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

Stars above – ‘Horoscopic charts’ or ‘clock-o-clay’ – a passing note

Two previous:

Header image – Aster flowers – phases of development.

IN the old days, picking oakum was proverbial for mind-numbing, tedious and back-breaking labour.  Trying to identify and eradicate ‘canonised myth’ from the theoretical Voynich narratives is just like that.

Take the “weed-seeded” idea of  the month-diagrams as ‘horoscopic charts’ – is it another bit of ‘pass-it-along’ gossip? Another bit of cloud-gazing, or guess-work or speculation?   Is it another idea dug out of a work produced by d’Imperio, and based on theories and attitudes current a hundred years ago but for which retrospective justification is still being sought?  Or – is it, on the contrary, a sensible conclusion drawn from a body of solid and well-documented evidence and research?  If there is such a formal study and argument… why does no-one say so?  It is not simply credit but responsibility for ideas put in circulation which a writer’s name must bear.   So… see if you can discover who is to be praised, or blamed, for planting and nurturing this particular “weed-seed”.  (Do let me know if you manage to track it to its source – and I mean original source, not the previous figure in the gossip-chain).

If trying to weigh the pros and cons for this notion, which may turn out to be just another without legitimate parentage, you will need to cover some basic ground – neatly summarised by this paragraph from the  British Library site.

Ideas of astrology in medieval Europe were a long way from today’s star sign horoscopes. Although some medieval astrologers were thought to be magicians, many were highly respected scholars. Astrologers believed that the movements of the stars influenced numerous things on Earth, from the weather and the growth of crops to the personalities of new born babies and the inner workings of the human body. Ancient studies of astrology were translated from Arabic to Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries and soon became a part of everyday medical practice in Europe. Doctors combined Galenic medicine (inherited from the Greek physiologist Galen – AD 129-216) with careful studies of the stars. By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding.  (from an  article illustrated by a detail Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 2572,(late 15thC)

N.B. You might start from that first point  – “… a long way from today’s star sign horoscopes” and ask, How different? In what ways? With what phase of that development (if any) are the Voynich month-diagrams imagined to be compatible?

Also – Azzolini has pointed out when speaking of charts made before and during the early sixteenth century, the term ‘horoscopic chart’ is a catch-all description for a variety of diagram types.  To which does this ‘weed-seed’ refer?

Note especially her saying that “Every one of these charts reflects the position of [all] the planets and [all] the constellations of the zodiac in the sky at a given moment in time.” Where are  planets, or the rest of the zodiac signs supposed to be in each of the Voynich month-diagrams?

Vague, hand-waving catch-all terms as ‘horoscopic charts’ in Voynich writings seem to convey plausible meaning yet evaporate as another bit of smoke on closer scrutiny.  This one seems to me to just another theory-driven guess, attributed and attributed to no-one and no body of work. Just another bad guess like the old assertion that the   cloudband pattern, or braided hair ‘proved’ the work Germanic, or that containers in the leaf-and-root section ‘proved’ connection to the European pharmacy before 1440 … or  that Quire 20 must consist of phamaceutical ‘recipes’.

Unless presented with some formal argument, documented and with precedents credited in the usual way, most assertions made about this manuscript serve theories rather than its better understanding.  Friends of the manuscript do well to avoid what is neither proven, nor rightly credited to its origin.

And so I had to do, myself, in connection with the usual ‘astrological’ assertions during the period when I investigated each of them.  My logs show I also looked at various other possibilities between, though here I’ll mention just three, without saying whether I found any helpful in reaching the conclusions which, in the end, I did.

1. Q&A fortune-telling.

I referred to Fanti’s work in posts written as early as 2011, though I’d known it since the 1980s when it helped elucidate the history and meaning of certain other medieval images which I had been commissioned to investigate.

When I mentioned Fanti’s sixteenth-century book, Triomfo della Fortuna for a Voynich audience it was at a time when  the study was dominated by a ‘central European’ theory that ignored any but medieval German works, and which still assumed an essential connection between date and place of manufacture and that of origin for the material, while also averse to any suggestion of non-Latin ‘authorship’.   The reaction to my mentioning Fanti, was therefore, an effort to present German ‘lot books’ as if these proved the type in some (unexplained) sense as inherently or uniquely ‘Germanic’.   This habit has noticeably decreased since 2015 when  Touwaide said he thought the Voynich text-block binding looked Italian to him.  Thereafter, Pelling’s ‘Milan’ theory was re-instated as acceptable after relegation to the Voynich wilderness for most of the preceding decade.

The amount of evidence, and the sheer volume of research which core-conservatives manage to pretend non-existent (while trying to co-opt much) displays a fixed determination which is really impressive in a weird sort of way.

Fanti’s book was published much later than the Voynich manuscript’s date, but  internal evidence shows it derived from matter attested in mainland Europe from the last quarter of the fourteenth century.  Here’s a detail.

detail from:  Sigismundo Fanti (Italian, born Ferrara, active Venice 16th century) Triomfo della Fortuna (published Jan. 1526).

These diagrams are not ‘horoscopic charts’ but are related to what was treated as a parlour-game in late medieval Europe.  A player asked one from a set list of questions and received answers  generated by these ‘lots’ – not unlike the way I-ching diagrams are generated, or those of the Youruba’s  ‘Ifa’ (which would itself inform inform, first, Islamic astrological calculations in north Africa and rather later Agrippa’s account of ‘geomancy’, but that’s another issue.

2. Ifa divination.

The calculations of Ifa allude to ‘mothers and daughters’ etc, but are far more sophisticated, and have far deeper roots,  than Agrippa would understand later.

For a better appreciation of  Ifa and system of divination – which incorporates history and traditional epic –  the interested reader might begin from Odularu’s bibliography.  I had also studied this topic, though from material in university libraries, before being asked (in 2007) to comment on a couple of images from the Voynich manuscript.  But see:


3. Panofsky, Spain and the Libros.

It is now almost ninety years since  Panofsky said that one of the month-diagrams reminded him of diagrams in the works produced by Arabic and Jewish scholars in obedience to Alfonso X.   It is almost twenty years since Dana Scott followed up that brief allusion and found (and shared) images from the Libros with members of the first mailing list.

Following this, we saw less effort put into testing whether and how the Libros might be relevant than in efforts to create ‘alternatives’ for which credit might be otherwise assigned.  I won’t go into that issue here except to say that this sort of co-opting and production of ‘alternatives’ continues today, with the habitual omission of original (and deserved) credit in the hope that constant re-presentation of the other may see the imitator credited as originator.

Credit for mention of the Libros and its diagrams, within Voynich studies, is due to Panofsky (1932) and subsequently to Dana Scott.  It should be noted, however, that neither offered any formal argument for a link between the Vms and material in the Libros.

In short, that possibility, introduced in 1932, remains in 2020 without any formal research and argument.  It is still just ‘an idea’.

Having to review, critically, every unsupported assertion and ‘canonised Voynich myth’ is real slog-research  “oakum-picking”, but the mess that has been made by using assertion to avoid evidence; of  pretending no other views exist save a given theoretical narrative; of systematically censoring and erasing the record of contributions made by dissenters… and so on… means the researcher must proceed as if on marshland, testing each step before allowing any weight to be placed on it.

As I’ve said in an earlier post – I can find no formal argument ever presented for a link between the month-diagrams and diagrams in the Libros – perhaps a reader might care to run that test for themselves.


Since my own research (as you’ll see if you follow the present series of posts to the end) led me finally to identify the month-diagrams with systems describing the ‘hours’ and further concluded that the tiered figures’ first enunciation occurred in a Hellenistic environment, so readers may wish to create a short-cut – knowing this series is following the slower course of tracking my own investigations from my logs.

Among the  hundred and more references which clarified some specific  point  I’ll mention two here.

The first includes a useful summary of material in the Libros. The second includes certain technical terms current in early fifteenth century Italy.

  • Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, Gerhard Dohrn,  History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders ( University of Chicago Press, 1996), especially its Chapter 4.
  • and
    J.H. Leopold, The Amanus Manuscript, (Hutchinson:1971)

Postscript – more recent publications which I’d recommend include

  • Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, Lost Maps of the Caliphs (Uni of Chicago Press:  2018)

I have already (in posts to voynichimagery) recommended the article by Edson and Savage-Smith but here are its details again

  • Evelyn Edson and Emilie Savage-Smith, ‘An Astrologer’s Map: A Relic of Late Antiquity’, Imago Mundi, Vol. 52 (2000), pp. 7-29.




“Here I lie, a clock-o’-clay,
Waiting for the time o’ day.”

John Clare

… but when I was a child, the ‘clock-o-clay’ was a seed-head (usually the dandelion’s) which told the hour by releasing the last of its seeds when one blew on it counting with each breath, ‘One o’clock.. two o’clock’..



Elevated souls Pt 2a. ‘Astro —-‘

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

Previous two:


David Pingree

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

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

I begin by mentioning it for several reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

from Augustine’s Letters  55 15

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

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

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

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

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

Things were different six centuries ago.

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

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

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

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

Other points:

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

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

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

Astrological versus (purely) Astronomical

Exaltation and Depression?

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


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

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

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

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

re planets…2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manilius in the west

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

B. Astronomical?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  1. alpha [α] Virginis (Lat.Spica) ?

According to the 15thC Yemeni, Ibn Majid, the star α Virginis serves as the manzil (lunar station/mansion) and in that context is known as Simak al A’zal, ‘warrior without a spear’ (Tibbett’s translation p.100). And the figure from the first April diagram certainly has none.  However, women of the Arab tribes in Arabia, and more particularly of the Yemen, appear from the early accounts to have been treated more on par with men and in the pre-Islamic period to have been decidedly martial. By comparing with both older and early medieval works, it appears that until the seventh century AD, α Virginis may  have been often envisaged as a female warrior, one who roared or howled in the attack.   As Virgo, she is still armed in an image within the 9thC Byzantine manuscript Vat.gr.1291.

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

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

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

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

So if this is the intention behind the ‘Amazon’ on folio 70v-ii, her being without a weapon may be due to the same cultural attitudes (not necessarily Arab) which sees  the ‘ladies of an hour’ drawn with arms deprived of strength in Vat.gr.1291 folio 9r- as we also see   in the month-folios of the Vms.


In both instances, the informing ideas appear to me  indicative of deep-seated belief that the stars had effective power to harm and I doubt such fear derives from the classical Greeks or from the Orthodox Christians of ninth-century Constantinople. That Vat.gr.1291  has drawn on ideologically opposed traditions is evident if one compares the charming figure for Virgo in the ‘helios’ diagram (folio 9r) with the frankly unnerving and skeltal ‘ghost’ which is one of the few figures un-erased from the same manuscript’s planispheric ‘night sky’. (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. gamma [γ] Orionis.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quote stars Jews Spain astronomical tables 14thC Indian trad


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

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

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

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

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

edit (6th December 2019).

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


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.