O’Donovan notes #12.4: Rukh, Rocco, Rocca (bird-Merlons).

The author’s rights are asserted.

I’ve decided to post this before, rather than after, taking the month off and to combine what were two 1500-word posts. (Lucky you 😀 ).

Header – added 17th March -all but the lower right detail first introduced to Voynich studies by the present author. That detail, from a small fortress-tower on Euboea introduced by Peter M.

Introduction and Aims

Intrigued by the problem of whether there was some link between the ‘swallowtails’ in western defensive architecture and the form used for the fortress/tower/rook chesspiece, I began from the period of the Piacenza mosaic (11th or early 12thC) and set a limit of about c.1350 AD. Other work had already convinced me that our fifteenth century manuscript’s contents, while they may have contained material first created much earlier, had received their next-to-final version no later.

I began by looking for a linguistic connection between the chesspieces and the ‘swallowtailed’ fortress in other contexts. The key to much pre-modern imagery is not prior drawings, but informing word.

I wanted mainly to test the validity of certain traditionalist habits in Voynich studies.

Knowing that any results from this one, very minor, question and map-detail could not offer definitive answers about when, where or by whom the Voynich map was first created, nor when or where its final recension was made, still I felt that this bit of digging might add clarity to questions about the sense intended for the detail, and perhaps also the range over which it would be reasonable to seek precedents for the Voynich glyphs and what range of scripts and languages might inform a text reaching Latins by c.1350.

For all that, it was a minor matter and I gave it no more than a bare mention in the research-summaries published through Voynichimagery.

Bringing more of the research forward now, I hope it may interest people who like chess and/or who like Beinecke MS 408. I hope too that it may serve to balance, a little, some among the constantly repeated assertions and assumptions made about the contents in the Voynich manuscript.


To begin: linguistic links between bird and fortress.

Here’s one commonly held opinion about chess ..

When the Arabs learned Chess from the Persians, they kept the name rukh, which sounded like the Arabic word for a giant mythical bird… .. When the Italians got the game from the Arabs, the name of rukh was italianized to rocco, which sounded like rocca, the Italian word for fortress.

https //www.chessvariants org/piececlopedia.dir/rook.html

Another way to put this is that when Persian chess-players adopted Arabic, they found no need to change the word ‘rukh’ because it could now be explained using an Arabic etymology. Much the same happened for speakers of Italian, and eventually of English, where rukh became ‘rook’.

The Charlemagne set’s merlons

History often consists of a high, middle and low story, and the same is true for stories how chess came to western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.

The high story has chess brought directly to the court of Charlemagne by an embassy from Constantinople or from Baghdad. The middle story has it come with unnamed but courtly speakers of Arabic. The low story is that one or more forms of chess were so well known in regions where Christians and Muslims interacted, that knowledge of chess crossed from one to the other by what you might call osmosis.

In this case the high and the middle stories are most likely for early medieval Europe. Most accounts of the dissemination of chess say so, too, and may be summarised as:

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, after chess had spread to the Levant, North Africa and the Byzantine Empire via the Islamic conquests, chess was played only in noble and royal circles, and so the sets were often made from luxury materials such as ivory and rock crystal. The game is mentioned in writings from the period, notably by Firdausi (934-1020). During the Abbasid period it had been the most popular indoor game played in Baghdad.

The game’s reputation as a game for kings is as old as the legend of its invention by an equally legendary king of India, Shahram.

In the Bibliotheque Nationale de France are what remains of the so-called ‘Charlemagne’ chess set, though it is certainly two centuries later than Charlemagne’s day, and the pieces are generally thought to have been made in Salerno. Despite this, I’m inclined to accept that the embassy from Baghdad whose travails are described by Notker the Stammerer had indeed brought a chess-set if not the one in the BNF, when they came bearing gifts from the Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

The pieces in the BNF are of ivory and so large and heavy (the king weighs 2Kgs) that it has been suggested they served as models in an ivory-carving workshop.

On one we see merlons that are neither square nor swallowtail, but which are attested in Sicily. The same ‘gap-tooth’ design is visible in old photographs of Gibellina, where they adorn a tower but since the photos blur when enlarged, I’ve added another example (a rebuild) from what was a Franciscan friary in nearby Erice. (note that pigeons prefer a lower perch).


Another ivory in the same, Byzantine-influenced, style is attributed again by some to Salerno but by others to Amalfi. This is dated to late in the eleventh century, and shows that merlons of this type are still taken as standard, even while the chesspiece is a ‘swallowtail’ for the makers of that mosaic in Piacenza. We’ll soon see that the ‘swallowtail’ rook/fortress of chess is attested at least as early as the tenth century in Nishapur, and was normal along other parts of the east-west ‘silk’ roads.


The first point to notice. so far, is that the usual practice of calling the detail from the Voynich map a ‘castle’ is perhaps less accurate than to describe it as a fortress or fortified area (It. rocca). True, the chess-rook is today also called, in English, a castle, but the different connotations are important for how the drawing is perceived in the Voynich map.

We have already seen an Italian and a Byzantine ‘winged’ form for the rook, the Italian example a mosaic in Piacenza dated 11th-12thC and the Byzantine piece in ivory to the 12thC. But for newcomers, here they are again.


Having thus passed, with a nod towards Baghdad and Aachen, from Italy, to Byzantium, we’ll now track further along a northern path, widening our temporal and geographic range to do so.

We find, now, that the curious forms given some other pieces in the Piacenza mosaic become easier to understand by reference to a rare set surviving from Persia – from Nishapur – and dated to the 10th-11thC “or earlier”.

FIG 4. sold by Southeby’s from the collection of the late Lothar Schmidt (1928-2013)

Nishapur lies on one of the chief ‘silk roads’ between the Black Sea and China. It is interesting for Voynich research, and for historians of chess, because the city was founded by Shapur 1, the Sasanian-Persian king who kept a Roman emperor a prisoner for life, and to whose court chess is said to have been first introduced from India. Shapur ruled from 240-270 AD.

FIG 5 In the July diagram, the crown in drawn in darker ink, suggesting it a later addition or a later over-drawing to clarify the original.

In representing that moment when chess first came to Persia, a copy of the Shanameh dated 1300-1330 AD shows the rook still has the same ‘swallowtail’ form as in that set and in Piacenza, though the rest of the scene has been re-envisioned to reflect current political reality: Persia under Mongol rule.

FIG 6 https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shnm/hd_shnm.htm

(Fig. 6 above) “Buzurgmihr Masters the Game of Chess”. Made in Iran or Iraq c.1300-1330. Folio from the First Small Shahnama (Book of Kings) composed by Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (Iranian, born Paj ca. 940/41 d. c.1020 Tus). New York Metropolitan Museum, Accession No 57.51.32

Other physical examples fill the interval between the tenth and twelfth centuries AD. The British Museum holds a twelfth-century set from Nishapur and here, incidentally, one can appreciate why the line of ‘gap-tooth’ merlons might suggest the evenly-spaced ‘little stones’ (It. Gibellina) of a chessboard.

FIG 7 from 12th century. Iran, Nishapur. Stonepaste; molded and glazed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Pfeiffer Fund, 1971 (1971.193a–ff) https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/the-game-of-kings-medieval-ivory-chessmen-from-the-isle-of-lewis/exhibition-blog/game-of-kings/blog/carving-out-a-collection

So far as I can discover, no chess-sets survive from Sicily of the 11th- or 12th- centuries, or even from, 13th- or 14th- centuries, but one can hardly doubt that in an area so heavily influenced Byzantine cultural, artistic and religious traditions, together with the centuries of Arab rule, and the noted acceptance of both Muslims and Jews in the courts of Roger and Frederick had seen the game of chess become well-known.

More important for understanding the sense of the detail in the Voynich map is that Rooks of the ‘swallowtail’ sort were known across those roads between Persia and Byzantium. In this summary I won’t repeat the matter I gained initially from fairly obscure sources. Instead, I can refer you to an article I found just a couple of days ago, but which was written in 2013. The next two images I have from that blogpost.


A find from Novgorod – again dated 14thC


It is not difficult to explain why the chesspiece should be associated with that mythical bird the rukh/roc by speakers of Arabic. Ancient sets had an elephant piece where we now have a bishop* and the roc’s chief character in legend is that it is stronger than elephants. In modern chess, a rook/rukh is worth 5 points where a bishop/elephant is worth only 3 – the rook being the stronger just as the rukh/roc was best known as the destroyer of elephants. 😀

*not, as is so often said, in place of the rook.

In western Europe, merlons – even the ‘swallowtail’ type – took various forms, but there can be little doubt that in the west the type consciously associates defensive military architecture with the character of game’s fortress-tower. The piece in the ‘kings game’ bore that significance long before we see the architectural version appear in Italy, associated with the Sicilian-Norman rulers as ‘Gibbeline/Ghibbeline’.

It would be pedantic to begin speaking of them as rukh-merli rather than ‘swallowtail’ or ‘fishtail merlons’ but it would probably be more historically accurate.

For our reading of the Voynich map, the point is that anyone who knew chess-pieces of that form, including non-Europeans, would easily take the form, and merlons in that form, to mean a fortress or fortified structure.

It would be common knowledge among those who travelled or spoke to travellers that some Latins preferred ‘rukh-merlons’ while others, like the Byzantines, used square merlons. And of course if one spoke an Italian dialect, there would be a reflexive association between rocco and rocca. It bears repeating that the fortress-drawing in the Voynich map includes merlons of both kinds.

Within Latin Europe itself, use of the ‘swallowtail’ in drawing could be literal, or might be purely decorative, but one hadn’t to go further west than the Black Sea to know that the Byzantines preferred the one, and the Latins the other, or that in Constantinople (among other places) the defenses in terms of manpower inclued of both Latins and Byzantines.

The history of the rukh-merli is a fascinating sidelight on the way motifs translate between various media and various regions and tongues, but that tiny detail in one roundel in one drawing, cannot tell us where even that detail was first drawn, let alone when or by whom or where our present manuscript was manufactured.

All we can say from the inclusion of those merlons is that the place being indicated was considered heavily fortified. And since my own conclusion after working through the whole map (a task which took an unexpectedly long time) is that the fortress is meant for Constantinople-Pera, it’s fair to mention that the walls of Byzantium were renowned for just that reason.

Postscript to Part 1 (added 17th March). I meant to include the following when speaking of sets associated with Charlemagne; I add illustrations and text as a jpeg to preserve the text.

The roads of chess and of merchants.

Our period of most interest is that century from the early fourteenth to the early fifteenth. The Voynich manuscript was dated to the early fifteenth century by an informed (if anonymous) consensus by Kraus et.al., and this confirmed by a radiocarbon-14 dating of some samples of the vellu which returned an adjusted range of 1405-1438 AD. For reasons explained above, though, our focus is on the century to c.1350 AD.

It may be difficult to accept, but throughout that century, western Christian Europe was no more than a remote marginal area lying at the western limit of the known world. It had almost no importance in the geopolitical scene, even in the Mediterranean where the major powers were the Mongol empire and the Mamluks of Egypt. Constantinople served as middleman in their negotiations and the western trader-states, chiefly Italian, were alternately encouraged or discouraged by the one or the other of the two major powers.

Europe had simply nothing much to offer, apart from its ships and some mercenaries. It is telling that Pegolotti’s guide to the overland route speaks of taking gold and silver coin, but when it comes to trading goods mentions nothing but linens and refers to only one place the trader was likely to find buyers,

Anyone from Genoa or from Venice, wishing to go to [these] places … and to make the journey to Cathay, should carry linens with him, and if he visit Organci he will dispose of these well.

The benefits gained by permitting westerners to pass along those roads was chiefly the benefit of taxation on what they brought, and what they returned with. The Mongol treasury also benefitted by acquiring western silver in the form of coinage, for as that guide says,

Whatever silver the merchants may carry with them as far as Cathay the lord of Cathay will take from them and put into his treasury. And to merchants who thus bring silver they give that paper money of theirs in exchange. This is of yellow paper, stamped with the seal of the lord aforesaid. And this money is called balishi; and with this money you can readily buy silk and all other merchandize that you have a desire to buy.

Nishapur, the old city founded by Shapur I, and where numerous chess-sets from the medieval centuries have been found, was a main hub of those overland routes travelled in both directions by many peoples under the Pax Mongolica and now, for the first time, including some from the Lain west as well as some enthusiastic religious. Though the Genoese and Franciscans appear most often in the historical record, there were some Venetians, and Sienese, and others.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Franciscans’ Rule included a twelfth chapter treating of missions “among the Saracens and other infidels” and assigning their oversight to the order’s Societas Fratrum Peregrinantium propter Christum inter gentes.

We know that before 1350, some Latins had already come to know Amaliq, and that news travelled fairly rapidly from so far to parts of Europe. Frescos made in Siena before 1350 memorialise the execution in 1339, in Amaliq and by the Mongol ruler Jehan Ali, of six resident Franciscans together with a visiting a bishop, an Indian interpreter and a Genoese merchant, the last of whom may have been using their friary as his hostel.

On those Sienese paintings see:

  • S. Maureen Burke, ‘ The “Martyrdom of the Franciscans” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 65. Bd., H. 4 (2002), pp. 460-492. Lorenzetti was active c.1317 to 1348 AD.

I mention Amaliq in particular for a detail seen in a drawing now found on the reverse of the Voynich map and a coin that was circulating in that part of the world from the end of the thirteenth century. This isn’t new information for longer-term readers; it was published at Voynichimagery*, but for those who have come to this blog more recently.

FIG 10

Opinions (as you see) differ on its minting but the point for us is that it circulated before 1350 and is unusual in having the tamgar drawn in a graceful form likely to evoke for a modern, western viewer the French fleur-de-lys.

That coin and comparison to a detail in Beinecke MS 408 was introduced by the present author in January of 2015.

Steve Album attributes that coin’s design to the Taras mint and a date between 1270-1302; Kolbas appaently associates its use with Fars and identifies the tamgar as an unusual form of the imperial tamgar. For reasons explained in my original post, but not repeated here, this coin does not appear to have been used in Fars, even if produced there. However, here is what Kolbas writes:

“”Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …..from mid-665H” [= 1247 AD].

Judith Kolbas, The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu (1220–1309) pp.149-50.

Nishapur, Fars, Amaligh and other places named so far in these posts lie along the overland ‘silk’ roads, Fars (mod. Fasa) on the road linking the high overland route to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

The following map shows the round-journey between the Mediterranean and China, but after 1291, access though the Levant was heavily restricted for Latins. Some of these roads had been travelled by Alexander the Great when he advanced through Persia to the borders of India.

FIG 11

Below – places which have cropped up so far in this blog, in the course of analysing one drawing or another from Beinecke MS 408.

FIG 12 map based on the ‘Silk Roads’ map offered as a pdf by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the extreme right of the map above lay Amaliq, where one might have heard Italian spoken early in the fourteenth century.

FIG 13 – courtesy google maps and wiki ‘Amaliq’ article.

Rather than quote from my research sources for the next paragraph, I’ll paraphrase:

Before the mid fourteenth century, Amaligh was a multi-cultural and multi-lingual city. During the so-called Pax Mongolica, Europeans making the journey towards China would stop here. Inscriptions prove that among the various cultural and religious groups found in Amaligh to that time were Nestorian Christians, attested even so late as the third quarter of the fourteenth century.

Giovanni de’ Marignolli speaks of it as ‘Armalec’ and similar forms are found in other Latin works, but as with all place-names, would-be translators have an unenviable task.

When Tughluq Temur became Khan of Moghulistan ( c. 1351) the city became less diverse. Plague soon followed, and when to those factors were added the weakening of the western Mongol-Tatar dynasty, the high overland routes became effectively closed to peoples from the far western edge of the known world.


Who, by the mid-fourteenth century, might be in position to represent defensive walls by merlons of the square and the ‘swallowtail’ type?

Answer: just about anyone with access to the Black Sea or the Mediterraean.

Easterners need have gone no further than the Black Sea (Caffa) to know the Latin ‘Ghibelline’ type resembled the chess rook and no further than Trabizond or Constantinople to know the Byzantine-, square, or ‘Guelf’ type. Both Latins and Byzantines were resident in greater Constantinople and some Latins had interacted with others across the trade routes to as far as China.

A far more telling detail is that sparkling spiral by which the fortress is placed, but that’s another detail, another part of the research into this drawing and so a matter for some other time, perhaps.

To end.. Yet another variety of ‘swallowtail’ merlon.

FIG 14

Reprint – Towers and swallowtails. North emblem and north roundel.

The pictures – all the images appear for me, whether in edit mode or preview or on posting, but it seems that a fair few in this post have not appeared for readers. If you have a problem, just let me know and I’ll reformat them.

The author’s rights are asserted.

What follows is a shorter version of a post from ‘Voynich Annotated News’, October 25, 2021 entitled, ‘Correcting an Identification in my analysis of the voynich map’. It was a summary of work undertaken over several years, and I’m only reprinting this summary-of-a-summary of my research to save time in treating the map’s North roundel, North emblem as examples of the current groundhog-day in regard to the ‘Merlons’ theme.

As ever, you’re welcome to use and quote any of what follows, so long as you allow your own readers to read and evaluate the original from which you’ve taken it. They are entitled to know how information entered the study of this manuscript, and fudging credits denies them their right to weigh and evaluate arguments and evidence. It’s churlish behaviour and the sole cause of this ‘groundhog’ day phenomenon that has developed since the early 2000s. The excuse of theft as a form of ‘checking’ is rubbish. Just direct your chosen ‘second’ to the source you want evaluated. That’s how it’s done.

I’ve cut a little from the 2021 post, but have added a couple more images and notes, re-numbered the Figures and since it’s a very long post, I’ll wait a while before making another post here.


The 2021 post

Apart from hoping it may assist someone work on the written text, I’m reprinting this as a quick way to provide a broader historical perspective on the ‘swallowtail’ motif used in more than one place in the Voynich map.

As I explained when publishing summaries from the full analytical study, walls of such a type had quite a long history in map-making and in that context signified the limit or boundary of empire – all within the empire or the barrier through which one passed into the power of an emperor – and not merely a western or Christian empire.

In the Voynich map, the best known instance has come to be called a ‘Castle’ and is found in the North roundel.

Eventually, after a lengthy period of research and despite a couple of false starts, I was able to conclude from the primary document and numerous other sources, topographic, documentary, archaeological and iconographic, that the maker meant it as a token for Constantinople-Pera and that this North Roundel was part of the map’s final recension, or recensions which I date through the period 1330-1350. I’ll reprise some of that matter later in the post; some of my sources were published with the original study-summaries from 2010-2015 are are not repeated here.

Of especial interest is that during the twelfth century, the Jewish author known as Benjamin of Tudela visited Constantinople and Pera, noting that the Karaite and the Rabbinic Jews lived outside Constantinople proper, in separate, walled, areas and with only a communicating gateway. The area was Pera (Galata) and would then be initially then shared by, and later given into the control of, the Genoese. The following drawings show the area after the Genoese had built (or rather re-formed) its tower.

FIGS 1, 2.

[2023] – I add two more drawings from the full analytical study. The first is an effort at literal landscape yet shows that Constantinople and Pera might be conflated in drawing, even if named separately. The second shows how, in fifteenth century Italy, a token image for Constantinople understands that the ‘swallowtail’ can serve as a generic sign for ‘imperial boundary’.

FIG 3. – French galleys of Captain Polin in front of Pera at Constantinople in August 1544.

FIG. 4 Detail from a copy of Gregorio Dati’s Sfera, National Library of Helskini. Italian, 15thC

I’ll come back to the Pera (Galata) Tower and the North roundel a bit later. At the moment the point is that I think this custom of separate enclaves for Karaite and Rabbinic Jews was one brought by those communities themselves, and while I find no evidence of such customs in Cairo (for example) it gives us added reason to accept the possibility that the same custom had obtained further north in earlier centuries and during what I shall describe very vaguely as the Khazar period.

The ‘North’ emblem

Above that North roundel in the Voynich map we have a detail whose earlier tentative identification is the one I now [2021] want to expand/emend. This emblem used for ‘North’ is quite unlike the other three emblems used for the map’s cardinal directions in being neither impersonal nor pure formality,* but representing a place which was presumably the one furthest north known to the original maker. (Fig. 5)

*the rising and the sinking sun mark east and west; ‘south’ is denoted by a very old sign for the under-world (as the world below the ocean). These three I explained and documented in earlier-published research summaries and won’t repeat it all here.


A casual glance naturally suggests to eyes familiar with the customs of Latin medieval art, the tripartite division of Isidore’s ‘T-O’ diagram of the whole world, but the impression is soon dispelled when the details are considered. I’ve already treated this matter, but it will be useful to repeat the essentials here.

Two arcs of what I’ve called (for want of a better term) palisades denote the boundary of a central area which is divided into three parts with one twice the size of the other two – these being more or less equal in area. The wider world represented by the map is linked to this place by two types of road, or perhaps better, one road and one pathway.

The one is drawn as a wide, high-road, literally a ‘high-way’ because it is shown as being on an embankment, something which suggests to my mind an area prone to flooding or to other natural events likely to make a ground-level road impassable. The smaller and lesser track is drawn, instead, like a rutted cart-track though adorned with pattern found seen elsewhere in the manuscript and evidently serves as a token for for ‘water’ or ‘-of water’. These features are labelled in FIG 6.

FIG. 6

I’ve also drawn a red ring around something which appears to lie at the foot of the embankment, or to have been used (as rubble?) for the embankment’s base. It looks rather like a single ‘swallowtail’ – but whether the maker intended this detail to convey that idea, or whether it’s an accident or drawing or had some other significance, I’m unable to say.

I now have reason, however, to refine my view of the smaller, rutted-looking ‘water’ path, which I had read as reference to some path through marshy ground, or a ford, but more recent information allows me to suggest that it actually denotes a rough path by which women or servants went out to fetch water. We might speak of it, then, as the women’s gate or the servants’ entrance.

The primary document allowed me too to define fairly well the area in which this furthest-known ‘North’ site must have lain, and to suggest that either Old- or New- Serai might be meant. I’ll reprise that matter further below but the point of this post is to add two other possible sites, in the same area, and both of which have been identified as Sarkel. One is now underwater; the other lies relatively close and since debate continues among archaeologists, this other site is diplomatically described as “the Tsimlyansk’s right-bank fortress”.

Thanks to the work of a seventeenth-century scholar named Ivan Satsyperov, we have a description and groundplan of the first site as it was before the the construction of a new dam in the 1950s made of it ‘Sarkel-the-drowned’. In the words of a modern archaeologist it had been “the most perfect of all the known white-stone fortresses of the Khazar Kaganate.” Sarkel is recorded as having been a Khazar capital and bricks found during excavations included some inscribed with what archaeologists call ‘Turkic’ tamgars. It should be emphasised, however, that the language and culture of the Khazars has left little trace in the historical or in the archaeological record; insufficient to allow any coherent argument that (for example) Voynichese is Khazar.

Even by the medieval centuries, Sarkel had lost something of its native character, being provided with walls and battlements in Byzantine style under the advice and direction – as it is thought – of Byzantine engineers.


Here is the seventeenth-century groundplan.

FIG. 8

FIGs 7 and 9 should make clear the site’s position in relation to the medieval Genoese trading ‘colony’ of Caffa, the Genoese presence in the Black Sea becoming rapidly more pronounced and extensive from about 1291, when loss of the old Crusader-held ports in the Holy Land, combined with a deserved antagonism from Mamluk Egypt, had all but lost the Genoese their access to the eastern trade. The high overland road east from the Black Sea offered an alternative route and one which, for a while, they succeeded in having as their monopoly in terms of Latin competition.

Caffa was not the only Genoese holding around the Black Sea but was probably the most important, and there too we still find evidence of ‘swallowtail merlons’ though just who built them is uncertain. Caffa was still, as it had been since the time of the Greeks and Romans, in an area where many peoples, languages and cultures came together.

As most readers will know, it was to be from Caffa, in ships flying in mid-winter for home in January of 1348, that plague would come to both Genoa and Venice.

Note: the wiki map (FIG 7, above) places Trebizond incorrectly. This shown below is correct (FIG 9). The red marker shows the location of the Sarkel(s).

FIG. 9

(For more detailed information about the Byzantine-Persian update to Ptolemy’s Tables, termed the ‘Persian syntaxis’, which emerged from work done out of Trebizond by two Byzantine scholars during the ‘Mongol century’ when Sarai (or Serai) served as the Mongol administrative capital, see source-materials and references in earlier posts to voynichrevisionist).

FIG. 10 Access to the Black Sea required permission from Constantinople and the Latin (western Christian) centres were not much employed until after 1290. For some decades Venetian access was actively opposed by the Genoese, who had gained favoured nation status in Byzantium by their refusal in 1204 to take any part in the Latins’ rape of Constantinople.

I’m not trying to argue that the Voynich map’s ‘North emblem is any careful portrait of any one of these four fortified sites. What I hope to show is that the evidence of the North roundel and of the North emblem are consistent with the historical, pictorial and archaeological evidence and neither contradicts the other [in terms of the map, overall].

In that part of the world, at a time when Latins were trading through the Black Sea after the loss of Acco, and some were taking the ‘highway’ towards the east from this region, the sites of the two Sarkels, and of the Mongol’s New Serai are found established by a river, some certainly divided into three parts, and having a main entrance towards the highway with a lesser path, unpaved than thus rutted, which emerges from an adjacent boundary and leads to the water.

Here is an archaeologists’ reconstruction of what might be termed the ‘Sarkel layout’.

FIG 11

http://sarkel.ru/istoriya/donskie_kreposti_hazarii_byloe_i_nastoyawee_valerij_flyorov/ and see also Mikhail Artamonov

The relation between the two closely-adjacent Khazar sites and the later Mongol site of New Serai can be seen from the following map, though I’ve had to take this on trust from a wiki site, so it should be treated with a little caution.

For information about the two Khazar fortresses, I am indebted to Valerij Flyorov, whose article can be read at ‘sarkel.ru’.

FIG. 12

We know that between Serai and the Genoese-held enclave of Caffa, there was frequent contact even after the advent of Plague and to as late  as 1380-82, four decades later.  

Ciocîltan, for example, speaks of it when arguing that the several treaties with, and substantial concessions made by, the Tatar Il-Khans to the Genoese were largely due to the Tatars having to concentrate on a drawn-out campaign against the Russians.

the third Genoese-Tatar treaty served the same end. Tatar relations with the Genoese in 1381-2 were thus subordinated to Russian concerns and developed very smoothly, as proven by frequent Caffan contact with the authorities in Solkhat and with the imperial capital in Serai.

  • Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (Brill. 20120). p.234. 

Serai can be described in modern terms as the capital of an empire, but for medieval Europeans and Byzantines one suspects designation of ‘imperium’ implied antiquity and ancient civilization, such as that associated with Memphis, Alexandria, Rome or Constantinople itself. 

The Voynich map’s North roundel versus its North emblem.

Within the larger part of the Voynich map are various indications which have allowed me to date the map’s final recension and its North Roundel to the first half of the fourteenth century, and thus to the period known as the ‘Pax Mongolica’, the time when first Old Serai, and then New Serai, served as the Mongol administrative capital.

This same time saw the northern, overland routes eastward – the so-called ‘Silk roads’ – which had always been traveled by groups of merchants, finally see Latin faces among the many different peoples who used those roads linking the Black Sea to China.

A guide was written around 1335-1343 on behalf of a Venetian banking company describes the practicalities of travel and trade along one of the northern routes between the Black Sea and China and recommends the trader hire in Sarai a dragoman able to speak Cuman – from which we learn that a language of which today little trace remains was, in the mid-fourteenth century, a lingua franca spoken across thousand of miles.

That reference to Sarai (or Serai) is in Pegolotti’s Pratica della mercatura.

The two SARAIs (SERAIs)

I see today that the wikipedia entry has been greatly expanded and much improved since I first published the post, so now (2023) I’m leaving out much of what I wrote in this section, including several of the maps.

Instead see: ‘Sarai‘ (wikipedia)

When I did the research itself (in the 2010s), I had no idea that there was a film in the making which would require a reconstruction of one of the Serai sites as it had been during the Mongol century. I don’t vouch for the accuracy of the reconstruction, but note her that it also shows a walled area near water, with a lesser track (just visible on the left) down to the river and a high road upon an embankment – just visible to the extreme right. Enlarging the image will allow you to identify it by the white car which is seen on a road that had been a postal Highway even before the days of Alexander the Great. I assume that the various tracks in the foreground have been made for the movie crew’s four-wheel drives. I suspect – though evidence is wanting – that the medieval site is actually the high ground which you see with some sparse vegetation and a broader expanse of white sand or soil visible. Film-crews are not usually permitted to build new structures on genuine archaeological sites.

FIG. 13. Photo credit: macos.livejournal.com

More photos of the reconstructed site, including the ‘beehive’ roofs of a kind we usually associate with hot, dry sites such as Harran and Edessa in Syria, or with Africa.

The two (or three) SARKELs

Koen Gheuens’ current project.

Added note (26th Feb. 2023). What are now usually called ‘swallowtails’ in Voynich-related dicussions are technically described as ‘fishtail’ merlons.

Indirectly I owe to Koen Gheuens my revision of the earlier identification for the North emblem. I was trying to find again the website on which the following structure from Sicily was described as having the oldest known example of ‘swallowtails’ in the Latin (western Christian) world, was said to be known locally as ‘Sarkel’ and had been erected on the foundations of an old Phoenician temple. This was part of research I’d done in 2010-12 and while I never did find the Sicilian site again – it had evidently been since taken down, hunting for the term ‘Sarkel’ led me to the northern sites. Here’s the photo copied from that site. Credits absent, for obvious reasons.

FIG. 14

SARK – ‘ and ;NORTHERN TONGUESjust notes and some musings from a non-linguist’.

Following a storm of three (3) emailed protests about the post’s being so long, I’ve shortened it by more than 1200 words by removing these sections. I haven’t bothered renumbering the Figures. (March 1st., 2023).

BACK TO MERLONS – Asia minor and back to Sicily.

The fortifications shown below are from Semina, off the coast of what was once Lycia. The Turkish government says it was made by Byzantines, though by ‘Byzantines’ they may mean Armenians.

FIG. 15

Other sources describe the fortifications in Simena castle as “erected by the Knights of Rhodes atop earlier fortifications” but no-one knows certainly or attempts to say when that may have happened, or what the precedent fortifications looked like.

For its link to Armenia, I added to the 2021 post a little from an research post which had been published in my first, blogger blog called ‘Findings’.

I include this matter again because the research contributed much to my work on the manuscript and investigation of the Voynich map (between 2010-c.2013).

I found no other reference anywhere in Voynich studies at that time to travellers’ accounts or to merchants and their documents and handbooks. The idea that the manuscript might not be entirely a product of western Christian Europe was treated as laughable and in fact it was not by reasoned argument but by ridicule – because he considered an Asian language possible for Voynichese – that Jorge Stolfi was effectively driven out, and despite Jacques Guy’s best efforts in an article written for the old Times’ educational supplement.

In particular I found no reference made to the Franciscans – and nothing about Odoric of Pordenone, Hugo the Illuminator, Symon Semeonis or John of Montecorvino.. My experiences since then leave me in little doubt that while the content of my research-summaries has gone to swell other Voynichero sites and writings, it will be a rare and marvellous day when original contributions receive accurate documentation by theorists.

However – while Odoric of Pordenone;s account is lived a bit late for us, and Hugo the Illuminator – who set out with Symon Semeonis – died in Egypt on the outward journey, the link with Armenia comes about because we hear from John of Montecorvino, the first Latin Franciscan missionary to China, that part of his preparation involved study in Armenia. We have only one extant source which includes comments by Odoric about his journey and that comes rather late, but it does include a reference to the language of Armenian which, apparently, Odoric had already studied to some extent. (My source here is Yule and the Silk Road Seattle site): .

At Polumbrum [in India], the commander of the ship said to me in the Armenian language, which the rest of the people on board did not understand, that unless we could procure a favourable wind .. he would throw both us and the bones [of Odoric’s deceased fellows] into the sea. … But as the time passed on, and no wind came, I gave one of the bones to our servant, whom I ordered to go to the head of the ship, and cast the bone into the sea; which he had no sooner done, than a favourable gale sprung up, which never again failed us till we had arrived at our destined port in safety.

… I had earlier commented, still in the old blog:

.. Which just goes to show how persistent and conservative are the ways of mariners.

It is a bit surprising to find that (a) Oderic understood Armenian, and (b) that no-one else but the ‘commander’ – pilot – did. And in this case it is unlikely that the pilot himself was Armenian, though Armenian traders figure prominently in some later accounts of the trade routes.

In many cases the Armenians appear to favour the Roman rite even over that of the Greeks, and we hear that one Armenian king, Hethoum II (1266-1307), even abdicated in order to become a Franciscan monk.

from: D.N. O’Donovan, ‘John of Montecorvino and fol. 1r’, Findings, (30th. October 2011).

Montecorvino is said to have served as an adviser to the Sicilian Norman Frederick II before being commissioned to serve as a missionary to China and joining the Franciscan order.

Passing over the oldest, and the non-Latin examples of these fishtail merlons in Sicily, the earliest extant attributed to a ‘Norman’ occurs in what was still a mixed Byzantine-Islamic-Jewish culture in Sicily. (I sent this image to Koen in 2021, but he’d already included Carini).

FIG 15

FIG 17

We know that particular form was no invention of the newly-arrived Norman freebooters, because it occurs as a Persian-style ivory ‘tower’ chesspiece from Byzantium during in the same, twelfth, century. The rook is also called a ‘castle’.

Ornament of that form was best suited to easily-worked materials such as ivory, terracotta and clay, but a need to use bricks and stone seems to me a likely reason that the simpler ‘swallowtail’ began appearing in regions under Latin rule.

Ghibelline‘ merlons

In medieval Latin records, the usual terms are not ‘Guelf and Gibbeline’ but ‘Church/Papal party’ and ‘imperial party’ but we know the slang terms had popular currency in parts of western Europe when strife and partisanship were rife.

I suggest that the Latins – particularly in Italy – had adopted the style and the term from a Sicilian precedent. What I suspect is that the term had been originally pejorative, because the final and most persistent resistance against the Latins had been the mountains near a town called Gibellina.

The mountains themselves are sometimes described as the ‘Monti de Gibellina’ – as for example by Ian Lee in an article that you may not find otherwise helpful but which I happen to have by me. His map labelled Fig.1 – p.3) in.

Ian Lee, ‘Entella: The Silver Coinage of the Campanian Mercenaries and the Site of the First Carthaginian Mint 410-409 bc’, The Numismatic Chronicle, Vol. 160 (2000), pp. 1-66.[JSTOR]

Gibellina’ = Ghibelline.

Though the town of Gibellina (Sicilian: Jibbiddina, Arabic: “little mount” – جبل صغير) was obliterated by an earthquake in 1968, by then it was a “small city and commune in the Province of Trapani, the mountains of central Sicily, Italy”.* This region had offered the strongest resistance to the (Latin) Norman freebooters when they attempted to take the island and for its mixed Arab, Phoenician, and Byzantine character the term ‘Gibbeline’ or ‘Ghibelline’ I’d guess was initially a pejorative in the mainland, the courts of Roger and Frederick II being notorious for maintaining a multi-cultural court and this resulting several times in the rulers’ being formally excommunicated. it is understandable that, on the one hand, the Sicilian style ‘merlons’ would be adopted by Italy’s ‘imperial party’ called ‘Ghibelline’ by their opponents, but equally understandable if the imperial party should proudly adopt the term in daily speech as a matter of pride.

(A variant form of the ‘swallowtails’ occurs in North Africa, and is seen in Almeria).

In the Voynich map, the particular form given the old motif for ‘imperial boundary’* appears to me to maintains that traditional sense and while drawn carelessly, the instances seen in the Voynich map appear to me nearest the Sicilian-and-Latin form. *explained illustrated and documented in earlier posts to Voynichimagery.

Swallowtails and a different ‘White Tower’ – the GALATA TOWER

There is no need to assume such merlons were physically present in Constantinople and Pera, although the prominent presence in Pera of the Genoese and other foreign enclaves makes it possible. In my opinion, as I’ve said, the so-called ‘castle’ in the North roundel is a token for Constantinople and/or Pera. As I’ll explain below, the tower’s form in that case points to a last recension, one including the present North roundel for the first time, to c.1330-1350.

The sites around the Black Sea which served as Genoese ‘colonies’ were, like Pera, ‘imperial’ territory in the same sense that modern embassies, wherever located, are deemed the occupier’s native land. In this case, they were imperial twice over, Pera, Caffa and other such sites being under the protection of both the Byzantine and the Latin emperors.

So the great tower in the North roundel I take to be the Galata – the ‘milk-white” – Galata being an alternative name for Pera, to which both Karaite and Rabbinic Jews had been consigned for centuries before the Genoese were, first, permitted to reside there and subsequently given control of the whole area.

The great Tower of Galata is usually credited, too, to the Genoese, but this is not entirely correct. A Turkish government site provides the following information

FIG.18 The Galata in an early hand-painted postcard,

Galata Tower was first built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 507-508 AD. The Genoese rebuilt the current tower in 1348-49. Today, it is observed that the part of the building up to the third floor has a Genoese character and the other floors have an Ottoman character. 

The tower was later raised (1445-6). In the 1500s, after being damaged by an earthquake it was repaired by an architect named Murad bin Hayreddin. III, with bay windows added to the Turkish addition. Finally, after another fire (1831) two more floors were added and the present form of the roof made.

Thus, the version seen in the detail from the Voynich map agrees best with the form of the Galata tower though the period from 1348-9 to 1445-6.

A white horizontal line [of mortar] can be seen about four or five courses below the lowest line of arched windows, marking the end of the older Genoese levels, and start of the later Turkish work – as seen in the following details.

FIG 19 The Turkish additions.

FIG. 20 The mortar line is most obvious about four of five courses below the bay window on the right

Imperial’ merlons are found still in the old Genoese enclave of Caffa on the Black Sea, but whether used on the walls which the Genoese built for Pera (Galata) we do not know.

Postscript 2023:


O’Donovan Notes #11 .. despite howls of derision.

2300 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

I’ve commented recently on the fact that we do not know that the Voynich manuscript was made in western Christian (i.e. ‘Latin’) Europe, and since the vast majority of theoretical narratives, and assumptions made in analysing the written text, have taken a Latin origin as one of their unquestioned ‘givens’ the question deserves attention – attention which it would normally have received as the first question addressed by any potential buyer.

Among the arguments I’ve seen offered in that cavalier/commonsense tone which is so common in Voynich writings are that the manuscript is on membrane; that the ink is an iron-gall ink; that the writing proceeds from left to right and other comments which show that the speaker has never looked into the question of whether or not these things are characteristics uniquely European.

None is.

There is clear distinction between manuscripts inscribed with the quill, as against those inscribed using a pen. There are regions in which quires are more commonly composed of four, as against five or more bifolios, and regions where the binding-style is characteristic of a given period and region. The use of sewing-supports is characteristic of Latin and of Armenian manuscripts, but the current binding of the Voynich manuscript is a little problematic, as we’ve discussed in an earlier post. And apart from the use of flax rather than hide for its sewing supports, we have to make clear a distinction rarely recognised by Voynich writers – that is, between when matter in a manuscript is first enunciated, when a given volume containing that information was manufactured, and the amount of time which elapsed between quires’ inscription and their being bound together.

In some cases these periods may be short, while in others the gap between enunciation and the current inscription of a text, and between the inscription and binding the quires into a single block, may be hundreds of years – and the addition of an external cover can occur later still.

None of this information is new to codicologists or paleographers, specialists in medieval history or iconographic analysts, but one sees little thought spared for such things when a Voynich theorist begins hunting support for his/her ideas. Wilfrid Voynich again set the model. He thought the manuscript made in the thirteenth century, so he looked for a single thirteenth-century ‘author’.

Manuscript cultures from the pre-modern era – for convenience described here as prior to the mid-sixteenth century – have more in common than is realised by most Voynich writers.

Let another scholar speak to the point. Advocating development of a comparative approach in manuscript studies, here’s what Beit-Arie writes:

One may marvel at the force of the regularity and continuity revealed in the basic structures, production techniques, social, artisanal and intellectual functions, and the aesthetic principles embodied in mid- and late medieval codices throughout book civilisations in all cultures.

Be they codices inscribed in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Persian or Hebrew scripts, or in the less widespread Syriac, Coptic, Glagolitic and Cyrillic scripts – they all partake of the very same anatomy of the codex: common writing materials, similar proportions and formats, the analogous molecular structure of quiring achieved by the folding and stitching together of a regular number of bifolia, and the use of various means of markings in the margins ensuring the correct order of quires and bifolia.

The great majority of these codices would be set for copying by the laying out of the writing surface and by its ruling in a variety of techniques, most of them shared, functioning as a scaffold for the writing.

  • Malachi Beit-Arié, “The Advantages of Comparative Codicology: Further Examples,” in Jörg B. Quenzer, ed., Exploring Written Artefacts: Objects, Methods, and Concepts, vol. 1 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021), 395-404. (now available at academia.edu)

And here we come to another of the Voynich manuscript’s unusual characteristics. The bifolios do not appear to have been ruled out.

In some cases, where a text-block (a set of quires stitched together) has later been trimmed down during the course of binding or re-binding, one may find that if the ruling out was done by pricking, the prick-marks are lost, but this does not appear to have occurred in the case of Beinecke MS 408.

In some cases, the ruling-out was later erased, as it commonly was in Italian humanist works attempting to emulate the minimalism of Greek manuscripts – but some trace normally remains and none has been noted, so far as I’ve seen, by any informed commentator.

Other methods, which used a frame and wire leave some impression on the membrane, but neither have those signs been noted by anyone who has observed the manuscript at first-hand.

Such marks may exist, but from what has so far been said of the manuscript, the Voynich quires show, in their lack of ruling out, divergence from that norm found across all those manuscript cultures listed by Beit-Arié.

This doesn’t prove the manuscript was or wasn’t made in Latin Europe, or in some other region where Latin presence and influence was to be found but it offers a useful research question if you’re looking for one: When, where and in what context do we find membrane inscribed without ruling-out? taking c.1440 AD as end-date.

Form and Content

The habit of ignoring the manuscript’s form, while expecting to define the manuscript’s content by guesswork, statistics or by creating imaginative-hypothetical storylines is as old as Voynich studies itself. Among the innumerable bizarre meme-laws which circulated before Lisa Fagin Davis became publicly involved with the online Voynich community was one which advised newcomers that it was “unnecessary” to pay attention to Nick Pelling’s early emphasis on codicology … because it was “too complicated”. No, I’m not kidding. The quote marks really mark quotes among the many pronounced as if by authority and so so staggered me as a newomer in 2009 that I began compiling a list of them from that time.

In much the same way, it was asserted until relatively recently that the drawings’ interpretations “were all subjective” and, more to the point, that they could only be illustrations for the written text, because that was imagined normal for western Christian manuscripts and it was supposed commonsense to believe no other origin possible for either the first enunciation of the content or for the present manuscript’s manufacture.

On the importance of balancing evidence from the manuscript as material object, and from its contents, I’ll again let another scholar speak. To what follows, a couple of very minor adjustments have been made, but the original paper is linked below so you can check that.

Since a manuscript is a material artefact that is usually produced in order to preserve and transmit specific contents, its role within a manuscript culture must be considered in a twofold way: In terms of its content and in terms of its physical – that is, its material and visual – characteristics.

By content we refer to the information that is encoded in written texts, but also in images as well as other possible sign systems within a manuscript such as musical notation.

The physical characteristics comprise anything from the manuscript’s format and measurements, to the materials chosen as support for writing and painting, to the visual organisation of a manuscript, its decoration and the style of the script.

Content and its concrete physical instantiations can be, and have often been, conceptually distinguished and considered in isolation from each other, but in the production and use of a manuscript they are inextricably interrelated. The intended content of a manuscript is an important factor in determining what physical characteristics the manuscript producer(s) will choose.

(..and vice versa!! A manuscript’s physical characteristics indicate where, when and by whom the content was intelligible. – D.)

Perhaps now readers who have not troubled much with the issue of how we read evidence embodied in a manuscript’s physical characteristics will realise why such things matter and provide limits for the exercise of what is politely called historical imagination in Voynich studies. In passing, let me also commend the codicological studies by Wladimir Dulov.

It is not only a written text which is encoded, and just as imagination alone will not hand us the key to the way a written text is encoded or enciphered, so neither will it provide the key to the information embedded or encoded in the manuscript’s physical evidence – its materials and its drawings.

In fact, just as the material object of a manuscript may contain folios gathered across a range of time, and the content of the written text can reflect sources first enunciated many miles and many centuries apart from one another, so too the drawings have to be studied for signs of diverse origin and what I’ll call chronological strata.

As you’ll see by roaming through what is said and written online about this manuscript, there is a general habit of maintaining Wilfrid Voynich’s assumption that everything in the manuscript had a single author and was composed at the same time the quires were inscribed. For this idea there is no justification except, perhaps, the obvious fact that the manuscript’s appearance is so unlike the expected western-Christian-medieval that commentators defaulted to imagining an amateur its imagined Latin author.

In more recent times we have seen the work recognised as a compendium (one positive advance in the study overall during the past thirteen years). Very recently we have seen Fagin Davis confirm that the written text is not by one scribal hand, but by several. The same had been observed earlier by Currier, and that observation refined by Pelling as early as 2006, and further defined and refined now by Davis in her presentation to the zoom conference in 2022.

In theory, of course, a number of scribes might all have been copying sections from a single master-work, but against this is the fact that the drawings do display what I’ve called chronological layers, and distinctly different – diverse – iconological codes inform drawings between one section and another, to which we must add what appear to be late additions in darker ink by a hand which I should think a Latin Christian’s.

Some Voynich writers such as Reeds, Pelling and Neal have appreciated the importance of codicology while failing to test the long-established theoretical history for the manuscript. Others have simply treated everything but their own variation of the traditional story as negotiable and in this, I’m sorry to say, adherents of the German-central-European idea have been worst. When was pointed out by Pelling that one or more of the scribal hands appeared to be influenced by the humanist style – and humanist style does not appear in the north until later than the vellum’s date-range, so the manuscript’s dating was arbitrarily altered to suit a time when humanist script was introduced to German-speaking regions.

If that theory wanted to claim the leaf-and-root section spoke to Frederick II’s interest in alchemy, or that the containers in that section were German Christian ritual vessels, proponents would simply ignore the physical and historical limits set by the physical evidence or – more often – ‘adjust’ them by asserting that the date could be extended from the early fifteenth century to as much as the mid-sixteenth century.. or that if the vellum were too coarse for German manufacture that German makers could produce coarse vellum too, or that the vellum wasn’t really coarse at all – the latter idea accidentally lent support by the new Beinecke scans’ being so bleached that the evidence of follicles and roughened surfaces was virtually erased and with it – by the way – evidence of the palette’s yellow wash. The manuscript’s curious green stars became blue and so on. To those with only digital access, which is all but a very few, discussion of various folios where that pigment appears thereafter seemed nonsensical.

Very recently, after two palaeographers declined to support a theory of German ‘hands’, the grapevine says that the ‘central European’ theory is about to be tweaked and re-formulated yet again, now to become a German-Venetian-military-Dominican-Franciscan theory that will incorporate (with or without credit) work done by non-supporters of the Germanist theory, and I fear bring to the mix even a work of such appalling bigotry that the religious order whose medieval member wrote it passes it over in silence and in this is followed by most medieval historians, some of whom may mention its title but then pass over its contents for shame.

Still, these rumours about the Germanist theory Mark ?? are still only rumour and worth no more unless it turns up in public.

NEXT POST – more about the manuscript’s drawings and how theorists’ determined erosion of ethical standards and methods from the early 2000s turned Voynich studies into what Pelling once called the ‘Voynich groundhog day’ – when exactly the same work is being done over and over, with each newcomer left in the dark about all previous work and how many began from exactly the same assumptions, followed exactly the same flawed approach, and ended with the same result – an idea that the work supported a preferred theoretical narrative.

Our example for this phenomenon will be a single, very small detail found within one detail within the Voynich map. Detached from its context, this detail has been covered, re-covered, re-discovered and re-explored, by methods re-invented and re-applied and with the same basic errors for almost twenty years.

Until then, perhaps you’d like to apply your critical thinking to the following. It’s a series of isolated comments strung together as if it formed an historical argument reached by an impartial survey of the manuscript’s material and iconographic evidence.

Precisely these same assertions have been offered and repeated since, at least, 2008 and by so many that I see no reason to name-and-shame the latest person to have failed to carefully think about what they chose to believe. Here’s what that person wrote:

The most important illustrations are those that are most specific and unambiguous, and which can offer clues to provenance and/or subject matter.

Many aspects of the manuscript offer clues to geographical provenance in the southern German or northern Italian cultural regions. There are four instances of marginalia in an unknown German dialect. ‘rot’ and ‘r’ appear in plant roots (4r, 29r), and it seems unlikely that a non-author would make such annotations.

The final word of the charm on 116v is ‘maria’ with a superscripted cross between ‘a’ and ‘r’, which—in addition to the cross on 79v— indicates a Christian context.

The Zodiac illustrations bear well-known parallels with southern German manuscripts, which do not need repetition here. The crown on 72v1 resembles crowns of the Holy Roman Emperors and other Austrian royals, including a c. 1350 reliquary bust of Charlemagne possibly made for Charles IV; an archducal crown on a painting of Rudolf IV, duke of Austria (d. 1365); the imperial crown buried with Friedrich III (d. 1493)* observed using an endoscope; a coin of 1484 depicting Sigismund, archduke of Austria; and a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer depicting Maximilian I (d. 1519).

The swallowtail merlons on the Rosettes** castle and city walls tie the manuscript to southern-German or northern-Italian contexts, where such merlons predominated. Swallowtail merlons also appear in documents made in early fourteenth-century Venice, 1340s Zürich, Sankt Peter an der Schwarzwald in 1487, Nürnberg in 1493, and another catalogued as 1300s ‘probably German’.

*The person described by that writer as ‘Friedrich III ‘ (d.1493) is better known to historians as Frederick III, and is to be distinguished from the Emperor Frederick III of Prussia, and both from Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg.

** [ note expanded 22 Feb 2023]. ‘nine rosettes page’ is a term coined by Nick Pelling in discussing a drawing subsequently analysed in detail by the present author over the period from 2011-2014 and which was shown to be a map. Overall, the conclusions of that analysis -were incompatible with any all-Latin-Christian or any German-imperial-sixteenth century theory (as the latter then was), and to this day supporters of the latter refer either to Pelling’s term ‘rosettes page’ or credit one of the several subsequent authors who attempted to create some alternative map-related interpretation which would conform to a Eurocentric theory. As was said in my earlier post on this motif, Mary d’Imperio, in her book The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma (1978) p.21 used the term rosettes and says the structure “resembles a castle”.

Such habits are why the Voynich manuscript’s study devolved so rapidly, from about 2010, into a series of groundhog days unless concerned with statistical and linguistic analyses of the written text. Little attention was paid to the manuscript’s codicology after Pelling’s work, until the Yale Facsimile edition (edited by Clemens) was made available in print.

Tents etc.

c.2700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

This will surely seem like a cop-out to some less than amiable readers, but I’ve now re-read the ‘Pegs, Poles and Parasols’ series posted to my first, Blogger, blog way back in 2011.

I had forgotten just to what extent that series was part of a single, continuous, preliminary survey of the manuscript and that for readers to make any sense of that section in isolation I should have to spend hours filling out all the allusions made in those posts to work earlier presented – and over a period of a couple of years. There’s also the problem that I began writing research summaries presuming readers would have a kind of background which, it soon emerged, most did not. And by speaking as if to people who had already a solid knowledge of certain period and regions, I was making little sense to those who did not.

So, for example, I see that in one post of that series, while discussing the form of the ‘peg’ which occupies the centre of the oddly chomped-looking canopy motif, I focused on tracing use of that motif over time and what it indicated about intended meaning and, incidentally, time and place of first enunciation. My comparisons come from historical images, and from archaeology, and contextualise by those means the use of unclothed figures and the significance intended for them, as well as the linguistic ‘key’ to that significance and implications in practical terms for understanding the drawings, particularly those on folio 75r on f.79v.

There’s also the complication created when the Beinecke decided that instead of expecting scholars to conform to its pagination, it would alter its pagination to suit that created by the first mailing list members and thus enshrined in voynich.nu. I cannot think of another great library which has been so accommodating, but it did mean that rather a mess was made of the work of scholars who had used the Beinecke’s pagination. It also means that to reprint my work I must go through it and change all the folio references – which I’m not inclined to do. In the post which follows entitled …’and narrow compass’ I’ve left the original Beinecke pagination of f.86v for the Voynich map, because the newer pagination is impossibly cumbersome and, to my mind, less intelligent a way to describe a single drawing covering all of one side of a single large sheet.

But there is some positive news. I’ve decided instead to reprint a more recent post – no older than 2015 – and hope it may still hold some interest for readers.

“… and narrow compass”

first published through Voynichimagery blog Jan. 3rd., 2015.

This continues from a preceding post, but since including the text of two posts would make this (2023) one far too long, this one will do. Wordpress does permit me to make a complete cut and paste copy of the original blogpost with all its illustrations, but won’t let you see the illustrations if I do that. So the text alone I’ve copied-and-pasted direct from the original post, but I’ve had to re-open, copy and then re-inserted all the illustrations. I hope this won’t reduce their quality and have made them all jpeg.

[Original post begins, continuing from a previous one…]

A query kindly offered me by Sir Hubert then led me, via a number of other Psalters, to one from the thirteenth century known as the Psalter-Offices of Joffroy d’Aspremont, where there is an image – not reproduced online as far as I can discover – showing a woman with an aspergillum, or sprinkler.

* Aspergillus would be correct in classical Latin, and is sometimes but not invariably seen in clerical Latin.

But thence to another thirteenth-century manuscript, the ‘Chanson d’Aspremont’* (1230-1240) where on folio 10v I was amazed to see two pictures of a conical tent made rather like some handle-less umbrella, and quite without any addition which would give the inhabitant elbow-room.

*(BL Lansdowne 782 Chanson d’Aspremont fol 10v) .

Here are those images. One shows the tent being erected, the other as it looked with a person seated within.

It takes a most unusual form, very different from the normal kind of pavillion tents that are everywhere seen in medieval imagery of festivals, wars or pleasure gardens. Those I expect you know well enough, but if you don’t object to having to log on to a site, you can see them here in the tenth-century Prudentius manuscript  (Burgerbibliothek Bern Cod. 264) folio 65.

It is possible that what we are seeing in this case is the top or ‘umbrella’ section of an ordinary pavilion, erected as immediate cover for generals and kings, but I’ve seen no documentary evidence that this was ever done. If you have, please leave a note.

Postscript 28 Feb. 2015: Well, nobody stopped to leave a note, but I did hear on the grapevine that this picture sent many rushing to the Utrecht Psalter. That doesn’t actually solve the problem of origins, because the style of that Psalter, as you may know, is anything but typical of Latin Christian works even though it has become iconic for many historians of Germany’s gradual conversion to Christianity. To quote a wiki article (because it’s right on this point):

Many of the Frankish aristocracy followed Clovis in converting to Christianity, but the conversion of all his subjects occurred after considerable effort and in some regions over the next two centuries.

There’s a Brit.Lib. cataloguer’s comment that the king in that conical tent may be meant for Charlemagne, though the Normans and not Charlemagne made the fleur-de-lys an heraldic symbol for Christian royalty. The design is very interesting – not unlike that which pictured below, from Giotto’s “Presentation of the Christ at the Temple”.

detail from frescos in the Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel)’s series of 19 scenes from the life of Christ. Painted 1304-1306 by Giotto. This angel appears in Scene 3: ‘the Presentation of Christ’

However – still on the point of that tent – the Utrecht Psalter shows several. Here are two examples:

The king’s war-tent is surmounted by a single cross.

As explanation of the royal sceptre the whole ‘oriflamme’ story as seems a bit of a red herring to me, and the nasty looking weapon which is seen in a ninth century mosaic as support for the  oriflamme looks to me as if meant to represent that soldier’s lance which pierced Christ’s side – hence signifying death –  the oriflamme signifying rather the promise of resurrection: Christ’s surviving death and so forth. Immortality despite mortality sort of thing. It’s a pike of some sort I’d say, but not a flower of any sort. The Petrine line governed peace, the royal line war. Or, of course, the mosaicist may have erred; the design becomes a bit confused at that point.

In fact, I erred in being too definite, too soon. Some additional remarks on the subject are included in  [another blogpost..] ‘Chronological strata revisited. ” but I have not changed my mind that what we see in folio 85v-1 is not a fleur-de-lys.

Whatever the case, by the thirteenth century there’s nothing unusual about a king or emperor holding a fleur de lys. Here it is associated with Frederick II of Sicily, who may have introduced it as a Norman motif by way of a pun on Lilybaeum.

What is rare is that conical tent in the ‘Chanson d’Aspremont’ manuscript, and  its being a vernacular and temporary structure, there’s little chance of determining any original time or place for its first use.

Anybody could ‘invent’ something of the sort by tossing a cloak over some bean-stakes or over a stook, but it is not seen in much formal medieval art. In this case, datable evidence dates the datable evidence, not the object pictured, but other evidence is  negligible.  Which is not to say but that, by discovering any significance acquired for it, we may be able to learn more about these pictures. I suppose readers have guessed why I’m going into thirteenth century depictions of a conical tent which look like an umbrella …

It’s those intermediate roundels on folio 86v which, like the new sort of maritime charts I’ve mentioned, evoke and/or  employ intersecting radial lines as indications of direction, distance and time. Might they also (on folio 86v) represent places – perhaps major hubs of the older routes?

I think it worth mentioning, in that context, that in Latin works the tent was a well-known image of the heavens  -a motif well known to the west by reference to Biblical literature and to the east because most of the western Bible came from the eastern side of the Mediterranean, whose history culture and customs it reflects. So:

 ”[It is] he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof [are] as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:” Isaiah 40:22

which seems to me to equate the teeming hordes of people with pests, while also reminding us that the Feast of Tents (Sukkot) was when eastern, and Jewish,  people lived out of their homes –  originally in the fields in temporary shelters that are termed Sukka (s.) in the Hebrew and in Latin tabernaculum (s), though the Latin means both a tent and a repository of sacred bread.

In the Latin west, the idea of  ‘tabernaculum’ became inflated – or elaborated – though religious comment and homily, apparently beginning with Eusebius (‘from the east’) and following him,  by Cassiodorus.   On their treatment of it, I’d recommend readers to Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought,  though I do want to quote her on one point:

The Tabernacle and Temple of the Lord was formed according to heaven’s pattern [ad instar caeli fuisse formatum] which, painted skillfully in its proper configuration [depicter subtiliter lineamentis propriis]…

(op.cit., p.235)

I’m now considering whether there’s any evidence of such thinking in the three ‘canopy’ roundels on folio 86v, though if so, I will have to re-consider whether the marker I’ve suggested is Avignon mayn’t be a setting-out point rather than the terminus.  These canopies are certainly given the heavens’ ornaments of stars and/or winds, though as I read them, these are three only of what were originally four such – the one posited for the North West having been filled instead with the matter originally set North, this in order that the North roundel might include that ‘mini-map’ showing critical points in the Mediterranean, none of which had been part of the original map.

 BELOW: Upper register:  North-East ‘canopy’ (left); South-East ‘canopy’ (right).  lower register: South-West ‘canopy’ (left); North-West roundel (right) – the last depicting the Black Sea(?) and the overseeing ‘Angel of the Rose’.

At much the same time that Eusebius and Cassiodorus expanded on the theme of the tabernaculum, we have the extraordinary Gregory the Great (expounder of the astronomical imagery in the Book of Job) dilating on the same theme, but showing now how the resident within might be at once protector of the ‘good seed’ and supervisor of mass slaughter as “sacrifice”.  This does seem to me a closer mindset to that imagery from the Chanson d’Aspremont.

Note: On Gregory the Great and tabernacula, see Flora Spiegel’s excellent paper, ‘The tabernacula of Gregory the Great’ in Volume 36 (2008) of Malcolm Godden, Simon Keynes (eds.), Anglo Saxon England.  Spiegel notes the importance of two more Biblical passages: Deuteronomy 16:13-16 and 31:10.

To see how just how unusual a conical tent is in the context of the Latin medieval west, one need only survey imagery in other surviving manuscripts. The following panorama shows the most common types, while the next illustration (from Cresques’ worldmap in the Atlas Catala) shows Bedu or ‘Moorish’ tents in the fourteenth century.

By the way, Cresques had some fairly technical astronomical lore at his fingertips too. His mounted figure in that detail (above) alludes to Perseus on his ‘unbridled’ steed, al Kumait, gripping the whip of the Pleiades as some versions had it. ‘Heaven-and-earth’ correspondences are perfectly natural for the older ways of navigation and mapping, a habit lost and the two formerly complementary disciplines divorced as quick-and-dirty aids such as the sextant became prevalent.

Though associated with Jews, the teepee-like structure drawn by Niccolo dell’Abbate (here) seems to be a product of his sixteenth-century imagination or perhaps of some report about the Americas and their supposedly containing descendants of Israel’s lost tribes. dell’Abbate lived from 1509/1512 until 1571.

Much better informed, naturally enough, is the late fourteenth century Jewish manuscript below. Thought made in Bologna or Rimini and dated to 1375 (roughly the same time as the Atlas Catala).  (Brit.Lib. MS Or 5024, folio 70v).

So it looks as though the Jewish festival booth, the sukkah is not the inspiration for those spread ‘canopies’ in folio 86v. While we’re here, though, you’ll see that pictured below it is a figure holding the Lulav, borne throughout the days of Sukkot, though he is holding  one element of it – the etrog – in his hand.  As I’ve explained in more detail  elsewhere, I think folio 19r in MS Beinecke 408 also shows a version of the Lulav. When I first wrote about it, and even when republishing thepost, I was troubled by the colour of the flower, but I do not think it so  problematic now.  The centre is not coloured and most citrus flowers, including the etrog’s,  have a blue-to-purplish exterior, so the colour is reasonable enough, given that anything closer to the purple-to-black range would never be shown so in the Vms.

Flowers of the etrog, or citron medica. I think the flower pictured in the Vms (fol. 19r) is a substitute for the etrog;  possibly s citron- scented day-lily native to the western Ghats.

Jews living where the etrog would not grow must surely have substituted another lemon-like fruit or lemon-scented flower in their lulav.  I’ve so far found no record of how more distant Jewish communities dealt with the matter and any help from readers on this point would be much appreciated.

Back to tabernaculum etc. for a moment.

Medieval manuscripts from England to Armenia show imagery in which a parallel reference is maintained to the tabernaclum as both tent and portable shrine.   Here’s a three-dimensional example from the twelfth century. A Christian object.  From Cologne.

Such forms did not originate in Europe; a reliquary made a thousand years before, in what is now Afghanistan, is so strongly reminiscent of early Anglo-Norman works that one blinks to recognise here a Buddhist work.

Here’s the Brit. Mus. description of it [the Bimaran reliquary].  Please pay no attention to captions on images of the object that refer to it ‘Scythian treasure’. The object was found in northern Afghanistan (as it now is), in the old Gandharan region, near Jalalabad, in Stupa no. 2. It is associated with the ‘Scythian treasure’ from Kul Oba chiefly by the perfection of its technique.

Postscript (February 17th., 2023)

Readers may be curious about my reference to the lulav and Sukkot, but by 2015 I had been noting and commenting on details which appeared to me indicative of some form of Jewish community, if not necessarily either Karaite or Rabbinic. No one else had suggested any such thing and my comments sank like stones at that time. From 2013 I had been able to gain the advice and assistance of a number of eminent scholars including one whose area of specialisation was medieval Jewish palaeography. However, when a book appeared co-authored by Zandbergen, Prinke and Skinner, in which was contained an evident attempt to duplicate or create an ‘alternative’ as a means to pre-empt my publishing that work, and contained an essay which struck me and my kind advisors as a parody of all I’d produced until then – not only a parody but one offensive for its ignorance as much as for its errors, so they declined any further involvement with Voynich studies and I, myself, finding that travesty the final straw, soon afterwards closed off Voynichimagery from the public.

I could, and can, accept that Skinner and Prinke might not have followed Voynichimagery and may have been left entirely in the dark about my seven years’ work to that time.

Internalism & defining ‘notebook’.

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

I promised to re-print a series called ‘Pegs, Poles and Parasols’ and other material on motifs addressed more recently by Cary Rapaport and Koen Gheuens at the 2022 zoom conference.

That will have to wait a bit longer, because those posts were written about a decade ago and reprinting past contributions isn’t as interesting for me as what’s happening now. It also means having to point out, yet again, that citing as reference the inclusion of matter in voynich.nu is about as helpful as quoting from a doco made for the History channel. Quick info., good in parts, but not an original source.

My chief interest these days – and the reason for beginning this blog – has been to understand how the study of this one manuscript – Beinecke MS 408 – diverged very early from the normal course of manuscript studies and during the early twenty-first century finally went ‘rogue’, with assertions made and obeyed as anonymous ‘dicta’ that are contrary not only to formal methods and ethics in scholarship but sometimes positively oppose them.

By about 2008, in Voynich arenas the dictum was pronounced that “in Voynich studies, it is unnecessary to cite precedents” and by about 2014 that “all you need to understand the drawings are two eyes and commonsense” while any effort to discuss where the contents might have come from was being pronounced ‘off-topic’ if it looked like addressing regions or times beyond the limits of a narrowly defined ‘medieval Europe’. So narrowly defined that at one stage it was a widely parroted meme that “it is unnecessary to consider anything but fifteenth century German works” – although that was one meme-law which, happily, failed elevation to the level of Voynich doctrine.

Such bizarre notions did not only circulate as anonymous catchy sound-bite memes, but were actualy enforced in public arenas – resulting in threads locked and conversation prohibited, complaints to management when the meme-law was breeched, dissenting individuals harried and so on.

In a complete reversal of normal scholarly method, Voynich arenas came to permit attacks on persons, but not attacks on theoretical narratives presented as forms of history.

Among the items which one could not so much as question was the ‘pharmacy’ idea; another the ‘herbal medicine’ idea.. and with it the idea that all plant-pictures must constitute a herbal of the Latin tradition.. and on, and on.. Like floating trees, traditionalist Voynich theories might be groundless but they flourished and became ever more elaborate until to do even so much as request references for some statement made by a determined traditionalist had – as they say – ‘consequences’. To this day I’m yet to see any formal argument presented for a number of the popular quasi-historical narratives.

Gradually, there emerged three points which seem to me most urgently in need of correction if study of this medieval manuscript is ever to return to anything like normal scholarly method.

  1. that practice initiated by Wilfrid Voynich and by which the manuscript’s history and character is first asserted and only afterwards adorned with bits and pieces lending some air credibility. Published examples of this now-entrenched but curious methodology include at one end of the time-scale Wilfrid’s spellbinding tale of 1921 and at the other too many to mention but notably a book by Janick and Tucker which Springer published in 2018, with the title Unravelling the Voynich Codex. Whether Springer ever troubled to get a qualified person to review that manuscript we don’t know, but such pre-press reviewers (if any) can have included no-one qualified in the history of Spanish missions to the New World, nor anyone deeply acquainted with Friar Sahagun’s work, nor any suitably well acquainted with the language of Nahuatl, or indeed with manuscript studies as such.
  2. the habit – again more than a century entrenched and exacerbated by the Friedmans and by d’Imperio’s little book – of treating this medieval manuscript as if it were nothing more than a vehicle for some cryptological problem.
  3. refusal to debate a Voynich theory of the traditionalist type, or to explain how a specific variation – as theory – came to be formed in the first place. This is another habit that sent the study off the rails very early; you will look in vain for footnotes and references to explain much of Wilfrid’s talk. The same refusal to engage with non-believers pervades the Friedmans’ work and is evidenced even more by considering who they might have consulted, but did not, as by those few whose names appear in in d’Imperio’s book. I touched on this point in discussing the work of Henry [H.E.] Sigerist, described by John Hopkins University as ““the pre-eminent medical historian in the early part of this century“ and who, as head of John Hopkins founded the Bulletin for the History of Medicine. See this post for more information.

Above all, traditionalists have failed to re-examine the early Euro-chauvenism which regarded the ‘medieval world’ as medieval western Christian Europe and even more narrowly as England, France, and Germany with a vague nod towards Italy. The rest of the medieval world, for them, was a blank.

As a simple matter of fact: we do not know that the Voynich manuscript was made in western Europe at all, let alone where the matter was gained or first enunciated that now forms its contents. The ‘western Christian Europe’ idea was just that – an idea.

By the time the manuscript was given to the Beinecke library, it was an idea that had been repeated as if undeniable fact for more than half a century, and like everyone else, the recipients found the work so bewildering that the catalogue entry apart from the collation, is little more than a combination of previous speculations, to which those of Robert S. Brumbaugh were added. Most curiously, it omitted the best-informed comments of all – those by the bookseller Kraus, whose assistant said plainly enough that a consensus of (presumably professional) opinion had dated the manuscript’s manufacture to the early fifteenth century.

My first fifty posts to Voynich Revisionist test the value of various among those earlier guesses, and then in subsequent posts we’ve tested one, and then another of the usual assertions against the testimony offered by the primary document and that of scholarship in the wider world beyond the Voynich ‘bubble’.

So far, I have tried to ease readers along by focusing on those few drawings – or few details – which do speak a visual language compatible, more or less, with that of medieval western Europe. I should emphasise, though, that overall these are a very small proportion of the whole and that the majority do not ‘speak European’ at all.

That the opposite impression has been widely given is due chiefly to the fact that amateurs attempting to use little more than “two eyes and common sense” have begun by presuming a Latin origin, and then limited their investigation to Latin Christian works and finally defined what they saw in the manuscript by that expectation. We’ve seen numerous examples of how that circular logic and confirmation-bias have affected perception of various Voynich drawings, among them the calendar’s emblem for December, which shows a figure holding a crossbow.

Even in our twenty-first century, most of what is said and written about the Voynich manuscript, and which presents as an historical-theoretical narrative is both determinedly Eurocentric and determinedly internalist.

If you’re not clear on what that word implies in historiography, you may enjoy a post written by Thony Christie. His interest is the history of sciences in Europe, particularly during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and often focusses on German-speaking regions.



Reading the Dunin-Schmeh paper to the 2022 zoom conference, I was puzzled at first by the seemingly careless dismissal of what I’d considered a reasonable possibility – namely that the varied styles and ‘languages’ of the Voynich manuscript reflected its development as the sort of collection of matter that can be described as a miscellany, a handbook, a notebook, a commonplace book or even a manual, depending on the purpose for which the collected ‘notes’ were brought together.

In the Dunin-Schmeh paper, though, the possibility is dismissed in what seems at first that all-too-common mixture of cavalier attitude and ‘commonsense’ tone which among too many Voynich writers passes for the pronouncement of indisputable fact.

But now I think we might just have a difference in terminologies.

Comparing their concept of ‘a notebook’ with their definition of a diary, the authors conclude:

For several reasons it is very unlikely that the Voynich Manuscript is an encrypted notebook. In particular, the writing in the manuscript, which is generally considered to be copied from a master text, is almost by definition not consistent with a notebook. In addition, notebooks usually contain short paragraphs, sketches, and numerous corrections, none of which can be found in the Voynich Manuscript.

Now – I don’t know why those writers believe that it is generally believed the whole content was copied from a single master-work. Like assertions that an idea is ‘commonsense’ for which no evidence is offered, so in this case ‘generally believed’ seems to be a way to pass off as unarguable some idea for which, again, there is support from neither the primary document nor any study making a serious effort to investigate that question.

Who are the people who ‘generally’ believe this? I can’t think of any, and no ‘master work’ which has been suggested in recent years. Those who ‘generally believe’ it don’t include the present author of course, in whose opinion such an idea is opposed by the distinctly different styles evinced by the manuscript’s drawings. I suspect it’s another of those anonymous assertions which hope to pass as fact in the way social-media creates ‘fact’ – by simple assertion and repetition of baseless notions.

However… we must leave that item hanging, too, since the Dunin-Schmeh paper doesn’t offer any source(s) for it.

More to the point is that the authors defined a notebook as containing only short paragraphs (Why?) and ‘numerous corrections'(Why?) – and sketches (Why?), while at the same time deciding that none of the Voynich drawings or diagrams qualify for description as ‘sketches’ of that kind (Why not?)

Despite their seemingly odd definition of a medieval ‘notebook’ I felt there would be some sort of explanation because while it seems to me the authors have placed undue reliance on one or more less than reliable informants, they are not people who generally resort to their own imagination. Since I wasn’t able to sit in on that zoom meeting, I don’t know what questions might have been put to them, and they may have answered the same questions.

However, in the course of preparing another post today, I went to check details of a few articles published by the Hamburg Centre for Comparative Manuscript Studies (as it used to be), and happened on a notice there about a newly-defined research topic called “Keeping Notebooks”.

The following image accompanied that notice. I’ve translated it to .gif but the better jpg version is in the linked page. [HERE]

(Remind me sometime to tell you about indigo and Thai script).

from the Achan Singkha Wannasai Collection (Lamphun province, Thailand) from 1960. Photo: Ubonphan Wannasai

I should describe that book as a student’s exercise book, or perhaps a lab-book, but it includes all those characteristic which, for Dunin and Schmeh, define the ‘notebook’.

So, perhaps all the problem was, in the end, just a matter of translation.

Still, it does bring up the historical question – whether such a definition applies to works produced in the early fifteenth century or earlier, even by students. For example, was it the custom of medieval teachers (in Europe or elsewhere) to inspect and check students’ notebooks in the way that, today, we check students’ lab-books as part of their assessment?

Also – notice the tailed beanie on the figure writing in the front row.

Bologna, Civic Museum. Students in fourteenth-century Bologna. by Jacobello & Pier Paolo dalle Masegne (fl.1383 – 1409).

Before leaving Hamburg University – here are a few free-access articles from the Centre for Manuscript studies. Clicking the link will immediately open the pdf.

Unfortunately, the Centre’s Journal became, with its New Series, accessible only by subscription or by direct purchase – and the prices are quite high.

I’d especially recommend the paper by Wimmer et. al. I had intended quoting its definition of a manuscript, as balance for common Voynich ideas which can be summed up by what one person said in response to comments that the primary document gives evidence of its historical and social context. Airily dismissing the fields of manuscript studies, historical studies, and art-historical and iconological analyses, he wrote:

“Cipher folks (or linguists) will always have the trump card … there will obviously be some necessity, once the text is cracked, to fit it into some sort of context.”

The really sad thing, in fact, is that a great many Voynicheros will hear that comment as one that is fair, reasonable and ‘commonsense’. For that reason, and to spare his blushes, I won’t repeat the chap’s name.

As readers will understand, we re-visionists have still a long and difficult task ahead.



If anyone attended the Conference entitled ‘The Pen, the Page, the Book’ held in El Escorial in October 2022, and knows where one can read the paper delivered by Michele Bernardini, ‘Safavid Magic Bowls as Portable Metal Books’, I’d like to hear from you.

Addendum to ‘Notice to Katie Tucker’

Part of a comment which Wayne Tucker recently posted at the Voynich.ninja forum reads as follows:

,,,Much of my work since 1983, has been published through the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon, my geodesy field work, and associated cartographic maps, can be found in numerous occasional papers published by the Natural History Museum of the U of O.

I began studying the VM in 1987 and was, at this time, employed as the Assistant Director of the U of O Map Library.

As the AD it was my job to know all of these early works.

By 1985 I was already familiar with the Catalan Map.

That “mapa munde” was the first to employ the rose compass image.

As the AD it also fell on my shoulders to peer review the work of other professional cartographers.

What Wayne Tucker has failed to say – and those who should say have also failed to say – is that the first detailed analytical study of the Voynich map (often termed the ‘rosettes’ page) was provided by the present author following publication of a post by Nick Pelling entitled ‘A Hurricane of Oddness’ .

The present author’s research was undertaken with the aim of clarifying a drawing which had previously received nothing but occasional bits of cloud-gazing and one of two brief comments that proved to be well-founded: one noting the two suns and another the inclusion of what the writer thought might be a path or road.

The present author undertook that research between 2011-2013, with summaries published as blogposts first in a blogger blog ‘Findings’ and then, switching to wordpress, at Voynichimagery. Occasional additional notes were posted as addenda to that research until at least 2015 and all that material remained freely accessible to the public until the level of plagiarism became impossible and the material was closed to the public in 2017.

It was in those research-summaries mention was first made, in Voynich studies, of various cartes marine, including but not limited to the world-map of Abraham Cresques (part of what is sometimes termed the Atlas Catala or Catalan Atlas).

In those posts, too, the present author explained in detail the phases of evolution evident in the Voynich map and why the detail now in the map’s north-west roundel is to be equated with Cresques’ “Angel of the Rose” as I chose to call it.

For people well acquainted with the medieval cartographic traditions, it will be evident that maps gridded by the Rose are not so easily classified as is generally supposed – they do not fit well with the old and persistent argument about development from portolans and are not ‘mappa mundi’.

Some others may understand better than I do what Wayne Tucker might mean, therefore, when he writes:

“The Atlas Catalan is not the Mapa Munde. That map was found in the Hereford Cathedral school.”

I do not consider Cresques’ worldmap a ‘Mappa mundi’ (note correct spelling) but related rather rose-gridded (some say rhumb-gridded or loxodromic) charts whose first examples occur in north Africa and among the Basque but whose flowering occurs in fourteenth-century Genoa and Majorca.

Regardless of how long Wayne Tucker has been interested in maps, and in the Voynich manuscript, it seems he is now attempting an argument that he is entitled to claim precedence, or originality within the field of Voynich studies, for such things as allusion to Cresques’ worldmap and its ‘rose’.

It is not merely a quarrel about precedence, but of Wayne Tucker’s implying or asserting a precedence to which he is not entitled, and thereby implying that any other reference to such matter either imitates or plagiarises some previously unknown insight about the manuscript’s content.

He attempts to assert, in effect, that there had never before been any reference made to points in common between the Voynich drawing and certain medieval charts (including Cresques’), nor any parallel argued or noted before between Cresques’ Rose and the figure I termed the Voynich map’s ‘Angel of the Rose’.

The fact is that all those matters were contributed to the study over a period of years, in the form of research-summaries published by the present writer from 2011 onwards and freely available online to students of the manuscript… until 2017. Every post received readers, and from 2011-2017, Voynichimagery received so many readers, some few of whom continue to offer as ‘inspirational ideas’ snippets lifted from one or another of those (or others’) contributions – and without the scholar’s routine acknowledgement of their sources.

This is why it becomes necessary – simply to maintain one’s own rights over one’s own original work – to make the facts clear whenever persons such as Katie Tucker, or Wayne Tucker or others attempt to claim to be the first to have mentioned (in the present case) the Catalan Atlas or its worldmap in Voynich studies.

The present author could claim to have been interested in maps and cartography for half a century; to have been studying indigenous and non-mathematical astronomies since the 1970s, and to have applied that knowledge to the exposition of medieval pictures since the 1980s.

But the fact is that within the field of Voynich studies, the present author applied that interest and knowledge in written contributions to the study of Beinecke MS 408 only from 2008 onwards, and in the same way Wayne Tucker’s first reference to the Atlas Catala, the ‘Rose’ and so forth comes only very recently.

I have never suggested there is any link between the Voynich manuscript and an ‘ancient machine’ so unless some earlier Voynichero cares to dispute Wayne and Katie’s claim on that score, it’s all his.

I will continue to use, or re-publish my own original research and contributions to Voynich studies as I please, and if readers are misled into thinking the original imitates an imitator, they must blame for their confusion that first Voynichero who insisted that “in Voynich studies it is unnecessary to cite precedents”. The ignorance which informed that idea has created error and confusion exponentially since the slogan was first promoted by one or two prominent voices from about 2010.

Perhaps some old-boy Voynichero might decide do the decent thing and help Wayne and Katie with their footnotes and bibliography.