Consider… Maths & memory Pt 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fibonacci and Commercial maths.

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

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

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

Two men named Paolo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, back to Toscanelli..

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

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

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

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

wiki article, ‘Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli’

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, about methodologies and Voynich research –

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this.. Lull, Kabbalah and ciphers.


Still speculation after all these years.”


Question-set 1:

Is it true that Ramon Llull was acquainted with Kabbalah? How long has the idea been around? Who first suggested it? Was there, then – or is there now – any evidence to justify the idea/assertion?

Question-set 2:

Is it true that Llull’s ‘combinatorial’ system was devised, or used by Lull, as a method for encryption? Who first suggested that use for it? Was there then, or is there now, any evidence to justify the idea?

Question-set #3.

Who first associated Ramon Llull with the Voynich manuscript? What reason did they give? Was there then, or is there now, any evidence dating from between c. 1260 (Lull’s maturity) and 1348 1438 which might lend support to that notion?

The short answer to all three ‘Is there any evidence..?’ questions is a simple “No”.

There is no evidence to support, and much to deny even the possibility that Ramon Lull was familiar with Kabbalah, or that his combinatorial system was ever devised from an idea that it might be used to encipher or encrypt text. There is no evidence that anything in Lull’s work influenced Alberti, his wheel, or the Voynich manuscript.

So before any revived “Llull-Voynich” notion transmutes into another faith-dependent ‘doctrine’, here’s the lineage for the three-link, circular, ‘Llull-Alberti-Voynichese’ storyline.


To break it down:

  1. Lull and … Kabbalism.

This speculation arose first in connection with a specific and unusual Kabbalist, the messianic Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia. But after almost five hundred years’ intermittent scholarly investigation, that imagined link has been found an idea without merit and rejected by a consensus very neatly summarised by Jan R. Veenstra’s note within his review of a book published in 2004 and whose author was attempting to justify the old idea. Veensta’s footnote reads:

The issue has been touched upon by a few scholars and was first raised in the fifteenth century by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who, in one of his Conclusiones , suggested that Llull’s combinatory art resembles Abulafia’s ecstatic Kabbalah.

The systems, however, are too distinct to argue for any kind of substantial influence and any research focusing on a text-immanent reading of Llull and his possible sources will be bound to conclude that Kabbalah plays no significant role in his works ….. Explicit references to Kabbalah seem to be absent; parallels between Lullian and Kabbalistic concepts are often too vague or incomplete to warrant an undeniable influence.”

  • Jan R. Veenstra, [Review of] Harvey J. Hames, ‘The Art of Conversion: Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century’. Vivarum,  Vol. 42, No. 2 (2004), pp. 262-266.

  •  David Abulafia’s review of Hames’ Like Angels on Jacob’s Ladder: Abraham Abulafia, the Franciscans, and Joachimism (2007), review published in Speculum, Vol. 87, No. 2 (April, 2012), pp. 561-562.

So the judgement of half a millennium’s investigation of Lull’s works and of Kabbalism rejects Pico della Mirandola’s impression of common character between Abulafia’s Kabbalism and Llull’s approach to preaching Christianity to Muslims.

To the first set of questions, therefore, the answers are:

The first person to ever suggest connection between Lull and Kabbalah was Pico della Mirandola, in a non-specific simile proffered without evidence and for which no support has been found to this day.


2. Lull … and cipher. (specifically, polyalphabetic substitution ciphers).

In 1980, David Kahn claimed responsibility for this one. Wanting to provide a different explanation for how Alberti came to invent his cipher-wheel, and while disputing an earlier posited explanation, Kahn wrote:

Alberti himself never said where he got the idea for his epoch-making invention. … the significant feature of [Alberti’s] cipher disk [is] the juxtaposition of two [alphabetic] sequences…. I propose [as its source]  the mechanism devised by the medieval Catalan mystic Ramon Lull (c. 1232-1315) to combine letters, which stand for philosophical concepts, in groups of three. Although it cannot be proved that Lull’s device inspired Alberti, there are grounds for suspecting that it did.

  • David Kahn, ‘On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution’, Isis , Mar., 1980, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 122-127.

  • Note – 9th Jan. 2022 – I apologise for not having earlier noticed that Kahn’s name had been ‘autocorrected’ to Khan.  

I’m not sure how grounds for supposing so can be judged if they don’t admit of proof, but here I want to make the point that each of the three links in that Lull-Kabbalah-cipher chain has been introduced by persons interested in cryptography, and not by persons adducing such a connection from their close study of Lull’s life and works nor (on the other side of the coin) of medieval Kabbalism. It’s a cipher-guy (or gal) thing.

If Kahn ever suggested that the Voynich text is the product of an Alberti-style polyalphabetic cipher, I’ve not seen the article, so if you know of his ever making such an argument, please leave a comment and reference below and I’ll add a note of correction here.

Readers uninterested in cryptography and unlikely to buy Kahn’s books, will find a Voynich-context discussion of polyalphabetic substitution ciphers in a post by Nick Pelling (2016) and if the reader is disinclined to follow the following link and read the post, with or without its 891 comments (yes, that is eight hundred and ninety-one), I’ll quote you just a couple of paragraphs from it.

Since the Voynich Manuscript surfaced in about 1912, many of the best-known codebreaking experts have studied its writing (‘Voynichese’) in depth. Of them, many have concluded that it was written using a cipher system that was (a) stronger than a simple (monoalphabetic) substitution cipher, yet (b) mathematically weaker than a polyalphabetic cipher.

If the University of Arizona’s 2009 radiocarbon dating of the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum (which points to the first half of the fifteenth century) is correct, the most likely reason for (b) becomes blindingly obvious: polyalphabetic ciphers (such as those of Leon Battista Alberti, Abbot Trithemius, and Vigenère) hadn’t yet been invented.

To which I’d add “… in Latin Europe, so far as we know.”

The history of cryptography is still a little old-fashioned; a bit ‘Europe-and-its-important-men’. On the other hand, statistical analyses are indifferent to nationality and vested interest in any theory, so it looks as if the chief contrary argument isn’t whether Alberti was old enough to have made Voynichese as a polyalphabetic cipher, but that the statistics don’t support the idea of the text – if it is enciphered – as either or both a product of Latin Europe and of Alberti’s system.

Simple alphabetic substitution ciphers had been known for not less than five centuries by the thirteenth century when Roger Bacon described that system. For Roger Bacon’s text and (again) John Block Friedman’s important article, it’s easiest to just start from this post:

With regard to documentation in Voynich studies, and the ludicrous obedience of Voynicheros to ‘rule by meme’ asserting that to refer to precedents and sources is ‘unnecessary’, here is a perfect example of why documentation defines ideas as legitimate or otherwise. Pesic’s perfectly enunciated lineage for the “Lull and ciphers” storyline is how I came to know of David Kahn’s paper, too.

In the remoter background also lies Ramon Llull’s ‘Ars inventiva veritatis’, his “art of finding truth” through the symbolic use of letters to stand for philosophical concepts. Leibniz was interested in Llull, whom David Kahn has proposed as the source for the idea of polyalphabetic substitution, especially in the form of Alberti’s cipher disks. See David Kahn, “On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution,” Isis, 1980, 71:122-127; rpt. in Kahn on Codes (New York: Macmillan, 1983), pp. 56-61. For Leibniz’s reading of Llull see Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 379-389; and Allison P. Coudert, Leibniz and the Kabbalah (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995), pp. 148-149, 153-154. Beyond Llull lies the kabbalistic Sefer Yezirah, the Book of Creation, which for Vigenère gave an account of the divine cipher immanent in the creation and which he thought also was the source of polyalphabetics. On the Sefer Yezirah (ca. third-sixth centuries) see Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Scholem, 1969),pp. 166-169.

  • Peter Pesic, ‘Secrets, Symbols, and Systems. Parallels between Cryptanalysis and Algebra, 1580-1700’, Isis, Vol. 88, No. 4 (December, 1997), pp. 674-692. **highly recommended.

You see the point?  Vigenère thought that a Kabbalistic text, Sefer Yezirah,  was the source of polyalphabetics.  David Kahn thought, on the contrary, that Alberti had the idea for his  polyalphabetic cipher wheel from Ramon Llull.

But cryptologists often show an excessive preoccupation with the requirements of their craft – that a text be composed as ‘plaintext’ and transmitted encrypted in a form to which the intended recipient has not only the key but the same standards with regard to spelling, grammar, and a single target language. 

Yet in the real world, as anyone may know who has lived in an international student house abroad, or in a multicultural and multilingual community at home – mixed terms and even mixed forms of writing are the norm, not the exception.  We learn new terms from the mouth of someone who uses his/her own language to express them and, more or less often, others simply adopt that term rather than hunting to find their own.  As the joke has it, the English speaker asks ‘What is the French for je ne sais quoi?’ Or: ‘… the Italian for chiaroscuro?’ Where does Yiddish fit, or any other among the dozens of ‘combinatorial’ languages.. Among them one might include English if it hadn’t been elevated to the status of a true language rather than a heterogeneous patois, part Latin, part Greek, part Gaelic, part.. well, you get the idea. The classic etymologies tell only half the story.

And so now, at last, we consider the addition of the Voynich manuscript to that lineage of passing impressions, false assumptions, tenuous and even plainly disproven connections, the basic compounding of speculation, ignorance and error.

After Voynichese was stirred into the mix, the result just sat simmering for half a century. Not even tested. Just left to sit there.  


Llull … and Voynichese 

It is likely that to re-present d’Imperio’s mentions of Lull other than entire will lead some to suspect it may be over- or under-emphasised so here they are, in full. I apologise for the horrible quality of the print.  Perhaps one day we’ll see the text re-typed and put it up as a digital text. 

d’Imperio’s Index in Elegant Enigma spells Llull’s name ‘Lull’. (If you don’t have a touch-screen, you can open the image below in a new tab).

d'Imperio Llull

Note: Llull was never a Franciscan nor, according to the latest update of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, a Dominican.

For the other side of the coin – to show just how badly mangled information can become when ideas are presented without any lineage in the form of precedents and cited sources, here’s a writer who plainly never read Pesic’s paper, or many of the sources Pesic included in his note.

Sieburth is here discussing a poem written by Quirinus Kuhlmann, born in 1651 in  Breslau (Silesia) and  executed for heresy in 1689, in Moscow. 

 Kuhlmann’s sonnet is accordingly entirely made up of monosyllabic Stammwdrter (stem-words) ? nouns, adjectives, interjections all treated here like those primal Chinese ideograms that Leibniz thought could be manipulated into the perfect conceptual components of the combinatory machinery of symbolic logic ? an idea that reached back toward the ecstatic thirteenth-century Christian Kabbalah of the Catalan Ramon Llull.

Quirinus Kuhlmann and Richard Sieburth, ‘Love-Kiss XLI’, Poetry, Vol. 194, No. 1, (April 2009) pp. 13-16.

Oh dear..

Another paper I’d recommend to anyone interested in how this curious idea arose that Ramon Llull had anything to do with Beinecke MS 408, is: 

  • Janet Zweig, ‘Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer’, Art Journal, Vol. 56 (1977): Digital Reflections: The Dialogue of Art and Technology, No. 3,  pp. 20-29. Recommended.

My recommending Zweig’s paper comes with a caution.  Readers should take as it’s pivotal sentence,” Contemporary with Abulafia, and not far away, Ramon Llull was born ...” and so be able to appreciate the way Zweig separates a discussion of Abulafia’s Kabbalism from discussion of  Ramon Lull’s Christian thought.

To end, a pictorial cipher from an image  included in Pesic’s paper, This cipher is said to be in a volume held by the Beinecke Library, but I found no mention of it today, and as you’ll see, no shelf-number was provided.  I hope that, under the circumstances, the library will forgive my reproducing it.

stars celestial cipher from Persic Beinecke quarter


Could any reader who visits the be kind enough to refer them to Ellie Velinska for her study and data about how many figures in the ‘ladies’ folios are made to resemble men, and how many, women.  She did that work several years ago; I don’t think it needs to be re-done as if for the first time.

Similarly, the whole discussion, a present, of the ‘ladies’ having been given one breast each, and then at some unknown time a second breast, is another instance of the ‘groundhog day’ fog which results from denying ideas their proper lineage by refusing to cite precedents and contemporary studies, even ones  whose conclusions a given Voynich theorist may not like.  

There are a few old-timers at the forum and they will know this perfectly well the true origin of those ideas and who should be credited with having contributed them to Voynich studies. It matters not at all whether the matter is still ‘in print’ – if you know, you know. If you pretend not to know, you are lying by omission,

Pelling’s observation about the originally one-breasted figures (he calls them nymphs) was part of his interview in 2009 and was referenced again – for example  – in a ciphermysteries post dated June 29th., 2015. 

I won’t pretend that Pelling  and I have often agreed when it comes to iconological analysis of the images in Beinecke MS 408,  but his confidence in his own powers of observation is not wholly unjustified and in this case certainly his observation is an original and valuable contribution to the study.

I do, absolutely, accept his observation that the ‘ladies’ had originally a single breast.  Where Pelling and I differ is in the inference drawn from that fact. About others of his comments in the same blogpost I’ll not comment here. 

But see:

Consider this… Halts and stops.

about 3200 words. Farewell to 2021.

As any experienced researcher knows, there will be times when a promising line of investigation comes to an apparently impassable barrier. In some cases, this can be a permanent stop, but in others only a temporary halt and some insight will be offered months, years or sometimes even decades later.

As an example of ‘dead stop’, see my ‘Colorni’ note in the sidebar.*

*In an effort to see whether any of Colorni’s encryption methods might apply to the Voynich text, I first approached Cryptologia to find someone both able and willing to test the possibility and two cryptologists were kind enough to offer to work with me, and if things went well to produce together a paper for publication. However, then Nick Pelling also offered, and it seemed only fair to give him first shot at it. My reason for wanting to test this possibility is that Colorni’s book, Scotographia, was published in 1593 after he’d spent a decade in Rudolf’s Prague, so it seemed to me that had anyone still known at that time any key (if there is a key) to the written text, they might have approached Colorni, and he then included that method among the others gathered to make his book.

It was possibility, and  a new possibility (though Rene Zandbergen immediately tried to claim priority on the grounds that he thought he recalled having once mentioned Colorni’s name). Nick Pelling, for some inexplicable reason, imagined I’d “fallen over” Colorni, but in fact it was an endpoint to research into levels of adherence among Jews to the religious prohibition against creating false characters, including enciphered texts. An academic paper on the subject led to my wanting to test the ‘Colorni’ possibility.  However…

In the end, our ‘Colorni’ experiment went no-where.

It happens.

But on the other hand, it can take as little as one article to indicate one’s way forward, or even solve problems whose investigation earlier met a blank wall.

A single article referenced in an online journal recently allowed me to pick up again not one but two problems earlier laid aside as ‘halted, perhaps stopped’.

The first question had been – Why ‘Kabbalah’?

I felt it important to understand just what it had been about the manuscript that prompted Erwin Panofsky’s allusion to Kabbalah in 1932. Was it format, page layout, vellum finish, the images, or script or something else?

It has become usual to suppose the manuscript written by someone trained in the Italian Humanist hand (another of the many objections to the ‘central European’ theory), but I’ve often had doubts. Within the frame of a traditional Eurocentic ‘all-Latin’ theory-creation, the only other option seemed to be the Carolingian – for which Barbara Barrett is said to have argued in one or more articles published by The Fortean Times.

Yet while I accept a fifteenth century date for our present manuscript, I thought the script might as easily be compared with the general style of thirteenth-century Sephardic cursive. (Note the “might”; it was a palaeographic question – not a ‘theory’).

The examples which I cited, in my posts, were in a Bodleian exhibition entitled ‘Crossing Borders’ and for copyright reasons could only be linked, not shown, in my blogposts of that time. Today, the Bodleian appears to have replaced that page so I can only repeat some of my comments from those posts.

At the linked site, I’d like especially to point out among the Jewish manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that of NAHMANIDES’, Torat ha-Adam, in the ‘oriental’ Sephardic cursive script (Catalonia, Spain, 1330) . And again on that site, a Manuscript of MOSES MAIMONIDES, also in Sephardic cursive, though with additional notes and emendation.

I was most struck by how reminiscent of the Voynich script was that in the copy of Nahmanides’ Torat ha-Adam. I’d make here, again, the point I made back then viz, “I’m speaking of the letters not made ‘sharp’ and the text giving equal visual weight to each of the letter’s elements. .”

The ‘Crossing Borders’ exhibition went to America, receiving there a review by Moshe Sokolow (Wednesday, December 19, 2012) of which I also quoted part in relation to the sort of informal manuscript described as ‘viliores’ – a  term I’d introduced in an earlier post:

… lacking the influence of centralized authorities and catering to more widespread literacy, [Jewish codices]  were produced by private copyists, many for their own personal use, and tended toward greater individualism.  …

  • M. Sokolow, review of ‘Crossing Borders..” exhibition. (Dec. 19th., 2012)

  • The term ‘viliores’ :  adopted after Francis Newton, ‘One Scriptorium, Two Scripts: Beneventan, Caroline, and the Problem of Marston MS 112′, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 66, Supplement to Volume 66: BEINECKE STUDIES IN EARLY MANUSCRIPTS (1991), pp. 118-133. (JSTOR).

The point, as I’d said when introducing that term,* was that manuscripts of such a kind are very often free of diacritics and have the simplest type of ligatures.

* ‘Seeking the Voynich hand- continued’, voynichimagery, (May 27th., 2015)

The relevance of these various details, in connection to understanding why Panofsky mentioned Kabbalah and ‘Spain or somewhere southern’, was then (and is still) that ‘Spain and somewhere southern’ was where Kabbalism flourished during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was part of the region where, at the same time, the scripts known as Sephardic cursive and Sephardic semi-cursive were being employed. And of course the environment in which Abraham Cresques’ ‘Catalan Atlas’ was created.

In that same post introducing the term ‘viliores’ I’d quoted from a paper by Maria Segol, ( voynichimagery, May 27th., 2015) and that quoted paragraph deserves repeating here:

Unlike other kinds of Jewish books… or other sorts of illuminated manuscripts, kabbalistic books were not sent out to workshops for illustration….. In almost every case the diagram is drawn in the same ink and in the same hand as the text it accompanies. They are rarely colored and rarely graphically elaborate or impressive. And medieval and early modern kabbalistic manuscripts are seldom deliberately aesthetically pleasing. They are in some ways the ugly ducklings of medieval manuscripts. This shows that they were reproduced as home operation, for use by those who copied them or by their colleagues and students.

  • Marla Segol, Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah, (p.7)

The idea of Kabbalah has been tossed about from time to time in Voynich studies, and in a purely theoretical vein has been incorporated into a couple of theories, most prominently in Tucker and Janick’s ‘New World/Nahuatl’ theory, but no evidence for it has been adduced from the manuscript’s palaeography, codicology, materials or from any formal analysis of its images.

Yet Panofsky’s opinions were always opinions offered by consideration of just those things, not created to serve a speculation as ‘theory’ – so something about the physical evidence and present in the primary document must have provoked that comment.

What was it?

He was clearly thinking of the work as Jewish, and thus of the original – not any Christianised – Kabbalah. He said plainly enough, ‘Jewish and Arabic influence’. Nor was it he who inserted the figure of Ramon Llull or redefined Kabbalah to mean only forms of Christianised ‘Cabala’.

It was a question that wouldn’t go away – what had he noticed?

When it came to the Voynich drawings, I could see some points of comparison with a couple of late fourteenth-century Jewish texts, and again with a few details in later Kabbalistic texts, but it proved very difficult indeed to find that critical key to imagery – the maker’s informing language, vocabulary and cultural context.

There were seemingly inexplicable gaps in the literature – no translations into English of the medieval Kabbalistic commentaries, for example, though some among the core-texts were translated. It had to be in English because that’s the only language in which I can assume all my readers are fairly comfortable.

And that was the point of impasse. Without identifying the informing word, I could not in conscience offer any analytical commentary. So that question had to be laid aside. Until I had that notice of an article in the Seriform blog.

There was another question illuminated by the same article, and again a question that no amount of digging had seemed able to resolve before I laid it aside almost ten years ago.

That second question had arisen while researching the ‘ladies’ folios, and initially asking why the stars in the month-folios should be formed as spiky-looking ‘flowers’. Why diverge from the simple drawing of a star? Why not employ a more typical flower-form, with rounded petals? Equivalence between a star and this flower-like form had to be a result of cultural – and most likely linguistic – habit, and so if that question could be resolved, it should offer a little more insight into the Voynich images’ antecedents.

It could have no connection to modern botanical designations, of course. The genus ‘Aster’ (Gk. ‘star’) wasn’t defined until 1706. There had to be some earlier link between the two ideas, and Greek was the most obvious possibility.

I found in one translation of the Georgics of Nicander of Colopon a phrase which spoke of the ‘aster’ and that passage I’ve included in an earlier post. The Gow and Scholfield edition, however, translates the same phrase as ‘shining blue daisy”. Once again, happily, an apparent contradiction was only ‘apparent’, and reference to the physical object shows these variants are in fact complementary and accord with the form(s) given the Voynich star-flowers, or flower-stars. The plant we now call the sea-aster, as you’ll see from the illustration below, can appear more, or less spiky-petalled; has varying number of points, and its colour shifts between white and blue. More, the centres change in colour between yellow and red as the flower ages. (cf. Quire 20).

So from this, together with various other details, I concluded that the month-diagrams (exclusive of their series of central emblems) had been first enunciated by a speaker of Greek.

In fact, I think the diagrams’ original form was probably Hellenistic, but their present form in Beinecke MS 408 displays in the anthropoform figures a cultural distaste for naturalistic representation which clearly opposes attitudes to the body in classical-, Hellenistic- and medieval western Christian (‘Latin’) tradition. On the other hand, the central emblems in the month-folios include some which don’t display similar avoidance, which that is part of the reason I ascribe their inclusion to a different environment, and a later period. The images in that fold-out show an evolution over time: from Hellenistic forms, through the phase of aniconic affect, to the Latin context which saw inclusion of those centres, addition of pigment and so on.

However, similar figures appear again in the bathy- section, and I see no reason to presume their purpose greatly different there, the problem was to understand how those in the bathy- section could relate to those in the month-folios, whose reference I’d found to be both astronomical and geographical loci.

Knowledge of Greek does not, of course, preclude knowledge of any other language, though an ‘either-or’ attitude is not an uncommon reflex among those forming Voynich narratives.

What created the impasse, in this case, was that I could find no linguistic key to explain why the ‘bathy-‘ section should include details showing what appear as pipes, channels, inlets or bays/basins. I could find no correspondence from Greek, nor Latin, nor any language – let alone in connection to ‘Spain and somewhere southern’ or Kabbalah.  I  admit that I did not consider Nahuatl, nor find any useful vocabulary from Jürchen.

I hunted out the few known drawings of plumbing systems in Europe before the fifteenth century, and also works counted as ‘anatomical’ but in neither case did such drawings display any points in common with those in the Voynich manuscript. Newbold’s ‘anatomical’ theory, like arguments about drawings in copies of the Balneis Puteolanis, I reject on iconological, historical and contextual grounds.*

Among these grounds are that illustrations for the Balneis are plainly meant to represent people, where the Voynich ‘ladies’ do not. The body-shapes, the type of head-dress, attitudes to the unclothed body, the representation of movement (so energetic in the Voynich ‘ladies’ and so leaden in the Latins’ Balneis imagery), like positioning of water in relation to the figures … and more… all set the Voynich ‘bathy’ images in quite a different category.

But – unable to get any linguistic clew for those ‘tubes’ – I could not in honesty publish an analytical study of the ‘bathy-‘ section.

It was yet another question which had to be laid aside – perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. In this case, it was only ‘temporarily’.

*…… ten years on …..*

A few weeks ago, regular notices from The Seriform Blog included:

And that article explained why I’d found such difficulty accessing English translations of the medieval Jewish commentaries on Kabbalah.

And that same article, in citing an example from such commentaries, directed me towards the solution of that other frustrating problem – the bathy- section’s ‘pipes’.

As one application for the term ‘KAV’, it gave the meaning ‘pipe’ … but then the author shows that in Kabbalah, the term ‘Kav’ has its philosophic and religious sense, which any person knowing it might apply, so as to express by that visual metaphor a wide range of ideas, including: line, ray, measure, bay or inlet.


Here’s the relevant paragraph:


KAV – as ““Line” or “Ray”… The kav possesses two dimensions, an outer dimension and an inner one. The outer dimension of the kav, referred to as kav hamidah (“the line of measurement,” “the measuring rod” or “ruler”) corresponds to its power of “measurement,” the power to define boundaries…The two letters in Hebrew which spell kav are in fact the two inner letters of the word makom, “space”.

Which is why, when I’d introduced to Voynich studies another image, preserved as the frontispiece to a Christianised ‘Introduction to Cabbala’, it had been in the context of that link to Majorcan Jewish cartography and gridding ‘by the Rose’.   Both items in the following illustration are Christian European works, but (as I argued in the original ‘Ring o’roses’ series in Voynich imagery), from Jewish precedents.

The rays emanating from a circuit of points, and by which both astronomical and geographic locus is determined.. that’s the prosaic, secular sense of such maps.

But as you see, there can be a correspondence with higher ways of seeing.


By identifying that ring of points with stars and/or angelic souls..  you have another sort of drawing altogether… the power to define boundaries.

“Line, ray, measure, bay or inlet… and ‘pipe

To speak of the Voynich manuscript in terms of the then-new cartes marine was a new idea, or insight, when I introduced it to Voynich studies, and still more when I was at last able to connect them both with the ideas, vocabulary and that southern Jewish environment where Sephardic cursive script was being employed by Jews of that region.

As each stage of the research was published, overt response from the ‘Voynich community’ was quite odd; overt expressions of disdain paralleled by covert methods of adoption and re-assignment of authorship, including the habit of immediately trying to invent ‘alternatives’ more compatible with a Voynich theory of all-Latin ‘possession’ of the manuscript and its origins. 

  For the charts, an alternative Latin story; for Kabbalah, a revival of the old ‘Ramon Lull’ suggestion – and again of Christianised ‘Cabala’.

Superficially, the ‘Voynich Theory War’ presents as a dispute about nationality: which section of western Christian Europe shall ‘own’ the text. 

In fact the true opposition is between that traditionalist medieval-European-Christian narrative, and any opposition to it. This includes not only an overt suppression of unsupportive information (by subverting and re-directing the original evidence) but an active hostility to those who bring such dissenting evidence to light. Picking ‘bits’ from others’ research and re-using them to suggest support for what that evidence was shown to oppose has become habitual for a certain section of the online ‘community’. Apparently from the ‘think-tank’ principle that when confronted with unwelcome information, the thing to do is to invent and disseminate another theory-patch.

  So today you may well find, incorporated into some other Voynich site,  later-invented and often appallingly bad efforts to create an ‘alternative’ context for the medieval charts, for images used to illustrate and prove some point (such as the plant identification for folio 13r) made against the usual Eurocentric narrative, and this sort of thing isn’t done only with matter published by the present author but has become endemic among a certain prominent sector of the ‘online community’.  The most aggressive of these plagiarists are not beyond pretending to themselves and others that such theft is a form of moral obligation – rather as schoolyard bullies  ‘properly punish’  some classmate for daring to have more lunch-money than they do. 

The property is ‘re-distributed’ in this way to persons they deem more worthy to have it, and  whom they feel it will not be beneath them to name in footnotes and citations.  That the invented ‘alternative’ uses may not serve the manuscript’s study seems not to occur to those in whom ambition and intellectual poverty have formed their always toxic mixture.

But to return to our subject:

One can see now how persons  acquainted with the language(s) of Hebrew and Greek in addition to any others, might quite naturally give such form to ideas of the ‘Aster’ as flower and as star, to the  ‘chord/chora/hora’ and to the Kav.

Star-measures, distances, spaces and …. places.  This complex of ideas is such that, when the astronomical aspect is considered alone, it can be compared to  what the Latins called the radii stellarum or to Majid’s bashi, yet which in terms of topography is just easily explained using terms still current in English.  

The varied facets of meaning for the term ‘KAV’ allow us a rational reconciliation of the ‘ladies’ presence in those two sections of the Voynich manuscript, namely the month-folios and the ‘bathy-‘ folios so called, and of those the ‘pipes’ and bays seen in in the latter section’s margins.

In the same way, the term provides a way to reconcile the fourteenth-century rose-gridded map made in Majorca or Genoa, with concepts of Kabbalah.  These are also an expression of perceived correlation of astronomical- with geographic loci. It does not imply that the written text will be all about Kabbalah, but does help explain Panofsky’s recognition that there might be ‘something of Kabbalah’ in it. That is to say – the combination of informal format, the script with its absence of vertical emphasis, aniconic affect evident in the marring of anthropoform figures and informing construction of the vegetable images etc.

Speaking of places –  Gerona lies across the strait from Majorca. With North Africa, and southern France, Gerona was the major centre of Jewish Kabbalism during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  After the fourteenth-century expulsions, the places to which Sephardi Jews went from this region went included, among other places, northern Italy and Dalmatia.

Postscript – etymology for ‘aster’.

Proto-Indo-European root meaning “star.” Buck and others doubt the old suggestion that it is a borrowing from Akkadian istar “venus.” 

It forms all or part of: aster; asterisk; asterism; ..; …constellation; disaster; [etc.]

It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit star-; Hittite shittar, Greek aster “star,” with derivative astron; Latin stella, Breton sterenn, Welsh seren “star.”

The source of the common Balto-Slavic word for “star” (Lithuanian žvaigždė, Old Church Slavonic zvezda, Polish gwiazda, Russian zvezda) is not explained.

For its intrinsic interest – if you’re into scripts – here’s a webinar where palaeographers are chatting about their research into scripts of the Aegean Bronze age, including Linear A and B.

Minor typos and a couple of dropped phrases corrected – 24/12/2021

Consider this… (cont). Kircher, scripts, languages & Aramaic.

Header image: ‘Alphabet iliricum sclavor’ included in a model book of 1561 . Libellus valde doctus elegans, & vtilis, multa et varia scribendarum literarum genera complectens. –

approx. 3300 words.

Taking the ‘4’-shaped glyph as the constant, the last few posts have sketched out roughly the patterns of connection, movement and exchange – affecting peoples, ideas, and skills – throughout the south-western Mediterranean and most particularly during that half-century from c.1350-1410 when (pace Hill), we first find the numeral ‘4’ written with that same simple, open-eyed shape as is used for one of the Voynichese glyphs.

The situations in which that exact form occurs, before the Voynich manuscript’s date-range, were found to be practical rather than intellectual – the world of traders and artisans, and particularly of Jews and Italians involved in maritime matters, and notably cartography.

Then, at just the same time when Beinecke MS 408 was being put together, we find a first use of that ‘4’-shape in a cipher-key, that cipher using the Jewish ‘atbash’ method to encipher a secular document in Italy.

The date-range for da Crema’s cipher-key coincides with our manuscript’s, and with a period when Italy saw an influx of Jews from territories owned by the kings of France and of Aragon, who between them now owned what had been the territories composing the kingdom of Majorca.

However, da Crema’s script does not resemble that in the Voynich manuscript, and so this post is about the problem of scripts and languages.

It should be kept in mind that the same Genoese, or Pisan, who had access to a Majorcan-Jewish carte marine might also take ship for Egypt, Tunis, or Trebizond, and at this same time, if a Genoese, might have relatives living in Baghdad, in India, or in Constantinople or Caffa on the Black Sea.

It is not a small matter that, as late as the seventeenth century and over a period of no less than thirty years, Athanasius Kircher should have failed even to identify what script or scripts have provided the Voynich glyphs.

So now, before turning to Girona (Gerona) and the matter of Kabbalah in medieval and later Europe, I’d like readers to consider this problem, and while keeping in mind that for just as long a period, NSA cryptographers failed in the same way – either to identify the source of the Voynichese glyphs, or to extract any ‘plain text’.

It seems to me, altogether, that those working on the written text would do well in future to avoid simply presuming that the Voynich text must prove ‘underneath it all’ a literary* plaintext in a western European language – including Latin.

*By a ‘literary’ text, I mean one composed of sentences more grammatical than ungrammatical –  including subject, verb and object –  employing a fairly standardised orthography, and forming altogether a narrative whose parts can be classed as prose and/or poetry. A shopping list, for example, is normally not a literary text.

From 1633 onwards, Kircher’s position and high-level patrons meant he had access to an extraordinary range of information relative to scripts and languages. Baresch was not wrong to choose Kircher when, trying to find someone who might recognise the origin of the Voynich script, he commissioned and sent careful copies of sections from the manuscript to Kircher, asking only that the script be identified.

To most people of his time, it would have seemed that if anyone could do that, Kircher could. .

Kircher was already, by 1633, interested in other matters of current (and recurrent) interest to Voynich researchers, including cryptography, Kabbalah and Ramon Llull.*

*I don’t propose to say much here about Llull, having now seen the excellent, updated. entry in Stanford University’s Encylopaedia of Philosophy website. (here),.  though see also ‘Postscript #2’ at the end of this post.

A letter which Kircher sent to Pieresc tells how a first interview with the immensely influential Cardinal Francesco Barberini – who would remain Kircher’s sponsor for the next five years -turned into a conversation about “the interpretation of hieroglyphs, Kabbalah and Arabic literature”. 

*Letter from Kircher to Peiresc, Rome, 1 December 1633, BNP FF 9538, fol. 234r. I have this reference from Stolzenberg. 

And to about this same time (1633-4), Daniel Stolzenberg dates a plan for a ‘universal history’, written in Kircher’s own hand, among the Barberini collection and which Stolzenberg found, then transcribed, translated and commented on. That plan has a section for cryptography (mainly Trithemius’ method) and another for Kabbalah and Lull, whose ‘combinatorial method’ we may suppose Kircher had at least heard of by then.

  • Daniel Stolzenberg, ‘ “Universal History of the Characters of Letters and Languages”: An Unknown manuscript by Athanasius Kircher’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome , Vol. 56/57 (2011/2012), pp. 305-321.

  • Alexander Boxer is producing a parallel Latin-English translation of Trithemius’ text for those interested in the history of cryptology. See

Of interest to us now, though, is the section laying out the languages and scripts which were known to Kircher four years before Baresch’s request reached him.

The plan looks like nothing so much as the sort of ‘map’ or key you might find on a printer’s wall. The comparison is not arbitrary.

Here is Stolzenberg’s translation, from his transcription of the original (folios 33-4 in Vatican Library, Barb. Lat. 2617).

The range, and the organisation of these scripts/languages and the table’s otherwise surprising omissions, shows it organised according to the ideas of western European Christianity (i.e. Latin Christianity) and doctrinally Catholic. Consider for example how ‘Greek’ is classed as the language and script of an ‘oriental doctrine’ and imagined descended from Hebrew.

Kircher’s allusion to ‘missals and holy books’, quoted further below, serves to re-inforce the suggestion that Kircher gained this information because, thanks to Barberini and others, he had the entrée to the Vatican printeries in whose work scholars, native speakers and missionaries were all involved in different ways, composing, producing, proof-reading and disseminating those products throughout the world – which by the seventeenth century meant from as far as China to the most distant parts of the Americas.

We needn’t suppose Kircher knew more than the names for most of these scripts and languages but when, in about 1637, he received via Theodore Moretus’ posts, the copied sections of the unreadable manuscript and a request to identify the script, you’d expect that Kircher had access to persons and sources that could provide him with the answer more or less immediately.

For a full eighteen months, however, Kircher was silent – apparently. Not a civil note thanking Baresch for the gift and his enquiry; not so much as a brief note sent on receipt, unprompted, to reassure Moretus that the package hadn’t gone astray.

When, finally, Kircher did respond in 1639, it is clear that his silence was due simply to his continuing failure and consequent chagrin, for he seems only to have written then to Moretus, refusing in that letter to so much as acknowledge Baresch’s existence. And after eighteen months, Kircher could say nothing about the script except what he had plainly gained from some other person and, trying to pretend it an utterance from his own authority, he clearly failed properly to understand.

At first, certainly, Kircher’s letter sounds authoritative, but if one fact-checks, it is shown a faintly pathetic attempt to present what had been beyond him as merely ‘beneath’ him. He even uses the childish excuse ‘I could have if I wanted to, but…’

His letter includes no apology for delay but begins with the “you-and-I-are-superior-types” ploy (a form of ‘cosying up’ not unknown today) then after a few paragraphs about magnets, Kircher pretends he has only just looked at ‘the book’, writing:

As for the book … which you enclosed with your letter, I have looked at it and have concluded that it requires application rather than insight in its solver. I can recall solving many writings of this kind when the occasion presented itself, and the itch of my mind working would have tried out some ideas on it if only many very urgent tasks did not call me away from unsuitable [sic!] work of this kind. However, when I have more free time and can take advantage of a more suitable moment, I expect I shall try to solve it when the mood and inspiration take me.

Finally, I can let you know that the other sheet which appeared to be written in the same unknown script is printed in the Illyrian language in the script commonly called St Jerome’s, and they use the same script here in Rome to print missals and other holy books in the Illyrian language.

Kircher never did solve it, in thirty years, though he still wanted the manuscript when he finally gained the original in 1666 or so. That he was determined to have it may be inferred by Marci’s oddly-apologetic tone in his letter of gift.

But in his earlier letter to Moretus, Kircher revealed his source for the ‘Jerome/Illyrian’ idea as the Vatican printery and those associated with producing foreign-language ‘missals and holy books’. All the same, it sounds good, doesn’t it? The script – ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’. The language ‘Illyrian.’

But nothing followed – not during Kircher’s lifetime, nor apparently up until 2011 when I was somewhat surprised to learn there had still been no follow-up on that ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ identification.

You may find the following illustration, today, on some other Voynich site/s, but in 2011, there was nothing of the kind. The Voynich script and language are not my area, but I felt it had to be asked – What exactly was ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ script? For what languages was that script being used in ‘missals and holy books’ during the 17thC?.

The following comes from my post of 2011. Since the image is the important item, I’ve included just a couple of sentences from the post and, in square brackets, clarifications for what is omitted.



  • D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A few curiosities: “Illyrian” said Kircher’,  published first in ‘Findings‘ (blogger blog) Sunday, Nov. 11th., 2011; reprinted ‘Voynich imagery‘ (wordpress blog), Nov. 2nd., 2012.

… not too long before Kircher’s time, late in the sixteenth century, the Vatican issued a book in which was a copy from a manuscript showing this “Illyrican” script credited to Jerome – who lived fully four centuries before Cyril, but while ‘Illyricum’ remained the name of that province [on the Adriatic coast, about Dalmatia].

So when Kircher thought ‘Illyrian’ script, he could have been thinking of [and confusing] this ‘Illyrican’ script for the Cyrillic, or Glagolitic.


  • text and image first published in ‘Findings‘ (blogger blog), Sunday, Nov. 11th., 2011; reprinted in ‘Voynich imagery‘ (wordpress blog), Nov. 2nd., 2012. Click to enlarge.


The signs used in Jerome’s Illyrican (not ‘Illyrian’) script have little in common with those of Voynichese, as you see. Taken at face value, Kircher’s airy and seemingly off-the-cuff statement sounds wonderfully authoritative – unless you fact-check – and the same is true for much else that is asserted with an air of certainty about this manuscript today.

It is certainly possible that Jerome’s script was used to print some language called ‘Illyrican’ in the sixteenth century (I’ve included another ‘Illyrican’ script as header for this post), Kircher’s saying it was used to print the ‘Illyrian’ language raises certain other difficulties. Here, the wiki article is nicely succinct:

The Illyrian language was a language or group of languages spoken in the western Balkans in Southeast Europe during antiquity. The language is unattested with the exception of personal names and placenames… In the early modern era and up to the 19th century, the term “Illyrian” was also applied to the modern South Slavic language of Dalmatia, today identified as Serbo-Croatian. This language is only distantly related to ancient Illyrian and is not descended from it.

Could Voynichese be Serbo-Croatian? If so, why did Kircher not ever claim to have ‘broken’ the text. Has anyone ever suggested such a thing in more recent times, or claimed to have produced a translation of the Voynich text as Serbo-Croatian? More to the point – has any non-Voynich-related person, competent in Serbo-Croatian, offered a balanced assessment of some such translation? Anyone wanting to can just search Voynich+Serbo-Croatian to find an example to examine.

I will say that the same formerly Illyrian region  – around Dalmatia – cropped up a few times during the course of my own research: in connection with a map found in a Franciscan monastery and whose place-names, as discussed by Goldschmidt and Crone, were a mixture of several different local dialects from the Black Sea region; second in connection with the figure of the Voynich archer, his clothing and other matters maritime, and thirdly in connection with other letters in the Kircher archive –  but I published summaries of these things at the time, and they are beside the point at present. 

The problem is, of course, that whoever identified the Voynich script as supposedly ‘Jerome’s Illyrian'(sic) presumably also knew the languages for which it was then being used, and could have directed Kircher to one of the native speakers, or scholars, who oversaw works produced in that language. But that seems never to have happened, or to have drawn a blank. Kircher was not a modest man. His silence must be taken, in the absence of other evidence, as signalling failure, and for thirty years.

What seemed another obvious approach again, I found had never been tried, at least not as far as I could learn by about 2010: that is, to run a statistical survey to discover when, and where, glyphs closely similar to the set of Voynich glyphs are attested in alphabets or abjads.

I would suppose there’d be little point in collecting data about such ubiquitous signs such as ‘o’ but it seemed to me that a pattern of distribution for some of the more unusual forms should be enlightening.

Again – not my field, but I did attempt one amateurish test-run, my target being the glyph I describe as an ‘ornate ‘P’. I found that scripts in which such a form occurs – or occurred- mark a path from the eastern shore of the Black Sea, inward for a distance, and then turning south towards the Persian Gulf, extending as far as southern Arabia.

I found, further, that the form occurs with a fairly consistent phonetic (or should I say phonemic?) value within an ‘s-to-t’ shift.

But what tied those gleanings together was learning that all those scripts had evolved from, or were consciously developed after the model of, imperial Aramaic.

That made sense of the distribution pattern and here again, because it will be easiest for readers to check, I’ll quote a wiki article rather than the more academic sources I used in those posts published in 2012.


Since I have explained that the earliest stratum informing the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is one whose origins I date to the Hellenistic period, I’ll start from the period immediately before Alexander’s arrival on the scene.

The Achaemenid Empire (539–323 BC) continued this tradition [of using Imperial Aramaic], and the extensive influence of these empires led to Aramaic gradually becoming the lingua franca of most of western Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Egypt.

And so that explained the otherwise odd-looking distribution for scripts containing an ‘ornate P’.   Here’s another of the examples I found as part of that research. It comes from southern Arabia and is popularly known as zabur or ‘psalm’ script. It’s not the best of my examples, but I still have the digitised image.

On this script again, I’ll quote a wiki article:.

“Zabur writings were used for religious scripts or to record daily transactions among ancient Yemenis. Zabur writings could be found in palimpsest form written on papyri or palm-leaf stalks.”

In that same article,* there’s another and better illustration of the script. The writer of that wiki article associates zabur script with monumental Sabaean script – itself derived from Aramaic.

*’Ancient South Arabian script‘ – wikipedia

I’m not offering any theory that the Voynich script originated in the Yemen, or is Sabaean or anything else – zabur is just one example of the numerous informal scripts which, developed from imperial Aramaic, include a form of “ornate P” as one of their letters. As does the Voynich script.


This Image (below) added 20th December 2021. I’d not intended to include it because the accompanying files were among wildfire losses in 2013 and I cannot provide the usual bibliographic information.  I’m adding it after three correspondents’ kindly let me know that discussion of ‘ornate P’ forms makes no sense without an illustration.   


A wiki article, ‘Aramaic’, was evidently written by someone for whom the whole point was that it was the ‘language Jesus spoke’ and it omits a number of important matters, including the continuing use of Aramaic by Jewish scholars, including ones in medieval western Europe and, also, that the Kabbalistic Zohar is written in a form of Aramaic, though not, I understand, in old Aramaic script.

For those linguists who’d like to tackle Aramaic and/or the Zohar…

  • According to this website – “If you’re looking for The Book of Zohar PDF or the wisdom of The Zohar PDF, then here it is in its original Aramaic language, with Hebrew commentary by Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag.”  The PDF (which I haven’t downloaded) sounds as if it may be an interlinear Aramaic-English main text, with Hebrew commentary. Caveat downloader.

  • Other resources listed here.

  • N.B. For Aramaic’s history, script(s), evolution, grammar, morphology, pronunciation and orthographies – not to mention a full text of grammar – there is a very comprehensive entry at JVL (here).

  • Interestingly enough, that comprehensive article about Aramaic, from the Encyclopaedia Judaica, doesn’t refer at all to Kabbalah or to the Zohar. For that, there’s another article – here.

Kircher’s table, written up in 1633-4, did not include Aramaic, but by 1652, in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus he includes it in the list of languages he claims to have.

Still, even by 1667, he could not answer Aloysius Kinner’s question about whether he had yet ‘proven an Oedipus’ in regard to the Voynich manuscript which, by that time, Kircher had had in his possession in copies for thirty years and in the original manuscript for about six months. It seems that in that case, too, Kircher had made no acknowledgement of the gift. He was not a man to be modest about his accomplishments or honest about his sources. Failure he met by stubborn refusal to engage, as he refused to engage during that three decades with any question about his progress in understanding the Voynich text.

Wanting to set himself up as an ultimate authority, before whom none mattered and after whom none should utter, Kircher succeeded in persuading some people of his own time that he was a marvel. Things that he claimed falsely as his own invention, or more slyly allowed others to attribute to his genius by neglecting to credit his source, were more accurately credited after his death, and today the judgement of scholarship may be represented by one sentence from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2007):

Kircher is not now considered to have made any significant original contributions, although a number of discoveries and inventions (e.g., the magic lantern) have sometimes been mistakenly attributed to him.

And so now, at last, back to North Africa, Kabbalah and Gerona.



1.- Illyrian and Illyrican.

Kircher would appear to have confused ‘Illyrian’ for ‘Illyrican’ and further confused the script attributed to St. Jerome (4thC AD) with what we now call Glagolitic, at that time sometimes also termed ‘Illyrican’ – as was Cyrillic, whose creation (9thC AD) is traditionally credited to Cyril and Methodius who lived half a millennium later than Jerome, and who based their work on “the local dialect of the Slavic tribes from the Byzantine theme of Thessalonica.” Thessalonika is not near ancient Illyria or Dalmatia but  in Macedonia, where it faces not the Adriatic sea but the Aegean. (corrected 21.12.2021.  See note 3, below on the cult of St.Jerome in Dalmatia where Glagolitic script seems to have remained in liturgical use to the fifteenth century, though little is extant as physical evidence.)

2. Llull’s Ars brevis in Hebrew

It may interest readers to know, that, just as Llull showed an interest in Kabbala and studied it to the best of his ability, so we have evidence of the reciprocal – Llull’s Ars brevis was translated into Hebrew in 1474, in Senigallia on the Adriatic coast of Italy.

What we don’t know is whether the translation was made by persons wanting to debate with Jews in Hebrew, or by Jews wanting to understand Lull’s thought. James assumes the latter.

  • Harvey J. Hames, ‘Jewish Magic with a Christian Text: A Hebrew Translation of Ramon Lull’s ‘Ars Brevis’, Traditio, 1999, Vol. 54 (1999), pp. 283-300.[JSTOR]

3. (added Dec. 20th., 2012).  

” After the papal blessing of 1248, the story of St. Jerome’s Slavic heritage also received recognition outside of Croatia. The liturgy in a sacred Slavonic tongue according to the Roman rite drew the attention of the Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. In 1347 he invited a group of eighty Benedictine Glagolite monks from the island of Pašman to establish a Slavonic Glagolitic monastery in Prague’s New Town, which became known first as the Slavonic Monastery (Monasterium Slavorum in Latin documents) and from the seventeenth century as the Emmaus Monastery.”

  • from:  Julia Verkholantsev, ‘St. Jerome, Apostle to the Slavs, and the Roman Slavonic Rite’, Speculum, Vol. 87, No. 1 (JANUARY 2012), pp. 37-61. 

Verkholantsev’s historical perspective is a little simplistic – she appears to accept as if valid the forgery known as the  ‘Donation of Constantine’ for example – but these small flaws (and some of mine in the post above) are easily repaired, by reference to Ilievski’s excellent analytical history of the Cyrillic and the Glaglolitic scripts. Both papers can be accessed through JSTOR.

  • Petar Hr. Ilievski, ‘GLAGOLICA: An Iconic Script for Visual Evangelic Preaching’, Illinois Classical Studies , Vol. 27/28 (2002-2003), pp. 153-164


from: Libellus valde doctus elegans, & vtilis, multa et varia scribendarum literarum genera complectens (1561)

Consider this… (cont) Moving about, bringing gifts.

a little over 2600 words.

Having now seen a few pages from the Liber abaci manuscript in Florence* which seems such an outlier within Hill’s Tables, it looks as if Hill was misled by a similar-looking form, and that there is not a plain, open-eyed ‘4’ shape in it, but one more like that seen in the Venetian zibaldone (Beinecke MS 327). This leaves us at present with the earliest usage noted within the Latin domains being Cresques’ ‘Atlas’, made for Charles V of France and completed in 1375.

It also leaves us with a clear context for emergence of this specific ‘4’ form in the south-western Mediterranean before 1400: maritime trade, related commerce, and cartes marine gridded ‘by the rose’.

*current description being Ms. Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze, Codice magliabechiano Conv. Soppr. C 1, 2616. One folio (Fol. 124r) is used as an illustration to  the wiki article ‘Fibonacci‘, and that alone shows two chief forms for the numeral: one in the page number as heading, another in a side-bar showing the Fibonacci numbers as summary for the text’s ‘rabbits’ problem. There are at least three varieties in the symbols used there for ‘four’  but none with the large eye and simple form seen in  Cresques’ work  – and in the Voynich glyph.


The earliest example of this ‘4’ form in any European cipher I’ve seen, so far, occurs in a cipher- key recorded by Simeone da Crema in Mantua, and dated variously between 1401-1438. The method used for the encipherment is described by Pelling as a form of ‘at bash‘.

Although da Crema’s cipher key was discussed by David Kahn (1967) and has often been reproduced (including in the context of ‘Bacon-was-Shakespeare’ theories), with a more recent technical paper published in draft by Pelling (2017) – little attention has been paid to the question of how a fifteenth-century Christian in Mantua could have come to learn of that element in Jewish, and chiefly Rabbinical, religious exegesis, or in Kabbalistic writings.

However, Mantua lies within Lombardy throughout which, as we’ve seen, Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti had granted privileges to the Jews in 1387 – coincidentally the year in which Abraham Cresques died. But events had meanwhile occurred in Spain, in France and in Mallorca which offer a possible explanation for this early use of the atbash technique by a Latin in Lombardy.

  • David Kahn, The Codebreakers: the Story of Secret Writing. (1967).

  • Pelling, N., ‘Fifteenth Century Cryptography Revisited’ –

  • On dating da Crema’s cipher-key see also comment by M.R. Knowles (March 19, 2021 at 12:49 am) below a post at


An event or more exactly a wave of events had occurred during the decade 1391-1401, following loss (by sale) of the Majorcan possessions of Montpellier and Roussillon, and loss of immediate Papal oversight and protection for the Jews of France and Spain when the papal court returned to Rome in 1376.

Since Jews were treated as personal servants or chattels of a monarch or a pope, and were transferred along with title to a city or territory, so the Jewish community’s quality of life and level of protection depended on the personal disposition and effectiveness of a given pope or noble.

As expulsions began increasing in number through Europe, once the English king had demonstrated its usefulness as a way to avoid repaying debt, so the flood of refugees necessarily considered not only where they might go, but to whom.

For England and the first of the European expulsions see:

  • Robin R. Mundell, The King’s Jews (2010)


image courtesy Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Montpellier was among the lands which had been sold by Majorca to France. Though permitted in 1387 to build a new synagogue, the Jews of Montpellier were faced immediately by a suit for its demolition, issued by the bishop of Maguelonne.

Increasingly violent and vile accusations followed, culminating in an order of expulsion issued in 1394, and which applied to all territories then held by the king of France.

Three years before, in Mallorca, and thus only four years after Abraham Cresques’ death, his own community and family suffered dislocation, forced conversion and/or obligatory re-location, Majorca now being part of Aragon.

Inevitably, under such conditions, as families and communities were broken apart and newly-converted Jews became officially ‘Latins’, earlier traditions and scholarship within a family, trade or community were lost, diluted or simply became more widely accessible.

An example from the commercial records of the Datini company offers a glimpse of the situation by 1399, perhaps no more than a couple of years before da Crema employs that ‘4’ in a cipher described as an ‘atbash’.

In the summer of 1399 Baldassare degli Ubriachi, an ivory- and jewel-merchant of Florence, set out on a journey to Aragon, Bordeaux, England and Ireland carrying pearls and jewels for sale. From the Kings of Aragon and Navarre he obtained, and from the King of England he hoped for, rights of free passage through their territories. On his outward journey he formed the intention of presenting maps as gifts to one or more of these monarchs, and while in Barcelona he commissioned four ‘world maps’ (which he described, generically, as ‘mappamondi’) from cartographers then resident in the city, Master Jacme Riba (or Ribes) of Mallorca and Master Francesco Becaria of Genoa. Contracts were agreed and payments made, on Ubriachi’s behalf, by Simone d’Andrea Bellandi, a partner in the Florentine merchant banking house of Francesco Datini of Prato and manager of its fondaco [combined office, residence and warehouse] in Barcelona. (p. 107)

  • from R. A. Skelton, ‘A Contract for World Maps at Barcelona, 1399-1400, Imago Mundi, Vol. 22 (1968), pp. 107-113.

The person named as ‘Maestro Giame (Jacme) Riba or Ribes’ was in fact the son of Jafuda Cresques and grandson of Abraham Cresques. The attacks of 1391 had seen Jafuda – who had earlier worked under his father in making the Atlas for Charles V – baptised, re-named and removed to Barcelona ‘temporarily’. As late as 1399, the Datini documents make a point of distinguishing his son Giame, as Jewish master of charts, from the other person commissioned – the Christian illuminator. To Giame’s name is added not only ‘maestro di charte da navichare‘, but also (and no doubt reassuring to some),’cristiano novello’, while the illuminator, Maestro Francesco Beccha, is just ‘di Genova, dipintore di charte da navichare‘. The Jewish master received far greater payment than the pictor, but (as we’ll see), Becca or Beccarius received other treasure.

  • Skelton, op.cit.

Degli Ubriachi was relatively free to cross from territories claimed for one king as against another, had enough knowledge and clearly enough means, to identify and then commission the sort of gift that a king coveted in those days – not the old half-fabulous sort of ‘mappamundi’ but the new, detailed ‘charte da navichare’ of which the Jews of Mallorca and Majorca were the recognised masters, and of which a magnificent example – still breathtaking today – then adorned the French court, doubtless displayed with the specific aim of creating envy in the heart of any visitor, but especially a foreign one.

Datini’s agent in Barcelona brokered the commission; Datini himself, born in Prato, had re-located to papal Avignon in 1358 at the age of about 24 or 25, remaining almost thirty years, before returning to the town of his birth in 1382.

His company records show that he had had regular and easy business dealings with Jews, often working together with one or another as his representatives or as free agents in Arabic-speaking regions – particularly on commissions involving North Africa.

Datini – and thus his agents – certainly knew the difference between a person making ‘mappamundi’ of the half-fabulous, half scriptural sort, and one with the knowledge of mathematics, geometry, astronomy and geography needed to produce cartes marine or (as the term appears in the Datini documents),’charte[s] da navichare‘.

The ‘master’ laid down the line work, including the place names and points for divisions ‘by the rose’; the painter worked on the ornament and perhaps (the issue is uncertain) the criss-crossing lines of the ‘rose’ divisions..

But with Gaime now a ‘new Christian’ and obliged to work with a painter from Genoa, he must have known that the work he produced would be not just illuminated, but copied.

A chart of relatively poor quality, dated to c.1401 appeared under Beccarius’ name. Today it is in Yale University’s Beinecke library.

It is inscribed with a long, boastful passage by Beccarius, in which all the numerals are still letters of the Latin alphabet. The only ‘Arab’ or ‘Spanish’ numerals are those drawn on a bar-scale, part of which is shown (right). They are surely the ‘right sort’ of numerals. The question is whether Beccarius simply tried to copy the Mallorcan style or whether in fact the line work is that from Gaime, or simply the depiction, in the map, of a sliding rule used by the masters of charts. In a different sense ‘denominators of the degrees’.*

Beccarius’ chart. Beinecke art storage 1980 158. Image ID: 1027149.

*the standard history of the modern slide rule, associated specifically with logarithmic calculations, is as follows: 

“The slide rule was invented around 1620–1630, shortly after John Napier’s publication of the concept of the logarithm. Edmund Gunter of Oxford developed a calculating device with a single logarithmic scale, which, with additional measuring tools, could be used to multiply and divide. The first description of this scale was published in Paris in 1624 by Edmund Wingate (c.1593–1656), an English mathematician.”

I’d suggest that  it is precisely because Latins of Europe still had a lingering perception of the Arabic numerals as specialised calculation-symbols – much as we’d now regard the curly brackets and elongated ‘‘ of calculus –  that their use as symbols in cipher suggested itself to a few Italians, early in the fifteenth century and, further, that this is the reason da Crema’s cipher uses not only numerals in the style of the older Mallorcan Jews, but employs what was the specifically Jewish  custom  of  atbash – now adopted by da Crema not as a tool of exegesis but to encipher secular Christian text. Da Crema’s is the very simplest version of atbash. I suggest that its method is most likely to have come to his notice through Jewish refugees, and at first- or at second-hand from the conversos.

In the Datini records, quite apart from the ‘iv’, there are several variants for the form given the numeral ‘four’.

Considering the number of clerks, agents, accountants and notaries whose writings are part of that archive, and compiled over so many years, it is not surprising to find such variety. Indeed, in a ‘summary of summaries’ that was drawn up in Barcelona and dated July 14th., 1395 there is even a very modern-looking, open-topped ‘4’ – but I’ve seen no usage so consistent, nor just the same form for the numeral as we see in the fourteenth-century Mallorcan work, and the early fifteenth-century manuscript by Michael of Rhodes. And of course in the Voynich glyph.

To date, studies of the Datini archive have been focused on the history of accounting or on social-domestic history with much of the latter less interested in Datini’s networks and activities than on his personal life, and specifically Datini’s wife. If any palaeographic studies of the documents have been published, I’d welcome directions to them.

*Mikhail Kuter, Marina Gurskaya, Angelina Andreenkova and RipsimeBagdasaryan, ‘The Early Practices of Financial Statements Formation in Medieval Italy’, The Accounting Historians Journal, Vol. 44, No. 2 (December 2017), pp. 17-25. [JSTOR] Includes some rather poor reproductions of the original documents for that ‘summary of summaries’.

At this point I must turn again to the links with north Africa and Gerona, in connection with Kabbalist writings and contemporary Jewish communities’ responses to the emergence of Kabbalah in mainland Europe. It is matter required here because of Panofsky’s allusion to Kabbalah, in 1932, and da Crema’s use of atbash method so close to when the Voynich manuscript was being put together. However, rather than make this post impossibly long, I’ll break here.


For readers’ convenience, once again:

  • Solomon Gandz, ‘The Origin of the Ghubār Numerals, or the Arabian Abacus and the Articuli’, Isis. 16, No. 2 (Nov., 1931), pp. 393-424

  • Yakir Paz and Tzahi Weiss, ‘From Encoding to Decoding: The AṬBḤ of R. Hiyya in Light of a Syriac, Greek and Coptic Cipher’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies , Vol. 74, No. 1 (April 2015), pp. 45-65. A recent study of medieval Jewish atbash [JSTOR]

  • Tony Lévy and Charles Burnett, ‘”Sefer ha-Middot”: A Mid-Twelfth-Century Text on Arithmetic and Geometry Attributed to Abraham Ibn Ezra’, Aleph, 2006, No. 6 (2006), pp. 57-238. with regard to the practical mathematics involved in cartography. [JSTOR]


Postscript (editorial) – I notice in an otherwise interesting amateur site about the history of western cartography, that its author holds a peculiar idea that some unnamed Latin Christian from mainland Europe (and yes, imagined male) must surely have ‘kickstarted’ the Mallorcan cartographic tradition.

It is a peculiar idea of a kind found very often employed, and in all sorts of contexts, in European works of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth century, its basis (often unconscious) being a presumption that others perceived as inferior are inherently passive, incapable of discovery, of invention or of scientific observation and so must have been ‘kickstarted’ by some whiteman.

One sees this tacit ‘feminisation’ imposed on peoples of India, of Asia, of Africa, on Jews and on any non Anglo-Germans even within Europe, as on one sect of Christianity but not another, and indeed generally on notions about women everywhere in various works of the nineteenth-century Anglo-German school. One does wish such notions were less persistent and less prevalent today in western popular culture.

Speaking of which phenomenon..

I’m sure that many of those Voynicheros presently enthused by a theory that the Voynich drawings were done by women imagine themselves forward-thinking and generous, but from a longer perspective it’s just another depressing example of presuming, first, that the customs of the Latin west, or the Mediterranean cultures, constitute ‘the normal’ and inability to read the drawings by those conventions must imply the drawings ‘inferior’ in some way, and their maker/s equally so. Over time, this unfounded presumption has seen an ‘author’ imagined for the whole, and that ‘author’ then declared infantile, mentally deficient, deranged, physically impaired, sexually obsessed and so on. Anything except that the first enunciators of the images were simply not habituated to, nor interested in, medieval Latin Europe and its conventions – social, religious or graphic.

One wonders just what matter will be produced and asserted support for the notion that Christian, Jewish, or Arab women invented images of naked females by the hundreds and still drew them “badly”.

Women in Armenia, Persia and in Jewish communities of Europe certainly did copy manuscripts, as I pointed out with examples and references years ago, but they did it neither better nor worse than men of similar condition.

Perhaps the people enthused by the ‘women did it’ idea will try citing manuscripts produced by nuns, or the tired old ‘Trotula’ theory, or the still older and more tired ‘Hildegarde’ theory, and will again speak of the law passed in Norman Sicily in 1244 obliging medical students to take an oath “never to consult with a Jew or with illiterate women.” The argument, one supposes, will be that the reason the great majority of the Voynich images don’t reflect western Christian attitudes, priorities, social hierarchies or graphic conventions is because (mere) women would be ignorant of them.

Oh joy.

(I know… lowest form of wit … wait to see the evidence offered. But really – must they? ).