‘Pharma’ – the routes

two prior:

AT PRESENT we’re considering the range over which information might have been gathered and brought to western Europe before 1400-1440, so to inform the pictorial text in Beinecke MS 408.

The reason for doing this is partly that the range and style of artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section (which Newbold imagined dealt with pharmaceuticals) find no comparison in Europe before our present manuscript was made, and partly that Georg Baresch who had the manuscript for about thirty years and who tried repeatedly to get better information about it, thought that the Voynich plants were not native to Europe, and that a person had gathered ‘from eastern parts’ the information now informing the text.

The previous post looked at the six-hundred year long connection between Europe and the territories once part of the Sasanian Persian empire, though which the overland ‘silk and spice’ routes passed.

This post considers the sea- and land routes whose use is attested during the relevant period by the travels of two men, each of whom began their voyages in the western Mediterranean, travelled east, and returned before the mid-1350s.

The first left Venice in 1271, returning in 1295. The other left from Tangier, Morocco in 1325, his final return occurring in 1354, after which he settled in Grenada for a time where his travels were narrated. The name of the first was Marco Polo; of the second, Ibn Battuta.

What we know of Marco Polo’s journey is owed to what might be called ‘the popular press’, a writer having heard of Polo who was then in prison. Polo’s story was constructed by that writer from what Polo told him from the prison cell. Ibn Battuta was received home with honour and his account of his travels recorded by his students for – unlike Latin Europe – the Islamic world had an active tradition of first-hand geographic writing and its study of geography did not await reception of a copy of Claudius’ Ptolemy’s thousand year old text.

Maximus Planudes (1260 – c. 1305 AD). Some scholars associate Planudes with Codex Vatopedinus 65 (early 14thC)

(However, for an overview of Ptolemy’s Geographia in Renaissance Europe, I warmly recommend Thony Christie’s recent post).

Routes indicated by the narrative of Maro Polo’s journeys. For an interactive version, see the website exploration.marinersmuseum.org/event/marco-polo-interactive-map

As you see, the routes agree pretty well, so we may rely upon it that these are the likely routes along which such information might have been gathered by any trader-traveller before 1400, regardless of his birthplace, native language or religion.

So – in theory at least, the drawings of plants and artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section might represent products from anywhere along those much-travelled routes, whether overland or by sea. If the possibilities are many, they are also daunting.

In those days, almost any traveller was perforce a trader, for there was no other way to support the costs of travel except by trading as one went. Some few might be sponsored by kings. Others might find that on reaching a given region the local ruler was willing to provide the necessities of life. But the majority had to trade in order to travel and the hardships and perils of travel meant that most travelled for no other reason. All found that while death might with good luck be avoided, taxes could not.

There have been a few earlier suggestions, by Voynich writers, that the manuscript evinces an ‘eastern’ character in some sense.

While the majority have maintained various versions of Wilfrid Voynich’s basic ‘all-European’ theory, in 2002 Jorge Stolfi concluded from his computer-analysis of the written text that ‘Voynichese’ might be an Asian language and suggested Jurchen as one possibility. His investigation began after a mock-theory had been presented by Jacques Guy, but Guy himself later went into print to make clear that while he had been joking about his ‘Chinese theory’, Stolfi’s method and results should not be regarded other than seriously and saying, further, that he had found no fault with either.

I do not recommend the ‘Voynich wiki’ article on this subject. Its anonymous author has improperly taken, without mention of the source, original contributions to the study made by P.Han, by the present author and doubtless by others,  all represented as if they were original work of that wiki writer. It is not honestly done.

Some years later, two botanists named Wiart and Mazars offered a couple of botanical identifications which named plants from the eastern world. Among the botanical identifications initially offered by Edith Sherwood were some whose form was unknown to formal western botany until after 1450, but well-known along those several of the eastern routes, the luffa and ‘banana'[f.13r] among them. Plants having similar appearance and fruit – thus of the same general ‘banana’ type – exist in a wide variety and are found from Africa to the Himalayas and South-east Asia. (italicised phrase added 27/08/2021)

For some years, those botanical identifications were little regarded and the very short contribution by Wiart and Mazars might have been ignored into oblivion had not Nick Pelling, despite his own clearly sceptical reaction, not noted and commented on their views in 2010, writing:

Guy Mazars and Christophe Wiart in Actualites en Phytotherapie … propose that many of the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious plants may in fact be East Asian plants (for example, that f6v depicts Ricinus communis) or Indian plants (they think that many of the plants shown are types of Asteraceae, with f27r representing Centella Asiatica).

  • Nick Pelling, ‘Chinese Voynich Theories…’ ciphermysteries, 14th May, 2010.
Yale, Beinecke MS 408 fol.13r

I too identified the subject of the drawing on folio 13r as representing plants of the ‘banana’ type, publishing a detailed analysis of the drawing itself and notes on historical context, pointing out that the fairly literal representation, in this case, showed personal knowledge of such plants and thus stood in opposition to the fact that the physical appearance of these ‘banana’ plants had remained unknown to European botany until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The inference then seemed fairly obvious, viz, that the plant-pictures could not be derived from any western botanical or herbal text, a conclusion which agrees in general terms with what John Tiltman had concluded after witnessing the failures of the Friedman groups’ over thirty years. He said, in 1968:

to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed. (p.11)

  • John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World” (1968) NSA DOCID: 631091, released under Freedom of Information Act, Case #19159, 23-Apr-2002.

 I included in my definition of the ‘banana group’ species so grouped by peoples in lands where the plants grow. Of these, some were and others were not later classed by Linnaeus as Musaceae. But Linneus was not the first person to observe and describe plants in ‘groupings’ and botanical observation and classification did not begin in Europe.

The sort of response which my historical commentary met then, and later,  is nicely illustrated by a very late comment (2018) made after I had closed off the research from the public.  The following was made by a pen-named contributor to one Voynich forum, and reads in part: 
[O’Donovan] .. was not the first to correlate (sic!)  banana and f13r, and credits Edith Sherwood with coming up with the banana ID. … while Sherwood (and many others) see 13r as a banana, [O’Donovan’s] idea(sic!) is that this folio depicts the whole Musa “group”, however anachronistic that may seem (obviously the notion of a Musaceae family is a Linnean one, so I really don’t know what kind of “group” she thinks this depicts).
That writer (known as ‘Vviews’) overlooked the critical point –  that such detailed knowledge of the plants’ appearance had remained unknown to western botanical and herbal texts until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The curious assumption that the fact ‘many others’ later accepted the opinion reached independently by Sherwood, and by the present author, constitutes some form of criticism of those authors is more difficult to explain.  Sherwood had been the first since 1912 to offer the identification. 
glass. recovered Begram. Alexandrian influence 1stC BC-1stC AD.

Baresch also said the content represented ‘Egyptian’ knowledge. About seventeenth-century Europeans’ notions of how far ‘Egyptian’ learning and culture had anciently spread, I’ll speak some other time. For now I’ll mention only that between Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli mines and Egypt, connection is attested from about 3,000 years before the Roman era, initially via Mesopotamia, but directly from well before the time of Roman ascendancy in the Mediterranean. We see evidence of this, in the 1stC AD, in the mixed Hellenistic, Egyptian and Roman cultural influence evinced by artefacts recovered from Begram. One example is shown (right).

The routes taken separately by Marco Polo and by Ibn Battuta co-incide in that same region, one that may seem distant and inaccessible from a European point of view but which was quite literally a centre of the world. In medieval times it was a crossroads of the ‘silk and spice’ routes, and a centre for the ancient trade in medicinal plants from the Himalayas east, west and to as far south as southern India.

The four main medical-pharmaceutical traditions of the older world were (in chronological order) the Egyptian, India’s Ayurveda, the Chinese and the Hellenistic. Trade in scented plants for incense, perfumes and items made of scented woods was also well developed by medieval times and those raw materials were traded across both the overland and the maritime routes when Polo and Ibn Battuta were there.

From here – the eastern side of what had been the old Achaemenid Persian empire, and later the limit of Alexander’s conquests, Buddhism was disseminated, and the oldest extant printed book has been recovered – the copy of a Buddhist text dated to the ninth century AD. From here, too, the region’s astronomical tradition – maintained quite possibly in an unbroken line from the period of Hellenistic-Indian interaction – was taken westward as refugees fled under the pressure of the Mongol invasion, their knowledge eventually informing the work done in Tabriz. Syria and Egypt regained, at that same time and evidently from the same cause, the previously ‘lost’ art of enamelling and gilding glass.

Considered in its historical context, the thirteenth-century Syrian glass is a poignant testimony to the fate of Nishapur in 1221 AD. Among the tens of thousands slaughtered was a poet named Attar and I believe the ornament on this glass is intended as a testimony to the city, its images a reference to Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’, the author having been among the thousands massacred when his city of Nishapur was depopulated and systematically destroyed, as so many others in the region were by the Mongols. Attar’s poem, however, survived and is still in print and much loved. It is a superb moral and spiritual allegory. In the view (right) the Simurgh and Hoopoe are both visible.

Between the time when Marco Polo had set off for the east in 1271 and when Ibn Battuta did so in 1325, major changes had occurred in the Mediterranean.

In 1290, the Mamluks of Egypt finally removed the last of the foreign-occupied centres in the Holy Land. Thus, while Marco Polo had been able to enter through Acco (Acre) and then use the Mesopotamian corridor to reach the sea in 1271, but on his return in 1295 that way was barred to European Christians and he had to go north and reach the Mediterranean by way of the Black Sea.

In the meantime, and as I first described when explaining the drawing on folio 5v, a large group of Genoese shipwrights and mercenaries had left for Mesopotamia in 1290, responding to an embassy sent two years earlier to the west by the Mongol il-Khan Arghun, who was planning a war against the Mamluks of Egypt.

Seven hundred of those Genoese went directly to Baghdad, but two hundred stopped at Mosul (ancient Nineveh), where they spent the winter building two sea-going ships. Mosul has no natural supply of ship-building timber but its reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world, and a hull painted with bitumen deterred attacks from the teredo or ‘shipworm’ which was the scourge of shipping in the eastern seas. Mosul was also a major supplier of astronomical instruments through the earlier medieval centuries and here too a version of the Dioscoridan herbal was made in which several elements find their counterpart in plant-pictures from the Voynich manuscript. That herbal was sent to Mashhad.

In posts to voynichimagery, I spoke in greater detail of the matters touched on in the paragraph above.  About the Genoese in Mesopotamia, I spoke initially when explaining the drawing on folio 5v. (Marancini’s ‘bitumen’ essay was published a few years later).  I’ll here add part of a footnote from a late post to voynichimagery  (October 21st., 2016).      ‘Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…’ Using pitch, tar/bitumen to waterproof a hull is as old as the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in Jewish law: Noah is told “Make for yourself an ark ..  make compartments in the ark and cover it with tar [=pitch] inside and outside”.  Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and  from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians would have known the deposits of Mosul (ancient Nineveh).  Herodotus (Bk.1, 179) describes a fountain of pitch in Babylon in lower Mesopotamia and, later, Eratosthenes (as reported by Plutarch Alexander, 35) did the same.   It occurs  in Mosul in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur. On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19.

Using their existing leverage with Constantinople and now with Baghdad, the Genoese were soon (from 1291) able to gain trading privileges amounting at first to near-monopoly in the Black Sea and similar rights of access to the eastern goods which were now being re-routed, from the older direct way via Damascus to that northern route, the same route which linked to the Persian gulf and which Marco Polo had been obliged to follow when returning west. The same route would been taken to Tabriz by ibn Battura in c.1326. All the gems and spices, all the practical and medicinal products, as well as materials used for pigments and dyes, now came west through that route or – with various limits and prohibitions and less reliably – via Cairo, Armenia and Tunis.

In sum:

Having shown that it is theoretically possible for ‘eastern parts’ to have contributed matter later copied to make Beinecke MS 408, the next post will consider details in the drawings from the ‘leaf and root’ section, to see if any offer evidence of such origins.

For anyone to have troubled to copy and to carry to Europe, and there to have copyied again with care any such information would imply (a) that the graphic conventions need not be those of western Europe or indeed of the Mediterranean, and (b) that the persons concerned in such a transmission are unlikely to have been members of those higher social groups who have traditionally peopled Europe’s ‘intellectual history’. More likely by far is that such persons would be practical otherwise unknown individuals, ones motivated chiefly by profit over any literary value though perhaps believing, as most medieval people did, that the oldest sources were the purest. Apart from western missionaries, those who moved between the eastern and western limits of the known world before 1440 were almost all traveller-traders, even if (like the Bolognese doctor mentioned in one letter attributed to the Sicilian missionary John de Montecorvino), their ‘trade’ was medicine.

What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’


Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.


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)


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.


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


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.


Specialist opinions – notes to Panofsky’s comments of 1932.

Header Illustration: detail from an astrolabe dated c.1400, showing month-names in Picard orthography.  illustrated by David A. King in Ciphers of the Monks: a forgotten notation system (2001). See also clip at the end of this post.
Two posts previous:

– – NOTES to Panofsky’s 1932 assessment, grouped by subject —

Notes  5, 6, 7, & 11    re: ‘Spanish’/”provincial French’ calendar month-names. Occitan; Catalan; Judeo-Catalan)

IN 1932, Panofsky said the manuscript seemed to him to be from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and that “the names of the months … undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish”; while in 1954, answering Friedman’s Q.7, he described those (later-added) calendar’s month-names as ‘provincial French’.  The two are not necessarily incompatible, and while it has become the custom today to suppose the month-names  Occitan, southern dialects – on which I concentrate here – include a range of  Occitan-affected variants, merging with Catalan-related forms near the border and – as example – in old Genoese.  The map shows the general range for various Occitan-related dialects. I would also mention that while here I am only concerned to elucidate Panofsky’s thinking, some researchers (e.g.  Thomas Sauvaget), do not think the month-names are in a southern dialect at all. There is also the curious, recurring hint of some link between the month-names and (northern) Picardy or at least to some PIcard scribe/s living c.1400.  The last element, so-far unexplained, occurs again in my last Comment in this post.

For any revisionist who might be interested, the dialect and orthography of the month-names still deserves careful study and I add a starting-list of references. However, as I said, this post is about Panofsky’s localisation of the manuscript. and his view of the month-names.

Dialect map courtesy of Quora

Pelling in 2009, thought the month-names’ dialect might be that of Toulouse, while in 2011  a Catalan named Arthur Sixto put the case for Catalan.

  •  ‘Old Occitan‘ – brief wiki article recommended for its bibliography.
  • Notes on ‘Occitan’ included in  ‘Military cryptanalysts: Panofsky’s responses of 1954‘ (January 19th., 2019) in Comments to Q 7.
  • Pierre Bec, ‘Occitan’ in Rebecca Posner and John N. Green, Language and Philology in Romance (1982).  pp.115-130. Technical, philological. Good maps.
  • a resource for comparing medieval French orthographies: Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330-1500)
  • for Anglo-Norman (which gives  e.g. septembre; setembre, setumbre).

Spanish dialects affected by Arabic in regions also affected by Catalan and Genoese see.

re: Genoese (locally called zeneize).

  • Carrie E. Beneš (ed.),  A Companion to Medieval Genoa, (Vol. 15 in the series: Brill’s Companions to European History).
  • Schiaffini, A. (1929). Il mercante genovese nel medio evo e il suo linguaggio. Genoa, Italy: SIAG

the reference to Schiaffini I owe to Franz Rainer, ‘The Language of the Economy and Business in the Romance Languages‘, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics.

The case for Catalan –  Sixto, Ridura and Erica


I’ve quoted Artur Sixto‘s comment before, but here for convenience:

“To me the months [names] seem to correspond slightly better to Catalan than Occitan. June for instance, spelled with “ou” corresponds to Catalan pronunciation, in French writing. “ny” would be Catalan relative to Occitan “nh” or French/Italian “gn”. So the person might have ties with the North of Catalonia (and could have a French influence) …. Interestingly, many Jews in Catalonia spoke Catalanic, a Catalan dialect close to Shuadit, i.e. Judaeo-Provençal (i.e. Judaeo-Occitan).”

-comment made to ciphermysteries (February 17, 2011).

Soon after, Sergei Ridura left a further comment (February 17, 2011). Translated, it reads in part..“It is possible that MS-408 was owned by some Catalan, possibly in Naples, since … there is a word that is more typical of Italian than  Occitan..”

Why Ridura chose Naples, I don’t know. I should have thought Genoa more likely, since Genoese is recognised as having more in common with Occitan and Catalan than with Italian. In addition, Genoa had constant connection with the Occitan and Catalan-speaking centres as a consequence of Genoa’s monopoly of that sea-route, which then extended around the peninsula to England and Flanders.  in the map below, Genoa’s routes in orange; Venice’s in dark green.

detail of map from Farrellworldcultures wiki site

However – Ridura’s comment, and Sixto’s were made to this post at ciphermysteries.

So again, thoughts shared by Erica that Pelling published on Nov. 24th., 2018 under a post about ‘quire numbers‘.(link is to a copyright image from Pelling’s book of 2006).

Here’s what Erica had said:

Nick, I think that what you call a 9 is actually an “a”. This seems to correspond with the way we abbreviate numerals in Spanish: (I start with quire 4) 4ta (cuarta), 5ta (quinta), 6ta (sexta), 7ma (septima) 8va (octava), 9na (novena), 10ma (decima) etc. The “a” indicates that the noun being modified by the numeral adjective is feminine. If it was masculine, you would use an o as in cuarto, quinto, sexto, etc (4to, 5to, 6to). I think the 9 shaped a is an “a” occurring in a final position in a word. This same symbol is also found throughout the manuscript’s cipher alphabet (also almost always occurring in a final position?) Something to think about. Also note that the 8th quite reads 8ua. Back then “u” was used instead of “v”…..

comment to ciphermysteries (November 24, 2018). (Pelling’s interpretation of the non-standard forms is that while thinking in Latin, the scribe “was actually writing … an ugly mixture of Arabic numerals and late medieval -9 Latin abbreviations: pm9, 29, 39, 49, 5t9, 6t9, 7m9, 8u9, 9n9, 10m9, 11m9, [12 missing], 139, 149, 159, [16 missing], 179, [18 missing], 19, 20.”

Note: I have always found Pelling’s site a valuable resource when hunting the origin and/or precedents for a well-disseminated idea. HIs posts are helpful, not least for their accurate documentation- which can help limit the ‘ground-hog day’ phenomenon – and because Pelling still allows opinions to be aired that imply doubt about his views.  (Not that his belief in free expression inhibits his own!). Pelling’s site, and  Reeds’ mailing list and bibliography, have proven most helpful to mapping the origin of current opinions about the manuscript, and I expect to refer to them often.
  • Variant forms within Catalan. See e.g. ‘Mallorcan, Menorcan, Ibizan and Formenteran‘, Rio Wang (Oct. 7th., 2010)
  • and for other mentions of Catalan and Occitan, of course, consult Jim Reeds’ mailing list (see cumulative bibliography Page).

Before any discussion about Erica’s thought could occur, it was so vigorously rejected by another contributor that she withdrew it, apologetically.  It happens too often that a potentially interesting line of thought is being quashed in this way, as if whatever does not serve a currently-popular theory becomes  “off topic” by definition.

Obviously, a Spanish- or a  ‘Catalan’ discussion might develop along lines which raise doubt about other theories – honestly and deeply believed by those promoting them – but  silencing a discussion by adopting a tone of absolute authority is pure ‘Wilfridism’. In this case, what are usually seen as ‘quire marks’ in Latin style may be so, and are widely supposed so, but it is not beyond question. And, after all,  Erica is Spanish, just as Sixto and Ridura are Catalan. Presumably they have reasons for their views, ones which may be considered and reasonably debated, but others deserve the chance to engage with them.

Apropos of quire signatures, it’s certainly ‘off-topic’ here, but it should be noted that their location and style differs between regions and periods, and so they too serve as aids to provenance. I have chosen this extract because written by the Beinecke librarian (later Vice-Provost) who wrote the catalogue entry for Beinecke MS 408. The first edition of her book appeared in 1991.

Note on Andorra – spoke Catalan before Catalonia at large:

“While the Catalan Pyrenees were embryonic of the Catalan language at the end of the 11th century Andorra was influenced by the appearance of that language where it was adopted by proximity and influence even decades before it was expanded by the rest of the Crown of Aragon”.

The local population based its economy during the Middle Ages in livestock and agriculture, as well as in furs and weavers. Later, at the end of the 11th century, the first iron foundries began to appear in Northern Parishes like Ordino, much appreciated by the master artisans who developed the art of the forges, an important economic activity in the country from the 15th century. wikipedia article.

Ramón Llull the Majorcan, father of literary Catalan.

The speech of Majorca has been recognised as separate from, though related to, Catalan.  Despite this, Lull’s treaties on philosophy, the sciences and poetry have seen him regarded as the father of literary Catalan.

When  ‘name-an-author’ was still an regular aspect of the Voynich manuscript’s study, as it was for a century, several persons (including Petersen) wondered if it might have been written by Ramón Lull. The idea was floated before the NSA’s involvement, but still circulated during those years (1944-1978) and has since re-emerged periodically.


Nothing has ever come of the idea to my knowledge and most discussions involving Llull have been driven by the assumption that the text is enciphered (which may be so, but it is not proven); or that Llull invented an artificial language and/or wrote in cipher (which ideas I’ve never seen supported by evidence);  or by a curious – because anachronistic – focus on the figure of Rudolf II, who as you may know is alleged by just one, fairly insubstantial (and never substantiated) item of second-hand hearsay to have bought our less-than-royal-standard manuscript for a fantastic price at some time between 1583-1612.

We know only that the name of a physician ennobled by Rudolf was at some time inscribed on the manuscript’s first folio. The inscription has never been suggested written in Rudolf’s hand and it is a foolish assumption to suppose that every book owned by anyone coming near Rudolf must once been his.   My (minority) opinion of the ‘Rudolf’ rumour – whose only source is exactly the same as that for the ‘Roger Bacon’ notion – is as Salomon’s judgement on the latter:

short list of Lull-Voynich references
  • from Les Enluminures website (Item sold but images still available online at present)L

RAMON LLULL, Ars brevis, and Ars abbreviata praedicanda, versio latinus II   In Latin, decorated manuscript on paper, Southern Netherlands, c. 1490-1550; and Germany, c. 1490-1520

  • The three references in d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma (open in a new tab to enlarge)

The Ferguson Collection at the University of Scotland includes many of Llull’s works.

Jacques Guy mentioned on the first Voynich mailing list (Wed, 12 Jun 1996) that one Llull MS in that collection was owned by Wilfrid Voynich. Guy lists it correctly as Glasgow University Ferguson MS 192, but the website address he gave is now out of date.  It is currently: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/manuscripts/search/detail_c.cfm?ID=44369

Guy, quoting the catalogue description, dated that manuscript to the 15thC, and noted that the north Italian scribe is named in MS. 76 as “John Visio”.

Lull was a desultory subject in that mailing list, chiefly in relation to themes of artificial language and cipher.

Joao Leao considered him, together with Hildegarde of Bingen (who had also been considered earlier by Manly and Petersen).  See e.g. Leao’s post of 24 Aug 1994.

On Thurs, 30 Oct 1997 Jorge Stolfi mentions that one of Llull’s books contains moveable paper wheels “to help the reader generate word pairs”.

Such forms are sometimes called ‘preaching wheels’ today (cf. Rota Virgili). Their purpose was to aid  retention and retrieval of texts committed to memory – in an age largely reliant on memorisation. Their heyday was the thirteenth century.   Technically, the ‘rota Virgili’ referred to (as it were) changing gears, from less to more elevated forms in oratory, but the ‘peachers wheels’ came to be popularly referred to by the same term. (Added note on the formal and informal use of the phrase ‘rota Virgili’ added Nov. 11th., 2021).

On diagrams of this type and Llull – see especially:

  • Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (second, revised and updated second edition 2008) pp. 329-338.

NOTE: It is a reflexive habit for modern Voynicheros to imagine that subtlety and complexity of thought had ‘evolved’ as European culture aged, but this is very far from the reality, and I would strongly recommend for those whose only knowledge of medieval attitudes is passing acquaintance with digitised manuscripts,  that they should read cover-to-cover Carruther’s Book of Memory as a crash-course in medieval Europe’s “ways of seeing”.

Other references:

In general, the English and Scots seem to have cared  most for Llull’s Ordre of Chyvalry, translated and printed by William Caxton from a French version of Ramon Lull’s ‘Le libre del ordre de cavayleria’ together with Adam Loutfut’s Scottish Transcript (British Library, MS Harley 6149), ed. by Alfred T. P. Byles (London: Early English Text Society, 1926), pp. xxvi-xxx [concerns the texSt at ff. 83-109 in Brit.Lib. MS Harley 6149. The foregoing from the British Library catalogue entry].

Note on Judeo-Catalan and Judeo-Occitan/Judeo-French. (and Picard).

There has been some debate about whether Judeo-Catalan existed, a current wiki article (tagged ‘this has multiple issues’) asserts it did not.  I have not looked into the question. though I note the following paper can be downloaded from academia.edu.  If read online, the automatic translator does a fair job if you don’t have Spanish.

entry for ‘‘Cervera’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica includes the following:

An inventory from 1422 suggests familiarity of Jews with Judeo-Arabic philosophy and Greco-Arabic sciences. That this was typical of Catalan communities in general we can deduce from another library that originated in Perpignan and ended up in Cervera in 1484. The discovery of some sources in Hebrew and Judeo-Catalan has immensely enriched our knowledge of the Jews of Cervera. 

That article has no footnotes; bibliographic references are abbreviated.

An paper published in 1947 suggested that while Jews in medieval France spoke the vernacular as a matter of course, Jews did not necessarily know the Latin scribal conventions.  I include this chiefly for its reference to a Picard in association with an astronomical work (because it has been noted by many since Pelling* first mentioned it, and independently found by more than one later writer  – I can think of Don Hoffmann and the late Stephen Bax offhand – that the closest orthography we have for the Voynich calendar’s month-names occurs on an astronomical instrument made in Picardy and discussed by David King in his Cipher of the Monks: a forgotten notation system. (2001).  I add a clip at the end of this post.

*Pelling first….‘  or so I had thought, but today cannot see a post about it on ciphermysteries.

In 1947 Levy wrote,

There is only one document extant in Old French that is to be attributed to a Jew. At Malines in 1273 Hagin le Juif translated the astrological treatises of Abraham ibn Ezra from Hebrew into French. He did it at the behest of his patron, Henry Bate, who wanted to render it into Latin.  Even so, it was not Hagin who wrote it down. He was forced, by his calligraphical inability [i.e. to write formal Latin style], to dictate the translation to a Christian scribe, Obert de Montdidier. While the language makes this work an integral part of the Judeo-French genre, the dialectal peculiarities reflect the Picard origin of the scribe.

  • from: Raphael Levy, ‘The Background and the Significance of Judeo-French’, Modern Philology, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Aug., 1947), pp. 1-7.
  • On medieval Picard orthography and pronunciation see catalogue commentary to Brit.Lib. MSs Additional 10292, 10293 and 10294.

A reference often mentioned in the scholarly literature, and which discusses the Greek element in Judeo-Catalan is:

  • Paul Wexler, Three Heirs to a Judeo-Latin Legacy: Judeo-Ibero-Romance, Yiddish and Rotwelsch (1988). Wexler does not ascribe this element to the dispersal of Jews from formerly Byzantine Sicily or southern Italy, nor to the often repeated statement that before the revival of Hebrew from purely liturgical language to one in daily use, Greek had been the lingua franca of Mediterranean Jews.

For the very keenest linguists, papers fifteen and sixteen may be of interest, from

  • Yedida K. Stillman, George K. Zucker (eds.), New Horizons in Sephardic Studies (SUNY Press, 2012)

Next post: further notes to Panofsky’s original assessment in 1932.