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 #6i (cont.2) Refining the date-range.

c.3200 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

Continuing a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll be as brief as I can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for notes and references, see following post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emblematic detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Qaidu II who ruled from 1272 to 1301 AD

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

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

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

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


For winds in the eastern quadrant, we have:

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

* for ‘Austroafricus

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

c.2800 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

from Scandanavian Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Differences matter.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Balance of Evidence – example: Scandinavian dress of England?

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

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

Sounds pretty definitive, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ibid., p.300.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smith writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smith writes,

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

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

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

clout: Etym. before 900 AD.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the way

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

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

Elly Dekker, Illustrating the Phaenomena (2013).

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

c.1900 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Materials – vellum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(detail) folio 1r

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

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

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

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

(detail) f.78v

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarities and Differences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourfold divisions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between Canopus’ setting and the west comes Dabūr

Canopus’ rising shows the place of al-Janūb”

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

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

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

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

Here’s a clue. Consider the four figures.

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

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

… to be continued.

image enlarged from original

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

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

c.1600 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O’Donovan notes #6e: Is this your talent?

c.1800 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

As some people have a natural aptitude and inclination for mathematics, and even then some will make better mathematicians than others, so too with this sort of work.

For a person hoping to offer an informed opinion about images, including those in Beinecke MS 408, what’s needed are a capacity for clear perception, for empathy, for reasoning, and near-limitless intellectual curiosity.

Character-traits contra-indicated include egotism, greater intellectual inclination to ‘know’ than to understand; inability to distinguish between reason and logic, inability to think through the nature of the problem or even accurately to define what is meant by ‘a problem’ in this discipline.

To avoid upsetting individual Voynicheros, I’m returning to the example of four semi-fictionalised* former students (or trainees, as I like to call them). Their responses, good and poor, were as given.

*semi-fictionalised. I’ve made them all ‘he’ and put them all into the same small group.

Counterparts for these four will be found, again and again, among Voynich theorists both past and present-day. Sadly most come closest in their attitudes to those ranked third or fourth of the four, for reasons explained below.

After being shown that photographic image,* the four give responses in this order:

*see previous post

  1. ‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.
  2. ‘I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’
  3. ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’.
  4. “It’s obviously x…” .

Now, even though the fourth person said, “It’s obviously a motherboard”, here’s their ranking after that first question.

++ #1.‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.

+ #2. I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’.

– #3. ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’.

– – #4. “It’s obviously a motherboard” .

Some readers might be puzzled by that, thinking the fourth had the ‘right answer’.

Not so. He not only failed to distinguish between an image and any object represented,* but failed even to hear the question, which was not “What is the object shown in this photograph?” but “What do you make of this?” – neither the medium nor the subject matter being specified. Another person might say, ‘It’s a photograph’ and do better.

*see previous post.

The others had heard the question and then, just as that fourth person did, their memories did a faster-than-thought scan of what was already familiar to them and each then told me what his memory had presented to him. So far so good.

That one of them already had ‘motherboard’ in his memory is a minor distinction between these four people, levelled out in a second.

I asked for responses, and what mattered was not only how they responded to the image but – this is important – reacted to each others’ responses. Among the things I considered were each person’s body-language, tone of voice and if, when, and for what reason, their eyes lit up.

Number four’s eye lit up the moment he saw the picture. You could almost hear him thinking, “I know what that is – a motherboard”. While each of other three before him spoke, his body language said “wrong.. irrelevant.. pay no attention. When I speak they’ll know I’m the best.” Not good in a novice/amateur in our field.

The person who spoke first had heard the question and in that answer quite unconsciously showed that he had registered such important things as point-of-view, perspective/depth of field, sensed that it was not just a photo, or a ‘building’ photographed, but that there was about the image something that reflected another sort of scale and human manufacture – he described it as a model.

The second answer, again, told me the speaker had unconsciously registered many of the same factors. They could read these things and process them as aspects of an image even when aware that their memory has sent up no exact match. That’s good.

Perspective or lack of it, and signs of the matter’s being direct or indirect information – these are among the markers which may tell us the general period when an image was formed and whether we should suppose the image is, or isn’t one created contemporary with its current form. (that is – e.g. “is this fifteenth century image of fifteenth-century origin or is there something indicative of intervening influence?”). The first student wasn’t consciously aware of registering those things; at that stage, his perceptions were still way ahead of his conscious thinking.

The reason the first speaker became first-ranked is that when the second person spoke, his eyes brightened again. He was able to re-view the image as if through that second person’s eyes – and could see it as they were seeing it. Good. And then he turned to that second person and said, ‘yeh, I can see that’ without implying that he thought either of them was wrong or right. Very, very good indeed in terms of aptitude.

Generosity of spirit. It’s not just a moral quality. It’s just the right cast of mind for someone who has to be able to appreciate that the way a Chinese Christian of the seventeenth century will envisage Virgin-and-child differs – sometimes in quite subtle ways – from the vision of that type in Russia or Spain. We speak often about “ways of seeing” and they are why we don’t suppose all images of a cat – or, if you like, of crossbowmen – are commutable.

The way the question was framed, the only right answer was a true statement of the result after you weighed the information that was before your eyes with what your memory offered as potential matches, because in most cases more than one possibility will come to mind. Number four didn’t actually address the image -as-image at all; only what his memory proffered.

And “whatever the memory proferred” is all too often the sole foundation for what a Voynich writer calls his/her ‘theory’ and tries to find ornament for, after the fact.

The third trainee’s answer raises a faint doubt, because it may indicate someone who thinks in category-boxes. I mean that because we were supposed to be there about art, that person imagined the answer should come from the ‘art-box’ in his memory. This is another trait pervasive in Voynich writings since 1912. A theorist will begin by presuming or by imagining the work by Roger Bacon, or about alchemy or something else they’re familiar with, and thereafter focus on the ‘English-‘ or the ‘alchemy-box’ for something to match to some detail in some folio of the manuscript. Not a good sign. In that student’s case, though, turning to the mental comfort-zone as response to a first test might reflect some passing nervousness. Only time would tell if it were a set habit.

The consequences of that habit, in Voynich studies, have been disastrous and persistent. It is also why, after more than a hundred years, and despite the enormous range of plant-images found across all media and in every period, within and without Latin Europe, stylised and otherwise, and despite Tiltman’s comments half a century ago, Voynicheros are still behaving like bees endlessly trying to fly through the same closed window, hunting and hunting in nothing but western herbal manuscripts for ‘matches’. The theorist who invents scenarios thinks he knows already the answer he’s allegedly seeking – for a problem he has poorly defined.

The reason number four dropped to the last place is, first, that he didn’t think. He didn’t think about the question, didn’t think about the image and. while each of the others was speaking, his body language expressed egotism combined with indifference. He wasn’t thinking about anything except when he could earn admiration and feel the most important in the group by announcing his ‘right answer’.

So at the end of that first test, he stood very badly on all the things that really matter. Perceptiveness simplistic; not reasonable, nor empathetic and no intellectual curiosity evident. Had he even said, “I think it’s a motherboard, but I don’t know what kind” he might have done a little better. After receiving an objective confirmation.. let me repeat that: after receiving objective confirmation… that the photographed object was indeed a motherboard, there might have been some hope he’d hunt more information about that kind of motherboard. He displayed no active curiosity – not about the image, nor the object photographed, not about what led the others to interpret the image as they had. Not why a motherboard was relevant to the subject. Not even a pause to check if he’d rightly defined the question.

He hadn’t that absolutely essential factor – a driving desire to understand.

Not to crack, not to break, not to solve – to understand.

About a Voynichero’s storyline, there may not be much to understand. The manuscript’s images are far more engaging, if you’re so inclined.

In a recent brief conversation with Darius, I said that in my experience people whose natural talents and training make them good mathematicians or mechanics rarely have an aptitude for this sort of work.

I’m not suggesting that you need an academic degree in art studies to research the drawings in Beinecke MS 408. I’m saying that you shouldn’t suppose that all the necessary tools and information are to be found already within yourself, as if all you need are “two eyes and common sense” – as another of those pesky Voynich memes once had it.

Actually, two of the best trainees I recall were students of law and of accounting, respectively.

The first was English and immediately appreciated our work’s emphasis on evidence-first; he was quite used to having masses of previously-unknown material to read before forming any opinion, and understood perfectly the importance of referring to precedents and a basic rule that any image is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ of whatever has been said about it.

In English law, the aim is not to get the client off but to honour the law. If you learn from the weight and balance of evidence – including the accused’s testimony – that the allegations are true, or indeed false, then you don’t pretend otherwise.

The accountant was very clear-eyed and rational in weighing up one aspect of an image against another, and of one opinion against another. Most admirable, I thought, was that he was meticulous about never confusing contributions made to a topic by one person with anyone else’s. If some other student put to him a question about the views of a third, he’d redirect the enquiry, and where he found cases of intellectual embezzlement I think he’d have called the police if he could. 🙂 Neither ever mentioned the Voynich manuscript to me and may still never have heard of it. MS Beineke 408 isn’t an important topic in the larger scheme of things.

I’ll break here – next post, those notes on how to treat specialists decently and not misuse their opinions .

PS – Seems to me that last week’s Voynich meme ‘everyone’s entitled…’ is being superseded by ‘opinionated.’ 😀