O’Donovan notes #8.2. Compare and contrast f.67v-1 and f.85r (part).

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

Because the drawing on folio 67v-1 is a diagram, we may expect that its structure will speak to the type of information it was designed to convey.

Like the diagram on folio 85r, it is organised by two fourfold divisions.

We’ll consider now what is inside its larger circle, leaving aside for the present the four peripheral emblems (below).


The centre of folio 85r (part) shows a ‘leonine’ sun in a field that isn’t simply coloured, but formed as swirling lines. As we now have the drawing, those lines are coloured blue, but since we don’t yet know when the ‘heavy painter’ added that pigment, we focus on the basic line drawing.

These two central emblems tell us two important things: first, that the person(s) who first gave each drawing its form did not think of the heavens as a smooth dome, solid or crystalline, nor as as a tent, but chiefly in terms of this swirling movement or perhaps by comparison with some other form composed of a circuit of repeating lines/curves.

If we were considering the history of Mediterranean art, we might liken the centre in folio 67v-1 to a form of omphalos motif, but more about the drawing must be taken into account before trying to explain it.

Since we know the winds were a principal reference in the first diagram (folio 85r) and that the usual way to describe the circuit of direction during daylight hours was by naming the wind from that direction, the fact that the centre of 67v-1 shows a comparable swirling pattern but now has a six-point star at its centre, makes it reasonable to test as one possibility that it might describe how the directions were determined at night.

It’s just a possibility, one worth exploring but – as regular readers will know – our aim is not to come up with some novel or merely plausible theoretical explanation , but to correctly understand and explain what the original maker had intended.

Another axiom which applies here is that when there is an easier way to do something, but the first maker of an image chose a less convenient way, there’s usually some good reason for it – it’s usually meaningful. And, as you’ll probably tire of hearing before too long…

Differences really matter!

In this case, when a circle or a square is to be divided by two four-fold divisions, the easy way to do it, and the way one would expect it done in the symmetry-loving art of western Europe, would be like this:

In that case, if you wanted to associate wind-names with the points of sunrise and sunset, as they change through the year, your schematic diagram would look rather like this (below) whether the names were in Greek, in Latin or in some European vernacular:

adapted from ‘the Aristotelian winds’ illustration in an excellent wiki article ‘Classical Compass Winds‘.

But that isn’t how these two diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 were designed.

(detail) 85r (part)

In both diagrams, the main four-fold division has its lines offset. That is, the lines might ‘box’ the centre, but they aren’t made as two lines that intersect at the centre. Euclidian, it isn’t.

If this had occurred in just one of the two diagrams, we might shrug it off, but the same is done in both. So it’s purposeful.

(detail f.67v-1)

Details of this kind are what a novice instinctively turns their eye and mind away from, or tries immediately to invent some excuse for as they struggle to maintain our natural and deep-seated belief that “our ways are the right and normal”.

Throughout the history of this manuscript’s study, that habit of shying away and trying to ignore uncomfortable differences from Latin norms (or, still more narrowly from one’s pet theory) has resulted in unjustified assertions that the fifteenth-century copyists or the original draughtsmen were incompetent or devious. We don’t need to resort to such excuses because our ‘norm’ must be whatever was customary for those people by whom, and for whom, a drawing was first given form.

Our task is to understand the drawings, not to decide what habits and ideas ‘ought’ to have informed them.

And from such indications of how the original maker thought and what was normal in his/her time and place, we may identify where and when a given drawing was first formed.

It may seem strange at first to have no preliminary theory, but it does allow the researcher a much more impartial approach and a more relaxed response to unexpected phenomena, such as these offset lines of division.



I think it is now generally accepted, as it was not a few years ago, that what we have in Beinecke MS 408 is a compilation, not a single homogenous work.

That means we can’t just assume that the time and place in which one drawing was formed will be the same for all, or for any other unless expressing similar forms, stylistics and what we might call cultural attitudes.

In both these diagrams, for example, we find a form for the sun which has it flame-haired rather than – as it might be – surrounded by spiked rays.

A diagram adjacent to our second example adds the remarkable information (folio 67v-2) that the ‘flaming’ corona is not simply a stylistic but is meaningful; that we are to consider those flaming locks artificial, with the beard (at least) tied about the face and perhaps also the head’s wild-looking curls.

(detail) folio 67v-2

That it is meant for the sun, not any such figure as Medusa or an alchemical character is evidenced by the fact that we find the same flame-haired form for the sun used throughout the manuscript’s diagrams and with it a repeated view that the sun’s daily emergence is associated with a flower.

In the Voynich map, that flower is included in the emblem marking the map’s ‘west’; the sun falls into a surface very economically shown as under water; from the water-marked mud there emerges the flower through which the sun will re-emerge next morning in the east.

Note – The Voynich map is drawn on one side of a single sheet of vellum. It was originally numbered ‘folio 86v‘ although it is certainly the first drawing placed on that sheet. The Beinecke’s subsequent re-foliation splits the map’s description in a way that reads as if it half the map had been drawn of the back of one bifolio and half on the front of another – but in is a single drawing, on one side of a single sheet.

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

This detail is now so faint that I’ve had to use a data-rich image. Hope it doesn’t crash anyone’s phone. Even so, it is so very faded that it’s extremely difficult to read – though an XRF scan for iron (in the iron-gall ink) might one day make the form clear.

The same concept, though very differently drawn, informs these emblems in folio 67v-1, and that marked difference in stylistic habits as well as the existence of different attitudes to defining the directions mean that here we cannot assume assignment to sunrise or to sunset. My reason for saying so should be explained.

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

The question we must ask now is whether we can assume for folio 67v-1 that the ‘sun+flower’ means West there, simply because the map includes the flower in its west emblem.

I expect most readers habitually take ‘north-up’ as their default, and will assume without much pause for thought that if you stand facing North, East must lie on your right.

But “North orientation means east-right” is a convention, not a fact however much a modern person of European heritage might suppose it commonsensical.

Think of it this way:

Instead of imagining that you stand looking north, imagine yourself lying on the ground with your head towards the North.

Now, if you lie face-down, East will be on your right hand, but if you roll to lie on your back, looking up into the sky then East will be to your left-hand side.

Suppose now you’re able to do the same things, but hovering several feet or metres above ground. By daylight your bird’s eye view, looking down, would produce a map of the land which had East to your right, but when you rolled over to map the night sky, East will be on the left.

The point is that you can have an ‘east-left’ even if your primary direction is to the North. It can depend on whether you’re actually or conceptually defining directions by where you are, and then whether you’re turning towards the earth, or the sky.

Latin Europe only accepted this ‘east-left’ idea within the limited topic of representing the constellations (and then only occasionally) and for some instruments like our planispheres.

Since we already suspect a non-Latin origin for the diagram on folio 67v-1, thanks to those offset lines and adjacency to the curious sun on folio 67v-2, we can’t presume the same norms or limits will apply to this drawing as would if a drawing spoke the graphic language of medieval Latin Europe.

There’s a possibility, therefore, that though when turned North-up, the diagram on folio 85r had its East on the diagram’s right side, this may not. The diagram on folio 85r has the sun as its central emblem, and in daylight the directions were commonly named by winds, but this diagram has a star in its centre and so may be referring to divisions of the night-sky. Which means that whether or not originally designed North-up, it might have its East on the left. (With me so far?)

I understand that it’s tempting for some students of this manuscript, as they begin feeling confused or bewildered by its drawings, to brush aside both the ‘oddities’ and their investigation, resorting instead to adopting impatience as excuse for returning to an easier and more familiar cultural context. But it won’t do. The sun’s being reborn from a flower each day is no expression of medieval western Christian culture, whose nearest approach was the rite of baptism, once the font had replaced the river.

And, if this weren’t enough to cope with, the Voynich map’s east-west placements are the reverse of a European norm yet it is clearly a map showing part of the physical world and not the night sky.

Lotus and rebirth.

Some readers may know how widely the lotus was (and is) identified with re-birth, but might associate the source of that idea only Buddhism, with Hinduism, with ancient Egypt or with some other body of knowledge according to their own background.

So far as I can discover, none but the Egyptians ever actually believed that the sun was re-born daily from a lotus, or believed as if it had been true, that every lotus sinks into the mud at night yet rises fresh and clean each morning.

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

It was believed that a giant lotus blossom came out of the primeval waters of Nun, and out of which the sun-god emerged. The Egyptian text whose transliterated name (rw nw prt m hrw), is translated as ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ or as ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’ has come to be mis-named ‘Book of the Dead’ in English. It includes a spell to transform the deceased into a lotus, ensuring rebirth during the day for the deceased.

CAUTION: religious and cultural beliefs naturally influence how images are formed by a given community, but it is a mistake to imagine that every reflection of such ideas means that either the image or its accompanying text must be all about religion.

So when we find, in Persepolis, an image of the lotus with two buds, we need not suppose the figure holding them was a convert to the religion of Egypt.

An idea which one people regards as speaking to immortality can easily be translated, there or elsewhere, into a promise of never-ending power – ‘horizon to horizon’ – and this latter I take to be the sense of the lotus image (illustrated below) from Achaemenid Persepolis.

Buddhism took another message from the lotus, one not greatly different from the idea of emerging bright and unscathed despite immersion in mud and water – but now that idea of re-emergence was expressed in terms of the person’s soul and not their physical body. To quote a label written by the Art Institute of Chicago for an artefact made in China between 618 CE–906 AD:

From the time Buddhism came to China, the lotus—which emerges unstained from muddy water and therefore carries associations of purity and non-attachment to worldly concerns—had become a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art.

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

It is usual for those three major traditions of the pre- and non-Roman world: the Egyptian, the Buddhist and the Hindu – to be discussed as if each was wholly independent of the other two, but there was a time when all three ways flourished in close proximity.

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

In the region about Gandhara, where Buddhism would first flourish, lay the easternmost borderlands of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

The Persians evidently had a custom (also seen in pre-Roman Egypt) where dangerous border-lands were peopled with foreign communities who were brought, or who came voluntarily, from elsewhere.

The Persians had populated this borderland with, among others, communities taken from Asia minor and from Greek-speakers in Egypt, both Carians and Phoenicians and peoples who had earlier been settled by Egypt along its own southern and western borders.

When Alexander of Macedon conquered and took the Persian empire, the same eastern border region which had marked the limit of that empire now became the eastern limit of his own, and after his death, remained as the eastern border of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom.

It is an amusing side-light to Voynich studies, that a mention of the Hellenistic kingdoms elicits snorts of derision from hard-core Voynich traditionalists, though the same persons will happily refer to Aristotle, who lived even earlier and was one of Alexander’s tutors. 🙂

it was during the period of closest interaction between the eastern ‘Greeks’ and India that the early Buddhist art of Gandhara developed and Buddhism came into its own. Taking with them the skill of paper-making, Buddhist teachers then carried their message throughout India and to as far as the east China sea, their own vision of the lotus with it.


With literally half the world aware of the lotus as a symbol of re-emergence, how can one decide whether our debt is to one, or some combination of those traditions or (as Isidore is indebted to classical Roman poets) whether we’re looking at some later maintenance of the conceptual image quite divorced from the society which first expressed that image?

Consider that stylistic difference:

In the Voynich map, the flower is formed in a way that agrees with one among the long-enduring conventions found in Egyptian art. The following example is from a tomb-painting but other instances would have appeared in classical and in medieval times as carvings and paintings in publicly accessible areas. Here the lotus is drawn fan-like, the petals topped with dots as (or with) a narrow band. Notice also that the open flower is flanked by two others, not yet opened.

Here is how the lotus is drawn on the Voynich map – again with its petals topped by dots to form an upper boundary.

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

Before anyone becomes heated with some Egyptian theory, I must point out that an artefact made in China during the Northern Song period (618-907 AD) also shows this way of depicting the lotus. The object was, admittedly, probably for export and was made during a period when there were diplomatic and trading ties between Persia, Baghdad, India and China.

detail from a vessel made during the time of the Northern Song. This image and associated research summary first published through Voynichimagery in, ‘Emblems of Direction – ‘West’ (July 29th., 2012).

Also found in common between ancient Egyptian, Achaemenid and later Asian representations is a type which does not show literally the flower’s physical appearance, but makes it resemble a cup.

Below, in the left column, one example from ancient Egypt and one from Achaemenid Persepolis. On the right side, illustrations to show that the cup-like form for ‘sunrise’/rebirth on folio 67v-1 has been drawn in a way that permits comparison with Chinese artefacts from (a) the 12th-13thC Yuan period and even much earlier (see further below) – from the 3rdC AD Jun [Jin] period.

The Jun period had seen the height of Indo-Greek fusion, with the flourishing of Buddhist culture in India.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), relations between the Islamic world and China had been developing well. Baghdad was the Abbasid capital, and Siraf in the Persian Gulf was the chief terminus for the east-west trade.

Two separate incidents, costing the lives of resident foreign traders saw formal relations wither andfor some long time, trade was chiefly conducted by land.

incidents…’ massacres in Yangzhou in 760 AD, when a thousand ‘Arabs and Persians’ are said to have been massacred; Guangzhou in 878–879 AD when tens of thousands are reported massacred – including Arabs, Persians and Christians, the last presumably members of the Church of the East (Nestorians). No reference is made to Manichaeans though perhaps the historian classed them as Persian.

  • Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery, Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān, (NYU: 2014)

We know that by the end of the twelfth century, relations had been restored – because when John of Montecorvino travelled east as Europe’s first ambassador-missionary, he found Italians already resident and established there as trading families.

From all the above, we may fairly conclude that the drawing on folio 67v-1 was not first formed as any expression of western Christian culture and that the face emerging from that type of cup-shaped flower – or flower-shaped cup if you like – must signify East.

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

Though the emerging face here is turned to one side, where on the map it emerges full-face, does not appear to have been considered a significant change.

But between this image and that on the Voynich map, the style of drawing is very different and in my opinion the diagram on folio 67v-1 had a much later origin.

It is not impossible that as lines from Isidore’s Etymologies informed the final appearance of the drawing on folio 85r, so the final form for this drawing may be informed by lines from Hafiz who flourished at just the time of most interest to us – the mid-fourteenth century. (1325–1390):

Cupbearer, it is morning, fill my cup with wine.
Make haste, the heavenly sphere knows no delay.

The sun of the wine dawns in the east of the goblet.

Hafez (also seen as ‘Hafiz’ lived 1325-1390). translation by Bernard Lewis. For the spiritual interpretation of Hafiz’ work as a Sufi poem see e.g. commentary (here) by Ivan M. Granger.

So far, surveying the sun-born-from-flower idea, as religious belief, as metaphor, as reflected in artefacts and in purely poetic images, we have defined the range of our subject in terms of time and geography. The sun-emerging-from-lotus might occur as a physical and/or conceptual image from ancient Egypt to fourteenth-century China, not excluding Persia, India and much of south-east Asia. 😀

But our being able to gaining so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 augers well. This drawing looks as if it won’t be too difficult to understand.

(below) – Underside of a lotus bowl, Yuan period. The overlapping petals result in a ‘swirl’ of the type we’re looking for.

The list of works consulted during my research into this diagram is very long and far too long to be listed here even if any Voynicheros could find the time or interest to read them.

For references for any particular point, do email me.

For this post, I replaced an older image of the ‘Egyptian marshes’ detail with the brighter version in a delightful blog which I sincerely recommend to my readers:

  • Monica Bowen (ed.), ‘Marshes in Ancient Egyptian Art’, Alberti’s Window (blog), (Tuesday, March 11th, 2014). The blog has been running since 2007 and is still posting.

Concerning the lotus motif in Gandharan art, one paper I had not seen until recently deserves mention, despite its author’s being apparently unaware of Egyptian influence on Mediterranean thought, including upon the Greeks’, and failing to mention of the Ashokan embassy which sparked the medical traditions of Cos and possible also its silk-making:

  • Kiran Shahid Siddiqui, ‘Significance of Lotus’ Depiction in Gandhara Art’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society (2012), unpaginated. Illustrations. available through academia.edu

O’Donovan notes #6i (cont.2) Refining the date-range.

c.3200 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

Continuing a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

At the end of post #6h, we asked how the drawing might be oriented.

In post #6i Part 1, details given one of the four figures led to assigning that figure the northern quadrant, considering the fourfold divisions in terms of the Mediterranean custom which named directions by the winds from each quarter.

At the same time, the sun in the diagram’s centre informs us that either this first identification is mistaken, or that the diagram was actually designed to face South – which was certainly not the practice in Latin Europe.

That first detail, together with reference to the wind-rose in Walters MS 73 has led to tentative dating for first enunciation of this diagram to about the last quarter of the 12thC.

So now, turning the diagram so that this northern quadrant is upright – a little east of North as Walters MS 73 has for the wind ‘Apeliotes vel Boreas’ we now consider the figure which lies to our right.

Apeliotes – Ἀπηλιώτης (Apēliṓtēs) – named the South-east wind in the Greek tradition. In the Walters diagram it names the wind for due East, with Apeliotes vel Boreas ‘Nor-nor-East’.

It might seem natural to say, ‘Given that the female figure is for the North, so this is represents the Eastern quadrant’, but it is far too early to presume that our interpretation of the first detail is right. By ‘right’ I mean the way the first enunciator expected it to be read.

In this sort of work, to be too sure, too soon, is very often to fall very short of the mark.

I’ll be as brief as I can.

This figure wears Chinese costume; other details suggesting the Mongol era. It also appears to reflect ideas about the Mongols that circulated in Europe, and elsewhere, as early as the last quarter of the twelfth century, though I concluded, overall, that this detail is unlikely to have been given its present form until 1270-1301 AD.

The telling detail is the slightly uneven line, paralleled by a pale band, which runs diagonally (on the figure’ right side) from a narrow neck-band or -collar to below the armpit.

The following illustration is undated, but the colour contrasts make the purpose of that line and its parallel, pale band, very clear.

The Mongol horsemen wore the deel, a robe which wrapped around to fasten at the wearer’s right side, near the waist. Its sleeves might be longer or shorter – but this ordinary form is not quite what we see in the Voynich drawing.

Court robes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries show the development of a wider neck-band over time, but not quite a fastening which begins so high on the neck as we have drawn in folio 85r (part).

To find a garment of the Mongol era where the overlap-fastening begins on the left-hand side of the collar band, we must move into a period after 1270-71, when the Mongols’ conquest of China saw Kublai Khan found a new dynasty, called the Yuan dynasty. Below is how court robes changed their design, although such ‘Yuan’ robes were still to be seen as court robes worn so late as the early twentieth century.

The Voynich figure’s dress, in reflecting that more courtly style, makes it still more interesting, because while untold thousands and tens of thousands in the near east and in parts of Europe had seen the deem deel at first hand before 1404-1438, far fewer saw such court-dress and still fewer were Europeans.

To imagine that the first maker of the diagram on folio 85r might have been a European is one thing; even to imagine his or her name may be found in what remains to us from Latin sources is an exercise in extreme optimism, not to say outright folly. We simply don’t need to play ‘name the author’ game at all. It is an old habit inherited by the Voynich traditionalists, but one which can, and which I think should be avoided by those trying to do these drawings justice.

The Latin west was certainly aware of the Mongols’ existence by the last quarter of the twelfth century, as reports flooded in from Latins in the eastern Mediterranean, and from Byzantium. The pleas for military assistance were desperate and blood-curdling stories were plainly widespread- some more accurate than others.

The earliest effort to make direct contact was between the western Pope and a leader of certain Christians of Asia, whose contemporary head was known as The Elder, John, or as ‘Prester John’.

There is so much confusion in today’s tertiary sources, about the history of western contact that I’ll quote here from the official Lives of the Popes, compiled by Mann who had access to the papal archives in addition to other sources.

As may be gathered from a letter of Alexander III, among those Westerns who now began to penetrate into the Far East, was the Pope’s own physician, Philip. On his return he assured the Pope that he had conversed with the chief men of “John, the magnificent king of the Indians, and most holy of priests,” and that they had assured him that it was their ruler’s wish “to be instructed in the Catholic and Apostolic doctrines, and that it was his fervent desire that he and the realms entrusted to him should never hold any doctrine at variance with those of the Apostolic See.” Alexander, accordingly, wrote to the aforesaid “illustrious John,” and .. assured him that he had heard … from his own physician [Philip] of his desire for instruction in the Catholic faith, and for a place at Jerusalem in which good men from his kingdom might be fully taught the true faith. Despite, therefore, “the far distant and unknown countries” in which he lived, he had decided, he continued, to send him the said Philip, who might instruct him in those articles in which he was not in unison with the Christian and Catholic faith… But to this letter, ” given at Venice on the Rialto,” no answer ever came. (Horace K. Mann, Lives of the Popes… Vol.10 p.230)

Horace K. Mann, Lives of the Popes… Vol.10 (p.230)

Whether the physician Philip himself returned, history does not relate. That there could be any communication, verbal or written, between that eastern Christian elder and the papal court would require the presence of competent interpreters and/or translators who knew John’s language and Latin.

The period when Philip was sent east must have been between 1159-1181, and though Grousset is often credited with suggesting that the ‘Prester (Christian elder) John’ was a Kerait, the information that John was head of a [Nestorian] Christian Mongol community in the far east comes from two early sources, Benjamin of Tudela and Bar Hebraeus, the latter certainly having been in a position to know.

I should mention here that the language of the Keraits’ [also as ‘Kereits’ and ‘Keraites’] was Jurchen, the language which Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analyses of the Voynich texts led him to propose as the language of Voynichese.

In 1165, Benjamin of Tudela left from the north-east of the Iberian peninsula, returning in 1173 and though his information about the Mongols was gained partly, at least, from hearsay, it was included in the book of his Travels. I think it noteworthy that from Jewish communities he also learned of ‘Prester John’ as an elder or a priest-king among certain Mongols.

So by the last quarter of the twelfth century, when the Walters manuscript was made, it is possible that someone in Europe might have known the style of formal eastern dress, as well as that earlier taken by viking-style costume. But if so, no other evidence of such knowledge is to be seen in European sources extant from that time, or even by the mid-thirteenth century when Matthew of Paris has no idea of what Mongols wore, despite his own constant references to them – or rather what was being said and written about them.

In his Chronica Major, for the year 1242, Matthew includes a letter written by Ivo, Bishop of Narbonne.

Ivor’s focus was chiefly on defending himself against charges of associating with groups of western Christians of whom the Latin church disapproved, but he does speak about the Mongols’ invading the Duchy of Austria in 1242, of the horrors perpetrated, the Mongols’ physical stature and habits, and – speaking of interpreters – of a very interesting Englishman.

At the approach of a large Christian army, the Tatars suddenly retreat back into Hungary. Several of the former besiegers are captured, including a multi-lingual English outlaw, who had served the Tatars as an interpreter and envoy, since they needed such talents in order to attain their goal of conquering the world.

But even though Ivo’s letter reports, thanks to that nameless Englishman, the Tatars’ physique and character, and even includes drawings, nothing is said about their dress and the drawings are clearly more reliant on imagination than one might have expected.

All of which makes the accuracy of the Voynich figure’s dress the more fascinating – and all the less likely to have been enunciated first by a sedentary European.

It is not the costume, however, which leads me to think that whoever first formed this drawing was probably of the Abrahamic faiths but rather the form given the right hand.

Unless its being given six fingers is due to no more than some some slip of the pen, it would remind those who knew their bible – Jews, Muslims and Christians of every stripe – of a passage from the second book of Samuel:

”And there was yet a battle in Gath, where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number; and he also was born to the giant.”

Add to this the passage from Ezechiel (Ez. 38:15, 38:12) which seems to prophecy the coming of the Mongols, and promises that God’s people will be saved in Israel, and one sees what impact it would have had when the Mongol’s devastations in Syria and Palestine were halted by a Mamluk army in 1260 wo defeated them at ‘Goliath’s well’.

All of which leads me to think that the figure’s hand has been given six fingers less as part of any portrait than to recall those passages from biblical text, and a widespread idea the Mongols were sons of ‘the giants’ whom legend had it Alexander walled up behind the ‘Caspian Gates‘.

for notes and references, see following post.

In England, as elsewhere, the thing everyone knew about giants, apart from their size, was that they ate people and were descended from tribes of Gog and Magog. Those ideas (save giant stature) also pervade the panic-stricken letters sent to Europe from Syria and the Holy Land before the second Council of Lyons.

Papal mission to the Mongols (1245–1247)
Given the prevalence of such ideas among Byzantines and Latins prior to 1260, one can only admire the courage of André of Longjumeau, assigned as leader to one of four missions to the Mongols sent by Pope Innocent IV. Longjumeau left Lyon for the Levant in the spring of 1245, vising Muslim centres in Syria and representatives of the Nestorian and of the Jacobite churches in Persia, before finally delivering the papal correspondence to a Mongol general near Tabriz.

While in that large and multi-cultural city, a hive of traders and of scholars, he met a monk from the far east named Simeon Rabban Ata, to whom the Khan had given responsibility for supervising, protecting and overseeing Christians in the recently-conquered nearer east.

We owe our knowledge of Rabban Simeon chiefly to Vincent of Beauvais. (Speculum historiale XXX, 70) though Vincent also had access to matter from John of Plano Carpini and from a book written by one Simon of Saint-Quentin, now lost.

Saint-Quentin is not an uncommon place-name in France, though in the present context, that in Aisne is obviously an attractive possibility.

Named by the Romans Augusta Viromanduorum, by the 12th and 13th centuries Saint-Quentin in Aisne was noted for three things: its great Abbey which was a pilgrimage centre, its prosperity thanks to the production and trade in woolen textiles, and its high vulnerability in times of war. The Abbey was ruined and presumably most of its ancient library lost during the first World War.

What turns our attention towards that northern and overland route from the Black sea that was taken by Simon of Saint-Quentin and others, is not simply the garment given the Voynich figure, or what little is recorded of the official journeys, but the final part of this detail from the diagram: the flower-like form shown just above the figure’s upraised right hand. It also offers a narrower dating for the diagram’s first enunciation.

Emblematic detail

One possibility which has often sprung to the minds of modern readers is that this is the ‘Lily’ of Sicily’s Lilibe or Lilybaeum embodied by the Anglo-French and Sicilian ‘fleur-de-lys’. Another is that it is some flower more closely associated with the East and with the Mongols.

By way of one argument that the fleur-de-lys represents an Iris flower (for the Greek Iris was goddess of dawn), the ‘fleur-de-lys’ idea has some merit.

The difficulty, however, is that the form given this item isn’t that of the western, or indeed the of eastern “fleur de lys”.

In Europe, as elsewhere influenced by the Latins, the fleur-de-lys is formed with a bar across it and with its centre given a sharp, blade-like tip. Here is how it appears even in the south-eastern Mediterranean during the fourteenth century.

If one thinks the Voynich detail an allusion to Sicily’s Lilybaeum, known to the Greeks as Lilibaion but called ‘Lilybe’ in some medieval works, one then might imagine this figure, in its Mongol dress and in the pose of a preacher or orator, as meant for some known person such as the Sicilian John of Montecorvino – but there is little evidence that any of the four human figures in this diagram is meant to be a portrait, and one is left then with the simple fact that the detail is not drawn like the western fleur-de-lys and that the diagram is not European either in its being is oriented to the south, rather than to the east or north as the Latins’ habit was.

I note that an article ‘John of Montecorvino’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia says that John started on his journey in 1289, having been provided with letters to Arg[h]un, and to the great Emperor Kublai Khan, to Kaidu, Prince of the Tatars, to the King of Armenia and to the Patriarch of the Jacobites…From Persia John went by sea to India, in 1291, where he preached for thirteen months …. Travelling by sea from Meliapur, he reached China in 1294. That much of is supported by reliable evidence, but much else in that article relies on just two letters, said to have come from John, but whose authenticity is doubted. John of Plano Carpini travelled to Mongolia (1142-47 AD) though not to preach, so much as to serve as papal representative and courier.

My own view is that the object says “yuan“, which named the Mongol dynasty and which means literally ‘circle’ or ‘coin’. The character ‘yuan’ (元) appears on Chinese coins from well before before the Mongol century or the establishment of the Yuan dynasty (). On the earlier, T’ang dynasty coin illustrated (below, left) the character ‘Yuan’ is seen lowest of the four.

When considering the diagram’s female figure, we noted that fabrics might serve a form of currency, and so now the possibility arises (and must be tested) that all four figures may include mention of the means by which tribute was to be given. It is not unusual to find multiple layers of meaning in drawings from the pre-modern world. People today ask ‘Is it about geography OR about astronomy OR about religion OR…’ though an image can refer to a number of such things at once.

Once again, I’d urge anyone interested in the drawings in Beinecke MS 408 but who suppose medieval people had unsophisticated minds, to buy and read cover-to-cover these two books as their basic introduction to our subject:

  • Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory
  • Veronica Sekules, Medieval Art (Oxford History of Art series)

The following information is not offered casually, and was not casually obtained. If it seems a bit ‘Hey-presto’, I hope readers will understand that I’m trying to keep the post as short as I can.

In another of the sources consulted, I found the following paragraph:

Almaligh produced money in 650H and 651H [1253/4], and Bukhara and Samarqand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …

Judith Kolbas (2013), The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu 1220–1309.

I was unable to find any image of such a coin minted for Fars in 1253/4, but found a later example (below) – not minted in Fars, though it may have been circulating in Amaligh.*

It was Qaidu II who ruled from 1272 to 1301 AD

So – what do you think? Near enough to what one might remember of such an emblem?

Having previously offered a date for first enunciation of the diagram on folio 85r (part) in the latter part of the twelfth century, we must now extend it to between 1270-1301 AD, a period when Latins were not only visiting regions under Mongol rule, but had established residence there. In this the most prominent by far were Italians – chiefly from Siena, Pisa and above all from Genoa but as the northern Mongol rulers,* converted to Islam, attempted to establish friendly diplomatic relations with Mamluk Egypt, Venice came to enjoy their favour.

*that is ‘northern’ in terms of the greater Mediterranean. See the wiki article Golden Hordefor quick overview. The critical period was during the rule of Uzbeg Khan (1312–1341), who adopted Islam.

It remains now only to see whether this figure agrees, once more, with utterances given the winds in Walters MS 37 73.


For winds in the eastern quadrant, we have:

  1. Subsolanus vel Apeliotes: [EAST] “Subte phebe tono,” “I thunder from beneath the [rising] Sun.”
  2. Eurus vel ?? [SSE] “Flatus nubes gigno,” or “I cause the clouds to blow.”
  3. Euroauster [SE] “Tellus denique calescit,” or “The Earth finally becomes warm.”
  4. Austro vel [S*] “Pluuias cum fulmine initio,” or “I begin rain and lightning.”

* for ‘Austroafricus

‘I thunder from beneath the rising sun’ – EAST – seems appropriate enough: not only for the thundering of Mongol horsemen, but for this figure’s stance as orator/preacher.

Subsolanus vel Apeliotes – Subte phebe tono
“I thunder from beneath the [rising] Sun.”

NOTE – Anyone chiefly interested in Voynichese should be aware that there is a wide diversity between manuscripts in their assignment of compass-directions and wind-names. Between one manuscript and another, between one linguistic or regional tradition and another, such assignments and the wind-names may (and usually will) differ widely. Variations of that sort continue well into the early modern period.

Material used for this post derives from research, summaries from which were published by the present writer through voynichimagery, including – but not limited to, the following articles –

  • D.N. O’Donovan ‘Thundering jackets and ‘fleur-de-lys’
  • __________________, ‘Response… re f.85v-1’ (a series of four articles, written before the Beinecke page repaginated the manuscript)
  • __________________, ‘Response to Nick Pelling’s recent post’ (in two parts).
  • __________________, ‘Winds and Wings’
  • __________________ ‘Some events of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries…’ (a series related to part of the map’s analysis).


The footnotes, references, quoted passages and additional notes specifically relevant to study of Beinecke MS 408, adding more than 3,000 words to this post, have been removed and will be posted separately.

O’Donovan notes #6i (cont.) understanding the woman.

c.2800 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

This is the second installment of a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

If you found time to do that first but most vital work – the slow, methodical memorisation of the image to be researched – presently the diagram on folio 85r (part) – you might have wondered why I put the female figure first when she appears at the bottom of that diagram.

If you then also found time to think about the costumes given each of the four figures, you might have noticed, among other things, the care taken by whoever added the heavy blue paint and who is normally pretty careless, to avoid painting over two round, white areas seen near the woman’s collar bones – and despite their minute size.

(detail) folio 85r (part) female figure.

Under extremely high magnification, they don’t appear as circles, but at normal distance, that’s the impression given. They are not oval.

from Scandanavian Museum

Here (right) is the classic (if now debated) reconstruction of Scandinavian women’s dress during the viking era. This type of over-garment is called a strap-dress or (less often today) an apron-dress. I’m sure you will see its similarity to the upper part of the Voynich figure’s clothing.

It makes sense that Scandinavian dress should be identified in a general way with North, but given the Voynich manuscript’s date, some questions arise immediately. Resort to guesswork and imagination is easy and fun; serious interest means serious work.

As so often our questions are of the when-and-where? and why?sort, such as:

  1. Over what period and range did women’s garments bear a pair of round brooches near the collar bone? and
  2. Why is there no sign, in the Voynich figure, of beads or chains looped between those two brooches when they were a constant in native Scandinavian dress?

As we now have it, the drawing (and so this detail) can be no older than the manuscript’s vellum (1404-1438 AD), yet ‘the viking era’ is normally said to have ended around 1100 AD.

There’s uncertainty about how the ensuing changes affected customs in dress within Scandinavia between the 12th-15th centuries, but more is known of regions where there had been earlier Scandinavian influence.

If you now look again at the Voynich figure, you should be able to list points at which her costume differs from that classic reconstruction of what viking-era costume looked like in its homeland.

Differences matter.

The Voynich figure’s over-dress is shown with a fuller skirt, and with side openings that evidently extend only from about the hip to the hem, though the top is comparable to the viking-era’s over-dress.

The brooches appear more circular than oval and less heavy than those in the Museum’s reconstruction.

A serious researcher must now set out to discover whether there exists evidence of smaller, lighter and nearly round brooches used with Scandinavian dress, and/or Scandinavian-influenced dress. Differences matter because they embody telling evidence. And it’s not enough, either, to settle for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The date and range over which such brooches might occur provide parameters in which the Voynich image might, reasonably, have been first enunciated. Earlier posts in this series have emphasised the distinction to be made between when an image was inscribed on the current medium and when (and where) it was first given form.


At the moment, archaeological reports are a sensible place to start seeking answers for this first set of questions.

They are better indexed than most medieval manuscripts, and include the sort of technical detail omitted from more general histories of the medieval world.

I’ll mention only two among the sources I used when investigating this image some while ago, because now I’m concerned to counter a habit prevalent in Voynich studies, by which a single source or ‘expert’ is treated as enough evidence for some point or other.

An iconological analyst must read enough to have a pretty well balanced understanding of the current state of study in whatever topic is being considered.

Balance of Evidence – example: Scandinavian dress of England?

Reviewing, in 2005, the newly published and expanded second edition of Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, David A. Hinton, from the University of Southampton, said in his concluding paragraphs:

Women in the Anglo-Scandinavian zone may have looked different from those further south in England because of their hairstyles and caps, but they did not wear Scandinavian dress.

Sounds pretty definitive, doesn’t it?

The example of Anglo-Scandinavian dress is relevant because one should not forget that from 1912 to the 1960s, few doubted Wilfrid Voynich’s assertion that in some unspecified ways – presumably the format, ink and vellum – the manuscript looked overall like some work produced in thirteenth-century England.

Among those who saw the manuscript, and did not appear to dispute this, were keepers of medieval manuscripts such as Richard Garnett and specialists in the history of thirteenth-century English writings, including Robert Steele. The Marci letter with its bit of third-hand gossip mentioning Roger Bacon wouldn’t have impressed them to the point where they’d ignore the physical evidence.

I was both pleased and surprised to find that in offering my opinion that the content in our present fifteenth-century manuscript was copied from earlier exemplars, I had a couple of precedents to cite, though none for my conclusion that most of the matter, by far, had not not entered Latin horizons much before 1350 AD*.

*a conclusion reached by investigating, one after another, about 60 pages of the manuscript’s drawings, over the initial period of nine years (2008-2017). Since 2014 or thereabouts, an increasing number of Voynicheros have come to accept that the manuscript is a compilation, and recent codicological studies appear to confirm it. This is a boon to the manuscript’s study, promising to end at last the century-long fixation on “naming the author”.

The diagram on folio 85r (part) is one among the minority of images in this manuscript that do seem to speak ‘European’ – which is why I’m taking that diagram as our first example, easing readers into one style of analytical-critical method.

Just four years after Hinton made that categorical statement, a new study was published:

  • Jane F. Kershaw, ‘Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, Vol. 5 (2009), pp. 295-325.

It shows, from extant examples, not only that circular Scandinavian-style brooches occur, both in Scandinavia and in England, before 1100 AD, but in Table 1 names the styles, their typology in archaeological terms and (of course) cites her precedents and sources.

(detail) taken from Table 1, Kershaw, ‘Culture and Gender…’ (2009)

At the same time, it is clear that the Voynich manuscript’s drawings are no product of Viking art nor of native Celtic art of the time – there’s not a hint of interlace anywhere in it.

Kershaw clarifies another point for us and helps narrow the likely time-frame for this drawing, one of the handful in the Voynich manuscript which use the conventions of western Mediterranean art.

With regard to the absence of any strings of beads or chains slung between the two shoulder-brooches, in the Voynich figure, we may quote Kershaw’s saying:

In the Viking period, brooches with suspended chains with attached tools in the style of chatelaine brooches represent a uniquely Scandinavian and Baltic fashion. They were not part of contemporary Anglo-Saxon female dress, as evidenced by the fact that native late Anglo-Saxon brooches lack suspension loops or equivalent features.

ibid., p.300.

Since England’s Anglo-Saxon era formally ends with Harold’s victory in 1066, and the era of the Scandinavian vikings or raidings ends about 1100 AD, we’d expect that within England, Scandinavian forms in English dress would give way, within a century or so, to those showing allegiance to the conqueror. Historical and iconological sources show this so.

The incoming style is exemplified by dress given the Bayeux tapestry’s three (yes, only three) female figures. That shown here (below) is on a figure which most commentators think represents Harold’s sister, Edith (c.1025-1075), who had married Edward the Confessor.

The Bayeux tapestry records events of Harold’s invasion of England.

By the time the Queen Mary Psalter was made (1310-20) in the region adjacent to what is still called the ‘Danelaw’, a sleeveless, open-sided garment appears by now only as something to be worn by the dispossessed, forced to work now as labourers because (so the embedded, silent message reads) they’d offended the deity.

Once the pair accept demotion to the status of crofters, with Adam now at his delving and Eve at her spinning, they are clothed in dress appropriate to their status within the new order of things.

Since I date the last alterations made to the Voynich map to about 1350 AD* and as we have it now, the diagram of interest has been drawn on the map’s reverse and is on vellum dated to the early fifteenth century, we are looking at a gap of between two and four hundred years between when one might have seen Anglo-Scandinavian dress worn in England and when our present diagram was inscribed on folio 85r (part).

*again, this a conclusion of my own research into the images in Beinecke MS 408.

How could a fifteenth-century draughtsman know so much about what women had worn in the tenth and eleventh centuries?

One immediate possibility is that the diagram was copied from an older work, but since the woman’s dress differs from that of the classic Scandinavian type, another region influenced by that style is more likely to have produced the form we see now.

Even so late as the Queen Mary Psalter, we see an occasional reference to the old Anglo-Scandinavian ways but now always associated with the lower social classes. The cap and bound hair seen on this servant-figure (below) is meant to signify both foreignness and servant-class. It represents a servant of Pharaoh’s daughter in the act of committing Moses to the waters.

On another page, two women are shown jousting. It’s a satirical image [a horse-laugh] and while both wear a sleeveless top dress, neither has the underskirt visible – as it is in the Voynich figure.

A different fourteenth-century manuscript – another made in London, does show the underskirt. This, again, is the dress given a servant, but it is still not like the dress given the Voynich figure, since the sleeves are a version of those we saw Edith wearing almost three centuries before.

For the present problem of how a fifteenth-century manuscript can show, apparently accurately, a form of dress scarcely attested after 1066, one answer is that it copies from an older monument, manuscript or sculpture etc., Another is that the fifteenth-century maker might have travelled north. We don’t know how women dressed in fifteenth-century Scandinavia and, in any case, archaeological finds tell us that the era of those disc-brooches was long in the past.

On reaching an impasse of this sort, when neither political history nor archaeology (to date) can provide answers, it’s often helpful to consider another angle of approach.

In this case, we also notice that the figure on folio 85r (part) is shown as a servant, with hair tightly covered, and that she labours at what I take to be work connected with the production of textiles.

I’ll explain (further below) why I read those interlocked loops as fibres or fabric.

A different angle of approach also changes the form for our question – “How would a fifteenth-century scribe encounter a drawing that associates Scandinavian-derived dress specifically with the less-than-genteel aspects of textile production?”

A recent study of Scandinavian techniques and trade in textiles adds nuance to our view of relations between Scandinavia, the British Isles and Ireland before the end of the viking-era.

Smith writes,

The similarity in spin between the British Isles and Iceland, suggest[s] strong cultural ties between these two regions.

Michèle Hayeur Smith,(2014) ‘Dress, Cloth, and the Farmer’s Wife’, Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 6: In the Footsteps of Vebæk Vatnahverfi 2005–2011, pp. 64-81
from Michèle Hayeur Smith, op.cit.

What the Voynich figure is busy doing, as I read it, is pegging out chains of wet, wrung-out cloths, or hanks of spun fibre (wool or linen would be expected). It may be meant for a very loosely chained warp.* The point is that she’s engaged in work associated with textiles and that in some regions, evidently, the immediate association made with such lowly work was that of ‘a northern woman’ – one who dressed in a variant form of Scandinavian costume, one similar to what we know of the Anglo-Scandinavian style.

*chaining the warp describes a phase in weaving between winding out the warp threads and threading that warp onto the loom. In some traditions, the warp is dyed at this stage.

Smith speaks of such an association, especially, in relation to Iceland’s textile production during the viking era, connections not only cultural, but technical and specifically related to textile production, trade and technology-transfer. People living in Ireland and in the isles were spinning their yarn z-z.

For illustrations of what is meant by an ‘S’ or a ‘Z’ twist, see e.g. here. Twist-direction is also relevant to codicology. Again, though, I’d stress that such online articles are best used as a first ‘sketch’, not a first-and-final source.

Smith writes,

Textile production was one of the more important household activities of Icelanders in the 10th century. Produced entirely by women, textiles rapidly gained importance, becoming a significant trade commodity exported to Norway in the early medieval period, with growing markets expanding first to the British Isles and then to Northern Europe. Within Iceland, cloth became the basis of the economic system, used as currency to pay taxes, tithes, debts, and fines. Medieval literary sources suggest strict legal guidelines that were implemented regulating the size, length, and quality of this currency. (Ibid., p.64)

If, for argument’s sake, we suppose that the drawing now on the reverse of the Voynich map had been copied from an older work – one dated, say, mid-late 12thC when memory of the older Scandinavian influence was still fresh in the British Isles and/or Ireland, so it might explain this easy association we find made with Anglo- [or Irish-?] Scandinavian dress, and why a figure of that kind would be taken for the quintessential figure for the pegger-out of chained ‘clouts‘.

As I first did when publishing my own research, I’ll quote here the Online Etymological Dictionary, while keeping in mind that etymological dictionaries of the modern kind did not exist even by 1438 …

clout: Etym. before 900 AD.

Middle English; Old English clūtpiece of cloth or metal, c. Middle Dutch, Middle Low German klūte, Old Norse klūtr. cloud (n.). meaning “of the nature of clouds” recorded from c.1300;

meaning “full of clouds” is late 14c.; … Figurative sense of “gloomy” is late 14thc.

To someone who had memorised his Latin texts – a monk or cleric almost by definition even so late as1300 AD – the informing phrase for such an image would come from some earlier authoritative source, such as the works of Isidore or of Bede, which latter had [already] transformed England’s religious and ecclesiastical culture during the viking period.

clarification (10th June 2022) – the last clause is badly expressed. I mean that the church in England, as it was during the viking era, was one already unified and transformed by Bede, whose importance in England’s history meant his writings were more revered and more often referred to there.

A late 12thC century compendium of Bede’s work and matter from Isidore’s Etymologiae etc., is Walters manuscript W.73, in which we find a large drawing which shows the circuit of winds that breathe upon the world, and one – situated slightly east of North – is there named ‘Aquilo vel Boreas’. It speaks its character: “Constringo nubes“.

from Walters MC 37. The North wind is seen at the bottom of this detail, with Aquilo vel Boreas next above it. Details of this manuscript

And if the original enunciator of the Voynich drawing was thinking both of cloth and of clouds, and understood the sense of Constringo nubes (“binding clouds together”), I have a suspicion he was also thinking of the word ‘nubile’ when he gave the woman’s hip its provocative turn.

and see Isidore Etymologiae XIII.7.2 “Clouds (nubes) are named from ‘veiling’ (obnubere). that is, covering the sky; whence also brides (nupta)..”; X.N.184, “Nubile (nubilis), “marriageable” (ad nubendum habilis); and I.xxxvi.12 “Nubila, nix, grando, procellae, fulmina, venti” (Clouds, snow, hail, tempests, lightning, winds).” trans. and ed. Barney, Lewis, Beach, Berghof (2006).

Constringo nubes
[plus mulier catenata? cf. linked rings in Basel, Universitätsbibliothek AN IV 18 f.25r Fulda. 9thC]

Drawings of the pre-modern period are invariably formed by the original maker’s thought – and thought in words – so I’m never quite satisfied with any analysis from which the informing words do not emerge

In this case, I am satisfied. The reader is free to differ.

And so now, in that detail from folio 85r (part) we have a fairly nubile chainer of clouts who stands a little to one side of the peg near a ‘Pole’, and who is drawn in a way that allows a possibility that this diagram was first enunciated by someone from the British Isles or, perhaps, from Ireland, and for whom the near-north ‘chainer of clouds’ brought to mind a female dressed in a version of Scandinavian dress, unlike that worn in Scandinavia itself, but associated with the Anglo-Saxons.

At the very least we can fairly conclude, I think, that the answer to our question about how to orient the four figures is partly answered. The woman is of the North. This tells us (by the way the sun-face is drawn) that the diagram as a whole is south-oriented.

We know, too, that the diagram may be meant to speak to directions named by winds in Mediterranean style and that the drawing we now have came from some earlier work, but while I would agree that this particular detail presents as if first enunciated by an educated Latin (that is, a western European Christian), it was not the Latins’ custom* to make South the primary point of orientation.

*If this is news to you, then for a short basic overview you might start here.

By the way

Recalling that Baresch believed the manuscript’s content was, in some sense, Egyptian – that is why he sent copies of some pages to Kircher – I might mention two men who certainly travelled so far as Egypt, among the thousands of others who did, not least because it was a regular point of disemarkation for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. These two were the English Hugo the Illuminator (Master Hugo) and the Irishman Symon Semeonis. Hugo died in Egypt.

When I introduced their names to Voynich studies, I had not seen Edel Mulcahy’s blogpost about Symon, but it’s still available, good, and is not too long:

Elly Dekker, Illustrating the Phaenomena (2013).

O’Donovan notes #6i: Speaking the same language – sort of.

c.1900 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

This is me trying to introduce techniques of iconological analysis to an audience I’ve never met, while using none (or almost none) of the technical terms and without assuming the audience has read as much as a basic history of art. Good luck to all of us. 🙂

I was going to return to the two crowned women (see end of #6b) but instead I’ll pick up from post #6g, which emphasised the difference between a medium’s date and place of manufacture, and those of whatever is represented on/within it.

In the last paragraphs. I pointed out that between the image itself, and the reader’s ability to understand it, is a barrier that seems more, or less opaque, according to whether it ‘speaks’ the language, visual and/or spoken, to which you’re accustomed. It’s not fashionable, at present, to speak of graphic ‘languages’ but the concept is easy for newcomers to understand. I illustrated this point about the drawn and the written line with these nine images.

In the Voynich manuscript, as we’ve learned since 1912, few of the images appear legible. The reason for this, to put it simply, is that the original maker (enunciator) and his intended audience did not use the same conventions as those informing the art of medieval western Christian Europe – from which tradition our own derive today.

However there are some few images in the manuscript which do seem to speak ‘European’, or something nearly cognate with it.

One of them is to be seen on the reverse of the Voynich map. This is the example I’ll be concentrating on.

This page used to be known as folio 85v – 1, and so my illustrations may come up labelled ’85v-1′. Since the time I published my research-summary for this page, and today, the Beinecke library re-paginated the manuscript, the new system leaving this page – among others – without a specific number. On the Beinecke website its description is now “85r (part)“.

but the site’s side-bar is up again – cheers, Beinecke.

With no way to distinguish one (part) from another, researchers must include an illustration or link every time one (part) or another (part) is being discussed.

Materials – vellum

In the normal way, the vellum’s quality and finish would contribute to our investigation. Specialists can distinguish between vellum made in tenth century Persia as against that made in thirteenth century north Africa, and these again can be distinguished from vellum made at the same time in Germany or France. But between closely connected regions such as southern France and northern Spain, or Spain and North Africa it may be impossible to be categorical. The example shown at right pictures a section of a Q’uran sold by Southeby’s, with a description which reads in part:

Qur’an Section. Illuminated Arabic manuscript on vellum. North Africa or Southern Spain. 13thC, 9 lines per page in neat magribi script in brown ink on vellum.

The Voynich manuscript’s brown ink is no proof of European origin, either.

The feature most telling of inscription within western Europe or under western Christian auspices is that noted in the letter sent from McCrone to the Beinecke library [pdf]:

“The writing appears to have been done with a quill pen.”

The question one would normally ask next, of course, is the range over which quill-pens were being used early in the fifteenth century. I don’t just mean geographic range, but demographic range.

In fact, we don’t have to ask that question, though we should if the drawing had survived as a single image of unknown origins.

In case the ‘who used quill-pens’ question interests you, it’s fine to get your first background ‘sketch’ from an online site, but for anything better you’ll need to dig deeper. As a random example of information in a webpage (here), I’ve bolded the statements which are too vague or are a bit dubious.

It is known that some parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with quill in 2nd century BC. St. Isidore of Seville mentions them in the 7th century [AD] in his writings, and it is believed that quills then began to spread as a popular method of writing as better than reed pens. With quills, it was easy to write on parchment and vellum. They were also used with fine brushes to illustrate manuscripts with figures, decorations, and images and become more and more popular from the 15th century on, when writing and [reading?] flourished writing started to spread [sic] through the western world.

(detail) folio 1r

About that general issue, I think there’s a reasonable possibility that the red-coloured glyphs on folio 1r (right) are an effort to copy an inscription written initially with a vermilion brush. I’ve never found time to look into that possibility in depth, so take it as no more than a possibility.

My point is that neither the use of vellum, nor the use of a brown iron-gall ink, nor even apparent use of a quill pen is exclusively European. The presence of all three together makes it probable that the images were set down as we now have them in western (Latin) Europe or in areas under Latin control.

None of it tell us when, or where, the drawings were first enunciated.

On the contrary, the fact that for more than a century these images have appeared unintelligible to highly trained and experienced people – specialists in manuscripts such as Goldschmidt or Kraus, eminent specialists in the history of western Christian art, such as Erwin Panofsky, and very dedicated and thorough researchers such as John Tiltman, demonstrates clearly enough that a majority of images in this manuscript were not first given their form in that environment and do not employ the conventions employed in art of the medieval west.

(detail) f.78v

For yourself, you may feel a bit puzzled by the image from 85r (part), but I should think that feeling far less strong than your reaction on realising the object near the outstretched hand of a figure in folio 78v was never meant for a Latin cross.

Perhaps you feel tha you don’t quite “get” the image on folio 85r(part), but that on folio 78v seems to “make no sense”.

Of course both do make sense; what you’re experiencing is the different reaction you might have to a person who speaks your language but with a different accent, as against one speaking a language you haven’t learned – yet.

Beginning investigation – Scan the image – f.85r (part).

Here the aim is not to hunt frantically for ‘the’ answer.

Scan the image slowly and methodically, giving equal weight to details that do, and those that don’t strike a sort-of-familiar chord.

Different people go about this differently, but it’s a vital preliminary.

Some people look carefully and methodically, memorising every detail; others try to make a close copy by hand. Others like to mutter to themselves, describing an image detail by detail. Whatever method works for you and doesn’t annoy the neighbours is fine.

Similarities and Differences.

Technical issues will come to the fore as you scan the image. If you are trying to make an exact copy, for example, how would you expect to form the diagram’s circles?

Would you reach for a pair of compasses? If so – stop first and check. Did the fifteenth-century copyist use a pair of compasses?

To answer that question you might need to download a large version of the page from the Beinecke site (see link above). While you’re checking out that question about compasses you might also ask – Is there any sign of a ruler’s being used?

(Next time someone tries to compare images in the Beinecke ms with drawings illustrating the works of Hildegard of Bingen, you might remember this issue of instruments).

As it happens, the ruler-and-compass issue one of the big research questions in Voynich studies, despite the fact that few have recognised its being one. It is one of the reasons I think a drawing on folio 57v was inscribed in a very different situation from the rest.

But if you like musing, or like digging, it’s a fascinating question when you’ve nothing else on your mind: What sort of people, where and when, did not rule out a page before writing, and generally eschewed use of ruler-straight lines?

It is evident that among the fifteenth-century copyists there was at least one who thought he would tidy up a couple of the ‘bathy-‘ images by using a ruler, but his hand isn’t seen for long!

This post is already long enough, so I’ll skip other questions of this sort and move on to an apparent use of two fourfold systems to organise the drawing.

Fourfold divisions.

One fourfold division is provided by the four human figures; the other by what is revealed on close inspection to be four banners or perhaps leaves, or perhaps they’re meant for channeled waters which peter out. Their nominal poles/stems/canals serve to divide the four inhabited sections. Here’s one:

If they’re meant for rivers*, then the person who first made this drawing understood ‘the Paradise’ to occupy the centre of the world, under the mid-heavens.

*In Biblical tradition, four rivers flowed out from Paradise; the Arabs say two remain above ground – the Nile and the Euphrates – but the other two sank underground.

On the other hand, if they were meant to signify banners or flags, we might ask whether they are meant as reference to physical banners/flags? Or for the four principal winds? Or the cardinal points of direction as ‘four Poles’? The four winds are not always closely identified with the cardinal directions.

Where one illustrator might show an allegorical ‘North Wind’ blowing from the North Pole (magnetic- or astronomical-) the navigators and weatherwise knew that the winds which came directly from the Pole were not principal winds, but fairly light ones. In the words of one fifteenth century Arab navigator:

The four cardinal winds are light winds. The remaining ones have technically-formed names and we have mentioned them all in the following verse

“The wind of al-Saba comes from the rising of the sun

But a little towards the Pole, while Shamāl slightly to the west of it [Pole]

Between Canopus’ setting and the west comes Dabūr

Canopus’ rising shows the place of al-Janūb”

G.R. Tibbetts, (1971) Arab Navigation… (p.142)

Canopus, known as Suhel or Suhail, is the star described in earlier western astronomy as alpha Argo ratis. A western conference of astronomers decided, in 1888, to break the enormous constellation of the southern ship into its parts, so now Canopus is master only of its hull: alpha Carina.

How can we know whether the diagram is speaking about the physical world, or about winds, stars, seasons, or about Paradise or even the four horsemen of the Apocalypse?

More to the point, how can we know if, and how, we should align a set of these fourfold division with the cardinal points.

Here’s a clue. Consider the four figures.

I’ll be very nice to my kind readers and be more specific still.

Lingering over the details, consider the costume that each has been given.

… to be continued.

image enlarged from original

(and no, it’s not a fleur-de-lys – that’s your memory tossing up a ‘nearest match’. Check that impression – How was the fleur-de-lys actually drawn in Europe over the period between the 12th-late 14thC?)

O’Donovan notes #6h: Appreciation and critique.

c.1600 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Just as there is no one ‘Science’ so there is no one approach to ‘Art history’.

But just as a biologist and a geologist may have common ground and areas in which their disciplines interact, so writings about pictures may have points of connection though differing pretty widely in their angle of approach.

One type of art history is popularist ‘Art appreciation‘. It aims to help people look more understandingly and approvingly on a given work, or style.

It tends towards a pleasant, informal almost gossipy style and as a rule will include quite a lot of biographical tid-bits. It certainly will refer to some historical matters, but the commentator is also likely, in this style, to float some of his or her personal guesses and ideas without providing evidence in proof. It’s more or less the ‘who’ of art history – about interesting characters producing individual works and personal ideas. That style is the norm for televised programs, guided tours, and many (not all) such matter you’ll find on Utube.

Art criticism can be no less appreciative, but aims at a more technical commentary. It’s about evaluating the merits and the deficiencies of a given work, genre or period. It too is a branch of art history and one which lays more emphasis on historical background and cultural environment including discussion of literary allusions and so forth. Its more about how people thought about their world; how a person thought about his work; how well or badly the image was realised. For convenience, then, we can describe this as the ‘how’ style.

Iconographic analysis includes art history but not so much of the ‘art appreciation’ sort. its primary aim is not to inculcate appreciation for art in a general audience, but to know how and why a given image or artefact has just the form it does, using the materials it does. I suppose you might call it art history of the ‘why’ type because it seeks objectively verifiable answers to questions of the ‘why’ kind – such as ‘Why are this figure’s hands clasped?’ Why is the figure’s clothing represented as it is?’ ‘What is the intended significance, if any, of that line around its neck?’ ‘Why are the hands so much smaller than the face?’ For such questions, answers are not plucked from the air; nor are guesses treated as items of faith. You have to know. That takes work. Sometimes less, sometimes more work – but anyone claiming all answers lie already within their own head (which is what the two-eyes-and-commonsense school of Voynich non-thought implies) hasn’t even thought through their own proposition.

To illustrate the difference between the analytical method and what has become the standard approach of Voynich traditionalists, I’ll offer an analogy rather than the ideas of any one Voynich writer, past or present.

So – suppose the object pictured here (left) had turned up in an old trunk, in an even older Italian building.

Suppose too that the finder discovered with it a seventeenth century letter reporting, (but not lending support to) a bit of gossip alleging this had been owned by one of England’s Tudor rulers, Elizabeth I.

In Voynichland, things would have then developed along these lines.

One theorist (probably English) finds this English-Tudor idea easy to believe – that is, plausible- then adopts it without further thought as their ‘theory’. On no better basis than that, they turn to trying to persuade others to believe the same. They assert as proof for the theory that Tudors wore flat caps and that what she’s wearing around her neck is a string of river pearls – adding lots of documentation about Tudors and how they wore pearls obtained from the Thames.

where fresh-water pearls were in fact obtained in Tudor times.

However another individual is then gripped, as if by divine inspiration, with utter conviction that the figure is Irish and says “Look, she’s wearing a torque; so she’s Irish”.

Another has an Italian theory and, after sneering at the other two, claims that to describe it as Italian is only logical, since it was found in Italy and that sixteenth-century Italians also wore flat caps.

All of them agree, however, in liking an ‘all-Christian-European’ theory so assert in unison that the figure is obviously Christian, because as they see it the figure’s hands are clasped in prayer and (as they all think) none but Christians clasped hands in prayer. The ‘Christian hands’ notion then becomes something everyone says and for that reason alone is elevated to the status of dogma.

But someone with a Turkish theory now comes along and says the Christian idea is wrong because the figure’s shoes have turned-up toes and everyone knows that Turkish slippers do this, adding that Turks might wear flat-topped caps if they felt like it, and it isn’t necessary to interpret clasped hands as praying.

Those having a ‘German-ic’ sort of theory say, instead, that big-bosomed women are typically Germanic and show examples from none but sixteenth-century German books to ‘prove’ big-bosomed women with hands clasped in prayer are ‘obviously’ German because you find them in so many German books.

Everyone, regardless of their regional theory, produces pictures in support, while ignoring all other times and regions – apparently holding some notion that whatever occurs in their preferred environment and time can have occurred in no other.

This last is, by the way, the most prevalent error made by present-day promoters of the German-ish theory.

In the feverish hunt, now, to have their own theory triumph over all others, the theorists move from forming theories to forming theories about theories, oblivious to the fact that they’ve stopped researching the artefact itself.

After some decades (about 9 decades in the case of the Voynich manuscript) a peculiar atmosphere arises in which, without conscious argument made, an idea circulates which suggests that the artefact will become whatever the victorious theory says it is, regardless of the range, nature or objective quality of evidence offered as support for that theory.

It’s a good start to have two eyes, a desire to learn and a rational mind. but a rational mind says that if the Voynich drawings were so easily read that it can be done by persons having nothing but two eyes and whatever they call ‘commonsense’, then the drawings would have been understood at least half a century ago.

You had Erwin Panofsky comment on the manuscript in 1932. A keeper of manuscripts in England commented on the manuscript before 1960. The manuscript was in the Beinecke Library’s collection at Yale before 1970.

What interfered, in every case, with the normal work of dating and placing images in a medieval manuscript was some Voynichero’s asserting their theory indisputable – Wilfrid’s Roger Bacon theory, O’Neill’s new world theory, the Friedmans’ all-European theory.. and so on.

In the wider world, this isn’t how it’s done.

There are objective criteria which apply and which mean that regardless of when or where it came to light again, the figure providing our analogy would be assigned its proper time and place of origin. As it was in 1927.

Notice the figure’s over-large head compared with its tiny hands?

That the artefact was discovered in its original home certainly helped curators, but such work is still regularly needed as artefacts turn up which have been displaced as a result of natural or of man-made disasters, or because traded or for some other reason.

Amateurs, and here I mean amateurs in Voynich studies, do not realise how narrowly an image can be placed and dated. The assumption is widespread that medieval images without accompanying text become meaningless and must be assigned their origins by means of historical fictions as ‘theories’. These ideas are simply wrong. There are people at work as I write whose chief activity is in dating and placing images formerly cut from some medieval manuscript. These, for example, come from fourteenth century north-eastern Italy.

Specialists draw on a wide range of scholarly studies, past and present, and across subjects as diverse as the history of technology, archaeology, art history, materials science, comparative cultural studies, comparative religious and secular literatures and more.

Meme-rs get away with saying so many brainless things that I’ve almost stopped wondering why so few of those who hear them seen to realise how brainless they are. “All you need are two eyes and commonsense” is among the most stupid, but they are all just wishful thinking. In that case, the memer’s subtext reads “I wish I needn’t learn anything to claim I’m an expert on the Voynich drawings”.

That those initials were made in fourteenth century Italy, or that the female figure was made in the 5th-4thC BC is not information produced by someone’s inventing a bit of historical-fiction and calling it a theory. It wasn’t any product of ‘commonsense’ but of prior study and real experience.

Of course it is understandable that people who haven’t had any relevant formal studies or experience will have nothing to turn to at first but whatever their memory might suggest as a ‘nearest fit’, but it is not so easy to understand how they could imagine their own ignorance sufficient to answer every question presented by the Voynich manuscript’s problematic drawings.

What Voynich studies really needs is a counterpart for Tim O’Neill, dedicated to exploding the sort of pseudo-historical ideas that spread by common consent and common gossip in defiance of both reason and evidence.

Note: in speaking of Voynich theories, I’m not speaking about cryptographic or linguistic theories.

Tim O’Neill writes a blog entitled ‘History for Atheists‘. He also has a podcast and a video channel.

O’Donovan notes #6f: Uses and abuses.

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

Consider this question, “When was it made?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching specialists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asking a specialist’s advice. My advice is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quoting a specialist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholars do notice such things, sooner or later.