Glass and the pearl band

two prior:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*see post of July 11th., 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for those references, I am indebted to the author of

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

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


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

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

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

Perseus and Perseids





Sasanian head band

Sasanian hunt backward turning

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

Sasanian hunt with trophy.

…as a wine-skin or water-skin. 

Sasanian hunt as stellar triumph oveer zodiac

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

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

image courtesy Encyclopaedia Iranica.

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

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

Dec. 29th., 2021.

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

Skies above: certain measures Pt 2: presence and absence

Two previous:

Header  (left) detail from Brit.Lib. Add. MS 22413; (right) detail from Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, manuscripts Sp.30.  (inset) portrait of William Romaine Newbold.


recap of Pt 1.

As explained in the previous post (here),  when presented with something never encountered before, our brain hunts for ‘nearest match’ from what we already know, but in doing that will ignore some or even many points of difference. The narrower the person’s range of knowledge/experience (or limits which they impose on the search) the greater the risk of mis-reading the image.

This isn’t such a problem in everyday life – a person may say that people from some region of the world ‘all look alike’ and so on, but if the task is to  understand the origin and intention of difficult images, the hardwired habit has to be consciously balanced out.  The  cues needed to understand a difficult image may lie in those very details.


Postscript – The only way I can thank readers for putting up with long posts is to include something original, so there’s a bit more unpublished research  in this post.  Enjoy.


Voynich studies was established in 1921 with the first research paper attempting both to describe and to explain the manuscript’s content.

Many ideas and habits still found in Voynich writings have their origin in that paper – as when those  ‘tags’ are re-used by which its author described his impression of images as    ‘pharmaceutical’ or ‘herbal’ or ‘zodiac’.

Indeed, so many items from that paper have been taken up as if so many facts that by far the greater proportion of what has been written about the Voynich manuscript since 1921 has been predicated on belief that the author’s perceptions and opinions were right about this point and others –  whether or not those later writers had been told the original source.  That paper is well worth reading. Not only as a landmark study but because it solves many of those  “where-did-that-idea-come-from” problems,  including the problem of why the idea took hold that the month folios were meant to serve an astrological purpose and why no-one seems later to have asked whether that was true.


That paper was presented by Professor  William Romaine Newbold, and its contents  –  or more exactly what is found in pages 461-474 of the printed version- entitles Newbold to be honoured as the founder of Voynich studies.

Unlike many who followed him, Newbold did realise that no picture can be defined by only one or two elements in it.  In speaking of the month-diagrams, he offered his explanation for more than just the central emblems; he considered the tiered figures, and why the tiers ( “bands”) should appear as they do. He describes them as:

“representing a lune of the celestial sphere formed by circles drawn through the extreme points of the sign and the poles of the zodiac”.

citing Bacon’s Opus Maius (see Bridges’ transcription  here).

He had apparently realised that geometry matters – and ‘geometries’ are the chief subject of this present post.  I begin with mention of his essay for that reason and – if one dare dream – in the hope of slightly reducing the number of persons who, being unaware of predecents, continue reduplicating ideas already proposed and even tested.

Again, his is the credit due for first mention of the lunar mansions (‘lunar stations’) in Voynich studies, as for positing Aldebaran as the subject of another detail.  This isn’t about whether he was right or wrong – just about making clear the line between an original contribution to the study and any later support for it (independent or otherwise) so to assist, rather than obstruct, others’ study of how ideas have developed about this manuscript.

Here is part of his commentary to slides shown the audience – including his brief description of the month-folios.

  • Professor Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. But see especially pp.461-474.

Like everyone else, then and now, Newbold had limits and biases which distorted his vision. There is no-one without any..

His focus on Roger Bacon shows that he, like everyone else of his time, believed the rumours allegedly repeated by Mnishovsky. That is no reason to think less of Newbold.  For all we know, the content does derive from some work known to, or even composed by Bacon, but to date there is no more real evidence for that piece of hearsay than for the other two attributed to Mnishovsky – not excluding his ‘Rudolf’ rumour to which some Voynich writers have been just as devoted, creating post-hoc circumstantial narratives in justification just as Newbold and Wilfrid did for the ‘Roger Bacon’ idea. It should not be forgotten that the ‘Roger Bacon’ theory remained current, ignoring dissent, until the vellum was radio-carbon dated, less than 20 years ago.

Also affecting Newbold’s perception was his specialised study of western philosophy and his sharing that typically nineteenth-century habit of reducing the history of the medieval Mediterranean world to what occurred in some parts of western Europe – chiefly in France, northern Italy, England and Germany.  Wilfrid’s saying he could ‘think of only two people’ who might have put the manuscript together, with his one being English and the other German, was another example of that narrow vision which, though embarrassing by comparison with what is known of the period today, was typical of his time.


Form and purpose

Ninty-nine years later,  it is impossible to know just what details were perceived as ‘first-level/essential’ for that nearest-match by every later writer, but if  we suppose they did rely on

edited from April II diagram (f.70v-ii)

(i) the ‘star-flowers’; (ii) the centre emblems and (iii) the inscribed month-names, then the amount of visual information omitted or disregarded would be  … most of each drawing. (see right)

In almost a century, the ‘astrological’ theory has failed to explain the organisation of these diagrams, the number of figures in each, their disposition in, and around tiers.

Which brings us to another important issue –  evident absence of  astrological  measures in the month-folios.   This  distinction didn’t escape Clark  or Campion, though the former expresses it more plainly (see post of Feb. 9th., 2020).

I’d rather approach the problem in a wider framework than astrology, and in terms of iconological analysis, where it can be  expressed in terms of a general rule that:

When a given practice,  involving calculations, produces ‘calculation diagrams’  the measures employed will be consistent and the diagrams will consistently imply and almost always display those standard measures and/or intervals.

When it comes to the heavens, a ‘calculation diagram’ is normally marked by arrangements of radial lines and ‘boxes’ (not necessarily rectangular).

At the same time, the presence of such forms is not necessarily evidence of astrological purpose, in illustration of which (see illustration below) we have a picture of the modern replica of an old tide-calculator.   It contains month-names, hours and degrees. It shows images of sun and moon. It includes schematic images of the 12 constellations of the Roman zodiac and even that notation which astrologers use for those 12 as ‘signs’.  But this object’s purpose was not to serve astrology; it was meant for a practical, workaday purpose.  It could, I suppose, be put to use to indicate the phases of the moon in their application to medieval-style medicine, but that isn’t the purpose for which it was made.    … source).


Even the clear presence of the Roman zodiac’s twelve constellations is not evidence of astrological purpose. 

For the moment, I’ll leave aside the problem of whether the month-folios’ central emblems are or are not a  Roman zodiac series, or truncated version of it,  keeping instead to this other problem of measures and ‘star-related’ pictures.

For convenience, here, we can use just four classes:

  1. Pictorial: the sky as ‘landscape’ with little (if any) effort to identify specific stars or groups of stars.
  2. Moralised/allegorised: the real disposition of stars is known but the image depicts them in such a way that emphasis is on another narrative and the astronomical subjects may be obscure to an untutored eye.
  3. Mensural* – stars’ disposition expressed in terms of measures.
  4. Mixed.

*mensural’ in the general sense of measurements – not specifically those of music.  I have omitted another type – the ‘narrative’ –  which relates to epic, allegory and moralised astronomy).

For the first two classes, indications of measure and calculation are optional.

Three of the four are present in the ‘mixed’ example shown below.   We have a section in starry ‘landscape’ style, and others displaying those radial divisions and ‘boxes’ denoting calculation and especially in connection with the heavens.

I’ll have reason to return to its Gemini and the female’s body-type, but for now note that even with the swelling belly which was then becoming a fad disseminated from France, the woman’s body still relates to that tradition of the elongated, even emaciated body which is so marked a feature of earlier medieval Latin art.

detail from the Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry – a work as widely known in medieval studies as the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) in Renaissance studies.


Absent measures – an exercise with folio 70v-ii

At this point, for readers interested in analytical method, I’ll add an exercise.

It’s another exercise in ‘musing’ – this time of the sort that art historians and critics are often doing when they just move back and gaze at a picture. The mood is not too far from day-dreaming – rather than ‘thinking’ –  but ‘musing’ seems to be the best way to describe it. And – as I hope you’ll see – it needn’t be waste of time.

It includes a LARGE (non-phone-friendly!!) jpeg.

Measures exercise

See what happens if you  print this picture and pin it on your wall,  in a place where you come and go – and can return to it for a couple of minutes at a time, over a few days.  And yes, the smallest room is ok. but a hallway or the other side of the room from where you work is probably better.  🙂

If you’re like most people, then you’ll find that as you look at it without any particular focus or theory-making, your mind will start to play with what you see.  It will envisage virtual ines of connection across and between the items.  And this sort of relaxed, nothing-invested-in-it approach lets the more flexible part of your brain come up with things that may be worth looking at in ‘thinking’ mode – that is, research mode.  

To show I’m not pulling your leg, here are a couple of illustrations showing a few of the results from my doing this a good while ago.  I won’t say more because commentary might contaminate your own experiment.

The first illustration below, centre) is of the March diagram (folio 70v-i). I haven’t erased the stars etc.  The radial lines were formed by taking the inner boundary’s ‘terminus-marks’*  as if they had been meant to show where a line would pass, between centre and perimeter.  The red lines indicate the folio’s true horizontal and vertical axes according to the Beinecke website’s presentation.

*The ‘terminus’ mark – (illustrated left) is is not present in every case where one type of marking meets another – which I think is significant.


The second experiment –  shown here in its first and purely schematic form – could be described as ‘sort-of-geodesic’ I suppose.  Not aesthetically pleasing, but engaging in other ways.

So now – what happens when you muse on the other folio?


Geo-metry and  astro-metry.  (With much of Euclid).

The illustration at left is not a sign I support Newbold’s theory about the telescope’s invention. It illustrates how angles were described in a Latin manuscript believed to date from the 12thC or early 13thC.

Thony Christie published a fine history of trigonometry while I was selecting material for this series, saving me the trouble of treating that, but co-incidentally using the title I’d intended for this post. 🙂

  • Thony Christie, ‘It’s All A Question of Angles‘, renaissance mathematicus (Feb. 12th., 2020).
  • With apologies to Thony and other mathematici, I’m going to group trigonometry within geometry in these posts.
Geometry in medieval Europe – references

If you start from the traditional view that everything in the Voynich manuscript originated in, or was accepted into medieval Europe by the authority of some Latin ‘author’ or other individual person, then you will have a comfortably narrow range of ‘geometry’ to consider up until AD 1438.

  • The reading list will consist of Euclid –   treatises by Euclid, or attributed to Euclid;  translations and excerpts from Euclid;   works derived from, or developed from Euclid and from pseudo-Euclidean texts –  by Latins or translated for Latin use from works written in Arabic and Hebrew.

Because I think it quite important for amateurs to learn something of how medieval Europe saw geometry’s role, I’m recommending a number of manuscripts of the type often called a ‘miscellany’ although these are better considered  theme-based anthologies. The sort of thing a modern publisher calls, ‘A Reader…’

These should also provide illustrations for the way technical diagrams’ notation changed  between the late thirteenth century and the early fifteenth century.

  • Euclid, The Thirteen Books – original Greek text online by  Dimitrios E. Mourmouras. N.B. Don’t forget to credit Mourmouras!
  • Brit.Lib. Add 20746.   Moses ben ibn Tibbon, ספר היסודות. (Sefer ha-yesodot), ibn Tibbon’s translation of the thirteen Books of Elements of Euclid, with the addition of two Books at the end which are ascribed to Hypsikles.
  • Brit.Lib. Harley MS 13. includes  [pseud.] Euclid, Catoprica, known as ‘Catoptrics‘ to distinguish it from Hieron of Alexandria’s ‘Mechanica and Catoptrica’.
  • MS Burney 275 iincludes Adelard of Bath’s translation of Euclid, and shows how conventions for notation had changed within a century.

The next I’ve chosen to show that the idea of connection between astronomy and music went beyond the purely philosophical.  Music and astronomy both required standard intervals.

and in connection with music, I must also mention:

  • Joscelyn Godwin, Harmony of the Spheres. A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993; also published in Spanish (Girona: Atalanta, 2009).

An English translation of Euclid’s Thirteen Books at the Internet Archive

  • Thomas Little Heath (ed. and trans.), The thirteen books of Euclid’s Elements from the text of Heiberg (Cambridge Press 1908). Vol.1, Vol. 2, Vol 3.

A good historical overview of mathematical studies in medieval western Europe is described in a series of posts designed to help secondary-level teachers.


Finding stars using co-ordinates.

It is a curious fact that the ‘astrological purpose’ theory, by itself, led to a certain routine angle of approach towards the month-folios.

The diagrams were first assumed ‘astrological’ and of Latin European origin, and then the ‘star-names’ were assumed to be the Latins’ ‘Arab’ star-names, and finally the month-folios’ labels were assumed an enciphered version of some ‘star-name’ from those theoretical limits. And following exactly that pattern, step by step, efforts to read the ‘labels’ proceeded.

I haven’t been able to discover mention of any other approach being employed in a century, and over time it seems that the effort to explain these diagrams as they actually appear on these folios, was all but abandoned.  What we see today are efforts to persuade readers of some variation on the ‘astrological’ theory, often by producing appallingly bad ‘nearest-fit’ images.  There might be out there, somewhere, a large amount of alternative work but if so I’ve found no mention of it.

There are other ways to go about understanding these folios and geometrical relations are one way.

It means discarding the usual, and often unfruitful ‘What is it?’ sort of research question and re-framing it as:  ‘What are the measures?’ 

It’s not an easy way to approach the month-folios, but not impossible. It means identifying the stars’ position first and then finding which system of co-ordinates, if any, accords with what is depicted in each month-diagram. Co-ordinate systems differ, and not least by the measures employed, but the easiest to begin is to start with the sort of system a researcher’s environment has made them most used to.  If those are eliminated, it’s time enough to move on to researching others.

The idea of finding the locus, and from that identifying the reference of a given figure in the tiers may seem far-fetched or over-hopeful, and I’m not underestimating the amount of work needed, or suggesting it could be quickly done.  But I think it possible and considering the past century’s complete failure to explain these images by the now-usual methods, two or three years would not seem an unreasonable time to spend.

Before 1438, even in western Europe, there were various star-lists described by co-ordinates.   They might differ from one another, and manuscripts differ between versions, but they did exist and not all uses were abstract, astrological or hypothetical. The stars’ relative positions have not greatly changed and that’s good to know.

One can’t expect absolute precision in the Voynich drawings, either, but given the limited number of stars for each month-diagram, and the fact that they are arranged month-by-month, leads me to think that error might be within reasonable limits.

I suggest this method because though I’m fortunate in being able to approach them otherwise, I cannot pass on in these posts enough to allow others to have the same background – not if this series is to finish in a reasonable time and I can hardly expect readers to cope with too much reading that isn’t Voynich-specific.  So another way may appeal to some readers.

Suppose for argument’s sake that you accepted my identification of the ‘Amazon’ star as Bellatrix or even as Betelgeuse (see post of Dec. 19th., 2019).

And suppose further that for  the figure above it (in folio 70v-ii) you posit a star in Virgo – for reasons I’ll explain in the next post – then you might ask what the actual relationship is between the two, in terms of the maker’s intention and in terms of  astronomical geometry.

I can only outline the method I’d try. Each researcher must be free to work out their own.  But in fact I’d start with the March diagram rather than folio 70v-ii, which is a halved, or a doubled month.

My first reaction to any theory raising its head, including my own, is to test it immediately against the real world and the historical evidence – not to seek justification but to get rid of it as soon as possible if it’s anachronistic or plainly impossible. As readers know, I’m not keen on theoretical explanations for historical images.

I’d ask whether anyone could really have seen both Bellatrix and Virgo in the sky at the same month, and whether that month is the one named in the diagram, and ask this for each band of latitude beginning (say) with Lat.30 degrees north- and for a specific period (say AD 1330-1430 to begin with).  For this, historically accurate star-maps must be generated which  take account of precession and ideally also of proper motion.

(Since this is only a hypothetical example, I won’t generate the historical chart, but here’s the idea: (and note the east-west reversal  typical for earth-view of the heavens, but also found in the Voynich map).


So yes, both are visible and their relative positions in the sky in fact suggests two things: that one or more of my identifications is wrong, or that the relationship between the inner and outer rings in the diagram is not immediate but complementary.  When Virgo and Orion may be seen in the sky together,  Virgo has emerged in the east, but Orion is moving towards the west.

Once again, at this stage, I’d ask whether there is any historical evidence of a ‘complementary’ approach to astronomical or to astrological diagrams, or any other attested system of this kind, whether or not recorded in calculation diagrams.

As it happens, I know of two – though still bearing in mind that the identifications of Bellatix and [a star in] Virgo might be wrong.  It’s an easy trap, and one into which many have fallen, to mistake an hypothesis for the manuscript as the subject of one’s research.

However, the two systems I mean are the eastern seas’ sidereal compass where the assignment of star and point of direction is nominal, though the names appear in ‘opposites’ and the pre-Islamic Arabs’ anwa’ [ today often described as rain stars and associated with divination but they also marked periods in the calendar and assisted wayfinding]

The conceptual star-compass marked a point on the eastern horizon by  a star’s name (-‘rising’)and the opposite point on the western horizon by the same star (-‘setting’). Since the northern and southern points were unique, the compass could name 32 points with only seventeen stars: the Poles, and fifteen stars with a rising and setting for each. Of the two possibilities I know – without more research – the anwa’ seems the more reasonable of those two.

However, whether or not those posited identifications prove right, the first stage towards establishing a number of historically appropriate set of co-ordinates according to different systems then known, would be  to generate grids from contemporary documents, covering that initial test-period (say) AD 1330-1430, and preferably using Byzantine, Latin, Coptic, Arabic and as many other sources you can work with.

The next stage would be to produce a list of stars in order of apparent magnitude (i.e. how big and bright they look to people on earth). By being able to say which stars were known at a given time and place, and how the grids used in that time and place described stars relative to one another, in a given month, so you need only one or two identifications to ‘pin’ the grid and – hopefully- identify the actual identifications for the remaining stars in a diagram, without pre-empting ideas about purpose or what the ‘labels’ might mean. As a first test, the bightest stars (greatest apparent magnitude) are a sensible place to start because the brightest-looking stars are normally the first to be noticed and used.

‘Apparent Magnitude’ can be confusing at first because the brighter a star or planet appears to be, the lower its number.   So I’d have  Sirius (-1.49) and Aldebaran (0.75–0.95) top of the list and then move down the list of stars visible in a given month (through the target period) until the number in the list agreed with the number of stars (or barrels, or figures) in a given month-diagram.  (Bellatix in Orion is listed with apparent magnitude of (1.59 – 1.64), and Spica in Virgo as (0.97 – 1.04).

So none of these is so dim that it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye – and they are likely to have been included in most star-lists, you’d think, by the fourteenth century.

But here again, it isn’t theory but demonstrable evidence which matters.  What may seem ‘common sense’ or ‘logical’ to a modern urban person may simply not be true of the historical events.  Telling history it ought to be more logical is a waste of time. The evidence is either there, or it’s not in this sort of study.

‘Star-names’ and co-ordinates.

Even in Latin Europe, a co-ordinate system of ‘Latitude’and ‘Altitude’, based on the astrolabe’s design, was certainly known by the middle of the eleventh century, and in connection with the ‘Arab’ star-names (see below).  Despite this manuscript’s early (11thC) date, the star-names’ orthography is pretty close to what would become the norm for non-Arabic works and though there are indications that the scribe was transcribing phonetically, the number of times his star-names refer to stars in the next constellation to that named suggests either an effort to correlate a classical source with a contemporary one, or that he was defining regions of the sky in terms of a vertical slice like the section of an orange – as wide as the limit of the zodiac  constellation and bounded by meridians extending between the northern and southern celestial Poles. (which is one definition of the ‘hour’).  Thus, the name ‘Algorab’  listed for sign Virgo is – at least today – used for the delta star in Corvus, below (south) of Virgo, while ‘Rigel’ applies to a star in Orion, not in Gemini.   The term ‘sign’ can often have an astrological sense but can be used to mean an emblem, as we speak  of an inn’s “sign” and medieval people spoke of meeting “at the sign of the Boar’s Head”and so forth .so the ‘signs’ here mean that part of the sky whose chief emblem is a figure from the zodiac.

I do understand, very well, what an enormous amount of work would be required to begin working on the diagrams from data of historical co-ordinate systems and attested star-names – a ‘co-ordinate geometry’ method – and that it’s not as easy as collecting set lists and making virtual grids; one would have to check the sense of the originals, decide where divergence was significant or due to error, and so on, testing each step against every other and waiting for it to click into place – not unlike the way meaning was extracted from ‘Enigma’-encoded messages.  But as I hope I’ve shown, one is aided by the diagrams’ being labeled by the months, and to ‘fix’ a starting point might be possible with just one or two identifications in each diagram.

As for the labels, I’d not discount, either, Newbold’s belief (later used, uncredited, by Brumbaugh) that the ‘labels’ are personal names.  Dante himself speaks of including the ‘Arab’ star-names in a volume of his Cantos so that people  using foreign instruments could follow his narrative more easily.  (The reference is found in  Guther’s Introduction to his study of the Ashmolean astrolabes, if I recall, but I read it almost a quarter of a century ago and it is impractical to try checking the reference just now.  Brumbaugh – again –  mentioned Dante and footnotes Gunther, but never admits his debt to the latter for his connecting Dante and the stars.  tut-tut.

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’,  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150

Skies above – not astrological

I’m going to be very brief.

Having tried since 2010 to explain to the ‘voynich community’ that  the month-folios show no evidence of astrological purpose – regardless of what source may have provided the central emblems –   I’m not going to repeat my evidence and reasoning, but will quote two specialists each of whom, just a few days ago, was kind enough to respond when asked if the month-folios resemble any sort of horoscopic chart known to him.

Both men are competent, dispassionate and (above all) independent witnesses.  Neither did they know my view before giving their own.

re –  ‘astrological’ character for the month-folios:

Regarding Beinecke MS 408 – aka the Voynich manuscript, I can say with confidence that the page in question is in no way associated with astrology. There are no symbols that could be interpreted as astrological glyphs, either of planets or signs. Moreover, the numerical values are not in accord with known astrological symbolism; there are no recognizable asterisms depicted, and the female figures have no plausible astrological correspondence. I believe the attempt to interpret the MS from an astrological perspective is flawed and likely to be the cause of more confusion than clarity.

-P.James Clark, specialist in the history of astrology (eastern and western). Maintains the ‘Classical Astrologer‘ blog.

and on the notion that each month-diagram is a  ‘horoscopic chart’.

[the image provided] is not a horoscope in any conventional sense, as a horoscope would clearly show the divisions between both the twelve zodiac signs and what we now know as the twelve houses, as well as planets and their exact positions in the zodiac Also, it would be accompanied by some data of the time, date and place.

Dr Nicholas Campion, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, author of the two volume History of Western Astrology (Bloomsbury)


(Being a revisionist has its moments!)

Elevated souls Pt 2a. ‘Astro —-‘

  • Header image: (left) stars of northern latitudes; (right) declination and right ascension  -image courtesy ‘Sky and Telescope’.

Previous two:


David Pingree

In 1982, the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (Vol. 45) published the paper:

David Pingree,  ‘An Illustrated Greek Astronomical Manuscript. Commentary of Theon of Alexandria on the Handy Tables and Scholia and Other Writings of Ptolemy Concerning Them’.  ( pp. 185-192).

I begin by mentioning it for several reasons.

The late Prof. Pingree is one of the “two Davids” whose works are among those indispensable for study of what some pre-modern peoples knew about stars and – most pertinent to our chief study – how they thought about and imagined the heavens.

The ‘other David’ of the two is David A. King, whose works include the Ciphers of the Monks, in which King drew attention to the same Picard instrument whose orthography for month-names is – as I think Pelling first observed – closely similar to that of the Voynich month-names’.

Since the matter of  ‘Occitan month-names’ is among those affected by metaphorical ‘palimpsest-ing’,  I add more detail.

Writing in 2004, Shaun Palmer credits Stolfi with the proposal and (quite properly) notes that Pelling had come earlier than himself and independently to hold a similar view.  Pelling’s book (2006) then treated and illustrated the issue in  detail (pp. 21-23).  Those three  references should give you a clear idea of the evidence and substance behind this now-widely-accepted view.Searching for ‘Occitan’ today at I found the references given on this point to be an anonymous blogpost of 2012  and a note of thanks to Don Hoffman for providing Zandbergen with bibliographic details of King’s book. Following the principle that  “no acknowledgement asserts no debt”, readers might assume all  unprovenanced matter on that page (which is copyrighted  to  the owner as is every blogpost)  must be a result of the owner’s own research, crediting Zandbergen accordingly.

That paper by Pingree is chiefly concerned with the manuscript Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. (= 437). The ‘tables’ in question are known as  ‘Ptolemy’s Handy Tables’ but were compiled from Ptolemy’s data a century later, by Theon of Alexandria.  Researchers working on the Voynich manuscript might like to consider, in addition, matters associated with Ptolemy’s Geography, as balance for a tendency to associate Ptolemy solely with astrology, or even solely with astronomy. See e.g.

  • Dmitry Shcheglov, ‘Hipparchus’ Table of Climata and Ptolemy’s Geography’, (available through


Question 1: Is there Astrological matter in the month folios?

Caution Newcomers should be aware  that nothing in the manuscript has yet been proven related to any branch of occult or pseudo-scientific practice including that of astrology, though  speculation has been so common –  thanks initially to Wilfrid Voynich and his inflation of the ‘Rudolf rumour’ – that many imagine it has been proven beyond doubt.  Yet the stars are part of the natural world and natural, too, may be their observation and depiction.  To represent the theological position of the earlier medieval west, we may refer again to  Augustine:

Amiens Cathedral exterior: Virgo = Threshing               see   labours of the months.

Who can fail to perceive how great is the difference between useful observations of the heavenly bodies in connection with the weather, such as farmers or sailors make … and the vain hallucinations of men who observe the heavens not to know the weather. or their course … but merely to pry into the future ….

from Augustine’s Letters  55 15

  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers, Medieval Meteorology: Forecasting the Weather from Aristotle to the Almanac (2019)
why is the astrological  idea a problem?

Objection 1.  The idea’s introduction depended entirely on ideas about John Dee’s connection to the manuscript, in combination with consideration (only) of the month-names and central emblems from the month-folios.  The latter were taken to depict the ‘signs’ forming a tropical zodiac, rather than taken literally as a depiction of the physically-visible constellations which appear in sequence through the seasons of the year.  The conflation of constellation with astrological ‘sign’ is endemic in Voynich discussions, even today.  

Even if the emblems did constitute a representation of the zodiac ’12’ there is no necessary connection between their depiction and that aspect of mathematics which defined astrology in the medieval world.  In other words, there is no necessary connection between a depiction of the ecliptic constellations and tropical- or sidereal astrology.  

That the opposite idea should be so prevalent in Voynich writings today is due to the fact that most modern readers, living in an industrialised society and urban environment, don’t need to know the stars as people did in earlier times.   Today, we use clocks, watches and phones to know the time; we learn from the weather man what sort of weather we’ll have today; we rely on automatic or printed calendars to tell us where we are in the cycle of months and seasons.   Reflection from city lights, and nights spent indoors (or outdoors) under artificial lights means  many see none but a few of the brightest stars in the night sky.   And all this, together, means that the word ‘zodiac’ instantly evokes the motifs of ‘birth-signs’ and daily horoscopes for us today, and thus seems the ‘most obvious’ interpretation for any comparable series, especially if stars are depicted. 

 Thus, the constant error has been an imposition on a manuscript  six hundred years old, the hierarchy of ideas proper to twentieth- century urbanites.

Things were different six centuries ago.

Objection 2.  No  zodiac sequence contains (as the month-emblems do) two goats, or two sheep,  or a sheep and goat adjacent to one another.

This issue and others raised by the month-emblems are rarely even noticed today by Voynich writers. and of the few who do notice, fewer speak, and of the very few who do mention a problem, the majority do not address that problem so much as seek a way to turn back into the fold any who show signs of doubting that “its-a-zodiac-and-zodiac-means-astrology” proposition chain.    In private conversation a Voynichero once said that he didn’t include both pros and cons in his own writings  because “if your mind is too open, your brains fall out” – which sounds to me like some conservative slogan gone wrong. 🙂

Objection 3. Even if we grant that,  in adding the month-names later, the person who did that truly  believed  the emblems represented constellations from the zodiac, more cannot be deduced from it than  he had  regarded the series as a series of months and their stars.  It is no support for an idea that  “months+stars means astrology”.  

Objection 4. is that the the Voynich series names only  ten months, and the months omitted (January and February) are – perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not –  the months when the fields were dormant, and when  ships of the Mediterranean stayed in harbour. The ‘sailing year’ ran from March until (nominally) November but the historical records show that in fact ships of the harbours where the most competent seamen were based might continue  sailing coast wise even as late as December.

Other points:

  • An argument that the remnants of two cut pages following  the month-diagrams  had once contained two more diagrams of that sort is – like theorised astrological purpose – only speculation at present. 
  • As I’ve explained elsewhere, correlations of month-name, month-marking constellation, and associated ‘labour’ were not uniform  even within Latin Europe., and the correlations made in the month-diagrams between emblem and month-name are not those of the northern latitudes (England, Germany and northern France).
  •   When responding to a Voyichero’s query,  Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow – whose area is given as the history of European art, especially its traditions of astrological imagery-  also mentioned calendars in connection with the month-diagrams’ central emblems.  Here the difficulty is that her opinion was a short note written in response to a Voynichero’s query and it appears she was given no indication there was any reason to doubt that the content in this manuscript might have any but a medieval Latin European origin.  The answer of an expert is typically provided within the framework of the question posed.  Not knowing that explains why William Friedman got so little from Panofsky, where Anne Nill had received so much more  – and we’re not talking word-count here.
  • Nor do we know what Sniezynska-Stolot was shown of the manuscript at the time (2000), or whether in colour or copy-flo.   As translated by  Rafel Prinke and  reported in Reeds’ mailing list, her note has a distinctly off-hand tone.

By  13 Jan 2001 her note’s content was already reported to Reeds’ mailing list and members were discussing it in  connection with specific problems of the kind no longer acknowledged as existing by the most conservative faction and whose discussion is thereby discouraged, with ‘blanking’ from the record of any non-conservative who might do so. 

Still – let’s move on to one possible hint of the astrological… and trust our brains won’t fall out. 🙂

Astrological versus (purely) Astronomical

Exaltation and Depression?

Consider the following pair  from the first of the ‘April’ diagrams (folio 70v-ii), keeping in mind that the fifteenth-century draughtsman could draw ‘nicely’  but for reasons as yet unclear, didn’t wish to.  What message are we to take from their presentation? What aspects are we supposed to  read as meaningful? What about their postures, for example?


Did the original maker  intend the male  figure is to be read as ‘elevated’/’exalted’ and the female as ‘dejected’ or dismayed?   Or are our  subjective reactions focusing on details he would have dismissed as irrelevant?

If he meant attention paid to their posture, we must realise that such terms as ‘elevation’, ‘exaltation {Gk. ὕψωμα]  and ‘dejection/depression’ [Gk. ταπείνωμα] were used technically of the planets in Byzantine astrology, while  “seldom, if ever, found in the West” -as Pingree observes, though he finds that their illustration  in  Ambrosianus H. 57. sup is drawn ‘in western style’.

Indeed, the draughtsman’s style may be western, but it has  little in common with that of the person who drew the unclothed figures in the Voynich month-folios, except perhaps a common implication (also found in certain Islamic texts) that when figures from polytheistic religions are presented, the images should express moral censure. (see further, below) I say ‘perhaps’ because we have no proof thus far that the Voynich figures were intended as deities or anything of the sort. Neither have I seen any argument which proves that  the Voynich manuscript depicts any of the five planets, let alone all of them.

*The planets proper, the ‘wandering stars’, included only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in medieval times.

re planets…2001

In 2001, a member of the first (Reeds’) mailing list responded to Robert Firth’s comment on the fact that the ‘celestial’ folios hadn’t served as key to the written text as many hoped they might,  by saying  that “we” ‘ ..have quite a number of good (even if not dead certain) [identifications]:- the Pleiades and Aldebaran; – the seven planets; – two sets of twelve labels in 12-segmented circles; – one (or two?) set of 28 segments, “obviously” indicating the mansions of the moon. (12 Jan 2001).  All members of that list, at the time, would have known which of them had contributed each item, with what evidence and what argument (if any) but as yet I don’t know. If you can enlighten me on the point, please do. I’ve seen nothing one could call a cogent argument for it between 2008 and today.

detail) Milan, Ambrosianus H.57.sup. f.112v. Venus – on which see Pingree (1982) p.32

The unclothed pagan deities for each planet are depicted with a certain censure in the Ambrosianus manuscript  –  e.g. Venus (right) is depicted as as a debauchee – given the face of a young and pretty woman but a body heavy, old and exhausted from bearing children by various fathers. I see little obvious similarity between the draughtman’s style and that in the Voynich month-folios.  Expressions of moral censure in depiction of figures from polytheistic religions are  also seen in some Islamic works, notably in the  ‘Book of Marvels’ ‘Kitab al Bulhan’ (MS. Bodl. Or. 133) a seventeenth-century work (or copy) where Voynich-like “glyphs” were also inscribed.

That-last point was initially brought to notice by – I believe  – by Nick Pelling in his review (2008) of Okasha El Daly’s book. A detail (‘Crab’) from the same Bodley ms was later considered by one Voynich blogger whose blog I cannot find online today. In two posts of 2013 the present writer commented on several of  images from that manuscript, together with  other examples of ‘Voynich-like’ glyphs.

An image posted to pininterest by Marco Ponzi associates a detail from the Bodleian ms with one on folio 67v 2. His commentary may appear elsewhere but I’m not willing to join that site to find out.  (Again, if anyone already has more detail, I’d be happy to include it in the comments section below this post.)

On the Greek astrological terms and their significance see e.g.

  • Roger Beck, (2008) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, pp. 57-8
  • Roger Beck, (2017) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology  pp. 242ff.
  • Chris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune.
  • James Evans. Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity (p.135). Evans’ equating ‘Chaldean’ with ‘Babylonian’ is over-confident.
  • Tamysn Barton,  Ancient Astrology (2002).

Neither  Aratus/Cicero’s Aratea, nor Manilius’ Astronomica  (written  c.30–40 AD) makes use of the planets, a point to be kept in mind given the date for 1291 and possible  pre-Christian (but anti-Greek? anti-polytheist?) origin for its ‘women of an hour’ (see previous post).

Manilius in the west

Goold believed that before his election to Pope, Gerbert d’Aurillac had found in Bobbio a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica bound (as Gerbert said) with a copy of Boethius’ text on mathematics. Other scholars have doubted this, attributing the west’s knowledge of that text (as we have it) to Poggio Bracciolini’s practice of  commandeer manuscripts from monastic libraries by his position as papal secretary.  The ‘discoveries’ were then copied (at a price) for members of the Italian literati, who appreciated Poggio’s ‘little arm’. His own view is recorded in one colophon, which translated reads “This oration, formerly lost owing to the fault of the times, Poggio restored to the Latin-speaking world and brought it back to Italy, having found it hidden [sic] in Gaul, in the woods of Langres.” If he had acquired it from Bèze abbey, that copy is unlikely to have been older than the 11th-12thC.

Again with the older period in mind, and possible bridges between  pre-Christian astronomical works and the early fifteenth century when the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ll add here part of the description of Niceforous’ visit to Cyprus in the fourteenth century.  There was still a Lusignan ruler in the island, one who with his chief scholar George Lapithes asked the noble visitor from Constantinople to summarise for them as many astronomical texts as they could gather. They brought him copies of Ptolemy’s works, including the  Tetrabiblos, called Ἀποτελεσματικά ετράβιβλος in the Greek – but also,  according to  Niceforous (I quote from another paper by Pingree):

“all the books that still existed composed about such matters, by Ptolemy’s predecessors and by more recent authors as well as those that had been written in antiquity and by the  Chaldaeans and the Persians”. 

  • George Lapithes and David Pingree, The Byzantine Version of the “Toledan Tables”: The Work of George Lapithes?’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 30 (1976), pp. 85+87-132.

Pingree offers evidence and argument for a/the Greek translation of the Toledan Tables’  in Cyprus during the first half of the fourteenth century, to which same period, as it happens, I assign their ‘return to the Mediterranean’ phase for  the majority of parts in the Voynich manuscript.

Ambrosiana H.57. sup. – evolution 2ndC AD – c.1458..

Claudius Ptolemy lived in the 2ndC AD.  Theon of Alexandria in the 3rdC AD.   So then, discussing the content in the Amrbosiana manuscript, Pingree tells us:

We may conclude, then, that the original [i.e. the Ambrosiana] manuscript was copied in 1358, and that a series of owners for the next century added to it, rearranged it, and annotated it. It is likely that the manuscript was copied in Byzantium, and remained there while these changes and additions were being made to it. There is no absolute proof for this supposition in the manuscript itself, but it is known that the texts in Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. were copied in part from Laurentianus 28, 7;3 and that manuscript can be shown to be Constantinopolitan. (Pingree, op.cit. p.186)


There is no doubt, on the evidence of the script, that the codex could have been written in Constantinople in 1357-58. It is in the style associated with the Hodegoi scriptorium over a period of about half a century.  Western connexions of this scriptorium are not apparent. If they existed they would be more likely at this time to have been with Venice than with Southern Italy.   (ibid. p.192)

.. yet when it comes to those miniatures …(emphasis is mine)

The consensus of opinion is that the style of the miniatures is basically Western, though with an admixture of Byzantine elements. Islamic tradition lies behind the curious iconography, in which the planets are shown with their day- and night-houses, exaltations and dejections: this is seldom, if ever, found in the West. No immediate model has been located in an admittedly cursory search. An artist active in Southern Italy or Sicily may be indicated by the mixture of Italian and French styles. It is not impossible that an artist of, say, the Neapolitan school was working in Constantinople in the mid-fourteenth century – a time when others (Barlaam of Seminara, for example) travelled freely between that city and Italy. No artist answering to this description can, however, be securely documented in Constantinople at this time. Nor can it be assumed that the manuscript was decorated in the same place as it was written: the illustrations may be later additions. Indeed, they look very much as if they are.    (ibid. p.192)


For those who managed to come so far   –  here’s the sweet….

B. Astronomical?

Returning to the pair on folio 70v-ii, a closer look at the female figure…Short-ish hair, large head, figure’s right side drawn with a swelling line, indicating a breast. But where the figure’s left breast would be, there’s only what appears to be a piece of skin, marked with lines evoking sutures or something of that kind. Obviously not a skin-graft  (skin-grafting, history of)

We have a word for females who display just one breast. It’s from the Greek: a- (ἀ-) which means lacking and mazos (μαζός), which means breast, …”without breast”= Amazon.

Classical Greek and Roman imagery doesn’t depict Amazons  lacking a breast. They show a figure who is usually short-haired,  sometimes in armour which can include a breast-cover, or with only one breast covered by clothing and/or armour.

Interestingly, on fol. 70v-ii, the breastplate has been understood by the draughtsman to be of the high-collared type. The two images (at right) are shown simply to demonstrate that high-collared breastplates,  for females, are not entirely unattested.  An amazonian caryatid in Dresden wears armour very similar in deign to the Keralan type. That caryatid is described (by a seller of prints) as  ‘an ancient wall sculpture’. I can only say that their definition of ‘ancient’ is unusual.

The Keralan tradition marks by such means one of the eight chief patron- ‘mother’ goddesses, known to be warrior-women when necessary.

To this day women archers may don a breast cover in addition to the cover always provided for the forearm by the long, skin-tight sleeve and/or by a wrist-guard which might be better called a forearm-guard (but isn’t).  These were traditionally made of thick leather; The present day Olympian (below) wears ones of modern materials.

When you consider that women in pre-Renaissance Europe didn’t normally ever handle a bow, and that  the two drawings in the lower register were made  two thousand years apart from each other, the conceptual image informing the physical image per se has evidently survived remarkably well. The fifteenth-century draughtsman understood his exemplar.


So now – which star(s) if any might have been identified as  ‘Amazon’ by any tradition of star-lore, at any time between the 5thC BC and 15thC AD? Here are two possibilities from the Greco-Latin-Arab traditions with which I think readers will be most familiar.


  1. alpha [α] Virginis (Lat.Spica) ?

According to the 15thC Yemeni, Ibn Majid, the star α Virginis serves as the manzil (lunar station/mansion) and in that context is known as Simak al A’zal, ‘warrior without a spear’ (Tibbett’s translation p.100). And the figure from the first April diagram certainly has none.  However, women of the Arab tribes in Arabia, and more particularly of the Yemen, appear from the early accounts to have been treated more on par with men and in the pre-Islamic period to have been decidedly martial. By comparing with both older and early medieval works, it appears that until the seventh century AD, α Virginis may  have been often envisaged as a female warrior, one who roared or howled in the attack.   As Virgo, she is still armed in an image within the 9thC Byzantine manuscript

9thC Greek  (prob. from a late classical source)

A star-ceiling made in Egypt under the patronage of the Roman emperor Tiberius in 50BC, shows Virgo holding a ‘spike’ staff of some kind. The image shown here (below, right) is  as illustrated by Wallace Budge.

1stC BC. image in late-Hellenistic Dendera. If the spike is papyrus, the use of palm and scroll as alternative is understandable.

While Virgo’s spike-star  was generally envisaged as a stalk or sheaf of wheat for most of the Latin period, the alternative tradition was not forgotten, and the late image seen below shows how it was preserved – as a martyr-like palm branch held delicately by a more passive and ladylike virgin angel.

So if this is the intention behind the ‘Amazon’ on folio 70v-ii, her being without a weapon may be due to the same cultural attitudes (not necessarily Arab) which sees  the ‘ladies of an hour’ drawn with arms deprived of strength in folio 9r- as we also see   in the month-folios of the Vms.


In both instances, the informing ideas appear to me  indicative of deep-seated belief that the stars had effective power to harm and I doubt such fear derives from the classical Greeks or from the Orthodox Christians of ninth-century Constantinople. That  has drawn on ideologically opposed traditions is evident if one compares the charming figure for Virgo in the ‘helios’ diagram (folio 9r) with the frankly unnerving and skeltal ‘ghost’ which is one of the few figures un-erased from the same manuscript’s planispheric ‘night sky’. (right)

So let’s return to the charming Virgo.  Unlike her counterpart on folio 23r of that manuscript, hers is not  the stocky body we associate with Europe’s late Roman art. She is envisaged as a slender and elegant messenger, whose ‘spike’  now appears more like rolled scroll. (angelos means ‘messenger’.)

This may be a good moment to remind readers that Alain Touwaide said the Voynich manuscript’s appearance suggested to him the sort of Byzantine hospital workers’ notebooks called iatrosophia, though it wasn’t one.

Touwaide has studied such manuals within his wider area of specialisation, and among his publications  is

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Byzantine Hospital Manuals (Iatrosophia) as a Source for the Study of Therapeutics’, in Barbara S. Bowers (ed.), The Medieval Hospital and Medical Practice  pp.147-173 of Vol. 3 of AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, (2007).

I agree that in the  Vms, we have a compilation of matter brought together for an entirely practical purpose, and find it possible the ‘bringing together’ may have occurred in comparable circumstances, and even within the Byzantine sphere, but having already treated in detail a large proportion of the Vms’ imagery,  I am glad that I am not in the unenviable position of having to differ from Professor Touwaide on the ‘practical handbook’ issue, or the ‘compilation’ issue, though I should have been obliged, unhappily, to do so had he said the whole was a work of medicine, or even of astrological medicine.

  • at the moment I can’t refer you to the printed version of Touwaide’s Voynich talk (or, rather first Voynich talk) at Mondragone.  The book is unobtainable, and Stephen Bax’ site where it had been shortly reviewed is presently infected by some virus.  Maybe later.

2. gamma [γ] Orionis.

Hinkley Allen informs us that in  “the Alfonsine tables” (no version or copy is specified) the star γ Orionis has a previously-unattested name, as  Bellatrix – a term from Latin and which means again, a female warrior.

Note – Ptolemy’s Tables, Alfonsine or Toledan Tables in Voynich studies

I was surprised to find no mention of any of these tables in Voynich writings or chats until speculations about occult topics had taken been current for about ninety years.

One would have thought an examination of standard sources for astronomical knowledge would be tested first before resort was had to speculation, but things went the other way.  Perhaps, yet again, we must attribute this oddness in the study first to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale, and a feeling among some that support for the ‘Rudolf’ idea had to marshalled.   However that may be, even today (Nov.2019), I find no mention of the Toledan tables at Nick Pelling’s site, or at  I believe there was some talk of them in comments to Stephen Bax’ site, but at present it is under ‘virus interdiction’. I hope to check it and properly credit anyone who posted there if/when the site and its comments return.

Otherwise, I have found nothing about the Alfonsine or Tioledan tables (do let me know if you know better) until 2002 (ninety years after Voynich acquired the manuscript), when Luis Vélez’ says in  Reeds’ mailing list (Tue, 16 Jul 2002):

Thus, students of medicine at Bologna… learnt astrology [sic.] for four years, including grounding in Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemy’s Almagest. In addition, they learnt how to use instruments such as the astrolabe and the quadrant, and were taught how to use the Alfonsine Tables along with their canons. ..


Hinkley-Allen suggests ‘Bellatix’  was gained by mis-translation of an Arabic term, ‘roaring lion’.  I should have been inclined to dismiss this altogether, as mere transposition of some term for a star in Virgo – except that it survives experiment extremely well.  Experiment involves cultural and specific context, in addition to the image’s individual characteristics and drawing-style.

As you see, where the chap looks quite upbeat, the female looks decidedly “down”, doesn’t she?

Those interested in the written part of the Voynich manuscript might care to research uses for the opposition between elevation/exultation and subjection/ being downcast as applied by older works to matters other than planetary dispositions.

And with these two feasible identifications, mentioned  I’ll leave the astronomical and astrological possibilities for you to think about, except a last note that in another place, according to Tibbett’s note, al ibn Majid identifies Bellatrix with Orion’s hand [lit. Yad al Jauza’, usually Betelgeuse],  and it is in connection with this passage that Majid relates a condensed ‘cipher’ mnemonic for some fairly technical and mathematical matter.

Should it be of interest to any reader, description of that ‘cipher-mnemonic’ runs from the last paragraph on p.87 to the end of the first paragraph on f.88 in Tibbett’s English translation..

Postscript: From the research into historical and cultural context – I think one topic should have been mentioned, viz. the Indian tradition.  Thus, our Bellatrix (γ Orionis) is still recorded as ‘Yad al Jawzã’ al-Yusrã’ on astrolabes made in Lahore by a ‘dynasty’ of astrolabe makers in the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries.

  • see e.g. Mubashir ul-Haq Abbasi and Sreeramula Raeswars Sarma, ‘An Astrolabe by Muḥammad Muqīm of Lahore Dated 1047 AH (1637-38 CE)’, Islamic Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 2014), pp. 37-65

In the same context, the ‘serpentine’ extension behind Betelgeuse may allude to the ‘Ketu’ (headless body) of Rahu Ketu in Tamil and Hindu astronomy.  The sources differ considerably and I don’t want to give an impression that I place much importance on it.)

Also, we know that the Indian and Muslim traditions were both still present in Iberia during the fourteenth century, as Chabas and Goldstein (among others) have said:

quote stars Jews Spain astronomical tables 14thC Indian trad


I had meant to now talk about chorography, and identifications of stars with places – not by astrology but by an older system of observation and  a mythos of locality.. as well as by nominal superimposition of  celestial and terrestrial co-ordinates (made easier in medieval times if one had an astrolabe).

I would have begun from the classical sources’ identification of Amazon lands, by Herodotus and later authors, illustrated by a couple of maps, and then moved on to the technical correlations for star-and-place as well as the various astrological equations of peoples and regions …. coins, legends, Manilius, Dorothea of Sidon etc., remarks on Genoa’s colonies in the Black Sea (from c.1290s to the time the Plague came..) and so, eventually,  to Ptolemy’s co-ordinates.

But this post is already a trying length, almost 4,700 words, so I’ll leave all that material from my logs aside, except to say the Voynich ‘strings’ may bind place and star.

The star-place correspondence system has to be conceptual or temporary because the vernal equinox moves, as the first minute of right ascension doesn’t.  Then there are also the eastern navigator’s “fetterings” but …alas.. who’d ever read so much?

At least you have some sources for this last and  far from unimportant section.

edit (6th December 2019).

Can’t get the ‘comments’ to include this image, so here it is. Proof of relevance to c.1420.  See second of the comments following this post.


The skies above Pt.5: bodies in baskets

Two previous:

Header: detail from f.179 in Brit.Lib.  MS Harley 4375/3, a translation of  Valerius MaximusFacta et Dicta Memorabilia (Memorable Doings and Sayings..); (inset) detail from a mosaic made in the region of Carthage 1st-2ndC AD, (a century or two after Sergius Orata lived).   British Museum.


MINUS THE INSET, the image shown in the header illustrates one sentence from Book 9 of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta, viz:

C. Sergius Orata pensilia balinea primus facere instituit. quae inpensa a levibus initiis coepta ad suspensa caldae aquae tantum non aequora penetravit.(9.1.1)

As first published in English, from the translation by Samuel Speed. that paragraph and the next together read:

There are more recent translations, but Speed’s was the first to be published in English, and appeared four years after Athanasius Kircher’s death.

Excerpts from Valerius Maximus occur  as early as the tenth century in the Latin west,  and it is possible that the fifteenth-century conception of Orata’s ‘hanging baths’  pre-dates Nicolas de Gonesse‘s translation of Book 9.  I’ve not looked at the earlier manuscripts.  Any wanting to doing so might begin with:

  • Dorothy M. Schullian, ‘A Revised List of Manuscripts of Valerius Maximus’, Miscellanea Augusto Campana. Medioevo e Umanesimo 45 (1981), 695-728 (p. 708).

In brief – nothing.  At least nothing directly, but it has become the norm that imagery in this manuscript is compared with items from Latin European works which are prettier, easier to understand and much more luxurious than the Voynich manuscript itself, so I thought this would be an easy way to introduce the month-diagrams’ ‘ladies’ without causing sudden shock and the sort of unthinking remarks which shocked persons tend to make.

More to the point, it lets me establish three points from the outset:

  1. that the image from the Harley manuscript cannot be argued any explanation for the month-diagrams, as I expect some might be eager to do, seeing it fitting neatly with certain other Voynich theories about ladies, baths, magic, plumbing and ‘central Europe’.  But it won’t do, and explaining the fact may prevent researchers’ wasting their own time or adding to that confusion with which the study is already so beset.
  2.  that the fifteenth-century translators and illustrator should not be underestimated.  Valerius speaks of Orata as a fish farmer, Pliny of Orata’s growing oysters. Despite the fifteenth-century translator and painter having put human figures in these baskets, it makes perfect sense in the “Orataean” context that they should have made them baskets, and not the stave-built barrel we see when medieval people are shown taking a modest bath.    The painter has shown containers able to drain very readily rather than anything able to hold water for long enough to take a bath in the Latin style (Greek baths differed).    I think  Fagan has the right of it, and is largely in harmony with the thinking of those medieval translators and painter, for he says that Orata’s invention (pensilia balinea) had nothing to do with humans’ bathing.   We do better to envisage Orata’s ‘suspended baths’ as a variant form of  lift-net fishing [see image, below, left] and/or as being related to that practice, still-usual, by which shellfish are maintained alive after harvesting,  immersed in fresh sea-water until fully grown and so purged of any contaminates before being cooked or sent to market.   I suppose it is even possible the basket-full might have been dropped directly into heated water but in in any case, a light, rapidly-draining container –  of netting or of woven sea-grass  – would be entirely practical. The image below (right)  proves it was. And where Valerius speaks chiefly of Orata’s fish-farming, Pliny dilates on his unfortunate interest in shellfish.

    detail from a mosaic made in Carthage c.2ndC AD. Now in the British Museum

    known today on the Atlantic coat of France as carrelets; in Italy (chiefly around the head of the Adriatic) as trabucco; in India as Cheena vala.

    (The Harley painting is too early and insufficiently northern to be about ducking witches.)

  3. That the landscaping efforts by Orata and his fellows in Campania must be seen in the context of the reputation which, at that time, adhered to the harbour of Byzantion and the Horn, just as it had for millennia before and to as late as the fifteenth century.   The astonishing abundance of those waters was viewed as a wonder in the ancient and classical world and the same classical authors in whom fifteenth-century Latin Europe was so interested dilate on the subject.  I quote from a couple of those sources later in this post.  In a way scarcely conceivable now when our food supply is constant and arrives indifferent to seasons and without our labour, Byzantion’s bountiful supply of food from the sea was regarded with awe,   the city’s commercial production of salted and pickled fish provided a large part of the city’s wealth, even in medieval times.  Salt-dried and -pickled fish, but particularly the dried  had been the mainstay of  Roman armies and remained the principal food for those travelling by sea. A fish sauce called garum is believed the invention of  Phoenicians or of Greeks, and although a late imperial Roman tax on salt saw garum production sink rapidly in those times, a century after the Voynich manuscript was made,  Pierre Belon found “scarcely a shop without it” in Constantinople (formerly Byzantion and later Istanbul).  Belon adds that it was all made in Pera (“Pere”) (p.78)

It made perfectly good sense, and good economic sense for Orata and his fellows to attempt to re-create that environment in the Bay of Naples.

  • Pierre Belon, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrs (Paris, 1553). Published first in French and English, the Latin edition appeared in 1589. The reference is on p.8 of the 1553 edition. Belon visited Istanbul in c.1547-8.
  • a quick basic overview of trade, goods and taxes in medieval Constantinople is in Mark Cartwright’s article for the Ancient History Encyclopaedia. here.

I’m not suggesting that the tiered  ladies of the Voynich month-diagrams are sea-food in disguise…  but puzzling over the Harley image and its odd features  led me to enquire further and, one thing leading to another as it tends to do, I was brought, eventually, to the point where I could conclude that the Voynich month diagrams had originally ‘spoken Greek’ and to identify the set of terms, and ideas, most relevant to the way the ‘bodies in barrels’ are depicted in folio 70v-i.

I  exempt from this description of ‘Greek-speaking’ the diagrams’ central emblems.  Not because it is impossible they also originated in a Greek-speaking environment but because they appear to be late additions to the material (after c.1330 but before 1438) by which time – as I was also able to conclude from other studies and enquiries of this manuscript – the greater proportion of material now in the Voynich manuscript had entered the Latins’ domain.  This makes it more likely – if not certain- that the central emblems were taken from a source in some language familiar in those regions at the time;  perhaps a Latin work, or one written in a western European vernacular, in Occitan, French, Anglo-Norman, Hebrew or a dialect of it.. or even Aramaic etcetera.  More likely; not certainly but in 2011, I expressed the opinion that the central emblems may have been copied from a work then in Fleury but dating to c.10thC AD. (This was before mention of France became acceptable to the ‘central European’ theory-holders, for which change we must thank Ellie Velinska’s longstanding fascination with the Duc de Berry more than any body of objective evidence.)

What is certain is that when  ‘matches’ are claimed for the month- diagrams by writers adducing some detail from a Latin manuscript,  all but the sequence of central emblems is omitted from their efforts, and even when treating those, the more optimistic sort of Voynichero swans past indifferent, or oblivious,  to points at which the proposed ‘match’ fails – historically, iconographically or technically.  Here, once again, I must mention Koen Gheuens‘ work as exceptional because he has paid attention to (e.g.) the fact that the Voynich ‘scales’ are of a type quite unlike those pictured in the medieval Latin manuscripts or adduced by other Voynicheros.

The critical detail is a second and thinner crossbar threaded through the wider. It is very clear in the Voynich emblem, and although the example cited by Gheuens is not unambiguous – that is, one might argue that its knob and hook were fixed into the end of a solid bar rather than being the termini of a thinner rod threaded through the larger – nonetheless it is a creditable potential match and he deserves credit for accepting rather than waving away that problem of very different construction.  The diagram you see below the scales in that pocket calendar records the hours of darkness and of daylight for the month of September.  I’ll come back to to the curiously nomadic history of such calendars later in the series, but the fact is they hop about – between England and the Scandinavian countries at first, and then make their way inland after some time.

To my knowledge no-one has ever found  a comparison for any of the  Voynich month- diagrams.   No-one  had done so before Panofsky, and he could find none closer than those in the Libros…  No  closer comparison seems to have been found since.  Nor have I offered one.

What I’ve done is draw conclusions about first enunciation and, thereby, intended significance.  And this because,  just as you can’t read a book by just looking at it you can’t read the   ‘thousand words’ by just looking at a picture.

I think it quite possible, after doing that work, that the ‘labels’ for figures in the Voynich month diagrams may be place-names.  And while it may be a natural assumption  that, were this the case,  the system invoked would be the generalised type of chorographic astrology, it should not be forgotten that between a star’s position on the celestial globe and that of a specific place on the terrestrial globe, correspondence can be literal, and very literal, practical types have known so from before Babylon’s first brick was laid. Every ancient literature in the world presumes the stars were made for nomads, farmers, herders and mariners. Not one supposed them made for astrologers.

Several of my readers have commented on the curious fact that,  after I introduce some new item or conclusion such as that the labels might be place-names, the same proposal appears without mention of the source not long afterwards in one or another ‘Voynich’ venue, where it tends to be lightly tossed about as some random ‘idea’ which had  just occurred to the participant regardless of the fact that several others know quite well where this ‘idea’ came from.

I’m afraid that a decade’s unremitting efforts on the part of one or two theorists has had its effect;  to admit that you are among the hundred or so people who read each post, and one of the ninety or so who don’t mis-use the material has become a bit risky if you appreciate being among the peaceable.   It is now ok to help yourself, but in public arenas  ‘not done’ to do be honest and open about it.  If you do, it is a dead cert. that someone will soon appear on the lists and try to show you the error of your ways.


But, as I say, to help yourself is perfectly acceptable – to those omnipresent few theory-touts, and to me.  Where we differ is that I consider my research and its original observations and conclusions should be re-used with mention of my name, and they don’t.  One understands their situation; it just messes things up if you’re getting everyone on board with your theory, to admit that half the new ‘ideas’ you use to inspire the crew have been lifted from work you don’t quite understand, other than it seems to undermine the theory.  Getting fellow believers to work it up in new form. one consistent with your theory and so re-assign  credits to fellow-believers surely does keeps everything nice, neat, homogeneous and attractive to visitors. But it cannot be called honest, or helpful to those more interested in the fifteenth-century manuscript than in stories woven about it.

Which is another of the reasons why, now that I’ve decided to put a little more online in treating these diagrams, I won’t providing just an illustrated precis and a short reading list as I did in posts to Voynichimagery.  This time, I’m setting out, step by step, the process by which I finally gained the conclusions I did (though I’ll ‘telescope’ a little).  I expect most will find it fairly hard-going – because it was – and I shouldn’t be  surprised to lose a few theorists in the maze.  🙂

So – to the fifteenth-century depiction of C. Sergius Orata and ‘bodies in baskets’.

“Bodies in Baskets” – Part A

C. Sergius Orata

Modern scholarship has tended to look more to Pliny’s account of Orata but for our purpose,  Valerius’ is the more valuable.   Pliny wrote later, and was a military gent and a friend of the Emperor Vespasian, highly conservative in the Roman fashion and inclined to think Orata ‘orientally’ sensual and venal: “not quite one of us”. This bias is vented by speaking of little but Orata’s  cultivating oysters (a little too close to the murex, perhaps?), and scarcely mentioning Orata’s fish-farming, on which Valerius concentrated. Nor does Valerius suggest a commercial motive as Pliny would do later.

Despite his name, Orata might indeed not have been quite ‘Roman’.  At the time when he was most active in Campania (the region of Capua and the Bay of Naples) it was still chiefly Greek and Samite.  Even a century later Strabo names  Naples among the few remaining bastions of civilisation in the peninsula, the rest having succumbed in one way or another to – as Strabo puts it – the barbarian Romans.

  • Strabo, Geographia  VI, 253 = VI.1.2)

The painter dresses Orata by combining conventions for an ‘oriental’  with faintly Byzantine overtones, but I do not think it due to his consulting any  eastern ‘Byzantine’ – nor relying on artistic imagination.

On Byzantine ‘Greeks’ in medieval western Europe, a good brief overview:

It seems to me that, the painter being provided with Pliny’s comments in addition to those of Valerius, misconstrued Pliny’s second-to-last sentence, having failed to notice that Orata was no longer the subject.  After a long passage about Orata, Pliny at the end shifts suddenly and swiftly from Orata,  by way of Licinus, Philip and Hortensius, to Lucullus – another fish-fancier of Naples, though omitting that name in his second-to-last sentence, which translates as:

 At which,  Pompey the Great called him “Roman Xerxes” in his long robe. 

Orata’s upper dress appears as if of shot silk,* and the ‘long robe’ is given by the painter to other eastern figures, including ‘Sardanapalus‘.  Thus the ‘Persian’ of Naples, Lucullus, becomes the ‘oriental’ and not-quite-Roman, Orata.  Yet the elegance with which the painter conveys by these means Orata’s social rank, ‘oriental’ tendency to luxury, and even a suggestion of the effete (the inclusion of a luxurious version of the Roman feminalia) is supremely elegant.  The reader expecting a literal and historically-correct ‘portrait’ will be disappointed, but those who are aware of the degree to which medieval imagery is less illustration of a text than its reiteration will see how easily the image committed to memory might then be ‘re-read’ – its several devices allowing cultured, impromptu remarks on the subjects of fish, baths, and Sergius Orata according to Valentius and to Pliny.

*as samite? By the late medieval period, samite had come to be “applied to any rich, heavy silk material which had a satin-like gloss”.

The sentences where Pliny shifts from discussing Orata also explain his concentrating on Orata’s oysters:  Pliny knew of Roman nobles who weren’t to be supposed ‘oriental’ or effete, and they (sadly misled) had also raised fish.

In those same days, but somewhat before Orata, Licinius Murena devised pools and stewes to keep and feed other types of fish, and his example being followed by certain noblemen , they did likewise – namely Philip and Hortensius.  Lucullus cut through a mountain near Naples for this purpose – that is, to bring an arm of the sea into his fish-pools, the cost of doing more than the house he had built.  At which,  Pompey the Great called him ” Roman Xerxes” in his long robe….

-which shows that Pompey knew his Herodotus. And that Pliny was thinking of the Bosporus in connection with this behaviour.

It is true that by conventions of Byzantine art, red boots were a mark of any eminent personage, including kings of whom nothing more was known than references in the Biblical narratives.

Red boots – Medes, Persians, Romans and Byzantines

A good, brief up-to-date account of Byzantine Greeks in early fifteenth-century Italy:

On the significance and history of red boots, which subject specialists in Roman history still debate with surprising warmth:

  • ***Maria G. Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography 11th-15th Centuries (Brill: 2003)***

Specifically for the controversy over red calceus mulleus, see Ryan’s notes:

  • Francis X. Ryan, Rank and Participation in the Republican Senate (1998) pp.55-6 and notes.
  • Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2  (1995) passim esp. pp. 161-168.

The boots given Orata may, or may not, be ‘Byzantine’ but his hat was never worn in Constantinople – or if ever, not after the 3rdC AD. It is another of those ‘speaking devices’, a conventional bit of visual shorthand, of a type widely used in medieval imagery.

Headwear of such a sort appears with variations in medieval art as token for the ‘easterner’ and, in this form, chiefly as sign of the eastern Egyptian or Jew.  The version shown (left) has its crown-like brim less strongly indented than Orata’s is, but this mounted figure is meant for a younger Moses, as prince of Egypt and overseer of Jews’ labour.  (Note that the roughly parallel lines used for the horses’ manes is not the technique we call ‘parallel hatching’).


discarding bad habits:Wrecking-rocks of literalism and the whirlpool of pareidolia.(900 wds)

In terms of iconography there is a major difference between the Voynich ‘ladies in barrels’ and the detail from that fifteenth century manuscript picturing Orata and the ‘bodies in baskets’.

A modern, western reader who has no Latin may well consider Orata’s hat and costume odd and the elevated tubs odder still, but it would not require group effort, for more than a century, to make sense of the image overall.  It is immediately plain  to us that we are to interpret those figures of men and women literally; that the tubs are to be read as bath-tubs, and whatever bewilderment might be felt about the purpose of that image, the image itself is comprehensible.  We do not speculate about whether, perhaps, Orata is sitting in a tent watching clouds pass and imagining them baskets.  We are not so bewildered by our inability to read its intended meaning that we resort to asserting it the work of a sex-crazed, foolish, immature, or deliberately deceitful person attempting wantonly to conceal from us the information to which we have no key within our existing range of knowledge and experience.

That so many, on realising their inability to read imagery in the Voynich manuscript, have resorted to such means to avoid admitting  nothing comes to mind which lets them make sense of a drawing or a diagram, and leads them to invent off-the-cuff excuses and rationalisations (even to the point of delusion in asserting that what is so plainly not an ordinary expression of medieval western culture IS an ordinary expression of Latin culture) simply expresses the normal range of human reactions when presented with something entirely unlike anything in the individual’s existing experience and mental repertoire. That Panofsky could not only recognise his own lack of comparisons but openly say so, is a remarkable thing; for a human being in general but for an eminent specialist in the field of medieval Latin art even more so.  He was not prevented from seeing accurately by any fear of losing face. That’s very rare.

As humans it is an innate and universal habit when confronted with a new thing, word or person to immediately hunt our range of knowledge for some comparison for it: this is how we learn language, identify faces in crowds and so on. It is how we learn a second language – by finding parallels from the one already known.  It is how we change a stranger’s status to that of friend: we liken their face, character or habits to ones familiar to us.   But when our existing repertoire returns a ‘null result’ to that instant and instinctive search, natural  responses veer  between panic, dislike, suspicion, self-deception or a feeling experienced as boredom-distaste, to (by far the rarest) an intelligent curiosity: a desire to widen our own repertoire to a point where the hitherto unparalleled phenomenon is contextualised and in that way becomes among things ‘familiar’ to us.  Consider how people react to a piece of abstract expressionism and you’ll get the idea.

Or perhaps a better illustration is the  way European scientists reacted on receiving the first specimen of an Australian platypus.  There was no one creature known to European science with which the creature could be compared, no genera or species to provide its context.   So the scientists (naturally) compared it, as best they could, with what they did feel comfortable with:  they saw the bill as a ‘duck’s bill’, the tail as ‘like a beaver’, the feet as ‘like an otter’… and concluded the specimen a fake, made by stitching together bits of a duck, a beaver and an otter. Naturally. Just so, those only comfortable with some aspect of European history and culture form their ‘Voynich theories’ within those same parameters, and then hunt only within their comfort zone (sometimes as limited as one medium and one small locality) for items which they might ‘match’ to some detail in the manuscript.

The aim in such cases is not to elucidate the original, but to claim it ‘not really unfamiliar’; stylistics are ignored; context; no effort made to explain (for example) a whole theme or even a whole diagram, detail by detail or to test theories or alleged matches against what is known about history or art or codicology or palaeography or …  anything else.  Classic example: the [so-called apothecary jar] container from the Vms supposedly ‘compared’ with the printed image of a German Christian ritual vessel. This is pareidolia. And over-literalism, too. It serves just one purpose, to offer a subliminal advertisement for a ‘Latin-German Christian’ theory. Which is not to say that whoever devised the ‘pairing’ did not believe it themselves. Comfort-zone.

Once the European scientists’ own horizons widened, once they set about to learn more, their personal, innate, instinctive, panic-responses ceased. They no longer needed to insist the thing was ‘really’ familiar, because they had worked to become familiar with the context in which it belonged in fact.  Since this understanding cured the ‘null’ reaction, the natural and essentially defensive responses were no longer needed. They could see the thing as it was without stress and without the equally instinctive urge to express hostility to the provider of that first disturbing specimen.  They stopped attacking his motives and character.  Such attacks, like inane ‘scoffing’ are common means to express hostility of such a kind, though one must admit that not a few Voynich narratives are amusing.

The way to pass safely between the Scylla of plodding literalism and the Charybdis of pareidolia is, simply,  to know more. Ask questions. Do the hard yards. Cross-examine yourself  at every step. Make yourself your best-informed and sternest critic.  Doesn’t matter if others think your ideas plausible. As Feynman says:

“It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are …[It doesn’t matter how many are willing to believe, either.]  If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”


What is not  explained about the image of Orata, by the words of Valerius nor of Pliny is why Orata’s “pensilia balinea” are here given the form of a basket woven from straw, or from  sea-grass or something of that sort. The detail shown (below, left) tells us that in medieval Latin Europe baskets of this type were known, but whether ever made so large as that in the Harley manuscript image we may never know; such objects rarely survive the centuries.

  • Terms for baskets in Latin and Old English are on a page at Wyrtg’s site.


“Pensilia balinea”

Most modern commentaries cross-reference Valerius’ pensilia balinea  with  Vitruvius‘ description of Roman baths, and take it that Orata’s invention was not “suspended baths”of the sort envisaged by the Harley image, but those piers (suspensura), sometimes of stacked blocks called suspensera, by which the floor of a Roman baths was ‘suspended’.

While I cannot follow Fagan in some of his enthusiasms, I think he has the right of it, and is in harmony with the fifteenth-century translator and illustrator, to the extent he says:

I believe that Orata’s … invention was used in connection with fish-raising rather than with human bathing. Orata was widely known as a fish-farmer, and may even have derived his cognomen from the practice. Tellingly, all the sources mentioning Orata [and] his pensiles balineae together strongly imply a connection between the device  and Orata’s fish-farming business; in fact, Orata and his pensiles balineae are never explicitly linked to baths for human use. Furthermore, Pliny’s notice appears in the general context of a section on men who invented fishponds….(p.59)

  • Garrett G. Fagan, Sergius Orata: Inventor of the Hypocaust?, Phoenix, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 56-66.
Short bibliography:
  • On Roman plumbing and suspensura see e.g.
    • Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Volume 4.
    • Vitruvius, di Architectura, Bk 5  10.2)

    Readers may also enjoy:

  • Janet DeLaine, ‘Some Observations on the Transition from Greek to Roman Baths in Hellenistic Italy’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 2 (1989), pp.111-125.
  • John Wilkes (ed.), Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 7 (1810)  is – of all places – the best for detailed description of traditional fishing methods.  on Tunny fishing  see p. 415

To the foregoing, I should like to add the suggestion that Valerius seems to have understood more clearly that Pliny ever did the implications of those efforts made by Lucullus and Orata; that around the Bay of Naples, infused as it was still with Greek heritage and culture, those  fish-breeders had as their model the landscape about Byzantion of Thrace (as it then was), whose natural abundance of fish is constantly discussed and marvelled over, described in extraordinary detail by several classical and late classical authors, including Strabo.   The other centre of the fish-trade –  apart from Campania – was Gades in Iberia, an old Phoenician stronghold. The coins of those cities, from centuries before Orata lived, to as late as the 3rdC AD, show the city’s character throughout the greater Mediterranean world by that means.  I might have taken a broader range of examples, but concentrate here on the period from the days of Orata (early 1stC BC) to that of Strabo  (64/63 BC – c. 24 AD), Pliny ( AD 23–79) and Dionysius of Byzantion (2ndC AD).

Strabo may be said to dilate on the theme of Byzantion’s abundance from the sea, but fish and gods are the whole tenor of Dionysius’  Anaplous of the Bosporus. Classed as a ‘geography’ it reads more like a manual and sailing guide for the god-fearing fisherman,  and since it will be important to understand how the region’s character was perceived in the general imagination, when Lucullus and Orata lived, as when Valerius, Pliny and Strabo wrote, I’ll quote a little from those two authors:  first from Dionysius and then from Strabo:

from Dionysius of Byzantion

§ 5 With the current breaking sharply near here, the largest part pushes on toward Propontis, but the gentle part conducive to fishing is received in the so-called Horn. This is the gulf beneath Bosporion headland, quite deep, more so than an anchorage, for it stretches for 60 stades, and safe as any harbor, with mountains and hills encircling it to block the winds, and further in with rivers that bring down deep, soft silt, at the mouth under the headland on which lies the City .[proving that Byzantion was a walled city before Constantine translated the capital of the Roman empire thence and renamed Byzantion ‘Constantinople’).

§ 6  The city has sea all around it except for the isthmus connecting it to the mainland….. That sea is deep close inshore, and with strong currents driven by the Pontic sea and the narrowness of the passage and the impact and refluxes that strike the city in a mass. It divides around the Bosporion headland, part of it flowing into the deep, fish-laden gulf and ends in slight, shallow landings. It is called Horn from the similarity of the shape. It surpasses a gulf in depth, as I said, and a harbour in convenience. For big mountains surround it protecting it from the violence of the winds ….

§ 36Bolos, with a rich winter fishery, on which is a precinct of Artemis Phosphoros (lightbearer) and Aphrodite Praeia (mild), to whom the the Byzantines* customarily sacrifice. For she is believed to store up the favorability of the wind, calming and suppressing the excessive disturbance they cause.

* ‘Byzantines’ here means people under the rule of Thracian Byzantion.

§ 37 The next place, Ostreodes (oystery), is named from the occurrence. For an underwater reef is formed at sea, whitened by the multitude of oysters, and the bottom is visible, especially in calm weather. The place grows back what is consumed, so the use is so to say profligate, and oyster beds rival the fishery in value.

§92 After Chelai is the place called Hieron, which was built by Phrixus, son of Nephele and Athamas, when he sailed to Colchis, a place indeed owned by the Byzantines, but a common haven to all who sail. ….

and this next item, more than oysters, could be why C. Sergius received the cognomen ‘Orata’:

§ 93.  In the sanctuary is a bronze statue of ancient work, a young man stretching out his hands in front of him.

Many explanations are given for why this statue is composed this way; some say it is a sign of the boldness of sailors, deterring reckless navigation into danger and showing the happiness and reverence of those who return safely. For neither is without its terror. Others say that a boy wandering on shore returned shortly after his ship had left the port, and, overcome by despair for his safety, stretched his hands up to heaven, but that the god heard the prayers of the boy and returned the ship to port. Others say that on the occasion of a great calmness of the sea, while every wind was still and a ship was long delayed, its sailors were struggling under the scarcity of the port’s supplies. Whereupon a vision appeared to the captain, ordering the captain to sacrifice his own son, since by no other means could the voyage and the winds resume. But at the moment when the captain, being compelled by necessity, was ready to sacrifice the boy, it is said that the boy stretched out his hands, and that the god, moved by pity at the senseless punishment of the boy or by the boy’s youth, took up the boy and sent a favourable wind. Let each judge as he likes whether these or the contrary are credible.

  • from the translation by Brady Kiesling from the Greek/Latin edition of Carolus Wechser, Anaplous Bosporou. Dionysii Byzantii De Bospori navigatione quae supersunt (1874).  The English translation is online [TOPOS]. Wechser’s Greek/Latin edition digitised at


And so one sees the inference in Pliny’s treatment of Lucullus’ changing the landscape near Naples creating as it were a new ‘Hellespont’ that cost  more than his palace, and created another ‘golden horn’ as sheltered arm of the sea.  Similarly, by knowing Strabo’s text, the parallel is clear for Valerius’ description of Otata’s engineered landscape: “He separated shoals of  diverse sorts of fish within the large circuits of vast Moles..[and] burdened the hitherto unpopulated banks of Lake Lucrinus with stately high structures, so he might keep his shell-fish fresh..”  A Byzantium in miniature.

from Strabo

Now the distance from the headland that makes the strait only five stadia wide to the harbour which is called “Under the Fig-tree” (medieval Pera, now Galata)  is thirty-five stadia; ….  The Horn, which is close to the wall of the Byzantines, is a gulf that … is split into numerous gulfs — branches, as it were.The  pelamydes  [‘tunny’] rush into these gulfs and are easily caught — because of their numbers, the force of the current that drives them together, and the narrowness of the gulfs; in fact, because of the narrowness of the area, they are even caught by hand.
Now these fish are hatched in the marshes of Lake Maeotis, …and move along the Asian shore as far as Trapezus and Pharnacia. It is here that the catching of the fish first takes place, though the catch is not considerable.. .But when they reach Sinope, they are mature enough for catching and salting.Yet when once they touch the Cyaneae and pass by these, the creatures take such fright at a certain white rock which projects from the Chalcedonian shore that they forthwith turn to the opposite shore.  There they are caught by the current, and since at the same time the region is so formed by nature as to turn the current of the sea there to Byzantium and the Horn at Byzantium, they naturally are driven together thither and thus afford the Byzantines and the Roman people considerable revenue.     

Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter 6.


At this point in the log is a note that questions of continuity between the Roman and the medieval trade have already been treated..

Short bibliography
  • Robert I Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (Brill: 1991)

If any reader shares my fascination for technicalities, they might also enjoy:

  • James Arnold Higginbotham,  Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (University of North Carolina Press: 1997) though I should add that it hasn’t any relevance to study of Beinecke Ms 408.


That the texts of Strabo, and of Dionysius of Byzantion were still known and copied in Constantinople during the early fourteenth century  is proven by the deservedly famous Vatopedi manuscript,  a complation of texts from major and minor classical authors describing the sea-routes of the Black Sea, Red Sea and to as far as England.  It is difficult to think other than the compilation was made for contemporary needs, and these may have included the needs of foreigners resident in the enclaves of Pera and within Constantinople, wanting to know those routes. Diller’s study of the Vatopedi remains a standard reference.

  • Aubrey Diller, ‘The Vatopedi Manuscript of Ptolemy and Strabo’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1937), pp. 174-184.
  • Codex Vaticanus 2061. – includes text from Strabo, Geographia  on leaves 235, 237, 240, 243, 244, 246-249, 251-253, 310-315. 20.5 by 20.3. Taken to the Vatican library in the 17thC from the monastery of St. Mary of Patirium, a suburb of Rossano in Calabria.

Postscript: The two masters of theology who translated Valerius’ Facta et Dicta held degrees at the highest level offered at that time in western Europe.  It can be presumed, then, that they were well aware of post-classical and Christian associations for bathing.  For the medieval Christian these would certainty include association with baptism and with marriage. For a brief explanation see  Isidore of Seville,  Etymologiae VI.xix.41; IX.vii.8.


detail from a map originally part of the Vatopedi manuscript. Now in the British Library.


2 minor typos corrected – 17th Sept. 2019.