O’Donovan notes – the ‘Calendar’ emblems Pt 6. July’s Lobsters.

c.4500 words

About a third of this post is for people working on Voynichese. Those paragraphs are marked with the partial-derivative symbol (right).

edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.

Two lobsters: July

For newcomers – the ‘Calendar’ emblems so far:

Many Voynich writers focus on where the manuscript might have been made.
Our aim is more like the linguists’ and cryptographers’ – to understand what information the original speaker(s) intended to convey. Just as linguists don’t presume a new spoken language was invented for this manuscript, so we don’t presume the drawings are without precedents.
However, because so few among the manuscript’s drawings speak the visual language of medieval Latin Europe, our aim is (of course) also to identify their original source. In that, the relatively few which do ‘speak Latin’ (or something like it) are like the end of a thread which may guide us into, and then through, the maze of possibilities. Among those few are the small central emblems with which the ‘calendar’ diagrams are provided.
Diagrams referring to astronomical matters don’t exactly speak a universal language, but were – and are – less dependent on local customs for their understanding than is a written or a pictorial text.
Comparing information in some Voynich astronomical diagrams.
We don’t know what purpose the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams were meant to serve, but independent specialists have assured us they are not astrological charts.
At present we are asking whether the emblems offer astronomical information compatible with that found in two other astronomical diagrams (on folio 85r and on folio 67v-i).
These posts being exercises in analytical method, we are considering just two examples: the emblems inscribed ‘November’ and ‘July’.

* * * *

The ‘November’ emblem, as we found, is meant for a crocodile and is derived ultimately from one aspect of an originally-composite figure for the ‘croucher by the Scales’. Known as Ammit, its character was expressed by combining elements of the most savage bringers-down of prey: crocodile, hound/jackal, lion and hippopotamus, with all but the last reaching medieval western Europe as an expression of “scorpion nature” or as the Physiologus’ ‘crocodrill’.

Only one documented example of a ‘crocodile Scorpius’ has been seen, so far, from medieval Latin Europe before c.1350 AD. That was in BNF 7351, so that is where we take up the thread again – but not until committing to memory every detail of the image to be researched.

FIG. 1

Observations:

Caution the difference between someone naturally suited to a study of ancient and medieval art and artefacts, and someone whose talents lies elsewhere, often shows up at this first analytical stage. Be honest with yourself. If you feel impatient with process, over-confident, and want to rush to the ‘bottom line’ – this sort of work is not for you.

1. Remarkable absence of depth or perspective for a work often presumed created first in Latin Europe in the fifteenth-century. It is no product of the atelier. No attempt to provide background, whether of solid pigment, pattern, wash or a schematised landscape. Yet the quires are of vellum, albeit second-rate, and not paper which even by the fourteenth century would be used for rough work.

2.Each of the paired creatures is carefully distinguished – by its facing and by use of pigment. This is a characteristic of the ‘calendar’ diagrams overall; their many anthropoform figures are carefully differentiated by form, proportion, gestures, facing and/or facial expressions – which is a remarkable feat, if you consider their number, and the scale to which they were drawn. That even the month names which had to be inscribed twice are written differently, and evidently to avoid ‘replication’ argues in the original maker (and possibly in the fifteenth-century copyists) a cultural avoidance or ‘tabu’ which – though certainly attested at certain times and places – was never native to the Latins’ tradition.

FIG 2

3. Anatomy – (3.1) The creatures’ upper body (thorax) is made bulbous, not slender. Somewhat ant-like. Arcs are drawn on the thorax, left and right.

(3.2) No large front claw(s) as one would expect in a work produced from a fifteenth-century atelier in Europe.

(3.3) Abdomen ribbed to indicate segments.

(3.4) Divided ‘feet’ are given to eight slender legs extending sideways from the abdomen, Thicker-drawn versions of the same for the front legs to which claw(s) attach in a living specimen of prawn, lobster, crab etc.

(3.5)A tail is shown, fan-shaped and with four lobes.

FIG 3

(3.6) The head is given three points!

(3.7). Antennae emerge – one from each gap between those points – though in the upper figure the copyist may have been, initially, confused or affected by the scale at which he was working; one antenna seems, at first, part of the line or cord linking the two creatures.

In one sense this emblem is not ‘well-drawn’ but diverges from the literal less than a first glance might suggest. The creature is no fantasy beast. Following Lippincott and Gheuens, we’ll call it a ‘lobster’ though ‘crayfish’ or even ‘prawn’ might do.

Here’s the lobster’s anatomy…

FIG 4

… so what might be seen as errors come down to these:

(i) omitting any large front claw(s) ; (ii) confusing the positions of swimmerets and walking legs; (iii) giving all the walking legs split ends, where only the first four should have them; (iiii) giving the creature a head formed of three points (N.B. not one, two, or four, but three).

swimmeret: a swimming-foot; a pleopod; an abdominal limb or appendage usually adapted for swimming, and thus distinguished from the ambulatory or chelate thoracic limbs, fitted for walking or seizing.

If any series matching the series of Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams, or its series of emblems has been found – or any match for this emblem – I’m unaware of it. To be a match for the ‘July’ emblem, the example would have to include two creatures of this form, similarly differentiated, and including all the characteristics just listed.

In the absence of any match, only comparisons can be offered and our first defining element will be the creatures’ “three-point” head.

Koen Gheuens has already followed the ‘legs-for-swimmerts’ confusion from the time of Michael Scot (d.1232) forwards, noting some instances across northern France and then in works produced by one artisan. That essay is linked below. Gheuens referred readers to Kristen Lippincott’s ‘Saxl Project’ pdfs and so do I. As far as possible, I’ll cite illustrations from that resource.

Lobster as Cancer – not so unusual.

What happened after c.1440 is of little interest to us. For this exercise, it is also necessary to count, as characteristics of the image, that these Voynich emblems are inscribed in a Romance dialect or language, and that this emblem is labelled ‘July’ – being in this unlike most Latin breviaries, books of hours and ‘Labours of the months’ series which assign the astronomical Cancer to June, and have the ‘sign’ straddle June and July.

On the brighter side, examples of Cancer’s being assigned, alone, to July, and Scorpius to November are not limited to the Voynich manuscript and the twelfth-century, Byzantine-influenced Otranto mosaic. Here (below) is the same assignment of emblem to month in a manuscript made about the same time as that mosaic but in south-eastern England. (Note here the single, loose loop for the Scorpion’s tail and that all the crab’s walking legs are given two ‘toes’, with the scorpions’ being given three).

FIG 6. and see comment further below

Gheuens began with works composed by Michael Scot in Sicily – or rather with copies that were made later in Italy, but we are looking instead for the ideas and customs in art which influenced Scot’s thinking and that of the people who illustrated those Italian copies regarded as the four most important to survive.

*Glenn Michael Edwards, ‘The Liber Introductorius of Michael Scot’, thesis (PhD), University of Southern California, 1978

Michael Scot‘s lifetime (1175- c. 1232) overlaps with those of several other prominent Latin scholars whose names have been invoked at various times by various Voynich writers. The list includes the first ‘Gerard of Cremona‘ (1114 – 1187), or the second (13thC); the Flemish Franciscan friar, Thomas of Cantimpré (1201 -1272); the German Dominican friar, Albert of Lauingen (1200-1280), the English Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (d.1292), and Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1168–1253), bishop of Lincoln and tutor of Oxford.

All save the Gerard(s) of Cremona spent some years pursuing higher studies in Paris, and it was from the region around Paris we have our only other documented ‘Crocodile-Scorpius’ in Latin Europe – so far – before c.1350. Scot and Albert of Lauingen also studied in Italy.

In a later post, I’ll speak about the activities of the papal court while located in Avignon (1309-1375 AD), but at present our focus is on matter that was current in Scot’s time,

When Michael Scot was born, about the second third decade of the twelfth century, texts and manuscripts were gained chiefly from copies made in monastic scriptoria, By the time of his death, such work was increasingly being done by students of the larger universities, particularly in France where some colleges associated with the University of Paris set aside a room for that purpose. Scot would also have seen the beginning of an increase in the commercial producers of manuscripts, in what were described as bottegas or ateliers. In Italy, there existed a system known as the ‘pecia’ system, whereby a student might copy from quires or sections of a manuscript which a stationer had broken into parts, the students paying for materials and for use of the wanted sections.

Outside the world of formal scholarship, ‘informal’ texts were being made, a majority on paper and the greater number of those we still have from Europe were made for and by its non-Latin communities, or communities united by their (non-academic) occupations.

Crab, prawn’ and lobster etc., in pre-Christian western art.

Fig.7

We’ve seen that images of the crocodile, in literal style, existed in Latin Europe in mosaics and other media as relics of the pre-Christian Roman era. There were also many naturalistic images of sea-creatures in such media, with North Africa preserving a large number of this type. The images shown at right, and below, are from Roman-Byzantine mosaics from north Africa. Those shown are described as Roman.

FIG. 8

In some early astronomical illustrations from Latin Europe, the classical traditions in art remain evident, though did not long survive with the same clarity. The Crab in the Leiden Aratea is a case in point. The illustration’s classical lineage is unmistakeable and raises the possibility that we have it from an early copy of the first Latin translations from the Greek,

FIG 9. (The present wiki article ‘Leiden Aratea’ is very poor. It names as the work’s author not Aratus, nor ‘Germanicus but Louis the Pious, and conveys a suggestion that the Arab world gained its knowledge of Aratus from this manuscript – a preposterous idea).

Compare that crab, for example, with the style in which the same creature is represented on an early (pre-Roman) coin made for Akragas in Sicily.

FIG 10 coin of Akragas, Sicily. Reproduced by permission.

That coin was made a little before the birth of Eudoxus, the eastern Greek astronomer who spent time in Sicily and whose astronomical works were summarised and cast into poetry by Aratus.

I should also like to suggest that although the forms of drawing for constellations degenerated through the medieval centuries, that there may have persisted in some regions, and as a kind of folk-tradition, older ideas about the stars and constellations, and particularly associations between certain stars and constellations, and certain places. As the crocodile (for Scorpius) was universally associated with Egypt and the Nile, the Crab and ‘prawn’ spoke of Sicily and the Straits of Messina, respectively, as they had done even before the birth of Alexander.

The strait of Messina, between Sicily and the mainland, was renowned then as it is today for its dangers and for the chimerical images we call mirages or ‘Fata Morgana’.

The strait [of Messina] has strong tidal currents …. A natural whirlpool in the northern portion of the strait has been linked to the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis. In some circumstances, the mirage of Fata Morgana can be observed when looking at Sicily from Calabria.

After Rome conquered the island and thus claimed to rule the strait, we find a coin in which Latin permits, as canting, the Greek ‘Scylla’ to be Latin ‘scilla’ – a prawn. But the allusion is still to Sicily and that dangerous strait. Moon and tides are inextricably linked, so ‘to know your moon’ was to know your tides. This image is a Roman equivalent for ‘Britannia rules the Channel’.

FIG 11.

What makes these antecedents of ‘lobster-prawn-Crab’ imagery so interesting is their age, and that they appear on these coins at much the same time that the astronomical texts were first composed on which Latin European scholars would rely from the time Rome fell until that of Michael Scot: Eudoxus to Aratus to the Aratus latinus and the abysmal ‘Astronomicon poeticon’ which is so unkindly attributed to Hyginus.

Another fascinating image from the same pre-Christian era was made for a Gallic tribe, the Averni. Aratus and Germanicus may have understood what these figures meant to the Averni, but modern numismatists simply call the form above the horse, ‘lobster-like’. It has been provided with antennae and there are three spikes or points to its head.

FIG 12

Ovid, we know, made one Latin translation of Aratus’ poem. Another is said to have been made by ‘Germanicus’ though just who he was is unclear. ‘Germanicus’ means ‘subduer of Germania’ but as Baldwin put it, “as a method of precise identification, the unadorned name of Germanicus [is] intolerably vague. Too many men bore the cognomen…”

* Baldwin, ‘The Authorship of the “Aratus” Ascribed to Germanicus’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 1981, New Series, Vol. 7 (1981), pp. 163-172.

TYPES of TEXT

From this point onwards, in addition to considering the emblem’s form, and the month assigned it, and its inscription in a Romance language or dialect, we’ll also take note of the textual setting in which a cited comparison occurs. So that those chiefly interested in the written text can skim the rest, I’ve marked those paragraphs with this symbol

It is probably too much to hope that exemplar(s) used for this whole section in Beinecke MS 408 have survived, so it may help those working on the written text, too, if we find comparable images or assignments occur regularly in connection with some particular written source(s).

Figure 6 (above) came from Brit.Lib. Cotton Julius VI.

That manuscript relates to what is known as ‘computus’ – mathematical and religious works relating to calendrical calculations, including reconciling the lunar cycles with the solar year to determine the date of Easter.

Brit.Lib. MS Cotton Julius VI. Computistical texts and tables.

ff. 3r–8v: A metrical calendar (a version of the text known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson), illustrated with the Labours of the Month and astrological[sic] symbols. ff. 9r–17v: Further computistical texts, tables, diagrams and a wheel linking months, lunar cycles and a T-O map (f. 15r), including a ‘Sator square’ palindrome written in Greek letters (f. 11r). ff. 18r–19v: A hymn beginning ‘Assunt o socii’ and excerpts from the Easter Sunday liturgy, beginning ‘Et valde mane’, were added in 12th-century hands to blank and erased folios. ff. 19r–71r: An imperfect Expositio hymnorum with a near-continuous Old English gloss. The text on f. 19r-v has been erased, but some initials are still visible. ff. 71r-72v: Three hymns for Trinity Sunday; ff. 72v-89v: Monastic canticles with an Old English gloss. f. 90r–v: The hymn ‘O genetrix aeterni’ and a fragment of the Latin poem beginning, ‘Ad mensam philosophie sitientes currite,’ both accompanied by neumes, were added in the last quarter of the 11th century.

Both the liturgical and the civil calendars began from Easter (falling in March or April) and the custom of dating documents or private letters by the saint’s day would continue to as late as the seventeenth century.

*Easter’s date though the medieval centuries, with both Gregorian and Julian dates given.

* * * *

Maths texts don’t need pretty pictures.

The context in which we find FIG. 6, raises the uncomfortable possibility that the text which informed the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams might also be a mathematical treatise. Whether bound singly or in a miscellany, the Latins’ mathematical and mathematical-astronomical texts are typically chaste, devoid of illustrations other than a few terse diagrams which – in marked opposition to the Voynich calendar – were usually produced with compass and ruler.

In cases where pictures, as such, were desired, the usual practice seems to have been to include as excerpt or copy matter from a text of quite a different origin and type – as indeed was the case for BNF lat. 7351.

The chances are perhaps 50-50 that the Voynich calendar’s emblems have come from a very different source than that which provided the information for the diagrams. We see this too in copies made of the only other work to which the ‘calendar’ diagrams have been compared – the Libros made some decades after Scot’s death, under the auspices of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284).

* * * *

Another instance of this practice comes from a manuscript which includes the earliest example I’ve seen (so far) of the ‘three-point’ head for Cancer: Oxford, Bodleian Laud. Misc. 644. It is given a ‘face’, and shows arcs drawn on the left and right on the creature’s thorax, gives the legs two ‘toes’ and forms the front legs in the same way as the rest . In this case, these constellation-figures were gained by copying from a copy of Aratus already not less than 200 years old and possibly 400 years old. As the catalogue says of folio 8 “”Good coloured drawings copying a model of 9th or 11th century, …” The manuscript which copies those older drawings was made in late thirteenth-century Bayeux.

FIG. 13 Bayeux 1268-1274 AD

The makers’ choosing so venerable an exemplar suggests a monastic library and scriptorium, and reverence for the oldest forms of image as most authenic, but it would be a mistake to suppose the manuscript is affected by intellectual conservatism. On the contrary, the rest of its content consists of what were, at that time, the most respected and most advanced mathematical works used in Europe.

Bodleian Laud Misc. 644 contains (not in order):

  • Robert Grosseteste, ‘De sphaera‘ – an introductory text on astronomy.
  • __________, ‘correctorius
  • ________, ‘De lineis, angulis, et figuris; Mathematical reasoning in the natural sciences.
  • Albumasar, ‘Flores astrorum‘ (in Latin trans.) Arabic title translates as “Book of the revolutions of the years.”
  • Alfraganus, ‘Liber de aggregationibus [stellarum]’ (in Latin trans).
  • Azarchel, –1100: Canones ad tabulas toletanas. (‘Toledan tables’)
  • Boethius, ‘De institutione arithmetica’ – text and commentary. Latin.
  • Boethius, ‘De institutione musica’ – text and commentary, Latin.

and of course the illustrated section:

Under ultra-violet light can be found an inscription informing us that, by the fifteenth century, Oxford, Bodleian Laud miscellany 644 was in the possession of Charles, duke of Orleans. Charles was the son of Valentina Visconti, through whom he had already inherited Asti, a town about 30 miles west of the Milan-to-Genoa road, and linked to it.

FIG 14

Picking up the thread…

And so, at last, we return to BNF lat. 7351, mis-called the ‘Liber Albandini’ which provided our ‘crocodile Scorpion’. Folio 41v shows these drawings (below), both described by the holding library as forms for Cancer.

FIG. 15

Nonetheless (see Lippincott’s pdfs) the upper type is not rare as a form for Scorpius.

The manuscript was made in northern France during the 1300s, Its history before the fifteenth century is unknown but shortly before, or soon after the Voynich quires were inscribed, it was in the possession of Louis de Bruges, whose name might ring a bell if you read the post before last. This compilation’s content isn’t particularly religious, either. (catalogue entry).

It includes

  • Pierre de Dacie, Kalendarium (Fragment)
  • Albumasar (?), Liberimultitudinum (twice);
  • plus ‘Sphere of life and death’; Astrological treaty in French; Text in Latin on critical days or the so-called ‘Egyptian days’; Correspondence between signs and months and ‘De Duodecim Zodiaci Signis Eorumque Effectibus’.
  • The manuscript includes a removeable paper astrolabe (f.13v)

Pierre de Dacie’s text is no school primer. Sacrobosco would describe it as “algorismum vulgarem’.* meaning ‘ordinary mathematics’ or even ‘commercial maths’ as distinct from computus. Sacrobosco thought highly enough of de Dacie’s text to provide it with a commentary and, together, they proved an immensely popular text in western Europe.

Its primary notability is that it has a better method for extracting cube roots (better than the pre-existing method reported by Johannes de Sacrobosco).

*With Sacrobosco’s commentary, edited and published anew in 1897 by Maximilian Curtze, the edition online at archive. org.

Inferences

What these first examples have indicated is that, in Sicily at least, an association between the forms for Crab and prawn was ancient – ancient enough that they could have influenced astronomical images from the time of Eudoxus, who resided and studied for a time in Sicily.

We have also seen a ‘lobster’-like form, in association with the horse, dating from the time when Aratus made his poetic version of Eudoxus’ work. We have also seen that the style in which the Crab is pictured in Carolingian time, in Latin Europe, had preserved those earlier and more literal forms for Cancer.

Reverence for older forms and learning was a constant in the history of western Europe, with greater emphasis placed on pre-Christian forms as the ‘renaissance’ (so-called) began to flower in southern Europe during the fourteenth century.

Altogether, we must be prepared for the possibility that the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams as such may be informed by recent technical information, yet be provided central emblems gained from considerably older sources.

Cancer with a ‘three-point head’ and with arcs drawn on the thorax is a form as old at least as the eleventh century and possibly as old as the ninth century. By 1350, at least in northern France, the same manuscript in which we have a ‘crocodile’ Scorpius could accept for Cancer the form of both crab and prawn, these together or separately having referred to Sicily during the time of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman ascendancy, and an air-borne ‘lobster-like’ creature attested in Gaul no later than the first century BC.

It is entirely possible that there had existed copies of astronomical works, including globes, older than those used by the Carolingian court in which the constellations took a form different from those we now expect to see, and though one or two of the Voynich calendar emblems show evidence of what we might call ‘modernisation’, most of them including those which seem at first idiosyncratic, clearly have roots which are venerable at least and in some cases still evince a lineage decidedly ancient.

… continued next post

Afterword

A little more on authors of the texts included in Oxford, Bodleian, Laud Misc. 644, manuscript made about thirty years after Michael Scot’s death. The authors of the mathematical sections:

GROSSETESTE. Scholar and Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste particularly supported the Franciscan order (of which Roger Bacon became a member). Grosseteste “seems to have spent some time in France during the years 1208–14”. By.1229/30 he was teaching at Oxford, as reader in theology to the Franciscans, who had a community there by about 1224. He remained in that post until March 1235.Roger Bacon was his most famous pupil, and is said to have acquired an interest in scientific method from him. Those of his works included in Laud.Misc. 644 were written between 1220 to 1235.

Works by Grosseteste not included in that volume:

  • ‘De luce’. On the “metaphysics of light.” ( described as ‘the most original work of cosmogony in the Latin West’)
  • ‘De accessu et recessu maris’. On tides and tidal movements. (although some scholars dispute his authorship).
  • De iride’. On the rainbow.

ALBUMASSAR’ is Abu Ma’shar. (see end note)

‘ALFRAGANUS‘ is al-Farghani. Born in Uzbekistan in the 9thC AD. His ‘Jawami ilm Al-Nujum (A Compendium of Astronomy)* is thought to have been written in Egypt, becoming immediately and widely known among speakers of Arabic and Hebrew, and then being another among the works whose translation into Latin was made in Spain and credited to ‘Gerard of Cremona’.

  • *Liber de aggregationibus scientiae stellarum et principiis celestium motuum, quem Ametus qui dictus est Alfraganus compilavit; cum figuris. cf. 524 AdBSB Clm 234.

AZARCHIEL. Toledo and Cordova. His work is commonly found together with that of Jacob ben Machir Ibn Tibbon’s ‘Treatise on the astrolabe’. See e.g. Oxford, Bodleian MS Laud Or 93. (1400-1475)

The Latin translation of the Toledan Tables ‘Canones ad tabulas toletanas’ is generally credited to the first Gerard of Cremona. Michael Scot said he had found these particularly helpful.

BOETHIUS was born in Italy in 480 AD, after the Roman empire’s capital had becme Constantinople and while the city of Rome lay under Ostragothic rule. He died in 524 (aged 44), but his ‘Arithmetica’ remained the standard text for teaching arithmetic and basic maths, until and even after the early fifteenth century.

*Michael Scot died in c.1232. His studious interests were in mathematics, medicine-and-pharmacy and astronomy-astrology. The wiki article vastly exaggerates the magical- and under-states the astronomical and scientific content of Scot’s works for Frederick in Sicily, as well as conveying a false impression of Frederick as ’emperor’. In reality, Frederick reigned chiefly as king of Sicily and his court was regularly under interdiction, which prohibited any Latin Christian from engaging with him. HIs foray into diplomacy in the Holy Land was an effort to overcome those restrictions, whose results included refusal to acknowledge or use one of Frederick’s great accomplishments – sponsoring a Latin translation of al-Idrisi’s new astronomical-geography of the world, which took fifteen years under Roger, but of which no Latin version had been sent to Rome. Idrisi’s work became the foundation of a radically new form of education across North Africa when Idrisi finally returned there.

[edit – replacing a dropped half-sentence. Sept. 21st]

According to N.G. Wilson, the first appearance of Aristotle’s biological writings in the West are Latin translations by MIchael Scot of an Arabic edition. According to Wilson, it was this work by Scot, rather than Thomas of Cantimpre, which formed the basis of the book de Animalibus by Albert of Lauingen though the opinion is not generally held:

  • N. G. Wilson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Greek Manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Oxford  (Oxford, 2011) pp. 20-21, Plates 43-46.

“‘Albumasar”‘s work, as ‘Flowers of astronomy’ began appearing in Latin, in print from about three generations after the Voynich quires were inscribed, but we know that 46 editions were printed between 1488-1506. These included illustrations, but we have no information about the source(s) used by the block-makers. As a rule they were commissioned from free-lance artists hired by individual printers, and once a printer had a convenient block, it might be used in any kind of text. Here, Cancer does have arcs on the thorax and lobster-like abdomen, but the tail has only three lobes, the abdomen has as neither legs nor swimmerets attached to it; both front legs are provided with claws, the antennae have a rippled edge, and though the head is given three points it is plainly based on that of the ‘prawn-like’ type.

FIG 16

The skies above Pt.2 ‘asteriskos’

In a media-savvy age, many readers will know that meaning is context-dependent.

“Everything’s fine. Just realised an ancient Egyptian deity was really  Macedonian. Me, in fact.”

This doesn’t mean we may haul the manuscript and its content into whatever context we find comfortable and then assert its meaning is whatever we, and ‘people like us’ find most agreeable.    My saying so may seem trite.. but don’t be fooled.

Hauling the past into a present social environment, to make easier the task of co-opting and re-interpreting it to suit self-and-friends has been a perennial activity, probably since human society began, and even more with images than with words.

Lewis Carroll’s  Humpty Dumpty offers an apt example:

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

I begin with the diagrams entire though the usual habit has been to discuss the central emblems without reference to the rest.

Structure: format

There are present eleven diagrams of similar design in Quires 10-12.  Each diagram of the eleven occupies the equivalent of one page. By ‘page’ here I mean one face of the four in a standard bifolio of this manuscript.

All are accommodated within the range “folio 70v(part) to 73v” because Quires 10 and 11 are on lengths of vellum folded to suit the ordinary bifolios’ dimensions, and having a width equal to the ordinary bifolio’s length.

There is no indication of subsequent trimming for re-binding, and no record appears to exist of any ruling out or pricking for these or for the normal bifolios. Nor have I seen any reference to pressure-marks of the sort which might indicate use of frame and wire.

It takes little acquaintance with medieval manuscripts and their techniques of construction to realise that this absence of ruling out, or evidence of its erasure, is either an anomaly or (rather strangely) an omission from the Beinecke catalogue and from all other descriptions.

In addition, the corpus of Latin Christian manuscripts appears to contain nothing comparable to these ‘fold-outs’ – neither in their design or in the way the pages are folded..  Quire 11, in particular, uses a form of concertina fold, a type characteristic of small  sleeve calendars in Latin Europe and otherwise chiefly characteristic of Asian books in direct descent from palm-leaf books and Buddhist works on paper.

All eleven diagrams follow the same general scheme, viz:

(detail) f.70v (part).

A number of concentric circles presenting as wider and narrower bands, with the narrower occupied by script and the wider inhabited by discrete anthropoform figures, chiefly female, the majority on the ‘March’ folio being provided with a roughly cylindrical container and an element that immediately strikes the modern viewer as resembling a star held by a flexible cord, or a flower on a lax stem… or both at once. (I’ll come back to this).

Each diagram’s centre contains an emblem, none of which appears in any other diagram.  At some later time a different hand added to the centres the name of a month, some repeated but not exactly: they are not ‘replicated’.

I’d like to comment on this fact, for throughout the manuscript, and most unexpectedly with regard to great number of such anthropoform figures, which occur not only in these diagrams –  care has evidently been taken to distinguish each from all others, and this has been done with a degree of subtlety (or perhaps delicacy) which argues against the usual idea that the figures are just badly drawn.

(detail) folio 72r-ii

We do see one two emblems in which the creature has its ‘pair’,  but even there it is not exact: not a   ‘mirror image’and the painter (see the example shown right) has also emphasised that they cannot be confused for one another, or supposed to ‘replicate’ the other.

I consider this another item indicative of cultural mores mutual between the persons who first enunciated the ‘ladies’ folios, and the person who later added the month-names.  Of those month-names, some appear twice, yet each  is again distinguished by some small detail not jarring to the viewer, but again avoiding ‘replication’.

I’ll include bibliography for the ‘replication’ issue, in early medieval Cairo and in medieval Byzantium at the end of this series.  Anyone wanting the references sooner is welcome to email)

.____________

Structure (cont.)

Concentric circles are a near-universal convention for depicting the heavens and that technique informs many different systems employed for doing so, but diagrams of such structure have many other applications and need have no necessary reference to the heavens.  The eleven diagrams’ taking such form may, however, cause a modern viewer to feel an immediate (‘gut’) feeling the diagrams allude to stars, or astronomy or astrology and so over-ride consciousness of the gulf between subjective and objective certainty.

‘Asteriskos’ – questions unasked.

(detail) f.108r

The ‘flower-like’ stars, or ‘star-like’ flowers given most of the tiered figures has been another trigger for that reflexive reading, unchanged since the 1920s.

Appearance of a similar motif in the margins of Quire 20  naturally then raises questions of common subject-matter and  whether some direct connection was intended between the diagrams and this later section.  That is, whether the motif was intended to carry similar significance.

Quire 20 itself is not formed in the usual way of quires in Latin  European manuscripts. It is, or was, a septenion.

A quire of seven bifolios is rare in Europe but was fairly standard in the Arabic-speaking world a.  It was also seen in Irish manuscripts.

Update – 22 June 2021.  I should add that a septenion is not unknown in European works and I’ve noted one from the first half of the fifteenth century and which includes a letter to Poggio Bracciolini is in a manuscript that is (or was in 1905) at Harvard.  For an intense codicological analysis of that ms and its classical texts see
  • E. K. Rand, ‘A Harvard Manuscript of Ovid, Palladius and Tacitus’, The American Journal of Philology , Vol. 26, No. 3 (1905), pp. 291-329.

I made these points earlier:

  • D.N. O’Donovan,  ‘Expert Opinion: Myth vs Materials Science Pt3’, Voynichrevisionist, April 26th., 2019.

referencing:

Again, certain Arabic texts are found in which a form of  flower-like “asterisk”  separates sentences.  I hope readers won’t mind that the illustrations come from the same 12thC treatise on theriac which I mentioned earlier in posts to Voynich Imagery (in a series entitled,  ‘Theriac:  rosetta stone?’)

The header (above) and the detail (below, left) are taken from that manuscript: .

As text-mark, the ‘asteriskos’ is attested from Hellenistic times, though we have no example of the earlier form.  In 3rdC AD Egypt, the works of the Christian philosopher, Origen, see him use and possibly invent the form for it which then passed in the context of authoritative Christian manuscripts to 6th-7thC Spain, and saw Origen’s version maintained within the Latin manuscript tradition where it appears as a vertical or a diagonal cross having dots set in the interstices.

The Latins’ ‘astericus’ did not have the form of a flower; nor what we might call  a ‘star-shape’. In short, it was never formed as are these motifs in the Voynich manuscript

Form

Below is illustrated a detail from a 12thC  copy of Isidore’s Etymologies.  However, where he had included the Greek term in Greek letters, this copy romanised and then translates the Greek as ‘stella’ just as numerous other and later copies do, even while  keeping Origen’s and Isidore’s form for it all but unchanged.  In other cases (as the detail upper left), the motif served as virtual ornament and filler, while still expressing the asterisk’s significance, by showing that the half-filled line was not blank unintentionally; i.e. an intentional ‘omission’ of written text.

Significance in the Hellenistic and in the Latin traditions.

The oldest references to use of the ‘asteriskos’ are Hellenistic and show it marked places in a text where some item or passage had been duplicated. No examples remain.

Origen used the ‘asteriskos’  to mark points where he  re-inserted a passage from the Hebrew left untranslated by the Septuagint.  He did not replace the earlier text with his own revised version, but added his own below, marking both with his cross-shaped asterisk. In that way, the sign still signified ‘duplication’ but now, equally,  ‘omission’ – and the latter sense became the default in medieval Christian Europe.

There is another and deeper level of significance for the ‘asteriskos’ in Christian traditions. It is touched upon. lightly, by Isidore whose comment runs (in English translation):

“The asterisk is placed next to omissions, so that things which appear to be missing may be clarified through this mark, for star is called in Greek, ἀστήρ and the lLatin] term asteriscus is derived from this. ” 

  • Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae Bk I xxi.2  ‘De notis sententiarum’ (De Critical signs)

What Isidore  touched upon lightly, a later Christian authority, Jerome, would expand upon – and  “F.M.P”  has rightly drawn attention to the fact:

  • Anthony Grafton, Glenn W Most, Salvatore Settis, The Classical Tradition (2010).

The asterisk as  illuminating’ what was absent – light into the darkness – impressed the medieval mind. It will offer another and natural link to associations of ‘stella maris’.

But while I’m quite prepared to accept that the Voynich ‘star-flower’ (as signe de renvoi) might have been intended as  link-and-key to text in Quire 20, and even evoke intentionally that sense of   ‘lights in the darkness’ I cannot accept that the sort of men who knew how to employ their version of the ‘asteriskos’ in Christian texts – clerics by definition during most of the medieval period – would have ever created such figures as those ‘ladies’ set around the diagrams.

And of course, the Latin form for the asteriskos, though it had variations was always the dotted cross or X.  It came, in the Latin west, to serve as signe de renvoi, indicating a link between marginal text and main text, but adjacent, not separated by a number of quires.  A comparable practice is (so far as I’m aware) unattested before the introduction of printing, and even then not immediately.

On this see e.g.

for which example and other details I’m indebted to

  • Yin, ‘Asterisks in the Middle Ages’, medieval codes (August 5th., 2014)

I have found only one source where there is so much as a hint that any type of ‘flower’ form was used in any comparable way in a medieval text.

I owe that hint to:

  • Lori J. Walters, ‘The Rose as Sign: Diacritical Marks in the Tournai Rose [TOU]’. In: Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, tome 83, fasc. 3, 2005. Langues et littératures modernes – Moderne taal en litterkunde. pp. 887-912;  doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/rbph.2005.4948   https://www.persee.fr/doc/rbph_0035-0818_2005_num_83_3_4948

The manuscript discussed by Walters dates to the 13thC, and is a revised version of the ‘Romance of the Rose’ devised by Gui de Mori in 1290AD.  It may be available to view if you’re in Tournai:

If anyone sees that manuscript, and whether its ‘rose’ mark has similar form to the Vms’, or similar purpose as the Latins’ asteriskos, I hope you’ll let me know.

  • Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies)

Tentative conclusion (A)

Apart from that possible exception in TOU, the Latins did not have the linguistic frame [aster-asteriskos], nor did they have the requisite habits in marking texts,  to have invented such a form as the Voynich ‘flower-stars’ to serve in place of the traditional ‘asteriscus’.  Nor does there appear to exist any comparable use of their cross-shaped ‘astericus’ to link diagrams in one section of a manuscript with text separated from it, as is now the case in the VMS,  by several quires of other images and text, amounting to tens of pages.

The Latins’ habits in making manuscripts does not encourage the idea that,  if the diagrams’ star-flowers were meant as cue to Quire 20, that the materials’ first enunciation occurs in medieval western Christian Europe. The one possible clue to any exception is yet to be sighted.

Islamic works of the thirteenth century use a ‘flower’ form but it resembles a rose and not the Voynich manuscript’s spiky ‘aster-‘ whose drawing is consistent in the diagrams and  Quire 20, arguing a set habit.   However, the fact that the Voynich motifs have the same form in both sections doesn’t itself prove shared reference or common significance, here or in any posited  exemplars.

Something that I’m inclined to think might prove relevant, should anyone wish to take up the question for research, is that the motif in Quire 20 sees a conscious alteration of the centres, and this seems to me a possible echo of the way (as in the same 12thC ms cited earlier), ‘marginal’ passages of text were differentiated in Islamic manuscripts. I suggests consonant habits of mind.

What does not accord with the idea of origin for the Vms’ diagrams in works of the Islamic corpus is first, the ease with which the Voynich drawings equate flower-form, star-form and that hint of ‘light in the darkness’. It seems to me to imply familiarity with the Greek, and specifically if indirectly with the author of a ‘Theriac’ text, the Hellenistic poet Nicander who lived at just the time we first hear of Hellenistic use of the   ἀστερίσκος (‘little star’), whose form is unknown but which is attested in use, to mark duplication, by the 2ndC BC – precisely when Nicander lived.

It is also my opinion that much in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery points to first enunciation in the Hellenistic period, but I won’t elaborate on that except to refer to the form of the diagram’s unclothed female figures.

Nicander:

In his exhaustive paper on the history ot the Aster. Burgess quotes a fragment from Nicander, author of  ‘Theriaca’,

  • Edward Sandford Burgess, Studies in the History and Variations of Asters —Part I (etc.),  Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 10  (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.

When the flood waters receded, all that was left around the two mortals was mud and slime. Astraea felt so sorry for them she wept, her tears. upon hitting the earth, turned to star-flowers (asteriskos). Sea=aster.

The ‘aster’ which Burgess, and all subsequent commentaries on this fragment of Nicander’s poetry have assumed meant is the purple-flowered Atticus, but I feel some doubt on this score, for Nicander calls it ‘luminous’ and there is a white, spiky-petalled ‘star-flower’ whose centres alternate in colour.  It is has been known over time as Aster pannonicus and  Aster tripolium, and its present description is  Tripolium pannonicum.  The oldest remaining version of the Greek legend of Astraea seems consciously to conflate the high- and the low dwelling types (see picture and caption, left).

Note: The plant we now call ‘Hellenium’  is arelated to the sunflower and native to the Americas.  The ancient ‘Helenium’ was Elecampagne, something known to European writers  by the early 17thC. as e.g. The General Practise of Physicke … Translated and Augmented by J. Mosan. B.L. (1605) p.817.

________________

Nicander of Colophon, Aratus of Soli. Theriac, medicine and Stars.

coin of Soli in Cilicia.

Nicander was born in Claros, near Colophon on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor in 197 BC.  Though he may have known Aratus’ work well, or the material from which Aratus drew, Nicander’s  ‘Theriaca’ mentions stars only as markers of time; warning that this or that season was when a noxious creature was most numerous, most active or most highly venomous.  He died in young, in 170 BC.

Aratus had been born and died long before, being born in Soli in 325 BC and having died in Pella, of Greece in 240 BC.

Despite these disparities the two came to be often mentioned together, due to a witticism which commented on the fact that Aratus wrote about the stars but had no (practical) knowledge of them, while Nicander wrote on medicine and had no knowledge of pharmacy.

Cicero (de Oratore i.69) repeats the usual parallel but tries to a put a good spin on it – along the lines of ‘why shoudn’t someone learn only as much as they need for a present occasion?’

And as a last thought – the material copied to make the Voynich manuscript had to be copied because useful to someone; since the quires appear to have been bound by, or for a Latin, so presumably the information was perceived as useful to them.  It occurs to me that by translation from ‘aster” to ‘stella’ the sea-aster offered a natural association of ideas with the ‘stella maris’ which of course might mean the Pole star (which medieval Latins continued to associate as often with Cynosura as with Polaris), but it might also refer to the magnetised needle and surrounding compass (card).

Just a thought.

_______

Status of the problem so far ….

The seemingly natural connection made by the first enunciator f these diagrams: ‘flower-star-textual asterisk’ implies, if intentional,  close familiarity with Greek.  .

The medieval Christian works, the ‘asterisks’ don’t take this form – certainly not before the 13thC  and even then there appears to be only one comparison known – the TOU.

On the other and each in their several ways suggest the aster- motif in both the diagrams and Quire 20 are likely to relate to the sea-aster whose range today is believed much reduced from what it was in the centuries BC, but still inhabits salt-marsh environments.

At the moment the three avenues offering strongest possibilities of responding to investigation are, in order of chronology  (1) Asia Minor, Hellenistic Greek. (2)  Arab-Persian c.12thC AD or (3) 13thC French culture ‘[TOU}.

If common significance could be proven between Quire 20 and the diagrams, the contextual range would be more limited – which is all to the good.

The first printed edition of NIcander’s medical work issued from the Aldine Press in 1499.  (In Greek). You can see a copy of that edition here,

.. but that’s how we begin.

Note – August 20th. I have corrected minor typos and improved the grammar of half a dozen sentences. The reader is asked either to excuse mis-typings which remain, or leave a comment below.