O’Donovan notes #8.2 Angles of approach: physic and psyche.

c.2300 words including some optional sections

[Jan 2nd 2023 – passage from Lactantius added; minor edits made]

Header shows Hippocrates (seated), Asclepius (disembarking) and a very Roman Hermes greeting the latter with an arcane hand-gesture, to which Hippocrates unnoticed responds.. Mosaic, Roman, 2nd-3rdC AD, Image courtesy theoi.com

Et in Arcadia…

The author’s rights are asserted.

So here are two gods whom [Tresmegistus] affirms to have been men, Æsculapius and Mercury. Now concerning Æsculapius, both the Greeks and the Latins think the same about that; but as to Mercury, there are many who do not think that he was formerly a mortal, though Hermes [Tresmegistus] testifies that he was his grandsire. … It is sufficient to know that this Mercury of whom Hermes speaks is, as well as Æsculapius, a god who once was a man, according, to the testimony of this same Tresmegistus, esteemed so great by his countrymen, and Mercury’s own grandson.

Augustine, City of God. Bk 8, Ch.10

The French manuscript cited by Ellie Velinska (see previous post) was made several decades too late for its images to have influenced those in the Voynich manuscript, but it still has something to tell us.

Another of its illustrations (below) emphasises for the viewer that Hermes Tresmegistos was a character well known and quite well thought of by Augustine – that thinker and theologian who had lived in the 5thC and defined the future theological character of western Christian Europe. It is was from a fifteenth century French version of Augustine’s ‘Civitate Dei” that Ellie had that detail.

Below, another detail from that same manuscript shows Tresmegistus* wearing red hat used in Latin works to denote an elite easterner. He is putting Asclepius right on the subject of pagan deities. Asclepius is here imagined by the painter entirely Greek, but that’s not what Augustine says – and this isn’t the only time when the fifteenth-century Parisian illuminator tactfully avoided suggesting that any figure admired by the Greeks is even partly ‘Asiatic’.

*as it is spelled in Latin.

detail of folio 390r – The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11. manuscript made in Paris, illuminated there by Maïtre François who completed it c. 1475. The work was begun for Jacques d’Armagnac, duke of Nemours (1433-1477) and after his capture continued for Philippe de Commines (1447-1511), lord of Argenton..

The same impression is conveyed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica which says, “There are frequent allusions to Hermes Trismegistus in late medieval and Renaissance literature” but implies that it came only after the seventh century and from works transmitted in Arabic. This just isn’t so.

For any western student of theology, as for an educated layman, comments made in Augustine’s work told them otherwise. By the early fifteenth century, Civitate Dei (City of God) with its comments attributing medicine’s origin to Egypt would, whether true or not, have been considered general knowledge among the educated.

True, Augustine seems only to have known the Asclepius dialogue, but for our present question it’s enough – and another test for the value of Georg Baresch’s description of the Voynich manuscript.

Concerning Georg Baresch – for newcomers.

Georg Baresch is the first person whose possession of the manuscript is undisputed (save by those who argue the manuscript a modern fake). In his letter to Kircher, Baresch says (in 1635) that German specialists in botany (these being the best in Europe at that time) do not know the Voynich plants’ identities, adding that the plants are exotics – i.e. not native to Europe. That Baresch himself insists (not ‘hypothesises’) that the material in the manuscript was gained in “oriental parts” is what we keep testing against the evidence offered by the Voynich drawings and diagrams, although on the point of medicinal purpose, Baresch himself says that’s only his “guess”. His having paid for copies of sections to be made, and then having them sent to Kircher because the latter had appealed for materials to assist decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics (hieratic) indicates, I think, that Baresch did honestly believe the content was in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’. So as we go, we test his views. So far, he’s looking good, but that only means his belief was not unreasonable or a-historical – not that it is certainly true.

What the text of Augustine’s Civitate Dei makes clear is that for a well educated person, it might seem logical to seek superior or ancient “pristine medicine” in Egypt.

In Book 8, Augustine writes,

Your grandsire, O Æsculapius,[was] the first discoverer of medicine, to whom a temple was consecrated in a mountain of Libya, near to the shore of the crocodiles. In that temple in which his body lies – his earthly man – … he affords to the infirm even now by his divinity those aids he used to afford them formerly by the art of medicine”. (Augustine, Civiate Dei. Bk VIII Ch. 26).

Augustine also knew, in fifth-century North Africa, what few medieval or Renaissance European artists appear to have known – namely that this Asclepius was not Greek, but half Hellenistic Greek and half Egyptian.* The story we see in the images made for Hague, MMW 10 A II, suggest rather that the Greek ancestor ‘Mercury’ is the patron of healing, though that’s not what Augustine knew, and he was quoting the original text.

*I stand corrected. Some Greek presence in Egypt dates to before Alexander’s conquest, leaving open the possibility that the Egyptian temple may have been frequented by Greeks, and by them associated with Asclepius, even before Alexander’s time.

“…by the shore of the crocodiles”

Augustine means lake-shores near that cult-centre called by the Greeks Krokodilopolis or Arsinoë, and by the Romans Arsinoë or, sometimes, Arcadia.

*autocorrect’s Antinoe un-corrected to Arsinoë, which is correct.

In traditional style, Augustine’s ‘Libya’ includes all land west of the Nile, save only the delta, and in fact, remnants survive today of a temple on the hills overlooking that shore.

Its nearest village was known in Ptolemaic times as Dionysias and so in modern accounts that temple is sometimes described as ‘The Temple of Stones’ or else the temple near Dionysias. It is now so reduced as to be all but devoid of interest, resembling an empty warehouse.

You can see both those places on the map (below). Dionysias is seen to the upper left [look for 184]. Crocodilopolis/Arsinoe/Arcadia near the centre [1935]. The numbers refer to the number of papyri found in a given site. [Other places called Arsinoe HERE]

Another site, rich in finds of papyri as the other two combined lies near the map’s top-right. It Karanis [2,474] and this isn’t the first time that Karanis and the Faiyum have cropped up while researching this manuscript’s drawings. Last year, treating the calendar’s ‘November’ emblem, I showed a detail from a Roman-era papyrus. That work is known as the ‘Book of the Fayum’ but Karanis in particular was noted some time ago when the present writer investigated some artefacts seen in the Voynich ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

Here’s a brief recap from that earlier work. This is less than a twentieth of it, but will do here. 🙂

Faiyum, glass and the Voynich ‘leaf and root’ section.

Karanis (sometimes Karanais) cropped up while considering artefacts seen in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

notice the vestigial ‘wreath’ ring around the neck. The brownish discolouration is a natural effect post-production. This image courtesy collection of John and Carole Alaire.

Some appear meant to represent glassware.

Some of those include a feature made by trailing an extra rod of glass to form what you may think of a ‘wreath’-ring.

In combination with that feature, you see what is evidently meant to dnote glass that is white or clear,

As I explained at length and with many illustrations at a time when any suggestion of ‘Asiatic’ influence caused severe allergic reaction among hard-core Voynich traditionalists – not so often these days – to find this combination is not very common. The ‘wreath’ ring indicates the eastern Roman empire in c.1st-2ndC or so, and clear or white glass with that indicates Egypt over Syria at that time.

Karanis was a major centre of glassmaking. Glassmaking tended to maintain similar forms and techniques until the craft-families were lost to illness or war who had kept those secrets. Enamelled and gilded glass, attested in finds from Begram (1st-2ndC AD), returned to Syria only with the Mongol’s eruption and consequent population movement. From there, Venice would acquire workers who were imprisoned on the city’s islands and whose techniques continue to echo those used in the eastern Mediterranean a thousand years earlier.

As for the earlier glass of Karanis and Syria – though called ‘Roman’ glass, Romans as such are unlikely to have had much to do with the process of manufacture. Other details suggest a context beyond Roman rule for some artefacts in this section, but we know that Hellenistic-Persian communities in what is now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan were making or importing glass of fine quality to as late as the 2ndC AD.

IF anyone had been intending to seek ‘ancient’ pristine medicine in what Baresch calls “oriental parts”, then if they had read Augustine’s ‘Asclepius’ dialogue, the Faiyum is surely one region they’d have on their itinerary, though Cairo’s fonduks are another, and perhaps also what remained of the temple to the other god-man, Hermes whom the Romans and Latins called ‘Mercury’. A temple to him lay further upriver than the Faiyum, at Hermopolis‘. Thus Augustine – “For this elder Hermes…who, he says, was his grandsire, is said to be buried in Hermopolis…”and

…[Tresmegistus says] Does not Hermes, who was my grandsire, and whose name I bear, abiding in the country which is called by his name, help and preserve all mortals who come to him from every quarter?

Thoth was also known through patristic writings, including those of Lactantius,whose life overlapped Ausonius’ and who served as advisor to Contantine I, the emperor to whose youngest son Ausonius’ uncle had been tutor.

Lactantius’ classical education allows him to refer easily to the works of Homer and to the many deities and philosophies of the empire that was still, to his time, ‘Roman’ in every sense. Nonetheless, he knew less than he believed he did. Literati of the Italian Renaissance spoke of Lactantius as the ‘Christian Ciceero’, his Institutiones Divinae offering a venerable authority for melding Christian and pre-Christian allusions.

In Bk I, Ch.6, a passage shows what he understood of Tresmegistus – and that he believed Egypt had first gained writing and laws from an outlawed Greek(!). It is an oddly European arrogance: The Greek Herodotus writing in the 5thC BC had known better and so would Augustine. But here is Lactantius – who says among other things that who is buried in Hermopolis is not Hermes, but Tresmegistus(!):

According to Cicero, Caius Cotta the pontiff, while disputing against the Stoics … says that there were five Mercuries; and having enumerated four in order, says that the fifth was he by whom Argus was slain, and that on this account he fled into Egypt, and gave laws and letters to the Egyptians. The Egyptians call him Thoth; and from him the first month of their year, that is, September, received its name among them. He also built a town, which is even now called in Greek Hermopolis (the town of Mercury), and the inhabitants of Phenæ honour him with religious worship. And although he was a man, yet he was of great antiquity, and most fully imbued with every kind of learning, so that the knowledge of many subjects and arts acquired for him the name of Trismegistus. He wrote books, and those in great numbers, relating to the knowledge of divine things, in which be asserts the majesty of the supreme and only God, and makes mention of Him by the same names which we use — God and Father. And that no one might inquire His name, he said that He was without name, and that on account of His very unity He does not require the peculiarity of a name. These are his own words: God is one, but He who is one only does not need a name; for He who is self-existent is without a name. God, therefore, has no name, because He is alone; nor is there any need of a proper name, except in cases where a multitude of persons requires a distinguishing mark, so that you may designate each person by his own mark and appellation. But God, because He is always one, has no peculiar name.

Healing from the spirit; attending to the body.

Healing in the style of ‘Asclepian’ medicine paid more attention to healing as a benefit of both physical and spiritual healing. That of Hippocrates had a more pragmatic concentration on the body as such.

The following is slightly edited from a Polish article, but this is standard information which you should find in any reliable history of the Greek tradition.

Ancient Greece had two types of medicine: one priestly-religious and associated with temple treatment and the divine Asclepios; the other Hippocratic and rational. Both types of medicine co-existed, representing two non-antagonistic alternatives in treatment. In spite of apparent differences in their approach, we have no evidence of either collaboration between Asclepian priests and Hippocratic physicians, nor of any mutual misunderstanding or hostility between them. Followers of Asclepios respected tradition, believed in a divine descent for their profession, but remained loyal to the Hippocratic Oath. The fact that when the rational type of medicine did not help a patient, the patient might seek then healing through religion and other alternatives is not rare even today.[i.e. it implies no exclusive attachment to either remedy].

see Marketos SG, Poulakou-Rebelakou E. Tradycyjna medycyna w starozytnej Grecji (współistnienie sztuki asklepiejskiej i medycyny hipokratejskiej) [Traditional medicine in ancient Greece (coexistence of Asclepian art and Hippocratic medicine)]. Przegl Lek. 1995;52(12):612-4. Polish. PMID: 8834663.

What that summary implies, and what we find in Latin Europe, is a deliberate ‘wiping’ of the older and once well-understood seminal contribution made by Egypt.

this is very clear in the fifteenth-century illustrations for the Hague copy of Augustine’s work, but is far more widespread within medieval and early Renaissance Latin Europe. I should add that Augustine has played a bit fast and loose with his terminology, choosing to use ‘demon’ rather than, as he should, daimon or daemon. Many in Augustine’s time still held the ancient belief that the stars were ensouled, and Augustine’s detestation of such figures may be a hangover from his Manichaean period. Here’s the text for which Ellie’s example is the illustration:

Chapter 10 – Concerning Theurgy, Which Promises a Delusive Purification of the Soul by invocation of demons.

These are the delusive appearances of that spirit who longs to entangle wretched souls in the deceptive worship of many and false gods, and to turn them aside from the true worship of the [one] true God, by whom alone they are cleansed and healed, and who, as was said of Proteus, turns himself into all shapes, equally harmful, whether he assaults us as an enemy, or assumes the disguise of a friend.

As to those who… see… certain wonderfully lovely appearances of angels or gods, this is what the apostle refers to when he speaks of Satan transforming himself into an angel of light – (referring to 2 Corinthians 11:14).


Despite the reverence in which Augustine was held, some parts of his ‘Cite de Dieu’ are tactfully passed over in medieval images. Augustine identifies Asclepius’ Egyptian grandfather as inventor of medicine healing, but the Latins uniformly accord that role, instead, to Asclepius himself or others such as Chiron etc. (badly scrambled sentence, sorry – corrected 6th Jan).

Another remarkable fact is that although we see Hermes’ staff correctly represented in North Africa in the period of Roman occupation, a sophisticated fifteenth-century French illuminator has no idea what it should look like.

Hermes. drawing from a classical Greek Attic vase.

North Africa c.2ndC BC – 1stC AD. Herm-Anubis with daemones.

The belief against which Augustine rails in Chapter 10 of Civitate dei – of a soul’s being carried up by daemones is seen vividly in a near contemporary ivory. Their ‘Mercurial’ nature is indicated only by the bird-wings of their hair.

British Museum Object No.1857,1013.1, dated 402 AD. T

The coin on the left still has the staff fairly correct, and helps us understand the strange saw-toothed weapon given ‘Mercury’ in Hague, MMW 10 A 11 folio 197r,

Roman Egypt. mid-2nd and early 3rdC AD.

Mercury, patron of traders and travellers with insignia in Hague MMW 10 A 11.

(detail) Hague, MMW 10 A 11 folio 197r

That this isn’t a unique error is evident from other Latin examples, of which there are many, even from about the same time:

provenance unspecified.

I differ on some statements in the British Museum’s description of the next image, but reproduce it in full.

British Museum. Object 1845,0825.347. Late 15thC. Italy possibly Ferrara

Mercurio (Ferrara, c.1470-1480) Mercury; facing right, wearing winged helmet and sandals (boots), he holds the caduceus with entwined serpents and plays a flute; the decapitated head of Argus full of eyes and a cock at his feet; inscribed at lower left: ‘A’, at lower centre: ‘MERCVRIO XXXXII’ and at lower right: ‘4Z’; encircled by a frame of diamonds.

I hope that by now you are asking, ‘What have these late fifteenth-century French and Italian images got to do with the Voynich drawings?

I do hope it’s what you’re thinking, because the answer is – not very much.

Those drawings bear no resemblance to anythin in the Voynich manuscript. Not in the arrangement of the page, not in the border ornament, not in their style of drawing, not in their subject matter, the degree of immediate legibility, not in any associated script nor their attitude to human society – not even in their ideas about who should and should not be hatted and booted.

And that IS the point.

All those images in the Hague manuscript, and the other medieval western European images I’ve mentioned in this post are “new wine in new skins” – nothing about the pictures suggests origins in some earlier copy of Augustine’s text.


The Hague site is not the easiest to navigate. To see more of Hague, MMW 10 A 11 best go directly to:


To be fair, one image said to be of Anubis (friend of Mercury), lets us add a few grains’ weight on the positive side for that ‘St.Theodore’ in Venice.

O’Donovan notes – 7c.i – Calendar. Bodleian Douce 313.

c.4700 words (including references. longish footnotes and a Notice to Readers.)

The author’s rights are asserted.

Abstract – A crocodile as emblem for November has been noted in these posts, so far, only in Beinecke MS 408 and in a Franciscan missal (Bodleian, Douce 313), both being pocket-sized manuscripts, noted for the extraordinary number of their drawings and, in different senses, for the simplicity of those drawings.

This post considers other possible points in common, because if the ‘Marci’ letter of 1665/6 should be genuine, an idea of connection between Beinecke MS 408 and the Franciscans has been around, now, for three and a half centuries, yet remains largely unexplored. We also consider the different attitudes towards making books and images between the early Franciscans and that other preaching order, the Dominicans – and certain interests common to both.

Prefatory remarks:

The opinion I hold, after more than a decade’s working through the sections of Beinecke MS 408, is that a majority of its drawings entered Latin1 horizons only c.1350 AD and that the style of that majority fall into two groups, of which one derives ultimately from works of Hellenistic origin (c.3rdC BC – 5thC AD)2 and the other from a Roman cultural context c.1st-3rdC AD. All which fall into one or other of those groups demonstrate evidence of non-classical and non-Latin affect over the intervening period, that is, to c.1350 AD. Though relatively few drawings in Beinecke MS 408 are expressed in the way of art in the medieval Mediterranean and Latin west, the calendar’s central emblems are among those few.

1. By ‘Latin’ Europe is meant here, and throughout posts to this blog, that part of western Europe whose shared culture had been formed by use of Latin for its language of liturgy, scholarship and diplomacy – the counterparts elsewhere in the Mediterranean world being Arabic and Greek.

2.in certain regions not invaded by Rome, Hellenistic culture survived much longer than it did in the Mediterranean.

It is also my opinion – though the informing research was never shared online beyond one a vague hint – that the manuscript is likely to have been among those improperly acquired by Guglielmo Libri, the manuscript being entrusted (or returned) to a member of the Jesuit order after Libri’s death in Fiesole as an effort at restitution and so reaching Fr. Beckx, in whose trunk Voynich says he first saw it in about 1911. Beckx was head of the Jesuit order when he resided in Fiesole from 1873-1883/4, a time when his order was suppressed in Rome.3

3. for more detail about Fr Beckx life, and relevance for Voynich studies, see separate page in the top bar (HERE). Catholics believe not only that they should acknowledge sins of commission and omission in confession, but that sins are not forgiven unless and until some effort is made to restore, or make other restitution, for harm done.

Libri had died four years before Beckx arrived, the doubtful honour of becoming Libri’s chief executor falling to Count Giacomo Manzonia, resident of the same same town, and by all reports noble in character and not merely in name.

  • Jeremy M. Norman, Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel: A Bibliographical Investigation of the Life and Exploits of Count Guglielmo Libri. (2013)
  • Andrea Del Centina, ‘The manuscript of Abel’s Parisian memoir found in its entirety’, Historia Mathematica Vol. 29 (2002) pp. 65-69.
  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘A True and Faithful Relation of the Death of Count Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone Libri-Carucci dalla Sommaia’, voynichimagery, (March 23rd., 2015) – that post was published and I’ll provide a copy to any wanting it. email: voynichimagery AT gmail com.

As I say, that research was never shared online other than a couple of faint hints, so I was interested to see that quite soon afterwards a member of one voynich forum asked in that place – though had not asked me, nor named me – what lay behind reference to Libri. Not unpredictably, another asserted with quite magnificent self-assurance (given that he knew no more than did the questioner) that it was “100% hypothetical”.

That bit of trivia is now called to mind because to illustrate Dominican attitudes to painting in that part of Italy about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ve chosen a praedella painted for a church in Fiesole by a native of the region, the Dominican friar popularly known as ‘Fra Angelico’. (Part of the praedella serves as our heading).

Rupecanina is a small hamlet in the mountains about 27 km (17.3 miles) north of Florence.

Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro in about 1395 – some say in Rupercanina and others in nearby Vicchio. Because friars took a new name on entry to their religious order, with a surname from the place they joined it, so Guido became the Dominican friar, Fra John of Fiesole. His brother Benedetto also joined the Dominicans. Both are believed trained as illuminators of manuscripts before entering the order – Fra John perhaps in 1407 or perhaps in 1417. Sources differ, but this bracket of 1407-1437 is nicely convenient for us and the palette used by Fra Angelico a potentially useful comparison for that in Beinecke MS 408. N.B. I’m not suggesting that Fra Angelico or his brother made the Voynich drawings!

Both brothers produced works for the Dominican convent of S. Marco in Florence; Benedetto illuminated choral books for San Marco and for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole and is thought to have assisted Fra John in creating his frescos in Florence and possibly also assisted with that praedella.

  • Graves, Robert Edmund (ed.). Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (A–K). Vol. I (3rd ed.) .p.494.

The Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and the order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) were established as mendicant orders with a charter to preach without being tied to any parish, but the Dominicans began by studying rhetoric, logic, theology and languages, from a theory that they could overwhelm others and convert them by force of logical argument. (That their logical arguments might be built on arguable premises did not occur to them.) That they made so few converts in that way would eventually cause a number of Dominicans to become enraged beyond reason and and simultaneously incur the wrath – sometimes fatal – of non-European communities whose sensibilities their style of missionary preaching offended.

Franciscans believed, on the other hand – in the earlier years at least – that by simply living as Christ had done, in poverty and as an itinerant who relied on the local community for daily sustenance and to whom they should speak very simply, would not only bring others to Christianity but encourage Christians to a more authentic Christian life. This philosophy was so obviously in contrast to the way of life practiced by ‘princes of the church’ and other religious orders that the founder, Francis of Assisi, came within a hairsbreadth of being executed for heresy but led, equally, to an enormous popularity among the ordinary people.

Both orders required that members to take a vow of poverty but here again their practices differed before the mid-fourteenth century. Dominicans defined that poverty merely as a nominal personal poverty and had no objection to the priory being wealthy in lands, money or goods, or in using lavish pigments and gilding for their manuscripts and churches. The early Franciscans, in Italy, had refused gifts of land or money for their community, and while their attitudes would change over time, and fourteenth-century France is often mentioned as part of the reason for that change, we see that difference of opinion expressed in illustrations made for a mid-thirteenth century Dominican bible known as the ‘Abbey’ bible. In the detail (below) the sub-text is that Christ loves Dominicans; that Franciscans’ manuscripts are mean and amateurish; that none can read music; that they are poorly dressed, wear sandals over dirty feet and are ‘dumb’ in more than one sense of the word.

image from Elizabeth Morrison, ‘Far from Marginal’, Getty Museum Blog (Sept. 7th., 2011). Morrison’s comment in more diplomatic.

Many early Franciscans had been unlettered men, but not all – and by the 1400s many were being formally trained in theology and ordained as priests. However, the thirteenth-century work shows that there may have been more than just gut-feeling, or the rumour allegedly mentioned by Marci, behind Wilfrid’s asserting that his small, pocket-sized ‘ugly ducking’ manuscript was a thirteenth-century Franciscan product, despite its being unlike texts produced in centres such as Oxford or Paris even by a Franciscan as Roger Bacon was.

Franciscan simplicity – and a crocodile.

In marked contrast to Dominican ornament – whether in the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries – we have the style of Bodleian, MS Douce 313. It presents as simple and of an almost penitential restraint, but the drawings are fine, fairly sophisticated and in a currently-fashionable form, known as grisaille. Below, its emblem for November, which we’ll compare later with that in Beinecke 408.

The example of Douce 313 provides some helpful information – first, that the Voynich November crocodile is not the result of individual whim. Secondly, that the crocodile was regarded in at least one place in Europe, among certain Franciscans at least, as an acceptable form for Scorpio – its presence in Beinecke MS 408 is not a mistake or the result of the maker’s being ignorant.

Thirdly, that because the drawing in Douce 313 is part of a ‘labours and months’ series of which the remainder is entirely conventional – one might even say ‘classical’ – it suggests the existence of some model regarded as equally conventional in which also a crocodile was drawn for November, despite this being the earliest noted so far in medieval Latin art. Prior to this, we’ve seen November associated with Egypt only in much older works – a Roman-era mosaic calendar from north Africa and the Chronology of 354.

Otherwise, the series of month-emblems in Douce 313 is unlike that of Beiencke MS 408. For Sagittarius it has the Centaur-with-bow, not the fully-human archer seen in the Voynich calendar and first attested among eastern Jews. The emblem for July is a simple Crab, not the ‘locusta’ which, paired, serve as the Voynich calendar’s emblem for July.

While medieval Latin manuscripts often show confusion about the proper form for Scorpius, sometimes drawing it as a crustacean; as an insect; in various lizard-like forms and like forms of dragon similar to those labelled ‘crocodrill’ in the bestiaries, what we have in Douce 313 is recognisably a crocodile, and a beast associated in the medieval imagination with Egypt and more specifically with the Nile.

Thus, Douce 313 and Beinecke MS 408 are certainly not ‘sister’ manuscripts, but this fairly literal image of a crocodile as November’s emblem makes the context which produced Bodleian, Douce 313 worth looking at more closely.

Where and when?

The writer JK Petersen included the crocodile from Douce 313 in a montage, describing it as difficult to explain. Acknowledging no precedent, he implies originality, so we credit him with first introducing Douce 313 to Voynich studies.

Mr. Petersen did not explain why he supposed the manuscript made in Paris. The holding library speaks of van Dijk having linked it, albeit tentatively, to the Franciscan priory in Brive (since 1919 Brieve-la-Gaillarde), Corrèze – several hundred kilometers4 south of the capital, in a region where dialects of Occitan were spoken in medieval times. (see map HERE).

4. The French wiki article gives distance to Paris by road as 483  km. or 300 miles. St. Anthony of Padua founded a monastery there in 1226.

If, as many have argued (first, if I recall, Jorge Stolfi), the Voynich month-names reflect the form of an Occitan dialect, then we might say that link to an ‘Occitan-speaking region’ is another point in common between Beinecke 408 and Douce 313. [for more information see further below]

In Brieve, in 1226, one of the first generation of Franciscans, a Portuguese called Anthony of Padua had founded a monastery. Because – as said above – a Franciscan was named for the house in which he joined the order, (e.g. John of Fiesole) or, if he had led an itinerant life as Anthony did, where he died, so Anthony is called ‘of Padua’ by reason of having died there in 1231, at the age of just 36 years and, incidentally, while both Roger Bacon and Michael Scot both still lived.

In the calendar of Douce 313, Anthony is commemorated on 13th. June.*

*”the feast of St. Anthony of Padua (13 June) has no octave but is entered as: S. pastris nosti Antonii conf.” – Bodleian catalogue description.

As I’ve attempted before to explain for Voynich researchers, it makes more sense to consider the physical and community networks along which people, goods, ideas, and fashions travelled than to define a subject in terms of modern notions of nationality or national character. Together with topography, it permits us to include in ‘southern’ Europe not only Italy and Spain, but France, and England.

The matter is easily demonstrated by considering that technique of ‘greyscale’ drawing (grisaille) though it is not employed anywhere in Beinecke MS 408. Some scholars also distinguish ‘brown-scale’ (bruneille). Modern English scholars tend, instead, to describe the technique as ‘tinted line drawing’.


NOTE – re Occitan for the month-names – this not the only language or dialect proposed for the Voynich calendar’s month-names. Panofsky spoke of ‘regional French’. Others have suggested Judeo-Catalan, or Norman French (of England), Picard and (so I’ve heard as rumour) even one of the ‘Allemannic’ dialects, the author of the last idea evidently not yet having published his argument (?) – (if you know better, or know the person’s name, do leave a comment).

However, as Nick Pelling earlier noted and Don of Talahassee discovered and explained in detail, quite independently, posting to his own site and in communications to voynich ninja (the last largely ignored as he said), the Voynich month-names’ orthography is close to that found on an astronomical instrument believed made in Picardy. (for more, see references below)

  • The Picard instrument is illustrated as Plate 6 in D.A. King, ‘A medieval astrolabe from Picardy’, book chapter available separately as a pdf though academia.edu.
  • Nick Pelling, crediting Joge Stolfi, had earlier formed an idea that the month names were “probably written in an Occitan dialect close to the Provencal spoken in Toulon, a busy medieval port near Marseilles.” (Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.23. He refers again, rather later, to those early and repeated hints of links to the Franciscan order in ‘The Franciscan Voynich hypothesis – Roger Bacon Redux!ciphermysteries (blog) April 12th., 2012.
  • Don of Talahassee also briefly outlined his findings later in a comment to ciphermysteries ( June 9th, 2015), though I’m unable to find any geared astrolabe whose manufacture is credited to Picardy. This may be due to my failure to find it rather than any error by Don.
  • David A. King (2001), The Ciphers of the Monks: A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages.

Yet another line of connection between England, France and Italy is presented by the grisaille.

England – Paris – Italy. Grisaille. (13thC – mid-14thC).

The technique had been common in England from Anglo-Saxon times, and the first person to make it a special feature of his own work and so inspire in its dissemination in the Continent was an Englishman known as ‘Matthew [of] Paris’ (c. 1200 – 1259).

Fifty years later, in c.1304, it is employed by Giotto in Padua, in the Scrovegni Chapel.

Very shortly after we find it adopted in Paris by a near contemporary, Jean Pucelle, who flourished c. 1320–1350.

And in c.1350, as we know, it is employed in a southern French Franciscan missal – Bodleian Douce 313.

(Northern Europe would take it up rather later, and it would not become really popular in that region until the later sixteenth- through to the seventeenth centuries).

Sculptural and literal. These thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artists use the technique, quite specifically, to imitate sculpture, and by this time Latin art in Italy and France was moving towards a revival of classical-era literalism. In Douce 313, the ‘labours and months’ drawings don’t quite give the sense of depth seen in other cases, nor do they attempt any trompe l’oeil, but they do allow a possibility that the series copies one of those found carved in reflief on the exterior of medieval churches and cathedrals, from the twelfth century onwards. The example shown below was carved in Amiens, capital of Picardy, in 1220-1270 AD. close to when the monastery in Brieve was founded by Antony. These constellations and labours, however, use forms consistent with what we find in Latin manuscripts from as early as the 8th and 9th centuries.

Amiens Cathedral. 13thC. Amiens the administrative capital of Picardy

It is possible that the calendar series in Douce 313 copies one since lost which has passed unremarked. What we can say is that by 1350 AD, some Franciscans in southern France (at least) found no objection to having a crocodile for November’s emblem, and had by then acquired that style of drawing gained from older England and currently popular among some painters in Italy and in France.

The Voynich drawings appear to have been at first simple line and wash before some heavier hand added heavier pigments to some. The line work does not approach the sophistication of Douce 313 and the two use very different methods to indicate curves and volume. That contrast between the ‘line and wash’ and additions by the heavy painter* is especially noticeable in the Voynich calendar.

*’heavy painter’ – first recognised and the term first coined, I believe, by Nick Pelling. *Note added 17th.December 2022 – although I first saw the term in one of Pelling’s posts, he had earlier credited Stolfi, writing, “Jorge Stolfi pointed out the disparity between the Voynich’s various paints (in terms both of the range of painting materials used, and of the degree of skill employed) and suggested that a “heavy painter” may have added his/her paint much later (say, a century or more), there has been significant doubt about how much paint the manuscript originally had – really, which paints were (deliberately) original, and which were (speculatively) added later?” [note by D.N. O’D – I would agree that the heavy painter came into the history of the drawings quite late, but not necessarily later than the last pre-binding stage of the present manuscript’s evolution. The aim of the heavy painter seems to have been, not least, to make the unclothed figures more ‘decent’ according to a fairly strict western standard, and he appears to me to have also served as overseer and monitor of the work in its last stage, because the majority of drawings are still quite remarkably clear in revealing their earlier roots and the non-Latin environment. For imported images not to have been ‘translated’ into Latin forms is most unusual. I attribute this exactness, which I’ve described as ‘near facsimile’ exactness, to an original direction by the person commissioning the work that the images should be simply copied, not made more compatible with Latin conventions – as done routinely when foreign matter entered Latin horizons. One might consider the way images in the ‘Tacuinum Sanitatis’ are changed, copy by copy. The ‘heavy painter’s agenda was not that of the person who first engaged the copyists].

The passage just quoted above – in italics – is taken from N.Pelling, ‘ Voynich Colour Inference. A Sure Path to Madness…’, ciphermysteries, December 20th., 2011.

St. Anthony of Padua – by Giotto

Lines of connection – Giotto.

In the same way that we associate Fra Angelico’s paintings with a Dominican context, so in a more general way Giotto is associated with the Franciscans. He is another of those important thirteenth-century figures, having been born in 1267 AD or 1277 AD.

Before being commissioned for work in Padua’s Scrovegni chapel in c.1305 he had already worked on the Basilica built in Padua for St. Anthony (yes, the Portuguese one), and before that for the Franciscan friars of Assisi and of Rimini.

In Douce 313 bishop Gaudentius of Rimini is commemorated – an inclusion difficult to explain in terms of the usual French liturgical roster but easily understood in terms of the Franciscan network.

Gaudentius had come to Rimini from Asia minor about the time the Chronography of 354 was made with its ‘Egyptian’ November and while memory was still fresh of what is called ‘The Plague of Cyprian’ (c.251–270 AD).

Other Times and other Places – define ‘Egyptian’.

One thing which Europe in general, and the preaching orders and the Italian mercantile cities in particular, did have in common was a keen interest in regions lying to the east of Europe.

Christian Europe was well aware that it had been from the east that their religion had come. In the east, too, lay the holy land, the chief point of orientation for Latins’ mappamundi.

Models of monasticism were presented in the form of early Egyptian ascetics, such as Antony of the desert – whose relics arrived in France after being carried first from Alexandria to Constantinople, and rather later from Constantinople to France, at times when theach of the first two cities was in peril.

Eventually (in 1297) the saint’s relics were given a church which soon became a centre of pilgrimage: Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye.

The Life of Antony, translated into Latin as early as the 4thC, was “one of the best known works of literature in the Christian world, a status it would hold through the Middle Ages”.

Fra Angelico pictured that early ascetic in a rather curious garment. The usual reading of the ‘Life’ says Antony had only a couple of rough skin robes – of the sort which Latin Europe gave John the Baptist or Mary Magdalen. One possible explanation is that, living only six kilometers from Florence, Fra Angelico had heard tell of a certain ‘primordial’ robe left there by a Franciscan friar named John de’Marignolli in 1353. de’Marignolli was not the first Franciscan to go to China. He also believed that along the maritime route he had seen the original Paradise and for reasons I won’t go into here, he may have been right.

Before being sent east, however, de’Marignolli had taught theology at the University of Bologna, and we about that ‘primordial’ robe he brought back because years later, in Prague and being given the rather dreary task of re-writing the Annals of Bohemia, he interspersed that narrative with occasional reminiscence.

In one passage he wrote, first quoting Genesis 3:21:

“And the Lord made for Adam and his wife coats of skins or fur, and clothed them therewith. …” [Gen. 3:21]. Now then I say, without however meaning to dogmatize, that for coats of fur we should read coats of fibre. For among the fronds of the Nargil, of which I have spoken above, there grows a sort of fibrous web forming an open network of coarse dry filaments. … A garment such as I mean, of this cannall cloth (and not camel cloth), I wore till I got to Florence, and I left it in the sacristy of the Minor Friars there. No doubt the raiment of John Baptist was of this kind.

from Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China VOL. II. pp. 240-242 ‘ The Travels of John de Marignolli 1339-1353’.

This is repeated in another passage, with the Latin terms included the Yule translation reading: “And he made them coats of skins: so at least we com­monly have it, pelliceas,”of fur,” but we should do better to read filiceas,”of fibre”; because they were no doubt of a certain fibrous substance which grows like net-work between the shoots of the coco-palm; I wore one of these myself till I got to Florence, where I left it. ibid. p.227.

John the Baptist was certainly another desert ascetic like Antony, but te conventions of western Christian art meant that the Baptist could not be dressed so unconventionally, so instead – as it seems to me – Fra Angelico has put the ‘paradiscal’ ascetic robe on Antony. He has had to use his imagination or some other eastern souvenir as his model, though, because the natural fibre de’Marigolli meant was coir, and what Fra Angelico painted is more like Asian basketry, rush-matting or a type of woven cape known from parts of India.

Whether there exists, or ever existed, an earlier written account of de’Marignolli’s journey, we know that on his return he had to report to his superiors, and make a formal report to the papal court in Avignon. We may reasonably suppose that he would also have had to answer the usual raft of questions from his fellows, explaining the curious garment left in Florence and speaking about those far-off ‘pagans’ who members hoped one day to convert.

In the European imagination, all eastern peoples were of Egyptian origin and this was so even so late as 1636, when Athanasius Kircher used that to argue that Chinese characters descended from Egyptian hieroglyphic (hieratic) writing. The belief was gained from the Bible, which said that after the Flood, the world had been repopulated by Noah’s sons, one seeing to Africa exclusive of Egypt, another given Europe and the third ‘Asia’, ‘Asia’ defined as beginning from Egypt and the Bosphorus. Because this belief was still current belief among even learned European Christians so lateas the 1630s, we describe the comments made to Kircher by Baresch as meaning that he thought manuscript’s content in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’ – though in my own opinion, when he says the plants are exotics, we may believe him.

  • Kircher argued, initially, that Chinese characters evolved from Egypt’s hieroglyphic (hieratic) script, but would later believe the Chinese to be ‘Adamites’. cf. Wang Haili, ‘Chinese Approaches to Egyptian Hieroglyphs: liushu and bushou’, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 165, No. 2 (2015), pp. 279-302.

Other forms of book (and other crocodiles).

Another detail from praedella shows the interest felt in early fifteenth century Italy in distant peoples and places. Below, a Dominican friar is included in a group which otherwise consists of St. Thomas, best known as Christ’s apostle to India, and two foreign-looking men who wear pink, with no hint of that censure we saw in Bonaiuti’s depiction of Michael Scot.

St. Thomas was one of Christ’s apostles, best known as the apostle to India. There, a community known as the ‘Community of Thomas’ attribute their founding to that apostle and say they were founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD.

St. Thomas didn’t dress as he’s represented here, of course, but his bones had eventually been moved from southern India to Syria and (so it is said) later to Chios, from which another Florentine, a member of the Acciaiuoli family, carried them in 1258 to Ortona, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they remain.

That detail in the praedella is not entirely clear, but among the easterners associated with Thomas, one holds what I believe is a set of inscribed palm-leaf books, palm-leaves having once been a common medium used from north Africa through Arabia and the east. The quill which Fra Angelico gives that figure signifies, in the visual language of Latin Europe, a scribe.

We may again cite de’Marignolli though a good number of westerners had seen these things before him and he himself had a guide from India, a friar named Peter. But he says, of people in Sri Lanka [Seyllan] “they teach boys to form their letters, first by writing with the finger on sand, and afterwards with an iron style upon leaves of paper, or rather I should say upon leaves of a certain tree”.

And there, for the moment, we pause.

Additional note –

As antidote to the wiki article on de’ Marignolli (which attempts to make him a person of high social consequence, ties him chiefly to Prague, and quite omits to mention that he was an Italian Franciscan, I provide the following – from the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

“John de’ Marignolli. Born at Florence about 1290; place and date of death unknown. When quite a youth he received the Franciscan habit at the convent of Santa Croce, Florence; later on, as he himself tells us, he held the chair of theology at the University of Bologna. Nothing more is known of his religious life until Benedict XII sent him with other Franciscans on a mission to the Emperor of China”… etc. It is evident to anyone who has actually read the Franciscans’ accounts of their own travels that wiki writers err who attempt to make of those friars personages of high social status travelling with pomp and circumstance. They carried letters and messages but were not ‘diplomats’ in the modern sense.


NOTICE TO READERS: I regret that, in order to refer in these posts to my own work, while avoiding readers’ wondering if they’ve not seen something similar elsewhere in Voyich-land, I must be clear that no precedent existed when I contributed the following texts and topics (among numerous others) to Voynich studies:

Italian mercantile handbooks other than Milanese cipher-books; the history of imported goods; the history of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries and accounts of their journeys; the astronomical studies conducted in Constantinople, Trebizond, as in Maragha and Tabriz under under Mongol rule; detailed historical studies of the overland ‘silk’ routes and maritime ‘spice routes’; the Armenians in the east and in Europe; the question of perfumes and incense ingredients; accounts of and by secular travellers (other than vague allusions made earlier, by some, to Marco Polo); I introduced matters relating to cartography and cartographers of the period from the early 14thC to mid-fifteenth century, (including Abraham Creques’ Catalan Atlas and Genoese and Venetian chartmakers of the period); celestial navigation and its calculations; compass-roses named by winds, stars, or both; handbooks of navigation; the type of notebooks and guides which emerged from Genoa, from Venice and from the House of Datini (in Prato and in Avignon); other travellers whose accounts of the world beyond western Christian Europe relate to the period before the 1450s, the idea of mnemonic devices and their relevance – for the pre-Renaissance period and introducing in that context the works of Mary Carruthers. Note and comment on Greek and ‘a form of Jewish’ influence noted in certain drawings. Other than Jorge Stolfi I know of no earlier Voynich research which investigated eastern routes or artefacts, or indeed considered any non-Latin-European origin for anything in BeineckeMS 408. Those matters and texts are just some of the material first introduced to Voynich studies by the present writer in the course of sharing research explaining my analytical studies and their conclusions about one and then another, section of Beinecke MS 408 – from 2008 to the present. The habit of some Voynich writers in re-using research, and even attempting to publish it or copyright it to themselves, while neglecting to name the source – and some quite deliberately and systematically re-assigning such credits and thus misdirecting other researchers – would finally lead to my closing Voynichimagery from the public in 2017. That these things are all simple statements of fact is something that the few other Voynich “old boys” know well enough.

India too has its crocodiles, of course.

‘Mugger’ crocodile – India

The following image relates to the Comment I’ve left below.

To be clear – “astrology”

c.1050 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

[update – see STOP PRESS at end]

Recorded usages in English. .. matter from Oxford Reference:


(definition) – The study of movements and relative positions of celestial bodies interpreted as having an influence on human affairs and the natural world.

Ancient observers of the heavens developed elaborate systems of explanation based on the movements of the sun, moon, and planets through the constellations of the zodiac, for predicting events and for casting horoscopes.

The word is recorded from late Middle English, and comes ultimately (via Old French and Latin) from Greek astron ‘star’.

The commonest sense born by the term today (in full: judicial astrology, relating to human affairs) occurs in English from the mid 16th century.

By 1700 astrology had lost intellectual credibility in the West, but continued to have popular appeal. Modern astrology is based on that of the Greeks, but other systems are extant, e.g. that of China.

Natural astrology originally denoted the practical uses of astronomy, applied in the measurement of time and the prediction of natural phenomena.


As you see, the mid-sixteenth century usage is what informs modern perceptions of the difference between astrology and astronomy, and today’s general reader may be excused for expecting that any use of the word ‘astrology’ in medieval works must imply reference to planets, to horoscopes and to the zodiac.

To avoid confusion and false assumptions, those practical uses that medieval people called ‘natural astrology’ we will class as a sub-set of astronomy. Other terms used by modern scholars to avoid confusion include natural astronomy, archaeoastronomy, indigenous astronomy and folk-astronomy and may include moralised astronomy and a union of religious thought with astronomical knowledge, such as identifying Christ with the Sun.

Practical observation of the stars for practical purposes – chiefly to establish times, seasons and directions – has a history descending from times so remote that astronomy can be fairly described as the oldest of human sciences – if science is defined as the accumulation of data by close observation, the systematisation of that data, its practical testing by experiment, its repeatability and its practical aims. The use of navigational astronomy across lands is asserted or inferred as existing from a very early period, and across seas using evidence related to the Australian migrations,* while the Austronesian routes and migrations (which incidentally established the eastern maritime ‘spice routes’) date from c.2000 BC. Trade in lapis lazuli from Afghanistan into Egypt began from the 3rd millennium BC, but scholars differ about when it became a direct, sea-borne trade from the Indus through the Red Sea.

*as e.g. by Alan William, “A new population curve for prehistoric Australia”, Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Proceedings, Vol 280 (#1761), (online through Pub.Med. April 2013).

By comparison, the Babylonian empire’s rise* seems quite recent, being closer in time to the Roman occupation of Judaea than we are now.

 *c.1894 BC

In Egypt, astronomy’s origins are older than the rise of Babylonia and by the 3rd millennium BCE, Egypt’s 365-day calendar was already in use, and the Nile’s annual rise predicted by the rising of stars. One must assume, but we cannot prove, that before Babylonia’s cities were built some Mesopotamian peoples had a developed natural astronomy.

From c1479–1458 BCE we have evidence of a highly-developed astronomical, calendrical, religious and possibly astrological system in Egypt, recorded on the walls and ceiling of a tomb* from that time.

*Senenmut’s tomb, in Thebes.

Having survived intact for about three thousand years, the contents of that tomb and its star-ceiling were rifled, dispersed and/or defaced once it was opened by Europeans in 1925-27. A replica of the ceiling is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a few watercolour paintings record remnants of the decoration. What the replica tells us, at least, is that some of the constellations represented within the Roman-era ceiling at Dendera were from Egypt’s native tradition, while Faulkner’s study of the Pyramid Texts confirms the antiquity of Egyptian emphasis on the circumpolar stars, Orion, Sirius and certain other markers.

Had Senenmut’s tomb survived to be studied now, it might have provided more insight into the evolution of the Coptic calendar, its calculation, and its roster of saints.

  • R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.

*without prejudice, I note that the Egyptian constellations identified by Belmonte and Llull include none from the Roman zodiac save Leo. Belmonte is a former editor of the journal Archaeoastronomy which began well in the 1980s but lost readership and impetus as its focus became increasingly, and by the end solely, on the Americas. But see paper by Juan Antonio Belmonte and Jose Lull as Chapter 6 in:

  • J.A. Belmonte et.al., Ancient Astronomy: India, Egypt, China, Maya, Inca, Aztec, Greece, Rome, Genesis, Hebrews, Christians, the Neolithic and Paleolithic

In these posts it will be convenient to take any diagram’s structure as definition of intended purpose for the medieval west to c.1438 AD.

Astrology is indicated, among other things, by a medical text’s including diagonally-ruled tables for the phases of the moon. The ‘zodiac man’ (whose use the early Christian writers had specifically prohibited) is also astrological.

Evidence of applying mathematical calculations to determine the precise position of planets is taken as evidence of astrological purpose.

Constellations on the ecliptic, including the 12 which form the Roman zodiac, are of themselves not evidence of one or other intention. Since these constellations are constellations, not only astrological signs, and our interest is in the purpose for which such forms were made by the first maker(s) and whoever commissioned the sections now forming Beinecke MS 408, we cannot presume predictive-astrological purpose without the presence of other markers (see above). The default is thus – precession notwithstanding – ‘astronomical’.

I expect some readers will protest this decision, but the question we must address is whether the maker – if it were possible to ask him/her – would concur that by picturing the zodiac constellations or signs in e.g. a religious breviary, s/he demonstrated an intention to practice astrology or believed the intended recipient intended to practice astrology in our modern sense of the word. If the western Church had not insisted always that mankind had free will, opposition to astrology would perhaps have been less persistent and less complicated; contact with the Palaiologan court made magic and astrology fashionable among some humanists and Luther’s promoting belief in predestination saw popular interest in all forms of anticipatory lot-casting, fortune-telling and astrology explode, assisted by publication of books of the ‘Shepherds Calendar’ type in which such matter was now included.

Many Voynich writers have assumed or simply announced astrological purpose in the Voynich calendar. A few have attempted to argue a case from evidence, but none has yet proven it and two specialists in the subject have stated, independently of each other, of me and at that time of interference from any Voynichero that the calendar diagrams are not astrological charts.

Allons de l’avant ..


A notice from academia.edu has just dropped into my mail box telling me that Professor Elly Dekker has uploaded to academia.edu his her review of a book which I admit I let pass in 2007, given its price of 99 Euros and having at that time no interest in computus and working on very different questions. Come to think of it, back then I’d never heard of the Voynich manuscript. (sigh).

… having now read Dekker’s review, I’ll have to add Eastwood’s book to the library

  • Bruce E. Eastwood, Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  • Elly Dekker’s review is in Early Science and Medicine Vol.13 (2008) 509-530. And of course on Dekker’s site at academia.edu.

O’Donovan notes – the ‘Calendar’ emblems Pt 6. July’s Lobsters.

c.4500 words

About a third of this post is for people working on Voynichese. Those paragraphs are marked with the partial-derivative symbol (right).

edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.

Two lobsters: July

For newcomers – the ‘Calendar’ emblems so far:

Many Voynich writers focus on where the manuscript might have been made.
Our aim is more like the linguists’ and cryptographers’ – to understand what information the original speaker(s) intended to convey. Just as linguists don’t presume a new spoken language was invented for this manuscript, so we don’t presume the drawings are without precedents.
However, because so few among the manuscript’s drawings speak the visual language of medieval Latin Europe, our aim is (of course) also to identify their original source. In that, the relatively few which do ‘speak Latin’ (or something like it) are like the end of a thread which may guide us into, and then through, the maze of possibilities. Among those few are the small central emblems with which the ‘calendar’ diagrams are provided.
Diagrams referring to astronomical matters don’t exactly speak a universal language, but were – and are – less dependent on local customs for their understanding than is a written or a pictorial text.
Comparing information in some Voynich astronomical diagrams.
We don’t know what purpose the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams were meant to serve, but independent specialists have assured us they are not astrological charts.
At present we are asking whether the emblems offer astronomical information compatible with that found in two other astronomical diagrams (on folio 85r and on folio 67v-i).
These posts being exercises in analytical method, we are considering just two examples: the emblems inscribed ‘November’ and ‘July’.

* * * *

The ‘November’ emblem, as we found, is meant for a crocodile and is derived ultimately from one aspect of an originally-composite figure for the ‘croucher by the Scales’. Known as Ammit, its character was expressed by combining elements of the most savage bringers-down of prey: crocodile, hound/jackal, lion and hippopotamus, with all but the last reaching medieval western Europe as an expression of “scorpion nature” or as the Physiologus’ ‘crocodrill’.

Only one documented example of a ‘crocodile Scorpius’ has been seen, so far, from medieval Latin Europe before c.1350 AD. That was in BNF 7351, so that is where we take up the thread again – but not until committing to memory every detail of the image to be researched.

FIG. 1


Caution the difference between someone naturally suited to a study of ancient and medieval art and artefacts, and someone whose talents lies elsewhere, often shows up at this first analytical stage. Be honest with yourself. If you feel impatient with process, over-confident, and want to rush to the ‘bottom line’ – this sort of work is not for you.

1. Remarkable absence of depth or perspective for a work often presumed created first in Latin Europe in the fifteenth-century. It is no product of the atelier. No attempt to provide background, whether of solid pigment, pattern, wash or a schematised landscape. Yet the quires are of vellum, albeit second-rate, and not paper which even by the fourteenth century would be used for rough work.

2.Each of the paired creatures is carefully distinguished – by its facing and by use of pigment. This is a characteristic of the ‘calendar’ diagrams overall; their many anthropoform figures are carefully differentiated by form, proportion, gestures, facing and/or facial expressions – which is a remarkable feat, if you consider their number, and the scale to which they were drawn. That even the month names which had to be inscribed twice are written differently, and evidently to avoid ‘replication’ argues in the original maker (and possibly in the fifteenth-century copyists) a cultural avoidance or ‘tabu’ which – though certainly attested at certain times and places – was never native to the Latins’ tradition.


3. Anatomy – (3.1) The creatures’ upper body (thorax) is made bulbous, not slender. Somewhat ant-like. Arcs are drawn on the thorax, left and right.

(3.2) No large front claw(s) as one would expect in a work produced from a fifteenth-century atelier in Europe.

(3.3) Abdomen ribbed to indicate segments.

(3.4) Divided ‘feet’ are given to eight slender legs extending sideways from the abdomen, Thicker-drawn versions of the same for the front legs to which claw(s) attach in a living specimen of prawn, lobster, crab etc.

(3.5)A tail is shown, fan-shaped and with four lobes.


(3.6) The head is given three points!

(3.7). Antennae emerge – one from each gap between those points – though in the upper figure the copyist may have been, initially, confused or affected by the scale at which he was working; one antenna seems, at first, part of the line or cord linking the two creatures.

In one sense this emblem is not ‘well-drawn’ but diverges from the literal less than a first glance might suggest. The creature is no fantasy beast. Following Lippincott and Gheuens, we’ll call it a ‘lobster’ though ‘crayfish’ or even ‘prawn’ might do.

Here’s the lobster’s anatomy…


… so what might be seen as errors come down to these:

(i) omitting any large front claw(s) ; (ii) confusing the positions of swimmerets and walking legs; (iii) giving all the walking legs split ends, where only the first four should have them; (iiii) giving the creature a head formed of three points (N.B. not one, two, or four, but three).

swimmeret: a swimming-foot; a pleopod; an abdominal limb or appendage usually adapted for swimming, and thus distinguished from the ambulatory or chelate thoracic limbs, fitted for walking or seizing.

If any series matching the series of Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams, or its series of emblems has been found – or any match for this emblem – I’m unaware of it. To be a match for the ‘July’ emblem, the example would have to include two creatures of this form, similarly differentiated, and including all the characteristics just listed.

In the absence of any match, only comparisons can be offered and our first defining element will be the creatures’ “three-point” head.

Koen Gheuens has already followed the ‘legs-for-swimmerts’ confusion from the time of Michael Scot (d.1232) forwards, noting some instances across northern France and then in works produced by one artisan. That essay is linked below. Gheuens referred readers to Kristen Lippincott’s ‘Saxl Project’ pdfs and so do I. As far as possible, I’ll cite illustrations from that resource.

Lobster as Cancer – not so unusual.

What happened after c.1440 is of little interest to us. For this exercise, it is also necessary to count, as characteristics of the image, that these Voynich emblems are inscribed in a Romance dialect or language, and that this emblem is labelled ‘July’ – being in this unlike most Latin breviaries, books of hours and ‘Labours of the months’ series which assign the astronomical Cancer to June, and have the ‘sign’ straddle June and July.

On the brighter side, examples of Cancer’s being assigned, alone, to July, and Scorpius to November are not limited to the Voynich manuscript and the twelfth-century, Byzantine-influenced Otranto mosaic. Here (below) is the same assignment of emblem to month in a manuscript made about the same time as that mosaic but in south-eastern England. (Note here the single, loose loop for the Scorpion’s tail and that all the crab’s walking legs are given two ‘toes’, with the scorpions’ being given three).

FIG 6. and see comment further below

Gheuens began with works composed by Michael Scot in Sicily – or rather with copies that were made later in Italy, but we are looking instead for the ideas and customs in art which influenced Scot’s thinking and that of the people who illustrated those Italian copies regarded as the four most important to survive.

*Glenn Michael Edwards, ‘The Liber Introductorius of Michael Scot’, thesis (PhD), University of Southern California, 1978

Michael Scot‘s lifetime (1175- c. 1232) overlaps with those of several other prominent Latin scholars whose names have been invoked at various times by various Voynich writers. The list includes the first ‘Gerard of Cremona‘ (1114 – 1187), or the second (13thC); the Flemish Franciscan friar, Thomas of Cantimpré (1201 -1272); the German Dominican friar, Albert of Lauingen (1200-1280), the English Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (d.1292), and Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1168–1253), bishop of Lincoln and tutor of Oxford.

All save the Gerard(s) of Cremona spent some years pursuing higher studies in Paris, and it was from the region around Paris we have our only other documented ‘Crocodile-Scorpius’ in Latin Europe – so far – before c.1350. Scot and Albert of Lauingen also studied in Italy.

In a later post, I’ll speak about the activities of the papal court while located in Avignon (1309-1375 AD), but at present our focus is on matter that was current in Scot’s time,

When Michael Scot was born, about the second third decade of the twelfth century, texts and manuscripts were gained chiefly from copies made in monastic scriptoria, By the time of his death, such work was increasingly being done by students of the larger universities, particularly in France where some colleges associated with the University of Paris set aside a room for that purpose. Scot would also have seen the beginning of an increase in the commercial producers of manuscripts, in what were described as bottegas or ateliers. In Italy, there existed a system known as the ‘pecia’ system, whereby a student might copy from quires or sections of a manuscript which a stationer had broken into parts, the students paying for materials and for use of the wanted sections.

Outside the world of formal scholarship, ‘informal’ texts were being made, a majority on paper and the greater number of those we still have from Europe were made for and by its non-Latin communities, or communities united by their (non-academic) occupations.

Crab, prawn’ and lobster etc., in pre-Christian western art.


We’ve seen that images of the crocodile, in literal style, existed in Latin Europe in mosaics and other media as relics of the pre-Christian Roman era. There were also many naturalistic images of sea-creatures in such media, with North Africa preserving a large number of this type. The images shown at right, and below, are from Roman-Byzantine mosaics from north Africa. Those shown are described as Roman.

FIG. 8

In some early astronomical illustrations from Latin Europe, the classical traditions in art remain evident, though did not long survive with the same clarity. The Crab in the Leiden Aratea is a case in point. The illustration’s classical lineage is unmistakeable and raises the possibility that we have it from an early copy of the first Latin translations from the Greek,

FIG 9. (The present wiki article ‘Leiden Aratea’ is very poor. It names as the work’s author not Aratus, nor ‘Germanicus but Louis the Pious, and conveys a suggestion that the Arab world gained its knowledge of Aratus from this manuscript – a preposterous idea).

Compare that crab, for example, with the style in which the same creature is represented on an early (pre-Roman) coin made for Akragas in Sicily.

FIG 10 coin of Akragas, Sicily. Reproduced by permission.

That coin was made a little before the birth of Eudoxus, the eastern Greek astronomer who spent time in Sicily and whose astronomical works were summarised and cast into poetry by Aratus.

I should also like to suggest that although the forms of drawing for constellations degenerated through the medieval centuries, that there may have persisted in some regions, and as a kind of folk-tradition, older ideas about the stars and constellations, and particularly associations between certain stars and constellations, and certain places. As the crocodile (for Scorpius) was universally associated with Egypt and the Nile, the Crab and ‘prawn’ spoke of Sicily and the Straits of Messina, respectively, as they had done even before the birth of Alexander.

The strait of Messina, between Sicily and the mainland, was renowned then as it is today for its dangers and for the chimerical images we call mirages or ‘Fata Morgana’.

The strait [of Messina] has strong tidal currents …. A natural whirlpool in the northern portion of the strait has been linked to the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis. In some circumstances, the mirage of Fata Morgana can be observed when looking at Sicily from Calabria.

After Rome conquered the island and thus claimed to rule the strait, we find a coin in which Latin permits, as canting, the Greek ‘Scylla’ to be Latin ‘scilla’ – a prawn. But the allusion is still to Sicily and that dangerous strait. Moon and tides are inextricably linked, so ‘to know your moon’ was to know your tides. This image is a Roman equivalent for ‘Britannia rules the Channel’.

FIG 11.

What makes these antecedents of ‘lobster-prawn-Crab’ imagery so interesting is their age, and that they appear on these coins at much the same time that the astronomical texts were first composed on which Latin European scholars would rely from the time Rome fell until that of Michael Scot: Eudoxus to Aratus to the Aratus latinus and the abysmal ‘Astronomicon poeticon’ which is so unkindly attributed to Hyginus.

Another fascinating image from the same pre-Christian era was made for a Gallic tribe, the Averni. Aratus and Germanicus may have understood what these figures meant to the Averni, but modern numismatists simply call the form above the horse, ‘lobster-like’. It has been provided with antennae and there are three spikes or points to its head.

FIG 12

Ovid, we know, made one Latin translation of Aratus’ poem. Another is said to have been made by ‘Germanicus’ though just who he was is unclear. ‘Germanicus’ means ‘subduer of Germania’ but as Baldwin put it, “as a method of precise identification, the unadorned name of Germanicus [is] intolerably vague. Too many men bore the cognomen…”

* Baldwin, ‘The Authorship of the “Aratus” Ascribed to Germanicus’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 1981, New Series, Vol. 7 (1981), pp. 163-172.


From this point onwards, in addition to considering the emblem’s form, and the month assigned it, and its inscription in a Romance language or dialect, we’ll also take note of the textual setting in which a cited comparison occurs. So that those chiefly interested in the written text can skim the rest, I’ve marked those paragraphs with this symbol

It is probably too much to hope that exemplar(s) used for this whole section in Beinecke MS 408 have survived, so it may help those working on the written text, too, if we find comparable images or assignments occur regularly in connection with some particular written source(s).

Figure 6 (above) came from Brit.Lib. Cotton Julius VI.

That manuscript relates to what is known as ‘computus’ – mathematical and religious works relating to calendrical calculations, including reconciling the lunar cycles with the solar year to determine the date of Easter.

Brit.Lib. MS Cotton Julius VI. Computistical texts and tables.

ff. 3r–8v: A metrical calendar (a version of the text known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson), illustrated with the Labours of the Month and astrological[sic] symbols. ff. 9r–17v: Further computistical texts, tables, diagrams and a wheel linking months, lunar cycles and a T-O map (f. 15r), including a ‘Sator square’ palindrome written in Greek letters (f. 11r). ff. 18r–19v: A hymn beginning ‘Assunt o socii’ and excerpts from the Easter Sunday liturgy, beginning ‘Et valde mane’, were added in 12th-century hands to blank and erased folios. ff. 19r–71r: An imperfect Expositio hymnorum with a near-continuous Old English gloss. The text on f. 19r-v has been erased, but some initials are still visible. ff. 71r-72v: Three hymns for Trinity Sunday; ff. 72v-89v: Monastic canticles with an Old English gloss. f. 90r–v: The hymn ‘O genetrix aeterni’ and a fragment of the Latin poem beginning, ‘Ad mensam philosophie sitientes currite,’ both accompanied by neumes, were added in the last quarter of the 11th century.

Both the liturgical and the civil calendars began from Easter (falling in March or April) and the custom of dating documents or private letters by the saint’s day would continue to as late as the seventeenth century.

*Easter’s date though the medieval centuries, with both Gregorian and Julian dates given.

* * * *

Maths texts don’t need pretty pictures.

The context in which we find FIG. 6, raises the uncomfortable possibility that the text which informed the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams might also be a mathematical treatise. Whether bound singly or in a miscellany, the Latins’ mathematical and mathematical-astronomical texts are typically chaste, devoid of illustrations other than a few terse diagrams which – in marked opposition to the Voynich calendar – were usually produced with compass and ruler.

In cases where pictures, as such, were desired, the usual practice seems to have been to include as excerpt or copy matter from a text of quite a different origin and type – as indeed was the case for BNF lat. 7351.

The chances are perhaps 50-50 that the Voynich calendar’s emblems have come from a very different source than that which provided the information for the diagrams. We see this too in copies made of the only other work to which the ‘calendar’ diagrams have been compared – the Libros made some decades after Scot’s death, under the auspices of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284).

* * * *

Another instance of this practice comes from a manuscript which includes the earliest example I’ve seen (so far) of the ‘three-point’ head for Cancer: Oxford, Bodleian Laud. Misc. 644. It is given a ‘face’, and shows arcs drawn on the left and right on the creature’s thorax, gives the legs two ‘toes’ and forms the front legs in the same way as the rest . In this case, these constellation-figures were gained by copying from a copy of Aratus already not less than 200 years old and possibly 400 years old. As the catalogue says of folio 8 “”Good coloured drawings copying a model of 9th or 11th century, …” The manuscript which copies those older drawings was made in late thirteenth-century Bayeux.

FIG. 13 Bayeux 1268-1274 AD

The makers’ choosing so venerable an exemplar suggests a monastic library and scriptorium, and reverence for the oldest forms of image as most authenic, but it would be a mistake to suppose the manuscript is affected by intellectual conservatism. On the contrary, the rest of its content consists of what were, at that time, the most respected and most advanced mathematical works used in Europe.

Bodleian Laud Misc. 644 contains (not in order):

  • Robert Grosseteste, ‘De sphaera‘ – an introductory text on astronomy.
  • __________, ‘correctorius
  • ________, ‘De lineis, angulis, et figuris; Mathematical reasoning in the natural sciences.
  • Albumasar, ‘Flores astrorum‘ (in Latin trans.) Arabic title translates as “Book of the revolutions of the years.”
  • Alfraganus, ‘Liber de aggregationibus [stellarum]’ (in Latin trans).
  • Azarchel, –1100: Canones ad tabulas toletanas. (‘Toledan tables’)
  • Boethius, ‘De institutione arithmetica’ – text and commentary. Latin.
  • Boethius, ‘De institutione musica’ – text and commentary, Latin.

and of course the illustrated section:

Under ultra-violet light can be found an inscription informing us that, by the fifteenth century, Oxford, Bodleian Laud miscellany 644 was in the possession of Charles, duke of Orleans. Charles was the son of Valentina Visconti, through whom he had already inherited Asti, a town about 30 miles west of the Milan-to-Genoa road, and linked to it.

FIG 14

Picking up the thread…

And so, at last, we return to BNF lat. 7351, mis-called the ‘Liber Albandini’ which provided our ‘crocodile Scorpion’. Folio 41v shows these drawings (below), both described by the holding library as forms for Cancer.

FIG. 15

Nonetheless (see Lippincott’s pdfs) the upper type is not rare as a form for Scorpius.

The manuscript was made in northern France during the 1300s, Its history before the fifteenth century is unknown but shortly before, or soon after the Voynich quires were inscribed, it was in the possession of Louis de Bruges, whose name might ring a bell if you read the post before last. This compilation’s content isn’t particularly religious, either. (catalogue entry).

It includes

  • Pierre de Dacie, Kalendarium (Fragment)
  • Albumasar (?), Liberimultitudinum (twice);
  • plus ‘Sphere of life and death’; Astrological treaty in French; Text in Latin on critical days or the so-called ‘Egyptian days’; Correspondence between signs and months and ‘De Duodecim Zodiaci Signis Eorumque Effectibus’.
  • The manuscript includes a removeable paper astrolabe (f.13v)

Pierre de Dacie’s text is no school primer. Sacrobosco would describe it as “algorismum vulgarem’.* meaning ‘ordinary mathematics’ or even ‘commercial maths’ as distinct from computus. Sacrobosco thought highly enough of de Dacie’s text to provide it with a commentary and, together, they proved an immensely popular text in western Europe.

Its primary notability is that it has a better method for extracting cube roots (better than the pre-existing method reported by Johannes de Sacrobosco).

*With Sacrobosco’s commentary, edited and published anew in 1897 by Maximilian Curtze, the edition online at archive. org.


What these first examples have indicated is that, in Sicily at least, an association between the forms for Crab and prawn was ancient – ancient enough that they could have influenced astronomical images from the time of Eudoxus, who resided and studied for a time in Sicily.

We have also seen a ‘lobster’-like form, in association with the horse, dating from the time when Aratus made his poetic version of Eudoxus’ work. We have also seen that the style in which the Crab is pictured in Carolingian time, in Latin Europe, had preserved those earlier and more literal forms for Cancer.

Reverence for older forms and learning was a constant in the history of western Europe, with greater emphasis placed on pre-Christian forms as the ‘renaissance’ (so-called) began to flower in southern Europe during the fourteenth century.

Altogether, we must be prepared for the possibility that the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams as such may be informed by recent technical information, yet be provided central emblems gained from considerably older sources.

Cancer with a ‘three-point head’ and with arcs drawn on the thorax is a form as old at least as the eleventh century and possibly as old as the ninth century. By 1350, at least in northern France, the same manuscript in which we have a ‘crocodile’ Scorpius could accept for Cancer the form of both crab and prawn, these together or separately having referred to Sicily during the time of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman ascendancy, and an air-borne ‘lobster-like’ creature attested in Gaul no later than the first century BC.

It is entirely possible that there had existed copies of astronomical works, including globes, older than those used by the Carolingian court in which the constellations took a form different from those we now expect to see, and though one or two of the Voynich calendar emblems show evidence of what we might call ‘modernisation’, most of them including those which seem at first idiosyncratic, clearly have roots which are venerable at least and in some cases still evince a lineage decidedly ancient.

… continued next post


A little more on authors of the texts included in Oxford, Bodleian, Laud Misc. 644, manuscript made about thirty years after Michael Scot’s death. The authors of the mathematical sections:

GROSSETESTE. Scholar and Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste particularly supported the Franciscan order (of which Roger Bacon became a member). Grosseteste “seems to have spent some time in France during the years 1208–14”. By.1229/30 he was teaching at Oxford, as reader in theology to the Franciscans, who had a community there by about 1224. He remained in that post until March 1235.Roger Bacon was his most famous pupil, and is said to have acquired an interest in scientific method from him. Those of his works included in Laud.Misc. 644 were written between 1220 to 1235.

Works by Grosseteste not included in that volume:

  • ‘De luce’. On the “metaphysics of light.” ( described as ‘the most original work of cosmogony in the Latin West’)
  • ‘De accessu et recessu maris’. On tides and tidal movements. (although some scholars dispute his authorship).
  • De iride’. On the rainbow.

ALBUMASSAR’ is Abu Ma’shar. (see end note)

‘ALFRAGANUS‘ is al-Farghani. Born in Uzbekistan in the 9thC AD. His ‘Jawami ilm Al-Nujum (A Compendium of Astronomy)* is thought to have been written in Egypt, becoming immediately and widely known among speakers of Arabic and Hebrew, and then being another among the works whose translation into Latin was made in Spain and credited to ‘Gerard of Cremona’.

  • *Liber de aggregationibus scientiae stellarum et principiis celestium motuum, quem Ametus qui dictus est Alfraganus compilavit; cum figuris. cf. 524 AdBSB Clm 234.

AZARCHIEL. Toledo and Cordova. His work is commonly found together with that of Jacob ben Machir Ibn Tibbon’s ‘Treatise on the astrolabe’. See e.g. Oxford, Bodleian MS Laud Or 93. (1400-1475)

The Latin translation of the Toledan Tables ‘Canones ad tabulas toletanas’ is generally credited to the first Gerard of Cremona. Michael Scot said he had found these particularly helpful.

BOETHIUS was born in Italy in 480 AD, after the Roman empire’s capital had becme Constantinople and while the city of Rome lay under Ostragothic rule. He died in 524 (aged 44), but his ‘Arithmetica’ remained the standard text for teaching arithmetic and basic maths, until and even after the early fifteenth century.

*Michael Scot died in c.1232. His studious interests were in mathematics, medicine-and-pharmacy and astronomy-astrology. The wiki article vastly exaggerates the magical- and under-states the astronomical and scientific content of Scot’s works for Frederick in Sicily, as well as conveying a false impression of Frederick as ’emperor’. In reality, Frederick reigned chiefly as king of Sicily and his court was regularly under interdiction, which prohibited any Latin Christian from engaging with him. HIs foray into diplomacy in the Holy Land was an effort to overcome those restrictions, whose results included refusal to acknowledge or use one of Frederick’s great accomplishments – sponsoring a Latin translation of al-Idrisi’s new astronomical-geography of the world, which took fifteen years under Roger, but of which no Latin version had been sent to Rome. Idrisi’s work became the foundation of a radically new form of education across North Africa when Idrisi finally returned there.

[edit – replacing a dropped half-sentence. Sept. 21st]

According to N.G. Wilson, the first appearance of Aristotle’s biological writings in the West are Latin translations by MIchael Scot of an Arabic edition. According to Wilson, it was this work by Scot, rather than Thomas of Cantimpre, which formed the basis of the book de Animalibus by Albert of Lauingen though the opinion is not generally held:

  • N. G. Wilson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Greek Manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Oxford  (Oxford, 2011) pp. 20-21, Plates 43-46.

“‘Albumasar”‘s work, as ‘Flowers of astronomy’ began appearing in Latin, in print from about three generations after the Voynich quires were inscribed, but we know that 46 editions were printed between 1488-1506. These included illustrations, but we have no information about the source(s) used by the block-makers. As a rule they were commissioned from free-lance artists hired by individual printers, and once a printer had a convenient block, it might be used in any kind of text. Here, Cancer does have arcs on the thorax and lobster-like abdomen, but the tail has only three lobes, the abdomen has as neither legs nor swimmerets attached to it; both front legs are provided with claws, the antennae have a rippled edge, and though the head is given three points it is plainly based on that of the ‘prawn-like’ type.

FIG 16

Interim Post: Nails in the wood – symbol of resurrection.

c.1870 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

(edited 15th Sept 2022 – minor typos corrected)

As I’ve said, there are only a handful of images in the Voynich manuscript which employ a visual language, or express a worldview compatible with the customs of medieval western Europe.

However, there is some reflection of Christian beliefs to seen in some of the drawings, one of which is among the plant-pictures.

Having discussed that image quite some time ago, I’ve decided instead to republish part of a different post from voynichimagery, one which alludes to the ‘nails in the wood’ idea, and as a sort of peripheral note for efforts (presently being made by Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport) to re-assert the oldest and most traditionalist Voynich theory, namely that the whole content in Beinecke MS 408 as an expression of Europe’s medieval Catholic culture.

I doubt that theory will find support from any qualified and experienced external specialist in western Christian art and culture, but so little is impossible

The written part of what follows I’ve simply copied-and-pasted from the original .. I’ve remounted the illustrations, because wordpress won’t let you see images transferred in that way.

As you’ll see, this comes from what was the last post in a series, published through voynichimagery on May 8th., 2013. I’ve left the written part precisely as published and left in the weblinks for historical reasons.


Paradoxical History of Balsam #5 (final)

© D. O’Donovan [2000+ words]

Afterword (May 8th., 2013) – I have found a late fifteenth-century description of a garden in Egypt where balsam was harvested.  It reads very like the image in Manfred’s herbal. – D)


The miracle of life preserved within death.

The paradox of true Balsam oil was that greatest of all; life in and arising from that which was not, or appeared not to be, living.

Even today, in Afrikaans,  plants of the Commiphora group ( corkwoods having scented resin; the group includes myrrh) are all known as the  ‘unkillable’ or ‘cannot die’ (kanniedood) tree. I expect the Africaans word preserves more ancient terms, once current in lands taken by the Dutch.  Exactly the same idea is embodied in a pre-Islamic image from Christian Egypt. Here the Balsam is pictured on the left and with a rising star.


Nor did Christianity first create an association between tree, its two nails and belief in resurrection.

A stele carved for a queen of Egypt’s First dynasty embodies the same ideas (the object to the left standing for the ‘Great House’, and the time of the annual  ‘crossing over’ as well as the constellation on which the spirit rose was identified initially with Orion. The term ‘star of the crossing [- over’] remained current in the seventh century AD and mentioned in the Qur’an.


For Egyptian Christians, Coptic was the liturgical language;  Christians of Ethiopia developed Ge’ez, but Syrian Christians of the pre-Islamic period maintained Syriac,  former language of Rome’s eastern empire, in their texts both secular and religious.

From Syriac originals first-generation translations into Arabic continued to be made to at least as late as the thirteenth century, so had the western church not rejected their more learned brethren in the east, they might have had a copy of Dioscorides a thousand years earlier.

That Coptic manuscript (shown above, and first shown on Alin Suciu’s  site) is also what permits me to suggest that Dioscorides’ description o Balsam may not have been referring to C. gileadensis at all, but to a cultivar and possibly a hybrid of Commiphorae now extinct.  Dioscorides describes it, as it is shown in that image, as a plant growing no more than a meter or so in height, and having leaves that are  ‘like rue’.


Loss of the old groves from Judaea, and balsam being (apparently) soon reduced to a single grove in Egypt, so with the loss of that grove to over-use and a great flood, we may have lost the original plant forever, the grove in Egypt being restocked with C. gileadensis,  brought as replacement from Arabia.

(On the reduction, and loss of the first grove at Heliopolis, see article by Milwright, cited below).

C. gileadensis has a more solidly tree-like form, and by the thirteenth century, certainly, that is how Balsam is pictured.

Clear connection to the older Egyptian associations for Balsam are plainly being maintained in the Arab-Christian tradition from which came the picture below.  In most Arabic texts, that tradition of the graceful tree is soon lost and the two nails become two knives.  Balsam is already a tree in the late tenth-century manuscript from Samarqand.

Fig. 4

From Egypt through to Arabia and thence (it would seem) to upper Mesopotamia, older ideas about Balsam were evidently along a line of connection pre-dating the coming of Muslim rule, and passing from Egypt, to Arabia, to Mesopotamia.


More relevant to the Vms’ botanical section, is the typically Egyptian (and, later Indian) custom of picturing a plant with its fruit at the top of the plant and turned upward towards the sun.

This is not invariable, but evidently conventional and a convention unusual enough to be remarked upon.

It is seen in the Coptic image, and in the Voynich imagery, as in Indian art of the Gandharan period, but is much rarer in Muslim art within Islam.

What we find instead is, often, a subversion of the older imagery to remove from it such figures as the heavily robed ‘ancient’ priest and even his young assistant. No longer haloed (or hallowed) figures, they are removed, or reduced to their emblems – here simply knives and not the formerly-traditional iron nails.

However, since it had not been the custom in ancient or even Hellenistic Egypt to provide plants with their roots (save for a few images in medical texts such as the Roberts Papyrus), to add scholia as hieroglyphics, actual or virtual, would be natural enough, creating forms parallel to those of the herbals which Aldrovandi described as ‘of the alchemists’.  Here is the usual form for depicting plants in earlier Egypt. This from Karnak’s “herbal chamber”.


As Neal points out, existing manuscripts of that ‘alchemists’ type apparently derive from some original that was in northern Italy in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.

It was in 1419 that Buadelmonte brought Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica to Italy, electrifying the renaissance men of that time, both clerical and lay. Then began a characteristic effort among these people to apply the principles of such ‘hieroglyphiks’ in imagery of their own creation. Dürer most famously.

It should not be forgotten, though, that there were a considerable number of monuments inscribed in hieroglyphic within Rome itself.  One Emperor had been so besotted with things Egyptian that he had his own official decrees translated and carved in hieroglyphs.  How the populace managed to understand and obey those decrees, history does not relate.

(If you’d like to see the Hieroglyphica in parallel  Latin and Greek text, an edition is available at archive.org).

In this way, it is not so surprising to find herbals of that type in vogue for a time in Italy, just as the iconoclastic imagery which tended to replace human figures with emblematic objects, persisted in some regions of Islam.

In my opinion, the absence of natural, or realistic, human figures throughout the Voynich manuscript is due to that same, constantly-recurring objection to picturing living forms which is characteristic of the eastern sphere and communities originating from it. In my opinion, the figures within the Voynich are meant as abstractions, and even then are drawn marred and deformed.  In this,  I may be in a minority, but  it is also a custom attested from before the Roman era, and not absent even from the modern world. For a time it even affected the imagery of Christian Byzantium, as ‘iconoclasm’.  However, like the ‘ornate P’ form in the script, this avoidance is most characteristic of regions eastward from the eastern Mediterranean and never noticeably affected the dominant culture of mainland Europe.

Back to the Balsam.

Increasingly, during the later medieval centuries,  ‘Balsam’ is shown not as a herb but as a tree with a long, bare trunk.

I should mention in passing that Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 is not an exception to the dictum that Europe had no knowledge of the Balsam’s appearance until long after the time the Voynich manuscript was made.


Pace Pavord, I do not think this represents the  ‘balsam poplar’ but rather that it is a generic image, a product of some verbal information that the plant resembled a herb or young tree.  The form given it has the typical poplar leaf but I think it is probably a generic form and based on no more than that the scent of balsam is very like that released when any poplar’s catkins are crushed.  Modern descriptions still speak of it as a balsamic odour.

Thus the wall may be at once imitating an exemplar which in the same way used a generic form for its tree or talisman, or simply a way to remind the reader that Balsam, and the recipe for the Myron was to be closely guarded (‘secretum’).

True Balsam

Even that tenth-century image in the manuscript from Samarqand manuscript might show no more than a generic image for trees that yielded oil or resin. Very similar forms (minus the knives) are used for olive, ben oil and so forth.

The true balsam that had been planted in those groves in Judea to which the Jews took such exception may have been of a cultivar, a sport, or a hybrid which could never be readily propagated and which were first reduced to no more than a single grove at Heliopolis before becoming, in all probability, extinct**  due to over-working and a flood.

The tree-like C.gileadensis was certainly the plant brought from Arabia to re-build that grove, until the last of them also died.

So exactly how the original plant looked we don’t know, nor whether it was the plant from Ein Gedi.  What is certain is that the older imagery does not show a tree, but something more like a herb, springing without bole or trunk directly from the ground.

C. gileadensis was surely a close relation among the Commiphorae if not the original Balsam.

** an inference by the present writer, from consideration of imagery over the centuries, and Milwright’s account of the Egyptian grove.

I shan’t pursue this topic any further here, but if the reader finds it interesting, do include the following if you can in your reading.

  • Encyclopaedia Iranica: ITALY – iv. Travel Accounts
  • O. W. Wolters, The “‘Po-ssŭ” Pine Trees’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 323-350.
  • Marcus Milwright, ‘The Balsam of Maṭariyya: An Exploration of a Medieval Panacea’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 66, No. 2 (2003), pp. 193-209.



All the above to explain why, as late as the seventeenth century, a European botanist was able to treat the question of Balsam as still an open one, writing a dialogue discussing its source, and having as the three interlocuters an Arab, a Jew and the European author.

Paradox, mystery and closely-guarded secret.


Balsam oil (C. gileadensis) can be listed on some commercial sites even today. One seller stamps the catalogue-entry with a bright red notice:  ‘Expensive’ and then writes ..

Unfortunately, this tree is rare, difficult to cultivate, and highly protected in areas where it will grow. Because of this situation, it seems unrealistic that genuine authentic oil is easy to find.

Not much has changed, has it?


Published Sunday, May 5th, 2013

re-issued, September 14th., 2022

O’Donovan notes – Calendar ‘November and July’ Pt 5. November concluded.

c4000 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

I want to finish treating the ‘November’ emblem, so this is long-ish.

THE BEAST that we see as the November emblem is another of those which formed the figure for Ammit, the ‘croucher by the scales’ – the crocodile. The head is especially well-realised and although it is possible the beast was drawn from life, a propaganda-war between Rome and Egypt, between the 2ndC BC and 2ndC AD means that around the south-western Mediterranean, as in the eastern, realistic images of crocodiles were available in enduring media – coins, reliefs, mosaics and in earlier times no doubt murals.

Or. of course, you could see them in Egypt. If you had no ship of your own, pilgrimage ships crossed the Mediterranean in Spring* (wars permitting), dropping their pilgrim-passengers in Alexandria or in a friendly port further up the eastern shore. Christian and Muslim pilgrims and Jews made the journey across for reasons of religion and of community. We owe many valuable records of medieval life and practice to them.

R.J. Mitchell, The Spring Voyage: The Jerusalem Pilgrimage in 1458, (1964) has survived the decades to remain still a valuable introduction to this subject.


To keep research focused, it’s a good idea to re-visit the list of research questions every now and then, It keeps research on track, and as the investigation answers one and then another, the list grows shorter, which reduces the ‘mazed’ effect. Some questions may be unresolvable.

Overall, our questions about this image were:

  1. Is it a Scorpion?
  2. Was it intended to be a scorpion?
  3. If so, what caused the error? If not, why is it here?
  4. Why ‘November’?
  5. Explain form – spots, head-shape, four legs, upright, looping/lashing tail.
  6. Other details? – skull and ‘hunter’s hat.
  7. Significance issues:-
  8. Is the drawing primarily here for its significance or as ornament?
  9. Is it an astronomical figure, as has always been supposed?
  10. Iconographic lineage:
  11. Place and time of first origin (= first enunciation) in this form?
  12. Transmission-lines?
  13. First instance in the Latin west?
  14. Associated texts – any identifiable?
  15. Is the lifted forefoot significant?

To be clear: this beast is no degraded form for a scorpion, nor a mistaken attempt to draw a scorpion. It is, and was meant to be, a crocodile and is drawn rather better than most crocodiles were in the medieval Latin west before 1440. The head, in particular is very well drawn.

If, as has usually been imagined, this is a figure for Scorpius, why the substitution?

There are a few – very few – examples of a ‘crocodile constellation’ for Scorpius that have been noticed in Latin works made earlier than 1440. One is certainly, and the other apparently from France, and dated to the first half of the fourteenth century. The first is from BNF ms lat. 3718, which is a collection of excerpts whose common theme appears to be medical astrology, though this image comes from a section which is simply presenting the form of a constellation. The constellation drawings’ section [De duodecim zodiaci signis eorumque effectibus…).

After finding this image in the Warburg Database, an online search showed it among the many references provided in Marco Ponzi’s meticulously documented essay of 2017, where he says it had been mentioned earlier by Darren Worley, though (if I interpret him correctly) Ellie Venlinka is to be credited with first introduction to Voynich studies.

*Marco Ponzi, ‘The VM Zodiac as a pictorial cycle: a comparative analysis (by Marco Ponzi)‘, stephenbax.net Feb. 17th., 2016.

BNF ms lat.7351 is attributed to Northern France. The holding library provides (1) the Manuscript’s full description; (2) digitised version. (3) List of persons named ‘Pierre of Dacia‘ – named as the manuscript’s author. By the fifteenth century, according to the holding library, it had come into the possession of Louis de Bruges.

The rest of its constellation figures are generally of Late Roman style and no other is like any of the Voynich emblems.

The next example is more problematic. I can only say that JKPetersen indicated that the image, as single sheet or as manuscript originated somewhere in the general vicinity of Paris or that the holding library is in the general vicinity of Paris. Mr.. Petersen gives a mid-fourteenth century date for it. I find the drawing style – not the subject-matter – reminiscent of that we find in a penitential Book of Hours which, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, was made in 1317 for Queen Jeanne the Lame by a monk of St. Denys.

The crocodile (crocodillus), named from its saffron (croceus) color, is born in the Nile. It is a quadruped animal, powerful on land and also in the water. It is commonly twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws, with skin so tough that it repels blows from stones, however strong, against its back. It rests in the water at night, and on the land during the day. It incubates its eggs on land, the male and the female taking turns to guard them.

Etym. XII. 20

The first example tells us that a recognisable ‘crocodile’ might serve as a figure for Scorpius. If the second example were also made in northern France about the same time, the context in which it appears could be informative, but all one can say is that the type apparently derives from a work representing constellations in a Late Roman style, that precedent having entered, emerged in or re-emerged in northern France during the first half of the fourteenth century, and that having been employed a few times in northern France was not used thereafter.

Copies of the Aratea have no crocodile constellation for Scorpius or any other figure. Even the Roman-era, Egypto-Graeo-Roman ceiling of Dendera shows the scorpion fairly much as we’re used to seeing it, save a few apotropaic adjustments. (scorpions do not have 10 legs; their bodies do not much resemble the cockroach’s).

One eleventh century Byzantine manuscript, as we’ve seen, hints at equation between scorpion and crocodile, but the work is no treatise on astrology or astronomy and evidently remained in the Byzantine sphere until the sixteenth century.

The manuscript is bound in a 16th-century Byzantine-style cover with thick wooden boards.

A clue to the brief substitution of crocodile for Scorpion in western works may be is provided by the Talmud, on the sense of the Hebrew word livyathan. According to Pinney, the Talmud “accepted the creature as being unquestionably the crocodile” noting that the word has been variously translated as ” a wreathed animal”, “a twisted animal”, and as one “spirally wound” though Isaiah uses it to mean ‘crooked serpent’.

One begins to understand the basis for those convoluted forms given Scorpius in the medieval bestiaries, and the inclusion of a wreath with the November beast in Otranto.

But with all due respect to Pinney, that acceptance is not reflected in our few remaining examples of Jewish calendar series in manuscript art, so far as I’ve found; a specialist may know better.

It is usual for us today to associate the biblical ‘Leviathan’ with a large marine creature – often a whale or a sea-monster – which type is associated also with the constellation Cetus. However, in a footnote to one of his papers, Sela mentions that another name for Cetus was al-timsāḥ meaning literally ‘crocodile’. The term occurs in that sense in a thirteenth century translation into Hebrew of al-Fargani’s Elements, though it is never found in the Arabic Ptolemaic tradition. The term is still current as a place-name in Egypt – Timsah for Buḥairat at Timsāḥ.

  • Roy Pinney, The Animals in the Bible: the identity and natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible (1964) pp. 178-179.
  • Shlomo Sela, ‘Al-Farghānī on the 48 Ptolemaic Constellations: A Newly Discovered Text in Hebrew Translation’, Aleph , Vol. 16, No. 2 (2016), pp. 249-365. n.41.
  • Rachel Hachlili, ‘The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Art: Representation and Significance’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 228 (Dec., 1977), pp. 61-77. Seminal study, still a stanadard reference.

We can accept, as a possibility, that identification of livyathan and al-timsah with the amphibious crocodile over an entirely marine monster might transfer to Scorpius if the sky-path of the Milky Way were regarded instead as a River-road, and of such a pairing we have an example from the early centuries AD, in Praeneste’s famed ‘Nile landscape’ mosaic.

Praeneste is modern Palestrina, and lies about ten minutes’ drive from Frascati, the town where, in the Villa Mondragone, Wilfrid Voynich first saw the manuscript that is now Beinecke MS 408.

In speaking of astronomical images created in the Mediterranean world, it has to be remembered that the Romans never knew the works of Claudius Ptolemy.

The Romans never heard of Ptolemy

Astounding as that may seem, all sources are unanimous in saying that Claudius Ptolemy’s best-known works were not translated into Latin until long after the fall of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy is not a ‘Roman’ astronomer or geographer in any meaningful sense. He was an Egyptian of Macedonian descent who happened to live under Roman rule in, or near Alexandria. Because scholars are unanimous on the point, a wiki writer may speak for all.

First, about the Almagest:

No Latin translation was made in Ancient Rome nor the Medieval West before the 12th century. Henry Aristippus made the first Latin translation directly from a Greek copy, but it was not as influential as a later translation into Latin made in Spain by Gerard of Cremona* from the Arabic (finished in 1175).

*Readers should be aware there is reason doubt Gerard of Cremona made even half the translations credited to him, though none doubts he took the credit for them.

According to an online article by Dirk Grupe, which sadly fails to add his references::

Today, three mediaeval Latin translations of the Almagest are known – two made from Arabic and one from Greek. All three translations were produced within the same relatively short period of time during the mid- and late-twelfth century, but each version was made independently from the others, under different conditions and in a different part of the Mediterranean world. Furthermore, each of the versions is based on a different source tradition and had varying degrees of influence in Europe.

One was, according to Grupe, made in Antioch by “Ebdelmessie Wintoniensis” but here one may have reservations. ʿAbd al-Masīḥ [-ibn Isḥāq] was al-Kindi’s pseudonymous title* and ‘Wintoniensis’ is Winchester. That a copy of Al-Kindi might have been gained from Christian Antioch and turn up in Winchester is not unreasonable, and al-Kindi, who worked in Baghdad certainly took his view of the solar system from Ptolemy.

*pseudonymous … according to Bottini, Laura, “al-Kindī, ʿAbd al-Masīḥ ibn Isḥāq (pseudonym)”, in David Thomas (ed.), Christian-Muslim Relations 600 – 1500: A Bibliographical History.

Similarly, it is undisputed that Ptolemy’s Geography had never been translated into Latin before 1406.

Writers of Byzantine history may presume that, as a work written in Greek, Ptolemy’s master works had always been preserved in the Byzantine sphere, but evidence is wanting and the fact may be that we owe any knowledge of Ptolemy to the Sabaeans of Harran, who requested of an early Muslim governor that they be given their holy books – among them them Aratus’ text, and Euclid’s – which until then were in an Egyptian temple in Alexandria. These Harranians subsequently formed the core of early mathematical and astronomical Arabic studies in Baghdad, from which copies of Ptolemy’s Almagest emerged and circulated in Arabic translation five hundred years after Ptolemy’s death, but it would be another half-millennium knowledge of it reached the Latin-speaking west.

So, while it is true that the Romans’ zodiac had always included the figure of a Scorpion as a scorpion and that the Romans knew Aratus well, it is equally true that they had no single or precise definition of the constellations or the positions of stars, and that independent traditions survived in some regions (if not in the west) despite Roman insistence on uniformity.

However, our assumption that the Voynich emblem is an astronomical figure remains just that – an assumption. Even if that assumption is reasonable, to think it serves as token for Scorpius relies chiefly on medieval and modern ideas about etymology, and to some extent on the often-surprising information retained by early modern makers of celestial charts. Ancient ideas and figures are sometimes preserved in them by being differently clothed or assigned by form or character to newly-invented constellations. The constellation Lacerta is a case in point. It was invented by Johannes Hevelius in 1687, illustrated by a type of lizard which still hinted at crocodile or (for a new world audience) the alligator – the key being that it should be well-muscled and ‘weeping’.

The variant spelling for lizard *lacer-, to *lacro, resembles the Latin cognate for tear (as in ‘crocodile tears’). Isidore writes that “The lizard (lacertus) is a type of reptile, so named because it has arms [cf lacertus, ‘upper arm’]. and later that “In the arms is the brawn of the upper arms (lacertus), and there the marked strength of the muscles is located” and “Some believe that the word for tears (lacrima) comes from an injury of the mind (laceratiomentis); others maintain that it is identical with what is called lakruon (‘tear’) in Greek.”

Isidore’s description of the crocodile reads,

The crocodile (crocodillus), named from its saffron (croceus) color, is born in the Nile. It is a quadruped animal, powerful on land and also in the water. It is commonly twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws, with skin so tough that it repels blows from stones, however strong, against its back. It rests in the water at night, and on the land during the day.

With the great period of ‘recovery’ which a modern scholar described as ‘renaissance’, Latin Europe discovered a wealth of ancient information more accurate and informed than it dreamed had ever existed. A story of European culture then imagined for itself a history running from Babylonia through the Greeks to Rome and Byzantium, granting ‘Aryan’ status to Arabs for that narrative but omitting Celts, Semitic peoples, North Africans and so forth. Egypt became a land of importance only for its Pharaonic tombs and ancient religion, all of which was imagined ending the moment Julius Caesar stepped off his ship.

It wasn’t quite so simple. Beginning from the time of that Cleopatra, the image of the crocodile was used as an esoteric sign, a rallying call to Egypt and its allies to drive out the Roman invaders and more exactly to assist in building (and after Actium, rebulding) an Egyptian navy.

The Romans responded with a campaign of counter-propaganda, disseminated through the most widely-distributed and the most enduring media – coins, mosaics, and reliefs, and they focused on Alexandria and on regions which had earlier supported Carthage or Egypt against Rome.

159-160 AD

In Nimes (right), the Romans had chosen one Celtic tribe, separating it from the loose confederacy of Gallic tribes of that region, and by patronising it and massively re-populating and rebuilding the town, held Gaul. Nimes was so thoroughly re-made that today the city proudly describes itself as the ‘French Rome’. Nimes is in Occitania. Here the crocodile is firmly chained to the palm-tree. ‘Aegypta capta’ reads an inscription on the other side – and this more than a century after Cleopatra’s death.

As in Gaul, so in Spain, in passing through both of which Hannibal had been supported. Here, the Roman mosaic shows Egyptians or Libyans being hunted by their own crocodiles. Both had access to good timber.

.. and in Syria, in Emessa, which controlled some of cedar routes, the message of this Roman villa seems to be ‘Try passing, if you dare”. The flower is the Nile’s lotus.

In Italy Italy itself, from the same period, a replica ‘Canopus’ was created, and underneath the crocodile’s concrete casing, you can still see the remains of a corroded bronze original.

.. which brings us back to Praeneste.

One native of Praeneste who lived about the time Claudius Ptolemy was living and in Egypt, was named Claudius Aelianus, better known as Aelian. His native city had been twice destroyed by Romans, and on the second occasion every male was slaughtered and those who remained driven to lower ground while a colony of ex-soldiers was given the upper city in which was an ancient religious site, originally used by Phoenicians and Etruscans, but which was now being made a very grand temple which the Romans called the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia.

Aelian preferred to speak and write in Greek, and one text which he composed we know as ‘On the Characteristics of Animals’. It was never part of the western bestiary tradition, and the earliest instance of his work’s being re-used in any manuscript held by the British Library dates to the second half of the fifteenth century where the parts transcribed have been copied in Greek, The purpose of that compilation is, as with BNF lat.3751 to serve the interests of physicians. (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 6295, ff 65v-73*).

Paper. dimensions 210 x 145. Single column. It is described as of eastern Mediterranean provenance, and having at some time been owned by the Jesuit College, Agen prior to its acquisition either by Robert Harley (1661-1724), or by Edward Harley (1689-1741). The library notes that the manuscript’s fore-edges are each decorated in Cretan style, with two circles linked by an interlace pattern in ink and colour wash.

Aelian says of crocodiles:

I have heard that the Egyptians assert that the sacred crocodiles are tame, and … the Egyptians assert that the aforesaid crocodiles are endowed with prophecy, and adduce the following evidence. Ptolemy (which of the line it was, you must ask them) was calling to the tamest of the crocodiles, but it paid no attention and would not accept the food he offered. And the priests realised that the crocodile knew that Ptolemy’s end was approaching and consequently declined to take food from him. -‘

Aelian, ‘On the characteristics of Animals’ Bk.8.4,ii. The English trans. by A.F.Scholfield (1958).

The Romans of that time were yet to encounter the concept we call ‘cultural sensitivity’ and in Preaneste a relief commemorating the Battle of Actium – the battle which saw Cleopatra’s Egyptian navy destroyed and herself choose suicide over the predictable humiliations and reprisals inflicted on captives, prisoners of war, and defeated peoples by the Romans. The human head you see through the open oars-locker is probably Cleopatra’s and inclusion of Egypt’s prophetic beast an example of Roman wit.

In the following century, the Christian Greek patristic author, Eusebius, sees the crocodile as an agent of divine justice, snatching away the impure soul… Ammit reprised.

Achthoēs … was the most terrible of all the kings up to his time. He cruelly maltreated the inhabitants throughout Egypt .. fell into madness and was killed by a crocodile.

Eusebius, Chronicle. English trans. from one based on a Latin translation of the Armenian translation of the Greek original – courtesy of attalus.org.

 The Roman ‘propaganda war’ which continues from the 2ndC BC to the 2ndC AD, reviving ‘crocodile’ imagery as needed, was interested neither in moral or in astronomical issues, though like everyone else Romans believed one’s fate ‘written in the stars’ and Roman emperors continued to worship Anubis as part of their own version of Egypt’s Isis cult until the 4thC AD.

Within Egypt itself, the religion’s four thousand year history was not erased, even by Rome and crocodiles were still treated as noble souls, were mummified and sometimes worshipped as – so to speak – the ‘guardian hounds’ of the Nile as late as the fifth or sixth century, ceasing only about the time the last hieroglyphics were inscribed in Philae.

This image from Oxychrinchus seems to me to consciously to equate the crocodile, whose head is given a kind of mask, with the form of a galley.

Perhaps this will help clarify:

The point of those illustrations is that if a fifteenth-century European living in Italy or around the south-western Mediterranean, and especially if they were now excited by things antique, could find a good image of the crocodile in various relics of the Roman era, including a bronze statue in what was once Hadrian’s Villa (118-133AD), a few minutes drive from the Villa d’Este.

I admit it makes me wonder whether Georg Baresh’s information had been garbled in transmission – whether the collector of the matter in Beinecke MS 408 had actually ‘travelled east’ or instead to the ‘d’Este’. But that’s dangeously close to morphing into a theory, so I’ll drop it, right now.

A last comment on the ‘Nile Landscape’ mosaic originally in the temple complex of Fortuna Primigenia.

Praeneste’s Nile Mosaic … ..was noticed by Antonio Volsco shortly before 1507; the mosaics were still in place among the vestiges of Sulla’s sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia. At that time, the Colonna family of Rome owned the town (mod. Palestina). In the 17th century, Palestrina passed to the Barberini family, who between 1624 and 1626 removed most of the mosaic from its setting, without recording the overall composition, and, after further movements and damage, put it on exhibition in the Palazzo Barberini in Palestrina, where it remains. – Jasnow reviewing Mabloom’s study.

It has been badly messed about – the camel’s hump, for eample, is now upon its shoulder. No other Roman-era version gives the crocodile a face mid-way between that of a dog and of a human.

detail from the damaged Praeneste ‘Nile’ mosaic.

The chief issues concerning the Nile Mosaic are the date and iconography. K. Parlasca posits an Augustan date, while G. Weill-Goudchaux favors the time of Hadrian. Meyboom himself believes that the mosaic belongs to “the last quarter of the second century and, more precisely, from between 120 and 110 B.c.” (p. 19). There is certainly nothing which precludes such a dating. Roman interest in knowledge of Egypt is well documented at this time. ..

From the ‘Book of Faiyum‘ – extant copies date from 332 BC E – 359 AD, Note the styles of hatching and patterning used here.

As I’ve said, this series of diagrams with their central emblems is termed a ‘calendar’ only because the centres are inscribed with month-names. The central emblems don’t form a zodiac but are are among the handful of drawings in Beinecke MS 408 which use a visual language reasonably compatible with the conventions of western medieval art.

They require no date later than the range we have for the vellum (1405-1438)* and more narrowly still, not later than about 1350 or so, meaning that the fifteenth-century copyists appear to have gained much, if not all, of this section from one or more exemplars.

*Please don’t write to ask why the Beinecke Library catalogue entry adds, another two hundred years to that range. The entry was written in the late 1960s or early 1970s by the head librarian but apparently not from any codicological or palaeographical assessments, these having already dated the quires’ inscription to the early fifteenth century.

centre of the ‘Crocodile rota’ in SIgismondo Fanti’s Trionfo di Fortuna. 1527. [private copy]

Sept. 6th. – ‘Primagenia’ corrected to ‘Primigenia’ – the fault entirely due to my appalling handwriting and not the long-suffering typist.


Not only, but not least for its connection to Crete, a page from a late sixteenth century copy of another rarely-mentioned poem about the nature of animals,

Written by Manuel Philes (c.1275-c.1345), it is known as De Animalium Proprietate, and we are indebted to the Cretan scribe, Angelos Bergikios, for knowledge of it, for (as the British library catalogue says) “he made something of a career out of producing lavishly-illustrated copies of this poem for French aristocrats during the last quarter of the sixteenth century.”

Such earlier copies as have been found in the Greek-speaking world appear have no illustrations, but perhaps an illustrated version had existed in Crete. Whatever the case, enjoy Bergikios’ really beautiful script.