O’Donovan notes #7.2 If this is your answer, tell me again – what was the question?

c.1850 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

additional image added 27/06/2022

Having cross-examined the historical worth of an initial impression – in the present case that the diagram in folio 85r(part) shows a woman in Scandinavian-influenced dress and a male in Chinese-Mongol dress- we now draw back and pause to review the information gathered in the course of the research, setting aside anything which cannot be said with reasonable certainty to faithfully translate the intentions of the first enunciator. A true understanding of that person’s ideas, not our own, makes one’s research of use to future scholars, and this is also why one cites sources and precedents.

On balance, I think we can say no more than that the female figure does wear a type of overdress/apron attested in northern and western Europe, and that the male orator does wear a form of garment commonly worn in northern- and eastern Asia. There is much more one might say, but whatever falls short of being demonstrably true as answer for each research question is material which must be left aside – temporarily or permanently.

In this case the question to be answered was – if you recall – “How is the drawing meant to be aligned or oriented?” And to that question, the answer consonant with the historical and art-historical evidence is that the drawing as we have it is ‘south-up’ and the figures are intended, by their dress and posture, to represent the world’s quarters.

How rarely this manuscript’s drawings have been approached in a way that drawings normally are can be understood by realising that not a single person,* though the century from 1912 – 2012 had noticed the figures’ dress or the first enunciator’s intention to localise them by that means.

not a single person – to the best of my knowledge. For reasons I won’t try to explain, various arch-traditionalists have expressed intense personal hostility towards very idea of finding and properly crediting precedents. The usual habit, with the rise of theoretical narratives since 2010, has been to block efforts to establish what precedents ought to be mentioned, to ignore the original contributor of repeated information and/or to cite some later but more congenial individual’s writings, original or not. If it causes Nick Pelling embarrassment to be singled out as one of few exceptions, that can’t be helped.

When I first explained that the female figure wore Scandinavian-derived costume, some people expressed extreme pleasure, only to express equally keen indignation on being told that another wore Asian dress, pretty accurately represented.

I do think this drawing has been strongly influenced by knowledge of Isidore’s Etymologies but see no reason why any medieval person able to make translations from Arabic into Hebrew or into Latin could not translate between any other of those two languages. Every slave learned at least the language of his captors. Travellers and courts needed interpreters. One medieval traveller mentions meeting in Egypt a resident Spanish Jew who could speak and read in seven languages. We’ve noted an Englishman translating for the Mongols and a German slave* who surely knew that language too.

But having now demonstrated clearly enough, I hope, that an understanding of these drawings needs a good deal more than “two eyes and commonsense plus an active imagination”, but can require information only gained from archaeology, medieval history, art history, the history of costume, economic history, surviving artefacts, not to mention literary- and religious texts etc.,, readers will have taken the point about analytical-critical method and won’t need that point laboured by repeating here the work done on all four figures.

Summary for the last two:

The character for West again agrees the wind’s utterance in Walters MS 73, derived in turn from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.


Zephirus vel FavoniusTellurem floribus orno,” or “I adorn the Earth with flowers.”

I hope readers will forgive, but for most of what follows I’ll just quote passages from the detailed analysis summarised in posts to voynichimagery in January 2015. I’ve seen no reason since then to alter my conclusions but only matter which has served to confirm them.

In what follows you will see, I hope, that Matthias Wille’s recent suggestion of “a physician” is one with which I can nearly agree, though whereas he associates this stoppered bottle with urine bottles, I found that bottles of this type are attested only in other uses relating to pharmacy (and in that way to medicine). Note also the figure’s headband, the character written on its breast, and use of the one-covered-shoulder motif which in medieval Latin iconography signifies the wanderer, the pilgrim, or the traveller to/from distant lands.. Here’s some of what I published in January 2015.

WESTZephirus vel FavoniusTellurem floribus orno,” or “I adorn the Earth with flowers.”

It may be tempting to assign this quarter to the chap with the lily, but instead we have here again a deliberate pun, and an Isidorean attitude to etymology.

The word ‘tellurem’ in the [Walters MS] wind-wheel’s caption to Zephyrus is quite rightly translated as ‘Earth’, but the term comes from a root which also provides words having to do with things borne, or carried.  What the Zephyr brought were gentle breezes, scented with flowers and originating (as Dionysius Periegetes tells us) from the sea of that proverbially perfumed land, Arabia.

“each sea has its allotted wind… the Arabian [sea has] the zephyr..” (v. 929–930)

The bottle which the Voynich figure holds is rightly seen as holding medicine, or more exactly the scents-as-medicine originating in distant Arabia. If you consider the Sawley map you find the Angel of that [Zephyrus’] quarter is again identified with the angel of medicine, Raphael, who holds the box which served as emblem for the healer in iconography of the older, eastern Christian Mediterranean.

It is also appropriate that in the Sawley map, Raphael is located over the region from which that new medicine had come into Latin Europe, viz. North Africa and Sicily, and so into France, ]and Norman England] and Spain.

If associating Zephyr with Arabia and with Sicily seems paradoxical to a modern reader, it was acceptable to older peoples, for which again Pareigetes may be our witness:

Each sea has been allotted a wind, the Sicilian Sea the western wind, which they also call Zephyr… (v. 401–402);

edited from research summary oublished by D.N. O’Donovan, as ‘A Reply.. Pt 2’ voynichimagery, Jan. 5th., 2015.
  • English translation of Dionysius Periegetes’ text by Ekaterina Ilyushechkina, in ‘Spatial Orientation in the Didactic Poem of Dionysius Periegetes’,  Chapter 9 in Klaus Geus, Martin Thiering (eds.), Common Sense Geography and Mental Modelling,  Max Planck Institute for the History of Science [preprint 426] 2012. (pp.131-139)


In this case, in my opinion, the maker has known the South wind as Notus rather than as Auster and taken the sense of it – though again referring to the Etymologiae – from the contemporary type of the Notary whose seal (ring) makes a document binding. For that occupation, Isidore had not used the word ‘Notary’, but says in Book Five:

“And to seal a testament is ‘to put a distinguishing mark’ (notare) on it so that what is written may be recognized (noscere, ppl. notus)” (V.xxiv.6)

The date and regions that saw the modern sense of ‘notary’ emerge are relevant to our study:

c. 1300, (English) notarie, “a clerk, a personal secretary; person whose vocation was making notes or memoranda of the acts of others who wished to preserve them, and writing up deeds and contracts,” from Old French notarie “scribe, clerk, secretary” (12th C.) and directly from Latin notarius “shorthand writer, clerk, secretary,” from notare, “to note,” from nota “shorthand character, letter, note”. Meaning “person authorized to draw up and authenticate contracts and other legal instruments” is from mid-14C.

Isidore prefers to name the wind from the south Auster, but then says of it:

“It is called νότος [notos] in Greek, because it sometimes corrupts the air (cf. νοθευέiν “corrupt, adulterate”), for when Auster blows, it brings to other regions pestilence, which arises from corrupted air. ……” )


It is possible that in the Voynich figure here occupying the South quadrant the reader was intended to see an allusion to Egypt’s Mamluk rulers (1250–1382;1382–1517) since Isidore elsewhere defines nothus [with theta] as ‘One ..who is born from a noble father and from an ignoble mother, for instance a concubine. Moreover, this term is Greek (i.e. νόθήος) and is lacking in Latin.”

Franks (Latins), Mongols, Mamluks and Arabs would represent the four governors known to Mediterranean world during the Mongol century.

Place and Time – the constant questions.

Thus, while few among the drawings in the Voynich manuscript reflect the customs, graphic conventions and languages which inform drawings first enunciated in medieval Latin Europe, this drawing comes close to doing so. However the elements in the drawing we’re considering which are not consonant with an all-Latin origin are significant elements, especially the south-up orientation and use of what I agree (adopting the suggestion made by L.L. on June 3, 2022 ) is akin to the ‘fly-whisk’ as emblem of ownership and governance – these being, across much of the world outside Europe, equivalent to those flags and standards by which Europeans signalled possession and rule of lands. So – to give just one two instances.

Here is signifies the unstoppable rider ‘on the wind’ this shorter version signifying a trophy or victory. Except that here the reference is only to conquest of lands, it is not unlike the Romans’ symbolic use of an aplustre.

13thC image of a Mongol ruler as Perseus, whose name means ‘the slayer’.


“Chinggis Khan now held all Mongolia, having subjugated all the tribes of the Mongolian steppe. To guarantee his right to rule over the entire country … he ‘set up a white standard with nine tails.’

UNESCO, History of civilizations of Central Asia, Vol 4 (p.255)

As with the final changes made to the Voynich map, here again Latin influence indicates a period during the Mongol century for first entry into the horizons of Latin Europe of most matter now in the Voynich manuscript and indicates a mediation and effort to translate the original works.

I will add, though I won’t elaborate on it in this series of posts, that each of the four figures in the diagram from folio 85r(part) has a non-zodiacal astronomical association too. It is the documented history of that other system’s sudden emergence in fourteenth-century Europe which adds to our reasons for offering the Mongol century as the date at which most of the manuscript’s matter – at least its drawn matter – first entered the Latins’ horizon.

As an amusing detail – the position of the Notary’s hand is that used for the ‘manicule’ in medieval manuscripts, its meaning: ‘take note’. The earliest attested manicules appeared in the Domesday Book, the exhaustive survey of England carried out for William I in 1086.

Geoffrey Ashall Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book alleges that it was “found in early twelfth century (Spanish) manuscripts.” The revival of classical learning in Europe saw the manicule become popular again too. Given that this diagram’s East figure is given a thumb and five fingers, it is interesting that Petrarch’s manicules did the same.

Over the following three hundred years, scholars aiming at an oratorical career read Cicero and law manuals, populating their text’s margins with such ‘Take note’ hands, usually drawn just as a fist with index finger, as is the hand for Notus in this diagram.

O’Donovan notes #7 – Range is Balance (Pt 1).

c.4000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Voynich studies has seen a continual stream of imaginative quasi-historical storylines invented for the manuscript since 1912 when Wilfrid began trying to re-sell it.

Though each of those narratives was contradicted by the next, by historical fact, and by the primary document itself, nearly all have been thought plausible by a larger or smaller band of believers.

To show how this curious situation, which continues to this day, is due to a now-habitual “Voynich method”, I built that same method into the studies of two figures from folio 85r.

What I wanted to demonstrate was that any theorist feeling enthused about some idea, and adopting that idea in advance of any actual investigation will be biased from the outset, re-defining ‘good’ information to mean information they think lends their idea greater credibility and ‘bad’ research as work whose conclusions oppose their theory.

Selecting the former while constantly blanking the latter inevitably results, of course, in that writer reaching a conclusion consistent with their expectations but built on so narrow and biased a range of data that it cannot do other than misrepresent the content in this manuscript.

Far from being the first to look critically at their own ideas, promoters of Voynich storylines have proven, from 1912 to 2022, the most easily misled believer in their audience. It’s not due to personality; the pattern shows the problem a flawed ‘Voynich method’ so doggedly maintained that against it even the primary document protests in vain.

So now, to specifics.

In treating the female figure I adopted the traditionalists’ habit of beginning as if I just *knew* what the conclusion of research would be before starting to do that research. In effect, I was attempting to give an air of credibility to an idea, where the analyst aims at making a balanced assessment of the drawing and the available evidence.

By the end of that post, therefore, I had adorned that first ‘idea’ with official-looking quotes which – without actually presenting any case – suggested to readers that this drawing could only be a product of my arbitrarily-selected region, nationality and period. That is, late twelfth-century England

If you re-read the post Note #6i (cont.) with a properly critical eye, I hope you’ll notice how fairly obvious questions were slid-over or waved aside. Such as:

  • What do you mean by ‘England’? Define ‘England’ in terms of geography and of time.
  • Apart from England, where do we find evidence of Scandinavian-influenced dress surviving, and over what sort of temporal range?

As I’ve mentioned before, most questions aiming at an analytical-critical study of images are of the ‘where-and-when’ as well as the ‘why’ kind.

The habit of imagining that what is attested in one time and place can exist at no other time or place is absolutely characteristic of Voynich theory-narratives and another habit persisting throughout the study ever since 1912. The more traditionalist the theorist, the more you can expect their narrative riddled with that notion. It is the whole foundation for some of the most publicised Voynich narratives today.

What should have been done, in the first of my two studies, was not to chase evidence likely to persuade others to believe a ‘London’ theory, but to ask questions framed in terms of range e.g:

  • Over what range – in terms of culture, and time and geographic regions – do we find evidence of women wearing clothing of such a kind?

And the researcher must be prepared for disappointment as well as satisfaction; the results of research may be unexpected; they may show that the sought-for information has not survived the passage of time.

Restoring the Balance.

Not all the omissions and errors produced by that ‘Voynich method’ can be balanced out by this one post, but I’ll do what I can as briefly as I can.

Questions of influence.

Linguistic, political and cultural influences are three distinct factors in historical studies as in the study of artefacts.

Creators of Voynich storylines habitually treat the three as synonymous, though it takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that .a speaker of English may wear French fashions; that you may learn to speak one language and later speak one or more others; that territory now part of France (for example) may have been dominated, at different times, by the mores of Scandinavia, of England, of Spain, and/or of the Papacy. Linguistic, cultural and political influences are not one and the same.

It will be convenient to use a few maps and quoted passages to illustrate the changing patterns of influence in the far west from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. Unless otherwise stated, the maps are from wiki media.


In 911 AD.. the French King, Charles the Simple, offered land to Rollo in exchange for his loyalty to the king of West Francia…

That Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte granted Rollo and his soldiers all the land between the river Epte and the sea “in freehold and good money”. It also granted him Brittany “for his livelihood.”

That was the origin of the Duchy of Normandy. of which Rollo was the first Duke.

The initial grant was extended by further grants and Rollo’s descendants created the area as coherent political entity during the course of the 10th century.

As late as the early 11th century Normandy still retained political and economic connections with Scandinavia and Scandinavian settlers in Britain and Ireland.

edited from an entry on the ‘Viking Archaeology’ website.

By late in the 10th century, before William’s conquest of England, the situation was as shown below, with the French king’s domain here coloured blue, and Normandy (Normandie) and Brittany (Bretagne) having strong historical links to Scandinavia. At this time Calais belonged to Flanders.


The lands granted Rollo are now within the rights of William, conqueror of England.

Territories of William I of England, including dependency of Brittany

Replying to “What language did the Duke of Normandy speak in 1066? ..” Stephen Tempest replied to another member of Quora:

Norman French. This was a dialect of French that was similar to, but not identical with, the French spoken in Paris.

A notable difference is that Norman French had several words beginning with W- which in standard French start with Gu- instead.

The obvious example is the name of the Duke of Normandy himself: in Parisian French it would be Guillaume, but he used the name Willaume, Another example: the word ‘guerre’ in standard French was ‘werre’ in Norman French, and became ‘war’ in English.

Norman French also had several loan-words from Norse, which were not found in standard French. These included the dialect words for ‘sand-dune’ (mielle in Norman, dune in French) and ‘small island’ (hommet in Norman, îlot in French).

To this evidence of Scandinavian viking influence in the west we must add place-names. I’ll take Normandy as the sample:

A common place name ending in parts of Normandy is –tot, from the Norse word tóft, meaning the place of a farm. In modern Icelandic we have the word tóft, which is used for the visible ruins of a farm structure, but is also known as a homestead name. There are at least 589 places in Normandy which end with suffix tot. Another particularly common is the suffix -londe with 269 places ending with the -londe or -lont suffix from the Norse word lund, which translates as clearing. There are several places with the lundur ending in Iceland, including Bjarkarlundur in the South Westfjords.

Place names with Norse roots are most common near the coast and along the river Seine.

Other common Norman place names of Scandinavian origin are –hogue from the Norse haug, meaning hill or mound (more than 100 examples) and –dalle from dal, meaning valley (over 70 examples).

from an article in Iceland magazine (Nov. 19th., 2015)

So, altogether, Normandy is one region where we might expect some lingering influence from earlier Scandinavian populations.

Movements of people, and areas where multiculturalism is attested are also relevant and since we’re now looking at both sides of the Channel, it’s important to take note of lands that were not subject to the French king, especially ecclesiastical domains, because they attracted displaced persons. For example, when Edward I of England expelled all Jews in 1290, some sought protection there.

LATE 12th – early 13th CENTURIES

The map above is not quite accurate. By 1204, Montpellier – for example – had become part of the kingdom of Aragon.

From even so much information, it becomes clear that the geographic range in which we might find that combination of influences earlier described is not limited to Scandinavia, London and the Danelaw – or even Ireland and the western Isles – but should also consider the Channel’s southern shore – at the very least along the coast between Flanders and Cap de la Hague.

It is also within the period between the 11th-13th centuries that we must place the flourishing of Flanders cloth industry. A good basic outline here. Take note of the role played by both Genoa and Venice.

Within that coast, matters connected to the Voynich calendar make England’s possession of Calais, in Picard* country, important.

The term “Picardy” was first used in the early 13th century, during which time the name applied to all lands where the Picard language was spoken including territories from Paris to the Netherlands. In the Latin Quarter of Paris, people identified a “Picard Nation” (Nation Picarde) of students at Sorbonne University, most of whom actually came from Flanders.

‘Picardy’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

For two hundred years – that is from a hundred years before until more than a hundred years after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was made, Calais was not under English occupation, but was an English possession such as Gibraltar is today – as the city’s local historian, Philippe Cassez, reminded Nicholas Montard.

Within the region we may describe as Picard country, Calais was English territory from 1346 until 1558.

The city was made ‘English’ in the strictest sense in 1346 by the expulsion of its inhabitants, a matter of some sensitivity today, and a good example of why using just a single source or single utterance from an ‘expert’ is very poor practice.

The wiki article ‘Pas-de-Calais’ in English is no more than a translation of the French article, the latter written by someone evidently so patriotic that their account of the region’s history ‘blanks’ those two centuries of English possession.

Another scholar, attempting to minimise the awkward facts of Edward’s behaviour on taking Calais, writes this:

… some of the French were expelled and English settlement was deliberately encouraged. Thenceforward, the town’s officials, garrison, and merchants were almost exclusively drawn from the [English] homeland. Its strategic significance was as both an outer defence for England and a base for campaigns into France… It was heavily defended, often housing 1,000 troops alongside a civilian population of c.5,000. It also played a key role as the staple through which all exported wool had to be directed. As a result, its company of merchants became increasingly powerful in the government and financing of the town.

Ann Curry, in The Oxford Companion to British History.

I’m focusing on regions where we can posit a lingering Scandinavian influence together with English influence and a textile-industry because I maintain that the informing words for the female figure on folio 85r are reflected in the utterance given the NNE wind in Walters 73 and that the figure is designed to convey an habitual association of ‘clout’ with ‘cloud’. My post ‘Understanding the Woman’ was intended to illustrate the limits and bias of the conclusion-before-research method now habitual for Voynich writings and objectively so odd. My aim was not to invent information or misinterpret the figure’s meaning.

A third site shows less restraint in speaking of Edward and fails to appreciate that medieval attitudes won’t be those of a modern person, but does mention that in medieval Calais more than one language was spoken.

We may suggest that as well as English and Flemish Picard and Chtimi might have been heard in its streets:

Although he had spared the citizens’ lives, Edward evacuated [sic] the city and populated it with English people. Calais was used as a ‘staple’ that is a warehousing town for the distribution of wool exports and a means of collecting taxes levied on wool. Calais was thought of [sic] as part of England and even [sic] sent representatives to the House of Commons. …

Historically part of Flanders, the Pale was bilingual: English and Flemish were commonly spoken

Ward’s Book of Days. The author’s contact address begins ‘engliteessays’. 🙂

Now, while one ‘evacuates’ a population from care for its welfare, the fact is that the French were not ‘evacuated’ but expelled and there is no evidence at all that Edward felt any concern for their welfare. Nor (as we’ve seen) was Calais ‘thought of’ as part of England; it was part of the English domains. The author seems to imagine there was something unusually gracious about the fact that in English Calais, the English were entitled to representation in the house of commons.

These things are why I would not use any one of those three sources as an only source: range is balance.

Another glance at the linguistic divisions. This map per Andrew Oh-Willeke‘s blogpost (July 25th., 2019) where details of the original source are as given.


England with Burgundy – 1339-1415

1339-1415 AD

1426 AD

1426 AD

So – that was the situation for people across this region before and during the time when the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was being made, and probably inscribed- though where that happened is still unknown.

Since the diagram on folio 85r (part) uses graphic conventions which are very nearly – if not entirely- consistent with those of Latin Europe, it seems reasonable to begin re-considering the woman’s dress within those areas on both sides of the English channel where Scandinavian settlements co-incide with the later Norman and Norman-French, not least because aspects of the Voynich calendar also direct us to that region. I’ll touch on those calendar matters later in this post.

Traditional labourer’s costume.

Here we meet a problem. The sort of people who commissioned illuminated manuscripts in medieval Europe weren’t interested in what labourers wore at work, and not for centuries later would it become fashionable to romanticise and ethnograph-ise rural ways and clothing.

The illustration (left) shows a reaper in a version of court costume, with a foreign-looking hat. Even exceptions to the rule, such as the representation of labourers in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, generally show peasants well fed, shod, and dressed with not an apron in sight before Colomb’s contribution (e.g. to the calendar’s ‘September’).

It is therefore unrealistic to expect (though one may hope) that any grand manuscript produced around the time the Voynich quires were inscribed will include a reliable portrait of the costume worn by members of the labouring class.

Sadly, we can’t rely either on what is now classified as a region’s traditional costume. The later romanticism which created the hideous Gothic Revival style in architecture, and saw the invention of hundreds of allegedly Scottish tartans by the woolen mills of Bradford also informs the choices made when a regional folk-costume was being defined.

From the late eighteenth century, but especially during the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, urbanites armed with sketch-pads – and then with cameras – began travelling through western Europe recording what they imagined was regional and national dress. Some were doing this to assist fashion-houses get new ideas; others looking for quaint images to issue as post-cards. Others again, infected with post-Napoleonic national pride, formed clubs dedicated to preserving their ‘ancient’ rural traditions. Mayors and town worthies, on seeing the books and pictures, promoted one form of local costume as definitive for their region.

What such collectors and officials often failed to notice was that, faced with having their portraits made, the country people hadn’t worn their everyday clothes but their best ‘Sunday-go-to-meeting’ wear and finery of a kind never worn but at weddings, funerals and days of high holiday.

Most costumes today described as regional or national dress are of that kind. In Germany, the opposite happened. Leather shorts once widely worn in medieval Europe as hard-wearing workday clothes came to be imagined, in societies formed in Munich and other cities, a ‘festival’ costume unique to Bavaria.

All of which means, for us, that attempting to discover where, and over what area, some form of traditional Scandinavian costume survived to inform the Voynich drawing is very difficult indeed. But one can try.

If this project were one undertaken professionally, I’d begin by making an appointment with conservators in a Museum having a section dedicated to the history of costume. But experience shows that even the opinion of someone from the Getty will be howled down and decreed ‘off-topic’ in Voynich arenas if it opposes a currently-popular traditionalist narrative.


Since we know that Scandinavian, Norman- English and French influence affected the southern coast of the English channel from Flanders to the Cap de la Hague, we might begin there.

Picardy (political region).

Described as Picard dress, that on the right is associated specifically with Calais in works produced after 1850. Evidently the wearer might choose the long apron or the short, the elaborate headdress or the worker’s cap. Neither wears brooches.


At some time before the seventeenth century, Normandy’s women adopted the shawl, and even the poorest now wore some version of it with working costume, as with more formal dress. What they wore in medieval times is uncertain.


Gaugin painted these Breton girls in 1888.

And from no-where near the Channel, but from Bresse in Burgundy, we have these two spinning women photographed for a postcard printed in the early decades of the twentieth century, possibly after the first World War..

for the whole image see http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr/fr/contenu.php?idcontenu=48http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr/fr/contenu.php?idcontenu=48

The costume on the right evokes the style of Scandinavian dress in the viking age, but is not closely similar to the drawing we’re investigating. The spinning woman to the right isn’t wearing a full apron, but a bodice and waist-apron. Our drawing doesn’t include the typically Scandinavian strings of beads or chain, where the later costume does. And while the older spinning woman certainly wears a round brooch, the younger is wearing a cameo or photograph hanging from a black ribbon.

What the photograph does indicate is that it was possible to find surviving over more than nineteen hundred years and a distance of more than a thousand kilometers, remnants of the old Scandinavian customs. That they should survive in Burgundy is not unreasonable. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

“The Burgundians were a Scandinavian people whose original homeland lay on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, where the island of Bornholm (Burgundarholm in the Middle Ages) still bears their name. About the 1st century CE they moved into the lower valley of the Vistula River, but, unable to defend themselves there against the Gepidae, they migrated westward to the borders of the Roman Empire.

Even so, we don’t actually know anything about that the woman on the right. For all we know, she might be the older woman’s Scandinavian daughter-in-law, or a seasonal worker brought in from Picardy, or a descendant of some family of textile workers brought south from the Low Countries late in the fifteenth century, after Dukes of Burgundy took possession of them. She may be a person displaced from one of those towns which had been all-but-destroyed during World War I. The only reason we have for believing her dress traditional in Bresse is that the photographer apparently believed it was.

That photo is evidence, but not evidence of what was worn by a spinner or weaver in medieval Burgundy. What turns us back towards the Channel is information from earlier Voynich research.

Jacques Guy and Jorge Stolfi first suggested that the month-names in the Voynich calendar might be Occitan. Artur Sixto urged Judeo-Catalan, and more recently a writer whose name I cannot discover insisted they reflect a dialect spoken in the region of Belgium and the Low Countries.

Nick Pelling first noticed that a closely similar orthography occurs on an astronomical instrument made in Picardy for England. The same fact and same source was later noticed by Don of Tallahassee. These things have since been repeated, sans attribution, by numerous theorists who prefer their readers to imagine those contributions original to themselves. This habit has come to be a hall-mark of team-spirit among some theory-groups, and most prominently of the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory group, a few of whom treat published research as street-urchins might treat a market-stall.

Here are the month-names in the Picard dialect as written today: ginvié January; févérié February; marche March; avri April; mai, maï May; join June; juillé July; aout August; siétimbe, sétimbe September; octobe October; novimbe November; déchimbe December.

Here I must add that in considering the old military rolls of Calais I found the first known instance of a crossbowman’s being called ‘Sagittario’.

UPDATE (June 24th., 2022) – Koen Gheuens, who has studied formally the subject of historical linguistics, has very kindly given me permission to add the following:

I would be cautious with those month names. People claim with equal confidence that they are southern French or northern French, and there seems to be a lot of confusion. I am yet to see convincing evidence for either region. When I asked a professor of French linguistics about this some years ago, he said that the material was simply not sufficient to determine a region. I do think determining a region should be possible, but so far the evidence is minimal. It should be possible for someone who is at home in historical French texts, regional evolutions in French dialects, and has a lot of spare time though.

Koen Gheuens, pers. com.

Most recently, Koen Gheuen has tracked the Voynich-style eight-legged ‘lobster’ from Norman Sicily through northern France (near the Belgian border), and even further – to as far as Alsace.

  • Koen Gheuens, ‘Homard à l’Alsacienne’, The Voynich Temple herculeaf.wordpress.com (November 11th., 2018)
  • Koen Gheuens, ‘ A network of faulty lobsters: Scotus, Cantimpré, Megenberg and the Voynich Manuscript’. (December 11th., 2018)

Though sheer serendipity, I happened on another example of the ‘faulty lobster’ a couple of days ago. An infra-red map of a detail in a painting dated probably c.1263-4, and made by Margarito d’Arezzo, shows a lobster with eight legs and two claws. The image is part of a video discussing the National Gallery’s restoration of the oldest painting in its collection. Here’s the detail. For close-up, open the image in a new tab.

screenshot from ‘How we uncovered the secrets of the Gallery’s oldest painting’ – video by London’s National Gallery. The infra-red image is seen at 5:53. This faulty lobster has 8 legs *and* two front claws.

Notice of bias – I’m strongly biased in favour of conservators and other such tech’y Museum types. If I have to choose between getting the opinion of a librarian, an historian or a conservator – I’m sorry to say that my innate bias will incline me towards the last.

Margarito d’Arezzo made that painting during the lifetime of Thomas of Cantimpré, and only twenty years after the latter’s most famous work, “Opus de natura rerum” had been completed – 1244 AD, So there’s no chronological problem about positing connection to Cantimpré’s ‘faulty lobsters’, nor even to Michael Scot’s.

Thomas of Cantimpré was initially a member of the religious order of Canons regular and was later ordained a priest. He studied and lived in Liege, in Cologne, in Louvain and in Paris. In 1240 he was made a Professor of Philosophy at the university of Louvain. “Opus de natura rerum” is his best-known, but not his only composition.

In the centre of the larger work, d’Arezzo placed the Virgin and gave her a crown in which German and Byzantine elements are combined, intending (in my opinion) allusion to the rulers of Sicily and thus to the emperor’s cause (the Ghibelline cause), to which his city remained always constant.

What allows us to harmonise the findings of those several Voynich writers’ earlier-named is not insistence on a particular nationality or first language. The fact that is that all Europe had a single language in common – Latin – and it was in Latin language that knowledge was disseminated across all of western Europe. Chief among the centres of learning when the Voynich manuscript’s quires were formed were the Universities of Paris, Bologna, Padua and – as we’ve seen) Toledo.

For people living at a distance from Europe, I add a few more maps to finish this post.


I wanted to include a revision of the ‘East’ figure from folio 85r, but with this post so long already I’ll refer to just one point: in one of the few remaining written accounts of the Mongols, a Latin writer describes how their garments are tied and remarks that they have a collar and ‘fasten on the [wearer’s] right’. The person who first made the drawing, if living in Europe might – quite simply – have misunderstood.

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

c.3200 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

Continuing a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll be as brief as I can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for notes and references, see following post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emblematic detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Qaidu II who ruled from 1272 to 1301 AD

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

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

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

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


For winds in the eastern quadrant, we have:

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

* for ‘Austroafricus

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

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

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

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

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


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

Voynich astronomy – note

For those exploring drawings in Beinecke MS 408 that suggest connection to star-lore, calendars and/or meteorology, I want to draw attention to Tzvi Langermann’s having now uploaded to academia.edu the following paper.

  • Tzvi Langermann, ‘From My Notebooks: Studies on the Hebrew Geminos: The Chapter on Weather Signs’, Aleph 10.2 (2010) pp. 357-395.

I have had reason to refer to Langermann before.

For earlier mentions in this blog search ‘Langermann’ and ‘Sassoon’.

I’d remind amateur readers who may have been told by one or more Voynicheros that to cite sources and precedents is ‘unnecessary’ that this Voynich meme is not one to obey. If your work has drawn from earlier research and conclusions – no matter by whom – to omit, fudge or re-assign to a crony the credit for that work is ruinous to any field of study and, in the longer-term, to the reputation of any would-be Voynich expert as well that of everyone connected to Voynich studies.

I wouldn’t be adding this caution here if I didn’t think Langermann’s paper important or if plagiarism weren’t now rampant among particular sectors of the Voynich community. I do think this paper is important; have already referred to it in speaking of the anwāʾ in posts to voynichimagery, and in this blog I’ve mentioned other items of Langermann’s research.

Longer-term readers may remember why I closed public access to voynichimagery.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*passage was reproduced in earlier post.

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

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


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

Consider… Maths & memory Pt 1.

Four posts in one. Take your time. Hope to see you in a month’s time.

Afterword (Feb 7th., 2022) – Yes I *know* that Maur misunderstood the nature of that ‘squaring the circle’ problem. That’s rather the point and why I said ‘in a way’.. but that passage nicely illustrates three points (a) early medieval learning went from the accepted canon to consideration of the ‘pagan’ information, not vice versa; (b) the Psalter served as the primer in early medieval education and was the constant foundation and point of reference for building higher studies and finally (c) the mere existence, or possession, of a book doesn’t mean the book was fully understood by those who owned or had access to it – something as true for medieval as for modern times.


One thing to emerge so far, while tracking use of the simple ‘4’ shape as a numeral – and we haven’t yet begun to track its use as an alphabetic form – is that, before the Voynich manuscript’s date-range of 1404-1438, it has been found only among the commercial and working classes of the south-western Mediterranean, and chiefly in the Majorcan kingdom with its Jewish cartographers and residents of certain maritime and trading cities of Italy – Venice not being among the earliest to show it.

Since that particular short-stemmed and angular ‘4’ shape, as a numeral, appears earliest in that region and it was also in the south-western Mediterranean that Kabbalism flourished among sectors of the Jewish population, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it is not surprising that there might be in matter now in the Voynich manuscript, as Erwin Panofsky thought, ‘something of Kabbalah’.

NOTE – throughout these posts I mean by ‘the Mediterranean’ the greater Mediterranean, containing all the waters from the Black Sea to Gibraltar. The ‘south-western’ region is defined as west of Sicily, between the coasts of Italy and of north-west Africa.

Nevertheless, aspects of the manuscript’s drawings and codicology make clear that wherever and by whomever the current content was put together to make Beinecke MS 408, much of the copied material originated outside the Latin domains.

I would hope that, in the third decade of the twentieth century, Voynich researchers will have no difficulty accepting a possibility which earlier Voynich writers found inconceivable – that is, that the manuscript may have no direct connection to those texts which for Wilfrid, Newbold, the Friedmans, d’Imperio and others moulded by nineteenth-century attitudes, defined the scheme of Euope’s intellectual history.

Fixation on ‘high culture’ as on ‘high society’ was for many decades a mental barrier to the manuscript’s proper study – and its effects linger. This is why (for example) no other form of art save manuscript art, nor any type of manuscript save in the official herbals was ever considered when attempting to read the Voynich plant-pictures, despite the fact that even within Latin Europe vegetable images appear in a variety of forms, from attempted naturalism to the fantastic and in media as diverse as stone, wood, embroidery, gem-engraving, and frescos.

Nor should we now, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, maintain another idea long outdated in historical studies – namely the idea that nothing foreign could enter Europe’s mental horizon unless some Latin went elsewhere, selected and ‘fetched’ it, or at least acted as a sort of customs agent at the gate of a non-existent ‘white-walled Europe’.

It is now well-known, if not widely admitted in works for the general public of Europe and America, that medieval Europeans were not rarely passive beneficiaries of information, ideas and goods conferred upon the west by ‘foreigners’.

Nominating some single Latin figure in the role of sole agent and gate-monitor has a long history in Europe. Nestorian Christian works, for example, were often attributed to one John of Damascus; Gerard of Cremona was (and still is) credited as if author of translations from Arabic, Hebrew and other languages though the translations are known to have been made by multilingual Jews and Muslims, and the same works to have been translated previously or subsequently without any such ‘monitoring eye’.

In this way, too, the English nominated Roger Bacon, and the Germans a semi-mythical ‘Meister von Kriechenland Niger Berchtoldus’ to substitute for the Chinese as responsible for Europe’s acquiring knowledge of how to make gunpowder.

The habit has been as consistent as it has proved persistent. It is solely to serve as such a ‘gatekeeper’ between Jewish Kabbalism in north Africa and the Iberian peninsula on the one hand, and the Latins of mainland Europe on the other, that Ramon Llull has been imagined as knowing anything of Kabbalah, and why – despite the testimony of Leonardo of Pisa that knowledge of Arabic numerals and their calculation-methods was already known in ports of North Africa from Bejaïa to Egypt, and “Syria, Greece, Sicily and Provence” in all of which (as he says) he studied it in connection with his family’s trade in eastern goods, Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) is nominated sole ‘gatekeeper’ for the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals. The difference was that by producing a book about it in Latin, rather than in the vernaculars in which most ‘second-tier’ writings were produced, Leonardo’s ‘Liber abaci’ facilitated the establishment in Italy of specifically ‘commercial maths’ classes of the sort in which he had been trained elsewhere.

As one reviewer emphasised when reviewing an English translation of the Liber Abaci:

“Use of the advanced Hindu-Arabic system of numerals, [was] gained through Fibonacci’s commercial connections in North Africa and the Levant… It must be remembered that Fibonacci’s home city-state of Pisa had an extensive mercantile fleet operating in, and beyond, the Mediterranean to Byzantium.

A. F. Horadam [review of] “Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci”: a Translation into Modern English of Leonardo Pisano’s Book of Calculation by L.E. Sigler (Springer 2002).

If the hand which wrote that ‘4’ form in the Voynich manuscript was accustomed, already, to write the numeral in that way, the probability is strong that he (and ‘he’ is statistically more likely) is more likely than not to have belonged to a social and intellectual class beneath that of Latin Europe’s political and learned elites and to have had a direct link to the interests of those who were either engaged in the type of maritime trade that brought exotic goods (termed ‘spices’) from the Black Sea, Byzantium or ports of Egypt and North Africa, into Italy or, on the other hand, in naval service as was Michael of Rhodes.

In this context of multilingualism, sea-journeys, trade, exotics, favoured nation status and scripts, I think I should here again quote from a late fifteenth-century account that I quoted first some time ago when considering the possible implications of Baresch’s phrase “‘artis thesauros medicae Aegyptiacos”. In the present case it is especially relevant to note which maritime cities had favoured status in the ports of Egypt, and related issues of multilingualism and translation in such exchange. And, of course, resources for any possible alphabetic substitution cipher.

We have already seen how casually the author of one zibaldone refers to the trade in exotics from Alexandria as example for a problem using the ‘new math’ and Michael of Rhodes’ use of that simple ‘4’ shape for the numeral before 1440.

In Alexandria I saw four large fondaks [warehouses, Lat: thesauri], one for the Franks and another for the Genoese .. and two for the Venetians..

re: Misr [Cairo].I swear that if it were possible to place all the cities of Rome, Milan, Padua and Florence together with four other cities they would not, the whole lot of them, contain the wealth and population of Misr, and this is true…

In Misr there are many fondaks … a thousand and more warehouses in each fondak.. There is nothing in the world that you do not find in the fondaks of Misr…

If you ask how I could converse with the interpreter [when in Misr].. the interpreter is of Jewish descent and came to Misr to return to Judaism, because he is a Spaniard.. He knows seven languages – Hebrew, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, German and French.   ..

The Karaites’ script is different from all others, and they have not the letters ayin, he, aleph, or het, bet, tsade. .. {The Hebrew alphabet uses 22 letters; the Karaite thus only 16.]

from a Florentine ms. translated in  Elkan Nathan Adler, Jewish Travellers (801-1755), London: Routledge (1930) pp. 156- 208. cited passages p.162; 166-7; 171. First cited in connection with Voynich studies in D.N.O’Donovan, ‘ ” …thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” Pt1’, voynichimagery (blog), July 6th., 2013. The account is by Meshullam Ben R. Menahem of Volterra, in 1481 AD.

That account was given by a Jew of Volterra in 1481. The map below shows it in relation to Genoa, and to Florence, the cities with which the rest of this post will be concerned.

  • What is known from the records about the Jews of Volterra is reported in the Encyclopaedia Judaica under ‘Tuscany‘.

If indeed there is anything of Kabbalism in the Voynich manuscript, it is most likely to have come from the south-western Mediterranean and there is no necessity to explain its entering the Latins’ mental horizons by attributing any knowledge of Kabbalah to Ramon Llull. The reasonable explanation is that since Kabbalism was Jewish, knowledge of it was conveyed across the religious divide by Jews and was by them directly explained to a few Latins – willingly or otherwise – by refugees, corresponding scholars, Morescos and/or as newly-created converts serving as translators. The great wave of assaults against the southern, Sephardi Jews in 1391 finds a parallel increase in Jewish presence in Italy, Dalmatia and elsewhere.

An example may be in order before moving to consider the ‘commercial math’ classes in fourteenth- and early fifteenth century Italy and two Italians named Paolo, one of whom lived in the fourteenth and the other in the fifteenth century.

Example – Ha-Kohen and Lippomani, and a fifteenth-century hand.

We know, certainly, that one Italian ‘renaissance’ scholar living in Venice before 1430 wished to learn both classical Hebrew and the dialect of the Moriscos or Arabic-speaking Spanish Jews, the dialect known as Judeo-Arabic. We still have letters explaining the ‘grammar’ of Judeo-Arabic, the teacher being one Isaac ha-Kohen, a resident of Syracuse in Sicily and the student Marco Lippomani. A typically snide remark by Filelfo allows Kokin to date this exchange to a period before the 1430s; that is to the years in which the Voynich manuscript was made.

  • Daniel Stein Kokin, ‘Isaac ha-Kohen’s Letter to Marco Lippomano: Jewish-Christian Exchange and Arabic Learning in Renaissance Italy’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (SPRING 2014), pp. 192-233.

Here again, I might mention that the form of the Voynich month-folios’ month-names was argued Judeo-Catalan by Artur Sixto. I quoted that comment which Sixto originally left at Nick Pelling’s ciphermysteries in an earlier post to this blog (here).

Script in a different fifteenth century Hebrew manuscript referenced by Kokin is shown below (n.114).


Fibonacci and Commercial maths.

To illustrate how the influence of commercial maths schools would expand in parallel with the rising importance of the merchant classes between the time when Leonardo of Pisa produced his ‘Liber abaci’ and when the Voynich manuscript was made, I take the works od two men named ‘Paolo’. Born a century apart. both were mathematicians whose careers flourished in Florence.

The first was born in Datini’s city of Prato about forty years after Leonardo (Fibonacci)’s death. The other was Florentine by birth. He, being born in 1397 and living through the period when the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was made (1404-1438) is of especial interest for us.

This second Paolo died a year after that description was written of the situation for traders in Alexandria and Cairo.

Two men named Paolo.

The first would be known best by his nicknames: “Paolo dell’Abbaco” and “Paolo the Surveyor” but his name was properly Paolo Dagomari.

In early adulthood he moved from Prato to Florence where for many years he taught ‘business math’ classes from the Trinity church in Florence.

In this case, as in many others where the term ‘school’ or even ‘academy’ is used, it is wrong to imagine a dedicated building like a modern school or college. We should think rather in terms of adult education classes where all that is needed is a person willing to teach and a group of voluntary students – or more-or-less voluntary depending on their age and the degree to which parental wishes were law.

Dagomari’s students were merchants and their sons. His basic text, as his nick-name suggests, was probably the Liber abaci, and by 1374-5, when Cresques’ world map was being created in Mallorca, Dagomari died in Florence having become by then a close friend of Boccacio and having seen 65,000 students pass through the course he offered in his Trinity Church ‘school’. We know that Francesco di Marco Datini, by then resident in Papal Avignon more than fifteen years, had also gained his education in commercial math in Florence, but there is no doubt at all that Dagomari taught the son of Dante Alighieri.

That connection to Dante is significant, for Dante also addressed himself to that ‘second tier’ in society, writing in the vernacular and not in Latin.

Nonetheless, Dante’s imagined journey though Hell, Purgatory and heaven in the Divine Comedy is a navigator’s sky-path along those “high roads of the sea” (to use Majid’s beautiful phase, which saw seas above and below the horizon).

As Gunter reports, Dante included in an early copy a parallel list of of Latin and of the increasingly-used ‘Arab’ star names in order that – in Dante’s words – those without Arab instruments might still follow the paths.

It is in an early copy of the Divine comedy, one probably made in Genoa, that we find certain characteristics unusual for formal art in medieval Latin Europe, but which come close to how the ‘ladies’ are represented in the Voynich calendar and ‘bathy-‘ sections.

(detail) from Bodleian Library, MS Holkham 48 p.4. Place of manufacture given as Genoa or Milan. Dated 1350–1375 AD. The text is described as written in a ’rounded Italian gothic hand’.

Points of similarity seen in this particular detail and figures in the ‘ladies’ folios of the Voynich ms include over-large heads, and relatively slender lower limbs. The ‘renaissance’ view of the human body was still unknown to that draftsman but occasionally, in the Voynich manuscript, its later date and probable Italian provenance is evidenced by a copyist’s slip which sees an occasional figure drawn little more shapely than the rest, and more shapely that the figure ought to be.

The differences between images in that copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Voynich manuscript would make long and tedious list – too long to be included here – but with regard to these bodies, an obvious difference is that in the illustrations for the Divine Comedy, the figures are to be read as ‘people’ albeit souls, and while some effort is made to avoid emphasising male genitalia, they are drawn – whereas they are not in the Voynich manuscript’s images. And while in one sense the Voynich ms’ anthropoform figures might be regarded as ‘star-souls’ and/or as the soul of a given place, there is no evidence of intention to have them represent specific people. Of course, in this, if the labels are ever read, it may be that someone at some stage did associate each with some historical character. We shall have to wait and see.

Overall, too, we have very different vocabulary of gesture in these two work, and a very different approach to use of the ‘speaking gesture’.

As you’d expect, images in western Christian manuscripts are saturated with western Christian Europe’s two great pre-occupations (one might say obsessions) – organising everything in the universe into hierarchical rankings and then defining any person, thing, or quality according to whether its assigned ‘place’ is higher or lower than that accorded another. Ask a learned medieval scholar whether composing music was a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ activity than designing a building and he’d surely have an answer. The disease of ‘class consciousness’ in Europe was not limited to the usual social classes, but it would allow a musician to look either up or down on any architect to whom he might be introduced.

That the Voynich manuscript is so glaringly devoid of such signals in its imagery is one among the many indications that the origin of its content is owed to persons and regions outside the Latin Christian domains.

There are no royal thrones, no horses, no military uniforms (save perhaps one Roman or Genoese ‘kilt’ on folio 80v). There are no figures of clerics, nor of kings. There is not a single chair to denote the teacher, nor any throne to denote royalty. Such costumes as are painted over the figures belong to a late stage of their evolution, as is also true for the cross-topped Byzantine style crown given one of the ‘ladies’. But the most resounding absences are the halo and the horse.

It is those details which are not there which have, for a century, reduced persons attempting to read the Voynich manuscript’s imagery to speculation, imagination and theory-driven narratives, attempting to assert the opposite of what any external and dispassionate scholar would say, and that many have said, viz: that they’ve seen nothing like it in the corpus of western Christian works, including the medical and alchemical texts.

In the detail shown above, the figures’ gestures are more limited in range than those in the Voynich manuscript but do (of course) speak directly to the conventions of medieval Latin Christian art, signalling such sentiments as pleading, despair, grief, remorse for sin and so on.

Gestures in the Voynich manuscript are more energetic, and the figures differently adorned with veils and classical headdress, their gestures so far outside the set of those employed in medieval western Europe’s Christian art that their meaning is still, most often, expounded only from a writer’s imagination, rather than from results of any wider horizon in their research.

One among the very few exceptions to the ‘theory-first’ approach was Koen Gheuens’ investigation of where and when we find other examples of the ‘deformed lobster’ in Europe after about the thirteenth century. He did not attempt to discover any earlier instances or define its time and place of first origin.

Despite such things, that detail from the early copy of Dante’s poem deserves our consideration, because it appears in manuscript made during the period of interest to us (1350–1375 AD); is attributed to northern Italy and probably to Genoa, one of the major maritime centres of Italy at that time.

I am NOT suggesting any direct or indirect connection between content in the Voynich manuscript and Dante’s poetry. Such a scenario was espoused, as I recall, in about 2008 or so, since when Dante’s name as been often invoked, and then dropped, and picked up anew, and dropped again in that peculiar parentless style of Voynich theories. If you’d like to re-create the lineage for that idea, you might begin from references in d’Imperio, then search ‘ciphermysteries’ and from there go through the archives of Jim Reeds’ mailing list. Unfortunately, though Rich Santacoloma promised a couple of years ago to do the same for that mailing list since the early 2000s, he has not yet found occasion to do so.

Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli

Generally believed indebted to Dagomari’s mathematics, the Florentine Paolo Toscanelli belonged to a family whose members were ( I’ll quote the wiki biography) “traders in eastern luxury goods (‘spices’) and who thus traded regularly with north Africa, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean”.

He offers one of the clearest examples of a bridge between commercial maths, surveying, astronomy, cryptography and theology and, in terms of Italian society, between the ‘commercial class’ and the rulers’. For a time he collaborated with the Genoese Gian Battista Alberti, a figure of particular interest for cryptographers so I hope readers will forgive another digression, this time to consider Alberti.

Born in Genoa in 1404, Alberti moved to Florence but his career developed late being suppressed until 1446 by the fame of Brunelleschi. Alberti, like his elder, worked chiefly for what one writer has called the “high bourgeoisie” and brought to bear the same practical and commercial mathematics on which the ‘abacco’ schools focused.

That the range included problems of mapping is evident from the nickname given Dagomari as ‘Paul the Surveyor’ and though our later example, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli is usually described as a ‘cosmographer’, his wiki biography quite rightly says that “astronomy was a close science to geography at that time”.

We know that Toscanelli was also a competent cartographer, because in 1474 he produced a map which argued for a fairly easy run westwards by sea from Spain or Portugal to ‘Cathay’. What is fascinating about that map and the accompanying letter (the map itself is now lost) is not so much their influence on the rulers of Spain and thus on Christopher Columbus, but that Toscanelli speaks of having had access not only to Ptolemy’s works but to those of the Phoenician ‘Marinus of Tyre’ – the original source which, as Ptolemy himself says plainly that he had simply edited and updated a little. Could Toscanelli have meant it? Was there still to be had a copy of the original work in Greek or in translation?


Ever since Wilfrid Voynich presented the public with the manuscript and his own imaginative description and ‘history’ for it, the attitudes and assumptions of cryptographers have greatly influenced both how the manuscript was imagined and what approaches have been taken in attempting rightly to read both its written- and its pictorial text.

It is perfectly normal and understandable – part of standard method – ift a cryptographer should consider any text as a source from which to extract a body of quantifiable data, and then to engage in a process of creating a theory and considering nothing but that theory and how well it suits his or her data-base. It is natural for the cryptograper to presume a written text deliberately made opaque, and to presume that ‘underneath it all’ there should be a nice, clear literary ‘plaintext’.

Unfortunately, once the Friedmans had effectively co-opted the manuscript’s study and assumed all other sorts of research inferior and thus necessarily at the service of their own, they created a model which not only proved fruitless in their own case, and despite 30 years efforts, but has proven equally fruitless when adopted at large by Voynich theorists who were not concerned with the written text or issues around cryptography.

The lack of balance in Friedman’s attitudes – towards the manuscript and to the work of specialists in manuscript studies, as in the history of western art – continues to affect approaches to the Voynich manuscript to this day and is particularly noticeable within that ‘bible’ of the Voynich traditionalists, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma.

It became the norm, from the early 2000s, to behave as if not only the written part of the Voynich text were ‘encrypted’ but as if everything in it were.

The cryptologists’ method was then generally adopted, that is, of first hitting on a ‘theory’ – a speculation as desired solution – and then hunting for ways in which to present that speculation as being sufficiently supported by evidence (evidence sought only within the parameters of that speculation) to deserve description as ‘plausible’ by persons who had no greater knowledge of medieval manuscripts, art, cryptography or scripts than did the person attempting to be voted ‘right’ as if by simple-headcount, social-media style.

It has not been so much as case of the blind leading the blind as of researchers first selecting a set of blinkers and then congregating according to the colour of those blinkers.

Much baseless ‘doctrine’ has resulted on the basis that it’s “widely accepted”, to the point where I was present when the edict went out (as the usual authorative-sounding but anonymous ‘meme’) that it was ‘unnecessary’ to consider any sources save fifteenth century German manuscripts.

On another occasion, the ‘meme’ asserted, in effect, that a scholar’s whole body of research might be ignored because they hadn’t made enough wisecracks.

In a very small way, I can see what that last meme was about.

Whatever their flaws and historically-inappropriate assumptions and limits, the cryptologists never treat the text casually, or produce theories to suit a popularity contest – tossing off nonsense with a gay grin and self-deprecating wisecrack.

On the other hand, I wish they would lighten up a little and give more thought to the ordinary experiences of people in the medieval world. You don’t need to find clues to Alberti’s creation of his cipher-wheel by turning to high society and theology, to Ramon Llull or Kabbalah, to understand how such an idea might have occurred to him. Why should he have had it from anyone else, or anyone in particular?

The underlying principle of such ‘revolutionary’ things as gridding maps ‘by the Rose’, diagrams associated with Kabbalism, developments in Italian architecture which brought fame first to Brunelleschi and then to Alberti, or indeed Alberti’s wheels are fairly simple and embodied in activities as old as human settlement. In this case, the construction of things formed as domes, or as globes.

Alberti didn’t have to know Llull, nor Llull to know anything of Kabbalah, though architects might well need to do, as Alberti did, and see how the dome-makers of Hagia Sophia work out problems of load-bearing and materials.

Dome, and domes composed of lattice work are still made today, just as they were in ancient and even in prehistoric times, but especially where it was important to keep watch over ripening crops.

This is how it’s done. In an area where some plant grows that produces long, flexible stems or branches, you cut and make a pile of them.

Then you trace a circle on the ground and, at regular intervals around one side, press a withy or ‘wand’ firmly into the ground. That’s the wand’s rising point.

Now, directly opposite each, around the other curve, you insert the free ends.

The lattice-pattern will appear as shadows on the ground so encompassed. At night, within the shelter, you will see the heavens ‘gridded’.

Of course, you can the cover the basic lattice, if you like, with whatever you like – fabric adorned with stars and stretched out as a tent, or something more substantial such a pise or plaster. It is not co-incidental, I think, that domes from China to the far west were customarily painted with images of the night sky.

The example shown below was made of willow wands in modern-day America.

If you need something placed at a given point around the ‘horizon’, you can nominate each space or each point with a letter, or a number, or the name of a real place on earth or (by the example of Majid’s compass-rose) by the names of stars.

But if such a dome is meant to evoke, or to represent the heavens as a dome, the question then naturally arises about how the points of that circuit actually connect with the initially matching points about the earthly horizon, when earth is imagined always stationary yet the sky perceived as wheeling over it, year by year.

As a mathematical and surveyor’s problem, that one is among the meanings embodied in this famous image of Roger Bacon.

Bust of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve 2004.

Any such problem, expressed algebraically, must begin by having one specific unknown position defined as ‘x’. What Alberti’s wheel does, in effect, is have a series of circular points of correspondence defined not as a series of ‘x’s, but as a pair of alphabetic series.

I’m not saying that this was the original purpose of Alberti’s ‘wheels’ – I’d be more inclined to think that as a mathematician his interest in ‘unknowns’ had allowed his attention to shift from purely mathematical ‘unknowns’ to issues of encrypted documents.

My point is that there may be immediate and very practical observations, rather than reliance on important figures of European history, to explain his development of those cipher-wheels and much else impacting on ideas about the Voynich manuscript – such as that the imagery must be illegible in terms of western European conventions because deliberate made obscure rather than – as I hold to be the case – because it didn’t spring from those traditions in the first place.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, the construction of domes and the idea of ‘significant number’ were both hot topics in Florence but as you see, the basics of Brunelleschi’s famous dome in Florence are pretty much the same as the rural domed shelter which country-people everywhere have been making – and I’m speaking literally – from before the first cities were built. What made their monumental versions different was an ability to do the math.

The death of Brunelleschi in 1446 brought to the fore Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Like Brunelleschi’s, Alberti’s career had long been delayed…

*Franklin, N.J., Borough schools, ‘Architecture of Brunelleschi and Alberti ..’ (pdf). I reecommend this as a very good first guide to works of Brunellleschi and Alberti online as a pdf, but one worth reading even if you’re well acquainted with their work.

And so, back to Toscanelli..

He appears in a Florentine fresco placed beside the ‘Greek-Syrian’ neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino – one must always place close attention to the headwear given figures in Latin Christian art.

Here, Toscanelli wears the head-dress of a ‘Moresco’ and his facial features appear to have been painted so as to suggest to emphasise foreign and/or Jewish antecedents. ‘Moresco’ was a termed used, as said above, to describe those Spanish Jews who still spoke and read Arabic, and/or such dialects as Judeo-Catalan or Judeo-Occitan.

I can’t compress Toscanelli’s story better than did the author of one wiki article:

Thanks to his long life, his intelligence and his wide interests, Toscanelli was one of the central figures in the intellectual and cultural history of Renaissance Florence in its early years. His circle of friends included Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the Florence Cathedral, and the philosopher Marsilio Ficino. He knew the mathematician, writer and architect Leon Battista Alberti, and his closest friend was Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa—himself a wide-ranging intellect and early humanist, who dedicated two short mathematical works in 1445 to Toscanelli, and made himself and Toscanelli the interlocutors in a 1458 dialogue titled On Squaring the Circle (De quadratura circuli).

wiki article, ‘Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli’

In one sense, ‘squaring the circle’ was not a ‘modern-ancient’ problem but one long addressed and resolved in terms of Christian theology in the west.

It was precisely how Rhaban Maur had managed to introduce ‘pagan’ Euclid into an extremely conservative monastic environment during the ninth century. His copy of Euclid had probably arrived with a recent Nestorian embassy from Baghdad, the same eastern Christians having only recently translated it into Arabic.

In what follows, I’m not only quoting matter I’ve quoted in treating the Voynich manuscript, but which I’d quoted even longer ago in connection with other medieval European images, but since I can’t just collapse the text and make it optional, here it is.


Maur began by formulating the quaestio, or problem by setting it as a problem about interpreting the Psalter correctly. Thus he begins,

“It is well that we should enquire what the Psalmist means by the circle of the earth and why, in several other places, he says that the earth is comprised of the same figure. On the other hand, in the 106th Psalm [Vulgate numbering: Ps cvii.3] he comprises the earth under four cardinal points… A very similar statement appear[ing] in the Gospel where it says: He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet and they shall gather together from the four corners of the earth”

and so, having made Euclid an aid to theology, Maur continues:

Whence it is fitting to enquire how far the quadrate and circular shapes of the earth can agree, when the figures themselves, as geometricians maintain, are different. The Scriptures call the shape of the earth a circle for this reason: because to those who look at its extremity [i.e around the horizon] it always appears as a circle. This circle the Greeks call a horizon [a word meaning ‘belt’ or cord], signifying that it is formed by the four cardinal points; these four points signify the four corners of a square contained within the aforesaid circle of the earth.

Maur understands the horizon line as a knotted cord, resembling a monk’s waist-cord with its knots, and akin to the surveyor’s measuring-cord, also knotted at intervals and worn in the same way about the waist when not in use. But the geometric figure Maur has just begun to describe is the ancient figure for the world in microcosm. He suggests as much, speaking of the ‘Eye’ as simultaneously urbis (city) and orbis (orb/circle).

So then, taking East as his primary point, just as medieval Europe’s mappamundi did, but as Cresques’ map and the Voynich map do not, Maur locates the heart of the world as the microcosmic ‘city’ saying:

  • For if you draw two straight lines from the East, one to the south and one to the North, and in the same way also draw two straight lines from the Western point, one to each of the two aforesaid points, namely the south and north, you make a square of earth within the aforesaid circle. How this aforesaid square (demonstrativus quadrus) ought to be inscribed within the circle, Euclid clearly shows in the Fourth Book of the Elements.”

And since I’ve been once more obliged to quote from my own work I’ll add here two images which I included in a post published at voynichimagery in 2017. Details of my source, which was not speaking about the Voynich manuscript, were given at the time as seen in the images below. Today, however, that address is no longer current, though the second image (still dated October 25th., 2012) can be seen, with commentary, at luwanarch .wordpress com. This is how Alberti mapped Rome.

Again, about methodologies and Voynich research –

Between 1912 until 2012 or thereabouts, the most commonly seen approach, among those hoping to ‘solve’ the manuscript was to ignore the codicological evidence, the palaeographic evidence, the materials’ evidence, all earlier independent specialists’ opinions, and interpret the images only if and in a way compatible with their initial theory, often a theory naming some prominent European as ‘author’, effectively re-defining the manuscript as a slab of written text, which despite being lavishly illustrated, was all designed by one mind to deceive.

The common practice of ignoring the manuscript’s own testimony in favour of promoting a Voynichero’s pet theory reached its peak of absurdity about three or four years ago, when another of those borne-on-air sort of memes asserted that, since the written part of the text was also now to supposed a mere nonsense – a joke of some kind – that thus might also be treated as being quite as ‘irrelevant’ as the manuscript’s images, codicology and palaeography, so everyone should just adopt one of the most promoted theories as if it were of more substance than the manuscript itself.

It’s no wonder that Beinecke MS 408 needs its few friends. Who in the world would put up with such treatment being accorded the Vienna Dioscorides, or the Book of Kells, or any other important and apparently unique manuscript?

After which grumpy remark, I propose we adjourn for now.

Gd and the weather willing, I’ll be back in 3-4 weeks’ time.