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: 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

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.

Consider this.. for James (brief note).

about 1230 words

My thanks to James Barlett, the first of my correspondents to protest that I’d been “a bit quick” in the previous post, and (as James put it) “tossing out meaningless phrases like ‘star measures.’ “.

Re-reading the post from James’ point of view, I see his point, so  for James and other who like details, I add this short post.

Charts of the ‘rose-gridded’ type are not ‘mappamundi’ but navigational charts –  as Datini’s agent understood, and the person who described Cresques’ Atlas for the Bibliotheque nationale.

Such charts are a product of the surveyor’s arts, but when it comes to navigation, the ‘surveyor’ must survey not only his horizon, but what is above it.

 Sidereal navigation was not an art widely known in the medieval Mediterranean – at least not to the level it was practiced by Polynesians and, thanks not least to them, to some among the Arab mariners  in the eastern seas – or, as Majid sometimes calls them collectively, the ‘great sea’. 

‘Surveying the sky’ was an art which Majid and his fellows did know and he counted among those ‘fellows’ certain of the piratical mariners of the north African coast, the original ‘Barbary men’. This part of north Africa is of considerable interest to us since, as we’ve seen, it was there that Leonardo of Pisa first gained his basic knowledge of calculation using Hindu-Arabic numerals; one of our earliest of the rose-gridded cartes marine was also made in Tunis and pre-dates the earliest extant examples from Genoa or from Majorca, and in the same region Kabbalism was widespread.  

At one point, Majid compares himself (and the north African navigators) to the ordinary Mediterranean seamen,  whom he groups together as ‘Egyptians’, and says:

“they [the ‘Egyptians’] are not able to do these things nor can they understand what we can do, although we can understand what they do ..they have no qiyās measurements,* no science and no [navigation] books only the ‘compass’ and a number of “miles”, neither do they use “star fetterings”. We can easily travel in their ships and upon their sea …

They acknowledge that we have the better knowledge of the sea and its sciences and the wisdom of the stars in the high roads of the sea.” (p.121).

*qiyās. Pole altitude measurements. In the story of Marco Polo, we are told that the Arab mariners of the eastern seas had good charts and in the account of his sailing up the eastern coast of India, the height of the Pole Star above well-known ports is given.  As Tibbetts says, in recounting these things (p.6) “we can be quite certain that qiyās measurement was practiced by the navigators of the Arabian sea in his day”.  Determining the position of a port or other landmark by reference to the star which ‘stood’ over it is, of course another instance of corresponding star-and-place positions.  On land, a similar practice was well known to the desert Arabs and also informs the story of Jesus’ birth in the Christian gospels. This was a practice more ancient than astrology, and quite independent of it, though chiefly known to those who crossed the trackless wastes of sea and sand.

  • G.R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the Coming of the Portuguese: Being a Translation of “Kitab al-Farawa’id fi usul al-bahr wa’l-qawa’id of Ahmad b. Majid al-Najdi”.  Originally published with maps and charts in 1971, in London, by the Royal Asiatic Society. My copy included four charts: The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden; the Arabian Sea, including part of Somalia and of the Persian Gulf; India and the Bay of Bengal; a sheet containing two charts – the East African coat and the seas of South-east Asia. Compiled from the Arabs’ navigational texts.  


Qiyās is one of those ‘star measures’ I was thinking of. 

It’s not entirely true that Mediterranean mariners knew nothing of the navigational stars.  They used two other stars in Ursa Minor to determine the position of the Pole star if sight of it was obscured,  and to tell the hours of the night. And of course they knew Orion, whose setting nominally ended the Mediterranean sailing year, and the Pleiades and Bootes, by the aid of which Odysseus says he sailed home, eventually, from Troy.  But in medieval times they did indeed, as Majid says, have to rely on their wind-compass and measure the distance from one place to another in terms of the following wind which would – in theory – take a ship directly from the one place to the other.

Majid’s navigation was more like the surveyor’s art, and his tools were cousin to those used by the surveyor – a rod or ‘wood’ and a length of knotted cord.  These had been the land-surveyors’ tools from memory out of mind, and certainly from the time of dynastic Egypt.   The ‘rod or pole’ measure of the navigators was much shorter, of course, but it was also a standard measure. The same was true for the knotted cord.  

kamal Ifland

The measuring rod is depicted in a Mozarabic manuscript, where a correlation is made between the earthly and the heavenly vault, and the ‘angelic measures’ are tacitly equated with those who worship the deity on earth as in heaven.   While I don’t suppose the monk who made this image knew very much of navigation, but it should be recalled that Spain was not part of the Latin domains in earlier centuries. Before and even after the Muslim conquest, parts of Spain and north Africa remained part of the Byzantine empire, just as Muslim Spain remained initially closely connected with the Caliphate in Baghdad. Notice the form of these ‘star flowers and dots’ which are meant to represent the fields of stars. (cf. ‘Compostella’).

celestial measure rod Silos Apocalypse

Correlating celestial and terrestrial ‘rule’ by the measures of the pole,  or rod can be expressed in diverse ways.  

If I were to explain in detail why the term ‘kav’ relates so well to this mesh of ideas, I’d probably have to begin by explaining that many words in the shared vocabulary of medieval Mediterranean mariners did not originate with Latin or even with Greek but have been maintained from remote antiquity and some terms are clearly from ancient Egyptian, including terms as basic as ‘cabin’ and ‘governor’. 

Majid had his reasons for  saying that the majority of Mediterranean mariners were ‘Egyptian’.

But if you simply imagine that ‘rod or pole’ as a long, hollow reed, then you may better appreciate the underlying idea which those varied associations for the ‘kav’ carry in ordinary usage, and in kabbalah.

Here is evidence of the surveyor’s rod and knotted cord in antiquity: ‘measuring the fields’. 

surveying earth and heavens Pharaonic Egypt


Any reader wanting to go deeper into any of the points I’ve mentioned is welcome to email for the references. I won’t add them here; they’re not part of a Voynich research bibliography.



for Voynicheros still unconvinced by the detailed explanation offered earlier* about the ‘Voynich archer’ and his hat alluding to Spain, here’s another illustration from the 10thC Mozarabic manuscript, the Silos Beatus. (* through voynichimagery).

Michael Beatus Hell headwear hair scales

The curious position of Michael’s legs is not (as it would be if in a later, Latin, manuscript) a sign of heterodoxy but rather of an obduracy in the face of temptation.  The fallen angels were, after all, his natural brothers.  Here, as in the vocabulary of Byzantine art, wild hair signifies a wicked and untamed character.  

I’m not sure if this is enough to satisfy James that there was more to my mentioning star-measures than just tossing words about, but I hope it will do.

How to Voynich – O’Donovan notes. #1

Over the years I’ve been interested in Beinecke MS 408, one of the more knotty problems has been the level of technical and specialist language I should use when publishing online. People as young as 8 years old and as old as 80 have commented on posts or sent emails. Some have been such eminent specialists in their own field that I’ve responded by asking if they’d be kind enough to give me their thoughts and any advice, because it would be ridiculous to pretend I know as much they do about some particular issue. Comparative historical studies of eastern and western pharmaceutical practice, for example.

Against that, some who’ve contacted me are people who left school before they were 18 years old and have spent their lives in business or in a trade and tend to feel a bit prickly about being referred to academic studies. They have no interest in the details of some tradition in drawing and don’t want to pay for Brill publications, or subscriptions to journals or to JSTOR.

Some have been led to think that, in any case, any critical science is easier than the pragmatic sciences, deemed ‘hard science’. So they assume that ‘anyone can have a go’ at this manuscript and its pictures – though they’d never suggest that a chemistry lab, a craftsman in furniture, or garage mechanics should allow ‘anyone’ to walk in and have a bash at it.

Given the emphasis I place on information from non-Voynich studies as reality-check, some readers may find it surprising that in my opinion most people, regardless of age, have the potential to add something of lasting value to our understanding of MS Beinecke MS 408.

This series of posts is for mainly for novices and for ‘Voynicheros’ who want to do worthwhile work.

The key is not to over-reach. It is that failing, more than any other, which explains why this manuscript’s study is still in its infancy after more than a century. People with neither training nor natural skills have constantly presumed to assert this, or that, about the manuscript’s date, place of manufacture, its pictorial or its written text, to ignore the opinion of specialists in relevant fields, and to invent their own historical-fictions as Voynich ‘theories’.

So my first point is that you should first know and then work within limits defined by your practical skills.

Don’t be tempted into areas where you have no formal training and where others could tell you (and will sooner or later) that you have less objective competence than you might imagine.

As a rule of thumb, levels of competence can be described in terms of method.

Anyone with a practical hobby knows, just as well as any scholar or scientist knows, that before a person becomes competent they must have a solid foundation of knowledge and good grasp of practical method.

A person has to be able to do things the (or ‘a’) right way, and also be able to explain why it IS the (or ‘a’) right way.

This is true whether you’re talking about loading, cleaning, storing or carrying a gun, or making a french-polished table, or mixing cement, or preparing an historical essay or performing a scientific experiment in the lab. First principles matter. Method matters.

The typical Voynich ‘method’ adopted by ambitious types, since 1912, just isn’t right for the task at hand. We don’t need another story illustrated by erroneous visions of the manuscript, its written or its pictorial text. We need to understand the real thing.

The reason my name is to be part of the title for this series of posts is to make quite clear that their observations and guidelines are the result of my own observations of the manuscript and the curious history of its discussion since 1912.

I’ve spent more than a decade working on the manuscript, myself, and came to it armed (if that’s the right word) with formal training, decades of experience, practical work and a bit of what could be called teaching, but which I think of as training apprentices. I thought I’d be able to produce a fair evaluation of the images within a couple of weeks. That was in 2008. It’s not an easy subject and, frankly, most of what you’ll find online and in ‘Voynich’ writings is .. how shall I put this .. not demonstrably true.

The great gap between ‘Voynich studies’ and other fields of study is that Voynich writers have often shown a surprising ignorance of even the basics in subjects about which they pronounce opinions. Some have not only shown ignorance of the basics of (say) palaeography, but very determined ignorance. You find people who have no Latin, and who can’t be bothered studying medieval society and history, yet they expect to be heard when they propound theories about the manuscript’s being in Latin and produced here, or there, by one imagined ‘author’ or another.

If a person wants to become a mechanic, they know that if all else fails there’s a manual they can consult. It’s objective information. They don’t start by creating an imaginary vehicle, and then argue that the specs. for that imaginary vehicle are more valid than those of the actual car they’re supposed to be working on. But since 1912 and especially in recent decades, Voynicheros have begun by inventing a theory and then arguing, in effect, that if the real manuscript offers objection to the theory, that the manuscript is wrong.

No, I’m not kidding. They get away with it, to greater or lesser degree, because there’s no body of solid, reliable observation for Voynich studies. There’s a lot of solid information about history and manuscript studies outside ‘Voynichland’ but Voynicheros seem rarely to understand why they should consult it. Luckily a few more specialists are now applying their knowledge to this example.

In chemistry, you have as your foundation the history of chemistry, its textbooks, and then ISOs and Standard Methods. In art history, apart from individual opinion, you have centuries of records and commentary which provide a reliable basis from which to begin your own investigation of some specific picture or, in this case, the images in one specific manuscript.

But there is almost nothing so solid within Voynich writings to serve as a foundation for people wanting to contribute to the study.

On the excuse of ‘theory’ or some other substitute word for ‘fiction’ Voynich writers have being saying, and getting away with saying, things that are simply untrue for a century. Since there’s no way to do a reality-check for most assertions within Voynich studies, the only option is to turn to the mass of external information about history, manuscripts, languages and so on.

Of course there are Voynich wiki articles, and ‘wiki fandom’ online. There are Voyich papers published through There personal websites where a theorist simply collects what they please from what others have said about the manuscript. The best known of sites like that is managed by Rene Zandbergen. It’s called ‘’ and Zandbergen adopts a tone that suggests the site should be regarded as authoritative. Many treat it that way. But readers should realise that Zandbergen is an amateur and a theorist. Just as any other individual does who writes online, he puts out what he chooses. So when you see some comment made there which sounds as if it’s reporting scholarly consensus – such as “this is not generally accepted”, you need to translate that, because it very often means something closer to “I, Zandbergen, don’t like/want/accept it.”

In scholarship, however, ‘generally accepted’ implies that, as a result of various specialists’ independent work in a field for which they are qualified, the results of another scholar’s work find general acceptance. People working independently find that the newcomer’s results are commensurate with their own, as products of their own labours and years of professional training. Independence in such cases really matters; otherwise, the sort of ‘consensus’ you get is that of one unit, like a lobby-group.

We have to judge what is done by its quality, not the number of people who find it easy to believe – easy because they have not the means to form any objective judgement of their own.

Zandbergen cheerfully admits that his field of professional expertise is in engineering and his Voynich work a hobby consisting chiefly of encouraging others, maintaining a network of personal contacts and having material from various other people’s work selected and collected for re-presentation in his website.

His chief interest has been in creating a plausible story for what happened to the manuscript between when it was made (c.1404-1438) and when Wilfrid Voynich first saw it.

But as for you, or Zandbergen, or me – the limits of a person’s skills are the limits within which they can, or can’t make valid qualitative judgements.

That’s why I think it essential, if any contribution is to be worthwhile, that people work within the limits of their real abilities.

Because I am utterly unqualified to decide what is, or isn’t, valid when it comes to claims about the manuscript’s written text being in Latin, or Cuman, or Nahuatl, whether enciphered or not in cipher, I offer no opinion about such things. There are others involved who do have formal training and experience in comparative linguistics and cryptology, so why dig my oar in unless a proposition is obviously contrary to what I know of history, archaeology, comparative cultural norms and iconology.

So, first item of the O’Donovan Guide.

You want to contribute something to a better understanding of Beinecke MS 408?

  1. Know your strengths.
  • What are you good at doing?

If you can’t be honest about this, you can’t produce worthwhile work. Bluffers may succeed for a while, and in Voynichland they last a lot longer than they would elsewhere. But in the end, they are no help because people who pretend to have skills and knowledge they don’t have are sooner or later discovered, and thereafter their name is mud, and everyone who has relied on their assertions is adversely affected. Build on unstable ground, and sooner or later the house cracks.

Your strengths don’t have to be spectacular. As an example of how a very simple skill can prove solid and genuinely valuable, one Voynichero whose name is hidden behind the pen-name ‘VViews’ has been producing item-counts, such as the number of ‘people’* drawn in the manuscript, how many people with shoes on, how many beast-like forms.. and so on.

*‘anthropoform figures’ would be the preferred technical description in my discipline, because one must first determine whether the first enunciator (the person who first gave this form to the informing idea) intended these figures to be understood literally, or as embodiments of myth or of inanimate things, or of  abstract qualities and so on. Calling the figures ‘people’ implies literalism and skips several important stages of analysis).

If you think that making lists of that sort was a trivial job, think again. (One of these days I may explain the message that was carried by a figure’s being represented shod or unshod in medieval western art). If correct, (and I expect they will prove to be pretty well right), Vviews’ count-lists have already improved my own work. He notes that four such figures are shod, and I had noted only two: the Archer and a figure on folio 80r. So – thank you Vviews. No, seriously, it’s valuable work and needs an ability to maintain concentration even when the work is utterly tedious and miscounting very easy.

So, start by making a list of the things you are really – objectively- good at doing.

Nothing about personality. You may think you’re brilliant, or not very clever. You may think your only real skill is P.R. The main thing here is to be absolutely realistic about your practical abilities and formal training. So if you know lot about music, its theory, history or technicalities, include that. It may or may not prove relevant, but the subject has cropped up from time to time and your existing knowledge means you would find it easier to do the research, and produce a balanced opinion, if a question arose about western and eastern music, or the specific forms of music written to accompany (say) the Romance poetry of medieval France.

So now, having made that list of your practical skills – cross off whatever you are good at doing but don’t enjoy doing.

Voynich research is a long-haul task and there’s no need to find yourself bored to the point of nausea half-way through.

In the next post, I’ll provide a checklist of sorts that you can run through and, I hope, define the area(s) in which your real skills are most likely to lead to a real contribution.

MOST IMPORTANT. Contrary to what is often thought, you do not have to begin with a ‘theory’, let alone a new theory.

The important thing is to have a desire to contribute something solid and reliable to the ongoing work.

Too many Voynicheros, since 1912, have aimed to leap to the top of the pile with a flimsy theory as some ultimate solution to the Voynich ‘problem’. The problem isn’t the manuscript. The problem is to reach a valid understanding of its form, materials and its pictorial and its written text.

Since the manuscript is no more a theoretical object than is a car, or a table, it doesn’t need a theoretical-fictional story invented for it.

On the other hand, if your talents lie is breaking ciphers, consider the formation of theoretical models part of standard method. 🙂

Voynich research is work. It’s a job which, for most, is not engaged for pay. What it needs are people who can do something useful and do it well.

So well, in fact, that they produce ‘steps’ solid enough for others to use as the basis from which to begin their own efforts. Think in terms of making an independent contribution, not becoming a drone, nor attempting to ‘own’ the study. Voynich club, not Voynich factory.

Take as your model Captain Currier.

He spoke once about the written text’s qualities, from his own observation as a qualified and experienced cryptologist. Just one contribution, made half a century go, but it remains rock-solid as far as I know. (Any cryptologist like to comment on that?)

Don’t suppose any aspect of this manuscript ‘easy’. Just as you’d need much more than a hammer to make a watch, you need more than two eyes and guesswork to rightly read and contextualise pre-modern imagery; more than a dictionary to make a translation, and more than a talent for fiction to make Voynich history. In the long run.

What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’

Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.