Skies above: elevated souls Pt.1 (moral character)

About the ‘ladies in baskets’ on folio 70v-i….(cont.)  

So far, the research had identified certain  environments where we find the same informing ideas; where, for example, it was not considered  odd  to liken the stars to a series of baskets, and where it was equally acceptable  to speak of the stars as a ‘conclave’ of some kind, but one outstanding problem which must be addressed before we go further is  that of perceived moral character.

‘Good women’.

That the month-diagrams should envisage the heavens’ denizens as mainly females, and show a good number of those unclothed presents a blank opposition to the mores of medieval Latin Europe.

The heavens were understood to be a destination assigned only to the good – and no  ‘good woman’ was depicted in medieval Latin art unclothed and (to use Panofsky’s expression) “shapely”.

Even the constellation of Virgo was normally to be found dressed by then, and when one of Gemini’s twins was depicted as a unclothed female (at least until 1440) she was meant for a sexless, or a married woman, or as the temptress Eve – who according to some popular traditions was never accepted into heaven. (Dante side-stepped the issue and does not specify Eve’s location in the circles of heaven, purgatory or hell, unless it be directly below those ‘four holy stars’ he saw as he emerged from the underworld. I do not think Par. 32.4-6 means Eve, but the Magdalen – cf  Purg. 28.93-94 … but that’s all by the bye).

It wasn’t only Latin tradition which defined, by default, any unclothed ‘shapely’ female as less than moral; the same was true in most communities of the medieval Mediterranean (and no, I’m not forgetting the diagram in 1291).

It was that discrepancy between the Voynich drawings and the usual (Wilfrid-Friedman) narrative which led me to doubt the ‘Latin author’ idea very early in my acquaintance with Beinecke MS 408.

Naturally I had begun, as most do, by supposing there must be some original body of solid study informing ideas contained in the Beinecke catalogue description, and the sources everywhere recommended, but this matter of the ‘ladies’ led me to enquire further and to the conclusion that the usual theory had no solid foundation, only elaborate superstructure, and that this had been the case since 1912. I am only speaking of interpretation given the images and the quasi-historical narratives.

The usual flaw in them has been to presume correct some assumption or other, and to select images, or add commentary less to explain the images themselves than to convice a reader that the theory is plausible.  This is why discussions most often focus on points of ‘similarity’ while ignoring as irrelevant all the points of difference.

One of the best comparisons for the month-diagram’s tiered figures that I have seen was Ellie Velinska’s, as I’ve said before.  Among more recent offerings has been that included in a post by  JK Petersen from a manuscript which he cites as  ‘Darmstadt c.1390’.

I have not been able to locate that manuscript, but found another illustration of the same kind at the Courtauld Iconographic Database (here) and will later reproduce a detail from it.

The image illustrates a parable from Matthew Ch.25, verses 1-16, the last two verses stating the story’s moral and beginning “You are to be the light of the world…’.

Here is another illustration of that same parable, and from yet another copy of Speculum Humanae Salvationis ( Brit. Sloane MS 361, folio 44r).  Note that the ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’ maids (a term often rendered as ‘virgins’) are given simple dress, but the  five  ‘wise’ maids are placed in the higher register and crowned while the five ‘foolish’ maids are assigned the lower level.

Those lamp-bearing maids are always ten in number in these illustrations  –   another point of difference from the Voynich month diagrams.

In still another copy, made somewhat later in the fifteenth century, the moral message is expressed more forcefully. The picture says, in effect,  “either carry the Christian light or stoke the fires (of hell).” (Brit.Lib. Harley ms 2838),


  1.  these ‘maids’ are always neatly dressed and coiffed
  2. they are never  in baskets, tubs, or buckets,
  3. In  images of this type they always carry ‘lamps’ of a contemporary sort:  apparently of coarse pottery, cup-shaped,  and when provided with a hand-grip, evidently designed to set in a sconce or (if without hand-grip) to be set on a flat surface.  Illustration (right) from the Corsiana ms copy of the Spec.Hum.Salv., courtesy of the Courtauld Iconographic Database.
  4. The flames are never depicted without a lamp.
  5. The flames are never depicted as flowers or as stars
  6. The flames are never ‘tied’ to the maids by a stem- or string.
  7. The figures’ bodies are never shown deformed or with ‘boneless’ limbs.

Though the Gospel text speaks specifically of oil in the lamps, Orthodox imagery could depict the light as a rush or taper.  The example shown (below, left) is from a mural in the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Pec. And in this case again the ‘wise’ are envisaged as ennobled by their acceptance into heaven.

The thinking behind this Orthodox imagery can be explained conveniently by quoting a passage from Chrysostom’s eighth homily on I Thess. He is  speaking of the same theme: Christ’s return at the end of days:

And upon the coming of an affectionate father (i.e. the deity), his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain [shut] indoors.

 I have cited Chrysostom over others because he was a native of Antioch; his period of greatest productivity was the third quarter of the fourth century AD, and thereafter his writings were widely disseminated and as well known by medieval times to the Latin as to the Orthodox churches. All thought (and think) very highly of Chrysostom, but I confess I cannot warm to the man.

On anachronism: When attempting to elucidate a medieval religious image, care should be taken to avoid anachronistic sources. Ideas widely disseminated today under the rubric ‘Christian’ may not have been part of the medieval Christian way of thought before 1440.


Some are positively antithetical to the norms of both western and eastern Christianity to that time. For example, a version of the Bible recently issued by an American fundamentalist sect omits passages and episodes they consider incompatible with their vision of Christ as a military figure and ‘fundamentalist’ in the modern American manner. Their text thus uses for the word ‘disciples’  a term specific to the military and excludes an episode from the Christian gospels in which Christ refuses to sanction the stoning of a woman taken in adultery… and so on.

In other cases, a post-medieval source is to be avoided simply because it is flawed.  I regret to say that the King James’ Bible (1611) is in this category, despite its being so widely and deservedly revered for the beauty of its English. The Revised Authorised version is more widely used today.   In my own work I have found most reliable (since the 1980s) the NIV interlinear bible. It was produced by a co-operation of well respected Biblical scholars of the Christian and the Jewish faith.  Its comments and scholia thus unite modern historical research with the long tradition of religious commentary proper to each of those faiths, and it presents, line by line in parallel with the offered translation the original texts in their original languages.  It does not include certain books, known as the Deuterocanonicals  which were everywhere accepted in medieval Europe to 1519 and included in all bibles until the publication of Luther’s Bible in 1534. To explain various visual and verbal allusions in earlier manuscripts and art, the Deutos are needed too.

There are neither lamps, nor tapers, depicted in the hands of the Voynich figures –  male or female, clothed or unclothed- in the month diagrams. Nor are their bodies depicted in a way commensurate with medieval Latin conventions, nor those of Orthodox Christian art. There is nothing in the depiction of their bodies to suggest they were designed to convey any Christian message. 

The Voynich “lamp” on folio 8ov.

The nearest we have to a lamp’s depiction is a type of horn-‘lamp’ on folio 80v – another of the ‘ladies’ sections.  I have already  compared it with Hellenistic and later images in the analyses published at Voynich imagery – and from a post of 2016 reproduce the image of the coin (below, centre). It is not a ‘cornucopia’, but it is a horn.


So – once more the imagery directs us away from medieval Latin (western European) Christian culture and, by way of earlier, and eastern Christianity, to the pre-Christian period.

Bearing in mind that there are many more than ten, or twelve ‘ladies’ in the tiers of each month-diagram in the Voynich manuscript, we should not expect any easy correspondence with the usual depictions of the zodiac, or anything of that sort, but an image first brought to notice by Dana Scott (so far as I can discover) as been so constantly re-presented since then – rarely with proper credit given – that it must be considered here.  The diagram in question is on folio 9r 1291, dated to the eighth century by some scholars, and to the ninth by others.


  1. Nowhere does the Beinecke manuscript depict a chariot; it has no crowned rider, nor indeed any sort of horseman.
  2. None of the Voynich month-diagrams is amenable to twelve’fold radial division, and the number of tiers in folio 70v-i is only two.
  3. The Voynich figures hold star-flowers, often with strings or stems – none of those in this diagram do.
  4. the zodiac in the outer (highest) circle of this diagram shows no close correspondence to the central emblems of the month-diagrams in the Voynich manuscript.

So all it tells us, essentially, is that in the ninth century, somewhere in the Byzantine empire  but probably in Constantinople, an effort was made to render into Christianised form information gained from earlier sources of which some may have had a Christian origin, as the matter of its written text does not.

Point of similarity:

In only one point does it shed any light on images in the Voynich month diagrams, that is, that the bodies of the figures described as ’12 holy virgins’ display some characteristics in common with the way the unclothed female figures are drawn in the Voynich month-diagrams.

Their description as ’12 holy virgins’ is another part of the  effort (largely unsuccessful and short-lived) to re-interpret this pre-Christian imagery in Christian terms.   I suspect the bridge between the 12 female figures and their Christian description depended on the ‘Shepherd of Hermas.

At least they are unclothed. We might fairly describe their limbs as rubbery-looking.  Their hair seems to have been cropped  and this, with the other characteristics, suggests they were originally envisaged as  ‘women of an hour’.


Dawn light.

One of the 12  holds an object not unlike the ‘cup-lamps’ in those Latin images shown earlier (e.g. the Corsiana manuscript) and I read it as signifying the hour of dawn,  ‘lighting the Sonne’s return’. It might even be meant for the dawn star, Venus, but I do not insist on it, nor that we see here a flame rather than, say, burning incense.  The object might even be a horn, rather than a small lamp or burner; to decide the issue one would have to see the manuscript itself.


Vat gr.1291 has been the subject of much scholarly attention, but most of it has been paid the written part of the text.

Franz Boll described both text and miniatures and although he has been dead for a hundred years, and his work since been emended and many of his guiding theories disproved or disputed, his name should at least be mentioned.   Sources more often cited today include Spatharkis of Leiden University, and Timothy Janz.


  • Timothy Janz, ‘The scribes and the date of the’, In Miscellanea Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticanae, Vol X (2003), pp.159-175* and plates. I-V.
  • Ionannis Spatharakis, ‘Some Observations On The Ptolemy Ms. Vat. Gr. 1291: Its Date And The Two Initial Miniatures’,  Byzantinische Zeitschrift 71 (1):41-49 (1978)
  • ______________, Corpus of Dated Illuminated Greek Manuscripts to the Year 1453, Leiden, 1981.
  • ______________, Studies in Byzantine Manuscript Illumination and Iconography (1996 – collected papers)


Voynich stars as guiding lights ‘of the hour’.

There is nothing in the image from or from the illustrations of the ‘wise and foolish maids’ which allows any inference about the content of the Voynich month diagrams or their labels – certainly not enough to justify suggesting the Voynich labels or text derives the content of or of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis.

There may be a more general, conceptual, link, and for its linguistic basis the first and most obvious possibility is the [Gk.] horae and false (‘folk’) etymologies attaching to it.

Some slight evidence for a link to Ptolemy’s tables is offered by similarities between the style of drawing for unclothed Voynich ‘ladies’ in the bathy section and Gemini’s depiction in Sassoon 823 (UPenn LJS 057), which latter manuscript  I introduced, noted, hunted out and illustrated at Voynichimagery even before UPenn had catalogued it, or put a digitised copy online.

I have since seen the  reference used by one or two Voynicheros, but always without mention of the  analytical commentary, comparative images and conclusions I provided (or any mention of my name).  The same bad practices and the same culprits have so often abused the generosity of those contributing original finds and research to this study since the early 2000s that one reaches a point where it seems pointless to keep feeding the pigeons.  Partly on my own account, and partly in self-imposed solidarity with the numerous others similarly treated I closed voynichimagery in 2017.

For the same reason, I’ll say no more about my own investigation of the Voynich figures as ‘of the hour’, though I will say the answer requires, first, careful investigation of the range of meaning for an ‘hour’ – the answer is not any simple ’12’ or ’12×2′.

Skies above. 6c: Methods, ideas and attitudes – and the ‘foreign’ in Voynich studies.

Header: (left) Precession and the northern circumpolar stars; (centre) night sky over Paris, Aug.22nd., 1420; (right) Precession and the southern circumpolar stars.

Two previous posts in this series:

update 11th November to show skies as calculated for Alexandria in 1420 AD, (August 22nd.).  readers comments and any correction most welcome.

The reason for spending so much time on the historical ‘backdrop’ is that when text and images are both problematic, as they are in the Voynich manuscript, we need to identify the ideas that will (one hopes) direct us towards the time, place and languages common to the first enuciator and his – presumably contemporary – audience.

How this is done: a thumnail guide to method and technique (1,500 wds)

As example: by merely looking at this small image (below, right) we might say that it is  “a bear, writing”.  That’s called treating an image as a “picture of..” Since the 1920s it has been the standard approach adopted by Voynich writers.

Against this approach, the analyst’s aims to – as it were – listen in on the communication  between the maker and his first audience, and assumes that their communication will be about their shared environment and languages – both verbal and visual.  We can do this for images produced in the pre-modern period because individual self-expression was not then perceived as the chief purpose of art  nor was ‘the artist’ the chief focus of attention.

So although this little detail could be imagined to be all about bears,  the form given it here depends on knowledge of [St.} Ursula‘s legend  (her name means a dear ‘little bear'(f.) combined with a specific error made by Geoffrey of Monmouth in relating her biography,  in twelfth century England. It is that error which is reflected in the conjunction of a little bear, and  writing.  (see details further below).

Recognising the tenor of this ‘conversation’, the researcher can now provide an upper (earlier) date for  first enunciation (a terminus a quo) and simultaneously identify a region within which maker and audience would be ‘speaking the same language’.

This, in turn, limits the range of spoken and written languages embodied in the accompanying text.  It must be one of those attested in the region and period where Geoffrey’s error had affect.

And this will be so  whether or not the accompanying text is legible.

Stylistics must then be taken into account. If they are not compatible with the information which an iconological analyst has ‘read’ from the image so far, that analyst must re-think the way they have read the image. It is quite unacceptable  to address opposition between the historical record and a personal impression by making statements which begin “the painter could have been/done…”.

In this case, the inclusion  of  a French-influenced bryony/’ivy’ border gives us the lower (i.e. later) limit for first enunciation: terminus ad quem.

The image cannot have been formed earlier than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s error;  the style of the bryony ornament makes it unlikely it was first enunciated later than the fourteenth century.

We can conclude with some confidence therefore –  whether or not the accompanying text is legible – that the manuscript’s content and specifically its written text came from a source available in the range 12thC-14thC and this detail was first given form in England and/or in 14thC France, a time when England and France were very closely connected by both popular and learned culture – and by politics.

I thus reach a conclusion that the ‘conversation’ between the first enunciator and his intended audience occurred in an Anglo-Norman environment and that it employs languages (visual and written-verbal) which were shared in that time and region:  Latin or one of the vernaculars employed at that time in England and/or in France would be indicated as the language of any accompanying text.

So now, having explained both  ‘why’ and ‘how’ the conclusions were reached, I must emphasise the the next step as the most vital when an opinion is to be shared, especially in a formal assessment of any object, and most particularly if (as is the case for most Voynich researchers) one has no access to raw data from laboratory tests or even to the physical object.

This step is where conclusions are tested against external scholarship and verifiable fact before being offered the reader, colleague or client.  And once again – if the evidence opposes an analyst’s opinion, it is they who must reconsider the matter.

To obscure disparities between one’s opinion and the objective historical record by creating stories or indulging in speculation is frowned upon,  and not least because it shifts attention from the object at issue,  to the researcher.   It alters a process of understanding to one of credulity.  It alters the relative roles of researcher and client or colleague – because instead of assisting their better understanding the object, it demands an act of faith from them to the researcher.  I should much prefer that a reader or colleague reacted to the information I provided by saying,  “I accept your evidence and understand your reasoning, but I won’t believe your conclusions” than “I don’t understand the thing any better, but I  will believe whatever you say.”

In this case, conclusions drawn from our reading of the ‘bear’ detail are very easily checked.  We have the manuscript’s catalogue record (Brit.Lib. MS  Egerton MS 3277), a very solid source because while no catalogue is perfect, it has always been the British Library’s practice  to exclude speculative matter.   Informed differences of opinion, where they exist, are always from well-informed persons; are clearly marked as items debated and the catalogue entry includes a bibiography which allows the reader to weigh the grounds on which each opinion was built.

So.. testing against the catalogue record (or other historical sources) shows that the ‘little bear’ on folio 13r is indeed in an Anglo-Norman work, one made in England,  and that the manuscript’s written text is in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the whole manuscript being dated to the second half of 14th century.

Because the written text on folio 13r is legible, we can add further to our description and say the ‘little bear’ serves as illustration, specifically, for verses 6-8 of that Psalm. (Psalm 15 in the Vulgate; 16 in modern translations).

Here the iconological analyst would stop, even if privately they thought that, in addition to the rest, the image might also convey an indirect compliment to the scribe.

Why might the analyst think so?

In the western European Christian (Latins’) manuscript tradition, the usual order of production was that the scribe first ruled out the page and then inscribed the written part of the text. before the page was passed on down to the ‘pictors’ – whose available space, and its shapes, the scribe had effectively determined.  And  verse 6 of that Psalm reads:  “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance..”  🙂

Why would the analyst not say this to the client or colleague?

Because there is no objective source against which that idea/insight can be tested. Simple as that. To prove an idea is to test it – to stress-test it – and in our discipline, the default must be that whatever cannot be tested must be presumed untrue. Others have different standards.


Monmouth and Ursula

In 12thC England, Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to have mis-read “Deo notus”(?) as Dianotus, and then supposed it the name of Ursula’s father. ‘Dia notus’ can be punningly rendered as a ‘record of days’ or ‘book of hours’ or even of the months (dian-notus).  On which point see entry ‘Saint Ursula’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia of 1917 or the wiki article in which much of the same information is repeated. On ‘Dianotus’ see Geoffrey of Monmouth’s  (Historia.., Bk 5 Ch.14 ). Cusack credits a fifteenth-century Englishman, Edmund Hatfield with the form ‘Deonotus’, though Hatfield himself refers to a lost Latin sermon. In any case, Hatfield’s slip is clearly inspired by existing connection made between Ursula and literacy.

  • Carole Cusack, ‘Hagiography and History: the Legend of Saint Ursula’, in Carole M. Cusack and Peter Oldmeadow (eds), This Immense Panorama Studies in Honour of Eric J. Sharpe, [Sydney Studies in Religion 2], 1999, pp. 89-104.  (p.96)

There exists little on ‘the monk of Rochester’ Edmund Hatfield, though he is thought to have died in 1502.  My sources were

  • Cecil Henry Fielding (compiler), The Records of Rochester (1910)  p.246.
  • W.B. Rye, ‘Catalogue of the Library of the Priory of St.Andrew, Rochester AD.1202’, Archaeolgia Cantiana, Vol.3 (1860) pp. 47-64 (p.53). He notes the alternative spelling ‘Hatfeld’.

Though the explanation of Ursula’s true origin would take us too far from our subject, it is to the point that Ursula was associated with women’s education, and  in later Italy was chosen as role model (patron saint) for a community of nuns whose charter was to promote literacy and learning for women.

I hope I’ve shown in this example that analytical method is valuable whether or not the accompanying written text can be read.

Analysis of one small detail couldn’t provide the title of the text written on this page of Egerton 3277, not even the fact that it came from the Bible – though if one were to consider every image in that manuscript, or if one were a medieval person whose literacy began with memorising the Psalter, we might.  (Note that our aim is not only to say where and when a  manuscript, as object, was manufactured).

Today, what analysis of this type can do is to define the range in which those who are attempting to read an illegible text may concentrate their efforts with reasonable confidence.  The image of the little bear was fairly easily read but those in the  Voynich manuscript display a variety of influences and disparity between times and places of first enunciation. The work is clearly a compilation; its  images have been affected by time and by transmission. They incorporate evidence of distinctly different ‘conversations’  between one section and another, and even at times in a single page.  The whole then presents a fascinating range of questions which must be addressed first by analysis and then (as always) by ‘stress-testing’ any initial opinion or impression against the solid information provided by external scholarship.

Naturally, if one’s conclusions agree with those of an earlier Voynich writer, it is essential to credit that precedent – if you can be certain you have seen the original statement.


The language of art is compounded of a particular people’s shared culture, ideas and formalised conventions in expression – and of the verbal and visual languages proper to them.  These things together both inform and limit, first,  the mental image and then the range of its physical expression.

Because the imagery in the Voynich manuscript includes very few details exhibiting the customs of medieval western Europe’s common culture, we must work from a  wider historical ‘backdrop’ to identify the narrower historical context(s) which will make the manuscript’s content less unintelligible for a modern reader.

To this point, the backdrop now extends from the Hellenistic to the medieval centuries, and from Asia minor to the south-western Mediterranean and has shown how certain themes and concepts were maintained but variously expressed though that range.   What is now to be done is – so to speak – to move a problematic image across that backdrop until its form and content no longer appear remarkable.  It should look quite at home; still individual but not uncomfortably different, and most importantly no longer unreadable.

Connection to spoken language is a factor often overlooked in discussions of the imagery in this manuscript, though it is certainly true that when  the sense depends on some pun in the vernacular, or some event of only local and temporary interest, the meaning may be lost quite rapidly, even within the same traditions.

example – snails and knights.

Today many are puzzled by the frequent marginal images in books of hours where an armed knight is shown fighting a snail. Now, this might be an allusion to the centuries-long ongoing struggle called the  [re-]’conquista’ –  by way of allusion to Pliny’s term for a snail: concha.  But alternatively, or indeed, simultaneously, it may refer to the sort of things Crusaders had in mind when they set off to go a-conquering.  (to clarify this further might imperil the blog’s ‘G’ rating).

Or, again, it might be paralleling the adults’ battles with the children’s game of conkers, once played “using snail-shells, hazelnuts and the like (as Southey wrote in his memoirs in 1821).  Children’s games weren’t  of interest to medieval writers, and only Southey’s much later comment and the conjectured etymology offers support for that possibility.

[Conkers] have come from the dialect word for ‘hard nut’ (perhaps from the French for ‘a conch’ – ‘conque’), maybe from the old game using shells and nuts (‘conquerors’), or again from the French ‘cogner’ (to hit).

(I am indebted  to Jane Struthers’ blogpost (here) for that information.

Or, of course, it may allude (in addition or exclusively) to a pun on armour/armor – Amo(u)r vincit omnia.


The most problematic images – and the most intriguing for the specialist –  are ones whose  first enuciation clearly occurred in one period and culture, but which now include details indicative of  very different time(s) and attitudes. Images of this type bring  to the analyst’s calculations a  third, and dynamic, factor: affect from transmission.  Now, instead of a simple, linear structure for the research – such as that needed for the ‘bear’ in Egerton 3277 (see above ‘How this is done’) –  we have a sort of  historical 3-D chess problem with ‘transformations’ between one level (historical-cultural stratum) and the next.

This may occur when a new text conflicts with established conceptions of the world for a particular community, but we are principally concerned with the other side of that coin – when imagery itself was transmitted into evironments where it could not be ‘read’ as originally intended.  One must then take into account the probability that an original  detail  was accorded  different relative weight and value in one plane as against in the next.  Ideally, one aims to explain this too, but it isn’t always possible. History doesn’t always relate.

As example

we have a clearly Indian ‘Lakshmi’ statuette, of ivory, which was recovered from ruins of Roman Pompeii. How the native Romans interpreted it we don’t know: as the image of a slave, perhaps?  as the goddess ‘Venus? as an ordinary ‘dancing girl’? as the personal ‘idol’ of a bride brought from India? – or did some actually know the story of Lakshmi? History just doesn’t relate, and there is no basis for choosing one over another bit of guesswork..

Similarly, at present, we cannot explain the inclusion in the Rohan Hours of characteristically Buddhist-Hindu forms for the ring of guarding ‘angels’ on folio 159r, though the presence of similarly blue-faced angels in an Armenian church in Jerusalem suggests the idea and characteristics might, possibly, have arrived via Armenia. One cannot say – there’s no record, and too few examples in the western sphere to allow any sure conclusion. Interestingly, Armenian Christians had come, by this time (c.1420s) to bind their manuscripts in Latin style, i.e. with stitch-supports.

Problems of this kind are why researching really problematic imagery is the most fun for specialists of a certain type.  🙂

Some of the ‘angels’ still display the epicanthal fold, and most retain characteristically Buddhist rolls of fat on their necks. Some also display what we should call a double chin. One possibility among several is that the maker had seen some work in which an effort had been made to equate Christian with non-Christian ideas. Manichaeans and Nestorians did this and the first community to call itself Christian – the Community of Thomas in southern India – had believed it was founded in the 1stC by Christ’s apostle Thomas, a second wave of Christians arriving from Syria in about the third century owed allegiance to the ‘Nestorian’ patriarch, whose two capitals were in the fertile crescent.  All of which is suggestive, and nothing conclusive.

A further difficulty is presented when the receivers of transmitted imagery or text react negatively simply because information in it, or about it, seems to present an offence to their sense of what is personally right – their amour propre – and thus their allegiance to their own hierarchical ordering of persons or of ideas.

We have seen a hint of this mechanism at work in the way that Wilfrid Voynich, and even more William F. Friedman, approached the Voynich manuscript.

To either of them it was an idea intolerable (and thus instinctively seen as preposterous) that the manuscript’s content could be of non-European character and be a worthwhile study unless by, or at least mediated by, or owned by some high-ranking European male.

Just so, information and reasoning alone will not persuade a man who believes he has bought a seventeenth-century Cremona violin that he has an instrument sounding quite as fine but made by a nineteenth century emigre from Hungary.  His self-image is invested in the other idea, and since he is driven primarily by his beliefs, the only recourse is to refer him to some text, or person, in which he is predisposed to feel faith. He will often then accept ‘on faith’ precisely the same information.

History shows, repeatedly, that the strongest rejection of new information comes from the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy; from those with greatest self-regard and those who think truth is defined by “what everyone knows”.  Consider reactions to  the platypus, or to Darwin’s explanation of natural selection; or to a solution for the determination of Longitude.. This allows us to apply a (discardable) rule of thumb that ‘foreign matter’ will not have been first intended for the highest or lowest people in the new environment, something apparently borne out in the case of the Voynich manuscript by its materials, codicology and general presentation.

I do not think it true that personality-based decisions are necessarily a sign of the small-minded, but the pattern of history suggests that over-emphasis on personality has been one of the greatest hindrances to any intellectual advance.  It distorts the usual sense of the maxim that information is as good as its source.

Unhappily for the study, it seems that in William Friedman’s case, there was no person nor any academic field in which he placed more faith than he had in himself.  His aim was chiefly to prove his first ideas right and to ‘break’ the text.  I find no evidence  that he had any interest in the manuscript as such, nor troubled to learn anything much of manuscript studies, paleography, codicology, medieval art or even of medieval history.  And since he determined the line taken by his study groups, and thus the content, implicit biases and all, in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, his approach deeply affected what followed after just as Wilfrid’s affected it throughout most of the twentieth century.

Happily, the study is moving on, but a milder version of that ‘Cremona vs Hungarian’ reaction is still apparent.

In illustration I’ll treat a couple of astronomical motifs from two folios in other parts of the manuscript.  The one offers a nice example of alteration – in this case addition – to its original diagram. The other appears scarcely affected by the process of transmission, and occurs in another ‘ladies’ section.  Both display knowledge of the southern skies – and that is the information which seems preposterous to some.

Stars beyond the book: Crux and false Crux in the Voynich manuscript.

In English writings, and specifically in Voynich studies, there lingers a habit of taking ‘Europe’ to mean the world, a habit still so general and so ingrained that one finds entirely nonsensical generalisations made, and regularly  assented to without pause for thought.

Scarcely an eyebrow is raised, for example, by such assertions as that  “the stars of Crux were lost” or   “most star-names are Arab star names” though even a moment’s pause for thought, or turning  to read even a wiki article, should have given that speaker pause.

For a bit of perspective, the introduction by Chamberlain and Young provides a pleasant first exposure to the wider view:

  • Von Del Chamberlain and M. Jane Young (eds), Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, pp. 49-64.(2005)

And for an idea of how complex even the idea of ‘Arab star-names’ is and what variety such imagery could take:

On the basis of accepting the bald statement that “the stars of Crux were lost” I have seen dismissed the fact that one or both of Crux and ‘false crux’ are depicted in the Voynich manuscript.

The unvoiced chain of thought among some theorists seems to run:, ‘Since my theory is inconsistent with depiction of Crux, therefore Crux cannot be depicted in the manuscript. I shall find some way to explain it which agrees with my theory, because my theory – which is mine – cannot be wrong.” (The usual alternative produced – or more exactly created as reaction to my first publishing this information –  has been Gregory of Tours‘ cross in Cygnus, but that has never marked ‘south’ in any system, not even the Europeans’.  Efforts to hastily manufacture ‘patches’ of this sort for a theory opposed by new evidence will normally forget to consider context, or to treat as one the critical elements of  context, function  and stylistics).

A more reasonable response in such a case might be:  ‘Since no reference to Crux has been noted in any European astronomical text dated before 1440, then if Crux is depicted in the Voynich manuscript, and if the manuscript was indeed manufactured in western Europe, this knowledge would have had to come from a different type of source –  written, oral or representational.”

To say that  ‘most star-names are Arab star-names’ is also – need one say – untrue.

The Arabs did have a name for Crux – Sulbar, meaning the beam of crucifixion, but this appears to be a result of early naturalisation of an older, Tamil term Sulba, meaning the knotted measuring cord.  The illustration shown (right) may serve as mnemonic.  It is from an old fresco showing a motif of older Nubian Christianity; cross and kombologion. Below (left) is Schiller’s (reversed) image of Sulbar, from one version of his astonishingly well-informed and constantly misinterpreted and underrated ‘Christianised Heavens’.

Sulbar – a binding and weight about the wrist of Abraham in one version of Schiller’s ‘Christianised’ Heavens’

Throughout that half of the world where it was seen each night, Crux served as practical marker of the night hours, and indicator of the unmarked Southern celestial Pole. In folio 67v-i it is used as an emblem for ‘South’ – and is complemented, correctly, by the other three astronomical emblems present in that diagram.  All four are actually superfluous – the directions already marked by other emblems – and employ a very different style of drawing to the rest.

More, while the assignments of its four asterisms are not wrong in astronomical terms they are a little odd in terms of traditional custom in those regions where Crux was a well known. The tradition of the eastern Arabs was to speak of Canopus as the proverbial ‘southern Pole’ for example.  So the four astronomical emblems on that diagram are a little odd – academic and  noticeably ‘foreign’ as if taken from a globe rather than from personal habit – but still, they are not wrong.  What they are is later additions.

I date their addition  to about the 13thC, not only – but not least  -because to represent stars as detached ‘heads’ is out of keeping with the regular practice of images in this manuscript.  Here I deal with only one of the four on folio 67v-i,  the emblem for south – Crux.(upper register in illustration, below).

False Crux (lower register in illustration above).

When I spoke first of the crosses in the manuscript, I identified the form on folio 79v-i again as Crux but going over these notes almost ten years later, I should now say this second is more likely meant for what we call  ‘false crux’ and which was certainly known, if confusedly, to medieval Europe.  The older pictorial traditions in depicting it may be divided into those which envisage it as the ‘shield of the face’ (I use the longer expression deliberately), and those which have it the cover of an entry to the world below and/or as a seal upon that entry from which the dead who are not truly dead will emerge again on the last day.

‘False crux’ lies in fact between Argo ratis and Canis major but is variously positioned in the European and Arabic imagery.

It has never been included among the official constellations but was very well known. In the older traditions it receives two interpretations, each given  various expressions.  In one strand, it appears as the cover of the cavern (‘mouth’) or entryway to the world below.  Bayer seems to have understood it so, though to have been uncertain about the difference between Crux and the false crux.

In the other strand of tradition, false crux is the seal and protection of the ship and may appear as a veil, shield other barrier set between the crew and the elements.  These images often betray uncertainty about how to show the ship, going ‘backwards’ can yet being drawn by Sirius (as Aratus say it is).

The asterism’s character –  if not its form – was clearly if surprisingly best understood in medieval Europe by the illustrator who created the following image, now in an early monastic copy of Cicero’s Aratea, Brit.Lib.Harley MS 647. That section’s manufacture is attributed to northern France, possibly Rheims, though to form images of words was not a custom native to Latin Europe, and is now associated earliest with works of roughly the same date made by the Karaite Jews of Syria (near Lake Tiberius) and of Egypt. And one mustn’t forget, since this is a copy of the Aratea, that when Harranian ‘star-worshippers’ were obliged to produce their holy books, or convert to Islam, or die during the first wave of Arab conquest, Aratus’ text was among those they produced, and their knowledge of astronomy was such that members of their community  established the study in Baghdad. In latin Europe this conception of Argo ratis soon devolves.

compare with

By contrast, a celestial globe made in Mashhad, as late as the seventeenth century, preserves memory of Argo as bird-headed, and more exactly here phoenix-headed and also of the ‘veil’ as shield against the dog whose rising theoretically marked Egypt’s annual inundation and drew the ship onwards (whether by stem or stern differs). This example takes additional sigificance from the fact that certain iconographic and stylistics found in the Voynich plant pictures occur also in a few leaves within the Mashhad Dioscorides.

In this connection, the comments made by Sadeh about the links between Mosul and Diyabakir, and use of parchment in the latter during the 12thC are of considerable interest, though the role of Nestorian and other Christian scholars in those regions, and specifically in connection with the transmission of knowledge about plants and medicines passes below Sadeh’s historical horizon.

  • M.M. Sadeh, The Arabic ‘Materia Medica’ of Dioscorides (1983) esp. Ch.2 (pp. 7-19)

About those stylistic connections to the plant-pictures in Beinecke MS 408, I’m can cite no prior ‘Voynichero’, and my sources were all academic ones. I daresday one might now find examples posterior to my study, and.or illustrations re-used illustrations from my posts to Voynichimagery


I repeat…


To help with orientation… The view from the northern hemisphere –  skies visible in Alexandria,  August 22nd., 1420 AD.

‘star atlas’ style…:

The glorious reality..

Postscript:  The next post, ‘Elevated souls Pt.1’ returns to the month folios. Once this series, focused on folio 70v-i ends, I;ll return to the short ‘reading-guide’ format with relief and pleasure which, I hope, my readers will share.

A much modified, ‘planispheric’, version of Schiller’s ‘Christianised Heavens’ can be seen here.