It is now more than a decade since I pointed out, for persons then involved in Voynich studies, that while the calendar diagrams’ central emblems use a visual language near-enough to Latin conventions, the diagrams themselves do not.
Given the enormous optimism, self-confidence and positivism one finds in Voynich writers working outside their areas of special competence – and which is surely needed to address so problematic a manuscript in the absence of prior studies – I expect my opinion will be unwelcome that any correct reading of these diagrams (if not of their written labels) will need specialist knowledge at a level we associate with such names as David A. King, Elly Dekker, and the late David Pingree and Paul Kunitzsch – Kunitzsch’s death in 2020 ending one of my own long-held hopes for this study.
The diagrams raise a number of highly technical issues which only a deep grounding in the history of medieval astronomical texts, tables and charts can clarify. Many of those issues will be invisible to a general reader and amateur theorist, especially any misled into thinking that all one needs are “two eyes and commonsense” and some computing skills.
I had hoped to avoid pouring such cold water on enthusiasts who enjoy guessing or who have confused traditionalists’ repetition of old theories with statements of fact.
I include this post so that my silence may not mislead readers of this blog into thinking that I believe the Calendar section expresses nothing but the habits of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.
Whether we consider the ninth century, the twelfth century, the mid-fourteenth century, or the early fifteenth century, astronomical knowledge involved wider and more complex interactions than the usual historical summaries suggest.
It is more than a decade since I realised that there is an inherent conflict between the iconographic information provided by the Calendar’s central emblems as against the diagrams as such.
Take, for example, the long-enduring assumption that each of the calendar’s anthropoform figures represents a day (or night), or that each star in each diagram does so. The stars, and the nymphs have been counted by various writers over the years – in publications, as in conversations to mailing lists and forums. Most recently, I understand from one amiable forum member, Anton Alipov has counted them again and shared his results at voynich.ninja.
The rhyme everyone knows today was known in medieval Europe by the ninth century. In modern English it runs,
Thirty days hath September, April, June and November.
All the rest have thirty-one, excepting Februrary alone
which has 28 days clear, and twenty nine in each leap year
Even if we were to treat the doubled months as split months and count their stars together, still the tally must read (according to the copy I’ve been sent)
March: 29 or 31(?)
April: 30 [As 15+15]
May: 30 [as 15+15]
September: 30 [and one extraneous star]
November: 30 [and one extraneous star]
The logical question to ask (one would think) is where and when we find calendars of comparable design, ones lacking any evidence of intercalation?
That has never been the response made in the past.
Those unable to contemplate the possibility of non-Latin character for the manuscript’s contents (or who can imagine it, but find the idea preposterous) have veered off and created alternatives – often by inventing imaginative-hypothetical theory-patches mis-represented as the fruit of historical logic. The basic traditionalist position is that if the manuscript’s content doesn’t look Latin, or act Latin, then it jolly well ought to, and really does “underneath it all” and/or that the author/draughtsman got it wrong, poor thing. 🙂
It must be understood that the “all-Latin-Christian-European” theory-narrative IS the traditionalist theory because the study’s founding fathers – Wilfrid Voynich, William Newbold and William Friedman – began by assuming it an autograph composed all at once by a thirteenth century Englishman, or by some other European male important enough to figure in Europe’s story of its own intellectual advance to the mid-twentieth century.
Especially for the Friedmans (and thus for Mary d’Imperio) even to suggest the content included “foreign” matter was offensive, because to them the foreign implied the inferior and unimportant.
Added to this was the theory that the written text should prove to be a consistently-spelled and neatly grammatical plain-text because without such standardisation (as they thought) encryption and decryption became impossible. That it was an encrypted text of ordinary prose or poetry was the cornerstone – the non-negotiable element – in the theories they created.
For the time of Roger Bacon, Scot et.al., that meant in practice assuming the text written in one of the liturgical languages and given their bias – it meant Latin, English or German, none of which is indicated by the usual statistical analyses. The same assumptions and prejudices so common in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries are why Panofsky’s recognising non-Latin elements – presumably in the manuscript’s layout and drawings – was not taken seriously by the Friedmans and by Mary d’Imperio was imagined mediated by some Latin figure. Hence the references to Ramon Llull and anachronistic allusions to a consciously Christianised Cabala.
As so often, Voynich theorists have attempted to assert a section’s meaning, or a drawing’s meaning, though paying scant attention to the form given an image or section – as we’ve noted recently in discussing the series of emblems used as centres for the Calendar diagrams.
Inherited bias, within the traditionalist theories, seem to me to explain why a hundred years and more have passed without any Voynich writer asking, and seeking to understand even the simplest of questions about this section: such as “Why do the central emblems not form a zodiac sequence, even of just these 10 months?” Or “What kind of calendar might have 30-day months for every month from April to December, inclusive?”
The larger questions about calendars and the history of astronomical works are not within the brief of an iconographic analyst; what we can address is the curious choice of emblems to fill these diagrams and why they present such an odd mixture of zodiac-like and non-zodiac like forms.
I would add another question – why do they include forms which appear in some cases compatible with images found in England and in France over the period from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, but with other emblems unattested in Latin works until the mid-fourteenth century?
I’d point here not only to November’s crocodile but to the history of the Arcitenens type. The Parthian type with its goat-legs appears early, in the work of one Anglo-Saxon monk who also worked in France, and as a fully human figure in the 9thC, but it was not the form preferred thereafter in Latin manuscripts’ representation of the 12 zodiac figures and seems to disappear soon after from the Latin sources.
Nonetheless in its old Pan-like form it reappears in one Jewish manuscript* that the holding library dates to the 15th-16thC, and whose chief text is the Six Wings of Immanuel Bonfils of Tarascon (1300 – 1377). And the same manuscript has a prawn-nosed lobster for Cancer. I cite the example only to show that history – including the history of images and forms – is no simple “forward-march”.
*On this see first: Gerrit Bos, Charles Burnett and Tzvi Langermann, ‘Hebrew Medical Astrology: David Ben Yom Tov, Kelal Qaṭan: Original Hebrew Text, Medieval Latin Translation, Modern English Translation’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society , New Series, Vol. 95, No. 5 (2005), pp. i, iii, v-vii, ix, 1-61, 63-121.
The part played by Jews, including Jews from French-speaking regions, in the translations made for Alfonso X of Castile is another subject unsuited to amateurs and speculators, for it is still debated by scholars who may fairly be described as eminent specialists in that field. When such scholars as Pingree and Mercier are unable to agree about transmission of the Persian Syntaxis or Byzantine reception of the updated version of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, the issues can hardly be resolved by less well-informed writers – yet such matters must impact on how one explains the extraordinary number of stars which seem to be referenced by the Voynich calendar.
Alipov’s recent count gave a total of 299 figures of the star-holding type (he calls them ‘nymphs’) and a total of 297 stars – presumably including some he describes as extraneous (ornamental?).
I call the number extraordinary because any survey of astrolabes and other flat representations of the heavens, produced before 1440 (and more realistically to 1350 AD), generally include between 17 and 30 stars, with 50 being an unusually large number. Similarly, one does not find in the Latins’ calendars, breviaries or books of hours from which so many Voynich writers have taken their zodiac images such things as star-tables or lists, nor do their months consist of mostly of 30-days.
From time to time, since Jim Reeds’ mailing list was opened, individual researchers have tried to raise the matter of the lunar calendar and the lunar asterisms known as lunar mansions or as towers – only to have the topic submerged, ignored or bulldozed under some determinedly Eurocentric theorising – typically focussing on the Picatrix in pretty much the same way that “southern and Jewish” has been transmogrified by theoretical narratives about Ramon Llull and Christianised Cabala.
Illustrations in copies of the Aratea may add red dots to mark stars, and Elly Dekker, in 2010, published a paper on the Leiden Aratea* which shows it referencing more than 600 stars by the red dots with which its pictures of the constellations are adorned. How much work was required to identify those stars, her paper shows plainly enough an although I include here one table [Table 3] from that paper, I cannot emphasise strongly enough that no use should be made of it to invent or patch a theory – at the very least the trouble should be taken to read the paper in full and realise just how much expertise is required even to identify stars embedded in an illustration of a constellation.
Leiden Aratea (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek MS Voss. lat. 4° 79) – produced in the first half of the ninth century for the court of Louis the Pious (814-40). It is not a typical work of that time, but an exceptional one – in its size, artistic quality and content. It contains images of forty-two constellations as we count them now, and the Pleiades.
*Elly Dekker, ‘The Provenance of the Stars in the Leiden “Aratea” Picture Book’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes , Vol. 73 (2010), pp. 1-37. Accessible through JSTOR.
While respecting the level of scholarship needed to attempt an accurate reading of the Calendar diagrams, we may continue to investigate the central emblems which – I’ll say again – do not appear to me to agree well with the character and content of the diagrams proper .
Two more passages worth thinking over before we turn to those manuscripts I’ve been promising (one very early semi-Christian calendar, and Oxford Bodleian MS Douce 313).
Both these passages (below) come from papers by Raymond Mercier, a former editor of the Journal for the History of Astronomy.
The first relates to the ninth-twelfth centuries; the second to the early fifteenth century.
In the first Mercier notes a curious instance of alteration/adjustment in a twelfth-century Latin text, apparently attempting to harmonise the Christian with the Jewish calendrical system, while at the same time back-dating it to the ninth century. The author of the tables he mentions – Luhot ha-Nasi – was Abraham ben Hiyya, known as Sarasvorda , who was born in Barcelona c.1070, and who died in Narbonne or in Provence in 1136 or 1145AD.
In this second passage from one of Mercier’s papers, he is speaking of events which occurred close to when the Voynich quires were made (1405-1438).
I would add, as a simple matter of fact, that the Persian New Year began in March, and we learn from Ibn Majid, a fifteenth century navigator who knew his stars, that the eastern mariners counted their sailing year from the date of the Persian New Year. It was important to count one’s days on those eastern maritime routes, because if wrongly calculated, the monsoon winds on which their navigation relied might be misjudged with disastrous consequences, physical and economic.
additional note (13th October 2022) on the moveable date of that Persian New Year relative to the Julian calendar, and the Arab navigators’ practice of counting their days pp. 361-2 in G.R. Tibbett’s English translation of the ‘Kitāb al-fawāʼid fī uṣūl ʻilm al-baḥr wa-al-qawāʻid’ of Ahmad b. Majid al-Najdi, the translation published as Arab Navigation Before the Coming of the Portuguese…etc. Any reader who is particularly keen to have the information but not quite so keen on the book’s price is welcome to email me and I’ll type those two pages.
Edit (9th Oct ) – to add link for MS Vatican, BAV, Reg. lat. 1324.
It’s no secret, I think, that I’m fiercely opposed to theory-first approaches to this or any other manuscript. To form a theory without a solid preliminary grounding is to use nothing but your imagination, and who knows if your imagination contains enough?
We’ve seen how ideas which were initially no more than a subjective impression from one person could create a lasting and negative effect in this manuscript’s study – as Newbold’s impressionistic description of its sections continues to do, and as did O’Neill’s baseless assertion that among the plant-pictures was a specimen-drawing of an American sunflower, and his fantasy that sunflowers been brought from north America by Columbus.
We’ve also seen* how, to suit no more than a theory about the calendar and its emblems, the primary evidence has been altered, tweaked and redefined to cover up those elements which present objection to the traditionalist, zodiac-focused, expectation.
No intention to deceive informs that distortion of the evidence, but perhaps an unreasonable confidence that this calendar ought to conform more nearly to present-day expectations and to Wilfrid’s theory of all-Latin origin and character for everything in the manuscript.
Over-confidence in such theoretical norms leads to a curious reversal of priorities: what comes to be researched is not the manuscript, but the theory. We are urged to believe that the doubled months are irrelevant; that the crocodile is irrelevant; that the assignment of image-to month, and the language of the month-names are ALL irrelevant, and the maker someone at fault, a person to be blamed or excused because the Voynich calendar does not, in fact, present the zodiac series, does contain doubled months.. and so on.
Our position is that the manuscript is as it is, and our task is to establish the reason it is as it is. If it diverges from someone’s theoretical norm, then what needs to be changed is their theory.
So if we set aside, for the time being, that old habit of expecting to see a zodiac, what the manuscript presents in fact is fairly clear evidence that while the month-names speak of a calendar of some kind, this isn’t formed in just twelve sections according to the sequence of zodiac signs-constellations.
And there is absolutely no reason it should be. It is entirely possible to describe the annual cycle without making any reference to the zodiac band of 12.
Another traditional assumption which I think we may fairly doubt is a theory that the quires were inscribed in much the same time and place as the manuscript’s content was first expressed.
That tacit assumption is a false analogy with book-publication, or newspapers. That newly produced works contain only locally produced and current ‘news’. It was an idea which once led to a Voynich memer – evidently a supporter of the Prinke-Zandbergen theory – announcing to all within range that to consider any but fifteenth-century German manuscripts was “unnecessary” and a waste of time.
Complete nonsense though it was, that meme is a good example of how badly unreasonable faith in a theory can distort a person’s historical perspective and sense of balance.
We have seen evidence which indicates that c.1350 AD may be a likely date for first expression of the manuscript’s content in western Europe, but there is enough evidence too of copying from earlier precedents or exemplars to leave open the question of where and when most of the matter was first enunciated.
Recognising that distinction means that we can to a large extent uncouple the contained matter from the medium in which it is presently contained, and instead of hunting ways to justify the old assumptions, focus on researching the content as it is – and in our case these drawings. We are now able to make our chief aim, to understand what the original maker intended in this section with its doubled months, its figures in baskets and crocodile for November. What ties us to western shores are the month-names and the lobsters and – less certainly – the form given the Archer. The form given the Scales presents a strong objection to positing first composition in medieval Latin Europe. But that’s a matter for another time..
A calendar needs no zodiac
To illustrate this point Hesiod’s Works and Days will do. It is a poem as old as Homer and much older than Eudoxus’ work; it remained just as well known to the Greek-speaking world into the fifteenth century.
It was known to Greek-speaking Romans such as Cicero – the Roman whose oratory was beloved by Renaissance-era Italians and from whose translation of Aratus, as we saw, the term ‘Arcitenens’ came as epithet or name for the Archer constellation.
Cicero had known Hesiod’s work in the original Greek and from the easy way he alludes to one of Hesiod’s maxims in offering a friend advice, it seems that the text might have been a standard school-boy’s text in his time. Cicero does no more than write the maxim’s first couple of words – in the Greek – when suggesting his friend should have his boy learn that maxim by heart.*
*Gianpiero Rosati, ‘The Latin Reception of Hesiod’ (academia.edu) cites that letter
After the imperial capital became Byzantium, and the city of Milan was designated administrative capital for the emperor’s western domains, Hesiod’s description of the year continued to be part of the Byzantine heritage and his Works and Days seems to have been treated as standard text on the management of an estate, or farm, because Byzantine copies are often illustrated with what may be the full inventory of a property’s agricultural tools and implements. .
Hesiod’s year begins with harvest. I paraphrase to emphasise his markers of the months and seasons. Readers will recognise some of the seasonal vignettes as ones that became standard in western ‘Labours of the Months’.
He says, first, that the rising of the Pleiades begins, and their setting ends, the cycle between harvesting one crop and ploughing in preparation for the next.
Autumn is the time for wood-cutting, and is marked by Sirius’ passing overhead for a shorter time and for a longer period at night.
Pass by the smithy and its crowded lounge in winter time when the cold keeps men from field work, lest bitter winter [next year] catch you helpless and poor, and you chafe a swollen foot with a shrunk hand.
Sixty wintry days after the solstice, there rises at dusk the brilliant star Arcturus. After him … the swallow appears when spring is just beginning., Before the swallow comes, the vines should be pruned.
Then, when snails appear climbing up plants from the earth, it is no longer the season for digging vineyards, but time to whet your [hand-] sickles .. During the harvest season, avoid shady seats and sleeping even as late as dawn … Be busy and bring home your fruits.
In the time of wearisome heat, while slaves or servants harvest the grain, when the artichoke flowers and when the chirping grass-hopper sits in a tree pouring down his song, it is time to relax a little and enjoy the fresh Zephyr …but you should thrice pour an offering of water, and a fourth libation of wine.
Winnowing time is known by the first appearance of Orion, and then even the dog with jagged teeth should be fed well, lest the Day-sleeper [robber/thief] take your goods.
The sign for the time of harvesting grapes is that Orion and Sirius come into the midheaven, and dawn sees Arcturus (as previously said) … But when the Pleiades and Hyades and strong Orion all begin to set, that is the time again to plough the land in season: “and so the completed year will fitly pass beneath the earth”
You see the point – It is perfectly possible to illustrate the sequence of months and their labours without any reference to the zodiac. In fact, a correspondence between agricultural periods and other natural phenomena – dominant winds, migratory birds and animal behaviours – is more reliable than linking them to the stars, for the stars are affected by precession. Sirius does not rise in the same month now that it did in the 8thC BC.
M. L. West, ‘The Medieval Manuscripts of the Works and Days’, The Classical Quarterly, DVol. 24, No. 2 (Dec., 1974), pp. 161-185.
Anthony Bryer, ‘Byzantine Agricultural Implements: The Evidence of Medieval Illustrations of Hesiod’s “Works and Days”, The Annual of the British School at Athens , Vol. 81 (1986), pp. 45-80. one copy, in the Greek, is in the same library as Beinecke MS 408 (Yale, Beinecke Library MS. 254 = Phillipps 3875.
Romans used wall-calendars in the most literal sense.
The example below was found in the remains of a Roman domus, beneath Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The finders describe it as a panel from one such wall-calendar, though whether it is designed to show the uncertain life of seamen, or to reinforce Hesiod’s disapproval of farmers who venture in trade I don’t know. Despite his disapproval, Hesiod offers practical advice about boats, too:
“when the Pleiades plunge into the misty sea to escape Orion’s rude strength .. gales of all kinds rage … Haul up your ship upon the land and pack it closely with stones … draw out the bilge-plug put away all the tackle and fittings in your house, stow the wings of the sea-going ship neatly, and hang up the well-shaped rudder over the smoke.
The Christian Calendar.
The time of harvest is around September, and many older calendars began the year then, including the Christian calendar from which the western Church would deviate.
The first Christian Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD, decreed that the Church’s year should begin on September 1st, citing as its Biblical precedent the Jews’ civil year (as given in Exodus 12:12) and for its Christian reference Constantine’s victory of Mazentius in 312 AD,* following which Constantine had recognised Christianity as a religion acceptable to the Roman empire.*
*Modern scholars date that battle 28 October.
I’ll admit that comparative calendars isn’t one of my favourite areas of study, but since we’re dealing with a calendar of unknown origin and date, copied to appear now within our fifteenth-century artefact, and since all the skills associated with calculation and computing were introduced and fostered in older Europe in the context of calendar calculations, the subject is unavoidable.
By the time of that Council, there had already been some strife about the date on which Christ’s resurrection should be honoured, and now there was a split developing between those who did, and those who did not, identify that date with the date of the Jewish celebration of Passover, commemorating the Egyptian Jews’ crossing over the Red Sea and passing from slavery into relative freedom.
Although it had been the Romans who ordered Christ’s death, it was hardly practical for early Christians to blame the Romans and they blamed the Jews instead, this making observance of the Jewish Passover – as the date of Easter – somewhat fraught.
The Jews, it was correctly understood, observed their holy day on fourteenth day of Nisan, which might occur on any day of the week. Those who kept Easter with the Jews had soon been limited to a few churches of Asia minor, but now the concern was how to scrutinise and try to make uniform the date for Easter throughout the Christian-Roman empire. Constantine himself attended the council and it was he who made the decision in favour of Alexandria’s system, though diplomatically suggesting it was
…in the hope that your Wisdoms will gladly admit that practice which is observed at once in the city of Rome and in Africa, throughout Italy and in Egypt. . .
In short, the eastern churches of Syria and Mesopotamia were at odds with the Roman-as-Roman world, which included north Africa and Alexandria. Those eastern churches, and the important church of Antioch, were relying on the Jewish calendar, against Alexandria and territories longer under imperial Roman rule which were now calculating Easter’s date for themselves.
Some Christians claimed that differences between Alexandria and Antioch were due to nothing but the latter’s relying on the Jews’ method of calculation, to which charge Rome and Alexandria joined in asserting that the Jews ” had become neglectful of the law that the fourteenth of Nisan must never precede the equinox” and Constantine makes suitable noises indicating shock and astonishment in his letter of response, having been informed that the Jews sometimes kept two Paschs in one year, meaning that two Paschs sometimes fell between one equinox and the next.
Could that be why the Voynich calendar has doubled months for April and for May?
Deciding that question is a task for people who relish working with problematic numbers – but it would certainly be interesting to learn in which years that might have happened, between (say) 325 AD and 1350 AD. (it will involve understanding embolismic months).
Antioch is obviously of interest, too, for as I pointed out (longer ago than I care to remember), the Voynich calendar’s beardless goats are drawn with swollen cheeks in a way closely similar to those which served as Antioch’s own motif. I regret that I no longer have the image I used as illustration, and which was of a mosaic from that city.
But here is part of another mosaic, this from Ravenna in Byzantine Italy (6thC AD). It shows the apostle Paul, given a blue halo and shown sinking down from a tower in Antioch – lowered in a basket.
Before breaking, a few points should be made clear.
That a specifically Christian calendar only emerged after the mid-fourth century AD, an thereafter evolved over time – over a surprising length of time – and not without debates, disputes and divisions in which each party termed all others heretical.
That the basis for western Europe’s Christian calendar, for its Christian doctrine, and for its Christian monasticism were all from the eastern Mediterranean, something the western church remained keenly aware of.
That the western church had a recurring problem with movements urging a return to an older, more ascetic and ‘pristine’ Christianity, an idea which even to as late as the 1440s was typically identified with early Christian Egypt. By that time, the western Church did not much appreciate the idea, having in the meantime declared all other forms of Christian observance heretical, schismatic and so forth.
And finally that the manuscript overall shows so very little evidence of Christian beliefs and (more importantly) of those stylistic customs which define the art of late medieval Latin Europe, that while exploring the possibility of Christian origin for the Calendar’s emblems, we should not presume the Calendar itself any expression of western Christian culture.
In the next post, I’ll look at one very early semi-Christian calendar, and then at a manuscript first brought to notice in Voynich studies, as I understand, by Mr. J.K. Petersen (Oxford Bodleian MS Douce 313) . It contains these drawings:
Postscript – Cicero’s translation of Aratus – mss.
According to Dobcheva, (on the Aratea Digital site), there are only a few manuscript copies of Cicero’s translation remaining, viz:
c. 2900 words. This one’s a full essay. I did think of breaking it into two or three parts – but decided against. I’ll wait a while before posting again).
The author’s rights are asserted.
Setting aside, for the moment, the issue of that three-point head, this post looks at some computistical manuscripts from the environments in which Michael Scot gained his primary and higher education, looking for insight into what we might call the calendar-related problems – such as the Voynich series’ including only ten months, its starting from March, its assigning the crocodile as posited Scorpius to November and this emblem, as posited Cancer, to July – not June. And we are also seeking to understand when and why Latin works developed this lobster-like form at all.
As our first step, I’ve selected a computistical miscellany dated to about a century before Scot’s lifetime. Among the texts gathered there is a copy of Bede’s classic De Temporum Ratione.
Bede’s De Temporum ratione might have been made with constellation-drawings, but if so no original copy survived; the fifty or so copies extant are in computistical compilations, or miscellanies. These are handbooks of material relating, more or less closely, to calculations of time and the calendar, but few include sections displaying single images or emblems for the constellations – not even for the calendar-zodiac ’12’.
One which does was made in England or in France, and is one of the most admired of such miscellanies. This is Brit.Lib. Royal MS 13 A XI, from which I’ll cite Bede as our first textual justification for the Voynich calendar’s assigning its lobsters to July and its crocodile to November – given that the one is posited as a form for Cancer and the other for Scorpius.
This passage offers our first textual justification but is not the only justification that can be offered. A Roman-era mosaic calendar recovered near Tunis shows a series of twelve images in the Labours-and-feast-day style. Its year begin with March, and its July and November images are compatible with those in our late copies of the Chronography of 354. The oldest Roman calendar had only ten months and also began from March.
I don’t wish to suggest no other reason but antiquity can explain why a calendar might begin with March and contain only ten months; the same would describe the Mediterranean sailing year during the centuries of interest to us; in the western side of the Mediterranean, at least, one did not set sail in January or February. This does not, of course, explain inclusion of the doubled April and May in the Voynich series.
However it will become important, later, that calendars of the Labours type pre-date the Christian era; are attested in regions beyond the Italian peninsula and especially that the theme of the November image in the Tunis mosaic sequence, and in the Chronography of 354 and in the Voynich series, all emphasise a link with Egypt and its vision of the heart-soul’s journey into the afterworld, something discovered in exploring the ‘November’ emblem (see previous posts in this series).
Historical context – brief sketch.
In Egypt, particularly in the Fayum, imagery of the crocodile would continue to appear in that context of entry into the otherworld journey, and to as late as the 6thC AD – by which time Christianity had been made a recognised religion of the Roman empire; the empire’s capital had been moved from Rome to Constantinople, the model of Egyptian monasticism both anchoritic [solitary] and cenobitic [communal] were established, the former style earliest adopted in the west, and chiefly among the Irish but the latter had come too, with its emphasis on copying manuscripts.
By the 6thC AD, too, Rome had already been sacked by the Visigoths, Hagia Sophia was being built, North Africa was a major centre of Christianity, Augustine having lived just a century earlier, and now Gregory the Great travelled to Egypt to acquire books (or more exactly, scrolls and papyri) while Isidore of Seville was attempting to preserve the learning of the late Roman west by composing his encyclopaedic Etymologiae.
To so late a time did the beliefs of older Egypt survive, and in Alexandria the accumulated knowledge of the Greek and Roman would survive into and after the coming of the Arabs in the following, seventh, century.
That corpus would provide a foundation for the flowering of Baghdad and of Cairo’s scholarship from which – and from about Scot’s time – a small proportion would again enter the Latins’ intellectual horizons, much of it coming via North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The style of commercial calculation and Arabic-Hindu numerals would spread chiefly by the models of ‘abbaco’ style schools in north Africa and the Aegean, while most astronomical knowledge came, so far as we know, via Spain and particularly through Toledo though Idrisi’s work in Sicily should not be overlooked.
The role of multi-lingual Jews in that transmission, shortly before and during Scot’s lifetime, is increasingly recognised by western scholars.
De temporum ratione and its dissemination.
Bede’s De Temporum ratione was written around the beginning of the eighth century. He was an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived almost all his life in the confines of his English monastery. He wrote, of course, in Latin, the purity of which has often been remarked.
By the time De temporum ratione was copied in Brit.Lib. Royal MS 13 A XI, England’s language of governance was now Norman-French and from France were coming to England replacements for older texts (and libraries) lost to war and raiders after the days of Bede, in whose time Anglo-Saxon Britain had seen a remarkable, if localised, flowering of intellectual and artistic life, notably, but not only, in York and Winchester. One of Bede’s pupils would teach Alcuin, a first teacher of Charlemagne. By Michael Scot’s time, the monastic and manuscript-copying cultures of France and England were so closely in step that the holding library can describe Royal MS 13 A XI only as having been made in “Northern or central France or England”. Not even the style of script or the finish of the membrane is distinct enough to know whether the manuscript was made in the one region or the other. Not that it matters greatly to us, except in allowing us to include England of that time among the Romance-speaking regions.
To judge from the fifty or so remaining copies of De Temporum ratione, its greatest popularity was reached by the mid-late thirteenth century, but its overall importance means it was certainly known to Scot, as a text basic to earlier computistical miscellanies.
The work’s importance, and therefore its dissemination, is explained by the publisher of a recent English translation:
Bede’s The Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione) [was]… the model and reference for all subsequent teaching, discussion and criticism of the Christian calendar … but it is more than a technical handbook. [it] incorporates themes as diverse as the theory of tides and the threat of chiliasm. ….
One French scholar puts it this way (here) “Because [Bede] wrote with great clarity and his examples were addressed both to teachers and to students, the De Temporum Ratione became one of the most popular of Bede’s works and remained for centuries a standard reference text in Western Europe”.
As with most computistical miscellanies, however, pictures of the constellations have been included by adding some separate extract or summary of a ‘constellation text’. In Royal MS 13 A XI, this takes the form of a summary* made by Abbo of Fleury.(c. 945 -1004 AD), of Ps-Hyginus’ Poeticon Astronomicon.
*’Excerptio Abbonis ex Hygino de figuratione signorum (ff.105v-113r). For a full description see link (supra) to Brit.Lib. Royal_MS_13_A_XI.
Here are Abbo’s figures for Cancer and for Scorpius in that miscellany:
In that small, somewhat faded drawing, buried in a copy of a text composed before the year 1000 AD, (Fig. 4 and Header) we’re given a clue to the reason that western medieval works sometimes draw forms for ‘Cancer’ with a lobster-like tail.
Its mask-like face aside, the rest of the figure is a near-literal image of what is popularly called today the Slipper Lobster (Fig. 4 – right and centre). Its abdomen is usually kept curled below the thorax. Its claws are not large. Its antennae are short and reminiscent of what you see on smaller creatures such as a grasshopper, or even like whiskers . Seen through the water, or in its usual habitat, at the mouth of a crevice underwater, and camouflaged as it would be in life, it is easily be mistaken for a crab.
Modern taxonomists do not count the Slipper lobster a true lobster, though its genus is named fairly enough: Scyllarus.
So too for the other creature shown above (Fig. 5, left) and again here (Fig.6).
It is also not included by modern taxonomies in the Lobsters, though still called the spiny lobster, or less aptly as the [marine] crayfish. Another term for it may seem modern and informal but is very much the oldest, and in that sense the most authentic: Locust-lobster.
Here’s part of the entry from Etymology Online showing that the idea was widespread, particularly in France and Britain.
Lobster – Early Middle English lopster, lopister, from Old English loppestre “lobster,” also “locust,” … Latin locusta, lucusta “marine shellfish, lobster;” also “locust, grasshopper”..Locusta in the sense “lobster” also appears in Old Cornish legast and French langouste (12c.), now “crayfish,” but in Old French [it means] both “lobster” and “locust” A 13c. Psalter has God giving over the crops of Egypt to the langoustes).*
* langouste – details of that Psalter were not given, or I’d have included the image. 🙂 The reference is to Ps.105:34-35, taken as prefiguring the eighth plague visited on Pharaoh. Langoustine, in modern French describes a type of prawn, which also appears for ‘Cancer’ in Latin Europe’s medieval art.
But words don’t come from books – they come from people and are recorded in books. Associations in language imply practical observation of one kind or another.
Lobster as Locust.
A perception that locust and lobster were similar is also found among the Greeks, as Isidore rightly said at least a century before Bede wrote. and in a book that was to be found, in part or entire, in almost every monastic centre of Europe, his Etymologiae.
Locusta are so-called because their legs are ‘long, like spears’ (longis . . . asta, i.e. hasta, “spear”). Whence the Greeks call the sea- as well as the land creature αστακός (i.e. “lobster”). – Etymologiae XII.viii.9. The modern English translation, (the first ever made), has a translators’ note that locusta means not only “locust” and “lobster” but also “crayfish”.
One can understand how that perceived equivalence between locust, lobster and similar creatures was reached. All are voracious feeders, indiscriminate (especially the marine locusta) and after their passing nothing has been left unconsumed. Little wonder that in thirteenth century Oxford, the same locust plague, as the eighth inflicted on Pharaoh, is represented in Apocalyptic style. These are marauders – voracious beasts with the faces of men – langoustes:
It also makes intelligible a form given Cancer in one of the Labours series of Vézelay, though the series’ in Latin Europe typically gave Cancer for June, the month for harvesting hay in cooler latitudes, as against July when northerners’ harvested grain.
Another passage recorded by Isidore offers the key to another early (eleventh-century) image for Cancer, while clarifying that inference, so commonly seen in the imagery, that the creature for Cancer, and that for Scorpius are akin to one another.
Many creatures naturally undergo mutation and, when they decay, are transformed into different species – for instance … locusts from mules, scorpions from crabs. And at this point, he quotes Ovid: “If you take its curved arms from a crab on the shore a scorpion will emerge and threaten with its hooked tail (Ovid, Metamorphoses. 15.369).
Those are the heads of two mules, and their inclusion meant as a memory-prompt for fellow scholars, in the same monastery, of that passage of text: “Locusta from mules..”
I hope two things will have become clear by now – that the analyst’s task is not to produce ‘matches’ of superficial form, but to read the intention of an image in terms of its own time and context and to be equipped to recognise when the intention and ideas informing images ‘match’ – despite variations in outward form.
Secondly, that in order to read correctly the intention of a problematic image set down when our twenty-five-times-great-grandparents lived, one needs rather more than “just two eyes and commonsense” as some Voynich ‘memers’ assert.
A Lobster-like creature for Cancer is not wrong.
* (edited to modify) I disagree with some of Nicklies’ opinions, especially in the first part of his paper, where he appears to rely on combination of theorising and scrying, but my initial judgement was too hasty. I’ve altered this comment accordingly (25th Sept. 2022) and in the next post point out where Nicklies’ research and mine co-incide. . But for Voynich research, I repeat, its most valuable element is that reference to ‘Ausonian verses’,
Charles E. Nicklies, ‘Cosmology and the Labors of the Months at Piacenza: The Crypt Mosaic at San Savino’, Gesta, Volume 34, Number 2 (1955) pp. 108-125.
Nor does it imply, necessarily, that a draughtsman, carver, painter or writer knew nothing more.
Isidore himself says, quite correctly:
Pliny [Natural History 32.142] says there are 144 names for all the animals living in the waters, divided into these kinds: whales, snakes common to land and water, crabs, shellfish, lobsters, mussels, octopuses, sole, Spanish mackerel (lacertus), squid, and the like. – Ety.XII.vi.63.
So the ‘lobster’ idea is perfectly ok, even if it’s not what we might have expected or would describe as ‘normal’ for our own time.
Since this exercise is treating only two emblems, not the series of diagrams as a whole, we must leave detailed exploration of the calendar, as such, to others, though De Temporum ratione would be a sensible first text in the reading list. I also recommend
Bracken, Damian, ‘Virgil the Grammarian and Bede: a preliminary study’, Anglo-Saxon England 35 (2006): 7–21.
Wallis, Faith [trans.], Bede: The reckoning of time, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999.
A useful vocabulary, and articles offered or planned on the Alexandrine computus, the Computus Runicus, and the Klingshammer computus HERE.
A clear and detailed explanation of the computus controversy between Ireland and Rome HERE
But despite all we’ve discovered so far we’ve still encountered no pairing of these locustae or αστακοί. And we’re not likely to find them in the few illustrated constellation texts typically included in the Latins’ computistical miscellanies – whether or not the matter in those miscellanies informs the diagrams whose centres these emblems fill.
Constellation pictures in Computistical texts.
Other than the odd copy from Aratus or from Abbo’s summary extract from the Poeticon Astronomicon, just three texts figure, one attributed to Bede through the medieval period but now assigned to some unknown author as ‘Ps-Bede’. Lippincott lists them (Aratus; De signis coeli; de Ordine when speaking of the marked disjunction between transmission of those texts and transmission of the illustrations used in them. She writes:
“The illustrations accompanying these texts, however, are much less uniform than the texts they purport to illustrate. As seems to be the case with so many of these constellation manuscripts, the division into pictorial families fails to accord with what one might expect given established philological stemmata of the texts…
For more on ‘de Signis’, ‘de Ordine’, the Aratus Latinus and Revised Aratus Latinus see published works by Elly Dekker, Kristen Lippincott and Ivana Dobcheva, and an essay published online by by Filippomaria Pontani, though one should not expect each to agree completely with the views of any other, even about the written text(s)
Does this mean we should we ignore written context?
Not necessarily. Pace Lippincott, not all drawings in manuscripts were derived from none but manuscript sources, and despite the Latin’s world’s usually granting primacy to written over pictorial text – and often treating images as no more than ‘illustration’ of the written text – it is also the case that drawings may work as a parallel, or alternative, or complementary ‘text’ for that which they accompany.
The forms given an image may be informed not only by the associated text, but by popular lore, puns across Latin and a vernacular, local by definition, by imported terms, and common lore as well as by a effort to ‘translate’ originally non-indigenous imagery.
Or, as Lippincott says, by one or more other, but unrecognised texts.
I believe I may have identified one: Ausonius’ school-room mnemonic poems, thanks to the three-point head detail and finding among the examples one from the mosaics of Piacenza and – hunting that up – come across the bare mention of ‘Ausonian verses’ in an otherwise unremarkable paper. Nicklies’ paper is unremarkable for its first couple of pages, It rises to the level of the scholarly and thoughtful for most of the middle section, but then simply returns to the same art-appreciation-theory style with which it began.
Still – it really is good in the middle.
Here are the verses used, as photocopied from the old edition in our library.
This is not the end of the story, though. Ausonius only knew the 12-month year which began in January. That suited medieval Europe, of course, but to complete the account of these emblems from the Voynich calendar (if it is a calendar), one more post will be needed.
About a third of this post is for people working on Voynichese. Those paragraphs are marked with the partial-derivative symbol (right).
edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.
Two lobsters: July
For newcomers – the ‘Calendar’ emblems so far:
Many Voynich writers focus on where the manuscript might have been made.
Our aim is more like the linguists’ and cryptographers’ – to understand what information the original speaker(s) intended to convey. Just as linguists don’t presume a new spoken language was invented for this manuscript, so we don’t presume the drawings are without precedents.
However, because so few among the manuscript’s drawings speak the visual language of medieval Latin Europe, our aim is (of course) also to identify their original source. In that, the relatively few which do ‘speak Latin’ (or something like it) are like the end of a thread which may guide us into, and then through, the maze of possibilities. Among those few are the small central emblems with which the ‘calendar’ diagrams are provided.
Diagrams referring to astronomical matters don’t exactly speak a universal language, but were – and are – less dependent on local customs for their understanding than is a written or a pictorial text.
Comparing information in some Voynich astronomical diagrams.
We don’t know what purpose the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams were meant to serve, but independent specialists have assured us they are not astrological charts.
At present we are asking whether the emblems offer astronomical information compatible with that found in two other astronomical diagrams (on folio 85r and on folio 67v-i).
These posts being exercises in analytical method, we are considering just two examples: the emblems inscribed ‘November’ and ‘July’.
* * * *
The ‘November’ emblem, as we found, is meant for a crocodile and is derived ultimately from one aspect of an originally-composite figure for the ‘croucher by the Scales’. Known as Ammit, its character was expressed by combining elements of the most savage bringers-down of prey: crocodile, hound/jackal, lion and hippopotamus, with all but the last reaching medieval western Europe as an expression of “scorpion nature” or as the Physiologus’ ‘crocodrill’.
Only one documented example of a ‘crocodile Scorpius’ has been seen, so far, from medieval Latin Europe before c.1350 AD. That was in BNF 7351, so that is where we take up the thread again – but not until committing to memory every detail of the image to be researched.
Caution – the difference between someone naturally suited to a study of ancient and medieval art and artefacts, and someone whose talents lies elsewhere, often shows up at this first analytical stage. Be honest with yourself. If you feel impatient with process, over-confident, and want to rush to the ‘bottom line’ – this sort of work is not for you.
1. Remarkable absence of depth or perspective for a work often presumed created first in Latin Europe in the fifteenth-century. It is no product of the atelier. No attempt to provide background, whether of solid pigment, pattern, wash or a schematised landscape. Yet the quires are of vellum, albeit second-rate, and not paper which even by the fourteenth century would be used for rough work.
2.Each of the paired creatures is carefully distinguished – by its facing and by use of pigment. This is a characteristic of the ‘calendar’ diagrams overall; their many anthropoform figures are carefully differentiated by form, proportion, gestures, facing and/or facial expressions – which is a remarkable feat, if you consider their number, and the scale to which they were drawn. That even the month names which had to be inscribed twice are written differently, and evidently to avoid ‘replication’ argues in the original maker (and possibly in the fifteenth-century copyists) a cultural avoidance or ‘tabu’ which – though certainly attested at certain times and places – was never native to the Latins’ tradition.
3. Anatomy – (3.1) The creatures’ upper body (thorax) is made bulbous, not slender. Somewhat ant-like. Arcs are drawn on the thorax, left and right.
(3.2) No large front claw(s) as one would expect in a work produced from a fifteenth-century atelier in Europe.
(3.3) Abdomen ribbed to indicate segments.
(3.4) Divided ‘feet’ are given to eight slender legs extending sideways from the abdomen, Thicker-drawn versions of the same for the front legs to which claw(s) attach in a living specimen of prawn, lobster, crab etc.
(3.5)A tail is shown, fan-shaped and with four lobes.
(3.6) The head is given three points!
(3.7). Antennae emerge – one from each gap between those points – though in the upper figure the copyist may have been, initially, confused or affected by the scale at which he was working; one antenna seems, at first, part of the line or cord linking the two creatures.
In one sense this emblem is not ‘well-drawn’ but diverges from the literal less than a first glance might suggest. The creature is no fantasy beast. Following Lippincott and Gheuens, we’ll call it a ‘lobster’ though ‘crayfish’ or even ‘prawn’ might do.
Here’s the lobster’s anatomy…
… so what might be seen as errors come down to these:
(i) omitting any large front claw(s) ; (ii) confusing the positions of swimmerets and walking legs; (iii) giving all the walking legs split ends, where only the first four should have them; (iiii) giving the creature a head formed of three points (N.B. not one, two, or four, but three).
swimmeret: a swimming-foot; a pleopod; an abdominal limb or appendage usually adapted for swimming, and thus distinguished from the ambulatory or chelate thoracic limbs, fitted for walking or seizing.
If any series matching the series of Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams, or its series of emblems has been found – or any match for this emblem – I’m unaware of it. To be a match for the ‘July’ emblem, the example would have to include two creatures of this form, similarly differentiated, and including all the characteristics just listed.
In the absence of any match, only comparisons can be offered and our first defining element will be the creatures’ “three-point” head.
Koen Gheuens has already followed the ‘legs-for-swimmerts’ confusion from the time of Michael Scot (d.1232) forwards, noting some instances across northern France and then in works produced by one artisan. That essay is linked below. Gheuens referred readers to Kristen Lippincott’s ‘Saxl Project’ pdfs and so do I. As far as possible, I’ll cite illustrations from that resource.
What happened after c.1440 is of little interest to us. For this exercise, it is also necessary to count, as characteristics of the image, that these Voynich emblems are inscribed in a Romance dialect or language, and that this emblem is labelled ‘July’ – being in this unlike most Latin breviaries, books of hours and ‘Labours of the months’ series which assign the astronomical Cancer to June, and have the ‘sign’ straddle June and July.
On the brighter side, examples of Cancer’s being assigned, alone, to July, and Scorpius to November are not limited to the Voynich manuscript and the twelfth-century, Byzantine-influenced Otranto mosaic. Here (below) is the same assignment of emblem to month in a manuscript made about the same time as that mosaic but in south-eastern England. (Note here the single, loose loop for the Scorpion’s tail and that all the crab’s walking legs are given two ‘toes’, with the scorpions’ being given three).
Gheuens began with works composed by Michael Scot in Sicily – or rather with copies that were made later in Italy, but we are looking instead for the ideas and customs in art which influenced Scot’s thinking and that of the people who illustrated those Italian copies regarded as the four most important to survive.
*Glenn Michael Edwards, ‘The Liber Introductorius of Michael Scot’, thesis (PhD), University of Southern California, 1978
Michael Scot‘s lifetime (1175- c. 1232) overlaps with those of several other prominent Latin scholars whose names have been invoked at various times by various Voynich writers. The list includes the first ‘Gerard of Cremona‘ (1114 – 1187), or the second (13thC); the Flemish Franciscan friar, Thomas of Cantimpré (1201 -1272); the German Dominican friar, Albert of Lauingen (1200-1280), the English Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (d.1292), and Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1168–1253), bishop of Lincoln and tutor of Oxford.
All save the Gerard(s) of Cremona spent some years pursuing higher studies in Paris, and it was from the region around Paris we have our only other documented ‘Crocodile-Scorpius’ in Latin Europe – so far – before c.1350. Scot and Albert of Lauingen also studied in Italy.
In a later post, I’ll speak about the activities of the papal court while located in Avignon (1309-1375 AD), but at present our focus is on matter that was current in Scot’s time,
When Michael Scot was born, about the second third decade of the twelfth century, texts and manuscripts were gained chiefly from copies made in monastic scriptoria, By the time of his death, such work was increasingly being done by students of the larger universities, particularly in France where some colleges associated with the University of Paris set aside a room for that purpose. Scot would also have seen the beginning of an increase in the commercial producers of manuscripts, in what were described as bottegas or ateliers. In Italy, there existed a system known as the ‘pecia’ system, whereby a student might copy from quires or sections of a manuscript which a stationer had broken into parts, the students paying for materials and for use of the wanted sections.
Outside the world of formal scholarship, ‘informal’ texts were being made, a majority on paper and the greater number of those we still have from Europe were made for and by its non-Latin communities, or communities united by their (non-academic) occupations.
Crab, prawn’ and lobster etc., in pre-Christian western art.
We’ve seen that images of the crocodile, in literal style, existed in Latin Europe in mosaics and other media as relics of the pre-Christian Roman era. There were also many naturalistic images of sea-creatures in such media, with North Africa preserving a large number of this type. The images shown at right, and below, are from Roman-Byzantine mosaics from north Africa. Those shown are described as Roman.
In some early astronomical illustrations from Latin Europe, the classical traditions in art remain evident, though did not long survive with the same clarity. The Crab in the Leiden Aratea is a case in point. The illustration’s classical lineage is unmistakeable and raises the possibility that we have it from an early copy of the first Latin translations from the Greek,
Compare that crab, for example, with the style in which the same creature is represented on an early (pre-Roman) coin made for Akragas in Sicily.
That coin was made a little before the birth of Eudoxus, the eastern Greek astronomer who spent time in Sicily and whose astronomical works were summarised and cast into poetry by Aratus.
I should also like to suggest that although the forms of drawing for constellations degenerated through the medieval centuries, that there may have persisted in some regions, and as a kind of folk-tradition, older ideas about the stars and constellations, and particularly associations between certain stars and constellations, and certain places. As the crocodile (for Scorpius) was universally associated with Egypt and the Nile, the Crab and ‘prawn’ spoke of Sicily and the Straits of Messina, respectively, as they had done even before the birth of Alexander.
The strait of Messina, between Sicily and the mainland, was renowned then as it is today for its dangers and for the chimerical images we call mirages or ‘Fata Morgana’.
The strait [of Messina] has strong tidal currents …. A natural whirlpool in the northern portion of the strait has been linked to the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis. In some circumstances, the mirage of Fata Morgana can be observed when looking at Sicily from Calabria.
After Rome conquered the island and thus claimed to rule the strait, we find a coin in which Latin permits, as canting, the Greek ‘Scylla’ to be Latin ‘scilla’ – a prawn. But the allusion is still to Sicily and that dangerous strait. Moon and tides are inextricably linked, so ‘to know your moon’ was to know your tides. This image is a Roman equivalent for ‘Britannia rules the Channel’.
What makes these antecedents of ‘lobster-prawn-Crab’ imagery so interesting is their age, and that they appear on these coins at much the same time that the astronomical texts were first composed on which Latin European scholars would rely from the time Rome fell until that of Michael Scot: Eudoxus to Aratus to the Aratus latinus and the abysmal ‘Astronomicon poeticon’ which is so unkindly attributed to Hyginus.
Another fascinating image from the same pre-Christian era was made for a Gallic tribe, the Averni. Aratus and Germanicus may have understood what these figures meant to the Averni, but modern numismatists simply call the form above the horse, ‘lobster-like’. It has been provided with antennae and there are three spikes or points to its head.
Ovid, we know, made one Latin translation of Aratus’ poem. Another is said to have been made by ‘Germanicus’ though just who he was is unclear. ‘Germanicus’ means ‘subduer of Germania’ but as Baldwin put it, “as a method of precise identification, the unadorned name of Germanicus [is] intolerably vague. Too many men bore the cognomen…”
* Baldwin, ‘The Authorship of the “Aratus” Ascribed to Germanicus’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 1981, New Series, Vol. 7 (1981), pp. 163-172.
TYPES of TEXT
From this point onwards, in addition to considering the emblem’s form, and the month assigned it, and its inscription in a Romance language or dialect, we’ll also take note of the textual setting in which a cited comparison occurs. So that those chiefly interested in the written text can skim the rest, I’ve marked those paragraphs with this symbol ∂
It is probably too much to hope that exemplar(s) used for this whole section in Beinecke MS 408 have survived, so it may help those working on the written text, too, if we find comparable images or assignments occur regularly in connection with some particular written source(s).
Figure 6 (above) came from Brit.Lib. Cotton Julius VI.
That manuscript relates to what is known as ‘computus’ – mathematical and religious works relating to calendrical calculations, including reconciling the lunar cycles with the solar year to determine the date of Easter.
ff. 3r–8v: A metrical calendar (a version of the text known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson), illustrated with the Labours of the Month and astrological[sic] symbols. ff. 9r–17v: Further computistical texts, tables, diagrams and a wheel linking months, lunar cycles and a T-O map (f. 15r), including a ‘Sator square’ palindrome written in Greek letters (f. 11r). ff. 18r–19v: A hymn beginning ‘Assunt o socii’ and excerpts from the Easter Sunday liturgy, beginning ‘Et valde mane’, were added in 12th-century hands to blank and erased folios. ff. 19r–71r: An imperfect Expositio hymnorum with a near-continuous Old English gloss. The text on f. 19r-v has been erased, but some initials are still visible. ff. 71r-72v: Three hymns for Trinity Sunday; ff. 72v-89v: Monastic canticles with an Old English gloss. f. 90r–v: The hymn ‘O genetrix aeterni’ and a fragment of the Latin poem beginning, ‘Ad mensam philosophie sitientes currite,’ both accompanied by neumes, were added in the last quarter of the 11th century.
Both the liturgical and the civil calendars began from Easter (falling in March or April) and the custom of dating documents or private letters by the saint’s day would continue to as late as the seventeenth century.
The context in which we find FIG. 6, raises the uncomfortable possibility that the text which informed the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams might also be a mathematical treatise. Whether bound singly or in a miscellany, the Latins’ mathematical and mathematical-astronomical texts are typically chaste, devoid of illustrations other than a few terse diagrams which – in marked opposition to the Voynich calendar – were usually produced with compass and ruler.
In cases where pictures, as such, were desired, the usual practice seems to have been to include as excerpt or copy matter from a text of quite a different origin and type – as indeed was the case for BNF lat. 7351.
The chances are perhaps 50-50 that the Voynich calendar’s emblems have come from a very different source than that which provided the information for the diagrams. We see this too in copies made of the only other work to which the ‘calendar’ diagrams have been compared – the Libros made some decades after Scot’s death, under the auspices of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284).
* * * *
Another instance of this practice comes from a manuscript which includes the earliest example I’ve seen (so far) of the ‘three-point’ head for Cancer: Oxford, Bodleian Laud. Misc. 644. It is given a ‘face’, and shows arcs drawn on the left and right on the creature’s thorax, gives the legs two ‘toes’ and forms the front legs in the same way as the rest . In this case, these constellation-figures were gained by copying from a copy of Aratus already not less than 200 years old and possibly 400 years old. As the catalogue says of folio 8 “”Good coloured drawings copying a model of 9th or 11th century, …” The manuscript which copies those older drawings was made in late thirteenth-century Bayeux.
The makers’ choosing so venerable an exemplar suggests a monastic library and scriptorium, and reverence for the oldest forms of image as most authenic, but it would be a mistake to suppose the manuscript is affected by intellectual conservatism. On the contrary, the rest of its content consists of what were, at that time, the most respected and most advanced mathematical works used in Europe.
Robert Grosseteste, ‘De sphaera‘ – an introductory text on astronomy.
________, ‘De lineis, angulis, et figuris; Mathematical reasoning in the natural sciences.
Albumasar, ‘Flores astrorum‘ (in Latin trans.) Arabic title translates as “Book of the revolutions of the years.”
Alfraganus, ‘Liber de aggregationibus [stellarum]’ (in Latin trans).
Azarchel, –1100: Canones ad tabulas toletanas. (‘Toledan tables’)
Boethius, ‘De institutione arithmetica’ – text and commentary. Latin.
Boethius, ‘De institutione musica’ – text and commentary, Latin.
and of course the illustrated section:
Under ultra-violet light can be found an inscriptioninforming us that, by the fifteenth century, Oxford, Bodleian Laud miscellany 644 was in the possession of Charles, duke of Orleans. Charles was the son of Valentina Visconti, through whom he had already inherited Asti, a town about 30 miles west of the Milan-to-Genoa road, and linked to it.
Picking up the thread…
And so, at last, we return to BNF lat. 7351, mis-called the ‘Liber Albandini’ which provided our ‘crocodile Scorpion’. Folio 41v shows these drawings (below), both described by the holding library as forms for Cancer.
Nonetheless (see Lippincott’s pdfs) the upper type is not rare as a form for Scorpius.
The manuscript was made in northern France during the 1300s, Its history before the fifteenth century is unknown but shortly before, or soon after the Voynich quires were inscribed, it was in the possession of Louis de Bruges, whose name might ring a bell if you read the post before last. This compilation’s content isn’t particularly religious, either. (catalogue entry).
Pierre de Dacie, Kalendarium (Fragment)
Albumasar (?), Liberimultitudinum (twice);
plus ‘Sphere of life and death’; Astrological treaty in French; Text in Latin on critical days or the so-called ‘Egyptian days’; Correspondence between signs and months and ‘De Duodecim Zodiaci Signis Eorumque Effectibus’.
The manuscript includes a removeable paper astrolabe (f.13v)
Pierre de Dacie’s text is no school primer. Sacrobosco would describe it as “algorismum vulgarem’.* meaning ‘ordinary mathematics’ or even ‘commercial maths’ as distinct from computus. Sacrobosco thought highly enough of de Dacie’s text to provide it with a commentary and, together, they proved an immensely popular text in western Europe.
Its primary notability is that it has a better method for extracting cube roots (better than the pre-existing method reported by Johannes de Sacrobosco).
*With Sacrobosco’s commentary, edited and published anew in 1897 by Maximilian Curtze, the edition online at archive. org.
What these first examples have indicated is that, in Sicily at least, an association between the forms for Crab and prawn was ancient – ancient enough that they could have influenced astronomical images from the time of Eudoxus, who resided and studied for a time in Sicily.
We have also seen a ‘lobster’-like form, in association with the horse, dating from the time when Aratus made his poetic version of Eudoxus’ work. We have also seen that the style in which the Crab is pictured in Carolingian time, in Latin Europe, had preserved those earlier and more literal forms for Cancer.
Reverence for older forms and learning was a constant in the history of western Europe, with greater emphasis placed on pre-Christian forms as the ‘renaissance’ (so-called) began to flower in southern Europe during the fourteenth century.
Altogether, we must be prepared for the possibility that the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams as such may be informed by recent technical information, yet be provided central emblems gained from considerably older sources.
Cancer with a ‘three-point head’ and with arcs drawn on the thorax is a form as old at least as the eleventh century and possibly as old as the ninth century. By 1350, at least in northern France, the same manuscript in which we have a ‘crocodile’ Scorpius could accept for Cancer the form of both crab and prawn, these together or separately having referred to Sicily during the time of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman ascendancy, and an air-borne ‘lobster-like’ creature attested in Gaul no later than the first century BC.
It is entirely possible that there had existed copies of astronomical works, including globes, older than those used by the Carolingian court in which the constellations took a form different from those we now expect to see, and though one or two of the Voynich calendar emblems show evidence of what we might call ‘modernisation’, most of them including those which seem at first idiosyncratic, clearly have roots which are venerable at least and in some cases still evince a lineage decidedly ancient.
… continued next post…
A little more on authors of the texts included in Oxford, Bodleian, Laud Misc. 644, manuscript made about thirty years after Michael Scot’s death. The authors of the mathematical sections:
GROSSETESTE. Scholar and Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste particularly supported the Franciscan order (of which Roger Bacon became a member). Grosseteste “seems to have spent some time in France during the years 1208–14”. By.1229/30 he was teaching at Oxford, as reader in theology to the Franciscans, who had a community there by about 1224. He remained in that post until March 1235.Roger Bacon was his most famous pupil, and is said to have acquired an interest in scientific method from him. Those of his works included in Laud.Misc. 644 were written between 1220 to 1235.
∂ Works by Grosseteste not included in that volume:
‘De luce’. On the “metaphysics of light.” ( described as ‘the most original work of cosmogony in the Latin West’)
‘De accessu et recessu maris’. On tides and tidal movements. (although some scholars dispute his authorship).
De iride’. On the rainbow.
ALBUMASSAR’ is Abu Ma’shar. (see end note)
‘ALFRAGANUS‘ is al-Farghani. Born in Uzbekistan in the 9thC AD. His ‘Jawami ilm Al-Nujum (A Compendium of Astronomy)* is thought to have been written in Egypt, becoming immediately and widely known among speakers of Arabic and Hebrew, and then being another among the works whose translation into Latin was made in Spain and credited to ‘Gerard of Cremona’.
*Liber de aggregationibus scientiae stellarum et principiis celestium motuum, quem Ametus qui dictus est Alfraganus compilavit; cum figuris. cf. 524 AdBSB Clm 234.
The Latin translation of the Toledan Tables ‘Canones ad tabulas toletanas’ is generally credited to the first Gerard of Cremona. Michael Scot said he had found these particularly helpful.
BOETHIUS was born in Italy in 480 AD, after the Roman empire’s capital had becme Constantinople and while the city of Rome lay under Ostragothic rule. He died in 524 (aged 44), but his ‘Arithmetica’ remained the standard text for teaching arithmetic and basic maths, until and even after the early fifteenth century.
∂ *Michael Scot died in c.1232. His studious interests were in mathematics, medicine-and-pharmacy and astronomy-astrology. The wiki article vastly exaggerates the magical- and under-states the astronomical and scientific content of Scot’s works for Frederick in Sicily, as well as conveying a false impression of Frederick as ’emperor’. In reality, Frederick reigned chiefly as king of Sicily and his court was regularly under interdiction, which prohibited any Latin Christian from engaging with him. HIs foray into diplomacy in the Holy Land was an effort to overcome those restrictions, whose results included refusal to acknowledge or use one of Frederick’s great accomplishments – sponsoring a Latin translation of al-Idrisi’s new astronomical-geography of the world, which took fifteen years under Roger, but of which no Latin version had been sent to Rome. Idrisi’s work became the foundation of a radically new form of education across North Africa when Idrisi finally returned there.
[edit – replacing a dropped half-sentence. Sept. 21st]
∂ According to N.G. Wilson, the first appearance of Aristotle’s biological writings in the West are Latin translations by MIchael Scot of an Arabic edition. According to Wilson, it was this work by Scot, rather than Thomas of Cantimpre, which formed the basis of the book de Animalibus by Albert of Lauingen though the opinion is not generally held:
N. G. Wilson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Greek Manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Oxford (Oxford, 2011) pp. 20-21, Plates 43-46.
“‘Albumasar”‘s work, as ‘Flowers of astronomy’ began appearing in Latin, in print from about three generations after the Voynich quires were inscribed, but we know that 46 editions were printed between 1488-1506. These included illustrations, but we have no information about the source(s) used by the block-makers. As a rule they were commissioned from free-lance artists hired by individual printers, and once a printer had a convenient block, it might be used in any kind of text. Here, Cancer does have arcs on the thorax and lobster-like abdomen, but the tail has only three lobes, the abdomen has as neither legs nor swimmerets attached to it; both front legs are provided with claws, the antennae have a rippled edge, and though the head is given three points it is plainly based on that of the ‘prawn-like’ type.
edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.
The author’s rights are asserted.
It should not come as much of a surprise that the series of diagrams we call the ‘Voynich calendar’ has not found any counterpart in the art of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe. Nor, if also considered as a series, has the sequence of its diagrams’ central emblems.
It remains possible that some day there may found a work of Latin (i.e. western European Christian) origin in which there is comparable series of month- diagrams, presented on such a fold-in, beginning with March, following March with two segments each showing a goat, and then two segments showing bull-like forms, and which also includes a Scales of the same unusual construction, two lobsters for ‘July’ and a quadruped with a whip-like tail for ‘November’ – but none has been found yet during the century and more since 1912.
An analytical approach meets divergence from any theoretical norm not as if it were a social gaffe, politely to be ignored, but as a sign of potentially valuable information. In this case, we hope the information gained might ultimately assist those still wondering where and when they should look for whatever language or dialect (if any) informs the written text.
The major flaw in a widely promoted ‘central European-Ruolfine-German’ theory is that it takes as axiomatic too many of the old guesses, including the guess that although the series of central emblems in the Voynich calendar does not form a zodiac, or any coherent segment of one, it may be treated as if it did.
The analyst’s approach says rather, ‘Well, since it isn’t a zodiac, why isn’t it, and to what purpose was it made which has it differ so obviously from that theoretical model?”
If that were our present question, it would require considering the entire series – the central emblems included with their diagrams – but at present we are investigating the degree to which astronomical, historical and cultural information we’ve gained from diagrams in other sections of the manuscript does or doesn’t chime with information offered by the calendar. For the sake of the exercise, therefore, we will concentrate on just two of the central emblems, those overwritten with the month-names for November and for July.
From the earlier two analyses* it was concluded that those are most likely to have been brought into a Latin environment between the mid-thirteenth to later fourteenth centuries AD with one showing a greater proportion of its drawing compatible with the visual language of medieval Latin (western Christian) Europe than the other. Asian influence was recognised in both.
*of the diagrams on fol. 85r and fol. 67v-1.
Our now considering a couple of emblems from the Voynich calendar is done to test whether those astronomical emblems do, or don’t, say the same.
For newcomers, let me emphasise that any formal analytical study must treat the whole of any drawing or series: in the calendar that means both diagram and central emblem – no conclusions being valid which cherry-pick. However, this being an exercise and demonstration of research-method, we may use these two as example of how to progress through a work, piece after piece, testing and reconciling opinions gained from one item against those which follow, to build a cumulative study.
Our attention having already been drawn, and repeatedly, to the south-western Mediterranean, the fact that the Voynich ‘calendar’-emblems were over-written with month-names in a dialect or language from that region, or linked directly to it by contemporary networks, makes it reasonable to begin there.
Below is a map showing entanglements between the relevant linguistic regions – those most densely coloured red – during the thirty years between 1358 AD to 1372 AD. It is not a maritime chart, nor a political map, nor does it map textual stemma. It illustrates the commercial network of trade and correspondence for one trading house while the Italian founder was resident in papal Avignon. I apologise for the map’s poor quality; it is as it appears in the source..
Francesco di Marco Datini was born in Prato, near Florence. His knowledge of commercial maths’ method and practice being most likely gained in Paolo Dagomari’s ‘abaco’ school* in Florence. Between regions speaking Catalan, Judeo-Catalan, Occitan (most often posited as providing the calendar’s month-names), goods and people travelled chiefly in the ships of Genoa, of Venice and of Catalonia.
*For more, and references, see earlier post, ‘Consider… Maths & memory Pt 1‘, voynichrevisionist, (January 13, 2022),
Edit: August 9th. The paragraph’s last sentence was poorly expressed. Please read: ‘Between regions… the ships in which goods and people travelled were predominantly those of Genoa, of Venice and of Catalonia’.
It was also in the context of the new abaco schools – dedicated to commercial maths, geometry, practical astronomy and navigation – that use of Arabic numerals was fostered in Latin Europe, and that simpler ‘4’ shape for the numeral – a form similar to one of the Voynich glyphs – was disseminated. Its earliest known instance occurs in 1375, in the great rose-gridded worldmap commissioned for the court of France from a Jewish master named Abraham Cresques’, a resident of Majorca.
As I first pointed out a decade ago, there are discernable points of connection between Cresques’ Atlas, early Genoese cartes marine in that new, rose-gridded style, and the Voynich map, but the last (as I concluded) comes of older and different origins, its final recension when Latin-compatible details were added, dating to about 1350 AD.
In Cresques’ work, the zodiac constellations are represented as a fairly standard series, but they do reflect a habit which we’ll see again, by which crab and scorpion are suggested related, or akin to one another. The same attitude is reflected by the zodiac in the Occitan manuscript, made about fifty years before (see header), – but that characteristic is not found in the Voynich calendar.
Caution: on the web there are many altered and edited images purporting to be from Cresques’ Atlas (also described as the Catalan Atlas). Some are over-written with large, white geomantic figures. Another that I’ve seen paints over, with gold, all the inscriptions that in the original are written in Hebrew letters.
By the early fifteenth century, when the Voynich quires are thought to have been inscribed, the finest ateliers and illuminators in this part of Europe were producing images of Crab and Scorpion in forms we might call ‘classic’ and which will be immediately familiar to a modern reader. Paris was still the intellectual capital of Europe, and Italy increasingly the artistic and literary capital of Europe, while other regions were still to come into full flower.
The new commercial ‘4’ for the numeral would not appear in Germany until after 1440 and in works produced from Germany and central Europe, forms were still employed – for Scorpius especially – which had been used in the south-western Mediterranean as much as four hundred years earlier, and which there had been largely superseded by the early fifteenth century.
Below is the ‘November’ page from a manuscript created in Burgundy within the same date-range as the Voynich quires’ vellum (1405-1438 AD). Its Crab was painted at some time between 1412 and 1416, though parts of its ‘November’ page were completed only between 1435-1489. The ‘November’ page looks like this.
Its Scorpion is recognisable as you see; and so is its Crab.
Unlike the Voynich calendar, these monthly diagrams show constellations extending across adjacent months, as astrological signs do, but which the Voynich month-diagrams do not.
Another difference, if a predictable one, is that this high-status and high-end work, despite its being made a quarter-century after Cresques’ Atlas, retains the older and by then conservative form for the numeral ‘four’.
What this indicates is that if – and we emphasise that if – the hands which wrote the Voynich ‘4o’ were accustomed to writing the numeral as ‘4’, it is unlikely that the manuscript was composed first in central Europe or by members of Latin Europe’s social or scholarly elites.
Further evidence of the work’s being used by and for persons of lesser standing is the fact that the month-names are inscribed in a southern vernacular dialect or language rather than in Latin.
On the other hand, it was during the period presently of most interest to us (1350-1430 AD) that use of a regional vernacular for literary compositions of all kinds was becoming not merely more popular among a few educated people but was becoming a hot political issue.
Initially fostered by the popularity of Occitan-speaking troubadores, as their popularity waned, a political movement arose which would ultimately develop into modern nationalism, with its less pleasant twin, active xenophobia.
The Italian Brunetto Latini had written his most famous work in the French vernacular, but Dante’s Cantos had the greater and more lasting impact over the period between their completion in 1320 and the end-date for the Voynich manuscript’s vellum (1438 AD).
Varieties of Occitan were spoken not only within the borders of what is now modern France; it was also spoken in parts of Italy and according to a wiki author (who provides no reference)
The first part of the name, Occ-, comes from Occitan òc and the expression ‘langue d’oc’.. is an appellation promoted by Dante Alighieri of Occitan by the way of saying “oui” in Old Occitan–Catalan; as opposed to the “langue de si” (Italian) and the “langue d’oïl” (“yes” in Old French).
*Dante’s son was another student of Paolo Dagomari’s ‘abaco’ school.
So, the frame within which the evidence offered by the Voynich calendar may now be explored means that wherever it was copied in the early fifteenth century, the probability is it was a region where Occitan, Judeo-Catalan etc. were understood. For the form(s) given its emblems for November and July – supposing they are intended as astronomical emblems – we cannot look to works first composed in fifteenth-century France and Italy unless the copyist’s intention was to reproduce faithfully forms found in some much older work. The Voynich ‘November’ beast is no expression of fifteenth-century fashion.
It is easy enough to resort to imagination (aka theory) to explain why, if it is an astronomical emblem, the November figure does not present the form of a scorpion. We might imagine :
that the copyist had no idea what a scorpion looked like.
that the copyist had no means to discover how one should represent the constellation Scorpius,
that he had been struggling to understand Aratus in the original Greek and mis-interpreted αὐτὰρ ὑπ᾽ αἰθομένῳ κέντρῳ τέραος μεγάλοιο σκορπίου to mean not, “the great beast, [the] Scorpion” but “the great beast [whose name is] Skorpios” – and so drew his idea of ‘a great beast’.
And given the history of astronomical learning in medieval Latin Europe and the long, confused history for transmission of Aratus’ Phaenomena, the last might easily be accepted as plausible.
But imagination-as-theory is embedded in traditional Voynich method, so let’s leave it aside and begin working from physical evidence and the historical and cultural context.
What sort of works might have caused images of this kind to be included in the fifteenth century manuscript by persons who, it would seem, understood the dialect or language in which these month-names are written? What did they know about stars?
Astronomical or Astrological?
It has become a widely prevalent habit, if an unfortunate one, to describe any knowledge of the stars as either astronomy or astrology, but the distinction is inappropriate for our purposes and for the period of interest to us now.
To observe that different constellations along the ecliptic occupy the mid-heavens in turn through the year is not astrology, It is simple observation of fact.
To mark the months by twelve of those constellations and call the twelve the zodiac is not astrology either. It requires no more than observation, without need for any knowledge of mathematics or of astrological methods. The labels themselves are not ‘Scorpio’ and ‘Cancer’ but ‘November’ and ‘July’.
In the same way, navigation by the stars is arguably the oldest human science, older than the first cities, and older than mathematics as a formal discipline. So too, it is not astrology to say that in November, when a certain constellation rises to eventually occupy the mid-heavens at night, ships should not venture far from shore. That’s the fruit of common heritage and observation.
When you invent a character for that constellation, one which has it looking at the ships with a hostile expression, that’s still not astrology; its popular lore. Associating a star or constellation with a place on earth can be, but is not necessarily, astrology either. As our default term, then, we use ‘astronomical’ keeping ‘astrological’ for cases where that purpose is clearly expressed by the internal evidence.
So – even granting, as a first possibility, that all the central emblems in the Voynich ‘calendar’ depict constellations which lie along the ecliptic – zodiac constellations – it cannot be presumed from that alone that the series of diagrams, or the series of its central emblems, had astrological purpose – unlike those split-month images we see in the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry, illustrated above.
Indeed, we have had the opinion of two scholars, independent of each other and of Voynicheros’ influence – at least then – who have stated plainly that the diagrams in the Voynich ‘calendar’ are not astrological charts*.
*for details see earlier post D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Skies above – not astrological’, voynichrevisionist, (February 9, 2020)
In this same connection we remind readers, that shortly after publication of his great study’s* second volume, Fritz Saxl was asked by John Matthews Manly, who sent him copies of pages from the Voynich manuscript, to comment on them. Saxl replied, as so many eminent specialists have done when asked to apply their knowledge of medieval Europe’s history and art to this manuscript, that nothing struck a familiar chord.
Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters. Vol. 1, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1915, Vol. 2, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1927, [Vols. 3 & 4, Meier, Hans, and Bober, Harry, and McGurk, Patrick.]
Lippincott’s ‘Saxl’ Project: hunting the November beast.
Led by Kristin Lippincott, the ‘Saxl Project’ is again concerned with collecting and grouping zodiac images, making pdfs of the material available through Lippincott’s website.
The Saxl project – Led by Kristen Lippincott and run jointly with The Warburg Institute, University of London. It has also benefitted greatly from previous collaborative research, which was carried out with Dr Elly Dekker of Utrecht University, between 1997 and 2007.
Among images collected to illustrate Scorpius are a few which show it drawn more like a lizard or a warm-blooded beast than a true scorpion. For us, at present, it matters less where these manuscripts are now or even when they were made, than the textual sources which were being copied in them, and Lippincott’s taking note of those sources (as most Voynicheros’ efforts have not) shows the source-texts are just three, all of which were known to some, at least, in Latin Europe before c.1350 AD.
One is a work written by a Roman of the pre-Christian era. The other two are medieval works written by Englishmen – one of whom never left England and rarely travelled beyond his monastery, and the other of whom studied in Paris, in Toledo, in Italy and at the Norman-Sicilian court.
The Roman-era work is a primary-school level ‘crib’ called the Astronomicon Poeticon. It is popularly, if doubtfully, attributed to Gaius Julius Hyginus (c. 64 BC – AD 17). The first of the Englishman is Bede, whose authorship of De signis caeli is also widely doubted today, but the work itself is reasonably ascribed to the period in which he lived (673- 735 AD).
Only the third source is securely attributed and dated. That is Michael Scot’s Liber Introductorius, completed in 1228.
Scot is best known today for the time he spent in the Sicilian-Norman court, but Scot brought to that court what he had learned earlier, including proficiency in Arabic and in Hebrew, both of which were commonly spoken in the Sicily of his time. Scot’s studies included mathematics, astronomy and natural history. Together with Andrew the Levite, he had already translated in Toledo the text of al-Bitrūjī’s de motibus celorum.
‘Critical Edition of the Latin Translation of Michael Scot by Francis J. Carmody’, review by Marshall Clagett, Isis, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep., 1953), pp. 280-281.
There has been little scholarly attention devoted to the iconography of Scot’s Liber Introductorius, and influences from older North Africa have been largely overlooked, as has his list of ‘Berber’ star-names and the full range of sources from which Scot worked. Apart from those still well-known, Scot refers to – but here let me quote Edwards:
Scot … mentions other authors [in addition to the most widely known] … such as the Tacuinum of Cleopatra, Isidore, Bede, Ambrose, “Alexander the Great,” Empedocles, Euclid, Hermes, Haly, loanton and Nemroth, Rasis, and Macrobius. He mentions the Tables of Toledo as being especially useful. He cites Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero, Plato, Pliny, Cato, Galen, Jerome, the Sybil, and John of Spain.
Glenn Michael Edwards, ‘The Liber Introductorius of Michael Scot’, thesis (PhD), University of Southern California, 1978.
What this tells us is that, whatever the source of the astronomical information embodied by the Voynich calendar’s diagrams, the emblems used to fill the centres – and particularly November’s ‘beast’ – come from a source already known to Latin Europe before 1350 AD but which may not be a classic text or even one extant today.
We also have the example provided by diagrams in the astrological Libros del Saber to show that astronomical-astrological diagrams might later have central emblems added or created for them by later copyists. To paraphrase an earlier comment*: Diagrams in copies of the ‘Libros..’ differ from copy to copy, as one might expect, but the difference is so strongly pronounced in their central emblems that one has the clear impression each copyist was obliged to find exemplars for these details himself.
*made in connection with Panofsky’s assessment of the Voynich manuscript, as reported by Anne Nill, that “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript, [our manuscript] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”
So at last the parameters for researching these two emblems are defined. Our initial focus will be on a period between 1350-1438 AD. We begin from the regions in which Occitan was written and understood. We do not presume astrological purpose. We allow for the possibility that the central emblems were added to, not obtained together with, their diagrams. We know there is a high probability that the central emblems, at least, were gained from some older source already known in the Latin sphere by no later than 1228 and possibly much earlier… and so now, to work.
Postscript – Michael Scot and the Munich [M] source:
Speaking of an important Italian ms now Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Ms CLM 10268, Edwards remarks that in the margin of folio 125C is a horoscope by Bartholomew of Parma, dated 1287, and that this “presents a terminus ante quem for the exemplar, since the paleographic evidence does not support so early a date for this manuscript”. He goes on to say of this source, described as M without quotation marks:
The script is a compact Italian book Gothic, the letters being quite square. The “M” is made of three very sharp minims, and the “A” tends to form two loops, with the top of the letter almost touching the bottom loop. M in addition uses both the upright and the uncial “D”. These are characteristics of the last quarter of the thirteenth century, but the use of the looped rather than the upright final “g” is indicative of the early fourteenth century.
In view of the fact that Italian hands changed so slowly, it is difficult to place them with accuracy. Yet the style of script will justify an ascription of the date to circa 1300 more readily than to any other. I have attempted to push back the date of the manuscript to 1287, and discussed the matter with Virginia de la Mare, Assistant Keeper of Western Manuscripts for the Bodleian. In her view, the decorations and colors used in the illuminations are characteristic of those executed at Bologna from 1300 to 1310 and cannot justifiably be ascribed to an earlier time.
So far, in considering these two diagrams (on folio 85r and folio 67v-1), what we’ve been doing is like picking out two small pieces from a pile of jig-saw puzzle pieces for which there is no convenient picture printed on the box.
What we must now do is to pause to think about what these two pieces tell us and because the manuscript is evidently no uniform composition but a compilation, what they tell us may not only differ between one and the other of these pieces, but may agree or disagree with the traditional expectation that all the matter in Beinecke MS 408 would be of western Christian (i.e. ‘Latin’ European) origin and an expression of no other cultural traditions.
.First piece – diagram on folio 85r (part).
Analysis (see posts in Series #6) showed some elements do use conventions closely consistent with those of medieval Latin art, particularly the fact that in it four winds are given characters closely reflecting the content in a widely-used western text – Isidore’s Etymologiae.
Yet elements in the same diagram expresses ideas and habits alien to the Latins’ visual vocabulary, most importantly use of an asymmetrical four-fold division for the circuit.
Other characteristics presenting opposition to the traditionalists’ assumption that the whole manuscript is an expression of Latin culture, is the accurate depiction of Mongol dress and a ‘lily’ which is no fleur-de-lys.
But the single most telling detail is the asymmetrical divisions’ being marked by a form that ‘L.L.’ suggested might be the fly-whisk (as symbol of religious or of civil authority, known from western North Africa, through Ethiopia into India and south-east Asia) but which I think closer in its sense here to that ‘whisk-like’ form as banner – a motif employed not only in Asia by the Mongols, but also in art produced in a Persian environment during the period of Mongol rule (13th-14th C). An example is shown at right.
In those cases the ‘whisk’ takes on the character of a banner, and the sense it bears is most like the flag as emblem in Europe; that is, it signifies not only religious or secular authority, but planting the flag constitutes a claim to rule over a that territory.
Between the second half of the thirteenth century and much of the fourteenth century, Mongols ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen. They were the great power throughout the Mediterranean world during that era, with only Mamluk Egypt as significant second. The Seljuk Turks waited in the wings.
As the Yuan dynasty, Mongol rule within China would survive until 1368 AD.
During that time, foreign traders were welcomed in China’s foreigners’ ports, protected across the overland ‘silk roads’ and foreign ambassadors and their religions invited. Among those who accepted invitations to come to China itself there were a few western Christians and of those (very few) of which records remain, none but persons from Italian city-states remained long. For example, we hear of one doctor from Bologna, a Franciscan friar from Sicily, another Sicilian resident as trader, and of Katerina Villioni who died there in 1342.
While, therefore, it is statistically most likely that matter now in Beinecke MS 408 came into European horizons with someone who was not a Latin (i.e. western European Christian), and otherwise most likely that it was brought by an Italian or a Jew whose home was in the south-western region of the Mediterranean, it is not beyond all possibility that a Latin from some other part of Europe might have fetched much of the material from ‘oriental parts’ in that brief period called the ‘Pax Mongolica’.
Example 2 (folio 67v-1 – starting with post #8.3)
In this case, the diagram’s main, central, part displays habits that can fairly be described as ancient, and Egyptian, but continuity within the art of Egypt and regions it influenced during Egypt’s four-thousand years as an independent kingdom means these same motifs and ideas continued to be seen even when Egypt lay under foreign rule, as it did for almost all of the six centuries which preceded the Christian era. In the sixth century, Egypt had been taken first by Persia, then in the fourth century it was taken from Persia by the Macedonian Greeks, who were in their turn supplanted by Rome.
On the other hand, this diagram’s peripheral emblems, whose subject is entirely astronomical, suggest by their forms and selected subjects, no ancient origin. One emblem’s being overlaid with heavy pigment implies a late effort to ‘Latinise’ that detail, while retaining in it the image of an unmistakeably Asiatic face – again suggesting the Mongol century and a discrepancy between the customs informing the original drawing and what are evidently later additions, the latest of which is a less-than-congenial influence from one or more ‘heavy painters’ or the work’s overseer.
Reflecting more than one cultural tradition and historical era is no reason to suppose the drawings faked. Quite the opposite; they speak to issues of origin and subsequent transmission which – so long as we do not create pre-emptive narratives (‘theories’) – are more helpful than troubling.
Matter deemed ‘ancient’ was typically revered and carefully transmitted everywhere, though in Latin Europe that reverence was usually accorded only the information in written text and it is unusual to see images not immediately ‘translated’ to suit the customs of Latins’ visual language.
The diagram on folio 85r provides a nice example of how certain elements might be left untranslated – either because they had no Latin equivalent, or were considered insignificant or as I think is found again in other sections of the manuscript, because the fifteenth-century copyists had been ordered to alter nothing.
We are only concerned with the manuscript’s drawings. When and where the written part of the text gained its present form is for others to determine.
For these two diagrams, then, it appears that the most likely period for their first arrival in Europe is during the ‘Mongol century’ – late thirteenth to late fourteenth centuries.
Once more, for any newcomers, I repeat that this ‘Notes’ series is not here to ‘showcase’ my own research, but to demonstrate the value of adopting an analytical rather than a theory-driven approach.
Partly for that reason and partly there is a persistent problem of plagiarism among a few Voynicheros (all linked at first- or second remove to the same university), I won’t be including in these notes the complete analysis of any one drawing or series, though in the usual way it is an absolute requirement of formal analyses that an account must be given of the entire drawing, or the entire series of drawings being discussed. A theorist may cherry-pick, and most do. Iconological analyses may not.
I’ve said that the fourth of the peripheral emblems in folio 67v-1 represents certain stars in Orion, but being reminded of that problem with persistent plagiarism I’ve decided to omit further details here.
In treating its ‘North’ emblem, however, it became apparent that a person who exercised a form of overseeing- or censoring role is linked with the addition of heavy pigments, and the nature of that ‘censorship’ suggests a Latin scholar and/or -cleric responsible.
The next series will investigate whether the same is true for images in a different section where astronomical emblems are found.
Within what we’ve called the ‘Voynich calendar’, some sections show the ‘heavy’ painter’s influence especially pronounced, though for the exercise just two central emblems will be considered, both of which have been regarded by even the staunchest of Voynich traditionalists as ‘unusual’ and unhelpful to a theory of the manuscript as entirely an expression of western Christian culture.
These are the emblems which now fill the centre of the diagrams for July, and for November.
The series is described as a calendar because its diagrams’ central emblems are over-written with month-names in a dialect or language variously identified, but always as a language or dialect used in the south-western Mediterranean or in regions linked to them by the sea-lanes: Occitan, Judeo-Catalan, and Norman French most often suggested.