O’Donovan notes – 7c.i – Calendar. Bodleian Douce 313.

c.4700 words (including references. longish footnotes and a Notice to Readers.)

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract – A crocodile as emblem for November has been noted in these posts, so far, only in Beinecke MS 408 and in a Franciscan missal (Bodleian, Douce 313), both being pocket-sized manuscripts, noted for the extraordinary number of their drawings and, in different senses, for the simplicity of those drawings.

This post considers other possible points in common, because if the ‘Marci’ letter of 1665/6 should be genuine, an idea of connection between Beinecke MS 408 and the Franciscans has been around, now, for three and a half centuries, yet remains largely unexplored. We also consider the different attitudes towards making books and images between the early Franciscans and that other preaching order, the Dominicans – and certain interests common to both.

Prefatory remarks:

The opinion I hold, after more than a decade’s working through the sections of Beinecke MS 408, is that a majority of its drawings entered Latin1 horizons only c.1350 AD and that the style of that majority fall into two groups, of which one derives ultimately from works of Hellenistic origin (c.3rdC BC – 5thC AD)2 and the other from a Roman cultural context c.1st-3rdC AD. All which fall into one or other of those groups demonstrate evidence of non-classical and non-Latin affect over the intervening period, that is, to c.1350 AD. Though relatively few drawings in Beinecke MS 408 are expressed in the way of art in the medieval Mediterranean and Latin west, the calendar’s central emblems are among those few.

1. By ‘Latin’ Europe is meant here, and throughout posts to this blog, that part of western Europe whose shared culture had been formed by use of Latin for its language of liturgy, scholarship and diplomacy – the counterparts elsewhere in the Mediterranean world being Arabic and Greek.

2.in certain regions not invaded by Rome, Hellenistic culture survived much longer than it did in the Mediterranean.

It is also my opinion – though the informing research was never shared online beyond one a vague hint – that the manuscript is likely to have been among those improperly acquired by Guglielmo Libri, the manuscript being entrusted (or returned) to a member of the Jesuit order after Libri’s death in Fiesole as an effort at restitution and so reaching Fr. Beckx, in whose trunk Voynich says he first saw it in about 1911. Beckx was head of the Jesuit order when he resided in Fiesole from 1873-1883/4, a time when his order was suppressed in Rome.3

3. for more detail about Fr Beckx life, and relevance for Voynich studies, see separate page in the top bar (HERE). Catholics believe not only that they should acknowledge sins of commission and omission in confession, but that sins are not forgiven unless and until some effort is made to restore, or make other restitution, for harm done.

Libri had died four years before Beckx arrived, the doubtful honour of becoming Libri’s chief executor falling to Count Giacomo Manzonia, resident of the same same town, and by all reports noble in character and not merely in name.

  • Jeremy M. Norman, Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel: A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri. (2013)
  • Andrea Del Centina, ‘The manuscript of Abel’s Parisian memoir found in its entirety’, Historia Mathematica Vol. 29 (2002) pp. 65-69.
  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘A True and Faithful Relation of the Death of Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carucci dalla Sommaia’, voynichimagery, (March 23rd., 2015) – that post was published and I’ll provide a copy to any wanting it. email: voynichimagery AT gmail com.

As I say, that research was never shared online other than a couple of faint hints, so I was interested to see that quite soon afterwards a member of one voynich forum asked in that place – though had not asked me, nor named me – what lay behind reference to Libri. Not unpredictably, another asserted with quite magnificent self-assurance (given that he knew no more than did the questioner) that it was “100% hypothetical”.

That bit of trivia is now called to mind because to illustrate Dominican attitudes to painting in that part of Italy about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ve chosen a praedella painted for a church in Fiesole by a native of the region, the Dominican friar popularly known as ‘Fra Angelico’. (Part of the praedella serves as our heading).

Rupecanina is a small hamlet in the mountains about 27 km (17.3 miles) north of Florence.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in about 1395 – some say in Rupercanina and others in nearby Vicchio. Because friars took a new name on entry to their religious order, with a surname from the place they joined it, so Guido became the Dominican friar, Fra John of Fiesole. His brother Benedetto also joined the Dominicans. Both are believed trained as illuminators of manuscripts before entering the order – Fra John perhaps in 1407 or perhaps in 1417. Sources differ, but this bracket of 1407-1437 is nicely convenient for us and the palette used by Fra Angelico a potentially useful comparison for that in Beinecke MS 408. N.B. I’m not suggesting that Fra Angelico or his brother made the Voynich drawings!

Both brothers produced works for the Dominican convent of S. Marco in Florence; Benedetto illuminated choral books for San Marco and for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole and is thought to have assisted Fra John in creating his frescos in Florence and possibly also assisted with that praedella.

  • Graves, Robert Edmund (ed.). Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (A–K). Vol. I (3rd ed.) .p.494.

The Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and the order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) were established as mendicant orders with a charter to preach without being tied to any parish, but the Dominicans began by studying rhetoric, logic, theology and languages, from a theory that they could overwhelm others and convert them by force of logical argument. (That their logical arguments might be built on arguable premises did not occur to them.) That they made so few converts in that way would eventually cause a number of Dominicans to become enraged beyond reason and and simultaneously incur the wrath – sometimes fatal – of non-European communities whose sensibilities their style of missionary preaching offended.

Franciscans believed, on the other hand – in the earlier years at least – that by simply living as Christ had done, in poverty and as an itinerant who relied on the local community for daily sustenance and to whom they should speak very simply, would not only bring others to Christianity but encourage Christians to a more authentic Christian life. This philosophy was so obviously in contrast to the way of life practiced by ‘princes of the church’ and other religious orders that the founder, Francis of Assisi, came within a hairsbreadth of being executed for heresy but led, equally, to an enormous popularity among the ordinary people.

Both orders required that members to take a vow of poverty but here again their practices differed before the mid-fourteenth century. Dominicans defined that poverty merely as a nominal personal poverty and had no objection to the priory being wealthy in lands, money or goods, or in using lavish pigments and gilding for their manuscripts and churches. The early Franciscans, in Italy, had refused gifts of land or money for their community, and while their attitudes would change over time, and fourteenth-century France is often mentioned as part of the reason for that change, we see that difference of opinion expressed in illustrations made for a mid-thirteenth century Dominican bible known as the ‘Abbey’ bible. In the detail (below) the sub-text is that Christ loves Dominicans; that Franciscans’ manuscripts are mean and amateurish; that none can read music; that they are poorly dressed, wear sandals over dirty feet and are ‘dumb’ in more than one sense of the word.

image from Elizabeth Morrison, ‘Far from Marginal’, Getty Museum Blog (Sept. 7th., 2011). Morrison’s comment in more diplomatic.

Many early Franciscans had been unlettered men, but not all – and by the 1400s many were being formally trained in theology and ordained as priests. However, the thirteenth-century work shows that there may have been more than just gut-feeling, or the rumour allegedly mentioned by Marci, behind Wilfrid’s asserting that his small, pocket-sized ‘ugly ducking’ manuscript was a thirteenth-century Franciscan product, despite its being unlike texts produced in centres such as Oxford or Paris even by a Franciscan as Roger Bacon was.

Franciscan simplicity – and a crocodile.

In marked contrast to Dominican ornament – whether in the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries – we have the style of Bodleian, MS Douce 313. It presents as simple and of an almost penitential restraint, but the drawings are fine, fairly sophisticated and in a currently-fashionable form, known as grisaille. Below, its emblem for November, which we’ll compare later with that in Beinecke 408.

The example of Douce 313 provides some helpful information – first, that the Voynich November crocodile is not the result of individual whim. Secondly, that the crocodile was regarded in at least one place in Europe, among certain Franciscans at least, as an acceptable form for Scorpio – its presence in Beinecke MS 408 is not a mistake or the result of the maker’s being ignorant.

Thirdly, that because the drawing in Douce 313 is part of a ‘labours and months’ series of which the remainder is entirely conventional – one might even say ‘classical’ – it suggests the existence of some model regarded as equally conventional in which also a crocodile was drawn for November, despite this being the earliest noted so far in medieval Latin art. Prior to this, we’ve seen November associated with Egypt only in much older works – a Roman-era mosaic calendar from north Africa and the Chronology of 354.

Otherwise, the series of month-emblems in Douce 313 is unlike that of Beiencke MS 408. For Sagittarius it has the Centaur-with-bow, not the fully-human archer seen in the Voynich calendar and first attested among eastern Jews. The emblem for July is a simple Crab, not the ‘locusta’ which, paired, serve as the Voynich calendar’s emblem for July.

While medieval Latin manuscripts often show confusion about the proper form for Scorpius, sometimes drawing it as a crustacean; as an insect; in various lizard-like forms and like forms of dragon similar to those labelled ‘crocodrill’ in the bestiaries, what we have in Douce 313 is recognisably a crocodile, and a beast associated in the medieval imagination with Egypt and more specifically with the Nile.

Thus, Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 are certainly not ‘sister’ manuscripts, but this fairly literal image of a crocodile as November’s emblem makes the context which produced Bodleian, Douce 313 worth looking at more closely.

Where and when?

The writer JK Petersen included the crocodile from Douce 313 in a montage, describing it as difficult to explain. Acknowledging no precedent, he implies originality, so we credit him with first introducing Douce 313 to Voynich studies.

Mr. Petersen did not explain why he supposed the manuscript made in Paris. The holding library speaks of van Dijk having linked it, albeit tentatively, to the Franciscan priory in Brive (since 1919 Brieve-la-Gaillarde), Corrèze – several hundred kilometers4 south of the capital, in a region where dialects of Occitan were spoken in medieval times. (see map HERE).

4. The French wiki article gives distance to Paris by road as 483  km. or 300 miles. St. Anthony of Padua founded a monastery there in 1226.

If, as many have argued (first, if I recall, Jorge Stolfi), the Voynich month-names reflect the form of an Occitan dialect, then we might say that link to an ‘Occitan-speaking region’ is another point in common between Beinecke 408 and Douce 313. [for more information see further below]

In Brieve, in 1226, one of the first generation of Franciscans, a Portuguese called Anthony of Padua had founded a monastery. Because – as said above – a Franciscan was named for the house in which he joined the order, (e.g. John of Fiesole) or, if he had led an itinerant life as Anthony did, where he died, so Anthony is called ‘of Padua’ by reason of having died there in 1231, at the age of just 36 years and, incidentally, while both Roger Bacon and Michael Scot both still lived.

In the calendar of Douce 313, Anthony is commemorated on 13th. June.*

*”the feast of St. Anthony of Padua (13 June) has no octave but is entered as: S. pastris nosti Antonii conf.” – Bodleian catalogue description.

As I’ve attempted before to explain for Voynich researchers, it makes more sense to consider the physical and community networks along which people, goods, ideas, and fashions travelled than to define a subject in terms of modern notions of nationality or national character. Together with topography, it permits us to include in ‘southern’ Europe not only Italy and Spain, but France, and England.

The matter is easily demonstrated by considering that technique of ‘greyscale’ drawing (grisaille) though it is not employed anywhere in Beinecke MS 408. Some scholars also distinguish ‘brown-scale’ (bruneille). Modern English scholars tend, instead, to describe the technique as ‘tinted line drawing’.


NOTE – re Occitan for the month-names – this not the only language or dialect proposed for the Voynich calendar’s month-names. Panofsky spoke of ‘regional French’. Others have suggested Judeo-Catalan, or Norman French (of England), Picard and (so I’ve heard as rumour) even one of the ‘Allemannic’ dialects, the author of the last idea evidently not yet having published his argument (?) – (if you know better, or know the person’s name, do leave a comment).

However, as Nick Pelling earlier noted and Don of Talahassee discovered and explained in detail, quite independently, posting to his own site and in communications to voynich ninja (the last largely ignored as he said), the Voynich month-names’ orthography is close to that found on an astronomical instrument believed made in Picardy. (for more, see references below)

  • The Picard instrument is illustrated as Plate 6 in D.A. King, ‘A medieval astrolabe from Picardy’, book chapter available separately as a pdf though academia.edu.
  • Nick Pelling, crediting Joge Stolfi, had earlier formed an idea that the month names were “probably written in an Occitan dialect close to the Provencal spoken in Toulon, a busy medieval port near Marseilles.” (Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.23. He refers again, rather later, to those early and repeated hints of links to the Franciscan order in ‘The Franciscan Voynich hypothesis – Roger Bacon Redux!ciphermysteries (blog) April 12th., 2012.
  • Don of Talahassee also briefly outlined his findings later in a comment to ciphermysteries ( June 9th, 2015), though I’m unable to find any geared astrolabe whose manufacture is credited to Picardy. This may be due to my failure to find it rather than any error by Don.
  • David A. King (2001), The Ciphers of the Monks: A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages.

Yet another line of connection between England, France and Italy is presented by the grisaille.

England – Paris – Italy. Grisaille. (13thC – mid-14thC).

The technique had been common in England from Anglo-Saxon times, and the first person to make it a special feature of his own work and so inspire in its dissemination in the Continent was an Englishman known as ‘Matthew [of] Paris’ (c. 1200 – 1259).

Fifty years later, in c.1304, it is employed by Giotto in Padua, in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Very shortly after we find it adopted in Paris by a near contemporary, Jean Pucelle, who flourished c. 1320–1350.

And in c.1350, as we know, it is employed in a southern French Franciscan missal – Bodleian Douce 313.

(Northern Europe would take it up rather later, and it would not become really popular in that region until the later sixteenth- through to the seventeenth centuries).

Sculptural and literal. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artists use the technique, quite specifically, to imitate sculpture, and by this time Latin art in Italy and France was moving towards a revival of classical-era literalism. In Douce 313, the ‘labours and months’ drawings don’t quite give the sense of depth seen in other cases, nor do they attempt any trompe l’oeil, but they do allow a possibility that the series copies one of those found carved in reflief on the exterior of medieval churches and cathedrals, from the twelfth century onwards. The example shown below was carved in Amiens, capital of Picardy, in 1220-1270 AD. close to when the monastery in Brieve was founded by Antony. These constellations and labours, however, use forms consistent with what we find in Latin manuscripts from as early as the 8th and 9th centuries.

Amiens Cathedral. 13thC. Amiens the administrative capital of Picardy

It is possible that the calendar series in Douce 313 copies one since lost which has passed unremarked. What we can say is that by 1350 AD, some Franciscans in southern France (at least) found no objection to having a crocodile for November’s emblem, and had by then acquired that style of drawing gained from older England and currently popular among some painters in Italy and in France.

The Voynich drawings appear to have been at first simple line and wash before some heavier hand added heavier pigments to some. The line work does not approach the sophistication of Douce 313 and the two use very different methods to indicate curves and volume. That contrast between the ‘line and wash’ and additions by the heavy painter* is especially noticeable in the Voynich calendar.

*’heavy painter’ – first recognised and the term first coined, I believe, by Nick Pelling.

St. Anthony of Padua – by Giotto

Lines of connection – Giotto.

In the same way that we associate Fra Angelico’s paintings with a Dominican context, so in a more general way Giotto is associated with the Franciscans. He is another of those important thirteenth-century figures, having been born in 1267 AD or 1277 AD.

Before being commissioned for work in Padua’s Scrovegni chapel in c.1305 he had already worked on the Basilica built in Padua for St. Anthony (yes, the Portuguese one), and before that for the Franciscan friars of Assisi and of Rimini.

In Douce 313 bishop Gaudentius of Rimini is commemorated – an inclusion difficult to explain in terms of the usual French liturgical roster but easily understood in terms of the Franciscan network.

Gaudentius had come to Rimini from Asia minor about the time the Chronography of 354 was made with its ‘Egyptian’ November and while memory was still fresh of what is called ‘The Plague of Cyprian’ (c.251–270 AD).

Other Times and other Places – define ‘Egyptian’.

One thing which Europe in general, and the preaching orders and the Italian mercantile cities in particular, did have in common was a keen interest in regions lying to the east of Europe.

Christian Europe was well aware that it had been from the east that their religion had come. In the east, too, lay the holy land, the chief point of orientation for Latins’ mappamundi.

Models of monasticism were presented in the form of early Egyptian ascetics, such as Antony of the desert – whose relics arrived in France after being carried first from Alexandria to Constantinople, and rather later from Constantinople to France, at times when theach of the first two cities was in peril.

Eventually (in 1297) the saint’s relics were given a church which soon became a centre of pilgrimage: Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye.

The Life of Antony, translated into Latin as early as the 4thC, was “one of the best known works of literature in the Christian world, a status it would hold through the Middle Ages”.

Fra Angelico pictured that early ascetic in a rather curious garment. The usual reading of the ‘Life’ says Antony had only a couple of rough skin robes – of the sort which Latin Europe gave John the Baptist or Mary Magdalen. One possible explanation is that, living only six kilometers from Florence, Fra Angelico had heard tell of a certain ‘primordial’ robe left there by a Franciscan friar named John de’Marignolli in 1353. de’Marignolli was not the first Franciscan to go to China. He also believed that along the maritime route he had seen the original Paradise and for reasons I won’t go into here, he may have been right.

Before being sent east, however, de’Marignolli had taught theology at the University of Bologna, and we about that ‘primordial’ robe he brought back because years later, in Prague and being given the rather dreary task of re-writing the Annals of Bohemia, he interspersed that narrative with occasional reminiscence.

In one passage he wrote, first quoting Genesis 3:21:

“And the Lord made for Adam and his wife coats of skins or fur, and clothed them therewith. …” [Gen. 3:21]. Now then I say, without however meaning to dogmatize, that for coats of fur we should read coats of fibre. For among the fronds of the Nargil, of which I have spoken above, there grows a sort of fibrous web forming an open network of coarse dry filaments. … A garment such as I mean, of this cannall cloth (and not camel cloth), I wore till I got to Florence, and I left it in the sacristy of the Minor Friars there. No doubt the raiment of John Baptist was of this kind.

from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China VOL. II. pp. 240-242 ‘ The Travels of John de Marignolli 1339-1353’.

This is repeated in another passage, with the Latin terms included the Yule translation reading: “And he made them coats of skins: so at least we com­monly have it, pelliceas,”of fur,” but we should do better to read filiceas,”of fibre”; because they were no doubt of a certain fibrous substance which grows like net-work between the shoots of the coco-palm; I wore one of these myself till I got to Florence, where I left it. ibid. p.227.

John the Baptist was certainly another desert ascetic like Antony, but te conventions of western Christian art meant that the Baptist could not be dressed so unconventionally, so instead – as it seems to me – Fra Angelico has put the ‘paradiscal’ ascetic robe on Antony. He has had to use his imagination or some other eastern souvenir as his model, though, because the natural fibre de’Marigolli meant was coir, and what Fra Angelico painted is more like Asian basketry, rush-matting or a type of woven cape known from parts of India.

Whether there exists, or ever existed, an earlier written account of de’Marignolli’s journey, we know that on his return he had to report to his superiors, and make a formal report to the papal court in Avignon. We may reasonably suppose that he would also have had to answer the usual raft of questions from his fellows, explaining the curious garment left in Florence and speaking about those far-off ‘pagans’ who members hoped one day to convert.

In the European imagination, all eastern peoples were of Egyptian origin and this was so even so late as 1636, when Athanasius Kircher used that to argue that Chinese characters descended from Egyptian hieroglyphic (hieratic) writing. The belief was gained from the Bible, which said that after the Flood, the world had been repopulated by Noah’s sons, one seeing to Africa exclusive of Egypt, another given Europe and the third ‘Asia’, ‘Asia’ defined as beginning from Egypt and the Bosphorus. Because this belief was still current belief among even learned European Christians so lateas the 1630s, we describe the comments made to Kircher by Baresch as meaning that he thought manuscript’s content in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’ – though in my own opinion, when he says the plants are exotics, we may believe him.

  • Kircher argued, initially, that Chinese characters evolved from Egypt’s hieroglyphic (hieratic) script, but would later believe the Chinese to be ‘Adamites’. cf. Wang Haili, ‘Chinese Approaches to Egyptian Hieroglyphs: liushu and bushou’, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 165, No. 2 (2015), pp. 279-302.

Other forms of book (and other crocodiles).

Another detail from praedella shows the interest felt in early fifteenth century Italy in distant peoples and places. Below, a Dominican friar is included in a group which otherwise consists of St. Thomas, best known as Christ’s apostle to India, and two foreign-looking men who wear pink, with no hint of that censure we saw in Bonaiuti’s depiction of Michael Scot.

St. Thomas was one of Christ’s apostles, best known as the apostle to India. There, a community known as the ‘Community of Thomas’ attribute their founding to that apostle and say they were founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD.

St. Thomas didn’t dress as he’s represented here, of course, but his bones had eventually been moved from southern India to Syria and (so it is said) later to Chios, from which another Florentine, a member of the Acciaiuoli family, carried them in 1258 to Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they remain.

That detail in the praedella is not entirely clear, but among the easterners associated with Thomas, one holds what I believe is a set of inscribed palm-leaf books, palm-leaves having once been a common medium used from north Africa through Arabia and the east. The quill which Fra Angelico gives that figure signifies, in the visual language of Latin Europe, a scribe.

We may again cite de’Marignolli though a good number of westerners had seen these things before him and he himself had a guide from India, a friar named Peter. But he says, of people in Sri Lanka [Seyllan] “they teach boys to form their letters, first by writing with the finger on sand, and afterwards with an iron style upon leaves of paper, or rather I should say upon leaves of a certain tree”.

And there, for the moment, we pause.

Additional note –

As antidote to the wiki article on de’ Marignolli (which attempts to make him a person of high social consequence, ties him chiefly to Prague, and quite omits to mention that he was an Italian Franciscan, I provide the following – from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

“John de’ Marignolli. Born at Florence about 1290; place and date of death unknown. When quite a youth he received the Franciscan habit at the convent of Santa Croce, Florence; later on, as he himself tells us, he held the chair of theology at the University of Bologna. Nothing more is known of his religious life until Benedict XII sent him with other Franciscans on a mission to the Emperor of China”… etc. It is evident to anyone who has actually read the Franciscans’ accounts of their own travels that wiki writers err who attempt to make of those friars personages of high social status travelling with pomp and circumstance. They carried letters and messages but were not ‘diplomats’ in the modern sense.


NOTICE TO READERS: I regret that, in order to refer in these posts to my own work, while avoiding readers’ wondering if they’ve not seen something similar elsewhere in Voyich-land, I must be clear that no precedent existed when I contributed the following texts and topics (among numerous others) to Voynich studies:

Italian mercantile handbooks other than Milanese cipher-books; the history of imported goods; the history of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries and accounts of their journeys; the astronomical studies conducted in Constantinople, Trebizond, as in Maragha and Tabriz under under Mongol rule; detailed historical studies of the overland ‘silk’ routes and maritime ‘spice routes’; the Armenians in the east and in Europe; the question of perfumes and incense ingredients; accounts of and by secular travellers (other than vague allusions made earlier, by some, to Marco Polo); I introduced matters relating to cartography and cartographers of the period from the early 14thC to mid-fifteenth century, (including Abraham Creques’ Catalan Atlas and Genoese and Venetian chartmakers of the period); celestial navigation and its calculations; compass-roses named by winds, stars, or both; handbooks of navigation; the type of notebooks and guides which emerged from Genoa, from Venice and from the House of Datini (in Prato and in Avignon); other travellers whose accounts of the world beyond western Christian Europe relate to the period before the 1450s, the idea of mnemonic devices and their relevance – for the pre-Renaissance period and introducing in that context the works of Mary Carruthers. Note and comment on Greek and ‘a form of Jewish’ influence noted in certain drawings. Other than Jorge Stolfi I know of no earlier Voynich research which investigated eastern routes or artefacts, or indeed considered any non-Latin-European origin for anything in BeineckeMS 408. Those matters and texts are just some of the material first introduced to Voynich studies by the present writer in the course of sharing research explaining my analytical studies and their conclusions about one and then another, section of Beinecke MS 408 – from 2008 to the present. The habit of some Voynich writers in re-using research, and even attempting to publish it or copyright it to themselves, while neglecting to name the source – and some quite deliberately and systematically re-assigning such credits and thus misdirecting other researchers – would finally lead to my closing Voynichimagery from the public in 2017. That these things are all simple statements of fact is something that the few other Voynich “old boys” know well enough.

India too has its crocodiles, of course.

‘Mugger’ crocodile – India

The following image relates to the Comment I’ve left below.

O’Donovan notes. Calendar emblems 6.3: of ‘Ausonian verses’ and Scythian bows.

2400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

To the best of my knowledge, all precedents are correctly acknowledged in what follows. If none is cited then, to the best of my knowledge, that item had not been considered in connection with Beinecke MS 408 before it was brought to notice in essays and research summaries published by the present writer from 2009 onwards. If you know better (and you may do) by all means email or leave a comment with the details.

From now on, there’ll be no more quotation marks around the phase Voynich calendar in these posts.

The mail has now brought a copy of Faith Wallis’ English translation of de Temporum ratione and in a note Wallis confirms that verses Bede attributes to “one of the ancients” are those of Ausonius – the same verses used as tags in a twelfth-century mosaic calendar in San Savino in Piacenza.

Here are those verses again, in a nicer font.

More than twenty years ago, in the first Voynich mailing list, Jim Reeds’ referred to San Savino’s charter document as an example of those elongated letters (mis-called “gallows letters”) which have been noted in the Voynich script. Strange to say, no one looked at the monastery’s art to see if it had anything useful to add – so I did, a while ago but the link to computus – and thus to Ausonius – now returns us to Piacenza by a different route.

San Savino’s 12thC charter. cited by Jim Reeds before 2002.

During the earlier exploration and thanks to Jonathan Jarretts kindly responding to emailed queries, I showed several more such charters with similarly elongated ascenders, concluding that the custom had become rare in the Latin west by the end of the twelfth century, and that in any case it is typically found there only in documents of the charter type written on the authority of the pope or ancillary authorities, but that isn’t our focus now.

San Savino’s twelfth-century mosaic did not survive the centuries entire. Its July roundel survived, but those for November and December did not fare so well.

We’ve seen that the July emblem offers a nice specimen of a locusta– Cancer and one with a three-point head, like those in the Voynich emblem for July.

Here (below) the image on the left shows what remained of the November emblem in 1836 when a careful drawing in ink and watercolour was made of what remained.

(left) detail from the 1836 drawing and watercolour record; (right) the November roundel after recent restoration-reconstruction.

Following the making of the 1836 record, a century and a half evidently saw more lost by attrition. A recent effort at reconstruction and restoration, observing best practice, has kept very clear the distinction between what remained of the original by 2010 and what the restorers added, since they have used sympathetic materials, colours and forms but kept it very clear what is newly added and what was there when they began. I’ve put orange rings over the left-hand detail (above) to show all that remained for the restorers to work with.

It is clear that the roundel had shown a creature whose tail ended with a hook-spike, and though one does not know what other historical information was available to the restorers and their clients, some uncertainty must remain about the original form for that figure.

Attrition must have removed even more of the December emblem, because certain noteworthy discrepancies are evident between the recent reconstruction and details still visible, and carefully recorded, in 1836.

It is worth taking the time to consider those differences with care. As we’ll see, it is not impossible that the figure had not been, originally, of the Centaur type but, like the Voynich archer, a standing human figure of the kind I term – following Cicero and Ausonius – “Arcitenens”.

Of the December figure nothing remained even in 1836 but part of the bow, the hands on that bow, a forearm and a hat. Between each of those details as shown by the drawing, and their appearance in the recent restoration, a number of important differences are evident.

Compare – the form taken by the top of the bow, by the line of its curves; the bow’s position relative to the last letter of “Sagittarius” – and especially the position of the human hands on the bow and on the bowstring.

It is true that the roundel was always labelled as Sagittarius and not with Ausonius’ term, adopted from Cicero*, but we have other instances of Sagittarius’ being represented with just two legs, including in some copies of Aratus that are in Latin, but are found in what were at the time the outer fringes of the Carolingian sphere.

*Ausonius’ use of the term Arcitenens (archaised as “Arquitenens”) is very rare, and the word appears to have been employed first by Cicero in his translation of Aratus’ poem. The Greek term he rendered so is usually found only as an epithet for Artemis or for Apollo and thus implies a human and not half-animal body for the figure.


A Scythian Bow – history and inferences.

The original form for the Piacenzan archer’s bow had it a recurved bow of the sort called Scythian. Above (left) is an example of that type in an early copy of the Latin Aratus, and (right) another whose bow and stance suggests the Parthian, but who is again given goat-like legs, which in the language of most northern Latin medieval art signifies the devil.

Yet that same form for Sagittarius’ bow is attested in what was then Scythian territory, on a coin produced about fifty years after Eudoxus’ death, for a town called Παντικάπαιον (Pantikapaion). The town had been founded by speakers of Ionian Greek; its name would later be rendered in Roman form as Panticapaeum.

One side of that coin shows a Pan-like figure and the other a Scythian bow. To the best of my knowledge, the second motif had not been been recognised as an allusion to the constellation Sagittarius before an essay published, by the present author, on the subject of the Voynich archer. Since then I have seen the second part of the following illustration re-used online by a number of writers, chiefly those interested in astrology.

reprinted from D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Not a Centaur. Sagittarius fol 73v’ voynichimagery, June 24th., 2015, from an earlier article which the author had published elsewhere in October 2013. coin by permission, Wildwinds.


Scythopolis/Beth Shean in Galilee

Fifty years later still, in what is now Israel, and upon the ruined foundations of an earlier town occupied by Egyptians and Canaanites, the Macedonian-Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r.282-246 BC), established a new town, naming it Scythopolis.

Scholars suppose the choice of name may be due to the new town’s being first occupied by former mercenaries in the Hellenistic armies, following a practice often observed in ancient as in more rent times, by which unwanted mercenaries are given homes and land and so turned into useful settlers rather than becoming lordless marauding bands.

Scythopolis grew to be a substantial walled city before being taken by Pompey, and though the Romans re-named it, the older name persisted. As late as the sixth century AD, a Byzantine-Greek Christian, a scholar and bishop for that area, is referred to as John Scythopolita (ca. 536–550 AD) or “the Scholasticus.”

The same town is now called Beth Shean or Bet She’an. There, a mosaic dated to the sixth century provides our earliest-known example of a Roman zodiac in which Sagittarius is made a fully human, standing or striding archer. This rota is inscribed with Hebrew letters and, quite apart from the town’s association with Scythians, this form avoids any suggestion of human-and-animal combined, which concept was always abhorrent to the Jews, and at that time equally distasteful to eastern Christians of that region.

website of Beth Alpha, Beit She’an.

Another mosaic floor from Beth Shean, again from the 6thC AD, formed a floor open to the sky and was part of a Christian monastery. This eschews altogether any use of the Roman zodiac, maintaining the much older custom of dividing the year by seasonal activities and (optionally), religious observances. Interestingly, there was apparently no objection to showing personifications of sun and moon, these each representing half of the night-and-day of 24 hours as well as the division between warmer and cooler months and possibly the circuit of stars on the solar, and the lunar paths, respectively.

Monastery of the Lady Mary Beth Shean (6thC).


Those two figures may remind some readers of how sun and moon are represented on ivory tabulae recovered from Grand in the High Vosges, and dated variously between the 1st-3rdC AD. Others, more familiar with Roman artefacts may be reminded instead of a peg-calendar (or parapegma) scratched into the walls of a public baths that had been built in imperial Rome, though this example is again dated to the 6thC AD. (sorry about the poor quality image).

from a private copy.

A nice blogpost (in Spanish) about peg-calendars.

*Hilario Mendiaga, ‘Parapegma‘, debreves (Blogger blog), (April 24th., 2012)

Beth Shean would be deserted and destroyed in the following (7th) century, so we can be sure both these mosaics date to no later than the sixth century.

upper and lower images from old posts *20010-2013) in Dennis Aubrey’s Via Lucis

The earliest remaining western example of a fully human standing archer for Sagittarius appears in glass. First, an example from Aisne (Braisne) abbey, later taken to Soissons according to the late Dennis Aubrey, who took the photo shown (right, upper register).

That window used red glass of a kind which, by the 9thC, only a few families still knew how to produce, and all lived on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, with glass tesserae being found in great heaps near Lake Tiberius and exported widely during the Medieval centuries. It is possible, therefore, that the appearance of the “Beth Shean” type, which appears unheralded in the Latin west was because not only materials, but workers, were imported, and as early as the 9th and 10th centuries, for a new style developing in French architecture and which in its fullest form became known as the “Opus Francigenum”. It was later despised by some Italian humanists, Giorgio Vasari calling it “gothic” – meaning barbaric – but as so often, the label stuck and all derogatory overtones were eventually forgotten, from which arose another mistaken idea that there had been something uniquely Germanic about it.

A thirteenth-century example in the cathedral of Lausanne shows that along with adopting the architectural elements of Opus Francigenum, efforts were made to introduce similar forms for the coloured glass windows. (above, lower register).

The earlier, French, example evinces a stronger suggestion of Pan-like legs, though now covered with a hairy fabric rather than a hairy pelt. The bow was soon made more like that familiar to a medieval Latin audience – a change which makes even more interesting the original form for the archer’s bow in the Piacenzan mosaic.

Between what we find in publicly accessible images such as these, and images used in medieval manuscripts – private possessions by definition – the interactions are certainly fascinating and tempting to explore, but that is more than our present topic permits. It is, however, interesting to note that the Lausanne window as it is now is uses “Arcitenens” and not “Sagittarius” as the label.

One would dearly like to know whether there was once circulating an illustrated copy of Ausionius’ Eclogues as school-room verses, and if so whether those had been replaced as a basic text by the Poeticon astronomicon – and when – and whether (if such a change occurred) this was only because the latter was ascribed, probably erroneously, to the more eminent figure of Hyginus? Fascinating as it would be to investigate such questions, they too must be left aside here.

What we can say is that it would appear the Piacenzan mosaic originally showed a Scythian (recurved) bow and – for all that was left of it by 1836 – might have shown a standing human figure. It is significant, I think, that the original shows the figure not as about to shoot, but simply nocking the arrow – preparing to make the weapon ready, as is also true of the Voynich bowman, though his bow has been formed as a crossbow, and his appearance now presents a curious combination of the Spanish, the Dalmatian-Greek and possibly the Genoese. We can also say that a Scythian bow for Sagittarius suggests Hellenistic or eastern Greek precedents.

In my opinion, one is meant to read in the present form for the Voynich figure a punning allusion to the kingdom of the Archipelago: ‘Arci-tenens’. However… that is not an idea appropriate before the thirteenth-to-fifteenth centuries, when I suggest the Voynich archer figure was ‘modernised’.

Here again is what had remained of the roundel in Piacenza by 1836.


Bede’s source for the “Ausonian verses”

Bede knew the zodiac signs should begin in the middle of one month and finish in the middle of the next – but Ausonius says nothing of that. He assigns the fishes to March, the Crab (= langouste) to July and the Archer for December, as the Voynich calendar does. No crocodile is mentioned, but in his verse for November “bids.. go headlong” which might suggest something of the kind.

Wallis identifies Bede’s source for the verses:

“Bede derived the Eclogue and its introduction from a text entitled ‘De causis quibus nomina acceperunt duodecim signa‘ edited by Jones in BOD 665-667. This edition omits the poem proper. but it is included in Jones’ earlier transcription in Bedae psudepigrapha 103. This same text was the primary source for [Bede’s] ‘On the Nature of Things[pt] 17. Its presence in the “Bobbio computus” (Milan, Ambrosiana H. 150 inf ) suggests an Irish origin

Faith Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning… pp.54-55
  • Faith Wallis, Bede (trans.), Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated with introduction, notes and commentary by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press, 1988 (Translated texts for Historians series Vol. 29)
  • re ‘De causis quibus nomina acceperunt duodecim signa’ – It seems there was an edition (or thesis) with that title issued in 2010; copy listed by the Favey Library of Villanova University. The book(?) has been digitised but is accessible only to ‘alum’ (alumnus?) accounts.

I’ll leave you with a few things to think over. A map of the old Irish foundations in Europe, and two more details from the Piacenza mosaic.

In the next post, I’ll begin with Cicero’s advice to a friend about his son’s education.

Bobbio the Irish and Piacenza.

Nicklies speaks, a little vaguely, of possible or probable links between the Piacenza mosaic and one made a century earlier for Bobbio.

Bobbio was certainly an Irish foundation and Piacenza’s mosaic has some plainly Irish motifs, including one often mistaken for the later and romantic Latin figure of ‘Melusine’, or a type termed a ‘mermaid’ though it carries neither mirror nor comb.

It had arisen as an Irish, and occasionally an Anglo-Saxon image for the ship or coracle, represented in a style deriving from that of late Roman-North Africa, where they are called by art-historians “triton-” figures.

Most of the Latin versions extant are, however, made as grotesques and date from the the 12thC though occasionally, as with the two shown above, a more faithful version survived. That shown on the right (above) is from San Savino. The other is from an English church built in the 12thC, but on an Anglo-Saxon foundation. Whether the older block were re-used, or clerics in this church felt more sympathy for pre-Norman tradition, one cannot say.

Another variation on the triton type appears, evidently by way of iconography of Basilidean gnosticism, in this highly eclectic Late Roman relief found in Trier and dated to the 3rdC AD.

A water-monster in the Piacenza mosaic is oddly reminiscent of our crocodile-Ammit type. It has an unnervingly wide grin as it bears away an unfortunate soul.

It was a custom of the pre-Christian Irish and Celtic peoples to carry off the head of enemy, but faces are given many watery creatures in medieval constellation-drawings, as we’ve seen.

In the next post, I’ll be considering the calendars of the Labours type and how an association with the Roman zodiac appears relatively late in the history of such rosters. It looks as if what we may have in the Voynich series is an intersection of the two – something which is found during the late Roman-early Christian period and chiefly between the c.3rdC -6th C AD.

The post will have its line assisted thanks, indirectly, to Mr. JK. Petersen’s having once mentioned a certain fourteenth-century French manuscript.

From the website of San Savino

O’Donovan notes: Calendar emblems ‘July’ – The making of manuscripts.

c.1500 words

From monastic scriptorium to commercial atelier.

(no, I didn’t first see this on another Voynich site. Whether the reciprocal applies. – who knows?

Among the many paradoxes facing us in studying Beinecke MS 408 is the fact that not only Wilfrid Voynich, but many other specialists of his time judged the manuscript’s appearance as thirteenth-century, ‘home-made’ and from the Anglo-Norman environment, or more exactly the Angevin-though-Plantagenet environment.

That opinion isn’t necessarily eliminated by our knowing, now, that a fair number of the quires in the upper part of the manuscript were inscribed early in the fifteenth century, and there seems little reason to suppose otherwise of the manuscript’s lower quires – though some doubt remains. The sampling was not randomised (no fault of the lab. people) and three of the four samples were taken from quires of the most conventional (quaternion) type, ignoring the fact that those are the minority and that in various ways the Voynich quires do not conform to what was normal for Latin manuscripts of either the thirteenth or the fifteenth century, in their preparation, format and finish.

If we do suppose, for the meanwhile, that all the quires in our manuscript were inscribed in Latin Europe or under Latin auspices, we still have that discrepancy between a thirteenth-century appearance, earlier defined and accepted by so many, and an indisputable dating for at least some of the quires (and I my guess is all) to the early decades of the fifteenth century.

The most obvious possibility is that the fifteenth-century scribes and draughtsmen copied from one or more earlier works – though here we cannot speak of the Voynichese script, whose time and place of first use is still unknown.

The point is that over that period between the thirteenth century and the early fifteenth, important changes occur in the way western Europe’s manuscripts were produced and illustrated. Because this matter is relevant to analysis of the ‘July’ emblem, this post provides an overview to serve as introduction.

During the earlier period, monastic scriptoria were the chief producers of manuscripts, typically copying from manuscripts already in their possession. After that time amateurs, students and commercial copyists, painters and sellers of manuscripts were increasingly the source of copied and newly-made manuscripts, all but the students producing whatever the commercial client or patron wanted, in the style that he or she wanted, adapting to current fads and preferred styles in drawing.

A commercial producer might use an image first seen in one manuscript, to adorn one of very different type, gained from a very different source.

The lineage of text and image diverge.

At the same time, we begin to follow specific illuminators, and see an atelier use and re-use a particular ‘dictionary’ of collected forms. Novelties appear, but increasingly too a text may be illustrated with ‘antique’ forms, copied from sources other than from earlier European manuscripts, and occasionally even invented to suit a patron attracted by the ‘renaissance’ ideal.

Boy reading a scroll. Herculaneum. 1stC AD

Invention in style became more acceptable, though France and Italy were leaders of fashionable style into and after 1440. We know that, at the same time, artists did strive for authenticity in their ‘antique’ images, and would ask each other, for example, how many thunderbolts Jove should hold, or what flower was the right flower for Venus’ emblem.

For the rest of this post, I’ve included passages from the ‘Manuscripts’ entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia. Despite its age (1911) the authors had superb access to medieval records, and offer a full survey of the earlier centuries – not just in Latin Europe. The authors had an additional advantage in that they had access to medieval libraries, documents and scholarship (Catholic by default) which were subsequently lost in one and then the other of the world wars. In what follows, some names will be already known to some Voynicheros, and I hope others will soon be more familiar to my readers.

Anyone who feels up to coping with too many embedded advertisements, do read that ‘Manuscript’s article in full. The whole Encyclopaedia is online.

Articles which involve positions on Christian doctrine might need to be weighed against other sources, but for purely historical and objective topics, like ‘Manuscript’, the entries are often first-class. In fact, though not always listed among the references used by wiki authors writing about medieval life and culture, The Catholic Encyclopaedia is very often their foundation and much of their matter.

The selected paragraphs, below, should help newcomers to manuscript studies understand the following post(s) about the ‘calendar’ emblems – enjoy!



The period of the eleventh and twelfth centuries may be considered as the golden age of monastic manuscript writing. In each monastery there was a special hall, called the “scriptorium”, reserved for the labours of the copyists…

Absolute silence reigned there. At the head of the scriptorium the bibliothecarius distributed the tasks, and, once copied, the manuscripts were carefully revised by the correctores. In the schools the pupils were often allowed as an honour to copy manuscripts (for instance at Fleury-sur-Loire)…

provenance unknown – carving, stone. monk-scribes

Division of labour seems as yet not to have been fully established, and there were monks who were both scribes and illuminators (Ord. Vital., III, 7). The Bible remained the book which was copied by preference. The Bible was copied either entire (bibliotheca) or in part … the Psalter … Evangeliaria, in which the Gospels followed the order of the feasts. Then came the commentaries on the Scriptures, the liturgical books, the Fathers of the Church.. theology… chronicles, annals, lives of the saints, histories of churches or monasteries, and lastly [secular and pre-Christian* authors], the study of which never ceased entirely.

* the original uses the term ‘profane’ which today carries a more negative sense than was intended. The original simply means non-religious or pre-Christian and would include Aratus, Pliny, Aristotle, works on medicine and non-moralised astronomy etc.

Rather a large number of such authors are found among the one thousand manuscripts in the library of Cluny.* At St. Denis (S.Denys in Paris) even Greek manuscripts were copied (Paris, Bib. Nation., gr. 375, copied in 1033 AD). The newer religious orders, Cistercians, Carthusians, etc., manifested the same zeal as the Benedictines in the copying of manuscripts.

*By 1911, the library of Cluny was already much reduced from what it had once been. What remains of it is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where it is not catalogued as a separate collection.

Then beginning with the thirteenth century the labour of copyists began to be secularized.

About the universities such as that of Paris were a large number of laymen who gained a livelihood by copying; in 1275 those of Paris were admitted as agents of the university; in 1292 we find at Paris twenty-four booksellers who copied manuscripts or caused them to be copied. Colleges such as the Sorbonne also had their copying rooms.

On the other hand, at the end of the thirteenth century in the greater number of monasteries the copying of manuscripts ceased.

Although there were still monks who were copyists, such as Giles of Mauleon, who copied the “Hours” of Queen Jeanne of Burgundy (1317) at St. Denis, the copying and the illumination of manuscripts became a lucrative craft.

“With the Revolution came the secularization and devastation of the abbey [of St.Denys]. The treasury was emptied, tombs thrown open, and sculptures shattered. The lead roof was taken down and used for metal. Nothing but walls remained” – Vera K. Ostoia.

Individual libraries and collectors.

At this juncture kings and princes began to develop a taste for books and to form libraries; that of St. Louis* was one of the earliest. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these amateurs had in their pay veritable armies of copyists. Thenceforth it was they who directed the movement of the production of manuscripts.

*Louis IX of France, reigned 1226 to 1270 AD.

The most famous were Popes John XXII (1316-34), Benedict XII (1334-42); the poet Petrarch (1304-74), who was not satisfied with purchasing the manuscripts in convents but himself formed a school of copyists in order to have accurate texts, the King of France, Charles V (1364-1380), who collected in the Louvre a library of twelve hundred volumes, the French princes Jean, Duke of Berry, a forerunner of modern bibliophiles (1340-1416), Louis Duke of Orléans (1371-1401) and his son Charles of Orléans (d. 1467), the dukes of Burgundy, the kings of Naples, and Matthias Corvinus. Also worthy of mention are Richard of Bury, Chancellor of England, Louis of Bruges (d. 1492), and Cardinal Georges d’Amboise (1460-1510).


Louis de Bruges is an example of why modern ideas of ‘nationality’ don’t quite work in the world of medieval Europe, even for the fifteenth century. A Flemish courtier, Louis de Bruges was Lord of Gruuthuse and Prince of Steenhuijs, Stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland (1462–77) and Earl of Winchester (in England), which title and benefits were conferred on him in 1472 by Edward IV of England. Among other things, that entitlement gave the bibliophile Louis free access to the libraries of Winchester.

O’Donovan notes 8.7 Confusion or chronology? laying out the pieces.

c.1200 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

So far, in considering these two diagrams (on folio 85r and folio 67v-1), what we’ve been doing is like picking out two small pieces from a pile of jig-saw puzzle pieces for which there is no convenient picture printed on the box.

What we must now do is to pause to think about what these two pieces tell us and because the manuscript is evidently no uniform composition but a compilation, what they tell us may not only differ between one and the other of these pieces, but may agree or disagree with the traditional expectation that all the matter in Beinecke MS 408 would be of western Christian (i.e. ‘Latin’ European) origin and an expression of no other cultural traditions.

.First piece – diagram on folio 85r (part).

Analysis (see posts in Series #6) showed some elements do use conventions closely consistent with those of medieval Latin art, particularly the fact that in it four winds are given characters closely reflecting the content in a widely-used western text – Isidore’s Etymologiae.

Yet elements in the same diagram expresses ideas and habits alien to the Latins’ visual vocabulary, most importantly use of an asymmetrical four-fold division for the circuit.

Other characteristics presenting opposition to the traditionalists’ assumption that the whole manuscript is an expression of Latin culture, is the accurate depiction of Mongol dress and a ‘lily’ which is no fleur-de-lys.

But the single most telling detail is the asymmetrical divisions’ being marked by a form that ‘L.L.’ suggested might be the fly-whisk (as symbol of religious or of civil authority, known from western North Africa, through Ethiopia into India and south-east Asia) but which I think closer in its sense here to that ‘whisk-like’ form as banner – a motif employed not only in Asia by the Mongols, but also in art produced in a Persian environment during the period of Mongol rule (13th-14th C). An example is shown at right.

In those cases the ‘whisk’ takes on the character of a banner, and the sense it bears is most like the flag as emblem in Europe; that is, it signifies not only religious or secular authority, but planting the flag constitutes a claim to rule over a that territory.

Between the second half of the thirteenth century and much of the fourteenth century, Mongols ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen. They were the great power throughout the Mediterranean world during that era, with only Mamluk Egypt as significant second. The Seljuk Turks waited in the wings.

As the Yuan dynasty, Mongol rule within China would survive until 1368 AD.

During that time, foreign traders were welcomed in China’s foreigners’ ports, protected across the overland ‘silk roads’ and foreign ambassadors and their religions invited. Among those who accepted invitations to come to China itself there were a few western Christians and of those (very few) of which records remain, none but persons from Italian city-states remained long. For example, we hear of one doctor from Bologna, a Franciscan friar from Sicily, another Sicilian resident as trader, and of Katerina Villioni who died there in 1342.

While, therefore, it is statistically most likely that matter now in Beinecke MS 408 came into European horizons with someone who was not a Latin (i.e. western European Christian), and otherwise most likely that it was brought by an Italian or a Jew whose home was in the south-western region of the Mediterranean, it is not beyond all possibility that a Latin from some other part of Europe might have fetched much of the material from ‘oriental parts’ in that brief period called the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

Example 2 (folio 67v-1 – starting with post #8.3)

In this case, the diagram’s main, central, part displays habits that can fairly be described as ancient, and Egyptian, but continuity within the art of Egypt and regions it influenced during Egypt’s four-thousand years as an independent kingdom means these same motifs and ideas continued to be seen even when Egypt lay under foreign rule, as it did for almost all of the six centuries which preceded the Christian era. In the sixth century, Egypt had been taken first by Persia, then in the fourth century it was taken from Persia by the Macedonian Greeks, who were in their turn supplanted by Rome.

On the other hand, this diagram’s peripheral emblems, whose subject is entirely astronomical, suggest by their forms and selected subjects, no ancient origin. One emblem’s being overlaid with heavy pigment implies a late effort to ‘Latinise’ that detail, while retaining in it the image of an unmistakeably Asiatic face – again suggesting the Mongol century and a discrepancy between the customs informing the original drawing and what are evidently later additions, the latest of which is a less-than-congenial influence from one or more ‘heavy painters’ or the work’s overseer.

Reflecting more than one cultural tradition and historical era is no reason to suppose the drawings faked. Quite the opposite; they speak to issues of origin and subsequent transmission which – so long as we do not create pre-emptive narratives (‘theories’) – are more helpful than troubling.

Matter deemed ‘ancient’ was typically revered and carefully transmitted everywhere, though in Latin Europe that reverence was usually accorded only the information in written text and it is unusual to see images not immediately ‘translated’ to suit the customs of Latins’ visual language.

The diagram on folio 85r provides a nice example of how certain elements might be left untranslated – either because they had no Latin equivalent, or were considered insignificant or as I think is found again in other sections of the manuscript, because the fifteenth-century copyists had been ordered to alter nothing.

We are only concerned with the manuscript’s drawings. When and where the written part of the text gained its present form is for others to determine.

For these two diagrams, then, it appears that the most likely period for their first arrival in Europe is during the ‘Mongol century’ – late thirteenth to late fourteenth centuries.

Once more, for any newcomers, I repeat that this ‘Notes’ series is not here to ‘showcase’ my own research, but to demonstrate the value of adopting an analytical rather than a theory-driven approach.

Partly for that reason and partly there is a persistent problem of plagiarism among a few Voynicheros (all linked at first- or second remove to the same university), I won’t be including in these notes the complete analysis of any one drawing or series, though in the usual way it is an absolute requirement of formal analyses that an account must be given of the entire drawing, or the entire series of drawings being discussed. A theorist may cherry-pick, and most do. Iconological analyses may not.

I’ve said that the fourth of the peripheral emblems in folio 67v-1 represents certain stars in Orion, but being reminded of that problem with persistent plagiarism I’ve decided to omit further details here.

In treating its ‘North’ emblem, however, it became apparent that a person who exercised a form of overseeing- or censoring role is linked with the addition of heavy pigments, and the nature of that ‘censorship’ suggests a Latin scholar and/or -cleric responsible.

The next series will investigate whether the same is true for images in a different section where astronomical emblems are found.

Within what we’ve called the ‘Voynich calendar’, some sections show the ‘heavy’ painter’s influence especially pronounced, though for the exercise just two central emblems will be considered, both of which have been regarded by even the staunchest of Voynich traditionalists as ‘unusual’ and unhelpful to a theory of the manuscript as entirely an expression of western Christian culture.

These are the emblems which now fill the centre of the diagrams for July, and for November.

The series is described as a calendar because its diagrams’ central emblems are over-written with month-names in a dialect or language variously identified, but always as a language or dialect used in the south-western Mediterranean or in regions linked to them by the sea-lanes: Occitan, Judeo-Catalan, and Norman French most often suggested.

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

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Differences really matter!

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

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

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

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

(detail) 85r (part)

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

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

(detail f.67v-1)

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

(detail) folio 67v-2

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

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

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

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

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

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

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

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

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

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

Think of it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lotus and rebirth.

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

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

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

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

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Consider that stylistic difference:

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

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

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For references for any particular point, do email me.

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

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

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

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

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

c.3200 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

Continuing a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll be as brief as I can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for notes and references, see following post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emblematic detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Qaidu II who ruled from 1272 to 1301 AD

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

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

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

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


For winds in the eastern quadrant, we have:

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

* for ‘Austroafricus

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

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

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

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

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


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