Conundrum – can readers help?

Two previous


THIS is another aside, but research into medieval calendars, computus, astronomy and astrology involves palaeography and the history of notation, so it isn’t too far off topic.    A detail mentioned in ‘Chronological Strata Pt 1’ (Feb. 5th., 2020) raised a few questions, for two of which a Voynich writer has offered his opinion. What is needed now is some source as verification, and means to have light shed on the usual ancillary questions.

Here’s the diagram again.

The two questions I asked help with at Nick Pelling’s blog were the simplest: 1. Why is the ‘3’written in this form? and 2. How should we understand that ‘gate’ under the diagram?

to which JKPetersen (alone) replied, saying::

The symbol above the 3 indicates that it is an ordinal. It is the third diagram. Ordinals were written in many different ways (with a, with o, with m, with 9, the “us” abbreviation). You can see examples of ordinals in the VMS quire numbers.

If you go to folio 9r a couple of pages later, you will see the number 4 with the same symbol above it, to represent the 4th drawing. The same with the one following, which is the 5th drawing.


The “gate” emblem is a Nota symbol. The double-cee shape with a line over it is an early-medieval way of writing the letter “a” (omega is sometimes written that way too, but in this case it is “a”).

So to break it down, to make it easier to interpret it… you have N (the fence-like shape), T (the upright shape on its right-hand side), the “o” (obvious), and the “a” above it.

He’s putting emphasis on either the diagram above or the paragraph to the right, but since the text underneath the Nota symbol is erased, it’s hard to tell which.

-for which interpretation I am very grateful; it seems entirely credible to me.

Various Voynich writers (including the present one) had earlier written or posted about the history of number and numerals.  Petersen’s contributions can be found on his blog.  See e.g.  ‘Latin’s “Om-age” to Indic Numerals’, voynichportal, Nov.5th., 2017.



Apart from one slight problem – the Harley manuscript is not an early medieval manuscript, but thirteenth-century – Petersen’s interpretation does, as I say, seem reasonable to me.

Unfortunately, though, he could provide no secondary source or reference work in support, so I’m now asking if readers can think of any.

I’d already asked about, and consulted the usual standard references before asking those initial questions at Pelling’s blog.  What I’d been looking for was some perspective on the range and period over which these forms occur – whether  Scot invented the ‘gate’ form, or  whether it is attested only in England or Paris or Toledo (or common in all of them), and whether the -3- with that ‘omega’ is found only in Latins works and so on. This I’d expected to learn from the secondary studies. It is surprising how little attention is paid in histories of mathematics, notation, and palaeography to forms for writing ordinals.   Bischoff, for example, offered just this (p.176):

In early medieval manuscripts the numerals are set between points in order to stand out. In rare cases suprascript strokes are added (without change of meaning). 

In evidence for which, he cites Mallon and, later Bruckner on the point that this practice lasts only until the 12thC.   The suggestion occurs that if the Harley text is a close copy of Scot’s then Scot was inclined to use near-archaisms.  One would need to consider the evidence, in either case.  Bischoff also refers to Hill’s tables (1915)-  which are still used today as a convenient if less-than-representative survey.

  • Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (CUP  1990)
  • G.F Hill, The development of Arabic numerals in Europe: exhibited in sixty-four tables.  (Oxford, Clarendon  1915).  A copy from the microform is now at the internet archive).
  • A contemporary review of Hill’s work, by L. Longworth Dames in Man, Vol. 15 (1915), pp. 143-144  comments that “the representation is very unequally distributed among the nations of Europe, German examples being in excess of all others, followed by those of Italy and the Netherlands. France, it is surprising to find, is hardly represented at all…[and].. it would be of great interest if more evidence could be obtained from Spain… for the close association with Arabs in the peninsula would (prima facie) lead us to expect a closer resemblance [there] to the Eastern forms for the cyphers than that found elsewhere in western Europe”.
  • Louis Karpinski, among others, has written more on the practices in medieval Spain (where Scot obtained the text of al-Bitruji’s text) and done something to address earlier failures to include Jewish astronomical sources.    An interested reader will find Karpinski’s papers easily enough.

Numerals in Medieval texts vs Voynich manuscript.

As far as Beinecke MS 408 is concerned -an apparent absence of numerals from the main text has puzzled researchers for many years, though the quire numbers have been discussed of course.

On that subject, the seminal study (once again) is Nick Pelling’s, in his book of 2006 (pp. 15-21). Pelling’s approach became the model subsequently imitated and sometimes elaborated, but study of the manuscript’s quire numbers has not seen any qualitative improvement since then, so far as I can discover. (Do correct me if you know better).

The difficulty with all the instances which followed Pelling’s effort – again, so far as I’ve been able to find mention made of them – is that so many Voynich writers do not so much define the parameters of  research  as e.g. ‘Find the range over which  numerals occur in this form and see where the Voynich sort fit’  so much as ‘Assuming that my Voynich theory “x” is right, how can the quire numbers/images be argued to support that theory?”  When the parameters of investigation are pre-empted by the conclusions on which the researcher is already determined… well, you can finish that sentence for yourself.

This, of course, is the quintessential ‘Voynich flaw’ and has infected Voynich writings since 1912 – being naturally inherited thereafter by writers adhering to one of the traditionalist narratives.

Without being conscious of the shift, Voynich writers tend, for these reasons, to not so much explain the intention of the text itself, as to propound or elaborate upon their theory, using ‘clips’ from the manuscript as illustration.  This habit is far less noticeable in the linguists and cryptographers, but has been pervasive in approaches to, and assertions about the manuscript’s pictures and the many historical-fictional narratives.

That inherited flaw by which a theory is made the aim and focus of research is magnified by certain peculiar ‘dicta’ the effect of which is especially noticeable in what is said and written by core-conservatives and various traditionalists, viz. that alone among those claiming to treat of scientific, historical (or even art-historical) subjects,  a Voynich theorist need not refer to any precedent study, not provide any details of secondary sources they’ve drawn from … except in such such manner as they please.   In extreme cases, even details of what manuscripts  provided the theorist’s illustrations and ‘clips’ are absent and requests for such information – revisionist take note – are not rarely met with every sign of offence.

Some exceptions occur, of course, and Pelling’s custom is to provide documentation of the usual sort.

I’m sorry to say that my asking JKPetersen for details of his sources resulted in expressions of indignation, too.  The work of tracing just how the study of one or another ‘voynich idea’ has taken hold is made unusually difficult by such such things too.

As far as I can discover, the Voynich quire-numbers still await some solid, objective study.

Though Pelling’s book is out of print, his views can be read online.

Note – Recommending Voynich writers..

My practice is to recommend Voynich writers who are –  so far as one is able to see in the ‘Voynich fog’ –  the original contributor of some item or line of enquiry – or  because their writings show a consistently fair treatment of their readers and a sense of perspective: I mean, an understanding that a researcher is not necessarily so interested in a particular theory as in sources of evidence and the lineage for some particular element within the study – a contribution, assertion, canonised myth or popular ‘weed-seed’. An historian of voynich studies is constantly obliged to ask (sometimes soberly, sometimes incredulously) ‘Where did that idea come from?’

My referring to a given Voynich writer has nothing to do with whether or not I agree with their theory or opinion.  I not only differ from Pelling on many points, but on some disagree emphatically.  His definition of and discussion of “parallel hatching”, for example, is wrong, so that the inferences he takes on that basis are also wrong.  As what I suppose one might describe as a “small-t” traditionalist, Pelling’s basic assumption is that the manuscript’s content expresses European knowledge and material culture.  But he plays fair with his readers and answers requests for things like precedent studies and useful sources.

I do not refer my readers to Voynich writers (or indeed any writers) of the sort I think of as  ‘stone-soup men’.  To put it differently and if you’ll permit my quoting from something Einstein said :…

One should guard against inculcating … an idea that the aim of life is success, for a successful man normally receives from his peers an incomparably greater portion than is deserved by the services he has been able to render them. 

Every writer is perfectly entitled to prefer one source over another. I do not think it fair to any reader to present information derived from external sources or for which precedents exist, without honest account of them given.


Skies above: Chronological Strata – Pt.1

Two previous:

Header image – detail from a portrait of Gian Francesco II Gonzaga.

STOP PRESS (Feb. 6th., 2020) – anyone who decided to check out the ‘horoscopic charts’ rumour… you can drop it.  A specialist in the history of astrology, astronomy and cosmology has just said plainly that that the Voynich month-folios do not accord with any type of ‘horoscopic chart’.

I’m waiting on his permission to quote and instructions on his preferred form for the acknowledgement.

I guess whoever dreamed up that “horoscopic charts” fiction – sorry,  ‘theory’ –  just didn’t care too much if it was true or not.



 The ‘Skies above’ series so far..  transmission affect

We have seen that in Mediterranean art, and then in that of western Europe to 1438,  representation of the unclothed female body occurs within certain definable limits both in terms of regions and of eras  and further that Panofsky had pointed out – rightly, and as early as 1932 –  that in the art of western Christian Europe (i.e. ‘Latin’ Europe) the unclothed ‘shapely’ female form does not occur until the fifteenth century.

In 1932, while he still presumed the whole to be (as Wilfrid had asserted since 1912) the work of a single western author, Panofsky altered his date for the manuscript from ‘perhaps’ the thirteenth century on to the first decades of the fifteenth, precisely because of its ‘shapely ladies’ and its palette, as Anne Nill reported:

[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky] became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century … but as he came to the female figures in connection with the colours used in the manuscript he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!

(for details, see post of Feb. 13th.2019).

However, and before the manuscript had been radiocarbon dated,  Panofsky had woken to the possibility that the date for composition of the content and that for manufacture of our present manuscript might be separated by a considerable (if unspecified) length of time – in other words, that it was not an autograph at all. He actually widened the implied gap between content and manufacture in what John Tiltman reports as a direct communication – presumably offered in the 1950s but some time after Panofsky’s meeting with Friedman.

In a later paper, Tiltman writes,:

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10.

Had the manuscript been both manufactured and first composed  “within twenty years of 1500” it might (in theory) have been possible, still, to argue the “shapely ladies” sections, including the month-folios, a product of Latin culture, but Panofsky clearly considered the content ‘much’ older than 1480-1520 and having as we now do, a radiocarbon range of 1404-1438 and understanding that the clothing in our present copy is a late addition to it, so  the implication is unavoidable that the ‘ladies’ folios had their origins somewhere else.  “Much earlier” does not mean a few decades; in contemporary usage, in this context, it implied the content’s origin  “centuries older” – taking us back to before the fifteenth century and emergence of shapely unclothed female forms in western European art.  I  agree – although, for reasons explained in the post of January 10th, I  do ascribe the ‘lewd’ additions to the month-folios to some later draughtsman during the last quarter of the fifteenth century.

The implication of Panofsky’s statements when considered in sequence, went unnoticed and in 2009 even to speak of the work as a compendium whose material the copyists had from  different exemplars was to meet with uproar and derision, as the present writer discovered.  Only during the past four of five years have we seen a lessening of the old emphasis on  ‘the author” and growing (if oscillating) acceptance of the manuscript as a compilation..

Gian Francesco II Gonzaga

Traditionalists had simply assumed the manuscript an autograph – that is a manuscript inscribed by a single ‘author’ – because there had always been ‘an author’ in the Wilrid-Friedman tradition, and, until a few years ago,  “naming the Latin author” was still the chief preoccupation.  For the core-conservatives, who emerged in the early 2000s, and gained an increasingly louder voice from 2010, there had to be an ‘author’ and preferably one who was ‘central European’ and connected in some way to the Imperial line.    The cryptographers wanted ‘an author’ for different reasons, chiefly because Friedman had framed engagement with the manuscript in terms of a battle of wits between himself and some brilliantly ingenious Renaissance male. The type certainly existed. See e.g.

For the revisionist, though, the more important point is that any substantial gap between first enunciation of an image and its subsequent copying provides evidence of transmission and this can be very helpful in establishing origin for the first enunciation and thus the image’s intended meaning.  Of what this may imply  for the written part of this text, we’ll speak later. Much depends on whether a section’s written text is as old as first enunciation of its images.


Transmission affect.

Shifts from one historico-cultural context to another leaves evidence of that event  even if the older image is one revived in the same region.   Think ‘gothic revival’ for an obvious example.  In the same way, a Roman copy  of a classical Greek statue will evince both the maker’s ‘Roman’ character and that the model had been made by an older Greek; in a nineteenth century Englishman’s copy of an Egyptian image we see both the nineteenth-century Englishman’s way of seeing and a hint of the Egyptian scribe’s.   ‘Ways of seeing’ are the result of a specific time, place and community and are extremely difficult to erase, replace, or imitate precisely ..  as any forger will tell you.  The later copy points us to the earlier place and time of origin… if you know what you’re looking at.

(and this, by the way, is where most theoretical narratives for the Voynich manuscript fail; they assume the images infinitely compliant – as Aztec one day, German the next, Italian the day after, or sixteenth-century or nineteenth century…)

Very little of the  Voynich manuscript’s imagery “reads” easily for people accustomed to our present, European, tradition –  because the majority aren’t expressions in that tradition. Conversely, the reason that some few details – such as the late-added clothing, the central emblems of the month-folios, or the supposed ‘castle’do seem accessible and for that very reason have received attention massively in excess of the percentage they represent.

To recognise  evidence of transmission is rarely as simple as recognising the difference between Opus Francigenum and ”gothic revival‘ and requires the viewer to know enough to recognise the significance of small details – which is exactly why forgers still manage to fool enough people, enough of the time, to make fortunes.   The important thing is that the copyist should have attempted to copy, rather than to replace or re-express the images from his exemplar.  We are fortunate that, in the Voynich manuscript, most of the images appear to be driven by a desire to copy  with near facsimile exactitude.  I say ‘most’ because we have to deal with various layers, some post-dating the vellum’s range and a few (chiefly in the bathy- section) where the copyist had thought he could improve on the original. The rapidity with which that hand vanishes re-inforces the overall sense that the initial desire of those involved in the fifteenth-century copy was to have everything copied exactly.  (The couple of ‘improvements’ in the bathy- section might, conceivably, also be due to some term’s being ambiguous  as e.g. ‘passage’, ‘basin’ or ‘channel’).

Then we see a different attitude affect the work – the one I call the ‘prude’.


Chronological layers. Separating layers of transmission affect is akin to the archaeologists’ removing a site’s levels of occupation and is similarly described as strata: in this case, chronological strata because one may assume changes in cultural context always attend the passage of time.

In this series, I’ve already mentioned some discernible strata.  As I read it, the sequence maps  – counting down from the latest/uppermost:


#1 – (Last quarter of the fifteenth century. post-production). the ‘lewd’ additions.

My reason for assigning these details – not all of which are lewd in themselves – to the last quarter of the fifteenth century were explained in the post of  January 10th., 2020.

In this context I might repeat an item from a couple of posts to Voynichimagery, namely that it might prove worthwhile to ask if there is any correlation between  items so marked in the month-folios and the  ‘Dies Aegyptiaci’.

At the time I wrote those posts I knew of no previous mention of that subject in Voynich studies – that is, no precedent – but afterwards a reader kindly let me know that someone had mentioned the topic “on the first mailing list or somewhere”.  I regret not having had time to follow up that remark.  For the record my posts to Voynich imagery were:1. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Lamentable days’ (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017) and    2. ‘Lamentable days’ -Recommended reading’, (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017).Among the references I provided then were…

  • Ginzel, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie , 1:204-12;
  • Sebastian Porceddu et al., “Evidence of Periodicity in Ancient Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18 (2008): 327-39
  • W. R. Dawson, “Some Observations on the Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926): 260-64;
  • E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic (London, 1899), 224-228.

I bring up this point again here because at least one figure recovered from Naucratis shows an exaggerated pelt, comparable in its dimensions to that seen in the ‘Venus’ miniature in the Ambrosianus manuscript  – and we must never forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s content was, in some sense, Egyptian. To quote from Neal’s translation of Baresch’s letter of 1637:

In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts …. He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Note – Neal reads Baresch’s phrasing as indicative of hypothesising but I read it as emphatic – “in fact, it is easily conceivable…’.  this being Baresch’s reaction to Kircher’s dismissive response  after receiving copied folios earlier sent by Baresch through a Jesuit known to both of them.  Kircher had published an appeal to the public for materials helpful in Kircher’s efforts to explain Egyptian hieroglyphics.

On Naukratis see..

  • Alexandra Villing, Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt (a British Museum Catalogue). see the Museum’s website.
  • The ‘Egyptian days’ are otherwise termed Dies aegri , -atri , –mali , -maledicti, -ominosi , -infortunati and -tenebrosi. Some of the Latin sources appear to be accurate; though others are wildly imaginative/theoretical.


folio 116v.  It seems (at least to me) that a line of marginalia on folio 116v might belong to the same time (i.e. last quarter of the fifteenth century) and possibly to the same hand as the ‘lewd’ additions.  According to Anton Alipov’s translation the writer of the marginalia on folio 116v was inclined to coarse expressions .


Stratum #2 – the ‘prude’.  post-copying – possibly before binding ( c.1430)

It may be unfair to describe as a ‘prude’  the person who had some of the figures overlaid with heavy pigment.  Whether he was the painter, or an overseer, he may have been merely of sensitive or modest disposition.  Often called the ‘heavy’ painter, he is distinguished from the ‘light painter’ since Nick Pelling observed and commented on the distinction.

‘Light-‘ and ‘Heavy-‘ painter.

After drawing attention to the ‘heavy painter’ and ‘light painter’ painter  in Reeds’ mailing list; Pelling spoke of the matter in his book (2006) and thereafter in various posts to his blog as e.g. this from 2017,  in connection with ‘labellese’ and codiciological issues.   While this passage sounds as if Pelling is speaking about the central emblems, he means any figures on the specified diagrams. I’ve added clarification in square brackets:-

To my mind, the most logical explanation for this is that the colourful painting on the light Aries [ i.e. April #1 diagram] was done at the start of a separate Quire 11 batch. That is, because Pisces [March-] and dark Aries [April #2] appear at the end of the single long foldout sheet that makes up Quire 10, I suspect that they were originally folded left and so painted at the same time as f69r and f69v (which have broadly the same palette of blues and greens) – f70r1 and f70r2 may therefore well have been left folded inside (i.e. underneath Pisces / f70v2), and so were left untouched by the Quire 10 heavy painter. Quire 11 (which is also a single long foldout sheet, and contains light Aries, the Tauruses, etc) was quite probably painted separately and by a different ‘heavy painter’: moreover, this possibly suggests that the two quires may well not have been physically stitched together at that precise point.

quoted from: Nick Pelling, ‘Voynich Labelese‘, ciphermysteries, September 3rd., 2017.

What Pelling had not realised was that his distinction sheds light on that broader issue of ‘authorship’.


Stratum #3 ‘The Modest’ clothing & the central emblems. (added in copying c. 1400-1430)


Before that final heavy overlay of pigment, some effort had been made to provide some of the bodies with covering using pen and light wash, but without altering the look of the limbs or obscuring the bodies’ form.

In my opinion, this pigment was added after completion of the original copy, but in all probability by the fifteenth-century copyists. I would not rule out the possibility that a precedent for the line-drawn clothing existed in the nearest exemplar (which I would date not later than the second or third quarter of the fourteenth century) but I’ll treat the style of this line-work in another post.

Central emblems

As I explained when treating the central emblems, in 2011-12, I think they are fifteenth-century additions gained from a tenth- or eleventh-century text available to the copyists, and preserved in Spain or in France, but in my view probably the latter and perhaps in Fleury. Just for the record I add details for two of my studies.

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Of Fishes and Fleury’, voynichimagery, (Oct. 27th., 2012);  ‘Crosseyed feline and red splash’ ibid (Oct. 29th., 2012).

Postscript – (Feb. 8th. 2020) A reader upbraids me… and it is true that I should have mentioned here that signs of alteration within the central emblems allowed me to date their adoption to the fifteenth century. I have explained this, with the historical, archaeological and literary evidence in posts to voynichimagery.  There had been no analytical studies of the central emblems, but my conclusions failing to suit the traditionalist model, alternative efforts soon appeared.  I would maintain, still, however that e.g. the standing archer figure had its origins in the eastern Mediterranean, came west in c.10th-11thC and was first adapted for Christian use in glass made for the new ‘gothic’ windows, but the form of  its bow in the Voynich manuscript indicates a fifteenth-century adaptation, the bow being (as I explained from the usual sources) being  a particular,  light, wooden, double-lock crossbow used by marines and the type of mercenary  recorded in the rolls for Calais as a ‘Saggitario’.  The proverbial type continues to be known to as late as the the writings of Cervantes, he associating it with the earlier Aegean.

Since then, Koen Gheuens has provided a superb study of the way the calendar’s oddly formed ‘lobsters’ were disseminated from France through Alsace between the 13th-15thC.  Gheuens begins with  the books on astronomy which Scot produced in Sicily.  It should be kept in mind, though,  that before Scot went to Sicily, his study of mathematics and astonomy (including astrology) had been pursued in Canterbury and at the University of Paris, whence he travelled to Toledo and worked with the Toledo school of translators, completing in 1217 a translation of  al-Bitruji’s .Kitāb al-Hayʾah, entitling his translation De motibus celorum. Moses Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation was completed in 1259.  In the works which Scot produced in Sicily are images whose details show him familiar with non-mainstream astronomical lore, usually described as ‘Berber’.  Thus, connection to Scot is not inconsistent with Panofsky’s attributing the manuscript to ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and believing it presented as a Jewish work.  But do see:

Since 2012 there has been much put online which aims at illustrating German and/or French zodiacs, to support ‘national’ theories of the manuscript but  Gheuens’ post is one of the few pieces of original analytical research.  Darren Worley’s valuable work and his supplementary comments were published by the late Stephen Bax, whose site is now corrupted and all the comments erased.

Scot’s ‘de motibus‘ is included in a compilation (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 1) with a very tasty provenance.    Here’s a detail.

items from northe

Clothing –  dating and placing… 

Much that has been written about the clothing is flawed by an idea that what is found in one time or place has occurred nowhere else.  This idea infuses most of the  ‘national’ theories for the Voynich manuscript, focused as they are more on asserting their theory proven by such means and choosing so narrow a range of comparative material that no other view is possible.  There is also the habit of treating the heavy overpainting as if it can date or place the manuscript’s  ‘national character’.

To show why such methods are flawed, I’ll provide a contrasting example and since the unclothed figures also include some with headwear, demonstrate the fact that headwear of similar types  were to be found earlier and over a very wide geographic range.  The few seen below  show the padded band, the band-and-veil, and the ‘mural’ crown, in  works from north Africa to northern India, and from the 4thC BC to 3rdC AD.    In fact, it is the unclothed forms which tell us most about the text’s origin and character..

Upper register (left to right) Hellenistic figurine 3rdC BC;  Indo-Greek sculpture Gandharan period; coin of Carthage 350-270 BC.  detail from folio 80v. Lower register: detail from Louvre Ma590 ‘Three tyches’ dated c.160 AD


…. to be continued…