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

c.1800 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*see previous post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*see previous post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O’Donovan notes #6b – Weighing images; the analytical-critical approach.

c.3200 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

At some level everyone knows, or at least remembers, that their first response to the drawings in this manuscript was simple bewilderment. They made no sense; you couldn’t read them.

In response to that immediate feeling of disorientation you might have started skimming past dozens of drawings and dozens of pages seeking something, one image or one detail, that did seem to make sense – to chime with something already familiar. As I’ve said before, this is an instinctive response to a strange environment and unfamiliar surroundings; it’s how we can narrow our vision so that we ‘see’ none but the one familiar face among the crowds at a railway station in rush-hour.

We’re hard-wired to recognise the familiar, or seemingly-familiar.

To an extent, this is central to the cryptographer’s work, too. The difference is that cryptographers pay just a much attention to differences, where in Voynich studies those using the images as support for a theory don’t.

Another reaction against that first sense of bewilderment is to say to ourselves the equivalent of ‘Hush, dear, it’s alright. It’s just Dad in a Santa suit.’ We imagine that the unreadable *is* really normal underneath it all and never pause to examine whether our idea of ‘normal’ isn’t pre-judged. That presumption of the normal as western Christian European was the Friedmans’ flaw. It’s still embedded in the traditionalists’ approach.

A third reaction is to blame the object for being as it is, and for not being more comfortable and familiar. It’s not our fault the pictures bewilder us, we say. Hence the earlier invention of a lone fictional character called ‘the artist’ on whose imaginary head was piled blame and various calumnies – he was a child said some, a child-genius said others, a mad-man asserted another, a deeply devious individual out to mislead us… etc.etc.

By means of one – sometimes all – of these defensive reactions, that initial true recognition that these images are NOT much like forms seen in medieval Latin (i.e. western Christian) manuscripts was covered over, dispelled, rationalised or just ignored.

Theories also served to reduce feelings of bewilderment. In creating a theory, an individual felt once more in control. The all-at-sea feeling passed; rationalisation replaced enquiry and reason was quite unconsciously replaced by mere logic, operating from premises which were untested, doubtful, historically inaccurate or otherwise less than useful.

That’s what happened with Mary d’Imperio, as she persuaded herself that the images “of extreme oddity, quaintness. and foreignness …” were really just quirky versions of what she’d expected the manuscript should be, underneath it all: an ordinary western Christian composition. Its plants should find matches in the Latin herbals and so on.

The images didn’t change; she had suppressed her immediate perceptions and thereafter saw the images clearly no longer, but through the screen provided by the groups’ fixed assumptions.

d’Imperio was not stupid; she was a highly intelligent person who prided herself on an ability to think coolly and clearly. Perhaps the kindest thing to say is that she had no appropriate prior studies, didn’t appreciate the vital importance of stylistics, and never went outside the cryptographers’ group to get better information. She couldn’t. The study was classified by the NSA.

The sweep of human history shows that almost everything human beings do is done for the sake of comfort – physical, emotional or spiritual- so we can hardly blame others or ourselves for being inclined towards the comfortable and familiar. Yet since, at some level, we cannot forget our first perception that these images aren’t nice and normal products of European culture, the first critical question to ask is – what am I presuming is ‘normal’? and secondly, why -exactly – are these images not ‘normal’ in those terms?

Bad artist?

Let’s start with the old story that the ‘artist’ was incompetent. (pause: what evidence is there for supposing these are original creations and not ones copied? What evidence is there for supposing all were made by just one person? ..).

Instead of trying to run away from the ‘I-can’t-understand’ sort of problem, we move close up and cross-examine it.

Using the same example from folio 79v, we ask about it- Exactly what about this image is making it unreadable for me? What, exactly seems ‘wrong’? If you assume a European norm – what is it that differs so much from the conventions of Europe’s medieval art that I while I can read those pictures pretty easily (Latin language text or not) I’m struggling with this one?

(Form, disposition, stylistics, spoken tongue, cultural-artistic conventions and subject-matter usually lie at the heart of such problems, but since this is a first exercise, I’ll take things easier. For the same reason and though one must, as a rule, comment on the whole of any image, I’ll just speak about this female figure rather than have a post three times as long,).

Exactly why doesn’t it/she look like a figure from a medieval European manuscript made earlier than 1435?

Again, to answer that question as a professional would, you’d have to locate this image against the wider landscape of historical and cross-cultural studies, and read papers having such titles as, ‘Attitudes to the human body in Europe’s medieval art prior to 1440 AD’ – but for the exercise, assume that’s been done.

No harm in testing the validity of a previous idea, so we start with the idea earlier common that the ‘artist’ was incompetent. Does the primary evidence agree?

Look at the finer details – the way the hair is shown as being swept back from the head, the hint of shadow included to distinguish the line of the head-veil from the hair. If you consider the face alone, you see that the spacing of eye-to-eyebrow, and these to the top of the nose and mouth are remarkably good. I say ‘remarkably’ because the face measures no more than 5mm square (yes, five millimeters). That’s 13/64ths (0.2) of an inch each way.

You find that level of practiced precision and hand-eye co-ordination in people whose work is cartography, gem-engraving, ivory-carving and a few other trades. It’s not necessarily found in every manuscript illuminator. Jewish artists in micrography (extremely small-written letters that are formed to create the impression of a drawn image) also had the necessary practice and skill.

Some years ago I asked the advice of an eminent specialist in Hebrew palaeography if the micrographic letters on some petals of the violas (folio 9v) made any sense. The specialist’s opinion was that they did not spell out words, but read as if an untrained person had attempted to copy Hebrew micrography. The individual letters were intelligible, and the specialist read them off, but remarked that the forms were untutored so that e.g. vav and yod were not clearly distinguished as they would be by a Hebrew scribe and the string(s) as they appear there make no sense. One of the same illustrations I used in those posts happens to be included in Koen Gheuen’s recent post about ‘Spirals’; additional examples can be found in the very poor wiki article ‘Micrography’.

Next, we consider the lines which form the figure’s torso.

Can you see what firm, sure, skillful lines they are which shape the curves of the figure’s back and belly so economically?

See how the figure’s right armpit is indicated by a single, practiced, effortless line met by that which gives – in good proportion – the line of the right breast, and the other line (which no unskilled draughtsman would include) which extends the line of inner right leg to suggest the small hollow between hip and belly?

The combination of effortlessness and accuracy at such a minute scale leaves little room to doubt that this fifteenth-century draftsman was highly competent and practiced – and we may add to those markers just noticed the relative proportions given the torso and lower body down to just above the knee. So why not draw the whole figure ‘normally’? The most obvious possibilities are that (i) what we are seeing here reflects non-European custom (ii) the draughtsman didn’t want to make it all ‘normal’ (ii) the person paying for the materials didn’t want that. Most medieval manuscripts are copies of older works.

However, comparing this figure to others in the month-folios and ‘bathy-‘ section brings to notice two interesting points about this figure’s right arm.

First, that the fifteenth-century draughtsman seems to have forgotten, in drawing that limb, that these figures were supposed to have broken- or boneless limbs arms (i.e. deprived of strength in the idiom of certain languages), and he has drawn it with its proportions pretty right, and evoking an underlying bone structure. More remarkable still for this manuscript, if it’s intentional and not co-incidental, is that the figure’s right hand seems – almost – perhaps – to be drawn foreshortened!

One can’t be sure of the last; there’s not enough detail to be sure, but given the general absence from these drawings of any hint of that movement towards literalism or the styles for rendering perspective which mark Europe’s later medieval art, even a hint of possible foreshortening is worth mention.

Fixing things.

If we were to isolate this figure, give it/her another head, fix her left arm to look more like the right arm.. we might end up with something more nearly compatible with art of Italy, France or Spain between c.1350-1430 AD. The ‘swollen belly’ came via strands of imported astronomical imagery, to appear in art of the Latin west as a marker of celestial/heavenly ‘bodies’ (not, initially, related to the planets). In that way we start to see it in a couple of medical texts, or (as Ellie and I happened to notice at much the same time) in illustrations produced in regions under English or French control during the early 1400s, after which it soon became a fad in western art. So the swollen belly isn’t a problem even for those having all-Latin theories. But to make the whole figure suit the theory, the limbs and the head would have to be ‘fixed’ rather than be paid attention.

And that’s exactly what so many Voynich writers do.

The Voynich manuscript’s drawings have constantly been treated as if their form and stylistics could be arbitrarily ‘fixed up’ the better to suit a theory. The theory says they ‘ought to be…’ Aztec, or European or whatever, so the theorist produces comparisons that are Aztec or whatever as if the two were close equivalents.

Most of the writers who do that do not seem, to me, to be conscious of what they’re doing. Rather, they appear to just imagine/filter the Voynich manuscript’s images so they see them as if images first given form in the environment the theorist prefers.

The usual technique that you’ll see employed to encourage others’ belief in a theory is the presentation of alleged ‘matches’ – pairings of a detail from the manuscript with one selected from within parameters demanded by the theory, and very often with no effort whatever made to treat of the Voynich drawing itself. Commentary thus becomes a commentary on the theory, not on the manuscript. All the important aspects of art-commentary such as date and place of making; origins; stylistics and so on, are ignored or presumed covered by the theory.

That’s how it has been, almost without exception, since the end of that brief period when Jim Reeds mailing list for Friends of the Voynich manuscript was marked by a spirit of enquiry rather than theory-formation.

To explain how propagandist-style ‘matches’ work, let me give as example an idea popular for a time, but which hasn’t been revived recently – so this should offend fewer current Voynicheros.

When attempting to explain the unclothed figures around the month-folios and in the ‘bathy-‘ section, those determined on a theory of medieval Latin (i.e. western Christian) European origin for the images had only a limited choice from which to pick their proposed matches, because other than the often salacious images found in copies of that innocent poem ‘Balneis Puteolanis’ there were relatively few unclothed female types in pre-Renaissance Europe – the most obvious being Eve, Magdalen (half-clothed/hair-shirted), and Melusine.

Melusine became a popular choice for a time. In Latin art, she is often depicted in a bath that is barrel- or tub-like and her legend is one native to central Europe and France.

Below is an image of Melusine from a manuscript made around, or after c.1435. Notice the elongated torso, low-slung belly, long nose, elongated and slender neck, defined chin, the network ‘fez’ on her head and the stave-made tub. Not characteristic of the Voynich drawings and none of those details agrees with this ‘match’, does it? – but theorists are generally positivistic in their approach – taking the attitude that we should hunt similarities, and that to mention differences is just spoil-sport behaviour which should not be allowed to interrupt. And some quite honestly cannot see differences at all. Strange but true.


Pairings no less casual than that (above) were, and still are, presented by theorists who believe – and whose sole aim has been to persuade the audience to believe – that their pairings are so similar that you could, in effect, substitute the ‘match’ for the Voynich image itself – thus tacitly claiming the Voynich manuscript’s visual language translated without its being considered.

A theorist doesn’t experience their creating such pairings as a practice misleading, erroneous or illusory. The positive comparison is a product of their theory, and thus supports their theory, so they regard it as a good thing, and in that sense a good match.

Having no experience of what is the usual methodology in the wider world, and no very deep prior study of such matters to inform their ideas, it is not surprising that they find this work fairly easy.

Once a given theorist believes they’ve found a couple of matches between their theory and the Voynich pictures, they’re past the tipping point. I say this from years of constant association with the online ‘Voynich world’.

Once, it was expected that any theory about the drawings would convert into a valid theory about the written text, but after so many years during which theory-driven narratives have proliferated and been elaborated, the two areas of Voynich studies are now pretty much divorced. Objective standards and rigor are expected by one but actively opposed by the other. To discuss methodology in treating the written text is accepted in any Voynich arena; to so much as invite interested persons to discuss it in relation to historical-pictorial narratives has been, quite literally, prohibited. Not because it had caused dissent at any previous time, but because if people weren’t prevented from talking about it, some theorists might feel upset. Nobody got to vote, and the manuscript never gets to.

For anyone interested in the images and in taking a different approach, here are two vital principles.

Meaning is context-dependent. Differences really matter.

Let’s put that image of Melusine back in its proper context.

Look at the differences between that page and folio 79v from the Voynich manuscript.

Consider the Melusine page’s layout and its having ruling-out; the script’s strong and emphasised verticals, the illustration’s attempt at literalism, the costumes, the way those head-veils are designed, the effort at perspective, emphasis on furniture, rich clothing and individuals’ relative social standing… all typical of western Christian manuscripts of its time. These things aren’t characteristics of the Voynich manuscript or of its drawings. One has to consider the question, ‘How much has to match before you ascribe the origin of a drawing, or set of drawings, to a certain cultural environment?

(If you’ve never heard of Melusine before, the wiki article will do for basic information. For an illuminated manuscript copy (incomplete) of the fourteenth-century Roman de Mélusine in which she looks, when dressed, as if she had legs – see British Library MS Harley 4418.

One obvious difference between images of Melusine and ‘ladies’ from the Voynich month- and bathy- sections is that Melusine was a hybrid creature whose lower half was dragon-like, sometimes drawn more serpentine, sometimes having clawed feet on a dragon body. Only when dressed could she pass for someone who had legs.

Our figure in folio 79v has legs, even if the shanks look far too thin. The tokens – the markers – which told a medieval Latin audience that a figure was Melusine are not there. So if meant for Melusine, the maker was not part of the Latins’ tradition and if he were, this is not Melusine. The same applies to other figures, including those shown unclothed and in roughly-cylindrical containers around the month-folio’s diagrams.

And now we come to another, and a most important difference between the norms of western medieval art, and what we have in the Voynich manuscript.


In relation to the human body..

Among the set conventions of pre-modern western Christian art is that the proportion of a human figure’s head to its torso shall be literal. The length of your face (hairline to chin) is normally about the same as the distance from the hollow of your throat to about the middle of your chest where the rib-cage meets. Test that out; don’t just believe me.

Medieval draughtsmen typically maintain those proportions, even in drawings small enough to appear in ornament bas de page. Here’s another Melusine, now as mermaid. The mark for the hollow of her throat is set a little low but I think you’ll see what I mean about those proportions – in the European image they are pretty right.

The Voynich figure’s face is much larger than the conventions of medieval Latin art allow – almost double the literal length, for the face is as large as the distance from the throat-hollow to below the position where you’d place the navel.

Koen Gheuens once produced a long and detailed post which concluded that the Voynich figures’ proportions were ok. It was a case argued so very well that I was quite persuaded by it too – until next I looked at the manuscript. I do agree with him that the figures in some of the ‘ladies’ drawings have faces less disproportionate than this example.

Differences matter.

The Voynich figure is unclothed yet has legs. Only the right arm’s proportions accord with Melusine figures in western Christian art. To argue as so many do by these ‘pairings’ that e.g. ‘Melusine=Voynich figure’ may create an illusion sufficient to persuade others of a theory, but cannot do justice to the Voynich drawings, assist those working on the written text, or deal fairly with the manuscript itself.

Knowledge of comparative studies in culture and art provide a better ability to recognise stylistic and cultural indicators, and train a person to take account of both similarities and differences. Such preliminary study enables a person, without any additional information, to know that the image shown below, for example, is no product of Chinese work, but a European painter’s work. The Chinese accept and understand that the surface is two dimensional – they ‘wrote’ paintings. After re-discovery of the techniques of literalism (with a small ‘l’), Europeans fought that two-dimensional reality and tried to have things look moulded, as if they were working with cloth, stone or clay. Look at the leaves this image.

I’m using Asian versus European examples below because they provide comparisons-and-differences which a predominantly western audience should find easy to recognise; not as support for any theory.

In the same way, a knowledge of comparative customs and cultures is how we know that while both the following items were found in Italy and both had been owned by the same person, here again one was made in China and the other in Europe.

The bowl was owned by, and the book written by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 -1605) often described as “the moving force behind Bologna’s botanical garden” and it was he who invented a phrase “herbals of the alchemists” for a genre of foreign-influenced European herbals.

Another example: you see (below, left) a figure of the Simurgh/Phoenix whose form and expressed character shows the maker was native to the east, where the type is celebrated in art, literature and popular culture – from Persia to China. By contrast, the other (below, right) is a very nicely-presented and well-rendered form, but one plainly ill-informed, produced by someone from a very different cultural environment. The version on the right is so clearly a European work that an experienced analyst could say so before being provided with any more information. Differences matter because they carry important information about distinctions in time, place and cultural context.

and you know they do.

So long as you’re dealing with images expressing matters natural to a culture with which you’re comfortable, differences and their significance are apparent to you so easily that they seem self-evident. For example – which of these two self-contained paintings (below) is a religious character, do you think, and which a secular one?


And now, at last, the whole point of this post.

How do you know that?

If you didn’t need to go hunting wiki articles to answer the first question you don’t need them to answer this one, either.

Just by carefully, systematically and slowly scanning each picture, noting both similarities and differences, you can bring to your conscious mind the points of difference you processed so fast that you didn’t consciously list them.

How – exactly – did you recognise one as a religious figure and the other as secular?

That done – imagine the opposite opinion, and how an argument between the two might run. You’ll find that the correct opinion is more difficult to explain than you expected.

And that little problem was your first exercise in iconographic analysis.


Tabula picta – 5v. Habits, qualities and ‘hands’.

This post contains almost 3,000 words and several large jpg pictures.

The previous post ended by saying that, in publishing information about the drawing on folio 5v*, I had not followed my usual habit of beginning by parsing and then explaining a plant-picture, but instead began by providing readers with that single unifying thought which, in practice, became evident only as a conclusion. I’ll say now that the unifying theme for folio 5v* proved to be something I might express as ‘Preserving the ship’.

But in 2017 I felt it so important that readers appreciate something of the quality of mind informing that image on folio 5v* and so many others in Beinecke MS 408, and how distant it is from that which informs images expressing medieval Christian Europe’s ‘Latin’ mindset, that I devoted the first segment to that matter.

I first quoted as an analogy for the qualities informing the Voynich plant pictures (and very close analogy it is) part of H.D. F. Kitto’s description of the ancient Greeks’ language and the mutual interdependence of their thought, language and art. His contrasting the Greeks’ mentality and language with those of other ancient and modern peoples is also to the point.

.. in [their] language – in its very structure – are to be found that clarity and control, that command of structure… it is the nature of Greek to express with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning. .. Both Greek and Latin have an architectural quality. But there is a significant difference between them. … Greek is well stocked with little words, conjunctions that hunt in couples or in packs, whose sole function is to make the structure clear. They act, as it were, as signposts… we always have a perfectly limpid and unambiguous ordering .. as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words. It is the nature of the Greek language to be exact, subtle and clear. The imprecision and the lack of immediate perspicuity in which English occasionally deviates and from which German occasionally emerges, is quite foreign to Greek..

  • H.D.F Kitto, The Greeks.

[quoted with a blush]

Attempting, then, to illustrate this crucial difference in ‘mindset’ by using pictures, I re-considered the juxtaposition of a detail from folio 43v with two later Latin works, this being a group of three that had been included not long before in a post by Marco Ponzi and met no response save applause from the Voynicheros by the time I’d read it (see further below)

Soon after my own analytical commentary was posted online, I found my name now among those black-listed and denied further access to Marco’s posts. I mention this to explain not only the classic response of traditionalists to informed dissent, but why I’m unable to check the bibliographic details for that article today, or to add the usual direct link.

Though Marco described himself as an amateur translator of medieval Latin text, I found his readings and translations of Latin works to be of a professional standard and many students of the Voynich manuscript have reason to be grateful for what he has chosen to let them know.

I have no hesitation in recommending his translations to others, though I might add that Marco is a deeply committed – one might say dedicated – Voynich traditionalist. I’m given to understand that he is (or was) a member of good standing in a society dedicated to study of the succession of Holy Roman Emperors, but here again I have been unable to ask him directly whether this is so, or whether it influenced his becoming interested in Beinecke MS 408.

It is precisely because Marco is so competent in his own area, being meticulous and observant, that I felt his approaching the Voynich drawings as he did proved just how pervasive the inappropriate ‘matching’ method had become; it is inherited along with the ‘traditionalist’ narrative and found as early as the traditionalists’ foundation narratives of 1921 and their standard reference, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma published in 1978 but which reflects, in this regard, the popular attitudes of Europeans more than half a century earlier.

In his original article Marco, had made a sort of triptych in which a detail from a drawing on folio 43 was set between two others taken from western Christian manuscripts made decades, or over a century, later than the range for Beinecke MS 408. To be exact, Marco took half the drawing on folio 43v, and I consider both parts intended to be read together.

In reproducing those examples, I’ve re-ordered them, left to right, into chronological order.

NOTE: The third example (below, far right) comes from a manuscript dated by its holding library to between c 1475 and c. 1525 AD, with comment given (here) that certain additions “may be by the first known owner, Konrad Peutinger, a German jurist, politician, diplomat, economist and humanist who studied law at the universities of Padua and Bologna. He may have acquired Harley MS 3736 during his studies or, later in his life, through his connections with Italian humanists”.

Addition (18th Feb. 2022). Thanks to Matthias Wille for providing link and full details of the image (above, centre). Macer de viribus herbarum, BSB Clm 5905, 1479, page 343 ( folio 170r ).

That Marco looked to later- rather than earlier ms in hunting comparisons for a detail seemed a little curious and is another point I’d have liked to have understood, but since he refuses any form of communication one cannot know the reason.

I chose the example from one of Marco’s posts chiefly because he is clearly an acute observer and a meticulous worker when dealing with medieval writings. My point was that if someone so careful and so observant in that work could suppose images might be provenanced and read by hunting nothing but ‘likeness’ within a pre-determined boundary, then it was reasonable to suppose that others with fewer skills, or less inclined to precision, would make the same mistakes and that if he could see nothing odd about that method, one could hardly expect others less able would do so.

It was no longer uncommon, by the last quarter of the fifteenth century, that herbals made for a Latin (i.e. western Christian) reader might have some type of ornamental or mnemonic device drawn below a plant; I suspect it may have given the work some additional cachet.

To that extent, one surely can agree that there is that single point in common between the three details Marco chose to juxtapose, implying some more direct connection existed between the three and perhaps that the content of the Latin work(s) might be imposed on the Voynich text, written and/or pictorial.

Apart from that very general ‘plant and root-device’ arrangement, though, the other two examples he cited have, quite literally, NO point in common with the Voynich drawing. Well, I suppose at a stretch one could count their all having a notional root formed boustrophedon.

That this fact, overlooked by Marco and by all who applauded his post, should need only a simple parsing of the image to prove it, shows just how rarely Voynicheros diverge from that ‘form a theory and match by likeness’ method.

So here, top down and point by point, is the analytical ‘parsing’ with comparison and contrast, both.


The Voynich drawing shows an upright plant; the two Latin images show their subject having a bushy or shrubby habit.

Flower/seed head

The Voynich image represents its flower/seed-head set within what could be read as surrounding leaves or as long, thin, sepals. In the Voynich plant-pictures the flower is normally regarded much as Theophrastus saw them, that is, as an early and ephemeral aspect of the plant’s formation of fruit and seed.

Marco’s first comparison shows the ‘flower’ as seed-head drawn in a way reminiscent of the bulrush, with neither sepals nor surrounding leaves. His second comparison, for which he gives a sixteenth-century date, has a very simple flower of four petals elevated well above any leaf, and again with no sepals shown. The latter comes from a manuscript whose date-range overall is given by the holding library as c 1475- c. 1525. In regard to its flower it is quite as different from the other Latin image as are both from the Voynich drawing.


Leaves included in the Voynich image are shown deeply divided – so deeply as to be reminiscent of the palm – and are shown springing along the whole length of one slender stem.

In Marco’s first comparison, the leaves are shown all rising directly from ground-level. each is given its own stem, in which one, central, vein is emphasised. In his second selected comparison, the leaves again rise directly from ground level but now have strong parallel veins as certain bulbs’ do. (I’m trying here to avoid technical terminology).

So far, when read simply as drawings, Marco’s compared images contain no detail ‘similar’ to that in either of the other two and neither of the other two is ‘similar’ to the detail from folio 43v.

That any reader, but especially a casual reader, should find their mind sliding over differences to focus on any hint of the ‘similar’ is perfectly normal.

The human brain is hard-wired to respond more positively and comfortably to similarity, because similarity suggests the familiar and, very often, what is ‘natural’ for the viewer. The ‘different’ evokes instantly in a majority of people a first inclination to avoid, re-define or dislike what is seen. Like all hard-wired responses, this one has, or anciently had, its practical value but learning to notice that it is happening and how consciously to oppose and balance that natural instinct, is part of the analyst’s training. In other contexts, we might describe that training as fostering a person’s intellectual curiosity.

‘Root’ element.

Here too, the analyst must protest assertions of similarity, or similar intent, in common between the detail from folio 43v and those two images which Marco selected.

What we see in the two later drawings are conventions by which Latin art represented boneless things such as a leech or slug and also used to represent e.g. the innards of an animal or of a human being.

At a stretch, I suppose a case might be made that in the detail labeled ‘Macer Floridus’, the bump seen just below ground level was meant for an animal’s head, though that’s not a case I should care to make and doubt if, using that image alone, anyone could surely identify an intended genus, let alone species.

By contrast, I do think this detail in the Voynich drawing contains enough information to identify the type of creature meant, and thus to narrow the region in which the associated plant(s) were to be found. I did not analyse f.43v in detail and am adding the following analytical notes only today (Feb. 13th., 2022) without having run any of the usual cross-checks. My first thought, then, is that the maker likely intended to speak of one of the horned vipers and most likely Cerastes cerastes whose Latin nomenclature we owe to NIcholas Laurenti (1768). I won’t discuss all the details such as one’s eye’s being shown as if open but the other as both closed and crossed.

As so often in the Voynich manuscript, the drawing is not only highly detailed and extraordinarily fine and precise but very informative for anyone accustomed to be in the regions where the referenced plants occur.

‘fine and precise’ – The closeup I’ve shown (above) measures, in the original, about 25 mm x 25 mm (!!) and the head measures 5 mm x 5 mm (!!).

‘regions where the plants occur’ – According to the VAPA guide, the present=day distribution of Cerastes cerastes is North Africa, from Morocco and Mauritania to Egypt and northern Sudan, southern Israel, western Jordan. Cerastes gasperetti is found in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, western Iran and Cerastes vipera in the Sahara from Mauritania to Egypt, Israel. To make any determination about the Voynich drawing, however, one would have to find information proper to the period c.10tC AD-15thC AD (at least) for both the viper and any associated plant(s).

To find images of C.cerastes is easy enough. Those shown (below) are included only to show details not always evident – the lines of a long ‘nose’ and the way the back swells to develop the appearance of a central ridge when the snake is just about to strike. That slight movement in the sand might well be the only warning a traveller got. This viper is mentioned in Biblical literature (as ‘adder’) and is the one that proverbially ‘lies-in-wait’ in a person’s path. But as I say, this identification is a first thought, prior to any research being done.

This post isn’t about identifying the intended subject of that detail but the fact that Marco was, as it were, unable to ‘see’ these signs of difference, as were those Voynicheros who read his posts left no comments save applause, It shows quite clearly I think that the traditionalist’s expectation of ‘hunting matches’ as an appropriate method, and their equally traditionalist practice of ignoring or ‘blanking’ difference, can only be counterproductive in the longer term. Indeed it has been counterproductive ‘in the longer term’ since 1912.

Techniques and visual vocabulary:

There are items common to the graphic vocabulary of the western Christian (‘Latin’) world and to others, some being employed from their own traditions by the persons to whom we owe so many of the drawings now in Beinecke MS 408.

In the detail from folio 43v I might mention a ‘fringing’ which we see around the creature’s body.

A similar ‘fringing’ motif certainly occurs in medieval Latin art, where it is used to convey a variety of meaning – to represent spines on a plant, or for a horse’s mane, or to express the idea of radiance, as of fire, of a star or of a saintly halo and it can also be used as a form of modelling, including modelling the hollow fold of draped cloth or of terrain.

Clearly, I’m inclined to take as first option here that the fringing was meant to describe a hollow fold in the terrain, especially since the same usage is found in the Voynich map. How it might relate to a horned viper is easily understood, for any description of Cerastes will repeat:

The horned viper hunts by hiding under the sand (leaving only its horns, eyes and nose exposed) and striking at what comes close.

Pinney’s account is more detailed, and his book – though not without its flaws – remains a valuable ancillary reference. On this point, he writes:

.. older works have it classified as Cerastes hasselquistii, a desert species with a very toxic venom. It is relatively small .. and as pale and sandy as the desert it thrives in..They hide in the sand, in depressions such as those made by the hoofs of camels and horses, and if a man or some animal steps into such a hollow it strikes without provocation, and its venom can kill within half an hour, making it as deadly as a cobra

Roy Pinney, The Animals of the Bible: the natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible with a collection of photographs of living species taken in the Holy Land by the author. pp.174-5. First edition 1964.

Added image April 2nd., 2022:

As another possible insight into the intention of the first enuciator of that ‘root mnemonic’ one might consider another part of Pinney’s description.

‘They (the desert vipers) have developed a good method for fast movement in sand.. The slow forward progress of a viper is not actually a glide but, closely watched, will be seen to consist of a movement of the [flattened] ribs beneath the skin which might be compared to a centipede.

Ibid., loc.cit.

For those wanting the Biblical references, as cited by Pinney they are: Genesis 49:17, Job 20:16 and within works of Christian origin, Acts 28:3. As part of any formal analysis one would have to consult medieval and earlier commentaries on those verses and consider both verbal and pictorial images of the creature and so on. Time, Place and cultural context are what determine the intended meaning of a drawing. These are factors to be determined, and not presumed.

I hope readers will begin to appreciate that my opposition to the traditionalists’ “all-western-Christian-Europe” narrative is a consequence of my studying these drawings and not a product of any pre-determined theoretical or ideological stance.

Despite the reactions which dissenting views prompt among adherents of the ‘traditionalist’ position, one remains interested in this manuscript for its intrinsic interest and in my case, a feeling that it deserves better.

I’ve always liked Jim Reeds’ description of his early study group as ‘Friends of the Voynich manuscript’. It surely needs more.

Save where another author is credited, the material in the present post contains with some additional comment, original research published by the present author in 2017. The author’s rights are asserted.

And so, at last, having now addressed the endemic problem of theory-driven comparisons and the more general matter of different attitudes to forming images, we turn at last to the image on folio 5v*…

Consider… Maths & memory Pt 1.

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

Afterword (Feb 7th., 2022) – Yes I *know* that Maur misunderstood the nature of that ‘squaring the circle’ problem. That’s rather the point and why I said ‘in a way’.. but that passage nicely illustrates three points (a) early medieval learning went from the accepted canon to consideration of the ‘pagan’ information, not vice versa; (b) the Psalter served as the primer in early medieval education and was the constant foundation and point of reference for building higher studies and finally (c) the mere existence, or possession, of a book doesn’t mean the book was fully understood by those who owned or had access to it – something as true for medieval as for modern times.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fibonacci and Commercial maths.

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

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

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

Two men named Paolo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, back to Toscanelli..

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

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

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

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

wiki article, ‘Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli’

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, about methodologies and Voynich research –

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

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

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

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

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

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.