O’Donovan notes – 7c.i – Calendar. Bodleian Douce 313.

c.4700 words (including references. longish footnotes and a Notice to Readers.)

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract – A crocodile as emblem for November has been noted in these posts, so far, only in Beinecke MS 408 and in a Franciscan missal (Bodleian, Douce 313), both being pocket-sized manuscripts, noted for the extraordinary number of their drawings and, in different senses, for the simplicity of those drawings.

This post considers other possible points in common, because if the ‘Marci’ letter of 1665/6 should be genuine, an idea of connection between Beinecke MS 408 and the Franciscans has been around, now, for three and a half centuries, yet remains largely unexplored. We also consider the different attitudes towards making books and images between the early Franciscans and that other preaching order, the Dominicans – and certain interests common to both.


Prefatory remarks:

The opinion I hold, after more than a decade’s working through the sections of Beinecke MS 408, is that a majority of its drawings entered Latin1 horizons only c.1350 AD and that the style of that majority fall into two groups, of which one derives ultimately from works of Hellenistic origin (c.3rdC BC – 5thC AD)2 and the other from a Roman cultural context c.1st-3rdC AD. All which fall into one or other of those groups demonstrate evidence of non-classical and non-Latin affect over the intervening period, that is, to c.1350 AD. Though relatively few drawings in Beinecke MS 408 are expressed in the way of art in the medieval Mediterranean and Latin west, the calendar’s central emblems are among those few.

1. By ‘Latin’ Europe is meant here, and throughout posts to this blog, that part of western Europe whose shared culture had been formed by use of Latin for its language of liturgy, scholarship and diplomacy – the counterparts elsewhere in the Mediterranean world being Arabic and Greek.

2.in certain regions not invaded by Rome, Hellenistic culture survived much longer than it did in the Mediterranean.

It is also my opinion – though the informing research was never shared online beyond one a vague hint – that the manuscript is likely to have been among those improperly acquired by Guglielmo Libri, the manuscript being entrusted (or returned) to a member of the Jesuit order after Libri’s death in Fiesole as an effort at restitution and so reaching Fr. Beckx, in whose trunk Voynich says he first saw it in about 1911. Beckx was head of the Jesuit order when he resided in Fiesole from 1873-1883/4, a time when his order was suppressed in Rome.3

3. for more detail about Fr Beckx life, and relevance for Voynich studies, see separate page in the top bar (HERE). Catholics believe not only that they should acknowledge sins of commission and omission in confession, but that sins are not forgiven unless and until some effort is made to restore, or make other restitution, for harm done.

Libri had died four years before Beckx arrived, the doubtful honour of becoming Libri’s chief executor falling to Count Giacomo Manzonia, resident of the same same town, and by all reports noble in character and not merely in name.

  • Jeremy M. Norman, Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel: A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri. (2013)
  • Andrea Del Centina, ‘The manuscript of Abel’s Parisian memoir found in its entirety’, Historia Mathematica Vol. 29 (2002) pp. 65-69.
  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘A True and Faithful Relation of the Death of Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carucci dalla Sommaia’, voynichimagery, (March 23rd., 2015) – that post was published and I’ll provide a copy to any wanting it. email: voynichimagery AT gmail com.

As I say, that research was never shared online other than a couple of faint hints, so I was interested to see that quite soon afterwards a member of one voynich forum asked in that place – though had not asked me, nor named me – what lay behind reference to Libri. Not unpredictably, another asserted with quite magnificent self-assurance (given that he knew no more than did the questioner) that it was “100% hypothetical”.

That bit of trivia is now called to mind because to illustrate Dominican attitudes to painting in that part of Italy about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ve chosen a praedella painted for a church in Fiesole by a native of the region, the Dominican friar popularly known as ‘Fra Angelico’. (Part of the praedella serves as our heading).

Rupecanina is a small hamlet in the mountains about 27 km (17.3 miles) north of Florence.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in about 1395 – some say in Rupercanina and others in nearby Vicchio. Because friars took a new name on entry to their religious order, with a surname from the place they joined it, so Guido became the Dominican friar, Fra John of Fiesole. His brother Benedetto also joined the Dominicans. Both are believed trained as illuminators of manuscripts before entering the order – Fra John perhaps in 1407 or perhaps in 1417. Sources differ, but this bracket of 1407-1437 is nicely convenient for us and the palette used by Fra Angelico a potentially useful comparison for that in Beinecke MS 408. N.B. I’m not suggesting that Fra Angelico or his brother made the Voynich drawings!

Both brothers produced works for the Dominican convent of S. Marco in Florence; Benedetto illuminated choral books for San Marco and for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole and is thought to have assisted Fra John in creating his frescos in Florence and possibly also assisted with that praedella.

  • Graves, Robert Edmund (ed.). Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (A–K). Vol. I (3rd ed.) .p.494.

The Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and the order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) were established as mendicant orders with a charter to preach without being tied to any parish, but the Dominicans began by studying rhetoric, logic, theology and languages, from a theory that they could overwhelm others and convert them by force of logical argument. (That their logical arguments might be built on arguable premises did not occur to them.) That they made so few converts in that way would eventually cause a number of Dominicans to become enraged beyond reason and and simultaneously incur the wrath – sometimes fatal – of non-European communities whose sensibilities their style of missionary preaching offended.

Franciscans believed, on the other hand – in the earlier years at least – that by simply living as Christ had done, in poverty and as an itinerant who relied on the local community for daily sustenance and to whom they should speak very simply, would not only bring others to Christianity but encourage Christians to a more authentic Christian life. This philosophy was so obviously in contrast to the way of life practiced by ‘princes of the church’ and other religious orders that the founder, Francis of Assisi, came within a hairsbreadth of being executed for heresy but led, equally, to an enormous popularity among the ordinary people.

Both orders required that members to take a vow of poverty but here again their practices differed before the mid-fourteenth century. Dominicans defined that poverty merely as a nominal personal poverty and had no objection to the priory being wealthy in lands, money or goods, or in using lavish pigments and gilding for their manuscripts and churches. The early Franciscans, in Italy, had refused gifts of land or money for their community, and while their attitudes would change over time, and fourteenth-century France is often mentioned as part of the reason for that change, we see that difference of opinion expressed in illustrations made for a mid-thirteenth century Dominican bible known as the ‘Abbey’ bible. In the detail (below) the sub-text is that Christ loves Dominicans; that Franciscans’ manuscripts are mean and amateurish; that none can read music; that they are poorly dressed, wear sandals over dirty feet and are ‘dumb’ in more than one sense of the word.

image from Elizabeth Morrison, ‘Far from Marginal’, Getty Museum Blog (Sept. 7th., 2011). Morrison’s comment in more diplomatic.

Many early Franciscans had been unlettered men, but not all – and by the 1400s many were being formally trained in theology and ordained as priests. However, the thirteenth-century work shows that there may have been more than just gut-feeling, or the rumour allegedly mentioned by Marci, behind Wilfrid’s asserting that his small, pocket-sized ‘ugly ducking’ manuscript was a thirteenth-century Franciscan product, despite its being unlike texts produced in centres such as Oxford or Paris even by a Franciscan as Roger Bacon was.

Franciscan simplicity – and a crocodile.

In marked contrast to Dominican ornament – whether in the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries – we have the style of Bodleian, MS Douce 313. It presents as simple and of an almost penitential restraint, but the drawings are fine, fairly sophisticated and in a currently-fashionable form, known as grisaille. Below, its emblem for November, which we’ll compare later with that in Beinecke 408.

The example of Douce 313 provides some helpful information – first, that the Voynich November crocodile is not the result of individual whim. Secondly, that the crocodile was regarded in at least one place in Europe, among certain Franciscans at least, as an acceptable form for Scorpio – its presence in Beinecke MS 408 is not a mistake or the result of the maker’s being ignorant.

Thirdly, that because the drawing in Douce 313 is part of a ‘labours and months’ series of which the remainder is entirely conventional – one might even say ‘classical’ – it suggests the existence of some model regarded as equally conventional in which also a crocodile was drawn for November, despite this being the earliest noted so far in medieval Latin art. Prior to this, we’ve seen November associated with Egypt only in much older works – a Roman-era mosaic calendar from north Africa and the Chronology of 354.

Otherwise, the series of month-emblems in Douce 313 is unlike that of Beiencke MS 408. For Sagittarius it has the Centaur-with-bow, not the fully-human archer seen in the Voynich calendar and first attested among eastern Jews. The emblem for July is a simple Crab, not the ‘locusta’ which, paired, serve as the Voynich calendar’s emblem for July.

While medieval Latin manuscripts often show confusion about the proper form for Scorpius, sometimes drawing it as a crustacean; as an insect; in various lizard-like forms and like forms of dragon similar to those labelled ‘crocodrill’ in the bestiaries, what we have in Douce 313 is recognisably a crocodile, and a beast associated in the medieval imagination with Egypt and more specifically with the Nile.

Thus, Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 are certainly not ‘sister’ manuscripts, but this fairly literal image of a crocodile as November’s emblem makes the context which produced Bodleian, Douce 313 worth looking at more closely.

Where and when?

The writer JK Petersen included the crocodile from Douce 313 in a montage, describing it as difficult to explain. Acknowledging no precedent, he implies originality, so we credit him with first introducing Douce 313 to Voynich studies.

Mr. Petersen did not explain why he supposed the manuscript made in Paris. The holding library speaks of van Dijk having linked it, albeit tentatively, to the Franciscan priory in Brive (since 1919 Brieve-la-Gaillarde), Corrèze – several hundred kilometers4 south of the capital, in a region where dialects of Occitan were spoken in medieval times. (see map HERE).

4. The French wiki article gives distance to Paris by road as 483  km. or 300 miles. St. Anthony of Padua founded a monastery there in 1226.

If, as many have argued (first, if I recall, Jorge Stolfi), the Voynich month-names reflect the form of an Occitan dialect, then we might say that link to an ‘Occitan-speaking region’ is another point in common between Beinecke 408 and Douce 313. [for more information see further below]

In Brieve, in 1226, one of the first generation of Franciscans, a Portuguese called Anthony of Padua had founded a monastery. Because – as said above – a Franciscan was named for the house in which he joined the order, (e.g. John of Fiesole) or, if he had led an itinerant life as Anthony did, where he died, so Anthony is called ‘of Padua’ by reason of having died there in 1231, at the age of just 36 years and, incidentally, while both Roger Bacon and Michael Scot both still lived.

In the calendar of Douce 313, Anthony is commemorated on 13th. June.*

*”the feast of St. Anthony of Padua (13 June) has no octave but is entered as: S. pastris nosti Antonii conf.” – Bodleian catalogue description.

As I’ve attempted before to explain for Voynich researchers, it makes more sense to consider the physical and community networks along which people, goods, ideas, and fashions travelled than to define a subject in terms of modern notions of nationality or national character. Together with topography, it permits us to include in ‘southern’ Europe not only Italy and Spain, but France, and England.

The matter is easily demonstrated by considering that technique of ‘greyscale’ drawing (grisaille) though it is not employed anywhere in Beinecke MS 408. Some scholars also distinguish ‘brown-scale’ (bruneille). Modern English scholars tend, instead, to describe the technique as ‘tinted line drawing’.

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NOTE – re Occitan for the month-names – this not the only language or dialect proposed for the Voynich calendar’s month-names. Panofsky spoke of ‘regional French’. Others have suggested Judeo-Catalan, or Norman French (of England), Picard and (so I’ve heard as rumour) even one of the ‘Allemannic’ dialects, the author of the last idea evidently not yet having published his argument (?) – (if you know better, or know the person’s name, do leave a comment).

However, as Nick Pelling earlier noted and Don of Talahassee discovered and explained in detail, quite independently, posting to his own site and in communications to voynich ninja (the last largely ignored as he said), the Voynich month-names’ orthography is close to that found on an astronomical instrument believed made in Picardy. (for more, see references below)

  • The Picard instrument is illustrated as Plate 6 in D.A. King, ‘A medieval astrolabe from Picardy’, book chapter available separately as a pdf though academia.edu.
  • Nick Pelling, crediting Joge Stolfi, had earlier formed an idea that the month names were “probably written in an Occitan dialect close to the Provencal spoken in Toulon, a busy medieval port near Marseilles.” (Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.23. He refers again, rather later, to those early and repeated hints of links to the Franciscan order in ‘The Franciscan Voynich hypothesis – Roger Bacon Redux!ciphermysteries (blog) April 12th., 2012.
  • Don of Talahassee also briefly outlined his findings later in a comment to ciphermysteries ( June 9th, 2015), though I’m unable to find any geared astrolabe whose manufacture is credited to Picardy. This may be due to my failure to find it rather than any error by Don.
  • David A. King (2001), The Ciphers of the Monks: A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages.

Yet another line of connection between England, France and Italy is presented by the grisaille.

England – Paris – Italy. Grisaille. (13thC – mid-14thC).

The technique had been common in England from Anglo-Saxon times, and the first person to make it a special feature of his own work and so inspire in its dissemination in the Continent was an Englishman known as ‘Matthew [of] Paris’ (c. 1200 – 1259).

Fifty years later, in c.1304, it is employed by Giotto in Padua, in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Very shortly after we find it adopted in Paris by a near contemporary, Jean Pucelle, who flourished c. 1320–1350.

And in c.1350, as we know, it is employed in a southern French Franciscan missal – Bodleian Douce 313.

(Northern Europe would take it up rather later, and it would not become really popular in that region until the later sixteenth- through to the seventeenth centuries).

Sculptural and literal. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artists use the technique, quite specifically, to imitate sculpture, and by this time Latin art in Italy and France was moving towards a revival of classical-era literalism. In Douce 313, the ‘labours and months’ drawings don’t quite give the sense of depth seen in other cases, nor do they attempt any trompe l’oeil, but they do allow a possibility that the series copies one of those found carved in reflief on the exterior of medieval churches and cathedrals, from the twelfth century onwards. The example shown below was carved in Amiens, capital of Picardy, in 1220-1270 AD. close to when the monastery in Brieve was founded by Antony. These constellations and labours, however, use forms consistent with what we find in Latin manuscripts from as early as the 8th and 9th centuries.

Amiens Cathedral. 13thC. Amiens the administrative capital of Picardy

It is possible that the calendar series in Douce 313 copies one since lost which has passed unremarked. What we can say is that by 1350 AD, some Franciscans in southern France (at least) found no objection to having a crocodile for November’s emblem, and had by then acquired that style of drawing gained from older England and currently popular among some painters in Italy and in France.

The Voynich drawings appear to have been at first simple line and wash before some heavier hand added heavier pigments to some. The line work does not approach the sophistication of Douce 313 and the two use very different methods to indicate curves and volume. That contrast between the ‘line and wash’ and additions by the heavy painter* is especially noticeable in the Voynich calendar.

*’heavy painter’ – first recognised and the term first coined, I believe, by Nick Pelling.

St. Anthony of Padua – by Giotto

Lines of connection – Giotto.

In the same way that we associate Fra Angelico’s paintings with a Dominican context, so in a more general way Giotto is associated with the Franciscans. He is another of those important thirteenth-century figures, having been born in 1267 AD or 1277 AD.

Before being commissioned for work in Padua’s Scrovegni chapel in c.1305 he had already worked on the Basilica built in Padua for St. Anthony (yes, the Portuguese one), and before that for the Franciscan friars of Assisi and of Rimini.

In Douce 313 bishop Gaudentius of Rimini is commemorated – an inclusion difficult to explain in terms of the usual French liturgical roster but easily understood in terms of the Franciscan network.

Gaudentius had come to Rimini from Asia minor about the time the Chronography of 354 was made with its ‘Egyptian’ November and while memory was still fresh of what is called ‘The Plague of Cyprian’ (c.251–270 AD).

Other Times and other Places – define ‘Egyptian’.

One thing which Europe in general, and the preaching orders and the Italian mercantile cities in particular, did have in common was a keen interest in regions lying to the east of Europe.

Christian Europe was well aware that it had been from the east that their religion had come. In the east, too, lay the holy land, the chief point of orientation for Latins’ mappamundi.

Models of monasticism were presented in the form of early Egyptian ascetics, such as Antony of the desert – whose relics arrived in France after being carried first from Alexandria to Constantinople, and rather later from Constantinople to France, at times when theach of the first two cities was in peril.

Eventually (in 1297) the saint’s relics were given a church which soon became a centre of pilgrimage: Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye.

The Life of Antony, translated into Latin as early as the 4thC, was “one of the best known works of literature in the Christian world, a status it would hold through the Middle Ages”.

Fra Angelico pictured that early ascetic in a rather curious garment. The usual reading of the ‘Life’ says Antony had only a couple of rough skin robes – of the sort which Latin Europe gave John the Baptist or Mary Magdalen. One possible explanation is that, living only six kilometers from Florence, Fra Angelico had heard tell of a certain ‘primordial’ robe left there by a Franciscan friar named John de’Marignolli in 1353. de’Marignolli was not the first Franciscan to go to China. He also believed that along the maritime route he had seen the original Paradise and for reasons I won’t go into here, he may have been right.

Before being sent east, however, de’Marignolli had taught theology at the University of Bologna, and we about that ‘primordial’ robe he brought back because years later, in Prague and being given the rather dreary task of re-writing the Annals of Bohemia, he interspersed that narrative with occasional reminiscence.

In one passage he wrote, first quoting Genesis 3:21:

“And the Lord made for Adam and his wife coats of skins or fur, and clothed them therewith. …” [Gen. 3:21]. Now then I say, without however meaning to dogmatize, that for coats of fur we should read coats of fibre. For among the fronds of the Nargil, of which I have spoken above, there grows a sort of fibrous web forming an open network of coarse dry filaments. … A garment such as I mean, of this cannall cloth (and not camel cloth), I wore till I got to Florence, and I left it in the sacristy of the Minor Friars there. No doubt the raiment of John Baptist was of this kind.

from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China VOL. II. pp. 240-242 ‘ The Travels of John de Marignolli 1339-1353’.

This is repeated in another passage, with the Latin terms included the Yule translation reading: “And he made them coats of skins: so at least we com­monly have it, pelliceas,”of fur,” but we should do better to read filiceas,”of fibre”; because they were no doubt of a certain fibrous substance which grows like net-work between the shoots of the coco-palm; I wore one of these myself till I got to Florence, where I left it. ibid. p.227.

John the Baptist was certainly another desert ascetic like Antony, but te conventions of western Christian art meant that the Baptist could not be dressed so unconventionally, so instead – as it seems to me – Fra Angelico has put the ‘paradiscal’ ascetic robe on Antony. He has had to use his imagination or some other eastern souvenir as his model, though, because the natural fibre de’Marigolli meant was coir, and what Fra Angelico painted is more like Asian basketry, rush-matting or a type of woven cape known from parts of India.

Whether there exists, or ever existed, an earlier written account of de’Marignolli’s journey, we know that on his return he had to report to his superiors, and make a formal report to the papal court in Avignon. We may reasonably suppose that he would also have had to answer the usual raft of questions from his fellows, explaining the curious garment left in Florence and speaking about those far-off ‘pagans’ who members hoped one day to convert.

In the European imagination, all eastern peoples were of Egyptian origin and this was so even so late as 1636, when Athanasius Kircher used that to argue that Chinese characters descended from Egyptian hieroglyphic (hieratic) writing. The belief was gained from the Bible, which said that after the Flood, the world had been repopulated by Noah’s sons, one seeing to Africa exclusive of Egypt, another given Europe and the third ‘Asia’, ‘Asia’ defined as beginning from Egypt and the Bosphorus. Because this belief was still current belief among even learned European Christians so lateas the 1630s, we describe the comments made to Kircher by Baresch as meaning that he thought manuscript’s content in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’ – though in my own opinion, when he says the plants are exotics, we may believe him.

  • Kircher argued, initially, that Chinese characters evolved from Egypt’s hieroglyphic (hieratic) script, but would later believe the Chinese to be ‘Adamites’. cf. Wang Haili, ‘Chinese Approaches to Egyptian Hieroglyphs: liushu and bushou’, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 165, No. 2 (2015), pp. 279-302.

Other forms of book (and other crocodiles).

Another detail from praedella shows the interest felt in early fifteenth century Italy in distant peoples and places. Below, a Dominican friar is included in a group which otherwise consists of St. Thomas, best known as Christ’s apostle to India, and two foreign-looking men who wear pink, with no hint of that censure we saw in Bonaiuti’s depiction of Michael Scot.

St. Thomas was one of Christ’s apostles, best known as the apostle to India. There, a community known as the ‘Community of Thomas’ attribute their founding to that apostle and say they were founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD.

St. Thomas didn’t dress as he’s represented here, of course, but his bones had eventually been moved from southern India to Syria and (so it is said) later to Chios, from which another Florentine, a member of the Acciaiuoli family, carried them in 1258 to Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they remain.

That detail in the praedella is not entirely clear, but among the easterners associated with Thomas, one holds what I believe is a set of inscribed palm-leaf books, palm-leaves having once been a common medium used from north Africa through Arabia and the east. The quill which Fra Angelico gives that figure signifies, in the visual language of Latin Europe, a scribe.

We may again cite de’Marignolli though a good number of westerners had seen these things before him and he himself had a guide from India, a friar named Peter. But he says, of people in Sri Lanka [Seyllan] “they teach boys to form their letters, first by writing with the finger on sand, and afterwards with an iron style upon leaves of paper, or rather I should say upon leaves of a certain tree”.

And there, for the moment, we pause.

Additional note –

As antidote to the wiki article on de’ Marignolli (which attempts to make him a person of high social consequence, ties him chiefly to Prague, and quite omits to mention that he was an Italian Franciscan, I provide the following – from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

“John de’ Marignolli. Born at Florence about 1290; place and date of death unknown. When quite a youth he received the Franciscan habit at the convent of Santa Croce, Florence; later on, as he himself tells us, he held the chair of theology at the University of Bologna. Nothing more is known of his religious life until Benedict XII sent him with other Franciscans on a mission to the Emperor of China”… etc. It is evident to anyone who has actually read the Franciscans’ accounts of their own travels that wiki writers err who attempt to make of those friars personages of high social status travelling with pomp and circumstance. They carried letters and messages but were not ‘diplomats’ in the modern sense.

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NOTICE TO READERS: I regret that, in order to refer in these posts to my own work, while avoiding readers’ wondering if they’ve not seen something similar elsewhere in Voyich-land, I must be clear that no precedent existed when I contributed the following texts and topics (among numerous others) to Voynich studies:

Italian mercantile handbooks other than Milanese cipher-books; the history of imported goods; the history of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries and accounts of their journeys; the astronomical studies conducted in Constantinople, Trebizond, as in Maragha and Tabriz under under Mongol rule; detailed historical studies of the overland ‘silk’ routes and maritime ‘spice routes’; the Armenians in the east and in Europe; the question of perfumes and incense ingredients; accounts of and by secular travellers (other than vague allusions made earlier, by some, to Marco Polo); I introduced matters relating to cartography and cartographers of the period from the early 14thC to mid-fifteenth century, (including Abraham Creques’ Catalan Atlas and Genoese and Venetian chartmakers of the period); celestial navigation and its calculations; compass-roses named by winds, stars, or both; handbooks of navigation; the type of notebooks and guides which emerged from Genoa, from Venice and from the House of Datini (in Prato and in Avignon); other travellers whose accounts of the world beyond western Christian Europe relate to the period before the 1450s, the idea of mnemonic devices and their relevance – for the pre-Renaissance period and introducing in that context the works of Mary Carruthers. Note and comment on Greek and ‘a form of Jewish’ influence noted in certain drawings. Other than Jorge Stolfi I know of no earlier Voynich research which investigated eastern routes or artefacts, or indeed considered any non-Latin-European origin for anything in BeineckeMS 408. Those matters and texts are just some of the material first introduced to Voynich studies by the present writer in the course of sharing research explaining my analytical studies and their conclusions about one and then another, section of Beinecke MS 408 – from 2008 to the present. The habit of some Voynich writers in re-using research, and even attempting to publish it or copyright it to themselves, while neglecting to name the source – and some quite deliberately and systematically re-assigning such credits and thus misdirecting other researchers – would finally lead to my closing Voynichimagery from the public in 2017. That these things are all simple statements of fact is something that the few other Voynich “old boys” know well enough.

India too has its crocodiles, of course.

‘Mugger’ crocodile – India

The following image relates to the Comment I’ve left below.

O’Donovan notes – Calendar 7: the diagrams are not for amateurs, sorry.

c2000 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

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]
  • June: 30
  • July: 30
  • August: 30
  • September: 30 [and one extraneous star]
  • October: 30
  • November: 30 [and one extraneous star]
  • December: 30

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.

image is not to be copied or re-used.

Alfonsine Tables.

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.

To be clear – “astrology”

c.1050 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

[update – see STOP PRESS at end]

Recorded usages in English. .. matter from Oxford Reference:

[ASTROLOGY]

(definition) – The study of movements and relative positions of celestial bodies interpreted as having an influence on human affairs and the natural world.

Ancient observers of the heavens developed elaborate systems of explanation based on the movements of the sun, moon, and planets through the constellations of the zodiac, for predicting events and for casting horoscopes.

The word is recorded from late Middle English, and comes ultimately (via Old French and Latin) from Greek astron ‘star’.

The commonest sense born by the term today (in full: judicial astrology, relating to human affairs) occurs in English from the mid 16th century.

By 1700 astrology had lost intellectual credibility in the West, but continued to have popular appeal. Modern astrology is based on that of the Greeks, but other systems are extant, e.g. that of China.

Natural astrology originally denoted the practical uses of astronomy, applied in the measurement of time and the prediction of natural phenomena.

________________

As you see, the mid-sixteenth century usage is what informs modern perceptions of the difference between astrology and astronomy, and today’s general reader may be excused for expecting that any use of the word ‘astrology’ in medieval works must imply reference to planets, to horoscopes and to the zodiac.

To avoid confusion and false assumptions, those practical uses that medieval people called ‘natural astrology’ we will class as a sub-set of astronomy. Other terms used by modern scholars to avoid confusion include natural astronomy, archaeoastronomy, indigenous astronomy and folk-astronomy and may include moralised astronomy and a union of religious thought with astronomical knowledge, such as identifying Christ with the Sun.

Practical observation of the stars for practical purposes – chiefly to establish times, seasons and directions – has a history descending from times so remote that astronomy can be fairly described as the oldest of human sciences – if science is defined as the accumulation of data by close observation, the systematisation of that data, its practical testing by experiment, its repeatability and its practical aims. The use of navigational astronomy across lands is asserted or inferred as existing from a very early period, and across seas using evidence related to the Australian migrations,* while the Austronesian routes and migrations (which incidentally established the eastern maritime ‘spice routes’) date from c.2000 BC. Trade in lapis lazuli from Afghanistan into Egypt began from the 3rd millennium BC, but scholars differ about when it became a direct, sea-borne trade from the Indus through the Red Sea.

*as e.g. by Alan William, “A new population curve for prehistoric Australia”, Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Proceedings, Vol 280 (#1761), (online through Pub.Med. April 2013).

By comparison, the Babylonian empire’s rise* seems quite recent, being closer in time to the Roman occupation of Judaea than we are now.

 *c.1894 BC

In Egypt, astronomy’s origins are older than the rise of Babylonia and by the 3rd millennium BCE, Egypt’s 365-day calendar was already in use, and the Nile’s annual rise predicted by the rising of stars. One must assume, but we cannot prove, that before Babylonia’s cities were built some Mesopotamian peoples had a developed natural astronomy.

From c1479–1458 BCE we have evidence of a highly-developed astronomical, calendrical, religious and possibly astrological system in Egypt, recorded on the walls and ceiling of a tomb* from that time.

*Senenmut’s tomb, in Thebes.

Having survived intact for about three thousand years, the contents of that tomb and its star-ceiling were rifled, dispersed and/or defaced once it was opened by Europeans in 1925-27. A replica of the ceiling is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a few watercolour paintings record remnants of the decoration. What the replica tells us, at least, is that some of the constellations represented within the Roman-era ceiling at Dendera were from Egypt’s native tradition, while Faulkner’s study of the Pyramid Texts confirms the antiquity of Egyptian emphasis on the circumpolar stars, Orion, Sirius and certain other markers.

Had Senenmut’s tomb survived to be studied now, it might have provided more insight into the evolution of the Coptic calendar, its calculation, and its roster of saints.

  • R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.

*without prejudice, I note that the Egyptian constellations identified by Belmonte and Llull include none from the Roman zodiac save Leo. Belmonte is a former editor of the journal Archaeoastronomy which began well in the 1980s but lost readership and impetus as its focus became increasingly, and by the end solely, on the Americas. But see paper by Juan Antonio Belmonte and Jose Lull as Chapter 6 in:

  • J.A. Belmonte et.al., Ancient Astronomy: India, Egypt, China, Maya, Inca, Aztec, Greece, Rome, Genesis, Hebrews, Christians, the Neolithic and Paleolithic

In these posts it will be convenient to take any diagram’s structure as definition of intended purpose for the medieval west to c.1438 AD.

Astrology is indicated, among other things, by a medical text’s including diagonally-ruled tables for the phases of the moon. The ‘zodiac man’ (whose use the early Christian writers had specifically prohibited) is also astrological.

Evidence of applying mathematical calculations to determine the precise position of planets is taken as evidence of astrological purpose.

Constellations on the ecliptic, including the 12 which form the Roman zodiac, are of themselves not evidence of one or other intention. Since these constellations are constellations, not only astrological signs, and our interest is in the purpose for which such forms were made by the first maker(s) and whoever commissioned the sections now forming Beinecke MS 408, we cannot presume predictive-astrological purpose without the presence of other markers (see above). The default is thus – precession notwithstanding – ‘astronomical’.

I expect some readers will protest this decision, but the question we must address is whether the maker – if it were possible to ask him/her – would concur that by picturing the zodiac constellations or signs in e.g. a religious breviary, s/he demonstrated an intention to practice astrology or believed the intended recipient intended to practice astrology in our modern sense of the word. If the western Church had not insisted always that mankind had free will, opposition to astrology would perhaps have been less persistent and less complicated; contact with the Palaiologan court made magic and astrology fashionable among some humanists and Luther’s promoting belief in predestination saw popular interest in all forms of anticipatory lot-casting, fortune-telling and astrology explode, assisted by publication of books of the ‘Shepherds Calendar’ type in which such matter was now included.

Many Voynich writers have assumed or simply announced astrological purpose in the Voynich calendar. A few have attempted to argue a case from evidence, but none has yet proven it and two specialists in the subject have stated, independently of each other, of me and at that time of interference from any Voynichero that the calendar diagrams are not astrological charts.

Allons de l’avant ..

STOP PRESS!

A notice from academia.edu has just dropped into my mail box telling me that Professor Elly Dekker has uploaded to academia.edu his her review of a book which I admit I let pass in 2007, given its price of 99 Euros and having at that time no interest in computus and working on very different questions. Come to think of it, back then I’d never heard of the Voynich manuscript. (sigh).

… having now read Dekker’s review, I’ll have to add Eastwood’s book to the library

  • Bruce E. Eastwood, Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  • Elly Dekker’s review is in Early Science and Medicine Vol.13 (2008) 509-530. And of course on Dekker’s site at academia.edu.

O’Donovan notes. Calendar 6.4b – Who needs a zodiac? (conc.)

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

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.

*for details see page HERE.

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

Hesiod. Mosaic from a Roman domus in Augusta Treveriorum (Trier). image Encyc.Britannica.

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.

Wall-Calendars

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. . .

Constantine.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

(details) from Oxford, Bodleian MS Douce 313. French. mid-14thC.

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:

O’Donovan notes. Calendar emblems 6.3: of ‘Ausonian verses’ and Scythian bows.

2400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

To the best of my knowledge, all precedents are correctly acknowledged in what follows. If none is cited then, to the best of my knowledge, that item had not been considered in connection with Beinecke MS 408 before it was brought to notice in essays and research summaries published by the present writer from 2009 onwards. If you know better (and you may do) by all means email or leave a comment with the details.

From now on, there’ll be no more quotation marks around the phase Voynich calendar in these posts.

The mail has now brought a copy of Faith Wallis’ English translation of de Temporum ratione and in a note Wallis confirms that verses Bede attributes to “one of the ancients” are those of Ausonius – the same verses used as tags in a twelfth-century mosaic calendar in San Savino in Piacenza.

Here are those verses again, in a nicer font.

More than twenty years ago, in the first Voynich mailing list, Jim Reeds’ referred to San Savino’s charter document as an example of those elongated letters (mis-called “gallows letters”) which have been noted in the Voynich script. Strange to say, no one looked at the monastery’s art to see if it had anything useful to add – so I did, a while ago but the link to computus – and thus to Ausonius – now returns us to Piacenza by a different route.

San Savino’s 12thC charter. cited by Jim Reeds before 2002.

During the earlier exploration and thanks to Jonathan Jarretts kindly responding to emailed queries, I showed several more such charters with similarly elongated ascenders, concluding that the custom had become rare in the Latin west by the end of the twelfth century, and that in any case it is typically found there only in documents of the charter type written on the authority of the pope or ancillary authorities, but that isn’t our focus now.

San Savino’s twelfth-century mosaic did not survive the centuries entire. Its July roundel survived, but those for November and December did not fare so well.

We’ve seen that the July emblem offers a nice specimen of a locusta– Cancer and one with a three-point head, like those in the Voynich emblem for July.

Here (below) the image on the left shows what remained of the November emblem in 1836 when a careful drawing in ink and watercolour was made of what remained.

(left) detail from the 1836 drawing and watercolour record; (right) the November roundel after recent restoration-reconstruction.

Following the making of the 1836 record, a century and a half evidently saw more lost by attrition. A recent effort at reconstruction and restoration, observing best practice, has kept very clear the distinction between what remained of the original by 2010 and what the restorers added, since they have used sympathetic materials, colours and forms but kept it very clear what is newly added and what was there when they began. I’ve put orange rings over the left-hand detail (above) to show all that remained for the restorers to work with.

It is clear that the roundel had shown a creature whose tail ended with a hook-spike, and though one does not know what other historical information was available to the restorers and their clients, some uncertainty must remain about the original form for that figure.

Attrition must have removed even more of the December emblem, because certain noteworthy discrepancies are evident between the recent reconstruction and details still visible, and carefully recorded, in 1836.

It is worth taking the time to consider those differences with care. As we’ll see, it is not impossible that the figure had not been, originally, of the Centaur type but, like the Voynich archer, a standing human figure of the kind I term – following Cicero and Ausonius – “Arcitenens”.

Of the December figure nothing remained even in 1836 but part of the bow, the hands on that bow, a forearm and a hat. Between each of those details as shown by the drawing, and their appearance in the recent restoration, a number of important differences are evident.

Compare – the form taken by the top of the bow, by the line of its curves; the bow’s position relative to the last letter of “Sagittarius” – and especially the position of the human hands on the bow and on the bowstring.

It is true that the roundel was always labelled as Sagittarius and not with Ausonius’ term, adopted from Cicero*, but we have other instances of Sagittarius’ being represented with just two legs, including in some copies of Aratus that are in Latin, but are found in what were at the time the outer fringes of the Carolingian sphere.

*Ausonius’ use of the term Arcitenens (archaised as “Arquitenens”) is very rare, and the word appears to have been employed first by Cicero in his translation of Aratus’ poem. The Greek term he rendered so is usually found only as an epithet for Artemis or for Apollo and thus implies a human and not half-animal body for the figure.

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A Scythian Bow – history and inferences.

The original form for the Piacenzan archer’s bow had it a recurved bow of the sort called Scythian. Above (left) is an example of that type in an early copy of the Latin Aratus, and (right) another whose bow and stance suggests the Parthian, but who is again given goat-like legs, which in the language of most northern Latin medieval art signifies the devil.

Yet that same form for Sagittarius’ bow is attested in what was then Scythian territory, on a coin produced about fifty years after Eudoxus’ death, for a town called Παντικάπαιον (Pantikapaion). The town had been founded by speakers of Ionian Greek; its name would later be rendered in Roman form as Panticapaeum.

One side of that coin shows a Pan-like figure and the other a Scythian bow. To the best of my knowledge, the second motif had not been been recognised as an allusion to the constellation Sagittarius before an essay published, by the present author, on the subject of the Voynich archer. Since then I have seen the second part of the following illustration re-used online by a number of writers, chiefly those interested in astrology.

reprinted from D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Not a Centaur. Sagittarius fol 73v’ voynichimagery, June 24th., 2015, from an earlier article which the author had published elsewhere in October 2013. coin by permission, Wildwinds.

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Scythopolis/Beth Shean in Galilee

Fifty years later still, in what is now Israel, and upon the ruined foundations of an earlier town occupied by Egyptians and Canaanites, the Macedonian-Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r.282-246 BC), established a new town, naming it Scythopolis.

Scholars suppose the choice of name may be due to the new town’s being first occupied by former mercenaries in the Hellenistic armies, following a practice often observed in ancient as in more rent times, by which unwanted mercenaries are given homes and land and so turned into useful settlers rather than becoming lordless marauding bands.

Scythopolis grew to be a substantial walled city before being taken by Pompey, and though the Romans re-named it, the older name persisted. As late as the sixth century AD, a Byzantine-Greek Christian, a scholar and bishop for that area, is referred to as John Scythopolita (ca. 536–550 AD) or “the Scholasticus.”

The same town is now called Beth Shean or Bet She’an. There, a mosaic dated to the sixth century provides our earliest-known example of a Roman zodiac in which Sagittarius is made a fully human, standing or striding archer. This rota is inscribed with Hebrew letters and, quite apart from the town’s association with Scythians, this form avoids any suggestion of human-and-animal combined, which concept was always abhorrent to the Jews, and at that time equally distasteful to eastern Christians of that region.

website of Beth Alpha, Beit She’an.

Another mosaic floor from Beth Shean, again from the 6thC AD, formed a floor open to the sky and was part of a Christian monastery. This eschews altogether any use of the Roman zodiac, maintaining the much older custom of dividing the year by seasonal activities and (optionally), religious observances. Interestingly, there was apparently no objection to showing personifications of sun and moon, these each representing half of the night-and-day of 24 hours as well as the division between warmer and cooler months and possibly the circuit of stars on the solar, and the lunar paths, respectively.

Monastery of the Lady Mary Beth Shean (6thC).

the

Those two figures may remind some readers of how sun and moon are represented on ivory tabulae recovered from Grand in the High Vosges, and dated variously between the 1st-3rdC AD. Others, more familiar with Roman artefacts may be reminded instead of a peg-calendar (or parapegma) scratched into the walls of a public baths that had been built in imperial Rome, though this example is again dated to the 6thC AD. (sorry about the poor quality image).

from a private copy.

A nice blogpost (in Spanish) about peg-calendars.

*Hilario Mendiaga, ‘Parapegma‘, debreves (Blogger blog), (April 24th., 2012)

Beth Shean would be deserted and destroyed in the following (7th) century, so we can be sure both these mosaics date to no later than the sixth century.

upper and lower images from old posts *20010-2013) in Dennis Aubrey’s Via Lucis

The earliest remaining western example of a fully human standing archer for Sagittarius appears in glass. First, an example from Aisne (Braisne) abbey, later taken to Soissons according to the late Dennis Aubrey, who took the photo shown (right, upper register).

That window used red glass of a kind which, by the 9thC, only a few families still knew how to produce, and all lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, with glass tesserae being found in great heaps near Lake Tiberius and exported widely during the Medieval centuries. It is possible, therefore, that the appearance of the “Beth Shean” type, which appears unheralded in the Latin west was because not only materials, but workers, were imported, and as early as the 9th and 10th centuries, for a new style developing in French architecture and which in its fullest form became known as the “Opus Francigenum”. It was later despised by some Italian humanists, Giorgio Vasari calling it “gothic” – meaning barbaric – but as so often, the label stuck and all derogatory overtones were eventually forgotten, from which arose another mistaken idea that there had been something uniquely Germanic about it.

A thirteenth-century example in the cathedral of Lausanne shows that along with adopting the architectural elements of Opus Francigenum, efforts were made to introduce similar forms for the coloured glass windows. (above, lower register).

The earlier, French, example evinces a stronger suggestion of Pan-like legs, though now covered with a hairy fabric rather than a hairy pelt. The bow was soon made more like that familiar to a medieval Latin audience – a change which makes even more interesting the original form for the archer’s bow in the Piacenzan mosaic.

Between what we find in publicly accessible images such as these, and images used in medieval manuscripts – private possessions by definition – the interactions are certainly fascinating and tempting to explore, but that is more than our present topic permits. It is, however, interesting to note that the Lausanne window as it is now is uses “Arcitenens” and not “Sagittarius” as the label.

One would dearly like to know whether there was once circulating an illustrated copy of Ausionius’ Eclogues as school-room verses, and if so whether those had been replaced as a basic text by the Poeticon astronomicon – and when – and whether (if such a change occurred) this was only because the latter was ascribed, probably erroneously, to the more eminent figure of Hyginus? Fascinating as it would be to investigate such questions, they too must be left aside here.

What we can say is that it would appear the Piacenzan mosaic originally showed a Scythian (recurved) bow and – for all that was left of it by 1836 – might have shown a standing human figure. It is significant, I think, that the original shows the figure not as about to shoot, but simply nocking the arrow – preparing to make the weapon ready, as is also true of the Voynich bowman, though his bow has been formed as a crossbow, and his appearance now presents a curious combination of the Spanish, the Dalmatian-Greek and possibly the Genoese. We can also say that a Scythian bow for Sagittarius suggests Hellenistic or eastern Greek precedents.

In my opinion, one is meant to read in the present form for the Voynich figure a punning allusion to the kingdom of the Archipelago: ‘Arci-tenens’. However… that is not an idea appropriate before the thirteenth-to-fifteenth centuries, when I suggest the Voynich archer figure was ‘modernised’.

Here again is what had remained of the roundel in Piacenza by 1836.

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Bede’s source for the “Ausonian verses”

Bede knew the zodiac signs should begin in the middle of one month and finish in the middle of the next – but Ausonius says nothing of that. He assigns the fishes to March, the Crab (= langouste) to July and the Archer for December, as the Voynich calendar does. No crocodile is mentioned, but in his verse for November “bids.. go headlong” which might suggest something of the kind.

Wallis identifies Bede’s source for the verses:

“Bede derived the Eclogue and its introduction from a text entitled ‘De causis quibus nomina acceperunt duodecim signa‘ edited by Jones in BOD 665-667. This edition omits the poem proper. but it is included in Jones’ earlier transcription in Bedae psudepigrapha 103. This same text was the primary source for [Bede’s] ‘On the Nature of Things[pt] 17. Its presence in the “Bobbio computus” (Milan, Ambrosiana H. 150 inf ) suggests an Irish origin

Faith Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning… pp.54-55
  • Faith Wallis, Bede (trans.), Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated with introduction, notes and commentary by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press, 1988 (Translated texts for Historians series Vol. 29)
  • re ‘De causis quibus nomina acceperunt duodecim signa’ – It seems there was an edition (or thesis) with that title issued in 2010; copy listed by the Favey Library of Villanova University. The book(?) has been digitised but is accessible only to ‘alum’ (alumnus?) accounts.

I’ll leave you with a few things to think over. A map of the old Irish foundations in Europe, and two more details from the Piacenza mosaic.

In the next post, I’ll begin with Cicero’s advice to a friend about his son’s education.

Bobbio the Irish and Piacenza.

Nicklies speaks, a little vaguely, of possible or probable links between the Piacenza mosaic and one made a century earlier for Bobbio.

Bobbio was certainly an Irish foundation and Piacenza’s mosaic has some plainly Irish motifs, including one often mistaken for the later and romantic Latin figure of ‘Melusine’, or a type termed a ‘mermaid’ though it carries neither mirror nor comb.

It had arisen as an Irish, and occasionally an Anglo-Saxon image for the ship or coracle, represented in a style deriving from that of late Roman-North Africa, where they are called by art-historians “triton-” figures.

Most of the Latin versions extant are, however, made as grotesques and date from the the 12thC though occasionally, as with the two shown above, a more faithful version survived. That shown on the right (above) is from San Savino. The other is from an English church built in the 12thC, but on an Anglo-Saxon foundation. Whether the older block were re-used, or clerics in this church felt more sympathy for pre-Norman tradition, one cannot say.

Another variation on the triton type appears, evidently by way of iconography of Basilidean gnosticism, in this highly eclectic Late Roman relief found in Trier and dated to the 3rdC AD.

A water-monster in the Piacenza mosaic is oddly reminiscent of our crocodile-Ammit type. It has an unnervingly wide grin as it bears away an unfortunate soul.

It was a custom of the pre-Christian Irish and Celtic peoples to carry off the head of enemy, but faces are given many watery creatures in medieval constellation-drawings, as we’ve seen.

In the next post, I’ll be considering the calendars of the Labours type and how an association with the Roman zodiac appears relatively late in the history of such rosters. It looks as if what we may have in the Voynich series is an intersection of the two – something which is found during the late Roman-early Christian period and chiefly between the c.3rdC -6th C AD.

The post will have its line assisted thanks, indirectly, to Mr. JK. Petersen’s having once mentioned a certain fourteenth-century French manuscript.

From the website of San Savino

O’Donovan notes ‘Calendar’ emblems Pt 6.2 – July and computistic lobsters.

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.

Preamble:

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.

Note: Scot’s lifetime is our benchmark, at present, because an earlier study by Koen Gheuens began there.

* * * * **

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.

FIG.1 text from Bede’s ‘De Temporum ratione’

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).

FIG 2. details from the Roman-era mosaic calendar recovered in El Djem. The figure on the left carries fisherman’s equipment in a basket or lobster-pot.

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.

FIG 3

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:

FIG. 4

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.

FIG. 5

Modern taxonomists do not count the Slipper lobster a true lobster, though its genus is named fairly enough: Scyllarus.

FIG. 6

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.

FIG. 7

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:

FIG. 8 – see Exodus 10:1-20.

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.

FIG. 9

*scientific information on Locusts.

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.

FIG. 10

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.

FIG 11 The mosaic from San Savino, Piacenza, is dated to c.11th C by some, and to the 12th by others. It assigns the Lobster to July.

* (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 longer bibliography here.
  • 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.