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’, (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 – 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’ (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017) and    2. ‘Lamentable days’ -Recommended reading’, (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, 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…


The skies above Pt.5: bodies in baskets

Two previous:

Header: detail from f.179 in Brit.Lib.  MS Harley 4375/3, a translation of  Valerius MaximusFacta et Dicta Memorabilia (Memorable Doings and Sayings..); (inset) detail from a mosaic made in the region of Carthage 1st-2ndC AD, (a century or two after Sergius Orata lived).   British Museum.


MINUS THE INSET, the image shown in the header illustrates one sentence from Book 9 of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta, viz:

C. Sergius Orata pensilia balinea primus facere instituit. quae inpensa a levibus initiis coepta ad suspensa caldae aquae tantum non aequora penetravit.(9.1.1)

As first published in English, from the translation by Samuel Speed. that paragraph and the next together read:

There are more recent translations, but Speed’s was the first to be published in English, and appeared four years after Athanasius Kircher’s death.

Excerpts from Valerius Maximus occur  as early as the tenth century in the Latin west,  and it is possible that the fifteenth-century conception of Orata’s ‘hanging baths’  pre-dates Nicolas de Gonesse‘s translation of Book 9.  I’ve not looked at the earlier manuscripts.  Any wanting to doing so might begin with:

  • Dorothy M. Schullian, ‘A Revised List of Manuscripts of Valerius Maximus’, Miscellanea Augusto Campana. Medioevo e Umanesimo 45 (1981), 695-728 (p. 708).

In brief – nothing.  At least nothing directly, but it has become the norm that imagery in this manuscript is compared with items from Latin European works which are prettier, easier to understand and much more luxurious than the Voynich manuscript itself, so I thought this would be an easy way to introduce the month-diagrams’ ‘ladies’ without causing sudden shock and the sort of unthinking remarks which shocked persons tend to make.

More to the point, it lets me establish three points from the outset:

  1. that the image from the Harley manuscript cannot be argued any explanation for the month-diagrams, as I expect some might be eager to do, seeing it fitting neatly with certain other Voynich theories about ladies, baths, magic, plumbing and ‘central Europe’.  But it won’t do, and explaining the fact may prevent researchers’ wasting their own time or adding to that confusion with which the study is already so beset.
  2.  that the fifteenth-century translators and illustrator should not be underestimated.  Valerius speaks of Orata as a fish farmer, Pliny of Orata’s growing oysters. Despite the fifteenth-century translator and painter having put human figures in these baskets, it makes perfect sense in the “Orataean” context that they should have made them baskets, and not the stave-built barrel we see when medieval people are shown taking a modest bath.    The painter has shown containers able to drain very readily rather than anything able to hold water for long enough to take a bath in the Latin style (Greek baths differed).    I think  Fagan has the right of it, and is largely in harmony with the thinking of those medieval translators and painter, for he says that Orata’s invention (pensilia balinea) had nothing to do with humans’ bathing.   We do better to envisage Orata’s ‘suspended baths’ as a variant form of  lift-net fishing [see image, below, left] and/or as being related to that practice, still-usual, by which shellfish are maintained alive after harvesting,  immersed in fresh sea-water until fully grown and so purged of any contaminates before being cooked or sent to market.   I suppose it is even possible the basket-full might have been dropped directly into heated water but in in any case, a light, rapidly-draining container –  of netting or of woven sea-grass  – would be entirely practical. The image below (right)  proves it was. And where Valerius speaks chiefly of Orata’s fish-farming, Pliny dilates on his unfortunate interest in shellfish.

    detail from a mosaic made in Carthage c.2ndC AD. Now in the British Museum

    known today on the Atlantic coat of France as carrelets; in Italy (chiefly around the head of the Adriatic) as trabucco; in India as Cheena vala.

    (The Harley painting is too early and insufficiently northern to be about ducking witches.)

  3. That the landscaping efforts by Orata and his fellows in Campania must be seen in the context of the reputation which, at that time, adhered to the harbour of Byzantion and the Horn, just as it had for millennia before and to as late as the fifteenth century.   The astonishing abundance of those waters was viewed as a wonder in the ancient and classical world and the same classical authors in whom fifteenth-century Latin Europe was so interested dilate on the subject.  I quote from a couple of those sources later in this post.  In a way scarcely conceivable now when our food supply is constant and arrives indifferent to seasons and without our labour, Byzantion’s bountiful supply of food from the sea was regarded with awe,   the city’s commercial production of salted and pickled fish provided a large part of the city’s wealth, even in medieval times.  Salt-dried and -pickled fish, but particularly the dried  had been the mainstay of  Roman armies and remained the principal food for those travelling by sea. A fish sauce called garum is believed the invention of  Phoenicians or of Greeks, and although a late imperial Roman tax on salt saw garum production sink rapidly in those times, a century after the Voynich manuscript was made,  Pierre Belon found “scarcely a shop without it” in Constantinople (formerly Byzantion and later Istanbul).  Belon adds that it was all made in Pera (“Pere”) (p.78)

It made perfectly good sense, and good economic sense for Orata and his fellows to attempt to re-create that environment in the Bay of Naples.

  • Pierre Belon, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrs (Paris, 1553). Published first in French and English, the Latin edition appeared in 1589. The reference is on p.8 of the 1553 edition. Belon visited Istanbul in c.1547-8.
  • a quick basic overview of trade, goods and taxes in medieval Constantinople is in Mark Cartwright’s article for the Ancient History Encyclopaedia. here.

I’m not suggesting that the tiered  ladies of the Voynich month-diagrams are sea-food in disguise…  but puzzling over the Harley image and its odd features  led me to enquire further and, one thing leading to another as it tends to do, I was brought, eventually, to the point where I could conclude that the Voynich month diagrams had originally ‘spoken Greek’ and to identify the set of terms, and ideas, most relevant to the way the ‘bodies in barrels’ are depicted in folio 70v-i.

I  exempt from this description of ‘Greek-speaking’ the diagrams’ central emblems.  Not because it is impossible they also originated in a Greek-speaking environment but because they appear to be late additions to the material (after c.1330 but before 1438) by which time – as I was also able to conclude from other studies and enquiries of this manuscript – the greater proportion of material now in the Voynich manuscript had entered the Latins’ domain.  This makes it more likely – if not certain- that the central emblems were taken from a source in some language familiar in those regions at the time;  perhaps a Latin work, or one written in a western European vernacular, in Occitan, French, Anglo-Norman, Hebrew or a dialect of it.. or even Aramaic etcetera.  More likely; not certainly but in 2011, I expressed the opinion that the central emblems may have been copied from a work then in Fleury but dating to c.10thC AD. (This was before mention of France became acceptable to the ‘central European’ theory-holders, for which change we must thank Ellie Velinska’s longstanding fascination with the Duc de Berry more than any body of objective evidence.)

What is certain is that when  ‘matches’ are claimed for the month- diagrams by writers adducing some detail from a Latin manuscript,  all but the sequence of central emblems is omitted from their efforts, and even when treating those, the more optimistic sort of Voynichero swans past indifferent, or oblivious,  to points at which the proposed ‘match’ fails – historically, iconographically or technically.  Here, once again, I must mention Koen Gheuens‘ work as exceptional because he has paid attention to (e.g.) the fact that the Voynich ‘scales’ are of a type quite unlike those pictured in the medieval Latin manuscripts or adduced by other Voynicheros.

The critical detail is a second and thinner crossbar threaded through the wider. It is very clear in the Voynich emblem, and although the example cited by Gheuens is not unambiguous – that is, one might argue that its knob and hook were fixed into the end of a solid bar rather than being the termini of a thinner rod threaded through the larger – nonetheless it is a creditable potential match and he deserves credit for accepting rather than waving away that problem of very different construction.  The diagram you see below the scales in that pocket calendar records the hours of darkness and of daylight for the month of September.  I’ll come back to to the curiously nomadic history of such calendars later in the series, but the fact is they hop about – between England and the Scandinavian countries at first, and then make their way inland after some time.

To my knowledge no-one has ever found  a comparison for any of the  Voynich month- diagrams.   No-one  had done so before Panofsky, and he could find none closer than those in the Libros…  No  closer comparison seems to have been found since.  Nor have I offered one.

What I’ve done is draw conclusions about first enunciation and, thereby, intended significance.  And this because,  just as you can’t read a book by just looking at it you can’t read the   ‘thousand words’ by just looking at a picture.

I think it quite possible, after doing that work, that the ‘labels’ for figures in the Voynich month diagrams may be place-names.  And while it may be a natural assumption  that, were this the case,  the system invoked would be the generalised type of chorographic astrology, it should not be forgotten that between a star’s position on the celestial globe and that of a specific place on the terrestrial globe, correspondence can be literal, and very literal, practical types have known so from before Babylon’s first brick was laid. Every ancient literature in the world presumes the stars were made for nomads, farmers, herders and mariners. Not one supposed them made for astrologers.

Several of my readers have commented on the curious fact that,  after I introduce some new item or conclusion such as that the labels might be place-names, the same proposal appears without mention of the source not long afterwards in one or another ‘Voynich’ venue, where it tends to be lightly tossed about as some random ‘idea’ which had  just occurred to the participant regardless of the fact that several others know quite well where this ‘idea’ came from.

I’m afraid that a decade’s unremitting efforts on the part of one or two theorists has had its effect;  to admit that you are among the hundred or so people who read each post, and one of the ninety or so who don’t mis-use the material has become a bit risky if you appreciate being among the peaceable.   It is now ok to help yourself, but in public arenas  ‘not done’ to do be honest and open about it.  If you do, it is a dead cert. that someone will soon appear on the lists and try to show you the error of your ways.


But, as I say, to help yourself is perfectly acceptable – to those omnipresent few theory-touts, and to me.  Where we differ is that I consider my research and its original observations and conclusions should be re-used with mention of my name, and they don’t.  One understands their situation; it just messes things up if you’re getting everyone on board with your theory, to admit that half the new ‘ideas’ you use to inspire the crew have been lifted from work you don’t quite understand, other than it seems to undermine the theory.  Getting fellow believers to work it up in new form. one consistent with your theory and so re-assign  credits to fellow-believers surely does keeps everything nice, neat, homogeneous and attractive to visitors. But it cannot be called honest, or helpful to those more interested in the fifteenth-century manuscript than in stories woven about it.

Which is another of the reasons why, now that I’ve decided to put a little more online in treating these diagrams, I won’t providing just an illustrated precis and a short reading list as I did in posts to Voynichimagery.  This time, I’m setting out, step by step, the process by which I finally gained the conclusions I did (though I’ll ‘telescope’ a little).  I expect most will find it fairly hard-going – because it was – and I shouldn’t be  surprised to lose a few theorists in the maze.  🙂

So – to the fifteenth-century depiction of C. Sergius Orata and ‘bodies in baskets’.

“Bodies in Baskets” – Part A

C. Sergius Orata

Modern scholarship has tended to look more to Pliny’s account of Orata but for our purpose,  Valerius’ is the more valuable.   Pliny wrote later, and was a military gent and a friend of the Emperor Vespasian, highly conservative in the Roman fashion and inclined to think Orata ‘orientally’ sensual and venal: “not quite one of us”. This bias is vented by speaking of little but Orata’s  cultivating oysters (a little too close to the murex, perhaps?), and scarcely mentioning Orata’s fish-farming, on which Valerius concentrated. Nor does Valerius suggest a commercial motive as Pliny would do later.

Despite his name, Orata might indeed not have been quite ‘Roman’.  At the time when he was most active in Campania (the region of Capua and the Bay of Naples) it was still chiefly Greek and Samite.  Even a century later Strabo names  Naples among the few remaining bastions of civilisation in the peninsula, the rest having succumbed in one way or another to – as Strabo puts it – the barbarian Romans.

  • Strabo, Geographia  VI, 253 = VI.1.2)

The painter dresses Orata by combining conventions for an ‘oriental’  with faintly Byzantine overtones, but I do not think it due to his consulting any  eastern ‘Byzantine’ – nor relying on artistic imagination.

On Byzantine ‘Greeks’ in medieval western Europe, a good brief overview:

It seems to me that, the painter being provided with Pliny’s comments in addition to those of Valerius, misconstrued Pliny’s second-to-last sentence, having failed to notice that Orata was no longer the subject.  After a long passage about Orata, Pliny at the end shifts suddenly and swiftly from Orata,  by way of Licinus, Philip and Hortensius, to Lucullus – another fish-fancier of Naples, though omitting that name in his second-to-last sentence, which translates as:

 At which,  Pompey the Great called him “Roman Xerxes” in his long robe. 

Orata’s upper dress appears as if of shot silk,* and the ‘long robe’ is given by the painter to other eastern figures, including ‘Sardanapalus‘.  Thus the ‘Persian’ of Naples, Lucullus, becomes the ‘oriental’ and not-quite-Roman, Orata.  Yet the elegance with which the painter conveys by these means Orata’s social rank, ‘oriental’ tendency to luxury, and even a suggestion of the effete (the inclusion of a luxurious version of the Roman feminalia) is supremely elegant.  The reader expecting a literal and historically-correct ‘portrait’ will be disappointed, but those who are aware of the degree to which medieval imagery is less illustration of a text than its reiteration will see how easily the image committed to memory might then be ‘re-read’ – its several devices allowing cultured, impromptu remarks on the subjects of fish, baths, and Sergius Orata according to Valentius and to Pliny.

*as samite? By the late medieval period, samite had come to be “applied to any rich, heavy silk material which had a satin-like gloss”.

The sentences where Pliny shifts from discussing Orata also explain his concentrating on Orata’s oysters:  Pliny knew of Roman nobles who weren’t to be supposed ‘oriental’ or effete, and they (sadly misled) had also raised fish.

In those same days, but somewhat before Orata, Licinius Murena devised pools and stewes to keep and feed other types of fish, and his example being followed by certain noblemen , they did likewise – namely Philip and Hortensius.  Lucullus cut through a mountain near Naples for this purpose – that is, to bring an arm of the sea into his fish-pools, the cost of doing more than the house he had built.  At which,  Pompey the Great called him ” Roman Xerxes” in his long robe….

-which shows that Pompey knew his Herodotus. And that Pliny was thinking of the Bosporus in connection with this behaviour.

It is true that by conventions of Byzantine art, red boots were a mark of any eminent personage, including kings of whom nothing more was known than references in the Biblical narratives.

Red boots – Medes, Persians, Romans and Byzantines

A good, brief up-to-date account of Byzantine Greeks in early fifteenth-century Italy:

On the significance and history of red boots, which subject specialists in Roman history still debate with surprising warmth:

  • ***Maria G. Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography 11th-15th Centuries (Brill: 2003)***

Specifically for the controversy over red calceus mulleus, see Ryan’s notes:

  • Francis X. Ryan, Rank and Participation in the Republican Senate (1998) pp.55-6 and notes.
  • Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2  (1995) passim esp. pp. 161-168.

The boots given Orata may, or may not, be ‘Byzantine’ but his hat was never worn in Constantinople – or if ever, not after the 3rdC AD. It is another of those ‘speaking devices’, a conventional bit of visual shorthand, of a type widely used in medieval imagery.

Headwear of such a sort appears with variations in medieval art as token for the ‘easterner’ and, in this form, chiefly as sign of the eastern Egyptian or Jew.  The version shown (left) has its crown-like brim less strongly indented than Orata’s is, but this mounted figure is meant for a younger Moses, as prince of Egypt and overseer of Jews’ labour.  (Note that the roughly parallel lines used for the horses’ manes is not the technique we call ‘parallel hatching’).


discarding bad habits:Wrecking-rocks of literalism and the whirlpool of pareidolia.(900 wds)

In terms of iconography there is a major difference between the Voynich ‘ladies in barrels’ and the detail from that fifteenth century manuscript picturing Orata and the ‘bodies in baskets’.

A modern, western reader who has no Latin may well consider Orata’s hat and costume odd and the elevated tubs odder still, but it would not require group effort, for more than a century, to make sense of the image overall.  It is immediately plain  to us that we are to interpret those figures of men and women literally; that the tubs are to be read as bath-tubs, and whatever bewilderment might be felt about the purpose of that image, the image itself is comprehensible.  We do not speculate about whether, perhaps, Orata is sitting in a tent watching clouds pass and imagining them baskets.  We are not so bewildered by our inability to read its intended meaning that we resort to asserting it the work of a sex-crazed, foolish, immature, or deliberately deceitful person attempting wantonly to conceal from us the information to which we have no key within our existing range of knowledge and experience.

That so many, on realising their inability to read imagery in the Voynich manuscript, have resorted to such means to avoid admitting  nothing comes to mind which lets them make sense of a drawing or a diagram, and leads them to invent off-the-cuff excuses and rationalisations (even to the point of delusion in asserting that what is so plainly not an ordinary expression of medieval western culture IS an ordinary expression of Latin culture) simply expresses the normal range of human reactions when presented with something entirely unlike anything in the individual’s existing experience and mental repertoire. That Panofsky could not only recognise his own lack of comparisons but openly say so, is a remarkable thing; for a human being in general but for an eminent specialist in the field of medieval Latin art even more so.  He was not prevented from seeing accurately by any fear of losing face. That’s very rare.

As humans it is an innate and universal habit when confronted with a new thing, word or person to immediately hunt our range of knowledge for some comparison for it: this is how we learn language, identify faces in crowds and so on. It is how we learn a second language – by finding parallels from the one already known.  It is how we change a stranger’s status to that of friend: we liken their face, character or habits to ones familiar to us.   But when our existing repertoire returns a ‘null result’ to that instant and instinctive search, natural  responses veer  between panic, dislike, suspicion, self-deception or a feeling experienced as boredom-distaste, to (by far the rarest) an intelligent curiosity: a desire to widen our own repertoire to a point where the hitherto unparalleled phenomenon is contextualised and in that way becomes among things ‘familiar’ to us.  Consider how people react to a piece of abstract expressionism and you’ll get the idea.

Or perhaps a better illustration is the  way European scientists reacted on receiving the first specimen of an Australian platypus.  There was no one creature known to European science with which the creature could be compared, no genera or species to provide its context.   So the scientists (naturally) compared it, as best they could, with what they did feel comfortable with:  they saw the bill as a ‘duck’s bill’, the tail as ‘like a beaver’, the feet as ‘like an otter’… and concluded the specimen a fake, made by stitching together bits of a duck, a beaver and an otter. Naturally. Just so, those only comfortable with some aspect of European history and culture form their ‘Voynich theories’ within those same parameters, and then hunt only within their comfort zone (sometimes as limited as one medium and one small locality) for items which they might ‘match’ to some detail in the manuscript.

The aim in such cases is not to elucidate the original, but to claim it ‘not really unfamiliar’; stylistics are ignored; context; no effort made to explain (for example) a whole theme or even a whole diagram, detail by detail or to test theories or alleged matches against what is known about history or art or codicology or palaeography or …  anything else.  Classic example: the [so-called apothecary jar] container from the Vms supposedly ‘compared’ with the printed image of a German Christian ritual vessel. This is pareidolia. And over-literalism, too. It serves just one purpose, to offer a subliminal advertisement for a ‘Latin-German Christian’ theory. Which is not to say that whoever devised the ‘pairing’ did not believe it themselves. Comfort-zone.

Once the European scientists’ own horizons widened, once they set about to learn more, their personal, innate, instinctive, panic-responses ceased. They no longer needed to insist the thing was ‘really’ familiar, because they had worked to become familiar with the context in which it belonged in fact.  Since this understanding cured the ‘null’ reaction, the natural and essentially defensive responses were no longer needed. They could see the thing as it was without stress and without the equally instinctive urge to express hostility to the provider of that first disturbing specimen.  They stopped attacking his motives and character.  Such attacks, like inane ‘scoffing’ are common means to express hostility of such a kind, though one must admit that not a few Voynich narratives are amusing.

The way to pass safely between the Scylla of plodding literalism and the Charybdis of pareidolia is, simply,  to know more. Ask questions. Do the hard yards. Cross-examine yourself  at every step. Make yourself your best-informed and sternest critic.  Doesn’t matter if others think your ideas plausible. As Feynman says:

“It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are …[It doesn’t matter how many are willing to believe, either.]  If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”


What is not  explained about the image of Orata, by the words of Valerius nor of Pliny is why Orata’s “pensilia balinea” are here given the form of a basket woven from straw, or from  sea-grass or something of that sort. The detail shown (below, left) tells us that in medieval Latin Europe baskets of this type were known, but whether ever made so large as that in the Harley manuscript image we may never know; such objects rarely survive the centuries.

  • Terms for baskets in Latin and Old English are on a page at Wyrtg’s site.


“Pensilia balinea”

Most modern commentaries cross-reference Valerius’ pensilia balinea  with  Vitruvius‘ description of Roman baths, and take it that Orata’s invention was not “suspended baths”of the sort envisaged by the Harley image, but those piers (suspensura), sometimes of stacked blocks called suspensera, by which the floor of a Roman baths was ‘suspended’.

While I cannot follow Fagan in some of his enthusiasms, I think he has the right of it, and is in harmony with the fifteenth-century translator and illustrator, to the extent he says:

I believe that Orata’s … invention was used in connection with fish-raising rather than with human bathing. Orata was widely known as a fish-farmer, and may even have derived his cognomen from the practice. Tellingly, all the sources mentioning Orata [and] his pensiles balineae together strongly imply a connection between the device  and Orata’s fish-farming business; in fact, Orata and his pensiles balineae are never explicitly linked to baths for human use. Furthermore, Pliny’s notice appears in the general context of a section on men who invented fishponds….(p.59)

  • Garrett G. Fagan, Sergius Orata: Inventor of the Hypocaust?, Phoenix, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 56-66.
Short bibliography:
  • On Roman plumbing and suspensura see e.g.
    • Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Volume 4.
    • Vitruvius, di Architectura, Bk 5  10.2)

    Readers may also enjoy:

  • Janet DeLaine, ‘Some Observations on the Transition from Greek to Roman Baths in Hellenistic Italy’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 2 (1989), pp.111-125.
  • John Wilkes (ed.), Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 7 (1810)  is – of all places – the best for detailed description of traditional fishing methods.  on Tunny fishing  see p. 415

To the foregoing, I should like to add the suggestion that Valerius seems to have understood more clearly that Pliny ever did the implications of those efforts made by Lucullus and Orata; that around the Bay of Naples, infused as it was still with Greek heritage and culture, those  fish-breeders had as their model the landscape about Byzantion of Thrace (as it then was), whose natural abundance of fish is constantly discussed and marvelled over, described in extraordinary detail by several classical and late classical authors, including Strabo.   The other centre of the fish-trade –  apart from Campania – was Gades in Iberia, an old Phoenician stronghold. The coins of those cities, from centuries before Orata lived, to as late as the 3rdC AD, show the city’s character throughout the greater Mediterranean world by that means.  I might have taken a broader range of examples, but concentrate here on the period from the days of Orata (early 1stC BC) to that of Strabo  (64/63 BC – c. 24 AD), Pliny ( AD 23–79) and Dionysius of Byzantion (2ndC AD).

Strabo may be said to dilate on the theme of Byzantion’s abundance from the sea, but fish and gods are the whole tenor of Dionysius’  Anaplous of the Bosporus. Classed as a ‘geography’ it reads more like a manual and sailing guide for the god-fearing fisherman,  and since it will be important to understand how the region’s character was perceived in the general imagination, when Lucullus and Orata lived, as when Valerius, Pliny and Strabo wrote, I’ll quote a little from those two authors:  first from Dionysius and then from Strabo:

from Dionysius of Byzantion

§ 5 With the current breaking sharply near here, the largest part pushes on toward Propontis, but the gentle part conducive to fishing is received in the so-called Horn. This is the gulf beneath Bosporion headland, quite deep, more so than an anchorage, for it stretches for 60 stades, and safe as any harbor, with mountains and hills encircling it to block the winds, and further in with rivers that bring down deep, soft silt, at the mouth under the headland on which lies the City .[proving that Byzantion was a walled city before Constantine translated the capital of the Roman empire thence and renamed Byzantion ‘Constantinople’).

§ 6  The city has sea all around it except for the isthmus connecting it to the mainland….. That sea is deep close inshore, and with strong currents driven by the Pontic sea and the narrowness of the passage and the impact and refluxes that strike the city in a mass. It divides around the Bosporion headland, part of it flowing into the deep, fish-laden gulf and ends in slight, shallow landings. It is called Horn from the similarity of the shape. It surpasses a gulf in depth, as I said, and a harbour in convenience. For big mountains surround it protecting it from the violence of the winds ….

§ 36Bolos, with a rich winter fishery, on which is a precinct of Artemis Phosphoros (lightbearer) and Aphrodite Praeia (mild), to whom the the Byzantines* customarily sacrifice. For she is believed to store up the favorability of the wind, calming and suppressing the excessive disturbance they cause.

* ‘Byzantines’ here means people under the rule of Thracian Byzantion.

§ 37 The next place, Ostreodes (oystery), is named from the occurrence. For an underwater reef is formed at sea, whitened by the multitude of oysters, and the bottom is visible, especially in calm weather. The place grows back what is consumed, so the use is so to say profligate, and oyster beds rival the fishery in value.

§92 After Chelai is the place called Hieron, which was built by Phrixus, son of Nephele and Athamas, when he sailed to Colchis, a place indeed owned by the Byzantines, but a common haven to all who sail. ….

and this next item, more than oysters, could be why C. Sergius received the cognomen ‘Orata’:

§ 93.  In the sanctuary is a bronze statue of ancient work, a young man stretching out his hands in front of him.

Many explanations are given for why this statue is composed this way; some say it is a sign of the boldness of sailors, deterring reckless navigation into danger and showing the happiness and reverence of those who return safely. For neither is without its terror. Others say that a boy wandering on shore returned shortly after his ship had left the port, and, overcome by despair for his safety, stretched his hands up to heaven, but that the god heard the prayers of the boy and returned the ship to port. Others say that on the occasion of a great calmness of the sea, while every wind was still and a ship was long delayed, its sailors were struggling under the scarcity of the port’s supplies. Whereupon a vision appeared to the captain, ordering the captain to sacrifice his own son, since by no other means could the voyage and the winds resume. But at the moment when the captain, being compelled by necessity, was ready to sacrifice the boy, it is said that the boy stretched out his hands, and that the god, moved by pity at the senseless punishment of the boy or by the boy’s youth, took up the boy and sent a favourable wind. Let each judge as he likes whether these or the contrary are credible.

  • from the translation by Brady Kiesling from the Greek/Latin edition of Carolus Wechser, Anaplous Bosporou. Dionysii Byzantii De Bospori navigatione quae supersunt (1874).  The English translation is online [TOPOS]. Wechser’s Greek/Latin edition digitised at


And so one sees the inference in Pliny’s treatment of Lucullus’ changing the landscape near Naples creating as it were a new ‘Hellespont’ that cost  more than his palace, and created another ‘golden horn’ as sheltered arm of the sea.  Similarly, by knowing Strabo’s text, the parallel is clear for Valerius’ description of Otata’s engineered landscape: “He separated shoals of  diverse sorts of fish within the large circuits of vast Moles..[and] burdened the hitherto unpopulated banks of Lake Lucrinus with stately high structures, so he might keep his shell-fish fresh..”  A Byzantium in miniature.

from Strabo

Now the distance from the headland that makes the strait only five stadia wide to the harbour which is called “Under the Fig-tree” (medieval Pera, now Galata)  is thirty-five stadia; ….  The Horn, which is close to the wall of the Byzantines, is a gulf that … is split into numerous gulfs — branches, as it were.The  pelamydes  [‘tunny’] rush into these gulfs and are easily caught — because of their numbers, the force of the current that drives them together, and the narrowness of the gulfs; in fact, because of the narrowness of the area, they are even caught by hand.
Now these fish are hatched in the marshes of Lake Maeotis, …and move along the Asian shore as far as Trapezus and Pharnacia. It is here that the catching of the fish first takes place, though the catch is not considerable.. .But when they reach Sinope, they are mature enough for catching and salting.Yet when once they touch the Cyaneae and pass by these, the creatures take such fright at a certain white rock which projects from the Chalcedonian shore that they forthwith turn to the opposite shore.  There they are caught by the current, and since at the same time the region is so formed by nature as to turn the current of the sea there to Byzantium and the Horn at Byzantium, they naturally are driven together thither and thus afford the Byzantines and the Roman people considerable revenue.     

Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter 6.


At this point in the log is a note that questions of continuity between the Roman and the medieval trade have already been treated..

Short bibliography
  • Robert I Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (Brill: 1991)

If any reader shares my fascination for technicalities, they might also enjoy:

  • James Arnold Higginbotham,  Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (University of North Carolina Press: 1997) though I should add that it hasn’t any relevance to study of Beinecke Ms 408.


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 complation 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. Diller’s study of the Vatopedi remains a standard reference.

  • Aubrey Diller, ‘The Vatopedi Manuscript of Ptolemy and Strabo’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1937), pp. 174-184.
  • Codex Vaticanus 2061. – includes text from Strabo, Geographia  on leaves 235, 237, 240, 243, 244, 246-249, 251-253, 310-315. 20.5 by 20.3. Taken to the Vatican library in the 17thC from the monastery of St. Mary of Patirium, a suburb of Rossano in Calabria.

Postscript: The two masters of theology who translated Valerius’ Facta et Dicta held degrees at the highest level offered at that time in western Europe.  It can be presumed, then, that they were well aware of post-classical and Christian associations for bathing.  For the medieval Christian these would certainty include association with baptism and with marriage. For a brief explanation see  Isidore of Seville,  Etymologiae VI.xix.41; IX.vii.8.


detail from a map originally part of the Vatopedi manuscript. Now in the British Library.


2 minor typos corrected – 17th Sept. 2019.