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

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

Edit (9th Oct ) – to add link for MS Vatican, BAV, Reg. lat. 1324.

It’s no secret, I think, that I’m fiercely opposed to theory-first approaches to this or any other manuscript. To form a theory without a solid preliminary grounding is to use nothing but your imagination, and who knows if your imagination contains enough?

We’ve seen how ideas which were initially no more than a subjective impression from one person could create a lasting and negative effect in this manuscript’s study – as Newbold’s impressionistic description of its sections continues to do, and as did O’Neill’s baseless assertion that among the plant-pictures was a specimen-drawing of an American sunflower, and his fantasy that sunflowers been brought from north America by Columbus.

We’ve also seen* how, to suit no more than a theory about the calendar and its emblems, the primary evidence has been altered, tweaked and redefined to cover up those elements which present objection to the traditionalist, zodiac-focused, expectation.

*for details see page HERE.

No intention to deceive informs that distortion of the evidence, but perhaps an unreasonable confidence that this calendar ought to conform more nearly to present-day expectations and to Wilfrid’s theory of all-Latin origin and character for everything in the manuscript.

Over-confidence in such theoretical norms leads to a curious reversal of priorities: what comes to be researched is not the manuscript, but the theory. We are urged to believe that the doubled months are irrelevant; that the crocodile is irrelevant; that the assignment of image-to month, and the language of the month-names are ALL irrelevant, and the maker someone at fault, a person to be blamed or excused because the Voynich calendar does not, in fact, present the zodiac series, does contain doubled months.. and so on.

Our position is that the manuscript is as it is, and our task is to establish the reason it is as it is. If it diverges from someone’s theoretical norm, then what needs to be changed is their theory.

So if we set aside, for the time being, that old habit of expecting to see a zodiac, what the manuscript presents in fact is fairly clear evidence that while the month-names speak of a calendar of some kind, this isn’t formed in just twelve sections according to the sequence of zodiac signs-constellations.

And there is absolutely no reason it should be. It is entirely possible to describe the annual cycle without making any reference to the zodiac band of 12.

Another traditional assumption which I think we may fairly doubt is a theory that the quires were inscribed in much the same time and place as the manuscript’s content was first expressed.

That tacit assumption is a false analogy with book-publication, or newspapers. That newly produced works contain only locally produced and current ‘news’. It was an idea which once led to a Voynich memer – evidently a supporter of the Prinke-Zandbergen theory – announcing to all within range that to consider any but fifteenth-century German manuscripts was “unnecessary” and a waste of time.

Complete nonsense though it was, that meme is a good example of how badly unreasonable faith in a theory can distort a person’s historical perspective and sense of balance.

We have seen evidence which indicates that c.1350 AD may be a likely date for first expression of the manuscript’s content in western Europe, but there is enough evidence too of copying from earlier precedents or exemplars to leave open the question of where and when most of the matter was first enunciated.

Recognising that distinction means that we can to a large extent uncouple the contained matter from the medium in which it is presently contained, and instead of hunting ways to justify the old assumptions, focus on researching the content as it is – and in our case these drawings. We are now able to make our chief aim, to understand what the original maker intended in this section with its doubled months, its figures in baskets and crocodile for November. What ties us to western shores are the month-names and the lobsters and – less certainly – the form given the Archer. The form given the Scales presents a strong objection to positing first composition in medieval Latin Europe. But that’s a matter for another time..

A calendar needs no zodiac

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

To illustrate this point Hesiod’s Works and Days will do. It is a poem as old as Homer and much older than Eudoxus’ work; it remained just as well known to the Greek-speaking world into the fifteenth century.

It was known to Greek-speaking Romans such as Cicero – the Roman whose oratory was beloved by Renaissance-era Italians and from whose translation of Aratus, as we saw, the term ‘Arcitenens’ came as epithet or name for the Archer constellation.

Cicero had known Hesiod’s work in the original Greek and from the easy way he alludes to one of Hesiod’s maxims in offering a friend advice, it seems that the text might have been a standard school-boy’s text in his time. Cicero does no more than write the maxim’s first couple of words – in the Greek – when suggesting his friend should have his boy learn that maxim by heart.*

*Gianpiero Rosati, ‘The Latin Reception of Hesiod’ (academia.edu) cites that letter

After the imperial capital became Byzantium, and the city of Milan was designated administrative capital for the emperor’s western domains, Hesiod’s description of the year continued to be part of the Byzantine heritage and his Works and Days seems to have been treated as standard text on the management of an estate, or farm, because Byzantine copies are often illustrated with what may be the full inventory of a property’s agricultural tools and implements. .

Hesiod’s year begins with harvest. I paraphrase to emphasise his markers of the months and seasons. Readers will recognise some of the seasonal vignettes as ones that became standard in western ‘Labours of the Months’.

He says, first, that the rising of the Pleiades begins, and their setting ends, the cycle between harvesting one crop and ploughing in preparation for the next.

Autumn is the time for wood-cutting, and is marked by Sirius’ passing overhead for a shorter time and for a longer period at night.

Pass by the smithy and its crowded lounge in winter time when the cold keeps men from field work, lest bitter winter [next year] catch you helpless and poor, and you chafe a swollen foot with a shrunk hand.

Sixty wintry days after the solstice, there rises at dusk the brilliant star Arcturus. After him … the swallow appears when spring is just beginning., Before the swallow comes, the vines should be pruned.

Then, when snails appear climbing up plants from the earth, it is no longer the season for digging vineyards, but time to whet your [hand-] sickles .. During the harvest season, avoid shady seats and sleeping even as late as dawn … Be busy and bring home your fruits.

In the time of wearisome heat, while slaves or servants harvest the grain, when the artichoke flowers and when the chirping grass-hopper sits in a tree pouring down his song, it is time to relax a little and enjoy the fresh Zephyr …but you should thrice pour an offering of water, and a fourth libation of wine.

Winnowing time is known by the first appearance of Orion, and then even the dog with jagged teeth should be fed well, lest the Day-sleeper [robber/thief] take your goods. 

The sign for the time of harvesting grapes is that Orion and Sirius come into the midheaven, and dawn sees Arcturus (as previously said) … But when the Pleiades and Hyades and strong Orion all begin to set, that is the time again to plough the land in season: “and so the completed year will fitly pass beneath the earth”

You see the point – It is perfectly possible to illustrate the sequence of months and their labours without any reference to the zodiac. In fact, a correspondence between agricultural periods and other natural phenomena – dominant winds, migratory birds and animal behaviours – is more reliable than linking them to the stars, for the stars are affected by precession. Sirius does not rise in the same month now that it did in the 8thC BC.

  • M. L. West, ‘The Medieval Manuscripts of the Works and Days’, The Classical Quarterly, DVol. 24, No. 2 (Dec., 1974), pp. 161-185.
  • Anthony Bryer, ‘Byzantine Agricultural Implements: The Evidence of Medieval Illustrations of Hesiod’s “Works and Days”, The Annual of the British School at Athens , Vol. 81 (1986), pp. 45-80. one copy, in the Greek, is in the same library as Beinecke MS 408 (Yale, Beinecke Library MS. 254 = Phillipps 3875.


Romans used wall-calendars in the most literal sense.

The example below was found in the remains of a Roman domus, beneath Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The finders describe it as a panel from one such wall-calendar, though whether it is designed to show the uncertain life of seamen, or to reinforce Hesiod’s disapproval of farmers who venture in trade I don’t know. Despite his disapproval, Hesiod offers practical advice about boats, too:

“when the Pleiades plunge into the misty sea to escape Orion’s rude strength .. gales of all kinds rage … Haul up your ship upon the land and pack it closely with stones … draw out the bilge-plug put away all the tackle and fittings in your house, stow the wings of the sea-going ship neatly, and hang up the well-shaped rudder over the smoke.

The Christian Calendar.

The time of harvest is around September, and many older calendars began the year then, including the Christian calendar from which the western Church would deviate.

The first Christian Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD, decreed that the Church’s year should begin on September 1st, citing as its Biblical precedent the Jews’ civil year (as given in Exodus 12:12) and for its Christian reference Constantine’s victory of Mazentius in 312 AD,* following which Constantine had recognised Christianity as a religion acceptable to the Roman empire.*

*Modern scholars date that battle 28 October.

I’ll admit that comparative calendars isn’t one of my favourite areas of study, but since we’re dealing with a calendar of unknown origin and date, copied to appear now within our fifteenth-century artefact, and since all the skills associated with calculation and computing were introduced and fostered in older Europe in the context of calendar calculations, the subject is unavoidable.

By the time of that Council, there had already been some strife about the date on which Christ’s resurrection should be honoured, and now there was a split developing between those who did, and those who did not, identify that date with the date of the Jewish celebration of Passover, commemorating the Egyptian Jews’ crossing over the Red Sea and passing from slavery into relative freedom.

Although it had been the Romans who ordered Christ’s death, it was hardly practical for early Christians to blame the Romans and they blamed the Jews instead, this making observance of the Jewish Passover – as the date of Easter – somewhat fraught.

The Jews, it was correctly understood, observed their holy day on fourteenth day of Nisan, which might occur on any day of the week. Those who kept Easter with the Jews had soon been limited to a few churches of Asia minor, but now the concern was how to scrutinise and try to make uniform the date for Easter throughout the Christian-Roman empire. Constantine himself attended the council and it was he who made the decision in favour of Alexandria’s system, though diplomatically suggesting it was

…in the hope that your Wisdoms will gladly admit that practice which is observed at once in the city of Rome and in Africa, throughout Italy and in Egypt. . .


In short, the eastern churches of Syria and Mesopotamia were at odds with the Roman-as-Roman world, which included north Africa and Alexandria. Those eastern churches, and the important church of Antioch, were relying on the Jewish calendar, against Alexandria and territories longer under imperial Roman rule which were now calculating Easter’s date for themselves.

Some Christians claimed that differences between Alexandria and Antioch were due to nothing but the latter’s relying on the Jews’ method of calculation, to which charge Rome and Alexandria joined in asserting that the Jews ” had become neglectful of the law that the fourteenth of Nisan must never precede the equinox” and Constantine makes suitable noises indicating shock and astonishment in his letter of response, having been informed that the Jews sometimes kept two Paschs in one year, meaning that two Paschs sometimes fell between one equinox and the next.

Could that be why the Voynich calendar has doubled months for April and for May?

Deciding that question is a task for people who relish working with problematic numbers – but it would certainly be interesting to learn in which years that might have happened, between (say) 325 AD and 1350 AD. (it will involve understanding embolismic months).

Antioch is obviously of interest, too, for as I pointed out (longer ago than I care to remember), the Voynich calendar’s beardless goats are drawn with swollen cheeks in a way closely similar to those which served as Antioch’s own motif. I regret that I no longer have the image I used as illustration, and which was of a mosaic from that city.

But here is part of another mosaic, this from Ravenna in Byzantine Italy (6thC AD). It shows the apostle Paul, given a blue halo and shown sinking down from a tower in Antioch – lowered in a basket.

Before breaking, a few points should be made clear.

  1. That a specifically Christian calendar only emerged after the mid-fourth century AD, an thereafter evolved over time – over a surprising length of time – and not without debates, disputes and divisions in which each party termed all others heretical.
  2. That the basis for western Europe’s Christian calendar, for its Christian doctrine, and for its Christian monasticism were all from the eastern Mediterranean, something the western church remained keenly aware of.
  3. That the western church had a recurring problem with movements urging a return to an older, more ascetic and ‘pristine’ Christianity, an idea which even to as late as the 1440s was typically identified with early Christian Egypt. By that time, the western Church did not much appreciate the idea, having in the meantime declared all other forms of Christian observance heretical, schismatic and so forth.
  4. And finally that the manuscript overall shows so very little evidence of Christian beliefs and (more importantly) of those stylistic customs which define the art of late medieval Latin Europe, that while exploring the possibility of Christian origin for the Calendar’s emblems, we should not presume the Calendar itself any expression of western Christian culture.

In the next post, I’ll look at one very early semi-Christian calendar, and then at a manuscript first brought to notice in Voynich studies, as I understand, by Mr. J.K. Petersen (Oxford Bodleian MS Douce 313) . It contains these drawings:

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

Postscript – Cicero’s translation of Aratus – mss.

According to Dobcheva, (on the Aratea Digital site), there are only a few manuscript copies of Cicero’s translation remaining, viz:

O’Donovan notes #8.6 – peripheral ‘North’ in fol.67v-1.,

c.4000 words

Note – [27th July] wordpress had kindly let me see images that I’d lazily just copied-and-pasted from my earlier work. Apparently they were not allowing anyone else to see them, which is reminder to me not to take the lazy way in future. If any are still invisible to you, leave a comment or email me.

The author’s rights are asserted.

The ‘T-0’ issue

Those determined to maintain the old Eurocentric narrative have encountered a major difficulty in the fact that there is no evidence of Catholic forms and themes despite its having been the core about which western literacy developed.

It is therefore understandable that a traditionalist whose aim is to find or create support for that Eurocentric Wilfrid- Friedman narrative or some variation of it, will feel inclined to leap on any evidence of input from the Latin west. Despite there being quite literally hundreds of drawings and details in this manuscript that have no counterpart in medieval Latin Europe’s visual vocabulary, the existence of just one Latin practice may well be flourished as proof-positive that everything in the manuscript is an expression of western Christian (‘Latin’) culture and an assertion of Latin gate-keeping over anything which is too obviously ‘foreign’.

One nicely problematic instance is provided by the peripheral north emblem on folio 67v-1.

Biblical Noah, his three sons and Isidore’s little sketch.

Latin Europeans had included together with specifically Christian writings (Gospels, Acts, Epistles), many books of Jewish law and teachings to become their Bible, although few Latins read the Jewish works other than in Latin translation and very, very rarely consulted the Jewish commentaries of which most Latins seem to have remained ignorant.

The Jewish law and writings were also read by Muslims and quite apart from the written tradition, popular tradition itself throughout the near east maintained that after a great flood, none had survived on earth save Noah, his three sons, their wives and such creatures as were taken into the Ark.

Among Latins, however, the habit was to ignore Noah thereafter, and suppose that the world had been divided between- and re-populated by the three sons: Ham occupying Africa; Shem Asia and Japheth, Europe.

That notion was believed, quite literally, by European Christians to as late as the seventeenth century. It was also the origin of the ‘T-O’ diagram of which various Voynicheros have made much, and the earliest example of which comes from a copy of Isidore’s Etymologies.

T-O diagrams were always oriented with largest area of the three always Asia, and always separated Asia from the rest of the world by a line drawn directly along a North-South line.

So there’s a first problem.

This isn’t how the apparent ‘T-O’ diagram is drawn and aligned on folio 67v-1. Instead, the line is drawn at forty-five degrees from that North-South line. Again, I’ve turned the page north-up for readers’ convenience, and shown the European ‘T-O’ diagrams as they were drawn – East up (upper register) and then turned North-up (lower register).


As you see, this emblem in the Voynich manuscript can be described as a ‘T-O’ not because the underlying drawing shows the circuit divided in that way, but because of how the pigments have been added. And here I want to emphasise the detail and precision with which one face of the four has been drawn.

FIG. 2

It would be very helpful to know whether the lines marking this circle into three were laid down by the draughtsman-copyist or were a decision made by the overseer-painter(s) whose presence is evidenced in many of the manuscript’s drawings.

So now what do we have here? Was the emblem designed as a ‘T-0’ or has the painter thrust ‘T-O’-ness upon it? Short of spectral analysis I could not offer any opinion save ‘unproven’. (I have checked the reverse using the Beinecke scans and in my copy of the facsimile edition but while what one sees is certainly interesting, and the circle itself is clear, the lines of division are again defined by the pigment, not the underlying drawing.

FIG. 3

And neither the drawing itself, nor the pigments explain why the division between Asia and the rest of the world has been differently defined: that is, not by the simple North-South division we find in the Latin T-O diagrams. It’s another instance of why these peripheral emblems do not seem ‘native’ neither according to the Arab, nor to the Latin context.

Of course, there are numerous examples of a four-fold division of the heavens and of the earth, including diagonal divisions which were most natural (for example) in the ornament given a dome. Here’s one from Byzantine-influenced Sicily during the 12thC.

FIG. 4 Cathedral_of_Cefalù Sicily ca. 1150 A.D

Another drawing from the 12thC correlates another type of fourfold division with the tripartite division of the circle.

FIG. 5. “This manuscript contains a collection of fragments from England and France in the 11th and 12th centuries. It consists of the sorts of materials that were studied in monastic and cathedral schools in this period, including works on philosophy, theology, logic, cosmology and computus (the calculation of times and dates). Appropriately, a picture of a lesson also appears .. (f. 126r). It shows a teacher instructing a group of students about the world, signified by the disk he holds. One student counts on his fingers, another takes notes on a writing tablet, and a third studies a booklet.” The manuscript is one which had been in the library of St.Victor, one of a number seized during the Revolution and which are now in the BNF, sequentially numbered.

and then, from late in the fifteenth century, we find a divergence appear – a traditional ‘T-O’ in a manuscript written in humanist script, versus one written in a “neat, mercantile script”.

FIG. 6

The first example comes from a copy of Gregorio Dati’s ‘Sfera’, described by the holding library as:

A navigational treatise in the form of a poem, with numerous illustrations and maps, written in Pesaro on 7 August 1484.”

Boston Public Libary. The manuscript has not been digitised at the time of writing.

The second comes from another copy of the same work, described by the holding library as

Manuscript on paper .. of Gregorio (or Leonardo?) Dati, ‘La Sfera’. This rhyming treatise (ottava rima) is divided into two parts: 1) a treatise on astronomy; 2) rules for navigation and the determination of the position of the sea.

Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. This manuscript has been digitised. A detailed description and bibliographic record was created by BPL staff based on description by Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis.

It will be recalled (by those who read the posts about dissemination of a ‘4’ shape for the numeral) that introduction and dissemination for that ‘4’ shape occurs in just this same environment (mercantile, computing and navigational) and, further, that the numeral in that form is recorded as early as 1375 – again in a map using the ‘rose-gridded’ style of the new maritime charts.

This great map by Cresques, a Jewish cartographer in Majorca, at a time when none but Genoese and those Majorcan-Jewish cartographers were producing such charts for the Latin world.

More, in that same work we find confirmation that there was a belief then prevalent among the Jews that world after the flood had been divided into four parts, not three, with Noah’s portion being western north Africa where he re-planted the vine – that is, the grape-vine.

That view of the world’s division after the flood was widespread among the Jews, many believing that North Africa had been the original promised land.

Readers may also recall that it was from the south-western Mediterranean and chiefly from North Africa that the new Hindu-Arabic numerals and related forms of calculation were first encountered by Latins, brought to Europe by merchants who encountered them being taught in specifically commercial schools (called ‘abaco’ or ‘abacus’ schools by Latins) of which to that time Latin Europe had none. The numerals and the development of merchants’ “calculation schools” spread in tandem and the students – both adult merchants and their sons – were more interested in practical skills that served their own practical needs than in the theoretical and academic style of the universities.

The convention of separating ‘commercial’ from ‘academic’ streams in education would in fact continue in the western education (or more exactly systems of education in the European sphere) well into the twentieth century.

I am not suggesting that any part of the Voynich text copies Dati’s Sfera – apart from other considerations, that easily-memorised school-text was not produced until August of 1484 – but what it contains was certainly known earlier and it is in the same environment of practical, commercial and navigational knowledge that the peripheral emblems on folio 67v-1 fit best.

What I would suggest is that the diagram might have been meant to have four divisions, not three and that the ‘overseer’-painter has attempted to exercise a form of censorship-as-correction to bring this diagram into line with the ‘official’ forms of traditional Latin scholastics gained from Aristotle and/or Sacrobosco.

As to the stars we find here, they are ones vital to navigation within the northern hemisphere.

What follows was first explained by me in 2012, met by silence – as again when I re-presented the information for the new audience in 2017. Since I find no reason to change my identification and explanation for the four stars and their role in signalling ‘North’, I see no reason not to offer the information to a still more recent and more engaged audience. This is taken from the version published in ‘Ring-o’-Roses Pt 2-ii of 2′ (last updated in 2017), and details as I expressed them in ‘Crux and Ursa Minor in the Voynich manuscript’, voynichimagery.

FIG. 7 – Square inc ‘Brothers’ – Ursa minor

Preliminary comment:

As I said, when first explaining this North emblem … it seems so very long ago now, but perhaps that impression is magnified by the ensuing silence … the reference here is to  Ursa minor, whose β and γ stars  were widely known by terms such  as the ‘Guards’, or ‘faithful ones’, for their continually patrolling the perimeter of the north, circling about the  Pole and serving as a reliable means to mark the watches of the night, guide the traveller, and allow  determination of the Pole star’s position when it is obscured.[1]

[1] all the above has been explained in more detail in earlier posts.  e.g. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘fol 67v-i ~ chronological strata’,  (first published April 6th 2012; re-printed with minor edits through voynichimagery.wordpress.com October 18th., 2012).The last five years’ work [2012-2017] has refined my reading of various drawings in this manuscript, but I find no reason to alter the explanation provided for this detail from folio 67v-1, and though I no longer think (as I did in 2012) that we must invoke the Armenians as middle-men, it remains a possibility.

South of (below, beneath, under) the Pole star… Polaris and β Ursa Minoris.

FIG. 8 Ursa minor – constellation

Ursa Minor as ‘Phoenicians’ marker of the Pole.

It is important, here, to recall that classical Greek and Roman navigators had not used Polaris, or Ursa Minor to determine the point of the northern celestial Pole.

Thus Manilius

The top of the Axis is occupied by constellations well known to hapless mariners, guiding them over the measureless deep in their search for gain. Helice, the greater [-Bear], describes the greater arc; it is marked by seven stars which vie with each other in radiance; under its guidance the ships of Greece set sail to cross the seas. Cynosura [the lesser Bear] is small and wheels about in a narrow circle, less in brightness as it is in size, but in the judgement of the Tyrians it excels the larger Bear. Carthaginians count it the surer guide when at sea they make for unseen shores.

  • Manilius, Astronomica 1.294-302. (1st C. AD)

while Edwin Brown points out that the distinction became a proverbial one:

It became a literary topos that the Greeks guided themselves by the Greater Bear, the Phoenicians by the Lesser … And Gundel is surely right in giving this Phoenician practice as the primary reason why “the majority’ ‘ according to the Eratosthenic Epitome call the Little Bear Phoenice.

Edwin Brown, ‘The Origin of the Constellation Name “Cynosura” ‘, Orientalia, Nova Series, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1981), pp. 384-402

and so ‘Poinike/Phoenike/Phenice’ etc. also became labels for Polaris, while Cynosura became a common term for its constellation, Ursa minor.    But that name for Polaris also deserves a reminder for readers that the label by the North star in folio 68r-1 is, in my opinion, meant to read with the same sense.

FIG. 9 (detail) fol 68r-1.  The North Star.
FIG 10

It is not certain that the Phoenician mirror (detail illustrated right) meant to represent the Dioscuri, but this large ‘compass’-star means they may represent the ‘Guards’ of Polaris who then, as now, could assist those at sea in finding the position of the Pole if that star itself was obscured and for counting the hours of the night watches.

The clearest explanation for the latter use, when it came to be employed by Latin navigators, is offered by E.G.R. Taylor.

FIG 11 from E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven-Finding Art (1971 edition).

For the more on medieval practice in the west, see

  • E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven Finding Art (1971 edition)

for vocabulary used in the Mediterranean:

Alan Hartley, ‘Astronomical Names in the Romance Languages of Western Europe from Late Antiquity to Early Modern Times”, Romance Philology, Vol. 73 No 2, (2019), pp. 507-30 and his website ‘Logotheros‘.

added (2022) for recent research into the Phoenicians of the west

  • José Suárez Padilla et.al., ‘The Phoenician diaspora in the westernmost Mediterranean: recent discoveries’, Antiquity Vol. 95 (384) pp. 1-16.
  • Carolina López-Ruiz, Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean (2022)

However, the easier course is often taken today, using stars in Ursa Major.  The following diagram is not literal.

FIG. 12

The Mediterranean’s ‘Phoenician starand later western navigators.

Taylor mentions that, for the Latin west, the system which recognised ‘the Guards’ was known “at least by the time of Ramon Llull” – once again turning our attention to the south-western Mediterranean, Majorca and North-west Africa during that period of most interest to us in attempting to discover when the matter in Beinecke MS 408 entered Latin horizons. Ramon Llull was born in Majorca and lived from 1232 to 1315/16, contemporary with the first maker of those ‘rose-gridded’ charts in the Latin world. Pietro Vesconte was a Genoese whose work flourished 1310-1330.

By good fortune, a couple of classical works survive whose authors explain why the Pole star gained its name as ‘ Phoenice’.  No such record exists of how its constellation, Ursa Minor, came to be called  Cynosura  and the question had puzzled historians of astronomy and etymologists, both.  Edwin Brown addressed the question once more in 1981, and satisfactorily resolved it, though his paper is not well known, and is all too rarely cited.

  • Edwin Brown, ‘The Origin of the Constellation Name “Cynosura” ‘, Orientalia, Nova Series, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1981), pp. 384-402.

However, since this section of my post is more relevant to an image on another folio in Beinecke MS 408, I omit for the present post (2022) much of what followed.

* * * * * * *

FIG. 13 (detail) folio 67v-1

Identity of stars used for ‘North’ in folio 67v.

While I assume that the single ‘North’ star seen inside the diagram proper should represent Polaris, It might then be considered problematic as to whether the four stars used in the peripheral emblem are intended to refer to Ursa minor or to Ursa major, but just as we saw a trace of eastern influence retained in the diagram on folio 85r (part), so again I believe the Asiatic face signifies eastern influence in content and not just in form.

As I did in the original post, I note again that Hinkley Allen speaks of  β Ursa minoris‘ being known to the Chinese as ‘the emperor’ and the larger of the constellation’s doubled stars (γ1) as ‘the crown prince’. On both counts, however, the paper by Y. Maeyama must be preferred though it requires no alteration of my identifications for these four stars: i.e. that the ‘four stars’ are stars of Ursa minor; do not include the Pole star itself, and thus that the Asiatic face is a personification for β Ursa minoris.

We must differ from Maeyama only on one point: β  Ursa minoris is not ‘adjacent’ to the Pole but directly ‘below’ it, (see FIG. 8, above) so of all the seemingly discordant sources which Maeyama cites, the nearest to what we see here, informing the drawing in f.67v-1, is the dictum from one of the oldest, most respected, and thus constantly repeated authorities, namely Shih Shen (5thC BC).  I reproduce this passage from Maeyama’s paper directly:

What Maeyama concluded from that study of Chinese sources and the Dunhuang star-maps is that the term Thien-i (Celestial unique) was always applied to the Pole star for any given epoch, but Thai-i  refers to  “the unified celestial symbol of the Pole star and the terrestrial emperor, designated to a star adjacent to the Pole star”. [emphasis, present author]. For the last passage I think it more accurate to say “…assigned to a star below the Pole star” – i.e. β Ursa minoris.

We cannot then say that Polaris was unknown to any but the Phoenicians during the Greek and Roman classical eras. In terms of modern astronomy, of course, Polaris (α Ursa minoris) did not occupy the point of North until the 5thC AD, but the testimony of classical writers is unequivocal:  it was certainly no later than the 1stC AD that Phoenician mariners were habitually taking Polaris as Pole star; which practice the Romans saw as some peculiar and semi-religious quirk of Phoenician mariners alone, and saw no reason to adopt themselves.

The overseer-painter who addressed the detail on folio 67v-1, being apparently without authority – at first – to prevent the drawings being rendered with near-facsimile exactness, even if they expressed forms and ideas opposed to the Latins’ world view, academic traditions, religious beliefs, and conventions in art, has had to be content with overpainting – an act of semi- ‘translation’ that alters the sense of the original but which has also distorted the normal orientation and subject of a Latin ‘T-O’ diagram. The ‘T-O’ was exclusively a description of the physical world. Its imposition here on detail whose content is entirely astronomical attempts to assert that although an Asian king might, in fact, dominate the physical world, the same could never be true of that higher ‘world’ of the northern heavens. As we have seen, however, the Chinese at least, saw a closer link between the two.

That the resulting form (as a ‘T-O’) is oriented neither to the usual East, nor to a other cardinal point, but half-way between two of them is another indication that this layer it was not original to the drawing but apparently imposed on it, and awkwardly imposed at that. I think we may fairly attribute the addition of the pigments – and the peculiar result – to some Latin scholastic.

By the time of interest to us, the ‘T-O’ diagram was far more than what it had been – just schematic diagram of ‘three continents’: it had become for the Latins intrinsic to a highly developed and closely-woven mesh of theological, geographic and quasi-historical ideas. It wasn’t something that scholars and theologians could discarded simply because better geographic knowledge had come along, and I find no evidence to suggest that any idea of the physical world as composed of four continents was known to, or accepted by,  the Latins’ official learning before 1440. I might mention, though, a diagram from an Occitan manuscript dating to c.1350 or so, and which I’ll have reason to refer to again in the next series of posts.

Fig. 14

Merchants and merchant-venturers were more pragmatic than the more sedentary and academic Latin scholars, and what I think we can take from the emblem on folio 67v-1 is that here again we have a drawing of non-Latin origin, brought into that environment by person(s) with open attitudes, wider links and mental horizons, and so conflicting with the ‘official’ learning of scholars and theologians who, like physicians, studied Aristotle and Ptolemy, not works produced for sailors and ‘mere shop-keepers’. As we’ve seen, ‘T-O’ diagrams continued to be produced in formal Latin works for more than a century after the first rose-gridded cartes marine were produced in Genoa and Majorca, and which showed plainly enough that the physical world was not so neatly disposed.

By the time that Dati (or his brother) composed his poem, the era of easy western travel to as far as China had long ended.

Its heyday began after 1291, when Mamluk control over Syria had expelled the last of the foreign occupation forces and the eastern trade which had come through that region was being re-routed through the Black Sea, and Genoa and Venice struggling for dominance in that region. Venice had a certain advantage in the longer term, being included with Byzantine intermediaries as the two great powers – the Mamluks of Egypt and the Mongols – negotiated a working alliance. Latins’ access to the eastern trade via Alexandria fluctuated, being the subject of efforts at embargo and of prohibition by the Mamluks and by European authorities. As so often, the maritime city states put calculation and profit over more theoretical imperatives.

Postscript (July 26th., 2022):

FiG. 15

This post is so long that I’ve decided to omit the summary of research into the history of the type of head-dress worn by the Asiatic figure. It is not a Papal tiara, though it is not impossible that Bonifiace VIII added a second ring to assert primacy over the eastern Byzantine regions and that Benedict XII found his contact with eastern Christians a reason to add a third ring to the papal crown.

I found nothing similar associated with a Mongol ruler, but I believe the type of headdress is one descended ultimately from an older type (attested in ancient Harran and associated with Nabonidus), but more nearly related to forms attested in pre-Islamic southern Arabia and in southern India. The example shown at right (FIG 15) shows a Pandyan ruler. Since those regions were Christianised either directly from Egypt during the 1stC AD (as was the oldest Community of Thomas in southern India) or were Christianised from Syria during the 3rdC AD, it is natural to suspect that the figure in folio 67v-1 may be meant for some eastern Christian (‘Nestorian’) patriarch or for a Christian mongol ruler. I note that the first western Pope who increased the number of crowns on the Latin pope’s ‘tiara’ from one to two was – Benedict VIII, who seems to have done this only after representatives of the Church of the East and of the Mongols had come to Italy, France and England. As to the Mongols’ religions:

During the time of the Mongol empire (13th–14th centuries), [the Mongols] were primarily shamanist, and had a substantial minority of Christians, many of whom were in positions of considerable power. Overall, Mongols were highly tolerant of most religions, and typically sponsored several at the same time. Many Mongols had been proselytized by the Church of the East (sometimes called “Nestorian”) since about the seventh century, and some tribes’ primary religion was Christian. In the time of Genghis Khan, his sons took Christian wives of the Keraites, and under the rule of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Möngke Khan, the primary religious influence was Christian.

wikipedia, ‘Christianity among the Mongols’

The Latin pope’s ‘tiara’.

the following is edited from the entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

It is clear from the “Constitutum Constantini” and from the ninth Ordo of Mabillon (ninth century), that for this first period the papal ornament for the head was a helmet-like cap of white material. There may have been a trimming around the lower rim but it had nothing of the character of a royal circlet. The first proven appearance of the word tiara [from the Persian] as designation for the papal head-covering is in the life of Paschal II (1099-1118). The monumental remains give no clue as to the period at which the papal head-covering became ornamented with a royal circlet, but it is mentioned in a statement of Suger of St. Denis (c.1130). During the next period ( up until the pontificate of Boniface VIII 1294-1303 AD, the diadem remained a simple although richly-ornamented [single] ring.

The election of 1294 would bring a change. As Boniface VIII, Benedetto Caetani would add a second crown. It is evident from the inventory of the papal treasures which had been undertaken in 1295 that the tiara at that era had still only one royal circlet.

Three statues of Boniface VIII that were made during his lifetime and under his eyes, and of which two were ordered by Boniface himself, leave no doubt that he introduced the second circlet. Two of these statues are in the crypt of St. Peter’s, and the third, generally called erroneously a statue of Nicholas IV, is in the Church of the Lateran. In all three the tiara has two crowns.

What led Boniface VIII to make this change, whether merely love of pomp, or whether he desired to express by the tiara with two crowns his opinions concerning the double papal authority, cannot be determined.

The first notice of three crowns is contained in an inventory of the papal treasure of the year 1315 or 1316. As to the tombs of the popes, the monument of Benedict XI (d. 1304) at Perugia shows a tiara of the early kind; the grave and statue of Clement V as Uzeste in the Gironde were mutilated by the Calvinists, so that nothing can be learned from them regarding the form of the tiara. The statue upon the tomb of John XXII is adorned with a tiara having two crowns.

Benedict XII (c.1342) – while the papal court was in Avignon.

The earliest representation of a tiara with three crowns, therefore, is offered by the effigy of Benedict XII (d. 1342), the remains of which are preserved in the museum at Avignon. The tiara with three crowns is, thereafter, the rule upon the monuments from the second half of the fourteenth century.

Further references:

For more information about the detail I’ve shown above as Fig. 5, see

It is sometimes difficult to get results by searching shelf number at the Bib.Nat. Paris website, so here is the link to BNF Lat. 15170.

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

c.2000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

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

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

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

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

(details) folio 67v-1

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

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

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

Nelumbo nucifera. The sacred lotus of Buddhism.

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

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

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

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

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

Achaemenid Empire

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

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

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

misericord. Exeter Cathedral. 13thC

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

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

Ephemeral covering – perceptions of the flower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no ‘South’ star for Medieval Europe,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand –

Egypt’s art and traditions did survive Caesar.

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript – elucidating the ancient bowl.

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

Voynich astronomy – note

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

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

I have had reason to refer to Langermann before.

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

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

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

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

Folio 43v* – identification update.

(detail) two plants drawn on f.43v*
Otto Wilhelm Thomé: Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz (1885) – Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber. Source: http://www.biolib.de Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this image under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License”. courtesy altervista.org

In 2015 I offered identifications for the plants represented on folio 43v* as (left) Bupleurum falcatum and (right) Bupleurum rotundiflolia, though only as a proposal from first-level sources, not as a research conclusion.

A modern botanical drawing of B. rotundifolia with B. falcatum is shown at right.

Later, I contrasted the style of drawing with two details from Latin herbals referenced by Marco Ponzi as comparisons for left-half of the drawing in folio 43v* (the plant-and-snake), noting how much more detail we find in the Voynich drawing for its ‘snake’, details so clearly informed by immediate knowledge that we are shown the Cerastes’ horns, long nose and – as I’ll add here – even the way the eye-ridge makes the eye seem semi-circular when seen from above, and how the horns appear like spines as extension of that ‘nose’, together the fact that its markings are generally invisible to a person happening on it, because the Cerastes lie buried in a depression in the earth and, indeed, with no more than eye, ‘nose’ and horns visible.

Marco Ponzi’s articles are (or were) published through the Medium site, under the title ‘Viridis Green’.

Added note (March 26th., 2022) I have reason to think the detail shown above (upper left) was wrongly labelled by the source I used. It may not be a ‘hornless cerastes’ but a different snake altogether. The Cerastes’ nose appears more noticeable when little else is visible above the sand. see the’Alamy’ image included among the comments under this post.

Although it seemed evident to me that this ‘reminder’ detail in folio 43v*, being placed close by the plant’s base, displays too much care and accuracy to have no purpose save ‘name-of-thing-equals-name-of-plant/value’ and realising, further, that the creature’s native range, combined with that of the associated plant’s, should add a little more light on the important questions outstanding about the plant-pictures’ antecedents, there were other questions having higher priority in 2015, and without more detailed investigation I felt nothing useful could be said about co-incident range.

A fairly recent comment turned me to the folio again.

This post isn’t more than a note of ‘work-in-progress’ yet one thing is quite clear – that unless my identification for the snake’s genus as Cerastes is wrong, the drawing’s origin cannot possibly be credited to western Christian Europe.

There, any ‘horned serpent’ figure would be drawn in very different style and present an imaginary figure from some system of religious or semi-religious thought. Instead, we have a nearly literal drawing for this creature, one which does not occur within Europe at all, not even in southern Spain or Sicily.

The detail is a fortunate exception to the rule in this manuscript where the majority of included drawings still show evidence of some earlier influence and its determined effort to avoid forming a naturalistic ‘portrait’ of any living creature. That attitude is not of Latin origin and was antithetical to the Latins’ worldview. In fact, that distinction is one of the keys which allows us to know, for example, that the month-folios’ diagrams come from origins different from emblems now seen in their centres.

It is that marked difference in information, attitude and stylistics, not any lack of objective skill, which led earlier generations of Voynich researchers, fixed on a Eurocentic theory, to assert the ‘artist’ had been childish, incompetent and so forth. To the best of my knowledge no qualified specialist in what today we call iconographic analysis, commented on Beinecke MS 408 between 1932 and the first decades of the present century. The person who seems to have first sensed the ‘foreignness’ in Voynich drawings spoke even before Panofsky and wrote, a little vaguely of what he had observed quite accurately, saying:

It is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences.

Robert Steele, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928) from the Abstract available online

As early as 1909, in editing the works of Roger Bacon, Steele had referred to a thirteenth-century work on medicine, translated by Wallis Budge. Steele speaks of it as ‘Syrian’ though it was a text of Nestorian origin written in Syriac.

The point was mentioned in an earlier post (here).

The other plant on folio 43v*, for which I proposed the identification Bupleurum rotundifolia is of less interest at present, and I’ll concentrate on the plant-and-snake.

I still consider the the details included as its salient features agree with the form for B. falcatum, yet that plant- identification presents problems if we are to associate that plant with the genus Cerastes. for each has a native range not native to the other.

I would suggest that the dilemma may be more apparent than real; that some other Bupleurum species is meant or that distinctions between plants made by taxonomists were not ones recognised by earlier and other peoples and therefore by their perceptions and vocabulary.

So though a modern botanist distinguishes (say) B.falcatum from B.lancifolia, the same word may have been applied to both by the language in which the maker formed his thoughts.

To see whether that possibility is contradicted or supported by those languages which were spoken, before 1440, across the geographic range in which Cerastes occur, and to find enough documentary evidence to maintain such an idea, would take far more work than I’m prepared to devote to that question. One piece of circumstantial evidence may support it.

In a modern website entitled “Egyptian-Arabian Endemic Plants”, a long list of plants, subdivided by genus and species and with scientific descriptions given, includes B. falcatum and specifies its range as:

“… east of the Nile Valley in Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, the extratropical part of the Arabian Peninsula, most of southern Palestine, part of Jordan, the southern part of the Syrian Desert and lower Mesopotamia where the boundary continues just north of Balad, Kuwait and the Bahrain Islands.”

‘Endemic’ in botanical terms means that a plant occurs naturally no-where else.

That site is clearly intended as a scientific survey; yet if we turn to another scientific source, Kew gardens’ information, states the range for B. falcatum as:

“Europe to Caucasus”.

For that southern range, it has several species of Bupleurum including B.lancifolia, whose range is said there to be:

“Algeria, Azores, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Kriti, Kuwait, Lebanon-Syria, Libya, Madeira, Morocco, Palestine, Sinai, Spain, Transcaucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Western Sahara” and now extinct in the Canary Islands.

This does co-incide with the native range for Cerastes’ species, of which there are only three. For readers’ convivence, I reproduce here a table included in a wiki article whose anonymous author cites as sole source for its information:

  • McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T., (1999) Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Volume 1. Washington, District of Columbia: Herpetologists’ League.

Cerastes, as you see, do not occur anywhere in mainland Europe, not even in southern Spain. One would have to travel into ‘oriental parts’ in order to find anyone who could represent these vipers with anything close to the accuracy we find on folio 43v*

I prefer to leave it to the botanists to decide which (if any) of the genus Bupleurum is the subject of the left-hand detail on folio 43v*. Of more interest to us is what this association between plant and viper tell us about the region implied, and in the context of those critical issues of maintenance before the plant-pictures’ transmission to the medieval west or, at least, to the medieval Mediterranean world’s common culture.

Here we are fortunate that the two principal species of Cerastes – the less venomous C. cerastes and the highly venomous C. gasperettii are not found together at all, the limits for each being given in the table above and that for C. gasperettii by following map (again thanks to a wiki author).

The map is a little generalised for we are told that C. cerastes and C. gasperettii do not share a common habitat though both are said to occur within Yemen. C. cerastes is called, in Egypt, el-ṭorîsha (حية الطريشة); and in Libya um-Goron (ام قرون). One would hope that these or some other regional names for Cerastes are to be found in the written text on folio 43v*

Though I do not think the snake is drawn in sufficient detail on folio 43v* for us to decide on any Cerastes species in particular, it is another item in evidence – and there is a great deal of such evidence – that the content in Beineke MS 408’s plant-pictures is no product of any western Christian literary tradition. It is as well to remember that if any argument is to be made that tese images belong within the western ‘herbal’ manuscript tradition, the very limited range of texts on which that tradition relied must be shown to have a place within its lineage for the ‘Voynich plant book(s)’ – something which researches have utterly failed to do despite constant efforts and unwavering determination, for one hundred and ten years.

Newcomers may not be aware that the same point was made more obliquely and tactfully but quite clearly by John Tiltman, a man of unusually clear and balanced mind, fully seventy fifty years ago.

However, those interested only in plants for which a place was found in pharmacy might like to investigate some possibility that there might exist in some non-European corpus a receipt in which both viper and a Bupleurum (perhaps) both occur.

To attempt to fit the image into an ‘all-Latin-Christian’ theory, by asserting the image a product of imagination or metaphor, might be an attractive possibility for those so attached to an ‘all European Christian’ narrative for the manuscript that any means available must be taken to prevent its being discarded. For myself, I do not think one can ignore the style of drawing, the manifest clarity and accuracy of its detail, and such things as ignoring the natural markings on the creature to convey the vital information that it is the hidden ‘serpent on the path’ whose body is not seen, save its head, ‘nose’, an eye and the horns. Force-fitting the manuscript to a predetermined theory is not the best way to assist people whose time and efforts are being devoted to the written text. One cannot help but be wrong in some things, but why spoil their day with another dead-end ornament for a quasi-historical narrative whose first premises derive, still, from assertions made by Wilfrid Voynich as part of his romantic-fictional sales pitch delivered to a gathering of physicians in Philadelphia in 1921?

Medicinal snake & plant? Plague remedies?

This is a possibility though not one I’m inclined to rate highly. Still, it deserves mention for those who find the idea attractive.

Many in Europe believed the Black Death had come from Egypt, and was the same as one of those the plagues which the Bible says were inflicted on Egypt for the Pharaohs’ mistreatment of the Jews. Plague still regularly swept Europe during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it may have been for that reason that Baresch hoped the Voynich manuscript’s content would be not only ‘ancient’, ‘Egyptian’ and ‘gained from the orient’ and depicting exoti plants but also about medicine.

We do know that from about the time of Galen ‘viper’ was sometimes included in ‘cure-alls’ known as Theriac or Mithridatum, though it had not been part of the earliest, or true ‘Mithridatum’.

Added note (26th. March 2022): The European (hornless) viper, Vipera_berus, is described as “extremely widespread and can be found throughout most of Western Europe and as far as East Asia”

Our source for the addition of viper-flesh in ‘Theriac’ recipes is Galen, who attributes it to Andromachus (the Elder), a Cretan who had become Nero’s physician.

Andromachus’ recipe is said to have been couched in 174 lines of Greek verse. In the later fifteenth century, the Italian Saladino d’Ascoli, who graduated in medicine from Padua in 1431, composed a treatise entitled “Compendium Aromatariorum” in which says (folio 324r of the 1495 edition), respecting the ‘Galieni’ theriac: “Dico quod non est verum salua pace Nicolai quia Andromachus singularis medicus eam composuit.” d’Ascoli’s Compendium remained in print continually from 1488 – 1623. A good online biography for him is (here), and includes ia list of extant manuscripts and editions.

Added note (March 26th., 2022) – a loose translation would be ‘with all due respect to Nicholai [author of the earlier Antidotarium parvum], to call this ‘Galieni’ is a misnomer; the medicine was composed by the singular physician, Andromachus.

‘Mithridatum’ is named for Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus, who inherited his kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea in 120 BC. For more historical detail see e.g.

  • Adrienne Mayor, ‘Mithridates of Pontus and His Universal Antidote’, Chapter 4 in her History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014). The chapter can be downloaded through ResearchGate.

Other sources to begin with:

  • Watson, G. Theriac and Mithridatium. Wellcome Historical Medical Library. William Clowes and Sons, Ltd. London (1966).
  • A few basic sources,courtesy of Science Direct. Looking over the list, I’d be inclined to leave aside “Placebo Studies (Double-blind Studies)” but I haven’t read it.

Medical uses of e.g. B. falcatum or B. rotundifolia, see also

  • WHO monographs (2004) – “not pharmacopoeial monographs, rather they are comprehensive scientific references for drug regulatory authorities, physicians, traditional health practitioners, pharmacists, manufacturers, research scientists and the general public”.

Oddly enough a lot of modern advertisements for traditional Asian (by which I mean east Asian and south-east Asian) medicine claim to employ root of B.falcatum, which isn’t native to that part of the world. Older sources refer instead to roots of B. rotundifolium.

That’s all so far. I’d be glad if anyone could direct me to multilingual glossaries for animal and for plant-names. Modern or pre-modern.

Added note – March 26th., 2022.

and see comments below this post.

Consider… Maths & memory Pt 1.

Four posts in one. Take your time. Hope to see you in a month’s time.

Afterword (Feb 7th., 2022) – Yes I *know* that Maur misunderstood the nature of that ‘squaring the circle’ problem. That’s rather the point and why I said ‘in a way’.. but that passage nicely illustrates three points (a) early medieval learning went from the accepted canon to consideration of the ‘pagan’ information, not vice versa; (b) the Psalter served as the primer in early medieval education and was the constant foundation and point of reference for building higher studies and finally (c) the mere existence, or possession, of a book doesn’t mean the book was fully understood by those who owned or had access to it – something as true for medieval as for modern times.


One thing to emerge so far, while tracking use of the simple ‘4’ shape as a numeral – and we haven’t yet begun to track its use as an alphabetic form – is that, before the Voynich manuscript’s date-range of 1404-1438, it has been found only among the commercial and working classes of the south-western Mediterranean, and chiefly in the Majorcan kingdom with its Jewish cartographers and residents of certain maritime and trading cities of Italy – Venice not being among the earliest to show it.

Since that particular short-stemmed and angular ‘4’ shape, as a numeral, appears earliest in that region and it was also in the south-western Mediterranean that Kabbalism flourished among sectors of the Jewish population, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it is not surprising that there might be in matter now in the Voynich manuscript, as Erwin Panofsky thought, ‘something of Kabbalah’.

NOTE – throughout these posts I mean by ‘the Mediterranean’ the greater Mediterranean, containing all the waters from the Black Sea to Gibraltar. The ‘south-western’ region is defined as west of Sicily, between the coasts of Italy and of north-west Africa.

Nevertheless, aspects of the manuscript’s drawings and codicology make clear that wherever and by whomever the current content was put together to make Beinecke MS 408, much of the copied material originated outside the Latin domains.

I would hope that, in the third decade of the twentieth century, Voynich researchers will have no difficulty accepting a possibility which earlier Voynich writers found inconceivable – that is, that the manuscript may have no direct connection to those texts which for Wilfrid, Newbold, the Friedmans, d’Imperio and others moulded by nineteenth-century attitudes, defined the scheme of Euope’s intellectual history.

Fixation on ‘high culture’ as on ‘high society’ was for many decades a mental barrier to the manuscript’s proper study – and its effects linger. This is why (for example) no other form of art save manuscript art, nor any type of manuscript save in the official herbals was ever considered when attempting to read the Voynich plant-pictures, despite the fact that even within Latin Europe vegetable images appear in a variety of forms, from attempted naturalism to the fantastic and in media as diverse as stone, wood, embroidery, gem-engraving, and frescos.

Nor should we now, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, maintain another idea long outdated in historical studies – namely the idea that nothing foreign could enter Europe’s mental horizon unless some Latin went elsewhere, selected and ‘fetched’ it, or at least acted as a sort of customs agent at the gate of a non-existent ‘white-walled Europe’.

It is now well-known, if not widely admitted in works for the general public of Europe and America, that medieval Europeans were not rarely passive beneficiaries of information, ideas and goods conferred upon the west by ‘foreigners’.

Nominating some single Latin figure in the role of sole agent and gate-monitor has a long history in Europe. Nestorian Christian works, for example, were often attributed to one John of Damascus; Gerard of Cremona was (and still is) credited as if author of translations from Arabic, Hebrew and other languages though the translations are known to have been made by multilingual Jews and Muslims, and the same works to have been translated previously or subsequently without any such ‘monitoring eye’.

In this way, too, the English nominated Roger Bacon, and the Germans a semi-mythical ‘Meister von Kriechenland Niger Berchtoldus’ to substitute for the Chinese as responsible for Europe’s acquiring knowledge of how to make gunpowder.

The habit has been as consistent as it has proved persistent. It is solely to serve as such a ‘gatekeeper’ between Jewish Kabbalism in north Africa and the Iberian peninsula on the one hand, and the Latins of mainland Europe on the other, that Ramon Llull has been imagined as knowing anything of Kabbalah, and why – despite the testimony of Leonardo of Pisa that knowledge of Arabic numerals and their calculation-methods was already known in ports of North Africa from Bejaïa to Egypt, and “Syria, Greece, Sicily and Provence” in all of which (as he says) he studied it in connection with his family’s trade in eastern goods, Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) is nominated sole ‘gatekeeper’ for the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals. The difference was that by producing a book about it in Latin, rather than in the vernaculars in which most ‘second-tier’ writings were produced, Leonardo’s ‘Liber abaci’ facilitated the establishment in Italy of specifically ‘commercial maths’ classes of the sort in which he had been trained elsewhere.

As one reviewer emphasised when reviewing an English translation of the Liber Abaci:

“Use of the advanced Hindu-Arabic system of numerals, [was] gained through Fibonacci’s commercial connections in North Africa and the Levant… It must be remembered that Fibonacci’s home city-state of Pisa had an extensive mercantile fleet operating in, and beyond, the Mediterranean to Byzantium.

A. F. Horadam [review of] “Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci”: a Translation into Modern English of Leonardo Pisano’s Book of Calculation by L.E. Sigler (Springer 2002).

If the hand which wrote that ‘4’ form in the Voynich manuscript was accustomed, already, to write the numeral in that way, the probability is strong that he (and ‘he’ is statistically more likely) is more likely than not to have belonged to a social and intellectual class beneath that of Latin Europe’s political and learned elites and to have had a direct link to the interests of those who were either engaged in the type of maritime trade that brought exotic goods (termed ‘spices’) from the Black Sea, Byzantium or ports of Egypt and North Africa, into Italy or, on the other hand, in naval service as was Michael of Rhodes.

In this context of multilingualism, sea-journeys, trade, exotics, favoured nation status and scripts, I think I should here again quote from a late fifteenth-century account that I quoted first some time ago when considering the possible implications of Baresch’s phrase “‘artis thesauros medicae Aegyptiacos”. In the present case it is especially relevant to note which maritime cities had favoured status in the ports of Egypt, and related issues of multilingualism and translation in such exchange. And, of course, resources for any possible alphabetic substitution cipher.

We have already seen how casually the author of one zibaldone refers to the trade in exotics from Alexandria as example for a problem using the ‘new math’ and Michael of Rhodes’ use of that simple ‘4’ shape for the numeral before 1440.

In Alexandria I saw four large fondaks [warehouses, Lat: thesauri], one for the Franks and another for the Genoese .. and two for the Venetians..

re: Misr [Cairo].I swear that if it were possible to place all the cities of Rome, Milan, Padua and Florence together with four other cities they would not, the whole lot of them, contain the wealth and population of Misr, and this is true…

In Misr there are many fondaks … a thousand and more warehouses in each fondak.. There is nothing in the world that you do not find in the fondaks of Misr…

If you ask how I could converse with the interpreter [when in Misr].. the interpreter is of Jewish descent and came to Misr to return to Judaism, because he is a Spaniard.. He knows seven languages – Hebrew, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, German and French.   ..

The Karaites’ script is different from all others, and they have not the letters ayin, he, aleph, or het, bet, tsade. .. {The Hebrew alphabet uses 22 letters; the Karaite thus only 16.]

from a Florentine ms. translated in  Elkan Nathan Adler, Jewish Travellers (801-1755), London: Routledge (1930) pp. 156- 208. cited passages p.162; 166-7; 171. First cited in connection with Voynich studies in D.N.O’Donovan, ‘ ” …thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” Pt1’, voynichimagery (blog), July 6th., 2013. The account is by Meshullam Ben R. Menahem of Volterra, in 1481 AD.

That account was given by a Jew of Volterra in 1481. The map below shows it in relation to Genoa, and to Florence, the cities with which the rest of this post will be concerned.

  • What is known from the records about the Jews of Volterra is reported in the Encyclopaedia Judaica under ‘Tuscany‘.

If indeed there is anything of Kabbalism in the Voynich manuscript, it is most likely to have come from the south-western Mediterranean and there is no necessity to explain its entering the Latins’ mental horizons by attributing any knowledge of Kabbalah to Ramon Llull. The reasonable explanation is that since Kabbalism was Jewish, knowledge of it was conveyed across the religious divide by Jews and was by them directly explained to a few Latins – willingly or otherwise – by refugees, corresponding scholars, Morescos and/or as newly-created converts serving as translators. The great wave of assaults against the southern, Sephardi Jews in 1391 finds a parallel increase in Jewish presence in Italy, Dalmatia and elsewhere.

An example may be in order before moving to consider the ‘commercial math’ classes in fourteenth- and early fifteenth century Italy and two Italians named Paolo, one of whom lived in the fourteenth and the other in the fifteenth century.

Example – Ha-Kohen and Lippomani, and a fifteenth-century hand.

We know, certainly, that one Italian ‘renaissance’ scholar living in Venice before 1430 wished to learn both classical Hebrew and the dialect of the Moriscos or Arabic-speaking Spanish Jews, the dialect known as Judeo-Arabic. We still have letters explaining the ‘grammar’ of Judeo-Arabic, the teacher being one Isaac ha-Kohen, a resident of Syracuse in Sicily and the student Marco Lippomani. A typically snide remark by Filelfo allows Kokin to date this exchange to a period before the 1430s; that is to the years in which the Voynich manuscript was made.

  • Daniel Stein Kokin, ‘Isaac ha-Kohen’s Letter to Marco Lippomano: Jewish-Christian Exchange and Arabic Learning in Renaissance Italy’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (SPRING 2014), pp. 192-233.

Here again, I might mention that the form of the Voynich month-folios’ month-names was argued Judeo-Catalan by Artur Sixto. I quoted that comment which Sixto originally left at Nick Pelling’s ciphermysteries in an earlier post to this blog (here).

Script in a different fifteenth century Hebrew manuscript referenced by Kokin is shown below (n.114).


Fibonacci and Commercial maths.

To illustrate how the influence of commercial maths schools would expand in parallel with the rising importance of the merchant classes between the time when Leonardo of Pisa produced his ‘Liber abaci’ and when the Voynich manuscript was made, I take the works od two men named ‘Paolo’. Born a century apart. both were mathematicians whose careers flourished in Florence.

The first was born in Datini’s city of Prato about forty years after Leonardo (Fibonacci)’s death. The other was Florentine by birth. He, being born in 1397 and living through the period when the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was made (1404-1438) is of especial interest for us.

This second Paolo died a year after that description was written of the situation for traders in Alexandria and Cairo.

Two men named Paolo.

The first would be known best by his nicknames: “Paolo dell’Abbaco” and “Paolo the Surveyor” but his name was properly Paolo Dagomari.

In early adulthood he moved from Prato to Florence where for many years he taught ‘business math’ classes from the Trinity church in Florence.

In this case, as in many others where the term ‘school’ or even ‘academy’ is used, it is wrong to imagine a dedicated building like a modern school or college. We should think rather in terms of adult education classes where all that is needed is a person willing to teach and a group of voluntary students – or more-or-less voluntary depending on their age and the degree to which parental wishes were law.

Dagomari’s students were merchants and their sons. His basic text, as his nick-name suggests, was probably the Liber abaci, and by 1374-5, when Cresques’ world map was being created in Mallorca, Dagomari died in Florence having become by then a close friend of Boccacio and having seen 65,000 students pass through the course he offered in his Trinity Church ‘school’. We know that Francesco di Marco Datini, by then resident in Papal Avignon more than fifteen years, had also gained his education in commercial math in Florence, but there is no doubt at all that Dagomari taught the son of Dante Alighieri.

That connection to Dante is significant, for Dante also addressed himself to that ‘second tier’ in society, writing in the vernacular and not in Latin.

Nonetheless, Dante’s imagined journey though Hell, Purgatory and heaven in the Divine Comedy is a navigator’s sky-path along those “high roads of the sea” (to use Majid’s beautiful phase, which saw seas above and below the horizon).

As Gunter reports, Dante included in an early copy a parallel list of of Latin and of the increasingly-used ‘Arab’ star names in order that – in Dante’s words – those without Arab instruments might still follow the paths.

It is in an early copy of the Divine comedy, one probably made in Genoa, that we find certain characteristics unusual for formal art in medieval Latin Europe, but which come close to how the ‘ladies’ are represented in the Voynich calendar and ‘bathy-‘ sections.

(detail) from Bodleian Library, MS Holkham 48 p.4. Place of manufacture given as Genoa or Milan. Dated 1350–1375 AD. The text is described as written in a ’rounded Italian gothic hand’.

Points of similarity seen in this particular detail and figures in the ‘ladies’ folios of the Voynich ms include over-large heads, and relatively slender lower limbs. The ‘renaissance’ view of the human body was still unknown to that draftsman but occasionally, in the Voynich manuscript, its later date and probable Italian provenance is evidenced by a copyist’s slip which sees an occasional figure drawn little more shapely than the rest, and more shapely that the figure ought to be.

The differences between images in that copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Voynich manuscript would make long and tedious list – too long to be included here – but with regard to these bodies, an obvious difference is that in the illustrations for the Divine Comedy, the figures are to be read as ‘people’ albeit souls, and while some effort is made to avoid emphasising male genitalia, they are drawn – whereas they are not in the Voynich manuscript’s images. And while in one sense the Voynich ms’ anthropoform figures might be regarded as ‘star-souls’ and/or as the soul of a given place, there is no evidence of intention to have them represent specific people. Of course, in this, if the labels are ever read, it may be that someone at some stage did associate each with some historical character. We shall have to wait and see.

Overall, too, we have very different vocabulary of gesture in these two work, and a very different approach to use of the ‘speaking gesture’.

As you’d expect, images in western Christian manuscripts are saturated with western Christian Europe’s two great pre-occupations (one might say obsessions) – organising everything in the universe into hierarchical rankings and then defining any person, thing, or quality according to whether its assigned ‘place’ is higher or lower than that accorded another. Ask a learned medieval scholar whether composing music was a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ activity than designing a building and he’d surely have an answer. The disease of ‘class consciousness’ in Europe was not limited to the usual social classes, but it would allow a musician to look either up or down on any architect to whom he might be introduced.

That the Voynich manuscript is so glaringly devoid of such signals in its imagery is one among the many indications that the origin of its content is owed to persons and regions outside the Latin Christian domains.

There are no royal thrones, no horses, no military uniforms (save perhaps one Roman or Genoese ‘kilt’ on folio 80v). There are no figures of clerics, nor of kings. There is not a single chair to denote the teacher, nor any throne to denote royalty. Such costumes as are painted over the figures belong to a late stage of their evolution, as is also true for the cross-topped Byzantine style crown given one of the ‘ladies’. But the most resounding absences are the halo and the horse.

It is those details which are not there which have, for a century, reduced persons attempting to read the Voynich manuscript’s imagery to speculation, imagination and theory-driven narratives, attempting to assert the opposite of what any external and dispassionate scholar would say, and that many have said, viz: that they’ve seen nothing like it in the corpus of western Christian works, including the medical and alchemical texts.

In the detail shown above, the figures’ gestures are more limited in range than those in the Voynich manuscript but do (of course) speak directly to the conventions of medieval Latin Christian art, signalling such sentiments as pleading, despair, grief, remorse for sin and so on.

Gestures in the Voynich manuscript are more energetic, and the figures differently adorned with veils and classical headdress, their gestures so far outside the set of those employed in medieval western Europe’s Christian art that their meaning is still, most often, expounded only from a writer’s imagination, rather than from results of any wider horizon in their research.

One among the very few exceptions to the ‘theory-first’ approach was Koen Gheuens’ investigation of where and when we find other examples of the ‘deformed lobster’ in Europe after about the thirteenth century. He did not attempt to discover any earlier instances or define its time and place of first origin.

Despite such things, that detail from the early copy of Dante’s poem deserves our consideration, because it appears in manuscript made during the period of interest to us (1350–1375 AD); is attributed to northern Italy and probably to Genoa, one of the major maritime centres of Italy at that time.

I am NOT suggesting any direct or indirect connection between content in the Voynich manuscript and Dante’s poetry. Such a scenario was espoused, as I recall, in about 2008 or so, since when Dante’s name as been often invoked, and then dropped, and picked up anew, and dropped again in that peculiar parentless style of Voynich theories. If you’d like to re-create the lineage for that idea, you might begin from references in d’Imperio, then search ‘ciphermysteries’ and from there go through the archives of Jim Reeds’ mailing list. Unfortunately, though Rich Santacoloma promised a couple of years ago to do the same for that mailing list since the early 2000s, he has not yet found occasion to do so.

Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli

Generally believed indebted to Dagomari’s mathematics, the Florentine Paolo Toscanelli belonged to a family whose members were ( I’ll quote the wiki biography) “traders in eastern luxury goods (‘spices’) and who thus traded regularly with north Africa, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean”.

He offers one of the clearest examples of a bridge between commercial maths, surveying, astronomy, cryptography and theology and, in terms of Italian society, between the ‘commercial class’ and the rulers’. For a time he collaborated with the Genoese Gian Battista Alberti, a figure of particular interest for cryptographers so I hope readers will forgive another digression, this time to consider Alberti.

Born in Genoa in 1404, Alberti moved to Florence but his career developed late being suppressed until 1446 by the fame of Brunelleschi. Alberti, like his elder, worked chiefly for what one writer has called the “high bourgeoisie” and brought to bear the same practical and commercial mathematics on which the ‘abacco’ schools focused.

That the range included problems of mapping is evident from the nickname given Dagomari as ‘Paul the Surveyor’ and though our later example, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli is usually described as a ‘cosmographer’, his wiki biography quite rightly says that “astronomy was a close science to geography at that time”.

We know that Toscanelli was also a competent cartographer, because in 1474 he produced a map which argued for a fairly easy run westwards by sea from Spain or Portugal to ‘Cathay’. What is fascinating about that map and the accompanying letter (the map itself is now lost) is not so much their influence on the rulers of Spain and thus on Christopher Columbus, but that Toscanelli speaks of having had access not only to Ptolemy’s works but to those of the Phoenician ‘Marinus of Tyre’ – the original source which, as Ptolemy himself says plainly that he had simply edited and updated a little. Could Toscanelli have meant it? Was there still to be had a copy of the original work in Greek or in translation?


Ever since Wilfrid Voynich presented the public with the manuscript and his own imaginative description and ‘history’ for it, the attitudes and assumptions of cryptographers have greatly influenced both how the manuscript was imagined and what approaches have been taken in attempting rightly to read both its written- and its pictorial text.

It is perfectly normal and understandable – part of standard method – ift a cryptographer should consider any text as a source from which to extract a body of quantifiable data, and then to engage in a process of creating a theory and considering nothing but that theory and how well it suits his or her data-base. It is natural for the cryptograper to presume a written text deliberately made opaque, and to presume that ‘underneath it all’ there should be a nice, clear literary ‘plaintext’.

Unfortunately, once the Friedmans had effectively co-opted the manuscript’s study and assumed all other sorts of research inferior and thus necessarily at the service of their own, they created a model which not only proved fruitless in their own case, and despite 30 years efforts, but has proven equally fruitless when adopted at large by Voynich theorists who were not concerned with the written text or issues around cryptography.

The lack of balance in Friedman’s attitudes – towards the manuscript and to the work of specialists in manuscript studies, as in the history of western art – continues to affect approaches to the Voynich manuscript to this day and is particularly noticeable within that ‘bible’ of the Voynich traditionalists, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma.

It became the norm, from the early 2000s, to behave as if not only the written part of the Voynich text were ‘encrypted’ but as if everything in it were.

The cryptologists’ method was then generally adopted, that is, of first hitting on a ‘theory’ – a speculation as desired solution – and then hunting for ways in which to present that speculation as being sufficiently supported by evidence (evidence sought only within the parameters of that speculation) to deserve description as ‘plausible’ by persons who had no greater knowledge of medieval manuscripts, art, cryptography or scripts than did the person attempting to be voted ‘right’ as if by simple-headcount, social-media style.

It has not been so much as case of the blind leading the blind as of researchers first selecting a set of blinkers and then congregating according to the colour of those blinkers.

Much baseless ‘doctrine’ has resulted on the basis that it’s “widely accepted”, to the point where I was present when the edict went out (as the usual authorative-sounding but anonymous ‘meme’) that it was ‘unnecessary’ to consider any sources save fifteenth century German manuscripts.

On another occasion, the ‘meme’ asserted, in effect, that a scholar’s whole body of research might be ignored because they hadn’t made enough wisecracks.

In a very small way, I can see what that last meme was about.

Whatever their flaws and historically-inappropriate assumptions and limits, the cryptologists never treat the text casually, or produce theories to suit a popularity contest – tossing off nonsense with a gay grin and self-deprecating wisecrack.

On the other hand, I wish they would lighten up a little and give more thought to the ordinary experiences of people in the medieval world. You don’t need to find clues to Alberti’s creation of his cipher-wheel by turning to high society and theology, to Ramon Llull or Kabbalah, to understand how such an idea might have occurred to him. Why should he have had it from anyone else, or anyone in particular?

The underlying principle of such ‘revolutionary’ things as gridding maps ‘by the Rose’, diagrams associated with Kabbalism, developments in Italian architecture which brought fame first to Brunelleschi and then to Alberti, or indeed Alberti’s wheels are fairly simple and embodied in activities as old as human settlement. In this case, the construction of things formed as domes, or as globes.

Alberti didn’t have to know Llull, nor Llull to know anything of Kabbalah, though architects might well need to do, as Alberti did, and see how the dome-makers of Hagia Sophia work out problems of load-bearing and materials.

Dome, and domes composed of lattice work are still made today, just as they were in ancient and even in prehistoric times, but especially where it was important to keep watch over ripening crops.

This is how it’s done. In an area where some plant grows that produces long, flexible stems or branches, you cut and make a pile of them.

Then you trace a circle on the ground and, at regular intervals around one side, press a withy or ‘wand’ firmly into the ground. That’s the wand’s rising point.

Now, directly opposite each, around the other curve, you insert the free ends.

The lattice-pattern will appear as shadows on the ground so encompassed. At night, within the shelter, you will see the heavens ‘gridded’.

Of course, you can the cover the basic lattice, if you like, with whatever you like – fabric adorned with stars and stretched out as a tent, or something more substantial such a pise or plaster. It is not co-incidental, I think, that domes from China to the far west were customarily painted with images of the night sky.

The example shown below was made of willow wands in modern-day America.

If you need something placed at a given point around the ‘horizon’, you can nominate each space or each point with a letter, or a number, or the name of a real place on earth or (by the example of Majid’s compass-rose) by the names of stars.

But if such a dome is meant to evoke, or to represent the heavens as a dome, the question then naturally arises about how the points of that circuit actually connect with the initially matching points about the earthly horizon, when earth is imagined always stationary yet the sky perceived as wheeling over it, year by year.

As a mathematical and surveyor’s problem, that one is among the meanings embodied in this famous image of Roger Bacon.

Bust of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve 2004.

Any such problem, expressed algebraically, must begin by having one specific unknown position defined as ‘x’. What Alberti’s wheel does, in effect, is have a series of circular points of correspondence defined not as a series of ‘x’s, but as a pair of alphabetic series.

I’m not saying that this was the original purpose of Alberti’s ‘wheels’ – I’d be more inclined to think that as a mathematician his interest in ‘unknowns’ had allowed his attention to shift from purely mathematical ‘unknowns’ to issues of encrypted documents.

My point is that there may be immediate and very practical observations, rather than reliance on important figures of European history, to explain his development of those cipher-wheels and much else impacting on ideas about the Voynich manuscript – such as that the imagery must be illegible in terms of western European conventions because deliberate made obscure rather than – as I hold to be the case – because it didn’t spring from those traditions in the first place.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, the construction of domes and the idea of ‘significant number’ were both hot topics in Florence but as you see, the basics of Brunelleschi’s famous dome in Florence are pretty much the same as the rural domed shelter which country-people everywhere have been making – and I’m speaking literally – from before the first cities were built. What made their monumental versions different was an ability to do the math.

The death of Brunelleschi in 1446 brought to the fore Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Like Brunelleschi’s, Alberti’s career had long been delayed…

*Franklin, N.J., Borough schools, ‘Architecture of Brunelleschi and Alberti ..’ (pdf). I reecommend this as a very good first guide to works of Brunellleschi and Alberti online as a pdf, but one worth reading even if you’re well acquainted with their work.

And so, back to Toscanelli..

He appears in a Florentine fresco placed beside the ‘Greek-Syrian’ neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino – one must always place close attention to the headwear given figures in Latin Christian art.

Here, Toscanelli wears the head-dress of a ‘Moresco’ and his facial features appear to have been painted so as to suggest to emphasise foreign and/or Jewish antecedents. ‘Moresco’ was a termed used, as said above, to describe those Spanish Jews who still spoke and read Arabic, and/or such dialects as Judeo-Catalan or Judeo-Occitan.

I can’t compress Toscanelli’s story better than did the author of one wiki article:

Thanks to his long life, his intelligence and his wide interests, Toscanelli was one of the central figures in the intellectual and cultural history of Renaissance Florence in its early years. His circle of friends included Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the Florence Cathedral, and the philosopher Marsilio Ficino. He knew the mathematician, writer and architect Leon Battista Alberti, and his closest friend was Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa—himself a wide-ranging intellect and early humanist, who dedicated two short mathematical works in 1445 to Toscanelli, and made himself and Toscanelli the interlocutors in a 1458 dialogue titled On Squaring the Circle (De quadratura circuli).

wiki article, ‘Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli’

In one sense, ‘squaring the circle’ was not a ‘modern-ancient’ problem but one long addressed and resolved in terms of Christian theology in the west.

It was precisely how Rhaban Maur had managed to introduce ‘pagan’ Euclid into an extremely conservative monastic environment during the ninth century. His copy of Euclid had probably arrived with a recent Nestorian embassy from Baghdad, the same eastern Christians having only recently translated it into Arabic.

In what follows, I’m not only quoting matter I’ve quoted in treating the Voynich manuscript, but which I’d quoted even longer ago in connection with other medieval European images, but since I can’t just collapse the text and make it optional, here it is.


Maur began by formulating the quaestio, or problem by setting it as a problem about interpreting the Psalter correctly. Thus he begins,

“It is well that we should enquire what the Psalmist means by the circle of the earth and why, in several other places, he says that the earth is comprised of the same figure. On the other hand, in the 106th Psalm [Vulgate numbering: Ps cvii.3] he comprises the earth under four cardinal points… A very similar statement appear[ing] in the Gospel where it says: He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet and they shall gather together from the four corners of the earth”

and so, having made Euclid an aid to theology, Maur continues:

Whence it is fitting to enquire how far the quadrate and circular shapes of the earth can agree, when the figures themselves, as geometricians maintain, are different. The Scriptures call the shape of the earth a circle for this reason: because to those who look at its extremity [i.e around the horizon] it always appears as a circle. This circle the Greeks call a horizon [a word meaning ‘belt’ or cord], signifying that it is formed by the four cardinal points; these four points signify the four corners of a square contained within the aforesaid circle of the earth.

Maur understands the horizon line as a knotted cord, resembling a monk’s waist-cord with its knots, and akin to the surveyor’s measuring-cord, also knotted at intervals and worn in the same way about the waist when not in use. But the geometric figure Maur has just begun to describe is the ancient figure for the world in microcosm. He suggests as much, speaking of the ‘Eye’ as simultaneously urbis (city) and orbis (orb/circle).

So then, taking East as his primary point, just as medieval Europe’s mappamundi did, but as Cresques’ map and the Voynich map do not, Maur locates the heart of the world as the microcosmic ‘city’ saying:

  • For if you draw two straight lines from the East, one to the south and one to the North, and in the same way also draw two straight lines from the Western point, one to each of the two aforesaid points, namely the south and north, you make a square of earth within the aforesaid circle. How this aforesaid square (demonstrativus quadrus) ought to be inscribed within the circle, Euclid clearly shows in the Fourth Book of the Elements.”

And since I’ve been once more obliged to quote from my own work I’ll add here two images which I included in a post published at voynichimagery in 2017. Details of my source, which was not speaking about the Voynich manuscript, were given at the time as seen in the images below. Today, however, that address is no longer current, though the second image (still dated October 25th., 2012) can be seen, with commentary, at luwanarch .wordpress com. This is how Alberti mapped Rome.

Again, about methodologies and Voynich research –

Between 1912 until 2012 or thereabouts, the most commonly seen approach, among those hoping to ‘solve’ the manuscript was to ignore the codicological evidence, the palaeographic evidence, the materials’ evidence, all earlier independent specialists’ opinions, and interpret the images only if and in a way compatible with their initial theory, often a theory naming some prominent European as ‘author’, effectively re-defining the manuscript as a slab of written text, which despite being lavishly illustrated, was all designed by one mind to deceive.

The common practice of ignoring the manuscript’s own testimony in favour of promoting a Voynichero’s pet theory reached its peak of absurdity about three or four years ago, when another of those borne-on-air sort of memes asserted that, since the written part of the text was also now to supposed a mere nonsense – a joke of some kind – that thus might also be treated as being quite as ‘irrelevant’ as the manuscript’s images, codicology and palaeography, so everyone should just adopt one of the most promoted theories as if it were of more substance than the manuscript itself.

It’s no wonder that Beinecke MS 408 needs its few friends. Who in the world would put up with such treatment being accorded the Vienna Dioscorides, or the Book of Kells, or any other important and apparently unique manuscript?

After which grumpy remark, I propose we adjourn for now.

Gd and the weather willing, I’ll be back in 3-4 weeks’ time.