Consider this.. (cont.). Numerals, networks, Spain and something of Kabbalah.

This post is almost 2800 words.

The earliest close examples of an upright ‘4’ numeral noted so far come from Florence at the beginning of the fourteenth century and then in Cresques’ great pictorial compendium of 1375, which includes various diagrams and a great worldmap, gridded by the ‘rose’ and containing what is still the first known inset ‘compass rose’ (see further below).

Contrary to what you might find said elsewhere, Cresques’ map is not a ‘mappamundi’ and its connection to the rutters or ‘portolans’ is certainly debateable, given that the same notion was rejected on technical grounds as early as the mid-twentieth century.

The recent, astounding assertion by one writer, on a nicely presented and official looking website was that Cresques had all his information from a couple of northern European Christian missionaries and that is surely pure invention. The sources of Cresques’ inscriptions for that map are already known, and include sources such as Ibn Jubayr’s journeys and the Alf Layla wa Laya. Allusions are also made to Jewish legends, such as that Noah settled north Africa after the flood and began viticulture again from there.

One cannot now discover how that modern author came to entertain the ‘Christian missionaries’ notion, for he died during the pandemic and I know only that he claimed some connection to the Central European university of Prague. With both authors of that project now lost, the translation of all the labels into English may be stopped or at least halted for the foreseeable future, but we do not have to rely on that material to consider the problem of the ‘4’.

IN the same way that Genoa was under Milanese control by the time the Voynich manuscript was made, so it was with two more of the four once-independent Italian maritime states.

Amalfi had earlier been taken by Pisa (August 6th., 1136) and in 1406 Pisa itself was taken, by stealth, by the Florentines. Amalfi had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Naples during the late fourteenth century.

Oddly enough, Florence did not develop Pisa as its maritime arm, but on the contrary suppressed the naval activity of both Amalfi and Pisa.

The significance of Florentine control of Pisa, Neapolitan control of Amalfi and Milanese rule in Genoa, is that direct political power meant access to all technical secrets, skills and any system of ciphers earlier held exclusively by the neighbour. Trade secrets were treasure then, just as now.

When we find the ‘4’ form appear briefly in Florence, early in the fourteenth century, within a copy of the Pisan ‘Liber abaci’ we know the exemplar might have been a local copy, or an earlier one acquired directly from Pisa or indeed from Amalfi, noted for its schools of mathematics. The best copies were known to be ones closest to the date of composition.

It should be noted here too that (to quote an online tourist site) “by about the 1230s Amalfi became one of the first locations in Europe to produce paper…. [which] was soon sold all over the Mediterranean. Paper making continued as an important local trade throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

My own view of the ‘4’ numeral’s history, at present, is that we shall probably never know absolutely who first wrote the numeral as ‘4’ in Europe and that if there were a single key to the problem it may well have been lost in 1343, when a tidal wave obliterated Amalfi’s harbour and lower town, ushering in a period of decline from which the town never recovered. It s relevant, in my opinion, that all four – Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa and Venice had allotted quarters in medieval Constantinople. (see interactive map by Saffran and Nicolescu)

However, we may still regard Amalfi or Genoa as likely to have brought that ‘4’ form to Italy, because of a demonstrable connection between those maritime states and Cresques’ great work.

The semi-legendary Amalfitan surnamed ‘Gioia’ is popularly credited with having first placed a magnetised needle over a diagram of the western wind-rose and enclosed all in a glass-covered box. Properly, that was not the ‘compass’ but the bussola (buxula), and the true navigational compass (as qumbas) the eastern navigator’s ‘rose’ whose points were named for stars. In my opinion it was in that sense Cresques describes himself as ‘master of bussola and compass’. The islands of Majorca and Minorca were remarkably cosmopolitan at that time and Arabic had been the island’s official language until just 70 years before. What is more, the original ‘Barbary’ pirates of the north African coast around Sicily, who were Berber and Arabs, are said by Ibn Majid to share the same skills and know-how as he – an Arabs master of the eastern seas.

Seen in daylight, Cresques’ great worldmap shows the world below, but at night with no illumination save a few candles what one sees is as if a veil scattered with golden dots were laid over the darkened world. Makers of terrestrial maps and marine charts also made maps of the heavens. Bussola and qumbas.

You may think such technicalities aren’t needed here but, as I first discussed some years ago in the course of providing a detailed analysis and commentary for the Voynich map, there is a precedent for Cresques’ inclusion of his ‘angel of the rose’ and for his map’s mirroring along its centre line. I won’t elaborate on the last point here, but refer again to the fourteenth century Genoese cartographer, Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesconti’).

In one of his ‘rose-gridded’ charts, composed in 1311 1318 – that is, about or shortly after the time of that Florentine ‘4’ – there is another faint allusion to the same motif found in Cresques’ work and in the Voynich map and in all three cases – that is, the Vesconte carte marine, Cresques’, and the Voynich map, the motif of its ‘surveying angel’ is even placed within the same – north-west – quarter.

Note (added 5th. Dec. 2021] Pietro Vesconte’s date of birth is uncertain, but he is described as ‘flourishing’ c.1310-1330. Genoese by birth and education, his earlier charts and maps were produced there, but most of his extant work was produced in Venice.

This is less obvious in the Voynich map because it presents with its east and west reversed from the European norm. Western custom permits such east-west reversal with a constant North only in literal representations of the night sky.

I apologise to long term readers for again repeating points first made by me and in research published before 2020, but some of that research was treated as if its conclusions were just ‘an idea’ to be imitated, and its illustrations to be re-used without their context – so what was ‘lifted’ by the imitators was invariably – perhaps inevitably – badly mangled, and has never been well used by Voynich theorists and so must be repeated here. I regret having to deface the illustration for the same reason.

(left) detail from the Voyich map, its North-west roundel (upper right) detail from Abraham Cresques rose-gridded world-map, its north-western quadrant; (lower right) detail from a chart by Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesctonti’, its upper-west corner). From the 1318 Vesconte atlas (Museo Correr, Venice)

and so, again..:

Since I have already said that the final recension of the Voynich map should be dated to c.1350, with our present copy dated to the early fifteenth, I think here again we may narrow the environment for the ‘4’ shape as numeral and, just possibly its use in the Voynich manuscript, to the specific environment of calculation and geometry gained in service to navigation and trade.

In other words to apprenticeships and the ‘abaco’ school rather than in schools offering a more literary, theoretical or philosophical education. More evidence may demand that opinion be altered, but that’s where I stand so far.

It might even be that the Voynich ‘4’ shape is meant in the manuscript as a numeral, even if also used, or originating, as an alphabetic sign, though I should be wary of assuming that the Voynich script’s other glyph of similar form – that with a more curved ‘eye’ – is necessarily to be read as it is.*

*a question I’ve not ever looked into, but which arises from time to time, is a possible origin for the ‘Cistercian’ numerals in a version of Syriac script. See later note on a mixed alphanumeric system.

For those who enjoy the slog of using pictorial archives of kind typified by the Index of Christian Art (as was), it might be fun to see what else turns up for ‘4’ in European sources around 1300.

In any case, the story which puts Leonardo of Pisa and his ‘Liber abaci’ centre stage is an over-simplified one. That story’s short version runs something like ‘Arabs brought the Hindu numerals westwards. Leonardo (‘Fibonacci) saw them, and brought them to Europe’.

But Leonardo didn’t use that ‘4’ shape. His relevance to our present problem is rather the pattern of his travels, which illustrate nicely contemporary networks of trade and travel.

The Pisan Leonardo first learned Arabic numerals in a major Berber-speaking city of North Africa, during the last decade of the twelfth century. His sobriquet ‘the traveller’ was well earned.

Fibonacci states that his father wanted him to stay and be taught “for some days” in a “calculation school” in Bejaïa, where he was introduced to the “art [of calculation] by the nine figures of the Indians”. The knowledge of this art pleased him so much that he learned all he could about how it was studied in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Sicily and Provence when going there for the sake of trade.

So there it is. Those ‘Indian’ numerals were already known in Greece, in Sicily and in Provence before the end of the twelfth century. I’ve used the quote only so I can reference:

  • Charles Burnett, Numerals and Arithmetic in the Middle Ages (Variorum Collected Studies Series CS967) 2010.

There were especially close ties between Pisa and Béjaïa during the twelfth century. In c.1350, it was rather with Tunis and Cairo that the Venetian traded who wrote the zibaldone now Beinecke MS 327.

Béjaïa, formerly Bougie and Bugia was by Roman times known as  Saldae.    Béjaïa is still among the centres where the Berber language Kabyle is in daily use.  

Poor Ramon Lull would arrive in Béjaïa during the early fourteenth century (in 1314) as an 81 year old Dominican friar hoping to make converts to the Latin Christian church. He was dead within a twelvemonth, though accounts of his death differ, some saying he was executed for trying to persuade Muslims to become apostates to their faith – something prohibited in every region under Muslim governance as indeed it would have been in regions under Latin Christian governance had the reciprocal occurred.

Other accounts have Llull dying on the ship returning him to Majorca.


Correction. (December 15th., 2021).

I see that my sources are out of date, superseded by an updated (Feb.2021) entry in Stamford University’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, where it says that Llull did not enter the Dominican order, nor the Franciscans’ and gives the following account of his fruitless trip to Béjaïa.

‘De vita’ narrates this trip in detail. Llull spent most of the time in prison. Instead of seeking to meet intellectuals, as he did on his first trip to Tunisia, right after disembarkation, he went to the main square and harangued passersby and anyone present at the time. The crowd was infuriated, and Llull was placed under arrest. The authorities questioned and imprisoned him. He would stay there for six months, receiving visits from sages who sought to convert him to Islam. He was later expelled from the city, but his hardships would not end there. His ship sank on the trip back to Genoa, but Llull and another passenger managed to survive by reaching the coast. He would then remain in Pisa, where he would finish texts he had previously began writing, such as ‘Ars generalis ultima’.


Llull has his place in western Europe’s history, but unless one of his works contains examples of Majorcan-Florentine ‘4’ he is less relevant to our present question than the more congenial, secular, interactions between Berbers, Jews, Arabs and Italians before 1300, including within the naval, commercial and cartographic schools.

Voynich writers interested in the possibility that the Voynich ‘alphabet’ may be composed of elements taken from a number of other systems may be interested in an account of the invention, during second quarter of the twelfth century, of a new mixed system of mathematical notation.

Burnett writes:

*Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic of Indian Numerals in Arabic, Greek and Latin’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 1/2 (April 2006) pp.15-30. [JSTOR]

 For those who’d like to see what Greek script of the fourteenth century looked like, here’s a detail from a Greek fourteenth-century map in Codex Vatopedinus 655.

“Europe gained its numerals from the Jews”

“The Jewish community… reconstituted in 1306” from ‘Amalfi’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica JVL online. 2005.

As early as 1891, when European scholars were just beginning to enquire into the history of the forms for their numerals, it was already being accepted as fact that they had come from Spain. (See for example the off-hand “or rather, from Spain” in a review published in the Scottish Antiquary (Vol. 6, No. 22, (1891) p.54).

But even more unexpectedly, an association was made with Kabbalah as early as 1839!

I’ve just learned the last fact thanks to Phineas Mordell’s meticulous documentation of his sources and precedents in a very brief note of 1925. For its historical value, I’ve reproduced this note in full.

  • Phineas Mordell, ‘Note on the Theory of the Kabbalistic Origin of “Arabic” Numerals’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Oct., 1925), p. 207.

Of course it is possible that by 1932, Erwin Panofsky had read one or more of those sources listed above, or even an article published late in 1931; in addressing Friedman’s list of Questions more than twenty years later, Panofsky mis-remembered the year in which he’d seen the manuscript – writing ‘1931’ when it can only have been in 1932, as explained in an earlier post.

  • Solomon Gandz, ‘The Origin of the Ghubār Numerals, or the Arabian Abacus and the Articuli’, Isis, Nov., 1931, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Nov., 1931), pp. 393-424.

Panofsky was never so vapid as to mistake for an ‘idea’ the conclusions of genuine research, nor was he obliged to parrot others’ assertions for want of ability to form balanced and well-informed opinions of his own – but he may well have read one or more of those articles for the same reason that G.F. Hill wrote his monograph (see previous post) that is – to assist in accurately provenancing artefacts and quickly identifying fakes.

I think Panofsky could have known those precedents- not that he would say anything of the sort unless it were suggested to him by aspects of the materials, pigments, imagery and vellum which he observed during the two hours he spent studying the manuscript itself. But now to that list of things observed we may add (with a query) the form of one or more of the Voynich glyphs – perhaps even the ‘4’. We don’t know. All we do know is what some long-term readers of my blogs probably know by heart now, but for newcomers..

Panofsky’ freely-given opinion was given to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill, the latter soon reporting it in a letter to her friend, Herbert Garland. She wrote*

“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.!!!!!

**for details of Nill’s letter, see the transcription made by Rich Santacoloma which I believe was the first published transcription. See his post. ‘Anne Nill speaks‘.  For my earlier comments, in this blog, about the letter and about Rich’s thoughts see here. 

To the question,  ‘What exactly had Panofsky seen in the manuscript which led him to mention Kabbalah’? I never did find a clear answer, and ran into unexpected difficulties, such as the lack of modern scholarly articles about the medieval commentaries or even modern translations of those commentaries that I could quote in an English-language blog.

As with many other research questions, one sometimes has to leave a problem aside for a time, until new information or pure serendipity offers a way forward.  Very recently, a single article in n online journal has explained the apparent barriers and, quite incidentally, offered a line to another and quite different question that I’d laid aside pending better information. I’ll try to get to that journal article in the next post.

For a short comment and an initial bibliography for the question of any influence from Kabbalah in Beinecke MS 408 see  (Post #15). 

With this question, as with the history of European forms for its numerals and most other fields of historical research, the public’s idea of a positivistic ‘forward march’ is deceptive.

Very often a study moves over time more like a pretty complicated sort of quickstep, involving  not a few trodden toes, losses of direction and ‘excuse-me’ interruptions, backwards moving which takes one forwards and some few straight-forward passages.  In the history of European numerals, for example, there was a period in the 1950s and in America, where the story was badly misdirected by an ideological fixation on the Babylonians and a transmission-theory gone berzerk.  As example, here’s one such paper, though if you don’t feel like reading it all, here’s a taste of that author’s ‘commonsense amateur theory’ approach.

… a casual inspection of the Arabic numerals suggested that these symbols might have evolved from forms such as are shown in Fig. 10, hereafter termed Ancestral Arabic numerals. It is evident that they are a variation of the Prototype numerals which the writer later derived from hand-signs, and still later discovered had been widely employed..

from: W. Clyde Richey, ‘On the Origin and Development of the Arabic Numerals’,  Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science , Vol. 26 (1952), pp. 134-146. [quote shortened .. 5th Dec. 2021]

Not ‘handsigns’ but methods of finger-calculation may, in fact, prove relevant to our efforts to read Voynichese.

But I digress.

When quite early insights are overlooked or shrugged away in favour of worse ones, as happens more often than laymen suppose, it is also true that they may be recovered or re- discovered again later thanks to properly documented work in the meantime, or because the sum of historical evidence requires it.  

As example, here’s Charles Burnett, writing in 2006, and after years of close study of the question…  and evidently arriving at a view held by at least one person in 1891, in Scotland. 

One can observe, too, that, during the course of the twelfth century, alternative forms of the Indian numerals dropped out of use, especially the ‘eastern forms’ which were briefly shared by Arabic scholars in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek scholars, and Latin scholars in Italy. The forms which drove out their competitors (in my view) were developed by scholars in Toledo, and quickly spread to northern Italy, where they were used by Fibonacci. (p.21)

  • Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic …’ op.cit

except for that form of ‘4’, which Fibonacci did not use….

(detail and enlargement) Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 f. 334

MS Burney 275 is described as

Scholastic miscellany, Central France (Paris), 1309-1316. Priscian, Cicero, and Pseudo-Cicero, Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, Ptolemy, translated [nominally – D.] by Gerard of Cremona.

Note – after some thought, I’ve altered the spelling of the Genoese cartographer’s name from ‘Vesconti’ to ‘Vesconte‘ as less likely to create confusion with the Milanese Visconti family, though researchers hunting secondary sources should search both versions of Pietro’s name.

Skies above: Chronological Strata – Pt.1

Two previous:

Header image – detail from a portrait of Gian Francesco II Gonzaga.

STOP PRESS (Feb. 6th., 2020) – anyone who decided to check out the ‘horoscopic charts’ rumour… you can drop it.  A specialist in the history of astrology, astronomy and cosmology has just said plainly that that the Voynich month-folios do not accord with any type of ‘horoscopic chart’.

I’m waiting on his permission to quote and instructions on his preferred form for the acknowledgement.

I guess whoever dreamed up that “horoscopic charts” fiction – sorry,  ‘theory’ –  just didn’t care too much if it was true or not.



 The ‘Skies above’ series so far..  transmission affect

We have seen that in Mediterranean art, and then in that of western Europe to 1438,  representation of the unclothed female body occurs within certain definable limits both in terms of regions and of eras  and further that Panofsky had pointed out – rightly, and as early as 1932 –  that in the art of western Christian Europe (i.e. ‘Latin’ Europe) the unclothed ‘shapely’ female form does not occur until the fifteenth century.

In 1932, while he still presumed the whole to be (as Wilfrid had asserted since 1912) the work of a single western author, Panofsky altered his date for the manuscript from ‘perhaps’ the thirteenth century on to the first decades of the fifteenth, precisely because of its ‘shapely ladies’ and its palette, as Anne Nill reported:

[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky] became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century … but as he came to the female figures in connection with the colours used in the manuscript he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!

(for details, see post of Feb. 13th.2019).

However, and before the manuscript had been radiocarbon dated,  Panofsky had woken to the possibility that the date for composition of the content and that for manufacture of our present manuscript might be separated by a considerable (if unspecified) length of time – in other words, that it was not an autograph at all. He actually widened the implied gap between content and manufacture in what John Tiltman reports as a direct communication – presumably offered in the 1950s but some time after Panofsky’s meeting with Friedman.

In a later paper, Tiltman writes,:

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10.

Had the manuscript been both manufactured and first composed  “within twenty years of 1500” it might (in theory) have been possible, still, to argue the “shapely ladies” sections, including the month-folios, a product of Latin culture, but Panofsky clearly considered the content ‘much’ older than 1480-1520 and having as we now do, a radiocarbon range of 1404-1438 and understanding that the clothing in our present copy is a late addition to it, so  the implication is unavoidable that the ‘ladies’ folios had their origins somewhere else.  “Much earlier” does not mean a few decades; in contemporary usage, in this context, it implied the content’s origin  “centuries older” – taking us back to before the fifteenth century and emergence of shapely unclothed female forms in western European art.  I  agree – although, for reasons explained in the post of January 10th, I  do ascribe the ‘lewd’ additions to the month-folios to some later draughtsman during the last quarter of the fifteenth century.

The implication of Panofsky’s statements when considered in sequence, went unnoticed and in 2009 even to speak of the work as a compendium whose material the copyists had from  different exemplars was to meet with uproar and derision, as the present writer discovered.  Only during the past four of five years have we seen a lessening of the old emphasis on  ‘the author” and growing (if oscillating) acceptance of the manuscript as a compilation..

Gian Francesco II Gonzaga

Traditionalists had simply assumed the manuscript an autograph – that is a manuscript inscribed by a single ‘author’ – because there had always been ‘an author’ in the Wilrid-Friedman tradition, and, until a few years ago,  “naming the Latin author” was still the chief preoccupation.  For the core-conservatives, who emerged in the early 2000s, and gained an increasingly louder voice from 2010, there had to be an ‘author’ and preferably one who was ‘central European’ and connected in some way to the Imperial line.    The cryptographers wanted ‘an author’ for different reasons, chiefly because Friedman had framed engagement with the manuscript in terms of a battle of wits between himself and some brilliantly ingenious Renaissance male. The type certainly existed. See e.g.

For the revisionist, though, the more important point is that any substantial gap between first enunciation of an image and its subsequent copying provides evidence of transmission and this can be very helpful in establishing origin for the first enunciation and thus the image’s intended meaning.  Of what this may imply  for the written part of this text, we’ll speak later. Much depends on whether a section’s written text is as old as first enunciation of its images.


Transmission affect.

Shifts from one historico-cultural context to another leaves evidence of that event  even if the older image is one revived in the same region.   Think ‘gothic revival’ for an obvious example.  In the same way, a Roman copy  of a classical Greek statue will evince both the maker’s ‘Roman’ character and that the model had been made by an older Greek; in a nineteenth century Englishman’s copy of an Egyptian image we see both the nineteenth-century Englishman’s way of seeing and a hint of the Egyptian scribe’s.   ‘Ways of seeing’ are the result of a specific time, place and community and are extremely difficult to erase, replace, or imitate precisely ..  as any forger will tell you.  The later copy points us to the earlier place and time of origin… if you know what you’re looking at.

(and this, by the way, is where most theoretical narratives for the Voynich manuscript fail; they assume the images infinitely compliant – as Aztec one day, German the next, Italian the day after, or sixteenth-century or nineteenth century…)

Very little of the  Voynich manuscript’s imagery “reads” easily for people accustomed to our present, European, tradition –  because the majority aren’t expressions in that tradition. Conversely, the reason that some few details – such as the late-added clothing, the central emblems of the month-folios, or the supposed ‘castle’do seem accessible and for that very reason have received attention massively in excess of the percentage they represent.

To recognise  evidence of transmission is rarely as simple as recognising the difference between Opus Francigenum and ”gothic revival‘ and requires the viewer to know enough to recognise the significance of small details – which is exactly why forgers still manage to fool enough people, enough of the time, to make fortunes.   The important thing is that the copyist should have attempted to copy, rather than to replace or re-express the images from his exemplar.  We are fortunate that, in the Voynich manuscript, most of the images appear to be driven by a desire to copy  with near facsimile exactitude.  I say ‘most’ because we have to deal with various layers, some post-dating the vellum’s range and a few (chiefly in the bathy- section) where the copyist had thought he could improve on the original. The rapidity with which that hand vanishes re-inforces the overall sense that the initial desire of those involved in the fifteenth-century copy was to have everything copied exactly.  (The couple of ‘improvements’ in the bathy- section might, conceivably, also be due to some term’s being ambiguous  as e.g. ‘passage’, ‘basin’ or ‘channel’).

Then we see a different attitude affect the work – the one I call the ‘prude’.


Chronological layers. Separating layers of transmission affect is akin to the archaeologists’ removing a site’s levels of occupation and is similarly described as strata: in this case, chronological strata because one may assume changes in cultural context always attend the passage of time.

In this series, I’ve already mentioned some discernible strata.  As I read it, the sequence maps  – counting down from the latest/uppermost:


#1 – (Last quarter of the fifteenth century. post-production). the ‘lewd’ additions.

My reason for assigning these details – not all of which are lewd in themselves – to the last quarter of the fifteenth century were explained in the post of  January 10th., 2020.

In this context I might repeat an item from a couple of posts to Voynichimagery, namely that it might prove worthwhile to ask if there is any correlation between  items so marked in the month-folios and the  ‘Dies Aegyptiaci’.

At the time I wrote those posts I knew of no previous mention of that subject in Voynich studies – that is, no precedent – but afterwards a reader kindly let me know that someone had mentioned the topic “on the first mailing list or somewhere”.  I regret not having had time to follow up that remark.  For the record my posts to Voynich imagery were:1. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Lamentable days’ (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017) and    2. ‘Lamentable days’ -Recommended reading’, (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017).Among the references I provided then were…

  • Ginzel, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie , 1:204-12;
  • Sebastian Porceddu et al., “Evidence of Periodicity in Ancient Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18 (2008): 327-39
  • W. R. Dawson, “Some Observations on the Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926): 260-64;
  • E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic (London, 1899), 224-228.

I bring up this point again here because at least one figure recovered from Naucratis shows an exaggerated pelt, comparable in its dimensions to that seen in the ‘Venus’ miniature in the Ambrosianus manuscript  – and we must never forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s content was, in some sense, Egyptian. To quote from Neal’s translation of Baresch’s letter of 1637:

In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts …. He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Note – Neal reads Baresch’s phrasing as indicative of hypothesising but I read it as emphatic – “in fact, it is easily conceivable…’.  this being Baresch’s reaction to Kircher’s dismissive response  after receiving copied folios earlier sent by Baresch through a Jesuit known to both of them.  Kircher had published an appeal to the public for materials helpful in Kircher’s efforts to explain Egyptian hieroglyphics.

On Naukratis see..

  • Alexandra Villing, Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt (a British Museum Catalogue). see the Museum’s website.
  • The ‘Egyptian days’ are otherwise termed Dies aegri , -atri , –mali , -maledicti, -ominosi , -infortunati and -tenebrosi. Some of the Latin sources appear to be accurate; though others are wildly imaginative/theoretical.


folio 116v.  It seems (at least to me) that a line of marginalia on folio 116v might belong to the same time (i.e. last quarter of the fifteenth century) and possibly to the same hand as the ‘lewd’ additions.  According to Anton Alipov’s translation the writer of the marginalia on folio 116v was inclined to coarse expressions .


Stratum #2 – the ‘prude’.  post-copying – possibly before binding ( c.1430)

It may be unfair to describe as a ‘prude’  the person who had some of the figures overlaid with heavy pigment.  Whether he was the painter, or an overseer, he may have been merely of sensitive or modest disposition.  Often called the ‘heavy’ painter, he is distinguished from the ‘light painter’ since Nick Pelling observed and commented on the distinction.

‘Light-‘ and ‘Heavy-‘ painter.

After drawing attention to the ‘heavy painter’ and ‘light painter’ painter  in Reeds’ mailing list; Pelling spoke of the matter in his book (2006) and thereafter in various posts to his blog as e.g. this from 2017,  in connection with ‘labellese’ and codiciological issues.   While this passage sounds as if Pelling is speaking about the central emblems, he means any figures on the specified diagrams. I’ve added clarification in square brackets:-

To my mind, the most logical explanation for this is that the colourful painting on the light Aries [ i.e. April #1 diagram] was done at the start of a separate Quire 11 batch. That is, because Pisces [March-] and dark Aries [April #2] appear at the end of the single long foldout sheet that makes up Quire 10, I suspect that they were originally folded left and so painted at the same time as f69r and f69v (which have broadly the same palette of blues and greens) – f70r1 and f70r2 may therefore well have been left folded inside (i.e. underneath Pisces / f70v2), and so were left untouched by the Quire 10 heavy painter. Quire 11 (which is also a single long foldout sheet, and contains light Aries, the Tauruses, etc) was quite probably painted separately and by a different ‘heavy painter’: moreover, this possibly suggests that the two quires may well not have been physically stitched together at that precise point.

quoted from: Nick Pelling, ‘Voynich Labelese‘, ciphermysteries, September 3rd., 2017.

What Pelling had not realised was that his distinction sheds light on that broader issue of ‘authorship’.


Stratum #3 ‘The Modest’ clothing & the central emblems. (added in copying c. 1400-1430)


Before that final heavy overlay of pigment, some effort had been made to provide some of the bodies with covering using pen and light wash, but without altering the look of the limbs or obscuring the bodies’ form.

In my opinion, this pigment was added after completion of the original copy, but in all probability by the fifteenth-century copyists. I would not rule out the possibility that a precedent for the line-drawn clothing existed in the nearest exemplar (which I would date not later than the second or third quarter of the fourteenth century) but I’ll treat the style of this line-work in another post.

Central emblems

As I explained when treating the central emblems, in 2011-12, I think they are fifteenth-century additions gained from a tenth- or eleventh-century text available to the copyists, and preserved in Spain or in France, but in my view probably the latter and perhaps in Fleury. Just for the record I add details for two of my studies.

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Of Fishes and Fleury’, voynichimagery, (Oct. 27th., 2012);  ‘Crosseyed feline and red splash’ ibid (Oct. 29th., 2012).

Postscript – (Feb. 8th. 2020) A reader upbraids me… and it is true that I should have mentioned here that signs of alteration within the central emblems allowed me to date their adoption to the fifteenth century. I have explained this, with the historical, archaeological and literary evidence in posts to voynichimagery.  There had been no analytical studies of the central emblems, but my conclusions failing to suit the traditionalist model, alternative efforts soon appeared.  I would maintain, still, however that e.g. the standing archer figure had its origins in the eastern Mediterranean, came west in c.10th-11thC and was first adapted for Christian use in glass made for the new ‘gothic’ windows, but the form of  its bow in the Voynich manuscript indicates a fifteenth-century adaptation, the bow being (as I explained from the usual sources) being  a particular,  light, wooden, double-lock crossbow used by marines and the type of mercenary  recorded in the rolls for Calais as a ‘Saggitario’.  The proverbial type continues to be known to as late as the the writings of Cervantes, he associating it with the earlier Aegean.

Since then, Koen Gheuens has provided a superb study of the way the calendar’s oddly formed ‘lobsters’ were disseminated from France through Alsace between the 13th-15thC.  Gheuens begins with  the books on astronomy which Scot produced in Sicily.  It should be kept in mind, though,  that before Scot went to Sicily, his study of mathematics and astonomy (including astrology) had been pursued in Canterbury and at the University of Paris, whence he travelled to Toledo and worked with the Toledo school of translators, completing in 1217 a translation of  al-Bitruji’s .Kitāb al-Hayʾah, entitling his translation De motibus celorum. Moses Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation was completed in 1259.  In the works which Scot produced in Sicily are images whose details show him familiar with non-mainstream astronomical lore, usually described as ‘Berber’.  Thus, connection to Scot is not inconsistent with Panofsky’s attributing the manuscript to ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and believing it presented as a Jewish work.  But do see:

Since 2012 there has been much put online which aims at illustrating German and/or French zodiacs, to support ‘national’ theories of the manuscript but  Gheuens’ post is one of the few pieces of original analytical research.  Darren Worley’s valuable work and his supplementary comments were published by the late Stephen Bax, whose site is now corrupted and all the comments erased.

Scot’s ‘de motibus‘ is included in a compilation (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 1) with a very tasty provenance.    Here’s a detail.

items from northe

Clothing –  dating and placing… 

Much that has been written about the clothing is flawed by an idea that what is found in one time or place has occurred nowhere else.  This idea infuses most of the  ‘national’ theories for the Voynich manuscript, focused as they are more on asserting their theory proven by such means and choosing so narrow a range of comparative material that no other view is possible.  There is also the habit of treating the heavy overpainting as if it can date or place the manuscript’s  ‘national character’.

To show why such methods are flawed, I’ll provide a contrasting example and since the unclothed figures also include some with headwear, demonstrate the fact that headwear of similar types  were to be found earlier and over a very wide geographic range.  The few seen below  show the padded band, the band-and-veil, and the ‘mural’ crown, in  works from north Africa to northern India, and from the 4thC BC to 3rdC AD.    In fact, it is the unclothed forms which tell us most about the text’s origin and character..

Upper register (left to right) Hellenistic figurine 3rdC BC;  Indo-Greek sculpture Gandharan period; coin of Carthage 350-270 BC.  detail from folio 80v. Lower register: detail from Louvre Ma590 ‘Three tyches’ dated c.160 AD


…. to be continued…


Elevated souls Pt 2a. ‘Astro —-‘

  • Header image: (left) stars of northern latitudes; (right) declination and right ascension  -image courtesy ‘Sky and Telescope’.

Previous two:


David Pingree

In 1982, the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (Vol. 45) published the paper:

David Pingree,  ‘An Illustrated Greek Astronomical Manuscript. Commentary of Theon of Alexandria on the Handy Tables and Scholia and Other Writings of Ptolemy Concerning Them’.  ( pp. 185-192).

I begin by mentioning it for several reasons.

The late Prof. Pingree is one of the “two Davids” whose works are among those indispensable for study of what some pre-modern peoples knew about stars and – most pertinent to our chief study – how they thought about and imagined the heavens.

The ‘other David’ of the two is David A. King, whose works include the Ciphers of the Monks, in which King drew attention to the same Picard instrument whose orthography for month-names is – as I think Pelling first observed – closely similar to that of the Voynich month-names’.

Since the matter of  ‘Occitan month-names’ is among those affected by metaphorical ‘palimpsest-ing’,  I add more detail.

Writing in 2004, Shaun Palmer credits Stolfi with the proposal and (quite properly) notes that Pelling had come earlier than himself and independently to hold a similar view.  Pelling’s book (2006) then treated and illustrated the issue in  detail (pp. 21-23).  Those three  references should give you a clear idea of the evidence and substance behind this now-widely-accepted view.Searching for ‘Occitan’ today at I found the references given on this point to be an anonymous blogpost of 2012  and a note of thanks to Don Hoffman for providing Zandbergen with bibliographic details of King’s book. Following the principle that  “no acknowledgement asserts no debt”, readers might assume all  unprovenanced matter on that page (which is copyrighted  to  the owner as is every blogpost)  must be a result of the owner’s own research, crediting Zandbergen accordingly.

That paper by Pingree is chiefly concerned with the manuscript Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. (= 437). The ‘tables’ in question are known as  ‘Ptolemy’s Handy Tables’ but were compiled from Ptolemy’s data a century later, by Theon of Alexandria.  Researchers working on the Voynich manuscript might like to consider, in addition, matters associated with Ptolemy’s Geography, as balance for a tendency to associate Ptolemy solely with astrology, or even solely with astronomy. See e.g.

  • Dmitry Shcheglov, ‘Hipparchus’ Table of Climata and Ptolemy’s Geography’, (available through


Question 1: Is there Astrological matter in the month folios?

Caution Newcomers should be aware  that nothing in the manuscript has yet been proven related to any branch of occult or pseudo-scientific practice including that of astrology, though  speculation has been so common –  thanks initially to Wilfrid Voynich and his inflation of the ‘Rudolf rumour’ – that many imagine it has been proven beyond doubt.  Yet the stars are part of the natural world and natural, too, may be their observation and depiction.  To represent the theological position of the earlier medieval west, we may refer again to  Augustine:

Amiens Cathedral exterior: Virgo = Threshing               see   labours of the months.

Who can fail to perceive how great is the difference between useful observations of the heavenly bodies in connection with the weather, such as farmers or sailors make … and the vain hallucinations of men who observe the heavens not to know the weather. or their course … but merely to pry into the future ….

from Augustine’s Letters  55 15

  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers, Medieval Meteorology: Forecasting the Weather from Aristotle to the Almanac (2019)
why is the astrological  idea a problem?

Objection 1.  The idea’s introduction depended entirely on ideas about John Dee’s connection to the manuscript, in combination with consideration (only) of the month-names and central emblems from the month-folios.  The latter were taken to depict the ‘signs’ forming a tropical zodiac, rather than taken literally as a depiction of the physically-visible constellations which appear in sequence through the seasons of the year.  The conflation of constellation with astrological ‘sign’ is endemic in Voynich discussions, even today.  

Even if the emblems did constitute a representation of the zodiac ’12’ there is no necessary connection between their depiction and that aspect of mathematics which defined astrology in the medieval world.  In other words, there is no necessary connection between a depiction of the ecliptic constellations and tropical- or sidereal astrology.  

That the opposite idea should be so prevalent in Voynich writings today is due to the fact that most modern readers, living in an industrialised society and urban environment, don’t need to know the stars as people did in earlier times.   Today, we use clocks, watches and phones to know the time; we learn from the weather man what sort of weather we’ll have today; we rely on automatic or printed calendars to tell us where we are in the cycle of months and seasons.   Reflection from city lights, and nights spent indoors (or outdoors) under artificial lights means  many see none but a few of the brightest stars in the night sky.   And all this, together, means that the word ‘zodiac’ instantly evokes the motifs of ‘birth-signs’ and daily horoscopes for us today, and thus seems the ‘most obvious’ interpretation for any comparable series, especially if stars are depicted. 

 Thus, the constant error has been an imposition on a manuscript  six hundred years old, the hierarchy of ideas proper to twentieth- century urbanites.

Things were different six centuries ago.

Objection 2.  No  zodiac sequence contains (as the month-emblems do) two goats, or two sheep,  or a sheep and goat adjacent to one another.

This issue and others raised by the month-emblems are rarely even noticed today by Voynich writers. and of the few who do notice, fewer speak, and of the very few who do mention a problem, the majority do not address that problem so much as seek a way to turn back into the fold any who show signs of doubting that “its-a-zodiac-and-zodiac-means-astrology” proposition chain.    In private conversation a Voynichero once said that he didn’t include both pros and cons in his own writings  because “if your mind is too open, your brains fall out” – which sounds to me like some conservative slogan gone wrong. 🙂

Objection 3. Even if we grant that,  in adding the month-names later, the person who did that truly  believed  the emblems represented constellations from the zodiac, more cannot be deduced from it than  he had  regarded the series as a series of months and their stars.  It is no support for an idea that  “months+stars means astrology”.  

Objection 4. is that the the Voynich series names only  ten months, and the months omitted (January and February) are – perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not –  the months when the fields were dormant, and when  ships of the Mediterranean stayed in harbour. The ‘sailing year’ ran from March until (nominally) November but the historical records show that in fact ships of the harbours where the most competent seamen were based might continue  sailing coast wise even as late as December.

Other points:

  • An argument that the remnants of two cut pages following  the month-diagrams  had once contained two more diagrams of that sort is – like theorised astrological purpose – only speculation at present. 
  • As I’ve explained elsewhere, correlations of month-name, month-marking constellation, and associated ‘labour’ were not uniform  even within Latin Europe., and the correlations made in the month-diagrams between emblem and month-name are not those of the northern latitudes (England, Germany and northern France).
  •   When responding to a Voyichero’s query,  Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow – whose area is given as the history of European art, especially its traditions of astrological imagery-  also mentioned calendars in connection with the month-diagrams’ central emblems.  Here the difficulty is that her opinion was a short note written in response to a Voynichero’s query and it appears she was given no indication there was any reason to doubt that the content in this manuscript might have any but a medieval Latin European origin.  The answer of an expert is typically provided within the framework of the question posed.  Not knowing that explains why William Friedman got so little from Panofsky, where Anne Nill had received so much more  – and we’re not talking word-count here.
  • Nor do we know what Sniezynska-Stolot was shown of the manuscript at the time (2000), or whether in colour or copy-flo.   As translated by  Rafel Prinke and  reported in Reeds’ mailing list, her note has a distinctly off-hand tone.

By  13 Jan 2001 her note’s content was already reported to Reeds’ mailing list and members were discussing it in  connection with specific problems of the kind no longer acknowledged as existing by the most conservative faction and whose discussion is thereby discouraged, with ‘blanking’ from the record of any non-conservative who might do so. 

Still – let’s move on to one possible hint of the astrological… and trust our brains won’t fall out. 🙂

Astrological versus (purely) Astronomical

Exaltation and Depression?

Consider the following pair  from the first of the ‘April’ diagrams (folio 70v-ii), keeping in mind that the fifteenth-century draughtsman could draw ‘nicely’  but for reasons as yet unclear, didn’t wish to.  What message are we to take from their presentation? What aspects are we supposed to  read as meaningful? What about their postures, for example?


Did the original maker  intend the male  figure is to be read as ‘elevated’/’exalted’ and the female as ‘dejected’ or dismayed?   Or are our  subjective reactions focusing on details he would have dismissed as irrelevant?

If he meant attention paid to their posture, we must realise that such terms as ‘elevation’, ‘exaltation {Gk. ὕψωμα]  and ‘dejection/depression’ [Gk. ταπείνωμα] were used technically of the planets in Byzantine astrology, while  “seldom, if ever, found in the West” -as Pingree observes, though he finds that their illustration  in  Ambrosianus H. 57. sup is drawn ‘in western style’.

Indeed, the draughtsman’s style may be western, but it has  little in common with that of the person who drew the unclothed figures in the Voynich month-folios, except perhaps a common implication (also found in certain Islamic texts) that when figures from polytheistic religions are presented, the images should express moral censure. (see further, below) I say ‘perhaps’ because we have no proof thus far that the Voynich figures were intended as deities or anything of the sort. Neither have I seen any argument which proves that  the Voynich manuscript depicts any of the five planets, let alone all of them.

*The planets proper, the ‘wandering stars’, included only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in medieval times.

re planets…2001

In 2001, a member of the first (Reeds’) mailing list responded to Robert Firth’s comment on the fact that the ‘celestial’ folios hadn’t served as key to the written text as many hoped they might,  by saying  that “we” ‘ ..have quite a number of good (even if not dead certain) [identifications]:- the Pleiades and Aldebaran; – the seven planets; – two sets of twelve labels in 12-segmented circles; – one (or two?) set of 28 segments, “obviously” indicating the mansions of the moon. (12 Jan 2001).  All members of that list, at the time, would have known which of them had contributed each item, with what evidence and what argument (if any) but as yet I don’t know. If you can enlighten me on the point, please do. I’ve seen nothing one could call a cogent argument for it between 2008 and today.

detail) Milan, Ambrosianus H.57.sup. f.112v. Venus – on which see Pingree (1982) p.32

The unclothed pagan deities for each planet are depicted with a certain censure in the Ambrosianus manuscript  –  e.g. Venus (right) is depicted as as a debauchee – given the face of a young and pretty woman but a body heavy, old and exhausted from bearing children by various fathers. I see little obvious similarity between the draughtman’s style and that in the Voynich month-folios.  Expressions of moral censure in depiction of figures from polytheistic religions are  also seen in some Islamic works, notably in the  ‘Book of Marvels’ ‘Kitab al Bulhan’ (MS. Bodl. Or. 133) a seventeenth-century work (or copy) where Voynich-like “glyphs” were also inscribed.

That-last point was initially brought to notice by – I believe  – by Nick Pelling in his review (2008) of Okasha El Daly’s book. A detail (‘Crab’) from the same Bodley ms was later considered by one Voynich blogger whose blog I cannot find online today. In two posts of 2013 the present writer commented on several of  images from that manuscript, together with  other examples of ‘Voynich-like’ glyphs.

An image posted to pininterest by Marco Ponzi associates a detail from the Bodleian ms with one on folio 67v 2. His commentary may appear elsewhere but I’m not willing to join that site to find out.  (Again, if anyone already has more detail, I’d be happy to include it in the comments section below this post.)

On the Greek astrological terms and their significance see e.g.

  • Roger Beck, (2008) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, pp. 57-8
  • Roger Beck, (2017) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology  pp. 242ff.
  • Chris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune.
  • James Evans. Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity (p.135). Evans’ equating ‘Chaldean’ with ‘Babylonian’ is over-confident.
  • Tamysn Barton,  Ancient Astrology (2002).

Neither  Aratus/Cicero’s Aratea, nor Manilius’ Astronomica  (written  c.30–40 AD) makes use of the planets, a point to be kept in mind given the date for 1291 and possible  pre-Christian (but anti-Greek? anti-polytheist?) origin for its ‘women of an hour’ (see previous post).

Manilius in the west

Goold believed that before his election to Pope, Gerbert d’Aurillac had found in Bobbio a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica bound (as Gerbert said) with a copy of Boethius’ text on mathematics. Other scholars have doubted this, attributing the west’s knowledge of that text (as we have it) to Poggio Bracciolini’s practice of  commandeer manuscripts from monastic libraries by his position as papal secretary.  The ‘discoveries’ were then copied (at a price) for members of the Italian literati, who appreciated Poggio’s ‘little arm’. His own view is recorded in one colophon, which translated reads “This oration, formerly lost owing to the fault of the times, Poggio restored to the Latin-speaking world and brought it back to Italy, having found it hidden [sic] in Gaul, in the woods of Langres.” If he had acquired it from Bèze abbey, that copy is unlikely to have been older than the 11th-12thC.

Again with the older period in mind, and possible bridges between  pre-Christian astronomical works and the early fifteenth century when the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ll add here part of the description of Niceforous’ visit to Cyprus in the fourteenth century.  There was still a Lusignan ruler in the island, one who with his chief scholar George Lapithes asked the noble visitor from Constantinople to summarise for them as many astronomical texts as they could gather. They brought him copies of Ptolemy’s works, including the  Tetrabiblos, called Ἀποτελεσματικά ετράβιβλος in the Greek – but also,  according to  Niceforous (I quote from another paper by Pingree):

“all the books that still existed composed about such matters, by Ptolemy’s predecessors and by more recent authors as well as those that had been written in antiquity and by the  Chaldaeans and the Persians”. 

  • George Lapithes and David Pingree, The Byzantine Version of the “Toledan Tables”: The Work of George Lapithes?’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 30 (1976), pp. 85+87-132.

Pingree offers evidence and argument for a/the Greek translation of the Toledan Tables’  in Cyprus during the first half of the fourteenth century, to which same period, as it happens, I assign their ‘return to the Mediterranean’ phase for  the majority of parts in the Voynich manuscript.

Ambrosiana H.57. sup. – evolution 2ndC AD – c.1458..

Claudius Ptolemy lived in the 2ndC AD.  Theon of Alexandria in the 3rdC AD.   So then, discussing the content in the Amrbosiana manuscript, Pingree tells us:

We may conclude, then, that the original [i.e. the Ambrosiana] manuscript was copied in 1358, and that a series of owners for the next century added to it, rearranged it, and annotated it. It is likely that the manuscript was copied in Byzantium, and remained there while these changes and additions were being made to it. There is no absolute proof for this supposition in the manuscript itself, but it is known that the texts in Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. were copied in part from Laurentianus 28, 7;3 and that manuscript can be shown to be Constantinopolitan. (Pingree, op.cit. p.186)


There is no doubt, on the evidence of the script, that the codex could have been written in Constantinople in 1357-58. It is in the style associated with the Hodegoi scriptorium over a period of about half a century.  Western connexions of this scriptorium are not apparent. If they existed they would be more likely at this time to have been with Venice than with Southern Italy.   (ibid. p.192)

.. yet when it comes to those miniatures …(emphasis is mine)

The consensus of opinion is that the style of the miniatures is basically Western, though with an admixture of Byzantine elements. Islamic tradition lies behind the curious iconography, in which the planets are shown with their day- and night-houses, exaltations and dejections: this is seldom, if ever, found in the West. No immediate model has been located in an admittedly cursory search. An artist active in Southern Italy or Sicily may be indicated by the mixture of Italian and French styles. It is not impossible that an artist of, say, the Neapolitan school was working in Constantinople in the mid-fourteenth century – a time when others (Barlaam of Seminara, for example) travelled freely between that city and Italy. No artist answering to this description can, however, be securely documented in Constantinople at this time. Nor can it be assumed that the manuscript was decorated in the same place as it was written: the illustrations may be later additions. Indeed, they look very much as if they are.    (ibid. p.192)


For those who managed to come so far   –  here’s the sweet….

B. Astronomical?

Returning to the pair on folio 70v-ii, a closer look at the female figure…Short-ish hair, large head, figure’s right side drawn with a swelling line, indicating a breast. But where the figure’s left breast would be, there’s only what appears to be a piece of skin, marked with lines evoking sutures or something of that kind. Obviously not a skin-graft  (skin-grafting, history of)

We have a word for females who display just one breast. It’s from the Greek: a- (ἀ-) which means lacking and mazos (μαζός), which means breast, …”without breast”= Amazon.

Classical Greek and Roman imagery doesn’t depict Amazons  lacking a breast. They show a figure who is usually short-haired,  sometimes in armour which can include a breast-cover, or with only one breast covered by clothing and/or armour.

Interestingly, on fol. 70v-ii, the breastplate has been understood by the draughtsman to be of the high-collared type. The two images (at right) are shown simply to demonstrate that high-collared breastplates,  for females, are not entirely unattested.  An amazonian caryatid in Dresden wears armour very similar in deign to the Keralan type. That caryatid is described (by a seller of prints) as  ‘an ancient wall sculpture’. I can only say that their definition of ‘ancient’ is unusual.

The Keralan tradition marks by such means one of the eight chief patron- ‘mother’ goddesses, known to be warrior-women when necessary.

To this day women archers may don a breast cover in addition to the cover always provided for the forearm by the long, skin-tight sleeve and/or by a wrist-guard which might be better called a forearm-guard (but isn’t).  These were traditionally made of thick leather; The present day Olympian (below) wears ones of modern materials.

When you consider that women in pre-Renaissance Europe didn’t normally ever handle a bow, and that  the two drawings in the lower register were made  two thousand years apart from each other, the conceptual image informing the physical image per se has evidently survived remarkably well. The fifteenth-century draughtsman understood his exemplar.


So now – which star(s) if any might have been identified as  ‘Amazon’ by any tradition of star-lore, at any time between the 5thC BC and 15thC AD? Here are two possibilities from the Greco-Latin-Arab traditions with which I think readers will be most familiar.


  1. alpha [α] Virginis (Lat.Spica) ?

According to the 15thC Yemeni, Ibn Majid, the star α Virginis serves as the manzil (lunar station/mansion) and in that context is known as Simak al A’zal, ‘warrior without a spear’ (Tibbett’s translation p.100). And the figure from the first April diagram certainly has none.  However, women of the Arab tribes in Arabia, and more particularly of the Yemen, appear from the early accounts to have been treated more on par with men and in the pre-Islamic period to have been decidedly martial. By comparing with both older and early medieval works, it appears that until the seventh century AD, α Virginis may  have been often envisaged as a female warrior, one who roared or howled in the attack.   As Virgo, she is still armed in an image within the 9thC Byzantine manuscript

9thC Greek  (prob. from a late classical source)

A star-ceiling made in Egypt under the patronage of the Roman emperor Tiberius in 50BC, shows Virgo holding a ‘spike’ staff of some kind. The image shown here (below, right) is  as illustrated by Wallace Budge.

1stC BC. image in late-Hellenistic Dendera. If the spike is papyrus, the use of palm and scroll as alternative is understandable.

While Virgo’s spike-star  was generally envisaged as a stalk or sheaf of wheat for most of the Latin period, the alternative tradition was not forgotten, and the late image seen below shows how it was preserved – as a martyr-like palm branch held delicately by a more passive and ladylike virgin angel.

So if this is the intention behind the ‘Amazon’ on folio 70v-ii, her being without a weapon may be due to the same cultural attitudes (not necessarily Arab) which sees  the ‘ladies of an hour’ drawn with arms deprived of strength in folio 9r- as we also see   in the month-folios of the Vms.


In both instances, the informing ideas appear to me  indicative of deep-seated belief that the stars had effective power to harm and I doubt such fear derives from the classical Greeks or from the Orthodox Christians of ninth-century Constantinople. That  has drawn on ideologically opposed traditions is evident if one compares the charming figure for Virgo in the ‘helios’ diagram (folio 9r) with the frankly unnerving and skeltal ‘ghost’ which is one of the few figures un-erased from the same manuscript’s planispheric ‘night sky’. (right)

So let’s return to the charming Virgo.  Unlike her counterpart on folio 23r of that manuscript, hers is not  the stocky body we associate with Europe’s late Roman art. She is envisaged as a slender and elegant messenger, whose ‘spike’  now appears more like rolled scroll. (angelos means ‘messenger’.)

This may be a good moment to remind readers that Alain Touwaide said the Voynich manuscript’s appearance suggested to him the sort of Byzantine hospital workers’ notebooks called iatrosophia, though it wasn’t one.

Touwaide has studied such manuals within his wider area of specialisation, and among his publications  is

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Byzantine Hospital Manuals (Iatrosophia) as a Source for the Study of Therapeutics’, in Barbara S. Bowers (ed.), The Medieval Hospital and Medical Practice  pp.147-173 of Vol. 3 of AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, (2007).

I agree that in the  Vms, we have a compilation of matter brought together for an entirely practical purpose, and find it possible the ‘bringing together’ may have occurred in comparable circumstances, and even within the Byzantine sphere, but having already treated in detail a large proportion of the Vms’ imagery,  I am glad that I am not in the unenviable position of having to differ from Professor Touwaide on the ‘practical handbook’ issue, or the ‘compilation’ issue, though I should have been obliged, unhappily, to do so had he said the whole was a work of medicine, or even of astrological medicine.

  • at the moment I can’t refer you to the printed version of Touwaide’s Voynich talk (or, rather first Voynich talk) at Mondragone.  The book is unobtainable, and Stephen Bax’ site where it had been shortly reviewed is presently infected by some virus.  Maybe later.

2. gamma [γ] Orionis.

Hinkley Allen informs us that in  “the Alfonsine tables” (no version or copy is specified) the star γ Orionis has a previously-unattested name, as  Bellatrix – a term from Latin and which means again, a female warrior.

Note – Ptolemy’s Tables, Alfonsine or Toledan Tables in Voynich studies

I was surprised to find no mention of any of these tables in Voynich writings or chats until speculations about occult topics had taken been current for about ninety years.

One would have thought an examination of standard sources for astronomical knowledge would be tested first before resort was had to speculation, but things went the other way.  Perhaps, yet again, we must attribute this oddness in the study first to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale, and a feeling among some that support for the ‘Rudolf’ idea had to marshalled.   However that may be, even today (Nov.2019), I find no mention of the Toledan tables at Nick Pelling’s site, or at  I believe there was some talk of them in comments to Stephen Bax’ site, but at present it is under ‘virus interdiction’. I hope to check it and properly credit anyone who posted there if/when the site and its comments return.

Otherwise, I have found nothing about the Alfonsine or Tioledan tables (do let me know if you know better) until 2002 (ninety years after Voynich acquired the manuscript), when Luis Vélez’ says in  Reeds’ mailing list (Tue, 16 Jul 2002):

Thus, students of medicine at Bologna… learnt astrology [sic.] for four years, including grounding in Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemy’s Almagest. In addition, they learnt how to use instruments such as the astrolabe and the quadrant, and were taught how to use the Alfonsine Tables along with their canons. ..


Hinkley-Allen suggests ‘Bellatix’  was gained by mis-translation of an Arabic term, ‘roaring lion’.  I should have been inclined to dismiss this altogether, as mere transposition of some term for a star in Virgo – except that it survives experiment extremely well.  Experiment involves cultural and specific context, in addition to the image’s individual characteristics and drawing-style.

As you see, where the chap looks quite upbeat, the female looks decidedly “down”, doesn’t she?

Those interested in the written part of the Voynich manuscript might care to research uses for the opposition between elevation/exultation and subjection/ being downcast as applied by older works to matters other than planetary dispositions.

And with these two feasible identifications, mentioned  I’ll leave the astronomical and astrological possibilities for you to think about, except a last note that in another place, according to Tibbett’s note, al ibn Majid identifies Bellatrix with Orion’s hand [lit. Yad al Jauza’, usually Betelgeuse],  and it is in connection with this passage that Majid relates a condensed ‘cipher’ mnemonic for some fairly technical and mathematical matter.

Should it be of interest to any reader, description of that ‘cipher-mnemonic’ runs from the last paragraph on p.87 to the end of the first paragraph on f.88 in Tibbett’s English translation..

Postscript: From the research into historical and cultural context – I think one topic should have been mentioned, viz. the Indian tradition.  Thus, our Bellatrix (γ Orionis) is still recorded as ‘Yad al Jawzã’ al-Yusrã’ on astrolabes made in Lahore by a ‘dynasty’ of astrolabe makers in the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries.

  • see e.g. Mubashir ul-Haq Abbasi and Sreeramula Raeswars Sarma, ‘An Astrolabe by Muḥammad Muqīm of Lahore Dated 1047 AH (1637-38 CE)’, Islamic Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 2014), pp. 37-65

In the same context, the ‘serpentine’ extension behind Betelgeuse may allude to the ‘Ketu’ (headless body) of Rahu Ketu in Tamil and Hindu astronomy.  The sources differ considerably and I don’t want to give an impression that I place much importance on it.)

Also, we know that the Indian and Muslim traditions were both still present in Iberia during the fourteenth century, as Chabas and Goldstein (among others) have said:

quote stars Jews Spain astronomical tables 14thC Indian trad


I had meant to now talk about chorography, and identifications of stars with places – not by astrology but by an older system of observation and  a mythos of locality.. as well as by nominal superimposition of  celestial and terrestrial co-ordinates (made easier in medieval times if one had an astrolabe).

I would have begun from the classical sources’ identification of Amazon lands, by Herodotus and later authors, illustrated by a couple of maps, and then moved on to the technical correlations for star-and-place as well as the various astrological equations of peoples and regions …. coins, legends, Manilius, Dorothea of Sidon etc., remarks on Genoa’s colonies in the Black Sea (from c.1290s to the time the Plague came..) and so, eventually,  to Ptolemy’s co-ordinates.

But this post is already a trying length, almost 4,700 words, so I’ll leave all that material from my logs aside, except to say the Voynich ‘strings’ may bind place and star.

The star-place correspondence system has to be conceptual or temporary because the vernal equinox moves, as the first minute of right ascension doesn’t.  Then there are also the eastern navigator’s “fetterings” but …alas.. who’d ever read so much?

At least you have some sources for this last and  far from unimportant section.

edit (6th December 2019).

Can’t get the ‘comments’ to include this image, so here it is. Proof of relevance to c.1420.  See second of the comments following this post.


Stars above 5c: Proportion and desire in folio 70v

Header: image from “The LIghts of Canopus” ( Anvār-i Suhaylī) Walters Museum.(p.310 of the Museum’s pdf).

Previous two:


For those who’ve just arrived..  In addition to discovering why G. Sergius Orata –  who flourished in Campania c.95 BC – should be imagined ‘oriental’ by a fifteenth-century French translator, and his artist, this series of posts has pursued three other themes in parallel: the first, that any impression Orata’s ‘bodies in baskets’ are ‘a match’ for the Voynich month-diagrams is ill-founded; the second, that Orata’s depiction as ‘oriental’ was not due to whimsy and third – that should this line of enquiry intersect with the time and/or place from which the month-diagrams first emerged, that fact should be evident from the appearance of similar imagery – allowing us access to the context and informing ways of thought for the month-diagrams.

In an extremely minimalist way – or, if you like a simplistic one  – we are mapping entanglements; not only within chronological periods but between them.

The first, temporal, line has been drawn: from Italy in Orata’s time (early 1st C BC) until monotheism had effectively replaced polytheism throughout lands adjacent to the Mediterranean and to as far north as Constantinople (early 5thC AD).    At each stage, I’m cross-referencing with contemporary names and texts known to at least a few persons in fifteenth century Europe – because by c.1438 the content now in the Voynich manuscript had been copied and the text block bound in a (somewhat anomalous) Latin style.

Leaving aside for the moment the month diagrams’ central emblems, we can be sure that the audience for which the rest of them was first made had not been medieval Latins (western European Christians) – because:

(1) a century’s efforts to find any comparable images, visual or verbal, in the Latins’ corpus, or to explain the diagrams in those terms, has invariably failed.

An extraordinary amount of material has been generated on the subject of the central emblems, but has not  advanced our understanding of the diagrams’ purpose or of ‘Voynichese’ far as I have been able to discover.  As ever, if you know better, do leave a comment.

(2) The diagrams include features out-of-keeping with Latin European practice.  An obvious instance is the way the tiered figures in folio 70v are depicted as if their shoulders and arms were broken or boneless. This had never been explained by any Voynich theory of which I’m aware.   The general habit has ever been to wave off such disparities from a  Latin norm  with some such confident (if  imaginative) assertion as that the draughtsman was mad, immature or  ‘mediocre at best’ etc. Few seem to realise that such assertions raise still more questions unaddressed – such as  “if one scribe’s work was poor, why was he/she not replaced?’.

*Beneath such assertions are unexamined assumptions which would surely embarrass those Voynicheros as much as they do external specialists, were the former conscious of what their assumptions imply.

(detail) folio 70v

In any case, is plainly untrue to say that the draughtsman who produced the diagram we have on folio 70v was incompetent or mediocre.

You need only consider our paradigmatic example (left) and the scale to which it is drawn to see that. (see detail at right)

re Scale

I sometimes think the Beinecke would do well to provide an option which allows readers to overlay the digital pages with a measured grid.
I can only show relative proportion here, but opening the image in a new tab on your tablet or laptop, or taking a ruler to the facsimile edition if you have one, will let you do the calculations. I make it that the detail measures approx. 20 mm x 25mm. (0.8 inches x 0.99 in)


The  torso is drawn with an elegant economy, and sureness of line, with delicacy and mastery of technique as of form.   Consider the scale within which he has achieved this drawing.   And yet, entirely competent as he was, the same draughtman rendered the arms and shoulders ‘boneless’.

In one sense, this example has betrayed him, by revealing his level of skill and the fact that – had he wished – he might have drawn the whole figure in a way satisfactory to the classical tradition and to late medieval Latin Europe.  And it  isn’t just the torso which shows his ability.  Look at the figure’s left-hand side – at the neck;  the muscle is beautifully realised where it meets the clavicle,  with just a single surely-placed touch of the pen.  (To be technical about it, that’s the sternocleidomastoid muscle). The drawing doesn’t imply medical learning; just a sure hand and eye.

He could surely draw.  He could draw. in miniature scale, in a way distinguishing flesh from bone and bone from muscle below that flesh; he could draw a female body in proportion – something which monastic artists and others often found difficult to do, even if the figure was clothed.

That’s the point: he didn’t want to make a ‘realistic’ figure.  In fact, (still exempting the central emblems in the month-diagrams), there is within the whole of this manuscript and despite evidence that more than one draughtsman worked on it, only one detail   (at the top of folio 80r) which might be considered the ‘realistic’ depiction of any living thing. And even that enslaved and shamed figure might represent a city, or a people, or (among other possibilities) the name – not the form – of the ‘chained woman’ constellation* rather than any individual persons.


Since I first set out my reasons for considering the ‘bathy-‘ section’s ladies to represent both star-and-place,  in the context of a practical handbook, Koen Gheuens first accepted my opinion in general, but explored it in terms of mainstream Latin textual traditions, chiefly Aratus and the Aratea and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and taking each figure or group to represent a constellation where I had thought each a single star or asterism.   Others following the same line (after 2011) have rarely acknowledged these precedents, some claiming ‘the idea’ a sudden one of their own for which they provide no evidence of preliminary studies, nor post-inspiration work in justification. Others remaining silent, newcomers reading the ‘inspired’ person either credit him/her with its origin, or again repeat the supposed ‘idea’ without mention of any source.  In this way, yet another opening door is slammed shut rather than investigated further, and the matter becomes so utterly fog-bound, that the persons who produce a seminal study may well find that, just a few years later, they are accused of imitating the imitators.   This now-regular pattern in ‘Voynich studies’ is why the  ground-hog-day fog expands; the study as such devolves or turns endlessly in circles, and  why  a revisionist approach becomes ever more urgent. I might add that Andromeda is not the only possible astronomical association, either.

Think about it.  The fifteenth-century copyist didn’t wish* to draw the figures in folio 70v as the likeness of living beings.

*It is difficult in English to describe an action without ascribing or implying volition to a specific subject.   In fact, I don’t  assume this individual had  – or that he hadn’t – complete autonomy, nor that the figures’  distortion originated with him, or with the present copy, though in both cases, the possibility exists. The point is (a) that there must be a reason for it and (b) it is not a custom of the medieval Latins.  

A paradox like this is pleasing to the provenancer and iconographic analyst because intention is always revealing of environment –  physical,  intellectual, social and often too, linguistic.

I expect that some of my readers having prior studies in one of a number of external disciplines will already have felt an eye-widening moment.  By all means – feel free to anticipate the direction these posts will take, though others must wait while the historical material unfolds just as it did when I did the research – almost a decade ago now.

As I revisit the logs, I’m checking sources and  include more recent references where I think them likely to be more useful.   Some issues and themes on which little had been written in English in 2008 have received more scholarly attention since then.

All clear?  Very well, let us proceed..

Artemis Phosphoros.

POMPEY was prompted to compare Lucullus to Xerxes because they both knew that Lucullus’ creating a new, sheltered arm of the sea imitated the remarkable natural features which made the Golden Horn a source of riches to Byzantion.  Similarly, the ‘praying/imploring boy’ – an ancient statue – stood near  natural oyster beds supposed inexhaustible off the east coast of Pera, and Pliny mocks G. Sergius, given the cognomen ‘Orata’ for his interest in oysters.

But a place was also known by its presiding deity who was, in a sense, the embodiment of that place and inhabitants: in something of the way that a king in Europe could say ‘I am France’.

Artemis Phosphoros with ‘mild Aphrodite’ were Pera in that sense, the coins showing her paired with fishes or with a Syrian star and crescent.  (The tyche of Syrian Harran with its unique sign for ‘North star’ is shown (right).

She who ‘brings to light’* – Artemis Phosphoros  – shared certain features with the Syrian goddess (for whom no simple equation existed within the Greek or the Roman Pantheon).

*older peoples believed that an object was seen when rays emitted from the viewer’s eyes ‘grasped’ it; this led on the one hand to fear of being captured by the rays of an ill-intentioned person or deity (the’evil eye’) and on the other to a perception that one who ‘brought to light’ did so by dispelling the barrier hitherto lying between an object and the beams from one’s eye, as it were drawing the thing from below its cover.  Thus, the translation ‘bringer-to-light’ is to be preferred to the easier ‘light bearer’.

That Artemis was regularly ‘identified with/assimilated to’ the Dea Syria in sites of the eastern Mediterranean in Hellenistic times, and to as far as the Persian Gulf, is well known.  In the east, she is sometimes described simply as ‘the Lady’ [η κυρια]; at other times described as Phosphoros. References are many and easy to find, but just as examples for date and range:

“Hierapolis-Bambyce was the single most important sanctuary of Atargatis and Hadad in Syria and… the Syrian Great Goddess incorporated Artemis/Diana as one of her many manifestations.” Nicholas L. Wright, ‘Seleucid Royal Cult, Indigenous Religious Traditions, and Radiate Crowns: the Numismatic Evidence’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 18 (2005), pp. 67-82. (p.78).

[at Failaka] on the beach to the east of the fortress, [the structure] has been partly destroyed by sea erosion. The sanctuary was dedicated to Artemis and can dated to the first half of the second century BC” Abdullah Saud al -Saud, ‘Central Arabia during the early Hellenistic period, with particular reference to the site of al -‘Ayun in the area of al -Aflaj in Saudi Arabia’, (Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1991) p.52, citing  (Callot et al. 1987, 37 -45).

In this post I’ll summarise those aspects of the Syrian goddess’ cult echoed in Pera and by the deeds of those fish-breeders of Naples.  After that, we may at last turn our backs on Orata and that fifteenth century French manuscript, moving on to the month-diagrams’ iconography and meaning.

Dea Syria – Hierapolis and Pera

As a rule, the older Greeks and Romans expected the same divinities would be worshipped everywhere and would differ from their own only to the degree that, for example,  Athena Parthenos differed from their Athena Agelêïs. Classical texts may ignore the foreign god’s native name and just translate it as they might translate any other foreign word by its nearest equivalent. This practice brought non-classical figures into the west with classical names attached, leading various later writers to wild errors, including Seznec whose opinions on the derivation of all gods from the Greek, Roman or Egyptian is to be regretted.

But when it came to the Dea Syria, no simple equation presented itself.  Her attributes and associated deities or epithets remain a subject of scholarly research and discussion today, but for our needs, the description of her image in Hierapolis* will do.

*Hierapolis  was also known as Bambyce and later as  Marbug. mod. Manbij. Coins have ‘Hieropolis’ – on which see Hierapolis’  in Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (Vol. 1).

Writing in the 2ndC AD, the treatise’s author said:

“While the overall effect is certainly that of Hera, she also has something of Athena and Aphrodite and Selene [the Moon] and Rhea [‘that which flows’] and Artemis and Nemesis and the Fates” (De Dea Syria §32). Compare with the image below. 

  • H. J. W. Drijvers, Cults and Beliefs at Edessa (1980) see esp. inscriptions and notes p. 117-118
Fish pools.

At Hierapolis and elsewhere were pools of sacred fish. The best known today is in Edessa, whose traditions were not derivative of Hierapolis’ but cross-referenced them.

The point I want to emphasise here is that customs and ideas native to, or deeply embedded in, a region and its peoples survived for millennia in pre-modern times and did so regardless of time, war, ruling powers and theologies.  Edessa’s pool offers a fine illustration in point.

Recent archaeological studies have shown that Edessa’s fish-pool has been a focus of religious belief for about ten thousand years.

A couple of centuries after the tract De Dea Syria was written and whose author understood reverence for such pools an aspect of the Syrian godess’ worship, Edessa had become a major Christian centre and a station on the Pilgrimage route to Jerusalem. In the 380s AD, a pilgrim named Egeria passed through and was provided with a fully-developed Christian explanation for the same pool, an explanation she duly recorded.   Another three centuries on, Edessa was part of the Arabs’ empire, and a modern writer sets out its current explanation:

“A legend, originally Jewish but taken over by the Muslims, tells that the evil king Nimrod wanted to punish Ibrahim [Abraham], and threw him from the citadel into the fire. The fire, however, changed into a pool of water and the logs of wood into fish, which are venerated until the present day by Sunnites and Shi’ites alike.”  ( ‘Edessa’)

The pool of Edessa, Syria.

Egeria also visited Harran.

Edessa’s pool according to Egeria [sometimes wrongly as ‘Etheria’].

The vital part is in bold. I add more for those interested.

I came, in the Name of God, at the fifteenth milestone [of the Pilgrimage route to Jerusalem] to the river Euphrates, of which it is very well written that it is the great river Euphrates [Genesis 15:18] for it is huge and, as it were, terrible, for it flows down with a current like the river Rhône, only the Euphrates is still greater. And as we had to cross in ships, and in large ships only, I waited there until after midday, and then in the Name of God I crossed the river Euphrates and entered the borders of Mesopotamia in Syria.


Then, journeying through certain stations [of the Pilgrimage], I came to a city whose name we read recorded in the Scriptures–Batanis,[Bathnae in Osrhoene] which city exists to-day: it has a church with a truly holy bishop …. The city has a teeming population, and the soldiery with their tribune are stationed there.

Departing thence, we arrived at Edessa in the Name of Christ our God, and, on our arrival, we straightway repaired to the church and memorial of saint Thomas [the Apostle to India]. There, according to custom, prayers were made and the other [customary] things … were done; we read also some things concerning saint Thomas himself. The church [Hagia Sophia, destroyed around the middle of the 12thC AD] there is very great, very beautiful and of new construction, well worthy to be the house of God, and [I made]...a three days’ stay there. Thus I saw in that city many memorials, together with holy monks, some dwelling at the memorials, while others had their cells in more secluded spots farther from the city. Moreover, the holy bishop … received me willingly and said: “… if you are willing, we  will show you all the places that are pleasant to the sight of Christians.” Then, …. he led me first to the palace of King Abgar, where he showed me a great marble statue of him… Then the holy bishop said to me: “Behold King Abgar, who before he saw the Lord believed in Him that He was in truth the Son of God.” There was another statue near, made of the same marble, which he said was that of his son Magnus…. Then we entered the inner part of the palace, and there were fountains [better: ‘springs’] full of fish such as I never saw before, of so great size, so bright and of so good a flavour were they. The city has no water at all other than that which comes out of the palace, which is like a great silver river.

Then the holy bishop told me about the water, saying: ” At some time, after that King Abgar had written to the Lord … the Persians came against the city and surrounded it. And straightway Abgar, bearing the letter of the Lord to the gate, with all his army, prayed publicly. And he said: “O Lord Jesus, Thou hadst promised us that none of our enemies should enter this city, and lo! the Persians now attack us.” And when the king had said this, holding the open letter in his uplifted hands, suddenly there came a great darkness outside the city before the eyes of the Persians, as they were approaching the city at a distance of about three miles, and they were so baffled by the darkness that they could hardly form their camp and surround the whole city about three miles off. So baffled were the Persians that they could never afterwards see the way to enter the city, but they surrounded it and shut it in with their hostile forces, at a distance of about three miles, for several months. Then, when they saw that they could by no means enter, they wished to slay those within the city by thirst. Now that little hill …over against the city, supplied it with water at that time, and the Persians, perceiving this, diverted the water from the city and made it to run near that place where they had made their camp. And on that day and at that hour when the Persians diverted the water, the fountains which you see in this place burst forth at once at God’s bidding, and by the favour of God they remain here from that day to this. But the water which the Persians had diverted was dried up at that hour, so that they who were besieging the city had nothing to drink for even one day; which thing is plain to the present time, for no moisture of any sort has ever been seen there from that day to this. So, at God’s bidding, … they were obliged to return to their own home in Persia. Moreover afterwards, as often as enemies determined to come and take the city, this letter was brought out and read in the gate, and straightway all enemies were driven back by the will of God. The holy Bishop also told me that the place where these fountains broke forth had previously been open ground within the city, lying before and below the palace of King Abgar..but after these fountains had burst forth here, then Abgar built this palace for his son … so that the fountains should be included in the palace.

Moreover the holy man … took us also to the palace which King Abgar had at first, on the higher ground.

CHARRAE’ (Harran; Haran; Roman Carrhae)

Then, after three days spent there, it was necessary for me to go still farther, to Charrae, ..where holy Abraham dwelt, as it is written in Genesis when the Lord said unto Abram: Get thee out of thy country, and from thy father’s house, and go to Charran (Gen. 12:4).  … I saw the bishop of the place [who] took us at once to the church, which is without the city on the spot where stood the house of holy Abraham; it stands on the same foundations.

A interesting commentary on Eastern (Syriac) Christian symbolism, in language, art and architecture:

  • Andrew Palmer and Lyn Rodley, ‘The inauguration anthem of Hagia Sophia in Edessa: a new edition and translation with historical and architectural notes and a comparison with a contemporary Constantinopolitan kontakion’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Volume 12, (1988)  pp. 117-168.

Another Edessa exists in northern Greece.

The difference between the Greeks and the ancient Syrian worshippers, was that while the Greeks show no aversion to eating fish, even fish from the holy pool, the ‘Syrians’ abhorred fish-eaters,  as several authors attest. And – as in Pera – the chief deity is associated with another figure, an aquatic hybrid – what the Romans would call a ‘monster’.

Texts and notes.

In the words of Xenophon,”…. to the river Chalus. That river is a hundred feet broad, and is stocked with tame fish which the Syrians regard as gods, and will not suffer to be injured.”

The author of De Dea Syria speaks of this aversion more in terms of Phoenician beliefs and their fish-tailed figure, whose name he translates as ‘Decerto’.

“I have seen the semblance of Derceto in Phoenicia, and a wonderful sight it is ; one half is a woman, but the part which extends from the thighs to the feet ends in a fish’s tail… The effigy, however, which is at Hierapolis is a complete woman. The reasons for this story are plain to understand ; they deem fishes holy objects, and never touch them. Of birds they use all but pigeons for food; the pigeon is in their eyes sacred.”

The translators add: “other famous Syrian shrines of Derceto were at Carnion and Askelon”.


Half-fish; half human

The image (below, right) shows such a figure as that described by the author of De Dea Syria as Phoenician.  It is given a border that could be described as ‘lilywork’ – but it comes from Cambodia where it is now part of Buddhist belief and named ‘Soma’.  Within the Hindu pantheon, too, there is an equivalent figure (Matsya) , honoured only in a few centres all of which were anciently, as well as later, centres of foreign trade and residence adjacent to the eastern sea.

In the research earlier shared online, I mentioned Matsya but not Soma in treating a detail on f.79v and explaining Kircher’s dependence on Baldeus for his image of Matsya within own China Illustrata.  Today, Matsya has been mentioned by other Voynich writers using the same illustrations as I did so there is no need to repeat them here. However, I had not mentioned the figure of ‘Soma’ and no other Voynich writer has done so yet, as far as I’m aware.  If you know better, do leave a note so that I can quote the precedent. In none of these cases, however, is there any suggestion of the ‘horrible monster’ and I do not think such character attached to the Phoenician figure whom others called ‘Decerto’.

Perhaps here I should add that Mediterranean traders – including some Europeans (chiefly Genoese) – are known to have been resident in India and southeast Asia by the late thirteenth century.  Contemporary accounts suggest the enclaves were well populated, on the same routes by which eastern ‘spices’ and gems had been entering the Mediterranean world from before the Roman era. A painting found in Pompeii shows what is undoubtedly a piece of bamboo, used as a garden stake.

Decerto as monster.


For Decerto see also Metamorphoses, Bk. 4.32.

Pliny, the quintessential Roman,  describes her as  ‘monster’.  For the Greeks, the re-born Dercerto presented an equivalent for  sea-born Aphrodite or, as would later be recorded (by Nonnus, in the 5thC AD), for ‘monstrous’ Keto as mother of  ‘Astris’. (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 26. 350 ff.)

The older imagery (usually described as Greek) shows a female measurer of stars and waters, effectively patron of navigators.

Her tokens were the oyster(?)- shell (as loḥ), the knotted measuring cords as strings of pearls, and the rod as measuring (‘back-‘) staff. [Sorry to get technical without providing more detail] Her motif was the triangle of stars, indicating those used to determine the position of the southern celestial Pole and more generally consignment to the underworld, the region below the surface of land and sea.  The last motif, formed of three dots, appears with its original implications in images of the Hellenistic and eastern Roman world, surviving even in one or two early medieval western Christian works – and is used in its original sense of ‘South/Under’ on the Voynich map. (left, bottom register).

As a sign for the sea-ways, too, the ‘ivy road’ was to survive (or revive) in later medieval Europe, not as the ornamental ‘ivy border’ which actually represents Byrony, but in a true (often white-on-blue) style and in consciously ‘antique’ works of the Italian renaissance copyists.

Otherwise, the three-dot motif was employed in post-classical works as repeat pattern, first as token for the night sky and later as purely decorative element.

I first explained the foregoing when treating the different direction-emblems in the Voynich manuscript – first in  post to ‘Findings’, and later at Voynichimagery.

I add here (above) a few of the  illustrations I used then.  Perhaps in this present context, their significance may be clearer.  The second image (left, middle register) is a syncretistic figure of Cleopatra, incorporating emblems of numerous female deities worshipped in Egypt’s Late Hellenistic environment.  The signs include  those for Demeter, Isis and Aphrodite and, in my opinion, for that figure the Greeks called Artemis Phosphoros.

Demeter was the Greek patron of grain; Egyptian Isis was identified with Sirius, the second brightest star in the heavens and the brightest visible to all the Mediterranean,  while Aphrodite had been born from the sea-foam. The figure in the upper register is often termed ‘Scylla’ but this is also a translation, the deity being older than the Greeks and probably of Semitic origin. It is possible I suppose – though I’m not inclined to think it – that this figure was the original type for the Voynich ‘mermaid’.

I trust that the foregoing has demonstrated plainly enough why contemporaries who knew of Lucullus and Orata’s making fish-pools and a ‘new Byzantion’ in Campania, took it to imply an oriental character in those men, something viewed with distaste by staunch Romans such as Pliny .  And, whether intelligently or accidentally, the fifteenth century French painter rightly envisaged  Orata so.But there is no evidence that Orata had any interest in running a public bath-house; all the evidence is that his only interest, verging on obsession, was with sea-food.

I think we may now leave G. Sergius Orata in peace, having (I hope) dissuaded Voynicheros from efforts to link his  fish-pools and hot-water ‘baths’ to Vitruvius, and so turn without those misleading ideas to consider the month-diagrams anew.

phase added to clarify. 28th Sept. 2019

Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine’

Header Illustration: composite image. includes detail from Brit.Lib. Harley MS 5751  f.15
Two previous:

We are still considering the period 1912-2000, and matters other than ‘Voynichese’.

During those eighty years from 1912-2000,  scholars expert in one or another aspect of Europe’s intellectual and artistic heritage could suggest not a single close comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s content and imagery from among the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Latins’ (western Christian) manuscripts they had seen – no matter what their area of specialisation,

It was always over the fence;  ‘someone else’s problem’.

This is an interval post – just a pause for perspective.

not GERMAN-CHRISTIAN ART – Panofsky and Petersen

Erwin Panofsky and Theodore Petersen specialised in the Christian art of medieval and (northern) Renaissance Germany.  Neither saw the manuscript as in that tradition.

In 1932, after spending two hours examining the manuscript in New York, Panofsky had correctly dated its manufacture: ‘1410-1420-1430’, an evaluation whose precision would not be matched until 2011, when radiocarbon dating returned the range 1404-1438.

Panofsky attributed  its content not to Christian-German work but to “the southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain” and to a Judeo-Arabic cultural environment. His reasons for saying otherwise in writing answers for Friedman’s ‘quiz’ questions in 1954 have already been discussed.

For Panofsky’s dating see the letter of ‘E.L.V’ to Professor Thompson transcribed in ‘Correspondence’ at the end of my post ‘Expert Opinions – Richard Salomon‘. The original letter is in the Beinecke Library, Yale.

…… and Panofsky was the first to cite any specific comparison but – as would thereafter become a constant in discussions of this manuscript – he compared just a single detail in it with a single detail from another manuscript, and did not even suggest the comparison close enough to call a ‘match’.

As Nill later wrote, “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript,  [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”  The comparison was between one diagram from the Voynich calendar and one from Alfonso X‘s Libros del saber de astronomía.  That Panofsky knew the latter is an indication of his range, for it exists in a single manuscript, and that in Madrid.  Consider the range of exclusion implied.

 LATIN HANDS? – Salomon, Barrett and ‘not-saying-who’.

Richard Salomon, a specialist in Latin palaeography, recognised only one line of marginalia, which he read as medieval legal German – and whose date he then applied to the manuscript as a whole.

At that time, he had seen only a black and white photostat copy, and while an offer was made for him to see the original, I’ve found no record that he ever did.  His circumstances after 1932 were so disrupted and so distressing that he was never able to return to his chief area of interest, lacking access to appropriate texts and references.

Of the hand(s) within the main text, and of that which wrote the month-names, I’ve seen no evidence of his saying anything before or after 1932, though something may yet be found in others’ letters from him.

Some Voynich researchers have guessed a  Caroline hand; others as ‘influenced by the Humanist style’, but the specialists have said nothing, though not positively protesting Wilfrid’s opinion that the script was that of a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman scholar.

Remarkably little time or attention was paid to this matter of palaeography, and for my knowledge of these views I am indebted first to Nick Pelling, and through him to the sources he cited, including Reeds’ mailing list and articles by Barbara Barrett.  Pelling disagreed with the latter, but for the sake of balance referred to Barrett’s views anyway.  Other sites have, since then, copied (and sometimes rightly attributed) the same material.

an insubstantial argument

I’ve recently seen it asserted,  with no evidence offered and my  request for directions to the original argument refused with some vigour,  that someone has argued a case for considering inscription of the German (and only the German) marginalia so closely contemporary with the rest of the work that we should believe  the whole manuscript to be, in some sense, a product of German culture.

Given the non-German month-inscriptions, the character of the imagery overall, the Italian binding of the book-block, the opinion of consummate experts with no ‘guess’ to grind… and so on, it is not an idea I’m willing to take on faith. Perhaps someone would like to raise the question on a forum? Do leave a comment if you find a clear answer.



Adam McLean, a specialist in the history of alchemy, responded as the experts do: “S.E.P”.  Since non-specialists enthusiastic about the ‘alchemy’ idea have continued to push it (though the radiocarbon dating silenced them for a time), I’ll reproduce McLean’s comments, taking them from  Dennis Stallings’ report to the second mailing list: (09:40 AM 11/19/98 -0600)

Dennis had said: ‘Hello, Adam!..  Mary D’Imperio, in her survey of VMs studies up to 1978, thought that alchemy might be the key to understanding the VMs.  However, current [mailing-list] members, including myself, see little if any alchemical content in the VMs.  None of us, however, are experts. What is your opinion on this.  What alchemical imagery can you see in the VMs?

to which Adam replied:

Dear Dennis

All I can say is that I have never seen an alchemical manuscript with the same imagery and pictures as are found in the Voynich. …The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one. …  I have an open mind on the subject, but have yet to see any real parallels. Perhaps one day I will find a manuscript that I recognize has common features with the Voynich – but not so far. I don’t think I could  find any way at present to use alchemical manuscripts or ideas to throw light on the ‘Balneological section.

and then:

The plant drawings in  the ‘Herbal section’ have many forerunners some going back centuries before the Voynich, as has been extensively documented. [This is still widely believed, but the ‘documentation’ is less, and less solid, than most suppose].    The drawings in the Astronomical section again seem to have many parallels in known manuscripts. [widely believed but ill-supported by evidence].…  

.. but, once again, the expert’s view is ‘Not one of mine’. And rightly so.  A specialist cannot blur the lines between what is demonstrably true, and what is desired true by others. Not that the others necessarily take heed.

A list of alchemical mss in the British Library, from Adam McLean’s website

‘alchemical’ notion revives,  five years later… My apologies.

The ‘alchemical’ text notion – killed off after McLean’s expert dismissal in the 1990s – was well and truly dead in early 2013. Unfortunately in presenting the analytical-critical study for folio 4v,  I gave it a whimsical title, ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’ as summary of my findings.  In short, that the plant-group referred to by the drawing was that of the eastern clematis and that what had previously been imagined a curious form for the root was, in fact, a depiction of the double gourd, whose place in culture and iconography of the regions from east Africa to southern China (essentially the medieval trade routes) I summarised and illustrated, mentioning that clematis was not much used in eastern medicine (nor was western clematis in the Latin tradition), but the wood and root of eastern species were used to make scented substances (perfumes and incense etc.), and when formed in metal the double-gourd was also used as a type of ‘small a‘ alchemical receiver, just as the ordinary sort was used for liquids.

As usual, I accompanied the point-by-point analysis  with comparative imagery, textual and cultural notes, and in this case additional comments on the trade in scents and scented materials into Cairo for the Mediterranean trade and, further, on the important role of mathematics in this sort of compounding. It had originated in India, and the Indian model was employed in Cairo too, so as illustration I included a table from the Brht Samhita.  Updating the botanical nomenclature was tiresome, but that was done too, and I cross-referenced any plants mentioned that I had previously identified in the botanical folios.

Being, from the first, under an informal ‘pay no attention’ ban by one of the most avid, and yet ill-equipped of the Voynicheros,  who found it helpful to read, download and then disseminate my results verbally as anonymous ‘ideas’  yet to be explored, I did not expect my  post to receive quite such widespread attention as it did.  It received swarms of readers, throughout the period from 2013 until I closed voynichimagery in 2017.  Imitators were numerous; some took this element from the post and some that, but among them a few were honest about their source, and others so inept that they brought a touch of humour.

One chap especially –  a wild fan of Edith Sherwood, Rene Zandbergen and Sergio Toresella – was helping in some project aimed at producing ‘The Official Voynich Herbal’. His job was to collect and collate others’ work, omitting such details and names as were considered unnecessary by the project’s unnamed director/s.

Since very little new work was being done, just then, this chap got into the habit of taking nothing from my latest post but the name of the plant-group I’d given for the folio, reducing the name for a group  to one name (to suit the western style of herbal),  stripping out all the informing commentary, textual, iconographic, historical and cultural notes, archaeological studies (for proof of location and period), historical botany and information on use which provided evidence for the identification I’d offered.

That done, he would leap up in the second mailing list about a day later and proclaim with many marks of exclamation that a ‘new identification’ had been made.  But in this case, he was faced with the fact that the European clematis had no place in the Latin pharmacopoeia, does not have a bell-shaped flower, nor narrow leaves. And double gourds aren’t exactly standard motifs in medieval Latin art, let alone to be seen in any of the herbals.

Rene Zandbergen (as I recall) kindly came to his rescue on the ‘gourd’ problem, showing an image of a vegetable garden in a copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis.  Soon afterwards, the lad adopted the ‘foxy’ tactic of applying some new identification of mine to a different folio… more or less at random. The manuscript’s study is not only corrupted, but actively hindered by such practices, whose only benefit is to lend spurious credibility to persons or theories which have not deserved them.  Lately, the most common tactic seems to be to use the mantra:  ‘synchronicity’.

Another chap became excited about the ‘perfume’ thing – though I did tell him that it wouldn’t do; the botanical section contains many more plants than were used in any sort of perfume, scented powder, or insect repellent ( a use I’d identified for another of the pictured plants, and which then synchronistically appeared in a post by Ellie Velinska, another close associate of the old guard but whom I’m inclined one of the several innocents who simply believed, when handed an ‘idea’ that it sprang fully formed from the donor’s imagination).

It proved impossible to stem the  ‘alchemical’ tide, to which that post seems to have acted as the bolt of electricity on Frankenstein’s monster, reviving the pile of dead matter abandoned since the 1990s.   All I could do, and did, was to remind people of the more modest matter in my original post, which I re-published in a condensed and clearer form two years later, on  23rd August, 2015, under the title  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent made more readable’.

The manuscript deserves more respect than it receives when used only to puff theories or personal ambition.  The way my analysis of folio 4v was misused is just an example of the great many so used, whether my work or others’ – since the early 2000s, and largely why the study fails to advance.  I suppose the lesson for us all is not to buy second-hand ‘ideas’; demand the donor provide his/her primary evidence and explain to you in detail his/her line of reasoning.  If they can’t, it might be as well to  tell them to go away and do their own work for a change.



A LATIN/ARABIC or BYZANTINE HERBAL? H’hmm. – T.A. Sprague (and Alain Touwaide, 2015)


Dr. T. A. Sprague had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist,  spent time in northern India and served for forty-five years as a member of staff at Kew gardens,  fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium, and whose particular study of the  Anicia Juliana codex required thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin and Arabic herbals and their vocabularies. In 1947, shown some photostat copies of the plant-pictures, Sprague  positively recoiled and railed at John Tiltman, “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”   It seems clear that none of them looked immediately familiar.

Alain Touwaide (2015}

More recently (2015) Alain Touwaide, whose field of study covers the Latin, Arabic and Greek history of medicine, drugs, herbals and medical manuscripts , wrote a seventeen-page essay published by the Villa Mondragone in a volume now, alas, out of print.   There were no peer-reviews published in any Journal, so far as I can find, but the prominent enthusiast Rene Zandbergen sent a 1100-odd word summary-review to the late Stephen Bax’ site. The review began and ended with Zandbergen’s opinion that  Touwaide added ‘nothing new’ to the manuscript’s study but had repeatedly returned to the possibility that the manuscript might be a fake.

In which case of course it would be again (apparently) ‘someone else’s problem’.

  • Alain Touwaide,  ‘Il manoscritto piu misterioso – l’erbario Voynich’ in  Marina Formica (ed.), Villa Mondragone ‘Seconda Roma’, (2015) pp. 141-158. out of print.

I’m sorry to add that certain comparisons widely offered as closely similar to pages from the Vms, and in some cases attributed to Touwaide, do not bear close analysis, but perhaps I’ll return to that matter at a later stage.



Charles Singer, editor of an encyclopaedic  History of Technology had a number of ‘ideas’ about the manuscript, reported by d’Imperio.   None relate to the history of technology, or offer support for the ‘bathy-‘ section’s being describing a plumbing system.



D’Imperio reported that  “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.'”  I’ve seen no evidence that he ever attempted to argue the case or –  more to out present point – that he offered a single text or illustration from the European corpus as comparison.  Nor, apparently, did his wife Dorothea suggest to him any among  the thousands she had inspected and catalogued in the British Library under the heading of Science and Pseudo-Science, as Lynn Thorndike reported in 1921.

D’Imperio seems to think little of Singer’s ‘biological’ idea,  saying in the same breath as she reports it that they recall ‘plant parts’ to her. (Elegant Enigma, p.21)

In recent years and beginning (so far as I can discover) with Ellie Velinska’s effort, this inherently anachronistic ‘biological’ notion – imagining the Vms contains biological drawings technical, and accurate to the microscope-level –  has proved intriguing for some, but once more none of the recent writers have produced –  no more than did Singer – any European manuscript or printed book made before 1438 which is claimed closely comparable.  Now that the manuscript has been dated, Singer’s notion is revealed to be, as one might say, anachronism of the first water.  🙂

  • On Singer see also Rich Santacoloma’s interesting research-post, ‘The Voynich in 1905′, (19th. August, 2012).




Lynn Thorndike who wrote a multi-volume history of medieval science and pseudo-sciences and had every reason, if he could, to set the Voynich manuscript squarely within a context that would refute Wilfrid’s ‘Roger Bacon’ guess, to which he felt great aversion, expressed more than once in print.

But Thorndike offered no such argument, and never produced any other manuscript as close comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript.



ASTRONOMICAL/ASTROLOGICAL? – To my knowledge, the only specialist to offer a comparison with any astronomical/astrological manuscript between 1912 and 2000.was Panofsky (see above).

and see also the opinions of two contemporary specialists:

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Skies above – Not astrological’, voynichrevisionist, (Feb. 9th., 2020)



Summary: “Not one of mine” is what the experts on western (and Arabic) manuscripts said of works from their own field, even while expressing, all the while, a feeling in some obscure way  there’s something… Charles Singer, who claimed to see biology  appears never to have suggested any comparable manuscript either.


Postscript (14th. Feb. 2020)

It is characteristic of the Friedmans, and thus of d’Imperio, that the informed judgements of specialists scarcely affected their confidence in their own theories.  A passage from d’Imperio shows pretty well their intellectual ‘deafness’ to that message of ‘Not one of mine’.  It slides by and is re-interpreted to mean that the pictures are just ‘bizarre’ and ‘less conventional’ and  she shows no understanding that there is a *reason* that the images’ subject matter was so difficult to read.  Note too that she imagines the specialists’ reaction is only due to their spending too little time looking at the manuscript.  She is unaware that a specialist in medieval manuscripts  can usually provide a general date and place of manufacture from looking at just a few folios.  An inability to conceive of an ‘important’ text as other than European was fairly typical of America and Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, but here means that D’Imperio is inclined to blame the specialists and leaves her unable to abandon her own fixed ideas – which, of course were due to woring as part of a ‘team’ whose theories were dictated by Friedman, as leader.    ‘Team work’ so very easily becomes ‘group-think’ -one is simply not free to pursue questions, or form theories of outside the ‘team’s working brief.  And so the most basic questions were overlooked, and their own premises never questioned.


In any other field of study; if it were any other manuscript, there’s a logical inference that might be taken.

Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2

Panofsky had been in America since September of 1931, invited as guest lecturer by Professor Cook:

Two years before the enforced exodus of the intellectual élite that followed the advent of Hitler, Panofsky became a regular guest professor in the United States, at the invitation of Professor Cook. He [Panofsky] lectured in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the auspices of what was to become the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University’s graduate department of art history, and immediately made a deep impression on his American colleagues and students.

  • William S. Heckscher, ‘Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 28, No. 1, Erwin Panofsky: In Memoriam (1969), pp. 4-21. (p.13).
  • [Biography] Dr. Walter S. Cook, in whose honour annual lectures are presented at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.

The meeting with Mrs. Voynich is most easily explained by positing that both were consulting medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library, for it was a worker there (the librarian?)  Ms.Greene who offered to introduce Mrs. Voynich to the Professor.

“Mrs. Voynich has been working at the Morgan Library, and Miss Greene continues to be most friendly and helpful. A short time ago she volunteered the opinion that she did not think any scholar in this country would be able to help us with the problem … [but now] a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky … is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think.” – Letter from Anne Nill to H.Garland, (Feb 10th., 1932).

Mrs. Voynich first showed Panofsky the worn negative photostats, perhaps late in 1931, but he saw the manuscript itself the next year – on Feb. 5th 1932. (see first post in this series)


Panofsky’s subsequent career in America; the value of his private (1932) assessment of the manuscript.

or Panofsky’s earlier approach to art, see

On Panofsky in America, I’ll cite Gaston:

 Panofsky’s appointment to the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 1933 and to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1935, together with his extraordinary productivity and high profile as public lecturer in the following three decades guaranteed him a stellar career, and an influence within the discipline, and the humanities in general, that was then unrivalled for an art historian. …One of the serious shortcomings of Panofsky’s approach to images was his unwillingness to explore the social matrices in which [pictures] were produced and used.

  • (review) Irving Lavin (ed.), Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside. A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) (1995) reviewed by Robert W.Gaston in  International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring, 1998), pp. 613-623.

Panofsky wrote primarily on late medieval and Renaissance art in northern Europe and Italy, and mostly, but by no means exclusively, on painting.

He was not omniscient, nor dispassionate.  He revered humanism and like the majority of his own time, idealised the model of the auteur as creative spirit gifted with  superior sensitivity, perception and so forth. It is the more appealing, humanist and individualist, counterpart for that obsession with the dominant white male which infused the whole of medieval Latin art and remained a preoccupation of historians in the European tradition for most of the twentieth century.


Where Panofsky’s opinion differed from the majority.
  • Non-Latin

Absence of the ‘dominant white male’ theme – and numerous other defining themes of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art – from the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 is a powerful argument for the content’s non-Latin origin – something Panofsky recognised. He attributed it to southern (Sephardi?) Jewish origin saying he recognised influence from Islamic style and from Kabbalah. If he ever elaborated on these things in writing, no record of it has come to light.

There are details in the manuscript which express the Mediterranean and/or Latin (i.e. western European) traditions – but in the present writer’s view these are plainly late-phase additions. They include (of course) post-manufacture items such as marginalia, but some details in the body of the work – principally the central motifs in the calendar’s diagrams.

It never occurred to Wilfrid Voynich to suppose the work other than the individual creation (autograph) of an individual, ‘superior type’ and a white male European.  Nor, apparently did others look much further than southern Europe and the figure of Ramon Llull.

This phenomenon,by which the world is effectively defined as Europe – and into which nothing comes except by the authority and choice of a Latin European male – was usual among nineteenth century historians and particularly the Anglo-German school.  It affected assumptions then, and is still with us, having deeply impacted on the course, nature and direction of the manuscript’s study for most of the period from 1912-2015.

The present author found, still, in 2014, that the majority of Voynicheros imagine it impossible that anything of non-European origin could be found in Europe except that Latin European had fetched it or commissioned its being brought.  This is what we call the ‘White Wall’ phenomenon, and that it should persist to the present day would surely distress Lynn White – a pioneer in the history of cross-cultural exchange upon whose pioneering studies so much more has now been built.

  • .Lynn White, Jr., ‘Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 141-159
  • ________________, ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.
  • ________________, ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221

Panofsky does not suggest the manuscript’s content came from any great distance, but the very fact that he could see the content does not evince the culture of Latin Europe sets his opinion of the manuscript apart from the majority.

Though apparently Panofsky’s 1932 assessment came to be known to the Friedman group, neither it nor his responses of 1954 were given much weight by the cryptanalysts.  In 1978 d’Imperio knows so little of Panofsky’s work that she imagines him unaware of the work of Albertus Magnus (!)

  • Non-authorial

Panofsky differs again from the reflexive assumptions made by those writing about the manuscript from 1912-1954.

He does not imagine any  ‘author’ for the whole work in 1933 and even in 1945, speaks of a nameless figure, almost a generic one: the man writing down his life-time’s learning for his son. Even that idea seems to imply that much of what is written is to be seen as inherited from an earlier time.

The majority simply presumed the work the creation of a Latin ‘author’ and the matter contemporaneous with the present manuscript’s inscription.

On the other hand, Panofsky no more than anyone else during the twentieth century imagined that the work could be entirely derivative.

In 1932 he saw it emerging from a community rather than an individual. BY 1954, in answer to Q.10, he speaks of “a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir”.

Social history did not exist as yet, except as a means to make lessons attractive for children or by way of that idealisation of medieval artisans reflected by the ‘arts and crafts movement‘.

The first English-language History of Technology – its first volume –  was published only in 1954, under Charles’ Singer’s editorship.

The interaction between the history of events and the history of economic factors has always been in flux, and though England is given much credit for the study’s development, even in the 1950s it was often dismissed as  ‘mere commerce’.

Social history as a scholarly discipline only gained general recognition in the 1960s (initially termed ‘laundry-list history’) and women’s history gained its place still later.

Comparative cultural studies were almost unheard of, and Lynn White struggled against the ‘white wall’ phenomenon for thirty years and more.

In the context of his time, Panofsky’s approach to the manuscript and his forming opinions solely from the primary evidence – though by reference to his own wide range of substantial study – makes his the most important commentary we have on the subject of the imagery, even now.

Because it suited the Friedmans believe that the text was a very clever, unique, cipher, they were obliged to adopt an ‘authorial’ idea of the manuscript, and this has proven a persistent habit in the study, though less emphasised since about 2011.

  • Composite of earlier matter.

I take as implied by the answer he gave to Friedman’s Q.10 that Panofsky saw the manuscript as deriving from earlier matter;  something of the same implication might be taken from his alluding to Kabbalah in 1932.

The ‘authorial’ idea carried an   expectation of the homogenous autograph, an idea found in most commentaries on the manuscript to as late as 2010-2011, when the present author was obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ in the second mailing list for saying the content could be no autograph, nor the work of a single author, because the stylistic variations indicated derivation from at least three earlier sources, each manifesting a distinct history and line of transmission to Europe.

That opinion is now widely accepted – without reference to the present author’s evidence and argument – because after some months, one contributor to that mailing list recalled that the word ‘compilation’ is found somewhere in the ‘Voynich gospel’ – d’Imperio’s booklet of 1978. This official ‘sanction’ permitted the then-radical shift from the traditional ‘authorial’ to ‘non-authorial’ approach. ( My thanks to Don Hoffman for being the first to brave the picket-line and adopt the conclusions of my work, even use of the technical term ‘florilegium’ – which in medieval times meant a collection of textual, not botanical, items).

  • Setting aside Newbold’s categories.

Panofsky was among the very few to offer any explanation of the manuscript and of its content by reference to the primary document itself, and he never adopted  Newbold’s impressionistic categories  as others did – including the cryptanalysts’ who merely elaborated  them.

He avoided  both the ‘authorial’ notion and Newbold’s idea of a specifically ‘biological’ section.

Once again, neither Panofsky’s opinion, (nor the substantial evidence and argument provided by the present writer from 2009) saw the abandonment of Newbold’s and Friedman’s “categories” – with the result that one still sees Voynich narratives produced and adopted which unsupported by the historical evidence.

On efforts to justify the ‘biological’ idea see e.g.

I am told, though have not the details, that a contributor to is presently (Jan-Feb 2019) reprising Velinksa’s ideas and approach, though whether properly acknowledging the precedents, including Velinska’s work, you must discover for yourself.  In either case, it is a nonsense within any theory insisting the manuscript entirely the product of Latin European culture. Da Vinci was a hundred years before his time, and he wasn’t born until 1519: at best eighty years after the manuscript was made, and at worst (for such ideas) almost a century.

But the persistence of such notions relies, ultimately on an impression expressed by William Romaine Newbold.


  • Opinions as conclusions from evidence.

Unlike the majority of Voynich writers, before him or since, Panofsky derived his opinions from the primary source and solid historical and iconographic evidence.

Every extant study by him displays a consistent rigor and his sense of obligation to the reader: he will explain how he reached each point in his conclusions by reference to direct, specific, and verifiable reference across a wide range of historical, textual and art-historical material – always with a focus on the primary evidence.  One may differ, but one is never asked simply ‘to believe’.  His aim is not persuasion but elucidation.  It constitutes a forensic approach which was to that time, and is largely still, scarcely employed in discussions of Beinecke MS 408.

One must suppose that had he been asked to do so, Panofsky could have produced a study of the manuscript –  its form and imagery –  which would have substantially altered our understanding of its content.

But all he was asked to do was fill out  Friedman’s questionnaire.

A brief outline of Panofsky’s usual practice is offered here.

Next post: Panofsky’s hesitations.

minor corrections 8th Feb. 2019