O’Donovan notes – the ‘Calendar’ emblems Pt 6. July’s Lobsters.

c.4500 words

About a third of this post is for people working on Voynichese. Those paragraphs are marked with the partial-derivative symbol (right).

edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.

Two lobsters: July

For newcomers – the ‘Calendar’ emblems so far:

Many Voynich writers focus on where the manuscript might have been made.
Our aim is more like the linguists’ and cryptographers’ – to understand what information the original speaker(s) intended to convey. Just as linguists don’t presume a new spoken language was invented for this manuscript, so we don’t presume the drawings are without precedents.
However, because so few among the manuscript’s drawings speak the visual language of medieval Latin Europe, our aim is (of course) also to identify their original source. In that, the relatively few which do ‘speak Latin’ (or something like it) are like the end of a thread which may guide us into, and then through, the maze of possibilities. Among those few are the small central emblems with which the ‘calendar’ diagrams are provided.
Diagrams referring to astronomical matters don’t exactly speak a universal language, but were – and are – less dependent on local customs for their understanding than is a written or a pictorial text.
Comparing information in some Voynich astronomical diagrams.
We don’t know what purpose the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams were meant to serve, but independent specialists have assured us they are not astrological charts.
At present we are asking whether the emblems offer astronomical information compatible with that found in two other astronomical diagrams (on folio 85r and on folio 67v-i).
These posts being exercises in analytical method, we are considering just two examples: the emblems inscribed ‘November’ and ‘July’.

* * * *

The ‘November’ emblem, as we found, is meant for a crocodile and is derived ultimately from one aspect of an originally-composite figure for the ‘croucher by the Scales’. Known as Ammit, its character was expressed by combining elements of the most savage bringers-down of prey: crocodile, hound/jackal, lion and hippopotamus, with all but the last reaching medieval western Europe as an expression of “scorpion nature” or as the Physiologus’ ‘crocodrill’.

Only one documented example of a ‘crocodile Scorpius’ has been seen, so far, from medieval Latin Europe before c.1350 AD. That was in BNF 7351, so that is where we take up the thread again – but not until committing to memory every detail of the image to be researched.

FIG. 1


Caution the difference between someone naturally suited to a study of ancient and medieval art and artefacts, and someone whose talents lies elsewhere, often shows up at this first analytical stage. Be honest with yourself. If you feel impatient with process, over-confident, and want to rush to the ‘bottom line’ – this sort of work is not for you.

1. Remarkable absence of depth or perspective for a work often presumed created first in Latin Europe in the fifteenth-century. It is no product of the atelier. No attempt to provide background, whether of solid pigment, pattern, wash or a schematised landscape. Yet the quires are of vellum, albeit second-rate, and not paper which even by the fourteenth century would be used for rough work.

2.Each of the paired creatures is carefully distinguished – by its facing and by use of pigment. This is a characteristic of the ‘calendar’ diagrams overall; their many anthropoform figures are carefully differentiated by form, proportion, gestures, facing and/or facial expressions – which is a remarkable feat, if you consider their number, and the scale to which they were drawn. That even the month names which had to be inscribed twice are written differently, and evidently to avoid ‘replication’ argues in the original maker (and possibly in the fifteenth-century copyists) a cultural avoidance or ‘tabu’ which – though certainly attested at certain times and places – was never native to the Latins’ tradition.


3. Anatomy – (3.1) The creatures’ upper body (thorax) is made bulbous, not slender. Somewhat ant-like. Arcs are drawn on the thorax, left and right.

(3.2) No large front claw(s) as one would expect in a work produced from a fifteenth-century atelier in Europe.

(3.3) Abdomen ribbed to indicate segments.

(3.4) Divided ‘feet’ are given to eight slender legs extending sideways from the abdomen, Thicker-drawn versions of the same for the front legs to which claw(s) attach in a living specimen of prawn, lobster, crab etc.

(3.5)A tail is shown, fan-shaped and with four lobes.


(3.6) The head is given three points!

(3.7). Antennae emerge – one from each gap between those points – though in the upper figure the copyist may have been, initially, confused or affected by the scale at which he was working; one antenna seems, at first, part of the line or cord linking the two creatures.

In one sense this emblem is not ‘well-drawn’ but diverges from the literal less than a first glance might suggest. The creature is no fantasy beast. Following Lippincott and Gheuens, we’ll call it a ‘lobster’ though ‘crayfish’ or even ‘prawn’ might do.

Here’s the lobster’s anatomy…


… so what might be seen as errors come down to these:

(i) omitting any large front claw(s) ; (ii) confusing the positions of swimmerets and walking legs; (iii) giving all the walking legs split ends, where only the first four should have them; (iiii) giving the creature a head formed of three points (N.B. not one, two, or four, but three).

swimmeret: a swimming-foot; a pleopod; an abdominal limb or appendage usually adapted for swimming, and thus distinguished from the ambulatory or chelate thoracic limbs, fitted for walking or seizing.

If any series matching the series of Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams, or its series of emblems has been found – or any match for this emblem – I’m unaware of it. To be a match for the ‘July’ emblem, the example would have to include two creatures of this form, similarly differentiated, and including all the characteristics just listed.

In the absence of any match, only comparisons can be offered and our first defining element will be the creatures’ “three-point” head.

Koen Gheuens has already followed the ‘legs-for-swimmerts’ confusion from the time of Michael Scot (d.1232) forwards, noting some instances across northern France and then in works produced by one artisan. That essay is linked below. Gheuens referred readers to Kristen Lippincott’s ‘Saxl Project’ pdfs and so do I. As far as possible, I’ll cite illustrations from that resource.

Lobster as Cancer – not so unusual.

What happened after c.1440 is of little interest to us. For this exercise, it is also necessary to count, as characteristics of the image, that these Voynich emblems are inscribed in a Romance dialect or language, and that this emblem is labelled ‘July’ – being in this unlike most Latin breviaries, books of hours and ‘Labours of the months’ series which assign the astronomical Cancer to June, and have the ‘sign’ straddle June and July.

On the brighter side, examples of Cancer’s being assigned, alone, to July, and Scorpius to November are not limited to the Voynich manuscript and the twelfth-century, Byzantine-influenced Otranto mosaic. Here (below) is the same assignment of emblem to month in a manuscript made about the same time as that mosaic but in south-eastern England. (Note here the single, loose loop for the Scorpion’s tail and that all the crab’s walking legs are given two ‘toes’, with the scorpions’ being given three).

FIG 6. and see comment further below

Gheuens began with works composed by Michael Scot in Sicily – or rather with copies that were made later in Italy, but we are looking instead for the ideas and customs in art which influenced Scot’s thinking and that of the people who illustrated those Italian copies regarded as the four most important to survive.

*Glenn Michael Edwards, ‘The Liber Introductorius of Michael Scot’, thesis (PhD), University of Southern California, 1978

Michael Scot‘s lifetime (1175- c. 1232) overlaps with those of several other prominent Latin scholars whose names have been invoked at various times by various Voynich writers. The list includes the first ‘Gerard of Cremona‘ (1114 – 1187), or the second (13thC); the Flemish Franciscan friar, Thomas of Cantimpré (1201 -1272); the German Dominican friar, Albert of Lauingen (1200-1280), the English Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (d.1292), and Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1168–1253), bishop of Lincoln and tutor of Oxford.

All save the Gerard(s) of Cremona spent some years pursuing higher studies in Paris, and it was from the region around Paris we have our only other documented ‘Crocodile-Scorpius’ in Latin Europe – so far – before c.1350. Scot and Albert of Lauingen also studied in Italy.

In a later post, I’ll speak about the activities of the papal court while located in Avignon (1309-1375 AD), but at present our focus is on matter that was current in Scot’s time,

When Michael Scot was born, about the second third decade of the twelfth century, texts and manuscripts were gained chiefly from copies made in monastic scriptoria, By the time of his death, such work was increasingly being done by students of the larger universities, particularly in France where some colleges associated with the University of Paris set aside a room for that purpose. Scot would also have seen the beginning of an increase in the commercial producers of manuscripts, in what were described as bottegas or ateliers. In Italy, there existed a system known as the ‘pecia’ system, whereby a student might copy from quires or sections of a manuscript which a stationer had broken into parts, the students paying for materials and for use of the wanted sections.

Outside the world of formal scholarship, ‘informal’ texts were being made, a majority on paper and the greater number of those we still have from Europe were made for and by its non-Latin communities, or communities united by their (non-academic) occupations.

Crab, prawn’ and lobster etc., in pre-Christian western art.


We’ve seen that images of the crocodile, in literal style, existed in Latin Europe in mosaics and other media as relics of the pre-Christian Roman era. There were also many naturalistic images of sea-creatures in such media, with North Africa preserving a large number of this type. The images shown at right, and below, are from Roman-Byzantine mosaics from north Africa. Those shown are described as Roman.

FIG. 8

In some early astronomical illustrations from Latin Europe, the classical traditions in art remain evident, though did not long survive with the same clarity. The Crab in the Leiden Aratea is a case in point. The illustration’s classical lineage is unmistakeable and raises the possibility that we have it from an early copy of the first Latin translations from the Greek,

FIG 9. (The present wiki article ‘Leiden Aratea’ is very poor. It names as the work’s author not Aratus, nor ‘Germanicus but Louis the Pious, and conveys a suggestion that the Arab world gained its knowledge of Aratus from this manuscript – a preposterous idea).

Compare that crab, for example, with the style in which the same creature is represented on an early (pre-Roman) coin made for Akragas in Sicily.

FIG 10 coin of Akragas, Sicily. Reproduced by permission.

That coin was made a little before the birth of Eudoxus, the eastern Greek astronomer who spent time in Sicily and whose astronomical works were summarised and cast into poetry by Aratus.

I should also like to suggest that although the forms of drawing for constellations degenerated through the medieval centuries, that there may have persisted in some regions, and as a kind of folk-tradition, older ideas about the stars and constellations, and particularly associations between certain stars and constellations, and certain places. As the crocodile (for Scorpius) was universally associated with Egypt and the Nile, the Crab and ‘prawn’ spoke of Sicily and the Straits of Messina, respectively, as they had done even before the birth of Alexander.

The strait of Messina, between Sicily and the mainland, was renowned then as it is today for its dangers and for the chimerical images we call mirages or ‘Fata Morgana’.

The strait [of Messina] has strong tidal currents …. A natural whirlpool in the northern portion of the strait has been linked to the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis. In some circumstances, the mirage of Fata Morgana can be observed when looking at Sicily from Calabria.

After Rome conquered the island and thus claimed to rule the strait, we find a coin in which Latin permits, as canting, the Greek ‘Scylla’ to be Latin ‘scilla’ – a prawn. But the allusion is still to Sicily and that dangerous strait. Moon and tides are inextricably linked, so ‘to know your moon’ was to know your tides. This image is a Roman equivalent for ‘Britannia rules the Channel’.

FIG 11.

What makes these antecedents of ‘lobster-prawn-Crab’ imagery so interesting is their age, and that they appear on these coins at much the same time that the astronomical texts were first composed on which Latin European scholars would rely from the time Rome fell until that of Michael Scot: Eudoxus to Aratus to the Aratus latinus and the abysmal ‘Astronomicon poeticon’ which is so unkindly attributed to Hyginus.

Another fascinating image from the same pre-Christian era was made for a Gallic tribe, the Averni. Aratus and Germanicus may have understood what these figures meant to the Averni, but modern numismatists simply call the form above the horse, ‘lobster-like’. It has been provided with antennae and there are three spikes or points to its head.

FIG 12

Ovid, we know, made one Latin translation of Aratus’ poem. Another is said to have been made by ‘Germanicus’ though just who he was is unclear. ‘Germanicus’ means ‘subduer of Germania’ but as Baldwin put it, “as a method of precise identification, the unadorned name of Germanicus [is] intolerably vague. Too many men bore the cognomen…”

* Baldwin, ‘The Authorship of the “Aratus” Ascribed to Germanicus’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 1981, New Series, Vol. 7 (1981), pp. 163-172.


From this point onwards, in addition to considering the emblem’s form, and the month assigned it, and its inscription in a Romance language or dialect, we’ll also take note of the textual setting in which a cited comparison occurs. So that those chiefly interested in the written text can skim the rest, I’ve marked those paragraphs with this symbol

It is probably too much to hope that exemplar(s) used for this whole section in Beinecke MS 408 have survived, so it may help those working on the written text, too, if we find comparable images or assignments occur regularly in connection with some particular written source(s).

Figure 6 (above) came from Brit.Lib. Cotton Julius VI.

That manuscript relates to what is known as ‘computus’ – mathematical and religious works relating to calendrical calculations, including reconciling the lunar cycles with the solar year to determine the date of Easter.

Brit.Lib. MS Cotton Julius VI. Computistical texts and tables.

ff. 3r–8v: A metrical calendar (a version of the text known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson), illustrated with the Labours of the Month and astrological[sic] symbols. ff. 9r–17v: Further computistical texts, tables, diagrams and a wheel linking months, lunar cycles and a T-O map (f. 15r), including a ‘Sator square’ palindrome written in Greek letters (f. 11r). ff. 18r–19v: A hymn beginning ‘Assunt o socii’ and excerpts from the Easter Sunday liturgy, beginning ‘Et valde mane’, were added in 12th-century hands to blank and erased folios. ff. 19r–71r: An imperfect Expositio hymnorum with a near-continuous Old English gloss. The text on f. 19r-v has been erased, but some initials are still visible. ff. 71r-72v: Three hymns for Trinity Sunday; ff. 72v-89v: Monastic canticles with an Old English gloss. f. 90r–v: The hymn ‘O genetrix aeterni’ and a fragment of the Latin poem beginning, ‘Ad mensam philosophie sitientes currite,’ both accompanied by neumes, were added in the last quarter of the 11th century.

Both the liturgical and the civil calendars began from Easter (falling in March or April) and the custom of dating documents or private letters by the saint’s day would continue to as late as the seventeenth century.

*Easter’s date though the medieval centuries, with both Gregorian and Julian dates given.

* * * *

Maths texts don’t need pretty pictures.

The context in which we find FIG. 6, raises the uncomfortable possibility that the text which informed the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams might also be a mathematical treatise. Whether bound singly or in a miscellany, the Latins’ mathematical and mathematical-astronomical texts are typically chaste, devoid of illustrations other than a few terse diagrams which – in marked opposition to the Voynich calendar – were usually produced with compass and ruler.

In cases where pictures, as such, were desired, the usual practice seems to have been to include as excerpt or copy matter from a text of quite a different origin and type – as indeed was the case for BNF lat. 7351.

The chances are perhaps 50-50 that the Voynich calendar’s emblems have come from a very different source than that which provided the information for the diagrams. We see this too in copies made of the only other work to which the ‘calendar’ diagrams have been compared – the Libros made some decades after Scot’s death, under the auspices of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284).

* * * *

Another instance of this practice comes from a manuscript which includes the earliest example I’ve seen (so far) of the ‘three-point’ head for Cancer: Oxford, Bodleian Laud. Misc. 644. It is given a ‘face’, and shows arcs drawn on the left and right on the creature’s thorax, gives the legs two ‘toes’ and forms the front legs in the same way as the rest . In this case, these constellation-figures were gained by copying from a copy of Aratus already not less than 200 years old and possibly 400 years old. As the catalogue says of folio 8 “”Good coloured drawings copying a model of 9th or 11th century, …” The manuscript which copies those older drawings was made in late thirteenth-century Bayeux.

FIG. 13 Bayeux 1268-1274 AD

The makers’ choosing so venerable an exemplar suggests a monastic library and scriptorium, and reverence for the oldest forms of image as most authenic, but it would be a mistake to suppose the manuscript is affected by intellectual conservatism. On the contrary, the rest of its content consists of what were, at that time, the most respected and most advanced mathematical works used in Europe.

Bodleian Laud Misc. 644 contains (not in order):

  • Robert Grosseteste, ‘De sphaera‘ – an introductory text on astronomy.
  • __________, ‘correctorius
  • ________, ‘De lineis, angulis, et figuris; Mathematical reasoning in the natural sciences.
  • Albumasar, ‘Flores astrorum‘ (in Latin trans.) Arabic title translates as “Book of the revolutions of the years.”
  • Alfraganus, ‘Liber de aggregationibus [stellarum]’ (in Latin trans).
  • Azarchel, –1100: Canones ad tabulas toletanas. (‘Toledan tables’)
  • Boethius, ‘De institutione arithmetica’ – text and commentary. Latin.
  • Boethius, ‘De institutione musica’ – text and commentary, Latin.

and of course the illustrated section:

Under ultra-violet light can be found an inscription informing us that, by the fifteenth century, Oxford, Bodleian Laud miscellany 644 was in the possession of Charles, duke of Orleans. Charles was the son of Valentina Visconti, through whom he had already inherited Asti, a town about 30 miles west of the Milan-to-Genoa road, and linked to it.

FIG 14

Picking up the thread…

And so, at last, we return to BNF lat. 7351, mis-called the ‘Liber Albandini’ which provided our ‘crocodile Scorpion’. Folio 41v shows these drawings (below), both described by the holding library as forms for Cancer.

FIG. 15

Nonetheless (see Lippincott’s pdfs) the upper type is not rare as a form for Scorpius.

The manuscript was made in northern France during the 1300s, Its history before the fifteenth century is unknown but shortly before, or soon after the Voynich quires were inscribed, it was in the possession of Louis de Bruges, whose name might ring a bell if you read the post before last. This compilation’s content isn’t particularly religious, either. (catalogue entry).

It includes

  • Pierre de Dacie, Kalendarium (Fragment)
  • Albumasar (?), Liberimultitudinum (twice);
  • plus ‘Sphere of life and death’; Astrological treaty in French; Text in Latin on critical days or the so-called ‘Egyptian days’; Correspondence between signs and months and ‘De Duodecim Zodiaci Signis Eorumque Effectibus’.
  • The manuscript includes a removeable paper astrolabe (f.13v)

Pierre de Dacie’s text is no school primer. Sacrobosco would describe it as “algorismum vulgarem’.* meaning ‘ordinary mathematics’ or even ‘commercial maths’ as distinct from computus. Sacrobosco thought highly enough of de Dacie’s text to provide it with a commentary and, together, they proved an immensely popular text in western Europe.

Its primary notability is that it has a better method for extracting cube roots (better than the pre-existing method reported by Johannes de Sacrobosco).

*With Sacrobosco’s commentary, edited and published anew in 1897 by Maximilian Curtze, the edition online at archive. org.


What these first examples have indicated is that, in Sicily at least, an association between the forms for Crab and prawn was ancient – ancient enough that they could have influenced astronomical images from the time of Eudoxus, who resided and studied for a time in Sicily.

We have also seen a ‘lobster’-like form, in association with the horse, dating from the time when Aratus made his poetic version of Eudoxus’ work. We have also seen that the style in which the Crab is pictured in Carolingian time, in Latin Europe, had preserved those earlier and more literal forms for Cancer.

Reverence for older forms and learning was a constant in the history of western Europe, with greater emphasis placed on pre-Christian forms as the ‘renaissance’ (so-called) began to flower in southern Europe during the fourteenth century.

Altogether, we must be prepared for the possibility that the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams as such may be informed by recent technical information, yet be provided central emblems gained from considerably older sources.

Cancer with a ‘three-point head’ and with arcs drawn on the thorax is a form as old at least as the eleventh century and possibly as old as the ninth century. By 1350, at least in northern France, the same manuscript in which we have a ‘crocodile’ Scorpius could accept for Cancer the form of both crab and prawn, these together or separately having referred to Sicily during the time of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman ascendancy, and an air-borne ‘lobster-like’ creature attested in Gaul no later than the first century BC.

It is entirely possible that there had existed copies of astronomical works, including globes, older than those used by the Carolingian court in which the constellations took a form different from those we now expect to see, and though one or two of the Voynich calendar emblems show evidence of what we might call ‘modernisation’, most of them including those which seem at first idiosyncratic, clearly have roots which are venerable at least and in some cases still evince a lineage decidedly ancient.

… continued next post


A little more on authors of the texts included in Oxford, Bodleian, Laud Misc. 644, manuscript made about thirty years after Michael Scot’s death. The authors of the mathematical sections:

GROSSETESTE. Scholar and Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste particularly supported the Franciscan order (of which Roger Bacon became a member). Grosseteste “seems to have spent some time in France during the years 1208–14”. By.1229/30 he was teaching at Oxford, as reader in theology to the Franciscans, who had a community there by about 1224. He remained in that post until March 1235.Roger Bacon was his most famous pupil, and is said to have acquired an interest in scientific method from him. Those of his works included in Laud.Misc. 644 were written between 1220 to 1235.

Works by Grosseteste not included in that volume:

  • ‘De luce’. On the “metaphysics of light.” ( described as ‘the most original work of cosmogony in the Latin West’)
  • ‘De accessu et recessu maris’. On tides and tidal movements. (although some scholars dispute his authorship).
  • De iride’. On the rainbow.

ALBUMASSAR’ is Abu Ma’shar. (see end note)

‘ALFRAGANUS‘ is al-Farghani. Born in Uzbekistan in the 9thC AD. His ‘Jawami ilm Al-Nujum (A Compendium of Astronomy)* is thought to have been written in Egypt, becoming immediately and widely known among speakers of Arabic and Hebrew, and then being another among the works whose translation into Latin was made in Spain and credited to ‘Gerard of Cremona’.

  • *Liber de aggregationibus scientiae stellarum et principiis celestium motuum, quem Ametus qui dictus est Alfraganus compilavit; cum figuris. cf. 524 AdBSB Clm 234.

AZARCHIEL. Toledo and Cordova. His work is commonly found together with that of Jacob ben Machir Ibn Tibbon’s ‘Treatise on the astrolabe’. See e.g. Oxford, Bodleian MS Laud Or 93. (1400-1475)

The Latin translation of the Toledan Tables ‘Canones ad tabulas toletanas’ is generally credited to the first Gerard of Cremona. Michael Scot said he had found these particularly helpful.

BOETHIUS was born in Italy in 480 AD, after the Roman empire’s capital had becme Constantinople and while the city of Rome lay under Ostragothic rule. He died in 524 (aged 44), but his ‘Arithmetica’ remained the standard text for teaching arithmetic and basic maths, until and even after the early fifteenth century.

*Michael Scot died in c.1232. His studious interests were in mathematics, medicine-and-pharmacy and astronomy-astrology. The wiki article vastly exaggerates the magical- and under-states the astronomical and scientific content of Scot’s works for Frederick in Sicily, as well as conveying a false impression of Frederick as ’emperor’. In reality, Frederick reigned chiefly as king of Sicily and his court was regularly under interdiction, which prohibited any Latin Christian from engaging with him. HIs foray into diplomacy in the Holy Land was an effort to overcome those restrictions, whose results included refusal to acknowledge or use one of Frederick’s great accomplishments – sponsoring a Latin translation of al-Idrisi’s new astronomical-geography of the world, which took fifteen years under Roger, but of which no Latin version had been sent to Rome. Idrisi’s work became the foundation of a radically new form of education across North Africa when Idrisi finally returned there.

[edit – replacing a dropped half-sentence. Sept. 21st]

According to N.G. Wilson, the first appearance of Aristotle’s biological writings in the West are Latin translations by MIchael Scot of an Arabic edition. According to Wilson, it was this work by Scot, rather than Thomas of Cantimpre, which formed the basis of the book de Animalibus by Albert of Lauingen though the opinion is not generally held:

  • N. G. Wilson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Greek Manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Oxford  (Oxford, 2011) pp. 20-21, Plates 43-46.

“‘Albumasar”‘s work, as ‘Flowers of astronomy’ began appearing in Latin, in print from about three generations after the Voynich quires were inscribed, but we know that 46 editions were printed between 1488-1506. These included illustrations, but we have no information about the source(s) used by the block-makers. As a rule they were commissioned from free-lance artists hired by individual printers, and once a printer had a convenient block, it might be used in any kind of text. Here, Cancer does have arcs on the thorax and lobster-like abdomen, but the tail has only three lobes, the abdomen has as neither legs nor swimmerets attached to it; both front legs are provided with claws, the antennae have a rippled edge, and though the head is given three points it is plainly based on that of the ‘prawn-like’ type.

FIG 16

O’Donovan notes #8.3a: folio 67v-1 (the centre – turned North-up.)

c.2000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

The central part of the diagram is now turned so that our posited East is to the viewer’s right, because most of my readers will find a north-up orientation more comfortable. It is not done because north-up is a ‘proper’ orientation. Like the diagram on folio 85r, this was designed South-up.

(detail) folio 67v-1.
Yale, Beinecke Library MS 408

Now, in the highest and the lowest position, you see two more flower-like forms, each showing a circular face without the sun’s leonine corona.

To a modern way of thinking, the natural complement for the sun is the moon, so it might be tempting to imagine, without any better reason, that these details may speak of the moon’s rise and -set.

(details) folio 67v-1

In the normal way, a researcher would have to investigate that possibility should it arise, but since this is only a demonstration of method, I’ll save readers’ time by saying that, in this diagram, the simple circular faces refer to stars, and this secondary pair will be treated in full later, along with the four peripheral drawings (see previous post.)

Here I note that second pair refers again to the lotus, though perhaps not the flower named ‘lotus’ by modern botany.

Whereas the pair used for the places of sunrise and sunset show the sun emerge from the petalled ‘cup’ but sink in the west into a flat surface, those for North and South distinguish the two elements differently. The East-West pair might possibly refer to the flower we call Lotus today (Nelumbo spp.) and in which the seed-pod is visible as elevated, flat-topped object

Nelumbo nucifera. The sacred lotus of Buddhism.

Names given N. nucifera in about 20 eastern languages – see here.

The second pair (north and south) instead show South surrounded by petals while North emerges from what appears as if it were a cloud of stamens. The distinction made, in both pairings, is between whether the heart has its outer covering, or not. This isn’t a purely iconographic distinction: it reflects a certain way of seeing, and perhaps knowledge of both the Egyptians’ lotus and that we now call Lotus (Nelumbo spp.)

When the petals of N. nucifera fall, the flat-topped pod is clearly seen, but with the Egyptians’ blue lotus, a waterlily, (Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea), what one sees are just the stamens.

For a summary of the Egyptian imagery and its associations – see here.

Not native to Egypt, the pink Lotus was first introduced, it is thought, during the period (6th-5thC) when Egypt was part of the Achaemenid Persian empire, whose eastern border co-incides with the western limit of that flower’s natural range “from central and northern India (at altitudes up to 1,400 m or 4,600 ft in the southern Himalayas, through northern Indochina and East Asia (north to the Amur region)”.

Achaemenid Empire

Within the Mediterranean Nelumbo nucifera could be seen in Egypt even before the establishment of Alexandria and thereafter seen by trader-travellers as well as by residents of the country.

It is perfectly possible, that whoever first made the diagram on folio 67v-1 might have know all three types – that is, the Egyptians’ native waterlilies known as lotus, both the blue and the white, and this pink Lotus. In my opinion, though it is not perfectly clear, the original maker probably meant the ‘east’ and ‘west’ in folio 67v-1 to refer to the Nelumbo, but those for North and South the Nymphaea.

Here, I’d emphasise yet again as antidote to popular conceptions of history that during the centuries between when Julius Caesar claimed Egypt and the mid-fourteenth century, the forms and sense of older Egyptian iconography weren’t locked in the mists of time, nor was all memory of their meaning lost. It is a surprise, but a pleasant one, to see for example that in Exeter Cathedral a thirteenth-century carving shows, semi-translated into Latin forms, two Egyptian ‘ba-birds’ and to realise that some Egyptian tour guide has explained to an Englishman, that it signifies a person’s ‘soul’. So here we see, in medieval England, the pair of soul-mates. This carving isn’t part of the Cathedral’s formal ornament but adorns a misericord, an area that individuals were free have carved into pretty much whatever image or design they pleased.

misericord. Exeter Cathedral. 13thC

(Another shows an elephant better-realised than many manuscript illustrations of the time).

Returning to folio 67v-1, the thinking behind inclusion and omission of petals reflects a world view very different from our own, and very different from the customs in medieval Latin Europe; this drawing isn’t ‘speaking European’ at all.

Ephemeral covering – perceptions of the flower.

For us, and in general for the Europe’s iconographic tradition, a plant is principally identified and defined by its flowers.

Once the petals fall, we tend to regard that plant as past its peak in every sense. We cut the ‘dead heads’ from the rose-bush, empty the vase and say to visitors that they should have seen the garden last week. Because such is our everyday custom, I expect most readers will consider it obvious and commonsense that a flower is better with, than without its petals. But this isn’t the sense intended by this drawing, and our assumptions were plainly not those which inform the Voynich plant-drawings either, save for a very few such as the violas on f.9v.

I’m not speaking here of scientific botany in the modern sense, though anyone who has been asked to collect specimens will know that the flower is required.

Our assumptions and priorities are not universal, and were not those of even some among the older Greeks.

For Theophrastus, as for most agricultural communities, the things which defined a plant were those which endured and remained constant. He considered petals an ephemeral set of leaves, a passing stage in the fruit’s formation and defined a plant by its habit, leaf-shape and fruit.

Pointing this out is no tacit argument for Theophrastus as ‘author’ of matter now in Beinecke MS 408, but shows that even scholars might understand the rural and non-elite workers’ point of view: that a plant’s fruit and seed were what mattered most and then what other practical value it had – as timber, fibre, fodder, dye-stuff, scent, medicine, toxin and so forth.

All these stood higher on the scale of importance, and informed schemes for classifying and defining plants, than did flowers – unless they too had some practical or commercial value.

Religious, allegorical and ornamental use of a flower-motif might influence ideas about some plants – such as the lotus – but overall, and in the diagram on folio 67v-1, the chief association with flower-petals is of immaturity and transience, their absence the later stage of development, endurance and permanence. What endured lay within.

The sun rises young from a flower, but sinks into what appears to be the flat-topped pod(?). The North and South emblems show the transient South star surrounded still by petals, while the enduring and constant North star is free of them. Neither ‘north’ nor ‘south’ show the flat-topped pod of the pink lotus – so I suggest the maker intended here to refer once more to the Egyptian lotus – Nymphaea.

(details) folio 67v-1.
(left) ‘North’ and (right) ‘South’.

There was no ‘South’ star for Medieval Europe,

The star Canopus, referred to as the South star in Arabic and Persian sources, could not be seen any further north than approx 32°N during western Europe’s medieval centuries.

Thus, in 1153 AD, the astronomer Ibn Rushd had to travel south from his native Córdoba in Al-Andalus (37°53′N) to north Africa ito see it, as he was finally able to do in the Berber city, Marrakesh (31°37′48″N). While it is certainly possible – so far – to suggest that the inclusion of this ‘South’ star reflects literary or proverbial allusions, it is not reasonable to suppose it reflects real knowledge on the part of any medieval Latin who had not travelled to that latitude.

Claudius Ptolemy knew Canopus of course, because his work was composed in Egypt in the 1stC AD and he was an Egyptian of Greek ancestry. In Hellenistic Alexandria, Canopus’ acronical rising had marked the feast of the Ptolemaia but precession had been taking it ever-further below the horizon since that time.

The Ptolemaia: the date of this feast’s foundation has been a subject of scholarly debate, but need not concern us. Any reader interested is referred to

  • P.M. Fraser, ‘The Foundation-Date of the Alexandrian Ptolemaieia’, Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 54, Issue 3 (July 1961), pp. 141 – 145. accessible online through Cambridge Core.

In those southern regions navigators by land – such as the Bedouin of the Negev and Sinai, and navigators by sea – including Ibn Majid – called Canopus Suhayl, and – here I must correct the wiki article – “because [Canopus] appears for so short a time above the horizon (even) in those regions, it was associated with a changeable nature, as opposed to always-visible Polaris, which was circumpolar and hence ‘steadfast.’

That, precisely, is the distinction which is made between the star of ‘North’ as against ‘South’ in these motifs from the diagram on folio 67v-1.

Having said so much it’s time to do the obligatory reality-check though the historical, literary and archaeological evidence to see whether these sources confirm or deny our reading of the drawing so far. It is easy to force interpretations into a theoretical mould but .. no evidence, no case.

Is there evidence that the circuits of day or of night were ever defined by the stems of four lotus flowers? If so, in what visual ‘language’? When and where are closely similar iconographic conventions found? It is not enough to say that something might be or could be intended by a drawing; one must show evidence of similar ways of seeing and the same iconographic conventions – the visual ‘language’ of a given community and period.

With the ‘west’ emblem from the Voynich map showing that a pre-Roman Egyptian convention in drawing could survive to be in our present manuscript, Egypt is a logical place to start cross-examining our reading so far.

As it happens, examples abound, but I show this one (below) because it was made before the pink lotus (N.nucifera) was introduced to Egypt and because here we also see the four stems offset and are able to appreciate its significance. I’ll speak about the last point in another post.

Many such lotus bowls survive from this early period onwards. Egypt’s iconography and its conventions were maintained almost unchanged for (literally) thousands of years, so readers need not be off-put by the age of that example.

If the reader had gained an impression (not uncommon today) that Egypt’s four-and-a-half-thousand-year culture and all its attitudes and customs evaporated into a semi-mythical realm from the first moment Julius Caesar stepped off his ship, I hope that idea will now be laid aside, knowing that (as we saw in folio 85r) not all the manuscript’s content can be ancient and much is unlikely to be of solely Egyptian origin.

On the other hand –

Egypt’s art and traditions did survive Caesar.

… and it is not at all impossible, just as Georg Baresch wrote about the manuscript to Athanasius Kircher in 1639, that someone might have travelled (at some unspecified time) and collected information from monuments, books and people, even if knowledge of the Egyptian scripts had been forgotten.

One has to guard against confusing knowledge with books, especially for the pre-modern age, just as one must avoiding imagining history as if it were a train of self-contained and mutually-exclusive episodes, one succeeding another. And – need one say it – a modern scholar does not imagine that, in the pre-modern world. a thing could be known to no-one if it weren’t known to a European.

  • Okasha el Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium (2005). For first bringing this work to notice in Voynich studies, the debt owed is again to Nick Pelling. (see here).

The Egyptians’ word for the lotus was sšn, also used for the lily. The Greeks called the Egyptian lotus ‘souson‘, but in the Mashhad Dioscorides we find ‘shushan’ describing a form of Iris – reasonably enough given the sense of ‘Iris’ in the Greek.

Nearly 2000 words, so I’ll break here; the remainder tomorrow.

Postscript – elucidating the ancient bowl.

Spell 148 in the Book of Coming Forth by Day directly associates all four of Horus’s sons, described as the four pillars of Shu and the four rudders of heaven, with the four cardinal- and the four intercardinal points.

Voynich astronomy – note

For those exploring drawings in Beinecke MS 408 that suggest connection to star-lore, calendars and/or meteorology, I want to draw attention to Tzvi Langermann’s having now uploaded to academia.edu the following paper.

  • Tzvi Langermann, ‘From My Notebooks: Studies on the Hebrew Geminos: The Chapter on Weather Signs’, Aleph 10.2 (2010) pp. 357-395.

I have had reason to refer to Langermann before.

For earlier mentions in this blog search ‘Langermann’ and ‘Sassoon’.

I’d remind amateur readers who may have been told by one or more Voynicheros that to cite sources and precedents is ‘unnecessary’ that this Voynich meme is not one to obey. If your work has drawn from earlier research and conclusions – no matter by whom – to omit, fudge or re-assign to a crony the credit for that work is ruinous to any field of study and, in the longer-term, to the reputation of any would-be Voynich expert as well that of everyone connected to Voynich studies.

I wouldn’t be adding this caution here if I didn’t think Langermann’s paper important or if plagiarism weren’t now rampant among particular sectors of the Voynich community. I do think this paper is important; have already referred to it in speaking of the anwāʾ in posts to voynichimagery, and in this blog I’ve mentioned other items of Langermann’s research.

Longer-term readers may remember why I closed public access to voynichimagery.

O’Donovan notes #6f: Uses and abuses.

I’m staying with our example of a photographed motherboard. It’s a fairly undemanding example for readers who may have no previous relevant studies.

Consider this question, “When was it made?”

Extra ticks to anyone who said, ‘When was what made?’

In that image there are two obvious, and one less obvious levels of artifice. (An artefact is a made thing; artifice is the work that has deliberately contributed to a thing’s present form)*

If colleagues wonder why I’m using these terms, it’s to clarify basic concepts while avoiding jargon.

The two obvious levels are (1.) the photograph as artefact; (2) the thing photographed as artefact. But if you have the sort of curiosity that led you to open in another tab and then expand that image shown in post #6d, you might have noticed a third level of action/artifice – three horizonal bars, two black and the other red-brown, that have been added either to the photographed image or to the photographed object or to the digitised version of the photograph, before the last-named appeared in context of a blogpost dated to May 2022. I’ve ringed the three bars here (below).

For the moment, we’ll leave aside those three bars, and concentrate on whether the problem is to be defined as ‘When was the photograph made?’ or as ‘When was the photographed object made?

This is equivalent to the distinction between asking when the drawing was set down on its vellum in our present manuscript, as against when the image’s informing words and ideas were first given such a form. It’s another case where differences really matter. It’s the difference between when and where Leonardo completed his ‘Mona Lisa’, against when and where a pillowcase carrying that image was made. The original was made by someone who spoke a dialect of Italian; the latter made by someone who spoke e.g. a language of east Asia. Though we don’t know whether Voynichese was first created when the present folios were inscribed, or when the images were first enunciated, it is important not to presume (as so many do) that the medium’s date and place of origin are the same as those for first enunciation of the images or written text.

Our two external specialists, the two who knew so much about motherboards (see last few paragraphs of #6d), might agree on a date when that motherboard was put on the market, and as a result of knowing that, might be able to offer an earliest-possible date, too, for the photograph’s being made.

This ‘earliest possible date from when..’ is called a terminus a quo. In manuscript’s studies, the reciprocal is possible. Hugh O’Neill’s mis-reading of some images from the manuscript led him to assert the manuscript had been made no earlier than 1492 – that’s a ‘terminus a quo’ of 1492. He was in error about the one, and transferred that error to the other, with lasting ill-effects for the study.

This is why it is vital not to confuse the radiocarbon dating for the manuscript’s vellum with a date for first creation of all matter now in the manuscript. It is why superficial, trivial and imaginative storylines have proven not merely unhelpful to others working on the manuscript, but positively counterproductive to them and to the manuscript’s study overall.

Among other things, they lead people to ask information from people whose area is irrelevant. A specialist in eighteenth-century English texts on astronomy will surely have a background in astronomy and medieval studies of astronomy, but it’s too much to expect them to recognise the intention of a small detail you’ve extracted from a manuscript made, say, in 12thC Syria and whose connection to astronomy might exist only in your theory.

What the two computer specialists couldn’t know about that photograph, is whether the photograph might be of some prototype, and thus taken rather earlier than the model became available on the market.

To discover when the photograph-as-photograph was made, and whether the photo shows a prototype pre-dating emergence on the market, you’d need documentary evidence from the company – and that information may be permanently unavailable. The lesson here being that if your assumptions create inappropriate questions, the specialists you approach will respond in the terms your question is framed; that no specialist will know everything; that no specialist’s opinion, however well informed, should be later pretended some ultimate and final word after which all others should concur or forever be silent. Such an attitude does justice neither to the subject nor to the specialist.

Of our example photograph, we’d say that there is an approximate terminus a quo for the photographed artefact – say, a date two or three years or so before this board appeared on the market. For the photograph, too the larger range might apply and you might decide that as end-date it is impossible to give any date save that of the date-stamped blogpost – May 2022. ‘Latest possible date’ can be expressed as the terminus ad quem.

If you become involved in disciplines such as archaeology, you’ll find I’ve used these terms a bit loosely, but they’re easy to remember in this form and they’ll do for now.

The thing to keep in mind when researching drawings is that as response to my question ‘When was it made?’ the response ‘When was what made?’ is entirely reasonable. It’s a good response. If you’re asking ‘when was the photographed object made’ a specialist is likely to give you the date-range over which that particular motherboard was being produced for the market. As you’ve seen, that can differ considerably from a valid answer if the question is ‘When was the photograph made?’ There’s no evidence as to whether the photograph was taken prior to production or, alternatively, years after production had ceased.

The traditionalists have inherited and maintained the error first introduced by Wilfrid in 1921, whereby the date-range offered for the manuscript-as-artefact is presumed identical to that for the matter inscribed and if researchers erred it was in attempting to move (as the Friedmans did) to ever-later and more unlikely dates, rather than taking the sensible view that the date of inscription is the default terminus ad quem for that inscription or drawing.

Approaching specialists.

Overconfidence in their own ideas is most likely to lead amateurs to treat poorly specialists in a subject of which the Voynichero-with-theory might know less than they imagine.

Let me provide a negative model. It’s typical enough of what one sees in reality, but I’ve made this example hypothetical.

Suppose that, on seeing the photograph, the first idea tossed up by my memory was that the thing photographed was like a board-game. Transforming that, immediately, into a gut-certainty, I find I have a ‘boardgame theory’ and thereafter drop all effort at careful study of the image and set off hunting things to add an air of plausibility to what is now my theory. (This is today the classic ‘Voynich method’).

I explain to the world at large, with illustrations gathered from any source and any period, in any medium, that the offset squares to the left side of the photograph are pieces taken off the board; I produce parallels to such games as Ludo, perhaps quoting at length from the instructions brochure, as I assert that the red lines are the paths along which pieces move and that the large central square is ‘home’, while the area lowest on the right is “obviously” a Jail (by analogy with Monopoly, with illustrations), and so “logically” those radiating white lines you see apparently connecting the paths to the Jail operate like images of snakes in games of Snakes-and-Ladders.

Since my internally-consistent storyline fits together so neatly, I’m then sure that anyone who remains unconvinced is simply stubborn, stupid, theory-fixated on a different theory or even that the non-believer is akin to an enemy of some religion – a heretic against whom the anathema is rightly pronounced.

Anathema – involves insisting the person be expelled from the society of believers and requiring that none among the believers shall speak to, assist, or deal with that person, mention of whose very name may have consequences. It is the most likely reason that mainland Europe never benefitted from the research which al-Idrisi did in the Sicilian court, whose kings Roger and Frederick were anathematised more than once and why, for a time, none but Genoa was permitted to trade between Sicily and mainland Europe.

Theory-fanatics, in Voynich studies, rarely understand the idea of rational debate, or informed dissent. Sorry, but that’s how it is. Luckily there aren’t too many outright fanatics on the scene at present.

Anyway, that way of using the images in Beinecke MS 408 as inspiration for some fictional scenario as ‘theory’ has become the norm since about 2010, having its roots in Wilfrid’s idea of an historical storyline and is why I speak of the Wilfrid-Friedman model.

Without providing a shred of solid research or evidence, but liberally sprinkling my theory- narrative with such words as ‘obviously’ and ‘logically’ and ‘common sense’ and so on, suppose I manage to induce a suspension of analytical thought in 98% of those within reach. With sniffs and indications of self-importance, I then dismiss the other 2% while indicating to that 98% (most of whom couldn’t care less about the pictorial text), that the other 2% must be insignificant persons because 2% is an insignificant number.

But now, just suppose the other 2% won’t lie down, and won’t go away. Efforts to instruct believers to ‘just ignore’ and so forth aren’t wholly effective, and since I don’t want the audience’s attention distracted from my hypnotic spiel, I have to do something. Answer? Get some authoritative word I can use as a means to shut them up.

I ask a group of fellow board-game players if the image doesn’t look to them like a game board and get an amiable ‘Hmmm’ or ‘yes it does’.

I then announce that all five specialists in board-games have endorsed my theory.

This has also become a counter-productive habit, embedded in the traditionalists’ idea of ‘Voynich method’ and it is certainly at least so early as 1944 when Hugh O’Neill, a botanist with no particular knowledge of pre-modern botanical images mis-read very badly a couple of details from the manuscript and then turned to some unnamed fellow botanists and claimed that they supported his ideas. He included no objective evidence; no documentary evidence; no named specialists in any relevant field and he clearly hadn’t bothered to read what remained, by then, from documents relevant to Christopher Columbus’ voyages.

The specialist who could have accurately evaluated his theory would have been (a) a specialist in the history of the Columban period and (b) a specialist in comparative botanical images. Or he could have listened to Fr. Petersen.

The lesson being – if you must ask help from a person, rather than studying what they’ve contributed to their field, then you should not be seeking confirmation but an impartial critique.

Back to the hypothetical example: after some time in which I reap admiring comments about my ‘game-board’ theory, some bright newcomer says that he thinks the photo shows something electronic. I’m certainly not going to surrender my theory. A Voynichero’s theory is defended against all opponents, including evidence and reason.

So I invent a ‘theory-patch’ or invent a meme intended to ridicule or demean the newcomer before witnesses. (which is, by the way, part of the legal definition of slander in England).

I then drop in on a personal contact who understands electronics and ask in a casual, friend-to-friend way, whether the object in the photograph was used for playing games. ‘Yes’, he says, ‘its a type of motherboard used for playing computer-games’.

Do I admit to being in error, and thank the newcomer? Not if I’m a Voynichero-with-theory, I don’t.

Since the truth doesn’t quite suit my theory, and being a Voynichero I regard my theory as myself, so to avoid losing face I simply announce that such-and-such an expert has said that the thing in the photograph was a board used for playing games.

Should that person learn how they’ve been misused, and protest in public, the worst sort of Voynichero resorts again to facile labels, tossing about words like ‘pedantic’ and so on.

In most theorists, though, bias isn’t quite so active and may be quite unintentional.

A person convinced of their own storyline doesn’t stop to ask if their questions are reasonable or if the persons they seek out for an authoritative-sounding statement works within an appropriate discipline or, within that, an appropriate area of specialisation.

Had Newbold walked to his local pharmacy, shown the pharmacist a few items in the leaf-and-root section and asked the pharmacist if the drawings didn’t look to him like pharmacy bottles, he would have got the agreement he sought.

Had he gone to an historian of pharmacy, or to some major Museum in 1921 he might, or might not, have found someone to agree with him.

Had he asked a specialist in the history of thirteenth-century art and manuscripts, or in Roger Bacon’s writings the same question, I would expect the answer to be ‘Not to the best of our knowledge’.

Newbold believed Wilfrid’s theory that the manuscript had been hand-written by Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century Englishman.

People deeply devoted to some Voynich theory, of their own invention or not, do not use genuine specialists well.

Let me illustrate this using a less modern and less hypothetical example.

Suppose some Voynichero develops a theory that the Voynich month-diagrams were intended as a means to predict days on which a woman might become pregnant. The theory itself leads them to choose an historian of western medicine who has focused on (specialised in) works of women’s medicine. The theorist’s aim is to get that specialist to agree that you sometimes find calendars, and the zodiac series, in works of that kind.

The historian who has specialised in that area does agree. This the theorist announces as endorsement of their ideas by an ‘expert’ in women’s medicine.

That historian has no way to know that the theorist’s question is all wrong. Their answer is not wrong, but it may be irrelevant for anyone seriously interested in Beinecke MS 408.

The theorist having long before shifted focus from the manuscript to their quasi-historical storyline-as-theory, they won’t ask any of the important questions: such as, do you find in such medical works calendars having doubled or alternative months? Do any include diagrams whose form, structure and style of drawing is closely comparable the month-folios in Beinecke MS 408? They might neglect to inform the specialist that the terminus ad quem is (so far as we know) 1405-1438. They are likely to ignore codicological considerations altogether.

Asking a specialist’s advice. My advice is:

If you think that a detail in the manuscript shows e.g. a type of ritual vessel only found in medieval German churches, you should first do the work needed to discover whether or not the detail/s you’re considering were intended to be read as literal (realistic), and then to search more broadly than your theory’s boundary to get a clear idea of the range in which images similar form, style and detail are attested. That range and its boundaries should not be dictated by your theory. You theory might be about Germany, and Christian ritual objects, but you may be mistaken, and so far at least, you’re still researching the images that are in Beinecke MS 408. Today’s political boundaries or concepts of nationality shouldn’t be presumed to apply even in the early fifteenth-century.

After doing the indepth preliminary research, if you then conclude from the evidence you’ve amassed that such images and/or objects occur no-where else but in twelfth-century Christian churches in Germany, you might request a specialist in twelfth-century German religious objects (say from a major Museum) to evaluate both your evidence and your argument.

The specialist’s role is to provide a dispassionate critique, not to produce some sound-bite for theory-promotion. A specialist with a Voynich theory is not well-suited to that role of impartial and dispassionate critic.

If you don’t want to impose on someone whose job doesn’t include answering random questions from the public, the correct form is to put your question in a way that avoids forcing your ideas on them, trying to convince them of your theory, or implying they must provide the answer your theory demands.

A professor with a chair in medieval studies has no obligation to reply to such a request from you, or even from a colleague. You are asking a favour and, in most cases, from someone to whom you’ve never been introduced.

I can’t speak other than hypothetically about other people’s experiences, so I’ll have to use my own as a practical example. It is only one example, from one researcher.

Hoping for advice from that palaeographer who had specialised in the history of Hebrew palaeography, I began by apologising for writing without a formal introduction. I said I had a problem which had cropped up during my research into a medieval manuscript and that if they would care to see the problematic detail, I’d be most grateful for any comment they might care to make. Note – “any comment they might care to make.”

If they had refused – as was their right – or had directed me to some textbook on palaeography, that would have been the end of my contact with them.

One says thank-you for their kind reply and leaves.

That specialist did not refuse, so a copy of the detail was sent and with it a question phrased as neutrally as possible: ‘Do you think these lines are writing?’

Had the answer been ‘No’, I’d have cheerfully accepted that verdict, knowing the person’s eminence in their field and the range and depth of their published scholarship.

It is poor form, and a sign of amateurishness to approach a specialist without having first read the work they’ve published within their own professional sphere. If you receive an answer saying, ‘Read my paper’ it’s your own fault.

Had the person been less eminent in that discipline, I might have sought a second opinion.

In the event, that specialist was kind, answering that question in detail after first saying that in their opinion the marks I’d ringed were writing and others which could be seen in that detail from the image were not writing.

Quoting a specialist.

At that stage I asked if I might have permission to include the specialist’s comments in the posts summarising my own research into that particular drawing. Permission was given.

It is very bad form to ask a specialist, as if in an informal way, for their opinion only to publish their comments and/or their name without their having given you their specific and informed consent in writing.

So at that stage, I told the specialist that the drawing was one from the Voynich manuscript and asked – as a wholly separate question – if I might duly credit the specialist by name. To that second request, the reply was ‘No’ – as it so often is once the phrase ‘Voynich manuscript’ crops up. If, on reflection, the specialist had also withdrawn permission to quote them directly, their wish would have been honoured, too.

It is not because the manuscript is difficult that the topic ‘Voynich manuscript’ has a very poor reputation within medieval and manuscript studies.

A combination of arrogance, ignorance and dishonesty has marked the behaviour of certain Voynich theorists, now, for more than a decade and while the nature of scholarship in the English-speaking world makes it more egalitarian than you find, say, in Germany, it is not so egalitarian that manners don’t matter.

Less-than- meticulous book-keeping where other people’s contributions to the study are concerned; a habit of focusing on ‘who’ a person is while disregarding the ‘what’ of their scholarly work; a practice of attacking ad.hominem any person or information opposing your pet theory’s promotion are among the real reason that Voynich studies is now regarded with such distaste by the wider scholarly world.

A theorist may develop a theory that one, or another, person is a ‘nobody’ and subject them to abuse, highly inventive slander-by-meme, and all the rest of it, but others who observe such behaviour think worst of the persons from whom such behaviour spreads, and resolve to contribute nothing of their own to this environment.

Plagiarism in various guises – a matter I’ll discuss later – displays a level of ignorance that is, in terms of the scholarly world, the equivalent of loutish behaviour and to see some Voynicheros actively promoting and practicing forms of plagiarism has rendered Voynich studies abhorrent. In terms of the wider scholarly community, it’s a form of intellectual embezzlement.

The thing to remember is that study of Beinecke MS 408 is not a world unto itself, or even a scholarly discipline. It’s just a topic.

To that topic, specialists in historical research, in codicology, palaeography, comparative historical linguistics and so on may chose to give some attention. If you have no prior stu dies in any relevant discipline, however, you’re an amateur and no ‘specialist’ even if you have little interest in anything save e.g. the manuscript’s calendar. It doesn’t make you a ‘Voynich-calendar’ specialist. To be a specialist you apply your earlier and formal study of calendars, or of astronomical imagery to e.g. European calendars or religious calendars as a specialist in those subjects. The Voynich manuscript isn’t a discipline; it isn’t a ‘subject’ in the scholarly sense. It’s just one fairly unimportant manuscript.

To pretend competence in a field you’ve never studied or practiced in the wider world is not the done thing in scholarly circles; you don’t lie about or omit mention of the sources you’ve made use of. To speak metaphorically – you may be the latest man to climb a mountain; you might even be the first to reach the top. But you don’t pretend to be the first person ever to have noticed that mountain and say or imply that you made every road leading to it. Nor do you attempt to erase from the historical record the name of those whose work you’ve used, and for no better reason that they weren’t in your team.

Scholars do notice such things, sooner or later.

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 – 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!)