of the most dedicated ‘central European’ theorists  tried at first to ignore the radiocarbon dating; then to say that ‘1404-1438’ could be redefined as 1470 and later. Ideas that ‘the manuscript was made in about 1480’… nearly became another ‘canonised myth’. The latest tactic has been to re-define ‘central Europe’ to include England, northern France and northern Italy… which makes the whole ‘central Europe’ tag meaningless.
  3. magical or scientific text – experts in those texts and subjects have either denied any link exists between the Voynich manuscript and European works of that kind, or have failed to produce any comparison from the Latin corpus to justify the idea.   It is speculation, and nothing more.
  4. …113 plant species.  ‘113 pictures’ would be accurate.  To assume that each image is a ‘portrait’ of a single species is another canonised myth, unproven and contraindicated by the fact that the Voynich plant pictures are matched neither in  form nor in sequence by the imagery in medieval herbals.  Many spurious ‘pairings’ have been offered over the years, but none can bear analytical examination.
  5. * astronomical and astrological drawings.  The sense in which this phrase is meant presumes, again, that some place exists for these drawings in the Latin European corpus or in ‘acceptable’ introductions to that corpus from the Islamic astronomical works. The basic forms, and elements in Latin astrological works are absent from the Voynich manuscript, or if present are not yet demonstrated present. The angular horoscope drawings, and reference to the planets are among the most obvious discrepancies. If they are astronomical, the specific type of ‘astronomical’ writing in general needs to be identified, especially given that the ‘zodiac’  contained in the Voynich calendar does not depict the 12 constellations or even ten of the twelve.  It includes 2 ‘bulls’ and 2 ‘goats’ but no sheep drawn in the usual Latin manner with over-curled horns.  It is however true that in parts of France (the same where the standing archer first appears as ‘Saggitario’) one finds occasional depiction of Aries as a goat.  More on this later.
  6. biological section.  This description is no more than the subjective impression expressed by William Romaine Newbold.  Others, just as arbitrarily, describe the same drawings as ‘balneological’.
  7. nudes.  The term is pre-emptive.   The term ‘nude’ describes a drawing from life, meant to represent a living figure.  At present, there is as great a probability that the figures were intended to be metaphorical or allegorical as literal, and the more neutral term ‘unclothed’ or ‘naked’ is appropriate here.  The figures are shown partly covered (or not) but to say ‘they wade’ is to assume greater literalism than is justified by the evidence.
  8. …. an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions.  Once again, the description fails to maintain the neutral tone appropriate to description of images whose content is – or is believed – unknown.  Whether or not the Beinecke librarians have time to keep abreast of current writings, there is nothing to explain or to justify use of the word ‘cosmological;’.  Others may speculate and argue over the intention behind the drawing, but the Beinecke’s information is expected to have a solid basis in fact.
  9. … pharmaceutical drawings.  Speculation which has all but achieved the status of ‘canonised myth’ despite its being apparently denied by the form of the more ornate containers and the failure of any researcher to discover a ‘phamaceutical’ text having this form within the Latin (western European) corpus.
  10. …. *medical – another widespread assumption, arrived at by analogy with, and assumption of, European models, and still without proof that the analogy is apt.


Catalogue record by Barbara Shailor (1967)

Speculative matter also affects its Catalogue record, particularly the preamble.

The Preamble reads:

Scientific or magical text in an unidentified language, in cipher, apparently based on Roman minuscule characters; the text is believed by some scholars to be the work of Roger Bacon since the themes of the illustrations seem to represent topics known to have interested Bacon …  A history of the numerous attempts to decipher the manuscript can be found in a volume edited by R. S. Brumbaugh, The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript (Carbondale, Illinois, 1978). Although several scholars have claimed decipherments of the manuscript, for the most part the text remains an unsolved puzzle. R. S. Brumbaugh has, however, suggested a decipherment that establishes readings for the star names and plant labels; see his “Botany and the Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Manuscript Once More,” Speculum 49 (1974) pp. 546-48; “The Solution of the Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher,” [Yale Library] Gazette 49 (1975) pp. 347-55; “The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 39 (1976) pp. 139-50.


The Beinecke’s ‘Recommended reading’.

The Beinecke’s  ‘Bibliography’ – in its Introduction and in the Catalogue record – reflects the state of the study as it was half a century ago.  It accords the writings of Robert S. Brumbaugh a prominence hardly merited by their contribution to this field.  As Professor Bax rightly said  (in 2014) Brumbaugh’s conception of the text “did not find favour with other scholars…and his scheme of decipherment is now largely forgotten”. Brumbaugh had made the tyro’s mistake of supposing that he came to the manuscript already equipped with sufficient knowledge to understand it.

The bibliography refers to only one item published later than 1978 -a book written in 2005 which one reviewer described as ‘a love affair with Roger Bacon’.

The library’s reliance on Brumbaugh’s ideas may explain its description of the manuscript as   “written in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century” though the radiocarbon dating – obtained in 2011 – provided a range for the vellum of 1404-1438AD agreeing with specialist opinions from the earlier period, and with more recent technical analyses. The latter are discussed later in the present series.

Professor Brumbaugh was Professor of Philosophy at Yale from 1952 and became Professor Emeritus in 1988, He died in 1992.  Specialists received his last publication, summarising the rest, with reviews which were polite, but cool.

Guzman’s review was among the more positive, saying (among other things):

Brumbaugh concludes that the manuscript is a sixteenth-century product, probably put together by the Englishman John Dee rather than the thirteenth-century Roger Bacon. He divides the manuscript into five parts and says that possibly two sections go back to the thirteenth century but that the other three and this compilation definitely date from the sixteenth century.

He also identifies the alphabet used in the cipher; with this alphabet he read the planet [sic.] and star labels. Brumbaugh concludes that the cipher originated in some type of numerology and that it is probably some type of artificial language. Thus the reader knows where work on the manuscript and its cipher stands today, the areas and avenues future research will follow, and what the manuscript will probably reveal if and when all parts of it are completely deciphered. Brumbaugh’s compilation places the Voynich Cipher Manuscript in its proper historical context ,,
Gregory S. Guzman (Bradley University),  The Historian, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Nov. 1979), pp. 120-121.

d’Imperio was polite but concluded:

“There is just enough plausibility in [Brumbaugh’s] process to lead one on. but not enough to leave one satisfied.” (D’Imperio 1978 p38)

Vera Filby said the same:

 Brumbaugh’s solution, though presented in a most interesting way, is disappointing, since the evidence he offers is incomplete, and proof -unambiguously readable text- is lacking.

It is unfortunate that he did not have the benefit of recent analyses of the script by Captain Prescott Currier and Mary E. D’Imperio, described in Manuscripts, Winter 1978. For readers unacquainted with the history of the manuscript and its remarkable provenance-from the first known reference to it in 16th-century [read ’17thC] Bohemia, to its rediscovery in 1912 in Italy by the rare-book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, and finally to the Beinecke this attractive book, with illustrations of representative manuscript pages, provides a thorough, even somewhat repetitious, overview. …

Vera Ruth Filby, (Department of Defence, in Washington).  Her review was published in  American Scientist, Vol. 67, No. 2 (March-April 1979), p. 249.

Filby’s opinion remains the general one, Brumbaugh’s claimed decryption method having been generally rejected.


More recent comment on Brumbaugh’s ideas are more strongly negative. As examples, I include Pelling’s comment on Brumbaugh’s claimed decipherments  (2012) and Bax on Brumbaugh’s  “star-names” (2014).

Commenting on Walter Grosse’s efforts, Pelling said:

Brumbaugh similarly converted Voynichese to digits …and tried to salvage text from the resulting digit stream, though ultimately accepting somewhat grudgingly that the digit stream was not meaningful.  Claude Martin travelled much the same path as Brumbaugh, proposing instead that it was constructed from a deliberately nonsensical digit stream. In my opinion, both Brumbaugh’s and Martin’s digit stream theories explained nothing whatsoever about the nature and structure of Voynichese, and so have nothing to commend them: and σαν ετι I don’t see any reason why I should think differently about Grosse’s superverbose digit stream theory. Sorry to have to point it out, but “it’s like that, that’s the way it is”.

Nick Pelling, ‘First Voynich Theory of 2012…’ (Jan. 28th., 2012)

Professor Bax went into detail on Brumbaugh’s claims of decipherment  (October 19th., 2014).

In the 1970’s (in fact before D’Imperio’s monograph) Brumbaugh produced a series of claims that he had ‘cracked the code’, among them an article on the VM star names which he claimed he had deciphered . In that article he boldly states: “In 1972 I finally solved the Voynich cipher” (Brumbaugh 1976:140).

Before addressing his decipherments themselves, it is interesting to reproduce a few of Brumbaugh’s observations concerning what he terms the ‘star names’, to give a flavour of his work:

“The star-map section raises problems. The star maps are a set of twelve, representing ten signs of the zodiac; originally there must have been at least one for each sign of the zodiac, but if so, two have been lost. Each ‘map’ has a central medallion with a picture of the zodiacal constellation, with the month name written beneath in plain text. Around this, in an inner circle, the maps have a ring of female figures, each attached by a line to a star. An outer circle has more such figures. A group of numerals is written next to each star.” (Brumbaugh 1976:141)

On the next page he [Brumbaugh] continues as follows:

“A group of cipher numerals is written next to each star. A first try at decipherment gave the name of Alfred for the star in the Pisces medallion, with Urifydes just above and Alfansus Purus on to the right. The names are therefore those of the great men whose souls are attached to stars, rather than anything else they might be—Arabic star names, or a numerical Messier listing, for example.” (Brumbaugh 1976:142)

Brumbaugh does not give details about his decipherment, and it is even not clear from this which precise words he was deciphering (e.g. in the Pisces ‘medallion’). Unfortunately, partly because of this sort of vagueness, his resulting decipherment did not find favour with other scholars…and his scheme of decipherment is now largely forgotten.

In terms of his analysis of the star names, I would further argue that he made a number of fundamental assumptions which are questionable, even untenable. In the quotations above, for example, he assumes that what we now call the Zodiac pages are in fact ‘star maps’. This involves the assumption that the drawings of star-shaped objects attached to lines or strings are necessarily meant to represent stars, as he says on pages 140 and 141, although by page 142 he has revised this to suggest they represent not stars themselves but ‘great men whose souls are attached to stars‘.

This raises a crucial question which to my mind (and again to my surprise) has not been carefully addressed in Voynich scholarship so far, neither by D’Imperio, nor by Brumbaugh, nor apparently by anyone else, namely which star-like drawings with labels in the manuscript should we take with confidence to represent stars, and which should we exclude from our analysis …

Stephen Bax, ‘Voynich star names: an analysis (1)‘, (October 18th., 2014)

Reviews of the Goldstones’ book, The Friar and the Cipher see it is an interesting history of Roger Bacon’s time, but include comments such that below ..

Ostensibly the book is about the Voynich Manuscript,….[but] this debate begins on page 223 of the edition I have. The book runs just over 300 pages, which presents kind of a problem. The rest of the book is a history of Western thought and the constant struggle between science and religion in the Middle Ages, Which brings me to the ultimate problem with this book and how it was marketed (and even titled). The Friar and the Cipher is a wonderful book on Western philosophy. However, there is nothing really new in the book when it comes to the manuscript. It takes no sides in the controversy, only saying that it seems likely that Bacon did write it. The authors raise questions but do not really provide anything new to readers with any knowledge of the subject. The book seems to be a way to gather a bunch of different sources into one volume, sort of a “this is where we’re at” kind of thing. It also is almost a love letter to Roger Bacon…

from Dave Roy, ‘Curled up’ reviews (2006),


Codicological description.

In the Catalogue record, impressionistic matter and ‘canonised myth’ infuse even the  codicological description, and include (again) the statement that the categories by which the manuscript is described are  ‘based on the subject matter of the drawings…’  The correct statement is that the categories “adopt William Romaine Newbold’s  subjective impressions of the imagery….”  The original makers’ intention remains open to debate.

Details:Almost every page contains botanical and scientific drawings, many full-page, of a provincial but lively character, in ink with washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue and red. Based on the subject matter of the drawings, the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections:
Part I. ff. 1r-66v Botanical sections containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant [drawings] species. Special care is taken in the representation of
the flowers, leaves and the root systems of the individual plants.Part II. ff. 67r-73v.  Astronomical or astrological section containing 25 astral diagrams in the form of circles, concentric or with radiating segments, some with the sun or the moon in the center; the segments filled with stars and inscriptions, some with the signs of the zodiac and concentric circles of nude females, some free-standing, others emerging from objects similar to cans or tubes. Little continuous text.
Part III. ff. 75r-84v “Biological” section containing drawings of small-scale female nudes [figures], most with bulging abdomens and exaggerated hips, immersed or emerging from fluids, or interconnecting tubes and capsules. These drawings are the most enigmatic in the manuscript and it has been suggested that they symbolically represent the process of human reproduction and the procedure by which the soul becomes united with the body (cf. W. Newbold and R. Kent, The Cipher of Roger Bacon [Philadelphia, 1928] p. 46).
Part IV. ff. 85r-86v This sextuple-folio folding leaf contains an elaborate array of nine medallions, filled with stars and cell-like shapes, with fibrous structures linking the circles. Some medallions with petal-like arrangements of rays filled with stars, some with structures resembling bundles of pipes.
Part V. ff. 87r-102v Pharmaceutical section containing drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs [plant parts] and roots, all with identifying inscriptions. On almost every page drawings of pharmaceutical jars, [objects] resembling vases, in red, green and yellow, or blue and green. Accompanied by some continuous text.
Part VI. ff. 103r-117v Continuous text, with stars in inner margin on recto and outer margins of verso. Folio 117v includes a 3-line presumed “key” opening with a reference to Roger Bacon in anagram and cipher.
Binding: s. xviii-xix. Vellum case. Remains of early paper pastedowns.


Postscript –  Nick Pelling – and I daresay numerous other researchers who have not committed themselves to print – have offered criticisms comparable to those seen in this post. My position is this: that knowing the public will suppose whatever appears under the prestigious ‘Yale’ name must be – if not vox dei at least vox academiae– the Beinecke’s page should assert nothing about the manuscript not demonstrably and objectively true.  If this means  that the manuscript’s description is reduced to a single sentence; that reference to Roger Bacon is acknowledged as  ‘speculative’ and that reference to Rudolf II is consigned to a footnote reporting the third-hand rumour of purchase,  then well and good.

Fear of the Unknown and raft ‘Elegant’. Pt 2 – the white wall

Two previous

Header illustration:  Dehoij – Willem van de Velde ‘Sketching a Sea Battle’ [1845]

Any, or all of the Friedmans’ three premises might  be proven true one day.  But they weren’t in 1912, nor during the 1940s, and they haven’t been proven true yet.

In most fields of study, the misconceptions of sixty years ago have been superseded, but this is not the case in ‘Voynich studies’.

Since the late 1990s, and the closure of the first mailing list, the study has seen a catastrophic shift in emphasis from collaborative enquiry into a fifteenth-century object, to what Pelling once astutely described as a ‘Theory War’.

While not every researcher devotes their energies  to finding items in support of a particular theory, the majority now do.  The theories for which that circumstantial support is hunted are speculations derived from the earlier speculations by Wilfrid Voynich, William Romaine Newbold, the  Friedmans and/or Hugh O’Neill with the most widely disseminated – the most narrowly Eurocentic – theory being  the most dependent on them for its ‘givens’.

Because the earlier narratives were affected by ideas and assumptions characteristic of the late nineteenth- and earlier twentieth centuries about the nature of medieval thought and society, so now the usual type of speculative narrative (deemed ‘theory’) brings many outmoded ideas into the present time.

Until now, linguists and statistical analysts have stood apart from the theory-war’ but should any develop attachment to one or another of the hypothetical narratives or – on the other hand – produce results which present blank opposition to some widely held theory, this neutral territory could become as fraught with antagonisms as other aspects of the study now are.

With growth of theory-war mentality – especially noticeable after 2004 –   study of Beinecke MS 408 for its own sake has gradually become a sideline; for the most theory-driven the manuscript is just one of numerous sources to be mined for details that can, given compatible interpretation,  adorn the hypothetical narrative to give it the appearance of being more solid.  To observe that a given detail may  have been interpreted wrongly is to provoke nothing but hostility from those whose theoretical narrative is  well served by the error.   Indeed, many show every sign of preferring the virtual manuscript of their own invention to the problematic original, and some will go so far as to suggest the manuscript can be understood by none but hypothetical means.  To discuss or debate this last point was forbidden by executive order at, discussion of methodologies deemed ‘inappropriate’ for the study of a medieval manuscript.  No – I’m not kidding. The forum manager felt – probably rightly – that it would cause too much friction.

It is not only members of the larger theory groups who become enraged when confronted with a failure to adopt their preferred theory.    In the following passage,  leaders of a ‘New World’ theory become incoherent with rage for the same reason.  I would point out that one of the authors, Jules Janick, has a well-deserved reputation for his studies in the history of botany and its illustration.  None that I’ve read demand the reader ‘believe or else’ but  when that ‘Voynich hat’ is on his head, Janick is indistinguishable from the most vicious determined promoters of theories opposed to his own, though I concur with the idea that to defend a theory in despite of contrary evidence is behaviour better suited to fanatics than to scholars.    He and Tucker write:

Jules Janick, Arthur O. Tucker, Unravelling the Voynich Codex p.346

In addition to the fact that Janick and Tucker must know perfectly well that credit for the ‘hoax’ theory is not due to ‘bloggers’ but to Rich Santacoloma (a very civil theorist who does not render those of different opinions faceless), the way Janick and Tucker employ the term  “iconographic analysis” is not justified by the content of their book.  In it, I find no sign that either author understands what the discipline involves in terms of either method or range of expected sources – and no more do the ‘Eurocentic’ theory-groups whose members use it to describe any effort of any sort made to name the subject of an image.

To discuss and address issues of terminology and methodology is impossible in the current atmosphere of ‘theory-war’ just as it has become impossible to invite discussion of possible implications of the manuscript’s  including various Asian forms and conventions (see ‘details’ below). One might wish a return to reason and egalitarian attitudes were possible but I cannot envision it will be in the near future. Too much time, effort and ‘face’ has been invested in successful promotion of the various speculative-hypothetical stories.

upper – detail from folio 67v lower – detail from f.85r (drawn on the back of the Voynich map)


These are just two of numerous instances where the manuscript’s imagery includes motifs, details and stylistic habits characteristic of hither or further Asia.

As to the ‘white wall’ idea reflected in popular histories of the earlier twentieth century – little of it is found today in serious historical writing.  In fact, just a year after Friedman interviewed Erwin Panofsky, a first paper on the subject of Asian and other foreign peoples within Latin Europe was published in Speculum – the same journal which had finally decided to publish O’Neill’s 300 word ‘note’.  The latter sparked another Voynich narrative; the former failed to see any widening of the NSA’s research parameters.

  • Iris Origo, ‘The Domestic Enemy: The Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’,  Speculum, Vol.30 (1955) pp. 321-66

Origo cites, for example, via Robert Davidsohn, the complaint made by a twelfth-century Pisan monk about the number and variety of foreigners in his city during the annual Great Fair, speaking of:

  “Turks and Lybians [Libyans] and Parths and Chaldeans, and similar monsters emerging from the sea.” 

In the same century, Benjamin of Tudela described those to be seen in the city of Montpellier:

… Har Gaash which is called Montpellier. This is a place well situated for commerce.  It is about a parasang from the sea, and men come for business there from all quarters, from Edom, Ishmael [Yemen?], the land of  Algarve , Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the Great (by which he means all the Byzantine empire), from all the  land of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, France, Asia and England. People of all nations are found there doing business through the medium  of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are scholars of great eminence, at their head being R. Reuben,, …. They have among them houses of learning devoted to the study of the Talmud.

From those many temporary or shorter-resident foreigners, we move in the fourteenth century to greater number of permanent ones, beginning with  the decree issued by the Priors of Florence on March 2nd., 1363, which permitted “the unlimited importation of foreign slaves of either sex – provided only that they were infidels, not Christians”.

A slave should not be presumed illiterate, ill-bred or uncultured.  Slaves included free persons enslaved, whether by capture in war, by abduction or by deliberate sale to the slavers.   Mamluk Egypt was the major buyer, and Arab slavers the major supplier within the African continent, but the European Knights Hospitaller in Crete and the Genoese were the next most important figures in the medieval trade.   So alarmed did the Mongol rulers of the north become at the draining of their own potential armies by the loss of women and children that they banned the trade – or rather, attempted to do so.

Thus the plain fact of history is that the strange-looking matter in the Voynich manuscript could – for all we know – have come first into Latin horizons with an Asian woman as easily as a Latin man.  The ‘white wall’ idea is now nearly seventy years out of date at least, yet for theorists attached to narratives originating in the ideas of that time, assumptions and bias implicit in Wilfrid’s narrative, in the Friedman’s  parameters for research and thus in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma remains current thinking.   When one can be publicly admonished by a ‘Eurocentric’ on the grounds that, by asking whether we haven’t placed too much reliance on the Mnishovsky rumour, one deserves censure for having ‘spoken disrespectfully of a member of the nobility’, then one can only imagine the offense likely to be taken if one suggests Rudolf might have paid six hundred ducats for the writings of a Mongol slave.

Of course, it wasn’t only the slaves who knew something of Asia by the late 1300s.  In the Upper church of St. Francis of Assisi, a manuscript is depicted in the style of a western codex and with inscriptions intended for the  recently-invented  Phagspa script.   Tanaka wrote the seminal paper on this matter,  to which I referred when explaining for Voynicheros the historical context for the manuscript’s final phase of development before c.1400.   The information was received in silence.

Sources recommended in those posts to voynichimagery.

  • Hidemichi Tanaka, ‘The Mongolian script in Giotto’s paintings at the Scrovegni Chapel at Padova’,  Akten des XXV. Internationalen Kongresses fur Kunstgeschichte Pt.6 (1986) pp.167-74. or:
  • Hidemichi Tanaka, “Giotto and the Influences of the Mongols and the Chinese on His Art: A New Analysis of the Legend of St. Francis and the Fresco Paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel”, in: Bijutsu  shigaku [Art History] (Sendai), VI (1984),
  • D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Chronological strata ~ Avignon 1300s’, voynichimagery, (February 6th, 2015).
    • __________________, ‘On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean’, (October 31st, 2016).
  • Roxanne Pranzniac, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 177-217.

but see  also

  • Hidemichi Tanaka,, Oriental scripts in the paintings of Giotto’s period” – Extrait de la Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Mai-Juin 1989 pp. 214-224 .
  • Vera-Simone Schulz, ‘From Letter to Line: Artistic Experiments with Pseudo-Script in Late Medieval Italian Painting, Preliminary Remarks’ in Marzia Faietti and Gerhard Wolf (eds.), The Power of Line (2015) pp.144-161.


I also see that a wiki article has been written during the past couple of years.

note (22nd April 2019) – on second reading I found that wiki article so bad as to be objectionable and have removed the link.  Readers will get a less skewed idea of the degree of intercourse between Asia and Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by reading the primary sources in Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, [4 vols]which can be read through the internet archive (vol. 1 linked) or  the excerpts reprinted with commentary on the  Silk Road Seattle site.



Postscript (4th April 2019) – in the current theory-driven atmosphere, it occurs to me that I should say plainly that by noting Asian elements in the imagery, or pointing out that the old   ‘white wall Europe’ idea is contradicted by the facts, I am not announcing allegiance to any existing theory, nor the advent of a new one.   If I have any ‘theory’ it is that the manuscript would be better served by more sober methods than theory creation.

April 5th – in response to readers’ comments I have added a couple of phrases, to clarify (i) that I do not mean to imply the forum manager responsible for this problem, which predates the establishment of and (ii) that an the ‘theory war’ includes (and could be argued to have begun with) those maintaining the theoretical history which is so often repeated today.


Next post:  Santacoloma’s instinct re forgery.