What magic? Where magic? 5c: Green stars (67v). Initial observations.

Two prior posts

These three green stars in folio 67v surely can’t be meant literally; there are no stars which appear deep green to the naked eye. So  we must look at other ways of thinking about stars and about colours to understand what ideas inform this diagram.

Before doing that, there are some preliminary points to be addressed.

(The scans now on the Beinecke site are more bleached-out than were the earlier ones, incidentally fading signs of the vellum’s inferior finish, and making  these stars look blue-grey).

67v green stars full gif

Johannes Klein once said:

“there are actually one to [a] few “stars” on the night sky that appear green and are so described in ancient literature .. One star, however, stands out as it was already described as green by ancient authors that is Zubeneschamali, or Beta Librae in modern terms. Being the brightest star in the constellation Libra, maybe it is drawn at several folios.”

– -Johannes Klein, comment to Stephen Bax’ site,  July 23, 2014 – 2:15 PM.

Klein did not specify which ancient author/s he meant, nor provide any secondary source and I’ve not found the reference yet. If you know, I’d be glad to hear from you.

Hinkley Allen has β Librae ‘pale emerald’ and (p.277) quotes William Thomas Webb,

“in the heavens deep green, like deep blue, is unknown to the naked eye”

  • Richard Hinkley Allen, Star Names: their lore and meaning.(various editions).

Hinkley Allen is still the most accessible source in English, though must be cross-checked against more recent and scholarly studies as e.g. those by Paul Kunitzsch, David A. King, David  Pingree, Tsvi Langermann or Otto Neugebauer, though Neugebauer is not without his biases.

Modern astronomers describe β Librae as a blue dwarf, while admitting (with a faintly grudging air) that  to the naked eye it does look green-ish but is the only star which does.  

That might explain one green star but the diagram has three.

Klein then suggested, reasonably, that they might be the same star repeated.  On seeing his comments, a few months after he’d written them, I decided to repost some research-notes earlier posted in my old blogger blog, ‘Findings’. (reposted to voynichimagery 22nd November, 2014). I’ll include a little of that material later.

So – why green stars on folio 67v?

‘Just for fun’ ?

It is true that Latin scribes were sometimes self-indulgent, so it is possible – just possible – that the scribe was tired of drawing the same forms and made some stars green just for a change.  It’s possible, but it cannot be proven, and the revisionist’s default must be that there’s a reason for what is there in front of you, on the page.

Purely decorative? Again, this is possible, but we cannot begin with such an assumption, and if it were to prove a purely decorative design, then historical analysis must take a different path.  It remains a second-last resort,  the ‘arbitrary’ being last of all.

Classing the diagram – divisions.

Exploring the technical, astronomical reference, the first step  is to define what type of diagram this is.

It includes an image of sun and stars, so we may begin with the hope that it speaks to such things – in which case, the number of its divisions should announce the type of diagram it is. This is a practical way to determine type for any technical diagram that conveys astronomical or astrological information. 

Not unexpectedly, the Voynich diagram is not unambiguous. The diagram’s outer border, though broken into sections, is incomplete to our right and our left so that while we might extrapolate to obtain a theoretical number of divisions for that border, it will be better to use something that is on the page – like the lines of written text. This gives 17 divisions for the circuit. Not an easy, predictable, ’12’ or ’16’. And just to make things more interesting still, the Voynich diagram has these radial divisions, as you see, unequally spaced.

One division (to our right) is actually double the size of those opposite it – where two of the three green stars are.

f 67v unequal divisions detail marked

As ever, one may not meddle or try to ‘fix’ information provided by the primary evidence.

If those unequal divisions irritate, it is something to investigate – not to ignore, arbitrarily to ‘correct’ ‘adjust’, or rationalise.

#Rule No.1 – Don’t mess with the evidence!

A mathematical average (360°/17) will tell us nothing useful, because the divisions are unequal on the page and our initial position – as ever – is that what is there is what was meant to be there. Movement away from that position must be required by a preponderance of clearly contrary evidence.

If the diagram pre-dates manufacture of our present manuscript, the number of divisions may be informative on its astronomical reference, but won’t necessarily explain why they are now painted green, so those questions must be separated.

I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the fifteenth-century scribe’s painting three stars green and concentrate on the number of 17, and unequal divisions of the circuit.

The diagram could be a schematic diagram, or it might refer to a planisphere projection, but that number of 17, in combination with unequal distribution, and combining the stars with a sun(?!) evokes for me description- but not a formal representation – of some form of sidereal compass. To speak generally, a sidereal compass describes a circuit or compasso of the navigator’s stars and though widely known by mariners of the eastern sea – called there ‘the Great Sea’- one fifteenth-century navigator, Ibn Majid, says was otherwise known only to his ‘brethren’ the original ‘barbary’ men of Africa’s north-eastern shores, near Sicily. It may be from them that Michael Scot, in Sicily, had his ‘berber’ star-names. No-one has yet identified the dialect.

However – mariners used the circuit of stars in navigation, but some eastern mariners, including the Arabs, also took the names of seventeen of those stars/asterisms to name their compass-card’s 32 points. On the card, those points are equidistant, but in practical astronomy it wasn’t so.

To illustrate, I’ll show a different example, the Caroline islander’s sidereal compass. This again names the 32 points using just 17 stars. One for each Pole, and then the east (risings) for each of 15, and the settings for those same fifteen on the west. Thus 2+ (15×2) =32.

stars mariners Carolinian unequal divisions

More of this ‘sidereal compass’ possibility later.

It doesn’t do to allow a possibility to take hold and become a theory before other reasonable possibilities are tested. Most important, now is the question of the diagram’s orientation.

#Rule No.2  Never assume the answer’s already something you know. 

manicle elegant lone right NoteThis might be a good moment to remind readers that what is in this post is from my own research,  is limited by that research, and any conclusions are  those I draw from that information. Other and better insights may yet be offered, so if any reader decides to repeat something from this post, the passage should be quoted directly, the introduction of this data and opinion to Voynich studies attributed to me and their own readers allowed the freedom to check out that data and opinion for themselves, so to judge my conclusions.   That’s what citing precedents and sources is all about – respecting a reader’s right to be more than a ‘believer’.  As someone else said,

“In Gd we trust – all others must bring data” – Dr.Mike (‘medlife crisis’ vlog), quoting one of his teachers.


As an initial guess, I’d posit here that, as with the Voynich map’s flame-haired sun-emblems, this face is to be understood as moving and looking towards the west.

Even so, there are two likely options:

First, that the gaps in the border to left and right were intended to signify those ‘gates’ though which the sun, moon and/or stars were variously imagined to pass into, and to leave, the visible sky.

green stars f.67v

Alternatively, we might take it that the sun’s ‘line of vision’ as its line of movement, in which case an approximate path for its passage would run:

green stars f.67v marked E-W tentative

NOTE re ‘vision’ – Unfocussed eyes: I note in passing that while northern peoples presume the sun benevolent, it is otherwise for peoples who know the sun’s savage heat.  Depiction of a leonine or feline sun whose eyes are unfocused is an old tradition in harsher regions, a tradition that survives even today among the ivory-carvers of Benin.  The ‘unfocused eyes’ for the sun, in folio 67v, is one of numerous indications that the image had its first enunciation in an earlier and other context than fifteenth century Europe. Examples below: {left) feline sun with artificial beard – Phoenician ivory, found at Nimrud. dated c.8thC BC.; (upper right) messenger as winged representative of the king-god’, probably Phoenician. Again from Nimrud. (right, below) modern ivory of traditional form, from Benin in Africa’s north west. I first presented these images as illustrations to a series of posts published through ‘Findings’, the first published on July 30th., 2010).

ivory unfocused eyes predator sun

A couple of years later, in treating the origin and evolution of the month-folio’s August emblem, I mentioned the custom again (voynichrevisionist, October 29th., 2012), noting that a faint remnant of that ancient graphic tradition of a feline sun survives in one thirteenth-century coin, described as from ‘Thamarra’. By the thirteenth century, in an Islamic context, this was no more than a traditional motif.

coin of Thamarra gif

‘Thamarra’ – In Wolf’s commentary on Eusebius’ Onomasticon (1971) Notes. pp. 76-252 Wolf mentions that on the Madaba Map there is a Thamara located as suggested by Eusebius, and that the Tabula Peutinger has a Thamaro 52 or 53 miles from Jerusalem while Ptolemy’s list (V, 15, 5f) has a Thamaro about 55 miles distant. The Notitia Dignitatum (74:40) has a Tarba and (74:46) a Thamarra both of which have a [Roman] garrison.

Orientation (resumed).

In the diagram on folio 67v, the artificial beard might be more consciously deployed to refer to the mid-heavens – the time of the sun’s strongest heat – by analogy with man’s greatest strength. between the infirmities of the newly born infancy and late old age.

While we’ve not yet tested either of those first tentative observations about an ‘east west’ line, if the second option survives testing, we might then posit further that the ‘pointer’ flame/lock is meant to indicate a North point, though that meant astronomical or magnetic north for the fifteenth-century scribes or intended user, it is much too soon even to guess.

f.67v pointer-lock of sun hair

But if it were to be proven to point ‘North’ we might then say with some confidence that all three of those green stars should be found south of the sun’s path. For someone in the northern hemisphere, that would mean ‘far below’ Polaris.

Comment: – I’ve often felt sympathy with d’Imperio when she describes the manuscript as an ‘elegant Enigma’. The drawings are elegant in conception, yet their analysis must so often be approached like this, from several individual guesses, each of which must be tested individually against the objective historical data, and then against all the rest, and then by comparison to what has already been learned from other studies of the primary document, until each of the working guesses is  either discarded or found to ‘click’ into place and open out the original maker’s intention. 

Because as I’ve said, this post is  original and I can cite my sources but (alas) take refuge in no precedent, I’m including information about my method and samples of the data, too. I cannot avoid the post’s being long but I will précis as much as possible.

Cultural cues/Peculiarities – false hair and sun-of-night.

False hair and ‘serpentine’? locks.

You might have noticed – though in 2010, I couldn’t learn of anyone who had done before – that the sun’s face looks as if a female, or for a young male, has been given an artificial hair and beard.   These flaming locks (of hair?), are bound into a twisted cord, passing around the chin and over the crown of the head.

f67v-1 Green stars 16 or 17

 Only the two serpentine locks seem to be original/natural, one of the two looking far more like a serpent than the other does. (Caput draconis of Leo?) (Agathos daimon?)

The motif is well known from Egyptian evidence, and then (as shown above) from Syria and/or Phoenician north Africa, but had no place in Greek art before the Hellenistic era, nor later in Roman art..

The only two locks which seem to escape from under that band of artificial ‘flaming’ hair may refer to the Hellenistic appropriation of the ‘horns of Amon’. The example below from a coin made for the first Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy Soter I  who was believed by Latins of medieval Europe to have composed  Claudius Ptolemy‘s works.

coin Ptolemy ! vestigal horn-serpentine late 4thC -early 3rdC BC

The reference becomes relevant to study of Beinecke MS 408 not least because we have an early, direct testimony from a person who had the manuscript in the earlier part of the seventeenth century, who studied it for years and who went to some lengths (including contacting Athanasius Kircher and sending him carefully copied excerpts) as to his belief that the matter in the manuscript had been gained from someone who travelled to ‘eastern parts’ and collected the matter from ‘ancient Egyptian’ documents, monuments and teachers.  Baresch’s comments have sometimes been read not as emphatic “It is certainly conceivable…” but as hypothetical “it is certainly conceivable..”.  I take the former reading, but for reasons we can’t spare space to explain here.  Time and again, however, the manuscript’s content offers Baresch support. This is one instance.

Another possibility deserves mention, though, as interpretation of those ‘sidelocks’, because it offers a direct connection to the simpler forms of container depicted in the  Voynich manuscript’s ‘leaf and root’ fold-outs. Fold-outs like this do not occur in Latin manuscripts before ours, and not for many decades afterwards.

I’ve called the two ‘side locks’ serpentine thinking of the pair which are seen in Egypt, but which were described in the Greek world as the ‘agathos daimon’ and the kakkodaimon. As older deities did, these later became identified as ‘demons’ and mentioned in magic.  The ‘daimon’ was not a ‘demon’ to the Greeks or to the Egyptians.

The type appears on some cities’ coins during the Hellenistic and then the Roman era, and chiefly on  those for Tralleis in Asia minor where they are seen in association with a type of container variously described in modern studies as a cista, cista mystica, capsa or simply as an offering/tax collection ‘bucket’, depending on specific use. 

photo (below) coin of Tralles, 2ndC AD.   left: serpent and cista (‘cista’ like ‘capsa’ also described a tax-collection bucket). (rightagatha daimon and kakkodaimon – a pair gained from older Egypt. photo Courtesy wildwinds.

coin cysta mystica Tralleis 2ndC ce reduced

Containers of the same sort were are seen (as ‘capsa’) holding papyrus scrolls – reminding us that in earlier times the serpent’s significance was not of evil but of ‘wisdom’ and ‘know-how’.   A later coin from Tralleis, while under Roman rule.

coin Lydia Tralleis 2ndC wheatlid obverse Byzantine style

and below, similar images made during the Roman period but before Christianity became an official religion of the empire.

capsa Pompeii(left) Herculaneum (right) 1stC AD

above. (left) cista (as capsa) in painting from Pompeii; (centre) reconstructed, from Herculaneum. (right) in the form of a 3rdC ‘tax-bucket’.

Quite apart from the implication of those ‘serpent-of-wisdom’ sidelocks, the false beard informs us that the image now on folio 67v was not first enunciated by Latin of medieval Europe.

However, since we know that the diagram was of interest to at least one fifteenth-century person, very possibly European, then that constant purpose is the most important question. What did that fifteenth-century user believe the diagram described? What did he or she (and it was probably a ‘he’) make of the bearded sun, and its being set in a diagram apparently about the night sky? Why green stars?

Might the ‘seventeen’ lines of text describe seventeen brightest stars in the zodiac?

(I saw no reason for such a ‘zodiac’ or ‘luni-solar’ diagram within the context provided by the diagrams adjacent to that on folio 67v, but if you’d like to test the possibility, here’s a link which might help).

“Sun of night”

The diagram on folio 67v seems technical, but its stars are linked with a leonine ‘sun’ and not with the moon so we appear to have what could be described as a night sun.

Cornelius Agrippa’s ‘sun of night’ is off the board as reason for this diagram. He wouldn’t be born for another half-century after the Voynich manuscript was made.

On the other hand, Agrippa’s ‘occult’ studies were pursued in Toledo where, as Luigi Pulci attested in the early fifteenth century, traditional north-African and Islamic customs deemed ‘magic’ by Latins, were being openly taught and demonstrated. What Agrippa would later study in Spain, many others already knew when the manuscript was copied.

This made it worth considering another possibility. Though it proved a dead-end, this may save another researcher’s wasting time.

I considered whether the stars on folio 67v mightn’t relate to the series of lunar mansion stars in some way, and possibly via the ‘dot patterns of geomancy, but though some medieval Latin manuscripts refer to asterisms by drawing a few dots within a border, there’s no ‘seventeen-fold’ system which applies either to the 28 manzil or to the geomantic ’16’- so far as I could discover.

However, since I mentioned interlocking wheels of the ‘Enigma-machine’ earlier, here’s a thirteenth-century divinatory device in which the lunar mansions (here 28 in number) are correlated with the dot-patterns of geomancy – geomancy being one of the subjects about which Agrippa would later write. d’Imperio also mentions it.

astron and geomacy combined device 13th Mosul Savage SmithFound in North Africa the device is  believed brought from the eastern Mediterranean. Its dials correlate the 16 geomantic figures with sixteen of the twenty-eight lunar mansions. (British Museum, Department of Oriental Antiquities, Inv. No. 188.5-26.1. Detailed analytical studies have been published by Emilie Savage Smith and Marion More.  Illustration above taken from,
  • E. Savage Smith and M.B. Smith, ‘Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth-century Divinatory Device – another look’, Chapter 8 in Emilie Savage-Smith (ed.), Magic and Divination in Early Islam. (2004)

In case any reader would like to consider the idea for themselves, here’s a slightly- altered diagram derived from one in that study noted above by  Smith and Smith. In common with the sidereal compass, the system does refer to each asterism twice – at a point of rising and of setting.

stars geomantic notae and lunar manssions correlated dial Savage Smith

Another option. An astrolabe?

On a medieval astrolabe, you might find as few as 12 stars, but the usual number was between 15 and 21, with some few magnificent instruments having many more.  One example studied by Savage-Smith includes 50, but in such a case the only way to identify stars in that diagram on folio 67v would be to locate the specific instrument referred to, or take a guess at the 17 most commonly shown on surviving astrolabes.  It might be worth a cryptographer’s time to try that, but I didn’t think it worth mine. I’ve yet to see an astrolabe with such a  ‘sun-face’ at its centre. 

  • For an overview of medieval instruments – Byzantine, Islamic, Latin – see:
    David A. King, “Astronomical instruments between East and West” (1994), and on Islamic instruments other than globes, David A. King, In Synchrony with the Heavens, I. “Astronomical instrumentation in the medieval Islamic world” and XIIIa “On the favourite astronomical instrument of the Middle Ages”: 1-110 and 337-402.

On the subject modern attitudes to the study of medieval astronomical works, King has this to say in another paper:

Considerable progress has been made over the past century toward the further documentation of the history of Islamic science by scholars of divers nationalities, with fortunately not all of them interested only in transmission to the new Islamic world (mainly from the Hellenistic world but also from Iran and India), or transmission from the Islamic world to Europe (mainly via Spain), but rather in what Muslim scholars did within their own culture between al-Andalus and India, and between Central Asia and the Yemen. 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, and the modern Islamic world is unfortunately barely aware even of that. More recently it has been discovered that some aspects of Islamic astronomy came to Renaissance Italy from Istanbul, with Jews as the principal intermediaries. What is true of ideas is also true of instruments.

  • David A. King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (paper published online Nov.24th. 2018 see davidaking.academia.edu. 

A couple of instruments have already been noted in connection with the Voynich calendar’s month-names:

  • Nicholas Pelling, Curse of the Voynich (2006) pp. 22-3. For the month-names’ being in a form of Occitan, Pelling credits Stolfi and Landini. He brought to notice:
  • David A. King, The Ciphers of the Monks – A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001. See also
  • Robert T. Gunther, The astrolabes of the world, based upon the series of instruments in the Lewis Evans collection in the old Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, with notes on astrolabes in the collections of the British Museum, Science Museum, Sir J. Findlay, Mr. S.V. Hoffman, the Mensing Collection, and in other public and private collections. 2 vols. (1932).
  • and various works by Emilie Savage-Smith.

Other Possibilities.


As a division of the sun’s year or of the lunar year, seventeen divisions makes no sense practically nor, so far as I have discovered, historically.

Canonical Hours?

Nor does that number of divisions accord with the number of the canonical hours, whether in the earlier or the later Christian centuries, in the Latin or the Byzantine church.  For this point there are many easily-accessible summaries – this wiki article will do.


Since 2010, when I first introduced this matter to current members of the Voynich online community, referring blog-readers to Tibbett’s translation of Ibn Majid’s Fawaidd, a great deal of material has been posted online about the subject and I see no reason to spare so much time explaining it now. There’s is a really superb old-wiki article, available as a pdf, on the subject of the compass-card and its winds.

This following table and commentary comes from a more recent wiki article.

I’ve corrected some of its errors, but it’s good enough as a first stage in research.

‘Kavenga’ was not the term used by the Arabs, but by some mariner-peoples of the Pacific. Interestingly Majid describes himself a a mu’allim kanaka, which does make sense in Arabic, but ‘kanaka’ means both ‘man’ and ‘navigator’ in certain Polynesian languages even today. On links between the two, I again recommend:

  • Michael Halpern, ‘Sidereal Compasses: a case for Carolinian-Arab Links’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol.95, No.4 (1986).

[wiki article, quote, start]

The “side­real” com­pass rose de­mar­cates names the com­pass points by the po­si­tion of stars in the night sky, rather than winds. Arab nav­i­ga­tors in the Red Sea and the In­dian Ocean, who de­pended on ce­les­tial nav­i­ga­tion, were using a 32-point side­real com­pass rose be­fore the end of the 10th century.[4][5][6][7][8] In the north­ern hemi­sphere, the steady Pole Star (Po­laris) was used for the N-S axis north point; a notional ‘Pole of Canopus’ for the South. the less-steady South­ern Cross had to do for the south­ern hemi­sphere, as the south­ern pole star, Sigma Oc­tan­tis, is too dim to be eas­ily seen from Earth with the naked eye. The other thirty points on the side­real rose were de­ter­mined by the ris­ing and set­ting po­si­tions of fif­teen bright stars. Read­ing from North to South, in their ris­ing and set­ting po­si­tions, these are:[9]

NbE“the Guards” (Ursa Minor)
NNEAlpha Ursa Major
NEbNAlpha Cassiopeiae
EbNthe Pleiades
EbSOrion’s belt
SEbEBeta Scorpionis
SEbSAlpha Centauri
SSouthern Cross Kutb Suhail.

The west­ern half of the rose would be the same stars in their set­ting po­si­tion. The true po­si­tion of these stars is only ap­prox­i­mate to their the­o­ret­i­cal equidis­tant rhumbs on the side­real com­pass. Stars with the same dec­li­na­tion formed a “lin­ear con­stel­la­tion” or kavenga [‘sky road‘] to pro­vide di­rec­tion as the night progressed.[10]

A sim­i­lar side­real com­pass was used by Poly­ne­sian and Mi­crone­sian nav­i­ga­tors in the Pa­cific Ocean, al­though dif­fer­ent stars were used in a num­ber of cases, clus­ter­ing around the East-West axis.[11][12]

[wiki quote ends]

Note – In practice, things were a little less simple. Some of the points here named as single stars were employed as a group – an asterism – of which the major star was one. Also important was the system by which a star was ‘fettered’ or conceptually tied to others as if one were forming a geodesic ‘path’ across the sky towards the wanted destination, but the Arabs didn’t speak of that sky-road as the ‘kavenga’.

Inclinations (not conclusions) – So far, I’m most inclined to regard the ‘pointer’ as north-pointing, and the three green stars as three bright navigation-stars of the southern quarter, though there are ones further south than Canopus.

Here’s how the southern circumpolar stars look to someone in the southern hemisphere. (To find Polaris, follow the Milky way past alpha Centauri and then keep going in below the horizon for a fair way. You can’t miss it..

Chambers of the south Crux Sulbar

photo below – page from a copy of one of Ibn Majid’s works. No further information was provided – sorry. Note the manuscript’s size – only 15 lines to the page. Unlike the Voynich manuscript, this shows no evidence of any aversion to ruling out, to ruled lines or to use of the draughtsman’s compass, signs of which are all surprisingly uncommon in Beinecke MS 408.

manuscript Majids

  • G.R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese: being a translation of Kitab al-Farawa’id fi usul al-bahr wa’l-qawa’id of Ahmad b. Majid al-Nadji.

Postscript: Majid was from the Azd tribe, it is thought, and for the period we’re considering, a south Arabian dialect such as Mahri would not be impossible, though it is now almost extinct.  A script not unlike the Voynich script is also known from early southern Arabia.  It has been found inscribed on palm-leaves and is referred to as zabur –  ‘psalm’- script. However, this script includes an ‘x’ shaped letter as the Voynich script does not.   Since the following is only for illustration, and I gave full details when first posting it to ‘Findings’, I won’t add this to the bibliography. 


Next post : ‘Sun of Night’ in medieval Ireland and Spain. Green stars in medieval France and since I won’t be referring to the Arctic, here are some nice images of the Arctic’s ‘sun at night’ from the ‘Bad Astronomy’ blog.

Though I brought formal training and thirty years experience in a relevant field to the study of this manuscript’s drawings and have gained another thirteen years’ desultory research experience since then I still can’t claim to know enough yet to have formed an all-encompassing ‘Voynich theory’. All I have is an opinion from conclusions drawn from the data so far.

To be continued…

Next post – Ways of seeing: Stars in the Latins’ tradition.

What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’


Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.