To be clear – “astrology”

c.1050 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

[update – see STOP PRESS at end]

Recorded usages in English. .. matter from Oxford Reference:


(definition) – The study of movements and relative positions of celestial bodies interpreted as having an influence on human affairs and the natural world.

Ancient observers of the heavens developed elaborate systems of explanation based on the movements of the sun, moon, and planets through the constellations of the zodiac, for predicting events and for casting horoscopes.

The word is recorded from late Middle English, and comes ultimately (via Old French and Latin) from Greek astron ‘star’.

The commonest sense born by the term today (in full: judicial astrology, relating to human affairs) occurs in English from the mid 16th century.

By 1700 astrology had lost intellectual credibility in the West, but continued to have popular appeal. Modern astrology is based on that of the Greeks, but other systems are extant, e.g. that of China.

Natural astrology originally denoted the practical uses of astronomy, applied in the measurement of time and the prediction of natural phenomena.


As you see, the mid-sixteenth century usage is what informs modern perceptions of the difference between astrology and astronomy, and today’s general reader may be excused for expecting that any use of the word ‘astrology’ in medieval works must imply reference to planets, to horoscopes and to the zodiac.

To avoid confusion and false assumptions, those practical uses that medieval people called ‘natural astrology’ we will class as a sub-set of astronomy. Other terms used by modern scholars to avoid confusion include natural astronomy, archaeoastronomy, indigenous astronomy and folk-astronomy and may include moralised astronomy and a union of religious thought with astronomical knowledge, such as identifying Christ with the Sun.

Practical observation of the stars for practical purposes – chiefly to establish times, seasons and directions – has a history descending from times so remote that astronomy can be fairly described as the oldest of human sciences – if science is defined as the accumulation of data by close observation, the systematisation of that data, its practical testing by experiment, its repeatability and its practical aims. The use of navigational astronomy across lands is asserted or inferred as existing from a very early period, and across seas using evidence related to the Australian migrations,* while the Austronesian routes and migrations (which incidentally established the eastern maritime ‘spice routes’) date from c.2000 BC. Trade in lapis lazuli from Afghanistan into Egypt began from the 3rd millennium BC, but scholars differ about when it became a direct, sea-borne trade from the Indus through the Red Sea.

*as e.g. by Alan William, “A new population curve for prehistoric Australia”, Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Proceedings, Vol 280 (#1761), (online through Pub.Med. April 2013).

By comparison, the Babylonian empire’s rise* seems quite recent, being closer in time to the Roman occupation of Judaea than we are now.

 *c.1894 BC

In Egypt, astronomy’s origins are older than the rise of Babylonia and by the 3rd millennium BCE, Egypt’s 365-day calendar was already in use, and the Nile’s annual rise predicted by the rising of stars. One must assume, but we cannot prove, that before Babylonia’s cities were built some Mesopotamian peoples had a developed natural astronomy.

From c1479–1458 BCE we have evidence of a highly-developed astronomical, calendrical, religious and possibly astrological system in Egypt, recorded on the walls and ceiling of a tomb* from that time.

*Senenmut’s tomb, in Thebes.

Having survived intact for about three thousand years, the contents of that tomb and its star-ceiling were rifled, dispersed and/or defaced once it was opened by Europeans in 1925-27. A replica of the ceiling is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a few watercolour paintings record remnants of the decoration. What the replica tells us, at least, is that some of the constellations represented within the Roman-era ceiling at Dendera were from Egypt’s native tradition, while Faulkner’s study of the Pyramid Texts confirms the antiquity of Egyptian emphasis on the circumpolar stars, Orion, Sirius and certain other markers.

Had Senenmut’s tomb survived to be studied now, it might have provided more insight into the evolution of the Coptic calendar, its calculation, and its roster of saints.

  • R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.

*without prejudice, I note that the Egyptian constellations identified by Belmonte and Llull include none from the Roman zodiac save Leo. Belmonte is a former editor of the journal Archaeoastronomy which began well in the 1980s but lost readership and impetus as its focus became increasingly, and by the end solely, on the Americas. But see paper by Juan Antonio Belmonte and Jose Lull as Chapter 6 in:

  • J.A. Belmonte, Ancient Astronomy: India, Egypt, China, Maya, Inca, Aztec, Greece, Rome, Genesis, Hebrews, Christians, the Neolithic and Paleolithic

In these posts it will be convenient to take any diagram’s structure as definition of intended purpose for the medieval west to c.1438 AD.

Astrology is indicated, among other things, by a medical text’s including diagonally-ruled tables for the phases of the moon. The ‘zodiac man’ (whose use the early Christian writers had specifically prohibited) is also astrological.

Evidence of applying mathematical calculations to determine the precise position of planets is taken as evidence of astrological purpose.

Constellations on the ecliptic, including the 12 which form the Roman zodiac, are of themselves not evidence of one or other intention. Since these constellations are constellations, not only astrological signs, and our interest is in the purpose for which such forms were made by the first maker(s) and whoever commissioned the sections now forming Beinecke MS 408, we cannot presume predictive-astrological purpose without the presence of other markers (see above). The default is thus – precession notwithstanding – ‘astronomical’.

I expect some readers will protest this decision, but the question we must address is whether the maker – if it were possible to ask him/her – would concur that by picturing the zodiac constellations or signs in e.g. a religious breviary, s/he demonstrated an intention to practice astrology or believed the intended recipient intended to practice astrology in our modern sense of the word. If the western Church had not insisted always that mankind had free will, opposition to astrology would perhaps have been less persistent and less complicated; contact with the Palaiologan court made magic and astrology fashionable among some humanists and Luther’s promoting belief in predestination saw popular interest in all forms of anticipatory lot-casting, fortune-telling and astrology explode, assisted by publication of books of the ‘Shepherds Calendar’ type in which such matter was now included.

Many Voynich writers have assumed or simply announced astrological purpose in the Voynich calendar. A few have attempted to argue a case from evidence, but none has yet proven it and two specialists in the subject have stated, independently of each other, of me and at that time of interference from any Voynichero that the calendar diagrams are not astrological charts.

Allons de l’avant ..


A notice from has just dropped into my mail box telling me that Professor Elly Dekker has uploaded to his her review of a book which I admit I let pass in 2007, given its price of 99 Euros and having at that time no interest in computus and working on very different questions. Come to think of it, back then I’d never heard of the Voynich manuscript. (sigh).

… having now read Dekker’s review, I’ll have to add Eastwood’s book to the library

  • Bruce E. Eastwood, Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  • Elly Dekker’s review is in Early Science and Medicine Vol.13 (2008) 509-530. And of course on Dekker’s site at

O’Donovan notes #8.4: folio 67v-1. Peripheral motifs.

approx. 2400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

I had intended to introduce this part by tracing the history of different systems and styles for describing asterisms on the moon’s path, beginning with the Roman-era ceiling in Denderah and continuing to the fifteenth century, but considering how many posts would be needed to do the topic justice, and illustrate it, I’ve decided not to exhaust my readers and so will keep to a period from about the twelfth century to the early fifteenth.

I’ve described these four as peripheral, because they are not essential to the diagram’s description of cardinals and intercardinals but duplicate the four cardinals. They read as if they were additional commentary or astronomical scholia. Were it were not that these stars’ faces are drawn in just the same way that the faces of South and North stars are drawn inside the circuit, one might suspect them of being a late addition.

The four are fairly well-informed and contain some telling details.

The whole page, turned north-up, would appear as shown (below), but since it was designed South-up, I’ll address the South emblem first.


(detail) folio 67v-1. Sulba, Sulbar

The first point to be taken from it is that this ‘South’ motif was not drawn by any untravelled medieval Latin scholar unless he or she had access to an informant with wider knowledge of the world.

Why? It marks South by a group of four stars most probably those we now call ‘Crux’ but which even for Ptolemy were just part of the Centaur constellation and were not recognised by Europe as a separate constellation or asterism until after the time of Faras (1500) Corsali (1516) and of Magellan’s voyage (1519), i.e. at least three generations after the Voynich bifolios were inscribed.* The modern list, and description, of the constellations was decided by an 1880s conference of European astronomers.

*this is not the place to dilate on my reasons, but I suspect that the Voynich manuscript was among those stolen by Guglielmo Libri (d. 1869), perhaps even from the Medici villa in Fiesole, the town where Libri had a house to which he returned to die. I think it was then given by Libri’s noble executor to Fr. Peter Jan Beckx who was resident in Fiesole from 1875, only returning finally to the Villa Mondragone in Rome in 1895. I made the mistake of publishing a scrap of that research at voynichimagery so by now its echo may perhaps be found in some other Voynich site as an ‘idea’ (i.e. re-presented without proper attribution, without evidence or evidence of preceding research). I cannot empathise with Voynich pilferers, but perhaps Libri would.

For those who moved overland or sailed the seas east of Arabia, this constellation was as well known as were the Ursae in the Mediterranean, and for similar reasons. As it wheels around the southern Pole, Crux serves to indicate that point and to mark the night-hours. With no star occupying the South point (as Polaris does the North), Crux is all the more valuable to wayfinders. It had anciently been visible to more northerly latitudes, but again precession had taken it below the horizon over the centuries, and it was not visible to medieval Latin Europe.

India knew Crux as ‘Sulba’ and the Arabs as ‘Sulbar’.

More detail in

When first publishing the summary of research into folio 67v-1, I included a good deal of historical, cultural and comparative iconological matter for these peripheral motifs, but since this series is meant as a demonstration of analytical method, I won’t repeat it all here.

I would, however, emphasise strongly that an analyst’s opinion must wait on the balance of evidence acquired by investigation – not start with an impression, mis-represent the impression as ‘opinion’ and that ‘opinion’ as theory, let alone use that theory to limit the nature and range of research undertaken.

Unfortunately, as you’ll see by reviewing past and present-day theoretical Voynich narratives, precisely that sort of theory-driven approach has hardened into a presumed norm, and has permitted traditionalists to rationalise the manuscript’s disobligingly opaque drawings and assert them all “nice and normal European really” waving aside all stylistic differences by simply imagining that some medieval Latin figure was so affected by aberrant mentality, or by a a desire to be original that s/he rendered the majority of this manuscript’s images illegible in terms of a European visual language.

One is often obliged to ask of a given Voynich theorist if they have ever read so much as a history of European art.

To this day, as for the last century, a Voynich traditionalist begins by saying in effect, “Presuming that all the content in this manuscript is an expression of western Christian culture and written texts….’ The analytical approach starts by asking ‘Where and when do we find evidence of such forms and informing ideas as are preserved in the drawing under consideration?’

In some cases, the answer may be indeed ‘medieval Christian Europe’; in others, a combined influence (as we saw with folio 85r), and in many there’s no trace of Latin influence at all. A compilation derived from more than one source of non-European origin and supplemented after c.1350 by a few additions in western style would seem to me a reasonable assessment overall, but again I’m speaking of fomat and images. I have no opinion on the script except to say that it appears to me that the way the ‘4o’ glyph is written indicates a hand already accustomed (as few were before 1400) to writing the numeral ‘4’ that way.

Like the difference between a doll’s house and a real house, so a Voynich theory tends to be purpose-made and nicely organised so long as you suspend your sense of perspective and proportion. An analytical study will have its flaws, but (so to speak) when you turn the taps, there’s water in the pipes. The analyst must – unlike the theorist – refrain from a final opinion until after subjecting research-conclusions to a rigorous and quite hostile cross-examination.

About the South-emblem, for example, the cross-examination would include such questions as: Why this astronomical cross? How do you know the maker didn’t mean to refer to the cross of Cygnus? What about the ‘cross’ sometimes identified with Orion? What about that ‘false cross’ mentioned by Ibn Majid and described so in modern astronomy?” “Why can’t they be meant for northern stars since you say ‘South’ in the Voynich map is marked by a circle?”.. and so on. If you don’t seriously stress-test your initial conclusions and consider both pro’s and con’s, your final opinion will be un-balanced by definition even if (predictably) nicely consistent with your initial impressions.

Crux (left) and the false cross (right) in the southern hemisphere.

One must also see things from the point of view of someone who is blinkered by devotion to a theory or affected by some such misconception as that any allusion to stars must either be about astrology or about mathematical astronomy.

I feel fairly confident that someone out there, alarmed by this allusion to Crux and its being incompatible with their variant of an all-European theory, will begin hunting through theory-friendly sources for something to assert is an alternative explanation. They might look for some astrological system which linked stars to the directions. It is well to have done the same.

If – more likely when – a theorist produces a contrary view, then regardless of what you might think about the critic’s Voynich theory, don’t ignore any supporting evidence. It’s all about evidence, after all, and – this is important – their evidence might be better than any that you’ve considered so far. If later re-using that person’s information, an analyst should feel able to acknowledge the person who was kind enough to bring that evidence to notice. As I said earlier – this sort of work needs an almost insatiable intellectual curiosity combined with a level of disinterest practically impossible for the theory-afflicted. I feel most sympathy for those marginal readers who, like Nicodemus, desire to know but dare not admit to knowing [Voynich-] heresy. 😀

Concerning transmission of this material into the west, it is interesting to note that in a Genoese map of 1457, we find a combined image for Canopus+Crux after the custom of India and the mariners of the eastern seas. Its form is related to the Voynich map’s ‘Angel of the Rose’ as I explained when first introducing to Voynich studies the subject of Europe’s earliest rose-gridded cartes marine and their relevance to this study (2012-14) .. but I’m running too far ahead .. Next motif..


(detail) f.67v-1. Sting of Scorpius. Ar: Al Shaulah
(detail) f.67v-1 inscription for the sting of Scorpius.

The maker’s choice to mark ‘West’ shows that they were not by birth and upbringing heirs to the near eastern cultural traditions and star-lore, nor by training an eastern mariner.

This is because the proverbial ‘west’ marker was the Pleiades, and the proverbial ‘East’ marker, Orion, even though in purely astronomical terms (as in classical legend), it is the Scorpion from which Orion seems to retreat, backwards.

This opposition of Orion and Scorpius is what one sees on a globe or in the night sky in the right season, Any person unaware of the older and long-traditional sayings among eastern peoples would, understandably, suppose them an obvious pair, but his not being native to that environment is made evident again by another and more subtle ‘error’ – in attempting to define the east-west opposition in terms of the lunar asterisms or manzil, he has got it very nearly, but not exactly right. He has just counted the series and divided by two, making his ‘west’ not only part of Scorpius but the wrong stars of that constellation, the stars composing its sting and the manazil called in Arabic al Shaulah. But even in those terms, it’s only nominally right; the right manazil would have been the star of the Scorpion’s heart,

  • Looking around online today (15th July), I see a useful list of the lunar mansions on a site devoted to astrology – here.
  • Another astrologer, P. James Clark, has a blog called the ‘Classical Astrologer’ and his post – here – provides a useful discussion of the lunar mansions as they were represented by the Picatrix and so came to inform notions held in western Europe about the manzil.

To a few among the literati of medieval Latin Europe, the lunar mansion system was known, but only as a magical and occult system, as represented in a rather garbled version in Latin translations of the Picatrix, but the series of lunar mansions (manzil) simply describes the ecliptic in smaller increments than the simple 12-fold system of month-marking constellations with which the Latin west was thoroughly familiar.

In the world beyond Europe, the series of lunar mansion asterisms served various purposes. It served as a horizontal axis for the eastern navigators’ conceptual grid, among other things. Every mosque throughout the medieval Islamic world had its almanac in which the manzil were included, because the same series marked the periods of the liturgical year as it named the months of those Arabian agricultural calendars mentioned in the previous post.

Anything to do with the stars could be, and was, put to use by fortune-tellers, astrologers and magicians, but it is a major error to imagine that there’s a simple equation – ‘manzil’ equals ‘occult’.

The person who added these peripheral emblems to the diagram certainly understood that Orion should denote East (as we’ll see) but in deciding which lunar mansion should stand for ‘West’ he chose as you’d expect a foreigner would – by taking the opposition literally and by counting the half-way point.

In purely technical astronomical terms, to have these stars opposite those of Orion is ok – as you’ll see if you look at an astronomical globe. But it is culturally just a bit off, even in literal uses – a bit like perfectly grammatical yet non-idiomatic English spoken by a well-educated visitor.

The whole of Orion opposed by the whole Scorpion -yes. That would be fine. But as symbolic emblem for ‘west’ – it should be the Pleiades, often in the form of a cup, and significant of a final victory. (Which of course is the wit in Hafiz’ allusion, earlier quoted.) And in literal terms west should be identified with the Scorpion’s heart-star, al-Kalb (which again, those familiar with Hafiz’ poems will appreciate.)

While I don’t believe that the person who drew these four emblems was a stay-at-home Latin bending over Aratus’ Phaenomena or even Ptolemy’s Almagest, he may have been a traveller from somewhere in the west, or a member of an eastern Christian community or at the very least have known the story of Christ. The Arabic term for Crux is rendered as ‘the beam of crucifixion’ and a person of deceptive or traitorous character was proverbially described, in the near east, as a ‘scorpion’. What argues against his being a Latin, or someone who had seen Crux, is that the drawing gives it four arms of equal length.

For students in search of additional sources, I refer to the listings under ‘Stars and their Uses’ in the page My recommendations. (see header bar).

In Voynich studies, the subject of the lunar mansions has surfaced and sunk again many times, since first raised in Jim Reeds’ mailing list (1990s-early 2000s) but since most Voynicheros have begun by presuming everything in the Voynich manuscript must be the brain-child of some western Christian author, what we’ve seen so far from Voynich writers addressing the topic has been based on the Picatrix (in a very poor thirteenth century version), and by then jumping straight to Cornelius Agrippa’s book published in 1533, and thus almost exactly a century too late to be relevant.

Darren Worley‘s posts and comments to the blog set up by Stephen Bax, did consider the Indian nakshatras, though again with astrology in mind and adopting the remarkably constant error by which Voynicheros imagine the Voynich calendar shows ‘a zodiac’ and the still more egregious error which imagines the purpose of every zodiac’s representation was astrological.

I might mention that there is nothing in any of the Voynich drawings which points to an astrological purpose: the habit of imagining no other purpose could inform drawings that show sun, moon and stars is another by-product of Voynich studies’ early history.

The next two astronomical motifs, next post.


Readers might enjoy Clark’s post about the astrological directions in al-Biruni’s work, though of course al-Biruni was a towering intellect whose report on India’s culture and intellectual history includes far more than their astrology. Still, it is interesting to note that in al-Biruni’s description of astrological directions (as Clark reports), “Cancer is in the centre of the North, Scorpius a point to the left and West [of north].” HIs post includes a diagram – shown north-up and east-left – in which Scorpius is actually left and east of North. Whether the error is in the diagram, or in the translation from al-Biruni, I’ve never troubled to check. In any case, here again, I think al-Biruni’s system for weather-predictions can be crossed off our list of potential sources for the ‘West’ emblem on folio 67v-1.

What magic? Where magic? 5c folio 67v (cont.) Seeing as others saw.

Header image: (left) Isidore of Seville, from the Aberdeen bestiary; (right, upper register) detail from Brit.Lib. MS Add. 17808 f.89r (lower register) left: detail from Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.67v; right: (detail) tapestry from the formerly Hellenistic region of Bactria.

Two posts prior:

Note – (July 25th). These posts are being written ten days to two weeks before they are published, so there may be a delay in noting responses.


Part A treats of the ‘bearded sun’; of a ‘sun of night’ in eleventh-century Burgos; and of the regular passage of persons, goods and information back and forth across the Mediterranean during the medieval centuries. It is far from inconceivable that the material now in Beinecke MS 408 might have been collected in ‘eastern parts’ including medieval Egypt and contain (as Baresch also said) pictures of plants not native to Europe.

Part B considers earlier Latin attitudes to the stars, and another eleventh century manuscript – one made in northern France. It is the first known Latin copy of the astrological work, Liber Alchandri.  In the margin of one folio two very large green stars were placed, apparently by the copyists’ overseer. 

This is another post that includes enough material for three or four. I regret being unable to make editorial comment optional, collapsed text. 


A diagram on folio 67v has at its centre the face of a woman or of a young man that is provided with artificial hair and beard, and with eyes unfocused, surrounded by stars apparently disposed in seventeen unequal sectors. (see previous post)

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.67v. The image is clearly not classical Egyptian but accords with Hellenistic forms. Sekhmet’s leonine character was not so popular in Ptolemaic Egypt as formerly she had been.
amulet – Egypt. bearded, feline, Sekhmet daughter of Re’. wife of Ptah, guardian of boundaries. Regularly portrayed with sun-disk and uraeus in older Egyptian art.

Comparable forms for an artificially-bearded sun are attested from the eastern side of the Mediterranean – first in artefacts from pre-Christian Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. The oldest show a leonine female (Sekhmet) termed ‘daughter of the sun’ who was typically shown with the sun-disk and serpentine uraeus. The word for sun takes male gender in the Egyptian language as it does in Greek and Latin, the image on folio 67v nicely ambivalent creating a ‘universal’ form. Its having a human face points to origins in a Hellenistic- rather than a Pharaonic environment, I should think.

As to the sun’s gender, that varies with language. Some languages have it female, and among those, some – including Hebrew – allow its description as male or as female, though as not both at once. The image on folio 67v is not alchemy’s rebis.

We have some reason* to believe that matter now in the Voynich manuscript may have been copied from materials collected in “eastern parts” though the Voynich manuscript itself was made in the earlier part of the fifteenth century and is reasonably thought to have been made in Europe.

*Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher (1639)

Sekhmet as mistress of mariners. A statue now in Genoa.

Since the sun-face on folio 67v with its artificial mane and serpentine sidelocks is plainly no Christian helios but does shows this sun-face surrounded by stars, one must ask how the fifteenth-century copyist, or the person for whom the manuscript was being copied, might have understood this motif and the diagram’s purpose.


First – is any other sun-of-night attested in medieval western Europe and if so, when and where? The answer is ‘yes’ – but rarely and in the earlier medieval period – that is, before the twelfth century. It was not envisaged by the Latins as female.

Sun of Night’ in medieval Spain.

Among several examples noticed and translated by Carey, one comes from an eleventh-century manuscript produced in  Silos abbey of Burgos. It uses the instructional mode:

Tell me: does the sun shine at night, or not?It does.

Tell me: in what way? – For three hours in the abyss, for three hours in the sea, for three hours in the city of Nataleon, and for three hours in the city of Jerusalem. Then it returns to the east [i.e. the point of sunrise on the western viewer’s horizon] in the first hour of the day, and shines for the twelve hours of the day, and returns into the west.

  • John Carey, ‘The Sun’s Night Journey: A Pharaonic Image in Medieval Ireland’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 57 (1994), pp. 14-34. Carey does not provide full details of the manuscript. It may be the Silos Apocalypse but I’ve not been able to verify.

Carey does not mention it, but the four stages may be equated with the four elements – abyss (air); sea (water); nataleon (fire – by association with the lion); Jersualem (earth as foundation). 

Transmission and exchange across the Mediterranean.

Given that our clearest extant example of the artificially-bearded sun is in an ivory attributed to Phoenicians and some Phoenician cities in the western Mediterranean were as much as seven hundred years old before the rise of Rome, so we do not necessarily have to pass very far from Burgos to find the source of ideas and images akin to those in folio 67v.

  • Gerard Gertoux, Dating the Foundation of Carthage’ (paper at

 On the other hand, Baresh’s letter seems to demand that we do, so I include the  following broad-brush overview as editorial, not least to serve as counterweight for the now traditionally-Eurocentric narratives created for the Voynich manuscript, almost all being derived from that which Wilfrid Voynich forged from no more than a signature in the manuscript and a rag of unsubstantiated, third-hand hearsay.  Though rarely questioned, the Mnishovsky rumour is certainly questionable historical evidence. Assertions such as that the manuscript is ‘known’ to have been in Rudolf’s library, or that Rudolf ‘bequeathed’ it to anyone are due to more recent writers’  historical imagination.

In the following editorial comment, I mean to emphasise that by present standards, the old assumptions of a western Europe unaffected by any unsolicited ‘foreign’ matter can no longer be maintained.  In the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries which were the formative years for those first involved with the manuscript, it was imagined that no non-Latin matter entered the western Christian (‘Latin’ European) intellectual horizons except it were deliberately chosen and  – as it were – passed  the rigors of  ‘customs inspection’,  monitored transition, ideological cleansing and subsequent naturalisation. The stories of Leonard of Pisa (Fibonacci), Gerard of Cremona etc. serve as paradigm for that idea of a ‘white-walled’ Europe. 

An idea that nothing could arrive in Europe but what been ‘passed’ does apply, to an extent, to the Latins’  ‘bookish’ tradition, but the Voynich manuscript offers much in its internal evidence, and of course Baresch’s letter to Athanasius Kircher adds more, which should have led more researchers than John Tiltman or Erwin Panofsky to doubt the story created by Wilfrid with William Romaine Newbold. 
Europe’s Christianity was scarcely well rooted before the time of Columbanus and his fellows, but Irish monasticism in turn had its source and model in earlier Egyptian monasticism, and with it their liturgical calendar and computus, their tradition of copying older manuscripts and, tellingly, their dissemination and use of that extraordinary work, The Marriage of Mercury and Philology in which- by the way –  the ‘number of the sun’ is explicable only by reference to the old Boharic Egyptian-Coptic dialect.
  • Leslie S. B. MacCoull, ‘Coptica in Martianus Capella De Nuptiis 2.193’, Classical Philology , Oct., 1995, Vol. 90, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 361-366.
In northern Italy, the monastery of Bobbio (in whose library Gerbert of Aurillac would later say he found a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica) was founded and its library first furnished by the Irish Columbanus. Similarly  St.Gallen was founded one of Columbanus’ fellows and it  oldest manuscripts too were copied by Irish peripatetic scribes.
Egyptian life and traditions did not vanish at the moment when Caesar first set foot on Egyptian soil, nor when the last Pharaoh died, though some Voynich writers have supposed it so, dismissing Baresch’s comments from that erroneous belief.   Not until the third century AD were Egyptian temples closed by Roman edict, and many still stood in the 7thC AD.  The role of liturgical Coptic in assisting our understanding of the older Egyptian language and script is now well known, and as Baresch’s letter to Kircher shows, it was in response to Kircher’s appeal for material to help decipher hieroglyphics that Baresch sent the copied sections.  Regardless of indications in the imagery, however, results of numerous statistical studies of Voynichese have not suggested derivation from any Egyptian dialect, or any other language as it was spoken and/or written in Egypt.  The matter in the manuscript may have been gained ‘in the east’ but that is not reason enough to presume the same is true for the present manuscript’s written text.
  • Alan K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs 332BC-AD642. (1986).
Throughout the medieval centuries, however, Egypt continued to be a major entrepot though which  Mediterranean traders and pilgrims passed constantly during the sailing year from the beginning of Spring until October-November and, occasionally locally, December. 
In twelfth-century  Exeter, for example, evidence of direct free contact is offered by some of the misericords’ carvings.  Those are not ‘official’ carvings, but a space which the workers might ornament ad.lib. That shown (below) accurately represents a pair of Egyptian ‘ba’ birds, both in their form and still more strikingly, with their original significance.  For these two ‘souls’ he almost got the forms perfect. (I regret not being able to show here a facing pair from Karnak).  The most interesting point is that so late as the mid-thirteenth century someone – some guide, presumably – had still been able to rightly explain the sense of the originals. Exeter06.3 ba birds
Though the ‘ba’ bird usually stood on bird-feet, where these are provided hands, it is an understandable mis-reading if (as I suspect) he’d seen high above him and foreshortened, the pair at Karnak.  He certainly meant to make the  faces European, and one must wonder whether these ‘soul-mates’ are the woodcarver and his wife.
Europeans in medieval ports and markets had little difficulty with language.  As one mid-fourteenth century traveller describes: 
If you ask how I could converse with the interpreter .. the interpreter is of Jewish descent and came to Misr [Egypt/old Cairo] to return to Judaism, because he is a Spaniard.. He knows seven languages – Hebrew, Italian, Turkish, Greek, Arabic, German and French.   .. In Misr there are many fondaks … a thousand and more warehouses in each fondak..
extract from a Florentine ms. translated in 
    • Elkan Nathan Adler, Jewish Travellers (801-1755), London: Routedge (1930) pp.156-208
Venice and Genoa had more than one fondak  assigned exclusively for their use at various times, though free access to Egypt fluctuated with changing political tides. Practical reasons for travel included the chance to buy cheaply in the east what might be sold at greater price in the west – such things as Indian gems, Chinese silk and plant-products whose ultimate source was India and south-east Asia.  
Studies of the Latin, Greek and Arabic antidotaries tell us, for example, that a trade in eastern plants was maintained – not directly, but via Cairo or some other eastern centre –  from southeast Asia to as far as England before the twelfth century. One of the first to engage with that topic was John Riddle. Today there is a great body of scholarship available for study of medieval pharmacy, antidotaries and related trades, but in 1965 Riddle could speak of,
a manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, lists ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger.
and e.g. that
The word cafora, coming from the Arabic kâfôur, is found in the same manuscript as ambergris and also in an antidotary written in Lombardie script in the 9th or 10th centuries. As a product of the plant cinnamomum camphora nees, cafora or camphor is found only in the orient.
    • John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.
Note – I have tried as far as possible throughout all these posts to cite articles accessible through libraries and online outlets such as researchgate, JSTOR and  I’ve selected them not only for the article’s content, but the value of an author’s sources and bibliography to assist in further research. In some cases this was simply not possible and I’ve had to cite the works used i my own research, some of which I know only the keenest researcher would care to hunt out, but the necessary information is nowhere else.  

Altogether, it is now clear that ideas prevalent in the nineteenth century and which Friedman, or d’Imperio took as ‘givens’ into the post-WWII period, were badly skewed.   Medieval Europe lived in no cultural ‘bubble’. The monks and secular scholars who made Europe’s ‘bookish’ history and textual traditions did, it is true, become increasingly skittish over time about having ideas they thought contrary to western Christian doctrine brought west by foreign residents and by such groups as the Italian humanists. The less able the authorities were to ignore  or to control such  information, the more savage their efforts became to ensure it was not disseminated through the western Christian populace without being provided a western Christian commentary and interpretation.  But these efforts were long limited to the more highly educated class, no effort made during the earlier medieval period to monitor the activities of traders, incoming travellers, or minority non-Christian communities. If a text was neither in Latin nor (later) widely circulated in the vernacular, it could be ignored.

The practice of just ignoring ‘foreign’ material saw some sad losses to European learning, and it is surprising to see how much valuable information was ignored.  As one example, we may refer to Idrisi’s radically new astronomical-geography completed after all most two decades’ work, in Sicily, in 1154, at least one copy having been prepared in a Latin translation, but we find no interest in it ever shown by Latin Europe for almost five hundred years – not until a copy of the Arabic text was published in Rome in 1592 by the Medici Press

 Idrisi did not simply copy or update  Ptolemy’s data, Over nineteen years, Idrisi had permission to interview any of the myriad travellers, traders and pilgrims who, perforce, called in at Sicily during their east-west journeys.
The result was a new astronomy as well as a new geography and,  using both in tandem, it described the world from China to Britain, region by region. Some of Michael Scot’s work is thought to have depended on Idrisi’s astronomical information. 
Perhaps the Latins (i.e. western European Christians) rejected it because they disapproved of Roger’s multi-cultural ‘international’ court. Perhaps it was one of those times when Roger was under ban of excommunication. Perhaps it was because Idrisi used south (the direction of the Latins’ Hell) as his primary direction.  Perhaps because the real world didn’t display a neat tripartite division reflecting the Biblical assignment to one part to each of Noah’s sons.  Who knows?  Here’s a reconstruction of Idrisi’s south-oriented world-map. 
For a  ‘north-up’ view, see here
Idirisi world map
The people who brought ‘caphora’ to Cairo, or to north Africa, or to Lombardy didn’t need a map of this sort, nor a handbook of geography to do it.
*Frances Carney Gies, ‘Al-Idrisi And Roger’s Book’, Saudi Aramco World, Volume 28, Number 4 (July/August 1977) pp.14-19. online.

To further illustrate the range over which the  ‘Sun of night’ had been accepted in the older near east, I’ll mention the Babylonian version, too and Europe does acknowledge a passive debt to Babylonia in mathematical astronomy.

  • Wolfgang Heimpel, ‘The Sun at Night and the Doors of Heaven in Babylonian Texts’, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 127-151.


Having found mention of a ‘sun of night’ in eleventh-century Burgos (see above), we may now  consider another manuscript of that period, this one made in northern France (Brit.Lib. MS 17808).  To understand how its material was viewed at that time, we must better appreciate how Latins thought about the stars in those days, and how they regarded mathematical calculations.  

By the eleventh century, the two greatest voices in Latin Christianity were those of the north African, Augustine, and that of Isidore of Seville.

Augustine (354 – 430 AD) had been of Phoenician parentage, had a passion for studying the stars (in a combined astronomy-and-astrology), then became attracted to the original form of Manichaeism, at that time  one of the major world religions and which by the tenth century was established to as far as the borders of China. Along those eastern roads, it was a major provider of centres for traders and travellers –  groups largely associated with the spread of that religion.  In north Africa, however, Augustine had eventually abandoned his early interests, converted to Latin Christianity and through his writings become one of western Christianity’s earliest and most revered theologians.

With regard to astronomical learning, and the seeking of  wisdom from Egypt, I might also mention Gregory the Great (540 – 604 AD), author of the ‘Commentary on Job’, but Isidore, his contemporary, had much broader and more lasting influence.

Isidore of Seville lived from 560-636 AD.  His huge work,  Etymologiae, remained the standard reference  for information about  .. well, almost everything…  from the time of its composition to as late as the sixteenth century.  Today there survive more than a thousand manuscripts in which the work is found copied in part, entire, or as a compilation of excerpts. According to one anonymous modern author, the full text of the Etymologies was printed in ten separate editions between 1470 and 1530, that is, at the height of the Renaissance. 

We can safely suppose, therefore, that what Isidore says about the stars would have been known to the monks of Burgos, as to the scribes in northern France who made Brit.Lib. MS Add. 17808 in that same century.  Of this second manuscript, more below.   Here are some of Isidore’s dicta: 

Astronomy distinguished from astrology.

The difference between astronomy and astrology

There is some difference between astronomy and astrology. Astronomy concerns itself with the turning of the heavens, the rising, setting, and motion of the stars, and where the constellations get their names. But astrology is partly natural, and partly superstitious.

It is natural as long as it investigates the courses of the sun and the moon, or the specific positions of the stars according to the seasons; but it is a superstitious belief that the astrologers (mathematicus) follow when they practice augury by the stars, or when they associate the twelve signs of the zodiac with specific parts of the soul or body, or when they attempt to predict the nativities and characters of people by the motion of the stars.

Bk2 xxvii.

Despite that last sentence, his Etymologiae was still copied, and then published to a willing public, long after the ‘zodiac body’ became a commonplace in medical texts.

Proper purpose for stars – including those of the zodiac.

Constellations (sidus) are so named because sailors ‘take bearings on’ (considerare) them when they set their course, lest they be led elsewhere by deceptive waves and winds. And for that reason some stars are called signs (signum), because sailors observe them in steering their rowing, taking note of their keenness and brightness, qualities by which the future state of the sky is shown. 
But everyone pays attention to them for predicting the qualities of the air in the summer, winter, and spring seasons, for by their rising or setting in specific places they indicate the condition of the weather.

Bk.III, lxx.4

That is why so many medieval breviaries and calendars can include emblems for the 12 constellations. It is not evidence for, nor indication of, astrological reference, but that has proven difficult for some Voynicheros to absorb, since today many regard any zodiac as if astrological by definition, and regard the constellation emblems as no more than ‘birth signs’.

Mathematics and improperly ‘calculating’ the stars.

For Isidore – and thus for most medieval Europeans – the evil uses were those employed by a calculating mind.

 But whatever the type of superstition with which they have been named by men, the stars are nevertheless things that God created at the beginning of the world, and he set them in order that they might define the seasons by their particular motions. Therefore, observations of the stars, or horoscopes, or other superstitions that attach themselves to the study of the stars, that is, for the sake of knowing the fates – these are undoubtedly contrary to our faith…

But some people, enticed by the beauty and clarity of the constellations, have rushed headlong into error with respect to the stars, their minds blinded, so that they attempt to be able to foretell the results of things by means of harmful computations, which is called ‘astrology’ (mathesis) .


and again:

24. These are commonly called astrologers (mathematicus); the Romans call this kind of superstition ‘constellations’ (constellatio), that is, observation of the stars – how they relate to each other when each person is born.

The first interpreters of the stars were called Magi (magus), as we read of those who made known the birth of Christ in the Gospels; afterwards they only had the name mathematicus.

Knowledge of this skill was permitted only up until the time of the Gospel, so that once Christ was born no one thereafter would interpret the birth of anyone from the heavens. 

Bk. VIII.ix.24-25

A scholastic miscellany made in France between 1309 and 1316, Brit.Lib.Burney MS 275 includes matter from Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, and Ptolemy and its tables (e.g. on f. 398) are written in Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Nonetheless, the margin of f.336r includes a visual ‘warning off’ about these numerals as founded on matter ‘of the devil’.

In depictions of the liberal arts, the teacher is normally an allegorical figure, but here she is made alive, a woman looking upon these innocent students and with wide, bold eyes (i.e. in an ‘unwomanly-wicked’ way). Even so late in European history, there was plainly some residual suspicion of Arabic numerals, introduced to Europe as they had been in association with the Arabs’ ‘mathesis’.

Understanding these ideas, it is easier to appreciate what implications might be carried by two large green stars set in the margin of a page in Brit Lib. MS Add 17808, whose incipit (first phrase) reads:

 ‘Mathematica Alhandrei – summi astrologi..’

Mathesis and astrology and from a foreign author and he not Christian.

Very worrying stuff for an eleventh-century monastic scribe, concerned for his immortal soul, yet bound by a vow of obedience even as Isidore’s words came to mind, “harmful computations, which is called ‘astrology’ (mathesis)”.. “undoubtedly contrary to our faith”.

Green stars.

green stars faith hours BritLib Add MS 1708 header
green stars alone from Brit Lib Add 17808
detail folio 108r

These marks are so unusual that the cataloguer describes them as “stars(?)”.

They are not formed like the asterisks which, in Latin manuscripts, mean that a passage ‘a‘ links to passage ‘b‘. Nor are these like Quire 20’s flower-stars.

The Latins’ textual asterisk was formed as an ‘X’ with a dot in each quarter – as Isidore says:

In the eleventh-century manuscript (Brit.Lib. Add. MS 17808) the first of those two ‘green stars’ is set beside an area left blank.

We would usually suppose that the space had been left for the pictor to add some image, and since the other ‘starred’ paragraph names the 12 constellations of the zodiac, we might expect that image to be a depiction of the 12 constellations or their emblems, and further suppose that the pictor just never got around to it. This is not the only example of such blank spaces in medieval manuscripts.

However, those easy assumptions are not so easy in this case, because the character of this text is unorthodox for that time and someone – presumably the same overseer who put those green stars in the margin – has instructed the scribe to go back and insert into what had been a paragraph space, immediately after the names of the twelve constellations, the text of biblical passage and to write it all in capital letters.

The passage is from the book of Genesis. Its quotation, in this context, conveys a caution – even a warning – to scribes and subsequent readers. Given the nature of the text and Isidore’s proscriptions, the addition of the sentence: ‘God disposed them as signs for the hours of the night’ reminds a reader that the purpose in copying this material is to assist with correct observations of the night offices and the calendar, so as to remain in step with the divinely ordered heavens.

For that, no anthropomorphic images of ‘pagan’ gods were necessary; the constellations (constellatio) need not be drawn. The hours’ stars could be pointed out in the sky and calculation limited to that needed for computus, to establish the date of easter.

An entire side of folio 100 is also left blank.

That manuscript is very well known today and despite any effort to keep its use on the right side of a theological line, the Liber Alchandi came to be associated chiefly with ancient mysteries and near-magic. Not everyone felt so averse to picturing the pagan constellations, of course.

Thorndike refers to this manuscript when noting that Peter  of Abano, in his  Lucidator astronomiae (1310) “mentions Alchandrus…

“ a successor of Hermes Trismegistus in the science of astronomy but as flourishing before the time of Nebuchadnezzar.”

Thorndike comments

Al chandrus was  scarcely as ancient as that, but the treatise ascribed to him also exists in Latin in a manuscript of the tenth century.. it is full of Arabic and Hebrew words, and professes to cite the opinions of Egyptians, Ishmaelites, and Chaldeans in general as well as those of Ascalu the Ishmaelite and Arfarfan or Argafalan or Argafalaus  the Chaldean in particular.”

Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vol.1 p.711 ff  

Additional references:

The holding library recommends this paper which I’ve not yet seen:

  • Charles Burnett, ‘King Ptolemy and Alchandreus the Philosopher: The Earliest Texts on the Astrolabe and Arabic Astrology at Fleury, Micy and Chartres’, Annals of Science, 55.4 (1998), 329-68 (pp. 334, n. 28, 335, 339, n. 55, 341, 343, 368).

Marco Zuccato’s paper is well researched and documented. It’s available at JSTOR.

  • Marco Zuccato, ‘Gerbert of Aurillac and a Tenth-Century Jewish Channel for the Transmission of Arabic Science to the West’, Speculum , Jul., 2005, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 742-763

In sum: Editorial ‘green pencil’?

All of which, together, leads me to think that the ‘green stars’ in that French manuscript are more like marks from an editor’s blue pencil – Someone had to instruct the scribe to add the biblical passage, and perhaps instructed the pictor that his work would not be needed for some parts of the copying.

Might the green stars on folio 67v of Beinecke MS 408 be another case of an overseer’s corrections, rather than indication of the three stars’ having some special significance?

I’ll take a closer look at that in the next post and touch on the fascinating topic of colour and its associations in pre-Renaissance period.

More ideas from Isidore about the stars.

Isidore was a man of his own time, not ours and also believed the following:

lxi. The light of stars (De lumine stellarum). Stars are said not to possess their own light, but to be illuminated by the sun, as the moon is.

lxii. The location of the stars (De stellarum situ) Stars are unmoving and, being fixed, are carried with the heavens in perpetual motion. They do not set during the day, but they are obscured by the brightness of the sun.

lxiii. The course of the stars (De stellarum cursu) Stars are either carried or move. The ones that are fixed in the sky and turn with the sky are carried. But some [like] planets, that is, ‘wanderers,’ move. However, they carry out their roaming courses within a defined boundary. 

  • Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, CUP (2006)

Addendum to Part A. extracted from a much longer post first published in Findings (May 15th., 2010). I add it for those interested in the traditions which came to inform western medieval ideas and art, but not to assert or imply that the makers of our fifteenth-century manuscript were so deeply informed.

The ‘bearded sun’ wasn’t the first intimation that the manuscript’s pictorial text’s themes and forms  do not originate in medieval European culture, but it was an important detail, and the idea of a bearded sun was not unfamiliar, but chimes rather well with what Georg Baresh believed about how the material for the manuscript had been gathered.

Carthage between the horns and wine-dark sea as city of god

 I began explaining the diagram and its implications quite early, sharinngthat information, initially, in a post of April of 2010,  and adding more in subsequent posts to clarify e.g. a link to Carthage, to the ‘grape-pressing’ motif seen in early Latin representations of (St.) Barbara and explaining that character’s ancient origin in North Africa, where the ‘grape-crushing’ is partly an allusion to suffering, but also to the “wine-dark sea” as Homer knew. 
Barbara tanit Phoenician stele
As late as the fifteenth century, Ibn Majid confirmed that the mariner-pirates of the north African shore had the same skills and star-lore as his own, and that the two were therefore brethren by that an inheritance which predates the 7thC Ad.  Here’s a little of what I posted on  May 15th., 2010, including the two previous illustrations above and those below. (Notice also the wreathed face at the apex of that Punic tombstone).
In Vezelay, the carver knew, pretty well, what he was about. He knew this figure, the spirit of the wine, was ‘la femme de le barbe’ – or ‘la femme a barbe’ though today the commentary is likely to argue the figure a saintly ‘master’ rather than celestial mistress of the wine. The carver has even known to place the figure’s foot on the highest leaf of the vine
In the classical period, North Africa had a very considerable industry in wine and grapes. It was remembered by the maker of the Atlas Catala, Abraham Creques, who wrote that after the Flood, Noah came to rest in North Africa, and first planted the vine there on the shores between the sea and Monte Clara.
Bedu woman with traditional tattoos. The Bedus traditional star lore relates to wayfinding and maintains proverbs of astonishing antiquity, remembering when Canopus (the ‘lucifer’) fell from a higher place and when the northern pole star was one in Draco, which astronomers inform us was the case from 3942 BC, until 1793 BC when alpha Draconis held that place
The Berber and Bedu tribes of North Africa had been largely instrumental in finding the way for the Muslim armies to successfully enter Spain. At that time they spoke of themselves as the “men of the ribat” – the military tower. The same term is used in that region for the sequence of lunar asterisms which the Arabs call the moon’s resting-places, or manzil al kamar. That sequence described as of 27 or of 28 asterisms is a convenient way to make finer divisions of the year’s circle, and thus to reckon such things as direction time and tide.
The name ‘Barbara’ sounds innocuous enough, but it seems it anciently named the star-[worshipping] people who considered stars to be small, distant lights: “grandchildren of the sun” [bar-bar-ra].
Hourani reports of the eastern tribe of the Azd, formerly of Arabia, that when were these Arab mariners [of the eastern sea] found themselves deep in a trough between mountainous waves, a chant was started which ran: “Barbara and Jafuna: look to your waves. Jafuna and Barbara: your waves are wild [lit: mad]. Jaffna is still the name of a Tamil area in Sri Lanka; the Barbara belonged to both the eastern and western horns of Africa. The greeks employed a similar term to mean ‘barbarians’ as persons who did not speak Greek.