Potions and lotions – the ‘pharmaceutical’ section. Perfect antiquity and a Voynich legend.

Two posts previous:

Header image – from the Iliad Ambrosiana.

Medieval Europe did not share the modern preference for new ideas and the latest information, but believed that the more ancient a text was, the more trustworthy and less degraded by the vicissitudes of time and inaccurate repetition.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if some images in Beinecke MS 408 reveal evidence of Hellenistic* or Roman character.

*The Hellenistic period in the Mediterranean is usually said to begin with Alexander and end with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. In fact, in the eastern region of Alexander’s empire and colonies, Hellenistic culture survived for almost three centuries more and the influence of Greek and Roman art persists still longer in some regions east of the Bosporus.

We are used to thinking of human history in terms of an ongoing ascent, but the medieval west saw it rather as a process of descent from an imagined pristine origin.

To some extent the recovered classical and ancient texts appeared to support that view.

There was no doubt that Virgil and Cato spoke better Latin; that Ptolemy had access to better information about astronomy and geography, than did fifteenth-century Latins. I do not think they imagined what they were doing as a ‘renaissance’ so much as a re-discovery and recovery of what had been a greater glory.

That is why European elites of the fifteenth century devoted so much time, effort and money to having agents find and bring copies of ancient and classical works to Europe and then have them copied and, where necessary, translated.

Such things cost money, and it is no co-incidence that the Church, the merchant classes, and the artisans whom they employed were what drove the first, Italian, phase of that great recovery we call the Renaissance. Texts which they wanted and copied include everything from legal orations to epic poetry, botany, history, geography and other matters of the natural world.

Nor were even the most ancient of those works necessarily ‘dead texts’.

The most strongly Greek-speaking areas of the Byzantine empire (or what was left of it by then), long used the poems of Homer as the basis of education, in much the way the book of Psalms was used in the west. By the fifteenth century, the text of Psalms was as much as three thousand years old; that of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey about 2,200 years old. Neither was a ‘dead text’ but very much alive.

In those two cases – that is of the Psalms and of Homer – the custom was to have students first commit the verses to memory, each verse then used as both a springboard for, and a memory-cue to, more developed commentary spoken by the teacher.

It was an entirely practical system in a time when books were rare and most education conducted by words, word-pictures or actual figures from the natural world or public imagery (vide depiction of the constellation-emblems and their labours of the months in churches and on the exterior of a cathedral in the west).

To take one example, to show how Homer’s work could remain relevant, here’s one passage. You can see that the passage naturally opens a path to commentary about astronomy and geography, but all being framed by an adventure-story in beautifully turned Greek and sure to grip the interest of any young lad.

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. …. For seventeen days then he sailed over the sea, and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of the land of the Phaeacians, where it lay nearest to him; and it shewed like unto a shield in the misty deep.(Bk.V ll.269-280)

Any well-educated person in the Byzantine sphere could have recited this by heart, and over the centuries, a myriad of metaphors and proverbs in daily life referred back to Homer much as in western Christendom they often derive from biblical ideas and tropes. 

The first Latin translation of Homer – both his Iliad and his Odyssey – was produced by the Calabrian scholar, Leontius_Pilatus, who also translated Euripides (c. 480 – c. 406 BC) and  Aristotle (384-322 BC).  

Thus, to find matter in a manuscript made in the early fifteenth century, and probably in Italy or the western Mediterranean, in which there are images reflective of the pre-Christian world, should not greatly surprise us.

Another ancient author whose writings were found, brought, translated and then eagerly copied was Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BC) among whose many subjects were plants, meteorology and winds.

Because his work on Plants appears not been noticed by Voynich writers (the present author having met what might be described as ‘expressions of surprise’ on introducing his name some years ago), I’ll add a longer than usual list of first-stage references further below.

The century-long focus on the Dioscoridan tradition and its herbals, in Voynich studies, has not led to any clear understanding either of the plant-pictures or of the ‘leaf and root’ folios, which latter section is now habitually described as forming a “pharmaceutical” section – an idea based on nothing but speculation and never since proven true, but which has hardened over time to become yet another of those Voynich doctrines well deserving revisionists’ attention.

A copy of Theophrastus’  ‘Historia Plantarum’ now in the Vatican library is dated to the tenth or eleventh century. It is in Greek. (Vatican City, Urbinas graecus 61; eleventh (?) century).  Some of Theophrastus’ work was preserved, with his name, in Pliny, and in the works of Jerome (see here) but otherwise his works were scarcely known to the west until a Latin translation was made of what is more properly known as the Historia Plantis, that translation made by Theodore of Gaza at the request of Pope Nicholas V.  The Theodore of Gazatranslation is said to have been completed in 1454. It would be published in Treviso, in 1483. During the three decades which intervened, the text both in Latin translation and in the Greek were evidently being passed around in manuscript, and copied eagerly.  In a sense it was considered a replacement for the better known text of Dioscorides, but even today the problems of matching plants to the terms used by Theophrastus – or indeed by Dioscorides – is no trivial problem.  From whence Theodore had his copy we do not know, but in speaking of Leontis Pilatus, Holton placed  emphasis on the fact that the fourteenth-century scholar had “spent several years in Crete” around 1350 and from Byzantine sources too, we get a glimpse of a ‘Recovery’ in Crete before that in Italy.

  • Holton David  Literature and society in Renaissance Crete. p. 3. (1991).

  • Benedict Einarson, ‘The Manuscripts of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum’, Classical Philology, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 67-76.

Perhaps it was during the three decades between its translation into Latin and its publication in print, that the copy of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum was made, in Greek, which is now included in a compilation of copies from Greek texts dating from the fifteenth century (Vat.gr.1759). The other texts  bound with it offer a window into contemporary interests, and its being devoid of  separation between secular and the religious interest.  The copied authorities relate to astronomy and to theology, to pre-Christian philosophy, astrology and botany.

Some helpful references.

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Botany’ in A. Classen (ed.), Handbook of Medieval Studies. The section can be downloaded through academia.edu.
  • Moshe Negbi, ‘Male and Female in Theophrastus’s Botanical Works’, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 317-332.
  • John Scarborough, ‘Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies’, Journal of the History of Biology,  Vol. 11, No. 2, (Autumn, 1978) pp. 353-385. JSTOR
  • ___________________, ‘Drugs and Drug Lore in the time of Theophastus: folklore, magic, botany, philosophy and the rootcutters’, Acta Classica, Vol. 49 (2006), pp. 1-29. 
  • Charles B. Schmitt, ‘Theophrastus in the Middle Ages’, Viator, II, 1971, pp. 257-70.
  • R. W. Sharples, ‘Some Medieval and Renaissance Citations of Theophrastus’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 47 (1984), pp. 186-190. Very technical; interesting chiefly for its connecting Theophrastus to passages in the work of Albertus of Lauingen [called ‘magnus’], and for mention of a known Syriac copy of Theophrastus’ meteorological works (n.35).
  • Peter Lautner, ‘Theophrastus in Bessarion’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 155-160.
  • Chicago Botanic Garden, Lenhardt Library ‘Theophrastus and the beginnings of modern botany in the Renaissance’, (December 2012)
  • Michael L. Satlow, ‘Theophrastus’s Jewish Philosophers’, Journal of jewish studies, vol. lix, no. 1, spring 2008. (at academia.edu)
  • Dr. Efraim Lev, ‘Drugs held and sold by pharmacists of the Jewish community of medieval (11th -14th centuries) Cairo according to lists of materia medica found at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge’.  A first draft has been posted at academia.edu, with the author’s caution that it is only a draft that has been accepted for publication.

Theophrastus’ work on winds begins, 

“We have earlier considered [in his ‘Meteorologica’] the nature of winds: of what they consist, in what way they come to be, and by what they are caused. We must now try to explain that each wind is systematically accompanied by effects and in general by phenomena whereby the winds are differentiated from each other” – Theophrastus, de Ventis.

For more on this see last see,

  • V. Coûtant and V. Eichenlaub, ‘the De Ventis of Theophrastus: its contributions to the theory of winds’, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 55, No. 12. (December 1974), pp. 1454-1462.

For any reader who feels an especially strong interest in Theophrastus, most of the information in the references listed above are embraced by Brill’s series of authoritative editions and commentaries.

Beyond the learned halls.

In the elite and carefully-monitored, interconnected circle of western literati during the early Renaissance, ancient and classical texts were studied, but beyond that environment, the erudite selection of worthy material and decisions about translation no longer apply.

What the new and slowly emerging commercial class wanted was practical information that was both rare enough and ‘new’ enough to be of financial advantage over others enagaged in similar business.

Some of the ‘new’ techniques that Europe habitually ascribes to some particular Latin’s invention (as gunpower was earlier claimed to be Roger Bacon’s “invention”), were not.

In the next post, I’ll consider one of those legends – one maintained to this present day and which attributes to a Venetian named Angelo Barovier the invention of clear glass – quite two decades centuries after it appears in the eastern Mediterranean, and a couple of decades at least after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum has been dated.

There was advantage to be gained by pretending some technical secret an invention rather than an importation – a rival was deterred from attempting to find another source for that information. But avoiding acknowledgement of any debt by Europe in general, to a foreign source, to any ‘foreigners’ or even to European Jews has been a long-standing and pervasive problem in the way Europe has written its history.

Scholars had begun to open their eyes by the 1960s but it is evident they had no immediate influence in general attitudes. Apparently none at all on d’Imperio, even as late as 1978 when her own initial impression that the Voynich images suggested ‘foreignness’ was one she quickly suppressed – as we’ve seen.

In was in 1960 that Lynn White had written:

IN I499 when Polydore Vergil published the first history of technology that amplified the Greco-Roman tradition, it did not occur to him that, save for silk and cotton, Europe might owe anything in these matters to Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia: his horizon in that direction was the “Magi, qui Persica lingua Sapientes appellantur.” It was not until the seventeenth century that Jesuit missionaries to the Orient persuaded Europeans to believe that several of the fundamental inventions which are alleged to have made the modern world modern were of Chinese origin: notably gunpowder,* the compass, paper, and printing. The process of scholarly erosion then began, and our view today is moderately changed. What has emerged is a sense of the remarkable complexity of the interplay between the Occident and East Asia from Roman and Han times onward. This involved a two-way traffic, in many items, along many routes, and of varying density in different periods…

*as we’ve seen, this particular Eurocentric myth was maintained by the general population in Europe and in America well into the twentieth century.  

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.

  • Lynn White Jnr., ‘Natural Science and Naturalistic Art in the Middle Ages’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Apr., 1947), pp. 421-435.


A three-hundred year gap between knowledge of some debt owed by European learning to ‘foreigners’ and the general recognition of that fact within the west, is the sort of thing which causes a scholar to feel irritation and frustration.  We’ve seen this sort of irritation in Lynn Thorndike’s letter to Scientific American in 1921 and here again – fourteen years later than the earlier paper – Lynn White now writes with an understandable exasperation: 

Except for the folklorists, medievalists are not habituated to thinking about the borrowing of cultural items from alien peoples in distant parts, and seem curiously resistant to the idea. When one talks about diffusion, for example of the spinning wheel or of the magnetic compass .. some skeptic is sure to assert his faith that our crafty medieval ancestors were as capable of inventing such devices for themselves…. One can only reply that each case must be examined in the context of all that we know: there are indeed a few clear instances of separate invention.  When, however, we find Indian buffaloes in medieval Europe, we may be confident that the buffalo was not invented twice.

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221.

Indic buffalo Pisanello from Lynn White 'Indic Elements..'Two years after that paper was written, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma was in process. 

Published in 1978 it never for a moment looks beyond medieval European culture, assumes that Jews had literature exclusively religious or ‘superstitious’, presumes that any version of such material can be relevant only in forms mediated by western Christian ‘translation’ and in one place clearly expresses her personal aversion, in general, to the ‘foreign’.  

What Lynn White knew to be true of western medievalists half a century ago is less true of those scholars now, but the same attitudes had been pervasive in the general culture of Europe and America, thus influencing the first generations of Voynich writers and thanks not least to d’Imperio’s record of the Friedmans’ efforts, informs the lineage of current-day Voynich traditionalists.

That the study remains in that state is chiefly due to the determined and defensive-aggressive posture of some core-traditionalists and others adhering to the same ‘history’ for the manuscript.

How such attitudes and responses deter researchers and hinder any new approaches can be attested by many, among whom one might again mention Jorge Stolfi who simply reported the results of his computer-analysis of the written text.  Whether his results were right or wrong is yet to be known; but it was a fair contribution to the study and one whose rejection was achieved by means other than civil scholarly discourse.

 The faithfulness with which certain core traditionalist adhere to the Wilfrid-Friedman-d’Imperio line is the main reason that ‘Voynich studies’ today conveys something faintly musty and quaint as exercises in historiography.  A constant emphasis on nationalism is so typically nineteenth-century, and today recognised as being inappropriate for the medieval world; the notion that any image found in a region must in some (ill-defined) way the unique expression of a local ‘cultural character’ –  within medieval Europe – is embarrassing when we know that a manuscript may be found, by research, to have been made  not in Spain but in Sicily, or not England but in France with the only discernible difference the saint’s name is listed in a calendar. 

The same excuses which White assigned to ‘some skeptic’ have really been offered by Voynich theorists when informed that some aspect of the manuscript’s codicology, or imagery, presents irrefutable opposition to their theory.  ‘Our chaps could have done that too’ is not an uncommon response and for some ultra-traditionalists ‘could have done’ means ‘certainly did – pure Wilfrid style.

And so to the next ‘Voynich doctrine’, by which folios 99r-102v are deemed the ‘pharmaceutical section’.

Voynich bit leaf-and-root fols

Folios 99r-102v. ‘Pharma’

About this section, again, close inspection shows its ‘Voynich doctrine’ to be an elaboration without foundation. The ‘pharmacy’ idea was built on nothing but air – or at least, airy notions.

In the next post, its roots are traced. The following post starts asking specific questions.

Next post – the legend.

The skies above

I was to pick up again after the ‘Weed seeds’ post, but have seen a comment to Koen Gheuens blog, in which four items are described as ‘indisputable facts’ though not one is a fact, and the only sense in which they are ‘indisputable’ is that to dispute them is rarely encouraged.

Among the four is the idea, repeated since 1932, that diagrams on folios 70v (part)* to 73v inclusive are ‘astrological’.

Now plainly an item of ‘Voynich doctrine’ it surely another among those deserving reevaluation in the light of current external scholarship.

N.B. Foliations: re “folio x (part)”

Before the Beinecke’s repagination of the manuscript a few years ago,  scholars used the foliation (page numbering) appearing on the folios themselves. Members of the first mailing list perforce developed their own system of reference before the manuscript was available online or in facsimile.  Still others were employed during the early 2000s, including that offered by the   ‘Voynich Gallery’ site on bibliotecaplayades.  Any revisionist surveying the history of this study is well advised to make and keep by them a comparative table of foliations.



Whether or not it is ever proven true that these diagrams were intended to serve astrology, the perception of them as ‘astrological’ owes less to their structure, or to their inscriptions’ being understood as they are not yet, nor to any learned opinion so much as to certain attitudes pervasive in England and central Europe during the nineteenth- and earlier twentieth centuries.

Without suggesting for a moment that any present-day Voynichero subscribes to those attitudes, certain methods and angles of approach have been inherited from that earlier period –  embedded , so to speak, in the territory – and these have frozen the limits within which (as any newcomer soon learns) posited comparisons are expected to be sought, treated and classified.

To the newcomer having prior  training in medieval studies, techniques of iconological analysis, or in the history of comparative astronomies and so forth it may seem curious – even quaint – that long superseded methods and habits are maintained in Voynich writings.  As, for example, that any and all reference to the stars in this manuscript continues to be presumed either ‘science’ or  ‘superstition;’ the one overtly or tacitly identified with Europe’s mathematical astronomy and the other with magic or astrology  in a simple binary scheme more characteristic of nineteenth-century popular history than twenty-first century scholarship.

I do not mean to imply that all Voynich writers are ignorant or unlearned; the opposite is manifestly true of many.  Rather, that on entering the Voynich portal, the wider world and its current standards of scholarship is expected to be set aside, or at least only referred to within the frame of a conservative ‘Voynich’ model.

That outmoded habits and methods are perceived within this study as ‘standard’ or ‘commonsense’ is most reasonably attributed, in the first instance, to their having been inherited along with the conservative model in general, by emulating d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, or e.g. Professor Brumbaugh’s writings of the 1960s and ’70s.

Some of those ‘old-fashioned’ methods and attitudes are described below for newcomers. Others may not need the information. Perhaps I should also make clear that not every Voynich writer currently engaged in this study is a conservative, let alone one of the deepest dye.


The methodological legacy.


1. ‘Scientific or Magical’. (540 wds)

Though many self-professed amateur Voynicheros know perfectly well that medieval writers did not observe so clear a distinction as we do now between astronomy and astrology, the habit persists of supposing that binary classification will do: “scientific or magical”,  to quote the Beinecke catalogue record.  Historically, the idea was – with regard to the heavens –  that  ‘science’ was defined as Europe’s mathematical astronomy while ‘superstition (magic or astrology) in terms of a foreign intrusion from ‘oriental’ minds, with the most relaxed sort of histories from before WWII not rarely mentioning warmer climate along with  imagined ‘racial predisposition’ as chief causes of ‘superstition’ .  The Greeks’ contribution to astrology was accepted, but granted the status of a quasi-science. No such latitude was granted others as, for example, the Jews. Arab ‘science’ was (as it were) granted a European visa, but Arab ‘magic’ not so much. Christian religious imagery was by tacit consent left unclassified in those terms.

Why  writings of the last century should adopt a simple ‘either-or’ –  “science or superstition”  is well understood.   Persistence of the same simple classification in Voynich writings, is, as I’ve said, better supposed due to the conservatives’ taking as their model for research a few secondary studies  written half a century ago.

Unfortunately, their emulating earlier methods and taking as first premises the speculations and assumptions of those earlier works has been to the disadvantage of more recent researchers, as the conservative grip on the study has increased and the  gulf has widened between the older and more recent understanding of relevant subjects, apart from studies directly concerned with linguistics and statistical analysis of the written text.

In the present case, for example, one sees a complete absence of any reference to various other forms of astronomical learning or its  art which are not to be classed as either  ‘science’ or ‘superstition’ (without india-rubber re-definition) and yet which have received a great deal of scholarly attention  since the 1930s  – and particularly since the 1960s – and are thus now well within the usual parameters of provenance-aimed research into ‘star-littered’ imagery.

Here we might mention images, both conceptual and realised in word or line,  which relate to navigational astronomy,  astronomical moralia,  poetry, memorised agricultural calendars of Mediterranean and of non-Mediterranean origin,  the stars as perceived in the monastic hours and  annual liturgical rosters (not only the Latins’),  not to mention literary metaphor,  proverb,  and so forth.   I add one illustration by way of example and without implying any theory.  This shows a star-clock for the month of March.  This physical diagram post-dates the Voynich manuscript and comes from a Latin author; the conceptual model and informing knowledge pre-dates the Voynich manuscript and was not exclusively Latin.  I cited these diagrams first a  few years ago at voynichimagery.

Reaction to any  introduction of such hitherto unconsidered material – even the odd recommendation of some article – can bring an immediate and passionately adverse reaction from certain individuals in the  ‘conservative’ camp, who appear to consider such things red herrings, introduced from ignoble motives by lesser minds, and it is not unknown for one or more to announce loudly that the heretic’s ‘nonsense’ is to be paid no heed.

Past generations cannot be held entirely responsible for the persistence of limited horizons and poor methods in Voynich writings.


2. ‘Match the picture’ (1750 wds)

From an inherited, and now fixed assumption in the conservative tradition,  the manuscript is supposed to be ‘underneath it all’ just an aberrant form of ‘ordinary’ Latin Christian work, and though the earlier assumption has faded that it is entirely the creation of a single author (imagined a Latin and, usually,  male) the habit of seeking to ‘match the picture’ from details in ordinary Latin (i.e. western Christian) works remains.

Where ‘foreign’ material is considered, as for example astrology or magic, the habit was earlier – and thus remains in Voynich studies – to imagine it entered a ‘white walled’ Europe by some specific and authoritative Latin Christian male – so that, once more, only the Latin works were thought necessary to consult.

In addition, everything in this manuscript was, from the first (i.e from 1912), presumed to exist in some other Latin manuscript (as well it could) but the Friedmans therefore considered no other medium but Latin manuscript art in hunting ‘matches’ for the manuscript’s and that  remains largely so, even now. The whole science of iconology, let alone the anthropology of  iconology, has passed unobserved.

There is no body of investigation into the Byzantine, Syrian, North African, Coptic or Islamic corpus which would allow us to judge whether the manuscript as a whole is, or isn’t, more like Latin works than any other. If this particular series of diagrams were characteristic of Byzantine Jews, the current parameters for research would prevent the precedent’s being discovered.  If, by luck or independence of thought, a researcher were to discover such a fact, one could certainly not guarantee that any cognisance would be taken of it, nor that others would not be actively deterred from ‘paying attention’..

The range in which ‘matches’ were sought had so narrowed by 2010 that apart from RIch Santacoloma’s theory that the whole was a fake, and Dana Scott’s quiet investigation into English sources, there was only Pelling’s ‘Italian’ theory – which certainly had merit – and the then wholly speculative theory of a ‘Germanic character’.

What has seen the last become most dominant is not any superior level of proof or argument but determined refusal to acknowledge, and sometimes persistent efforts to ‘shut down’ alternatives. One may be invited to be more flexible and join the majority; one may find oneself hounded out of forums. But the easiest means is simpler. New information is judged simply by whether or not it suits the theory espoused.

So – Alain Touwaide once said the manuscript recalled the form of Byzantine manuals of medicine-and-magic, iatrosophia.  Apart from picking up and repeating that word a little, the conservatives effectively ignored that lead. It couldn’t be connected with a Latin-centred theory.  That it might be directly connected to the manuscript’s history scarcely mattered to a majority; that lead was apparently dropped just as so many others have been.  Such as those offered by Panofsky in 1932.

We would never find employed elsewhere, today, assumptions and methods as simplistic as those habitual to the conservatives in Voynich studies,  if the study were aimed at discovering where, and when,  imagery was first enunciated – in the hope of identifying the origins of unread accompanying text.

It is a given community’s ways of seeing, and creating mental concepts which informs  expression of those concepts, whether in the drawn line or the written.  Again, this is an understanding of which one finds scant trace in Voynich writings and to be fair, the aim of most, today, is less to investigate the primary document than to assist in the erection of ever more elaborate theoretical superstructure on a foundation no more solid than it was in the 1930s. And from a distance, or seen from their own perspective, the result is most impressive.  That it has failed to shed light on a single phrase of the original text seems almost irrelevant to those involved. The possibility of fundamental errors in the foundation is considered, by the conservatives, a ludicrous notion.

And since ‘match the picture’ was the only approach which occurred to the Friedmans, so it descended via d’Imperio, into the most conservative Voynich tradition after about 2004, when theory-promotion came to be perceived as having higher priority than open investigation of the primary artefact. In other words, the attitude shifted from an aim to learn, to an aim to convince. And the theories to which their support was lent were variants of the ‘Latin product’ theory.

Neither Wilfrid Voynich, nor William Friedman ever imagined otherwise.  Each presumed it also the original product of some individual Latin author.  Their doing so is quite directly connected to what we should now describe as ‘social Darwinism’ but  for them it was no ideology espoused, but an expression of then ubiquitous attitudes believed given scientific validation by academic works of the Anglo-German school.  It was not ‘racialism’ in the political sense but a sort of social snobbery which expressed itself in an absolute certainty that the Anglo-German represented the highest pinnacle of any intellectual history,as the Renaissance Italian and the classical tradition occupied that of any history of art.

Social snobbery.

I touched on this matter in an earlier post, with regard to an academic board’s reasons for rejecting William Friedman’s application for funding.  From those comments. and from the angry responses of d’Imperio and Elizebeth Friedman,  two things became clear: first, that the Friedmans had no aim of understanding why the manuscript in format, script, images and text does not conform to the Latin norm, but began rather by assuming it did; that was “underneath it all” an ordinary product of the Latin tradition and so dismissing all the obvious evidence of divergence from Latin norms  by the simple expedient of attributing them to the incompetence or intentional deceit  of some individual (and imaginary) Latin Christian ‘author’ and/or ‘artist’.  Later writers would add to this imaginary character such additional flaws and motives as  sexual obsession, insanity, or ‘artistic creativity’. to explain why he didn’t draw like a “proper European”.

Thus the hunt continued only within the parameters of Latin manuscripts – just the one medium – for ‘matches’, and the later conservative camp has further limited their hunt for ‘matches’ to regions of a (fluidly defined)  ‘German-influenced culture’ –  though occasionally referencing sculpture and (less often) other media. Among the very few images congenial to a Latin theory (more-or-less) are the series of emblems filling the centres of these supposedly  ‘astrological’ diagrams. Isolated form their context, and together covering less than the area of a single folio, they have been constantly – almost obsessively – asserted ‘matched’ by items selected to support the ‘Germanic’ theory.

I mean it quite literally when I say that it was impossible for either Wilfrid Voynich or William Friedman to contemplate the work’s content as expressing other than  Latin (western Christian) culture – despite its anomalous structure, page-layout, incomprehensible written text and unintelligible images .

Nor could they conceive the possibility that it might embody work of a group of persons whose names were never recorded.

Each man, for his own reason, had to suppose the content  ‘important’ and in terms of his own time and environment that meant European and preferably Anglo-German, and scientific – which implied an ‘author’. Both opted for the English.  My point is not so much that they were wrong; but that if they were wrong, their own first premises and methods adopted surely prevented their ever discovering the fact.

Wilfrid Voynich was born in 1865 in Poland, and William Friedman in Moldava in 1891. Both had Jewish heritage. But their attitudes were chiefly formed by values and attitudes pervasive in English and American society of their time. Wilfrid came to England as an adult; Friedman to America as an infant.

In Wilfrid’s case, to think the work other than by a Latin (western Christian) author would have meant he could expect very few potential buyers and no great price for it.

In William’s case, to suppose any non-Latin origin and content would be to render his interest in the manuscript devoid of all merit and incur ridicule.   On the ‘Latin author’ theory depended his idea of a herculean struggle, a battle of superior minds, where the author of the ‘ciphertext’ would ultimately yield to Friedman’s superior intellect and scientific cryptological techniques. The same provided his grounds for  using the powers of the NSA to obtain various private documents and earlier-denied interviews. Importance was then defined by ethnicity,  social position and by ‘scientific’ character. Today, we are free to think – for example – that it could be the notebook of an anonymous North African trader.  In England or in America, during the first half of the twentieth century, even to consider that idea was impossible without losing face.

Wilfrid provided glittering names to adorn his sales’ pitch:  Roger Bacon represented European Science; John Dee, ‘sanitised’ European Magic; and of course Rudolf II, the mad emperor, Science, Magic and social status.

The only method which occurred to the Friedmans, in regard to the manuscript’s images, was therefore to hunt Latin manuscripts for ‘matches’ and as late as the 1920s (by which time Wilfrid was 55 and William almost 30), and given their social and intellectual environment and assumptions made, the method would have appeared an obvious and sensible approach to amateurs. It continued be the only method used by the Friedman groups,  and in that way was inherited and is still maintained by today’s conservatives.

As was the case half a century ago, the malleable figure of some individual  ‘author/artist’ continues to see dismissed even the most obvious discrepancies between a proposed ‘match’ and the original.   Points of perceived similarity are all the commentary; disparities are dismissed as due to individual whim, incompetence, or intention to deceive – whichever happens to sound most plausible. In fact, objection is rarely raised; newcomers soon learn that negative comments are to be directed only to those who fail to support the ‘German cultural product’ theory; those supporting it are tender and well-meaning souls working for the common good.

So – by imposing the known intention of a Latin image upon a detail from the Voynich manuscript and on no better basis than ‘like-ness’ asserted, the reader was instructed how to interpret the latter, whose intended meaning was (and usually remained) unknown. Conservatives’ commentary might elaborate upon the Latin image, its history and meaning and so forth  while the other was ignored beyond the assertion it was ‘matched’.

Though today employment of such simplistic method may seem astounding to many scholars it remains, by and large,  routine in Voynich writings.

Nor do any of the present conservatives seem aware of the anachronism implied by supposing  a medieval draughtsman might have – in effect – invented abstractionism and expressionism.   Nor of the  anachronism presented by tacitly assuming the aim of the ‘artist’ was a level of realism we first see emerge in some parts of Europe (and first in  Flemish works) from about the 1440s.*  That those trained primarily in botanical science should expect all drawings to strive for scientific ‘realism’ is understandable, more or less, and that expectation has regularly prevented the botanists from making valid contributions to the study.  They do not so much ask ‘what mental contstruct is here given form, and how do the stylistic features support a given reading’, but simply adopt the old ‘would-have-if-he-could-have’ idea found in  earlier works such as O’Neill’s.

*though an important paper of 1932 recognised a prefiguring in Gothic art (so called). See  D. Jalabert, “La flore gothique: ses origines, son evolution du xiie au xve siecle,” Bulletin monumental, XCI (1932), I81-246.

I won’t cite any contemporary Voynich writer in illustrating this  ‘match the picture’ habit.  The reader will find little else online. Instead, I offer an analogy to illustrate the added distortion caused by imagining that all research must aim at supporting some theory.

Let us suppose I have a theory of Turkish origin for the content, but follow the conservative Voynich writers’ practice.  I would then first define the picture by some object which I imagine present -thus defining the subject by one object, in a way anathema to modern iconological studies.

The reader is then presented with a composite image of the following sort, perhaps with – but usually without –  commentary proving both images reflect comparable historical and cultural environment and thus stylistics.  As you see, I’ve here ignored stylistics completely:

A Voynichero would then assert this ‘match’ proves the plant on folio 10r  meant for a rose, and that it supports a theory of Turkish origin.

If the newcomer is inclined to think I exaggerate; that no method so ludicrous could survive in the twenty-first century, I’ll say again… it is easy enough to find precisely the same method in the majority of present-day Voynich writings.


3. Simple assertion. (800 wds)

To find  assertions made about the content in this manuscript and presented with no supporting evidence or documentation except perhaps a ‘match the picture’ exercise, is not in the least unusual.  What is extraordinary is that such practice is still considered both normal and ‘commonsense’ by so many: it is another Voynich tradition.

Just so, Wilfrid Voynich asserted his ‘author’ an  English franciscan friar and all the content ‘science’.  In the 1940s O’Neill felt it enough to assert that an image in the manuscript depicted (albeit ‘badly’) the American sunflower.  In the 1970s Professor Brumbaugh’s curiously naive commentaries constantly resort to bald assertions and adopt others’ unexamined. In a paper published by the Courtauld Institute in 1976, for example, Brumbaugh wrote:

“From an alphabet including J, to a fifteenth-century style of two-handed clock, one detail after points to a later date.  What is most conclusive, however, is Hugh O’Neill’s identification in two illustrations of plants first brought to Europe by Columbus in I492.  (I have subsequently identified two more brought by Columbus in 1493). The [manuscript’s] date is therefore about 1500 at the earliest.”

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150.

Despite re-locating the theoretical subject of some plant-pictures to the new world, the presumption of western Christian (i.e.) Latin origin and/or mediation remained unexamined, and the simplistic practice of ‘match the picture’ informs Brumbaugh’s work, having by then been normalised in this study by the previous decades’ example.

It is important to note that none of Brumbaugh’s assertions above references an independent or scholarly source in justification.  He is not trying to demonstrate that his conclusions are valid; we are expected to believe, not to cross-examine.   This habit of treating study of the Voynich manuscript as something rightly isolated from any borader comparative studies – whether of manuscripts, art, cultures, sciences, or technologies  further aided retention of poor method.  The footnotes in that quoted passage (notes 4-6 in the original) read:

  1. The Beinecke Catalogue suggests a 15th- century date. The costume of the medallion of the Sagittarius map; the two-handed clock on fol. 85; the style of Arabic numerals, for example in the margin of fol. 49r; a cipher box using distinct J, V, and W; all indicate that the date is at least that late.
  2. O’Neill, 1944
  3. If I am right in reading the labels of two giant, exotic roots as ‘Cassava’. [Note: I have been unable to confirm Brumbaugh’s belief that Columbus returned to Europe with Cassava plants.  Columbus certainly ate cassava bread in the region of Hispaniola. –D)

It is regrettable that the urge to ‘normalise’ the matter within Beinecke MS 408 has not only maintained the old assumptions and methodologies, with the latter a positive drag on research, but that the post 2004 productions of  conservative writers have striven to persuade the public that this distinctly unsettling artefact may be regarded as just a ‘funny old herbal’ and other ‘funny-looking’ but really just comfortable ‘normal’ images, with ‘normal’ still defined as mainstream medieval Christian;  that images which include star-shapes shall be deemed just slightly eccentric versions of ‘science or superstition’  and that the various unclothed female figures are just a slightly unusual depictions of  Christian saints(!!).

A Biedermeier Voynich, so to speak.

We are reassurred, like some customer in a curiosity shop, that an unsettling and unidentifiable object is really just a bit old, but otherwise not at all unusual when you came down to it.

Of course, the original manuscript remains very unsettling indeed,  very far from ordinary and not at all the sort of thing  customers have ever found comfortable.

Not even the best informed specialists and connoisseurs claimed to understand it or bought it from Wilfrid; not the manuscript nor (one suspects) his story.     Wilfrid believed it not just ‘ordinary Latin’ but an extraordinarily important work of European scientific history, creating for it the sort of history normally attractive to contemporary collectors, but from 1912 to his death in 1930 he never found a buyer.

None wanted it after 1930, either, and it was more than thirty years later still that a well-connected dealer in manuscripts purchased it from Wildrid’s heirs.   He then tried, also without success, to sell it on.  After eight years’ failure, he gave it gratis to Yale in 1969.  And there it remains, in the Beinecke library.

Its fame today is chiefly due to the internet and a television documentary.

Erwin Panofsky didn’t try to fudge, in 1932.  He said plainly that apart from one of those diagrams – which he associated with one in a Spanish manuscript – the Voynich manuscript was unlike any known to him.

He was able to offer a general provenance some of the imagery by its stylistics, identify the month-names as in a southern French dialect, and to date correctly the period during which the present manuscript was manufactured, but  he never claimed to read the meaning in any of it.

Think about it. Erwin Panofsky could not read the images.


4. ‘Normalising’ the exceptional. (900 wds)

That the Friedmans should imagine the series of diagrams astrological is understandable. And the idea may, one day, be proven true.

But neither did the Freidmans bend their backs (and the primary evidence) to  ‘normalise’ the content in terms of Latin manuscript art.  They simply presumed it was ‘underneath it all’ a version of  some ‘normal’ manuscript and for them, of course,  ‘the norm’ was western Christian European.

Such presumption is not unknown even today.  A book may appear with some  title as ‘A history of the medieval wool trade’ though it considers none but the trade between Norwich and Flanders; or a ‘History of navigation’ which begins from the European adoption of the sextant,ignoring the previous 40,000 years or so.  It is less usual today than twenty years ago to find a work entitled ‘Medieval Art’ in which none but Latin (western Christian) images are treated, but it does still happen.

Scholars tend today to consider the whole of the medieval Mediterranean a single pool of cross-cultural and economic interaction.  The nineteenth century notion of a ‘white walled Europe’ is still assumed today in Voynich studies, with the work of individual writers effectively invigilated lest any begin looking too far beyond, or do so without allegiance to the conservative assumptions – such as that the central emblems in these diagrams constitute ‘a zodiac’ (by which the conservative means the astrologer’s tropical zodiac). The series of central emblems does not form a ‘zodiac’ but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that they might have been used  as if they did.  It is another question effectively unexplored – though I expect my saying so might cause annoyance in some quarters.

We have already noted that d’Imperio’s chapters, their titles and organisation evince ideas no longer considered valid and which are certainly behind the times in terms of modern scholarship.  They define ‘science’ in terms of the Latin European and associate ‘superstition’ with the non-Latin.  They also presume the ‘monitor at the gate’, the  authoritative Latin figure – again usually male – who, by the mere act of taking ‘foreign’ matter is deemed as it were to have sanitised it.  (Nor is it unknown for certain plagiarists to perceive their actions in a similar way).

That the formal scholarship of medieval Europe did expect alien matter to be vetted for heretical content accounts only for a small proportion of what passed easily back and forth through the Mediterranean.  Just as one example: the Indic water buffalo is reported numerous and valued in the Roman campania by 1154 and in that year Lawrence, a Cistercian of Clairvaux took ten of them home with him.  Writing towards 1306, Piero dei Crescenzi of Bologna commented “One kind of cattle, called buffaloes, are black, big, strong, and a bit unruly. They are not good for carts and plows, but when skillfully harnessed with chains of a certain sort they are used for pulling great loads overland. They love to loll in water.” No one stood at the gate of any ‘white wall’ to admit or prevent their entry, and where something the size of a buffalo may pass without formal mediation, so may information.

No earlier twentieth century account of how ‘Arab’ learning entered Latins’ horizons imagined it other  than  entering with official permission and that brought by the Jews is barely recognised in schemes of the European’s intellectual ‘ascent’.   Thus the usual role call:  Gerard of Cremona or, Constantine the African (after his conversion to Christianity) and so forth.

The truth is far less tidy, and far less bound to the Latin literature and literati.  Thanks to developments in cross-cultural and other studies, we are no longer much disturbed to learn that  knowledge of Indo-Arabic numerals and mathematics as likely entered first by the tradesman’s gate, perhaps  through a chain of Muslim-Jewish-European merchant-seamen rather than by any ‘official’ person or text, such as  Leonado of Pisa’s  Liber Abacus. We are also more open to the probability that knowledge of Islamic medicine was transmitted by multilingual Jewish physicians instructing apprenticed Latins, though it is only relatively recently that it has begun to dawn on us that Saliternan works, produced in Latin versions under the short line of Norman-Sicilian kings, may be no more than translations of an existing Arab-Byzantine-Jewish corpus prepared for the new Latin-speaking rulers and their Latin clerics.   Such changes in our thinking may not disturb the wider scholarly community, but one suspects they would cause distinct unease among the conservative Voynich writers.

The point is, of course, that in seeking to read the Voynich manuscript’s images and diagrams, one does well to ignore the traditional limits to research until solid investigation  – and not inherited presumption – provides a clearer understanding of what we’re dealing with.

After all, the aim of explaining the cultural and other indications offered by the images themselves should aim – surely – to help those trying to read the written text.

Statistical analyses of the written text are also invaluable because we have no certainty that the written text is not a translation in which the earlier imagery was closely copied.  To propose the opposite – that the original language was retained but the imagery invented late comes up against a long list of technical and cultural objections.  But that is for some other time.

Information about the Indic buffalo in medieval Europe from Lynn White Jr., ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221.


Today, in Voynich studies,  the phantom figure of an ‘author’ is much faded, but had remained the chief focus of study until at least 2011, as the present author can attest, having been obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ on producing her evidence and reasoning for the work’s being  a compilation from diverse sources, and explaining the internal  evidence of alteration and additions to the material at several periods before the fifteenth-century copying -and pointing out that the series of emblems deemed a ‘zodiac’ did not constitute a zodiac series but were among the latest additions before copying, and among the handful expressed in terms commensurate with Latin conventions or, to put it another way, ‘in that visual language’.

She was obliged, also, to explain (with similar reaction) that the term ‘florilegium’ in medieval terms means a compilation of extracts, not an herbarium, and that mention of the European-Egyptian trade in a medieval context was not equivalent to having suggested that either Pharaohs or flying saucers had descended upon  Christian Europe.

Such news was not well received at the time, though some was later absorbed, as present writer can attest from both her earlier scars and later notes of efforts to re-use or re-create the results of her research.  🙂

[Aug. 17th 1:09pm] Two sentences deleted.  A reader wrongly imagined they referred to him, and since others might make the same mistake, I’ve removed them.



So now, with the past and present context sketched, I’ll next explain the case supporting that opinion of 1932, in terms of  structure and details, though passing over the obvious stylistic differences because the original opinion did.

The post following that will offer a  bibliography tracking this theme after 1932. I won’t claim it includes every mention of these diagrams, but since perception of them has not altered in any substantial since 1932, or alternatively since the 1970s, there isn’t much to be listed.

And finally, a summary of outstanding questions and issues in connection with these diagrams.