Skies above: Certain measures Pt.1

Previous two:

Header image: detail from Brit.Lib. Add. MS 20746 f.1r.

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Some matters of method, comments on the psychology of perception and a particular set of unusual avoidances in the imagery need comment before I move on to post the second part of ‘Chronological Strata’.

The excursus will be in three parts (this post being the first) which will be published one each fortnight and then ‘Chronological Strata Pt 2’ about the end of April. Sorry about the hiatus.  Whether you read these essays is of course up to you but I doubt if the rest of Chronological Strata will make sense to most readers without the background.  I’ve made the discussion of  perception relevant to Voynich studies and attempted to make it accessible from the level of  secondary-school  upwards. Technical studies on this subject are classed as neuroscience as often as psychology and appear in scientific, not art-history journals.

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Clark’s and Campion’s comments about the month-folios’ appearance (see post of Feb. 9th., 2020) contain three important reasons for rejecting the old theory that these drawings were designed to some ‘astrological/horosopic’ purpose.  The old theory is opposed by:

  • the spectrum of historical examples (historical studies);
  • the month-diagrams’ general appearance – e.g. its many ‘ladies’ and
  •  technical details such as numerical proportions, layout and presentation.

These are not discrete criticisms. Each magnifies the force of the other two.

The revisionist might then ask why an ‘astrological purpose’ idea should feel no natural and so sensible, at a subjective level, and why it seems never to have been opposed between 1912 and 2010 (or if you like, 1912-2020)..

I had hoped to avoid discussing the psychology of perception but can see no way around it,  because to explain why an idea so prevalent and apparently so natural might yet be mistaken one has to understand something of what happens when the brain processes impulses received from the eye, and especially when the object presented to a person’s sight is quite unlike anything they’ve seen before.  If you think back to your first view of the manuscript, you may recall how bewildered you felt and how disoriented – and then how you hunted for something familiar, and what a calming effect it had when some older ‘Voynichero’ told you what to think about this section, or that.   The messages were generally re-assuring, because they told you that what you had felt were images quite unlike anything familiar were ‘really’ not so strange after all.

I’d like you to go back to those initial impressions and accept that what then struck you as quite unlike anything familiar – was indeed. The reason you now think otherwise is explained by the psychology of perception and various additional filters and blinkers emerging from human emotional and social reactions.

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Eye to Brain. and Group-feelings {Psychology of perception  – 2500 wds]

Assumptions of ‘universal language’.  Many of those interested in Beinecke MS 408 come from a background in technical studies such as computer studies, engineering, mathematics or cryptography, where a problem is habitually solved without reference to the historical and social circumstances in which it was first framed.   It doesn’t matter to a mathematician whether a problem was formulated in England or in India, in the 10thC AD or in the 20thC.   The technical diagram, like the mathematical equation employs a ‘universal language’ differing only (as it were) by dialect. Astrological and horoscopic diagrams do belong in that category, which is why scholars specialising in the history of astrology and comparative astrology can say whether or not a diagram presents as of that type.

However, in Voynich studies we have theorists who are so accustomed to solving problems expressed in a ‘universal language’ such as mathematics that they tend to suppose that all imagery speaks  a ‘universal language’ and that is not true.  One cannot rightly interpret all images by using only the assumptions and habits implicit in images produced by one’s own culture, with its  traditional attitudes, hierarchies, forms and modes of expression.  Ignorance of this fact was a first, and is still a prevalent, error of perception in Voynich studies.

More curious yet is that people of intelligence and competence in computer studies, engineering and other logical disciplines become illogical when informed opinion opposes some theoretical model they like.  And do so even in the case of the month-folios not presenting as astrological diagrams.

This paradox is explicable partly in terms of the study’s history, and partly by the way the human mind works.  I’ll treat the history first.

From 1912-2012 the great majority of persons interested in the Voynich manuscript saw European and American urban society and  the Anglo-German school as admirable, the earliest having also inherited nineteenth century ideas about hierarchies within social, intellectual and national or racial ‘pyramids’.  Informed by the wealth and self-importance of the imperial nations, there came to be a belief that the ‘western’ way was the pinnacle of human development, and at once the larger as well as a qualitatively greater set.

So, for example, if someone pointed out that a pentatonic scale was characteristic of eastern modes, it would be pointed out that western music also includes a pentatonic scale. If, on the other hand, you pointed out that eastern art is indifferent to vanishing-point perspective, this would be taken as a sign that it was ‘less evolved’ than western art… and so on.

As we saw earlier, it was impossible at that time (i.e. before the end of World War II, and then in the Friedmans’ view of things) to imagine any manuscript ‘important’ unless imagined as “contributing to the intellectual history of western Europe”.  I have already spoken in general of this phenomenon (here) and the way in which it effectively blinded the Friedmans and, following them, Mary d’Imperio, when they were confronted with specialists’ assessments which denied their own expectation that the manuscript should be an expression of medieval western Christian (i.e. ‘Latins’) book-culture.  Specialists in a variety of areas said plainly that though bound in the Latin (and Armenian) style, the manuscript was not like western texts of e.g. alchemy or Christian art, but these opinions were brushed aside while the erroneous theory was maintained. And this is still largely the case, theory-focused approaches have become so normalised that for many in the ‘online community’ it has become impossible to imagine any opinion or information about this manuscript could be other than the result of some ‘theory’.

The interesting problem is then why highly intelligent people who consciously prided (and pride) themselves on thinking logically – whether intellectual, mechanical, cyrptographic or computer logic – should be  unable to accept  information from genuine specialists.

The shortest and bluntest answer is that the theorists didn’t know enough to doubt themselves.   A theory is formed from within the limits of what a person knows.  If the theorist’s knowledge doesn’t include the necessary information, they cannot form a viable and accurate explanation as ‘theory’.

The habit of assuming the Anglo-German tradition both the best and the ‘greater’ set also meant that things true of that tradition – such as interest in literalism, or depiction of single specimens in herbals – was presumed without any pause for thought – to be always and everywhere true.   And just so, it was assumed that all pictures speak a sort of ‘universal language’ for which no more is needed for their understanding than ‘two eyes’, a theory,  an agile imagination and a range of ‘comparative examples’ invariably selected by theory-driven criteria.

But that blunt explanation is far from being the whole story of why people can’t seem to see – let alone to read –  pictures. It isn’t about IQ.  It’s about what happens when the brain attempts to process something quite unparalleled in a person’s experience. And about how the viewer’s instinctive emotional and social links add further distortions.

When the brain receives from the eye a set of impulses for which no ‘match’ can be found in the person’s previous experience, the brain seeks a ‘nearest fit’.  This is absolutely practical and useful in everyday life and is something hard-wired into the brain because human beings have lived, through most of human history, within a fairly limited environment and exposed to relatively few moments when they saw something never encountered before by anyone in their small circle.

And ‘nearest fit’ was usually pretty right, even if it did mean ignoring certain points of difference in the hunt for ‘the next-like’.   I want to emphasise that it is not a bad thing; it has become hard-wired for a good reason, but it is not so good when the thing perceived is absolutely outside the person’s previous experience.  If the brain informs us of that – returns a ‘nothing remotely like…’ people may go into shock. The search for ‘nearest like’ has become hard-wired for good reason.

For example, in ordinary life, when a friend whom you saw yesterday with long hair and legs covered by blue jeans, turns up today with short hair and wearing shorts, you still recognise them.   The mind discards as irrelevant, or as second-level information, those differences of hair-length (or even hair-colour), of clothing and even such things as tone of voice or whether their eyes are covered.

It is this same capacity which allows us to develop scientific knowledge: we are able to create categories of things and at the same time to refine those categories.  We put ‘like-‘ness first, and ‘distinctions’ in second place.  This is so important that I’ll give examples.

An infant experiences each new ‘thing’ as unique, a ‘plant-thing’ (for example) but then the same thing comes gradually to be  recognised as a rose, while another plant-thing is classed vaguely as ‘not a rose’.  (Language assists, but is not essential).

Only later still, if inclined or permitted to learn more, might that person reach a point where they can remove weeds from a rose-garden without risk of uprooting the wanted plants.   And if inclined, or permitted, to expand the limits of their knowledge still further, that person may reach the stage of being able to identify and name minor differences between one type of rose and another.   But this may never happen, and (like many of us) their mental classifications may end at the simple stage of ‘red-flowered rose’ or ‘white-flowered rose’.

Within their area of speciality (if any) a person is able to recognise and understand the significance of small variations in appearance and to recognise what is, and isn’t a significant difference.  It is because their range of knowledge is greater that they can, when confronted with a hitherto unknown item, classify it correctly as ‘like’ or ‘unlike’. Their knowledge base being greater means their definition of ‘like’ is more precise and the number of ignored points of difference much smaller.

Since the number of specialists is small in proportion to a general population, the precision to be expected of any ‘majority’ will be less when an object is highly unusual – and yet, at the same time the fact that the majority are working roughly within the same, limited, range of experience means that the majority ‘consensus’ is more often an expression of general ignorance than a valid decision about what is true or false.   What ‘everyone says’ may be no better than village gossip.

Within a limited and shared environment, however, our brain’s hard-wired search for ‘like-ness’ works very well indeed.  It allows us to classify as similar objects which differ widely in appearance, forms, materials and ornament.  And it usually serves well.  It might enable a person to describe all the following artefacts as ‘coffee cups’.

 

 

But one of them isn’t.

The red ‘cup-like’ object is a filter,

 N.B. ‘Looks-like’ impressions aren’t enough to allow theories about an unfamiliar artefact’s origin and purpose. 

‘Group impression’ –  false consensus.

When the eye is presented with an unfamiliar object, and the brain receives impulses for which it finds no close match, we may not necessarily accept the ‘nearest fit’ but turn to our neighbour to compare his or her impressions with our own.  Social links may clarify the point – our neighbour may know more than we do – but it is important to realise that as social creatures we have this tendency to suppress our own perception if we find ourselves in a minority.  The difficulty is that our nearest contacts may well have closely-similar limits to their own experience and their ‘nearest fit’ may be no better than our own.

You might then think the natural inclination would be to seek better advice, but in practice this doesn’t happen so often.  In fact, forums will sometimes swamp or censure discussions which move beyond the ‘group opinion’. The dominant theory rather than the manuscript’s study, may even come to define what is deemed as ‘on-‘ or ‘off-topic’. Hard luck for the manuscript.

These social impacts on how we react to images are well illustrated by reactions to the  Rorschark ink-blots.  One person may describe their own ‘nearest fit’ impressions, but another who is present may be seen nodding, as if thinking, ‘Yes, that makes sense…’.

In fact, of course, it doesn’t ‘make sense’ at all.  What is happening is that the two persons’ having comparable social context and previous experience means that the ‘nearest fit’ for one person strikes a familiar chord in the other.   It is that social similarity, not any explanation of the image, which creates this feeling of consensus.  It tells one absolutely nothing about the origin or intended purpose for that ink-blot image.

And that is more-or-less how it happens that theory-groups form within Voynich studies.  One person asserts such-and-such; others find it easy to believe and so on… Social pressures prevent open dispute and even a specialist’s opinion may be treated as having little weight unless they are known to be loyal members of the group.

When a newcomer is instructed by other amateur Voynicheros to interpret a section of the manuscript in this way or that, it is socially and emotionally comforting for most newcomers. They are relieved of that stress involved in confronting the ‘nothing like’ feeling.  But what is being transmitted in fact is rarely factual and objectively verifiable information (which is one reason why citing sources is asserted ‘unnecessary’). What is being taught and promoted is the theoretical ‘nearest fit’ which seems plausible to a majority in that group.

The newcomer is often receiving no more than, so to speak, instructions on a party-line.  To test whether you are being given solid information about Beinecke MS 408, or an ‘approved line’, you need only ask to have and review the evidence and what debate (if any) led to the idea’s adoption.  If there’s nothing to it, there will be no non-Voynich source for the information, and no evidence of any informed debate.   So what you have will be speculation on guesswork on theory – and theory built more often than not on false perception of ‘like-‘ ness.

Because our minds themselves produce flawed comparisons at times, and our social impulses tend to see harmony given a higher priority than independent thought, the formalities of academic study have evolved, over the centuries, in ways providing a counterweight.

A scholar’s first loyalty is expected to be to their discipline of science or mathematics or history, and this means that the person is expected to know, and cite, precedent studies which affect the way a given subject is understood.  Next, their loyalty is to the particular object of their study: in the present case, Beinecke MS 408. This means that if something is asserted about the manuscript which your own research, or other studies in (say) cryptography or iconology show demonstrably untrue, you say so – citing sources for the opposing information and from the best and most solid external sources you can.  By this I mean that if the comment is about the manuscript’s vellum, you cite studies of codicology, not other Voynich writers.

Only after those two are one’s loyalties owed to colleagues and other fellows. If one or more of them disputes your own conclusions, the usual response is to accept (but check the references) for dissenting views and thank the other for the correction – because it has led you to a better understanding of your second-highest loyalty.  To  debate is not only acceptable, it is the meat-and-drink of scholarship, and one reason why Voynich forums tend to be counterproductive.  Debate is often perceived in a closed community as indistinguishable from dispute and spirited debate – even of the academic sort, without ad. hominem – may be terminated in the interests of harmony. I’m not suggesting you never join a forum; only that you do so understanding that the group-dynamic may be strongly influenced by a desire for agreement and conformity, along Henry Ford lines (‘they can have any colour they like, so long as it’s black’)

Nor am I saying that most Voynicheros are dishonest: only that a combination of limited knowledge, theory-driven approaches and social considerations serve to distort perception of these unfamiliar images.

To return to the ‘coffee cup’ example. Agreement between persons of closely similar, and limited, prior experience might lead a group to agree  that both objects shown below are, again,   ‘coffee cups’.  All have seen objects before which present as ‘nearest-fit’ and make that description  seem obvious, natural and consensual.

How far wrong may such decisions be about an artefact’s origin and intended purpose should be clear when I say that the container  on the left is a Mayan vessel made c. 7thC AD, while that on the right is a recent invention: an edible coffee-cup newly introduced in New Zealand in 2019.  (Need I add that the Maya had no knowledge of coffee?).

If the example above seems exaggerated, or unfair, consider the ‘matches’ which have been not only suggested but generally accepted and actively disseminated in the ‘Voynich community’.  As so often, the ‘pairing’ is not about explaining the manuscript’s image; it is about illustrating a theory – in this case of European Christian culture – and is aimed solely at persuasion. It is doing pretty much what a person’s brain might do if their range of knowledge was limited to the history of Germany.

Such errors of perception have affected study of the Voynich manuscript since 1912.  It is not a recent problem, nor the result of online forums.   It is a problem caused by our mind’s seeking ‘nearest-fit’ within too narrow a range of previous knowledge, together with the natural human tendency to maintain whatever opinions are found comfortable in the group regarded as the “us-group”.   The importance of the second is paramount for many and may alone be why an independent specialist’s assessment is rejected.  In fact, what we see in Voynicheros reactions to theory-opposing opinion from specialists may exceed the ‘just ignore’ response and become active denigration as the theorist continues to presume their theories must be right.   This pattern again is reflected in d’Imperio’s book, derived as it is from the theories shared by the Friedman groups.

In one place, she writes:

Balance

I expect that as well as understanding the issues, you may want some idea of how to correct for them.

The single best approach is to learn more – first about the discipline you want to engage – whether it is techniques of analysis in art or in cryptography and so on.

If your interest is in understanding the images in this manuscript, you might like to try a few exercises.  These are ones intended to help you become conscious of the ‘nearest-fit’ response and to help deal with the sort of emotional and social responses which arise when you are confronted by something quite unlike anything in your previous experience.

These exercises apply to images securely dated to the pre-modern period.

First,

Become interested in what makes the image ‘unlike’.  Actively seek to identify and to describe the very details that the ‘like-‘ seeking function has  automatically set aside or given a lesser importance.  

Don’t be persuaded by ‘matches’ in any Voynich writings – not even the essays (bar the materials essay) in the Yale facsimile edition.

As an example for countering the natural tendency to focus on apparent ‘like-‘ ness, you might consider one of those ‘matches’ offered between some detail from the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ section and illustrations from the Balneis Puteolanis.

Remember that you are comparing pictures, not objects or alleged subject-matter.    Now, look at the differences between the two ‘matched’ images and hand-write a description of the Voynich image, emphasising the points of difference from the alleged ‘match’.  This will also have an effect of calming you, because it puts that Voynich image securely within the range which your brain can recognise.  It gives a sense – false or not – that you are in control.  Slowly and carefully scanning and writing a description of the image is always a good practice in iconology, art history and especially in provenancing artefacts.

In this case, you might include among the observed differences – different attitudes to depiction of the human body; a different use of proportion; facial features (are males shown with or without beards, for example).  Note attitudes to perspective, the presence or absence of stylistic features (such as whether lines are drawn over areas of liquid to indicate ripples).  Is the maker interested in ‘realism’.  What about ways of representing landscape?  And so on.  You should also spend time thinking vaguely about the thing; ‘musing’ because this brings in the more flexible part of the brain’s activity.  It is when we most often realise some half-forming theory is untenable.

But do beware of any ‘lightning flash’ experience while you’re in the ‘musing’ mode.  You may experience it as a sudden flash of genius insight, but more often than not it’s the imagination going into overdrive and trying to stop the whole process by producing some ‘ultimate answer’ at random.

The task is to understand a difficult manuscript, not to create some ultimate theory.

And do keep the Mayan “coffee cup” in mind..

 

Elevated souls Pt 2a. ‘Astro —-‘

  • Header image: (left) stars of northern latitudes; (right) declination and right ascension  -image courtesy ‘Sky and Telescope’.

Previous two:

 

David Pingree

In 1982, the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (Vol. 45) published the paper:

David Pingree,  ‘An Illustrated Greek Astronomical Manuscript. Commentary of Theon of Alexandria on the Handy Tables and Scholia and Other Writings of Ptolemy Concerning Them’.  ( pp. 185-192).

I begin by mentioning it for several reasons.

The late Prof. Pingree is one of the “two Davids” whose works are among those indispensable for study of what some pre-modern peoples knew about stars and – most pertinent to our chief study – how they thought about and imagined the heavens.

The ‘other David’ of the two is David A. King, whose works include the Ciphers of the Monks, in which King drew attention to the same Picard instrument whose orthography for month-names is – as I think Pelling first observed – closely similar to that of the Voynich month-names’.

Since the matter of  ‘Occitan month-names’ is among those affected by metaphorical ‘palimpsest-ing’,  I add more detail.

Writing in 2004, Shaun Palmer credits Stolfi with the proposal and (quite properly) notes that Pelling had come earlier than himself and independently to hold a similar view.  Pelling’s book (2006) then treated and illustrated the issue in  detail (pp. 21-23).  Those three  references should give you a clear idea of the evidence and substance behind this now-widely-accepted view.Searching for ‘Occitan’ today at voynich.nu I found the references given on this point to be an anonymous blogpost of 2012  and a note of thanks to Don Hoffman for providing Zandbergen with bibliographic details of King’s book. Following the principle that  “no acknowledgement asserts no debt”, readers might assume all  unprovenanced matter on that page (which is copyrighted  to  the owner as is every blogpost)  must be a result of the owner’s own research, crediting Zandbergen accordingly.

That paper by Pingree is chiefly concerned with the manuscript Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. (= 437). The ‘tables’ in question are known as  ‘Ptolemy’s Handy Tables’ but were compiled from Ptolemy’s data a century later, by Theon of Alexandria.  Researchers working on the Voynich manuscript might like to consider, in addition, matters associated with Ptolemy’s Geography, as balance for a tendency to associate Ptolemy solely with astrology, or even solely with astronomy. See e.g.

  • Dmitry Shcheglov, ‘Hipparchus’ Table of Climata and Ptolemy’s Geography’, (available through academia.edu)

 

Question 1: Is there Astrological matter in the month folios?

Caution Newcomers should be aware  that nothing in the manuscript has yet been proven related to any branch of occult or pseudo-scientific practice including that of astrology, though  speculation has been so common –  thanks initially to Wilfrid Voynich and his inflation of the ‘Rudolf rumour’ – that many imagine it has been proven beyond doubt.  Yet the stars are part of the natural world and natural, too, may be their observation and depiction.  To represent the theological position of the earlier medieval west, we may refer again to  Augustine:

Amiens Cathedral exterior: Virgo = Threshing               see   labours of the months.

Who can fail to perceive how great is the difference between useful observations of the heavenly bodies in connection with the weather, such as farmers or sailors make … and the vain hallucinations of men who observe the heavens not to know the weather. or their course … but merely to pry into the future ….

from Augustine’s Letters  55 15

  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers, Medieval Meteorology: Forecasting the Weather from Aristotle to the Almanac (2019)
why is the astrological  idea a problem?

Objection 1.  The idea’s introduction depended entirely on ideas about John Dee’s connection to the manuscript, in combination with consideration (only) of the month-names and central emblems from the month-folios.  The latter were taken to depict the ‘signs’ forming a tropical zodiac, rather than taken literally as a depiction of the physically-visible constellations which appear in sequence through the seasons of the year.  The conflation of constellation with astrological ‘sign’ is endemic in Voynich discussions, even today.  

Even if the emblems did constitute a representation of the zodiac ’12’ there is no necessary connection between their depiction and that aspect of mathematics which defined astrology in the medieval world.  In other words, there is no necessary connection between a depiction of the ecliptic constellations and tropical- or sidereal astrology.  

That the opposite idea should be so prevalent in Voynich writings today is due to the fact that most modern readers, living in an industrialised society and urban environment, don’t need to know the stars as people did in earlier times.   Today, we use clocks, watches and phones to know the time; we learn from the weather man what sort of weather we’ll have today; we rely on automatic or printed calendars to tell us where we are in the cycle of months and seasons.   Reflection from city lights, and nights spent indoors (or outdoors) under artificial lights means  many see none but a few of the brightest stars in the night sky.   And all this, together, means that the word ‘zodiac’ instantly evokes the motifs of ‘birth-signs’ and daily horoscopes for us today, and thus seems the ‘most obvious’ interpretation for any comparable series, especially if stars are depicted. 

 Thus, the constant error has been an imposition on a manuscript  six hundred years old, the hierarchy of ideas proper to twentieth- century urbanites.

Things were different six centuries ago.

Objection 2.  No  zodiac sequence contains (as the month-emblems do) two goats, or two sheep,  or a sheep and goat adjacent to one another.

This issue and others raised by the month-emblems are rarely even noticed today by Voynich writers. and of the few who do notice, fewer speak, and of the very few who do mention a problem, the majority do not address that problem so much as seek a way to turn back into the fold any who show signs of doubting that “its-a-zodiac-and-zodiac-means-astrology” proposition chain.    In private conversation a Voynichero once said that he didn’t include both pros and cons in his own writings  because “if your mind is too open, your brains fall out” – which sounds to me like some conservative slogan gone wrong. 🙂

Objection 3. Even if we grant that,  in adding the month-names later, the person who did that truly  believed  the emblems represented constellations from the zodiac, more cannot be deduced from it than  he had  regarded the series as a series of months and their stars.  It is no support for an idea that  “months+stars means astrology”.  

Objection 4. is that the the Voynich series names only  ten months, and the months omitted (January and February) are – perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not –  the months when the fields were dormant, and when  ships of the Mediterranean stayed in harbour. The ‘sailing year’ ran from March until (nominally) November but the historical records show that in fact ships of the harbours where the most competent seamen were based might continue  sailing coast wise even as late as December.

Other points:

  • An argument that the remnants of two cut pages following  the month-diagrams  had once contained two more diagrams of that sort is – like theorised astrological purpose – only speculation at present. 
  • As I’ve explained elsewhere, correlations of month-name, month-marking constellation, and associated ‘labour’ were not uniform  even within Latin Europe., and the correlations made in the month-diagrams between emblem and month-name are not those of the northern latitudes (England, Germany and northern France).
  •   When responding to a Voyichero’s query,  Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow – whose area is given as the history of European art, especially its traditions of astrological imagery-  also mentioned calendars in connection with the month-diagrams’ central emblems.  Here the difficulty is that her opinion was a short note written in response to a Voynichero’s query and it appears she was given no indication there was any reason to doubt that the content in this manuscript might have any but a medieval Latin European origin.  The answer of an expert is typically provided within the framework of the question posed.  Not knowing that explains why William Friedman got so little from Panofsky, where Anne Nill had received so much more  – and we’re not talking word-count here.
  • Nor do we know what Sniezynska-Stolot was shown of the manuscript at the time (2000), or whether in colour or copy-flo.   As translated by  Rafel Prinke and  reported in Reeds’ mailing list, her note has a distinctly off-hand tone.

By  13 Jan 2001 her note’s content was already reported to Reeds’ mailing list and members were discussing it in  connection with specific problems of the kind no longer acknowledged as existing by the most conservative faction and whose discussion is thereby discouraged, with ‘blanking’ from the record of any non-conservative who might do so. 

Still – let’s move on to one possible hint of the astrological… and trust our brains won’t fall out. 🙂

Astrological versus (purely) Astronomical

Exaltation and Depression?

Consider the following pair  from the first of the ‘April’ diagrams (folio 70v-ii), keeping in mind that the fifteenth-century draughtsman could draw ‘nicely’  but for reasons as yet unclear, didn’t wish to.  What message are we to take from their presentation? What aspects are we supposed to  read as meaningful? What about their postures, for example?

 

Did the original maker  intend the male  figure is to be read as ‘elevated’/’exalted’ and the female as ‘dejected’ or dismayed?   Or are our  subjective reactions focusing on details he would have dismissed as irrelevant?

If he meant attention paid to their posture, we must realise that such terms as ‘elevation’, ‘exaltation {Gk. ὕψωμα]  and ‘dejection/depression’ [Gk. ταπείνωμα] were used technically of the planets in Byzantine astrology, while  “seldom, if ever, found in the West” -as Pingree observes, though he finds that their illustration  in  Ambrosianus H. 57. sup is drawn ‘in western style’.

Indeed, the draughtsman’s style may be western, but it has  little in common with that of the person who drew the unclothed figures in the Voynich month-folios, except perhaps a common implication (also found in certain Islamic texts) that when figures from polytheistic religions are presented, the images should express moral censure. (see further, below) I say ‘perhaps’ because we have no proof thus far that the Voynich figures were intended as deities or anything of the sort. Neither have I seen any argument which proves that  the Voynich manuscript depicts any of the five planets, let alone all of them.

*The planets proper, the ‘wandering stars’, included only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in medieval times.

re planets…2001

In 2001, a member of the first (Reeds’) mailing list responded to Robert Firth’s comment on the fact that the ‘celestial’ folios hadn’t served as key to the written text as many hoped they might,  by saying  that “we” ‘ ..have quite a number of good (even if not dead certain) [identifications]:- the Pleiades and Aldebaran; – the seven planets; – two sets of twelve labels in 12-segmented circles; – one (or two?) set of 28 segments, “obviously” indicating the mansions of the moon. (12 Jan 2001).  All members of that list, at the time, would have known which of them had contributed each item, with what evidence and what argument (if any) but as yet I don’t know. If you can enlighten me on the point, please do. I’ve seen nothing one could call a cogent argument for it between 2008 and today.

detail) Milan, Ambrosianus H.57.sup. f.112v. Venus – on which see Pingree (1982) p.32

The unclothed pagan deities for each planet are depicted with a certain censure in the Ambrosianus manuscript  –  e.g. Venus (right) is depicted as as a debauchee – given the face of a young and pretty woman but a body heavy, old and exhausted from bearing children by various fathers. I see little obvious similarity between the draughtman’s style and that in the Voynich month-folios.  Expressions of moral censure in depiction of figures from polytheistic religions are  also seen in some Islamic works, notably in the  ‘Book of Marvels’ ‘Kitab al Bulhan’ (MS. Bodl. Or. 133) a seventeenth-century work (or copy) where Voynich-like “glyphs” were also inscribed.

That-last point was initially brought to notice by – I believe  – by Nick Pelling in his review (2008) of Okasha El Daly’s book. A detail (‘Crab’) from the same Bodley ms was later considered by one Voynich blogger whose blog I cannot find online today. In two posts of 2013 the present writer commented on several of  images from that manuscript, together with  other examples of ‘Voynich-like’ glyphs.

An image posted to pininterest by Marco Ponzi associates a detail from the Bodleian ms with one on folio 67v 2. His commentary may appear elsewhere but I’m not willing to join that site to find out.  (Again, if anyone already has more detail, I’d be happy to include it in the comments section below this post.)

On the Greek astrological terms and their significance see e.g.

  • Roger Beck, (2008) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, pp. 57-8
  • Roger Beck, (2017) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology  pp. 242ff.
  • Chris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune.
  • James Evans. Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity (p.135). Evans’ equating ‘Chaldean’ with ‘Babylonian’ is over-confident.
  • Tamysn Barton,  Ancient Astrology (2002).

Neither  Aratus/Cicero’s Aratea, nor Manilius’ Astronomica  (written  c.30–40 AD) makes use of the planets, a point to be kept in mind given the date for Vat.gr. 1291 and possible  pre-Christian (but anti-Greek? anti-polytheist?) origin for its ‘women of an hour’ (see previous post).

Manilius in the west

Goold believed that before his election to Pope, Gerbert d’Aurillac had found in Bobbio a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica bound (as Gerbert said) with a copy of Boethius’ text on mathematics. Other scholars have doubted this, attributing the west’s knowledge of that text (as we have it) to Poggio Bracciolini’s practice of  commandeer manuscripts from monastic libraries by his position as papal secretary.  The ‘discoveries’ were then copied (at a price) for members of the Italian literati, who appreciated Poggio’s ‘little arm’. His own view is recorded in one colophon, which translated reads “This oration, formerly lost owing to the fault of the times, Poggio restored to the Latin-speaking world and brought it back to Italy, having found it hidden [sic] in Gaul, in the woods of Langres.” If he had acquired it from Bèze abbey, that copy is unlikely to have been older than the 11th-12thC.

Again with the older period in mind, and possible bridges between  pre-Christian astronomical works and the early fifteenth century when the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ll add here part of the description of Niceforous’ visit to Cyprus in the fourteenth century.  There was still a Lusignan ruler in the island, one who with his chief scholar George Lapithes asked the noble visitor from Constantinople to summarise for them as many astronomical texts as they could gather. They brought him copies of Ptolemy’s works, including the  Tetrabiblos, called Ἀποτελεσματικά ετράβιβλος in the Greek – but also,  according to  Niceforous (I quote from another paper by Pingree):

“all the books that still existed composed about such matters, by Ptolemy’s predecessors and by more recent authors as well as those that had been written in antiquity and by the  Chaldaeans and the Persians”. 

  • George Lapithes and David Pingree, The Byzantine Version of the “Toledan Tables”: The Work of George Lapithes?’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 30 (1976), pp. 85+87-132.

Pingree offers evidence and argument for a/the Greek translation of the Toledan Tables’  in Cyprus during the first half of the fourteenth century, to which same period, as it happens, I assign their ‘return to the Mediterranean’ phase for  the majority of parts in the Voynich manuscript.

Ambrosiana H.57. sup. – evolution 2ndC AD – c.1458..

Claudius Ptolemy lived in the 2ndC AD.  Theon of Alexandria in the 3rdC AD.   So then, discussing the content in the Amrbosiana manuscript, Pingree tells us:

We may conclude, then, that the original [i.e. the Ambrosiana] manuscript was copied in 1358, and that a series of owners for the next century added to it, rearranged it, and annotated it. It is likely that the manuscript was copied in Byzantium, and remained there while these changes and additions were being made to it. There is no absolute proof for this supposition in the manuscript itself, but it is known that the texts in Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. were copied in part from Laurentianus 28, 7;3 and that manuscript can be shown to be Constantinopolitan. (Pingree, op.cit. p.186)

and

There is no doubt, on the evidence of the script, that the codex could have been written in Constantinople in 1357-58. It is in the style associated with the Hodegoi scriptorium over a period of about half a century.  Western connexions of this scriptorium are not apparent. If they existed they would be more likely at this time to have been with Venice than with Southern Italy.   (ibid. p.192)

.. yet when it comes to those miniatures …(emphasis is mine)

The consensus of opinion is that the style of the miniatures is basically Western, though with an admixture of Byzantine elements. Islamic tradition lies behind the curious iconography, in which the planets are shown with their day- and night-houses, exaltations and dejections: this is seldom, if ever, found in the West. No immediate model has been located in an admittedly cursory search. An artist active in Southern Italy or Sicily may be indicated by the mixture of Italian and French styles. It is not impossible that an artist of, say, the Neapolitan school was working in Constantinople in the mid-fourteenth century – a time when others (Barlaam of Seminara, for example) travelled freely between that city and Italy. No artist answering to this description can, however, be securely documented in Constantinople at this time. Nor can it be assumed that the manuscript was decorated in the same place as it was written: the illustrations may be later additions. Indeed, they look very much as if they are.    (ibid. p.192)

 

For those who managed to come so far   –  here’s the sweet….

B. Astronomical?

Returning to the pair on folio 70v-ii, a closer look at the female figure…Short-ish hair, large head, figure’s right side drawn with a swelling line, indicating a breast. But where the figure’s left breast would be, there’s only what appears to be a piece of skin, marked with lines evoking sutures or something of that kind. Obviously not a skin-graft  (skin-grafting, history of)

We have a word for females who display just one breast. It’s from the Greek: a- (ἀ-) which means lacking and mazos (μαζός), which means breast   ..so, …”without breast”= Amazon.

Classical Greek and Roman imagery doesn’t depict Amazons  lacking a breast. They show a figure who is usually short-haired,  sometimes in armour which can include a breast-cover, or with only one breast covered by clothing and/or armour.

Interestingly, on fol. 70v-ii, the breastplate has been understood by the draughtsman to be of the high-collared type. The two images (at right) are shown simply to demonstrate that high-collared breastplates,  for females, are not entirely unattested.  An amazonian caryatid in Dresden wears armour very similar in deign to the Keralan type. That caryatid is described (by a seller of prints) as  ‘an ancient wall sculpture’. I can only say that their definition of ‘ancient’ is unusual.

The Keralan tradition marks by such means one of the eight chief patron- ‘mother’ goddesses, known to be warrior-women when necessary.

To this day women archers may don a breast cover in addition to the cover always provided for the forearm by the long, skin-tight sleeve and/or by a wrist-guard which might be better called a forearm-guard (but isn’t).  These were traditionally made of thick leather; The present day Olympian (below) wears ones of modern materials.

When you consider that women in pre-Renaissance Europe didn’t normally ever handle a bow, and that  the two drawings in the lower register were made  two thousand years apart from each other, the conceptual image informing the physical image per se has evidently survived remarkably well. The fifteenth-century draughtsman understood his exemplar.

 

So now – which star(s) if any might have been identified as  ‘Amazon’ by any tradition of star-lore, at any time between the 5thC BC and 15thC AD? Here are two possibilities from the Greco-Latin-Arab traditions with which I think readers will be most familiar.

 

  1. alpha [α] Virginis (Lat.Spica) ?

According to the 15thC Yemeni, Ibn Majid, the star α Virginis serves as the manzil (lunar station/mansion) and in that context is known as Simak al A’zal, ‘warrior without a spear’ (Tibbett’s translation p.100). And the figure from the first April diagram certainly has none.  However, women of the Arab tribes in Arabia, and more particularly of the Yemen, appear from the early accounts to have been treated more on par with men and in the pre-Islamic period to have been decidedly martial. By comparing with both older and early medieval works, it appears that until the seventh century AD, α Virginis may  have been often envisaged as a female warrior, one who roared or howled in the attack.   As Virgo, she is still armed in an image within the 9thC Byzantine manuscript Vat.gr.1291.

9thC Greek  (prob. from a late classical source)

A star-ceiling made in Egypt under the patronage of the Roman emperor Tiberius in 50BC, shows Virgo holding a ‘spike’ staff of some kind. The image shown here (below, right) is  as illustrated by Wallace Budge.

1stC BC. image in late-Hellenistic Dendera. If the spike is papyrus, the use of palm and scroll as alternative is understandable.

While Virgo’s spike-star  was generally envisaged as a stalk or sheaf of wheat for most of the Latin period, the alternative tradition was not forgotten, and the late image seen below shows how it was preserved – as a martyr-like palm branch held delicately by a more passive and ladylike virgin angel.

So if this is the intention behind the ‘Amazon’ on folio 70v-ii, her being without a weapon may be due to the same cultural attitudes (not necessarily Arab) which sees  the ‘ladies of an hour’ drawn with arms deprived of strength in Vat.gr.1291 folio 9r- as we also see   in the month-folios of the Vms.

Libra

In both instances, the informing ideas appear to me  indicative of deep-seated belief that the stars had effective power to harm and I doubt such fear derives from the classical Greeks or from the Orthodox Christians of ninth-century Constantinople. That Vat.gr.1291  has drawn on ideologically opposed traditions is evident if one compares the charming figure for Virgo in the ‘helios’ diagram (folio 9r) with the frankly unnerving and skeltal ‘ghost’ which is one of the few figures un-erased from the same manuscript’s planispheric ‘night sky’. (right)

So let’s return to the charming Virgo.  Unlike her counterpart on folio 23r of that manuscript, hers is not  the stocky body we associate with Europe’s late Roman art. She is envisaged as a slender and elegant messenger, whose ‘spike’  now appears more like rolled scroll. (angelos means ‘messenger’.)

This may be a good moment to remind readers that Alain Touwaide said the Voynich manuscript’s appearance suggested to him the sort of Byzantine hospital workers’ notebooks called iatrosophia, though it wasn’t one.

Touwaide has studied such manuals within his wider area of specialisation, and among his publications  is

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Byzantine Hospital Manuals (Iatrosophia) as a Source for the Study of Therapeutics’, in Barbara S. Bowers (ed.), The Medieval Hospital and Medical Practice  pp.147-173 of Vol. 3 of AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, (2007).

I agree that in the  Vms, we have a compilation of matter brought together for an entirely practical purpose, and find it possible the ‘bringing together’ may have occurred in comparable circumstances, and even within the Byzantine sphere, but having already treated in detail a large proportion of the Vms’ imagery,  I am glad that I am not in the unenviable position of having to differ from Professor Touwaide on the ‘practical handbook’ issue, or the ‘compilation’ issue, though I should have been obliged, unhappily, to do so had he said the whole was a work of medicine, or even of astrological medicine.

  • at the moment I can’t refer you to the printed version of Touwaide’s Voynich talk (or, rather first Voynich talk) at Mondragone.  The book is unobtainable, and Stephen Bax’ site where it had been shortly reviewed is presently infected by some virus.  Maybe later.

2. gamma [γ] Orionis.

Hinkley Allen informs us that in  “the Alfonsine tables” (no version or copy is specified) the star γ Orionis has a previously-unattested name, as  Bellatrix – a term from Latin and which means again, a female warrior.

Note – Ptolemy’s Tables, Alfonsine or Toledan Tables in Voynich studies

I was surprised to find no mention of any of these tables in Voynich writings or chats until speculations about occult topics had taken been current for about ninety years.

One would have thought an examination of standard sources for astronomical knowledge would be tested first before resort was had to speculation, but things went the other way.  Perhaps, yet again, we must attribute this oddness in the study first to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale, and a feeling among some that support for the ‘Rudolf’ idea had to marshalled.   However that may be, even today (Nov.2019), I find no mention of the Toledan tables at Nick Pelling’s site, or at voynich.nu.  I believe there was some talk of them in comments to Stephen Bax’ site, but at present it is under ‘virus interdiction’. I hope to check it and properly credit anyone who posted there if/when the site and its comments return.

Otherwise, I have found nothing about the Alfonsine or Tioledan tables (do let me know if you know better) until 2002 (ninety years after Voynich acquired the manuscript), when Luis Vélez’ says in  Reeds’ mailing list (Tue, 16 Jul 2002):

Thus, students of medicine at Bologna… learnt astrology [sic.] for four years, including grounding in Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemy’s Almagest. In addition, they learnt how to use instruments such as the astrolabe and the quadrant, and were taught how to use the Alfonsine Tables along with their canons. ..

 

Hinkley-Allen suggests ‘Bellatix’  was gained by mis-translation of an Arabic term, ‘roaring lion’.  I should have been inclined to dismiss this altogether, as mere transposition of some term for a star in Virgo – except that it survives experiment extremely well.  Experiment involves cultural and specific context, in addition to the image’s individual characteristics and drawing-style.

As you see, where the chap looks quite upbeat, the female looks decidedly “down”, doesn’t she?

Those interested in the written part of the Voynich manuscript might care to research uses for the opposition between elevation/exultation and subjection/ being downcast as applied by older works to matters other than planetary dispositions.

And with these two feasible identifications, mentioned  I’ll leave the astronomical and astrological possibilities for you to think about, except a last note that in another place, according to Tibbett’s note, al ibn Majid identifies Bellatrix with Orion’s hand [lit. Yad al Jauza’, usually Betelgeuse],  and it is in connection with this passage that Majid relates a condensed ‘cipher’ mnemonic for some fairly technical and mathematical matter.

Should it be of interest to any reader, description of that ‘cipher-mnemonic’ runs from the last paragraph on p.87 to the end of the first paragraph on f.88 in Tibbett’s English translation..

Postscript: From the research into historical and cultural context – I think one topic should have been mentioned, viz. the Indian tradition.  Thus, our Bellatrix (γ Orionis) is still recorded as ‘Yad al Jawzã’ al-Yusrã’ on astrolabes made in Lahore by a ‘dynasty’ of astrolabe makers in the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries.

  • see e.g. Mubashir ul-Haq Abbasi and Sreeramula Raeswars Sarma, ‘An Astrolabe by Muḥammad Muqīm of Lahore Dated 1047 AH (1637-38 CE)’, Islamic Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 2014), pp. 37-65

In the same context, the ‘serpentine’ extension behind Betelgeuse may allude to the ‘Ketu’ (headless body) of Rahu Ketu in Tamil and Hindu astronomy.  The sources differ considerably and I don’t want to give an impression that I place much importance on it.)

Also, we know that the Indian and Muslim traditions were both still present in Iberia during the fourteenth century, as Chabas and Goldstein (among others) have said:

quote stars Jews Spain astronomical tables 14thC Indian trad

Chorography..

I had meant to now talk about chorography, and identifications of stars with places – not by astrology but by an older system of observation and  a mythos of locality.. as well as by nominal superimposition of  celestial and terrestrial co-ordinates (made easier in medieval times if one had an astrolabe).

I would have begun from the classical sources’ identification of Amazon lands, by Herodotus and later authors, illustrated by a couple of maps, and then moved on to the technical correlations for star-and-place as well as the various astrological equations of peoples and regions …. coins, legends, Manilius, Dorothea of Sidon etc., remarks on Genoa’s colonies in the Black Sea (from c.1290s to the time the Plague came..) and so, eventually,  to Ptolemy’s co-ordinates.

But this post is already a trying length, almost 4,700 words, so I’ll leave all that material from my logs aside, except to say the Voynich ‘strings’ may bind place and star.

The star-place correspondence system has to be conceptual or temporary because the vernal equinox moves, as the first minute of right ascension doesn’t.  Then there are also the eastern navigator’s “fetterings” but …alas.. who’d ever read so much?

At least you have some sources for this last and  far from unimportant section.


edit (6th December 2019).

Can’t get the ‘comments’ to include this image, so here it is. Proof of relevance to c.1420.  See second of the comments following this post.