O’Donovan notes ‘Calendar’ emblems Pt 6.2 – July and computistic lobsters.

c. 2900 words. This one’s a full essay. I did think of breaking it into two or three parts – but decided against. I’ll wait a while before posting again).

The author’s rights are asserted.


Setting aside, for the moment, the issue of that three-point head, this post looks at some computistical manuscripts from the environments in which Michael Scot gained his primary and higher education, looking for insight into what we might call the calendar-related problems – such as the Voynich series’ including only ten months, its starting from March, its assigning the crocodile as posited Scorpius to November and this emblem, as posited Cancer, to July – not June. And we are also seeking to understand when and why Latin works developed this lobster-like form at all.

As our first step, I’ve selected a computistical miscellany dated to about a century before Scot’s lifetime. Among the texts gathered there is a copy of Bede’s classic De Temporum Ratione.

Note: Scot’s lifetime is our benchmark, at present, because an earlier study by Koen Gheuens began there.

* * * * **

Bede’s De Temporum ratione might have been made with constellation-drawings, but if so no original copy survived; the fifty or so copies extant are in computistical compilations, or miscellanies. These are handbooks of material relating, more or less closely, to calculations of time and the calendar, but few include sections displaying single images or emblems for the constellations – not even for the calendar-zodiac ’12’.

One which does was made in England or in France, and is one of the most admired of such miscellanies. This is Brit.Lib. Royal MS 13 A XI, from which I’ll cite Bede as our first textual justification for the Voynich calendar’s assigning its lobsters to July and its crocodile to November – given that the one is posited as a form for Cancer and the other for Scorpius.

FIG.1 text from Bede’s ‘De Temporum ratione’

This passage offers our first textual justification but is not the only justification that can be offered. A Roman-era mosaic calendar recovered near Tunis shows a series of twelve images in the Labours-and-feast-day style. Its year begin with March, and its July and November images are compatible with those in our late copies of the Chronography of 354. The oldest Roman calendar had only ten months and also began from March.

I don’t wish to suggest no other reason but antiquity can explain why a calendar might begin with March and contain only ten months; the same would describe the Mediterranean sailing year during the centuries of interest to us; in the western side of the Mediterranean, at least, one did not set sail in January or February. This does not, of course, explain inclusion of the doubled April and May in the Voynich series.

However it will become important, later, that calendars of the Labours type pre-date the Christian era; are attested in regions beyond the Italian peninsula and especially that the theme of the November image in the Tunis mosaic sequence, and in the Chronography of 354 and in the Voynich series, all emphasise a link with Egypt and its vision of the heart-soul’s journey into the afterworld, something discovered in exploring the ‘November’ emblem (see previous posts in this series).

FIG 2. details from the Roman-era mosaic calendar recovered in El Djem. The figure on the left carries fisherman’s equipment in a basket or lobster-pot.

Historical context – brief sketch.

In Egypt, particularly in the Fayum, imagery of the crocodile would continue to appear in that context of entry into the otherworld journey, and to as late as the 6thC AD – by which time Christianity had been made a recognised religion of the Roman empire; the empire’s capital had been moved from Rome to Constantinople, the model of Egyptian monasticism both anchoritic [solitary] and cenobitic [communal] were established, the former style earliest adopted in the west, and chiefly among the Irish but the latter had come too, with its emphasis on copying manuscripts.

By the 6thC AD, too, Rome had already been sacked by the Visigoths, Hagia Sophia was being built, North Africa was a major centre of Christianity, Augustine having lived just a century earlier, and now Gregory the Great travelled to Egypt to acquire books (or more exactly, scrolls and papyri) while Isidore of Seville was attempting to preserve the learning of the late Roman west by composing his encyclopaedic Etymologiae.

To so late a time did the beliefs of older Egypt survive, and in Alexandria the accumulated knowledge of the Greek and Roman would survive into and after the coming of the Arabs in the following, seventh, century.

That corpus would provide a foundation for the flowering of Baghdad and of Cairo’s scholarship from which – and from about Scot’s time – a small proportion would again enter the Latins’ intellectual horizons, much of it coming via North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The style of commercial calculation and Arabic-Hindu numerals would spread chiefly by the models of ‘abbaco’ style schools in north Africa and the Aegean, while most astronomical knowledge came, so far as we know, via Spain and particularly through Toledo though Idrisi’s work in Sicily should not be overlooked.

The role of multi-lingual Jews in that transmission, shortly before and during Scot’s lifetime, is increasingly recognised by western scholars.

De temporum ratione and its dissemination.


Bede’s De Temporum ratione was written around the beginning of the eighth century. He was an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived almost all his life in the confines of his English monastery. He wrote, of course, in Latin, the purity of which has often been remarked.

By the time De temporum ratione was copied in Brit.Lib. Royal MS 13 A XI, England’s language of governance was now Norman-French and from France were coming to England replacements for older texts (and libraries) lost to war and raiders after the days of Bede, in whose time Anglo-Saxon Britain had seen a remarkable, if localised, flowering of intellectual and artistic life, notably, but not only, in York and Winchester. One of Bede’s pupils would teach Alcuin, a first teacher of Charlemagne. By Michael Scot’s time, the monastic and manuscript-copying cultures of France and England were so closely in step that the holding library can describe Royal MS 13 A XI only as having been made in “Northern or central France or England”. Not even the style of script or the finish of the membrane is distinct enough to know whether the manuscript was made in the one region or the other. Not that it matters greatly to us, except in allowing us to include England of that time among the Romance-speaking regions.

To judge from the fifty or so remaining copies of De Temporum ratione, its greatest popularity was reached by the mid-late thirteenth century, but its overall importance means it was certainly known to Scot, as a text basic to earlier computistical miscellanies.

The work’s importance, and therefore its dissemination, is explained by the publisher of a recent English translation:

Bede’s The Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione) [was]… the model and reference for all subsequent teaching, discussion and criticism of the Christian calendar … but it is more than a technical handbook. [it] incorporates themes as diverse as the theory of tides and the threat of chiliasm. ….

One French scholar puts it this way (here)
“Because [Bede] wrote with great clarity and his examples were addressed both to teachers and to students, the De Temporum Ratione became one of the most popular of Bede’s works and remained for centuries a standard reference text in Western Europe”.

As with most computistical miscellanies, however, pictures of the constellations have been included by adding some separate extract or summary of a ‘constellation text’. In Royal MS 13 A XI, this takes the form of a summary* made by Abbo of Fleury.(c. 945 -1004 AD), of Ps-Hyginus’ Poeticon Astronomicon.

*’Excerptio Abbonis ex Hygino de figuratione signorum (ff.105v-113r). For a full description see link (supra) to Brit.Lib. Royal_MS_13_A_XI.

Here are Abbo’s figures for Cancer and for Scorpius in that miscellany:

FIG. 4

In that small, somewhat faded drawing, buried in a copy of a text composed before the year 1000 AD, (Fig. 4 and Header) we’re given a clue to the reason that western medieval works sometimes draw forms for ‘Cancer’ with a lobster-like tail.

Its mask-like face aside, the rest of the figure is a near-literal image of what is popularly called today the Slipper Lobster (Fig. 4 – right and centre). Its abdomen is usually kept curled below the thorax. Its claws are not large. Its antennae are short and reminiscent of what you see on smaller creatures such as a grasshopper, or even like whiskers . Seen through the water, or in its usual habitat, at the mouth of a crevice underwater, and camouflaged as it would be in life, it is easily be mistaken for a crab.

FIG. 5

Modern taxonomists do not count the Slipper lobster a true lobster, though its genus is named fairly enough: Scyllarus.

FIG. 6

So too for the other creature shown above (Fig. 5, left) and again here (Fig.6).

It is also not included by modern taxonomies in the Lobsters, though still called the spiny lobster, or less aptly as the [marine] crayfish. Another term for it may seem modern and informal but is very much the oldest, and in that sense the most authentic: Locust-lobster.

Here’s part of the entry from Etymology Online showing that the idea was widespread, particularly in France and Britain.

Lobster – Early Middle English lopster, lopister, from Old English loppestre “lobster,” also “locust,” … Latin locusta, lucusta “marine shellfish, lobster;” also “locust, grasshopper”..Locusta in the sense “lobster” also appears in Old Cornish legast and French langouste (12c.), now “crayfish,” but in Old French [it means] both “lobster” and “locust” A 13c. Psalter has God giving over the crops of Egypt to the langoustes).*

* langouste – details of that Psalter were not given, or I’d have included the image. 🙂 The reference is to Ps.105:34-35, taken as prefiguring the eighth plague visited on Pharaoh. Langoustine, in modern French describes a type of prawn, which also appears for ‘Cancer’ in Latin Europe’s medieval art.

FIG. 7

But words don’t come from books – they come from people and are recorded in books. Associations in language imply practical observation of one kind or another.

Lobster as Locust.

A perception that locust and lobster were similar is also found among the Greeks, as Isidore rightly said at least a century before Bede wrote. and in a book that was to be found, in part or entire, in almost every monastic centre of Europe, his Etymologiae.

Locusta are so-called because their legs are ‘long, like spears’ (longis . . . asta, i.e. hasta, “spear”). Whence the Greeks call the sea- as well as the land creature αστακός (i.e. “lobster”). Etymologiae XII.viii.9. The modern English translation, (the first ever made), has a translators’ note that locusta means not only “locust” and “lobster” but also “crayfish”.

One can understand how that perceived equivalence between locust, lobster and similar creatures was reached. All are voracious feeders, indiscriminate (especially the marine locusta) and after their passing nothing has been left unconsumed. Little wonder that in thirteenth century Oxford, the same locust plague, as the eighth inflicted on Pharaoh, is represented in Apocalyptic style. These are marauders – voracious beasts with the faces of men – langoustes:

FIG. 8 – see Exodus 10:1-20.

It also makes intelligible a form given Cancer in one of the Labours series of Vézelay, though the series’ in Latin Europe typically gave Cancer for June, the month for harvesting hay in cooler latitudes, as against July when northerners’ harvested grain.

FIG. 9

*scientific information on Locusts.

Another passage recorded by Isidore offers the key to another early (eleventh-century) image for Cancer, while clarifying that inference, so commonly seen in the imagery, that the creature for Cancer, and that for Scorpius are akin to one another.

FIG. 10

Many creatures naturally undergo mutation and, when they decay, are transformed into different species – for instance … locusts from mules, scorpions from crabs. And at this point, he quotes Ovid: “If you take its curved arms from a crab on the shore a scorpion will emerge and threaten with its hooked tail (Ovid, Metamorphoses. 15.369).

Those are the heads of two mules, and their inclusion meant as a memory-prompt for fellow scholars, in the same monastery, of that passage of text: “Locusta from mules..”

I hope two things will have become clear by now – that the analyst’s task is not to produce ‘matches’ of superficial form, but to read the intention of an image in terms of its own time and context and to be equipped to recognise when the intention and ideas informing images ‘match’ – despite variations in outward form.

Secondly, that in order to read correctly the intention of a problematic image set down when our twenty-five-times-great-grandparents lived, one needs rather more than “just two eyes and commonsense” as some Voynich ‘memers’ assert.

A Lobster-like creature for Cancer is not wrong.

FIG 11 The mosaic from San Savino, Piacenza, is dated to c.11th C by some, and to the 12th by others. It assigns the Lobster to July.

* (edited to modify) I disagree with some of Nicklies’ opinions, especially in the first part of his paper, where he appears to rely on combination of theorising and scrying, but my initial judgement was too hasty. I’ve altered this comment accordingly (25th Sept. 2022) and in the next post point out where Nicklies’ research and mine co-incide. . But for Voynich research, I repeat, its most valuable element is that reference to ‘Ausonian verses’,

  • Charles E. Nicklies, ‘Cosmology and the Labors of the Months at Piacenza: The Crypt Mosaic at San Savino’, Gesta, Volume 34, Number 2 (1955) pp. 108-125.

Nor does it imply, necessarily, that a draughtsman, carver, painter or writer knew nothing more.

Isidore himself says, quite correctly:

Pliny [Natural History 32.142] says there are 144 names for all the animals living in the waters, divided into these kinds: whales, snakes common to land and water, crabs, shellfish, lobsters, mussels, octopuses, sole, Spanish mackerel (lacertus), squid, and the like. – Ety.XII.vi.63.

So the ‘lobster’ idea is perfectly ok, even if it’s not what we might have expected or would describe as ‘normal’ for our own time.

Since this exercise is treating only two emblems, not the series of diagrams as a whole, we must leave detailed exploration of the calendar, as such, to others, though De Temporum ratione would be a sensible first text in the reading list. I also recommend

  • Bracken, Damian, ‘Virgil the Grammarian and Bede: a preliminary study’, Anglo-Saxon England 35 (2006): 7–21.
  • Wallis, Faith [trans.], Bede: The reckoning of time, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999.
  • A longer bibliography here.
  • A useful vocabulary, and articles offered or planned on the Alexandrine computus, the Computus Runicus, and the Klingshammer computus HERE.
  • A clear and detailed explanation of the computus controversy between Ireland and Rome HERE

But despite all we’ve discovered so far we’ve still encountered no pairing of these locustae or αστακοί. And we’re not likely to find them in the few illustrated constellation texts typically included in the Latins’ computistical miscellanies – whether or not the matter in those miscellanies informs the diagrams whose centres these emblems fill.

Constellation pictures in Computistical texts.

Other than the odd copy from Aratus or from Abbo’s summary extract from the Poeticon Astronomicon, just three texts figure, one attributed to Bede through the medieval period but now assigned to some unknown author as ‘Ps-Bede’. Lippincott lists them (Aratus; De signis coeli; de Ordine when speaking of the marked disjunction between transmission of those texts and transmission of the illustrations used in them. She writes:

“The illustrations accompanying these texts, however, are much less uniform than the texts they purport to illustrate. As seems to be the case with so many of these constellation manuscripts, the division into pictorial families fails to accord with what one might expect given established philological stemmata of the texts…

  • For more on ‘de Signis’, ‘de Ordine’, the Aratus Latinus and Revised Aratus Latinus see published works by Elly Dekker, Kristen Lippincott and Ivana Dobcheva, and an essay published online by by Filippomaria Pontani, though one should not expect each to agree completely with the views of any other, even about the written text(s)

Does this mean we should we ignore written context?

Not necessarily. Pace Lippincott, not all drawings in manuscripts were derived from none but manuscript sources, and despite the Latin’s world’s usually granting primacy to written over pictorial text – and often treating images as no more than ‘illustration’ of the written text – it is also the case that drawings may work as a parallel, or alternative, or complementary ‘text’ for that which they accompany.

The forms given an image may be informed not only by the associated text, but by popular lore, puns across Latin and a vernacular, local by definition, by imported terms, and common lore as well as by a effort to ‘translate’ originally non-indigenous imagery.

Or, as Lippincott says, by one or more other, but unrecognised texts.

I believe I may have identified one: Ausonius’ school-room mnemonic poems, thanks to the three-point head detail and finding among the examples one from the mosaics of Piacenza and – hunting that up – come across the bare mention of ‘Ausonian verses’ in an otherwise unremarkable paper. Nicklies’ paper is unremarkable for its first couple of pages, It rises to the level of the scholarly and thoughtful for most of the middle section, but then simply returns to the same art-appreciation-theory style with which it began.

Still – it really is good in the middle.

Here are the verses used, as photocopied from the old edition in our library.

This is not the end of the story, though. Ausonius only knew the 12-month year which began in January. That suited medieval Europe, of course, but to complete the account of these emblems from the Voynich calendar (if it is a calendar), one more post will be needed.

Consider this… Halts and stops.

about 3200 words. Farewell to 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

It happens.

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

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

The first question had been – Why ‘Kabbalah’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*…… ten years on …..*

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

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

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

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


Here’s the relevant paragraph:


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to return to our subject:

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript – etymology for ‘aster’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skies above Pt 3: to tail or not to tail?

Two previous:

THIS IS THREE-POST LENGTH;  if your phone overheats, let me know and I’ll repost it in parts.

Précis of previous post.

The ‘star-flower’ motif is seen in only two contexts in the manuscript, and only  in quires whose form sits uneasily with theories of wholly European origin for both form and content.  The stacked quires were surely bound in Latin style and a number of the quires are the usual quarternion, but fold-outs like those in the manuscript are without parallel in Latin medieval works so far as we know, and septentions (as Quire 20 is believed to have been) are normally associated with Arabic-speaking regions.

The question of whether the star-flowers might link text from the month-diagrams to that in Quire 20 can’t be taken further until we know more about a ‘rose’ text-mark noted by Lori J. Walters in a thirteenth century manuscript in Tournai (TOU).  If any Voynich researcher decides to look into it, do remember to let me know.

….. so on that point, at present, the balance of evidence is heavily towards the negative.

Earlier references

. For earlier thoughts about the motif as linking text between the month-diagrams and Quire 20,  readers are referred to the basic sources such as d’Imperio and the first mailing list (see Bibliography page) and whatever else might turn up online.   I expect that Nick Pelling’s book of 2006 (now out of print, and which I do not have by me) paid them attention.  Search ‘Quire 20’ at ciphermysteries to read more.

Note that matter presented only on current forums and mailing lists cannot be cited unless sent to me with permission to quote.


Q: To ‘tail’ or not to ‘tail’?

I’m sure someone, somewhere, might rightly say they were first to muse aloud  that some star-flowers do, and others don’t have a bit of ‘stem’.

However, it was in 2010 that Pelling posted about script and ‘flower-stars’ in Quire 20, mentioning some points directly relevant to what follows:

  1. That Tim Tattrie had noted (i) “that the paragraph stars on f103 and f116 are notable because they don’t seem to have tails”; and (ii)  pointed out that the character which is rendered in EVA transcription as ‘x’ ( illustrated right) appears on every folio of Q20 except the first (f103) and the last (f116)
  2.  Pelling himself noted, in the same post, that these ‘x’ characters often sit next to ‘ar’ and ‘or’ pairs, e.g. arxor / salxor / kedarxy / oxorshey / oxar / shoxar / lxorxoiin, etc.

I will rephrase the question as:-  ‘Was the distinction between ‘tailed’ and ‘un-tailed’  significant for the first enunciator.?  ‘

*first enunciation”:

in terms of iconology describes the point at which a concept was first expressed in a specific form in physical media. Time and dissemination de-contextualise images, changing associated meaning and  contributing various other forms of overlay.  Where possible – and it is not always possible – identifying and separating such layers (‘chronological strata’), to identify a problematic artefact’s time and region of first enunciation re-contextualises it while clarifying issues of transmission, and so directing research towards  appropriate sources for its full explanation.  For such work – the rarer counterpart of textual criticism and more closely related to archaeology than art history – a solid background in comparative historical and cultural studies, technical studies and – above all –  attention to stylistics is recommended.

What follows is the result of independent study of the  star-flower’s occurrence in this manuscript. Only after this post was written were earlier comments on Quire 20 sought.  Any point on which a similar conclusion is reached here, then, should then be taken as supporting, not as supplanting or imitating precedents as e.g. Tim Tattrie’s remarks.



IN those eleven month-diagrams, the star-flower’s ‘tail’ reads well enough as a string or as a stem when it occurs. Adding a stem seems to ‘make sense’ of some sort there, but why  should the scribe trouble to add ‘stem’- strokes in Quire 20?

Why bother?

The ‘tailed’ version appears throughout except at the beginning and end of these ‘sentences’.  There is no tail shown in the first two quires sides of Quire 20 (f.103r and f.103v) and none again from the last few ‘sentences’ near the end (f.116r).  Almost all the rest have them. Almost.

 I  take this pattern of application as indicative of meaning conveyed.

Here’s why – the pros and cons.

If, in Quire 20,  the extra stroke (‘stem’) were only present beside the earlier ‘sentences’ or only found over the first couple of folios before it gave way to the simpler version, with that continuing through to the end of that section, then we might reasonably posit that the scribe tired of having to add the extra stroke, knowing that so many repetitions lay ahead.

In such a case, we might also take it that no objection was raised by others to that simplification  – as for example by a master of the atelier or a person who commissioned the work or  persons who needed to use it.  In other words, we might fairly suppose the ‘tail’ had no significance.

(postscript note) I cannot see reason to suppose the tails added later, as Pelling did, but if his observation should be correct, it is further reason to think – if it does not prove –  distinction between ‘tailed’ and ‘untailed’ significant.

Conversely, if a copyist had began by simplifying the motif but  then started to make it more ‘flower-like’, and continued that form to the end,  we might entertain among other possibilities that these marginal ‘star-flowers’ might only be ornamental, as it were a foretaste of the ornament exemplified here (left) by a detail from the Spinola hours, made about a century after the Vms.

But neither is so.

The simpler form is on the first two sides; then the more ornate continues – only to stop just a few ‘sentences’ short of the end.

Still more curious is that the ‘stem’ is omitted sometimes from a line of generally tailed motifs, even when there is ample space to include it, as in folio 115r (illustrated above, right). Nor is the centre of that exception given a red centre; it hasn’t been overlooked, but consciously ‘minimised’..

(postscript note: It is in that context that Tattrie’s observations about the written text gain added interest, suggesting that the inclusion of the ‘x’ character may have some direct relation to the tailed form. “[Voynich] ‘x’ appears on every folio of Q20 except the first (f103) and the last (f116).”

This correlation may also help put a check on the reflex which leads Voynich writers to dismiss as whimsical or arbitrary any element in the imagery for which a theoretical narrative offers no immediate explanation. Many reflexive excuses for a theory’s failure to explain the primary evidence rely on popular modern ideas about “the artist” and so imagine a greater degree of personal autonomy and personal self-expression for the makers than agrees with what we know of the medieval artisan’s position in his world


Reason and Purpose

It is also best, I find, to begin from a position that a fifteenth-century work is less likely to be any product of eccentric, autonomous artistic self-expression than one produced for a reason and to a practical purpose by persons who were a fairly normal product of their own time and environment: geographical, cultural and intellectual.

It is that context whose traces we seek in the imagery and which is so often ignored when ‘matches’ are adduced from a severely limited range of Latin manuscripts, the style and  character of whose drawings so rarely do  match that of the supposed target.  Happily, the  emblems which now occupy the month-diagrams’ centres are among the few easily legible by graphic conventions of the Mediterranean world.

Nor are we considering a work presented as a cheap notebook on paper – though in Latin Europe those, too, were habitually ruled out before any writing was done – so we must give due weight to the fact that the material was committed to the expensive and durable medium of vellum. It was made to survive; it was made  pocket-book size and these things in turn imply an expectation of subsequent readers and a form appropriate for use outside the scholarly library.  It is made to be durable, and in a form portable and serviceable. Unless we now imagine the first owner intended to destroy it during his or her own lifetime, then it could also be predicted to be used by at least one following generation.

Accepting as initial default, then, that the work is informed by reason and purpose and meant to embody transmissible information, we come to another possibility for the role of these ‘star-flower’ motifs, and their use both in Quire 20 and the series of month- diagrams.  That is, that their connection may not refer to links between the written text in both, after the style of signe de renvoi, but that the motif signifies related subject-matter as such. And in such a case, direct link between written text in those sections need not be posited at all, yet forms of connection might still exist of potential use to the linguists and cryptanalysts.

Let me offer an hypothetical case.  Let’s suppose…


Let us suppose a work whose general theme was the stars visible at a given latitude, month by month.Now, its first section it might have diagrams showing those stars,  in their ranks and order as seen month by month. They might even correlate each star with a particular place as was done, for example, in plates made for an astrolable.

from a late example, made in Lahore. I have shown (in the header) that the sinuous stem and ‘star-flower’ – as sun of night or light in the darkness –  are not incompatible an Indian-Arabic environment.

In another section, then, we suppose the subject is instead the lunar months and the agricultural roster describing each day’s assigned task.

While the stars’ visible progress remains just the same,  some asterisms and stars only are relevant to the second section.  The relevant ones, let’s say, are given a tail in the ‘calendar’ section and  others left without.  The intended reader knew by heart which star or asterism marked a period of the roster and needed no specific text- link to the earlier diagrams at all. Even if those periods might be identified by their stars, they needn’t be named for them.  After all, in the Voynich month-diagrams, the scribe didn’t write ‘Fishes-month’ but ‘March’.

So – in such a case, though without direct textual links, connection would exist in the class of information common to both sections, rather than any single external text or single genre providing a single vocabulary common to both. The parameters of such a search need not be indefinite or infinite; competent analysis of the manuscript’s imagery and the disciplines of their own fields should together assist the linguist and/or cryptographer reduce research parameters to reasonable limits.


a hope unlikely to be realised soon. Over the past century the habit has become ingrained of beginning from an assumption that the most critical questions, such as those concerning content, genre and intent – questions scarcely addressed, let alone answered – have answers known and adopted as ‘givens’. So, in seeking ‘matches’ for the plant-pictures, Voynich writers have traditionally begun by presuming any image intended (but failed) to present a literal portrait of some plant from the European herbal corpus, with the intent therefore presumed medico-pharmaceutical. None of these ‘givens’ is known and all of dubious worth, given the failure over that century to find a place within the Latin herbal corpus for images of the style, range or sophistication of the Voynich plant-pictures.

(Koen Gheuens’ study of the ‘lobster’ motif in late medieval European works is one exception to the presumptive method, albeit limited to Latin works. Marco Ponzi’s meticulous study of medieval herbals is itself a worthwhile contribution to that literature, but whether it may prove directly relevant to the Voynich manuscript is yet to be seen).

How much is overlooked by assuming the usual limits for research may be illustrated by mentioning just one compendium of  360 pages, one of the most important plant-books produced in the medieval western Mediterranean, which ranges “from the most delicate flowers to the sturdiest of trees, from staple vegetables to luxury plants”..

I don’t say that the Kitāb al-filāḥa has never been mentioned,  but if ever mentioned was thereafter ignored. Theory-driven perceptions may be held, yet again, responsible. .

N.B. My hypothetical ‘star-related’ text is no more than an illustration; my reference to the astrolabe and to the Filāḥa similarly.  None is to be taken as sign of  ‘Voynich theory’.

Turning to the month-diagrams,

For the rest of this series, I’ll refer to the eleven diagrams by their inscribed month-names, with (1) or (2) added to distinguish names appearing twice .  That is, as ‘March’ or as April (1) etc.

I do this because the usual terminology is another relic.

Even if it should prove true, after investigation, that the emblems were meant to depict a type of zodiac, and that the diagrams were designed to serve astrology and that the informing language were French, German, Latin (or any other), the traditional method and terms are no product of preliminary investigation.  Post-hoc ‘matches’, sought as they are within limits assuming past speculations  fact  have no better basis and thus constantly fail to explain the primary evidence; they explain  the theory.  Not even two hundred examples of Aries as a sheep from Latin manuscript art constitutes proof that the Voynich ‘April’ emblems show sheep, or were intended as symbol for Aries, whether as astrological sign or as constellation.  The revisionist cannot treat the question, ‘What else could they be?’ as rhetorical.


Example: the Crossbowman

The first question in such cases is  what significance the figure had within the context it was made and even if we begin with central Europe,  anomalies appear.  Take for example, the ‘December’ diagram, whose centre shows a crossbowman who appears to be cocking his weapon without use of the stirrup or any other aid. In my opinion, what we are seeing is a double roll-nut used in a relatively light-weight bow, made of wood.  Of this type we have no physical example extant earlier than those made for Spanish marines in c.1510.  But I’ll go into more detail about that later in the series.  The usual interpretation of the figure, today, is that it represents Sagittarius.

Yet within central Europe (England, France and Germany) it was not the custom to identify December with Sagittarius.  November was Sagittarius’ month in those medieval calendars.

That discrepancy is rarely addressed when ‘matches’ are offered, such ‘matches’ being quite routinely presented without reference made to the associated month in the comparison – and usually central European – manuscript. Should the point  arise, it has been a natural and instinctive response to blame the ‘artist’ or the hand which wrote the later inscription,  as if it were some flaw in them that the theory-driven comparison was inexact. Such exceptions as occur in the Latin works are adduced without reference to style of drawing, or the wider context of the ‘December’ diagram.

Nor has any study established that the emblems – or indeed the diagrams as a whole – have any connection to astrology or that the series is derived from ideas about the tropical zodiac.  These things ‘everyone knows’ are things no-one actually knows at all. They may or not prove correct, but they are without proof so far.

Even in a specifically European setting and even, within that, in in a specifically astrological context,  a crossbowman may be associated with Leo or – more exactly, Leo’s third decan.

The illustration (above, left) from the Jagelonian Picatix.

(Like Leo, the crossbowman  and the devil in Christian literature-  ‘roams about, seeking what he may devour’).

Understanding what was implied by a given ‘crossbowman’ figure in the imagination of the ordinary population in medieval Europe is often clarified by such sources as the ‘poor man’s book’ – the pack of cards – after c.1377.

The earliest examples of these images on card are hand- painted; in effect single, miniature ‘illuminations’. Sets of printed cards soon appeared, though,  and proved the fortune (in every sense) of the fledgling printing industry.

Employed to assist education, for gambling, and as a spur to elegant word-play, as for fortune-telling, the new ‘joc’ passed from Spain through Italy to Germany within a few years of our earliest mention of cards in Europe in the later fourteenth century. Printers were thus initially speaking directly to the general perception – the common visual language – of contemporary Europe, appealing to ‘what everyone knew’ in terms of educational level,  popular lore, beliefs and prejudices, and across linguistic and social boundaries.

Printers might then re-use those blocks  as ready-made images to illustrate other texts or cut one down for some detail in it. Printing thus soon divorced imagery from specific text and the dedicated meaning an image had within earlier manuscript art.

But already in the early-to-mid fifteenth century, the crossbowman figure had resonance, as we say, throughout Latin Europe.  Contemporaries saw more than some generic ‘man with crossbow’, for in general apprehensions the type carried overtones of evil incarnate, the type of the relentless and remorseless hunter not only of animals, but of men, and even of souls.  In the extreme, that character coincided with Sagittarius’ character as it had been in some traditions.  A treacherous constellation, against the raising of whose bow’s seamen were warned to remain in harbour ‘under cover’.

Shown (right) a crossbowman on a card dated to the early fifteenth century and probably made in Italy though found in an old chest, in Spain.

In my opinion, this figure was designed as allusion to Juan I (‘el Cazador’) of Aragon, an inveterate hunter of animals and persecutor of the Jews.  Because a Christian folk-legend (‘the wandering Jew’), saw parallels constantly made between  migratory birds and the supposedly transient  Jews, images of this time repeatedly connect the crossbowman to birds and often to specific metaphors for the Jews such as owls or red-headed cranes.  By the time that image was made, cards had been known to Italy for about forty years or so.  It has another astronomical reference, too, and one of great antiquity, but no need to pursue that now.

However, and again from Italy and from about the same time, a second theme is disseminated which associates the bowman, and  hunting, with health.

Imagery of that sort emerges in the context of the Tacuinum sanitatis, where the bowman (and in some cases, the crossbowman) is pictured under the heading ‘East Wind’ and associated with Aries, Taurus and Gemini.  Hunting with hounds is simply listed among healthful ‘activities’ and not in connection with any month in particular.

detail from a copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. (ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644)


By the middle of the fifteenth century, and now in Germany, the crossbowman is envisaged in the form of a full-time mercenary (right), an Hungarian of Matthias’ Corvinus’ Black Army (Hungarian: Fekete sereg).

Once again, any link to the zodiac is either irrelevant to, or ancillary to the image and its intended use.

If we now add, to other reasons for saying that revisionist study is called for,  those items which become prominent only when the emblems are re-contextualised within their diagrams, we have the fact that ‘matches’ from Latin works have yet to be found for  tiered figures in ‘barrels’ like those on folio 70v, or for April creatures depicted in the way  Latin custom has “goat”, not “sheep”.  Ever more points at which the theoretical model fails to explain the evidence become apparent.

While an image such as that shown ( left) certainly suggests that if a Latin wished to bathe indoors, he did so in a tub – who didn’t?- it explains nothing of the reason the Voynich images are so differently drawn, show chiefly female figures, or why so many more hold ‘star-flowers’ in folio 70v than in any other.  Is ‘tub’ or ‘barrel’ the word realised in the Voynich images: that is, was it the concept given first enunciation in these folios?

Linguistic and graphic expression were two sides of a single coin in pre-modern times (and setting aside the literalism of the post 1440s).  Why should “March” be associated with those forms?

The maker surely knew; it is not beyond possiblity that we may come to know. Not though conjecture, speculation, hypothesising or imagining but by learning to see, and think, outside the frame of a post-industrial mindset. Historians are supposed to.

If. in adopting the month-names to describe the eleven diagrams, I err, it is at least an error for which the manuscript provides precedent.