O’Donovan notes #8.2. Compare and contrast f.67v-1 and f.85r (part).

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

Because the drawing on folio 67v-1 is a diagram, we may expect that its structure will speak to the type of information it was designed to convey.

Like the diagram on folio 85r, it is organised by two fourfold divisions.

We’ll consider now what is inside its larger circle, leaving aside for the present the four peripheral emblems (below).


The centre of folio 85r (part) shows a ‘leonine’ sun in a field that isn’t simply coloured, but formed as swirling lines. As we now have the drawing, those lines are coloured blue, but since we don’t yet know when the ‘heavy painter’ added that pigment, we focus on the basic line drawing.

These two central emblems tell us two important things: first, that the person(s) who first gave each drawing its form did not think of the heavens as a smooth dome, solid or crystalline, nor as as a tent, but chiefly in terms of this swirling movement or perhaps by comparison with some other form composed of a circuit of repeating lines/curves.

If we were considering the history of Mediterranean art, we might liken the centre in folio 67v-1 to a form of omphalos motif, but more about the drawing must be taken into account before trying to explain it.

Since we know the winds were a principal reference in the first diagram (folio 85r) and that the usual way to describe the circuit of direction during daylight hours was by naming the wind from that direction, the fact that the centre of 67v-1 shows a comparable swirling pattern but now has a six-point star at its centre, makes it reasonable to test as one possibility that it might describe how the directions were determined at night.

It’s just a possibility, one worth exploring but – as regular readers will know – our aim is not to come up with some novel or merely plausible theoretical explanation , but to correctly understand and explain what the original maker had intended.

Another axiom which applies here is that when there is an easier way to do something, but the first maker of an image chose a less convenient way, there’s usually some good reason for it – it’s usually meaningful. And, as you’ll probably tire of hearing before too long…

Differences really matter!

In this case, when a circle or a square is to be divided by two four-fold divisions, the easy way to do it, and the way one would expect it done in the symmetry-loving art of western Europe, would be like this:

In that case, if you wanted to associate wind-names with the points of sunrise and sunset, as they change through the year, your schematic diagram would look rather like this (below) whether the names were in Greek, in Latin or in some European vernacular:

adapted from ‘the Aristotelian winds’ illustration in an excellent wiki article ‘Classical Compass Winds‘.

But that isn’t how these two diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 were designed.

(detail) 85r (part)

In both diagrams, the main four-fold division has its lines offset. That is, the lines might ‘box’ the centre, but they aren’t made as two lines that intersect at the centre. Euclidian, it isn’t.

If this had occurred in just one of the two diagrams, we might shrug it off, but the same is done in both. So it’s purposeful.

(detail f.67v-1)

Details of this kind are what a novice instinctively turns their eye and mind away from, or tries immediately to invent some excuse for as they struggle to maintain our natural and deep-seated belief that “our ways are the right and normal”.

Throughout the history of this manuscript’s study, that habit of shying away and trying to ignore uncomfortable differences from Latin norms (or, still more narrowly from one’s pet theory) has resulted in unjustified assertions that the fifteenth-century copyists or the original draughtsmen were incompetent or devious. We don’t need to resort to such excuses because our ‘norm’ must be whatever was customary for those people by whom, and for whom, a drawing was first given form.

Our task is to understand the drawings, not to decide what habits and ideas ‘ought’ to have informed them.

And from such indications of how the original maker thought and what was normal in his/her time and place, we may identify where and when a given drawing was first formed.

It may seem strange at first to have no preliminary theory, but it does allow the researcher a much more impartial approach and a more relaxed response to unexpected phenomena, such as these offset lines of division.



I think it is now generally accepted, as it was not a few years ago, that what we have in Beinecke MS 408 is a compilation, not a single homogenous work.

That means we can’t just assume that the time and place in which one drawing was formed will be the same for all, or for any other unless expressing similar forms, stylistics and what we might call cultural attitudes.

In both these diagrams, for example, we find a form for the sun which has it flame-haired rather than – as it might be – surrounded by spiked rays.

A diagram adjacent to our second example adds the remarkable information (folio 67v-2) that the ‘flaming’ corona is not simply a stylistic but is meaningful; that we are to consider those flaming locks artificial, with the beard (at least) tied about the face and perhaps also the head’s wild-looking curls.

(detail) folio 67v-2

That it is meant for the sun, not any such figure as Medusa or an alchemical character is evidenced by the fact that we find the same flame-haired form for the sun used throughout the manuscript’s diagrams and with it a repeated view that the sun’s daily emergence is associated with a flower.

In the Voynich map, that flower is included in the emblem marking the map’s ‘west’; the sun falls into a surface very economically shown as under water; from the water-marked mud there emerges the flower through which the sun will re-emerge next morning in the east.

Note – The Voynich map is drawn on one side of a single sheet of vellum. It was originally numbered ‘folio 86v‘ although it is certainly the first drawing placed on that sheet. The Beinecke’s subsequent re-foliation splits the map’s description in a way that reads as if it half the map had been drawn of the back of one bifolio and half on the front of another – but in is a single drawing, on one side of a single sheet.

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

This detail is now so faint that I’ve had to use a data-rich image. Hope it doesn’t crash anyone’s phone. Even so, it is so very faded that it’s extremely difficult to read – though an XRF scan for iron (in the iron-gall ink) might one day make the form clear.

The same concept, though very differently drawn, informs these emblems in folio 67v-1, and that marked difference in stylistic habits as well as the existence of different attitudes to defining the directions mean that here we cannot assume assignment to sunrise or to sunset. My reason for saying so should be explained.

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

The question we must ask now is whether we can assume for folio 67v-1 that the ‘sun+flower’ means West there, simply because the map includes the flower in its west emblem.

I expect most readers habitually take ‘north-up’ as their default, and will assume without much pause for thought that if you stand facing North, East must lie on your right.

But “North orientation means east-right” is a convention, not a fact however much a modern person of European heritage might suppose it commonsensical.

Think of it this way:

Instead of imagining that you stand looking north, imagine yourself lying on the ground with your head towards the North.

Now, if you lie face-down, East will be on your right hand, but if you roll to lie on your back, looking up into the sky then East will be to your left-hand side.

Suppose now you’re able to do the same things, but hovering several feet or metres above ground. By daylight your bird’s eye view, looking down, would produce a map of the land which had East to your right, but when you rolled over to map the night sky, East will be on the left.

The point is that you can have an ‘east-left’ even if your primary direction is to the North. It can depend on whether you’re actually or conceptually defining directions by where you are, and then whether you’re turning towards the earth, or the sky.

Latin Europe only accepted this ‘east-left’ idea within the limited topic of representing the constellations (and then only occasionally) and for some instruments like our planispheres.

Since we already suspect a non-Latin origin for the diagram on folio 67v-1, thanks to those offset lines and adjacency to the curious sun on folio 67v-2, we can’t presume the same norms or limits will apply to this drawing as would if a drawing spoke the graphic language of medieval Latin Europe.

There’s a possibility, therefore, that though when turned North-up, the diagram on folio 85r had its East on the diagram’s right side, this may not. The diagram on folio 85r has the sun as its central emblem, and in daylight the directions were commonly named by winds, but this diagram has a star in its centre and so may be referring to divisions of the night-sky. Which means that whether or not originally designed North-up, it might have its East on the left. (With me so far?)

I understand that it’s tempting for some students of this manuscript, as they begin feeling confused or bewildered by its drawings, to brush aside both the ‘oddities’ and their investigation, resorting instead to adopting impatience as excuse for returning to an easier and more familiar cultural context. But it won’t do. The sun’s being reborn from a flower each day is no expression of medieval western Christian culture, whose nearest approach was the rite of baptism, once the font had replaced the river.

And, if this weren’t enough to cope with, the Voynich map’s east-west placements are the reverse of a European norm yet it is clearly a map showing part of the physical world and not the night sky.

Lotus and rebirth.

Some readers may know how widely the lotus was (and is) identified with re-birth, but might associate the source of that idea only Buddhism, with Hinduism, with ancient Egypt or with some other body of knowledge according to their own background.

So far as I can discover, none but the Egyptians ever actually believed that the sun was re-born daily from a lotus, or believed as if it had been true, that every lotus sinks into the mud at night yet rises fresh and clean each morning.

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

It was believed that a giant lotus blossom came out of the primeval waters of Nun, and out of which the sun-god emerged. The Egyptian text whose transliterated name (rw nw prt m hrw), is translated as ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ or as ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’ has come to be mis-named ‘Book of the Dead’ in English. It includes a spell to transform the deceased into a lotus, ensuring rebirth during the day for the deceased.

CAUTION: religious and cultural beliefs naturally influence how images are formed by a given community, but it is a mistake to imagine that every reflection of such ideas means that either the image or its accompanying text must be all about religion.

So when we find, in Persepolis, an image of the lotus with two buds, we need not suppose the figure holding them was a convert to the religion of Egypt.

An idea which one people regards as speaking to immortality can easily be translated, there or elsewhere, into a promise of never-ending power – ‘horizon to horizon’ – and this latter I take to be the sense of the lotus image (illustrated below) from Achaemenid Persepolis.

Buddhism took another message from the lotus, one not greatly different from the idea of emerging bright and unscathed despite immersion in mud and water – but now that idea of re-emergence was expressed in terms of the person’s soul and not their physical body. To quote a label written by the Art Institute of Chicago for an artefact made in China between 618 CE–906 AD:

From the time Buddhism came to China, the lotus—which emerges unstained from muddy water and therefore carries associations of purity and non-attachment to worldly concerns—had become a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art.

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

It is usual for those three major traditions of the pre- and non-Roman world: the Egyptian, the Buddhist and the Hindu – to be discussed as if each was wholly independent of the other two, but there was a time when all three ways flourished in close proximity.

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

In the region about Gandhara, where Buddhism would first flourish, lay the easternmost borderlands of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

The Persians evidently had a custom (also seen in pre-Roman Egypt) where dangerous border-lands were peopled with foreign communities who were brought, or who came voluntarily, from elsewhere.

The Persians had populated this borderland with, among others, communities taken from Asia minor and from Greek-speakers in Egypt, both Carians and Phoenicians and peoples who had earlier been settled by Egypt along its own southern and western borders.

When Alexander of Macedon conquered and took the Persian empire, the same eastern border region which had marked the limit of that empire now became the eastern limit of his own, and after his death, remained as the eastern border of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom.

It is an amusing side-light to Voynich studies, that a mention of the Hellenistic kingdoms elicits snorts of derision from hard-core Voynich traditionalists, though the same persons will happily refer to Aristotle, who lived even earlier and was one of Alexander’s tutors. 🙂

it was during the period of closest interaction between the eastern ‘Greeks’ and India that the early Buddhist art of Gandhara developed and Buddhism came into its own. Taking with them the skill of paper-making, Buddhist teachers then carried their message throughout India and to as far as the east China sea, their own vision of the lotus with it.


With literally half the world aware of the lotus as a symbol of re-emergence, how can one decide whether our debt is to one, or some combination of those traditions or (as Isidore is indebted to classical Roman poets) whether we’re looking at some later maintenance of the conceptual image quite divorced from the society which first expressed that image?

Consider that stylistic difference:

In the Voynich map, the flower is formed in a way that agrees with one among the long-enduring conventions found in Egyptian art. The following example is from a tomb-painting but other instances would have appeared in classical and in medieval times as carvings and paintings in publicly accessible areas. Here the lotus is drawn fan-like, the petals topped with dots as (or with) a narrow band. Notice also that the open flower is flanked by two others, not yet opened.

Here is how the lotus is drawn on the Voynich map – again with its petals topped by dots to form an upper boundary.

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

Before anyone becomes heated with some Egyptian theory, I must point out that an artefact made in China during the Northern Song period (618-907 AD) also shows this way of depicting the lotus. The object was, admittedly, probably for export and was made during a period when there were diplomatic and trading ties between Persia, Baghdad, India and China.

detail from a vessel made during the time of the Northern Song. This image and associated research summary first published through Voynichimagery in, ‘Emblems of Direction – ‘West’ (July 29th., 2012).

Also found in common between ancient Egyptian, Achaemenid and later Asian representations is a type which does not show literally the flower’s physical appearance, but makes it resemble a cup.

Below, in the left column, one example from ancient Egypt and one from Achaemenid Persepolis. On the right side, illustrations to show that the cup-like form for ‘sunrise’/rebirth on folio 67v-1 has been drawn in a way that permits comparison with Chinese artefacts from (a) the 12th-13thC Yuan period and even much earlier (see further below) – from the 3rdC AD Jun [Jin] period.

The Jun period had seen the height of Indo-Greek fusion, with the flourishing of Buddhist culture in India.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), relations between the Islamic world and China had been developing well. Baghdad was the Abbasid capital, and Siraf in the Persian Gulf was the chief terminus for the east-west trade.

Two separate incidents, costing the lives of resident foreign traders saw formal relations wither andfor some long time, trade was chiefly conducted by land.

incidents…’ massacres in Yangzhou in 760 AD, when a thousand ‘Arabs and Persians’ are said to have been massacred; Guangzhou in 878–879 AD when tens of thousands are reported massacred – including Arabs, Persians and Christians, the last presumably members of the Church of the East (Nestorians). No reference is made to Manichaeans though perhaps the historian classed them as Persian.

  • Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery, Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān, (NYU: 2014)

We know that by the end of the twelfth century, relations had been restored – because when John of Montecorvino travelled east as Europe’s first ambassador-missionary, he found Italians already resident and established there as trading families.

From all the above, we may fairly conclude that the drawing on folio 67v-1 was not first formed as any expression of western Christian culture and that the face emerging from that type of cup-shaped flower – or flower-shaped cup if you like – must signify East.

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

Though the emerging face here is turned to one side, where on the map it emerges full-face, does not appear to have been considered a significant change.

But between this image and that on the Voynich map, the style of drawing is very different and in my opinion the diagram on folio 67v-1 had a much later origin.

It is not impossible that as lines from Isidore’s Etymologies informed the final appearance of the drawing on folio 85r, so the final form for this drawing may be informed by lines from Hafiz who flourished at just the time of most interest to us – the mid-fourteenth century. (1325–1390):

Cupbearer, it is morning, fill my cup with wine.
Make haste, the heavenly sphere knows no delay.

The sun of the wine dawns in the east of the goblet.

Hafez (also seen as ‘Hafiz’ lived 1325-1390). translation by Bernard Lewis. For the spiritual interpretation of Hafiz’ work as a Sufi poem see e.g. commentary (here) by Ivan M. Granger.

So far, surveying the sun-born-from-flower idea, as religious belief, as metaphor, as reflected in artefacts and in purely poetic images, we have defined the range of our subject in terms of time and geography. The sun-emerging-from-lotus might occur as a physical and/or conceptual image from ancient Egypt to fourteenth-century China, not excluding Persia, India and much of south-east Asia. 😀

But our being able to gaining so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 augers well. This drawing looks as if it won’t be too difficult to understand.

(below) – Underside of a lotus bowl, Yuan period. The overlapping petals result in a ‘swirl’ of the type we’re looking for.

The list of works consulted during my research into this diagram is very long and far too long to be listed here even if any Voynicheros could find the time or interest to read them.

For references for any particular point, do email me.

For this post, I replaced an older image of the ‘Egyptian marshes’ detail with the brighter version in a delightful blog which I sincerely recommend to my readers:

  • Monica Bowen (ed.), ‘Marshes in Ancient Egyptian Art’, Alberti’s Window (blog), (Tuesday, March 11th, 2014). The blog has been running since 2007 and is still posting.

Concerning the lotus motif in Gandharan art, one paper I had not seen until recently deserves mention, despite its author’s being apparently unaware of Egyptian influence on Mediterranean thought, including upon the Greeks’, and failing to mention of the Ashokan embassy which sparked the medical traditions of Cos and possible also its silk-making:

  • Kiran Shahid Siddiqui, ‘Significance of Lotus’ Depiction in Gandhara Art’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society (2012), unpaginated. Illustrations. available through academia.edu

O’Donovan notes #8: Knife & …

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

“Knife and ….”

If you automatically added ‘fork’ to complete that phrase, you’ve just given an example of why we can’t rely on what seems obvious today when trying to read images in this manuscript.

A capacity for logic and clear thinking are helpful, but can operate only on what a person already knows, or at least what a person believes they know.

To understand problematic drawings made not less than six centuries ago means not only ‘learning so much stuff’ (as one of my student-apprentices once complained) but unlearning things.

You’d have to ‘unlearn’ that automatic association between knives and forks for example. Here’s why:

The moment that provided initial spark of fork’s popularity in central Europe happened with the marriage of French King Henry II and Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici [in 1547] .. the majority of Europe embraced the fork only by 18th century and the United States only after the end of American Revolution and early 19th century. (edited from web article ‘History of Forks‘)

There are many things you’ll find assumed about the medieval world in past and present-day Voynich narratives which seem plausible only because the reader shares a writer’s own time and environment. Many have to be un-learned, or at least deliberately set aside while working on this manuscript’s drawings.

One false impression which must be set aside, though it is deep-rooted in the history of this manuscript’s study, is that when the material in the manuscript was brought together, medieval western Europe was a centre of learning and civilization, high on the global scale, and an important actor in world-politics.

It isn’t so. In geographic and in intellectual terms, the centre of the world during the 10th-15th centuries was hither Asia, initially the region around Khorasan, with Baghdad a close second in its heyday.

Throughout those centuries, western Europe was considered – and was by comparison with the eastern centres – a ‘barbarian’ region on the extreme western margins of the world, far behind the civilized world in its manners, mentality, and scientific learning.

Nor did the world east of the Arabian shield sit passively waiting to be ‘discovered’ by Portuguese as western histories used to imply.

That region was a vibrant and active world with well-developed lines of cultural and commercial interactions, some of which had developed and been maintained for as much as four millennia* before the first European ships arrived.

*I’m thinking here of the trade in lapis lazuli from Badakhshan to Mesopotamia and then to Egypt.

What had reached medieval Europe from those eastern regions before the end of the fifteenth century was an almost negligible part of such exchange, whether one considers intellectual or material treasures.

I’m not repeating these things to offend any European or to diminish their pride in their own country’s history and accomplishments but to point out that ideas which permeated nineteenth-century histories of Europe and which define the way the Voynich manuscript’s contents were imagined by Wilfrid, by the Friedmans and thus also by d’Imperio are out of step with what is known of the period now, yet the traditionalists’ attitudes and the narratives constructed in that mould still maintain ideas no longer accepted in history or other disciplines today.

I’m saying that to rightly understand the drawings which have been preserved for us in Beinecke MS 408, a wider, more up to date, and more objective perspective is needed.

Since our next example from the manuscript will refer to astronomical matter, let me illustrate the discrepancy between past and present ideas by quoting a little from a paper by David A. King. a scholar at the University of Frankfurt and an eminent specialist in the history of astronomy in the Arabic-speaking medieval world and on the impact of that astronomical learning on other regions.

The problem that specialists in the history of Islamic astronomy confront is that the modern Western world is under the impression that Islamic astronomy is somehow represented by the 5% of it that became known in medieval Europe… *

David A.King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation: From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (pre-print, 2018 version).

*emphasis – present author

Five percent.

Just think about that for a minute.

Ninety-five percent of what was available to astronomers in the Arabic-speaking world never so much as entered the horizons of Latins’ formal scholarship.


In treating the diagram from folio 85r, we were dealing with what is arguably the most legible of the Voynich drawings in terms of Latin European conventions in art, yet even there we saw some evidence of affect from non-Latin matter: in the costume given the figure for East; in the four banners, and in the drawing’s being presented ‘south-up’.

The diagram on folio 67v-1 also shows us two layers to its content, one more and one less intelligible in terms of medieval Latins’ graphic language. As we’ll see in the next post, the two elements are not so neatly fused in that drawing as they are in our first example but one set of information has been added to (or if you like, imposed on) the other,* and for much of the astronomical information it conveys, I must cite non-Latin sources, finding no full explanation for it in any western manuscript made before 1440 AD.

*I think this probably occurred before the fifteenth-century copy was made, but allow for the possibility that further tests on the manuscript may one day prove that layer a late addition.

Here, of course, we must allow for the relatively small proportion of manuscripts which have survived and the fact that while manuscripts are records of what was known, not all forms of knowledge were recorded in that way. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the drawing’s explanation must refer other sources, though I’ll illustrate the discussion using images more easily understood by my readers.

The analysis will begin with a ‘compare-and-contrast’ study of the two diagrams: i.e. that on folio 85r, and on folio 67v-1.

Another paragraph from King’s paper allows us to hope that some manuscript might exist still whose drawings are akin to some in Beinecke MS 408.

… the sources which offer the most challenge to future historians are housed in the rich libraries of Turkey and Iran, mainly catalogued only recently. Yet even in various Western libraries where the astronomical manuscripts are properly catalogued, briefly listed in out-dated catalogues, or not catalogued at all, important discoveries can still be made. Witness the materials in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish mentioned later in this paper..

So, it is still possible that among such still-unstudied manuscripts we may one day discover closer comparisons for the Voynich drawings than have been found to date. In the meantime, however, while we can still analyse the drawings from textual sources we cannot yet offer any close comparison from Latin sources for the drawings themselves – just as we still have no close comparison for the set of Voynich glyphs.

It is particularly regrettable that the study of Beinecke MS 408 continues to be hampered by a maintenance, in traditionalist narratives and the many imaginative Voynich-related narratives sprung from them, of a type of Eurocentric bias* so narrow that it occurs in little modern scholarship today. It persists because it ran deep in this study’s founding fathers – Wilfrid Voynich, Professor Newbold, and the Friedmans- and from their ideas the traditionalist narrative still depends.

*in fact a bias so extreme that it constantly defined medieval ‘Europe’ as if comprised of England, Germany and France, with a mere nod to Italy before Giotto.

It is another habit to be un-learned if the study of Beinecke MS 408’s drawings is to see meaningful progress.

Even if one thinks (as I do) that the quires were probably inscribed in western (‘Latin’-) Europe or under such auspices, the fact is that by the mid-fourteenth century, the matter now in this manuscript could have come into the west from almost anywhere yet still never have been known to those who created the formal texts by which Europe’s intellectual history is typically mapped.

The old idea was that no foreign matter came into Europe except it was fetched by some single European (usually imagined male) whose name was known to history; that the matter in the Voynich manuscript must have a single European ‘author’ (again usually imagined male). Though these ideas combined constituted an idée fixe for most of the period after 1912, they too must be un-learned, along with other persistent if tacit assumptions – such as that none save a European could read Latin; that Jews spoke no language but Hebrew and that in tracing “Europe’s intellectual history” (a phrase d’Imperio uses) none save Germans, French, English and Italians need be considered.

How antiquated these ideas are – consciously held or not – is neatly illustrated by another passage from the same paper. King here refers to astronomer who lived in the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth century – too late to have contributed to the matter in Beinecke MS 408 – but the example is still illuminating as a myth-buster:

Mūsà Jālīnūs [was] a remarkable Jewish medic and astronomer with access to the court of Sultan Bāyazīt II (reg. 1481-1512) in the recently established Ottoman capital of Istanbul. He also had a connection to the military.

Mūsà’s principal written works have only been investigated during the past 10 years.

He is now known as the author of various sophisticated treatises on astronomy and medicine, as well as philosophy. He was a gifted linguist, writing in Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, and translating from Latin into Arabic and from Arabic into Hebrew. His interest in practical devices was not limited to astronomical instruments for it extended to mechanical devices and even robotics. He visited Venice and Padua between 1497 and 1502 and must be considered as a possible vehicle in the transmission of certain innovative ideas in Islamic theoretical astronomy to Renaissance Europe.

Compare that with the view of the Jews implicit in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and a continuing notion that to invoke ideas about Kabbalah one must imagine that some Latin male named in the historical record as mediator and cleanser of ‘foreign’ knowledge for a Latin audience. In this case, the role is typically imagined filled by poor Ramon Llull.

That passage just quoted shows clearly enough, I think, that such assumptions of a ‘white-walled Europe’ in which only western Christians could read books written in Latin, and no external knowledge entered Europe except some individual Latin had been to fetch it or, alternatively, had served as ‘gate-keeper’ are ideas which, though commonplace in Friedmans’ day, are no longer maintained in serious historical studies – though still habitual in Voynich writings of the traditionalist type.

The reality of the wider medieval world, and even just of the Mediterranean world, is of multi-lingual and multi-disciplinary learning able to pass fairly easily along land and sea-routes, and sometimes even to the uttermost fringes of the world – as Europe then was. It needed no Latin’s coming to fetch the matter, nor any Latin ‘gatekeeper’ to permit or deny its entry. What was needed was a lessening of that morbid superstition, rife in Europe, that association with ‘foreigners’ brought some sort of contamination – an idea which there long-predated the advent of plague.

Like everyone else, I began by supposing that the constantly-repeated scheme of the traditional ‘Voynich story’ must have developed in the way scholarship normally does, from a basis of some solid foundational studies. By the time I’d looked into twenty of the manuscript’s drawings, I could not avoid acknowledging the wide disparity between the evidence of the primary document and that traditional narrative. Seeking out those ‘foundational studies’ I then found them without substance – an undocumented sales pitch by Wilfrid Voynich; a scrap of third-hand rumour (still without any substance to it), and the efforts of cryptographers guided by the Friedmans, whose inclinations and biases have been considered by previous posts to this blog.

*Posts Nos. 6-27.

Today I think that the Voynich manuscript is a more valuable historical document than those early theorists could have appreciated, and more valuable than can be imagined even tofay by a person basing their theoretical schemes on the same old Eurocentric and class-obsessed scheme.

The drawings in Beinecke MS408 embody information which was rare in Europe, some of it very rare even in the seventeenth century as I’ll demonstrate in a later post.

The question of how the material did reach Europe to be copied (as we currently think) in the early fifteenth century is an altogether different question.

When, where and how its written text was added is also, thankfully, not within our remit.

That the manuscript, overall, is no reflection of what was being taught in medieval western universities is evident – at the very least by a century’s failure to find valid parallels for it – but against this, the few drawings which do exhibit a Latin character have found occasional echoes – as for example the form given Constantinople-Pera in the Voynich map, or those ‘deformed lobsters’ earlier mentioned ( see last quarter of Note #7 Pt 1).

When both style of drawing and the information conveyed find no parallel in any extant western work, I think it is surely better to admit that fact, than to create and elaborate still more baseless storylines from the old Eurocentric vision.

Better to admit that the drawings are ‘strange, even foreign-looking’ as d’Imperio almost did, than to opt for guesswork and speculation or, by imposing facile and fairly arbitrary ‘matches’ on the drawings, to try adding support to that old narrative. In the end, surely, it must the material evidence and the testimony of the primary document which decides our opinions.

So let’s pay careful attention to what it has to say.

First – the slow, careful scan, setting the image firmly in memory and missing nothing. An analytical study should include every detail. It’s enough to notice exactly what’s there on the page – no need to have a mind busy imagining, speculating or leaping onto some particular detail. Just memorise.

Folio 67v-1

folio 67v-1

all images from the manuscript are from the Beinecke Library website copyright Yale University.

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.. for James (brief note).

about 1230 words

My thanks to James Barlett, the first of my correspondents to protest that I’d been “a bit quick” in the previous post, and (as James put it) “tossing out meaningless phrases like ‘star measures.’ “.

Re-reading the post from James’ point of view, I see his point, so  for James and other who like details, I add this short post.

Charts of the ‘rose-gridded’ type are not ‘mappamundi’ but navigational charts –  as Datini’s agent understood, and the person who described Cresques’ Atlas for the Bibliotheque nationale.

Such charts are a product of the surveyor’s arts, but when it comes to navigation, the ‘surveyor’ must survey not only his horizon, but what is above it.

 Sidereal navigation was not an art widely known in the medieval Mediterranean – at least not to the level it was practiced by Polynesians and, thanks not least to them, to some among the Arab mariners  in the eastern seas – or, as Majid sometimes calls them collectively, the ‘great sea’. 

‘Surveying the sky’ was an art which Majid and his fellows did know and he counted among those ‘fellows’ certain of the piratical mariners of the north African coast, the original ‘Barbary men’. This part of north Africa is of considerable interest to us since, as we’ve seen, it was there that Leonardo of Pisa first gained his basic knowledge of calculation using Hindu-Arabic numerals; one of our earliest of the rose-gridded cartes marine was also made in Tunis and pre-dates the earliest extant examples from Genoa or from Majorca, and in the same region Kabbalism was widespread.  

At one point, Majid compares himself (and the north African navigators) to the ordinary Mediterranean seamen,  whom he groups together as ‘Egyptians’, and says:

“they [the ‘Egyptians’] are not able to do these things nor can they understand what we can do, although we can understand what they do ..they have no qiyās measurements,* no science and no [navigation] books only the ‘compass’ and a number of “miles”, neither do they use “star fetterings”. We can easily travel in their ships and upon their sea …

They acknowledge that we have the better knowledge of the sea and its sciences and the wisdom of the stars in the high roads of the sea.” (p.121).

*qiyās. Pole altitude measurements. In the story of Marco Polo, we are told that the Arab mariners of the eastern seas had good charts and in the account of his sailing up the eastern coast of India, the height of the Pole Star above well-known ports is given.  As Tibbetts says, in recounting these things (p.6) “we can be quite certain that qiyās measurement was practiced by the navigators of the Arabian sea in his day”.  Determining the position of a port or other landmark by reference to the star which ‘stood’ over it is, of course another instance of corresponding star-and-place positions.  On land, a similar practice was well known to the desert Arabs and also informs the story of Jesus’ birth in the Christian gospels. This was a practice more ancient than astrology, and quite independent of it, though chiefly known to those who crossed the trackless wastes of sea and sand.

  • G.R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the Coming of the Portuguese: Being a Translation of “Kitab al-Farawa’id fi usul al-bahr wa’l-qawa’id of Ahmad b. Majid al-Najdi”.  Originally published with maps and charts in 1971, in London, by the Royal Asiatic Society. My copy included four charts: The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden; the Arabian Sea, including part of Somalia and of the Persian Gulf; India and the Bay of Bengal; a sheet containing two charts – the East African coat and the seas of South-east Asia. Compiled from the Arabs’ navigational texts.  


Qiyās is one of those ‘star measures’ I was thinking of. 

It’s not entirely true that Mediterranean mariners knew nothing of the navigational stars.  They used two other stars in Ursa Minor to determine the position of the Pole star if sight of it was obscured,  and to tell the hours of the night. And of course they knew Orion, whose setting nominally ended the Mediterranean sailing year, and the Pleiades and Bootes, by the aid of which Odysseus says he sailed home, eventually, from Troy.  But in medieval times they did indeed, as Majid says, have to rely on their wind-compass and measure the distance from one place to another in terms of the following wind which would – in theory – take a ship directly from the one place to the other.

Majid’s navigation was more like the surveyor’s art, and his tools were cousin to those used by the surveyor – a rod or ‘wood’ and a length of knotted cord.  These had been the land-surveyors’ tools from memory out of mind, and certainly from the time of dynastic Egypt.   The ‘rod or pole’ measure of the navigators was much shorter, of course, but it was also a standard measure. The same was true for the knotted cord.  

kamal Ifland

The measuring rod is depicted in a Mozarabic manuscript, where a correlation is made between the earthly and the heavenly vault, and the ‘angelic measures’ are tacitly equated with those who worship the deity on earth as in heaven.   While I don’t suppose the monk who made this image knew very much of navigation, but it should be recalled that Spain was not part of the Latin domains in earlier centuries. Before and even after the Muslim conquest, parts of Spain and north Africa remained part of the Byzantine empire, just as Muslim Spain remained initially closely connected with the Caliphate in Baghdad. Notice the form of these ‘star flowers and dots’ which are meant to represent the fields of stars. (cf. ‘Compostella’).

celestial measure rod Silos Apocalypse

Correlating celestial and terrestrial ‘rule’ by the measures of the pole,  or rod can be expressed in diverse ways.  

If I were to explain in detail why the term ‘kav’ relates so well to this mesh of ideas, I’d probably have to begin by explaining that many words in the shared vocabulary of medieval Mediterranean mariners did not originate with Latin or even with Greek but have been maintained from remote antiquity and some terms are clearly from ancient Egyptian, including terms as basic as ‘cabin’ and ‘governor’. 

Majid had his reasons for  saying that the majority of Mediterranean mariners were ‘Egyptian’.

But if you simply imagine that ‘rod or pole’ as a long, hollow reed, then you may better appreciate the underlying idea which those varied associations for the ‘kav’ carry in ordinary usage, and in kabbalah.

Here is evidence of the surveyor’s rod and knotted cord in antiquity: ‘measuring the fields’. 

surveying earth and heavens Pharaonic Egypt


Any reader wanting to go deeper into any of the points I’ve mentioned is welcome to email for the references. I won’t add them here; they’re not part of a Voynich research bibliography.



for Voynicheros still unconvinced by the detailed explanation offered earlier* about the ‘Voynich archer’ and his hat alluding to Spain, here’s another illustration from the 10thC Mozarabic manuscript, the Silos Beatus. (* through voynichimagery).

Michael Beatus Hell headwear hair scales

The curious position of Michael’s legs is not (as it would be if in a later, Latin, manuscript) a sign of heterodoxy but rather of an obduracy in the face of temptation.  The fallen angels were, after all, his natural brothers.  Here, as in the vocabulary of Byzantine art, wild hair signifies a wicked and untamed character.  

I’m not sure if this is enough to satisfy James that there was more to my mentioning star-measures than just tossing words about, but I hope it will do.

Consider this.. (cont.). Numerals, networks, Spain and something of Kabbalah.

This post is almost 2800 words.

The earliest close examples of an upright ‘4’ numeral noted so far come from Florence at the beginning of the fourteenth century and then in Cresques’ great pictorial compendium of 1375, which includes various diagrams and a great worldmap, gridded by the ‘rose’ and containing what is still the first known inset ‘compass rose’ (see further below).

Contrary to what you might find said elsewhere, Cresques’ map is not a ‘mappamundi’ and its connection to the rutters or ‘portolans’ is certainly debateable, given that the same notion was rejected on technical grounds as early as the mid-twentieth century.

The recent, astounding assertion by one writer, on a nicely presented and official looking website was that Cresques had all his information from a couple of northern European Christian missionaries and that is surely pure invention. The sources of Cresques’ inscriptions for that map are already known, and include sources such as Ibn Jubayr’s journeys and the Alf Layla wa Laya. Allusions are also made to Jewish legends, such as that Noah settled north Africa after the flood and began viticulture again from there.

One cannot now discover how that modern author came to entertain the ‘Christian missionaries’ notion, for he died during the pandemic and I know only that he claimed some connection to the Central European university of Prague. With both authors of that project now lost, the translation of all the labels into English may be stopped or at least halted for the foreseeable future, but we do not have to rely on that material to consider the problem of the ‘4’.

IN the same way that Genoa was under Milanese control by the time the Voynich manuscript was made, so it was with two more of the four once-independent Italian maritime states.

Amalfi had earlier been taken by Pisa (August 6th., 1136) and in 1406 Pisa itself was taken, by stealth, by the Florentines. Amalfi had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Naples during the late fourteenth century.

Oddly enough, Florence did not develop Pisa as its maritime arm, but on the contrary suppressed the naval activity of both Amalfi and Pisa.

The significance of Florentine control of Pisa, Neapolitan control of Amalfi and Milanese rule in Genoa, is that direct political power meant access to all technical secrets, skills and any system of ciphers earlier held exclusively by the neighbour. Trade secrets were treasure then, just as now.

When we find the ‘4’ form appear briefly in Florence, early in the fourteenth century, within a copy of the Pisan ‘Liber abaci’ we know the exemplar might have been a local copy, or an earlier one acquired directly from Pisa or indeed from Amalfi, noted for its schools of mathematics. The best copies were known to be ones closest to the date of composition.

It should be noted here too that (to quote an online tourist site) “by about the 1230s Amalfi became one of the first locations in Europe to produce paper…. [which] was soon sold all over the Mediterranean. Paper making continued as an important local trade throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

My own view of the ‘4’ numeral’s history, at present, is that we shall probably never know absolutely who first wrote the numeral as ‘4’ in Europe and that if there were a single key to the problem it may well have been lost in 1343, when a tidal wave obliterated Amalfi’s harbour and lower town, ushering in a period of decline from which the town never recovered. It s relevant, in my opinion, that all four – Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa and Venice had allotted quarters in medieval Constantinople. (see interactive map by Saffran and Nicolescu)

However, we may still regard Amalfi or Genoa as likely to have brought that ‘4’ form to Italy, because of a demonstrable connection between those maritime states and Cresques’ great work.

The semi-legendary Amalfitan surnamed ‘Gioia’ is popularly credited with having first placed a magnetised needle over a diagram of the western wind-rose and enclosed all in a glass-covered box. Properly, that was not the ‘compass’ but the bussola (buxula), and the true navigational compass (as qumbas) the eastern navigator’s ‘rose’ whose points were named for stars. In my opinion it was in that sense Cresques describes himself as ‘master of bussola and compass’. The islands of Majorca and Minorca were remarkably cosmopolitan at that time and Arabic had been the island’s official language until just 70 years before. What is more, the original ‘Barbary’ pirates of the north African coast around Sicily, who were Berber and Arabs, are said by Ibn Majid to share the same skills and know-how as he – an Arabs master of the eastern seas.

Seen in daylight, Cresques’ great worldmap shows the world below, but at night with no illumination save a few candles what one sees is as if a veil scattered with golden dots were laid over the darkened world. Makers of terrestrial maps and marine charts also made maps of the heavens. Bussola and qumbas.

You may think such technicalities aren’t needed here but, as I first discussed some years ago in the course of providing a detailed analysis and commentary for the Voynich map, there is a precedent for Cresques’ inclusion of his ‘angel of the rose’ and for his map’s mirroring along its centre line. I won’t elaborate on the last point here, but refer again to the fourteenth century Genoese cartographer, Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesconti’).

In one of his ‘rose-gridded’ charts, composed in 1311 1318 – that is, about or shortly after the time of that Florentine ‘4’ – there is another faint allusion to the same motif found in Cresques’ work and in the Voynich map and in all three cases – that is, the Vesconte carte marine, Cresques’, and the Voynich map, the motif of its ‘surveying angel’ is even placed within the same – north-west – quarter.

Note (added 5th. Dec. 2021] Pietro Vesconte’s date of birth is uncertain, but he is described as ‘flourishing’ c.1310-1330. Genoese by birth and education, his earlier charts and maps were produced there, but most of his extant work was produced in Venice.

This is less obvious in the Voynich map because it presents with its east and west reversed from the European norm. Western custom permits such east-west reversal with a constant North only in literal representations of the night sky.

I apologise to long term readers for again repeating points first made by me and in research published before 2020, but some of that research was treated as if its conclusions were just ‘an idea’ to be imitated, and its illustrations to be re-used without their context – so what was ‘lifted’ by the imitators was invariably – perhaps inevitably – badly mangled, and has never been well used by Voynich theorists and so must be repeated here. I regret having to deface the illustration for the same reason.

(left) detail from the Voyich map, its North-west roundel (upper right) detail from Abraham Cresques rose-gridded world-map, its north-western quadrant; (lower right) detail from a chart by Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesctonti’, its upper-west corner). From the 1318 Vesconte atlas (Museo Correr, Venice)

and so, again..:

Since I have already said that the final recension of the Voynich map should be dated to c.1350, with our present copy dated to the early fifteenth, I think here again we may narrow the environment for the ‘4’ shape as numeral and, just possibly its use in the Voynich manuscript, to the specific environment of calculation and geometry gained in service to navigation and trade.

In other words to apprenticeships and the ‘abaco’ school rather than in schools offering a more literary, theoretical or philosophical education. More evidence may demand that opinion be altered, but that’s where I stand so far.

It might even be that the Voynich ‘4’ shape is meant in the manuscript as a numeral, even if also used, or originating, as an alphabetic sign, though I should be wary of assuming that the Voynich script’s other glyph of similar form – that with a more curved ‘eye’ – is necessarily to be read as it is.*

*a question I’ve not ever looked into, but which arises from time to time, is a possible origin for the ‘Cistercian’ numerals in a version of Syriac script. See later note on a mixed alphanumeric system.

For those who enjoy the slog of using pictorial archives of kind typified by the Index of Christian Art (as was), it might be fun to see what else turns up for ‘4’ in European sources around 1300.

In any case, the story which puts Leonardo of Pisa and his ‘Liber abaci’ centre stage is an over-simplified one. That story’s short version runs something like ‘Arabs brought the Hindu numerals westwards. Leonardo (‘Fibonacci) saw them, and brought them to Europe’.

But Leonardo didn’t use that ‘4’ shape. His relevance to our present problem is rather the pattern of his travels, which illustrate nicely contemporary networks of trade and travel.

The Pisan Leonardo first learned Arabic numerals in a major Berber-speaking city of North Africa, during the last decade of the twelfth century. His sobriquet ‘the traveller’ was well earned.

Fibonacci states that his father wanted him to stay and be taught “for some days” in a “calculation school” in Bejaïa, where he was introduced to the “art [of calculation] by the nine figures of the Indians”. The knowledge of this art pleased him so much that he learned all he could about how it was studied in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Sicily and Provence when going there for the sake of trade.

So there it is. Those ‘Indian’ numerals were already known in Greece, in Sicily and in Provence before the end of the twelfth century. I’ve used the quote only so I can reference:

  • Charles Burnett, Numerals and Arithmetic in the Middle Ages (Variorum Collected Studies Series CS967) 2010.

There were especially close ties between Pisa and Béjaïa during the twelfth century. In c.1350, it was rather with Tunis and Cairo that the Venetian traded who wrote the zibaldone now Beinecke MS 327.

Béjaïa, formerly Bougie and Bugia was by Roman times known as  Saldae.    Béjaïa is still among the centres where the Berber language Kabyle is in daily use.  

Poor Ramon Lull would arrive in Béjaïa during the early fourteenth century (in 1314) as an 81 year old Dominican friar hoping to make converts to the Latin Christian church. He was dead within a twelvemonth, though accounts of his death differ, some saying he was executed for trying to persuade Muslims to become apostates to their faith – something prohibited in every region under Muslim governance as indeed it would have been in regions under Latin Christian governance had the reciprocal occurred.

Other accounts have Llull dying on the ship returning him to Majorca.


Correction. (December 15th., 2021).

I see that my sources are out of date, superseded by an updated (Feb.2021) entry in Stamford University’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, where it says that Llull did not enter the Dominican order, nor the Franciscans’ and gives the following account of his fruitless trip to Béjaïa.

‘De vita’ narrates this trip in detail. Llull spent most of the time in prison. Instead of seeking to meet intellectuals, as he did on his first trip to Tunisia, right after disembarkation, he went to the main square and harangued passersby and anyone present at the time. The crowd was infuriated, and Llull was placed under arrest. The authorities questioned and imprisoned him. He would stay there for six months, receiving visits from sages who sought to convert him to Islam. He was later expelled from the city, but his hardships would not end there. His ship sank on the trip back to Genoa, but Llull and another passenger managed to survive by reaching the coast. He would then remain in Pisa, where he would finish texts he had previously began writing, such as ‘Ars generalis ultima’.


Llull has his place in western Europe’s history, but unless one of his works contains examples of Majorcan-Florentine ‘4’ he is less relevant to our present question than the more congenial, secular, interactions between Berbers, Jews, Arabs and Italians before 1300, including within the naval, commercial and cartographic schools.

Voynich writers interested in the possibility that the Voynich ‘alphabet’ may be composed of elements taken from a number of other systems may be interested in an account of the invention, during second quarter of the twelfth century, of a new mixed system of mathematical notation.

Burnett writes:

*Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic of Indian Numerals in Arabic, Greek and Latin’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 1/2 (April 2006) pp.15-30. [JSTOR]

 For those who’d like to see what Greek script of the fourteenth century looked like, here’s a detail from a Greek fourteenth-century map in Codex Vatopedinus 655.

“Europe gained its numerals from the Jews”

“The Jewish community… reconstituted in 1306” from ‘Amalfi’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica JVL online. 2005.

As early as 1891, when European scholars were just beginning to enquire into the history of the forms for their numerals, it was already being accepted as fact that they had come from Spain. (See for example the off-hand “or rather, from Spain” in a review published in the Scottish Antiquary (Vol. 6, No. 22, (1891) p.54).

But even more unexpectedly, an association was made with Kabbalah as early as 1839!

I’ve just learned the last fact thanks to Phineas Mordell’s meticulous documentation of his sources and precedents in a very brief note of 1925. For its historical value, I’ve reproduced this note in full.

  • Phineas Mordell, ‘Note on the Theory of the Kabbalistic Origin of “Arabic” Numerals’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Oct., 1925), p. 207.

Of course it is possible that by 1932, Erwin Panofsky had read one or more of those sources listed above, or even an article published late in 1931; in addressing Friedman’s list of Questions more than twenty years later, Panofsky mis-remembered the year in which he’d seen the manuscript – writing ‘1931’ when it can only have been in 1932, as explained in an earlier post.

  • Solomon Gandz, ‘The Origin of the Ghubār Numerals, or the Arabian Abacus and the Articuli’, Isis, Nov., 1931, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Nov., 1931), pp. 393-424.

Panofsky was never so vapid as to mistake for an ‘idea’ the conclusions of genuine research, nor was he obliged to parrot others’ assertions for want of ability to form balanced and well-informed opinions of his own – but he may well have read one or more of those articles for the same reason that G.F. Hill wrote his monograph (see previous post) that is – to assist in accurately provenancing artefacts and quickly identifying fakes.

I think Panofsky could have known those precedents- not that he would say anything of the sort unless it were suggested to him by aspects of the materials, pigments, imagery and vellum which he observed during the two hours he spent studying the manuscript itself. But now to that list of things observed we may add (with a query) the form of one or more of the Voynich glyphs – perhaps even the ‘4’. We don’t know. All we do know is what some long-term readers of my blogs probably know by heart now, but for newcomers..

Panofsky’ freely-given opinion was given to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill, the latter soon reporting it in a letter to her friend, Herbert Garland. She wrote*

“he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!

**for details of Nill’s letter, see the transcription made by Rich Santacoloma which I believe was the first published transcription. See his post. ‘Anne Nill speaks‘.  For my earlier comments, in this blog, about the letter and about Rich’s thoughts see here. 

To the question,  ‘What exactly had Panofsky seen in the manuscript which led him to mention Kabbalah’? I never did find a clear answer, and ran into unexpected difficulties, such as the lack of modern scholarly articles about the medieval commentaries or even modern translations of those commentaries that I could quote in an English-language blog.

As with many other research questions, one sometimes has to leave a problem aside for a time, until new information or pure serendipity offers a way forward.  Very recently, a single article in n online journal has explained the apparent barriers and, quite incidentally, offered a line to another and quite different question that I’d laid aside pending better information. I’ll try to get to that journal article in the next post.

For a short comment and an initial bibliography for the question of any influence from Kabbalah in Beinecke MS 408 see  (Post #15). 

With this question, as with the history of European forms for its numerals and most other fields of historical research, the public’s idea of a positivistic ‘forward march’ is deceptive.

Very often a study moves over time more like a pretty complicated sort of quickstep, involving  not a few trodden toes, losses of direction and ‘excuse-me’ interruptions, backwards moving which takes one forwards and some few straight-forward passages.  In the history of European numerals, for example, there was a period in the 1950s and in America, where the story was badly misdirected by an ideological fixation on the Babylonians and a transmission-theory gone berzerk.  As example, here’s one such paper, though if you don’t feel like reading it all, here’s a taste of that author’s ‘commonsense amateur theory’ approach.

… a casual inspection of the Arabic numerals suggested that these symbols might have evolved from forms such as are shown in Fig. 10, hereafter termed Ancestral Arabic numerals. It is evident that they are a variation of the Prototype numerals which the writer later derived from hand-signs, and still later discovered had been widely employed..

from: W. Clyde Richey, ‘On the Origin and Development of the Arabic Numerals’,  Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science , Vol. 26 (1952), pp. 134-146. [quote shortened .. 5th Dec. 2021]

Not ‘handsigns’ but methods of finger-calculation may, in fact, prove relevant to our efforts to read Voynichese.

But I digress.

When quite early insights are overlooked or shrugged away in favour of worse ones, as happens more often than laymen suppose, it is also true that they may be recovered or re- discovered again later thanks to properly documented work in the meantime, or because the sum of historical evidence requires it.  

As example, here’s Charles Burnett, writing in 2006, and after years of close study of the question…  and evidently arriving at a view held by at least one person in 1891, in Scotland. 

One can observe, too, that, during the course of the twelfth century, alternative forms of the Indian numerals dropped out of use, especially the ‘eastern forms’ which were briefly shared by Arabic scholars in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek scholars, and Latin scholars in Italy. The forms which drove out their competitors (in my view) were developed by scholars in Toledo, and quickly spread to northern Italy, where they were used by Fibonacci. (p.21)

  • Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic …’ op.cit

except for that form of ‘4’, which Fibonacci did not use….

(detail and enlargement) Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 f. 334

MS Burney 275 is described as

Scholastic miscellany, Central France (Paris), 1309-1316. Priscian, Cicero, and Pseudo-Cicero, Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, Ptolemy, translated [nominally – D.] by Gerard of Cremona.

Note – after some thought, I’ve altered the spelling of the Genoese cartographer’s name from ‘Vesconti’ to ‘Vesconte‘ as less likely to create confusion with the Milanese Visconti family, though researchers hunting secondary sources should search both versions of Pietro’s name.

Glass and the pearl band

two prior:

FOR AN ARCHAEOLOGIST, or anyone specialising in a some specific field of technology or art, one’s first instinct when presented with a problematic artefact is to seek that point, within the axes of time and of geography, that it rightly belongs. In the present case, though, another preliminary step must intervene, because since 1912 Beineke MS 408 has been seen through an old and narrowly-defined Eurocentric lens.

That narrative is still substantially that which Wilfrid Voynich created, which was early adopted and maintained by William Romaine Newbold, and later fixed in the public imagination by its repetition in prestigious sources such as d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and the holding library’s catalogue entry.

Pressures of repetition, and earnest efforts to justify one or more aspects of Wilfrid’s narrative after the fact (while still altering it the better to support some variant) have fixed an impression among most people that among the few items we can say ‘we know’ is that the whole content of the manuscript should exhibit an exclusively western Latin Christian character.

Given the consistency with which those assumptions have been maintained despite (or perhaps because of) never being investigated with a critical eye, it is perfectly understandable that any suggestion about the content’s perhaps including unmediated foreign matter would cause disquiet.

So in this post, rather than risk being thought to have dispensed arbitrarily with a Eurocentric focus, I’ll do what I can to re-define what might be called the medieval ‘European horizon’.

In the map below, the darker coloured area had been, over the centuries, part of the Persian empire, then of Alexander’s empire, and next of the Median-Persian and Sasanian empire. It then became part of the Islamic empire until, during the thirteenth century AD, much of it fell to the Mongols, whose policy during the first wave of conquests was to wipe from the map any city offering active resistance.

Some sites named in that map (above) were household names in medieval Europe because they find mention in the Bible. Nineveh is mentioned repeatedly and not only in the Jewish religious books incorporated into the Christian bible but in the Christian testament itself (e.g. Luke 11:32).

Babylon was another proverbial name, so well known that when the western pope took his court to Avignon and it remained there almost seventy years (1309 to 1376), the period was commonly called its  ‘Babylonian captivity’.

Tabriz I’ve had reason to mention* as the city where Claudius’ Ptolemy’s astronomical co-ordinates were updated and that new data acquired  by the Byzantine scholar Gregory Chioniades between 1295-96. He called it the ‘Persian syntaxis’.

*see post of July 11th., 2021

Across the whole width of that territory and to as far as China, western Christian missionaries, diplomats and traders were already passing before the end of the thirteenth century.

By 1350 – about half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made – a census of Franciscan houses lists twenty-two on the route from Constantinople through the Black Sea and overland to as far as China, with four houses established by then in China itself – two in Peking at the terminus of the overland routes, and two in the southern, foreigners’ port known as ‘Zayton’ (Guangzhou) where the Genoese or Venetian Katarina Vilioni had died in 1342.

For a time, early in the seventh century, the Sasanian Empire had included the whole of present-day Iran and Iraq and also much of the eastern Mediterranean (including Anatolia and Egypt.

The Byzantines had reason to remember the Sassanians, whose army had alone succeeded in resisting Rome, and it was never forgotten that in c.260AD King Shapur had captured the Roman Emperor Valerian and him kept in captivity for the rest of his life.

(Those familiar with the Voynich manuscript may recognise in Shapur’s stepped-turreted crown a form similar to that given a female figure appearing twice in the Voynich calendar. In both cases (see diagrams for July and August); the figure holds a large 9-pointed ‘aster’ and is set on the innermost tier at 90 degrees right from the vertical. The inset in the picture (below) shows the example from July, where the crown and certain other details are evidently late additions to the original.

In 532 AD and following several major losses to the Persians, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I agreed to pay 440,000 gold pieces in return for an ‘eternal peace’.

Justinian evidently treated this final defeat as a triumph of diplomacy, and it is memorialised in a mosaic made for the basilica S.Vitali in Ravenna, the work begun in 526 and completed in 547.

Sassanian seal-ring set with a carnelian ‘sardion’.

The mosaic shows Justinian wearing as his ‘badge of honour’ a gem then called a ‘Sardion’ after the city of Sardis, stones of this type often used as a seal-stone by the Sasanians (see example at right).

Worn as Justinian’s badge of honour, the stone is shown surrounded by ‘ring of dots’ as pearls – another typically Sasanian-Persian motif in textiles, ceramics and glass but one equally characteristic of Byzantine art.

The bowl which Justinian carries is also patterned in Sasanian style, though the glass appears richly gilded.

(detail) Justinian I. 6thC mosaic, Ravenna. Basilica San Vitale.

Chan mentions that within each of the hexagons that form that bowl’s basic honeycomb pattern is set another and smaller one. In the upper left of the photograph (above) one of them can be seen fairly clearly – it appears as a ‘dot’.

However, the Sasanian emperor almost immediately broke that first ‘eternal peace’ and another mosaic portrait of Justinian, made for Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, shows Justinian now without his ‘sard’ and wearing a different expression.

This mosaic is believed made in 561 AD or shortly before, when work on Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was completed. A second ‘eternal peace’ would finally be achieved in 562, after six hundred years’ war between the Romans and Sasanian Persia.

The point I want to make is that even if we ignore the probable significance for the Sasanians of that ‘circle of pearls/dots’ it was an established motif in Byzantine art, and for those who made glass, and fabric, and mosaics.

Tesserae of both stone and glass were employed for mosaics, and such motifs as the ‘pearl band’ remained as a constantly present model for the ‘finishing’ or ‘crowning’ touch, even when the subject was not a member of the Byzantine court.

Ravenna is a little more than a hundred miles down the Adriatic coast from Venice, and its magnificent basilicas remained a model of what could be achieved, if only one had the technical means and skilled artisans. Thus, we know (although not every Venetian site will say so) that when Venice decided to remodel the Basilica of S.Marco during the thirteenth century, it imported both eastern materials, and workers. A nicely condensed account of this basilica’s complicated history is offered by the author of a wiki article, who writes:

The earliest surviving [mosaic] work, in the main porch, perhaps dates to as early as 1070, and was probably by a workshop that had left Constantinople in the mid-11th century and worked at Torcello Cathedral.* They are in “a fairly pure Byzantine style” but in succeeding phases of work Byzantine influence … was reduced by stages, disappearing altogether by about the 1130s, after which the style was Italian in essentials, reflecting “a change from a colonial to a local art”. The main period of decoration was the 12th century, a period of deteriorating relations between Venice and Byzantium, but very little is known about the process .. The main work on the interior mosaics was apparently complete by the 1270s, with work on the atrium continuing into the 1290s.

*we have already noted, in the post previous to this, that at Torcello  the glass objects were made ” using cullet (glass refuse) or glass cakes imported from the eastern Mediterranean’.

The basic drawings may have been ‘local art’ but the artisans were apparently not from any local tradition of mosaic-making, for..

After [the 1279s-90s]the St Marks workshop seems to have been disbanded, so that when a fire in 1419 caused serious damage, the only Venetian capable of the work had just died and the Signoria of Florence had to be asked for help; they sent Paolo Uccello.

San Marco never made the transition to fresco wall paintings … probably partly due to Venetian conservatism and also to a wish to support the local Murano glass industry, which supplied the tesserae. The point is that from 1290 – 1419 (at least) no mosaics were added.

Who then is the ‘old master’ among the 13thC images of Venetian trades? His ‘Sasanian’ cap is enough to point us in the right direction, even without the visual pun of his ‘Mosaic’ beard.

It cannot be Master Aldrevandin, but is perhaps his teacher.

Work on S. Marco’s mosaics finished officially in the 1290s – during which time glassmakers were first confined to Muran and then prohibited from leaving the city. Master Aldrevandin, as we know, then made beakers which introduced the the long-traditional ‘pearl band’ of Sasanian and Byzantine work into the traditions of Muran. They served initially in western Europe as his own hallmark and then became a standard motif on Murano glass. Sasanian ‘crystal’ glass had been known to as far as China by the 3rdC AD.

Sasanian clear glass beaker
coins Sasanian headwear
photos: (above) two versions of Sasanian headwear.

Ge Hong (283-343), a well-known .. Daoist philosopher with an expertise in alchemy left an important information in his work ‘Baopuzi’ that ‘the crystal bowls made in foreign countries, are in fact prepared by compounding five sorts of (mineral) ashes. Today this method is being commonly practiced in Jiao and Guang (that is, Annan and Guangdong). Now if one tells this to ordinary people, they will certainly not believe it, saying that crystal is a natural product belonging to the class of rock crystal.’

  • Mei-Ling Chen, ‘The Importation of Byzantine and Sasanian Glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries,” in Harris, Incipient Globalization?, 47-52 [pdf].

One of the curious details relayed to Nick Pelling by the curators of the Murano glass museum was the secret by which Angelo Barovier produced his hard, clear glass in 1450, was allegedly  “a special flux, made of a sort of alum obtained from eastern plants.” (Curse p.). 

Plant-ash sodas are not a form of alum, but that type of plant-ash alkali was regularly preferred in Muran, even when other Italian glassmakers used natron, and was known popularly as alluma catana, literally ‘basin alum’.  Of itself, however, it couldn’t harden or clarify glass and in theory the ashes from sola kali would not produce a different result, whether burned in Spain, in ‘the east’ or in Italy. The important question, of course, is “how could Barovier know?” If the seller told him the virtues of a new type of plant-ash, it was not Barovier’s invention. If not, where and how would a man restricted to his island and prohibited from discussing his craft, even think to look for and then to find and import the right sort of ‘plant-ash’? Is it more likely that some Venetian trader brought back both the material and an understanding of those ‘five mineral ashes’?

I suspect the ‘eastern plant ash’ was another of those memories passed down in Murano from the time of Master Aldrevandin, but Barovier’s method for clarifying and hardening glass is still not easy to discover.  The answer may lie in one of the following references. I’ve been unable to sight either during the past few months.

  • Cesare Moretti and Tullio Toninato (eds.) and David C. Watts and Cesare Moretti (ed. and trans.),Glass Recipes of the Renaissance: Transcription of an Anonymous Venetian Manuscript. (2011).
  • Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria = The Art of Glass, translated and annotated by Paul Engle, 3 vols., (2003–2007).

for those references, I am indebted to the author of

Ravenna mosaic three wise men and artefacts. Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

(above) The three wise men from the east. Artefacts display characteristically Sasanian techniques in metalwork (and glass?). detail of a mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.


POSTSCRIPT – regarding the figure who holds a nine-point ‘aster’ in the Voynich calendar’s months of July and August:

Persia’s star was ever Perseus ‘the destroyer’ envisaged as a horse mounted by a skeleton or phantom rider. The equation was known to Herodotus in the 5thC BC and still in the fifteenth century AD – at least to some. Herodotus therefore has Perseus as the progenitor of the Persian people. Ibn Majid, writing in the fifteenth century, names this horse (as the constellation was earlier envisaged) ‘Al Kumait’ – the unbridled. The image on the card below, showing the rider ‘backward-turned’ is the older and more authentic form.  See also Alamy image (WP338D) which I cannot include here.

The pictures in this set of 17 cards show a markedly different origin and intellectual level from all others known in Europe. Unlike most who comment on such game-cards, I’m of the opinion that these represent an original type and I’m quite prepared to believe such cards as these might have served as tutorial aids in fourteenth century France.

Perseus and Perseids





Sasanian head band

Sasanian hunt backward turning

If that ‘aster’-holding figure is meant for the Persians’ star, it is most likely to refer to Algol, properly named Al-ghul in the Arabic, though I don’t know the old Persian term for it.  The star was envisaged as a blaze, or trophy (see above, and below) on the horse’s hip, though at other times represented as a trophy-head -or even as a wine or water-skin.  (see further below).

Sasanian hunt with trophy.

…as a wine-skin or water-skin. 

Sasanian hunt as stellar triumph oveer zodiac

Due to precession, Perseus’ ‘rain of arrows’ (the Perseid meteor showers) now  peaks in August.  For more on this see: here. The floating scarves parallel the wisps of the Milky Way.

On retention of pre-Islamic elements in later Iranian art, including the ‘flying gallop’ and the scarves, see ‘ART IN IRAN xii. Iranian pre-Islamic Elements in Islamic Art’, Encyclopaedia Iranica. (online).

image courtesy Encyclopaedia Iranica.

In the Greek astronomy, Perseus is a human figure and the ‘ghul’ the trophy as Medusa’s head.

PPS – apologies to readers for the numerous ‘updates’ – mainly typos, grammatical errors and other small annoyances. Just had my second inoculation and the brain isn’t working properly.

Dec. 29th., 2021.

Happening to re-read this today, I see I should have been more specific AND should have included the ‘petal’ held by the figures. ‘Nine-petals’ is probably more accurate. Here are the details I mean. My one reservation is that Perseus’ temporary victory into the North occurs now, yet these figures appear at ninety degrees to the vertical. The distinction, I expect, is more apparent that real. More – this example again seems to me to indicate that the inner circuit refers to the polar and circumpolar stars and the outer to those on or near the horizon. I admit to having devoted less time to this question than it deserves. Here are the details I mean. from July and August in the Voynich calendar.