‘Simple logic’ and the bestiaries. (Interim post)

c.4000 words

A certain uniformity in several emails and in comments I’ve not given the ok suggests some crowd-mood (twitter?). So I’m adding a bit about bestiaries, or more exactly, versions of the Physiologus.

The gist of all those recent comments went along the lines …

You should look at this image/these images.

It’s/they are from French/German/Spanish/Italian/Scottish/New World manuscript/s, so stop complicating things. Simple logic should tell you the Voynich is French/German/Spanish/Italian .. etc

various authors

It’s always good to know where manuscript was manufactured.

It says very little about a manuscript’s content, meaning, sources or, ultimately, any ‘national character’ for text or image.

That won’t be news to medieval historians today, I trust, nor that we don’t imagine a place of manufacture means any manuscript’s content must express any local indigenous ‘nationality’ defined as ‘no external influence’ – but such assumptions pervaded the earlier Voynich writings in a time of heightened nationalistic feeling and social Darwinist theories. The attitudes have persisted in Voynich studies to the extent that many Voynich writers still imagine the aim of Voynich research is to claim for all elements of the manuscript a single local national-cultural identity defined overtly or implicitly by its exclusions.

It troubles me that, in pursuit of that aim, and for want of better knowledge, theorists taking that line have resorted increasingly over the past decade to asserting that by simply amassing more pictures of munching goats, or four-footed Scorpios than anyone else, their theory must triumph and everything in the Voynich manuscript be deemed exclusively French, imperial-German-ish, Spanish, Italian, New World or.. whatever.

The superficial use of images, especially, makes a travesty of art- and textual history and of iconographic analysis, making such mis-use something I am inclined to resent.

Medieval history, and iconographic analysis have both come a long way since the nineteenth century and contrary to popular belief, pictures deserve serious and detailed investigation.

This post isn’t for people who know better; it’s for Voynicheros over-exposed to old and unfortunate habits, who have gained an idea that the aim of Voynich research is to stick a ‘made in…’ label on Beinecke MS 408.

Below are two among the many images sent to me recently after I’d posted about the Roman ‘Hell hound’. The first was asserted ‘French’ by the correspondent – it is actually from a manuscript made in Cambrai. Cambrai did not become part of France until 1678.

The second was asserted ‘German’ though made in Admont, in a Benedictine monastery which was, or soon became, a Cluniac abbey. Admont was not then in Germany, but in Austria.

It was easy enough to find the sources from which those images came, I’ve added their details. Since both those crocodile-hound-demon images come (of course) from what is usually called a Bestiary, not from anything like the Voynich ‘calendar’ fold-in, I’ve made this post about bestiaries and the Physiologus because it offers yet another example of transmission into Latin Europe of matter originally formed in the eastern Mediterranean, and probably in Egypt, around the 1st-2ndC AD, but in this case arriving in the form of texts already Christian and dating from the 3rd and/or the 4thC AD.

But first, a checklist of features which any claimed ‘match’ for the November emblem must account for, either within a preferred image, or by analytical commentary upon it.

posited ‘Scorpius’

  • Associated with November only.
  • Four-footed,
  • Tail ‘looped’ or ‘lashing’.
  • spotted hide
  • associated with a human head or skull
  • Skull given hat of outdoor/non-courtly type.
  • head with elongated and flattened snout – as were the heads of both hound and crocodile in art of the older eastern Mediterranean and specifically in Egypt.
  • lifted forefoot.

Neither of those claimed ‘matches’ from bestiaries scores well. Neither writer supplemented their image with informed commentary on it – which might have made up the difference. Bestiaries were not texts designed to teach astronomy or astrology or even natural history.

That aside – in what sense are those images French or German given that one comes from a manuscript made in thirteenth-century Cambrai and the other from an abbey in fourteenth-century Austria?

Networks

We call it ‘Latin Europe’ because western Europe was united, until after 1440, by a common religion and a common language for its education, diplomacy and liturgy. In the same way, the Byzantine sphere was united by Greek language and by Greek Orthodoxy, and the world of Islam too by religion and by use of Arabic.

That meant you could travel anywhere within each of those linguistic-religious zones, attend worship and learn from scholars without being immediately made to feel an outsider.

At the same time, Europe consisted of a patchwork of shifting territorial and linguistic spaces, while the ordinary person’s horizon was so narrow that anyone living outside their own village was a ‘foreigner’.

So you have medieval western Europe simultaneously unified by a language and a single religious culture – Catholicity – and at the same time so fragmented that the idea of a national identity simply didn’t exist as we would think of it today. A person belonged to the place they were born, and was defined by the vernacular tongue which they spoke in the market-place and in everyday life. Your ‘nation’ was that language.

For those living on the mainland, ‘national’ allegiance, as duty to a given king, was also fluid.

Your town’s land-lord might now be the pope and your taxes go to Rome; the next year the town might have been taken by the king who lived in Paris, and your taxes now went to him; five years later, the city might be sold, inherited, gifted or taken in war by the king of Catalonia, and that’s now where your taxes went and he was now your king-landowner.

England’s physical separation from the mainland (the ‘continent’) made it something of an exception but it was still true that ‘England’ was whatever land was possessed at a given time by the English king, and similarly for France and the various smaller states nominally ‘owned’ by a western emperor. The land-lord might forbid a person to travel, and a cleric be forbidden by bishop, abbot or Rule, but there was no general prohibition. If you had the means, you could travel.

There were networks which connected across territorial boundaries in other ways. I’ve already shown how those of Francesco Datini stretched from the Red Sea to the Black Sea and to England, while he (a man of Prato) lived for 30 years in papal Avignon. He wasn’t “an expatriate” he was just living in a different part of the same region – Latin Europe.

Again, when Michael Scot went to Toledo to study, he shared the language of Latin with other scholars there, and similarly when we was in French territory or when he went to serve the king of Sicily, who then held the post of ‘Emperor’. No no-one would have dreamed of describing Scot’s time in Sicily as service to a ‘foreign government’, or imagined that his being an ordained Catholic priest was evidence of disloyalty to England or to Sicily. Whether his book had been manufactured first in England, in Spain, in Italy or in Sicily such attribution can only be of the book-as-object; if the person charged with adding illustrations came from the same place or another one, we might describe the style of drawing as English, Spanish, Italian or Sicilian, but such terms, used by libraries and art historians, are geographic referents and not claims about the manuscripts being the expression of an exclusively-defined, blood-and-soil sort of ‘national character’.

A vital element in exploring the textual and iconographic lineage of a given manuscript are the monastic networks. Take the Cluniac abbeys for example. Here’s a partial map showing how all Cluniac abbeys were connected to what is called the ‘mother-house’ of Cluny.

The Benedictine Rule and Cluniac Reforms are essential reading in medieval history, including the history of medieval art.

If a Benedictine abbey adopted the Cluniac reforms, certain important changes occurred which impact on the history of manuscript production and illustration.

Benedictine monks were noted for their book-copying, but when the reforms of Cluny came into effect, the reforms saw Cluniacs largely enclosed, and silent monks, and the Benedictine emphasis on learning and book-production gave way to an emphasis on religious observance and ritual. As a result, Cluniac libraries are typically small, although Cluny itself amassed a very large collection of manuscripts. Since every Cluniac monastery was independent of secular control – owing allegiance only to the head of the western church and to its mother-monastery in Cluny – so any gifts from those sources would see greater artistic influence from France and from Italy than from another nearby Austrian monastery, if the latter was under a different monastic rule.

Pilgrimage and War

People went to war for gain. Some for spiritual gain, some for spoils and many for both reasons.

People went on pilgrimage as a kind of group-tour and like those who went with swords, they too might bring back something they considered valuable – a holy relic or fabric, even a copy of some saint’s life – ornamented in foreign style. Knights weren’t noted for their interest in scholarship, but it was perfectly possible to bring back some book on a subject in which the knight and his fellows were interested – astronomy, astrology or medicine. His cousin might be a monastic and glad to have the book to copy and to illuminate in something like the ‘holy land’ style.

That’s a hypothetical example of how images and/or texts might pass from east to west. The ‘Bestiaries’ are a much more concrete example.

“What about the Bestiaries – duh?”

That’s how one of the recent correspondents ended their email. 😀

And it sounds ‘logical and commonsense’ so long as you don’t know much about ‘the bestiary’.

That field of research is sufficiently complex and fraught, even among specialists in that one area of manuscript studies and medieval studies, that most of us tend to stand aside and let the specialists debate. It’s a subject where the calm and measured tone of scholarly discourse develops a certain sharpness.

The first problem is that English scholars have tended to treat their Bestiaries as a collection of interesting pictures, where every other stream of study treats the work primarily as the study of its written texts. That is – texts, plural.

What is well and widely known is that moralising animals is an eastern custom and that the text that first influenced the Christian world, was the use of moralised animal types in a work called the ‘Medicine chest’ or Panarion, written in Greek by a Christian polemicist and based on another – the Physiologus – which is thought by most to have been composed somewhat earlier in Alexandria.

Here’s Mermier’s neat summary, lightly edited.

We do not know where the Physiologus was composed; however it seems probable that it was begun in Alexandria during the second (or the the third) century AD. … Hommel gives some reasons for locating the Physiologus in Alexandria: these include the mention of the “landkrodil” the “Ichneumon,” and the “Ibis,” the mention the description of the Onager … and the mention of birds, beasts, … What is the Greek Physiologus? Basically … the description of beasts [real as well as] fantastic, used to illustrate points of Christian doctrine.

Guy R. Mermier, ‘The Romanian Bestiary: An English Translation and Commentary on the Ancient Physiologus Tradition’, Mediterranean Studies , Vol. 13 (2004), pp. 17-55.

One has to refine that description a little. because using moralised beasts to add colour to Christian preaching and teaching really only took off after a book known as the Panarion put them to that use. If your eyes glaze over at the sight of non-Latin names, I might say that Epiphianus adds a great deal more insight to the ‘November’ page of the Chronography of 354 – as we’ll see later.

This is from a wiki article:

Epiphanius used [the] Physiologus in his Panarion and from his time numerous further quotations and references to the Physiologus in the Greek and the Latin Church fathers show that it was one of the most generally known works of Christian Late Antiquity. Various translations and revisions were current in the Middle Ages. The earliest translation into Latin was followed by various recensions, among them the Sayings of St. John Chrysostom on the natures of beasts.

wikipedia

Precisely because the Physiologus as we know it of it developed as (a) a specifically Christian moralisation (b) probably originated in Alexandria and (c) came relatively late into the Latin west that I’ve deliberately begun my tracking elements in the Voynich ‘November’ emblem from the 1st-2ndC AD and, while still focusing on Alexandria, demonstrated a different and earlier line of east-west transmission to illustrate the reality of east-to-west transmission of both images and the knowledge informing images found in medieval western works.

Readers might like to know that copies of the Physiologus are very widely distributed, though not everywhere illustrated. To provide a balance for the sometimes myopic focus on Latin Europe, the Physiologus conference held last year in Paris, didn’t include discussion of the western bestiaries. This is from the Conference website:

The Physiologus was translated from Greek into Latin (twice), Ethiopian, Armenian (from Armenian into Georgian), Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, Old Slavonic (and from it into Old Russian), [it] was widely spread throughout the Christian world. Western Bestiaries derive from the Latin version, but they were not discussed in the conference.

And if we turn to the Latin versions, this might give you some idea of how complex the issues are. This comes from a paper by a modern scholar. Do take time to absorb it.

The earliest surviving manuscripts of all the Latin Physiologus translations (ia-ic) and of at least two of the pre-twelfth-century Latin bestiaries come from what is now France, or else from just over its borders in other Romance-speaking areas: France/Catalonia (2b) and France/north Italy (2c). All three pre-twelfth-century texts – Dicta Chrysostomi, B-Isidore, and Theobaldus — are also thought to have arisen in France (2a and 2b; 2c with less certainty). They were then diffused to the east and west [of Latin Europe], the preponderance of B-Isidore copies being made in northern France and England, the majority of those of Dicta Chrysostomi and Theobaldus in France or the Empire. Most of the major developments of the twelfth century took place in England, whence they spread east, but both the Aviarium (3b) and H bestiary (4c) are continental compositions. Even though it deals exclusively with birds, the Aviarium’s inscribed quest for a bestiary partner seems to have exerted a pull on manuscript production across the whole of Europe; it is copied with several English second-family bestiaries as well as, on the Continent, with B-Isidore, Dicta Chrysostomi, and the H bestiary. Conversely, the English redactions grouped as Transitional and second-family give rise to continental copies, and the H-type of B-Isidore seems to have influenced the composition of H.

Sarah Kay, ‘The English Bestiary’, the Continental ‘Physiologus’, and the Intersections Between Them’, Medium Ævum , 2016, Vol. 85, No. 1 (2016), pp. 118-142

England’s being an island gives a little more validity to the idea of a bestiary image having a ‘national’ character, and that’s so for imagery in some English manuscripts, but the important point is that the reason for the Latin translations was to aid religious teaching.

Epiphianus and Chrysostom are two of the important figures. Neither was native to western Europe. They were eastern and Greek-speaking Christians. Epiphianus himself explained why he wrote his ‘Medicine Chest’.

I am drafting this Preface … to explain the “Panarion”, or chest of remedies for the victims of wild beasts’ bites. It is a work in three Volumes and contains eighty Sects, which answer symbolically to wild animals or snakes.

Frank Williams, (trans.), The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book I (Sects 1-46)
Second Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Brill, 2009) Introduction, p.xx.

And here’s part of his long diatribe about one of those religions which he calls heretical ‘sects’.

5,6 For they [the Orphites] have a real snake and keep it in a basket of some sort.
When it is time for their mysteries they bring it out of the den, spread loaves around on a table, and call the snake to come; and when the den is opened it comes out. And then the snake—which comes up of its own accord and by its villainy—already knowing their foolishness, crawls onto the table and coils up on the loaves. And this they call a perfect sacrifice. [5,7] And so, as I have heard from someone, not only do they break the loaves the snake has coiled on and distribute them to the communicants, but each one kisses the snake on the mouth…

[Makes the snake’s pose rather less threatening, don’t you think?]

As for Epiphianus..

EPIPHIANUS – Born … Palestine, between 310 and 320 (but according to Bartolocci, in 288); died at sea in 403. Epiphanius is supposed to have been born of Jewish parents and to have embraced Christianity in his sixteenth year. …. After passing four years in Egypt in a monastery, Epiphanius returned to his native village, founding there a monastery … became abbot. In 367 .. elected Bishop of Constantia, in Cyprus … attaining celebrity on account of his opposition to Origen.. Epiphanius was a teacher and friend of Jerome. Suspecting Chrysostom of favoring the followers of Origen, he went to Constantinople to denounce the .. bishop, and died on his way back to Constantia.

Of especial interest to Jews, owing to the information it contains on Jewish, Gnostic, and Judoæo-Christian views, is his Πανάριον, [Panarion] an account, written in 374-376, of eighty heretical sects.

JVL ‘Epiphianus’

The moralised ‘beasts’ were vivid figures – verbal or visual – intended to assist preaching and polemic. Epiphianus’ remedies were, need I add, religious and not physical.

In connection with the Old Icelandic Physiologus, Marchand has a made a point which Voynicheros should take seriously, and says it much more nicely than I expect I would. First he explains why the text’s sections should be differently described – so bear with that part:

Image courtesy of The Medieval Bestiary website.

We know, with Saxo Grammaticus, that the Icelanders in the Middle Ages “account it a delight to learn and to consign to remembrance the history of all nations, deeming it as great a glory to set forth the excellences of others as to display their own.” and to the lore of Christianity they gave particular attention. … I would propose replacing the division presently used by the following, based also on the types of text: 1. Physiologus-A, [consisting of] five allegorical interpretations of animals; 2. Physiologus-B, [consisting of] fifteen treatments of animals and their allegorical significance, the Physiologus proper; 3. four treatments of animals in the Bible; 4. a spiritual interpretation of the rainbow. The first two of these [sections] have received exhaustive treatment, but the last three have scarcely been touched upon in the literature on the Old Icelandic Physiologus. The reason for this neglect is, of course, simple lack of interest, but it is also because we medievalists in general neglected patristic exegesis in our preparation and scholarship, so that we are just not prepared to deal with such matters.

James W. Marchand, ‘Two Notes on the Old Icelandic Physiologus Manuscript, MLN , Vol. 91, No. 3, German Issue (Apr., 1976), pp. 501-505.

And that’s also true for many contemporary historians of medieval art and cultures.

The whole history and culture of western Europe until and after 1440 was informed and united by a religious culture; from proverbs to popular songs, inn-signs to coats of arms, misericords and portraits of kings. If you are averse to studying the texts and beliefs of medieval Latin Europe, you simply are not equipped to read its images accurately – that is, as they were intended and were understood when and for whom they they were made.

Whether or not, the moralised ‘beast’ of the Voynich November emblem took its form from some version of the Physiologus, Its head is drawn with a long, flattened snout as Egyptians drew the head of a crocodile and of hunting hound, of Ammit and of Anubis.

As we’ve seen, Epiphianus lived in Egypt for some time.

The image which my correspondent called ‘German’ comes from a section of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek CLM 6908 described in the holding library’s catalogue as not from the ‘animal description’ section but from “the Dicta Chrysostomi version of the Physiologus’ [text]“.

Important for the Latin versions, John Chrysostom had spent most of his life in Antioch – another eastern Greek Christian.

JOHN CHRYOSTOMOS. Born and received a classical education in Antioch… met bishop Meletius. Withdrew into a more ascetic life… In 397 AD , unilaterally chosen by the emperor in Constantinople to become head over the Greek orthodox Church in Constantinople… soon alienated an increasing proportion of the court and populace, despite an initial favour from those attending his sermons and homilies. Finally, condemned and communicating with Rome from his place of exile, he sought – and gained – support from the western (Latin) church, but to little effect apart from widening the breach between the religious of Rome and those of Constantinople. Chrysostom died in exile in 407 AD.

extracted from the lengthy entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

So, once again we begin from the Greek-speaking east of the earlier centuries AD and the line of transmission becomes Egypt.. [Alexandria?]… with texts transmitted via the Byzantine world into the Latin west ..

An eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript (not a copy of the Physiologus) is now in the British library. One marginal image suggests that confusion of the forms for representing scorpion and crocodile occurs there so early, and before the Physiologus’ first Latin translation in which such a confusion occurs.* Here (below), the Greek inscription tells us it’s a scorpion, though most readers now would read the image as a curious effort to draw a crocodile.

*so far as I’m aware. Also, my gratitude to Joann Huinker, for noticing omission of the phrase: ‘in which such a confusion occurs.’ It is not known when the Physiologus was first translated into Latin; it is another of the topic on which specialists differ, and I’ve no intention of guessing which of the confidently-stated dates is ultimately correct. We may say it was known in a Latin version for several centuries before Charlemagne.

No-one knows how or when that particular Byzantine manuscript came to England though a case has been made for its belonging to, or with, one still the monastery of Mt. Athos.* I’d suggest the equation is ultimately a result of forms given protective amulets invoking Selqet,** whose scorpion was not rarely made deficient and is replaced by a sundisk in the figurine now in the Louvre (right).

*Jeffrey C. Anderson, ‘The Palimpsest Psalter, Pantokrator Cod. 61: Its Content and Relationship to the Bristol
Psalter’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers , 1994, Vol. 48 (1994), pp. 199-220.

**also: Serqet, Selket, Serket, or Selcis. The Louvre uses Selkis.

Physiologus in 14thC Austria – (“Fürstenfelder Physiologus”.

Known as the “Fürstenfelder Physiologus”, BSB CLM 6908 might as validly be described as The Admont Physiologus, or Abbot Englebert’s Physiologus.

It is believed written and possibly illustrated by the monk named Englebert. (b. 1250 – 12 May 1331).

In what sense was he ‘a German’?

Born in Austria, in Admont, he gained his earlier education there and his higher education in Prague and in Padua, before spending time in Salzburg and then becoming appointed Abbot in Admont. Englebert opposed the imperial Ghibelline claims, though wrote a poem on the occasion of Rudolf I’s coronation. He appears to have been influenced also by the thought of Duns Scotus, an influential teacher who had been born in Scotland and lived most of is life in England. It is said that the Abbey of Admont, previously Benedictine, became a Cluniac under the next Abbot, Giselbert, after Englebert retired in 1327. Adopting the Cluniac reforms could be predicted to lessen Admont’s earlier emphasis on scholarship and manuscript production, as we’ve said.

So was Englebert working from his memorised texts – and had they been learned in Admont, in Prague, in Padua, or Salzburg? Was he working from an exemplar, and if so, from where had that come. As Kay says,

All three pre-twelfth-century texts – Dicta Chrysostomi, B-Isidore, and Theobaldus — are also thought to have arisen in France (2a and 2b; 2c with less certainty). They were then diffused to the east and west [of Latin Europe], the preponderance of B-Isidore copies being made in northern France and England, the majority of those of Dicta Chrysostomi and Theobaldus in France or the Empire. Most of the major developments of the twelfth century took place in England, whence they spread east [-wards within Latin Europe],

And how like the Voynich image is Englebert’s crodile .. not enough for anyone to claim them self-evident ‘matches’. One must also ask if Adelbert Admont’s Englebert , a deeply scholarly fourteenth-century Benedictine monk, would have copied a diagram filled with unclothed female figures at all? And in precisely what sense is even the manufacture of BSB CLM 6908, let alone its text or its images fairly described as ‘German’?

Yes, quite – what about the bestiaries?

Next post will return to Beinecke MS 408.

O’Donovan notes: the calendar’s emblems – November and July. Pt.3

c.2600 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

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.

Warning – readers uncomfortable with the fact of Egyptian influence in late Roman culture and earlier Christianity might want to brace themselves.

SHORTCUT – Throughout this investigation of the November and July emblems, our aim is still to answer one question: ‘Do the Voynich calendar’s central emblems display influences similar to astronomical details noted for folio 85r and folio 67v-1? Readers impatient with process might prefer to know, now, that the bottom line is “not exactly”. Those more demanding – please read on. 🙂

BACKGROUND – (Summary of Pts 1 and 2 for newcomers). To skip this, start from the ‘Note’ manicule below.

SO FAR, considering various forms for Scorpius in medieval works from Latin Europe, Lippincott’s survey included examples, from western manuscripts, of a few non-classic forms for Scorpius. Those given a ‘beast-like’ form are associated with just three sources: first, the Roman-era ‘Poeticon Astronomicon‘; then the early medieval and English ps- Bede’s De signis caeli, and finally copies of thirteenth-century works by the Anglo-Norman Michael Scot. Concerning the last, however, and as Edwards observed, the four principal manuscripts are all from Italian scribes and “probably made in Bologna” where Scot is known to have studied and been residing in 1220.

  1. Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS nouv. acq. lat. 1401, parchment, fols. llr-128r P – “the earliest copy we have; it can be dated fairly certainly to 1279.
  2. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm. 10268, parchment, fols. lr-146r. which initially Edwards “dated on palaeographic evidence to 1279” but further research and consultation led him to amend that to “the style of script.. c.1300.. Virginia la Mare… illustrations characteristic of Bologna 1300-1310.’
  3. Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS f. iii. 8, parchment and paper, fols. lr-126v. The paleographic evidence dates it to the third quarter of the fourteenth century.
  4. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 266, paper, fols. 1r-222v – dates from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Edwards also notes that “the most distinguishing palaeographic characteristic is a Niccol? Niccoli hand on folios 53r to 65r”.

Another copy, now in Scotland, has been commented on by Eleonora Andriani, who rightly remarks the importance of Edwards’ work.

  • “The comprehensive nature of Michael Scot’s work has attracted contributions from a number of scholars, drawing significantly on the Prohemium, the first edition of which appeared in 1978 as a doctoral thesis by Glenn M. Edwards.” Eleonora Andriani,(2019) ‘A Neglected Witness to the Liber introductorius of Michael Scot’, Giornale Critico della Filosofia Italiana, Settima Serie Volume XV, ANNO XCVIII (C), Fasc. III. The article is now accessible through academia.edu.

Parameters – Temporal and Geographic

With some reservations (see image, below), our temporal range becomes ‘ps-Hyginus to Scot’ or, c.2ndC AD – c.1228 AD.

from the ‘M’ source – made in Italy, probably Bologna, c.1310.

From the same basis, and now taking into account the Judeo-Catalan, Occitan, Norman-English (etc.) posited for the inscribed month names, our geographic range sets its upper boundary approximately at the Via Francigena, one of the oldest routes of western Europe and which existed in Hyginus’ time as it does today. It can be said to begin from Santa Maria di Leuca, in the ‘instep’ of Southern Italy and passing through Rome, to continue through to Canterbury in England. Within the maritime context, we have already a practical map of entanglements for the fourteenth century in Datini’s pattern of trade and communications, illustrated earlier, and this allows an extension of our northern line to include the Adriatic and Venice by sea and then, through the Veneto, again to the via Francigena.

NOTEre SCOT in FREDERICK’S SICILY.. Some online articles badly over-emphasise Frederick II’s genetic inheritance over what we know from the historical evidence, namely that his character, attitudes, inclination and actions were formed by his dedication to Sicily, his kingdom by birth and an inheritance through his mother’s line. To suggest that he was in any sense but the most formal a ‘German’ is a mistake – and to speak of him as “Frederick II of Hohenstaufen – evidently following Burnett’s idiosyncratic practice – creates an entirely wrong impression. He was Frederick II of Sicily. The primary sources make very clear that Frederick’s upbringing, sympathies and cultural alignment, as well as his inheritance, made him consider himself above all, a Sicilian and Sicily’s king, though it is reasonable to say that his earlier overt antipathy towards his German connections, and specifically to his uncle, reduced as their efforts to acquire the kingdom were abandoned and, later, when practical diplomacy gradually required more frequent contact with German princes after Frederick was crowned emperor of the west.

These parameters are, of course, for the purpose of tracing the lineage of the ‘November’ emblem alone, not the entire contents of Beinecke MS 408. Even so, it would be a very long study to thorough track, map and document images in that range – even just images of Scorpius or more narrowly still, Scorpius in western Christian zodiac series. Limiting the range to its very narrowest – to no more than western manuscripts’ depiction of the 12 zodiac constellations – is a large enough task and on that, Lippincott and the ‘Saxl’ project labours still.

Trying to ‘match-the-image’, across all media, within our geographic and temporal limits as one would have to do, could only be an exercise in futility when no western (Latin Christian) equivalent is known for the Voynich ‘calendar’ series or for this creature as a form for Scorpius.

So… instead, we trace the ideas which have informed the ‘November’ emblem. That is – ideas about the astronomical Scorpius, about the scorpion’s nature and/or about the month of November.

Three points to keep in mind: First – this November beast is a quadruped, shown as a single figure; 2. It faces the Scales, not the Archer. 3. It was not given the body of a scorpion.

(detail) Voynich ‘November’ beast.

Here is how crab, fresh-water ‘lobster’ and scorpion were being drawn in northern Italy in c.1440.

Our task, however, is not so nebulous as one might expect, for ps-Bede, and Scot have England in common and if the source for the 2ndC ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was ultimately Hyginus, then Scot and he may have Iberia and Italy in common. On the other hand, if Hyginus’ birthplace was Alexandria and not Iberia, as some argue, then we have full circle, because Egypt and Alexandria were major centres in which early Christianity had flowered and from which the Latin west gained its model of communal monasticism and scribal culture,* continuously trading goods during the medieval centuries – first through Jewish- and then through Italian agency.

*As one modern Benedictine from a community now based in Egypt puts it “St Anthony, St Paul the Hermit and St Pachomius are household names for any Western monastic.”

Nor do we forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s contents to be, in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’.

CONSTANTS.

To begin, we define a few constants to keep the investigation steady, and highlight evidence of transmission independent of local forms.

The easiest to identify is the reason for the skull’s inclusion – an association between November and death.

1.November – month of the dead (first constant)

In the Roman world and in western Christianity, November was the month of the dead.

In pre-Christian Rome, on November 8th, the ‘the mundus pit’ was opened, for the last time of three.*

With the lifting of the lid, which was regarded as the Gate of Hell, the spirits (manes) of the underworld emerged and could roam the streets of the city. The day was ‘holy’ (religiosus): no public business could be transacted, no battle fought, no army levied, no ships set sail, no marriage take place etc.

*scholars debate whether it was one stone or two; the other two occasions were on August 24th. and October 5th.

When Rome adopted Christianity, November remained the month of the dead.

Christianity just re-explained things. The Byzantine Church made the same date the feast of f ‘The synaxis of the holy archangel Michael and all the angelic powers’; the Russian Orthodox Church calling that day’s feast “Synaxis of the Holy Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salaphiel, Jegudiel, Barachiel, Jeremiel and the Other Bodiless Powers”.

Western (Latin) Europe, however, changed the date to November 2nd, calling it ‘All Souls Day’, and preceding it with the happier ‘All Saints Day’ on November 1st.*

*’All Hallow’s Day’ meant ‘all saints’ day’ with ‘All Hallow’s Evening’ the vigil, on the night of October 31st. But things later became a bit confused in some places, and the result has been that the modern ‘Halloween’ is celebrated in October and is about ghosts and ghouls, rather than remembering the dearly departed in heaven. There is no equivalent in the present day Coptic liturgical calendar today. The Hebrew calendar has one feast, a joyful one, in November. The Muslim liturgical calendar is based on the lunar year.

Here’s the month of November in the late-Roman Filocalia or ‘Chronography of 354’. (Don’t get excited; our November beast isn’t Anubis).

2.The Unchanging Stars. (second constant)

Our second constant is provided by the stars.

We know stars can newly appear in the sky and others vanish, but ancient and medieval peoples spoke of the stars as eternal and unchanging, the night sky as the God-given template of what had been and was to come, containing markers for ‘times, and seasons and years’.

That the figure we call Scorpius should be imagined crouching by a set of Scales at the point where the Milky Way – as a lucent road – rises from the horizon is easily understood …. it does. This (below) is what a northerner sees today in November.

That road doesn’t just rise towards the north; it also takes one down below the horizon towards the south. Lying by that road at the point of crossing from the horizon, the great scorpion was seen as an dreadful attacker in wait.

From the earlier medieval period, we have evidence that Christianity in some places retained a popular belief in that ‘road’ as the one along which one might ascend towards heaven or, alternatively, fall to the fires of the south. It’s well known that ‘south’ was the direction of the Christian Hell and South or South-west associated with Scorpius – not only by who knew how to practice astrology.

A conception of the Milky Way as ‘Road to heaven’ would not survive in the west beyond the later medieval period except for a proverb about the route to Santiago but in a manuscript copied in England in c.960-1000 AD* the whole of that celestial Way between Heaven and Hell is drawn, like an itinerary, in registers. Its having an astronomical ‘template’ is obscured by the fact that the figures are rendered in almost-orthodox Latin Christian forms.

That manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian MS Junius 11) was made in Anglo-Saxon England, yet a majority of its illustrations point to origins in a body of star-lore less than perfectly compatible with orthodox Christian theology and iconography.

  • Leslie Lockett, ‘An integrated re-examination of the dating of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11’. Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 31 (2002) pp. 141–173. [JSTOR] The astronomical basis for the images has not been widely recognised, the study of indigenous astronomies rarely intersecting with the history of Christian Europe.

In older Egypt, where the idea of ascent to the north is very old indeed,* it was initially only the king who ascended to enjoy eternal rest in that ‘island’ in the northern sky, among what they saw as the ‘sea of reeds’. The later, Christian, idea would accept that firm foundation in the north of the sky, but following Augustine define it as a ‘City of God’ into which all approved souls would be welcomed but to which Michael or other angels had to carry them.

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

Before being permitted to rise up from the horizon, though, the soul’s virtue had to be assessed – and that’s where the ‘Snatcher’ becomes involved.

Weighing the Soul.

The scene is portrayed like this in the Egyptian funerary texts and art:

I expect most readers know that a jackal-god named Anubis was the Egyptians’ guide for acceptable souls (‘hearts’ in Egyptian thought) but for hearts found wanting – ‘hearts too heavy’ as the Egyptians saw things – a different fate lay in wait.

This quadruped wasn’t worshipped, only feared. Its name was Ammit. Its nature is expressed by combining elements from the most voracious, most relentless, swiftest and fiercest of beasts that drag down their prey – crocodile, hunting hound, the lion and the hippopotamus.* Egyptian art, like Egyptian names, may use elements adjectivally, combining them much as we might combine the names of colours to express e.g. a ‘blue-green-grey.’

“The hippopotamus is the world’s deadliest land mammal, according to the BBC. They kill around 500 people every year, twice as many as lions kill.”

You saw, in that first illustration of the weighing, how Ammit was shown, as intent as any hound, waiting for the word of command before snatching away the imperfect heart-as-soul.

Here’s another expression of the scene, making clear that Ammit waits on a figure whose Christian equivalent would (much later) be the ‘Recording Angel’.

Now, it’s a curious thing that while the ‘croucher by the Scales’ became a well-known item in western Christian art and is echoed in the formal literature, folk memory of a ‘judging and recording Angel’ did not. It was transmitted unofficially, so to speak. There is not a single mention of ‘the recording angel’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia and to find an example of depiction in Christian art, I’ve had to turn to works made in nineteenth century America!

On the other hand, the Scales and dreadful ‘snatcher who drags down’ would become a common trope in western Christian art and part of the west’s formal theology.

Here we see the scene, in Christian terms, in a manuscript made in Spain about a century after the Anglo-Saxon image of the sky-road, and little more than a century before Michael Scot would travel from England to Toledo.

Trying to keep these posts under 3000 words, I’ll pause here – but I think we are now on the way to defining a third constant – the nature of the beast.

3. The Nature of the Beast (third constant)

grasping/snatching; devourer of human beings, their hearts/souls; attentive only to its master’s command; immune to all deterrents.

Below, a preview of one illustration from the next post. This shows a drawing made of a figurine found in south-western England during the eighteenth century and dated to the 1st-2ndC AD, a period when Egypt, England and Gaul were all under Roman occupation and when ps-Hyginus’ ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was written. Notice the spotted hide, here covering only the upper body -just like Ammit.

Postscript – the ‘Beast of Gévaudan,

There is no reasonable link between that figurine and a beast which was to trouble France about fifty years after the figurine was found and drawn in England, yet the animal’s description is uncannily apt and worth repeating.

The unidentified animal called the ‘Beast of Gévaudan; Occitan: La Bèstia de Gavaudan, slaughtered 500 people within three years, and across an area about fifty miles’ square. The few who survived an attack (only about 50) described it as: “the size of a calf, a cow, or, in some cases, a horse. It had an elongated head similar to that of a greyhound, with a flattened snout, pointed ears, and a wide mouth sitting atop a broad chest. The beast’s tail was also reported to have been notably longer than a wolf’s, with a prominent tuft at the end ….”

Modern rationalisations have supposed it “an unusual form of wolf” or “from a hound cross-bred with a feral dog”, or “a beast brought from elsewhere”. Some have suggested, with more reason, that it may have been a specimen of the Australian Thylacine, now extinct, but which certainly could have been carried to France in the eighteenth century. The difficulty is that the Thylacine does not – no more than does a wolf – have a tuft at the end of its tail. And stories of a great ‘Hell hound’ are reported in England, too, to as late as the eighteenth century.

Skies above: elevated souls Pt.1 (moral character)

About the ‘ladies in baskets’ on folio 70v-i….(cont.)  

So far, the research had identified certain  environments where we find the same informing ideas; where, for example, it was not considered  odd  to liken the stars to a series of baskets, and where it was equally acceptable  to speak of the stars as a ‘conclave’ of some kind, but one outstanding problem which must be addressed before we go further is  that of perceived moral character.

‘Good women’.

That the month-diagrams should envisage the heavens’ denizens as mainly females, and show a good number of those unclothed presents a blank opposition to the mores of medieval Latin Europe.

The heavens were understood to be a destination assigned only to the good – and no  ‘good woman’ was depicted in medieval Latin art unclothed and (to use Panofsky’s expression) “shapely”.

Even the constellation of Virgo was normally to be found dressed by then, and when one of Gemini’s twins was depicted as a unclothed female (at least until 1440) she was meant for a sexless, or a married woman, or as the temptress Eve – who according to some popular traditions was never accepted into heaven. (Dante side-stepped the issue and does not specify Eve’s location in the circles of heaven, purgatory or hell, unless it be directly below those ‘four holy stars’ he saw as he emerged from the underworld. I do not think Par. 32.4-6 means Eve, but the Magdalen – cf  Purg. 28.93-94 … but that’s all by the bye).

It wasn’t only Latin tradition which defined, by default, any unclothed ‘shapely’ female as less than moral; the same was true in most communities of the medieval Mediterranean (and no, I’m not forgetting the diagram in Vat.gr. 1291).

It was that discrepancy between the Voynich drawings and the usual (Wilfrid-Friedman) narrative which led me to doubt the ‘Latin author’ idea very early in my acquaintance with Beinecke MS 408.

Naturally I had begun, as most do, by supposing there must be some original body of solid study informing ideas contained in the Beinecke catalogue description, and the sources everywhere recommended, but this matter of the ‘ladies’ led me to enquire further and to the conclusion that the usual theory had no solid foundation, only elaborate superstructure, and that this had been the case since 1912. I am only speaking of interpretation given the images and the quasi-historical narratives.

The usual flaw in them has been to presume correct some assumption or other, and to select images, or add commentary less to explain the images themselves than to convice a reader that the theory is plausible.  This is why discussions most often focus on points of ‘similarity’ while ignoring as irrelevant all the points of difference.

One of the best comparisons for the month-diagram’s tiered figures that I have seen was Ellie Velinska’s, as I’ve said before.  Among more recent offerings has been that included in a post by  JK Petersen from a manuscript which he cites as  ‘Darmstadt c.1390’.

I have not been able to locate that manuscript, but found another illustration of the same kind at the Courtauld Iconographic Database (here) and will later reproduce a detail from it.

The image illustrates a parable from Matthew Ch.25, verses 1-16, the last two verses stating the story’s moral and beginning “You are to be the light of the world…’.

Here is another illustration of that same parable, and from yet another copy of Speculum Humanae Salvationis ( Brit. Sloane MS 361, folio 44r).  Note that the ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’ maids (a term often rendered as ‘virgins’) are given simple dress, but the  five  ‘wise’ maids are placed in the higher register and crowned while the five ‘foolish’ maids are assigned the lower level.

Those lamp-bearing maids are always ten in number in these illustrations  –   another point of difference from the Voynich month diagrams.

In still another copy, made somewhat later in the fifteenth century, the moral message is expressed more forcefully. The picture says, in effect,  “either carry the Christian light or stoke the fires (of hell).” (Brit.Lib. Harley ms 2838),

Differences:

  1.  these ‘maids’ are always neatly dressed and coiffed
  2. they are never  in baskets, tubs, or buckets,
  3. In  images of this type they always carry ‘lamps’ of a contemporary sort:  apparently of coarse pottery, cup-shaped,  and when provided with a hand-grip, evidently designed to set in a sconce or (if without hand-grip) to be set on a flat surface.  Illustration (right) from the Corsiana ms copy of the Spec.Hum.Salv., courtesy of the Courtauld Iconographic Database.
  4. The flames are never depicted without a lamp.
  5. The flames are never depicted as flowers or as stars
  6. The flames are never ‘tied’ to the maids by a stem- or string.
  7. The figures’ bodies are never shown deformed or with ‘boneless’ limbs.

Though the Gospel text speaks specifically of oil in the lamps, Orthodox imagery could depict the light as a rush or taper.  The example shown (below, left) is from a mural in the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Pec. And in this case again the ‘wise’ are envisaged as ennobled by their acceptance into heaven.

The thinking behind this Orthodox imagery can be explained conveniently by quoting a passage from Chrysostom’s eighth homily on I Thess. He is  speaking of the same theme: Christ’s return at the end of days:

And upon the coming of an affectionate father (i.e. the deity), his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain [shut] indoors.

 I have cited Chrysostom over others because he was a native of Antioch; his period of greatest productivity was the third quarter of the fourth century AD, and thereafter his writings were widely disseminated and as well known by medieval times to the Latin as to the Orthodox churches. All thought (and think) very highly of Chrysostom, but I confess I cannot warm to the man.

On anachronism: When attempting to elucidate a medieval religious image, care should be taken to avoid anachronistic sources. Ideas widely disseminated today under the rubric ‘Christian’ may not have been part of the medieval Christian way of thought before 1440.

More

Some are positively antithetical to the norms of both western and eastern Christianity to that time. For example, a version of the Bible recently issued by an American fundamentalist sect omits passages and episodes they consider incompatible with their vision of Christ as a military figure and ‘fundamentalist’ in the modern American manner. Their text thus uses for the word ‘disciples’  a term specific to the military and excludes an episode from the Christian gospels in which Christ refuses to sanction the stoning of a woman taken in adultery… and so on.

In other cases, a post-medieval source is to be avoided simply because it is flawed.  I regret to say that the King James’ Bible (1611) is in this category, despite its being so widely and deservedly revered for the beauty of its English. The Revised Authorised version is more widely used today.   In my own work I have found most reliable (since the 1980s) the NIV interlinear bible. It was produced by a co-operation of well respected Biblical scholars of the Christian and the Jewish faith.  Its comments and scholia thus unite modern historical research with the long tradition of religious commentary proper to each of those faiths, and it presents, line by line in parallel with the offered translation the original texts in their original languages.  It does not include certain books, known as the Deuterocanonicals  which were everywhere accepted in medieval Europe to 1519 and included in all bibles until the publication of Luther’s Bible in 1534. To explain various visual and verbal allusions in earlier manuscripts and art, the Deutos are needed too.

There are neither lamps, nor tapers, depicted in the hands of the Voynich figures –  male or female, clothed or unclothed- in the month diagrams. Nor are their bodies depicted in a way commensurate with medieval Latin conventions, nor those of Orthodox Christian art. There is nothing in the depiction of their bodies to suggest they were designed to convey any Christian message. 

The Voynich “lamp” on folio 8ov.

The nearest we have to a lamp’s depiction is a type of horn-‘lamp’ on folio 80v – another of the ‘ladies’ sections.  I have already  compared it with Hellenistic and later images in the analyses published at Voynich imagery – and from a post of 2016 reproduce the image of the coin (below, centre). It is not a ‘cornucopia’, but it is a horn.

 

So – once more the imagery directs us away from medieval Latin (western European) Christian culture and, by way of earlier, and eastern Christianity, to the pre-Christian period.

Bearing in mind that there are many more than ten, or twelve ‘ladies’ in the tiers of each month-diagram in the Voynich manuscript, we should not expect any easy correspondence with the usual depictions of the zodiac, or anything of that sort, but an image first brought to notice by Dana Scott (so far as I can discover) as been so constantly re-presented since then – rarely with proper credit given – that it must be considered here.  The diagram in question is on folio 9r Vat.gr. 1291, dated to the eighth century by some scholars, and to the ninth by others.

Differences:

  1. Nowhere does the Beinecke manuscript depict a chariot; it has no crowned rider, nor indeed any sort of horseman.
  2. None of the Voynich month-diagrams is amenable to twelve’fold radial division, and the number of tiers in folio 70v-i is only two.
  3. The Voynich figures hold star-flowers, often with strings or stems – none of those in this diagram do.
  4. the zodiac in the outer (highest) circle of this diagram shows no close correspondence to the central emblems of the month-diagrams in the Voynich manuscript.

So all it tells us, essentially, is that in the ninth century, somewhere in the Byzantine empire  but probably in Constantinople, an effort was made to render into Christianised form information gained from earlier sources of which some may have had a Christian origin, as the matter of its written text does not.

Point of similarity:

In only one point does it shed any light on images in the Voynich month diagrams, that is, that the bodies of the figures described as ’12 holy virgins’ display some characteristics in common with the way the unclothed female figures are drawn in the Voynich month-diagrams.

Their description as ’12 holy virgins’ is another part of the  effort (largely unsuccessful and short-lived) to re-interpret this pre-Christian imagery in Christian terms.   I suspect the bridge between the 12 female figures and their Christian description depended on the ‘Shepherd of Hermas.

At least they are unclothed. We might fairly describe their limbs as rubbery-looking.  Their hair seems to have been cropped  and this, with the other characteristics, suggests they were originally envisaged as  ‘women of an hour’.

 

Dawn light.

One of the 12  holds an object not unlike the ‘cup-lamps’ in those Latin images shown earlier (e.g. the Corsiana manuscript) and I read it as signifying the hour of dawn,  ‘lighting the Sonne’s return’. It might even be meant for the dawn star, Venus, but I do not insist on it, nor that we see here a flame rather than, say, burning incense.  The object might even be a horn, rather than a small lamp or burner; to decide the issue one would have to see the manuscript itself.

Sources:

Vat gr.1291 has been the subject of much scholarly attention, but most of it has been paid the written part of the text.

Franz Boll described both text and miniatures and although he has been dead for a hundred years, and his work since been emended and many of his guiding theories disproved or disputed, his name should at least be mentioned.   Sources more often cited today include Spatharkis of Leiden University, and Timothy Janz.

 

  • Timothy Janz, ‘The scribes and the date of the Vat.gr.1291’, In Miscellanea Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticanae, Vol X (2003), pp.159-175* and plates. I-V.
  • Ionannis Spatharakis, ‘Some Observations On The Ptolemy Ms. Vat. Gr. 1291: Its Date And The Two Initial Miniatures’,  Byzantinische Zeitschrift 71 (1):41-49 (1978)
  • ______________, Corpus of Dated Illuminated Greek Manuscripts to the Year 1453, Leiden, 1981.
  • ______________, Studies in Byzantine Manuscript Illumination and Iconography (1996 – collected papers)

 

Voynich stars as guiding lights ‘of the hour’.

There is nothing in the image from Vat.gr.1291 or from the illustrations of the ‘wise and foolish maids’ which allows any inference about the content of the Voynich month diagrams or their labels – certainly not enough to justify suggesting the Voynich labels or text derives the content of Vat.gr.1291 or of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis.

There may be a more general, conceptual, link, and for its linguistic basis the first and most obvious possibility is the [Gk.] horae and false (‘folk’) etymologies attaching to it.

Some slight evidence for a link to Ptolemy’s tables is offered by similarities between the style of drawing for unclothed Voynich ‘ladies’ in the bathy section and Gemini’s depiction in Sassoon 823 (UPenn LJS 057), which latter manuscript  I introduced, noted, hunted out and illustrated at Voynichimagery even before UPenn had catalogued it, or put a digitised copy online.

I have since seen the  reference used by one or two Voynicheros, but always without mention of the  analytical commentary, comparative images and conclusions I provided (or any mention of my name).  The same bad practices and the same culprits have so often abused the generosity of those contributing original finds and research to this study since the early 2000s that one reaches a point where it seems pointless to keep feeding the pigeons.  Partly on my own account, and partly in self-imposed solidarity with the numerous others similarly treated I closed voynichimagery in 2017.

For the same reason, I’ll say no more about my own investigation of the Voynich figures as ‘of the hour’, though I will say the answer requires, first, careful investigation of the range of meaning for an ‘hour’ – the answer is not any simple ’12’ or ’12×2′.