Consider this.. (cont.) Doing the math.

This post/essay is more than 3,600 words.

THIS SERIES of essay-length posts is prompted by questions about the form of one sharp, angular glyph resembling the modern short-stemmed ‘4’. Our paradigmatic example being:

This post outlines the communities and inter-connections between them over time which would finally see emerge the same ‘4’ shape numeral and other matter whose reflection is found in our present, fifteenth-century manuscript with its many unusual features.

In the instance seen above, the long bar above it makes it easy to interpret the glyph as alphabetic, and so take this pair as abbreviating some such word as q[u]o – yet the glyph’s form is not written as a Latin ‘q’ of the early fifteenth-century and allows us to suggest that even if, here, the ‘4’ glyph wasn’t intended for the numeral ‘4’, it has been written by a hand accustomed to writing the numeral in that way.

Before 1440 ‘four’ represented by this shape was still uncommon – unattested (to date) in Germany before the Voynich manuscript was made (1400-c.1440), and rare;y in England. Thus, so far, we must attribute it to the south-western Mediterranean and to the communities having attested ties to Majorca at the time our earliest clear example of the ‘4’ numeral occurs there (1375 AD).

The following passage, appended as a comment to the previous post, deserves greater prominence.

“James I appears to have chosen Majorca as his first target because of the island’s geographical importance and its closeness to the Spanish coast. Almost equidistant from Catalonia, the north of Africa, and Sardinia, the island’s ports dominated the trade routes of the western Mediterranean. James’s army included … large numbers of townspeople from the main trading cities of Catalonia and southern France, especially Barcelona, Marseilles, and Montpellier. Unlike the barons …many townspeople actually settled in Majorca and contributed to its prosperity. Some of the settlers came from further afield. While Catalans were the most numerous, there were also Aragonese, Navarrese, men from southern France, Italians (from Naples, Sicily, Genoa, and Pisa), Castilians, and Portuguese. In addition to the conquered Muslims, there was also an important Jewish community in Majorca from very shortly after the Christian conquest of 1229. This community had ties not only to Catalonia and southern France, from which many of its members had come, but also to north Africa, and Italy.” (p.335)

  • passage from J.N. Hilgarth, ‘Sources for the History of the Jews of Majorca’, Traditio, Vol. 50 (1995) pp.334-341, though other recent sources will include the same information.

To do a reality-check here – to ensure we’re not straying too far from evidence and veering from historical research into merely hunting support for a theory – we now test our present emphasis on the south-western Mediterranean against earlier informed opinion about Beinecke MS 408.

The set of connections exemplified by the Majorcan population accords with Erwin Panofsky’s attributing the manuscript -or perhaps something about its vellum and style of drawing – to ‘Spain or somewhere southern, with Arab and Jewish influence’ and shows there need be no opposition supposed with the consensus opinion of specialists in manuscript studies who were known to H.P. Kraus and his assistant Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt in the 1960s – their focus having been clearly on Italians.* Again, the month-names’ orthography has been variously described as Occitan (also spoken in Genoa), and as Judeo-Catalan, and so forth. (These things have been treated as separate issues in earlier posts. For a list, with links, see Table of Contents page in the top bar.)

*The views relayed to John Tiltman by Lehmann-Haupt, research assistant to the bookseller H.P. Kraus, are recorded by Mary d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma p.7 and 8).

Checking, again, if the class of text early using ‘4’ numerals is appropriately described as practical, navigational and/or commercial, those parameters easily present us with another instance prior to 1440.

That detail comes from manuscript known as the ‘Handbook of Michael of Rhodes’. It is in private hands but has been studied and summaries of the study are online.

  • Michael of Rhodes’ book website (here).

Michael’s education was gained as a mariner, his education by apprenticeship and in keeping with ‘tradesmans’ mathematics taught by schools of the kind known to the Italians as ‘abaco’ or ‘calculation’ schools. He began writing an account of his life and nautical-commercial calculations in 1434, his year of death being 1445. (see pages at the Galileo Institute site). As one might predict, he served one of the Italian maritime city-states – Venice.

Appropriately enough, his example for that calculation (partly illustrated above), is about the purchase of pepper – obtained by Venetians of his time from Alexandria or Tunis, but which had been traded since Roman times (at least) into the Mediterranean via Egypt from commercial pepper plantations in southern India. Alexandria remained a principal centre of that trade in Michael’s time, with Tunis, though in the earlier medieval period, the carriage of eastern products to Christian Europe had been principally in the hands of Jews and others classed and taxed as Jews in areas under Muslim governance.

Such links with Egypt and exotic goods naturally again reminds us that Georg Baresch believed the manuscript’s content had been gained ‘in the east’ and contained matter that was – in some sense unspecified – both Egyptian and ‘ancient’. He also said that the plant-pictures referred to ‘exotics’ whose forms were still unknown to German botanists in his time, when Germans led all Europe in that field.

My study of Beinecke MS 408 also found much to support Baresch’s opinion about the plant-pictures.. but presently we are not concerned with meaning so much as with forms – the form of the written text, of the pictorial text and the manuscript’s presentation.

On that basis, we may lay aside (pending possibly better information) such Voynich theories as the ‘Norwegian’ or the ‘central European’ or the ‘New World’ theories, which offer no comparison for the ‘4’ shaped glyph, or for the apparently anomalous ‘gallows glyphs’ with their elongated ascenders (if that’s what they are), nor comparable styles of script, drawing, page-layout or -disposition, nor the presence in any such manuscript noted so far of quires both quinion and septenion as we do see in the Voynich manuscript and have also found in Italy and in Hebrew manuscripts from the south-western Mediterranean – on paper, on membrane and in a combination of both (see earlier posts).

Even within Italy, it seems at present that perhaps we should discount the higher levels of education and of society, since the only instance of a ‘4’ shape which might be associated with nobility or bureaucracy known so far, is in one cipher-ledger from Urbino dated to 1440, brought to notice by Nick Pelling in 2006. But 1440 is sixty-five years (nearly three generations) after our earliest clear instance of that ‘4’ in Abraham Cresques’ Majorcan ‘Atlas’ of 1375 and almost a century and a half after one brief appearance in Florence, in a copy of the Liber abaci.*

*The bankers of Florence were strongly opposed to use of the Hindu-Arabic numerals, attempting and succeeding for a time in blocking their use.  I don’t have an English-language source for this, but see  Anna Maria Busse Berger,Lada Hordynsky-Caillat and Odile Redon, ‘Notation Mensuraliste et Autres Systèmes de Mesure au XIVe Siècle, Médiévales, No. 32 (Spring, 1977), pp. 31-46 and particularly p. 34. [JSTOR]

On the other hand, while the written text’s inclusion of that ‘4’ glyph in Beinecke MS 408 directs our attention to the commercial and maritime interests of communities whose people are found settled in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Majorca, including those maintaining ties with Italian cities, it is Panofsky’s “Spain or somewhere southern” which is given clearest support by content in our fifteenth-century document.

When I cited the Codex Vigilanus among examples explaining the Voynich pages’ page layout and dispositions, I found no previous allusion to it in any ‘Voynich’ writing though I should not be surprised to find it mentioned elsewhere today.

It crops up again now because the same manuscript is referenced in Hill’s Tables and in the review of Hill’s work by Louis C. Karpinski, who was at that time (1915) the foremost scholar interested in the history of European forms for the numerals.

As introduction and context for quoting from Karpinski’s review, I’ll reproduce a paragraph from one earlier post from voynichimagery. In it, I was making the point that the Voynich page design, especially but not only in the ‘bathy-‘ section, differs markedly from the consciously ‘Greek and antique’ simplicity of Italian ‘humanist’ manuscripts, yet it finds echoes in other times and places, including tenth-century Spain.


excerpt from: D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Fold-outs in Europe – Afterword’, voynichimagery 20th June 2015.

(detail) Codex Vigilano [~Vigilanus] Albeldense fol.59. Spain. Mozarabic. Compilation 9th and 10thC

.. another example. This from Spain, in a volume containing material of the the 9th-10th centuries. Notice how these illuminations fill the sides of the page, and how the text seems to be fitted around the central figure, a little irregularly, as if the imagery had been set first, and the text written later – the very opposite method from that used in manuscripts from most of Latin Europe, but this was in Spain, under Muslim rule – though the degree of influence from Baghdad as against that of the Berbers from North Africa is debated along sectarian lines. However, that non-Latin character in contemporary Spain may explain the way these pages are planned, uncharacteristic of Latin texts per se, despite the language in which it is written. … these pages’ design offers points of comparison with MS Beinecke 408. Most particularly, in my opinion, with the ‘bathy-‘ section, which [because of anthropoform ‘ladies’] implies again connection with the [month diagram] foldouts … Note here, once again, that same convention [seen in Yale, Beinecke MS 408] of using roughly-parallel curved lines to denote curve and volume. … [and the makers’ familiarity with the ‘false-bearded’ face and the concept of a bicorporate form, all of which occur in Beinecke MS 408 –  D.]

Unitalicised text in the passage above  added  8th/9th December 2021.

excerpt from: D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Fold-outs in Europe – Afterword’, voynichimagery 20th June 2015.


Having previously cited that codex, it was pleasant to find it referenced by Hill and commented on by Karpinski, who said,

The earliest European forms are doubtless found in the Codex Vigilanus, written in 976 AD in the monastery of Albelda near Logrono in Spain. A second Spanish manuscript of about the same date, not described by Mr. Hill, also contains similar forms, and facsimiles. Both are to appear in the next issue of Professor John M. Burnam’s Palaeographia iberica.

from: ‘The Development of the Arabic Numerals in Europe Exhibited in Sixty-four Tables. by G. F. Hill. Reviewed by  Louis C. Karpinski’ for The American Mathematical Monthly,  Vol. 22, No. 10 (Dec., 1915), pp. 336-337.

Hill’s reference to the Codex Vigilanus was a note to his Table 1: 

1. 976. Escorial d I 2. Codex Vigilanus, written in the year 976 in the monastery of Albelda near Logrotio. See P. Ewald, Neues Arcbiv der Gesellsch. /. alt. deutsche Geschichtskunde, viii (1883), p. 357. Cp. Smith and Karpinski, p. 138. The forms are described as the Indian figures, quibus designant unumquemque gradum cuiuslibet gradus. Quarum hec sunt t”orm(e): 987654331. Ewald connects the form for 5 with the Roman V. Since he does not say that the year 976 is that of the Spanish era, we must assume that it is of the usual Christian era.

I have not sighted Burnam’s Palaeographica iberica.

Already, by the tenth century, mathematical studies were advancing within Spain as in North Africa. While few scholars consider any matter in terms of Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholarship altogether, the separate studies of western numerals and mathematics have, independently, commented on the situation in tenth-century Spain. It was from there that – for example – Gebert d’Aurillac was said to have learned his calculating ‘arts’* though I suspect that his original ‘abacus’ with its significant factors – 9 and 27**– is less related to that form later given his name than to something he first encountered during the period when Barbary pirates had him.

*D.E. Smith. A History of Mathematics (Vol.2, p.75) says ‘there is good reason for thinking Gebert’s knowledge of the numerals was gained in Ripol, at the convent of Santa Maria de Ripol.

**the ‘9 and 27’ are rarely mentioned in secondary accounts today. I have no English-language reference for it to hand, but see the review of O. Chasles, ‘Histoire de l’arithmétique. Explication des traités de l’Abacus, et particulièrement du traité de Gerbert; Extrait des comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des sciences’, Reviewed by H.G. in Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes, Vol. 4 (1842-1843), pp. 382-386.

But that’s by the way.

With regard to the Maghrib, I quote from Ahmad Djebbar’s studies, which do show that we do better to focus on lines of connection over time and distance, than defining matters in terms of a static parochial ‘nationality’.

Abū ‘l-Qāsim al-Qurashī … was a native of Seville, in Spain, spent a period of his life in Bougie (Béjaïa) where he died in 1184. The biographers who evoked him consider him a specialist in Algebra … [in which subject] al-Qurashī is known for his commentary on the book of the great Egyptian mathematician Abū Kāmil (d. 930). This commentary has not yet been recovered but its importance is confirmed by the historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) who considered it one of the best treati[s]es written on the book of Abū Kāmil.

Djebbar does not consider the works of Christian or of Jewish scholars relevant to his study, yet traces the evolution of mathematical studies in the Maghrib to Kairouan, which had been a community of unusually ascetic Jews until mention of them and of Kairouan in a narrative known as the ‘Night Journey’ linked Kairouan directly to the Prophet of Islam, reverence for whom saw the town declared a holy place and the original inhabitants expelled.*

*In this connection, I’d mention that D.E. Smith (op.cit., loc.cit.) says the names given the Ghobar numerals in the earliest Latin texts are: igin, andras, ormis, arbas, quimas, calctis, zenis, temenias, celentis and sipos, which Smith says appear to be Semitic. 

By the tenth century there were remarkable Jewish scholars working from the region presently of interest to us, but before considering one Jewish mathematician of the fourteenth century – that is, one who lived at the time we see the early emergence of that ‘4’ shape, it will be as well to pause again to check our bearings.

So far, it appears that what we have as the content in Beinecke MS 408 may be – again to quote Panofsky – “considerably earlier” matter within the material which was copied to provide the quires of our present fifteenth-century manuscript, and if the copies were not inscribed within Italy itself (as is possible), I think that by considering other matter in the manuscript we may posit with some confidence that the material as we now have it was copied for an Italian sponsor – whether Christian or Jew – during the period 1400-c.1440.

It is also possible that the manuscript’s written part, being added to the page after the pictorial text in a custom contrary to that of mainstream Latins’ work, may have taken its form as ‘Voynichese’ not much earlier than our present copy and thus to require study within parameters different from most of the imagery in which so few details express the Latins’ worldview iand so much speaks to earlier and other customs.

A relatively late creation of the ‘Voynichese’ script offers us one reasonable explanation for the apparent discrepancy between (i) disposition of image and text, and primacy given image over text, against (ii) the scribes’ evident familiarity with a straight and short-stemmed ‘4’ form characteristic of western works from the fourteenth century and later, whether that form is used here as alphabetic or numeric. Of course, that is not the only possible explanation we could call reasonable. We have yet to consider scripts from other parts of the greater Mediterranean (let alone the world) in which a ‘4’ form occurs.

Yet Spain and the example of the Codex Vigilanus allows us at least to suggest that the earlier models might date from as early as the time when ‘elongated ascenders’ still appear in such documents as the Papal charter establishing the convent of Ripol.

The fact is that we can’t be certain, at this stage of investigation, that the Voynich ‘gallows glyphs’ do have their form such ‘elongated ascenders’.

They might – for example – imitate scribal conventions from some other language altogether. I expect that there were some readers who sat up on seeing one not-quite-match between the form of a Voynich ‘gallows glyph’ and a Greek form in that detail from Codex Vatopedinus 655 which is in the previous post.


A letter whose chief theme was the lamentable decline of mathematical studies among the Jesuit scholars of Prague was sent to Athanasius Kircher in 1667 from Aloysius Kinner, about six months after the Voynich manuscript had been sent from Prague to Kircher in Rome.

Kinner refers to the manuscript and to Marcus Marci, on whose behalf the manuscript had been sent.

Marci had included with it a covering letter whose final paragraph reported, but declined to endorse, a rumour that – as Marci recalled it – was told to him several decades before, and – as he remembered it – by Rafel Mnishovsky. Evidently sent in 1666 (though dated August 1665) that paragraph in Marci’s letter remains the sole basis for any alleged connection between the manuscript and Rudolf II.

In January of 1667, then, Kinner writes in connection with mathematics:

Our own Marcus, so widely known for his writings in mathematics and other studies has now fallen into the second infancy of old age. He barely understands everyday necessities, as I note with much sadness and distress whenever I happen to visit him…. Now these men are gone scarcely any are left who could be called mathematicians and those few are totally occupied with other studies and are obliged to sneak their glances at mathematics….There is a deep silence, not to say ban, on Euclid and Appollonius in this university so that we are now not even supposed to know the names let alone the thing….And now for other matters. Dominus Marcus has lost his memory of nearly everything but still remembers you. He very officially bids me salute you in his name and he wishes to know through me whether you have yet proved an Oedipus in solving that book which he sent via the Father Provincial last year and what mysteries you think it may contain. It will be a great solace to him if you are able to satisfy his curiosity on this point….I do not know whether you are interested in having your Organum Mathematicum which you once prepared for our Archduke Carolus…

It only remains, now, to compensate a little for the habit of historians of ‘parochializing’ specific studies. I’ll mention just one medieval Jewish mathematician – Immanuel ben Jacob Bonfils (c. 1300 – 1377).

In 1936 an optimistic George Sarton wrote,

It is extremely interesting that the streams of thought which led eventually to decimal calculations on the one hand and to exponential calculations and logarithms on the other, had apparently two main sources, a Christian one and a Jewish one – both being ultimately derived from the same Greco-Arabic fountain head.. Gandz and I have now placed him [Bonfils] – and forever- among the great mathematicians of the fourteenth century, in the company of Oresme and John of Meurs. Henceforth the city of Tarascon should not remind us only of the famous Tartarin but also of one of the great mathematicians of the Middle Ages, the Provencal Jew, Immanuel ben Jacob Bonfils.

The remarks speak of Sarton’s acquiring a photostat copy of BNF Hebrew Ms IO54.6 and Gandz’ translation of the text (‘Derek (i) hilluq’). Gandz’ prefatory remarks, outlining earlier errors of the text’s description and interpretation incidentally offer another good example of that complex mix of forward and backward movement by which an historical study so often proceeds.

On the mathematical text, Gandz writes:

The invention of Bonfils introduces two new elements: the decimal fractions and the exponential calculus. In the latter case he substitutes the addition and subtraction of the exponents, or of the denominators of the degrees, as Bonfils calls them, for the multiplication and the division of the decimal powers. Our impression is that Bonfils is primarily interested in the demonstration of this method of the exponential calculus.

As you’ll see by consulting wiki articles about Algebra or Calculus, Sarton’s confidence was misplaced. We are yet to see Bonfil’s role properly acknowledged in mainstream narratives.

Quotations from Sarton and from Gandz from

  • George Sarton and Solomon Gandz, ‘The Invention of the Decimal Fractions and the Application of the Exponential Calculus by Immanuel Bonfils of Tarascon (c. 1350)’, Isis , Vol. 25, No. 1 (May, 1936), pp. 16-45.

I haven’t yet spoken about that illuminating recent article (mentioned in last week’s post) but it will have to wait.

More recommended readings.

  • Yakir Paz and Tzahi Weiss, ‘From Encoding to Decoding: The AṬBḤ of R. Hiyya in Light of a Syriac, Greek and Coptic Cipher’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies , Vol. 74, No. 1 (April 2015), pp. 45-65. A recent study of medieval Jewish atbash [JSTOR]
  • Tony Lévy and Charles Burnett, ‘”Sefer ha-Middot”: A Mid-Twelfth-Century Text on Arithmetic and Geometry Attributed to Abraham Ibn Ezra’, Aleph, 2006, No. 6 (2006), pp. 57-238. with regard to the practical mathematics involved in cartography. [JSTOR]
  • Ptolemy’s Table of Chords‘ – wiki article.
  • Pamela O. Long, David McGee and Alan M. Stahl (eds.) of The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript. (2009).
  • Frederick M. Hocker & John M. McManamon, ‘Mediaeval Shipbuilding in the Mediterranean and Written Culture at Venice’, Mediterranean Historical Review, Volume 21, 2006 – published online in Issue 1, 24 Jan 2007.

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

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

Two posts prior:

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

*Letter of Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher (1639)

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

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


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

Sun of Night’ in medieval Spain.

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

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

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

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

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

Transmission and exchange across the Mediterranean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Astronomy distinguished from astrology.

The difference between astronomy and astrology

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

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

Bk2 xxvii.

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

Proper purpose for stars – including those of the zodiac.

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

Bk.III, lxx.4

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

Mathematics and improperly ‘calculating’ the stars.

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

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

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


and again:

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

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

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

Bk. VIII.ix.24-25

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

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

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

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

 ‘Mathematica Alhandrei – summi astrologi..’

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

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

Green stars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An entire side of folio 100 is also left blank.

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

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

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

Thorndike comments

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

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

Additional references:

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

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

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

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

In sum: Editorial ‘green pencil’?

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

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

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

More ideas from Isidore about the stars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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