Tents etc.

c.2700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

“… and narrow compass”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(op.cit., p.235)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to tabernaculum etc. for a moment.

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

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

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

Postscript (February 17th., 2023)

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

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

Internalism & defining ‘notebook’.

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

O’Donovan notes #9.2: Plague,Medicine, Money and Secrecy (concluded).

c. 3250 words

The authors rights are asserted.

Before we begin.

If you have encountered social media stuff about the Black Death and cats, witches &ct.. then before going further, please take the full remedial dose: Tim O’Neill’s podcast ‘Cats and the Black Death‘ .



OK – that done, let’s hope Voynich studies will never see any ‘Voynich-magical-women-plague-medicine’ theories.

“false and advertising leches.”

We are all familiar with the stories about how spouses deserted their spouses and parents their children, priests their parishioners and physicians their patients during the Plague years, and especially during its first onslaught in 1348-1442.

But as usual things weren’t really so simple, and Amundsen describes well the dilemma faced by contemporary physicians, whose ethics were opposed to seeking money for money’s sake:

The conscientious physician was in a delicate position in relation to public opinion that impugned his actions with charges of avarice if he seemed too eager to take on cases (especially if they terminated with death) and with charges of cowardice or irresponsibility if he were not willing to undertake the care of those ill with contagious disease. .. There was in medieval medical ethics a strong tradition of refusing to treat those whom the art of medicine could not help.

  • Darrel W. Amundsen, ‘Medical Deontology and Pestilential Disease in the Late Middle Ages’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct. 1977), pp. 403-421.

This attitude might be compared with the rule among English lawyers that, if you know the accused is guilty of the crime, you do not pretend otherwise in court. Here if you were convinced the patient’s disease could not be cured by medicine, to pretend otherwise was unethical because the physician’s aim in attending would be – or would appear to others to be – merely mercenary.

He notes that the anonymous author of a plague tract composed c. 1411 – that is, within the period to which the Voynich quires’ vellum is dated – said this quite plainly: “if the patient is curable, the physician will undertake treatment in God’s name. If he is incurable, the physician should leave him to die.”

However, the medieval physician wasn’t just there to act as pill-dispenser or blood-letter. Caroline Proctor emphasises, when describing the career of Maino de Maineri, who died in about 1368, how that fourteenth-century, Paris-trained, court physician and his patrons “viewed the role of physician as much more than doctoring to the sick …. The good physician sought to preserve and conserve the health of his household, acting as dietician, moralist and guardian to his clients.” and she is correct in saying that view of the physicians’ role is “echoed throughout other contemporary sources” of the fourteenth and earlier fifteenth century.

  • Caroline Proctor, ‘Perfecting prevention : the medical writings of Maino de Maineri (d.c. 1368)’, Doctoral thesis, University of St.Andrews (2006).

So ethical considerations alone meant that the physician would not hide information which he believed was for the public good.

At the same time, we hear from Boccaccio that even in those early plague years, when people already knew that the Plague had arrived from regions to the east of Europe, there began to emerge persons who claimed to be able to address it. Writing of that time, and in this connection, he recalls how

“.. over and above the men of art, the number became exceedingly great of both men and women who had never had any teaching of medicine…

Boccaccio, Decameron. the Introduction ‘to the Ladies’.

Three hundred years afterwards, in the mid-seventeenth century, and as Plague continued to flare up, subside, and return in one part of Europe and another, we find that ‘plague remedies’ are now being touted by charlatans, but most educated people believe that one either recovered, or one died, and that while various precautions might be taken there was no ‘plague cure’ in medicine. To them, if not to the masses in Europe, anyone claiming to know a ‘cure’ was supposed, by default, an avaricious quack.

Whether Boccaccio might have classed Theobaldus Loneti as physician or as charlatan I do not know but writing after 1450, and with apparent honesty, Loneti had claimed for himself an unusually positive attitude.

‘When … there was a debate among physicians over incurable diseases such as leprosy, paralysis, pestilence, and the like, they finally came to the conclusion that no remedy for the pestilence could be found, especially since Galen and Hippocrates and other ancient physicians made no mention of one. But after much discussion, it was I alone who maintained that many remedies against this plague could easily be employed.’

Of course, that’s another instance of self-advertisement but once again his treatments were set forth in plain text, without any effort to make them secrets in our modern sense of the word.

These diverse attitudes, over time, toward physic and the plague help explain, I think, both Kircher’s persistent rudeness towards Baresch, and why Baresch’s own letter to Kircher and those of mutual friends lay such emphasis on the fact that Baresch’s interest was “in medicine, and not money.” It makes sense if one posits that Baresch believed the Voynich text included some ancient, eastern, plague remedy. Baresch himself speaks of medicine as the most worthy occupation of men, after religious service and in this expresses the same ideals as we see in John of Burgundy’s plague tract, three centuries before when he wrote:

Moved by piety and anguished by and feeling sorrow because of this calamity … I have composed and compiled this work not for a price but for your prayers, so that when anyone recovers from the diseases discussed above, he will effectively pray for me to our Lord God. . .

One has to be a little cautious, too, because in medieval texts the term ‘remedy’ often means something closer to ‘relief’ or ‘alleviation’ or ‘avoidance’ in order to allow preservation and recovery of health rather than being a cure.

Unlike secrets of the diplomatic sort, which certainly were being rendered unreadable by use of encryption, rare scripts or obscure languages in some western courts by the mid-fifteenth century, we find that medical ‘secrets’ were still secrets only in the medieval sense – that is, specialised techniques and knowledge gained by masters of an art, craft or profession as a result of their formal training and long experience. More like tricks of the trade than commercial secrets.

About this time, i.e. about the mid-fifteenth century, we do begin to see recipes for some medicines and ointments – often including roses and violets, but those recipes – once more – are written in plaintext.

Regarding theories of a ‘medical Voynich’, therefore, the points to be taken are that if, as may be reasonably supposed, the Voynich text was inscribed before 1440, and its text is rendered obscure by use of cipher or encryption as so many believe, then it is unlikely to be product of Latin Europe’s medical or pharmaceutical tradition; the historical record shows that even that disease, for which any claimed cure might be expected to gain great profit, did not yet see physician-authors attempting to keep their knowledge hidden. On this, we may again quote Amundsen:

Although to the modern reader the plague tractates may seem at worst fraudulent and at best esoteric, they were in reality exoteric in the best sense of the word. While they provide sidelights on the ethics of medieval medical practice, they also illustrate a high degree of ethical motivation on the part of their authors, because almost all were written for the use of the public and represent a massive effort, in the aggregate, at popular health education.

Amundsen, op.cit. p. 421

Note: For readers’ convenience, I limit the number of sources quoted directly; I try to choose only those whose work is well-researched and in keeping with the most reliable scholarship, but I would like to think that any Voynich researcher worth his/her salt will check back to the original medieval sources before accepting anything repeated at second- or third- remove.

Things begin to change somewhat later, around the late sixteenth century and by the mid-seventeenth century, even as printed ‘remedies’ begin to be sold to the ordinary public we also see some chroniclers and other observers almost on the verge of understanding the chain of Plague’s transmission.

In one case, in Florence, we hear of how a weaver opened some bales of wool – then he and his weavers all died of plague; then that a chicken-farmer dies of it; and then across the courtyard from the weaver, a woman and her children receive a bag of flour – and they die.

  • Giulia Calvi, ‘A Metaphor for Social Exchange: The Florentine Plague of 1630’, Representation, Winter, 1986, No. 13 (Winter, 1986), pp. 139-163.

Just so, it is common enough to hear that to open a bale of cloth, wool or of furs first brings plague into a community and some link was understood to exist between plague and domestic (if not always domesticated) animals.

When Plague struck a certain village in England in 1665 it was understood that plague began in that village* after a tailor opened a bale of cloth from which fleas escaped and bit him.

*Eyam, Darbyshire. Noted for the number of inhabitants who survived. Recent scholarship revealed that those who survived did so because they had inherited a certain gene (delta 32). On this, a documentary made by Timeline has the usual high-pitched introduction but improves from about 8:22.

Seventeenth-century: cheap print culture.

By the seventeenth century, we now find that in the family setting (not identical to a household setting) the kind of ‘secrets’ books whose Victorian equivalent would be Mrs. Beeton’s often now include a family’s secret recipes against plague and these are the family’s secrets in a more modern sense.

Further, that such recipes, as claimed plague remedies, had become by this time “important and established features of early modern medical cultures, both domestic and commercial and were sold widely in marketplaces, streets and through cheap print cultures” – so that the ‘money’ part of plague and money was now well to the fore – but even so I’ve encountered none that were actually encrypted, either before or in publication.

Crawshaw also notes (with references given*) that in Venice “The submission of secrets to the Health Office requests for privileges, reminiscent of the patents studied by Luca Mola’s work on the Venetian silk industry, became more common towards the end of the sixteenth century and continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”(p.615)

*in particular the Introduction in Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800 (Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2011)

  • Jane Stevens Crawshaw, ‘Families, medical secrets and public health in early modern Venice’, Renaissance Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (September 2014) issue: Women and Healthcare in Early Modern Europe, pp. 597-618. Linked to the quotation as note 15 is a short bibliography of plague recipes and charlatan-literature.

The case of one Marieta Colochi shows how a seventeenth century Venetian family regarded their plague ‘secrets’ in just the way an eminent chef might treat a superior culinary recipe – that is, as potential key to a family’s present and future financial and social position.

The same attitude is attested there some decades earlier when in 1576, an important medical officer in Venice decided in the public interest to give up his own ‘secrets’ for treating victims of plague – by selling those secrets to the state. The price Ascanio Olivetti sought, during the lifetime of the future Rudolf II, was an initial payment of 5,000 ducats and thirty ducats’ salary per month for the rest of his life, with the same salary to be given for life to his children, male or female, on the understanding that they would serve the Health Office as needed. Clearly, Olivetti believed that in selling his medical ‘secrets’ he was selling what had been the key to his own and his family’s financial security.

So by the third quarter of the sixteenth century, at least in commercially-minded Venice with its passion for commercial secrecy and commercial exclusivity, the medical secret might be a commercial secret.

Reporting this, Crawshaw notes that 5,000 ducats was the equivalent of almost thirty-five years’ Ascanio’s official salary. In the event, Venice agreed to a one-off payment of just 800 ducats (five times his annual salary) but did agree to increase his monthly salary to thirty ducats, provide for his children, and exempt him from all taxes including the Venetian decima.

From this example we learn that in late sixteenth-century Venice, at least, the medical secret – or one aimed against plague – really could have immediate commercial pecuniary value.

Ascanio’s salary having been until then about 160 ducats a year, and he one of the highest ranked physicians of the Venetian state, the amount puts into perspective Mnishovsky’s story about the Voynich manuscript’s having been bought from an anonymous carrier* for 600 ducats.

* Marci’s convoluted sentence (which Philip Neal parses in meticulous detail in his Notes) is translated by Neal as: “Doctor Raphael, the Czech language tutor of King Ferdinand III as they both then were, once told me that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolph and that he [Mnishovsky or Rudolf is left ambiguous in the original too] presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book”. For a safe link to Neal’s site, see ‘Constant References’ section in the Bibliography in this blog’s top bar.

A notorious example of profit-seeking from plague during the sixteenth-century is that of Caspar Kegler‘s publishing his own snake-oil ‘plague medicine’ recipes. I have written of him before – HERE – and referred readers to Heinrichs’ study, whose details I give again.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440.
  • A more upbeat and laudatory perception of Kegler appears more recently on the Danish ‘Hypotheses‘ website, from which I have the illustration shown at the end of this post. By the mid-to-late sixteenth century, too, German hands are now often using the ‘4’ shape for the numeral four – not as a result of education in the mercantile-commercial calculation schools (‘abbaco’ or ‘abaco’ schools) as occurs so much earlier in the south, but in imitation of printers’ having adopted that form in the meantime.


What we learn from all we’ve seen is that within the Voynich vellum’s radiocarbon-14 dates of 1405-1438, medicine within Latin Europe was perceived as public service and while individual physicians and others might attempt to raise their professional profile to boost their income, we’ve found nothing of ‘secretly written plague remedies’.

Writings touting ‘secret plague medicines’ appear in western Europe in the sixteenth century, proliferating from that time into the seventeenth- and not least because access to print had become very easy and relatively inexpensive.

But even then, one does not find such texts encrypted.

One is free to imagine that some medical ‘secret’ might be encrypted or enciphered in western Europe by the early modern period, if not in the early fifteenth century, and it is conceivable – just – that it might have been encrypted using a system that defies even modern tools for cryptanalysis. But to imagine such a desire among qualified European physicians, and/or that they would use a cipher of such sophistication before 1440 demands a suspension of disbelief greater than the present author can manage.

This may, of course, be due to my own insufficient understanding of cipher techniques and their imponderables before 1440, or to the fact that some regions of Europe have manuscripts less easily accessible than others’ and are being omitted from the surveys and data-collection.

Solely from what has been considered, though, one must conclude that if the whole Voynich text is enciphered and was composed before 1438 in Latin Europe, then it is highly unlikely to be a text first composed there by a physician trained in the Latin medical tradition.

With regard to which – Elonka Dunin and Klaus Schmeh reported at a recent Voynich zoom-conference that they had found only six encrypted books dating to the fifteenth century. Despite their paper’s displaying insufficient background in medieval history, -iconology and manuscript studies, it is of value in that each of two authors has a high and well-earned reputation in their own field of cryptology and their survey found not a single instance of a fifteenth-century encrypted herbal or an encrypted medical treatise.

After explaining carefully their criteria for defining a text as “an encrypted book” – though not the geographic parameters for their survey – the authors list the following:

(i-iii) three texts by Giovanni Fontana (1395–1455), a man of Padua whose family had come from Venice, and who was trained in engineering and medicine*;

*for reasons we cannot spare time to go into here, Fontana’s probably having served (as Long** says) most of his working life as a military physician and also serving for a time as municipal physician to the city of Udine in Friuli – which is adjacent to the Veneto – are factors relevant to Voynich studies, though neither point is mentioned by the Dunin-Schmeh paper. **Pamela Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge …(2001). For Fontana’s enciphered works, Long refers to the studies by Eugenio Battisti and Giuseppa Saccaro Battisti.

(iiii) a late work called Steganographia, attributed to a German Benedictine monk named Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516). The paper’s authors see Trithmenius’ work as a satire (they use the word ‘hoax’) rather than regarding it, as do e.g. Pelling and Reeds, as simply a model- or text-book for steganography. I’m given to understand that Reeds deciphered the content of Steganographia‘s third volume.

Dunin and Schmeh also refer to (v) a manuscript they call “Codex Palatinus Germanicus”, but the description leaves the text unidentifiable since there are 848 codices bearing that description, all having been formerly in the Palatine library in Heidelberg.

Fontana’s medical degree notwithstanding, none of his encrypted books is about medicine.

Additional note (10th Feb 2023). The assertion seen under Fig.3 in the Dunin-Schmeh paper, “… two more Giovanni Fontana books (not depicted) have the closest visual similarity with the Voynich Manuscript” is unexplained and unattributed, but appears to be derive from an observation made by Philip Neal [HERE], who wrote “some – not all – of the diagrams illustrating [mnemonic machines described in Fontana’s Secretum de Thesauro] slightly resemble Voynich illustrations”. The wiki article, last updated in Dec. 2022, says that “it has been suggested…” and references Neal. The Dunin-Schmeh paper omits mention of Neal and asserts the item as fact. Thus are tentative comments by single individuals elevated into anonymous ‘dicta’ in Voynich studies.

Balance of Probability

If one presumes – as most Voynicheros do presume – that the Voynich text was first composed in Latin Europe and that it was inscribed before 1440, and further assume that it is encrypted, then it becomes highly unlikely that the content is medical. Pace Brewer, the evidence is that Latins just weren’t into encrypting medical texts and recipes, let alone whole books of them.

*Kegan Brewer’s paper entitled, ‘ “I beg your grace to suppress this chapter or else to have it written in secret letters”: The Emotions of Encipherment in Late-Medieval Gynaecology’ has an ambitious title but in the event describes no more than occasional instances of words or phrases being omitted, erased or otherwise censored in much they way that medical works did if the material could be misused or misconstrued. As late as the early twentieth century it was still the norm that “certain things are best left in the Latin” – and for much the same reason. Brewer’s paper was delivered at the zoom conference held courtesy of the University of Malta, as were those of Schmeh and Dunin; of Fagin Davis, of Painter and Bowern and others. All can be read online through CEUR, an online journal dedicated to publishing workshops in computer science.

Postscript – thanks to Monica Green and Rae Ellen Bichell’s blogpost [HERE] I owe readers an apology: the header picture for the previous blogpost does not show victims of the Plague, but of leprosy, and comes from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, a 14th-century encyclopedia. But as Bichell points out, Getty images, which distributes that picture and the British Library itself in a 2012 exhibition mis-labelled the detail as an image of the Plague. I should have checked the original, nonetheless.

O’Donovan notes #9.1: Plague, Medicine, Money and Secrecy.

c.3700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

minor correction – 4th Feb.2023; minor typos fixed, 6th Feb.; “1635” corrected to 1639.


For newcomers – I cannot pretend that my own researches and their conclusions allow me to support any theory of medical or medico-alchemical (or alchemical) purpose behind the choice of matter copied to form the contents of Beinecke MS 408. However, ideas of that type were very early attached to the manuscript and are now so commonly repeated that they should be cross-examined with care and with constant reference both to the primary document and to scholarship relevant to the time until when the Voynich quires are believed inscribed (apart from a few lines of marginalia) – that is, c.1404-1438.

If the present author has a ‘Voynich theory’ it is that if works created before that date provide adequate explanation for images in the Voynich manuscript, then they rather than later examples should be referred to. Thus, we find a hatted hunter-crossbowman in a fourteenth century French manuscript fully a century before figures so attired occur in any German calendar… and so on… and so on..

During 2021-22, we investigated some among the Voynich manuscript’s star-related diagrams, and other related matter – including where and when a use of the ‘4’ shape for the numeral “four” occurs in Latin Europe – this because the form given the Voynich glyph suggests hands already accustomed to writing the numeral in that way. As so often, maintaining the radiocarbon-14 date-range means withdrawing support from a number of popular Voynich theories including the ‘New world’ theory and the theory of a ‘German/central European’ origin.

Thus, when considering the Voynich calendar, we found that it was again in regions of southern Europe, but not in the north, that examples occur of a ‘November scorpion’ and, too, the earliest example noted so far of a recognisable ‘November crocodile’ – which is what we find also in the Voynich calendar. The closest comparison to noted so far is in a missal made in an Occitan-speaking region of France, and for a community having direct links to northern Italy. That missal was made c.1350 AD.

We also noted that the calendar’s month-names ‘speak’ a southern French (or English-French) dialect, and in the hope that the Voynich pigments may one day be fully studied, we may mention in this context Nick Pelling’s prediction that the month-names’ dialect would be that of the Toulon region, where (in Le Pradet) there occurs a form of azurite containing the rare combination of Baryte and Mixite, the same being found also (but not only) in Turin. On which see:

  • Bryon Deveson, comment 482697 (Jan. 29th., 2023) added below Pelling’s ciphermysteries post, ‘Quire 20 order from chaos part 2’. Deveson references mindat and names other possible mines.

The Voynich manuscript shows signs of haste, and of multiple scribes at work, which again makes relevant the fact that from the mid-fourteenth century to the mid-fifteenth in Latin Europe, amateur bibliophiles directed the movement of Latins’ manuscript production and among them all the most notable save Matthias Corvinus had been residents in French-speaking, Occitan-speaking or Italian-speaking regions. Once more, southern rather than Northern Europe is indicated.

For those reasons – and many others – I’m taking one early plague tract as focus for this post. It proved enormously influential and popular, probably first written in Latin but translated certainly into French and into Hebrew.

Composed in 1365, the copy of interest to us is the translation into French that was made in 1371 and is now in the National Library of France (BNF) as BNF NAF 4516.

The volume contains, with that plague tract, a work known as the ‘Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ which again proved widely popular; even today more than 300 copies survive in manuscript.

The author of both works is believed the same person, known as ‘John of Burgundy’ in connection with the plague tract, and as ‘Sir John Mandeville’ for the Travels.

What is kept hidden is not the content of his plague tract but the author’s true identity, which may never be known beyond doubt. As for money, that motive is also seen indirectly – as an advertisement for the physician ‘John of Burgundy’ by that same ‘Sir John Mandeville’.

So the author of the plague tract introduces himself thus:

“I, John of Burgundy, otherwise called la Barbe, citizen of Liège and professor of the art of medicine, intend, having invoked divine help, to epitomize (enucleare) the preservation and treatment of the epidemic.”

BNF NAF 4516

while, as D.W. Singer reports:

It is told in the “Travels” that Sir John met in Egypt an extraordinarily learned and venerable physician, whom he calls Johannes ad Barbam. It was this bearded John, he assures us, who, by a curious coincidence, saved his life many years afterwards in Liège…

Dorothea Waley Singer, ‘Some Plague Tractates’ (p.161)

Given what we know of the popularity and wide dissemination of both compositions by this ‘John’, one expects that the perhaps-English, perhaps-Burgundian physician resident in Liège might have enjoyed a very comfortable income for the rest of his life.

Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, Department of Manuscripts, NAF 4516

This manuscript is chosen for discussion not because it is illustrated, and not only because it is treated in D.W. Singer’s monograph on Plague tracts, but because of the volume’s date, its circumstances and provenance, each of which presents points consonant with various among our observations and findings about the Voynich manuscript so far.*

*including matter relating to star-related diagrams on folio 67v-1, on f.85r and in the Voynich calendar. Readers new to this blog may need to read some earlier posts to get the best from this one.

I summarise some of these points below, though in brief, knowing that their implications may be clearest only to longer-term readers of this blog and of voynichimagery. Readers are asked to be patient with any repetition of things heard before. The following is for the convenience of newly-arrived readers. We’ll move on to more overtly ‘secret’ medicine in the next post.

1. c.1350 – France.

BNF NAF 4516 contains the French translation (1371) of John’s plague tract composed in 1365,

We have seen already, from fourteenth-century France, the drawing of a hunter-crossbowman which provides him with one form of ‘tailed’ hat and with a longer garment than would be seen until a century later in crossbowman images created further north, particularly in calendars. Again, treating the Voynich calendar’s ‘November-crocodile’ our earliest-noted comparison (first brought to notice by JKPetersen I think) was in a missal made c.1350 in an Occitan-speaking region of France. It was made for use by the order of preachers known as ‘Friars Minor’ or ‘Franciscans’.

Examples cited to suit theories of a northern Voynich calendar have yet to cite one in which either a scorpion or a crocodile is the image for November. At least, so far as I’ve seen offered over the past decade and more.

2. ‘Franciscans and Dominicans’.

Current opinion on authorship of both the plague tract and its accompanying ‘Travels of Sir John Mandeville’ is given by the British Library (HERE), saying that the author’s true identity is impossible to know but “it seems that he had access to a wide array of source material, particularly to the accounts of Dominican and Franciscan missionaries.”

Whether this knowledge was gained during his time in France, or later in Liege, or during his travels or even in England we do not know, but it covers the period when the Papal court was in Avignon (1309 to 1376) and to that court all missionary-travellers were expected to report on their return. Indeed, in his name of John de Mandeville, the same John of Burgundy tells us that “at mine home-coming, I came to Rome[sic!] , and shewed my life to our holy father the pope , and was shriven of all that lay in my conscience.. as men must needs that be in company, dwelling amongst so many a diverse folk of diverse sect and of belief, as I have been. And amongst all I shewed him this treatise .. and besought the holy father, that my book might be examined and corrected by advice of his wise and discreet council. And our holy father, of his special grace, remitted my book to be examined and proved by the advice of his said counsel“. The two great bibliophile popes John XXII (1316-34) and Benedict XII (1334-42) were, of course, Avignon-period popes.

Montpellier was an important centre for medical studies.

3. Provenance (chain of ownership).

3.1 Charles V of France (r.1364 – 1380)

BNF ms NAF 4516 was owned by Charles V, the monarch who, by no later than 1380, also possessed the great work by Abraham Cresques of Majorca that is commonly, if a little inaccurately, called the Catalan Atlas.

Another of the earliest ‘amateur collectors’ who maintained “armies of scribes”, Charles V amassed a library of 1200 volumes in Louvre alone – that collection being later purchased by John of Lancaster who was simultaneously Duke of Bedford and Prince Regent of France in the early 15thC. Clearly, though, the collection bought by John, Duke of Bedford did not include the volume that is now BNF NAF 4516.

However, we have seen the work made for Bedford by a Portuguese physician trained in Paris and known as Roland of Lisbon. (Oxford, Bodleian, St.John’s College MS 18). One may wonder if the bearded figures in its frontispiece, like the the portrait of Bedford showing him semi-bearded aren’t both deliberate homage to that other John “..of Burgundy, also known as John la Barbe’ – but to wonder about it is all we can do.

Again, we have seen in the the work of various fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian and Majorcan cartographers, including Cresques of Majorca, points of correspondence between those cartes marine gridded ‘by the Rose’ and drawings in the Voynich manuscript, notably in its map (often called the ‘rosettes’ page, though it contains no ‘rosettes’ and only three versions of compass Roses as such, three of what I’ve argued had been four in the exemplar.) And in considering where and when the numeral ‘four’ occurs as a ‘4’ by 1375, we found it occurs in Cresques’ work and otherwise only in some few places in southern Europe and the Aegean before 1438.

3.2 Charles VI .. to Guglielmo Libri.

NAF 4516 passed directly from Charles V of France into the possession of Charles VI, and subsequently that of Jean d’Orléans, Comte d’Angoulême (1400-1467), thus to be preserved as part of the French Royal Library until 1792, at which time it was acquired by one Joseph Barrois (1780-1855) whose collaboration with the book-thief Guglielmo Libri is to the discredit of both.

Many works ‘acquired’ by Libri and through him by Barrois would then find their way to England and into the great collection of the Earl of Ashburnham. (For more, see postscript).

The role played by Guglielo Libri is often overlooked when catalogue entries and advertisements of manuscript sales are written up, but the BNF has described in full the chain of ownership for BNF NAF 4516, and so among the former (‘ancien’) possessors are listed:

  • Barrois, Joseph (b. 1780- died 1855).
  • Libri, Guillaume (b. 1803 – d. Fiesole, Italy, Sept. 28th., 1869)
  • Ashburnham, Bertram (b.1797- d.1878).
  • Bibliothèque nationale (France).

There can be no doubt, then, that when the Voynich quires are believed inscribed (c.1405-1438), what are now the contents of NAF 4516 were in France and nominally in the possession of Jean d’Orléans, Comte d’Angoulême.

I say ‘nominally’ because from 1412-1444, Jean was held hostage by the English, in accordance with terms in the Treaty of Buzançais. Jean’s close relations, Louis Duke of Orléans (1371-1401) and his son Charles of Orléans (d. 1467), are two more among those notable collectors and commissioners of manuscript copies in the fourteenth and fifteenth-century – but this is simply a statement of fact. I do not mean to imply, nor would I support, any theory that the Voynich quires as we have them could be regarded as acceptable product of any noble-, papal-, or royal atelier during or after the fourteenth century.

And here we may say, yet again, that neither Marcus Marci nor any other reliable witness ever said that the Voynich manuscript was owned by Rudolf II. That tale, as already a rumour, can be ascribed to no-one but Rafael Mnishovsky who (as Philip Neal pointed out years ago) cannot possibly have witnessed the purchase that he claims occurred and despite Stefan Guzy’s best efforts, the rumour is still without any evidence to support it, documentary or otherwise.

4. Egypt … and Plague

It is evident that an association with Egypt and its ‘ancient medicine’ enhanced the reputation of a text and a physician, and that in much the way that it was believed that self-denial and the religious asceticism of earlier Egyptian Christianity were a spiritual defence against illness and death and ‘Egyptian medicine’ was in some way most effective against Plague. These things reflected, in the present instance, in John’s having ‘Sir John de Mandeville’ say he met the physician ‘John of Burgundy/John a Barbe’ in Egypt.

It is true that during the Plague’s earlier years (from c.1438 1348-c.1448), physicians constantly advised a regimen of self-restraint and avoidance of luxury. John of Burgundy’s widely influential tract begins in just that way:

First, you should avoid over-indulgence in food and drink, and also avoid baths and everything which might rarefy the body and open the pores, for the pores are the doorways through which poisonous air can enter, piercing the heart and corrupting the life force. Above all sexual intercourse should be avoided.

Most readers will have encountered in Voynich studies a theory that the unclothed figures in certain sections of the manuscript should be supposed literal and associated, variously, with Latin works about bathing, womens’ herbal medicine or gynaecology. I won’t digress to explain why such theories are unsatisfactory in terms of iconological analysis and the history of western Europe’s Latin art, but in terms of medicine one sees that the balneological theory is inconsistent with the themes which dominate medicine during that first century of Europe’s Plague years – that is, between 1438 1348 and 1448. Bathing is typically treated as contra-indicated while fumigation was a constant recommendation and, given what we now know, a fairly sensible one. Unfortunately, ingredients which are recommended as fumigants don’t include any recognised as flea-repellents today.

As late as 1635 1639, the first certain possessor of the manuscript, George Baresch still held to that old idea that Egypt’s medical knowledge must be superior to the common man’s medicine.

There was some reason for that popular impression, as is so often true. From at least so early as the ninth century, Europe’s most expensive, rarest and thus most highly valued materia medica had come from – or more accurately, though – Egypt.

In earlier research, the present author presented an analysis of various Voynich plant-drawings, noting that they show direct knowledge of plants whose form was to remain unknown to European botanists to as late as the seventeenth century. We spoke in particular of the myrobalans and of ‘true balsam’, but also of the banana-plants and others in this context. As with the cerastes, Latins might know the name but without travelling to foreign parts were unable to give any clear image of the creature, or plant. This is also true of the Egyptian (or Indian) crocodile, called ‘cocodrille’ in the earlier Latin works and usually drawn more like an heraldic dragon. In that mid-fourteenth century missal, as in the Voynich calendar, that creature is well-depicted and is associated with November and its commemoration of the dead.

It is tempting to suppose the French translator of John’s plague tract had mistaken his grammar, when we find that in speaking of fumigation, he lists exotic goods which had their origin in south-east Asia ‘for the poor’ while among those ‘for the rich’ is the Mediterranean’s rosemary. Still, here’s how the text reads:

In cold or rainy weather you should light fires in your chamber and in foggy or windy weather you should inhale aromatics every morning before leaving home: ambergris, musk, rosemary and similar things if you are rich; zedoary, cloves, nutmeg, mace and similar things if you are poor.(!)

John of Burgundy, ‘De epidemia’.

Readers interested in exotic plant products imported into Europe might begin with John Riddle’s seminal study and others of his papers that shed more light on this issue. A list of imported ‘spices’ (as luxury-goods were called) can be found for the fifteenth century in the Venetian work, the Zibaldone da Canal, though by then Venice was receiving such goods through Tunis. For more recent studies of medieval trade in such products, including the materia medica used in receipts by Jews and Arabs in medieval Cairo, see studies by Gerrit Bos, Efraim Lev and works cited in their bibliographies.

5. Materia medica.

It is a notable characteristic of the Voynich drawings, one which generally weighs against arguments for the text’s being about medicine that they so rarely include reference to animals and still more rarely to any of those inorganic ingredients which are such a regular feature of the medieval Latin medical tradition, not to mention that of alchemy.

As Lev and others have shown, however, a similar preference for purely plant-based remedies is seen in the Jewish pharmacopoeia. I don’t want to over-emphasise this matter, or spend time on it here, but would again refer interested readers to papers either authored by or co-authored by Lev or Bos. Many offered in English are now available through academia.edu.

Perhaps I should add that in the opinion of the present writer, the plant on folio 1r is the Clove and is one of the very few Voynich plant-pictures which show a single plant rather than a plant group. Among others first identified by the present author are those included the group ‘Myrobalans’.. but since this blog is meant to assist the investigations of others, and not showcase my own, I add no more.

Nonetheless, and despite my opinion being, on balance, that the manuscript’s plants are not primarily medicinal ones, I might agree that many could be termed ‘spices’ in that vague and very general way the word was applied in medieval texts.

Once again, then, I’ll be clear that while I speak of the ‘medical Voynich’ theory, I neither support nor endorse it – pretty much as Marcus Marci would neither support nor endorse Mnishovsky’s story of Rudolfine ownership, though he mentions it for form’s sake.

More generally…

Voynich text

If, by any chance, the ‘noble soul’ whom Baresch believed travelled east in search of superior eastern and ‘Egyptian’ medicine had been the physician of Liège known to us as John a la Barbe or John of Burgundy, and if (as I suspect) Baresch hoped the Voynich manuscript contained some remedy for Plague, John of Burgundy’s De epidemia would certainly be a candidate for testing against the Voynich text.

An easily-accessible English translation is presently offered (HERE) in a post by ‘stonelund’.

By the holding library, BNF NAF 4516 is described as:

Préservation de Epidémie , traduction française du De morbo epidemiae de Jean de Bourgogne Jean de Bourgoigne), John de Mandeville etc.

If you have difficulty accessing its digitised copy, try clearing your browser. The BNF site is extremely sensitive and you may need to try both the following addresses to gain access, but I hope one of them will work for you.


1. Dorothea Waley Singer

Dorothea Waley Singer (left) Charles Singer (right).

It is a pity that d’Imperio reports comments made by Charles Singer but none by Dorothea Waley Singer, a scholar of international standing, a palaeographer and bibliographer with links to the Medieval Academy of America.

D.W. Singer’ ‘s monograph entitled, Some Plague Tractates (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries) was published in the Royal Society Journal in 1916 and treats in detail BNF NAF 4516.

D.W. Singer worked on compiling a great catalogue of pre-renaissance scientific and alchemical manuscripts and it is to her work that Lynn Thorndike refers in his letter to Scientific American in 1925, and in connection with the Voynich manuscript.

Had Dorothea Waley Singer lived longer – she died in 1964 – or had Kraus donated the manuscript earlier to Yale as a lost leader, then the Beinecke catalogue entry might have been written up rather differently to what it was.

D.W. Singer’s obituary was published by the Royal Society’s Journal for the History of Medicine and includes the following information:

“She served for many years on the council of the History Section of the Royal Society of Medicine; and in the British Society for the History of Science she was a vice-president from its foundation in 1947 until 1950. She was also an executive member of the Academie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences, and a vice-president of the Union International d’Histoire des Sciences, of which body she was for long .. the chairman of its Bibliographical Commission. She was also a Corresponding Member of the Medieval Academy of America” – where she became well known as a specialist in Latin palaeography.

The full text of that biography and obituary can be downloaded as a pdf. (HERE).

  • Dorothea Waley Singer, ‘Some Plague Tractates (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries)’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 9, Number (March 1916) – Section of the History of Medicine. [This article is presently available as a free-access pdf on the Journal’s site.


2. Joseph Barrois and Gugliemo Libri.

Guglielmo Libri

Muskinsky’s offers a helpful account of Barrois and his relations with Libri (HERE). For more see entry at Arlima [HERE].

In case the Muskinsky page is taken down, I add a couple of paragraphs from it:

Joseph Barrois was an erudite but eccentric and indeed crooked bibliophile who became fatally involved with the notorious and unpunished book thief Guglielmo Libri, who, in his capacity of inspector of public instruction, traveled throughout France [and Italy] surveying libraries and pillaging them.

[Napoleon had ordered the pillaging and removal to France, or to deposits in Italy, of aristocratic and religious libraries in territories he had conquered. Libri lobbied for, and obtained, authority over all these in a role which was effectively that of libraries’ inspector-general. – D.]

Barrois is known have taken in “Libri’s” manuscripts and had them rendered unrecognizable through rearrangement of quires, rebinding, mutilation, etc. The unsigned binding [of Barrois’ ‘Dactylogie’] was confidently attributed by Bernard Breslauer to the Parisian binder Thompson, who assisted Barrois in these fraudulent activities.

Barrois also compiled his own valuable manuscript collection, about ten percent of which stemmed from compromised sources. Foreseeing Libri’s conviction, he had the collection discreetly shipped to England in 1849 and sold to the Earl of Ashburnham (cf. Delisle, pp. xl-xlii; most but not all were eventually repurchased by the French government). Convicted in 1850, Libri himself remained comfortably in England, where he was wined and dined by the likes of Panizzi, Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum.

In Dactylologie et langage primitif restitués d’après les monuments – 1850, published the year of Libri’s conviction, Barrois explores the origins of language in gesture and phonetics, postulating an original universal (Indo-European) language shared by Assyria, India, and China. He traces its roots through cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and classical Greek, and declares the Phoenician digital or finger-alphabet to have been the source of many other writing systems, including Lap, Sanskrit, Chinese, Aztec and other Amerindian languages.

[So the age of Kircher was not quite dead, even then.]

Short note – About crossbowmen post 1440.

The next post, on the theme of Plague, Medicine, Money and Secrecy, will refer again to France and to Burgundy, so this seems a suitable moment to publish matter originally written as postscript to my post of September 11th., 2022, in which Dukes of Burgundy are listed as notable early book-collectors and bibliophiles.

Here are the paragraphs to which the information was initially linked, as postscript, in that post.

At this juncture kings and princes began to develop a taste for books and to form libraries; that of St. Louis* was one of the earliest. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these amateurs had in their pay veritable armies of copyists. Thenceforth it was they who directed the movement of the production of manuscripts.

*Louis IX of France, reigned 1226 to 1270 AD.

The most famous were Popes John XXII (1316-34), Benedict XII (1334-42); the poet Petrarch (1304-74), who was not satisfied with purchasing the manuscripts in convents but himself formed a school of copyists in order to have accurate texts, the King of France, Charles V (1364-1380), who collected in the Louvre a library of twelve hundred volumes [subsequently purchased in 1424 by John of Lancaster as Duke of Bedford and Prince Regent of France – D], the French princes Jean, Duke of Berry, a forerunner of modern bibliophiles (1340-1416), Louis Duke of Orléans (1371-1401) and his son Charles of Orléans (d. 1467), the dukes of Burgundy, the kings of Naples, and Matthias Corvinus. Also worthy of mention are Richard of Bury, Chancellor of England, Louis of Bruges (d. 1492), and Cardinal Georges d’Amboise (1460-1510)

from from: ‘O’Donovan notes: Calendar emblems “July” – The making of manuscripts’ voynichrevisionist, September 11th., 2022. Source cited in the earlier post.

Deciding to cut it from that post, I later added it – again as postscript – to the post of December 19th., 2022 but once more it was cut as a bit tangential.

So now here it is at last, and upgraded from incidental postscript to a post of its own. 🙂

Images of Crossbowmen in German calendars after 1440.

The mid-fifteenth century was still a time when German-speaking regions were looking to France and to Italy for their fashions – in clothing, in literature, and in styles for manuscript-illuminations. I’d suggest it worth considering, as one reason for the proliferation of crossbowmen in German works made after 1440, that it had been in that same year of 1440 that Philip the Good of Burgundy had taken part, as a competitor, in a crossbow-shooting competition in Ghent, this competition being part of a festival that lasted for weeks and officially eliminated the last trace of impropriety which had earlier attached to use of that weapon.

As Crombie reports, it was on 13th March, 1440, that the Ghent crossbow guild invited to a great crossbow competition ‘kings, lords, provosts, deans, wardens… and other honourable men and communities of crossbowmen ‘in privileged and free towns’ to what it described as “the honourable, right and proper” pastime of crossbow shooting. The word ‘game’ still described the exercise of learned skills as a form of pleasure. The sense in which we mean ‘game’ as a trivial, or at least non-serious activity, was still rare.

For the benefit of American and other modern, non-European readers who may not realise the extraordinary deference, amounting to what non-Europeans would see as near-worship, which northern Europeans paid to members of the nobility in those days, I should add that this deference went .far beyond simple snobbery or social ambition and might see a member of the nobility treated as almost more than human.

In the case of Philip and the impact of his decision to compete in that crossbow competition, it has to be kept in mind that he was not only Duke of Burgundy but part of the genealogical tree which included the Valois Kings of France during the fifteenth century. So when John took up that crossbow in so public a place at a time of political tensions, that act created more than just a local ‘stir’. It was quite enough to remove finally the stigma which had earlier attached to the weapon but more importantly for that time, served as an act of international diplomacy.

On those political tensions between Burgundy and more northern regions, any good history of the period will provide details.

German crossbow guilds/fraternities were, I believe, established from that year but am open to correction on the point.*

*I have read a paper on the subject of the German crossbow guilds but it was a few years ago and I cannot for the life of me now recall its details. It was well illustrated, as I recall.

  • Laura Crombie, ‘Shooting for prizes and honour’, Medieval Warfare , JUL / AUG 2017, Vol. 7, No. 3. pp. 40-45
  • Laura Crombie, Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders, 1300-1500, Boydell Press (2016). A number of the chapters were released separately as essays.

Having already analysed the Voynich ‘December’ emblem in detail elsewhere, I’ll summarise by saying that with all due respect to the conscientious effort made by Jens Sensfelder in 2003, his reservations and doubts – so honestly expressed – were well-founded. The bow cannot be asserted uniquely German or uniquely fifteenth-century.

Addendum to ‘Notice to Katie Tucker’

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

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

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

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

By 1985 I was already familiar with the Catalan Map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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