Header image – detail from Pietro Vesconti’s chart of 1321 with (inset) ‘swallowtail’ crenellations on a castle in Almeria.

In treating the large, square, foldout drawing d’Imperio mentions this ‘swallowtail’ motif, initially describing one detail so adorned as being ‘like a castle’. The passage occurs on p.21 of Elegant Enigma. I’ll quote what isn’t speculation.

… a structure like a castle .. [with] a high crenelated wall and a tall central tower.”

Even in that passage, there is an implicit assumption that the detail will be a ‘portrait’ having a physical counterpart somewhere – but let that go for the moment.

We may date the beginning of modern conversations to about 1996, when Guy Thibault was wrestling with the whole drawing and working from an idea that it represented a map and a presumption that everything in the drawing, and in the manuscript altogether, would be a product of, and would refer to, nothing but western Europe’s ‘Latin’ (i.e. western Christian) culture.

He had reached a point where he was homing in on some such region as Venice, or Avignon, when Rene Zandbergen mailed a note to the list. It was not addressed to Thibault and did not engage with anything Thibault had shared from his own work, but was addressed instead to the ‘audience’ at large. Since the drawing was Thibault’s current project, others on the list (quite properly) did not reply and left responses to Guy.

Rene Zandbergen had written:

Tue Jun 18 11:02

Dear all,

I think that it is reasonable to assume that the little castle on f85/86, near the upper right rosette on the mega-foldout is a ‘fantasy’ castle, not intended to represent an existing one…. What I have been trying to find out (so far unsuccessfully) is whether the style of the crenellations of the square and circular buildings give any indication of age and origin of the VMs. These crenellations are .. of the ‘swallow’s tail’ type. ..

So far I have only seen this on medieval buildings in Northern Italy. If this style was already ‘en vogue’ in the earlier middle ages (up to, say, 1200), then, even if it is confined to N.Italy, it does not help us much. Anybody could have seen these or known about them; even Roger B[acon]. If the style is from a later period, it might tell us something, especially if it is regionally confined.

Anybody have any ideas?

Note – what I find surprising is that Zandbergen’s problem was easily resolved. Any good history of medieval architecture in general, or military architecture in particular could have provided the information that such crenellations are not used in Latin Europe before c.1100 AD. Since some examples are extant today, it is clearly impossible to date or place all the matter in the manuscript by reference to that one detail. It might be argued to offer a provisional terminus a quo of 1100AD with the radiocarbon dating providing the terminus ad quem of c.1438 AD. But if the rest of the drawing pre-dates the inclusion of the ‘swallowtails’ by any greater period of time, only the terminus ad quem might stand.

There is nothing about the way the crenellations are drawn in the manuscript which can tell us, of themselves, where, when or by whom the ‘swallowtail’ details were included. Considered in isolation, the ‘castle-like’ form cannot be asserted to have been a ‘portrait-style’ image. I’m not sure what genre of medieval imagery might be described as ‘fantasy’. The map has nothing in common with the drolleries, nor with the religious-visionary imaginings of persons such as Opicinus or Hildegard of Bingen.

In response to Rene Zandbergen’s introducing this note of fantasy, Thibault had replied, evidently a little disconcerted:

18 Jun 1996 11:19:03

I don’t recall if I have even commented on this castle, so please excuse me if I re-state these ideas… Suppose the connection between circles are indeed bridges, is there any way to find out [i.e. identify] ALL the medieval towns with nine (or more) bridges? I guess Venice and Avignon would fit, are there more ? If we find a point linked with those bridges in the same way as depicted in the “map” maybe we could progress a bit…

Did you notice the writings on the right side of the fold out seems to be upside down as if the scribe did not notice/know the full pattern of the circles when he was writing…

Note – I’ve corrected a few typos in the original. I do not think that English was Guy’s first language. 
As full disclosure, I should say that my own analysis of the larger drawing –  engaged after reading Nick Pelling’s post of May 29th., 2010 –  led finally to a conclusion that the whole of the large drawing is a map, one in which western Europe does not feature, save for Sicily, and that altogether it is no product of the western or the Arabic cartographic traditions, though some elements occur in common with the earliest Genoese and Venetian cartes marine
The ‘castle’ is no literal portrait, but it is certainly no fantasy. In much the way images of Egyptian deities or Christian saints’ images were constructed, the so-called ‘castle’ detail combines a reasonable idea of its subject, before adding the ‘swallowtail’ motif for the cultural significance it bore.
The ‘swallowtails’ thus serve to add practical and informative detail for anyone able to read the whole map. The spiral of ‘stars’ is a version of the motif (also seen in slightly different form, later, in the charts of Piri Reis), indicating a body of water mostly enclosed and relatively shallow. Almost all of the map’s research which I decided share online was published between 2011- 2013.
For people who have difficulty understanding why someone might use star-motifs to signify  seawater, may I recommend  … this.  It may also help explain why Hammond felt comfortable translating Homer’s οἶνοψ πόντος not, as was customary, by “wine-dark sea” but by “sparkling sea”. On which see D.M. Goldstein’s review, for the Bryn Mawr Classical Gazette,  of Mark Hammond, The Odyssey (2000).


During the five years from 1996-2001, Zandbergen’s invitation does not seem to have moved his own efforts much further forward. By the end of that time, it was no longer Guy Thibault but John Grove who was actively working on the large drawing which, in honesty, I can only describe as the Voynich map.

Much of what Grove says in the following passage is anachronistic. His understanding of the Guelf-Ghibelline split is inaccurate if, as it sounds, he perceived it in terms of national identities, but so far as I can discover it was he who first informed the ‘Voynich community’ of the swallowtails’ political connotations in medieval Italy. He presumes the ‘stars’ must refer to the heavens and also imagines that images cannot be read without written text to explain them..


Grove wrote:

I’ve been having fun reading about the two types of battlements that seem to have evolved directly from the dispute between the two opposing factions in Italian/German history. The Guelph used the square battlements, while the Ghibelline supporters flaunted their support in their architecture with the ‘fishtail’ battlements. I believe from what I’ve been able to locate on the web that these Ghibelline designs on castle battlements are indeed limited to castles in Northern Italy and Germany that were built in the period 1100-1300. Since the factions were not so big a deal in the 15th and 16th century, the castle design in the VMS only leads to (once again) presenting us with a rough geographical region – the same as has been discussed for quite some time (!).

Why a Ghibelline Castle is present in the large foldout and not a Guelph style may be meaningless to the author except that he lived near one and drew what he knew. The wall extending from the castle around the spiral of stars may be indicative that the castle and wall are only a symbolic representation of a formidable enclosure protecting the ‘heavens’. I don’t know if this sort of speculation has any place in discussions because one could never really prove any number of suppositions until we can actually read the text.


Again to be fair to my readers, I should say that my own survey of the ‘swallowtail’ motif’s occurrence in Europe to1438 (including in manuscript illustrations, charts and other artefacts,chess-rook-ivory-persian-style-12th-c.-constantinople-bargello-mus such as mosaics and early chess-pieces) led me to conclude that, during that period, the ‘swallowtail’ motif as such signified the limit of an area whose people were subject to an emperor, and examples show that in drawing it could refer not only to areas connected to the western emperor but, also, to the eastern Christian emperor, or the Mongol-Chinese emperor. It signified an ‘imperial boundary’.
Image (right)’ Castle’ – rook – chess piece in Persian style. 12thC. from Constantinople. now in the Bargello Museum. First published though voynichimagery, 31st. October 2012. A Persian embassy came to Charlemagne’s court, and a mosaic in Bobbio (c.10thC) shows chessplayers adjacent to Persian-Parthian motifs. 
A comparable – not identical – form has the same significance as early as the Roman Tabula Peutingeriana. Because instances of the ‘swallowtails’ still survive on buildings in and beyond Europe, it is evident that their significance in architecture, generally expressed, is also as marking the boundary of territory regarded – in something of the way a modern embassy is – as one whose residents declare in this way a level of independence from other duties and laws, owing allegiance to their own emperor and being entitled (at least nominally) to imperial protection.
A prime example of expatriate/colonial use is found in what was once a Genoese enclave at Caffa, in the Black Sea.

Back in 2001, John Grove had begun another mailing list topic entitled ‘Dovetail battlements in Rome?’ where he mentioned a drawing he had noticed. 

In response, Jorge Stolfi commented (14th Jan. 2001), nipping in the bud any suggestion that ‘swallowtails’  adorned the walls of ancient Rome, and incidentally proving a model for how such research should be organised.  He first shows that he has considered, and checked, Grove’s reference (the precedent), then provides full details of his own sources, and adds his own comments.  

> [John Grove:] While scanning the online Vatican Library images I found this 1498 sketch of Rome…
> http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/vatican.exhibit/exhibit/b-archeology/images/arch25.jpg

Jorge Stolfi:

The caption to that figure is

J. Annius, Antiquitates
Rome, 1498


This image of the earliest stage in the development of Rome is much cruder than Pietro del Massaio’s. Though the unknown artist tried to represent the small compass and exact contours of the early city, and labeled the Forum and other places of note, the crenelated walls and towers reveal the limits of his imagination. Unfortunately the text he illustrated was even less accurate; it was a forgery by the papal theologian Giovanni Nanni of Viterbo.

Inc. II 274 fol. M verso arch25 TG.15

… Jorge Stolfi.

Rene Zandbergen  had replied by posting link to his website where two images of a castle in Friuli could be seen.

Dana Scott had replied to Grove:

6th. January 2001

Then again, just maybe the author of the VMS (whom I think may have been Andrea Cesalpino) supported the Ghibellines of Arezzo (Andrea was born in Arezzo) and Pisa (where he was educated and taught) and the fact that Dante ended up switching his support from the Guelphs to the Ghibellines. Perhaps.

Dana Scott

Which – for all that I admire Scott’s work on the plant-pictures – is another example of chaining speculation to speculation, on premises insubstantial.

But Dana’s response shows that even so early as 2001 the study was moving away from efforts to discover the sense of the manuscript’s drawings, to using bits and pieces from the drawings to serve as springboard for a preferred theory.

Dana’s ‘givens’ – as untested assumptions – are clear enough: that the ‘castle’ is a literal representation of some Italian building, that the significance to be attached to the ‘swallowtail’ or ‘fishtail’ crenellations is limited to Italian politics; that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript is the work of a single author, and that this imagined ‘author’ was a person of such importance in Europe’s intellectual history that his name was recorded in contemporary documents – and so on, and so forth.

Unrecognised by most members in 2001, what Nick Pelling would later describe as the ‘theory-wars’ had already begun.

A majority still held to the opinion, expressed by Kraus and reported by d’Imperio, that the manuscript had been made in Italy.

A couple accepted the opinion offered by Panofsky in 1932 that it was ‘from Spain or somewhere southern’. In fact, the entanglements between regions in the south-western Mediterranean make the ‘Italian/southern’ positions less oppositional than complementary.

The Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic central Europe’ theory was still that of a small minority in 2001, for the simple reason that it found no support in the primary document (exclusive of some marginalia) and no competent specialist had ever suggested that the vellum or binding indicated origins in a German-speaking region.

So long as research remained focused on the manuscript itself, this would remain the case. As attention shifted to ‘theory-wars’, and standards dropped, so too did the process of interaction and the tactics employed by adherents of that novel theory.

It is a curious thing, but true, that neither of that theory’s chief proponents has ever, in twenty years, presented it formally with evidence, argument and the usual documentation. Attempting to find out just what the believers believe has proven very difficult indeed. The two key words appear to be ‘Germanic’ and ‘Rudolf’ but there’s surely more to it.

In 2006, Pelling would publish his Curse of the Voynich, which remained in print for about a decade. Pelling’s research, and opinions having evidently moved on by the end of that period, he withdrew Curse from publication. To me it seemed a pity, because the book contained more than its theoretical history for the manuscript; it included numerous original contributions to other aspects of the study, including codicology, palaeography and ‘Voynichese’ which – whether Pelling’s opinions were the ‘right’ answers or not – were a stimulus to further enquiry and discussion.

Who drew the ‘swallowtails’?

The simple fact is that by 1438, even if the so-called ‘castle’ had been a portrait of some structure then existing, the drawing could have been made by an Englishman, an Ethiopian, an Armenian or a Syrian, a Persian or a Nestorian Chinese, a Jew from Majorca or from Venice.. The greater Mediterranean was a very busy international thoroughfare and to the papal court of Avignon or Rome, as to the Sicilian court, came ambassadors and pilgrims, traders and travellers. Within Rome itself, hospices were built to house foreign pilgrims, so numerous were they, and one ws was built solely for the Ethiopians’ use. Anyone who saw any instance of the Latins’ usage would know what the ‘swallowtail’ signified. Anyone might have used it to signify ‘imperial boundary’.

Of itself, as one small detail in a large and complex drawing, the ‘swallowtail crenellations’ motif tells us only that this particular detail’s first enunciation is most likely to have occurred at some time between 1100AD and 1438.

One might then ask, a more ordinary research environment, what aim Koen’s group has in mind as they try to ‘map’ such physical examples as survive in 2021. We must just wait and see.

I chose a Spanish example of ‘swallowtail crenelations’ for the header. I might as easily have shown one from Caffa in the Black Sea, or another and important example from Sicily, but since most Voynich theorists are focused on Italy or on Germany, I thought to widen the lens a little.

What magic? Where magic? 5c folio 67v (cont.) Seeing as others saw.

Header image: (left) Isidore of Seville, from the Aberdeen bestiary; (right, upper register) detail from Brit.Lib. MS Add. 17808 f.89r (lower register) left: detail from Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.67v; right: (detail) tapestry from the formerly Hellenistic region of Bactria.

Two posts prior:

Note – (July 25th). These posts are being written ten days to two weeks before they are published, so there may be a delay in noting responses.


Part A treats of the ‘bearded sun’; of a ‘sun of night’ in eleventh-century Burgos; and of the regular passage of persons, goods and information back and forth across the Mediterranean during the medieval centuries. It is far from inconceivable that the material now in Beinecke MS 408 might have been collected in ‘eastern parts’ including medieval Egypt and contain (as Baresch also said) pictures of plants not native to Europe.

Part B considers earlier Latin attitudes to the stars, and another eleventh century manuscript – one made in northern France. It is the first known Latin copy of the astrological work, Liber Alchandri.  In the margin of one folio two very large green stars were placed, apparently by the copyists’ overseer. 

This is another post that includes enough material for three or four. I regret being unable to make editorial comment optional, collapsed text. 


A diagram on folio 67v has at its centre the face of a woman or of a young man that is provided with artificial hair and beard, and with eyes unfocused, surrounded by stars apparently disposed in seventeen unequal sectors. (see previous post)

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.67v. The image is clearly not classical Egyptian but accords with Hellenistic forms. Sekhmet’s leonine character was not so popular in Ptolemaic Egypt as formerly she had been.
amulet – Egypt. bearded, feline, Sekhmet daughter of Re’. wife of Ptah, guardian of boundaries. Regularly portrayed with sun-disk and uraeus in older Egyptian art.

Comparable forms for an artificially-bearded sun are attested from the eastern side of the Mediterranean – first in artefacts from pre-Christian Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. The oldest show a leonine female (Sekhmet) termed ‘daughter of the sun’ who was typically shown with the sun-disk and serpentine uraeus. The word for sun takes male gender in the Egyptian language as it does in Greek and Latin, the image on folio 67v nicely ambivalent creating a ‘universal’ form. Its having a human face points to origins in a Hellenistic- rather than a Pharaonic environment, I should think.

As to the sun’s gender, that varies with language. Some languages have it female, and among those, some – including Hebrew – allow its description as male or as female, though as not both at once. The image on folio 67v is not alchemy’s rebis.

We have some reason* to believe that matter now in the Voynich manuscript may have been copied from materials collected in “eastern parts” though the Voynich manuscript itself was made in the earlier part of the fifteenth century and is reasonably thought to have been made in Europe.

*Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher (1639)

Sekhmet as mistress of mariners. A statue now in Genoa.

Since the sun-face on folio 67v with its artificial mane and serpentine sidelocks is plainly no Christian helios but does shows this sun-face surrounded by stars, one must ask how the fifteenth-century copyist, or the person for whom the manuscript was being copied, might have understood this motif and the diagram’s purpose.


First – is any other sun-of-night attested in medieval western Europe and if so, when and where? The answer is ‘yes’ – but rarely and in the earlier medieval period – that is, before the twelfth century. It was not envisaged by the Latins as female.

Sun of Night’ in medieval Spain.

Among several examples noticed and translated by Carey, one comes from an eleventh-century manuscript produced in  Silos abbey of Burgos. It uses the instructional mode:

Tell me: does the sun shine at night, or not?It does.

Tell me: in what way? – For three hours in the abyss, for three hours in the sea, for three hours in the city of Nataleon, and for three hours in the city of Jerusalem. Then it returns to the east [i.e. the point of sunrise on the western viewer’s horizon] in the first hour of the day, and shines for the twelve hours of the day, and returns into the west.

  • John Carey, ‘The Sun’s Night Journey: A Pharaonic Image in Medieval Ireland’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 57 (1994), pp. 14-34. Carey does not provide full details of the manuscript. It may be the Silos Apocalypse but I’ve not been able to verify.

Carey does not mention it, but the four stages may be equated with the four elements – abyss (air); sea (water); nataleon (fire – by association with the lion); Jersualem (earth as foundation). 

Transmission and exchange across the Mediterranean.

Given that our clearest extant example of the artificially-bearded sun is in an ivory attributed to Phoenicians and some Phoenician cities in the western Mediterranean were as much as seven hundred years old before the rise of Rome, so we do not necessarily have to pass very far from Burgos to find the source of ideas and images akin to those in folio 67v.

  • Gerard Gertoux, Dating the Foundation of Carthage’ (paper at academia.edu)

 On the other hand, Baresh’s letter seems to demand that we do, so I include the  following broad-brush overview as editorial, not least to serve as counterweight for the now traditionally-Eurocentric narratives created for the Voynich manuscript, almost all being derived from that which Wilfrid Voynich forged from no more than a signature in the manuscript and a rag of unsubstantiated, third-hand hearsay.  Though rarely questioned, the Mnishovsky rumour is certainly questionable historical evidence. Assertions such as that the manuscript is ‘known’ to have been in Rudolf’s library, or that Rudolf ‘bequeathed’ it to anyone are due to more recent writers’  historical imagination.

In the following editorial comment, I mean to emphasise that by present standards, the old assumptions of a western Europe unaffected by any unsolicited ‘foreign’ matter can no longer be maintained.  In the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries which were the formative years for those first involved with the manuscript, it was imagined that no non-Latin matter entered the western Christian (‘Latin’ European) intellectual horizons except it were deliberately chosen and  – as it were – passed  the rigors of  ‘customs inspection’,  monitored transition, ideological cleansing and subsequent naturalisation. The stories of Leonard of Pisa (Fibonacci), Gerard of Cremona etc. serve as paradigm for that idea of a ‘white-walled’ Europe. 

An idea that nothing could arrive in Europe but what been ‘passed’ does apply, to an extent, to the Latins’  ‘bookish’ tradition, but the Voynich manuscript offers much in its internal evidence, and of course Baresch’s letter to Athanasius Kircher adds more, which should have led more researchers than John Tiltman or Erwin Panofsky to doubt the story created by Wilfrid with William Romaine Newbold. 
Europe’s Christianity was scarcely well rooted before the time of Columbanus and his fellows, but Irish monasticism in turn had its source and model in earlier Egyptian monasticism, and with it their liturgical calendar and computus, their tradition of copying older manuscripts and, tellingly, their dissemination and use of that extraordinary work, The Marriage of Mercury and Philology in which- by the way –  the ‘number of the sun’ is explicable only by reference to the old Boharic Egyptian-Coptic dialect.
  • Leslie S. B. MacCoull, ‘Coptica in Martianus Capella De Nuptiis 2.193’, Classical Philology , Oct., 1995, Vol. 90, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 361-366.
In northern Italy, the monastery of Bobbio (in whose library Gerbert of Aurillac would later say he found a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica) was founded and its library first furnished by the Irish Columbanus. Similarly  St.Gallen was founded one of Columbanus’ fellows and it  oldest manuscripts too were copied by Irish peripatetic scribes.
Egyptian life and traditions did not vanish at the moment when Caesar first set foot on Egyptian soil, nor when the last Pharaoh died, though some Voynich writers have supposed it so, dismissing Baresch’s comments from that erroneous belief.   Not until the third century AD were Egyptian temples closed by Roman edict, and many still stood in the 7thC AD.  The role of liturgical Coptic in assisting our understanding of the older Egyptian language and script is now well known, and as Baresch’s letter to Kircher shows, it was in response to Kircher’s appeal for material to help decipher hieroglyphics that Baresch sent the copied sections.  Regardless of indications in the imagery, however, results of numerous statistical studies of Voynichese have not suggested derivation from any Egyptian dialect, or any other language as it was spoken and/or written in Egypt.  The matter in the manuscript may have been gained ‘in the east’ but that is not reason enough to presume the same is true for the present manuscript’s written text.
  • Alan K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs 332BC-AD642. (1986).
Throughout the medieval centuries, however, Egypt continued to be a major entrepot though which  Mediterranean traders and pilgrims passed constantly during the sailing year from the beginning of Spring until October-November and, occasionally locally, December. 
In twelfth-century  Exeter, for example, evidence of direct free contact is offered by some of the misericords’ carvings.  Those are not ‘official’ carvings, but a space which the workers might ornament ad.lib. That shown (below) accurately represents a pair of Egyptian ‘ba’ birds, both in their form and still more strikingly, with their original significance.  For these two ‘souls’ he almost got the forms perfect. (I regret not being able to show here a facing pair from Karnak).  The most interesting point is that so late as the mid-thirteenth century someone – some guide, presumably – had still been able to rightly explain the sense of the originals. Exeter06.3 ba birds
Though the ‘ba’ bird usually stood on bird-feet, where these are provided hands, it is an understandable mis-reading if (as I suspect) he’d seen high above him and foreshortened, the pair at Karnak.  He certainly meant to make the  faces European, and one must wonder whether these ‘soul-mates’ are the woodcarver and his wife.
Europeans in medieval ports and markets had little difficulty with language.  As one mid-fourteenth century traveller describes: 
If you ask how I could converse with the interpreter .. the interpreter is of Jewish descent and came to Misr [Egypt/old Cairo] to return to Judaism, because he is a Spaniard.. He knows seven languages – Hebrew, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, German and French.   .. In Misr there are many fondaks … a thousand and more warehouses in each fondak..
extract from a Florentine ms. translated in 
    • Elkan Nathan Adler, Jewish Travellers (801-1755), London: Routedge (1930) pp.156-208
Venice and Genoa had more than one fondak  assigned exclusively for their use at various times, though free access to Egypt fluctuated with changing political tides. Practical reasons for travel included the chance to buy cheaply in the east what might be sold at greater price in the west – such things as Indian gems, Chinese silk and plant-products whose ultimate source was India and south-east Asia.  
Studies of the Latin, Greek and Arabic antidotaries tell us, for example, that a trade in eastern plants was maintained – not directly, but via Cairo or some other eastern centre –  from southeast Asia to as far as England before the twelfth century. One of the first to engage with that topic was John Riddle. Today there is a great body of scholarship available for study of medieval pharmacy, antidotaries and related trades, but in 1965 Riddle could speak of,
a manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, lists ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger.
and e.g. that
The word cafora, coming from the Arabic kâfôur, is found in the same manuscript as ambergris and also in an antidotary written in Lombardie script in the 9th or 10th centuries. As a product of the plant cinnamomum camphora nees, cafora or camphor is found only in the orient.
    • John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.
Note – I have tried as far as possible throughout all these posts to cite articles accessible through libraries and online outlets such as researchgate, JSTOR and academia.edu.  I’ve selected them not only for the article’s content, but the value of an author’s sources and bibliography to assist in further research. In some cases this was simply not possible and I’ve had to cite the works used i my own research, some of which I know only the keenest researcher would care to hunt out, but the necessary information is nowhere else.  

Altogether, it is now clear that ideas prevalent in the nineteenth century and which Friedman, or d’Imperio took as ‘givens’ into the post-WWII period, were badly skewed.   Medieval Europe lived in no cultural ‘bubble’. The monks and secular scholars who made Europe’s ‘bookish’ history and textual traditions did, it is true, become increasingly skittish over time about having ideas they thought contrary to western Christian doctrine brought west by foreign residents and by such groups as the Italian humanists. The less able the authorities were to ignore  or to control such  information, the more savage their efforts became to ensure it was not disseminated through the western Christian populace without being provided a western Christian commentary and interpretation.  But these efforts were long limited to the more highly educated class, no effort made during the earlier medieval period to monitor the activities of traders, incoming travellers, or minority non-Christian communities. If a text was neither in Latin nor (later) widely circulated in the vernacular, it could be ignored.

The practice of just ignoring ‘foreign’ material saw some sad losses to European learning, and it is surprising to see how much valuable information was ignored.  As one example, we may refer to Idrisi’s radically new astronomical-geography completed after all most two decades’ work, in Sicily, in 1154, at least one copy having been prepared in a Latin translation, but we find no interest in it ever shown by Latin Europe for almost five hundred years – not until a copy of the Arabic text was published in Rome in 1592 by the Medici Press

 Idrisi did not simply copy or update  Ptolemy’s data, Over nineteen years, Idrisi had permission to interview any of the myriad travellers, traders and pilgrims who, perforce, called in at Sicily during their east-west journeys.
The result was a new astronomy as well as a new geography and,  using both in tandem, it described the world from China to Britain, region by region. Some of Michael Scot’s work is thought to have depended on Idrisi’s astronomical information. 
Perhaps the Latins (i.e. western European Christians) rejected it because they disapproved of Roger’s multi-cultural ‘international’ court. Perhaps it was one of those times when Roger was under ban of excommunication. Perhaps it was because Idrisi used south (the direction of the Latins’ Hell) as his primary direction.  Perhaps because the real world didn’t display a neat tripartite division reflecting the Biblical assignment to one part to each of Noah’s sons.  Who knows?  Here’s a reconstruction of Idrisi’s south-oriented world-map. 
For a  ‘north-up’ view, see here
Idirisi world map
The people who brought ‘caphora’ to Cairo, or to north Africa, or to Lombardy didn’t need a map of this sort, nor a handbook of geography to do it.
*Frances Carney Gies, ‘Al-Idrisi And Roger’s Book’, Saudi Aramco World, Volume 28, Number 4 (July/August 1977) pp.14-19. online.

To further illustrate the range over which the  ‘Sun of night’ had been accepted in the older near east, I’ll mention the Babylonian version, too and Europe does acknowledge a passive debt to Babylonia in mathematical astronomy.

  • Wolfgang Heimpel, ‘The Sun at Night and the Doors of Heaven in Babylonian Texts’, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 127-151.


Having found mention of a ‘sun of night’ in eleventh-century Burgos (see above), we may now  consider another manuscript of that period, this one made in northern France (Brit.Lib. MS 17808).  To understand how its material was viewed at that time, we must better appreciate how Latins thought about the stars in those days, and how they regarded mathematical calculations.  

By the eleventh century, the two greatest voices in Latin Christianity were those of the north African, Augustine, and that of Isidore of Seville.

Augustine (354 – 430 AD) had been of Phoenician parentage, had a passion for studying the stars (in a combined astronomy-and-astrology), then became attracted to the original form of Manichaeism, at that time  one of the major world religions and which by the tenth century was established to as far as the borders of China. Along those eastern roads, it was a major provider of centres for traders and travellers –  groups largely associated with the spread of that religion.  In north Africa, however, Augustine had eventually abandoned his early interests, converted to Latin Christianity and through his writings become one of western Christianity’s earliest and most revered theologians.

With regard to astronomical learning, and the seeking of  wisdom from Egypt, I might also mention Gregory the Great (540 – 604 AD), author of the ‘Commentary on Job’, but Isidore, his contemporary, had much broader and more lasting influence.

Isidore of Seville lived from 560-636 AD.  His huge work,  Etymologiae, remained the standard reference  for information about  .. well, almost everything…  from the time of its composition to as late as the sixteenth century.  Today there survive more than a thousand manuscripts in which the work is found copied in part, entire, or as a compilation of excerpts. According to one anonymous modern author, the full text of the Etymologies was printed in ten separate editions between 1470 and 1530, that is, at the height of the Renaissance. 

We can safely suppose, therefore, that what Isidore says about the stars would have been known to the monks of Burgos, as to the scribes in northern France who made Brit.Lib. MS Add. 17808 in that same century.  Of this second manuscript, more below.   Here are some of Isidore’s dicta: 

Astronomy distinguished from astrology.

The difference between astronomy and astrology

There is some difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy concerns itself with the turning of the heavens, the rising, setting, and motion of the stars, and where the constellations get their names. But astrology is partly natural, and partly superstitious.

It is natural as long as it investigates the courses of the sun and the moon, or the specific positions of the stars according to the seasons; but it is a superstitious belief that the astrologers (mathematicus) follow when they practice augury by the stars, or when they associate the twelve signs of the zodiac with specific parts of the soul or body, or when they attempt to predict the nativities and characters of people by the motion of the stars.

Bk2 xxvii.

Despite that last sentence, his Etymologiae was still copied, and then published to a willing public, long after the ‘zodiac body’ became a commonplace in medical texts.

Proper purpose for stars – including those of the zodiac.

Constellations (sidus) are so named because sailors ‘take bearings on’ (considerare) them when they set their course, lest they be led elsewhere by deceptive waves and winds. And for that reason some stars are called signs (signum), because sailors observe them in steering their rowing, taking note of their keenness and brightness, qualities by which the future state of the sky is shown. 
But everyone pays attention to them for predicting the qualities of the air in the summer, winter, and spring seasons, for by their rising or setting in specific places they indicate the condition of the weather.

Bk.III, lxx.4

That is why so many medieval breviaries and calendars can include emblems for the 12 constellations. It is not evidence for, nor indication of, astrological reference, but that has proven difficult for some Voynicheros to absorb, since today many regard any zodiac as if astrological by definition, and regard the constellation emblems as no more than ‘birth signs’.

Mathematics and improperly ‘calculating’ the stars.

For Isidore – and thus for most medieval Europeans – the evil uses were those employed by a calculating mind.

 But whatever the type of superstition with which they have been named by men, the stars are nevertheless things that God created at the beginning of the world, and he set them in order that they might define the seasons by their particular motions. Therefore, observations of the stars, or horoscopes, or other superstitions that attach themselves to the study of the stars, that is, for the sake of knowing the fates – these are undoubtedly contrary to our faith…

But some people, enticed by the beauty and clarity of the constellations, have rushed headlong into error with respect to the stars, their minds blinded, so that they attempt to be able to foretell the results of things by means of harmful computations, which is called ‘astrology’ (mathesis) .


and again:

24. These are commonly called astrologers (mathematicus); the Romans call this kind of superstition ‘constellations’ (constellatio), that is, observation of the stars – how they relate to each other when each person is born.

The first interpreters of the stars were called Magi (magus), as we read of those who made known the birth of Christ in the Gospels; afterwards they only had the name mathematicus.

Knowledge of this skill was permitted only up until the time of the Gospel, so that once Christ was born no one thereafter would interpret the birth of anyone from the heavens. 

Bk. VIII.ix.24-25

A scholastic miscellany made in France between 1309 and 1316, Brit.Lib.Burney MS 275 includes matter from Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, and Ptolemy and its tables (e.g. on f. 398) are written in Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Nonetheless, the margin of f.336r includes a visual ‘warning off’ about these numerals as founded on matter ‘of the devil’.

In depictions of the liberal arts, the teacher is normally an allegorical figure, but here she is made alive, a woman looking upon these innocent students and with wide, bold eyes (i.e. in an ‘unwomanly-wicked’ way). Even so late in European history, there was plainly some residual suspicion of Arabic numerals, introduced to Europe as they had been in association with the Arabs’ ‘mathesis’.

Understanding these ideas, it is easier to appreciate what implications might be carried by two large green stars set in the margin of a page in Brit Lib. MS Add 17808, whose incipit (first phrase) reads:

 ‘Mathematica Alhandrei – summi astrologi..’

Mathesis and astrology and from a foreign author and he not Christian.

Very worrying stuff for an eleventh-century monastic scribe, concerned for his immortal soul, yet bound by a vow of obedience even as Isidore’s words came to mind, “harmful computations, which is called ‘astrology’ (mathesis)”.. “undoubtedly contrary to our faith”.

Green stars.

green stars faith hours BritLib Add MS 1708 header
green stars alone from Brit Lib Add 17808
detail folio 108r

These marks are so unusual that the cataloguer describes them as “stars(?)”.

They are not formed like the asterisks which, in Latin manuscripts, mean that a passage ‘a‘ links to passage ‘b‘. Nor are these like Quire 20’s flower-stars.

The Latins’ textual asterisk was formed as an ‘X’ with a dot in each quarter – as Isidore says:

In the eleventh-century manuscript (Brit.Lib. Add. MS 17808) the first of those two ‘green stars’ is set beside an area left blank.

We would usually suppose that the space had been left for the pictor to add some image, and since the other ‘starred’ paragraph names the 12 constellations of the zodiac, we might expect that image to be a depiction of the 12 constellations or their emblems, and further suppose that the pictor just never got around to it. This is not the only example of such blank spaces in medieval manuscripts.

However, those easy assumptions are not so easy in this case, because the character of this text is unorthodox for that time and someone – presumably the same overseer who put those green stars in the margin – has instructed the scribe to go back and insert into what had been a paragraph space, immediately after the names of the twelve constellations, the text of biblical passage and to write it all in capital letters.

The passage is from the book of Genesis. Its quotation, in this context, conveys a caution – even a warning – to scribes and subsequent readers. Given the nature of the text and Isidore’s proscriptions, the addition of the sentence: ‘God disposed them as signs for the hours of the night’ reminds a reader that the purpose in copying this material is to assist with correct observations of the night offices and the calendar, so as to remain in step with the divinely ordered heavens.

For that, no anthropomorphic images of ‘pagan’ gods were necessary; the constellations (constellatio) need not be drawn. The hours’ stars could be pointed out in the sky and calculation limited to that needed for computus, to establish the date of easter.

An entire side of folio 100 is also left blank.

That manuscript is very well known today and despite any effort to keep its use on the right side of a theological line, the Liber Alchandi came to be associated chiefly with ancient mysteries and near-magic. Not everyone felt so averse to picturing the pagan constellations, of course.

Thorndike refers to this manuscript when noting that Peter  of Abano, in his  Lucidator astronomiae (1310) “mentions Alchandrus…

“..as a successor of Hermes Trismegistus in the science of astronomy but as flourishing before the time of Nebuchadnezzar.”

Thorndike comments

Al chandrus was  scarcely as ancient as that, but the treatise ascribed to him also exists in Latin in a manuscript of the tenth century.. it is full of Arabic and Hebrew words, and professes to cite the opinions of Egyptians, Ishmaelites, and Chaldeans in general as well as those of Ascalu the Ishmaelite and Arfarfan or Argafalan or Argafalaus  the Chaldean in particular.”

Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vol.1 p.711 ff  

Additional references:

The holding library recommends this paper which I’ve not yet seen:

  • Charles Burnett, ‘King Ptolemy and Alchandreus the Philosopher: The Earliest Texts on the Astrolabe and Arabic Astrology at Fleury, Micy and Chartres’, Annals of Science, 55.4 (1998), 329-68 (pp. 334, n. 28, 335, 339, n. 55, 341, 343, 368).

Marco Zuccato’s paper is well researched and documented. It’s available at JSTOR.

  • Marco Zuccato, ‘Gerbert of Aurillac and a Tenth-Century Jewish Channel for the Transmission of Arabic Science to the West’, Speculum , Jul., 2005, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 742-763

In sum: Editorial ‘green pencil’?

All of which, together, leads me to think that the ‘green stars’ in that French manuscript are more like marks from an editor’s blue pencil – Someone had to instruct the scribe to add the biblical passage, and perhaps instructed the pictor that his work would not be needed for some parts of the copying.

Might the green stars on folio 67v of Beinecke MS 408 be another case of an overseer’s corrections, rather than indication of the three stars’ having some special significance?

I’ll take a closer look at that in the next post and touch on the fascinating topic of colour and its associations in pre-Renaissance period.

More ideas from Isidore about the stars.

Isidore was a man of his own time, not ours and also believed the following:

lxi. The light of stars (De lumine stellarum). Stars are said not to possess their own light, but to be illuminated by the sun, as the moon is.

lxii. The location of the stars (De stellarum situ) Stars are unmoving and, being fixed, are carried with the heavens in perpetual motion. They do not set during the day, but they are obscured by the brightness of the sun.

lxiii. The course of the stars (De stellarum cursu) Stars are either carried or move. The ones that are fixed in the sky and turn with the sky are carried. But some [like] planets, that is, ‘wanderers,’ move. However, they carry out their roaming courses within a defined boundary. 

  • Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, CUP (2006)

Addendum to Part A. extracted from a much longer post first published in Findings (May 15th., 2010). I add it for those interested in the traditions which came to inform western medieval ideas and art, but not to assert or imply that the makers of our fifteenth-century manuscript were so deeply informed.

The ‘bearded sun’ wasn’t the first intimation that the manuscript’s pictorial text’s themes and forms  do not originate in medieval European culture, but it was an important detail, and the idea of a bearded sun was not unfamiliar, but chimes rather well with what Georg Baresh believed about how the material for the manuscript had been gathered.

Carthage between the horns and wine-dark sea as city of god

 I began explaining the diagram and its implications quite early, sharinngthat information, initially, in a post of April of 2010,  and adding more in subsequent posts to clarify e.g. a link to Carthage, to the ‘grape-pressing’ motif seen in early Latin representations of (St.) Barbara and explaining that character’s ancient origin in North Africa, where the ‘grape-crushing’ is partly an allusion to suffering, but also to the “wine-dark sea” as Homer knew. 
Barbara tanit Phoenician stele
As late as the fifteenth century, Ibn Majid confirmed that the mariner-pirates of the north African shore had the same skills and star-lore as his own, and that the two were therefore brethren by that an inheritance which predates the 7thC Ad.  Here’s a little of what I posted on  May 15th., 2010, including the two previous illustrations above and those below. (Notice also the wreathed face at the apex of that Punic tombstone).
In Vezelay, the carver knew, pretty well, what he was about. He knew this figure, the spirit of the wine, was ‘la femme de le barbe’ – or ‘la femme a barbe’ though today the commentary is likely to argue the figure a saintly ‘master’ rather than celestial mistress of the wine. The carver has even known to place the figure’s foot on the highest leaf of the vine
In the classical period, North Africa had a very considerable industry in wine and grapes. It was remembered by the maker of the Atlas Catala, Abraham Creques, who wrote that after the Flood, Noah came to rest in North Africa, and first planted the vine there on the shores between the sea and Monte Clara.
Bedu woman with traditional tattoos. The Bedus traditional star lore relates to wayfinding and maintains proverbs of astonishing antiquity, remembering when Canopus (the ‘lucifer’) fell from a higher place and when the northern pole star was one in Draco, which astronomers inform us was the case from 3942 BC, until 1793 BC when alpha Draconis held that place
The Berber and Bedu tribes of North Africa had been largely instrumental in finding the way for the Muslim armies to successfully enter Spain. At that time they spoke of themselves as the “men of the ribat” – the military tower. The same term is used in that region for the sequence of lunar asterisms which the Arabs call the moon’s resting-places, or manzil al kamar. That sequence described as of 27 or of 28 asterisms is a convenient way to make finer divisions of the year’s circle, and thus to reckon such things as direction time and tide.
The name ‘Barbara’ sounds innocuous enough, but it seems it anciently named the star-[worshipping] people who considered stars to be small, distant lights: “grandchildren of the sun” [bar-bar-ra].
Hourani reports of the eastern tribe of the Azd, formerly of Arabia, that when were these Arab mariners [of the eastern sea] found themselves deep in a trough between mountainous waves, a chant was started which ran: “Barbara and Jafuna: look to your waves. Jafuna and Barbara: your waves are wild [lit: mad]. Jaffna is still the name of a Tamil area in Sri Lanka; the Barbara belonged to both the eastern and western horns of Africa. The greeks employed a similar term to mean ‘barbarians’ as persons who did not speak Greek.

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