Swallowtails – foreword.

Some time ago I quoted SirHubert’s comment:

.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding *the* consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.

“SirHubert” comment to ciphermysteries, (December 10, 2013)

To unpack it a little, we can speak of ‘left-brain’ and ‘right brain’ strengths. The following comes from a discussion about computer programs, but it’s nicely short and clear.

The left brain is the bully brain. It doesn’t just complicate things with its logic, it goes one step further. It drowns out the free-thinking nature of the right brain. But first let’s deal with logic.

The left brain is mathematical and logical. So like all maths problems it likes to be correct every time. Which is fine when you’re dealing with maths and 7 + 3=10 (and can never be 11). Every thing has to be black and white.

It’s different when you’re drawing, or playing music or writing an article. You can have your black and whites and a range of rainbow colours. This of course drives your bully brain totally crazy. It’s trying desperately to pigeon-hole what you do into black and white. And of course, it fails. (Sean d’Souza)

Sometimes the right brain is described as the ‘creative’ or as the ‘feminine’ and the left brain as the ‘logical’ or ‘masculine’.

We all have both a left- and a right-brain, and ideally they should complement one another, but for historical reasons modern western society associated ‘left brain’ behaviour with ‘the superior sort’ – as a cultural, gender, national typecasting – and right-brain behaviour with ‘inferior types’ – as individuals or as groups. You know the sort of thing – ‘Foreigners/women are so very emotional’… ‘their sect of Christianity is superstitious; ours is rational’.

Throughout Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma you can see an (often-unconscious) suppression of the ‘inferior’ in the attitudes expressed both to people and to ideas, to the point where even wildest flights of unsupported guesswork and ‘historical’ fantasy are presented as if they were a left-brain product: that is, supposedly ‘logical’ inferences. I’ve provided examples in earlier posts about the Friedmans and d’Imperio’s book.

This confused mentality, which mis-identifies ideas springing from the imagination and presents them as if a product of logic, are the worst type to have engage with and attempt to discuss images.

True left-brainers have problems. They often develop enormous ‘blind spots’ in their idea of reality. They look for, and like, ‘the similar’ while tending to dislike and even not recognise ‘the different’. Right-brain skills are the most helpful when it comes to understanding images of any sort, but for rigorous analysis, both left- and right- should operate in concert.

Much of Wilfrid Voynich’s seminal talk of 1921 was of the ‘confused’ type – imagination presented as if the product of solid information and well-informed logic. He spins chains of speculation and sets historical fact side-by-side with his fictional history for the manuscript. The implied congruencies are an illusion.

The problem of misrepresenting imagination as ‘logic’ thus began early to infect studies of Beinecke MS 408. It was not only that people presented a baseless fiction as if a product of logic, but that they, themselves, believed it was so.

Because they believed their logical left-brain skills had produced an idea, and not their inventive right-brain skills, requests for the evidence and for an explanation of their reasoning were often met by silence, by dismissive noises, contempt and/or expressions of indignation.

If you think that’s an odd reaction for ‘left-brainers’ – because mathematics, computer programming and other ‘left-brain’ occupations expect any problem to be presented with both its solution and its working-out, I can only suggest that image-making and historical studies are regarded as easy, as ‘soft science’ and ‘mere right-brain stuff’ by the sort of person who identifies as a pure left-brainer.

So, while it is possible for some mathematicians to just gaze at the sky and produce the answer to a long and difficult set of equations, if you ask them to provide the evidence and a logical exposition, the best will do so without raising an eyebrow. None of the ‘how-dare-you-question-me’ about such experts. Of course if the person asking is a six-year old who has yet to hear the word algebra, the expert may decide to condense. The point is that an iconological analyst will offer the same depth of explanation too.

Provision of an answer with its working-out is also how the written part of the Voynich text is usually discussed – statistics and arguments from those statistics informing any posited ‘answer’. But the infuriating thing is that the very same people often accept (and what is worse, produce) very sloppy work when the subject shifts to the manuscript’s drawings.

It is as if they had an ‘either/or’ attitude, and switched off their analytical left-brain the moment the subject changed. Most show no sign of understanding the range of preliminary studies, or the appropriate methods needed to read accurately pictures made at least six hundred years ago, and whose time and place of first enunciation are as yet unknown.

Robert S. Brumbaugh is a good example of a person who regarded himself as a superior type -a ‘left-brainer’. If you read his essays, you might try to identify the ideas he adopts without evidence adduced; the extent to which he relies on imagination; on others’ untested assertions; the absence of any reference to histories of medieval and earlier art; the absence of analytical and comparative evidence in his exposition of one drawing or another. My own impression is that he had no idea how to determine whether a particular detail in the manuscript was intended to be read literally, metaphorically, symbolically, or allegorically.

His ‘blind spots’ are often the same as those informing the Friedmans’ work, and d’Imperio’s account of it.

Extreme left-brainers are comfortable with quantification, and least comfortable with matters requiring balanced judgement of qualities. They can easily compare things in pictures – “these are pictures of cats” – but are at a loss when asked, for example, to decide and explain which of the pictures best conveys ‘feline nature’ – and how the maker did that.

In my experience, as I say, it is not the natural ‘left-brainers’, nor predominantly ‘right-brain’ types who are worst at reading pre-modern pictures. It is those ‘confused’ ones who identify as left-brainers and logicians but whose logic is badly flawed and who constantly mis-interpret, and so mis-represent the products of their imagination as products of evidence-dependent logic.

Often perceptive in social situations, they make very poor analysts. In fact, if they manage to qualify, they can prove a real menace to the profession because they deceive their clients.

Being able to convince themselves that anything produced by their mind must be a product of ‘logic’, but also adept at persuasion, they persuade their clients to believe that some bit of their own historical-fantasy is a valid description of the object for whose assessment the client is paying. The hardest sentence for such types to utter is: ‘I can offer no informed comment’.

Otherwise, most people can learn to develop the skills natural to both left- and right- brain. The right-brainer is the most direct and acute in observation and more interested in learning more, the left-brainer more inclined to shy away from the uncomfortable or hitherto unfamiliar.

That may seem counter-intuitive but imagine the situation – it’s the middle of the night. The person awakes with an impression that they’ve heard a noise. The right-brain says ‘burglars’ and wants to investigate to see whether or not that is so. The left-brain says ‘Nonsense – probably the dog playing with its ball’ and wants to go back to sleep. A balanced mind might – might – say ‘It might be burglars; it might just be the dog’, then curb any impulse to go downstairs but instead pick up their phone, move into a room with a lock on the door, and notify the police. That sort of reaction is not wholly impulsive, nor wholly ‘logical’ but it is eminently reasonable.

Most people not in the grip of some theory can be taught to recognise the difference between a painting made in fifteenth-century Venice and a manuscript illumination made in thirteenth-century Constantinople. They can memorise the tokens which distinguish one saint from another in Christian art. But the ‘confused’ types won’t want to do the necessary reading; they’ll want quite complex matter reduced to bullet-point slides – everything ‘right’ and simple. I’m sure you’ve met the type. Not stupid, exactly, but not clever in the right way.

The sort of question which seems to bring their mind to a complete stop are ones requiring informed, but qualitative judgement, such as: “what inference would you take from the use of pink in a fifteenth century painting?”, or if you simply ask them to ‘read and explain’ a particular picture, they cannot do it. The fear of ‘being wrong’ – as ‘not logical’ – is overwhelming because they suppose the definition of the ‘superior’ left-brainer is ‘never wrong’. Oddly enough I’ve found that many can relate well to images of the most overtly literal propagandist sort, and are most comfortable with early twentieth century poster-art of that type.

In my experience, when the questions mentioned above are asked, such persons habitually either produce an answer at random and when asked to explain it say something like, ‘It stands to reason’ or turn towards some other person for an indication of the ‘right’ answer.

Extreme left-brainers have persistent difficulties if the aim is to understand without producing any sort of ‘answer’. It’s good training, though, because it helps break the habit of assuming any question is a ‘problem’ in need of solution.

One encounters in Voynich studies, but less often in daily work, the curious situation where a left-brainer simply presumes that the ‘right answer’ can be determined by a simple head-count. This is much what Friedman did in issuing his ‘questionnaire’ or when Voynicheros use meaningless phrases such as ‘generally accepted’ or ‘not generally accepted’ to obscure an inability to offer an informed opinion of their own. The obvious, if impolite, rejoinder is ‘Sez who?’ and the scholarly one, ‘Why?’

For a century it was ‘generally accepted’ that the work was an autograph written by Roger Bacon. In 2011, promotion of ‘seventeenth-century Prague’ theory had seen the manuscript’s dating ‘generally accepted’ as sixteenth or seventeenth century and its subject ‘generally accepted’ as about pharmacy and alchemy. None of it was a result of consensus among formally qualified specialists, and dissenters’ views were considered outliers. Until the radiocarbon dating confirmed the informed consensus reported decades earlier by Kraus’ agent.

Truth-by-numbers may seem ‘democratic’ but it’s rubbish when the numbers are a random collection of persons, persons repeating untested ideas, and the subject is a medieval manuscript.

One of the questions which, over the years, has produced many interesting and illuminating answers as (non-Voynich) students were being encouraged develop both left- and right- brain skills, may also interest some present readers as something to mull over:

“Would you describe the doctrine of papal infallibility as the product of left-brain or of right-brain thinking?”

Hint: if your first instinct is to turn towards some other person and try to get ‘the answer’ from them, consider yourself one of the ‘confused’. If your first instinct is to learn as much as you can about the history of arguments about papal infallibility before saying anything, your right-brain skills are probably well developed. If your first instinct is to ask, ‘What has papal infallibility got to do with  pictures?’ then you’re probably a left-brainer with a lot of reading ahead of you.

 

Voynich ‘ciphertext’ attracts left-brainers.

When Wilfrid Voynich found the manuscript and realised he could read neither the written nor the pictorial text, he arbitrarily defined the written text as a ‘ciphertext’ just as he arbitrarily assigned the whole work to a single author, imagining ‘logically’ the imagined author of this imagined ciphertext must be Roger Bacon, and when he arrived in America, he tried first to promote the ‘ciphertext’ as potentially valuable for the military.

The result was that Wilfrid became a person of interest, as possible subversive, and a file was opened by the BOI, precursor to the FBI. That response, by the way, is a nice example of how logic may operate without evidence, and unchecked by reason.

So Wilfrid then changed tack and began emphasising the ‘Roger Bacon, scientific genius’ line, as you see from his talk in 1921.

But in a sense, it was too late.

Cryptography and military matters in general thereafter provided, with computer programmers, most of those interested in the manuscript, and such professions tend to attract ‘left-brainers’. While I’d certainly not deny that cryptographers and mathematicians are capable of imaginative leaps, they tend to be uncomfortable with situations where a question simply doesn’t have any yes/no ‘answer’ and the value of an opinion is the range and quality of an individual’s understanding.

This is why, I think, Friedman imagined that the Voynich text could be approached as contemporary ciphers were. He presumed a consistent orthography, an ‘official’ grammar, and that the aim of any enciphered text was to send a disguised but neat, monolingual, ‘plain text’ to persons at a distance from the person who composed a message.

None of those assumptions – including the assumption of encipherment – had been a conclusion from solid historical evidence, but it explains why Friedman saw nothing ridiculous about presenting Erwin Panofsky with a pre-determined set of seventeen ‘questions’, the aim of which was to collate all such answers as if the number of ‘yeas’ and ‘nays’ could decide whether an opinion was or wasn’t right.

I think it also explains why Friedman was unable to give Panofsky’s first opinion (given to the Voynichs via Anne Nill) the weight it deserved. He didn’t know how to decide relative weight due one ‘expert’ opinion over another.

For more than a century, the idea of the Voynich text as a ‘ciphertext’ became one of the study’s ‘doctrines’ and as far as I can determine no-one formally qualified to analyse images had contributed to the study at all between 1932 and 2009. It was a ‘left-brain’ field.

By 2009, it had become another “Voynich meme” that “until the written text is deciphered, any comment about the drawings is subjective”.

Like so many other Voynich memes, it’s rubbish, of course, but a perfect example of ‘left-brain’ irrationality.

First, as a moment’s thought will show, every major city in the world has art galleries and museums filled with items that were not produced and appreciated by means of any explanatory screed, and secondly because the implicit, and unrecognised ‘given’ behind that dictum is that we may impose the habits of modern western art on these pre-modern drawings.

It’s not unreasonable to approach a piece of modern art with the expectation that it might be described by one of just two categories namely, ‘portraits of things’, or “subjective expression of an artist’s worldview”. In the first case, the artist is imagined ‘drawing what s/he sees’ and this is supposed to be accessible to every viewer. In the second case, the viewer supposes that they can only access meaning by resorting to their own emotional responses and/or reading a written description.

But just as Newbold was wrong to suppose the medieval pharmacy like an early-twentieth century American drugstore, so this notion of image-making isn’t appropriate to the pre-modern world or to non-European tradition.

As well as ‘portraits’ of things (pictures ‘of’), and individual ‘expressions of ideas’ there were ‘pictures about’ and they were ‘about’ the things known and shared by the first maker of an image and his intended audience. In a different time and a very different environment.

Which is why the habit of ‘matching pictures’ by defining all pictures in terms of a single object in them is so prevalent a habit in modern Voynich writings, and so very inappropriate without the provision of historical and technical explanations of precisely how and why the images juxtaposed should be considered ‘alike’.

Here’s a concrete example of why simplistic ‘picture matching’ is useless to explain any image included in such composites.

Quite apart from a need to recognise and describe stylistics – which tell the informed viewer that the pictures (from left to right) are Japanese, Egyptian, and German – and without the background studies of history which will allow the analyst to offer an informed opinion that the first is probably seventeenth-century AD, the second probably second millennium BC and the third, fifteenth-century AD, the iconological analyst must be able to key those matters to the most vital issue – intended significance.

That sort of work needs both left-brain and right-brain skills, in coordination.

Readers should be alert to alleged ‘comparisons’ relying on the viewer to invent a ‘logical’ link to justify side-by-side juxtapositions and be cautious about accepting tacit arguments from such asserted ‘similarity’.

It is not unreasonable to ask a theorist presenting such efforts at silent persuasion: ‘Why do you think so?’ ‘Where’s the evidence?’ ‘What are your precedents’? ‘Explain your thinking’ – such questions are ones that professionals expect any client or any fellow to ask, and which is addressed, as a matter of routine, in any written report.

What happens in Voynich studies, all too often, would be unacceptable in any other context.

If a person who inherited a picture comes asking for its explanation, you don’t say ‘its a man on a horse’, lay it beside a picture of a mounted Napoleon, and tacitly invite the client to infer that their picture should be dated to the nineteenth century and supposed French. But the equivalent is constantly done in Voynich studies and, by long usage, that appalling habit has come to be regarded as normal methodology in this study.

In the next post I’ll reproduce some of the earliest contributions to discussion of the ‘swallowtail merlons’. I’d like readers to consider what ‘givens’ are assumed, what ‘blind spots’ they can identify, what basic errors of reasoning are evident, and whether they think the topic deserves a thorough re-consideration.

What magic? Where magic? 5c: Green stars (67v). Initial observations.

Two prior posts

These three green stars in folio 67v surely can’t be meant literally; there are no stars which appear deep green to the naked eye. So  we must look at other ways of thinking about stars and about colours to understand what ideas inform this diagram.

Before doing that, there are some preliminary points to be addressed.

(The scans now on the Beinecke site are more bleached-out than were the earlier ones, incidentally fading signs of the vellum’s inferior finish, and making  these stars look blue-grey).

67v green stars full gif

Johannes Klein once said:

“there are actually one to [a] few “stars” on the night sky that appear green and are so described in ancient literature .. One star, however, stands out as it was already described as green by ancient authors that is Zubeneschamali, or Beta Librae in modern terms. Being the brightest star in the constellation Libra, maybe it is drawn at several folios.”

– -Johannes Klein, comment to Stephen Bax’ site,  July 23, 2014 – 2:15 PM.

Klein did not specify which ancient author/s he meant, nor provide any secondary source and I’ve not found the reference yet. If you know, I’d be glad to hear from you.

Hinkley Allen has β Librae ‘pale emerald’ and (p.277) quotes William Thomas Webb,

“in the heavens deep green, like deep blue, is unknown to the naked eye”

  • Richard Hinkley Allen, Star Names: their lore and meaning.(various editions).

Hinkley Allen is still the most accessible source in English, though must be cross-checked against more recent and scholarly studies as e.g. those by Paul Kunitzsch, David A. King, David  Pingree, Tsvi Langermann or Otto Neugebauer, though Neugebauer is not without his biases.

Modern astronomers describe β Librae as a blue dwarf, while admitting (with a faintly grudging air) that  to the naked eye it does look green-ish but is the only star which does.  

That might explain one green star but the diagram has three.

Klein then suggested, reasonably, that they might be the same star repeated.  On seeing his comments, a few months after he’d written them, I decided to repost some research-notes earlier posted in my old blogger blog, ‘Findings’. (reposted to voynichimagery 22nd November, 2014). I’ll include a little of that material later.

So – why green stars on folio 67v?

‘Just for fun’ ?

It is true that Latin scribes were sometimes self-indulgent, so it is possible – just possible – that the scribe was tired of drawing the same forms and made some stars green just for a change.  It’s possible, but it cannot be proven, and the revisionist’s default must be that there’s a reason for what is there in front of you, on the page.

Purely decorative? Again, this is possible, but we cannot begin with such an assumption, and if it were to prove a purely decorative design, then historical analysis must take a different path.  It remains a second-last resort,  the ‘arbitrary’ being last of all.

Classing the diagram – divisions.

Exploring the technical, astronomical reference, the first step  is to define what type of diagram this is.

It includes an image of sun and stars, so we may begin with the hope that it speaks to such things – in which case, the number of its divisions should announce the type of diagram it is. This is a practical way to determine type for any technical diagram that conveys astronomical or astrological information. 

Not unexpectedly, the Voynich diagram is not unambiguous. The diagram’s outer border, though broken into sections, is incomplete to our right and our left so that while we might extrapolate to obtain a theoretical number of divisions for that border, it will be better to use something that is on the page – like the lines of written text. This gives 17 divisions for the circuit. Not an easy, predictable, ’12’ or ’16’. And just to make things more interesting still, the Voynich diagram has these radial divisions, as you see, unequally spaced.

One division (to our right) is actually double the size of those opposite it – where two of the three green stars are.

f 67v unequal divisions detail marked

As ever, one may not meddle or try to ‘fix’ information provided by the primary evidence.

If those unequal divisions irritate, it is something to investigate – not to ignore, arbitrarily to ‘correct’ ‘adjust’, or rationalise.

#Rule No.1 – Don’t mess with the evidence!

A mathematical average (360°/17) will tell us nothing useful, because the divisions are unequal on the page and our initial position – as ever – is that what is there is what was meant to be there. Movement away from that position must be required by a preponderance of clearly contrary evidence.

If the diagram pre-dates manufacture of our present manuscript, the number of divisions may be informative on its astronomical reference, but won’t necessarily explain why they are now painted green, so those questions must be separated.

I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the fifteenth-century scribe’s painting three stars green and concentrate on the number of 17, and unequal divisions of the circuit.

The diagram could be a schematic diagram, or it might refer to a planisphere projection, but that number of 17, in combination with unequal distribution, and combining the stars with a sun(?!) evokes for me description- but not a formal representation – of some form of sidereal compass. To speak generally, a sidereal compass describes a circuit or compasso of the navigator’s stars and though widely known by mariners of the eastern sea – called there ‘the Great Sea’- one fifteenth-century navigator, Ibn Majid, says was otherwise known only to his ‘brethren’ the original ‘barbary’ men of Africa’s north-eastern shores, near Sicily. It may be from them that Michael Scot, in Sicily, had his ‘berber’ star-names. No-one has yet identified the dialect.

However – mariners used the circuit of stars in navigation, but some eastern mariners, including the Arabs, also took the names of seventeen of those stars/asterisms to name their compass-card’s 32 points. On the card, those points are equidistant, but in practical astronomy it wasn’t so.

To illustrate, I’ll show a different example, the Caroline islander’s sidereal compass. This again names the 32 points using just 17 stars. One for each Pole, and then the east (risings) for each of 15, and the settings for those same fifteen on the west. Thus 2+ (15×2) =32.

stars mariners Carolinian unequal divisions

More of this ‘sidereal compass’ possibility later.

It doesn’t do to allow a possibility to take hold and become a theory before other reasonable possibilities are tested. Most important, now is the question of the diagram’s orientation.

#Rule No.2  Never assume the answer’s already something you know. 

manicle elegant lone right NoteThis might be a good moment to remind readers that what is in this post is from my own research,  is limited by that research, and any conclusions are  those I draw from that information. Other and better insights may yet be offered, so if any reader decides to repeat something from this post, the passage should be quoted directly, the introduction of this data and opinion to Voynich studies attributed to me and their own readers allowed the freedom to check out that data and opinion for themselves, so to judge my conclusions.   That’s what citing precedents and sources is all about – respecting a reader’s right to be more than a ‘believer’.  As someone else said,

“In Gd we trust – all others must bring data” – Dr.Mike (‘medlife crisis’ vlog), quoting one of his teachers.

Orientation.

As an initial guess, I’d posit here that, as with the Voynich map’s flame-haired sun-emblems, this face is to be understood as moving and looking towards the west.

Even so, there are two likely options:

First, that the gaps in the border to left and right were intended to signify those ‘gates’ though which the sun, moon and/or stars were variously imagined to pass into, and to leave, the visible sky.

green stars f.67v

Alternatively, we might take it that the sun’s ‘line of vision’ as its line of movement, in which case an approximate path for its passage would run:

green stars f.67v marked E-W tentative

NOTE re ‘vision’ – Unfocussed eyes: I note in passing that while northern peoples presume the sun benevolent, it is otherwise for peoples who know the sun’s savage heat.  Depiction of a leonine or feline sun whose eyes are unfocused is an old tradition in harsher regions, a tradition that survives even today among the ivory-carvers of Benin.  The ‘unfocused eyes’ for the sun, in folio 67v, is one of numerous indications that the image had its first enunciation in an earlier and other context than fifteenth century Europe. Examples below: {left) feline sun with artificial beard – Phoenician ivory, found at Nimrud. dated c.8thC BC.; (upper right) messenger as winged representative of the king-god’, probably Phoenician. Again from Nimrud. (right, below) modern ivory of traditional form, from Benin in Africa’s north west. I first presented these images as illustrations to a series of posts published through ‘Findings’, the first published on July 30th., 2010).

ivory unfocused eyes predator sun

A couple of years later, in treating the origin and evolution of the month-folio’s August emblem, I mentioned the custom again (voynichrevisionist, October 29th., 2012), noting that a faint remnant of that ancient graphic tradition of a feline sun survives in one thirteenth-century coin, described as from ‘Thamarra’. By the thirteenth century, in an Islamic context, this was no more than a traditional motif.

coin of Thamarra gif

‘Thamarra’ – In Wolf’s commentary on Eusebius’ Onomasticon (1971) Notes. pp. 76-252 Wolf mentions that on the Madaba Map there is a Thamara located as suggested by Eusebius, and that the Tabula Peutinger has a Thamaro 52 or 53 miles from Jerusalem while Ptolemy’s list (V, 15, 5f) has a Thamaro about 55 miles distant. The Notitia Dignitatum (74:40) has a Tarba and (74:46) a Thamarra both of which have a [Roman] garrison.

Orientation (resumed).

In the diagram on folio 67v, the artificial beard might be more consciously deployed to refer to the mid-heavens – the time of the sun’s strongest heat – by analogy with man’s greatest strength. between the infirmities of the newly born infancy and late old age.

While we’ve not yet tested either of those first tentative observations about an ‘east west’ line, if the second option survives testing, we might then posit further that the ‘pointer’ flame/lock is meant to indicate a North point, though that meant astronomical or magnetic north for the fifteenth-century scribes or intended user, it is much too soon even to guess.

f.67v pointer-lock of sun hair

But if it were to be proven to point ‘North’ we might then say with some confidence that all three of those green stars should be found south of the sun’s path. For someone in the northern hemisphere, that would mean ‘far below’ Polaris.

Comment: – I’ve often felt sympathy with d’Imperio when she describes the manuscript as an ‘elegant Enigma’. The drawings are elegant in conception, yet their analysis must so often be approached like this, from several individual guesses, each of which must be tested individually against the objective historical data, and then against all the rest, and then by comparison to what has already been learned from other studies of the primary document, until each of the working guesses is  either discarded or found to ‘click’ into place and open out the original maker’s intention. 

Because as I’ve said, this post is  original and I can cite my sources but (alas) take refuge in no precedent, I’m including information about my method and samples of the data, too. I cannot avoid the post’s being long but I will précis as much as possible.

Cultural cues/Peculiarities – false hair and sun-of-night.

False hair and ‘serpentine’? locks.

You might have noticed – though in 2010, I couldn’t learn of anyone who had done before – that the sun’s face looks as if a female, or for a young male, has been given an artificial hair and beard.   These flaming locks (of hair?), are bound into a twisted cord, passing around the chin and over the crown of the head.

f67v-1 Green stars 16 or 17

 Only the two serpentine locks seem to be original/natural, one of the two looking far more like a serpent than the other does. (Caput draconis of Leo?) (Agathos daimon?)

The motif is well known from Egyptian evidence, and then (as shown above) from Syria and/or Phoenician north Africa, but had no place in Greek art before the Hellenistic era, nor later in Roman art..

The only two locks which seem to escape from under that band of artificial ‘flaming’ hair may refer to the Hellenistic appropriation of the ‘horns of Amon’. The example below from a coin made for the first Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy Soter I  who was believed by Latins of medieval Europe to have composed  Claudius Ptolemy‘s works.

coin Ptolemy ! vestigal horn-serpentine late 4thC -early 3rdC BC

The reference becomes relevant to study of Beinecke MS 408 not least because we have an early, direct testimony from a person who had the manuscript in the earlier part of the seventeenth century, who studied it for years and who went to some lengths (including contacting Athanasius Kircher and sending him carefully copied excerpts) as to his belief that the matter in the manuscript had been gained from someone who travelled to ‘eastern parts’ and collected the matter from ‘ancient Egyptian’ documents, monuments and teachers.  Baresch’s comments have sometimes been read not as emphatic “It is certainly conceivable…” but as hypothetical “it is certainly conceivable..”.  I take the former reading, but for reasons we can’t spare space to explain here.  Time and again, however, the manuscript’s content offers Baresch support. This is one instance.

Another possibility deserves mention, though, as interpretation of those ‘sidelocks’, because it offers a direct connection to the simpler forms of container depicted in the  Voynich manuscript’s ‘leaf and root’ fold-outs. Fold-outs like this do not occur in Latin manuscripts before ours, and not for many decades afterwards.

I’ve called the two ‘side locks’ serpentine thinking of the pair which are seen in Egypt, but which were described in the Greek world as the ‘agathos daimon’ and the kakkodaimon. As older deities did, these later became identified as ‘demons’ and mentioned in magic.  The ‘daimon’ was not a ‘demon’ to the Greeks or to the Egyptians.

The type appears on some cities’ coins during the Hellenistic and then the Roman era, and chiefly on  those for Tralleis in Asia minor where they are seen in association with a type of container variously described in modern studies as a cista, cista mystica, capsa or simply as an offering/tax collection ‘bucket’, depending on specific use. 

photo (below) coin of Tralles, 2ndC AD.   left: serpent and cista (‘cista’ like ‘capsa’ also described a tax-collection bucket). (rightagatha daimon and kakkodaimon – a pair gained from older Egypt. photo Courtesy wildwinds.

coin cysta mystica Tralleis 2ndC ce reduced

Containers of the same sort were are seen (as ‘capsa’) holding papyrus scrolls – reminding us that in earlier times the serpent’s significance was not of evil but of ‘wisdom’ and ‘know-how’.   A later coin from Tralleis, while under Roman rule.

coin Lydia Tralleis 2ndC wheatlid obverse Byzantine style

and below, similar images made during the Roman period but before Christianity became an official religion of the empire.

capsa Pompeii(left) Herculaneum (right) 1stC AD

above. (left) cista (as capsa) in painting from Pompeii; (centre) reconstructed, from Herculaneum. (right) in the form of a 3rdC ‘tax-bucket’.

Quite apart from the implication of those ‘serpent-of-wisdom’ sidelocks, the false beard informs us that the image now on folio 67v was not first enunciated by Latin of medieval Europe.

However, since we know that the diagram was of interest to at least one fifteenth-century person, very possibly European, then that constant purpose is the most important question. What did that fifteenth-century user believe the diagram described? What did he or she (and it was probably a ‘he’) make of the bearded sun, and its being set in a diagram apparently about the night sky? Why green stars?

Might the ‘seventeen’ lines of text describe seventeen brightest stars in the zodiac?

(I saw no reason for such a ‘zodiac’ or ‘luni-solar’ diagram within the context provided by the diagrams adjacent to that on folio 67v, but if you’d like to test the possibility, here’s a link which might help).

“Sun of night”

The diagram on folio 67v seems technical, but its stars are linked with a leonine ‘sun’ and not with the moon so we appear to have what could be described as a night sun.

Cornelius Agrippa’s ‘sun of night’ is off the board as reason for this diagram. He wouldn’t be born for another half-century after the Voynich manuscript was made.

On the other hand, Agrippa’s ‘occult’ studies were pursued in Toledo where, as Luigi Pulci attested in the early fifteenth century, traditional north-African and Islamic customs deemed ‘magic’ by Latins, were being openly taught and demonstrated. What Agrippa would later study in Spain, many others already knew when the manuscript was copied.

This made it worth considering another possibility. Though it proved a dead-end, this may save another researcher’s wasting time.

I considered whether the stars on folio 67v mightn’t relate to the series of lunar mansion stars in some way, and possibly via the ‘dot patterns of geomancy, but though some medieval Latin manuscripts refer to asterisms by drawing a few dots within a border, there’s no ‘seventeen-fold’ system which applies either to the 28 manzil or to the geomantic ’16’- so far as I could discover.

However, since I mentioned interlocking wheels of the ‘Enigma-machine’ earlier, here’s a thirteenth-century divinatory device in which the lunar mansions (here 28 in number) are correlated with the dot-patterns of geomancy – geomancy being one of the subjects about which Agrippa would later write. d’Imperio also mentions it.

astron and geomacy combined device 13th Mosul Savage SmithFound in North Africa the device is  believed brought from the eastern Mediterranean. Its dials correlate the 16 geomantic figures with sixteen of the twenty-eight lunar mansions. (British Museum, Department of Oriental Antiquities, Inv. No. 188.5-26.1. Detailed analytical studies have been published by Emilie Savage Smith and Marion More.  Illustration above taken from,
  • E. Savage Smith and M.B. Smith, ‘Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth-century Divinatory Device – another look’, Chapter 8 in Emilie Savage-Smith (ed.), Magic and Divination in Early Islam. (2004)

In case any reader would like to consider the idea for themselves, here’s a slightly- altered diagram derived from one in that study noted above by  Smith and Smith. In common with the sidereal compass, the system does refer to each asterism twice – at a point of rising and of setting.

stars geomantic notae and lunar manssions correlated dial Savage Smith

Another option. An astrolabe?

On a medieval astrolabe, you might find as few as 12 stars, but the usual number was between 15 and 21, with some few magnificent instruments having many more.  One example studied by Savage-Smith includes 50, but in such a case the only way to identify stars in that diagram on folio 67v would be to locate the specific instrument referred to, or take a guess at the 17 most commonly shown on surviving astrolabes.  It might be worth a cryptographer’s time to try that, but I didn’t think it worth mine. I’ve yet to see an astrolabe with such a  ‘sun-face’ at its centre. 

  • For an overview of medieval instruments – Byzantine, Islamic, Latin – see:
    David A. King, “Astronomical instruments between East and West” (1994), and on Islamic instruments other than globes, David A. King, In Synchrony with the Heavens, I. “Astronomical instrumentation in the medieval Islamic world” and XIIIa “On the favourite astronomical instrument of the Middle Ages”: 1-110 and 337-402.

On the subject modern attitudes to the study of medieval astronomical works, King has this to say in another paper:

Considerable progress has been made over the past century toward the further documentation of the history of Islamic science by scholars of divers nationalities, with fortunately not all of them interested only in transmission to the new Islamic world (mainly from the Hellenistic world but also from Iran and India), or transmission from the Islamic world to Europe (mainly via Spain), but rather in what Muslim scholars did within their own culture between al-Andalus and India, and between Central Asia and the Yemen. The problem that specialists in the history of Islamic astronomy confront is that the modern Western world is under the impression that Islamic astronomy is somehow represented by the 5% of it that became known in medieval Europe, and the modern Islamic world is unfortunately barely aware even of that. More recently it has been discovered that some aspects of Islamic astronomy came to Renaissance Italy from Istanbul, with Jews as the principal intermediaries. What is true of ideas is also true of instruments.

  • David A. King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (paper published online Nov.24th. 2018 see davidaking.academia.edu. 

A couple of instruments have already been noted in connection with the Voynich calendar’s month-names:

  • Nicholas Pelling, Curse of the Voynich (2006) pp. 22-3. For the month-names’ being in a form of Occitan, Pelling credits Stolfi and Landini. He brought to notice:
  • David A. King, The Ciphers of the Monks – A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001. See also
  • Robert T. Gunther, The astrolabes of the world, based upon the series of instruments in the Lewis Evans collection in the old Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, with notes on astrolabes in the collections of the British Museum, Science Museum, Sir J. Findlay, Mr. S.V. Hoffman, the Mensing Collection, and in other public and private collections. 2 vols. (1932).
  • and various works by Emilie Savage-Smith.

Other Possibilities.

Calendar?

As a division of the sun’s year or of the lunar year, seventeen divisions makes no sense practically nor, so far as I have discovered, historically.

Canonical Hours?

Nor does that number of divisions accord with the number of the canonical hours, whether in the earlier or the later Christian centuries, in the Latin or the Byzantine church.  For this point there are many easily-accessible summaries – this wiki article will do.

SIDEREAL COMPASS

Since 2010, when I first introduced this matter to current members of the Voynich online community, referring blog-readers to Tibbett’s translation of Ibn Majid’s Fawaidd, a great deal of material has been posted online about the subject and I see no reason to spare so much time explaining it now. There’s is a really superb old-wiki article, available as a pdf, on the subject of the compass-card and its winds.

This following table and commentary comes from a more recent wiki article.

I’ve corrected some of its errors, but it’s good enough as a first stage in research.

‘Kavenga’ was not the term used by the Arabs, but by some mariner-peoples of the Pacific. Interestingly Majid describes himself a a mu’allim kanaka, which does make sense in Arabic, but ‘kanaka’ means both ‘man’ and ‘navigator’ in certain Polynesian languages even today. On links between the two, I again recommend:

  • Michael Halpern, ‘Sidereal Compasses: a case for Carolinian-Arab Links’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol.95, No.4 (1986).

[wiki article, quote, start]

The “side­real” com­pass rose de­mar­cates names the com­pass points by the po­si­tion of stars in the night sky, rather than winds. Arab nav­i­ga­tors in the Red Sea and the In­dian Ocean, who de­pended on ce­les­tial nav­i­ga­tion, were using a 32-point side­real com­pass rose be­fore the end of the 10th century.[4][5][6][7][8] In the north­ern hemi­sphere, the steady Pole Star (Po­laris) was used for the N-S axis north point; a notional ‘Pole of Canopus’ for the South. the less-steady South­ern Cross had to do for the south­ern hemi­sphere, as the south­ern pole star, Sigma Oc­tan­tis, is too dim to be eas­ily seen from Earth with the naked eye. The other thirty points on the side­real rose were de­ter­mined by the ris­ing and set­ting po­si­tions of fif­teen bright stars. Read­ing from North to South, in their ris­ing and set­ting po­si­tions, these are:[9]

PointStar
NPolaris
NbE“the Guards” (Ursa Minor)
NNEAlpha Ursa Major
NEbNAlpha Cassiopeiae
NECapella
NEbEVega
ENEArcturus
EbNthe Pleiades
EAltair
EbSOrion’s belt
ESESirius
SEbEBeta Scorpionis
SEAntares
SEbSAlpha Centauri
SSECanopus
SbEAchernar
SSouthern Cross Kutb Suhail.

The west­ern half of the rose would be the same stars in their set­ting po­si­tion. The true po­si­tion of these stars is only ap­prox­i­mate to their the­o­ret­i­cal equidis­tant rhumbs on the side­real com­pass. Stars with the same dec­li­na­tion formed a “lin­ear con­stel­la­tion” or kavenga [‘sky road‘] to pro­vide di­rec­tion as the night progressed.[10]

A sim­i­lar side­real com­pass was used by Poly­ne­sian and Mi­crone­sian nav­i­ga­tors in the Pa­cific Ocean, al­though dif­fer­ent stars were used in a num­ber of cases, clus­ter­ing around the East-West axis.[11][12]

[wiki quote ends]

Note – In practice, things were a little less simple. Some of the points here named as single stars were employed as a group – an asterism – of which the major star was one. Also important was the system by which a star was ‘fettered’ or conceptually tied to others as if one were forming a geodesic ‘path’ across the sky towards the wanted destination, but the Arabs didn’t speak of that sky-road as the ‘kavenga’.

Inclinations (not conclusions) – So far, I’m most inclined to regard the ‘pointer’ as north-pointing, and the three green stars as three bright navigation-stars of the southern quarter, though there are ones further south than Canopus.

Here’s how the southern circumpolar stars look to someone in the southern hemisphere. (To find Polaris, follow the Milky way past alpha Centauri and then keep going in below the horizon for a fair way. You can’t miss it..

Chambers of the south Crux Sulbar

photo below – page from a copy of one of Ibn Majid’s works. No further information was provided – sorry. Note the manuscript’s size – only 15 lines to the page. Unlike the Voynich manuscript, this shows no evidence of any aversion to ruling out, to ruled lines or to use of the draughtsman’s compass, signs of which are all surprisingly uncommon in Beinecke MS 408.

manuscript Majids

  • G.R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese: being a translation of Kitab al-Farawa’id fi usul al-bahr wa’l-qawa’id of Ahmad b. Majid al-Nadji.

Postscript: Majid was from the Azd tribe, it is thought, and for the period we’re considering, a south Arabian dialect such as Mahri would not be impossible, though it is now almost extinct.  A script not unlike the Voynich script is also known from early southern Arabia.  It has been found inscribed on palm-leaves and is referred to as zabur –  ‘psalm’- script. However, this script includes an ‘x’ shaped letter as the Voynich script does not.   Since the following is only for illustration, and I gave full details when first posting it to ‘Findings’, I won’t add this to the bibliography. 

script+zabur+palmleaves+p149+script+only.bmp

Next post : ‘Sun of Night’ in medieval Ireland and Spain. Green stars in medieval France and since I won’t be referring to the Arctic, here are some nice images of the Arctic’s ‘sun at night’ from the ‘Bad Astronomy’ blog.

Though I brought formal training and thirty years experience in a relevant field to the study of this manuscript’s drawings and have gained another thirteen years’ desultory research experience since then I still can’t claim to know enough yet to have formed an all-encompassing ‘Voynich theory’. All I have is an opinion from conclusions drawn from the data so far.

To be continued…

Next post – Ways of seeing: Stars in the Latins’ tradition.

What magic? Where magic – 4.2 Whose magic? Byzantium – Spain.

TOLEDO

old Toledo

Questa citá di Tolleto solea
tenere studio di negromanzia;
quivi di magica arte si leggea
publicamente e di quiromanzia;
e molti geomanti sempre avea,
esperimenti assai d’idromanzia;
e d’altre false openion di sciochini,
comm’e fatture o spesso batter gliorehi.

Luigi Pulci (1432-1484?)

Only this town of Toledo/holds classes in necromancy;/there you can read about magical arts publicly – and chiromancy;/ and there numerous geomancers demonstrate experiments in hydromancy;/ and other false and foolish notions ..

.

CONSTANTINOPLE

Constantinople medieval reconstructed birds sml

When emperors accuse courtiers of making them sick through demonic magic, and  make use of astrology when making important decisions … when manuscripts of sorcery that require extremely high levels of erudition are copied and employed, and when senior churchmen are accused for using, and actually being, practitioners of magic, it is quite clear that what is being dealt with here is not to be dismissed as “superstition” as the misguided, ignorant and unrepresentative beliefs of a lowly social group or a few isolated individuals, but something that was an integral part of general Byzantine culture and thought.” (pp.151-2)

  • Richard P.H. Greenfield, ‘A Contribution to the Study of Palaeologan Magic’, in Henry McGuire (ed.), Byzantine Magic, Dumbarton Oaks (1995)  pp.117-153.

__________

To anyone thinking of crafting a ‘magical’ theory for the much imposed-upon Voynich manuscript, my advice is  – Don’t do it.

What follows in the next few paragraphs is editorial comment. I’d usually make it optional, collapsed text, but till wordpress’s new block editor provides that function, readers who can’t be bothered with editorials can just scroll down to Part 2.

Reasons for advising against creating a ‘magical’ theory include:
1.  ‘Does the manuscript consent?’  Seriously.  Fictional-theoretical narratives have been imposed on this manuscript, one after another, for a century with many based on no more than subjective impressions of one or two drawings – drawings which they do not understand, and do not attempt to learn how to analyse.  It is better to work from the manuscript’s evidence, and to first investigate whether some specific characteristic of script or codicology points to that subject, or whether there is any clear parallel between the Voynich drawings and any known traditions in that type of image-making.  The great error in the history of this study has ever been that a person moves from researching the object to researching the fascinating and comfortable ideas produced by their own imagination. They cease to be researchers and become, in effect, novelists.
2. ‘Magical’ texts and images are a highly specialised area of scholarship. To get some idea of what a mass of preliminary study you’d need to have under your belt if you hope to say anything useful, try reading Peter Forshaw’s thesis. He has  posted it in separate chapters at academia.edu.  You might pay attention to his curriculum vitae while you’re there. His overview is in – Chapter 2.
    • Peter J. Forshaw, ‘The Occult Middle Ages.’
3. Cyber-bullying.  In thirteen years of observing the behaviour of online ‘Voynicheros’ I have found only one theory-group which actively tries to deter researchers by ad.hominem pack-attacks, and that is the ‘Germanic-central-European-Christian-nobility theory’ group.
The true focus of their interest is not so much the manuscript as an idealised image of the Rudolfine court as being, somehow, the quintessence of ‘Germanic suavity’.  Apart from Toresella, who has a faintly ‘down and dirty’ idea of magic, the only material which that group will countenance must be consonant with keeping lace collars and cuffs nice and clean, and preferably Protestant or at least quasi-protestant. So the not-terribly-occult theme of Astrology, and the really-quite-gentlemanly Alchemy are the two forms of occult learning they tend to impose on the manuscript, although – as a simple matter of fact – the Voynich diagrams do not conform to the traditions of central European image-making in either subject.  I agree that there is some circumstantial evidence for thinking that Georg Baresch believed that the manuscript in his possession probably related in some way to some form of alchemy.
However the great flaw in that ‘Germanic-central-European-Christian-gentlemen’ theory is that the primary document withholds its consent.  There is nothing about the manuscript save a bit of marginalia which speaks in any way to a German impact on the text.  The codicology offers no particular support for a Germanic theory; nor does the binding, nor the page layout, nor the style of script (notably lacking the strong vertical emphasis of German scripts), nor the drawings, though by considering none but German-and-central-European manuscripts, ignoring the existence of any but supportive opinions, and by using a very lax system of ‘compared images’ an impression of validity has been presented, fairly successfully, to an uncritical audience.
If you develop a theory about, say, Spanish magic, or Aegean magic, or non-Christian magic for the manuscript, members of that now-dominant group will either ignore you, or attempt to get you to stop your own line of research and devote yourself to that theory, or – worst case – will harass you by constantly ‘meme-making’ as a means to impugn your motives, intelligence, qualifications and even your mental and moral soundness.  You cannot have a reasonable debate with adherents to that theory; their theory is never presented as a formal thesis,  and the view held in common is that to engage in factual debate, or to engage with any dissenter is beneath their dignity – though continual avoidance of the objective issues and relentless ad.hominem attacks is apparently ok, because a dissenter is – in their view – a ‘lesser person’ by definition.  Not everyone who adheres to that theory is so unreasonable, but enough are to ensure that members toe the line.  The arrogance of that group has grown to a point where one core-member recently repeated another smart-sounding meme to the effect that any non-believer, regardless of their position in the world of non-Voynich scholarship, is a ‘maverick’ for declining to serve that theory.  Which just shows just how badly divorced from reality any mutually-reinforcing team can become.
What I find sad is that a number of that group are individually intelligent, reasonable and highly competent in some relevant discipline.  One can only wonder what the study has lost by their conformity to a theory untenable by any normal standards.
Belonging has definite advantages – so long as you limit your work to the perimeter defined by ‘ western Christian nobleman of Germany-and-central-Europe’, all will be warmth, good fellowship and shared sniggers at the ‘others’ in any surviving Voynich arena online.  Your work will receive many appreciative comments, regardless of how ridiculous your ideas might seem to an outsider, someone like – just for example – Peter Forshaw.
You may also like to consider the ethics involved now that some members of that theory-group have  moved beyond merely refusing to acknowledge the existence of informed dissent, and have begun actively erasing mention of such persons and research from supposedly objective histories of the study on websites and Voynich wiki articles.  A recent example of this heightened folly occurred recently in regard to a scholar named Rainer Hannig.
It is not the point that his ideas were incorrect – or even correct.  The point is that the history of this study since the rise of the Prinke-Zandbergen theory about twenty years ago has been ‘fixed’ by tweaking or even inventing information, and by dividing all acknowledged information into two groups – the ‘sensible people’ who support that theory – and all the rest.
If the aim were to erase all matter not a validated and solid contribution to the study, error-free, then we should have to erase everything except the scientific analyses and Prescott Currier’s talk of 1967 1976.
And that’s why I don’t encourage you to create a ‘magic theory’: the manuscript does not invite it; there is a strong likelihood that you won’t have time to learn enough to say anything of lasting value unless you already have years of specialised study behind you –  and even so, if your research and conclusions oppose the Prinke-Zandbergen storyline, you and your research are likely to be ignored and/or attacked ad.hominem and/or retrospectively ‘eliminated’ from the study’s history.

So now, having been clear about the inadvisability of following that line –  let’s move forward.

____________

Part 2.

We pick up from where the last post left off.

In that, I offered some few items in evidence for 14-page quires (septenions) having been used in fifteenth-century manuscripts from Byzantium, Italy and Spain, and further that ten-page quires (quinions) which are not quite so uncommon, also survive certainly from fifteenth-century Italy.

The Voynich manuscript’s Quire 20 was originally a septenion; of its quires Quire 8 and 13, one originally was, and the other still is a quinion.

If we consider Lascaris’ book-collecting journeys in search of classical texts, together with the distribution pattern for Hebrew manuscripts which Beit Arié records for  septenions, it becomes clear that their incidence relates to the maritime routes which connected the north-east to the far south-west of the greater Mediterranean. (I’ve added a star for north Africa, not for its septenions, but as a centre of magical practices which influenced both Spain and Sicily.)

mediterranean-map transmission points

This in turn tells us that the routes are those over which Venice and Genoa held control for much of the medieval period, and until the fifteenth century.  .

It is evident that Lascaris travelled the Venetians’ route when he went to acquire copies of ancient and classical texts, but the Jewish examples, cited by Beit Arié for the western Mediterranean, lie on the routes controlled by Genoa.  This is understandable since in Genoa itself, as in the Genoese ‘colonies’ in Constantinople (and Pera), as in Caffa on the Black Sea, Jews and Genoese regularly worked together.  (If anyone wants references for this, other than what can be found online, email me.)

Northern Italy, lying between those routes, was open to influence arriving from either side and in fact Italy’s Adriatic coast was where many foreign enclaves were established, including eastern Christians arriving from the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Venetian and Genoese trade routes medieval and Trebizond

To recap Janus Lascaris’ journey, in the third quarter of the fifteenth century: he took ship from Venice (Padua being in the Veneto), for..  Corfu, Arta, Salonica, Galata, Sozopolis, Athos, Salonica, Crete, Apulia, Corigliano, and Monte Sardo-  all of which were reached by sea. 

Along these routes, the Genoese and the Venetian ships regularly carried crossbowmen, and in several centres –  such as Crete, the Morea in Greece, and in the Cyclades where the Duchy of the Archipelago had been established by the piratical Venetian named Marco Sanudo – there were Latin-ruled territories.  Sanudo’s action is politely described as ‘an independent venture’, and took three years to accomplish. (1207-10).

Here, I should like to refer to one a late-stratum image, used to fill the centre of the Voynich manuscript’s month-diagram for ‘December'(f.73v) .

Archer f73v

I daresay none of my present readers will know, but I published a detailed analysis and commentary on this item among many others some years ago (several years before the version put up by JK Petersen in his blog, or the material posted to Steven Bax’ blog). 

My work remained online until 2017, but my conclusion was not supportive of the often-repeated idea that this figure represents any German or central European figure. I had concluded, rather, that it was intended as an allusion to what was, in medieval times, the popular character for the marker constellation, given its present form here by reference to the type of the marine cross-bowmen who were carried on all Genoese and Venetian ships, including trading vessels.

The published study included a detailed analysis of bow, a point-by-point discussion of Jen Sensfelder’s cautious paper of 2003, and treated the figure’s costume.  It also sought out the earliest appearance of this depiction of Arcitenens (according to Manilius, elsewhere, Sagittarius) as a standing human archer – a task not previously undertaken – and found those origins in the region of  Lake Tiberius, from which glass tesserae, as well as glass workers were evidently imported to assist with the creation of the then-new Opus francigenum (later mis-called ‘gothic’ architecture). It is in early glass windows of that type that our earliest remaining examples of the ‘standing archer’ are to be found in the west.  I note that although no Voynich writer had looked into the question before, nor connected the Beit Alpha mosaic or the Braisne abbey glass with the Voynich figure, since then those illustrations have appeared, without much reason given, in other Voynich blogs and sites.  The historical background and commentary, including the critical matter of translation from the eastern Mediterranean was absent – as of course was mention of my name or the detailed published research which should have made that duplication unnecessary.  

The archer’s costume I read as being composed to create a peculiar, but telling, combination of Aegean Greek and Latin costume, the hat with its turned back brim being recorded both early and late in Spain, and to Spanish marines we also owe the only two surviving examples of that smaller wooden crossbow with the double-lock that explains the depiction of a wooden crossbow together with the curious position of the Voynich figure’s right hand. Unfortunately those two surviving examples date from 1510.

The key to reading that Voynich image is awareness of the constellation’s character in popular lore and in classical texts known to both the eastern Mediterranean and the Latin west in medieval times.  Its character was that of the ‘beast’, the bow-holder (Arcitenens/Saggitifer) – a monster:

Mark where on the ecliptic line the Archer stands,
With outstretch’d bow and arrow in his hands.
When from the east his monster form he rears,

and its rising meant that ships must flee to harbour when he began to raise his bow.

E’en while the sun in Sagittarius lies,
Trust not the faithless sea and cloudless skies. – Aratus 

or

[300] But even in the previous month, storm-tossed sea, when the Sun scorches the Bow and the Wielder of the Bow [Arcitenens], trust no longer in the night but put to shore in the evening. Of that season and that month let the rising of the Scorpion at the close of night be a sign to thee. For verily his great Bow does the Bowman draw close by the Scorpion’s sting, (Loeb edition).

The scorpion‘ was another form of projectile weapon, seen atop towers in classical images. Mentioned in Roman classical sources, the medieval centuries saw its type maintained in the Byzantine empire, but quite forgotten in western Europe – presumably until the Latins’ gained closer contact with the east during and after the Crusades.

We may associate the ‘holder of the bow’ (Arcitenens), more exactly, with that part of the Aegean taken by Marco Sanudo in his piratical invasion of Naxos, after which it became the Duchy of the Archipelago,  a tiny but ancient town named  Despotikó (of the lords) being found in the Greek archipelago.

The cross-bow wielding maritime ‘lords’ as proverbial embodiment of the ‘monster’ and way-Frankish tower Mytikabarring ‘Sagitifer’ became a very widely-known type – so   widely known that crossbowmen are called not ballistera in the English rolls of Calais, but ‘Saggitario’,  and as late as 1603, Shakespeare knows the Arsenal of Venice as the ‘Saggittary’, the constellation being so named in Flamsteed’s Atlas (published posthumously in 1729).

A Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare, Cervantes also assumes the audience will be entirely familiar with the motif – as familiar as with any proverbial phrase, for he writes in Chapter 44 of  Don Quixote

” … up until yesterday I governed [the island] at my pleasure, like a saggitarius, but … it seemed to me a dangerous trade, that of governor… ” 

Cervantes, Don Quixote.

As so often, historical awareness may be more helpful to an understanding of a draughtsman’s intention than is leafing through digitised manuscripts hoping to ‘find a match’ to suit a theory.  This is especially so if the method of search requires an image to be defined by a subjective choice of a single object from the image, or if the purpose is not so much to classify a manuscript as to learn to read its content.

Even the month-folios’ central emblems, which are legible in the conventions of Mediterranean art, are in the minority within this manuscript whose forms and uses argue different first enunciation for the content than for its manufacture.

I might add -in case you’re interested – that the archer’s hat with its turned-back brim may be attested beyond Spain, but those are where I found the earliest and latest images.  In one dated to the sixth century AD, we see the sort of knitted cap whose form has scarcely changed in millennia, except that fishermen no longer have caps with tails lengthened like this to serve as neck-warmers.  In the second example of those shown below we see a sophisticated version of the same sort of headwear on a character for Japheth, the son of Noah who settled southern Europe after the flood, The detail shows how he is depicted in a fifteenth century Flemish painting. The painter seems to have imagined Japheth entering Europe through Spain, like the Arab armies.   Japheth is shown as a middle eastern character, and in fact the first example is meant to represent either Christ or a Samaritan, according to the curators.   In any case Japheth was middle eastern character like his father Noah, even if the Biblical scheme then has each of Noah’s children found the different ‘races’ to repopulate the world.

It is the hat’s turned-back or rolled-back  brim which is the telling detail here. Note also that the Voynich figure, like that for Japheth, is given a long ‘flat’ face and pointed beard, quite unlike the visual code for a northerner.

costume headwear detail from sixth-century Roman relief in Toledo, where the wearer is meant for Christ or for a Samaritanjapheth-representing-southern-europe-15thc-flemishcostume headwear Arcitenans turned back brim

Similarly the costume is not formed as are Latin medieval costumes, but has a double-flounced skirt à la Grecque, and which may be explained by considering not only modern traditional costume for the Greeks, but certain ceramics from Corinth and the eastern Greek regions made in the 12th and 13thC, one example included here (below left).  Interestingly, another such find  from a Greek speaking centre of that period shows an attempt to imitate the Asian three-colour glaze known as sancai, of which technique I  find evidence also in drawings from the Voynich manuscript’s ‘leaf and root’ section – another of the great many instances where the manuscript announces that its reference – in that case the plants – is not to the Latin’s textual traditions.  Can you see the ‘double flounce’ for the skirt in the enlargement below?

costume skirt 12thc-corinth archer fustanella stylefol-73v-newscan-archers-clothing and bow

I won’t repeat my detailed discussion of the bow, or explain again why I consider the ‘archer’ image more likely to imply an anti-Venetian than a pro-Venetian sentiment. I published that research online and it remained available for other students of the manuscript until 2017, so if you find no mention made of it in any current Voynich site, you may at least find some of my illustrations, albeit re-used in a way which might mislead an unwary reader into supposing they were first found by the re-user.

As I pointed when first summarising the ‘archer-figure’ research at voynichimagery, Despotikó (to find Despotikó follow the line for 25°E on the map below) occupies a place close to the centre of the Cyclades and, in relation to the month-folios which I have always thought more likely to refer to chorographic astronomy than to chorographic astrology, the Greek term ‘chora’ is evocative of ‘Hora’, so that a natural progression runs Horae/[Huri]/Hora/Chora.. and so by association, not by formal etymology, khoros. khorde and korai. I reproduce illustrations from research articles posted through voynichimagery.

Nàxos and Despotikos

map Aegean Cyclades Hora

I also quoted  from the wiki article ‘Despotikó’ which I’ll repeat here to show relevance for to the medieval period (the Latins are here also described generically, as ‘Franks’).

“Currently, excavations are taking place in the northwest part of the island ..The excavations proved the existence of an important late Archaic sanctuary with abundant objects indicating links to mainland Greece, the Eastern Mediterranean and even to Northern Africa, as well as the continued use of this area in the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Frankish periods.”

Looking back towards the Mediterranean’s south-west, one recalls that in 1932, Erwin Panofsky spent two hours with the manuscript (not with the usual  rotograph ‘photocopies’) after which as Ann Nill reported, “[Panofsky’s] first impression was that it was early, but as he came to the female figures [in conjunction with the colors used in the manuscript]  he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century! .. Furthermore he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic  and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.”

And then, with regard to inscription of the month-names – variously thought to be in Occitan, in Judeo-Catalan, or in Anglo-French (‘anglo-norman), I note Kokin’s comment when discussing scientific learning among fifteenth-century Jews, of Sicily’s  “deep links to Spanish and Provençal culture” as indicated specifically by one scholar’s writing and reconstructed library.

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

That Jews had scientific, as well as religious or ‘magical’ literature seems to have escaped d’Imperio and the NSA, despite the publication of Moritz Steinschneider‘s great survey in1893, (Die Hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher: Ein Beitrag zur Literaturgeschichte des Mittelalters; meistenteils nach Handschriftlichen Quellen).  For the ongoing translation into English, see

  •  Charles H. Manekin, Y. Tzvi Langermann, Hans Hinrich Biesterfeldt (eds.), Moritz Steinschneider. The Hebrew Translations of the Middle Ages and the Jews as Transmitters.  Volume 1 was published as Vol.16 of Amsterdam Studies in Jewish Philosophy, editor Reinier Munk (2013).

sassoon-gemini-ljs-o57-p-125In connection with astronomy, too, the manuscript Sassoon 823, now UPenn LJS 057, has its ‘Gemini’ illustration from a tradition which is not the al-Sufi corpus latinus though the swollen bellies appear to me to reflect derivation the Asian-Persian style, a link also relevant to the Byzantine Greeks’ updating of Ptolemy’s Tables.

[illustration below added July 12th. I must use a secondary source to illustrate the examples in the lower register. British library is offline at the time of writing.]

Al Sufi illustrated Gemini comparison for blog

To make clear how that connection relates to transition of astronomical matter, and so take the line directly back to Spain (where the Sassoon manuscript was made) from the Black Sea’s eastern side via Trebizond, and thus show why the Voynich manuscript’s atypical quires, and more particularly the septenion might easily have be copied from an original on paper, I’ll now quote a fairly long paragraph.

This nicely demonstrates how Jewish and Byzantine learning passed in tandem, back and forth, along that line between the Black Sea, though the Aegean islands  and Provencal-speaking regions of France to as far as Spain during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

I’m quoting from the Introduction to an important collection of chapter-length essays, including one by Alain Touwaide, an eminent scholar in Byzantine and Islamic medicine, dispensaries and hospitals who was once asked to comment on the Voynich manuscript. Towaide’s paper is now out of  print, but one of his comments was that the manuscript’s binding looked Italian to him, and another that the manuscript’s content recalled the style of Byzantine works of iatrosophia, the sort of hospital handbook and dispensatory, versions of which might contain, in various proportions in various examples, Byzantine medicine and magic.

quote from Lazaris Byzantine astronomy 13t-14thC

  • Stavros Lazaris, Introduction to the chapter-long essays in  A Companion to Byzantine Science (Brill: 2020).

I think that’s quite enough to give you the general picture of the Genoese and Venetian maritime routes, and why they are – as I concluded from research undertaken – directly relevant to the evolution of content now in Beinecke MS 408.

Those who care to study the sort of magical lore found in areas along that line shouldn’t have too much difficulty, I add the following without further comment.

  • Nicholas G. Round, Five Magicians, or the Uses of Literacy’, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Oct., 1969), pp. 793-805.
  • Veronica Menaldi, “Enchanting Go-Betweens: Mediated Love Magic in the Libro de buen amor and Iberian Grimoires,” in Ryan D. Giles and José Manuel Hidalgo (eds.), A New Companion to the Libro de buen amor. (Brill, 2021) pp. 75-88.

amulet Jewish and scripts Salonika 17thC

The Voynich script has no ‘X’ shape glyph.

______________

Additional notes [added 13th July]

  1. There are two sites named Despotikó in the Cyclades, the other – better known today – on Mykonos.
  2. Paragraphs inadvertently omitted after discussion of the archer’s hat, and his ‘Spanish-Arab’ face and beard, included the fact that in 1317, the Duchy of the Archipelago had been raided by the Catalan company.  In this note, I’ll just quote from the wiki, rather than from the sources used in my own work because this is only to illustrate historical connection between the Duchy, Venice, the Spanish marines, Constantinople and Trebizond.

“The Catalan Company; or the Great Catalan Company’ (Catalan: Gran Companyia Catalana, Latin: Exercitus francorum, Societatis exercitus catalanorum, Societatis cathalanorum, Magna Societas Catalanorum) was a company of mercenaries led by Roger de Flor in the early 14th century and hired by the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos to combat the increasing power of the Anatolian beyliks. It was formed by almogavar veterans of the War of the Sicilian Vespers, who had remained unemployed after the signing in 1302 of the Peace of Caltabellotta between the Crown of Aragon and the French dynasty of the Angevins….”

In 1248, the Duchy had been nominally granted to William of Villehardouin, Prince of Achaea. Marco II Sanudo lost many of the islands, except Naxos and Paros, to the forces of the renewed Byzantine Empire under the admiral Licario in the late 13th century. The Byzantine revival was to prove short-lived though, as they relinquished control of their gains in 1310.

In 1317 the Catalan Company raided the remnants of the Duchy; in 1383, the Crispo family led an armed insurrection and overthrew Sanudo’s heirs as Dukes of Archipelago. Under the Crispo dukes, social order and agriculture decayed, and piracy became dominant.

The figure for the archer as holder of the ‘arc’ is among the many which eventually led me to date the last phase of the Voynich images’ evolution to no later than 1340 – barring the usual exception of late-added pigments, post-production marginalia etc. and – possibly but not necessarily – the ‘Mongol-dressed preacher” diagram.

3. Also in this connection, the type of Greek skirt given the archer is related to the Dalmatian ‘fustanella’ widely adopted elsewhere, especially under the Turks, and I see today that the wiki article ‘Fustanella’ refers to the same scholarly study, and includes the same illustration which I had from that source). The earliest remaining example from Dalmatia is a small statuette roughly contemporary with the first of my Spanish examples for the ‘fisherman’s hat’.i.e. 6thC AD.  We note also a type of Venetian galley was known as the ‘fusta’, whose date of introduction is unknown, but the few documentary references which have been found so far come from fifteenth-century records.  My chief reference here is Royal & McManamon though their article – for obvious reasons – is focused on the period post- 1450. 

The term fusta is of Italian derivation, and Venetian manuscripts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries supply skeletal information on the vessel type. In the fifteenth century, fuste had 10-26 rowers’ benches and a length on deck from ca. 16.5-33.0 m, the largest of which was only slightly smaller than a Venetian light galley (Zorzi da Modon, fols. 27v-28v, 37v-39; Anderson 1925, pp. 145-147; Chiggiato 1987, p. lxix). By the sixteenth century, fuste were more regular in size as they had 18-23 benches. An anonymous shipwright writing after 1546 noted that a fusta of 20 benches was almost the same size as a light galley, carried ordnance in contrast to a bregantin or fregata, and had a draft of 0.87 m once armed (Pre’ Teodoro, fols. 14—15, 35v; Tucci 1963/4, pp. 282-283; Picheroni della Mirándola, fol.7).

  • Jeffrey G. Royal and John M. McManamon, ‘Three Renaissance Wrecks from Turkey and Their Implications for Maritime History in the Eastern Mediterranean’, Journal of Maritime Archaeology, December 2009, Vol. 4, No. 2 (December 2009), pp. 103-129. (p.106).

Skies above: Certain measures Pt.3a absences and avoidances

This post treats issues of method and the  fraught question of when theory-formation is a benefit to the study and when a hindrance. I hope revisionists will find it food for thought, but anyone with an investment in some Voynich theory, and especially a theory focused on Latin European personalities, might like to stop reading now. Besides, it is a long essay, not much enlivened with pictures.

 I would actually prefer not to to treat this topic at all. Theorists’ responses are easily predicted.   But it must be done –  Fiat jūstitia ….  as the Roman said about Libra.

——

“Divided minds” – logic and illogic in Voynich research.

A belief that ‘images are easy’ is arguably the first and longest enduring systemic error in Voynich studies, but may explain why so little effort has been made to study techniques of analytical method (though Voynich sites may entitle their non-analytical matter  ‘analysis of the imagery’).  From 1912 to the present, the study’s history shows little sign of  efforts made to understand how  images are assigned to their place, time and social community.  Theory-driven ‘nearest fit’ has been constantly imagined sufficient whether the Voynich theory being posited had the manuscript a product of medieval or of modern times, and attributed it to some part of western Europe, to the Americas or elsewhere..

Such magnificent indifference to objective criteria  is not so prevalent in other facets of the study.

A competent cryptologist, when he or she crafts a theory about Voynichese, remains conscious of the theoretical model’s being no more than an analogy, and takes notice of both what does and what doesn’t accord with the primary evidence.  If the theoretical model proves a poor fit, it is discarded, although the aim is to devise one so close to the original that it will help explain what has been so far unexplained.

In the same way, a botanist might posit a theory about a plant’s identification, and test it by balancing points of similarity against points of difference between a textual description and the living plant.  A linguist will also balance points for, and against, a theoretical model.

There is no confusion in their minds between the actual object which constitutes the standard, and the theoretical model which may achieve or fail to agree with that standard.

Quite the opposite habit pervades assertions made about this manuscript’s images in almost everything written since 1921.   In that case, whenever the hypothetical model fails,  the usual practice has been to ignore the differences, deem the primary evidence flawed in failing to agree with the theoretical model and thus, in effect, the analogy is taken as the standard and the primary evidence discarded.   Whatever details are deemed a near-fit (right or not) are given an importance out of all proportion, while the details which don’t are treated as of no consequence.  At best they are merely ignored; at worst attributed to an equally hypothetical creation described as  ‘author’ or ‘artist’ and blamed for the work’s not conforming to the analogy.

What is most curious is that, in Voynich studies, a single researcher  may switch from the rational and analytical mode to the emotional and inverted mode, depending on whether they are thinking about the manuscript’s written or pictorial evidence.

The switch is signalled by the degree of interest expressed in the reasons and evidence informing dissent from the hypothetical model: in other words, in why the dissenter dissents.  As a linguist or cryptographer, that researcher is likely to be interested in comments about flaws in a given model.  In emotional mode – and historical scenarios seem to have a strong emotional factor – the response to similar comment is more likely to be little other than expressions of personal hostility.   The level of that researcher’s interest in the primary evidence’s divergence from that theory is also reduced to the minimum.

And, in fact, theoretical-historical models appear to render differences invisible to the theorist. You can explain those differences, describe them, illustrate them and provide a yard of documentary evidence – but the theorist may well see nothing and read nothing and absorb nothing which he or she interprets as a threat to their theory.  Over-identification with a theory is the point at which Beinecke MS 408 becomes the ostensible but not the real subject of a person’s interest.

It is theory-induced blindness which produces illustrations of a myriad zodiacs and the assertion that the ‘nearest fit’ is the one which suits the theory. Or which reduces the question to a single emblem only (as the German theory has done with the ‘archer’ figure).  The person is no longer thinking, ‘What were these images meant to mean?’ but something more like, ‘Since I know my theory is right, what about this part of the manuscript can be fitted to it?’  What is absent from such exercises, in connection with the month folios specifically, is any effort to explain those drawings as whole images, or to understand why its series of  central emblems doesn’t, in fact, form a zodiac sequence at all – not even a truncated zodiac sequence.

After a century in which Newbold’s impression has been echoed and reasserted without variation it is difficult for modern reader to perceive the series as other than a Roman zodiac, or to realise how much virtual violence must be done to maintain that theory.   Images which are there have to be imagined not there.  Pages which are not there have to be imagined as being there,  with non-existent pages imagined present, and their surfaces covered with hypothetical/imagined content.

One has also to conjure up a single ‘artist’ – when the evidence of several is plain enough – and then accuse that imagined figure or even all of them of  a staggering incompetence and ignorance while at the same time (to maintain such theories as the ‘German’ theory) of such superb competence that they could draw a crossbow to scale within the space of one centimetre square.  It has to be supposed that not only the imagined ‘artist’had managed to remain unaware that a Roman zodiac has 12 figures with none repeated and all in set order,  but everyone else connected with the manuscript’s production had also managed to remain ignorant of a series which was to be found, in the Latin environment, carved on the exterior of churches, made in mosaic in public places, and used to illustrate manuscripts and calendars both liturgical and secular.  Not only the artist(s) as I say, but the scribes and the overseer of work.  And then one must imagine, further, that this ignorance survived in all of them while one is asked, simultaneously, to suppose that the person(s) for whom the month-folios were being made was an astrologer of some sort.

It defies reason and the historical evidence.  But apparently did not quite beggar belief.

I’ll turn again in the next post to the matter of variant depictions for the zodiac in works produced in Latin Europe the immediate point being that, once again, the focus of attention  slid from the primary evidence to a theoretical model for which one’s credence is demanded (with penalties ad hominem for refusal)  and this despite any formal argument’s being presented, or any effort made to explain what is actually on the manuscript’s page.

The primary evidence’s failing to concur with the hypothetical model is treated in the same way. One is encouraged to ‘just ignore the nonsense’ or to blame the source itself.  It *ought* to conform to the theory.

Is it any wonder that a century’s elaboration of that ‘Latin origin’ theory has not elucidated a single phrase of the written text?

The non-zodiac shall be deemed “a zodiac”; the purpose for which the month-folios were made shall be deemed astrological.  The ‘logic’ invoked to persuade one to accept that what is not so shall be so is not (as often asserted) any historical logic but the sort of internal logic we find in the best historical fiction.

To suppose that scribes so obviously competent as those who made the written part of the text (at least) wouldn’t know the series of 12 constellations in order, and that the labours of the months linked just one to each of those 12 months is to defy the historical evidence.  The logical conclusion is, surely, that the series in the month folios diverges from the zodiac’s standard sequence and order of ’12’ (or, if you like, of 10) for a reason.

Discovering that reason must be part of researching the manuscript if the aim is to understand the primary document and that certainly can’t be done by pretending the primary source is other than it is.

Which is why, in my opinion,  creation of theory-driven historical scenarios which presume what is not known is known is an inappropriate method, no matter how traditional in this study.

It leads  to that unreasonable confidence which has  one theory claim some creature, or plant- picture shows a New world species while another says the month-folios must speak of Christianised astrology and magic, or which – finding itself stymied by the plant-pictures – resorts to airy declarations that whatever it has not provided with a theoretical ‘nearest fit’ is to be dismissed as ‘the artists’ fantasy or personal whim.  If such guesswork was presented by one person claiming responsibility for it, the matter might be debated rationally, but such things are often decided as if by some anonymous bureaucracy or by public acclaim,  disseminated by a general weed-seeding,  as produced out of analogy by god-knows-who, and then as something ‘everyone agrees to’ defended by the masses to the hilt –  belief defining dissent as heresy.

So the normal relationship between primary evidence and that posited analogy  is  inverted, the story elaborated and more impositions laid on the primary source, and while individuals are eager to accept credit for a ‘genius idea’ it is rarely that the same individuals produce any formal argument for which they accept all responsibility.  By ‘formal argument’  I mean one which balances arguments for and against a proposition, adduces verifiable evidence and accurately documents both sources and any precedent.

Traditional method, in Voynich theory-making, is fundamentally just poor method.  The way  the images are treated in service to such theories is not remotely like the way pictures are normally approached, described and assigned their time and place of first enunciation or of subsequent copying.

And I suppose that to show the foregoing remarks are not themselves just theory, I must now add an example, but since examples are often confused with personal attacks on whoever’s work the example comes  from – even if the person is dead –   the safest example is one I’ve already spoken about at voynichimagery.

Below is an illustration which Ellie Velinska produced for a post to her blog in 2014.  It sets the diagram from folio 68v next to a detail from one copy of Oresme’s Treatise on the Sphere and was very warmly received, as you’ll see from the comments made to that blogpost. ( here). I’ll leave my own comments to the end of this post, but as you’ll see if you follow that link, none of Velinska’s commentary addresses points of difference between the ‘clips’. She offers no analytical discussion of the Voynich drawing, nor tries to explain its intended purpose or its particular form.

 

Since I can’t treat every historical-theoretical narrative proposed since 1912, I’ll keep to the oldest  – that which interprets the manuscript, and specifically its pictures, by analogy with western Christian (‘Latin’) culture  during the thirteenth- or fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century.

Here, in brief, is the negative case:-

Hallmarks of medieval Latin (i.e. western Christian) imagery.

As did every other cultural community, that of medieval Latin Europe expressed its own world-view using a distinctive repertoire of graphic and painterly techniques – the ‘language’ of art.

The conversations between maker and intended audience speak of that world-view they shared, doing so by both the style and the content of an image.  It is by recognising both form and informing thought that an image may be described as an expression of medieval Latin culture and assigned its origin in some particular region.

That world view characteristic of medieval Latins was  informed by an idea of universal hierarchy, this vision including everything from heaven, through earth to hell –  all of which were equally ‘real’ for them.  Their fixation on relative position in that universal hierarchy meant that every visual conversation emphasises the ranking accorded each element in a picture, whether animal or person, cloud or fish, angel, devil, noble or peasant. Except when used symbolically – as the lily might be used as symbol for Mary, Christ’s mother – all natural things of earth were assumed subservient to mankind, and within mankind the western Christian was assumed ‘properly’ superior to all others.  (This heritage and pre-disposition is why European society was initially outraged by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and also why after a period of adjustment, Europe so easily translated it into what is a  ‘theory’ in the sense of a fiction: social Dawrinism).

But the medieval Latins’ attitude is expressed in imagery by showing man surveying as possessions the land and all it contains.  It also elevates the deeds of the male over those of the female; it sets nobles on thrones, on chairs, in high-towered castles and on horseback –  thus literally as well as conceptually over those deemed ‘lower orders’.   War is another constant: the struggle between the upper righteousness and lower sinfulness;  between Christianity and all other belief systems; between ruler by inheritance and the elected head of the church, between angels and devils.   Literally depicted forms, and allusion to beauty as expression of ‘higher’ rank, and goodness were among the techniques by which position in the universal hierarchy was envisaged and, so, communicated.

Images expressing this world-view occur even in Latin herbals, in their introductory images  (as in the Manfredus herbal and the Anicia Juliana), or in images scattered through it, and in such things as dedicatory inscriptions and colophon.

From the  Voynich manuscript,  those factors and themes and above all that perception of the world itself are overwhelmingly absent.  It is the most resounding silence and failure to appreciate its importance has been the single greatest failure of the many historical-theoretical models devised to explain the manuscript.

There is not one depiction of a king, of a throne, of a man on horseback, of a figure recognisably from the calendar of saints. There are no halos, none but late-added crowns; no bishops (though one preacher in a Mongol robe appears in one detail, an addition to the older material which I date to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, and one reason I date the material’s introduction to the Latins to that period.).   no massed armies, no servants in peasant costume, no image of a seated authority figure before a kneeling inferior. There is no allusion to Christian belief in the images, none of those emblems by which a saint was identified.  The only sign of war is a single small detail among those on folio 80v. It shows a male figure dressed in what appears to be Roman military dress, and in the act of enslaving a female).  There are no lovely noblewomen, no devils, no winged figures at all.  There is no reference to class distinction by the usual depiction of silk and ermine robes. The western preoccupation with fabrics is found only in the late-added heavy pigment laid over some figures in the month-folios – another indication of late translation into Latin domains. The arms and fingers of the great many female figures are unadorned with jewellery.  There are no interior scenes, no nuns or clerics, no travellers with staff and scrip, no vessels with handles and bellies; no emphasis on objects as tokens of status; no images of the hunt, no ‘horse, hound and falcon’ images and only one figure in the entire manuscript who is shod.

There are no vine borders, no interlace and knotwork designs, no drolleries formed by the fusion of human and beast into one creature –  in fact no evidence in any of it of an inclination to indulge in fantasy. This renders unlikely too,  the sort of excuses being invented at present to cover the fact that the old theory of the plant-pictures as a form of Latin herbal is bankrupt – something which Tiltman understood by the 1960s.  The latest rationalisation asserts whatever plant-pictures frustrate even the  ‘near-fit’  approach are merely the product of fantasy or whimsy.  For this new theoretical elaboration I find no evidence within the manuscript at all.  Symbolic, allusive and mnemonic devices certainly, but none without relevance and none personal whimsy.  They are not beyond understanding.   From what little is said in public, the ‘whimy’ idea seems to be another effort to find post-hoc justification for something in d’Imperio’s book, and to rely on arbitrarily transfering ideas which  Marco Ponzi offered about Cambridge Bodleian  Trinity MS O.2.48 to Yale, Beinecke MS 408. One would like to see that provided a formal argument.

Nor is there anything of officialdom in the Voynich images; no official figures’ granting gifts or meting out judgement. There is nothing of rule and government whether of religious or secular organisation. Not so much as a male holding a walking stick, a staff of office, a crozier, or a sceptre. (I’ve listed those in Latin order 🙂 )

____________

…in sum:  the entire fabric of the Latin Christian world, its culture, informing ideologies and world-view – the very means by which an image is assigned Latin origins –  are just not there.

THAT is why specialists in so many areas of medieval western culture have refused to endorse theoretical arguments, and denied overtly or tacitly that the manuscript is “one of theirs”.

See post of 25th. Feb., 2019.

It is remarkable, even astounding, that the logical inference has so rarely been taken: that the reason imagery in the Voynich manuscript doesn’t look like an expression of  Latin culture might be… because it isn’t.

The possibility  receives further support from what I describe as ‘avoidances’ in the imagery.

Apart from later accretions as e.g. the month-names;  additional images set onto the back of the Voynich map and a few other specifics, these avoidances are so pervasive across the various sections that I take them as indicating  a cultural norm, and one which was certainly not Latin and which represents an important phase in the content’s evolution and transmission: a chronological stratum.   The following details reproduce notes from my research log for July 13th., 2010,  with some of the marginal notes subsequently added as I began looking into the questions raised.  The notes were for personal use, as brief guide for research during the months to follow, and I daresay some will read a bit cryptic. But anyway here they are, verbatim. The first notes are in italics. Marginal notes in plain. Today’s comments in blue.

  1. No use of instrumentsneither ruler nor compasses. [exception: folio 57v.] Pages not ruled out.  No evident mark of wire, nor of pricking for this purpose- has textblock been trimmed for a later re-binding [later marginal note] – Rene Zandbergen says it hasn’t been and that he hopes I too may one day hold the manuscript in my hands, as he has done).   Folio 57v as late addition – possibly very late Cf drawing-style in illustration for  Kircher’s “Machauter” and note his source –  but perhaps the ink is against a date in the 17thC.  Other, less obvious, exceptions – some plainly informed by Latins’ traditions –  seen in drawings accommodated by using the map’s reverse. I’d date these to the fourteenth century.   [Further marginal note] In a post to second mailing list, in 2007, Rich Santacoloma notes that 57v shows the prick of a compass or dividers, and later that it has three distinct centres]. I would finally write extracts from this part of the research – that is, about f.57v -at voynichimagery over February-March, 2013.]

2. Not only no ruled lines but no perfectly straight drawn lines. This also reason for no ‘ruling out'(??)   Rapidity with which one scribe comes and goes from the ‘bathy-‘ section, after using some as ‘improvement’ on the original.  Effort to copy the original material so exactly… was the  15thC copying informed by any knowledge of the tabus, or not?  On this last point I think the balance of evidence is against the copyists understanding the earlier avoidances – a better definition than ‘tabus’.]

3. Avoidance of  crossed lines. No interlace, no ‘x’-form among the glyphs. Discounts the Insular, Coptic, Latin, mainstream Arabic,  Armenian as well as the Byzantine traditions (except in some superficial ornament, which  Pelling calls ‘cross-hatching’ and supposes invented in Renaissance Italy.   Re architectural structures added to the map –  c.13th(?) century – check comparisons.

4. No ‘boxes’including no triangles.  Nothing with sharp right-angles except a few late errors in copying and an (original) emblem for ‘south’ on the map – though even that is surrounded by an apotropaic ring – “shield against the fires implied”. North-oriented worship? cf. Harran.  (Tamara Green).  Containers in the root-and-leaf section, even simple cylinders, are bent to avoid the angular ‘box’.  Very unusual avoidance.  Perhaps related to observation that nothing natural to the world is ‘ruled line straight’? Arcs of horizon and heavens are conceptual, not physical.  Can’t identify the community. (must check ethnological studies – ugh!)

5. No literal depiction of any living creature. [perhaps one reason for the plant-pictures’ not showing specimens as we think characteristic of the Mediterranean world.  But it may have been just convenient to group by location and use].  ‘Violas’ image an obvious  ring-in – its maker clearly understood the principle but it wasn’t natural to him. He had no idea how to form a root-mnemonic or use the ‘shorthand’ motifs.  And he defines a plant by its flower(!).  His composite image is drawn as range of viola species occurring rom east to west (or vice versa?  A Latin, perhaps – his mind works differently from the original makers’.  The system (and key to text?) had been explained to him; but it isn’t his natural way, or training – doesn’t quite “get it”.  Get opinion on petals. micrography?  [ I later had the advice of an eminent specialist in the history of Jewish paleography about this posited micrography in f.9v but the reaction of the ‘Voynich community’, at that time, was strongly opposed to any suggestion of eastern or Jewish ‘authorship’ – so much so that I did not feel it right to name the specialist. Some years later,  Zandbergen and Prinke wouldproduce a book in collaboration with a writer named Stephen Skinner, who described a  ‘Jewish’ theory so appallingly ill-informed as to be offensive.  Since I’d been explaining for some years by that time, details indicative of Jewish influence, the specialists who’d been advising me were disconcerted and to ensure no connection was imagined between that essay and the work I’d published between 2009-2017 it added another item to my reasons for deciding to close voynichimagery soon after.]

6. No repetition [i.e. replication, in the images of the living creatures].  This is a remarkable achievement if you think about it, and realise how very many female figures had to be provided with distinctly different form-and- face without resembling a living, breathing, human.  Even in our present volume – which is reasonably supposed made by Latins who would have a very opposite inclination, we find only the occasional  ‘slip’ by which a face looks ‘real’.  [My favourite ‘shapely lady’ is one of those slips and it is a most valuable evidence that the draughtsman could have made them all just as ‘real’ if he’d been free to do so –  just as he might have fallen into an easy repetition for the figures around the month-folios’ tiers.   [Only some strong and probably religious principle would have prevented the earlier makers’ avoiding both literalism and replication. The fifteenth-century copyist who ‘slipped’ in making one very ‘shapely lady’ was certainly not working in monastic scriptorium. Nor, I should think in a fifteenth century European Jewish community.  I never found but two references to a prohibition against such  repetition [‘replication’] -one in connection with use of draw-loom fabrics in post-iconoclastic Byzantium, and another as a suggested reason for the fact that although knowledge of printing is attested within the Arab speaking world as early as the 10thC – it was almost immediately rejected and texts continued to be produced by hand for centuries more.  I’ll have reason to mention this another time and will add the references there. It implies an aversion to magical practice, by the way.]

I do not pretend to have found answers to all my own research questions, but enough avenues opened to allow a reasonable explanation for these non-Latin characteristics.

__________________

 

Example – Ellie Velinska and Oresme.

To my knowledge, none save the present author registered any hesitation about embracing Ellie’s proposed match.

 

Ellie was not trying to say that the two images came from the same artist, or even the same atelier.  Her argument – more implied than argued – was that similarities (only) between the two support an hypothetical Voynich history into which may be drawn the person of Nicolas Oresme, as well as the French royal court.

Ellie’s impression may one day be proven accurate in general, but to argue the ‘Oresme and Charles’ case, one would have to show that the manuscript’s vellum, its finish, dimensions and binding, its style of binding and much more are attested for that time and region or – if that is impossible – that the same detail occurs in earlier and in less formal, copies of Oresme’s Treatise.

Her case is weakened by the manuscript’s  unobserved and unmentioned differences from the ‘match’ but even more by the fact that we do not find that form in other and earlier copies of that Treatise. Given the style and technique displayed by her chosen copy ( BNF fr.565) it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the detail in question may have less to do with the treatise itself than to the stock repertoire of some particular atelier.  Below is the first image from a copy made during the first years of the fifteenth century ( BNF fr.1350)..

First illustration in a copy of Nicholas Oresme’s Treatise on the sphere. BNF fr.1350, dated 1400-1401.

As is usual with implied rather than stated inferences associated with ‘matched clips’, their appropriateness or otherwise is often shown by  re-contextualising the detail adduced as ‘nearest-fit’.   In this case, it becomes apparent that the chosen ‘match’ is from an mage entirely characteristic of Latin thought.  The chair tells us who is of the highest rank; the crown and sceptre denote royalty. The various types of hat refer to national and ethnic character. These are the ‘astrologers and diviners’ whom Oresme wishes the king to ‘put behind him’, echoing Christ’s words in the gospel.  There’s no doubt it’s a product of Latin culture as well as of Latin making.  Now consider the differences in attitudes, and forms for the human figures compared with what we see in the Voynich manuscript. The one aims at ‘realism’ as plainly as the other does not.  Here there are no ‘broken’ arms and shoulders or deformed faces. Certainly no avoidance of replication… and just look at those robes and fabrics.

On the positive side…

There is certainly other evidence which permits more general argument for the manuscript’s content having been, at some time, in French-owned territories.*

*or rather, of French cultural influence. (note added 16th.March)

We have the orthography of the month-names, which agrees closely with forms found in  Judeo-Catalan, Occitan and Norman French.  According to Sixto – and I haven’t checked this – there were Catalan Jews in north-western France.  The same orthography occurs on an astronomical instrument, made in Picardy, which was sent to England at some time. (I haven’t checked the object’s history yet).   Koen Gheuens’ discussion of the ‘double lobster’ indicates  dissemination of that form through Alsace and/or Flanders during the earlier decades of the fifteenth century and from an Anglo-Norman speaking source.  My own research into the standing, fully human archer as token for the constellation Sagittarius also led me to conclude that its first remaining expression – in a mosaic near Lake Tiberius – occurs several centuries earlier than its first extant example in Europe and the means by which it came was probably workers in glass, who brought with them the red tesserae found in quantity in that region and whose technical secret, according to a contemporary Latin’s account, was by then known only to one or two families or clans of the eastern Mediterranean shore.  The oldest western example is in a rich window originally in Braisne Abbey. Since that time, my illustration has been widely re-used by Voynich writers but minus reference to the associated evidence or argument as to what significance should be taken from the sudden appearance of this type, previously unattested in Latin art.

But altogether there is evidence enough to argue some link between the month-folios and France, but nothing like enough evidence to support a theory that the content originated there or that it has any connection to Oresme’s Treatise.

And that is without beginning to address the differences between her ‘matched’ clips or to explain the intention of the original image from folio 68v. Which last, surely, should have been attended to first.

On the history of Oresme and his works, and his detestation of astrology and divination see the short essay

  • Mackley, J. S., ‘Nicole Oresme’s treatises on cosmography and divination: a discussion of the Treatise of the Sphere’. Paper presented to: Starcraft: Watching the Heavens in the Early Middle Ages, University College London, 30 June – 1 July 2012. (available online as a pdf).

Nick Pelling recently revisited the ‘Oresme’ theme

  • Nicholas Pelling, ‘Nicole Oresme’s “Treatise on the Sphere” revisited’, ciphermysteries (Feb. 15th., 2020)