incidental post – An outstanding problem.

As readers may know, there’s been a lot of talk about ChatGPT and its approach to problem-solving. Some examples in relation to the Voynich manuscript have been raised at Nick Pelling’s ciphermysteries blog fairly recently.

I don’t know whether ChatGPT has been fed the Voynich glyphs, or only one of the several and fairly arbitrary assignments of the glyphs to other systems but here’s a problem some readers might like to consider, with or without AI.


If, as I’ve read this drawing, the two flanking figures represent the primal pair (and possibly as anabibazontes ” – promoted/elevated/prominent ones”), and if the main part of the diagram represents a 5-elements system, then why should the diagram provide 8 labels and not 7?

There’s also the really obvious problem

Problem 2:

Is it possible to link the Voynichese labels (minus the supporting pair) to a list of elements in any recorded script and language known before 1440? How many pre-modern scripts and languages does ChatGPT know?


I also wonder whether those working on Voynichese have an over-optimistic expectation that the written text will observe a standardised orthography and a literary rather than vernacular approach to language. Other factors, too, might affect what is written, such as conventional elipses For example..

Suppose someone were to posit the inscription on the left (below) might have for its final three glyphs the ancient Greek word for a hearth-fire – “pur”. (A researcher named Ruby Novacna has in fact been following up a Greek-language possibility ever since 2012, though she hasn’t posted recently. Her word-list was published in 2022).

So, you might argue for the label on the left (above) that last three glyphs suggested the Greek word ‘Pyr/Pur’ .. but how to explain the first glyph in that vord?

You might posit an addition of the definite article to emphasise this is the element fire, not any old individiual fire, but the definite article for pur in modern Greek is a feminine, and in ancient and classical Greek was the neuter τό. An example is found in Plutarch’s biography of Numa where he refers to the deathless/eternal [hearth-] fire of Vesta/Hestia.

τὸ π. τὸ ἀθάνατον

Another possibility is badly spelled, ungrammatical Greek which is certainly not unknown (parts of the the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea are so un-classical as to be incomprehensible).

But I can’t help wondering how an AI or an amateur could have enough under their belt to recognise such departures from a standardised use of language, to adjust for such influences as local and dialect forms’ being literally rendered, or our text copying that of a semi-literate/archaic original?

It is not hard to envision still more unhappy factors – such as a foreigner’s attempting to write a language which they’d never learned to speak, or which they had learned to speak as best they could, but never learned to write using formal orthography and grammar. I do wonder whether the cryptologists have expected too much from the written text.

O’Donovan Notes #13b – an illustration.

Someone who read the previous post commented (at a different blog-site) that he couldn’t understand how I got the idea that any drawings in the Voynich manuscript were of non-western Christian origin. So I thought I’d provide an example of analytical method and show why, in the case of a diagram on folio 77r, the primary document itself obliged me to turn away from the traditionalist ‘all Latin Christian narrative’ – not because I had any theory, but because the testimony of the primary document has highest priority.

The analytical method requires constant reference to texts, and so a few of those I consulted are referenced here.

I have never felt a need to invent any theoretical narrative to explain the manuscript. Such tales have always – ever since 1921 – been advanced before any verifiable evidence, maintained in defiance of clear opposition from the primary document, and vastly exceeded the verifiable evidence when urged upon the wider public. In view of what follows I might say that I do not have a nice, simple ‘Manichean’ story for you, either.

For what follows, the core is the basic analysis published in October 2012.

When I first shared my study of that diagram, in 2011, and identified the drawing’s subject as a 5-element system, I was unaware that Richard Santacoloma had already said he thought the drawing showed a system describing the elements.

Though perceptive readers will soon realise that my work can owe nothing to his, not in methodology, nor sources, nor conclusions reached, I’m happy to say that his perception of the diagram as referring to elements was good.

It is always good to have two workers come independently to comparable conclusions about a problematic item.

To that core – my post of Oct 25, 2012 at 6:00 PM, I have added other notes and comments that were published later in posts or additional comments at Voynichimagery, the ongoing research further refining, and with regard to one detail correcting the basic analysis.

To compensate for the original post having been issued within an unfolding study, I’ve re-written one sentence, and a couple of clauses which became unclear without the post that preceded or was to follow.

I hope readers won’t find it too confusing that I now shift back and forward between that basic analytical commentary of 2012 and the subsequent amplifications.


The short story [October, 2012]

In my opinion, this represents a 5-element system, but not one that includes ether as a separate element.


Note added to the 2012 post. re Richard SantaColoma and his ‘New Atlantis’ blog. (March 30th 2013)

  I first wrote a post about f.77r in 2011. Later in that year – in May 2011 – I heard that Rich Santacoloma had earlier suggested the diagram was a reference to the elements, though he supposed then, and still does, that the system will be the European one.  I left a note on the original post about that difference between our opinions and mentioned his views, but I did not, and do not .agree with his idea that the manuscript shows the western system – for reasons that should be clear from what follows.

Today Rich added a few comments here [i.e. at Voynichimagery] expressing a desire to have my post link not just to his web-page as  I had done, and still prefer to do,  but to his blog. [note added 2023 – the website raised a warning notice today], Since I’m well-known for adding ‘update’ notes to my own blogposts, I’m happy to do as Mr. Santacoloma asks, so here is the link he prefers. It is dated February 10th., 2010.

From the content of my own analytical study (below) I hope readers will be able to see that it owes nothing to Mr. Santacoloma’s writing, but is a product of the present writer’s experience and reference to non-Voynich-centred scholarship. .

On the matter of ‘5 elements’

Many other [i.e. Non-European] systems are five-element ones, including the Chinese ‘5 agencies’, the Hindu, the Turkish, and more. These are no less deserving of consideration among the range of comparisons to be considered, given the various other items of evidence we’ve seen so far that have indicated a non-European origin for a given drawing’s first enunciation.

Once more in this diagram there appears to be influence from the Hellenistic period reflected in their style.

For the Greek terms and for the clear distinction between the system shown in folio 77r and that which applied in the Latin west, I’ve decided to start by referring to Isidore’s text* – chiefly for its parallel use of the Latin with the Greek terms but also to avoid alarming readers who may feel thei comfort-zone ends with medieval western Christian Europe.

*Isidore of Seville, with whose Etymologiae my readers had become familiar by 2012.

On the interaction between Hellenism, Dualism and regions beyond Europe after the 3rdC AD, readers must wait for a subsequent post.

My first post about this drawing on f.77 [in 2011] included much comparative vocabulary that I omit here [i.e. in October 2012].

Ether one of the elements? – no.

Isidore recognised ether as a rarefied form of fire, but is specific about its position and that it does not contribute to the world below. To that extent it was not regarded to that time, in the Latins’ tradition, as one of the ‘elements’:

The ether is the place where the stars are and signifies that fire which is separated high above from the entire world.”

‘The most potent elements’

details from fol 77r (textual portion omitted).

Isidore then turns to the natural world and begins with the two ‘potent’ elements.

The most potent pair of elements for human life are fire and water, whence those to whom fire and water are forbidden are gravely punished.

Etym. XIII.xii.2

That pair, I think, is probably the reason why we see the diagram proper flanked on f.77r by a female and what appears to be a non-gendered male. (which could be our first indication of religious influence, supposing it alluded to Isaiah 53:8  Who shall declare his generation?” and see Naasseni, in Hippolytus Bk.V

Forms given those two figures’ containers agree, too, with Isidore’s assignments: that on the left appears to be modelled on the wall-sconce or  on glass beakers of a type filled with oil and used in that way – fire.

On the right, the container is formed as a bucket or basket from which falls a mixture of water and potent earth (i.e. life-producing water, like the seed-filled and fertile soil brought by flood. The mechanism of reproduction through seed was not entirely understood in earlier times.) But hence ‘water’.


To further clarify the nature of this pair, I was to add the following quotation with its allusion to the Anabibazontes to a later post, published in October 2016 and entitled ‘On the doorstep [Mongols] and things Manichaean’, (October 31st., 2016).

A Coptic summary of Manichaean doctrine, the Kephalaia, quotes Mani’s teachings on this point. Mani assigns each of the zodiac ’12’ – whether as constellations or the more abstract ‘signs’ of astrology is not clear – to  five ‘worlds’: of ~Smoke, ~Fire, ~Wind, ~Water, and ~Darkness and rather interestingly given that he lived in the 3rdC AD, he also accepts the Roman constellation of the ‘Scales’.

This.. is how it should be understood. They [the twelve zodiacal figures and five planets] are drawn from the Five Worlds of Darkness, are bound in the Sphere, and are taken for each world. The Twins and the Archer belong to the world of Smoke, which is the Mind; Also, the Ram and the Lion belong to the World of Fire. The Bull, the Water-bearer, and he Scales belong to the World of Wind,  The Crab and the Virgin and the Fish belong to the world of Water; the Goat-horn and the Scorpion belong to the World of Darkness. These are the twelve archons of wickedness, for it is they who commit every evil in the world, either in the tree [ule?] or in the flesh.  Hermes belongs to the world of Water, while Kronos belongs to the World of Darkness.  The two Ascendants [anabibazontes][9] belong to fire and lust, which are dryness and moisture, they are the father and mother of all these things. .. [for my reference see the ‘Comment’ posted below this 2023 post]

adding a further comment on November 1st 2016):

Postscript: I may have mis-read the first element motif of ‘wavy lines with scattered dots’. It might – possibly – be meant for Smoke ~ as rising air mixed with burned particles..


returning to the research as published in 2012:

While Isidore’s description of those older Greek ideas is compatible with the diagram as we’ve analysed it so far, overall the maker of the drawing does not appear to have had a conception of the elements identical to the western, and thus like Isidore’s. 

I don’t think the diagram on f.77 is an illustration of the Etymologies  so much as an illustration of some accepted and local ‘5-elements’ system that is being assumed within an education system no less infused by respect for the same classical and Greek sources. Some possibilities will be listed further below.

 Isidore’s regularly referring to both Greek and the  Latin vocabulary, and explaining both, means that the Latin tradition maintained some knowledge of Greek from that time. The Etymologies was so widely used and copied that it is often compared with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and its information being disseminated as standard opinion, it filtered through scholars and clerics to the lay population.

The diagram proper – Primary matter: ‘the wood’

Where we speak of the  ‘basic fabric’ or the ‘building blocks’ of the material world, the Greek term for the raw material of all things was  ΰλη, which – like this diagram – evokes the idea of a tree’s body, unshaped, but from which those elements [Lat. elementum] emerge.  The Greek term was not elementum, but  stoikeia.

(April 3rd 2012- cf. architectural and philosophical associations for terms stoa; stoic)

Isidore says:

The Greeks call a certain primary material of things ΰλη (‘matter’ also ‘wood’) which is not formed in any way.

and he goes on:

 From this ΰλη the visible elements (Lat: elementum) are formed, whence they took their name, [Gk stoikeia: elements] for they agree with [Gk: stoikein] each other in a certain accord and communion of association.

In conception, then, this diagram does seem to reflect an influence from those Greek philosophical terms, though not from the Latin.

At the same time, it includes five elements, not four, and shows fire second from highest which, to judge from al-Biruni’s comments (see below) agrees with the situation in tenth-century Baghdad.

[note added April 7th., 2023. For further information and insights into this issue, I recommend the work of a remarkable scholar whose videos on youtube include ones discussing Baghdad before the Mongols’ destruction of the city late in the thirteenth century. The videos can be found under the site ‘Let’s Talk Religion’. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Here I might say that earlier this year (2023) I have found reason to consider the period of al Ma’mun worth closer attention; not so much for a cartographic project he sponsored, but for a particular system of measures employed.]

I think, then, that this diagram on folio 77r is not designed to illustrate Isidore’s text, nor probably any system used in Roman times.

Some points of distinction between the diagram’s form and Isidore’s understanding of the Greek elements system:

Where Isidore explains the Greek stoichaea with an almost anthropomorphic sense of the four elements’ interactions and harmonious relationship, the Voynich diagram takes the term to mean rather that five elements have emerged from that formless ‘wood’  not as living things might, in amity, but as non-living things  equal simply in terms of time and distance: the time of emergence for all being contemporary indicated, I think, by the equal length of these short branchings.

Nor does the relationship of the five match Isidore’s understanding of that amity. Because Isidore’s understanding is that aether has no place in the world inhabited by mankind, it plays no part in his explanation of earthly substances, all of which are formed from the four.

 “Indeed [they] are said to be connected thus among themselves with a certain natural logic, now returning to their origin, from fire to earth, now from earth to fire: since fire ends in air, and air is condensed into water, and water thickens into earth and [then], in turn, earth is loosened into water, water rarefied into air, and air thinned out into fire”.

Etymologiae XIII.iii.1-6

Now try as I might –  and though I feel fairly certain that the second element from the right is fire and, further, that the elements in the centre of the ‘wood’ and that nearest the fiery principal (not principle) might [at a pinch] between them be interpreted as air and ether, yet no correspondence exists in the drawing to the way in which Isidore himself explains the four elements’ relationship. The diagram speaks to a different scheme, order and relations.

Even if one were to imagine – as Isidore and the western world normally did not – that ether and its radiance (aether) contributed to the composition of the natural world, still the order and relationships shown by the diagram do not co-incide with his.*

*para edited for clarity.

[so now we turn to investigating various 5-elements systems, to see which may be relevant to the Voynich drawings..]

Some 5-elements systems in the east. [This section was much shortened for the 2012 post]

1. Chinese

2. Indian (Hindu)

 3. Islamic

          Al Biruni brought knowledge of India’s  Hindu elements, which he described as being:

 Heaven; Wind; Fire; Water; Earth,

and he says, quite specifically, that none of the Hindu elements equates to the Greeks’ “aether”. The point is relevant point, since in more recent times there has been a tendency to refer to aether in interpreting the term Akasha.

 Writing in the tenth century, he explains in his India:

 “Heaven, Wind, Fire, Water and Earth are the Hindu’s five elements. They are called the mahabuta i.e. having great natures. The Hindus do not think, as other people do, that the fire is a hot, dry body near the bottom of the ether. They understand by fire the common fire on earth which comes from an inflammation of smoke.

The Vayu Purana says, ‘In the beginning were earth, water, wind and heaven. Brahman, on seeing sparks under the earth, brought them forward, and divided them into three parts: the first, Parthiva, is the common fire, which requires wood and is extinguished by water; the second is divya i.e. the sun; the third vidyut i.e. the lightning. The sun attracts the water..”

Sachau, Al Biruni’s ‘India’, Chapter III (v-ix).

4. Manichaean.

Five is a number of fundamental importance to Manichaean systems, including cosmology. A great deal of information about Manichaean thought is available online, (e.g. this site) but for its style of script, I add links to the very important  Cologne Mani Codex, found at Lycopolis in Egypt and a comparative example of cursive script in an early Christian codex [link dead in 2023] from  Oxyrhinchus.[Link dead in 2023]

5. Buddhist

6. Turk

.. and others.


Not mentioned was an important reference which contains a a useful table (p.64).

  • Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, Medieval Manichaean Book Art: A Codicological Study of. Iranian and Turkic Illuminated Book Fragments from 8th–11th Century East. Central Asia, (Nag Hammadi & Manichaean Studies), Stephen Emmel, Johannes van Oort (Eds.), volume 57, Leiden-Boston: “Brill Academic Publishers” (2005).
  • Another I’d recommend for those interested in central European Asian sects and beliefs is Gnosis on the Silk Road.
  • The links between earlier medieval dualism outside Europe and ‘Manicheans’ in later medieval Europe are discussed in a great number of books and papers. For those to whom the whole subject is new, two books in English that are not new but easily found and still respected:
  • Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee
  • Yuri Stoyanov, The Hidden Tradition in Europe: the secret history of medieval Christian heresy.

O’Donovan Notes #13.1a: Opening the Iris

The medieval world of Voynich writers – Introduction.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Let’s short-circuit the usual cycle of theory and counter-theory, and imagine that there’s going to be a public debate on the topic ‘How European is the Voynich manuscript’?

We shall have to discriminate between arguments about the written text and drawings as such, and the content expressed by the written- and the pictorial texts, as well as between the manuscript’s outermost binding; the technique used to stitch the quires together; the vellum’s quality and finish with its inks and pigments.

On the codicological issues, though, a debater could now get advice from one of the several external specialists in codicology who are now on board.

The strongest argument for a western Christian (‘Latin’) manufacture, or manufacture under Latin auspices is that so far the Beinecke Library has never suggested other than a Latin character for the cover and binding. The presence of sewing supports indicates, at the very least, that the current binding is in Latin or Armenian style.

Against this, it could be argued that the pages are not prepared in Latin style – there is the matter of ruling out, the inclusion of long fold-ins and so on.

Taking it, then, that the balance of evidence is in favour of manufacture in Latin Europe or under Latin auspices – that implies the use of scribes working in that Latin, or Latin-influenced environment.

The recent palaeographic analysis by Bowern and Painter found that among the examples they examined, those in the uncial and Beneventan hands came closest to forms used by the Voynich scribes, while Fagin Davis identified 5 different scribal hands in another paper delivered to the same zoom conference. (These talks are all now to be heard at youtube).

Page-layout offers arguments for and against a Latin (western Christian) origin for the matter contained. It is not usual – but not entirely unknown – for a Latin manuscript to have images set down before the written text, as we find in the manuscript. Nor is it usual for fourteenth-to-fifteenth century manuscripts to have drawings fill both the inner- and the outer margins of a page, as we see in some of the ‘ladies’ pages. We do see such practice elsewhere, and earlier – notably in some early medieval Spanish manuscripts.


You yourself may feel quite convinced that the manuscript’s contents are, or are not, entirely of medieval western Christian (‘Latin’) origin in both their form and their content, but it’s good exercise to lay your theory aside for a time, and consider what evidence there is in support of an opposite view.

It will mean asking such questions as ‘Where and when was it the norm to set down drawings before written text?’ and ‘Where and when do we find long fold-ins before 1440? and so on. The aim of such experiment is to shift focus from researching and promoting a theory to investigating more carefully the implications of the primary evidence.

Here I might repeat the theme-song for this blog: Feynman’s comment on scientific method.

It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

and after all, experiment has recently obliged us to abandon the Big Bang theory, so there’s nothing unscientific about changing your mind in the light of better evidence.

The Drawings.

If the use of sewing supports is a strong argument in favour of manufacture under Latin or Armenian auspices, evidence against any Latin origin for most of the contents is clearest from the pictorial text.

It is relevant and telling that the sense intended for the drawings has usually been guessed or asserted, most often to support a theory and by doing no more than announcing that two images are ‘alike’.

If all the Voynich drawings really did ‘speak European’ they could be read without resort to such guesses and arguments and could be read easily enough – and without much assistance – by anyone living today in a westernised environment.

Every tradition in pre-modern art constructs its images using a vocabulary of known, and distinctive conventions which are as evident to specialists as any fingerprint might be.

Take this image, for example:

Here is a king upon his throne, with a person of inferior rank (dressed in a scholar’s gown) presenting a book to that king.

The picture’s sense will be immediately obvious to you, if you live in a modern, westernised environment, but precisely because it will be so easily read, the reason you take the message may pass beneath conscious notice and analytical method demands we be specific.

You recognise the seated figure as a human king, not king of heaven, because there is no halo about his head, and that he is a king because he is richly dressed, holds a sceptre, sits when everyone else stands or kneels and is shown wearing a crown. That such tokens seem self-evident to you is the whole point. Medieval images expressing a western Christian worldview, and employing the conventions of medieval European art will be found easily intelligible by descendants of that tradition -at least to the level of basic narrative.

You mightn’t have picked up the finer nuances immediately, but you will have been able to ‘read’ the storyline instantly and identified – almost without thinking – the relative social ranking of the persons included in that picture. To work out that the narrative says ” social inferior offers book to social superior” wouldn’t have taken a century’s speculation, theorising and debate.

That the work of interpreting the intention of the Voynich drawings should have been so difficult, and so filled with argument, speculation, and fantasy is one pointer to non-European origin.

Specialists and more experienced persons will take more from that drawing. For example:

The book’s subject is epitomised by the adjacent diagram in which the world’s three natural sectors – air, sea and earth – are seen surrounded by the starry sky.

Use of a diapered repeat pattern for the floor, and the fleur-de-lys motif on the hangings tell us the work comes from an atelier in late medieval France, while the emphasis on patterning, and the diagram’s ‘cloudband’ boundary (among other details) tell us that we are looking at an image made in France of the late-fourteenth or early fifteenth century.

Another key is an image’s attitude to people.

It is a hallmark of medieval western Christian art that it displays a fixation – some might say obsession – with ranking all things from heaven to hell, including human beings, in terms of a social-spiritual hierarchy cross-referenced by whether the individuals were or weren’t acceptable to the western Christian religious faith. Those markers are also absent from all but a very few of the Voynich drawings.

To return to our example.

Behind the king stand three advisors. Their high social status as advisors is indicated by their standing close to, but behind the king. Their foreign-ness is indicated by giving each a stereotyped headwear as token of that non-Latin cultural tradition that each represents.

The seated person is highest in rank. The advisors next in social rank. The person who kneels to present the book is lowest in social rank but (because not marked as a foreigner) to be assumed higher in terms of religious ranking.

In medieval Latin art, not only must foreigners be given a device to mark their foreign-ness; the relative status/position of the saint must never be allowed to be confused with that of the serf, nor the courtier with the slave. A member of the nobility or aristocracy must appear elegant and fine-looking and wear the richest of fabrics, unless the scene is one of battle or execution.

Narratives in Latin manuscripts are rarely about physical delights and pleasures (as Persian art, for instance, could be), but always overtly or tacitly about some struggle or war – between saints and devils, between kings, between foreigners and Latins. The struggle for social-spiritual placement – status mundi – could serve as the title for a history of western Christian art before 1440.

But where is that ever-constant theme in the Voynich drawings?

In our example, the ‘battle’ is for the mind and soul of the seated king, who is shown overly-interested in foreign opinions.

Now, even if one’s reading of an image seems, subjectively, obvious and commonsense, it is not enough. Evidence in proof and/or reference to reliable external scholarship is always necessary when treating the Voynich manuscript.

In this case, we know our example comes from a copy of Nicholas Oresme’s Livre de Divinacions, so we turn first to that text. Oresme begins by citing every authority from the Biblical to contemporary who has upheld the tenets of astrology and practices of divination.. but who then says (Ch.8).

Notwithstanding all the above arguments … I say that princes and others who have set themselves to such matters have come to a bad end and have had evil fortune in this world.

And it is that battle = between important supporters of astrology, and the position of the scholar-cleric Oresme which is the crux and sub-text of the image, very neatly conveyed by the draughtsman in the poses, relative placement and details of each human figure.

The point I want to emphasise is that you, yourself, can easily ‘read’ the basic sense of the story in most – and I mean the vast majority – of images constructed using the conventions of medieval western Christian art.

Your reading can be tested against relevant documentary evidence and external scholarship. There is no need to rely on impressions, casual ‘pairings’, imaginative guesses or theoretical narratives. If all the Voynich drawings were formed by the conventions governing medieval Latin art, it wouldn’t have taken a century discussion about, say, the ‘ladies’ pages. (Those have been variously imagined as describing plumbing, or vegetable- or human anatomy or, most recently, treatises on bathing. (As it happens, I’m don’t support any of those theories).

But let’s futher suppose the text of Oresme’s book lost, corrupted, enciphered or otherwise made unreadable, and that persons without much earlier background in medieval manuscripts resorted to impressions and guesses about what our picture was meant to convey.

Suppose you like a theory that the image is .. what… a Byzantine Greek picture of Ptolemy offering his Geographia to a Roman emperor. The theorist you support has shown the detail ‘paired’ with various images of books being presented to a Byzantine emperor and has explained the medieval habit of re-costuming historical figures. It all seems plausible enough.

In fact, a specialist’s first reaction might be to tear their hair and say, as mildly as they could, ‘Byzantine Greeks just didn’t draw like that‘ – in other words that the conventions of Byzantine Greek art do not inform this picture, but our dedicated theorist is now devoted to his/her idea and isn’t so interested in remarks which seem critical. So s/he not only ignores the specialist’s comment, but ignores the whole corpus of non-Voynich scholarship considering such soft science irrelevant – and pushes on.

Experience suggests that in a closed and supportive group, the theorist’s ‘Byzantine-Ptolemy’ theory may well survive; it may be deemed plausible by fellow-theorists on the basis of ‘two eyes and commonsense’ and even gain followers en masse through social media and personal contacts.

But the minute that the theorist moves beyond that comfort zone and asks the opinion of a disinterested specialist or three (and three is a good number for independent reviewers), that’s the end of the ‘Byzantine-image-of-Ptolemy’ idea. Because it’s wrong. Objectively, demonstrably wrong.

There are objective standards that apply when offering opinions about a pictorial text, just as there are about historical or linguistic theories. The interesting question is why so few Voynich theorists asked about, or set out to learn, what those standards might be.

The same has been true for any number of Voynich theories which have used images in the Vms to illustrate their theories, and since virtually all of began by presuming an all-Latin origin for the manuscript’s content and determinedly avoided asking critical assessent from external specialists, even some easily-disproven theories continue to be promoted and believed.

*For more, see post ‘Expert Opinions: Not One of Minevoynichrevisionist, Feb.25th., 2019. [click the black arrows in that post to expand the text]


The 2022 zoom conference has stimulated a taste for statistics and the current Voynich buzz-word is ‘scientific’ so some sort of statistical study would surely do well in any debate about ‘How European..’ are the drawings.

A statistical study?

Here’s one possible experiment. How many fifteenth-century European manuscripts do you think you could produce which contain a few hundred human forms, but not one of which shown seated upon a covered rostrum, or a chair or a chair-like throne plus not a single figure mounted on a horse plus not a single figure presented as a saint, or a cleric, or a scholar, or a monk, or an armoured soldier, or a field-worker or a flying angel or devil?

In other words, where is that basic and constant reference to social and spiritual hierarchy? (technical treatises aside).

Only three figures in the Voynich manuscript, as we have it, bear crowns. All are unclothed female figures whose forms are not made especially attractive.

So again – How many medieval European manuscripts of the thirteenth-to-fifteenth centuries do you think you could find in which a crowned female is drawn unclothed, not slender and not fine of face?

A non-European origin for the majority of Voynich images is strong.

That it has missed notice by most Voynich writers is due chiefly to the fact that few are aware of what details are significant and which are not.

Take, for example the matter of shoes which may seem a trivial issue but in terms of the conventions of medieval Latin and Byzantine art is most certainly not.

On folio 80r is a small vignette which shows a male figure who, it seems, we are to consider shod. Together with the calendar’s archer, who also wears a skirt, this figure is one of the very few in the manuscript who isn’t barefoot. Whether that figure or any other among the Voynich manuscript’s anthropoform figures was intended to be read literally is not widely agreed.

One would consider not only how few figures in the Voynich manuscript are shown wearing boots or shoes, but how many are seen barefoot in any medieval images from the Latin, Byzantine and Islamic manuscript traditions to 1400. And more to the point – what does it signify in those works?

The Voynich figures’ being barefoot is deliberate is quite clear. Apart from anything else, it’s easier to draw a boot or shoe than to draw a foot, especially to the scale these figures are drawn, and in pre-modern art whether eastern or western, deliberate = meaningful.

It is certainly not enough and hardly scientific to resort to imagination and assert that the figures are bathing women or gynecological patients, or slaves, or something of that sort, nor to assert that the fruit of pure imagination deserves description as a ‘theory’.

Details speak to meaning, and meaning expressed according to some existing artistic tradition.

It’s not difficult for an informed commentator to make a clear case against a medieval Latin origin for the great majority of the Voynich manuscript’s drawings.


Much as I would like to hear a formal debate on ‘How European is the Voynich Manuscript?’ I expect that traditionalists would be outraged, perhaps to the point of lobbying to prevent the discussion in some Voynich forum.

It is a peculiarity of Voynich studies that while linguists and codicologists embrace the latest methods and understandings with enthusiasm, composers of the quasi-historical and theoretical narratives so regularly ignore (and attempt to persuade others to ignore) any better information about methodologies or newer evidence.

Why this should be so is inextricable from the curious history of this manuscript’s study, and the reasons that its ‘iris-shot’ vision of the medieval world persists in maintaining ideas widely believed a hundred years ago but long superseded in research from such disciplines as medieval history, comparative cultural studies, economic history, manuscript studies, archaeology, conservation and, of course, art-historical studies.

The rest of this series considers the reasons behind Voynich narratives and theories failing to keep step with external scholarship. We shall attempt to open the iris.

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 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)

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, 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 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 ‘’.

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:

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

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.