O’Donovan notes #8: Knife & …

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

“Knife and ….”

If you automatically added ‘fork’ to complete that phrase, you’ve just given an example of why we can’t rely on what seems obvious today when trying to read images in this manuscript.

A capacity for logic and clear thinking are helpful, but can operate only on what a person already knows, or at least what a person believes they know.

To understand problematic drawings made not less than six centuries ago means not only ‘learning so much stuff’ (as one of my student-apprentices once complained) but unlearning things.

You’d have to ‘unlearn’ that automatic association between knives and forks for example. Here’s why:

The moment that provided initial spark of fork’s popularity in central Europe happened with the marriage of French King Henry II and Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici [in 1547] .. the majority of Europe embraced the fork only by 18th century and the United States only after the end of American Revolution and early 19th century. (edited from web article ‘History of Forks‘)

There are many things you’ll find assumed about the medieval world in past and present-day Voynich narratives which seem plausible only because the reader shares a writer’s own time and environment. Many have to be un-learned, or at least deliberately set aside while working on this manuscript’s drawings.

One false impression which must be set aside, though it is deep-rooted in the history of this manuscript’s study, is that when the material in the manuscript was brought together, medieval western Europe was a centre of learning and civilization, high on the global scale, and an important actor in world-politics.

It isn’t so. In geographic and in intellectual terms, the centre of the world during the 10th-15th centuries was hither Asia, initially the region around Khorasan, with Baghdad a close second in its heyday.

Throughout those centuries, western Europe was considered – and was by comparison with the eastern centres – a ‘barbarian’ region on the extreme western margins of the world, far behind the civilized world in its manners, mentality, and scientific learning.

Nor did the world east of the Arabian shield sit passively waiting to be ‘discovered’ by Portuguese as western histories used to imply.

That region was a vibrant and active world with well-developed lines of cultural and commercial interactions, some of which had developed and been maintained for as much as four millennia* before the first European ships arrived.

*I’m thinking here of the trade in lapis lazuli from Badakhshan to Mesopotamia and then to Egypt.

What had reached medieval Europe from those eastern regions before the end of the fifteenth century was an almost negligible part of such exchange, whether one considers intellectual or material treasures.

I’m not repeating these things to offend any European or to diminish their pride in their own country’s history and accomplishments but to point out that ideas which permeated nineteenth-century histories of Europe and which define the way the Voynich manuscript’s contents were imagined by Wilfrid, by the Friedmans and thus also by d’Imperio are out of step with what is known of the period now, yet the traditionalists’ attitudes and the narratives constructed in that mould still maintain ideas no longer accepted in history or other disciplines today.

I’m saying that to rightly understand the drawings which have been preserved for us in Beinecke MS 408, a wider, more up to date, and more objective perspective is needed.

Since our next example from the manuscript will refer to astronomical matter, let me illustrate the discrepancy between past and present ideas by quoting a little from a paper by David A. King. a scholar at the University of Frankfurt and an eminent specialist in the history of astronomy in the Arabic-speaking medieval world and on the impact of that astronomical learning on other regions.

The problem that specialists in the history of Islamic astronomy confront is that the modern Western world is under the impression that Islamic astronomy is somehow represented by the 5% of it that became known in medieval Europe… *

David A.King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation: From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (pre-print, 2018 version).

*emphasis – present author

Five percent.

Just think about that for a minute.

Ninety-five percent of what was available to astronomers in the Arabic-speaking world never so much as entered the horizons of Latins’ formal scholarship.


In treating the diagram from folio 85r, we were dealing with what is arguably the most legible of the Voynich drawings in terms of Latin European conventions in art, yet even there we saw some evidence of affect from non-Latin matter: in the costume given the figure for East; in the four banners, and in the drawing’s being presented ‘south-up’.

The diagram on folio 67v-1 also shows us two layers to its content, one more and one less intelligible in terms of medieval Latins’ graphic language. As we’ll see in the next post, the two elements are not so neatly fused in that drawing as they are in our first example but one set of information has been added to (or if you like, imposed on) the other,* and for much of the astronomical information it conveys, I must cite non-Latin sources, finding no full explanation for it in any western manuscript made before 1440 AD.

*I think this probably occurred before the fifteenth-century copy was made, but allow for the possibility that further tests on the manuscript may one day prove that layer a late addition.

Here, of course, we must allow for the relatively small proportion of manuscripts which have survived and the fact that while manuscripts are records of what was known, not all forms of knowledge were recorded in that way. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the drawing’s explanation must refer other sources, though I’ll illustrate the discussion using images more easily understood by my readers.

The analysis will begin with a ‘compare-and-contrast’ study of the two diagrams: i.e. that on folio 85r, and on folio 67v-1.

Another paragraph from King’s paper allows us to hope that some manuscript might exist still whose drawings are akin to some in Beinecke MS 408.

… the sources which offer the most challenge to future historians are housed in the rich libraries of Turkey and Iran, mainly catalogued only recently. Yet even in various Western libraries where the astronomical manuscripts are properly catalogued, briefly listed in out-dated catalogues, or not catalogued at all, important discoveries can still be made. Witness the materials in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish mentioned later in this paper..

So, it is still possible that among such still-unstudied manuscripts we may one day discover closer comparisons for the Voynich drawings than have been found to date. In the meantime, however, while we can still analyse the drawings from textual sources we cannot yet offer any close comparison from Latin sources for the drawings themselves – just as we still have no close comparison for the set of Voynich glyphs.

It is particularly regrettable that the study of Beinecke MS 408 continues to be hampered by a maintenance, in traditionalist narratives and the many imaginative Voynich-related narratives sprung from them, of a type of Eurocentric bias* so narrow that it occurs in little modern scholarship today. It persists because it ran deep in this study’s founding fathers – Wilfrid Voynich, Professor Newbold, and the Friedmans- and from their ideas the traditionalist narrative still depends.

*in fact a bias so extreme that it constantly defined medieval ‘Europe’ as if comprised of England, Germany and France, with a mere nod to Italy before Giotto.

It is another habit to be un-learned if the study of Beinecke MS 408’s drawings is to see meaningful progress.

Even if one thinks (as I do) that the quires were probably inscribed in western (‘Latin’-) Europe or under such auspices, the fact is that by the mid-fourteenth century, the matter now in this manuscript could have come into the west from almost anywhere yet still never have been known to those who created the formal texts by which Europe’s intellectual history is typically mapped.

The old idea was that no foreign matter came into Europe except it was fetched by some single European (usually imagined male) whose name was known to history; that the matter in the Voynich manuscript must have a single European ‘author’ (again usually imagined male). Though these ideas combined constituted an idée fixe for most of the period after 1912, they too must be un-learned, along with other persistent if tacit assumptions – such as that none save a European could read Latin; that Jews spoke no language but Hebrew and that in tracing “Europe’s intellectual history” (a phrase d’Imperio uses) none save Germans, French, English and Italians need be considered.

How antiquated these ideas are – consciously held or not – is neatly illustrated by another passage from the same paper. King here refers to astronomer who lived in the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth century – too late to have contributed to the matter in Beinecke MS 408 – but the example is still illuminating as a myth-buster:

Mūsà Jālīnūs [was] a remarkable Jewish medic and astronomer with access to the court of Sultan Bāyazīt II (reg. 1481-1512) in the recently established Ottoman capital of Istanbul. He also had a connection to the military.

Mūsà’s principal written works have only been investigated during the past 10 years.

He is now known as the author of various sophisticated treatises on astronomy and medicine, as well as philosophy. He was a gifted linguist, writing in Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, and translating from Latin into Arabic and from Arabic into Hebrew. His interest in practical devices was not limited to astronomical instruments for it extended to mechanical devices and even robotics. He visited Venice and Padua between 1497 and 1502 and must be considered as a possible vehicle in the transmission of certain innovative ideas in Islamic theoretical astronomy to Renaissance Europe.

Compare that with the view of the Jews implicit in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and a continuing notion that to invoke ideas about Kabbalah one must imagine that some Latin male named in the historical record as mediator and cleanser of ‘foreign’ knowledge for a Latin audience. In this case, the role is typically imagined filled by poor Ramon Llull.

That passage just quoted shows clearly enough, I think, that such assumptions of a ‘white-walled Europe’ in which only western Christians could read books written in Latin, and no external knowledge entered Europe except some individual Latin had been to fetch it or, alternatively, had served as ‘gate-keeper’ are ideas which, though commonplace in Friedmans’ day, are no longer maintained in serious historical studies – though still habitual in Voynich writings of the traditionalist type.

The reality of the wider medieval world, and even just of the Mediterranean world, is of multi-lingual and multi-disciplinary learning able to pass fairly easily along land and sea-routes, and sometimes even to the uttermost fringes of the world – as Europe then was. It needed no Latin’s coming to fetch the matter, nor any Latin ‘gatekeeper’ to permit or deny its entry. What was needed was a lessening of that morbid superstition, rife in Europe, that association with ‘foreigners’ brought some sort of contamination – an idea which there long-predated the advent of plague.

Like everyone else, I began by supposing that the constantly-repeated scheme of the traditional ‘Voynich story’ must have developed in the way scholarship normally does, from a basis of some solid foundational studies. By the time I’d looked into twenty of the manuscript’s drawings, I could not avoid acknowledging the wide disparity between the evidence of the primary document and that traditional narrative. Seeking out those ‘foundational studies’ I then found them without substance – an undocumented sales pitch by Wilfrid Voynich; a scrap of third-hand rumour (still without any substance to it), and the efforts of cryptographers guided by the Friedmans, whose inclinations and biases have been considered by previous posts to this blog.

*Posts Nos. 6-27.

Today I think that the Voynich manuscript is a more valuable historical document than those early theorists could have appreciated, and more valuable than can be imagined even tofay by a person basing their theoretical schemes on the same old Eurocentric and class-obsessed scheme.

The drawings in Beinecke MS408 embody information which was rare in Europe, some of it very rare even in the seventeenth century as I’ll demonstrate in a later post.

The question of how the material did reach Europe to be copied (as we currently think) in the early fifteenth century is an altogether different question.

When, where and how its written text was added is also, thankfully, not within our remit.

That the manuscript, overall, is no reflection of what was being taught in medieval western universities is evident – at the very least by a century’s failure to find valid parallels for it – but against this, the few drawings which do exhibit a Latin character have found occasional echoes – as for example the form given Constantinople-Pera in the Voynich map, or those ‘deformed lobsters’ earlier mentioned ( see last quarter of Note #7 Pt 1).

When both style of drawing and the information conveyed find no parallel in any extant western work, I think it is surely better to admit that fact, than to create and elaborate still more baseless storylines from the old Eurocentric vision.

Better to admit that the drawings are ‘strange, even foreign-looking’ as d’Imperio almost did, than to opt for guesswork and speculation or, by imposing facile and fairly arbitrary ‘matches’ on the drawings, to try adding support to that old narrative. In the end, surely, it must the material evidence and the testimony of the primary document which decides our opinions.

So let’s pay careful attention to what it has to say.

First – the slow, careful scan, setting the image firmly in memory and missing nothing. An analytical study should include every detail. It’s enough to notice exactly what’s there on the page – no need to have a mind busy imagining, speculating or leaping onto some particular detail. Just memorise.

Folio 67v-1

folio 67v-1

all images from the manuscript are from the Beinecke Library website copyright Yale University.

O’Donovan notes #7.2 If this is your answer, tell me again – what was the question?

c.1850 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

additional image added 27/06/2022

Having cross-examined the historical worth of an initial impression – in the present case that the diagram in folio 85r(part) shows a woman in Scandinavian-influenced dress and a male in Chinese-Mongol dress- we now draw back and pause to review the information gathered in the course of the research, setting aside anything which cannot be said with reasonable certainty to faithfully translate the intentions of the first enunciator. A true understanding of that person’s ideas, not our own, makes one’s research of use to future scholars, and this is also why one cites sources and precedents.

On balance, I think we can say no more than that the female figure does wear a type of overdress/apron attested in northern and western Europe, and that the male orator does wear a form of garment commonly worn in northern- and eastern Asia. There is much more one might say, but whatever falls short of being demonstrably true as answer for each research question is material which must be left aside – temporarily or permanently.

In this case the question to be answered was – if you recall – “How is the drawing meant to be aligned or oriented?” And to that question, the answer consonant with the historical and art-historical evidence is that the drawing as we have it is ‘south-up’ and the figures are intended, by their dress and posture, to represent the world’s quarters.

How rarely this manuscript’s drawings have been approached in a way that drawings normally are can be understood by realising that not a single person,* though the century from 1912 – 2012 had noticed the figures’ dress or the first enunciator’s intention to localise them by that means.

not a single person – to the best of my knowledge. For reasons I won’t try to explain, various arch-traditionalists have expressed intense personal hostility towards very idea of finding and properly crediting precedents. The usual habit, with the rise of theoretical narratives since 2010, has been to block efforts to establish what precedents ought to be mentioned, to ignore the original contributor of repeated information and/or to cite some later but more congenial individual’s writings, original or not. If it causes Nick Pelling embarrassment to be singled out as one of few exceptions, that can’t be helped.

When I first explained that the female figure wore Scandinavian-derived costume, some people expressed extreme pleasure, only to express equally keen indignation on being told that another wore Asian dress, pretty accurately represented.

I do think this drawing has been strongly influenced by knowledge of Isidore’s Etymologies but see no reason why any medieval person able to make translations from Arabic into Hebrew or into Latin could not translate between any other of those two languages. Every slave learned at least the language of his captors. Travellers and courts needed interpreters. One medieval traveller mentions meeting in Egypt a resident Spanish Jew who could speak and read in seven languages. We’ve noted an Englishman translating for the Mongols and a German slave* who surely knew that language too.

But having now demonstrated clearly enough, I hope, that an understanding of these drawings needs a good deal more than “two eyes and commonsense plus an active imagination”, but can require information only gained from archaeology, medieval history, art history, the history of costume, economic history, surviving artefacts, not to mention literary- and religious texts etc.,, readers will have taken the point about analytical-critical method and won’t need that point laboured by repeating here the work done on all four figures.

Summary for the last two:

The character for West again agrees the wind’s utterance in Walters MS 73, derived in turn from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.


Zephirus vel FavoniusTellurem floribus orno,” or “I adorn the Earth with flowers.”

I hope readers will forgive, but for most of what follows I’ll just quote passages from the detailed analysis summarised in posts to voynichimagery in January 2015. I’ve seen no reason since then to alter my conclusions but only matter which has served to confirm them.

In what follows you will see, I hope, that Matthias Wille’s recent suggestion of “a physician” is one with which I can nearly agree, though whereas he associates this stoppered bottle with urine bottles, I found that bottles of this type are attested only in other uses relating to pharmacy (and in that way to medicine). Note also the figure’s headband, the character written on its breast, and use of the one-covered-shoulder motif which in medieval Latin iconography signifies the wanderer, the pilgrim, or the traveller to/from distant lands.. Here’s some of what I published in January 2015.

WESTZephirus vel FavoniusTellurem floribus orno,” or “I adorn the Earth with flowers.”

It may be tempting to assign this quarter to the chap with the lily, but instead we have here again a deliberate pun, and an Isidorean attitude to etymology.

The word ‘tellurem’ in the [Walters MS] wind-wheel’s caption to Zephyrus is quite rightly translated as ‘Earth’, but the term comes from a root which also provides words having to do with things borne, or carried.  What the Zephyr brought were gentle breezes, scented with flowers and originating (as Dionysius Periegetes tells us) from the sea of that proverbially perfumed land, Arabia.

“each sea has its allotted wind… the Arabian [sea has] the zephyr..” (v. 929–930)

The bottle which the Voynich figure holds is rightly seen as holding medicine, or more exactly the scents-as-medicine originating in distant Arabia. If you consider the Sawley map you find the Angel of that [Zephyrus’] quarter is again identified with the angel of medicine, Raphael, who holds the box which served as emblem for the healer in iconography of the older, eastern Christian Mediterranean.

It is also appropriate that in the Sawley map, Raphael is located over the region from which that new medicine had come into Latin Europe, viz. North Africa and Sicily, and so into France, ]and Norman England] and Spain.

If associating Zephyr with Arabia and with Sicily seems paradoxical to a modern reader, it was acceptable to older peoples, for which again Pareigetes may be our witness:

Each sea has been allotted a wind, the Sicilian Sea the western wind, which they also call Zephyr… (v. 401–402);

edited from research summary oublished by D.N. O’Donovan, as ‘A Reply.. Pt 2’ voynichimagery, Jan. 5th., 2015.
  • English translation of Dionysius Periegetes’ text by Ekaterina Ilyushechkina, in ‘Spatial Orientation in the Didactic Poem of Dionysius Periegetes’,  Chapter 9 in Klaus Geus, Martin Thiering (eds.), Common Sense Geography and Mental Modelling,  Max Planck Institute for the History of Science [preprint 426] 2012. (pp.131-139)


In this case, in my opinion, the maker has known the South wind as Notus rather than as Auster and taken the sense of it – though again referring to the Etymologiae – from the contemporary type of the Notary whose seal (ring) makes a document binding. For that occupation, Isidore had not used the word ‘Notary’, but says in Book Five:

“And to seal a testament is ‘to put a distinguishing mark’ (notare) on it so that what is written may be recognized (noscere, ppl. notus)” (V.xxiv.6)

The date and regions that saw the modern sense of ‘notary’ emerge are relevant to our study:

c. 1300, (English) notarie, “a clerk, a personal secretary; person whose vocation was making notes or memoranda of the acts of others who wished to preserve them, and writing up deeds and contracts,” from Old French notarie “scribe, clerk, secretary” (12th C.) and directly from Latin notarius “shorthand writer, clerk, secretary,” from notare, “to note,” from nota “shorthand character, letter, note”. Meaning “person authorized to draw up and authenticate contracts and other legal instruments” is from mid-14C.

Isidore prefers to name the wind from the south Auster, but then says of it:

“It is called νότος [notos] in Greek, because it sometimes corrupts the air (cf. νοθευέiν “corrupt, adulterate”), for when Auster blows, it brings to other regions pestilence, which arises from corrupted air. ……” )


It is possible that in the Voynich figure here occupying the South quadrant the reader was intended to see an allusion to Egypt’s Mamluk rulers (1250–1382;1382–1517) since Isidore elsewhere defines nothus [with theta] as ‘One ..who is born from a noble father and from an ignoble mother, for instance a concubine. Moreover, this term is Greek (i.e. νόθήος) and is lacking in Latin.”

Franks (Latins), Mongols, Mamluks and Arabs would represent the four governors known to Mediterranean world during the Mongol century.

Place and Time – the constant questions.

Thus, while few among the drawings in the Voynich manuscript reflect the customs, graphic conventions and languages which inform drawings first enunciated in medieval Latin Europe, this drawing comes close to doing so. However the elements in the drawing we’re considering which are not consonant with an all-Latin origin are significant elements, especially the south-up orientation and use of what I agree (adopting the suggestion made by L.L. on June 3, 2022 ) is akin to the ‘fly-whisk’ as emblem of ownership and governance – these being, across much of the world outside Europe, equivalent to those flags and standards by which Europeans signalled possession and rule of lands. So – to give just one two instances.

Here is signifies the unstoppable rider ‘on the wind’ this shorter version signifying a trophy or victory. Except that here the reference is only to conquest of lands, it is not unlike the Romans’ symbolic use of an aplustre.

13thC image of a Mongol ruler as Perseus, whose name means ‘the slayer’.


“Chinggis Khan now held all Mongolia, having subjugated all the tribes of the Mongolian steppe. To guarantee his right to rule over the entire country … he ‘set up a white standard with nine tails.’

UNESCO, History of civilizations of Central Asia, Vol 4 (p.255)

As with the final changes made to the Voynich map, here again Latin influence indicates a period during the Mongol century for first entry into the horizons of Latin Europe of most matter now in the Voynich manuscript and indicates a mediation and effort to translate the original works.

I will add, though I won’t elaborate on it in this series of posts, that each of the four figures in the diagram from folio 85r(part) has a non-zodiacal astronomical association too. It is the documented history of that other system’s sudden emergence in fourteenth-century Europe which adds to our reasons for offering the Mongol century as the date at which most of the manuscript’s matter – at least its drawn matter – first entered the Latins’ horizon.

As an amusing detail – the position of the Notary’s hand is that used for the ‘manicule’ in medieval manuscripts, its meaning: ‘take note’. The earliest attested manicules appeared in the Domesday Book, the exhaustive survey of England carried out for William I in 1086.

Geoffrey Ashall Glaister’s Encyclopedia of the Book alleges that it was “found in early twelfth century (Spanish) manuscripts.” The revival of classical learning in Europe saw the manicule become popular again too. Given that this diagram’s East figure is given a thumb and five fingers, it is interesting that Petrarch’s manicules did the same.

Over the following three hundred years, scholars aiming at an oratorical career read Cicero and law manuals, populating their text’s margins with such ‘Take note’ hands, usually drawn just as a fist with index finger, as is the hand for Notus in this diagram.

O’Donovan notes #6i (cont.) understanding the woman.

c.2800 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

This is the second installment of a demonstration of analytical-critical method.

If you found time to do that first but most vital work – the slow, methodical memorisation of the image to be researched – presently the diagram on folio 85r (part) – you might have wondered why I put the female figure first when she appears at the bottom of that diagram.

If you then also found time to think about the costumes given each of the four figures, you might have noticed, among other things, the care taken by whoever added the heavy blue paint and who is normally pretty careless, to avoid painting over two round, white areas seen near the woman’s collar bones – and despite their minute size.

(detail) folio 85r (part) female figure.

Under extremely high magnification, they don’t appear as circles, but at normal distance, that’s the impression given. They are not oval.

from Scandanavian Museum

Here (right) is the classic (if now debated) reconstruction of Scandinavian women’s dress during the viking era. This type of over-garment is called a strap-dress or (less often today) an apron-dress. I’m sure you will see its similarity to the upper part of the Voynich figure’s clothing.

It makes sense that Scandinavian dress should be identified in a general way with North, but given the Voynich manuscript’s date, some questions arise immediately. Resort to guesswork and imagination is easy and fun; serious interest means serious work.

As so often our questions are of the when-and-where? and why?sort, such as:

  1. Over what period and range did women’s garments bear a pair of round brooches near the collar bone? and
  2. Why is there no sign, in the Voynich figure, of beads or chains looped between those two brooches when they were a constant in native Scandinavian dress?

As we now have it, the drawing (and so this detail) can be no older than the manuscript’s vellum (1404-1438 AD), yet ‘the viking era’ is normally said to have ended around 1100 AD.

There’s uncertainty about how the ensuing changes affected customs in dress within Scandinavia between the 12th-15th centuries, but more is known of regions where there had been earlier Scandinavian influence.

If you now look again at the Voynich figure, you should be able to list points at which her costume differs from that classic reconstruction of what viking-era costume looked like in its homeland.

Differences matter.

The Voynich figure’s over-dress is shown with a fuller skirt, and with side openings that evidently extend only from about the hip to the hem, though the top is comparable to the viking-era’s over-dress.

The brooches appear more circular than oval and less heavy than those in the Museum’s reconstruction.

A serious researcher must now set out to discover whether there exists evidence of smaller, lighter and nearly round brooches used with Scandinavian dress, and/or Scandinavian-influenced dress. Differences matter because they embody telling evidence. And it’s not enough, either, to settle for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The date and range over which such brooches might occur provide parameters in which the Voynich image might, reasonably, have been first enunciated. Earlier posts in this series have emphasised the distinction to be made between when an image was inscribed on the current medium and when (and where) it was first given form.


At the moment, archaeological reports are a sensible place to start seeking answers for this first set of questions.

They are better indexed than most medieval manuscripts, and include the sort of technical detail omitted from more general histories of the medieval world.

I’ll mention only two among the sources I used when investigating this image some while ago, because now I’m concerned to counter a habit prevalent in Voynich studies, by which a single source or ‘expert’ is treated as enough evidence for some point or other.

An iconological analyst must read enough to have a pretty well balanced understanding of the current state of study in whatever topic is being considered.

Balance of Evidence – example: Scandinavian dress of England?

Reviewing, in 2005, the newly published and expanded second edition of Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, David A. Hinton, from the University of Southampton, said in his concluding paragraphs:

Women in the Anglo-Scandinavian zone may have looked different from those further south in England because of their hairstyles and caps, but they did not wear Scandinavian dress.

Sounds pretty definitive, doesn’t it?

The example of Anglo-Scandinavian dress is relevant because one should not forget that from 1912 to the 1960s, few doubted Wilfrid Voynich’s assertion that in some unspecified ways – presumably the format, ink and vellum – the manuscript looked overall like some work produced in thirteenth-century England.

Among those who saw the manuscript, and did not appear to dispute this, were keepers of medieval manuscripts such as Richard Garnett and specialists in the history of thirteenth-century English writings, including Robert Steele. The Marci letter with its bit of third-hand gossip mentioning Roger Bacon wouldn’t have impressed them to the point where they’d ignore the physical evidence.

I was both pleased and surprised to find that in offering my opinion that the content in our present fifteenth-century manuscript was copied from earlier exemplars, I had a couple of precedents to cite, though none for my conclusion that most of the matter, by far, had not not entered Latin horizons much before 1350 AD*.

*a conclusion reached by investigating, one after another, about 60 pages of the manuscript’s drawings, over the initial period of nine years (2008-2017). Since 2014 or thereabouts, an increasing number of Voynicheros have come to accept that the manuscript is a compilation, and recent codicological studies appear to confirm it. This is a boon to the manuscript’s study, promising to end at last the century-long fixation on “naming the author”.

The diagram on folio 85r (part) is one among the minority of images in this manuscript that do seem to speak ‘European’ – which is why I’m taking that diagram as our first example, easing readers into one style of analytical-critical method.

Just four years after Hinton made that categorical statement, a new study was published:

  • Jane F. Kershaw, ‘Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches, Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, Vol. 5 (2009), pp. 295-325.

It shows, from extant examples, not only that circular Scandinavian-style brooches occur, both in Scandinavia and in England, before 1100 AD, but in Table 1 names the styles, their typology in archaeological terms and (of course) cites her precedents and sources.

(detail) taken from Table 1, Kershaw, ‘Culture and Gender…’ (2009)

At the same time, it is clear that the Voynich manuscript’s drawings are no product of Viking art nor of native Celtic art of the time – there’s not a hint of interlace anywhere in it.

Kershaw clarifies another point for us and helps narrow the likely time-frame for this drawing, one of the handful in the Voynich manuscript which use the conventions of western Mediterranean art.

With regard to the absence of any strings of beads or chains slung between the two shoulder-brooches, in the Voynich figure, we may quote Kershaw’s saying:

In the Viking period, brooches with suspended chains with attached tools in the style of chatelaine brooches represent a uniquely Scandinavian and Baltic fashion. They were not part of contemporary Anglo-Saxon female dress, as evidenced by the fact that native late Anglo-Saxon brooches lack suspension loops or equivalent features.

ibid., p.300.

Since England’s Anglo-Saxon era formally ends with Harold’s victory in 1066, and the era of the Scandinavian vikings or raidings ends about 1100 AD, we’d expect that within England, Scandinavian forms in English dress would give way, within a century or so, to those showing allegiance to the conqueror. Historical and iconological sources show this so.

The incoming style is exemplified by dress given the Bayeux tapestry’s three (yes, only three) female figures. That shown here (below) is on a figure which most commentators think represents Harold’s sister, Edith (c.1025-1075), who had married Edward the Confessor.

The Bayeux tapestry records events of Harold’s invasion of England.

By the time the Queen Mary Psalter was made (1310-20) in the region adjacent to what is still called the ‘Danelaw’, a sleeveless, open-sided garment appears by now only as something to be worn by the dispossessed, forced to work now as labourers because (so the embedded, silent message reads) they’d offended the deity.

Once the pair accept demotion to the status of crofters, with Adam now at his delving and Eve at her spinning, they are clothed in dress appropriate to their status within the new order of things.

Since I date the last alterations made to the Voynich map to about 1350 AD* and as we have it now, the diagram of interest has been drawn on the map’s reverse and is on vellum dated to the early fifteenth century, we are looking at a gap of between two and four hundred years between when one might have seen Anglo-Scandinavian dress worn in England and when our present diagram was inscribed on folio 85r (part).

*again, this a conclusion of my own research into the images in Beinecke MS 408.

How could a fifteenth-century draughtsman know so much about what women had worn in the tenth and eleventh centuries?

One immediate possibility is that the diagram was copied from an older work, but since the woman’s dress differs from that of the classic Scandinavian type, another region influenced by that style is more likely to have produced the form we see now.

Even so late as the Queen Mary Psalter, we see an occasional reference to the old Anglo-Scandinavian ways but now always associated with the lower social classes. The cap and bound hair seen on this servant-figure (below) is meant to signify both foreignness and servant-class. It represents a servant of Pharaoh’s daughter in the act of committing Moses to the waters.

On another page, two women are shown jousting. It’s a satirical image [a horse-laugh] and while both wear a sleeveless top dress, neither has the underskirt visible – as it is in the Voynich figure.

A different fourteenth-century manuscript – another made in London, does show the underskirt. This, again, is the dress given a servant, but it is still not like the dress given the Voynich figure, since the sleeves are a version of those we saw Edith wearing almost three centuries before.

For the present problem of how a fifteenth-century manuscript can show, apparently accurately, a form of dress scarcely attested after 1066, one answer is that it copies from an older monument, manuscript or sculpture etc., Another is that the fifteenth-century maker might have travelled north. We don’t know how women dressed in fifteenth-century Scandinavia and, in any case, archaeological finds tell us that the era of those disc-brooches was long in the past.

On reaching an impasse of this sort, when neither political history nor archaeology (to date) can provide answers, it’s often helpful to consider another angle of approach.

In this case, we also notice that the figure on folio 85r (part) is shown as a servant, with hair tightly covered, and that she labours at what I take to be work connected with the production of textiles.

I’ll explain (further below) why I read those interlocked loops as fibres or fabric.

A different angle of approach also changes the form for our question – “How would a fifteenth-century scribe encounter a drawing that associates Scandinavian-derived dress specifically with the less-than-genteel aspects of textile production?”

A recent study of Scandinavian techniques and trade in textiles adds nuance to our view of relations between Scandinavia, the British Isles and Ireland before the end of the viking-era.

Smith writes,

The similarity in spin between the British Isles and Iceland, suggest[s] strong cultural ties between these two regions.

Michèle Hayeur Smith,(2014) ‘Dress, Cloth, and the Farmer’s Wife’, Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 6: In the Footsteps of Vebæk Vatnahverfi 2005–2011, pp. 64-81
from Michèle Hayeur Smith, op.cit.

What the Voynich figure is busy doing, as I read it, is pegging out chains of wet, wrung-out cloths, or hanks of spun fibre (wool or linen would be expected). It may be meant for a very loosely chained warp.* The point is that she’s engaged in work associated with textiles and that in some regions, evidently, the immediate association made with such lowly work was that of ‘a northern woman’ – one who dressed in a variant form of Scandinavian costume, one similar to what we know of the Anglo-Scandinavian style.

*chaining the warp describes a phase in weaving between winding out the warp threads and threading that warp onto the loom. In some traditions, the warp is dyed at this stage.

Smith speaks of such an association, especially, in relation to Iceland’s textile production during the viking era, connections not only cultural, but technical and specifically related to textile production, trade and technology-transfer. People living in Ireland and in the isles were spinning their yarn z-z.

For illustrations of what is meant by an ‘S’ or a ‘Z’ twist, see e.g. here. Twist-direction is also relevant to codicology. Again, though, I’d stress that such online articles are best used as a first ‘sketch’, not a first-and-final source.

Smith writes,

Textile production was one of the more important household activities of Icelanders in the 10th century. Produced entirely by women, textiles rapidly gained importance, becoming a significant trade commodity exported to Norway in the early medieval period, with growing markets expanding first to the British Isles and then to Northern Europe. Within Iceland, cloth became the basis of the economic system, used as currency to pay taxes, tithes, debts, and fines. Medieval literary sources suggest strict legal guidelines that were implemented regulating the size, length, and quality of this currency. (Ibid., p.64)

If, for argument’s sake, we suppose that the drawing now on the reverse of the Voynich map had been copied from an older work – one dated, say, mid-late 12thC when memory of the older Scandinavian influence was still fresh in the British Isles and/or Ireland, so it might explain this easy association we find made with Anglo- [or Irish-?] Scandinavian dress, and why a figure of that kind would be taken for the quintessential figure for the pegger-out of chained ‘clouts‘.

As I first did when publishing my own research, I’ll quote here the Online Etymological Dictionary, while keeping in mind that etymological dictionaries of the modern kind did not exist even by 1438 …

clout: Etym. before 900 AD.

Middle English; Old English clūtpiece of cloth or metal, c. Middle Dutch, Middle Low German klūte, Old Norse klūtr. cloud (n.). meaning “of the nature of clouds” recorded from c.1300;

meaning “full of clouds” is late 14c.; … Figurative sense of “gloomy” is late 14thc.

To someone who had memorised his Latin texts – a monk or cleric almost by definition even so late as1300 AD – the informing phrase for such an image would come from some earlier authoritative source, such as the works of Isidore or of Bede, which latter had [already] transformed England’s religious and ecclesiastical culture during the viking period.

clarification (10th June 2022) – the last clause is badly expressed. I mean that the church in England, as it was during the viking era, was one already unified and transformed by Bede, whose importance in England’s history meant his writings were more revered and more often referred to there.

A late 12thC century compendium of Bede’s work and matter from Isidore’s Etymologiae etc., is Walters manuscript W.73, in which we find a large drawing which shows the circuit of winds that breathe upon the world, and one – situated slightly east of North – is there named ‘Aquilo vel Boreas’. It speaks its character: “Constringo nubes“.

from Walters MC 37. The North wind is seen at the bottom of this detail, with Aquilo vel Boreas next above it. Details of this manuscript

And if the original enunciator of the Voynich drawing was thinking both of cloth and of clouds, and understood the sense of Constringo nubes (“binding clouds together”), I have a suspicion he was also thinking of the word ‘nubile’ when he gave the woman’s hip its provocative turn.

and see Isidore Etymologiae XIII.7.2 “Clouds (nubes) are named from ‘veiling’ (obnubere). that is, covering the sky; whence also brides (nupta)..”; X.N.184, “Nubile (nubilis), “marriageable” (ad nubendum habilis); and I.xxxvi.12 “Nubila, nix, grando, procellae, fulmina, venti” (Clouds, snow, hail, tempests, lightning, winds).” trans. and ed. Barney, Lewis, Beach, Berghof (2006).

Constringo nubes
[plus mulier catenata? cf. linked rings in Basel, Universitätsbibliothek AN IV 18 f.25r Fulda. 9thC]

Drawings of the pre-modern period are invariably formed by the original maker’s thought – and thought in words – so I’m never quite satisfied with any analysis from which the informing words do not emerge

In this case, I am satisfied. The reader is free to differ.

And so now, in that detail from folio 85r (part) we have a fairly nubile chainer of clouts who stands a little to one side of the peg near a ‘Pole’, and who is drawn in a way that allows a possibility that this diagram was first enunciated by someone from the British Isles or, perhaps, from Ireland, and for whom the near-north ‘chainer of clouds’ brought to mind a female dressed in a version of Scandinavian dress, unlike that worn in Scandinavia itself, but associated with the Anglo-Saxons.

At the very least we can fairly conclude, I think, that the answer to our question about how to orient the four figures is partly answered. The woman is of the North. This tells us (by the way the sun-face is drawn) that the diagram as a whole is south-oriented.

We know, too, that the diagram may be meant to speak to directions named by winds in Mediterranean style and that the drawing we now have came from some earlier work, but while I would agree that this particular detail presents as if first enunciated by an educated Latin (that is, a western European Christian), it was not the Latins’ custom* to make South the primary point of orientation.

*If this is news to you, then for a short basic overview you might start here.

By the way

Recalling that Baresch believed the manuscript’s content was, in some sense, Egyptian – that is why he sent copies of some pages to Kircher – I might mention two men who certainly travelled so far as Egypt, among the thousands of others who did, not least because it was a regular point of disemarkation for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. These two were the English Hugo the Illuminator (Master Hugo) and the Irishman Symon Semeonis. Hugo died in Egypt.

When I introduced their names to Voynich studies, I had not seen Edel Mulcahy’s blogpost about Symon, but it’s still available, good, and is not too long:

Elly Dekker, Illustrating the Phaenomena (2013).