O’Donovan notes ‘Calendar’ emblems Pt 6.2 – July and computistic lobsters.

c. 2900 words. This one’s a full essay. I did think of breaking it into two or three parts – but decided against. I’ll wait a while before posting again).

The author’s rights are asserted.


Setting aside, for the moment, the issue of that three-point head, this post looks at some computistical manuscripts from the environments in which Michael Scot gained his primary and higher education, looking for insight into what we might call the calendar-related problems – such as the Voynich series’ including only ten months, its starting from March, its assigning the crocodile as posited Scorpius to November and this emblem, as posited Cancer, to July – not June. And we are also seeking to understand when and why Latin works developed this lobster-like form at all.

As our first step, I’ve selected a computistical miscellany dated to about a century before Scot’s lifetime. Among the texts gathered there is a copy of Bede’s classic De Temporum Ratione.

Note: Scot’s lifetime is our benchmark, at present, because an earlier study by Koen Gheuens began there.

* * * * **

Bede’s De Temporum ratione might have been made with constellation-drawings, but if so no original copy survived; the fifty or so copies extant are in computistical compilations, or miscellanies. These are handbooks of material relating, more or less closely, to calculations of time and the calendar, but few include sections displaying single images or emblems for the constellations – not even for the calendar-zodiac ’12’.

One which does was made in England or in France, and is one of the most admired of such miscellanies. This is Brit.Lib. Royal MS 13 A XI, from which I’ll cite Bede as our first textual justification for the Voynich calendar’s assigning its lobsters to July and its crocodile to November – given that the one is posited as a form for Cancer and the other for Scorpius.

FIG.1 text from Bede’s ‘De Temporum ratione’

This passage offers our first textual justification but is not the only justification that can be offered. A Roman-era mosaic calendar recovered near Tunis shows a series of twelve images in the Labours-and-feast-day style. Its year begin with March, and its July and November images are compatible with those in our late copies of the Chronography of 354. The oldest Roman calendar had only ten months and also began from March.

I don’t wish to suggest no other reason but antiquity can explain why a calendar might begin with March and contain only ten months; the same would describe the Mediterranean sailing year during the centuries of interest to us; in the western side of the Mediterranean, at least, one did not set sail in January or February. This does not, of course, explain inclusion of the doubled April and May in the Voynich series.

However it will become important, later, that calendars of the Labours type pre-date the Christian era; are attested in regions beyond the Italian peninsula and especially that the theme of the November image in the Tunis mosaic sequence, and in the Chronography of 354 and in the Voynich series, all emphasise a link with Egypt and its vision of the heart-soul’s journey into the afterworld, something discovered in exploring the ‘November’ emblem (see previous posts in this series).

FIG 2. details from the Roman-era mosaic calendar recovered in El Djem. The figure on the left carries fisherman’s equipment in a basket or lobster-pot.

Historical context – brief sketch.

In Egypt, particularly in the Fayum, imagery of the crocodile would continue to appear in that context of entry into the otherworld journey, and to as late as the 6thC AD – by which time Christianity had been made a recognised religion of the Roman empire; the empire’s capital had been moved from Rome to Constantinople, the model of Egyptian monasticism both anchoritic [solitary] and cenobitic [communal] were established, the former style earliest adopted in the west, and chiefly among the Irish but the latter had come too, with its emphasis on copying manuscripts.

By the 6thC AD, too, Rome had already been sacked by the Visigoths, Hagia Sophia was being built, North Africa was a major centre of Christianity, Augustine having lived just a century earlier, and now Gregory the Great travelled to Egypt to acquire books (or more exactly, scrolls and papyri) while Isidore of Seville was attempting to preserve the learning of the late Roman west by composing his encyclopaedic Etymologiae.

To so late a time did the beliefs of older Egypt survive, and in Alexandria the accumulated knowledge of the Greek and Roman would survive into and after the coming of the Arabs in the following, seventh, century.

That corpus would provide a foundation for the flowering of Baghdad and of Cairo’s scholarship from which – and from about Scot’s time – a small proportion would again enter the Latins’ intellectual horizons, much of it coming via North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The style of commercial calculation and Arabic-Hindu numerals would spread chiefly by the models of ‘abbaco’ style schools in north Africa and the Aegean, while most astronomical knowledge came, so far as we know, via Spain and particularly through Toledo though Idrisi’s work in Sicily should not be overlooked.

The role of multi-lingual Jews in that transmission, shortly before and during Scot’s lifetime, is increasingly recognised by western scholars.

De temporum ratione and its dissemination.


Bede’s De Temporum ratione was written around the beginning of the eighth century. He was an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived almost all his life in the confines of his English monastery. He wrote, of course, in Latin, the purity of which has often been remarked.

By the time De temporum ratione was copied in Brit.Lib. Royal MS 13 A XI, England’s language of governance was now Norman-French and from France were coming to England replacements for older texts (and libraries) lost to war and raiders after the days of Bede, in whose time Anglo-Saxon Britain had seen a remarkable, if localised, flowering of intellectual and artistic life, notably, but not only, in York and Winchester. One of Bede’s pupils would teach Alcuin, a first teacher of Charlemagne. By Michael Scot’s time, the monastic and manuscript-copying cultures of France and England were so closely in step that the holding library can describe Royal MS 13 A XI only as having been made in “Northern or central France or England”. Not even the style of script or the finish of the membrane is distinct enough to know whether the manuscript was made in the one region or the other. Not that it matters greatly to us, except in allowing us to include England of that time among the Romance-speaking regions.

To judge from the fifty or so remaining copies of De Temporum ratione, its greatest popularity was reached by the mid-late thirteenth century, but its overall importance means it was certainly known to Scot, as a text basic to earlier computistical miscellanies.

The work’s importance, and therefore its dissemination, is explained by the publisher of a recent English translation:

Bede’s The Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione) [was]… the model and reference for all subsequent teaching, discussion and criticism of the Christian calendar … but it is more than a technical handbook. [it] incorporates themes as diverse as the theory of tides and the threat of chiliasm. ….

One French scholar puts it this way (here)
“Because [Bede] wrote with great clarity and his examples were addressed both to teachers and to students, the De Temporum Ratione became one of the most popular of Bede’s works and remained for centuries a standard reference text in Western Europe”.

As with most computistical miscellanies, however, pictures of the constellations have been included by adding some separate extract or summary of a ‘constellation text’. In Royal MS 13 A XI, this takes the form of a summary* made by Abbo of Fleury.(c. 945 -1004 AD), of Ps-Hyginus’ Poeticon Astronomicon.

*’Excerptio Abbonis ex Hygino de figuratione signorum (ff.105v-113r). For a full description see link (supra) to Brit.Lib. Royal_MS_13_A_XI.

Here are Abbo’s figures for Cancer and for Scorpius in that miscellany:

FIG. 4

In that small, somewhat faded drawing, buried in a copy of a text composed before the year 1000 AD, (Fig. 4 and Header) we’re given a clue to the reason that western medieval works sometimes draw forms for ‘Cancer’ with a lobster-like tail.

Its mask-like face aside, the rest of the figure is a near-literal image of what is popularly called today the Slipper Lobster (Fig. 4 – right and centre). Its abdomen is usually kept curled below the thorax. Its claws are not large. Its antennae are short and reminiscent of what you see on smaller creatures such as a grasshopper, or even like whiskers . Seen through the water, or in its usual habitat, at the mouth of a crevice underwater, and camouflaged as it would be in life, it is easily be mistaken for a crab.

FIG. 5

Modern taxonomists do not count the Slipper lobster a true lobster, though its genus is named fairly enough: Scyllarus.

FIG. 6

So too for the other creature shown above (Fig. 5, left) and again here (Fig.6).

It is also not included by modern taxonomies in the Lobsters, though still called the spiny lobster, or less aptly as the [marine] crayfish. Another term for it may seem modern and informal but is very much the oldest, and in that sense the most authentic: Locust-lobster.

Here’s part of the entry from Etymology Online showing that the idea was widespread, particularly in France and Britain.

Lobster – Early Middle English lopster, lopister, from Old English loppestre “lobster,” also “locust,” … Latin locusta, lucusta “marine shellfish, lobster;” also “locust, grasshopper”..Locusta in the sense “lobster” also appears in Old Cornish legast and French langouste (12c.), now “crayfish,” but in Old French [it means] both “lobster” and “locust” A 13c. Psalter has God giving over the crops of Egypt to the langoustes).*

* langouste – details of that Psalter were not given, or I’d have included the image. 🙂 The reference is to Ps.105:34-35, taken as prefiguring the eighth plague visited on Pharaoh. Langoustine, in modern French describes a type of prawn, which also appears for ‘Cancer’ in Latin Europe’s medieval art.

FIG. 7

But words don’t come from books – they come from people and are recorded in books. Associations in language imply practical observation of one kind or another.

Lobster as Locust.

A perception that locust and lobster were similar is also found among the Greeks, as Isidore rightly said at least a century before Bede wrote. and in a book that was to be found, in part or entire, in almost every monastic centre of Europe, his Etymologiae.

Locusta are so-called because their legs are ‘long, like spears’ (longis . . . asta, i.e. hasta, “spear”). Whence the Greeks call the sea- as well as the land creature αστακός (i.e. “lobster”). Etymologiae XII.viii.9. The modern English translation, (the first ever made), has a translators’ note that locusta means not only “locust” and “lobster” but also “crayfish”.

One can understand how that perceived equivalence between locust, lobster and similar creatures was reached. All are voracious feeders, indiscriminate (especially the marine locusta) and after their passing nothing has been left unconsumed. Little wonder that in thirteenth century Oxford, the same locust plague, as the eighth inflicted on Pharaoh, is represented in Apocalyptic style. These are marauders – voracious beasts with the faces of men – langoustes:

FIG. 8 – see Exodus 10:1-20.

It also makes intelligible a form given Cancer in one of the Labours series of Vézelay, though the series’ in Latin Europe typically gave Cancer for June, the month for harvesting hay in cooler latitudes, as against July when northerners’ harvested grain.

FIG. 9

*scientific information on Locusts.

Another passage recorded by Isidore offers the key to another early (eleventh-century) image for Cancer, while clarifying that inference, so commonly seen in the imagery, that the creature for Cancer, and that for Scorpius are akin to one another.

FIG. 10

Many creatures naturally undergo mutation and, when they decay, are transformed into different species – for instance … locusts from mules, scorpions from crabs. And at this point, he quotes Ovid: “If you take its curved arms from a crab on the shore a scorpion will emerge and threaten with its hooked tail (Ovid, Metamorphoses. 15.369).

Those are the heads of two mules, and their inclusion meant as a memory-prompt for fellow scholars, in the same monastery, of that passage of text: “Locusta from mules..”

I hope two things will have become clear by now – that the analyst’s task is not to produce ‘matches’ of superficial form, but to read the intention of an image in terms of its own time and context and to be equipped to recognise when the intention and ideas informing images ‘match’ – despite variations in outward form.

Secondly, that in order to read correctly the intention of a problematic image set down when our twenty-five-times-great-grandparents lived, one needs rather more than “just two eyes and commonsense” as some Voynich ‘memers’ assert.

A Lobster-like creature for Cancer is not wrong.

FIG 11 The mosaic from San Savino, Piacenza, is dated to c.11th C by some, and to the 12th by others. It assigns the Lobster to July.

* (edited to modify) I disagree with some of Nicklies’ opinions, especially in the first part of his paper, where he appears to rely on combination of theorising and scrying, but my initial judgement was too hasty. I’ve altered this comment accordingly (25th Sept. 2022) and in the next post point out where Nicklies’ research and mine co-incide. . But for Voynich research, I repeat, its most valuable element is that reference to ‘Ausonian verses’,

  • Charles E. Nicklies, ‘Cosmology and the Labors of the Months at Piacenza: The Crypt Mosaic at San Savino’, Gesta, Volume 34, Number 2 (1955) pp. 108-125.

Nor does it imply, necessarily, that a draughtsman, carver, painter or writer knew nothing more.

Isidore himself says, quite correctly:

Pliny [Natural History 32.142] says there are 144 names for all the animals living in the waters, divided into these kinds: whales, snakes common to land and water, crabs, shellfish, lobsters, mussels, octopuses, sole, Spanish mackerel (lacertus), squid, and the like. – Ety.XII.vi.63.

So the ‘lobster’ idea is perfectly ok, even if it’s not what we might have expected or would describe as ‘normal’ for our own time.

Since this exercise is treating only two emblems, not the series of diagrams as a whole, we must leave detailed exploration of the calendar, as such, to others, though De Temporum ratione would be a sensible first text in the reading list. I also recommend

  • Bracken, Damian, ‘Virgil the Grammarian and Bede: a preliminary study’, Anglo-Saxon England 35 (2006): 7–21.
  • Wallis, Faith [trans.], Bede: The reckoning of time, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999.
  • A longer bibliography here.
  • A useful vocabulary, and articles offered or planned on the Alexandrine computus, the Computus Runicus, and the Klingshammer computus HERE.
  • A clear and detailed explanation of the computus controversy between Ireland and Rome HERE

But despite all we’ve discovered so far we’ve still encountered no pairing of these locustae or αστακοί. And we’re not likely to find them in the few illustrated constellation texts typically included in the Latins’ computistical miscellanies – whether or not the matter in those miscellanies informs the diagrams whose centres these emblems fill.

Constellation pictures in Computistical texts.

Other than the odd copy from Aratus or from Abbo’s summary extract from the Poeticon Astronomicon, just three texts figure, one attributed to Bede through the medieval period but now assigned to some unknown author as ‘Ps-Bede’. Lippincott lists them (Aratus; De signis coeli; de Ordine when speaking of the marked disjunction between transmission of those texts and transmission of the illustrations used in them. She writes:

“The illustrations accompanying these texts, however, are much less uniform than the texts they purport to illustrate. As seems to be the case with so many of these constellation manuscripts, the division into pictorial families fails to accord with what one might expect given established philological stemmata of the texts…

  • For more on ‘de Signis’, ‘de Ordine’, the Aratus Latinus and Revised Aratus Latinus see published works by Elly Dekker, Kristen Lippincott and Ivana Dobcheva, and an essay published online by by Filippomaria Pontani, though one should not expect each to agree completely with the views of any other, even about the written text(s)

Does this mean we should we ignore written context?

Not necessarily. Pace Lippincott, not all drawings in manuscripts were derived from none but manuscript sources, and despite the Latin’s world’s usually granting primacy to written over pictorial text – and often treating images as no more than ‘illustration’ of the written text – it is also the case that drawings may work as a parallel, or alternative, or complementary ‘text’ for that which they accompany.

The forms given an image may be informed not only by the associated text, but by popular lore, puns across Latin and a vernacular, local by definition, by imported terms, and common lore as well as by a effort to ‘translate’ originally non-indigenous imagery.

Or, as Lippincott says, by one or more other, but unrecognised texts.

I believe I may have identified one: Ausonius’ school-room mnemonic poems, thanks to the three-point head detail and finding among the examples one from the mosaics of Piacenza and – hunting that up – come across the bare mention of ‘Ausonian verses’ in an otherwise unremarkable paper. Nicklies’ paper is unremarkable for its first couple of pages, It rises to the level of the scholarly and thoughtful for most of the middle section, but then simply returns to the same art-appreciation-theory style with which it began.

Still – it really is good in the middle.

Here are the verses used, as photocopied from the old edition in our library.

This is not the end of the story, though. Ausonius only knew the 12-month year which began in January. That suited medieval Europe, of course, but to complete the account of these emblems from the Voynich calendar (if it is a calendar), one more post will be needed.

O’Donovan notes #7 – Range is Balance (Pt 1).

c.4000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Voynich studies has seen a continual stream of imaginative quasi-historical storylines invented for the manuscript since 1912 when Wilfrid began trying to re-sell it.

Though each of those narratives was contradicted by the next, by historical fact, and by the primary document itself, nearly all have been thought plausible by a larger or smaller band of believers.

To show how this curious situation, which continues to this day, is due to a now-habitual “Voynich method”, I built that same method into the studies of two figures from folio 85r.

What I wanted to demonstrate was that any theorist feeling enthused about some idea, and adopting that idea in advance of any actual investigation will be biased from the outset, re-defining ‘good’ information to mean information they think lends their idea greater credibility and ‘bad’ research as work whose conclusions oppose their theory.

Selecting the former while constantly blanking the latter inevitably results, of course, in that writer reaching a conclusion consistent with their expectations but built on so narrow and biased a range of data that it cannot do other than misrepresent the content in this manuscript.

Far from being the first to look critically at their own ideas, promoters of Voynich storylines have proven, from 1912 to 2022, the most easily misled believer in their audience. It’s not due to personality; the pattern shows the problem a flawed ‘Voynich method’ so doggedly maintained that against it even the primary document protests in vain.

So now, to specifics.

In treating the female figure I adopted the traditionalists’ habit of beginning as if I just *knew* what the conclusion of research would be before starting to do that research. In effect, I was attempting to give an air of credibility to an idea, where the analyst aims at making a balanced assessment of the drawing and the available evidence.

By the end of that post, therefore, I had adorned that first ‘idea’ with official-looking quotes which – without actually presenting any case – suggested to readers that this drawing could only be a product of my arbitrarily-selected region, nationality and period. That is, late twelfth-century England

If you re-read the post Note #6i (cont.) with a properly critical eye, I hope you’ll notice how fairly obvious questions were slid-over or waved aside. Such as:

  • What do you mean by ‘England’? Define ‘England’ in terms of geography and of time.
  • Apart from England, where do we find evidence of Scandinavian-influenced dress surviving, and over what sort of temporal range?

As I’ve mentioned before, most questions aiming at an analytical-critical study of images are of the ‘where-and-when’ as well as the ‘why’ kind.

The habit of imagining that what is attested in one time and place can exist at no other time or place is absolutely characteristic of Voynich theory-narratives and another habit persisting throughout the study ever since 1912. The more traditionalist the theorist, the more you can expect their narrative riddled with that notion. It is the whole foundation for some of the most publicised Voynich narratives today.

What should have been done, in the first of my two studies, was not to chase evidence likely to persuade others to believe a ‘London’ theory, but to ask questions framed in terms of range e.g:

  • Over what range – in terms of culture, and time and geographic regions – do we find evidence of women wearing clothing of such a kind?

And the researcher must be prepared for disappointment as well as satisfaction; the results of research may be unexpected; they may show that the sought-for information has not survived the passage of time.

Restoring the Balance.

Not all the omissions and errors produced by that ‘Voynich method’ can be balanced out by this one post, but I’ll do what I can as briefly as I can.

Questions of influence.

Linguistic, political and cultural influences are three distinct factors in historical studies as in the study of artefacts.

Creators of Voynich storylines habitually treat the three as synonymous, though it takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that .a speaker of English may wear French fashions; that you may learn to speak one language and later speak one or more others; that territory now part of France (for example) may have been dominated, at different times, by the mores of Scandinavia, of England, of Spain, and/or of the Papacy. Linguistic, cultural and political influences are not one and the same.

It will be convenient to use a few maps and quoted passages to illustrate the changing patterns of influence in the far west from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. Unless otherwise stated, the maps are from wiki media.


In 911 AD.. the French King, Charles the Simple, offered land to Rollo in exchange for his loyalty to the king of West Francia…

That Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte granted Rollo and his soldiers all the land between the river Epte and the sea “in freehold and good money”. It also granted him Brittany “for his livelihood.”

That was the origin of the Duchy of Normandy. of which Rollo was the first Duke.

The initial grant was extended by further grants and Rollo’s descendants created the area as coherent political entity during the course of the 10th century.

As late as the early 11th century Normandy still retained political and economic connections with Scandinavia and Scandinavian settlers in Britain and Ireland.

edited from an entry on the ‘Viking Archaeology’ website.

By late in the 10th century, before William’s conquest of England, the situation was as shown below, with the French king’s domain here coloured blue, and Normandy (Normandie) and Brittany (Bretagne) having strong historical links to Scandinavia. At this time Calais belonged to Flanders.


The lands granted Rollo are now within the rights of William, conqueror of England.

Territories of William I of England, including dependency of Brittany

Replying to “What language did the Duke of Normandy speak in 1066? ..” Stephen Tempest replied to another member of Quora:

Norman French. This was a dialect of French that was similar to, but not identical with, the French spoken in Paris.

A notable difference is that Norman French had several words beginning with W- which in standard French start with Gu- instead.

The obvious example is the name of the Duke of Normandy himself: in Parisian French it would be Guillaume, but he used the name Willaume, Another example: the word ‘guerre’ in standard French was ‘werre’ in Norman French, and became ‘war’ in English.

Norman French also had several loan-words from Norse, which were not found in standard French. These included the dialect words for ‘sand-dune’ (mielle in Norman, dune in French) and ‘small island’ (hommet in Norman, îlot in French).

To this evidence of Scandinavian viking influence in the west we must add place-names. I’ll take Normandy as the sample:

A common place name ending in parts of Normandy is –tot, from the Norse word tóft, meaning the place of a farm. In modern Icelandic we have the word tóft, which is used for the visible ruins of a farm structure, but is also known as a homestead name. There are at least 589 places in Normandy which end with suffix tot. Another particularly common is the suffix -londe with 269 places ending with the -londe or -lont suffix from the Norse word lund, which translates as clearing. There are several places with the lundur ending in Iceland, including Bjarkarlundur in the South Westfjords.

Place names with Norse roots are most common near the coast and along the river Seine.

Other common Norman place names of Scandinavian origin are –hogue from the Norse haug, meaning hill or mound (more than 100 examples) and –dalle from dal, meaning valley (over 70 examples).

from an article in Iceland magazine (Nov. 19th., 2015)

So, altogether, Normandy is one region where we might expect some lingering influence from earlier Scandinavian populations.

Movements of people, and areas where multiculturalism is attested are also relevant and since we’re now looking at both sides of the Channel, it’s important to take note of lands that were not subject to the French king, especially ecclesiastical domains, because they attracted displaced persons. For example, when Edward I of England expelled all Jews in 1290, some sought protection there.

LATE 12th – early 13th CENTURIES

The map above is not quite accurate. By 1204, Montpellier – for example – had become part of the kingdom of Aragon.

From even so much information, it becomes clear that the geographic range in which we might find that combination of influences earlier described is not limited to Scandinavia, London and the Danelaw – or even Ireland and the western Isles – but should also consider the Channel’s southern shore – at the very least along the coast between Flanders and Cap de la Hague.

It is also within the period between the 11th-13th centuries that we must place the flourishing of Flanders cloth industry. A good basic outline here. Take note of the role played by both Genoa and Venice.

Within that coast, matters connected to the Voynich calendar make England’s possession of Calais, in Picard* country, important.

The term “Picardy” was first used in the early 13th century, during which time the name applied to all lands where the Picard language was spoken including territories from Paris to the Netherlands. In the Latin Quarter of Paris, people identified a “Picard Nation” (Nation Picarde) of students at Sorbonne University, most of whom actually came from Flanders.

‘Picardy’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

For two hundred years – that is from a hundred years before until more than a hundred years after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was made, Calais was not under English occupation, but was an English possession such as Gibraltar is today – as the city’s local historian, Philippe Cassez, reminded Nicholas Montard.

Within the region we may describe as Picard country, Calais was English territory from 1346 until 1558.

The city was made ‘English’ in the strictest sense in 1346 by the expulsion of its inhabitants, a matter of some sensitivity today, and a good example of why using just a single source or single utterance from an ‘expert’ is very poor practice.

The wiki article ‘Pas-de-Calais’ in English is no more than a translation of the French article, the latter written by someone evidently so patriotic that their account of the region’s history ‘blanks’ those two centuries of English possession.

Another scholar, attempting to minimise the awkward facts of Edward’s behaviour on taking Calais, writes this:

… some of the French were expelled and English settlement was deliberately encouraged. Thenceforward, the town’s officials, garrison, and merchants were almost exclusively drawn from the [English] homeland. Its strategic significance was as both an outer defence for England and a base for campaigns into France… It was heavily defended, often housing 1,000 troops alongside a civilian population of c.5,000. It also played a key role as the staple through which all exported wool had to be directed. As a result, its company of merchants became increasingly powerful in the government and financing of the town.

Ann Curry, in The Oxford Companion to British History.

I’m focusing on regions where we can posit a lingering Scandinavian influence together with English influence and a textile-industry because I maintain that the informing words for the female figure on folio 85r are reflected in the utterance given the NNE wind in Walters 73 and that the figure is designed to convey an habitual association of ‘clout’ with ‘cloud’. My post ‘Understanding the Woman’ was intended to illustrate the limits and bias of the conclusion-before-research method now habitual for Voynich writings and objectively so odd. My aim was not to invent information or misinterpret the figure’s meaning.

A third site shows less restraint in speaking of Edward and fails to appreciate that medieval attitudes won’t be those of a modern person, but does mention that in medieval Calais more than one language was spoken.

We may suggest that as well as English and Flemish Picard and Chtimi might have been heard in its streets:

Although he had spared the citizens’ lives, Edward evacuated [sic] the city and populated it with English people. Calais was used as a ‘staple’ that is a warehousing town for the distribution of wool exports and a means of collecting taxes levied on wool. Calais was thought of [sic] as part of England and even [sic] sent representatives to the House of Commons. …

Historically part of Flanders, the Pale was bilingual: English and Flemish were commonly spoken

Ward’s Book of Days. The author’s contact address begins ‘engliteessays’. 🙂

Now, while one ‘evacuates’ a population from care for its welfare, the fact is that the French were not ‘evacuated’ but expelled and there is no evidence at all that Edward felt any concern for their welfare. Nor (as we’ve seen) was Calais ‘thought of’ as part of England; it was part of the English domains. The author seems to imagine there was something unusually gracious about the fact that in English Calais, the English were entitled to representation in the house of commons.

These things are why I would not use any one of those three sources as an only source: range is balance.

Another glance at the linguistic divisions. This map per Andrew Oh-Willeke‘s blogpost (July 25th., 2019) where details of the original source are as given.


England with Burgundy – 1339-1415

1339-1415 AD

1426 AD

1426 AD

So – that was the situation for people across this region before and during the time when the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was being made, and probably inscribed- though where that happened is still unknown.

Since the diagram on folio 85r (part) uses graphic conventions which are very nearly – if not entirely- consistent with those of Latin Europe, it seems reasonable to begin re-considering the woman’s dress within those areas on both sides of the English channel where Scandinavian settlements co-incide with the later Norman and Norman-French, not least because aspects of the Voynich calendar also direct us to that region. I’ll touch on those calendar matters later in this post.

Traditional labourer’s costume.

Here we meet a problem. The sort of people who commissioned illuminated manuscripts in medieval Europe weren’t interested in what labourers wore at work, and not for centuries later would it become fashionable to romanticise and ethnograph-ise rural ways and clothing.

The illustration (left) shows a reaper in a version of court costume, with a foreign-looking hat. Even exceptions to the rule, such as the representation of labourers in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, generally show peasants well fed, shod, and dressed with not an apron in sight before Colomb’s contribution (e.g. to the calendar’s ‘September’).

It is therefore unrealistic to expect (though one may hope) that any grand manuscript produced around the time the Voynich quires were inscribed will include a reliable portrait of the costume worn by members of the labouring class.

Sadly, we can’t rely either on what is now classified as a region’s traditional costume. The later romanticism which created the hideous Gothic Revival style in architecture, and saw the invention of hundreds of allegedly Scottish tartans by the woolen mills of Bradford also informs the choices made when a regional folk-costume was being defined.

From the late eighteenth century, but especially during the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, urbanites armed with sketch-pads – and then with cameras – began travelling through western Europe recording what they imagined was regional and national dress. Some were doing this to assist fashion-houses get new ideas; others looking for quaint images to issue as post-cards. Others again, infected with post-Napoleonic national pride, formed clubs dedicated to preserving their ‘ancient’ rural traditions. Mayors and town worthies, on seeing the books and pictures, promoted one form of local costume as definitive for their region.

What such collectors and officials often failed to notice was that, faced with having their portraits made, the country people hadn’t worn their everyday clothes but their best ‘Sunday-go-to-meeting’ wear and finery of a kind never worn but at weddings, funerals and days of high holiday.

Most costumes today described as regional or national dress are of that kind. In Germany, the opposite happened. Leather shorts once widely worn in medieval Europe as hard-wearing workday clothes came to be imagined, in societies formed in Munich and other cities, a ‘festival’ costume unique to Bavaria.

All of which means, for us, that attempting to discover where, and over what area, some form of traditional Scandinavian costume survived to inform the Voynich drawing is very difficult indeed. But one can try.

If this project were one undertaken professionally, I’d begin by making an appointment with conservators in a Museum having a section dedicated to the history of costume. But experience shows that even the opinion of someone from the Getty will be howled down and decreed ‘off-topic’ in Voynich arenas if it opposes a currently-popular traditionalist narrative.


Since we know that Scandinavian, Norman- English and French influence affected the southern coast of the English channel from Flanders to the Cap de la Hague, we might begin there.

Picardy (political region).

Described as Picard dress, that on the right is associated specifically with Calais in works produced after 1850. Evidently the wearer might choose the long apron or the short, the elaborate headdress or the worker’s cap. Neither wears brooches.


At some time before the seventeenth century, Normandy’s women adopted the shawl, and even the poorest now wore some version of it with working costume, as with more formal dress. What they wore in medieval times is uncertain.


Gaugin painted these Breton girls in 1888.

And from no-where near the Channel, but from Bresse in Burgundy, we have these two spinning women photographed for a postcard printed in the early decades of the twentieth century, possibly after the first World War..

for the whole image see http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr/fr/contenu.php?idcontenu=48http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr/fr/contenu.php?idcontenu=48

The costume on the right evokes the style of Scandinavian dress in the viking age, but is not closely similar to the drawing we’re investigating. The spinning woman to the right isn’t wearing a full apron, but a bodice and waist-apron. Our drawing doesn’t include the typically Scandinavian strings of beads or chain, where the later costume does. And while the older spinning woman certainly wears a round brooch, the younger is wearing a cameo or photograph hanging from a black ribbon.

What the photograph does indicate is that it was possible to find surviving over more than nineteen hundred years and a distance of more than a thousand kilometers, remnants of the old Scandinavian customs. That they should survive in Burgundy is not unreasonable. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

“The Burgundians were a Scandinavian people whose original homeland lay on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, where the island of Bornholm (Burgundarholm in the Middle Ages) still bears their name. About the 1st century CE they moved into the lower valley of the Vistula River, but, unable to defend themselves there against the Gepidae, they migrated westward to the borders of the Roman Empire.

Even so, we don’t actually know anything about that the woman on the right. For all we know, she might be the older woman’s Scandinavian daughter-in-law, or a seasonal worker brought in from Picardy, or a descendant of some family of textile workers brought south from the Low Countries late in the fifteenth century, after Dukes of Burgundy took possession of them. She may be a person displaced from one of those towns which had been all-but-destroyed during World War I. The only reason we have for believing her dress traditional in Bresse is that the photographer apparently believed it was.

That photo is evidence, but not evidence of what was worn by a spinner or weaver in medieval Burgundy. What turns us back towards the Channel is information from earlier Voynich research.

Jacques Guy and Jorge Stolfi first suggested that the month-names in the Voynich calendar might be Occitan. Artur Sixto urged Judeo-Catalan, and more recently a writer whose name I cannot discover insisted they reflect a dialect spoken in the region of Belgium and the Low Countries.

Nick Pelling first noticed that a closely similar orthography occurs on an astronomical instrument made in Picardy for England. The same fact and same source was later noticed by Don of Tallahassee. These things have since been repeated, sans attribution, by numerous theorists who prefer their readers to imagine those contributions original to themselves. This habit has come to be a hall-mark of team-spirit among some theory-groups, and most prominently of the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory group, a few of whom treat published research as street-urchins might treat a market-stall.

Here are the month-names in the Picard dialect as written today: ginvié January; févérié February; marche March; avri April; mai, maï May; join June; juillé July; aout August; siétimbe, sétimbe September; octobe October; novimbe November; déchimbe December.

Here I must add that in considering the old military rolls of Calais I found the first known instance of a crossbowman’s being called ‘Sagittario’.

UPDATE (June 24th., 2022) – Koen Gheuens, who has studied formally the subject of historical linguistics, has very kindly given me permission to add the following:

I would be cautious with those month names. People claim with equal confidence that they are southern French or northern French, and there seems to be a lot of confusion. I am yet to see convincing evidence for either region. When I asked a professor of French linguistics about this some years ago, he said that the material was simply not sufficient to determine a region. I do think determining a region should be possible, but so far the evidence is minimal. It should be possible for someone who is at home in historical French texts, regional evolutions in French dialects, and has a lot of spare time though.

Koen Gheuens, pers. com.

Most recently, Koen Gheuen has tracked the Voynich-style eight-legged ‘lobster’ from Norman Sicily through northern France (near the Belgian border), and even further – to as far as Alsace.

  • Koen Gheuens, ‘Homard à l’Alsacienne’, The Voynich Temple herculeaf.wordpress.com (November 11th., 2018)
  • Koen Gheuens, ‘ A network of faulty lobsters: Scotus, Cantimpré, Megenberg and the Voynich Manuscript’. (December 11th., 2018)

Though sheer serendipity, I happened on another example of the ‘faulty lobster’ a couple of days ago. An infra-red map of a detail in a painting dated probably c.1263-4, and made by Margarito d’Arezzo, shows a lobster with eight legs and two claws. The image is part of a video discussing the National Gallery’s restoration of the oldest painting in its collection. Here’s the detail. For close-up, open the image in a new tab.

screenshot from ‘How we uncovered the secrets of the Gallery’s oldest painting’ – video by London’s National Gallery. The infra-red image is seen at 5:53. This faulty lobster has 8 legs *and* two front claws.

Notice of bias – I’m strongly biased in favour of conservators and other such tech’y Museum types. If I have to choose between getting the opinion of a librarian, an historian or a conservator – I’m sorry to say that my innate bias will incline me towards the last.

Margarito d’Arezzo made that painting during the lifetime of Thomas of Cantimpré, and only twenty years after the latter’s most famous work, “Opus de natura rerum” had been completed – 1244 AD, So there’s no chronological problem about positing connection to Cantimpré’s ‘faulty lobsters’, nor even to Michael Scot’s.

Thomas of Cantimpré was initially a member of the religious order of Canons regular and was later ordained a priest. He studied and lived in Liege, in Cologne, in Louvain and in Paris. In 1240 he was made a Professor of Philosophy at the university of Louvain. “Opus de natura rerum” is his best-known, but not his only composition.

In the centre of the larger work, d’Arezzo placed the Virgin and gave her a crown in which German and Byzantine elements are combined, intending (in my opinion) allusion to the rulers of Sicily and thus to the emperor’s cause (the Ghibelline cause), to which his city remained always constant.

What allows us to harmonise the findings of those several Voynich writers’ earlier-named is not insistence on a particular nationality or first language. The fact that is that all Europe had a single language in common – Latin – and it was in Latin language that knowledge was disseminated across all of western Europe. Chief among the centres of learning when the Voynich manuscript’s quires were formed were the Universities of Paris, Bologna, Padua and – as we’ve seen) Toledo.

For people living at a distance from Europe, I add a few more maps to finish this post.


I wanted to include a revision of the ‘East’ figure from folio 85r, but with this post so long already I’ll refer to just one point: in one of the few remaining written accounts of the Mongols, a Latin writer describes how their garments are tied and remarks that they have a collar and ‘fasten on the [wearer’s] right’. The person who first made the drawing, if living in Europe might – quite simply – have misunderstood.

Dear email-correspondents … Pt 1.

This post has been shortened and edited, after the author was ‘eldered’ by older and kinder (and non-Voynich-connected) friends.

The last couple of weeks have brought some interesting correspondence.

Some of the email-writers complain that they can hardly refer to original work I published online if it’s no longer online. One describes me as ‘the Gordon Ramsay of Voynich studies’ and a couple more echo the sentiment with less humour. The most interesting invites me to write an addendum for their planned paper about the Voynich plant pictures. The subject is ‘mnemonic elements’.

While I declined the offer, I appreciate the fact that those authors got the timeline right. It is quite true that I was the first to describe the plant-pictures as containing – usually in the position of the ‘roots’ – mnemonic devices which serve as additional commentary on the plants forming the subject of each drawing. The information was not well received at the time. Somewhat later, Don of Tallahassee began using the word, was brave enough to mention his source, and while he received a poor reception, the ‘idea’ began to become more popular although those using it seemed to think that a mnemonic was little more than a simple ‘associative doodle’. One person hunted d’Imperio, found a reference to Frances Yates’ book about Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and claimed that the analytical studies I’d published were ‘nothing new’. This made the word ‘mnemonics’ acceptable to many, though I’d already explained that Yates’ book had nothing to offer, and that readers hoping to understand how these elements work in plant drawings should begin with the studies by Mary Carruthers, which would not explain the Voynich pictures but would give some idea of the complexity and sophistication of mnemonic techniques in a world before printing, and where many remained illiterate all their lives.

The reason I cannot provide the commentary those authors want is that the details in the Voynich plant pictures are devised to supplement information about the plants referenced by a given drawing, so that if the authors’ analyses and identification is flawed, the mnemonic will either make no sense or will conflict with their posited identifications. There is no easy set of correspondences, and the mnemonic elements are no key to understanding a drawing, but are a helpful means to cross-check a developing analysis of any Voynich plant-drawing because they are very well informed and refer to the plants’ common uses and value for commerce. They are quite unlike the simplistic devices used in western herbals of the type Aldrovandi called ‘the alchemists’ herbals’ which (by comparison) read as a bit flat-footed and leaden.

I won’t name those authors yet, but once their paper is published and the risk of its content’s ‘co-opted’ that much less, I’ll direct readers to that paper.

In terms of the manuscript’s story, one can map the rise of poor practice in parallel with the rise of a ‘central European’ theory, and the consequent shift of focus from investigation and research aimed at better understanding the manuscript to a focus on promoting and attempting to persuade others, of that imaginative story, or of some other.

But the effort to promote a theory was accompanied for the first time by a refusal to engage with persons whose research (and I mean research beyond picture-matching) constituted opposition to the theory. Again, purely as a matter of fact, those who refused to discuss or engage in debate and who behaved as if their theory was the only ‘logical’ position were promoting the ‘central European Rudolfine’ sort of story.

I’m not sure whether they also brought to the study a particularly obnoxious practice, one which might be described as plagiarism at one remove or ‘deniable plagiarism’.

I’ve been watching its affects in this study for more than a decade, though it certainly began before 2008, and before Nick Pelling’s experience in 2011.

What happened in 2011?

Well, Nick was gob-smacked by a particularly glaring example of the most sickening of all forms of plagiarism- what you might call ‘plagiarism at one remove’ or ‘disownable plagiarism’. It involves conning some third party to ‘launder’ the stolen property and the phenomenon has become so common in Voynich studies that it is an important reason so few eminent and independent scholars are now willing to address problems presented by Beinecke MS 408.

Nick described his experience so well that I won’t try to improve on it.

In his case, the (fairly-) innocent third-parties weren’t Voynicheros but employees of a television company.

Here’s the crux (emphasis is mine):

 It wasn’t even that they were ignoring me, but rather that they gave every impression of trying to re-create my results by other means so as to avoid having to credit (or even name-check) me.

Nick treats the issue by normal standards of fair and unfair.

I tend to see it in terms of its corrupting the normal, and formal standards of scholarly research – of integrity versus corrupt practice.

I’m not criticising ‘new comers’ who’ve been conned into thinking they are exploring for the first time some ‘idea’ presented to them as if never before explored.

On the contrary, I think the amateurs are being badly misused, their enthusiasm abused and their reputations as honest individuals likely to be demeaned in the long run.

It also means that the study sees an endless ‘re-invention’ of matter already studied, but of which studies a majority are left in ignorance.

I should probably offer a current example so I’ll take a fairly easy and current topic – the ‘swallowtail merlons’ theme which is undergoing another revival.

I’d like to say that the topic was being ‘revisited’ or ‘re-considered’ but it’s shaping up as another of those ‘groundhog day’ conversations, whose only joy is ‘team spirit’ and where all involved appear to be oblivious of what has been said, thought and argued about it since 1996.

Some of the guys engaged in the ‘revisiting’ are very nice people. It’s rather depressing to see them repeating mistakes made quarter of a century ago.

But you might like to consider what Koen reports of it, in his latest post, and then compare that material with what turns up if you search Reeds’ mailing list and Pelling’s blog for ‘swallowtail’ ‘fishtail’ ‘dovetail’ and ‘Ghibbeline’ (Reeds list) and ‘merlons’ and ‘castle’ (Pelling’s blog). Most of the references in those sources, reflecting individuals’ ongoing research come with their cited sources.

It’s a pity that the posts from Rich Santacoloma’s mailing list haven’t yet been issued as a searchable database.

With many – even most – of Nick’s opinions I disagree. I find his efforts at iconological analysis ill-informed. But I’d bet there’s not a single instance of his trying to pretend another person’s insight his own, or any instance of his pretending that the research conclusions reached by any other person was just an ‘idea’ wafted to him on the wind by reason of some innate ‘genius’. He does not expect others to do the work of researching ‘an idea’ for him, or engage in ‘deniable plagiarism’ either.

I have a high opinion of Koen’s intellectual integrity, too, and if so much of what is being offered now by his forum- team reads to other readers as earlier research ‘label-stripped’, I’d lay odds he doesn’t know it is.

In the next post, I’ll treat the earliest phase of the ‘swallowtail’ discussion in Voynich studies and comment on some of the more common errors in the way the Voynich drawing has been treated. The oldest and most persistent error has been to forget that the subject of study is supposed to be a drawing in a six-hundred year old manuscript, and what significance might be implied by this motif. One can hardly determine this fairly complex question by a tour of such ‘Ghibbeline’ battlements as happen to survive in the twenty-first century. Sorry.

What magic? Where magic? – 4. Whose magic?

[6th July – post shortened, by request]

I’d like to begin by quoting more of what Stuart Buck said to the assembled NSA tem in 1976.  I’ve added one word, because while keeping clear of most typical ‘blind spots’, he did overlook the possibility that what is contained in the written and/or pictorial text did not necessarily originate in the time and place the artefact was made.

from Buck to NSA at seminar 1976

As my readers will be aware, I have reason to be grateful for Nick Pelling’s willingness to treat decently with the newcomer, and to answer the usual research questions about sources, earlier studies on a topic, precedents and so forth. For many, there has been no other reliable source of information about such things, because regardless of his own preferred theories, Nick has always been willing to treat honestly with others’ work.

That said,  I should also make clear that each of us approaches the manuscript from a very different angle.

Pelling sees it as an historical problem and has said, in the past, that the aim of  historical research is to form a theory. 

My approach is  material and pragmatic –  identifying and then working to resolve any set or series of questions arising during close examination of an artefact.   In other words – my approach is question-driven and my research is thematic in style.  In response to an idea of the manuscript as about magic, my response is to consider the range and type of magical imagery and where – if anywhere – that item from the manuscript might belong.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with forming an historical theory. In practice a theory, once espoused, can so easily lead researchers by the nose, to the point where they find confirmation everywhere and become so certain of the theory’s rightness that some have even invented fictions to serve as ‘patch’ over some hole in that theory.  I suppose what I mean is that theories can be seductive – as Newbold and too many others have found to their cost. The internal logic of an unfounded narrative can persuade even those who construct them.   It was the flaw in Wilfrid’s story, in O’Neill’s ‘note’ of 1944, in Brumbaugh’s papers and in much more Voynich writing produced since then. 

But at base, it is a problem of methodology, tools and validation.  

Methods – Thematic research vs theory-focused. 

A theory-driven study, on considering some possibility such as ‘magical’ content tends to define the parameters of study by their theory, not by the ostensible subject – the manuscript – and the topic for research – magical images.

Thematic research sets the limits of investigation without regard for any theory. Theories can wait, and wait indefinitely, and can – often must – be modified after the detail is, or isn’t, found to accord with both the historical evidence and the rest of  manuscript’s internal evidence.

In relation to the ‘occult Voynich’ narrative we see it informing method is  theory-driven because it begins where it ends: with the Germanic/central European theory or some other theory-defined locus, and without any effort to honestly consider the evidence for any other possibility.  No-one has, compared and contrasted – for example – alchemical images from Spain, England, Italy, France, Sicily and Byzantium or the Aegean islands and concluded that the closest in style to the Voynich images are characteristically ‘Germanic’.  But to be of assistance to those working to understand the written part of the text, such a process of investigation and elimination is important.  

I think I should give a specific example here of the contrast in method between a theory driven driven approach and a thematic, question-driven approach works in practice, but since much of my work in recent times has been doing ‘background checks’ on ideas currently circulating, it’s difficult to find an example that won’t upset someone.  I’m reminded of what Curt Zimansky once said, as he began a talk:

I HAVE CHOSEN TO TALK about a work that has been praised and damned for two centuries, about which one cannot venture an opinion without offending two thirds of one’s colleagues, and about which there is still no critical agreement. … Where there is so much disagreement about a work of acknowledged importance all parties will plead from the historical approach. I hope to show that … history can be used to re- inforce a prejudice, or can combine with critical techniques to obscure what is clear; that on the other hand a rigorous use of the history of ideas can rectify error and permit us to extend critical dimensions. (p. 45)

  • Curt A. Zimansky, ‘Gulliver, Yahoos, and Critics’, College English, Oct., 1965, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Oct., 1965), pp. 45-49.

Perhaps the best illustration is one which has no clear-cut conclusion, and so I’ll use the example of a recent enquiry into whether or not, as Pelling recently suggested, Quire 20 should be imagined two quires rather than one,

Nick Pelling remarked – almost as if were self-evident – that:  

… Q[uire] 20 … contains far too many bifolia to be a single quire,… I think may originally have been constructed as two separate gatherings Q20A and Q20B.

That’s the theory.

Readers might find it plausible; they may find it suits a preferred theory of their own. It may be a valid notion. It may not.

My first inclination, then, is to consider first that the Beinecke library’s description has the quire as a single gathering, one which was a septenion (seven bifolios) but from which the centre bifolio has been lost. 

Pelling says it has  “too many” bifolios and my immediate question is  “too many compared to what?” –  and the first answer which occurs (and which may be inaccurate) is that the comparison is to  ‘normal’ Latin custom. 

So where is the justification for altering the form of a manuscript to make it less obviously unlike a Latin ‘norm’?  Especially this manuscript whose quires contain so much else that has no parallel in any known Latin manuscript.

Its ‘fold-outs’ might be better termed ‘fold-ins’ since they most resemble scroll-lengths folded in to the size of the Voynich quires and stitched in. Then there is the assertion, always somewhat problematic, that ‘Voynichese’ is written in a humanist hand.  The Voynich pages’ lack of ruling out and lack of simplicity in their arrangement has always seemed to me to sit uncomfortably with that ‘humanist’ idea.  But it may be right.

In terms of codicology, too, there are other other a-typical quires, including what had been two quinions.

Quire 8 was- and quire 13 is a quinion.


Evidence for Quire 20 as  originally a septenion seems clear enough.  The quire was sewn as a single quire.  

But perhaps  it merits some digging to see how unusual were septenions and quinions in the fifteenth century.

A first search through JSTOR produced an article which looked promising.

  • E.K. Rand, ‘A Harvard Manuscript of Ovid, Palladius and Tacitus’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 26, No. 3 (1905), pp. 291-329 (39 pages).

Rand’s article is of interest not least because the the ‘humanist hand’ is usually said to have been first used by Poggio Bracciolini and one of the two manuscripts bound in the Harvard volume is written in that humanist hand, includes an introductory letter to Bracciolini, and consists of a single septenion. 

The other of the two manuscripts bound to form that volume consists of ten quinions.

I’ll quote some of Rand’s commentary.

The most important fact omitted in Quaritch [the seller’s catalogue] is that the volume includes two separate manuscripts; they are noted here as MS I and and MS. II. The contents of the volume are as follows: fol. I-4. Two uniones, added when MS. I and MS. II were combined. .. Both MSS., naturally, were written before the date of binding. ..

Manuscript 1: “This manuscript consists of a single septenion. It has 22 lines to the page.  The text occupies 12.2 x6.4 cm.
fol. 5. Rynucius Poggio suo Oratori Eximio I felicitatem (in red) Ille Rem optimam et sibi salutarem ….. (fol. I8). At inuita nemini datur effugere fatum. (One line blank) FINIS.
fol. x8.’ Blank.
An unpublished letter of Rinucci da Castiglione to Poggio, with translations of the Athenian decrees contained in the De Corona of Demosthenes. The letter must have been written before I459, when Poggio died; probably before I453, when he left Rome; and possibly much earlier still, as he was studying Greek with Rinucci as early as 1425. See Voigt, Wiederbelebung des klass. Alterthums, 1893, II, pp. 45, 84. The present copy might well have been made about the middle of the century.

Manuscript 2:

MS. II. This manuscript consists of ten quinions. It has 23 lines to the the text occupies 12.7x 6.4.

N.B. This manuscript contains a work by Ovid, and while it is Ovid’s Heroides, not his Metamorphoses, it’s only fair to mention that Koen Gheuens has (or had) a theory that the Voynich text represents matter from the Metamorphoses.

While I am unable to agree with Koen’s reading of the Voynich drawings, I have long been of the opinion that the oldest chronological layer informing the drawings – if not all the drawings in every section of the Voynich  – is Hellenistic, first enunciation having been, in my opinion, contemporary with the Seleucids. A later layer I date to the 1st-3rdC AD and  latest of all (barring some pigments and marginalia) to between 1290-1330.  Manufacture of our present manuscript-as-object I date, naturally, to the early fifteenth century..
  • Harvard has made the volume available online. Phillipps MS 6748 describing it as “an anthology of humanist texts” and dating the whole, as bound, to between 1425 and 1500. 

What was being copied by these humanists and scribes were copies of ancient and classical texts in versions previously unknown to Latin Europe, being brought or fetched into Italy, by Byzantine immigrants.

So, we  have one useful example. The Harvard volume’s manuscripts were certainly made and written in Italy. Both are dated to the fifteenth century, with the septenion perhaps inscribed within a short time of the Voynich manuscript, and since the Harvard volume shows the humanist hand already in use (before 1440?) we don’t have to abide by the usual dating for that hand’s appearance in Italy. The layout issues remain, but there seems no obvious reason for supposing septenions weren’t being used in fifteenth-century Italy.

A cross-check with Beit Arie, reveals another example. Beit Arié says that septenions are very rare in Jewish manuscripts before listing 31 examples. He says they are “found only in seventeen paper manuscripts, in thirteen manuscripts with mixed quires from Spain, Italy, and Byzantium, and in one Italian parchment manuscript.” Beit Arié does not distinguish vellum from parchment.

  • Malachi Beit-Arié, Hebrew Codicology: historical and comparative typology of hebrew medieval codices based on the documentation of the extant dated manuscripts using a quantitative approach‘, unrevised (2018) preprint  of

So there’s an interesting possibility – that text in  Quire 20 might have been copied onto vellum from a septenion quire in a paper manuscript .

Note to self – what is known of the parchminers’- and stationers’ network for the early fifteenth century? Quires ready-made?  

Like the Voynich manuscript, the Harvard volume also contains quinions.

Less rare than the septenion in Latin European manuscripts, they were actually standard for quires in medieval Arabic manuscripts. 


Altogether, so far, this information raises a possibility that quires of this type, being atypical for Latin European works, may have been – for some reason as yet unexplored –  deliberately selected and/or what was on offer from the stationers or parchminers, who not only sold sheets of membrane but ready-made quires. 

Another possibility is that use of the quinion, and/or the septenion, was some quirk of the small circle of 15thC Italian Graecophiles and/or a usage familiar to the Byzantine Greeks who had emigrated into Italy. 

A third possibility is that the ancient and classical texts which are copied into that Harvard volume had been of that form when brought into the west, and so the form as well as the content was being imitated – perhaps as sign of authenticity, or to avoid risking quires of a rare text being separated.

The ‘Graecophile/Byzantine’ possibility took prioriy –  first, because if it were found to so, it might tell us what sort of text may be written in the quinions and septenion of the Voynich manuscript. 

Naming a paradigm.

Which of the various Byzantines sent to fetch manuscripts from libraries of the Greek domains shall I mention here?  Perhaps one from the second half of the fifteenth century.  Janus Lascaris will do well.

Janus Lascaris was known to the Latins as John Rhyndacenus ( i.e. from Rhyndakos in Asia Minor. The Rhyndakos village and river are now known as Mustafakemalpaşa,

He was a scholar from an eminent Byzantine family, and being native to Asia minor was surely as familiar with the other Byzantine capital of Trebizond/Trabzon on the south-eastern shore of the Black Sea.

Having come to Italy under the patronage of Cardinal Bessarion, Janus Lascaris was made welcome in Florence by Lorenzo de Medici after Bessarion’s death.

He was then sent twice  by Lorenzo to fetch copies of ancient and classical texts from ‘eastern parts’ and we are fortunate that some of Lascaris’ personal notebooks survive, listing titles wanted, titles sighted and titles bought.  One of these notebooks records his itinerary, which ended with his returning to Italy with 200 manuscripts from Athos:

From Florence Lascaris’ itinerary took him to Ferrara, Venice, Padua, Corfu, Arta, Salonica, Galata, Sozopolis, Athos, Salonica, Crete, Apulia, Corigliano, and Monte Sardo. He lists manuscripts acquired or at least seen at each of those points. We shall restrict ourselves to Athos where, apart from one book at Chilandari and another at “Simenou» .. he confined his attention to the collections of Vatopedi and Megiste Lavra.

I’ve had reason to mention Vatopedi before. To save readers the effort of finding the earlier reference, here’s the critical paragraph again.

That the texts of Strabo, and of Dionysius of Byzantion were still known and copied in Constantinople during the early fourteenth century is proven by the deservedly famous Vatopedi manuscript, a compilation of texts from major and minor classical authors describing the sea-routes of the Black Sea, Red Sea and to as far as England. It is difficult to think other than the compilation was made for contemporary needs, and these may have included the needs of foreigners resident in the enclaves of Pera and within Constantinople, wanting to know those routes.

from: D.N.O’Donovan, ‘The skies above Pt.5: bodies in baskets’, voynichrevisionist.com (12th September, 2019).

Manuscripts copied by Janus Lascaris again include quinions, Young mentioning specifically, 

Venice, San Marco, Codex XCII, 7 (gr. 522), ff. 181-198, given in 1468 by Cardinal Bessarion, describing it as “a handsome vellum codex, of 23 quinions, 268×193 mm.” and Am(brosianus) D 210 inf. (gr. 940), “a parchment quinion, 292×160 mm., contains Theognis vv. 1-618 only, 31 lines a page in a writing-space 180×80 mm., … It follows another quinion with an unfinished Timaeus Locrus De natura mundi, on parchment leaves, 274×157 mm.,, J. Lascaris writing 35 lines a page in single column.”  And again, Florence, Laur. XXXI, 20, ff. 35v-57r, leaves being lost between ff. 41/2, 42/3, 44/5, 45/6 … the second and fourth broadsheets of a quinion having gone astray.”

  • Douglas C. C. Young. ‘A codicological inventory of Theognis manuscripts With some remarks on Janus Lascaris’ contamination and the Aldine editio princeps’, Scriptorium, Tome 7 n°1, 1953. pp. 3-36. 

A much more detailed account of Lascaris’ travels, including mention of Lascaris’  notebooks:

  • Graham Speake, ‘Janus Lascaris’ visit to Mount Athos in 1491’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 34 (1993), 325-30.

Review of information so far.

  1. Evidence that the humanist hand was employed as early (perhaps) as 1425.
  2. Evidence that works of that date, in the humanist hand, using quinion and one example of a septenion can be identified as work accomplished in Italy.
  3. The interest of humanists was chiefly in copying classical and ancient texts brought from ‘eastern parts’.
  4. The page layout and scribal customs seen – so far – in the Humanist and Byzantine scholars’ works do not accord with those of the scribes who worked on the Voynich manuscript.

Interim conclusions

From the evidence sighted and cited so far,  I can draw only one conclusions –  that there is not enough in the historical record to support Pelling’s theory that Quire 20 has ‘too many bifolios’, and enough to dispute the idea. No justification exists for attempting to presume that what was the usual habit in central Europe should be imposed on Italy, Spain and southern regions.

The quire-stitching does not support the idea, and the historical evidence considered so far  shows that while septenions would appear to be rare, they are not unknown and we have already seen two attested from Italy, one being reasonably attributed to the first half of the fifteenth century and inscribed in a humanist hand, the other being sighted but not described in more detail by Beit Arié,


To end this post-  description of another fascinating manuscript held by Yale. Made about a century before the Voynich manuscript, it even includes mention of alchemy (and no I don’t have ay ‘medical Voynich’ theory. I avoid having theories; I find they interfere with work..



Yale University, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney  Medical library Manuscript 28. (here). 

Medical compilation (“codex paneth“). Northern Italy, (Bologna ?), 1st quarter of the 14th century. Vellum; 685 folios; 2 35 X 337 mm· (Yale Medical Library, Ms. 28)

The curriculum of a fourteenth-century medical school was based on works of Hippocrates and Galen, rounded out and brought up to date with writings of Arabic origin and the best contemporary physicians of Salerno, Bologna, and northern Europe.

The “Codex Paneth” preserves precisely such a collection of medical tracts.

The forty-two separate tracts have been identified by K. Sudhoff. Included are several works of Hippocrates and Galen, others by such authors as Roger of Salerno, Rhazes, Albucasis, and other lesser known French and Italian writers.

Each tract is introduced by a historiated initial showing physicians in discourse with students or patients with various afflictions. The subjects covered in the compilation include anatomy, bloodletting, acute illness, diet, urine, the pulse, diseases of the eye, childhood diseases, herbal and lapidary remedies, alchemy, astrology, medical recipes, veterinary medicine, and an Arabic-Latin vocabulary (fols. 235^2 38V).

A large portion of the manuscript, some one hundred eighty folios, deals with surgery, not usually included in traditional medical texts. Perhaps the most interesting of the surgical treatises is that of Albucasis (fols. 200r~318v) in the translation of Gerard of Cremona.

It contains two hundred fifteen paintings of surgical instruments, inserted in the appropriate places within the text. The manuscript was written by two or possibly three scribes in northern Italy, probably at Bologna, the most likely place where such a vast compendium of current medical writings might be found at this time.

Two distinct hands are to be discerned also in the illustration, which has a generally Bolognese flavor. The volume was in Bohemia by 1326, as an obit on the last folio indicates.

Provenance: “Tomazlaus notarius Mylewfensis],” 1326 (obit, 6851:). Cathedral of Olomouc (Czechoslovakia), 16th century (fol. 4). [bought from] Fritz Paneth, Königsberg. Gift of the Yale Medical Library Associates in 1955.


  • Walter Cahn and James Marrow, ‘Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Yale: A Selection’,  The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 52, No. 4 (April 1978), pp. 173-284.

Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series.

*header image. (left) modern reproduction of a tide-calculation calendar in brass. (right) schematic drawing of a nocturnal, illustration from Leonard Honey, ‘The Nocturnal and other Instruments’, Horological Journal, Dec. 2006 p.458.
Numerous Voynich researchers since 1912 have speculated that the month-diagrams (and other diagrams) might relate to one or another type of astronomical and/or time-keeping instrument. None appears to have researched the possibility in any depth, but for the history of this idea in Voynich studies see standard sources given in my ‘Cumulative Index’ Page – Jim Reeds’ Bibliography, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, conversations in Jim Reeds’ (first- mailing list files), Philip Neal’s pages and Nick Pelling’s blog. These sources are the most reliable when you want to accurately identify the sources and courses of an ‘idea’ about the manuscript.  I am not arguing that the month-diagrams show a nocturnal, merely demonstrating that the stars served many non-astrological purposes, even in Latin Europe. 

Having spent a couple of weeks thinking it over, I’ve decided to terminate the ‘Skies above/Certain measures” series.

Originally, my intention was to take readers through the process of research, stage by stage, to make clear the range of information and chain of investigations that led me to form the conclusions I did, and the further process by which I subjected those conclusions to hostile examination. I think that we must always try to act as our own best-informed and most determined cross-examiner. Enthusiasm, like ill-informed critiques, may be left to others. 🙂

We’ve lost almost eighteen months to covid, and I daresay that has also broken reader’s concentration on the progressions of evidence and argument which halted with the epidemic’s arrival. I think it may be best, now, to return to the original format, which offered readings and brief notes on various of the traditional and fiercely maintained, but often unfounded ‘Voynich doctrines’.

To finish the series I list here a few notes and pointers, and anyone keen to go further into this section of the manuscript is welcome to write if they want e.g. recommended readings. I should say that most of my work relies on academic studies, and it will be helpful if you have access to a good library, or pots of money to hand over to academic presses.

write to voynichimagery AT gmail dot com


If the month folios were astrological diagrams produced by medieval Latin Europe, that purpose would have been accurately assessed at least a century ago.

As the two independent specialists said recently,* and as the silence of so many other specialists from 1912 onwards indicate, astrological diagrams present in a set number and range of forms, each according to its purpose – natal diagrams and so forth.

*see post of Feb.9th., 2020.

No-one has discovered anything having the structure and particular characteristics of the Voynich diagrams in any astrological text, whether medieval Latin, or not – and the specialists have studied their subject back to as far as Egyptian times.

In recent years, the practice adopted by persons determined on some (usually ‘Latin European’) theory has been to extract the late-added central emblems from the diagrams, to assert that these form a zodiac, and then to assert or imply that any ‘zodiac’ is astrological. The last two assertions are demonstrably false both within and beyond Latin Europe and would be false even if the Voynich central emblems had formed a zodiac, or a continuous section from a zodiac.. which they do not.

What few substantial insights have been offered on the central emblems themselves is increasingly difficult to determine given that ever-more of the ‘online community’ imagines that the aim of research is to gain personal ‘credits’ and to that end, many deliberately omit, or dissemble about, the sources from which they have what they term an ‘idea’. Creating a wiki article so you can cite that as a way to avoid due acknowledgement of your sources is unkind, unfair and… dirty pool.

The most dishonest may just blame co-incidence or serendipity for their suddenly developing an ‘idea’ recently set out as part of another researcher’s detailed work but never argued before that time.

Let me make this point once more. (and don’t worry, I’m sighing with you).

Everyone who comes to this study is entitled to expect transparency. ‘An idea’ is not a fact. A reader is entitled to be given a clear path back to that idea’s origin, so that they can see how it was first, as well as most recently, presented, argued and supported (or not) by evidence – evidence which the reader is also entitled to check for themselves and which scholars generally feel a duty to check before adopting any assertion. (on contacting me for details of my own work and published sources, see above).

The origin of the ‘astrological’ description for the month folios lies with Wilfrid Voynich and Professor Newbold, whose talks of 1921 show clearly that it was based on nothing more than subjective impressions expressed by persons whose range of information was limited, and who never formally argued or proved their impressions valid.

The truly astonishing fact is that, from 1912 to the present day, no-one seems to be credited with having asked, and investigated that simplest of questions, which can be expressed as:

‘Wilfrid and Newbold had a feeling that the month-diagrams served some type of astrological calculation – were they right, or wrong?’

From which it follows that no-one checked the evidence adduced by either man, so noted that there was no evidence, and apparently none began to test the worth of that idea.

It would appear – do correct me if you know better – that no-one so much as asked, ‘Is that so?” before I did in 2010, and its most authoritative assessment and rejection was not published until 2020.

Given the deliberate and systematic erasure of researchers and research that do not lend credence to a currently-popular story (such as the ‘Roger Bacon’ idea until c.2000, and since c.2004 the ‘New World’ theory initiated by O’Neill and promoted by Tucker and Janick, or the ‘Germanic-central European’ proposition initiated by Prinke and Zandbergen), researchers are now greatly hindered in efforts to discover what, if any, research has denied the ‘astrological’ notion which those storylines all treat as a ‘given’. It is arguably (apart from the ‘Rudolf owned it’ story), the most pervasive and determinedly maintained of the unfounded ‘doctrines’ in Voynich studies.

So – it seems – that most basic question had remained un-asked for a century and my conclusion in the negative was not independently confirmed still later still.

The month-diagrams are NOT astrological diagrams. It follows that they are not ‘horoscopic charts’.

So what did the original maker, and the subsequent transmitters of these diagrams (up until our manuscript was made) see as being their purpose?

That’s a research question.

Any conclusions of research into that question should be able to provide and document a coherent analytical and historical commentary for the form of those diagrams, for the fact that the series is labelled with the names of only ten months, that there are ‘doubled’ or ‘split’ months.. and much more. Such as – why does the series begin with March? Why are the ‘barrels’ concentrated in the March diagram? Why are the ‘ladies’ bodies drawn in neither the attenuated style of earlier Latin art, nor the voluptuous ‘shapely’ form of later Latin art? Why are the faces marred, and the upper limbs ‘broken’ in a way opposing Christian ideas of the human as made in the image of God?

You might even ask whether Panofsky was right in believing, from the full range of his experience and scholarship, that Latin Christian art didn’t depict unclothed ‘shapely’ females with rounded bellies until the 15thC.


Thus, the internal evidence shows that the month folios’ diagrams are not astrological diagrams and the drawings not a product of Latin Europe’s customs when the Voynich manuscript was made.

Contrary to what is repeated ad.infinitum (and even taken by Fagin Davis to be ‘what we know’), what we actually have filling the centres does not constitute ‘a zodiac’ nor a straight segment of any standard Roman zodiac. That’s the fact.

Here are some details as markers from my own investigations, but that’s as much more as I’ll provide here from my own work on the section.

I would like to acknowledge that some studies of the central emblems have been genuinely original and solid contributions to the study, among them Koen Gheuens investigation of the curious ‘lobster’ form’s later dissemination through France and Alsace.

*Koen’s wordpress blog is found by searching ‘herculeaf’

So: –

The ‘castle’ in the map represents Constantinople. This was the conclusion reached by analysis of the fold-out map.

Neither Greeks nor Latins had a custom of deliberately distorting faces, or ‘breaking the bones’ of human figures. Christianity held that the human body was made in the image of the deity.

The motifs of bull, goat etc. simply denoted the constellations visible in the sky in a given month. That is why these emblems appear everywhere in manuscripts, on public buildings, as religious allegory and moralia within (and beyond) Latin Europe. They are primarily calendar emblems – ‘shorthand’ forms – though in some manuscripts and calendars, their assignment to the months is not literal like a calendar’s, but schematic or astrological assignments.

Comparative study of calendars can be fascinating but study of calendar systems is definitely non-trivial. Just as a first taste, here’s a wiki article surveying some varieties of ancient Greek calendar.


Again, considering a calendar’s relationship to work, you find that in practical terms a ‘ten month year’ of active work, such as agriculture or seamanship, is characteristic of northern latitudes, but also necessarily affected the Mediterranean traveller’s year (especially for anyone who needed to travel by sea.)

Still on the sub-set of maritime ‘years’ – Officially the Mediterranean sailing year ended in November with the rising of Saggitarius’ bow. In classical times it had ended with the rising of Orion, before Orion was dropped in favour of the Romans’ Libra, this being the first non-living figure imagined on the road of sun-and-moon.

Documents from the medieval western Mediterranean show that, in practice, accomplished seaman might sail set distances (as from the French-Spanish border to Rome) to as late as December.

Body-types (discussed in a little more detail in earlier posts) are valuable pointers to cultural origin for an image.

Panofsky was quite right when he said, in 1932, that in Latins’ art, the custom of drawing ‘shapely females’ like those in the month folios did not occur so early as he believed the style of drawings suggested overall.

That’s still a valid observation given the information available to him then.

Before it became a fashion (or fad) which spread (apparently but not certainly via works produced in Paris), it hadn’t been a Latin custom to show women with swollen bellies as a stylistic, and even there, most Latins initially drew the belly on a body attenuated, accenting still the bones rather than the flesh, this a continuation of earlier Latin practice. (Here see, for example, a ‘city of God’ illustration first brought to notice for ‘Voynicheros’ by Ellie Velinska).

What Panofsky did not know, in 1932, was that earlier examples of the swollen belly do exist, but in Jewish manuscripts. Both the examples below were introduced to the study of Beinecke MS 408 by the present author. The first is from a manuscript originally part of the Sassoon collection, but now in the University of Pennsylvania. It is often regretted by historians and scholars that the British Library found itself unable to purchase the collection entire, and it is now widely scattered. In my opinion, this is the image most like the style of drawing in the month-folios. I notice not only the emphasis on the hands, but other details including the way the feet and ankles are drawn.

Nor did Panofsky know the next example.

Dated to 1322, the ms is believed to have been made near Lake Geneva, in the region of Constance. What it shows is NOT (as the ‘Germanic’ theorists will surely opine) that this body-shape, or use of yellow, or gold, for a figure’s hair proves this work ‘Germanic’. Nor does braided hair, as some have asserted.

It is another Jewish work, and as far as I’ve been able to discover, was also first introduced to study of Beinecke MS 408 by the present author. Do correct me if you know better.

The point, in this case, is that as early as 1322 and 1361, Jewish works were already portraying human figures with rounded bellies and over-large hands but without attempting to make them ‘beautiful’.

What we do not find in the medieval Jewish works, even when depicting unclothed bodies, is any suggestion that the unclothed body might evoke carnal or sexual response in the viewer. The 1322 AD figure is shown very heavy, even ungainly, and is fully clothed. If we imagine it at the drawing stage, before the pigments were laid on – well, I won’t try dictating the rest of that sentence. You must form your own opinions.

In earlier posts, I gave a thumb-nail history of how the human body’s depiction changed in Mediterranean cultures from the early (pre-Roman) through to the late medieval period in the west.

We found that naked female forms occur relatively late in the history of Greek art, and that even then the custom had been to paint statuary. ‘The nude’ as we now define it occurs for only a relatively short time, and is decidedly sensual in Roman art until it falls out of favour again as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. It doesn’t re-appear as ‘shapely ladies’ in western Christian (‘Latin’) art until after our manuscript was made.

So there are two immediate possibilities to investigate – one being that the form of the month diagrams preserves but distorts (possibly for cultural and/or religious and/or ideological reasons on the part of the transmitters) what had once been a classical (i.e. pre-Christian) calendar. Some few ancient and classical calendars were long preserved in various media including mosaic and stone, but the Voynich diagrams have not given any indication (to me at least) of the medium from which the style of the Voynich month-diagrams and details (excluding central emblems) might first have come.

note – An interesting and consciously-Christianised diagram is found in a particular tenth ninth-century Byzantine manuscript often mentioned by Rene Zandbergen. That diagram includes a section for what had been ‘the 12 hours’, but describes those figures as ’12 holy virgins’. The adaptation appears to me to have included replacing an earlier Apollo or (more likely in my view) a Queen of Heaven in her chariot (Ursa Major). The Christian version would become known as a ‘helios’. Apart from the Christ invictus type, the adaptation to Christianity was not successful and such ‘ladies’ don’t appear in later works.

Zandbergen’s site treats that Byzantine diagram in detail, but gives no indication of when or by whom it was first introduced or discussed within Voynich studies. None of the non-Voynich commentaries I’ve seen attempt to identify the source from which the pattern had been adopted, but its ‘ladies’ suggest that the donor had been a tradition opposed to accurate depiction of a living creature. That ethos pervades most of the Voynich drawings, and while Vat.gr.1291 – that is, the manuscript as a whole – is dated to the period of iconoclasm in Greek Christianity (ms is dated AD 813-820), hostility to the making of ‘life-like’ images was endemic and ancient in the near east, informing not only Jewish thought, or later Islamic views, but other and early cultures of the region. It passed away from Byzantine Christianity by the early 9thC AD. It remained a cultural norm elsewhere.

The wiki article on ‘iconoclasm’ lacks depth.


I’ll skip the many following sections in my logs which treat subsequent phases of the digging – and move to notes about a last phase of question-and-investigation. This asked whether the material so far accumulated could explain why the ‘March’ diagram contains the majority of ‘barrels’. My brief note, now, will surely seem arbitrary but that can’t be helped.

The barrels represent gifts to heaven (i.e. to one or more of its denizens) – a formally defined gift which was specifically ‘for the preservation of the city’. This was an ancient ritual which preceded Alexander in the Greek-speaking world and which survived in spirit and in its name, not only the end of his empire, but the end of Rome’s empire, and to as late as the fourteenth century (at least so late; I didn’t follow it further).

As each cultural and political phase gave way to the next, the Greek word for this ‘gift’ as a tax on the population remained, its purpose also the same in essence but differently presented – becoming material goods to be given in that month by the local population to maintain local officials, and then church officials, and by our time of interest, as taxes to be paid by all who used the Byzantine ports (Or more exactly, Constantinople’s. It may have applied more generally, but I didn’t follow the matter further.) The ‘protection of the city’ theme also survived and it was demanded by Constantinople – being imposed for example on Genoa – that any city granted rights to use the port(s) must provide ships to aid the city if called upon to do so.

Perhaps now some readers will see why I spent so much time, earlier in the series, talking about Pera.

Oh – and if you try picking up the threads (to be fair I should say they don’t end with Constantinople) you should not be surprised if you are told soon by someone that Constantinople is ‘Germanic’ by reason of a temporary Frankish (i.e. Latin European) usurpation of the throne which the Greeks themselves decided to ratify as the most sensible way to normalise that situation.

Constantinople occupies a very small proportion of the Voynich map, and so too it occupies only part of the story told by the Voynich map, its calendar and its ladies.

One reason that the Prinke-Zandbergen Voynich ‘theory’ has produced so little new insight into the manuscript is that its adherents’ every line of study aims to end with the cry, ‘It’s Germanic-central European Christian’. But just as a passport is not a person, so this conception of ‘nationality’ explains nothing about the form, or content, or purpose for which the manuscript and its content was produced.

One must take notice of the fact that there is nothing distinctively ‘Germanic’ or ‘central European’ about the vellum’s finish, the layout of the pages, the structure of the quires or the stitching. The Prinke-Zandbergen theory offers no explanation for absence of ruling-out, nor the palette, nor the style of script, nor the structure and meaning of the month-folio diagrams.

Indeed, many of the things which speak to a manuscript’s content and purpose positively oppose that particular, fairly-recent (if presently popular) proposition.

Additional note. Novices may not see why I should place such emphasis on the palette and our lack of a full analysis of the pigments. The fact is that even an isolated initial, cut out from its original manuscript, can be dated by experts and correctly assigned its place of production, not least by its palette. It was only on the basis of ‘shapely ladies’ and the heavier paints palette, and O’Neill’s spurious identification of a ‘sunflower’ in the manuscript, that Professor Panofsky changed his opinion of what he’d been told was an autograph, from the thirteenth or fourteenth century to ‘within 20 years of 1500’. (for the full background to that later dating, see my post of January 15th., 2019).

Skies above: Chronological Strata – Pt.1

Two previous:

Header image – detail from a portrait of Gian Francesco II Gonzaga.

STOP PRESS (Feb. 6th., 2020) – anyone who decided to check out the ‘horoscopic charts’ rumour… you can drop it.  A specialist in the history of astrology, astronomy and cosmology has just said plainly that that the Voynich month-folios do not accord with any type of ‘horoscopic chart’.

I’m waiting on his permission to quote and instructions on his preferred form for the acknowledgement.

I guess whoever dreamed up that “horoscopic charts” fiction – sorry,  ‘theory’ –  just didn’t care too much if it was true or not.



 The ‘Skies above’ series so far..  transmission affect

We have seen that in Mediterranean art, and then in that of western Europe to 1438,  representation of the unclothed female body occurs within certain definable limits both in terms of regions and of eras  and further that Panofsky had pointed out – rightly, and as early as 1932 –  that in the art of western Christian Europe (i.e. ‘Latin’ Europe) the unclothed ‘shapely’ female form does not occur until the fifteenth century.

In 1932, while he still presumed the whole to be (as Wilfrid had asserted since 1912) the work of a single western author, Panofsky altered his date for the manuscript from ‘perhaps’ the thirteenth century on to the first decades of the fifteenth, precisely because of its ‘shapely ladies’ and its palette, as Anne Nill reported:

[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky] became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century … but as he came to the female figures in connection with the colours used in the manuscript he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!

(for details, see post of Feb. 13th.2019).

However, and before the manuscript had been radiocarbon dated,  Panofsky had woken to the possibility that the date for composition of the content and that for manufacture of our present manuscript might be separated by a considerable (if unspecified) length of time – in other words, that it was not an autograph at all. He actually widened the implied gap between content and manufacture in what John Tiltman reports as a direct communication – presumably offered in the 1950s but some time after Panofsky’s meeting with Friedman.

In a later paper, Tiltman writes,:

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10.

Had the manuscript been both manufactured and first composed  “within twenty years of 1500” it might (in theory) have been possible, still, to argue the “shapely ladies” sections, including the month-folios, a product of Latin culture, but Panofsky clearly considered the content ‘much’ older than 1480-1520 and having as we now do, a radiocarbon range of 1404-1438 and understanding that the clothing in our present copy is a late addition to it, so  the implication is unavoidable that the ‘ladies’ folios had their origins somewhere else.  “Much earlier” does not mean a few decades; in contemporary usage, in this context, it implied the content’s origin  “centuries older” – taking us back to before the fifteenth century and emergence of shapely unclothed female forms in western European art.  I  agree – although, for reasons explained in the post of January 10th, I  do ascribe the ‘lewd’ additions to the month-folios to some later draughtsman during the last quarter of the fifteenth century.

The implication of Panofsky’s statements when considered in sequence, went unnoticed and in 2009 even to speak of the work as a compendium whose material the copyists had from  different exemplars was to meet with uproar and derision, as the present writer discovered.  Only during the past four of five years have we seen a lessening of the old emphasis on  ‘the author” and growing (if oscillating) acceptance of the manuscript as a compilation..

Gian Francesco II Gonzaga

Traditionalists had simply assumed the manuscript an autograph – that is a manuscript inscribed by a single ‘author’ – because there had always been ‘an author’ in the Wilrid-Friedman tradition, and, until a few years ago,  “naming the Latin author” was still the chief preoccupation.  For the core-conservatives, who emerged in the early 2000s, and gained an increasingly louder voice from 2010, there had to be an ‘author’ and preferably one who was ‘central European’ and connected in some way to the Imperial line.    The cryptographers wanted ‘an author’ for different reasons, chiefly because Friedman had framed engagement with the manuscript in terms of a battle of wits between himself and some brilliantly ingenious Renaissance male. The type certainly existed. See e.g.

For the revisionist, though, the more important point is that any substantial gap between first enunciation of an image and its subsequent copying provides evidence of transmission and this can be very helpful in establishing origin for the first enunciation and thus the image’s intended meaning.  Of what this may imply  for the written part of this text, we’ll speak later. Much depends on whether a section’s written text is as old as first enunciation of its images.


Transmission affect.

Shifts from one historico-cultural context to another leaves evidence of that event  even if the older image is one revived in the same region.   Think ‘gothic revival’ for an obvious example.  In the same way, a Roman copy  of a classical Greek statue will evince both the maker’s ‘Roman’ character and that the model had been made by an older Greek; in a nineteenth century Englishman’s copy of an Egyptian image we see both the nineteenth-century Englishman’s way of seeing and a hint of the Egyptian scribe’s.   ‘Ways of seeing’ are the result of a specific time, place and community and are extremely difficult to erase, replace, or imitate precisely ..  as any forger will tell you.  The later copy points us to the earlier place and time of origin… if you know what you’re looking at.

(and this, by the way, is where most theoretical narratives for the Voynich manuscript fail; they assume the images infinitely compliant – as Aztec one day, German the next, Italian the day after, or sixteenth-century or nineteenth century…)

Very little of the  Voynich manuscript’s imagery “reads” easily for people accustomed to our present, European, tradition –  because the majority aren’t expressions in that tradition. Conversely, the reason that some few details – such as the late-added clothing, the central emblems of the month-folios, or the supposed ‘castle’do seem accessible and for that very reason have received attention massively in excess of the percentage they represent.

To recognise  evidence of transmission is rarely as simple as recognising the difference between Opus Francigenum and ”gothic revival‘ and requires the viewer to know enough to recognise the significance of small details – which is exactly why forgers still manage to fool enough people, enough of the time, to make fortunes.   The important thing is that the copyist should have attempted to copy, rather than to replace or re-express the images from his exemplar.  We are fortunate that, in the Voynich manuscript, most of the images appear to be driven by a desire to copy  with near facsimile exactitude.  I say ‘most’ because we have to deal with various layers, some post-dating the vellum’s range and a few (chiefly in the bathy- section) where the copyist had thought he could improve on the original. The rapidity with which that hand vanishes re-inforces the overall sense that the initial desire of those involved in the fifteenth-century copy was to have everything copied exactly.  (The couple of ‘improvements’ in the bathy- section might, conceivably, also be due to some term’s being ambiguous  as e.g. ‘passage’, ‘basin’ or ‘channel’).

Then we see a different attitude affect the work – the one I call the ‘prude’.


Chronological layers. Separating layers of transmission affect is akin to the archaeologists’ removing a site’s levels of occupation and is similarly described as strata: in this case, chronological strata because one may assume changes in cultural context always attend the passage of time.

In this series, I’ve already mentioned some discernible strata.  As I read it, the sequence maps  – counting down from the latest/uppermost:


#1 – (Last quarter of the fifteenth century. post-production). the ‘lewd’ additions.

My reason for assigning these details – not all of which are lewd in themselves – to the last quarter of the fifteenth century were explained in the post of  January 10th., 2020.

In this context I might repeat an item from a couple of posts to Voynichimagery, namely that it might prove worthwhile to ask if there is any correlation between  items so marked in the month-folios and the  ‘Dies Aegyptiaci’.

At the time I wrote those posts I knew of no previous mention of that subject in Voynich studies – that is, no precedent – but afterwards a reader kindly let me know that someone had mentioned the topic “on the first mailing list or somewhere”.  I regret not having had time to follow up that remark.  For the record my posts to Voynich imagery were:1. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Lamentable days’ voynichimagery.com (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017) and    2. ‘Lamentable days’ -Recommended reading’, voynichimagery.com (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017).Among the references I provided then were…

  • Ginzel, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie , 1:204-12;
  • Sebastian Porceddu et al., “Evidence of Periodicity in Ancient Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18 (2008): 327-39
  • W. R. Dawson, “Some Observations on the Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926): 260-64;
  • E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic (London, 1899), 224-228.

I bring up this point again here because at least one figure recovered from Naucratis shows an exaggerated pelt, comparable in its dimensions to that seen in the ‘Venus’ miniature in the Ambrosianus manuscript  – and we must never forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s content was, in some sense, Egyptian. To quote from Neal’s translation of Baresch’s letter of 1637:

In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts …. He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Note – Neal reads Baresch’s phrasing as indicative of hypothesising but I read it as emphatic – “in fact, it is easily conceivable…’.  this being Baresch’s reaction to Kircher’s dismissive response  after receiving copied folios earlier sent by Baresch through a Jesuit known to both of them.  Kircher had published an appeal to the public for materials helpful in Kircher’s efforts to explain Egyptian hieroglyphics.

On Naukratis see..

  • Alexandra Villing et.al., Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt (a British Museum Catalogue). see the Museum’s website.
  • The ‘Egyptian days’ are otherwise termed Dies aegri , -atri , –mali , -maledicti, -ominosi , -infortunati and -tenebrosi. Some of the Latin sources appear to be accurate; though others are wildly imaginative/theoretical.


folio 116v.  It seems (at least to me) that a line of marginalia on folio 116v might belong to the same time (i.e. last quarter of the fifteenth century) and possibly to the same hand as the ‘lewd’ additions.  According to Anton Alipov’s translation the writer of the marginalia on folio 116v was inclined to coarse expressions .


Stratum #2 – the ‘prude’.  post-copying – possibly before binding ( c.1430)

It may be unfair to describe as a ‘prude’  the person who had some of the figures overlaid with heavy pigment.  Whether he was the painter, or an overseer, he may have been merely of sensitive or modest disposition.  Often called the ‘heavy’ painter, he is distinguished from the ‘light painter’ since Nick Pelling observed and commented on the distinction.

‘Light-‘ and ‘Heavy-‘ painter.

After drawing attention to the ‘heavy painter’ and ‘light painter’ painter  in Reeds’ mailing list; Pelling spoke of the matter in his book (2006) and thereafter in various posts to his blog as e.g. this from 2017,  in connection with ‘labellese’ and codiciological issues.   While this passage sounds as if Pelling is speaking about the central emblems, he means any figures on the specified diagrams. I’ve added clarification in square brackets:-

To my mind, the most logical explanation for this is that the colourful painting on the light Aries [ i.e. April #1 diagram] was done at the start of a separate Quire 11 batch. That is, because Pisces [March-] and dark Aries [April #2] appear at the end of the single long foldout sheet that makes up Quire 10, I suspect that they were originally folded left and so painted at the same time as f69r and f69v (which have broadly the same palette of blues and greens) – f70r1 and f70r2 may therefore well have been left folded inside (i.e. underneath Pisces / f70v2), and so were left untouched by the Quire 10 heavy painter. Quire 11 (which is also a single long foldout sheet, and contains light Aries, the Tauruses, etc) was quite probably painted separately and by a different ‘heavy painter’: moreover, this possibly suggests that the two quires may well not have been physically stitched together at that precise point.

quoted from: Nick Pelling, ‘Voynich Labelese‘, ciphermysteries, September 3rd., 2017.

What Pelling had not realised was that his distinction sheds light on that broader issue of ‘authorship’.


Stratum #3 ‘The Modest’ clothing & the central emblems. (added in copying c. 1400-1430)


Before that final heavy overlay of pigment, some effort had been made to provide some of the bodies with covering using pen and light wash, but without altering the look of the limbs or obscuring the bodies’ form.

In my opinion, this pigment was added after completion of the original copy, but in all probability by the fifteenth-century copyists. I would not rule out the possibility that a precedent for the line-drawn clothing existed in the nearest exemplar (which I would date not later than the second or third quarter of the fourteenth century) but I’ll treat the style of this line-work in another post.

Central emblems

As I explained when treating the central emblems, in 2011-12, I think they are fifteenth-century additions gained from a tenth- or eleventh-century text available to the copyists, and preserved in Spain or in France, but in my view probably the latter and perhaps in Fleury. Just for the record I add details for two of my studies.

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Of Fishes and Fleury’, voynichimagery, (Oct. 27th., 2012);  ‘Crosseyed feline and red splash’ ibid (Oct. 29th., 2012).

Postscript – (Feb. 8th. 2020) A reader upbraids me… and it is true that I should have mentioned here that signs of alteration within the central emblems allowed me to date their adoption to the fifteenth century. I have explained this, with the historical, archaeological and literary evidence in posts to voynichimagery.  There had been no analytical studies of the central emblems, but my conclusions failing to suit the traditionalist model, alternative efforts soon appeared.  I would maintain, still, however that e.g. the standing archer figure had its origins in the eastern Mediterranean, came west in c.10th-11thC and was first adapted for Christian use in glass made for the new ‘gothic’ windows, but the form of  its bow in the Voynich manuscript indicates a fifteenth-century adaptation, the bow being (as I explained from the usual sources) being  a particular,  light, wooden, double-lock crossbow used by marines and the type of mercenary  recorded in the rolls for Calais as a ‘Saggitario’.  The proverbial type continues to be known to as late as the the writings of Cervantes, he associating it with the earlier Aegean.

Since then, Koen Gheuens has provided a superb study of the way the calendar’s oddly formed ‘lobsters’ were disseminated from France through Alsace between the 13th-15thC.  Gheuens begins with  the books on astronomy which Scot produced in Sicily.  It should be kept in mind, though,  that before Scot went to Sicily, his study of mathematics and astonomy (including astrology) had been pursued in Canterbury and at the University of Paris, whence he travelled to Toledo and worked with the Toledo school of translators, completing in 1217 a translation of  al-Bitruji’s .Kitāb al-Hayʾah, entitling his translation De motibus celorum. Moses Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation was completed in 1259.  In the works which Scot produced in Sicily are images whose details show him familiar with non-mainstream astronomical lore, usually described as ‘Berber’.  Thus, connection to Scot is not inconsistent with Panofsky’s attributing the manuscript to ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and believing it presented as a Jewish work.  But do see:

Since 2012 there has been much put online which aims at illustrating German and/or French zodiacs, to support ‘national’ theories of the manuscript but  Gheuens’ post is one of the few pieces of original analytical research.  Darren Worley’s valuable work and his supplementary comments were published by the late Stephen Bax, whose site is now corrupted and all the comments erased.

Scot’s ‘de motibus‘ is included in a compilation (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 1) with a very tasty provenance.    Here’s a detail.

items from northe

Clothing –  dating and placing… 

Much that has been written about the clothing is flawed by an idea that what is found in one time or place has occurred nowhere else.  This idea infuses most of the  ‘national’ theories for the Voynich manuscript, focused as they are more on asserting their theory proven by such means and choosing so narrow a range of comparative material that no other view is possible.  There is also the habit of treating the heavy overpainting as if it can date or place the manuscript’s  ‘national character’.

To show why such methods are flawed, I’ll provide a contrasting example and since the unclothed figures also include some with headwear, demonstrate the fact that headwear of similar types  were to be found earlier and over a very wide geographic range.  The few seen below  show the padded band, the band-and-veil, and the ‘mural’ crown, in  works from north Africa to northern India, and from the 4thC BC to 3rdC AD.    In fact, it is the unclothed forms which tell us most about the text’s origin and character..

Upper register (left to right) Hellenistic figurine 3rdC BC;  Indo-Greek sculpture Gandharan period; coin of Carthage 350-270 BC.  detail from folio 80v. Lower register: detail from Louvre Ma590 ‘Three tyches’ dated c.160 AD


…. to be continued…