Theory wars – an illustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s up to you.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far so good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and today I’d add:

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


… and that was that.



Move forward a few years…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easily. It suits the theory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

though later they dropped the ‘probably’:

Pure Wilfridism.

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

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

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

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

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

from a commercial site.

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

But it fits the theory!! 

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

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

Or even that their subject is a medieval manuscript.

Quite beautiful, if you like abstraction.

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

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



(preamble shortened – 8th April.)

Fear of the Unknown and raft ‘Elegant’. Pt 2 – the white wall

Two previous

Header illustration:  Dehoij – Willem van de Velde ‘Sketching a Sea Battle’ [1845]

Any, or all of the Friedmans’ three premises might  be proven true one day.  But they weren’t in 1912, nor during the 1940s, and they haven’t been proven true yet.

In most fields of study, the misconceptions of sixty years ago have been superseded, but this is not the case in ‘Voynich studies’.

Since the late 1990s, and the closure of the first mailing list, the study has seen a catastrophic shift in emphasis from collaborative enquiry into a fifteenth-century object, to what Pelling once astutely described as a ‘Theory War’.

While not every researcher devotes their energies  to finding items in support of a particular theory, the majority now do.  The theories for which that circumstantial support is hunted are speculations derived from the earlier speculations by Wilfrid Voynich, William Romaine Newbold, the  Friedmans and/or Hugh O’Neill with the most widely disseminated – the most narrowly Eurocentic – theory being  the most dependent on them for its ‘givens’.

Because the earlier narratives were affected by ideas and assumptions characteristic of the late nineteenth- and earlier twentieth centuries about the nature of medieval thought and society, so now the usual type of speculative narrative (deemed ‘theory’) brings many outmoded ideas into the present time.

Until now, linguists and statistical analysts have stood apart from the theory-war’ but should any develop attachment to one or another of the hypothetical narratives or – on the other hand – produce results which present blank opposition to some widely held theory, this neutral territory could become as fraught with antagonisms as other aspects of the study now are.

With growth of theory-war mentality – especially noticeable after 2004 –   study of Beinecke MS 408 for its own sake has gradually become a sideline; for the most theory-driven the manuscript is just one of numerous sources to be mined for details that can, given compatible interpretation,  adorn the hypothetical narrative to give it the appearance of being more solid.  To observe that a given detail may  have been interpreted wrongly is to provoke nothing but hostility from those whose theoretical narrative is  well served by the error.   Indeed, many show every sign of preferring the virtual manuscript of their own invention to the problematic original, and some will go so far as to suggest the manuscript can be understood by none but hypothetical means.  To discuss or debate this last point was forbidden by executive order at, discussion of methodologies deemed ‘inappropriate’ for the study of a medieval manuscript.  No – I’m not kidding. The forum manager felt – probably rightly – that it would cause too much friction.

It is not only members of the larger theory groups who become enraged when confronted with a failure to adopt their preferred theory.    In the following passage,  leaders of a ‘New World’ theory become incoherent with rage for the same reason.  I would point out that one of the authors, Jules Janick, has a well-deserved reputation for his studies in the history of botany and its illustration.  None that I’ve read demand the reader ‘believe or else’ but  when that ‘Voynich hat’ is on his head, Janick is indistinguishable from the most vicious determined promoters of theories opposed to his own, though I concur with the idea that to defend a theory in despite of contrary evidence is behaviour better suited to fanatics than to scholars.    He and Tucker write:

Jules Janick, Arthur O. Tucker, Unravelling the Voynich Codex p.346

In addition to the fact that Janick and Tucker must know perfectly well that credit for the ‘hoax’ theory is not due to ‘bloggers’ but to Rich Santacoloma (a very civil theorist who does not render those of different opinions faceless), the way Janick and Tucker employ the term  “iconographic analysis” is not justified by the content of their book.  In it, I find no sign that either author understands what the discipline involves in terms of either method or range of expected sources – and no more do the ‘Eurocentic’ theory-groups whose members use it to describe any effort of any sort made to name the subject of an image.

To discuss and address issues of terminology and methodology is impossible in the current atmosphere of ‘theory-war’ just as it has become impossible to invite discussion of possible implications of the manuscript’s  including various Asian forms and conventions (see ‘details’ below). One might wish a return to reason and egalitarian attitudes were possible but I cannot envision it will be in the near future. Too much time, effort and ‘face’ has been invested in successful promotion of the various speculative-hypothetical stories.

upper – detail from folio 67v lower – detail from f.85r (drawn on the back of the Voynich map)


These are just two of numerous instances where the manuscript’s imagery includes motifs, details and stylistic habits characteristic of hither or further Asia.

As to the ‘white wall’ idea reflected in popular histories of the earlier twentieth century – little of it is found today in serious historical writing.  In fact, just a year after Friedman interviewed Erwin Panofsky, a first paper on the subject of Asian and other foreign peoples within Latin Europe was published in Speculum – the same journal which had finally decided to publish O’Neill’s 300 word ‘note’.  The latter sparked another Voynich narrative; the former failed to see any widening of the NSA’s research parameters.

  • Iris Origo, ‘The Domestic Enemy: The Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’,  Speculum, Vol.30 (1955) pp. 321-66

Origo cites, for example, via Robert Davidsohn, the complaint made by a twelfth-century Pisan monk about the number and variety of foreigners in his city during the annual Great Fair, speaking of:

  “Turks and Lybians [Libyans] and Parths and Chaldeans, and similar monsters emerging from the sea.” 

In the same century, Benjamin of Tudela described those to be seen in the city of Montpellier:

… Har Gaash which is called Montpellier. This is a place well situated for commerce.  It is about a parasang from the sea, and men come for business there from all quarters, from Edom, Ishmael [Yemen?], the land of  Algarve , Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the Great (by which he means all the Byzantine empire), from all the  land of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, France, Asia and England. People of all nations are found there doing business through the medium  of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are scholars of great eminence, at their head being R. Reuben,, …. They have among them houses of learning devoted to the study of the Talmud.

From those many temporary or shorter-resident foreigners, we move in the fourteenth century to greater number of permanent ones, beginning with  the decree issued by the Priors of Florence on March 2nd., 1363, which permitted “the unlimited importation of foreign slaves of either sex – provided only that they were infidels, not Christians”.

A slave should not be presumed illiterate, ill-bred or uncultured.  Slaves included free persons enslaved, whether by capture in war, by abduction or by deliberate sale to the slavers.   Mamluk Egypt was the major buyer, and Arab slavers the major supplier within the African continent, but the European Knights Hospitaller in Crete and the Genoese were the next most important figures in the medieval trade.   So alarmed did the Mongol rulers of the north become at the draining of their own potential armies by the loss of women and children that they banned the trade – or rather, attempted to do so.

Thus the plain fact of history is that the strange-looking matter in the Voynich manuscript could – for all we know – have come first into Latin horizons with an Asian woman as easily as a Latin man.  The ‘white wall’ idea is now nearly seventy years out of date at least, yet for theorists attached to narratives originating in the ideas of that time, assumptions and bias implicit in Wilfrid’s narrative, in the Friedman’s  parameters for research and thus in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma remains current thinking.   When one can be publicly admonished by a ‘Eurocentric’ on the grounds that, by asking whether we haven’t placed too much reliance on the Mnishovsky rumour, one deserves censure for having ‘spoken disrespectfully of a member of the nobility’, then one can only imagine the offense likely to be taken if one suggests Rudolf might have paid six hundred ducats for the writings of a Mongol slave.

Of course, it wasn’t only the slaves who knew something of Asia by the late 1300s.  In the Upper church of St. Francis of Assisi, a manuscript is depicted in the style of a western codex and with inscriptions intended for the  recently-invented  Phagspa script.   Tanaka wrote the seminal paper on this matter,  to which I referred when explaining for Voynicheros the historical context for the manuscript’s final phase of development before c.1400.   The information was received in silence.

Sources recommended in those posts to voynichimagery.

  • Hidemichi Tanaka, ‘The Mongolian script in Giotto’s paintings at the Scrovegni Chapel at Padova’,  Akten des XXV. Internationalen Kongresses fur Kunstgeschichte Pt.6 (1986) pp.167-74. or:
  • Hidemichi Tanaka, “Giotto and the Influences of the Mongols and the Chinese on His Art: A New Analysis of the Legend of St. Francis and the Fresco Paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel”, in: Bijutsu  shigaku [Art History] (Sendai), VI (1984),
  • D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Chronological strata ~ Avignon 1300s’, voynichimagery, (February 6th, 2015).
    • __________________, ‘On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean’, (October 31st, 2016).
  • Roxanne Pranzniac, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 177-217.

but see  also

  • Hidemichi Tanaka,, Oriental scripts in the paintings of Giotto’s period” – Extrait de la Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Mai-Juin 1989 pp. 214-224 .
  • Vera-Simone Schulz, ‘From Letter to Line: Artistic Experiments with Pseudo-Script in Late Medieval Italian Painting, Preliminary Remarks’ in Marzia Faietti and Gerhard Wolf (eds.), The Power of Line (2015) pp.144-161.


I also see that a wiki article has been written during the past couple of years.

note (22nd April 2019) – on second reading I found that wiki article so bad as to be objectionable and have removed the link.  Readers will get a less skewed idea of the degree of intercourse between Asia and Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by reading the primary sources in Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, [4 vols]which can be read through the internet archive (vol. 1 linked) or  the excerpts reprinted with commentary on the  Silk Road Seattle site.



Postscript (4th April 2019) – in the current theory-driven atmosphere, it occurs to me that I should say plainly that by noting Asian elements in the imagery, or pointing out that the old   ‘white wall Europe’ idea is contradicted by the facts, I am not announcing allegiance to any existing theory, nor the advent of a new one.   If I have any ‘theory’ it is that the manuscript would be better served by more sober methods than theory creation.

April 5th – in response to readers’ comments I have added a couple of phrases, to clarify (i) that I do not mean to imply the forum manager responsible for this problem, which predates the establishment of and (ii) that an the ‘theory war’ includes (and could be argued to have begun with) those maintaining the theoretical history which is so often repeated today.


Next post:  Santacoloma’s instinct re forgery.

Notes on Panofsky’s comments 4. Kabbalah

Header Illustration: detail from a Kabbalist scroll.  Brit.Lib.  Or 6465 (1556)
Two previous:     Notes on Panofsky’s comments 3 – hesitations (
Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2 – (

See also Postscript – added at end of post, 28th. Jan. 2022.

Note 8: … ‘Kabbala’

When Anne Nill wrote to her friend Herbert Garland in 1932 about Panofsky’s viewing the manuscript, she said, “He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!8

The question has been hanging ever since. I know of no further comment by Panofsky, though something may be buried in the archive of his correspondence.

Elegant Enigma includes a  few paragraphs under ‘Cabala’ in the section titled ‘Collateral Research’, where it is placed between Angelic magic and Alchemy.

Notice d’Imperio’s use of the past tense:

” [Cabala] depended heavily on manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and lists of sacred words and was in general highly ‘verbal’ and abstract in character in contrast to the iconic and ‘visual’ character of other magical [sic!] systems,… the manipulations of Cabala may have inspired at least some cryptographic devices’     (d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma. p.60).

Both her spelling for the word as ‘Cabala’ and her few comments suggest that d’Imperio relied on an article in the  1901-6 edition of   Encyclopaedia Judaica.  If so, she didn’t take to heart its authors’  admonition:

most modern scholars … have treated the Cabala with a certain bias and from a rationalistic rather than from a psychologico-historical point of view; applying the name of “Cabala” only to the speculative systems which appeared since the thirteenth century, under pretentious titles and with fictitious claims, but not to the mystic lore of the geonic and Talmudic times. Such distinction and partiality, however, prevent a deeper understanding of the nature and progress of the Cabala, which, on closer observation, shows a continuous line of development from the same [religious] roots and elements.

What d’Imperio calls  ‘word-manipulation’ and thinks the mark of a magical system owed most to Abraham Abulafia, a conscious rationalist and follower of Moses Maimonides (who is sometimes called the ‘arch-rationalist’). Maimonides’ thought was – and still is –  respected across the religious and sectarian divides.  Of him, the  Catholic Encyclopaedia writes:

“through his “Guide of the Perplexed” and the philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna … [Maimonides] exerted a very important influence on the Scholastic philosophers, especially on Albert the Great, St. Thomas [Aquinas], and Duns Scotus.”

speaking of perplexity, and though off topic, I’d like to mention a paper I’ve just seen online:

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘Solved: The Ciphers in Book iii of Trithemius’s Steganographia’, (DRAFT: 26 March 1998).

‘Voynich’ thoughts and Kabbalah

detail of miniature in a Greek Kabbalist manuscript.       Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Ottieni. courtesy Lehigh University.

An online search for ‘Voynich’ plus ‘Kabbalah’ turns up nothing to help us understand Panofsky’s remark.  It may seem harsh to say that nothing said so far about the Voynich manuscript and Kabbalah has been other than trivial – but see for yourself:

  • In 2009, Pelling mentioned (here) that Pater Castell saw the  sephiroth in  one of the botanical drawings (Pelling’s illustration).
  • In 2013 Donald Goodell began a thread on the mailing list managed by Rich Santacoloma.  See that thread here.
  • A conversation was begun some years ago in the online ‘Journal of Voynich Studies‘  but – as so often – the talk soon veered  back to its contributors’ chief interest: the nobility and seventeenth-century Prague.
  • On July 5th., 2015,  Marco Ponzi left a comment on Stephen Bax’s site, citing an image from a sixteenth-century Kabbalistic Greek text. (It was Ponzi’s find, but a detail from the same diagram can be seen above).   Darren Worley soon provided the picture’s caption, “Influence of the moon on reading the signs of the cabala (kabbalah), miniature from the Cabalistic treatise, Greek manuscript, 16th century…etc.  Ponzi doubted the caption’s accuracy, but  I’m assured it’s correct.
  • Jan.26th., 2016, a thread opened on the forum ‘’.  The subject was actually Jules Janick’s published theory (with or without his name mentioned). The exchange followed the usual course.

Otherwise, Arthur O. Tucker‘s co-author, Jules Janick has made most of the general idea, pulling into Tucker’s ‘New World Voynich’ narrative the late and Christianised style of Kabbalah, knowledge of which he attributes to the missionaries.  However, in overlaying  the tree of Sephiroth on the Voynich map, Janick failed to notice that the quarter he designates ‘North’ is marked clearly with the rising sun which signifies East.

Texts and resources

(detailBrit.Lib. MS Or 11791 f.8v ‘Perush Sefer Yetzirah’ cf.  Brit.Lib. Add MS 26929.

As readers will realise, we are still entirely at a loss to know what about the manuscript or in it, could have led Panofsky to say he thought there was some influence from Kabbalah.  Of course, he might not have expressed himself as definitely as Nill reports, but hers is the only account we have.  He might simply have been musing…’Spain or somewhere southern’… Jewish… thirteenth to fifteenth century… could well be some influence from Kabbalah..’  We don’t know. The whole question is still, effectively, unexplored.

Any reader inspired with determination to solve the problem, one way or another, might like to begin with  Sefer Yetzirah, (‘The Book of Formation’ (or: ‘- Creation’) which is the earliest and perhaps best known of works described as Kabbalistic, though in this case the description is debated.

“Composed in (c.200 BCE – c.200 CE). Sefer Yezirah (Book of Formation) is the title of the earliest extant book on Jewish esotericism, although some early commentators treated it as a treatise on mathematical and linguistic theory as opposed to Kabbalah.”

– from the Sefaria site‘s introduction to the parallel Hebrew/English text.

  • British Library MS Or.11791 Parchment codex.  Commentaries on the Sefer Yetzirah (14th-15thC).
    The Library recommends the following article – and so do I.

The catalogue entry for another volume highlights the need to forget parochial thinking. The various hands are described:

Script (summary): Spanish and Italian semi-cursive script;  Italian semi-cursive script of the 15th century;  Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Spanish semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century. 

For the  total novice (as I am), a couple of easy first meetings with Kabbalist thought:

  • George Robinson, ‘Kabbalah in Spain‘, (undated online article). Sub-title reads, “From the 13th through the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula was the home of most major kabbalists.”
  • A modern orthodox rabbi,  Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, explains Kabbalah for modern believers –  youtube video.
  • An article by Ephraim Rubin which looks like a very solid introduction to the Zohar.  published as a blogpost at Kinkatso & Co.

See also:

edited from the original.
  •  Joseph Dan, ‘Gershom Scholem’s Reconstruction of Early Kabbalah’, Modern Judaism, Vol. 5, No. 1, Gershom Scholem Memorial Issue (Feb., 1985), pp.39-66.
  • Hartley Lachter, ‘Spreading Secrets: Kabbalah and Esotericism in Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-kadmoni’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 111-138.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Ramon Lull and Ecstatic Kabbalah: Preliminary Observation’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51 (1988), pp. 170-174.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” and the Kabbalah’,  Jewish History, Vol. 18, No. 2/3, Commemorating the Eight Hundredth Anniversary of Maimonides’ Death (2004), pp. 197-226
  • Shaul Magid, ‘From Theosophy to Midrash: Lurianic Exegesis and the Garden of Eden’, AJS Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1997), pp. 37-75.
  •  Daniel Jütte, ‘Trading in Secrets: Jews and the Early Modern Quest for Clandestine Knowledge’,  Isis , Vol. 103, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 668-686. (This paper includes the discursus on Abramo Colorni – regarding whom see N.Pelling, ‘Abraham Colorni’s Cryptography…’ ciphermysteries, (Feb.9th., 2019).
  • The Zohar – first edition published in Mantua 1558-60 is in the Library of Congress, Hebraic Section.  (Sefer ha-Zohar, 3 volumes, Mantua, 1558-60 )


Postscript – 28th. January 2022.

I should like to acknowledge the courtesy of Koen Gheuens who wrote to let me know that about six months ago, a Voynichero called ‘Carey’ approached him, citing the same manuscript which I used here for my header and invited him to join her in creating a theory about the Voynich map.  Koen only much later thought to check – as a scholar does – to see what precedents there might be for associating that same source (Brit.Lib.  Or 6465 (1556) to images in the Vms and on noticing this post, maintained the same scholarly approach by writing to ask my thoughts.   One appreciates such courtesies all the more for their rarity in the online ‘Voynich’ world.

For readers who might care to know the same, I’ll share two thoughts:

first.  Yes, I did see points of comparison between Brit.Lib. Or 6465 and details in the Voynich map – which is why I included a couple of details from it in the post.  BUT that scroll was made at least eight generations after the last recension of the Voynich manuscript, and about a century and a half after our present copy was made.

Brit.Lib. Or 6465  is dated to1556.

Secondly, to suppose that any viable ‘Voynich-Kabbalah’ storyline could be developed by any persons without the essential preliminaries – that is, the necessary languages and study under a scholar specialising in medieval Jewish religious thought and writings – is an idea more informed by self-confidence than by reason.  Kabbalist studies were not casual reading; it was recommended only for mature adults (over 25) who would by then have had not less than thirteen years’ prior study in religious texts and commentaries- in Hebrew, in Aramaic and related dialects, and in such Jewish dialects as Judeo-Occitan or Judeo-Catalan etc.

That said, if Koen Gheuens and ‘Carey’ (f.) are keen enough to take the topic seriously – and far more seriously than d’Imperio did – I hope they’ll find a suitably qualified Jewish scholar to provide a detailed and well-informed opinion before publication.

Next post:  Salomon and Liebeschutz