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

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Differences really matter!

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

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

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

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

(detail) 85r (part)

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

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

(detail f.67v-1)

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

(detail) folio 67v-2

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

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

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

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

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

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

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

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

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

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

Think of it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lotus and rebirth.

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

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

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

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

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Consider that stylistic difference:

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

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

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For references for any particular point, do email me.

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

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

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

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

Another interruption – sorry.

I’ve been asked by a certain scholar to provide another example of the interaction of literal with mnemonic elements in the Voynich plant pictures. This is one of the earliest I published – through a ‘Blogger’ blog where, for about three years, I published research-summaries before switching to wordpress.

Originally published in 2010 for a ‘Voynich’ audience then entirely and quite fiercely Eurocentric, I should be less terse if publishing now. By 2012 I did at least feel comfortable enough to publish more detailed information in two posts to voynichimagery, but here I’ll begin by reprinting that original post from 2010. The identification of Myrobalans as the subject of folio 22r* is the result of original research by the present author and had no precedent to that time in any Voynich author’s work. This is indicated in what follows by an asterisk added to the folio number.

The author’s rights are asserted.


D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A plant: Myrobalans folio 22r*’, Findings (blogger blog) July 26th., 2010

I should like to begin by recommending this link at muslimheritage, and in particular its reference to al-Dinawari’s work.

Al Dinawari was born in western Iran, studied in Kufa and Basra, and died in Dinawari. He is called the founder of Arabic botany – by which is meant the corpus of botanical works first composed in the Arabic language.  

al-Dinawari was not an Arab as such, and by the time he wrote – in the 9thC ce – some botanical works earlier produced by Greeks, Indians and Tamils had already been translated into the Arabic script and/or language: – The Ocean of Attainments notably among them.

This is the original work, not a later one called in translation the ‘Essence of…’

I realise that with the majority of Voynich research being focused on the manuscript’s script, codicology and likely transmission through Europe,* work on the origins of its content, and from a study of the imagery alone, may seem irrelevant.

*the sole pre-occupations of the Voynich community in 2010.

The pleasant part of Voynich research, though, is that it enables one to match areas of its study to those in which one is most interested and it is possible to go quite deeply into some of the questions raised by this manuscript without encroaching on others’ work to any noticeable extent.

.. I have already tried to demonstrate that a diagrammatic quality and mnemonic purpose is evident within these drawings: that they were not meant to be – as Pliny put it – ‘portraits’ of these plants. Their presentation tells us something more about the environment in which the drawings content had been first formulated.

Concerning such drawings,  and the mnemonic type generally –  in which religious painters of both west and east have long been expert – Mary Carruthers’ works are particularly helpful, and I’d (yet again) recommend all Voynich researchers read her Book of Memory as a cure for relying on an impression that medieval people had simplistic ways of thinking about the world..

I read the image on fol. 22r* as such a structured representation of the Myrobalans spp., with mnemonic elements included in the drawing. The nature of the mnemonic elements as well as the accuracy of the typically literal details in these plant-group images strongly suggest first origins in a region where the plants grew and not in mainland Europe.

In detail-

The form given these stems in the lower part of the plant is not unusual as it may seem to readers expecting to see an image produced in Latin Christian Europe.

If, instead, if you look at them as a product of the spice-routes which brought eastern plant-products into the Mediterranean you find a similar form alludes to Buddhist associations for the Myrobalans.

Below, for example, you see the same form as we here see given the stalk or stem of the plant in folio 22r* being echoed by the object which is commonly found with figures of the ‘healing Buddha’, where it is always held in the figure’s left hand.

To people in those regions, accustomed equally to the plants’ form and to Buddhist imagery, the formation given the lower stems in this drawing would be instantly evocative of the myrobalans as healing plants, especially with a ‘threefold’ way being associated with both Ayurvedic medicine and the Healing Buddha. I’ll speak of the medical Triphala below. The ‘threefold’ way of Buddhism is usually described as consisting of ethics, meditation, and wisdom.

In the Tibetan tradition, for example, as we see from the figure (below) the Healing Buddha is shown with the myrobalan, as a sprig – seen on the figure’s right – terminating in just such threefold cluster.

For modern Europeans, religious imagery is generally perceived as compartmentalised – occupying a niche independent of, and separate from, daily human activity and interactions, but in earlier centuries, whether in Islam, in the east, or in mainland Europe, religion was ‘nationality’ and indistinguishable from ordinary daily life and culture. Thus, to allude to conventions of religious art in a given region – in this case the region the plants grew – was not necessarily a religious comment or even a sign of religious allegiance in cultures as accepting of diverse religious views as much of the eastern world was.

In this case, an existing connection between iconography of the Healing Buddha and myrobalans made it natural, in regions where the plants grew, to use a device of that kind a as a memory-prompt.

The classifications and descriptions used by modern botanical science often differ from the perceptions of older peoples and it is the latter which inform the groupings seen in the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.

The three plants particularly referenced in this drawing as the ‘Myrobalans’ group are those we call now call

 Terminalia belerica, ‘Belleric’ myrobalans in medieval European works. Proper name in Indian tradition – Bibhitaki. Western writings sometimes call this the ‘lesser-‘, ‘inferior;’ or ‘bastard-‘ Myrobalan.

Emblica officinalis. Called Emblic myrobalans. Proper name in the Indian tradition – Amla or Amalaki
Terminalia chebula. Chebulic myrobalans. Proper name in the Indian tradition – Haritaki.

Returning now to folio 22r* and moving upwards we have the curiously down-turned pods characteristic of Terminalia belerica.

The drawing is not coloured perfectly but, considered only in terms of the line-work, its basic form is good.

I think the pods’ being given a scalloped edge is done to indicate that if fruits of T. bellerica are not available the dried fruits of Terminalia arjuna will do.

additional Image – April 16th., 2022

Above those pods are the racemes which I take to be those of ‘Arjuna’ myrobalans. (Terminalia arjuna) though an argument could be made for another.

In the manuscript these racemes are drawn upturned, as if towards the sun – a convention constant in the (non ring-in) Voynich plant- drawings whenever a ‘flowering fruit’ is shown. It is also a convention attested in some relics from early Buddhist India.

And at the top, we have the threefold form of myrobalans which I take to be fruit of the ‘official’ and best of them – Emblica officinalis.

Image added here April 16th., 2022 – from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r’, voynichimagery, June 29th., 2012

Its scientific descriptions are Emblica officianalis and Phyllanthus emblica, and was widely known before the time of Linnaeus as emblic myrobalans, Indian gooseberry, Malacca tree. Its name in the Indian tradition is Amla, from the Sanskrit amalaki.

I read its hollowed fruit as again referring to a dried form – presumably with stone removed. Use of blue to colour it (the living fruit is gooseberry green) is enough to tell us that when dried, this fruit becomes black. Avoidance of colours in the range pink-purple-black is another constant in the Voynich drawings and is so consistent that I’ve described it as tabu on the part of that community which preserved and maintained the matter in these drawings until the time they entered the Latins’ horizons. For the darker end of that range, dark blue is the usual substitute in these pictures. In a number of cases when the purple-black is natural. that part of the plant may be omitted altogether but this wasn’t necessary for folio 22r.*

Emblica officinalis – dried fruits. Additional image – April 16th., 2022.

There is a preparation known as Triphala [with 3 types of myrobalans] which is widely prescribed for liver disorders and gastrointestinal problems Ayurdedic and Siddha medical tradition. The three fruits are those of Terminalia chebulia, Emblica officinalis (Phyllanthus emblica) and Terminalia bellirica. The seeds. however, were generally used only to treat wounds in ruminants.

Chebulic myrobalans – image added April 16th., 2022
Chebulic myrobalans – detail of a Thai image of the Healing Buddha.

The leaves were omitted from the image on fol.22r* because they were not needed, in this case, to identify the plants wanted, nor did they have any independent commercial value.  

The corpus of Auyrvedic medicine was finalised about five hundred years before Alexander reached the Indus and is current to this day. Tibet did not become officially a Buddhist kingdom for some centuries after the establishment of the Seleucid kingdom but it has proven impossible to date the beginning of that trade in medicinal plants for which the Tibetan-India route was so well known in earlier centuries..

More on T. bellerica – as ‘Bahira plant


Additional notes

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r*’ Parts 1 & 2 published through voynichimagery, June 2012.

The roots (on folio 22r*) appear to reflect uses associated with just one among the myrobalans: T. chebula, which both in Europe, and in the eastern medical tradition, was considered less important than the Emblic and the Beleric myrobalans.

T. chebula was noted rather as a source for tannins. These were used as inks, as leather-dyes and in textile work, functions which in Europe were typically by oak-galls and barks….Powdered (immature) fruit, and seeds, from T. chebula  provide a sizing-and-mordant for kalamkari work,  allowing the black dye (kasimi) to be applied without any mordanting agent being added to the ink itself….

According to a recent (2007) draft Standards paper published by the Indian government as a pdf, commercial ink production [still] includes tannin extracted from T. chebula. The same source reports that tannin extracted from the  seeds of T. chebula has been used from time beyond memory as “a tanning agent. for hides and skins. Known as HARRA (Hindi), HIRDA (Marathi), ANALE (Kannada), KADAKAI (Tamil), KARAKKAYA (Telugu), HARITAKI(Bengali)”.

Imported into the Mediterranean.

By not later than the end of the fourteenth century that is, and from at least fifty years before the Voynich manuscript’s vellum’s dating – several kinds of Myrobalans were being imported into Venice and Genoa through Acco and Tunis.

Added note (18th April 2022) – in 2010 I looked no further than the mercantile zibaldoni, it being necessary at that time to demonstrate that materials sourced from the east were relevant to the study of a fifteenth century manuscript which (in 2010) was still widely, and indeed almost universally, believed the work of a contemporary and western Christian (‘Latin’) European ‘author’. Since 2010, I’ve been able to refer, over time and with less ‘flak’ resulting to e.g. the role of medieval Jewish networks and to records of earlier centuries including those of the Cairo geniza. Here I’ll quote from just one study, for its reflecting the earlier medieval usage among the Jews and in Arabic. 

    • Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev, ‘The Significance of the Genizah’s Medical Documents for the Study of Medieval Mediterranean Trade’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2007), pp. 524-541.
    • Myrobalans in Cairo geniza

[back to the 2010 2012 post ..]

In this case, the only use to which they were put by Europeans seems to have been medicinal, though this impression may be due to our lack of documentation more than contemporary Europeans’ lack of information about these plants.

[According to lists in the later zibaldoni] Venice and Genoa imported the top two grades in larger quantities:-

the ‘Emblic’ as they called it (Emblica officinalis) and the ‘Beleric’ (Terminalia belerica) and only in very small quantities two more: the ‘Chebulic-‘ (Terminalia chebula) and the ‘Citron-‘ myrobalans (Terminalia arjuna).

So depending on which of these the reader associates with each level in fol.22r*, it is possible to see the whole images as describing the three grades or four. For example, the husks occupying the topmost position might be read as the ‘top’ grade – Emblic or as those of T. chebula.

My experience of working on these images is, however, that none of them save perhaps folio 1v (cloves) is a portrait of a single plant.



WordPress retains comments for only for 3 years, so I’m transcribing them here.

Note 1 re de-seeded fruits

“Triphala (“three fruits”) is an Ayurvedic herbal rasayana formula consisting of equal parts of three myrobalans, taken without seed:” – wiki. The same wiki article gives the three as: Amalaki (Phyllanthus emblica), Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellirica), and Haritaki (Terminalia chebula).

Note 2. topmost section of the drawing serving as memory prompt for Emblica officinalis and/or for the tannin-rich T. chebula, an early treatise in Arabic speaks of the ‘yellow’ myrobalans in a recipe for ink.

  • Martin Levey, ‘Mediaeval Arabic Bookmaking and Its Relation to Early Chemistry and Pharmacology’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 52, No. 4 (1962), pp. 1-79.

A note [n.301] from that paper includes information that may prove helpful for those working on the written text of Beinecke MS 408, so I quote it complete. From various studies it is clear that what is here (below) described as the ‘black and small’ type could as easily be referring to the dried form of E. officinalis as to T.chebula.

301 halilaj. There are four kinds of myrobalan, yellow, Indian (black and small), Chebulic (black and large), and the Chinese (I. B., 2261). Halilaj or ihlilaj comes from the Persian halilah which may come from the Sanskrit haritaki (al-Ghafiqi, 264). The yellow kind is probably Terminalia citrina Roxb. (hara nut). It is a stage in the growth of the Chebulic myrobalans as are the other myrobalans. The belleric myrobalan (T. bellerica Roxb.) is balilaj (al-Ghafiqi 123, Tuifat al-ahbab, 43, 122, 126). Emblic myrobalan, amlaj, is treated by al-Ghafiqi (13). These were unknown to the [western] Greeks but were known early in India (Ainslie 1: 236-241). The “three fruits” of the myrobalan are distinguished as follows: when very immature, it is called Indian, when half mature and still yellowish, Chinese, and when yellow and quite mature, Chebulic. The unripe fruits contain 20-30 per cent gallic and tannic acids and a greenish oleo resin, myrobalanin. The myrobalanins are still sold (Ducros, 13, 14, 15) as intestinal astringents and purgatives as well as tanning agents. According to Ducros, the Chebulic and Indian types come from Terminalia Chebula Retz. while the yellow is from T. citrina Roxb. Al-Kindi knew amlaj, the emblic myrobalan, in musk recipes. Meyerhof 81) says that this is the fruit of Phyllanthus Emblica L., a Euphorbiacea which has no relation to the Terminaliae.

So even that author appears impose modern taxonomic distinctions retrospectively on the perceptions of early medieval peoples – who certainly did regard all these myrobalans as related one to one another.

(where identifications differ from those given by Lev, the difference may be due to differences in the medieval documents, but in cases of doubt, Lev’s identifications are preferred).

Note 3. Simon of Genoa’s Synonyma (13thC) includes myrobalans, but as ‘Emblici’ and ‘Bellirici’.

Emblici et bellirici apud arabes inter mirabolanos non computantur, et ideo vides quod diversa facit capi. Avic. et Ser. et alii quamvis similis sint operationis, amblegi arabice dicuntur.

Note 4. European perspective.

Riddle wrote the seminal study, and is still essential reading. He approached the subject from a study of the western manuscripts dating to what he calls ‘pre-Salernitan’ Europe. Consideration of one 9thC antidotary led Riddle to observe:

From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper [white, long, and black] (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).
An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient.

John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

Consider this… Halts and stops.

about 3200 words. Farewell to 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

It happens.

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

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

The first question had been – Why ‘Kabbalah’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*…… ten years on …..*

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

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

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

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


Here’s the relevant paragraph:


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to return to our subject:

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript – etymology for ‘aster’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swallowtails – foreword.

Some time ago I quoted SirHubert’s comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Voynich ‘ciphertext’ attracts left-brainers.

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

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

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

But in a sense, it was too late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


old Toledo

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

Luigi Pulci (1432-1484?)

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



Constantinople medieval reconstructed birds sml

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

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


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

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

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

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


Part 2.

We pick up from where the last post left off.

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

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

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

mediterranean-map transmission points

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

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

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

Venetian and Genoese trade routes medieval and Trebizond

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

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

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

Archer f73v

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Cervantes, Don Quixote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nàxos and Despotikos

map Aegean Cyclades Hora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Sufi illustrated Gemini comparison for blog

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

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

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

quote from Lazaris Byzantine astronomy 13t-14thC

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

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

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

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

amulet Jewish and scripts Salonika 17thC

The Voynich script has no ‘X’ shape glyph.


Additional notes [added 13th July]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certain measures 3b Preface – addendum

A reader has asked me to expand on a couple of points left obscure (as she says) in the previous post. I’m a bit reluctant to spend much time on this, because it deals only with medieval Latin imagery and culture – to which, in my opinion, the Voynich manuscript’s images bear little relation – but since this blog is intended to serve researchers, here we go.

The reader has asked that I explain more fully (a) the ‘cautionary’ tone that I find in the image from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275; (b) why I speculated that the black-shod figure might imply criticism of Albertus Magnus and finally (c) what makes me link these with that image from a copy of Nicole Oresme’s treatise [BNF 1355] first introduced to Voynicheros by Ellie Velinska.

Before going further, I want to be quite clear that I do not consider the image from Burney 275 which I showed in the previous post, or Ellie’s image from BNF 1355 have any direct relevance to material now in Beinecke MS 408.

What the two French medieval images have in common is a style, the makers’ visual codes, and a particular attitude to astronomical studies characteristic of certain works made for Latin Christians in late medieval France.

from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275.

So – concerning my speculation that the black shod figure (in the detail above from Brit.Lib. MS Burney 275), with his hidden left arm, might be an allusion to Albertus Magnus, here’s what I added as a comment under the previous post.

Because it must be classed as speculation, I add as a comment that I suspect the ‘transgressing-a-bit’ figure, with its sinister hand in his sleeve, might be a Francophile’s allusion to Albertus Magnus. I add two easily accessible sources to indicate why this idea occurs and why I find this image reflects the same cautions which occur in a copy of Oresme’s text – itself older and strongly cautionary in tone despite its being about astronomical learning.
On the Paris universities’ attempt to restrict readings from Aristotle see e.g. the wiki article,
and on Albertus’ being earlier considered a bit dubious on the same matter see e.g.


There are, of course, many more and more detailed studies of this matter.


Denoting the non-orthodox.

To this I’d add that the same figure is represented by a conventional code for the dubious-to-heretical ruler or teacher, viz. ‘crossed-over limbs’.

This is no place to deliver a lecture on the history and uses of this item of visual code (where, when and by whom it was used) but I will offer another example of that usage, from a work that has not only been popular with straight-down-the line conservatives, but which actually does help elucidate one detail at least from the Voynich manuscript.

The well-known work is often called the ‘Manfredus Herbal’ (BNF Lat.6823) and its frontispiece(s) show, after the manner of late Roman and of Byzantine manuscripts, the best-known ‘names’ as authorities whose matter is contained within or widely associated with the subject matter.

While our view of how to depict classical characters and costumes differs considerably from the customs of medieval artisans, the reader must keep in mind that the medieval workers, like their audiences, were acutely conscious of costume as expressive of social and cultural distinctions, to the point we may describe depictions of clothing, bodily stance and more as elements in a common visual ‘code’ within a given cultural area.

Indeed, the analyst is wise to first interpret imagery [of costume in medieval Latin manuscripts] first as it contains ‘code’ and only then as literal depiction, though literalism is more common when the subject was a member of the European aristocracy. Something of this was touched on when discussing an image of C. Sergius Orata.

*see: https://voynichrevisionist.com/2019/09/12/the-skies-above-pt-5-bodies-in-baskets/

Here’s one page of portraits from the ‘Manfredus’ fronticepiece(s).

We’ll need to see some small details up close so the picture-file is large – I hope it won’t break your phone.

The two figures at the bottom of that page are Hippocrates (ypocras) and ‘Galienus’ – the latter an interesting evidence of contemporary confusion about Galen. As would later happen with the works of Ptolemy, we find an apparent confusion between the medical writer Galen, and Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus (co-emperor with his father Valerian from 253 to 260 AD and sole emperor from 260 to 268AD).

Note also that the works of this ‘Galienus’ are understood to be owned and taught – or at least preserved and translated – by Jewish scholars under western rule. Notice the ‘eastern eyes’ on that figure, and the sign of continuing use of the scroll, rather than the codex.

In the upper register, the figure to our left has his name erased, while the figure to our right has his name entirely omitted. Those who are acceptable (lower register) have their feet on the ground (proverbially and here graphically). Not all are Latins. In the upper register, though, the one who ‘transgresses’ a little is distinguished from the other who is considered both heretical and ‘inverted’ – or as we might say, has things totally back-to-front. The worst, by these marks, is obviously the one on the upper right, whom I managed to identify as ‘Johannitus’ thanks to the fact that most medieval scholars still memorised their texts and each of these figures speaks their incipit.

When first publishing this item from my Voynich research, I quoted the first sentences from ‘Johannitus’, and reproduce them here – in translation of course from his Isagogue.

Medicine is divided into two parts, namely, theory and practice. And of these, theory is further divided into three, that is to say the consideration of things that are natural, and of things that are non-natural (whence comes knowledge of health, disease, and the neutral state), and when these natural things depart from the course of nature – that is, when the four humours depart from the course of nature; and from what cause or symptoms disease may arise.

The Nestorian physician known to the west as ‘Johannitus’ was Hunayn ibn Ishâq (809-887), one of the Mesue dynasty of physicians that served as physicians to the Caliphs of Baghdad for generations.  Whether he ever wrote in Syriac, the liturgical language of the Church of the East (the so-called ‘Nestorian’ church) is not known, but some have made the mistake of supposing that anyone whose work appeared in Arabic was necessarily a Muslim, and this idea needs correction.

As Latin was the language of diplomacy, education and higher scholarship in western Christian Europe (so that we speak of ‘Latin Europe’), so throughout the Islamic empire, Arabic was the shared language. More – in Islamic scholarship, still, the custom was and is to call ‘an Arab’ anyone for whom Arabic is a primary language, written or spoken. So many have assumed that Hunayn was an Arab and a Muslim.

To add to the confusion, those noting that the way his name was rendered in Arabic indicates an original form meaning ‘John, son of Isaac’ imagined him a Christianised Jew.

It is easily forgotten today, but was not unknown to later medieval Europe that the Church of the East represented the original Christian church and existed from long before the rise of Islam being by the tenth century established from as far west as Constantinople and Egypt to as far east as China. Together with the ‘star-worshippers’ of Haran, the Nestorians (so called) are credited with having brought most works of classical science and scholarship to the knowledge of the first few generations of Muslim rulers, especially those in Baghdad. Part of their religious belief was that the Christian minister was expected to imitate Christ by ministering to body (medicine), mind (education) and soul (pastoral care). The western or ‘Roman’ tradition was strongly opposed to the first and the reason for Ficino’s being burned as a heretic was his becoming enamoured of that ‘ancient’ and original priesthood. This is the substance of his first (much misunderstood) legal defence. Canon law had initially accepted that the eastern church had chronological precedence and thus merited the description as ‘apostolic’. But by the time of Ficino’s second accusation, that argument was no longer enough. Ficino was a priest and was accused of practicing medicine. His own book proves that he had, and imitated specific recipes known to us from the ‘Nestorians’ Syriac Book of Medicines.

However – back to the main point.

Translation of Johannitus’ work into Latin is credited, by tradition, to a trader whose name on conversion to Christianity was Constantine, called ‘the African’, who brought with him from North Africa many medical texts, in Arabic copy, first to the court in Palermo (not Salerno) in Sicily.

He began translating the collection in Palermo, but soon passed on to the mainland, eventually to become a monk and end his days in Montecassino.

So the book being abjured according to this frontispiece to the Sicilan ‘Manfredus’ herbal is the Isagogue, some of whose content must have offended Sicily’s pluralistic society when it became known there. Among other things, Johannitus’ theory of the humors has it that all eye-colours save blue, and all hair-colours save yellow are the result of disease, or more exactly of humoral imbalance.

Selected excerpts from the Isagogue were still retained and taught but as with many such ‘dubious’ sources, maintained through collected extracts, in this case through a work called the Articella, and were further disguised by terming the whole of that collection “Greek” medicine.

Sicily was, and for centuries remained, far more culturally mixed and diverse than anywhere in western Europe and its Christianity stayed largely Byzantine well into the Norman period, making the word “Greek” a definition of orthodoxy. As usual, too, the frontispiece reflects western Christianity’s greater abhorrence towards other sects of Christianity than towards quite other religions. The ‘Manfredus’ herbal is dated by the BNF 1301-1350 AD. MS Burney 275 by the British Library 1309 and 1316 AD.

And you see how Johannitus’ ‘crossed limbs’ are depicted – with an improper amount of bare leg above the ankle. So we read ‘transgression’ for the figure on the upper left, but ‘heretic’ for Johannitus.

Not all historians make the link between ‘Johannitus’ and the Nestorian physicians. See e.g.

  • Behnam Dalfardi, Babak Daneshfard, Golnoush Sadat Mahmoudi Nezhad,  ‘Johannitius (809-873 AD), a medieval physician, translator and author’, Journal of Medical Biography, 2016 Aug;24(3):328-30. doi: 10.1177/0967772014532890. Epub 2014 Jun 9.

Connection between that image and Beinecke MS 408 is offered by the peculiar headwear given Johannitus, though apparently not quite understood by the painter, who has made a curl of hair from what appears to be a head-dress of horn. The validity of the underlying drawing is, however, confirmed for this same era, and again for peoples living in hither Asia, because a picture of Mongols’ captives shows it on them, together with dress that is typically Asian, and Mongol. It was not the custom, in Asian art, to encode images of costume, so we may take that image literally, and so too the dress seen in a late-stratum diagram (added to the back of the map) in the Voynich manuscript.

detail from Beinecke MS 408, folio 85v.

The Voynich detail shows that the ‘Nestorian’ figure (as we’ll call him for convenience) is used to mark the point of ‘east’; the diagram being a schematic representation of the world’s four quarters. Unlike most of the Voynich drawings, this one was almost certainly drawn by a European or, perhaps, an Armenian.

The motif upheld by the figure is not (as might first suggest itself to a modern viewer) a Norman or French ‘fleur de lys’ – as you’ll see if you make the necessary comparisons.

A truer match is the form given the tamgar for a certain Mongol ruler and while it has proven impossible so far to precisely identify a geographic reference for this ‘east’, the coins so adorned are fairly rare. Pace Kolbas, I’m strongly inclined to identify it with Amaligh and not Fars, though for reasons too many, and technical, to trouble readers with here.

Still, Kolbas is a numismatist and I’ll quote her again as I did in a post published in 2015 through voynichimagery.

On pages 149-150 of Judith Kolbas’ The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu 1220–1309)   we read:

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

Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …To which I added – and still add – a demur

I add my original demur, too:

[this] ‘graceful fleur de lys’ is really a version of a much older Persian motif – and if it is the design Kolbas means this specific example [used in my illustration above] doesn’t appear to have been made for Fars, but more probably for Amaligh.

Other indications of eastern and Asian influence in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery certainly exist, some like this evidently first-hand and more at greater remove, but I’ve treated many in detail over the past years, and we must move on to the ‘Oresme’ issue.

Ellie Velinska’s comparison – BNF ms

Oresme (1328-82 AD) Which manuscript?

In 2014, in a blog now deleted, Ellie Velinska made a loose comparison of the image shown above with a detail from the Voynich manuscript, putting the two side by side without analytical commentary, leading readers to infer that only ‘common sense’ was needed to know what, if anything, might constitute a commonality between them.

Ellie’s chief interest was the Duc de Berry, and her Voynich theory was woven around that interest. If this sounds dismissive, it shouldn’t. For a person with no background or formal study of medieval imagery, her natural clarity of vision often made for interesting observations and flashes of insight, but the limited amount of time she had to spare for her hobby, as well as apparent ignorance of formal academic methods and standards, seemed often to see her at a loss to know, herself, just what to do with those observations, or how to test her own ideas against the historical record. But the same is true of the great majority of ‘Voynicheros’ online and Ellie’s pleasant and accommodating manner made her a very popular member of the self-styled online ‘Voynich community’.

Cross-checking my references today, I cannot think her original description of the source correct. My notes say she listed it as BNF 1355, but I rather think it was from

BNF fr.565, f.23r

Three years afterwards, and after properly citing Ellie’s post (as you can trust Pelling always to do), Pelling himself labeled a detail “BNF 565” (see further below).

The determined checker is welcome to go through all references to Oresme from the BNF’s Gallica portal.


Oresme was not yet Bishop of Lisieux when he composed his ‘Treatise on the Sphere’ but already had his Doctorate in Theology from the University of Paris and had been appointed Grand Master over the College of Navarre where he’d had his own undergraduate accommodation and tutoring.

His credentials suggest, and his writings confirm, that whatever Oresme wrote would be absolutely sound from any western theologians’ point of view, and indeed, his Treatise was meant as much for the king’s good Christian guidance as to provide him with a reference text about astronomical theory.

Like his earlier work entitled Livre de Divinations, the Treatise shows Oresme to have been well aware of other ideas and traditions, but as time went on his ‘orthodoxy’ or theological rectitude becomes as strongly in evidence as his erudition.

In his earlier writings, especially the Livre des Divinationes, he is is plain when criticising Jews and of Arabic-speakers for their indulging in ‘divination’ including astrological divination, and these are seen to be identical to what he terms “the astrologers” or “the scientists.” But as time goes on, Oresme omits any but generic allusions to those groups, and even as early as the Livre.. when he considers the information, and its source, likely to serve as temptation for the curious.

Nonetheless, it is clear that he knew matter not only just non-Christian like Aristotle, but which derives from traditional lore, and some items that today we’d normally suppose Kabbalist. Oresme livedwhile Kabbalist teaching was flourishing near the border between modern day France and Spain, some of that border belonging to the Kingdom of Majorca until 1375. Living in the College of Navarre, one may suppose Oresme was unusually well situated to learn about ideas current in the south.

Here as illustration, a passage in translation from his Livre…

That he dismisses such ideas as ‘speculation’ is added indication of a non-orthodox (non-Christian) source. Had that ‘throne’ been described Christ’s rather than Solomon’s, Oresme might still have set the matter aside, but not as “speculation”. It would have been called a matter to be apprehended only by the eyes of faith, and not appropriate for earthly studies such as philosophy or astronomy. Just the same message, at much the same time, and environment, as that detail seen in the previous post and illustrated first in the present one.


The cautions were evidently not always heeded by persons who wore a crown, and in that detail from BNF fr.565, f.23r (Ellie’s find, I think) the ‘doubtful’ characters are included, and are defined by the usual codes – headwear, clothing, posture, hair and facial hair or lack thereof.

I won’t provide any more detailed analytical commentary about it. This post is already longer than I’d like and the codes used in those images from fourteenth century France are not shared by the Voynich manuscript save in a very few details over no more than half a dozen folios.


Assimilating Aristotle and comparisons made to images in the Voynich manuscript.

Not so long before, only students of Theology had been permitted to read Aristotle at the University of Paris, the most desirable of all study-centres in those days unless you wanted to study medicine.

A degree in Theology was the highest and most demanding of the University degrees, since one had to know all other disciplines before admission into that Faculty. The reasoning here was not a new idea; it was that any authority which appeared to be incompatible with Christian doctrine and Biblical literature should not be taught verbatim to the uneducated, or even to the less educated, except it were provided with learned commentary which edited or ameliorated the ‘wrong’ by e.g. excusing pagan writers on the grounds that they had been permitted only a ‘dim’ apprehension of any truth, given that the fulness of truth had been vouchsafed to humankind only with the coming of Christ (as western Christianity believed).

By how much, and in what way they had fallen short, or where passages in older works were to be interpreted as allegorical and so on, was duly explained and/or the texts redacted or simply summarised by the theologians, with those acceptable summaries and extracts taught to the people.

In short, before the Italian renaissance, such ‘old works’ were treated like valuable but slightly out-of-date school texts today. Living exponents of unorthodox traditions were more sternly regarded, as we’ve seen.

That prohibition against Aristotle’s works didn’t apply beyond the University of Paris; It was not supported by any Papal pronouncement so far as I know, and even within the University of Paris didn’t last in practice more than (perhaps) three or four decades, but as mentioned earlier, it was serious enough that for a time the German Albertus (called ‘the great’) had been much exercised to defend his own, and others’ study of Aristotle.

One is usually told that Aristotle’s texts reached Europe from some long distance, and had to be especially translated at some royal court, but this isn’t necessarily so.

It is recorded by a Muslim military man at the time of the Muslim conquest of Sicily that he found the works of Aristotle being treated as if they were holy writ in Sicily, with readings aloud in the various niches within cathedral and the mummified body of that ‘saint’ suspended from the ceiling as its leading light. We don’t know what language they read it in, though Sicilian Greek is most probable and for reasons that can’t be fairly treated here, the practices as he reported them suggest connections to a ‘star-worshipping’ religion recorded in association with Haran and with north Africa and which was as old as, if not older, than Alexander the Great. Aristotle himself had died in 322BC.

When dealing with Oresme’s Treatise, then, it must be kept in mind that it was made – probably commissioned – of a person whose religious orthodoxy was beyond question, and whose use of Aristotle and other mathematical and scientific information could be regarded, by his authorship alone, as acceptable to any good western Christian – that is (as yet), a good Catholic.

Biographies that blur, or ignore, or misrepresent Oresme by calling him ‘a clergyman’ or which ‘politely’ omit reference to any medieval scholar’s religious views and/or standing ignore something that was an essential part of the person’s scholarly, as well as their personal character.

Ellie’s comparison was conveyed by inference, not argument or evidence, and appealed simply to her audience’s expectations of all-European content for the Voynich manuscript. Points of difference in form and all else were simply ignored but this is also usual in Voynich writings.

So when Pelling, who has a degree in modern historical studies, later revisited Ellie’s idea (naturally, with all due credit given), he omitted most of Ellie’s illustration, narrowing the whole tacit argument still further.

As I see it, the numerous points of difference are more telling than the few which are sort-of, more-or-less, similar. You will find no kings, no thrones, no flowing ermine robes, no kneeling suppliants, no armillary spheres, no ornate tapestry-pattern backgrounds in the Voynich manuscript and in neither the full Oresme illumination nor the small detail shown above is there the detail that I see as being the most telling of the Voynich diagram’s significance – I mean those eight curved ‘arms’ of which four are seen to emerge from the foreground and four apparently from below that visible surface ..

I think – I hope – that covers the three items I was asked to expand on.

Sorry about the length.