O’Donovan notes – Calendar ‘November and July’ Pt 5. November concluded.

c4000 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

I want to finish treating the ‘November’ emblem, so this is long-ish.

THE BEAST that we see as the November emblem is another of those which formed the figure for Ammit, the ‘croucher by the scales’ – the crocodile. The head is especially well-realised and although it is possible the beast was drawn from life, a propaganda-war between Rome and Egypt, between the 2ndC BC and 2ndC AD means that around the south-western Mediterranean, as in the eastern, realistic images of crocodiles were available in enduring media – coins, reliefs, mosaics and in earlier times no doubt murals.

Or. of course, you could see them in Egypt. If you had no ship of your own, pilgrimage ships crossed the Mediterranean in Spring* (wars permitting), dropping their pilgrim-passengers in Alexandria or in a friendly port further up the eastern shore. Christian and Muslim pilgrims and Jews made the journey across for reasons of religion and of community. We owe many valuable records of medieval life and practice to them.

R.J. Mitchell, The Spring Voyage: The Jerusalem Pilgrimage in 1458, (1964) has survived the decades to remain still a valuable introduction to this subject.


To keep research focused, it’s a good idea to re-visit the list of research questions every now and then, It keeps research on track, and as the investigation answers one and then another, the list grows shorter, which reduces the ‘mazed’ effect. Some questions may be unresolvable.

Overall, our questions about this image were:

  1. Is it a Scorpion?
  2. Was it intended to be a scorpion?
  3. If so, what caused the error? If not, why is it here?
  4. Why ‘November’?
  5. Explain form – spots, head-shape, four legs, upright, looping/lashing tail.
  6. Other details? – skull and ‘hunter’s hat.
  7. Significance issues:-
  8. Is the drawing primarily here for its significance or as ornament?
  9. Is it an astronomical figure, as has always been supposed?
  10. Iconographic lineage:
  11. Place and time of first origin (= first enunciation) in this form?
  12. Transmission-lines?
  13. First instance in the Latin west?
  14. Associated texts – any identifiable?
  15. Is the lifted forefoot significant?

To be clear: this beast is no degraded form for a scorpion, nor a mistaken attempt to draw a scorpion. It is, and was meant to be, a crocodile and is drawn rather better than most crocodiles were in the medieval Latin west before 1440. The head, in particular is very well drawn.

If, as has usually been imagined, this is a figure for Scorpius, why the substitution?

There are a few – very few – examples of a ‘crocodile constellation’ for Scorpius that have been noticed in Latin works made earlier than 1440. One is certainly, and the other apparently from France, and dated to the first half of the fourteenth century. The first is from BNF ms lat. 3718, which is a collection of excerpts whose common theme appears to be medical astrology, though this image comes from a section which is simply presenting the form of a constellation. The constellation drawings’ section [De duodecim zodiaci signis eorumque effectibus…).

After finding this image in the Warburg Database, an online search showed it among the many references provided in Marco Ponzi’s meticulously documented essay of 2017, where he says it had been mentioned earlier by Darren Worley, though (if I interpret him correctly) Ellie Venlinka is to be credited with first introduction to Voynich studies.

*Marco Ponzi, ‘The VM Zodiac as a pictorial cycle: a comparative analysis (by Marco Ponzi)‘, stephenbax.net Feb. 17th., 2016.

BNF ms lat.7351 is attributed to Northern France. The holding library provides (1) the Manuscript’s full description; (2) digitised version. (3) List of persons named ‘Pierre of Dacia‘ – named as the manuscript’s author. By the fifteenth century, according to the holding library, it had come into the possession of Louis de Bruges.

The rest of its constellation figures are generally of Late Roman style and no other is like any of the Voynich emblems.

The next example is more problematic. I can only say that JKPetersen indicated that the image, as single sheet or as manuscript originated somewhere in the general vicinity of Paris or that the holding library is in the general vicinity of Paris. Mr.. Petersen gives a mid-fourteenth century date for it. I find the drawing style – not the subject-matter – reminiscent of that we find in a penitential Book of Hours which, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, was made in 1317 for Queen Jeanne the Lame by a monk of St. Denys.

The crocodile (crocodillus), named from its saffron (croceus) color, is born in the Nile. It is a quadruped animal, powerful on land and also in the water. It is commonly twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws, with skin so tough that it repels blows from stones, however strong, against its back. It rests in the water at night, and on the land during the day. It incubates its eggs on land, the male and the female taking turns to guard them.

Etym. XII. 20

The first example tells us that a recognisable ‘crocodile’ might serve as a figure for Scorpius. If the second example were also made in northern France about the same time, the context in which it appears could be informative, but all one can say is that the type apparently derives from a work representing constellations in a Late Roman style, that precedent having entered, emerged in or re-emerged in northern France during the first half of the fourteenth century, and that having been employed a few times in northern France was not used thereafter.

Copies of the Aratea have no crocodile constellation for Scorpius or any other figure. Even the Roman-era, Egypto-Graeo-Roman ceiling of Dendera shows the scorpion fairly much as we’re used to seeing it, save a few apotropaic adjustments. (scorpions do not have 10 legs; their bodies do not much resemble the cockroach’s).

One eleventh century Byzantine manuscript, as we’ve seen, hints at equation between scorpion and crocodile, but the work is no treatise on astrology or astronomy and evidently remained in the Byzantine sphere until the sixteenth century.

The manuscript is bound in a 16th-century Byzantine-style cover with thick wooden boards.

A clue to the brief substitution of crocodile for Scorpion in western works may be is provided by the Talmud, on the sense of the Hebrew word livyathan. According to Pinney, the Talmud “accepted the creature as being unquestionably the crocodile” noting that the word has been variously translated as ” a wreathed animal”, “a twisted animal”, and as one “spirally wound” though Isaiah uses it to mean ‘crooked serpent’.

One begins to understand the basis for those convoluted forms given Scorpius in the medieval bestiaries, and the inclusion of a wreath with the November beast in Otranto.

But with all due respect to Pinney, that acceptance is not reflected in our few remaining examples of Jewish calendar series in manuscript art, so far as I’ve found; a specialist may know better.

It is usual for us today to associate the biblical ‘Leviathan’ with a large marine creature – often a whale or a sea-monster – which type is associated also with the constellation Cetus. However, in a footnote to one of his papers, Sela mentions that another name for Cetus was al-timsāḥ meaning literally ‘crocodile’. The term occurs in that sense in a thirteenth century translation into Hebrew of al-Fargani’s Elements, though it is never found in the Arabic Ptolemaic tradition. The term is still current as a place-name in Egypt – Timsah for Buḥairat at Timsāḥ.

  • Roy Pinney, The Animals in the Bible: the identity and natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible (1964) pp. 178-179.
  • Shlomo Sela, ‘Al-Farghānī on the 48 Ptolemaic Constellations: A Newly Discovered Text in Hebrew Translation’, Aleph , Vol. 16, No. 2 (2016), pp. 249-365. n.41.
  • Rachel Hachlili, ‘The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Art: Representation and Significance’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 228 (Dec., 1977), pp. 61-77. Seminal study, still a stanadard reference.

We can accept, as a possibility, that identification of livyathan and al-timsah with the amphibious crocodile over an entirely marine monster might transfer to Scorpius if the sky-path of the Milky Way were regarded instead as a River-road, and of such a pairing we have an example from the early centuries AD, in Praeneste’s famed ‘Nile landscape’ mosaic.

Praeneste is modern Palestrina, and lies about ten minutes’ drive from Frascati, the town where, in the Villa Mondragone, Wilfrid Voynich first saw the manuscript that is now Beinecke MS 408.

In speaking of astronomical images created in the Mediterranean world, it has to be remembered that the Romans never knew the works of Claudius Ptolemy.

The Romans never heard of Ptolemy

Astounding as that may seem, all sources are unanimous in saying that Claudius Ptolemy’s best-known works were not translated into Latin until long after the fall of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy is not a ‘Roman’ astronomer or geographer in any meaningful sense. He was an Egyptian of Macedonian descent who happened to live under Roman rule in, or near Alexandria. Because scholars are unanimous on the point, a wiki writer may speak for all.

First, about the Almagest:

No Latin translation was made in Ancient Rome nor the Medieval West before the 12th century. Henry Aristippus made the first Latin translation directly from a Greek copy, but it was not as influential as a later translation into Latin made in Spain by Gerard of Cremona* from the Arabic (finished in 1175).

*Readers should be aware there is reason doubt Gerard of Cremona made even half the translations credited to him, though none doubts he took the credit for them.

According to an online article by Dirk Grupe, which sadly fails to add his references::

Today, three mediaeval Latin translations of the Almagest are known – two made from Arabic and one from Greek. All three translations were produced within the same relatively short period of time during the mid- and late-twelfth century, but each version was made independently from the others, under different conditions and in a different part of the Mediterranean world. Furthermore, each of the versions is based on a different source tradition and had varying degrees of influence in Europe.

One was, according to Grupe, made in Antioch by “Ebdelmessie Wintoniensis” but here one may have reservations. ʿAbd al-Masīḥ [-ibn Isḥāq] was al-Kindi’s pseudonymous title* and ‘Wintoniensis’ is Winchester. That a copy of Al-Kindi might have been gained from Christian Antioch and turn up in Winchester is not unreasonable, and al-Kindi, who worked in Baghdad certainly took his view of the solar system from Ptolemy.

*pseudonymous … according to Bottini, Laura, “al-Kindī, ʿAbd al-Masīḥ ibn Isḥāq (pseudonym)”, in David Thomas (ed.), Christian-Muslim Relations 600 – 1500: A Bibliographical History.

Similarly, it is undisputed that Ptolemy’s Geography had never been translated into Latin before 1406.

Writers of Byzantine history may presume that, as a work written in Greek, Ptolemy’s master works had always been preserved in the Byzantine sphere, but evidence is wanting and the fact may be that we owe any knowledge of Ptolemy to the Sabaeans of Harran, who requested of an early Muslim governor that they be given their holy books – among them them Aratus’ text, and Euclid’s – which until then were in an Egyptian temple in Alexandria. These Harranians subsequently formed the core of early mathematical and astronomical Arabic studies in Baghdad, from which copies of Ptolemy’s Almagest emerged and circulated in Arabic translation five hundred years after Ptolemy’s death, but it would be another half-millennium knowledge of it reached the Latin-speaking west.

So, while it is true that the Romans’ zodiac had always included the figure of a Scorpion as a scorpion and that the Romans knew Aratus well, it is equally true that they had no single or precise definition of the constellations or the positions of stars, and that independent traditions survived in some regions (if not in the west) despite Roman insistence on uniformity.

However, our assumption that the Voynich emblem is an astronomical figure remains just that – an assumption. Even if that assumption is reasonable, to think it serves as token for Scorpius relies chiefly on medieval and modern ideas about etymology, and to some extent on the often-surprising information retained by early modern makers of celestial charts. Ancient ideas and figures are sometimes preserved in them by being differently clothed or assigned by form or character to newly-invented constellations. The constellation Lacerta is a case in point. It was invented by Johannes Hevelius in 1687, illustrated by a type of lizard which still hinted at crocodile or (for a new world audience) the alligator – the key being that it should be well-muscled and ‘weeping’.

The variant spelling for lizard *lacer-, to *lacro, resembles the Latin cognate for tear (as in ‘crocodile tears’). Isidore writes that “The lizard (lacertus) is a type of reptile, so named because it has arms [cf lacertus, ‘upper arm’]. and later that “In the arms is the brawn of the upper arms (lacertus), and there the marked strength of the muscles is located” and “Some believe that the word for tears (lacrima) comes from an injury of the mind (laceratiomentis); others maintain that it is identical with what is called lakruon (‘tear’) in Greek.”

Isidore’s description of the crocodile reads,

The crocodile (crocodillus), named from its saffron (croceus) color, is born in the Nile. It is a quadruped animal, powerful on land and also in the water. It is commonly twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws, with skin so tough that it repels blows from stones, however strong, against its back. It rests in the water at night, and on the land during the day.

With the great period of ‘recovery’ which a modern scholar described as ‘renaissance’, Latin Europe discovered a wealth of ancient information more accurate and informed than it dreamed had ever existed. A story of European culture then imagined for itself a history running from Babylonia through the Greeks to Rome and Byzantium, granting ‘Aryan’ status to Arabs for that narrative but omitting Celts, Semitic peoples, North Africans and so forth. Egypt became a land of importance only for its Pharaonic tombs and ancient religion, all of which was imagined ending the moment Julius Caesar stepped off his ship.

It wasn’t quite so simple. Beginning from the time of that Cleopatra, the image of the crocodile was used as an esoteric sign, a rallying call to Egypt and its allies to drive out the Roman invaders and more exactly to assist in building (and after Actium, rebulding) an Egyptian navy.

The Romans responded with a campaign of counter-propaganda, disseminated through the most widely-distributed and the most enduring media – coins, mosaics, and reliefs, and they focused on Alexandria and on regions which had earlier supported Carthage or Egypt against Rome.

159-160 AD

In Nimes (right), the Romans had chosen one Celtic tribe, separating it from the loose confederacy of Gallic tribes of that region, and by patronising it and massively re-populating and rebuilding the town, held Gaul. Nimes was so thoroughly re-made that today the city proudly describes itself as the ‘French Rome’. Nimes is in Occitania. Here the crocodile is firmly chained to the palm-tree. ‘Aegypta capta’ reads an inscription on the other side – and this more than a century after Cleopatra’s death.

As in Gaul, so in Spain, in passing through both of which Hannibal had been supported. Here, the Roman mosaic shows Egyptians or Libyans being hunted by their own crocodiles. Both had access to good timber.

.. and in Syria, in Emessa, which controlled some of cedar routes, the message of this Roman villa seems to be ‘Try passing, if you dare”. The flower is the Nile’s lotus.

In Italy Italy itself, from the same period, a replica ‘Canopus’ was created, and underneath the crocodile’s concrete casing, you can still see the remains of a corroded bronze original.

.. which brings us back to Praeneste.

One native of Praeneste who lived about the time Claudius Ptolemy was living and in Egypt, was named Claudius Aelianus, better known as Aelian. His native city had been twice destroyed by Romans, and on the second occasion every male was slaughtered and those who remained driven to lower ground while a colony of ex-soldiers was given the upper city in which was an ancient religious site, originally used by Phoenicians and Etruscans, but which was now being made a very grand temple which the Romans called the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia.

Aelian preferred to speak and write in Greek, and one text which he composed we know as ‘On the Characteristics of Animals’. It was never part of the western bestiary tradition, and the earliest instance of his work’s being re-used in any manuscript held by the British Library dates to the second half of the fifteenth century where the parts transcribed have been copied in Greek, The purpose of that compilation is, as with BNF lat.3751 to serve the interests of physicians. (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 6295, ff 65v-73*).

Paper. dimensions 210 x 145. Single column. It is described as of eastern Mediterranean provenance, and having at some time been owned by the Jesuit College, Agen prior to its acquisition either by Robert Harley (1661-1724), or by Edward Harley (1689-1741). The library notes that the manuscript’s fore-edges are each decorated in Cretan style, with two circles linked by an interlace pattern in ink and colour wash.

Aelian says of crocodiles:

I have heard that the Egyptians assert that the sacred crocodiles are tame, and … the Egyptians assert that the aforesaid crocodiles are endowed with prophecy, and adduce the following evidence. Ptolemy (which of the line it was, you must ask them) was calling to the tamest of the crocodiles, but it paid no attention and would not accept the food he offered. And the priests realised that the crocodile knew that Ptolemy’s end was approaching and consequently declined to take food from him. -‘

Aelian, ‘On the characteristics of Animals’ Bk.8.4,ii. The English trans. by A.F.Scholfield (1958).

The Romans of that time were yet to encounter the concept we call ‘cultural sensitivity’ and in Preaneste a relief commemorating the Battle of Actium – the battle which saw Cleopatra’s Egyptian navy destroyed and herself choose suicide over the predictable humiliations and reprisals inflicted on captives, prisoners of war, and defeated peoples by the Romans. The human head you see through the open oars-locker is probably Cleopatra’s and inclusion of Egypt’s prophetic beast an example of Roman wit.

In the following century, the Christian Greek patristic author, Eusebius, sees the crocodile as an agent of divine justice, snatching away the impure soul… Ammit reprised.

Achthoēs … was the most terrible of all the kings up to his time. He cruelly maltreated the inhabitants throughout Egypt .. fell into madness and was killed by a crocodile.

Eusebius, Chronicle. English trans. from one based on a Latin translation of the Armenian translation of the Greek original – courtesy of attalus.org.

 The Roman ‘propaganda war’ which continues from the 2ndC BC to the 2ndC AD, reviving ‘crocodile’ imagery as needed, was interested neither in moral or in astronomical issues, though like everyone else Romans believed one’s fate ‘written in the stars’ and Roman emperors continued to worship Anubis as part of their own version of Egypt’s Isis cult until the 4thC AD.

Within Egypt itself, the religion’s four thousand year history was not erased, even by Rome and crocodiles were still treated as noble souls, were mummified and sometimes worshipped as – so to speak – the ‘guardian hounds’ of the Nile as late as the fifth or sixth century, ceasing only about the time the last hieroglyphics were inscribed in Philae.

This image from Oxychrinchus seems to me to consciously to equate the crocodile, whose head is given a kind of mask, with the form of a galley.

Perhaps this will help clarify:

The point of those illustrations is that if a fifteenth-century European living in Italy or around the south-western Mediterranean, and especially if they were now excited by things antique, could find a good image of the crocodile in various relics of the Roman era, including a bronze statue in what was once Hadrian’s Villa (118-133AD), a few minutes drive from the Villa d’Este.

I admit it makes me wonder whether Georg Baresh’s information had been garbled in transmission – whether the collector of the matter in Beinecke MS 408 had actually ‘travelled east’ or instead to the ‘d’Este’. But that’s dangeously close to morphing into a theory, so I’ll drop it, right now.

A last comment on the ‘Nile Landscape’ mosaic originally in the temple complex of Fortuna Primigenia.

Praeneste’s Nile Mosaic … ..was noticed by Antonio Volsco shortly before 1507; the mosaics were still in place among the vestiges of Sulla’s sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia. At that time, the Colonna family of Rome owned the town (mod. Palestina). In the 17th century, Palestrina passed to the Barberini family, who between 1624 and 1626 removed most of the mosaic from its setting, without recording the overall composition, and, after further movements and damage, put it on exhibition in the Palazzo Barberini in Palestrina, where it remains. – Jasnow reviewing Mabloom’s study.

It has been badly messed about – the camel’s hump, for eample, is now upon its shoulder. No other Roman-era version gives the crocodile a face mid-way between that of a dog and of a human.

detail from the damaged Praeneste ‘Nile’ mosaic.

The chief issues concerning the Nile Mosaic are the date and iconography. K. Parlasca posits an Augustan date, while G. Weill-Goudchaux favors the time of Hadrian. Meyboom himself believes that the mosaic belongs to “the last quarter of the second century and, more precisely, from between 120 and 110 B.c.” (p. 19). There is certainly nothing which precludes such a dating. Roman interest in knowledge of Egypt is well documented at this time. ..

From the ‘Book of Faiyum‘ – extant copies date from 332 BC E – 359 AD, Note the styles of hatching and patterning used here.

As I’ve said, this series of diagrams with their central emblems is termed a ‘calendar’ only because the centres are inscribed with month-names. The central emblems don’t form a zodiac but are are among the handful of drawings in Beinecke MS 408 which use a visual language reasonably compatible with the conventions of western medieval art.

They require no date later than the range we have for the vellum (1405-1438)* and more narrowly still, not later than about 1350 or so, meaning that the fifteenth-century copyists appear to have gained much, if not all, of this section from one or more exemplars.

*Please don’t write to ask why the Beinecke Library catalogue entry adds, another two hundred years to that range. The entry was written in the late 1960s or early 1970s by the head librarian but apparently not from any codicological or palaeographical assessments, these having already dated the quires’ inscription to the early fifteenth century.

centre of the ‘Crocodile rota’ in SIgismondo Fanti’s Trionfo di Fortuna. 1527. [private copy]

Sept. 6th. – ‘Primagenia’ corrected to ‘Primigenia’ – the fault entirely due to my appalling handwriting and not the long-suffering typist.


Not only, but not least for its connection to Crete, a page from a late sixteenth century copy of another rarely-mentioned poem about the nature of animals,

Written by Manuel Philes (c.1275-c.1345), it is known as De Animalium Proprietate, and we are indebted to the Cretan scribe, Angelos Bergikios, for knowledge of it, for (as the British library catalogue says) “he made something of a career out of producing lavishly-illustrated copies of this poem for French aristocrats during the last quarter of the sixteenth century.”

Such earlier copies as have been found in the Greek-speaking world appear have no illustrations, but perhaps an illustrated version had existed in Crete. Whatever the case, enjoy Bergikios’ really beautiful script.

Certain measures 3b Preface – addendum

A reader has asked me to expand on a couple of points left obscure (as she says) in the previous post. I’m a bit reluctant to spend much time on this, because it deals only with medieval Latin imagery and culture – to which, in my opinion, the Voynich manuscript’s images bear little relation – but since this blog is intended to serve researchers, here we go.

The reader has asked that I explain more fully (a) the ‘cautionary’ tone that I find in the image from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275; (b) why I speculated that the black-shod figure might imply criticism of Albertus Magnus and finally (c) what makes me link these with that image from a copy of Nicole Oresme’s treatise [BNF 1355] first introduced to Voynicheros by Ellie Velinska.

Before going further, I want to be quite clear that I do not consider the image from Burney 275 which I showed in the previous post, or Ellie’s image from BNF 1355 have any direct relevance to material now in Beinecke MS 408.

What the two French medieval images have in common is a style, the makers’ visual codes, and a particular attitude to astronomical studies characteristic of certain works made for Latin Christians in late medieval France.

from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275.

So – concerning my speculation that the black shod figure (in the detail above from Brit.Lib. MS Burney 275), with his hidden left arm, might be an allusion to Albertus Magnus, here’s what I added as a comment under the previous post.

Because it must be classed as speculation, I add as a comment that I suspect the ‘transgressing-a-bit’ figure, with its sinister hand in his sleeve, might be a Francophile’s allusion to Albertus Magnus. I add two easily accessible sources to indicate why this idea occurs and why I find this image reflects the same cautions which occur in a copy of Oresme’s text – itself older and strongly cautionary in tone despite its being about astronomical learning.
On the Paris universities’ attempt to restrict readings from Aristotle see e.g. the wiki article,
and on Albertus’ being earlier considered a bit dubious on the same matter see e.g.


There are, of course, many more and more detailed studies of this matter.


Denoting the non-orthodox.

To this I’d add that the same figure is represented by a conventional code for the dubious-to-heretical ruler or teacher, viz. ‘crossed-over limbs’.

This is no place to deliver a lecture on the history and uses of this item of visual code (where, when and by whom it was used) but I will offer another example of that usage, from a work that has not only been popular with straight-down-the line conservatives, but which actually does help elucidate one detail at least from the Voynich manuscript.

The well-known work is often called the ‘Manfredus Herbal’ (BNF Lat.6823) and its frontispiece(s) show, after the manner of late Roman and of Byzantine manuscripts, the best-known ‘names’ as authorities whose matter is contained within or widely associated with the subject matter.

While our view of how to depict classical characters and costumes differs considerably from the customs of medieval artisans, the reader must keep in mind that the medieval workers, like their audiences, were acutely conscious of costume as expressive of social and cultural distinctions, to the point we may describe depictions of clothing, bodily stance and more as elements in a common visual ‘code’ within a given cultural area.

Indeed, the analyst is wise to first interpret imagery [of costume in medieval Latin manuscripts] first as it contains ‘code’ and only then as literal depiction, though literalism is more common when the subject was a member of the European aristocracy. Something of this was touched on when discussing an image of C. Sergius Orata.

*see: https://voynichrevisionist.com/2019/09/12/the-skies-above-pt-5-bodies-in-baskets/

Here’s one page of portraits from the ‘Manfredus’ fronticepiece(s).

We’ll need to see some small details up close so the picture-file is large – I hope it won’t break your phone.

The two figures at the bottom of that page are Hippocrates (ypocras) and ‘Galienus’ – the latter an interesting evidence of contemporary confusion about Galen. As would later happen with the works of Ptolemy, we find an apparent confusion between the medical writer Galen, and Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus (co-emperor with his father Valerian from 253 to 260 AD and sole emperor from 260 to 268AD).

Note also that the works of this ‘Galienus’ are understood to be owned and taught – or at least preserved and translated – by Jewish scholars under western rule. Notice the ‘eastern eyes’ on that figure, and the sign of continuing use of the scroll, rather than the codex.

In the upper register, the figure to our left has his name erased, while the figure to our right has his name entirely omitted. Those who are acceptable (lower register) have their feet on the ground (proverbially and here graphically). Not all are Latins. In the upper register, though, the one who ‘transgresses’ a little is distinguished from the other who is considered both heretical and ‘inverted’ – or as we might say, has things totally back-to-front. The worst, by these marks, is obviously the one on the upper right, whom I managed to identify as ‘Johannitus’ thanks to the fact that most medieval scholars still memorised their texts and each of these figures speaks their incipit.

When first publishing this item from my Voynich research, I quoted the first sentences from ‘Johannitus’, and reproduce them here – in translation of course from his Isagogue.

Medicine is divided into two parts, namely, theory and practice. And of these, theory is further divided into three, that is to say the consideration of things that are natural, and of things that are non-natural (whence comes knowledge of health, disease, and the neutral state), and when these natural things depart from the course of nature – that is, when the four humours depart from the course of nature; and from what cause or symptoms disease may arise.

The Nestorian physician known to the west as ‘Johannitus’ was Hunayn ibn Ishâq (809-887), one of the Mesue dynasty of physicians that served as physicians to the Caliphs of Baghdad for generations.  Whether he ever wrote in Syriac, the liturgical language of the Church of the East (the so-called ‘Nestorian’ church) is not known, but some have made the mistake of supposing that anyone whose work appeared in Arabic was necessarily a Muslim, and this idea needs correction.

As Latin was the language of diplomacy, education and higher scholarship in western Christian Europe (so that we speak of ‘Latin Europe’), so throughout the Islamic empire, Arabic was the shared language. More – in Islamic scholarship, still, the custom was and is to call ‘an Arab’ anyone for whom Arabic is a primary language, written or spoken. So many have assumed that Hunayn was an Arab and a Muslim.

To add to the confusion, those noting that the way his name was rendered in Arabic indicates an original form meaning ‘John, son of Isaac’ imagined him a Christianised Jew.

It is easily forgotten today, but was not unknown to later medieval Europe that the Church of the East represented the original Christian church and existed from long before the rise of Islam being by the tenth century established from as far west as Constantinople and Egypt to as far east as China. Together with the ‘star-worshippers’ of Haran, the Nestorians (so called) are credited with having brought most works of classical science and scholarship to the knowledge of the first few generations of Muslim rulers, especially those in Baghdad. Part of their religious belief was that the Christian minister was expected to imitate Christ by ministering to body (medicine), mind (education) and soul (pastoral care). The western or ‘Roman’ tradition was strongly opposed to the first and the reason for Ficino’s being burned as a heretic was his becoming enamoured of that ‘ancient’ and original priesthood. This is the substance of his first (much misunderstood) legal defence. Canon law had initially accepted that the eastern church had chronological precedence and thus merited the description as ‘apostolic’. But by the time of Ficino’s second accusation, that argument was no longer enough. Ficino was a priest and was accused of practicing medicine. His own book proves that he had, and imitated specific recipes known to us from the ‘Nestorians’ Syriac Book of Medicines.

However – back to the main point.

Translation of Johannitus’ work into Latin is credited, by tradition, to a trader whose name on conversion to Christianity was Constantine, called ‘the African’, who brought with him from North Africa many medical texts, in Arabic copy, first to the court in Palermo (not Salerno) in Sicily.

He began translating the collection in Palermo, but soon passed on to the mainland, eventually to become a monk and end his days in Montecassino.

So the book being abjured according to this frontispiece to the Sicilan ‘Manfredus’ herbal is the Isagogue, some of whose content must have offended Sicily’s pluralistic society when it became known there. Among other things, Johannitus’ theory of the humors has it that all eye-colours save blue, and all hair-colours save yellow are the result of disease, or more exactly of humoral imbalance.

Selected excerpts from the Isagogue were still retained and taught but as with many such ‘dubious’ sources, maintained through collected extracts, in this case through a work called the Articella, and were further disguised by terming the whole of that collection “Greek” medicine.

Sicily was, and for centuries remained, far more culturally mixed and diverse than anywhere in western Europe and its Christianity stayed largely Byzantine well into the Norman period, making the word “Greek” a definition of orthodoxy. As usual, too, the frontispiece reflects western Christianity’s greater abhorrence towards other sects of Christianity than towards quite other religions. The ‘Manfredus’ herbal is dated by the BNF 1301-1350 AD. MS Burney 275 by the British Library 1309 and 1316 AD.

And you see how Johannitus’ ‘crossed limbs’ are depicted – with an improper amount of bare leg above the ankle. So we read ‘transgression’ for the figure on the upper left, but ‘heretic’ for Johannitus.

Not all historians make the link between ‘Johannitus’ and the Nestorian physicians. See e.g.

  • Behnam Dalfardi, Babak Daneshfard, Golnoush Sadat Mahmoudi Nezhad,  ‘Johannitius (809-873 AD), a medieval physician, translator and author’, Journal of Medical Biography, 2016 Aug;24(3):328-30. doi: 10.1177/0967772014532890. Epub 2014 Jun 9.

Connection between that image and Beinecke MS 408 is offered by the peculiar headwear given Johannitus, though apparently not quite understood by the painter, who has made a curl of hair from what appears to be a head-dress of horn. The validity of the underlying drawing is, however, confirmed for this same era, and again for peoples living in hither Asia, because a picture of Mongols’ captives shows it on them, together with dress that is typically Asian, and Mongol. It was not the custom, in Asian art, to encode images of costume, so we may take that image literally, and so too the dress seen in a late-stratum diagram (added to the back of the map) in the Voynich manuscript.

detail from Beinecke MS 408, folio 85v.

The Voynich detail shows that the ‘Nestorian’ figure (as we’ll call him for convenience) is used to mark the point of ‘east’; the diagram being a schematic representation of the world’s four quarters. Unlike most of the Voynich drawings, this one was almost certainly drawn by a European or, perhaps, an Armenian.

The motif upheld by the figure is not (as might first suggest itself to a modern viewer) a Norman or French ‘fleur de lys’ – as you’ll see if you make the necessary comparisons.

A truer match is the form given the tamgar for a certain Mongol ruler and while it has proven impossible so far to precisely identify a geographic reference for this ‘east’, the coins so adorned are fairly rare. Pace Kolbas, I’m strongly inclined to identify it with Amaligh and not Fars, though for reasons too many, and technical, to trouble readers with here.

Still, Kolbas is a numismatist and I’ll quote her again as I did in a post published in 2015 through voynichimagery.

On pages 149-150 of Judith Kolbas’ The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu 1220–1309)   we read:

Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. [1253 AD] All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …

Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …To which I added – and still add – a demur

I add my original demur, too:

[this] ‘graceful fleur de lys’ is really a version of a much older Persian motif – and if it is the design Kolbas means this specific example [used in my illustration above] doesn’t appear to have been made for Fars, but more probably for Amaligh.

Other indications of eastern and Asian influence in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery certainly exist, some like this evidently first-hand and more at greater remove, but I’ve treated many in detail over the past years, and we must move on to the ‘Oresme’ issue.

Ellie Velinska’s comparison – BNF ms

Oresme (1328-82 AD) Which manuscript?

In 2014, in a blog now deleted, Ellie Velinska made a loose comparison of the image shown above with a detail from the Voynich manuscript, putting the two side by side without analytical commentary, leading readers to infer that only ‘common sense’ was needed to know what, if anything, might constitute a commonality between them.

Ellie’s chief interest was the Duc de Berry, and her Voynich theory was woven around that interest. If this sounds dismissive, it shouldn’t. For a person with no background or formal study of medieval imagery, her natural clarity of vision often made for interesting observations and flashes of insight, but the limited amount of time she had to spare for her hobby, as well as apparent ignorance of formal academic methods and standards, seemed often to see her at a loss to know, herself, just what to do with those observations, or how to test her own ideas against the historical record. But the same is true of the great majority of ‘Voynicheros’ online and Ellie’s pleasant and accommodating manner made her a very popular member of the self-styled online ‘Voynich community’.

Cross-checking my references today, I cannot think her original description of the source correct. My notes say she listed it as BNF 1355, but I rather think it was from

BNF fr.565, f.23r

Three years afterwards, and after properly citing Ellie’s post (as you can trust Pelling always to do), Pelling himself labeled a detail “BNF 565” (see further below).

The determined checker is welcome to go through all references to Oresme from the BNF’s Gallica portal.


Oresme was not yet Bishop of Lisieux when he composed his ‘Treatise on the Sphere’ but already had his Doctorate in Theology from the University of Paris and had been appointed Grand Master over the College of Navarre where he’d had his own undergraduate accommodation and tutoring.

His credentials suggest, and his writings confirm, that whatever Oresme wrote would be absolutely sound from any western theologians’ point of view, and indeed, his Treatise was meant as much for the king’s good Christian guidance as to provide him with a reference text about astronomical theory.

Like his earlier work entitled Livre de Divinations, the Treatise shows Oresme to have been well aware of other ideas and traditions, but as time went on his ‘orthodoxy’ or theological rectitude becomes as strongly in evidence as his erudition.

In his earlier writings, especially the Livre des Divinationes, he is is plain when criticising Jews and of Arabic-speakers for their indulging in ‘divination’ including astrological divination, and these are seen to be identical to what he terms “the astrologers” or “the scientists.” But as time goes on, Oresme omits any but generic allusions to those groups, and even as early as the Livre.. when he considers the information, and its source, likely to serve as temptation for the curious.

Nonetheless, it is clear that he knew matter not only just non-Christian like Aristotle, but which derives from traditional lore, and some items that today we’d normally suppose Kabbalist. Oresme livedwhile Kabbalist teaching was flourishing near the border between modern day France and Spain, some of that border belonging to the Kingdom of Majorca until 1375. Living in the College of Navarre, one may suppose Oresme was unusually well situated to learn about ideas current in the south.

Here as illustration, a passage in translation from his Livre…

That he dismisses such ideas as ‘speculation’ is added indication of a non-orthodox (non-Christian) source. Had that ‘throne’ been described Christ’s rather than Solomon’s, Oresme might still have set the matter aside, but not as “speculation”. It would have been called a matter to be apprehended only by the eyes of faith, and not appropriate for earthly studies such as philosophy or astronomy. Just the same message, at much the same time, and environment, as that detail seen in the previous post and illustrated first in the present one.


The cautions were evidently not always heeded by persons who wore a crown, and in that detail from BNF fr.565, f.23r (Ellie’s find, I think) the ‘doubtful’ characters are included, and are defined by the usual codes – headwear, clothing, posture, hair and facial hair or lack thereof.

I won’t provide any more detailed analytical commentary about it. This post is already longer than I’d like and the codes used in those images from fourteenth century France are not shared by the Voynich manuscript save in a very few details over no more than half a dozen folios.


Assimilating Aristotle and comparisons made to images in the Voynich manuscript.

Not so long before, only students of Theology had been permitted to read Aristotle at the University of Paris, the most desirable of all study-centres in those days unless you wanted to study medicine.

A degree in Theology was the highest and most demanding of the University degrees, since one had to know all other disciplines before admission into that Faculty. The reasoning here was not a new idea; it was that any authority which appeared to be incompatible with Christian doctrine and Biblical literature should not be taught verbatim to the uneducated, or even to the less educated, except it were provided with learned commentary which edited or ameliorated the ‘wrong’ by e.g. excusing pagan writers on the grounds that they had been permitted only a ‘dim’ apprehension of any truth, given that the fulness of truth had been vouchsafed to humankind only with the coming of Christ (as western Christianity believed).

By how much, and in what way they had fallen short, or where passages in older works were to be interpreted as allegorical and so on, was duly explained and/or the texts redacted or simply summarised by the theologians, with those acceptable summaries and extracts taught to the people.

In short, before the Italian renaissance, such ‘old works’ were treated like valuable but slightly out-of-date school texts today. Living exponents of unorthodox traditions were more sternly regarded, as we’ve seen.

That prohibition against Aristotle’s works didn’t apply beyond the University of Paris; It was not supported by any Papal pronouncement so far as I know, and even within the University of Paris didn’t last in practice more than (perhaps) three or four decades, but as mentioned earlier, it was serious enough that for a time the German Albertus (called ‘the great’) had been much exercised to defend his own, and others’ study of Aristotle.

One is usually told that Aristotle’s texts reached Europe from some long distance, and had to be especially translated at some royal court, but this isn’t necessarily so.

It is recorded by a Muslim military man at the time of the Muslim conquest of Sicily that he found the works of Aristotle being treated as if they were holy writ in Sicily, with readings aloud in the various niches within cathedral and the mummified body of that ‘saint’ suspended from the ceiling as its leading light. We don’t know what language they read it in, though Sicilian Greek is most probable and for reasons that can’t be fairly treated here, the practices as he reported them suggest connections to a ‘star-worshipping’ religion recorded in association with Haran and with north Africa and which was as old as, if not older, than Alexander the Great. Aristotle himself had died in 322BC.

When dealing with Oresme’s Treatise, then, it must be kept in mind that it was made – probably commissioned – of a person whose religious orthodoxy was beyond question, and whose use of Aristotle and other mathematical and scientific information could be regarded, by his authorship alone, as acceptable to any good western Christian – that is (as yet), a good Catholic.

Biographies that blur, or ignore, or misrepresent Oresme by calling him ‘a clergyman’ or which ‘politely’ omit reference to any medieval scholar’s religious views and/or standing ignore something that was an essential part of the person’s scholarly, as well as their personal character.

Ellie’s comparison was conveyed by inference, not argument or evidence, and appealed simply to her audience’s expectations of all-European content for the Voynich manuscript. Points of difference in form and all else were simply ignored but this is also usual in Voynich writings.

So when Pelling, who has a degree in modern historical studies, later revisited Ellie’s idea (naturally, with all due credit given), he omitted most of Ellie’s illustration, narrowing the whole tacit argument still further.

As I see it, the numerous points of difference are more telling than the few which are sort-of, more-or-less, similar. You will find no kings, no thrones, no flowing ermine robes, no kneeling suppliants, no armillary spheres, no ornate tapestry-pattern backgrounds in the Voynich manuscript and in neither the full Oresme illumination nor the small detail shown above is there the detail that I see as being the most telling of the Voynich diagram’s significance – I mean those eight curved ‘arms’ of which four are seen to emerge from the foreground and four apparently from below that visible surface ..

I think – I hope – that covers the three items I was asked to expand on.

Sorry about the length.

Theory wars – an illustration

When readers comment via the contact form, I answer the first couple, but if more are about the same sort of thing, it’s worth a post.

Comments on the previous post were along the lines:  ‘theory wars – so what?’ or ‘it will be a good thing when there’s just one opinion’ or ‘complaining about lots of opinions is just your resentment’.

The one I thought worth a post is the  ‘theory war, so what?’. It means deferring mention of Rich Santacoloma’s work, but it’s obviously an issue readers think about.   I’ve had to spend a few days thinking  how best to illustrate the effect of a  ‘theory-war’ on attitudes to the manuscript’s research.

There’s also the fact that decade’s close study of the primary document has naturally led me to form  opinions from that evidence, so it would be right to say that I have a theory too, but I’d say it is a theory in the stricter sense of the term. I have no hesitation in changing my views should better and more solidly-based information turn up,   The aim is to ‘get it right’ not to adopt the pose of Delphic oracle.

So then, perfectly aware that the old saying about stones and glass houses might apply,  I’ve taken a tiny detail from folio 102, and traced the attitudes informing its discussion before, and then since 2012, when  ‘theory-war’ really took hold.   In my opinion, this very interesting manuscript deserves more care and more respect than it receives.

It isn’t easy, knowing how one flounders in the early stages, to now criticise offerings from people further back on the road. It seems hypocritical but then confusing discussion of method and standards in this study with attacks on personality is a particular habit of the theory-driven sort, and we mustn’t fall into that trap.

The sections average a bit over 1,000 words each.

I’d suggest you read one ‘phase’  and then take some time – perhaps a day –  to think about that before reading the next.

But it’s up to you.


Phase 1:  Scott and O’Donovan (a conversation – ‘book’?  ‘block of indigo’?).

Folio 102 is part of the manuscript’s ‘root and leaf’ section, yet it includes the small drawing of a block, directly below which is another detail also coloured blue, though in an even deeper hue and whose tag has three or four glyphs in common with that above the block. (‘Four’ if it were supposed that the last glyph of the block’s tag were a final form of the other’s fourth glyph).

Apart from these details, and a couple  discoloured, the remainder of that folio shows  ‘leaf and root’ details in the usual colours of green and brown. The block thus presents an anomaly.


It would seem reasonable to begin by expecting both ‘blue details’ on folio 102 to be in some way  connected to plants and to materials derived from them, and further that the draughtsman/painter intended his readers to understand that some more direct connection exists between these two blue items. Yet – though having a brushful of the blue to colour the block – the draughtsman/painter took another, and much deeper, blue to paint the lower detail.  They are thus linked in one sense but distinguished in another.

top – detail of object on f.102; centre – detail of vessel. Shang dynasty; detail 17thC Chinese silver.

In the left hand margin, level with these registers is an object set on ‘knife-blade’* legs of a sort not European, but attested in the east from a very early period indeed, and revived to as late as the seventeenth century.

*described in some sources as ‘tiger-claw’ legs. They are seen on objects intended to stand over a fire.

These items of information conveyed through the imagery, made sense in terms of indigo, its trade and use (as I’ll explain below), and though I read more before offering an opinion publicly,  by 2011  I was ready to make a brief comment to the second mailing list.  What I said was that I thought the block meant for a block of indigo.

Readers may find it useful to know that as a dyestuff, indigo is extracted from leaves of indigo tinctofera in the east, though another type of indigo plant, native to north Africa, had been brought into medieval Sicily.   I knew that the dyestuff  was sold in pressed blocks –  wrapped and stitched into cloth during the medieval period* – and that it had still been brought into the Mediterranean at that time from further east, just as  during  the earlier Christian centuries – which last is attested by the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a work written in execrable semi-Greek around the 1stC AD and often called the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean_Sea’.

* today it is sold held together just by a lattice of thread – as in our header.

§39. The ships lie at anchor at Barbaricum but all their cargoes are carried up to the metropolis by the river, to the King. There are imported into this market a great deal of thin clothing, and a little spurious; figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine. On the other hand there are exported costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo. ..

No-one from the mailing list asked to know more of my reasons or evidence but Dana Scott was  kind enough to reply, at least,  saying he thought, rather, that it looked like a codex*, and linking to the illustration shown at left.

*BL MS Royal 19 D II – Bible Historiale of John the Good. Made in Central France (Paris) c. 1350-before 1356.

So far so good.

While I believe Dana thought  -and perhaps still thinks – the manuscript reflects a Norman Anglo-French environment (and I’d agree that its later phases reflect that character), the conversation was not a theory-war about nationalities or personalities, but a discussion of what a draughtsman had intended his audience to see in a particular small drawing. It was a conversation about the primary evidence.

And that’s as far as it went in the mailing list.  Though my comment elicited little response, there was no sniping or efforts at ‘put down’ in that brief conversation.

As I recall, it ended by being turned back to the central European theme by Zanbergen’s mentioning a herbal owned by a Bohemian king in which was reference to papyrus.

I did make a post for readers of my old ‘blogger’ blog Findings, (September 19, 2011) and later put a brief note about it at voynichimagery.  There I gave a list of references and explained that the context in which the block appears on folio 102 was an essential part of my reasoning and the item’s location in terms of both history and geography.

This was done because, before the ‘theory-war’ took hold, it was expected that a case should be presented fairly and with enough detail to show it wasn’t just a flight of imagination but potentially something on which others could rely and use in their own research.

I showed why the identification was compatible with the internal and external evidence, including the testimony provided by other details from the ‘leaf and root’ section, and how it is that, altogether, these indicate first composition for the content during the earlier, rather than later centuries AD – but within the environment of an east-west network that could reasonably have brought such matter to western Europe before 1440 1400-1440.

I added that,  if the draughtsman had wanted the block to be read as ‘indigo’ it would make sense to leave it pale save the dash of lighter blue, because not only was indigo pressed and sold stitched into a cloth wrapper, but the first stage of the process when the matter is extracted from the leaves results in what is known as  ‘white indigo’ (the pure dyestuff). It is then combined with liquid in the vat,   the cloths soaked, but only when they are removed and the dye re-oxygenates do they display that deep colour we call ‘indigo’.   The dyed fabric (which I think the subject of the detail under the block) has its deeper colour then reasonably explained..

I went into the question more deeply  – because it was still a question – finding in one medieval trader’s account – which I’m sorry to say I did not record in my notes –  that traders were permitted to make a small hole in the cloth wrapper to test the content’s quality (and, I suspect, its identity) .    This offered a reasonable explanation for the draughtsman’s troubling to add upon a drawing no more than a centimetre square, the two small circles we see placed at the seam-line in the upper middle and left-hand corner of the facing side (left). It might be meant to serve as reminder that with this good, one was permitted to inspect.

I won’t include much of my original reading list, but add a few first sources, and others I’ve noticed today.

A good first, overall view online in 2011 and  still going – is  here:

Jenny Balfour-Paul is the expert on Indigo in the Islamic world

  • Balfour-Paul J.,”The indigo industry of the Yemen”,  in Serjeant, R.B., Bidwell, R.L., ed(s). Arabian studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990) pp. 39-62. and then
  • Jenny Balfour-Paul, lndigo in the Arab World (1997).
  • On Jews of the medieval Yemen, see ‘Habbani Jews

and today I’d add:

  • India Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (Publications Division), India – Govt. and Economic Life in Ancient and Medieval Periods. (2017).
  • Sarah Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (2017).
  • Šelomō Simonsohn (ed.), The Jews in Sicily: 383-1300.  Two good recent sources.


… and that was that.



Move forward a few years…


Phase 2: Velinska  (‘believe me… it’s easy’)

Ellie Velinska is a respected member of the ‘central European’ theory group, with a leaning towards the Duc du* Berry and one suspects largely responsible for the elasticity now given that group’s re-definition of ‘central Europe.’ (corr. *sp. ‘de’)

In October of 2016, she picked up Dana’s ‘codex’ idea, first offered (as we saw) on the mailing list in the presence of a leader of that central European theory, Rene Zandbergen.  Neglecting to mention Dana as precedent, Velinska’s post adds  circumstantial detail to Dana’s proposal, mentioning others only in a final cursory comment:  “there are other interpretations of the cube drawing – most often it is perceived as a mineral.”

Nothing is provided that might help readers find and weigh those ‘other interpretations’ and in 2011, so far as I’m aware, there had been none save Dana’s ‘codex’ and my own ‘indigo’. Indigotin is not a mineral.  Readers who know of earlier or other views published before 2016 are welcome to leave a comment here; I’m always happy to receive better information.

Keeping readers’ attention ‘on message’ and taking care not to let them be distracted by ‘unhelpful’ information is typical of the theory-war.  It is a different thing from offering detailed commentary on some aspect of a six-hundred year old manuscript, and different again from setting out a personal opinion with some, at least of its informing evidence, as proof of honest intent.

The theory-first style relies on assertion and persuasion, of suggesting that ‘ideas’ unsupported by evidence can be accepted on the basis of sounding sensible or plausible. It relies to an extraordinary extent on personalities.  The theorists think one should believe a team-member one of ‘the good guys’ and damn the others as ‘bad guys’ (bad, mad, or stupid – it’s all the same).

Velinska convinces because understanding her material takes so very little effort. Her posts offer a short, pleasant, undemanding read,  clearly informed by belief in the unmentioned ‘theory’.

Her comments don’t try to engage the reader’s brain, but their emotions –  and there’s little  so emotionally convincing as conviction, especially when combined with a light-hearted  fraternal nudge and grin at the expense of the ‘opposition’ – at all of which Velinska is very good.

For the Eurocentric crew, whose theory has a bloodline which can be traced through d’Imperio directly to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale of 1921, the theory-war is not unlike the weekly football match.  Lots of team spirit;  furious efforts to keep total possession of the ball; cheers from the crowd, hi-fives at every point scored against the ‘others’ … and not a moment’s thought spared for the ball’s opinion of it all.  In this case the ‘ball’ is the manuscript.

Velinska interprets the faint yellow wash on the block’s edges as ‘faded yellow’ and then without further reason given, and without any apparent need to do so,  extrapolates that impression into an argument that it was meant for gilded page-edges.   As support for this implication that manuscripts were provided with gilded edges by central European binders before 1438, Velinska offers no evidence at all.  She includes  one composite illustration, formed of undated and unprovenanced details, and one image which is probably a modern reproduction* labelled  “Bridgeman Art Library, Italian 15thC”.

*Bridgeman describes itself as “one of the largest archives for reproductions of works of art in the world”.

As ‘evidence’ for an opinion about a medieval manuscript, it is a positive insult to readers’ intelligence.

Having thus asserted (caveats notwithstanding) that the block is a book, and a book with gilded pages, Velinska next explains the oddly-positioned circles as holes for  book-clasps, although offering no example of a medieval European manuscript having two clasps, one positioned at top centre and one at its extreme edge.  Perhaps Velinska knows one, but if so she should have referenced it, because I should think it quite rare.

Though phased as a tentative suggestion, Velinska’s post implies throughout that it is the only suggestion a sensible person should accept.  For the ‘clasps’ idea she says this:

If we imagine for a moment “the blue cube” to be a book these dotted details could represent some kind of book clasps.

Dana did not go that far, and Velinska’s use of the speculative mood serves less as caution to the reader that the idea may be baseless, than as means to deflect  criticism or demands for solid evidence. You don’t fall into line because the argument is valid, but because… well, because Ellie’s a nice person and she’s not saying you have to believe her.

One may believe, or not, but in the theory-war  it becomes a form of ill-manners to withhold belief pending the presentation of evidence. That is, if the speaker is a member of a major theory-group who is supposed to need not to prove anything which adds another pebble to the mound.   On the other hand, the theory-driven see dissenters and non-believers as if members of a lower stratum of society – and  in seeing them off,  ‘manners’ don’t apply.   It’s a war, after all.

One may wonder if Velinska troubled even to establish whether central European bookbinders did, in fact, gild page-edges before 1438.  Gilding page-edges was binder’s work, not the scribe’s.

The Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library, Giulia Bologna, says this:

In Northern Italy, above all in Milan, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci extended in no small degree even to this minor art form. Thus, to attain a more exquisite effect, new die stamps styled with leaves and flowers were constantly being designed. They were called aldi after Aldo Manuzio: aldi pieni, vuoti and al tratteggio (solid, blank and broken line). Combined with spirals and volutes they were applied to the empty spaces in geometrical patterns of lines and friezes with striking and stylistically perfect results. Up to the end of the 16th century, bindings with this kind of goldwork were found all over Europe, most of them from Italian prototypes originating in Venice, Milan, Mantua, Turin, Genoa, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Some were quite magnificent, classical but original in composition, endless in variety and harmonious in general appearance. The décors included structural compositions, scrolls and plaques in goldwork, intervening sections with gold dots, lively colour effects obtained with leather appliqué work and lacquer paint. All this gave resplendence to 16th century bindings. It was during this period that decorative work was first used on inside covers and the edges finely gilded.

Da Vinci wasn’t born until 1452 and died in 1519, Bologna is talking about the sixteenth century.

How can Velinska suggest, and invite readers to adopt the idea,  that a manuscript made during the first four decades of the fifteenth century, before Leonardo was born – and containing matter demonstrably earlier than our present manuscript’s manufacture –  should be believed to include in the ‘root and leaf’ section an image of a book with gilded page-edges?

Easily. It suits the theory.

Failures in rigor do not necessarily mean that the ‘answer’ is wrong: that’s the difference between the pragmatic and critical sciences.  It is still possible that Dana and she are right in general; the ‘cube’  might have been meant for a book, but in that case readers are entitled to some informed explanation for the item’s being in the ‘leaf and root’ section,  the presence of those  ‘knife-blade’ legs on an object in the same register, and the possible linguistic connection between the block and the item directly below it.

Nor is it beyond possibility that the Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library is mistaken, and that another source might provide evidence that binders in some part of Europe were gilding pages before 1438.  If the question we ask  of others’ proposals  is, ‘Is that true?’ rather than ‘does it suit my theory’ it is right to be as slow to disbelieve as to believe, and the manuscript’s study is better served.

We cannot accept Velinska’s composite illustration as contradiction of Bologna’s account, because none of its details were provided with  date and source. Neither has Velinska considered literal against purely aesthetic elements.  Items gilded in a picture may or may not have been gilded in reality.  In this case, documentary evidence and/or reference to an extant example was required. (Consideration of e.g.  Brit.Lib. Arundel 131 is enough* to show this).

*an impression of its having gilded pages soon  dispelled by consulting the Library’s catalogue entry:  “Binding: B[ritish] M[useum]/BL in-house. Edges yellow; rebound in 1962.”

I haven’t much time to do this myself on her behalf, but I do note that in 1928, there was published in London and in Boston a two-volume work entitled  Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings Exemplified and Illustrated from the Author’s Collection. Its author was E.Ph. Goldschmidt, the same who eight years later told Richard Salomon that he was “inclined to put the [Voynich] Ms. as far back as the 13th century or, at least, not to deny the possibility of so early an origin”. (Salomon accidentally transposed Goldschmidt’s initials in his letter reporting this to Anne Nill).

I am told that somewhere in those volumes (to which I have no easy access at present), Goldschmidt mentions in passing that edges of a medieval manuscript were, very rarely, gilded.  That’s all the information I have, but it leaves the window open a little, and  Velinska or those inclined also to hope the ‘block’ meant for a book might care to see if they can find evidence for Velinska’s ‘gilded page edges’.   Failing that, the practice of creating a montage or mosaic of undated and unprovenanced details as if the sheer number of inappropriately selected items were sufficient to argue and prove a theoretical argument, is much to be regretted.  It seems to have begun with the ‘new crop’ of Eurocentric Voynich bloggers who arrived in 2012, but from whence comes its ‘Warhol’ style, one cannot say.

  • [pdf] Giulia Bologna, “Gold in Book Binding: the origins of the craft”, The Gold Bulletin, 1982, Vol. 15, (1).  pdf accessible through SpringerLInk.
  • Henry Bohn’s Catalogue of books and printed works (1847) includes reproductions of numerous medieval books of hours described as if they were originals, and which were provided with lovely morocco bindings and gilded edges.

Note – Responding to a comment by Nick Pelling below her post, Velinska said,  “in war and Voynich manuscript studies all is fair 🙂

There’s another proverb, isn’t there –  about war’s first casualty?




Phase 3: Jules Janick and Arthur O. Tucker (… no alternative)

In 2006, Nick Pelling published a book called ‘Curse of the Voynich’.  If the manuscript has been cursed, it’s with theory-driven individuals and, more recently, this ‘theory-war’ mentality.

Before turning to the way Janick and Tucker treat that detail on folio 102, let’s have a minute’s silence for the first, consummate expounder of a ‘Voynich’ theory, Wilfrid Voynich himself.

In ‘Voynich’ usage, thanks to Wilfrid’s example, ‘theory’ means some idee fixe  elaborated, then adorned with oddments of historical fact but never formally argued, devoid of documentary evidence for its tenets, disdainful of debate and presented with  an air of authority and a certain internal consistency. Thus Wilfrid:

 To summarize, then … we  must conclude that, [composed by Roger Bacon], it rested in some monastery in England, where Roger Bacon’s manuscripts remained until the dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century. At that time, together with other treasures from these disbanded libraries, it probably passed into the hands of one of the receivers of this spoil, the Duke of Northumberland. It was very likely one of the manuscripts probably found in this family’s possession by John Dee, who certainly early in his career obtained a collection of Bacon manuscripts. During one of his visits to Prague, Dee undoubtedly presented it to Emperor Rudolph II, from whose possession it passed into the hands of Jacobus de Tepenecz not earlier than 1608.

in which, not one of the assertions made about the manuscript is worth a grain of salt, save its association with  Jakub  who became -‘de’ or -‘z’ Tepenecz thanks to Rudolf and before 1622.

So now to Janick and Tucker, who make no pretence of objectivity. They say  plainly that their aim is neither to study the manuscript, nor to evaluate O’Neill’s speculation, but  merely ‘to confirm’ it.  Their indifference to the manuscript-as-manuscript (codicology, palaeography etc.) is staggering.


At first, they described the detail on folio 102 as ‘most probably’ boleite. If this is their idea of hard evidence, I’m in the wrong office…)

though later they dropped the ‘probably’:

Pure Wilfridism.

These authors don’t even try to rationalise the cube’s being in the  ‘pharmacy’ section.    A central European-ist convert would at least say something like:  ‘Mexicans ‘probably’ used boleite in medicine’.

By the time we get to Ch.4 of their book, they’re saying no other explanation is possible:

‘Plate 56’ from Janick and Tucker, ‘Unravelling the Voynich Codex’

1. Folio 102r #4 Boleite (Plate 56). This image  includes a cubic (isometric) blue mineral resembling a blue bouillon cube. This can only (sic!) be boleite ….. The only sources for large crystals of this quality and quantity are three closely related mines in Baja California Sur, Mexico, …

What quantity? What quality? A specimen measuring 8 millimeters – yes millimetres – square is above average size.  I know this because the authors’ ‘Plate 56 was taken from the following advertisement, which they duly footnoted.

from a commercial site.

So –  the authors omitted mention of the fact that (a)  no-one seems to have known boleite .. at all … until 1891 and (b) there is no record of any use for the indigo-blue type, and for the clear type none until the end of the nineteenth century,

But it fits the theory!! 

There’s a certain beauty to this non-argument in a way.

It is ‘Voynich’ theorising in purest form, unfussed by evidence, by reason, by effort to contextualise details, by any sense that one has to justify assertions made about a medieval manuscript.

Or even that their subject is a medieval manuscript.

Quite beautiful, if you like abstraction.

Postscript – thinking hard as to what might be said for the ‘boleite’ idea, I can only think of one thing.  We know that Columbus equated whatever he found in the New World with valuable items  imported into Europe from the east.  Among Europe’s prized eastern imports was Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli which, when ground into a powder became the pigment  Latins called ‘ultramarine’ -‘over the sea’.  A wiki article shows boleite in association with malachite and atacamite (a copper-derived mineral created by dessication).However, Europeans also used  a different copper-derived mineral which they called azurite, and it was this which McCrone’s tests identified in the manuscript in 2009. Admittedly they were obliged to work within the pre-emptive limits set by the client who commissioned the study, and further by the limits which were inevitable given the destructive methods specified by the same client.McCrone’s letter to the Beinecke library can be downloaded from its site.

And that’s what you get with a theory-war.



(preamble shortened – 8th April.)

Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine’

Header Illustration: composite image. includes detail from Brit.Lib. Harley MS 5751  f.15
Two previous:

We are still considering the period 1912-2000, and matters other than ‘Voynichese’.

During those eighty years from 1912-2000,  scholars expert in one or another aspect of Europe’s intellectual and artistic heritage could suggest not a single close comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s content and imagery from among the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Latins’ (western Christian) manuscripts they had seen – no matter what their area of specialisation,

It was always over the fence;  ‘someone else’s problem’.

This is an interval post – just a pause for perspective.

not GERMAN-CHRISTIAN ART – Panofsky and Petersen

Erwin Panofsky and Theodore Petersen specialised in the Christian art of medieval and (northern) Renaissance Germany.  Neither saw the manuscript as in that tradition.

In 1932, after spending two hours examining the manuscript in New York, Panofsky had correctly dated its manufacture: ‘1410-1420-1430’, an evaluation whose precision would not be matched until 2011, when radiocarbon dating returned the range 1404-1438.

Panofsky attributed  its content not to Christian-German work but to “the southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain” and to a Judeo-Arabic cultural environment. His reasons for saying otherwise in writing answers for Friedman’s ‘quiz’ questions in 1954 have already been discussed.

For Panofsky’s dating see the letter of ‘E.L.V’ to Professor Thompson transcribed in ‘Correspondence’ at the end of my post ‘Expert Opinions – Richard Salomon‘. The original letter is in the Beinecke Library, Yale.

…… and Panofsky was the first to cite any specific comparison but – as would thereafter become a constant in discussions of this manuscript – he compared just a single detail in it with a single detail from another manuscript, and did not even suggest the comparison close enough to call a ‘match’.

As Nill later wrote, “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript,  [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”  The comparison was between one diagram from the Voynich calendar and one from Alfonso X‘s Libros del saber de astronomía.  That Panofsky knew the latter is an indication of his range, for it exists in a single manuscript, and that in Madrid.  Consider the range of exclusion implied.

 LATIN HANDS? – Salomon, Barrett and ‘not-saying-who’.

Richard Salomon, a specialist in Latin palaeography, recognised only one line of marginalia, which he read as medieval legal German – and whose date he then applied to the manuscript as a whole.

At that time, he had seen only a black and white photostat copy, and while an offer was made for him to see the original, I’ve found no record that he ever did.  His circumstances after 1932 were so disrupted and so distressing that he was never able to return to his chief area of interest, lacking access to appropriate texts and references.

Of the hand(s) within the main text, and of that which wrote the month-names, I’ve seen no evidence of his saying anything before or after 1932, though something may yet be found in others’ letters from him.

Some Voynich researchers have guessed a  Caroline hand; others as ‘influenced by the Humanist style’, but the specialists have said nothing, though not positively protesting Wilfrid’s opinion that the script was that of a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman scholar.

Remarkably little time or attention was paid to this matter of palaeography, and for my knowledge of these views I am indebted first to Nick Pelling, and through him to the sources he cited, including Reeds’ mailing list and articles by Barbara Barrett.  Pelling disagreed with the latter, but for the sake of balance referred to Barrett’s views anyway.  Other sites have, since then, copied (and sometimes rightly attributed) the same material.

an insubstantial argument

I’ve recently seen it asserted,  with no evidence offered and my  request for directions to the original argument refused with some vigour,  that someone has argued a case for considering inscription of the German (and only the German) marginalia so closely contemporary with the rest of the work that we should believe  the whole manuscript to be, in some sense, a product of German culture.

Given the non-German month-inscriptions, the character of the imagery overall, the Italian binding of the book-block, the opinion of consummate experts with no ‘guess’ to grind… and so on, it is not an idea I’m willing to take on faith. Perhaps someone would like to raise the question on a forum? Do leave a comment if you find a clear answer.



Adam McLean, a specialist in the history of alchemy, responded as the experts do: “S.E.P”.  Since non-specialists enthusiastic about the ‘alchemy’ idea have continued to push it (though the radiocarbon dating silenced them for a time), I’ll reproduce McLean’s comments, taking them from  Dennis Stallings’ report to the second mailing list: (09:40 AM 11/19/98 -0600)

Dennis had said: ‘Hello, Adam!..  Mary D’Imperio, in her survey of VMs studies up to 1978, thought that alchemy might be the key to understanding the VMs.  However, current [mailing-list] members, including myself, see little if any alchemical content in the VMs.  None of us, however, are experts. What is your opinion on this.  What alchemical imagery can you see in the VMs?

to which Adam replied:

Dear Dennis

All I can say is that I have never seen an alchemical manuscript with the same imagery and pictures as are found in the Voynich. …The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one. …  I have an open mind on the subject, but have yet to see any real parallels. Perhaps one day I will find a manuscript that I recognize has common features with the Voynich – but not so far. I don’t think I could  find any way at present to use alchemical manuscripts or ideas to throw light on the ‘Balneological section.

and then:

The plant drawings in  the ‘Herbal section’ have many forerunners some going back centuries before the Voynich, as has been extensively documented. [This is still widely believed, but the ‘documentation’ is less, and less solid, than most suppose].    The drawings in the Astronomical section again seem to have many parallels in known manuscripts. [widely believed but ill-supported by evidence].…  

.. but, once again, the expert’s view is ‘Not one of mine’. And rightly so.  A specialist cannot blur the lines between what is demonstrably true, and what is desired true by others. Not that the others necessarily take heed.

A list of alchemical mss in the British Library, from Adam McLean’s website levity.com

‘alchemical’ notion revives,  five years later… My apologies.

The ‘alchemical’ text notion – killed off after McLean’s expert dismissal in the 1990s – was well and truly dead in early 2013. Unfortunately in presenting the analytical-critical study for folio 4v,  I gave it a whimsical title, ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’ as summary of my findings.  In short, that the plant-group referred to by the drawing was that of the eastern clematis and that what had previously been imagined a curious form for the root was, in fact, a depiction of the double gourd, whose place in culture and iconography of the regions from east Africa to southern China (essentially the medieval trade routes) I summarised and illustrated, mentioning that clematis was not much used in eastern medicine (nor was western clematis in the Latin tradition), but the wood and root of eastern species were used to make scented substances (perfumes and incense etc.), and when formed in metal the double-gourd was also used as a type of ‘small a‘ alchemical receiver, just as the ordinary sort was used for liquids.

As usual, I accompanied the point-by-point analysis  with comparative imagery, textual and cultural notes, and in this case additional comments on the trade in scents and scented materials into Cairo for the Mediterranean trade and, further, on the important role of mathematics in this sort of compounding. It had originated in India, and the Indian model was employed in Cairo too, so as illustration I included a table from the Brht Samhita.  Updating the botanical nomenclature was tiresome, but that was done too, and I cross-referenced any plants mentioned that I had previously identified in the botanical folios.

Being, from the first, under an informal ‘pay no attention’ ban by one of the most avid, and yet ill-equipped of the Voynicheros,  who found it helpful to read, download and then disseminate my results verbally as anonymous ‘ideas’  yet to be explored, I did not expect my  post to receive quite such widespread attention as it did.  It received swarms of readers, throughout the period from 2013 until I closed voynichimagery in 2017.  Imitators were numerous; some took this element from the post and some that, but among them a few were honest about their source, and others so inept that they brought a touch of humour.

One chap especially –  a wild fan of Edith Sherwood, Rene Zandbergen and Sergio Toresella – was helping in some project aimed at producing ‘The Official Voynich Herbal’. His job was to collect and collate others’ work, omitting such details and names as were considered unnecessary by the project’s unnamed director/s.

Since very little new work was being done, just then, this chap got into the habit of taking nothing from my latest post but the name of the plant-group I’d given for the folio, reducing the name for a group  to one name (to suit the western style of herbal),  stripping out all the informing commentary, textual, iconographic, historical and cultural notes, archaeological studies (for proof of location and period), historical botany and information on use which provided evidence for the identification I’d offered.

That done, he would leap up in the second mailing list about a day later and proclaim with many marks of exclamation that a ‘new identification’ had been made.  But in this case, he was faced with the fact that the European clematis had no place in the Latin pharmacopoeia, does not have a bell-shaped flower, nor narrow leaves. And double gourds aren’t exactly standard motifs in medieval Latin art, let alone to be seen in any of the herbals.

Rene Zandbergen (as I recall) kindly came to his rescue on the ‘gourd’ problem, showing an image of a vegetable garden in a copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis.  Soon afterwards, the lad adopted the ‘foxy’ tactic of applying some new identification of mine to a different folio… more or less at random. The manuscript’s study is not only corrupted, but actively hindered by such practices, whose only benefit is to lend spurious credibility to persons or theories which have not deserved them.  Lately, the most common tactic seems to be to use the mantra:  ‘synchronicity’.

Another chap became excited about the ‘perfume’ thing – though I did tell him that it wouldn’t do; the botanical section contains many more plants than were used in any sort of perfume, scented powder, or insect repellent ( a use I’d identified for another of the pictured plants, and which then synchronistically appeared in a post by Ellie Velinska, another close associate of the old guard but whom I’m inclined one of the several innocents who simply believed, when handed an ‘idea’ that it sprang fully formed from the donor’s imagination).

It proved impossible to stem the  ‘alchemical’ tide, to which that post seems to have acted as the bolt of electricity on Frankenstein’s monster, reviving the pile of dead matter abandoned since the 1990s.   All I could do, and did, was to remind people of the more modest matter in my original post, which I re-published in a condensed and clearer form two years later, on  23rd August, 2015, under the title  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent made more readable’.

The manuscript deserves more respect than it receives when used only to puff theories or personal ambition.  The way my analysis of folio 4v was misused is just an example of the great many so used, whether my work or others’ – since the early 2000s, and largely why the study fails to advance.  I suppose the lesson for us all is not to buy second-hand ‘ideas’; demand the donor provide his/her primary evidence and explain to you in detail his/her line of reasoning.  If they can’t, it might be as well to  tell them to go away and do their own work for a change.



A LATIN/ARABIC or BYZANTINE HERBAL? H’hmm. – T.A. Sprague (and Alain Touwaide, 2015)


Dr. T. A. Sprague had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist,  spent time in northern India and served for forty-five years as a member of staff at Kew gardens,  fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium, and whose particular study of the  Anicia Juliana codex required thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin and Arabic herbals and their vocabularies. In 1947, shown some photostat copies of the plant-pictures, Sprague  positively recoiled and railed at John Tiltman, “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”   It seems clear that none of them looked immediately familiar.

Alain Touwaide (2015}

More recently (2015) Alain Touwaide, whose field of study covers the Latin, Arabic and Greek history of medicine, drugs, herbals and medical manuscripts , wrote a seventeen-page essay published by the Villa Mondragone in a volume now, alas, out of print.   There were no peer-reviews published in any Journal, so far as I can find, but the prominent enthusiast Rene Zandbergen sent a 1100-odd word summary-review to the late Stephen Bax’ site. The review began and ended with Zandbergen’s opinion that  Touwaide added ‘nothing new’ to the manuscript’s study but had repeatedly returned to the possibility that the manuscript might be a fake.

In which case of course it would be again (apparently) ‘someone else’s problem’.

  • Alain Touwaide,  ‘Il manoscritto piu misterioso – l’erbario Voynich’ in  Marina Formica (ed.), Villa Mondragone ‘Seconda Roma’, (2015) pp. 141-158. out of print.

I’m sorry to add that certain comparisons widely offered as closely similar to pages from the Vms, and in some cases attributed to Touwaide, do not bear close analysis, but perhaps I’ll return to that matter at a later stage.



Charles Singer, editor of an encyclopaedic  History of Technology had a number of ‘ideas’ about the manuscript, reported by d’Imperio.   None relate to the history of technology, or offer support for the ‘bathy-‘ section’s being describing a plumbing system.



D’Imperio reported that  “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.'”  I’ve seen no evidence that he ever attempted to argue the case or –  more to out present point – that he offered a single text or illustration from the European corpus as comparison.  Nor, apparently, did his wife Dorothea suggest to him any among  the thousands she had inspected and catalogued in the British Library under the heading of Science and Pseudo-Science, as Lynn Thorndike reported in 1921.

D’Imperio seems to think little of Singer’s ‘biological’ idea,  saying in the same breath as she reports it that they recall ‘plant parts’ to her. (Elegant Enigma, p.21)

In recent years and beginning (so far as I can discover) with Ellie Velinska’s effort, this inherently anachronistic ‘biological’ notion – imagining the Vms contains biological drawings technical, and accurate to the microscope-level –  has proved intriguing for some, but once more none of the recent writers have produced –  no more than did Singer – any European manuscript or printed book made before 1438 which is claimed closely comparable.  Now that the manuscript has been dated, Singer’s notion is revealed to be, as one might say, anachronism of the first water.  🙂

  • On Singer see also Rich Santacoloma’s interesting research-post, ‘The Voynich in 1905′, proto57.wordpress.com (19th. August, 2012).




Lynn Thorndike who wrote a multi-volume history of medieval science and pseudo-sciences and had every reason, if he could, to set the Voynich manuscript squarely within a context that would refute Wilfrid’s ‘Roger Bacon’ guess, to which he felt great aversion, expressed more than once in print.

But Thorndike offered no such argument, and never produced any other manuscript as close comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript.



ASTRONOMICAL/ASTROLOGICAL? – To my knowledge, the only specialist to offer a comparison with any astronomical/astrological manuscript between 1912 and 2000.was Panofsky (see above).

and see also the opinions of two contemporary specialists:

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Skies above – Not astrological’, voynichrevisionist, (Feb. 9th., 2020)



Summary: “Not one of mine” is what the experts on western (and Arabic) manuscripts said of works from their own field, even while expressing, all the while, a feeling in some obscure way  there’s something… Charles Singer, who claimed to see biology  appears never to have suggested any comparable manuscript either.


Postscript (14th. Feb. 2020)

It is characteristic of the Friedmans, and thus of d’Imperio, that the informed judgements of specialists scarcely affected their confidence in their own theories.  A passage from d’Imperio shows pretty well their intellectual ‘deafness’ to that message of ‘Not one of mine’.  It slides by and is re-interpreted to mean that the pictures are just ‘bizarre’ and ‘less conventional’ and  she shows no understanding that there is a *reason* that the images’ subject matter was so difficult to read.  Note too that she imagines the specialists’ reaction is only due to their spending too little time looking at the manuscript.  She is unaware that a specialist in medieval manuscripts  can usually provide a general date and place of manufacture from looking at just a few folios.  An inability to conceive of an ‘important’ text as other than European was fairly typical of America and Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, but here means that D’Imperio is inclined to blame the specialists and leaves her unable to abandon her own fixed ideas – which, of course were due to woring as part of a ‘team’ whose theories were dictated by Friedman, as leader.    ‘Team work’ so very easily becomes ‘group-think’ -one is simply not free to pursue questions, or form theories of outside the ‘team’s working brief.  And so the most basic questions were overlooked, and their own premises never questioned.


In any other field of study; if it were any other manuscript, there’s a logical inference that might be taken.

Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2

Panofsky had been in America since September of 1931, invited as guest lecturer by Professor Cook:

Two years before the enforced exodus of the intellectual élite that followed the advent of Hitler, Panofsky became a regular guest professor in the United States, at the invitation of Professor Cook. He [Panofsky] lectured in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the auspices of what was to become the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University’s graduate department of art history, and immediately made a deep impression on his American colleagues and students.

  • William S. Heckscher, ‘Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 28, No. 1, Erwin Panofsky: In Memoriam (1969), pp. 4-21. (p.13).
  • [Biography] Dr. Walter S. Cook, in whose honour annual lectures are presented at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.

The meeting with Mrs. Voynich is most easily explained by positing that both were consulting medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library, for it was a worker there (the librarian?)  Ms.Greene who offered to introduce Mrs. Voynich to the Professor.

“Mrs. Voynich has been working at the Morgan Library, and Miss Greene continues to be most friendly and helpful. A short time ago she volunteered the opinion that she did not think any scholar in this country would be able to help us with the problem … [but now] a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky … is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think.” – Letter from Anne Nill to H.Garland, (Feb 10th., 1932).

Mrs. Voynich first showed Panofsky the worn negative photostats, perhaps late in 1931, but he saw the manuscript itself the next year – on Feb. 5th 1932. (see first post in this series)


Panofsky’s subsequent career in America; the value of his private (1932) assessment of the manuscript.

or Panofsky’s earlier approach to art, see

On Panofsky in America, I’ll cite Gaston:

 Panofsky’s appointment to the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 1933 and to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1935, together with his extraordinary productivity and high profile as public lecturer in the following three decades guaranteed him a stellar career, and an influence within the discipline, and the humanities in general, that was then unrivalled for an art historian. …One of the serious shortcomings of Panofsky’s approach to images was his unwillingness to explore the social matrices in which [pictures] were produced and used.

  • (review) Irving Lavin (ed.), Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside. A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) (1995) reviewed by Robert W.Gaston in  International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring, 1998), pp. 613-623.

Panofsky wrote primarily on late medieval and Renaissance art in northern Europe and Italy, and mostly, but by no means exclusively, on painting.

He was not omniscient, nor dispassionate.  He revered humanism and like the majority of his own time, idealised the model of the auteur as creative spirit gifted with  superior sensitivity, perception and so forth. It is the more appealing, humanist and individualist, counterpart for that obsession with the dominant white male which infused the whole of medieval Latin art and remained a preoccupation of historians in the European tradition for most of the twentieth century.


Where Panofsky’s opinion differed from the majority.
  • Non-Latin

Absence of the ‘dominant white male’ theme – and numerous other defining themes of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art – from the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 is a powerful argument for the content’s non-Latin origin – something Panofsky recognised. He attributed it to southern (Sephardi?) Jewish origin saying he recognised influence from Islamic style and from Kabbalah. If he ever elaborated on these things in writing, no record of it has come to light.

There are details in the manuscript which express the Mediterranean and/or Latin (i.e. western European) traditions – but in the present writer’s view these are plainly late-phase additions. They include (of course) post-manufacture items such as marginalia, but some details in the body of the work – principally the central motifs in the calendar’s diagrams.

It never occurred to Wilfrid Voynich to suppose the work other than the individual creation (autograph) of an individual, ‘superior type’ and a white male European.  Nor, apparently did others look much further than southern Europe and the figure of Ramon Llull.

This phenomenon,by which the world is effectively defined as Europe – and into which nothing comes except by the authority and choice of a Latin European male – was usual among nineteenth century historians and particularly the Anglo-German school.  It affected assumptions then, and is still with us, having deeply impacted on the course, nature and direction of the manuscript’s study for most of the period from 1912-2015.

The present author found, still, in 2014, that the majority of Voynicheros imagine it impossible that anything of non-European origin could be found in Europe except that Latin European had fetched it or commissioned its being brought.  This is what we call the ‘White Wall’ phenomenon, and that it should persist to the present day would surely distress Lynn White – a pioneer in the history of cross-cultural exchange upon whose pioneering studies so much more has now been built.

  • .Lynn White, Jr., ‘Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 141-159
  • ________________, ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.
  • ________________, ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221

Panofsky does not suggest the manuscript’s content came from any great distance, but the very fact that he could see the content does not evince the culture of Latin Europe sets his opinion of the manuscript apart from the majority.

Though apparently Panofsky’s 1932 assessment came to be known to the Friedman group, neither it nor his responses of 1954 were given much weight by the cryptanalysts.  In 1978 d’Imperio knows so little of Panofsky’s work that she imagines him unaware of the work of Albertus Magnus (!)

  • Non-authorial

Panofsky differs again from the reflexive assumptions made by those writing about the manuscript from 1912-1954.

He does not imagine any  ‘author’ for the whole work in 1933 and even in 1945, speaks of a nameless figure, almost a generic one: the man writing down his life-time’s learning for his son. Even that idea seems to imply that much of what is written is to be seen as inherited from an earlier time.

The majority simply presumed the work the creation of a Latin ‘author’ and the matter contemporaneous with the present manuscript’s inscription.

On the other hand, Panofsky no more than anyone else during the twentieth century imagined that the work could be entirely derivative.

In 1932 he saw it emerging from a community rather than an individual. BY 1954, in answer to Q.10, he speaks of “a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir”.

Social history did not exist as yet, except as a means to make lessons attractive for children or by way of that idealisation of medieval artisans reflected by the ‘arts and crafts movement‘.

The first English-language History of Technology – its first volume –  was published only in 1954, under Charles’ Singer’s editorship.

The interaction between the history of events and the history of economic factors has always been in flux, and though England is given much credit for the study’s development, even in the 1950s it was often dismissed as  ‘mere commerce’.

Social history as a scholarly discipline only gained general recognition in the 1960s (initially termed ‘laundry-list history’) and women’s history gained its place still later.

Comparative cultural studies were almost unheard of, and Lynn White struggled against the ‘white wall’ phenomenon for thirty years and more.

In the context of his time, Panofsky’s approach to the manuscript and his forming opinions solely from the primary evidence – though by reference to his own wide range of substantial study – makes his the most important commentary we have on the subject of the imagery, even now.

Because it suited the Friedmans believe that the text was a very clever, unique, cipher, they were obliged to adopt an ‘authorial’ idea of the manuscript, and this has proven a persistent habit in the study, though less emphasised since about 2011.

  • Composite of earlier matter.

I take as implied by the answer he gave to Friedman’s Q.10 that Panofsky saw the manuscript as deriving from earlier matter;  something of the same implication might be taken from his alluding to Kabbalah in 1932.

The ‘authorial’ idea carried an   expectation of the homogenous autograph, an idea found in most commentaries on the manuscript to as late as 2010-2011, when the present author was obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ in the second mailing list for saying the content could be no autograph, nor the work of a single author, because the stylistic variations indicated derivation from at least three earlier sources, each manifesting a distinct history and line of transmission to Europe.

That opinion is now widely accepted – without reference to the present author’s evidence and argument – because after some months, one contributor to that mailing list recalled that the word ‘compilation’ is found somewhere in the ‘Voynich gospel’ – d’Imperio’s booklet of 1978. This official ‘sanction’ permitted the then-radical shift from the traditional ‘authorial’ to ‘non-authorial’ approach. ( My thanks to Don Hoffman for being the first to brave the picket-line and adopt the conclusions of my work, even use of the technical term ‘florilegium’ – which in medieval times meant a collection of textual, not botanical, items).

  • Setting aside Newbold’s categories.

Panofsky was among the very few to offer any explanation of the manuscript and of its content by reference to the primary document itself, and he never adopted  Newbold’s impressionistic categories  as others did – including the cryptanalysts’ who merely elaborated  them.

He avoided  both the ‘authorial’ notion and Newbold’s idea of a specifically ‘biological’ section.

Once again, neither Panofsky’s opinion, (nor the substantial evidence and argument provided by the present writer from 2009) saw the abandonment of Newbold’s and Friedman’s “categories” – with the result that one still sees Voynich narratives produced and adopted which unsupported by the historical evidence.

On efforts to justify the ‘biological’ idea see e.g.

I am told, though have not the details, that a contributor to voynich.nu  voynich.ninja is presently (Jan-Feb 2019) reprising Velinksa’s ideas and approach, though whether properly acknowledging the precedents, including Velinska’s work, you must discover for yourself.  In either case, it is a nonsense within any theory insisting the manuscript entirely the product of Latin European culture. Da Vinci was a hundred years before his time, and he wasn’t born until 1519: at best eighty years after the manuscript was made, and at worst (for such ideas) almost a century.

But the persistence of such notions relies, ultimately on an impression expressed by William Romaine Newbold.


  • Opinions as conclusions from evidence.

Unlike the majority of Voynich writers, before him or since, Panofsky derived his opinions from the primary source and solid historical and iconographic evidence.

Every extant study by him displays a consistent rigor and his sense of obligation to the reader: he will explain how he reached each point in his conclusions by reference to direct, specific, and verifiable reference across a wide range of historical, textual and art-historical material – always with a focus on the primary evidence.  One may differ, but one is never asked simply ‘to believe’.  His aim is not persuasion but elucidation.  It constitutes a forensic approach which was to that time, and is largely still, scarcely employed in discussions of Beinecke MS 408.

One must suppose that had he been asked to do so, Panofsky could have produced a study of the manuscript –  its form and imagery –  which would have substantially altered our understanding of its content.

But all he was asked to do was fill out  Friedman’s questionnaire.

A brief outline of Panofsky’s usual practice is offered here.

Next post: Panofsky’s hesitations.

minor corrections 8th Feb. 2019