Skies above Pt 4: Past studies

Two previous:

Header image : Composite (left) Seal of KIng Sancho IV (1230 AD); (centre) Medieval gateway to the Jews’ quarter in Burgos – detail of a photo by Mikel Bilbao Gorostiaga; (right) detail from folio di Biblioteca Vaticana Apostolica (BAV)


THIS series about the month-diagrams will keep the usual format so readers can skim, or skip or read as suits them.  The order in which the themes are treated will be that of  my research-logs and summaries, written up between 2008-2017.

Present state of study

Today, theories focused on ‘naming the author’ are less prevalent than they were, but discussion of the month-diagrams continues to circle the narrow circuit it did  half a century ago, and whose furlong posts (one cannot call them milestones) are summarised below.  Failure to move forward is not  due to those fifty-year old ideas and impressions having proven true from a balance of evidence, but because tradition and repetition lends them greater credence than is deserved by any evidence adduced then or since.

Rather embarrassingly one still finds even today that assumptions infusing d’Imperio’s book of half a century ago remain unquestioned – ‘givens’ – within the study.  Among these tacitly accepted notions is that any non-Latin (western Christian) matter could occur in this manuscript only because selected by some Latin ‘gatekeeper’;  that the astronomical learning of Jews or of others save those who wrote in Arabic can be relevant only in the context of magic, astrology and other non-objective systems – and even then as imagined subject to Latin mediation.  Thus, for example, Panofsky’s reference to Kabbalah is transformed into an assumption of magical and not philosophical thought and only discussed through the prism of post-1492 works of Latin magic and  ‘Christian Cabala’.

Similarly, though the Arabs’ “lunar mansions” system has been mentioned now and then, the usual habit has been to limit discussion to what appears of it in Latin works, and to again consider it chiefly in terms of works directly related to Latin interest in astrology and magic.

There may be more serious efforts underway to investigate other possibilities apart from the theory of fifteenth-century Latin authorship and mediation, but if so they have had little effect on the culture of the ‘Voynich community’ in public.   I might say here that after having shared some of the research conducted over almost a decade, and with the kind advice and guidance of specialists in a number of areas, including Jewish scholarship,  publication of a certain work whose authors were two well-known Voynicheros, and another less well known,  and in which was included a so-called ‘Jewish theory’ which I can only describe as a parody or travesty in its abysmal ignorance of its supposed subject, and such utter indifference to fact and to cultural sensitivities that it was one of the reasons which led me to  close Voynichimagery to the public, deciding to share no more original work online except as a formal paper.

Koen Gheuens’ investigation of the  Voynich-style “lobster” in Latin works is a fine exception to the usual pre-emptive approach and offers the best evidence I know for arguing the diagrams’ central emblems relate to a tropical zodiac.

I should add that Muslim theology does consider the manazil [-al Qamar] primarily astrological in character, which view is widely found online  ( e.g. here). In English-language scholarship, it informs the works of Daniel Varisco as e.g.

  • Daniel Varisco, ‘The Origin of the anwā’ in Arab Tradition’, Studia Islamica, No. 74 (1991), pp. 5-28.

Marco Ponzi has more recently, and the present author had earlier, mentioned Pingree’s important paper in an effort to widen horizons a little.

  •  David Pingree. ‘The Indian Iconography of the Decans and Horâs’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (1963), pp. 223-254


Following the summary below,  I’ll take folio 70v as paradigm when considering the ‘barrels’.  Folio 70v  provides one ‘barrel’ for each of the anthropoform figures, and shows least evidence of later alteration, addition, editing or ‘modernisation’.

The Diagrams’ Structure

In 1932, though unknown to the majority of those interested in the ‘Bacon cipher manuscript” as it was still known, there was a moment when the fog of  speculation and over-confident assertions lifted for a moment and, for the first time, a specific comparison was made between an image in the Voynich manuscript and one in another text.  Readers may recall  Anne Nill‘s saying, of Panofsky: “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript, [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”

1932: Analogies. .

Wilfrid Voynich’s: #ff0000;”>Roger Bacon.  Lynn Thorndike objected to that assertion of Baconian authorship,  but never opposed the dating.  Today it remains a reasonable opinion that the manuscript we have is a fifteenth-century copy whose nearest exemplar/s might have been thirteenth-century.WIlfrid’s idea that the text is in cipher still has its advocates, but the point is that until the period post WWII, the usual view was that the manuscript’s content was about ‘Science’.   Newbold appears to have believed that some of the material, at least, might relate to Neo-Platonic ideas, but no researcher seems to have followed him in that opinion, or even examined the evidence for and against it.In this way, the earlier habit was to suppose the month-diagrams concerned scientific astronomy or ‘scientific’ (i.e. medical) astrology, the astrology-or-astrology option being standard then. Those ideas brought with them, as natural corollaries, the Greco-Roman system of divisions, and assumption of the tropical zodiac as default (whether in terms of the constellations or the ‘signs’).  Before the post-WWII period, few authors considered, or appear to have been aware of any alternatives.  Panofsky’s opinion may be interpreted in the same way,  but it carried other implications.
“Alfonso’s manuscript”

By “Alfonso’s manuscript” it is usually supposed Panofsky meant either Libros del saber de astronomía (Books of Wisdom of Astronomy) or  Libro de los juicios de las estrellas (Book of Judgements of Astrology), with the former the more probable.The question then is which copy he meant by ‘Alfonso’s manuscript.’King Alfonso X of Castile did not compose the Libros… (though his name serves, still, for  ‘gate-keeper’).  As the  modern title suggests,the Libros del saber… is a compilation, and we now know it was made in Burgos at the king’s command, and by Jewish scholars who translated works from their languages of Aramaic and Arabic.  Aramaic remained in use among Jews as a language of religious advice and commentary. In the eastern Mediterranean, Aramaic had been widely spoken but with the Muslim conquests was gradually supplanted by Arabic as the language of everyday life.Cross-Mediterranean trade, however, long maintained Greek as  lingua franca, and this was so too among Mediterranean Jews before the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language – c.10thC. On the matter of Aramaic, see for example:

In Arabic-speaking lands, “It is known that at an early age Jewish boys had to memorize the Aramaic translation of the weekly reading from the Hebrew Bible, and in order to understand the Hebrew original as well as its Aramaic translation, they had to memorize the Arabic translation verse by verse…. This popular background was obviously shared by Karaites and Rabbanites alike.

  • Meira Polliack, ‘The Medieval Karaite Tradition of Translating the Hebrew Bible into Arabic: Its Sources, Characteristics and Historical Background’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Jul., 1996), pp. 189-196. (quoted from p.193).

I am not concerned with linguistics. If any reader’s interest is piqued by mention of Aramaic,  Michael Sokoloff‘s work is perhaps the best place to start, but readers may want to  consider Koen Gheuens’ recent work on ‘type to token’ ratios first.  The following papers are listed, not as key texts in linguistics but because each proved either fascinating, or useful, or both.  For an instant widening of horizons, the first paper is warmly recommend to all readers.

Bibliography – Aramaic-related.

  • *Alexander Kulik, ‘Jews from Rus in Medieval England’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 102, No. 3 (Summer 2012) 371-403.*
  • Peter T. Daniels, ‘A Calligraphic Approach to Aramaic Paleography’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 55-68. In the best scholarly tradition, Daniel begins by giving the reader an outline of, and references to, previous studies on the subject.
  • David M. Bunis, Judezmo: The Jewish Language of the Ottoman Sephardim:  European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 44, No. 1, The State of Ladino Studies II (Spring 2011), pp. 22-35.
  •  Charlotte Hallavant and Marie-Pierre Ruas, ‘The first archaeobotanical evidence of Spinacia oleracea L. (spinach) in late 12th—mid 13th century A.D. France; Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, Vol. 23, No. 2 (March 2014), pp. 153-165. [A history of the dissemination of spinach. My only excuse for including this item from concurrent research into the plant-pictures, and apart from intrinsic interest is that before reaching France, spinach had come first to Iberia, and apparently straight from Mesopotamia, where in the 4thC a work written in Aramaic mentions the plant. – D.]
  • Kottsieper and Peter Stein, ‘Sabaic and Aramaic — a common origin?’,  Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Vol. 44, Supplement: Language of
    Southern Arabia: Papers from the Special Session of the Seminar for Arabian Studies held on 27 July 2013 (2014), pp. 81-87.
  • John C. Reeves, ‘Manichaica Aramaica? Adam and the Magical Deliverance of Seth’. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 119, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1999), pp.432-439.
  • Avihai Shivtiel, ‘Judaeo- Romance and Judaeo-Arabic Word-list from the Genizah’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, April 2007  34(1), 63-74.
  • Maud Kozodoy, ‘Medieval Hebrew Medical Poetry: Uses and Contexts’, Aleph , Vol. 11, No. 2 (2011), pp. 213-288. Considers 12th-14thC works from Latin (Christian) Iberia.
  • Michael Sokoloff and Joseph Yahalom, ‘Aramaic Piyyuṭim [liturgical poems] from the Byzantine Period’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jan., 1985), pp. 309-321. [More interesting than the title might suggest].
  • Geoffrey Khan, ‘The Neo-Aramaic Dialect Spoken by Jews from the Region of Arbel (Iraqi Kurdistan)  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1999), pp. 213-225.


Los Libros.. was made in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The original manuscript is lost and the earliest copy remaining is in the library of the Complutense University in Madrid. (note – 2019 – I had earlier thought this the copy Panofsky meant by ‘Alfonso’s manuscript’ but now think the Vatican copy the more likely).

Textual and iconological precedents and/or exemplars for the Libros has been treated by numerous scholars, but chiefly in the context of Alfonso’s reign and other works produced for him.   Of course, as  Panofsky surely knew the text’s origins lay elsewhere.

Manuscript copies of the Libros

The original is lost.  The  copy of Libros del saber de astronomia  in the Complutense University collection is early, dated 1278 AD, It was made in Burgos.

Others held in Spain:

  • Madrid, National Library of Spain Mss 1197  Tratados de Alfonso X sobre astrología y sobre las propiedades de las piedras  (1501 to 1600?).  (ascription ‘Alfonso X’)
  • Madrid, National Library of Spain, Mss  3306  Colección de libros relativos a astrología y astronomía, (1401 to 1600).  (digitised, Biblioteca Nacional de España , Biblioteca Digital Hispánica). Title on the binding ‘Astrologia de los Arabes’. Explanatory technical diagrams executed in monochrome, those in the later section very fine.


N.B. Access. Warburg and Panofsky.

An important check to all speculations is the practical matter of access.

With regard to the Libros… Laura Fernandez Fernandez says it well:

The Book of Wisdom of Astrology was copied for centuries. However, because it was not printed until the 19th century, its dissemination was markedly scarce, available only
to those who had access to the original or any of its copies. Thanks to the edition by Manuel Rico y Sinobas (1876) the work was ultimately made known, adapted to the intellectual scene of the 19th century, under the title Libros del Saber de Astronomía (Books of Wisdom of Astronomy).

  • L. Fernandez Fernandez, ‘ Libro del saber de astrología’,  Masterworks: Science and Art in the Museums and Libraries of Madrid, (2013). Parallel Spanish and English text.

Fernandez Fernandez is not implying that hundreds of copies were made through hundreds of years, but that  such copies as were made were made over a long period of time.

There are not many extant. Most are still in Spain,where the oldest known copy is in the library of the Complutense University.

Panofsky did not specify which manuscript he meant, and  various writers (including, earlier, the present writer) supposed he must mean the Complutense manuscript, but there is more reason to think he had seen reproductions from the Vatican (BAV) copy to which Aby Warburg was introduced in 1911.  Aviles’ paper of 1996 is helpful here.


Vatican copy (introduced to Aby Warburg in 1911)

Among secondary references listed in the BAV I would recommend:.

Four years afterwards and in Hamburg, Warburg mould meet the newly-graduated Erwin Panofsky.  Their association, and the disruptions of war, make it probable that Panofsky’s knowledge of the Libros was due to Warburg.   The influence of the one scholar on the other has been much discussed in the literature but was neatly surveyed and commented on by Elizabeth Seer‘s lecture, now uploaded at

As with other works whose origin lay in the eastern Mediterranean, those translated at Alfonso’s command had  entered Europe quite easily.  Among others which had influenced Latin thought but had their origins beyond mainland Europe and without the confines of Christian culture,  Aratus’ Phaenomena, the matter in Manilius’ Astronomica and Theophrastus’ works on plants were among the best known, even if Theophrastus’ work was regularly mis-attributed.

Dead-ends: Libro de las formas… and Picatrix

Among the lines investigated but found to be ‘dead ends’ were  Libro de las formas et de las ymagenes, and the woefully confused images in extant Latin copies of the Picatrix.*  I expect some readers will have suspected the same after my reference to the Jagelonian Picatrix in the previous post.  I confess I’m at a loss to understand why the Picatrix should so often crop up in Voynich writings and can only suggest it may be due to d’Imperio’s having mentioned it and that a copy (now in Darmstadt) was once in Rudolf II’s library – as Pingree notes in his critical edition of the Latin text.


The Libros – Excised and Modified; re-creating the central emblems …

Diagrams  in copies of the Libros differ from copy to copy, as one might expect, but the difference is so strongly pronounced with regard to the central emblems used for diagrams (see examples further below), that one has the impression each copyist was obliged to find exemplars for himself. 

One might posit that changing fashions in art are responsible, but since the oldest known copy, the Complutense, at some time had the majority of its central emblems excised, its having been the chief exemplar would seem more likely.Copyists would then have to find sources from which to complete each diagram, and the remaining copies show an effort made to use ‘antique’ emblems.The copy now in the BAV omits several of the diagrams altogether.  Among the few surviving in the  Complutense is that for the ‘two fishes’, yet the Pisces roundel is among those omitted in the BAV manuscript.In another copy (below right) the emblem owes most to Islamic style of centuries earlier, so again combining an ‘antique’ image with the modernisation evident from the background.N.B. This combination of ‘antique-ing’ and modernisation is echoed by the Voynich month-diagrams, though not equally throughout the series.  This is no evidence that those in the Vms were derived from the Complense or any other copy of the Libros but does permit the more general suggestion that, in these cases, censorship might be responsible.We have comments and drawings found in manuscripts of various sorts – including medicinal herbals –  which express disapproval for ‘heretical’ sources, some speaking explicitly of obedience in censoring specific matter – but the subject is to large to embark on its details here.
comparison of figures for Pisces in earlier and later versions
details (cont.)

IN 2010 the present writer gave it as her opinion – not as hypothesis but as the conclusion of research – that the central emblems in the Voynich diagrams represent a late phase in the text’s development, and that while most of the content appears to have arrived in the Latin domain by about 1330 AD, these emblems are among those added later ,closer to when the present manuscript was produced, and by re-employing images from a Latin source which she estimated as c.10thC in date, and possibly from Fleury.

If we could be certain about why the centres were excised from the Complutense ms, it would surely  shed more light on the nature of the emblems in the (now lost) original.  The excisions here may be due to reasons as simple as that an old manuscript was cannibalised for models to be used in the scriptorium, or stolen by someone who liked the look of them (not unknown), but given that  Panofsky also thought the Voynich imagery contained ‘something of Cabala’ one must also consider the possibility that the original emblems were removed because they showed evidence of similar esoteric Jewish themes.

Historically, the idea is consistent with what we know occurred in late medieval Iberia. A situation of that sort offers one possible explanation for the disparity between the Voyinch diagrams and their emblems, the result of which has been a disparity in their legibility for a modern western audience; the emblem is formed according to  conventions of western Europe’s visual language and more generally that of the Mediterranean world; as a result it seems easily legible while the rest of the diagram does not.  A modern reader of European heritage (direct or otherwise) interprets at first glance the image of a balance, yet is bemused by an oddly-shaped female figure in a container which could as easily be meant for a tower as a basket or tub.  This is not a draughtsman’s idiosyncratic drawing; it is a drawing whose meaning depends on a set of ideas and associations (a ‘visual language’) not our own.


Kabbalah – spelling for the word. Angelic hierarchies. Burgos and Girona.

Any researcher soon becomes aware of wide variation in the way ‘Kabbalah’ is spelled.  The writer is grateful to  Yerachmiel Tilles for posting on the subject:

If Panofsky was thinking of the culture among thirteenth century Jews in Iberia, he may have been inclined to suppose the diagrams in Los Libros…  explained the basic plan for the Voynich month-diagrams, but that its tiered figures were owed to a different Iberian-Jewish source. Even so, the ‘ladies’ in this section are not drawn in the way Jewish figures were – not even when Adam and Eve, or bathing figures, were the subject.  The Jewish works show conscious and consistent avoidance of imagery which might distract a reader into regarding human forms chiefly in terms of their sex: to put it another way they are consistently modest, as a person might remain modest in depicting children. It was this aspect of the ‘ladies’, I think, which also bothered Panofsky, who describes them as ‘shapely’ and who, for that reason, assigned them to the fifteenth-century. Panofsky, too, was a man of his time;  he too thought in terms of an ‘author’ and was inclined to date the content, as if it were an autograph, by the latest characteristics observed.

Studies in Kabbalah in thirteenth century Iberia are primarily associated with medieval Gerona (mod. Girona) but  Kabbalah was also influential in Burgos, whose Jewish scholars translated so much of the Libros .

For Kabbalists of Gerona and Burgos at that time, see:

And as the complex vision of the celestial hierarchy entered western Christendom from a non-canonical source (Pseudo-Dionysos), so too its suffusion through Jewish medieval thought was owed to the non-canonical Jewish works of Kabbalah.

It was also contrary to Jewish custom to depict angels winged, or figures which were half-human and half animal.  It is to Jews of the eastern Mediterranean that the west owes its depiction of Sagittarius as a fully human, striding or standing bowman. In the opinion of the present writer, the most probable means by which it came west to be represented in glass within early works of the then-new Opus Francigenum is that it came along with the red glass tesserae and perhaps also with workmen from the region of Lake Tiberius and from Tyre.

Though the present author’s citing, in that context ,the zodiac from Beth Alpha was met with indifference or assertions of its irrelevance at the time, one now sees the same mosaic (minus any of the accompanying historical and cultural notes, or the point in citing it) reproduced in various Voynich writers’ contributions to the study.

But to return to the question of possible influence from Kabbalah – this cannot explain the style in which the ‘ladies’ are drawn, and offers no immediate explanation for their ‘barrels’ either.  Reference to Jewish custom, more generally, might bear an argument that the tiered ‘ladies’ were meant for angels but since they are not winged, they can scarcely be other than Jewish angels or pre-Christian equivalents.  On the other hand, we have examples of the term ‘angel’ being used in other senses, as a bishop’s being described as the angel of the region under his guidance.  If we were to suppose such a case for the tiered ‘ladies’ however, we could only suppose them to represent locations; it is inconceivable that early Christian practice could be to signify a bishop by means of a naked female form.

Any later argument that the ‘ladies’ are tiered Christian angels must refer to a diagram which survives only in a late copy of a text not composed until a century after the Voynich manuscript was made.


First phases of a ‘Christian Cabala’: Thenaud and François I.


Two generations after the Voynich manuscript was made, a certain Jean Thenaud was born in Pitou.

Joining the Franciscan order of friars in adulthood, he travelled widely, and composed works for the edification of princes. At the command of François I he wrote an Introductory Treatise to Cabala, dedicating this to Francis in 1516.

The image of tiered angels (detail, above) if not known in any copy earlier than that made twenty years later (1536) – that is, a century after the Voynich manuscript was made.  As a Christian work, it provides angels with wings, of course, and one suspects their being enveloped in a red mist may be due to the Christian users’ feeling a needed to distinguish ‘Jewish Angels’ from the celestial hierarchy of a Christian blue heaven.  Despite this image’s late date, the context allows a possibility that it relates to some precedent from within genuine works of Kabbalah.  If it should be so – and for reasons I won’t enlarge on here – it may (as the Geneva image does) clarify  the degree to which Kabbalah was influential in fourteenth-century Majorca and its Jewish cartographic school, from which came a number of works made for, or intended for Charles V of France. 

Whether  Panofsky ever saw the Geneva copy of Thenaud’s treatise, I don’t know. I should add that when I first noted the image above and spoke of it,  I had found no earlier reference to it in Voynich writings to that time.  Though the ‘find’ met no overt response, I expect some readers did take note of it, and perhaps took copies for their file too.  It is a pity that none thought to ask why exactly I found it worth our attention.


Other ‘Spanish’ suggestions – Manley and Llull.

Nill said, in the same letter quoted above, that  John Manly had already suggested Spanish (- more exactly Catalanic -)  ” that might be something Lullian in it” …

Llull’s organisation of knowledge, and so of logic, is widely known.  Readers might enjoy:

  • Umberto Eco, ‘On Llull Pico and Llullism’ in his  From the Tree to the Labyrinth (2014)

For the idea that Lull was influenced by (or even knew of) Kabbalah, readers should need no more than the wiki article’s paragraph.


Technicalities: Stylistics + Language

A point regularly overlooked is that, while attempts to argue by ‘matching the picture’ may be valid when stylistics are taken into account, they are invalid if an image is defined only by some object perceived in it.

That becomes obvious if considered in any real-world and non-Voynich context.

No-one would claim that a fresco in which the Virgin Mary was shown, seated, must be Spanish for no better reason than that a Spanish icon was set beside it and that too showed the Virgin seated.

Style of drawing and the contexts matter.

Informing language is also important.  Most of us retain concepts  by means of words, and links between concepts are also, for most of us, conveyed in words.It is very difficult for anyone who has acquired language to set about drawing say, a cat, without first thinking the word ‘cat’. A cartoon punning on the (late) Shah of Iran by making the figure half feline would immediately suggest to us (quite apart from context and drawing style) that the first maker may have spoken French and intended the image as a visual pun addressed to Francophone audience.

Such an impression may then guide research, and may prove the key indicator of origin, but until deeper enquiry confirms or denies, it remains just a ‘guess’.The search must be aimed at finding  stylistic customs and linguistic disposition occurring together, and in a way that accords with the problematic image.

I do not think that the Libros images do this.  It may have been Panofsky’s opinion that they do but if so, he did not express himself so strongly. Again, I do not think the celestial hierarchy image in the later copy of Thenaud’s Introductory Treatise can be argued, retrospectively, an explanation for the Voynich month-diagrams.  Others, maintaining a strictly ‘Latin European’ theme, and following d’Imperio’s focus on seventeenth-century ‘Christian Kabbalah’ may be inclined to differ.


It was at about this point in my own research that I turned again to that hint, earlier mentioned, that the first enunciator of the month-diagrams was comfortable thinking in Greek.

To be fair to any prospective revisionist, I feel that I must include something of my own findings about the ‘barrels’ because it opened the way to matters which had not been earlier considered and which I had closed Voynichimagery before mentioning.

The initial problem – research question- here was whether there might exist some chain of connection between one or more of the following: the ‘little stars’ in a Greek thought (aster-asteriskos), the older (Hellenistic) period as e.g. Nicander’s allusion to the star-flower with its hint of association with deities and the dead and so on.  Might the tiered figures in these folios have originally ‘spoken in Greek’?

To that line of enquiry, added to from time to time, I would be brought eventually to the period of closest contact between Byzantine and Latin; from grants of trader’s quarters around the Golden Horn and Pera, and around Trebizond, to the much closer connection established as (literally) thousands of Greek-speaking inhabitants from the eastern Mediterranean sought refuge in the west, and chiefly if not only around Venice and the Veneto.

The Voynich map’s “castle”, by the way, represents Constantinople/ Pera as approached by sea, a conclusion aided not only by detailed analysis of that folio but by the ancillary research into the month-diagrams and other elements in the manuscript.

Figures in “barrels” – Introduction

In 1375, a certain Simon de Hesdin, a Knight Hospitaller of Jerusalem and Master of Theology, began work on a translation of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta for Charles V of France, but Charles died with the work unfinished and Simon followed him only three years’ later, by which stage the translation had been completed only as far as the end of Book 7, Chapter 4.

It seems then to have been put aside for some time, but in 1400-1401, another Master of Theology (and of Arts),  Nicolas de Gonesse completed the translation and in the custom of the time doubtless oversaw the painter’s efforts.  With its few illustrations added, the whole was then presented to the Duc de Berry who had its use until his own death in c.1416.  The manuscript [from which the detail comes is a later fifteenth-century copy] now in the British Library as  MS Harley 4375/3. [edit to replace dropped text – 6th. Sept. 2019]

( As far as I could discover, when posting this image in 2017, it had never before come to notice among Voynich writers.  I daresay that situation may have changed now).  I closed Voynichimagery soon after, before explaining the reasons I thought this picture worth notice.

Harley MS 4375/3 (1473 AD -c. 1480 AD) Valerius Maximus, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens, 

The paintings have been attributed to  ‘Maître François’ though – elsewhere –  Maître François has been tentatively identified with François le Barbier [or François Le Barbier] pè̀re [father], active 1455-ca. 1480 , which would discount an earlier date for the painting shown above.

Past experience warns me against publishing online only a summary of evidence and my conclusions from original research, so what I shall do for  the rest of this series, dear reader, is to have you look on, as it were, while I turn from one section to another in my logs and summaries.  The order of presentation should give you a clearer and straighter road than in fact I travelled, but that’s only fair: not everyone enjoys the process so much as the result.

Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine’

Header Illustration: composite image. includes detail from Brit.Lib. Harley MS 5751  f.15
Two previous:

We are still considering the period 1912-2000, and matters other than ‘Voynichese’.

During those eighty years from 1912-2000,  scholars expert in one or another aspect of Europe’s intellectual and artistic heritage could suggest not a single close comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s content and imagery from among the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Latins’ (western Christian) manuscripts they had seen – no matter what their area of specialisation,

It was always over the fence;  ‘someone else’s problem’.

This is an interval post – just a pause for perspective.

not GERMAN-CHRISTIAN ART – Panofsky and Petersen

Erwin Panofsky and Theodore Petersen specialised in the Christian art of medieval and (northern) Renaissance Germany.  Neither saw the manuscript as in that tradition.

In 1932, after spending two hours examining the manuscript in New York, Panofsky had correctly dated its manufacture: ‘1410-1420-1430’, an evaluation whose precision would not be matched until 2011, when radiocarbon dating returned the range 1404-1438.

Panofsky attributed  its content not to Christian-German work but to “the southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain” and to a Judeo-Arabic cultural environment. His reasons for saying otherwise in writing answers for Friedman’s ‘quiz’ questions in 1954 have already been discussed.

For Panofsky’s dating see the letter of ‘E.L.V’ to Professor Thompson transcribed in ‘Correspondence’ at the end of my post ‘Expert Opinions – Richard Salomon‘. The original letter is in the Beinecke Library, Yale.

…… and Panofsky was the first to cite any specific comparison but – as would thereafter become a constant in discussions of this manuscript – he compared just a single detail in it with a single detail from another manuscript, and did not even suggest the comparison close enough to call a ‘match’.

As Nill later wrote, “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript,  [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”  The comparison was between one diagram from the Voynich calendar and one from Alfonso X‘s Libros del saber de astronomía.  That Panofsky knew the latter is an indication of his range, for it exists in a single manuscript, and that in Madrid.  Consider the range of exclusion implied.

 LATIN HANDS? – Salomon, Barrett and ‘not-saying-who’.

Richard Salomon, a specialist in Latin palaeography, recognised only one line of marginalia, which he read as medieval legal German – and whose date he then applied to the manuscript as a whole.

At that time, he had seen only a black and white photostat copy, and while an offer was made for him to see the original, I’ve found no record that he ever did.  His circumstances after 1932 were so disrupted and so distressing that he was never able to return to his chief area of interest, lacking access to appropriate texts and references.

Of the hand(s) within the main text, and of that which wrote the month-names, I’ve seen no evidence of his saying anything before or after 1932, though something may yet be found in others’ letters from him.

Some Voynich researchers have guessed a  Caroline hand; others as ‘influenced by the Humanist style’, but the specialists have said nothing, though not positively protesting Wilfrid’s opinion that the script was that of a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman scholar.

Remarkably little time or attention was paid to this matter of palaeography, and for my knowledge of these views I am indebted first to Nick Pelling, and through him to the sources he cited, including Reeds’ mailing list and articles by Barbara Barrett.  Pelling disagreed with the latter, but for the sake of balance referred to Barrett’s views anyway.  Other sites have, since then, copied (and sometimes rightly attributed) the same material.
an insubstantial argument

I’ve recently seen it asserted,  with no evidence offered and my  request for directions to the original argument refused with some vigour,  that someone has argued a case for considering inscription of the German (and only the German) marginalia so closely contemporary with the rest of the work that we should believe  the whole manuscript to be, in some sense, a product of German culture.

Given the non-German month-inscriptions, the character of the imagery overall, the Italian binding of the book-block, the opinion of consummate experts with no ‘guess’ to grind… and so on, it is not an idea I’m willing to take on faith. Perhaps someone would like to raise the question on a forum? Do leave a comment if you find a clear answer.



Adam McLean, a specialist in the history of alchemy, responded as the experts do: “S.E.P”.  Since non-specialists enthusiastic about the ‘alchemy’ idea have continued to push it (though the radiocarbon dating silenced them for a time), I’ll reproduce McLean’s comments, taking them from  Dennis Stallings’ report to the second mailing list: (09:40 AM 11/19/98 -0600)

Dennis had said: ‘Hello, Adam!..  Mary D’Imperio, in her survey of VMs studies up to 1978, thought that alchemy might be the key to understanding the VMs.  However, current [mailing-list] members, including myself, see little if any alchemical content in the VMs.  None of us, however, are experts. What is your opinion on this.  What alchemical imagery can you see in the VMs?

to which Adam replied:

Dear Dennis

All I can say is that I have never seen an alchemical manuscript with the same imagery and pictures as are found in the Voynich. …The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one. …  I have an open mind on the subject, but have yet to see any real parallels. Perhaps one day I will find a manuscript that I recognize has common features with the Voynich – but not so far. I don’t think I could  find any way at present to use alchemical manuscripts or ideas to throw light on the ‘Balneological section.

and then:

The plant drawings in  the ‘Herbal section’ have many forerunners some going back centuries before the Voynich, as has been extensively documented. [This is still widely believed, but the ‘documentation’ is less, and less solid, than most suppose].    The drawings in the Astronomical section again seem to have many parallels in known manuscripts. [widely believed but ill-supported by evidence].…  

.. but, once again, the expert’s view is ‘Not one of mine’. And rightly so.  A specialist cannot blur the lines between what is demonstrably true, and what is desired true by others. Not that the others necessarily take heed.

A list of alchemical mss in the British Library, from Adam McLean’s website

‘alchemical’ notion revives,  five years later… My apologies.

The ‘alchemical’ text notion – killed off after McLean’s expert dismissal in the 1990s – was well and truly dead in early 2013. Unfortunately in presenting the analytical-critical study for folio 4v,  I gave it a whimsical title, ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’ as summary of my findings.  In short, that the plant-group referred to by the drawing was that of the eastern clematis and that what had previously been imagined a curious form for the root was, in fact, a depiction of the double gourd, whose place in culture and iconography of the regions from east Africa to southern China (essentially the medieval trade routes) I summarised and illustrated, mentioning that clematis was not much used in eastern medicine (nor was western clematis in the Latin tradition), but the wood and root of eastern species were used to make scented substances (perfumes and incense etc.), and when formed in metal the double-gourd was also used as a type of ‘small a‘ alchemical receiver, just as the ordinary sort was used for liquids.

As usual, I accompanied the point-by-point analysis  with comparative imagery, textual and cultural notes, and in this case additional comments on the trade in scents and scented materials into Cairo for the Mediterranean trade and, further, on the important role of mathematics in this sort of compounding. It had originated in India, and the Indian model was employed in Cairo too, so as illustration I included a table from the Brht Samhita.  Updating the botanical nomenclature was tiresome, but that was done too, and I cross-referenced any plants mentioned that I had previously identified in the botanical folios.

Being, from the first, under an informal ‘pay no attention’ ban by one of the most avid, and yet ill-equipped of the Voynicheros,  who found it helpful to read, download and then disseminate my results verbally as anonymous ‘ideas’  yet to be explored, I did not expect my  post to receive quite such widespread attention as it did.  It received swarms of readers, throughout the period from 2013 until I closed voynichimagery in 2017.  Imitators were numerous; some took this element from the post and some that, but among them a few were honest about their source, and others so inept that they brought a touch of humour.

One chap especially –  a wild fan of Edith Sherwood, Rene Zandbergen and Sergio Toresella – was helping in some project aimed at producing ‘The Official Voynich Herbal’. His job was to collect and collate others’ work, omitting such details and names as were considered unnecessary by the project’s unnamed director/s.

Since very little new work was being done, just then, this chap got into the habit of taking nothing from my latest post but the name of the plant-group I’d given for the folio, reducing the name for a group  to one name (to suit the western style of herbal),  stripping out all the informing commentary, textual, iconographic, historical and cultural notes, archaeological studies (for proof of location and period), historical botany and information on use which provided evidence for the identification I’d offered.

That done, he would leap up in the second mailing list about a day later and proclaim with many marks of exclamation that a ‘new identification’ had been made.  But in this case, he was faced with the fact that the European clematis had no place in the Latin pharmacopoeia, does not have a bell-shaped flower, nor narrow leaves. And double gourds aren’t exactly standard motifs in medieval Latin art, let alone to be seen in any of the herbals.

Rene Zandbergen (as I recall) kindly came to his rescue on the ‘gourd’ problem, showing an image of a vegetable garden in a copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis.  Soon afterwards, the lad adopted the ‘foxy’ tactic of applying some new identification of mine to a different folio… more or less at random. The manuscript’s study is not only corrupted, but actively hindered by such practices, whose only benefit is to lend spurious credibility to persons or theories which have not deserved them.  Lately, the most common tactic seems to be to use the mantra:  ‘synchronicity’.

Another chap became excited about the ‘perfume’ thing – though I did tell him that it wouldn’t do; the botanical section contains many more plants than were used in any sort of perfume, scented powder, or insect repellent ( a use I’d identified for another of the pictured plants, and which then synchronistically appeared in a post by Ellie Velinska, another close associate of the old guard but whom I’m inclined one of the several innocents who simply believed, when handed an ‘idea’ that it sprang fully formed from the donor’s imagination).

It proved impossible to stem the  ‘alchemical’ tide, to which that post seems to have acted as the bolt of electricity on Frankenstein’s monster, reviving the pile of dead matter abandoned since the 1990s.   All I could do, and did, was to remind people of the more modest matter in my original post, which I re-published in a condensed and clearer form two years later, on  23rd August, 2015, under the title  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent made more readable’.

The manuscript deserves more respect than it receives when used only to puff theories or personal ambition.  The way my analysis of folio 4v was misused is just an example of the great many so used, whether my work or others’ – since the early 2000s, and largely why the study fails to advance.  I suppose the lesson for us all is not to buy second-hand ‘ideas’; demand the donor provide his/her primary evidence and explain to you in detail his/her line of reasoning.  If they can’t, it might be as well to  tell them to go away and do their own work for a change.



A LATIN/ARABIC or BYZANTINE HERBAL? H’hmm. – T.A. Sprague (and Alain Touwaide, 2015)


Dr. T. A. Sprague had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist,  spent time in northern India and served for forty-five years as a member of staff at Kew gardens,  fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium, and whose particular study of the  Anicia Juliana codex required thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin and Arabic herbals and their vocabularies. In 1947, shown some photostat copies of the plant-pictures, Sprague  positively recoiled and railed at John Tiltman, “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”   It seems clear that none of them looked immediately familiar.

Alain Touwaide (2015}

More recently (2015) Alain Touwaide, whose field of study covers the Latin, Arabic and Greek history of medicine, drugs, herbals and medical manuscripts , wrote a seventeen-page essay published by the Villa Mondragone in a volume now, alas, out of print.   There were no peer-reviews published in any Journal, so far as I can find, but the prominent enthusiast Rene Zandbergen sent a 1100-odd word summary-review to the late Stephen Bax’ site. The review began and ended with Zandbergen’s opinion that  Touwaide added ‘nothing new’ to the manuscript’s study but had repeatedly returned to the possibility that the manuscript might be a fake.

In which case of course it would be again (apparently) ‘someone else’s problem’.

  • Alain Touwaide,  ‘Il manoscritto piu misterioso – l’erbario Voynich’ in  Marina Formica (ed.), Villa Mondragone ‘Seconda Roma’, (2015) pp. 141-158. out of print.

I’m sorry to add that certain comparisons widely offered as closely similar to pages from the Vms, and in some cases attributed to Touwaide, do not bear close analysis, but perhaps I’ll return to that matter at a later stage.



Charles Singer, editor of an encyclopaedic  History of Technology had a number of ‘ideas’ about the manuscript, reported by d’Imperio.   None relate to the history of technology, or offer support for the ‘bathy-‘ section’s being describing a plumbing system.



D’Imperio reported that  “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.'”  I’ve seen no evidence that he ever attempted to argue the case or –  more to out present point – that he offered a single text or illustration from the European corpus as comparison.  Nor, apparently, did his wife Dorothea suggest to him any among  the thousands she had inspected and catalogued in the British Library under the heading of Science and Pseudo-Science, as Lynn Thorndike reported in 1921.

D’Imperio seems to think little of Singer’s ‘biological’ idea,  saying in the same breath as she reports it that they recall ‘plant parts’ to her. (Elegant Enigma, p.21)

In recent years and beginning (so far as I can discover) with Ellie Velinska’s effort, this inherently anachronistic ‘biological’ notion – imagining the Vms contains biological drawings technical, and accurate to the microscope-level –  has proved intriguing for some, but once more none of the recent writers have produced –  no more than did Singer – any European manuscript or printed book made before 1438 which is claimed closely comparable.  Now that the manuscript has been dated, Singer’s notion is revealed to be, as one might say, anachronism of the first water.  🙂

  • On Singer see also Rich Santacoloma’s interesting research-post, ‘The Voynich in 1905′, (19th. August, 2012).




Lynn Thorndike who wrote a multi-volume history of medieval science and pseudo-sciences and had every reason, if he could, to set the Voynich manuscript squarely within a context that would refute Wilfrid’s ‘Roger Bacon’ guess, to which he felt great aversion, expressed more than once in print.

But Thorndike offered no such argument, and never produced any other manuscript as close comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript.



ASTRONOMICAL/ASTROLOGICAL? – To my knowledge, the only specialist to offer a comparison with any astronomical/astrological manuscript between 1912 and 2000.was Panofsky (see above).


Summary: “Not one of mine” is what the experts on western (and Arabic) manuscripts said of works from their own field, even while expressing, all the while, a feeling in some obscure way  there’s something… Charles Singer, who claimed to see biology  appears never to have suggested any comparable manuscript either.


In any other field of study; if it were any other manuscript, there’s a logical inference that might be taken.