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


old Toledo

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

Luigi Pulci (1432-1484?)

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



Constantinople medieval reconstructed birds sml

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

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


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

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

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

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


Part 2.

We pick up from where the last post left off.

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

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

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

mediterranean-map transmission points

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

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

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

Venetian and Genoese trade routes medieval and Trebizond

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

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

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

Archer f73v

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Cervantes, Don Quixote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nàxos and Despotikos

map Aegean Cyclades Hora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al Sufi illustrated Gemini comparison for blog

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

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

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

quote from Lazaris Byzantine astronomy 13t-14thC

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

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

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

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

amulet Jewish and scripts Salonika 17thC

The Voynich script has no ‘X’ shape glyph.


Additional notes [added 13th July]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certain measures 3b Preface – addendum

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

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

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

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

from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275.

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

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


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


Denoting the non-orthodox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However – back to the main point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

detail from Beinecke MS 408, folio 85v.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I add my original demur, too:

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

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

Ellie Velinska’s comparison – BNF ms

Oresme (1328-82 AD) Which manuscript?

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

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

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

BNF fr.565, f.23r

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry about the length.

Certain measures Pt 3b – Preface

header revisionist medal


(written August 2019)

I almost wish I’d kept a record of the Voynich meme-makers’ slogans throughout this past decade.

The latest example of meme-making is astounding,  informing one that  ‘the Voynich manuscript isn’t an art book’ and that ‘images are trivial; writing is serious’ –  the sort of thing we find in the amateur attitudes of William Friedman in 1952.  He seems scarcely to have attended to anything – including recommended reading – from the widely read professional,  Professor Panofsky.

Here again, as with so much else in the heavily weed-seeded field of Voynich studies, very basic questions have to be asked, such as  ‘Where did that idea come from? and ‘Why are so many intelligent people now repeating this – apparently without a moment’s pause for critical thought?’

So.. once again.. the revisionist has to hold the reins on another bolting theory.  Energy it may have, but its motives and destination are not exactly helpful, and have an entirely internal rationale.

First question – what do those repeating the meme suppose is meant by the word  ‘art book’? Do they mean ‘a book filled with drawings?’ and assume we’ll accept that all drawings are “art” in a grand sense?  If they just mean ‘a book of drawings’ then it certainly is.  More than 50% of the surface covered is covered by drawings.

So maybe it is an ‘art book’.

Or do they think ‘art book’ means a history of art?

If that is what they mean, their underlying assumptions are – simply – anachronistic. At the time our manuscript was made (setting aside the still open question of when its content was first composed), there was no ‘art history’ in the modern sense.  What you have are histories of meaning.  It is that meaning which had to be understood (well or badly) and then re-embodied in works by more recent painters, sculptors, weavers, woodworkers and so on.   This need produced various practical ‘handbooks’ – things which both explained meaning and informed an artisan – say, a painter – how to ‘correctly’ present that meaning in what was supposed to be the classical manner.

So an ‘art book’ as a notebook made by an individual would include no less written text than a modern history of art.

The problem with that notion is, however, that the majority of images in the voynich manuscript are not drawings formed in the way western Europe produced drawings. That’s why it took more than a century’s debate to decide that the ‘green’ in the ladies’ sections denoted water and not e.g. air or amorphous ‘internal’ environment – as (for example) Newbold believed and explained in his letter asking help of Franciscan scholars.

Or are the meme-makers supposing that the Voynich manuscript is not an ‘art book’ of some other kind?  We don’t know. The origin of a meme remains carefully anonymous and invisible, but once his little foal is set to grow into another wild, galloping loco-beast, he may well repeat it as ‘something no-one doubts and god help them if they do’.

But let’s ask the last question.  If we consider the period, and adopt the still-unproven theory that all the content originated with Christians of Latin Europe in the fifteenth century (something I don’t for a minute believe the evidence permits), then there are several sorts of text we might classify as an ‘art book’.  The manuals made and used by students of learning, included not only those or academic ‘students’ but handbooks for/by an artisans and secular ‘vade mecum’ made for the merchant-and-traveller. In both those last types, text might again be subordinate to the pictures but in any case their pictures should only be viewed as ornament when all other possibilities have been exhausted. Until the mid-fifteenth century at least – we are speaking of manuscripts made for  Latin use, images should be approached as pictorial *text*, primarily intended to convey meaning, and not as a wysiwyg object-depiction.

So the meme about ‘it’s not an art book’ are not only fairly transparent efforts to ignore the preponderance of evidence in the primary text – Beinecke MS 408, but an effort to argue that we can dispense with the unreadable writing, and now also dispense with the pictures and rely entirely for our ideas about this manuscript on the hypothetical ‘histories’ which are thus built on sand and wishful thinking, for which a few bits and pieces are extracted from the original and used purely to adorn the romance so created.

In my experience of this manuscript’s study, I have not found that the best linguists wantonly impose wrong ideas on the imagery – they either admit their lack of skills in that area and concentrate on the text, or they make honest efforts to ‘read’ images whose historical origin and cultural style they do not know, but which they credit to some one or other of those hypothetical ‘histories’ created by enthusiasts and amateurs and – perhaps worst of all – professionals who imagine that competence in any field means competence in all.  We saw that in O’Neill’s assumption that he could read the images in the plants sections, and in Brumbaugh’s failures in treating both the month-folios and the plant pictures.

The meme about the manuscript being ‘not an art book’ again, as ever, conveys no real information  or any useful conclusion from some individual’s research.

It merely conveys an intimation that some others’ research, and those researchers, must be ignored by the ‘true believers’.  They need no longer distinguish between fireworks of pure imagination about the images, or  analytical and historical studies aimed at elucidating the meaning intended conveyed by the manuscript’s pictorial text.

It bears repeating that more than half the manuscript’s information is contained in line- -as-image, and less than half by line as written text.

We can’t even hear that meme as refutation of some articulated theory, so far as I know.  Has anyone asserted that Beinecke MS 408 was an “art book” and defined their intention by using that term?  If so, I’ve never seen it, though if such an argument has been made from evidence, I’ll happily read the research.

Altogether, we left only with a suspicion that whoever thought up the meme did so to push an agenda – viz. don’t listen to discussions about the images.

In  terms of Europe’s history,  however, you just don’t get texts with superficial ‘illustration’ apart from diagrams before the advent of printing.  In Germany the earliest products of printing were instructional works for small children. Cicero’s de Oratore is the first text known to have been printed in Italy.  Theories about the Voynich manuscript’s images being copied from German printed works are inherently anachronistic. But theorists often forget to check basic facts, such as dates or whether to suppose the images in the Voynich manuscript are ‘mere illustrations’ isn’t equally inappropriate.

I think that most Voynich writers realise that written text encodes speech, but I’ve noticed few who realise that the same must be said of pre-modern images.

Some represent encoded speech quite carefully, constituting one  form of mnemonic image but more often constitute a ‘conversation’ between maker and contemporary audience, and given that a century’s effort has found no way to read the written text, it does not seem unreasonable to attend to the pictorial text rather than waving it away by assuming it meaningless, or purely an act of self expression. Both notions are anachronistic, the second idea being a definition of ‘modern art’. The key to pre-modern art, and even art of the Renaissance, is meaning.  And whether you are talking about medieval western art or traditional art elsewhere, the point is that the maker could – and the viewer could expect to be given – detailed explanation of the work i n all its details, usually with literary sources (whether these were from oral or written tradition).

Since the intended audience for the Voynich manuscript, as indeed for images found in Latin medieval manuscripts, was not an audience of modern, secular, industrial-era urbanites, so the modern student must exert themselves learn and to compare how various peoples talked and thought about things which were then expressed in imagery using their own traditional visual ‘codes’.

The aim of Voynich research should not be to find bits which you can argue support your pet theory, but to try and understand what the original intended to say to its own audience.    To do this accurately, one must recognise cues to characteristic ideas, beliefs, social attitudes and so on, and more importantly (because so often disregarded by Voynicheros), the techniques and conventions of visual language characteristic of a given time and people: how they used form, gesture, positioning, and even such things as choice of colour to convey meaning.

Like a written text, a pictorial text was intended to convey meaning.  Meaning, not form is the key to rightly reading images such as these.

Perhaps readers would like to see how well-equipped they are to use the analytical approach so I append a specimen example for consideration.  So that even a newly come amateur will not feel too much out of his or her depth, the example comes not from the difficult images in Beinecke MS 408, but from the western traditions of art.  I’ve added a tailor-made guide to ‘method’ to show how to take the first steps in learning to analyse images from that ‘other country’ of the past.

Following that will be some few comments of my own, which no one is obliged to read.

What I’m hoping to do here is to show why the analytical method approaches a pictorial text more as a palaeographer  approaches written text than the way a modern art critic might.


  1. List elements in the image (below) which you take to be meaningful and which you’d consider ornamental.
  2. Have you any thoughts about the dark crescent-shape  painted below the top of the arch?
  3. The female figure is made to clutch the hand of the figure behind her. Why do you think that is? (you might think the reason compositional, meaningful, conventional or all three – but explain ..).
  4.  Why should the black-shod figure be shown with one arm – and only one arm –   covered by an extra-long sleeve?
  5. Would you say that the image is an original expression of Latin European culture, attitudes and beliefs, or not?

(Take your time.  And there’s no obligation to compare your thoughts with my analytical commentary, below.)

Click on the word ‘Commentary’ to open it.


The principal theme here is a reminder that ‘the heavens’ may be studied in two ways, but only one is for ordinary humans to question, query or debate.

You see that this inhabited initial forms the letter as an upper and lower arch; the upper is meant to be read as a canopy – metaphorically pegged to the earth’s horizon –  for the heavens are ‘stretched out as a tent’ (Ps.102:4; Is.40:22 etc.).

The open lattice to left and right signifies those ‘gates through which mankind cannot pass but through which stars emerge from below the horizon into view of earth and then sink below it.

Just under the top of the letter’s upper curve, about where a lamp might hang,  you see the Pole star surrounded by a dark  [=”not able to be seen by human eyes”] circumpolar boundary, of which only half is depicted.

Most medieval Christians still believed that sight was a result of the  eye’s reaching out to grasp an object and so for the maker, and reader of this image, the invisible/dark limit spoke of a spiritual Heaven and its  ‘ramparts’ – the boundary of the circumpolar region which they envisaged guarded by angels also invisible to mortal eyes as a rule. It is the circumpolar line itself which, being entirely conceptual, neither drawn nor mentioned in the scriptures was thus manifest but not visible. They also envisaged at a point above the visible Pole star  a spiritual Throne – which term might carry different significance in different contexts, as I’ll explain in the next post.

What lay within the ‘tent’ as vault of the visible heavens and its stars was all that was permitted to be ‘grasped’ by human eye and mind – that is, the items about which they might indulge in study, speculation, debate and other forms of  intellectual enquiry .. within limits.

Again,  the red background alludes to the earth as the proper domain of human kind, ‘children of Adam’. (the word Adam is derived from the word for ‘red earth’).

That we are to consider the difference between the earthly, permitted learning and what is not for humans to speculate about is represented by use of the  ‘winding’ vine element –  ‘the vineyard of the text’   to use the phrase  Ivan Illich adopted as the title for one of his books (one I’d recommend, though its every line is not to be treated as gospel).

Beyond the limit of that arch which sets the limit of mundane, secular knowledge the ‘vine’ appears again, now painted in white.  It appears as ‘right’ opposed to ‘left’ and ‘upper’ opposed to ‘lower’.  The message here, for all four, is that while some persons may be granted wisdom and knowledge greater than earthly knowledge, it cannot  be acquired – or is forbidden to be acquired – by human reason. It is matter ordained as beyond the human domain,  and is not to be debated or investigated.

The vine motif is not always used to mean ‘learning, but here it reminds the viewer that enquiring into ‘the ways of heaven’ is of two sorts; the earthly and the spiritual/demonic.  Decisions over what was good and what was evil ‘occulted/occult’ knowledge was a matter for the eyes of faith; to be decided by the words of Christ and those of his appointed representatives.   (This is how the medieval west of that time saw the situation, you understand).

This is why the allegorical female figure points to the Pole Star while preventing the person behind from raising his hand against heaven.  Or, as children are still told, ‘it’s rude to point’.

.The letters in the right margin spell  ‘Vidam’ ( a form that does not occur in classical Latin) and that word  unites the elements in the picture proper and serves as an announcement of the theme elaborated within it.

And so too, the disposition of the vine motif exterior to the letter tells us that what is obscure or hidden (occult/occulted) may be righteous religious mystery or wicked/heretical (Lat. sinister) knowledge – only the church can decide.

That most people in medieval Latin Europe really did accept this division between permissible and impermissible learning wasn’t necessarily a good thing, of course, from our point of view today,  but it had its good points.  It sometimes allowed folk-practices to survive which we’d immediately describe as pre-Christian and pagan.  It certainly saved the life of a frightfully annoying woman named Margery Kemp.  One on occasion her fellow-pilgrims, driven beyond endurance by Marjorie’s behaviour, were  united in determining to “brun her for a witch”.   So Marjorie fled to the local bishop who, simply by pronouncing her behaviour not sinister but proof of religious sensibility, saved her life. The difference between the good and the evil in ‘occulted’ knowledge was a matter for theology, not personal or group- judgement.

The oldest rule had it that, in the western church, none save the elected head (the Pope) in person might adjudicate in cases of alleged heresy.  That rule  saved Francis of Assisi from being declared a heretic and papal protection was long the chief and best protection of the Jews in Latin Europe – if the election had put a decent man in Peter’s chair. When the secular authorities began involving themselves in questions of heresy, and when the old rule was set aside and agencies delegated – such as the Inquisition – or when the great splitting of western Christianity occurred, mass burnings followed both within and without the older church.  Burning people had been (as Marjorie’s case illustrates well) the equivalent of rabble-driven lynching; it was a practice much older than western Christianity.

But I hope this will show why one has to consider not only form, but informing thought in order to read an image as the maker expected it to be read in the days before printing.

What you find so often in Voynich writings is a superficial definition of an  image in terms of one item as ‘object’ and extreme literalism follow in the subjective response.

In this case, the ‘object’ might be the female figure and a person might say,  ‘Oh wow, they had female teachers of astronomy’ or, from some theory about magic assert that the same figure was meant for a witch. They might produce all sorts of comparative pictures, but they’d be pictures of teachers or of witches. You’d be treated to many instances of where red and blue was a ‘witchy’ combination and so forth.  The subject would be not the manuscript in question but a theory (in the sense of a fiction) and its elaboration.

Others, a little better acquainted with medieval manuscripts might again define the entire image in terms of that same single element as ‘object’ but now call it  ‘Astronomia’ and run a data-base search under ‘Astronomia’ which they’d then provide with commentary arguing that the nearest ‘astronomia’ to the target proves support for their theoretical provenance for the first manuscript.  Expositions of that sort tend to show a pre-emptive bias in definition of the image, in parameters for comparisons offered,  and a commentary only loosely related to the image or manuscript at issue.

Or again, a person might instantly turn to hunting copies of the written text found adjacent to the image,  re-define the image in those terms and, ignoring it thereafter, concentrate on tracking other copies of that written text, in the hope of again supporting some theory about where the first manuscript was made.

In this case, the last method would be of no help, because the accompanying text comes from a Greek work that had been composed a thousand years earlier in a different environment altogether and in a different language, having been translated into several languages, transmitted across cultural and historical generations with the image in question only adorning that text here.

It would not target the manuscript in question because the manuscript is not only a copy of the text illuminated by this image; it contains parts from a variety of sources.

On the other hand, the palaeographer, like the forensic type of iconological analyst would agree is that the image and associated script evince a Latin (western Christian) character expressive of the French style during the early 14thC.

Once you have  appropriate historical and cultural parameters, seeking comparisons is more likely to yield valid results.  One might, for example, read histories of the time to see what sort of new learning might have raised this issue of permitted enquiry in relation to studies of the stars.  Since the message of the image is of strongly conservative Christianity, so the text is more likely than not to be one from a doubtful (i.e. non Latin) origin, but accepted into the Latin curriculum by the early fourteenth century. We find the same, cautionary and salutary, message embodied in an illustration brought to notice by Ellie Velinska, and mentioned in an earlier post in this series.

This would limit the search quite satisfactorily and one might even discover that the manuscript in question is Burney MS 275.  It is always better to advance by increasing what you know than by building speculation on speculation.

Holding library’s description of Burney MS 275.

I almost forgot to say that the figure with the black shoe is  disapproved of.  He is shown transgressing the limit – trespassing – which is how sinning was perceived in Latin Christianity.  His having one sleeve exceedingly long derives from the Arab tradition, where it normally describes the boy at the mast-head. Here, I think, it is used as allusion to a specific tradition of non-Ptolemaic astronomical learning, apparently disapproved of by theologians in early fourteenth century France but of considerable interest in connection with Beinecke MS 408.

The above notes are by the present author.

 ‘Art history’ –  in the modern sense didn’t exist in western Europe when the Voynich manuscript was made.  Vitruvius’ great treatise on classical architecture existed in a manuscript taken from St.Gall by Bracciolini in 1415. The text was printed by Alberti in 1450 but an illustrated version was first produced by Cesare Cesariano in 1521.

Skies above: certain measures Pt 2: presence and absence

Two previous:

Header  (left) detail from Brit.Lib. Add. MS 22413; (right) detail from Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, manuscripts Sp.30.  (inset) portrait of William Romaine Newbold.


recap of Pt 1.

As explained in the previous post (here),  when presented with something never encountered before, our brain hunts for ‘nearest match’ from what we already know, but in doing that will ignore some or even many points of difference. The narrower the person’s range of knowledge/experience (or limits which they impose on the search) the greater the risk of mis-reading the image.

This isn’t such a problem in everyday life – a person may say that people from some region of the world ‘all look alike’ and so on, but if the task is to  understand the origin and intention of difficult images, the hardwired habit has to be consciously balanced out.  The  cues needed to understand a difficult image may lie in those very details.


Postscript – The only way I can thank readers for putting up with long posts is to include something original, so there’s a bit more unpublished research  in this post.  Enjoy.


Voynich studies was established in 1921 with the first research paper attempting both to describe and to explain the manuscript’s content.

Many ideas and habits still found in Voynich writings have their origin in that paper – as when those  ‘tags’ are re-used by which its author described his impression of images as    ‘pharmaceutical’ or ‘herbal’ or ‘zodiac’.

Indeed, so many items from that paper have been taken up as if so many facts that by far the greater proportion of what has been written about the Voynich manuscript since 1921 has been predicated on belief that the author’s perceptions and opinions were right about this point and others –  whether or not those later writers had been told the original source.  That paper is well worth reading. Not only as a landmark study but because it solves many of those  “where-did-that-idea-come-from” problems,  including the problem of why the idea took hold that the month folios were meant to serve an astrological purpose and why no-one seems later to have asked whether that was true.


That paper was presented by Professor  William Romaine Newbold, and its contents  –  or more exactly what is found in pages 461-474 of the printed version- entitles Newbold to be honoured as the founder of Voynich studies.

Unlike many who followed him, Newbold did realise that no picture can be defined by only one or two elements in it.  In speaking of the month-diagrams, he offered his explanation for more than just the central emblems; he considered the tiered figures, and why the tiers ( “bands”) should appear as they do. He describes them as:

“representing a lune of the celestial sphere formed by circles drawn through the extreme points of the sign and the poles of the zodiac”.

citing Bacon’s Opus Maius (see Bridges’ transcription  here).

He had apparently realised that geometry matters – and ‘geometries’ are the chief subject of this present post.  I begin with mention of his essay for that reason and – if one dare dream – in the hope of slightly reducing the number of persons who, being unaware of predecents, continue reduplicating ideas already proposed and even tested.

Again, his is the credit due for first mention of the lunar mansions (‘lunar stations’) in Voynich studies, as for positing Aldebaran as the subject of another detail.  This isn’t about whether he was right or wrong – just about making clear the line between an original contribution to the study and any later support for it (independent or otherwise) so to assist, rather than obstruct, others’ study of how ideas have developed about this manuscript.

Here is part of his commentary to slides shown the audience – including his brief description of the month-folios.

  • Professor Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. But see especially pp.461-474.

Like everyone else, then and now, Newbold had limits and biases which distorted his vision. There is no-one without any..

His focus on Roger Bacon shows that he, like everyone else of his time, believed the rumours allegedly repeated by Mnishovsky. That is no reason to think less of Newbold.  For all we know, the content does derive from some work known to, or even composed by Bacon, but to date there is no more real evidence for that piece of hearsay than for the other two attributed to Mnishovsky – not excluding his ‘Rudolf’ rumour to which some Voynich writers have been just as devoted, creating post-hoc circumstantial narratives in justification just as Newbold and Wilfrid did for the ‘Roger Bacon’ idea. It should not be forgotten that the ‘Roger Bacon’ theory remained current, ignoring dissent, until the vellum was radio-carbon dated, less than 20 years ago.

Also affecting Newbold’s perception was his specialised study of western philosophy and his sharing that typically nineteenth-century habit of reducing the history of the medieval Mediterranean world to what occurred in some parts of western Europe – chiefly in France, northern Italy, England and Germany.  Wilfrid’s saying he could ‘think of only two people’ who might have put the manuscript together, with his one being English and the other German, was another example of that narrow vision which, though embarrassing by comparison with what is known of the period today, was typical of his time.


Form and purpose

Ninty-nine years later,  it is impossible to know just what details were perceived as ‘first-level/essential’ for that nearest-match by every later writer, but if  we suppose they did rely on

edited from April II diagram (f.70v-ii)

(i) the ‘star-flowers’; (ii) the centre emblems and (iii) the inscribed month-names, then the amount of visual information omitted or disregarded would be  … most of each drawing. (see right)

In almost a century, the ‘astrological’ theory has failed to explain the organisation of these diagrams, the number of figures in each, their disposition in, and around tiers.

Which brings us to another important issue –  evident absence of  astrological  measures in the month-folios.   This  distinction didn’t escape Clark  or Campion, though the former expresses it more plainly (see post of Feb. 9th., 2020).

I’d rather approach the problem in a wider framework than astrology, and in terms of iconological analysis, where it can be  expressed in terms of a general rule that:

When a given practice,  involving calculations, produces ‘calculation diagrams’  the measures employed will be consistent and the diagrams will consistently imply and almost always display those standard measures and/or intervals.

When it comes to the heavens, a ‘calculation diagram’ is normally marked by arrangements of radial lines and ‘boxes’ (not necessarily rectangular).

At the same time, the presence of such forms is not necessarily evidence of astrological purpose, in illustration of which (see illustration below) we have a picture of the modern replica of an old tide-calculator.   It contains month-names, hours and degrees. It shows images of sun and moon. It includes schematic images of the 12 constellations of the Roman zodiac and even that notation which astrologers use for those 12 as ‘signs’.  But this object’s purpose was not to serve astrology; it was meant for a practical, workaday purpose.  It could, I suppose, be put to use to indicate the phases of the moon in their application to medieval-style medicine, but that isn’t the purpose for which it was made.    … source).


Even the clear presence of the Roman zodiac’s twelve constellations is not evidence of astrological purpose. 

For the moment, I’ll leave aside the problem of whether the month-folios’ central emblems are or are not a  Roman zodiac series, or truncated version of it,  keeping instead to this other problem of measures and ‘star-related’ pictures.

For convenience, here, we can use just four classes:

  1. Pictorial: the sky as ‘landscape’ with little (if any) effort to identify specific stars or groups of stars.
  2. Moralised/allegorised: the real disposition of stars is known but the image depicts them in such a way that emphasis is on another narrative and the astronomical subjects may be obscure to an untutored eye.
  3. Mensural* – stars’ disposition expressed in terms of measures.
  4. Mixed.

*mensural’ in the general sense of measurements – not specifically those of music.  I have omitted another type – the ‘narrative’ –  which relates to epic, allegory and moralised astronomy).

For the first two classes, indications of measure and calculation are optional.

Three of the four are present in the ‘mixed’ example shown below.   We have a section in starry ‘landscape’ style, and others displaying those radial divisions and ‘boxes’ denoting calculation and especially in connection with the heavens.

I’ll have reason to return to its Gemini and the female’s body-type, but for now note that even with the swelling belly which was then becoming a fad disseminated from France, the woman’s body still relates to that tradition of the elongated, even emaciated body which is so marked a feature of earlier medieval Latin art.

detail from the Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry – a work as widely known in medieval studies as the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) in Renaissance studies.


Absent measures – an exercise with folio 70v-ii

At this point, for readers interested in analytical method, I’ll add an exercise.

It’s another exercise in ‘musing’ – this time of the sort that art historians and critics are often doing when they just move back and gaze at a picture. The mood is not too far from day-dreaming – rather than ‘thinking’ –  but ‘musing’ seems to be the best way to describe it. And – as I hope you’ll see – it needn’t be waste of time.

It includes a LARGE (non-phone-friendly!!) jpeg.

Measures exercise

See what happens if you  print this picture and pin it on your wall,  in a place where you come and go – and can return to it for a couple of minutes at a time, over a few days.  And yes, the smallest room is ok. but a hallway or the other side of the room from where you work is probably better.  🙂

If you’re like most people, then you’ll find that as you look at it without any particular focus or theory-making, your mind will start to play with what you see.  It will envisage virtual ines of connection across and between the items.  And this sort of relaxed, nothing-invested-in-it approach lets the more flexible part of your brain come up with things that may be worth looking at in ‘thinking’ mode – that is, research mode.  

To show I’m not pulling your leg, here are a couple of illustrations showing a few of the results from my doing this a good while ago.  I won’t say more because commentary might contaminate your own experiment.

The first illustration below, centre) is of the March diagram (folio 70v-i). I haven’t erased the stars etc.  The radial lines were formed by taking the inner boundary’s ‘terminus-marks’*  as if they had been meant to show where a line would pass, between centre and perimeter.  The red lines indicate the folio’s true horizontal and vertical axes according to the Beinecke website’s presentation.

*The ‘terminus’ mark – (illustrated left) is is not present in every case where one type of marking meets another – which I think is significant.


The second experiment –  shown here in its first and purely schematic form – could be described as ‘sort-of-geodesic’ I suppose.  Not aesthetically pleasing, but engaging in other ways.

So now – what happens when you muse on the other folio?


Geo-metry and  astro-metry.  (With much of Euclid).

The illustration at left is not a sign I support Newbold’s theory about the telescope’s invention. It illustrates how angles were described in a Latin manuscript believed to date from the 12thC or early 13thC.

Thony Christie published a fine history of trigonometry while I was selecting material for this series, saving me the trouble of treating that, but co-incidentally using the title I’d intended for this post. 🙂

  • Thony Christie, ‘It’s All A Question of Angles‘, renaissance mathematicus (Feb. 12th., 2020).
  • With apologies to Thony and other mathematici, I’m going to group trigonometry within geometry in these posts.
Geometry in medieval Europe – references

If you start from the traditional view that everything in the Voynich manuscript originated in, or was accepted into medieval Europe by the authority of some Latin ‘author’ or other individual person, then you will have a comfortably narrow range of ‘geometry’ to consider up until AD 1438.

  • The reading list will consist of Euclid –   treatises by Euclid, or attributed to Euclid;  translations and excerpts from Euclid;   works derived from, or developed from Euclid and from pseudo-Euclidean texts –  by Latins or translated for Latin use from works written in Arabic and Hebrew.

Because I think it quite important for amateurs to learn something of how medieval Europe saw geometry’s role, I’m recommending a number of manuscripts of the type often called a ‘miscellany’ although these are better considered  theme-based anthologies. The sort of thing a modern publisher calls, ‘A Reader…’

These should also provide illustrations for the way technical diagrams’ notation changed  between the late thirteenth century and the early fifteenth century.

  • Euclid, The Thirteen Books – original Greek text online by  Dimitrios E. Mourmouras. N.B. Don’t forget to credit Mourmouras!
  • Brit.Lib. Add 20746.   Moses ben ibn Tibbon, ספר היסודות. (Sefer ha-yesodot), ibn Tibbon’s translation of the thirteen Books of Elements of Euclid, with the addition of two Books at the end which are ascribed to Hypsikles.
  • Brit.Lib. Harley MS 13. includes  [pseud.] Euclid, Catoprica, known as ‘Catoptrics‘ to distinguish it from Hieron of Alexandria’s ‘Mechanica and Catoptrica’.
  • MS Burney 275 iincludes Adelard of Bath’s translation of Euclid, and shows how conventions for notation had changed within a century.

The next I’ve chosen to show that the idea of connection between astronomy and music went beyond the purely philosophical.  Music and astronomy both required standard intervals.

and in connection with music, I must also mention:

  • Joscelyn Godwin, Harmony of the Spheres. A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993; also published in Spanish (Girona: Atalanta, 2009).

An English translation of Euclid’s Thirteen Books at the Internet Archive

  • Thomas Little Heath (ed. and trans.), The thirteen books of Euclid’s Elements from the text of Heiberg (Cambridge Press 1908). Vol.1, Vol. 2, Vol 3.

A good historical overview of mathematical studies in medieval western Europe is described in a series of posts designed to help secondary-level teachers.


Finding stars using co-ordinates.

It is a curious fact that the ‘astrological purpose’ theory, by itself, led to a certain routine angle of approach towards the month-folios.

The diagrams were first assumed ‘astrological’ and of Latin European origin, and then the ‘star-names’ were assumed to be the Latins’ ‘Arab’ star-names, and finally the month-folios’ labels were assumed an enciphered version of some ‘star-name’ from those theoretical limits. And following exactly that pattern, step by step, efforts to read the ‘labels’ proceeded.

I haven’t been able to discover mention of any other approach being employed in a century, and over time it seems that the effort to explain these diagrams as they actually appear on these folios, was all but abandoned.  What we see today are efforts to persuade readers of some variation on the ‘astrological’ theory, often by producing appallingly bad ‘nearest-fit’ images.  There might be out there, somewhere, a large amount of alternative work but if so I’ve found no mention of it.

There are other ways to go about understanding these folios and geometrical relations are one way.

It means discarding the usual, and often unfruitful ‘What is it?’ sort of research question and re-framing it as:  ‘What are the measures?’ 

It’s not an easy way to approach the month-folios, but not impossible. It means identifying the stars’ position first and then finding which system of co-ordinates, if any, accords with what is depicted in each month-diagram. Co-ordinate systems differ, and not least by the measures employed, but the easiest to begin is to start with the sort of system a researcher’s environment has made them most used to.  If those are eliminated, it’s time enough to move on to researching others.

The idea of finding the locus, and from that identifying the reference of a given figure in the tiers may seem far-fetched or over-hopeful, and I’m not underestimating the amount of work needed, or suggesting it could be quickly done.  But I think it possible and considering the past century’s complete failure to explain these images by the now-usual methods, two or three years would not seem an unreasonable time to spend.

Before 1438, even in western Europe, there were various star-lists described by co-ordinates.   They might differ from one another, and manuscripts differ between versions, but they did exist and not all uses were abstract, astrological or hypothetical. The stars’ relative positions have not greatly changed and that’s good to know.

One can’t expect absolute precision in the Voynich drawings, either, but given the limited number of stars for each month-diagram, and the fact that they are arranged month-by-month, leads me to think that error might be within reasonable limits.

I suggest this method because though I’m fortunate in being able to approach them otherwise, I cannot pass on in these posts enough to allow others to have the same background – not if this series is to finish in a reasonable time and I can hardly expect readers to cope with too much reading that isn’t Voynich-specific.  So another way may appeal to some readers.

Suppose for argument’s sake that you accepted my identification of the ‘Amazon’ star as Bellatrix or even as Betelgeuse (see post of Dec. 19th., 2019).

And suppose further that for  the figure above it (in folio 70v-ii) you posit a star in Virgo – for reasons I’ll explain in the next post – then you might ask what the actual relationship is between the two, in terms of the maker’s intention and in terms of  astronomical geometry.

I can only outline the method I’d try. Each researcher must be free to work out their own.  But in fact I’d start with the March diagram rather than folio 70v-ii, which is a halved, or a doubled month.

My first reaction to any theory raising its head, including my own, is to test it immediately against the real world and the historical evidence – not to seek justification but to get rid of it as soon as possible if it’s anachronistic or plainly impossible. As readers know, I’m not keen on theoretical explanations for historical images.

I’d ask whether anyone could really have seen both Bellatrix and Virgo in the sky at the same month, and whether that month is the one named in the diagram, and ask this for each band of latitude beginning (say) with Lat.30 degrees north- and for a specific period (say AD 1330-1430 to begin with).  For this, historically accurate star-maps must be generated which  take account of precession and ideally also of proper motion.

(Since this is only a hypothetical example, I won’t generate the historical chart, but here’s the idea: (and note the east-west reversal  typical for earth-view of the heavens, but also found in the Voynich map).


So yes, both are visible and their relative positions in the sky in fact suggests two things: that one or more of my identifications is wrong, or that the relationship between the inner and outer rings in the diagram is not immediate but complementary.  When Virgo and Orion may be seen in the sky together,  Virgo has emerged in the east, but Orion is moving towards the west.

Once again, at this stage, I’d ask whether there is any historical evidence of a ‘complementary’ approach to astronomical or to astrological diagrams, or any other attested system of this kind, whether or not recorded in calculation diagrams.

As it happens, I know of two – though still bearing in mind that the identifications of Bellatix and [a star in] Virgo might be wrong.  It’s an easy trap, and one into which many have fallen, to mistake an hypothesis for the manuscript as the subject of one’s research.

However, the two systems I mean are the eastern seas’ sidereal compass where the assignment of star and point of direction is nominal, though the names appear in ‘opposites’ and the pre-Islamic Arabs’ anwa’ [ today often described as rain stars and associated with divination but they also marked periods in the calendar and assisted wayfinding]

The conceptual star-compass marked a point on the eastern horizon by  a star’s name (-‘rising’)and the opposite point on the western horizon by the same star (-‘setting’). Since the northern and southern points were unique, the compass could name 32 points with only seventeen stars: the Poles, and fifteen stars with a rising and setting for each. Of the two possibilities I know – without more research – the anwa’ seems the more reasonable of those two.

However, whether or not those posited identifications prove right, the first stage towards establishing a number of historically appropriate set of co-ordinates according to different systems then known, would be  to generate grids from contemporary documents, covering that initial test-period (say) AD 1330-1430, and preferably using Byzantine, Latin, Coptic, Arabic and as many other sources you can work with.

The next stage would be to produce a list of stars in order of apparent magnitude (i.e. how big and bright they look to people on earth). By being able to say which stars were known at a given time and place, and how the grids used in that time and place described stars relative to one another, in a given month, so you need only one or two identifications to ‘pin’ the grid and – hopefully- identify the actual identifications for the remaining stars in a diagram, without pre-empting ideas about purpose or what the ‘labels’ might mean. As a first test, the bightest stars (greatest apparent magnitude) are a sensible place to start because the brightest-looking stars are normally the first to be noticed and used.

‘Apparent Magnitude’ can be confusing at first because the brighter a star or planet appears to be, the lower its number.   So I’d have  Sirius (-1.49) and Aldebaran (0.75–0.95) top of the list and then move down the list of stars visible in a given month (through the target period) until the number in the list agreed with the number of stars (or barrels, or figures) in a given month-diagram.  (Bellatix in Orion is listed with apparent magnitude of (1.59 – 1.64), and Spica in Virgo as (0.97 – 1.04).

So none of these is so dim that it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye – and they are likely to have been included in most star-lists, you’d think, by the fourteenth century.

But here again, it isn’t theory but demonstrable evidence which matters.  What may seem ‘common sense’ or ‘logical’ to a modern urban person may simply not be true of the historical events.  Telling history it ought to be more logical is a waste of time. The evidence is either there, or it’s not in this sort of study.

‘Star-names’ and co-ordinates.

Even in Latin Europe, a co-ordinate system of ‘Latitude’and ‘Altitude’, based on the astrolabe’s design, was certainly known by the middle of the eleventh century, and in connection with the ‘Arab’ star-names (see below).  Despite this manuscript’s early (11thC) date, the star-names’ orthography is pretty close to what would become the norm for non-Arabic works and though there are indications that the scribe was transcribing phonetically, the number of times his star-names refer to stars in the next constellation to that named suggests either an effort to correlate a classical source with a contemporary one, or that he was defining regions of the sky in terms of a vertical slice like the section of an orange – as wide as the limit of the zodiac  constellation and bounded by meridians extending between the northern and southern celestial Poles. (which is one definition of the ‘hour’).  Thus, the name ‘Algorab’  listed for sign Virgo is – at least today – used for the delta star in Corvus, below (south) of Virgo, while ‘Rigel’ applies to a star in Orion, not in Gemini.   The term ‘sign’ can often have an astrological sense but can be used to mean an emblem, as we speak  of an inn’s “sign” and medieval people spoke of meeting “at the sign of the Boar’s Head”and so forth .so the ‘signs’ here mean that part of the sky whose chief emblem is a figure from the zodiac.

I do understand, very well, what an enormous amount of work would be required to begin working on the diagrams from data of historical co-ordinate systems and attested star-names – a ‘co-ordinate geometry’ method – and that it’s not as easy as collecting set lists and making virtual grids; one would have to check the sense of the originals, decide where divergence was significant or due to error, and so on, testing each step against every other and waiting for it to click into place – not unlike the way meaning was extracted from ‘Enigma’-encoded messages.  But as I hope I’ve shown, one is aided by the diagrams’ being labeled by the months, and to ‘fix’ a starting point might be possible with just one or two identifications in each diagram.

As for the labels, I’d not discount, either, Newbold’s belief (later used, uncredited, by Brumbaugh) that the ‘labels’ are personal names.  Dante himself speaks of including the ‘Arab’ star-names in a volume of his Cantos so that people  using foreign instruments could follow his narrative more easily.  (The reference is found in  Guther’s Introduction to his study of the Ashmolean astrolabes, if I recall, but I read it almost a quarter of a century ago and it is impractical to try checking the reference just now.  Brumbaugh – again –  mentioned Dante and footnotes Gunther, but never admits his debt to the latter for his connecting Dante and the stars.  tut-tut.

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’,  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150